purplefluffycat: (Purple Cat)
[personal profile] purplefluffycat
Title: The Reluctant Phoenix
Author: [livejournal.com profile] purplefluffycat
Pairings: Albus Dumbledore/Minerva McGonagall, Horace Slughorn/Elphias Doge, Albus Dumbledore/Horace Slughorn
Rating: Up to NC-17 (although most of the story rates lower)
Word Count: ~23,600
Warnings/Content Information: 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 Dueltastic for such open-ended and thought-provoking prompts; this was written for her in the 2013 edition of the excellent [livejournal.com profile] hp_beholder fest. I tried to incorporate elements of the 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 [livejournal.com profile] atdelphi for modding [livejournal.com 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



Part Two

April 2016

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