Professor Elise Horner opened the French doors into her office and sat on the small balcony in the sunshine, enjoying a refreshing glass of lemonade. She flipped off her shoes and wriggled her toes contentedly in the warmth.
At the knock on her door she called out cheerfully: 'Come in, Minerva!'
Minerva McGonagall entered and was immediately envious of the older Professor's access to a balcony.
'Come; join me,' ordered Elise, amiably.
'I'm jealous,' said Minerva, grinning as she took the spare wicker seat. 'I don't have anything as lovely as this!'
'It is rather wonderful,' smiled Elise. 'Lemonade?' She reached across to the large glass jug sat fat and gleaming yellow on the small round table between them.
'Yes, please!' said Minerva. 'I'm thirsty as a vampire on a solid diet!'
Elise handed her a tall glass, icy cold in Minerva's rather hot hand, she gratefully took a large gulp and immediately felt her tongue explode and her eyes water. It was so sharp she feared her throat was seared beyond recovery. She swallowed with some effort and blinked hard to clear the tears of pain.
'Sharp!' she managed, gasping.
Elise was watching the clouds drifting lazily above the gently waving tree tops of the forbidden forest. 'I find all that tooth-rotting pop children drink these days to be quite sickly,' she said, taking another sip from her own glass.
'Yes,' said Minerva, sticking out her tongue to try and see if she still had taste buds. 'It can be.'
Elise suddenly turned back to her, and Minerva quickly pulled her tongue back in and hoped her eyes weren't still watering.
'So how has your first year of teaching been?' she inquired politely, but with a keen interest. She had watched the young Professor's progress charily throughout the year – always careful to keep her distance.
'Eventful,' admitted Minerva and then reconsidered. 'Well, no, I suppose the year itself has been fine. My personal life on the other hand…'
'I heard you were dating a handsome Italian man,' Elise told her.
Minerva scowled, and took another sip; the drink preferable to thinking about Luigi.
'Yes, I thought so,' mused Elise, understanding the young woman's expression.
'Teaching itself has been rewarding, even fun,' said Minerva, resolutely changing the topic.
'Excellent,' murmured Elise, in quiet approval. 'You'll be staying with us then?'
'Oh yes, I think so,' Minerva confirmed, a secret little smile playing on her lips as she thought of Albus's words less than an hour ago.
'I am pleased,' Elise told her, genuinely. 'I believe that next year we will finally have a faculty worthy of such a school as Hogwarts.'
'Filius Flitwick seems to be a very capable man,' said Minerva, nodding.
'And Albus and I have found some one to fill the Defence Against the Dark Arts position.'
'Really?' asked Minerva, curious. 'Who?'
'Professor Merrythought. She's older than Sendar by quite some years, but has a good grounding in both teaching the subject and on a practical level. Then of course we have you – quite a success with the students.'
'Thank you,' said Minerva, blushing. Elise smiled and refilled her glass.
'Incidentally, Albus has asked me to become Deputy Headmistress.' Elise watched her closely; but Minerva was nothing but honestly delighted, having spared no thoughts on the vacancy for herself.
'Oh that's superb, Elise! I have no doubt you will do a brilliant job!' Minerva grinned and raised her glass.
'Well, after Michaelmas, anyone could,' responded Elise dryly, chinking her glass against Minerva's, and rather chuffed that the younger woman obviously thought so highly of her.
Minerva laughed, 'Now there's someone I'm not ashamed to say I won't miss!'
'Harrumph,' snorted Elise, disparagingly. 'Onto more pleasant thoughts – any plans for the summer?'
'Gosh, no,' realised Minerva, taking a very small sip of her lemonade. 'I've been so frantic with end of term preparations I hadn't given any thought to it. You?'
'I'm having Evelyn for two weeks; my son and his wife are looking forward to a break in the Maldives. Alone.' She chuckled, 'I have no idea what we're going to do together, but I did think a trip to London Zoo might be in order!'
Minerva grinned. 'Big cats, I love lions.'
'I should think you would!'
'I think I'll spend some time with my sister,' Minerva thought aloud, watching the shadow of a bird flitter across the tiled balcony floor.
'I know Albus has to attend the International Wizarding Confederation, and numerous other conferences, all of which I think he's looking forward to as much as he looks forward to his meetings with the Minister,' Elise informed her wickedly.(Perhaps something more decidedly awful than the Minister, like eating his vegetables or having a root canal.)
Minerva's stomach turned over at the mention of the name of a man who had just recently declared his interest in her.
'I'm sure he'd enjoy an excuse to take a proper holiday,' said Elise pointedly.
Minerva glanced at the older lady sharply, but Elise's face was quite blank.
'After all,' continued that lady blithely, 'it is important to rest up from work once in a while. We shouldn't like our Headmaster to become overworked.'
'No we shouldn't,' agreed Minerva, suspiciously.
'Well, then,' finished Elise, clinking her glass back onto the table. 'I expect you'll have a lovely holiday, and be quite as dismal as the students to realise yet another school year beckons.'
'Um,' said Minerva, feeling rather transparent
'I shall see you before you leave?' Elise asked.
'Of course,' reassured Minerva, standing as she took her cue to leave.
'Good,' beamed Elise, standing and, much to Minerva's surprise, briefly hugging her. 'I've enjoyed your company, Minerva,' Elise added, sitting down again, and feeling somewhat discomforted at her own unexpected gesture of warmth. She stretched her feet out again as she heard her office door click shut quietly, and a rather devious little smile crossed her narrow face.
'Good,' she repeated to blue skies and disintegrating clouds. 'Good.'
Back in her rooms, Minerva chucked a generous handful of Floo powder into her hastily lit fire, knelt with a grimace on the hard stone floor, and fixed her face into an ingratiating smile.
'Murray Manor!' she cried, half choking on the green powder. A rush of unfamiliar fireplaces and then a sudden, head-wrenching stop, found her looking at the abandoned sitting room of her sister's home. 'Damn it,' she grumbled. 'Buffers!' she called out. There was a loud crack and the old house elf popped into existence with a tea towel draped over his arm, ear whiskers impeccably brushed.
'Professor McGonagall!' beamed the house elf. 'I shall alert your sister to your presence immediately.'
'Please do,' Minerva muttered, a kink in her neck starting.
For once it didn't take Ceci long to arrive, she smiled at Minerva's head and crouched down.
'Hello little sister.'
'Hi, Ceci. The summer holidays have arrived and I'm free and bored.'
'That's a lovely way of asking yourself to stay,' said Ceci wryly.
'Hang on!' exclaimed Ceci. 'I haven't said you can!'
Minerva gave her sister a look of mock horror. 'Ceci! You wouldn't toss me out on my ear? Homeless, abandoned, unwanted by loved ones?'
Ceci rolled her eyes. 'I'm sure you could stay with that lovely Italian man you've taken up with - again.'
Minerva flinched, but was somewhat surprised to find it didn't hurt as much as she had expected. 'I could if he hadn't taken up with someone else.'
'Don't say I didn't warn you!' Ceci admonished sharply.
'You didn't!' protested Minerva, annoyed.
'Oh,' her sister responded, nonplussed. 'Well, you should have taken up with Albus Dumbledore, now there's a gentleman. He wouldn't have –'
'Yes, thank you Ceci,' snapped Minerva, well aware of her failings in that area.
'Well..!' muttered Ceci shirtily.
'Can we start over?' sighed Minerva. 'Please, dear sister, may I spend some of this summer at your lovely country mansion?'
Cecilia pursed her lips, and then gave in. 'Of course you may. You may even bring a guest, should you so desire.'
'A guest?' pondered Minerva aloud.
'Male or female,' clarified Ceci archly. Minerva blushed. 'Ah, so Albus Dumbledore is still in the running!'
'He is not!' rejoined Minerva furiously. 'Well, no, I mean, yes he is.'
'You could still manage a spring wedding,' frowned Ceci, looking off into the distance. 'It would be a rush, of course, but I know this fabulous florist in Diagon Alley...'
'Cecelia!' Minerva screamed, her floo pot fell unnoticed, with a crash, to her floor and scattered floo granules in a sticky pool over her favourite rug.
'What?' asked her sister, unaware of crimes committed.
'I'm not even dating the man! I never will if you keep leaping ahead like this!'
'What's wrong with wanting a spring wedding?' asked Ceci demurely.
'I'm not getting married!' cried a despairing Minerva. 'That's what's wrong with it!'
Ceci threw up her hands in mock defeat. 'Fine, fine!' she conceded. 'Bring whom you will, if you will, when you will.'
'Thank you,' breathed Minerva, and pulled her head from the fire.
A postcard from Josephine Cully had arrived for Minerva; it lay on her golden plate at the breakfast table, brazenly flashing different angles of the Eiffel tower, platters of croissants and men in berets with striped shirts, it was as touristy as a postcard is expected to be and Miss Cully had written enthusiastically of the sun and the swimming pool and the new friend (from Germany).
David Hawthorne pulled the chair out beside Minerva and slouched in it with a grimace, Minerva grinned at him; her week had started well with Albus, and continued so.
'Good Morning David,' she greeted chirpily.
'Hurrumph,' he grunted in response, scraping butter onto toast with jerky strokes.
Gil took the seat next to him and winked at Minerva. 'How unlike you David, to be so grumpy, pray tell, dear lad, whatever is the cause of this unlikely attitude?'
Unimpressed by Gil's mocking, David scowled still deeper, shoulders bunching. Elise Horner was seated further along, and in a hall without students, conversation easily carried.
'Leave the man alone, young woman,' Elise reprimanded, not without a hint of humour. 'He's had bad news.'
'Oh no!' cried Gil, lifting hands to face with wide eyes, glinting wickedly. 'Whatever could this bad news be?'
Minerva had begun to realise that this was a ritual she was not yet privy to, but which was exercised each year without fail, it had the well-practised rhythm of a rehearsed routine.
'You bloody well know, you infernal woman,' grunted David, through a mouthful of half masticated toast.
Gil giggled. 'But I must profess ignorance, kind sir, and ask your assistance in alleviating my concern!'
'Now Gil,' tutted Professor Horner, lifting the cranberry juice and pouring herself some, 'leave the poor man in peace, it's the last he'll get for some time!'
Professor Hawthorne groaned in what sounded like near despair and buried his head, and his wild black hair in his big hands, the nails as always, grimy with the soil he worked with.
'Alas!' sighed Gil, melodramatically, 'I fear tis true, I cannot help this gentle stranger!'
Minerva snorted into her orange juice, and a deep baritone from behind her suddenly asked:
'Miss Aldridge, have you consumed some strange potion to make you speak in mutilated yore?'
Gil turned puce and guiltily faced the headmaster who was stood with a quizzical expression on his intelligent face.
'Just seeking to help David deal with his unfortunate circumstances, Headmaster,' she explained lightly, shrugging.
'Ah, of course!' said the Headmaster as if that clarified the matter sufficiently. 'I cannot believe I had forgotten. Is it today then?'
As David refused to lift his head from his twitching hands, Gil and Elise both nodded for him.
'Hmmm,' hummed Dumbledore ponderously, as he sat and reached for the Cauldron Crunch, 'you poor man.'
Minerva's eyebrows were disappearing into her hairline, 'What is going on?'
The other professors shared a smile over the prostrate David's head.
'Every year, on the same day, David's sister insists he come to stay with her for at least part of the summer holidays,' explained Elise.
'Well, what's so bad about that?' queried Minerva, confused.
'She's … talkative,' said Gil, smirking.
'She has eight children,' added Elise.
'She lives in the city,' added Gil. Minerva shrugged, mystified, Albus mouthed No Garden.
'She tries to set him up with single women who also talk a lot,' chuckled Gil.
'Makes him clean his nails,' said Elise, casting an eye over her own.
'Cuts his hair,' said Gil.
'Lectures about his career choices.'
'Gives parties for him.'
'Won't let him smoke.'
'Takes family pictures of them on outings.'
'Darns his socks.'
'Tuts over his dress sense.'
'Takes him shopping.'
'STOP!' roared David, looking positively petrified. 'I do NOT need a preview!' He turned to look at Minerva. 'I hate it!' he proclaimed. 'Hate it!'
Minerva grinned. 'Then don't go,' she said sensibly.
'Have to,' he grumbled. 'If I go in summer, I get Christmas to myself.'
The end of that first week of freedom from the students found Minerva and Gil sitting on a rock by the edge of the lake, dangling their bare legs in the cool water, skirts hitched up to their thighs, exchanging gossip and news. The idyllic summer weather had infused everyone with a sense of lazy contentment and happy plans, and so it was that their conversation naturally turned to the men in their life.
'If I tell you this – you have to promise not to be mad!' warned Gil, wagging a finger at the transfiguration professor who cheekily responded:
Gil childishly stuck out her tongue. 'I think Marcus is going to ask me to marry him!'
'Wow!' squeaked Minerva, mouth dropping open. 'No! Are you sure?'
'He keeps talking about what he imagines the future to be. You know; children, a home, a wife…'
Minerva wrinkled her nose in distaste. 'You're not a Little Woman!'
'I know that!' Gil protested. 'And I'm sure he does too! I think he's just been trying to find out how I feel about the idea.'
'And how do you?' Minerva prodded curiously.
The petite school nurse took a deep breath and kicked her feet in the water; ripples spread out in half moons and were disturbed by the giant squid sliding slick and cool beneath.
'Well?' Minerva pushed.
'I-' Gil began and faltered. 'Oh Min, I really like it! I love him!' She turned to beam at Minerva, whose face felt forced into an answering smile. 'I can't imagine life without him!' She took Minerva's hands in her own. 'Am I being completely foolish?'
Minerva swallowed past the lump in her throat, 'No, of course not. You're in love.'
'He's taking me out tonight, he won't tell me where, but I think he's going to ask, tonight!'
'Wow!' Minerva gasped. 'This is so – wow!'
'I know! I know! I'm so excited! And nervous!' And she was, Gil's face was flushed with happiness, she looked ten years younger with her red curls bouncing around her normally sensible, practical visage.
'Just one question,' said Minerva thoughtfully. 'What are you doing here if you have to get dressed to be proposed to tonight?'
Gil looked blank with horror. 'You're right!' she exclaimed. 'I have to bathe and dress and have a calming tonic!' she laughed a touch hysterically, and impulsively hugged Minerva.
'Just do me one favour-' said Minerva as her friend stood to leave, shaking wet feet in splattering drops across the rock. 'Don't drink that tonic you gave Queenie Shimault, that was pure whisky and you know it! I've never seen such an unusual rendition of Singing in the Rain!'
Gil snorted. 'Served her right, she was being so bloody snobby, ancient runes blah blah blah!' She grinned impishly and leapt up onto the bank, her small form lithe and dancing across the green grounds of Hogwarts. Minerva watched her become smaller and smaller against the shadow of the castle, and then watched her toes, wrinkled white, distorted under the surface, and denied the tiny green voice that cried envy.
The next morning Minerva woke feeling sick, without a clue why. The day was just as perfect as yesterday, but when she tied back her curtains and opened her windows, she felt irritated by the cloudless blue sky and the distant forest, green and predictably leafy. She refused to analyse why butterflies scattered the hunger in her stomach and why her mouth was so dry as she entered the great hall for breakfast, and saw that everybody had abandoned their usual seating arrangement to cluster in a noisy group around red curls and tall blond hair.
Gil saw her through their various colleagues and squealed loudly, flourishing her left hand and her new jewellery, for a moment that horrified her Minerva felt jealousy so strong she wanted to hurt Gil and take that happiness for herself. But the moment passed and for its viciousness Minerva was doubly excited and eager, mingling and hugging, with Gil's hand in her arm and Marcus's slightly stunned smile looming over most of the crowd.
That night Minerva had one of her worst nightmares ever. She was back in Grindelwald's lair lying on the floor, still crippled by the effects of the cruciatus curse, Blundell was blown backwards by the severing curse, crying and groaning, and she was forcing herself to crawl, fingernail by fingernail, across the cold stone floor to help him as the refracted curses of Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald's duelling flashed and sparked and exploded over them. She finally made it to his side, and she was shouting, You're going to be okay, you're going to be fine, look at me, you're going to be okay but when she lifted his head it was Gil's face, bloody and torn gaping desperately up at her, Gil groaning and screaming. Then the great boom that burst her eardrums and shattered her right thigh bone, and the curses stopped, and Grindelwald was dead, still grinning maniacally. Only it wasn't Grindelwald, it was Marcus O'Reiuss, and Gil was screaming for him as she died and died and died.
When she woke from that she was screaming, and didn't even know that the sound torn in agony from her throat was her own, she was soaked in sweat and shaking so hard her vision wobbled with it. She crawled from her bed and to her fireplace and cried out Albus's name as she threw floo powder into the embers and fell through.
Albus Dumbledore was still up, sat in his pyjamas reading a letter from the Ministry, and when Minerva stumbled into his sitting room he was shocked beyond words to see her so distraught, her nightdress soaked and clinging to her shivering body. She was incoherent in her distress, she just reached for him, and he let the ministry missive drop to the floor as he leapt to his feet to catch her as she fell.
He lifted her slight form into his arms and took her through to his bedchamber where he lay her on the bed, then curled his long body around hers, pulling the blankets around them both. All the time murmuring reassuring words in his deep calm voice though inside a desperate panic pulled at his guts and wrung him raw.
After a while, Minerva came back to herself enough to realise where she was and how she was behaving, she stopped sobbing and took heaving breaths to try and calm herself, still shivering as if in shock. She held Albus's arms, wrapped tightly around her, and he pulled her around to look at him, his eyes worried.
'It was just a nightmare,' she finally managed to get out.
'That was not "just" a nightmare, my Minerva,' he disagreed gently. 'Tell me about it.'
She told him about it, all of it, even the fact that Gil and Marcus had replaced Blundell and Grindelwald. She felt a little foolish then, and told him so, admitted how she envied them and their love, confessed how she felt guilty for her childish jealously, revealed how often she relived that dreadful night in the ruins of Grindelwald's hide-out. And his eyes did not judge and his embrace did not falter, and when she finished with one long shaky breath, she did not feel ashamed to have him know this.
'I'm sorry I never asked about the nightmares sooner,' he sighed. 'I meant to.'
'It's not your fault!' Minerva pointed out, feeling a little more like herself.
Albus Dumbledore raised one hand to lift a strand of sweaty hair from her face and tuck it behind one ear, Minerva blushed.
'I'm all sticky,' she groaned. 'And I'm in your bed!'
'I'll ask the house elves to change the bedding,' he said, smirking slightly; she rolled her eyes. 'Shall I draw you a bath?' he suggested. 'I have some fabulous bubbles!'
Minerva laughed. 'Yes please! I feel filthy, and I expect your tub is bigger than mine!'
He sat up, relinquishing his hold on her, and swung his legs over the side of the bed, 'Stay put,' he murmured, and leant towards her as she turned back towards him, and somehow a kiss meant for her forehead landed on her mouth, a soft touch sweeter than any embrace. It was balm to her wounded spirit, and the always lonely Headmaster looked a little shell-shocked as he withdrew.
'Bath?' Minerva reminded him, when after a moment he was still staring at her.
'Oh yes, right, of course,' that man nodded, and as he strode from the room, Minerva realised with her own smirk, that that was the first time she had ever seen him blush.
Two weeks had passed since that night, and most of the staff of Hogwarts had left for their summer holidays. The groundskeeper Ogg was still there, pottering around the castle, mumbling under his breath about the damage the students had wreaked. Gil and Marcus had left to visit their respective families and break the news of their engagement and only Minerva and Albus were left living in the huge castle.
Minerva, in fact, had no idea why she was dragging her heels so. She was welcome at her sister's anytime, welcome to visit Elise Horner, the Head of Ravenclaw, invited to stay with George Hall, the recently departed flying instructor and perfectly free to take herself off to an unseen corner of the world – had even been invited to a War memorial event. The Headmaster, with whom she shared the evening meal with every night, was off to the international wizarding confederation on the morrow (this year to be held in Ukraine) and had been looking distinctly glum about the prospect, but after he had gone – did she really intend on hanging around lonesome in a building as massive and as empty as the school?
It was time she took herself in hand and got decisive! She would pack her bags today, and tomorrow, when Albus left, she would take herself off to her sister's and give Ceci the chance to bemoan her wardrobe, her weight and, no doubt, her love life.
Having decided this, Minerva McGonagall, who detested packing more than she detested cleaning (which was considerable!) decided that now would be an excellent time to dust her classroom. She tied an old handkerchief around her hair, put on a faded blue shirt, several sizes too big (in fact, she could not recall ever buying it, and why would she in a size Large?) twisted it up in the time honoured fashion to reveal a belly shockingly pale next to her bronzed arms, and dug around for her old garden trousers, loose and saggy in all the wrong places. Thus attired, fabulously unfashionably, she tore a tablecloth that decidedly did not yet deserve such treatment into rags, and found a tin of furniture polish in the sideboard. Chuffed at her achievements, she set off with a cheerful vim normally reserved for Quidditch matches to dust her classroom into a glossy glow of good reports and exceptional learning.
Unfortunately her classroom looked a lot bigger when viewed with an eye towards cleaning. Shelves ran up all the walls that did not have windows, filled with books and a miscellanea of objects to be transfigured by seven ages of pupil, the only blank bit of wall was to the side of her desk where the blackboards still displayed the many messages scribbled there by her many students for a happy holiday and so on.
Still, she was not to be defeated, and undaunted, well maybe a little daunted, she swung her class room windows wide to let in the summer air, cast wingardium leviosa to lift the polish and duster, then swiftly shape-changed, and as a cat, leapt to the top of the bookshelves from the window sill in one easy, fluid jump.
It was rather cramped on the top shelf in her human form, and rather precarious, but a cat hadn't the thumbs for polish tins and dusters and she felt much as she had as a child, climbing trees, with her legs dangling, one arm clinging on and one energetically flourishing the rag. She whistled as she edged along and discovered errant paperclips and scuttling spiders, in truth there wasn't much dust, the house elves were admirably thorough, but every shelf felt like a minor triumph and an hour had passed without her realising, but for swapping her aching arms and using far too much of the polish.
Albus Dumbledore, feeling lonely and in need of company, came looking for her, without her noticing, he crept up beneath her swinging, whistling form and said loudly:
'You're a little late for spring cleaning!'
It was so unexpected that Minerva, who had imagined herself entirely alone by several floors, let go her grip with an exclamation, fell off the shelves and flattened poor Albus standing, in hindsight, foolishly right under her.
Minerva was quite all right; after all, her fall had been softened by another body, but Albus was out cold.
'Oh my God!' cried Minerva, justifiably horrified. She reached for the prostrate man's wrist and felt for a pulse; it was reassuringly steady. 'Albus?' she called, tentatively.
Behind closed eyes the Headmaster was quite conscious, and very devious. 'Albus?' Minerva said again, with a hand on his chest and one stroking his head and the imagined bump, her voice shook. Enough, thought the Headmaster, though his head did ache sorely, and pursed his lips and whistled Pop goes the weasel!
He was lucky Minerva had been in such good spirits, for otherwise his rear would have been cursed bouncing down the school driveway, he opened his eyes to find an un-amused Minerva with one eyebrow arched in fine disdain.
'Flowers and chocolates?' he suggested quickly, her expression did not change. 'My finest marble chess set?' Her eyebrow lowered. 'The recipe for my hot chocolate?' She smiled, he sat up with a wince, which she noticed but failed to find sympathy for.
'Come with me to my sister's,' she said.
Albus looked at her, surprised, 'Really?' he questioned, his heart beating louder than the throb in his head.
'Really,' she repeated firmly, and offered him a hand as she stood. 'Come for a holiday, after you're done in Ukraine.'
He took her hand to stand, but did not relinquish it. His thoughts were on her motivation behind the invitation, but her face was a mystery to him, and he wished, yet again, that he had the courage to be honest with her about his own.
'There's one problem,' he said seriously, frowning.
'What is it?'
'What about Fawkes?'
'Bring him with you,' she said, relieved that he had been joking, disappointed that he not used the moment to – to what? To be passionate and loving? To declare his undying love for her? Why was she always disappointed with Albus, and simultaneously always relieved?
'Then I accept, gratefully and humbly,' he bowed and lifted her hand briefly to his lips, as his head throbbed and Minerva's heart whispered doubts of its own intent.
That night as Minerva was throwing clothing haphazardly onto her bed, ready for visiting her sister, Albus Dumbledore was pacing his study floor, absentmindedly tapping a quill against his crooked nose; every so often he would pause, heave a heavy sigh, and then resume his pacing. Fawkes watched from his perch, his head swaying to and fro, watching his companion's activities with some bemusement.
Finally Albus Dumbledore heaved a particularly heavy sigh and threw himself backwards into his armchair, his limbs sprawled, his beard frizzy, the quill sticking indignantly out of the auburn, a sagging flag of normality.
Minerva, Minerva, Minerva, Albus thought with some despair. 'The year is over, Fawkes!' he cried aloud to the great bird. 'My love is not!'
Fawkes began to look distinctly annoyed, he clacked his beak; Albus ignored him, thoroughly caught up in his melodramatics.
'What is a man to do?'
He sighed again; Fawkes croaked and pulled his ruby wings over his head.
'Chocolate,' Dumbledore murmured, with an air of finality. 'Chocolate will always ease a troubled heart!' He stood suddenly and strode towards the door. 'Chocolate!'
In her rooms, Minerva was feeling somewhat disgruntled. She hated packing. She had nothing decent to wear. Her sister would be wearing all the latest fashions from Diagon Alley, Paris and New York, and would make short shrift of Minerva's minimalistic wardrobe. She sunk back onto the bed and stretched her arms out over her head.
'Chocolate!' she decided. 'Chocolate will ease the troubles of packing!'
She jumped up and set off immediately.
The kitchen was deserted- just the way Albus liked it. He swung open the tiny larder door and looked hopefully into the depths of Hogwarts food reserves. Far, far down one of the aisles, he thought he saw the emblem of Honeydukes, and, rubbing his hands together he stepped with alacrity into the larder, walking briskly down to his promised prize. Unfortunately the larder door swung shut with a quiet click behind him, and left him in absolute blackness. With a sinking feeling he recalled his wand, upright in his inkwell, upstairs in his office.
Minerva tickled the pear and vaulted into the kitchen, feeling unaccountably full of beans. The kitchen was shiny and totally deserted – thankfully! She skipped over to the tiny larder door (optimum height for a house elf) eased it open like a naughty schoolgirl and slipped inside. There was a click and she was plunged into darkness. Drat, she thought, patting down her robes for her wand. 'I know you're here somewhere!' she declared loudly.
Albus Dumbledore, somewhat further down the aisle was very astonished to hear Minerva's voice proclaim confidently that she knew where he was, that she even knew he was there was cause for thought. He strolled back up the aisle, towards the rustlings of Minerva's robes, hands outstretched blindly towards her slender form.
'I know you're here!' repeated Minerva, as her attempts to find her wand, and therefore light, were unsuccessful.
Albus caught a waft of Minerva's perfume, and realised with pleasure that she was still wearing the lavender one he found so pleasant, he breathed in deeply.
Minerva froze, someone or something was breathing heavily nearby. She grappled with her suddenly excessive robes, frantic to find her wand.
Albus stepped up cheerfully. 'Minerva,' he said, his deep voice rolling down the aisles of the larder, throbbing in the cavernous space.
Minerva screamed. Albus recoiled.
'Wha-?' he began, but Minerva flailed about with her fists hitting his chest, paralyzing his lungs and his access to air. He grabbed at her fists to stop her hitting him but her momentum carried her forwards, onto him, and he fell backwards into a cask of …flour? It tipped over with their weight, a huge heavy barrel with iron rings crashing to the floor, soft powder dusting their faces and souring their tongues as the flour was expelled in a great cloud that lingered vaguely in the dark. A split-second later and Albus realised the danger, he rolled Minerva over, and out of the way as the barrel tumbled its leaden weight down the aisle.
Minerva's hands were still fisted against his chest, but pinned beneath her strange assailant a sense of the familiar had already told her she wasn't in danger, another moment and she recognised the tickle of Albus' beard, the leanness of his hard body and…was that the smell of Honeydukes chocolate on his rapid breath?
'You found the chocolate,' she said, somewhat vapidly.
'You didn't know I was here,' realised Albus aloud.
'No I didn't,' affirmed Minerva.
'Yes, I did,' said Albus.
There was a pause whilst their conscious thoughts struggled to process the dialogue.
'My need is greater than yours,' said Minerva sassily.
'I doubt it,' Albus disagreed.
'I was thinking about you,' he responded, solemnly.
The darkness prevented them from seeing each other's expression, but the sound of their breathing was loud against the stores. Minerva suddenly realised how intimately they were pressed together, how her breasts were rhythmically pushing against his chest, and how his thighs lay entwined with hers, his weight taken by his forearms, flat beside her body. Her breath came shorter, her mouth went dry.
'You can't be very comfortable,' Albus murmured finally. His breath was on her cheek; she closed her eyes and resisted the urge to make a noise that would only be construed as a moan.
'I am,' Minerva denied, and was shocked to hear her voice so low and sultry; she hadn't realised she owned a voice like that.
'You are, are you?' he said, the timbre of his voice dangerous, sexy. He shifted his weight so that it pressed on her more, a shiver of tension and delight made her tremble.
The chocolate taste on his breath was close to her lips, Minerva felt the ache in her rise, giving her courage more easily accessed in the dark, she tilted her head and her lips found his for a lingering one kiss, she finished by briefly touching her tongue to his lips. Albus drew in a sharp breath.
'My share of the chocolate,' she said, shakily.
'It's all yours,' he said hoarsely.
There was a hardness pressing against Minerva's thigh, and for a moment her stomach flip-flopped at the thought of – but it was exceptionally long if it was – well. Ah-hem. Thin too. Extremely thin, it couldn't be – well, Albus wouldn't have – well. Ah. Oh right, of course, well that was a relief. Her wand. What a relief, it would have been quite alarming if – well, if, well…
She loosened a hand and reached for it, snaking down between their bodies and causing Albus a momentary pang of shocked astonishment, which he could be forgiven for.
'Lumos,' she whispered and light flared between them, faces suddenly, shockingly in focus, and close, very close. Awkwardness suddenly replaced the tension, and Albus quickly rolled off her and stood, offering her a hand, trying to smile as his heart thudded against his ribs.
'So, great minds think alike, no?' he smiled genially, unwilling to release her hand.
'What?' asked Minerva, confused, her mind still clouded with the desire of a minute ago.
'Chocolate,' supplied Albus, helpfully.
'Oh – yes,' replied Minerva stiffly. She couldn't believe she had been quite so forward!
'Well,' said Albus into the silence, unhelpfully.
'Well,' echoed Minerva, taking a deep steadying breath. Albus was still holding her hand.
'This seems silly,' Albus said, rather sharply. Minerva raised her chin. 'No, not this,' Albus clarified, squeezing her hand. 'Just this… awkwardness.'
'Yes it does,' Minerva confirmed. 'Let's start over.'
'It always seems to start in the kitchens,' Albus murmured. Minerva grinned. 'Chess?' he suggested.
'Chocolate?' she answered.
'If you promise to behave yourself,' Minerva teased.
Albus raised one eyebrow and Minerva flushed pink. 'I'll be the perfect gentleman,' he assured her, a twinkle in his eyes.
'How disappointing,' sighed Minerva, summoning the chocolate with her wand and giving his hand a tug, leading them both back to the larder entrance, Albus quite delightfully enjoying her flirting.
I fear this missive shall be the last text I ever scribe. The annual confederation summit is proving to be the best cure for my insomnia that I have yet encountered. Alas, my snoring has proven to be my Achilles' heel, no sooner have I dozed off during one of Count Verlicht's interminable lectures than some helpful colleague prods me awake and I am forced to endure. Fawkes burst prematurely into flame this Monday past, I suspect as a mere chick life here is less of a burden.
I look forward, with ever increasing impatience to my holiday with you at Murray Manor. If, when I finally arrive, I should happen to burst into relieved sobbing upon your shoulder- please do not be alarmed, I have to grieve the loss of my time with you.
I should not be so dismissive of the confederation, there have been some interesting developments with regards my petition for Muggle born rights, but I shall not go into detail here, you may anticipate this for later (I would not, of course, be so cruel!).
With only two days to go, I have little news left to impart, but to thank you for your letters, without which, despite your sardonic comments, I feel I would have lost my sanity.
Albus & Fawkes
Minerva McGonagall gave a happy little sigh and put the letter carefully down on the breakfast table, her sister narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, but Winston intervened.
'Whatever you are about to say, my dear, might I suggest you don't?' he said mildly. Cecelia turned narrower eyes on him in reproach.
'Are you telling me what to do, husband?'
Minerva reached for a crumpet and ignored them, still smiling. Wait she suddenly thought with concern, he snores?
'No,' said Winston, with a wicked glint in his eyes, 'I'm telling you what not to do!'
Maybe he was just joking Minerva's thoughts continued, he signed, 'yours entirely' again! She gave another little sigh as she reached for the tea pot.
'Winston!' snapped Cecelia, pointing the butter knife at him, 'you best not be serious. I am your wife not your... your… Arabian slave girl!'
'Yes dear,' conceded Winston, successful in his attempt to turn her away from his sister-in-law's love concerns.
'And don't think I haven't noticed what you're trying to do!' Ceci said with another flourish of the knife, as her toast became gradually colder.
'And what might that be, my lovely wife?'
Wait, why was she concerned about his snoring?! Honestly Minerva, you're not even officially dating and you have the man in your bed! At which thought said lady blushed and bit into her crumpet hard.
'You are trying to distract me from Minerva!' Ceci declared triumphantly.
'Oh,' winced Winston, having lost once again.
'What?' asked Minerva, having heard her name and swallowed her mouthful.
'Another letter?' pointed out Ceci, unnecessarily pointing the knife at the accused.
'Yes,' Minerva confirmed, shrugging. 'So?'
'So what does it say?'
'It's private!' retorted Minerva indignantly. 'Don't be so nosy! You used to tell Des his nose would grow.'
'That was if he told lies,' Minerva was informed acerbically. 'I'm just curious as to when this mystery guest will be arriving! I wish you would tell us who it is!'
'Just a friend.'
'Hah! No friend makes you blush like that! What kind of sordid details are in those things?'
Minerva stuck her tongue out, in a decidedly childish display of defiance, her sister huffed, and went to spread some butter on her toast, now cold, she took out her wand to re-heat it, and combined, both Minerva and Winston cried:
Ceci jumped and dropped her wand, 'What is the matter with you two?'
'Ceci, last time you did that you set the table cloth on fire,' Minerva reminded her.
'Actually, twenty-two times over the course of our marriage,' Winston provided helpfully, earning himself a fuming glare. 'This is why we have Buffer's! You were simply made for grander things than household spells.'
Slightly mollified Ceci took a steaming piece of toast from the house-elf, who had winked into place as Minerva and Winston had cried out.
Minerva stood and slurped disgracefully at the remainder of her tea. 'He arrives in two days,' she said, quickly exiting the room before Ceci could open her mouth.
Albus Dumbledore apparated into the grounds of Murray Manor, two purple plaid bags and a phoenix beside him, the sun was bright, the clouds looked soft and the grass had never been so green. His walk up the driveway was more of a meander, having shrunk his bags (much to Fawkes' delight – the bird hated to clash) and divested himself of travelling cloak.
He saw Minerva stretched out on a deck chair on the front porch, wearing a floral muggle summer dress, her toes curling in the sun and a floppy straw hat shielding her face from the heat. Deliberately he concealed his approach, until close enough to reach out and tickle her feet with his long fingers.
She shrieked, loudly enough to startle the circling phoenix, high above, and jumped upright, revealing a face, which, whilst it bore similarities to Minerva's own, was definitely not Minerva's.
It was incredibly embarrassing, and he had thought himself past such mortification. 'I'm very sorry Mrs Murray,' he apologised quickly as the lady he had accosted sat down again, apparently speechless.
There was the sound of running feet and then the actual Minerva rounded the corner with her wand out, closely followed by Mrs Murray's husband, a rather dirtier straw hat on his head.
There was a rather awkward silence as the four of them gathered around the deck chair and the hand flapping lady.
'He tickled my feet!' Ceci finally managed, wildly.
'He what?' cried Winston, bushy brows rising.
'You what?' exclaimed Minerva, staring at him wide-eyed.
'I thought she was you!' Albus declared weakly.
Minerva's lips twitched. Winston roared with laughter, making his poor wife jump again.
'You thought I would wear a floral dress?' Minerva asked, raising one eye in mock horror. Albus glanced at her apparel – a pair of navy shorts and a loose shirt that had seen better days.
'Apparently not,' he said, as Minerva also began to laugh.
Ceci was still looking affronted, and so he made haste to apologise again.
'But what are you doing here?' Ceci asked, glaring in despair at her hooting relatives.
Albus was surprised and a little concerned. 'Didn't Minerva tell you?'
'I was about to,' interjected Minerva, ceasing her laughter with some effort. 'Ceci, Albus is the friend I invited to stay.'
'Oh,' Ceci murmured, understanding dawning. 'Well, you could have warned us! The house is a mess, it needs dusting, and the room should have been aired…'
'Which is exactly why she didn't tell you,' Winston murmured into her ear as Minerva drew Albus away, tucking her hand into his arm, still grinning.
'Not exactly how I envisaged my arrival,' murmured Albus into her ear.
'Welcome back to Murray manor,' she greeted, and reaching up, planted a kiss on his bearded cheek.
That night Albus Dumbledore sat sleepless on the window seat of the guest bedroom, slightly chilly without a dressing gown, staring at the stars spangled across the black night sky. He had spent the rest of the day after his arrival pleasantly occupied with Minerva on a tour of the grounds and dinner with her sister and brother-in-law, but now at the time he should be abed, sleeping off the summit and his travel he found himself restless and disturbed. And he had no idea why. His toes began to cramp in the chill air, so he wriggled them and then decided to go for a stroll. Perhaps if he found the kitchens he could make himself some hot chocolate, either that or he could read some of the paperwork he had taken away from the conference, a notion that did not fill him with joy.
He stood quietly and crept across the polished floor, boards creaking in an ominous manner; hopefully, he thought, he did not need to lose weight.
The house was still beyond his room, old rugs rough against his bare feet (where on earth had he packed his damn slippers?), ancient family portraits raising their eyebrows and pursing their lips in disapproval. He found the kitchen fairly easily, after only two mistaken doors; his stomach had yet to let him down, it invariably found food. Only, as he approached the stove to light the hob, the kitchen door groaned open again and Minerva flowed through, the shadows of night a halo around her quick form.
They both stopped, Minerva initially surprised to find him in their kitchen, before she grinned and asked:
Albus shook his head ruefully, 'you too?'
'Yes. I'm glad you're up, I was thinking of your hot chocolate.'
She was wearing his dressing gown, the satin red monstrosity with the great fur trim. 'That is why I am not only awake but cold,' he said, pointing at it and looking amused, Minerva blushed.
'It's been almost a year, you've had plenty of time to buy a new one!' she declared defensively, somewhat embarrassed to be caught with such blatant sentimentality.
'Perhaps it is time to give it back,' he suggested, lighting the hob with a quick flash of wandless magic.
Minerva was disturbed,; was he saying that seriously, did he mean to end the relationship that had started with that very act of his giving it to her?
'If only so I can finish what I started,' Albus continued, turning back to face her, the hob glowing orange behind him.
'What did you start?' she asked; she couldn't remember.
'A compliment I never completed.'
Now she remembered how he had hesitated, how he had started genuinely, and finished with her dragon hide boots.
'How do I know the compliment is worth the dressing gown?' she smiled, a little shyly.
'True,' Albus mused. 'Perhaps then, a compromise? You lend me the gown for a short time, so that I might have the opportunity to speak the words long dormant, and then you may have it back, for always.'
In answer, Minerva swept the dressing gown from around her shoulders and stepped lithely forward to hand it, heavy, to him. He took it and pulled it around his own, broader shoulders; it smelt of lavender- her perfume.
When he looked back he immediately realised she was wearing that same nightie, the shining silk material, the delicate straps and scooped neckline. He made her flush by his gaze, and he quickly pulled his eyes up, feeling a touch lecherous.
He didn't quite have the courage to say the words whilst gauging her reaction, and so he reached for a hanging milk pan as he spoke.
'That night, as we came out of the Gryffindor common room, I meant to say,' he stuttered a little as it came down to it, 'I meant to say – you were an, an incredible beauty to behold at three am.'
He summoned the milk jug and poured a generous amount in the pan, reducing the heat a little. Minerva had made no move, and in the silence he felt pressured to lighten the tension.
'Although I did genuinely admire your dragon hide boots,' he added frivolously. Minerva chuckled.
'I think that was worth the loss of the dressing gown,' she said, and the smile that was in her voice gave him the courage to look up.
She was smiling -a little crooked tilt of her lips, and the relief he felt at that simple gesture was immense. Wordlessly he held out an arm and she came forward to be enveloped beneath the voluminous red velvet. They stood together in the glow of the Aga as he made them both hot chocolate.
'I think I can go to bed now,' said Minerva after they had consumed their drinks at the kitchen table, the dressing gown looped around both their shoulders.
'As can I,' Albus concurred. He stood, helping her up with a gentlemanly hand. 'Here,' he said, removing the gown. 'I believe this is now yours.'
'You don't seriously think that's a good idea Albus!' cried Minerva, incredulously.
'And why not?'
'Look, I think the idea of House integration is very noble and … progressive, but it will result in War!'
'I simply believe that if the Houses are forced to work together, to cooperate, then inevitably a greater respect for the capabilities of the other will result!'
They were seated on the veranda, under the shade of the roof, a sheaf of papers messily pulled together on the wooden table, Albus was striding a worn path across the slats and Minerva was leaning back against the rail.
'They're teenagers Albus! Curses, jinxes and poisons will result – not peace!'
'You are far too cynical,' he protested.
'I'm realistic is what I am!' sighed Minerva, rolling her eyes, they had been having this debate for three days now, interrupted by one bout of kite flying – until Fawkes had set it on fire.
Ceci stepped out onto the porch with a large jug of iced tea, followed by Buffers bearing a plate of cheese and cucumber sandwiches and two glasses.
'Cynical,' muttered Albus, still pacing.
'Realistic,' retorted Minerva.
'Mind-numbingly infuriating!' snapped Ceci, slamming the jug down on the table and splashing the loose papers.
'Who?' queried Minerva.
'Both of you!' Ceci dragged clawed hands through her neat hair. 'Three days of the same argument!'
Albus stood still and glanced across at a grinning Minerva.
'Perhaps it is time to declare a truce,' he suggested wryly, as a frustrated Cecelia poured them drinks and spilt yet more iced tea.
'Not until you admit that your romantic notion of unity is both foolish and absurd!' stated Minerva firmly – her sister made a small squeak of stifled irritation and slammed the veranda door behind her.
Albus strolled across to face her. 'Never!' he denied her.
'Then we have no truce!' Minerva smirked.
'You are quite delightful when you are passionate,' said Albus, smirking back, Minerva flushed. 'And even more so when you are embarrassed,' he added.
'I am not embarrassed!'
Albus put his hands on the rail, one each side of her. 'Oh?' he asked, 'even when surrounded?' he leant forward until they were nose to nose, her summer robes rustling against his light trousers.
'Even when surrounded,' she repeated, her eyes on his bright blue ones as her lips breathed against his.
'Concede defeat,' he ordered.
'Or what?' she challenged.
'Or I shall eat your share of the sandwiches,' Albus threatened, Minerva's lips twitched into a smile.
'You wouldn't dare!'
'Watch me!' he slipped a hand around her waist and pulled her up against him, involuntarily she gasped – and immediately he said: 'I win!'
'Damn,' grumbled Minerva. 'You cheated!'
'Can I help that I'm so damn attractive?' teased Albus outrageously.
'And delusional!' she added in a sing song voice. She sashayed across to the table and grabbed a few sandwiches, 'And Albus?' she called as he joined her and picked one up.
'Mmm?' he said vaguely, checking the contents by pulling apart the small triangular slices.
She took her lunch across to the front steps and sat down. 'I'm more than delightful when I'm passionate.'
He dropped his sandwich.
'I win,' declared a chuffed Minerva, and stretching her legs out into the warmth of the sun, bit into the bread.
August was fast progressing and the sun was baking the earth dry and the people brown. Five days at Murray Manor found Albus Dumbledore in front of the hallway mirror ruefully examining his rather pink nose. A fabulously brown Minerva approached him from behind, a sympathetic smile (one that threatened to turn cheeky) and a small pot of Ursula's Unguent for Peeling Protuberances in hand.
'Our hike yesterday has had unfortunate side-effects,' he said, wriggling his nose and wincing as the skin cracked.
'Never fear,' reassured Minerva 'I come bearing gifts!'
'Then you are most welcome! Unless you have Greek roots.'
Minerva grinned and unscrewed the lid to reveal a silver, viscous ointment smelling rather of liquorice. She wrinkled her own nose in distaste, 'It might help your sunburn but it'll do nothing for the gnats.'
'I'll survive,' he murmured as she reached up and gently coated his once-broken nose, the salve turned transparent as it cooled on the hot skin, he caught her hand as it fell and brought it to his lips.
'I thought we might go muggle tenpin bowling tonight,' he suggested, still clasping her gel-sticky hand.
'Muggle tenpin bowling?' she repeated, sceptically. 'Really?'
'Really,' he echoed her. 'If you will consent to be my date.'
It was the first time that he had used that word; they had been flirting outrageously for the last four days, each one trying to make the other blush, but it had felt harmless, even if Ceci had taken to rolling her eyes so much that the dining room's ceiling was being repainted, her upwards gaze having noticed its pallor. It was a game, a new game perhaps, but none-the-less Minerva had felt the safety in it, the boundaries unspoken but respected. It had relieved the tension over the ever-present, yet unasked question about the exact nature of their relationship. She wasn't exactly sure she wanted to move those boundaries yet. This side of the hurdle was predictable and full of the warmth and the happiness she felt just being in Albus' company. The other side was full of uncertainty and a possible return to Albus's mercurial changes of attitude toward her.
She had been silent a little too long, for Albus cleared his throat a little awkwardly and she returned her gaze to his face and his curious eyes.
'Something wrong?' he asked.
'No, of course not,' she denied falsely.
Albus looked at her keenly and she realised her lie was evident, but this was hardly the time to have that conversation, she was too afraid to have that conversation!
Albus sighed and released her hand. 'My choice of words was perhaps ill-advised.'
'No!' Minerva quickly assured him, and then winced at how quickly she had responded. 'Sorry.'
'Perhaps no is the word you wish to say,' commented Albus distantly, turning away.
'Don't you dare!' hissed Minerva furiously, grabbing his arm and dropping the small pot of Ursula's Unguent to roll unheeded beneath the Grandmother clock opposite. 'Don't you dare do that!' She pulled him back around to face her.
'Do what?' queried Albus, his heart sinking still further.
'Shut me out! Shut me out like you always do! How am I ever supposed to love you if you won't let me in?'
Minerva was surprised to see Albus's eyes light up. 'What are you smiling at? I'm shouting at you!' It was distinctly irritating to have the man smile at her whilst she was trying to be angry.
'Perhaps clarification is in order,' Albus murmured, still looking inexplicably happy.
'Perhaps?' snorted Minerva.
'I have enjoyed our repertoire these past five days, but I would like to accord you the respect of making our encounters less frivolous by taking you out for a date. Such an opportunity would allow for more intimate conversation. Does that help?'
'So help me Albus, if you're patronising me…'
'I would never dare, and am most certainly not!' declared Albus firmly as Minerva wagged a finger almost comically in his face.
Minerva paused her finger wagging and hesitated, she was halfway between wanting to be angry with him and wanting to process what he had just said.
'Intimate conversation…' she repeated vaguely.
'Just how intimate is up to you,' added Albus calmly, but with a glint in his eye, that woke Minerva up.
'Just what kind of lady do you think I am?' she demanded, but her ire was self-mocking and her smile teasing.
'My Minerva, you are ever your own.'
She shook her head wryly. 'Ten points, Mr Dumbledore, for the right answer.'
'Then we have a date?' he inquired carefully.
She considered him while his heart slowed to swallow each moment of her silence in anticipation.
'Yes,' she agreed, as she had been intending to say all along.
At eight pm sharp Minerva was still in her room. Albus, she knew, was already downstairs, dressed in a muggle suit with a money bag of muggle notes. She, on the other hand, was still staring disconcertedly at her reflection. Ceci had leant her dress, a simple affair with a full skirt, sea blue and knee length. But that didn't stop it being alarmingly low cut. Robes buttoned up, which was why Minerva preferred them to dresses; and Ceci's affair was distinctly unbuttoned, falling in a tight swoop between her breasts and leaving her to wonder how on earth they had tanned so bronze when she had spent all summer in old shirts and tatty summer robes. She slipped slim feet into Ceci's matching sandals (oh the sheer Witch Weekly of it!) and gave it up for the best.
Ceci was waiting at the foot of the stairs, looking more anxious than Minerva felt.
'Where have you been?' she hissed. 'I was beginning to be afraid you weren't coming down this year!'
'Don't exaggerate,' reprimanded Minerva. 'I'm here now.' She flounced past her sister and entered the drawing room with a great deal more confidence than she felt. Albus was stood be the fire place, his money pouch twisted around his fingers; apparently she wasn't the only nervous one. She meant to say Ready? But the word didn't come out as Albus started and tripped slightly starting forward, his eyes suddenly hungry, taking her in, turning her hot and cold in response.
'Well,' said Winston awkwardly, standing from the armchair where Minerva had failed to notice him. 'Have a lovely night. Ceci.' He took his wife somewhat forcefully by the arm and steered her out of the room from where she had followed Minerva in.
Left alone Minerva suddenly felt unaccountably shy. Albus stepped up, without tripping. 'There are no words,' he said ruefully.
Minerva looked sceptical. 'You've seen me in my nightwear many a time Albus.'
'It's not quite the same. This time I'm allowed to …appreciate the … view.'
She raised her eyebrow askance, unfortunately her cheeks flushed, giving her real feelings away.
'Shall we depart?' suggested Albus, taking her arm into his own, feeling her slim figure brush against his side, unadorned by the usual layers.
They apparated on the corner of a fairly busy muggle street, behind an overgrown hedge; as they emerged a group of muggle men whistled loudly, their intimation obvious. Minerva was annoyed but Albus merely chuckled.
'A little previous,' Minerva muttered, and felt Albus squeeze her arm. The large bowling complex was gaudy and loud, the rattle of muggle machinery and the long rumbling of bowls surrounded them as they entered and for the life of her Minerva could not see Albus's attraction to the place.
'It's the game, not the setting,' Albus said, quite possibly reading her mind. He was smooth in dealing with muggle money although his suit caught a few odd glances, perhaps it was the colour, a very vibrant green; they soon found themselves with their own aisle, although not their own shoes.
'Are you familiar with the game?' Albus asked her politely.
'Knock the pins down by rolling a lump of a ball? Yes, I think I can master the basics,' Minerva answered a little acerbically, the unfamiliar environment making her nervous. It wasn't so long since her days as an Auror. She picked up a ball with both hands and nearly dropped it on her feet, only Albus's quick intervention saved her toes.
'You place your fingers in these holes to carry the ball,' he said and slipped her fingers in, one by one. 'And then-' he guided her to the top of the alley. 'You swing your arm back-' he stood at her back, his arm along hers as together they swung back, 'and-' they swung forward, 'release!' The ball rolled off her fingers and slipped slick and fast to knock five of the ten pins down with a pleasing crash. Minerva grinned and turned around to smirk at Albus, he was so close they were nose to nose and without a pause he leant forward and kissed her. It was only a very brief kiss, and Albus looked surprised at his own action but Minerva thought, as she went to get another ball that she might just see what Albus liked in the sport after all.
They returned home somewhat later than planned, just past midnight. Albus had taken her for something called pizza, not an elegant meal by any means, and then Minerva had insisted on another game of bowling, determined to beat him ninth time round.
'You let me win!' whispered Minerva, as they crept through the front door and discarded outer garments.
'You won the tenth fair and square,' protested Albus.
'Don't forget the twelfth,' Minerva reminded him wickedly. 'I've never seen someone loose so badly.'
'May I remind you, my Minerva, that I am your one and only opponent, ever?' Minerva grinned in reply. 'I must say, I think the night went admirably well. Apart from the gilly water incident.'
'How was I supposed to know they don't serve it in muggle bars?'
'How indeed?' Albus mused rhetorically.
They stopped by the foot of the stairs, suddenly uncertain how to end the night.
Albus broke the silence. 'I have a theoretical question I would like your input on.'
'Oh?' asked Minerva cautiously.
He turned to face her properly, and reached for her hands. 'Is it appropriate to kiss a woman on the first date?' His thumbs sketched a line along her palm.
'It depends,' said Minerva, as his fingers traced a feather light path onto her wrist.
'On what?' he asked, his fingers reached her forearm and she swallowed against the butterflies in her stomach.
'On how long she's been waiting for that kiss.'
There was a moment where he just looked at her, those bright blue eyes gleaming and her heart beating in response to the sensation of his hands moving up past her trembling elbows, and she felt like a girl, inexperienced and hesitant, and he felt like a young man, heady with the rush of his hands on her body.
'My Minerva,' he breathed and he lifted one of those soothing hands to run a finger along her jaw, braving a thumb along her bottom lip as it parted and he felt the heat of her breath. Minerva's lips tingled with his gesture and then he dropped his hand to place it in the small of her back, and suddenly he wasn't at all gentle as he pulled her forward, against him, but that was what she wanted- to feel him lose control, to see the fierce desire in his eyes. No barriers, no distance, just heat and need in a man she had loved for one long, lonely year.
'Minerva...' but it was a growl of longing and hunger against her cheek, his beard brushing her chin, she leaned into his body and his lips grazed hers -
They both jumped and looked around for the source of the crash. A large tawny was lying on the window sill outside the exceptionally clean hallway window, an envelope in its unconscious beak. They looked back at one another, acutely conscious of their physical proximity. Albus was in control of himself again, his smile had a touch of regret, but Minerva suspected he felt some relief; a suspicion doubled when he quickly released her and strode to the window to recover the letter.
'It's from the Ministry,' Albus told her, some scant minutes later. 'I'm needed.' He glanced back at her, but Minerva was cool and collected by the banister post.
'Of course,' she said blandly.
'I am afraid our holiday will have to be cut short,' he added sombrely.
'I quite understand,' said Minerva tightly. He looked surprised at her easy compliance.
'I apologise for the inconvenience.'
Her cheek twitched; the inconvenience! 'It's no bother Albus. I'll have the house elves send your things to Hogwarts.' She turned to climb the stairs and heard the front door open behind her; when she looked back, it was closed; bitterness enveloped her, she indulged it, ignoring the single pathetic tear that traced the same path his finger had.
Outside Albus took deep steadying breaths of the warm night air and felt ashamed to feel so relieved, a moment later he cast the matter from his mind, and apparated into the foyer of the Ministry, fully the calm and collected Headmaster of Hogwarts.