As soon as Minerva had thrown down her hat, there was a knock at the door. She groaned audibly and uttered a terse command to enter and stared at the intruder.
"What is it?"
"There has been an incident in the Great Hall," Neville Longbottom said haltingly. To be fair, he had come along way since she had first clapped eyes on him at the age of eleven and though she wanted to have to deal with whatever had happened less than she wanted to actually meet a Crumpled Snorcak, she sighed and took up her hat once more and ushered him out.
"A duel," Neville muttered. "Not a bad one, but it was," he shrugged. "Well."
"Why couldn't you have," she groaned. "No matter. Onward."
She considered telling him but realised that it didn't matter. Nobody would care. She was Minerva McGonagall. Headmistress of Hogwarts. As Albus before her, age was just a number that had long since been forgotten by most people. The odd one would perhaps look it up in one of the countless war biographies that had made it to the shelves of Flourish and Blotts, but she doubted many would. And fewer would bother her with it.
She had cemented her stalwart position marvellously after the castle had been repaired and things had tentatively gone back to normal. She had taken time off and returned greyer, and sterner than ever, having mourned for her friends and her family for the first time in her countless years.
It was any wonder that she returned at all.
"Now," she said, as they rounded the corner. "What on earth -"
"Och, bloody hell," she growled, the hair on the back of her neck sticking up. Thankfully her collar was quite tall these days and nobody could see, but she was suddenly overcome with an unnamed emotion as a beaming Hermione Granger stepped forward with a tumbler full of amber liquid and a twinkle in her eye.
"You bloody menace," Minerva muttered as Hermione hugged her gently.
"I wasn't going to let you mumble it away like you did last year."
"I do not mumble," Minerva huffed.
"Go," Hermione chuckled. "Mingle. I'll save you in forty-five minutes."
"Smartest witch of her age," Minerva smirked. "Not a moment later then."
"Harry will be here in fifty, so don't go too wild."
She glared good-naturedly at Hermione and turned to accept Poppy's well wishes. She chatted happily, remembering that she enjoyed the company of a good number of the people in the hall celebrating her birthday - with a cake! And quite a number of streamers that were hanging in the air underneath the charmed ceiling.
She ate a piece of cake, delighting at the carrot cake Hermione had chosen. For it could only have been Hermione to organise all this. She caught sight of George talking to Neville and joined them, receiving a tight hug from him and chuckling as she pulled the fake wand from her pocket where he'd tried to slip it.
"Oh come on McG, I don't think we've ever got one up on you, have we?"
"No," she smiled gently. "You never did."
"It's a lifelong pursuit then," he grinned. "I'll have to ask Hermione for pointers."
"And you think she'd help, do you?" Minerva asked her tongue a little looser after the third whiskey.
"It won't hurt too much to ask, I don't think."
They chuckled and she spent the next half hour chatting away to the people who were her friends and colleagues. As ever, she knew exactly the moment that it was time to go and grinned at Hermione's sudden appearance by her side.
"Hermione," Minerva corrected them gently. "She has not been a student here in quite some time."
"Quite," Filius said happily, his nose already tinged pink.
"I really must steal Minerva for a moment, do you mind?"
"No, please!" Filius cried raucously.
"Pomona, be a dear," Poppy groaned, stepping back as he spilt his ale on her robes.
She heard Hermione's laugh as they slipped out of the hall, arm in arm.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Hermione asked, biting her lip.
"No," Minerva admitted. "It wasn't. In fact, it was exactly what I needed. How did you know?"
"Nev wrote. He said you were looking," she smirked. "And I quote 'down in the dumps'."
"I would never!"
"Sure," Hermione laughed. "I saw you as you rounded the corner. What's up?"
"Minerva, you and I have been friends for long enough that your 'Professor McGonagall' tone isn't going to work on me anymore."
"Bother," she muttered, making Hermione laugh again.
"Give it up," Hermione whispered, leaning gently against Minerva's shoulder. She was warm and Minerva leant a little back to steal some of that warmth.
"I was considering how many people I have celebrated birthdays with that are no longer here."
"Oh, you know. Albus," she shrugged. "Alastair, Emmeline? Amelia. So many names. Elphinstone, Saul. Rab, Malcolm."
"They would be glad to know that you are still surrounded by friends who love you."
Minerva smiled sadly.
"I have one more surprise for you."
"No, really. Trust me?" the younger woman asked, holding onto Minerva's hands gently. She stared into those brown eyes and couldn't help but feel completely at ease.
"I am not sure it's not the three whiskeys you placed in my hands, but go on then."
"It is your birthday."
Minerva snorted as Hermione waved hello to the Griffin and to Minerva's surprise, it started moving without the password.
Overcome with sudden thoughts she could not quiet, Minerva followed Hermione up the stairs to her room and stopped dead at the doorway.
"Happy Birthday Minerva. Ginny said to tell you that she's sorry she couldn't join us but she's on bed rest. Doctor's orders. She wanted you to meet him though."
"Och, Harry, he's beautiful."
She was pushed into a chair by Hermione and accepted the little bundle of maroon blankets into her arms.
"Dare I ask what his name is?" she looked at her two former pupils.
"James Sirius," Harry grinned.
"I'm retiring," Minerva groaned. "The day the letters go out."
They chuckled and Hermione disappeared into the rarely used kitchenette like she lived there and reappeared with tea for the three of them a few moments later.
They chatted endlessly about good, happy things until James started grumbling.
"Oh golly, I better get him back to his Mum before she sends a howler," Harry said, jumping up. "It was great to see you Min. Happy birthday!"
"Thank you," she smiled. "For the birthday wishes and the cuddles. It was very much needed."
Harry took James and disappeared through the Floo with barely another word, leaving Minerva with her thoughts.
"Penny for them?"
"You'll need more than a penny," Minerva muttered, without looking at her. "For there are many."
"I can make an investment?"
Minerva blinked and looked at her.
"I could make an investment," she shrugged. "If it was an option?"
Hermione's face changed to one of fear.
"Unless it's not?"
"Hush," Minerva said, rather more sharply than she meant to. "No," she said grabbing Hermione's hand before she could draw it back completely. "No, I apologise. Stay. Just for a moment. I need -"
"I'm always right here, aren't I?"
Minerva considered this for a moment. Hermione had been there at every pivotal moment of her life since the young woman had left school. It was like she had a sixth sense about when Minerva needed her. In actual fact, Minerva had a sneaking suspicion that Albus had a lot to do with that, but now that she could see it, she felt a fool.
"Don't do that," Hermione whispered. "Don't get angry. I didn't do anything to hurt you."
"No!" Hermione said sternly. "I did not. I wanted to be there for you, in whatever way I could be. And I knew you'd never ask."
"I'm -" she paled. "Hermione, I'm, nearly fifty -"
"I don't care," Hermione muttered, shuffling closer to Minerva on her knees. "I don't. It doesn't matter. Age is a number, not a meaning, not a definition."
"Trust me?" Hermione asked quietly. "Let me?"
Minerva tried to argue, even in her own head, but she realised as she looked into Hermione's eyes that while Hermione had been tacit in her feelings, hers had come along much more subtly.
"There are so many things that -"
"None that matter."
"I've never -"
"Me either," Hermione smiled. "Guess we'll figure it out together. We're two of the smartest witches of all time. I think we'll probably be alright."
"You can't be attracted-"
"I am," Hermione said, a warmth in her voice that made Minerva swallow. "Quite a lot, actually."
"Are you," she suddenly looked very unsure. "Me, I mean."
"Hermione," Minerva whispered, finally giving into herself. "Anyone would be mad to answer no."
"I'm not after anyone, Minerva. I want to know what you think."
"I think you are the loveliest creature I've laid eyes on."
Hermione's face broke into a beautiful smile and though Minerva had never pursued a paramour in her life, she couldn't help but lean forward and press her lips against those smiling ones. There was a moment when she thought she might have been too forward, but after a tense few seconds, Hermione's arms wrapped around her neck and she sunk into one of the best kisses she'd ever experienced.
"Happy Birthday," Hermione whispered.
"I must say," Minerva muttered, tracing the line of Hermione's cheek with her fingers. "It has turned out to be rather a nice one."