Clearly, a change of plan was in order. But unlike that young, over-optimistic boy who thought he could carve the future in stone, this Albus could bend and turn with every current. The truth then, and nothing but the truth. Just without mentioning Ariana – that would be counterproductive. Even if he could bring himself to speak about it, when Muriel knew exactly what had happened … No. Whatever there was between them right now, it was far too fragile for the whole ugly truth.
He stood up and started to pace his office. It wasn't just to give the image of a man making a painful confession. No need to act that: even the edited version was painful enough. But he needed time to think. To pick up an object here, or to walk over to a window for some silent staring would give him just that.
"Gellert. I never thought I'd tell anyone. But then, you're not just anyone, my dear. You see, I didn't lie to you when I said it was a difficult time for me. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call it a time of bleak despair. And then HE came.
"I had never before fallen in love this completely. I loved him with all the passion, lust, and emotional upheaval of an eighteen-year-old. But there was more. There was the brilliant mind that matched my own, the intellectual challenge, the way we brought out the best in each other.
"Or so I thought.
"Of course there were moments where I thought him egoistic." Albus picked up a paper weight on his desk, fondled it in an absent-minded way, and put it back again. But in some ways, because of Ariana, I was wise beyond my years. I had learned from an early age that one loves not because of the other's perfection, but in spite of the other's deficiencies.
"I was willing to overlook the strain of ruthlessness I found in Gellert," he finally resumed. "Because of him, I had a future again. I had hope. I had a life – and it was all bound up in him. And we planned, oh, how we planned!"
The window, this time. Muriel should not see his eyes. Remorse would be believable – remorse was the truth. Tears were private, and he didn't trust her. Not yet. He had been utterly wrong about Gellert, and he was perfectly willing to admit that believing Muriel to be a true friend could be the second great error in judgement of his life. There was a bit of explaining she needed to do before he'd fully let down his wards.
"Gellert's dreams of power were beyond mine, at first. But slowly, he convinced me. He showed me the good we could do. The things we could achieve. Then Aberforth had a spot of bother. I would tell you all about it, but it isn't my story to tell."
Not even Aberforth's. It's Adriana's – and she died. I lost Gellert. Then I lost the unlosable. From the moment he was born, Aberforth was my brother, and my brother he will be till his death or mine – nay, beyond that, for even when we're both gone, we'll still be known as Aberforth and Albus Dumbledore, brothers.
But I lost him, nonetheless.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
For my plans had caused it all. My plans, my foolish ambitions, my ludicrous ideas of a splendid career.
"To cut a long story short, Aberforth needed help – and I wasn't there for him. We had words. We fought, he broke my nose. It was Gellert's complete lack of understanding that opened my eyes – he truly didn't care. And I realised what had happened – how I had abandoned my duties, thought of world power, and studied dark magic, even – for someone who ultimately just cared about himself."
That was it. That was the whole point – the complete egotism, the self-absorption. The disregard for my feelings. And I felt a very similar disregard in you, that day of the picnic. You'll need to explain it – if we're to get beyond a truce.
As summaries went, it wasn't an untruth. And Muriel seemed to accept it readily enough. Time to lighten the mood a bit.
"That's where I started planning. Yes, there is a pattern here, and no, I truly didn't see it at the time," Albus grinned with the twinkle of all twinkles in his eyes – and that he needed a quick blink and a swallow to do it passed unnoticed. "This time, I planned modesty. I planned obscurity. I planned being average, being humble, being normal . Foolish boy that I was, I planned to walk the 'straight' and narrow."
As he had intended, it did get a wry grin from Muriel. Bad puns and twinkles: Albus was clearly quite his usual self, and Muriel wouldn't see beyond the mask.
"As a result, I took up an apprenticeship in Alchemy with Nicolas Flamel. I assisted him in his research, and together we published the famous Twelve Uses .
"On the strength of that publication, I got offered a Ministerial job, but I stuck to my plans for modesty and humility. I applied for a teaching job at Hogwarts, for I knew I loved teaching and was not without pedagogical skills. I intended to stay at Hogwarts until my retirement."
"Some of your plans came true, then," Muriel interrupted.
"I'm glad to say I'm not a total failure," Albus smiled. "I planned to work as a teacher for the rest of my life, however, so clearly I wasn't entirely successful, either. But, and that's how it all happened, before going to Hogwarts I wanted to prove to myself that I was immune to the lures of another Gellert. I would have a love-affair with a woman, to prove to myself that I could. And then, in due course, I would meet a nice girl and marry her.
"So in the summer before I started at Hogwarts, I thought long and hard about a suitable holiday resort. I was still with Nicolas, and I consulted him. Nice and Cannes were, quite frankly, beyond my means. Deauville was just affordable. When Nicolas understood about my desire to have a love-affair, he shrugged – Nicolas was never more utterly French then when he shrugged. Ah, well, he said, if that was what I wanted, there was but the one possibility: Le Touquet. It had the usual casino and an unsurpassed beach. But it also had a golf course. "Of the most fine," Nicolas assured me, "and where there is a golf course, my friend, eh bien , you will find many ladies, witches and lovely Muggles alike, who are abandoned by their husbands, non? You will be the highlight of their holiday." I was never one to underestimate the practicality of the French, so to Le Touquet I went. And I met you."
Muriel nodded, and looked amused. "No luck with the lovely Muggle ladies, then?" she asked.
"Oh, I had. I had the perfect strategy, and it worked like a charm. I went to the beach and made contact with some Muggle children. Soon my sandcastles were the envy of all. My aptitude for Muggle ball games is as non-existent as my Quidditch-skills, but in this case my young team-members were delighted: I made them laugh and feel superior. From there to a pleasant relationship with several of their mothers, it was only a tiny step. "
Muriel grinned. "You must have been a godsend to those mums," she said. "And you tell me you truly hadn't realised? That's what happens when you seek advice from a man. Any woman could have told you to avoid the young mums. No chance of taking them away for a little tumble in a secluded spot. The children during the day, the golf-playing hubbies during the night. Waste of time."
"I should have thought of it myself," Albus admitted. "And then there was that windy day with no-one on the beach, I went for a stroll in the village, and I saw you struggling with that amazing hat."
"That hat, I'll have you know, was the latest in Muggle fashion," Muriel chided him. But she smiled.
"You were still struggling. And then you took it off, and the look of relief on your face was so comical, I just had to laugh."
"Well, hatpins are agony. It's bad enough having them scrape along your skull, but with a bit of wind they pull on your hair - torture , I tell you. And while I perfectly understood Robert's exhortations to be cautious in what was, after all, a Muggle village, I decided that authenticity would only go that far. Thank Merlin for sticking charms."
"Still, if it hadn't been for those hatpins I'd never have met you, so I must admit to a fondness for them."
"You should try them yourself, then!"
"My dear, I said I had a fondness. Not a kink. And I was most sympathetic. I invited you to tea."
"With palmiers . Oh, yes, I remember it well.
I remember every word of that first meeting. No, I tell a lie. We talked so much, no-one could remember it all. What stayed with me was this wonderful, joyous feeling of meeting someone with whom everything was all right. Every subject, every sentence, every laugh told me how much we had in common, how much we had to share.
"And then I offered to show you around," she said.
"And I accepted gladly – you knew that enchanting village so much better than I did. You told me you had spent many holidays there, but … Well, at the time I didn't want to start a conversation involving your husband, but I did wonder … as you said, it is mostly a Muggle resort, in spite of a sprinkling of our kind." Albus looked at her invitingly.
I wonder what it is he wants to know. Something about Robert, for sure. Would he like to hear that I flung myself at him because of an unhappy marriage? Or would it clear his conscience to hear that we were happily married, and that, in the end, that fling caused no great grief?
"My husband played golf – you know Robert was half-Muggle?"
Albus shook his head. "Well, he was," Muriel continued, "and his Muggle father taught him to play. They both loved it, and it was a thing in which they could truly bond. I've always been glad Robert had that – so often, the gap between our worlds prevents Muggle parents and Wizard children from truly keeping in touch. A tragedy, I've always thought. But this golf thing worked wonderfully for both of them.
"And when his father died, Robert still liked the game – that was natural enough. What I disliked was how it defined all of our holidays. Robert very much felt that he was the one with a job, he deserved the holiday, so it was his right to decide how it would be spent. I was simply taken along, like his socks and his golf clubs – only those were so important, he packed and carried them himself. We spent several summers in St Andrews. Then I protested. Quite vehemently. In the end, Le Touquet was the compromise – still a brilliant golf course, but a milder climate and a spectacular beach."
"And French food and wine," Albus added. "I can see how that would be a compensation. But I'm sorry to hear that your husband was so … well … old-fashioned. It must have been difficult. I hope you still were …"
"Happy? Not in my marriage, I wasn't. It was arranged, in a way. I was of an age to marry; I was brought into contact with eligible young men. Robert was good-looking, an excellent dancer, and not wholly devoid of charm. Moreover, I was told that as a married woman I would have my own household, whereas a spinster I would remain dependent on my parents.
"Well, it was true that, as a wife, I could decide myself how to decorate my home, which chore to tackle first, which food to put on the table. But in all other things, I found I had merely changed one form of tutelage for another. Robert didn't see me as a person with a mind, thoughts, or opinions.
"I tried, though. At first, I tried to be the wife he wanted. Then, I tried to make him appreciate the woman I was. When we met in Le Touquet, I'd given up hope. I just tried to find some compensations. Going to Le Touquet was one, actually. Not just because the food and the wine. The French men, too, were delightful."
Albus looked surprised. Amazing. Surely, he must have realised … from the simple fact that she had agreed to go on that picnic with him … which was, after all, totally inappropriate for a married lady …
"You mean you took lovers? "
"Of course. The French are charming, complimentary, and they know a thing or two about a woman's body. You were my lover, Albus, it hardly becomes you to criticise …"
"No. No, indeed. I wouldn't dream of criticising you, Muriel. I just …"
You thought you were special . Well , you were. I had a good time with those other men – a cheerful, no-strings-attached, uncomplicated good time. You, however, were the one who stirred my mind as well as my body. And then you started flirting with me … I was surprised, you'd told me how much you loved the light and the colours of the place. How you'd only seen the Mediterranean villages with Nicolas, and how you thought every seaside resort would be all yellow, ochre, and terracotta, set off by the dark green of cypresses. And you told me how much you loved the pale blue and sand of the houses here, so much more suited to the softer greys and blues of this northern sea. And on the strength of that I thought … I even berated myself for it. As narrow-minded as Robert, I thought myself. A feeling for colours doesn't equal poofter, no more than woman equals mindless. You convinced me that you wanted me, all of me, not just my body. And then …
And nothing has changed, has it? You wanted my body to prove yourself, so you pretended all that friendship and bonding. And I believed in it utterly. Yes, you were special : you were so different from those French chaps who just wanted a charming holiday fling. I was convinced we'd be an important part of each other's lives, somehow. As lovers? As close friends? I didn't know, but I thought I meant more to you than I did to them. In the end, I was so much less – they, at least, truly appreciated my body. You didn't even do that. And now you want my vote on the Board, so once again you pretend friendship. And you're no more sincere now than you were then. I must end this conversation and get out of here, before I disgrace myself by crying.
So that's it, then. You wanted a lover, a toy-boy, your own little holiday pleasure. And then you had me – I dare say that, compared to those French wonders, I was a sad disappointment. I tried to give you a good time. I would have followed whatever hint you gave me. But telling a man to his face that he's a lousy lay doesn't exactly help, you know.
If we had truly been friends – and you did everything to make me believe we were – then you would have had some consideration for my feelings. But you sat up, you said those painful words, and the look in your eyes was exactly like Gellert's when I told him I couldn't simply abandon Ariana or Aberforth. That same coldness that said 'you've outlasted your usefulness, now get off'.
And there's another thing – I realise I shouldn't blame you for it, for you couldn't possibly know. But it wasn't just your slur on my sexual prowess, unpleasant though it was, especially since Gellert had never given me cause to doubt my abilities in that department. It was just that I had had such hopes in those few days. You were the first woman I tried to get involved with. And, idiot that I was, I really meant to walk the straight and narrow. I felt that, with everything there was between us – the real friendship, not just the physical attraction – it boded so wonderfully well for my chances of meeting an unattached woman for whom I could feel the same. I thought I really could have a very happy marriage with someone. I even thought ahead far enough, incurable planner that I was, to realise that a wife might dislike my having a close woman friend. And while I understood that her feelings would have to come first, I already regretted the possible future ending of our friendship.
You made it painfully clear that once again, I had been living in a fool's paradise. No-one has ever managed to Stun or to Crucio me, so I can't judge which sensation is most like it. Let's just say I was devastated.
Let's face it, Albus. You were born to greatness: even when you're a fool, you must be the greatest fool of this age. Limit the damage, man, and end this conversation. Get whatever benefit you can for Hogwarts.
"You just what, Albus?" Muriel asked.
"I just wanted to say how pleased I am we're having this little chat, that's all. It's been lovely to bring back those memories. You know, I can never see a hat-pin without smiling and thinking of you." Sharp, lethal, and no good for me, that's what I think, Muriel, dear. "I may even think of them during the coming Board meeting. I could use a reason to smile then, for I've made a somewhat controversial appointment to the DADA position."
"And Malfoy and his pack will be at your throat, as usual?" Muriel asked. She seemed glad to move on to the business part of the meeting, Albus noticed.
"No, on the contrary," he said, "for once, Lucius may well be very pleased with me."
Muriel cast her eyes to the ceiling in an intentionally-dramatic gesture. "Oh, Merlin, the man has done it. This time he has appointed the Dark Lord himself!"
Albus chuckled. Would he dare … yes. If he knew Muriel at all, he knew her wicked sense of humour. She'd appreciate it. "Well, as the Board knows, Tom Riddle's application is still somewhere in the Hogwarts files …"
Muriel grinned back. "And no-one will deny that he has a firm grasp of the subject."
"Indeed, he has. But in the light of recent events, I think we may safely assume that he has withdrawn his application."
"Which is too bad, in a way. The jinx might be the neatest and least painful way to end this whole situation."
In spite of himself, Albus was genuinely distracted by the notion. "You know, that's a most interesting thought. Would he have remembered, at the time, to place a jinx that affected all DADA teachers except himself ? And if not, what would the consequences be? But unfortunately we can't put that interesting theory to the test. Now, as to the appointments I've made. I've managed – or rather, I will manage, to get Horace Slughorn back to Hogwarts."
"Horace? For Defence Against the Dark Arts? Well, quite frankly, you could have done much worse. In fact, you have done much worse over the past years. Horace is …"
"No, no, my dear, you misunderstand me. Horace will take up his old position of Potions teacher. This will liberate Professor Snape for DADA, and fortunately he's willing to take up the post. As you know, his extensive experience with the Dark Arts render him eminently suitable. On the downside, however …"
Muriel sighed. "On the downside, several Board Members, especially the former Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors, will think his extensive experience with the Dark Arts make him singularly unsuitable."
"But he has proven himself time and again as an excellent Head of House," Albus objected.
"So he did. I think you may well convince them that Snape is suitable for the position. Especially since we don't have a lot of choice. But that may lead to the next problem: what if the jinx causes a Head of House vacancy before the year is over? Have you actually considered offering the DADA position to Horace? Quite frankly, Horace survived three wars without a scratch, and when it comes to Defending oneself against the Dark Arts, he has proven his worth. His Disillusionment charms alone could save the life of more than one student. If only he could manage to teach them that …"
"My dear, I would be all for Horace teaching them Disillusionment. He could tell them a thing or two about precautions and safety-measures, too. The problem is precisely this: that Horace has survived three wars by being cautious. He wouldn't take the DADA position at any price."
"As the Board will realise. You hardly need my vote just for this, Albus. What else is there?"
Really too sharp by half, was Muriel. There was more, of course.
"The last few years, the Board has made a point of being as difficult as possible during the school year. Votes of distrust, letters; they've demanded my resignation more than once. On the one hand, being critical is the very function of the Board. On the other hand, unfortunately, I'll have to be absent quite a lot, this year. I wish it were otherwise, but my duties lie partially elsewhere. You know what is at stake in our world; you know that it must be stopped at all cost." He let his voice soar to the ceiling, pausing just long enough to get maximum impact. When he finally looked at Muriel, she stared back, totally unconvinced.
Virtually unimpressionable, she was. He'd have to come out with the other reason, then. Something he had wanted to avoid, since he knew how close Muriel and Minerva were. It would sound like emotional blackmail. But it wasn't. Well, yes, it was, and Muriel would give in. Without hesitation; Minerva was that important to her. That's why he had tried to avoid this – if only Muriel wouldn't be Muriel.
"Minerva will have a lot of work as it is; I'd want her to have a year that is as calm as possible under the present dreadful conditions," Albus finally admitted. "The hassle with the Board would mean extra meetings and more work, and while Minerva has no doubts about her loyalties to either Hogwarts or myself, the situation still gets on her nerves – understandably. Especially after that dreadful attack last year …"
She deserves some quiet. And there'll be little enough of it as it is; she doesn't need the Board problems as well. Besides, at some point during this year, or the next year at the latest, there will be a vacancy for a Head of Slytherin – and for a Headmaster as well. Which is one reason why I want Horace. He can take over Slytherin with the minimum of fuss, and if Minerva serves as Acting Headmistress or even Headmistress, she'll need that. If she doesn't … she'll have even more need of that brief interlude of quiet, for then she will truly need all her strength. I told her once Hogwarts needs her. It does. That she's also my closest friend, whom I truly want to give as good a few months as possible … even in my own mind I'm no longer quite sure where one reason begins and the other ends.
"Which is why I hope more than anything that we have a truce, Muriel, dear?"
As he had expected, Muriel nodded slowly. Albus rose, and stretched out his hand to help her up. Suavely, he bent over for a hand-kiss.
"A truce, Albus. For now."