Author's note: thank you so much to Rachel for her unwavering support. I couldn't write at all without her!
The ground is cold beneath her feet, the atmosphere blindingly white. She blends in with it, her skin ethereal in quality, her hair shining. There is nothing to be seen for miles and miles; emptiness has replaced everything she has ever known. She is alone, but she is used to the solitude, years of shelter from the world have left her numb to isolation. Silence is her friend.
Perhaps on first glance you could be forgiven for thinking her a young woman. There is something youthful in the smoothness of her skin, the lustre of her hair, something about her that exudes life. You would be wrong, of course; Ariana Dumbledore is as dead as the white air around her. She has been dead for many years, trapped in a mysterious world with no company except for her own sadness, unmissed and unloved. Neglected. Alone.
The air is thinner here, she finds. She sees and thinks with more clarity than she ever did during her lifetime; things are simpler when everything she touches is dead, unharmed by her. She is free of stigma, free of rules and free from the confines of her home. She has never felt more alive; she rules this world, she commands it even though she can never understand its true nature. Some things are beyond human comprehension, even for a Dumbledore. She finally has control.
Wisps of ghostly hair shroud her face as she closes her eyes in thought. Oh, the joys of having a bright mind. Now she finally understands how her own brother had been tempted by the whims of intelligence, how it had swept him away. Sitting cross-legged on the hard, white ground, Ariana feels as though her own brain could sweep her away, blow her through the white lands of death and take her home. If only she knew what that was. Home to her was a prison, a confusing world where she saw no-one and no-one saw her, a life of being the secret hushed at dinner. Where she is now isn’t home; it’s empty and devoid of life entirely. Her and death share space, face each other as though old friends and sit side-by-side in comfortable silence. They don’t understand each other, but she has never understood anyone before and so this doesn’t bother her. She is no longer scared.
Mist tickles her cheeks and reaches deep inside her, caressing her bones slowly, causing her to shiver. Her eyes now open, their vision is blurred by a light vapour; fluffy white air dances in front of her. She reaches out with a delicate finger, feeling its density and causing swirling ripples to distort the mist. Holding her finger still, she watches as colour bleeds from it, pouring from her fingertip and painting particles darker colours as it makes its path in a straight line away from her. With a childlike fascination she stares, counting imaginary seconds strangely absent in her afterlife until the dark line spreads sideways, faster and faster outwards in circular ripples until colour surrounds her, a dome around her fragile body as high as a church spire. As the colour reaches her feet, the cycle is complete and the dome seems to disappear, although now she understands that she cannot recognise its shape anymore. Her thirst for answers is renewed as her eyes grow wide with wonder.
She starts to sink, the mist gently supporting her weight as she drops through the bottom of the dome, blackness enveloping her. She enjoys this new feeling, the rush of wind against her face, her hair floating puppet-like as she descends, eyes closed. The hint of a smile changes her gaunt face into one of tragic beauty. She is innocent, pure and naïve in one moment, her wisdom and pain replaced by the youth of a child. Her peace is disturbed as her feet gently touch solid ground, a yellow light creeping under her eyelids. Opening them, she struggles to understand where she has found herself. She recognises this place, she feels a connection, yet Ariana knows she has left this place far behind; she has found somewhere it cannot reach her. She is wrong.
A small window set high into the wall reveals only darkness, night hiding sunlight under its dark cloak. The dripping of a leaking pipe is muffled as it lands on parchment, splashing into a near-empty teacup. A desk is strewn with various objects: quills scattered across its surface like pick-up-sticks, stacked parchment, screwed-up parchment, a foe glass, a weeping man, his hat. His hair is matted, his cheeks unshaven and his hands ink-stained. He could easily be lost amongst the debris of his desk. To the left of the desk, under the window, stands an old but remarkably clean baby grand piano, its lid lifted and scores neatly piled on the stand. Sitting on the velvet-covered stool, with her back to the piano and her eyes on the man, is a troubled young woman. Neither man nor woman notice Ariana’s sudden arrival, but no-one usually notices her presence so this does not bother her.
The dark-haired woman perched on the stool clears her throat awkwardly. “Aberforth, listen to me.” Ariana knows that name. It is one of the few things she does know, one of the only things she has ever been sure of. The woman’s velvety voice rings a bell one by one and now the young ghost can do nothing but cling to her words to save herself from amnesia. She’s near drowning. “This can’t continue. You need to move on and live your life.”
As he rises from the tea-stained layers of parchment he coughs, shaking days’ worth of dust. Shaking his head, grey matter falls from him as years fly from his face. He faces the woman, body stiff and awkward, tears escaping him. When he speaks, it is with a voice wrought with grief and pain, quiet with disuse, uneven with insecurity. “I don’t think I can.”
The woman shakes her head, her dark hair a curtain of water framing her tired face. “Don’t give up on me,” she says gently, meeting his watery eyes. “It will get easier, I promise.”
“Will it?” he croaks heavily. “Is that the truth?” He laughs derisively, the sound echoing softly around the cold room. “It’s been ten years. When will it get any easier?”
Burying his head in his hands, he hides from the woman’s piercing stare, much as Ariana wishes she could do. Ten years…it’s a long time to be alone, a long time spent grieving, yet she understands completely. Without anymore words spoken, she knows that this moment is the one she has been waiting for, pining for, throughout those long years. The aching hole in her wasted heart feels as though it is mending, piecing itself back together stitch by stitch. Yet, impossibly, the wound hurts even more. It bleeds and spasms, the dull ache stronger. How can this hurt so much? The pain is renewed, the scab reopened. It has always been there, this mark of grief, this hole left by a terrible loss; time heals all wounds, eventually. When she has escaped the cold clutches of the afterlife that wound will be healed, she will cease to feel. But until then, Ariana will mourn with the same intensity that her brother feels.
“You have to try to let go,” the woman says softly, shifting on the stool.
“What if I don’t want to?” he cries, standing up stiffly. “Why should I have to hide her away, again? Always hidden, never seen, why should it be any different now? I won’t forget her just because everyone else has.”
Parchment falls from the desk as he stands there facing his friend, chest heaving and cheeks regaining colour. His bright blue eyes search her face as she awkwardly matches his height. Ariana notes a familiarity between them that she has never experienced before, a bond of equality and solidarity, trust shared between two broken adults. As they stand opposite each other, she cannot decide who needs the other more; the crying man or the devastated friend. She has never understood love of this kind, only ever loved the one person who cared for her. His vulnerability scares her; once so strong, he can no longer give support.
“No-one is asking you to forget her.” The words are melting ice drops down her back, ghostly fingers tracing her spine. Her own fingers are cold and Aberforth shivers under her touch as she cradles his trembling jaw. She plants a soft kiss on his cheek and squeezes his hand as she retreats, hovering beside the piano, hoping to hide behind the music. “Play for me, Aberforth. Forget the pain and play like you used to play for her.”
His eyes are closed as he recovers from her touch and when they open they are bright skies, cloudless and clear. He takes in the sunlight reflecting off the smooth black surface of the piano, finding focus and resolve. Nodding, he slowly sits on the stool, stiff and awkward up until the moment he plays his first note.
Ariana remembers this. His playing is not particularly skilled; he taught himself. Then again, she knows nothing of pianists or music, nothing of talent or gift. Her sheltered existence taught her one thing, and that is that when her brother played the piano, her heart sang along with him. With every clumsy crescendo, with every accidental rubato, her emotions are part of the duet. As he hits a wrong note she finds it mournful, haunting, but nonetheless beautiful. Not everything is perfect.
As the piece finishes, she finds she is crying along with her brother. Both remember sadder times when music would bring light to the underground room, sound filling the space where dark thoughts used to be. They kept the misery from each other; now they are alone, the music is gone, the light extinguished. When they are apart, the shadows cannot be avoided. Each will sink deeper and deeper into the abyss of grief without the other to draw them from it. They were stronger together.
“How can I let go?” he says blankly, staring into his ashen reflection. “I think about her every day, I think about that day every day. I don’t deserve the second chance.”
“You can’t still blame yourself?” his friend asks incredulously, pity etched into her skin. “Forgive yourself, Aberforth. There was nothing you could have done.”
“Wasn’t there?” he mutters evenly, frowning. His voice is heavy, so heavy that it seems to crush him. Ariana wants to take him in her arms and lift him, take the weight off his shoulders. But she can’t, she is separated from him by spiritual forces she will never fully comprehend.
“No,” the woman says, a tone of finality in her voice. “And I won’t let you rot away whilst the blame consumes you. You don’t have to forget her, you just have to forgive yourself and your brother. Accept her death and move on.”
The words sound harsh to Ariana’s ears, they scare her. She doesn’t want to be forgotten, she doesn’t want her brother to stop thinking about her, yet she understands that his grief is her fault. She wants to stop the pain, but as always her efforts are futile. She cannot help. He will blame himself, never allowing her far from his thoughts and so she will be trapped in the misery until he lets her go.
White mist curls around her limbs, the scene before her fades. She returns to her lonely world with a realisation: the ghosts are not the ones doing the haunting. It is the memories of those that are left behind that prevent them from leaving.