These things were hers to deal with now: the broken bookshelves, the dusty desk, the pensieve she carried with her to return to its rightful place. Everything in this office and everything in this castle and everything on these grounds. They'd been hers since the moment of Dumbledore's death, but she'd not been here to claim them.
It hadn't really been a choice in the end, closing the school, but she couldn't help but feel she'd abandoned it, couldn't help but feel that it felt abandoned, when every other year since its founding it had been filled with children. Advising the students not to return had been one of the most difficult things she'd ever had to do.
"Sorry, old girl," she said, stroking the edge of the desk -- Dumbledore's desk, still, always -- with a hand that looked older than she remembered, though no older than she felt. It didn't seem right, that so many children were lost each time the wizarding world came to war, and yet each time she survived.
She'd been just a girl herself when Grindelwald had come to power, a student at Hogwarts, protected during the school term and sequestered in the family home during holidays. She'd been sheltered, make no mistake, the war never coming to her doorstep.
But it was impossible to ignore the fact that many of her Muggleborn classmates were returning in September with no other home left to go to, sometimes no family to welcome them even if they did. That Professor Dumbledore was grim and often absent, battling an evil that seemed less distant every day. That Beauxbatons had closed, and the wizarding world on the continent was in chaos.
In her seventh year, when her Transfiguration professor asked if she would attempt the difficult and dangerous Animagus transformation, she didn't hesitate. There was a war being fought, and if her transfiguration skills could help win it, she would offer them without regret.
As a tabby cat -- a most fortunate result, in light of the situation -- she could slip unnoticed into many places a witch or wizard could not. She could scamper about the countryside, watching and waiting and passing on what information she could. And in the end she'd led Dumbledore to Grindelwald, and Grindelwald to his defeat.
Dumbledore had told her afterwards, with a butterbeer in his hand and a twinkle in his eye, that she'd just used up the first of her lives. "Meow," she'd said cheekily, and dismissed the notion as an eccentricity, in the all-too-brief euphoria of winning the war.
It took a moment to remember that she was the one being addressed; she hadn't yet had the opportunity to effectively assume the title.
"Mr. Weasley," she said, looking over to see him in the doorway. All Bill Weasley knew of the days of Grindelwald he'd learned in his history lessons, and she was glad of that. He'd seen quite enough already, in his comparatively short life. "Do come inside."
Bill's eye would never be the same, but the rest of him was as sturdy and dependable as ever, marks or none. He'd been her first choice for a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and she'd offered him the position while still working from her home outside Aberdeen. Bill had accepted almost immediately.
"Are the others already here?"
"What others, Mr. Weasley?" she asked him, overcome with a sudden weariness at the thought. She would not sit, though, merely gripped the edge of the desk tighter with fingers that had strength in them yet.
"The other professors," he said. "I understood this would be a meeting of all of us."
"This is all of us, Mr. Weasley," she said, "and had you not accepted my offer of employment, 'all of us' would consist of only me."
"But Vector, Binns, Hagrid...."
He hadn't had to ask after Flitwick or Sinistra; he'd seen both of them go down himself. And the whole wizarding world knew the fate of Severus Snape.
"Vector was lost months ago," she told him, with gentle efficiency. "And Slughorn has chosen to again retire from teaching, as has Professor Washburn after the loss of both of her children. I heard from both of them just a few days ago."
"I can't say I'm surprised," admitted Bill.
She nodded and went on, a rundown of the former staff fresh in her mind. "Professor Binns has at long last moved on from this world; I suppose seeing so many of his contemporaries gone as well finally pushed him to the other side. And Hagrid, well.... Hagrid will return to us eventually, but he is among the giants right now."
"How can we run a school with only two professors?"
"We cannot," she said. "That's why we're here, Mr. Weasley. Though this school will open in September, and the children of our world will receive an education, if I have to teach every one of their classes myself."
"There's no time turner in the world that could manage that," said Bill, venturing a smile.
"Indeed," she said, unable to return it. "But do not doubt I would make the attempt."
The first rise of Voldemort had taken quite a different toll on the wizarding world. It hadn't taken their wise and aged, it had taken their best and brightest: the Potters, the Longbottoms... she could name so many more, the faces of all the children she'd ever taught swimming in her memory.
This time she'd been at Hogwarts as a protector, not a protectee. But she could not protect them all, and was forced to watch the older students do exactly as she had done, take on things they were not prepared for because the alternative was not a choice at all. Was forced to let them, as long ago someone had let her.
And she'd had to watch them disappear one by one, some to the ground, some to St. Mungo's, some to a leader that she hadn't imagined anyone in their right mind could ever have supported. In some ways the last was the hardest, the last was her failure, a child she had not guided to the ways of the brave and noble.
All her work at the side of Dumbledore, forming an order that would fight this newest evil, taking on the same tasks of espionage she had against Grindelwald, never felt like quite enough. Her teaching, that was what she'd clung to, ceaselessly working to bring up the next generation and remind them that their world was also one filled with wonder and hope.
And once again she'd survived, while so many around her had fallen.
Bill Weasley still stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame now and watching her as she paced the edges of an office she still couldn't quite bring herself to claim as her own.
"How many new students are we expecting?" he asked her.
"Nineteen," she said, "at last count." Some potential students had already chosen to attend other schools, and that she could not begrudge them; others would never begin a course of study at all. What haunted her most were the thick black lines peppering the rolls, where children had ceased to be before their lives had really begun.
"And it is already July," he said consideringly. "Have the letters gone out?"
"This week," she said. "They will go this week. We shall have to find them instruction in every area of study."
It was a daunting task, made even more so by the toll so recently taken on the wizarding world, but it was not an impossible one. Dumbledore would never have given up on it, and so neither would she. There certainly were others to whom she could have handed her post, and they might have taken it eagerly, for Head of Hogwarts was a position of power and prestige. But that was the easy choice, and one thing a Gryffindor never did was take the easy way out.
"Then there is much to be done," said Bill, coming fully into the room and closing the door behind him.
"There always is," she said, and finally sat down at her desk.
If a cat truly did have nine lives, as Dumbledore believed, she wondered how many more conflicts she would have to live through before she'd used up all of them.