Author's Note: Not my characters and they never will be.
A Long Road
Chapter 1: A Meeting
She looked out onto the grounds. Everything was still green, even though the frost had begun setting in early. It was only just September.
There were even some sunflowers left, explosive and vibrant in the moonlight. It was as if they could light the grounds with their yellow heads, lead the way out. All of the sunflowers should have died long ago and gone to seed. She sighed: the wonders of magic.
Minerva McGonagall couldn't remember why she agreed to come. It wasn't that she had a date, though she did. It wasn't that Frederick was a difficult man to say no to or that he had been interested in her for months, no. It wasn't even that she felt sorry for him. It was, she supposed, so that she could look and feel pretty again. And she did.
With some smart new green robes and her hair up in an intricate bun, she felt beautiful for the first time in a long time. And tall. She couldn't forget about feeling tall. Almost as tall as the sunflowers—well, perhaps not quite that tall. The woman smiled to herself, knowing that her lips were the color of a rose. Yes, beautiful she was.
To the left of her, she heard someone tall walk across the balcony. He stood close, but not too close. The man smelled of good cologne, applied in just the right amount. It was nice, she thought, of him to wear a hat; people seldom did that anymore. He did not look at her directly and she did not look at him.
"I'm surprised that there aren't more people out here, where the air is," the stranger said.
The woman smiled. It was a thought that she certainly had already had; the balcony was remarkably empty. She liked it better that way. "I'm sure they're all enjoying themselves inside. It sounds like a rather social party."
She heard the man lean over towards her, almost felt his breath on her skin; her defenses led her to turn and face him. Minerva's knees gave and she leaned, hard, on the edge. She exhaled gently, "Professor Dumbledore?"
He was just as surprised to see her. He swallowed, as if her were afraid. But his voice was just as gentle and strong as it ever was, "I thought it was you."
"Me?" she breathed. Suddenly she felt so very stupid. She should have been ready for this. It was only a matter of time before she ran into him. A six year run really wasn't that long.
"How are you?"
Minerva gave out a short, awkward laugh. Her heart sped up at the thought of the situation before her. "I'm doing well. Quite well, really."
"I see you've gotten yourself published."
"Yes. Mmm," she swallowed. "I hope you didn't read the article in Transfiguration Today. They had me edit things to the point that it isn't my work anymore."
"I didn't. Transfigurative Sciences. Very well written. Very provocative," he smiled. He meant it sincerely, she knew that.
She nodded slowly. "Thank you. I," she stopped herself, "How have you been?"
He looked at her with his brilliant blue eyes. They hadn't changed, thank Merlin.
Albus took off his hat, revealing his handsome red hair. "I can't complain, really. I'm still at Hogwarts, of course. Professor Dippit is leaving us after this year, so naturally there's plenty to do to prepare for that. The interview process has already begun. And of course the school year only just started. To be honest, I almost didn't come here tonight, I'm so busy."
"Are you glad you did?" she shrugged.
The man shrugged back, "I'm not sure yet. I would be a liar if I didn't say that my evening just became much more fascinating with your appearance."
Minerva knew her face was blushing, for she felt her cheeks grow warm. The professor was always good at getting that reaction out of her. Perhaps that's why she never tried to contact him. Perhaps that's why she chose not to write him back. Even after that heartbreaking letter, she didn't write him back. But she told him that she wouldn't. Perhaps that absolved her from the guilt that she was feeling.
"I am nothing special," she smiled toothlessly, awkwardly.
"Nonsense. You're a prodigy. Your talent has always exceeded others and I daresay, it always will."
She raised an eyebrow, acknowledging that he was going a wee bit too far. "Of all the things I am, Professor, prodigy I am not."
The man cleared his throat loudly and moved back ever so slightly. He leaned against the balcony, allowing it to support both strong hands and elbows. "I would rather you not call me professor. You've gone on to the real world now; you're not confined by school to call me professor."
The woman wanted desperately to speak of it aloud, what was never really confessed to anyone. She desired, more than anything, to point out the fact that he had a certain disregard for the rules. That it was his fault. Of course, that would not end well for either of them. She knew that it was her fault, too. She also knew that talking about it was forbidden.
"I prefer calling you professor."
She blinked with full awareness of her long lashes and deep green eyes. His eyes were on her and she had no refuge from her old lover. In a sharp moment, she felt the memory of tears on her face, a seemingly endless river. And then the dryness. The air stung her eyes.
"I was Albus to you once."
Minerva didn't dare move her gaze away from his, though it stung. "Albus," the word slid off of her tongue like a favorite word, long since forgotten.
"Minerva! There you are!" a rich voice boomed from the entrance to the balcony. Minerva turned quickly to see her date, Frederick standing there, horrible goatee and all. He approached them with a smile, wrapping his arm around Minerva's shoulder when he came close enough to do so. She cringed at the touch of the man. "I've been looking for you everywhere! I turned to Winston and he claimed that you'd gone to the loo, but when you didn't come back, I went on a wild goose chase, I tell you! Tell me, Albus, have you been keeping her out here this whole time?"
The professor cleared his throat. "I assure you, I haven't been out her for very long. She's been hiding on her own accord, if she has been hiding at all."
"She's a minx, isn't she?" Frederick raised an eyebrow in the woman's direction. She began walking towards the party. Neither man followed her in; as she exited, she could hear them laughing.
Her first stop was the refreshments table, where the wine was kept. She needed a drink if she was going to make it through the evening; that much was clear. Between the idiot that she was there with and the man that broke her heart, she was in no state to face everyone completely sober. A glass of white would do her good.
She inhaled deeply before her first sip and then exhaled deeply afterward.
Minerva brought her hand to her face and felt the warmth on her cheeks. It was too hot inside; that's why she'd left in the first place. How was it that so many people could be two-stepping like that? Surely they were ready to keel over from all of that movement. In all fairness, they were probably having enough fun not to care.
The cold liquid trickled down her throat a second time. She blinked her unfocused eyes as she recalled the day she said goodbye to Albus. How strong she stood next to him! How high she held her head! And how unresponsive she was to him…
He wore blue that day. He always looked good in blue. It matched his eyes. Those eyes which once looked upon her with love. Even on that day, she saw it. And she knew that she saw it; it was not an after-thought. He loved her even then. What had been on her face?
She blinked. Pride. The pride always won. Always.
Minerva weighed the glass in her hand, running her fingers across the stem. It was cool, unlike the room. She put it against her cheeks, one at a time. She wished that it would help more, but it didn't. She couldn't stay inside and she couldn't go outside. Maybe she could just change into a cat and tip-toe her way out of the place. No one would notice. Except perhaps Albus, who she noticed was staring at her in the corner.
They stared at each other. It seemed like an eternity, but perhaps it was only a few seconds. Perhaps.
"Shall we dance?"
She looked to the side of her where Frederick was standing. Without so much as a response, he took the glass from her hand and set it on the table. And he more or less shoved her onto the dance floor, taking the liberty of putting his hands just a little bit lower than her waist. She had no option but to drift back into reality.
Her eyes rolled as he thrust her here and there in bouts of twirling and whirling and footing. He didn't speak while he danced, which was perhaps the only good part about it. Instead of getting a headache from his loud voice, she received a head rush from blood going from head to foot too quickly. This excursion felt like an eternity; it could not have been more than a song and a half—if she was lucky. After the first full bout, they stopped and clapped with the rest of them.
She touched her dizzy dizzy face and willed herself to make sense of it all. She heard Frederick say something, but with all the noise, she couldn't quite make it out. Before she knew it, a new set of hands touched her. Minerva blinked her eyes open.
"Albus," she whispered.
"Do you mind?" he answered back.
The woman clutched his hand tightly. "Not at all."
And so disappeared Frederick. Frederick and everyone else, it seemed. All she could focus on was the man before her. The man that she so desperately wanted to speak to, but couldn't. It wasn't that he couldn't understand—it was that he could. That terrified her the most.
"Thank you for saving me," she smiled gently at the man.
Albus nodded. "I take it that you are in fact not an item with Freddie?"
Minerva shook her head. "Absolutely not. He's vile. If I wasn't a nice person, I'd transfigure him into a…a…mosquito."
"Personally I'd go with a ladybug. That way he can't retaliate," he smiled.
She gave out a small giggle. "You have a point."
Then the music started. It was a slow, almost mournful song. Appropriate, perhaps, for the scene that was being set. He put his warm hand gently at the small of her back and squeezed gently on her delicate fingers. She had no need to pretend that she was the leader; Albus led beautifully.
They stared at each other. It occurred quite suddenly to Minerva that it could not be easy for him to speak to her in the way that he was. She had broken his heart, just as he had broken hers. Neither of them were blameless. They both were guilty.
"You're wearing blue," she whispered so no one but him could hear.
He nodded. She knew that there was some sort of understanding there, even before he responded with, "I was told once that it suits my eyes."
"It still does," she blinked.
There was a pain inside of her chest right then. It was his smile that did it; his glorious, unhindered smile. It felt heavy, like a weight was on her rib cage. Minerva wanted to cry. Or hit something. She still wanted him, even after all of those tears.
"You're wearing green," he responded. "It matches your eyes."
A deep smile sunk into her rouged lips. "I just bought them, the robes. I treated myself to them for the occasion."
"I'm glad you did," he smiled as the music changed. "It suits you."
He spun her gently with the music, catching her with his open arms. She sunk into him for the smallest fraction of a second. He still used the same cologne. He felt just as warm as he ever did. She should have recognized him much earlier. She spun out and then returned back to holding one of his hands and putting her arm on his shoulder.
It seemed to her that their relationship had been like their dance: slow, sensual, and ultimately heartbreaking. Her throat caught at the idea. "So you're to replace Professor Dippit?"
Albus seemed to understand right off. Dippit was so much more than a man to them: he was the man that reminded them of reality, the one that put a stop to their affair. Quite rightly, maybe. But somehow, she thought not. And so Albus would be replacing him. "Yes," he nodded. "He has decided to retire and I am to inherit the duty of being headmaster of Hogwarts. It's what I've been working for, Minerva."
She nodded. Of course he had been working towards it. He was Albus Dumbledore, destined for great things. "Congratulations." She meant it sincerely, though it may not have sounded that way. She was too caught up considering what may have happened if there had been no Professor Dippit.
"Thank you," was his response.
There may as well have been silence for the next few minutes, for they seemed to stop dancing, stop moving, stop talking, though she could not be sure whether or not they really stopped moving. She heard nothing. All she did was see. See him. His eyes seemed to say so much more than his words or his hands. He was not thankful.
"Albus," she whispered, "can we…might we go on a walk?"
He nodded and took her hand in his. He led her. He always led her. And in a manner of seconds, she found herself outside, where it was cool, almost chilly. Sunflowers twice as tall as she was surrounded her as they went on a brick path together, her and Albus Dumbledore. He spoke gently to her as they walked, like the reserved man that he was, "I am sorry for everything that happened."
Minerva shook her head, "I would not ever take any of it back, Albus. Never."
The man turned his head to look at her inquisitively: "Wouldn't you?"
She shrugged. "For all of the terrible things that happened, I think I learned more about happiness than I have anywhere else. I think that's worth something. I think that I knew that it would end the way that it did from the very beginning. I just didn't want to face it, when the time came." She looked at his unquestioning face. "Thank you, Albus, for staying with me in the infirmary."
"How do you know I was there?"
The woman swallowed. How could she not know? "I felt it, like you feel things when someone else is in the room. And you were the only one that would be visiting secretly like that. I know you must have thought that it was all your fault."
His voice cracked just a little. She didn't dare look at him. "Wasn't it? I put you in that situation. I was the one that swore you to secrecy. I was the one that caused you to go out in the snow. You might have died."
"Albus," she swallowed down the memory, "I brought it upon myself, too. I went to my dormitory, after you said what you had to say. And I cried. And cried. I even set up a silencing charm so I wouldn't wake anyone else. And then Gwen saw me…so I had to leave, I suppose. Had to go somewhere else. So I did. I sat in a tree by the lake and watched snow fall until the sun came up. I was delirious. I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, I was in the infirmary. And you were there."
"I was terrified," he whispered. "You could have killed yourself."
She glanced at him, raising an eyebrow, "And you would have blamed yourself."
It was the truth. He would have. She knew it then, just as she knew it now. She wanted him to be in pain, back then. Her seventeen year-old self needed it to be so. If she died, it would have been due to a broken heart. Then the secret could have been revealed. Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall.
"I would have," he nodded. "I never would have forgiven myself."
"Well," she gave a sad laugh, "lucky for you I have too much pride to die for a man, even one as famous as Albus Dumbledore."
Albus stopped walking. Minerva turned back to him. He looked at her seriously, like he would never say such a serious thing again. "I was so distraught, Minerva. You will never know the deep disgust I feel for myself for treating you that way. And then how you wouldn't meet my eye in class when you returned…"
She nodded her head gently. He hurt because of her as well. "I was unkind to you."
"Not unkind," he shook his head, "I don't believe that you meant to hurt me. I think that I broke you."
"I wasn't a porcelain doll, Albus."
"No," he seemed to be struggling for the words, "No you were never a…toy. I…loved you very much. And I was forced to break your heart."
Minerva shrugged. She had thought about it over and over again. There was always going to be an end of the road. "What else was there to do? I was a child. You were a teacher. It had to end."
He stood where he was and turned to look at the sunflowers. He did not look at her, She supposed it was because he was angry at her response, given his carefully spoken retort: "You did not write me back."
She willed him to look at her, but he seemed suddenly interested in the yellow petals that surrounded the brown center of the flowers. Standing there helplessly, there was nothing to say but the truth. He would take nothing but it, anyway. He already knew it. "I told you that I wouldn't in your office. I promised myself that I wouldn't get mixed up with you again after it all…" she shrugged, "imploded".
"Ah." He did not turn to look at her.
It wasn't fair. He was managing to make her feel terrible for things that she had no choice but to do. She bore no hatred for him, not for the way that he threw her out of his office after months of attachment. He left her lonely and aimless. But she, she was able to forgive him. "You told me," she said gently as she walked towards him, "that your pride would not allow you to continue loving me. You said," she put her hand on his shoulder, "Albus, you said that you had worked for too long to give up everything that you had worked for. You remember this conversation, don't you?"
She felt him inhale deeply. "Yes."
"I want you to know that I am happy that you are receiving everything you worked for. I am," she swallowed, "proud."
Minerva hoped that her words got to him, that they were filled with the loss that she felt deep down her in her heart. It was a loss, their love for pride. "You aren't the only one guilty of pride," she whispered. "If I had less of it, I may have written back to you. Back when I was still madly in love. But I couldn't. I refused to be weak."
Sometime during her words, the man turned to face her. Face to face, now, not but a person's girth away, they both stared. Had there been violins, they may have both cried. Or if one of them made the funniest joke ever, they'd both be laughing with everything inside of them. But there was silence; not even the insects made sounds. Albus nodded his head gently before looking into her eyes again. "You're not weak. You never were weak. I…in my stupid idiotic pride, thought that when I saw you that last time, you'd come back to me, despite what I had done to you. But you didn't. You disappointed me."
What was she to say to that? The truth, perhaps, no matter how feeble it made her feel. "I assure you, I said everything that I said with the intention of protecting myself."
"Self-preservation," he smiled. A far away look came upon his face, the sort of look that one gets when suddenly and inexplicably stands in the middle of a memory. He blinked out of it. "What was it that caused you to bring your defenses down in the first place?"
The woman shrugged. She couldn't just put something like that into words. It was not just that one moment when she gave way to her desires. It was the millions that preceded it; when they laughed quietly after class; or he read over her shoulder during class while she wrote; maybe, even, she could take into account his blue eyes when they made contact with her own. She whispered her response, "I wanted you."
He gave a bemused laugh. "What on earth does that mean?"
He was mocking her, now. Certainly, he knew what she meant. He had known desire. He had known temptation. They shared at least those moments together. "That I wanted you, Albus. Don't make me explain."
She turned around and began walking down the path. He grabbed her arm before she had time to think and was pulled into a kiss. Not a deep one. It wasn't lustful or passionate. It was soft, almost needy. She breathed as his warm lips swept away from hers. She stared up at him and gently ran her thumb along the side of his face, lingering where his lips were before dropping her hands to her side.
"I still want you," he whispered.
They said everything, his eyes. I'm sorry. I love you. I have been dying without you. I think about you every day. Don't deny me.
She couldn't, even if she wanted to.
Her hand pulled his head close to her own. Their lips met gently at first, for fear that it was a dream—she had dreamt of that moment so many times. They were soft, his lips; barely even touching her own. Then they weren't so light. They became hungry, pushing against hers, surrounding hers, parting hers. Minerva welcomed his warm breath to mingle with her own, intertwining their hot tongues. Her grip grew tighter on the man as he shifted his mouth and body closer. Her fingers clutched his red hair, feeling each strand through the crevice between her ten digits. He pulled her hips to his; her grip became needy, almost lustful. Scarcely willing herself to do it, she let out a satisfied moan.
His mouth released hers as they both took in slow breaths, much too controlled for the heat they were generating. Minerva's mouth shook. "Do you know of some place where we can go?"
His hands absent-mindedly shifted from a flexed and straight position, grasping at her robes. Albus shook his head, "We can't get to Hogwarts without walking."
She nodded her head. "Then we'll go to my flat. Take my hand."
And he did.