delphi: Mod icon for the HP Beholder exchange. (HP Beholder)
[personal profile] delphi posting in [community profile] hp_beholder
Recipient: [personal profile] dueltastic
Author/Artist: ???
Title: The Reluctant Phoenix
Rating: Up to NC-17 (although most of the story rates lower)
Pairings: Albus Dumbledore/Minerva McGonagall, Horace Slughorn/Elphias Doge, Albus Dumbledore/Horace Slughorn
Word Count: ~23,600
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *Cross-gen - teacher/student (Minerva is 18), infidelity in secondary pairing.*.
Summary: Albus thought that he was a non-running member of the human race when it came to romantic relationships. If pushed, he would have said that he was the kind of wizard who preferred wizards. -All that, of course, was before Minerva came along.
Author's/Artist's Notes: Thanks to [personal profile] dueltastic for such open-ended and thought-provoking prompts. I have tried to incorporate elements of your following suggestions into this story: "non-traditional relationships, things people make work in their own ways when it's not obvious how or why it does", "eras and places we see only hints of in canon", "age differences being acknowledged", "blurry definitions" and "fluidity in gender roles and sexual orientation." Many thanks also to [profile] atdelphi for modding [community profile] hp_beholder 2013!


"...and those are just a few of the reasons why you should be proud to have been sorted into Gryffindor house. Returning students, please join me in welcoming our new first years!"

The common room erupted into applause, and the Head Girl gave a satisfied nod. There were grins on eleven-year-old faces where previously there had been only trepidation; she had done a good job.

At the back of the room, Albus smiled benevolently at the scene: his house was happy. Eager new faces intermingled with familiar ones, and the conversation level began to rise, verbal animation resounding to a backing chorus of owls, cats and toads that the little ones still held in travelling cages. The very noise of Gryffindor.

Lightly, he touched Minerva's shoulder as she climbed down from the makeshift podium. "Dear girl, you make me feel quite redundant."

There was no bite to the words, and she was bright enough to take it as the compliment that was intended. "Mmmm! They're a promising crop this year, don't you think? They all seem very keen."

"Oh, indeed." He pondered, looking around at the lively interactions that were already in full-flow. "I'll make my customary address after breakfast tomorrow, I think. I don't want to spoil the mood you've created, right now. -Oh, but the timetables..."

"I already have them. I picked-up all the second to seventh years' from the registry elves this morning and distributed before lunch. The first years' will be brought when the night-elves come to clean."

Even Albus was taken aback. "That's... really quite spectacular, you know. I feel jolly sorry for all the Heads of Houses who don't have you as one of theirs!"

Minerva looked down, hiding a blush. "I've only been doing it for a day."

"Well, here's to another three-hundred and sixty-four, then!" Albus handed Minerva a glass of butterbeer and encouraged a clink. "I'm sure you'll be splendid."

"Thanks; I hope so!" She took a deep swig, leaving a fetching splodge of froth on the tip of her nose. "Oh! And I wanted to ask you about that Advanced Transfiguration course - is now a good time?"

"Ask away."

"Well, I sent for the correspondence materials over the summer, but there are a few places where they disagree with the standard Thwackwaite text. Which is right, do you think?"

Albus hummed, recalling the various authors. "I'd say, if it's anything to do with Transfiguring Muggle objects, the modern course probably has it right, because such theory has been developed only recently. But anything else - I'd go to Thwackwaite every time." Minerva nodded, filing that away. "But do feel free to show me the pages, if it's anything in particular."

"Thanks. I think I'm fine for now, but I will do, if anything comes up."

"-Sorry, excuse me, Professor?" A young voice sounded to Albus' right.

"Of course, how can I help you, Matthew?"

"-Ok, well see you tomorrow!" Minerva smiled as she melted away into the crowd, going to meet the first years one at a time.


*****



When the students had gone to bed, Albus made his way to the staff room. He was the last to arrive - so late, in fact, that Herbert and Galatea had already retired for the night - but, of course, Horace was there, and had already poured the brandy. Albus sank gratefully into a wingback chair.

"I say! Is it me, or do they get more boisterous every year?" Horace refilled his own glass while pressing a bowl into Albus’ hand; he made a show of needing the stiffener.

"Come now, my friend," Albus chided, "It isn't so long ago that that was us - arriving in the boats, getting sorted, the welcoming feast... surely you remember it like yesterday?"

Horace snorted. "I'm becoming an old man, you know..."

"Poppycock! You, me and Elphias - we're all the same age."

"-And I reserve the right to refer to that as getting on a bit. Look!" He bent over and gestured animatedly at the top of his head. There was a small pinkish patch amid the sandy fluff. "And, well... I'm not as lithe as I once was."

He eyeballed Albus, trying to remain deadpan. Albus looked back, and raised an eyebrow. It was no good, though - moustaches tend to amplify even the tiniest smirk, and very soon they had both cracked, peals of laughter reverberating around the wood panelling.

It's good to laugh, Albus thought. He had missed good company over the summer. Scholarship was all very well - and seriously, he wouldn't swap it for the world - but there was just the odd twinge of loneliness at one's desk of an evening, when an owl brought a postcard from Horace and Elphias' latest exploits in their gallivants around Europe. "I must say you're looking prosperous, my friend," he allowed. Horace had always been tubby, and never ashamed of it. He filled-out his tweed robes like the finest overstuffed upholstery, and it suited him well.

"Yes, fabulous cheese in France, you know." Horace patted his belly with a grin. "But seriously - turning seventy is just marvellous, don't you think? I can really start to cultivate that 'clubbable old buffer' feel, and heigh-ho - nearly time to retire! Then, think of the parties. That will be fun."

"Retire? I've barely started!" Albus thought in earnest about all of the exciting projects on his desk. He was close to finding a third official use for dragon's blood, even.

“We can't all be a superannuated wunderkind, now can we? Most wizards would be happy to accept that three-score-and-ten is comfortably into middle-age-“

“-Pfft!”

“-Oh, and speaking of which - young prodigies, that is - won't Minerva make a superb Head Girl this year?"

A fond smile spread across Albus’ features. “Now that is something upon which we can both agree. Really, I don’t think I’ve ever come across one quite like her.”

“Oh, yes! Superbly talented! Such a shame her preference seems to run to wand-waving; she’d be a first-rate potioneer.”

“Mmmph.” There was smugness in that grunt. “But, to be honest, it’s not just her academic qualities that set her apart. She seems to do that in and of herself, really." Albus reflected on Minerva's organisation and poise, and a shadow passed across his mind. "Horace, sometimes I wonder, if…”

“What is it, old man?”

“…Well, perhaps it sounds silly. But, as Housemaster, I do worry for her, sometimes. Here is a typical scene: the Gryffindor common room-“

“-Yes, quite a worry. Tatty place, no decent portraits-“

“Oi!" He kicked Horace under the coffee table with a pointy boot. "As I was saying: the Gryffindor common room. All of the other upper-year girls are gossiping in a corner somewhere, about a magazine, or boys, or what-have-you. Minerva is sitting in a diametrically-opposite corner with a quill and a book. The girls swagger over and make some barbed remark. Minerva ignores them. Some lads come in – much to the simpering of the girls – and have a go about Minerva’s style of dress, of somesuch. They all try again to disturb her – it’s some great game - and this time they spill ink all over her book. Calmly, she vanishes the mess, and carries on reading. And so it goes on.

"But then, some other day, when they want answers to a problem in Charms, they are all flattery and gratefulness, and she steps up to the plate and offers around some help – just to have her plait pulled that evening when they have forgotten all about it.

“I know it doesn’t sound much, but… well, day after day, year after year, it must become pretty wearing for a person.”

Horace listened, taking a sip of brandy. “And does it bother her?”

“It… doesn’t seem to.” Albus paused, pondering his own ineptitude at emotional matters. “I don’t know quite what to make of that.”

“Mmm. And have you broached the subject with her?”

“No. Well, not exactly. I’ve said that my door’s always open to anyone in the House who would like to come in for a chat.”

“And?”

“She said that she’d be sure to disseminate the message among the first years. I’ve also said that if she’d like any discussion on that correspondence course she’s taking-“

“-Oh, the new Transfiguration, advertised in The Prophet?”

“Yes, that’s it. -I’ve said that if I can be of any help there, then she should just toddle over - but not a dickie-bird. Seems utterly content to soldier on, by herself.”

Horace considered. “Well, self-sufficiency is admirable.”

Albus nodded. “Yes.” He tried hard not to think of his tower room for one, with just his dry books and melancholy thoughts for company. He was not quite sure he would recommend that path for any nice, young person, in possession of no guilty secrets or regrets. “Not that she’s unfriendly, mind – quite the opposite. Seems happy to chat with me for hours.”

“Indeed. Charming girl.”

Albus gazed about the staff-room, taking in the quiet calm and comfyness. “It’s almost as if she’s more comfortable with the Professors than with the students.”

“Oho!” A wicked glint lit up Horace’s eyes.

“No, really! Minerva’s in her element looking after the younger years; telling them off where needed, even. Maybe she won’t open up to me because she doesn’t want to be thought of as just another Gryffindor with childish problems? I wouldn’t think anything of the sort, of course. But maybe she thinks that would get in the way of the fact that we are… friends.”

Horace’s eyebrows had climbed nearly into his pink patch. “Oh, Albus. You know this sounds awfully like… she’s so mature… it’s utterly different of course… it’s okay in this one case because she’s such an adult…”

Albus shook his head with such vigour his beard made swirls in the air. “Oh, honestly. Stop teasing! You know I don’t even… with anyone-“

“-Don’t I, just?” Horace must have tried valiantly to keep the waspishness from his tone, but it was there, nonetheless. It always was, really, no matter how many years had gone by.

At moments like these, Albus fought hard to remember that Horace and Elphie were actually very happy together - and by some miracle, they were both still willing to be his friend. He was jolly grateful for their understanding, despite it all.

“But seriously, Albus,” Horace continued, “Maybe it’s time.” He gave a kind smile, then a gentle bow as he excused himself. “’Tis late. And we’re not all as sprightly as you!”

“Goodnight, my friend.”

On his way back up to Gryffindor tower, Albus pondered. Maybe he saw a little of himself in Minerva’s bearing: the interpersonal capability where business demanded it; the lack of real company most other times.

If she really were talented and lonely, could Minerva be swept away by the wrong sort of person? Someone ambitious and charismatic, and perhaps the first to show her a little attraction as well as an intellectual equal? How awful might it become?

Albus shivered, and then gave himself a stern talking-to. He was most obviously projecting things, and that clearly wasn't going to do anyone any good.

-So if he were to try to help her, would that be a selfless act? Benevolent Housemaster, or old man galloping for some vicarious rescue: the helping hand he wished someone had offered him when he was young and proud and in danger.

Or, he thought stubbornly, did it need to be anything at all? Couldn’t they just be friends? And didn't friends merely try to look out for one another?

Albus entered his chambers to find Fawkes brandishing a note:


Dear Albus,

Sorry I didn’t catch you after dinner, but getting late and all that, what? I’ve been asked to do some dashed right-on anniversary thingumywhatsit for the Governors in light of the tenth anniversary of all that unpleasantness with the Chamber. I was wondering if I could pass it on to you; there’s a good chap? They’d like a report on ‘Half-bloods and Muggle-borns feeling integrated into Hogwarts at the mid-century mark,’ or something or other along those lines. Social inclusivity and suchlike; thought it might be up your street. They say they want a member of staff and a student to work on it together: pick anyone you like. Due in June, so plenty of time.

Ta muchly,

Armando.




*****



“Miss McGonagall, I wonder if I may have a word?” Albus approached Minerva the next day, just after breakfast. She was trotting along the corridor, her arms full of parchment and books.

Minerva turned to smile. “Of course, Professor. What is it?”

“I hope this won’t be a ghastly imposition on your time – and really, I’d quite understand if you think your hours outside study would be better spent with friends-“

“-No!” Minerva paused then, as if she had realised that had sounded surprisingly strident. “I mean - please, go on. I’m not overly pushed for time this term.”

Albus sighed a little. So, his suspicions were not altogether unfounded, then; poor girl. “In which case, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind assisting me with a report for the Governors?…”


*****



"The response to the questionnaire has been really excellent!" declared Minerva. She was still sifting piles of parchment back and forth across the desk; with complex categorisations for age, house, blood-status and student/alumnus groups, they had been sorting the data for hours.

Indeed, it was the sixth week in to the project, and all was going very well.

The two of them had taken to meeting on Friday afternoons, after the toil of the week was ended, but before the next one loomed. Albus' married colleagues would nod farewell and escape gratefully to Hogsmeade - and Pringle, bless him, would step-up his patrol of late-night corridors, lest the students become more unruly than usual, or lose control of their pets for the twenty-third time that month - but typically the start of the weekend had been one of Albus' quietest times. Friday night had marked time alone, in his study, whether he liked it or not.

Now, however - after just a few short weeks - he reflected that it was likely the liveliest. His evening with Minerva had become something of an unofficial ritual, and one to which he looked forward more and more as every week passed.

It had not taken long for them to define the terms of the report. In other hands, it could easily have been dashed-off as a lip-service parchment - some politically-correct platitudes written down in the correct language - and that would likely have served the purpose with the Governors, well enough. However, from the moment he had explained the brief, Minerva's eyes had lit up.

-And Albus couldn't have agreed more. Making a better, fairer society was jolly important, and they had been given an opportunity to expose and analyse the status quo without any of the hearsay, rumour and stigma that tended to follow conversations of blood or upbringing. Within a few hours, it was clear that they were going to be far-reaching and thorough; unbiased, anonymised and analytical; academic and awesome. The bubble of excitement that Albus always felt when starting a new project had fizzed even more than usual - and if the whole thing awakened old demons more than he cared to admit, those were thoughts that he pushed firmly away in favour of progress and pleasant Friday evenings.

They sat in Albus' drawing room at the big, oak table. Remains of supper lay round-about - they had been talking for so long, any chance of catching dinner in Hall had long since disappeared, and the elves had brought up some trays. The fire was already burning low.

"...So I suggest we adjust the data to account for the self-selecting nature of the respondents. It's obvious from a preliminary count that the dataset has a Hufflepuff bias, and Slytherins are under-represented." Minerva played the end of her quill across her lips as she spoke. They were chapped with cold, and a little chewed.

Albus nodded, "I agree. -Which brings me on to another idea: in addition to the study on perception, I think we should do an empirical survey of alumnus destination by blood-status. My hypothesis is that that the Ministry takes a disproportionate number of our pure-blood graduates - arguably to the detriment of better-suited candidates - but it would be nice to have the figures to back that up. I think they get promoted more quickly, too."

"That sounds super; very interesting. But is that sort of information publicly available?"

Albus liked her thinking. "That's a good question. Some, but not all, is. Of course, we have records of the blood-status of all those who have attended Hogwarts - which is pretty much everyone - but as to employees' current position and prospects at the Ministry - the other end of the equation, if you will - things tend to be much more shady. For that, I think I'll ask Horace. -Oh, 'Professor Slughorn'." Albus corrected himself half-heartedly.

Minerva stifled a laugh. "Jolly good. And in the meantime, I'll plot out those responses from the first to fifth years."

"Are you sure you'll have time?"

"Yes, no problem!" Minerva said that cheerfully; almost too cheerfully.

When the clock struck ten, they rose, and wished each other a pleasant weekend. Albus returned to his desk with the vague sense that the room was much emptier than it had been, minutes before. Minerva's presence - her fervent opinions, neat, scratchy handwriting and warm smile - fitted so well here, he felt almost bereft when she had gone. Shaking his head to do away his such ridiculousness, Albus readied for bed, and considered how much crystallised pineapple would be needed for a touch of Horace's inside knowledge.


*****



It turned out that the Ministry analysis was possible, but the data was going to take a while in coming. Horace had pulled strings magnificently for them, but his favourite intern was currently on secondment at Gringotts, and wouldn't get back to the files until the beginning of December.

In the meantime, then, Albus and Minerva concentrated on what could be interpreted from Hogwarts itself. One thorny question was to what extent their report should analyse the tragic past events themselves, and to what extent they should focus just on the present state of affairs.

Minerva scratched out a line from the draft she was writing. "It's no good, you'll have to do this bit, I'm afraid."

Albus looked up from his parchment. "Oh, what's that?" He proffered her a dish. "Sherbet lemon?"

"No, thanks. -I'm amazed you're not three miles wide, the number of those you eat!" She caught herself and gasped, looking a little shocked that she had said it out loud.

Albus smiled, however. He found, all of a sudden, that being chided like that by Minerva was rather touching. "Ah, they all go to power the brain, you see..." He wiggled his eyebrows in demonstration.

Minerva laughed, clearly relaxing again. "I see." There was an odd pause; calm, comfortable, fond. "But this paragraph." She tapped her quill down a few times, spluttering ink. "I'm trying to draft the historical introduction, but I realise now that I can't. The thing is - I was eight!"

"Hmm!" Albus saw her point immediately. In every logical way it made sense, but... the fact jarred with him slightly. Could Minerva really be so young?

"-So I was wondering if you could tell me what really happened? Aside from the facts reported publicly, of course. How did it all feel, around here?"

Albus nodded, grim memories resurfacing. "I think, in truth, that the whole event put us back about a century in terms of pure-blood-Muggle-born relations. Maybe two. There was an extraordinary sense of fear and distrust in the school; friends stopped being friends, even colleagues didn't know who they could rely upon. And then, when the attacks culminated in a death, it all reached crisis-point. The school was about to be closed-"

"-To think that I almost never had the chance to come here!"

"-And then..." Albus chose his next words carefully, "A suspect was identified and punished."

Minerva furrowed her brow; she seemed to detect his nuance like the plainest of text. "-But do you really think...?"

Albus shook his head. He didn't believe that poor old Hagrid had been responsible for that girl's death, and he never had done. Thoroughly without evidence, it was difficult to put anything else forward, though. "But I'm not really sure I could reasonably say otherwise."

"-I'd believe you." She said that with such ardour, it made Albus intake breath. Minerva held his gaze. "I'd support anything you thought was important."

Albus wondered why there was suddenly a large lump in his throat. The room had gone very quiet, and there was an intensity he couldn't quite name. He knew it was probably wrong to share his opinions; to speculate, and involve a young woman who wasn't even at the school at the time in question - but somehow, sharing things with Minerva just seemed so thoroughly, indescribably right to him. "Well," Albus started, "My suspicions are these..."


*****



By mid-December, the weather was filthy, the student body baying for Christmas, and even a superannuated wunderkind was beginning to feel rather frayed.

It was Friday, but later than usual. Albus and Minerva walked together, toward his quarters.

"Thanks for sorting all that out." He really was grateful. Minerva was still in her school uniform, Head Girl badge gleaming brightly on the lapel; the altercation earlier meant that she had not had the typical time to change.

"No problem at all. I'm pretty sure I know who planted the stink bombs - I told Professor Dippett everything I could when he asked - but most of all, I'm glad that I'd finished the chapter on Disappearance! If that smog had gone on for any longer, someone might have got hurt."

"Well, we're jolly lucky you were there. I came as quickly as I could - but it's a long way from here to the Quidditch pitch, and those girls were looking decidedly unwell, as it was; Doxy bites can be quite serious. And you stopped the culprits as they were escaping. What did you use - a full body bind?"

"No," replied Minerva, looking a little puzzled. "I just told them to come back and not dare move until they had been punished..."

Given that the Skeeltoit brothers were the most unruly in the school, Albus was seriously impressed. "You, Madam, are formidable." He bowed deeply, letting her pass as he unlocked the door to his rooms.

Minerva smiled, looking suddenly shy. "Thanks."

"What a day!" Albus closed the door and took off his cloak, fiddling with the balance of the coat-stand - he might have to face the fact that it could only support three times its own weight in velvet - and making sure that Fawkes was still well-supplied with treats. "Say, I could do with a glass of wine. You?" The invitation had seemed so natural, Albus only realised afterwards that it might not have been appropriate.

Minerva, however, responded with aplomb. "Thank you. Red would be lovely."


*****



After the day of the stink-bomb, Albus found that he and Minerva had pressing business on evenings including - but not limited to - Fridays. Horace had produced marvellously on Ministry statistics, and they were thoroughly getting stuck into that, in addition to the more qualitative analysis.

Alongside the project, though, he found that there were all manner of other things to talk about. Minerva was very knowledgeable about opera and ballet - both Wizard and Muggle forms - and her nuanced appreciation of genre and artist put his modest collection of gramophone discs to shame.

"You must hear this one," she would declare, brandishing a rare '08 recording. "It's the Marinsky doing 'The Wizard and the Hopping Pot'. Just listen for the mazurka in the third act..." Sometimes, she would spontaneously break-out into a few steps on his rug - always very graceful, but without the slightest shred of conceit; just pure enthusiasm. Albus found such enthusiasm utterly contagious, and couldn't help but join in, however mean his comparative skill. They could whirl around for several minutes before realising that dinner on the table was getting cold.

Their work engendered conversations broad and wide-ranging: politics, language, foreign travel. Albus was unsurprised to find that Minerva was very well-informed, and that she had a healthy slice of cynicism about the official channels. "What will be really good," Albus would say, "Is that we can put something out there that's evidence-based. If the facts are carefully collated in black and white, there is little a snide columnist can say to rebuke them."

The chime of ten now held little notice for them, especially when the following day did not feature lessons. "Do you mind if I put on my slippers?" Albus would ask, his long toes feeling cramped inside all-day boots. Minerva answered by Transfiguring her own boots into fluffy socks with Gryffindor lions' paws. They both giggled.

Indeed, it was nearly midnight one evening, when the conversation took a more personal turn. Minerva sat on the sofa by the fire, her legs tucked underneath her like the most comfortable of cats, and Albus had veritably burrowed into his armchair. They had just been talking about translations, and how meanings can be changed and lost in the process.

"You know, there are a thousand different upbringings hidden behind the same label, aren't there?" Minerva fixed her gaze on the mantelpiece, in thought.

"I daresay," Albus agreed. "What have you in mind?"

"Well, take 'half-blood', for instance. Already a problematic term, of course, because it commonly encompasses both those with a Muggle parent, and those with two magical parents, one of whom so happens to be Muggle-born. So, depending on the politics of the family, one 'half-blood' might be raised pretty much as a pure-blood child - regular trips to Diagon Alley, house-elves, a training broom at the age of two - and one might be raised as a Muggle - where magic is a taboo subject in the household, and the first he or she hears about it is the letter from Hogwarts, aged eleven. We should definitely make that distinction in the cultural introduction, don't you think? It's not just about heredity."

Albus nodded. "Excellent point."

Minerva, however, gave a tight smile, seemingly lost in her thoughts. "I often wonder how things would have been different, if my mother had been more open with my father about the whole thing. I had no idea I was magical until I made daisies grow out of my little brother's nose - and even then, it was very much something about which to be embarrassed and ashamed. The magic that is, not the daisies - they were rather fun."

They both laughed, but Albus suddenly felt all at attention. This was the very first time, in all of their evenings together, that Minerva had volunteered something private. He could not explain why, but he yearned to know more. "And was that difficult?"

"Oh, indescribably!" She took a sip from her drink. "And then, coming here, I thought that everything would be marvellous, and I would just fit in, having never quite fitted in, in the Parish. But..." she hesitated, "...You know how it is."

Albus thought back to that typical scene in the common room, and his heart went out to the wonderful young woman. "Well, I would categorically say that it is their loss. Anyone should be honoured to count you as a friend."

"That's very sweet of you." She smiled, a little sadly. "I suppose I bring it upon myself, really. If I could pretend to be a bit more interested in make-up and boys, and the endlessly tedious scuffles and squabbles that permeate the world of teenage witches," - Minerva raised her eyebrows in self-satire - "then I'm sure I would get along a lot more smoothly."

"Mmm."

Minerva gazed into the fire, the last embers glowing and cracking. "I suppose I just learned to grow up quicker than most: what with looking after Malcolm and little Robbie; and continually acting in secrecy from everyone around; and having the feeling so deeply engrained that learning magic is an extraordinary privilege, not some by-the-bye obvious state-of-affairs, and... Well, it's difficult to un-learn that." She looked at him, rather shyly. "Does that make any sense?"

"Yes. Perfect sense." Albus reached out and covered Minerva's hand with his own. He left it there for longer than he had intended - the gesture felt warm, and calm, and so very right - but then he gave her fingers a squeeze and withdrew. He looked up to find Minerva's features were painted with solace, as if some trying pressure had been released from a valve beyond view. Albus felt he could look at that expression all night.

Minerva turned to face him square-on, rearranging her legs on the sofa. "Professor, I hope you don't mind me asking?"

"Ask away," he replied, hands making an airy gesture.

"I was wondering where your upbringing sat on that 'scale of half-bloods'? I know - according to the press, that is - that your father was pure-blood, and your mother was Muggle-born, but, of course, I don't know anything more about them. Do you see them, much?"

Oh dear, thought Albus. When he had said 'ask away', he hadn't expected that line of questioning.

It would be all too easy to make some broad, sweeping statement - to twinkle and joke and leave her none the wiser - and, indeed, that was very tempting. Aside from Horace and Elphias, he had never candidly discussed that whole sorry mess with anyone.

But then Albus looked at Minerva's earnest expression, and considered the amount she had been willing to share with him.

He took a deep breath. "Alas, they are no longer alive. As to the rest... well, how long do you have?"

He spoke about a proud witch who had never gotten along with her Muggle family, a fierce and protective wizard, high hopes, low times, Azkaban, shame and insanity. He faltered at times, and had to close his eyes to recall all of the details so long buried; it felt raw, young and lacking in eloquence.

However, speaking about such things, Albus found, was strangely cathartic. To put all of that into words for the first time since he had been a teenager… felt as if a great weight that had been resting on his chest for so long he had forgotten it was there, was slowly, slowly being winched away.

Albus had just described his mother's accidental death at the hands of their dear sister, but as the worst part was coming, he began to hesitate.

"And then what happened?" Minerva encouraged. She seemed rapt.

"And then... well. I did something very stupid." A lump grew in his throat. He had not seen Gellert for ten years, and before that, not for forty. Yet it was still difficult to speak about it, or even to think about it. "I... fell in love with a very bad person."

"Oh." Minerva said it so quietly the very air around her barely stirred. "You don't have to carry on if-"

"-No, it's alright." He felt on a knife-edge; relieved; reckless. "I was eighteen - your age, in fact, but considerably less wise than you are today. I felt trapped at home looking after my sister, and resentful about it, because all my friends were off seeing the world. And then a vibrant young man of my age came to live next door. We were inseparable; we had big, foolish plans. And when my brother's voice of reason came in the way of those pipe-dreams, there was a duel and..." Albus felt his voice cracking around the edges, "Ariana was killed."

"Oh gosh, I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry for anyone but her; I was a fool." His voice felt detached, now, echoing around in his ears as if it belonged to someone else. "And, arguably, that isn't even the worst of it. Because the thing I haven't told you is that the person I loved was..." The lump in his throat was preventing speech, now. Albus went to swallow, hard, but in the meantime, Minerva finished his sentence:

"Grindelwald."

He blinked, brought back to the present. "You knew?" He could barely articulate the question.

"No, I didn't. It just made sense. Grand plans; grand schemes; clever people." Minerva smiled kindly. "It must have been so difficult - the battle, I mean. Having to imprison him."

Albus nodded, not quite meeting her eyes. "I suppose... it's natural; I mean, for you to think rather less of me, knowing all that."

"Not in the slightest." She said it so calmly it was difficult not to believe. "But, I fear, it's getting late... and I have Quidditch practice before breakfast tomorrow..."

"Of course." He rose, to escort her to the door.

Minerva inclined her head as a goodbye, but then seemed to make a snap-decision and crossed the short distance between them to envelop Albus in one of the warmest and most genuine hugs he had ever experienced, in a lifetime of very rarely being hugged at all. It was fierce and comforting all at once, and Albus felt himself closing his eyes and sinking his head a little toward Minerva's shoulder. Such was the relief of being accepted by a wonderful human soul.

"Not in the slightest," Minerva whispered again, then smiled as she stepped away. "Good night."


*****



It was the end of term, and thus time for the Gryffindor Housemaster's Christmas party. Albus had long-ceased trying to compete with Horace in terms of grandeur, but he liked to think that what it lacked in terms of old-world protocol, it made up in terms of jollity.

Arrangements were not made more smooth, however, by the fact that it was unofficial tradition that the event marked the house-elves' annual night-off. Indeed, Albus had started the idea. Each year he found himself in last-minute panic because sourcing the evening's food and drink was entirely down to him, but each year, that was more than compensated for when he took a peek in the kitchens and saw the tiny bunting, the little red noses from butterbeer thimbles and the pit-pat of pink feet dancing reels on the table.

That said, the day of the party once again ambushed Albus, pouncing upon him in his typical state of social disorganisation. He fluttered around the Gryffindor common room, certain that an important pamphlet of sorts could be found on the bookcase, near the listings of official Hogwarts suppliers. The room was deserted, save for some third-years playing exploding snap by the fireplace, and Minerva reading a book in the far corner. Albus hunted fruitlessly on the shelves for a Hogsmeade directory for a few minutes, then Minerva came over to join him.

"Not again?" That was all she said, but it dripped with amusement.

"Oh, I fear so... But no-one else knows, do they? I do like to give the impression it's all in order."

"I wouldn't worry," assured Minerva, "Most of them are about as perceptive as a brick when it comes to teachers; the idea that you are actually a person, doing - or, ahem, not doing – things, quite escapes them. In fact, I suspect that most students assume that the staff here are automata: just wind you up for lessons, and you get stored in a cupboard in the staff-room, between-times."

"Ha!" Albus laughed heartily, "Gosh, sometimes I wish that were the case; it sounds much easier! But now, if only I could find Master Puddifoot's Floo address. He's marvellous, you know – he's saved me at this notice on more than one occasion, before."

"Oh..." Minerva suddenly looked rather worried. "You do know that he's gone to Peru, this winter? There's a big sign up in his Hogsmeade shop: 'Reopening in Spring'."

"Oh, Merlin. Really? This is no time to joke, you know."

"Cross my heart." She paused after saying that, seeming a little distracted.

"And every other caterer by whom I have ever had the bad fortune to be laughed at," Albus soldiered on, "Would never be willing to take on order on the day itself..." He was beginning to feel slightly green. Albus thought back to the elves, hanging their bunting. He couldn't possibly... and then he thought of all the disappointed faces of his Gryffindors. Minerva had assured him that several of them had spent weeks planning their frocks, and their escorts. Even butterbeer would be impossible to get in quantity, what with everyone else ordering it months in advance of December, by the cask. There was absolutely no way he could ask Aberforth for help.

"Looks like we're going to have to do it, then." Minerva's tone was so cheerful and matter-of-fact, it jarred with Albus' party-induced panic.

"Sorry?"

"You can cook, can't you?"

"I, err..." The truth was an absolute resounding, 'no'. Albus had always lived with elves; it had never actually occurred to him that a wizard might cook for himself.

"Tsk! Well, it's a good job that I can." Minerva took her wand, and, concentrating hard, pointed it at the air in front of her. She incanted under her breath, and managed to create two large, perfectly serviceable cotton aprons.

"Bravo!" said Albus, momentarily distracted, "I didn't know you knew how to Conjure."

"Just started that chapter," she replied, blushing a little. Then, Minerva looked upward to him with full force: "Right, kitchenwards. We have six hours."

It took a little persuading of the elves that they were not to help. In the end, Albus laid a line of festive holly between the work-areas and the broader kitchen hall, and said that no elf was to cross that line unless it was for an express purpose relating to their own party. Clear instructions: it worked a treat.

Meanwhile, Minerva had been familiarising herself with the locations of all the ingredients and equipment. "For these numbers, it's just a question of maths, really. I know how to make most things for six - so we can just multiply up. I suggest that I write down some recipes, and you devise some charms to make the mechanics work on a larger scale. It's the heat-exchange element that will be tricky, when making batches of things for a hundred, or so."

Albus nodded, utterly in awe of his occasion-saving young friend. "You do remember that I haven't any culinary magic..."

"That's why I said 'devise', not 'recall'." She grinned. There was something so very bright and mischievous in Minerva's eyes, he couldn't help but steal another glance.

"Okay then, first principles," Albus declared. "I like first principles!" He felt suddenly young and free, relishing the new challenge. "To work!"

And to work they went - amazingly effectively, truth be told. Albus sketched out some general Alchemical functions on a piece of parchment that he was pretty sure could be specialised to meat, butter, flour and vegetables - and very soon, their part of the kitchen was veritably flying with levitated mixing bowls, self-kneading dough, butterbeer on quick-ferment, and big fruit cakes cooking all the way through to the centre. He was jolly impressed; not only by the novel team effort, but by the sheer breadth and deliciousness of Minerva's recipes, each subtle and interesting, bold and new.

Albus glanced over to find her putting the finishing touch to a cake in the shape of the Gryffindor lion; she had a furrow of concentration at her brow and a smudge of flour on her nose, and the lion was getting its paws iced with perfect precision.

He couldn't quite help himself. "Oi!" Minerva cried, when her confectionous charge started pawing around the plate and emitting little roars. "I hadn't finished that last claw." He twinkled at her, brazening it out. "Oh, okay; I do admit that looks pretty good. -I suppose you're all cocky, now you find that you can cook?"

Albus smiled and shook his head. "Humbled again. Really, thank you so much."

"Not a problem." Minerva smiled back, and the moment seemed to stretch on and on, punctuated only by joyful elf-cries in the distance.

Eventually, she continued: "Right, let's levitate this lot upstairs; then we just about have time to get changed before the party starts. Oh, and while I remember, would you mind signing this?" Minerva produced a 'permission to remain' form for the Christmas holidays from her sleeve.

"Of course. But wouldn't you rather go home?"

"Well... it's close, so I will pop home by broom on Christmas day. Other than that, I really want to get some work done, and it's difficult there." She creased her brow, seemingly deciding how much to say - but then plumped for it: "Dad gets jumpy if he sees my wand out. Don't get me wrong - he does want me to do well - it's just all so alien to life in the Parish, and when he can't relax, Mother can't either, and then I don't seem to be able to concentrate. So, all in all, I'd rather stay here."

Albus gave a reassuring smile. "I understand. Do make sure you pop round for tea, then; I think you're the only one who has asked me to sign one of those for this vacation, so far."

The levitation proved more difficult than expected, in fact: there were a lot of stairs, and it was quite tricky to keep more than five dishes level at once. They ended up doing it in two batches, Albus commanding twenty plates at a time, and Minerva managing ten. Total casualty count: a small dish of Highland mist, two pasties and one scone. With a sigh of relief, everything was arranged in Albus' drawing room, and they both scurried off to change before the first guests were to arrive, desperate for dinner.

Albus opted for the finest of what Horace called his 'repression therapy' wardrobe: plum silk-velvet with silver tassels, and green, pointy high-heeled boots. He did so like those boots.

At the stroke of seven, the ravenous hordes appeared. They smiled at the decorations he had hastily put up, and immediately started petitioning to change the dial on his wireless to something more fashionable. Albus was happy to indulge them, and set to holding-court with aplomb; after all that panic, it was going to be a jolly good party.

After another twenty minutes or so, Minerva appeared with a gaggle of first years. They had become lost, apparently, and she had been engaged in a battle with the Fat Lady's best friend to move a staircase back to its usual position. Following her into the room, the little ones thanked Minerva as they might a Professor, and their eyes boggled wide at the array of food and drink, and the spinning, whizzing, popping charms upon it all.

She set them on their way, and nodded at Albus in greeting. "All going well, I trust?"

"Oh yes! Thanks to you."

"Shhh. Don't spoil the illusion..." -And then she turned away to hold her own court, asking a second year or three about how they were getting on this year, and giving out a few gratefully-received tips about elementary Runes.

It was only from the corner of his eye, therefore, that Albus noticed how Minerva was dressed. She wore silk robes of a demure midnight blue, and her hair was tied in a chignon, revealing her long, pale neck. Minerva was slim - thin, by some people's estimation, he was sure - but Albus was suddenly struck by how the fabric emphasized her breasts, and the gentle curves of her frame.

This came as something of a shock. Meaning no disrespect, Albus rarely considered that people had bodies at all, let alone notice the nuances of one from another. To suddenly have Minerva catapulted into his thoughts as a woman - in contrast to a young adult female, that is - was discombobulating, indeed.

The music played on, and the food and drink was decimated, just as intended. As it nudged midnight, the younger students began to peel off, heavy-lidded, and the eldest ones did the same, clearly treating the Gryffindor party as a warm-up event to whatever they had planned for the rest of the night. By 2 a.m., even the most enthusiastic of the fifth years had said their goodnights, leaving Housemaster and châtelaine with a hard-won warm glow, and all of the mess.

"Oooph! That went well, I think," Minerva declared, already starting to tidy plates and combine leftovers.

"Yes. I daresay it did. -You don't have to do that."

"Really? It is rather upside-down in here." Minerva offhandedly cast a charm to restore cushions to their respective sofas and armchairs.

"Honestly; the elves will be incensed if I trick them out of their duties two days in a row."

Minerva smiled and rolled her eyes. "You pure-blood types and your elves..."

Albus spread his hands wide in what he thought might be a look of winning incompetence, and Minerva tutted fondly. The music on the wireless switched to a medium waltz. "Madam, would you care to dance?" he asked with a flourish.

Minerva replied with a full curtsey, and they swirled around the floor, nimble and formal, and with energy quite belying the hour of the amount of cooking that had preceded it. Albus reflected on how remarkably happy he felt, all of a sudden.

The music finished, but their ballroom hold, somehow, did not. Albus' breath caught as Minerva squeezed his left hand a little tighter with her right, and placed her other fingers against the side of his face, her thumb outlining his cheekbone, just above the line of auburn frizz. It felt warm and electric.

Then Minerva was close, so very close. She was smiling, and he was smiling back. She kept moving nearer and nearer, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world; he didn't think to stop it, and then finally she was so wonderfully close to him that they touched. At the lips.

It lasted for just a moment, and then Minerva withdrew a mite, a gentle, questioning expression on her face. Albus made no movement, just taking in the softness of her hand on his cheek, and her dark, beautiful eyes staring at him so.

Then, she became nearer once more, and pressed her mouth against his in earnest. The sensation was exotic; unknowable... until finally, Albus' sluggish brain caught up with events: he was being kissed! For the first time in five decades, he was being kissed.

Albus felt his own mouth moving against Minerva's, and a rush of excitement and contentment, all at once. His eyes slid closed, and the arm that still perched at her waist seemed to tighten its grip, pulling her nearer still.

Eventually, they parted. Albus' mind felt full of nothing but sunshine - clear and bright and blank.

Slowly, however, complicated thoughts about the situation began to tug at his brain. Minerva was perfect, but... even accounting for the fact that wizards stayed youthful and healthy for decades, he was technically old enough to be her grandfather, for Merlin's sake - not to mention the fact that she remained a student in his care.

"Minerva, I..." Albus started, but then realised he had no idea what to say next. She gazed at him, patiently.

When nothing was forthcoming, however, Minerva took the lead. "I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to do. This is what I want... but I understand that it is not straightforward. I don't want you to feel pressured."

Albus took all of that in - again, astounded by her competent grasp of the whole situation. Eloquence still seemed far from his ken, but he realised that he had to say something. Words formed, like walking in treacle. "I know this probably sounds ridiculous, but... may I... may I think about it?"

"Of course," she replied, lips curling up at the corners. "And either way, I hope we shall still be good friends. I appreciate our conversations greatly, and would not want to lose that. -Not to mention the research project! So, I'll come on Friday as usual, and it's up to you, really. I'd you'd rather we pretend that this never happened, we can do so, and just carry on as before." He nodded, somewhat in a daze, and Minerva picked up her bag from a nearby chair. "Goodnight, Professor."

"Albus," he managed, as Minerva turned to leave. "Please call me 'Albus'".

Minerva pressed her lips together and smiled. "Very well. I'll see you again soon."

He watched her retreating figure, and then found himself standing dumbly for a few minutes, gazing toward the empty doorway.

Before going to bed, Albus fetched a quill and persuaded Fawkes to deliver a note:




Saturday, 20th December 1953



Dear Horace,

I hope you both had a good weekend. When you get this on Monday, I wonder whether you might be free for a chat? There is something on which I'd really value your opinion.

Thank you,

A




*****



"So, what is it, old boy?"

It was after supper, and they both sat in Horace's copious sitting room, cradling a whisky while being cradled themselves in the plushest of green velvet armchairs.

"Well.. it's Minerva, I suppose." Albus looked down, feeling rather embarrassed.

Horace, however, fell on the description with pantomimic glee. "At long last! I was wondering when I was going to be let in on the gossip."

"Gossip?" Albus was puzzled.

Horace tutted with amusement; in fact, he seemed a little over-hearty, jollity somewhat forced. "You don't need to play innocent with me, Albus. Anyone with ears can tell how much time you've been spending with her."

"But we've had work to do!"

Horace raised his eyebrows in mocking disbelief, but as Albus' neutral stare went on, his expression changed into goldfish-like genuine surprise. "You actually mean it, don't you? The two of you have truly been spending all of those cosy evenings, writing a bloody book!"

"Well, of course we have," Albus harrumphed. "What on earth did you think-"

"-You know exactly what I thought."

"Well, yes, but... it's not true, I say." Albus felt somewhat indignant at that, pulling his robes around him, and taking a deep swig of Old Ogden's. -But then he remembered the true purpose of the conversation, and realised he needed to backtrack. "At least..."

"-Oho!"

"-That was the case, until this Saturday night."

Horace swallowed hard, and hid his expression for a moment in his own glass. Then, he lowered his voice, acting the perfect confidante. "So, what happened?"

"She kissed me."

"And?"

"'And', nothing. ...I said I'd think about it."

"You'd 'think about it'?!" The incredulity was rolling off Horace in spades. Then he added, rather waspishly, "Well, that surely is a way to a woman's heart."

Albus sighed, feeling rather glum; having the whole conundrum repeated back to him in satirical tones was doing nothing to help the maelstrom in his head. Of course, he could usually hold his own in such conversations - and some to spare - but having been a nervous mess since Saturday, he found that he hadn't the heart. He had spent all of the past few days in his room - stepping out only when it was necessary to teach - and, having tied himself up in knots even more thoroughly in the process, had achieved nothing by way of clarity.

Horace must have seen all of that playing out in knotted brows and tired eyes; he reached out for Albus' hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. "Sorry." Then he gave a little sniff, and smiled kindly. "So, joking aside - tell me, dear chap, what exactly is troubling you?"

Albus paused and took a deep breath, trying to collect his thoughts. "I suppose I'm just entirely confused. Not about Minerva exactly - although that brings with it a whole mountain of other complexities that I haven't even broached as yet - but more about, well... me. ...I mean... I thought I wasn't the sort of person to be involved with... well, anybody... - and even when I was, I was pretty sure that it was chaps, not ladies. But now..."

"Oh, Albus." Horace shook his head with an expression so fond it made Albus' lips quiver a little, at the sight. "How is it that you manage to be both the cleverest wizard history has ever known, and so unrelentingly thick at the same time?" There was no bite at all to his teasing. "The thing is, that people are different. Most of us have puzzled out this sort of issue by the time we're thirty, but having neglected the matter for so long, I suspect you're a little behind the curve.

"Some wizards like wizards. Some wizards like witches. And some wizards like both. That's all there is to it. -And if you find yourself in the latter category, then say 'hurrah!' 'cause it doubles your chances of finding someone perfect." Horace winked, and Albus couldn't but help smile back.

He digested all that for a moment. Could it really be so simple? Was it possible to just leave one category and join another, just because one felt like it? Without problems or repercussions or deep regrets in the future? -And thinking of deep regrets, could he, Albus, really be trusted with any kind of relationship, given how catastrophic it turned out be to the last time, all those years ago?

"But I'm just not sure that I'm cut out for it. I'm scared Horace. What if-"

"-Hush, you've wound yourself into a state hysterical, my dear." His voice was smooth and calming. "I think you really need to let all of that go. Put the demons - finally - to bed. It's time to rise from the ashes. Fifty years is an awful deal of self-flagellation, after all.

"You have a phenomenal amount of good to offer to a relationship, Albus - and a phenomenal amount to gain, too."

Albus felt the hint of something profound in Horace's words, and digested all that he had to say. "Do you really think so?" He realised he sounded like a whiny child, but couldn't quite care.

"Of course I do. I have done, for years." Horace smiled again, but this time there was sadness in his eyes. "Go well and blossom, my friend. It's time."

The idea was liberating and terrifying all at once - as if someone had ripped down the walls of what he had thought the world to be, to reveal a landscape a thousand-fold more varied, colourful and awe-inspiring, just beyond. It could be magnificent! Albus felt a rush of excitement at the very thought that something he had decided could never be, might be possible for him, after all.

Just then, though, some of the other difficulties began to paw at his mind. "But this isn't just some witch who I happened to meet in Hogsmeade..."

"No, and that's the thorny one, isn't it?" Horace had redoubled his chipper spirit. "What to do about that old chestnut: the Professor-student special. I must say, one usually comes across it with those chaps who play the field - not the dusty old cerebral ones like you."

"I have never claimed to be conventional..."

"Quite so." Horace snorted - and there it was again, that extraordinary fondness. He had another sip, and gathered the following précis: "I suppose, on Slytherin terms, then, it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. What's the worst that could happen?"

"Well, realistically, Armando could find out, and I'd lose my position."

Horace nodded sagely, like a merchant faced with a deal. "And how bad would that be?"

Albus considered. He liked his job very much - but, truth be told, he could do without it. He was lucky enough to be of independent means, and had enough ideas for several lifetimes of research, without needing to teach. It would be bad, but not the worst that could happen to him. "Well... medium."

"Mmmm. But what are the chances?" Horace seemed to be getting into the swing of this. "To be honest, I think 'low'. On the grounds that: a.) There are plenty of things that go on that Armando hasn't the foggiest about, as it is; b.) You're too valuable to him to let you go over a private matter; and c.) It was an open secret that Galatea was having it off with the Ravenclaw Quidditch captain for all of '43, and he didn't bat an eyelid. I think, on balance, you're fairly safe. -So that leads us to the other half of the equation: what have you to gain?"

"Well..." Albus found himself blushing. "Minerva's absolutely wonderful. I've barely thought of anything else, since... maybe since the beginning of term, for all I know."

"-Ah, young love!" Horace didn't even attempt to hide his satire this time, but his good humour shone throughout. "You're besotted - it's pretty clear."

Albus felt the blush deepening, but couldn't deny it.

"If you were just some fly-by-night flash-in-the-pan type," Horace continued, "I'd probably advise to hold off because there'll be another one along in a minute - but given this is the very first person to break through that icy reserve in half a century," - a pause, that seemed perhaps too thoughtful - "Albus, don't be a fool! Seize life while it's offered to you, for once."

"You really think so?"

"Of course I do!" Another sip of whisky. "If you wanted puritanical advice, you should have asked Cuthbert, not me, shouldn't you? But given that you did ask me, I think that's pretty clear evidence of what you think is right, deep down. Just trust yourself and go for it. We will all be very happy for you, my friend."

Albus nodded, taking all of that in. If good advice could be measured by how his heart leapt and fluttered, Horace must be the best counsellor of all.


*****



Come the next Friday, Minerva arrived at Albus' quarters at the usual time, despite the fact there were no lessons, and the castle was pretty much uninhabited. She came brandishing a hefty stack of parchment. "I've had a go at the first draft of Chapter One. Maybe we could pick through it, this evening. Let me know what you think?"

He nodded, and welcomed her in, glad that everything seemed normal.

They worked on that for about an hour. Albus read and dissected Minerva's draft with her; it had some of the deviations from standard form and convention that one would expect in someone's first attempt at such an article, but in terms of clarity of thought and line of argument, it really was rather good. They were into the swing of things, and he was feeling entirely comfortable.

The problem, perhaps, was that everything seemed too normal. True to her word, Minerva really did carry on as if nothing had happened between them. -Which turned out to be somewhat inconvenient, Albus found, because it meant that anything else really was entirely up to him. Why, oh why, he thought, did he feel so young and silly?

When the house-elves brought supper, he poured then both a glass of wine and made an attempt to tidy away rolls of parchment. Minerva raised an eyebrow at the unaccustomed desk-proudness, but said nothing. He cleared his throat, hoping that some grand words might be forthcoming, and she looked-on expectantly. Finding that nothing sprang forth, however, Albus changed tack and took Minerva's hand across the table.

"Minerva, I have been thinking about the extremely kind suggestion you made on Saturday evening."

"Mmmm?" She seemed a little tense.

"The thing is, I'm rather worried about the difference in our ages. I fear it may cause too many problems."

She nodded, but had clearly prepared an answer to that. "Please don't be. I may be young, but I know my own mind. And as to logistics, I'm sure that we could find practical solutions to any problems that-"

"-No, my dear, I think you misunderstand me," Albus replied, "I'm really quite concerned about how you might cope with a man who is emotionally so much your junior." He winked, hoping that she had got the message. "But if you really would like to take on such a hopeless case... well, I'm all yours."

As the news sank in, a tremendous smile blossomed on Minerva's face; the most beautiful thing Albus fancied he had ever seen. It looked just like Spring, and starlight, and the deep blue sea, all at once.

He rose, and walked around to her side of the table. "May I?..."

Minerva responded by leaping up into his arms, in a rain of hugs and gentle kisses. Albus stroked her hair, the long dark strands like silk in his fingers, and wondered whether anything else in the world could feel so very perfect.

As the evening went on, they just about managed to eat supper, and also began to talk about the practicalities of how it all might work. It felt so very new and daunting, but Albus was comforted by Minerva's eminently practical approach: she had already applied her formidable logic to the situation, and had plenty of workable ideas that would allow them to spend time in each other's company while preventing damage to either his work or her study. If he were to sail into waters unknown, he could think of no person better to captain the ship.

By eleven-thirty, both earnest conversation and the remains of work had been abandoned in favour of relaxing by the fire. Minerva rested her head on Albus' shoulder, her legs tucked up on the sofa to her side. She slipped her hand underneath his outer robes to lie loosely across his chest, the fine fabric of his shirt transmitting surprising amounts of heat from that narrow palm. It made Albus' skin tingle and his heart do somersaults, even as she snoozed. He couldn't quite comprehend what he might have done to become so lucky.

They stayed snuggled-up like - exchanging the occasional word or kiss - until dawn pressed grey smudgy fingers against the windowpanes. Then, Albus levitated the sleeping Minerva to lay chastely in his big four-poster bed, and tucked her in carefully, as he lay a respectable distance to the side.


*****



Just as Minerva had outlined, it did prove possible for them to see one another as a part of their day-to-day life - even when term started once again, and the castle was once more overrun with students and calamities.

The fact that she was Head Girl lent a fair deal of freedom - indeed, as it had done, during all of the Autumn term. Minerva would not be stopped in a corridor at night in the style of most of her comrades; Pringle would give her a sharp nod in acknowledgement, and they would both go about their business. Moreover, Minerva's dorm-mates were so accustomed to her returning late from the library or Prefect patrol and rising early for same, if her bed seemed unruffled of a morning, they would neither notice nor care.

The fact that Albus' quarters were sufficiently private that comings and goings were not observed was doubtless to their advantage - as was case that whether it was being a witch in a Muggle parish, or being too closely acquainted with a foreign power-monger, both Albus and Minerva were accustomed to living their lives with discretion. Neither gained any particular thrill from the idea of clandestine encounters, but both were perfectly capable of maintaining a state of self-contained prudence.

At first, Albus had watched Armando carefully for any sign of suspicion or disquiet - a narrowing of the eyes, a purse of the lips, or any annunciation of, 'good morning,' in tones other his usual dusty and equanimous timbre. There was nothing. Elderly but mechanical in his competence, the Headmaster ploughed along in the week-by-week, year-by-year business of running the school. He neither sought intrigue and difficulty, or - as Albus had discovered to his own chagrin in the past - was particularly receptive if evidence of such was pointed out to him. Indeed, with his wisps of white hair and dependable black robes, Albus fancied that Armando was probably the most benign Slytherin he had ever met.

As far as Albus and Minerva were aware, therefore, their new association went entirely unremarked; the only people who knew were Horace and Elphias, and they were sworn to secrecy. There, then, was the first of many surprises for Albus in this new and uncharted world of human relationships: that such a madcap scheme did actually seem to be feasible.

The basic proof-of-principle aside, then, Albus often found himself trying to puzzle out the parameters of the game: the tennets and guidelines that might help him to work out what was going to happen, what might be expected of him, and whether or not he could do it well. If only there were a standard text, he often found himself thinking, and then rolled his eyes in self-mockery; everyone else seems to manage, for Merlin's sake...

It was not something about which he had often thought, but Albus supposed his body was serviceable enough. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and had sinews that spoke of long walks and deep swims, and soft patches that told of his love for sherbet lemons. It was far from perfect, but he hoped that it would do. -Again, Albus found that he wasn't quite sure if and when such considerations might be appropriate or required; the whole concept seemed so alluring and bizarre he was very content to follow Minerva's lead in how intimate - or not - they might become.

Indeed, Minerva was an excellent guide to this whole business. He wasn't sure whether or not she had done it before, or whether she just had an innate sense of how to go about it: a sense that he either entirely lacked, or - more likely - had smothered in fifty years of second-guessing and denial.

As far as Albus could tell, they shared everything - highs, lows, moments of particular interest, tales from the past and reflections on the present. Everything, that is, save one for category: Minerva insisted on keeping her Transfiguration studies separate from their relationship.

She was still the star pupil in his NEWT class, of course, and asked her usual penetrating questions whenever she found a chink in his explanation. She would complete her homework assignments, and he would mark them, as ever, and send feedback back via the official channels. That felt pretty odd, at times, given that he was often going to see her long before the next class, and her scroll was just sitting there, on his desk... but she clearly preferred it that way, and Albus didn't argue.

Of course, Minerva would pass the odd circumstantial comments about one of her peers being particularly silly, or a beating gale that had threatening to drown out Albus' explanations, when they met after a class - but anything to do with the actual subject - the meat of instruction - was off limits. That extended, too, it seemed, to her extra-curricular Transfiguration studies:

"So, what is it exactly that you're working at the moment? Albus tried asking, one Sunday afternoon. They had Flooed to Canterbury for the day, and were window-shopping in the booksellers' of the Wizarding quarter. A couple of rare editions had provided a talking-point, but mainly they were just enjoying one another's company, away from the castle. "I'm sure you must have finished that correspondence course, by now."

"Oh, nothing in particular..." Minerva replied, airily.

"Come on, surely you can tell me, now?" He wiggled his eyebrows, making her laugh. "I promise I won't interfere."

Minerva shook her head, smiling but unmoved. "No, it's a surprise. I'll show you when I've got the hang of it."

"Well, don't make me wait too long," Albus harrumphed, "It does nothing for my ego, you know, to hear that the best Transfiguration student at Hogwarts in progressing without my input."

"I'm afraid that is just something that your precious ego will have to bear." She prodded him on the nose, and he grimaced, pulling her into a brief kiss. Then, when they had resumed their stroll: "But seriously, Albus, I really appreciate everything you teach me. I just want to prove to myself that I can do it on my own resources, as well."

"And stubbornness is a virtue, I suppose..." he conceded, kissing her again before any further retribution could come his way.


*****



As the icy gales of February gave way to snowdrops, then daffodils, then irises, Albus felt he had learned a great deal about the puzzle it was to 'have a significant other'. The greatest lesson of all, it seemed to be, was to think about the high concept of it rather less. Indeed, as time passed, Albus was invariably finding that every nuance he had pondered, cogitated and stressed turned out to be something on which no worry need to have been expended at all.

One of the thousand things that Albus found himself surprised by, was the fact that being 'romantically involved' with someone wasn't actually very different from being good friends with them. In the fifty years when he had studiously avoided even the risk of such an interaction, the whole idea had grown into something alien and mystifying. He had wondered: what would one actually say to the other person? And, assuming that is it not possible to be in bed the whole week long, what else does one actually do?

The answers had turned out to be utterly simple: exactly the same as one might do, anyway - only with more enthusiasm. Oodles of it, indeed! Albus liked to think he had always been a reasonably open-minded person - in fact, he would argue that it was a dangerous flaw at times - but having Minerva with whom to share the events and minutiae of life made the sky seem brighter, walks seem longer, and flowers more in bloom.

It was amazing, he thought, how she could always be in his mind, even when he was necessarily concentrating on something else. He would read a passage in the news, or hear something interesting from Herbert - and immediately, there it was: I'll tell Minerva about that. He would be wandering through Hogsmeade, and a brooch or a scarf might catch his eye in a shop window: That would look nice on Minerva. -And when he actually did see her next - even if it had been just the gap between morning and evening - he found himself overflowing with things to say and to share. It was as if the time they had together couldn't possibly be enough to get through it all, let alone finding oneself counting the minutes dutifully, in awkward excess.

Another thing that had surprised him - and here, Albus was beginning to suspect that he was more clueless about such matters than even he had realised – was that progressing to the physical aspects of a relationship wasn't some solemn, sudden and embarrassing single moment that put the world out of kilter and made the two parties rather less comfortable with one another than they had been beforehand.

The way Gellert had touched him, all those years ago, did not seem to count; even at the time he had an inkling that it was rough, and that his own consent had never been sought. Albus' impression of physical relationships, therefore, had very much been in the nineteenth-century model: he in his nightcap, she in her bonnet, a perfunctory moment while the deed was done and they both tried not to look, and then each back to his or her side of the bed with a relieved sigh and a book.

He certainly hadn't expected it to involve tickling. Or drifting off gently, still hugged tight. Or finding that hands slipped below clothes with a mind of their own - not with some teeth-gritted mission - just because it seemed so much more natural to be close to the other person and to feel her warmth without all of that cotton and wool in the way.

Indeed, it was through such a natural evolution that Albus and Minerva found themselves nose-to-nose under the duvet, with very little separating them at all. He was accustomed to her touch on his back, his chest, his belly, even his lanky legs - and it felt indescribably lovely; almost as lovely as touching Minerva in all of those places, himself. Then, somehow, their underwear was pushed aside, and they were naked with one another for the first time. Minerva was searing-hot and glorious, and he jumped at first with the thrill of feeling her skin directly on his. Minutes later, her fingers slid down Albus' side, and stopped, somewhat suggestively, at his hip. "Would you like me to..."

Albus felt himself blushing a little, but nodded; the heat in his cheeks was nothing to the heat elsewhere. She encircled him with a firm grip, and he couldn't hold back a deep groan. Minerva smiled. Then, she began to stroke him - and if Albus had suspected he had the emotional development of a somewhat dim teenager, he opined that he might have the physical restraint of one, too.

"Aaaagh..." he groaned. He felt close, so close... but he was certain that he wanted to behave considerately, so he stilled her hand. "My dear, you are most affecting, but I want to please you, also." he drew Minerva into a deep kiss, then experimentally slid a hand down her tummy to the crisp curls below. Albus then recalled one of the first tenets of scholarship: the wise are quick to admit what they do not understand. "Show me?"

Minerva moved her legs, and guided his fingers. "Touch me here," she said, indicating a warm, firm nub. Albus stroked her - up and down, side to side and in circles - and he was rapt with Minerva's reactions; hot and breathy and making noises that were not quite words.

"That's lovely. Now use a finger; touch me inside."

"Ok, but... I don't want to hurt you."

"Ha! Please don't. -Worry, that is. I promise I'll say if anything hurts. Now..." Gingerly, Albus obliged, and he was rewarded with a hiss of satisfaction. "Super. Now, move - gently, at first." He did as he was told, and Minerva wriggled on the bedsheets. "Ok, not that gently!" He redoubled his efforts. "Ah... better..."

Albus experimented with angle and pace, and watched his lover intently for clues of what felt best for her. He was utterly in awe - that he could make Minerva writhe like that, grasping at his back, wide open and so very wet. It was surely the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Moments later, Minerva seemed to still, tense and shivering. Albus panicked for a second that he had inadvertently done something untoward to her, but as the tremors continued, a look of bliss and great need passed across her features. Then: "Albus, I want to feel you inside me. -Properly, I mean. Would you like that?"

If Albus had not replied, he was sure his own, temporarily untouched body might have done so. "Yes, I'd like you. ...But I don't know quite how..." He felt a little out of his depth.

"Of course you do, silly!" Minerva gave him a firm kiss on the lips, and then pushed his shoulders with surprising force. Albus found himself lying on his back on the bed, his erection standing proud in the cool air. He did not suffer the disconnection for long, however, as Minerva straddled him, her warm thighs providing both comforting touch, and acting to inflame him again, almost to bursting point. She stroked her fingers through the auburn hair on his chest. "Don't worry; I've taken the potion."

Albus was somewhat abashed that he hadn't actually considered the need for such precautions, and extremely grateful that Minerva seemed to know what she was doing. "Thank you," he breathed, and he meant it in so many different ways.

Minerva bent down to kiss his nose, and manoeuvred herself such that his tip was at her entrance. Then, slowly - tantalisingly! - she moved downward - slick and hot and - oh! - so tight around him - and Albus was positive that he had never felt anything so blissful.

Just at the moment his eyes were falling backwards and his grip upon her sides was threatening to mark, however, he found that there was more. Minerva began to move, intensifying everything he felt, and he couldn't help but buck his hips upward to meet her, hands flying upward to cradle her waist, pulling her closer still.

If Albus had found words difficult before, they were outright impossible, now. The world had narrowed to just the amazing slick heat encircling him, and Minerva's strident, fabulous expression above him, dark hair flying haphazardly across her breasts and a look of triumph in her eyes. It was utterly extraordinary to think that this fabulous creature actually wanted him - and that thought alone was possibly even more intoxicating that the feeling of tightening around him, or her soft, satisfied moans when they both came.

Afterwards, they lay together in each other's arms, feeling closer than ever before. "Thank you," Albus breathed, once more.

"For what?" She sounded a little amused.

"For absolutely everything. You have no idea how much you have changed my life for the better. I feel so very, very lucky."

"Well, thank you, my dearest," Minerva replied, nuzzling closer. "After eighteen-odd years of not quite fitting-in, I finally feel as if I belong somewhere - with someone. It's wonderful."

And with that, they cradled each other to sleep, grateful that the next day brought no rush or appointments.


*****



To most people, it would have just been Sunday lunch, but for Albus, the invitation he held in his hand was surprising, scary, novel and exciting all at once. It was the first time he had ever been invited anywhere as part of a couple, and, now five months into their relationship (he felt laughably like a teenager, counting months), it was the first time that he and Minerva were being formally acknowledged by the outside world as a pair.

It was only Horace and Elphias, of course – his oldest friends and confidantes - but the step still seemed significant. Surely, he thought, it would be for Minerva, too. She had little difficulty in adjusting any teacher from authority figure to peer, truth be told, and had always been friendly with Horace - but he was still aware of the strain and expectation even such an innocuous invitation could place upon her. Albus dearly hoped that accepting would turn out to be for the best.

His doubts were silenced, however, when Minerva bounded into his drawing room at the appointed time, looking perfect in tartan. "Right, we're going by Floo, are we? I'm trusting that your friends cook better than you do!"

"Indeed they do," he replied, giving Minerva a kiss. It was extraordinary that each time made him feel a little giddy, even now. He threw the powder and recited the connection, waiting for Horace or Elphias to answer and let them through.

"Oh gosh, I'm so sorry," Minerva darted from his side, back out of the fireplace; Albus had the dreadful feeling that she had changed her mind. "I bought them a box of crystallised pineapple, but I left it upstairs. I'll be back in a moment!"

Feeling a surge of relief, Albus nodded. Then, the Floo connection went live, and he could see straight into Elphie and Horace's cosy dining room, the two of them bustling about the table. "Hello there!" he called.

Strangely, though, it seemed that they could not hear him. It must have been a faulty line. Albus, however, could make out every word that his friends were exchanging:

"I know, Sweetheart," said Horace, "But I do think it's the right thing to offer a rope, as it were."

Elphias shrugged. "Oh, so do I. It's just that... imagine you really, really wanted a pet that could climb trees." Horace raised his eyebrows at that. "Stick with me here!"

"Ok," Horace humoured, "In which case, I'd recommend a cat."

"Quite so." Elphias was getting into the swing of this, bright blue eyes alive, and feet dancing around the table as he put out the crystal. "But presume then, that you couldn't have a cat, but were given a very nice dog. It has never, and will never, climb trees - so you think, at least - but you love it anyway, for what it can do. That goes on for many years. You try to forget about that fact that you truly wanted a tree-climbing pet, and let it be. You don't resent your dog for it; you just get on with the whole thing."

"Fine," agreed Horace, "It wouldn't be Quidditch to blame the poor creature for not doing something that it constitutionally was unable to do, after all."

"Precisely. But then imagine that one day, you find out that your dog has been climbing trees in someone else's garden, all unbeknownst to you. He does want to climb trees, just not your trees..."

Horace sighed, and paused, silverware in hand. "Elphias, Darling, I think this analogy is becoming somewhat tortured." He swept his partner into a hug. "I know exactly what you mean, and truth be told I feel a bit like that, too, but... I think, after all of these years, I'd like to stick with the old dog I do have, rather than the pseudo-arboreal one who's coming to lunch." Then, in a whisper so low, Albus could barely hear it, "I love you."

Elphias returned the hug twofold, nestling his nose into Horace's shoulder. "I love you, too."

"Right, got it!" Minerva's voice from across the room broke Albus out of his unintentional eavesdropping. He tried his hardest not to think about what he had just heard - ostensibly because it had not been intended for his ears in the first place. Luckily, that also meant that he would not need to direct brainpower to a topic that could only lead to awkwardness.

"Well done," Albus said, offering Minerva his arm. "Shall we?" He had another go at casting the powder, and this time it worked just fine. Very soon they were shaking hands and exchanging preserved fruit for a glass of elf-made wine, and all was going very smoothly indeed.

Albus felt, in an absurd sort of way, as if he were taking a girlfriend home to his parents for the first time. He found himself taking sideways glances at Minerva as she was boisterously holding her own in conversation, and feeling ridiculously proud that such a young woman might have agreed to accompany him in public. He considered the sight the two of them presented and wondered if they seemed laughable together - he with extrovert robes and mane of fiery hair, and she with a slight, elegant figure and skin so smooth and pale it made striking contrast with the black of her hair. At times like this, Albus wondered if Minerva had been fashioned from porcelain, and he from the ends of old clay. Weren't true couples supposed to look as if they matched?

He glanced over at Horace and Elphias. In so many ways, the two of them just seemed as if they were a pair; it defied precise explanation, but was as clear as the '34 the frothed in his glass.

On second thoughts, though, Albus concluded that they, too, were physically incongruous with one another. Both were possessed of no great height, it was true, but Horace's comfortable rotundness contrasted in every way with Elphie's bird-like grace. The latter now worked as arts correspondent for The Prophet, but had previously been a dancer with the foremost British Wizarding troupe. His every step and gesture belied previous balletic training, not to mention his aquiline features, and dark hair that flowed, poker-straight, down the back of his sky-blue robes. Set against Horace's ruddy, tweedy tones and heavy steps, one might be mistaken for thinking they were creatures of entirely different elements - and yet, all that didn't have the slightest effect on the longevity of their attachment to one another.

No, Albus concluded, things like fat or thin, old or young, didn't seem so much to matter. It was the underlying connection between the pair that Albus noticed. Elphias would finish Horace's sentences, and as they brought and arranged lunch, they worked together so fluidly it was as if one person with fours hands was taking care of everything, not two separate people who would need to deliberately communicate to make themselves understood to one another.

Albus wondered whether he and Minerva did - or even, could - seem like that. He very much hoped that they did, or that they might in the future, at least. How wonderful it would be to go through life having an other half; an ally; a collaborator in all things, such that they could somehow create a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. He was comfortable in her presence in a way he had never known the like, and - here was the teenage boy speaking again, Albus cringed to admit - after a lifetime of self-denial, the sex was truly mind-blowing. How could he ask for anything more?

Finishing up his roast lamb, Albus again glanced at her across the table. If the occasion had posed any awkwardness for Minerva, it did not show at all; she was locked in conversation with Elphias about the finer points of avant garde Wizarding ballet, Ravenclaw and near-Ravenclaw dissecting each modern step and gesture with precision and acuity.

"Are you alright, Albus?" whispered Horace, as he refilled a glass. "You seem a bit quiet there, old chap."

Albus smiled, taking in the scene: his two closest friends and the wonderful young woman who shared his life all together in one place. "No, not quite," he replied, blinking as if in bright lights. "It would be inaccurate to merely use the term 'alright', when I feel so extraordinarily happy right now."


*****



Albus held the nugget of dripping red, while Minerva hovered close-by with the Hogwarts seal. It was pretty exciting - sending off the finalised version of their manuscript for print. Albus suspected that Current Wizardology would never have seen the like, and he did hope that it was received with interest. That which had started off as just a perfunctory response to the Governors - and, of course, they had been given their copy, too - had blossomed into so much more, and he genuinely felt that the fruits of their labours could do a lot of good, if they fell into the right hands.

He looked across at the young woman to his side, brow furrowed in concentration as she plunged the crest into the puddle of hot wax, making sure it was straight. So very much more.

As it happened, their final submission had fallen in the middle of a busy time. Minerva was only popping-by briefly, because she had her final NEWT exam the next day - Transfiguration, in fact. Albus had not seen a great deal of her for the past few weeks and he was very much looking forward to that all changing the following day.

"So, what are we going to do tomorrow, to celebrate?"

She looked up from the wax-crossed ribbons, and smiled. "Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself? I haven't sat the paper yet."

"Come, now. A matter of mere hours, and then you're all mine!" He pounced on her from behind, like a Kneazle catching mice.

Minerva broke away, laughing. "Well, it's going to be a lovely evening. How about we meet by the lake for a walk at seven - then take it from there? Maybe have supper in Hogsmeade afterwards?

Albus nodded; fresh air would be lovely. "Super. Although perhaps not Hogsmeade - it's likely to be swarming with de-mob-happy seventh years."

"Ah yes, I'd forgotten that. Is everyone staying around this year?"

"So far, I have signed-off precisely zero requests to go down early." Finishing students were technically free to leave Hogwarts after their last NEWT exam, but practically all of them opted to stay until the end of term proper - letting their hair down while the staff turned a traditional blind eye, and making plans for the following year.

Minerva gathered up her hat and her books. "Well, see you tomorrow, then."

He kissed her goodbye, as she headed off, back to the library. "Good luck, my Darling. You won't need it, but good luck, all the same."


*****



As it happened, Albus found himself in the castle grounds before seven, the next evening. The fading sun glistened on the lake, and the willow trees whispered summer sweet-nothings; having finished his marking early, he had ached to be outdoors.

The shores were alive with pet toads making the most of the warm weather - and simultaneously being stalked by the odd cat or well-fed owl, at the far side. Albus enjoyed the dance of nature about him: the loop-the-loop of a dragonfly; the harsh hiss of a Grindylow from the reed beds; but he rather hoped the day would not end with amphibious blood and first-year tears. It was far too special an evening, for that.

Trying to relax away from schoolish duties, Albus gazed out across the water, taking in the peaks in the distance and the high candyfloss clouds. It was beautiful, here, without doubt - easy to see why one would choose to stay.

With that, though, thoughts of the next months and years assaulted his mind - the very thoughts that he had been trying to suppress for some weeks, now. It seemed, however, that their time had come. Albus sighed, and continued to gaze at the horizon.

Submitting the manuscript felt like something of a watershed; it was a fact of academic life that existence was measured in project-chunks and topic-years, and now he and Minerva had reached the end of one successful collaboration. But what of the collaborators?

Of course, it wasn't just the paper; that was merely symbolic. Far more meaningful was the fact that, in a few short weeks' time, they would no longer necessarily be living under the same roof. Would she want him, after this year? Or had he served his purpose? -Stamped, ticked-off and returned to the shelf - the kind of useful library book that one would recommend to future students.

Could they forge something meaningful, going on from here? Was it ungentlemanly to even suggest the notion? He and Minerva had been carrying on so very much in the present - the glorious, surprising, sunshine-filled present - that the future seemed full of phantom shadows: difficult to see, let alone to grasp.

Indeed, Albus was sure he had never felt the present so keenly before; he had always existed with an eye on past regrets and the other on where next to manoeuvre. He had never stopped to smell the pygmypuffs; there had never been much attention left for the here-and-now. He was still catching up with the novel experience of it, truth be told - the very uncanny sense of being alive - and it therefore seemed quite unreasonable that circumstance was about to wrench all of that away, making things difficult and uncertain.

Of course, selfishly, Albus knew exactly what he wanted to happen: to keep Minerva here with him. Maybe, when a respectable time had passed, they could openly be a couple - no more secrecy and hiding. Maybe, in a few years or decades time... she would want to have children. The idea was thrilling and terrifying, all at once. Could he, Albus, one day be a father?

But what would Minerva do? The question sat in Albus' mind like ice. With a prodigious talent such as hers it would be criminal for her to be cooped up as some sort of housewitch; that could never be right.

He would not clip her wings, not under any circumstances – on that, Albus was resolute. He thought back to the sad day that Horace and Elphias had tootled off on their Grand Tour, leaving him behind with his broken family to tend. Grimly, he was sure that he deserved it - ungrateful child that he had been - but he wanted Minerva to have every opportunity that he had not been granted: travel, learning, culture, language; the works.

But where would that leave the two of them? He would miss her so very much, and she would doubtless meet a younger, suaver wizard to sweep her off her feet in Peru, or Tanzania, or Venice. He really did want all of the doors in the world to open to her, but... it was hard to face the possibility that they might all open up without him.

Thus, Albus found himself back to square-one: nebulously concerned and clueless. Satirically, he was once again amazed that a man who prided himself on thinking, could be so phenomenally poor at thinking about emotional matters. What an amateur - in every sense of the word.

There was one balm to this rash of failed reasoning, however: Albus was pretty sure that any attempt he could make to persuade, cajole or dictate what Minerva should or should not do with her future would be labelled as patronising and patriarchal in no uncertain terms, and resolutely ignored. Quite right, too, he thought, and fell for her all over again, just at the notion.

At about a quarter to seven, his reverie was interrupted by Armando - who was also out on an evening stroll, so it seemed. "Good evening, Albus. Hagrid said he'd seen you walk out here."

"Good evening," Albus replied, filing away his musings for later.

"In fact," Armando continued, tucking white wisps under his hat as they caught in the breeze. "I was hoping to catch you in private. This is perfect."

"Oh?"

"You see, Albus, I haven't been entirely straight with you about this report you've written for the Governors. The thing is, I'm retiring."

Retiring? Did people do that? Albus couldn't countenance the idea, himself. "But you're only... …oh. Three-hundred and nineteen."

"Quite so!" Armando said, with vindicated tone. ""I'm three-hundred and nineteen! -And feel every day of it, truth be told.

"So, naturally, I've been thinking about a successor. I hope it's clear that I'd like for it to be you."

Albus took a moment to process all of that. He, as Headmaster? The idea shone with potential. Taking just the past few centuries, he would be by far the youngest new post-holder Hogwarts had known. "Thank you. That's... that's extremely kind of you. I'd be delighted."

"Excellent." Armando nodded to himself, as if he had secured some great coup. Then, however, his bushy white eyebrows assumed a frown. "I fear though, Albus, that making the appointment won't be entirely straightforward. That is what I need to speak with you about.

"Now, I and all the other teachers here are able to see as clear as day that you're the natural candidate, but the Governors have other ideas. Half of them - the right-on progressive ones, that is - were determined to make a political statement by appointing a Muggle-born Headmaster. -Or Headmistress, for that matter. They didn't have any particular person in mind; they've just seized onto the idea as if it's the only thing that matters for making their concept of a better Wizarding world a reality. Now, I would have thought that defeating Grindelwald alone would count for..."

Albus shivered. Why did everything, even now, have to come back to Gellert?

"...and it's not that they're ungrateful! More that they got this idea into their heads to have a figurehead for the future not a hero of the past, and other such codswallop.

"So, at first, they were quite resistant to the idea of you taking it on. -But after they saw that superb report you and young Mirabelle have written - a half-blood raised in Muggle surroundings; what a clever choice - that has warmed them to the idea, no end. It had 'progressive' written all over it, and that's just what they wanted to see. So very well done, my son!"

"Thanks." Albus was not quite sure how he felt about all of that. In general, he preferred to know the intended purpose and audience for the pieces he wrote before he wrote them. The report stood on its own terms as a decent piece of scholarship, though - sociology, Minerva informed him, was the modern term - and it had clearly been instrumental in something ultimately to his advantage. Albus concluded that there was no real harm done by the deception, and let it go unremarked.

"So," Armando pushed on, "That only leaves the hard part."

"Oh. Which is?"

Armando took a deep breath, seeming to steel himself. "Baldly put: to convince Abraxas Malfoy and his cronies that you're sufficiently bigoted to win their vote. They form the other half of the committee, you see, and to be elected, each camp has to think that you are one of them. Otherwise it will be gridlock for years, and Hogwarts will have to soldier on with no leadership at all." He cringed at the thought; it would be carnage, both in and out of the classroom.

Albus felt alarm bells start to sound. "I'm not sure I can..."

"-Oh, tish-tosh, Albus. What's a little acting when so much rests on it? - For you, and for the school. Trust me, a few white lies now will definitely be for..."

"...The Greater Good?" The words rang in his ears.

"Yes precisely."

"Gosh." Albus swallowed hard and thought about that. His first inclination would be to do nothing to associate himself with the old-blood ideas and prejudices, however insincere and transient it may be. It was a tennet that he had held for decades, but it felt even more relevant now, having just put his name to what he hoped would be a transformative treatise on the subject.

The utilitarian argument, however, was very clear. Would it be prissy, puritanical - selfish, even - to place his own sense of propriety above the outcome that delivered the most benefit to all? Albus knew that Armando's assessment of his capabilities were not just flattery; he likely would be the best person for the job, and would do it well. He would nurture and protect all of Hogwarts' students, and with him at the helm, Albus felt they were all much more likely to be safe from future deceits and attacks. "I suppose I can see your reasoning," he allowed.

"Quite right; good man." The Astronomy tower clock struck seven; its big booming notes echoed around the castle grounds. At that, Armando looked over his shoulder, back at the castle. A handful of figures were making their way toward the lake: dark robes, blond hair. "-And, as it so happens, I have arranged a meeting with them right here and now to put all of this - and me - to bed."

Albus looked on at the approaching wizards while staring inwardly at his own conscience. Toads hopped about around him with cats in hot pursuit: tabby, ginger and white. One, in particular, had just stalked up close and seemed to be regarding him. It was funny how animals can do that, thought Albus - a projected mirror of one's own introspection.

By the time Malfoy was near enough to receive Armando's nodded greeting, Albus had made up his mind: Hogwarts needed him, and he would do whatever he must to fulfil his duty.

"Armando," acknowledged Abraxas. His associates grunted in greeting, also; broad and inarticulate, Albus recognised them as Bulstrodes, Crabbes and possibly Lestranges.

"I'm so pleased that you all could come," simpered the Headmaster. "And I'm sure you all know who this is, but please let me formally introduce our Transfiguration Professor, Albus Dumbledore."

They all dutifully shook hands, even though their paths had crossed before.

"Jolly good. So, we all know why we're standing outside in the middle of a bloody paddock", Abraxas drawled, "Let's get on with it. The both of you think that Dumbledore here is the right man to lead our Wizarding youth. How am I to be convinced of that?"

"Well," began Armando, getting into the stride of this, "After a great deal of pressure from the new-fangled lobby - which is most tedious in Governors' meetings, I'm sure you'll agree - I think that you will find Albus' views to be refreshingly... traditional. Are they not, Albus?"

"Absolutely," he managed.

"That certainly is not the impression offered by your magnum opus that I have just had the, err.. pleasure... of receiving," Abraxas countered. "-Though I daresay the elves might use it as decent kindling on the fire." He laughed, light and nasal, and his band responded on cue with cowing chortles.

Albus tried to keep his expression neutral. Armando shot him a meaningful look and cut in: "Professor Dumbledore was merely discharging an unpleasant duty required of him by the less - enlightened - Governors. He wanted to do it thoroughly, to maintain proper realism. That is the calibre of the man with whom you are dealing. Isn't that right, Albus?"

"I... um... yes." He hated the need to agree.

"Mmmm." Malfoy took that in, clearly weighing the claims. He then fixed Albus in the eye and reached forth the strands of Legilimency, questing for truth and prejudice in his mind.

Luckily, the attempt was a very crude one. Albus blocked the attack with ease, presenting Abraxas with a picture of exactly what he wished to see. Clearly buoyed by his own apparent cunning, Malfoy smiled. "And girl, this... co-author," he continued, his every word dripping with disdain. "This young chit dragged up by Muggles in a Scottish hovel. What of her, eh? Why are you associating with people like that, Dumbledore?"

This time, Albus felt floored. "I, err..."

Malfoy pressed his case, clearly enjoying himself. "Come, come, consorting with the squirt of blood-traitor, indeed! Isobel Ross besmirches the name of witch, and you choose to rally with the sinful product. Filthy, if you ask me." He enacted a shudder, "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Albus clenched his fists in the pockets of his robes. He was so close to speaking his mind - perhaps even hexing the idiot - but Armando sent another warning look his way, over Malfoy's shoulder.

Just two minutes, Albus reminded himself, just two minutes. He took a deep breath. "It proved an effective technique with your more liberal colleagues, Governor," He affected a smile. "I feel the choice added a good deal of verisimilitude to the case."

Abraxas narrowed his eyes, taking that in; Albus redoubled his efforts at Occlumency. The former then changed tack, voice soft and inviting confidences. "And do you like her? Think her talented?" He smirked. Attractive, even?" He was clearly hoping to get a rise; propriety was always a game to the Malfoys.

Mind safely shut, Albus could see the end in sight; he ploughed on with the plan. "Of course not. Just 'useful' - for the time-being, of course."

"-And you kept that up for the entire school year?" Malfoy actually sounded impressed. "Well, if it is to be believed, that is the kind of subtlety we would want on our side. A heavy price to pay - cavorting with a disgusting Muggle-raised wretch for a year - but I suppose the Headmastership is a worthwhile prize, is it not? I commend your ambition, Professor."

But it was no good; Albus couldn't quite stop himself. "Now, hold on a minute-"

"-Tush, tush, no need to be modest with me." It was glossed over and finished. Malfoy nodded abruptly, and Albus felt the inexpert tendrils withdraw from his mind. "Very well, Dumbledore. You shall have my vote." Then he turned to Armando. "We'll put forward the motion at the next Board meeting, then. You're looking to step down by the end of the academic year?"

"Quite right, and not a minute too soon!" Armando sounded like a very pleased man. "Well then, if you are satisfied, Abraxas, perhaps you'd like a glass of elf-made in my study before returning to the Manor?"

Malfoy nodded again, and allowed Armando to lead him and his lackeys back to the castle, the former casting a conspiratorial wink back at Albus before he left. It was done.

Albus sat down on a bench by the side of the lake, gazing out at the gentle ripples. Headmaster, eh? That was... pretty exciting, truth be told. He couldn't wait to tell Minerva.

He was just about to consider that it must be quite a few minutes past seven - and to begin to wonder where she was - when something peculiar happened: the tabby cat that had been regarding him so, morphed into a lividly beautiful woman. It took him two blinks to realise that it was Minerva.

"Oh my gosh!" Albus exclaimed, delight and surprise abundant, "You've-"

"-You bastard!" She was trembling with rage and tears.

For awful seconds, Albus' mind was working in slow motion. He cast about, wondering what had upset Minerva so; what he could do to help... and then, the awful realisation: she had heard everything he had said to Malfoy. "Oh, gods! I can explain. I didn't mean-"

She didn't wait to hear another word. As quickly as Minerva had entered human form, she vanished again into a cat, and ran as fast as the Scottish gales into the undergrowth at the far side of the lake.

Albus was left frozen, riveted to the bench. He felt as if he had just been struck by a vast, heavy object, and was reeling, punch-drunk and dry mouthed, trying to catch up with the terror unfolding around him.

He ran to where he thought Minerva had gone, calling out to her. There was no reply. Eyes manic and helpless, he scoured the lakeside and walked and walked in search, all fruitless. There was not a trace; Minerva obviously had no wish to be found.

Albus was unsure quite how long he traipsed the grounds. What started out as a search slowly morphed into a mournful march, unfocussed and mechanical, and he kept going until his legs ached and his feet were blistered in his boots.

As dusk fell, and with his stomach in knots, Albus returned to his rooms. He found a school post owl waiting for him there. The creature bore an unremarkable parchment bundle, addressed with barely-dry ink. Untying the string, a HEAD GIRL badge tumbled out onto his desk, with an accompanying note:


Dear Professor Dumbledore,

I realise it is customary for the Head Boy and Girl to remain in post until the very end of the academic year, but I have taken the decision to leave Hogwarts directly by broom, to concentrate on post-NEWT study without extra-curricular distractions. Please therefore take this as notice of my immediate resignation.

M. McGonagall



Albus felt his heart leap to his throat. Minerva couldn't leave, not before he had had a chance to talk to her; he had to explain.

He snatched up the badge and ran to the tower dorms, taking the moving stairs three at a time. Minerva was probably on her way, already. He was desperate to catch her.

He knocked on the door of the seventh-year girls' dormitory. It felt odd, and slightly obscene; he hadn't had cause to go up there in several years. Albus could hear his own ragged breaths and the pump of blood ringing in his ears, but otherwise, the whole place was eerily quiet. Most of the students were out and about, enjoying themselves.

Eventually, one shaky voice answered. Albus' heart leapt; it wasn't too late. He pushed open the door gently, and regarded the scene.

Minerva had just finished packing, her cases in an orderly row on the bed. She looked very pale, apart from her eyes - which were red and swollen and widened in surprise at Albus' entrance. "What do you want?"

All his words tumbled out in a flurry. "Minerva, I need to talk to you. Please-"

"-No. I don't want any more lies."

"Of course not! I mean, really, I-"

She shook her head with vigour, and started to cry. "Look, you listen to this. I actually thought you were different. I thought that for the first time in my life, someone actually wanted me for myself, not for just what I could do for them. -And then I find out that I was just being used for someone else's homework project all over again, but on a grander scale than usual!"

"No! I-"

"-You just trample on other people for your own gain, don't you? You are despicable, Albus Dumbledore. Just like your maniacal boyfriend."

They both gave a small gasp at that, and then the room was consumed by the worst kind of silence; open and aching and unbridgeable. Albus felt faint, as if he had been punched in the stomach and couldn't quite breathe.

She swallowed hard. "Just leave me alone."

Albus could feel his own eyes turn damp and bleary. "But Minerva, please, listen-"

"-No." She was perfectly still now, her voice brittle. "Why should I? I heard enough by the lake."

"But it's not like that. You've got to, I need you to, or..."

"Or what, Professor? -Or should I say, 'Headmaster'?" Her voice dripped with scorn. "What are you going to do - take house points?!"

The silence yawned open once more, and, almost in slow-motion, Albus looked at Minerva there, cold and fuming with tears streaming down her cheeks and hating him with every fibre of her magnificent being - in her school uniform for Merlin's sakes - his house colours... and he just couldn't bear it any longer. Something inside him collapsed. He cast down his eyes.

"If only you could know," Albus whispered, and then melted away from the room, not seeking her gaze as he left.

Feeling utterly numb, Albus returned to his quarters.

He locked the door and collapsed into an armchair, wishing for the whole world to disappear.


*****



Rap, rap rap

Albus didn't move. He had seen practically no-one for a fortnight, and had no intention of changing that, now - especially at eleven at night on what was supposed to the jolliest day of the year.

Rap, rap rap

"Come on, Albus, I know you're in there." He still made no attempt to answer. "Look, I'm going to barge down the door if you don't open it, so-"

"-Alright!" Albus spelled the door unlocked. Horace could be remarkably insistent.

His friend pushed the oak aside heartily, then spied Albus in his armchair. "Gods, you look awful!"

It had been nearly two weeks and Albus hadn't eaten, had barely drunk water, and sleep had consisted of only restless doze between nightmares. He had tried to settle to one of the more obscure uses of dragons' blood, but hadn't been able to concentrate at all, making only black mess in the bottom of a cauldron. "Thanks." He managed a humourless laugh.

"Something's gone wrong with Minerva, I presume." It was a statement, not a question. Horace swayed a little in the doorway. He was clearly well-oiled already, and carried two further bottles of the good stuff. He spoke with the uncanny insightfulness and sense of purpose of the slightly-drunk. Albus did not reply, but he imagined his expression said it all. "I thought to myself," continued Horace, hands gesticulating in the style of a grand lecturer, "'He's not been around much, lately,' - but I just put it down to lovebirds doing their thing. And then, when you didn't come to the staff meeting on Tuesday, I thought, 'Oho!' - but not turning up to the End of Year Feast was clearly the final straw, now, now wasn't it? Even Armando noticed! He was all set to announce your Headmastership this evening-" Albus opened his mouth in surprise. "-And yes, I do know all about that - and now to find you here - having just discovered that Minerva actually left two weeks ago - moping about and looking like a skeleton! Really Albus, what gives? I'm coming in, and I'm not leaving until I've heard all about it."

He didn't have the strength to argue. Albus remained passive as Horace set about drawing chairs by the fire, and pouring impossibly large tumblers of Scotch.

"Drink. It will make you feel better."

Numbly, Albus obliged, certain that he couldn't feel worse.

"Good. Now have another." They repeated the action. He found that the burn felt cleansing; soothing, even. "And now, my friend, let me try to help you."

Haltingly, Albus recounted the whole sorry tale. His voice felt scratchy and disused; creaking and painful when forced to put it all into words. He medicated that with more whisky.

Horace listened solemnly, not interrupting once. When the story was finished, Horace took a long swig from his own glass, and refilled both tumblers once more. "Well, that is all jolly unfortunate." Albus felt himself deflate again. "But it's clearly a case of misunderstanding, yes? Minerva needs to know what really happened."

Albus shook his head, wishing he felt it was that simple. "That's how it started, but... no that's not the answer. -Not now that I've had a chance to think about it. It's much worse than that, isn't it? The things she said about me - they're right." He felt so desolate, but somehow, it helped to say it out loud.

Horace tutted. "Come, now."

"No, really, it is true!" Albus could feel his heart pound, the liquor and catharsis working as one. "I'm dangerous, and careless, and easily led. Innocent people get hurt around me. Just one whiff of power, and I'm off. I can't be trusted. I should never have deceived myself into thinking I could be fit to be associated with anyone, let alone-"

"-Don't be ridiculous." There was unexpected fire in Horace's words, and his eyes bore into Albus' with heat and the shadow of pain. "I don't want to hear this nonsense; not again."

Albus' breath caught with sudden clarity and he could picture the scene: years ago - it felt so long, now - Horace imploring him with young, bright eyes under a sandy mop of hair, and he, Albus, remaining cold and resolute, long, thin fingers knitted together in ascetic repression over his stylish robes. But I love you, Albus their ghost-selves, said; I can't love anybody.

Horace drained his glass once more. He looked down into it, finding a voice among the ice cubes. "It's been jolly difficult to bear, you know. You having been involved with Minerva all this while."

Albus furrowed his brow in genuine confusion, and Horace rolled his eyes, exasperated. Refilling for them both, he elaborated: "I mean, before, you were oh so unattainable and that... that was sort of ok, something we could just about bear. But then you decide to be obtained. To climb down from your pedestal and actually lie with someone - and it wasn't me, and it wasn't even my husband either... and now, well. That makes it a jolly sight more difficult, reopening all the old wounds and daft hopes.

"I was never going to mention it to you, of course, but..." Horace trailed off, eyes somewhere between the bottle of whisky and the middle distance. "...So there it is: what I've been going through, while you've been either ecstatically happy, or moping around over something, out of all proportion. I don't suppose you ever thought about that."

Albus felt exceedingly abashed. "No," he answered honestly. "I didn't." Even the trace of such an idea was something he had done his level best not to think about, truth be told; he had studiously ignored that overheard conversation from the moment it had reached his ears "But surely, Horace, you can't want me. I'm no good for-"

"-Ha!" Horace barked a humourless laugh. "Have you any idea how long I've wanted you? Of course you do; I can't help but tell you every few years. Just when I think I've battened it down for good, there it goes - whoosh! - escaping somehow, into the open air." He slopped some Scotch overboard with the whoosh. "Elphie, too, you know. He loves you. Our whole relationship - all forty years of it - is founded on the basis of fucking well loving you." He looked away, stifling a sob.

"Oh, Horace, really, you can't mean that." Albus loved both Horace and Elphias dearly as friends, and it pained him to see Horace anguished, so. "You know my rejection of the idea has never been personal - against either you or Elphias. I just... clearly don't work like that. And this latest tragedy of mine just restates what I knew all along: people may fête me as a 'great wizard', but I'm just not fit for purpose as a human being." He felt breathless and his heart ached, but it was oddly vindicating to actually say it out loud; to define and claim his failures, and maybe to harden to the pain of them, in time.

Big, splashy tears were making their way down Horace's cheeks, seemingly without his knowledge. He shook his head, fervently, sending them left and right. "If only you could see how wrong you are, Albus. Maybe you should listen.

"Why did I love you? Well, you were elegant and charismatic, and so staggeringly clever. You were the hero, and everyone wants to love the hero. Good and virtuous; driven; 'Achieving Things' in big capital letters all across the world. Who wouldn't be dazzled by that?

"'Yes', you may say, 'but that's just the public face'. True - it is, though no less valid for it.

"But then, as if that wasn't enough to capture someone's heart, there had to be more. You weren't some distant figure, making discoveries in other lands; oh, no. You were kind. Human. Helpful. Considerate. Passionate. Fun. -And, absolutely fucking gorgeous. Albus, do you have any idea how infuriatingly attractive you are, without even for a second trying to be?"

Albus took all that in, with the odd sense that Horace was describing a stranger. Could he really mean all of those things - those true, human, feeling things - about... him?

"Well, I'll tell you," Horace pushed on, "Not a jot of that has changed over the years. And it's not easy to just be your chum all the time." He took a deep swig, and Albus felt he needed the same. "So there we were - the two of us, Elphie and I - gazing after you, following in your wake. And we saw in each other that same look of pained longing, and felt, for the first time, that someone understood. We took comfort in one another, and still do. He is the balm to my soul, and I love him dearly... but it's never been clearer to me than now, in these past few months, that it is not only possible to love two different people at the same time – sometimes, it's downright unavoidable. And when one of those people is someone you can't have - well, that just eats away at you inside, until you might go mad from it."

"Oh, Horace, please," implored Albus, "I don't want to make you feel like that. I'm not worth your pain, really, I-"

Horace's face softened, and he gave the tenderest of little laughs, fixing Albus' gaze. "And that is perhaps the fatal problem, isn't it? The very fact that you can't see it, makes you all the more adorable." He sighed, and Albus fancied it involved all of the air in the room. "Your only great flaw is to be such a highly-strung drama queen, acting as if you're the first and only person in the world to have a conscience or to feel guilty about something. It's natural, and most of us just get on with it, you know, without the histrionics. We work through it, rather than clamming up and treating the whole world as black and white."

The words - the very idea - was so simple, yet it felt to Albus like a revelation. He emptied his tumbler once more, and Horace did the same. The world was blurry now, soft at the edges. "Do you... do you really think so? That I'm not worse than other people? Not more dangerous?"

"Of course I do."

Albus felt thankful, and overcome, and dizzy, and desperately lonely at heart. Perhaps he was not an innately bad person, after all? He had made some bad choices, but maybe he was not marked from within; as irredeemable as he had thought? He scooted over to the sofa to sit at Horace's side, to take his hand in affection and gratitude.

"Oh gods..." Horace shivered at the contact, his lips parting slightly.

Albus' mind was in overdrive, full and shaking, and his vision and balance were nearly gone and... And Horace; Horace cared for him, thought he was good, actually wanted him...

He could not tell who kissed who first, but before he knew it, they two were interlocked like serpents, mouths full of tongue and whisky and pulling haphazardly at each other's clothes. Then, somehow, he and Horace stumbled into the bedchamber and collapsed together, nearly naked now; hot and dizzy and pulsing with upset and need and validation.

Through the fog in his mind, Albus could only think of one thing: He wants me... someone wants me, and from there it was all sensation: a hot mouth around his prick until he screamed; wide hands tracing every surface of his body; warm, accommodating flesh that he could taste like a starving man and burrow into; Horace's wide, slickly-oiled arse, presented and begging for him, - Albus please take me Albus please I want you I want you so much - , welcoming him in, making him feel so very needed and welcome and human.

Afterwards, they were breathless and shaking, and the world was dark at the edges and filled with soft pillows...

They might have dozed then - or perhaps, more accurately, passed out. The next thing that Albus knew, early dawn was scratching at the windows, and his mouth felt so dry he thought he might choke.

"Oh, gods." Horace sat up suddenly next to him, straight-backed, and face bleak and white. He held his head, and looked as if he was trying to focus. "Sorry," he murmured in Albus' direction, then summoned his clothes. "I should go. Elphie'll be waiting."

Albus didn't say anything, but gave a slight nod. Seconds later, he heard the door of his rooms click shut and a wave of despair threaten to drown him. If his bed had felt lonely before, Albus now fancied he might be the very sole person left on earth.


*****



Albus woke up so late the following day, it was practically evening again. He had a tremendous headache, and - when the initial waves of nausea had passed - a heart of lead.

Minerva hated him, and now he had surely lost his two dearest friends. He had been blind, impulsive and stupid all at once, and Albus couldn't have disliked himself more for it. He was unworthy of Horace and Elphias' friendship, let alone their love. He felt that he had let them both down very badly - for everything he had failed to do, and for the few ill-judged things he had actually done.

Perhaps he was not innately flawed, Albus reflected, but if so, his terrible choices probably made him more culpable overall than if he had been.

Forcing himself to move, Albus asked an elf to bring some toast and then compelled himself to eat it, his insides feeling as caustic as his predicament.

Fawkes flew over and sat on his shoulder, as he had done every day for the past two weeks. He nuzzled his beak against Albus' cheek, and nibbled gently at his ear.

"You're too loyal, you know," Albus addressed his bird. "Most other species would have buggered off by now, on the available evidence."

"Caw," replied Fawkes, "Caw, caw." He wiggled his left talon in mid-air, and Albus could see that it held a letter.

The first page was scrawled with capital letters, in red ink:


ALBUS, YOU BASTARD!



Bracing himself - but feeling he entirely deserved each and every reprimand and insulting moniker in the book - Albus turned over.


Ha. Only joking. But I confess that when Horace first told me about it, that would have been my opening line.

I've mulled it over for a while, though, and, to be honest, I'm happy that it happened. Horace has wanted that - you - for so very long, and I'm pleased for him. I love him, you see. And he loves me, otherwise he would never have told me.

That may sound such a funny thing to say, but we're honest with each other, and we make it work. We always have done, and I jolly well hope we will do for many years to come. I couldn't do without him.

So, of course I was cross, and jealous... but on reflection, I was mainly jealous because it was Horace's arms you fell into when you were drunk and upset, not mine. And, facing up to that, how could I find it in my heart to be angry with either of you?

We know that you didn't intend it to happen. We also know that, truly, you don't actually want either of us like that - and we understand. It is the way of things that nature is not always perfectly symmetrical, and that sometimes yearning goes unreciprocated. It's no-one's fault.

And, as I said, I have Horace and he has me. But I worry - as I always have done - about you, Albus. Who do you have? Who do you want? Who do you need?

I'm truly sorry that things didn't work out with Minerva - from everything I've seen, she's a lovely young woman, and that's a real shame - but, if I may be so patronising as so say so, I'm really delighted that you considered giving another human being a chance, for once, and I very much hope that this will be the beginning of a new chapter for you. Companionship is so important, Albus; ever more so as each day passes, and years roll over the heads of years.

Meanwhile, Horace and I will always be there for you. Practically speaking, a little bit of each of our hearts will always be reserved for loving you, even though we both know that is not to be - but most of all, what you have is our unreserved friendship and support. Please make the very best use of it.

- Starting with tea on Saturday at 4 o' clock. We expect to see you then, or else.

Yours,

Elphias.



"Caw," said Fawkes again, and Albus let him finish the toast. He prodded at his eyes, realising that they were wet - but, for once, with tears of relief and happiness. He was so very lucky to have friends like Elphias - dear, dear friends - and felt utterly humbled. In fact, Albus also felt quite ashamed - ashamed at his wallowing and self-indulgence. If others could deal with a dire wound so quickly and with such class, then the least he could do for the world was to begin to function, again. He was far from perfect, but at least he could do some useful work.

Albus washed and dressed and presented himself with haste to Armando.

"Ah, Albus! Good to see you up and about again. Horace told me what a nasty case of dragonpox you'd caught; I wouldn't wish that on anyone..."



*****



True to his word, Armando had indeed vacated the Headmaster's office as soon as he could, following the close of the academic year, and the Governors' vote had been passed unopposed, each faction smugly thinking they had managed to install one of their own.

It had taken Albus a few days to move all of his bits and pieces to his new quarters. Even with every levitation spell in - and not in - the book, and with the help of the elves, he had a good deal of papers, robes and knick-knacks, and wanted everything to be arranged just so. Horace and Elphias had been very helpful there - especially Elphie, with his keen eye for stage design and style. The three of them had taken it on as a sort of light-hearted project, and they had had great fun trawling through some of Albus' more outlandish fashion choices at the back of his wardrobes, picking through the rarer books, and stumbling upon old photographs and newspaper cuttings:

"Look, there's our postcard from Nice!"

"It's your debut, Elphie. You made such a beautiful Siegfried to Dorothea's Odile."

"I defy even you, Albus, to wear knee-high boots in lime green!"



Fawkes was looking terrible peaky, so they had carried him by hand - his perch following on afterwards, as it didn't fit easily up the spiral staircase. Such a nifty piece of architecture, that. Albus thought that he would get around to making it password-protected by the time that term started again, but during the summer, didn't quite see the need.

They rounded off each day of packing and arranging with a really nice dinner and the best wine they could find - though never too much of it, this time around. Albus' heart began to move once more; it felt awfully like healing.

It was about a week into his settlement of the Headmaster's turret that Albus had an unexpected visitor.

"Minerva!"

She appeared in the doorway of his office, a stark silhouette in black travelling robes. He had not seen or heard her arrive, and suddenly felt so foolish, gazing up at her from his desk and wondering what on earth to say.

"Albus." She dispensed a curt nod. "I hope you don't mind that I have come."

"No, of course not," he replied, sadly remembering the days when she would treat his quarters much like home. "Please come in." She obliged, but did not take the proffered chair, choosing instead to stand, self-contained, in the middle of his Persian rug.

Albus cast around for something uncontentious to mention. "...Straight Os, of course. Not that I doubted it for a second, but - congratulations."

"Thanks." Minerva smiled, tight-lipped. "But I didn't come to talk about my academic record."

"Oh?" The air seemed tight and thin around him.

Minerva fixed his gaze and continued her unsentimental tone. "I don't know whether this is too late from your perspective, but I wanted to talk about... our relationship."

Albus raised his eyebrows and swallowed hard. He had no idea what might be coming - reconciliation, notice of legal action, or anything in between.

She switched to a business-like timbre; almost off-hand. "First thing's first to get out of the way, and you won't like it: I slept with a Muggle boy from the Parish. He was pleasant, and uncomplicated, and I convinced myself - oh, for about nought point four nanoseconds - that was what I wanted."

"Mmm." Albus took that in, but then wondered if it was wrong that he couldn't bring himself to care very much about it; the boy had clearly not won Minerva's mind or her respect, so he seemed something of an irrelevancy. For a moment, he then debated whether to mention his own drunken tumble with Horace - but decided similarly that discretion was the better part of valour, for the time being.

"I fear I might have upset him, rather, when I reneged on my acceptance of marriage the day after I had given it." She twisted her lips in grim amusement.

"Marriage, eh?" The notion seemed shocking - and then Albus was jealous. The idea that Minerva had very nearly committed her whole life to someone else without his knowledge made him feel panicked and empty inside. Gods, it had only been a month since she had nestled in his arms...

She did not dignify that with a response, however, and pushed on. "But then, just after the NEWT results were out, Professor Slughorn - Horace - came to see me at home. He surprised my Father quite a bit - I don't think the poor chap has actually seen someone arriving by Floo, before - but then Horace asked if he might have a talk with me in the garden.

"He explained that he would have come sooner, but thought for everyone's sake that it was better the dust were left awhile to settle, and the exam results were out of the way."

Albus nodded, wondering what Horace had been up to, unbeknownst to him. "Oh? And what did he say?" He was nervous; still unsure as to where this was ultimately leading. His own voice felt over-loud in his ears; his tongue was thick and dry.

"I believe his exact words were, 'Here's a sad fact of life, I'm afraid, dear girl: the smarter the wizard, the more of a prat he can be.' He then said that he thanked his lucky stars for being intellectually mediocre, because it meant he could be incessantly charming."

Ha, how very like Horace! Albus could just hear his friend self-deprecating in such jolly tones; how very dear of him to have caused Minerva to come. A lump formed in his throat, just thinking about it.

Minerva furrowed her brow, her voice dropping, and her gaze flitting across the complex knots of the rug. "Then, he explained what really happened about the Headmastership business. I can't say I like it, exactly - entirely too duplicitous all round, in my view. But then again, perhaps I'm just young and idealistic, and that really is the way the world has to work to get anything worthwhile done?

"I realise now, though, that it was not quite as it seemed. I'm sorry for not listening to you when you tried to tell me, and I apologise for that vile comparison I made. I didn't mean it." Once again, she met his eyes with hers, and there was such intensity, such sincerity there, that it was almost painful for Albus to see.

He shook his head and waved his hands to say that no apology was required - although truly, the removal of those words meant a great deal to him. "Gosh." Albus felt so full of emotions, he once again knew not what or how to articulate. Why, he wondered, did this young witch have the unique ability to render him monosyllabic?

"That wasn't all that Horace, said, actually," Minerva continued. "He opined that like all great wizards, you have a habit of leaving collateral damage in your wake, without really meaning to - and that if one finds oneself accidentally near to the shrapnel, it can hurt."

Albus nodded grimly; he certainly was in no place to deny the assertion.

"But then he went on to say that... you were both the most honourable and least penetrable - I think the double-entendre was intended - man he had ever known. And that by some skill, or luck, or both, I had captured your heart - and it would be crackers to let that go." She took a deep breath. "If that's really true... I'm inclined to believe him." Then, all of a sudden, a flash of fire erupted in the corner of the room. "Aagh!" Minerva jumped, the huge fireball barely missing her shoulder.

"Oh, sorry. Don't mind Fawkes. He's been putting that off for days, and he well knows that the longer he leaves it, the bigger the flames are going to be."

Minerva laughed, nervous energy leaking out of her. "I suppose he doesn't like getting burnt."

The moment settled between them with surprising comfort, while Albus' mind whirled. Could she really mean..? Dare he hope? He cleared his throat. "So... you might be around next year, after all?"

"No." Minerva said that with such finality, Albus thought it must be 'goodbye', after all. "I've accepted a job at the Ministry. The offer came by owl just seconds after the NEWTS, so I imagine they pre-screened all of this year's graduates. It sounds pretty interesting - Unspeakables, no less - but naturally, I won't hear much else until I actually start."

Albus nodded numbly, heart sinking. "Well done. They would be mad not to have you."

"Thanks." She paused. "-But really, that's beside the point again, isn't it? I was thinking that - well, there are still weekends? If you want to, I mean. And, after a while... we could see how it all goes?"

Baby Fawkes cheeped in the corner of the room from the nest of ash beneath his perch. Amid the sound, Albus battled once more to find apt words. "Oh, Minerva," he choked. Eloquence having categorically failed him, Albus responded in the best way he could imagine: he scooped Minerva up into his arms and held her as if she were life itself. "That would be so very wonderful."


*****




Two years later


Headmaster Dumbledore was so excited that he actually had to keep reminding himself that he was not a toddler, and did, in-fact, have the capacity to wait until the appointed moment for someone's arrival without exploding. He could wait several hours of hostly presiding and polite conversation, no less – on that point he told himself he was clear.

The Great Hall was a hubbub of excitement, with friends old and new exchanging holiday tales and hopes for the new year. The Sorting Hat had performed, all had eaten well, and eleven-year-old eyelids were beginning to droop. It was thus, to a hall of sated children and fond colleagues that Albus rose to make his announcement.

"Good evening, one and all! -And a particular welcome to our new first years. May this night mark the beginning of a long and happy association with Hogwarts, and with your new house, which you will quickly find to be a home. I'm delighted that all of last year's staff have returned for this academic year -" He turned to smile at his row of familiar faces. Galatea winked, and Horace raised a glass. "-And I also have great pleasure in welcoming our new Transfiguration Professor."

Albus made a theatrical gesture at the staff entrance to the hall - an arched oak door at the side of the dais. Three-hundred and twelve heads turned, necks craning and backs straightening to peek over taller classmates. Slowly, sedately, a paw emerged from behind the jamb, then whiskers, and finally a tail.

The sleek, bespectacled tabby cat made her way in front of the high table. She jumped to sit just by the Headmaster's lectern, to a chorus of confused whispers from the hall below. Is it a joke? Has he gone mad?

Albus was enjoying every second. "May I introduce: Professor McGonagall."

On cue, Minerva turned to human form, perching sedately at the front of the staff table in spotless green silk. She was greeted by a collective gasp, then peals of applause.

She smiled, and nodded - a little sternly - at the assembled students for the cacophony to stop. "Thank you. I very much look forward to teaching you all this academic year."

Albus cleared his throat and leaned comfortably on the lectern. He couldn't resist saying a few words. "Professor McGonagall is undoubtedly the most accomplished Transfiguration practitioner of her generation - and, after two years intensive experience in the Dark Conjuration and Vanishment sector of the Ministry of Magic - it is a real coup for Hogwarts to have her here as a Professor. I'm sure you will all make your very best efforts in her classes."

They both smiled, and then went to take their places at the table, the thrum of conversation re-building in the rest of the room.

"Well done," said Albus, "I was worried you weren't going to make it."

"Cutting it the right side of 'fine', I admit! Just typical that there would be an emergency case on my last day. I would have thought the fact that I stayed on an extra fortnight at their request would be enough - but oh, no! - emergencies to the last moment!" Minerva was abuzz with adrenaline, hair not-quite smoothed following the Floo journey.

Albus squeezed her hand under the table, and lowered his voice. "Well I, for one, couldn't be happier that you escaped in time." He gazed down the hall, taking-in the whole scene. "Gosh, I'm pleased that you're here, my Darling."

"I'm glad too." Minerva stroked the back of his hand with her thumb. "I love you very much, you know."

"Oh, Minerva," Albus was quite overcome. "I love you, too, with all my heart."


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