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5. Lovers and Fighters

I gave you all my pretty years
Then we began to weather
And I was left to winter here
While you went west for pleasure



"Is it really true? Did Harry actually confront You-Know-Who? And Bella Black? In the Ministry of Magic itself?"

"Yes, Poppy. It's true," barked Minerva, fidgeting about in the infirmary bed, trying by sheer force of will to bring the recalcitrant pain in her back to heel. "But she's Lestrange now. And--she killed Sirius."

"No! Not Sirius Black!"

She told her gaping friend the whole story, most of which she had got from Nymphadora Tonks while they were both recuperating at St. Mungo's. Harry Potter and a group of his faithful followers had marched off to the Ministry to save his godfather from Tom, aka You-Know-Who, and Dumbledore had bailed him out, as usual. But the fallout to the boy's recklessness had been much more serious this time. Sirius—who had not actually been in any danger initially—had rushed to their rescue, along with the segment of the Auror squad who also belonged to the Order of the Phoenix. Kingsley Shacklebolt had visited them, bringing flowers and a tin of Minerva's favorite gingersnaps, and broke the tragic news: Sirius had been killed, and Tom had shown up and tried to kill Harry, but found Dumbledore in his way. Albus humiliated him, of course, and exposed his plot to countless Ministry witnesses.

Harry, of course, had been terribly distraught. Dobby the house-elf reported that Harry had broken every last one of Dumbledore's delicate sensors in his guilty raging, and the mess had taken a week to clear up.

I'd have given anything to be there at the Ministry, she thought, as she dutifully swallowed the pills her friend and nurse popped into her mouth. I'd have shown those Death Eaters…students of mine…every one of them. For shame! But she had had a misadventure of her own earlier, trying to save Hagrid from being unfairly removed from Hogwarts, and had been brought low by a crew of goons led by that despicable, poorest-possible-excuse-for-an-educator, Dolores Umbridge.

If I ever see that hag again, I'll give her such a bruising. I'll tie her into so many knots, she won't know her arse from her ankles.

But Dolores had had a comeuppance—of sorts. The centaurs had kidnapped her in the Forbidden Forest and frightened the liver'n'lights out of her. Minerva chuckled at that. Called Bane a half-breed, did she? Of 'near-human intelligence'? She was lucky they didn't spit her and roast her over a slow fire. Even the Squibs knew that centaurs believed themselves superior in every way to ordinary magicals. Dolores really was a very stupid woman.

Now Minerva was in the final stages of recuperation in the school infirmary under the beady eye of Nurse Pomfrey. Her ventricles had healed up nicely; it would take a lot more than the likes of Proudfoot, Savage, and Dawlish to keep her down. She'd taught all three of them and they hadn't a decent Body Bind among them. She couldn't figure out how any of them had made Auror—except maybe Dawlish, who she remembered had done quite decently on his NEWTs.

What really stuck in her craw was that Albus had not once visited her after she came fully out of her coma. Apparently he had stayed by her side for several days and nights at St. Mungo's. But then he had to go away—right before school started. She felt a twinge of selfish pique but brushed it off. He had, after all, sent a tin of lemon drops and a note via Fawkes to the infirmary before he left.

But he was going to America! She knew who was there waiting for him—Hermia Purefoy. Minerva refused to give in to self-pity. After all, he had strayed like this only rarely after they had given themselves to each other.

The first time had occurred after he had given baby Harry up to his nasty Muggle relatives.

She remembered that night at the Dursleys' front door, waiting for Hagrid. Her lover's strategy had dumbfounded her:

I've come to bring Harry to his aunt and uncle. They're the only family he has left now.

She'd had to be painfully honest with him:

You don't mean—you can't mean the people who live here? Dumbledore—you can't. I've been watching them all day. You couldn't find two people who are less like us. And they've got this son. I saw him kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets. Harry Potter come and live here!

He brooded a long while after giving the little boy up to the uncertain care of his aunt and uncle. Minerva thought at the time that his depression was caused by unrelievable grief over Lily and James's murders. Now she wondered if he had been weighed down by a guilty opprobrium that she had planted in his heart, the knowledge that she did not support him in what might have been the most important decision of his long life.

Her only clue was a fresh memory of him whispering to her in her fitful coma at St. Mungo's that he should have listened to her back then while he still held baby Harry in his arms. Perhaps she had only dreamed it, but it made her wish belatedly that she might have been a bit more sensitive to the quandary he had found himself in so many years before. Harry had needed the blood protection only a family member could afford him (although Dumbledore hadn't told her that at the time), and living among doting wizards proclaiming him every day a hero on the order of Merlin or Mohammed might indeed have turned him into a swell-headed monster on the order of Draco Malfoy or the odious Dudley. But no, she had driven Albus away into the arms of Hermia Purefoy with her sarcastic retort. And somehow the guilt had come back with Sirius' death and Harry's raging. He was gone again, fled to the arms of his erstwhile paramour. Would he come back in time to start school, and could they continue on as before?

Their longstanding relationship of passion and friendly wrangling had weathered that first lapse. She had ignored it and a few other minor trysts, and he had reciprocated by never bringing them up, thus saving them both certain unnecessary personal embarrassment. His infidelity was always caused by extreme duress, and she had no desire to add to that.

But now—now a wall had sprung up between them over these last months. He was keeping things from her, and not just romantic rendezvous. When he escaped Fudge's attempt to arrest him at the school, he made no attempt to contact her, to tell her his whereabouts, his plans. Kingsley told her about places Dumbledore had been seen during the interval: Knockturn Alley, Greater Hangleton, various homes of former students—all Slytherins--badgering servants and shopkeepers, asking questions, bartering for artefacts. All this involved Harry and Tom, she was sure. It was rare that he did not confide in her. She wanted the truth. She had a feeling lives might depend on it.

She reread the note he had left her:

Going to America to seek help in our struggle. Back in time for the Start of Term Dinner. Rest up, Min, and keep the home fires burning. It's going to be a long war.

Yours always,
Albus.


She crumpled the note and threw it on the floor.

War? She'd give him war.


~*~

And now you're flying home this way
Like some lost homing pigeon
They've monitored your brain you say
And changed you with religion


It was good to be back. Broom rides across the Pond always wearied him, even in summer. And the damage that spell had done to his hand hadn't made things any easier. His reception at the University had been cordial. Hermia and Dr. Cragblather had taken him to dinner before getting down to business. Hermia was between lovers but did not essay more than a casual flirtation. She knew he was long since taken.

But now he was home, and he sped up the steps to the infirmary as fast as his 150-year old-legs would carry him.

She met him at the door, looking very much better, but he recognized the look in her eye. She was, as his American colleagues would say, loaded for bear.

Minerva greeted him beady-eyed and erect, with the help of a handsome sheep's horn walking stick. Of course, she was trying to pretend it was little more than an elegant accessory to her quilted dressing gown, waving it at him like an overlarge wand. "Don't trouble to explain yourself to me," she grumbled. "I know you have your needs."

He had expected a waspish mood. She was still in some pain. And he knew she hated, not the pain itself, but the way it slowed her body down. Yet he still couldn't guess her meaning. "What are you talking about?"

"Hermia Purefoy. You went to see her, didn't you?"

"Yes…as I told you…I needed advice on some spellwork…"

"The great Albus Dumbledore needed the advice of a flighty, overrated Glamour guru?"

"She is quite respected in her field, Min—"

"Of course, she is, and well-spoken, and, as I understand it, still very well-preserved."

"Well…that too…"

She started to pace, but all she could manage was a mincing hobble. "All these years, I thought I could keep our situation in perspective, Albus. We had our good times. If you slept with other witches occasionally, I forgave you. I knew I could not expect to fill your every need.—but now I find I can't—I just can't—"

The accusation stunned him. "You don't understand. I didn’t go for that at all—not this time—not for a very, very long time. It's Tom, Minerva. He's still trying to access Harry's brain. And mine too, I believe. Hermia thinks he may be using some kind of ancient Druidic ritual. She's made a study of such things… "

"How convenient of her."

"Please… my dear… "

She was wheezing now, but she wouldn't let him take her arm or help her to a chair. "I'm sorry…I'm behaving…just like the jealous…woman…aren't I. But I can't…help myself. You are my…life's breath, old man…and you've put a… Garroting Curse on our friendship. You're keeping things from me…important…things. You can't blame me if…I feel as if I'm suffocating…"

He went to her and pressed her close. She sagged against him. He felt her bones through the cloth of both their robes. Brittle and sharp—she had lost weight. She murmured something into his chest. He lifted her in his arms and carried her back to the bed. "What did you say, Min dear?"

Poppy hurried over with a glass of brandy and another pill, but Minerva pushed them away. She placed both on a nearby table, and, at the Headmaster's nod, left them alone.

"I said, damn you, Tom Riddle, damn you to hell!"

"Oh, my dear…" He leaned in and soothed her with a caress of her cheek and murmured low into her ear, "Min, you must believe me. If I don't tell you everything it is because I am not sure of the truth myself."

"You've spent countless hours traveling about, searching. For what? Why can't you tell me?" There were tears on her cheeks now. He conjured a hankie and dabbed at them.

"There is a delicate balance here, Minerva. I don't yet understand the source of Tom's power. But Harry…he must know everything there is to know about Tom…what little there is…if he is to have a chance to win out against him. You know the prophecy…"

"Hang the prophecy. I'm talking about us, Dumbledore."

"This is so much bigger than us, Minerva. I thought you knew me better than that. As if I'd leave you here to go running to the arms of another witch when you were suffering yourself—"

She drew back as if he had slapped her. "And you can hang the pity too— I know you better than you know yourself, and I am afraid for you. You are too much like him—like Harry—wandering about the enemy's encampments with no ally at your back: Knockturn Alley, the Riddle mansion—Malfoy Manor for all I know."

Without thinking, he reached out his sore hand to take hers, but she waved it away, then stared at him.

"Albus, what happened? Your hand--"

"It's nothing—a simple curse--I didn't realize—"

"I knew it. You will block Fireballs with your own body, if you think that will save even one poor, benighted Muggle. How will the Magicosm survive that, I ask you? Please, Albus, don't be foolhardy. Let me help you. Tell me what you have planned."

Her tirade lit a fire in him. He roared back, "Talk about foolhardy—who went running out in the dead of night, alone last month, trying to defend Hagrid against the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts and a horde of Aurors? You are not so different from me, young lady."

But she drew strength from his accusations. "Don't you 'young lady' me. I'm seventy years old."

"And I am twice your age."

"Only twice as old?" She started to laugh. It deteriorated into a wheezing cough, and her lover caught up the brandy and administered it. When she regained some color, she continued. "At one time the multiplier was much greater, I recall. But that doesn't matter. You have more experience than I, but I find it hard to believe that seventy years of hard living doesn't teach much the same as double that number; situations do tend to repeat themselves over time." Her face softened. "But don't you see? I'm worried about you, my love. Your common sense seems to have failed you. Some of our colleagues think you're in your dotage, Albus."

"They are wrong. I see more clearly now than I ever did. Tom is very strong, Minerva. His attempts to tap the power of an ancient religion and use it to take over my thoughts have taught me that. Our side must execute a feint, something to make him think he has all but won, something to make him lower his guard—if only just a little."

She rolled her eyes. "Not a Wronski Feint, I hope."

"No, my Quidditch playing days are long over, as you well know."

"As are mine. The plan involves Severus, I'll bet."

"Yes. As it happens he has accidentally set into motion a chain of events which will give a more plausible cast to the ruse. And when it occurs, you will divine its evolution and purpose without my having to explain it to you."

"But you won’t tell me what it is."

"I cannot…I cannot tell anyone else."

"Harry?"

"Him least of all. Will you trust me in this, Minerva?" He caught her hands and caressed them, feeling no pain in his own blackened fingers. She did not pull away this time, but allowed him to kiss her. "Don't I always?" she breathed.

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