FIC: "Dirigible Plum" for wwmrsweasleydo Recipient:wwmrsweasleydo Author/Artist: ??? Title: Dirigible Plum Rating: PG-13 Pairings: Xenophilius Lovegood/Albus Dumbledore, mentions of Horace Slughorn/various others Word Count: About 6700 Medium: Prose Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *None.* Summary: It’s 1946, and the Wizarding world is emerging from the shadow of Prussia. For Xenophilius, there could be no more exciting time to study further at L'Académie de Beauxbatons - especially when his life is lit-up by one very special visitor. Author's/Artist's Notes: Happy HP_Beholder, wwmrsweasleydo! I very much hope you like this tale. From your prompts, I worked with the idea of 'characters supporting one another', with a touch of comedy and, hopefully, a heart-warming ending. Many thanks also go to atdelphi, for running this very special fest once more.
Xenophilius had not been at the Academy for long, but he was pretty sure that he liked it. He had arrived just as France was throwing-off the shadow of Prussia, and everything in the Wizarding world was reopened to the light; fresh and celebratory.
As he crossed the atrium, sunbeams twinkled through the great glass ceiling, ironwork casting filigree patterns on the fountains and flagstones below. A tangle of Professors and research students milled about, a kaleidoscope of skin and hair set off in colourful robes. It was only this past year, he had been told, that wizards from the Orient had dared to return; tales of trouble in Europe had spread fast and fiercely.
Moving outside, Xenophilius took in the Greco-Roman façade of the Great Lecture Hall, golden proportions and delicate tracery on the capitols combining strength and delicacy, confidence and a deft touch. He fancied that he spotted a Snorknack in the carvings on the upper-left column, and mused that the architect must be a believer, too.
It was good to be among open-minded people. He sighed in contentment, as the breeze blew pale hair about his shoulders, the frizz alive to every change in the air. Across the green - and an academic world apart - bobbed smaller figures in elegant blue, the girls in sleek capes and bonnets, and the boys in robes that would pass as Sunday-best, back in England. Xenophilius grinned, glancing down at his own robes of paisley patchwork; he could neither deny that Beauxbatons had an envied reputation for style, nor that he would far rather tread his own unbeaten path than merge with the crowd, however smart the crowd appeared to be. Especially then, in fact, he added, bullishly.
Luckily, here at L'Académie de Beauxbatons, Xenophilius seemed to be permitted to do just that. The programme in Magical Flora and Fauna was sufficiently loose that he had been given project approval for all of his cryptozoology ideas. The ever-relaxed Professeur Bellard had simply produced a wry smile from the far side of his monocle and crystal cup of absinthe, and had waved a quill over the paperwork with a quirk of the eyebrow and a, "Bon chance, mon garçon," at the wind beneath Xenophilius' excitable heels.
From there, he had been on fire. There were naturalistic texts stretching back centuries in the beautiful, spiral library, each strand of bookshelf reaching up into the heavens like sweet pea and honeysuckle around a cane; there were unexplained sightings aplenty in the world press; and, of course, there were field trips to organise and embark upon. Xenophilius was glad for his inheritance, now, for they surely would be expensive.
Pausing again in the warm air, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Hints of lavender wafted in from the fields beyond, along with that earthy scent that surely meant a wood rich with Venomous Bowtruckles? At once, a trapping and counting procedure multiplied beneath his eyelids - they would be largely nocturnal, so that meant plenty of unicorn dung... and then an Acromantula call-charm to lure them forward. All he needed was proof, and then the piquant saliva would be harvestable - a sure-fire cure for Dragonpox, he was certain. -And that could save up to three-thousand lives per year!
Invigorated, Xenophilius continued onward. As much as he disliked being labelled or grouped, he didn't really mind the fact that students had been given their rooms according to nationality. He shared a set with a fellow Englishman - and although Horace's parties could be noisy, he was surely a good egg.
His steps retreated there now - around the parterre, through the archway, and to halls - a pleasant block of white stone and large windows.
He didn't need his key, as the door was already open.
"What ho, Xeno!" called Horace, from beneath a pile of gramophone records and a case of Chateau de la Licorne.
Xenophilius hung his tasselled cap on the hatstand, and stowed his satchel in the corner, by the Reticulated Aspidistra. He frowned; it was looking a bit peaky. "I say, you haven't been doing anything funny to Boris, have you?" The plant mournfully tipped its uppermost leaves in his direction, yellow spots on show.
"Boris? Oh no, old chap. Nothing at all." He fumbled with a few discs, then continued quietly. "Someone else might have had one too many cocktails over in that direction, though..."
Xenophilius rolled his eyes and went to his Botany cabinet for the appropriate restorative potion. He'd never manage to keep exotic specimens alive if they were treated as repositories for excess gin... or worse.
"Hurrah! Found it!" Horace stood up, triumphant. He reached barely to Xenophilius' nose, even in decent brogues. His cheeks glowed pink with foie gras and claret, and the buttons of his immaculate waistcoat strained with the plumpness of youthful good living. "This is exactly the song that I know Jean-Pierre will like."
"Jean-Pierre?" Xenophilius could barely keep up with his roommate's conquests and crushes.
"Oh yes! I must have told you. That delightful boy that I met at a party on the Champs-Élysées last Wednesday. Dark hair, pale skin... I think he studies Persian literature, or somesuch. But there wasn't much time for talking, if you catch my drift..." He wiggled his eyebrows, and Xenophilius couldn't help but blush.
"Really, Horace. I don't know how you do it."
"Do it? Do what?" All mock-innocence, he scouted around in his heap for a box of truffles.
"You know full well, what. A different chap every week!"
"Oh, that." He gave a winning smile. "I've told you before, Xeno, my dear. One has to play to one's strengths. Am I tall? Handsome? Muscular? No, no and no." Horace patted his tummy, for good effect. "So, never mind all that. No point in trying to measure up in circumstances that will obviously not be flattering. One has to set the scene to one's advantage. Charm; charisma; lavish hospitality! Knowing all the best spots in town, and exactly how to get in. Having the right drink, the right conversation, the right music. Pressing all of those buttons one by one by one... and then, hey presto! Putty in one's palms. Oh! -And then knowing exactly what to do with one's palms, if you catch my drift..."
"I do, thanks." Xenophilius suddenly felt a bit daft and more than a little shy. Much as Horace's stories were intriguing, he had never quite brought himself to partake... with either sex, truth be told. The search for Fanged Erumpents seemed an awful lot safer. He cast around for a way to change the subject. "I say, are you going to the lecture this evening?" He produced the flyer from his satchel and passed it over.
"'Professor Albus Dumbledore: Alchemy and Uncertainty'," Horace read. "No, thanks! I had enough of that old bird at Hogwarts."
Xenophilius sighed. "Oh yes. He taught you Transfiguration, didn't he?"
"The very same. Nice chap and all - but give me a good potion any day. One knows where one is with a cauldron: solid; reliable; not going anywhere. You know what you put in - and with a decent measure of skill and the right amount of patience - you know exactly what will be coming out. I can't be doing with birds erupting all over the place and the dinner on your plate turning into something it isn't. Altogether too flighty."
Xenophilius furrowed his brow. "Albus Dumbledore... flighty?"
"The man himself?" replied Horace, "Oh, no - not at all. Very serious, actually. Increasingly so, these last couple of years."
"Oh, why was that?"
"I don't know. I was his prefect, not his mother!" Horace paused, and narrowed his eyes in Xenophilius' direction. "I say, why all this interest about ol' Dumbles, anyway? A touch of the hero worship?" He grinned warming to his theme. "Oooh... you've seen the pictures - he is supposed to be very handsome, if you like that sort of thing."
Involuntarily, Xenophilius' eyes flicked to the poster - where a strong, fiery-haired man twinkled back at him. Undeniably, he was handsome. Xenophilius found himself blushing again, not at all helped by the further wiggling of Horace's eyebrows. "Oh, really," he dissembled. "I was just interested. How can one not be? Word gets around, you know, even where we were in Tripoli.
"Merlin, the school there doesn't teach much - for which I'm grateful, by the way... we were done by two o' clock each afternoon for the Professors to have their afternoon nap, so Mama just let me go off into the hills to track down specimens. Fantastic Sparklewort, there, actually. Oh! And I once found the footprints of a Xerophytic Snorknack!
"But yes - even there, everyone's heard of Dumbledore. How could they not, after the duel? We've got him to thank for being here, after all. I heard that before we arrived last year, it was all gloom and broken glass, in Paris. Everyone was terrified." He paused for a moment, absent-mindedly sucking on a stray lock of hair. "I say. Why isn't he talking about the victory, today, do you think? Why the dragon's blood stuff, instead?"
Horace shrugged. "I don't know. Never really struck me as the duelling type, to be honest. When the news broke - it was over the summer, so everyone was away at school - we were all really surprised. Everyone knew that he was powerful - well, accomplished, I suppose, that's a better word – but he seemed far more bookish that combative. And then, when we came back in September and all the class was clamouring with questions, he didn't want to talk about it. He just said, 'oh, that. A few spells, all terribly boring,' - about the greatest duel of the century, no less! - and then tried to divert our attention back to the Five Tedious Principles of Transfiguration, or somesuch.
“So, I'm not surprised that he's talking about the dragon's blood stuff, today. Quite interesting, actually, but I've heard it all before."
Xenophilius nodded, taking all that in. He pottered over to his window box in the far bay. "Dirigible plum?"
Horace eyed the proffered fruit with suspicion. "Um. No, thanks."
Xenophilius shrugged and popped two in his mouth. The pointy orange fruit tasted at once sweet and savoury - a cross between gravy and bacon and apple pie - and as he chewed it, he felt slightly dizzy, tingles spreading from his tongue to his forehead and seeping inside. "I've started a new regimen, you know. At least one of these every day is supposed to broaden the mind and make one extra-perceptive to new ideas. It might even help me to find the Crumple-Horned-"
"-Snorknack," finished Horace, rolling his eyes. "Or hallucinate it, more like! Have you ever actually tested what's in those? I heard that some tribes in Africa use them to distil their version of the Draught of the Living Death. And that the effects are cumulative. If you keep up with this, I shudder to think how batty you'll be when you're fifty!"
"Pfft!" laughed Xenophilius, and picked a third plum from the plant, for good measure. "A little eccentricity never hurt anyone."
Horace raised his eyebrows, as if to imply that 'a little' had been passed some while back, but he let it lie. The wall clock chimed eight. "Oho! Listen to that. I must go; my dear boy will be waiting. -And if you're going to that lecture, you're already late!" He rummaged in his wardrobe, emerging with his plushest cloak.
Glancing again at the poster, Xenophilius could see that said timing was right. Cap and keys re-stowed, he made for the door.
"I say, do you think that I ought to grow a moustache?" Horace was preening in the full-length mirror, smoothing his robes. This time, it was Xenophilius' turn to roll his eyes.
"Have a good evening, my friend."
"Oh, I shall! Don't wait up, if you catch my drift." Xenophilius could see him wink, just past the door jamb. "And give my regards to ol’ Dumbles!"
"I will. Goodnight!"
Xenophilius was out of breath by the time he reached the Great Lecture Hall, but he had only missed the introduction. Professeur Madame Leclair was just moving away from the lectern, and the welcoming applause gave him cover to slip down the aisle to one of the very few free seats - just a few rows from the front.
From there, Xenophilius had a marvellous view of all the different bottles and vials that were laid out on the front bench, along with some exotic leaves and pickled creatures that he vaguely recognised. Of course, it also afforded him a superb view of the man who was to take the stand - tall and assured, and dressed in robes that would match both Horace's for opulence, and his own, for brave colour combinations. Something within Xenophilius prickled with anticipation; his breathing stilled as he found himself already fully absorbed.
"Good afternoon to you all, L'Académie de Beauxbatons," Dumbledore began. His voice was rich and sonorous, commanding attention without apparent effort. "It is a great pleasure for me to be speaking to you today, especially on a subject that I hold so dear. Before I start, though, I should acknowledge that much of the work here was done in collaboration with Nicholas Flamel, a Master Alchemist and great friend, who was kind enough to teach me the fundamentals of the craft when I had just left school.
Thus - and I address the students in the audience here, in particular - may I commend you on your fine choice to study further; to invent and to discover? And may your success be limited only by your own morals, which should be upstanding, and your imagination, which should be boundless."
At that, Xenophilius felt a shudder go through him, far more affecting and pervasive than the third dirigible plum. The rest of the audience and all those rows of chairs faded from his consciousness; it was as if Dumbledore was speaking directly to him.
"Now, today I'll be talking to you about the Twelve Uses of Dragon's Blood. I'll summarise - for those who are not Alchemists - but essentially, the nitty-gritty is out there in many texts, and you can even pick up a copy of our original paper from the side bench, if you're feeling particularly masochistic." He grinned, as eyes fleeted to a neat pile of dense text, off to the right of the stage. "In this lecture, therefore, I'll focus not on the destination, but on the journey. Where does discovery come from? Is it a question of intelligence, or mainly just effort? What about serendipity? -And to start us off, I wonder whether anyone in the audience can tell me what this is?" He held up a jar, in which beautiful iridescent wings, and devilish claws and teeth floated. It looked as if a vast Amazonian butterfly had been spliced with a lizard and a hawk, all at once.
Much of the audience subtly recoiled; a few of the girls automatically took out a powder compact and patted at their noses. Xenophilius peered forward, though. He was sure he had read about... Yes! "The Venomous Fluttersnatch!" he called out, only vaguely aware that he had said it aloud - until all eyes in the rooms craned in his direction.
Several of the Professors in rows behind tutted and shook their heads. Fluttersnatches, were, after all, the stuff of silly children’s stories. Apocryphal as can be, they were said to be fairies gone wrong, mutated by drinking Dark blood. Many a generation of magical parents had pretended the threat: 'go to bed now, or the Fluttersnatches'll get you.' It only worked on children under four.
The snide glances and sniggers stopped abruptly though, when Dumbledore called out, "Precisely, young man! They laughed at me, too, when I first proposed it, but my route to elucidating the First Use of Dragon's Blood was as follows..."
For the next hour, one could have heard a feather drop in the Great Lecture Hall. Dumbledore regaled his travels to dragon colonies and windy marshes, within ancient texts from Alexandria and hours spent among pestles and mortars and flames, in scientific quietude with a leap of faith and a bolt of inspiration. He was a captivating speaker. The lecture ended in bounteous applause, and a forest of hands for questions, which Professeur Madame Leclair could barely field.
Most were of the pedestrian type: 'What's the recipe for...?', 'Exactly how many...?', 'What is the date of...?', and Dumbledore answered them all with politeness and aplomb. Five in, Xenophilius was delighted to be given the chance to make his own query. He cleared his throat gingerly, wondering if his thought was impertinent. "Professor Dumbledore, you have described wonderfully how you arrived at the Twelve Uses, and your paper is one of the most fundamental in modern Alchemy. But how do you know that there are only twelve? I mean, how can we be sure there isn't a Thirteenth Use?"
Again, there was a touch of rumpus in the hall; some muttering, and sucking of air through teeth. It was not considered good form to presume to question the foundations of such a renowned body of work, after all.
Dumbledore, however, seemed delighted, and he beamed with a smile so captivating, Xenophilius found himself wishing he could bathe in it forever. The great man lowered his voice to a stage whisper and locked Xenophilius with his gaze. “I don't."
The shock in the room was palpable. Professors frowned and exchanged meaningful glances, and the Alchemy students present looked as if their whole world had been unsteadied. In the midst of it, a somewhat discombobulated Professeur Madame Leclair rushed back onto the stage. She made a show of looking at the big golden clock at the front of the hall, and drew proceedings to a close.
Feet scuffled, urgent conversations picked-up, and the aisles filled with witches and wizards – either anxious, or anxious for their supper. Xenophilius supposed he had better join them, but he couldn't quite bring himself to move; something in his heart just wanted to stay where it was - to hear more, to see more.
A tap on the shoulder brought him back to earth. Xenophilius’ supervisor, Professeur Bellard, was looking uncharacteristically green about the gills - quite a far cry from his usual cognac-flushed bonhomie. "You are already making quite a name for yourself, aren't you, non?" The chiding was amused rather than cross. Xenophilius wasn't sure how to respond, so he opted for what he hoped was a genial smile. "You 'ave clearly impressed up zhere, anyway," - his eyes flicked to the stage - "and given that I am feeling as rough as zhe badger's arse - as you Anglais would put it - I 'ave told Madame Leclair zhat you're taking my place at zhe speaker's dinner tonight. It is in zhe Silver Parlour at nine. Au revoir, mon garçon."
At that, Professeur Bellard retreated - quite possibly in search of some medicinal liqueur - and Xenophilius was left with his heart in his throat and his head in a whirl.
He returned to his rooms to fret about what he was going to wear. Indeed, he was halfway through emptying his trunk when Xenophilius realised that... this was not his usual sort of behaviour.
Preening in the mirror was far more Horace's reserve, especially when he was heading off to a date. Surely that couldn't mean... no, that was ridiculous! Xenophilius didn't even think about that sort of thing; no-one had ever even caught his interest.
And yet... he couldn't quite shake that marvellous image of Dumbledore, twinkling and resplendent on the platform. Proud height, strong form, kind smile and tempting eyes, and so very handsome… Xenophilius felt his skin prickle and his cheeks flush at the mere thought. Putting his trusty cap and patchwork cloak back on, he shook his head and set a foot forward to the Academy's highest spiral. No, this was not like himself; not at all.
Never having entered that part of the Palace before, Xenophilius was struck by the beauty of the Silver Tower. It seemed as if whole thing was spun from lace; the stonework was overlaid with delicate leaves and flowers, glistening silver and airy-light. Reality already rather disconnected, he floated upward to the circular dining room at the very top, lofty and otherworldly.
Xenophilius entered to find that the table was laid very grandly, but only for four. There was Professeur Madame Leclair, Head of the Academy and an expert on Magical Arbitration by background; Professor Jarschalen, leading historian and Head of the Faculty of Wizardology; Xenophilius in Professeur Bellard's place as Head of the Faculty of Magical Sciences; and, of course, Professor Dumbledore, the guest of honour.
As Xenophilius entered, Professeur Madame Leclair developed the tiniest crease between her eyebrows. "Professor Dumbledore, may I present Xenophilius Lovegood, a student of Professeur Bellard, who is sadly indisposed this evening."
Dumbledore extended his hand. "Ah, the young man from row three! Delighted." He shook heartily, and Xenophilius could not help but thrill from the warmth of his grasp. "Lovegood, you say? That, I'm sure, is a British name, but I know that we never had the pleasure of your company at Hogwarts."
"No, Professor,” he answered, “I was schooled mainly in North Africa and the Balkans. Just before coming to the Academy, I was in Tangiers."
"Interesting! You must tell me all about the wildlife there - Madame Leclair informs me that you're a Magizoologist in training - and, please, do call me 'Albus'. It seems daft to stand on ceremony when there are only four of us."
Xenophilius thanked him, and the other two academics smiled, albeit a little tightly. Elves brought the first course and the first wine; according to the cutlery and crystal, they were to be the first of many.
Conversation flowed, and Xenophilius was actually struck by how little he actually felt self-conscious - when, by rights, he should have been intimidated beyond belief by the company. There was just something uncanny about Professor Dumbledore that enlivened and relaxed everything. Him, in particular.
They all talked for a while about dragon habitats, and the Fluttersnatch swarms that had been sighted in Tibet. Professeur Jarschalen, a pointed man with a mop of dark hair, asked about the historical precedent for new Alchemy, and Professeur Madame Leclair listened to all the answers with measured interest, smoothing her napkin over fine satin robes.
If Xenophilius had stopped to think about it, he would have had to confess that he was ecstatic to be there. He was so thoroughly rapt by the conversation with Professor Dumbledore – no, with Albus - though, that reflection of that sort didn’t enter the picture.
The Academy Professors were passing-polite to him, but tended, as so many did, to nod and change the subject when he tried to explain his theory on the evolution of Teleporting Dung Beetles, or the international conspiracy to hide the existence of the Disappearing Mergriffin.
Albus was different, though – he actually listened. Xenophilius had never felt more on fire. This remarkable wizard actually engaged with his ideas: ’Fascinating thought! How might one test that?’ ‘…And what do you know of the habitat of the Californian Sphinx?’ ‘Three hundred sightings in twelve hectares, all in one phase of the moon, you say?...’
It wasn't just Magizoology. Xenophilius had ideas about patterns in runes, and had noticed something very interesting in the constellation of the Rainbow Chimera just the other evening. Somehow it felt acceptable – Merlin, not only acceptable, but encouraged - to share these with his illustrious visitor, and more. Albus was smiling at him across the table, swivelled a little in Xenophilius’ direction as a perfect mirror of his own posture, and generous in both gesticulation and optimism. When Xenophilius stopped for breath or to hear Albus’ reply, he watched those firm, sure hands, resting on the table or at his chin in thought. He watched Albus’ lips, pursed in cogitation or curved into a grin, and he watched those glittering blue eyes, promising the world and watching him in turn as he tucked a stray tuft of blond hair behind his ear, or took a sip from his wine glass.
The food was excellent, and the drink generous. Decanters soared back and forth as fish, jellies, sorbets and meat dishes came and went, silver cutlery making its tour of all of the Academy's porcelain. Xenophilius realised that he was feeling a little woozy; he didn't usually drink much, especially of such variety.
The dessert course was just being cleared and the elves retreating for the night, when the two hosting Professors exchanged glances. It was only then that it dawned on Xenophilius - the pair had not got a word in edgeways since the hors d'oeuvre.
"Yes, it vas a marvellous lecture," Professor Jarschalen started out, rather stiffly. "Very.... errr, illuminating. Even for those of us who aren't at all Alchemists." He looked twitchy, as if it were a prelude to something else.
"And we have spoken so much now, of the Natural History of your discoveries,” Professeur Madame Leclair put in, “I'm sure that Professeur Bellard is very sorry to have missed it - but Xenophilius has been a... fine representative" - her tone was somewhat sardonic - "of that Faculty, this evening."
The History Professor took up the baton. "But to turn to a more interesting topic, if we may? Your defeat of Grindelwald, last summer!" His dark eyes came alive at this, and the mop of hair quivered as he bobbed in excitement. After all, there had been few details reported in the press.
Madame Leclair now took a very smooth tone. "We quite understand that the politics of it are not quite the thing for the ears of all and sundry-"
"-But taking a historical perspective, it's only proper to discuss the background and timing of-"
"-What surely must be the greatest battle of the century."
"-Nay, the millennium!"
They both leaned toward their target, expressions insistent.
There was a long pause. Xenophilius could sense that somehow, the ebullient atmosphere in the room had been breached.
Finally, Albus took a deep breath and a long swig of wine. "Really… it's all terribly dull." He waved a hand airily. Xenophilius took a sideways glance; it was an excellent impression of nonchalance, but something behind his eyes looked strained.
Madame Leclair was not to be dissuaded, however. "As an Arbitrator and Wizardologist, Professor, you will understand that the recent events in Prussia are of utmost interest to me. You must tell us: how precisely did you negotiate the battle ground? Is there a line of communication between yourself and the deposed tyrant? Had you ever corresponded in the past? Really, my latest manuscripts are dying to know!"
Xenophilius saw Albus twist his napkin under the table. "I fear, Madame, there is very little to tell.” He shifted a little in his chair. “I had some luck with some spells; that's all."
She pursed her lips, and Professor Jarschalen narrowed his eyes.
The dance continued for some minutes, thus. The home team became increasingly frustrated, and Albus seemed to close in on himself, little by little, all the while insisting that the story was of trifling interest.
Finally, Madame Leclair conceded. Rising from her chair, she shook Albus' hand with icy politeness. "I fear it is late, and I must retire." An instructional glance to Professor Jarschalen had him doing the same. "Thank you again, Professor, for your... lecture. I daresay our young student, here, will entertain you for as long as you wish." She dispensed a cursory nod in Xenophilius' direction, and left the tower, no doubt giving up her evening of Wizardological research as a bad job, as her visions of ground-breaking manuscripts flew out of the delicate windows.
The air seemed still and tense, rather like the moment just before an earthquake; every click of an elegant heel was audible down the stairs.
Softly, the door slid closed - and through the fuzz of wine and delicate silver shimmers playing in the candlelight, Xenophilius was struck by the absurd notion that he was now alone with the most famous wizard on the planet.
"Um," he started, looking in Albus direction. Albus was gazing down into his glass, with eyes focussed leagues away from it. It was tricky.
The pause stretched on. His vision danced at the edges and he was hyper-aware of each breath entering and leaving his body. Xenophilius cast around for another long moment, and then - when nothing more profound presented itself - he said the first and most natural thing that popped into his mind. "Dirigible plum?"
A little startled, Albus looked up. Xenophilius ruffled around in his satchel, and produced a handful of the strange pointy fruits.
Albus did a double-take, and then something seemed to click into place once more, and a smile lit up his features; a smile that came from the heart. "Thank you, my dear boy. Thank you so much.” He took one with a flourish, and popped it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “This will surely be the perfect digestif."
Xenophilius nodded, and felt that wonderful smile reflected in his own countenance. They passed a moment of snug quiet, both enjoying the tingle of exotic fruits and chance companionship.
Then, Albus exhaled softly, and shook his head. “I am sorry for my melancholy.”
"You don't like talking about the battle." He said it not as a question, but gently; just a statement of fact.
But the words made Albus let out a huge sigh – a sigh that seemed to have been stored up for the whole evening, or perhaps the whole year. "You're right, again, Xenophilius. I don't.”
He nodded, and considered. "It's ok, you know. My mother always used to say that each conversation has it's time. You can't force it, but when you're ready, it will be there, waiting."
Albus met his eyes once more. "Your mother is a wise woman."
Xenophilius smiled, but sadly. "Yes, she was."
"It's alright. Mama and Papa died about two years ago, now. Papa was a diplomat, so we travelled all over the place for his job. That's why I didn't go to Hogwarts. In truth, I barely saw my father; it was always just Mama and me. She taught me everything she could, and then gave me free range to discover everything else for myself.” He offered Albus another plum, and he took it, gesturing thanks. “I always knew that I should learn everything I came across - even if to some people, it isn’t very interesting or relevant, because those are the things that can be of the most help when you least expect it. Most importantly, Mama taught me always to be kind.” He reflected for a moment. “She'd be pleased that I'm here, I think."
Albus nodded. "I'm sure she would.” He fiddled with the end of his beard, weighing his next words. “May I ask what happened? -Though, of course, you don't have to..."
"-It's fine." He took a deep breath; Xenophilius had made his peace with the world these past two years, and he felt the warmth of his family when he spoke of them. "They were killed by Grindelwald's followers on a mission in Greece. The Dark wizards took down the whole Embassy, in fact. I was out fishing for plimpies at the time."
"Oh, gods...” His face fell once again, but Xenophilius was keen to assuage it:
"-And even though I'm not going to ask you to talk about the battle - as it's come up, I'd just like to say how grateful I am that you stopped Grindelwald. We have you to thank for-"
Xenophilius stopped dead as Albus buried his face in his hands. His shoulders trembled; every muscle seemed strung taut. "I should have... Oh gods, I'm so sorry... I..."
The room suddenly felt very small, but not in an enclosed way. No, it was rather as if that little space between the two of them was now the centre of all gravity, and Xenophilius was being pulled toward it; toward Albus; needing to reach out to him.
Without thinking, he once again did the only thing that felt natural. Moving his chair such that they were close, Xenophilius put his hand on Albus' back; almost an embrace. He could feel the warmth of the other man through his palm, and something in his heart began to sing. "It's alright. Really. Whatever it is, you did your best. You're a good person, Albus. I can tell that, having met you only today."
They stayed like that for a long moment, as the candles flickered and the juices of grapes and dirigible plums ran in their veins.
Finally, Albus looked up - rolling inwards to Xenophilius while still cradled in his arm, eyes glistening with dew and something that could have been hope. “Do you really think so?”
Upon Xenophilius’ cheek, his breath was soft and warm, like the down of a young unicorn and the spring in Tangiers. He nodded, pressing together his lips with feeling, and it seemed to be an affirmation of so much more than just his previous words.
Slowly, carefully, Albus brought a hand upward to cradle Xenophilius’ face. He ran a thumb across his cheekbone and pushed flyaway hairs from his forehead with a reverent touch. Xenophilius leaned into the caress, his heart somersaulting in his chest as each tiny movement set his nerves on fire.
From there, every action was guided not by thought, but by inevitability; by the purest of feeling. He found himself drifting toward Albus - closer and closer, until his long nose brushed Xenophilius’ own… and further still until their lips touched – miraculously, marvellously.
The glorious shock of such a thing paralysed Xenophilius at first. But Albus was gentle, and so sensual and hungry and full of life, that delight and instinct took over as joint guides.
They might have kissed for moments – or perhaps, for hours. Xenophilius’ eyes were closed and his hands full of velvet and silken long hair, with the sensations of other hands roaming his face, his neck and his body. All his years of exploration were but a pale shadow to this. This renowned Professor; this Alchemist; this wizard; this beautiful, gorgeous man who had somehow walked into Xenophilius’ life to give him the aurora borealis and the Palace of Babylon and a whole colony of Crumple-Horned Snorknacks all at once.
When they parted, Xenophilius felt nothing but joy and opportunity, floating in a haze of arousal and new beginnings. He didn’t understand why he saw see troubled sadness cloud Albus’ features once more.
Albus gazed at him, and swallowed hard. "My dear boy. How I wish I could drown myself in your blond hair and fine ideals."
Then, he pushed back his chair to stand, screwed his eyes shut, and shook his head.
A couple of short strides, and it was all over; Albus disappeared through the doorway and down the stairs before Xenophilius could think to stop him.
"Oho! Who's a dirty stop-out then?"
Xenophilius jumped at the voice when he went back to his set. It was quite dark, and he had expected to be alone.
"Horace! I didn’t think you’d be here."
"Oh, I know." He gave a theatrical sigh, refilling his glass of claret as he stood by the side-table. "Jean-Pierre blew me off. But no matter," - he continued, brightly - "Plenty more fish in the sea, and all that.
“-But, I say, what on earth have you been up to, eh? You know it's past three in the morning?"
Xenophilius wasn't quite sure what to say, so he just looked back, feeling himself redden.
Horace was quick on the uptake. "Oh, golly! Like that is it? So, who's the lucky chap… if I may? No impertinence meant, my friend, but I've always been pretty sure it would be a chap - now, wouldn't it? Ooooh, let me think: you went to that lecture and then... I don't know. Then, what?"
Allowing himself to be taken along with the questions, Xenophilius replied, "Well, I had dinner."
"Wiiiiith?" Horace was rocking on his heels now, eager for gossip.
"The Heads of Faculty. And Albus."
"Albus?" He sounded incredulous.
"I mean, 'Professor Dumbledore.'" Xenophilius found himself shifting from foot to foot at the name. It was a good job that he never tried to lie about things; he would surely be terrible at it.
Always fast to put two and two together, Horace stared at him, wide-eyed. "You mean... you, and Dumbledore?!"
Xenophilius furrowed his brow and turned away to take off his hat and cloak. He busied himself with his boots, too, and then collapsed into an old, comfortable chair.
Horace stood patiently still, but he was clearly alive to every syllable when Xenophilius began his answer.
"Well, yes.” He paused again. “Sort of, anyway." He wasn't quite sure what had happened, himself, if he was perfectly honest. All he knew was that he was ecstatic, and then it was all over, far too quickly.
For once, Horace was speechless, so Xenophilius took the opportunity to carry on. "I mean, we spent most of the evening together, and then he kissed me. That was all – but it was wonderful! And then he hurried away." He paused, thoughtful. "I do hope I can see him again.”
Horace lowered himself onto the sofa, shaking his head incredulously, but wreathed in a grin. "My dear Xeno, you do pick them!"
He had no answer to that, so just felt his expression knot into wrinkles. Horace proffered a glass, but he shook his head; there had already been enough wine that evening.
The silence stretched between them for some minutes. Xenophilius felt knocked sideways by it all, but he had little in the way of reasons or conclusions. He stared at the wall clock across the room without noting the time, feeling blank and perplexed.
Xenophilius didn’t mind quietude, but if there was a vacuum, Horace always wanted to fill it. "Hey, don’t take on so, old thing!” he said, after a while and another refill. “There are plenty of other eligible chaps in the world, you know. I'm..." - Horace lowered his voice and wiggled his eyebrows - "Entirely yours, if you like, my dear."
That made Xenophilius snap out of his reverie, at least. Blushing again, he crossed his arms. "The trouble is, Horace, you're entirely anyone's."
“Pffft!” He brushed that off, taking a dainty sip of red, and they both smiled. “But really, if it’s old Dumbles who’s caught your eye, your heart, or your… what-have-you… I suppose you should see what you can do about making contact with him again. Everyone knows where he lives, after all.”
Xenophilius frowned, sadly. “But he ran from me.”
“Hardly surprising, though, is it?” Horace was ready with his answer. “The poor chap was probably having something of an identity crisis… alternative realities and age-wobbles and psychodrama and goodness knows what. He’ll need a little coaxing; a little encouragement.”
“Encouragement?” Xenophilius sat up straight, vaguely wondering how he could have made it as far as the Academy while being so utterly clueless in another sort of territory.
“Yes!” Horace was warming to his theme. “Show him that you’re serious. -If you are, that is?”
“Oh, yes!” Xenophilius nodded ardently; he had never been more serious about a thing in his life.
“Right, then. He’ll need to be persuaded that he wasn’t Machiavellianly taking advantage of a poor vulnerable student. Show him that it’s okay to walk the untrodden path, or somesuch.” He swirled his claret – and cocked his head in gentle jibe. “I say, why don't you send him a cutting of your special mind-broadening plant, or something?"
Horace might have meant it as levity, but Xenophilius glanced over at his trusty plum tree, and smiled. He imagined packing up a seedling carefully, with a few of the ripe fruits for good measure. He would give it to his dearest Egyptian owl with godspeed and a kiss - and then could just picture Albus' strong, careful hands undoing the string and popping a strange sweet-savoury fruit between his beautiful lips - before taking up a quill and writing back with kindred spirit.
Xenophilius walked over to his window-box and selected a green branch. "You know, I think I’ll do just that.”