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L'optimisme by Aphoride

Format: Novel
Chapters: 29
Word Count: 120,403
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Mild violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Romance, Angst, LGBTQA
Characters: Dumbledore, McGonagall, Grindelwald , Aberforth, Ariana, Bathilda, Doge, OtherCanon
Pairings: Albus/Gellert, Other Pairing

First Published: 09/25/2012
Last Chapter: 09/25/2017
Last Updated: 11/13/2017

Summary:



Language shapes the world, for good or for evil. In silence, wounds fester and arguments begin. And what are wars but arguments out of control?

Albus/Gellert 

||2014 Dobby Winner: Best Quote; 2014 Golden Snitches Runner-Up: Best Romance||


Breath-taking banner by lonely star xo @TDA


Chapter 1: Silence
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Silence

The annals of history log phrases and quotes, speeches and declarations – cries and slogans and witty, scathing replies; everything and anything, from the most ardent of soft, delicate confessions, and the last, breathless epitaph a man gives himself, to the harsh, echoing roar of fears and jealousies, shouted in anger and haste, and even the things everyone waited to hear, wanted to hear, but did not.

Written down, they are immortalised, engraved into the fabric of time forever, to be read over and over again by scores of students who read them blankly, black-and-white and little more, seeing how they ended lives, started others, made marriages and alliances and houses blossom and grow, broke hearts and chains, rewrote laws and destinies; began and ended wars.

It is fitting, in its way, do you not think, my darling, that this is how we should be remembered, measured by those who looks back at us: our actions, yes, but also by the individual words and the phrases and the flourishes, inflections, tone we use to deliver them in.

Words are, after all, the most powerful tool in the world, more so than any wand or any weapon man could ever create.

Everyone knows about words, about the trouble and devastation and heartbreak they can bring, in equal measures. We are warned against it, wary of their power since young, advised to be careful with what we say, with what we lead others to believe, not to convince others of half-truths and lies. At times, we ourselves are brought low by things others hiss at us, shout at us during arguments, or the truths whispered in the dead of night, when such things are confessed. In others, we are the oppressors, spitting hatred, a kind of verbal violence. It is in moments like that we feel at our most powerful, when we do not need to raise a hand to make people kneel and crawl and weep.

No one talks about silence.

The lost child of conversation, it wanders down lonely roads at nightfall, swinging its legs out over the wide, empty valleys, bathed in green and grey and a thousand different colours: a kaleidoscope of feeling, shifting and ever-changing and defining everything. Somehow, though, he remains lost: no one thinks to note those moments when a man draws breath, the hesitation of a general before ordering troops to the slaughter, the pause of a wrist as it signs away a man’s life; the quiet in a room when everything is stilled and the world entire holds its breath.

There is, I suspect, very little as terrifying as a pause – only a second’s worth of silence, perhaps, but a myriad of possibilities, each one anxious, stinging in turn, one after another after another.

Your heart quickens, your mouth dries and your palms sweat; you wait, anxious, suddenly second-guessing yourself about everything you thought you knew, wondering if, maybe, you were wrong. In the hands of a master, it is an intense, deadly weapon, choking you without requiring any force, any malice, anything other than itself.

A simple pause can mean anything: happiness, hesitation, nervousness, lying and deceit, disgust. It can be heavy and pregnant with meaning, emotion, or light and comfortable – the silence shared between friends and lovers. Versatility renders it impossible to pin down, impossible to deduce or define; it simply exists as it is, and it is from it that we take our own impressions, however right or wrong they may be.

By doing nothing, it causes everything.

In conversations, then, the silences mean just as much as the words themselves, as dynamics and tempo markings to the notes on a music score, flesh and blood to an ivory-thin skeleton.

For you and I, life was a single, long conversation from the moment we met, your fingers locked around my knuckles and your lips curved in that slight, carefully polite smile. Did we ever stop – ever even pause in all those years? Have we even stopped now, or is this simply a new stage – quieter and far more tempestuous – born out of so many years and so much shared; an understanding which perhaps runs too deep to need us to speak to wound and to soothe, to cajole and caress.

Sitting here now, it seems like we rarely ever spoke – as though words were rationed, carefully stored away until absolutely necessary, carved up into smaller and smaller slices to savour them on and on – as though we spent most of our lives caught in this wretched, endless cycle of silence and silence, stretching out over months and years, voices and words bursting like a fanfare in between.

When I think of you – without thought or effort at all; I close my eyes and you are simply there, my darling – you are always silent; wordless and voiceless, and I cannot decipher anything of you at all.

I cannot help but wonder how much we lost by wasting so much time in prideful, petty quiet; whether if we had been just a little braver, wiser, more hopeful and breached that barricade we built between us, things would have been different.

Perhaps, perhaps – but who can say?

Ah, darling, not you or I, and so we remain, as always, mute, our perpetual argument winding out across the sea in a mist of white-crested foam and salt-soaked diamonds.




29th August 1899, Godric’s Hollow

I do not believe I ever told you, through that long, glorious summer which went both too slowly and too fast, quite how beautiful you were in the mornings. For that, I must beg your pardon – you may consider it the first of many things I should have told you but never did; though whether out of fear or nervousness or the sheer confidence that there would always be a next time to do so, I cannot say.

You were, though, beautiful, even then.

A glint of gold and rich, Prussian blue at the beginning of that dreary, sunny summer, you were always handsome, in whatever light and whatever weather – in rain you were Narcissus, the water lapping at your hair, down your skin in languid, slow rivulets; in heat you were Alexander, bright and merry and vibrant, bustling and rushing with an energy which seemed to come from nowhere. It was endearing and captivating by itself; if there had been nothing more than that, it would have been quite enough to ensnare me.

Wild and untameable and fiercely unrepentant: in those moments you were addictive and I followed along, stumbling, blinded by you; but it was other times, clutches of minutes where you would lie, lazy and tranquil, the ferocity of you washed away, leaving you strange and fragile, vulnerable and unsure in ways which were so unlike you and yet… and yet.

They were always the same, those mornings.

I would wake first, my arm around your waist, your head pillowed on my shoulder or tucked into my neck. If I tried to pull away, or even simply to move, you would dig your fingers into my skin and refuse to let me go, finding some new way to nestle ever closer – though I suspect that if I told you this now, you would deny that you had ever wanted me close, had ever allowed yourself to be held like a child in such a way. You did both, though, once upon a time; I remember it all quite clearly.

We would be in my room more often than yours, secluded in our own private haven away from the accidentally prying eyes of siblings and aunts. It was easier to stay in my house (my house – how strange it feels, even now, to weigh those words in my tongue when imagining the house in Godric’s Hollow) than in your Aunt’s – Aberforth ignored us whenever possible and Ariana slept in the basement, where it was cold and solid and safe.

(Of course, it was helped by the fact that Bathilda was very much a lark, rather than a night owl, knocking on your bedroom door every day at seven sharp with an offer of tea and honeyed bread, and the one time I lingered longer in the windowsill to kiss you goodbye while you hurried to dress for breakfast, I left my cravat on the floor and my dignity on the fence when I tried to jump it, my shirt untucked, hair mussed, and my socks stuffed into one hand.

I am quite certain that the scandalous nature of my dress had little to do with my failure to hurdle a five foot fence, but alas, everything to do with the fact that I almost succeeded in impaling myself rather painfully on a particularly spiny branch.

Would you laugh if I recounted the tale again now?)

In my room our only enemies skulking around were the heaps of books on the floor, the pointed tips of quills lying on sheets of parchment half-full of scribbles and illegible thoughts in a mess of languages; there, privacy, that thing we cherished so greatly, was plentiful, even with the curtains open and the window ajar during those hot, sticky August weeks.

You used to joke that you had brought the continental summer with you, do you remember?

Outside the window, the blackbirds nesting in the tree which tickled over onto the windowsill would sing, and I would lay there, my eyes closed, listening them warble, light and fluted. In those moments, I was always blissfully content, happy to remain there as long as you wanted to, your breath ghosting over my collarbone, a soft harmony to the birdsong.

After a while, usually around eight o’clock (you were wonderfully predictable in the mornings, my darling), you would stir and press a kiss to the base of my neck. Your little way of telling me you had awoken – though I never needed it, feeling the shift and change in your breathing beforehand, so I came to predict it, to wait for it, that one little kiss, tremulous and gently bold. In return, I kissed the top of your head, murmuring ‘good morning’ into your hair as it tickled across my bare shoulders.

You would turn, slowly, so slowly I became convinced over the weeks that you did it only to tease me, onto your back, a strip of cold settling across my chest as you pulled your arm away to clutch at the tops of the sheets, your curls splayed across the pillow, gold on white cotton, and smile at me, smile for me: sweet and warm, a faint, shimmering thing which lingered in the corners of your mouth and the glitter in your eyes, caught by the sunshine filtering through the window.

No matter what the papers screamed over the years about other lovers, other, younger, better-looking men, I cannot believe that you ever smiled at them the way you smiled at me then. Perhaps it is selfish, a fool-hardy determination insisting that I was special in your eyes, as you were in mine, but alas, it is something I have never been able to rid myself of.

I can almost hear you laughing at me; I almost wish I could.

“Perhaps,” you would whisper to me every morning, your voice sly, a coy smile curling your mouth. I wanted to kiss you every time, to press that smile into the folds of your skin to stay there forever; I never did. “I should leave. Your brother will be awake soon, and I must get back before my aunt notices I am gone.”

Even then, I did not think you actually worried about your aunt making such a discovery. She trusted us both enough to believe any stories, any lies we told her to explain our disappearances, our mussed hair and clothes; she would have had to catch us in flagrante before accepting such a thing as real.

Did you know, a muggle friend once took me to watch a wrestling match? I confess I struggled not to find it either too sad or too amusing. It meant something quite different to us, then; we thought ourselves so clever to come up with such an excuse.

I digress; I apologise.

They were the same words every day – the same unspoken question of whether or not I wanted you to leave, perhaps, really, of whether or not you wanted to leave buried underneath them – and every day I would answer you the same.

Instead of asking you to stay, begging you not to leave, reminding you that Aberforth would be out all morning to tend to the goats so there was no danger of discovery, I would kiss you, hard and slow and fierce, my arm sliding around your back to keep you close. Some days, you would run your hands through my hair and sigh into my mouth, lazy and sweet and wonderfully suppliant. Other days, you tangled our legs together, gripped at the back of my head and my shoulders and pressed yourself as close to me as was possible, aligning our bodies so they were bone-to-bone and flesh-to-flesh.

I loved both equally.

Eventually, of course, you would have to leave, and I would let you go, watching you dress from the bed, hunting your clothing down piece by piece by piece. There would be one, final kiss and then you would jump from the window, never looking back.

We never talked much in the mornings; the silence was lovely then, but now I cannot help but wonder if there was only silence because neither of us knew what to say, or if it was because we knew everything there was to be said.

Out of all of the mornings we shared that summer, I think I love most the first and the last. The first because it was full of the sparking wonder and terror of new experiences, and that blushing, shy smile you gave me when you woke. I remember the last because, well, it was the last, and perhaps in a way the best: I woke to find you cocooned in the blanket, curled up in my arms, delicate and heartbreakingly familiar.

It was, I think, the first time that I knew for certain that I wanted to spend every day with you.

Now, it is a bittersweet memory – still so beautiful and tender, but marred by the knowledge of what was to come.

That day is the only complete day I keep in my Pensieve – preserved perfectly, so that the clarity and the truth of it all will not vanish as age creeps up on me. I keep it there to remind myself of the strength and the depth of love, of how much I felt for you and everything you meant to me, the scope of the future we were planning together, and then, in the end, how much I lost, how much love and foolishness cost me, how dangerous love is when it blinds us.

You should know now that I do not blame you. I did once – I will admit that to you, for I know you will refuse to believe me otherwise – but I have grown wiser, I think, and I know that this burden is mine to bear.

Of everything that occurred then, in those five minutes late in the afternoon, though they felt much longer at the time, I remember most the noisy, almost musical growth of sound, and then the silence.

It all started with a crescendo. Frustrated and angry, you stood in one corner of the room, Aberforth opposite you, telling us, telling both of us, that we were wrong and ignorant and that we could not do what we wanted to: we would kill her, that going abroad would kill her if the neglect we would surely inflict upon her did not. His voice rose and rose, sinking into the rafters of the house, filling the rooms; fortissimo, fortissimo, all of it.

In all these years, I have always wondered at how neither of us ever thought to simply ask her what she thought was best. Perhaps… but it is not the time for suppositions.

When I did not rise to his bait, to his insistences that I could not manage Ariana, to calm her and soothe her, to comb her hair and help to feed her, he switched to you. He did not know you as I did, he did not know quite what you were capable of as I did, but somehow he knew what would provoke you the most.

I will not repeat what he said, not even in writing; this is not the time to hammer old nails deeper.

It proved cataclysmic. The sound of magic, crackling and snapping and thudding into walls and tables, shattering windows and china, burst into the room in a sweeping flash of red, static and electric.

In seconds, all three of us had our wands out, incantations springing to lips without thought, and I confess now, terrified still, that my first thought, my first instant was to turn my wand on my own brother – my own flesh and blood – rather than you, in a vain hope that if I could succeed in stunning him, I could calm you down and our plans could settle back down into shape.

I was vain and proud and far, far too conceited to think I could fail.

My spell missed Aberforth’s chest by mere inches, and he stared at me for a moment, furious and stunned, and then attacked me in return, believing me to be against him. Perhaps I was; I have never known one way or another.

No one was talking any more, not even to hurl insults or barbs, and gradually, incrementally, it began to become serious. Light blue jets of light became deep, midnight blue and sickly periwinkle; delicate rose turned to vibrant crimson; the duel sank darker and darker – though none quite as dark as your opening salvo – and fledgling anger and confusion hardened into stubborn, childish fury.

As I tell it now, as I remember it now, it seems that it passed very slowly, that we duelled for hours, the sun rising and setting in state behind us, but in truth it all happened very quickly; no more than a few minutes, at most.

There was a flash of blonde on the stairs, then in front of me, and then, suddenly, there was a final blare of trumpets and violins and drums in a last, distorted chord, a last barrage of spells in a rainbow of colours, and it all ended, pressure passing through the room like a hurricane, forcing me to the floor.

After it was all over, the light fading and the dust beginning to settle on the broken china and smoking furniture, it was silent. Never in my life before had I heard such a complete silence. Heavy and immovable, it settled over the room like a shroud, clogging my lungs and pressing me down into the floor. Nothing could break it, not even grief.

Miraculously, I was still holding my wand, and even as I raised my head and my hand, I knew something was wrong – hanging in the air, it was tangible, solemn and stiff, embedded into the silence, and as soon as I saw her, the colours of the room seemed too bright, false and rude in their cheerfulness. I could not look away: my eyes were glued to her, hoping beyond everything for a jump in her chest, a twitch of her fingers, a flutter of her eyelashes – something, anything to say that the worst had not already happened.

Soon enough, I turned away. The answer was clear.

Over the years, I have thought much on the fact that then, in the moments after my sister’s death, I did not cry. My eyes were not even wet: dry and prickling, like sand, any liquid leeched from them by the wind and the heat of the duel. I cannot explain it, not even to myself, however I try.

On the other side of the room, you were leaning against the wall, one hand on the windowsill. There was blood on your cheek, on your collar, and a wild terror in your eyes I have never seen before or since. For the first time since we had met, I could not quite recognise you.

We stared at each other, both equally in shock, both holding our wands. Neither of us moved; the blood on your cheek was still dripping onto your collar, slowly, leaving a gleaming red track down your jawline, but you did not move even to wipe it away.

All I could wonder was how you had been hurt, how Ariana had been killed, and whether I should move, go to you, trace the line of blood with my thumb to wipe it away, anchor us together somehow, a combined front against the quiet.

I think that in my grief, in my horror that my sister was dead, murdered by one of us three, I forgot that you were just a boy. Perhaps you were responsible – I do not want you to have been, though I spent a long time alternately convincing myself I was certain it had been you and being certain it had not been you – but whether you were or not, you were still only sixteen. To see death at that age… I cannot imagine how it haunted you.

Did it haunt you, in the end? Did you lie awake as I did, restless and anxious, taunted by memories and wondering, speculating over whether or not it had been you to cast the last, final spell?

I want to think you did; I like to think you did, that if you were sorry for anything in your life, you were sorry for that, but I cannot be sure. You will never tell me, and I have long since lost faith in my knowledge of you to be able to come to a conclusion.

The silence did not end even when you ran, flinging the door open and racing out of the room, vanishing out of sight within seconds. I watched you go; I did not look at the door again.

You left, but the silence stayed, holding the three of us – the ragged remains of my family – together, until my brother awoke and saw her, still and waxy, framed by splinters of wood and fine grains of glass. He sat there, Ariana’s head in his lap and cried, the tears falling onto her hair and dress, a stream of round, blue dots.

I could not move. Numb and in shock, I was too afraid to face reality – I longed then for someone to tell me what to do, to tell me that it would get better, that it was not me, not my fault; for someone to tell me all those things I had scoffed at, been so certain I did not need. I wanted, in truth, to be a child again, with no responsibility save to mourn, weightless and ignorant.

I did not hate you then. That came later.

It is remarkable to think that one day can shake a person to their very core, destroying them completely, laying every fault they have bare, so that it is all they can do not to simply collapse and never rise.

That day – that one, humid summer’s day, when my entire life changed, my adulthood and my vast majority of my life starting with a jerk and a shock – the two most memorable silences of my life were born, one after another, moving seamlessly from one into the next, and our constant, breathless argument started, spun from the last swirls of dust still settling on Ariana’s fading, cold cheeks.

I suspect I am being melodramatic. In fact, I do not merely suspect; I know. I apologise; it is in bad taste to be so emotional about something so long ago.

For all the melodrama it carries, it suffices to say simply this: since that day, there has been nothing which can shake me, nothing which can affect me more powerfully than silence. I learned that day that silence is far more deadly than any word could ever possibly be or hope to be, no matter whose voice speaks them or in what combination they are written.

The truth is that you are a master of exquisite skill, my darling, at anything you choose to be or do, and so I am very much afraid of what will happen when you discover this Achilles’ heel of mine, as no doubt you will do in time, having applied yourself to the task. All I can do is kneel at your feet pre-emptively – metaphorically only, I regret to say – and hope you will remember mercy.




A/N: beautiful, beautiful CI by azimuth @TDA

I do not own any references to Narcissus or Alexander the Great. 

A huge, huge thank you to Sian, nott theodore, for helping me edit this - putting up with me endlessly commenting 'I DON'T LIKE THIS' at parts on the previous edition of this chapter and helping to make this so much better than it would have been otherwise :) 


Chapter 2: Wales
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Wales

These days, I remember little of Wales. Strange, no, to think that such an important, languid, beautiful place has almost vanished from my memory, fading as months and years and decades have gone by into sepia tones and spotted, patchwork black-and-white and smudged stains of grey; a thousand and one different shades, blending and muddling into each other, forest lines shrinking and houses merging with each other, days rolling into each other, all sense of time forgotten.

It muddles; I muddle - I no longer trust myself to think clearly.

Even when I think of home, of my beloved Germany, nestled among the high, jagged reaches of cliff-edges and tumbling waterfalls, the stretching, endless banks of trees spreading a green-yellow canopy over my head, filtering the sunlight, catching on thick, bright veins and sparkling tinkles of water; even then, it is muted, dulled: I cannot hear the water or the wind as it rustled and whispered, the lines of petals vanish as nodding bluebells soften into splotches of periwinkle blue. The sight of it slips, slowly, from my mind, and all the concentration in the world cannot bring it back.

See how low you have brought me, Albus. See what your mercy has wrought.

Do not trouble yourself, old friend - for all I remember little of things, of places and trees and the markings on the birds which used to sing outside your window, I have other memories left: more abstract in nature, though, fragmented things of thoughts and feelings and snippets of sound.

Images are far fewer, and far more difficult to recall - I focus and frown, as though that will help, and flashes jump, skittering like a mad cat; oh, Albus, I am quite lost! - mostly, the images I find are of you. You and I; you and I: in the fields, by the stream, in your bedroom and your father's study, I remember you and how you looked and how the places looked, curving and shaping, around you. Without you, I do not remember the places.

Make of that what you will - it is true, at least.

The few memories I have of that summer which are not of the way your hair glowed in firelight and the way your eyes lit up and shone when you saw me in the same way they would shine when you spoke of a fascinating theory or your Hogwarts, are fleeting and strangely blurred, as though a careless painter has tipped water onto a landscape, and so much of Wales is now a spoiled masterpiece, the colours leaking and running across each other, until I cannot remember how it was supposed to look.

There were hills - I remember them if I sit, close my eyes, and dream memories - huge, green hills rolling off into the horizon, their sides untouched, perhaps even unchartered, and at the base of the hills the fields started, a patchwork blanket spread over the flatlands, surrounding us. Down one side, the valley came, a stream trickling at the bottom of it, dancing and skipping over rocks; the other was simply wilderness, as much as any part of Wales could be wild. Raw land, unbeaten and undisturbed, morphing slowly into a forest, with all the treasures that implies.

We tramped for hours through the fields and the forest and up the hills, do you remember? Mud-splattered and charred tan by the sun, cheeks flushed and eyes bright and lines of water cooling at wrists and under collars, running and running until we found somewhere wild and free, the land untamed and sweetly, blissfully silent.

We would sit by the side of the stream or lay, sunk into grass, in the middle of a field, and talk about anything which came to mind; you would kiss me there, too, safely out of sight of prying eyes and harsh, biting words. Once, we watched the sun set on top of a nearby hill, stars flickering like faint, pale candles, and you spoke of capturing the heavens in a net, containing them in a single enchantment. I think I kissed you, then, but I do not remember any more, only that I was cold and you were so very hot, feverish and dark-eyed, your hands burning trails up my spine.

Did you make love to me there, under the stars? I want to say you did, but perhaps I am being fanciful.

They have allowed me books, you know - only in recent years, when they have stopped thinking of me as a threat (though I cannot help but wonder if this, too, is your doing. It would not surprise me) - and one of them is a collection of pictures of Wales, spanning the length of the country and all the seasons. The English words littering the page, a strange frame for the images, stick on my tongue and the letters seem twisted somehow, so I sit in my cell, a hundred tints of monochrome, and pour over the printed photographs with their bright, flourishing colours, wondering endlessly if they fit, in any way, with the flashes and half-dead memories of it that are left to me.

It is strange; when I look at the pictures all I can think is how peaceful and serene it looks, as though one could go walking for hours across the hills and through the valleys, past field after field, without hearing a single sound. Even the wind would sigh quietly, gently, and stir the leaves slowly, sultry and sly, like lovers waking.

It is strange because the enduring splinter of Wales I still have whole and intact is how we talked endlessly day after day, barely stopping to breathe as it spilled from us - devolving from words to a constant rush of sound, fluid and melodic, rising and falling and chiming in glorious, ringing laughter.

I wonder now how I ever stood it for two whole months, one long rush from start to end; the chatter of the guards disturbs me now, quiet and stilted as it is - my mind drowns under the screams of my own thoughts.

No, now as I sit here, fighting cramp and fading sight, I gaze out of the window across empty, scarred plains and the ragged, gap-toothed sides of mountains, and dream of silence and green, rolling fields, that haven we founded by the edge of the brook.




2nd September 1899; Schwarzwald, Germany

Banished to the small corner of a forgotten county in a country swamped with rain and sheep and nothing more, I was certain it would be a punishment greater than I could bear - I had determined before I arrived that I would run away before the two months were up, splashing through fords and sleeping rough with only the stars and sparrows for company - sent to sink into a depression brought on by a landscape solely made of patchwork fields and a stiff, formal atmosphere pervading every corner, grim and forthright and politely solemn.

Clouds seemed everywhere, crowding the sun out of the sky, and rain felt constant, hammering and pattering and drizzling as you claimed with the curved, teasing smile of a native; the grass was long, in gardens and fields and on the long, winding path down to the brook, flowers tumbled in sweeping trails out of window-boxes, wound around fences and kissing-gates, a kaleidoscope of colours running the gauntlet from the palest, purest white snowdrops, hanging like diamonds, to the vibrant crimson of a bed of poppies underneath a neighbour's window.

If I walked out of Tante Hilda's house to the top of the hill just outside of the village, all I could see for miles in front of me was green space, uninhabited and lush; an unexpected paradise I could not help but delight in.

I had expected confinement. What I had found was freedom.

Then, of course, barely a day later, I met you.

I could never understand how you felt so trapped and imprisoned there, in a place where you could walk for miles without seeing another person, alone and thoughtless, voiceless and passive; it was clean and calm and I could not guess at how you could have missed it, how you could not feel this, of all things, the same as I did.

Crumb by crumb, you fed me bits of your past: of Ariana, her attack, the losses of your father and then, so recent and so raw, of your mother, and I understood it: it was not the land, not the place, but all the pressures and the sorrows it meant for you.

I never told you, though at times I wondered if you knew somehow, but I pitied you for that. I pitied you that this land could not be for you the unintentional haven it had become for me; I pitied you that it could not comfort you how it could me, the wind combing through my hair as he embraced me on a hilltop, arms around my waist and murmuring soothing, cajoling words in my ear as I looked out over the sloping, arching vales.

How could I not, my Albus?

Instead of saying that, instead of being utterly honest with you and letting myself speak those words in a hush, I told you how you were wasted there, how we both were, how our talents would be better served elsewhere - anywhere; together.

It was what you wanted to hear, no? To have that desire understood by someone who matched you; to have the words, bitter and proud, spoken for you so that you did not have to swallow the guilt they were coated with?

It was what you wanted to hear, and what I wanted to tell you.

I did not lie, then. Perhaps they might call it that later, if you ever tell anyone of me (though I doubt it, for it would reveal you to be fallible and human and would hint at a longing you wish you were better than to have), but it was not a lie.

To feel useless and extraneous in a world where obligation alone forces you to stay, locking you in with a cold and unbending ferocity; to want, shamelessly and shamefully, something else, somewhere else - a different taste in your mouth, a different beat in your blood - those sharp, cutting longings I repeated back to you, in other words, about other things and places and people. Yet another thing we shared; sour secrets, and bubbling.

The day after, our fledgling friendship three weeks old, a letter arrived - another one from your friend.

Did I ever tell you how much I hated those letters? Every time you received one, you would sulk for days, distracted and maudlin, your smiles stopping at the corners of your mouth and when you claimed you were happy, quite content, your voice rang hollow. Eventually I learned to plan our time around these letters, irritations and disappointments, to cushion the blows they brought.

As it is, you will know now.

(I would have burned all the letters you received from him as soon as they arrived, if I could have - I would have piled them high in a mound in the garden, built in a tall pyramid of beige parchment and set them alight with a twitch of my fingers, watching the smoke drift in loose coils up into the sky.

They did not help; they made you distracted, subdued and mournful like a whipped dog - I wanted you to be alive.

You would tell me it was selfish if I told you this - now or then or anytime. Albus, it was not selfish, no matter what you may think of me. It was for you; it would have been for you.)

Still, this letter arrived and you came for me, finding me in Tante Bathilda's library, sprawled on the chaise with Cicero for company.

You were smiling at me, faint and fleeting, and your step was empty, lifeless and drained, and I knew in a heartbeat what had happened. When you slid onto the chaise longue next to me, kissing the corner of my mouth, it was perfunctory and chaste and quick, as it might be in a marriage which has outlived passion.

My mind raced, searching for something to comfort you, something other than the Hallows and the outside world - something abstract and elegantly challenging for you to focus that brilliant mind of yours on without leaving anything in reverse, behind to linger on melancholy - but you beat me, speaking before I could settle on something.

"Do you ever think," you asked me, your voice low, but there was something in your voice - a sort of urgency, or desperation - which made me think twice about interrupting you. "About the world? Not about conquering it or remaking it as it should be, but about simply seeing it?"

I was speechless, and my mind blank.

Of course I had thought of it, wished for it and hoped for it, but I had not thought to mention it: it would have been cruel to talk of wandering the globe at will, weightless and timeless, when I knew that time would come for me, but for you it was a spectre you chased and seemed never closer to catching.

To say that I had not expected you to mention it was an understatement: I had dismissed it completely.

Thankfully, I did not need to speak, as you continued, your eyes boring holes into the window even as your fingers stroked across my wrist.

"I cannot help but think of it, what it would be like to sail across the Mediterranean and down the Seine without worrying about anything other than having a grand time," you told me, and in my mind I could picture the letter from your friend: a tale of storm-tossed ships and hardy sailors, beset by mermaids and leviathans before the calm and the strange, unearthly beauty of the cliffs along the coastline.

You were a mystery, then, a labyrinth of stone-faced emotions and knotted, tangled threads, and I could not unravel you - could not even find where to begin.

Be proud of yourself, Albus. It will not happen again.

"Wonderful, no doubt," I murmured, mostly to myself. It was a statement, really, devoid of personal feeling or any kind of real emotion in it, but the words alone were enough to seize your attention and fix it on me for a moment.

You looked at me, and for a moment, I felt naked, my soul bared to you.

"So you have thought of it," you replied, and it was not a question; you knew I had thought of it - I had given myself away to you.

A lie would have been easy, simple and witty, but there was a light in your eyes, strange and ghost-white, gleaming steady, which I had not seen before, and I was tongue-tied, caught staring, and curious.

"I want to go everywhere," I admitted, feeling a smile ghosting over my face as I thought of it - all those carefully laid plans I had made the years before. "I want to go to Russia and run across the tundra with the tigers; I want to ride horses across the steppe in Hungary and Prussia and see the phoenixes in flight in the dawn. I want to go to China and learn how to fly a dragon, and see the curses carved into the wall. There is so much to do, but it would be so wonderful."

"It would," you agreed, and you gripped my wrist, thumb tucking in underneath my fingers. "Particularly if one went with a friend - to explore such things together..."

You did not look at me; the implication was clear.

Reaching over, my heart thumping in my chest, exhilarated and nervous at the same time - for this marked something, meant something; even if I did not quite know what, I knew that it was important in some way - I slid a finger along your jaw, forcing you to look at me. You barely made it, starting to flush and staring at me intently, that strange light now burning.

Then, I kissed you.

At first, you kissed me back automatically, fingers going slack on my wrist, then you slipped an arm under my jacket, gripping, tight and questioning, on my hips, two fingers running along the waist of my trousers and tugging, impatient, at my shirt. I tangled my fingers in your hair, long and loose, already starting to fumble with the buttons on your waistcoat and collar as you pushed me down. Your tie - Ascot-style silk, muggle and fashionable - slid through my fingers, slick and sleek, falling onto my shoulder as you kissed your way down my neck, nipping at the end of my collarbone to draw out a gasp.

Even as I forgot to think - all words, English or German or Hungarian, driven from my mind by pure sensation - I heard you murmur something into the hollow of my throat, letting it ghost over before pressing it into my skin in a hard, bruising kiss; I shuddered and felt you smile.

I have wondered many times what you said and never come to a reasonable or sensible conclusion; nothing fits as it should do. It eats at me whenever I think of it and a part of me whispers that it was important, that I should have heard it, that it would have been defining and changing and thundering, but I cannot write to you now and ask.

I would say I would ask you in the future, when next we see each other - but there will not be a next time, will there? That much we both know to be certain.

Unheard words did not matter then - a promise had been made, however silently, and in swearing ourselves to it, we had crossed a point we could never take back. It was glorious and thrilling and the world burned brighter for it; in that moment, Albus, we were unstoppable and whole and perfectly, completely infinite.

Later, in between indolent kisses, the ends of your hair tickling on my bare chest as the sunlight filtered through them like a curtain of auburn strands, you twined our fingers together and said,

"We should go to Germany first."

It was a simple statement, but it set my stomach to twisting and I had to swallow, feeling suddenly, strangely lost.

"Ja, I would like that," I whispered back, admiring the sweep of your shoulders and the lines and curves of muscle and bone in your arms, how they dipped and rose like the hills and valleys outside.

It was August, then; my home would have been awash with deep, rich greens, jewel-coloured flowers bobbing in the grass and shots of blue and green and white flitting by on the wings of birds. There would be fawns in the forest, tawny and unsteady, and my father would spend the evenings sitting outside with his pipe and a bottle of beer in one hand, watching as pink bled into violet and yellow faded into burnt vanilla.

From then on, Wales held nothing for me anymore: I wanted to go home. The beauty and the freedom I had once perceived in the valleys and hills was gone, and all I could think of were the familiar boughs and plains of my homeland, laden with the last of the summer blooms in delicate, velveteen mosaics, and how much I longed to be there again.

(Whenever you talked of our trip, of our journey to find the Hallows, my mind would wander, inadvertently, to Germany, and I would imagine us wandering through the trees, hand in hand, how you would kiss me by the waterfalls, and sit at their spout to watch the sun set over the treetops in the distance.

It was childish, flooding me with embarrassment and a guilty, creeping shame, and I tried to cover it, to hide it from you - when you looked at me, high on the pedestal you had hoisted me onto, with eyes full of promises and demands and expectations cast in gold, I did not want you to stop, to see how I was still just a boy.

Who among us does not love to be adored so?)

Like everything else in my life, Wales had bored me. You had not - you were still brilliant and passionate and so wonderfully patient; my missing other half, as I thought then - and so I waited for you.

We were to go together, remember? To find the Hallows, to change the world - it was our destiny, would be our victory.

In the end, it was the child of my ideologies and your logic, nothing less, so much so that even now I stumble a little when calling it my own; it was meant to be ours, should be ours.

It died, blinking out of existence without a sound or flare, the moment she died, didn't it? The moment you realised the price the world might be asked to pay for perfection, for utopia; the price people pay to see it birthed, for the sake of stupidity and anger and hate and cowardice, those dreaded horsemen.

I knew then, in that moment, what I had denied for so long - that the cause, for you, had been her, centred in her all along and I had simply been too blind and too selfish and too enchanted to see it. Your passion fled, bleeding out of you even as the blood on my cheek dried up, and you collapsed, crumbling into ruins, lost and desperate for something I could not give you.

Without you, what sense was there for me to stay?

A girl was dead and Albus, oh Albus, you cannot think they would have stopped to ask questions? You were her brothers, you and the goat-boy, I was merely a foreigner with black ink next to my name, marking me out as dangerous and wild and uncontrollable; a feral dog, foaming at the mouth. If I had stayed... if, if, but it is meaningless now to think on it.

One of us killed her and so I ran, fleeing next door without a word, mindless and shaking, my wand rattling around my curved, fisted fingers, flashes of light in a myriad of colours - always the same pattern, always the same - repeating over and over no matter what; sick and leaden, I sat at the table in my Tante's kitchen, a thick woollen blanket draped over my shoulders while she fussed about fetching me coffee, and all I could think was that Ariana was dead and you would hate me, or if not now, you would when you discovered the secret I carried then, uncertain but opaque enough for horror, and Albus, oh Albus, I did not want you to hate me, then or ever.

Since then, on this you have been unpredictable; I do not like it.

There were only two possibilities, after that day: either you would hate me, or you would love me, care for me still - for months after, I could not say which I thought more likely; I veered wildly from one to the other, interpreting every sign one way one day, and the next it would be all upside down.

Now, it is the same, and the fissure between us has only grown wider, deeper, harder to cross.

Once I had been whisked away, thrown out of Wales in a spinning, spiralling thud which left me aching, I prayed - so strange and so foreign after so long without God - that perhaps, perhaps you might still love me.

If, I prayed, if you still love me, still want me, once the shock has faded and the vim and the colour and the life has blossomed again in your world, come and find me.

(You would not come for me - not in anger, not in love, not for anything. Of that, I was certain, more certain than anything else; the thought coming with a burst of clarity which left my skin burning and damp.

I had been wrong before though, about you; perhaps, I hoped, I could be wrong again.)




A/N: absolutely stunning CI by the ever-talented azimuth @TDA

A few translations (German to English) - 

Schwarzwald - The Black Forest

Ja - yes

Tante - aunt


Chapter 3: Words
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Words

“Lumos,” you whispered, a grey-black outline against the faint starlight dipping in through the window, watery and shadow-thin; instantly, a light flared, ivory and shimmering, blinking into focus the tables and counters of the kitchen, the china teacups mother had always favoured – chipped and faded now, after so many years – stacked neatly in the cupboards.

Cold and dim, I squinted at you, taking in the navy-blue cloak flung over your white night-shirt and thin, billowing trousers, the ends tucked into heavy, long boots, their toes stained with the remains of mud and dirt and the green-dark scratches of nettles and twigs. Your hair was mussed, wild and knotted, but you looked wide-eyed and anxiously alert; you were still staring at me, then, glancing down at the hand I had wrapped around your arm, the base of my fingers brushing your wrist, and now I had brought you inside, I could not think of what to do.

“There are some things,” you had said, hushed and breathless and deadly serious. “I do not think I can write to you – I think… it is better if I say them, I think.”

In the pale light, as I watched you, waiting patiently for your nerves to unwind and your thoughts untangle, the words to line up on your tongue and trip gently, steadily out, I began to notice little things: the way you bit the inside of your lip, on the bottom left corner, the strange flush in your cheeks, the way your eyes were wet and rimmed with smudged red rings.

Carefully, delicately, I slid my hand down your arm, and took your hand, running my thumb over the back.

I wanted to drop your hand, to put an arm around your waist and pull you close, your head on my shoulder and run my fingers through your hair, absorbing whatever emotion it was which had shaken you so – but, alas, I confess I was a greater fool: I did not want to let you go; to lose contact with you, however small.

“Albus,” you murmured, looking up at me, your hair a cream-tinted silver and your eyes dark, nothing of blue in them at all. It reminded me unnervingly of Ariana, and I struggled, I admit, not to shiver. “I do not know how to say it.”

I waited, the words you had just spoken dying two inches from your mouth, smothered by the night, and I could hear you breathing, slight and quick, could feel my heart beating, growing louder and stronger, could hear my own thoughts reverberating around and around and around, a maelstrom of anxiety I was whipping up myself, god and victim both.

Silence, you see, my darling, is a terrible, wonderful chameleon; it is, at heart, possibility in raw, naked form.

If silence is the killer and the jester and the lover all in one, the joker in the desk, then words are the simple, lowly twos and threes. As compared to the twisting, turning, thousand possibilities of silence, words are restricted, confined within the pages of books and the short, sweet meanings ascribed to them – capable of mutating and changing with inflection and tone, but limited all the same. They are the building blocks of languages, the very foundation from which all things begin, whether literature or ordinary conversation.

Though their meanings are often simpler to decipher, words are as potent as silence can be – and, in my experience, are far more likely to be used to hurt: how much easier is it, how much more natural and instinctive is it, for us to shout and scream at someone, to blurt out ‘I hate you’ and leave a cooling, plummeting silence behind; in arguments, we are reaching, always reaching, for the words we know will hurt the most.

How cruel we are, as a race, that we take something so beautiful, so inherently free and magical, and develop it to be the sharpest of blades.

Spells are simply words and power, after all, so when we stamp them unforgiveable and shun them from our lives, what does that say about language – about the limits it too has?

As we strolled down the tiny, wandering path, tripping over tree-roots and tramping through wildflowers, your arm tucked through my elbow, warm and solid, words flew through the air between us, thick and fast, like a fierce summer storm, filling everything around us completely and leaving us with nothing left to breathe. Laughing and exhausted, we would stumble along, lost in our marvellous, heady world, so certain the easy, sweet tumbling of conversation between us was a sign of great things to come.

Stuttering, grinding to a halt, you would slip up, frozen in place while you searched desperately for that missing word in English, the one thing you could not say in the whole conversation; frustrated and blankly hunting, you would run your fingers through your hair, press your knuckles into your jaw, leaving pink marks, swear in a cacophony of languages, and apologise profusely for failing.

I confess I found it utterly endearing: whenever you frowned, you looked somehow melancholy and lost and determined to find it again. It made me want to reach for you, pull you close and kiss your hair, kiss your mouth slowly.

Perhaps I should have.

It is strange to think how, after all those words – thousands upon thousands of them a day – we exchanged, in a multitude of languages, I cannot find the words to speak to you, not even simply to say ‘good morning’.

Ah yes, but I have forgotten how words can injure the wielder just as much as the recipient, bearing equal strength and equal ferocity. Clogging my throat, stiffening the joints in my hand and the cogs in my mind, the quill on the page rests still. My voice, rough and scratchy, remains silent.

Silence again, my darling. You must forgive me.




14th April, 1900; Pays-de-la-Loire, France

Spring had come: the first flourishes and flowerings in a new age, bathed in the soft, orange-lemon light of dawn, the sky behind me pressed here and there with patches of purple, even as the new century began a long and slow procession down through the years; I stood there, under the far end of the grove of blossom trees which lined the walk down to the jut of hillside which stuck out from the rest, covered in a mess of moss and leaves, silent and morose as only a jilted lover at a wedding he does not wish to be at can be.

There were petals in my hair, littering the red with shades of pink-tinted cream, buried underneath and twisted, woven in so they shook and fluttered in the wind with the strands; I was a mockery of a bride that day, in royal yellow and a starch white cravat and shirt.

Alas that for all it looked like an absurdist wedding, distorted and changed, for all it seemed like it should be happy, content and gently serene – surrounded by new life, the rebirth of the ages, all the hope and possibilities the aching stretch of time in front of me opened up – I struggled to feel any of it; if, indeed, I found myself feeling anything at all.

I ought to say that the trails of flowers in my hair were hardly intentional: long ago, Nicolas had confided in me once, he had charmed the trees, swaying and heavy, to shed their blossoms, pink-edged and plump, when someone strolls underneath – young lovers, arm-in-arm; amis and confidantes, mothers and fathers and sweet, sighing children, lost in dreams of love and romance they are tasting for the first time. Shuddering, the trees would rustle in an unfelt wind and sprinkle the blossoms onto hair and clothes, leaving a trail of petals, glistening and soft, following after them.

Once, I enquired with Nicolas as to why he had bothered with it – such a simple and frivolous charm; a petty waste of magic – and he had laughed, shrugging in that expressive, Gallic way, and said:

“Eh bien, mon ami, the question is not why, non? It is why not.”

I had been confused, uncertain whether or not he was mocking me, laughing at my expense, my naivety that I could not understand, could not see the importance and necessity in small, harmless childish tricks.

“It is the timing,” he explained further with a secretive smile. “It makes things beautiful.”

It did, that much I had to admit then and there – and the frivolity of it could hardly offend me; no, my irritation with the enchantment had nothing to do with any idea of wasting power on a cheap trick or any potential breach of international security, but more with the fact that I was, to put it simply, miserable.

Darling, dear Gellert, I am not telling you this to hurt you, to somehow throw over your shoulders all responsibility for my state of mind – that, more than anything else, is my own affair. Simply, it is what happened, and so it must be told.

I have never lied to you, not on parchment, not in words, and I do not believe now is the time to start; we know each other too well for that, too deeply and too intimately.

The final chimes of celebration, bright and ringing, were still echoing around in April, any superstitious fear of the new century had faded, and life, for the most part had returned to normal – though even then, people still toasted the new age at parties and gatherings, clinking glasses together and declaiming loudly their hopes and dreams and half-formed predictions of the future.

Even in the countryside, laughter still lingered, leaking out of houses and into the fields and the winding, beaten tracks which scythed through the forests and down the slopes of valleys. It slipped through the cracks and down the chimney, bringing a wealth of fantastical stories and myths to the forefront of Nicolas’ mind, all of them pinned in place at the turn of the century, and stripping the years from them both in ways the Elixir never quite managed: Perenelle hummed as she went, an old song I have not heard before or since, and Nicolas smiled, filled to the brim with boundless, ageless energy, his mood pinned perilously high.

It was a time when everyone’s thoughts were tipped forwards, shaded light and leaping free – the future had arrived, fresh and blank, and everyone flitted about, bursting with ideas and dreams of what could be painted onto it; what could be made out of the scraps of the last century.

Everyone, I suppose, except I.

So many of my friends were happy, merry and excited, and yet, it seemed as though that same, infectious spirit simply slid off my robes and my shoulders, falling to my feet, shunning me time after time. I would run, with Elphias and Tiberius and Euphemia, odd quartet that we were, through the streets to the bars and the balls in London and Hogsmeade and Paris, determined that this time, this time the happiness would stick – and it never did; I could not force it to stay, could not hold it in my hands like a gold-rimmed glass and keep it captive.

Eventually I wearied of the battle, slipping quietly out of those evenings early and drained, declining invitation after invitation until my friends gradually began to stop asking.

One memorable time, Tiberius Ogden had attempted to cajole me into going by mentioning that dear Euphemia Bones had expressed personal interest, as he had put it, in whether or not I would be attending. I confess I nearly choked on my tea, wracking my mind for any possible reason not to go, suddenly seized with a panic I could not quite explain. It was not Euphemia herself – she was a lovely and talented woman, with the virtue of being both handsome and forthright – but the prospect of spending an evening fending away advances, the horrifying thought that this might be the start of a long train of avoiding proposals and advances and polite, flirting enquiries; what could I say to do so without arousing any suspicion?

Naturally, admitting glibly to the world at large that I had spent a summer contentedly learning how best to bed a beautiful blonde boy would certainly have done the trick, but the following scandal would not, I think, have been worth the few moments of amusement it would have produced.

The damage was done, however: the familiar ache and fear that I was not normal, that what I wanted was not normal, was somehow shameful and wrong; the familiar daydreams and twilight memories of you, sprawled across my bed, on your knees with that wickedly sly smile, the rasp of your voice when finally I reduced you to begging – it all resurged, triumphant and cruel, cutting me to the quick, and I had fled, muttering some feeble excuse to Tiberius as I left.

(By all accounts, it turned out to be a magnificent party: Elphias took four dances with Honoria Prewett (and accidentally stole her gloves), Tiberius ended the night singing in a bed of geraniums and honking daffodils, and Euphemia Bones quite forgot all about my absence and quickly gathered a circle of admirers, half of whom she would go on to marry and then promptly divorce after lengthy affairs.)

So there I was, while my friends were off back in England, nursing sore heads and being escorted from the bushes bleary-eyed and studded with twigs and grass, standing on top of a hill in southern France, feeling the wind murmur in my ear, cool and chilly, feeling, more than anything, exhausted and resigned to the apathetic melancholy which had taken root in me.

Spread out in front of me was countryside, somewhat ordered and lacking in any true sense of wild, but countryside nonetheless. It was a mess of greens and yellows, bushes sprouting up here and there, but my gaze was much more for the sky. I had always preferred to watch the sky rather than the earth, even as a boy; I loved how the clouds changed shape, whipped up and sped along by the wind, far mightier cousin of the little breezes which reached me on the ground, and how the sun would poke his fingers through them, lighting them up in golds and silvers and pure, clean whites.

It was not peace that I felt then, nothing like it, but it was comfort on some minor level. Out there, I could breathe, leave everything else behind and just look, blank and listless, studying the scene with a blind, detached eye.

Far away, there was the silvery gleam of a river winding towards the ocean, a single boat drifting down it, white sail flapping in the breeze; above them, reduced to mere faint dots, a flock of birds tumbled and wheeled, startled out of the trees. Spring was coming, but dawn still bathed the land in a thin, delicate coating of frost, making the grass crunch under my shoes and the leaves almost melt away at my touch. There was a dreamy, mystical quality to the Loire at daybreak which I could not help but love; it tugged softly at the strings in my chest and summoned up the handful of smiles I still possessed.

“Ah, monsieur, I did not think I would see you up here,” Nicolas’ voice was quiet from behind me, and, as always, faintly amused by something I could never put my finger on. “I ‘ope you are not ‘aving trouble sleeping – madame would be ‘appy to brew you a potion, if you require…”

“No, thank you,” I said, allowing another small smile and a quick, jerky shake of my head. “I have simply always enjoyed walking at dawn; I find the peace delightful.”

For a fleeting moment, I wondered if it sounded brusque, rude, as though I wanted him to leave – and for a moment, I hoped that it did; that somehow it adequately conveyed the spike of anxiety, of irritation which had flared when his voice sounded, faint and invasive, shattering the cocoon of silence I had built around myself.

“It is,” he agreed, surveying the land with a strangely distant gaze; it was unsettling, to see him allow some glimpse into the truth of his soul, underneath the jovial and solemn exterior – I wondered for a second what he could have lived through for such melancholy to emanate from him at the sight of a dew-sprinkled field?

Only for a second and then it passed, and I continued looking out over the fields below, watching a bird in flight vanish into a cloud and then dip out of it, banking on a rising stream, beak emitting a hoarse, sharp cry that rang shrill even in my ears. Something about it seemed out of place, too loud and too alive for such a time of day.

To me, down on the ground and watching as the bird settled on a branch some way distant, it seemed that the bird had merely turned my own discomfort into sound; it rang in my ears, rude and discordant.

I can admit now, since the years have passed, how very nervous I was on that hilltop – nervous in a way I had not been in years: my stomach turning and squeezing and my throat tightening, a string pulled sharply around my neck with a lancing pain – even though we were not talking, we were not interacting in any way, simply stood side by side, surveying the countryside in the fresh, Spring air.

I was nervous he would ask me what was wrong; frightened he would enquire, polite and worried; I was ashamed and afraid that he would read on my face that I thought his arrival was an intrusion into a place I had come to consider my own, where I would spend that handful of moments in a day where the past and the present and the future did not all converge themselves upon me, the expectations and memories, the failures I had birthed and the guilt they had left me with crashing down on my shoulders to beat me to the ground.

I was resentful and irritated – I wanted to leave, in truth, though I felt pinned in place, unable to move and unable to think of how to escape.

“‘ave you finished the equations?” Nicolas asked abruptly, turning to face me and studying me with an intense, thoughtful look which I fancied could see all the dark things I had tucked away in drawers a long time ago; could see the grey drizzle dripping in the inside of my mind.

All the intelligence in the world could not make up for the youth and inexperience I felt then, painful and obvious to him as I thought it must be.

“Yes, I completed them last night,” I responded, my voice even.

“Bon, bon,” he murmured, not looking away from me. Under the scrutiny, I held myself still and silent (not such a feat as it sounds, perhaps, considering I have had far worse tormentors in that arena – you yourself are far more guilty of that than he was, with your warm, gliding hands), and calmly looked back. “Then we shall start the real work today.”

He left then, with a nod and a smile and a light ‘bonjour, monsieur’, and I was bobbing along in his wake, feeling, for the first time in a year, a frisson of excitement – thin and piteous, certainly, but present all the same – shudder down my spine.

Alchemy holds the strange honour of being both an exact and precise science, and being utterly and completely inaccurate. The inconsistencies in the field as a whole are not helped by exaggerated, incomplete, or simply falsified documents narrating wildly bizarre techniques and methods, ranging from the dud to the dangerous, meaning much of the work in the field is based on guesswork and ingenuity, incorporating theories from other subjects.

It was, however, fortunate for me that it is such a singularly bizarre and frustrating field, for it meant that breakthroughs and discoveries – the kind by which names and reputations were established and established quickly – were somewhat easier to come by.

For all the advantages of it, it was hard, testing work, and I spent hours poring over texts in candlelight, the fire long dead in the grate, the last of the smoke curling lazily up the chimney, a half-drunk glass of port on the table next to me. I found myself going to bed late, accompanied by piles of old, worn papers and my own illegible notes, exhausted to the bone from the work of the day – stirring cauldrons and scribbling down results, racing out of the laboratories before the explosions hit and chuckling when we discovered all we had created was a bar of copper with a selection of fragrant, purple bubbles – too tired to even think or to dream.

My correspondence with my friends suffered accordingly, letters going unanswered for weeks at a time before I penned hasty replies when politeness was just about to flutter out of the window and off back to England. I admit I had always struggled to muster up as much enthusiasm for the gossip of the day as they could find, having no interest in who was seeing whom and which politician was currently teetering on the edge, but with my attention wholly captivated by something which truly interested me, there was no competition.

Of course, I still thought of you – I do not want you to think that I forgot you so soon, that you had so little effect on me as my words imply – but over time, as I concentrated and focused, narrowing my gaze to Alchemy and only that which I was studying (avoiding, very carefully, the prospect of immortality and eternal youth which came with it, for even little mentions of those reminded me of Hallows and revolutions and the way you had breathed against my neck at night as you slept), I thought of you less and less. I tried not to think of you, I admit I did not want to think of you, and I found that it became easier as time passed: memories shifting back in my mind, replaced by newer, fresher ones. It is not true to say that these memories were perhaps happier than the ones of the summer before, but they were less tainted with circumstance and grief.

Summer progressed, slow and stately up the coast of France, and I began to feel lighter, better; my burdens and my conscience and my festering, rotting secrets were still strapped to my back, bending me double, but my apathy was starting to lift day by day by day. The letters I sent to England doubled in length; I made sure to set aside time to write, describing my new life to my friends and inquiring after their own, and I found I had holiday enough to take a Portkey to England, to invite Elphias and Tiberius and Euphemia (now thankfully quite over any notion she had once had of attempting to woo me) to Paris and Marseilles and down the winding streets of York.

After so long, it seemed only inevitable that it would infect me as well, sinking in through my skin and down into my blood, poisoning me limb by limb and organ by organ, though I had been stubbornly resistant at the beginning. It worked its magic slowly, encouraging me to smile, then to quip glibly at comments made, them eventually to laugh.

I cannot tell you how it felt to laugh again, how it punctured the grey cloud hovering over the landscape of my mind, releasing out the sense of freedom I had missed, and with it a reminder that I was still young.

There was time, I recalled then, time for everything I had said I would do, time to be everything I wanted to be. Possibilities swirled around my head, endless and whirling in a kaleidoscope of colours, making me stumble into Tiberius, who simply laughed as we righted ourselves, oblivious to the disapproving looks of the more sedate Parisian locals.

Perhaps, I thought, drunk on damson wine and a spiced orange liqueur which had bubbled and fizzed even as I swallowed it, perhaps this could be the turning point of me. Perhaps I would step forward, close that chapter of my life – the chapter with you and Ariana and my mother and the thousand and one mistakes I made, tumbling down like a row of dominos – and start a new one; perhaps I would make a name for myself, carve out a place in history for myself, whether as inventor or Minister or theorist. Perhaps I would even manage, somehow, sometime, to reconcile with Aberforth, find a path in the middle of the road we could both agree on, however begrudgingly.

Perhaps, and it was the last thought – guilty, secret, and hopelessly honest – perhaps I would see you again, love you again, that you would love me.

We had promised each other forever, after all – why should we not take it?

Really, my darling, I should have been far more specific – for I have done all of those things (though the last, I think, I shall never know if it was ever true), and yet I am alone and companions with misery and exhaustion and cold, logical apathy once more, slowly feeling my limbs leaden with poison and wilt, one by one by one.

It was there, though, on the bridge over the Seine, surrounded by friends, warm and blissfully indifferent, that I decided that there were better ways to deal with the lodestones around my neck: better ways to deal with loving someone I should not love, better choice to make and better men for me to become.

I decided, foolish and brazen, that I would let you go, then and there, as simply and weightlessly as tossing a pebble into a river; it would be unwise to love you when there was every reason not to – we could both be happy, I theorised, we would both be happy, one day.

My darling, I was so certain then that it would be easy, so convinced this was something I could force through stubbornness and sheer will – after all, if I could fall in love so effortlessly, why should falling out of love be any different? What could possibly stop me?

Ah, I imagine you are shaking your head at me, that smug, knowing little smile on your face. Yes, I must reply, I forgot, of course, about you.


Chapter 4: Bulgaria
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Bulgaria

At night, sometimes I dream of fire; dragon-fire, sparking as it goes, eating and melting and consuming everything in its path, the heat from it sucking moisture out of the air, out of the ground, leaving nothing but dust and ashes behind, fine powder which crunches under my boots. I watch it all from the top of a hill, wand in hand; watch as the flames soar into the sky, the roars of the beast ripping the air asunder, hear the screams of women and children and men as they see Death coming for them. Anger, hot and strong, burns through my veins, and I can only think that the fire down below is a reflection of my soul. There is no pity, no mercy; only their unavoidable destiny, creeping ever closer.

When I wake, I do not remember it, the faint leftover thrill of it fading away quickly. The horrors of the night remain there; they will not come into the day, it is not their place. There are other demons to haunt me here, daydreams and the frailty of memory, half-formed images of things which once were real fracturing under pressure even as they slip away.

Facts do not evade me, though, and so I remember why, only why, only ever why, and the reasons linger in my mind, whispering to me as I pace up and down in front of the small window, never looking out. It is all I have left these days, facts – those little snippets of information we used to swap hourly, tossing them backwards and forwards in some meaningless, unspoken competition – and I confess my life has started to revolve around these things, emotionless and impartial though they are.

So, you see, Albus, I do not remember Bulgaria in the day, I do not remember how the mountains and hills and the fields looked, how the smell of charred flesh wound its way up the bank to where I stood, but I do remember why it happened. I have been asked why many times, by soldiers, by politicians, by mothers stricken with grief, by you yourself; the question is always why.

The answer is really very simple: they killed him. They did not need to kill him; why should they? He was innocent in all of this, in the bloodshed and the fury and the fight. He had nothing to do with it, had never had anything to do with it; I had made sure of that, perfectly aware of how I was hated and knowing how well hatred can stir the blood, can drive men to do deeds they would never otherwise commit.

You know it too, though you would never admit to it. Passion is much more similar to anger, to hatred, than it appears – and you were passionate, were you not? Once upon a time, at least.

Bulgaria reminds me of passion, yours and my own, of the simplicity of such an emotion, and the startling complexity it can yet provoke in thoughts and dreams. Passion denied begets anger, and oh I learned that quickly and harshly; a lesson I never forgot. Beyond that, far into anger, the flashes in my mind of flames and smoke speak to me of fury and grief and all the power I had ever possessed, focusing there on that one, small town. Naturally, it was terrible, that much I admit to you, but dear god it was beautiful, haunting and strangely melancholy.

Some days, I want to return there. I want to breathe in the faint echoes of dust and ash, hear the wind sigh as it stirs them up, carrying them over to me. I want the memories of that place, the blood and the tears and the power I poured into that land to come back to me; I want it to possess me again, I want to feel it wrap around me and fill me until I choke on it.

I want the thrill of being unstoppable again.

Ah, but it is not allowed, yes? It is bad, to feel passion and anger and hate? These emotions, they are not for you, not for who you want to become, and so I am not allowed them too, I am simply to sit here, sit here and rot, as you remake the land, press life into it with your hands and your heels, and attempt to forget that you ever once raised a wand in anger, felt power and craved it all.

Some days, Albus, I think I hate you. Others, I know that I do.




22nd July, 1900; Pazardzhik, Bulgaria

Nearly eight months into the new century, the new age for the dawn I would bring, and I had not yet gained anything other than tired bones, a stolen horse and a growing tendency to talk to myself – there was, I reasoned, no one else to talk to, and if I did not use my voice it would grow weak, rough and harsh from neglect. I could not allow that; if politics were to be my end-game, my board of choice, I would need my voice more than ever.

I had fled the moment the girl’s body touched the ground and I saw the loss in your eyes, vanishing over the channel without a second’s thought. Then, I simply vanished. The world will never know what happened next, what I did, where I went; they will speculate, I imagine, dredging up stories and legends and pinning my name next to them, dark deeds all, to suit their fantasies of me.

The truth is much less exciting. I had fled; I carried on running. I apparated across France region by region, crossed the mountains into Switzerland under cover of night, spent a week in Italy sharing wine and cigarettes and a bottle of laudanum with a handsome young man, stubble covering his chin and merry dark eyes. I went around Germany, around my homeland, afraid (and yes, I admit that I was very much afraid) that there the Aurors would be waiting for me, if you had gained the courage to speak of the truth of the girl’s death. If the boy had opened his mouth and barked.

I would not be bound, I swore to myself in the night; I would not be arrested like a common criminal. Ah, the irony of that now, yes? Then I was young and arrogant and the idea of being locked away from the wind and the rain and the earth, without any companionship, any conversation save for myself, seemed a death sentence in kinder wrappings.

Now I know differently; now I know that it is much, much worse than that.

I slept under the stars, then, with all that I owned in a trunk shrunk to fit into my pocket and on my back, and dear god I never been so free, so utterly and completely free. Then, I was nothing and everything, no one and everyone, a living dimorphism in myself. It was wonderful, and despite all the reasons and the emotions and the sneaking, fearful thoughts which stole into my mind when I closed my eyes about the future and plans and what would I do, I am not sure if I have ever been happier.

Ah, freedom: for you a burden you bear only grudgingly, a pleasure you insist on denying to yourself, and for me it is the drug I crave more desperately than any other. How we are different, Albus. How we always were.

Stepping foot into Bulgaria, though, marked something for me – a turning point of sorts. I remember only too well how I had hovered there, on the edge of the border with Romania, a breeze toying with my hair, and a strange hesitance to move forward. The sun was mid-descent, teetering on the edge of the sky, setting the horizon alight with slices of orange and dusky, bruised purples; beautiful, I assure you, but I could not find anything joyful or comforting in it, instead there was only anxiety drumming in my skull, and the faint taste of nausea in my throat.

The future was coming for me, quick and sly and ruthless, and there was nothing I could do about it but allow it to take me, body and mind and soul entire lost to its whims and mercies.

As soon as I had crossed the border, taken that one small step, I felt all the weight of the world come crashing back down onto me. I saw and I remembered and I felt every plan we had ever made, every fevered discussion we had ever had, every passion and determined righteousness I had ever experienced, and yet, and yet still I hovered there, alive again after so very long, but dying slowly once more as the memories went further, the knowledge deeper and feelings soured.

My certainty, so strong all that summer, so devout, vanished. I seemed to myself to be so very young and childish, and the task I had assigned myself – revolution and the creation of perfection – appeared an impossible mountain. For the first time, I thought that perhaps I could fail; for the first time, I wondered if it was as important to realise as I considered it to be.

I was weak and nervous and foolish; it shames me now to think of it – even now as I admit it, the words stick in my throat and seem to burn at my flesh.

There, frozen, I remembered you and how we had made these plans together, how they had been our plans, before everything went wrong. Later, of course, you would deny them, claim that they had never been yours like they had been mine, that you had never dreamed of mastery, of power, of the imperial glory kingship would lay at your feet; you had not yet denied it then, though, and something about the idea of pursuing our dreams (ours, Albus, always ours – no matter how often you try to tell yourself otherwise) alone seemed wrong.

How long I stood there, I do not know, but I know that it was long enough for frost to crystallise on my breath and on the tips of my hair, my fingertips turning red and the wind stinging, poking at my eyes. Tears slipped, trailing down my cheeks, and my throat grew dry, air rattling in my lungs – cold and crisp and painful.

Eventually, once the sunset had faded away into the cavern of night and the owls and other children of darkness ran and played around me, I felt something in my stomach settle and harden, and I was more myself again. What did it matter, I told myself, if you were not here now? If you were not with me for this moment? I would find you again, I would have you again, and everything would proceed as it should; this was merely a… delay in our plans, rather than the end.

(It was not the end; it was never the end, would never have been the end. Did you ever think I would really leave you? Did you ever think you could actually let go of me?)

No, I would do this on my own – I would make the first move in this little game of ours, and then we would see where we stood. I would then decide what I would do with regards to your distance, to my own fears and weaknesses; now, though, now was for victories.

The village was small, sleepy, almost funny-looking with its squat houses and shuttered windows, a few flowers here and there, heads bobbing in the breeze. There was magic here, too: faint, whispering sort of magic, a far cry from the precise force my homeland possessed or the fierce, wild threads of Hungary, but magic all the same. It was tough, hardy and it sunk into the walls of the houses, making their white-painted stone gleam, turning each crude building into its own castle. Resistance and pride: two qualities I thought much of, in myself and in others.

I walked down the streets, a lone wolf amidst sleeping lambs, excitement mounting inside me, strangling the nausea in my stomach and spreading up through my body, seizing muscles and organs until it reached my heart and it possessed me. It was strong and sweet, urging me on to run, to go, go now, faster and faster, not to stop, not to breathe or think until I had it, here in my hands, until it was done. My fingers drummed on my leg, I bit my lip to keep from whistling, from humming something, and forced myself to breathe, slow and deep, searching for calm in the middle of a gathering storm.

You should have been there, Albus, you always knew how to calm me – what to say, what to do. You would have taken my hand, our fingers twined together, smiled and reminded me that I had to be patient, to be sly and clever and quick. To be patient is to be clever, you would have said, and I would have rolled my eyes at you, but listened all the same.

As it was, I simply pushed forwards, relentless, methodical in tracking down the street and then the shop. It was hardly difficult to find: a wooden sign creaked in the air outside it, strung up by a joust and a thread of magic which ran up and down it, ‘wands’ inscribed in Cyrillic next to a faded, cracked painting of what must once have been a wand sparking blue and red and green. Halting outside, I considered the building itself for a moment. It did not look at all like a fitting place for the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, but I supposed that appearances can be deceiving – and the wards around the house were complicated, woven together with enthusiasm and intent, if not skill.

The Elder Wand was inside, I was outside, and my blood ran hot in my veins. Theft is a small sin to commit in such a way, for such an item. I have no qualms about admitting that doing more, much more, to have it was something I was prepared for.

Slipping inside the shop was simple; I do not remember much of how it happened. In my mind even then it was dreamlike: I brushed through the wards as though a veil of spider-silk, revelling in the feeling of being unknown, unseen, and the idea of the becoming invincible. I imagined I could already feel it, feel the wand and the power it held calling out to me, how it would be to hold it and know, know beyond doubt, that nothing and no one could challenge me.

Then it was there, and I knew it without a doubt: carved with elderberries along its length, long and slender and whispering to me, calling to me, to my own wand. It was there: in plain sight, laid out on a workbench as though it was just another tool, another half-finished product to wait for completion in the morning’s light. An oversight, perhaps, on Gregorovitch’s part, but one which was undoubtedly fortuitous for me.

It was cold when I touched it, fingers brushing over the wood before sliding around to pick it up, and it shuddered in my grasp. A captured animal, I thought, trapped and alone and fighting to be free, and my hand was the cage which would keep it chained. I would bind it to me, as familiar to mage, the first of the Hallows, tame it and wield it.

Down the corridor, something shuffled. Heavy and quick, it padded along even as I rushed for the window, unlatching it with a single flick from the Elder Wand, the force of the spell sending the pane careering back to crash against the side of the house. In the next room, a woman screamed; behind the door, a man cursed me and my line, both ways and sides.

I laughed. Dear god, it sounds foolish now, to laugh at such a point – but, why not? I had the Elder Wand, a third of the Deathly Hallows, the start of our now-fabled dream, and then I was unstoppable.

Gregorovitch lurched into the room, a lantern in one hand, a wand in another. He raised it, magic rising around him like a snake preparing to strike, but I was quicker. The spell, crimson and strong, burst out of me without a thought, without direction, instinct alone guiding it and I jumped from the window, falling backwards through the air and then up, up and away, soaring up to join the clouds and the owls on the night breeze.

The wind stole my laughter from my lips, spinning it into the mist as it went, catching me, holding me, holding my hand as I flew on his back, drunk on delirium. My body was shaking, adrenalin still pumping under my skin, and victory stained my mouth with the taste of honey, but nothing has ever felt quite so perfectly wonderful as then: I was young, I was perhaps more alive than I had ever been, and I could see my destiny falling into place ahead of me.

I would, I knew then, lead the world into a new age, raise the revolution which would reform the world, reform order and society. I would marry wizard to muggle in a harmonious union, every being in their rightful place, tearing down the pitiful sham which had spawned our world, unjust and cruel as it was, and replacing it with a better model to suit a more modern time.

(I would, I knew also, do it with or without you, Albus, as you wished, and if you stood in my way I would cut you down with the rest.)

When eventually the wind had laid me, so gently, upon the ground and abandoned me to the care of his brothers out on the hills, I stretched out, feeling my spine unfurl piece by piece, and felt the smile, finally, ebb from my face. It was easier to think out there, cooler and lonely, and as the dew began to soak through the back of my cloak, I shivered and thought of you.

Immortality beckoned to me, as it always had, but for two months it had called towards both of us, entwining us together and fusing our minds, our hopes, our dreams into one. Now, it seemed, I had started the journey on my own, and what a start it had been: the Elder Wand was mine, ja, but of the other two there was no sign, I had no signs, and I lay isolated on a cold, bleak hill in the middle of nowhere, feeling water dry on my cheeks.

You had left me, Albus, left me alone with nothing but dreams for comfort. Did you think of that, in your grand scheme to hide yourself from the world? Or did your courage die at the end of that summer, cradled so delicately in the girl’s hands as she fell?

Ah, I have no answers – I had none then, they have not come to me since.

Light began to tickle at my eyelids, prising them open with a delicateness which surprised me, enthralled me. It was a slow, steady rise: beams spreading out from a focal point, stretching and growing until they surpassed the world entire, setting the horizon aflame and turning the sky to gold; Midas’ touch, liquefied and purified, stronger and fiercer than I had ever witnessed before. Inside my chest, my heart was hammering and I found myself breathless, as lost for words as I had ever been with you.

The truth of it, of what I had seen came to me in an instant, a thunderbolt from the sky: I was to be the sun, heralding the new age, bringing the light and the day and all the beauty and certainty it possessed. It would be difficult, a path strewn with dangers (of course, for what revolution is without peril?) but I would match it, whatever came my way, and the glory in the end would be worth all the cost of the beginning.

In my heart, in my soul, I strengthened, determination fusing into steel and diamond, a shell to weather the hardships of life, and I felt passion stir in me once more, kindling in my stomach, filling my mind with purpose. I was not afraid – why should I be, when fate herself wrote my destiny in the sky?

(The day we fought, the day you ended my reign, your hair was grey-and-red and your robes were dark purple. Perhaps I should have thought of that then, that as much as I might have been the dawn, you were the sunset.)




A/N: Translation: ja = yes. 

Also, a huge shout-out to everyone who's nominated this little story of mine in the Dobby's so far. It's absolutely mind-blowing, so thank you all so, so much! I love you all! :) :) :) 

Absolutely stunning chapter image by the fabulous nyx @TDA


Chapter 5: Similes
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Similes

To love is to surrender oneself completely, to submit oneself into the hands of another, to join your mind and body and soul to another, so that you become as close as is possible to one single being. It is like… ah, but there is nothing quite like love, is there? There is nothing so powerful, nothing in this world with greater strength than love: it binds people together, whether they will it or not, whether there are papers to proclaim it or not, and it does not end until it dies.

Perhaps it never shall die; perhaps it shall simply fade and then be gone. I confess I used to ponder over this quite often in my younger days, when I still thought occasionally of companionship and of family, but I have come to conclusion that, really, there is no use in fighting the truth any more. One way or another, the truth always makes itself heard in the end. What can mere denial do, in the face of such an ending?

I must apologise for rambling in such a manner – I have been reading poetry lately, Byron and Wordsworth, and so love and romance are at the forefront of my mind, and when such things enter my thoughts, it cannot be helped but that they turn, immediately, to you.

Even now, when I think of it, it brings a smile to my face, and I wonder what others would think if I told them, in all honesty, that Gellert Grindelwald, terror of Europe, former dictator and Dark Lord, was an avid reader – and lover, indeed – of poetry? That you had once read Tennyson’s In Memoriam through the night and into the dawn without a break to sleep, that you had exclaimed in shock when I informed you that I was not at all familiar with the works of Homer or Milton.

Quite probably they would laugh, my darling, and you mustn’t blame them for it: the Dark Arts and poetry are hardly ordinary bedfellows.

Do they allow you books in Nurmengard? I cannot imagine they do; they are still wary of you, of what you might do if given the chance. Perhaps I should send you some – novels, poetry, history – if only to save you from yourself. Locking you in prison was one thing, but sitting back and allowing you to drive yourself quite mad with boredom is another.

I think you might quite enjoy Tennyson, at any rate. He talks of death and nature and thought intertwined, describing psychology through imagery; he never states things directly, as such, merely gives a sense of them to the reader, leaving you to decipher the exact meaning yourself. A poet for both politicians and lovers. Perhaps it is too bold to say (and so I shall not, at least not out loud), but having been both of those things, you seem his ideal audience.

For my part, I am far from the ideal audience. I see the words, yes, and I read them, but they do not speak to me the way they did to you; I do not admire them the way you did. Words were ever your tool, your weapon, your delight. They were never mine.

No, in this we were opposites – as we were in so many things, as we discovered in the end. I have always preferred things which do not speak directly to me, things which allow me to decipher and translate without words, to give them meaning rather than take it from them, even if I could change it to what I would like to take from it. Music was always my first love, art the second: both play on the senses, on emotions through the senses, leaving the mind out of it altogether.

Ah, I was so foolish to think that only those things, enchantments and potions and tricks, which play with the mind could be so devastatingly dangerous. Alas, that it is the curse of age to realise such truths too late.

For you the mind was a toy, a puppet, something malleable which you could pull and push and shape into what you wanted it to be, swing round and round and round in circles until your hapless victim merely frowned, dizzy, and agreed, disagreements long fled from his mind. Trickery and concealment – hiding the truth in plain sight, giving it a glossy coat of paint and persuading everyone it was a rainbow; you were a magician beyond compare, darling, and your delight in it was enough that I was loath to stop you, if only because it made you so very happy.

We agreed on something, though – a meeting point, of sorts – do you remember? Opera, dramatic and exquisitely crafted, literature in musical form, was a joy for both of us. Do you remember when we went to London, sat in the boxes, champagne in ice to one side, our chairs as close together as they could be without seeming indecent. I confess that while Violetta and Alfredo sang of a future, a blissful dream they shared, I barely noticed the movements on stage, lost in my own delights.

The music flowed and soared, and you caressed the inside of my wrist in time with the sweeps of the conductor’s baton, your fingers warm and tender, scandalously so. I was quite swept away by the sheer, raw power of it all, and I emerged from the theatre at the end of the evening half-drowned and struck dumb by sensation.

I wonder, though – you must forgive me these rambling wonders as I am old, Gellert, and my mind works in ways sometimes I struggle to fathom – if you ever thought of the words as they were sung, heard them and considered if sometimes a dream can only be a dream? If sometimes perfection is, in the end, unattainable, and that love, perhaps, does not conquer all?

With you, things were always other things – similies and comparisons, descriptions colouring my world in shades I had never dared to imagine before – and I loved the uncertainty, the thrill in learning the truths you uttered so carefully, picking them apart until I could lay them at your feet, triumphant at last. It seemed only a game, then, but at times I cannot help but wonder if for you it was more than simple amusement, more than a game, and if all those smiles, so light and pleased, were because I was merely your puppet, charging headlong down the path you had so painstakingly drawn out for me.




3rd January, 1901; Langres, Lorraine, France

It is an undeniable fact of this world that Christmas, above all other holidays and celebrations, is a time for family; a time for making peace and sharing joy, both giving and receiving, and basking in the comfort of being surrounded by those you love the most. Considering this, perhaps it is not so strange, after all, that those first two Christmases after that day I spent alone, or as near to alone as one could get, and as far from my family – any part of it – as I ever have been.

Do not concern yourself, Gellert, I am not telling you this in a quest for pity; I am quite well aware I shall likely receive none, and I do not require any. It is a long time past.

The first Christmas, so soon after, I was utterly, inconsolably miserable. My lone companion was a vintage bottle of tawny port – the kind my father preferred on the rare occasions he indulged himself – and, when that ran out only a few days into Advent, bottles of absinthe and sherry bought from the local town. For a little over a month, I trudged around my cottage, deep in the French countryside, so beautifully laden with snow, and sulked, reading anything I could get my hands on, but determined to hide myself away from the world.

It is a truly wretched existence – I do not, nor would I, ever wish it on anybody – to be at such a complete and total loss. I had never experienced it before, such loneliness and such uncertainty, and I never wish to do so again.

On Christmas Eve, I attended Mass in the local church: a lovely, squat building, its stone weathered to a deep, cracked grey. It was in Latin, of course, so I could only hum along to the hymns and guess at the prayers which were being said, but I could feel the weight of it, the lightness in the air, as the priest spoke of redemption, a saviour born, and the most precious gift of family, his sermon delivered in a pleasing baritone which, along with the spiced incense and flickering candles, lulled me into relaxing, softening even as I shivered.

I was the last into the church, and the first to leave it: I could not have stayed any longer, because a sudden burst of German in front of me, a flash of a blonde head, and I was suddenly trembling, and no longer because of the cold or a sudden need for a tumbler of sherry.

Within seconds, I was back at home, sunk into an armchair with my head in my hands, and what could I do but cry? Alas, my darling, it was not all for you, but the mere threat of seeing you, the mere thought of you and the hope, the longing that provoked in me… I did not know whether to be appalled by myself or desperately wanting, and settled for simple misery as a mid-point.

Then, of course, once I had cried for you, I remembered Ariana, I remembered the sermon and family, I remembered how Aberforth had spat in my face and broken my nose, I remembered my poor dead parents, and I cried again for them.

That was last year, though – the turn of the century, the great beacon of light and hope the bleak end of the previous era had been waiting for – and I approached the next year, 1901 and nothing special, with the determination that this year I would not let myself fall into the same trap as I had done before.

I promised myself I would be happy at Christmas, but the truth about happiness is that you can promise it to yourself as many times as you wish, it will not necessarily do anything.

Langres in winter was beautiful; ice dripped down from the edges of roofs, clung to windowpanes and laced the top of the canals in thin, snow-flaked sheets. The wind whipped through the town, harsh and snarling with the voice of the mountains, but the sunlight was strong, if not warm, and the land glittered as though covered with fairy dust. All around, houses and fences were being decorated with holly and strings of ivy, enchanted candles lining paths to restaurants and bars, slotted in between the marble columns of the famous magical hôtel de ville and sending beams of red and green up their sides.

Ah, it was truly lovely – a far cry from the wet and mild winters we had had back in Godric’s Hollow, it put me more in mind of the Christmases I had spent at Hogwarts, the castle blanketed in snow and festooned with candles and ribbons and sprigs of ivy, the German tradition of Christmas trees having taken a long time to migrate to Hogwarts. With memories of laughter and mugs of Butterbeer (and, I have to admit, tumblers of Firewhisky once we thought ourselves old enough to fool the bartenders) and the pleasant company of friends, and something of a joy in life again, I was quite swept away by the sheer romanticism with which the French viewed the holiday.

So it was that two days before Christmas I found myself in the hall of the hôtel de ville, sporting a new pair of pine green dress robes Euphemia had sent me in lieu of her own attendance being as she was on her honeymoon at the time, attending a party hosted by the French Ministry. I had not been invited personally, of course, but Tiberius was there with the British Magical Embassy and had extended the invitation to all of his friends, assuring us – Elphias in particular – that they would have no issue with it; they were remarkably relaxed about extra guests.

Indeed, upon entering we had received a ‘bonsoir, messieurs’ from the maitre d’ and a glass of champagne, without mention of any kind of proof of invitation.

It was spectacular, truly – a perfect recreation of forest clearing in winter, the pillars around the hall twined about with twigs and ivy, the ceiling shedding sprinkles of snow every now and then onto the crowd below, and, in the corner, a choir of wood nymphs sang ‘Ave Maria’ in soft, haunting tones, the violins smooth and sad.

Looking at it then, one would never have guessed that usually the walls were merely plain sandstone and lined with velvet-covered chairs and portraits of past Ministers, but that, perhaps, was the magic of it all.

“- and you know my friend Mr Dumbledore, of course,” I heard Tiberius say, English sounding out-of-place and almost crude in a hall with French ringing around the room in quick, fluid bursts, and I could not help but wonder if finding another English speaker was the cause for quite the level of excitement in his voice.

A cynical thought, and so one I naturally kept to myself – even more so since my own linguistic skills have always been poor, despite your best attempts at instruction, my darling.

Though I should say that I am certain it was not your teaching that was at fault, more my lack of concentration. Perhaps if you had worn more clothes that day I would have been less hopeless a student? It is, after all, difficult to think about dative verb constructions when one is focused more on mapping out the plains of another’s body, even if only by eye.

I never did learn German, as I promised. Goethe sits on my shelf, untouched and dusty – but, alas, you see, I cannot look at it without remembering and so I avoid it, all previous incentives lost.

In that time, though, both poetry and prose were far from my mind, preoccupied as I was with circling around the room, the glass of champagne never seeming to dip a jot, bubbling away with the crackle of a newly-popped bottle, searching for someone to talk with on any topic.

Most people were happy to chat about the weather, enquire after plans and thoughts on the day’s politics (which I knew regrettably little about), and on the Ministerial gossip (the French Minister’s daughter had been arrested earlier in the week, hence his absence from the party, and it was widely rumoured that his wife had been having an affair with the Swedish diplomat for months), and I was equally more than content to keep conversation at a light level. It was easy enough to keep up with, and here I had no one I was looking to impress.

Truthfully, I liked being unknown, being just another face in the crowd, assumed to be nothing more than average – at least, then I did, having spent so long out of any kind of elite society, however such a group would be defined, so that returning to it felt almost strange and invasive, as though any privacy I had had been stripped away, even if I was only an addition after Nicolas Flamel’s name.

“Albus Dumbledore?” a voice, heavily accented and not one I recognised, sounded from behind me and I turned with a smile, ready to repeat once again what an honour it had been and how lucky it was that I had got to work with Nicolas Flamel; the words were beginning to taste sour in my mouth.

It was not at all that they were lies, or in any way untrue, it was simply the continuous repetition of it which frustrated me. I could not help but wonder if people could not think of a different question to ask? If there was truly nothing else they wanted to know?

“Yes,” I responded, shifting my glass into my left hand to proffer my right for him to shake. “And I am afraid I have not had the pleasure, Mr…?”

“Dillonsby,” he replied quickly, shaking my hand with a strong, surprisingly crushing grip, his smile bright and pointed. “Ivor Dillonsby. I haf wanted to talk with you for a while but you haf been quite busy talking.”

He laughed, and though it sounded genuine, I was certain there was a joke in there somewhere at my expense; underneath the pleasantry, there rang a strain of discord, a hint of something hollow.

“My apologies if I have been delaying your plans,” I smiled back nonetheless, determined to be perfectly agreeable even if he could not manage it. This was a party, after all, and I had no intention of letting a true stranger ruin it for me; optimism was running high that evening, my darling.

“No, not at all,” he assured me, flashing me that smile again. “I voz meaning to ask about your Potions work – about that theory of yours, vith the dragon’s blood? How you believe it has properties? You see, Mr Dumbledore, I believe I have discovered some of them.”

It was said so bluntly and so suddenly that I admit I was quite taken aback by it, and so stood there for several moments with my mouth open, lost for words.

You know, Gellert, I find it immeasurably strange that of all the accomplishments I have achieved over the years, people remember most the dragon’s blood and my defeat of you. One I doubt I truly earned, and the other… ah, the other was a hastily scribbled down thought, barely half developed, and sent off for publication without real consideration before I raced off to find you. Indeed, even as I wrote it, candlelight flickering from the breeze coming in through the window, my mind was not really on the properties of dragon’s blood, more on ideas like justice and righteousness and whether or not Darwin’s theory of evolution could really be applied to wizards and muggles.

Nonetheless, whatever I think of it, that rushed article grew and grew, and when I left Nicolas to find a new apprentice, it was the first thing I thought of, the first papers I found in the reams that remained from that summer, which I found caught my attention. It is curious how these things happen, do you not think?

Perhaps not; you never did believe in coincidence, I do not see any reason why that would have changed.

“If you vould like, I could send you my papers, so you could test and see for yourself?” he suggested, and I could only nod and manage a ‘that would be delightful, thank you’ before he left, even as irritation and arrogant, brash anger stirred in my stomach.

The idea that someone else could discover what I had not yet managed was unthinkable, and the suggestion that I would be useful merely to check his results was insulting. I was both bitter and furious; refusing really to believe that he had, that he could have, and it embarrasses me to think of such things now.

Arrogance is always such a costly trait.

Out of the corner of my eye, there was a flash of blonde curls, the hint of a curved waist and I stopped dead in my tracks, head turning round painfully. For a moment, I simply stood there, my heart racing, breathless, wondering why I had never considered before that you might be there, wondering why I had ever accepted the invitation to come, before I found myself moving off in search of you.

The crowd parted easily, almost too easily, and yet there was no sign of you – no touch of gold anywhere around me.

My head was swimming, weightless and thoughtless, and as I took another sip of champagne, I headed for the garden, quite desperate to leave the room, to feel the breeze on my skin and let the cold sink in through the haze of alcohol.

Balancing my champagne flute carefully on the balcony, I slipped a thin rectangle of paper out of a pocket and neatly arranged a line of tobacco down the centre, rolling it up and sealing it with a faint lick of blue fire. It was not such a vice then, nothing scandalous, and for me it was always more of an indulgence rather than anything else (though I must admit that every addiction is declared an indulgence by its owner, and so it is hardly a choice phrase to use), but on the continent such behaviours were common and I had found myself slipping into the habit more quickly than I would like to believe.

Even as I breathed smoke into the night air, the scent of it familiar and soothing, expelling the fog from my head in wispy, delicate clouds, I saw something – only a small thing, insignificant really – but it stopped my heart.

A snap of fingers, quick and crisp, the flicker of a flame wrapping itself around the end of a cigarette, even as slim fingers dangled it carelessly; then, as I blinked, golden curls made silver in the dim light, and dear god, for a moment I was back in Godric’s Hollow, in Bathilda’s garden, watching as smoke left your mouth, pressing against your lips in a caress and wanting to do the same.

Of course, it was as I was staring that he looked up and I saw that he was not you. He was only like you, nothing more; an imitation, if you like, or a copy. Regardless, I found I could not look away, searching for traces of you in him, for something to cling to.

He saw me looking, and smiled, and it was pretty, charming even, though it lacked your intensity.

That, as I discovered, was the difference between you and him. Where you were Germanic steel, beautiful and strong and unyielding, he was light and eager and so very pliable beneath my hands. You had inspired longing in me, brought out passion and wanting and a hunger I had always known but refused to acknowledge, and I could not muster up those emotions for him. There was desire, yes, and there was perhaps need of a kind, but he did not captivate me in the way you had.

So it was that at four o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve, I found myself sitting on a window-seat, gazing out across the Moselle, feeling terribly, desperately alone.

A bouquet of lilacs lay across my lap from where I had been admiring them, their leaves brushing across my stomach as I breathed in and out, slow and deep. It was strangely gentle, and the petals felt like satin under my fingers, coloured a lovely, vibrant royal purple. They were beautiful –enchanted to last forever, to withstand the ravages of time – and as I rested my head against the windowpane, at a loss to understand my own melancholy, I found myself thinking of their meaning, how they spoke of love, first love, that slow, creeping realisation that you cannot live alone. That life is not made for that, that one single person can mean more to you than the world entire.

Even as Alain turned in bed behind me, sweet and charming and so very much what I should want, I sighed, imagined what it would be to be in love, and thought of you.

As far as realisations go, there was no fanfare, there was no great shock or amazement or horror. I did not leap up from the seat, spilling flowers onto the floor, or exclaim under my breath; all I did, in truth, was think and know and feel that I loved you.

There was no need for a spectacle; after all, I had been in love with you for years then, even if I had not thought of it until that moment.

Without thinking, the mixed taste of champagne and tobacco lingering on my tongue, I tied the bouquet with a ribbon – yellow, perhaps, though it was hard to distinguish the colours in the night – and sent it off with the owl in the corner of the room. Before she left, she gazed at me reproachfully, as though well aware of what I was doing and disapproving.

The window clattered as I shut it, and Alain stirred without waking, innocent to my bold, desperate gesture. I looked at him as I slid back into bed beside him, and now, now I could see it, just how much like you he was, how much your shadow and I knew from where the attraction had sprung.

Slipping an arm around his waist and brushing a few slender tresses out of the way, I drifted off to sleep, adamant that in the morning, I would leave and not come back, and dreaming of you, wreathed in smoke in the moonlight.




A/N: I just want to say a huge, huge thank you to everyone who voted for this story in the Dobbys - I'm utterly blown away by it all, I honestly never expected to win and I really can't express how much it means to me! So thank you all so much - this chapter is dedicated to you all! :) I love you all so much! 

The beautiful CI at the top is by nyx @TDA

The references in this to Violetta and Alfredo is a reference to the opera La Traviata, by Verdi, which is set to a libretto by Piave, and so is not owned by me. 

Nor do I own the song 'Ave Maria', which is currently set to music by Bach and the lyrics by Gounud. 

Nor do I own Goethe, who was, in fact, a real person. 

And, lastly, hotel de ville = town hall in French. 


Chapter 6: Württemberg
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*

Württemberg

When I wake, the frost has crystallised all the way around the bars of my prison cell, decorating each one in spirals of blue and white and clear gems, the faint hint of silver winking at me through them. Beyond the prison, the wind whips up the small, glittering dots, plucking them from the air and the ground, and plasters them all over the bars, over the edge of the walls, before dancing away again, leaving behind swirls and stars and ferns written in falsified jewels; nature’s Christmas decorations.

I ignore the way the wind reaches for me, picking at my skin and my eyes and my mouth, desperate to leech any moisture out of me and take it for its own, and stand by the window. The snowstorms come every year here, in the mountains, and yet they have never bored me. It is likely they never will.

There is something beautiful about them, something beautiful and wild and free and utterly, wonderfully deadly which I cannot help but love. A snowstorm does not answer to anyone, it cannot be tamed, cannot be contained, will destroy rather than be destroyed.

You know all of this, of course, with the snowstorms you will have seen in your school, watching from the safety of your warm tower, looking down on the world below. Oh, Albus, you will never have seen them like this, though; will never have felt them the way I have.

The cold comes first: it creeps up from the floor when the sun is hidden under the cover of the clouds, grey and slowly dying, and gathers, grows and strengthens until it is tough and dry, making your breath come in rattles and your fingers freeze. It goes right down into the bone, cutting right to the quick; shivering is useless with this, you cannot fight it, and truthfully I do not want to – the cold reminds me I am still alive. I am still here, my breath visible proof of that.

Then, the wind comes. It screams around the mountains, biting and scratching in all its twinned fury and glory (but then the two have never been far apart, as any historian could tell you), fierce from birth. It is a hungry wind, angry and hungry, and it digs around, whipping its tail across your face, sucking what was left of the moisture from the air, stealing it as soon as you lick your lips in a kiss, of sorts.

When the first snows fall, they are delicate things: each snowflake a wet, heartfelt sigh, meandering down from the heavens, sparkling and glimmering in the beams of light poking through the clouds. These are nothing like them; instead, these are half-formed things, plain and damp, and they refuse to melt on my fingers when I catch them, balancing them on a fingertip. Underneath their bodies, my skin freezes, and they bow down slowly before collapsing all at once, undone by the heat of my blood.

The heat of my blood may destroy the snow, but the wind is far crueller than I: it throws them about, little and weak, spinning them about in the air, helpless in the face of such power. If ice could scream… ah, but that is a strange thought, no?

Strange things breed in Nurmengard, though; it is not unexpected. After a decade or two, I expect I shall be quite mad. Let us see how you wear that on your conscience when it comes – I suspect that, as with all things, you will wear it as a hair shirt; the tears it brings to your eyes the only visible penance you will do for it.

Württemberg – it was the start of all things, that you know well enough. They will have documented it by now, will have written it down and labelled it as ‘the start’, as though everything truly began there and not in our haven by the brook in Wales. It is only fitting, then, that it should also be the end.

Outside my window, the snow keeps falling, beautiful and wild and free and deadly, and I cannot help but be reminded of what I once was; and I was all those things, once, Albus, for that is why you loved me, yes?

As the cold sinks into my bones, the frost creeping into my cell bit by bit by bit, I lean back on the narrow bed and close my eyes, dreaming even as I shiver, of the old days, before I held the key to the world’s problems, when I was simply young and the world was mine for the taking.




30th January, 1901; Heiligenberg, Germany

It was a light smell at first, reminiscent of lemons and limes – sharp and strong and clean – and it made me think of my childhood, out in the wilds of Hungary, climbing up trees and picking fruit in the fields. Then, slowly, it faded and gave way to something darker, something less clinical and nice and far, far more seductive; heady and sweet and deep, it was the kind of scent that stuck in your throat and filled up your lungs, cloying and over-powering.

I loved it: it spoke to me of drama, passion and longing – the desperation of a lost lover who does not have the strength to fight any more. It spoke of darkened rooms, of hushed, secretive conversations and a love hidden from society, hidden from daylight for fear, perhaps, or for the flair of quick, passionate romance such things often inspire.

The flowers themselves, of course, were unremarkable: common purple lilacs, arriving late on morning with a yellow ribbon tied around them in a neat bow. Around them, the faint tingle of magic – a preserving spell, I assumed, to make sure that the gift (for they were, no? After all, people do not generally send flowers and expect them returned) did not fade or die.

Sitting on the windowsill, feeling the breeze from the mountains reach down to ruffle my hair and send ripples through my clothes, I twirled a lilac between my fingers and wondered who could have sent them.

The meaning was somewhat clearer: in romance, in courtships, lilacs symbolise first love, beauty and youth and pride.

It did not help, though, insofar as selecting candidates for the sender was concerned: I could not think of people who had loved me, for whom I would have been their first love, and certainly no one who would have sent me flowers anonymously, in the middle of the day by an owl I did not know. There is a sense of distance in sending unspoken messages, a sense that words could not do it, that words are both not enough and yet too much; perhaps that speaking would be impossible, that such a confession would be mocked or ridiculed.

I confess that the idea that it had been you who had sent them, you who loved me, did not ever cross my mind then. Now, with the blessing of hindsight, I see that perhaps I should have, and I wonder sometimes why I did not.

Seeing the clock – a cuckoo clock from the home of my heart, Schwarzbald in Württemberg, carved to show a pair of stags crowning it, hedgehogs and rabbits and leaves worked into the sides, all in burnished oak; a present from my father for my seventeenth birthday – chime eight, I sighed and set aside the lilac, slotting it neatly back into the vase with the others. Work was calling; no doubt there would be time to ruminate on declarations of love made by silent admirers once I had installed a new world order.

Rising and straightening my robes, I made my way to the fireplace, tossing in a handful of emerald powder. I stepped into it, turning on my heel in a swirl of red and green, before vanishing and spinning out into another room, taller and larger and richer.

It is a fact of this world that political buildings – whether palaces to celebrate monarchies, cathedrals to celebrate archbishops and popes, or parliamentary buildings to celebrate the revolution of the masses – are designed to impress upon every person who passes through them a sense of awe, of observing grandeur they could never hope to possess, of intimidation in the face of power and wealth and glory, be it real or literal. The Württemberg Ministry was no different.

Outwardly, it appeared to the world to be a dilapidated church, moss growing over stones and bell broken in the tower, but inwardly it was something of a marvel of renaissance architecture. I confess I have never been much of a fan of architecture, truly, but if there were ever a building to convince me, then perhaps it would be this one (though, in the end, it was another which converted me, much later on, of the beauty that could be found in static things).

The hall was large, high-ceilinged, the borders decorated with nymphs and cupids and harp-playing angels, all cast in marble and decorated with gold leaf; the centre of it all, flat and long, was a fresco of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, crowned and anointed as Kaiser, with the sceptre in his right hand and the orb in his left. Around him were angels, messengers from Heaven, and his people knelt in supplication before him. Even I, unlearned in the ways of art as I was, could tell that it was a true marvel, the work of a lifetime immortalised in colour.

Antique fireplaces lined the walls, pokers and tongs in bronze vases next to them, paintings of former Ministers, of great citizens of Württemberg, hung above them, each one with a small plaque bearing their name. I did not need the plaques to know who they were; I had studied them all, each one in turn, to know alongside whom I would one day stand.

At the end of the hall, in a smaller chamber just beyond it, a statue of gold and marble stood, wand in one hand and sword in the other, clad in the armour of a knight, the feathers on his helmet waving gently in the breeze, yellow and black, with the motto of the state carved into the base: Wir können alles.

It is, I think, a good motto: short, sweet, and undeniably true for people like you and I. The world is our oyster – we could have any career we wanted, be the best at whatever we wanted to do; for those like you and I, excellence comes naturally, and perfection comes with time. All we can do is accept our place in the world, embrace it, and live up to and beyond the expectations carved out for us by our predecessors and our mentors.

Oh, Albus, the people there were nothing like you or I. Ambition they had in spades, and wit – or what some of them thought was wit – but they focused far too much on petty, personal disputes; spending time batting back and forth across tables, exchanging sneers down the corridors with the attitudes of kings. There was nothing instinctive about the atmosphere, nothing truly killer or aggressive; all of that, the passion of power, the passion for power, for glory, had been lost under pure addiction – reminiscent of addicts in morphine’s tender embrace, limp and lacklustre as they lounged about.

I hated them all, without exception, for how passive they were, how they, who did not care for politics, did not care for the nation, for the future, for the people, sat in offices all day and defined the laws and the life of the country – while I, who desired only to give my life to my country and to progression, was confined to the dusty galleries of the law halls, sorting acts and finding documents for the Ministry lawyers. Naturally, I am aware life is cruel and God sends these things to try us, to test our resolve and our strength, but with the Elder Wand in my grasp, I could not help but imagine how easy it would be to walk into the Minister’s office and force him to obey me, or to take the power he held for myself. No one would defy me; no one would dare challenge me.

Unfortunately, such wishes are impossible. To truly change a nation, to forge a future and send a continent, even a world, hurtling down the road to progression and freedom from oppression, one has to change the will of the people, and the will of the people is not so easily persuaded as the mind of a single man. A single man, under great enough pressure, cannot cope; he must yield, must bend and break and fade. A crowd… ah, now, that is a different challenge, for the mind of a crowd is simplistic, like that of a child, and it will not believe what it thinks to be fantastical.

The will of the people is a powerful thing, Albus, as no doubt you know now. On it, empires rise and fall, politicians cast their souls, and the whims of God are made clear.

Oh, the thought of it always excites me; I can never resist a challenge, and this, truly, is perhaps the greatest of them all.

So it was that I spent hours upon hours – having started what was supposed to be my wonderful, glittering political career – wandering long, silent corridors, replacing scrolls on shelves and fetching them for pompous rats who looked down on me, young and with no qualifications to my name, with disdainful, patronising smirks. It was dreadfully boring; the cataloguing system was simple, so I was mostly left alone in the room, with nothing more to occupy me than a thousand years of legal history and my own mind.

With my plans still fresh in my mind, though, it was something of a blessing, this gift of solitude. Squishing myself onto the windowsill, gazing out at the countryside and the town sprawled below, I would close my eyes, tip my head back against the stone and think. The cold allowed me to relax, to concentrate fully and let my thoughts fall into place, arranging themselves neatly into hard, logical lines.

(Perhaps, just perhaps, there were occasions I would get stuck, repeating the same point over and over in my head until it would drive me half-mad with frustration, and perhaps then I would think of you, and wish you were with me, and regret that you were not.)

Even as my plans crept closer and closer to finalisation, to the utopia we had dreamed together, I found myself becoming nervous. I would run over them in my head – every single step, from the beginning of the revolution to the end of the transition and the start of the new, glorious future – and catch myself biting my lip so hard I left imprints in the skin or running my hand through my hair. This anxiety was not like me, not like me at all, and knowing where it had sprung from, that it was born of irritation at being invisible in what should have been my aspirational home, did not make it any easier to deal with.

You, I think, will recognise this in your self-imposed cage: the feeling of being useless, of having been given wings by God but never allowed to use them, of being ignored and mocked and patronised when you know, know beyond any other certainty, that you are better than them all, cleverer than them all, and that, truly, it should be they who bowed to you. For me, invisibility was worse than almost any other foreseeable punishment; that I did not matter cut deeper than any blade could. I felt it in my heart, in my soul, in the very fundament of my being.

I was not made to be ignored.

Arrogant, ja, but true. I thrive under scrutiny, being watched and admired, studied and confronted; I need interaction, people, as others need air to breathe and water to live. People enthral me, and so do I them in turn. Invisibility, though, cripples me: it makes me restless, sets my mind to spinning wheels, turning ever faster, and my muscles to jumping, aching with the need to do something – anything.

Loneliness, the painful separation of man from the pack, may be what kills me in the end, I think.

It grew worse as winter came; ice frosted over on the windows in flattened snowflakes, and my fingers froze even in gloves, as there were no lamps in the hall of legal records, no candles or magic permitted, for fear of razing the whole thing to the ground. As I sat on the windowsill, I would see my breath turning to smoke with the cold, and if I rested my head against the wall, my hair would be damp when I left.

It was there, one day, that he found me.

His name was Mathaus Adenauer, a lowly legal clerk in the Ministry’s ranks, though even he was deserving of more attention and less disdain than I. You will recognise the name – and for good reason – but at this time, he was merely another customer, another pen-pusher who curled his lip when he saw me and hated waiting around for documents.

With a cigarette in hand, I was watching as the heat from the smoke from my mouth melted small holes in the frost on the window, making it thinner and thinner and thinner before breaking apart crystallised spiders-webs and clearing the glass completely; my mind was elsewhere, lingering a little on Freud’s theories on hysteria, not long published, and how it might be possible for me to work such ideas to my advantage. I was not, however, doing what I was supposed to be doing: sitting still and straight at the desk at the front of the hall, awaiting the next self-important imbecile.

There was a cough – small, polite – but I did not turn to look. I was bored, bored of living that ridiculous pretence, bored of running around like a servant, and bored, more than anything, of being invisible, and so a fire was beginning to burn in my stomach, a fire of sparked by resentment and loneliness and genuine upset.

“Was?”

I was blunt and rude; he noticed this, and did not think much of me, as he later told me. In that moment, the impressions we made of each other and upon each other were identical, even down to the finer detail.

“I require the Codex Alaricium,” he informed me, speaking with the clipped, rounded accent of Swabian German I still found strange; my time at Durmstrang having accustomed me far more to the sounds and rhythms of High German.

There was a pause, and in the silence I felt the pressure, the anger, growing and travelling inside me, moving up and up my throat to my mouth until it opened and I could not stop, could no longer hold back.

“No, you do not,” I snapped at him, my tone harsh and deeply bitter, still staring out of the window; a robin had landed on a nearby tree and was adjusting the feathers on a wing, bright eyes happy. “You do not need the Codex Alaricium. No one needs the Codex Alaricium. It is useless and outdated. I do not know why you people bother to ask for these things.”

To his credit, Mathaus stayed calm and composed, as unflappable as you at such times.

“I do not think you really understand –”

“I understand that you are a sheep, capable of nothing more than following previously set rules and customs. Why else would you ask for an old code? Why else would you have no more wit than that?” I replied, my voice icy, and my fingers white and slender around the cigarette. I felt almost as though I were shaking, irritation and rage spiking within me.

Why was I nothing? Why was I the useless one, when men like him, sheep to the last man, ruled the roost in the name of tradition and nothing more? Why was I doomed to waste away, the forgotten and failed revolutionary, when he would flourish without talent or gifts?

In the hall, silence was deafening: it seemed to swell around the two of us, lawyer and nobody, swirling and dancing, wrapping us up in layer after layer until the air grew thin and sparse and our throats dry, making it painful to swallow.

“You know the law?” Mathaus was surprised – it was evident in his voice that he had not expected me to be clever; he had expected a lazy simpleton. I could not truly blame him, though I did not like the assumption, as any potential power it held was cancelled by my useless position.

“What else is there to do here but read?” I said simply, giving a half-hearted, elegant shrug – Gallic, I have been told, though I cannot imagine why it would be so.

My eyes closed, I took another drag of the cigarette, suddenly empty of emotion and only left with an old weariness which sank right down into my bones. I was not miserable or lonely or no longer certain, but exhausted. To sleep sounded then like the greatest pleasure the world could offer, and I longed for my bed, for my room at home, blankets and sheets to cocoon me warm and safe from the world.

His footsteps were loud as he left, the heels of his shoes clicking on the stone floor, and then, the slam of the door as it shut behind him, one last swish of his robes as he stepped through it.

I knew then that he had gone, that he would not come back to see me there again – I had offended him, it was only natural he should not want to visit a boy, not long of age and without any confirmation of ability, for mere pleasure. This did not surprise me, nor change anything within me; it was a fact, and not one I was inclined to do anything about, I admit.

I was not looking for friends; I was looking only for success.

Three weeks later, when a representative of the Ministry came down to ask me, through pursed lips and with an expression so purple and incensed he did not need to tell me he thought it absurd, that I had been offered another job, as a legal clerk, I looked at him, looked through the veil of hatred and the no doubt grovelling coward who stood behind it and the answer to me was obvious.

On Mathaus’ desk, I left a copy of the Codex Alaricium, gilt-edged and bound in leather – a resurrected first edition, formerly property of Herman Mester, who had written it – and watched as he laughed, out loud, in the middle of the office. The clerks all around us glared, but he smiled.

It would be months later, the seasons having rolled into a long, wet summer, before I would discover the papers in his desk, ideas and plans for a new law, for a reimagined legal system – for Germany, for the International Confederation, for the world. They were extraordinary, though, in their scope and in their depth, their detail and, most notably, their purely revolutionary nature. These were not laws for the old world; these were dreamed for a new one, a fresh one.

When he spoke about his ideas, about his new laws, I saw in him, in his heart and in his soul, the same fire which drove me: fierce and wild and something altogether original in this dull, repetitive world. We were of a kin, he and I, bound by the same yearning for change, to do something and be something, to see the world forged anew into a better one, a brighter one, and we knew that we could do it, that this was our destiny.

He was the first of our conquests, Albus, though we did not need to conquer him – he fell willingly, already inflamed.




A/N: Wonderful CI by the ever-talented nyx @TDA

Translations:

Kaiser = King
ja = yes
was = what
Wir können alles = we can do anything. This is the actual motto of Baden-Württemberg state in Germany, so it is not my property.

The Codex Alaricium is a German legal code of my own invention. Please don't actually try to use it in a court of law :P


Chapter 7: Malapropisms
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Malapropisms

The mind enjoys playing tricks: tricks of sight, of feeling, of taste and touch and sound, and each can be disastrous in its own way. To think one sees a bridge when there is none can result in death or injury; to believe one’s self in love, desperately and ardently, can end friendships and start wars; sleight of hand with taste is the poisoner’s final deception; but for me, clever as I am, I find nothing so terrifying as things which mean my mind convinces myself – for there is not usually someone to tell me I am wrong.

You were, of course, ever the exception, darling: you delighted in tricking me yourself, in telling me quite seriously that I was wrong when I was not, knowing that I could never truly be angry with you, knowing that as soon as you kissed me any ire with you fled and I would be left feeling silly and content and so blissfully in love.

Of course, once you had kissed me, I could never help but kiss you again in return, fingers skating along your jaw, and all thoughts of the previous conversation, of your little tricks, would vanish.

Beyond you, though, I have not been tricked often, and less and less as the years go by and I become, or so I am told, more of an institution in myself. Sometimes I wonder if my fallibility is growing and people are not noticing, or too afraid to tell me, or if I am truly as clever as I think I am. Alas, but no one will give me the answer – and I am not strong enough to visit you to ask.

No, instead I tend to trick myself: to convince myself of things which are false, under the guise of self-protection, of the protection of others. I have convinced myself that I could live without you, that I did not love you, that I could – in the end, when it came down to it – kill you for the greater good, that Aberforth would forgive me, that I could resist the temptation of power, and perhaps, for I have never known the truth of it, that you ever loved me. That you still love me.

The trouble with such tricks – glorious mirages though they may be – is that inevitably, as with all things, they end and the spell it broken. Heartstrings fracture, friendships fail, and both parties are left ashamed of their actions, ashamed that they believed in it so long, ashamed that they were not good enough, not clever or cunning enough, to see through it. Humiliation on both sides wounds, sometimes festers, and no power on earth can restore the mirage.

As they say: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

By this rule, I must be a fool more times over than I can count, and the shame is all mine, tricking myself as I am. It is no more than I deserve, having been blinded by myself, blinded by my own pride and stubbornness and self-belief, and I like to think I have long accepted that it is simply a part of me.

Ah, my darling, I am a greater fool than you could ever have imagined – for having seen the mirage revealed and broken, I still long for those days to return, for the beauty and the innocence and the wonder of the deception.




6th September, 1905; Hemingford Abbots, England

Immortality can be assured in a myriad of ways, both physical and not – through preservation of the soul, of the mind, of the body, of all of them at once – and it is such an easy dream to have, a natural thing to crave for you would never be the first nor the last to want eternity in your grasp. Indeed, for many, immortality comes when their names are written down in books, in lists of great men and women, when they know without a doubt that they will be remembered forever, after a life-time of work and achievement.

For me, though, it happened when I was only twenty-five, much of my life and deeds still to come.

It was a little after lunch, on a Wednesday at the end of August, that I discovered the twelfth use of dragon’s blood, and that single second wrote my name in the stars, inked me into history books as soon as it was done. I do not think it would be immodest of me to say that it was one of the most important discoveries in the field of Potions for almost fifty years; before that, the previous advance had been made when Laverne de Montmorency had discovered that one could bottle feelings, emotions, and drink them, make them one’s own.

No, that one single find, after years of work and research locked inside a smoky, dirty lab, assured beyond doubt that I would be remembered long after my eventual death. It was a heady feeling, to be both immortal and young, and I toasted it with orange-and-cinnamon brandy, in a rented hall, surrounded by awed, pleased friends. My head buzzed pleasantly, my heart thudded underneath my skin, and I was alive again, after so many years – alive and eager and once again passionate and hungry for success.

“Albus!” Alain called me, slipping past Cassiopeia Burke and Leonard Macmillan, who were engaged in a rather fierce discussion on Gobstones (though if the matching flushes painted across both their faces had anything to say, Gobstones was not really the issue at stake). There was a glass of wine – red, from the nearby Rhône region – in his hand, and a grin on his face which made me stop dead in his tracks, my heart stilling in my chest. It took me a moment to realise there was a name on my lips; it took two to realise that it was the wrong name, very much the wrong name. “Albus, congratulations.”

Even as he leaned in to kiss me on both cheeks – a custom he exploited to its full extent – his hand brushing mine, and I murmured perfunctory thanks in reply, I could not help but feel somewhat betrayed by him.

It was illogical, irrational, and ill-mannered of me, but it choked me nonetheless, angry and bitter and faintly, very faintly, afraid.

You see, my darling, in that moment, your name – silent for so long – had nearly rolled off my tongue with all the ease it had during that summer, and with that simple slip, I could no longer pretend to myself that I had forgotten you, that I had moved past you and all we had shared together, that the memories of you did not still make me sigh like a lovesick schoolboy and long for you, want to run off into the darkness to find you and stay with you.

I did not want to love you, then; it felt too much like a collar around my neck, forever keeping me chained to a rock, to the leaden ghost your memory had become.

Selfishly, foolishly, I blamed you for it, I blamed Alain for it – anything not to shoulder the burden myself, not to think that it was my fault I saw you in him. The truth, of course, was that it was all my doing: I had seen you in him, and wanted him because of it; the little moments of you I could see and hear and feel in him had no doubt kept your memory alive, had kept my heart trapped in your hands. In a way, you could say that I had neatly arranged my own downfall, my own cage, and it fell upon me then.

Nonetheless, I still ended up pulling him into the hotel room where I was staying, tugging at his clothing, mouthing kisses along his collarbone, his hands gripping on my shoulders and his legs tangling through mine so we tipped onto the bed together. It was familiar, and so easy, and in the dark room his curls splayed over my pillow, loose and wild, the wrong name choking in my throat even as he gasped out mine.

In the morning, I could not kiss him when he woke up, and the apologies stumbled off my tongue, a sense of shame I had never quite felt before curdling slowly in my stomach.

I had left him, two years ago, in Lorraine, having parted from him as friends as close as one might expect when former lovers separate amiably: he had given me a case of wine as a leaving gift, and I had left him a set of fine, ivory-handled quills in return. Even then I had known, I think, that it was not truly much to do with him that I had stayed, and determination to forget an old lover cannot forge a relationship on its own.

Love and trust and genuine friendship are required; and I did not feel those things for him. Perhaps in part, but not truly: not as I should, nor as he deserved.

To use him as I did a second time, though, and this time of my own volition, knowing full well that it would not be about him far less than it ever had been, was inexcusably cruel of me, and the silence in the room as he gathered his things and slunk out of the door was telling: cutting and infused with a toxic mix of our dual shame, his irritation and my guilt. It burned down my throat as I breathed it in and I almost wanted to cry, but I did not; instead, I quietly turned the tap to fill the bath and promised myself, fervently and honestly this time, that I would not make the same mistake again. Another young man should not be punished for my sins in the same way.

Once is forgivable; twice is not. It is a lesson I should have learned many times over in my life, considering the things I have seen and the things I have done, but alas, it seems to fail to stick.

All that resulted from my shame was the end of my friendship with Alain for many years (even then, I do not think he truly forgave me, and I cannot blame him for it), and my quick flight back to the safety of my cottage in Pays-de-la-Loire, praying perhaps that I might find respite in continued seclusion.

I spent my days following the incident taking long, rambling walks around the countryside: down small, winding paths, across fields of corn and through small woods. The air was clean and fresh and smelled of sap and dew, strong and sour, the perfume of the flowers all around only adding to it – a faint undercurrent of powder-fine spice and honey, diluted by the wind. It was beautiful, relaxing, and I found myself able to focus once again on work, on reading and researching, on theorising, and if my thoughts strayed to you, I snatched hat and cloak from the stand, disappeared out the door, and lost myself in the endless swathes of green and blue, watching how the clouds brushed and blew and changed above my head, studying the flight patterns of a sparrow or a hunting hawk.

I had a plan; I was becoming happy and calm, and slowly thinking less of you again – and those times I did, it was less of how I loved you, less of how you smiled in the dark of night, and more how you had shown me this new method, challenged me on that point.

Then, the hunters came.

It is somewhat melodramatic of me to blame it all on the hunters, I admit, but it was an easy thing to feel then, naïve and frustrated and suddenly afraid as I was then. Truly, it is one of our worst weaknesses as a species: that we, as humans, have an unerring tendency to want to blame others for our own mistakes; most of us hate being perceived as fallible, and I more than most men.

The truth, in all honesty, is that they were the scapegoat for something which had been, perhaps, inevitable, though I had not foreseen it.

As I walked, the autumn air brisk and crisp, a harsh sort of bounce to it as it shook leaves off branches and swirled them around the ground in an immortal quickstep, I heard shots – several, in quick succession.

Grouse, panicked, fled from their nests, rising into the sky like a cloud of wasps leaving the nest. Their caws, sharp and high, rent the air and I stopped to observe, thinking that in the case of flight or fight, using the former against an enemy one can never outright is downright foolish. I could not help but feel a pang of regret that there had never been the chance of my learning how to shoot, father having been imprisoned long before I reached the appropriate age, and watched, silent, as the gunshots cracked again, time after time after time, sending bird after bird plummeting to the ground.

If the bullet had not killed them mid-air, the fall would have done the deed for the hunters; no doubt either would be quicker and cleaner than the job the dogs would make of it, sent out into the bush to fetch back the carcasses.

It was a natural affair: the stronger killing the weaker for food, in order to survive – Darwinian in both conception and execution – but something about it struck me deeply, so that I could not leave until I had seen a second and a third round of birds tumble from the sky, and the weather had grown colder, harsher, darker.

The walk back to the cottage was long, the chirps of birds as I passed them sounding loud in the quiet, away from the noise of the guns, though I did not enjoy it as I usually did. My mind was hardly scrambled, as such, more trying to latch onto something, connect a pair of somethings; and the crack of the shots from the rifles still lingered in my ears, still echoed in the distance, making me flinch and jump slightly with each one.

Once back inside, hat and cloak replaced on the stand by the door, I poured myself a dash of brandy, leftover from that disastrous celebration earlier on in the season. My hands were steady enough, and I did not quite feel shaken, but the drink slid down quickly, far quicker than I had anticipated, and I sank into the armchair, trying to think what on earth could have caused me to take leave of my senses like that.

Sooner than I care to admit, I found myself digging under my bed, papers on my desk all turned about in my hunt for the link, for the box in which I still kept – ah, Gellert, you see how utterly hopeless I was? – the letters you had written me that summer. It seemed so long ago, then; harmless to read old letters, but the perfume the box emitted was summertime in stasis when I opened it, and as soon as I saw your handwriting, the way you inscribed my name into the parchment at the top (‘Dear Albus’, always ‘dear’, because you never could quite manage to let go of all your manners, no matter how many times I reminded you that it was not necessary), I could see your hand gripping the pen, the shape of your wrist, and want, inexplicably, to reach out and touch you.

Even now, older and wiser that I am, the box remains in the bottom of Ariana’s trunk – the last of her possessions I have left, for Aberforth took the rest and rightly so – locked and dusty. I have thought many times about throwing it away, being done with it once and for all, but I could never manage to do it. Each time, I hesitated before the fire, knowing I should destroy it, that any other person would have burned the lot years ago; and each time, I returned it so its hiding place, too afraid to open it and re-read the letters, but too afraid to destroy it either.

Oh, my darling, we grow older but never wiser, only ever more convinced in our own superiority, and with it more foolish.

There, in your hand, on a July morning, you had penned the connection I had made so unwittingly:

… as a theory, it is supported, you may know, by their own great men: Darwin wrote of it, the submission of the lesser to the greater for survival, Jung and Freud have found it to be present in everyday life, and Nietzsche refers, though somewhat obliquely, to it also. Perhaps, in the same way, the gifts which define us as a people, are evolution in action – they are what makes us beyond ordinary muggles; this point, I think, can hardly be denied, no? Genetics explain the occurrences far more easily than anything before, and God in his design must have accounted for such a change …

The words were no less persuasive due to time, no less challenging or revolutionary, and I heard them, read them in your voice, remembering with a wistfulness I had not expected how struck I had been when I had first read it, how I had been stunned and stumped all at once, struggling in the search – on principle – for a response to give you, that was not merely ‘I agree’.

It was no easier on a second (or, rather, simply later, since I read and re-read it over the summer and days after) reading, though with the memory of the shooting party still in mind, it seemed far more than simply the theory it had been and felt that summer.

Naturally, muggles are and were, even then, dangerous, both to wizardkind as a race, to themselves and to other being and things. They were testing new theories, probing and pushing ever further and deeper, desperate to understand mysteries we had long ago accepted were impossible to box in in such a way. Pyschology was a new field ripe for plundering; physics was taking flight, both literally and metaphorically; and all along, as these marvellous discoveries came one after another, radiation and dream therapy and quantum theory, muggles still waged wars in the subcontinent, in Africa and Asia and South America, finding new and more brutal ways of destroying each other in the thousands.

Perhaps, in that sense, it was only a matter of time before war came to Europe, before our countrymen tried their hands at it on their own borders, but no one then would have predicted it as a certainty and hindsight makes these things so much more transparent.

I could not then put my finger on what about the idea of it all – the shooting and the cruelty of men and the letter – made me uncomfortable, but what was quite clear was that it did, for whatever reason, and, as winter began to creep in, that I could not stay in France; escapism there was no longer possible.

You were everywhere: in the rustle of leaves behind me as I walked through the forest, in the silence before I fell asleep in bed, in the warmth of the fire as it danced in the grate and played across my wrist, in the glittering drops of frost on the grass in the mornings, each drop a miniature star, and always, always, your voice in my head, reminding me of things, arguing with me, agreeing with me, parroting the lines I wish you had said years before.

You were haunting me, an immaterial ghost, always with the last, guilty thought that you did not have to be a ghost or merely a memory – you could be real and solid and true; I could feel you again, hold you again, lose myself in you again. It would be so very easy, so simple to find you and beg for forgiveness, to fall in love with you again – if I had ever truly stopped.

Pride would not allow me, however, not to beg nor to bow, no matter how much I wanted to, how many of my dreams at night included you, and how many times it seemed the best option to take. No, I was determined not to go down that route: I still liked to think that perhaps I could move beyond you, that perhaps I would find someone else, years later, and I did not yet believe that love, once given freely, is so very impossible to retract.

It is impossible to escape something internal, a spectre of memory, without resorting to dark and dangerous measures, and so instead I resolved to leave the place which had conjured you, in the hopes that your memory would remain here without me, that you would be left to wander the forests alone, crouch in the fireplaces and whisper my name to yourself.

So, I packed my bags, sold the cottage, and returned, after nearly fourteen years away, to England, where I had been born and where my family had been shattered.

Predictably enough, it was raining when I arrived, in the beginning of December, a sleek, soaking sort of rain, and the memory of you smiled quite cheerfully, looped your arm through mine, and asked ‘where to next, Albus?’.




A/N: I do not own any references to Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, or any ideas connected to their theories, nor any references to physics and psychology and discoveries thereof :)


Chapter 8: Hungary
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Hungary

When the moon is bright and the stars glimmer in her radiance, pale and golden specks in comparison to her luminescent white, and the clouds cannot be seen from the window in my tower though I know they are there, more often than not – then, then I hear the wolves.

Hundreds of feet below, they pad through the forests at the base of Nurmengard, attracted to the magic, perhaps, or simply curious (though I would like to think they were not as trapped as I; this is my punishment and mine alone, and the solitude I suffer through only makes your knees groan ever louder under the crosses you insist on bearing), and howl, calling to one another. At first it is soft, then it grows and grows until it floats up to me on the night breeze, and I close my eyes and smile.

I can just imagine how they must look: slinking through the trees, quiet on velvet paws, their coats gleaming mottled grey and brown in the dark, eyes bright and cunning and hungry. Predators, in every inch of their bodies, for they have known nothing else, know no other way of life; they are made to run and hunt and kill, and they can only obey Nature’s commands.

Once, I was like them: proud and calculating, the leader of a pack which only ever grew and grew and grew, until I fell and they shattered without me to bind them together. Once, I would run through the forests, the wind urging me on, the frost nipping at my heels as I raced the dawn and won, wild and endlessly curious. Once… ah, but I was many things once, Albus, and now I am merely your prisoner – and I am specifically yours, am I not?

Now, as it is, I can only sit here, caged inside by stone and metal, and listen to the wolves far below, and as their cries drift to me, weakened by distance, I do not remember you or the way power thrummed in my blood and set my heart to fluttering, but the wide, jagged hills of Hungary, and the way they reached up into the sky, dark and threatening, their sides and tops covered in trees upon trees. Then, just beyond them, the edges of the steppe, grassland plains stretching out to the horizon, the air around them tinged with salt from the rivers, covered in meadow flowers, colouring the grass pink and purple and white so that it looks almost like those sweets of which you were so fond.

There was pride there; pride and ferocity and an individualism of which no other country can boast. Passion was abundant – passion in every form, seeping through the cracks in the floor, embedded in the land itself, and it swept my soul away with it.

Perhaps, if you had come, it would have swept yours away too, stiff and reclusive and English though you were, even then.

Perhaps then you would have tapped into the music inside your soul, would have felt all the burdens of society, of life, of intellect strip themselves from your shoulders, and you would have known freedom, and joy and hope and passion beyond anything else. Fear would have been left behind, back in your Wales and dreary England, and you would have glowed.

I would have loved you then; ah, but human courage is fickle and sometimes it fails us, does it not?

Now, as you sit in your office, pretending you are not what and who you are, who we both know you to be, you are a fox in chains, tied to your stoicism and your false modesty and your endless, crippling guilt, and you are surrounded by wolves, ever closing in at the first scent of weakness, the first hint of frailty or fear or shame.

That is in truth, in life; in dreams, it is much different, yes? In your dreams and mine, you are a wolf, strong and sleek and hungry, and you run by my side from dusk until dawn, roaming the woods of Hungary.




13th March, 1906; Visegrád, Hungary

My mother was dying, or so the letter claimed, and before her soul was committed to God’s grace she wished to see my father again, one last time, in an act of confession, to release her from the burden of her sins. It would free them both, she said – my father’s forgiveness would undo the shame and the hurt the past carried, would soothe the scars imprinted on their hearts.

It sounds so very lovely – so romantic, so wonderfully poetically just, that a dying woman should want the man she loved so briefly and so passionately to hear the truth, that her soul should mean enough to her to beg to be freed from the horrors which would await her otherwise – until one remembers that nothing is ever without motive, selfish and selfless in the same breath, and no one is ever more desperate for salvation than a dying man.

You have no need to be concerned, though, Albus – I am quite certain I am beyond redemption.

If I had chosen, I would not have gone, even though she asked for me in the letter (asked for me by name, no less), for what did I owe her? My life, perhaps, but I owed that to my father also, and far more to him than her. No, I owed her nothing, except my name, and that was only because she kept me long enough to ascertain that I was not her husband’s child, as she had hoped so vainly.

She asked, though, and my father insisted, and so I found myself at the end of winter riding down to the river, and then sailing east and south, down into Hungary, down to Visegrád, the place of my birth.

I was sullen throughout the journey, talking little and then only waspishly, preferring instead to stare out across the river, back upstream, up towards the mountains of the Alpes, their tops, snow-covered and jagged, visible from even this distance. It was a wonderful, clear day, bright and cheerful, the kind normally I would have loved to lie on the grass in, but that day there was little I could find to enjoy about it – even the gentle lapping of the waves on the sides of the ship and the wind in my hair could not quite dispel my discontent.

(That is one of your English plays, is it not? Now is the winter of our discontent… A tragic king, twisted by history as all who are defeated become, in the end. Is that story not so very familiar to us both?)

Of all the places I have visited, none have ever inspired the same sensation of mystery, of fantasy, the same belief that stories and legends could be true, that gods and demons could walk among us, hidden from our sight. The land held something to it, a quality I could not put my finger on then, nor name now, but it put me in mind of knights and maidens, tourneys and battles; all the glory and bloodshed and romance contained within the epics.

Perhaps it was the castle, old grey stone, nestled in a thick bank of trees, up on the hilltop; perhaps it was the arched bridge we drifted under, lined with stalls and traders, their voices ringing, bouncing off the stone; perhaps it was the vast wilderness which lined the banks as we neared the town, and the sense of something ancient still residing there.

Whatever it was, I do not know any more; like so many other things, it has been lost along the way, flung from my mind as it shrinks in the night.

You may blame yourself for that, Albus. I am, after all, your prisoner.

Then, too soon – far too soon, for I had never intended to return, intended instead to stay as far away as possible if only out of spite – I was standing inside my mother’s house, with my father by my side and a girl (woman, really, since she was older than me and already married with a child of her own) watching me with a wary, almost disdainful expression. It was judgmental, harsh: as though she had already measured me, weighed me, and found me wanting, her long-forgotten half-brother.

I could not blame her for the dislike – to see the physical proof of your mother’s lies, of your mother’s betrayal, of your father’s shame is something no child should have to bear, truly – merely where it was placed and the way, hard and stony and silent, she dealt with it.

While she led my father upstairs, I was directed, rather than shown, into a small room off to one side of the entrance, and told, like a child, to remain there until she returned.

I had already lost hope that there was anything here for me, that there had been any point in my coming. Was this what I would have to endure for however long it took the woman to die? Pointed stares, cold silences, and expressions, albeit fleeting, of disgust at having to house her mother’s bastard son. Within days, I was certain I would hear the word bandied about me, whispered behind my back, and pointing fingers from others, as though I were an animal in a zoo, to be poked and prodded and marvelled at.

In the end, it was much like I had predicted. My two half-brothers, both older and sterner than I, with broad shoulders and dark, scowling faces, made a point of barging past me in the corridors, hissing at me under their breaths in Hungarian when their children could not hear them. The last child, a girl four years younger than me, when she discovered she was to sit beside me at dinner the first evening, flew into a rage at the thought, screaming about how she would not eat with the reminder of her mother’s disgrace.

Though it all, my father said nothing. Instead, he chose to glance around him with a strange, melancholy expression I did not recognise on him, on the rare occasions he was not cloistered upstairs with my mother, hearing her apologies and her regrets, pressing forgiveness to her brow.

The others I do not think saw it, but I did. To me, it was as plain as day: glittering in his eyes, distant and glossy, half-dream and half-memory; he had wanted this, this family, this life, with her in this land – not just me, alone and back in Germany at the foot of the mountains.

My throat burned at the thought that I had been nothing more than a mistake (though, in a sense, I had known that since youth; my father’s silence on the subject of my mother had always made that obvious enough), my eyes filled, and I darted out into the garden, desperate beyond anything to get out of there, to get away from the idea that I alone was the stranger, that I alone was upsetting the balance, the odd one out still, even beyond the shadow of Durmstrang.

Outside, the air was still, nothing moving on the steppes, picking at the water in the river, though the tops of the trees shivered a little, as though chattering to one another. A pair of birds flew on darkened wings, casting no shadows on the ground under the clouds and the bruised sky; and I, I stood there and breathed, desperate to wrest back some semblance of self-control, of pride.

I would not allow them to break me. I would not give them that satisfaction; it was the least I could do, when faced with their scorn.

So, I endured. I sat at their tables, slept in their beds, and nodded in all the right places. I offered to help to wash up, left the house when there was trouble around, and stayed well away from the doctor on his few visits. In short, I was the perfect houseguest: silent, undemanding, and wilfully uninterested in the secrets of those who lived there.

(A kinder man might protest the presumption of there being secrets; a wiser man would know better. There are always secrets, in every family. In yours, you had Ariana, the truth of your father’s crime, your own predilections… in mine, I was only the beginning of the lies, of that I am certain.)

Three days into our visit – three days of glares and my half-brothers knocking me against the walls as they passed me, of my sisters ignoring me with practised, simmering anger – my father came downstairs, and tried to smile at me.

“Your mother would like to see you,” he said. My half-sister, the eldest, dropped a china plate, decorated with blue ink to show a windmill; her child, barely three years old, shrieked and hid behind her skirts.

I nearly froze there, unsure of what to do, unsure of what I wanted to do. Should I run out into the road, go back to Germany, my beloved homeland, and declare myself never to have been part of this wretched, sullen family; or should I stay, stay and ascend the stairs to meet my mother for the first time in my memory?

Either choice would damn me in my half-siblings’ eyes: one for being a coward, for being too proud and too weak to admit the truth, and the other for being too presumptuous to assume they would not mind.

I must admit that the one thing which pulled me towards the stairs, onwards and upwards as they creaked under my weight, as the bannister slid below my hand, was curiosity. Oh, I knew even then I did not want to know her, not as a child should know his mother, but I simply could not resist the opportunity to see her, to put a face to the title which before then had always simply been white space.

The room was cloying, the scent of death, half-smothered by endless bunches of flowers – lilies, for the irony, and jasmine – clinging to every particle available, and reaching for the door handle made my stomach clench with a cocktail of nerves and anticipation.

Even to this day, I do not know why I was nervous; I admit it only grudgingly. It is nonsensical – all the reason to be afraid was hers and hers alone. For her, I was the judge and jury and ghost of lives past all in one; for me, she was nothing – and yet, and yet, I could only hold my breath as the door swung open.

My mother smiled at me as I entered, though it was not a kind smile, nothing tender in it at all. I suspect she saved that for her true children, leaving none of it to spare for me. No, it was a sort of satisfied expression, a sort of wistful pleasure underneath, as though I had matched up to the tales my father had no doubt told her of me, in the same way as a stables owner admires his prize stallion once the horse has reached maturity.

The illness had been no lie, I saw that then: she was thin, her dark hair limp and heavy with the weight of gathering dirt, and her skin seemed almost translucent in the light from the lamps around the room. Perhaps if I had looked harder, looked deeper, I would have seen the traces of myself my father had once described to me: the same shape of eyes, the same habit of raising my head just a little bit higher when challenged, but I did not.

I was not interested in similarities and differences, in bonding with my mother. I was only interested in trying to work out how long it would take her to die.

“Gellert,” she breathed, her hands, ivory underneath paper, smoothing down the orange velvet blanket restlessly. She pronounced my name differently – the Hungarian way, with the inflection on the second vowel – and for a moment, it resonated within me, struck something in my distant memory, but I could not think of it and it passed. “My son. My Gellert. You… you look so much like your father, do you know that?”

She was watching me closely, intently, waiting for an answer. I did not disappoint.

“Yes,” I responded simply, staying still at the end of the room, my hands folded behind my back.

“Come here, please,” she asked, beckoning to me with a skeletal hand, and, much against my own judgment, I found myself walking towards her, found her taking one of my hands in hers. She smiled at me, then, but I could not smile back.

For a moment she said nothing, focusing on my hand, on brushing her thumb and fingers over the back of it, seemingly fascinated by the movements of my flesh and the feel of my skin. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to snatch my hand out of hers and stalk out of the room, slamming the door behind me with a thunderclap.

“I am sorry,” she whispered eventually. “For what it is worth, I am sorry. I was not a good mother to you; I made bad choices, in the end. What I did, though, I did to protect you. My husband… he was already beginning to suspect – your hair was so blonde and your eyes… - it was not safe for you to stay, for your father to stay either. Now, I find that I have missed your life, that I do not know you at all when I should know everything there is to know. I do not expect you to forgive me, but I want you to know that I love you.”

She looked at me, her eyes large and deep mahogany – identical to those of my half-brothers and sisters downstairs, only hers were flooded with tears, red-veined and puffy – a plea, desperate and heartfelt, reaching out to me from them, and for once, I did not have it in me to condemn.

Then again, she was not asking for condemnation or relief – not from me. It was a message only, nothing more. A message, perhaps, I should have heard a long time before then.

Before leaving, I turned back to face her, one hand already resting on the frame of the door, the grains of the wood harsh under my fingers.

“Tell me,” I demanded softly, and my voice was too tender, too calm even to me; she flinched in her deathbed and I half wanted to laugh. “How did I die?”

Her eyes closed, her hands clenched around the sheets, and I saw the indecision on her face, read the shame in her body as she replied,

“Colic. It was sudden – quick. There were… lots of children sick, lots of bodies. It was believable; no one would suspect,” she swallowed, her voice halting and slow, unable to look at me as she brushed the velvet the wrong way, turning it darker, deeper, the colour of brandy. “There was a casket. A funeral, in the cemetery. Empty, of course, but… but…”

“Of course,” I repeated, finding my hand on the door was shaking, rage and loss waging a war in my chest. “Colic.”

Upon my return downstairs, I did not go back into the body of the house. I could hear my half-sisters gossiping as they sliced vegetables in the kitchen, the clunking of spoons on pots a harsh accompaniment; my half-brothers, it seemed, had vanished for the time being. No, instead of offering to help (an offer which would never be accepted), I slipped out of the door, shutting it behind me and walked.

Aimlessly, I walked, up towards the hills which overlooked the town, the old castle resting high up in the distance, birds flying overheard. It was a simple pleasure, one I wanted rather more than needed, to be alone and outside, and so I walked for hours, until my legs burned from the effort and my stomach rumbled, my breathing sounded in my own ears and I finally, for the first time in this wretched country, felt my mind clear and my shoulders, my whole body relax.

Still, I could not shake the sense that I was utterly, completely alone, that there was no one who truly understood me, that I had no one I could whisper secrets to in the dead of night, or simply sit in silence with for hours as I dozed and dreamed and wondered.

Certainly, I had friends back in Germany, I had allies and comrades and those who would become my supporters when the time came, but nothing closer, nothing deeper or more permanent – no childhood friend who recognised the jump of every muscle in my face, every twitch I had, or limits I set myself. For family, I had only my father; my great-aunt being them an untenable connection (for reasons I do not think I have to explain to you), and my father’s parents disinclined to approve of their only son’s bastard child.

My father, then, was the closest, and even he I did not tell secrets to - when he had so many of his own: how he longed for a life he could not have, he could never have had, truly, and could not simply be satisfied with the life he had. Resentment stung, slicing deep into my flesh as it went, its poison flooding my veins, even as I wanted to cry.

As I sat and thought, the sun beginning to set around me, the sky dimming to pale, pastel pinks and then dusky, bruised indigos, shot through with bolts of turquoise blue, I breathed out a sigh, leaning back against an elm tree, and confessed to the wind, to the forest and the clouds, that what I wanted was someone more.

I had enough friends, I did not want another one – instead, I wanted… ah, I do not know if there is a name for such a thing – not a lover, not quite an amant, but closer than a friend, almost a brother but not quite, either in blood or in water. I wanted, craved, not having to explain myself any more, not having to pretend perfection every day, not having to wonder what they would think if they knew the true depths of my thoughts, of my plans and desires, and hold back, bite my tongue when the topic arose.

You see, Albus, how weak I was, how young and naïve and foolish, because for the second time since I had left Wales, I missed you.




A/N: Translation: amant = lover (French)

The phrase 'now is the winter of our discontent' is from the play Richard III by Shakespeare and is not mine.


Chapter 9: Pragmatics
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Pragmatics

To some men – clever, cunning men – words, a sentence, even silence itself, mean nothing on their own. Without anything else, they are simply leaves on a tree, caught in a breeze and fluttering gently, casting green rainbows onto the ground far below, onto passers-by: decorative, certainly, but feeble and easily thrown away to wilt and fade and die.

Perhaps it is a cynical belief, but then, alas, age has quite crept up on me, and cynicism is an easy habit to make when one is old and prone to foolishness.

Folly would say that one should believe the words that are spoken, no matter how or when or why – that a declaration of love, in whatever shape, should be trusted and treasured, wound about one’s heart like string on a parcel. Truth should be assumed, friendship and honour the foundations of it (for why would one lie to a friend? Why would one debase one’s own honour willingly?), and yet men have died because they lived their lives along these lines.

I may yet be one of them. Of all my weaknesses, it is the one which has come closest to destroying me before, as you know well, having been the architect yourself.

No, the key with words, which more often than not divines the meaning behind phrases, however eloquently put, is context: the setting, the very moment within which they are breathed out into the world, clothed in the wind’s protection. To understand what rests behind the words, that beautiful, sunny façade which glitters so enticingly in front of us, desperate for us not to look beyond, we must avert our eyes and tilt our head, catch a glimpse of the shadow they carry with them. Only then, is it possible to know anything for certain; only then is it possible to truly rely on them.

I remember how, time after time after time, in that summer we shared, you had looked at me – blazing, glorious, defiant, deliriously happy – grasped my hand or my shoulder and told me, your voice quiet and utterly, completely decisive (for this was no mere fact, this was a statement of intention, of want, of need as I thought, and there was power behind it), ‘together’.

Together. That one miraculous word which set my heart to thudding in my chest, dried my mouth even as it made my palms sweat and my lips curve upwards in a smile, without thought. Inside my veins, something would burn, foreign and strange and wildly intoxicating, so much so that I would be half-drunk, prone to ignoring all risk, simultaneously the most powerful and the weakest I have ever been.

On the strength of that one word, I planned to go to Europe with you, to run away and explore every city and wilderness, to reforge the future of the world in its entirety and create a new order, a new society – utopia, in all her wonder.

I would have done more. It shames me somewhat to even think it, to admit it to myself and to you – the two people who knew already – but I would have done almost anything you asked as long as you would continue lying next to me, a pagan god amongst the grass and bathed in dappled sunlight, your fingers entangled with mine, your grip hard and possessive, and breathe against my mouth, with all the fervent promise of youth, ‘together’.

Whatever situation we were in – whether I was pressing you into my bed, kissing trails down your neck even as you pulled my head up to yours, our clothes long gone; or sitting opposite you, the windows in the study flung open and our papers and plans before us – it was always the same way, always the same word, and always the same reaction.

Even now, it affects me, though the shudders have dulled to aches, my veins too old and too worn to cope with fire sweeping through them, and with it, the power of it is gone: that pure, exultant passion you lived your life by, all-encompassing and seductive as it was. I am cold and lonely, and though I still long for you, it is a steadier longing – a sweeter, simpler want then before.

I miss more now the comfortable silences, the weight of your head on my shoulder, the way you knew me so instinctively that at times I did not have to speak at all, merely look or sigh, and you would turn my thoughts with a single phrase or a smile. Then, at night – ah, then I dream of the darkness of your eyes as they deepened and smouldered with desire, with passion; of the feel of your fingers tight around my palm, nails digging into the back of my hand; and of that single, commanding word, gasped out roughly, desperately, as your voice rose in a cry and I took you for my own.

Together. Ah, to think of what we could have been hurts, I confess, but, alas, it was not meant to be. The context of us, so singularly bizarre and unhelpful, would never have allowed for it, could never have allowed for it.

Still, I remember – and resolutely try not to think of that last, terrible day when you begged me, please, Albus, no; when you begged me to remember us, our dreams and our plans, us together in all ways we had imagined.

There was passion about you even then, but it was abated, cold and frightened, desperate almost, and I could no more give into it, the sorrow and the saltwater it brought, than I could have walked away.




1st May , 1906; Hogsmeade, Scotland

Over the years, I have heard many people – students and staff alike – call Hogwarts their home, their home away from home, and smile as they say it, their eyes lighting up and expressions earnest. Whenever I hear it (and over the years, it has been more times than I can remember), I can never help but feel somehow proud, as though simply by being Professor or Headmaster I have had a hand in the success, even though I have never done anything to merit such a sense.

It may surprise you, then, to learn that Hogwarts for me – at school, at the beginning of my confinement – never quite felt like home, that for me it never held the same meaning, the same importance as she does to those who truly love her.

The difficulty is, of course, that for a place to truly be home, all the pieces of your heart must be there – and you took so much of me with you when you left that I could not really be whole again.

I returned to Hogwarts on a cloudy spring morning, armed with nothing other than an invitation to interview stuffed inside my front breast pocket and a fiction of confidence which was altogether far more flimsy than it appeared, what with nerves fluttering in my stomach, churning that morning’s breakfast round and round and round until my throat tightened and I suddenly needed a glass of water.

Hogsmeade was at my back, the village shrouded in spring’s garlands, the trees around all green and lightly showered with the scent of dew and blossom – magic emanating from the area allowing things to grow when perhaps they shouldn’t in a trick no wizard had ever been able to explain – and it would be easy enough to slip into The Three Broomsticks or The Hog’s Head and request a glass of water; I had time spare before my interview for such delays, conscious of the impression I needed to make. I could, truly, except that I did not want to – it would feel a little too much like giving in to the nausea, however ridiculous it sounds.

Nervousness was not something I had had to content with before, in any significant way – the only previous time being when I was first introduced to Nicolas Flamel, at the International Alchemical Conference in Cairo during my childhood – and I was determined I would not let it control me now. It is, I think, a notion you can sympathise with, considering your belief that fear is merely a mental weakness.

So, nausea camped in my belly, I waited as patiently as I could, ten metres in front of the gates, admiring the way the blue and white blend of the sky poked through the metal bars, a cold and pale patch of colour, though it faded in comparison to the glitter of the steel. It was a startlingly bleak picture, weak and watery; there was a sense of impossibility about it, that everything about it was unattainable, one could try for hours and days and years in turn, and end up with nothing more than a handful of empty space.

It put me uncomfortably in mind of prison bars, dark lines streaking down the sides of light – and I thought of my father, how he died in prison, looking out over the North Sea, that swirling tempest of storm waters, garbling to himself about dark eyes and blond hair matted with blood and dirt, and I wondered what he would think of me if he could see me now. Would he be disappointed or pleased? Would he have disowned me as Aberforth had or had some sort of sympathy for the wild, passionate adoration which had sent me tumbling downwards?

I will never know – and, truthfully, Gellert, I am glad of it. I do not think I would want to know the truth of the answer; the ambiguity of it allows me to hope for the best, naïve though that may be.

Soon enough, though, the gates were swinging open, silent and slow, cracking open only just enough for me to slide through them, and the groundskeeper led me up towards the school, his lip curling every time he looked at me, a disdainful glint in his eye. He said nothing, not even to introduce himself – for he was a new hire since I had last been at the school – and I did not dare to enforce conversation.

For one thing, I could not imagine what on earth we would have to talk about; a rare thing for me, for all I never had your charm.

The journey, though I knew in fact it was long – almost two miles from the gates to the entrance to the Headmaster’s office – seemed to pass in the space of a smattering of heartbeats, the blues and pale greys and greens of the grounds merging seamlessly with the browns and golds and faint spots of brighter colours of the castle’s interior, so much so that I could scarcely have told you where the former ended and the latter began.

A gruff shout of the password (‘Perfidious’), and then I was rising up and up, rotating gently as I went, the grinding of stone on stone a strangely soft accompaniment – sandstone, I reflected, running a hand over the thick blocks of stone in the wall, the grains of it rough under my fingertips, leaving a thin residue of dust behind, specks of lovely, pale golden cream.

Raising a hand, I knocked gently, twice and paused, the nausea in my stomach all but vanished, liquid settling into the surface of a lake, gently swaying, and I felt much more at ease, more collected than before. The confidence familiarity gives you, I think, and this was a routine I had walked more times than I could count – one that would become almost automatic as the years went by.

“Come,” came the call – short and curt, though his voice did not raise a jot. He had a great talent, Professor Black, for drama; charisma was as much his matière as Charms had been, and he remained, even after my Head Boyship, possibly the most enigmatic man I had ever met. Even you, with your teasing, secretive smiles and coy glances could not compete.

I stepped into the room, shutting the door carefully behind me, and looked up at the desk on the dais. Nothing had changed about the room since I had left; it seemed identical to how I recalled it: lined with four bare pillars, carved into Corinthian columns, the portraits of former Headmasters crowding the wall behind the wooden throne which encased the current incumbent, clad in smooth black velvet robes, trimmed with fur even in spring. A single photograph, black and white and still – old, very old – sat on the nearby dresser, enclosed in a small alcove which housed a carved dip, the sleek silver mirror I had seen in it before absent.

The atmosphere was singularly uninviting, I must admit to you, though I had not expected to be welcomed back with open arms: I had never been Professor Black’s favourite student; too clever by half for my own good, as he had told me repeatedly throughout my schooling, and far too aware of it. I cannot deny some truth in it, at least, though his opinion of me never lessened as time passed.

To this day I cannot think of a single reason why he hired me in the first place; and he never revealed anything to anyone. If there was a reason, it is lost beyond the veil.

“Albus Dumbledore,” Professor Black pronounced my name in a drawl, the vowels clipped – the sharp, clean accent of the home counties. Somehow, he could manage to make my name sound utterly unappealing, akin to a curse, dying the air deep blue, the threads of it curling lazily as a thread of ink dropped into a bowl of water. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

He did not smile – not even a bit – simply watched as I sat down on the chair opposite, leather and hard-backed and most uncomfortable. In return, I kept my own expression steady, attempting to match him stare for stare, not wanting to give something in exchange for nothing.

“I would like to enquire about the Transfiguration position – I understand you are in need of a professor for the next year,” I replied, following his lead by not mentioning the invitation, still tucked inside my jacket. What would the point of it be? Petty, childish play; nothing more – and Phineas Nigellus has never been a man, in whichever form, with whom one can afford to act as such. His lack of patience for children is somewhat legendary.

“And why are you enquiring about it?” he asked, his tone not entirely polite, coal eyes narrowing. “I understand most of your post-school research has been in the field of Potions, not Transfiguration. Talent for a subject as a student is not quite what I am looking for in a replacement professor.”

“I am qualified –” I began, a list of my discoveries, of the theoretical papers I had written for Transfiguration Today and the Journal de Michel-Mauglin de métamorphose, but he interrupted me, impatient and faintly, very faintly, amused.

“Yes, yes, you are very well qualified – exceptionally well qualified,” the grudging respect in his voice – slender and delicate as a snowflake though it was – could not quite be covered by the irritation which followed on its heels. “An alchemical partnership with Nicolas Flamel; nineteen papers published in internationally acclaimed journals, a third of those ground-breaking research; and the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood. I doubt you could find a man in Europe with credentials even half as impressive as those.”

He fell quiet, regarding me carefully over the desk, the smooth, mahogany surface only covered by a leather protector and a single sheet of perfectly blank parchment, quill and ink waiting to one side. His gaze was shrewd, calculating, and I swallowed, perfectly aware that this would, no doubt, be the question which would make or break the interview.

I had to succeed; there was no question about that. It was imperative. If I did not – well, I had no idea what I would do then, no idea other than that I simply could not continue on as I had been.

“Which, Dumbledore, begs the question: why are you here?” he paused again, his dramatic flair raising its head briefly to taste the air, and gave a small, cruel smile. “And, please, do not insult me by telling me it is a job you want – we both know that is not the case. You are too talented to be a teacher, and I am too clever to fall for the act of the earnest young genius who wishes only to mould young minds.”

From his expression, arranged so as to be studiously patient – overly so, in fact – it was clear he expected me to have been caught out, to be lost for words and have to struggle for minutes, desperately searching for another line to feed him, another way to convince him I truly wanted to teach, that I longed for nothing more than a classroom full of children, half of them bored and half of them only half-interested, and piles of essays in the evenings, with only my conscience for company.

Alas, I confess I disappointed him sorely.

“I do not want to teach,” I admitted openly, my voice carefully even, meeting his eyes easily. “I want a purpose, and I will find that in teaching.”

So many times I have been asked why I started teaching, and always, always I parrot the same lines: I tutored during my schooldays, I enjoyed it, teaching was the natural progression – and each time I say it, each time the words leave my lips, they burn ever so slightly. The lies have become easier to tell over the years, I admit, but still thinking on it for too long reminds me of the truth, of the purpose I sought – to replace the purpose I had lost with your flight from England, with Ariana’s death.

You affected me so much, my darling, more than I care to admit – even to you.

“I see,” Professor Black murmured after a while, his gaze still fixed on me, with all the intent and ferocity of a hungry wolf, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to pounce.

Over the years, I have always wondered what he made of that – not the last honest answer on the subject of my career I ever gave, but the last to someone who would not see the ugliness it hid – but I never dared ask. It is a question, though, that remains with me: just what of me did he see in that? How much did he guess at from such a simple comment?

However much he guessed, however much he thought he knew, he never mentioned it, and for his silence, if it was held, I am grateful – doubly so, knowing his constant distaste for me. It is a kind of loyalty, in its own way, one I have no idea how I earned, and perhaps for those reasons it is all the more precious.

“You will receive an owl in a week informing you of my decision,” he told me frankly at the end of it, reaching for a quill – slim, black-boned and feathered, the pin-feather of an augury tipped with silver. “You understand there are other candidates.”

“Of course,” I nodded, though he did not see it, and rose to leave. “Thank you for your time.”

Back outside the castle, it had begun to rain – a thin, light shower which landed gracefully on my hair, trickled down my nose and neck, coming to a halt on my collar, tight around my throat. It was not going to get any heavier, I mused as I looked up at the sky, observing the clouds as they progressed slowly overhead, but it was enough to soak me to the skin. Indeed, it seemed to me that as I stood there I could feel (my imagination at work once again) my cravat, a fine yellow silk, already beginning to flatten against my chest, mellowing into a deep amber.

Grateful for the foresight to bring both cloak and gloves on what had been promised to be a beautifully sunny day, I loitered in the rain, content to let it brush down the back of my neck and splatter on my shoulders, as I wondered whether it was worth it to stop at The Three Broomsticks for lunch, or head home where no doubt an owl would already be waiting from Elphias, anxious to hear an account of the interview.

It was a meeting of sheer coincidence – if he had known I was in town, he would have never left his house that morning, of that I am certain – and all it took was a moment.

He stopped dead in the middle of the street, less than twenty metres away, and absently, as though my mind was removed from my body, I considered that this was the closest we had been to each other in nearly seven years, since he vanished into the dawn the day after Ariana’s funeral, long before I was even awake.

As we stood there, both frozen in place, I noted that his clothes were ragged at the edges, his shoes nearly worn through and his skin tanned to a sort of pinkish-sandy colour which suited him better than I would have thought – his hair having darkened also, the auburn tint it had had when we were young gone – and all the guilt, all the want to talk to him, to try to get to know him as I never had before, to cling onto the last piece of family I had left surged up inside me again.

I could not find the words, though, and so I merely stayed there, as much a statue as the gargoyles on top of the gates, wondering once again how it was that he – so much weaker, so much less intelligent, so much simply less than I – could make me flounder in such a way.

It is the one thing you have in common, I think, you and he: the ability to strike me dumb without doing anything, or saying anything; existence alone does the trick.

Eventually – I say eventually, though in truth it was little more than a minute – he glared at me, flipped me a rude hand gesture and stomped off, deliberately turning his back on me. The message was clear: I was not yet forgiven, nothing yet forgotten, and I wondered if I ever would be, if there would ever be anything I could do which would redeem me in his eyes.

Once again, alas, I still do not know the answer, and again, I do not want to know. I am very much afraid that the truth of it would destroy me, and unlike with you, there is no possible hope of pretended compassion – for Aberforth does not deal in subtlety and imagery, enchantments of language, but brute honesty – and so I sit quietly and keep my questions secret.

Oh my darling, my darling, sometimes I think my life is formed solely of secrets – those I keep and those which are kept from me. To this day, I am not certain which ones I should fear more.




A/N: matière = fr, 'subject', also used in colloquial English, with the sense of pretentiousness and less of academic discipline.


Chapter 10: Switzerland
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Switzerland

For nearly twenty years, I have sat here now, alone in this place, surrounded by stone and metal and the colours of the sky, the earth far down below, and I begin to wonder if my eyes have dimmed or if it is simply that my world is so reduced that I see nothing other than greys, pale blues I can barely distinguish from the colours of clouds, the darker strains running like veins through the stones which surround me.

It is a fanciful imagining, I know; but it is born from a worry and a fear which I cannot avoid, however misguided or foolish it is.

When it has been so long since colour – true colour: bright, vibrant, bold – has flashed across outside my window, has flared up in front of my eyes, almost blinding, how can you expect me not to wonder otherwise? For these thoughts, however irrational, are impossible to avoid, and impossible for me to stop or contain; they simply happen and I am their unwilling, helpless victim.

It is a strange inversion: for life to be so dull and blank, playing out in a thousand and one variations of grey, and for memories, those moments which feel almost like another lifetime, to be so colourful, filled with soft, warm oranges and reds, and bright splashes of blues and golds. There is a wrongness about it, but there is a blessing in it too: unlike others, as I age, the difference between reality and the past has never been clearer for me. The latter burns all the brighter, all the gentler with age, and the former fades even as it happens.

An odd way for the end of my days to come to pass. I never thought it would be this way, when I considered it at all. After all, we much wanted to believe we would have immortality, eternal youth – beauty, wit, wisdom and all the rest from the time we came into the world to the day the globe entire is consumed by fire.

The rest of time, grains of sand to drift through our hands; such a wonderfully beautiful dream, is it not?

Now, as it is, that is all I have left – old dreams, broken dreams, and handfuls of pretty words which mean nothing, as perhaps they always have done.

I am useless these days: an old relic from a bygone age, the last remnant of a failed revolution – or so I think, since I do not know of the others, if Hans is dead now, if they ever caught Agathe after she fled, if Joachim and Torsten have gone. There is a certain irony in that, if it is so; that I should be both first to stand and last to fall, in the manner of the kings of old.

Truthfully, there are times – though I will never admit it, not to you, not to anyone (though who would ask?) – when I am almost glad of my imprisonment. The world has changed around me, steering away from the way I had envisioned it, and I am at a loss to say what I would do now, how I would fit in. My opinions, my theories, all my carefully acquired, honed skills are for nothing, wasting away in this cell you had them put me in, rotting away along with my flesh and my teeth and my bones, bit by bit, so that when, eventually, I die, there will be nothing of me left save a skeleton.

Perhaps then I will be neutral at last, when all that is left is gleaming white ivory, though I like to think you would look on me, on the wraith I had become and still see me and all that I ever was. For neutrality does not suit me, Albus, it never has done, as you know well.

In the here and now, it is dawn, or it is approaching, and I shuffle over to the window, wrapping my fingers around the bars to feel the wind press against my skin, breathe into my ear as it passes, whispering words I cannot hear. It is cold, harsh and I cannot help but shiver as it seeps through my clothes into my flesh, into the depths of my bones. I do not move, though; I will not move.

The first blinking, stuttering rays begin to break over the horizon, lighting up the mountains with a pale, faint glow, as though someone had lit a candle behind them, and I find myself holding my breath, staring intently through the bars.

I think I can see Switzerland then, the mountains on the other side of the border, the deep green hills they shield, with the tall spired churches and the goats, beards wagging in the breeze. If I close my eyes, I could imagine it, see it so clearly, but I do not – not this time, not this morning – and instead I keep watching, waiting for the colour to seep back into it, like ink onto a faded painting.

In the end, it does not come, not quite, but there will be other mornings and other sunrises, and in prison I have as much time as I need for them, do I not?



22nd November, 1908; Berolle, Switzerland

The air out on the balcony was cold, bitter almost, as it swept through my hair, brushing curls into my face, the ends of them strangling around the end of my cigarette with a single toss, but it was a welcome blessing from the hot, muggy interior of the den.

Tipping my head back, I blew smoke out into the night, watching it twist and turn in mid-air, a lazy dance even as it faded and broke away, vanishing from sight. There was something beautiful, ghostly and delicate, about it: a pale hint of danger, of a hidden, internal fire, deceptively plain to look at.

Fanciful words, perhaps, but then I have always been a little more fanciful than others might suspect. When I was a child, I would see my father breathe out smoke from his pipe, and imagine fire in his belly, curdling and growing, tips licking up towards his throat, towards his mouth. The few times he was angry with me, I would watch him, fascinated, waiting for a glimpse of the flames as they jumped up into his mouth, reaching for me.

I told my father this, of course; he simply laughed and gave me a copy of the tale of St George and the Dragon, a gift from Tante Bathilda when he himself had been a boy.

I had, of course, never then been able to decide if I would rather save or be saved, love or be loved – and, ah, but you know how it is, these things grow and grow until they reveal the secrets within them, ugly or beautiful, and only then do we understand in truth.

(It is a truth in part, to say that I wanted to be St George, to be strong and valiant, for these were what my father was, what I admired. It is equally as true to say I wanted to be the beautiful damsel, perhaps not distressed, but waiting for someone to brave the flames of a dragon for me and me alone, all to win my heart. In the end, I suspect I was most the dragon, fearsome and fearless and powerful beyond measure, fury in beauty, and ultimately slain by the just and noble hero. Only you were anything other than just and noble, then, yes?)

Then and there, before I had spread my wings and learned truly how to breathe fire, how to set the earth to trembling with a single roar, I watched as smoke left my lips, pulled up and out of my lungs, a teasing hint of what would come later.

“Gellert?” Mathaus called me from behind, and I turned to see him standing there, prim and neat as always, one hand against the doorframe. “You should come in – we’re getting a second round.”

With a nod, I stubbed out the cigarette on the balcony edge, letting the butt fall away off of it, away down into the darkness, down onto the street perhaps, crunched underneath someone’s shoe, and followed him back inside.

The air was close and thick, the charms on the windows keeping the heat and the sweat and the perfume of the place – spices and alcohol and the scent of woody coffee and cinnamon from the smoke of the shisha pipes in the next room, lending it an air of relaxed depravity, of slow and steady decline into pure pleasure with no care for the consequences. It had become familiar, though, over so many visits, that to me it spoke only of calm, of a tranquillity and a sociability I could only get there.

There, in dens of that sort, no one cared who you were or what you did, no one cared if what you said was not for polite company or if what you did broke laws and boundaries society would blush to know even existed – this was not polite company; in a way, it was outside society, a little house of rebels tucked away in the deepest, darkest part of the Black Forest.

You would have liked it, I think, Albus – it was full of artists and artistes, writers and painters and new, bold free thinkers, half of them young and passionate, and half of them old, alone except for the drinks on the table in front of them and lamentations of lost opportunities. It was a study into the human persona; a study in opposites, in extremes, in reaction to the freedom to simply be.

In the dim lighting, you would have glowed, your hair like phoenix feathers, and I would have kissed you, held your hand, and promised myself to you forever with Riesling and chocolate-coated raspberries.

Ah, but romance is for those who are made for it, and I have questioned many times if I ever was, or if it was all merely a craving for something I was never meant to have.

There were bottles on the table when I arrived – six of them, already opened – and as I sat down, slipping into a divan next to Hans, Margit reached up and passed me a glass, murmuring something under her breath as she smiled at me, slow and flirtatious.

It was dark, the liquid in the glass – a deep, cherry red, like a good wine should be, but there was a shimmer about it, in the light bouncing off the top of it, streaming through it, which lit it up like a furnace, like the last remnants of a fire just before it dies. The glass felt warm in my hand; a comforting warmth, reminiscent of lying on the fur rug in front of the fire in my father’s house, or the pleasant stickiness as I had lain with you, exhausted after the night.

The first sip told me everything about what I was drinking, even if I had not already guessed – though the one thing I was not certain was how Otto had managed to get it, for six bottles of Eiferwein is a request people notice – for it slid down, like a molten, fading flame, and it fed into my system quickly, so quickly my head swam.

I could taste chocolate, dark and rich and bitter, on the front of my tongue, mingling with something faintly buttery and the familiar wooden crunch of almonds. Then, a hint of candied oranges, of rum and whisky and port; a whirlwind of red fruits, all blended together, and a faint strain of rosewater and honey, light and sweet. It was captivating, utterly breathtaking, and I knew immediately why it was illegal, and why, oh why, it should not be.

Have you ever wondered, up in your tower as you wear away at yourself day by day, what it would be like to drink love – to taste passion and lust, longing and adoration, from the very first, sweet trickles of it, to the final blare of the trumpets before it crumbles into nothing?

No, I do not need to ask, for I know you have, I know you do, but you have not and you will not. You should, though, if only to let yourself be swept away, out of your life and into another’s, to feel without feeling, to love without loving.

As I sat there, I wondered, foolishly, vacantly, if this was how you felt about me, if this was how you could have felt about me, if I had stayed with you after the girl died. Would you have been breathless at the sight of me, at the feel and the smell and the taste of me? Would you have run hot, so very hot, because of me, so that I was the only person who could still your blood, could cool you and unwind your muscles even as I felt your heart beat in time with mine.

I wanted to replace you, then, I wanted to find someone else who would burn for me and me alone, and it unnerved me how hot I felt myself burn when Mathaus’ side pressed against mine, when his hand squeezed my thigh and he smiled at me.

There were words on his tongue, words of politics and utopia and perfection, but I did not want to hear words then, I wanted only love, and so I kissed him.

He kissed me back, though he will deny it until he dies. I remember, though, every moment of it: how he leaned into me, how he rested a hand on the divan behind me all the better to kiss me harder, how he did not protest when I wrapped an arm around his neck to keep him in place.

It was over soon enough, though – I pulled away, meaning only to take a breath and kiss him again, but he recovered himself then, and jerked back, up and away from me, up and away from the table.

“I must go,” he muttered, the words swallowed up by the noise around us, barely glancing at me, and then he fled.

It was disappointing, that I must admit, that he ran from me, as though I had tried to kill him, to slice open his jugular, fear capturing him, when there was nothing to be afraid of, only love to enjoy.

So it was that, though the histories of me in the libraries and the bookshops will not say this, I arrived in Switzerland with my mouth tasting sour and a vengeful beat in my heart. I would not let him ruin this opportunity for me, I would not let him damage my plans – mine before they had ever been his, even with his schemes for legal reform, for new laws and systems – I would succeed only the faster so that he could not be rid of me.

I wanted him to remember. I wanted it to be that he had to look at me every day, and every day remember what I had offered and what he had almost taken: that he had kissed me, that in those moments he had wanted me, however ashamed he felt about such things.

Ruthless and cruel of me, yes, but I do so hate to be denied.

(You would say, if you knew of this – of the truth of this – that no doubt I fancied myself in love with him, that emotion ran deeper than I understood, but you have always been the romantic, yes?)

It was snowing when I arrived there, the sky white and the land white, the odd brown speck visible where a house sat, or where the wood of the trees poked through, their branches umbrellas to keep them free from covers. In the distance, there were glimmers of light through the clouds, slender golden beams, and they set the snowflakes to glittering, so that the ground looked like a carpet of crushed diamonds, each one carefully laid and sprinkled into a smooth, endless blanket.

There was something beautiful about it, something hard and delicately strong and cold, which I loved; even after so many years at Durmstrang, living seven months of my life surrounded by frozen lakes and snow on mountains, it still made me smile without thinking.

If nothing else – if the people were dull, if the work was dull, and life there was dull – I knew that at least I would enjoy the landscape. A small insurance, it is true, but for me, it is perhaps enough.

See, Albus, as much as you insist otherwise, I can be patient when it suits me.

Conquest is a difficult thing, a slow thing, if one does it by politics, by conviction and by persuasion, rather than by might alone. It requires patience, careful planning, and an understanding, deep and real and human, of what and whom you face, of what they believe and how they think; you must be every enemy’s closest friend, every friend’s silent enemy, the spy everywhere watching everyone and learning, knowing every unspoken truth behind every lie.

You must know your enemy better than yourself, after all. Fortunate, perhaps, for me that in the end, it came down to you and I.

I tell you all of this because now, I think, you will see and remember that we are not truly that different in the end. You have your vigilantes, I had my revolutionaries, but the method of working, the mechanics of it all, are very much similar, in that sense.

(Now you understand why I laugh when I see the papers, where they compare Voldemort to me, his ambitions to mine. The little people, though, they do not see these distinctions, and so we must all forgive them their ignorance.)

In Switzerland, though, then and there, I had none of those things – I had only plans, nearly finished, nearly ready to put into action, and an impatience I could not quite hide. It is always the same, though, whenever things are being finished, polished so that they shine even when there is no light, I feel my blood thrum and my heart race and everything in me murmurs, ‘now, now, now’.

The famous German efficiency, so impossible to deny in me.

It is strange to think that for all my efficiency, for all my struggles with patience, with accepting that I can do nothing save wait, Switzerland did not foil me, nor unmake me. Perhaps it was the long rest before the storm began, but I cannot understand in truth even now; all I remember, all I can describe is the way it made me feel, how unnatural it was for me, and then, dear Albus, maybe you can tell me what it was in my soul which allowed this.

While there, I had a house: wooden, like all the others, brown and plain and simple, like the others, with a single door and a window in the top floor like a Cyclops’ eye, shutters framing it on either side, painted a deep green. It looked like it had sprung up out of the earth, readymade, tugged and shaped by magic and imagination, more than human hands and skill, put there by God’s design at the beginning of time.

From the window at the top, I could look out over the mountains, down slopes of rock, layered over with trees and grass and snow, a treacherous fall lying in wait, to the little village at the bottom – muggle and so different in style, in feeling, that it seemed almost a world away, as though two separate universes had collided along one line, leaving no trace of a scar save perception of those who looked through it.

It reminded me of Durmstrang, and yet it was completely different. Here, there was nobody ordering me to class, throwing insults at me in the corridors (never spells, never; the looming penalties for magic in the corridors were enough of a deterrent for that at least), no wind whistling through the corridors, or sense that if you walked and walked away in one direction, you would never manage to find your way back, footsteps covered over in seconds by snowflakes you could not even feel on your hair and neck.

All there was, was a neutrality I could not understand, which I had never before managed to achieve for myself, creature of fire and want and ideals that I am, and a peacefulness and security it seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb.

Soon enough, I found myself watching people, watching my counterpart here – Nico Diaque, dark haired and dark eyed, and who spoke German to me, even as he insisted on teaching me French – and trying to see if it showed on them, if there was perhaps some secret to how they could be so relaxed, so calm and content, and yet so prosperous without any kind of zeal to drive them.

I never discovered it – I think now it is written in their souls, in the very fabric of their selves, a way of life which cannot be duplicated – but still I looked and I looked, and I discovered something else, almost by accident, tangled up in sheets in a bed identical to mine.

“You are watching me again,” I murmured to Nico, one of my hands trapped up next to my head by one of his, our fingers interlaced, my body warm from the fire and him, and I could not help but smile at the idea that perhaps he could not help it, that perhaps he found me, found my soul and spirit, as fascinating as I found his.

There is something captivating in the excitement of being matched in curiosity, in interest and a lack of understanding, with the temptation to learn together. Even if there is no success, if nothing is learned or found and everything is lost, the experience remains a pleasure.

“Yes, I am,” he replied, and he smiled this time, his eyes running over my face and my chest, a hand running along my thigh, pausing at my hip. “Do you mind?”

He knew, even then, that of course I did not mind, that I would not stop him, even if I did not encourage him, but still, he waited for my response, the only thing in the room which moved the flames in the fireplace, merry and bright, sending shadows to dance across both of us, creating dips and ridges where I knew, in truth, there were none.

“No, I do not mind,” I whispered, feeling him lean down, hair brushing over my neck, to scrape his teeth along the underside of my jaw, making me breathe out a sigh and press his head closer.

You see, he did not understand me any more than I understood him. We knew each other – we knew each other well, intimately – but there was no understanding of the deeper things, no revelations of the secrets we both kept, of the ambitions we both held, and nothing more than that was necessary for me to keep him with me, for him to keep me.

Mystery, perhaps, I learned, was just as tantalising a prospect as the thought of knowing everything; differences do not have to be merged, or destroyed, only acknowledged in order for things to work; and if this works for people on their own, it could work for people together, for people as a whole.

Time is, of course, the ever-present beat to which all things must march, and on this it beats quicker than the tune I want to set to it, but then, as I learned that waiting, calm and collected, and accepting current limitations could lead to greater pleasure, I thought that I might not mind letting time have his way.



A/N: the proverb 'you must know you enemy better than youself' is a quote from a translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and so is not mine.


Chapter 11: Clichés
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Clichés

There are times when I have wondered if I should have endeavoured to play the white knight for you, endeavoured to be the hero of the tale, with a sword at my side and a horse’s reigns in my hand, ready to whisk you off back to my castle forever – mine to save, to protect, and to love – and times when I think that perhaps, perhaps I was too much the white knight, too invested already in being the saviour, your saviour, to guarantee success. It is a cliché question, a set of cliché ideals to aspire to, but there is a reason these things are repeated so often, after all.

Somehow, they entrance us, pull on our heartstrings and gently tug us away into a momentary utopia, where we can be those things, where we can be the ideal, can be and have perfection, and these glimpses, these little mentions of it, written and passed down through the ages, resonate with us even now.

They are dreams, yes, but they are beautiful ones, ones without hurt or pain or suffering, where good always triumphs and our inner beauty is stamped on our skin for the world to see.

Love wins, then, and that, I think, is the thing we all want the most.

Popular ideas, and so they get repeated, so each new generation longs for them in turn, spending hours sighing out of their windows, at the moon and the stars, head resting on a hand or against the windowpane, looking up and wondering, when will it happen for me? When will I be rescued? When will I meet him? When, finally, will I fall as perfectly and completely in love as the princesses of ages past did?

It is a longing – a child’s longing, filled with hope and optimism that the young always seem to possess in spades – which is so inherent that we cannot stop it, our last defence against the loneliness which comes when we look down time, to the years we have yet to live, alone. Still, we carry it with us into adulthood and beyond, cliché-ridden and heavy with romance and a saccharine aftertaste which is almost more bitter than absinthe, and it is impossible to set down or give up.

I cannot say, truthfully, that I always longed for you – that I always dreamed, specifically, of you – but I will say that, underneath it all, I was always lonely, in a way I could never quite shake, no matter how many friends or students or titles I had.

Then, once loneliness, that tiny ribbon of despair, has curled itself around my spine and swallowed me from the inside out, inevitably, without thinking, I remember that summer – that beautiful, halcyon summer, where to me you had appeared in my life something like Apollo to a sheep herder, the sun trapped in your hair and the scent of flowers trailing behind you. In my recollection, it appears that when you smiled, I swooned, and when you laughed - not at me, but with me, for me – my heart stopped and was reborn in your hands.

It was nothing quite like that, I am certain: neither so romantic, nor such a perfect day. In truth, it was raining and you were as soaked as the rest of us, far from the sleek, perfectly-placed presentation my imagination conjures up.

Ah, but imagination knows very little of reality, of truth, and has no qualms about diverting from it completely, in order to better fit the stereotypes, moulding us into the cliché as it goes.

This is why, on bad days, I dream of rescuing you from your tower and leading you off into the sunset, your heart given to me as mine was to you the moment I liberated you, defeated whatever evil there was to defeat for you. In this dream, you and I, we are both young again, preserved from that summer, and you look at me as though I am the only man in the world, and those words, those accursedly perfect words, spill from your mouth, coloured by adoration.

That, you see, is how I know it is nothing more than a dream, and how clichés turn so easily back into loneliness – a vicious cycle, and one we are destined to spin in our minds until someone else steps up and breaks it.




11th July, 1909; Holyhead, Wales

There comes a point in every person’s life when he is neither too young, nor too old, and he seems to move from wedding to wedding with no pause, until his cheeks ache from smiling and the smell of champagne makes him almost nauseous – a procession of love and happiness, all of it staged for others to comment on, all of it designed to celebrate something as natural as breathing, as personal as one’s jam preferences. Beautiful, yes, and it lifts the spirit, returns faith in humanity, in the inherent good which lies in all our souls, to the mind; but selfishly generous as a celebration, flaunting joy for all to see.

Of course, it is said to be in every person’s life, but, alas, for some of us it is merely only a dream we have, and not a reality we can live.

Who would I ever have met who could banish the ghost of you, still half-alive, from me? You always said you were irreplaceable, and in that, my darling, you were absolutely correct.

No, once you had gone, there was no chance of that sort of life for me – the confined bachelorhood in a townhouse in London I had long envied some public figures for as a youth, the simple bliss it sounded so appealing: walks in Hyde Park arm-in-arm in the evening, coming home to another for dinner, for the night, waking up next to you without the fear of being caught, for who would be around to catch us?

Open secrets are so very thrilling, I must admit, and the sheer poeticism of it all only entrenched the desire for it in my heart.

Now, I am reasonably certain that life with me would have been unmanageable for all but a few, and I consider myself lucky to have escaped the horrors and travesty of likely, lengthy unhappiness.

Perhaps you and I… but I should not mention those. Taunting you with images of your own world, your own utopia, only with a wedding – you and I, in your beloved Germany – added to it, would be cruel beyond measure, and I think I have already been cruel enough to you for one lifetime.

When the crush of weddings seemed to die down, the end appearing on the horizon, I found that month after month of celebrating love, of celebrating happiness and joy and the promise of forever, had left me tired, worn down to the bone, and quite utterly sick of the whole thing – from the invitations and constant chatter about what one thought the bride’s dress would look like, to the end when the guests trickled home, pleasantly buzzed on elderflower wine and champagne, smiles intermingled with yawns as the sun prepared to rise again. Even the prospect of another wedding, of another party to attend and another gift to purchase, made the thought of signing up to herd Antipodean Opaleyes from valley to valley in New Zealand quite tempting.

Alas, but the dragons had to wait, as Elphias insisted on having me for his best man – there was no other option, apparently, though I demurred on the subject multiple times – and so for the last term of the school year, I found myself arranging new dress robes, guarding a golden ring in my room, and receiving panicking late night owls from Elphias because both cream cheese and cheese weren’t necessary, were they, and Valerie desperately wanted lilies but his mother was allergic and how did he tell her that exactly?

It was singularly strange to think that Elphias would be married, that he might soon have children, that one day I might teach those same children. For the life of me, I could not fathom why it seemed an attractive prospect.

What of freedom, of the flights of fancy he would give up, the adventures and travels he would never now be able to have – his life would forever now be shared, his time demanded by those he had promised to devote himself to.

Ah, but it is a harsh thing to say – when two people are in love, sharing two lives together, sharing children and time and building a family, is hardly a burden. Elphias and Valerie did well together – they were happy enough, if not always – and if sometimes I wondered at comments he made, turns of phrase he used, then I, selfish and egotistical to assume anything as it would be, said nothing of it.

The day itself was unremarkable: an early summer day, cloudy as always, but not cold, and thankfully without rain, and everything progressed as it was meant to.

While Elphias dithered about the room, chattering aimlessly about nothing in particular and looking more than a little peaky, I sat on a chair in the corner, reading through the Daily Prophet. The news in totality was equally as bland as the day itself, since the economy was stable and improving at a steady rate, unemployment was low and the Minister of the day popular enough, and about halfway through the fifth page, they had included a small section on the international news of the day.

The article was nothing of interest, though no doubt of some import: a treaty had been signed the week previously between the Swiss Federation and the Kingdom of Württemberg. In the top right corner, though, was a picture of the First Minister of Württemberg, shaking hands with the President of the Swiss Federation, and to his left was you.

Older, the boy you had been in Godric’s Hollow left behind long ago, and different – your cheekbones were sharper, your shoulders a little broader, you looked to have grown a few inches too – but unmistakeably you. You were smiling, I remember, all poise and presence and politeness, and I felt my heart jump in my chest.

Even then, even so indirectly, you could still affect me – and it is not all to do with aesthetic beauty, I am afraid.

Naturally, I must admit that seeing you, so handsome and so self-assured, even if only in print, awoke thoughts in me I had hoped were suppressed, in favour of simple romantic want spurred by loneliness: thoughts of shoving you against a wall so that nothing separated us, not even air, of seeing you laid out before me on cotton sheets and remapping every line and dip of your body, noting every change; wonderings of whether you would gasp and breathe my name the same way you had so many summers before, of whether you would feel and taste and want the same way.

Curiosity is a dangerous thing, even more so when it is paired with desire.

More than that, though, I longed to talk to you again, even just to see you again, to hear your voice and your laugh and to feel your presence, even if from afar. To know if you had changed on the outside, grown and flourished, what had changed – for things must have – on the inside; what of your thoughts had remodelled themselves, had been cast aside or expanded, swallowing up others as they went.

Simply put, I wanted to know you again; nothing more and nothing less than that.

There was a smaller picture, though, as I read through the article – a shot of you with your corresponding number, the Swiss Foreign Minister, who had hammered out the terms of the treaty with you – and, if the first one made my heart jump, this one made my stomach churn, thick and fast and angry.

To my eyes – though I imagine most would not have seen it – there was something strangely tender, almost lingering in the way you clasped his hand for the photograph to be taken, and the smiles you shared were secretive and familiar, too familiar for my taste.

Oh my darling, it was such a small thing, but so painful – you see, until then I had never truly considered the idea of competition for you, and the knowledge that there was competition, that perhaps there was more than competition (for how can it be a competition if really there is only one competitor? I could hardly compete for you when we were separated by a thousand miles or more), hit me swifter than a stunning spell and twice as fiercely, sending a stream of acrid jealousy gushing up my throat until I almost choked on it.

“Albus, are you alright?” Elphias was frowning at me when I looked up, a comb in hand and all of his clothes neatly folded in a pile on the bed. “You look paler than I do, and I’m the one getting married.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied, my voice somehow appropriately light and clear, and I put the paper to one side, the image of you and him – Nico, I still remember now, Nico Diaque (and he was handsome to boot, which only made it worse because I could look at him and think how you could and why you would, and only hate myself for it in the end) – imprinted on my mind in slow-moving black-and-white. “Apologies – my mind was elsewhere.”

His eyes flickered down to the newspaper lingering on them for a moment, surveying, it seemed, the picture of you and Nico Diaque, still locked in that eternal handshake, and I wondered what he saw in it. Did he, like I, see the way your fingertips brushed over the skin of his wrist? Did he notice how your eyelashes were lowered slightly, flirting and full, or how the smile you gave him was small, personal, warm all the way up to your eyes?

Perhaps he saw nothing. For all he knew of schoolboy explorations, Elphias had never, to my knowledge, known another in that way, or even wanted to – perhaps it was only jealousy, that bitter sense of loss and want, which shaded the scene in such a way.

“They say they’re lovers,” he blurted out, his voice strangely quiet, hushed, as though we were discussing something intimate, a secret never to be told. “The two of them – Grindelwald and Diaque. The whole department has heard – though it could all be nothing, Harrison is always coming out with such rot these days…”

He trailed off, looking at me, blushing a little, strangely intense about something, and I risked a glance back at the picture, my stomach seeming to turn and squeeze as I thought about it, confirmed now, so unwittingly, how you and he would look, entangled together. Selfishly, cruelly, I hoped you would not like him as much as me, that he would not care for you as I had; a child’s response, I know, but there are times when every man’s maturity falters.

“They brokered the deal, you know,” Elphias moved a little closer, shooting a look at the door, and now, now this was secret, now this was confidential – things I should not know, international secrets. “Between them. There are… well, nothing substantial because no one knows, but… suggestions that it might have been, you know, a deal – better terms for Württemberg in exchange for…”

A vague hand gesture and another blush, almost cherry red this time; had the situation been different I suspect I would have laughed.

“No, I do not think so,” the words were out of my mouth before I could think about anything – about why I should not say, why it would seem strange, about why possibly, possibly something of it all could be true.

In a flash, my mind betrayed myself: what if, it whispered, what if it was true? What if you had, all to sweeten a deal which barely affected you? What if, far worse to my mind, you cared for him, and he for you? What if, at the end of all things, you fell in love with him, chose to stay with him?

What did it matter, I questioned myself bitterly, who you took to bed? Why should it matter to me?

Ah, but sense and love never did go hand-in-hand, and logic is all too easy to push aside.

He frowned – an odd thing: with his mouth twisted in displeasure, he seemed almost angry or jealous, perhaps even upset – but I did not think much on it, distracted by waiting, waiting for the obvious question, for the probing and prodding which might well have ended with the whole sordid story pouring out. In my throat, it was already bubbling up, newly stirred up as it was, and I confess I was almost disappointed.

“Do you have the ring?” he asked eventually, seemingly solely for something to say which did not linger on topics I, at least, had thought long buried between us.

“I have it here,” I assured him, patting my breast pocket where it lay, tucked inside safely, as it had been all morning, a surprisingly sharp circle against my skin even through the layers of silk-lined cotton.

“Well, then,” he swallowed, and I could not help but smile at the flicker of anxiety, tinged with the green which had lingered in his skin for so long in our first year, which danced across his face.

“We should be going, otherwise Valerie will string me up on the apple tree,” I finished for him, rising from my seat, managing to avoid looking at the paper, though it seemed your eyes, ink and paper though they were, watched me from the top page, content and so knowing. “Which I suspect would put something of a downer on the celebration.”

The actual ceremony, beautiful though it was, seemed to drag by, each second the length of a minute and each minute an hour in turn, though Elphias and Valerie seemed not to notice, hands bound with golden silk and Valerie’s eyes shining even as Elphias stared at her like a man witnessing Aphrodite rising from the waves. In that, there was something truly ethereal, almost spiritual, and I could for once understand how people could believe in a divinity, in life beyond this one, in a soul and fate and destiny out of our control.

It is deeply hypocritical of me that I resolutely do not believe in fate, of any kind (and thus Divination as a science stretches belief for me, even in a world where extraordinary things are commonplace) and that, at the same time, that our meeting and everything which came after it, could not have happened any other way; eventually, I would have found you and you me, along one path or another. Alas, though, hypocrisy is part of human nature, something innate none of us can escape.

Truthfully, there is something compelling in it: the idea that we refuse to see in ourselves what we see in others. It is at once so flawed, it is almost right; perfect in imperfection, perhaps.

A cynic would say that it is an easy way for me to justify my own hypocrisy and it is likely there is some truth in it, though I doubt I will ever know for certain.

Rose petals, enchanted to fall throughout the night, until the moon had long risen and we all were forced to bed by the hand of sheer exhaustion, showered down on our heads as we all moved over under the awning – blue cotton, patterned with hundreds of tiny, stitched daisies – feather-light and soft as skin, scented with perfume, which blended in with the early summer evening, sweet without being cloying. In the centre of it all, Elphias stood with Valerie, his right hand bound to her left with a single loop of slender ribbon, and they swayed through a waltz, the steps wrong and out of time and completely irrelevant.

It was charming, truly, and it forced a smile from me, though the champagne still tasted sour and ever more addictive as I sipped at it, a thin taste, with a sharp and fruity tang even as the last bubbles popped on my tongue.

I was happy for them, though; that I repeatedly seem to deny myself happiness does not mean I wish others to suffer in the same way. I would not confer my own existence on any other – even, though you would scoff if I told you, you, my darling.

Oh, and how once upon a time I had thought that I could make you happy, that I did make you happy, that we together were happy and could remain so, for days and months, for months and years, perhaps even longer. A fantasy, in a way, for not all relationships last, but I wanted to believe that we could; I always thought that of all those I met, I would have the best chance of it with you.

In a way, I still think that, really, I would have been happiest with you. The world might have burned, the seas run red and the stars tumbled from the sky, but we could have been happy.

“Don’t look so glum,” Euphemia told me when she had a moment’s break in between dancing – a series of waltzes with her husband and a fast Foxtrot with a tall, dark-haired wizard – her voice half-breathless and a flushed, beaming smile on her face, strands of dark brown hair falling out of her bun. “You’ll be married yourself soon enough, don’t fret. You won’t be left behind for long.”

You would have laughed had you been there – had some clever, witty quip on the tip of your tongue in response, something which would make me choke on my champagne even as the joke (filthy, of course; nearly all of your humour was either rude enough to make a sailor blush or dark enough that I could never quite find the courage to laugh at it) flew over Euphemia’s head. Those things never fazed you, never worried you.

I remember that evening – I dare to suggest you will not have forgotten it, that it will burn in your memory as it does in mine – when, sitting on my bed with the door locked against Aberforth and Ariana, your mouth brushing mine so slowly I wondered if you had changed your mind, you asked me to teach you.

Oh dear god, the things you asked me to teach you: you listed them, one by one, your eyes sparkling deep forest green, lit up with the shimmer of fairy’s wings, until I was half-convinced you were an incubus, come to steal my soul and my life, the only thing innocent about it the way you trembled ever so gently under my fingers and that faint flicker of nerves in your face.

I had half-believed it to be a trick, at first, some sick joke in which I could not perceive what the punchline was meant to be – or perhaps the after-effects of too much alcohol (had I added too much sugar? Had it gone to your head that quickly?) which would only end in laughter – and had sat frozen, too shocked to even think, until you pulled away, a flush rising high and loud on your cheeks, and reached for your shirt, intent on fleeing the scene, an apology stumbling out of your mouth.

“Alas, I doubt it,” I replied to Euphemia instead, devoid of you and therefore half my wit. “I suspect marriage is not something I will ever have the joy of experiencing.”

I was not bitter, nor was I searching for sympathy; it was merely a fact, and nothing I felt was wrong. Marriage is not for everyone, after all, in much the same way as not everyone is required to like Quidditch.

She gave me a look, then, suspicious and curious and so pitying I wanted to snap at her, say something – anything, however wild and improbable and desperately, wonderfully true – to make her go away and end persisting in this vein.

“You will,” she told me confidently. “You just have to find the right person.”

Times have changed, and now, if I wanted I could marry you. If we had been born a century later, if we had met a century later, I could take you to a church in your homeland and kiss you in front of your god, and drag you off to a hotel with the wolf-whistles of our friends ringing in our ears, peeling off layer after layer of clothing until you lay on the bed, white silk clinging all the way up your thighs, silk winding into ribbon into lace around your hips.

You would be family then – my family, Aberforth’s family, Ariana’s family.

Ah, but perhaps that would have wrecked the dream, turned white into black and gold into dust, for I have an unerring tendency to be so very cruel to my family, one way or another, never intentionally.

Truly, I was not meant for marriage, and as the years passed, growing swifter even as the days lengthened in my mind, the question of it, of when and to whom and why not, which always lingered in the back of people’s minds, on the tips of their tongues, become less of a wonder and more ash in my mouth, sparking and hissing. Inside, the words are bitter, taunting and mocking, and I hear them always, always in my mother’s voice, in my father’s voice, in Aberforth’s voice.

There is a technicality – old and unused though it may be – which I must confess I cannot help but think of whenever people ask me about marriage, and it tickles me enormously, soothing the welts left by the sparks, chiming over the voices of my family.

You see, my darling, after that summer, because of that summer and everything which followed, all those wonderful lessons you begged from me, according to English wizarding law (for there were never specifics of gender in this area), you are my common-law wife.




A/N: Any references to Apollo and Aphrodite in this do not belong to me - they come from Greek mythology and therefore belong to various writers, but definitely not me.

English common law used to have an option for common law marriage, mostly in case of unmarried couples in long-term relationships with children, but I adapted it here. Of course, it is not an actual legal basis for an argument of marriage, so please don't try and use it in court ;) 


Chapter 12: Prussia
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Prussia 

For every country, there are a lucky few, chosen by God, who see their fatherland grow and rise and shine brighter than the sun, eclipsing all others or casting them into shadow so the only light they show is a feeble reflection of what falls onto them. In those moments, their voices make mountains tremble, their feet make the earth rumble deep inside her core, and they are the kings of the world, crowned by the blessing of their birth and ordained by genius. 

To live in such an age is something of an honour, a gift – and what should one do with a gift but make all the use of it possible? 

Truly, I must admit, Prussia was not my fatherland, not in the way most people think it counts. I was born in Hungary, raised in Württemburg, though my father was Prussian, and my grandfather also; this, of course, you know – or should know, for I told you once upon a time, as you coaxed me to reveal more and more of myself to you with soft-spoken words and a tender curiosity. To them, those proud, particular people, I am something of a bohemian, a stateless wanderer with no real home, no fatherland in the way that they understand it.

There are others, though, who consider things through different lines, down different routes, and to them my blood runs blue – a rich, royal blue, darker than water and sky both – for my mother and my birth are of no consequence.

Prussia’s lost son, and Hungary’s favourite; for a time I was adored by all, the prodigal son both claimed for their own.

I watched as I grew how my fatherland – Germany in total, to my mind, for he was forged in part a decade before I was born, when my father was young – bloomed, remaking himself in steel and iron, strong and swift and utterly relentless. He was quiet, unassuming in truth, steadily gaining bit by bit by bit as around him the other nations, other powers declined: France, Spain, your once all-conquering England, rudderless in this time. Watching and waiting, he learned all he could from history, from the mistakes of those whose walking sticks cracked along the stones in the streets, and slowly positioned himself so that when the time came, when finally he was good enough, powerful enough, he could emerge as the new emperor of Europe.

It is a thrilling story, no? Less beautiful for you, I think, than it is for me, since you were sat over the sea, seeing and predicting, watching and waiting, and knowing, always knowing, that there was nothing you could do to stop it.

Did it hurt, my Albus? Sitting there, powerless and alone? Did you ever long to change nations, to swap English justice and forced, prudish sensibility for German determination, for Prussian ambition and precision?

Did you hear my fatherland scream when you crippled him even as you clapped the irons around my wrists and trampled my people into the ground?

Ah, but I heard it, even if you did not, and the sheer horror of it brought me to my knees, sobs in my throat and my chest on fire. I had failed, I had failed my father, failed my brothers-by-blood, I who could not fail, was never meant to fail, and with my failure came the downfall of my country and suffering, real and fierce, for my people.

Even now, Germany’s heartbeat is still uneven, pausing and halting every now and then, and though he heals, Time is a slow healer, and it will be years before he is whole again, before I do not hear the whimpers at night as he cries, the sound half-lost amidst the wind in the trees, rattling against the metal and stone which surrounds me.

I imagine it, sometimes, this healing: imagine standing, flying like a bird overhead and watching as the fields knit themselves back together, the scars from fires, from ditches and trenches and craters, vanishing as the earth closes up; the lakes refill themselves, waves lapping higher and higher up the shore each year, thicker and clearer as the blood wears thin; the forests dyeing green again, sprouting blossom and fruit and flowers in turn, brighter and sweeter and more beautiful with each year that passes.

I imagine looking out over the fields and the lakes of Prussia, of my father’s land, and seeing him flourish once more, feeling the vertebrae, steel and plated with gold, slot back together with a series of small clicks, the façade beginning to shine again, ambition and strength rising hand in hand, tempered by caution – the caution carried in the scars which shot through to the bone.

When it finishes, when my fatherland rises, tall and proud and glorious once more, I am finally, blissfully content – and then, only then, can I sleep.




4th November, 1912; Basdorf, Brandenburg, Prussian Empire

There was something moving, then, stirring in the depths of people’s souls, in the air and the earth, just as a current is birthed in the deepest part of the lake, spreading upwards and outwards, though we did not know, did not yet understand what form it would take.

I could feel it, though, a sense of anticipation, a kind of humming, vibrating all through your body, as though each minuscule cell began its preparations for the future, and it plucked at things inside me, stirring up curiosity and trepidation and that frisson of chilled excitement only the promise of danger can bring. It clung to my clothes and my fingertips, tangled in my hair, so much so that I wondered almost if it others would smell it on me, if I wore it like perfume pressed deep into my skin.

Truthfully, I do not think any of them noticed, or if they felt it as I did, they thought nothing of it, too engrossed in the science of magic, in the records that fell like leaves in autumn and discoveries drawn out like moths by a light. To them it was a sign of good fortune, a sign of luck and promise; to me it whispered only death, only conflict arising out of too much strength, too much confidence and not enough caution.

(Somewhere, somehow, if you hear this, if ever you hear this, I know you will laugh at me, at the irony this brings – no matter how bittersweet it is – because then I was an unknown Cassandra, scolding Icarus for flying too high too fast, even as I soldered together my own wings down on the ground.

It does not amuse me; even now, pride holds me fast.)

It has been said that politicians measure their lives in wins and losses, in parties and celebrations and the speeches they make, and the ones they do not get to make, or perhaps should have made. To them, to us, years do not exist in the same way to other people – a year begins and ends in the summer, when we test ourselves against each other, and four years is a decade, a lifetime for the unwary.

Not that, for most of the company kept, this was relevant to them: more than half of Europe still slaved under monarchies, ancestral rulers who had their seats, had their powers by virtue of birth only – and what a foolish system it is, in truth, for a child is just as likely to be a weak or a bad king as he is to be good and strong, and tyranny is bred from kindness and fairness and the proper, perfect lineage.

Ah, but tradition must be upheld until it is no longer necessary, until the people themselves wonder why it exists, and then, only then, can it be changed. The trick, of course, is to create the change yourself – switch around the colours in men’s minds, feed the grass on something new until it will eat nothing else, and from your hand only.

Tricks, all tricks, nothing more than that, but oh, the results they can have!

I always remember, Albus, how you told me once that everything was trickery – that at the heart of every sense we owned was a lie, pure and simple, and yet we believed it so completely, certain that it was truth. Touch, you would tell me, is the most difficult to trick but you did it still, with blindfolds and cotton and your hands fluttering over my arms until I shuddered. You showed me books with pictures where lines seemed to bend, though they did not, where colours seemed to darken before my eyes, and where images could be two or three, even four, scenes, depending on who looked at them.

Parlour tricks, of course, but they delighted me, and you always liked delighting me so.

Then, though, you were long gone, confined to your tower in a castle in the northernmost tip of Scotland, lonely and afraid, and I was the conjuror, not you.

For my first trick, there was a man – a king and a duke and a father, but still a man – and he was at a party. We had met before, only formally, but by the end of the evening, he would trust me, he would allow me to advise him, he would, perhaps, follow me.

I can imagine what the history books say about me on this, imagine what they insinuate: compulsion magic, dark and powerful enough to warp a man’s mind entire so that he thinks as you think, so he becomes nothing more than a puppet, a mask for your will and your design, but on this I fear I am dreadfully disappointing. All I used was words; nothing more – so understated, but so much more dangerous than most realise.

It began simply, slowly – a smile, a nod, and a murmured ‘your highness’ and the first step was made, conversation started as soon as he looked at me and enquired for my name, commenting when I gave it that he had heard a great deal about me, a great deal of good, though for whom he was not sure.

A laugh, a witty reply (‘Perhaps nobody’s, perhaps everybody’s – politicians are always ambiguous on that front’), and something, down in his psyche, in the back of his mind, clicked into place.

Contact. Appreciation; a shared joke, shared laughter, and a link was established. Fine and delicate, yes, but still there all the same.

It did not take long – perhaps twenty minutes of light, friendly conversation, all of it perfectly acceptable for the setting – until he suggested we move outside. He was a slave to vice, he informed me, his tone conspiratorial, and in my pocket my hand closed over my own cigarettes even as I followed him outside.

Two matches flared, orange and red and startlingly bright; two plumes of smoke, swift and winding in on themselves even as they faded, stark white; and in the silence shared there was another link, the start of a chain, from him to me.

I shuddered when I took the first drag, though why I could not say now any more than I could have then. The thrill of the hunt, perhaps, or the necessity of narcotics which is always most gripping at the feel of a cigarette in my hand; perhaps both, in the end, were true.

I always have been easily manipulated by desire; passion has ever been my own personal God.

“This age is changing,” he commented, the crown of laurel leaves adorning his head – part of his costume, and appropriately so for Kaiser is Caesar in more than simple linguistics – casting shadows across his face, so that smoke, silvery-grey and ghostly issued from the night. “And it is changing quickly. Too quickly, for some; it is a shame to see so many fall.”

“It is not in the nature of change to be forgiving to those who cannot keep pace,” I replied, the cool marble of the balcony below my elbows a welcome support, welcome reminder that I had to be careful, this had to go perfectly. “So shame is earned by those who fail, and those of us who keep running, cannot stop for the sake of mere sympathy.”

“Quite right,” he agreed, giving me a look which was far more shrewd than I had expected, but I did not flinch from it. My heart belonged to my country, and that was all he would see of me. “We should be grateful that we are ahead of the curve.”

“Of course, your highness,” I demurred, a small smile – polite, but warmer than simple courtesy required – flitting across my face, slow enough that he would catch it, note it, remember it. “It is the job of the strong to be wise with their strength; after all, who knows when it might fail?”

“Sage words,” he said, his voice quiet, not quite able to mask his surprise entirely, and I bristled internally at the idea that he had assumed me to be a fool, feeling the irritation, bitter and strong, surging up into my mouth, pressing against my teeth and tongue and lips, fighting to be let out. “If only others perhaps would learn that lesson.”

His words were harsh, grating on his own tongue, even though the tone was light-hearted, and, like all else he had said, it slipped away into a folder in my mind, a potential diamond for the future.

“I understand you are from Württemburg,” he asked after a minute – though it was not a question in any true sense – regarding me with a studied, practised eye. “Though you do not look it, and you do not sound like it. Your father is not Swabian?”

“No, my father is Prussian,” I dipped my head. “But I lived the first part of my childhood in Hungary, and I was schooled at Durmstrang, so I am a nomad, in many eyes.”

He snorted – inelegant, without reservation, and thus the final link in the chain was added: welded shut around its predecessor, stronger than steel if one knew how to care for it correctly.

“In some eyes, yes, but it has been my experience that ability turns out to be far more precious than where one was raised, or schooled. You seem far more Prussian than many of my own Ministers, as much as they all insist they are the model specimen,” he informed me, something of a smile curling the corner of his mouth even as he stubbed out his cigarette on the balcony. “We will finish this conversation at a later date, Herr Grindelwald. It has been most enjoyable.”

He did not know it yet, he would not know it for a long time, but with that simple invitation he sealed his own future, and the winds of change, howling and screaming, tearing down time with their claws, scratched his name from the roster.

On the chessboard in my house, the edges of the world beginning to stain the purple-pink of crushed flowers outside the window, a white knight fell, and a king took a single step forwards.

“Happy birthday,” Nico murmured to me, while somewhere in the distance a cock began to crow, an arm around my waist even as he kissed up my neck, tracing the faint marks he had made earlier. His voice was thick with sleep, Morpheus’ dust still sticking in his veins and his eyes, making him slow and drowsy, more affectionate than usual.

“You have already wished me that,” I reminded him, the gentle aches in my body and the heat still in the room testament to it.

Against my neck, he smirked, and I knew him well enough now to know he was waking up again, the dust swept out of his system by the memories of an hour or so before, and his hands started to trail lower, confident and sure, his body pressing harder against my back, encouraging and wanting.

“I can wish you again, no?”

“No,” I breathed, my throat closed with something I could not name, something I could not understand in myself. All of a sudden, the room was too small, he was too affectionate, too close, and I needed to get away.

To his credit, he did not say anything, did not even seem perturbed in the slightest, merely shrugged – Gallic, elegant and yet so very expressive even in its nonchalance – and settled back under the sheets, withdrawing from me. He closed his eyes as I rose, pulling on a robe, not bothering with anything more, and slipped from the room, my stomach and my head and my heart in turmoil.

I did not want to think, then, about why I had felt I needed to leave, about what it was which had unsettled me, why affection so freely given had become so hard to bear, and so instead of reading – poetry, prose, academic journals and magazines, books both theoretical and practical – I unlocked the drawer at the bottom of my desk, the study door closed behind me, and pulled out a map, weighing each corner down with a solid, round globe, glass encasing spheres of solid gold.

Otto always did have a habit of buying tasteful, albeit purely decorative, gifts.

Pouring over it, I traced the outline of Switzerland with my eyes, sweeping down and across and around until I returned to my starting place, a thin red band all that separated it on paper from Württemberg and France and Austria and Italy and Liechtenstein, borders created for the purposes of peace, non-existent in the physical world.

There was a truth I had discovered in Switzerland, something no other place could ever have given me and Nico himself would never have seen for what it truly was – you see, the greatest difficulty with uniting a continent, with merging worlds and cultures, is just that: harmonisation.

Merging peoples and ideas and ideals is a grand dream, but to put it into practise? Almost impossible, for differences are always more important to people than similarities.

In Switzerland, though, in that little, mountain-ringed land, they had managed it: had merged Italians and French and Germans, Austrians and Liechtensteiners, and found a way which gave them peace, made them one people and not five, gave them one voice with five tongues, one country with regions and different laws for different peoples but one, whole government.

Federalism, in short, was what they had there, and what I had to create in Germany, for Europe in time.

A simple solution, to a problem which could destroy everything; a rare and genius thing.

Then again, life is full of such things – answers so much easier than the questions they refer to make them seem: utilitarianism as a method of determining right and wrong, benefit and harm; federalisation the response to disagreements between peoples when combining them one by one with others; your favoured love as the fundamental source of natural, raw power, a strength impossible to deny or to destroy, save from within.

(Tell me, Albus, when you speak of love to others, of the power and the nourishment it gives the soul, a weapon and shield beyond anything we mortals could make, do you think of me then? Of the way we shook with it in your bed in Godric’s Hollow, how it crackled, live and nervous, in the air around us when we fought? Or do you think of them, and pretend that you did not once consider me equal to them in your heart?

You do not need to answer; I know whatever you say it will be a lie.)

There was silence in the room, broken by the soft flutter of downy feathers, more fluff than anything else, against body, and then a small, round thing landed in my arms, butting its head against my stomach before looking up at me, chirping in greeting.

Absently, I reached down and patted his head, the soft croon emanating from him unwinding knots in my back I did not know were there, tugging a reluctant smile from me. Cawing once, he was smug – especially smug for a chick – ruffling his half-formed feathers, and beaming up at me, dark eyes proud and gleaming, as if reminding me how futile resistance was, how foolish it was to think I could outwit him, he whose life was measured in ages, not years or decades or even centuries.

You will have seen the connection, no doubt – I wonder if it made you laugh as it did me when I thought of it? – how I named him for a revolution which failed, for a man accused wrongly of incitement, of hatred and attempted violence and a desire to change the ways things were, to shift power from one hand to another.

He had seemed to like it when I told it to him – he had nodded twice, sharply, and sang two bars of Vivaldi’s Gloria – so it stayed. Even I am not so unlearned about creatures as to ignore the will of a phoenix.

Unlike your pretended revolutionary, though, I would succeed, and he, all the colours of the sunset but all the fire of a dragon and the wonder of the mythical, reminded me of that, a literal representation of change, of the axis on which the world spun, of the centre around which ages passed and empires rose and fell. The circle, if you will, of time itself, of ideas and dreams and the wants of the people – ever circular in motion, for solutions have a habit of becoming problems and problems solutions until all the world is upside down, ready to be righted once more.

Ah, and there were so many problems then, problems I did not want to have to address, or even consider then. Your England was always such a thorn for me; every time I shifted I felt it dig a little deeper into my side, even then.

Liberals, you called yourselves then – you and your fellow countrymen – world-leaders and statesmen and benevolent conquerors, with your Empire on which the sun never set. In truth, were you any different from any other nation who saw themselves in a golden light, blessed by this new age and the enlightenment which had come with it?

You believed you were, and perhaps that was enough – you claimed it was for years and years, after all, repeating the same tired lines over and over again until even you must have begun to see the rust coming through.

I do not want power; I have no wish to be remembered, to be great and famed and immortalised. I only want to teach; that is all I am, and nothing more. Here, you said, I am happy.

Could you tell how hollow they sounded, how fake and bitter, or had you said them so often you started to believe your own fictions?

Albus, my Albus, these problems we had were always the sources of the solutions. I wanted to be Alexander, and to gain Persia I needed Hephaestion to cross the river and deliver to me the keys; you wanted immortality, you wanted love and passion and glory, craving them with a desperation you always feared would burst out of the cage you kept it shut up in.

We could have had everything, you and I – impossibility would have been a falsehood for us.

(But, in the end, solutions become problems, do they not, and so the circle continues on, into the next age and beyond.)




A/N: I do not own any references to Alexander the Great, Hephaestion (who did, in the end, cross the river and give Alexander the key to Persia, just saying!), Icarus or Cassandra. Nor do I own any references to theories of nationalism, utilitarianism or federalism. Nor do I own Vivaldi's Gloria, that belongs to Vivaldi.

Nor do I own England's 'pretended revolutionary' (Guy Fawkes), who was in fact a real person who supposedly conspired to blow up Parliament (and James I) but was caught; historians are divided on whether or not they think it was all a ploy to gain the King more popularity by uniting the population against the Spanish Catholic threat rather than against him.

Translations: herr = mister, and Kaiser = King (though it is a Germanisation of the Latin 'Caesar').


Chapter 13: Meter
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Meter

There is a great deal of truth in the idea that all of our lives are lived to rhythms – as many different rhythms as people we meet, each one leading somehow into the next, whether by shuddering to a halt and picking up immediately, or by blending in smoothly, so smoothly the transition is barely noticeable.

Eventually, of course, we die, and the band in the corner falls silent.

Ah, but until then, life sputters and booms in turn, growing faster and faster until it seems impossible to continue as it is, and then it slows, moody and lazy and simultaneously solemn and blissful in the quiet.

It is perhaps a strange idea – certainly to some it seems almost bizarre – but it is a lovely metaphor nonetheless, reminding us, in a way, of our own heartbeats, of the frailty of life and how easily it can be disrupted, made discordant by a single wrong note, sharper than it should have been, or flatter, not quite reaching the intended point. I confess, I have always liked it, and thought it especially well-suited to school life, where, as the months of the year go by, the days and the weeks seem to start to merge together, nights vanishing, unremembered and so invisible, until all that is left is an endless journey through the motions of the day, tasks mechanical and the mind slowly numbing as the previously fantastical becomes normal.

Rhythm in general is one of those things I cannot help but find both comforting in the regularity of it, in the stability of it, and at the same time so incredibly difficult to cope with. I do not know why, but for some reason it eats away at me, the steadiness of it, so much so that I wait, sitting still and taut, a bowstring in my back, for the next beat to come, only relaxing when it does.

One of the mysteries of the world, truly: how things like this, so small and so simply, can affect us so much.

As I grew older, I came to crave that tension which came with the slow, constant beat, the endless repetition of days rolling into another, sunlight seemingly my constant companion; a far cry from the days of my youth, when the thing I longed for most than any other was the excitement, the change in rhythm, sharp and quick and exotically new, freedom and wandering and discoveries, revolution in total, would bring.

Then again, I can hardly claim I am the same man now as I was then – nor could you, darling. We have changed so much over the years; there are times I barely recognise myself in the mirror, times when the words I spoke that summer seem a lifetime ago, as though they came from a different mouth, sounded with a different voice.

Age is an endless curiosity – the changes it brings in body and in mind, in spirit, and the cares one has about the world, for the world and all living beings in it. Most would say that with age they become more apathetic to the world, to youth and the desires of it, wisdom gained over the years seeing through such fantasies in seconds, but alas I cannot say the same. I like to think that with every year which goes past, I grow only more sympathetic to the generations growing in front of us, to the mistakes their susceptibility leads them to make.

I have grown kinder, more patient, more capable of caring for others with age; the irony of it would make you laugh if I told you.

My life is lived according to rhythms, yes – and yours too, if I may extend the metaphor as such, always too fast for the rest of us, in the end, too strange and too new, too radical a beat to contend with – and every now and then, there is a half-beat, staccato, off-beat, seemingly random, and perhaps then, just then, I think of you.

I have grown kinder as I have grown older, and so I will say no more, only that whenever it happens, I miss you.




8th December, 1914; The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade, Scotland

Even now, I am at a loss to say why he did not punch me again – I am certain he wanted to, that he considered it, and that, I think, makes it all the stranger that he did not. Aberforth has never been one for holding back when he believes something is deserved, whether it be words or fists or hexes, regardless of the identity of the person in question (save Ariana. For her and her alone, Aberforth restrained everything, I imagine, since I never heard him say a bad word about her, and he would not countenance it from anyone else).

I suppose it was shock was stopped him: the shock of my daring to step into the pub after fifteen years of silence, of nothing at all from either side, the shock of sudden unsurety – what to do, what to say, how to act, what even to think.

Fifteen years, it took me, to visit my brother after Ariana’s death – to even attempt to hold any kind of conversation with him – and for eight of those, I had been living in Hogwarts, less than five miles away, though admittedly distance itself matters very little, all things considered.

Still, eventually I summoned some shred of courage from somewhere, hoped with everything I had that perhaps he might not hate me so much anymore (for I was quite sure he would never forgive me, and doubly sure that I would never dream of asking for forgiveness), and, when the students were all tucked up inside the castle no doubt throwing wadded-up balls of parchment at those foolish enough to be studying, slipped out and down to the Hog’s Head.

It had only been his for five months – the previous owner having left it to Abe in his will when he passed away from a late and unexpectedly fierce summer cold – and though it looked identical to before, the change in ownership not reflected in the façade, it felt different: foreboding almost, and though I would hardly admit it to him, in my pocket my hand seemed to be shaking.

I could hear my heartbeat as I stood there, facing the doorway, hammering loud and clear, as quick as a rabbit’s, feeding on the twining snakes in my stomach, winding round and round each other until I was quite disoriented, nauseous and convinced this was a terrible idea.

What would I do, I wondered, if he hated me? Was there any point, knowing that he had hated me before and that his ability to hold grudges was greater than any ability I possessed? What right did I even have to attempt a reconciliation between us?

Mother would never have wanted it to end like this, I told myself, forcing my hand to close around the handle, the metal cold even through my gloves, and father would have cracked our heads together for our foolishness.

Ariana… she would have rolled her eyes and frowned, instructed us to get along, and that would have been that.

She always had hated fights – disagreements of any sort, covering her ears with her hands and shaking her head from side to side until it ended and we rushed to her, ignoring whatever the argument was in favour of her.

The handle creaked as I turned it, the metal scuffing along the wood of the door; the hinges groaned under the weight of it – study oak, three inches thick to keep out the chill and the snow Scotland was so blessed with – and I stepped inside, accompanied by a blast of wind and a faint flurry of snow dusting across the floor like spilt sugar.

No one else was around, the weather confining them to their homes, perhaps, but whatever the reason I was grateful, and I moved to the bar, unsure of what to do now I was inside. Should I sit? Should I not? Would it be presumptuous to sit?

I did not want to give Aberforth any more reasons to dislike me, after all; he had plenty for two lifetimes as it was.

“Sorry ‘bout the wait; goat’s been whining with the cold weather – what’ll it –” he cut off sharply, glancing up from the bar to see me, his hands freezing on the towel he was wiping them on, damp clinging to them.

I wanted to say something, then, but nothing came to mind – nothing seemed appropriate.

He was staring at me, something hostile glinting in his eyes, his hair short and his skin tanned even in winter, shorter and broader than me still. The grey robes he was wearing stretched a little across his shoulders, the sleeves starting to fray, but he looked well. Happy, before he had seen me, as though he had been as successful as one might expect.

In that moment I felt a pang that I had never thought to attempt to check up on him in any way – to see if he had simple things like enough to eat, somewhere to stay. My help would likely not have been needed, but I should have tried, I think (he, of course, would disagree if I ever mentioned this to him – as would you, I suspect).

“Aberforth,” I tried, swallowing, my mouth dry, searching for something to fill the silence with, something safe and gentle to start off with. “I –”

“What do you want?” he asked abruptly, throwing the towel under the bar and looking up at me with a gaze which was not quite a glare, but was far from friendly.

“Just to talk,” I replied softly, managing just about to meet his eyes, though in that moment he seemed so much like my memories of father that I felt like a child again, small and unlearned and desperately in need of guidance of some kind. Perhaps, in some ways, I was. “I thought that perhaps it was time.”

“Time,” Aberforth echoed, still fixing me with that look, unnerving and strange. Out of habit, perhaps, he glanced behind me – another leftover from that summer, checking for you. “Fifteen years is a damn long time, Albus. You never bothered before, why now?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, the wooden back of the barstool grainy and rough under my gloves, thin strands splintering off, the polish patchy, leaving the chair Dalmatian-like in colouring. “But I thought I should try.”

“Do you –” he paused, looking me over once before ploughing on with his question, determination strong. “You still in contact with him?”

Ah, now this was the other erumpent in the room, so to speak: you. For all you had been for me the source of so much joy and wonder, clever and talented and so very beautiful, for Aberforth you had only been an irritation, something which exacerbated the difficulties already present, someone who wilfully destroyed our family, tempting me away from my duties and my obligations into depravity and dangerous thoughts.

I know it amused you, that he hated you so – and I confess that the irony that I should love you while my brother should hate you (and Ariana did not give a pig’s ear as to where you were and what you did) never escaped me – but alas, I have never quite found the humour in it.

This, though, was one answer regarding you where I would not stutter or stumble, where it sprang off the tip of my tongue easily, truthfully, a faint spark of redemption attached to it.

“No.”

That was enough, it seemed for the time being, since he gave me a jerky nod and poured two tumblers of whisky (the cheap stuff, I later found out, as he saved the good stuff for his own private consumption), and for an hour or so we talked. Nothing heavy was discussed – the weather, jobs, and the like – but I still left feeling far lighter than I had done before, and happier than I had done in years.

Slowly, I started popping down at the weekends for a drink and a brief conversation, learning what he had done the years I had been away, and the years I had been teaching. In all those times, as I discovered he had a fiancée (who was lovely, dark-haired and light-eyed, freckled and always smiling) and all the odd jobs he had worked over the years – helping on an aethonan farm, in greenhouses with Venomous Tentacula and Devil’s Snare, looking after a batch of young Jarveys for a breeder – before settling at the pub, we never once discussed that summer.

It was less, I think, because the hate and the hurt and the sorrow of it had dimmed, and more because we were both testing the waters, seeing what our newly reformed brotherhood could take before we dashed it onto the rocks on the shore and waited to see if it stood up again.

Peace never lasts, however, and in this endless war – a side-note, often, to the main event of you and I – the first shot was fired quite innocently one evening, innocuous up until the point it hit home and we watched, quiet and resigned, as the victim toppled forwards.

Perhaps it was my fault that it arose at all, or perhaps it was his – either way, assigning blame post-hoc is pointless, since it happened nonetheless.

The evening was quiet, business in the pub had been soaring since December had arrived and the weather had turned sour, snow cascading down from the sky in streams and temperatures plummeting sharply, and upon arrival I had been directed to the lounge upstairs. Brighter than the rest of the pub, and more homely, it was warm and bathed in shades of orange and red and brown as the fire bounced off the wooden fittings, the faint scent of enchanted pot pourri – cinnamon and apples, if memory serves me correctly – wafting slowly throughout the room, the gentle thrum and beat of the noise from the bar drifting up through the wood and the bricks; a pleasant accompaniment.

Aberforth had popped in once early on to deposit a glass on the coffee table in the centre of the room, gruffly instructed me to pick whatever I chose and then thumped back downstairs, the door swinging shut and stifling the hubbub again.

For my part, I was quite content to sit there, a glass of sherry to one side and a pile of newspapers – Muggle and magical – to occupy me and read until things calmed down enough below for Aberforth to feel comfortable leaving the bar in the hands of his two trainees (both of whom I recognised from school; one had stuttered when he saw me, ‘Professor’ bursting out of his mouth automatically). I knew from previous visits that sometimes this could last all night, but I had little else to do, and a few hours of relative silence were a small price to pay for company.

Flicking through the newspapers, there was little truly interesting; reports on the war, from both sets of journalists, quite a bit about finances and housing problems, and an article on an escaped dragon on the loose in Romania. Then, buried at the bottom of the pile of newspapers was one with a cover I recognised well – an identical copy, nearly just as creased and crumpled, was sitting shut in a drawer in my desk back at Hogwarts, as though putting it out of sight would in fact put it out of mind.

You will remember it, I do not about it, for it was the first time – the first true time – you captured Europe’s imagination and trained it on yourself, leaving a trail blazing across the sky and through the souls of men.

It was always a habit of yours, my darling, whether intentional or not: I am convinced that you could make anyone in the world believe anything using words alone, you spun them so artfully. Wordsmith and magician all in one; truly, in another world, you should have been a writer – secretly, of course, for fear of revealing yourself to be more romantic than you would ever care to admit.

Your original address – to the International Confederation of Wizards, as a representative of the German Federation, accompanying the Kaiser of Prussia – was in English, rare for you, if not for the International Confederation (who preferred everything in English for ease of translation and understanding), given your well-professed hatred of the language, and some small part of me wondered, faint and almost pathetically hopeful, if this, some part of it even, was meant for me.

In words even more eloquent than those you had mastered that summer, you had spoken of the war, of the threat it posed to our nations, to our ways of life, even secretive and underground as they were; we must be wary, you had said, of the growing strength of Muggles, of the new and dangerous powers they possess, and to combat them we must be unified in our proposals, in ideals and goals. We must help each other, support each other; offer the hand of friendship our other halves have forgotten how to use.

Vibrant words, powerful words, set with a rhythm in my head something akin to a military march.

Even as I reread them then, the truth they held did not stop being true; even a victor’s desperation to smear his vanquished enemy’s name with mud and grease until it is blacker than a starless night in winter could not stop that. The simple fact of it, however hard it was to swallow, was that you were right.

Ah, but it was not that you were speaking wisdom which made the speech so hard to read and listen to others repeat word-for-word and discuss over lunch and mugs of mulled wine – it was that the words, beautiful as they were, were so very you in their statement, in their tone and place within the sentences, so that the voice they could only ever be spoken with was yours. From every mouth which recited phrases you had written, your accent coloured the tone, the stresses were placed exactly where you would put them, and it felt almost as though you, or your ghost or shade or memory, were in the room with me, looking at me expectantly and waiting, patiently, smugly almost, for a reply.

“Albus?” Aberforth did not call loudly, and through the haze of memory I realised that while there was noise from the bar it had abated, the fire had dimmed and the room grown colder. My brother stood in the doorway, a pair of tumblers and a bottle of firewhisky in one hand, and he was frowning at me, his gaze far more calculating than most would ever imagine it could be.

“Apologies,” I murmured, my fingers still curled around the edge of the newspaper, your photo printed in black-and-white on the front. In it, your jacket was high-collared, buttoning up to the base of your throat, and your eyes blazed with a passion I had not seen in years. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“Obviously,” he snorted, crossing the room easily and setting the two glasses down on the coffee table between us, cracking the lid off the bottle, even as he sank into the chair opposite me. “Where’d you flown off to this time?”

“The Muggle war,” I responded, half-absently. “They believe it will be over by Christmas – though I suspect that is starting to die a little amongst the more cynically-minded at this point. The true likelihood is that it will be long and brutal, and far too many innocent men will die for the sake of old treaties dug up by honourable politicians.”

In the dark, Aberforth’s eyes sharpened, honing in on me – on the words which had floated out into the air surrounding us both.

“You didn’t used to think so highly of Muggles,” his tone, though, was conversational; the ever-present edge no more acerbic than usual. “Got some sense knocked into you at last?”

“Something like that, I suppose,” I forced out a weak, almost painful smile which undoubtedly did nothing to inject any humour into the room; in the hearth the fire spat sparks out onto the floor, once twice thrice, layering over the scrape of glass catching against wood as Aberforth slid a tumbler, two fingers full of golden-orange liquid, over to me.

Taking a sip, feeling it slide down my throat, warm and full and with a decidedly strong kick which hit the very back of my mouth, I watched as Aberforth’s jaw tightened, the shadows deepening across his face as the muscles contracted, morphing him into something barely human – skeletal and unearthly, grimly dark in appearance. With one hand, he tossed back his drink, his knuckles flashing white, and slammed the glass down onto the table.

For a long, wild second, I thought he would say something – that the erumpent horn we had both tiptoed around so carefully might finally explode – and I was half ready then and there to leave the second after.

“I’m getting married,” he blurted, barely managing to look at me when he said it. “Next Wednesday. Had to do it quick – Aoife… well, not going to be much time soon. Thought you should know.”

“Congratulations,” I could only smile – and genuinely, truly – at that, for what else can be said when your brother informs you he will be a husband in five days and a father in mere months? Both were blessings, joys which he had always deserved, however begrudgingly I would have admitted it, and we were long past the age for jealous competitions of better and worse, painting each other as saint or villain as we saw fit. “I would drink to that, but alas, I have to return to the school later.”

Ignoring my protestations completely, we toasted the forthcoming nuptials and child nonetheless, and I returned to the school as dawn began to press into the night, pushing him back down below the horizon, emerging blushing and beaming herself, pink and yellow and tinges of white at the point where land met sky.

As I sank into the armchair in my rooms, the cushions moulding themselves around me, purple and plump, like grapes left to ripen in the sun too long, my head was a mess of thoughts, words and images chasing each other round and round so much so that I was almost dizzy.

Drunk, you would have laughed at me had you been there: you are drunk, Albus, you would have said, though you would have let me wind an arm around your waist, murmur into your ear that you were beautiful, so very beautiful; you are drunk, you would have whispered just before I kissed you.

You did once, do you remember? In the evening, you forced nearly a gallon of water down my throat before leading me upstairs, and in the morning you laughed when I groaned as the sunlight seemed to split my head in two, throbbing and aching; your breath had skittered across my chest, light and teasing, the vibrations shuddering deep into my skin.

Then, though, I was not so much inebriated as attempting to wrestle too many thoughts at once; take too many ideas and distil them down into one, pure and simple and solid.

I could not rid my mind of your words, those words crying for unity, for a strong front against the terrors which had already started to tear Europe apart, to destroy families, couples – like Aberforth and Aoife, like what they would become in under a year – to murder sons and brothers and fathers and lovers, for no other reason than a handful of men, years before, even decades before, had signed a few sheets of paper.

All I could thing, overwhelmingly, was that it was horribly unfair: people should not die for something they do not believe in, perhaps do not even understand, to defend a country which is not theirs, alone on foreign soil.

If men must die, they should die for a cause they choose, not one which is imposed.

Reaching for a quill, I laid a sheet of parchment – fresh, unmarked, flecked here and there with darker spots of cream – on the top of the leather sheet, and unscrewed a bottle of ink with a flick of my wrist.

I could not interfere, not with the muggles war – there was nothing anyone could do to stop that; a cesspit of acids muddled together, boiling and boiling until the sides melted and it overflowed, the fumes alone toxic, tinting the air green – but perhaps there was something I could do to stop other deaths, needless deaths, no more worthy for their gifts or blood, merely closer and equally at risk.

History remembers your speech – the Unity Address of 1914, they call it: world-changing, game-changing, and, for historians who live by linear timelines, the first hint of what was to come from you, of the goal which would drive a lance into the heart of Europe, shattering to rebuild.

My paper never emerged in the end, destined to read only by the fire into which I threw it, the truths it contained, the words I had written and the voice they spoke with too close, too strange for comfort.

You see, for all my efforts to set myself apart from you, the words I had written were yours in essence, passionate and wild and elegant in their vehemence, and the voice they spoke with was Aberforth’s, gruff and angry, arguing protection of a family I did not have.

Empty copies, in the end, diminished in the reimagining, and I could no more lay claim to them than I could to the ideals they represented.


Chapter 14: Sicily
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Sicily

I do not believe in paradise, in perfection of nature realised, beauty and serenity twined together so that you feel nothing can go wrong there, nothing bad can exist there; it is all left outside the edges, abandoned at the border, snarling and growling and waiting for your return.

A dream, truly, and therefore almost impossible to realise – for nature, of all things in this world, is the most beyond our control.

If I were forced to label somewhere as a paradise, as the place I think of most fondly, for its aesthetic beauty, for the calm it brought me, it would be Lampedusa, that jewel stranded halfway between Italy and Tunisia.

Lonely, some would call it, but isolation in itself is not necessarily cruel – solitude can provide many things: respite, détente, time to think and wonder and discover the world anew. If taken in the right amounts, it can become a medicine, a panacea for the whole self: mind, body and soul all.

(Too much solitude, alternatively, shrinks the stomach and rips the mind apart, cracked and shattered and turned on itself, until there is nothing left but fragments of sound, of sight; syllables of words endlessly repeating in your ears, in your mouth – the rhythm of insanity.

I hear it sometimes – order in chaos – and wonder what it means for me.)

Ah, do you remember it, Albus? The way the sea, royal blue and tinted with green, waves edged with the white of foam, would slowly surge up the beaches, breaking on the rocks, an endless pool surrounding us on three sides, the colours of it rich and so vibrant, as though someone had poured vats of ink into the water.

A cloak of peacock feathers, almost, rippling and sparkling in the blaze of sunlight.

I would stand there, in the mornings, the wind whipping at my hair, the sky lavender and periwinkle blue, cloudless, my breath slow and steady, my soul, for once, at peace. Your arms would slide around my waist, warm even in my imagination, your lips press kisses to my neck, my cheek, and I would feel the rise and fall of your chest against my back, a soft accompaniment to the sway of the sea.

It is strange – it feels so real in my mind, that single image of you and I: the Mediterranean spread out in front of us, Africa to the right and Italy to the left, blue all around so that it almost seems we are suspended in mid-air, in the heart of the world, entirely alone except for each other; but I can only wonder, now, if it ever happened at all.

It is a lovely dream – would be, could be, could have been a lovely dream.

Then again, who can say what could have been is not what was? In places like that – where the sea and the sky at times merge on the horizon, where one can become convinced one is the only man in the world – it is at times hard to distinguish between the two, to separate them so clearly in my mind.

You see, in my memory the haze, golden and faint like a curtain of sand hung in the air, settles gently over the scene, a light blanket over it all, hiding the horrors of the world from our eyes, protective and warm; paternal, perhaps, in a way. The sunlight glances, darts and smiles, glittering brightly, each beam seemingly crystallised, and in it are reflections of life, of beauty, caught and distorted into elongated, twisted shapes.

False light off a mirror, a trick in truth, but beautiful nonetheless – and never more so than coupled with the heat, heavy and solid, weighing down on heads and shoulders with all the force of the unearthly.

Ah, Albus, at times I do not know whether it would be better or worse to know for certain whether it is a dream or a memory of time forgotten; in this, lonely as I am in my tower of penance, I prefer the uncertainty – then, after all, it can be whatever I want.




24th May, 1915; Lampedusa, Sicily, Italy

It is always the fate of beautiful things, that if it is all they have to their name – beauty, but nothing more, nothing deeper and darker than that – that they become dulled by time, the glittering edge which accompanies it worn down by the force of repetition, by the flight of interest when the depth of the waters is tested and found to be lacking. A melancholy destiny, it is true, but one which can be passionate, happy at least, even if these moments are fleeting.

Two weeks on a beautiful island in the middle of the ocean, land only just visible from the horizon on the clearest of days; it was promised like a dream, to be a political heaven, where, with so many others relaxed and thoughtless, I could press home my dagger and start to gather pace with influence.

Ah, to rest for once, to be able to simply play Europe like a harp for a few hours – such a delicious idea and so very much a temptation.

On arrival, it was everything people had said of it: long, winding beaches, rocky cliffs high above them, growing from them, brown and yellow and dusted over with harsh, olive green plants. There was a wildness to it, a serene wildness if you will, which spoke of the true majesty of nature: that it controls all, obeys none; that it births beauty and terror in equal measure, and has no need for mortals, creature or human, save as decorations, toys to suffer or succeed on a whim.

When the Celtic pagans – your forefathers, and perhaps mine too – called nature a goddess and prayed to trees, to the sea, to the air, they were not wrong. Within all these things, there is a certain divinity, a power we would be wise never to attempt to harness or claim.

There are small sins, things a priest or a bishop can forgive: indecent thoughts, indecent acts – kisses, touches forbidden by God – but there are things which will rip the very fabric of your soul, and there is nothing more foolish than to toy with the prospect of eternity.

Death can be defeated, but God cannot; damnation is only ever merely delayed by those for whom it comes.

It was strange, nonetheless, the place the Chief Warlock had chosen for such an event – a conference, long since needed and long since called for, to discuss the muggle war raging around us, loud and dimly glorious – an island where, even tucked behind layers of spells whole metres thick, hearts still shuddered at the glimpse of destroyers and U-boats on the horizon, and occasionally the faint pounding of guns somewhere out in the Mediterranean could be heard, could be felt as we sat on velvet chairs and drowned under pomp and ceremony. Surreal in both its idiocy and its reality: safety never feels at once so secure and so desperately fragile.

There is a time and place for such things, for displays of wealth and power, reminders of to whom you bow, but not in a crisis, not while people choke on ash and pray that the next bullet will not (or perhaps would; the trick to wars is not to survive, but to survive the aftermath. Death’s last call to those he could not collect) hit them.

(A cynical man might say that that is why the Chief Warlock died, when the revolution came; a wiser man would say he should perhaps have seen his own fate long before it came.)

It offended me greatly, more than people will know or believe, that we should potter about drawing rooms and orangeries, plucking lemons from trees to eat and squeeze into juice, sipping whisky over ice and enquiring after children, after wives and the latest stock market reports from the Gringotts Alliance, while outside people suffered, people who had not chosen to suffer, who had not wanted to, nor needed to. How cruel they would have thought us, how rude and distorted by our own self-importance – but most do not think about these things; for them, the little people do not feature.

Two of my half-brothers were to die in the war, sabres and muskets in hand, Austrian blue on their backs and the roar of a nation in their throats.

I did not mourn, but I prayed.

Still, even now, I should like to see them have at it, those creaking fools, long past their time, who thought that the world did not turn, that ages did not pass and we did not have to follow, endlessly, a dog with a master, their pattern. A sword in one hand, a horse underneath and a gun in the right – tell them to charge and see then how their legs tremble, how their hand shakes faster than their heart beats, palms slick with sweat, and command then, at the end, to kill and to live.

They would fall, I know, every single one of them: by being too old, they had forgotten how to live, what it meant and what it was worth – glory and honour and death, these meant nothing to them, noises without sound.

Ideals for youth, you had once sighed, sounding far too old then – eighteen by minutes – but you had smiled, had laughed, the words only a jest.

Throughout it all, though – as one speech flowed into another, then a third and fourth, none of them saying anything – I bit my tongue, stamping down on the anger in my stomach, feeding it with iced lemonade, and feeling it turn, slowly, into something more malleable, raw still but focused, fashioned more into a spear than a storm; lightning over thunder. I was no less incensed; the only difference was that this fury was a weapon, it would be the drive I would use to make them break and obey.

Anger is only ever a weapon, truly, when it is cold; too hot and it explodes, impaling both the wielder and the wounded.

Ah, Albus, you and I both know how badly it scalds and how painful the scars are, do we not? So we learn, to avoid the same hurt in the future – to make it into a tame wolf, refusing to bite the hand which feeds.

I stood, soon enough, and I spoke, and I watched their thoughts and their feelings flitter across their faces, one by one – some half-hidden, some completely bare, and a very few curtained entirely. The spear hovered in my hand, vibrating, cold and hungry, and when it flew, the air shivered around it; a ripple, almost visible, passed out from where it hit, spreading across the room, enveloping each person as it went, shards of it, thin and poisonous in nature, piercing their skin and sinking down.

Do not misunderstand – I am not arrogant or foolish enough to believe that through two speeches on a topic I could make them believe me, change their minds so easily and have countries under my sway by evening; it is never that simple, wonderful though it would be if it were.

No, I wanted the idea to be there, a worm at the heart of the apple, ready to eat its way out when I called, when the right time for it came – and then, you see, Europe would jump when I commanded, and nothing would be able to stop me.

People have a great power in numbers; it is only a shame it is so rarely used in our world.

In truth, the conference did little to further anything – talk, action, all of it dead because no one there wanted to be the first to put their hand up and suggest that we should do something, that perhaps we, as a group, needed to be closer than we were; we were smaller, we were weaker in ways we could not understand – ah, but sense it often lost on those who are most in need of it, no?

‘A visionary’ the newspapers had labelled me before, and they repeated it again then, those nervous, flighty politicians in whose hands Europe rested: a visionary. Always said with a tone of half-awe and half-disdain, as though I was nothing more than a lunatic, ranting and raving with no purpose and no meaning to be derived from my words.

Such a scathing word, is it not? Visionary

It did not matter, though – I forced it not to matter what they called me (bastard whore one year, visionary another; but they are both names, and names given by those who do not know, though it is hard to remember at times) for in the end, I knew, they would see, even if I had to peel off their eyelids myself for it to happen.

For two weeks I waited it out, sitting in the room as men talked and decided nothing, decided to do nothing and to say things which meant nothing, and regretting more than ever that I had not thought to ask someone to accompany me – if only for some time away from them. Nico would have come, had I asked; Otto perhaps, or Hans – but ah, I had not thought it would be as bad, and so difficult to listen to.

Hubris, in a sense, though not dangerous in execution – and never dangerous for me, in truth.

After all, how could I be in danger of reaching too far too fast when all around me people decried me as a fool?

(It is a strange twist of fate that we should both suffer so during our lives – both be so unheard; those we try to protect, to inspire refusing to listen, refusing to believe that there is any truth in our words.

Cassandras both – when last we meet, it will be at the bottom of the ramparts, looking up at the stars.)

For two weeks, I sat and stood, sipping cocktails and vodka over ice, watching flimsy white curtains sway in the salt-tinted breeze, the sound of the sea – in and out, an endless pull and push, steady and sure – slowing the pace of life, slowing me until my heart beat in time with it, and the murmur of voices was buried beneath it.

Lampedusa calmed me, steadied me, gave me back some of the balance I had thought I had lost long ago, and retaught me the patience I had forgotten in frustration.

I should have liked to return there one day – an impossible thing now.

Now, I know, they talk of Lampedusa as a step on my road to power, another rung of the ladder, and it was, though not in so many words, nor so smoothly as people think – but, as with so many things, so many secret things, that was not all it was, was it?

Ah, I can imagine your face if this was a real conversation: you would pale, lips thinned, in that expression you wear when you have determined to be stubborn. You would look at me, steadily, and say, ‘perhaps not for you’, and you would lie, lie through your teeth because that is what you do now, yes?

That is who you are now: lies and secrets, and more guilt than you can stomach thinking about.

Time changes us all, Albus, in ways we do not expect.

I remember – it was my fifteenth day there, and I was walking on the clifftops, close enough to the edge that I could see small spires of rock jutting out of the sea where the curves of the island began to slope up towards the surface of the water, but far enough away that I could only hear the sea, not see it. Contradictions amuse me, as well you know, and the smell of the salt with the crunch of the grass, the swish of the water down below mixed with the flutter of the wind made me smile.

Odd perhaps, but I cannot help the delight I take in such things.

It was a beautiful day: clear, the horizon stretching on into the distance, so much so that I fancied if I looked hard enough for long enough I would see the edge of Africa, Europe left behind me, filled with wonders and curiosities I had yet to explore – would never, by fate, explore.

(It is the trick of life: that at the end of days, when death knocks at our doors, we regret most the things we did not do, joy stripped away from those things we did do because of that self-nagging doubt that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we should have done other things, perhaps we did not do enough when we could have done it.

It is guilt, harsh and bitter and murderous, and it consumes us.)

Then, though, I did not know the future, did not know the horrors it contained, and so I looked and I gazed and I could only see promise, the possibilities of tomorrow. The world was not big enough to satisfy me, not small enough to contain me, and my ambitions were not bound by numbers and words and the opinions of sceptics: instead they were pure and free, noble still in their idealism.

Possibilities and promises, but all the temptations of luxury set against them; devils in the mountaintops, offering whole loaves of bread to the unworthy.

Ah, temptation – and as always, I yielded, yielded far too easily, far too smoothly, with barely a struggle against its seduction.

You may say that hair shirts and penance, kneeling on cold stone floors for hours at a time with hands clasped and words, feverish and repetitious, escaping your mouth in a long, continual stream, is the true measure of a soul, water for the seed of wisdom. I say you may say – you do, do you not?

It is why you will always think, always think – daily, weekly, monthly and yearly – that you should visit me here, in Nurmengard. It is why you never will.

What does sin mean, though, to a man who has never done it? To a man who wishes that he never had? Who regrets it, refuses to understand it, what it has forged in him and from him, and what he has become because of it?

Sin is an experience, Albus, and only that; like all experiences, it must be treasured.

A seagull, white wings spread wide, rising on a bank of warm air, soared overhead, silent and majestic, flapping once and twice and three times to change direction, the angle of his flight, wheeling around twenty degrees to fly west, due west, and off towards the oceans.

I have always preferred the land to the air, the grace of temporal things to those of spiritual things, but in that moment I could understand why you loved them so much, though still I wonder if it was ever for the power and the elegance they possess, or simply for the freedom that they had and you did not – if it was both, perhaps, since truth is rarely simple.

As the bird flew off, wings beating the air to go higher and higher over the sea, he crossed over the head of another person – a man, walking along the shore just as I was, west to east just as I was going east to west.

For a moment, there, I was lost. I was thoughtless, weightless, thrown out of my own body and helpless just to watch you progress along – here, of all places, where I had thought you never would be, where you were never meant to be, not in this time. You disoriented me, spinning my head and my heart and my soul, my mouth drying out and my stomach churning, heart thudding a thousand beats a minute to the point where I wondered if I remembered even how to speak.

Exaggeration, but only very slight.

You told me, one day, that I rouse in you things you do not understand, feelings which you fear for their intensity and their depths; have you never thought that you do the same to me?

Trance-like, almost, I still continued towards you, as though you and I were two stars, already bound for collision, drawn together by forces we could not resist or break from any more than we could change the very fabric of ourselves – and so, step by step, the distance closed.

Was it then that you saw me, in the front of the background, a blonde-tipped blob against the blue of the sky, or was it only later, when it was already too late to turn away? People would say it does not matter, but it does, more than they could possibly know, as all small things turn out to matter so much.

Eventually, after what felt like an age of walking, steady and sickly, we met again.

Your name stuck on my tongue, familiar and yet perhaps too much so – I did not know what to call you now, how to act in front of you, with you – and so I stood there, watching you, drinking you in, picking out the changes time had wrought in you, the lines he had added and the colours he had started to wash out.

What did physical differences mean, though, when you were Albus and I was Gellert and we were on the same beach, at the same time, with no one but the sea for witness?

“Congratulations,” I said eventually, English rough in my mouth – I had not spoken it in years, not even to my Aunt. “I heard about your promotion.”

Those words – did they sound as bitter as they tasted? Could you hear the irritation in my voice, the jealousy and the hurt that that was what you had chosen over me, over us: a castle, filled with schoolchildren who did not know how to hold a wand properly.

If they did, the wound they caused did not bleed.

“Thank you,” you were quiet, sombre, and when you looked at me, you did not hesitate, did not falter, even though something – something swift and heavy – flickered for a second in your eyes. “I should congratulate you on your success; reports of your speech were most favourable.”

“Only from those for whom it should be,” I responded, the corner of my mouth curving upwards automatically.

“Of course,” you said, and your tone was amiable – forcedly so, and the falsity in it made me long to bite and snap, just to see you flash and swell with anger, to hear your voice crack its own façade and be more than simply learned. I did not deserve walls, not then, not after everything, and you know it too, I think. “Forgive me, politics are not quite my speciality.”

Lies, Albus, such lies you tell – do they sting your tongue when you say them, or have you said enough that you are immune to the poison?

I wanted to laugh then, laugh or cry or choke, perhaps all three at once, and so I could only muster a smile. Forced, brittle, and I knew that you saw behind it, though how far I could not say.

Silence, then, and a silence too strong on both of our shoulders, a storm-cloud full of the things we had not said, the things we had never said and should have, and the things we would take back, if given the chance. So many words there, unheard and unspoken – incomplete halves of a conversation, as ungainly even in thought as a pas-de-deux danced by one.

It had been so long, so many years apart, but we had not yet forgotten how to talk – that is the tragedy.

“So, Professor,” I heard myself say, feeling far too old to be flirtatious, but the expressions, the mannerisms, the little coquettish behaviours, came without thinking around you – it was as if you summoned them up, banished me back into my sixteen-year-old self, fluttering and stuttering and too enraptured to care what others would think if they knew.

(The title made you flinch, though – with fear, or was it with the shameful thrill the power it brought gave you?)

“If you would like me to elucidate, I am more than happy to do so,” I continued, flicking you a smile from underneath my eyelashes. Too young, far too young, but this is what you did to me – this is what you made me into.

There is a theory, not new in its entirety, that there are many worlds, many universes alongside our own, diverging in different places, different ways. The roads not taken are taken elsewhere; the petal falls from the blossom tree on another day, and a million people do not die – that, at least, is my understanding of it, though I lack the books to go deeper.

If it is right, then there are two endings to this chapter of our lives. In one, you watch me leave, turning on my heel and retracing my steps, and, after wrestling with yourself, after temptation locks your conscience in a cage of iron, you follow me.

You linger outside my door just long enough to make me wait, to pretend you had not come so soon, that you were not as eager as you were, and then, it opens and there is nothing more between us than there was at the beginning; we are Albus and Gellert, and nothing else matters, and when you reach for me, there is a fire in your eyes, a flame you have long suppressed.

Now, then, you give it oxygen, feed it and encourage it, and it roars and we burn together.

Lampedusa is paradise and paradise is in Lampedusa, and it feels like time stops for us, like the world encloses us from the rest of life, just for a moment – it seems like it is all we have left.

In another world, I leave and you do not follow. We retrace our steps separately, never quite reaching the crossroads, never having the courage, the strength, to jump off the road and into the grass again, to roll down the hill and laugh, airs and graces and propriety all damned in the face of an ending.

In both worlds, you leave Lampedusa with an envelope, and inside it are two feathers – red and gold, our colours. They fell together, one evening, as I strolled along the edge of the Baltic sea, and they remained together: joined by a single shard of white tip, torn from a wing by the wind, by fate, by whatever force you want it to be.

I do not know what you did with them; I doubt I ever will, for you will not say, and who else knows?

Ah, what does it matter? There were once two boys; perhaps there were two men, too, halfway between Europe and Africa; and now there are two feathers – and the one thing they all share, is that they are all secret.

Secret – secret, and silent.




A/N: I do not own the many worlds theory - though I do own any mistakes made in discussion of it :P - Cassandra of Troy, mentions of the Celtic pagans and (Gellert's interpretation of) their beliefs, nor mentions of the First World War, U-boats and destroyers, and so on :)


Chapter 15: Expressions
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Expressions

Every language has them: little tricks and flicks, phrases and saying which sometimes seem only to exist to confound non-native speakers, to mean nothing close to what they sound as though they should mean. Literalism is, with these, pointless to use in an attempt to understand: it only results in exasperation for both parties. In English, we have more of them than we could possibly ever write down – it would be more than a life’s work to compile them.

Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that over time people develop their own expressions – amalgamating those they heard as a child, as a youth and then as an adult, using them to coin their own.

Perhaps it is equally not so strange that we, in our whirlpool of English and German and Latin, spun our own expressions, our own inside jokes – phrases which, in four words, could summarise an entire essay, which could make us both laugh for hours on end until our sides hurt and our cheeks ached from smiling.

We never did write them down, alas, and I fear that now I long forgotten most of them.

Entschuldigung, darling: forgive me; I must beg your pardon; please excuse me.

Ah, I always did love the German habit of combining words to create others, to create something – one single word – which could only be translated in phrases, defined so haltingly, as one struggles to think how to convey the sense they bring accurately. In a language often considered to be so harsh and unappealing, there’s something wonderful about it being so expressive underneath it all, so clever in how it breathes and grows, as all languages do.

Just as we breathed and grew, and our relationship – for that is what it was, regardless of what exactly it was or should be called, as names change over the years (then you were merely my dear friend, later you would have been my lover, if we were young now perhaps I would call you my boyfriend) – breathed and grew, so too did the way we talked, and our list of expressions expanded exponentially, day after day.

Eventually, we did not need to speak much at all: all it took was a glance and a mouthed ‘rabbits’ or ‘Bentham’, and everything would be understood, more told then than we could have put into words.

It was blissful and exhilarating in equal measure, to be understood so easily and so simply – without need for words – to throw secrets between us in the air, coded and safe from others discovering them, so much so that at times it almost felt like we spoke a different language, lived a separate life, in a parallel universe watching the others go by in theirs, interacting with them but not truly belonging.

Aberforth complained about it endlessly, how he did not understand us, how he felt it was mocking him – I confess that I dismissed it out of hand, ignoring the possibility that those sly smiles you gave were not for me, were not at the irony of open secrecy, and chose instead to revel in the freedom of it. Perhaps from the outside it was like we had been enchanted, cursed to speak only nonsense, but from the inside, it was glorious and hard to imagine otherwise.

So many phrases, so many little sayings – and so many that I miss, that I think of even now and then, almost without noticing: you are not Andromeda, you used to tell me, amused or serious or almost violently passionate; you are not bound to this place, to them, you are not the sacrifice waiting to be slaughtered because you are told you must be.

Underneath it all, I would hear, I am Perseus, I can be Perseus, I am not Perseus.

How complex these things are; how complex we men are, in truth, or perhaps how complex we want to be.

Sometimes, though, I did wonder if it was only nonsense, as Aberforth thought, only a kind of gibberish we attributed meaning to, and it was only by luck, by understanding of each other that we came to the same conclusion.

On my birthday, that soggy, flat August day, I told you ‘you should give me flowers – something lilac or purple, perhaps, since they are my favourites colours – for putting up with you’, and, oh my darling, I wanted you to understand more than anything – I waited for the understanding – but when you smiled, my shirt brushing over the tops of your thighs, settled your head back down on my pillow and murmured ‘not now – you have quite exhausted me’, I could not say if you had known what I meant, or if it had faded before it reached you.

I suspect, though, that if you did not know then you knew later – when I fastened a string of red beads, a gift from my mother, around your neck, and you touched them gently, reverently.

“Red,” you whispered, then, the candlelight flickering in your eyes as you looked at me. “Catchfly and holly berries and roses.”



8th September, 1915; Hogwarts, Scotland

I spent hours, hours on end, staring at the two twin feathers you had given to me – sent, unmarked, in the dead of the night, a lover’s gift, and my chest tightened even as I tried not to think on it – feeling them slip through my fingers, watching how the red deepened in the lengthening shadows, bloomed in front of the fire, and the gold sparkled in light, turning to copper in dark. They were beautiful, a priceless gift in so many ways, and I could not help but wonder what you had meant by them.

You have never done something simply for the pleasure of doing it, there is always something else underneath the surface, a reason which forces your hand, insists that the gesture, the phrase, the mere look must be given, must be done.

Curiosity, perhaps, or a passion to do something, to prove to the world that you can; a passion to arrange the world and everything in it as you wish.

Holed up in my office, remembering you as you had stood on the cliffs that day, your hair – still golden, still curly, still no doubt as liable to slip through my fingers like silk as it had been before – swaying gently in the breeze, and your eyes resting on me with an expression I could not decipher (was it desperation, longing or a guarded unease? I suspect I shall never be certain), I could only sigh and wonder.

I will admit freely that I wished – often, heartily, selfishly – that they meant you loved me, that you missed me, that you wanted me back by your side, our plans resuming the shape perhaps they should always have held: you and I, revolutionaries and Masters of Death, together again.

Ah, such a beautiful, blissful dream; such a naïve and egotistical assumption – but it is all your fault, my darling. After all, it is you and you alone who twists my mind and body and soul entire until I can only think of you, can only see you – you and I and no one else.

It was a bittersweet torture, sitting by the fireside, feathers in my lap and a cup of tea on the side, trying to prise the silver truth out of the mess of string surrounding their meaning, their message.

Alas, that I was not quite up to the task – too unsure of your motives, too afraid of being disappointed once again, too ashamed of what others would think (of what Aberforth would think should he ever find out), to think clearly – that you were not there to laugh and explain it all to me; a child playing with a kitten, jerking the string up and up and up until eventually he grabs it and the child laughs, pleased.

In the end, it was visiting Aberforth down at his pub, his baby girl in his arms (Moira Kendra Dumbledore, for our mother, and Aoife’s grandmother, both witches of extraordinary ability) and his wife beaming next to him, his hair in need of a trim and his robes patched in places, and the memory, so strong, of our family – what had been, for the short while it had been, our family – together, with mother and father and Ariana all hale and healthy and happy, which made me realise perhaps what it could mean, if not what you intended it to say.

Family is the most precious thing you have, father had told me, grave and tired, before he had gone to Ministry and never come back. Never abandon it, never lose sight of what it means.

How many times had I failed to do that over the years? How many times had I raged against the bonds, intangible though they were, which kept me, as I thought, tethered to a village which would never give me anything? How many times had I been overjoyed to run out of the house, down to the brook, to think that one day I might leave and never come back?

I did not want responsibility; I did not want to be burdened with duties and necessities. I wanted freedom, the freedom I felt I was owed, that I deserved.

I was young and I was selfish, and love was almost merely an excuse.

This, though, these feathers – the promise, the message, the yearning declaration I wanted so very much for them to have – if I believed it was true, if I allowed myself to hope that they were, would I not do the same thing again?

All my duties, all my responsibilities – to Aberforth and his family, to Hogwarts and her students, my colleagues, to Ariana’s memory, tender and fragile though it was; I would toss them out of the window even as I fetched my cloak, fixated this time not on freedom as such (not as much, at least), but on the possibility of love, of a romance I had thought long dead.

Could I do that, was the question I had to answer, the question a gift of two phoenix feathers – seemingly so insignificant – had laid at my feet: could I abandon my life again, everything I had worked for and attained over the years, for a chance at a happiness I did not think I should have?

So you see, my darling, at the end of it all, wretched Gryffindor that I am, I am a coward.

The feathers I gave away one afternoon while strolling down Diagon Alley, keeping them out of sight in a drawstring pouch to protect them from wear, and I will not pretend that my hand did not shake as I did it, that I did not hesitate for minutes at a time along the way, that I nearly, very nearly, told Ollivander there had been a mistake, that I must have them back.

It is often the way of things that we do not realise their true worth until we have given them away, lost them or thrown them in a fit of pique. In the light of their loss, they appear without equal, utterly perfect, and we wonder how we could ever have believed the lies, lies and tricks, we used to convince ourselves that it would be for the best.

For the best… ah, it is, I find, always a curious choice of phrase, for it is very rare that for the best is, in fact, truly for the best for those it concerns – usually it is empty, an expression solely intended to placate, to reason without reasoning, perhaps.

In a school, there are a hundred-and-one different languages; spoken and unspoken, filled with gestures and body language, ticks and habits – all of them perfectly obvious if one only takes the time to observe the minute details which give it away, tiny translation at a time. These are the things which, as a teacher, it is necessary to understand; signs to a pathway of understanding.

Good teachers, I have observed over time, pick up on these things quickly, almost immediately – knowing half of them from their own schooldays, the telling flinches and glances.

Alas, I confess – not, no doubt, to your surprise, and I suspect to your great amusement – I was not one of their number.

My first years at the school were spent regretting my decision, cloistering myself away in my rooms after excusing myself for the night from the other staff, let alone speaking to students outside of class, unless it was for a detention. I taught lessons systematically, without thinking or feeling, each one laid out the same, or almost, each plan imprinted on my mind through hours of staring at my notes, mind lingering over the taste of absinthe and how gold hair had once curled about my fingers, how you flittered about Europe, powerful and admired and handsome, laying the foundations for the empire we had dreamed together.

It felt so pointless, sitting behind a desk in a classroom filled with children, reminding them once again not to poke each other with their wands; what good could I do, I would wonder in the evenings, unable to sleep and gazing up at the dark canopy overhead, trapped as I was? What would become of me, I who was meant to be Minister one day, whom my comrades had so often envied for my talents, stuck in a place I did not want to be?

A selfish question – irrevocably, entirely selfish; ah, but selfishness is a flaw I cannot seem to rid myself of, no matter how hard I try.

The truth is that, as is often the case, the hatred and uninterest I directed at the school, my colleagues and my pupils, bitter and venomous, had nothing to do with them – it was simply that blaming them for the boredom I could not shake off was easier than blaming myself.

It is always that way, is it not? Thus arguments are always the product of another’s mistakes, not our own: you should have done this, he should have come here, she should not have done that – and so, they lurk in the dark recesses of our minds, slipping out when we relax, just before we dream, to torment us, and they never end, sustained on the guilt and hate and irritation they spawn.

So many days now, as I sit here, I wonder what would have happened if our argument had ended before it did – if we had been less afraid and perhaps more mature, and far, far more honest. Would we have continued? Would we have ended, forever?

I do not think I can say one way or the other; I do not think I ever could have said, and the uncertainty of it chills me, even in the May evening.

Arrogant as I was – as I am, in truth – I had grown resentful of the cage I had built myself, grown bored with the toys I had assigned myself to play with, and instead devoted so much time to gazing outside at the wide, wide world: bright and beautiful and full of the wonder I could not see around me.

The grass is greener, indeed.

I could not speak about anything to Aberforth, but, unfortunately or fortunately – depending on how you view it – he and I were fluent in the other, years of brotherhood doing nothing to dull that skill for him, it seems (though I, since Ariana’s death, have found him almost impossible to read, impossible to predict. A strange sort of self-punishment, I think), and he could see through me in a heartbeat.

Every time I went to the pub, we would have the same routine: I ordered a glass of something with Aoife, and retreated to a table in the back, careful to be quiet and as inconspicuous as possible. When the night grew late, Aoife retired upstairs to Moira, and the last of the patrons – legless and slurring something unsavoury about their wives usually – staggered out of the door, Aberforth would sit down and we would have a drink together.

He always, always asked about Hogwarts – how were my lessons, how were the students (didn’t I know a pair of them had tried to sneak in last Hogsmeade visit, cheeky little buggers…), my colleagues, the House Cup…

We never spoke about anything else – not about ourselves, not about politics, or friends. Our world had narrowed, limited to the very basics, a sort of small-talk, and it came with a mutual understanding that it could not be more than that: the tiniest spark would send what we had rebuilt, painstakingly and slowly, up in flames quicker than either of us could say ‘aguamenti’.

I will not deny that there were times I wanted to – times your name hovered on my tongue, times the truth of it all sat there, times I wanted to be free to complain and curse about the lot I had assigned myself to and the burdens I had set on myself, even if only to see his reaction, to be shouted down with all the force of a raging dragon, to hear him say all the things I could not bear to admit – but I held my tongue. In this, there was more fortune in discretion, rather than valour.

I answered, of course, as simply as I could, recalling simple anecdotes on occasion, however petty and meaningless they were, and for a time, it was enough.

Aberforth, though, was never one to indulge a fantasy for too long.

“You know,” he began, each word deliberate, slow, chosen with a shrewdness which belied his Hufflepuff sorting. “You’ve been at that place for what – eight, nine years now? – and comin’ here for nearly a year, and you’ve never yet said you actually like it. Strange, don’t you think?”

I was stunned, I admit; I could not find anything to say – I could not say that I did like it, but for some reason, I did not want to lie and pretend that I did, that I had found my true calling. It was enough that I had had to convince my friends that it was a post I had wanted, that it was a job I valued highly – though that had been easier, since they had not seen papers in riddled English and German and Latin, talking of Hallows and revolutions and utopian perfections realised.

In my silence, Aberforth seemed to read every scrap of it off my face, and for a moment sympathy flickered in his eyes, before it died, squashed by a gruff, rough annoyance.

“It’s bloody wrong,” he started, conviction lacing his voice, and a fire in him I remembered suddenly, vaguely, from our father, the few times he fell into anger. “Bloody wrong, that you, after all your plans and your big ideas, you end up at a safe, cushy job, and you can’t even try to like it – spend most of your time making yourself miserable.”

He was glaring at me, eyes dark and blue and so much like yours and so wrong in his face; I only looked down, nursing the now empty cup of gin and wondering if it would be too much to ask for more, or – better and worse still – simply summon the bottle.

There is an old joke, much repeated and beloved by each generation in turn, that Gryffindor courage comes in bottles.

Dreadfully untrue, unfortunately – though I did my best to test it thoroughly, I assure you.

Opposite me, the light from the candles lit around the edges of the room beginning to fade as they burned out, smoke wafting and settling in the room, a shroud to surround us, Aberforth was dark, reds and browns mottling over his shirt and his hair, emphasising the creases under his eyes and the day-old stubble covering his jaw and cheeks.

“God help those poor children with you teaching ‘em,” Aberforth muttered audibly, rising and draining his glass in one go, a twitch of his wand sending both them into the sink. “Soon you’ll have them all potty-trained in your greater good.”

That, I assumed, a mix of shame and hurt and anger curdling in my stomach, was my cue to leave, and I ducked out without another second spared, not bothering to close the door behind me – Aberforth slammed it shut and locked it as soon as I was out.

A letter arrived the next evening, only five words written on the parchment, the writing precise and angular, as though the author had agonised over the words for hours: sorry; you still deserved it.

I did not need to look at the calendar to know why, in any sense – the date was woven into my very heart. Ariana had always hated us fighting, hated it more than anything else (for mother and father had never fought, or if they had, never in our sight or hearing, and as for spiders and the dark, she would reason, they could be dealt with simply), and we had never, ever before fought on her birthday. It had always seemed taboo, a sort of ritualistic habit we had always maintained.

Then, I suppose, it had an even greater value than it had had before – poignancy in memory.

There has always been an expressive note in Aberforth – an ability to make a handful of words mean the same as an entire novel, piling the emotions into them in a way which cannot truly be taught, inherited from our mother. It is why I treasure the small notes he sends me, the Christmas and birthday cards, for they always carry a meaning beyond what they are, and the messages inside, though short and seemingly simple, are as precious and complicated in their own way as anything you and I ever sent to each other.

For him, there was never any point in saying anything without meaning it, and without reason to say it – words were scarce, and, when they did pass by, blunt and small.

In truth, Aberforth tends to say more in three words than I do in thirty, and it has long since been both a poor joke and a spot of contention between us; he no more approves of my waffling than I approve of his utter lack of tact.

He was right, though, I can admit that now – I could admit to parts of it, then, hard though they were to hear and to read: it was in incredible ill-taste for me to moan so much about a fate I had given myself, when in reality it was hardly a bad one to have at all.

(At the same time, though, I nearly burned the note in frustration, in the sudden surge of hatred I had for him and his way of seeing through me. I had been, strange, though it seems, happy in misery, happy with being miserable, and with that one note, he had torn that all to shreds.)

I should be braver, I thought resolutely, I should be braver and better and stronger: embracing the chances I had been given, the reformation Hogwarts offered me, and the sanctuary it was already providing. There were children here, things to learn and ways in which to grow I had not even considered before; I could still, I told myself, be great, though perhaps not in the way I wanted or intended.

You will note, no doubt, how it was still wanted, still intended, never in the past. Ah, my darling, that is another flaw: I have never quite managed to let go of my dreams, long dead now though they are, always excused why I have not achieved them.

And so, though I cannot quite find the words to say it, I always long for you.

As I sat there, I could not help but think that, really, it was too late for those things – to be braver, better, stronger – and no point in it, either. After all, if I had been any of them (perhaps a pinch braver, a mite stronger), I would not be at Hogwarts, but in Germany, or maybe some other place, with you.

If I had been any one of those things, even fractionally, I would have gone after you that autumn, the risk it was – would you love me, would you hate me, would you even stand to look at me anymore, potential murderers both – nothing compared to the possibility that the answer would be yes, that there was something in us, something between us, that could be saved.

The other day, I told a dear friend of mine that love is the strongest force we wizards know of; that used correctly, it can defend against any spell, against any known threat, perhaps even against death itself. I told her she should let love win, that she should accept it, let it flourish, for when it succeeds, then there is nothing which can stop it.

She is marrying soon; she will be happy, and for that I am pleased.

You will see, though, in this the hypocrisy I berate myself for nightly, the hypocrisy so ingrained in me through fear, through my own damnable obligations, that love should win, but not for us. The risks should be taken, but not by me. That love should be a blessing and a burden – joyful but sometimes heavy – carried by others, but not, never, by us.

Do you hate me for it? Knowing as you do, the things which could have been? The possibilities we missed? Do you resent that I was too scared, too weak to admit to the truth of it – that I loved you then, that I knew that I always would – and in turn we both suffered because of it?

There are days I think you would understand; there are days I think you would damn me to Hell and back, passion and sorrow entwining in your voice. Every day, I am perversely grateful I do not have the strength to ask.

I did try, though, Gellert – I wanted to admit it, I tried to summon the courage, to write to you, to send you a note or a gift, some sign you could read. Short and sweet, I thought, as I sat at my desk, Aberforth’s note, crumpled and dirtied by half a ring of a coffee stain on one side, and something desperately romantic for the poet you hid in your soul.

A confession, really, and one you had by this time deserved to hear for a while, and I was resolved that you should – deliverance from uncertainty would, I told myself, be deliverance from the longing, from the fear of not being loved and the hope of being loved chasing each other in circles day after day after day.

By your birthday, I would have sent you something – anything – to express it.

It was backed up, as it happened, and my determination doubled, by an owl from Professor Black, informing me that he would be firing me at the end of the year.

I would be leaving my pupa in less than nine months, free from the cage I had built and so detested, and somehow, somehow I knew, I had to be ready – I needed an end to the uncertainty, darling, if I were to face the world again, face the temptation of the power I still craved, my ideals paper thin against the steel of fame and fortune and success.

People often praise me for my strength, for my determination, and for my zeal in chasing the right thing to do – alas, that I have never had the heart, nor the nerve, to admit that I learned those from you.

A/N:
Please forgive any mistakes - this was written during NaNo, as was the chapter before! They will be edited soon! :) Bonus points if you can work out the significance of Albus' comment about lilacs and purples to Gellert, and Gellert's to Albus about red - catchfly and so on ;) And lastly, I'm sorry this is a bit of a ramble - it is leading into something, I promise! :) 

Translation:

Entschuldigung - excuse me.


Chapter 16: Bavaria
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Bavaria

Once, when I was younger, I stood in the shadow of Neuschwanstein Castle, my father by my side, and looked up, gaping and adoring, as the sunlight glittered off slate-grey roofs, setting the limestone walls ablaze with light, almost mirror-like. On every side, deep green trees nodded and swayed in the wind; the castle itself was still, silent – abandoned, in a sense – nothing living within it, and we the only living things beyond it.

There had been something perfect about it, then, something dreamlike and enthralling: as I stared at it, drinking in every feature, from the high gates set in the outermost wall, to the tall spires inside, each one reaching higher than the last, pointed tips like arrows to heaven – and I imagined it could touch the sky, touch beyond the sky, up into the realms of angels, blessed somehow with peace, with tranquillity, with a beauty I was sure could not have been made by man.

It seemed remarkable to think, then, that a muggle king – lost inside his own mind, and alone outside it – had managed to dream such a masterpiece.

Ah, but dreams are always masterpieces, are they not? It is their nature, to be perfect, and so we are disappointed whenever we wake, for life is ugly in comparison.

As with life, though only ever more cruelly, dreams shatter – they break under the truth reality brings, under their own impossibility, their own perfection, somewhere beyond the moon, beyond reach of any magic known to man – and it is then, only ever then, that life sighs and smiles and deigns to retell them, to replay them to others, to yourself, in memories and stories, half-lies both.

You must be careful, dear Albus, not to remember too much or too hard: it is so easy for lies, for wanted images, believed words and feelings, to turn, gently and simply, into truth in your mind.

In that castle, a fairy-tale palace for a man who longed to rid himself of the world, dreams crumbled bit by bit, even as the walls held strong, and the soul of Neuschwanstein – the beauty, the romanticism, the endless, sighing dreaming – faded away, replaced by the curiosity of thousands, their minds and their hearts stirred by his story, but not quite the same, not quite enough to repair it.

It is what happens to all things, all people, is it not? The endless march of time, leaving history in his wake – stripping away the present, those who saw the past, until there is only fiction and supposed truths left.

It is what will happen to you and I, soon enough, for we failed in our dreams.

History will cast upon us shade to rival the glow our dreams once held, and we will vanish into it, consumed entirely, our minds and our hearts and our souls lost to speculation, to the constant guessing and questioning and supposing of historians as they read every letter for a hint of a scandal, something more than the façade they feel they see. 

We will live again, Albus, though we will not be the same. Perhaps, perhaps, we will never have met to them – or perhaps they will pluck out of the depths of the swamp our lives have been the romance of it only, the tenderness and the passion, the sweetness of our Spring.

They will never fully understand it, though, our motives assumed and presumed, the words we said invented by others, placed in our mouths because they might have been, they must have been.

History will not be kind, not to either of us – we have too many crosses on our shoulders, my friend, too many scars in our souls for that.

In Bavaria, in Neuschwanstein Castle, I saw history be born, when a king died and people flocked with legends and rumours flooding their eyes, their tongues, their hands, as they went round. They would talk, things they had heard from others becoming facts, becoming known things, and so it is that rumours spin and spin and spin, until heads fly and sense is forgotten in favour of sensation.

What sensation do you think they will make of us? I hope, some days, that they will think of us as we were: young, clever and so very enamoured; on others, I want to hear them speak of how you failed, of how I could have, how I should have… ah, but it will not be either, no?

Nein, you will be the victor, righteous and blazing, with fire and strength and purity enough to match the heroes of old – you tried, they will say; it was all for love, they will claim, as though love wipes the slate clean.

I, I will slip, a wraith of a man, no more and no less than the Dark Lord they call me, down corridors, through rooms swathed in velvet and silk but bare, bare and so cold, out onto balconies and round, round endless stairs of limestone, the grey slate gleaming in the sky; forever trapped in the wrecks of my own dreams, a creature of hate and anguish, a hole in my chest where my heart should be, for I am a Dark Lord, and Dark Lords do not love, do they?



17th January, 1916; Lindau, Kingdom of Bavaria

When despair comes, it comes swiftly, silent and deadly, striking like a viper in the night. Men go to bed in the evening, determined and resilient, full of the promise of the morrow, of the truth that life goes on, and wake in the morning, red-eyed and defeated, their voices thick with sorrow, their hands trembling as the future stares at them from round every corner.

It is, in its way, both comfort and helplessness: the idea that there is nothing you can do, that fate alone is left to decide how it ends. Even as it destroys, it soothes; pressing soft, tender kisses into hair and onto foreheads, holding hands, and murmuring in ears, it is not your fault, you are not to blame.

It is, of course, a liar on both counts.

Even so, liar or no, it is always visible: in the way hands tremble when they grip the back of a chair, the way a voice speaks desperate words in desperate times, trying to appeal to a sentiment already lost, in the way eyes are that much wilder, that much quicker, that much more afraid. A shadow of it, sly and grim, always slips out somehow, and so it passes on, from man to man, a disease of the mind, leaving paranoia and heartbreak in its wake.

With it, before it, after it, but always there, a brother horseman, is chaos, in any of his manifestations: absolute confusion, terror, fear, anxiety… ah, in this, there is opportunity, potential for roses to bloom from ashes, for the phoenix to learn how to take flight once more.

A cycle, as nearly all things are.

(Even us, Albus, we were something of a cycle, in our own way. We existed, one moment, then the next we did not, but somehow, some way, we would end up together again, in any definition you care to suggest, and then, in the end, we would part once more.

Such a tiresome journey, spinning helplessly through the motions time after time, do you not think?

Perhaps, though, perhaps you do not – perhaps you never thought it was. Perhaps to you the repetition of it was pleasing, perhaps my submission to the pattern, admittance that even I could not break it, no matter what I promised myself at each parting, amused you, perhaps – perhaps anything, truly, for how can I know now what I never knew before?

Prison and school are equal cages, and so I will simply wait for the day when you come back to me, when the cycle restarts.)

In this turn of the cycle, at this juncture, when the world around me crumbled – as people quaked and shook and prayed for salvation; as a wave of anger and hate, thick and bitter and so very heavy as it crept into lungs, surged up and through the country, drowning men and women alike in its wake – when the world needed hope, a single cabin to stand against the force of the tempest which battered at the land, I held the phoenix, tiny and fragile though he was, in my hands.

Soon enough, our child (for you fathered him as much as I: shaped him, formed him, named him even as he lay, dormant and still, buried somewhere in between you and I) would stretch his wings, shuffle forwards, ungainly and unsteady, and take flight.

Then, ah, then he would soar, a blaze of red and gold above, the sun would shine, and the world would be reborn.

Utopia realised, the world’s injustices righted, and harmony – harmony between all peoples, across all factions and divides, forged in a bond that will never break; tell me, Albus, was I wrong to dream of this, to crave it, to dedicate myself to building it?

I can never regret that, no matter how long you leave me here.

(People blame it on me, I know, as though I was the only one, as though it was all me, just me… ah, but one man is not a revolution, is he?

You should know this, Albus, stuck in your England with no one to compete with you, challenge you; all those ideas fizzing and bubbling around in your head – plans and schemes, a thousand and one better futures.

Benign, they call you in the papers – do you know this? I laugh when I see it and the guards mutter to one another about seclusion and insanity, but words linger these days, linger on behind my eyelids long after the ink-and-parchment they were once is gone.

Of all things, Albus, you have never been benign.)

Before our child could fly, though, first the wind must be made, enough of it blossoming so that it can grow, breathe and sigh on its own, puffing up and up until eventually it sweeps away without help, pressing against small, infantile wings and lifting delicately towards the sun.

As with all things, such a feat requires men – requires minds and bodies and souls to do it; I merely had to gather them.

There was something romantic about Lindau, even more so than the rest of Bavaria, soaked in rustic charm and an earthly beauty with the lake surrounding the town on the island, the sound of the tide a constant tick in the background – nature’s clock – and the mountains rising out of the water in the distance, wreathed with clouds. It spoke of smoke, of early mornings with the dew still falling, not yet risen, and of a world trapped inside a bubble, joined only to the rest of life by force.

I stood there, on the edge of the pier, gazing out across the lake, watching the boats rowing slowly out to the centre, fishing nets tied to either side; off to one side, where the trees lined the water’s edge, a pair of herons waded, beaks flashing down to spear a fish, large legs making tiny ripples on the surface.

For a moment, I was weak. For a moment, I almost forgot myself, all that I had worked for and all I had gained. For a moment, you see, I looked and I smiled, and I thought that you would have liked it, would have murmured something sentimental even as you curled a hand around the railing, your fingers brushing mine, slow and deliberate – all we could have in public, we creatures of the night.

Still, I cannot say why, only that I did. It is a puzzle I suspect I will not solve.

(Answers do not explain; and I long for explanations, to pick apart the fabric of life and reassemble it, to know how and why it fits together. What else are questions for if not for that?)

I waited until the sun had peeked her head out of the clouds, until I was certain that he would be there – knowing him as I did, how punctuality was his gift from the German curse – and then, only then, I went, pushing the door to the coffee shop open, the little silver bell above my head tinkling gently to announce me.

He was in the corner, tucked in the outermost seat – no doubt so he could flee should I threaten his honour, tarnished as it was.

A statement, and one at which I could only curl my lip, that cold, vicious other in me creeping up in my stomach to my chest, clawing at my ribs and liver to get further, higher, to wrest control. It flooded me entirely, tightening muscles and thoughts, sending friendship, such as I could offer – as I had been willing to offer – out of the window.

“Mathaus,” I smiled, sharp and a little brittle, as I slipped into the other seat; backed into the very corner of the café, with only the table separating us. It was the closest he and I had been since that night in Württemberg, so many years ago.

A kiss returned, and then denied, shamed and twisted; I do not forget these things, and forgiveness does not come easily to me.

“Gellert,” he returned, stiff and formal, the syllables of my name clicking on his tongue, sounding disjointed. He was off-balance, and we had not even begun, not truly. “I see you are well.”

“Very much so,” I assured him, holding his gaze perfectly steady and adding for good measure, “I have many very good friends.”

It was a little like prodding an old scar, testing the stretch of the skin, white against pink, and feeling the cells slotted together dry and crack. He did not wince, not yet, did not flinch or object – merely thinned his lips and locked his jaw, even as something flickered in his eyes, something which spoke of more than simple disgust for a lifestyle he labelled perverse.

Do not think me so arrogant – he was never in love with me, never even in lust with me, and I did not want him to be, but when he kissed me that night, inhibitions wiped away, the laws of God forgotten, he felt more than he wanted to, wanted more than he should have done. The shame was his alone; all I had to bear was the sting of the knowledge that once again, I would be denied. Once again, I would not have what I wanted.

They say in Hungary, that Eiferwein unmakes men; that she takes their souls and turns them inside out, all the demons kept locked deep within allowed to run along the skin, tug on heartstrings and limbs, savage puppeteers.

It is bottled bacchanalia; your secret heart displayed, your body and mind running wild.

It is glorious, in its fashion: the freedom of excess.

“I will not pretend – not now, when so many things are in motion – that those plans you made never existed, or that I never saw them,” I began slowly, spinning my coffee cup round in gentle, solemn circles, passing the handle from fingertip to fingertip. “Nor will I pretend that I do not still believe in them. They can be realised; they will, God help me, be realised.”

“You are planning something,” he deduced, as though saying the words out loud would make them any less true, as though he expected, perhaps, that I would deny it. “You would not have bothered before, but now you are planning something, and you need me for it, don’t you?”

“No,” I replied simply, draining the last of my coffee in the pause, watching as his face tinted pink with anger, a flush rising in his cheeks. “I do not need you; I want you – or rather, your mind. A mind like yours is not for this world, and you know it.”

“Perhaps,” he mused, seemingly most to himself, staring at the wood of the table, mapping out the whorls buried in it with his eyes. “Perhaps…”

Now would be when I would claim him for my own. Now would be when, after so long, I secured him for the future – for utopia.

“If I told you that I could build that world, that I could give it to you, what would you say?” I pressed, keeping my voice low, mindful of other patrons; this was not the idle chatter of schoolboys, or the inane ramblings of madmen – it was not for eavesdroppers to know.

He looked at me then, long and deep (and dear god, how it reminded me of you, do you know, making my stomach clench and my heart thud painfully in my chest), and I remembered in that instant just why I had wanted him with me so much, why his name had been on my list from so early on.

Why I had considered he could replace you in more ways than one; that I could simply swap you in every way, and be done with the memories.

I do not like feeling trapped, Albus, feeling bound to things where I did not seal the cords myself; control has ever been my ally, and with you… ah, what control is there with you?

We have always been equals – unnervingly, frustratingly, thrillingly equal – and the discovery of you, the discovery that I could be matched, that potentially I could be bettered, pushed and challenged in ways I had become convinced were impossible, slipped a noose around my neck and the string around your wrist. Every time I scoffed and left, I would walk so far, only for you to tug, gently, on the rope and remind me, through the sting of humiliation, that I was not alone; a king I may be, but there was another on the board, opposing and defeating.

Fascination is such a scheming goddess; with every gift she showers you with, every delight laid at your feet, it binds you to her, tying you ever closer, until you are nothing more than a slave to the twitches and flicks of her wrist, sending shivering, rippling signals down the strings happiness has crafted around your limbs.

A spider, of sorts, hanging drops of dew like lanterns from her web, and always, always an invitation you cannot refuse.

Now, now I sit here, and I think back and I do not know if the world is shaded that way only to me, or if the colours are lessened elsewhere, lightening beyond my sight – sometimes I go to ask you, to demand the truth, and I remember that it has been so long.

How long? Years, I know, but I cannot keep count with the days any more. There have been too many.

With Mathaus’ signature inked onto the line – impossible to take back now, if it ever had been – obstacles were vanishing from in front of me, the path clearing to the finish line, gleaming bright against the horizon. Like a puzzle, I had slotted together a team for the future, for a new age and a new world, and Mathaus had completed it, the last link in the chain.

I could move forward, then, start in earnest to build our dream, Albus, moulding it carefully out of the ashes of today, brick by brick by brick.

Flitting through my house in Württemberg, too big for one person alone in truth – but simple has never been my dream, no? – wrapped in crushed crimson velvet which slid so smooth against my skin, I lingered awhile in the drawing room: the walls covered with paintings, with books, a map of the stars which swirled and twirled through the seasons. It was a cold room, perhaps, stately and barren, save for the two dozen camellias in the corner, their petals only just beginning to pucker at the tip, in the first throes of blooming.

The note that had come with them was safe, locked away in a drawer: my name inscribed upon it in thin, slanted handwriting I recognised quicker than my own.

A gift – though for what purpose I was uncertain; uncertain and yet so very charmed.

(You had ensnared me once again – though I suspect now that you had never let me go. I am both precious and dangerous in your eyes, and so I am an obsession, as all the most truly wonderful things are.

In the end, you were more dangerous to me than I to you, yes?

Ah, nobility; the eternal leveller of kings, keeping tongues bound even as their legs are cut from underneath them.)

I was, however, certain that in this gift, seemingly so simple and so harmless, there was something else: a message, a note, unspoken and unheard – and so, lost to the rest of the world. Opportunity sang in white domes, petals fanning out and up, small and identical, even as I remembered books my grandmother had showed me, which spoke of lovers’ languages, silent and secret and spun from yearning, obvious simplicity.

Adoration, perfection, loveliness; a trio for the poets, ja?

Ah, in that time, there in the drawing room, my fingers gliding over stems and leaves, the faint hum of magic woven over them, I looked at my surroundings, at the paintings and maps and books, and saw only the future. I saw revolution, built at last, beginning the long, slow journey which would bring her to me, to my Germany.

To you and I, and the memory of your dear, broken sister.

So many possibilities, when the world is seen in hues of gleaming gold and silver, Victory herself heading the procession, and where there are possibilities, there is foolishness and nostalgia, and, on occasion, a plea to the past, to memories you do not want to lose.

Next to the camellias sat my messengers – a single sprig of peach blossoms, pink and fragrant, plucked and trapped in the very beginning of Spring, at the height of their beauty. Every now and then, a petal would drift to the table, another appearing in its place; they would never wither, never grow old, only ever renew themselves.

A message in so many ways; I half-wondered if you would ever find them all, those little hidden treasures, or if you would stop, struck, at the first.

Sometimes, my mind wandering back over the length of my life, I wonder if you have them still, in a vase in your Hogwarts, on the windowsill next to Fawkes, perhaps? A memento of a time where neither of us won anything, but neither of us lost, and that, for us, is something of a victory, I think.

Then, though, then I merely smiled and sighed – and hoped, secretly and silently – and waited, anticipation creeping slowly through my body, drawing up my muscles and along nerves, pulling me taut; an arrow on a bow, held still in the seconds before it flies.

Then, there, I hung on the edge of a precipice, Albus, about to jump, and oh, the fall would be glorious!



A/N: I do not own Neuschwanstein Castle (the King referred to is Ludwig IV, called 'the Mad' hence Gellert's story ;)), nor do I own any references to Victory as a goddess (meaning Nike).

Translations:

Nein - no

Ja - yes


Chapter 17: Phonology
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Phonology

If all music is sound, and all sound is musical in nature – as, by definition it must be – then, what does that make languages?

Songs, perhaps, all of them different, though penned by the same author; linguistic families merely albums, compiled in bouts of creative fever, linked from one to the other by the smallest things: similar structures, similar ways of pronouncing things, of phrasing things, borrowed words given a fresh lick of paint, making them unique again.

New twists, new tilts, lilts in accents, slight rounding of vowels to soften and broaden words; variants of the same tune, in a way.

Over the years, it changes: becoming cleaner, sharper, clearer, as the instruments improve, bettered by each successive generation. Old sounds are lost, fading away as the generations pass, and new ones spring up in their place – the same notes, the same chords, but subtly different, changed just enough to be distinguishable, to be as exciting as the old once was.

Not quite a rebirth, as such, but a regeneration of parts, perhaps.

We had our own language, developed over the hours we spent together that summer, so wrapped up in each other, so intently focused on learning, exploring, understanding everything we possibly could about each other – hungry for any scrap we could take from the other, whether it be a word, a gesture, a flicker of knowledge. From the brightest, boldest enchantment, to the smallest, most secretive smile, I wanted to know everything about you.

I wanted, in truth, to know more than what you said, but to know what you thought, how you thought, when you thought; to know you so intimately I could predict your thoughts before you could say them, could react to your moves as you made them, hear sounds before they were born.

Alas, my darling, but I have never quite been sure if I succeeded – then, I believed there was more, always more to learn; and now, now I am not sure if what I learned was the truth or merely lies you offered and I swallowed whole without stopping to wonder.

It was so easy to pick up, though, so easy to read in your face and voice and the lines of your body; did you know you were such an open book for me, did you intend to be, or was it always as pure delight as it seemed?

Whichever it was, Gellert, it enthralled me entirely.

As time went by, we developed and our language grew, flourishing in the summer sun, it came to be almost addictive – worse than the Firewhisky snuck from the bars in Hogsmeade at school, worse still than the cigarettes older students would hang out of the window to smoke, thin wisps of white trailing away with the breeze. Going a day without it, without you, seemed almost to ache, deep in my chest, as though I had been struck; the force of it leaving a bruise blooming beneath the surface, purple and angry and sad.

I slipped into your room one night, having witnessed your return from the window – only London, but it had been too far in its way – and raced through my duties at home to go to you, and the smile you levelled at me was blinding, making me sigh, suddenly thrumming with the stirrings of a different kind of tension, a different type of longing.

“Albus,” you breathed, beckoning me over, and I slid easily onto your bed beside you, resting an arm on your pillow, hearing the creak of the bed as you shifted, tucking your head into the crook of my elbow, curls fanning across my arm.

“Listen,” you told me, the side of your body against mine as you held the book, opened, in mid-air, the dots and scrambled letters littering the page telling me it was German, though nothing more. Slowly, your finger tracing over the words, you read, “Ich habe das Herz gefühlt, die große Seele, in deren Gegenwart ich mir schien mehr zu sein, als ich war, weil ich alles war, was ich sein konnte.”

In your voice, the words seemed to come alive, the sounds merging from one to the next, fluid and lyrical, stringing sounds together in chains and patterns I had never heard before, your tongue wrapping around round vowels, clicking on hard consonants.

It was, in one, mysterious and so very thrilling in the mystery; given a strange beauty by my blindness.

“It is lovely,” I murmured, though in truth I was far less interested in the words than I was in you – my fingers yearning to brush against skin, for any touch, however innocent. “But what does it mean?”

“It is poetry,” you shrugged, your shoulder bumping up into mine. “A hundred different things, each with a trio of scholars to argue for it. What does it matter what it means?”

With a negligent flick of your wrist, the book left your hand and started floating, serene and steady, over to the bedside table, your arm remaining in the air. Reaching up, I ghosted my fingertips over your knuckles, tracing the bones there and watching your face, scrunched a little in concentration on the spell still continuing.

I kissed you then, and you made a small, soft noise, pleased and surprised, even as the book tumbled to the floor. In the air, my fingers slipped between yours, our hands crashing down to rest, entwined, on your thigh, and when I pulled away, I could hear you breathe – could feel you breathe on my mouth.

I did not need to tell you I was glad you were back, then – I did not need, perhaps, to tell you anything, as you pushed my hair behind my shoulder and shivered, visibly, audibly, as my cold fingers met your skin.



3rd March, 1919; Diagon Alley, London, England

Freedom is, I think, both a singularly bizarre concept and yet a most necessary one. Bizarre as it is almost a lie we convince ourselves is true, that we are free from all obligations, from all duties and necessities, free to do what we want, when we wish to do it – but it is hardly truth in practice. Thus, it is a lie, but it is one we must tell ourselves, one we insist upon upholding (and so we tell it to our children, to our young charges, to your grandchildren, and so on, perpetuating it forever), because otherwise life sounds so very harsh; confined and constricted and utterly hopeless.

A shield in a way, protecting us from the things we perhaps cannot face.

So it was for me, that in my confinement at Hogwarts, trips out of the castle, to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, occasionally to further abroad – conferences in Cairo, Shanghai, Seville – became my own personal freedoms; my shield from the truth that I had seized with both hands, even as my eyes stayed firmly shut.

It almost shames me now to think of how very profoundly it affected me, to simply leave the castle one afternoon, Apparate down to London and wander down the Alley, bustling and colourful as it was, and do absolutely nothing.

Then and there, I was free from all responsibilities – to the school, to Aberforth, to you, to myself – and there was a bliss in that I admit was wonderfully addictive.

I do not doubt that, in this, I am telling you something you already know. You always were far more bold than I ever was, gathering freedom to you and wearing it like a mantle, living voraciously and brightly and so unafraid.

You were never given freedom, you demanded it, and you took it regardless of whether it was offered.

How I envy you. How I have always envied you that.

There, and on neighbouring avenues, branching off the high street like legs on a centipede, I would sit at a quiet, little café, tucked safely behind glass, a cup of tea and a slice of cake (always different, for ordinary could be ordered anywhere) in front of me, and I would watch the world go by, feel time slip on and enjoy the knowledge that, in that moment at least, I had nothing to do; I was, if you like, entirely free.

Of course, other times I was more sociable: mere self-loathing would not permit me to neglect my friends quite as I had done in the aftermath of you and I that summer, and so I would arrange to meet Tiberius or Elphias, even Euphemia (when she was present in England, which was varied considerably according to no apparent theme), every now and then, to gossip and reminisce and wonder at how we were now the past generation: a new one had been and gone after us.

What I did not quite notice at the time, but which is startlingly clear now – and I wonder how I missed it at all, how I could not have realised that this was going on – was that I had been changing over the years.

For four years, I had been on probation at Hogwarts: my job under threat; my precious, self-imposed cage balanced delicately on a thin sheen of ice, liable to sink at any moment. Managing those years, managing that situation (for when one does not want to be somewhere, but is offered a chance to leave, it is often much, much harder than one suspects – after all, life is never as simple as we wish it to be) had been difficult, far more so than I would care to admit.

I had sulked over it, I had rejoiced in it, I had resented it (since how could I, Albus Dumbledore, who had won international research awards at the age of seventeen and been published in more papers than I could bother to list, not be good enough for something?), but in the end, all that remained was that perhaps, perhaps that would not make me happy either.

Perhaps, Heavens forbid, I was coming to grow used to the job, to the routine it gave me and the security it provided. Perhaps, I was even starting to enjoy it.

Others will only know that last as the whole story – as the dream I had always secretly coveted – and it is a lie which rolls easily off my tongue, even as it curdles my stomach slowly.

Yet another lie for protection, but I suspect I have long forgotten whose.

So, I grew and I changed, and I began, for the second time, to move past you, to most past our shared history and our shared dreams. Utopia would be for you, now, but no longer for me – I had another career to pursue, whatever you may think of it.

Oh, certainly, it was still as much out of fear as it was anything else, but the resentment and the anger and the desperation had begun to fade once more, and that was something to be glad for, I think.

I began to be able to remember you fondly, without the memories spiralling down, and me with them, until I would lose hours to reminiscence and angry, guilt-ridden misery – and is that not what every former lover wants? To be remembered as everything beautiful they were, rather than everything terrible?

In truth, in my memory you were always beautiful – and wonderful and inspirational and all the rest; you were only ever terrible in rationality.

It was strange, though, to walk along the streets in wizarding London less than a year after the end of the war – the Great War, they were already calling it, for the twined scope and horror of it – seeing the world start to rebuild itself, people picking themselves up off their feet. There was a sense in the air that we had been spared, those of us who had not fought, and that something in the world had changed, turned newer and cleaner and chemical.

Could you feel it, too? In Germany, as you sat and discussed, plotted your rise to power, did you feel that the world had changed?

I wondered a lot, then, about the greater good, about how in a perfect world such things, such atrocities would never happen – people would live safe in their homes, free from fear of war and hatred and violence. I wondered if I had gone with you, if we had succeeded in our venture, could we have prevented it?

Would the whole thing – over forty million dead in total – have been avoided if only I had been braver?

It is a selfish, foolish statement, I know, but I could not help it. It plagued my mind endlessly, driven by the guilt that there was nothing I could have done, the burgeoning fear that it if I had tried it would have been too easy to kill, to would, to maim; it sent my thoughts spinning along paths I had considered before, long ago, but in a different season.

What should the extent of muggle and magical relations be? Did we have any duty to them to help, if we could? Should it matter, in times of emergency, when lives are at stake, whether the cause is magical or muggle; whether the villain is magical or muggle?

Alas, but I am far too underqualified to answer such questions – and they have been theorised enough over the years already, and will be picked apart far more often in the years to come, I suspect.

How I hated that politics were now at the forefront of my mind again; how I loved it, revelled in it. How I detested myself for loving it, for spending hours at night before bed, tossing and turning and desperately trying to convince myself that I was a better man now, that I could have power and wield it well now.

One day, I very nearly tipped over the edge – oh, darling, it took everything I had not to run to you without thought, and the decision left me quite devastated for days afterwards – and I’m afraid I quite stunned poor Elphias.

You mustn’t laugh, Gellert, no matter how it seems to you – though, please, do not think ill of me for it in the end; I cannot bear the thought of you resenting me for this.

Down one of the side-streets off Diagon Alley, surrounded by soft cream walls, silver-rimmed mirrors and paintings adorning the walls, I met Elphias for tea that fateful day: I had slipped out of Hogwarts, marking done for the weekend, revelling in the beginning of Spring, and a quick owl had ensured I had company.

It was four o’clock by the time we met, Elphias’ tasselled robe creased in places, hiding a stiff-collared shirt and cravat, held in place by a Ministry pin.

“Sorry, sorry,” he panted, thudding down into the chair opposite. “I had to work late last night – Valerie was not happy about it, but what can you do? – the whole office was called in.”

“Has something happened?” I frowned, spotting a waiter approaching and ordering a slice of lemon drizzle and a cup of earl grey, while Elphias dithered with the menu, having belatedly realised he had not yet even glanced at it.

Soon enough, the waiter gone and our conversation likely to be swallowed up by the chatter emanating from the other tables in the café, filled as it was with a selection of middle-aged ladies loudly discussing the fashions of the day and a pair of warlocks debating the use of Blasting Curses in duelling, but nonetheless, Elphias still insisted on checking around the room nervously before leaning in and whispering.

For all the world, he looked like someone about to make a deal for an illegal Sphinx.

“The Holy Roman Empire has withdrawn from the International Confederation,” he told me, hushed and half-awed, his round eyes wide, and my hands felt numb around my cup of tea, the warmth it held barely registering.

The first step. It must be, it had to be – you could hardly reform your beloved Germany when delegations from each state which formed it sat at the Confederation in equal status? Certainly, you could hardly revoke the Charter when signed to an organisation whose primary objective was to uphold it.

You were moving; stretching and flexing in preparation for the strike, and where was I? Stuck in England, chained to a job I had assigned myself for protection, out of obligation and guilt.

“Ah,” I murmured, taking a sip of tea – more for the sake of doing something, some physical action, to attempt to jolt me out of the daze Elphias had so unwittingly induced. It burned, scalding the roof of my mouth and the tip of my tongue, blazing a trail down my chest. “That is alarming indeed.”

In our secret language, written so long ago but still reeling off my tongue as easily as it ever did, it was the flaring, angry first statement – a gauntlet, of sorts, flung down in the centre of the room, as you watched me, eyes blazing, half-smile challenging, waiting only for the reply to come, knowing that it would.

Truthfully, it had been half a language and half an addiction, strong and consuming, and when the words, even when not spoken by you, crashed down onto the table in front of me, it was almost impossible to resist.

My tongue moved without thought, my mind raced to find an answer; I found myself restless, suddenly, uncomfortable and confined inside.

Soon enough, having excused myself with all undue haste, I vanished from sunny, peaceful London, and reappeared in north Scotland, the rain – heavy, cold, whipped up into a shower of needles by the wind – pouring onto my head and shoulders. It weighed nothing, slipping easily through my clothes as though they were merely an illusion, but nonetheless, it pressed down on my body, forcing my head to bow, my shoulders to curve over.

In my chest, a cold front met a hot one, and they fought fiercely, clashing in perhaps was merely a recommencement of hostilities.

Carefully, studiously, I avoided looking at The Hog’s Head as I walked up the lane, getting closer to it with each step – the sign slowly swinging into view, battered and crude as it was; it felt too much like a betrayal, though I had done nothing, had said nothing, had not even quite thought anything.

Thoughts were starting to form, though, flattening themselves out of the muddle the whirlwind you always were had stirred up inside my mind – half-formed, tentative and unconscionably passionate, born out of a trembling hope and a want which together, somehow, merged to form a kind of fragile, impulsive bravery.

I wanted to hear your voice again, hear your tongue twist around the syllables of our own language; it was as though now I had had a taste of it, I needed it, dependant on it once more.

Fleetingly, I remembered the last message I had ever got from you – your magic twined around them like a calling card of sorts, embedded in them so deeply that when I touched them it was almost akin to those days that summer when we would reach out to press our fingertips against the edges of spells, suspended in mid-air, and feel how they buzzed, purring almost as they brushed at our palms.

I am your captive. A statement, and such a statement – if that was, indeed, what you meant by them.

Did you mean for me to spend hours poring over books, old advice columns and compilations of lists, both magical and muggle, in an attempt to determine what they could mean, never quite able to settle on one – for every time I started to become convinced of one, I would immediately doubt myself.

Perhaps you meant luck instead, or it was a reference to the Hallows – the immortality we craved so much epitomised by them – or simple sweetness, a gentle, naïve innocence; was it a slight, a reminder of how easily I had fallen for you?

Alas, now I am somewhat more certain, far too late in the day for it to do any good – if only then I had remembered the one, unfailing truth you have always held fast to your character: that any statement you make, you make wholly and fully.

Halves are for others, for those who do not see them, for those who need them – not for you, you who wound a continent around your finger and made it swoon when you smiled.

“Albus?” I looked up, startled, to see Aberforth standing a few metres away, dishcloth in his hands and an apron around his waist. He was frowning, his hair cut short and a flower crown dangling out of a pocket; a token from Moira, no doubt, put there a while ago and forgotten about.

He looked so much a family man, then, so much like the scant memories I had of father – a grubbier, rural version of father, perhaps how father might have looked had he come with us to Godric’s Hollow – that it made my breath catch in my throat.

He was happy, and I had to swallow a wave of bitter jealousy; replaced almost immediately by a hot, spiced determination.

What did obligation matter, in the end, when weighed against happiness? What did scraps of freedom, gathered hastily here and there, mean in the face of the possibilities I saw then? What could the world entire matter, when it came down to you and I, meeting somehow on the other side – a second chance at us, at utopia, at everything we had ever been and could be.

Perhaps it should embarrass me that the life I had so painstakingly built was forgotten so quickly – but, alas, I cannot even pretend it.

“D’you want something?” Aberforth asked, giving me a strange look, his eyes narrowing; I had to look away.

For once in my life, I told myself that explanations could wait, that action should – must, would – come first.

“No, no, not at all,” I waved his comment away, distracted and promptly disapparated, the thoughts in my mind finally falling into order, neat and sweet.

Oh, my darling, I called it bravery before – and even to this day, I think it was, I still believe that it was, though I know most would disagree. Foolishness, perhaps, or stupidity, might be considered better words, but I cannot ever think of it was either of those, for they imply things I do not want to stray towards, thoughts I admit I have had, but regret.

Does that not say it all – that I regret most telling myself falling for you was stupid?

I still persist, though: after all, bravery comes in many forms, and who is to say what is brave and what is not? It varies so much, from man to man, from time to time; one man’s bravery is cowardice for another – it is a subjective thing, unquantifiable and indeterminable.

So, the question remains, for you: was it bravery or cowardice that I stood in front of the desk in London’s hub, and when asked ‘where to?’, I answered, in a breath, in a single heartbeat, without thought or pause, ‘Germany’.

Gellert, darling, do you see now why I feared you, in the end?



A/N: Translation:

"Ich habe das Herz gefühlt, die große Seele, in deren Gegenwart ich mir schien mehr zu sein, als ich war, weil ich alles war, was ich sein konnte": "I have possessed that heart, that noble soul, in whose presence I seemed to be more than I really was, because I was all that I could be."

It is a quote from The Sorrows of Young Werther, Letter from 17th May, by Goethe and does not belong to me. Gellert's taste in poetry and literature, though, does, unfortunately, belong to me :P 


Chapter 18: Germany
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Germany

Some days, I think my father haunts me – I will stir, at night, and see his face flash by in a beam of moonlight, or a stream of German from the guards when they check, every thirty days, that the locks still hold, that the wards have not weakened, will reach me and the voice will morph, so quick and so sudden I am not sure whether it ever changed at all, into my father’s, and all I can do it sit, silent, and wait for it to pass, that shuddering, creeping sensation of being watched, monitored and judged. It hurts; cold and acidic, and I can never be certain if I am afraid or merely anxious.

Other days, there is nothing, no hint of anything or anyone, and the loneliness of solitude eats away at me a little more.

When they come, the voice and the visions, however fleeting they are, I remember my youth and him, and now I am old and growing pensive so I cannot help remembering most the beginning of it all, for that is the time one most envies when one is old: the innocence and the naivety, the endless, boundless curiosity, and the sheer happiness of blissful ignorance of the pains of the world.

Ah, but the memories are never of that, the games in the garden in Visegrád with my brothers, my father (for he was, then) teaching my brothers how to shoot out in the forest and longing for my turn, fascinated and admiring, or even later, the afternoons spent swimming in the lake near the house in Schwarzwald, visiting my grandparents and curling up in their library for hours on end.

Instead, they are of between those times, the times my parents would wish I had forgotten, if they knew at all that I still remembered.

Men and women all have their secrets, and there is nothing so shameful as a secret known, yes?

Secrets have a way of slipping out, though, and once out, there are very few ways to destroy them – and when the secret exists? When the secret lives and breathes and smiles, with your blood in its veins, born of your flesh? What then do you do?

My tombstone in Visegrád does not bear flowers; I went once, but all I wanted to do was to destroy it, that symbol of the life I should have had, perhaps could have had, but was never meant to have.

I remember, just, the look in my mother’s eyes when she wrapped me in my coat, her hands shaking as she did each button up one by one, adjusting my scarf around my neck and my hat on my head, kissing me twice on each cheek. She framed my face with her hands and stared at me, long and hard, imprinting me onto the back of her mind, stamping me there, in blue and grey and white, the only brightness present my hair, still gold even at five years, and my blue eyes.

“You must be good,” she told me, her voice soft, halting, and her eyes were swollen, red-rimmed and sad. “You will be happy.”

Then I did not understand – I was young and confused, simply obedient even if I did not like it, because what was there to be afraid of? – but it did not take me long to realise it was planned, that she wanted me to be obedient and confused and quiet, quiet most of all.

My father, his blonde hair matching mine, took my hand, and if he exchanged any last look, last moment, with my mother I did not notice, too busy staring at the ground, at once resentful and excited for my supposed journey ahead, and then he led me out into the street. The door shut behind us just the once, sharp and swift, and it seemed to echo in my ears as we walked down the streets, through the village to the ship waiting for us at the dock.

On the ship I did everything I could to make him take me back: I pouted, I sulked, I cried and wailed like a child possessed; I hit his arm until I grew tired and screamed until the air ran out in my lungs. All the while, he waited, patient and weary, his brow creased, and when I exhausted myself, trails down my face from tears, enough fire left in me to glare at him but nothing more, he simply tucked me under a blanket.

“One day, you will understand,” he murmured to me, watching me with a small smile, half-melancholy. “And whether you do or not, or you believe me or not, I will look after you – I will make sure you are happy.”

The river swayed from side to side with the tide, and I do not remember beyond that.

That is the beginning, though, and when people ask why I am German, when they wonder why that, why there – why German and not Prussian as my father was, or a Württemberger as I grew up, or Hungarian as my mother was – for all that the qualities, the thrill birthing a country gives you, the power a revolution lays at your feet, in truth, that is what I think of most.

Sentimental, you would say, Albus, and I regret that it is, but you, I know, understand this more than most: that attachment is not to where you are born or where you father is born, but to where you live, and that has very little to do with anything tangible at all.




27th July, 1920; Leipzig, Germany

Have you ever truly been victorious, Albus? Have you ever seen it, heard it and felt it settle in your soul that you had won; it, they, I was yours, beyond any doubt – do you remember it, like I do, full of the glory and the hope and the joy of success, nothing marring it, tainting the purity of the moment.

Ah, this is how we are now, yes? You and I, separated by such a distance, and so I ask questions to you I can already answer, and you do not reply, because you do not hear them.

To philosophy, then: if a question is asked, but no one hears it, has it been asked, or has it merely been wondered? Is asking in the voicing or the forming?

If silent, unheard questions are unasked, then do they not exist in the sense that living, tangible things exist – and, if they do not exist, then what does that make me, for history is formed only of questions, no answers, and that is what I am now.

I can almost hear you sighing, see you smile reluctantly even as your mind begins to hum with the new, fascinating problem in front of you; it is both a pity and a relief that I cannot. We are old now, my friend, and I only remember you as young – your hair is always auburn, your face always unlined and the idea that we have changed so much is only a reminder of the time I have spent here.

Did you expect me to say I wondered what you would look like now? That it would be strange to see you so different, that I shudder at the thought of not recognising you?

Such a fool, Albus, to think I would not – there is no one else to recognise now, and no disguise could ever hide you from me; our magic is too strong and too familiar to me for that.

I know that you remember the day they claim was yours, the victory they say you won – but did you win, or did I lose? For all people say, they are not the same, and you and I know that very well; after all, one does not necessarily mean the other: to win implies something more than simply not losing, and vice versa, and, in truth, I will say that I lost.

Harsh, your sycophantic followers would cry, if they knew, so harsh and so cruel and so wrong, but they do not know, they merely believe – and you would not disagree with me.

You did not win that day, but I lost, and that is the heart of the matter; the loadstone of the wall built between us.

All the more shameful because once I won, absolutely and completely – and, Albus, my Albus, there are few things on earth which can compete with such a sensation: a heady, powerful, hypnotic concoction of joy and pride and a glee barely restrained, humility tossed aside in favour of the certainty that now, anything is possible, all of your limits are gone. Everything around you seems bright, the shadows and hurts of the world lessened, and all you can see in front of you is hope.

It is addictive, as all good things are, and it would be so easy to fall into it as so many great men did, from Alexander himself to Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the end, I never got the chance to even approach it; you cut me down long before it even flickered in my mind.

There were roses – pink and budded, the petals only just starting to peel away from each other – in a vase on the fireplace that day, in the palace in Leipzig, and the mirrors were polished, gleaming and glittering, so that in total it was a sparkling, scented haven from the outside world, filled only with velveteen chairs and curtains of lace and cotton, everything decorated with silver or gold, but never both.

They were state rooms we all stood in, the past and the future together, used to loud clamouring problems, to calls and cries from Kings throughout time, to the arguing of court factions, each one convinced they were better for their name was better, their family was better; now, then, they were silent, save for the scratching of quills on parchment and the occasional low murmur of voices.

What was there to talk about, what need for ugly noise?

For those of us who won that day, victory was nothing more than a first step down a long road, hardly the end of one; for those who lost, well, they were seeing their lives be crossed out and rewritten in front of their eyes, and the only comfort they had was that they had no other option.

Beautiful places deserve a kind of respect, but the history which clung to them demanded it, and I found myself wandering around the suite set aside for our purpose, admiring the paintings on the walls – all of them flitting around, regarding us curiously, quizzically, questioning each other to try and learn anything they could about the events taking place – the Italian Renaissance architecture, enduring still, and wondering what else these rooms had seen.

Had they seen births, deaths? Had they seen fights, arguments, duels, perhaps? Or was it all much nicer, sweeter – had it been in this room that lovers had kissed, secretly, in the dark; or here, where the King had met his mistress and slipped a chain of pearls around her neck.

History has always been something of a familial passion – though my great-aunt takes much of the blame; she indoctrinated me young: even as my mother in Hungary and then my father in Württemberg would take me to church to pray and sing, Tante Bathilda would send me books on Emperors and warriors, heroines and princesses, often accompanied by handwritten notes. When she visited – once a year, in November – she would read them to me, tell me stories which were not in the books.

Secret histories, she called them; secret histories for they are the stories that are not told, ones which speak of things men now call sins.

I listened and I learned, and in turn, I grew to search out stories for myself, reading book after book on the same topic until I could assemble the facts, see beyond each author’s attempts to persuade that they alone knew the truth.

(Historians will always convince themselves of this one fallacy: that what they search for is truth. In honesty, they search for gossip, for some new tantalising revelation – to shock, to stun. It is their own little secret, buried so deep half of them do not know it is there.)

In Leipzig, I stepped out onto the balcony, overlooking the gardens: a map of hedges concealing beds of flowers, fountains and statues tucked into corners in mock-Greek tableaux, deities and heroes alike, busts of royal ancestors, alone without plaques to record their names. It stretched on, further than would be believed, reaching out of the edge of the city and into the countryside which surrounded it.

Long ago, it had been entirely separate from the city, but times had changed and with them, cities grow and evolve, moving and shifting along riverbanks and lakesides, down valleys and up mountainsides.

It looked lonely, as it was, devoid of people strolling round it, laughing and gossiping and romancing, but there was a stately beauty about it all the same, a strength that it would simply remain this way, no matter what its use was, no matter who was there; it did not need people to survive, it relied upon nothing but itself and nature.

“Herr Grindelwald, it is always a pleasure,” the Prussian King – I never called him by name, even then, as he lost so definitively, he was still a King and my father’s no less, if not mine – stepped out beside me. His hair was white now, speckled with grey, and he did not wear any crown or sigil save the deep blue sash which stretched from his right shoulder to his left hip, adorned with a golden clasp in the shape of a griffin.

He smiled at me, wearily, and pulled a cigarette case out of his pocket, bronze and stamped with a rising sun. Without another word, he offered me one, a parody of so many years ago, of so many meetings in between, and I took it, lighting it with a snap of my fingers, loud in the quiet.

“I must say congratulations,” he commented softly, thin reams of smoke spiralling into the air around us. “You have played it quite masterfully.”

“If it had been anything less than masterful it would not have been mine,” I returned, calm and content. The words were smug, proud and arrogant, ja, but did I not have every right to be?

A quiet laugh, quick and short, but no less genuine for that, and he nodded once.

“I would expect nothing less,” he agreed.

Conversation died then – it had never been so stilted between he and I, but this, we both knew, was the end. Friendship can only last so long under such a strain, and I knew he would not want to see me after this, when I, and he knew me to be the mastermind, had ended his career to start mine in earnest.

It had been an unexpected friendship, and one I found I did not enjoy losing – I did not want to lose, in truth, as he had been both mentor and friend, beyond a mere tool and font of information – but any guilt I had was squashed by the knowledge that it was for the greater good, for the utopia you and I dreamed up so many years before.

“I would like, before we return inside, to give you some advice,” he turned to me, dousing his cigarette on the balcony edge and vanishing it with a wave of his arm, sudden and strong. There was something fierce about him then, something I had not expected or known before, and the Elder wand thrummed in my pocket, dark and malevolent.

By my side, I held my hand perfectly, absolutely still.

“You think I need advice now?” I could not keep the scorn out of my voice, the impatience to see my new world born. I would not let anyone withhold it from me anymore; it was so close, too close without being present, and once it was done it could not be undone – oh, how I longed for it to be real.

Patience has never been one of my virtues, you know this well, Albus; even Nico could not teach me that entirely.

“You are taking countries from rulers who have been born for it, trained from birth to serve and obey their people all things; to listen and head and love them, regardless of what happens,” the King ignored my question entirely, scorn bouncing off him as waves on a cliff. Soon, though, soon he would fall and I would rise. “And you are handing them to people who have not, who perhaps are more interested in power than in anything else. This is your idea, your revolution, Herr Grindelwald, so you must protect the people. They will be yours, even if the face they see is another’s. Always remember that you have risen on their favour, but you can fall on it just as easily.”

“Most would say they are not mine – that I cannot be German, not truly – but they will be, and I am not so foolish as to forget who I must look to,” I told him, my voice hard and cold, the words less a reply than a statement, and nothing at all like the promise he perhaps had hoped to prise out of me. “I am of the people, for the people, as you were not, and I do not fail.”

He seemed unimpressed, but I did not care, and turned to leave, flicking my cigarette, the lit end of it now a ragged black-and-grey mess, dull red embers still flickering faintly, over the edge of the balcony.

“It will make you lonely, the power,” he said, then, and there was something heavy, more than simply a warning – the hint of something personal and sad, underneath it all.

“It is convenient, then, that I am already lonely,” I replied without thinking, not enough bite in the words for them to snap, but the bitterness in them was almost tangible in the air, crisp and sour.

After that, nothing more was said.

Does that make you feel guilty, Albus? That I was lonely then, that I am more lonely now than I have ever been? That such a simple phrase, so innocuous, could unman me enough to provoke something more than pride or joy out of me?

I hope it does, if only because then it would mean your affection for me holds, even now; that you lie awake at night thinking of me here, wondering how I am, regretting all you did to me, all you are still doing to me.

I want it to hurt you, for it to haunt you as you stride about your beloved Hogwarts, a ghost in the back of your mind and the corner of your eye, always there but never quite visible, whispering to you, reminding you of those sins you do not name, of those you hide endlessly for fear someone might discover you are nothing at all like the man you pretend to be. I want this hell you have put me in to scar you too, for we are twins in everything else, why not this?

Oh, but you cannot tell me you expected anything else, you always did know me so very well.

Inside, the air was thicker, stronger than it had been on the balcony, the soft breeze there always stirring it round, carrying scents to and fro, and there was an air of tension which had not been there before: nervous, excited, it skittered like a rabbit’s heartbeat around us all, waves of darting glances following in its wake, helpless fish in a net.

The decrees were finished, all that remained were the signatures, twenty-six of them, and then the last final declaration, for my new Germany, my Deutschland; forty-one would sign his birth certificate, in total, to breathe life into him and declare him true.

Was that how fathers felt, when they waited to cradle a new child – nervous and thrilled and happy beyond measure? Did they too, feel so impossibly impatient, twitching and fidgeting while they strain for those all-important words, to see the small, pink face peeking out of a blanket?

It should have been our child, Albus, more than anything, you know this. It should have been ours, since you had as much a hand in his making as I did.

You should have been there, and you cannot pretend to me that nothing of you wishes you had been; I know you too well to believe that, and lies between us serve no purpose.

After all, you would have understood why my heart and soul both trembled when, finally, my turn to sign came and I grasped the quill, dipping it slowly, carefully in the ink, crimson and metallic, meant to last the ages. I wrote my name as I always did, though my hand did not rest on the paper, to avoid smudging anything, but it felt different, as though in that simple action I was redefining myself.

I was, more so than I was not: it forged me a new identity, created something else entirely from me, solidified my purpose, my meaning – the reasons this had all meant so much into a single, simple title.

We were all new men, then, Albus, and it linked us together, a cord around all of our wrists, looping and beautiful but stronger than steel, in a way which could never be broken.

That evening, when I lay on the chaise longue in my house in Württemberg, champagne in a glass to one side and a warm orange glow from the sunset setting the cream walls to smoulder, the frivolity finally faded and I found myself utterly and completely at peace, for perhaps the first time in my life; for a moment, it sparked a note of melancholy – for a moment, it almost sparked tears. For foolish, selfish reasons, I wanted you there, if not before.

You would have understood, though; of all people, you would have understood without me needing to speak, as was always our way, yes?

Do you remember, how we would sigh, that summer, over our shared loneliness, our shared passions, our shared sense that we did not quite belong anywhere, were not citizens of any country but one not yet made or found? We were so separate, then, or so we thought; bohemians of the world, citizens of the world, restless and in thrall to wanderlust, part no society other than our own, subservient to no rules but those you and I created together.

For both of us, it was our mothers who gave us that, who, as they gave us life, gave us another half of ourselves, a different identity to the one we were meant to have, a marker to others and to ourselves that we were not truly children of the land we lived in.

I did it, Albus, I created my home, my country, gave myself a name for what I was, for what I had always been: I was German, I became German, so I could be something more than other, so I did not have to deny the mix of nations in my blood.

And you, did you ever find it, or did you simply wait for the world to mould into the right shape for you?

You cannot deny, not to me, that you are still restless, still searching for that perfect peace, though it is, as I am to you, a dream you gave up on long ago.




A/N: Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander the Great were both real people and thus I do not own them ;) 

Translations:

ja - yes

Tante - aunt

Herr - mister/Mr.


Chapter 19: Syntax
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Syntax

Do you remember, all those years ago, how we would walk to the market, a basket apiece and lists tucked into our pockets, because even as we hated the tasks, how dull they were and how long they took, we could go together, and at least it made it a little more interesting.

Some days it was sunny, and we would eat damsons on the walk back, the sweet-sour taste tickling on our tongues, drying our mouths out, competing to see who could throw the kernels the furthest; other days, it rained, pouring down all day and through the night, and then we would race through the streets, with only our coats for cover, hair plastered to our heads, raindrops dripping off our hands and soaking the blankets covering our prizes in the baskets.

Of course, when we had retreated home and you had returned your aunt’s shopping to her, basket in tact (if perhaps minus a handful of strawberries or so), you would slip round again, through the rain, and I would watch your hair slowly coil back into curls around my fingers, brightening from deep brown to a fine, spun gold.

Slowly, we would dry by the fire, raspberries and peaches dotted around us, trading sweet, sticky kisses.

In between, we would talk, endlessly, as we did for so much of that summer, sentences and clauses all running into each other, a patchwork mess of Latin, German and English; somehow, though, it all managed to fit together, sliding into place so we could understand everything the other said, so we rarely ever had to break step or skip a beat.

We fit together so well – in every way.

Are there days you remember this like I do? Where you sit and look out a window and think on those times, the hours we spent together: mornings, afternoons, nights and days, all of them by the end seeming to merge into each other; into a long, blur of sunlight and candlelight, yellow and orange and cream-white almost forming a cyclical rainbow through the sky.

I have an unerring tendency to ask questions I do not want to know the answer to; ones where I dread the wrong answer, dread the possibilities and so prefer to live with the hope, the conviction of the right answer that imagination can give me.

It is strange how these things, things which are well-ordered, structured and neatly arranged, are so comforting at times, when other parts of our lives feel so very chaotic. We place such emphasis on control in our lives, needing it and wanting it, struggling so desperately without it; some more than others, as with all traits in life.

Strange, but entirely expected at the same time: we like feeling comfortable and safe, and control gives us both – if we control our environment, control ourselves, we feel there is nothing we cannot handle; the world could throw anything at us, anything at all it wanted, and we would emerge the victor, stronger and happier for it. If we can deal with anything, it is almost as though we are gods in a world of mortals.

Ah, we believed we were gods, once; or if we were not, that we would become gods.

That summer, we slotted ourselves together, you and I, mixed up in each other from the first few days we met, until it was almost impossible to separate us entirely, shards of you left in me and shards of me in you, skin growing around them, trapping them inside us. An image not for the faint-hearted, but there is something beautiful about it nonetheless, if only for what it means rather than what it says.

We tied our lives together, then, in a way we could never undo; a Gordian knot of our own, if you like.

The problem then was that we ended, those days of eating damsons and drying by the fire long gone, and I had to restructure my life, find another way to fit myself together, piece by piece by piece. Arranging myself until I could find some way to be me without you, though I doubt I succeeded.

It took me a long enough time to rearrange the syntax of my life so it did not have you in it: it was a long process, a slow and painful one, with more falls and stumbles and sudden, desperate wants to go back than I care to remember. Even then, even when it was done and I was perhaps as near to whole as I have ever been, there were always moments – times of the year, memories and phrases, little things which made me think of you – which would set those shards under my skin to shudder and worm that little bit deeper.

My darling, even now, when I sit in Hogwarts, my life constructed around something else, myself remade in a different image, I still cannot rid myself of you: wordsmith and tyrant and absolute siren.



11th October, 1921; Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Scotland

Outside, the leaves were drying steadily, curling in on themselves in slow, crackling movements, their edges browning, hardening as they started to die. Morbid though it was in one sense, the forest beyond the castle was awash with a brilliant sunset of oranges and reds and light, green-tinted yellows; the more earthy browns were only just starting to show, peaking through the rest. On the edge, pine trees, hardy and stubborn, stayed ever-present, black against the grey sky.

The world was changing – and, in truth, it had been changing for quite some time, only I had refused to allow myself to see it.

You see, darling, I had been so intent on separating myself from you, from our plans and our dreams, the ideologies we had written together, that I had cut myself off from anything connected to them, in any way. I could not trust myself, I would repeat silently, I could not allow myself to touch it again, for fear it would be too easy, too simple to slip back into the intrigue, into the delicate webs of allegiance and deception, into ideas of better worlds and perfect utopias. No, as with alcohol, it was best to go cold turkey from the beginning.

Power is a vicious drug: one cannot ever be weaned from it, be free from the residual effects, from the longing for it even after it is gone from your body.

Even now when I have long since given up any dreams I once had, it is hard to forget what it is that I hold, what I could do with it – level cities, destroy men, control nations – when it whispers as it sits by my hand, patiently urging me, encouraging me to break the chains I placed on myself.

I wish almost more than anything that I did not have it – but alas, I cannot return it to you, and there is no one fit to wield it.

It should never have come to me, and on that I suspect we both agree; no doubt a rarity these days.

(I still think of it as yours, and the grief only makes it more enchanting. I have your wand, your phoenix, your letters… I speak your words, even; dear god, those accursed words. In ways, I think I have never been more yours.)

Yes, things had changed outside: the face of Europe had contorted, transformed into a new one, strange and exciting in equal measure, setting historians and academics and politicians alike into a nervous flutter, journalists all crowing about each new titbit of information which came out about it.

Foreign Minister… you really had planned it out quite marvellously, hadn’t you? Step by step, masterminding and shepherding the plan all the way, never going too far too soon, so much so that it seemed natural. In my office in Scotland, tucked away safe and sound, I could not help but smile fondly whenever I glanced over the headlines, over the articles speaking of it – of you, and your successes.

You always were a genius; each plan a web, delicately spun and hung so that it caught the light in just the right way, glittering like a string of diamonds, at once both more fragile and stronger than people believed.

Now, of course, it is almost terrible to think of, impossible to admit: that once I had seen the beginnings of your conquest, the first stirrings of what was to come, and I smiled.

In our tentative, romantic conversation – for flowers are romantic, darling, and that you thought you would respond with them hints at that secret romanticism you refuse to admit you have – I had sent you a bouquet of yellow poppies, plump and rounded, the bold colour of the petals solid and bright, enchanted as always.

Success and wealth; not things I needed to wish you, for you had created them for yourself, but things I wanted to wish you nonetheless.

I wanted you to be happy; I still want you to be happy, only now I know it is impossible.

Outside, though, in the heart of Europe, you were changing things; in Hogwarts, things were changing around me, and I found myself strangely horrified by the thought.

It made it seem more real: people coming and going, moving position in the castle, lives passing and new ones arriving – almost as though it was a career of sorts, rather more than simply a life I had fallen into, a cage to keep me from you, from power and the dangerous ideologies it created. The idea that this would be my life, that this was my life, truly, made me half-panic anew; was this all I would ever be, academic and half-hearted teacher? Would my future stay here, always here, and end here, in a place I did not want to be?

You were successful, and I was not – not as I had wanted, and the idea that this might be all I would have was far more frightening than I have thought it could be.

I have never been claustrophobic, but there, in that moment, I almost was.

“Enter,” Phineas Nigellus called, and I stepped into the office, up the few stairs to the desk, where he was sitting, attaching a letter to the leg of a screech owl, tawny and imperious. “Ah, Dumbledore. What is it?”

I sat, feeling far less certain about this than I had been previously, mulling it over in my room with a cup of tea. Something about being in front of Phineas, on the wrong side of the desk, so to speak, made me remember starkly what it was like to be young and nervous, mindful of others opinions – though, alas, that is something which does not, I think, ever die.

(We mind what others think, even if we do not admit it, even if we refuse to let it bother us – but still, we do.)

It was not so much his opinion which was the issue, rather more that saying it out loud would make it real, and impossible to retract – there would be no room for uncertainty, for my courage to fail at the last moment.

“I am considering taking a sabbatical,” I told him, forcing the words out first, so I would not be tempted to forgo them in exchange for rambling half-truths, always skirting around the exact point. “To focus on research.”

He looked up, dark hair spotted with grey here and there, and his expression did not change at all.

“And this concerns me how?” he asked, a note of scorn in his voice and his lip curled slightly. “If there are potential problems with staff for next school year that is Armando’s concern, not mine. I am Headmaster only until the end of the year, and not a moment longer.”

“I will of course speak to Armando regarding a replacement, but it is the prerogative of the incumbent Headmaster to authorise sabbaticals,” I replied, very much aware of how he paused, stilling perfectly, quill-tip hovering above the page, before placing it down with a long-suffering sigh.

“I suppose the sooner this is done, the sooner you leave,” he drawled, opening a drawer and rifling through what sounded like tens and tends of sheets of parchments stored inside it, until he found the right form and spread it out on the desk in front of him. “Blessings on both sides. So, for how long to you intend to be absent?”

He pronounced the word ‘absent’ in much the same way as others pronounce ‘diseased’: slowly and soaked with distate.

“Two years, at the moment,” I said, and there was silence for a moment as he considered it, eyebrows raised and mouth twisted a little – though I could not tell whether it was into a smile or a frown, or perhaps some of each.

“I see,” was all he said, scratching an elegant ‘II’ into the paper, Roman numerals always his preferred way of writing. “And what will you be doing in this… extended absence of yours?”

“Research, in Transfiguration and Magical Theory,” that, at least, I could answer and not have to pretend to be regretting. “I have had an invitation from the Sauveterre Institute in Switzerland, and the Andrade Velez Centre have expressed an interest in a guest research chair, though that is not quite settled yet.”

“Very impressive,” Phineas commented flatly, managing to make it sound little more of an achievement than a child who had just learned how to throw and practiced by flinging his dinner at the walls. “Is that all?”

“Yes, sir,” I responded automatically, and he flicked his wand, the parchment curling up into a tight roll, a ribbon tying itself around it – silver, as always.

“I must say, Dumbledore, you held out far longer than I imagined,” he said idly, busying himself with replacing his quill in the pot of ink before looking at me, hands clasped together on the surface of the desk. “When you first arrived, I expected it to be a matter of months before you came with this request – teaching is not the kind of job students like you settle for, in the end, however noble their purposes for being here.”

Settle. That left a strange, bitter taste in my mouth, and a leaping, swirling anger in my stomach. However much I dreamed of other places, other jobs and other lives, I had not settled for this job, I had never considered being so fickle as to change my mind after mere months – even after years.

Still, I held my tongue and smiled, lightly and thinly, but it did not seem to matter.

“You should consider, Dumbledore, before your return after this sabbatical, what it is you actually want,” he informed me, his dark eyes boring into mine, and I had the uncomfortable sensation – not for the first time, but this was the last, in the end – that he knew far more than he let on, that perhaps he could see the truth of why I was here, what was keeping me here, and what was pulling me away. “The school has no interest in paying staff who do not want to be here, and people who do not want to be here have no business in pretending that they do.”

It bothered me for a long time, that conversation – teasing and tickling at the edges of my mind, always there – so much so that I found myself doing exactly what he had suggested, only months too early.

Was it wrong of me to insist on taking a space at the school, one which could be filled by someone more interested in the job than I was? Someone who would be more dedicated than I, if (as I hope I may say) not as talented? Talent alone cannot support a job; dedication is almost more important, as the latter can create the former, but not the other way round.

Was I lying to myself by being here, pretending endlessly that I wanted to be here, that I would be happy to see out my career here, professor and guidance counsellor and nothing more?

So many questions… alas, even today I do not know the answers to them, if such answers exist at all.

That evening, I made my way down to the Hog’s Head, where Aberforth was tending bar, Aoife and Moira long retired to bed, along with the elderly (and quite inhospitable) owner, and waited, quiet, in the corner for the other patrons, raucous and shady, to drift out and off to bed.

When the last of them, a pair of drunks staggering out of the door in a companionable fashion, had gone, Aberforth slid a glass of port across the table – ruby, deep and crimson, the light glinting through it almost swallowed by the shadows throughout the room.

“So, what’s happened now? Another one o’ your lot found in the Forbidden Forest or something?” he greeted me as he sat down opposite, his hair cropped close to his head and his stubble uneven along his jawline.

“No, no, thankfully they all seemed to have learned from Mr Jones’ error,” I responded absently. “No, I thought I should tell you something sooner rather than later – it seemed appropriate.”

Aberforth glanced at me, quick and shrewd, and shrugged, reaching a hand across the bar for the bottle which was still sat on the top, cap screwed loosely on. Pouring himself another dose – a double, and a generous one at that – he plonked it to one side and picked up his glass again.

“Go on, then; might as well get it out now you’ve said it,” he said, and there was something wary in his voice, something which was not quite concern as such, but was perhaps edging towards concerned.

However remarkable it was, I did not have time to linger on it, to wonder exactly what it was – to ask, even, what he was thinking – and so I moved on, and it was forgotten, swallowed up by time.

“I am taking a sabbatical,” I told him. “Only for two years, at the moment, perhaps three if the Institutes’ in question are happy for me to stay.”

I cut off somewhat abruptly, and in the dark, Aberforth watched me for a moment, searching for something it seemed, but then he nodded curtly and offered me another drink.

“Two years,” he mused. “S’long time. Then you’re coming back?”

“I have every intention of it,” I assured him, and it felt very odd – we had not spoken like this, nothing like this, since before that summer, before everything had even begun.

The rest of the evening, brief but filled with a companionship I had almost forgotten was missing, passed quickly, and soon enough Aberforth was clearing the glasses away with a swish of his wand, the bottle settling itself back underneath the bar, cap back on. In the corner, the lanterns were burning out, spitting final flares of red and orange sparks, glowing as they died; it looked lonely, without people dotted around, and incredibly simple – all wooden beams and counters, rough-shorn surfaces stained from years of use – but homely.

Most of all, Aberforth looked happy enough, content to stay, and I was glad for him.

There was no room for jealousy – not when it felt like we were finally starting to remember that we were brothers in ways other than blood, in things perhaps more important than blood.

“Albus?” Aberforth’s voice stopped me at the doorway and I turned, cloak sweeping across the floor. In the fading light, his blue robes looked almost black, and I could not quite see his expression. “When you’re away… be careful. And shut the door behind you – don’t want to let the frost in.”

It was only October – too early for frost to be a burden, but I took the dismissal for what it was and stepped outside closing the door, the chill in the night air wrapping around my face and hands with a malicious, biting caress.

Be careful… helpful words, true enough, but they had weighed heavy in the air, laden with something I could not decipher.

In time, later, I would realise that perhaps, perhaps, the warning had meant you – that I should be careful of you, of myself, of how easily I could fall again – but I did not think of it then. Then, you seemed more a dream than a nightmare, and even then little more than a longing which would hardly be fulfilled.

Where would I meet you, after all? When would I meet you? How would I meet you?

There are always questions, endlessly, and I do not have answers – on this subject, you and I, I am far too biased and far too invested to be able to find them.

All I knew then was that it was perhaps time for a change – as both a test and a gift to myself – for somewhere new, something more to do; for the chains to relax a little. It had been twenty-two years then, since Ariana had died, and fifteen since I had tethered myself to Hogwarts in the name of repentance.

Things had changed, I had changed – you had changed, though I did not that much on that, I admit – and I felt as though I was ready.

Oh my darling, they say that if you give a man an inch he will take a mile, and I took far more than that with this – a single taste of freedom and I carved open my cage without a second thought, tumbling down and down and down, blissful even in abject failure.

I was brave, then, but not brave enough; and you, what is your excuse? 


Chapter 20: Luxembourg
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Luxembourg

In the winter, the earth dies and is born again – can you feel it? Can you feel it shudder, feel it gasp in the depths of midwinter, when the wind rakes his fingers against your cheek with the cold, angry shake of grief? Can you sense something, a change in the fabric of the planet, when the ground underneath your feet is harder than granite, trees and bushes bare and solemn, a funereal backdrop.

There are no flowers for the earth, no grave at which to mourn – but days pass, nights begin to slim, and soon enough there are buds and shoots poking their heads out of hedges and long, flourishing grasses; spots of red and pink and purple and yellow springing up everywhere, set against an apple-green base. Then, the wind is soft, and full of the sighs and joys of new life.

Do you notice this, Albus, or does it pass you by? Are you too stuck on your admiration of the heavens – the rotations of the stars, the spinning of planets and the moon’s shadowed, glowing trickery – to feel?

Your head has always been smothered, surrounded by clouds and books and half-finished thoughts.

Here, in Nurmengard, I am surrounded by you – by your clouds and your books and your wretched, cursed half-written thoughts. Phrases you said long ago, things I used to know how they ended but now I cannot remember… it is vexing, so very vexing, Albus.

I have never done well with failure; though that is a flaw we both sport, no?

Up here, winter does not touch me, not quite: the seasons pass below me – and oh the irony! That I should be so fallen and so high, a demi-god ascended to Olympus but still dreaming of earth and the trials of mortality – a parade of colours tramping slowly past, dips and flashes of bright purples and pinks, and the carpet of crimson when the poppies bloom.

White, green, yellow, red; white, green, yellow, red… they fade into each other, at points, blurring and mixing, until one can never be sure where one started and the other ended.

(Though if you leave me here long enough, Albus, I suspect I shall begin to decipher it. Would it amuse you if I could? Predict the first day of true summer, the last day of autumn – whether winter would be late or early, whether spring would be wet or dry…

Oh, but I am wasted here. Wasted entirely!)

No, the bars of my cell are always plastered with frost, and my breath stirs on nothing, for the charms have been strengthened sometime in the last while… I could pretend I do not know the date, but what use would that be? I am mad, or tumbling down to meet it with that reckless abandon you once claimed to love in me; I shall be happy, in the end, to meet it, I think.

Our firsts and lasts were in summer, glorious golden summers, decadent in every way – from the lashings of rain to the blazing, brilliant sun – but I confess I have lost my love for them. Here, in this place, I remember most winter, and I miss most winter.

The death and rebirth – a poetic notion, but visible then, symbolic almost of our dreams and hopes, what we could have been, what we should have been.

I remember the river that winter – do you? Or do you pretend you do not? Ah, but I do: I remember the way it was flowing, fast and cold and swift, slate grey tipped with white flourishes, ice made liquid, made fierce. It beat against the banks, ripping branches from low-hanging trees, from bushes crouched on the sides, bearing them off downstream with a brisk, cruel swiftness. Above, it the sky was clear, bright blue, the sun a pale, watery yellow, no life in sight; there was a breeze, light and miserably gentle, catching at my hair, at yours, flicking at cloaks.

There was a sadness about it all, clean and crisp, and if you felt it, you never said and it never showed.

In the distance, the river trailed on over the horizon, winding away from the town, the border between Luxembourg and Germany – almost, almost. Silver, in the sunlight, it gleamed, as though between us and there it had changed, transformed into metal, a sheet of pure adamantium, rolling along to meet the sky.

When I breathed, it was a soft sigh, and when you took my hand, your fingers were warm, all tentativeness forgotten, rules and laws and your thrice-damned propriety banished back to those days in between those moments of you and I. It was an anchor, almost, strong and unyielding, and against the melancholy of the landscape, you were a firebrand.

That day, my Albus, we died just as the earth does: we breathed out, soft and gentle, and we died. Within a heartbeat we had been reborn, and we were not the same.




5th December, 1922; Ahn, Luxembourg

Triumph does not fade quickly nor easily; it lingers, tugging gently at your mouth and heart every now and then, a pleasant, gentle hum in the background, steadying hands and nerves in those first, tentative days of revolution. We were a group, a band of brothers, and everything we did reminded us of our victory, of our success and that blissful, blinding triumph, and so the sweet taste of it was ever-present for far long than you would believe.

Always, always, we would remember that we had succeeded on the back of popularity, that we had won because the people wanted us to win – after all, does not every servant remember his master?

Revolution is fragile after birth, delicate and so easily destroyed, and so we guarded him carefully, obsessively.

“We must be firm,” Segelinde Neitzke had instructed me before I had left for Liechtenstein – she was President, the first President of Germany, and a necessary name to have on side, famous and influential as she was – and I had smiled, polite and small, and simply nodded. Obedience; I can act it well enough, but it grates, always. “We must not give up our position, nor shall we accept their terms. We need more time.”

As though I did not know, as though it had not been me who had advised that it was best to draw, as though Mathaus and I had not drawn up the act to withdraw together – so many hushed nights spent pouring over old texts in dim, fading candlelight, rewording and reordering and perfecting in so many ways.

I accepted it, though, the role I had given myself, and so the invitation to attend, silver-edged and in glistening pale-blue ink, had been taken in hand, my clothes and books packed, and whisked me away to the mountains in Liechtenstein. It was something of a key, though, the invitation and my name both, opening every door in front of me, unlocking every courtesy and every amenity, inducing bow after question after insistence, until I was glad to be alone.

Outside the window in the room they had assigned me, beyond the two guards standing either side of the door, dressed from head-to-toe in the light blue cloaks and gleaming silver amour – ceremonial, always merely ceremonial – of the International Confederation, there were mountains, littered liberally with snow, dark trees stark against the light grey of the sky. A castle, perched on a spire of rock further up the slope, made of white-grey stone with faded red roofs, was the only thing untouched, magic siphoning the snow off, preserving it as it had always been.

There were people walking down the streets, carrying boxes and bags of paper, wearing robes fastened with silver pins, badges on their chests, all of them busy and focused. Often, they would stop to talk, to pass on messages and exchanged boxes – gifts, perhaps, or simply piles of paper – and then they would move on; an endless hive of activity, all of it political.

If I listened, I could hear shouts in German, and it felt half like home, like I had never left Germany.

I was not there to be comfortable, though, I was there to persuade, to soothe flared tempers and nervous, frightened minds; nothing more.

That evening, there were drinks – or so they said, but it was little more than a cocktail of distrust and sneaking, snaking attempts to worm out secrets, political and personal (for everything in politics is a weapon, is it not? Every friendship, every family member, every preference… and so we all lie, flawlessly and forever, because it is how you survive, yes?), with a façade of frivolity – and there, then, there was your friend.

He was not hard to spot, St George’s cross worked out on the pin in his cravat, a flute of white wine, untouched, in his hand, and I carefully worked my way around the room to meet him, Hungarian palinka steadily sinking in my glass.

I was not drunk, Albus, nor was I even angry, jealous as I had been when he had been my contender for your attention, in ways your siblings did not even challenge me; I was curious, though, and I wanted to speak to him, to see what it was that meant you allowed yourself to cling to him, allowed him to cling to you.

There was no one to match us – there never has been, and is that not what pulls us always together, what makes us endlessly orbit each other, that we are alone in our genius? – and I have never doubted that.

He could not understand you, could not match you, could never hope to challenge you; so what did you see in him, what did you find in him which made him so important?

(You will say I was jealous, you will say I am insisting on a lie, but Albus, my Albus, I knew you had never looked at him the way you looked at me.

You will say that I am protesting – the lady doth protest too much, yes? – and to that I have no answer. Smirk all you want, be as smug as you like, on this I will say nothing more– you may believe what you wish to.)

“I am Gellert Grindelwald,” I introduced myself to him, an inch taller and much less scruffy, giving him a tight, charming smile. He fumbled with his glass to shake my hand, nearly spilling his wine, and I felt something in my chest loosen with glee.

There was nothing there – nothing for you to admire, nothing for anyone to admire.

“Elphias Doge; I am one of the British representatives,” he informed me, shaking my hand firmly – a lot firmer than I had expected. His eyes were blue, almost grey, and his hair a light, flat brown. With his round face and broad, curved shoulders, he was not handsome, unassuming and expressive, emotions flitting across his face sluggishly, visibly.

“I have never visited England,” I commented – not a lie, not quite. “Though I have been told she is beautiful, that there are many things to see and do.”

You had waxed lyrical about them that summer, in the times it was mentioned: the sights of London, with the castle and the palace, steeped in history; the wide, green parks in the middle of the city, where magic and muggle blur together; and Soho, wild and exotic Soho, with all the delights she possessed: freedom to simply be, all those hidden places and secret, illegal places. Places for you and I; places your favourites had once visited, all those past great men.

Places not meant for him.

Did you ever tell him about them, about you, about us? Did you ever allow yourself to show something of it, however minute and however sanitised it was? Did you ever even think of it, that maybe you could or should; did the words ever hover on your tongue, waiting to be spoken, before you swallowed them again?

Ah, I do not know why I ask, I know you will have said nothing.

I am your most painful, most wonderful, most terrible and beautiful secret, and so you keep me safe, silent, always.

He said nothing, Doge, and I did not let him, pressing onwards. For his part, he merely swirled his wine in the glass and smoothed down the creases in his robes, dark green and smart.

“Though I suspect England’s riches are in her people, and not in her landscapes,” I continued. “I have been reading some articles – Albus Dumbledore has an exceptional mind.”

“Oh yes,” he lit up, face shining and eyes bright, and my stomach spun, anger clenching in the bottom of my chest. The Elder wand, in my pocket, whispered, coaxing and cajoling – a single curse, a single word, and your precious friend would never breathe again, would never taste anything but his own blood, would carve his own body to pieces, bit by bit by bit…

The palinka in my glass burned a little as I downed the rest in my glass, knuckles white.

I could not lose myself then, not over someone like him.

“Oh yes,” he repeated, a puppy in more ways than one. “Albus is quite remarkable – you know he won international awards before he was seventeen? Unheard of for a student to do so, but he often does things which would be impossible for the rest of us.”

“His discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood was impressive,” I agreed – a statement I did not need to make, as he carried on, fervent in his admiration.

“A stroke of luck, he told me,” Elphias said, though the amused smile playing around his mouth screamed that he did not believe it, screamed of a fondness I wanted to slice out of him, smooth and sleek. “Though men like him hardly need it. I knew him since we were both young – we were at school together – and he was beyond the curriculum at fifteen; why, he was likely beyond most of the professors by our final year!”

I smiled, briefly, the glass in my hand full once more, and I took another sip; there was something steadying about the normalcy of it set against the novelty of being informed of a former lover by someone so oblivious to it all. It was too tempting to laugh at the absurdity of it, of how little he knew you – I had a reputation to restore, to create for myself and for Germany.

Spitting palinka, peach-coloured and sweet, over a representative would not help anything, even more so when I would not be able to explain it.

Secrets, Albus; how frustrating they are, how heavy they become when carried so long.

“If you enjoy his work, though, you are in luck – he’s in Luxembourg at the moment, taking a sabbatical from teaching. It’s a passion of his, you know, teaching; but it doesn’t leave the time for research that he would like, especially when it’s something which requires constant attention – one hardly gets that in a school!”

“Luxembourg is very peaceful,” I added idly, focusing on this now. You were in Luxembourg? You had left Hogwarts?

Unlike your friend, I could see the truth behind the lies; the veil you had cast over your past, over yourself, did not fool me.

“Yes, he said so when he wrote to me last,” Doge nodded, red spots on his cheeks and the wine in his glass only a tiny sliver of goldish-cream at the bottom. “But he chose Ahn specifically for that – the quiet retreat. Riverside cafes and all of that sort of thing – the French lifestyle is far more relaxed than the English one – and I suspect the German one, too.”

I do not remember what I said then, only that I murmured something and left, hastily, abandoning him there, blinking a little, fish-like and confused.

Something had changed: I was not sure what or exactly how it had, but it had, and that was enough to shake me, to turn my attention from my mission there, from Segeline’s patronising, vapid instructions, back to you.

Did it mean you had forgiven yourself, that you had realised you were too good, too clever, too talented to be wasted at that school you had tied yourself to? Did it mean you wanted a change, something new, something more than what you had had there? Did it mean you would want to return to our plans, to return to me, to the promises we had made each other that summer?

Uncertain, so uncertain, all of it – but there was possibility there, possibility too important for me to ignore.

The owl I sent to Germany was quick, sudden, but I did not think on it, on what it would cause – what did that matter weighed up against what else could be? When what could be alternatively should I go to Ahn, go to you, rather than back to my comrades and my Germany?

It took a day to find you, then two hours to meet you – and it was as innocuous as all our other meetings: sitting inside a café, a fire to one side and a window to the other, sipping a coffee, lightly spiced with ginger and softened with a dash of milk. You were walking along the street outside, hands by your sides, eyes on the sky as always, when you happened – and it was merely a second, a heartbeat it took – to glance at the café, through the window.

Your eyes trailed, darting over the tables, other customers, and then landed on me. You stopped still on the pavement, watching me, studying me, and then you turned back.

For a moment, I thought you were leaving, that you did not want to see me, that I had been so very wrong to come, but then you were pushing open the door to the café and sitting down opposite me, ordering a cup of Earl Grey tea.

There was silence, a stolid silence, where we simply watched each other, spotting and listing differences: your hair was longer, you had started to grow a beard – or you had simply not shaved for the last few days – and your robes were less muggle, more magical, but still as colourful as ever. A dark blue-purple, that day – the colour of day old bruises – making the amber of your cravat shine.

The collar of my shirt and jacket felt tight around my throat, and I murmured a brief apology as I undid the button, letting the top fall open to my collarbones, exposing nothing other than a hint of white underneath.

You still tracked it, though, the movement and the reveal, and wildly I hoped you were remembering the days those would have been your fingers, when marks on my throat would have matched the colour of your coat.

The tea arrived, and you thanked the waiter in quiet, confident French, adding sugar with a slow, precise movement.

“I met your friend – Doge,” I told you, an unnecessary thing to say, but I could not think of anything else. How to ask, why are you here; how to ask if you would like to rejoin, to return to me?

“Yes, he told me,” you nodded, taking a sip of your tea and finally, finally looking at me again. There was a small, amused smile on your face – genuine, relaxed, and it pulled at my mouth in turn. “You quite intimidated him, you know. He could only say you were impressive, imperial almost.”

I suppressed the smirk, a smug contentment blooming in my chest, but you caught it anyway, and it struck me that I had forgotten how wonderful it was to be so perfectly understood, so intimately known.

We were dancing around those things we did not know how to say – those forbidden topics, Ariana and the Hallows and our dreamed utopia – but somehow it did not matter.

“He said you asked about me,” you said, and your voice was quiet, sombre; your eyes intent on me, searching for the slightest shift and hint of emotion.

I could not lie, not then, not to you, not about this – but I could hardly admit it either.

“I did not ask,” I responded softly, and that seemed to be enough as you gave me a knowing, pleased look I could not decipher in whole – there was something else behind it, something stronger, fiercer which I could not place.

“Perhaps not,” you murmured and from then on, we sipped our drinks in silence, taking quick, darting glances at each other every now and then. It was simple, sweet and comforting; there was no pretence there, no need for lies or masks or false fronts for friends, to persuade them that you were happy, that I was not irritated by the sinking, stagnating turn things had taken.

“Would you like a walk?” you asked abruptly, before my cup, empty, had hit the saucer. There was an intensity in your gaze which made my breath hitch; I had not seen that in years, that passion of yours, and it has always been addictive.

“Ja,” the word was so easy to say, slipping out without thinking, and then I was following you out, fastening my cloak around my neck as we went.

We walked out of the village, out down to the riverside, watching it tumble past, brushing shoulders and hands, each one lasting longer, braver, less tentative, until you pressed your palm against mine and threaded our fingers together.

Neither of us was wearing gloves, and the touch… it was so simple, so chaste compared to everything before – and everything which would come after – but the way your thumb fluttered over the back of my hand made me unsettled, made me feel strangely light-headed and incomparably grounded at the same time.

It was not enough, nothing like enough, and so we ducked into the woods, boys once more, so you could pull me close, hidden from sight, and kiss me, winding an arm around my waist and tangling warm fingers in my hair. I grasped at your coat around your waist, at your shoulders, breathless and certain we were not close enough, pressing myself against you so there was nothing between us.

Eventually, you pulled away and trailed a finger – cold now – along my jaw, teasing a shiver out of me.

“I do not know how long I will be here,” you blurted, eyes dim, and there was something wistful, almost pleading in your tone.

“I know,” I told you, the words sounding far more certain, far more confident than I felt.

You kissed me again, then, a little, soft thing, and we started walking again, unhurried, unworried, your arm still locked around my waist, and mine holding you. We continued down, following the wide, silver trail of the river, until the sky darkened on the far horizon and snow started to fall, a delicate flurry, sticking to our hair and clothes and only melting, dying when we touched them.

Later that evening, tucked away at yours, the fire crackling in the grate, yellow and red and orange, the flames rising up to the top of the fireplace, we were warm again, skin slick and flushed. There were apples and peaches in the bowl on the table, bruises sucked into my neck, red and pink, and it felt like that summer all over again, as though almost nothing had changed, only we had grown older.

Everything had changed, though, more than either of us thought at the time.

“How long will you stay?” you murmured to me, kissing my shoulder. Such an innocent question – but it had little to do with then, and everything to do with every moment after.

Behind your head, the snow outside the window was falling heavily now, a near-constant stream of white dots running past, set alight by the lamps outside, lining the street. It would be deep in the morning, two feet or more, if it did not falter; perhaps the river would ice over, the grass would shatter and snap in those places it had been protected from the snow.

In the morning, the sun would rise and set the snow to glittering, a lake of smooth white, unbroken and unspoiled.

“How long would you like me?” I answered, watching you in turn, content and lazy, a softer, tender passion taking root in my chest.

You never did say, Albus, how long, but it did not matter.

Now, it does not matter either – I am yours until I die, yes, and even after that in the minds of the world – and I wonder now, so long after, if I meant just then, how long then, or how long in everything.

In truth, I do not know which question I meant, let alone the answer you intended to give.




A/N: I do not own any references to Olympus and the Greek gods. The line 'the lady doth protest too much' is from Shakespeare's Hamlet, and so is not mine either ;) 


Chapter 21: Clauses
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Clauses

Has there ever been anything more comforting and more addictive than the absolute promise of uncertainty? It pushes and pulls with an intoxicating irregularity; it balances you, on the very edges of your toes, with your arms outstretched so as not to fall, on a cliffside and summons and cajoles you to cross the rope to the other side, even as the rocks glint below. Even as you are afraid, more afraid perhaps than you ever have been, you are enthralled: the adrenalin pumping around your body, stirring your blood and keeping your mind pressed against the glass, burns as it goes like alcohol, and when it is gone you miss it more than you could possibly imagine.

One of us said that once – only now I am not quite certain which one of us it was. The words sound like mine, but the voice they speak with, the passion and the danger and the heady, dark thrill licking along them is yours.

Does it matter, when it comes to you and I? Has it ever truly mattered?

Others would say that it does – that that is precisely what matters, which of us spoke those words, any words, and which of us merely sat there, sunlight glancing over our shoulders, and listened – but, darling, I remain unconvinced. When that summer it felt like we understood each other more perfectly than two people could ever have understood each other, as though we were two halves of one whole who had finally found each other and were slotting, slowly and carefully, back into place, what does it matter which voice sounded them when both minds thought them, both tongues formed them?

Ah, but I have distracted myself – forgive me.

I have grown old, now, or at least older than I was when we last saw each other, on that hot, happy day in Germany, and I find myself wandering more than before: I trail off into strange rambles of thought, diverted from my original meaning, I amble through the worn paths of the Forest with scarcely a thought to the time or the dangers which hide behind every tree. It was always a habit of mine, to deviate, but now, now alas it is a common occurrence.

We never were certain, were we? Of all the things we were – young and so very in love, drunk on our own intellect, on the thousand possibilities the future spread before us, at once naïve and wise and brave – we were never certain.

We lived on a knife-edge, then, clinging onto every moment in the anticipation that it would vanish when we least expected it (and it did, didn’t it? In a way neither of us had ever dreamed, and neither of us was quite prepared for).

There were some certainties, some truths we knew: that you and I would not separate, that we would never find another who could match either of us, that Aberforth would find some way to damn us with anger alone. Some of those still linger, even now, when that summer has long passed and I have been cloistered up here in the highlands long enough for it to have lost its charms.

Do you think of them, on the wonderful desperation with which we seized everything that summer?

I would like to think you do – I would hate to think you have lost your passion, your fire, your certainty.

(It is perhaps more than a little ironic that separately we were so certain – we are so certain – about ourselves, our thoughts, the world entire, but together, in the one thing we should have made solid beyond anything, we were always so very fragile.

We assumed we were unbreakable, swore that nothing the world could do would tear us apart – and when the world put us to a test, we discovered our coats of adamantium were only china.)

After everything we had woven together had been ripped and torn beyond repair, a wall sunk into the ground between us neither of us could see or feel but which was always there, always pushing us further and further away, we were more uncertain than ever – but now, as I sit here and recall our time together, all the stolen, secret meetings, I cannot help but think that we were wonderfully certain in uncertainty.

It did not matter where or when or for how long, but one way or another, my darling, we always inevitably found ourselves walking down the same paths again – tumbling and stumbling across the top of the wall to fall down together, hand in hand and blissfully complete again. In the same manner as the sun rising and the moon turning through her cycle, we repeated the same dance, the same, tragic dance over and over until it was natural to run to each other, natural for our worlds to revolve around each other.

In effect, Gellert, every clause of my life, every period of time I have spent anywhere, anyhow, has almost always ended with you, and that at least shows no sign of stopping. If that is not a form of certainty, then I am bewildered as to what is.

(Perhaps, then, to finish the metaphor, we only needed a little more time, a little more growth, for our china coats to harden and slide into adamantium; and perhaps, then, we were merely too early for each other, in the end.)




9th June, 1924; Alvanley, Cheshire, England

The air was hot, thick with clouds of cigar smoke – electric blue and heavy, hanging low over heads, the candles floating around the room pinpricks through them – and the old mahogany panelling on the walls, separating out crimson-and-gold patterned, velveteen canvases, shrunk the space down, making it feel cage-like, prison-like almost, as though there was no escape. In my mouth, the taste of red wine, full-bodied and fruity, lingered, drying out the back of my throat, and my head was swimming pleasantly.

Around me circled a number of faces, of famous names at the time, their voices quiet and punctuated every now and then by a cough, gruff and short, and the soft patter of footsteps on the carpet. In one corner of the room, Cantankerous Nott was nodding solemnly as Ariadne Greengrass emphasised a point with a flailing arm, her husband silent by her side and looking deeply uncomfortable. Cornelia Adams stood on the opposite side from their small party, with Heather MacKay and Horatio Prewett, her cheeks flushed and her voice hushed and quick.

“Albus, my friend!” Horace bounced over to me, yet another glass of wine in his hand, his face ruddy and his green striped waistcoat stretched thinly over his stomach. “How are you enjoying yourself? Not as bad as you had thought, eh?”

He laughed at his own joke, taking a large sip, and I could only smile in response – a short, strained thing.

“It has been quite delightful so far,” I responded automatically, the words tripping off my tongue without much thought at all. Stock words; there was nothing sincere about them – indeed, my tone was almost painfully bland – but that did not dissuade him at all.

“Well, I did tell you! Though really, it’s no surprise – a clever chap like you, the Ministry’s the perfect place!” he smiled conspiratorially, leaning in a little with a slight sway. “Minister McLaird’s always looking for advisers, you know, on anything – an easy way in, as well, to go through the support staff channels, and I hear the pay isn’t half bad either.”

“Naturally,” I murmured in response, draining the last of my glass in one go. Too quick, in truth; old habits always have a tendency to sneak up on us when we least expect it, when we are most vulnerable to them. “If you would excuse me…”

Without waiting to see if he would reply, I skirted around the edge of the room, past a pair of elderly men in matching tasselled robes with wide bell sleeves, and dipped into the dining room.

With white-plastered walls, edged with pale pink and gold, and windows lining the length of one side, it was brighter, the air clearer and cleaner, light pouring in and glancing over the gilt on the rims of the teacups and the candlesticks, bouncing off of the wine glasses and champagne flutes lined up on the table, turning the glaze on a round, two-tiered cake already divided into slices into a mirror. Still, my throat did not loosen, my stomach twisting uncomfortably as I searched for the jug of water and a fresh glass.

He could not have known how what he had said would affect me – could not have predicted that I would react thus – but the casual way he had suggested it, the reminder that it would be so simple if I wanted to, if I would allow myself to… that I could, even then, switch careers, follow you down the long road to political infamy. It was still possible for me, for us: the dream we had spun from the air around us that summer, pulling wisps of cloud and feverish whispers from the sky and weaving them into the greater good.

(The Greater Good. Even now, it makes me flinch as it reminds me of you, of that summer, of everything you have ever been to me.

It was a beautiful dream: pure and simple and so wonderfully perfect in its imagining. It was idealistic and grounded in history, revolutionary and yet the best solution, something to believe in and to strive for, to follow and to trust. It was everything you were, everything I had dreamed of becoming, and everything the world did not need or want.

I can never quite decide if I should admire you or despair of you, for the passion and the zeal with which you committed yourself, body and soul, to the cause you chose for yourself.

Martyrdom is glorious in theory, in books and legends, but my darling, I am not certain I could have borne the loss.)

Wandering about the room, the water slowly eating away at the layer of red wine encrusted on the roof of my mouth and the top of my tongue, I found that I was not fighting the urge to go and talk to the members of the Wizengamot, ingratiate myself with them, a childish sort of glee, wicked and hopeful and thirsty, whispering that I should, I could help people, I would be great and wonderful and so very revered. Instead, I was angry that Horace would presume I longed for power, made sick by the thought of holding it – responsibility for so many lives, all the power I had ever wanted, heavy and rich and so very malleable – in my hands.

If I could not manage to succeed with one life, if I could not simply be a brother, how on earth could I father a nation?

(Now, they have offered it to me twice, the duty and the gift, and both times it has been easy to refuse. There will come a day when it is not, I know, and I am afraid, Gellert.)

“Albus,” the call was unexpected and unwelcome after Horace’s reminders of the glorious future I had thrown away, and my smile was brittle when I turned to face Bathilda. If she noticed, she did not comment on it, and later, when I was calmer and far more rational, I would be grateful for it: she had been a great friend to mother, after all, there was no need for rudeness or incivility.

(She had, of course, given me you at the time I most needed you, longed for you, and that was far more precious a gift to me than anything else. Fool that I am, I can never hope to repay her for that, no matter what came after our introduction.)

“Bathilda, I confess I did not expect to see you here,” I responded neatly, keeping my glass of water in front of me like some kind of wet, weak shield. “Though I am, of course, delighted as always. I hope you’ve been well?”

“Oh yes,” her smile was softer and wider than my own had been, genuine warmth emanating from it, if a little cooler, more reserved than perhaps it should have been, but given the history, the facts and the secrets of it all, what more could I really have expected?

It had been nearly twenty-five years since the day you had left; it seemed like an age then, now it feels like it could have been yesterday: time, in all her strange, twisting wonder.

“I have been well, but busy, though I do regret not keeping in touch,” Bathilda told me, one finger running around the rim of a wine glass slowly, absently, constantly. “I meant to, but it kept slipping my mind.”

“In which case, I should apologise as well, since I did not write either,” I assured her lightly, though in truth it felt tiring, so very tiring, having to pretend to be light-hearted and jovial, the perfect guest, when all I wanted to do was shout and pace like thunder, raise a hand and see wardrobes and desks crack and splinter, fine china vases reduced to dust.

Anger in the face of fear; it is lucky, perhaps, that on that fateful day, I was too afraid to be properly, truly angry.

“No need,” Bathilda promised me, taking a small, half-hearted sip of the wine – white and surely tepid by now. “I hear you are at Hogwarts now – I hope you’re enjoying it? I would never have pegged you for a teacher, but I suspect it will suit you quite well, as most things would do.”

“Yes, it has been a very rewarding experience so far,” I replied, and the words seemed heavier and lighter at the same time, meaning more and costing less than they had done previously. It did not strike me then, not so soon, but that was when I found that I had fallen into – not love, never quite love – admiration, perhaps, with my cage.

You would say it is merely a type of Stockholm Syndrome – that in having been isolated from the world for so long, separated from my heart and my soul and my true, real dreams, I had forgotten what the outside looked like, what those things were.

Perhaps you are right, darling; but I cannot say.

“It is remarkable,” I therefore continued, entirely unaware of the significance of the moment which had just passed. “How much one can learn from students – and usually, I must say, without them knowing they are teaching another at all. Of course, it does leave me free enough to do my own research, which has always been a passion of mine.”

“I am glad,” Bathilda smiled again, and this time there was something wistful about it. “Your mother would be pleased to see you happy and thriving. I think I read an article of yours the other day on the misunderstandings surrounding the properties and symbolism of moonstone – it was really excellent. I am hardly an expert in such things, as I have rarely journeyed outside of Europe, to my regret, but I would be very happy to assist with the historical side of things, should you need any? It is a fascinating topic – and a potentially controversial one in these times!”

“If you wouldn’t mind, that would be incredibly helpful,” I found myself smiling back, and easily, naturally this time – academic research was a much safer topic, after all, and a much simpler one to manage. “Hogwarts’ library is excellent, but not up to par in this area, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, it would be no trouble,” she nodded sympathetically, looking at once thoughtful and business-like, a frown creasing her forehead. “Most ordinary libraries, no matter how well-stocked and expansive they are, do not tend to cover topics and subject matters they feel are unnecessary to discuss – or even, in some cases, non-existent. Why, I was saying to Gellert the other day…”

She trailed off, giving me a strange, nervous look, quick and sharp, and took a gulp of wine. The silence hung between us, weighty and so potentially dangerous, and I swallowed, closing my eyes for a heartbeat, gathering myself, steeling myself, and praying to whatever forces might exist that I would be strong enough for what could come.

“I should be glad to hear what he said – he always did have such extraordinary, if fierce and researched, opinions,” I felt myself say, far more aware of the flick of my tongue against my lips, against the roof of my mouth and my teeth.

I took a mouthful of water, a tiny lump of ice accompanying; it was cold, bitterly so, and it grounded me from where you had sent me soaring.

She touched the hem of her jacket, plum-coloured and fashionably tight and stiff, before continuing, the words falling faster than before, as though she was almost pushing them out of her mouth, tiny drops of acid she wanted rid of, so that we could return to the blissful, polite conversation we had had before.

“I was saying to him about how things exist differently in different places – in different forms, if at all, in different words and with different intonations and emotions and social thoughts attached to them. He said how he finds it is the same with people: they exist differently in different places, with different people. With one group, they are one facet of themselves; with another, another; and so on, until they have a hundred different parts of themselves tied to a hundred different places or groups or aspects of a society.”

“I suspect,” I replied quietly. “That he is quite right about that.”

The rest of the conversation passed swiftly – a few more pleasantries, insistences on both our parts that perhaps this time we might remember to write (I did, in the end, but I focused very much of our proposed collaboration, and not at all on anything remotely relating to you or my mother or that wretched, beautiful summer) – and was entirely unremarkable.

Soon enough, I begged my leave of her and then Horace in turn, citing papers to mark, essays to grade and detentions to supervise, and luckily eliciting only a grimace and commiserations rather than pleas and cajoling to stay, and vanished back up to Hogwarts, through the gates and onto the wide, open fields of the grounds.

Absently, I wandered towards the edge of the lake, shimmering silver-blue in the distance, the sun blazing down from the sky and turning the surface of it to a crust of diamonds, glinting and winking at me.

Overhead, a bird cawed, winging its way over the school, a pair of owls flapped steadily southwards, and the trees rustled continuously, their leaves plump and bright, vivid shades of green, touched here and there with yellow and white. The sky was a brilliant azure, the few white clouds near the sun followed by thicker, heavier grey ones a few miles away, bringing the promise of a thunderstorm and an end to the sticky, humid pressure which had enveloped seemingly the whole country – even up in the Highlands, we had not been spared.

It was mercifully cooler there, though: a small wind, impertinent and fierce, jostled its way through the trees and the bushes of the forest, picking and nipping at my hair, my face and the jagged crests of tiny, half-formed waves on the lake.

Once there, with the surges of the lake beating on the ground only two feet away from me, a barrier of tiny, pebbled rocks separating she and I, I could relax, free and safe, and think.

A separation of selves – that was your idea, your philosophy, as you had told Bathilda; the way you perceived the world to impose on each one of us. Some unspoken force behind the scenes, invisible and impossible to counter, dividing up our souls until we are merely sums of parts, characteristics and traits and inherent, unchanging facts, nothing more and nothing less and certainly never quite unified, never whole. Hidden shards of diamond, concealed from some and uncovered for others… was it not how it had worked for us, after all? How it had to work for us, condemned and damned as we were – or so they would have us believe.

Oh my darling, you have always had a gift for rhetoric, and you have always had a gift for stirring things in me, sending my mind soaring off to new pastures in search of truths I had never known could exist; you have always made me restless, restless and stupefied and irresistibly challenged.

If I believed in such things, destinies and predestination and fate, you would be the other half of my soul, and that in every life and in every universe somehow, somewhere, we would always have met and loved.

When I am melancholy and lonely and hopelessly in love, I do not discount it.

In truth, it has never surprised me how deeply you could touch me with such simple words, how easily you could understand me even in perfect, still, silence. On that, at least, we are somewhat more evenly matched, I think: I have unravelled you, to some extent, just as you did to me.

There, though, on the bank of the lake, as much as your words had shaken me and turned my thoughts back onto you, onto us and the secrets we shared, the histories and the anger and the sufferings which scarred us both, they pushed onwards, onto Hogwarts, almost beyond you and I and onto solely myself.

How true your words seemed, and how hollow they made me feel! To think that I, so lauded for my intelligence, for my wisdom and my wit and my learning, could have missed something so basic, so obvious when laid out before me so plainly.

It explained so much to me, so much of my resentment at school, for being cast as the golden child, the genius youth; the perfectly poised, perfectly spoken, perfectly presented student – for the inability it gave me to make a mistake, to be anything less, to be not quite what they wanted me to be. It explained why I had dreaded home, where I was cast as the solitary scholar, the son who could not help, who was better for avoiding it and worse for struggling when asked to do it.

It explained why for so long I had felt so separate from society, from my friends and foes alike, from scholars and teachers and everyone, in truth, but you: to others I was not white enough to be properly British but not foreign enough to be foreign, not openly wild enough to be classed as an ingrate but not normal enough to be a man as everyone else was.

For so long I had existed in a state of limbo, between one thing and the next and not really either, without realising that was where I was.

To realise, though, is to find the heart of the problem, and, for me then, to find a solution.

Why should the fact that it was what the world wanted me to be force me to bear it? Why did I have to split, in the opinions of others, in the way I viewed myself, simply because it was what was done, if I did not want to be?

Why could I not be Albus Dumbledore, revolutionary, and Albus Dumbledore, teacher, at once, in my own way and in my own time?

What would it change, such a small rebellion, to blend the glass shards of my soul together so I am whole again, other than to make me happy? After all, one man is not a revolution – there would be no grand shaking of society, no trembling of the earth as the moral pillars which upheld it were cracked down to their very cores.

Do not think that I did not still want you, Gellert, that I did not still care for you or wonder if perhaps I should be with you and not at Hogwarts, that I had given up forever on our dreams and our beautiful utopia – or even on my secret, private dreams of you and I in a paradise all our own. I had not. I still have not, in some things.

But then I made the decision to be happy and to be solely myself entire – and I think, darling, that you of all people would have smiled, soft and bright, and wished me luck.


Chapter 22: England
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England

There is something desolate and endearingly stubborn about London in the spring. Perhaps it is the way the flowers – bright yellow daffodils and tiny, trampled daisies – are spots of colour against a vast wash of grey, stretching from the sky to the sea and across the whole width of the city, encompassing everything in between, from parks which should be green and alive, to buildings in shades of cream and mint and statues in dark bronze.

It is almost as if the entire city is apologising for the vibrancy and the brightness of spring; as though it feels to allow the colours to blaze might be an imposition, and so they must hold it back, rein it in, keep them and the joy and the birth inherent in it contained and controlled – to not overexcite.

Most days, of course, in London in spring, it rains and it rains and it rains until it feels as though it never started and never ended. Cold and slick, the drops sneak down the back of your cloak, under your shirt, leaving spots and patterns of wet on your skin, washing your hair in a constant sprinkle of water so that it hangs, limp and lifeless and dark, around your face and refuses, even as the wind tosses it about, to dry.

There is a certain beauty to it, I admit: the pavements become mirror-like, shining and glittering, and the gold and silver points on top of the cathedral, of the gates surrounding Buckingham Palace, lining the length of Tower Bridge, glimmer with an icy, regal glint.

It matches the river, all of it: a silvery sewer, shined and gilded and embossed to hide the cracks in the walls, papering over the holes and the dents time has wrought.

I can almost hear you laugh, like you did when I told you all this – our separation had been brief, but tense; short, but far too long; and you had demanded to know if I had found it better than Godric’s Hollow, more beautiful than you and our hidden bower by the brook, more fascinating than the ways we could push and pull each other, than how you would bury your fingers in my hair and make me sigh, how if I pressed two fingers, gentle and slow, to your lips and then away, you would follow and kiss me.

“Perhaps you are being unduly harsh,” you told me, as we walked along under the canopy of trees, dappled green and yellow falling across our shoulders and our faces, arm in arm. “Most people enjoy it – it is the capital of the world, or so they say.”

“It is an arrogance, that a handful of men can say somewhere is the capital of the world and it is believed,” I retorted – contrary, as always, because was that not our way?

We would stand in opposite corners, the duelling circles carved into the floor in front of us, and we would battle with words, arguments and facts and philosophical opinions our spells and hexes and curses.

Usually, neither of us won, the battles long dead before the end was ever in sight.

Is it perhaps strange, then, since we battled in everything else, that we never battled in sex?

Perhaps it was the sheer romanticism our whole history was soaked with; perhaps it was the twinned wonder and terror of new, wild explorations; perhaps it was the fact that it was the one thing we never, ever disagreed on – what we wanted, we wanted together and that never failed.

English – I can see you flinching even now, embarrassed and abashed, cheeks blushing and voice failing, at the mention of three letters in quick succession. Two, if we count phonetically. So stiff and morally just you are now, as your London was then.

Now, there is merely paper covering the cracks in you, Albus, and soon it will wear thin, decaying away from the inside out. As in your self-proclaimed capital of the world, in your self-proclaimed saviour there is nothing underneath but weak, crumbling foundations painted over with a pretty, chipped façade.

There are flowers, bursts of colour, of passion, of joy and anger and desire, and they bleed, here and there, through the fog which envelopes them. They are only decoys, though, meant to satisfy those who do not look close enough to see the scars and the dirt and to catch the scent of the rotten, swollen core beneath.

Perhaps, then, the rain is you crying – endless tears for a man who never had the courage to stop them. Endless tears, crocodile tears in silver and green… weep, Albus, the world is not yet drowned.

Ah, but it is miserable, is it not, London in the spring?




23rd April, 1925; Kensington, London

There was the sound of drumbeats as the rain thundered down onto the roof, patting in rhythm on the glass dome which topped it, beating out a one-two-three-four one-two-three-four one-two-three-four with fierce, stern regularity, pouring down the sides, sheets of water making the world outside run like ink on a page, blurring and messing the lines of the buildings and the people passing by. It was loud, drowning out every other sound – the voice of the Foreign Secretary, sent to greet me, was silent even as her lips moved, and the clack and click of shoes on the marble floor were pinpricks in the wave emanating from the roof – and as we moved down off the dais, it seemed only to grow stronger, surging up to swallow us whole.

In truth, with the water streaming from the tip of the ceiling down to the ground outside, it felt almost as though we were falling underwater, sinking steadily to the ocean floor.

You had always laughed, that summer, when it would rain for a day entire without stopping and I would sigh over the lost time, the hours we would have spent lying in the sun, hidden away from the rest of the world; the wet forced us inside, with Aberforth and Ariana and the restlessness which came from being penned up, unwanted and ignored.

“Welcome to England,” you would say, the amusement in your voice pulling a glare and a pout out of me – I was young then, you remember, young enough that coquetry suited me. You would laugh again and kiss me, slow and soft, and hand me a book in the seconds which followed, aware of how my eyes would track you, struggling to rest on the words.

Ah, but those days are long gone now, and they were when I returned to England, too, were they not?

(In truth, though, they were not quite as gone then as you might have wished to believe – still we circled each other then, endlessly falling back towards each other, crashing down together, and each time it felt as though we had never been apart, as though we had spent years and decades together rather than mere months and weeks.

Did you feel it too, Albus, when you kissed me every time after that summer, the flickers of a passion you had thought cooled and frozen, the stirrings of dusty dreams you had believed shattered beyond repair?

I know what you will answer, and you are a liar.)

That evening the pavements were glistening with the rain, heavy and slippery, winding through the maze of buildings like threads of silver spun about rough-hewn models; on the horizon, the setting sun hung low in the sky, red and fat, and the last rays caught the notes of platinum in the streets and turned them into diamond, gleaming and sparkling.

All around, the air was fresh, clear and light, the scent of dew scattered everywhere, merging with the fragrances of flowers, daffodils and snowdrops, enchanted to bloom once every two weeks, a never-ending sequence of opening and closing and never, ever dying.

No doubt filled to the brim with optimism, the gala that evening – drinks and dinner, a welcoming of sorts for my Germany from your England – had been arranged outside, in the foolish, whimsical hope that God might be merciful and spare them another flood. In the expectation that there would be no mercy given, they had provided a floating marquee, decorated with ribbons and lanterns, ivy winding over the fabric, a light peach gauze, and trailing over the ends to hang down towards the ground.

With the sunset hitting it, sinking through and staining the peach cherry-red, the ivy leaves blocking out most of the light, throwing five-pointed shadows against the half-walls and the floor, it seemed as though we were sheltering under a willow tree, its branches spread wide and high.

For the sake of honesty, I will admit that it was beautiful – romantic in a way which could not fail to stir something in the soul.

You should have come, Albus, you would have adored it.

“Minister McLeod,” the Head of the Department for International Magical Cooperation, a dark-haired charismatic man with a round face and a stern expression, introduced me, gesturing towards a man who was emitting spots of smoke from his wand every few seconds, dots and dashes intermingling.

We shook hands, though he did not release his wand and the smoke swirled around our heads, grey and murky; I coughed a little – cigarette smoke was one thing, my own vice and virtue, but this was too much, irritating and stinging – and he nodded once.

For a moment, we stood there, McLeod, Fawley and I, our heads wreathed in smoke leaving only the skirts of our dress robes – red, dark blue, and burnished amber (a gift, one year, from Nico, brought back from Persepolis and woven to show flowers, butterflies and birds in flight when you turned and twisted the material in the light). There was a triangle drawn between our feet, silence enveloping us like a bubble shielding us from the rest of the group, and then Fawley gave a timid, frustrated smile, and I left.

In less than three months, McLeod and his bell-shaped puffs of silver would be replaced, your newspapers proclaiming freedom, damning him twice for his silence, for his habit of being complicated when what they wanted was simplicity. Fawley, his timid, nodding assistant would be Minister, hailed as a hero, praised for his eloquence and his plain speaking – but, in time, fate would come for him too, and he would fall, his wings turning to ash on the wind, to join the rest of us in ignominy and disgrace.

It is always the way, is it not, that those of us who reach furthest, highest, quickest, fall the hardest?

(Together, we are Icarus and Dedalus: on the ground, we build a dream, a future, a world entire, shaping it and moulding it with our hands, with our mouths, and then, when we are ready, when our child is full-grown, we take his hand and fly.

For a moment, it is beautiful – azure skies, stars in the distance and white rolls of clouds beneath us – and then our child slips, the breath stolen from him and his life dashed out on the earth below.

But, perhaps, you could say that you are Dedalus, master craftsman and engineer and giver of gifts, and I am Icarus, selfish and proud and vain.

Would that better suit your façade, Albus, or would it scar it still with the insinuation that once you had dripped wax onto my back with tender, knowing hands?)

I saw your friend there again and swept over, hooking a glass of champagne from a tray as it went past; he almost gulped to see me, glancing around as though to search for someone else to talk to, some way of avoiding me. His wife was hanging off his arm – a pretty thing, I suspect, smothered in pale blue satin, a single diamond glinting on her finger – and he held her hand tighter as I approached.

Oh, Albus, for all the world will say you were the first to warn of my strength, of my ferocity, he knew it first, before even you.

“Mr Doge,” I began, kissing the back of his wife’s hand and shaking his – his palm was clammy but his grip was stronger than I had expected, pushing the bones of my fingers towards each other sharply, harshly. “I should congratulate you on your recent appointment – our Austrian cousins are always generous hosts; I am sure you and your wife will receive every comfort.”

“Yes, of course,” he replied, ducking and swallowing like a pigeon in search of bread. “Thank you. It is a great honour to represent my country to such a great nation.”

He played the game well, that I will admit – for all the bluster and the blunders and the bobbing uncertain timidity he seemed to prize so much, he could flatter when he wanted, knew how and when to recall things, knew what to say to whom and the simple mark refusing to cower left long after the two parties have separated.

My smile was brittle in return: my mother’s nation still bore bruises and cuts on her arms and legs from the war; she was collapsing and splitting, dividing into Hungary and Austria, red and blue, tearing brothers from sisters, mothers from daughters, friends from each other. Under the weight of anger, of fear, of desperation, she had fractured, slowly shattering piece by piece.

The splinters would heal themselves, merge into new states, new and older countries – but it would not be the same.

My brothers had died for something which no longer existed, for a country who had simply given up. What does it mean, to sacrifice yourself for nothing? To give everything for nothing? To have your life, in the end, represent only shame anger and mean nothing?

Can you imagine, Albus, what it must be like, to feel and hear and know that those you love are nothing?

Whatever you claim, it burns and it burns deep; they make scars which will never heal in those who bear them.

At the end of that evening, as I wandered back through the gardens – plotted in rows and banks of multi-coloured spots, lit up by tiny dots of light here and there, planted in the ground next to the edges of the flowerbeds – champagne still bubbling on my tongue, I stole a cluster of white violets from a bed, plucking them gently, the snap of the branch loud in the quiet of the night. I stole them and once I was back in the hotel, safely out of sight and my thoughtlessness unbound, I wrote on a slip of paper, stringing it on a ribbon, indigo and slick, and sent them away.

Albus, periméno.

What did you think when they arrived, fresh and raw and wet with dew, at the window of your room in your prison? What did you feel when you found they were from me, what did you want and wish? Did you believe me – them, the gift – that I would wait, that I meant what they said; a confession and a plea in one breath.

I waited, Albus, I kept my word and my promise: I waited, lingering in our old homes, those former palaces we had built together, and you did not come.

At twilight, I meandered down the roads we had once walked together, arm in arm, breath passing from my mouth to yours and back again, the sun setting on my back, streaking the houses around me with red and yellow, turning the trees to a deep, amber-lit green, the sky bruising tenderly at the edges where it brushed the sun. They felt smaller than they had done then, simpler and as dull as I had once thought them.

Did you ever go back, or did the courage always escape you?

(But perhaps I do not need to ask – after all, you have not visited me, twenty years after you locked me away and tucked the key into your pocket, twenty years after you tied my life to yours once more with your wretched, selfish mercy.

If you cannot visit me – whom you saved, or so they say, to whom you are kind and gracious and wise – then how could you possibly visit her?

After all, you did not save her, did you?)

Passing by the church, I stopped at the kissing-gate, looking out over the graveyard, still and silent as the dead who lived there, rows and rows of faded, chipped tombstones, broken only by the occasional angel, scythe held high or hands clasped tight together in prayer. Around it laid a kind of peace, soft and foreboding, but peaceful all the same; it felt familiar, welcoming, in a way the rest of the village had not.

I was not alone: there was a man there, standing over a headstone, bowed and bent, shoulders curving almost as though trying to meet the top of it. His robes were frayed, his coat muggle and five years too old, his hands shoved in his pockets.

For a moment, he stood there and I watched him, observing as he grieved, as he wept and railed against the workings of God, and then he straightened up.

For a moment, half a heartbeat, I thought he was you – I felt myself flare, thinking you had come for me, that for a second time the graveyard in Godric’s Hollow would pull us together, flies trapped in a spider’s web.

It took me a second to swallow the bitter absinthe the disappointment left in my mouth, and in that instant, he turned and his eyes, red-rimmed and furiously sad, locked onto me.

Aberforth and I stared at each other a long while, eight rows of graves separating us from each other, dusk lengthening the shadows so that everything before him was cast in shades of black and brown and grey, the cracks and clefts in the stones carved deeper and wider. Around us, a breeze fluttered, picking at my hair, at his beard, at my robes and his coat, the heads of flowers left on graves rustling softly – a ghostly accompaniment.

In his pocket, something twitched, shaking the material, and I wondered absently whether he would try to duel me again, whether he would draw his wand and try to kill me in front of his sister’s body, over his mother’s grave.

He did not move, but as the shadows on his face grew, so too did the spark of something strong and hot in his eyes, his jaw clenching and his body tensing.

I did not move either, too struck by how odd coincidence could sometimes be, how painful it was to see someone who looked so much like you and so little like you at once; one hand stayed on the post holding the kissing-gate shut, the latch wrapped around it, and I could not think.

Then, I knew for certain that you would not come – if Aberforth was here, you would not be, you would not risk it, to see me and him in that place again – and it settled in my stomach, heavy and salty and full of bile.

After a while, I left, leaving him behind me with the corpses of his sister and mother, half-shredded wreaths of roses and lilies for company, and made my way back down the road, away from the graves, from the third Peverell brother. I could hear nothing, I could see nothing, I could think nothing still – I found my paths through habit alone, following the same paths you and I had walked a thousand times and more during that summer, seeking out hiding places after havens, running farther and farther afield until we almost dared to suggest we would not go back, not that night.

So many times we joked about sleeping under the stars, protected by magic alone, surrounded by the sight and the smell and the taste of nature unfettered, free and happy – we never did it, did we?

We spent a night under the stars, so many hours under the stars, but we never slept, never awoke still there, soaked through with dew and warmed by the sun, rocked awake by a chorus of birdsong.

We made so many promises, my Albus, did we ever keep any of them in the end?

No, it was clear then that there was nothing left for me in Godric’s Hollow – there were no lovesick, fervent promises curled around the lampposts, around the kissing-gate or the tree which had quivered outside your window; there was no reason for you to come back and so no reason for me. I left, once I had slipped out of sight of the graveyard, ducking round a corner and into a nook by the side of the pub, plastered with shadows to hide me, apparating back to Kensington and the safety, the comfort of my dreams and my companions.

Once back, I poured a tumbler of vodka, Russian and charmed cold, and found Otto blowing smoke into the sky on the balcony.

He took one look at me and handed me a cigarette wordlessly, turning back to face the night in stoic, calm silence. With a snap, I lit the cigarette, taking the first drag and breathing out long and slow, watching how the smoke curled in the air, white ribbons fading as they bloomed into curved leaves and petals unfurling.

Otto never asked why or how or who, he never needed to – what did questions give you but more questions, he told me once, when we were younger and more philosophical, my head on his shoulder and my tongue heavy with brandy, orange-flavoured and rich. He had not slurred a letter, had not waved an arm, had simply sat there and thought.

We were a pair, he and I – I forever asking questions and he forever refusing them.

It was why when I needed someone most, I asked him to stay with me, to sleep with me and not to leave, for his silence and for his affection.

You will know about this, you will have heard of it, and I know how you must hate it; you seemed to, at least, all those years ago. Do you hate it still, does it still sting when you think of him, when you think of me?

These days, I am no longer certain if I wish it did or not.

“We will return to Germany in the morning,” I told him, my voice little more than a murmur, the vodka warming my throat, the smoke sinking into it so the two tastes were inseparable for that moment. “There is nothing more for us to do here.”

Beside me, Otto merely nodded, a quiet ‘jawohl’ leaving his lips with the next breath of smoke, and we stood there in silence, the sky above us black and devoid of stars, the thin rays of the moon breaking through a layer of cloud in the distance; instead, below, the lamplights glowed orange, reflected a thousand times in the pools of water the rain had left behind, scattered and broken but still glittering.

We stood there and slowly, gently, somehow Otto took hold of the bitter, sore burns your muteness had pressed into my flesh and my heart and my soul, and without saying or doing anything, soothed them enough so that I did not feel them so deeply; they scarred, but not so red and raw, and I could breathe without something catching, could look on England and see something other than you and that dull, brilliant, beautiful summer we had shared.

(Albus, I waited – you cannot deny that, at least.) 




A/N: Albus, perimeno = Albus, I wait (Greek)

jawohl = yes

I don't own references to Icarus and Dedalus either :) 


Chapter 23: Semantics
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Semantics

Tell me, Gellert, what do words actually mean? How do you know what they mean – how do you come to define them, where do you take your definition from; perhaps when do you take your definition from, and from whom? How do you say what is a word and what is not: how can you pin something down and give it fixed, inflexible boundaries when it is constantly moving, shifting and growing, expanding as the culture which surrounds it, the people who fill it and use it grow and shift and change?

Is it possible, therefore, to ever really define something – to write out a word and say, this is what it means, this is what a person says when they use it.

Semantics, darling, merely semantics, but they have always been so very important.

After all, if you twist a word one way, it means one thing; if you tilt it another, something else, and so on, until the same word, with different inflections, different sounds, can have a dozen meanings all stemming from it, branching out like a tree from a seed. All equally right, all equally valid, and all entirely dependent on context to show, a light through a prism scattering into a blurring rainbow, which one is meant.

When an implication can wound, can burn and scar, when a word can conjure up anger, red-hot and powerful, then semantics come into their own – then they are necessary.

That is not to say that they are not necessary all the time, as I know you would argue, indignant and affronted, ever the linguist, only that there are times when even a fool would think them needed, would agree that intent has importance then, that meaning and definition and simple, honest ignorance, however true and however real they may be, cannot solely make a word.

For us, that summer – perhaps always, no matter how well we knew each other; our need for semantics was only reduced, not vanquished completely – implication was everything: we spoke across languages, across cultures, and so intention trumped definition, as it was.

Strong, you would say, meaning hard. Fat, you would say, meaning round. Once, I remember – at least, I think I do – you said forceful instead of passionate, your hand tracing the symbol of the Hallows on my chest, looking flushed and thoroughly debauched.

I had stilled, stunned and petrified, while you had frowned, butting the back of your head against the pillow – and that, of all things, had given me the sense of what you had meant.

Ah, but the things we lose in words, only to understand in actions!

All my life I had prized eloquence and debates around semantics, the ability to turn a phrase or to mould new meanings for words, to give meaning to sentences and clauses which meant very little originally; in meeting you, all of that was thrown out of the window with a glance.

Suddenly, what meant so much more was how close you were to me, were you close enough or too close, how you moved – from your hands when you gestured to how your mouth moved as you spoke and the way you walked – how you smiled and frowned, the simple touches here and there: a brush of my leg by accident, a quick, tight clasp of hands when we parted… it infuriated me as much as I adored it; it set me on edge like nothing else, and I craved it and dreaded it in equal measure.

I had never been quite so thoroughly convinced at once of the power of words and of their utter uselessness.

Did you know it, how easily you could distract me, turn my head and my thoughts simply by shifting slightly or pressing your hand to my skin?

No, do not answer – I am not certain if I would like to know the truth, if you were merely sweetly infatuated and as fascinated by the illicit thrills it brought as I was, or if you were gently winding my soul further and further around your finger like a piece of coloured string.

No one has ever, will ever enthral me the way you did, my darling, of that I am sure.

Did you use that, that slipping of semantics, cerebral and purely intellectual, from my grasp in favour of something more temporal, more tangible, to draw me in, to encourage me to turn a blind eye to the darker, deeper aspects of your plans?

I remember – and this I do remember, sharp and clear – asking you once, sitting on the bank of the brook that ran along the back of the Godric’s Hollow, delving and diving between rocks, around the roots of trees, bursting out of the earth which lined the sides of it, “This idea of the ‘greater good’, I cannot help but wonder – is it really ‘good’, as such?”

You had smiled, fond and amused and perhaps there was something sly and condescending and cold underneath it, bathed in dappled sunlight, a sylph in pale silver-grey and jasmine-yellow, lowered your eyelashes and wiped a droplet of water, light and cool, from my cheek, with your thumb, half-cupping my face.

“Albus,” you almost sighed, your gaze fluttering over my mouth. “Your semantics.”




10th August, 1926; The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade, Scotland

The air was heavy, sticky, as though the water embedded into it had been tinted with sugar or honey, colouring the landscape with a faint brush of cream over the green and the brown; the treetops were still and the sky full to the brim with high, arching banks of grey clouds, dark and foreboding even with the sun, in the middle of her cycle from horizon to horizon, lighting them up with flickers and flashes of bright yellow breaking through here and there.

Everything felt hung, as I recall, stacked delicately on top of each other and wobbling, swaying with a gentle danger.

It seemed, then, like nothing of consequence – only the coming of a summer storm, fierce and sudden and beautiful; of course, when I look back on it now, I wonder how I did not see any of it coming, how I did not feel, then, the precipice approaching with the weather and the threat of losing everything, of seeing it all destroyed in the time of a single rumble of thunder, accompanying it.

Ah, the blessings of hindsight! So helpful and so forgiving, and yet at once so damning.

In truth, it is a seductive, wonderful sword – double-edged and gleaming, glittering with gold and jewels on the pommel, perfectly balanced and ready, willing to be used, to slice through the veil, silk and translucent, which blinds you to show you the murky grey of reality. All it asks in exchange is for you to fall on one side or the other – forgiveness, for yourself or for another, or damnation.

Either way, you fall, and the cuts do not heal quickly when they cut deep.

I should apologise, I suspect – as I grow older I find myself clinging more and more to philosophy, to endless circles around life and death and the intricate, infinite nature of man; pouring night after night after night over old, faded letters and thick, leather-bound and vellum tomes, and it is undoubtedly lessening my conversation.

In thinking so long on life, on the meaning of the world and one’s place within it, on the foundations of being, it is possible to waste it. Ironic, perhaps, and romantic, in its own fashion.

Perhaps, though, you would prefer to call it tragic – I confess I am no longer certain what you would think now, or even what you would have thought then.

Isn’t it so strange, how having once known another almost better than we know ourselves, we can now only guess at what the other might think or believe or want, and hope, silently, that we are somewhere close to the truth? How things change – so suddenly, so quickly, and so very emphatically.

Once, we were inseparable; now, we could not be further apart.

(I do not mean physically – after all, if we measure it in miles or kilometres, the distance between us is not unpassable: perhaps some seven hundred kilometres or so; around four hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies – after all, throughout everything, physical distance has never meant much.

What can it mean, when we have defeated it over and over again, meeting and finding and running to each other ? What power can it have, when it has never diminished our attachment or affection – when the mere fact that we were apart changed nothing at all, other than that I missed you almost as much as I loved you?

No, for us distance has always been mental, spiritual: wound up and trussed up high with the differences we pretended we did not know were there in the sake of blushing, innocent adoration.)

Forgive me if I am melancholy today – I have been revisiting old memories and old wounds, and neither of them has been kind.

I should have known better, though, if I am being quite honest: visiting Aberforth at the end of the summer, in those last few weeks after my birthday and before the beginning of the new school term, has always been a foolish idea. He is angry and I am gently miserable, and together we are two sparks in a wooden hut.

You see, it is one of the few times in a year when we are both thinking about the same thing, both remembering the same thing in the same way, but always failing to agree. You see, my darling, we are both thinking about you – about the duel, about you, about how wretchedly disastrous love turned out to be.

That day, though, so many years ago, I was equally as melancholy and equally as typically melodramatic.

Slowly, as though the water itself was breathing, the edge of the lake pushed in and out, in and out, regular and rhythmical, curved and edged with white ribbons, a soft, dove-blue counterpoint to the sky and the trees. It soothed, settling the butterflies and the tumultuous thoughts in my mind as I walked, even as the silver-grey sky above sank down onto the treetops and the castle’s spires, ominous and heavy.

Above my head, the rowan trees were still laden down with sprigs of bright scarlet berries: pale red and watery, almost outnumbering the leaves. Here and there I had to duck under a branch, step around a bouquet of berries; occasionally, a leaf or a berry would snag in my hair and I would reach to brush them out automatically, absently.

Let me tell you something of a secret: if you walk far enough around the edge of the lake, following the rim of it as it climbs up a metre or two, growing ever more jagged and more natural, there is a tiny, cloistered bay, hidden out of sight by the trees and the bends in the land. There, aspen trees line the banks, stopping three feet from the edge, a carpet of wildflowers and daisies dotted amongst the grass – it faces south, to the sun and the warmth, the summer when it comes.

It is perhaps not much of a secret I grant you, but it is a lonely place; quiet and deserted, save for the rooks and the pair of eagles which still nest in the Forest.

I had discovered it early in my tenure as a professor, wanting an escape, a challenge, something which resembled freedom, and it had done none of those things in the end, but alas, I am a creature of habit and so I had returned faithfully, day after day after day.

Then, I sat on a tree-stump, recently cut after a fierce summer storm, and looked out across the water, counting the waves as they surged, swaying back and forth along the banks, licking and biting softly at the dirt packed along the sides. I sat, and I thought – my mind meandering off here and there, darting along junctions and alleyways, but always, always returning to you, to me, and Aberforth’s voice ringing in my head, repeating the same words over and over again.

“So,” Aberforth had looked at me, turning used glasses upside down and setting them to dry on the side of the sink, and he hadn’t smiled – instead, he was measured, calm and efficient. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” I responded automatically, taking the half-pint of beer he pushed across the bar as a follow-up, feeling the wet on the sides from washing coming away on my fingers; in mere seconds, they would be sticky.

I didn’t drink, though, and Aberforth noticed but said nothing of it. Of my time in France, I had not told him that – about how melancholy had spun me closer and closer to crashing down, that it had been a much tighter escape than I would like to admit – and I did not want to, in truth.

It is remarkable how childish we become when faced with those who knew us as children: Aberforth and I had always been fractious as a pair, so much so that mother would threaten to knock our heads together if we did not stop, and nothing of that had changed or passed. Now, older, I do not think it ever will – we cling, all of us, to our pasts and histories, always desperate to believe the best of ourselves and really quite useless at moving beyond.

“I saw him,” he said abruptly, and his tone was decidedly neutral – bland, almost, and it was almost worse than if he’d been angry. My heart thudded and my mind stopped; I sipped at the beer, gulping down a mouthful simply to have something to do. “April-time, last year. Didn’t think there was much use in bringing it up then – but…” he shrugged and pulled out a rag from underneath the bar, busying himself with wiping it clean, though there was nothing to wipe, in truth. “Thought you might want to know.”

Stirred, restless again and numb, I watched the condensation dripping down the side of the beer glass, forming a small, slender pool about the bottom of it – it was steady and slow, keeping pace with the ticking of the clock over the mantelpiece.

“Thank you,” I said, though my tongue felt heavy and unwieldly – it as difficult to even say that, and the words sounded loud in the silence. Instantly, I wondered if I had been too hasty to speak, to slow, perhaps; too excited or too nervous, too sure… I was certain there had been a hundred and one flaws in what I had said, and equally convinced this was some kind of test, some way of attempting to measure the depths of my guilt.

For a minute or so, that was all there was, though: the echo of Aberforth’s words lingering on in the quiet that fell after, broken by the sound of the second hand marching round the clockface and the squeak of polish and rag on wood as Aberforth scrubbed at the bar-top.

He glanced at me once, twice, and I could not find it in me to look at him, my hand still clutching the beer mug.

“Did you know?” he asked eventually, still in that same calm, affable tone. “That he was here, I mean?”

“Yes,” I answered softly – oh, I had known, I had known very well. The cluster of violets was tumbling delicately out of a tall, thin vase in my rooms, and the note that had accompanied them had been locked in the box with that summer.

I wait – you should know that I had thought about it, that I had dreamed about going that night and every night after for a week, that it had summoned up every feeling I had ever felt for you and set them ablaze in a glow of warm, whispering enchantment.

“Did he tell you he was here?” Aberforth’s voice was rough now, hoarse, and he was watching me intently, scrutinising me so as to catch every flicker and twitch.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

That was that, then: neither he nor I volunteered anything more and we stayed in silence, strange and companionably tense, until I left and he retreated upstairs.

Sitting there, my robes folding neatly into the grass, a pile of emerald green lines and curves and corners poured on top of the ground with its holes of brown and yellow-and-white daisy heads here and there, poking up, their petals faintly grey in the dim light, I felt strangely empty after that revelation.

I wanted to feel something – that flare of passion, of want and need and burning, breathing love which had sparked almost every other time we had been so close; it was so familiar now, so usual, that the loss of it left me anxious and stressed, on the edge of nausea.

The very idea that I did not feel as in love as I had done before – that thing I had longed for and dreaded in equal measure for so long – now only made me distressed. What would I be if I did not love you? Who would I be – what would I want, how would I define myself, my life and my dreams?

How did I exist, my darling, if not in relation to you?

(I know what you will say, if I may: you will argue, your eyes alight and your mouth curved a little, that of course one must exist separately to love, to the way he exists as with another – for the latter cannot exist if the former does not exist on its own. A dependent self is born out of the original self: it cannot have another origin, nor another end.

Ah, darling, I know and in most times you would be perfectly right, but for us, for you and I and me myself, I suspect I long ago ceased to hold those two parts of myself separate and bound them up in one.

A romantic notion – mere semantics, you would scoff, even as you smiled, pleased, and let me steal a kiss from you.

Mere semantics, but they are the little things which make life.)

So it was that I made my way to my birthday celebrations – hosted by Elphias, who had organised it all, blissfully ignoring my persistent instructions that I did not want anything extravagant with a stubbornness I think you would have enjoyed – in London disappointed and nervous, at once wondering endlessly on you, on us, on your last note the year before (I wait – I wait where, when, for how long? For the romance, it was beautiful, but desperately impractical), and determined, as I had been so many times before, that I would forget all about you, if only for an evening.

Ah, it is such a childish trait, to keep persisting with a tactic which has failed each time before. Empires were not built on repetition, after all – but then, that has always been more your dream than mine.

It is the way of love, though, to reduce us to our simplest and yet most complicated selves.

All those years before, the evening before my birthday, your aunt had drafted you in to accompany her to the library in Buckinghamshire – she needed someone to help carry the books, mostly, and thought that the least she could do was offer you the use of her connections to borrow anything you wanted and so you had gone with the Hallows tripping off your lips and your head full of political treatises.

It rained for hours on end, water running down the windowpanes, coalescing in every crack and dip in the roads outside, tiny ripples juddering out in concentric circles as new drops fell and joined; the air was colder than before, almost Spring-like, and there was the faintest glimmer of a rainbow on the horizon, as though it was hanging and swaying between the hills, overshadowing the valleys underneath. A soft, wet kind of day, I spent it cloistered in my room, watching and listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof, flicking aimlessly through books and journals in an effort to find an appropriately electrifying counter-argument.

You came round that night, slinking over from your aunt’s house to mine like a fox – soaked and smiling, thrumming with a kind of nervous energy, your hair plastered to your face and dyed brown by the rain.

“It is not too late?” you had asked, glancing over my shoulders to check if anything of my siblings could be seen.

“Of course not,” I had replied, letting you in and dragging you upstairs by the hand, revelling in that Aberforth was in bed, Ariana was long asleep, and so we were as alone as we could be in the house.

Time seemed suspended, then, entirely irrelevant as we sat on the bed and talked and laughed and kissed, sleepy and innocent, stripped down to nightclothes and secluded from the rest of the world – there was only us and the room, the candles flickering and your eyes glittering, and the way your fingers were warm between mine.

Then, so many years later, I was warm again in the club in London, surrounded by velvet upholstered chairs in crimson and sapphire blue, the chink of crystal glasses on metal trays chiming through the low murmur of conversation and the hum of the violin strings. I was warm and dry and happy enough, but it was not the same and it was not half as wonderful, in truth.

Elphias did his best, but he is not you, and you could hardly have ever been replaced by a party, in whatever capacity.

There were more people there than I had thought I knew – professors from five different countries, linguists and lawyers, bankers and curse-breakers and Healers, Potioneers and Charms masters and a smattering of diplomats and international personages who were acquaintances too important to leave off the list.

Thankfully, the Minister had declined to attend, citing too large a caseload, and as the evening ticked on the bureaucrats and functionaries began to drift out, each one shaking my hand and wishing me many happy returns as they left.

By the time they were nearly all gone, I was quite grateful they hadn’t stayed – the clock had swung round to nearly midnight, the music was louder and faster, and the taste of gin and limoncello and raspberry liqueur all mingled on my tongue, trailing down the back of my throat. The world shifted from evening to night, dragging the party with it.

I was lingering by the bar, Elphias having just darted off at his wife’s call but not before shooting me an apologetic grimace as he went, when there was a soft sound behind me: a gentle, half-hearted cough.

“Sorry,” the man said, though he was smiling a little – genial and bright, edging towards suave rather than genuine – and he stuck out a hand for me to shake. “Linford Huxley. I must admit I came over for a reason – I have heard a lot about you over the years, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce myself properly.”

Looking back on it, I am constantly astonished that I did not understand from that first sentence what exactly what he meant by it, that I did not hear the code woven into it and flaring as the words ran through my mind.

In truth, I missed it entirely, I am afraid and I cannot blame it solely on the alcohol or you – I was simply oblivious.

“May I buy you a drink?” he offered.

I hesitated, then, glancing at the clock briefly. Five past midnight; I did not have to work the day after, I had set it aside in expectation of a late evening, but I wanted even less to accept another drink and another and find time slipping away from me even faster, the semblance of control lost entirely.

“It isn’t too late, is it?” he had noticed, and an apologetic frown was painted over his face – his jaw square-cut and clean-shaven. “I know its past midnight, but I thought it might not be too late an hour. Besides, I have nothing else to offer as a gift and I do not think I could leave without giving one – it wouldn’t be proper.”

For a moment, a single second, I thought of you, of my birthday that summer and the way such a similar phrase had tripped off your tongue, light-hearted and thrilling, and then I forgot it.

I smiled, taking him in – dark hair, a handful of inches shorter and lean, with hazel eyes and pink lips, handsome enough even in the poor lighting – and nodded, focusing on him.

“Of course not,” I assured him.


Chapter 24: Finland
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Finland

When the bells toll midnight and the witching hour ripples on the wind, brushing through snow-laden branches and sweeping across white-cold landscapes to settle over the country like a black gauze shroud, everything slows, the last gasp of a sigh dissipating and vanishing – and then it stills, silent and breathless. Tomb-like and solemn, it seals your lips shut, words choking and clawing at your throat, trapping and freeing you at the same time.

A study in contradictions, midnight in Saariselkä, when the sky is black and the light is grey and green, snaking across the sky in long, dazed ribbons, illuminating everything in a faint, tender glow.

Then, once everything and everyone is hushed and frozen, patiently waiting with the Sandman sitting on their shoulder, the strings unravel, hanging around the stars in a trail of green and pink and icy turquoise blue. Running and blending together, spools of ink knocked into a bowl of water and curling, bleeding into each other gently and steadily, they rock and weave in the night, on currents of air thousands of meters high, suspended in the very middle of the night.

Slinking and undulating, it tugs at the breath in lungs, at the melancholy staining the edges of your soul and pulls, pulls them all away, leaving you with nothing but a soundless, mindless contentment.

Around it the sky is bruised, burning at the edges in shades of plum and dove-grey where it touches the aurora, darkening and deepening as it runs out towards the horizons to a charcoal-black, peppered with thousands of tiny, glittering stars.

Soon enough, when the Northern lights fade, all that will be left will be black, starlight and moonlight reflecting coldly, weakly off the rolling carpet of snow blanketing the land; black and white and soft spectres of grey.

There will be nothing else in this kaleidoscope.

Standing there, on the balcony, the fur on my collar brushing along the line of my jaw in a caress you used to give so frequently, the cold clings to the skin on my cheeks and my chin, dry and bitter, and each breath in and out slows my heart and drowns my soul in tranquillity, even as it freezes out the hollow of my throat with cold, sand fingers. Breathing hurts, my head is swimming, and it feels as though I am sinking and rising all at once.

It sends me reeling, spiralling upwards and around, around like a wheel, the inked lines of trees blurring and softening, the world smudging until it is a mess of grey, streaks of white and black here and there.

On my tongue, at the back of my throat, I can taste something bitter and strong – absinthe, perhaps, or laudanum.

Oh, Albus, it is such a drug, such a wonder, to be breathless: it leaves you giddy with delight, heady and delirious, the thunder of your blood in your veins and threaded through your skull muffling any other sound, just as the sensation of floating, of sailing away serenely and helplessly, numb and blissfully uncaring, blunts other, more earthly sensations – the press of fingers on nerves, hard and hot, teeth scraping over skin on your neck, on your shoulder, and the sharp jab of humiliation as you hear yourself begging more, please more, always more.

It was a long time ago, when I last begged, was it not, my Albus? It has been longer still since I begged like that – half-sobbing, half-demanding, and so very much claimed.

Among the snow-laden firs and the endless banks of white, I left everything earthly, everything usual behind, the daily rhythm of life, tugging and charging forwards at a canter, always at a canter, quietened for a night, and found in the thin air, in the racing of my blood as my lungs starved, a kind of grounding I had not had for so long. It unwound the muscles in my back, unfurling every part of me inch by inch, and squeezed my heart until I remembered I was as mortal as ever, as real and as fiercely vulnerable as ever.

A lesson in control; a lesson on death, on fragility and the delicateness life has always borne.

It was, in a way, my final gasp of freedom before the plunge, before the gates to Hell opened and temptation led me down, hand in hand and slyly addictive, throwing noose after noose around my neck until my knees buckled and I hit the deck, the gavel crashing down from your hand to hit the stand; by then, temptation is long gone and her brother-in-arms is not so forgiving – desperation has laid me waste, bit by bit by bit.

Oh, but freedom, Albus, the freedom then! It whispered and it scratched at my skin and it choked me in turn, but, ah – is that not always the way, when it is the calm before the storm? The world holds its breath, letting us drown slowly in thin, humid air, until she sighs and crashes and spins us into sensation’s arms to sink again, dizzy and overwhelmed and lost at sea.

When I was a child, I decided if I were to die, I would drown. Now, to me drowning is life and when I breathe, death cups my chin and kisses me slowly.




17th February, 1928; Saariselkä, Finland

In the background, the radio – a clear voice laid over a low, faint humming as the magic inside it chugs and churns away, catching the sounds transmitted from my latent, dormant Germany – was quiet, hushed, droning on without me, repeating yesterday’s opinions for today’s people, recycling old news with a new twist: a garnish of lemon, perhaps, or a sprinkling of rosemary. Every now and then, it hitched and jumped, words colliding with each other in a crack which wrenched the air and spat a trio of sparks, blue and bright, towards the ceiling.

It made me flinch each time, without fail, and in my hands the book jerked, my fingers tugging the page taut.

“– has said that he will be primarily focused on reinvigorating the economy, with a secondary emphasis on ensuring the security and defence protocols are sufficient to combat both individual attacks and large-scale persecution. In an interview with the new Minister of Defence, Otto von Eschen, it was confirmed that the new government will not rule out imposing tighter and more thorough security sanctions and measures on the population in order to respond appropriately to the growing Muggle threat,” the host was saying – was still saying; it was his formula, to say the same thing every day for two weeks and to bring on different guests to provide the spark needed to give life to his programme.

Insipid and talentless; like so many others, he was nothing more than a sheep waiting to be led by a firm, coaxing hand.

Like all others, he would not see that he had been led down one path until mountains rose on one side and a cliff-face on the other and the only way was to keep plodding forward. Such a disappointing destiny, no? To be so useless, so disposable; so entirely insignificant in the pages of history.

(Other men – stronger, cleverer, better men – are made for fate, made for reshapings and remakings of the world: they are born to push, to pull at the very fabric of society, of magic and life, to say ‘what if’ and throw light across those dark places where none have gone before.

It is a bold claim, you would say, so suggest that about oneself – but Albus, dear Albus, wherever did you think we belonged? Men like us, with minds and souls like ours, talent weeping from us in gentle, pattering drops, we were not made for obscurity. Arrogance, you would murmur, arrogance; but the fight in your voice would be dying, your objection only smoke and nothing more, no heat to it, no power – you will not give in or surrender, but you will teeter on the edge, a wounded bird threatening to fly.

You will resist it still – you have resisted it all your life since that summer, since you realised the price which may be tied, tight and stronger than steel, to the end of fame’s tail – but it will find you all the same. There is no way to run from it, and no way to pretend it is not the life God laid out for you.

You and I, our names were in the annals of history, inscribed at the top of chapters, long before we were born – the sooner you believe it, the sooner you will sleep at night.)

The radio crackled loudly for a quartet of heartbeats, slow and steady, fizzing in shades of dreary grey and blue, sending a stab of irritation, electric and bitter yellow, shimmering down my spine. Behind them, quiet and smart, was a trio of knocks on the door, putting to bed any idea of solitude.

Interruptions… there were always interruptions of some sort.

“Herr Grindelwald?” Agathe slipped through, her hair pinned back in stylish, sleek waves, bobbing out against her head, dark and shining. She was twenty-nine, then, young and efficient and ruthlessly, coldly logical.

A mechanical force of nature, someone called her once – I forget who, but it appears in my mind typed in smudged, precise black letters.

“The necessary wards and enchantments are in place,” she reported, her tongue quick and her voice soft; shy, in truth, with words just as much as she was not with her wand. “If it is acceptable, I will retire now, and rejoin you at six o’clock for the dinner this evening.”

“Of course,” I murmured, my attention already wandering back to the book as the radio spluttered in a corner – crackling with different voices but the same words, the same theories and conspiracies, all of them baseless, following the elections the month before.

Sometimes I wondered, restless and bored, if I should simply forget the radio, ignore it altogether – but the will of the people is a powerful thing, an important ally if you exercise it correctly, if you manipulate it and contort it so that it faces the right way, moves the right way. To keep power, one must know the mood of the people, the rhetoric they hear, and the phrases they repeat.

In Germany there was only one word whispered around the streets that month, echoing dimly around Europe in her entirety, whistling through corridors and bouncing off walls – even you, my friend, in your cloisters, will have heard it, no?

Putsch.

Putsch, they whispered; Putsch, they wondered; ein Putsch, the radio commentators called it in every programme, on every channel, and in every newspaper column.

Der Putsch, Segelinde still screamed, wailing from her castle home like a banshee, her hair streaming behind her and her screeches embedding themselves in the walls with the scratches from her nails, raking alone stone with demonic fury. A witch, in every sense – harsh and brittle, teetering on the edge over the abyss.

A shame; she had always been an excellent enemy.

The last time I saw her, she was in black, a string of pearls around her neck and a sapphire broach at the clasp of her shirt, her hair piled up and sporting a hat, a net veil tumbling over the brim, shielding her eyes from the sun. Around us, the rest of the congregation were silent, solemn and despairing as the priest intoned from his position at the head of the grave, watching as the casket was lowered, draped in the national flag and a wreath of white lilies.

She had not watched the casket; she had watched me, and I had watched her.

I think, perhaps, she expected me to smile.

Dietmar Heppler was dead; asphyxiation jerking him roughly from the world before anyone could save him. A general election would be called, following a two-day mourning period; the results would be announced in January.

At that time, I held the highest approval ratings for my Germany since his birth. I had my President in place, my party gaining strength after strength, and now, now I would have my chance – three months earlier than otherwise.

A stroke of luck, oder ein Putsch?

Oh, but it is a question for the historians – otherwise they will have nothing to do but flip quills between their fingers and sigh loudly at the cat sleeping in front of the fire.

On the corner table, the clock chimed, low and slow, once, twice, all the way through to five times; it woke Fawkes abruptly, making him start, jumping and squawking with fright, cawing indignantly as he settled down a moment later, ruffling his feathers and dipping his head to preen. He was only a small thing, in the early parts of his cycle, and he startled easily, nipping and whining to complain.

How foolish immortality is! How proud and vain and wholeheartedly wise at once.

(I know what you expect me to say here, Albus. I know what you believe I am thinking – or, perhaps, want me to be thinking.

Do not pretend you send him to me out of compassion – do not do me further injustice.)

“Gellert,” his voice, calm and firm, sounded from behind me, and I wondered absently as I dropped a ribbon down into the belly of On Liberty, to mark the page, when he had entered; I had heard and seen nothing, and such blindness was disconcerting.

Of all things, I have never been blind.

“I laid out your robes,” he told me, his wand held loosely in one hand as he directed a stack of newspapers and a tray carrying a jug of coffee and a mug to the table beside me. “And these arrived moments ago – I brought them straight through.”

My reply was lost in the clinking of china on china as he poured me coffee, stirring in the single teaspoon of sugar with six precise circles, before handing it to me and sitting on the sofa beside me – at the other end, but not out of reach.

He liked to be useful; in the end, it was his undoing – is that not always the way, though? That the things we prize most, that we adore most, are the things which destroy us?

(For you, it is your guilt – not love or courage or your fondness for rescuing those broken souls and mopping their brows when they cry – it is guilt that is your greatest burden and your most prized quality.

Even as you protest this, you will know I am right.

It will kill you, my Albus, this guilt of yours – it will sear your skin until smoke rises, staining the ceiling and the walls black, and as you breathe, harsh and gasping, your flesh will begin to rot. It is a poison you cannot fight, a curse you are destined for even now, since the beginning of everything.

Passion destroyed me and guilt will claim you – and the world would shout it is the other way around.

All those friends of yours, all those pupils of yours in your new, glistening world, so blissfully unaware that everything they believe in, everything they worship and trust so blindly is only a mirage.

You are a snake amongst roses, dear Albus, and the pretence makes my heart ache.)

Finally, finally, the radio coughed and choked and wheezed out its last, buzzing notes; then, with an abruptness that bit at the air, it fell silent, shuddering to a halt on the table. The last handful of sparks it had spat out as it died, disjointed things in sickly shades of green-blue, popped above it and vanished.

“I will have it replaced this evening,” Konstantin told me, casting a glance over at it. “Though if that one should also break, we will have to send to Berlin for more.”

“Nein,” I replied, taking a sip of coffee, strong and nutty, laced with strands of caramel – Vienna roasted, darker and bitterer than most German versions. My father once told me, proud and exasperated at once, that I drank my beer like my grandfather and my coffee like my mother.

He was wrong, on that: I have always drunk coffee as my brothers did, as my mother’s husband did, back in Hungary – in those old, mournful days when the world had empires built on blood and we were young and sweetly wild – after dinner, when my tongue is still striped with the red of raspberries and plums.

“Such effort would be a waste,” I said, licking at a stray drop of coffee along the rim of the cup and watching him as he turned his attention back to me, his brown eyes bright behind his glasses; blinking and darting and noting every small thing. “I will have need of your talents elsewhere than ordering another victim to the slaughter.”

The room was quiet, then; the only noise Fawkes’ soft cooing in the corner as he preened his feathers, shuffling and hopping on his perch, his clever dark eyes studying both of us on the sofa to see if we were looking to see how the candlelight made the gold in him gleam and the red burn. Fanning his wings out, he studied them, pleased and singing a quick burst of melody – loud and vivacious, speaking of trumpets and crashing cymbals – and jutted his head into the air, giving a final shake to settle it all.

“I wondered,” Konstantin began, tentative and slow, his hands twisting like snakes in his lap. “If you would like me to call the doctor? You have not been sleeping these last few nights and I thought perhaps a Sleeping Draught would be appropriate...” he trailed off as I watched him still, saying nothing and doing nothing. “If you would like, of course – I only thought –”

“I know what you thought,” I interrupted him, a fizz of annoyance spiralling through my blood. His role did not allow him such liberties; those rights I allowed him did not grant him the liberties to go so far. “You are wrong.”

Draining the last of my coffee, I placed the mug on the table with a clap which careened around the room, echoing crisply and coldly.

“You will not presume again,” I told him, my voice flat and harsh, standing and sweeping through into the bedroom, leaving him, the tray of coffee, and the crimson robe I had been wearing in my wake, stunned and deathly, decisively silent.

(I am dying; I am dead; I will die; I have died.

All speculation, endlessly circling around: jumping from tongue to tongue, carried across the air on a whispered breath, an invisible wildfire, enveloping everything in its path. They wonder, from the Urals to the furthest edges of the Celtic coast – and, perhaps, you wonder too: dying, dead, to die.

They have only ever asked me once – a young guard, scars on the backs of her hands and the clump of a wooden foot trailing behind her: are you dying?

I have forgotten exactly what I answered then, but I remembered her face: she paled, her hand on her wand shaking once, twice, with tremors she could not conceal, not from me, and then she left, fleeing down the steps in a clatter of wood and rubber on stone.

I will tell you, my Albus, since we are tied in this together: I am both. I am dead and not dead; I am dead and slowly, steadily dying in this hellhole you have imprisoned me in.

In truth, I have been dying for decades – you know this, you will know this – as the pieces of my mind crack bit by bit and the magic in my soul, blackened to charcoal, blows through my bones in a fine, white dust and wears away with a gentle, continuous rub at everything which holds me here.

I am dead; I am dying – what does it matter, when I do not exist to the world anymore?)

At five to six, Konstantin hovered by the door, one hand on the handle, anxious, nervous, waiting for some sign to come closer – his hesitation made him half a boy still, revealed the last flush of youth which lingered in him, and was nothing, nothing at all like you had ever been – his thin face drawn and stoic, the calmness this time only a façade. He watched me, close and guarded, and his thoughts screamed louder than he ever would; passion but only in measures, only ever sometime.

“When I return,” I murmured, loitering next to him for a moment, my fingers brushing his sleeve softly, fondly, and he swallowed, waiting, always so patient. “Be here.”

“As you wish,” he whispered in reply, a small smile slipping out from under the façade to hang on his mouth: delighted, excited, already wanting.

In the growing night, his hair was dark, copper strands shining here and there, and I half-thought to kiss him, to feel him tangle a hand in my hair and an arm around my waist, the way he would push me against the wall, pinning me in place as he planted kiss after languid kiss down my neck, hot and demanding; controlling me as I controlled my Germany, unabashedly and absolutely.

But he was not you, and I was different, and those fantasies – fleeting, ethereal things – stung deep.

The flashes of red, strings of auburn and ginger, were everywhere that night: on the earrings Agathe wore when they twinkled in the white lights, on the dress the Finnish Minister wore – a deep mulberry affair which clung to her arms and flowed behind her in waves – underneath the gleams of gold and tarnished bronze in the drink they handed me (a White Russian, warm and biting), in the strip of red on the flags which hung in each corner, sighing and swaying with the wind.

It was everywhere, you were everywhere – reaching out across the North Sea to slide your hand around my throat and the other onto my hip and whisper, mutter nothing at all in my ear.

Between it all, I drifted from guest to guest, greeting them all in a mix of broken Finnish, German, and English, my tongue heavy and slow, my mind halting. I smiled dutifully, handsomely, but that was all, and my fingers were growing stiff from handshake after handshake, gripping tight and firm each time; I answered the same questions over and over again, giving the same answers, carefully prepared days in advance, tailored and tweaked here and there.

I was everything I needed to be that evening, charming and clever and witty and intimidating, and I felt throughout it light-headed and weak, every step cumbersome and heavy, as though the ceremony of it all, glorious and perfectly solemn, was strangling me, her fingers grasping tighter than yours had, pinching and closing, my lips turning blue and my limbs thrashing as I clawed at nothing in search of air.

I was drowning in restraint, in ritual; the power I had craved for so long was suffocating me with its ornate, useless trappings – ironic, no?

Through the long windows, with the moon bright and full and the stars unveiled, the world outside was a lolling mass of white, curved and heaped in soft sprays long since frozen; here and there, pine trees clustered in spots of green and black as they stuck out of the banks around them, the same clumps of snow streaking along their branches like ragged quilts. Across it all the moonlight dusted diamonds, glittering and sparkling along the edges of the rolling banks of snow, highlighting the edge of a branch, catching on the wing of a snowflake as it fell, fluttering gently towards the ground.

There, though, there again was that flash of red – crimson and copper-auburn – dashed onto the snow like a pool of ink, swelling and lapping out. There were other flashes – fragments, always only fragments, inconclusive and weakly maddening – blue and green and black, so much black and grey, spots of light appearing in quick succession against storm clouds, and patches of red; whispers, whispers of things in languages I did not speak turned into a code I could not break.

I had tried, for so long I had tried, but is that not how all the greats fell – by being understood and never believed?

Warnings come in murmurs, insidious and creeping, licking into my mind in the shadows of the night, of a slow redemption in poison, of a scream and the rush of wind as fate leads you over the tower’s edge, of the scrape of flesh and nail against prison walls as you beg, shredding your voice with your mind, for someone to listen, for someone to sit and listen and just to believe…

Fear is an excellent silencer – it loops a cord around your heart and croons gently, quietly, even as it cripples you and binds your tongue in a braid of metal.

So many chains, my Albus, so many chains; is it any wonder that I have been dying all my life?  




A/N: On Liberty is by John Stuart Mill and so is not mine. 

Putsch (ein/der) = a/the coup

'oder ein Putsch' = or a coup? 


Chapter 25: Idioms
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Idioms

In my father’s study, the candles jumped and sputtered off-beat, thick purple stubs of wax and lavender-scented, accompanied by the soft, insistent scratchings of my quill over the parchment, the thin nib leaving slanted, curling ribbons in aquamarine blue trailing behind it, a flourish here and there, a faint smudge in one or two places. The only other sound was the cooing of Archimedes, my owl, as he slept on his perch in the corner, and the loud tick of the grandfather clock just outside the study door – broken, still, almost two and a half weeks after my mother’s death.

My father’s study… my father’s study… every time, almost every day that summer, that phrase would leave my mouth so easily, without thinking, and yet every time it was a lie. My father had never sat in that room, had never worked in that room: going over the books, adding up figures and deducting others, filling out shipment forms and signing contracts, as he had done in Mould-on-the-Would. My father had never seen that room, but somehow, it was his.

I have often wondered if my refusal to call it mine – my study, my room – was merely just another symptom of my ardent, desperate fear of admitting that there was no one else.

If the room was mine, then the house was mine – and if the house was mine, my mother was gone and my father would never return, and I would have to find some way to be everything: caretaker and provider, brother and parent at once.

Oh darling, I never told you how before you came I would spend the evenings after Ariana was asleep and the house was still sitting in the study, in my father’s study, with its mahogany desk and tall, black-painted bookcase, both of them carved and polished and scarred, floating in a pool of warm, yellow light, trying to find the courage to say out loud what I could barely think.

This is my duty; these are my obligations, my responsibilities.

(Almost instantly, every time, they would be followed by their hellish friend with his cold, crippling voice: these will be your failures.

I wanted to be capable, to be more than just brilliant and talented and praised – for those two and a half weeks, I wanted more than anything to be just like Aberforth: to be patient and kind, to know how to soothe and calm, how to comfort.

I wanted to prove I could manage and I wanted to confess, choking on the words, that I could not, and I could never determine which would be best to say – which would have been less shameful, more honest. Which would have meant Aberforth did not loathe me.

Now, I can never admit it – what would be the use? – so it is another heavy, icy secret which sits in my chest and burns gently.)

Hours into our fledgling friendship, eggshell scattered around us and slowly being ground into dust under our feet and the excited, demanding words we flung at each other like marbles, and there you were: sitting in the armchair I never used, legs draped over one side – I am a heathen, you had announced, with a bright, salacious smile – flicking through book after book. Your coat was dropped over a small table, lamplight picking up the deep, ruby red sheen to it, and your shirt was cream and beige in the glow.

We were discussing – honestly, for the life of me I cannot recall: something to do with Transfiguration, I believe, possibly an experimental theory – and you were frowning, watching me intently as I talked.

“– you see, it is all quite esoteric, in truth, but the suggestion that you can associate the Afroudakis phenomenon with cross-elemental spells is, as they say, to bark entirely up the wrong tree.”

“I am not wrong,” you told me, plucking the word from the idiom, closing your eyes briefly and swinging your legs off the side of the chair. You gestured once, sharply, hesitantly, towards the window, “Can I open the window? Only the lavender is hurting my head.”

Outside it was raining, a damp drumming echoing down the narrow cobbled streets, drowned under the hiss as the wind caught the rain and spun it almost sideways, slicing through the air harshly, only to taper into a delicate curve at the end. The sky above was brimming with grey storm-clouds – the rains would last another day and a half, reduced to stuttering, coughing showers in its final hours – but I nodded, and you reached for the latch, stretching round the side of the desk to reach.

It always stuck in the damp, and I, such a cruel host, watched as the struggled with it, smiling genially as you muttered something undoubtedly quite rude in German – and pretended magnificently that I was not noticing how you looked as you leaned over the desk, that your war with the latch had tugged your shirt half out of your trousers, that you were biting your lip in concentration.

Eventually, you won, pushing the window open and the wind, howling and giggling, crashed into it and stole it from your hands, flinging it out into the street with a faint crash and a screech of the hinges. A flood of rain thundered into the room, toppling the tulips in the vase, drenching the windowsill and the desk, puddles of water spreading across paper and catching swirls of black and blue in them as the ink swam; the wind caught hold of the mess and blew, sending a fanfare of dripping, spotted paper flying, quills here and there, a bottle of ink wobbling dangerously.

I laughed – how I was cruelly lazy then! – even as you uttered a word and held out a hand to whip the window back shut, locking the hurricane and the sea back outside. I laughed, and when you looked at me, blushing a fine rose pink, biting your lip with a hundred apologies on your tongue, I felt something in my chest sigh and smile – and when you laughed too, the tension falling off you as water off an elephant’s back, I could no longer pretend that I was not seeing you smile and already desperate to see you smile again.

I was lonely, I was afraid, I was desperate to not be myself, and I wanted more than anything, then, to tuck the stray curl behind your ear and kiss you.

I was not prepared for any of that summer – not for the responsibilities, not for the duties and the burdens, and not for the whirlwind that was you.

Alas, as they say, when it rains, it pours.



2nd October, 1929; Brighton, England

The tea was too weak, tumbling out of the spout in a warm, red-tinted gush, strands of orange and yellow catching the light and twinkling, bright against the white china of the cup; the milk swirled around it, a handful of drops blooming into cream clouds, spreading out from the centre where they had landed, silent and smooth. On the spoon, the tiny sphere of sugar sparkled in the sunlight, and opposite me Elphias’ spoon clinked as he stirred a heap of brown sugar into the mug sat in front of him, the old cups scattered to one side, cold and stained with grey-brown rings.

All around, people were chattering, china knocking against china, chairs scraping and the metal bell above the door ringing shrilly with each twist of the handle: it was a perfectly pleasant scene, the air delightfully thick against the thin chill outside, but somehow, I could not relax – I sat there, stiff and stubbornly polite.

“I saw your last article in the Practical Potioneer,” Elphias told me, an admiring tone colouring his voice, a smile decorating his face: enthusiastic, awed, blinking quickly. “Of course, I couldn’t understand most of it – not much more than the first paragraph, to be honest – but it seemed brilliant, as always.”

“Quite derivative stuff, in truth,” I murmured in reply, the words tripping absently off my tongue as I took a sip of tea; the taste, light and faintly sour, softened by the milk and sugar, was hidden by the sudden heat as hot water pressed itself against the top of my mouth, burning and charring.

“Nobody else thought of it,” Elphias persisted, his fingers looped through the handle of his coffee mug. “Not in years. Isn’t that how all brilliant things happen?”

For a moment, I considered the question: how do brilliant things happen? How do brilliant articles get written, brilliant discoveries made? Is it merely luck – fortune that the discoverer, the author happens to write it first, find it before anyone else? Is it skill which pushes you to ask, what is here? What could be here?

I remembered Ivor Dillonsby and the dragon’s blood, the hot rush of jealousy which had flared up my throat into my mouth, toxic and addictive; the way I had smiled, darting and transparent, and rushed home to rifle through leaf after leaf of parchment, covered in scribbled sentences, meticulous formulae and circled, underlined conclusions.

Luck plays a much greater role in life than we would believe – so eager to consider ourselves masters of the world.

“Perhaps,” I said slowly, thoughtfully. “There is something in that.”

In the quiet, a baby started to fuss and cry, his mother cooing at him, apologising to the friend she was meeting as she rocked him, singing softly in an attempt to soothe him; a miserable addition to the hum and buzz of town life, loud and boisterously friendly even in Holyhead – perhaps especially in Holyhead.

“We are hosting a dinner next Saturday,” Elphias said, studying me carefully in a way which seemingly tried to be unsettling but was merely concerned. Bless him, but he has never been the best at reading me – though he is a wonderful friend in all other aspects. In his defence, I suspect I have hardly helped with deciphering myself: frankness is hardly a natural bedfellow of mine. “Valerie and I; Tiberius and Euphemia are coming – you ought to come too. It has been a while since we all saw you.”

“Alas, I believe I am occupied already then,” I apologised, though the words sounded hollow even to me, and when I took another sip of tea, it tasted distinctly sour. “Perhaps next time.”

Outside, a light sprinkling of rain began falling, the dark clouds overhead blooming plump and heavy, crowded the sky and drawing a curtain in front of the sun; here and there, she peeked through, weak and feeble, flickering like a dying candle. Steadily, the downpour grew, gathering pace and force until it was thrumming into the pavement with a crescendo which did not end – a lingering, constant drumroll.

Nine days later, as I stood in front of the fireplace in my quarters in Hogwarts, it was raining then, too: this time only a gentle, soaking shower – the kind which wets you to the bone, trailing down your neck and seeping into your skin, luring you out of shelter with a mild, glistening façade.

I hesitated – that much I am glad I can admit truthfully: I hesitated because Elphias had always been there, had always found time for me and tried to do his best, and to offer only selfishness in repayment is unkind and unjust.

Still, I did not hesitate that long, and I could not pretend to myself that it would have been better to go – after all, what would be more selfish, in the end: to lie once and only harmlessly, or to spend the evening weaving a tapestry of them, resplendent and artfully detailed?

Which one, my darling, would give the greater good?

I thought it, Gellert – I thought those words, our words from so long ago, and I heard them in your voice, and in my hand the Floo powder was embedded into my palm as the painting above the fireplace cracked from the centre outwards and a vase in the corner exploded with a soft, tender pop.

I thought, and then I did not think anymore, but dreamed of far too much.

The path out of the Floo terminal was the same as ever: the white paint on the wooden struts chipped and faded, worn down by time and the fierce coastal winds whipping up along the Channel, picking at the beaches and the rocks, and the wooden sign bearing the slogan ‘welcome to Brighton’ in dulled orange and blue swirls was battered, hanging limply from its bronze holders and swaying with minute, feeble squeaks. As always, it was quiet, long since abandoned by the business travellers and the fashionable youth who preferred the ease of Apparition; a series of brightly coloured pamphlets arranged neatly on a table admitted its true use as a tourist hub.

Smartly, I slipped out of the Floo terminal and out onto the sea front, tasting salt on the flat of my tongue as the breeze rippled through my hair and at my beard, pulling playfully on my robes. Shouts and laughter were ringing through the air already, children tugging on the leads of dogs twice their size, elderly couples sitting on benches with hands entwined, enveloped in their own world where all that was left was the comfortable silence time had blessed them with.

The sunset gleamed over the sea, the ridges of the waves glittering as they rocked back and forth; above them, the sky was burnished bronze, the sun a deep gold at once end and the coming night a speck of black and leeching dark cobalt on the other, hidden behind pastel-painted buildings. It was beautiful – wonderfully, wildly romantic – and I thought briefly of white violets and hurried on.

It was all quiet when I pushed the door to King’s Haberdashers and Tailors open, the tiny bell attached to the door frame giving a sweet little chime, jolting the elderly man behind the counter awake.

“May I help you, sir?” he croaked, coughing once, loudly, and reaching for a quill and a pile of parchment automatically, his eyes raking me up and down as though already taking stock of my measurements for a new robe or suit.

“Of course,” I replied pleasantly, stepping past a mannequin bearing the newest style of dress robes – lower cut at the chest, straight at the waist – and up to the counter. “I was wondering if Mrs King was available?”

He blinked once and then broke into a weathered, crinkled smile, littered with echoes of a long-running conspiracy.

“Always, always, my boy,” he chuckled, shuffling out from behind the counter over to push a standing, floor-length mirror in gold gilt half a foot round to the left and tilt it just a few centimetres down to reveal the outline of a door hidden in the wall and a doorknob made of silver gossamer. “On you go – don’t keep her waiting now.”

Murmuring a quick ‘thank you’ I ducked through the door, shutting it with a click behind me, and made my way down the tight, steep stone staircase, the lavender flames in the chains of miniature lanterns strung from the ceiling cold and familiarly welcoming, strands of jazz floating up to me on a warm, rising draught, honeyed and staccato.

At the bottom of the staircase, it almost glowed: a cacophony of colours – royal blue, mint green, and highlights of orchid purple – light up by the sunflower yellow fire to one side, and the clusters of candles, violet and sky blue and deep forest green, here and there, flickering and dancing in time to the music. Above the bar, cream lights twinkled like stars strung on a thread and looped around pins; nothing about it was magical and yet everything was so very extraordinary.

In one corner a saxophone was playing, bobbing up and down in front of a stand of sheet music while its owner – a dark-eyed, Muggle-suited young man – was whispering in the ear of a man at the nearest table, his hand resting on his arm, thumb absently stroking. Behind him, at the piano, another young man – far paler, with light, watered eyes and a solemn, hungry air – was gliding his fingers over the keys, his high collar hiding anything one might suspect to see on his neck.

Everywhere, men sat with men, laughing and swapping drinks, lacing fingers through fingers, hands brushing the insides of thighs without shame; women spun each other about the floor, arms possessive about waists, eyes locked and bodies flush.

You have always loved freedom, my darling, more than anything – perhaps more than you could ever have loved anything else – did you ever see this? Did you ever feel this kind of freedom?

I hope you did; truly, I do hope you did.

If it made all of its normal, ordinary patrons radiant, it would have rendered you incandescent.

(You should know, however much I enjoyed it there, however much I enjoyed the company I found there, I could never help but wonder – once each evening, without fail – how it would have felt to take you there.

How would it have been, do you think, for us to hold hands without fear? To pull you close without skulking in the shadows like criminals? How would it taste to kiss without caring, without having to care who sees, who knows our names and our stories and the truth about the glances and the brief, static touches we shared?

There was always, of course, the possibility of exposure – the slim chance that the bar might be found, Aurors crashing through or the Muggle police rounding us up on the streets, one by one – but there it was a different world.

It would have changed everything for you and I, this different world, Gellert; it would have rewritten history, as you would say.)

I had not found it by accident, stumbling into a tailor’s at nine o’clock at night, thanking the stars it was still open and unwittingly giving the password – Linford had introduced me to it, on an occasion some months after the night of my birthday, three years before then.

We had met for a few drinks, though I had left the choice of the place to him, and he had met me at Brighton Floo, smiling and polished as always – and he had led me to this place, underground in more ways than one.

(Is it terrible of me that I hope you would be jealous, if I ever told you – if this should ever reach you? That I hope you glare and frown, setting your jaw and tossing your head in that irritated, discomforted way you used to.

Even if it is only because it means I am not yours, that any strings you once tied around my wrists are cut loose, I hope you are furiously jealous.

You would not be surprised, I suspect, since you have always known how secretly, earnestly petty I can be.)

He and I had not lasted beyond a year: it had been sporadic, random, a connection forged solely on the fact that we both possessed owls and a want society claimed was foul. I will admit I enjoyed it – I enjoyed him, in truth – but not enough to lament the loss when we parted and he vanished into the murky throng of bodies on the dancefloor, drunk on elderflower wine and a distinct lack of heartbreak.

There I sat on a divan tucked away in a nook to one side, opposite the fire and bathed in the jumping, fractured light of thirty-three kaleidoscope candles, sipping at coils of crème de menthe and lime, dusted with rings of sugar, the melody of the saxophone swinging in my head, and a selection of bitterly sweet, confident kisses.

For once, it never meant anything, they never meant anything, and it was liberating in a way I had never imagined it could be.

It did, though, I should confess, do absolutely nothing to ease the raging storm in my head, nor to stop the thud and the tight, sudden squeeze whenever I saw your face in the newspapers or heard your name sounded out in voices I never remembered.

You were everywhere, then – in every newspaper, on every radio channel, the syllables of your name tumbling out of the mouth of almost every person I spoke to. You were a constant, invisible weight on my chest wherever I went; you ran ahead of me, childlike and gleeful, down the corridors of Hogwarts, beating me to the staff room, to the dinner table, where you would entice Horace or Silvanus to regurgitate your mantras, your words, your fervent, spotless ideologies.

You were dragging me back to that summer – to the glory and the beauty and the bitter gall of it – and I was more afraid of the coming ascent than the fall I could feel myself slowly tipping towards.

Years and years, it took me to recover from you, and even then I only managed to bury you shallowly, in an open casket, your chest still rattling, your body still warm, the shovel clattering to the ground in the seconds I stole to flee as far away as I could.

It had not, I discovered then, been anywhere near enough, not for love.

I stopped reading newspapers, I begged out of eating dinner in the Great Hall, I avoided the staff room: I surrounded myself in radio silence of you and still you curled up in my lap, leaning your head in the crook of my neck and dropped a lit match down my throat.

Seeing you living your dreams, fulfilling your – our – ambitions and creating your own, longed for world where I had not yet managed to reunite the parts of myself, it teased open wounds I had thought healed, examining them with a lover’s caress and wiping away the tears it provoked.

At once, I was indescribably proud of what you had managed, of what I thought you would manage, and so very jealous that in comparison I had done so little.

You had weathered the storm, sinking rumours and shattering the world’s lazy naivety with the same absolute, enchanting certainty you had always had, and I had sunk, drowning slowly, steadily, peacefully, under the weight of being not English, not a man, not quite sure who exactly I was.

You challenged me and you threatened me, and the gauntlet was dropped on the table in that bar, hidden behind a haberdasher’s on the Brighton sea-front, abandoned for evenings overflowing with sugar-rimmed cocktails and nameless lines and curves, evenings when I could forget about the hunt for the pieces of myself, forget that I dreamed of adventure and thrills teaching could not provide me, forget that I still loved you and ached for you and breathed for you…

Alas, that such things are never clever and such remedies are always our most simple weaknesses.

(Alas, too, that I was brave enough to love you still, and foolish enough to think that a world could exist where that did not matter.) 



A/N: The phrase Albus asks the old man in the tailor's shop contains a reference to an old euphemism for homosexuality: gay men (and possibly women but I'm not sure on that front - I extended it to women as well here, though) in the UK would often ask 'are you a friend of Mrs King's?' as a kind of code to find out a man's preferences. So, both the name of the shop (King's Haberdasher's and Tailor's) and the 'password' Albus gives the old man are both references to that :) 

(Technically, it might not have been used in 1933 - but it was definitely used during the Second World War, so I extended it back in time to the early 1930s as well :P)


Chapter 26: Turkey
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Turkey

Slowly, languidly, the world baked, bit by bit, heat shimmering off the tiled floor in wave after wave of shaking, transparent lines, sucking the moisture from the ground, those thin veins in between squares of painted enamel, in long, gulping breaths which never seemed to end. Rays forced their way under arches, through elaborately carved doors and windows covered over with silk curtains, turning everything white to blinding, reds and browns to pinks and faded, chipped golds, stealing water from small, curved glasses, from lips and mouths and eyes.

Slowly, languidly, I baked too: you told me once I was golden and fair, Ganymede reborn, but laid out and stripped bare in the face of the furnace, I burnished halfway to bronze and my hair lightened to a delicate white-gold, glittering and soft.

Cotton sheets beneath me and the azure sky above, the gentle swish of trees swaying in a light breeze skating far above my head, and I could believe that there was something of that left: something fragile and innocent, something which begged for protection.

There, hidden away beside a secluded pool, the edge of it ragged and decorated with rocks and smooth, oval pebbles in shades of terracotta red, sprawled on a wide divan bed, I sank into the earth and the heat scorched my soul bare, tugging at my muscles until they unwound, coming undone like a knotted string. I remembered, there, what it was so breathe – what it was to vanish, cut off from the world and isolated, spinning through the sky in a world entirely your own.

Loneliness is a joy man cannot live without, after all.

There, nestled in the Turkish hills, the horizon stretched out in front of me, a watercolour picture with the haze lingering around as the clock ticked over to two, a pair of sleek, tanned fingers slid the first seed of betrayal into my mouth, sweet and sickeningly sour.

The irony: that such an ugly thing should have been born in so beautiful a place.

It is almost biblical in its way – betrayal crouched behind pillars to strike me when my back is turned, just as the serpent, poisonous and swift, coils beneath the spread, arching leaves of bedded flowers, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, true and deep, into the flesh of the innocent standing before it, shocked and wounded, blood pooling around the bite marks even as venom floods into the veins, the heart plodding along, pumping poison around the body, from limb to limb and up to the brain, unknowing and constant.

Verdant and bright, the villa was engulfed in tall, slender trees which rose above the roof, hedges and ferns pushing up against the edge of the pool, sprays of yellow, bell-shaped flowers cascading over balconies and rails and trailing through the water in a slow, lazy sway. Somewhere, in its heart, betrayal grew and festered and smiled, polite and mild, hidden beneath silk awnings and amongst the orchids and clusters of wild flowers, orange and pink and chalk white.

Free and indolent, I surrendered in the face of the sun himself, giving myself over to rest, to laziness, thoughtless and insensible to the sly whispers in the shadows, the calculated cunning which stalked my every move.

It is the way all great men die, no? In the daytime, as fate clicks into place and the future becomes certain, where the heady scent of wine clouds the taste of poison, the gleam of gold around necks and on fingers hides the glitter of a dagger being unwrapped; where the lithe, sleek glitter of the snake’s scales belies the stink of death which lingers on its fangs, the flowers which shield it bobbing gently in the still air, purple and glorious against the dust of their surroundings.

Beautiful, we would think, naïve and sweet, such beautiful flowers – and we would be consigned to history, then, in beauty’s name.

Oh, but beauty is a weapon in and of itself – is it not, my Albus?

You should have known – anything which blinds is dangerous, anything which delights so much is unholy, anything which is craved so completely is addictive; is it not the way of things? What we want, we can never have; and what we can have, we never want.

A tragedy, Albus, and one which never ends.

To betrayal, then – it is the natural progression, from beauty to tragedy to the sting of betrayal, yes? – and the storm it conjured up, ushered in from the edges of the horizon and screamed out by the sky in a single, long howl.

The first I knew of it was the lightning – a flash of a fork, spiked and twin-pronged, plunging into the ground thirty miles out west, close to the coast and the sea, in a burst of gold-white, to announce its arrival, a threat and a warning at once. The thunder came after, low and growling, heavy and setting my stomach to lurch, shaking something down in the depths of my soul. Heat was replaced by a fierce cold, the pressure of the air beating down by the drumming and battering of rain onto flagstones and seeping through awnings, thudding into my arms and my head.

Within minutes I was drowning in it, shivering and freezing and overwhelmed.

The thunder grew louder, the lightning grew closer, brighter, and the rain threatened to submerge me, to push me to my knees and force me to shatter.

Once, that summer, I told you, fierce and bright and untested, I do not bend and I do not break. You smiled, indulgent and fond even then, twisting your fingers into my hair, and told me that while I certainly did bend – and you blushed as you said it, your eyes dark and sparkling; the double meaning a giddy secret hovering between us – you did not believe I could ever break.

Now, Albus, now I may say that I have faced the full force of the sun and the sky, the fury of a storm and I did not break; I stood and waited, and when they came for me, I reminded them that I too, am a force of nature – terrible and furious and imperial.

When the sun and the sky and the storm come to beat you into the ground, will you have the strength to stand?




19th June, 1930; Denizli, Turkey

All through the air, voices sighed, soft and gentle, silver-grey butterflies darting out of sight as I passed, tempered by the heat of the day as it thrummed, drumming into the flat stone floors and the tiled walls, making the Egyptian blue paint gleam, three shades lighter, and the thin gold lines here and there glitter, blinding in sleek, slim bursts. Everything wavered at this time of day, the whole earth shuddering and panting, vision shaking, and it had me permanently teetering on the edge, waiting for an image, a sight which never came.

Along the corridors, as I walked, Agathe following as always, the heat of the sun battled with the cool, fresh air conjured up by the endless temperature charms laced into the fabric of every building and sheltered by awnings and trellised ceilings as it wafted out of doorways and windows, skirmishing up and down my spine and the length of my face. Half of me burned, cream-and-white-gold, and the other half froze.

If outside, they battled, inside, they had merged and solidified into a boiling, blistering fury which gnawed at my ribs and bubbled through my blood in curling, coiling winds.

Beneath my skin, magic pulsed, static crawling up my arms, prickling and sparking, and I longed for the days I could simply breathe and fling it all outwards, see it whip and crash into mountains and the sides of valleys, sending cascades of rock tumbling into the water, avalanches of snow trembling and rumbling – setting the sky to grumble and darken, storm-clouds gathering like vultures overhead, and the power in my blood singing, revelling in the thrill of it all.

Anger has always suited me, where it never did you – has it not, my Albus?

In you, it is the slow, yawning awakening of a Titan, lumbering and deadly and awkward – the first stirrings of it, deep in the heart of the ocean’s soul, will have passed long before it reaches the top, before your conscious mind rouses itself to action, fury visible in springing, darting shows like flares to say stop, that is enough.

In me, it is the descent of a storm, incited by a clash of friction somewhere out over the plains and sped on its way by a howling, scratching wind, a monochrome tempest which spins fire out of drops of water strung together, drowning and burning and destroying at whim because passion is poisonous with the right spice.

We are matches, floating on a sea of oil, and waiting, always waiting, for a single, flickering spark.

(And so it is always violent when we clash – we carve scars into the earth around us, delving deep until she bleeds dry; we bruise bones and stinging bursts of white and dove-blue leave marks, black-and-purple blooming under skin; casualties tumble from the sky, shudder on the ground where they hide under bushes and behind trees; and in all of this, magic cries and begs and sings, a symphony of want shrouding us in a hazy flutter of gauze, and when we are breathless and stumbling, our hearts stuttering and knees crumbling, it is all too easy to fall into each other, exhausted and furiously tender, and remember how it is we were made for each other.

You did not come to me after the duel, bathed in glory and guilt; compassion then would have killed us both.

The memory of it haunts you every night, and it will never let you go.)

Before me, the door swung open, silent and slow, and I pushed it, quick and hard, the crash it made as it slammed back into a table, the vase on it teetering and smashing on the tiled floor in a second, smaller sound, sending a flicker of pleasure up my spine, soothing something hot and dark in my chest. Inside the room, its occupants jumped, heads snapping to look at me with identical nervous, solemn expressions.

“Herr Kanzler,” Meinrad was the first to speak, his hands crossed over his stomach where he sat behind his desk, drops of sweat glistening on his forehead and cheeks – it had been cruel to send him out here; the heat was suffocating him, slowly but surely. “We had not expected you so soon – although, of course, you are most welcome.”

As he spoke, Agathe, quiet and sensible, slipped past me to close the door with a soft click, the brief flash of the locking spell lost in the glare of sunlight streaming through the carved windows.

“What has been taken?” I ignored the greeting – useless, empty words; puffery to blossom in the air and squeeze out all others, all necessary others – and flung the question at him quickly. “And what is being said; your messenger, it seems, could not say.”

Beside him, his assistant – a young woman this year with a curled bob, her gaze darting between his mouth and his hands, slid a sheet of parchment onto the desk when he gestured, giving me a quick, frightened glance, before resuming her silent, stiff pose, fingers linked in front of her.

“We are double-checking what has been taken, but so far we believe it is merely a handful of personal letters, to at least three individual persons,” Meinrad informed me, pushing the sleeve of his robe – bell-shaped and loose, as was the local custom – up his arm, and consulting the parchment. “So far, we suspect there were no state secrets contained within them – nothing which would compromise either your safety or that of the recipients, or the government itself – but, unfortunately, there may have been things of a delicate nature. Of course, they were your letters, and so we have no doubt that we will have a complete answer to what in a matter of minutes now that you have arrived, should you be willing to assist.”

“Consider it done,” I said, taking a seat on a divan – low and flat, the blue cotton of it warm to the touch. “I will make a list of what should be found.”

“We will be most grateful for it,” he nodded, his face remaining grim and unsmiling. With a second, longer series of gestures I could not follow – there was a rhythm to it, a language to it – he directed the young woman to levitate a stack of rolls of parchment over to me, holding them in front of me like a floating library. “As to what is being said…”

He trailed off, weak and leaking a grimace, raising a cream handkerchief to dab at his forehead with a sigh.

“You ought to read it for yourself – after all, Herr Kanzler, it is about you.”

So, one by one, I read what the newspapers intended to write, to publish in four days’ time in every major publication from Ireland to the eastern tips of Russia, and what a story they had found!

They painted pictures of expensive, smoke-filled dens, with laudanum served in martini glasses, alcohol and Eiferwein, that heady drink, sipped from brandy glasses and champagne flutes and licked off the backs of handsome young men, seconds before they would turn and smile, coquettish and sultry in shirts open to their navels and black-lined eyes, ties and robes long forgotten. They spoke of how I would lie there, on a bed or a chaise longue or a sofa, drowsy and drunk and floating on a cocktail of narcotics, and summon them to me, reprobates and Ganymedes all, demanding that they kiss me, that they slide their hands over my skin, down to run along my hips, through my hair, along the creases of my thighs.

They screamed scandal and poison, and promised destruction.

(Albus, my Albus, what would you have done – if it had been you in my place?

Something different, you would say if I asked you, something different, something less cruel, something kinder and simpler and cleverer.

You would lie because it is easier, simpler, and far crueller to claim you are so much better than me, and so necessary to calm your own conscience.)

Buried somewhere in all of the gaudy, decedent images, was a handful of grains of truth, plucked out of lines and paragraphs of writing, platitudes and compliments and cruder, sweeter phrases, and arranged delicately, coral roses and crimson poppies mixed in a slim glass vase, among wild imaginings, to better set the people’s minds on fire.

The weakness of humanity – how easy it is to twist a mind or a thousand, until they believe what it is you want them to believe, even when it goes against all proof, all reason and sense!

How very fortunate for me, no?

“Has the person responsible been found?” I asked, replacing the last of the rolls of parchment back into the grip of the spell the assistant was holding, watching Meinrad as the parchment floated away and out of sight.

Two days later, when it was all over, I would burn them all – a twitch of my hand conjuring a dancing, leaping spark of teal blue at their heart, eating them up quickly, greedily, in feverish, inky gulps – and the letters which had been scribed in them would linger on in the back of my mind, charcoal-black and smudged by anger, but clear enough.

“Jawohl,” Meinrad gave a short, clipped nod to confirm; another hand signal and the assistant handed him another piece of parchment. This time, there was a letterhead, bearing the insignia of the Turkish magical government, and a name at the bottom I recognised well. “He is to be tried in a week, but the decision is certain – the evidence is overwhelming. That is, of course –” he cleared his throat here, flapping a hand uselessly in the air, and I waited, impatient and silent, for him to continue. “Assuming that you intend to deny the, ah, accusations?”

The words hung in the air for a moment, as he sweated and shifted in his seat, painful in their lightness, their careful, poised phrasing.

A shame – I had been almost looking forward to hearing him say it out loud, stumbling over the terrible, shameful words: stuttering out five syllables, graceless and afraid, his voice nothing more than a whisper. Still, his discomfort was visible: the reality of it all was choking him, a noose around his neck slowly tightening on his narrow, primitive mind and squeezing hard, opening his eyes and shattering his blissfully ignorant existence.

(History will remember little of this scuffle, even though for a clutch of hours infamy and disgrace loomed large in the doorway, their twinned shadows brushing over the back of my hand in a cold, damp caress.

I am certain – after all, I am the victor, historian of my own image, and I have buried it deep enough it will rest untouched for long enough that it will drift out of memory.

It stings, sometimes, to hide so much, to bind your own wings and cover over your own scars, but it is the burden of power – a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.)

“The government of Germany is worth far more than a dozen obscene articles,” I replied softly, a trickle of laughter sneaking into the room through the windows – it was three o’clock in the afternoon and the guard were changing, oblivious and naively content to the biting, clawing tension inside.

“It is a defamation suit,” Meinrad began, hesitant, but with a shred of bravery I had not anticipated – not from him, at least. His eyes, dark and muddy, studied me closely, cold and hard. “Truth matters in these things – to defend something –”

“Truth does not exist,” I interrupted him, quiet and harsh, and from across the desk my eyes bored into his. “It is merely a matter of perception and nothing more – and perception can be altered.”

For a moment, the room was silent as we watched each other in a silent, unspoken battle, and then he nodded, his expression unreadable, and conceded, pulling out his handkerchief again in a wave of surrender and mopping at his forehead and hairline.

“Of course, Herr Kanzler – I will instruct the lawyer as you say,” he said.

“I will expect to be kept informed,” I told him, rising and giving a flash of a smile to his stiff, nervous assistant; she only blinked and looked away.

“Should the decision go badly,” Meinrad almost murmured the words just as I reached for the handle of the door, my fingers grazing the polished wood, but I did not turn around. “Perhaps we should prepare for the likely uproar?”

“That would be unnecessary,” I replied, light and genial. “I have every confidence the right decision will be made, and justice will be served. There will be no uproar.”

When people talk about history, when they remember it, they always ask: where were you? Where were you when the war ended? Where were you when the ship sank? Where were you when the empire fell?

It bears a kind of weight – a solemnity in the innocence of your actions.

The judge thumped the gavel down on the nameless, faceless accused at half past one in the afternoon, on the twenty-sixth of June, the sound of it reverberating throughout the chamber, thudding into old, carved walls, his voice loud and strong and flat: for all the nature of the crimes, there is no passion in law, no spirit to give it life and colour.

As the gavel fell and the accused slumped in the hands of his guards, I too gasped and choked back a moan, the silk sheet scrunched in my grip, crumpling and creasing, white and sleek and so appropriately ironic. Fingers pressed against my back, my side, as hips pressed, hard and fast and sharp, against mine, ruthless and fierce; there were words drifting about the room, phrases in Arabic slipping from his lips – things I did not understand – but what did they matter when language was irrelevant: the hand he slipped around my stomach and the way he tilted his hips against my body spoke far more eloquently and robbed me of speech quicker than any words could have.

(I wish I could say this to you in person – how you would blush, my Albus, even after so many years and so many bodies!

English, always so stoic and tautly refined, pretending you are unburdened by ordinary, coercing passions – and yet, when protected by nightfall and the warm glow of candlelight, your morals collapse like a house of cards and the words you utter then are damnable every one, sinful and wicked and so wonderfully enticing.

Those have always been our best times, have they not – nights?)

The storm had passed, the threat had been nullified, and the world was set to rights, smiling and blissfully lethargic as I lay on my back on the bed, watching Ilkay as he leaned down to kiss me, flushed and dishevelled, the assurance of lust gone.

I had proven myself unassailable to the tens of attentive eyes around me, around my government, even if the outside world would never truly know what it meant.

Meanwhile, in the corners of rooms and the cracks and holes in streets, things were beginning to stir, waking and sniffing the air, testing it and smelling it ripe and ready – out they prowled, bringing with them discontent and unease, a growing sense of something coming, something blooming in the shadows, taking root in minds and hearts, jet-black and malevolent, soaked with an icy surety faith could not beat.

You will smile now, I know – knowing and patiently anticipating the next words I will recite to you. You will not laugh, as others might, and you know it is not generous.

We could all feel it, then, those of us who directed history, the way the wind was changing, the seasons shifting and reforming, the vultures gathering one by one overhead. There was a restlessness and a discomfort everywhere – an edge to every conversation, a bite on the end of every action.

It had been festering for years, waiting to gather its strength, and now it poked its head out of its den for the first time in decades, beginning the crawl out into the sunshine.

Germany was rocking, shivering and listless, and it was only ever a matter of time.

Later on the day history would forget, Ilkay leaned against the headboard, his side pressed flush against mine, our legs tangled together, a newspaper abandoned on top of the blanket, and stared as the rain flattened the flowers and the bushes outside, stripping leaves off trees and dyeing the light buttercup-yellow awnings a deep, rich amber.

“Two storms in a week – it is not normal,” he said in slow, halting English. “Unless, I suppose, you are English. My sister says they have many storms; a lot of rain, day after day. It makes her sad.”

I did not watch the storm – absently, delicately, I traced the ‘A’ in your name, printed in strong, bold type on page four, next to a strapline I have only ever remembered as blurred.

I had not thought about you in months, and then, there you were.

Once, that summer, there was a storm outside: heavy and humid, the air thick around us, leaving us tangled together, sticky and violently, hopelessly awake as the rain beat down on the roof of the house, sounding every moment as though the next hit would be the one to crash through the thatching and into the floor, earthing itself in the belly of the house. We were on your bed, half a sheet draped over us in the name of decency, your fingers in my hair and my arm wrapped around your waist, loose and lethargic.

I forget what I said, then, in the roar of the rain outside – whatever it was, I murmured it into your skin, a lick of salt pressing against my lip, cool and wet.

You did not reply for a while, but time did not matter then – we were lost in our own sanctuary, the rain like beads strung together on string creating out own tempestuous bower, blocking us from the world, keeping us hidden and safe away from prying eyes and the demands of family and duty – and when you did, it was soft, confessed to the reflection of candlelight in the glass, fuzzy and orange-gold.

“My father would sit up through the night,” you began, tentative and wistful, your words half-lost to a sigh. “Every time there was a storm. I used to hide at the top of the stairs and watch him – I thought perhaps he liked it, wanted to watch how it blustered and the way the lightning flashed. Now, I think they made him sad, and so he sat, awake in a house asleep, and so alone.”

(In my mother’s country, it is said in the folklore that wizards could control the sky, summon up whirling hurricanes or smatterings of rain, even raising a storm from dead air, holding out a hand and catching a fork of lightning in their palms.

Meaningless, perhaps, but beautifully wild.

Then, as now, as it did that summer, a storm was forming out to sea – the first wisps of thin grey cloud peaking over the horizon, tinting the edge of the world dark and desolate – and I held my breath, the thrill of anticipation setting my heart beating half a beat quicker, lighting a fire in my eyes, and I pressed myself against the glass, waiting impatiently for the glory of its fury when it came.

You said your father; did you lie, then?)

I had not thought of you in months, and then you came with the rain and I was soaked to the bone in seconds, floundering at sea as the sky darkened and clouds fattened.

As my father would say, in a puff of smoke: vom Regen in die Traufe, mein schatz.




A/N: I do not own any references to Hungarian mythology ('my mother's country...'). 

Translations: 

Jawohl - yes

Herr Kanzler - Mr Chancellor, a formal address

schatz - dear/darling 

vom Regen in die Traufe - literal translation: out of the rain and into the eaves. ie. going from an unpleasant situation to one which is even worse. 


Chapter 27: Phonemes
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Phonemes

As dawn breaks slowly on the edge of the horizon, a hand somewhere pulling on a string to tug the ink-black and violet of the night back, fading and morphing into the peach and golds and soft, blazing pinks of the early morning until they fill the whole sky with a hazy, delicate fanfare and the world underneath remains blind and silently sleeping, then, at those times, we are at once least and most lonely.

In the beauty of it all, the only sounds the twittering and cawing of birds around in a chorus a little too off-kilter to be melodic, nothing moves except Mother Nature herself – she is the only thing awake, tumbling over rocks in streams, steady and garbling as always, and letting loose whispers from branch to branch and leaf to leaf until the whole forest shakes with the same, repetitive message.

Even if you happen, by some lucky coincidence, to be awake and roaming the fields at such an hour, you will find your breath is steadied, your mind calmed, and your tongue sits leaden in your mouth, unwilling to move.

After all, who could dare to disturb such serenity?

A foolish question, in truth – I have no doubt of that – but all the same, no one at that hour speaks or shouts or even whispers. Everyone stands, still and quiet, watching as light blossoms on the horizon, the long fingers of the sun stretching out and brushing, tenderly and sweetly, over the backs of hills and the deep crevices of valleys, catching silken spider webs and veins of white and pink in budding flowers.

Once upon a time, I stood by the window on the landing of the tiny house in Godric’s Hollow, clad only in shirtsleeves and trousers and watched the sunrise, the world complacent as the rest of the house slumbered; in my bed, you wore a halo of spun-gold curls, wrapped in soft blue blankets, a boy again in the morning light.

There, aimless and thoughtless, it seemed that the world was alive but for our house, quick, trilling bursts of notes flitting through the air like single, lyrical letters, bites of sounds from a language I could not understand. I imagined them to be tiny, delicate letters, transparent and wavering as sound does, or perhaps knocking, drilling taps of Morse code, sending secrets from place to place.

Every now and then, the blackbird in the hawthorn tree by the window would hop on its branch, cock its head to one side, a dark, beady eye studying me carefully, and chirp a brief, flourishing refrain.

Leaning against the window-frame, I marvelled at the serenity in understanding nothing, being utterly confounded by the syllables floating from branch to branch in lazy, swaying puffs of wind; I had not been so enchanted by something so impenetrable since I had first met you and heard the way your tongue slid and clicked through the staccato consonants and strange, rounded vowels you spoke with your Aunt.

Once upon a time, I abandoned the window after a handful of minutes of silence, turning back to pad along the hallway in socked feet to my bedroom, closing the door behind me with a tiny, squeaking tick which echoed throughout the room but never managed to reach you.

Settling myself on the bed, awkwardly slotting myself in between the wall and you, my back sinking against the old wooden headboard, I would pluck a book from the stacks dotted around my room, perched precariously on shelves and on top of cupboards, pouring out of drawers meant for clothes and teetering on the edge of the desk, and I would wait, patiently, for you to wake, the rhythm of the pages turning a rustling accompaniment to the faint calls and warbles of the chorus outside, king of a world entirely my own.

Eventually, with dawn fully risen and the blackbirds’ concert quietened, you would stir, brushing a curled, lazy hand against my leg, feather-light and slow, even as I shifted the book on my lap, slipping my fingers into your hair and combing through the strands with unhurried, gentle tugs.

Nothing changed, neither of us moved, and nothing was said.

Then, we spoke in our own language of slight, trembling caresses, each brief flutter of fingertips a syllable, a phoneme all itself, inflected here and there by the softest changes in pressure, warming skin and blood and soul alike.

Impatiently lazy, you would cajole the book from me with sluggish, idle pulls, moving it centimetres at a time, until it fell away from me, and you smiled, triumphant at last, as you pushed yourself up so you sat and looked at me, still half-asleep and rumpled, sleepily victorious. You snaked an arm around my neck and slithered over my lap – hot and solid, a stark contrast to the cool, rippled leather bindings – and kissed me.

I believe, at least – or perhaps I kissed you; does it matter so much, who leaned in first?

What did it matter, when I wound an arm around your waist to press us closer as your thighs pinned me in place; all that mattered was the way you tilted your head so your lips dragged against mine and sighed, sweet and indolent, against my mouth, how you tasted as my tongue slid along your bottom lip, the way that this too was a language all its own, intimate and unknown and blissfully indecipherable.




7th April, 1933; Portrush, Northern Ireland

In the light, cream-white and flickering, that the candles threw against the dim grey of the clouded sky outside, my hands looked pale, blue veins snaking across bones and muscles underneath my skin, white and thin against the rich red of the tablecloth. Together with the fine china teacups and slim-spouted teapot sat in front of me, they made a startlingly fragile tableau – feeble and delicate, full of precise, elegant lines and subtle tones.

Of course, I do not mean myself – I am rather referring mostly to the teapot.

A gentle tinkle of music drifted throughout the room from an enchanted grand piano in the corner, the spellwork reapplied every half an hour by the maître d’, a sweet, soothing layer underneath the faint, low hum of voices which hovered in little swarms about tables here and there, enveloping them in clouds of buzz and thrumming, lazy excitement.

On our table, a large mahogany circle tucked in one corner, a pillar and a potted plant with waving, starburst-yellow flowers flanking us on either side, the flare of chatter as we had all arrived, one by one, each in a swirl of wind and spray of faint, warm raindrops, had started to die a little, pleasantries and enquiries after the health of wives and husbands and children (even Tiberius was married now, to a dark-haired woman with clever, sly eyes, and I felt my bachelorhood keenly then, as they all chattered on past me, exchanging sympathetic smiles and knowing, fond glances I could not hope to decode) abandoned in favour of a bottle of wine and food.

“So, what’s the latest gossip on the Continent?” Tiberius asked between bites of steak and sweet potato. “I heard something on the wireless about there being some kind of emergency in your neck of the woods – though no one seemed to be at all sure what it was about. Any light to shine on it as a fellow in the know?”

Elphias, startled out of his contemplation of his pasta and slow, ponderous fork-twirling, glanced up at Tiberius and then at me and Euphemia, quickly, fox-like and nervous.

“I really shouldn’t be sharing anything with you – it would be a breach of secrecy and loyalty,” he began, halting, his mouth dropped into an apologetic grimace as he reached for his wine glass; a barrier, perhaps, to better shield him from unwanted questions.

I could not blame him – even I in my imposed blockade from international news of any kind had heard rumours muttered and repeated at dinner tables and over the morning newspapers, shared with the kind of confidence one has when one knows absolutely nothing about a subject, and I wanted even less than he did for the hour-glass of the conversation to turn and drop into it with an almighty splash.

I was so very afraid that someone would mention you or Germany or our private, secret slogan, and my stomach shrank at the thought, even as my heart beat a little bit faster. I was afraid, oh yes, I admit it; but also terribly, hopelessly thrilled.

“We’re not asking for state secrets, Elphias, good gracious,” Euphemia exclaimed with a jumping roll of her eyes as she speared an asparagus on a fork, delicate and neat. “Simply what is actually going on. There was one man on the other day, on a news programme, saying that Germany’s declaring a state of emergency – you know, what with everything going on in the Muggle world over there – but the other man on, who was supposed to be an expert on it, I think, said that that was a lie. The first man seemed quite certain, though.

So,” she fixed her dark, blunt gaze on Elphias. “Which is it, truth or a lie?”

(Truth or a lie – such a small, simple question, but so impossibly heavy, laden down with a thousand and one possibilities, half of them exquisite, the other half bitter and sour and rotten.

My stomach twisted, my mouth dried; I sipped wine to hide it, full and fruity, and waited for the hammer-blow to come.

Even then, my darling, I suspected so much and feared so much and hoped too little, and I could not find the words or the voice to speak any of them, to give them their own wings and their own paths. There was no one but you to say them to, and you were still too much the temptation, too much the promise of a future I had told myself I did not want, and too much of me for my tongue to move and draw out the letters, one by one.)

“Both, though it’s dull to say, I grant you,” Elphias smiled a bit, wan and thin, and it took years off his round face – wiping away the dark circles under his eyes and the lines beginning to gather around his mouth. “There hasn’t been anything declared yet – at least, not officially – but apparently things are getting worse: people are discontented, nervous, and angry. As of yet, there haven’t been any riots, but the rumours say it’s only a matter of time.”

“A difficult business,” Tiberius mused, swilling wine in his glass, slow and thoughtful. “Managing a mad Muggle Minister.”

“Quite, quite,” Euphemia agreed with a frown. “And not at all helped by the fact that the last war ended so dreadfully for them – all those sanctions and so on – and the International Confederation is being most unsympathetic.”

Silent, I listened to them swap rumours and stories, trading them across the table for less than a handful of empty, vacant facts Elphias offered up, half-dazed by the oddity of it all: that I should be sitting there, in a restaurant in a village in Northern Ireland, surrounded by green fields and white-gold beaches leading into the sweeping, swaying sea, while my friends picked at detail after detail of the tremulous flutterings of the greater good, dissecting and debating in careless, ordinary voices.

It seemed absurd – to be talking of such things, to be mentioning revolution and uprisings and theoretical superiority in the open, surrounded by sunlight and the chatter of two dozen other voices flaring like sparklers here and there around us.

It seemed, somehow, so terribly wrong, as though such things were not made for this world, were not defined and breathed out for this world – daylight and living, knowing ears.

Then, of course, it came – it was only a matter of time, I had known that from the beginning of the conversation – but it still startled me: the swooping jump in my stomach, the double thud in my chest, and I wondered desperately, absently if I were blushing.

(Again, my darling, so absurd to think of it! Blushing at your name alone; good God, how foolish of me!)

“– say, though, Grindelwald seems quite up for the challenge,” Tiberius commented glibly. “If anyone can deal with this Hitler bloke, the Confederation, and everything else at once, it’ll be him. A friend of mine heard him speak in Stuttgart – he gave a speech of sorts to the wizarding lot there after a protest a couple of months ago – said he was brilliant. Really understands the common man.”

“Really, Tiberius, he’s just a man,” Euphemia laughed, bright and sparkling and it burst through the bubble you and your (our, our plans) plans had spun around me, spider-silk thin and enchanting. “Don’t be so enamoured. He’s a politician, after all, and all politicians lie – it’s likely nothing will turn out as it should do. They never do, whoever’s running the show.”

With a soft clink, I set down my knife and fork, studying the patterned china plate with feigned interest – at least, that was what I was aiming for; it is entirely possible I merely looked tired or bored or some combination of all three – and, as soon as I was able, begged out of dessert and fled, cowardly and terrified, back to Hogwarts.

There, I was surrounded by walls and wards, books and lesson plans, with a thousand and one tasks and details and little, imperative things to bury myself under until I could forget that I had heard your name slipping from my friends’ mouths, forget that I had heard and thought our damnable slogan once more, that I had thought of you and of all the thoughts which had flickered in my mind when I had, none of them had been remotely good or right or just.

It is such a well-known myth of love: that it is always good.

(It is one I know you believe in with the same damning, absolute faith you believe in everything with; it sighs and rages alongside your steadfast flashes and flickers of Hallows and destiny and a great, glorious future – alongside you and I, hand in hand, still, so many years on.

You are god-given, you told me once, blazing and calm and deliriously wonderful, your eyes wine-dark and your hair tangled and knotted, the paths of my fingers still woven into the strands. You are god-given, you had said then, how could this, how could we possibly be wrong, if it was so ordained, so perfectly orchestrated? When we were so obviously designed for each other and no one else?

“My Alexander,” I had teased you, my arm draped over your shoulder, a deliberate strand of laughter laced through the words, and you had blinked, your eyes glazed, dim and unseeing.

“Ja,” you had replied, your voice sepulchral and echoing faintly, like the tolling of the church bells in the distance, muffled and heavy, and there had been a weight in the words which dragged through the air, a shroud settling on both our shoulders. “Without you, I will fall into madness, no?”

“Hardly,” I had whispered back, watching as the air cleared and your face lightened, skin flushed hot, and I carded my fingers through your hair to press, gentle and firm, at the top of your spine; you smiled, wan and lazy, and your eyelashes cast spindly shadows over your cheeks, long and sharp. “You will not lose me.”

God-given, perhaps, my darling, but I cannot say for certain whether you and I would ever have been good. In another life, another world… but it is too late and we are both too old to muse on the endless possibilities we once skipped by.)

That insignificant lunch, it seemed, was the opening of the floodgates: everywhere I went after that people murmured about Germany, about riots and revolutions, about you – Grindelwald, Grindelwald was the name they all repeated, twisting the pronunciation until it sounded nothing like you or Aberforth or Bathilda, but still somehow everything like you.

I am exaggerating, of course – it was not everywhere, not as constant and as deafening as it sounds – but it was often enough and thoughtful enough that words and phrases stuck in my head, pinned to the walls with needles and pearl-topped pins.

It felt overbearing, stifling: like the humid heat of summer, wearing you down bit by bit by bit, until you lie on your bed, sticky and sweaty and exhausted, humbled at last.

For so long, I had been cut off from the world, cocooned in a pupa of essays and examinations and minor, petty arguments between children, just old enough to know how to cut deep; I had been safe there from words and syllables which clanged and rang, bright and fierce, safe from stirring, dusty memories of radicalisation and fervent, blind devotion.

Now, of course, you had reached me, even in Hogwarts, even behind so many walls and so many spells, a network of silver-bronze laid over the stones and the bricks, threaded through mortar, and you were there, leaching gold into them so they gleamed with flashes of sunlight, embedding yourself into my life once more, slowly but surely.

It is remarkable that every time I think I have started to forget you, to find a path beyond and around you, to build a life without you in it, you slip in between the trees to bump my shoulder and brush my hand again, insidious and beautifully enthralling.

Really, darling, it is quite cruel of you.

I took again to walking – leaving the castle at daybreak or earlier, the sky a watercolour mess of orange and pale yellow and deep, sapphire blue, and trekking further and further afield, up into the rocky hills and mountains which surrounded Hogwarts, delving into the caves and water-carved alleyways which littered their sides, grey and green and serene.

Now and then, against the sky, there would be a flutter of brown or dark, dusky black, as birds winged their way overhead and past me: owls darting down south to families and friends, blackbirds and swallows flying to their nests and their young, fluffy chicks cawing for food, and great, golden birds of prey, eagles and hawks, circling the land below endlessly, scanning and hunting and waiting. They would dive, bullets through the air, curving and carving through the wind blowing through my robes and my hair, and I would lose all sight of them, their triumphant screeches echoing gently in the quiet.

There, lonely and tranquil, I would sit on a spire of rock jutting out over a sharp, steep valley filled with bluebells nodding and swaying in the breeze to the beat of some inaudible tune, and think about nothing at all.

Nothing or everything, in truth – and the perfume from the flowers would wind its way around me, encasing me in a cloud of it, as the muscles in my back unknotted slowly.

One day, not long after that fateful dinner, I was sat there, on the rock, admiring the flowers and the birds as they weaved in the sky, and then, all of a sudden, emerging down from the path opposite me, a slim winding stair that rolled over the top of the crest, heading towards the same point and the same meadow, was Aberforth.

It had been months, then, since I had seen him – and even then, when we had last spied each other, neither of us had said a word – he had grown older, scruffier, and more unkempt: his hair was still short, messy and roughly cut, and his beard was shaved close to the skin, a layer of stubble bubbling out in grey-tinted red from his skin.

He stared at me, his jaw locked, and I could do nothing but stare back.

(It is a fact of my life that there have only ever been two people so able to steal my eloquence from me so completely, throwing me out to sea with merely a look and watching, blank and patient, for me to drown.

You and him are far more alike than I would ever dare to say to either of you; though in truth you both remind me more of the faint, scattered memories of my father than anything else.)

“I can leave,” I said eventually, the words dry in my mouth, sticking on my tongue, already half-rising. “If you would prefer.”

He looked at me for a heartbeat longer, the watch on my wrist – that old, worn gift from my seventeenth birthday – ticking loud in the silence, a steady beat I honed in on absently, and then he simply carried on, striding down the mountainside to the edge of the valley where, in the shade of a cluster of birch trees, the bluebells sprouted in waves.

Bending down, he reached out a hand and gently plucked one, slicing through the stem with a short, rounded knife which glinted silver, before reaching for another and a third, lying them to one side in the grass, violet-blue in the dappled shade.

“They were her favourite, weren’t they?” I remember aloud, the image lingering in my mind from so many years ago: Aberforth, decades younger, with a posy of bluebells in hand, and Ariana laughing, curtseying when she took them from him, smelling them and smiling, arranging them delicately, fussily in a tall, glass vase.

It struck me then how I had never thought to visit her, her and Mama in Godric’s Hollow, not since the day we buried her and Aberforth broke my nose, and guilt exploded in my chest like a bomb, a rush of some unnameable grief surging up through my throat. How had I never visited? How had I never even thought about it? How was it that I had been so obsessed, so fixated on you, moving past you, avoiding you and everything which reminded me, forcefully and wonderfully, of you, that I had never gone back even for that?

A better man would have voiced all those things, would have sought forgiveness for them; but I am not a better man, and I do not have the strength to do either.

“Surprised you remember that,” Aberforth snorted, gruff and with that thread of anger leeching through which always seemed present when he and I were in the same place. His hands had stilled on the bluebells, the knife still twinkling in the sunlight, catching it and winking at me. “Never seemed bothered with her.”

I swallowed, my eyes dropping to stare at the grass around my feet, tiny emerald blades dipping and brushing with the wind.

“Of course I remember that,” I said softly. “I used to braid them into her hair – don’t you remember, that summer, we would sit outside in the garden and I would braid them into her hair while he…”

I trailed off, the unmentionable, unspeakable ‘we’ lingering in the air, solid and tantalisingly toxic, swelling and growing with every second that passed, every second in which Aberforth did not turn or move, but the knuckles around the handle of the knife grew whiter.

“Don’t bloody pretend,” the reply was biting, gritted, and it stung, a curious mix of defensive, resisting anger rising in my chest with a second push of guilt and bile-thick self-hatred. “It had anything to do with her.”

I said nothing in response – what was there to say? What could I say to defend myself? He and I have always spoken different languages, different dialects – it is something for which he has never forgiven me – but on that he was right; on that he is almost always right, an unfailing, unflinching critic of mine, reminding me of every sin and failing I have ever committed.

A minute or two later, he gathered up the bluebells, indigo heads spilling over his hands like a bride’s spray, bell-shaped and nodding, glared at me once more and left, vanishing over the hilltop in a flurry of ragged brown.

For hours I stayed there, perfectly still, the earth spinning around me, underneath me, and the sun trailing across the sky, stately and blazing, my thoughts everywhere and nowhere – on you, on me, on poor, delicate Ariana, on the words Aberforth had flung at me, harsh and vicious, which still rattled around inside my head. Eventually, I was there, thinking of nothing at all, blank and faintly sad.

Rising, stiff and sore, my knees creaking and muscles protesting at the long-awaited stretch pulling them taut, I made my way back to Hogwarts and into my office, barricading myself there for the rest of the weekend; from seclusion to seclusion, each one mindless and thunderously silent.

Every time I closed my eyes, all I could smell was the scent of the bluebells in the field – of the wild roses and dahlias in the fields by the stream where you and I had once sat as I braided, carefully and softly, bud after bloom into Ariana’s long, long hair, in shades of soft pink and yellow and bright, pale white. The bluebells were always last, tucked in at the end, heads pouring out of the tail of the plait, a white rose beneath them, green stem tying it together.

She beamed at me every time I did it, lighting up and spinning around, arms wide, as though she was a princess.

Once, she ran off and returned with an armful of orange-yellow spotted tiger lilies, daisies, and purple violets, letting them cascade into your lap, a fractured kaleidoscope.

Smiling, you had beckoned to me, Ariana tugged on my sleeve; and I had sat in front of you, your fingers carding through my hair, steady and methodical, weaving them in amongst the copper of my hair, smoothing out the strands and untangling it easily, your fingertips brushing the back of my neck; I had to bite my lip to stay silent, my cheeks flushed, and feeling so impossibly warm.

Aberforth had found us, an hour later, Ariana swaying around the field plucking flower after flower, their buds blooming in her hands, colours growing stronger and brighter, their stems winding around her wrists and trailing down to the ground, and you and I: my hands in your hair, your head in my lap, and blossom littering us both.

Unbidden, back in my rooms at Hogwarts, so far from those halcyon days but so sharply, suddenly jolted backwards, I slid an arm under my bed for the box I kept there – an old habit, from my childhood – pulling it out into the light. The dust on it covered my hands, clogging my lungs and papering my mouth, making me cough, a mockery of dead, crumbled petals.

I hesitated, and then opened it, and, Gellert, my darling, for the second time that day I felt close to crying.

How could I ever forget, when the world itself refused to let me, even when I begged?  




A/N: All references to Alexander (the Great) and Hitler are not owned by me; they were real people (of course). 


Chapter 28: Italy
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Italy

With a sigh, heartfelt and mournfully romantic, dusk would arrive in Siena: carried in on the back of a flutter of wind, tugging gently, delicately at lace-thin curtains, translucent and shimmering; it would grow, shepherded along by the push-pull of breath, like the tides of the sea as it rolls in, slowly, slowly, until the sky was a burst of blood orange and soft, tawny gold, white-blue and ribbons, here and there, of red on the undersides of clouds, dark and full of rain. It dyed the whole city – pink and plump in the daylight – burnt orange and persimmon, glinting gold and winking, twinkling.

I would see, always, the way the light played on my skin, thrown over my balcony in a thousand shades of orange-gold-red, how it twisted to envelop me, how it caught lines of muscles and ridges of bone alike, how it turned the scar on the back of my left hand rose-gold in turn, a gleaming, glimmering thing in its own right.

I would see it, always, and wonder, absently, caught somewhere between dreaming and waking – tumbled, elegantly and silently, into a wonderland I could not resist – what it would do to your hair: how it would catch the copper threads, make them gleam, deepen and darken your eyes as I had seen a hundred times until they echoed like wells and I drowned; how it would play, tapping and skittering, across the backs of your hands on the metal railing and how I would watch you there, drinking and drinking and drinking.

Imagination is a gift, my Albus, and a curse when it drives us to madness.

How often to have to dream something, see something, imagine something for it to become half a memory? A shade of a potential future you could once taste and feel and know? How long must you cling to it, those shards of possibility, a kaleidoscope of colours and scents and thoughts you never thought, before you are lost to it?

You see, in this prison of mine, in this cage you locked me in, I wonder and I dream and I see places I have never been, people I have never known, and I remember, clear as my hands in front of my face and the rusting bars on my windowsill, things I have never said or heard said, voices which ring with something, something I cannot name, but I waver, caught between certainty and uncertainty. I imagine, endlessly – and I wonder on imagining and imagine imagining, imagine imagination.

Oh, but it is relentless, Albus, this madness: it creeps towards me just in front of dusk, like a herald coming to announce his master’s arrival, and it hovers over my shoulder as I sit and read or stare out of the window, counting birds and wolves, watching dark dots race about hundreds of metres below, idly cloud-gazing and, staring blankly, predicting the weather for the next day and the next and the next and the next.

I am never wrong – I am precise down to the second the first raindrop will land on my hand when I thrust my arm through the bars and wait for it.

There is a storm coming to Scotland; it will arrive in Hogsmeade at forty-six minutes past three on Wednesday morning; it will last six hours and twelve minutes exactly; the drive will flood and you will forget your boots, splashing mud halfway up your thighs. You will smile, and Aberforth will curse you.

Child’s play – weather-calling; a trick only useful to impress those easily enthralled.

Somewhere outside my window, to the south, there is Italy. If I turn my head and press my face against the bars until the bones ache, I still cannot see it – it is too far, hidden from me behind the tall, capped mountain-peaks and all the dips and valleys of Switzerland – but I know it is there.

For some reason, the sunsets always seem more beautiful on the south-side.

There is a viewing station on the south-side of Nurmengard: a tower, hexagonal and cold, furnished in the old days with a handful of fur rugs and thick, velvet curtains which folded onto the ground in layers upon layers, the huge archway, carved into the rock of the prison itself, two feet thick, gaping out into the world beyond. I have asked them to take me there, for the sunsets in summer – I have claimed I am dying, that it would be a kindness, a folly to indulge in one last time.

They do not believe me; it does not surprise me, they think I am a liar too: that I will bind them in words alone.

Such foolishness; such ignorance; are these the folktales they tell about me? If so, they are not the tales they should be telling, no?

You and I have seen all things together: moons and sunsets, dawns and witching hours, cold and bleak – in our fervent romanticism, we missed them that summer, I think; we did not linger over them, sit there, curled in the grass, my head on your shoulder, our fingers tangled together, warm and cold at once, and just watch, silent and serene. Their seduction bypassed us even as we whispered promises to each other, lovesick and beguiled.

In Siena, I spent so long in the evenings standing on that balcony, looking south down to the Mediterranean with Germany at my back, wrapped in a robe, warm and still, until the sun had sunk and the stars shone in the sky, a sprinkling of diamonds, white-silver in a dusky, gold-brushed midnight blue, and then the breeze would stir me, licking at my ankles and my neck, tossing my hair in gleeful, wild handfuls, and I would return – from here, from there, from a wonderland halfway in between.

I think, then, if I lied to anyone, I lied to myself.




12th August, 1934; Siena, Tuscany, Italy

The conference room was long and slender, lined with velvet-covered seats in deep, verdant green, counted out beneath paintings of cityscapes: Rome some centuries before, Naples and Verona, Florence and Venice when they had been great city-states, tussling over land and wealth and the Papacy; along one wall, in place of paintings were tall, rectangular windows, looking out into the famous pink-bricked square, nestled at the end of the fan’s curve, sunlight streaming in and over the walnut table stretching across the rest of the room in a blank, brown oval.

At one end, the two flags – Italy’s tricolore and my Germany’s black-red-yellow, our federal colours – stuttered softly either side of a table bearing a small, gold-plated carriage clock which ticked away quietly and a vase, china and patterned with blue etchings, spilling over with crimson amaranth and tall, white lilies, yellow roses dotted about underneath, peaking out of a forest of leaves.

Perfume wound about everything, light and heady, the heat thickening the air minute by minute, a slow and steady scorching.

I sat with the sun on my shoulders, glaring over my head at the wall opposite in a spray of gold and cream, and waited.

Like fighters in a boxing ring, the Italian Minister opposite me studied me just as I him: his eyes flicked over my hair, my face, the turquoise robes and the high, white-edged collar; he lingered for a moment on the papers in front of me, briefly, and then, finally, he smiled.

“Signore,” he pronounced, the syllables rolling, half-purring. “Welcome to Italy – I trust you are having a pleasant visit?”

“Very much so, grazie,” I responded, smiling easily, lightly. The question was a falsehood: he had supplied enough for me in the suite of rooms I had been given that I could not have found fault with it and he knew it – from a chilled bottle of prosecco appearing every day without fail or fanfare in a tall, bud-shaped wine cooler, to the fleet of handsome, twenty-year-old footmen and waiters and attendants awaiting every whim and command, he had thought of everything, given and arranged everything.

He inclined his head, a quick thing, pausing in the half-bow with a smile, the picture of a gracious, humbled host.

“As agreed,” he began, glancing over a sheet of parchment slipped underneath the top one, both of them covered, it seemed, in a flowing cursive in crimson ink. “We will today discuss the conclusions of our earlier negotiations by Floo – meaning the terms of our treaty and mutual political support within the International Confederation – with a view to signing the documents on Friday. Is this still the case?”

“For our part, yes, that is still the intention,” I replied softly, plainly, the smile gone now – this was business, all business, and there is no room for kindness in politics.

It is, in truth, a battle of shifting, changing shadows, darting and dancing about the room from corner to corner and floor to ceiling, a thousand shades of white and silver-grey and obsidian, blending and blurring into each other so it seems it does not change. Temperamental and fickle, it is a game of chess you play against a hundred opponents at once, half of them invisible and unknown; across the board from you, Time sits and slowly, patiently, wears you down piece by piece by piece.

Like the Dark, it is unnameable and untameable; to defeat it, you must first understand that you cannot.

In politics, everyone is a friend and everyone is an enemy at the same time.

So, in time-honoured tradition, Eliseo and I battled over the locations of our meetings, over the words and the phrases used in the agreement, the colour of the ink we would both sign it in, our preferences for the flowers lining the trellises and pathways as we strolled through the gardens of the villa the Ministry had lent me; petty, childish differences, spiteful and wickedly sharp.

Still, we found common ground – we were both children of the new age: industrial and revolutionary in equal measure, dreaming of steel-coated futures and legacies of marble and gold.

One night, with the culmination of our efforts behind us – the mountain now scaled, we saw an oasis before us – he and I sat in the veranda of my villa, tucked away inside the four walls of the house, a parade of columns lining one side of it, rose-veined marble and wound about with wisps and licks of ivy, a bottle of wine striking the centre of no man’s land between us and the sunset washing over us in a jasmine-tinted wave.

“There comes a point,” I said, slowly, lazily. “When it is not enough to simply sit and wait for the world to change. If it must be changed, why not seize it? Control it? Direct it? Change does not happen in a vacuum; it is spun by human hands alone, from human thoughts and human emotions.”

I had a glass of wine in my hand, vermillion and sparkling brightly, and I watched as the wind rolled it around between my fingers, teasing it forward and backward to sway to and fro.

Across the table, Eliseo leaned back in his chair, short and stocky, his hands folded over his stomach in a lattice which set his wedding ring to shine, a sliver of gold caught around his finger; he seemed to be contemplating the fountain a few metres away, tall and cascading down over the shoulders of a Roman emperor long dead, but his dark eyes were calculating, blinking slowly.

Lizard-like, he was cold-blooded and patient, far more so than I have ever been.

It is perhaps a good thing you never had the fortune to meet him, Albus – you would have loathed him: he was the antithesis of you; studied but never quite talented, manipulative and subtly, pleasantly charismatic, so unmemorable that he was remarkable.

Unlike you, he understood that revolution was just; that the victory would be worth the cost we would pay to take it.

“A people may change their mind,” Eliseo murmured, his voice soft and his English heavily accented. “But they may need someone to show them how it has changed.”

“It is a question of guidance,” I agreed, taking a sip of the wine – rich and fruity, full-bodied and settling heavily in my stomach, lulling me, cajolingly and enticingly, towards sleep. “And of righteousness.”

There was a long pause, punctured only by the soft whirrs of motorcar engines on the roads behind us and the chirps and twitterings of birds, hidden from sight in the leaf-laden boughs which lined the square garden, sweet and light. It was a friendly thing, content and smooth, as though our earlier friction had been cleaned away entirely, replaced by a plain, cautious camaraderie.

As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no?

“I will be attending mass in the cathedral tomorrow morning,” Eliseo said eventually, stirring himself into movement as I stayed seated, enthroned in wicker, looking up at him – half like a child, half like a king. “You are most welcome to join me, should you wish to.”

His face was pleasant, smiling and carefully poised: simple and open; in that way, too kind and too generous, he revealed himself.

Faith is not something shared: it is a private homage, a private devotion, a dedication and a reminder, timely or not, that there is something greater than man, stronger and wiser than we would wish to be; a barrier to the glories of man, it humbles and rebuilds in one breath, drawing boundaries in our very being that we cannot see, but only feel instinctively, naturally.

In me, it is the last memory of my mother, a taint in my soul I have never had the courage to forego, silent and secretly reverent; a keepsake imprinted into my neck in gold-and-pearl, worming its way under my skin and through my blood, burning whenever I railed against it and damned it.

(To be betrayed so… to be so abandoned, floundering, at such a statement! To hear someone speak so easily, so simply, of things I had forbidden so long ago, things I had locked away years before, never speaking, never breathing any syllable of them. Confronted with my own burdens, my own unfailing piety, so casually, so thoughtlessly, as though it were nothing, as though it meant nothing…

Albus, it stung, furious and weeping, deep inside my chest, and it flattened whatever temple he and I had begun building together, setting my mind to hum and the Elder Wand to whisper softly about silver and blood and recompense for treachery.

Albus, my Albus, there are things men like you and I do not share with the world, they remain with us, tucked underneath our shirts, hidden from mortal sight, and there they lay, for good or for ill, until we choose to reveal them, display them, repeat them to the world.

Secrets are secrets are secrets: they define us and destroy us, and they are a poison to be administered by our own hands alone.

If secrets are not safe, then, oh, the world itself will sunder and every man will fall.)

I smiled too – a razor-thin edge, cold and quiet – and, for a moment, thought of my mother as I had last seen her, frail and sickly, jaundiced with her rosary in one hand and the words of the Lord’s Prayer pushing past her lips in a hacking, halting whisper.

“If you have no objection, I would be delighted,” I responded, languid and placidly polite, but I remained unsettled for hours after he had left, wandering the garden until night had fallen and midnight approached, slipping in and out of bed in a hazy delirium, flitting from thought to thought and trouble to trouble, rocked so absolutely I stumbled every now and then, dizzy and burning with a sick heat.

In silk robes and barefoot, I wound my way down through the villa and round and round the outer edges of the garden, slipping between the columns in a weaving dance borne of the swaying and twisting of my mind, as the house rolled around me, ship-like and water-thin.

The night air was cold, resting now but still biting and scratching, no matter how lamely, and it sunk deep into my bones, chilling me and turning the water on my arms and my neck, on my forehead and which clumped strands of my hair, to ice. Still, underneath the blue-white coating, I smouldered, smoke rising from my skin wherever I looked, hearing echoes of screams not yet shouted and feeling shadows of sensations not yet felt.

It was controlling, demanding, relentlessly pulling at the edge of my sanity, scattering thoughts and sending them tumbling; it felt like breaking, like watching myself collapse in a flutter and clatter of bone and hair, a macabre house of cards.

From memory to prophecy, it rocketed back and forth, back and forth and back again, careering wildly and helplessly, until I could not remember, could not tell which was true and which was false, which had been real and which was merely possibility.

I saw my mother die, her last breath rattling through her throat with a ghostly, childish air; I heard the cries and wails of women in mourning as coffins lowered, one after another after another, until the streets echoed with them, grey and pale, a vivid underworld; I saw men fall by the thousand, lines of gravestones stretching out back into the sunset. I saw a man fall from a tower, and a funeral casket decked in Prussian blue, bathed in a kaleidoscope sunlight; I saw you and I, young again, running through the fields in a paradise which felt familiar.

I felt a sharp, searing despair and heard the minuscule whimper of a heart cracking in two, and the fury and madness of gods; I watched you die, cut down by my own wand, shamed and wrecked and broken, and I returned to myself lost.

There, I awoke, in the garden in Siena, an arm hooked around the leg of Caesar Augustus, breathless and freezing, shattered into a mocking mosaic.

Konstantin found me there, my velvet robe draped over his arm, lying on the edge of the fountain, more awake than I had been in days, exhausted beyond measure. Without saying anything, watching me warily, his concern bold and startlingly clear on his face, he laid the robe by my head, sat in a wicker armchair, and waited, dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks wan, for me to recover myself.

It was not the first time for him and I, and it would not be the last; in other times, he would allow himself greater liberties, tugging my upright and pushing the robe around my shoulders, fetching me water, running me a bath, tucking me back into bed like a child who refused to sleep. This time, though, he did not touch me, did not come near, and I wondered later what of it all had shown on me, in the grazes on my hands and feet, in the wild horror still in my eyes.

A less sentimental man would have been suspicious of him, would have wondered whether Judas was at his back and in his bed – for my part, I never considered it.

Minutes, hours later, when I shrugged on the robe and he followed me back to bed, he would murmur across the divide between us,

“You cannot lose, it isn’t possible. God will not allow you to lose.”

The next morning I awoke with an arm wrapped around his waist and my head buried in his neck, lazy and soft, and he stared at me all day, smiling faintly and gloriously in love.

Lucifer though people may brand me, I did not have the heart to crush him by telling him, however truthfully, that I could never and would never love him in return.

As I sat at my desk, day breaking beyond the windows, over the spires and rooftops of Siena, he brought me coffee and almond-and-lemon cakes, handing me a pile of letters all bound up in red ribbons and stamped with the German seal: a gold griffin in relief on black; there was a stack of newspapers to one side of them, all of their headlines proclaiming dull, ordinary news – the month’s events forgotten in the busy, rushing memory of print.

How much terror can a single night bring? How much fear can a population hold before it spills over, before people feel compelled to act on it, to do stupid and thoughtless and violent things as a reaction, base and inhuman, to a powerlessness they cannot name? How long until civilisation collapses under such a weight?

Fear is a weapon, and it is the sword against which every great leader must test himself, sooner or later: how do you handle a people who are blindly, sharply frightened?

Six weeks since the Night of the Long Knives, as it was named later; six weeks since I had declared, in front of the newspapers and the photographers, my Germany’s state of emergency; six weeks since the International Confederation had done nothing, said nothing other than some meaningless, empty murmur of sympathy, of support which did not exist and would never, ever emerge.

They were worthless and weak, and any disdain I felt for them was overshadowed by a blaze of anger which tempered into a hushed, lingering hatred: they did not care about my people’s worries and troubles, so what should I care for them? What help or courtesy should I extend to those who abandon me and mine when we need it?

Nein, these things are a question of reciprocation, of compassion; I will not give it only to receive nothing. I will not waste my breath.

(Tell me, Albus, when you sat in their meetings, honoured and revered by those political, paranoid figures for being cleverer than they were, better than they were, when you heard them speak, heard the hollow ringing of their words around their marble-fronted halls, what did you think then? What did you feel as you sat there, signing your name to a bland statement read out in a monotone to newspapers and journalists, tucked away from the reality of it all, from the fear and the anxiety and the full-throttled hysteria of it all?

I know you well enough to know you will have seen beneath the façade – you have always had an uncanny ability to sift through lies and find the one, tiny grain of truth buried at the bottom, to see through a man’s mask to the core of him – and I wonder, I wonder even now why you stayed silent.

What did it serve you to say nothing? What did it cost you, perhaps, to feel so important and so impotent at once?

What did it serve you to wait, cowardly, for the moment we both knew would come – when you would return to me again, when the circle would close and you and I would be as we had always been?)

Then, in August, so soon after history shuddered into life, while Death readied his horse, I knelt in a cathedral, white-boned and cavernous, the columns striped and the ceiling patterned with stars which glitter still after centuries, warm and hazy in a flare of sunlight streaming through the windows and setting fire to the building entire, from the sept to the huge oak doors, licking and twisting along the lines of bodies and crucifixes in frescoes, the Redeemer deified again.

With my hands clasped, my mother’s rosary dangling from my fingers in a delicate trail of white-and-gold, I found myself praying, sincere and pious as I had not been in years, the words tumbling off my tongue with all the grace and fervour my mother had given me.

They fell easily, almost without thought or reason, but they seemed to reverberate around my head and my chest, anchoring me to the ground, tethering myself to myself again.

Head bowed, suppliant, the image rose, unbidden, in my mind of the way Konstantin had looked at me that morning – how he was still looking at me, eyes and heart jumping even as we prayed in silence, we hidden sinners, sneaking glances from under his eyelashes, hopeful and wonderfully, blissfully furtive – and I could not help but wonder, flashes resounding in my mind of visions and memories still scrambled, if I had ever looked at you like that; if I had ever appeared so gloriously happy, so light and carefree and beautifully enamoured.

All I knew for certain was that that summer I had felt like I was drowning, my head swimming under a heady, enthralling swell of something – something I could not, did not dare to define; there was something lingering, even then as I traced the lines of my bones in my hands and avowed my faith to Mary, mother of God, beyond everything, which bloomed and swelled like music when I read your name in the papers, when I thought of you and what we had shared, when I saw pictures of you and hoped, wondered, bitterly demanded that you would come to me again, that we would have again what we had shared so freely and so fully all that time before.

I could not remember – I cannot remember now either; my certainty is gone, my faith slips and falters and rockets back and forth between absolutes, and I do not know what of my own self I should believe – whether or not you had ever looked at me like that, whether after Ariana’s death you had ever had the same pooling delight when you had seen me.

Did you? Did your affection for me hold beyond that summer? Did your affection, in the end, last beyond a brief boyhood infatuation with a boy who promised you freedom?

Albus, oh Albus, I thought, I felt, maybe, that once upon a time, that perhaps there was still something, that there was still the possibility of something: shaken and troubled, I doubted myself, doubted my own, damnable instinct, that you and I would never be parted, never be anything other than you and I and all our cursed, leaden history.

I doubted and I wondered and I wavered – and Albus, I dreamed at night of a thousand and one ways to provoke you, to push you; of the thousand and one things I would say to you, clever and witty and perfectly crafted; in the end, I dreamed mostly of your blank, unsmiling face, trying and failing to impose on it the warmth and affection Konstantin settled on my shoulders, and woke every night lonely and so very afraid.




A/N: Any references to Caesar Augustus, generic Roman emperors, etc. are not mine. The quote 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' is not mine, either.

The Night of the Long Knives is a real historical event, and was a series of extrajudicial murders committed by members of and supporters of the German Nazi Party, to consolite Hitler's power over the German republic at the time. Public reaction was a mixture of applause (for 'nipping treason in the bud') and outrage (it was considered to be the start of a move away from the rule of law and democracy and towards a dictatorship). It is today widely considered to be a coup d'etat, and opinion from the time suggests that it effectively restricted and cropped any potential opposition to the rise of the Nazi regime. Furthermore, it was a first test for the new regime, and it has been suggested that it was the first time the regime could see that its propaganda machine was seriously taking hold among the German population.

I don't use it to provoke any kind of insinuation or to take it or treat it lightly, but it would be the kind of event which would have had an impact outside of the (for the purposes of this story) Muggle world, and would like have provoked a reaction of some kind, from one budding dictator to another.

Translations:

Signore = Mr. (Italian)

Grazie = thank you (Italian)

Nein = no (German)


Chapter 29: Morphology
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Morphology

Do you remember, my darling, how we once ran through the thicket of trees on the very outskirts of the village, out across the wide open fields beyond, through stalks of wheat, golden-brown and nodding, waving as we went by; how we ran further and further, leaping over fallen branches and jagged, half-buried stones, winding our way up round and round hills, before tumbling down the other side, breathless and exhilarated and somehow, still laughing, giddy and peculiar and wonderfully lost.

Do you remember how we fell into each other in a heap, the grass wet underneath our fingers and soaking into our clothes, staining them with the sticky mess rainwater on moss leaves behind, lying on our backs without a single thought, never quite touching, staring up at the sky through dappled, apple-green leaves, so far away it felt like freedom, like we were explorers somehow new and bold.

For a while, there was only the harsh sound of our breathing, the echoes and soft, panting flutters of our laughter still humming in the air, and then, slowly, we fell silent, sleepily thrilled.

Minutes, hours later, you rolled over onto your stomach, resting your head on your folded arms, blonde curls - damp and already dotted with countless green blades - spilling over amongst the daisies and buttercups growing around us, and smiled at me, a small contented thing which made my mouth dry and my hands damp.

"Tell me again," you had demanded quietly, gently, your voice low and secretive. "Tell me again how you dreamed of me."

You were looking at me, your eyes glittering in the sunlight as long eyelashes cast thin, translucent shadows over your cheeks; there was nothing in it - no heat, no intensity, no wobbling fragility - but still I flushed, suddenly thoughtless and mute.

(There is a strange sort of perversion in innocence, in the way minds run when something so pure is uttered or done so that it seems filthy, tainted with a colour is has never had.

You asked how I had dreamed of you - darling Gellert, did you know even then the multitude of answers which bloomed in my mind at those words? The cacophony of stories I could tell you even then, all linked by the fact that I dreamed them all and dreamed them of you?

Sometimes I think perhaps I am growing paranoid in my old age, restlessly imputing to you things you could not possibly have known - things Seer blood and Legilimency cannot simply give you - but I am a foolish and sentimental old man, and so I linger on these things long after I should have passed, twisting them this way and that and forever wondering as to what the truth of it all was.

I think, in the end, perhaps the truth does not matter - all that matters is the truths of it you and I hold - but that is a debate for another time.)

"Then I will tell you," you had pronounced, your smile curving wider, louder, your eyes darkening as a cloud passed over the sun, white and puffy. "How I dreamed of you."

My breath stopped; my heart felt as though it were jumping in my chest, thudding painfully into my ribs and my lungs; and I could not move, could not twitch a single muscle - everything in my was concentrated on that thought, the thought I had heard before (though not in so many words) but still, still was so completely disarming.

You had dreamed of me.

"It has only ever been glimpses," you began, slowly and softly, as though telling a secret, sharing with me the weight of a cross you had borne alone for too long. "Fractions of something which I could not put together - like a puzzle where I do not have all the pieces yet.

First, I dreamed of sunlight on a valley somewhere: the trees in full bloom, no one else around but for me and a certainty that someone else was there too, beside me, in time with me; I woke up with a start, shouting for someone but I had never had a name, only a sense.

Second, I dreamed of a creeping darkness, like a sickness, spreading over things and devouring them whole; I saw my hands on an old, carved wand, and someone else's hands on mine, tracing over the bones.

Third, I dreamed of red against green; it was a blurred dream, and in it I ran and ran and ran away from someone, from a boy with red hair who followed me, calling and calling, until I had escaped far enough. He was there, though, in the corner of my eye when I woke: just a flicker, red-haired and watching me.

The fourth time, I dreamed of a voice - with no body, distinct and alone; I still hear it sometimes, as though it is echoing somewhere - whispering to me, together, together. There were fingers in my hair, and I did not want to ever wake up, wracked with a fever and alone."

"You cannot know," I said eventually, breaking the long silence which had followed with a steady, sensible voice - too steady, perhaps, and too sensible; inside, I was reeling. "That it meant me."

You had shrugged, then, a jerky, small thing, one hand shifting to pluck at grass absently, every ounce of your famous, feared concentration focused on that tiny, childish fascination. The sound of the blades breaking was quiet, dimmed, beaten out by my own heart still thumping away loudly, double-quick.

I had studied you for a moment more, seeing how your face was shaded, clouded; how you did not look at me anymore; how you were too blank, too carefully neutral to be calm; how you bit at the edges of your lip, painful and restrained.

Looking up at the sky, staring with an intensity which hummed in the air around us, I reached out and skated my fingers across the back of your hand, stopping you from your wanton destruction; then, aligning our palms, I held your hand, lightly, delicately.

We had known each other five days, then - five days of constant communication: hours and hours of quibbling and debating, arguing and agreeing, challenging and accusing and laughing; five days in which our fledgling friendship had grown and hardened, cooling into something we thought even then - secretly, separately, in those still, sedate moments - could not possibly break. Five days alone, and we were best friends already, and if, perhaps, there were hints, tentative and shaky, of something more, something running deeper again, they remained in the shadows, wrapped in fantasy and technicolour dreams.

(On the sixth day, everything changed.)




26th November, 1935; Covent Garden, London, England

There is a muggle saying that the more things change, the more things stay the same. However strange and foolish it seems, over the years, watching the world spiral through phases, lunar in their planes, of Dark Lords and steady, upwards rebuilding, I have come to believe that there is a truth in it - an accuracy it would be foolish to ignore.

In a way, it is magical in itself: that things can change shape, change form, evolve and mutate and transform, fundamentally, all the while retaining their heart, their essence, their - if it is not too blasphemous to say, darling - soul. As though something inside is fixed, stationary in time and place across the universe, ignorant of the metamorphoses whirling around it.

Think on it a moment: after all, we talk often of how each adult retains something of how they were as a child, beyond mere memories? We talk of how people cannot ever truly change themselves, remake themselves away from past names and lives and habits; we talk of how, in scientific terms, in Transfiguration, there is always something left behind when you vanish something, when you conjure something, when you flick and swirl and watch a mouse twitch into a pocket watch - it is never the same, we say in every journal on the subject, it is as though something is missing, something is not quite right and the pocket watch is not entirely a pocket watch.

Constancy is a virtue, or so they say, and I cannot pretend that the idea of it, of there being some unnameable heart to things, some unique code to things we cannot decipher, does not appeal to me.

Perhaps I should have turned to your God, after all, when that summer ended and I slept alone with my sorrows.

(I am being flippant; it is unnecessary of me, and I am sorry for it - however much I can imagine you if you had heard it: frowning and pursing your lips at me, that haughty, fire-bright glare pinning me in place, handsomely indignant.)

In my office, the heat from the fire in the huge sandstone hearth skittering along the stone floors, slowly worming its way into the beds of the thick fur rug - a beautiful russet red, strains of gold glinting in the light - spread out on top, I sat by the fire, nursing a goblet of brandy between my hands, turning the cup round and round and round until my fingers moved without thought and my brain scattered to the four winds, restless and sighing. Opposite me, Elphias held his own glass between blue-tinted hands, huddled underneath his sturdy velvet-coated cloak even then.

We had been inside for half an hour, or thereabouts; our route back from Hogsmeade had been a perilous trek, full of whipping winds and shards of ice scratching like nails on our cheeks as we attempted to bound through the swirls of snow lashing down on our heads and our backs, on the fir trees and hardy Norwegian pines which flecked upwards into the sky.

Alas, but we were not so young as we once were, and bounding through snow in an excellent imitation of a highland goat is a speciality of the young; regretfully, we spent more time sinking and wading than leaping.

"I must say," Elphias murmured, taking a sip of brandy, long and slow. "I do see why you hardly go outside in the winter - it's quite hazardous!"

I laughed at that; I could not help it - as much as it was true, it was hardly the death-trap the alarm in his voice painted it to be.

Snow was simply water, after all: the worst it would do was make your skin cold and that strange sticky-wet, chilling you right down through your flesh until it resounded, painful and sharp, around the hollows and echoes in your joints, pooling like water through the side of a ship; fast and harsh and unrepentant.

(In those days, it reminded me of you - how it would sting me, how it would reverberate in my chest and in my head, lingering on long beyond when it should have fled; how it would leave me there, in front of my fire, lethargic and shiveringly restless, dreaming of feather-light touches, of a warm body pressed against mine, skin to skin and burning, until I emerged (for I always did emerge, my darling) into a world twice as cold as I had left it.

Then again, perhaps it means very little - in those days, almost everything reminded me of you in some fashion.

My very own ghost, from that point onwards, you haunted me quite thoroughly, and I, fool that I was, thought that I could outrun you; an impudent thought, to think I could outrun Europe's famed unstoppable force.)

"You get acclimatised," I advised Elphias gently, though I had not stopped smiling yet. "After a while. I believe it was three years in when I eventually gave up and simply accepted that no matter what I did I was merely going to be wet and cold all the same. A man cannot win in a fight against nature, after all."

"Mm, I suppose," Elphias replied distantly, with a distinct frown making plain he did not accept either statement I had made at all; then again, he had always been better suiter to the milder, softer climates, having been born and bred in Kent, near the seaside and the sweet winter frosts which lightly dusted over lawns and treelines, breathing a faint mesh of condensation along the arches of windows.

I had lived half of my childhood in the north moors, surrounded by wide, open flats where the wind howled across them like a screaming cavalry charge, sabres and pole-axes scything through throat and belly; I had run outside, shoe-less and coat-less, with my cuffs unbuttoned and my trousers rolled up, to tumble down slopes and splash through marshes and wander breathless through the fringes of the forests, from the damp warmth of summers to knee-high snows in winter, and had not cared a jot.

Ah, but we are fearless when we are young.

"How have you been, Albus - and honestly, please, none of this, ‘oh, busy as usual' joss you throw out for Tiberius and Euphemia on occasion," Elphias asked, a wan, knowing sort of smile pulling at his mouth.

Fatherhood had changed him: mellowed and sharpened him. He saw things I had never known him to see before; shifts in behaviour, secrets bubbling underneath skin, lies and false platitudes coating my tongue with lead even as it pooled, poisonous and thick, at the back of my throat. A strange development, one I had never expected and left me suddenly disarmed and squirmingly uncomfortable as I had not been in such a long time.

I will confess, I could not decide if I should be thrilled or terrified at the thought of what he would see lying plastered over the red, sore muscles underneath my skin, a thin veneer of love and shame and razor-edged guilt.

"I find myself preoccupied lately," I said slowly. "I find work is more distracting than I had previously thought - it leaves little time for anything else, I'm afraid."

"Oh Albus," Elphias sighed, a familiar, amused tone creeping into his voice, and it spoke of a rush of affection I felt quite ill-suited to. "You haven't changed a bit since school - though I hope I no longer have to remind you to attend lessons. What was an unfortunate habit as a student would be disastrous as a professor."

"It was hardly a habit," I replied blithely, my mouth pulled easily, so easily, into a small smile. "Merely an occasional occurrence."

"Enough of an occurrence that Professor Nithercott threw you out in fifth year," Elphias returned, quick and louder, stronger now half his brandy was gone; evidently his spirits were returning as he warmed through bit by bit by bit.

"Hardly worth mentioning," I let out a soft laugh at that, leaning back in the armchair and glancing down at the gold-tinted drink in the goblet, the light twinkling off the surface of it. "She raved about me for most of my time at school."

"She adored you," Elphias commented. "Do you remember how she announced to us all one day in sixth year how one day you would be Minister?"

Yes. Yes, I remembered it - how could I forget? Even now I remember every accursed time someone claimed or swore or assured me that I one day, one day I would be Minister; they resound in my head at night, endless repetitions of the same phrases in a thousand and one different voices, all promising me glory.

Alas that I lost my courage for it long before I ever had a chance to have it.

(You would say it was courage; some days, kinder days, I would agree with you. Others, I am certain it was nothing to do with courage but a red-tinted ambition, a craving and a lust for redemption I thought I needed, I thought my family needed; some way, perhaps, to prove myself, to show the word that I was more than what I was and seemed and knew myself to be: that it did not matter how dark my skin burned, the shape of the body I wanted against mine, the tarnished, bloodied history staining my family name.

Perhaps it was courage, perhaps it was not - in these days, my darling, I find that I am more unsure than ever of what precisely courage is. In my mind, alone, I define and redefine and redraw it endlessly, searching for a meaning in it, a principle and a morality in it that I can ground myself in.

I have dreamed of bravery beyond anything: for years, it was my father, embodied in vague, translucent memories of kind smiles and his proud, angry defiance when the Aurors came to take him; for everything people say of me, it has never been me.

Sometimes, though, Gellert, the things we want most are the things we do not deserve to have.)

"I do not think," I murmured quietly, taking a sip of brandy. Opposite me, Elphias was staring at the fire with his eyes half-shut. "Politics is for me, my friend."

For a moment, the room was silent and still; neither of us moved at all, allowing it so envelope us in a warm, hazy cocoon as little by little brandy trickled down our throats in hot, orange-bronze bursts and the fire crackled noisily in the grate, biting at log after log and leaving black fingers of soot printed on the stone walls. Elphias glanced at me once or twice, and I did not look back, too lost in thoughts of political discourses I had no right to read and tumble over in my mind, spinning them into new forms, slicker versions, and waking dreams of half-formed futures, all of them pretty and glorious and absurdly impossible.

I could not look at him, then, too anxious that with his newfound perceptiveness he would be able to read something of the fear and guilt and longing on my face, written deeper and etched into my very being.

(Three weeks previous, in a weekend at the beginning of November, I had been summoned with a ribbon-bound note to go to Liechtenstein, to comment and give testimony on international academia, inter-continental studies, fellowships and research; I and some thirty-five other professors and researchers, none of us delighted by the invitation, being as it was set right in the middle of the school term, and so forcing us all to reschedule meeting after meeting after meeting in order to be present.

I happen to know that at least one researcher from Castelobruxo, mortally offended by a perceived insinuation that she should always be at the International Confederation's beck and call to give her opinion when they wanted it, sent a rather rude letter of complaint in three languages and containing a nasty hex.

The poor official who opened it spent a month eating flies like a frog - his tongue darting out and lapping them up with a quick whip round their fat bodies, perched on windowsills and near ponds in an ungainly crouch - and the bill the researcher had enclosed was unfortunately lost amongst the post.

A humorous anecdote, I like to think, and one which always brings to my mind that revenge is almost always a two-way street: if you start racing down it, you ought to be prepared to receive something in return.

Or, no doubt as you would say with a smug smile, you must simply close off the other side of the road.

Digressions aside, it was a surprisingly relaxing break: I spent much of my time there sat on a balcony overlooking the dips and valleys of the land, mountains jutting out of the green fields and forests in a hazy swathe of grey-white cloud and pale, watery sky, their sides littered with trees and patches of snow falling in jagged circles from the very tops. The air was fresh and chilled, a gentle bite nipping at my neck and the backs of my hands, lifting my hair and trailing it through its fingers, leaving it mussed and knotted and two shades darker.

I took lunch with Nicolas; brunch with Hesper Starkey (who beat me soundly at Wizards' Chess four times in a row before I begged off the games for the good of my self-respect); and a solitary memorable dinner with Dzou Yen, where I stuttered like a teenager and we wandered the roads of the town for six hours without a single pause in our conversation.

Ah, it was a lovely time - and then, and then, my darling, your spectre emerged once again, to wrap your arms around my waist and press cold, leech-like lips to the tips of my fingers, one by one.

"Mr Dumbledore," Maria Anastas, at that time Head of the Department of International Magical Law, approached me as I ambled down a hallway, humming something - perhaps Handel, I think? - to myself. She was tall, with broad shoulders and a firm, determined gaze; clever and brusque and a former child prodigy herself, I suspect she would have made a good adversary for you. "May I speak with you for a moment?"

"Of course," I nodded with a courteous smile, stopping where I was; we were alone in the corridor, every door leading off it shut, and the courtyard below us was empty. "Would you prefer to go somewhere else?"

"No, this is fine," Maria looked at me steadily and rested a hand in a pocket. "The International Confederation would like to ask a favour of you - we understand this is not in your remit, and normally we would not consider such measures, but at this stage, we feel it is necessary and perhaps preferable to other paths we could take."

She paused for a moment and I waited, assuming even then that it would be something simple, something easy and quick to achieve; how foolish I was then, in hindsight!

"The Confederation are growing concerned over Grindelwald's actions in Germany," Maria told me, her voice low and clear, her accent growing thicker as she spoke quicker. "They need to make overtures, to offer a reminder of the assistance which remains available to him and his country should he ask for it. They feel - we feel - that it would be best to come from someone on the same level as him, who could perhaps understand him, and who is somewhat less official than a dignitary.

It would, of course, be treated as an official visit, and we would offer you every compensation you felt was necessary in return should you choose to do it, though we understand if you would prefer not to involve yourself in such matters."

There was a beat or two of silence as I stood, numb and stony, the words of the proposal echoing in my head, fainter and fainter and fainter, bouncing back off my skull to repeat again and again and again; my head felt cavernous and my chest squeezed tight enough I wondered, absently, distantly, if I could even breathe at all.

To oppose you... to set myself against you, as opposite kings on a chessboard; to go to you, run to you as I had always dreamed of doing at night, promised myself I would be brave enough one day, always one day...

They did not know what they were offering me; they did not know of the apocalypse which lay at the bottom of the cliff, my name and yours written on the rocks in sun-dried vermillion.

"I am sorry," I heard myself say, feeling my jaw move but nothing else except the constant thud, thud, thud, thud of my heart, impossibly loud I thought it ought to be shaking the walls, cracking tiles. "But alas, politics is not for me."

I had walked away with a parting, glassy smile, locked myself in my room and spent the night dreaming wide-awake of a hundred and one things which had never been and a hundred and one more which had been; in the morning, I was red-eyed and shaking and dimly I could still hear you laughing in eighteen ninety-nine.)

Then, as November drew to a close and Winter proper bedded himself in among the rocks and the needle-tipped trees in the Highlands, burying the castle under flourishes of snow, I watched as the cuckoo clock on my mantelpiece - German, of course, from the Black Forest; a present from an old friend, I always said - ticked along, the second hand, slim and fine and glinting gold, passing over the five and the six, heading halfway to seven. Beside me, Elphias was still watching me, still with that same curiously clear gaze, something illegible written in it.

"They have asked me if you would reconsider," he said after a while; his glass empty now, he placed it on the table with an earthy chink. "I told them you wouldn't budge."

How was it, I thought, then, toasting gently by a fireside, my best friend with me, and silence coalescing in the air between us, that the further you try to run from things, the tighter they cling to you?

Everything changes, and nothing changes - it is vexing and frustrating and incomparably wonderful all at once; some things, after all, remain steadfast and it is those things which anchor us.

You and I; you and I - we are held down by the same chains, wrapped together in the same chains, a mockery of silk ribbons as they wind about our clasped hands. Then, it is not a marriage of sorts, my darling: following from that vow we made so long ago, when words were free to be spoken.

You and I, we said, you and I and not even death between us.

"I do not understand," Elphias commented, bravery making his voice harsh and brash; bronze, it trumpeted through the quiet of the room, and he did not look sorry in the slightest. In truth, I did not have the strength or the interest to comment on it. "Why you write so much - on politics, on rights, on everything you do - if you won't do anything more."

I did not explain; I could not explain. An explanation, short and concise and woefully inadequate rested under my breastbone, tucked away in an ivory-white alcove where no one would ever find it, where no one could hear it whispering constantly, softly.

I love him.

I love him. I love him. I love him.


There are words in my blood and on my tongue, written underneath everything I do and say, and yet... and yet I have never said them, not in this world.

Alas, my darling, that I have never had the courage to be honest. 


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