A/N - - This story was my entry in Dysfuncentine, an anti-Valentine's Day fest on LJ. My thanks, as always, to my best beta and hand-holder, The Real Snape.

I normally write a rather fierce Minerva, so I debated about this version, whether she comes across as too tentative. But in my backstory for the character, I see Minerva as someone who might have had a difficult time fitting in as a young person; she would probably have been the kind of girl who had many admirable qualities that, sadly, were not always the qualities valued by her peers, the qualities that would make a teenager feel popular and sought-after and sexy. I think those experiences leave traces, even after one grows up and in most ways is a success.

Warning: infidelity

"Down to Earth"

by Kelly Chambliss

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I.
The first time Minerva McGonagall thought that her lover might be sleeping with another woman, she shed a few tears in private and then composed herself to endure the moment when Rolanda would leave her.

She never doubted that she would be left, of course. For wasn't that the way these things worked? Didn't the loss of one's lover's body mean that the lover's heart was lost, too?

Minerva might have led a fairly sheltered life, and she might have understood that for herself, her heart, once given, was given once for all, but she was not naïve. She'd never deluded herself that she - - Minerva the plain, the bookish, the reserved, the down-to-earth - - had much chance of holding on to someone like Rolanda, so passionate and bold and quick, so much a creature of the air.

She thought back to the days of their. . .well, she could only call it a "courtship." Rolanda had courted her, swept her off her feet both literally, with a long, romantic broom ride to a secluded restaurant, and figuratively, by making her feel wanted and exciting and so different from her usual self.

Minerva had no illusions about her strengths and weaknesses; she knew the qualities she possessed that people valued - - and the qualities she lacked. In the summer after she'd left Hogwarts, she'd overheard her father tell a visitor, "My daughters are lovely girls, both of them. Chalk and cheese, though. Diana could charm the birds from the trees without a wand, and of course I rely on my sensible, dependable Minerva."

Dependable and sensible: they were excellent things to be, of course, but eighteen-year-old Minerva wouldn't have minded a bit of wandless charm as well.

Rolanda had made her feel as if she were charming, as if her very reliability itself was charming, and Minerva had fallen hard for her. But she had known, deep down, that it couldn't last.

So when Augusta had "just thought she'd mention" seeing Rolanda head up the back stairs of the Leaky with her arms around a former Harpies teammate, Minerva had braced herself. She'd set out the Ogden's and freshened the fire and sat down to wait for Rolanda's regular Friday-evening visit and the news that she'd found someone else.

But Rolanda practically danced into the sitting room and enveloped Minerva in a tight squeeze of an embrace and a tongue-filled kiss.

"Oooh, I've missed you! This only-meeting-twice-a-week secret life will be the death of me, my girl!"

"Oh, Rolanda. You know I feel strongly that. . ."

Rolanda laughed and spelled Minerva's hair down. "Yes, I know all about your strong feelings, o primmest one. We have to be careful, because two women together. . .the students' parents will be outraged, and the Board will call for our jobs, and Albus will have no choice, and besides, we both have work to do during the week, we can't afford too many nights together - - I know, I know. You've said it all at least a hundred times, and you're right, of course you're right, but that's no consolation when I'm alone in my cold bed instead of ravishing you in yours."

"Oh. . ."

Another laugh, tender this time. "Thirty-two years old and a professor, and still she blushes like a fifth-year schoolgirl. How far down does that blush start, my dear? Shall I look to see?"

And half an hour later, when Minerva's bare legs were hooked over Rolanda's shoulders and her hands were balled in the sheets and her heart knew no shame, she told herself that Augusta had been mistaken.

She'd been mistaken, and Minerva was not being left.

She was being lifted to the skies.

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II.
The first time Minerva McGonagall knew beyond doubt that her lover was sleeping with another woman, she saw the evidence herself.

It was during the summer holidays, and Rolanda had Apparated to Edinburgh to meet with the firm that supplied the Hogwarts brooms; the first- and second-years in particular were hard on brooms, and they always needed replacing.

Minerva never knew what imp of the perverse inspired her to think of going to Edinburgh herself to surprise Rolanda - - to meet her at the broom-makers', take her out to eat, perhaps even entice her to spend the night and visit Minerva's favorite firewhisky distillery the next day. It had to have been an imp, because as a rule, Minerva was wary of such spontaneity; she preferred planning and advance notice.

She should have known no good could come of such a scheme. It was a surprise indeed, but only to herself.

Minerva had never been able to break herself of the habit of arriving early to things, so she reached the city before Rolanda could have finished her appointment at Whisske and Twigg, Broom-makers.

If only she hadn't been early, perhaps all might have been well. Perhaps she wouldn't have decided to wait in the little Muggle café across from Whisske and Twigg's magically-disguised premises, knowing that she would see Rolanda as soon as she stepped out of the dingy doorway marked with the sign, "High Spirits Chapel - - All Welcome - - Closed."

If she hadn't been early and hadn't sat near the window of the Muggle café, perhaps she wouldn't have seen Rolanda emerge from the door with a brown-haired woman, and then she wouldn't have seen the woman tuck her arm into Rolanda's and lean against her, the way Minerva herself would have loved to do if the world had allowed such things. The woman's gesture was only quick - - they were in a public road, after all - - but it said much.

It said so much, in fact, that Minerva yielded to her baser instincts. Dropping some Muggle coins on her table, she hurried from the café and disillusioned herself so that she could follow them.

Thus they all set off along the pavement, the two women with their heads together, talking, and Minerva trailing unhappily behind.

"I'm glad the little chaps are so hard on their brooms, Ro," Minerva heard the woman say. "Otherwise I'd never get to see you, you're so buried at that school. It was a sad day for all us Harpies fans when you hung up your broom; the team's never been the same, you know."

"Flatterer," Rolanda said, laughing. "I had my moment, but it's long past. Just a few people like you from the glory days, to remind me. Come on, I'll stand you a pint at the Snowy Owl. Did you book the room?"

"For the whole night, if you fancy staying. But you'll probably want to rush off the way you always do - -"

The woman chattered on, but Minerva was no longer listening. She should have known better than to eavesdrop; as her gran had always said, one never hears any good of oneself that way.

One never hears any good, period, Minerva thought, as she watched Rolanda and her more-than-friend turn into the alley behind the row of shops that housed Whisske and Twigg's. They were probably going to Apparate from there to their pub; Rolanda always preferred to Apparate in the open air if she could - - less mental interference, she felt.

Minerva kept her mind fixed on such mundane thoughts as she found her own safe Apparition point, and not until she was back within the comforting walls of Hogwarts did she allow herself to consider what she ought to do next.

There was really only one option, of course: she must leave Rolanda. There were rules about love just as there were rules about everything that mattered, and one of those rules - - a cardinal one - - said that when you loved Someone and shared your life and your bed with that Someone, you didn't meet other women for casual afternoon trysts. You didn't sleep with other women while leaving your Someone behind to miss you and need you and long for your return.

Rolanda had broken this rule, and for such a betrayal, there must be consequences. It was a matter of self-respect, Minerva thought and even more important, it was a matter of principle. The world couldn't function if people could violate others' trust with impunity.

So Minerva's choice was clear. The right thing to do - - the honourable thing, the Gryffindor thing - - would be to tell Rolanda that their relationship must end. She would do it calmly and quietly, and she would not shout (Merlin, how Minerva hated herself when she shouted). She would not make this about her own pain or loss or loneliness, it would be about principle. Yes. About principle and. . .and. . .

And then Rolanda returned, her yellow eyes sparkling, her muscled arms bared to the warmth of the long summer evening, and she had Minerva clasped in those arms almost before the door closed behind her. "I'm so glad to be home with you," she said.

Minerva opened her mouth to speak, to confront, to accuse, but found her words swallowed by Rolanda's lips on hers.

Then Minerva the Gryffindor did the unprecedented: she chose the path of the coward. She kissed Rolanda back.

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III.
The first time Minerva McGonagall spoke to her lover about sleeping with other women, it was after an exhibition Quidditch match, an "old-timers'" game played just before the Harpies' regular season opener. The game had been a marketing ploy - - an attempt, after several losing years, to lure back the fans by reminding them of past glories.

There had been drinking and celebrating after the match, and Minerva had been warmed by the fans' raucous show of support for their old favourites, their cheers and their offers of rounds and their clamouring for autographs and photos. Rolanda had beamed her happiness upon everyone who spoke to her, and so deep had been the crowd around her that Minerva hadn't been able to get close enough to present her own congratulations.

She hadn't minded, though; there would be time later, in the quiet of their rooms, to show Rolanda how proud she was of her. Minerva felt more comfortable in the background; this was Rolanda's time to shine.

So she took her single dram of malt to the quietest table she could find, in the rear of the pub, and soon lost sight of Rolanda completely.

Lost sight of her, but not sound, for later, as Minerva passed a storeroom on her way back from the loo, she heard a noise she knew well: Rolanda in the gasping throes of passion. The moans were followed by her voice, thick and low, "gods, yes, ooh. . .wait, now. . .what's your hurry, dearie?"

A giggle answered, and then a breathless question. "Aren't you afraid someone will come looking for you?"

A short laugh from Rolanda. "Trust me, I've got these things figured. We've a good ten minutes before we're missed. So take your time, ooooh, yes. . ."

After this episode, there could be no avoiding a confrontation, not when the anger was stronger than the pain. Minerva didn't even make herself any promises about not shouting.

"In a closet!" she raged, once she and Rolanda were finally back at the castle. "With all our friends nearby. . .with me. . .nearby!" She heard her voice catch on the last words, but she was beyond caring. The pain had outstripped the anger now, and somehow the room seemed to have lost all its air; she found she could barely breathe.

"Oh, Minerva." The yellow eyes were concerned. "I'm sorry you had to hear that. It didn't mean anything, you know it didn't."

"It means a great deal to me!"

"It's just the adrenaline, my love, that's all. After a match, I'm always. . .I don't know, so tense, so high, so pumped-up. And so I find a little girl to help me come back down to earth. It's like. . .you know how Filius always has hot milk to help him relax? Well, I have a hot Harpies fan. It's nothing more than that. She has a bit of fun, I have a bit of fun. What does it hurt?"

"Me, Rolanda! It hurts me! Don't try to tell me you don't realise that!"

"No, I do realise it. I'm sorry you're hurt, I truly am. But you shouldn't be. You're letting it be much more important than it is. It's nothing, Minerva, honestly nothing. It's not like I'm being unfaithful to you, not really."

A detached part of Minerva noticed that she felt much the way she did just before shifting to her cat form - - somehow outside herself, unlike herself. Except that normally, to transform was to be free, to leave her boundaries behind. Now, however, she felt as if she were about to lose herself completely, as if she were going to float away untethered, forever adrift.

Her lungs still felt crushed, airless, but she managed to gasp, "Not like you're being unfaithful!"

All at once, she needed to get away, get out, be anywhere but where she was. She turned to storm from the room, but Rolanda was suddenly pointing her wand, and she rendered Minerva motionless with a flick of it.

"No," Rolanda said firmly, taking hold of Minerva's shoulders. "Not like it at all. Not at all. Listen to me, Minerva. Those other women. . .I just fuck them. I love you."

She leant closer, leaving the softest of kisses on cheek, jaw, lips; she stroked Minerva's face and loosened her hair. Then she lifted the stasis charm.

Minerva realised that she was free to go. But she found that she still didn't move.

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IV.
The only time Minerva McGonagall ever admitted to anyone else that her lover slept with other women, it was because Pomona Sprout didn't ask if it were true; she simply announced that she knew.

"You don't have to let her get away with it, you know," Pomona said one late June afternoon, the day after the students had for the summer. Minerva had been sitting by the lakeside, uncharacteristically idle, not letting herself think about Rolanda, off visiting her mother in Kent.

Or so Rolanda had said. And it was true, her mother did live in Kent, and as Rolanda pointed out, it hardly made sense for Minerva to go along. Their relationship wasn't the sort that one could take home to Mother; it was a shame that the world should be so damned intolerant, but there it was. . .

And that's why Minerva was at the lake, thinking determinedly of nothing, when Pomona sat beside her with a thump and began picking bits of greenhouse detritus from her robes.

"You don't have let her get away with it," she repeated. "And don't you dare ask me 'get away with what'? With cheating on you."

"I beg your pardon. . ."

"No, she should beg yours. Oh, stop acting like you don't understand what I'm talking about. I know how Rolanda is, how she finds other women, takes them to bed. She's not very subtle about it. But what I don't know is why you put up with it."

"I. . ." Minerva planned to deny it, as she always did, even sometimes to herself, but somehow, looking into Pomona's kind and angry face, she couldn't find the will. "I don't know, Pomona."

And she didn't. She'd asked herself the same question many times, of course. Did she think she was unworthy of better? Did she fear the long nights alone? Did she still marvel that she, stern and sharp-tongued as she was, had managed to touch the laughing breeze that was Rolanda? Did she somehow believe what her long-dead gran had told her all those years ago, when she had refused to marry Whitby Dearborn: "the wages of your sin will be your own misery"?

It could be any, or all, or none of those. Minerva knew only that the thought of Rolanda sleeping with those other women was like a cruciatus to the soul, and yet the thought of herself sleeping without Rolanda was worse.

"I don't know," she said again. "I'm a coward, Pomona."

"Nonsense," Pomona said, taking Minerva's hands in hers. Her fingers left little traces of dirt, of the warm earth in which she worked. "Now, I know this is none of my business, and when I'm finished, you can feel free to hex me, but. . .don't do it, Minerva. Not you. You're the fiercest that Gryffindor has to offer. Don't settle."

And with a final squeeze of hands, Pomona was up and away, her sturdy form striding towards the castle, the rich scent of soil left behind her, heavy in the summer air.

Minerva watched her go.

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V.
Every time Minerva McGonagall knows that her lover has come to her bed from the arms of another woman, she tells herself that it doesn't matter. She tells herself that settling is good; it keeps one's feet on the ground.

~~fin