Looking at the dying embers in the grate sometime later, his concern returned. Getting up he again headed to the door. Perhaps he was being silly, but even a side tracked trip to the kitchens should not take this long. Not even knowing the extent of Minerva's wrath at the idea of being checked up on could not prevent him from going in search of her.

A quick look in the kitchens revealed she still hadn't been there. A brief pause in the common room of each of the four houses revealed nothing out of the ordinary. A moment's consideration led him to the door of her classroom.

Peering into the darkened room, he saw a light in the corner. Moving into the room, he gave a disappointed sigh on discovering the light was caused by a hinkypunk.

"I was hoping to find Professor McGonagall." he confessed aloud.

The hinkypunk motioned to the latch on its tank and then lifted its lantern as if offering to guide Dumbledore.

"I think not." replied Dumbledore with a twinkle in his eyes as he retreated from the room.

Onto the faculty corridor where a quick check of Minerva's rooms revealed nothing. He decided to head back to his own rooms to see if Minerva had returned. Leaving her rooms he walked right into the one person he least wanted to see...ever, Professor Janus.

"Lost Dumbledore?" inquired the dark haired man in his usual insufferable tone.

"No Janus." He replied, bracing himself.

"Really?" The man gestured with a pitiful attempt to look innocent. "Gryffindor tower is that way, in case you had forgotten."

"Thank you, Janus for the reminder. I think I will head that way now." responded Dumbledore thinking it best to end the encounter as quickly as possible.

"Not at all, Dumbledore. Being as it is my night to patrol the halls, I have gotten a good deal of practice at directing people back to their proper rooms." The man positively sneered.

Pausing a moment, Dumbledore considered asking whether or not Janus had run into Minerva in his travels. Though they were discreet about their relationship it was an open secret among a select few of the staff. Janus was not supposed to be one of the few.

It was his own reluctance at the idea of relations without the benefit of marriage that had for some time held him back from pursuing a relationship with Minerva. Minerva had many times expressed her lack of interest in the institution of marriage. Not an entirely surprising attitude considering the viciousness of the murder of her mother at the hands of her father, but one he retained hopes of changing, none the less.

His consideration of the matter was intruded upon by the other professor. "Maybe you're not the one lost." Seeing the flash of concern on Dumbledore's face, Janus went in for the kill. "Has she really lost interest in you already? Tisk-Tisk. You know if you really do want to find her, I would suggest trying Kevric or Armando's rooms. Last I knew she was welcome in either of their beds."

Dumbledore gave a disappointed sigh as he stared at the malice in the other man's eyes. Certainly Minerva had a close relationship with both Kettleburn and Dippet, but there was nothing unseemly between them. He was pleased Minerva had such friendships. Not that he would ever admit it to Janus, but if she wasn't with him it was likely she was off talking with one of the other two.

"Why Janus must you always insist on making the most despicable insinuations?"

"Really Dumbledore, what else could you possibly expect from me?" asked Janus not even trying to contain his delight at getting a response.

"Common decency? Respect and regard for a colleague?"

At this Janus openly laughed. "Sorry Dumbledore, for that you'll need to try Flitwick or Binns. You coming to me for that is as bad as a second year asking directions from Peeves - you really ought to know better by now."

Brushing past the still chuckling professor Dumbledore resumed his walking.

"Oh, one more thing, Dumbledore."

Against his better judgment, Albus paused.

"If you should like to ask Peeves for directions, I found him in Filius's classroom a few minutes ago taking all the feathers out of the pillows.

Turning around with a puzzled look Dumbledore stared at the other man. If he didn't know any better he would have to say in his own extremely crude way the other man was actually trying to be helpful. Although the way he had suggested Kettleburn and Dippet was certainly despicable, it was none the less true Minerva was likely with one of the two. As for twice mentioning Peeves, certainly if Minerva were in real trouble, Peeves would know. With a nod to the amused looking professor, Albus headed for the Charms classroom.

His relief was palpable on entering the classroom. Peeves was busily at work humming and gluing feathers to everything in the room. Suppressing a shudder, Dumbledore recalled the summer before last. Peeves sitting weak and unresponsive in Minerva's rooms contemplating his own...well for lack of a better word mortality, had been the clearest indication of the severity of Minerva's injuries.

Knowing Flitwick had left the pillows out in hopes that Peeves's attention would be drawn to them rather than any of the more precious or breakable items, Dumbledore did nothing to attract its attention before heading back to his rooms.

Many of the professors had taken to leaving such offerings out for the poltergeist. It was a great deal less work than trying to ward it off completely. Indeed most who tried to directly battle the poltergeist were astounded at its ingenuity and persistence. It took great pleasure in finding ways around any spells put in its way and found those who put them up rather endearing. It was most of the professors' darkest fear to become Peeves' 'special friend' whom it showered with its peculiar brand of affection. Dumbledore's own offering this evening had been formal tea service for twenty minus the actual tea. Easy enough to reparo and put away in the morning before his first class.

Passing thru the small office adjoining his bedroom, he paused to stroke Fawkes. Earlier in the school year, he had moved the phoenix's perch here once it became clear the bird was not content to share a bedroom with Minerva. Fawkes seemed to have an issue with the raven haired beauty who had stolen his heart. Dumbledore had no idea what caused Fawkes to flee any room Minerva entered, but he was sure it was nothing like what Moody suggested. If the phoenix even suspected her of harm, he would never leave Albus alone with her.

"Why don't you like her?" asked Albus quietly. He pulled out a lemon sherbet to offer to the phoenix.

Fawkes stared and turned his head a bit to the side in his own inquiring manner.

"Don't look at me like I'm a fool. She really is quite tender and loving if you put in the effort to get to know her. The cool aloofness is just a fa├žade."

The phoenix spread his wings in disbelief.

"She is sweet and kind and wonderful Fawkes and I won't stand for you or anyone else thinking otherwise." Railed the silver and auburn haired wizard. "I want you to make an effort to get to know her, spend time with her."

Dumbledore sighed as Fawkes hid his head under a wing in disgust. Deciding the phoenix didn't deserve a treat, he popped the lemon sherbet into his own mouth.

Giving a final pat to his usually loyal friend, Albus returned to his bedchamber at last.

Laying down, he briefly contemplated questioning Minerva when she returned, but decided against it. His earlier delight at her trusting him had evaporated. A bitter disappointment had filled its place, not at her, but at himself. He realized now pushing her to respond earlier had been wrong as it had lead to her lying to him. Reaching out to the cold, empty space in his bed that she filled so well, he contemplated what more he could do to earn her trust. No, questioning her on where she had been was certainly not the way.

The click of the door latch told him she had finally returned. Turning slightly, he watched her across the room.

He couldn't help but smile at the sight of her in his spare dressing gown. She removed it revealing her nightdress beneath. The whiteness of the straps was nothing compared to the pearlescence of her neck and shoulders. The pale moonlight made her skin glow as softly as the unicorns of the forest. He marveled at her hair. Released from the confines of the braid she usually wore it in during the day, the dark strands spilled down her back. How to describe that hair. It was ebony, like black silk - so soft, so fragrant, so...having a leaf in it?

He furrowed his brow in wonder. When she turned he noticed her noticing him noticing something not quite right.

"You are awake still." She said simply.

"Alas, I am." He replied with a shrug.

"You should have gone back to sleep. It is very late you know."

"Yes, well I did try. It just didn't work out."

"Not tired?" Still she stood by the door, holding his dressing gown.

"Tiredness was not the problem, my dear."

"Oh?"

"Suddenly, I found my bed much colder and larger than I remembered it."

"Mmm. Do you suspect it could be the work of dark wizards?" Teased Minerva with a smile.

"Indeed, I fear as much. I was hoping a certain Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor would wander along and lend her expertise." Dumbledore's eyes positively sparkled as he turned down the blankets on the empty side of the bed.

"Well, I will do my utmost to ensure your bed is warm and cozy before I have to leave." was Minerva's pleased response as she laid the dressing gown on the chair by the door.

Gesturing to the empty plate on the nearby table she raised an eyebrow. "I see I am not the only one who felt the need for a snack. Judging by the crumbs, chocolate cake I would say? Really Albus, you and your sweets. I'm amazed you still have teeth."

"Yes, it was chocolate cake." Staring at the leaf she still hadn't noticed in her hair, despite his earlier decision, he could not resist asking. "And what did you have to eat this evening?"

He watched her smile end. Again the look from earlier in the evening returned. The look of being caught doing something wrong. She gave him a gaze so penetrating that there was no missing the importance of what she was about to say. Still searching his face with her eyes, she shyly answered. "A chipmunk and half of a squirrel."

He attempted to keep his expression pleasant, but the way her eyes dropped he knew he had failed. His mind raced trying to think of something reassuring to say, but for once his great mind could think of nothing. Grasping for something, anything to break the awkward silence that was spreading between them, he said the first semi-coherent thought that came to him.

"Which half?"

She was looking at him again. That was good.

"Of the squirrel, I mean." He continued.

Oh dear. He shouldn't have said that. He couldn't believe he said that. This was not good. Minerva was not looking at him now. In fact, her eyes were closed right now. Oh Gods, the look on her face! He cursed himself silently for causing the look of pain and humiliation on the face of the woman he loved. Watching her tremble in the moonlight, he knew the coolness of the night air was not the only cause.

"It's late. We should speak about this another time." said Minerva in an almost passable imitation of her normal speaking voice as she turned to head back out the door.

This was ridiculous. He knew she was an animagus. He had known it for years, even before she came to teach at Hogwarts. Indeed, he was the one who figured it out before Moody and the other aurors. To make an issue of it now, after all these years was absolutely ridiculous. He already knew it, he just hadn't thought about what it actually entailed.

She was leaving now and he knew this was the end. He had failed her. It was a test like the N.E.W.T.s only so much more important and in a single second, in a single look he had failed her expectations.

She said they would speak of it another time, but another time would never come. She would see to that. Minerva was walking out the door of his rooms and out of his life. Oh not literally, he would still see her in her classroom, in the halls, and in the Great Hall at the dinners he all too late realized why she didn't eat. Perhaps she might even return a few more times to his bed to prove to herself that he hadn't really hurt her, that she never really cared about him. But those times would be brief and perfunctory. Now there would exist between them an unbridgeable gulf of coldness and distrust.

Their relationship would end not in an explosion of argument, but would be smothered in a blanket of silence. To Minerva he would become just another in a long line of people who had failed and disappointed her. Yet one more Artemesia or Grindelwald or Riddle or Thomas.

As she reached the threshold of the door, he longed to tell her what she meant to him. Just how much he loved her and what a necessary part of his everyday life she had become. But he knew if he did that she would only walk out the door all the faster.

Instead he said simply, "Stay."

She hesitated in the doorway a moment and then turned to face him. Looking in her gray eyes for just a second he saw it; the fathomless abyss, the emptiness. For just a second, he understood the reason why when Armando Dippet approached a boggart it took her form. And then before he could even be certain he had seen it, it was gone.

Returning to the bed, Minerva silently lay as far away as possible with her back to him. The bed still felt cold and empty without her warmth curled beside him, so Albus did the next best thing. He curled up beside her.

She still lay rigid beside him so after a few minutes he began to stroke her hair. Then he began to trace patterns along her bare neck and shoulders with his fingers. When that did not get a response he reached around and took her hand in his. Bringing it to his mouth, he began to kiss her fingers.

Still she refused to respond so he took one of her fingers in his mouth and gently scrapped the tip against his teeth. Though it had been over a year since Dippet and Kettleburn had combined their magic to make new fingertips to replace the ones that had been sliced off in the attack the summer before last, Albus knew the new flesh often still itched terribly. As he moved onto a second finger, Minerva finally turned to face him.

Trying not to think about the foul things that had recently been in that very same mouth, he leaned down to kiss her unresponsive lips. He stroked her cheek before again lowering his mouth to hers. This time her lips opened allowing him to kiss her. He explored her mouth leisurely as if it were their first kiss. He could feel her excitement building until finally she kissed him back.

Still covering her mouth with kisses, he began to unfasten the buttons of her nightdress. After the fourth button he slipped his hand inside to caress her breasts. Minerva moaned, breaking their kiss as he teased his thumb over her nipple. Albus took the opportunity to move up slightly and place a gentle kiss on each of her eyes. As he was slowly trailing kisses down the side of her face towards her jaw line she spoke.

"It doesn't bother you?"

"No." He lied without hesitation.

"I eat chipmunks and squirrels and you are all right with that?" She asked again raising her eyebrows.

Finishing with her jaw line, rather than speak he again pressed his lips against the offending mouth. After enough heated kisses on her mouth to make her eyebrows come down, he moved onto her neck.

"Armando has asked me not to eat mice, frogs, or owls as they might belong to a student. But I do enjoy lawn gnomes, spiders, rabbits, and other types of birds." She continued matter-of-factly, but a bit out of breath as she buried her fingers in his hair.

After pushing the cloth of her nightdress down to her waist, Albus began to fill the space between her breasts with yet more kisses.

"And you are sure it does not bother you?" she asked lifting his chin up to look in her eyes.

"Not enough to make me stop wanting you." He answered truthfully

His hand gently sheltered one of her breasts from the cold night air as he took the nipple of her other breast in his mouth. He tried to think happy thoughts of frogs, mice, and owls. Lightly he trailed a hand along Minerva's side making her shiver in delight. Releasing the nipple in his mouth he began to tease the other nipple.

Beginning a line of kisses down to her waist, he tried not to think of squirrels and chipmunks or lawn gnomes, spiders, rabbits, and all types of birds not owls.

As Minerva shifted beneath his kisses in anticipation, Albus suddenly stopped and sat up.

"You haven't tried to eat Fawkes have you?"

Suddenly the phoenix's distrust of his young love made a great deal of sense. Busy feeling guilty for denying Fawkes a treat earlier in the night, Albus failed to notice the pillow being swung at him until it was too late to duck.

After severely thrashing him with her pillow, Minerva resumed her earlier position facing away from him.

After a moment to collect his thoughts, Albus realized Fawkes was an extremely large and powerful, not exactly bird-like creature. The phoenix probably just felt insecure being around a person who was sometimes a cat. With his ability to burst into flames in times of danger and his apparation like skill, not to mention sharp talons and beak, Fawkes had formidable defenses.

Laying back down beside her, he shifted the silky lines of her hair towards him to reveal her back. Lacking the covering of her nightgown which was still bunched around her waist, there was much more skin to trace this time. As he trailed a finger down her spine Minerva turned her face toward him.

"Go back to sleep before I hex you into next week." Her mouth was annoyed, but her eyes smiled at him before they closed.

Finding a severe pillow thrashing a much more agreeable response than the idea of her leaving, he wrapped an arm around her waist. After planting a final kiss on her nose, he rested his head next to hers on the pillow.

He waited until her breathing was slow and regular. Then, knowing she was still awake, but able to pretend otherwise, he said it. "I love you."

There was no response. No fluttering of eyelids, no squeezing of his hand, not even a twitch of the lips or a catch in her breath. But then, he hadn't expected one. He snuggled in even closer to her and closed his eyes.

It must have been half an hour later, just as sleep claimed him that he heard it. A voice less than a whisper. "I love you."