A/N - well, this is the end of the road for this story. I do have an Epilogue in the back of my mind - but it may never see the light of day. Thanks for the reviews.
Oh yes - and in the prophecy (which in the story hasn't been made yet) the baby with the power to destroy blah blah blah was to be born to a set a parents who had defied him three times. That could apply to either the Potters or the Longbotoms - so I'mjust counting this as one of those three times.
Repentance – part 10
The moment Albus vanished from the flames she wanted to call him back, to finish the conversation that was twenty, perhaps even thirty years overdue. But that wasn't possible and instead Minerva bustled around, all the time telling herself that as long as there were tasks that demanded her attention she would be fine. The alert system was one she'd set up herself and it involved contacting two members of the Order, who would then, in turn, alert another two. It was based onthe slight fiction that they didn't know the identity of all the other members of the Order of the Phoenix – but the method had served them well to date.
But, once that was done it became harder to ignore the dark thoughts swirling around her. She wanted desperately to trust Severus, to believe that he was on their side. But, there was no escaping the fact that this situation could easily be a trap, designed to deliver to Voldemort the one wizard he had always feared. And, if it wasn't a trap, then her concerns about Severus' state of mind had been justified and he had risked everything to warn them. In that case they would have to hope that his determination to prove that he had changed hadn't led to his role as a spy being exposed.
It was difficult to sit and wait, knowing that the Order was leaping into action. But her role had always been an internal one, had always involved planning and strategising – and after all someone needed to be here, watching over the school.
She batted away her worst fears about what could happen to Albus. Reminding herself sternly that he was more than capable of taking care of himself, of fighting off a whole host of Death Eaters if he needed to. She wasn't going to sit and fret about what they hadn't said to each other, what hadn't been resolved. It was enough that she had warned him, that they hadn't parted on the worst of terms.
He would return; they would face the past. She believed that now, with a fervency that surprised her. But after all, what else could they do? If their friendship meant anything there had to be a way to move past what had happened all those years ago. And their friendship did matter; it was a complicated entity, full of mysteries and things that had remained unspoken for years. She could, she supposed change that now. The barriers between them were down and only they could rebuild them, shape them into something different – if that was what they both wanted.
She needed to keep herself busy, which made it extremely fortunate that she had dinner and a detention to oversee, as well as the inevitable marking. There was nothing more likely to keep her fear at bay than some 5th Year transfiguration essays.
The detention had been served, the offenders dismissed and she had returned to her study to complete the marking. The school grew still and silent around her, until finally she pushed away the last scroll and rising to her feet, stretched. As her muscles protested the movement she realised that it was much later that she'd thought. It had been hours since Albus had left, where was he and why hadn't she heard anything?
A swift tour of the corridors around Gryffindor tower resulted in more than one student being caught where they shouldn't be at this hour. She docked a few points, gave out yet more detentions and marvelled once more at the ability of teenagers to believe that their romantic entanglements were the most important things in the world. Usually it amused her; usually she could shrug off catching her students in heated clinches. But they were at war and her students were both targets and future combatants. The school rules had to be obeyed of course, yet always there was the lingering fear that some of these young people might not have years to fall in love, to explore their feelings. And beyond that fear was a deep loneliness of her own, and the question she so studiously avoided asking herself most of the time - who cared if she lived or died?
She whispered the password outside the headmaster's study – and almost smiled when she realised that her feet had provided an answer to the question she had not wanted to ask. The door yielded to her, but as she had expected the room was dark and empty - no Fawkes on his perch, no Headmaster behind his desk. She curled into a chair and watched the flames slip into embers.
She wasn't someone who found it easy to scrutinise her feelings. For a very long time she had lived only in the present. The past had remained a place too painful to return to and the future had been too remote and complicated. The young woman who had sent her own father to his death was not at all sure she had any right to the rest of her life.
Even when she had returned to Hogwarts, when the castle's magic had slipped around her like a warm cloak, she had still not quite believed. Still she had lived each day waiting for the blow to fall. It had been years before she realised that she was looking forward, that she was no longer tensed, waiting for the worst to happen. And it wasn't just the castle, or the school, which had helped her to recover. She didn't know whether she would ever be able to tell him, but Albus' kindness, his patience and his friendship had been at the cornerstone of her recovery.
When they had met again after so many years she had been certain that what she had seen in his eyes was an acknowledgement of the changes in her, changes that a man who had once been attracted to her would never have viewed as positive. She had dismissed his attempts to talk about the past and deliberately held him at arms length. But, she'd reckoned without his determination, his cunning and his charm. By the time the Headmaster offered her a permanent contract at the end of the school year their friendship was established. Now, years later, the simple truth was she was miserable without him.
All day she had been trying to recall a moment between them from years ago. It had lingered around the edges of her memory, just out of reach. But now, stillness and silence summoned it at last from the depths of the past.
She'd stood in front of the steps of the school and tried to pay attention as the Headmaster introduced her to the teachers who had gathered in the smattering of winter sunshine to greet her. But Armando Dippett's voice was a blur; the names and subjects had made no impression on her. One face, one pair of eyes had driven away everything else. And now she knew her response to him that morning had been her body remembering the intimacy her mind had been made to forget. Now she knew the guilt in his eyes for all these years was because the last time he'd seen her he had stolen a memory, a memory so powerful if had helped to destroy a dark wizard.
"Albus!" The fire flared into life and, almost as though she had summoned him, an endearingly familiar figure unfolded himself from within the flames and brushed the ashes from his robes.
"I hoped you'd be here," he said softly. Whatever either of them would have said next was lost when she flicked her wand towards some candles to dispel the gloom, and caught sight of him.
"You're exhausted!" His face was gaunt, his eyes almost lifeless and though he tried to pull himself up she could tell that the burden he carried was too much for him.
"I'm," he swayed alarmingly and she took his arm and helped him to sit before he could complete the sentence. She summoned a house elf and requested tea and sandwiches and was alarmed when he sat in silence and let her take control. She pressed the teacup into his hand and almost shivered herself when she realised how cold he was. But he drank the tea and picked at a sandwich; his face gained a little colour and finally he sat back in his chair and sounding a lot more like himself he said,
"Thank you my dear. I'm sorry if I worried you. I haven't been sleeping well and tonight took more out of me than I imagined. There were a series of attacks, on aurors and on Order members."
"The Longbottoms?" She asked, curiosity bubbling within her, now that she knew he was well.
"Are both fine, Severus' warning was most timely. We fought off the Death Eater attack; others were not so fortunate." He went on to list other attacks, more lives taken. Among the fallen were those she had taught, even more of them had been his pupils and she wondered how he could bear it, how either of them could.
"Severus has not returned," she ventured at last. "Do you think that means he has been caught?"
"Only time will tell. He needed to prove to us, to himself, that he had changed Minerva. Don't be too hard on the boy."
"I know he felt he had a point to prove, but he is a spy, he must learn that no one is ever going to thank him for what he does, no one is ever going to recognise him as a hero and laud his actions.The only goal that matters is the defeat of our enemy. That is what he has to dedicate himself to, otherwise his life will be forfeit." He was silent for a long moment, his gaze resting on her until she felt uncomfortable. Just as she was about to speak he stood and crossed to the windows. Gazing out across the moonlit grounds he said,
"I hate war. I hate feeling as though everything and everyone I care about is a commodity. I hate waking up and wondering which person I will be called on to sacrifice next. I don't know if we can beat him Minerva, he is getting stronger all the time – and we are barely hanging on. I sit here in my ivory tower and send people off into danger, off to their deaths – and I tell myself that it has to be done, that it is for the greater good. But all the time I wonder, who am I to decide?"
"You take too much upon yourself – as usual." She reached his side without really being aware that she had moved, "people fight for the world they love, to protect those they love. You don't force them; you set them an example. We chose for ourselves to follow you."
"Did you know that Alice Longbottom is expecting a child?" He said at last, and though in many ways it seemed a change of subject – she knew that it was not.
"No, I didn't. But they have been trying for so long – they must be pleased. She and Lilly will be able to compare pregnancies. I had an owl from her two days ago saying that her morning sickness is terrible." She tried to lighten her tone, tried to bring him back from the darkness that seemed to emanate from him in waves. But when next he spoke she knew she had not succeeded.
"I don't know how can they bring children into this world."
"Because they know that if we stop living then he has won already. And, it is a lesson we should learn from them Albus." The physical distance between them was small, but still it took all her courage to reach out and take his hand in hers. "It's time you and I buried the past, really buried it, not shoved it aside as I have been trying to do all these years. You were going to tell me, weren't you? When I first came back to Hogwarts? You wanted to talk about the war – but I wouldn't let you."
"You put up such walls, as though you expected every one of us to look at you and judge you – when in fact all I wanted to do was tell you how I admired your bravery."
"You scaled my walls Albus Dumbledore – every one of them – no matter how high I built them, always you found a way to surmount them."
"Except the one that really mattered," he replied with more than a hint of melancholy in his voice. She tightened her hold on his hand, squeezing until he looked down at her, rather than across the darkened grounds.
"It seems, Headmaster," she began, refusing to meet his eyes and lapsing into a dry, rather disapproving tone, "that even the wall of which you speak fell in the face of your onslaught. Even now it is little more than rubble – it has been for many years."
Time stopped. There was not a sound. Even the castle seemed to hold its breath around them. At last he let go of her hand and touched her cheek. His fingers, she noticed, were shaking.
"Are you sure?" He breathed.
"I'm terrified," she replied, knowing that it wasn't an answer. "Nothing makes sense, my feelings are disturbingly beyond my control. And at the centre of all the chaos is you, always you." His lips curved up into a smile, his eyes twinkled and the hand that had been at her cheek dropped to her waist, pulling her close.
"You sound so exasperated about it." His voice was positively gleeful and if she hadn't been struggling to control the wave of emotions that overtook her at his touch she would, probably, have hexed him.
"Albus Dumbledore you truly have no idea how annoying you are." His grasp on her tightened fractionally – as though he was still afraid she would push him away. But she had no intention of moving from the warmth of his arms and, instead almost imperceptibly she relaxed into the embrace, her back moulding into his chest, her head leaning back until it rested against him.
A very long time passed – and still neither of them spoke. The mood shifted, the giddiness leaving as suddenly as it had come, in its place was fear, a consciousness of the shadows that surrounded them and the feelings they had barely confessed to Feelings they both knew were hostages to fortune.
"I'm afraid we'll lose." The words were barely a whisper and they echoed his sentiments from earlier – although this time it was Minerva who spoke. "I'm afraid I'll lose you."
"Never again," came his reply – and though she knew he had only assuaged one half of her fears, for now it was enough. He couldn't promise that they would win, he couldn't promise that the darkness would be held at bay. He could only promise for himself – promise that whatever came of their friendship and all of the beautiful mysteries that lay beyond it, she would not ever lose him again.
And so they stood, together, waiting for the dawn.