purplefluffycat: (Purple Cat)
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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!

The Relectant Phoenix - Part One"




"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."


Part Three

April 2016

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