Title: The Good Must Associate
Warnings: Unattractive-to-some old men, fat men, and fat old men. Very light reference to sex. Weird POV that seemed like a good idea at the time.
Summary: While waiting for him to wake up, you remember.
Author's Notes: My first Harry Potter fic that wasn't a drabble written for a sorting comm somewhere. And that one poem. I will post that one poem sometime. Be gentle with me, for I am a virgin.
Betaed for last-minute 'ZOMG please assure me this is in-character' insecurity, but not for grammar, yet. Will edit for that eventually. I'm sure I must've screwed up a tense somewhere.
- Edmund Blake
You knew him when his beard was still russet and only fell halfway down his chest. Slipping quietly into his eighties, he'd moved and bent like a reed - so many years your senior, yet with a mind and body as flexible as a metamorphmagus' skin. His eyes sparkled even then, and his smile twitched to the very ends of his whiskers. In the world of magic he still glided subtly through middle age.
You sat at orientation, and listened as they called him by name. This man, who learned in these halls before you, who was graduated and off collecting the Order of Merlin while you sneaked food from the kitchens for the older boys - the ones who tore your Charms homework if you didn't. Now, still feeling barely grown up, there was hair falling out on your pillow. You'd always had trouble seeing your feet. You were three times this man's weight, half his height, a new schoolteacher with a handful of published essays and a few more successful housemates to your name. Why was he your colleague?
You'll never admit you remember that. Instead, when asked for a story, you say: "He took the steps up two at a time, once, left me panting behind him, and when he turned back to wait for me he made a joke about needing a round on the Quidditch pitch. Oho, it was sound advice, of course," here you pat your gut for emphasis, "and his eyes were kind - good man, always a good man - but he was a Gryffindor at heart, after all, and he'd done all that studying alone. He wasn't used to people. So you see, I knew Albus Dumbledore before he'd learned tact."
Dumbledore was Head of his House before you were. You're not a man to hold a grudge, but you've never forgotten that - it felt as though he was ahead by several lifetimes, as opposed to a small step. You wove your web upward and joined him in status two years later, watching him as you did. You learned through imitation how to share your sweets, to smile knowingly, to be so gracious that it wounded. You already knew how to see what people needed, where they fit. Dumbledore taught you how to make them like you.
And it seemed to work, for all the poor imitation it was. The meetings started simple but grew in their perks, were always exclusive. The first set of graduates came and went, then the second. You learned which chocolates you liked the best. A budding politician of a sixth year introduced you to crystallized pineapple - too sour-sweet at first, but far too quickly proving addictive.
There were some complaints, mostly from the disgruntled and ordinary, but you weren't surprised. People resent any reminder that life is unfair. It smoothed over rather easily at the faculty breakfasts; Headmaster Black thought young people deserved humbling through rejection, Dippet thought the whole thing harmless. It was easy to agree. The height of the wizarding world was not impenetrable without your help, after all. Blood and money got a wizard far, so why not teach that? You weren't uncaring. You'd set no one up for failure. And you wanted something in return, but everyone does, one way or another.
You remember a sliver of an otherwise insignificant morning. You'd just agreed, in gracious appeasement, to allow guests to the parties. You turned your head and saw his eyes on you. Under spectacles now, they were quiet and piercing, uncomfortably wise and oddly sad. You'd squirmed in your too-small chair.
A moment's awkward silence passed, and you'd resumed eating. He had been growing out his beard. Unaccustomed to it, he leaned over too far and wet the very end in the soup.
You'd felt a moment's gratification, and mentally rehearsed the way to tell the story at the Yule Ball.
You don't remember Tom.
Technically you do, of course, but the thought of him brings so much fear and humiliation, even now. Especially now. So you lock that memory up, yet again, and refuse to think of how this is All Your Fault.
You remember the Friday he asked you to tea; he served Earl Grey and all your favorite sweets, never mind how he knew them. You remember how you knew it was a bribe and not a social call, no matter how much his eyes smiled. You knew bribes, you dealt in bribes, and in appeasement and quid pro quo. And Albus Dumbledore had no better reason to sit with you.
You remember how he'd provided an armchair, a large opulent thing, like sitting on a cloud. You reclined there and added four sugars to your tea as you enjoyed, for once, the luxury of space. He'd get nothing from you, but at least you could take advantage.
Waiting for his request, even the slightest hint of one, you were surprised when it never came. Nor was he foolish enough to ask anything directly. He had learned tact, by then, and patience, had learned that for a Slytherin no information was cheap and all of it was potentially dangerous. He probed it from you slowly, bit by bit, asking about anything else instead. He discovered who you were, what he didn't know and what he'd known for years, by degrees: the socialite parents, the fear of flying, where you bought your smoking jackets.
It was enjoyable to be talked about. It was rare for someone over the age of seventeen to even feign interest, in those early days - and you relished the feeling of being secure, being liked. What man wanted less? You watched his hands curl around the china or carefully take a biscuit, the way he ate with calm gentility, without crumbs. You watched the way he smiled, as if he truly cared. It was unreal, and you wondered with no small hesitation what obstacles he had glided through, to be the man he was.
You were talking about Quidditch - yes, Woodrane's of Muggle stock, but he's one of mine, Albus, and a good flier is a good flier - when you noticed how he was looking at you. Like he saw all the way through you and then down deeper than even you knew to go.
"My friend, you could do so much good," he'd said.
You had been called 'my friend', 'my dear', 'my good fellow', you have been a thousand formalities and none of them gave you that same jolt of guilt. None of them had ever before or again sounded sincere.
Scores of Fridays went by, seasons and years worth of them. The large armchair was well-worn before long. Dumbledore's hand turned gnarled and aged as it accidentally touched yours when you both reached for a lemon drop. (You were reluctant about trying them, but your sweet tooth and memory of the pineapple overrode your snobbery.)
He would be Headmaster, you knew. He was the only wizard great enough for the job; you could have won the position on connections and favors, perhaps, but you didn't want it. You weren't suited for the messiness of paperwork and staff disputes, the confining nature of responsibility - especially not with the way the world was changing, lengthening and darkening before your eyes, as you tried to ignore the cold feeling of dread that had only broken through your obliviousness once before. (Don't think 'my fault', don't think of Tom.)
You watched the children on the train, in the hallways, watched them fight their little house wars with a sharpness harder and more well- honed than you'd seen in years of teaching. Albus would step closer to you, and you'd smile a little easier with him there. But there was no serene, composed friend for you when the common room doors closed and you were faced with a gaggle of angry-eyed teens, spouting slurs, while a few sullen halfbloods trailed at the edges of the group and stayed quiet.
Slytherin ambition had a harder, colder edge to it those days, a malice you yourself had never held. Light cheating and knowledge of superiority were one thing; this generation delighted not in what they could become, but in what they could prevent others from being. The Club was in higher demand than ever - scores of nameless schoolboys anxiously hoping to be deemed special, worthy of their own views on breeding. The Gryffindor children were talking about becoming Aurors. Young Malfoy returned from Hogsmeade one day wearing a wide smirk and not telling anyone where he'd been, not even you. You'd plastered on a smile and gone to bed early that night.
You let Dumbledore have the power and thanked your lucky stars he didn't shut the Club down, too nervous to consider that perhaps he wanted you to decide that for yourself.
One afternoon, as you sipped chamomile and mopped your brow, he said: "If there's anything you ever want to talk about -"
You're a terrible liar where it counts, but you said there was nothing anyway. You shifted uncomfortably in your seat, ever-awkward under his heavy and too-agreeable silence, wondering if you were getting fatter.
After a moment, you offered it, halting and still half-disguised as small talk: "Something's changing, Albus. Things aren't how they were when we first started."
"Change is a frequent side effect of the passage of time, Horace." The beatific smile that played across his lips, half-teasing you, was quietly infuriating - you'd have felt insulted had his voice not promptly grown sincere. "You are safe at Hogwarts, my friend."
The unspoken words were "with me," but you couldn't accuse him of egotism, not when you'd been thinking the same thing yourself.
Frightened and feeling empty, you closed the distance, a hand in his greying hair. His lips were welcoming and surprisingly warm, and though you knew he would yield if you asked him to, you knew even more that it would only feel right, be right, if it were you.
There was something too good about it. He waited for you to ask for it a second time, but you never did. He kept inviting you to tea.
It was a few days after Halloween, and HE'd murdered her. You could still see her behind your eyes: how high she raised her hand in class, her near-constant inventiveness, the way she'd always spoken her mind to anyone, even to you. She'd been one of the few students you still respected, in spite of the Order membership - maybe because of it - and now her son was an orphan.
You couldn't celebrate, not even then, not even with HIM gone, because Lily Evans Potter was dead - and she wasn't the first and you were beyond excuses.
When had you grown old together?, you'd wondered. Your hair had fallen out long ago, your girth had grown yet again. Dumbledore's beard brushed his stomach, by then, snow-white; there were countless tiny lines around eyes that had never lost their uncanniness. He still moved with a fluidity you could only dream of, as he took a few steps through the doorway.
Your heart jumped anxiously, and you silently thought that a good man would have no reason to feel guilty.
"How have you been?"
"How do you think?"
A good man would have nothing to hide.
"I would think," he'd said, "that you would be overjoyed along with the rest of us."
But there was a gentleness there that didn't suggest disapproval, that made you feel safe enough to wince and shut your eyes mournfully, to say "Lily Evans, Albus."
And his face softened, he took a step closer. "From what I've heard, both she and James were very brave. They'll be remembered forever."
You nodded weakly, your thick hands clasped tight and trembling a little. I taught her, you thought, but the pride felt sour.
"Very brave," you muttered. "Very. Always was."
You despise silence; when it appears you always rush to fill that hateful space. But you didn't know what to say, so you let it settle over you both until he tired of watching you knit your hands together. "They're proclaiming the Dark Lord to be dead. I sincerely hope they're right."
You still hate yourself for how you'd frozen, that momentary look of panic in your eyes that said you were remembering, that years of not thinking about it were too little in this case. That he might be ALIVE and you were the only one who knew it.
You'd turned around to face him directly, a bit too rapidly, your face pale. "What?"
"I've known you a long, long time. And we've been taking tea together for years. I think you've told me a bit about every famous student you've ever had, but one." He took a step closer, smiling gently. "You seem troubled. Granted, these are troubled times. But if there's anything you'd like to tell me..."
You'll always know and never accept what a terrible liar you are. You'd remained silent, a thousand ideas streaming through your brain at once, never answering the question. He took another step forward, watching you, that look piercing through you again. You wondered if he were a Legilimens - not that you didn't have the means to prevent it - or if he could hear your heart hammering, see that it was shame striking you dumb.
You wished that he would stop smiling at you, like you were a lost soul needing to be helped, or a pathetic old man who could be twisted to a cause. Or a fascinating insect. Or someone he loved.
He blinked once and opening his mouth to say something, but you weren't about to let him, you weren't stupid enough. "No. I won't have it, do you understand? I'm not a fool."
"You're many things, my dear Horace, but a fool is certainly not one of them." His patience was enough to make a man rage.
"Funny how I didn't sit with you until he'd gone and graduated," you muttered, not daring to meet his eyes again. "Very, very funny." The sudden thought made you feel heavy.
"Do you really think so little of me?"
You turned towards the door, your anger slowly building. "The world thinks too damned much of you, if you ask me! Saint Dumbledore, more than human, more than superhuman, best you ask him what he thinks of your breathing. He knows better, but Merlin forbid he ever explains it to you, he'll just sit and smile at you while he prods you exactly where he wants you to go. And we're your loyal flock, your little pawns. Well, I won't have it! I won't sit at your feet and play whatever game you have picked out for me. I could have BEEN you if I wanted to!"
"Could you really?"
You weren't sure if he was amused or adapting neutrality. You decided you didn't care.
"I'm edging towards a hundred," you said, your chest tight but your mind in a strange sense of detachment. "Half the reason I stayed was the danger, and the danger's gone. I've worked long and hard up to now, Albus, and I've damned well earned it, so just you try and stop me."
But he didn't stop you, or try. He smiled with irritating weariness, nodded, and let you head for the door. "You've earned a rest. I hope you find your retirement peaceful."
You lost your grip on your own patience. "Go to hell."
That silence fell again, its thick tension suffocating the pair of you, and he seemed to regard you with a tremendous sadness. "I have never pretended to be anything other than what I am, Horace."
"Neither have I."
You're a horrible liar, even when you lie to yourself, and before you could change your mind you'd shut the door hard behind you and not looked back. Two weeks notice and you were gone, over a decade of uncomfortably comfortable years before you saw him again.
"Harry, this is an old friend and colleague of mine, Horace Slughorn."
"Sir, I wondered what you know about...about Horcruxes?"
"Just don't think too badly of me once you've seen it..."
He's sleeping. You figure this is only fitting - the first time you want to hear a word he says, and he's gone and nodded off. How very like him.
The news nearly made your heart give out, the funeral was agonizing. You wonder if Tom spent years laughing at you, if Severus will join him now. You never knew any of them, in the end: line after line of Death Eaters from your collection's elite bloodlines, or the disgruntled hopefuls that you'd turned aside. But of course, you'd often never tried to know them, so it was only fair.
'Hogwarts should remain open. Everywhere is dangerous now.' The fact that you said such a thing still shakes you, when the way out was easy, when the urge to run was itching at you. But it was true - and there's safety in numbers, and besides, Albus is still here. In a fashion.
For a fleeting moment, you're willing to accept that you're mortal - that you're old, fat, rheumatic and tired, that someday soon you'll die. That your death may be uncomfortable and frightening, pehaps even painful, in a world that has become dangerous and can no longer be escaped. That you may well be alone and friendless. It's difficult, but for an instant it's there.
For that moment, you're willing to ask him what to do. To listen to the answer.
But he's sleeping, that clever fascimile of him in the golden frame. So you sit and remember when his beard was russet, and only fell halfway down his chest. And even after that moment is long-past, you wait for him to wake up.