Disclaimer – JKR owns the characters, the world, the whole thing.

The twisted plottings are mine, and that's about it.

I'm just playing a little in her sandbox. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, blinked back a few tears as she sat down. Her welcome feast speech, the first since the end of Voldemort, had been one of the most difficult things she'd ever done. She got through it, but the standing ovation from the students, led by the crying Gryffindors, left her nearly undone.

"Albus would have been proud," Filius whispered at her elbow.

She had to agree, but her eyes strayed over toward the Gryffindor table, and the four seats at the head that were left empty. Three of the seventh year students were missing, presumed dead. A fourth was prostrate with grief, and according to her mother would not be likely to return to Hogwarts. A dull ache spread through her chest as she watched her former charges begin eating. They were subdued, as if the heart had been stolen from them.

And in a way, it had. Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, and Hermione Granger were gone, and Ginevra Weasley would not return.

Professor McGonagall took a shaky breath and focused her attention on her food. She had done little more than pick at it and move it around when she felt a chill run down her spine.

She looked up as a blazing ball of energy appeared in the air, hovering above the aisle between the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables. Her wand was in her hand in an instant, but that was enough time for the ball to contract sharply, then explode outward. The shockwave knocked over goblets of pumpkin juice and sent levitating candles tumbling like fiery pinwheels.

Blinking spots out of her eyes, she could barely make out the silhouetted form that appeared where the ball had been and then tumbled to the flagstones. She shocked half of the professors as she left the table at a dead run, hissing in fury. No one was going to attack her school now, the school Albus had given everything for, not after so many had sacrificed so much.

She stopped in shock as a gaunt figure climbed wearily to it's feet. One hand futilely attempted to straighten the tangles in a two foot long beard as the other straightened the half-moon spectacles perched on a bent nose.

"A-albus?" Minerva McGonagall always prided herself on her composure, yet here she was, stammering like a school-girl again.

"Minerva," the old man smiled, his blue eyes twinkling as they always did.

"But you're dead!" she exclaimed, even as she winced at how absurd she sounded.

"I was," he admitted, "but I wasn't quite ready to go on that adventure just yet." He took a shaky breath and trembled slightly. McGonagall looked around at the shocked students. With a nod toward Professor Flitwick, she helped her mentor make his way to the antechamber.

Professor Dumbledore sank down into a padded chair with a grateful sigh, then took a deep breath and continued. "Some very old magic I'd uncovered in my research enabled me to, just barely, hold on. Even though I was in limbo, on the edge of passing on, I still felt constrained." He took another shaky breath. "I knew I was still needed. Then I felt Harry call out to me and I knew why. I sent him everything I could, and even as my strength left me, I felt myself being drawn back to this side through our connection. When I recovered sufficiently, I found I was able to make my way back through the boundary."

He smiled up at his old friend. "It was a most remarkable experience."

She let out an exasperated sigh, but was too emotionally exhausted to say anything else.

The old man's eyes were twinkling harder now. He glanced back at the doorway they'd passed through. "Is Harry not back yet? It felt like it was just a couple of hours ago, but time seemed to move oddly in the place where I was."

Professor McGonagall squeezed her eyes together and took another deep breath. When she opened them, Albus was peering up at her worriedly. "Head- Albus, Harry's, er, confrontation occurred nearly three weeks ago, during the summer. We know this because wizards and witches scattered across England began complaining of pain that escalated until they were going into convulsions. When they were examined all of them were found to be carrying the Dark Mark. The healers at St. Mungos say the Marks were killing them, in a manner not unlike the effects of the Cruciatis curse. All of them died within twenty four hours, and we believe the reaction was triggered by Voldemort's death."

"Three weeks?" Dumbledore gasped. "But where is he?"

McGonagall shook her head. "The Weasleys…" she swallowed. "They have an enchanted clock with hands for each of their children, and they recently added a hand for Harry. The hands for Harry and Ronald shattered and fell of the clock the day the Death Eaters were stricken. Miss Granger was with them as well. The bodies haven't been recovered, but we know they are dead, Albus."

With that, her composure finally cracked and in private, she allowed the tears to fall. Albus patted her back as she wept bitter tears of grief for her students, ones she'd cared for a bit more than she allowed herself to admit.

Bowed by her grief, she didn't see the faint smile of satisfaction slip fleetingly across Albus Dumbledore's lips.