A/N: ... Er. "She WHAT? She vanished for TWO YEARS and abandoned her wonderful, amazing, supportive reviewers?!" She did, and is VERY sorry. She returns to the world of fanfiction hoping to finish Him Again for the sake of those incredible people (Skite and Marielle particularly...) who have kept watching and waiting—and offers this strange hybrid chapter, started in 07 and finished in 09!
Je ne craignais pas de mourir, mais de mourir sans etre illumine. (I was not afraid to die, but to die without having been enlightened) —Comte de Saint-Germain, La Tres Sainte Trinisophie
Je ne craignais pas de mourir, mais de mourir sans etre illumine.
(I was not afraid to die, but to die without having been enlightened)
—Comte de Saint-Germain, La Tres Sainte Trinisophie
"Minerva, we do not have to do anything you don't want to."
She was naked, standing in front of his desk. The office was different—not in appearance, for in her time she had retained everything of His, when His name was unmentionable—in that the air held a different presence, one which overrode her own. Somehow she knew, without analysing the situation, or even looking at the date of the calendar on the wall, that she had never been Headmistress and never would have to be. There would always be a headmaster sat in the chair, twinkling eyes roving over her form.
"But I want to."
The handsome face in front of her split into a grin. Long fingers enticed her forwards.
The scene changed: they were in a bed which was a tomb, red satin sheets in sharp contrast to the cold white marble without. The sky above them was dark, speckled with stars like diamonds, centred around a nude, shameless moon. Her own nakedness had changed; it was no longer the stark presentation of the office, but both secret and glowing, luminance emphasised by shadow. His own body was almost melded to hers, a warmth which burned against the cool of the night—but still clothed, so that only a delicate stretch of fabric separated them. She thought that this was strange, and that it something to do with her, but could think no further, because Aberforth was suddenly standing over the tomb with his wand raised...
Now she was a memory, a presence of the pastand bleeding; the satin sheets had become a pool of her life, leaking away into the dead earth. Albus had turned into the cast-iron swastika which had been Grindelwalds Horcrux, and it was lying heavily on her chest, pulsing with hatred, forcing the blood out—
"Minerva, can you hear me? Minerva!"
An auburn beard was above her, its owner as leeched of blood as she was. She tried to speak, but the sound wouldnt come... Such a child...
"You must tell me how this was done!"
She was trying to tell him about the transfigured eagle with its cruel beak, but her voice emerged to tell something different, something which hadn't happened—
"Someone put a wand up me, Professor, someone put a wand—"
"Someone put a wand up me, Professor, someone put a wand—"
Minerva McGonagall awoke suddenly, gasping, the weight still on her chest and something red engulfing her vision—
Fawkes chirped and cocked his head as if concerned, his almost-human expression marred only by the parchment in his mouth. The morning was blazing all around her, an unseasonable sun grinning through the window, and the curtains were stirring with a calming whisper. Still shaken, she glared up at the phoenix.
"Do you usually land on peoples chests?"
Fawkes gave an odd, squawking cackle, like laughter. Shooting the bird the look she usually reserved for hung-over Seventh-Years, she ripped the parchment from his beak and sat up. The phoenix squawked again and vanished in a flash of flame. Heart still beating unreasonably fast, the Headmistress had to read the letter twice before she could make any sense of it.
If the Goddess could be ready at twelve, then she might find a temple waiting for her.
If the Goddess could be ready at twelve, then she might find a temple waiting for her.
She smiled, and then frowned. The word 'eternally' was indented deeply into the parchment, and was preceded by a blot, as though the writer had paused before continuing. Surely he didnt doubt...?
She lay back and tried to clear her mind. The dream was still washing over her, the image of a pool of blood seared onto her eyelids. The sigh came almost involuntarily.
She did not need Sybil Trelawney or any of her absurd books to interpret that dream. No great mental effort was needed to account for the presence of Aberforth, as the Order meeting had only been the day before, and had not passed without the predictable distress of sitting across from the man she had refused. Several times his voice had faltered as he looked at her, and she had kept her gaze solidly away, chest tight with awkwardness. They had not greeted each other, or indeed performed any other sign of official recognition that the other was there, even as the air seemed crowded with unspoken recrimination. The moment she had arrived had been the worst; the rest of the Order had become suddenly intent on discussing the weather, staring through her with fixed grins. 'Professor McGonagall' had had her hand shaken as though she was a fictional character, a wraith who had come to disturb them.
Well, she corrected herself, that wasnt completely true. Whilst Arthur had fumbled with his fingers and talked loudly about plugs, Poppy had embraced her with a secret, encouraging pat on the back. Whilst Molly had laughed for longer than was necessary, the Healer had carefully asked her how she was, and seen past the meaningless response. Whilst Harry had stared with the baffled expression of someone who had been victim to violence with a heavy object, the other witch had steered her away from Aberforth into another room. Most of all, whilst the rest of the Order were determinedly rapt on Aberforths speech, her best friend had held her hand under the table, fingers compact in trusting support.
Poppy had also, she remembered, kept nodding and smiling at Rolanda, and looking from her, to Minerva, to Aberforth, as if trying to communicate some secret. She had been too tense and worried to really pay attention, and she had not lingered after the meeting, nor arrived early.
Her former friend had returned Poppy's smiles with a strained one of her own, and then directed a strange, frightened look at the Headmistress. She could not understand its meaning, and had simply avoided her eyes until she looked away. Aberforth alone was upsetting enough without Rolanda—though she had wondered why Rolanda was there... After all, Poppy's presence was because of Alastor, but... She shook her head; it didn't matter.
The rest of the dream was more disturbing, and also needed no spark of genius to interpret. No focus was needed to return an eight-year-old Minerva sobbing to her mother—
"Louisa... Louisa said..."
Her mother had never actually learnt what Louisa—now only the blurred memory of a blonde girl with pigtails—had said, as the younger Minerva had found it too alarming even to repeat.
"Wizards stick wands up witches to make babies... and it hurts a lot."
There had been more than that, of course. Louisa, the morbidly-obsessed daughter of a neighbour, had always been drawn to the grotesque, a natural tendency fed by a mother who told bizarre tales. When the child had overheard what she shouldnt, it had been an automatic response to fictionalise it, and illustrate her theory with ghastly pictures. The adult Minerva understood this, but the girl Minerva had taken it as gospel, and had suffered recurring nightmares involving wands and Louisa's scrawled stick-figures. The terror had only ended four years later, when her mother had gone through the Facts of Life more delicately. The nightmare fear had vanished along with Louisa, the latter through an epidemic.
Now she was alarmed by it again—not what had been said, but the context the fear of a child had emerged in, immediately after intimacy with a nonsensically clothed Albus. The whole thing had been wrong—why had she been naked in his office, and he robed? Why had the fantasy of the tomb-bed held the same inequality?
She was not frightened by the idea of a naked Albus—the very concept was absurd, the nervousness of a sheltered child instead of an experienced adult. No, the idea was an exciting one, one to anticipate.
"Would you still love me even if I could not—even if we were not able to—make love?"
The Headmistress sat up.
That was wrong too, ridiculous, childish—completely inexpressive of what she had felt. Albus's love was a sure thing, a ground she could stand on in a world of endless sky. Physical intimacy was one healthy dimension that would not compromise the emotions of either of them; too tightly were they bound together, too much had they shared... How she could doubt what she had seen in his mind? She snorted. Merlin knew what he thought of her, after saying something so ridiculous!
As for vocalising what was the issue, the words were hard to choose even in her own mind. Her relationships from before Albus, from before she was even Deputy Headmistress—pale, transitory shadows—had always either moved inevitably from the emotional to the physical without retention, or had been marred as soon as that dimension developed, focussed around unspoken problems for which she served as a receptacle. Yet she could not fear the same with Albus; their love was stronger, and he selfless rather than selfish. Logically, the worry that all could be ruined made no sense. She could not even tell why the thought had grown on her so recently, or why she had chosen to voice it shortly after Moody's appearance. Was it because Moody reminded her of Aberforth and a failed relationship with blue eyes? Or had the new war unsettled her, made their situation losable and therefore confrontational? Was everything she thought a side-stepping of the real issue?
Whatever it was, Minerva McGonagall was emphatically not a woman who found problems unconquerable.
With this idea in mind, she rose to begin selecting robes, still stinging from the concept of Albus thinking her childish. She drew out a green set with gold embroidery Too professor-like, too conservative. Back it went, as did a dozen other robes.
Midday came slowly. Her personal chambers became a cage in which she paced, glancing at the tapestry entrance every now and then. Recent meetings between them had always been arranged so that Albus entered her chambers whilst Disillusioned or under the invisibility cloak, so as to stop the portraits muttering about the amount of times they had been made to face the wall. She had pointed out that a mysteriously opening tapestry was even more suspicious, but he had argued that a movement could be dismissed as the result of the wind, whilst overturned portraits were more intrinsically secretive. The change irritated her, in that there was yet another room to be crossed whilst she waited.
The clock struck twelve. She moved towards the tapestry just as it flapped opento divulge apparent nothingness. Her lips curved upwards of their own accord as a chuckle sounded in the air.
"Albus Dumbledore! Come out from under that cloak at once!"
The chuckle grew louder. Sherbet lemon-scented breath blew suddenly over her ear. She turned around, but her assailant was still invisible. The laughter of relief, after so many days of tension, was welling up inside her. Something brushed her arm.
She turned around again, and suddenly a warm body was up against her—
—Gone again, with a chuckle. The Headmistress glared at thin air and shook her head.
"Albus, you are such a—"
A long finger caressed her jaw—
Her breath hitched as the invisible hand stroked downwards, setting her skin tingling. Cloth and flesh mingled around her, touching, teasing, laughing. Lips pressed suddenly on her own just as unseen arms wrapped around her, reminding her of the dream—
Albus Dumbledore's head emerged in the air a foot away, blue eyes holding a mischievous twinkle.
"A little flustered, Headmistress?"
She drew herself up and arranged her face into an expression of mock-severity, trying to will the blood from her cheeks.
"A little immature, Mr Potter?"
Albus closed his eyes and winced, drawing the cloak off. "Touché, my dear."
Now that the teasing cloak was off, she could survey him properly. The auburn locks were even brighter than she recalled from their last meeting, rendered the essence of fire by the black over-robes he wore: fine silk traced over with a phoenix embroidered in gold. Under the over-robes were white ones, tied around with a golden beltthe overall effect was surreal, as if he was a figure from an oil painting. His face appeared smooth, a tad less lined around the eyes which swept down her, seeming to hold a strange tension—or perhaps she had imagined it.
"Have you had a little less Ageing Potion this time?"
"Oh, perhaps." One reddish eyebrow arched. "And may I say that the Goddess looks particularly beautiful today?"
"You may." She twisted one finger in the long beard. "And I thought the Goddess was going to be led to her temple?"
Their mouths were together again, exploring. She deepened it deliberately, wanting to prove something unspeakable, something beyond what she could voice. Sucking on his lower lip, she moved her hands into his hair, just as his own dropped to her waist. What did the war or dark wizards matter, when the centre of the world was now? His hands were moving up to her back, massaging the tension away, whilst his own mysteriously remained...
He drew back, so that the sapphire filled her vision.
"I'm sorry about the last few days."
His voice was unexpectedly serious, even as his hands continued their work. She stilled and watched him, waiting as his face creased in anxiety.
"I did not intend for what we share to be buried under either another war or Severus. There is no point in defending what is beautiful, only to forget to cultivate that beauty. Forgive me."
Mentally, she rolled her eyes, crushing the small part of her that protested he was right. "Albus, dont be absurd. There's nothing to forgive. You've spent your entire life fighting dark wizards, and you can hardly be expected to sit back and ignore everything when people start being killed! What we share has to come second—"
"No," he said shortly, gaze piercing to x-ray intensity. "And I think you know I'm right in saying that I've neglected you."
"You've seen me every week except for when Harry kept you away from the school. As for Severus, you are doing what you believe, and nobody can ask for more than that."
The name fell unpleasantly off her tongue; they still disagreed, and it was a point of tension, the shadow of a tower. Most frustrating was her ability to understand both sides of it! Of course Albus would want to protect the boy he had loved, and of course she would loath the man who had killed him...
"My dear, rather than debating it with me, how about you let me have the opportunity to correct the balance?"
For a second he seemed suppressed, biting back words, but the twinkle had returned, illuminating his entire face as he reached inside the black over-robe. After some fumbling, he produced a rock, holding it out to her like a piece of cake. Minerva raised her eyebrow.
"I'm unimpressed, Albus."
The half-moons flashed amusement. "A Portkey!"
As he pressed into her hands, the force of it took hold of her, latching behind her pelvis and dissolving the world into a kaleidoscopic whirl of colour, through which she and Albus sped, alone in a wind-borne dance. Sapphire stood out, reduced the other hues to nothing. The moment seemed to solidify; they were not moving, but standing rapt around a rock, both hands kept on it but gazes locked elsewhere, sharing a secret—
Her feet hit the ground, and the illusion was goneto give way to what at first seemed another.
They were standing on a hill overlooking a vast lake, a shimmering blue teardrop which held a mirror to the sky. Dark trees bowed down below the hill, encircling the lake and forming a guard of honour. A thin mist hung over the view like a window wet with condensation; the hill was an island above it, a step above the surreal world they were to descend into. Careful peering revealed another island at the centre of the lake, a pupil at the centre of a wise eye, crowned by a spreading oak. Something white sat in its shadows, something gleaming and sacred... She looked round at Albus, stunned.
He smiled wanly, and, without a word, began to descend into the mist. She took a step forward to follow him, and then heard it.
A melodious cry was going up around the hill, echoing down to the water. A song was beginning, a rapture of sweet, avian notes that reached in and squeezed the heart...
"Albus, what is—?"
There was no need to complete the question; she realised she had heard something of it before, but only one voice where now there were hundreds, all intent on a hymn of their own, yet weaving their sounds to make one glorious tapestry. Speechless, she followed him down the hill, feeling the mist bathe her face. The symphony was growing louder, piercing to the bone, intensifying until tears inexplicably filled her eyes. They were among the trees now, wet with dew, and looking up she glimpsed a long, golden tail feather...
The lake was before them: a strange, visual representation of what the song had produced. A small boat was gliding over the water without oars, pointing a crudely carved figurehead at them in silent invitation. She seized Albuss hand as he stepped in, wondering if he was feeling the same, made desperate by the eternal vocalisation around them. The blue eyes looked at her reassuringly, and she was stepping into the boat, the wood moving in a delicate sway.
He tapped the figurehead with his wand, and they moved off. His arms were around her, a cup around her inward swelling—a swelling of sadness and hope, a realisation of ignorance. The whole of life was there in that song, she thought, pressing her head into his shoulder, the whole of the world, an unending cycle of loving generations. Her logic was gone, swept away by a surrounding scream of grief and adoration, a fall from a tower and a proclamation of love, a little girl and her boy-professor... She hid her face and let the tears come.
There was no way of knowing how long she cried into him, or how long the boat moved across the lake. There was simply Albus, an enclosing warmth, an inexplicable strength in the midst of surrender. One hand massaged her back, trailing up and down her spine, as her mind played memories: the white nucleus of power rising from the trees as a German mage fell, a green serpent as another dark rose, a stern professor watching students go out into a recurring night, the sympathetic face of a counsellor, and sad sapphire...
...Sad sapphire, and a boy with the same eyes...
When she lifted her head up, he was looking past her towards the trees, hand still moving automatically. The lake was spread out around them, the distant shores swathed in mist, and the boat was still swaying, a gentle lilt in the collective voice, which rose suddenly to an aching, unbearable crescendo—
The trees spat fire.
No, not fire, but hundreds of pairs of wings, lifting up in formation—
A soaring column of phoenixes rose into the air, blinding and fiery against the blue, curling and dancing in a blazing arrow. In the lead was a familiar shape, a crested head which ducked proudly towards its master.
Her gasp of amazement finally left her, and Albus looked down, expression as if torn from something unpleasant. Confusion. One long finger traced her cheek, wiping away the tears, but her attention was on the arrowhead above, wonder holding her mesmerised, ignoring the mixed messages from the man. The arrow was shooting towards them, skimming low over the water in a flash of gold. A thousand wing-beats echoed across the lake, and suddenly the whisper of feathers was all around them, covering them in heat, wrapping them in the song—
Then they were past, soaring again upwards to give a final, triumphant cry. The arrow broke above the trees, dissolving into the mist. The spell was suddenly broken; she could speak.
"A-Albus—how and what—?"
His lips turned upwards, and he pressed a finger on hers. "In a moment. We're here."
The calmness of his action shook her: was he entirely unaffected by the phoenix song? A closer look made her regret the thought; his eyes were distant, one with the mist, and he was paler than usual, as if the blood had balled within him. The boat had come to a sudden halt, but neither of them got out for a few minutes, the silence after the music still ringing.
She tried again. "The phoenixes—why—?"
He shook his head, and leapt onto the shore like a deer. Wordlessly, he extended a hand, and helped her out onto the island that had been visible before. The gleaming, white something was now immediately obviousand it was a joke, it was absurd, for surely he had not actually meant...?
The mist had parted, sparing the island from its hypnotic blanket, to reveal tall columns rearing on top of marble steps, blindingly bright in the midday sun. The temple itself was illuminated in spite of the shade of the oak, revealing carved phoenixes, diving and rolling in marble air, stretched around pillars, gathered round nests, flying in formation over vast, white walls. An ancient, glowing table stood outside, covered with less than ancient crumbs which were being pecked at by creatures born in previous centuries. The oak above was weighted with phoenixes; brown eyes stared from all directions as the Headmistress took several, faltering steps along a short, overgrown path. Her eyes were drawn to the front of the temple's roof, where a larger phoenix than the rest spread its wings, carved beak open in a soundless call. Feeling for Albus's hand, she walked up the steps and inwards.
The room inside was small and darkened, reddish in the light of several candles. A scarlet loveseat reposed in a corner, next to a varnished wooden table with clawed feet. Sweet scent wafted from a magical incense-burner, and the floor was coated with soft, purple petals. The only thing which looked in line with the temple's function was the dusty altar at the back.
"The Goddess's temple!" Albus declared, with an unnecessary sweeping motion. "I hope you find it satisfactory."
Minerva gaped at him. Stupefied, she looked around the room again before back at the enigmatic, frustrating and endearing man beside her, who was grinning madly from ear to ear. Trembling slightly, she sank down on the loveseat, turning so that the light from outside formed an auburn halo around his head. The wild thought that he had somehow created the lake, the island and the temple all in one night forced her mouth to open.
"Did you do all this?"
Albus laughed. "Merlin no! All I have done is what you see in this room."
Numbly, she looked down at the petals. "Where are we?"
"Ireland. To be more specific, Amhran Loch, otherwise known as Myrrdin's Tear."
The information meant nothing. His grin and the tears she had shed at the song now seemed incongruous.
"About the phoenixes... and that song..."
Thin hands cupped her face and the sapphire was serious. "Forgive me, I should have warned you of that. I had forgotten how much it can affect one the first time."
"Why are they here? How did you find this place? And the temple—"
"One question at a time, my dear! Why they are here... I do not think humans can know that. I certainly don't pretend to know. I found this place because Fawkes showed me it; I doubt I would have discovered it otherwise. The Muggle villages nearby have old tales of the lake, but they have not been able to find it for generations. As for the temple I think wizards did once know of it and came here to worship, in the times before a phoenix was just a composite of spell and wand ingredients. And I'm afraid that's all I can guess."
"You've been here many times?"
He nodded, darkened face nostalgic. "Yes—ever since I was fifteen, when Fawkes first showed me. It became my haven during difficult times. I used to sit here and read or paint."
A twinge of alarm shuddered down her spine. "Are you sure it's appropriate for me to be here? It sounds to me as though people are invited here or not at all—Fawkes showed you, but I wasnt invited—"
"Yes you were," he said brightly, running his hand down her back to still the quiver. "There I was, sitting in the Gryffindor dormitory and out of ideas, when Fawkes suggested the idea to me. He transported me here and flew around the temple twice, and I've interpreted that to mean that we're both perfectly welcome. I didn't hear any squawks of protest on the way here, did you?"
The memory of the song and her tears made her look away. The plan of coming across as a mature, capable woman seemed to have gone awry.
"Albus," she began hesitantly. "About the crying—"
He drew her into his arms. Limp in his grasp, she felt his voice tickle her ear:
"Minerva, I did say I should have warned you. Nobody passes under that spell unaffected. I have some resistance to it as I've been here many times before, albeit before my r-rebirth."
She caught the stutter, and wondered at it, before mentally pushing it to one side. "Is it a spell, then?"
"More than, I would say. It possesses greater power than any spell we are able to cast."
Wrong, she thought. The spell they had cast together had simply strengthened.
The man beside her moved slightly, so that the light from outside was cut off. The candlelight seemed to cast the planes of his face into red intensity, reducing his eyes to blue sparks in black wells; he was suddenly nameless, the essence of a man.
A surge of affection made her turn to kiss his neck. His hands pressed her closer, and she gave a mischievous push, forcing him down onto the loveseat. The move from discussion to a simpler form of expression seemed to take him by surprise; he was limp beneath her, pinkness visible under the beard even in the dimness.
"I think that cloak of yours merits some revenge."
The half-moons misted. Heat was pulsing in her chest; the song had scoured the doubt away. Her tongue was moving down his neck, and her fingers were undoing the collar of his robes...
"My dear, you mustn't be cruel."
Her hands struggled with a clasp. "You shouldn't have been cruel to me, Albus."
The blue eyes were wide. "Ah, but I was not as forceful."
A pause, as her lips rested on his collarbone.
"They say that men mellow when they get older."
"Oh really?" One of his hands was on the clasp of her own robes, kneading tentatively.
Heart risen to her throat, she watched the sides of his robe fall, revealing a lean, pale chest. Attention barely on the hesitant movements at the top of her robes, she traced his sternum with a finger, following the movement of his sigh with a hand. As the clasp at her breast gave a click, her tongue echoed her finger, running down the centre of his body and eliciting a spasm. A hand suddenly lifted her head up, directing her gaze into that of the sapphire.
He would do nothing without her permission.
With another surge, she nodded and moved her tongue back up to his neck, before rolling to confront the dark ceiling of the temple. Albus's hands, luridly coloured in the candlelight, were drawing back her own robe, halting at the waist. She lay still as his touch moved upwards, beaming at the contrast between the staid professor and the woman in the temple, gloriously exposed in the half-light.
The hands massaged slowly, forcing the tension out. Tingles were sweeping through her skin, softening and warming. The grey-haired witch closed her eyes and surrendered herself to the sensation, and for an interminable amount of time they lay, undisturbed, male and female in a primal darkness. Outside, the song of the firebirds began again, entering the temple like a scent, weaving another eternity...
There was a sudden rumble. She gave a wild look around, expecting thunder, but the stomach beneath her gave another churn.
The enchantment was over; she was laughing, and the face next to hers was mildly embarrassed.
"It is past lunchtime, my dear!"
"And a wizard's stomach cannot wait?"
The laughter continued, making them human, individuals once more—relaxed after an unspoken intensity. Minerva rolled gently off him, and they fastened their robes in the darkness, still laughing, the confusion of the morning now seeming ridiculous and incomprehensible.
But perhaps those doubts weren't the real ones, came a whisper of pessimism.
The thought cut the laughter off. Albus's chuckle sounded alone for a few minutes, rising over the rustle of robes. Her skin was still burning, and the previous minutes seemed all too short, leaving invisible hands still caressing her body. She shivered suddenly, without knowing why, following him outside into the sunlight.
"Time for lunch, my dear!"
He was next to the crumb-speckled table, raising his hands into the air. He snapped his fingers, and the crumbs vanished, replaced by a white tablecloth and gold-edged cutlery.
"You've forgotten the food."
Something about her tone of voice made him look up, grin fading, but a smile restored the twinkle. He turned back to the table, fingers at the ready.
"I thought I'd consult the Goddess beforehand, though I've taken the liberty of ordering wine. I was thinking of lasagne, personally."
He made a flourishing motion, and then sat in one of the ornate chairs. The wine and two glasses appeared as she joined him. For a few minutes she sat and watched him pour and absent-mindedly swat away the lake's mayflies, still wrapped in sensation. Now the words had to start, and eventually they would hold the Order meeting of the day before. Not that. A single phoenix flitted by the table, offering something other than dark wizards to talk about.
"So am I to assume that Fawkes approves of me then?"
A soft smile. "He and I are of one mind."
"You say he brought you here when you were fifteen. Is that when you first met him?"
"No. I was five years old, and in my family's garden at the time. He flew down and landed in my lap."
She expected him to elaborate, but he reached for the bottle and held it up exaggeratedly to the light.
"Are you detecting 'sensual dimensions of vanilla'? I'd say that they're rather overpowered by the berry, if there at all—"
"I would query whether vanilla could be sensual. You were saying about Fawkes? I hear that the bond a phoenix has—"
"Hm?" His brows had knotted, as though fighting off the same discomfort as he'd displayed in the boat.
"Are you all right?"
"I hear that the Ministry wish to rework the castle wards—"
The words 'I'm fine' appeared on his lips. Minerva allowed herself a snort. He put down the bottle and nodded as though she had spoken. She braced herself; it had been foolish to think that twin spectres of Aberforth and the Order could be set aside.
"I had a dream."
The Headmistress felt her eyebrows rise towards her hair. "Isn't this more Sybil's province?"
Albus laughed. "And there was me expecting a Martin Luther King quip. He was a Muggle who... ah... yes. Perhaps not now. It was a dream which started me towards a discovery. I dreamt of meeting my older self reading a book under a tree. Nicolas Flamel's The Last Quest."
He gave a great sigh, as if hefting an unseen weight. "I seem to remember telling you about a possible relationship between the Transmutation Matrix, alchemy and ageing—and how the first two seem to involve putting particles beyond their natural point. You've seen my notes on how the three stages of transfiguration—Destruction, Revitalisation and Reassembly—correspond with the black, white and red stages of alchemy—"
"Albus, I have not even looked at alchemy in decades. I'm afraid you're going to have to explain as if to a First-Year."
"My apologies. Well to simplify, both physical and spiritual alchemy—for there are two types, originally linked—involve the three stages of Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo: blackening, whitening and reddening. My father, who dabbled in alchemy quite a bit, named me for the second stage, oddly enough. Nigredo means destruction, Albedo means enlightenment and the union of opposites, and the Rubedo, the realisation of the self, ends with the Philosopher's Stone. Given those explanations, the link to the Matrix appears relatively obvious."
She nodded, making the connections. "True, but I would not have made it alone."
"Well, alchemy is hardly a mainstream branch of magic. Anyway, my studies of alchemy with regards to death, birth and ageing were mainly a distraction, just an area of idle fascination... until yesterday. Following the dream, I turned to Nicolas's book and then my notes—and the revelation hit me like one of Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts. All my findings suggested that death is the equivalent point which particles in both transfiguration and physical alchemy must aspire past. All things ultimately aspire towards their own destruction—which is why the Reassembly stage of the Matrix is the hardest for an inexperienced student. A theoretical foot past that point is birth. The links between the human life cycle, the Matrix and alchemy were perfect... and bar the need of the last two for someone to set them in motion, all are ultimately about transfiguration! Are you following me, my dear?"
"Not quite, Albus."
"When you transfigure an object, you are either repeating or reversing the Matrix, either pushing or pulling it past that point of destruction. In spiritual alchemy the soul is pushed beyond that point... allowing rebirth..."
He had gone pale, white with a discovery that only now just hit her. A strange, half-formed hope; a young couple sitting at the same table—
"But... that would imply... that would imply that life is like the Matrix... you could reverse it..."
He rose abruptly, and paced, refusing to meet her gaze.
"Not quite. No transfiguration spell has ever brought back a soul, and only the Stone Harry destroyed isolated the ageing process and prevented its passage towards death."
A jolt like lightning went through her. The Headmistress found herself gripping the table. Was that what he was working towards— was he going to try—? All the intellectual rambling: did it offer an open door, a way out?
"The Philosopher's Stone, the physical one!"
Why had they not seen it before? In his research, how could he have not— ?
"You were able to study it—"
Back to her, he bowed his head. The iciness of guilt. Did he think her no better than Voldemort? A pleading note entered her voice.
Forever. The robed shoulders hunched.
"I do not know how to make it. Nicolas allowed me to study its workings, and that first suggested the connection between the Matrix and alchemy— for that was what its Elixir did to the body. It destroyed the cells temporarily, brought them together again and restored them. It was a kind of catalyst."
"I-If you know that much..."
"It took him seventy years. It was a lifetime's process."
Time they did not have. She closed her eyes. Whatever had taken flight during the previous seconds seemed to dash its wings on the rocks below. She buried the corpse, quickly, trying to focus.
"But your soul returned. Your was body was reborn, not just some cells."
He gave a shudder. "And that would suggest that I have achieved the spiritual Stone. Or else produced a Horcrux—"
An irrational wave of fury. How could he suggest it of himself? It had been for her to violate the moral boundaries, not him. The direction of the conversation now seemed cruel and unnecessary.
"Then I have achieved the Stone."
He stopped as he spoke; all the movement seemed to rush to his face in a flurry of expressions. The one which resolved itself to look at her made no sense— surely the Stone was a cause for triumph, not defeat?
"But why, Minerva? All I could find in Nicolas's book was a sentence about one of its conditions: love. The same force which saved Harry saved me. All I could find about spiritual alchemy was that the recognition of its presence constitutes a form of Albedo. In realising, so briefly as I did, that I loved you, I glimpsed something from beyond the compass of my life until then. I did not realise completely, however. I died halfway between Albedo, the recognition of my true opposite, my other self, and Rubedo, the full admission of it. Yet why me, and no one of many others who have had similar last-minute revelations?
"The answer was right before me. A phoenix." He spread his hands. "A creature that reincarnates, that demonstrated my findings before I had even begun my research. A living Matrix, a creature which can transfigure itself! In a rush, I gathered the ashes from Fawkes's last rebirth... Minerva, I analysed them... and then I analysed my own skin. Fawkes may have been a willing Horcrux for me at one point, but he need no longer be. We are the same—"
"The phoenix was the precondition, but our love enabled it—"
"Lily died for Harry--and he survived because the power of her love protected what was already alive—"
"What are you trying—"
"And so was I! Part of me was still there in Fawkes! Love called me back—or past—that point of death. And now..."
The sigh, even heavier than the first, prevented her from speaking. He sank back into the chair and looked up, sadly.
"That point has been removed for me. It's a circle, Minerva. I will be reborn, again and again and again..."
Disappointment. That was the first emotion he had acknowledged, even as something more profound curdled his stomach and sent him sinking to the floor. Did the spiritual Stone do so little more than the physical one? Could it be that there was no 'next great adventure'? That no one had reached higher than Voldemort, that the forces which he had unknowingly activated had their crescendo in nothing more than an endless repetition of life?
Harry's boyish face had swum before him, looking astonished.
"But that means he and his wife will die, won't they?"
"To one as young as you, I'm sure it seems incredible—"
How confident he had been back then...
"—But to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day... You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them."
Crouched on the floor of an empty Gryffindor dormitory, still surrounded by the books he had spent hours pouring over, he felt like shaking the smug old man of yesteryears. He had believed himself above Voldemort, above the young Harry, even above Flamel. How had his understanding of death been any deeper than theirs, when the art hed studied for so long led down the same path?
"I didn't choose," he said aloud.
And the dormitory pressed back soundlessly, so that there had been no option but to let the thought, lurking beneath the others, rise with the enveloping quality of a shroud:
That this second chance would become a third, a fourth, a tenth, none of which would involve Minerva.
A breath of wind passed through the oak above, so the leaves whispered. Avian eyes regarded them; the odd crooning noise emerged from a feathered throat. It was as if, in the interval, the actors had remembered the audience.
Minerva turned her head away and looked towards the lake without seeing it. So. What she had thought to be merely the fear of being touched, some inexplicably querulous approach to intensity, had resolved itself in this. A tang of bitterness. He had not chosen—no, it was irrational to blame him, to blame at all. Fawkes, if anyone, had chosen. A magic which neither of them understood— and yet it felt like conspiracy: immortal eyes watching her age from every direction. Years of sorrow and whatever they expressed burnt up in a blink.
"I'm sorry," she said, hearing it emerge in the tones of an attack.
"You're angry. Why is that?"
Because of selfishness. He sounded surprised, wrong-footed.
"I can give you everything, and it will not be enough," she replied, shortly.
"Do you honestly think you will be just a fleeting episode for me?"
She looked: he was sat rigidly in his chair, hands gripping the arms as though in a ship at sea.
"I didn't want this—"
"I know. I know." That will be. "But... I have... one life. And everything is just once for me." Her voice shook. "Everything I feel, everything that happens... You will see me get old and die, and perhaps you will grieve as I did for you, but you can go on. There will always be a time ahead, no years to regret—"
"I didn't want—"
"—Nothing to be afraid of. You can go on and change what others cannot. You can forgive the man who killed you. I'm a mortal woman, fixed in time and place. My eternity is now and here, with you... and I am frightened..."
And my feelings for you have been part of a grander plan.
But that aside, was that not what she had always feared or wanted? In all relationships, a denial of reality, an eternal moment—
All the lines in his skin had deepened. A twisting sensation arrived in her chest, but she couldn't retract it. How could she grasp such loneliness? Why was there this insatiable urge to possess and understand? They would always be encroached upon, trying to traverse a terrain dotted by obstacles, whether it was the war or Snape or a Dark Lord or Aberforth— and then there was the looming mountain of their circumstances. I am frightened. She had never said those words before.
Would you still love me even if I could not... Had her earlier, childish words been a way of pretending that time was under her control?
The half-moons were deposited on the table.
"Who would crave an eternity of being a-alone? If I could take all my time..."
"You can't," she said gently, reaching for one hand.
"I cannot, cannot lose you."
The other went to its owner's face.
From the branches of the oak-tree the phoenixes hummed, watching the mayflies dance over the water.
A/N: ... Yes, I know. I was tempted to call this strange, introspective/info-dumpy chapter 'Incoherence'. This is partly why I disappeared. All I can say is that I was trying to lay foundations three quarters of the way up a spire! Stayed tuned. A half-promise.