Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or make any profit from this story. It belongs to the wonderful JK Rowling, Warner Bros., etc.
A/N: Well, it's not OOTP this time. :P But it is an Albus and Minerva story. And there are several Pottermore quotes, so be aware. (And a guest appearance I didn't even plan on.)
"Er… Um, Professor… I, uh…"
Minerva McGonagall did not typically use words such as 'er' and 'uh' and 'um' in her conversation. Her disposition and intellect reproved such useless terms, unless bogged down under the very immense weight of self-consciousness. Her companion and former professor, however, did not seem to recognize this.
Albus was listening, truly he was, but this didn't feel as if it was going to be a very important topic and so he felt less guilty for paying more attention to his letter to the minister than to his young new assistant.
"Um… well, I was wondering... I mean, just – just curious, really…"
With Minerva's hesitation growing stronger every second, Albus finally looked up from his letter to survey her face closely. A pinkish hue adorned her cheeks, subtly belying the embarrassment she was feeling.
"What is it, my dear?" he asked firmly but good-humoredly, regretting that he still had to work so hard at comprehending the quirks of the young woman who had changed so much from her school days. It was lucky he read people so well. Otherwise he would not know a thing about Minerva.
Not that he knew much even with his ability to read people. Minerva was a positive puzzle these days. When she was still in school, Albus could have picked out any number of her quirks, faults, eccentricities, talents, skills… but now… Well, now it was like a needle in a haystack. Most of the time he had no idea he was onto something about Minerva until he sat right on the proverbial needle. Two years had changed her dramatically and he had no idea why it should have done so.
"How did you… that is to say… when-did-you-start-growing-a-beard?" she spat out as rapidly as possible, and even with his ability to speak several dozen languages, Albus had to sort out the words to determine if they were even English.
When he did understand her meaning at last, the new headmaster began to chuckle richly, leaning back in his seat with a curious and highly-fascinated expression on his face.
"1911, if I recall correctly," he answered her first, but couldn't help asking, "Why on earth did you want to know that?"
"Oh, no reason in particular," Minerva tried to evade, staring determinedly at her hands, but Albus wasn't that easy to put off.
"Surely such an odd and unexpected question has a reason behind it," he argued lightly.
The look on Minerva's features, although determinedly buried as much as possible, became all too familiar to the deputy headmaster; it was a face that he had seen on quite a few female students since he had started teaching a few decades earlier. Or, in reverse, a face that Minerva herself had received from a large majority of the male students since her addition to the staff just the previous year.
Unfortunately, as wonderful of an addition to the staff as Albus knew Minerva was on an academic level, he now saw that her wish to work at the school was likely based in this infatuation and not truly in the work she so claimed to love. After all, what else could make her so awkwardly unhappy with a career she should be proud of? The thought made Albus cold of a sudden. He had not thought his once star protégé capable of such a manipulative decision.
"Oh, surely not," he murmured quietly, the calm chill in the atmosphere due to his change in attitude immediately setting his companion on edge. He had to admire, however reluctantly, her attentiveness to the magical aura that surrounded everything. One so young did not typically acknowledge it.
"Beg pardon, Professor?" Minerva confusedly inquired, shivering but barely in her seat.
"Now I understand you," he murmured still, holding her blank gaze for a long moment before rising slowly from his seat. "I had thought it strange that you so quickly wished to retire your position at the ministry, Miss McGonagall."
The returned use of this formal title caught her off guard with a visible start. Formal titles had always meant he was disappointed or unhappy during her school days. This moment, he admitted, was no different.
"Particularly strange," he continued in the same bland yet intimidating tones, making his steady way around the desk to stand before her as she half-turned in her seat to stare at him in that blasted innocent stare, "that a twenty-year-old with such a marvelous promotion ahead of her would ignore it in favor of so lowly and unfavorable a position as my assistant. But now I understand."
Minerva was beginning to look remarkably stunned, a feat which Albus again was forced to reluctantly commend in his own mind.
"Yes, my dear, I understand why you came here all too well," he went on again, irritated that she could not admit her selfish reasoning before he was forced to out them himself. "I have had many a girl in this school look up at me with wide, lovesick eyes, but never have I had a young woman so full of sneaking notions of romance that she went to the lengths you have to secure them."
As the last words escaped Albus' lips, Minerva's jaw dropped open quite spectacularly.
"Excuse me?" she spluttered loudly, disbelief taking up residence on her wide-eyed face.
"Do not play cat and mouse with me, Minerva McGonagall," he strongly ordered her, frustrated by her continued game. "You know exactly what I speak of. How poor in taste… to not even admit it when the truth has come about."
The young woman stood so suddenly, eyes suspiciously glassy, that Albus had brief urge to draw his wand in defense. Indeed, Minerva's hand twitched in that direction most conspicuously. Yet Albus stood stoically to wait out the split-second impulse. Instead, Minerva turned to face his desk stiffly and spoke not a word more for nearly five minutes.
Albus began to grow slightly more irritated with her for delaying the inevitable, but reassured himself with the knowledge that she would apologize with that girlish, shaky whine he had heard at least ten times before after catching a student attempting to gift him a love potion or some such nonsense.
"I am something of a fatalist, sir," Minerva spoke suddenly then, voice nowhere near the tremulous, guilty whine he had expected to hear. It was firm and steady in its tone, and her back faced him still, disabling him from gauging her expression. "And in my darkest, most impossible moments, I planned what I would do if this career, too, held no hopes for my future... As you will see in perhaps an hour, I have my resignation already printed and copied. It is effective immediately."
Stunned into silence and stillness, Albus did not react as his former student twirled on the spot to face him head-on, eyes steely, back straight, and head held high.
"You have insulted me," she exclaimed in ringing tones, the likes of which he had never before heard her employ. It struck him abruptly that this was no love-struck girl. This was a woman who was not going to back away from his accusations like a child. "Your claims are false and I will not accept them."
His quick move to interrupt was shot down even more quickly.
"Do not speak!" Minerva commanded, holding up a stiff hand to ward him off. Her eyes spat fire, even through the tears that began to fall silently. "If you had but one humble cell in your entire body, Albus Dumbledore, you would have simply asked me why I chose to give up a dreamlike career and promotion to come here and hide under your wings until mine were strong enough to fly free of the nest."
The wording itself was so poetic and so powerful that Albus was once again startled into silence. Minerva walked forward ever so slowly and steadily, coming to stand a foot in front of him and stare directly into his piercing gaze with one of her own.
"Had you but asked me," she whispered in a gentle and hurt voice, so different from the demanding notes of a moment before, "why I chose the way I did, I would no doubt have spilled my innermost demons to you without a moment's hesitation, fully believing in your sanctimonious honesty and magnanimity. But instead, you assumed – a product of your arrogance, no doubt – that little Miss McGonagall, who had become so inscrutable since her time under your care, had come to be obsessed with being the lover of Grindlewald's great defeater. And so manipulated a position in your department to finagle such an… offensive relationship."
"Oh, I admit," she added tightly, grinding her teeth. "I have admired you. Make no mistake, I felt those lusty teenage hormones just as strongly as some of the other girls. I even dared fantasize that you might sweep me off my feet at one time, just as they did. Never once, however, did I allow it to taint my academic career or my friendship—"
She broke off momentarily, emotions overwhelming her vaguely, but before Albus could speak the growing fear of having made a grievous error in judgment, she spoke again in that firm and intolerant voice.
"I trusted you!" Minerva loudly called him out, tears flowing much more frequently from her green eyes. "Trusted you to have faith in me and help me grow in a career I adore. And this is how you treat me? How dare you, sir!"
It was with a monumental effort that she withheld a grasp at her wand, but the effort was not enough to stop her hand moving entirely. With a force that belied the power beneath her slim figure, Minerva slapped his cheek hard enough to smack his chin against his shoulder.
As much as the hit stung his skin and the muscles and nerves underneath it, Albus felt the pain of her tears far worse. Wordlessly, Minerva stormed out of his office and slammed the door behind her.
An hour later, precisely, Albus held her resignation in hand – prepared for him to sign and send to Armando – and a terribly old, sad expression on his face. He had never judged someone so wrongly before. Not since… but he couldn't think about that. It was bad enough to think on Minerva's assaulted dignity and trust without remembering the biggest mistake Albus had ever made.
And now… how could he right this wrong? Was it even possible? Was this situation, like his relationship with Aberforth, meant to be destroyed by his own arrogance and blindness?
He simply could not let that happen.
Deciding more impulsively than he had done in quite some time, Albus rushed out of his office and to the rooms Minerva inhabited, which happened to be just across the hall from his own rooms. Three times his knocking went unanswered and he dared not imagine she had already gone.
The door was finally wrenched open to reveal a horribly disheveled Minerva, eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, her hair tangled from what he guessed was a crying jag on her bed.
"What do you want now?" was her harsh reproach. Yet in her eyes, Albus could see a far more sensitive hurt brewing. There was more to this than what he had accused her of. He could sense it and he knew his judgment was not wrong this time.
"To apologize," he began instead of questioning her troubles. She would most certainly not appreciate him prying after having been so cruel in his insinuations.
"Thank you so much," she snapped icily, trying to close the door on him, but he stuck his foot in the door. "Go away!"
"Please, Minerva, I cannot tell you how sorry I am," he pleaded gently. He made to reach for her hand on the door, but she ripped it away from him. "You have been so different from how I remembered you. I could think of no other reason when I saw that love-struck expression in your eyes. I know it was wrong to presume such a thing without any proof. Please, Minerva, do not leave. You do have a future here."
"I don't care what kind of concessions you try to make," she spat again, "I won't work alongside someone who so clearly maligns my character!"
With that, she kicked his foot hard enough to make him pull it out of the doorway, then slammed the door in his grimacing face.
Albus knew he could now only call upon someone closer to Minerva than he had been these last ten years or so. Hurrying to his classroom, he wrote out a thorough explanation of his wrongdoing and the outcome, then sent Fawkes with the message to the one person he knew who might help.
It was almost three hours later – with much stress and pacing on Albus' part – that Fawkes returned in a brilliant ball of flame with the very person Albus sought.
"Good evening, Professor Dumbledore."
"Isobel," he greeted her with grim purpose. "I am surprised you are so polite. I deserve wrath, certainly, for what I accused your daughter of."
"I cannot be angry with you for what you thought," the witch shook her head slightly. "No matter how unflattering it was."
"How could you not be angry with me?" Albus sighed, still angry at himself.
"Because… I thought that, too."
Albus' head snapped up much too swiftly, leaving a darn good crick in its wake.
Isobel sighed wearily, leaning back onto the nearest student desk rather hard. "I love my daughter. I love her very much, Professor, and I am proud of her. But… her strict moral sense is so like her father that it is difficult for us to connect on an emotional level. Hence why I might not know any better reason for her sudden career change than you have put forward."
"I don't seem to remember Minerva's father," commented Albus, brows furrowed in confusion. "There was no McGonagall in my house before Minerva. Although your husband does sound more like a Ravenclaw, I admit. Was he?"
"No, Professor, he was not," Isobel answered uncomfortably, fidgeting noticeably.
"What is it?" Albus wondered concernedly.
"My husband is a muggle, Professor," Isobel admitted quietly, barely glancing his way before looking back down at her slender hands.
"A muggle?" he exclaimed in surprise, clarifying when Isobel glared at him, "Not that I mind that fact, but… Minerva never said anything. I always assumed her father was also a wizard."
"She would not have wanted to draw attention to him," Isobel sighed sadly, scrubbing her face. "Not with Grindlewald's followers hunting down muggles all this time."
Albus shifted very awkwardly at this mention. If he had only stopped him sooner…
"It's been hard on Minerva," her mother added, "She was always so perceptive."
"What happened?" Albus gently inquired.
"I fell in love with Robert McGonagall when I was eighteen," Isobel began plainly. "It was during the Easter holidays, when we still had them off. It was so rapid, the romance, but all the time I knew him, I couldn't seem to tell him what I was. We eloped, to the anger of both our families, and I still couldn't tell him. Couldn't say that I had just graduated from Hogwarts with top marks in charms. But I loved him and I thought that was enough. For a while, it was. Then Minerva was born. From her earliest hours, magic happened. Toys put on a high shelf would end up in her crib, the cat followed Minerva's whims, Robert's bagpipes would play and make her laugh…"
Albus already could see the way this was going and he did not like it. Unknowing muggle spouses and parents often turned angry in such situations. He prayed that was not the case here.
"I constantly secluded myself with Minerva, becoming more and more withdrawn from Robert and life in general," Isobel continued, eyes turning impossibly sad. "Finally, he asked me so patiently, so kindly… and I couldn't lie anymore. After almost two years, I took out my wand again and showed him my abilities. He was in shock and I was in tears. I told him about the statute of secrecy…."
Try as she might, Isobel clearly could not withhold her tears any longer. "He loves me still, I know he does, but he will never trust me again. Minerva grew up with all of that pain and mistrust, constantly watching us tiptoe around the topic and pretend it was not as significant as it was. Oh, I love him so. But I never could have held Minerva back. She is so special! So gifted! How could I pretend otherwise just to keep my secrets?"
Albus gently took her hand in his own, understanding all too well the pain of secrecy and lies. Isobel allowed herself to cry silently for a brief moment, but soon enough she forced herself into calmness.
"You must make this up to her," she stated simply.
"Yes, I agree," Albus murmured depressingly. "But how can I ever make up for this? I was so dreadfully wrong. And so hurtful. It disgusts me how easily I believed what my arrogance portended."
"Minerva is hard and firm," Isobel frowned. "But she does admire you greatly. And whatever her similarities to Robert, I believe she can learn to trust you again as Robert has not been able to trust me."
Moving to intervene, Albus stopped at the firm hand she raised against him. "No. Minerva has far more feeling than she will ever show to you on the outside. And… forgive me for being so bold, but I think she does love you in a way. Perhaps not romantically, but very closely all the same. You have been a dear friend to her since she came to Hogwarts. Someone who encouraged her ambitions and dreams no matter how challenging they might have looked to her."
"I wish I had been that sort of friend this time," Albus sighed deeply. "She deserves that much after whatever heartache she has encountered these past two years."
"I wish I could understand what has hurt her so," Isobel confessed.
"You can," came a voice from the doorway. Albus and Isobel turned as one to find Minerva standing with a box in one hand and the other on the door handle, eyes so very weary.
"Minerva!" Isobel gasped, rising instantly to rush over to her daughter and embrace her. "Oh, my darling, please don't be angry with us. We're so worried! You're father even knew something was dreadfully wrong when you left last. And you know how much it takes for him to notice such things."
"Yes, I know," Minerva exhaled briefly, slumping a little where she stood to lean on her mother's shoulder. "I could see the concern in both of your eyes, but I couldn't… I couldn't tell you. I just couldn't!"
'Minerva, whatever has happened?" Isobel begged, pulling her eldest child further into the room. "Won't you tell me?"
"I shall leave you," Albus explained himself away, heading to the door behind them.
"No," Minerva stopped him steadily. "You should know. You've been just as worried since I began working here. I can even disregard your earlier assumptions, given that fact. Little else would have made sense. And seeing that my mother could come to no other conclusions herself…"
"I'm so sorry," Isobel whispered guiltily.
"I'm not angry anymore," Minerva sighed heavily. "I'm just so worn out."
"Come sit," Albus offered softly, placing a kind hand on her lower back to guide her to the same desk Isobel had leaned against. It spoke to Minerva's resignation that she gave in immediately, followed by a deeply concerned Isobel.
"This is all you will need to see," Minerva breathed awkwardly, offering up the as-yet forgotten box for her mother's wary inspection. "Look inside."
Cautiously as ever, Isobel opened the locked container to find letters stacked inside. Confusedly, she glanced back up at her daughter.
"Read," Minerva insisted.
It took only reading the first few lines for Isobel to realize the letters were from someone who loved Minerva very much. And the dates… two years ago.
"Why did you never tell us?" she asked, a touch hurt by the lack of trust. "I would have been overjoyed to learn you had a beau!"
Albus was surprised. Why wouldn't Minerva tell her family of such a wonderful thing?
"Read the signature," whispered Minerva, closing her eyes as if to ward off pain.
Bewildered, Albus watched Isobel check the bottom of a long letter. If he had not understood the significance, it mattered not. Isobel clearly did, evident by her loud gasp.
"Oh, my poor baby," she choked on the words, allowing the letter to slip to the floor as she faced her daughter with shining eyes. "You turned him down. You sent him away."
"I witnessed at close quarters the kind of marriage I might have if I wed Dougal," Minerva said quietly, voice remarkably dead. "It would be the end of all my ambitions; it would mean a wand locked away, and children taught to lie, perhaps even to their own father."
Isobel sobbed at the hard facts of her own family life, her own marriage, and Albus now clearly understood what has so vastly changed Minerva.
"Don't cry, Mother," Minerva attempted to comfort her, holding the woman as Isobel had been planning to do for her. "Father loves you, even though he cannot understand our world. And he loves us, too. But I couldn't live that way. My magic is like another limb. To lose it would be… unbearable."
"I know," Isobel cried into Minerva's shoulder before pulling away. "Forgive me. For putting you through what I did."
"Forgiven long ago," Minerva told her kindly, embracing her one more time. "Why don't you go home now? Father will be worried about you. Fawkes' appearance must have scared him to death."
"Oh, he wasn't in the room," Isobel chuckled bleakly, wiping tears away. "Your brothers and I nearly flew through the roof, though."
Smiling at the thought of her brothers' inevitable awe with the phoenix, Minerva carefully pulled her mother up from the desk.
"Visit this summer," Isobel commanded her daughter, who laughed slightly. "Your father and I want to see you more often than one day a year."
"I will," Minerva assured her calmly. "Tell him I miss him."
"He knows, dear," said Isobel kindly, almost reluctantly grabbing onto Fawkes' tail feathers.
As Fawkes began to erupt in flames, there was a sudden horrified look on Isobel's face. "Don't read my letter!" she half-shouted as she was pulled away in a burst of fire.
Minerva started along with Albus at the abrupt moment of panic her mother portrayed.
"What was that about?" Minerva wondered worriedly.
"Perhaps she mentioned this young man in her letter," Albus tentatively suggested, still wary of his welcome in the young witch's presence.
"Oh," she frowned, "I wouldn't worry over that now…"
"I suppose you will have to trust her word or… take the risk, then."
"Yes, that's true," she agreed hesitantly, only then turning to face him. "I forgive you, Professor. Truly. My pain has been festering for so long, you see… "
"I know something about that," he confided.
"Thank you for consulting my mother," Minerva went on, removing nonexistent lint from the sleeve of her robes. "It was wonderful to talk with her so freely. We usually can't talk that easily with each other."
"She understands your situation," Albus smiled vaguely.
Minerva nodded. "Yes, she does. I just wish I didn't have to bring up the past that way. It hurt her deeply, even if I didn't mean it that way."
"I think she understands that, too," he commented quietly.
"I still wonder what is so terrible in her letter," Minerva wondered.
"You will be finding out very soon, I fear," Albus spoke warily, having caught sight of a familiar bird carrying an envelope. Isobel's barn owl during school had looked almost exactly the same as her current one, which Minerva had purchased for that very reason three years prior.
"Oh my," she breathed, already looking nervous.
Albus silently walked over to let the owl in, forced to step back quickly as the bird flapped past him to land in front of Minerva. While the young woman took her letter, Albus fished a treat from his desk for the dignified owl.
After that, Albus merely sat silently and patiently, waiting for Minerva to finish her letter.
A slight cry of pain some time later caught his attention without warning. Minerva was sitting still, the letter clutched against her chest and tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. Her shoulders shook terribly with her repressed cries.
"Minerva!" he called to her, sweeping over to the desk she had taken residence at. "What is it? What is wrong?"
"D-Dougal… he's m-married!" she exclaimed tightly, but speaking this information aloud was more than Minerva could handle. She burst into sobs suddenly, brokenly allowing Albus to pull her into an embrace.
For some time Albus could think of no words, just letting her cry into his robes. It broke his heart that she faced such pain after he had already made her feel so horrible earlier that day. Hadn't she gone through enough?
"I wish I could tell you it will be all right," he finally spoke once her sobs had ceased, although tears remained. "But I know first hand how painful such loss is. To realize the love you feel cannot come to fruition…"
"You've been through this too?" she whispered, curiosity in her voice in spite of her heartbreak. The thought made him chuckled inwardly.
"Years ago, when I was not much younger than you are now…" he began to explain what he had never before dared tell anyone.
Yet he knew he could trust her to keep his secret and to understand how love could blind even the wisest from reality's harsh bite.
A/N: I don't know where this came from, really. It may be a bit OOC for Albus and slightly AU overall, but I like it all the same.
I just had to have Isobel in there. ;)