This story was originally written for the dysfuncentine fest on LJ – a Valentine fest of dysfunctional relationships. The prompt was: After the Gellert disaster, Albus decides to walk the straight and narrow – with Muriel. My marvellous beta, Kelly Chambliss, improved it no end as always.
Albus Dumbledore walked down the courtyard of Hogwarts to meet the coach. It wasn't his habit to greet his guests in this manner; if one wanted to get co-operation of someone potentially unwilling to give it, it usually was far more useful to let them walk the full length of Hogwarts's corridors realising that they were about to meet the Greatest Wizard of This Age. But this guest was special. He needed her support on the Hogwarts Board – their usual, endless bickering just wouldn't do this time. Albus needed a truce, and he planned to leave no stone unturned. For the greater good, he thought. Besides, this time the anxious anticipation trick wouldn't work: Muriel was virtually unimpressionable. And too sharp by half.
"My dear Muriel! I'm delighted to see you!"
"Are you? That would be … not the first time in wizarding history, precisely, but the first time in half a century, at least."
Virtually unimpressionable, was Muriel.
Still, Albus could elevate small talk to a form of art if necessary. He kept up a smooth flow of comments on the weather (unseasonably mild), the Hogwarts grounds (the first of the autumn colours – such a glorious sight, but, alas, a sign that summer was over), and Muriel's own health (which had to be excellent, for she looked positively radiant). It got them into his study without embarrassing silences or barbed remarks.
Then there was the matter of settling Muriel comfortably, summoning a house-elf, and ordering tea.
"A house-elf with clothes ?" Muriel asked, when Dobby had left.
"Dobby is a Free Elf," Albus explained.
"A free elf? One born every minute. And I mean you, not that Dobby," Muriel snapped.
"One like me? Every minute? Muriel, surely you don't mean that? What would become of the Wizarding World, if that were true?"
Muriel looked at him sharply. Then they both laughed. It was a moment of such genuine mirth that Albus, to his own surprise, suddenly realised there might be something beyond his diplomatic attempts. They had been friends once, however briefly, and … yes. If something of that friendship could be salvaged today, he would be glad. It was good to laugh with someone, to joke on an even footing. There weren't many of his contemporaries around, and younger people were either in awe of his reputation or respectful on account of his age. Very proper feelings, both of them. They just didn't make for comfortable friendships.
There was Minerva, of course. Come to think of it, she had a lot in common with Muriel. Minerva, too, had a sharp mind and clear insights. And a willingness to speak her mind. But there was always this one thing: knowing that an argument that would end their friendship would virtually overhaul all of Minerva's life. She was his deputy, and he could never allow himself to forget that. Minerva must not be made to fear for her livelihood; he owed her that much.
Unlike Minerva, Muriel was more or less a contemporary. She definitely had no trouble treating him on an equal footing. And those days of friendship, way back then, had been delightful. Was it selfish of him to wish for those simple pleasures? The truce was of paramount importance – the Board had to be co-operative, and Muriel's opinions would sway more than one vote – but if he could manage a bit more …
Dobby the Free Elf returned, staggering under a tray laden with all the implements for an elegant tea. A silver pot, bone-china cups and saucers, a silver plate with palmiers on a lacy doily. Albus made a point of thanking him, and the little fellow blushed crimson as he made his bows.
" Palmiers , Albus? Are we taking a stroll down Memory Lane?"
Too sharp by half, was Muriel.
"I hope we will," Albus replied mildly. It was time for the opening gambit. "Today's Board Meeting – we need to work together, Muriel. And … can I be honest with you?"
"I don't know. Can you?"
Ouch. But it was his mistake – and he a teacher, too! That's what he liked about Muriel. That sharp mind, that actually challenged his own. Moments like this made it painfully clear how much they had lost in being enemies. "Why do we do it, Muriel?" he sighed.
Muriel looked up, genuinely surprised this time. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"What I mean is, we seek each other out, we drive each other mad, and we vow we'll never speak again if we can avoid it. But the next time we meet, the whole ritual dance starts all over again. Only, this time, there's too much at stake. We need to find a way to … to achieve a common goal at least."
Muriel stirred her tea without looking at him.
"And how, precisely, are palmiers going to help?" she asked.
Sometimes, silence was the best option. "I thought …" was all Albus said.
"You thought of those first days in Le Touquet. When we had a 'good time'." The inverted commas in 'a good time' were almost audible.
"Well, we did. We did have a good time, both of us. And I thought it might help if we talked about why it changed. To see whether we could get some of it back. We were friends once, Muriel."
"And then we became lovers."
So they had, and it had been less than successful. Well, Muriel had cause to blame him. And he had cause to blame her, but if he wanted change, he should make the first move. Albus took a deep breath which was mostly not play-acting.
"Muriel, I'm sorry. I am. I used you. I shouldn't have, and if there was anything I could do to change it, I would. But I can't. I can only say how sorry I am."
"Well put, Albus, and I dare say it's sincere, too. But at the same time, it's a trick. Your self-reproach, I mean. You use it as a defensive weapon: you reproach yourself, and that absolves you. I can't reproach any further. But Sorry isn't enough, Albus. You owe me an explanation. And it had better be a good one. When we were in Le Touquet, that summer, you wanted me as your lover. Why, for Merlin's sake?"
Interesting thought, but this time I'm the sharper one, my dear. My self-reproach shows my willingness to acknowledge my own mistakes – with a bit of luck, you'll feel obliged to do likewise. It wasn't entirely my fault, and I want some explanations from you as well. Especially if there is to be friendship, and the more I think of that, the more I like it , Albus thought, looking ruefully at his blackened right hand. Time was running out, and perhaps they had been enemies for too long.
He smiled at Muriel and plunged into his carefully-prepared tale. Would Muriel consider that preparation a trick too, if she knew about it? He preferred to think of it as 'making an effort'. If his long life had taught him anything, it was that there are a great many ways to conduct a delicate conversation, and only a few of them are effective. He happened to have a certain gift for inspiring enthusiasm. He had always used it in his lessons, to the benefit of his students. And he couldn't think of a reason to forsake it in his personal life. Meticulous preparation. Anything else would feel like belittling the other.
"Because, that's why. It's a long story, Muriel, bear with me.
"Because I'm a planner. Worse, I'm an executor of plans. It has been my making and my undoing.
"During my N.E.W.T.'s year, I wanted to excel. I planned to pursue a degree, and then I'd seek employment within the Ministry. There I would rise like a lark. Too many people had called me a high-flyer already. I knew my worth.
"And I worked, not just towards top grades, but towards my other aims, too. I corresponded with famous witches and wizards. I ensured warm recommendations from Dippet, not just by hard work, but by my willingness to help others as well. I invested time in friendship, and Elphias Doge, the best and most loyal friend a young man could have, would accompany me on the Grand Tour."
Albus paused briefly for some perfect-host-activities. Tea, sweets, and sugar for Muriel. Time to consider his words for himself.
Does this sound horrifically cold and ambitious? , he wondered. Was it? At the time, I didn't think so. It wasn't cold, for I loved every minute with a red-hot passion – or what my seventeen-year-old self thought was red-hot passion. I loved learning; I loved the contact with brilliant minds; I loved to teach, and it was no hardship to help less able students. I was talented, and I can't think it wrong to want to make the most of one's talent. And my friendship with Elphias was sincere. Yet I can see how all of the above could be painted in grey, too. Black, even? Sometimes I wonder what posterity will make of me.
Muriel listened attentively, but with the first faint show of impatience. It was time to try for a little laugh, for a moment of shared amusement.
"As you know, my plans worked out well. I did a brilliant exam. I even managed to impress Professor Marchbanks, and while every biography, from my Chocolate Frog Card to my entry in Great Wizards of the Twentieth Century mentions my work on the twelve uses of dragon blood, I personally consider impressing Griselda Marchbanks among my greatest achievements."
As anticipated, Muriel grinned. Good. He was getting somewhere.
"After my exams, I left Hogwarts in, quite frankly, a blaze of glory, and I went home to prepare our Grand Tour. And then my mother died in an accident."
A brief pause was in order here.
That's not lying. Some would say Ariana murdered her. She didn't. The word murder implies a determined action – be that to end a life, or to defend what one holds dear. Ariana did not have a shred of malice in her, nor was she capable of any intentional action. She might have hit the sugar bowl, and then we just would have had the kind of minor domestic nuisance that occurs in any wizarding household with small children.
With a small nod and a smile, Albus acknowledged the murmur of sympathy his silence had duly elicited.
"I had to change my carefully-laid plans. The Grand Tour with Elphias could not now take place. I did the only thing a true planner could do in the circumstances: I planned a new future.
I intended to stay at home until my brother Aberforth had finished Hogwarts. I would study on my own. Once Aberforth would leave Hogwarts, I would get an entry-level Ministry job. It was a far cry from everything I had hoped and worked for, but I would still earn enough, I thought, to make life comfortable for us."
"It was a very difficult time for me. And then I met a young man, who happened to stay in the neighbourhood. And … we became lovers." Albus pronounced the last words lingeringly, with a hint of wistfulness, a touch of melancholy.
I did plan to look after them – both of them, and Aberforth would take care of Ariana after he left Hogwarts. It was his own wish to do so. But as the first weeks with Ariana went by, I realised I had been living in a fool's paradise.
To put it quite bluntly: one cannot plan with insanity. I couldn't plan my month, or my week, or even my day with any degree of accuracy. At any moment, Ariana could cause an accident. Or she would have an ailment, or refuse to go to bed, or refuse to play on her own. As the weeks went by, I realised I couldn't achieve anything. I was in prison, but without the solace of solitude a prison cell offers. At all times, there was Ariana's insistent voice. "Albus, will you play … Albus, I've broken … Albus, I want … Albus, I need … Albus, you must … "I could not help it. I started to think of her as 'my tormentor' .
What a brilliant performance, Muriel thought. And the stupid thing is, for one moment I actually believed in that offer of friendship. Just like I did all that time ago. Those few glorious summer days, I really thought I had found a friend, an equal, a soul-mate. Then he started to flirt with me, and I, stupid idiot that I was, began to hope there would be more. I thought he truly wanted me: ME, Muriel, not just a home-maker-cum-broodmare, like Robert wanted, or a mistress for a few days of fun, like my previous lovers. We went on that picnic, and … Why couldn't we just be friends? Why did he have to change it all? Blast you, Albus, for stirring it up again. But since you've planned this sentimental journey, let's have a small helping of truth, shall we? She put down her cup with a clatter. "Quite," she snapped. "That experience should have told you a thing or two about your sexual preferences. So let's skip the Life and Times of Albus Dumbledore and get to the point."
Albus nodded. "You're right," he agreed readily, "but there is some relevance to all of this. My young man deceived me in the most dreadful manner possible – and worse, he made me forget my responsibilities to my younger brother. That broke my heart. And I decided that I would never give in to such a temptation again – and that being with a woman would prove I was truly cured of my infatuation. You may think that a childish way of reasoning…"
"I don't think I'd call it childish, really," Muriel murmured, with a calculated flutter of her eyelids. Albus was not the only one with a gift for amateur theatricals.
"That is most understanding …" Albus began, but Muriel interrupted him.
"I think I'd call it a thundering lie. You were in love with Gellert Grindelwald, and while he may have broken your heart, things went so abysmally wrong that Aberforth broke your nose. Now you'll tell me what really happened, or we'll end this whole ridiculous session, and you can put your palmiers you-know-where." And knowing you, you might even enjoy that, she thought viciously. I'd leave now if I didn't want to know so badly. Besides, you're old. We both are. Time is running out, and if there is to be a truce, I want to know why it all happened.
Albus stared at her in dumb surprise. This did more to put her in a cheerful mood than his entire carefully-laid setting. "I dare say you'd like to know how I found out," she grinned. Albus nodded, still speechless. My, but it was worth waiting three-quarters of a century for that one!
"You could say that I've always known. Or that I found out much later. Both of these statements are true, which is more reliable than you've managed so far.
"I've always known, for I overheard a talk between my mother and Bathilda Bagshot. Great friends they were – often visited each other. Bathilda was the most splendid gossip, and I had made a habit of listening at the door.
"Well, I was disappointed at the time, for it was all about some nephew of hers, and how the two you were such wonderfully close friends. My mother sounded genuinely interested, but for the life of me I couldn't see why. I thought she was just nice to boring Bathilda. I realise now that she fully understood what Bathilda was not saying, but at the time I was eleven. It wasn't till much later, till after Le Touquet, that I suddenly remembered that conversation and realised …"
Albus nodded understandingly. "Yes, I can see how the knut wouldn't drop at the time. But how did you know …"
"About Aberforth? During a later visit. Bathilda was dreadfully upset – Gellert never came to see her again after the two of you broke up, and she doted on him. She told my mother that you ending the friendship drove 'the poor boy' away. And she said Aberforth broke your nose. I didn't hear the whole conversation. I was listening at the door again, and there was someone coming."
Calmly, Muriel picked up her teacup and smiled over the rim, in the half-conspirational way of a woman confessing a childish mischief to a dear old friend. I didn't hear it all, true, but I did get quite a bit more. About Ariana, your Squib sister. About the brawl being at her funeral. Oh, and one more minor detail, dear Albus. I had the facts beforehand, I remembered that conversation afterwards, but you moaning Gellert's name when you came was a bit of a give-away, too. Especially since you didn't even realise you were doing it. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. And you'll have to pay for that. What's more, if you are serious about us being friends again – and some ludicrously naïve part of me actually hopes you are – then you'll have to prove it. By being honest with me. By trusting me. If you really want friendship, you'll tell me about Ariana. If you're just your devious, diplomatic self, you'll choose the best possible public image.