Albus glanced at his watch in the Leaky Cauldron (Blast, I'll be late for the meeting again -- Acton-Stewart'll have my hide --), cursed several bits of Merlin's anatomy, attempted to Floo to the Ministry before remembering that all connections to the Ministry had been severed for the duration, cursed again, and launched himself out the front door and toward an omnibus just passing by, knowing the improbability of finding a quiet place from which to Apparate. He didn't see the young woman coming straight for him -- or, more properly, she didn't see him: one second the pavement was clear, and in the next a madman was blocking it.
The result was predictable -- irresistible force meets immovable object. The force in this instance was six feet four inches of auburn-haired (and hairy) maniac; the immovable object was a slender brunette in sensible shoes into whom the maniac plowed, scattering her parcels about the pavement and nearly overturning her. She had revenge of sorts: the knob of her umbrella-handle connected neatly with his solar-plexus.
Even as he struggled for breath he saw her lose her footing and start to go down, and he grabbed for her elbow to steady her.
"I'm terribly sorry," he heard her say as he bent over his aching gut and tried to remember how to breathe properly. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he managed to gasp, and sucked in a breath. "My fault -- so sorry --"
He realised he still had her by the elbow, and released it -- and she lay her hand between his shoulder-blades and patted his back, the way one might try to comfort a child.
That endeared her to him at once.
"Better?" she asked as his breaths evened out.
"Think so," he said, and cautiously straightened -- and met a pair of solemn, concerned brown eyes.
He was instantly in love.
Now, this was not an uncommon occurrence for Albus Dumbledore. He fell in love quite easily: at least ten trees on the Hogwarts grounds bore mute witness to his many inamoratti during his student years. (Well, nine trees. He'd quite alienated Violet Grummage when he'd absent-mindedly carved her initials and his on the same tree as he'd done with Felicity Mugwort's.)
He also fell out of love with a distressing regularity. He'd continued the cycle after his Leaving, and never seemed to be able to settle on one young witch in particular. He was always a gentleman -- never let it be thought he took undue advantage, even if the lady herself was willing -- and they were all lovely girls, each and every one of them. But he became, in short order, restless with them. After a while he'd simply chalked it up to a streak of fecklessness in his character, tried not to lead the poor dear things on, let them down gently when the infatuation began to fade, and decided he just wasn't the marrying type of wizard. (Neither was Aberforth, after all. Although that was more due to.... Well, never mind. Aberforth and ones' own love life were best not thought of in the same moment.)
"I beg your pardon," he said to the lovely young thing, and darted to the kerb to retrieve a package in imminent danger of being trod on by a horse. "How clumsy of me, Miss --"
He darted back to avoid being trod on himself, and promptly stepped squarely onto one of the other packages.
Interesting, the part of him Flamel had trained in strict alchemical observation noted. Yielding, but not too. Decidedly sponge-y texture. Faint odour of vanilla and sugar, and nice gritty little bits beneath the heel....
Blast it, I've trod on the girl's fairy cakes.
He gingerly balanced on one foot and raised the other to confirm that yes, they were indeed fairy cakes, and he'd done a marvelous job in destroying them. Total annihilation, in fact -- he couldn't have done better had he actually aimed for it.
He was horrified. He'd never got off quite so spectacularly on the wrong foot -- so to speak -- with a young lady before. He glanced up at her quickly to judge just how angry she was with him.
But she was laughing. Her gloved hand was plastered across her mouth, true, but those lovely eyes were crinkled -- and she was most definitely laughing, or trying not to, at him.
Well, I suppose it is funny -- a beanpole like me balancing on one leg in the middle of Charing Cross Road with smashed fairy-cake all over his boot.
There was nothing for it, of course, but to laugh as well.
"Thompson," she finally gasped.
"Oh. Good day, Miss Thompson, but I'm afraid I've killed your sweeties."
That set them both off again.
"Might I know the name of the murderer?"
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry -- Dumbledore, Albus Dumbledore," he said as he stooped to gather up the other packages. "I'm very sorry, Miss Thompson, I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a hurry and wasn't looking where I was going. Are you hurt?"
"No, not at all --"
Another omnibus was headed their way -- and it wasn't full, a rare occurrence given these days of shortages and transportation difficulties -- and Albus cast a longing look at it. (He really was going to be exceedingly late for the Intelligence meeting.)
"I'd -- I'd like to replace them for you, really --"
He transferred her packages to one arm and fumbled in his pockets for what little Muggle currency he carried, and discovered with horror that he barely had enough fare for the 'bus.
"Look, it's quite all right," Miss Thompson said as she took her packages from him. "You're quite rushed, don't worry about it."
"No, really, it's all right. You're going to be very late, aren't you?"
Well, that clinched it. He was. And she was being so charming and understanding....
"Thank you," he managed to blurt out as he scooped his hat off the kerb and jammed it on his head. "Again, I'm most awfully sorry --" he threw over his shoulder as he dashed out in the street for the 'bus, barely dodging a delivery-van.
"Be careful --" he heard her cry as he boarded the 'bus.
He paid his fare and plopped down in the seat, and twisted his neck to get a last glimpse of her out of the window.
She was re-arranging her packages more firmly in her arms, and when she glanced up and saw him watching her, she waved.
He tipped his hat to her, and continued watching until she was lost in the crowd: then he settled back in the seat and stretched his legs out into the aisle, earning a look of shock and a glare from a sour-looking old lady across from him.
He crossed his eyes at her just to be cheeky, and then pushed his hat low over his eyes and settled in to think about Miss Thompson. (He would ordinarily have flirted with the lady conductor on the 'bus -- they were quite fetching in their uniforms, and the length of the skirts showed a fair bit of ankle and calf which he found attractive -- but somehow he didn't feel in the mood for it today.)
He was so engrossed in thinking about his mystery woman that he missed the stop nearest the Ministry, and had to double-back at a run.
He was extremely late. Acton-Stewart glared at him as he slipped into his chair, and sent a pointed look at the secretary to make a note of it.
"Forgot again, did you?" Reginald Weasley whispered when Acton-Stewart was distracted with something else.
"Ran into a young lady outside the Cauldron. Literally. Had to fix the situation -- could have been a nasty Muggle-Magical incident," Albus fibbed.
"Oh, I believe it. Stepped on her package, did you?" Reg grinned when Albus started. "You've got something stuck on your boot."
Albus glanced down, casually rested the offending boot on his other knee, pulled out his handkerchief, and peeled a smeared bit of pasteboard off the sole.
Hmmmmmm. Lyons #29, Charing Cross Road....
He was quite distracted with plotting for the rest of the meeting: Acton-Stewart had to speak to him rather sharply, several times.
Miss Thompson received an unusual delivery from Lyons that night: a box of fairy cakes and a note in an unfamiliar, old-fashioned hand, with the Lyons #29 clerk's notations of her correct address inserted.
care of Lyons #29407 Cheyne Walk
Charing Cross RoadLondon SW
July 12, 1918
Dear Miss Thompson,
I must apologise again for my horrendous clumsiness in Charing Cross Road earlier today.
To run full-tilt into a lovely young woman and jostle the packages from her arms is bad enough, but to tread on a box of perfectly serviceable fairy cakes undoubtedly destined for her afternoon tea and then fail to replace them immediately is unconscionable. (I felt their loss quite keenly -- I adore fairy cakes.)
Had I not been extremely late for a meeting I should have hied myself forthwith to re-supply you. As it happens I noted the name of the shop (part of the box adhered to my boot-sole), and have asked them to deliver said delicacy to you, and to credit your account for the martyred darlings by way of further apology -- which I hope you will accept.
Most sincerely (and with deepest regret),
23 Dee Lane, London WC
There was a note waiting for Albus on Monday morning, when he returned to his office in the Ministry.
23 Dee Lane, London WC
13th July, 1918
There was no offence taken, I assure you -- we were both rushed, and accidents will happen. Your apology was quite charming, and as the fairy cakes were meant for my aunt's tea, not my own, there was no personal harm done. (I must confess that I dislike them, myself -- they're far too sweet. I prefer sherbet lemons.)
Nevertheless I shall accept your magnanimous gesture and replenish Aunt Rachel's supply Friday next around two o'clock, and shall stop in the tea-shop two doors down from our encounter for refreshment afterward. Should your business take you back to Charing Cross at about that time I shall be happy to entertain in person any further apologies you feel necessary.
Albus promptly cleared his Friday schedule from one-thirty to five. He intended to give Miss Thompson his full attention.
The tea shop just down from the Leaky Cauldron was a small, dingy place, run by an equally dingy woman struggling to keep the business afloat. The Lyons just down the road had not only cut into her business, but seduced her only waitress away with the lure of a smart uniform and better pay. Consequently the poor woman was run off her feet during the rush -- but not so much that she wasn't keeping a sharp eye on the odd fellow over by the window.
He was tall and thin and waited rather nervously, occasionally smoothing down his untidy, extravagant beard as he peered out the window at the passers-by.
She took pity on him and brought him a fresh cup of tea. She wouldn't ordinarily -- times were hard, after all, and if the silly man didn't have the sense to drink it while it was hot.... But she recognised the signs: the twitchy checking of the tie and coat-front, the absent-minded preening of the moustache and that ridiculous beard....
One of those Bloomsbury writer-types, I should think. Looks a bit like that Shaw fellow.
But what really clinched her entirely accurate suspicion was the way the poor man would start whenever a pretty young thing would walk by the window. He'd peek anxiously at the faces beneath the fashionable hats, and sink back in his chair, disappointed, when it wasn't his pretty young thing.
Looks a bit old for that age, she thought critically. I do hope it's his daughter or niece.
Frankly, though, he seemed like such a pleasant fellow, and his growing anxiety so pitiful, that she didn't much care.
"Thank you," he said absently as she swept away the pills he'd made of his tea-bun.
"Would you care for another?" she asked, surprised at the kindness in her own voice.
"No, I... I'm afraid I've no appetite," he said. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't hang about. She's obviously not coming."
"The rush is over for now -- you stay as long as you like," she said, prompted by the sadness in his eyes. "I'm sure she's only been delayed."
He relaxed and gave her a brilliant smile, and she went back to her counter with a lightness of heart quite unlike her. (While he himself was distressed, it seemed impossible not to feel cheerful around him -- he simply exuded it.)
Five minutes later the shop-bell jangled and the man was on his feet and over to the door like a shot, before the owner could even move around the counter.
His pretty young thing was indeed young, though not nearly as pretty as she'd expected. She hurried to fetch a fresh pot of tea and a full plate of cake for the table as the man took his lady's packages, and escorted her over to it.
Bloody good thing she made it, the owner thought tartly. If she'd broken the appointment I'd have been tempted to give him a go myself, such a sweet man....
She stared into the polished steel of the hot-water urn at the reflection of her plain features, and wished she had such a decent man waiting for her.
"I'm terribly sorry," Miss Thompson said to Albus as he walked her to the table. "My stop at Whiteley's took longer than it should."
"Oh, no, please don't apologise," Albus said hastily, as he pulled out a chair for her. "I hope nothing was wrong? No clumsy oafs treading on your tea-cakes?"
That brought a smile to her tired face.
"No, nothing like that. They'd misplaced Aunt Rachel's order," she said with a glance at the packages Albus was stacking on an extra chair, "and it took them quite a while to find it."
"Oh, very good. I mean, how very careless of them -- very good on the survival of tea-cakes."
The shop-owner bustled over with fresh tea and cake, and they sat silently while she fiddled with the arrangement before leaving them alone.
"So Friday is shopping-day for Aunt Rachel?" Albus plunged ahead recklessly. (He didn't quite know what to say, now that he actually had Miss Thompson before him.)
"Yes. She's my father's aunt, actually," Miss Thompson quietly volunteered, and added no further information.
"An auntie of the, ah, maiden-aunt variety, or the general kind?"
"Maiden, most definitely," she said. "Very particular about her routine, but kind in her own way."
Albus knew well about maiden-aunts -- his own was a bit of a gorgon.
"Please, have your tea," he urged. "You look tired."
"I am," she admitted wryly, and took a sip, "and Friday is busy. I try to work in a lecture at the Museum in between errands. It cuts into shopping time, but I seem to need it...."
She stopped herself and bit her lip, as though she'd said too much.
She had. Albus had a sudden epiphany as he observed her: the quiet, conservative suit -- the same she'd worn last week -- not quite shabby yet, but carefully mended; the threadbare gloves she'd unobtrusively removed, possibly to prevent staining (he'd noticed that other ladies didn't in public); the lack of rouge or rice-powder on her face, and the circles under the rather sweet brown eyes.
Miss Thompson was, it appeared, an unpaid companion, and kept on a rather short lead.
Albus revised his estimation of Aunt Rachel down several notches. He knew this type, too -- the kind who would fuss if her egg were poached a minute too long, who would coyly ask for just a tiny bit of toast, and then complain that it was too dark or too light. The kind who would demand constant attention from a lively, lovely young woman, and let her out of the house only one day a week -- and that only to run errands.
It happened all the time, of course -- poor relations in the Wizarding World had as little choice as Muggles, in that respect. But Albus was rather irked that his Miss Thompson was subjected to such treatment.
"You needn't have done this, you know," she said quite suddenly, obviously embarrassed. "In fact I don't know why I dared suggest it -- your apology was very handsome, and you shouldn't have bothered with the cakes. It was an accident."
"No, I disagree," Albus said firmly, intensely grateful that he'd taken the matter to his usual ridiculous extreme: he'd have hated for Miss Thompson to be blamed for his recklessness. "I really ought look where I'm going, but I get so caught up in business...."
"What do you do?"
"Er, government work, actually -- afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss what, precisely."
"Oh, I understand that," she said with a smile. "My father was with the Intelligence Corps."
Albus' jaw dropped.
"Not Maurice Thompson, surely?" he blurted out before he could stop himself.
"Yes -- did you know him?"
"No, but I recognise the name from one of my... contacts' dispatches," he said hastily, and sipped at his tea to cover his slip.
Major Thompson had saved the operative's life, in fact -- the idiot had mis-Apparated into the middle of an artilliary barrage.
So that explains the attraction, Albus thought with a twinge of disappointment. His operative was now dead, and so was Major Thompson, judging from the way his daughter spoke of him. While Albus didn't precisely owe the man a life-debt, there was a decided obligation to take an interest in the man's orphan. (She must be -- he couldn't imagine feeling so strongly for her were her mother still living.)
"Oh. I've.... I know it isn't done, but I've always wondered what he faced," she said quietly. "He was killed at the Somme, and I know it must have been horrid for him. The Intelligence Department never tells you much, it's just the same telegram they send everyone. Even his commanding officer's letter didn't elaborate."
"Hmmmmm." Albus shifted in his chair uneasily, and debated the wisdom of telling her -- Wizarding Intelligence was no different than its Muggle counterpart, in regard to strict secrecy.
But she was so disappointed, and had obviously cared deeply for her father.
He took the plunge.
"My contact was badly wounded and stumbled into No Man's Land, and your father sprinted out and yanked him back into a trench. Bloody brave of him -- I take it there was a lot of shelling going on."
He was delighted to see Miss Thompson pink up.
"Thank you," she said shyly. "I shan't tell anyone, of course."
"Of course not. You're an officer's daughter, you know how to be discreet," Albus retorted with a smile, still ridiculously happy with her blush. "Don't you want some -- oh, bother, that's right, you don't care for sweets. Shall I ask --"
"Oh, please don't -- I have to leave quite soon," she said. "I can be a bit late, but --"
"Only as much as the Underground might be?" Albus shrewdly guessed.
"Exactly. I shouldn't worry so," Miss Thompson confessed. "She's never set foot on it, and has no idea of the timetables. Doesn't trust it." She gave him a wry smile. "She says if God intended us to travel below ground, He'd have made us look like moles."
"I don't know why I'm telling you all this," she said, puzzled. "I don't know where I found the boldness to write you back, actually."
"You've never experienced this? Feeling at ease with a total stranger?"
"No, never. And here we are, one chance meeting --"
"-- accidental --"
"-- accidental meeting," she echoed him with a smile, "and one cup of tea, and you know more about me than anyone else, I think."
"Happens to me all the time," Albus said quite accurately.
"It must be you, then. You have a knack for setting people at ease."
He smiled. It was quite true, he did -- and it was an entirely natural trait, no magic involved whatsoever.
"How soon should you leave?" he asked.
"Oh, five minutes, I should think."
"Drink your tea, then, and I'll walk you to your station," he urged her, and she did.
He spent the next five minutes watching her wistfully. Now that he knew the likely reason for the attraction it would probably fade -- and he was rather disappointed at that.
It wasn't until after he'd seen her to the station and watched her disappear into its maw that he realised he hadn't asked "E. Thompson" her first name.
The problem was, the attraction didn't go away. He found himself thinking of her at odd moments throughout the week.
"Albus," Reg hissed, and chucked an empty inkwell at him.
(Reg had excellent aim.)
"Will you bloody concentrate on the bloody message?"
"It's not going to work, Reg," Albus retorted indignantly, rubbing at his skull. "I'm telling you, they've used a different kind of encryption for this. I've been through the blasted thing three times."
"I don't know what's got into you," Reg muttered. "It's not like you to give up."
"I'm not giving up, I'm saying we're not attacking it from the proper angle. Either they've come up with a new charm or they've gone to a mechanical system."
"Now, why on earth would they go to a mechanical system? What's the point?"
"The point," Albus said through gritted teeth, trying to be patient with his junior, "is that we're less likely to cotton on to it. You can't discount the enemy doing something totally illogical --"
Reg buried his face in his hands, having been on the receiving end of this particular lecture many, many times.
"-- no, listen up, thicko. I've been around a bit longer than you, and I've seen it -- it's the hallmark of a great strategist. You do the unexpected, even if it's something as alien to us as using a machine."
"Fine," Reg moaned. (He supposed he was lucky, really: Albus Dumbledore hardly ever pulled rank on him, and treated him more like a mate than a junior cryptanalyst. And he'd learned a great deal from Albus.) "So we start over. How?"
"Pull the last three days' interceptions and break them down again -- only this time, don't muck about with counter-charms. Look at the overall pattern. There's got to be some indication of date, time, location -- see if there's some form that all the messages follow, and if they're breaking those headings up with nulls. Once we can see the pattern, we can make a guess whether they've used a machine or not. Or a code-book with mechanical encryption afterwards, but Merlin help us if they have."
"Because we'll probably have to capture one of the damned books to decode the bloody messages, that's why. No telling if 'bratwurst' means 'attack the Ministry' or if it's only what Grindelwald had for luncheon last Tuesday until they've actually attacked the bloody Ministry, which I think you'll agree is a bit late to do much good."
"Oh, got it. Sorry."
"Not at all. And next time, throw a bloody pillow. That hurt."
Reg trotted over to the warded cabinet to retrieve the last few days' dispatches and interceptions, and Albus stared out the window, musing over Miss Thompson and her apparent predicament.
He decided he hadn't learned enough about her. He at least owed it to himself to discover her first name, blast it.
So he cleared his Friday afternoon schedule again -- and when Miss Thompson walked into the lecture-hall of the British Museum there he was, smiling, hat on the seat next to him to save it for her.
She blinked in surprise, smiled, and sat.
Albus was quite unable to focus on the lecture.
They had a silent agreement from that day on: they met at the BM and attended the lecture -- although on a few occasions the talk was so uninspiring that they ducked out and wandered through the galleries, instead -- and then, as she ran her errands about West Central, they would discuss the lecture, or their reading, or anything at all. Albus found Elizabeth (for she'd finally confided her name to him) very bright -- perhaps a bit naïve, but eager to learn and mend the gaps in her knowledge. They would finish with tea, and then part for another week.
Albus felt quite beside himself. His romances had usually progressed fairly far by this point -- but not with Elizabeth. He hadn't even held her hand, much less kissed her, and he could barely say her first name without stumbling over it.
He was becoming convinced that he was in love, and it was something of a quandary for him.
It wasn't that she was Muggle: he couldn't care less about that. The problem was, would she care that he was a Wizard?
A less-honourable man wouldn't see that as a stumbling-block. He knew of at least one Ministry official with a double life, who kissed his Muggle wife goodbye at the door every morning, turned the corner, and Apparated across town to the Ministry, leaving her none the wiser. It certainly wasn't encouraged: there was too much opportunity for a slip-up or an accidental discovery, and in fact were it common knowledge, the man should probably be dismissed -- not on grounds of taking advantage of a Muggle, but from the potential threat of discovery.
Albus couldn't imagine doing that to Elizabeth Thompson. He didn't want to lead a double life, and he didn't want to be dishonest with her -- if she'd have him to begin with, considering the apparent differences in their ages, let alone the actual difference. But he couldn't quite decide how to tell her, and it was probably premature. She seemed happy enough with his company, but had never indicated that she wanted anything more than friendship.
Probably for the best, he decided grumpily. With your record, you'll be over this fascination in a few more weeks.
But he never was. In fact, his fascination with Elizabeth Thompson only seemed to grow.
The change came toward the end of October, and it wasn't the one he'd expected.
"You'll never guess what," she whispered as she slipped into the seat beside him, eyes sparkling.
He was tempted to do the tiniest bit of Legilimency, just to see the look of surprise on her face -- but he resisted the urge.
"What?" he whispered back.
"Aunt Rachel's going to Sussex next week, to visit her cousin," she said. "She'll be gone from the Wednesday until the next Monday."
Albus very nearly whooped aloud.
"And you're staying?" he asked (rather too loudly -- a stern gentleman in the row ahead turned and shushed him, although the lecture hadn't even begun).
"Oh, bloody --" Albus muttered, grabbed Elizabeth's hand -- for the first time -- and nearly dragged her from the hall.
"Tell me," he demanded when they'd breached the doors.
"Of course I'm not going," she retorted, eyes very bright. "Cousin Mathilda only has one spare room, and besides, the train fare's so dear," she said in mock solemnity.
The lobby attendant was giving Albus' exuberance a jaundiced eye, so Albus drew her arm through his and walked her toward the Egyptian wing.
"Well, what would you like to do?"
Imagine it! Six whole days with no errands, no time constraints, no -- well, there's work, blast it, but the entire week-end --
"I want to attend the Prom," she said dreamily.
"What the dickens is that?"
She stopped and stared at him in astonishment.
"You don't know? But I thought you loved music."
"I do, of course, but I don't know what the 'Prom' is."
"It's a concert," she explained with a laugh, "at Queen's Hall on Sunday afternoons. I've always wanted to go," she added with relish, "and I've saved enough for a ticket."
Well, that explained it. Albus had been to a concert or two at the Albert Hall, in the evenings, but he spent most week-ends in Hogsmeade.
"Oh, don't worry over the ticket, I'll --"
"No, you shan't," she said firmly.
"Why ever not?" he asked, puzzled by her sudden change of mood.
"Because it's not proper," she said more gently, "and besides, I've scrimped and saved for a long time, and I promised myself that that's what I'd do with it, if I had the chance."
"So you shall, then. But I reserve the right to treat you to an especially nice tea on Friday."
"Oh, come now, Elizabeth, I assure you I have no nefarious motive --"
"It's not that," she said. "It's just, with Aunt Rachel away there's no need for me to go out Friday. It'll be noticed."
He stared at her, outraged.
"Are you telling me that you're watched?"
"Not precisely. But I'm fairly certain Nellie -- that's the maid - would tell Aunt Rachel if I went out when I didn't need to."
Albus was horrified.
"I think," he said, trying to keep hold of his considerable temper, "that I'd like you to explain precisely what that... that harridan puts you through."
Elizabeth got a very bewildered look on her face, followed swiftly by stubbornness, and then resignation.
"All right -- but not here. You look as though you're about to explode."
He supposed he did -- he could feel his moustache-hairs bristling, which was never a good sign -- and instead of answering, he simply took her arm and escorted her out of the BM and to the nearest tea-shop.
"Explain, please," he said tersely when they'd been served.
"Aunt Rachel's taken care of me since Father went back to the Army," she said quietly. "He'd been in business before, and we were comfortably off, but when the War started he lost a lot on the Exchange. He would have started again, but the Intelligence Department asked him back...."
Her voice trailed off, and she fussed with her spoon for a bit.
"I'm sure you know generally what a major's pay is, and he still had debts from the business. So he sold the house before he was sent overseas, and I went to live with Aunt Rachel."
"And he didn't provide you with an income?"
"He wanted to, but I knew how upset he was over the debt -- so I asked him to send me a bit of pocket money instead and wait until the debts were paid before worrying over me."
Albus snorted, and she started and stared at him indignantly.
"We were rather closer than most fathers and daughters, I expect," she said. "After Mother died we became everything to each other -- he trusted me with a great deal, and he respected me enough to take my opinions seriously. He was rather extraordinary, that way."
Albus, thoroughly ashamed of himself, muttered an apology.
"I don't think he expected to be sent to the Front," she continued. "He would have made other plans, if he had."
"That doesn't excuse your aunt's behavior," Albus said pointedly.
"Not to you, no, but then you don't understand because --"
She interrupted herself, biting her lip, and then continued.
"She's an old woman, Albus," she said reluctantly, and with such gravity that he didn't have the heart to rejoice over her use of his name. "She was raised in a different world, if you like, where young unmarried ladies do not arrange meetings in tea-shops with total strangers. Where their acquaintances and actions have to be carefully scrutinised because they're far too naïve and impressionable to make sensible decisions. Where most men," she added carefully, "would be only too willing to take advantage. She's trying to protect me the only way she knows how."
Albus conceded that he hadn't understood properly -- it had never occurred to him that in this day and age such attitudes might still linger -- but he noted, "It's rather to her advantage too, though."
"Of course it is, and she's some right. She's put a roof over my head and food on my plate for three and a half years -- I owe it to her to abide by her rules. Even if I haven't always," she muttered with a guilty glance at him. "And she's very lonely. All her old friends are dead, and Cousin Mathilda and I are the only family she has left. I have a responsibility to care for her. She's never shirked hers toward me."
"Well, there's an easy way out of this, isn't there?" Albus said determinedly. "What if I were to present myself --"
"No," Elizabeth cut him off, quite shocking him. "No, that wouldn't do at all."
Albus had the distinct feeling that she was somehow ashamed of him -- and it showed, for she reached across the table and took his hand in hers.
"It's not you," she said urgently. "Firstly, I think she'd be hostile to anyone. And she'd make enquiries, which might be awkward for you, given... what you do."
She drew her hand away, embarrassed by her gesture -- but not before Albus took the opportunity to squeeze it gently.
"Besides, I've enjoyed having you all to myself," she admitted, shame-faced. "I used to be quite happy with just my books and music, but then.... Well, you came along, and we've got on so well.... I couldn't bear it if she forbade me to see you."
Albus rather thought his heart would burst, at that -- and he was immensely proud that he hadn't given her any cause to regret the deception.
"But what if she should find out someday?"
"Then I plead ignorance and innocence, and you present yourself as a government official with an honourable interest in the well-being of Major Thompson's daughter," she said matter-of-factly.
Albus stared at her for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
"Hush," she whispered as the other patrons' heads turned toward their table.
"You sly little thing," he finally chortled. "You've had that worked out for quite a while, haven't you?"
"Oh, you impossible -- of course I've worked it out," she muttered, a blush rising to her cheeks.
He leaned across the table.
"How long, Elizabeth?" he whispered.
"It doesn't matter --"
"How -- long?"
His fingers crept across the table-top, spider-like, toward hers, and she snatched her hand away and muttered, face burning, "Since after that first tea."
Albus totally embarrassed her by laughing until the tears came to his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he finally managed as he wiped at his eyes. "I'm just -- It's rather heartening to realise I'm so imp-- popular with you."
The blush that had been fading from her cheeks rose again, but she said nothing.
"Very well," he said resignedly, "no Friday. But how -- assuming you still wish to associate with me, after I've behaved so disgracefully -- do you want to arrange the Sunday?"
"Nellie and I will attend church, as usual," she said, "and we'll go home for luncheon, and then I'll leave to attend a lecture by the Reverend Fuller on missionary work in the Congo."
"Does the Reverend Fuller really exist?"
"Of course," she retorted. "And it's a very big hall, and should Nellie try to follow me she won't be able to find me in the crush."
Albus nearly made a spectacle of himself again.
"Where shall I meet you?"
"You shan't. Hang about in the lobby of Queen's Hall and step into the queue just behind me. Just in case."
While he didn't appreciate not being able to escort her properly, if it made her more comfortable he was willing to do it.
Besides, he was far too elated with her oblique confession to care much.
Albus would be willing to swear that the next Friday was the longest day of the year, never mind that the summer solstice was four months gone. He was quite restless, and missed Elizabeth badly.
Acton-Stewart made snide comments about Albus' uncustomary afternoon presence in the office. Not for the first time, Albus wished he could hex the incompetent blighter to Perdition -- though it was rather harder to resist the temptation under the current circumstances.
He was relieved when Elizabeth rushed into Queen's Hall with only minutes to spare, out of breath and quite fetchingly flushed -- but he managed to appear nonchalant and stepped into the queue directly behind her, paid for his ticket, and followed her to their seats in the balcony.
(He was rather horrified by the ticket-price. Not that it was expensive -- far from it -- but she'd spoken of having to save for that minuscule amount, and he was more worried about her than ever.)
The programme started immediately when they'd taken their seats, so there was no chance to talk beforehand: first up was a cycle of German lieder sung by a portly contralto. The rest of the audience wasn't particularly happy with that, Albus noted (although the singer was excellent), but Elizabeth seemed enraptured.
It wasn't until the interval, when he made his way back to her through the crush with a cup of punch, that he had a chance to ask about it.
"Oh, that's been going on since the beginning of the war," she said matter-of-factly. "Some orchestras have removed German music from the repertoire entirely."
"Isn't that a bit ridiculous?" he asked in puzzlement. "Music is music -- I don't care if it's by a German or an Englishman, as long as it's interesting. What in the world can it matter?"
She smiled wryly.
"I'm afraid some people confuse prejudice for patriotism," she told him softly. "But then, some people have lost a great deal due to the War," she added. "I suppose it's a kind of comfort to them, to place blame indiscriminately."
Albus couldn't quite accept that -- Elizabeth had certainly lost a great deal, and she managed to see things sensibly -- but it was too pleasant a day to ruin in worrying over other peoples' idiocy, and the attendants were announcing the end of the interval, so they filed back into the auditorium.
The second half of the programme was, as it happened, purely British -- Bax and Ireland, and a short chamber piece by a composer named Vaughan Williams which Albus found quite engrossing, despite the distracting company.
And then, surprisingly, Elizabeth allowed Albus to take her to a small, discreet restaurant for a late tea.
"Fuller will go on for a good two hours," she said pragmatically, "and then he'll waste another with showing all the lantern-slides he didn't show in the main lecture. So we've time."
"You've obviously been to his lectures before," Albus noted with amusement.
"Religious lectures and church are the only things she'll leave the house for," Elizabeth replied, and a distinct air of melancholy settled about her.
Albus tactfully (for once) changed the subject to the music they'd heard, and she brightened considerably until it was time to go.
"Let me see you home," Albus begged as she was pulling on her gloves, and she glanced outside to gauge the darkness: it was nearly five o'clock, and was getting quite grey.
"I think I'd like that," she said softly. "But we take the 'bus, and you let me go at the edge of the neighbourhood. I can always tell Nellie I walked most of the way home."
It seemed best to agree, much as he disliked letting her walk when the light was failing -- but he managed it partly on his own terms: he rather pointedly pulled her over to the stairs and up to the top deck of the 'bus, where there were fewer passengers because of the chill in the air.
"Thank you for today," she said contentedly as the 'bus jolted along the streets. "I know you must think all the precautions silly --"
"No, I don't," he said quietly. "Not if it saves you unpleasantness."
The 'bus ground to a halt at the next stop, and Albus was delighted to note that the three other passengers on the deck all stepped off.
"Shall I see you Friday, then?"
"Probably, though she'll likely have a lot of errands for me. I shan't have much time, I expect -- I'd best not go to the lecture."
Not for the first time Albus cursed "she" silently -- and then instantly forgot about her as the 'bus pulled away from the kerb, swaying, and rocked Elizabeth against his side.
He slipped his arm about her shoulders (to steady her, naturally). It was the only considerate thing to do, after all. And it was nippy.
"You know, I don't mind the blackout at all," she noted serenely, making absolutely no move to extricate her person. "Not that I like the reason for it, but sometimes you can actually see the stars, now, in summer."
For the life of him Albus could never determine why he did what he did next: eventually he would give up and simply thank the gods that he had.
He removed his hat, tossed it on the bench next to theirs, and glanced down at her, craning his neck to peer beneath her hat-brim: and then, quite deliberately, he reached over with his free hand, plucked out her hat-pin, removed her hat, and gently kissed the top of her head.
Her shoulders stiffened under his arm, and he muttered "Sorry," and began to pull away.
She clutched at his coat to stop him and stared up at him, earnest eyes wide, and then pulled him down by the back of his neck for a proper kiss.
Inexperienced and hesitant it was, yes -- but with a sweetness that had nothing whatever to do with the cake he'd persuaded her to try at the restaurant. It was just the one: she released him almost immediately, nearly hiding her face in his coat-front when it was over, but it was enough.
Albus was utterly lost: there was no going back now.
He was going to wait for Elizabeth Thompson for as long as it took, and use as much persuasion as necessary to get her to have him, blasted Aunt Rachel or no.
She finally roused herself as they approached the Embankment, taking her hat from him, carefully adjusting it, and fixing the pin through, and then fumbled in her reticule -- withdrawing, Albus was amused to note, a programme for the Reverend Fuller's lecture.
"It's this stop," she said, and he slipped from the bench and steadied her as she rose and made for the stair. She stopped at the bottom, and Albus boldly rested his hand against her waist.
"I'll see you Friday if I can," she said as the 'bus slowed.
"Friday," was the only thing he could manage to say as the 'bus came to a halt and she stepped off.
He stayed on the stair watching her as the 'bus pulled away despite a disapproving glare from the lady conductor: and at the next stop he hopped off and sauntered to the nearest dark alley to Apparate to Hogsmeade -- and had to Accio for his hat, which he'd completely forgot and left on the top deck of the omnibus.
"Back to your routine, I see," Acton-Stewart said with a sneer as Albus made his way out the office door.
"Consistency is my goal," Albus sang out cheerfully, despite the fact that Acton-Stewart was entirely wrong. (He was leaving two hours later than usual, blast it, knowing Elizabeth wouldn't be at the BM.) He nicked an umbrella from the stand beside the door -- Reg had come in minutes before, soaked and miserable, and warned Albus it was raining -- and exited the Ministry and walked jauntily down the street, whistling.
All was right with the world.
Well... not really. Both worlds were still deep in their separate, sometimes overlapping, conflicts, but Reg had finally seen the pattern in the intercepted messages, and deduced that Grindelwald was using a mechanical encryption system, the sly Prussian bugger. He and Reg were nearly finished with a prototype machine to crack the encryption, so things were going well on that front: and Albus was going to see his girl, who, he was now convinced, was more than a bit attracted and attached to him.
Albus mentally retracted the many hexes he'd wished on Acton-Stewart, the poor, miserable sod.
After all, not everyone's as lucky as I.
He wasn't cheerful for much longer.
Elizabeth wasn't at the deserted tea-shop by three o'clock, and by three forty-five Albus was desperately worried -- but not as worried as when she finally rushed in, ashen-faced and unsteady on her feet.
"I can't stay," she panted, and nearly dropped one of her packages. "Aunt Rachel took a chill on the trip home, and she's quite ill --"
"No, really, I've got to get back -- she's quite fractious and not at all well, the poor thing --"
"Elizabeth," he very nearly thundered, and she actually did drop some of the packages in shock. "Sit down," he said firmly, guiding her over to one of the chairs and, with his hands on her shoulders, pushed her down into it and shot a desperate look at the shop-owner.
Elizabeth wasn't in the mood to be biddable, unfortunately.
"I can't -- How dare you? What right have you to tell me what to do, Mr Dumbledore? I'm not exaggerating how ill she is --"
"And so will you be, if you don't give yourself a moment to rest," the shop-owner said decisively as she slipped a cup of hot tea in front of Elizabeth. "You just drink this down and catch your breath, dear -- a few minutes won't hurt."
Elizabeth glared at both of them. Albus felt chastened but unrepentant, and the shop-owner pointedly ignored her and gathered up the scattered packaged from the floor before leaving them alone.
"I'll get you back in plenty of time," Albus said apologetically. "She's right, you don't look at all well. And I dare," he added crossly, "because I care for you, you silly goose."
Elizabeth glared at him again, and he responded by adding three lumps to her tea and pointedly shoving it closer to her.
She finally gave in and drank.
"She's being a terror, isn't she?" he asked.
"Yes, but she can't help it," Elizabeth said tiredly. "She really is unwell -- she's not acting, this time. She must feel miserable."
Albus rather thought that was Aunt Rachel's usual state, but he bit his tongue.
The shop-owner hurried back over and put a warm tea-bun in front of Elizabeth.
"Oh, good Lord --"
"Go ahead, you'll hurt her feelings otherwise," Albus said.
"I'm going to be so late," Elizabeth said despairingly. "The chemist took forever to make up her tonic."
She started in on the bun and Albus let her eat in peace, refilling her cup once: then, when it looked as though she was slowing and had begun to glance anxiously at the clock above the counter, he calmly took one of the polished fobs from his watch-chain and absently passed it along the backs of the fingers of one hand. (There were easier ways to accomplish what he intended, true -- but it seemed like a violation of her trust to use Magic outright, so he confined himself to a simple act of Mesmerism.)
Her eyes caught the glitter of the charm as it skipped along his knuckles, and he watched her face intently as her eyelids grew heavier, then drooped, and finally closed altogether.
"Dropped off, has she?" the shop-owner whispered from her counter.
"Yes," Albus said softly. "I should get her home, if I can find a cab. I'd like not to wake her."
"Half a moment," the woman said, darted into the back room, and returned with a fichelle. "Put her packages in this -- easier for you to handle -- and I'll see if I can hail a cab," she whispered, and hurried from the shop.
Albus thanked his stars for perceptive tea-shop owners, gently lay his hand on Elizabeth's forehead, and whispered "Somnifer," in her ear, just to be certain she didn't wake in the middle of his daring, risky scheme.
He was just finishing up on the packages when the shop-owner came back in.
"Got one," she whispered triumphantly as she took the fichelle from him. "Come along."
Albus gathered Elizabeth up in his arms and carried her out to the waiting cab, carefully placing her in the seat and propping her against the wall before turning back to take her things.
"Oh, blast it, I've forgot to pay you --"
"Next time," the woman said as she thrust the packages at him. "Quite all right -- get along with you."
He gave her a brilliant smile, told the cabby to head for Chelsea, and clambered in.
They did not go all the way to Chelsea by cab. The cabbie was quite naffed by the shortness of the trip until Albus drastically overpaid him before lifting the (blessedly) still sleeping Elizabeth out and making for a deserted lane.
He popped her to a tiny grove of trees in a park he'd seen from the top of the 'bus that evening she'd let him take her home, carried her over to a bench, and whispered "Ennervate," in her ear.
She woke and blinked sleepily.
"Nearly home," he said with a smile. "You've slept the entire way."
"Underground. You fell asleep in the tea-shop -- I had the devil of a time waking you and getting you to the station. You don't remember?"
She frowned and stared at her shoes a moment, and then softly said, "Thank you."
"Said I'd get you back in good time, didn't I?" he retorted cheerfully, and gently pulled her to her feet. "Come along -- I'll walk you to the end of the street."
He was rather alarmed that she swayed when she stood -- the Somnifer Charm must have been badly needed, and he was now more worried than ever for her -- but she got her footing, and he helped her toward Cheyne Walk.
"I suppose I shouldn't count on next week, should I?" he said wryly.
"I shouldn't," she said.
"Let me know, then? Do you still have the office address?"
"Yes, I do, Albus," she said quietly. "I'll let you know if there's any change."
They'd reached the corner and he unthinkingly bent to kiss her, but she shied away.
Her eyes darted about for a second, and then she sighed and straightened his coat-lapel in apology before adding, "Not here."
"Sorry," he muttered.
"Oh, no, Albus," she said earnestly. "No, don't be. I know you don't mean any harm by it, it's just.... It's not done."
And with a final smoothing of his lapel, she took her packages from him and walked away.
(Albus couldn't help himself: he followed her at a distance, and noted the number of the house she entered -- 407. He supposed he ought be ashamed of himself, but he couldn't muster up the guilt to do so.)
He Apparated back to the Ministry, and snapped at Acton-Stewart when the supercilious prat dared comment on his "early return."
30th October, 1918
Shan't be able to meet you on Friday. Aunt Rachel is very, very ill -- the doctor fears Influenza.
You must stay away, Albus -- I know you're worried, but it's quite contagious and I don't want to have to worry about you too. Yes, I am resting and taking care.
He did worry, of course, and took it out on poor Reg and that blighter Acton-Stewart. Friday found him at the tea-shop by himself, to repay that dear lady -- and because he couldn't bear to break the routine.
By Monday Albus was so worried and distracted as to be frantic. Two week-end notes -- he'd Apparated back to London specifically to drop them in the post -- had gone unanswered, and he feared that Elizabeth herself had fallen ill. He sent a third note in the morning post threatening drastic action if he hadn't got a reply by the day-end.
There wasn't one. He skived out of the afternoon meeting and returned to the house in Cheyne Walk, and found a huge black wreath hung on the door.
Pounding at the knocker brought no response.
" 'S no use," bawled a charwoman scrubbing the steps two doors down. "They left for the simmitry 'arf an hower ago."
"What happened?" Albus demanded.
"Old laidy died Sattiday, Oi fink. 'Flu."
"But the young lady? What about her?" he bawled back, white-knuckled fingers wrapped about the railing.
"Oh, she's awroight. Seen 'er get inta the coach. An' the maid, too."
"Dunno." The woman scratched at her head with a sooty hand and finally ventured, "Kensal Green, prob'ly. Most of the old 'uns 'round 'ere goes there."
Albus threw himself down the stairs and over to her, demanded directions, and thrust a half-a-crown into her hands before sprinting off.
He found the place easily enough -- the charwoman had given him the crossroads, and he had a knack for Apparating to them -- and found himself outside the gates, behind a long queue of funeral coaches and horse-drawn hearses. He quite despaired of picking Elizabeth's coach out of the lot, so he hurried up to the first one and asked the driver, a stone-faced man in a ridiculous, crepe-draped silk hat.
"No idea," the man said, staring down his nose at the dishevelled maniac in front of him. "Queue only just started backing up, though. Ask one of the gravediggers -- they can direct you to the plot."
Albus darted inside and looked for anyone vaguely workman-like, and eventually found one propped up against a headstone, on tea-break.
"Thompson?" The man scowled. "Not that Oi remember.... 'Ey, Alf!"
Alf peered around the edge of a huge, garish monument that proudly declared its owner to be an atheist: he was taking a copious piss against a corner of the monument, by way of commentary on the owner's lack of belief, evidently.
"Thompson? We did 'er last noight, Bill. New section," he told Albus, jerking his head in the right direction as he buttoned up.
Albus took off in the direction indicated, weaving around the stones and monuments, until he found them.
He assumed it was, at least: a heavily-veiled woman with Elizabeth's trim build was the chief mourner, and she was accompanied only by a sour-faced, stout woman, an elderly gentleman, the clergyman, and two workers, standing at a distance, ready to fill the grave.
He skidded to a halt and fumbled his hat off his head -- even he recognised that it would be a grave breech of manners to intrude -- and collapsed, breathless, against the side of a particularly morbid mausoleum and sent a desperate thought to Elizabeth to look his way.
She raised her head eventually, and he fancied that she saw him, staring his way steadily for several long moments, before returning her attention to the burial.
It was over quite soon: the clergyman finished, and one of the workers presented Elizabeth with a shovel of earth. She scattered a clod into the grave, and waited while the gentleman and the older woman did the same.
Albus had hoped to catch her before she returned to the house in Cheyne Walk, but the gentleman -- with a pointed look to Albus which quite clearly said Interloper -- took her by the arm and walked her to the waiting coach. She didn't object -- didn't even look Albus' way again -- but merely allowed herself to be led away.
Something's badly wrong. Blast it, why didn't she tell me?
After the coach had pulled away Albus walked over and studied the monument as the workers filled the grave of the late -- and for Albus, unlamented -- Aunt Rachel. It was a large family plot -- she'd joined her parents, a sibling and in-law, and Elizabeth's parents.
Albus was chilled to see Elizabeth's name on the monument as well. It was apparently intended that she lie between her mother and that bloody old woman.
I don't know yet what you've done, you old terror, Albus thought angrily. But by Merlin's staff, I'm going to find out what, and undo the harm.
He loped across the cemetery to find a quiet nook, Apparated back toward the Ministry, and sent a note to Elizabeth, begging her to see him.
She didn't answer by the next morning's first post, or by the afternoon, either.
Albus tried yet again the next morning, but when he hadn't received a reply from Elizabeth by the last afternoon post, he was livid. He walked most of the way to Chelsea specifically to wear himself out, in hopes of preventing an outburst, but he could scarcely remember ever being this angry before.
He presented himself at the door: the sour-faced maid opened it and glared at him.
"Miss Thompson ain't seein' no visitors, sir -- she's in mourning."
"I'm well aware of that," Albus snapped in his best Official Representative voice. "Please inform her that Mr Dumbledore of the Intelligence Department is here regarding her late father's work."
Well, I didn't say which Intelligence Department....
Faced with an irate government official, Sourface backed down.
"Oh. Well, if you'll step into the parlour I'll see if she'll come down," she stuttered, and ushered him into the hall and through a set of pocket-doors.
The room was large, as far as parlours go -- nearly the length of the house -- and was damp and smelled of mold and recent illness, and contained nearly every abomination of interior decoration known to the upper-middle-class Victorian homeowner: dark wallpaper that sucked up the light from the gas jets (no electricity dare intrude here, Albus surmised, though he was acquainted with the phenomenon); heavy, light-blocking curtains (they needn't have bothered with blackout curtains, the musty fabric already there did splendidly); morbid, second-rate paintings of dead angelic children; a glass-encased floral wreath made of wax and the hair of deceased relatives. Albus had had the misfortune of visiting the Black house -- only once, thankfully -- and this place gave him precisely the same case of the willies, even without the servants' heads hanging from the walls (he thought he might like to see Sourface's stuffed and mounted, though).
The grate looked as though it hadn't been used in ages -- judging by the damp, it hadn't -- and every piece of furniture was strewn with antimacassars that practically forbade one to sit, even if the furniture had seemed tempting -- and it didn't. A few cartes de visite and several daguerreotypes littered the mantlepiece -- none of Elizabeth and her parents, judging by the faces and fashions -- and a dust-covered vase of peacock feathers held pride of place, dead centre.
Albus shuddered at that, and moved to the French doors at the far end of the room. (Peacock feathers were unlucky in the Wizarding World, though apparently acceptable here.) He drew apart the curtains and poked a finger around the edge of the blackouts, and stared out into the tiny patch of back garden -- or what should have been, but wasn't. It was bare and desolate, even for November, and looked as though nothing had been cultivated there for years.
He felt his fist clench in the fabric of the drapes, and the yielding of rotten fabric as it began to tear under his fingers, and pulled his hand away and collapsed against the wall, rubbing at his eyes.
This was why she hadn't wanted him here. Why she'd prevaricated and forbade him to come calling -- this, as much as the fear of Aunt Rachel's reaction: she knew him. She knew he'd be outraged with the way she had to live: stuck in a dank, decaying house with a miserable old bitch of a relative who begrudged her young niece even fresh air and sunlight.
"That wasn't cricket," came Elizabeth's soft voice from the doorway.
He looked up, and didn't like the sight that met him. She wasn't dishevelled -- he couldn't imagine a situation where she might be (well, he could, but those were very private and recent fantasies), but she was even paler than usual, stark white against the black of her mourning frock, and there was a brittleness to her expression that he'd never seen in her before.
"Sorry," he said untruthfully, and then added quite truthfully, "I've been worried -- you didn't reply to my letters, and that doesn't seem like you."
She slowly walked into the room and sat on the monstrosity of a sofa, back broomstick-straight. "I suppose one could make the argument that you don't know me that well."
He stared at her a long moment, shocked -- the decidedly frosty comment was utterly unlike her.
"One could," he said carefully, "but I think not. I'm generally a good judge of character."
Albus could see her struggling, attempting to keep her distance, and then she gave up and muttered, "But then you aren't aware of the situation."
"Suppose you tell me," he said gently, and crossed to sit on the ottoman in front of her.
"It really doesn't matter any longer," she said, refusing to look him in the face. "While I've appreciated your friendship, I'm afraid it's... it's just not possible to continue."
"Whatever do you mean?"
He took in her wan face and guarded expression, and it suddenly dawned on him.
"Merl-- you think I'm married, don't you?" he said, disbelieving.
She started and laughed, and suddenly hushed herself and glanced out to the hall where, Albus supposed, the sullen maid was hanging about, snooping.
He twitched his fingers and cast a Silencing Charm over the room.
"Tell me," he urged. "You needn't worry about her overhearing."
She glanced toward the hall again, and uncertainly at him, but eventually elected to believe him.
"No," she said. "Whatever you are, Mr Dumbledore, you are most certainly not married."
What a curious way to put it.... Damnation. I knew I shouldn't have Apparated her.... Where did I muck it up?
"How can you tell?" he asked lightly, ignoring the other problem for now.
"Your suit is ten years out of date, and your cuffs are in a disgraceful condition. No woman with any pride would allow you to leave the house in that state."
"That's not good evidence -- she mayn't care."
"There's more, I'm afraid." She shook her head, and switched unerringly to precisely the topic he'd hoped to avoid, for the moment.
"You try very hard to fit in, but you don't. It's usually little things -- little social gaffs, mostly, things men your age should know and observe. It's as though you know the broad strokes -- the general way things are done -- but you don't understand the subtleties, because you've never had to practise them much.
"Not that you're not well-bred, you are, but you don't pick up on a lot of clues, or even easily-acquired, every-day knowledge. You have rather large gaps, there, things most Londoners have off by heart."
"For example, there is no Underground station this close to the Embankment. The closest to this house, in fact, is Walham Green -- five or six streets from where you roused me," she said patiently. "And while I might believe that I practically sleep-walked from there to the park, I cannot believe that my boots would have remained dry, given the rain that day. You didn't take me by the Underground, did you?"
"No, I didn't," he muttered, and twisted his hat-brim in his hands. "That was careless of me."
"You might have brought me by cab, of course, but it made no sense for you to have told me otherwise. Moreover, when I'd last checked the clock in the shop it was four-twenty, and only four-forty when I returned home. That's quite a miraculous speed, to get from West Central to Cheyne Walk, by cab or otherwise, in less than twenty minutes.
"Do you know, I almost turned you in as a German agent? I nearly did, before I thought it through and realised that wasn't a reasonable explanation, either. No, there's something you're hiding from me -- not a wife, something rather larger, and you have been from the first. Something about what you are, rather than who you are."
"There's a perfectly good explanation," he said earnestly.
"There may well be, but it's given me pause, and I've needed this time to sort through how I feel about it all. I could have excused the secrecy, providing it was something reasonable. I really don't care about most of it," she said slowly. "The ignorance of social niceties, the occasional lapse in judgement -- it doesn't matter in the balance, because I think you're a decent man, and I care far more about that. I'd already thought about that before and decided I didn't give a fig, and I'd thought --"
She stopped abruptly, and took a deep breath before continuing.
"You are not nearly as transparent as you present yourself, and it had begun to worry me. But it doesn't matter, Albus, truly, and that's not why I haven't wanted to see you. It's all immaterial now --"
"But I can tell you now," Albus desperately threw in. "I wasn't certain before whether you'd.... And then you seemed so determined to stay here for the duration, so there was no point. I'd like a chance to show you -- to prove there was a reason for the secrecy, before now."
"It doesn't matter," she said obdurately, and added in a mutter, "Aunt Rachel's put paid to it."
"Whatever do you mean?"
She twisted her fingers together before admitting it to him.
"This is all mine, you see," she said quietly. "The house -- or the leasehold on it, it's got another fifteen years -- and the contents, and a decent allowance."
"Do you think I care about that, one way or the other?"
"You should. You see, it's only mine as long as I don't marry. The moment I do, I'm cut off. No home, not a farthing."
He stared at her, his temper rising.
"I repeat," he said slowly, "do you think I care about that?"
"I'm of two minds about that -- and please consider that I'm now presented with your admission that you've deliberately hidden things from me. You might have targeted me, hoping that this would happen eventually. My father dead, my only living blood relative an elderly spinster.... You might have educated yourself about me, about my father, made up a story which I have no possible way of checking, and wormed your way into my affections."
Albus was speechless.
"Or," she continued painfully, "you are -- while not precisely what you appear to be -- a decent man who can't afford not to be concerned. You need someone with means, or someone with the skills to help support a family.
"I can't. I'm suited for absolutely nothing but being a companion. I read books, I play a bit of music, I fetch and carry -- nothing at all marketable or practical. I can't teach, I wouldn't begin to know how to work in a shop -- I can't even boil an egg, and I certainly don't know how to run a household, as I've never had to. I always assumed I'd stay with Father, or marry a son of one of his friends.
"And the problem is that you need someone useful, Albus, and I'm afraid I don't qualify."
"There are plenty of useful things in my life," he retorted. "That's certainly not what you represent to me. I don't give one bloody damn about the practicalities."
"And what about in a few years, when the shine has worn off?" she retorted. "When you're not only supporting me, but," she added, face flushing, "if there are other mouths to feed? It's simply an untenable situation, Albus. I don't think you're a cad, truly I don't -- I know you aren't -- but I'm afraid that, sooner or later, you'll regret a... continued association, and I couldn't bear that."
Albus shot to his feet and began pacing the room.
"Let me try to understand this," he managed, voice gravelly. "First, you think I care whether you have a penny in the world. Second, you think I'm not capable of supporting you -- and any others," he added defiantly. (He was rather intrigued with that thought -- he hadn't really got that far in his ruminations -- but shoved it away for the time being.) "Third, you think there are circumstances -- any circumstances -- in which I would regret caring for you, when --"
Well, that was awkward. She was quite correct that he didn't grasp many of the subtleties -- he'd taken a vague interest in Muggle social customs, but couldn't really be bothered to master the quirkier, fiddly bits, especially all those damnable social rules -- but even he knew that spitting out a declaration of love in such a cackhanded, furious manner was more than a bit peculiar. If Elizabeth were a witch she'd laugh in his face at best, and hex him with boils at worst.
But then, the whole situation was too peculiar for words: his meeting her by chance; his unaccountable need to make up for his clumsiness quite so spectacularly; his total disregard for the difficulties with the whole Muggle-Magical business; and, most peculiar of all, that the infatuation hadn't abated, and had, in fact, grown into love. That one rather shy, conventional Muggle girl had managed what scads of intelligent and skilled witches hadn't, long after he'd decided he was a lost cause.
He was certain he loved her, for good and ever. And judging from her tone of voice, she'd made up her mind for good and ever too, and not in his favour. He was at a loss as to how to put it all right.
Of course, storming about her parlour like a maniac isn't doing much to help, you idiot. You're probably frightening her out of her wits.
He halted and took a deep breath to calm himself, and looked at her -- and, indeed, she looked frightened and miserable.
"This is why you didn't write, isn't it?" he said. "You hoped I'd assume the worst of you and take it as a cut, and not put you -- either of us -- through this. And you're still afraid I'll persuade you to reconsider."
She nodded slowly, and said, "Partly."
"What was the other part?"
She looked truly frightened now, and ashamed as well.
"There were times," she said faintly, "when I hoped this would happen. That she'd die. I told myself, 'she's old, she's frail, it won't be much longer,' and then perhaps when she was gone it would work out for the b-- best --"
She burst into tears.
Faced with that, Albus didn't give a damn for the proprieties, Muggle or Wizard: he swiftly crossed to her, sat on the edge of the sofa, and pulled her into his arms and let her cry it out.
"I'm a huh-- horrid person --"
"Bollocks," Albus said decisively, and patted her back.
"You know," he said reflectively when she'd quieted, "I'm a bit older than you -- though I've never noticed that much -- and there's something I've observed about life and nature. Most of us are strange creatures -- our need to explore and live, really live, is so strong it simply won't be denied, and it manifests itself as hope."
He fumbled in his breast-pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and drew away from her just enough to dab at her tear-damp face.
"What you felt was hope for the future," he said quietly. "Not a wish against her, but the hope that you'd be able to live your life before it was too late for you, as well. There's no shame in that. If you're a horrid person I'm a blasted Hippogriff, and I'll eat my hat as well."
"I wish I could believe that," Elizabeth said unsteadily, and took the handkerchief from him to blow her nose. "What's a Blasted Hippogriff?"
"I'll tell you someday," he promised hastily. "And you will believe me someday," he added with a smile, "when you're older and more experienced. When you've lived, a bit."
She sat back in the sofa, but allowed him to keep hold of one of her hands, and he marvelled for a moment at the feel of her slender fingers in his own.
And then he knew the best way to show her.
"Elizabeth, do you trust me? Apart from that idiocy the other week?"
She nodded, and one wing of glossy hair dislodged from her chignon and swept against her cheek: Albus reached over and smoothed it back behind her ear.
"And you're not done in? You can think something through at the moment, without dismissing it outright?"
"I think so."
"Good. I want you to get your warmest coat, then. I've something to show you."
"What about Nellie?"
"Oh. Well, don't worry about her -- half a moment."
He rose and nipped out into the hall, and sure enough -- there was Nellie, plastered against the wall, craning to hear the conversation and obviously peeved that she couldn't. She started guiltily when he stepped through the pocket-doors.
"Good evening," Albus said cheerfully, shook his wand out of his sleeve, and promptly hexed her with Petrificus Totalis.
"All right," he called to Elizabeth as he slipped his wand away.
She started toward the stair, stopped dead when she saw Nellie, and stared, fascinated, as Nellie's piggy little eyes darted back and forth between the two of them.
"Oh, she'll be fine. I'll set her to rights when we return."
"What did you do, Mesmerism?"
"Not precisely," he admitted. "Why?"
"I thought that must be what you'd done to me, that day in the tea-shop."
"That was something very like, but this isn't. Go on, get your things."
Elizabeth hurried up the stair and Albus amused himself with anticipating exactly how much he was going to enjoy Obliviating Nosy Nellie, and by making grotesque faces at her. (The raspberry-tongued, cross-eyed look apparently terrified her, judging by the way her eyes bulged.)
Elizabeth came down two minutes later, though, well-wrapped up, cutting short his fun. He took her by the hand and pulled her through the parlour and over to the French windows.
"Are you certain she'll --"
"Right as rain. Come along -- I don't want to keep you out all night --"
He struggled with the latch on the windows.
"Blast it, how long has it been since the bloody things have been --"
He finally forced them open, and chill November air swept through the room.
"Albus, there's no way out of --"
"Oh yes there is -- you simply can't see it," he corrected her gently as he stepped out and pulled her after him. "Now, come here and put your arms about me -- don't you dare tickle, it'll quite distract me -- and hold on tight."
She did: he closed his eyes and thought of home, and then they were there.
To Part Two