The ward had settled into slumber, the glowing orbs, floating in the air like so many moons, cast only the faintest glow over the single patient and her surreptitious visitor. Albus Dumbledore seated himself quietly beside the bed, fussing unnecessarily with the bed sheets before lifting a small white hand and pressing it between his own. Professor McGonagall looked deathly pale against the fan of her long ebony hair, her breathing painfully shallow. He raised her hand to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss against her fingers.
'You shouldn't be here,' she rasped, clucking her dry tongue against the roof of her mouth and licking her parched lips. He gave himself a thorough mental kicking for waking her.
'And where else would I be, pray tell?' he asked casting around for some water and spotting the jug on her bedside cabinet. He lay her hand back on the bed with a pat and poured out a glass of water which she found impossible to take. She could barely twitch her fingers let alone lift her arm. 'Here,' he murmured, sliding a hand beneath her head as he raised the glass to her lips.
'Thank you,' she said, spluttering slightly. He pulled out a handkerchief, wiping her mouth. 'Now go before someone sees you,' she wheezed.
He shook his head slightly, retaking her hand as her grey eyes met his. 'The staff won't be back for half an hour.'
'It's too risky,' she protested, though each word seemed to cost her great effort, her breathing difficult. The Healers had tried to explain to her, in the brief moments she was awake, that her body was still somewhat stunned. Her lungs were being sluggish, barely working at twenty percent of normal, and her heart had given out twice before she'd reached St. Mungo's. All in all, she was in no fit shape to argue.
'Shh. Let me worry about that.' She frowned, her eyelids felt as though there were a lead weight attached to each. Albus gazed upon her drawn face; his initial flood of panic had abated only to be replaced by this gnawing guilt. 'Look what they've done to you…' he whispered.
She forced her eyes open again to give him a firm look but seeing his expression she softened, trying to squeeze his hand in reassurance. All she managed was to curve her fingers around his. 'I'm fine.'
He chuckled sadly, kissing her fingers again. 'No, you're not. We almost lost you – I almost lost you. You know, my nerves are in pieces.'
'Nothing a sherbet lemon won't cure, I'm sure,' she smiled wanly, fighting a losing battle to cling onto consciousness. 'Don't you go blaming yourself, Albus. 'S'not your fault.'
Dumbledore nodded to appease her, reaching up to caress her cheek. 'Rest now,' he said.
She blinked heavily, looking into his shadowed face. 'Be careful. Promise me.'
'As always,' he smiled, stroking her hair until she slipped back into sleep. He sat watching her for countless lost minutes. It had been so long since he'd watched her sleep; he'd forgotten the peace it brought him. He barely remembered the schoolgirl and yet the woman was indelibly stitched into his very existence, the firmest friend he'd ever known, at his side – on his side – for nearly four decades. He couldn't help but blame himself for putting her in harms way. Of course she would argue that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, but that didn't mean he wouldn't jump to her aid the second she needed him.
He loved her, it was as pure and as simple as that, had loved her for a very long time. He'd never said the words out loud but he didn't need to: she knew. As platonic as their relationship was, his love was not that of a friend – no matter how hard he fought it and he had fought as hard as any man could. No, he was in love with her and that was something else he could not help.
When it came to Minerva McGonagall, he was a helpless man.
He looked at his watch, knowing he had other places to be and other responsibilities to live up to but he didn't like to leave her like this. Still, he stood to go. 'I'll be back soon.' He promised, bending to press a brief kiss to her lips. She smiled faintly as he pulled away.
He cast one last glance back at her bed when he reached the double doors, just to be sure she was still there, still okay, before doing what he must and cloaking himself in invisibility. The double doors swung open and closed seemingly of their own accord and nobody would know he'd ever been there.
Even Minerva couldn't be sure she hadn't dreamed the whole thing.
Candlelight flickered over the deep red walls and the numerous gold-framed portraits hanging on them. The fire crackled quietly as though afraid to disturb the man sitting with his head in his hands: one whole and healthy, one desiccated and black. His thoughts had not been an easy burden these past few weeks – his conscience even less so, forced as he was to admit that he had made some irredeemable mistakes. He did not look up when the door to his office opened without invite, nor did he attempt to hide his troubled mind from this particular visitor - as he would have any other. He heard slow footsteps move towards him, punctuated every other step by the soft thump thump of a walking stick. The hand on his shoulder was gentle but persistent and he looked up into worried grey eyes.
'You looked exhausted,' she commented, taking the seat beside him on the worn, burgundy sofa.
'I feel it,' he admitted, for once foregoing the usual charade, the twinkling quip about age and vitality.
Minerva shook her head, eyes studying the slouch of his shoulders, the creases in his robes – yesterday's by the look of it – the absence of that twinkle in his eye. 'You should get some sleep,' she said, knowing that he wouldn't take a blind bit of notice.
'I should,' he acknowledged but made no move to do so.
She reached out a hand to rub his back, 'Albus,'
He cut her off with a deep sigh, removing his glasses to rub his eyes. 'I have made mistakes, Minerva, so many mistakes.'
'No matter what you may think to the contrary, even with your 'considerable intellect',' she said dryly, 'you are still only human.'
'Oh. Believe me, I am well assured of that,' he nodded, leaning back into the cushions.
Minerva clucked her tongue disapprovingly, 'Punishing yourself like this serves no purpose.'
He turned to look at her and she felt a pang of sympathy at the sadness she saw in his face. 'Let me feel the full weight of my mistakes for once, Minerva. I fear I have been blind for far too long.'
She slipped her hand into his, giving it a reassuring squeeze. 'It does not do to dwell on the past,' she reminded him, having heard him say it often enough.
He shook his head, casting her words aside. Like never before he saw his life with infinite clarity and though the events at the Department of Mysteries had triggered his thoughts those events were not, as his esteemed deputy thought, what burdened his mind tonight. No, this was an error decades old and still as potent. 'I owe you an apology,' he said at length.
'Me?' she shook her head, withholding a sigh with great effort. 'Albus, how many times do I have to tell you that you could not have prevented what happened –'
'I'm not talking about the incident with the Aurors,' he negated, with another slight shake of the head. 'A long time ago I took something from you, something I had no right to take.' She looked at him in confusion, with just a trace of apprehension in her eyes. 'I was a coward, Minerva, and I let my feelings for you keep you here,'
'Albus, stop,' she commanded suddenly, pulling back, her apprehension blooming into fear.
'I should have sent you away, but I did not,' he said sorrowfully.
'Stop it,' she said again, trembling slightly as she struggled to her feet and picked up her walking stick, almost knocking it into the fire in her haste.
'I should have told you this long ago.' They had not spoken of this particular chapter of their past in almost forty years. To do so was to open old wounds, wounds he was about to mercilessly rub salt in.
'Albus, please,' she begged, tears in her eyes. 'Don't say it,' she whispered. She didn't want to hear it, couldn't bear him to call it a mistake now; thirty – even twenty – years ago she would have welcomed it, but not now, not when she had finally made her peace with the past.
But he continued on regardless of her pleas. 'I see now that I was wrong,' he reached out, clasping her hand, stopping her movement toward the door. She could see everything spiraling out of her control, helpless to stop it, helpless to look away. 'Letting you go was one of the greatest mistakes of my life but keeping you here, taking your chances of happiness from you was the utmost injustice. I was selfish.' He stood, unable or unwilling to see the furious tears in her eyes, thinking that somehow, some way perhaps, he could kiss it all better.
Before she knew it she was kissing him back, lips parting to allow his intrusion, traitorous body responding to his every touch, foolish heart pounding. She broke away with no small amount of strength of will, leaning heavily on her walking stick, breath coming in quick impatient gasps as hot tears rolled down her face. If he had been expecting her to fall into his arms and declare her undying love for him, he was sorely mistaken. She gave him, what was beyond a doubt, the filthiest look he had ever received.
'You bastard,' she exclaimed before turning on her heel and disappearing down the staircase.
Her rooms had not changed all that much in four decades save for a notable increase in the photographs over the mantle and scattered around the various tables in the lounge. Minerva was sitting, somewhat stiffly, behind her desk determined to keep a respectable distance between them.
'You cannot avoid me forever,' he pointed out, taking, uninvited, the seat in front of her desk.
She shot him a sharp look of annoyance. 'I have a lot of work to catch up on before the start of term.'
'We both know that that is not why you are hiding –'
'I'm not hiding!' she rebuked, splattering the parchment in front of her with black ink.
'That's why you have not attended breakfast, lunch or dinner in the Great Hall for three consecutive days, is it? Lesson plans?' he shot back, a hint of anger in his usually twinkling eyes. 'Can we not discuss this like reasonable adults?'
'No,' she answered bluntly, 'We cannot.'
'Professor Dumbledore, I really am very busy,' she said dismissively, looking back down at her parchment.
He muttered darkly to himself, getting up and walking towards the door. She was on the cusp of breathing a sigh of relief when he changed his mind, turned back and banished everything, from the lesson plans to her potted fern, from the desk. She looked up at him furiously, loaded quill dripping ink onto the bare tabletop. 'Well, that was mature.'
'What else am I to do when you won't even talk to me?' he demanded. 'I don't understand what I've done wrong. I know you feel as I do.'
'But my feelings seem to be irrelevant to you!' she snapped. 'I've made it perfectly clear that I have no wish to discuss the topic further and yet you keep pushing. You don't care what I want, you simply wish to silence your own guilty conscience and you're using me to do it and I won't have it, Albus! Anything you're feeling now, you brought on yourself!'
'Have I not tried to apologise? Am I not here now trying to put things right?'
She looked at him incredulously. '"Put things right?"' Her eyes were wide, both hands palm down on the desktop where she'd pushed herself to her feet. 'And how in Merlin's name do you propose to do that?'
'Tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it!' he howled in frustration, half to the moulded ceiling.
She leaned forward, saying each word slowly and clearly as though he were particularly obtuse. 'I want you to leave, Albus, and never mention this again.'
'I can't do that,' he shook his head, almost as though he regretted the words. Almost.
'Then why ask me what I want?' she growled, shoving herself away from the desk and turning to face the bookcase in case the desire to hex him got the better of her.
'You knew what I meant,' he told her, walking around the room to catch a glimpse of her face. 'How am I to make things right with you?'
He needn't have bothered as she span to face him, infuriated with him for not realising what was completely obvious to her. 'You can't fix this, you can't wave your wand and make the last forty years go away.'
He raised his chin, surveying her with that maddeningly penetrating gaze. 'And what about the next forty years?' he asked.
'I am your friend,' she said through clenched teeth, as though she were seriously questioning that assertion at present. 'That will not change.'
'I don't want you as my friend.' He made to move towards her again, arm outstretched but she stalked around the other side of the room, leaning on the desk for support.
'Well you're fast making that a reality,' she muttered, loudly enough for him to hear as she reached one of the armchairs situated by the fire, her back to him again.
'You're deliberately twisting my meaning,' he accused and he was perfectly right. She was being purposely belligerent in the hope that he would give it up as a bad job. 'You have yet to give me any reason for your refusal to even talk about this.'
'Well, that would be talking about it, wouldn't it?' she gave a short bark of laughter, staring into the fire. 'I find it amazing that a man as brilliant as yourself cannot work it out on his own.'
He shrugged, a note of petulance creeping into his voice. 'The workings of the female mind remain a mystery, even to me.'
She turned to look at him, elbows still resting on the back of the chair, 'How about the workings of a human heart? All you see are your own wishes and desires, what you want – have you even stopped to consider what it is you're doing to me in the process?' she demanded of him.
His expression softened, 'A second chance, Minerva. I'm giving you a second chance.'
'How noble of you,' she said acidly, turning back to stare at the flames.
'It isn't about nobility-' he protested, the gentleness gone as quickly as it had come.
She span around, throwing her arms out to the side. 'That's exactly what this is about! Your nobility…' she said the last word as though it was a fatal flaw.
'And what is that supposed to mean?' he questioned, getting distinctly tired of following her about the room.
'I know it hasn't escaped your notice what your honour has cost me, you said it yourself.'
He could not deny it. He had no wish to. The fault was his and he was more than willing to own it. 'I did what I thought was right at the time but I was wrong. I made a mistake.' He was correct in assuming that to add to err is human would have been to err indeed.
For a moment she looked truly frightening, fixing him with a glare so threatening he could almost feel the fibres of his robes heating up. The problem with a witch as powerful as Minerva McGonagall was that, unchecked, a look could most certainly kill (or at least set you on fire). Fortunately for Dumbledore she wasn't exactly in peak condition at present. 'That's the most insulting thing you've ever said to me. Don't you see how demeaning it is? You broke my heart but it's okay because it was a mistake?' she moved almost drunkenly towards him, voice dripping with sarcasm. 'I never remarried but it doesn't matter because it was a mistake?' she questioned, an eerie glint in her eye, nostrils flaring. 'I will never have children – how dare you call that a mistake! It wasn't a mistake,' she refuted, jabbing a finger at him threateningly, 'it was the compromise I had to make to be near you.'
He shook his head, holding his nerve and not backing away though every self-preserving instinct told him he should. 'I never asked you to give up those things.'
'Didn't you?' she asked, eyebrows arched questioningly. 'You wouldn't have me in your bed but you would have me in every other way,' she assured him. 'And I was grateful!' she laughed, but it was bitter and on the verge of turning to a sob. She softly shook her head. 'I told myself that I wasn't staying for you, but the truth is I needed you … and I just couldn't stomach the thought of leaving. I admit it,' she said tremulously. 'I took what I could get - something was better than nothing, after all.' Exhausted from fighting, the anger that had run so hot could fuel her no longer. She slumped down into one of the armchairs, resting her head in her hands. 'I even thought that you might change your mind in time.' She lowered her gaze to the carpet, ashamed of her weakness and childish wishes.
Albus took the seat opposite her, tentatively hopeful that hurricane Minerva had blown itself out. 'A million times. You don't know how many nights I found myself outside your door.'
She sat back, wiping loose hair out of her face and tears from her eyes. 'Do you have any idea how long it's taken me to get over everything that happened? To accept my life as it is? I told myself that it was the right thing to do and now you're telling me that it wasn't? That it was all for nothing…'
He gave her a slightly patronizing look of incredulity. 'You think that by giving in to our feelings now makes the last forty years worthless?'
She lifted her arms in a defeated shrug. 'Doesn't it?' she asked. Blinking away more impending tears, she pressed her hands together as if in prayer and fixed him with an almost pleading look. 'I chose this life, Albus, and we've been happy in our own way – why can't you be happy with it still? Why drag up the past now?'
'Because I realise now what a foolish error I made with regards to you. My conscience told me it was wrong to be with you,' he shook his head, rubbing his moustache, 'but I wanted you anyway. And though I didn't see it then I had you. Oh, I told myself that you stayed for the job, the school, the students but it wasn't any of those things – it was me – and deep down a small, selfish part of me knew it and rejoiced. Where was my nobility then, Minerva? And then three days ago, in trying to apologise to you I made another unforgivable mistake, I didn't simply ask for your forgiveness, as I should have done, I asked for all the things I have selfishly denied you for the past forty years. I foolishly thought that my love would be enough to heal the pain I caused you, that my repentance could somehow make it right but, as you have so rightly said, what I have done is irredeemable and I was wrong to seek redemption here.'
She leaned over, squeezing his good hand. 'I said I was grateful and I am, despite everything that's happened. You've been a good friend to me; any sacrifices I made, I made of my own free will and I'm as guilty of holding you back as you are of keeping me here,' she admitted. 'I could have left at any time but I didn't. Perhaps if I had you would have found someone else and moved on and so would I. It wasn't your place to send me away, that's not what upsets me; it's knowing you, the man you are. It wouldn't work between us.' She moved to kneel on the floor in front of him. 'A few days ago we were happy. We can be that again.'
'Do you not think we could be happy together?'
'For how long?' she whispered, reaching up to cup his cheek, the eyes searching his testifying to the truth of her words. 'I do love you, Albus – I just don't think I could survive another of your attacks of conscience.'