Minerva had instructed her portrait to send the Headmaster directly into her study, where she sat at her desk bent over a large ledger book, with a quill and parchment close to hand.
Minerva looked up at Dumbledore, who was smiling down at her.
"Happy Third Day of Christmas, Albus. Thank you very much for your presents. I've already enjoyed one of the teas—the blackberry, and it was lovely—and as you can see I'm wearing the pin"—she gestured to an elegant cat-shaped pin on her collar—"but I'm saving the catnip mouse until I'm in the right mood for it."
"And just what sort of mood would that be?" Minerva thought that Albus's eyes were twinkling even more than usual, if that was possible.
"When I need to work off some energy. Probably after grading the first lot of first-year parchments just after the end of the holiday, when their brains have turned half to mush."
Dumbledore chuckled. "And thank you very much for your presents. The pipe tobacco is marvelous, and the Muggle ice-cream maker—what an ingenious thing! I shall enjoy that very much—and you shall have to come sample my product once I've had some practice with it!"
Now Minerva chuckled, but did not commit herself to sampling what would surely be extremely sweet and rich confections. "You're very welcome. Now, what brings you to my quarters this evening?"
"I saw the light in your windows as I returned from my evening visit with Aberforth, and just thought I would stop in. There aren't many of us in the castle right now. What is that you're working on—surely not grading?"
"No, I'm reviewing the estate accounts. I'm noting anything which needs more explanation before they prepare the formal year-end books in a few weeks. Saves the manager having to re-do things, and I have more time to review them now than in mid-January."
"Ah. Very practical, lady of the manor. Did you have an enjoyable visit to the estate?" Dumbledore raised his wand casually and raised an eyebrow in question. "And may I?"
"Of course," Minerva replied.
Dumbledore quickly conjured himself a chair, "You were saying about your visit to the estate?"
"As enjoyable as ever. I visited with all the tenants and workers on Boxing Day and gave them their gifts. Then this morning I met with the managers at the farm and the distillery, and the director and house-elves who run the crèche, and the teacher at the school. All seems to be going well. Luckily the war hasn't had the impact up north recently that it has elsewhere. Then I came back here this afternoon."
"What did you do Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?"
Dumbledore said nothing, simply meeting her eyes with his blue twinkling ones, his mouth in the slightest of smiles. He sat in silence, as if expecting an elaboration on her answer.
"Would you like a cup of tea, Albus? Or something stronger? I'm sorry I'm not being a very good hostess—you took me a bit by surprise."
"I believe the house elves still have some mulled wine on hand. And we have not had a chance to toast the holiday together until now, and I would enjoy that very much."
Minerva called for her house-elf and Albus requested the wine.
"And what of your Christmas, then, Albus?"
"Ah-ah-ah! I think I asked you first, my dear Professor. Forgive me--I seem to have forgotten what 'the usual' McGonagall Christmas encompasses, so I would appreciate a few more details."
"Well……" Minerva took a few moments to gather her thoughts. Albus loved Christmas so, and usually spent parts of it with Aberforth, and parts with friends and distant relations in London. In fact it was unusual for him to be in the castle much at all before New Year's. Her holiday routine was Spartan by comparison. She focused her mind on all the expectation and excitement that had filled the castle just before the students departed, and tried to let it brighten her tone.
"Sometimes I go over to the neighboring Muggle village and attend the carol service in the village church, then apparate back to my quarters, where the elves have fixed a traditional Christmas goose and all the trimmings. We eat together, then I give them their presents, which they have finally learned to accept without complaint, after only five years of negotiations!
"Then the next morning I open whatever presents I've brought with me from here. I make up several thermoses of tea and cocoa, put warming charms on them, and take a picnic basket the elves prepared the night before, put on my cloak and boots and go for a long tramp around the estate. I take most of the day, walking the bounds and looking at the entire property. Everyone else is inside with family, so I don't run into anyone else on my walk, and I don't feel like I'm intruding on daily routines as I would any other day. Then it's back to the cottage for a supper from leftovers in the cool pantry, because I give the elves all of Christmas Day off, and early to bed.
"On Boxing Day I start my rounds after breakfast. At each house I deliver the gifts, which I've purchased based on advice and intelligence from the estate elves—actually this year, the elves did most of the purchasing, as well, since the Order and School had me more than occupied--spend some time exchanging pleasantries with the family, commenting on how big and strong and smart the children are, how efficient and hospitable the wife is, and so on. Of course I am also surreptitiously looking around for any signs of want, neglect or abuse. Although I've reduced the rents and given the employees raises, it's still not an easy life, no matter.
"And then I drink the obligatory mug of mulled wine or punch and eat a slice of cake or some cookies and head off to the next house. Before the end of the day I've had to cast two or three sobriety charms on myself—on Christmas Eve every worker and tenant gets a bottle or two of the distillery's finest, and I think they put most of it into their Christmas punchbowls!"
"Multiple sobriety charms? My dear, surely you could relax and enjoy at least some conviviality on such a day?"
Minerva's eyebrows went up. "It's not a social occasion for me, Albus. I'm there as the head of the estate, performing a very traditional and solemn obligation, no matter how pleasant and how festive the trappings. And there's been enough talk, with my being the first female heir to run the estate, and not being married, and having a 'life of my own'—it is an extremely conservative community, I fill a role prescribed by centuries of custom, and I simply can not afford to offend any sensibilities. Visiting my employees while visibly impaired? It simply would not do."
"Ah. Yes, I see."
"Today's meetings with the managers started at about half past seven, and then I apparated back here just before supper. So. That is the 'usual McGonagall Christmas.' Nothing elaborate, or especially memorable. But I think it is in the true spirit of the season."
Just then Minerva's house-elf popped into view with two very large mugs full of hot mulled wine. Albus stood. "If I may be so presumptuous, Minerva, let us take this into the sitting room. Your accounts can be ignored for a little while."
Knowing better than to argue when Albus was determined to distract her from her work, Minerva tidied and locked her desk with a few waves of her wand and joined him on the sofa in the sitting room.
"After even a little of this wine, looking at those ledgers would put me right out. I am amazed I ever get any work done with you in the castle!"
"Well, so long as your boss doesn't mind." Albus smiled and lifted his mug. "To the Season!"
"To the Season!" Minerva forced more cheer into her voice than she felt. Albus meant well.
"So, Minerva, you gave out lots of gifts—but what did you receive?"
"Receive? The estate manager always gives me one Galleon, a small bottle of whisky, and a basket of produce as the symbolic annual 'tax,' but that is all. My own family house-elves give me little tokens—usually tea cozies or doilies or the like." Minerva gestured to a few garish green-and-red items draped over her occasional tables. "But the estate employees don't give their employer gifts, any more than the faculty here give you gifts."
"But you gave me a gift, Professor. Gifts, in fact."
Minerva looked down at her wine. "That's a bit different, no? I've known you since I was twelve, for Merlin's sake! We've worked together every day for 20 years. I consider you a friend, not just my employer." She looked up hesitantly. "I hope I have not presumed?"
"Good heavens no--of course not, Minerva!" Albus laid his hand lightly on her wrist. "That wasn't my point at all! I had just thought that, since you've known these families your whole life, perhaps some of them were friends, not just employees?"
"No. I may have grown up on the estate, but I haven't spent much time there since leaving for my first year at Hogwarts over thirty years ago. And remember, no one ever expected me to inherit. I was just little bookish Minerva, who didn't matter much to the estate residents beyond the Manor house. It was always Duncan who was going to be in charge of things after my father, or Iain if something happened to Duncan. But that's not how it worked out, so now it's me. Much to everyone's surprise." Minerva took an especially large swallow of wine.
"Yes. And I suppose Christmas is a holiday with very mixed memories for you. Perhaps more difficult to celebrate than it used to be."
Minerva closed her eyes and wrapped her hands around her mug, as if the warmth could chase away the memories of the horrible Christmas six years previously. Death Eaters had attacked the family manor on Christmas Eve and disemboweled her father and two brothers as they sat at the dinner table, while the servants and house-elves watched, Petrified. Fortunately for Minerva, so many Gryffindors had been staying at Hogwarts over the holiday that year that she had not come home for Christmas Eve, contrary to the Death Eaters' expectations. She took a deep breath and used her occlumency skills to push the memory away so that she could return to the present and the wizard beside her, opening her eyes as she took another deep breath, this one less shaky than the last.
"I'm sorry—I shouldn't have led you to dwell on that memory. How so very thoughtless of me." Albus squeezed her wrist gently and looked into her eyes.
Minerva looked away. "It's not like it wouldn't have come to mind if you hadn't brought it up, Albus. It's alright."
"Still, it was thoughtless of me." Albus rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb before releasing it and using both hands to grasp his mug, using a bit of wandless and nonverbal magic to top up Minerva's.
"So which of your McGonagall house elves do I have to thank for selecting the tobacco and ice-cream maker?"
"None—I picked them out myself."
"But you were so busy…"
"I'd never ask an elf to do that--I enjoy shopping for your gifts ever so much, Albus. It's like shopping for fam--" Minerva's breath suddenly caught, and she looked away from Albus and stared determinedly at the floor. Although she tried to vanish the tears which suddenly overflowed, she was not quite fast enough to prevent Albus from seeing them.
"My dear Minerva." Albus set his mug down, reached his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him, levitating her own mug out of her hands and to the coffee table in the process. She stiffened briefly, but his strong arm brooked no argument, and soon she was wrapped in his arms, head against his chest. Although she managed to choke back her sobs, Albus could feel her tears as they soaked into his robe. He began to rock her gently back and forth and stroke her back with one hand. Soon her resolve gave way and the sobs escaped from her throat.
"My strong Minerva, so strong. Always so very strong…for the School, for me, for your students, for the Order, for your estate. Let me be the strong one for you just now, for a bit, eh?"
Minerva's tears quieted after a few moments, and she leaned back, hurriedly whispering a drying charm over Albus's robes. "Thank you. I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me." She took the handkerchief Albus proffered and dabbed at her face.
"Everyone needs friends and family, Minerva. Everyone. And you have carried on so, looking after everyone, never expecting anyone to look after you. I'm honoured you trust me enough to --"
"But I shouldn't let--you're--I'm—the crying, it's, so unprofessional—shouldn't have—must be the wine…"
Albus put a finger to her lips. "Shh, shh. Enough of that foolishness. If you can't even let those who love you know your hurts, then you are truly poorer than any Highland tenant farmer, hmm?"
Tears overflowed Minerva's lashes again, and once more Albus pulled her close. From against his chest she still managed to gasp out in an incredulous voice, "Those who love me?…"
"Minerva, Minerva, don't tell me you've been thinking these six years that you truly are all alone now? Surely not?"
Her renewed sobs were the only answer she could give.
"Oh, Minerva, I have truly been the meanest of friends, then. It is I who should be apologizing to you. Shh, shh, shh."
After a long minute when both were silent, save for Minerva's slowly diminishing sobs, Albus continued. "It's very good that we've begun to get this confusion sorted, then, better late than never, hmm?"
This time it was Albus who whispered the drying charms and wiped the last of the tears from Minerva's face. Then he cupped her chin in his hand and looked into her eyes, speaking gently but firmly.
"Minerva, you must never, ever, think that you are alone, or that you are not loved. Never again. Do you understand me?" Albus traced the edge of her jaw with his other hand, before dropping it slightly self-consciously to his lap.
Minerva simply nodded, unable to trust her voice.
Albus let go of her chin and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Tonight we will enjoy the rest of this wine, and the warmth and brightness of the fire. Then tomorrow we will go do something to truly celebrate Christmas—whatever it is that you would like to do. In Hogsmeade, or London, or at your estate, or wherever you would like. Start a new Christmas tradition for you."
"That would be lovely, Albus."
Both leaned back into the sofa and clasped their mugs in their laps while enjoying the cheerful fire. Neither one said anything more. After a while Minerva's eyelids began to droop and she leaned into Albus's shoulder.
"Hmm….I think it is time to draw this evening to a close. You are falling asleep—and you did start your day much earlier than I."
Minerva sat up sleepily and Albus stood. Minerva followed him to the door, whispering a mild sober-up charm to herself under her breath.
"Thank you, Albus. For the most wonderful Christmas present."
"It was an extremely belated one, I think. But I will see you at breakfast tomorrow, and you can tell me what it is you want to do for the rest of your celebration. Merry Christmas, Minerva."
Albus took a deep breath and grasped Minerva's hand, lightly brushing his lips across it before slowly lowering it. "Good night, my dear."
"Merry Christmas, Albus."
" 'Til tomorrow." Albus stepped back, let the portrait swing closed, and turned quickly away, letting out the breath he had not realized he had been holding.
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