Minerva gently shook her husband, who seemed to have fallen asleep right on top of his desk. At her touch he awoke with a start and blinking, adjusted his glasses.
"Oh dear, looks like I dozed off. Rufus' letters are rather dry. At least Cornelius' writing was always colourful," Albus tried to joke about it.
Minerva wasn't fooled. "Looks more like you were too exhausted to stay awake, and I don't think Rufus Scrimgeour is responsible for that. Not primarily, anyway."
Albus started shuffling around with a few documents. "Well, it is late."
"It's seven thirty! You've only just missed dinner. Is that the reason why you've been missing it lately? Have you been falling asleep up here?"
"I'm rather too busy to sleep I'm afraid."
Minerva shook her head in exasperation. "You have to rest, Albus, preferably in a bed."
He remained just as stubborn. "I will rest when I have the time, Minerva."
"Albus, look at your hand! You can't go on like this much longer. What could be more important than your health?" But that was a stupid question really.
"You know the answer to that, Minerva."
"Oh, so you're fighting you-know-who by falling asleep at your desk?" she snapped.
"Minerva…" Whatever Albus had meant to say, he broke off because he had absent-mindedly raised his blackened right hand and a sharp pain seemed to have shot through him.
"Albus, are you all right?" Minerva asked at once and stepped closer, though she had no idea what to do. "Should I alert Poppy?"
"No." Albus closed his eyes for a moment and then rose. "I think I'll go and have a word with Severus."
"Severus?" Minerva was too stunned to say anything else before her husband had already left the office.
But when he came back, she was ready. "This is it, Albus! Severus knows what's going on and I don't?"
"Please, Minerva, we've discussed your distrust of Severus more often than I can count, even when I still had ten healthy fingers to do so." It could have been a bit of a joke if Albus hadn't sounded so exhausted.
"But this is different. If I can't be involved in your dealings with Severus regarding you-know-who or his past or even Potter, fine. But if you let him help you with your health, while you insist on shutting me out… That's just... It's killing me!"
Minerva looked at her husband and was shocked to see that her own pain was reflected in his eyes, only a thousand times worse. Albus was not only hurting far worse than she was; there was also that terrible guilt in his eyes whenever he looked at her these days. It was that guilt that scared Minerva more than anything.
"Albus," her voice was trembling, "you've got to tell me what's going on with you and your hand or I swear in the name of Merlin, I will jump right out of that window."
"I suppose you're determined not to believe me that what I would have to tell you would indeed be more painful than any such threats, as imaginative as they might be?" Albus asked silently.
Minerva shook her head. This wasn't even about her considerable stubbornness anymore. She really had no idea how to go on not knowing. "Please, Albus…"
He looked at her for what felt like a very long time. Finally, he said, "I am dying."
"I'm carrying a curse. Severus managed to restrain it to my right hand for the time being. But it is spreading and we have reason to believe that I will not live to see the end of this year," Albus explained.
Minerva heard what he was saying and at the same time she didn't. Hearing would lead to understanding which would lead to accepting. "No. You're joking."
"I think we both know that I would never be so cruel."
Minerva opened her mouth, but there was nothing to say, nothing to think. There was no more ground to stand on.
Her knees buckled under her and she collapsed, only the expected collision with the floor never came because she landed as soft as if on a pillow. But this time, Minerva wasn't grateful for Albus' quick magic. She would have welcomed the pain. It would have been something to feel besides this all-encompassing numbness.
Eventually, Minerva felt Albus wrap his arms around her and he helped her back into a chair. But there was no warmth in his touch. It felt like a taunt, a cruel reminder of the very thing that was being taken away from her. And she hadn't even been aware that she was losing it.
"How? What happened?" Minerva finally managed to ask.
"Let us just say, it served its purpose by making Voldemort a tad more vulnerable in the process," was her husband's reply, and instinctively, Minerva wanted to complain that she was still not being told the whole truth. But the knowledge of this impending doomsday was way more pressing.
"How much longer?"
"Well, it is no exact science. But as I said, this will be my last year as acting headmaster of this school. It should however give me enough time to prepare Harry."
Minerva flinched. "And what about me?"
Albus' eyes became sad again. "I am sorry, Minerva. Even if I lived thrice as long as I have, I could never find the right words to convey how sorry I truly am. For your sake, I wish I had more time to try, though."
"For my sake?" Minerva straightened up a bit. "What about you? Are you saying you don't mind at all that you're dying?"
Albus cupped her cheek and smiled. "I stand by what I always said. For the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."
"Oh, shut up!" Minerva almost sounded like her usual self again, which was probably why Albus chuckled.
"Tell me you've at least tried to stop this. Tried everything. Looked everywhere. Tell me you haven't just accepted this. Because I can't."
"I know it is hard. Unfortunately, I am very sure that there is nothing to be done. But I also happen to be sure that you will be fine without me. You are the strongest woman I know, Minerva."
"Only because I have you."
"No." Albus looked very grave again. "I was always painfully aware that I took more strength from you than I was ever able to give back to you."
Minerva started to shake her head, but Albus wouldn't let her because he took her face in his hands. "Please, Minerva, I do not think I could live or rather die knowing that I broke you. You have to promise me that you will go on without me – as brave and true as you always have."
Minerva's eyes widened since she couldn't (or wouldn't) move any other part of her. "How could I promise you that? You were the centre of my life since I was… about eleven years old!"
Albus sighed heavily. "Yes, I am painfully aware of that."
"Painfully?" Minerva felt her already numb heart go stone cold. "You mean if you could go back in time you would change everything?"
Her husband looked at her solemnly for a very long time. "Only to save you from this pain," he finally replied. "I suppose it was always inevitable, but being rather more talented than most, if you'll excuse my saying so, I did hope I would be able to save you somehow."
Minerva dropped her gaze when his words stung despite her numbness. But eventually she looked up at him again. "I would rather hurt for the rest of my life than change any of it. Learning from you, coming into my own under your tutelage, and later returning to teach and to fall in love with you... I don't regret any of it. I wish you wouldn't either."
"It is only for your sake that I regret the choices I made," Albus said, his thumbs caressing her cheek.
"Well, then don't!" Minerva sounded like she had a bad cold. But under the circumstances she thought it was quite remarkable that she could speak at all. "You just said that even you can't change the past or the future..." She glanced at his black hand, but the sight sickened her worse than before. "So let's stay in the here and now. That's what we agreed on, isn't it? The only way for us to be together is for you not to be the only one he ever feared and to only be Albus no-last-name instead. And if the greatest wizard of our time really has to make the ultimate sacrifice, then I at least want to keep my husband for as long as I can."
Albus smiled at her almost serenely. "I would love nothing more."
"But you have to work?" Minerva asked warily.
Albus shook his head. "No. For tonight I am all yours, my love."
"Just for tonight, huh?"
"And in every other second I can spare," Albus added. "But you know that there are things I have to take care of before I die."
Minerva nodded gravely. She couldn't believe that talking about Albus' death like a fixed date in their calendar would be her new reality.
"Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?" Albus asked, as if knowing exactly what she was thinking.
"Promise you won't sneak off into the night. If you know... if you have any idea when... it's time... promise you'll come to me before."
"Are you sure?"
He seemed to be asking if she really wanted to go through a goodbye. She didn't, of course. But now that she knew what was about to happen, she would go through the rest of their life together with both eyes open. "You taught me never to be afraid. I can't say that I'm not afraid of death. But I'll try. And I am not afraid of love. Not anymore. Even if there's always a price to pay. I'll pay it. For you."
Albus' eyes gleamed. "I am and shall always remain yours, my love. Until the end."
"Until the end," Minerva whispered, smiling sadly.
"And I daresay, beyond," Albus added. "If you'll still have me."
"I'll be right here – where you'll have left me." Minerva sighed.
"I will never truly have left you. Certainly not within these walls," Albus said, his eyes taking in the many portraits.
"I suppose you'll be one of them." Minerva wasn't sure how she felt about that. "Will you... I mean your portrait... will he remember me?"
Despite the darkness of the hour, Albus chuckled. "Oh my darling, there is no version of me anywhere that could ever forget you."
When Albus pulled her closer with his uninjured hand, Minerva knew there was nothing in the world that could ease her pain. She could hardly even breathe, knowing that this could be the last time she was with Albus – the last time he soothed her with his calm voice, the last time he held her, the last time he kissed her.
Losing a love like she shared with Albus meant to lose a part of yourself. No matter how many more years Minerva was destined to live without him, she would only be half-alive. But it was a price she would gladly pay if she must. And it looked like she must. Because in return, she had known a love that was unending.
A love that was whole. Even if it was just for one more night.