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Chapter 1: The Final Problem
The Final Problem
The answer should have been simple. Albus remembered that page in the textbook, even the image came to his mind, but not the answer to this question. Each time he forced his mind to reach toward the answer, he could only conjure illegible words, the blurred page of his revision notes, all utterly useless.
It was all useless. Those hours of studying, stolen from the night. All those extra notes he had recorded, writing and re-writing everything at least three times so that he could not forget.
And here. Now. He had forgotten.
He could not say that the question was overly difficult or tricky. He had gotten those ones without any temporary amnesia or mental lapse affecting his thought process. Nor was this question worth a significant amount within the exam as a whole. It was like any other question, except that he could not remember the answer.
Why now? Why this question?
It meant little within the larger scope of things. He could easily leave it. He had already done so, skipping it after long minutes of torturing himself over its probable answer. But, remembering (something!) some advice he had received in his first year, he knew that it was better to leave such questions to the end, answering all that one could before returning to that which had been forgotten. In the past, this advice had proven successful. Now, it failed him.
The question remained unanswered.
This was entirely unacceptable. Yes, he had forgotten things in the past, an unfortunate symptom of his humanity, but to continue forgetting, to fail to remember, that was unprecedented. Perhaps if he read it again....
Describe the Chaldean Method, its similarities, and its differences from the Agrippan Method, providing an example accompanied by a complete and detailed analysis of your full name.
No, no, there was nothing there. Nothing to trigger his mind. Still nothing beyond that hazy image of text and images. Not to mention that it would take much too long to analyse all of his names (curse his parents).
His blood pumped faster, the hear thumping to the beat of his finger tapping on the desk. The supervising professor strolled past, whistling a tune under his breath. He looked once at Albus, raised his eyebrows, then continued on. Albus knew that expression: why haven’t you finished yet? Why are you still tapping your finger, quill at the ready? Albus could feel the wait of judgement upon his shoulders. He had to remember.
He must remember. To give up now–
No. That was not an option.
He must push on, he must find the answer to this final problem of his final examination at Hogwarts. To leave it would be to give up on all the things he had achieved, all the steps he had taken to rebuild his family’s reputation, to make up for his convict father, his silent mother and brother, that cursed sister. Tied to him by blood, he could not escape their clinging grasp. Forever their mark would be upon him.
A voice beside him, echoing through the caverns of his brain.
“Mr. Dumbledore. Please come with me.”
It was no more than a whisper. He could smell the professor’s breath. Firewhiskey. A tinge of peppermint frog to disguise the scent of the liquor. Albus did not look at him, knowing too well the sight of white muttonchops and the egg-stained cravat.
It would not do to leave now. It did not suit him at all. Defeat, he would not be defeated by this enemy, this final unanswered question.
“But the exam, Professor–”
What in Merlin’s name could keep him from finishing this exam? Certainly not a bumbling old professor.
He leaned closer. Albus held his breath, unable to take in that scent without losing the contents of his stomach. It was really unbearable that such a person could be allowed to teach, no matter how desperate they were for professors at this school. If only he could–
“It is your mother, Mr. Dumbledore.”
And why would she have come? What business did she have here, disrupting his exam, his last exam, like this? Just when he felt freedom at the edge of his fingertips, she had to come rushing in, probably something to do with that brat Arianna. Pitiful, keeping her around in her condition when she really ought to have been treated by the finest doctors in the land. But no, Mother had to be all sentimental, and so his sister must stay with them. Smothering them all beneath her unknowing gaze.
Albus rose too quickly, the chair screeching back behind him as others glared at him, gripping their quill. Ha! Let him disturb them all at their work. Let them know how it feels to be constantly distracted from what was important in life, in his life.
“Fine,” he told the professor. “I’m coming.”
He trailed behind the professor, forcing himself not to glance at the exams of others. It was doubtful that he would find the answer there, anyway. Elphias caught his eye, glancing over the top of his exam, mind very likely on their impending tour of the Continent, the world beyond this suffocating homeland. Albus shook his head and continued after the professor. He knew that Elphias continued to watch him as he neared the door, but his friend passed out of his head as soon as he saw whom had been waiting outside.
His brother. A being of lesser significance.
He hesitated, preferring to stay within the Great Hall. Whatever it was that brought his brother to disturb him, knowing that this was his final exam must have been of the utmost importance, which, to Aberforth, would be the death of his favourite goat or–
Of something – someone – important to Aberforth.
There was only one individual who fell in that category.
His patience was already breaking. He would hear what his brother had to say and then he would–
No. He couldn’t go back to the exam now. The door had shut behind him. Firmly.
Head held high, he stared down at his brother, his lip slightly upturned.
“Well? What is it? I hope it was worth dragging me out of that exam for.”
Aberforth did not shudder, did not even blink. He stared back, head high because it was the only way he could meet his brother eye to eye. Albus could see the similarities between Aberforth and himself, but often he suppressed them, pretended that they did not exist. To think that he was similar to this boy, so gangly and clumsy, loving his sister and his animals and nothing else. The auburn hair and blue eyes were there, but what else?
Now, however, even with his annoyance, he knew that it was impossible to deny that those similarities existed. He looked into his brother’s eyes and saw–
“Mother is dead.”
A long pause, reaching out forever, to the end of hell and back again.
Albus could not speak, could not think, could not feel. Nothing was there, like the answer to that question, faded to nothing in his head. There was nothing now, was there? With her gone, his mother – did he care about her, deep within? – what could he do? He was the eldest, the one who would now have to care for his– his– siblings, brother and sister, rocks to weigh him down in the ocean of existence. How could he escape their weight?
“It was an accident.” Aberforth’s words were blunt, knives into the ambitions of his brother. “Arianna–”
Albus clenched his hands, feeling the nails break the skin. So it had been she, that sister of his, unable to control herself, her emotions. Mad, as mad as their father for getting revenge on those dirty Muggles (a waste of time, and for what? Azkaban!), as mad as their mother for keeping the child, knowing full well what she was capable of, and as mad as his brother for loving her.
Arianna, who could do no wrong, who only committed the crime of matricide, killing off her protector, her provider, in nothing more than an “accident”, probably a silly tantrum and nothing more.
“She killed our mother, Aberforth.”
It was all he could say, to lay the blame on a young girl who could not know better.
But he kept his heart firm and his mind focussed. No tour, then, trapped out there in that house filled with the smell of death, the blood still on the girl’s hands, staining her white pinafore, the strawberry blonde hair hanging lank because there wasn’t anyone to brush it anymore, no loving hands to smooth back the thick strands, to right all the world’s wrongs but one.
The wrong that was herself.
“It was an accident, Albus. You can’t blame her.” Aberforth stepped forward, anger bursting forth in bulging eyes and reddening flesh.
Albus watched and still felt nothing. He made himself feel nothing. No pain, no remorse, no grief but for the things that he would lose now that he would be shackled to that child, a slave to his parents’ love for Arianna.
If he blamed her for something, it was the loss of his own life, not their mother’s.
“I’ll look after her myself,” Aberforth continued, glaring up into Albus’s face. “You can go off wherever you were and I’ll stay with her. I don’t need to continue here–”
The single word brought silence, the very air hanging in suspense.
“You will finish here and I will stay with her.”
His voice was hollow, his heart crying out for freedom as the bars of domestic prison shut before his eyes, the mark of Cain upon his skin, burning out his desire to explore, to discover, to conquer the world for himself.
He closed his eyes, the world going black.
But the black drew back its curtain, revealing the answer, the one he had been seeking so vainly, agonizing over although he knew it was perfectly simple, his mind refusing to let him have his way until now, until it was too late.
Too late to go back.
He opened his eyes, staring up, up, up, the walls rising higher than he would ever reach. It was a loss that cut him deeply, his heart bleeding onto the floor. His brother thought– thought he had at last broken, the repressed emotions spilling all at once.
If only he had known. The loss of Albus Dumbledore was not the same as his own. Nor would it ever be.
A loss greater than he could bear.
Author's Note: title not-so-shamelessly borrowed from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from whom I also borrowed a caricature of his great detective for the young Albus.