And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
~ Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898
Hardly an Ingénue!
Minerva McGonagall was home! The massive front doors of Hogwarts were swinging silently open even as she stood there taking in the view of a truly impressive castle, and beaming widely at the thought of her second year as Professor of Transfiguration. All summer long she had had owl after owl with mail attempting to sell her no end of useless trivia supposedly essential for opening young minds and instilling knowledge, and each and every one had been addressed to Professor McGonagall. She was possibly the only person in history to take such delight in opening junk mail. The warm glow she had felt upon seeing that title in print had convinced her that her decision to return, to make teaching her vocation, was the right one.
She stepped forward happily and the sun which had been bright and hot on her back was left outside as the cool air and shadows of the foyer instantly chilled her to the bone. It was an ominous moment and for one brief snatch of time Minerva was alarmed.
The feeling passed.
'Welcome, Minerva!' David Hawthorne was striding toward her, brushing loose soil off his hands and holding them out in greeting.
'David!' Minerva actually laughed in delight and took his hands in her own before leaning in to kiss him warmly on his stubble covered cheek. He kissed her back, looking pleased.
'Such a greeting could give a man ideas…' he teased.
'Ever the dreamer,' she responded lightly, grinning.
'Bah! It's good to see you. Good summer?'
'Lovely, thank you,' she lied politely. 'I won't ask about yours.'
It was common knowledge that David's sister spent his free time attempting to exert some damage control over his life. He made a face now, as if to confirm her suspicions that his summer had been trial some.
'As expected, though I did meet a darling young woman from Switzerland, terribly keen on improving her English. We kept each other entertained.' He smirked at her as she raised an eyebrow and shook her head.
'Men,' she muttered in tame reproof.
'As if a lovely young witch like yourself spent the summer lonely!' David snorted.
There was the shuffling sound of robes from above and Minerva glanced up the stairs to the first floor to shockingly, suddenly, fully meet the eyes of Albus Dumbledore, looking every inch the honourable Headmaster. She physically flinched, luckily David had turned too.
'Morning, Headmaster,' David hollered with remarkable lack of etiquette. 'See you at dinner, Minerva.' He strode off, given to moving as abruptly as he tended to speak.
And then it was just them. Minerva standing in the foyer, her robes lightly sketching the marble floor, looking up, eyes bright and clear, and lips pressed into a polite smile, Albus Dumbledore atop the stairs, a slight frown lowering his auburn brows. Please speak first she thought desperately; I don't know what to say, I don't know how to act since the night you left me alone in my sister's home, since the night you last spoke to me. Since the night you made your choice.
'Welcome back, Professor McGonagall,' and that was it. That was to be their relationship from now on, two people who had nearly become lovers, reduced to professional titles and admin duties. She was suddenly, unreasonably furious, so angry at him that she hated him, that she regretted every god damn stupid choice that had put her in this position, feeling young, inexperienced, nouveau.
Somehow she managed to speak, and when she did her tone was so remarkably measured and calm that it surprised her. 'Thank you Headmaster.' And that was it. He continued on his way, and she on hers.
The realisation that she was grown-up happened to Minerva on the second day of term after her seventh finite incantatem on the seventh first year student to be hit with a leg locker curse. Mid spell, looking into the woebegone eyes of the Hufflepuff Edam Everrich and speaking crisply she thought; I'm grown up. No longer was she nervous to the point of nausea before each class, no longer to be found scrabbling in her staff room locker for homework she thought she'd graded, no longer did her hair gradually fall out of its morning bun. She was in control and on top of things.
Most importantly she no longer allowed herself to think about Al- the Headmaster. In three staff meetings they had exchanged no more than pleasantries, and in exactly six encounters at mealtimes she had asked once for the salt. And been given it. That was a grown up relationship with ones boss.
'If it happens again, tell Professor Hawthorne – he is your Head of House,' she advised young Everrich, and dismissed him with a nod. The boy made post haste to leave a very intimidating Professor of Transfiguration; he had been cursed by one of her Gryffindors, and informed that the Prof took a dim view of ragging.
Minerva sat down at her desk and pulled a sheaf of papers forward. It occurred to her as she bent her head and dipped her quill that a grown up relationship with her boss seemed to mean no relationship at all, not even friendship, and the grown up part of that was acting like it didn't matter.
Summer quickly evaporated in the encroaching winter months, the rain began to fall more frequently and the nights too, the staff of Hogwarts had settled into an easy routine of duty and friendship, with the departure of Sendar and the position of Deputy Head taken by Elise Horner, Professor of Potions, the atmosphere in the staff room was almost jovial. Minerva looked forward to good natured debates over the eternal Charms versus Transfiguration with the new Professor – Filius Flitwick, planning the minutiae of boarding school life with Elise, and surprisingly, pouring over wedding plans with the school Nurse, Madam Aldridge.
Her sister had been insultingly shocked when she had mentioned the wedding planning. 'You? Helping to plan a wedding? You? Really?'
Now, at eleven o'clock, having just come from a final check on the Gryffindor students she was responsible for, her thoughts wondered over the designs for her dress that Gil and her had spent hours and hours pouring over in the wet, drizzly lunch hours they had spare from supervising errant children. It was the first time in her life that Minerva could honestly say she felt girly, excited about dresses and flowers and, well, not so much the seating arrangements, but certainly all the accoutrements that such an event entailed.
The halls echoed with her heeled footsteps and the candles that lit and then self-expunged as she passed billowed waves of yellow lights like silent fireworks, she reached her rooms and entered, quietly murmuring the password and there, hanging from her wardrobe door was the dress that so much thought had gone into.
Dignity forgotten, the twenty-seven year old witch squealed like a girl of fourteen and rushed to try it on, carelessly dropping her work robes onto the floor and wriggling into the floor length gown she pirouetted to see her reflection in the full length mirror.
It was divine, everything Gil had demanded and Minerva had wavered on, combined to create the best dress she had ever worn. Cinched tight at the waist and falling in shimmering folds to her feet it swept low over her breasts and had slim straps that crossed at the back into an elegant lattice. There wasn't a ruffle or pouffle in sight, nor was it the traditional peach, instead it was a shade lighter than the emerald green of her eyes, and the material was soft, almost sheer. She swept the mass of hair over one shoulder and cast a critical eye over her figure. Was she too bony for this figure hugging dress? Did she have enough cleavage to pull off a dress this low cut? But she couldn't help smiling; she felt like a million galleons in this dress, no matter how skinny or how few curves she had.
She twirled to see the benefit of the bias cut and squealed again as it flared out modestly, briefly revealing a tanned leg. I wonder if Gil is still up? She wondered, but checking the clock, realised that the school nurse would most definitely be in bed at nigh on half eleven. She tapped restless fingers on the mantelpiece where the clock was perched, she so badly wanted to share in her delight with Gil, and she knew her friend would be thrilled at the final result of all those dress fittings and revisions.
Without even thinking about it, without pausing to think on the ramifications, Minerva grabbed a pinch of floo powder, threw it somewhat vigorously into the embers of her fire place and whispered, 'Albus?'
The fire glittered, an ember burst sparks; Minerva tapped her fingers restlessly. Finally (it felt forever) Albus Dumbledore's rather puzzled voice echoed back, 'Minerva?'
'My dress arrived!' Minerva whispered back, half a giggle in her voice as it occurred to her that she was whispering in the privacy of her own rooms.
'Oh?' The Headmaster's voice sounded no less puzzled, but Minerva was oblivious.
'Do you want to see it?' she asked hopefully.
'Ah, of course, if you so wish.' Minerva took his ambiguous response as an enthusiastic yes, and beaming, stepped forward into the floo connection, a moment later and she stepped into the Headmaster's sitting room, where that startled man stood, quill in one hand, mug in the other. She was still beaming as she smoothed the dress down over her thighs and then twirled gently on one foot.
'Well? What do you think? I knew you'd still be awake of course; Gil is always asleep early in case a student needs her during the night.'
'Yes, I ah, of course, knew that.'
'Gil chose the cut; she said that it makes a fine example of my attributes. This from a woman who could balance a cauldron of pepper-up on her "fine example of"!'
'Indeed?' the Headmaster murmured, he placed his mug down on the side table with an unsteady hand and looked back up as the slim Transfiguration professor danced a few steps on the fire place rug.
'Well?' Minerva asked again, sweeping her hair out of her face and throwing it back.
The Headmaster swallowed hard, did she have no idea of the effect she was having on him? That she would have on every damn man at this blasted wedding? 'It certainly does make a fine example of your … attributes.'
Minerva chuckled, so caught up in the moment that she certainly did have no idea of what was going through the Headmaster's mind. 'I know,' she agreed, smiling naughtily up at the tall man, 'I had no idea that my nothing of a bust could look so, so-' she struggled to find the right word.
'Desirable,' Albus Dumbledore finished for her and then closed his eyes in dismay.
Minerva stilled, frozen in an agony of awkwardness. She had no idea what to do, no idea where to look, acutely conscious that she was wearing a dress that had been designed to engender a come-hither response. Her heart pounded as that one word, that word that revealed so much more than he usually conceded, resounded in her body. Her cheeks were flushed. Albus Dumbledore finally broke the silence.
'I had heard rumours that Gil was planning to find you a beau at her wedding reception next Easter,' he made his voice light, but it still came out uneven, Minerva's relief at the broken silence overcame her embarrassment.
'Yes, she's quite determined,' Minerva finally looked up from the floor and the man's shoes, and without thinking added: 'Do you think she'll be successful?'
Blue eyes regarded her keenly: 'That entirely depends on you; I suspect no man stands a chance unless you are amenable.'
Green eyes lifted to blue, Minerva took a deep breath and paused on the cusp, a second passed, two, 'Albus,' she finally ventured, 'why are you wearing clogs?'
The very next day, at breakfast, the Headmaster stood as Minerva stepped up to the dais, and offered her the chair to his left - Elise eating scrambled eggs and toast to his right- as she sat down she glanced up and realised just how much she had missed that twinkle.
'Tea?' he asked politely, pouring her a cup anyway, observant of her mealtimes habits to know just how she liked it.
'Thank you.' She reached for some Coco Cauldron Crunches as he scraped butter over toast and the noise of some eight hundred students chatting over orange juice and bacon filling the hall. She stretched for the chocolate spread past Professor Flitwick, balanced precariously on six cushions, and handed it to Albus, just briefly catching his eye with a smirk.
'You'll make me fat!' he complained, taking the pot anyway.
'Hah!' snorted Minerva derisively, casting an eye over his wiry form, 'not anytime soon!'
The Headmaster beamed. Briefly, beneath the table, his hand rested upon her thigh and squeezed gently. Minerva raised an eyebrow with a distinctly pointed expression. 'If you don't mind!' she exclaimed indignantly.
Professor Flitwick looked surprised to be addressed, 'Oh, I do beg your pardon!' he apologised, with no idea. Minerva swivelled to the man on her other side and stared rather fiercely, had she but known it; with a start the poor man fell off his cushions, yanking Minerva with him as she automatically reached to save him; Albus Dumbledore coughed toast over the table cloth laughing, as two members of his staff quite literally fell sideways.
'You just wait until later,' Minerva muttered discreetly in the Headmaster's ear once she had returned to her seat, brushing off a liberal caking of cauldron crunch.
'I look forward to it. Very much,' rejoined the subject of her wrath, still smiling. Minerva McGonagall ceased flicking edible cauldrons and caught his eyes with her own. If I didn't know better, she thought, willing him to read the words in her mind, I'd think you were flirting with me. She watched for a response in his expression, the Headmaster's smile grew broader and then, outrageously, quickly, he winked.
Third period, the class before lunch and Minerva was really beginning to regret that her cereal had ended up mostly on her rather than in her; it struck her as amusing that no matter how many years passed, the threat of hunger was just as mind consuming as it had been when she was a child! Despite her efforts to concentrate on her fifth year Ravenclaws she found her mind lingering on particularly delectable meals she had eaten in the past; doorstep ploughman sandwiches, roast turkey with all the trimmings – oh sage and onion stuffing! – her sister's roast potatoes, her mother's beef stew, oh, and duck a la orange in Paris, hell, even the field rations they'd given Aurors suddenly seemed delicious in retrospect. She sat back in her chair behind her desk and sighed quietly, she had missed break to organise the careers meetings for her Gryffindor fifth years, the Deputy Head, Elise, had sent her an owl in her first period, reminding her that the dates had been changed and she expected the revised schedule today. She decided to blame her poor time keeping skills on the Headmaster – what had the man been doing, calling her "desirable"? Thinking of that distracted her for all of two seconds before her stomach clenched for entirely different reasons than his perpetually frustrating affect on her. Her mind wandered to the memory of her Grandmother's 'quick pudding', to steamed sponge with warm syrup dripping, rhubarb crumble with hot thick custard, gooseberry fool, oh Merlin, she was going to die from hunger! She frowned at her own ridiculous thoughts and glanced up at her neglected class to see a flash of paper pass between two students at the back. Either they were cheating on their mock OWL questions or passing notes: she would have to get up to investigate.
Very casually, not wanting to alarm them and give them a chance to discard the evidence, Minerva stood and walked around to the front of her desk, casting a speculative eye over the rest of the class, whom, as Ravenclaws are wont, were working hard and scribbling away in variations of a decent hand. She strolled down an aisle between desks to the back row, swivelled on her heel and looked down at the two boys who were suddenly and exceptionally, hard at work. Her lips twitched. Theodore Wunk and Machiavelli Gnomestone, known respectively as Theo and Mach, or Wunk and Gnome in the less forgiving environment of the staffroom; two clever Ravenclaw students who took great delight in misapplying their brains to the harassment of their fellow students and the school staff. With the slightest clearing of her throat, and to the great dismay of the two fifteen year old boys, Professor McGonagall held out a hand expectantly, and waited.
'Um, Professor?' tried Mr Wunk in as puzzled a tone he could manage, given that his partner in crime was looking petrified.
'Hand it over Mr Wunk, I will not ask again.'
'But,' he protested, and looked up beseechingly at the tall teacher, 'we won't do it again!' Professor McGonagall's lips thinned until she looked quite severe, a warning sign Mr Wunk and Gnomestone were all too familiar with. 'Fine,' he muttered, and reaching under his mock OWL questions drew out a folded piece of parchment and handed it over.
'See me after class – both of you,' she ordered and opened the note.
It was well that she had not begun to meander back to her desk and that the two students who knew exactly what was in the note were very studiously applying themselves and ignoring her presence. Remaining stationary – so that the boys would not think her rattled- she rotated the note 45 degrees to the right and lifted her eyebrows so high they almost disappeared into her hairline. So, it appeared one of the boys had a hitherto unexpected gift for disproportionate sketching. How delightful. The desire to laugh was almost overwhelming; she tensed her stomach muscles against the bubbling urge and bit down on the inside of her cheeks. She simply mustn't laugh – it would make disciplining them impossible.
Out of the tiniest corner of his eye, Theo Wunk peeked at his Professor; her face was the picture of fury, he'd never seen her look so mad- not even when they had turned Michelle's hair white or super glued the professor's chair to the floor! He fixed worried eyes back on question seventeen, determined to be a model student.
Minerva finally regained control of her traitorous body and re-folded the note. Fixing her face into her most practised appearance of indifference she tread lightly back to the front of class and put it safely out of view on her desk and turned to watch the clock wind down toward the hour and the end of class.
At least they hadn't been cheating, she concluded prosaically.
Lunch came and went and Minerva ate so prodigiously that throughout the rest of the day's classes she was no more distracted by thoughts of meals past. At the close of her last class she hunkered down behind her desk and prepared to start on the homework that had been handed in that day, before dinner – to which she was slightly agin due to her enthusiastic approach to lunch.
She had just stood to collect a textbook from the bookshelf when the door swung open and a tall, lean figure slipped in.
'Good evening, Headmaster,' she greeted, with a tiny smile betraying her pleasure at the interruption.
'Tsk,' murmured said man, noticing that smile. 'I thought we covered this last year – the name is Albus.'
She forbore to reply and remind him of all that had passed between them- she had no desire to ruin the easy camaraderie that had sprung up again, but it was implicit in the silence, and when she looked up from the textbook the Headmaster was looking distinctly uneasy.
She took pity on him. 'How was your day, Albus?'
The wizard beamed; anyone would think she had just handed him an order of Merlin, first class – of course he already had, what, two of those? Minerva's brow furrowed as she tried to figure it out, damn it, but it was going to be one of those things you remember in the middle of the night, when there's no one to go "Ah- HAH!" to, unless you're not sleeping alone, which she was...
'My – dear - Minerva, why do you frown so fiercely?' he stuttered on the address, but Minerva didn't notice.
'Just how many Order of Merlins do you have?'
The headmaster raised his eyebrows, relieved and puzzled. 'I think- two? I am not entirely sure. Would you like to count them? Of course, I am not entirely sure where they are…'
Minerva grinned. 'Only you, Albus, would lose the most prestigious award our world has to offer!' She stopped him as he went to open his mouth in protest. 'And no, your chocolate frog card is not its equal!'
'Really, Minerva, with such insight into my thoughts it's a wonder that I need talk at all in your presence!'
'I'm not the legilimens,' she pointed out.
'All the more reason for wonder.' Minerva would have laughed but his expression gave her pause, was he flirting or teasing? There was a world of difference between the two: she watched as he walked to her desk and outrageously, tinkered with the layout. Too late she saw him stretch out long fingers and deftly tease a scrap of paper from beneath the Ravenclaw third period mock OWL papers, she dropped the textbook leaping forward to try and snatch it back.
'Don't – Albus, don't look at that! It'll scar you for life! Hand it over.' The bugger of a man held it over her head and out of her reach. 'I'm a witch Albus, do you really think I can't transfigure that note before you so much as glance at it?'
Albus locked sparkling blue eyes with her, definitely challenging. 'You would duel me? The mighty Albus Dumbledore, for this?' he waved the note so that it rippled white against the grey stone arches of the ceiling.
'Mighty my rear end!' Minerva snorted – Albus looked delighted at her expression of slang- she scowled: 'It's the new watchword with the pupils. Now hand it over.'
'Because I asked nicely?'
'You did not!' he pointed out indignantly.
Minerva lowered her brows and stepped up to be chin to chin with the infuriating man – she could stare him down. Really, she could. He flourished his hand above her head again, and she thrust a hand up to scrabble at the sleeve.
'MuWahaha!' Albus bellowed. Minerva blinked. 'It's an evil laugh!' he elucidated, realising that if explanation was required he had not quite succeeded in the feat.
'This is absurd!' Minerva exclaimed raising both hands in a "help me" manner. 'We are both educated, mature professors who should know better than to behave like the pupils they teach!'
'Quite right,' Albus concurred, without lowering his hand, and the note. Minerva crossed her arms, exasperated. 'Oh, very well,' he sighed, defeated. Minerva relaxed and Albus without pause lowered his hand and simultaneously wrapped both his arms around her: pulling her tight and imprisoned, against him. Minerva was without words, she couldn't even move her arms to heave him off; in fact all she could do was feel the sudden warmth of his body pressed, hard and firmly against hers. He used her inability to speak to flick the note over and examine its contents. His eyes widened considerably, he pondered the note for a moment and then rotated it, his eyes widened further. Next to his chest, Minerva rolled her eyes.
'If you're quite satisfied,' she muttered.
'Now that I've seen this? No, not at all ...satisfied.' Minerva stiffened and he held her tighter, aware that if he carried on feeling … this way, he would have to release her soon, or risk losing her respect. He took a deep, slow breath and thought about Professor Slughorn, alas but the deep breath forced the closeness to Minerva and the physical reality of that didn't help him. 'Whose masterpiece is this? I sincerely hope it's not a lesson plan.'
'Albus, really!' Minerva snapped, unnerved by his former, not-particularly ambiguous comment. 'It's the product of Ravenclaws Wunk and Gnome.'
'Hmm. I didn't know their gifts extended to erotic artwork.'
'Erotic!' scorned Minerva. 'Schoolboy foolishness.' She wriggled slightly (much to Albus' agony) to see the drawing herself. 'I don't wear sheer red stockings under my robes! And God never gifted me with such a generous cleavage!'
Albus chuckled, 'but I do believe you have spoken more than once about the need to "pay special attention".'
'Not whilst gyrating on my desk and unbuttoning my shirt! Honestly Albus!'
'Why, Minerva, is it necessary to utterly deluge my parade?' Albus sighed in mock regret as Minerva's eyes began to glint dangerously: two could play at his game.
'I'll concede that I'm wearing a brassiere not unalike that depicted.'
Albus started in surprise.
'Although it's not red,' Minerva continued lightly; she tilted her head up to see the Headmaster's somewhat confounded expression. 'It's black. Satin. Very soft.'
He was going to have to release her from his embrace, now.
'You don't believe me?' Minerva filled the silence in a conversational tone – she was having fun! 'Did you want to see for yourself?'
Albus let her go. Quickly. It was all he could do not to growl; dear Merlin the woman could make him feel almost bestial!
'That was quite unfair,' he glared, as Minerva's laughter rang out.
'All's fair in love and war,' she quoted at him defiantly. 'To the victor, the spoils,' she added, and imperiously stretched out a hand for the note, still clasped in his hot hand.
'Oh no you don't,' Albus refused her, tucking the note into one of his many pockets. 'A consolation prize, for the sorry loser.'
'So help me Albus,' Minerva threatened, 'if I find that reproduced in any form, in any way …'
'I assure you, Minerva, this will remain, safely, and solely, in my keeping.'
Minerva believed him. The bell chimed for dinner and the Headmaster, now slightly cooler, stepped up to offer her his arm in a gentlemanly manner. 'Shall we? I'm ravishingly hungry.'
Young Misters Wunk and Gnomestone found their week-ends for the month of November occupied with the unending job of scrubbing desks free of hundreds of years worth of student doodles whilst supervised by the school's gleeful caretaker. For, as Professor McGonagall espoused, a dedicated artist can spend years studying the great works that preceded his era to learn more about his own gift before he strikes out alone to seek a patron. And as the weeks passed and the two boys spent hour after hour scrubbing at indelible ink, stick-men that refused to climb their gallows, and errant notes that wriggled away as fast as you nabbed them, with Ogg stretched out on a stripy deckchair that had seen better days, smoking tankard in twitching hand and Professor McGonagall popping in- unpredictable, and often silent in her arrival- Misters Wunk and Gnomestone found their appreciation for the Transfiguration Professor sadly lessened and the desire to doodle racy pictures reduced to something less hormonal and more homicidal in tone.
Autumn fell with the last of the leaves dissolving into the earth, darkness crept into the days, a perpetual mist layered itself across the lake, fingers of wet, chilly cloud that undulated and beckoned foolish first-years to walk unawares into the squid's lair. Sick of fishing out drenched idiots the school nurse demanded the Headmaster vanish the bloody fog, or the re-offenders who persisted in playing fanged Frisbee in the grounds; she was gently informed that the weather was beyond mortal control, but in his usual helpful manner, the Headmaster provided her with a sign: WARNING: Irritate the School Nurse at your peril and a stick to place it on, which the nurse (unaware her senior was a Legilimens) visualised stuck places otherwise than the mud. Alas, but on her next preventative patrol around the borders of the lake, she fell in herself, was rescued by her fiancé in all seriousness, and promised that if word reached the student body those responsible could expect their drinks to contain debilitating emetic potions for the foreseeable future.
With the autumn came a particularly bad bout of Feral Flu and Elise Horner, Deputy Head, was one of the many unfortunate whom suddenly, horribly, became hirsute with associated hair balls and the debilitating propensity for sudden static electric shocks. She was confined to her quarters whilst Gil Aldridge struggled with an overflowing ward, and Minerva found herself picking up the role of Deputy Head – a position she had no inclination for, little patience and less time.
This was why at the muggle 'witching hour' she was to be found in the Headmaster's study, elbow deep in exam timetables for the following June, hair frizzy, a smudge of hot chocolate on one cheek, a graveyard of disabled quills scattered at her shoeless feet and a highly unhelpful Headmaster.
'Why can't this wait until nearer the exam date?'
Albus Dumbledore twiddled with a little lever on the side of a three foot silver mechanism involving discs of silver and gold linked by threads of silver as thin as her sanity and emitting wheezing sounds similar to that of Fawkes – asleep on his perch by the door.
'Oh, so help me, Albus Dumbledore, if you wish to retain the function of all your limbs, don't be so bloody facetious with me!'
The Headmaster – a venerable man approaching the century mark – chose not to react to such a startlingly aggressive statement and kept his eyes on his delicate task as he responded: 'The exam timetables must be finalised to resolve scheduling issues. Derogatory remarks will not accelerate the process.'
'But perhaps,' Minerva began, squeezing each word out slowly, 'with my superior's help, I might finish before I accelerate with accelerant and set fire to his office.' She smiled tightly and cocked her head to the side as the Headmaster's bent form, unbent and bright blue eyes lifted to her own.
'Minerva!' the Headmaster said cheerfully. 'Would you care for some assistance with your task?'
'What a splendid idea,' said Minerva, whose smile was entirely fake.
'I have been rather absorbed,' Dumbledore admitted ruefully, seeing his transfiguration professor so genuinely irate. Minerva forgave him, reassuring herself that at least she wasn't such a soft touch with the students; her boss stepped long (over the remains of a pillow) and peered over her shoulder, pointing as he spoke. 'Let's see what I can do. Oh, is that both the fifth year Ravenclaws and the third year Hufflepuffs sharing the same dungeon for their potions exam?' Below his tall form, in his shadow, the seated Minerva groaned with some agony.
'I just moved the Hufflepuffs from Charms that period to make way for the Gryffindor seventh years!' She lowered her head in defeat to rest on the desk. Albus Dumbledore smiled at the back of her head. It had been some time since they had been alone together and he was glad she had forced him from his preoccupation, and was now determined to see her smile- and the best way to do that was to make her roll her eyes at his foolishness, it was almost too easy. He began:
'Be not alarmed, fair maiden, for your chivalrous knight is here to rescue the night and battle back the fiery dragon into the dark recesses from whence it came!'
Eyelids caressed by parchment, nonetheless, Minerva rolled her eyes. She lifted her head slightly to look sideways at him. 'Albus, I thought you said you were going to help?'
Albus Dumbledore smiled, he could see the unwilling start of a rueful smile on her lips, and the words gnitaehc-itna printed on her forehead. 'Why once I rescued a fair maiden's fern and now I am truly prepared to face the dragon and win the lady's favour.'
Minerva raised an eyebrow- well did she remember the night he "saved" her fern. 'I have no handkerchief to bestow and oh honestly Albus – do we have to?' She lifted her head to rest it on her hand, elbow padded from the desk by three inches of parchment. Albus Dumbledore conceded his folly and nodded acquiescence; she nodded slightly back and the soft candle light caught her black lashes and glittered like tears – for a bewildering, alarming moment that felt like prophecy, he saw her standing with those tears, weary and defeated and in pain. It was more than he could bear; it forced the air he breathed at that moment to beat like a blacksmith's forge, hot agony cleaving his soul. He dropped to his knees by her chair and reached for her face with trembling hands, ignoring her startled expression, to touch her skin, to reassure himself that all was well, that there were no tears, no pain, no …breaking heart. At the last moment he came to his senses and berated himself for causing that look in Minerva's eyes, his slender fingers were on her face, her skin was warm and soft and freckly but he stopped short of intimacy, instead he smiled, somewhat wanly, and said:
'I'm afraid, my dear, that you have ink print across your forehead.' His hands were cupping her face, a thumb had teased her lashes; his comment seemed almost absurd.
'Albus… what?' Minerva blinked, confused, her heart was pounding and she could feel his skin against hers and the scent of hand soap and silver and the way he had looked so desperate to touch her and now, now was speaking banally – was she losing her mind? Fantasising? Because she had promised herself she would not do that anymore – no longer, no more, never again.
'Ink,' he repeated, and to demonstrate, lifted a hand to rub a thumb across the stain, the letters streaked and he showed the proof to Minerva and watched the naked relief wash across her face, a mere wave in her - a tsunami in him. He gave her a tissue, reluctantly dropping his hands.
'Right – back to work!' Minerva said – positivism emanating in a very forceful manner.
'Absolutely!' Albus concurred; a traitorous thought noticed the smudge of hot chocolate by her mouth and wanted to taste it. He reined himself in – angry – he conjured a comfortable chair instead and set his desires aside. But one thing could not be ignored: in all the sensations that he had felt when he imagined he saw her in tears, the worst was that of a breaking heart and the shame of fearing not that it had been hers – but that it might have been his.
December approached, arrived and continued to progress, as these things are wont to do. Elise recovered, bar the suggestion of a moustache that remained and of which nobody dared comment on – for the Potions Professor was extremely intimidating in her austere, reserved manner. Minerva McGonagall felt the chill of the days in her bones and felt old with it; as the days passed and the anniversary of her nephew's death grew nearer she spent her evenings alone by the fireplace in her quarters, and thought of the young man who had so eagerly followed his Aunt Tabby into mortal battle. He had been her sister's only child, and she had no other siblings to continue the McGonagall line; their family lineage was disintegrating into the shadows of the past; as each year passed so the clan would age and decline until one day it might just be her and her alone. Minerva, the last McGonagall. She spent her days teaching children who grew by the hour, young fresh faces, whose mothers, and fathers, loved and cherished and continued in them. She hated that she was so melancholy, so obsessed with the loss of her heritage that had not yet come to pass, but the grief was real, both for Des, and for that which she would never know – motherhood and the sense of immortality that could come with it.
And so she drew into herself as Christmas approached, and avoided the staff room, the social gatherings. Always polite but rarely laughing. The students noticed nothing – the Professor was her usual sharp self – Minerva's closer colleagues did see; but it was a gradual withdrawal and their concern was muted. Albus Dumbledore noticed his Transfiguration professor was less available, but he was also a busy man, and it wasn't until the fifth night of Christmas, in his office with the Heads of House, signing his name to eight hundred and sixty-two school reports and endeavouring to recall something personal about each student that he twigged Minerva was further away than just busy, and it was a simple thing that alerted him, silly almost.
He ate his way through twenty-two sugar quills that night and made a habit of asking Minerva, twenty-two times, if she would lend him a quill as his had vanished like magic. And every time she merely proffered her own and conjured one anew for herself. Quite a bit of talent there, but aside from the point; which is, in twenty-two times he did not change the phrasing of his request and not once did Minerva McGonagall say a sharp word, condemn or berate him for his foolishness. It was startlingly out of character.
He observed that neither Elise, David nor Elias Horace Slughorn appeared to notice anything out of the ordinary, and this concerned him for it meant he had failed to watch over a woman he cared for deeply, failed to see that a gradual loss of verve had been occurring whilst he busied himself with affairs of the world. Yet again, he was blind to what was closest to him.
Having noticed, it was not within Albus to stand idly by and he set out with some determinism to find recourse to recovering Minerva's normal good-humour, his first and confident approach was her good friend Gil Aldridge, their soon-to-be-wed school nurse, however his approach was met with less enthusiasm than he had imagined and he left somewhat chagrined after:
'Good Lord Albus! What do you think I've been doing the past four months if it's not endless shopping? I'm sick of this bloody wedding and Marcus won't let us elope. Said I'd be happy to do it without him if his bloody mother doesn't keep dragging relatives out of the murky past to ruin my seating plan! And I'm not talking to Minerva until she comes to her senses, stupid bloody centrepieces with fern, fern I ask you? What do you think? What? No opinion? Oh how like a bloody man, leave it all to the women and then take the compliments like you had a damn thing to do with the wine supplier who doesn't speak English, the Vicar his mother wants who's allergic to canvas and the bloody canapés that look like vomit! WHAT are you still doing here? Are you dying? Are you sick? No? Then GO!'
He knew that his approach was roundabout and avoided the obvious answer – himself, but if he was honest he was not sure if his presence would be a help or a hindrance, he briefly considered contacting Cecilia but was afraid that Minerva might have been brutally honest with her sister about the events of the summer. Having argued himself out of approaching Hawthorne or Elise and even Hagrid on the basis that all of the above were hardly closer to Minerva than Gil and recalling how that conversation had gone – Albus was forced to conclude that he had better man up and act like the friend he was always so darned keen on being.
All this introspection, startling insightful and profound as it was not, had taken a considerable amount of time, given that Albus Dumbledore was a man who pondered many things at any one time and hence was often a little haphazard with 'real time'; turning up at the Annual Boiled Sweet Appreciation Meet for a 'suck-athon' where extra points were given for the ability to multi task without dribbling, when he should have been supping cocktails with Ministers, and commentating on chandelier upholstery (a confusion of the previous year). So that Dumbledore opened his last advent window to find a partridge shaped confectionary upon the moment that the former decision was being made, and realised that a full seven days had passed since first he noticed Minerva's melancholy; the students had left for humbler abodes and the majority of the staff had flitted to various nests maintained by others who might just, not, make them do the washing up.
It was Christmas Eve.
Minerva's Christmas Eve evening found her in her Head of House office where she had been tweaking her lessons plans of the next term most of the day; this was only her second year of teaching and experience was giving her methods polish and as she wasn't in the mood for Peeve's particularly rude version of We Three Kings of Orient Are, she had hexed her office door to provide all but students a jolt of electricity upon contact.
This was why when Albus Dumbledore came to visit her first awareness of it was a loud, uncharacteristic holler followed by some unrepeatable swear words.
Drat thought the source responsible I forgot about the staff and leapt forth to furnish some apologies on the wounded soul she had inadvertently hexed. That apology consisted of a flat:
'Oh, it's you,' on recognition.
Albus Dumbledore was unaccustomed to being a disappointment, generally when he turned up to people's abodes he was greeted with enthusiasm and not a little hero worship. 'Aye, tis I,' he tried.
'I'm rather caught-up in things at present, could this be re-scheduled?' Minerva had yet to open the door fully, and stood herself barring the way.
'You want to re-schedule a visit from a friend who has already arrived upon your doorstep?'
'I beg your pardon?' Minerva raised brows plucked into severe lines. Albus frowned; this was not the pleasant experience that usually occurred when the two of them were together. He was irked.
'No bloody way, Minerva.'
'No bloody way? No bloody way?'
Provoke her, Albus thought. 'What's the matter with you woman?'
'Woman?' Minerva shrieked.
'Is it that time of the month?'
'Life getting you down, Albus?'
'Have you been over-indulging on the mince pies?'
'Have you become aware of your increasing hip line?'
'You better bloody stop while you still have the chance for a head start on your way to Peru.'
'Has your lack of sexual intercourse left you with low self-esteem as well as unsatisfied bodily desires?'
There was a pause as a flabbergasted Minerva was briefly stunned into insensibility. The two of them stared at each other through the doorway, nary an expression changing; finally Minerva lowered her brows and narrowed her eyes. 'How do you know I have not been getting any "sexual intercourse"?'
Albus' lips twitched at the side and something inside Minerva began to relax and soften at this confirmation of his humour, albeit at her expense, which had so shocked her system she felt reset and awake as she had not done for months. 'Fine.' Minerva said, and reached for her coat. 'You can buy me a drink at the Three Broomsticks. Make that three. Wait – you know what, just buy me what I want, how-ever-much I want.' They sauntered down the hallway, Minerva unconsciously slipping her hand through the crook of his arm.
'Glad you decided to join me,' beamed Albus, as if their altercation had never happened so heatedly, Minerva ignored him and glanced down critically at her swaying hips.
'Albus,' she said, 'Make sure those drinks are non-fat.'
Christmas morning found Minerva back in her usual seat by Albus' fireplace, remembering the last Christmas when she had heard the news of Des; death and Albus had been there to support her. This time though, she recalled the events aloud, with the Headmaster's sympathetic presence near-by and a cup of Ceylon tea in hand.
'It's such a terrifying responsibility, Albus. The future of my entire genealogy in my hands. And what if I should not meet an obliging gentleman, have no children, to be responsible for the extinction of my entire line? What kind of honour is there in that for those that came before me, for Des, for my brother, my parents? Sometimes when I think about it my entire heart falters and I think, what cowardice, what shame to be so weak and so afraid.'
'My dear Minerva,' Albus leaned forward earnestly in his armchair opposite hers, 'To say you are too young to worry over such matters seems a crass condescension, but to spend such contemplation concerning yourself with what has yet to come to pass, or indeed, not pass, requires the skill of foresight we do not possess. Needless to say; you are young and have many childbearing years ahead of you. There is no reason why you should not still bring an heir to the McGonagall line. Or even six. Though I understand that childbirth can cause considerable discomfort so you may wish to desist at the one.'
Minerva chuckled and sipped her tea. 'Oh I know you are right, but one does wonder sometimes. My last relationship was hardly a sterling example of the stability required to start a family.'
Albus shifted in his chair and Minerva realised that clarification was in order. 'My relationship with Luigi,' she emphasised and couldn't help a quirk of her lips. 'I hardly think that what you and I had can be classed as a relationship.'
'I suppose not,' Albus agreed, somewhat ruefully. 'Though my actions were caddish and I sincerely apologise.'
'There was a time, Albus,' sighed Minerva, with the wisdom of her elder self, 'that I would have been desperate to hear those words from your lips.'
'No more?' he inquired carefully.
'No more,' she confirmed and smiled at the older man seated across the room, his long red-brown beard hooked over his left ear like a furry eel. 'Besides, I have to confess, I can't abide hairy men.'
'Good grief! All this time you were merely toying with my emotions! I am shocked at your wanton ways madam, shocked!'
Minerva laughed at his melodramatics. 'Crumpet?' she asked, reaching for the plate put out by the house elves.
Later, as Albus was opening a year's supply of lemon drops (a gift from Minerva, who had embraced her responsibility in introducing them to the man who was very thorough in inflicting this addiction on his staff) he looked up from the sack; lemon drops clinging to his beard and proclaimed:
'I am not hairy!'
The wedding of Gil Aldridge and Marcus O'Reiuss just so happened to fall on a bright clear day in the February half term, no students were present and in need of supervision, so the entire school had been given over to preparations, the summer wedding had given way to the spring, on account of the vicar who was allergic to canvas and Albus had obliged by offering up Hogwarts as a venue. The bride wore white and was radiantly happy, and only Minerva knew that five minutes before her trip down the aisle (in this case the great hall) she had been hyperventilating over the prospect of tying herself to a man she couldn't stand just one year prior. The bridesmaids wore teal in silk with thankfully cosy angora boleros in cream, the in-laws all agreed the Headmaster was most generous, only one relative was pinioned beneath a floral arrangement and only one ring was swallowed by Giles, the four year-old cousin who threw a tantrum when he had initially been left out of the proceedings and was now under the beady eye of the great-grandmother from whom the ring had been bequeathed.
Gil Aldridge became Gil O'Reiuss and Minerva could not have been happier for her friend. At the post wedding soiree Gil escaped the well-wishers and came to find her.
'Come outside with me Min, I need to tell you something.' They edged outside the Three Broomsticks and hunkered by the outdoor stove, dusk had arrived and their warm breath hung in the chilled air, clouds whose size made the women giants. Gil clasped Min's hands and smiled nervously. 'We plan on leaving Hogwarts Min.'
'What?' Minerva exclaimed. She hadn't seen this coming, at least not until a baby was on the way. 'You're not –'
'No! Of course not!' Red curls bounced indignantly.
'Then why? This is where you met, this is where you work – you're a school nurse and he's a teacher! Where else would you go?'
'I'm not just a school nurse Min!' Gil said shirtily. 'And Marcus' expertise makes him perfect for government jobs. We want to travel first, then settle somewhere, have our own place – not share with eight-hundred-odd bodies!' Minerva stayed silent, absorbing. 'Listen Min, we never really planned on making Hogwarts our life, I mean, do we really want to end up like Old Binns? Or Dumbledore? Merlin knows that man has nothing else in his life other than this school.'
Minerva shifted awkwardly at the mention of Albus. The nurse didn't make the connection.
'It's just a job, it was never going to be our lives.' The newly christened Mrs O'Reiuss squeezed her friend's hands reassuringly. 'It was never going to be your life either. Take our cue, look forward, and think about moving on with us next September.'
'I don't know that I want to leave the school,' Minerva confessed, she withdrew her hands. 'I love it here.'
Gil considered her friend's furrowed brow and wondered how honest to be, what the heck, it was her wedding day; she could say what she wished! 'You could be happy here Min, I know that. You could be the next generation of Elise Horner.' A smile spread across Minerva's face at the thought. 'You could be respected, and admired and published.' Gil paused. 'Could you be loved?' The smile disappeared and Gil shut up to let her words sink unpleasantly in.
It was a quiet but dignified Minerva that said, after a pause, 'Your point is made.'
Gil nodded, she'd known Minerva would take her words hard but she dearly loved her tall thin friend and wanted for her, all the joy and comfort she had found in her new husband. 'Come back inside and drink until my words seem foolish to you and you can dismiss me and my romantic notions!'
Minerva couldn't help but start to smile. 'The drinks are free until 11pm...' Gil cajoled.
'And after this talk I need one!' exclaimed Minerva, brushing aside the serious topic. 'Come on you horrible woman, show me how a married woman parties!'
Gil pushed open the bar door, and spotted her husbands best friend by the small dance floor, across the crowded bar that had been cleared of tables to allow for a small dance floor. 'Let me introduce Marcus' chum though. He's an architect for the Egyptians. Speaks Arabic like a native, and likes to hike up mountains. Oh. He's single.'
Albus Dumbledore saw the two women re-enter, and felt the forced nature of Minerva's smile in her mind's uncertain wobble against his questing legilimens. He wondered what they had been talking about; he wondered if Minerva had told Gil the whole story of their relationship. He wondered if the best man really had to be so damn good-looking and if he should interfere before the blast-ended skrewt of a cad got her anymore drinks. He drank another firewhiskey and watched her hands on another man, her body moving in time to the swing band, guided and handled with ease. He sat at the bar and made polite conversation with people who wanted to speak to the famous Dumbledore. He tried to be discreet when he stared at Minerva but her figure, her soft curves and flying hair, her growing laughter and wide smile was burned on his corneas. Was impossible to vanish. He didn't know why he was so angry, but a fury was building inside him and in an effort to suppress it he tapped the bar for another firewhiskey.
The drinks were no longer free, but for Albus Dumbledore, a tab was no problem. He bought a round for the revellers and received a rousing cheer. Apparently no one but he knew that beneath his public persona was a burning, jealous, dangerous man who really really wanted to punch the exotic lothario whose hand was on the curve of Minerva's buttocks, he felt for Minerva's feelings and found them warm and merry and enjoying the attention. With a shock Albus realised she was considering going to bed with this man tonight. More than considering. Aroused by his hands on her body and wanting more. Albus withdrew his questing mind in disgust. How could she be so cheap? How could she consider another man when she could have – she could have – she, she… He drank up. He left. He didn't look at her again. Halfway through Hogwarts grounds he threw up in a gooseberry bush, disgusting himself.
It really was happy planning that allowed for the wedding to be during half term as the staff of Hogwarts and the wedding guests staying locally woke to various ailments, undoubtedly related to the celebrations of the night. Albus Dumbledore woke to muffled protests of his phoenix, and found the bird very firmly stuffed into the laundry basket. He had a fuzzy recollection of his reasons for doing this to the poor bird. But he recollected last night clearly. No alcohol of any amount was able to stifle his prodigious memory, this he already knew from unhappy attempts in his youth. He divested himself of stale clothing as he ran a bath, he gargled to rinse away the memory of vomit, and he burned with the thought that Minerva McGonagall was probably waking up in another man's arms, contented, nude, sated.
The happy couple left mid-morning for their honeymoon in Cuba, seen off by a significantly demurer crowd that waved genuinely but squinted at the morning sunshine and proceeded to raid the just departed nurse's cabinet for suitable pain relief. Minerva was there of course, she helped to lay out the new wife's going away clothes, and share in the bittersweet embrace of friends whose relationship would be entering a new stage. She also tied the battered cauldrons and the flashing 'Just Married' banner to the coach.
'Another one bites the dust,' grunted Hawthorne in her ear, as people were turning back into the hall, 'You and I left now sweet-cheeks. Reckon we should – you know, bite the bullet?'
Minerva raised an eyebrow, amused, 'Up until you called me sweet-cheeks you were in the running.'
Hawthorne barked his short laugh. He had no real interest in Minerva; he gave her a one arm squeeze, already thinking about his greenhouses, and lumbered off, great long strides eating up the school lawns. Minerva was left to finish her orange juice, aspirin and charmed cornflakes in the great hall, and realised the Headmaster had been absent for the whole affair. She resolved to seek him out later and query it, but for now her stomach was a little queasy and her head a little larger than her hat, perhaps a mid-morning doze was in order.
It was dusk, guests were departing, Minerva had waved and smiled and forgotten everybody's names the instant their carriage departed, dinner had been served and again the Headmaster had been absent; Minerva had already checked with the House Elves that he hadn't been called away on business, for he was prone to up and leaving to sort out, well, the world. Feeling a little more up to the task now the ill-effects had worn off, she ventured to the Headmaster's office to check on her esteemed superior's well-being.
She let herself in and did not knock. Dumbledore was seated at his desk, scowling, scribbling fiercely and surrounded by mountains of loose sheaves of paper, all looking at risk of floating and tumbling like a jenga of academia.
'You missed the going away party,' Minerva announced herself thus. 'And dinner.'
'My apologies.' Rather curt.
'What was so important?' She enquired gently, for his head was furrowed and he had yet to look up.
'My world does not revolve around the minutiae of smaller minds small events.'
Minerva's mouth opened into an O of surprise. 'Albus!' He didn't respond. 'Albus!' He resiliently continued his scratchings. 'ALBUS!'
The Headmaster looked up, pseudo-casually he asked, 'Oh I apologise Minerva, are we paying attention to one another now?'
'What?' She was somewhat surprised at his aggressive demeanour.
'Did you have a satisfying night?' His lip curled.
'I had a lovely night Albus, but I get the feeling you're alluding to something more.' Minerva's lips were compressed and her figure taut as realisation began. 'Why don't you desist with your childish behaviour and endeavour to say what is on your mind!'
'I am not the one behaving irresponsibly,' said the Headmaster calmly, but his tight features and short words belied it. They glared at each other across the stacks of paperwork. In his efforts to suppress his overactive imagination the headmaster had been responding to his mail, his fan mail, though he would not have admitted it was such to the tall, angry woman with clenched fists that towered before him. She was incredible enraged. Stunning. And refusing to rise to his bait and confirm what he already knew to be horribly true. He couldn't bear it; he wanted to hear the truth from her lips. Her betrayal. His voice rose and his hands clenched:
'You had intimate relations with a man you'd known for barely a day. You appal me!'
'I appal you? I APPAL YOU!? You ridiculous, pompous, puffed up, egotistic misogynistic pig of a wizard!' Her voice rose to a screech and Albus Dumbledore rose to his feet stiffly, his lip twitching in loathing. Minerva was so angry her hands were sweating and her vision was dotted as air struggled to enter her unrelenting body. 'What gives you the right to have any say on my personal life, what gives you the right to speak that way to me, what makes you think that after a year and a half of playing hot and cold with my emotions you can have any say in whom I choose to share my body with?'
'I have given you-'
'You have given me NOTHING! You have given me NOTHING but heartache and unfulfilled desires. NOTHING!' She was shouting, angrier and sadder than she had ever been before in her life.
Albus threw his quill at her, the image of her desires being seen to by another still burning in his mind. 'Unfulfilled desires? Not after last night!' he snapped the words distasteful implication in every syllable. Ink splashed her skirt as the quill hit her robes, she took no notice.
'That's what bothers you? The idea that another man has lain with me? Is that how it has to be? You won't have me so no one else can? Never mind my heart, never mind my sanity, as long as my body is untouched?'
'Why would I want what another man can have so easily? Easy drinks and smooth words and you fall like a pubescent school girl! Are you so desperate to propagate?'
Minerva lunged forward, raised her hand and slapped him across the face. The crack was resoundingly loud and her hand went instantly numb, but she didn't regret it a second later, she doubted she would regret an hour later, a decade even. She snarled at the man, whose face was marked by her rage, 'I did not lay with that man. But if I had, you would have no justification for trying to shame me. I have more honour that you will ever grasp!'
Albus Dumbledore grabbed her wrist before she could strike him again, he opened his mouth to say vindictive words, more words he knew would hurt, because he had it in him. He grabbed her other wrist and then he yanked her forward, onto him, and with their bodies hard with rage and swollen with hurt he lowered his head and kissed her. It was a hot, sloppy kiss, angst and force in it, her wrists held away by him, his great strength keeping her tight and close. And then anger gave way to desperation, a need for her to recognise his grief and desire, his agony of love for her. And finally her hands unclenched and her lips responded, her mouth opened and her body lent into him, not against him.
When Albus had the wherewithal to pull away he felt the echo of the pain from his cheek that he saw in her eyes. She was crying. Her long, soft lashes were beaded with silent tears. He had done that. He had verbally then physically assaulted her. He had taken the worst kind of advantage of his young transfiguration mistress. He felt the clutch of despair. He released her and she swayed against the desk, a deluge of unfolded scrolls resulted and was ignored.
'What have I done? Shame, shame on me. Minerva, I am truly sorry.'
She nodded. She bit her swollen lips and touched her face, burned by his beard and his passion. She spoke without looking at him then left immediately in a rustle of tousled robes.
'Choose, Albus. Choose. One way or the other. Or this will be my last term at Hogwarts.'
Of course there's more to come! This was supposed to be the last chapter, but the characters have been misbehaving and not following plot.
It has been many years, so I hope that to those people who still occasionally check in, this comes as a pleasant surprise and lives up to expectation.
With thanks to PiER whose review reminded me of a promise.