DISCLAIMER: You know the drill…
A/N: I'm really sorry it's taken so long to get this final chapter up! It's been finished and sat on my computer for well over a month now but I just didn't have the means to get it posted.
It's been a struggle at times but I think I'm going to miss writing this… Never in my dizziest daydreams did I think I'd have the patience to write a series, even if it aint that long, complicated or awe-inspiring – I did it and that's the main thing! lol
Dedicated to Cranky Cauldron - without your encouragement this story would never have seen the light of day. Who's sorry now…
His First Mistake
Persephone loved being a seventh year. It meant that you were top of the student pecking order, which was handy when you needed to shunt the lower classes out of the way to get where you were going that little bit faster. At this moment in time she was heading for the infirmary to pick Min up; of course with the mood Min had been in at lunchtime she might have started a duel with Madam Hopkins, in which case Sephy wouldn't be so much picking her up as scraping her up.
Not that she could blame her really; by all accounts Min had had a bad week and an even worse weekend. Sephy had pulled her aside for a private 'chat' the moment she'd been discharged from the infirmary and demanded to know if she was "pregnant with Dumbledore's lovechild". That had been the single time Min had laughed in the past twenty-four hours. She'd explained the situation and asked if Sephy minded babysitting her for a couple of evenings as she didn't fancy having to stay in the infirmary.
"I'm not surprised after what Hopkins said to Dumbledore last night." Persephone had immediately known that Minerva didn't have a clue what she was talking about. She felt a cold trickle of guilt, watching the colour drain from her best friend's face as she broke the news. "But I'm sure he just said it to get her off his back." She'd added, in a desperate attempt to inject a little hope into the state of affairs. It hadn't worked and Min had been sullen and snappish ever since.
Minerva was waiting on the bed nearest the door when she got to the infirmary and jumped up like a shot before Persephone had so much as put a toe over the threshold. 'About time!' she exclaimed, throwing her bag over her shoulder without a backward glance at the office. Looked like the School Nurse and Head Girl had avoided each other as much as possible. Probably for the best.
Persephone raised her eyebrows in a well excuse me position. 'The bell only went five minutes ago, keep your knickers on.'
Minerva seemed to know that she was being too brusque and attempted to modify her tone. It was with a controlled stiffness that she said, 'Let's just get out of here.' At least she was trying.
Sephy slipped her arm through hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
As far as she knew Min hadn't spoken to the Professor since finding out he was about to drop her. Though she'd never say as much to Minerva she was secretly pleased about it. Dumbledore was much too old for her and it wasn't as if there was a lack of lads their own age who wouldn't love to ask her out. She couldn't see the attraction herself; too much hair, and he was odd too. Half the things he said seemed to be completely random though, since Minerva always seemed to get the joke, she had assumed that his comments were simply beyond her realm of comprehension. Maybe that was what Min saw in him; didn't people say that the quickest way to a woman's heart was to make her laugh? Sweet, but he was still way, way too old for her and a one-way ticket out of Hogwarts if she got caught.
That had been the biggest shock of all. It wasn't just that Min was straight-laced and studious, she'd harboured a dream to become an Auror since third-year and would never do anything to jeopardize that ambition. She'd had her eyes on the prize for four years; how could she risk it all now? And for what? A fling? She cast her a sideways glance as they fought their way through the throng of students crowding the stairs, wondering how much she really knew about her best friend. 'Head Girl coming through, shift your asses!' she called, earning herself a dig in the ribs from Minerva.
'Got any homework?' Minerva asked hopefully.
That had to be one of the stupidest questions she'd ever heard. These days they were getting more homework in one day than they used to get in a week. Masters and Mistresses of Misery they were, not teachers. 'Why would you want to do homework when you've got the perfect excuse not to?' But she already knew the answer: Min was just weird like that. Hank Marvin for knowledge, a thirsty brain, something along those lines…
'I like to keep busy.' Busy was one thing, obsessed was another; she'd had to wrestle a text book out of her hands the night before, which admittedly had been made easier by the fact that she'd had one of those catatonic thingies mid-fight.
'Isn't that the opposite of what you've been told to do?'
'I hate sitting around doing nothing.' She moaned, reaching over a second-year's shoulder to confiscate a fanged Frisbee. The infuriated miniature Gryffindor turned as if to demand its return but seemed to shrink before their eyes upon catching sight of the Head Girl. 'So?' she asked, turning back to an amused Sephy.
'So knit a hanky, darn your pants, intimidate first-years…' her eyes followed the retreating second-year, 'intimidate the other years too. Nice, menial, non-brain-melting work.' She gave her an impeded thumbs-up. 'Now repeat after me, "Books are bad for my health except when used for kindling."'
Maybe she'd been too cheerful, Minerva was silent all the way to the portrait of the Fat Lady. 'How about a game of chess?' she suggested. 'I'll even let you win.'
'Let me win?' Minerva scoffed. 'May I remind you that you've yet to beat me?'
'No, you may not.' She said, throwing her bag into one of the best armchairs before it got nabbed. 'Guard the table, I'll grab the board and pieces.'
'Sure.' Min dropped down in the seat, propping her legs up on the table. She'd been excused from her Head Girl meeting tonight but Lucius Fargo, the Ravenclaw Head Boy, had agreed to make a copy of the minutes for her.
Persephone took the stairs two at a time, entering the brightly lit dorm room and throwing open her trunk. She found the board straight away but it took almost five minutes to locate her bag of pieces which had somehow made its way to the very bottom. She turned, jumping up and over her bed, bouncing a fluffy black cushion a foot in the air. 'Cat!' she exclaimed angrily, grabbing a pillow and knocking the now hissing feline off her bed. Maverick hit the floor and skidded out the open door. Still muttering under her breath she crossed the room and lifted Minerva's chess pieces off her dresser before returning to the common room.
'Hello, my darling.' Minerva welcomed as Maverick jumped into her lap and placed his front paws on her chest, rubbing his head against her chin. 'You're lovely and warm,' she said stroking his sleek black fur, 'You've been lying on Sephy's bed again, haven't you?' she shook her head good-naturedly.
'Yes! The mangy beast bloody well has.' Sephy pushed Minerva's legs off the table and deposited the chess board in their place.
'He is not mangy,' said Minerva, covering Maverick's ears. 'Don't listen to her. It's not like he's doing any harm,' she reasoned, feeling the beginnings of a headache behind her left eye.
'My blankets are covered in black hairs,' Sephy complained, setting up her pieces with a little more force than was absolutely necessary, causing the little characters to shake their fists up at her.
'Well maybe if you drew the curtains around your bed it wouldn't look so inviting. He's a cat, it's second nature for him to seek out warm places to sleep.' It wasn't the first time they'd had this conversation and it probably wouldn't be the last. Sephy was clinging onto the insane notion that-
'I did close the curtain – he can open them!'
Minerva shook her head wearily, shifting Maverick into her lap as she leaned forward to set up her own chess pieces. 'Sephy, he's a cat,' she said firmly, as if that was the be all and end all of it.
'A very sneaky cat,' she corrected. Maverick hissed at her. 'See? He's knows I'm talking about him.'
Minerva raised her eyebrows at her. 'You're barking, you know that?'
'Have you spoken to her yet?'
Sara Hopkins had caught up with the Deputy Headmaster in his office after classes. 'No. No, not yet.' He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was not in the mood for another lecture; he'd given his word and that should be all that was required. 'How was Minerva today?' He hadn't seen her since escorting her back to the infirmary before breakfast yesterday .
Sara barely repressed an exasperated sigh. 'Better. Only four episodes, three of which were this morning. She's almost out of the woods,' she said with a lot more patience than she felt. 'Albus you promised me.'
'I know what I promised. I'm just waiting for the right time.' Even as he said it he knew what her response would be.
'How many times have I heard that? "Waiting for the right time?" It's never going to feel like the right time. You should have talked to her yesterday, I know she was with you,' she said accusatorially.
'I couldn't,' he admitted with a sigh, slumping back in his chair. 'You didn't see her, Sara, she was in pieces.'
She scoffed, unconvinced. 'You can't give in to her every time she turns on the waterworks.'
'It wasn't like that!' he shook his head testily. 'She isn't like that.' In seven years he had not seen her shed a single tear before yesterday. She was much too proud. The very thought that she would cry for something as blasé as exploitation was absurd and so far from the mark it was laughable. This he knew long before they had formed a romantic attachment. Minerva was better than that. 'You don't know her like I do.'
And he did know her: even if he didn't know her life story he understood the way her mind worked, her sense of humour, her passion… And after a week of second guessing himself, succumbing to nagging fear and self-recriminations, he had learned something else, watching the play of emotions as she relived their time together: somehow, someway, he made her very happy.
And that was more than he'd dared hope.
Sara pursed her lips. 'Obviously.'
A frosty silence ensued. Albus cleaned his glasses on his robes. Sara tapped her nails on the tabletop. She didn't approve and that was one thing; to imply that Minerva was somehow manipulating him was quite another and he resented the implication. He had agreed to break it off with Minerva. There was no need for the sly digs Sara kept getting in. This was already going to be difficult enough without being rushed into it.
At length Sara took a deep breath and said, with what seemed to be a great effort. 'I'm sorry. I just worry about you. You're a good man, Albus. Too good for your own good sometimes.'
It was a rare apology and Albus accepted it with a brief incline of his head. 'I'll talk to Minerva.' He promised again.
She raised her eyebrows questioningly, not entirely devoid of sympathy as she pressed tentatively, 'Tonight?'
He buried his head in his hands, scrubbing his face. 'Tonight.' He confirmed miserably.
Minerva had completely trounced Persephone at chess – again - and, not being allowed to so much as read her textbooks, she had settled back to watch her friends play exploding snap, the sporadic explosions doing nothing to ease her headache, Maverick purring in her lap. 'Don't you two have homework to do?'
'Most definitely.' Nodded Mo, not looking up from the game.
Typical. Here was Minerva, willing to sacrifice an arm for an essay to write and these two were happy to sit around playing game after monotonous game of snap. 'And you're not doing it because..?'
Mo shrugged, 'We figured we could just blackmail Dumbledore into-' Sephy was quick to punch her in the arm.
'Will you keep your voice down!' hissed Minerva, looking around anxiously. Luckily most of the Gryffindors were in the Great Hall for dinner.
'All the sensitivity of a sledgehammer, you.' reproved the red-head with a warning look.
'I was joking!' laughed Mo, rubbing her arm and wondering if she should whip out a white flag.
'Yes well it wasn't funny.' Minerva snapped, rubbing her eyelids. Her eyeballs felt like two tender bruises.
Sephy looked between Minerva, who had a face like thunder, and Mo, who looked like she was deciding whether or not to snap back. 'Maybe we should go down to dinner,' she suggested, in an attempt to defuse the situation. Quite aside from the fact that Minerva was supposed to be relaxing, she'd played referee to enough of their arguments to have reason to avert another.
'You go. I'm not hungry,' said Minerva, propping her chin on her hand and staring in the opposite direction.
'We can't just leave you here on your own,' argued Sephy as the remaining students, having finished racing their pencil cases round the tables, disappeared through the portrait hole.
'My forty-eight hour observation's up in three hours. Go.' she said, waving them away as though they were annoying insects. 'I'll be fine.' Sephy shot Mo a furious look as if to say 'now look what you've done.'
'Min, I'm sorry,' Mo started to apologise but Minerva cut her off.
'It's fine, really.' She tried to keep her voice even, though the end of her fuse was in sight. 'I'm just not hungry.'
'Why don't I go down and bring something back?' suggested Mo, already halfway out of her chair. 'We can eat up here.'
'What part of "I'm not hungry" don't you understand?' she asked, voice gaining volume. 'Is it so much to ask that I be given five minutes to myself?' she all but shouted, standing up so suddenly that Maverick fell out of her lap with a reproaching miaow and stalking across the common room.
She stamped upon every step the spiral staircase had to offer as if each had personally wronged her, knowing it was childish and pointless (unless you enjoyed a tingly feeling in your feet) but wanting nothing more than to escape to the solitude of the girls' dormitory, her head pounding and mood blacker than the night sky. She was sick and tired of people's snide remarks and being 'kept an eye on'. She wasn't a baby, she hadn't even had a flashback since lunchtime so everyone could just stop bloody fussing. She slammed the dorm door and kicked her shoes off so violently that one bounced off the window while the other sent the water jug crashing to the floor.
Far from venting some of her frustration this only added to it and she made the huge mistake of kicking her trunk. She hopped on the spot, silently getting redder and redder in the face before letting rip with every single expletive that came to mind. As soon as her foot had stopped throbbing enough for her to place it gingerly on the floor she limped over to her dresser and proceeded to destroy everything she could get her hands on; books, ornaments, quills and ink, potion bottles – her oldest teddy-bear was completely disemboweled. She ripped the curtains from their rails and flipped her mattress, bedding and all, off the bed. Still not satisfied she pulled out all her drawers, throwing them high in the air until there was a positive downpour of clothes and underwear.
Finally, panting and exhausted, she slid down the wall and cradled her head in her hands.
Why was this happening to her? What had she done to deserve this? It felt as if her life was crumbling before her eyes and there wasn't a damned thing she could do about it. She'd tried telling herself that she'd done well enough without a mother until now and she'd do just as well from now on but it did nothing to soothe the wounds in her heart. She'd tried telling herself that she couldn't be angry with her father for doing something she may well have done herself in his place but she was still furious.
She tried telling herself that only two months ago she'd been perfectly content without Albus Dumbledore, she didn't need a man to make her feel complete, life would be just as good without him but the very thought of it made her chest ache so ferociously that it was difficult to breathe. How was she supposed to spend the next three months living in the same building as him, seeing him at meals, sitting through his lessons, being unable to show him how she felt?
Her education and ambition had never felt so insignificant but she knew that even if she were prepared to throw it all away Albus wouldn't let her. He had been so earnest in his desire that their relationship shouldn't interfere with her schoolwork that the idea of him allowing her to forego her N.E.W.T.'s bordered on the ridiculous. Whichever way you looked at it she didn't really have much choice in the matter.
Professor Dumbledore saw Persephone and Maureen enter the Great Hall alone and made a discreet exit. He doubted he would get a better opportunity. He felt Sara's gaze at his back as he left; at least somebody was satisfied with the way things had turned out. He couldn't help wondering how it would have been if none of this had ever happened, if Minerva had never come to his rooms that night… if he could go back in time would he make a different choice? Knowing what he knew now?
His selfish gene told him that he would give in again. If he were to change anything it would be the night of the accident. He would not have performed the memory charm and no one would have been any the wiser. Minerva would not have learned the awful truth about her mother and her relationship with her father would still be intact because she would never have had to endure that cursed treatment.
Perhaps it was ridiculous for a man as old as Albus to admit, if only to himself, that the past few months meant so much, the object of his affection being so much younger. It seemed almost impossible that any one person could possess all the qualities he admired in her; what strange cosmic order had created the remarkable woman whose heart he was about to break? In all his years of teaching, she was unique. The highly intelligent were usually arrogant; the beautiful, vain; the good, blind; and the popular, small-minded. It was Minerva's obliviousness that protected her from the pitfalls of her gifts.
And utterly disarmed his defences…
The common room was empty when he got there and he debated whether or not to check the dorms. As Head of Gryffindor they were not strictly off limits to him though he'd found it was usually advisable to send a female staff-member in first to avoid any embarrassing situations.
He knocked on the door but received no answer. He opened it slowly, taking a few steps into the darkened room. 'Go away.' demanded a disembodied voice. His eyes traveled over the chaos - it looked as though several dozen packs of exploding cards had gone off at once.
'Minerva? Is that you?' he asked, moving further into the dormitory.
He heard movement to his left and turned to see Minerva's head appear from behind the toppled mattress. 'Professor Dumbledore?' she asked, attempting to scrape back the hair that had fallen out of her bun, straighten her rumpled robes. She looked dreadful he saw with an unpleasant jolt and a feeling that it was not a lack of sleep that had caused the dark circles under her eyes. She looked around at the mess she'd made, her mouth half open to give an explanation that never came. She shook her head and shrugged.
'What on earth happened in here?' he said, shutting and locking the door behind him. He added a silencing charm to be safe; it would ironic in the extreme for them to be discovered by a student just as it was all ending.
'I happened,' she admitted, pulling out her wand. 'Don't worry, I'll sort it out.' She waved her wand in one long sweeping motion and the room obediently began to put itself back together. The books lined themselves neatly on the dresser, the ink returned to its miraculously repaired bottles, the water to its jug. Teddy the teddy returned from the dead, the ornaments were whole once more and the mattress leapt back onto the bed, which remade itself as the curtains reattached themselves. She hobbled over to her bed and sank down, 'Good as new,' she pronounced, rubbing her foot. 'Albus, you can't be here. What if someone were to find us together – here?' she waved an arm at the room at large. A room with beds was, after all, no place for a student and her professor.
'Nothing wrong with me checking up on one of my students, is there?' he said mildly, looking at her over the top of his half-moon spectacles. 'Between you and me, she's been having rather a bad time of it of late.' He sat on the bed opposite, observing her with frank concern. 'What's been going on?'
'Venting.' she abbreviated. 'Something had to give and this is the first time I've been alone long enough to dismantle my possessions,' she said dispassionately.
'Did it help?' he asked, as if enquiring after the result of an interesting experiment.
She nodded thoughtfully, jutting her chin out, 'Little bit.'
'You've hurt your foot?' he inclined his head towards the appendage she was massaging.
'It's fine,' she assured him, placing it back on the floor as if to prove her point. A strange atmosphere seemed to have descended upon them. He didn't want to say it and she didn't want to hear it but they both knew there was a reason for his visit tonight. Albus wished that he could freeze time and never have to tell her. She'd already been through so much and he could hardly bear to be the messenger of more bad news… But he had given his word and could not take it back now, no matter how much he wanted to.
'I know why you're here,' she blurted suddenly, unable to stand the grim anticipation. She looked down at her hands, 'I know what you promised Madam Hopkins.' She could at least spare him having to find the words to break it to her.
If he was surprised he did not show it, though perhaps he now had a better understanding of her need to 'vent'. 'Minerva, I,' He was going to say "had no choice" but she beat him to it.
'Let me guess,' though she didn't need to; she'd heard it verbatim from Persephone. 'It was something along the lines of "Stop seeing that girl or I'll turn you in to Dippet"?' she said with angry resignation, rising from the bed and walking several paces away.
He nodded slightly, 'Something like that. She isn't being malicious. She's just doing what she believes is right.'
She opened her mouth but no noise came out. Now was, perhaps, not the best time to start ranting about her true feelings towards Madam Hopkins. It could make no difference except to make an intolerable situation worse. Squeezing one of the tall wooden bed posts until her knuckles were white, she prayed for strength before turning back to face him. She cleared her throat and tried again. 'What about when I leave school?' she asked and there was something dead about her usually fearless green eyes, as though it were a question she was asking, not out of curiosity but, simply because it needed answering.
He spread his hands, desperately trying to maintain his composure while thoughts of just staying locked in this room with her for the next ten weeks rampaged through his head. 'Then we would be free to pursue a relationship.' he answered earnestly. Light at the end of the tunnel. An abominably long tunnel.
She nodded to herself, swallowing the lump in her throat. 'So three months…' she said in a voice that tried to be offhand but was much too high to be her own.
'You'll be so busy studying for your N.E.W.T.s you'll wonder where the time went.' he said, his heart aching so badly he was surprised at how normal he sounded. 'And then… if you still feel the same way,'
She stared at him with a terrible, miserable confidence. Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears. 'I will.'
He tried to smile reassuringly but the weight of his emotions made even his beard droop. 'I have a pied-a-terre in Cornwall,' he said in a falsely cheery voice that quavered despite his every effort. 'Beside the sea. We could stay the whole summer.'
She held her chin up in a fruitless attempt to be brave, bottom lip trembling. 'I'll bring my swimming costume.' She pressed a hand over her eyes as the first tears spilled down her cheeks, her face crumpling. Albus stood, pulling her into his arms, fighting the desire to start crying himself.
'We'll still see each other,' he murmured into her hair, heart breaking on every word. She clung to him as if her life depended on it, a fistful of robes in each hand. 'It isn't forever.' He promised her.
'I know.' She gulped, 'I know.'
It just felt like it…THE END
A/N: I got all choked up writing this chapter! Lol. I need some chocolate… sniffle…
This probably isn't the ending you wanted but I wanted to leave Dumbledore with a little integrity! As soon as he gave his word to Sara that was it, the jig was up. This whole thing may have been completely OOC for him but I'd like to believe that (as shown by JKR herself at the end of OotP!) sometimes even Albus Dumbledore will do the "wrong" thing in the name of love. Who knew I was such a romantic?
I want to say a huge THANK YOU to everybody who's read this and given me such fantastic reviews. To quote the great Amanda Tapping: "There but for the grace of you go I." You've been amazing. I only hope that you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
Thanks for putting up with me,