Chapter Twenty-Four: Surrender
July came quickly, punctuated on the twenty-eighth by one of the hottest days of the year. However, the inside of Marian Cottage was cool and comfortable - muggles would think it due to Air-Conditioning; wizards knew it was a simple cooling charm. The children were at Molly's - the other woman seemed to think Minerva needed some "alone" time. . . with good reason.
It had only been about a month since she had first started feeling down, and in the last few days that she had been downright depressed - and she hadn't the slightest idea why. Standing at the sink, she stared out the window at the setting sun as she methodically washed the dishes by hand - a process she found relaxing. As she scrubbed a wet sponge over another soapy dish, she tried to make sense of her most recent mood swing. Her mind had other ideas, though, and she resumed her recently developed pastime - worrying.
She had no right to, she reasoned silently, Albus was a grown man - he could take care of himself. She couldn't help it, though. It had been over a week since he last contacted them, via owl, and he was half the world away. 'What if something happened?' the treacherous part of her brain whispered, 'What if he's hurt?' Fighting down another wave of panic yet again, she tried to sigh the fear away, but couldn't. She was worried about him. It was an unreasonable fear. Not something that had any basis in fact whatsoever. All the same, she couldn't help thinking about him at random parts of her day. Those random times had been growing more and more frequent in the last two weeks, reducing her to a state of near-dread and helplessness that she had never felt before. She always had an answer. She always had a reason. Now, however, she had neither. Giving up on the dishes, she magicked them clean and banished them to their rightful nooks in the cupboards.
The fire in the hearth was lit, as always - it was difficult to contact anyone by Floo if it wasn't - as she walked into the living room and slid into her armchair. Picking up the book on the side table, she flipped it over and began to read the page it was open to, trying to take her mind off of the headmaster. She read the first two lines and rolled her eyes, turning the book over again to look at the title properly. It was one of Amanda's books.
'Hopelessly romantic, that one,' she thought mockingly, '"Love does not a man unmake, rather, completes the half. . ." honestly, woman, can't you find something a little more mind stimulating to read?' Even as she properly kept the page with a blue and gold bookmarker, she couldn't help but dwell on the words - one in particular. Switch chose that moment to waltz into the room and hop onto her human's lap. She had remained on the small size, yet still bigger than Spud, so she was able to fit in the chair along with the witch. Minerva grinned wryly and skipped the reprimand she knew would go ignored, instead allowing the black and white spaniel to rest her head on the arm of the chair and crossed her other arm over her body to scratch the dog's head.
"Love," she echoed her thoughts softly, murmuring them aloud now that she had a listening ear. "What is 'Love'?" Switch's ears pricked up minimally at the sound of Minerva's voice, but the dog quickly concluded that her mistress was talking to herself and sank back into her sleepy stupor.
The idea had been plaguing Minerva's mind for the better part of the entire past year. She loved Kael, but now had finally moved on. She loved Remus, who had finally re-accepted her. She loved Harry - now and forever. Involuntarily trembling a bit at the prospect of adding yet another man to that list, she gave a shuddering sigh and resumed her one-sided conversation with her canine.
"What is this, Switch? Why do I miss him so much? Is this just neurotic me, worrying about him nearly all my waking hours?" she asked softly, all the while gazing out the front window and absently scratching the furry head pinning down her left arm. "I have no idea what this is. We've known each other so long - I thought I knew him. But then he gets that look - I know I've told you about that - and now I have no idea." The brief intensity in his eyes during those times she had caught him were enough, even now as a memory, to make her breath catch in her throat and her heart pound loudly in her chest. "This is insane, girl," she began again, "I wish I had an answer. It's positively infuriating. You know me, yes, of course you do," she crooned as the dog rolled over and licked her hand in response. "I always know what's going on." She proceeded to thoroughly comb out the dog's somewhat matted hair with her fingers, turning over those same thoughts over and over again in her head.
Finally, a little while before she was due at Molly's, she quietly concluded, "I'm scared." She paused. "I don't know if I care for him like he does for me." She ended in a whisper, "I don't know if I can love like that anymore."
Being a studious boy in school, he had never mastered the art of sleeping with his eyes open, though he knew many on his own teaching staff that could rightfully claim that they had. As such, Albus was bored out of his mind and couldn't even catch up on his sleep while he listened to politicians drone on and on about trade and tariffs and other economically inclined topics. He had very little background in economics. He understood the basics, but the intricacies of the subject itself were classified as useless to him. He ran a school, not a country. He was a headmaster, not a minister - though he doubted Fudge would know any more than he did. The discussion of education and a proposal for a universal lesson plan for all schools to go by had already been brought to the table and shot down. Children need choices, he had reasoned, they need to decide what it is they want to study and how they want to learn it, and then choose the school that best suits them. It was pointless for him to be here now.
If he was perfectly honest with himself - his boredom wasn't the only factor contributing to his desire to leave the sunny island and return to Britain. Never before had he been hit with homesickness as hard as this year. Perhaps it was the monotony of his present trip, but he knew, deep down, he was homesick because he had a home to return to. Not a house, strictly speaking, although Hogwarts was practically "his" house. No, it was the people - two people - that provided him with something to return to: his son and his . . . Minerva. He succeeded in fighting down the blush that threatened to enflame his cheeks as he mentally slipped and nearly referred to Minerva as his wife.
'Minerva,' he thought silently. He knew he was going mad when he thought about her as often as he had during the last year. She was on his mind all the time. Not always in the forefront of his thoughts, but she was there. Everything reminded him of her. The dark green leaves of the trees were the same shade as the tartan robes she always wore to teach. The soft sands on the beach were the palms of her hands, a little rough, but warm. The stars in the sky were her eyes, sparkling and intoxicating. Swallowing his discomfort, he tried to think of something else. He couldn't do it, though - he missed her too much. He didn't understand it at all. He had always survived summers, and then five entire years without seeing her (though his heart had ached when he thought about her during those years), but here he was, a little over a month since seeing her and he could barely stand it. He missed her always close presence, her unwavering support and commitment. Yes, he was definitely going mad. Shaking his head to rid it of her to the best of his ability, his mind reluctantly released Minerva's scent and traveled to the other half of his home.
His feature's relaxed and he quietly quirked a half smile as a small boy with messy black hair took over the forefront of his thoughts. Harry's seventh birthday was coming up in a few days - that alone was reason enough to leave. Four more years until the little boy would begin at Hogwarts. Four years until his study in the magical arts would commence. Albus didn't want to miss another second of his life. He had already botched it so much that he missed the first six years of it, and he was determined not to miss more. That love was as frightening as it was fierce. It was unconditional, unyielding, and he knew it was undying.
'This is ridiculous,' he thought to himself crossly. Another speaker was standing to politely decline the first man's offer of. . . whatever it was. He neither knew nor cared what the present topic was. This wasn't his job. Barty Crouch was the International minister of Britain. He's the one who should have to suffer through this.
Rising with the crowd a few minutes later as a lunch break was announced, he gathered his things and resolved to go home.
A sharp rap on her front door startled her out of her musings and Switch leapt off of her lap to bark madly at the wood separating her from the new arrival. The rest of her dogs, on the back porch no doubt, had careened around the side of her house and joined in the cacophony.
Reaching for the handle of the door, she heard a deep, melodious voice chuckle and command the dogs, "Easy, boys, it's just me." The deafening barks were punctuated by high pitched, happy yelps of recognition.
Minerva couldn't help but smile with relief and joy at his voice. Opening the door, she smiled up into Albus' twinkling eyes.
"You could have Flooed and let me know you were going to stop by," she said sternly, but the smile on her face belied her tone.
"Forgive me, Minerva, I only just escaped the Coalition with my life and apparated here as quickly as I could," he replied seriously.
"What happened?" she asked immediately, the worry evident in her voice as she gave him a once over with her eyes and pulled him into the house. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"Minerva, I was joking!" he exclaimed, catching her hands as they reached for the wand in her pocket. "I'm fine! I only meant I just escaped the monotony of the Coalition with my life. Nothing happened."
Heaving a relieved sigh, she turned stern again and reprimanded him, "Don't do that to me. My heart was up here in my throat!"
"I'm sorry," he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "I didn't know I'd get that much of a reaction out of you from that."
She narrowed her eyes and fought to keep her mouth a taught, angry line as the corners of it forced a wry half grin half frown. "I've been so worried about you," she said, more to herself than to him, and wrapped her arms around his waist.
Convinced that this was all another one of his imagination's sporadic kicks into reality, he wrapped his own arms around her and teased, "Why, Minerva, I didn't know you cared."
"Of course I care, you miserable old coot," she whispered into his chest, "Of course I care."
They stood there a few moments, wrapped in each other's embrace, until their eyes snapped open at the same time and they hurriedly stepped back. Minerva kept her eyes on the ground, her cheeks flaming as she cleared her throat and fumbled, "Forgive me - it must be the heat. Shall I get us - I - I mean you, um - something to drink?"
"Yes, thank you," he replied, his facial expression identical to Minerva's as she briskly walked into the kitchen.
'What the bloody hell was THAT?!' Minerva screamed to herself as she collected glasses with forced calm. Her hands shook as she spooned ice into the clear vessels. She forced herself to breath. It was just a hug. A "welcome back" hug if you will. 'Oh sure,' her mind voice quipped slyly. It was just a hug. He was a very emotional person. The voice giggled like a lovesick sixteen year old in the back of her mind, 'Well if he's so emotional, why did you instigate that little moment?' Her nose twitched in agitation and her brow furrowed irritably as she pulled the pitcher of lemonade out of the refrigerator. 'And what was that "perfect" you thought to yourself as the two of you stood there. Don't bother denying it - I'm in you head - I know what you think.' Sweet Merlin, she needed a drink. 'It's your own fault there isn't any in this house.' She growled back at the voice quietly as she steadied her hand and poured the drink into the glasses, concentrating on the way the ice clinked together as the liquid spilled over them.
Albus' mind voice was a bit more accommodating to his immediate reaction - partially because his reaction was nothing but a blank, surprised buzz resounding over and over between his ears. 'Come on, Albus,' it coaxed as one would speak to a dog, 'Come on, just a little reaction here.' Wow. 'Eloquent,' it snorted. He hushed it and tried again. Perfection. That was the only other nearly coherent thought running through his mind. She had hugged him - she never hugged. He hugged her and she hugged back, but she never hugged him. Mind-boggling. It was perfect. Shaking his head, he called into the kitchen, "How's Harry?" He waited a few moments for a response, but didn't receive any. He heard her clinking around in the kitchen, so he knew she was all right, but went to check anyway.
"Minerva?" he asked slowly, leaning on stomach-high wall separating the kitchen and the living room.
She looked up from pouring the lemonade and replied, "I'm sorry Albus, I wasn't listening, what did you say?"
"I asked how Harry was."
"He's fine," she replied, then added with a small smile, "He was mad at you for not coming to his birthday, but he'll be thrilled you're here now."
"I'm glad," he said with a smile, accepting the glass from Minerva. "I couldn't help feeling horrible about missing it. I wanted to be here. Plus, I was bored as anything."
"Oh yes, do tell me about it," she grinned, trying to block the akward moment that had followed that pronouncement earlier as she continued, "I want to know exactly how bad this Coalition 'monotony' was."
They spoke there for a while, the wall between them, with brief silences interjected without intention until Minerva gasped.
"I was supposed to be at Molly's an hour ago!"
"I'm sorry, Minerva - had I known you'd had plans," Albus apologized.
She waved away his apology saying, "Don't be ridiculous, Albus. Come with me - Molly always cooks for an army and Harry would love to see you."
"Papa!" the boy yelled as the headmaster emerged from the inside of the Burrow into the backyard. Harry ran forward and launched himself into Albus' arms, hugging him fiercely around the neck as he told him, "Ma said you were going to be away until the end of August. Did you come back for my birthday?"
"That I did, Harry," he replied, hugging the boy back, "In fact, I'm back for the rest of the summer."
As Harry cheered, Minerva raised an elegant eyebrow and repeated, "For the rest of the summer? And who pray tell will represent Britain instead?"
"Barty Crouch - he's the one who should have gone in the first place."
"And does he know about this change of plans?"
"I haven't had a chance to inform him."
"But, Papa, what if they think you're missing?" Harry asked, cutting in before a scathing remark about responsibility could be thrown at his Papa by his mother.
"I've already told the minister I was leaving."
"What did you say to him, Papa?"
"Yes, Albus, what did you say?" Minerva echoed in a far sterner tone than Harry's inquisitive question.
"I told him I was leaving," at Minerva's level glare, he elaborated, "I told him I had family business to attend to."
Harry giggled, "Thank you, Papa. I really wanted you to come back."
How was she supposed to reprimand that? She sighed and shook her head at Albus' apologetic grin over the top of Harry's head.
'Amanda's drawing me into the insanity,' Molly thought woefully. She had watched the conversation between Albus and Minerva with growing horror. She saw, or she thought she saw something there. There was something familiar there. Their conversation was so much like one she would have with Arthur. 'She was right.' Now that she had been alerted to their chemistry, the signs were obvious as anything.
Albus, Minerva and Harry left after being properly fed - Albus to the ministry to further explain his desertion and Minerva and Harry to Marian Cottage. Molly ordered her children and husband to bed after every other word they spoke was interrupted by huge yawns. After she was sure they were all asleep, she threw a pinch of Floo powder into the fireplace and called, "Amanda Hooch."
Kneeling before the fire, she waited for the witch's head to appear in the flames. After a few moments of no response, Molly sighed and leaned forward to peer into the other witch's flat to see if she was home. The first site that greeted her eyes was Amanda hastily buttoning up her shirt and tossing a pair of pants that were too big for her into the closet. The short hawk-eyed witch yelped when she turned around and saw Molly's face smirking in her fireplace.
"Molly! Hello!" she said with false innocence.
"Company, Amanda?" the redhead witch asked evilly.
"Please don't tell Poppy."
Her smirk morphed into a full-fledged evil grin as she pressed, "Anybody I know?"
"Is there a reason you're calling me at eleven o'clock at night?" she demanded crossly, glaring at the grinning head in her fireplace.
"Oh, right," she said, "You're right about Albus and Minerva."
It was Amanda's turn to grin, "Told you."
"Yes, you did."
"Aren't you going to give me a hint?"
"Oh, all right," Molly relented. "I'll see you for Harry's birthday."
Molly leaned back into her own house, but kept the connection up and listened hard.
"Is she gone yet?" a familiar male voice inquired.
With another evil grin, Molly cut the connection and giggled. "Amanda and Marcus Kettleburn. Who would have thought?"
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