A/N: This story has been beta'd by the lovely, wonderful, fantastic, glorious, amazing Bola. Seriously, she's awesome. I can't actually write coherently. So if this makes sense, you know who to thank.
"How long?" she asked, her voice wavering slightly despite her almost manic attempt to keep it even as she inquired as to how long he had left to live. She looked at him, his eyes bright and keen as they had always been, from the first moment she had stepped into his classroom as an anxious eleven year old. It was then that she was reminded, as she rarely was, that he was nearly thrice her age and close on the heels of that thought came the idea that perhaps his time had finally come. She felt her throat constrict, tears gathering suddenly in the corners of her eyes. Rather than doing what she wanted him to do, a behavior towards which he had always been wont, he smiled faintly.
"No tears, my dear," he murmured as he rose from behind his desk. His cloaks were an almost unusually sprightly green, as if he would attest to his current liveliness, no matter how imminent its disappearance was. "I've never known you to become weepy," he continued, his voice casual, as though he were discussing a recent Quidditch match and not her reaction to his announcement that he may soon be dead.
"I've never known you to be so resigned," Minerva bit back, wiping her eyes on the back of her sleeve in a rapid, angry sweep. He chuckled softly at her defensive fury, reaching a hand up to wipe a lingering streak of water from her cheek. Dumbledore's hand lingered there for a moment, brushing her skin with his thumb even after he had dried the tear.
"And I've not often seen you so bitter," he returned, though his voice was gentle, consoling, and she was suddenly struck by the notion that it was she who should be comforting him. "We could go on like this for hours, if you please," continued Dumbledore, "or you could simply come here." When he finished, his voice was nearly inaudible and he had spread his arms. The invitation was unexpected, for despite his occasional acknowledgement of their relationship, any physical nod to their closeness was usually at her provocation, and even then often avoided by him. After all the years she had been at his side, he still felt as though he was taking something from her by being with her. By no fault of her own, she couldn't convince him that the half-life he claimed she was living due to him was the only life she would ever want any part in. She recognized, though, that his request was also to assuage his own grief, no matter how deftly disguised it was.
So she nodded, and he flamboyantly swept her into his embrace, his lips pressing softly to her dark hair as she buried her dry face in his shoulder, her arms wrapping around him and holding her tightly to him, as though if she held on, he'd never leave.
"I've little to mourn, Minerva," Albus barely whispered in her ear, his breath slightly uneven. "My family is either deceased or estranged. My work has become a little more dark and complicated than I'd ever have liked. My self-awareness has prevented me from pursuing any course that may make me truly happy. I will be sad to lose you, though. I will mourn you." The words sounded so absurdly backwards that she choked a laugh into his shoulder, the tension in her body loosening slightly as he pressed his lips to her hair once more.
"Don't you dare," Minerva responded after several more moments of silent closeness. She couldn't stand the thought of his sadness being connected to her, even in death; in life, he made it known to her, selfishly so, that their relationship injured him as much as he reveled in it. That his infamy prevented her from the normal life he thought she ought have, pained him greatly; that he couldn't proclaim his fondness for her in public nor she her own constantly plagued them both. It would be far too dangerous. And as many times as she told him she didn't care about the secrecy, about the things she couldn't have with him, he rigidly maintained that she should leave him, for he wasn't nearly strong enough to leave her.
Minerva pulled away to look at his graceful face, lined with weather and age, his twisted nose, his high cheekbones; the tiny dimple of his cheeks that lingered like the aftermath of a laugh even when he wasn't smiling, the twinkle in his blue eyes. She watched him sigh, her hand resting on his left breast so that she could feel the subtlety with which his heart beat. Dismally, she wondered how much longer it would. But before she had time to dwell on such thoughts, Albus leaned forwards and touched his lips chastely to hers, his hands reaching up to brush the tiny strands of hair that had escaped her bun out of her face as he searched her eyes, green and watering once more, for permission to kiss her again. With the sob she had held so violently in releasing into the stillness she let him crash upon her like a wave, his lips slow and explorative, as though he had never before tasted her. Minerva didn't move her hand from his chest, unwilling to give up the little metronome to which Albus Dumbledore led his life — she wondered if she might finally figure him out if she felt it long enough. His tongue pressed between her lips, and soon she found her hand crushed between their bodies as he forced her mouth wide and gingerly swept through it, swallowing her sobs as he forced her inelegantly backwards towards his room through the adjoining door. They stumbled a little; she almost tripped over the leg of the chair and smiled through her tears as she felt the low rumble of his laugh against her throat as he kissed every inch of skin he could find, still clutching her to him like a lifeline.
Even as they descended into the midnight blue of his sheets in the dreary dark her hand never left his heart, and his lips never slipped from the milky whiteness of her skin. She wished that she could be young and lovely again, just once, just this night — she had usually welcomed her birthdays, hoping that at some point Albus might decide that she had finally become old enough for him to give up on the martyrdom her constantly suffered, but that day had never come.
His hands roved across her body, though never once did he look for a button or a zipper or a drawstring — he was slow and methodic, making sure that every inch of her exposed to him was expressly tended to before he propped himself up on his sturdy arms so that he could look into her eyes, his brow furrowed. Minerva couldn't stop herself; she traced the lines of worry on his forehead with a single finger as he searched for words.
"Will it hurt you?" he asked, and she looked confused before turning slightly red. In all the time they had been together, they had never made love, but surely, she thought, he hadn't been under the impression that she had remained celibate in the absence of his most intimate affections?
"I'm hardly a nun, Albus, I—" His laughter, ripe and youthful, quieted her, and she was a little irritated even as he kissed her temple, his eyes lighter and brighter than they had been in some time.
"That is not," he said, grinning, "what I meant, though I appreciate that you refrained from slapping me at such an invasive question, even if misunderstood. I meant, my dear Miss McGonagall, as I will be gone before the week is out, will it hurt your proverbial heart to do this now? I find you now, as I nearly always have, inexplicably alluring. And since the danger any relations between us will be removed in a few days time, I think it should not endanger you, which is why, if you're wondering, I've allowed us this much at all. But will it hurt you? I do not wish to cause any additional suffering."
It hurt her, she wanted to say, that he had said his motivation for such spurious intimacy was simply that it wouldn't endanger her now. Not that he had loved her all of the years she had mooned after him. Not that he couldn't bare going to his death without knowing fully her love. Not that he couldn't resist her any longer — simply that it was well-timed. She felt slightly ill, the heady feeling that had taken over her dissipating until she had to look away from him, until she felt claustrophobic between his arms.
"You could never cause me to suffer more, Professor," she murmured, her voice sharp and clear. She was glad to see him wince, both at her words and at what she had called him. Despite what she felt, what he felt, she still reached up and pulled his lips back to hers, her hands making quick work of the buttons that held his clothing to him. At first he was faltering, unsure if he was willing to take her in such a manner. But when he felt her hand against his skin he didn't really have much of a choice. Soon the bitterness that lingered behind their every movement had totally diminished, and his hands were soft and supple as he removed her robes. They moved more together than they ever had, and as her anger dissipated and her kisses made him forget what was to come, all of the problems that had existed between them like static, clogging their communication and putting a choke-hold on their closeness seemed to fall away so that even in the dark they saw each other more vividly than they had before. When they finally lay, tired but not jaded, beneath the dark blue covers of his bed, tiny tendrils of light filtering in through the window, he cradled her close, his hands tracing indefinable runes on the skin of her arm.
"Minerva?" Albus said quietly, and she hummed softly in response, her eyes fluttering sleepily. She clung tenaciously to the drudges of sleep, of romanticism, hoping that if she stayed the thoughts long enough he would simply remain here forever, in this quaint domestic scene that she had never imagined the two of them in. Albus kissed her shoulder, gently turning her face towards him with his hands. Her half-lidded eyes finding his, he couldn't help but smile at her expression, though his own eyes, as always, beat his mouth to the punch. "I am afraid you misunderstood me earlier."
"The reason I have not invited you to this particular part of my quarters previously is not what I think that you think." His smile widened slightly as she snorted at his words. He brushed her hair from her face as he often did. "You know that I can not carry on any conventional kind of relationship for fear that my enemies may target anybody I publicly hold dear."
"I know," Minerva responded, letting her bitterness encompass her words as she so rarely did.
"And if anybody had, prior to this point in time, seen you leaving my office early in the morning, well, assumptions would easily be made. You would be in grave danger from the moment you stepped into the corridor." He paused, watching her expressions like she was something he would study; truly, he had had a great many years to study her, and his ability to read her thoughts simply based on the arrangement of her features at any given time was uncanny. "You are no doubt wondering why I didn't simply ask you to leave before dawn, or devise some trick to return you swiftly to your own room before morning."
Minerva raised a brow.
"I know myself well, dear. Very well. I am quite selfish, despite the delusions of grandeur our world has placed all around my person. I would not ever have been able to let you go, to resist the urge to hold you here in what I hope is post coital bliss and bring in the new day with you by my side."
The words sounded genuine, though Albus Dumbledore's words always did. Minerva knew that somewhere in his pretty little monologue there was truth. Perhaps even most of it was true. But it also sounded like a flimsy half-lie to her ears, as though he was offering her something to cling to in the near future when he was no longer around. As if he wished her to remember only good of him, only this moment, rather than the days he fought their relationship outright, or the times his mistakenly said what he was thinking rather than what she would want to hear. She felt her temper flaring beneath the wan smile on her face, and she knew he could see it in her eyes, but quickly she stifled it, and graciously accepted what he had said as candid sincerity.
So she said nothing, simply kissed him softly and nestled herself against his chest, listening to the thump, thump, thump of his heart and the steady undulation of his breathing. Soon they were forced to rise. She drank hot chocolate by his side in comfortable silence before he announced that they had to leave at some point, and they departed his quarters to face the world outside, where the light was harsher than the dim glow that encircled his bedroom, and she could see the worry and even distant fear in his face. His lies were more apparent in the less surreal lighting of the Hogwarts corridors, and as he gave her a funny little bow with a strange frown on his features and she waved, moving into her classroom, she couldn't help the fleeting thought that she had wasted most of her life pursuing a man that had trouble with even the simplest proclamation of fondness, and that soon, the hope she had carried that one day he'd confess the love that she knew to be there would be extinguished.
Later that day, Minerva was teaching her third transfiguration class, a bunch of first year students who she hardly had patience for on a normal day, but definitely not today, with everything that had transpired still on her mind, with his future death plaguing her, with her skin still buzzing with his touch. She snapped at two students and gave another three detention for behaving in a manner that otherwise would have only irked her slightly — deciding that it was best she remain mostly uninvolved for the remainder of their class time, Minerva settled behind her desk and assigned a paper rather than an actual spell. She sat with her hands skimming mindlessly over a pile of parchment, her eyes staring straight ahead. Even her students could tell that her mind was nowhere near her body.
Suddenly, though, Dumbledore himself burst in, Snape shouting something angrily but incomprehensibly behind him as he shut the door definitively behind him. Minerva stood immediately, a cordial reaction and a startled reflex all rolled in one.
"Headmaster," she said, even though his name was on her tongue, "what seems to be the —" But Minerva was abruptly cut off as he barely trotted towards her, wrapped his arms suddenly around her, and kissed her, for every first year in the room to see. Horrified gasps echoed through the room, giggles came from blushing girls who immediately turned to murmur excitedly to their neighbor. She hadn't even the slightest inclination of what to do, and so she stood with her mouth frozen against his lips. Within a moment he pulled away, and abruptly understanding came to her. When his hands left her arms she nearly fell over, but caught herself on the desk even though her hands began to shake violently as she tucked them into the folds of her cloak. She knew that her legs wouldn't support her if she tried to stand. Her face was a mask of sheer horror for the few moments he stood looking at her with those bright blue, crazy blue, reckless blue eyes. When he took a step back Minerva seemed to regain her bearings.
"Now, Albus?" she whispered though her face had become impassive and reserved once more. She knew he could see her hands shaking beneath the fabric of her robes, but she was helpless to stop it. "How can you—"
"Not now. Soon. Can't quite say a precise moment in time, Minerva, but I wished to give you a most improper farewell before I retrieve Harry and we are on our way. So," he dipped his head, his expression as distantly playful as ever as he gestured extravagantly towards the door. He turned and approached it, and when his hand rested on the doorknob he turned back to look at her. "Farewell." Albus paused for another moment, his fingers twisting in his beard as he opened the door. "Minerva?"
"Yes?" she managed, though she felt as though her heart had stopped and her stomach and esophagus had swapped places and her head was about to explode for how hard it pounded as she looked at him.
"I'm afraid I have led you to misunderstanding once more."
"Oh?" Minerva half-way breathed, hanging pathetically on his every word.
"I said many a thing to you that I did not mean," Albus said carefully, nodding. "This is neither the time nor the place, though it appears as though I have no other option, so I must be discreet — I should just like you to know, Minerva, that there was always more meaning in that which I did not say."
The next time Minerva saw him, he was a lifeless and crushed body on the ground beneath the astronomy tower, and the entirety of Hogwarts stood around in silent mourning for their fallen headmaster. She managed to hold herself together, mostly, a sentinel over his body that shed but a single tear and made no sound to echo the grief that welled inside her like a summer storm. It was not until she stood alone in his office, opposite his slumbering portrait with both hands planted on his desk that she finally succumbed, and collapsed into a heap of black robes on the ground, her hand covering her mouth and her eyes wide with the horror she had swallowed as her entire being was wracked with sobs so violently that she thought she should never stop.