A/N: I apologize for any awfulness this story contains. It was written very late at night as per a request; it's neither properly developed nor particularly well-written. i hope you enjoy it anyway. :P The first conversation is about Italian idiom "In bocca al lupo", which means good luck but literally means into the wolf's mouth. One generally responds with may the wolf die - a colloquialism is to say into the whale's ass instead.
"You're going home, Miss McGonagall?"
"Yes, sir. That's what I said."
He looked at her skeptically. "For the winter holidays."
"I wonder," Minerva said, tapping her chin with her index finger, a wry brow raising, "did I stutter?"
"Touché, my dear. It is rather unusual, however, you must admit. Usually you remain -"
"-here, alone, with only you for company. And I highly doubt you'll be here."
"No, I won't," admitted Dumbledore with a frown. He had not, of course, told her explicitly that he wouldn't be around. He had just dropped hints, been hesitant in scheduling their traditional holiday chess tournament. Naturally she had figured it out. He had wanted her to. But he still felt a little flummoxed that she was returning home. She didn't much like her home.
"Where will you be?" Her question was innocent, but there was something more in the green of her eyes, shining over the thick rim of her square glasses. Something about that expression, that calculatingly impeccant expression, made his brow furrow and forced him to lean toward her.
"Nowhere of consequence."
"And you will be back?"
"Then you are going to war, sir?" She was annoyingly perceptive sometimes. Dumbledore frowned more deeply.
"Miss McGonagall, all you need to know," said the Professor, reaching his hands up and clasping them to either side of her lean face, "is that I am going away, as you are, and will - barring any incredibly random and entirely unforeseen circumstances - return when the next term begins." She looked irritated, but made no comment as he leaned forward to peck her politely on the cheek. She returned the favor, and for a moment, they lingered like that: cheek to cheek, red suffusing their pale complexions, eyes locked, lips parted. Even as Albus felt his heart contract a little erratically, his conscience thump an angry rebuff, he again saw the mischievousness that glimmered like dynamite in her eyes. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing, sir. I am saying goodbye for the holidays. Then I'm going to get on the train and go home. Nothing sneaky, this time, Professor, I promise."
"Cross your heart?"
"Sir! Don't be -"
"Silly." He hissed, his voice such that she had never heard it. His forehead pressed against hers, and she was at once overwhelmed by the omniscience of his eyes; Minerva remembered, as she rarely did, that he was not merely her dear Professor, but the most powerful man alive. She swallowed, sobered by his sudden gravity. "I am so rarely anything else, but I ask you to take me seriously now - be careful, do you hear me, Miss McGonagall? You may be the brightest seventh year in the school. You may be the greatest transfiguration prodigy since myself. You may be a consummate Gryffindor. But I beg of you, do not go looking for trouble."
"Of course not, sir."
There was a flurry of motion, and suddenly a group of students appeared in the lobby that Dumbledore and Minerva had been speaking in - he was gone from before her before any of them turned to notice the peculiar intensity with which Albus Dumbledore regarded his best pupil.
"I do not want any harm to come to you."
"I'll be fine, sir, don't worry! Into the wolf's mouth for you, though."
"But not for you, please. I know that look in your eyes. Wolves have rather sharp teeth, Minerva, remember."
Minerva rolled her eyes, grabbing her bag off of the floor and swinging it over her shoulder. "I know, Professor. May the wolf choke on you."
"Yes, yes - remember -"
"Yes, yes," she mocked with a smile that melted his heart even as her wit drew him to the edge of suspicion, "anyway, the wolf's mouth can't be too bad."
"No. Better than being in the whale's ass."
A delighted laugh from him, and then: "you would be a scintillatingly witty Italian, my darling."
"I'm a scintillatingly witty Scot, Dumbledore."
Mistake! her mind screamed as she felt her body collide with the wall. Hard, gritty rock biting into her skin - solid, her body molding around it, the splintering crack of bone and the taste of blood in her mouth as she feel to the floor. Her palms pressed to the dirty tile immediately, even as her vision blackened, even as she spit blood onto the ground, and she tried to pull herself up. Every muscle in her body shuddered in protest as she stood, erect as her screaming spine would allow her, one dislocated shoulder hanging and a bad angle, though bent at the elbow so that she could cradle the other arm - surely broken - against her bruised chest. She stared him down.
"I'll give you marks for bravery, girl," Grindelwald growled from across the room. "I can respect your spirit. But you're in quite far over your head."
Skull-splitting pain, then; her knees buckled, her chin jutted toward the ceiling, her lips prying back in a horrific grimace as she tried desperately not to scream as her body bade her to. It wasn't supposed to go this way - she had had a plan, after all -
She had found him. She had located Grindelwald. And whilst such an achievement had given her ego a rather unhealthy boost, she was not so naïve as to think that she was the only one. Every letter she wrote under false pretenses, every book she read, every move she made she knew that Dumbledore was also stringently fixed upon the enemy's trail. He was hiding, somewhere, but where? asked the wizarding world. And now she, bookwormish, bespectacled, tall, gawkish Minerva McGonagall knew the answer.
But Dumbledore did too.
As she had known he would. She had been counting on it. Certainly he wouldn't leave until the end of the school year, she had thought. But then things in the war zone had gotten more and more sour, more and more names added to the list of casualties. So she had been expecting him to try and confront Grindelwald over break. And she had every intention of going with him.
She knew Dumbledore, more than she would have ever cared to admit to the headmaster or any other authoritative third party. She was familiar with his pride as few people seemed to be. He appeared so benign in all aspects that acts of hubris were overlooked - but she knew that his ego was abominably large almost as well as she knew of his innate selflessness. The two combined made her very certain that when - for it was not an if - he confronted Grindelwald, he would do it alone, trusting his own omnipotence to save him, and wanting to risk no more lives. It was there that Minerva's thoughts snagged.
Minerva was seventeen, and for two years - or maybe forever, maybe it had been kismet and she had held this esteem since the day she had been born, but it had been under the thrall of necessary life events, only to unveil itself now - she had been in love with Dumbledore. Blindingly so.
She knew the stupidity it lent her. She knew that, for him, her decisions were often silly and ill-researched. But she felt certain of this. She would provide back-up to him, for he needed it, and if upon arrival he would not let her assist, she could wait in the corners to summon qualified help if and when it was needed - she knew she couldn't possibly fight Grindelwald on her own. She had no such illusions. She just knew that she wanted to be with him - and beyond that, she wanted to help in the war effort, completely independent of any self-proclaimed childish romantic fancies -
Of course, she probably could have planned more. Tears seared her eyes, and she felt them biting against her skin despite her valiant attempts to stave off any outward signs of weakness, despite how thoroughly she was shattered. Her skin was nearly entirely covered by bruises and burns, her dark robes torn and tattered, stained with the blood that colored her lips and lingered between her teeth, that bubbled, metal-cold in her mouth as she coughed. Her body was forced to the ground, her knees pressed into the tile so hard that she felt as though her very knee caps were being ground down as if by sandpaper; a feeble whine escaped her, a cry that forced Grindelwald's face into a smile as he neared her.
"Usually I let others swat flies for me," he said, stopping, crossing his arms genteelly before him, wand still in hand. She met his eyes defiantly as she felt the hex dwindle to nothing. Residual pain, of course, rocked her body, but she pressed her thin lips tightly together and stared him down. He may kill her, but she would never submit to him, as though he were superior. "But I knew you were special. I get kids trying to be heroes all the time - but I knew there was more to it than that. You're one of Dumbledore's. I know his style - he has taught you, hasn't he?"
Silence. Defiance. She curled one lip in a silent snarl, disdain written plainly across her aristocratic features, as though she were a queen looking upon the scum in the sink.
"I-I -" she stuttered, couldn't help it, there was so much pain when she spoke - "am a student at Hogwarts. He has… has t-taught -" she paused, coughing, shoulders shaking, more blood trailing down her chin - she wondered what organ she ruptured - "every Hogwarts student f-for a nigh… d-decade."
"But you in particular, no? You are special to him."
She did not answer. Grindelwald yet out a half-mad yelp of glee. One hand whipped out suddenly, cupping her chin between his cold fingers.
"That's why you're here, is it not? You wanted to help him. Oh, this is just -" his nails cut into her skin, an a quiet cry escaped her lips, "delicious. You see, girl, child, infant, your arrival made me double security. I was ready when Albus arrived. We've caught him like a fly in a web."
A pause, and though she felt tears prick her vision again, although a new agony swept over her physical pain, she did not break eye contact.
"You see, you didn't help him. You condemned him."
Laughter, then. She felt bile crawl up her throat.
She left in the wee hours of the morning, nothing on her but her wand and a pair of old black robes. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun, and she thought that she looked very formidable as she peered into the mirror. And then she was off into the yet dim light of morning.
"Ironic, isn't it?"
"Q-Q… quite," she spluttered, looking as composed as she could.
She saw Dumbledore's patronus - a phoenix, she had learned long ago - flitting about the windows of the building as she strolled, and knew that it was time. She walked purposefully towards the building, and entered, using a complex combination of transfiguration, charms, and herbology to enter undetected. Once inside, she went down this hallway, that hallway, so invisible that she was sure Dumbledore himself would be impressed.
She opened a door inside, and Grindelwald appeared in an empty ballroom, alone, his eyes so flamingly blue that Minerva for a moment thought it was the Professor peering at her - but she was invisible -
"That's quite an impressive glamour."
She didn't respond. Her heart thu-rumped in her chest.
"Obviously I can see you, girl, so you may as well speak."
She didn't. He couldn't see her. He could, perhaps, sense her - maybe there were some kind of wards - but he couldn't see her. She was sure. She held her silence.
An hour later she was unveiled, back against the floor with Grindelwald leering over her. His face closed in on hers, his eyes filling her vision. She quelled the hysteria, but only barely.
"Children always overestimate themselves."
He lifted his wand arm, and she thought that he looked like a cat toying with a mouse between its paws. She held her breath, and then, as he uttered some melodramatic farewell, there was a pop and before Grindelwald stood not a quivering girl but a cat sprinting between his legs. The wizard made a foolish move, reaching down with both hands to catch her, allowing the hex thrown his way to land fully against his face.
Grindelwald was thrown backward, tumbling head over heels as Dumbledore brandished his wand before him, striding forward with power and purpose, his face a formidable mixture of fury and righteousness - he was not, in that moment, eccentric or dotty. He had not the silly foibles, nor the sweet tooth, nor the twinkling eye by which the public defined his genius. He was a god, tall and imposing, wand flying, mouth pulled into a tight line. Grindelwald tried to counter, but he was too off-balance.
Within minutes he lay, incapacitated, on the floor, and Dumbledore cast a final spell to immobilize him indefinitely should he wake before turning to the cat that lay, collapsed on the floor behind him. The graven god that had been him a moment ago slipped away, and his eyes softened with concern as he reached down and scooped the feline into his arms, cradling it like an infant. With his other hand he cast a spell to summon the ministry, and then apparated away.
He stormed into the room she had rented for the night she planned to seek out Grindelwald, quite unexpectedly, especially considering that her door had been locked. She had never seen him angry before, but now there was no doubting the fury that emanated off of him in violent waves.
"Pray tell, Miss McGonagall, does this look like home to you?"
"Sir - what are you - how did you -"
"I know you, my dear - at least, I presumed to. But I did not think you so foolish as this."
"Professor, I just -"
"YOU ARE JUST GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED," he thundered, and she quailed slightly, shrinking backward and crossing her arms over her chest. Her lips tightened. Dumbledore began to pace side to side, one hand pressed to his forehead, which was creased with worry. "Did you even think, Miss McGonagall? Did you consider the ramifications of confronting the darkest wizard alive today as an impetuous and ill-prepared seventeen year old?"
"Very carefully, sir, yes."
"And you deemed your life a worthy fee for a moment of heroism."
"No. I just wanted to help."
His back had been to her, and suddenly he whirled, blue eyes blazing as he stepped nearer to her, his hands gripping tightly to her shoulders. "Your death helps no one, do you understand?"
"Nor does yours."
He blinked, the anger dwindling. "If Gellert falls, then it is worth it." He shook his head the moment she made to speak, stopping her words with, "regardless, my dear, I shan't die. I'm far too arrogant to suffer any defeat."
"You can't do it alone."
Dumbledore apparated to a small, uninhabited house on the outskirts of Hogwarts. He placed the cat gingerly on the bed, examining it carefully with eyes that did not belie his fears - its breathing was shallow, its eyes were closed, and even as he reached up to stroke its brow, it did not react. He could not force her to become human again, but whilst she was a cat any specific healing spells would be ineffectual. He could not inventory her injuries as a feline - she needed to be human. Still, he cast a generic charm that would stop and bleeding and clean any wounds. It took the better part of an hour, but when he was finished, her breathing came a little easier, and her whiskers twitched when he passed his hand over them.
Though exhausted beyond any weariness he had felt before - though Grindelwald's demise had come about quickly, to cast spells strong enough to fall such an eminent creature as Grindelwald had taken more energy than he ever remembered expelling - he sat, vigilant, on a chair by the bedside.
"I have my ways."
"Your ways are often kamikaze."
"How would you have any idea, hm?"
"I know you, sir."
"Indeed," he said, releasing her shoulders and running a hand over his face. "You should go home, Miss McGonagall."
"With all due respect, sir," she said, meeting his eyes challengingly, "no. There has to be some way I can help."
"Minerva -" he cried, his voice exasperated; both of their mouths fell a little open for a beat, for he never called her by her given name, as it was hardly proper - the line he crossed was small, but significant. It gave her courage to press her point. "I have no need of anything else."
"You have backup?"
"I do not need it."
"You have a plan?"
"One that you will not be privy to."
"You have a second plan - a failsafe?"
"I have an inkling that your plan is simply to march inside and blow him away."
"Do you, now." His eyes flashed.
"You know that it's asinine, don't you? He'll be on you in a second."
"I have plans to distract him until I am ready."
"What if you use me as a distraction?"
The next morning, his eyes were encircled by black from lack of sleep. The light peaked in through the grimy windows, illuminating the small cat that still rested on the bed. She had curled up into a ball at some point, which he took to be a good thing.
Three owls had arrived during the night, the first from the minister of magic, asking about Grindelwald's fall - it could've been no one else, Dumbledore! Why did you leave?; one from Aberforth - you're a right git, you know that? For alls I know, you're dead in a ditch somewhere. Not that I care. Just write if you aren't; and one from the auror he was supposed to be working with - power in numbers, Dumbledore, honestly. He hadn't answered any of them. Instead, the trio of birds sat behind him, perched on miscellaneous pieces of furniture, hooting contentedly to one another. Three more owls came by mid-afternoon. Still the cat slept.
Still, he sat by her side.
"Surely you jest!"
"Not at all -"
"You sincerely think I would put you in danger like that?"
"I sincerely think that you should."
He glowered, but she was undaunted. Albus had long ago learned that, once Minerva made up her mind, there was no deterring her. Her stubbornness was a hell not easily borne - she was as complaisant as a particularly cantankerous Hungarian Horntail. He frowned deeply.
The words escaped him suddenly as his mind registered that she was entirely correct. Were they to use her as a distraction, as something for Grindelwald to cut his teeth on, Dumbledore's job would be made one thousand times easier. He would merely have to swoop in, catching Grindelwald unawares, and rescue Minerva before he killed her. His logic was something even his warm heart could not evade. Though much of him protested, he knew that this was the answer he had been seeking.
His plans to confront Grindelwald were uncharacteristically half-baked. In truth, his actions were partially motivated by a desire to simply stop Gellert from digging himself any deeper; past friendship ran deep, and Albus couldn't stomach the idea of his friend falling at the ministry's hands. He would do it himself, or he would make Gellert see reason. He knew that dispatching of any guards Gellert employed would only be too easy - Grindelwald himself was the only threat to Dumbledore's person, and he knew it. If Gellert were distracted… the abstract of the Borgias stretched anxiously in his mind.
Was one girl paramount to all?
Yes, thought Dumbledore, looking at her, thinking on how deeply he cared.
No, insisted his reasonable side, the side fostered under the principles of Machiavelli, said. Emphatically. Finally.
For all of his greatness, for all of his kindness, for all of his love, his every action was capitulated to the greater good. He cared for her - more deeply than he would probably ever admit - but her offer made too much sense to refuse.
"All right," he said, and for the first time since he'd known her, Minerva McGonagall had looked surprised.
When the cat finally stirred, Albus sat upright so quickly that the tension in his neck released with an unappealing pop, eyes wide as though he had just been woken up, though he hadn't slept a wink. The cat blinked its wide, red-rimmed eyes. Albus smiled as best he could, though he knew he must have looked dreadful.
"My dear… I do not wish to rush you," he said quietly, leaning nearer to the cat so that he was almost nose to nose with it, "however, it is necessary that you return to you natural form as soon as possible. The full extent of your injuries cannot be known until you do."
The cat nodded slowly, and Albus sat back, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on the small tabby as it stood shakily and kneaded its paws against the bed. Then it straightened. And stared. Albus tilted his head.
"Is something wrong, my dear?"
The tabby nodded.
Albus furrowed his brow and remained seated, staring a little stupidly at it for several moments until finally he let out a brief chuckle - a sound that echoed strangely in the room. He felt as though he hadn't laughed in years. "You would like your privacy." He could almost see Minerva's facial expression in his mind's eye as the cat lifted one dainty brow. Dumbledore smiled thinly, bowed his head, and turned around so that his back was to her. In a matter of moments, there was a crack, the sound of someone stumbling off of the bed, and then a loud thump as the same someone presumably crashed onto the floor.
Albus was prepared to laugh as he turned around, but when he saw her, any humor he felt was instantly stifled.
She looked dazed; he had never seen her eyes look anything but sharp and fierce, but now they looked as though the iris was distended from the rest of her eye. Her skin was a mottling of bruises and burns and cuts and scrapes, and blood stained her chin. He froze. What had he done? It was all so very good and rational in theory - allowing Grindelwald to toy with Minerva in order to keep his attention channeled and allow Dumbledore access - and whilst he knew, objectively, that any harm that had come to her person was far outweighed by Grindelwald's defeat in the grand scheme of things, he could not help the way his heartbeat hammered in his ears, nor the chill of dread that climbed the length of his spine.
"Oh, my brave, foolish girl," he breathed as he lurched into motion, tumbling forward with an uncharacteristic lack of grace and pretense and falling to his knees on the floor where she sat. "What hurts?"
"Everything," she croaked, leaning her head back on the bed and swallowing, the lily-white of her neck marred by blood.
"I had not anticipated you to be so severely injured, I -" his words choked in his throat; his innate sense of nobility had once more served to hurt rather than help him. Though his feelings bound him to her, his very being bound him to grander things, to the world; he was not a person who had the option of selfishness. But how he wished he did! "I cannot bring you to St. Mungo's, for they cannot know that you were there. I will have to heal you myself - is that acceptable?"
"Of course." Her head bobbed, as though she were clinging only barely to consciousness. He reached out and very carefully wrapped his arms around her. She balked slightly, and then made a feeble effort to stand, and together they managed to get her back onto the bed. He looked upon her with the greatest of unhappiness on his face.
"This may hurt, my dear." She nodded. He lifted his wand as though he would do something, but quickly dropped a hand to brush her stiff, sweaty hair from her forehead, impulsively bending down to kiss her on the forehead. "I am so sorry, my dear."
"Yes, my dear?"
"Why do you keep calling me -" she coughed "-that?"
He smiled slightly, giving his wrist a flick and beginning to utilize every spell he knew that could possibly help her. He began with what he suspected was a broken rib. "It is my guilt, I suppose, speaking endearments through my lips."
"Yes, my… yes?"
"You shouldn't feel-" her back arched in sudden pain and she barely resisted the urge to cry out as her rib snapped back into alignment. Albus cringed. "Guilty. I wanted to… wanted to help. I think that we are… likeminded enough that I can understand a-" she felt as though her skin were crawling as he began to tend to the bruises- "well-played game of chess when I-I see one."
Dumbledore saw that she wasn't lying, and for a moment paused, transfixed by the strength that emanated off of her, even as she clutched herself in pain. Though she had acted stupidly, originally, she was not the foolish seventeen year old of his imaginings - he was struck, then, by how very old she had become in just a few short years of the war. His face creased into a jaded smile. "Truthfully, I am far too fond of you to stomach my own actions at the moment. Perhaps later I will revel in my own genius alongside you."
She spluttered a laughed, reaching her swollen wand-hand up to wrap around the wrist of the hand that hung limply at his waist. After a moment, he entwined his fingers with hers.
"I gave h-h-him a nasty black eye."
Albus smiled. "I saw."
"And broke his wrist."
"You are remarkable. But we can discuss your greatness later, my dear - you need to rest while I'm doing this. I do not want you to waste any energy."
"One more thing."
"One more thing," he agreed, squeezing her hand.
"I'm fond of you too."
Years later, when she was a teacher and not a student, she would stand before his desk in his office, her hands on her hips, her eyes narrowed in outrage. Her ire would only grow as he presented her with an infuriatingly unfazed expression on his pale, familiar features.
"It is a disrespect I will not tolerate, do you hear me, Albus? I won't have it!"
"But Minerva -"
"Not only is it an affront to my authority, to my office, but also to my person. As you well know I do not allow anybody to refer to me as -"
"It was a joke, Minerva!"
"It was not funny," she would hiss, and he would sigh, rolling his eyes.
"Minnie isn't that poor of a nickname, my dear, honestly."
She frowned vehemently as he stood from behind his desk and approach her, placing a hand on each shoulder and smiling in his usual serene fashion.
"Don't mollycoddle me, Albus Dumbledore."
He leaned forward and kissed her nose. "Who's coddling?"
He kissed both temples.
"Now you're placating."
He kissed both cheeks.
"Now you're pacifying."
He kissed her lips.
He forced her mouth open, one hand moving to hold the back of her neck as he deepened the kiss, pressing his lips tightly against hers and exploring her mouth thoroughly with his tongue. She let out a quiet groan, somewhere between ecstasy and annoyance, and though he knew that she hardly minded his forwardness, she was unresponsive, and he pulled away; two large, twinkling eyes filled her vision.
"Now you're cheating."
"Minerva, could I have but sacrificed your temper to Grindelwald, I would not have been so prompt in my arrival…" he trailed off. What on earth had possessed him to say such a thing? That event was one they rarely, if ever, mentioned. That his love for her would forever be capitulated to his fealty to serving the world on a whole was a dark truth they felt no need to rehash.
He stared at her, slightly wide-eyed. Her face was blank, slack, and for a moment he feared that she would explode, or slap him, or both.
But then she laughed.
A moment later they had both collapsed onto the floor of his office, laughing hysterically, fingers intertwined as their chortles subsided, transitioning into soft touches and fond kisses; light filtered through the curtains in the corner, piercing the semidarkness of the room