By: Catherine A. Graham

Disclaimer: Of all the fandoms I have written in, I'd have to say Harry Potter has the slightest chance of belonging to me.

Author's Note: This was written as a birthday gift for my friend Lauren. She requested a "good story with a McGonagall/Dumbledore pairing." I aim to please, although I fear this may not be what she had mind. (I'm mainly a Severus fan, and I believe that comes through near the end of this story.) Whatever the outcome, this story is dedicated to her.

Minerva McGonagall

She scrawled her quill furiously across the page, her name taking on a spiked, jagged quality it had never held before.

Minerva McGonagall

She flipped the page.

Minerva McGonagall


Minerva McGonangall

Headmistress, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Her eyes caught on the formality shortly before a tearing sound broke from somewhere between her long fingers and the expensive carbon paper bearing the Hogwarts seal. It seemed Jeremiah Sumpters' acceptance letter would need re-copying.

It was absolutely inane really, when one thought about it. How long had her name been second on everything? How long had she looked at that name, always one step below that of Albus Dumbledore, and somewhere inside known that the situation was bound up in unfairness? Just once, just once, her name could be first – couldn't it? Of course, she kept that particular thought locked away so carefully (carefully, because that was the way she always did everything) that there were times even she forget her half-hearted bitterness.

Minerva had been born years before anyone in the world, magical or muggle, had thought of the words women's liberation as anything more than a pipe dream to be held by political extremists, and she hardly thought of herself as at the forefront of that movement even now. But, the situation had been hard to ignore, even for a woman who was a known stickler to the ways of the 'old world,' from the top of her traditional black, pointed hat to the heels of her teacher's loafers that clicked when she walked. (She had remembered when she bought her first pair back at the beginning of her teaching career that the clicking gave fair warning to a teacher's arrival and had decided that, after all, even she wasn't heartless.)

From the minute she met Albus Dumbledore, Minerva had walked a step and a half behind him, and being the stickler she was, the action had stuck. "Good morning," she had said, giving a little bow. And, "Good morning," he had replied, his tone serious to match hers but his blue eyes twinkling like he knew some secret joke she wasn't privy to (and never would be, just for the record). He had known where he was going, and she hadn't, because he was a few more years out of school that she was (so, his name was listed first in the birth and school records) and already a few years a Hogwarts professor (so he was always one step ahead for promotion), so she had followed him, a step and a half behind, like her feet belonged there.

Minerva thought, as she transfigured her quill to a pin and back again with a sharp concentration that wasn't necessary at her level of skill, that she could still hear the uneven shuffle, click that their feet made as they traveled the hallways together. It had become more than tradition, and long before she ever would have noticed it, a much younger Professor Flitwick had commented: "I'll bet students just tremble at the sound of your footsteps – and by your, I mean the two of you, Albus and Minerva. You're plenty of professor alone, either one of you, but together, it's like… welll, you're something of a package deal." A much younger Minerva (one who still reacted more to her first name than her last) had found the comment comforting (not to mention the way her heart had fluttered for minutes after), rather than derogatory. An older Minerva (one hardened by years of students trying to weasel, fast-talk, or beg their way out of detention) might have taken offense and attempted to throw off the shuffle, click pattern by walking exactly one step behind him during their next hallway meeting.

The remembered comment made the Minerva presently seated at the desk wrap the threads of her magic a little too tightly around the transfigured pin, and it burst into three prickly shards. The emotion distracting her careful mind from magic a second year should be able to perform with minimal difficulty was something dark and heavy on her throat. She couldn't identify it.

There was a time when every emotion having to do with Albus Dumbledore could be classified as distinctly schoolgirlish, something Minerva McGonagall distinctly was not. But, Minerva found she never was exactly Minerva when she was around Albus, so when her mind finally settled on the notion, it didn't bother her as much as she once imagined it would. The questions came often and loaded: Were they married? Seeing each other? Had they ever thought of each other that way? Minerva thought people often knew the answer before they even asked (after all, the ring finger of her left hand was quite naked), and asked only with the intention of planting the idea in her mind. As if the idea had not already been flowering there since their first shuffle, click.

Not that she could blame the questioners. Hogwarts was not the only school of witchcraft and wizardry, and her transfiguration skills did not go unnoticed. Three times Beaubatons had sent letters of flowery French in delicately flowing woman's handwriting asking Minerva to join their staff, and three times Minerva's own sharper, but no less feminine, scrawl had answered in equally flowery and perfect French that no, no, the accommodations here at Hogwarts were really quite adequate and her position was so comfortable that there really was no reason for her to give it up. The reply from Beaubatons had always been that the chances of advancement were greater for a woman where men like Albus Dumbledore weren't concerned.

Minerva kept the latest of those letters in her Headmistress' desk now. Once, when the sign on her desk had read 'Deputy Headmistress,' it had been a reminder of what she was giving up, but now she wasn't sure why she kept it. But, the feeling was there, something like trying to breathe molasses, and as her fingers closed around the crinkle of brittle paper in the third drawer, she thought she might choke.

Some women wouldn't have admitted what they were giving up, but Minerva did. One could easily have said she wasn't giving up much. He did pull her up with him – the office of Deputy Headmistress was nothing to scoff at – but Minerva was confident enough in her abilities to know that the office was one she would have reached with or without the good word of Albus Dumbledore. She did not stay because it was a smart career move (her signature always on the second line, but the second line was beneath the first where his was, and she had never needed to be the first). She stayed because there were times when his blue eyes sparkled, and to her it felt like a promise. When this was all over, it said, he'd be waiting. Because he had felt it too, and because life was long and patience was a virtue, one Minerva McGonagall stored in bulk.

But, sometime, when she was counting – slowly, one, two, three – in time with her patience, they had become old. Her hands crinkled dry like the paper, which even if the world had not been ending, and even if the letter had not yellowed with its own age, she had no reason to respond to.

Minerva McGonagall

Headmistress, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Signing again, because it wasn't difficult to transfigure a bookmark into quill.

The world had ended before, she remembered, and if he didn't have time to love her then, she could find no fault with him for it. The Order of the Phoenix was in full swing, and he had taken her by the arms and told her to be safe. She'd only nodded, caught up in the moment of having him so close, and she'd almost considered obeying, but then he had done the same to James, and then to Lily (and she'd never admit that her face had flushed silently red at the sight of that because how could she think that when oh dear God, Lily had been a student only a few years ago?), and then to the rest of the Order. In the end, Minerva had thrown herself into her work for the Order with all the wild abandon of someone willing to give her life for the cause. She still didn't know if the reason had been her deep belief in the wrongness of Voldemort's teachings or the hope that Albus might see exactly how easy she was to lose.

Albus had so much room in his heart. If he didn't have so much damn room in his heart for everyone else, Minerva sometimes thought when she allowed herself to be irrational and jealous, maybe he would have enough to love one person beyond all others. She tried not to let the one person become me, but found it difficult.

Even when Severus had come to the headquarters, mud-spattered and bloody, alternately sneering and crying, Albus had taken his arms and whispered to him to be safe. Then, he had looked at Minerva from over Severus' shoulder, and with a change of the twinkle in his eye, told her to leave. And, if she had ever felt cheated before, it was nothing compared to now. She remembered the muggle Bible story of the Prodigal Son, and could see a bit of the situation in it, but the pain of the rejection was fresh and raw.

Over the years, Albus would bring up on more than one occasion that her Gryffindors were not innocent in the way Severus had turned out. At first Minerva secretly thought she might burn from inside out from the injustice of it. Severus had betrayed him to the Dark Lord; when had she ever done anything without the good of Albus in mind? On how many thousands of papers had her signature been directly beneath his own? But, Albus had loved him as much as the others, more than the others (Minerva often thought it was due to the guilt of having lost him in the first place), and if only for Albus, Minerva in her elder years had learned to love him as well.

The molasses was up around her ears now, and the yellowed Beaubatons letter was in her hand, and distantly she could still hear it crinkling above the struggling, pitiful sound of her own breath. Albus had loved every member of the Order like their deaths would be his too. But, deaths had occurred, and he had survived with little more than a moment's twinkle out of place to prove he had even noticed. Minerva had both feared and hoped her death would be treated in the same way.

But, she was not Albus; her heart was not as malleable as his. She had loved Albus beyond all others.And, now she hated, hated, hated Severus.

Minerva breathed again, and the molasses hardened and crumbled away. Albus would never have wanted Hogwarts closed, so it would remain open. Her quill scrawled across the next acceptance letter.

Minerva McGonagall.

Even with his body lying broken and empty, she still stood bent under his wishes.

Minerva thought of Severus. When they put the signatures on his death warrant, she thought, hers would be the first.

Minerva McGonagall

Headmistress, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Because, whether or not she wanted it as she once had, she was the Headmistress now.