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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

The Relectant Phoenix - Part Two

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."


"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:


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.



"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.


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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