It started with a few simple looks.
Minerva McGonagall was always a haughty young woman who sought comfort only from the confines of her own logical mind. You would not find her in a miserable state, for she had reasoned long ago that crying solved nothing and often even hindered finding a real solution to whatever problem she was faced with.
Anyone could have guessed with certainty that she was a Ravenclaw, and an outstanding one at that. They would have been misled, though. She was not a Ravenclaw, and never for a moment did she imagine she would be one.
That first day at Hogwarts, the Hat had whispered almost nothing in her ear, and none of it had said anything about how clever or studious by nature she was. You have enough daring to stand up for anything, it said instead. Your bold heart could withstand any storm it encounters.
While Minerva understood that the Sorting Hat was not prophetic, it did not escape her attention, nor had it since left her mind, that it said could, not will. Someday she would look back on this once again and contemplate the irony.
For the biggest storm she would ever encounter was also the very thing her heart feared most. There was no greater trial than for an independent soul to find love in another, and once it had, no greater reluctance than in letting it go.
It started with a few simple looks - a brief meeting of eyes in Potions class, a quick smile across the grounds, a nod of acknowledgement through the library bookshelves. It was nothing that should linger in one's thoughts for more than moments, nothing that should find itself sneaking into one's dreams, but it plagued the utterly defenseless Minerva for days, weeks.
She'd always fancied that she was far too complex for a simple romance. If ever she was to fall in love, surely it would be in some tragic fashion, a tangled triangle in which she had to suffer the jealousy of another woman, or a forbidden love she could never act on. This? There was nothing wrong with this. There were no others furiously vying for his attention, even if no one could deny his charm and visual appeal. There was nothing forbidden about two people from two different houses seeing each other. At the very least, it could have been unrequited, but it seemed he shared interest in her as well.
Every day she passed Tom Riddle in the halls, she smiled to herself, and thought she might have seen him smiling as well, the same small smile as always that only moved half of his mouth, the one that made Minerva's heart melt like a besotted schoolgirl; which she supposed she was.
It wasn't fair that she could be caught so easily in a game she vowed never to play, but they were soon toying with each other, both hardly caring if they ever made a real first move, because their flirtatiousness was exhilarating, especially with N.E.W.T.s just around the corner, a time when everyone needed to do something to take their minds off their studies.
"Beautiful day, isn't it, Tom?" she would say breezily, holding a grin inside.
"Not as beautiful as some things, Minerva," he would reply, giving her a knowing look occasionally accompanied by a wink, and they would each carry on with whatever they were doing.
Neither knew the other well, but Minerva was determined to change that. She invited him to Hogsmeade, expecting him to say no because that's normally how he was, half-wishing he would say no because that was how she was, but he agreed, and now she found herself waiting for him to arrive, nervously noting that he had only minutes left to show up on time.
It was exactly on the turn of the hour that the door jangled and in strode Tom, tall and dark and handsome in his impeccably kept robes. He scanned the tables, eyes resting on her. There was something in those eyes; Minerva couldn't quite describe what it was. In them was the power to hold her gaze transfixed, to keep her sitting in place until everything around her was faded to black and turned to dust.
And then, with steps that she could hear like a drum when they fell against the floor, he was there, sitting across from her, a mere table separating them, and she believed he was all hers.
It was perhaps the last night they would see each other. After tonight, Hogwarts would turn into an ever-fading memory. The label of "students" was cast aside, along with the pins and ties that bore the crest of either Gryffindor or Slytherin. What differentiated them now? There was nothing left to call a boundary between them, however slender said boundary had been.
Minerva gazed at Tom through eyes that could hardly see reality when he was there. She did not see a young man whose dark eyes could hide someone else entirely. She did not notice that his skin was as pale as death itself. She could see only a man whom surely angels had carved and sent to walk the earth, destined to be above any other mortal.
She stroked his hair longingly and leaned down to kiss him. He was sprawled on her bed, almost lost among the covers, gazing unblinkingly at her. Suddenly Minerva felt very aware that this was the first time they had ever been alone together, the first time they had ever been anywhere together away from Hogwarts, and it was in her room, of all places.
And it only now occurred to her what Tom must expect.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to invite Tom to her place after she left Hogwarts for the final time. When else would they have the chance to spend time together after school ended? Tom had a single year left and afterward talked of doing great things, and while Minerva was happy for him and had no doubt he would succeed in whatever these great things were, where would that leave her? Them?
So she offered to let him spend a night at her house, just once before they might go their separate ways. She'd owled her parents, of course, who had agreed and told her they would be visiting her aunt Gwyneth in Poland the week after school ended, anyway. It had never once crossed her mind how this must look for Tom. There they were, alone, she having knowingly invited him into her home when her parents were gone, and now they were in her room, on her bed, their lips beginning to tire from moving against each other.
But she would never agree. She had firm beliefs and morals, and one of them was that a proper lady was abstinent until she was married. And he was far too much of a gentleman to force her. The charming, quiet Tom Riddle would never force a girl to give herself to him, everyone knew that. That was an act of the wicked, something Tom could never be.
But when he looked at Minerva with those eyes, something tugged at her defenses, gently at first but growing rapidly stronger until she could no longer control it. She wasn't quite sure when it happened, but somehow both their clothes had disappeared and they were left at the complete mercy of one another, breathing deeply, waiting for someone to make the first move.
This was wrong, she thought as their bodies met and her mind spun so that logic no longer came into it anymore. It was wrong, but it felt so, so right, as there was no longer a her and a him, but a single entity comprised of a little of both so that neither knew quite who was who.
And soon, far too soon, it was over, and Minerva remembered that they were two people, Tom Riddle and Minerva McGonagall, and that she was the lesser of the two, and that the reason it had felt so wrong was because she had sworn not to do that very thing,
And that the reason it had felt so right was because she had always wanted that little bit of wrong.
So when morning came and Tom left, she sat in bed and hugged her knees and cried. Cried because he was gone, cried because her will had broken, cried because she knew she was far too twisted to be helped.
And these tears didn't matter, because while they wouldn't fix this problem, nor would anything else.
Minerva never was very good at letting things go. She lasted over ten years away from the school before she applied to teach at Hogwarts, filling the newly vacated post of Transfiguration professor. The first few years back were rough. It was not how she thought it would be; she was seeing Hogwarts in a whole new perspective now, and it frightened her, but as a true Gryffindor she refused to back down.
Through it all were the kind words of Albus Dumbledore, her predecessor, who was now Headmaster. She remembered him from when he used to teach her. He had always encouraged her then, and now he was like a mentor, always there to give her advice when she needed it most.
Even after fifteen years in the post, she still found herself telling the stone gargoyle what Albus's new favorite sweet is, and climbing the stairs to seek his council. This time, though, was different.
She rapped sharply on the door three times, and after a small pause, a haggard voice called, "Who is it?"
That was the first clue that caused Minerva to feel alarmed. Never before had Albus demanded to know who was outside the door before granting them permission to enter.
"It is I, professor," she announced, "Minerva."
Another pause, then: "Come in."
She pushed the door open slowly, feeling she must be intruding on something. Albus was hunched over a letter, his expression growing darker by the second. Minerva had never known he could look that way. Then again, here was the man who had somehow defeated the undefeatable Gellert Grindelwald single-handedly, so perhaps she was wrong to bring his ferocity into question, but Albus had never struck her as the kind of man who could kill a fly without feeling remorseful.
He did not look up from the parchment when she drew nearer, and Minerva wondered if he even realized she was there. "Is something the matter, Albus?" she asked lightly.
Finally he looked at her and addressed her directly. "I'm afraid it is, Minerva, and it is my responsibility to do something about it." He sighed. "Lord Voldemort has struck again."
Minerva gasped involuntarily. "You-Know-Who?" she whispered. It was silly and she knew it, avoiding his name like the plague itself. Here she was, a woman in her forties, and behaving like a frightened child. There was something unsettling about this Voldemort. Actually, many things about him were unsettling, the least of which was that he seemed to have come from nowhere. "What's happened now?"
"He's attacked a Muggle village near Somerset," Albus replied grimly. "He sent the Dark Mark above the whole village and set fire to it with the help of his followers. Naturally, the local fire department is finding it impossible to put out. It's charmed so only magic can destroy it."
"And you're going to help save the village."
It wasn't a question, but Albus nodded anyway. "The Ministry has requested my help," he said, gesturing at the letter on the desk. "And since you're here now, I should also like to request yours."
All thoughts of what she had originally come here to ask had long since been abandoned. A final decision on Black and Potter's punishment could wait.
"Of course I'll come." She wanted to meet this man who fancied himself a Dark Lord in person. Never mind that the mere mention of him sent shivers down her spine. He had caused enough suffering in both the wizarding and Muggle world; she wanted to be there when it ended.
She and Albus Apparated from Hogsmeade straight into the heart of the village. One minute she was in the cool evening air, rapidly descending into the cold of night, and the next she was surrounded by heat and flames that leapt high above her head.
Confusion and terror ruled the scene. There were screams, shouts, the occasional bang as things exploded all around, and it was all Minerva could do to keep her head and remember that she was supposed to be ending the misery. "Aguamenti!" she yelled, whipping out her wand, but it did no good. She tried again with similar results. Frustration threatened to take hold, but reason found its way in first. Magic conjured the water, but it was not a magical solution. It was no different from dumping a bucket of water on the flames.
"Infusio!" she tried instead, and this time a lick of flames sizzled out. Albus, whom she could hardly see through the smoke though he was barely five feet away, smiled at her.
Even with the correct incantation, the fire was not easily doused. There was just so much of it, and so many things that would catch and spread it. It was unbearable to watch and be able to do nothing as more and more houses burned to ash. Worse, the Muggles had begun to notice the strange people in cloaks trying to salvage their village with words they had never heard before, and the only conclusion they could make was that it had to be magic.
"Witch!" someone shrieked in a panic, as if there wasn't enough panic already. When finally the fire was nearly out, Albus was at her side again.
"The Ministry officials will want to obliviate the entire village," he told her, sending another spell to war with the remaining flames. "You are not a qualified Obliviator, and thus they will likely not accept your assistance."
"What about you?" Minerva demanded defensively. "You aren't a qualified Ministry Obliviator either!"
Albus's eyes twinkled. "Ah," he said. "But you see, I have enough sway in the Ministry that very few of them will deny my assistance. While you cannot help directly, I'm sure the residents would appreciate some kind words and reassurance as their homes and dearest possessions have been destroyed. If you could give them a little encouragement..."
Comforting people had never been Minerva's greatest strength, but she obliged and moved to the outskirts of the small village, where most of the locals stood hugging each other and crying as they witnessed the horror before them.
Minerva was reaching to put her hand on a little girl's soot-covered shoulder when she saw through the crowd a hooded figure hurrying away, illuminated by the barest reaches of the remaining flames. She retracted her hand and made a hasty decision to follow him, pulling out her wand instinctively. Everyone present was going to be obliviated anyway.
Complete darkness had fallen, and once she'd left sight of the village, it was only by the light of the full moon that Minerva could follow the mysterious figure through the night. Agility had never been her forte, but she raced along after him, something pulling her onward. She had to know who he was, and if it turned out to be You-Know-Who, she would fight him to the death.
The soft ground gave way to a rocky cliff overlooking a lake. Minerva thought she had cornered him; the man's back was to the cliff edge, and he was rapidly taking steps back, farther from her and closer to certain death
"Who are you?" she demanded, thrusting her now-lit wand at him for a better look. His hood prevented her from seeing his face. "Are you the man who burned the village?"
"You mean you don't already know?" a voice responded coyly from beneath the hood. Minerva's blood ran cold, and then as her heart stopped, it quit running completely. It was twisted and alien, but she knew that voice...
"No," she croaked, but not in answer to his question. Her mind, so logical, so reasonable, rushed to align dates and known facts. Her heart sank lower as she realized that no evidence contradicted the possibility that was right before her eyes.
The man took a final step backward and plummeted over the side of the cliff. Minerva cried out in terror, rushed to the edge, and looked down.
He was standing, unharmed, in the sand, like he hadn't just dropped from thirty feet in the air. His hood was down now, and even from a distance, even with his features twisted to more snakelike proportions, there was no mistaking him; Minerva could now put a name to this man.
This man, Voldemort, the one wicked enough to burn an entire village and murder dozens of innocent people, was none other than her very own Tom Riddle.
They were back in Albus's office, and Minerva had lost her cool completely.
"You knew, didn't you?" she shrieked in a shrill, shaking voice. "You knew You-Know-Who was really Tom all along, and you never said anything! How could you have kept this a secret?"
"Minerva," Albus said calmly, trying to reach out for her hand, but she backed away and collapsed in a chair."
"How could this have happened?" she cried. She tried to picture dear, sweet Tom in her head, the boy she had let herself fall in love with. All she could see were the tear-stained faces of the people forced to watch their homes burn, the blistering wounds some of them sported from the heat, the houses that crumbled around her. She tried to remember the beauty of his voice. All she could hear were the screams of the scared, the burning, the grieving.
She tried to destroy any love she had ever felt for a man so wicked.
"I knew," Albus admitted calmly. "Tom told me as much himself several years ago. I had hoped the boy might see reason, but he has gone too far in his quest to settle his old prejudice."
"I kissed him," Minerva said in a frantic whisper. "I-I touched him. I-"
"You were a schoolgirl," Albus said firmly. "And he was the most brilliantly deceptive young man Hogwarts has ever seen. You did nothing wrong in loving another, even if he was the wrong man to love."
Something familiar stirred in Minerva's chest. It was that old desire, to be part of a tragic romance or no romance at all. She could never have foreseen this, never have expected her wish's fulfillment to be like this.
For the second time in her life, Minerva allowed tears of bitterness to glide down her cheeks, hating that there could be no solution for what was already done. This time, she was not alone, and through it all she had Albus's arm around her shoulders for comfort.
It seemed impossible that the sun could rise again, but it did. It peered above the horizon, just hours after Lord Voldemort, the Darkest wizard of all time, met his downfall. Minerva couldn't remember every feeling so tired. She was bone-weary, and all she wanted was to rest, but the situation would not allow her to do so. The war was won, but there was still work to do. And perhaps more urgent, there was something she needed to for herself.
She passed Potter on her way, looking every bit as tired as she felt. She would have offered him the chance to rest, but she knew he would never take it. He was much to stubborn, and besides, she doubted he would be able to find sleep so soon after the deaths of many close friends and his ultimate defeat of the Dark Lord.
He gave her a small smile. "Do you need me to help with anything, professor?" he asked in a rough, cracking voice. Minerva's heart broke hearing a mere boy so determined to fix everything wrong in the world in his own. She had not forgotten how he defended her in the Ravenclaw common room, but she would not deny that his use of the Unforgivable had shaken her. In that moment she almost saw another boy looking up at her.
Then in the most desperate time of all, Harry Potter had chosen to use a Disarming Charm against the Killing Curse, and Minerva knew he could never even be compared to Tom Riddle.
"No, thank you, Harry," Minerva said softly, recognizing a slight raising of his eyebrows as she addressed him by his first name. "I have to do this on my own."
He nodded, and Minerva knew he must have understood what it felt like to need to do something independently. She made an oath never to ask him what happened just before Voldemort carried his supposedly dead body into the Great Hall.
She made her way to the hall she was searching for, the one to where Voldemort's body had been dragged, to be disposed of at a later time. With some difficulty, Minerva looked down on the shell of one of the most feared wizards ever to have lived, the only man she had ever loved.
And all the fury she had held back for so many years burst forth.
"Was it worth it, Tom?" she whispered fiercely. "Was the price of being great enough worth it, or with your last breath did you realize you paid too much? Do you regret choosing to be wicked, or do you only regret what happened because you did?"
She sent him a burning glare, so hot she thought it miraculous he did not burst into the flames like the village where she had first learned the truth. Without once looking back, she turned on her heel to march away one last time from Tom Riddle.
It seemed amazing that her heart was, after all this, still intact. It had been bruised and battered, but it had weathered the storm like the Sorting Hat swore it would all those years ago. She was damaged, but she would move on, and she felt she could now accept all that had happened between her and Tom.
She would never forget, though, and from now on she would heed those words more carefully. There were storms surely yet to come, but after this, she felt sure she could withstand them all.
It had started with a few simple looks, and it had ended in tragedy. Her heart still loved the man Tom had once been, even if she felt nothing but cold hatred for the monster he had become. They were and always would be two different people.
It was time to let go of regret and open her logical mind to a realm of new possibilities, in a world where the ghosts of her past no longer existed. Perhaps another charming man would come along, one whose priorities were not on controlling the world at any price. Perhaps the romance could start anew, and if it did, this time she would not hope for anything but pure and simple love.
After all, as she had learned, to capture the heart of the wicked was simply not worth it.
Slightly edited version from earlier. Again, comments appreciated! Will probably love you forever!