Brave Heart, Beat Soundly by WikedFae

Summary: Pre-HBP. A moment of perceived guilt and shared burden between Dumbledore and his deputy. R&R

Disclaimer: Nope. Not mine. Kinda glad it isn't, either.

He watched the man cross the grounds at a brisk pace. The moonlight shone eerily down on the scene causing the black cloak to dull to gray and the white mask to glow silver in grotesque beauty. His agent cleared the distance to the gates in less than ten minutes; eleven minutes and the grounds were deserted once more. With a sigh, the old wizard retreated from the window, only to sink wearily into an over-stuffed plush chair beside the phoenix perch. He resigned himself to a lonely night as he noted that the roost was empty. Fawkes had obviously gone out, presumably to follow Severus at a distance to ensure his safety. Another sigh followed, only to dissipate in the silence. For once, the whirring of his trinkets did not resonate throughout the chambers; it was too somber a night for frivolous metallic melodies. Shadows flitted across the moon as a parliament of owls took flight from their tower for a night of plentiful hunting. Albus lifted his gaze to the clouded skies and began to examine the shadows on his own conscience.

These nights were becoming too frequent for his liking, but he understood the risk inaction posed, and it was too great for their cause. He knew Severus saw things the same way, but it never eased his guilt when the time came for the younger man to slip into the serpent's den and walk the razor thin blade of deceit. Once again, as in many a night, Albus began to feel the stirrings of uncertainty. It would only take one slip, one misinterpretation, and the entire web he had spun would unravel and lie broken at his feet as minions of terror and destruction rushed across the land leaving nothing but death in their wake. The last thing he would see before Tom snatched the sight from his eyes and the breath from his lungs would be Severus' body, broken and mangled for his treachery. The thought of death did not frighten Albus, but the prospect of seeing that young man crushed and pale terrified him. That would be his final grandiose failure; but he'd known it would be his greatest weakness, the moment he accepted that shell of a lost boy back into the fold.

"You always had a way of wearing your heart on your sleeve when you were alone." The voice startled him, uncharacteristically, which only served to force him to accept how deep in thought he'd been, not to have heard his deputy enter the study.

Minerva maintained her distance, hovering—no, not hovering, as this would be an insult to her quality of Gryffindor—rather, poised at the doorway with a subtle prestige gracing her stance. Smiling in a grim fashion, he waved her over, offering her a place opposite himself. Subliminally, he noted her regal carrying as she progressed across the room, only to primly lower herself into the seat and fix him with her stare. Such confidence was comforting to see in one of their older generation; while she was his junior by over forty years, the monstrous atrocities to have plagued both the wizarding and Muggle worlds at the turn of the century and beyond had left deep scars on her soul as well.

"I take it he's out for the evening?" she asked quietly.

"Oh, you do have a wonderful way of phrasing, Minerva," he responded, a hint of bitterness in his tone. "But it does tend to belittle what he does. So let us be frank about it; he's gone to join the tainted circle, on both his masters' orders. It will only be a matter of time before another wound sears his heart…I hope it keeps beating so he can return." He fell silent and let his gaze rest upon the waning moon.

"Albus," she began, before curbing the crisp, authoritative quality of her voice, "…Albus, you send him back time and time again, and yet it causes you such pain."

He couldn't help but scoff at her observation and quietly retorted, "No more pain than it causes him."

"You know he could refuse…but I believe he doesn't return only for the war effort," she said, imploring him to meet her eyes.

"No, he returns for a myriad of reasons, the least of which being the war effort. Primarily, avoiding a painful death as punishment for desertion is a decent enough incentive," he said, staring resignedly at those shining hazel eyes overtop his spectacles. "I send him out to spare him from this fate, only to recognize it may condemn him to a gruesome end, despite everything. I know full well the risks I take ordering him to endure the summons…and I have always had faith this was the correct approach…" his voice seemed to evaporate into a mist of hesitation as he drifted off in his thoughts.

She was the one to call him back, gently saying, "I wasn't trying to suggest he returns out of self-preservation, nor did I mean to imply he is ignorant of his important role. With his brilliant mind, I find it hard to believe he could be unaware of anything. Rather, what I was alluding to was that he knows what it means to you, to have him return."

"Of course he knows how fervently I wish for this struggle to come to an end, yes he understands that clearly."

"I wasn't referring to that either, Albus, and you know it." Her clipped tone had returned. "Do you not think he knows how much you care for him?"

He looked at her, slightly shocked. She continued, "Albus, don't be daft. Of course I realize how much you care for the young man. Much like I realize you care for my young Gryffindor charge. And if we're being honest this evening, it's quite obvious how important you are to both of them."

"Minerva, I am the leader of the Harry's eyes, I am his mentor…in Severus'…I'm merely a means to redemption."

"You cannot be serious!" Her eyebrows were knitted together in consternation. "That's absolutely ridiculous and if you're going to continue brooding in your misery and anxiety, I will leave this office at once!"

"On the contrary, I am entirely serious. With Harry it is different. He knows my motivations and reasons for keeping him safe. Safety is something he never truly conceived of or knew while living with his relatives. His trust in me in stems from the kindness I have shown him, however tragic that may be; but with Severus…his past has marred him and, unlike Harry's, has rendered him wary and mistrustful. I may have offered him a haven, but it came at a terrible price. When I constantly send him out into the field, into the black pitch of deceit, into that circle to stand at Tom's side? How can he remotely believe I care when all I do is send him into danger?" he questioned.

"But you do care. And he will return over and over again, out of loyalty and trust and unwavering fondness."

"Fondness," he mused, "That is a term I never thought I would hear applied to Severus."

"He may express his displeasure from time to time, but underneath it all, he cares just as much for you as you do for him."

"If you say so, Minerva," he sighed, resignedly. "But since you so ardently believe this to be the case now, I implore you…remember what I have said tonight if it does come to pass that I do not survive to see the end."

She winced at his insinuation and pursed her lips, but he held his hand up to stem the inevitable tide of objections. To her credit, she managed to compose herself before saying, "I will try to ignore your morbid comments…but I don't think I will ever forget this evening or this conversation."

Silence pervaded the atmosphere in the room for lengthy hours following her closing words as the two companions waited and watched. Tea was sipped quietly and Albus started compulsively pulling out lemon drops from the tin on the side table as the minutes dragged on. Fog swirled over the grounds as the temperatures plummeted and frost crystals began forming on the window panes. When he began pacing, Minerva slowly gathered her robes about her, intending to retreat to her quarters, as her presence alone could no longer calm him. However, as she made to leave, a brilliant flash lit the room as Fawkes appeared, warbling serenely as he settled atop the perch. Her eyes sought his, but he was transfixed first on the presence of his phoenix, then on the grounds below, strenuously peering through the thick haze in search of the tell-tale black cloak.

"Albus, I think I'll be going now," she said.

"What?...Oh, yes, of course…" he muttered, absently, still trying to discern the figure he knew should be approaching the front gates.

She exited quietly, carefully pulling the office door shut behind her. But before the latch fell into place, she heard his audible sigh of relief from the other side of the oak.

Had he had eyes and ears for anything else save his spy at that moment, he would have heard her whisper, "You may not openly acknowledge it, Albus, but the affection is there…and it is far from one-sided. His brave heart will return to you."