A/N So - I've been ill. I've never had to stay off work for this long and I am more than a little stir crazy. It occurred to me a while ago (since I am now slowly on the mend) that this would be a good time to start posting Dark Nights - which I began writing some months ago.
It's pretty different to A Convenient Fiction - it's sort of a dark romance.
It was inspired by the flashbacks to the trials of the Death Eaters in GoF - and by what we know happened to them. That whole period reminded me a little of the terror following the French Revolution - which in turn inspired this story.
Finally - special thanks to Nerva for beta'ing.
Title: Dark Nights
Disclaimer: Don't own the characters, don't have any money.
It was neither quiet nor still in the Headmaster's study. Instruments and magical gadgets were whirring and buzzing, the former Heads snored in their portraits and a golden bird fidgeted agitatedly on his perch; his too wise, too knowing eyes fixed intently on the woman standing in the doorway looking back at him.
It was not exactly a surprise that Fawkes was angry with her. He took affronts to the wizard he had adopted extremely seriously. He must known how angry she had been with Albus and now he was suspicious of her. Perhaps he was right to be suspicious.
Was she still angry with Albus? She was not exactly sure, but it was past time that they found out.
She had barely spoken to him for almost two months, scarcely spent any time alone with him since the night he had insisted on abandoning a baby to the care of people who would not ever give him the love he needed. They had not argued again, she hadn't given him the chance. Instead she had withdrawn, buried herself in work and brooding. Would she even be here now, she wondered, if Poppy had not been so insistent?
She could still hear the anguish in the mediwitch's voice, "for Merlin's sake Minerva, have you even looked at him recently? He's destroying himself!" And even then she had been reluctant to concede, murmuring that surely there was someone else who could talk to him. But Poppy had an answer to that as well. "We've tried, we've all tried. You're the only one left. Please try to get him to sleep, if nothing else."
So, now here she was, in the doorway of his study, watching him as he gazed out of the windows, certain that Poppy and everyone else had entirely mistaken her influence over him.
"Are you coming further into the room Minerva, or will you be remaining by the door?"
"I am uncertain of my welcome," she responded, not moving, refusing to be distracted by the rustling of Fawkes' feathers.
"Then why are you here?" When he turned to her she had to stifle a gasp and she no longer wondered why Poppy had demanded her intervention. How had she failed to notice just how incredibly tired and defeated he looked? How had she not seen that his power and energy had dimmed, that his eyes had lost the twinkle that had sustained so many of them in the last dreadful years? How had she not realised how desperately he needed comfort?
"It must be the Gryffindor in me," she responded lightly, "although at the moment this room feels like the lions den."
"Poppy asked you to come." It was not a question and he made no attempt to hide the bitterness in his voice.
"It was more of a demand." At last she moved further into the room, shivering in the gloom despite the fire blazing in the grate. "She's worried about you. And I have to concede she may have a point."
"I do not need to be taken care of, I am not a child!" His voice thundered, but she didn't flinch.
"Then what do you need, Albus?"
"To rest." The sudden storm of energy was gone as soon as it had come. The answer to her question was barely a whisper and suddenly she understood.
The war was over, Voldemort had vanished and the wizarding world was still celebrating. But the darkness had not left them yet. Dumbledore was Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot – a powerful and influential force within that august body. But he was just one man.
She already knew that he had, finally, succeeded in convincing the authorities that Severus Snape had turned spy against Voldemort, had risked his life to carry information to their side. The whole school was buzzing with the news of his release. It did not change what Snape had done, it did not make her trust him – but in the final analysis it was not Snape who had betrayed them.
"Have the hearings been so terrible?" She asked, already knowing what his answer would be.
"They're happening too quickly, with too little thought for the consequences. It's impossible to tell who was under the Imperius Curse and who was truly a Death Eater and, all the time, there are accusations. It's as though people have been swept away with the desire for vengeance. And I can't stop it."
Had they fought for this, she wondered? So they could put on show trials, condemn others on the word of murderers desperate to save their own skins? Who knew what any of them would say to avoid Azkaban and the Dementors? It was necessary to dispense justice, she understood that, but not like this; not in anger and chaos.
Albus could guide the process, attempt to bring order to it but he had to have the strength to do so. He had borne the weight of their world so often before, it seemed bitterly unfair to ask him to hold it once more. The years of war, the losses, had taken as much a toll on him as on anyone. But who else was there?
She took a breath, aware that she was about to step into the tempest, that he would fight her every step of the way – but completely determined that she would win.
A quick flick of her wand lit dozens of candles around the room; another brought the heavy burgundy drapes down to cover the windows. At once the room looked cosier and more inviting – except for the figure of melancholy at its heart.
"What are you doing?" he growled, even though it was entirely obvious. Another flick of her wrist, a muttered spell and a house elf popped into the room. Calmly she asked for some hot tea, soup and sandwiches. "I'm not hungry." She dismissed the house elf and turned to face the Headmaster, hands on her hips,
"When did you last actually have a meal?"
"I can't remember, yesterday perhaps." She was willing to bet that it had not been yesterday at all.
"Well, this evening you are going to eat, then you are going to sleep even if I have to feed you a potion myself. This stops now Albus."
"I have work to do, owls waiting for me. I can't just leave them."
"You can and you will." Her eyes met his. She poured all of her determination into her gaze until, at last, he spoke again.
"You're angry with me." His words were a broken whisper. She sighed; it would have been easier to face this conversation when she was sure he was stronger. Not that either of them were known for choosing the easy way.
"I have been – yes. But one doesn't cease to care about someone because you happen to disagree with them. If I could take some of the burden from you, I would. But I can't sit in your place at the Wizengamot; I can only do this. Won't you at least let me help you?"
The soft pop that heralded the return of the elf broke the moment. But something had shifted in Albus' mood because he allowed Minerva to lead him to the small table in front of the fire. He sat down heavily; as though his muscles ached and she wondered if she would be able to coax him into taking a bath.
The appetizing aroma of the soup wafted to them and she waited for it to work its magic. He resisted for a moment and then, with a few grumbles started to eat. Relieved she poured tea for both of them and watched him as she sipped her drink. Finally he pushed the bowl away and leant his head back, eyes closed.
"Better?" She asked, discarding her tea and moving to his side.
"A little, thank you."
"Do you want me to get you a potion for your headache?"
"Not yet – it may ease now that I have eaten." He opened his eyes in time to see her irritated expression; the headache had been a guess, but if he had fallen so easily for her trick he really must be exhausted. "That was very sneaky of you, Professor McGonagall."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures, Headmaster." She laid her hand on his shoulder, surprising herself at the gesture since neither of them were people who touched others lightly. She was the more reserved of the two – but not by much. When he did not move away, almost of their own volition her fingers started to rub lightly the tense muscles.
A soft sigh escaped him and her courage grew. Carefully she continued the massage, using both hands now, gently but firmly easing away knots – perfectly aware that they had stepped into new territory.
He spoke her name, half in question – but she lifted her hand from her task for long enough to glide her fingertips over his eyes, closing them.
"Rest for a while, I'll finish this, then run you a bath. You need to sleep Albus."
He leaned into her touch and she continued until she was satisfied that his shoulders were looser. He was silent and she thought that perhaps he had succumbed to sleep. But as she lifted her hands away he said quietly,
"You're welcome." It was her turn to be surprised when he grasped her wrist and drew her hand to his mouth. She was even more surprised when he pressed his lips, not to her knuckles as she had expected, but instead to the soft sensitive skin of the inside of her wrist.
She gasped, heat and sensation jolting through her body. It was impossible that anyone could have such an impact on her with one, gentle caress. But as he proved on a fairly regular basis the impossible was Albus Dumbledore's stock in trade.
His gaze was heated now; her knees suddenly became weak. A gentle tug brought her to perch on the arm of his chair; his hands cupped her face as he murmured her name huskily. They had never been so close and though there had been times when she had thought she'd witnessed a flicker of interest in his eyes, never before had he looked at her like this – with such open longing. Her body ached to take up him on the invitation in his eyes, but her brain knew it would not be wise.
His lips brushed gently against hers, gauging her reaction to him. She was sure her expression radiated how torn she was, how easily she could be persuaded to just melt into him. Instead, she let her sensible, cautious side prevail. She grasped his shoulders and pushed him back.
"I can't give you that kind of comfort Albus, even though I'm sure it's what you need."
"I thought we had already established that what I needed was you?" Surprised she let her fingers tangle in his beard, not really aware just how much she could come to enjoy having the freedom to touch him. "I'm sorry Minerva." His voice was gentle and sincere and she knew with absolute certainty that he was referring to their quarrel about what should happen to Harry Potter and not to their current circumstances.
"I'm sorry as well." She was apologising for the way she had treated him, for failing to notice how these past weeks had affected him. But she had no intention of apologising for disagreeing with him in the first place. Long ago they had agreed, at least tacitly, that she would tell him in no uncertain terms when she thought he was wrong.
"Stay with me?" It was a quiet request, made in a tone that expected her to reply in the negative. But with their foreheads resting together and the dark shadows still in his eyes the truth was she was finding it difficult to find a reason to refuse him. She told herself that one night would do little to chase away those shadows. She told herself that it was his need for comfort talking – that he did not, could not love her. She told herself that she would be hurt. And still it was not enough.
"If I stay will you sleep?"
"I'll try." She nodded, hands caressing his face again – allowing herself to take inventory of the familiar features.
"That's all I ask Albus, that's all any of us ask."
End Part 1