Chapter 1 : Christmas Comes Too Late
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It’s not that he thought Albus didn’t regret what had happened to Ariana, or that he believed Albus had ever deliberately wished harm to come to her. Ariana—his sweet, broken little sister—was chaos unto herself, and the Dumbledore family had been cursed for plenty long before the day of her tragic death. Trouble had been brewing for a long time, and when the storm finally broke, Albus was as much a victim as any of them.
But Aberforth could still quite logically choose to blame Albus. And so he had, for many, many years.
He envied the way that Albus had put those troubled memories behind him, rising through the wizarding world at a dizzying pace to well known and revered. Aberforth had never desired fame the way his brother had, only desiring for himself a quiet life spent caring for his sister. But even so, he had despised the way that Albus seemed to have somehow wiped his slate clean, washing away the mess of his adolescence to become pure and noble in the eyes of society.
Aberforth always spent Christmas with Ariana. It’s not that he didn’t visit her grave at other times of the year, but he disliked Apparating, and as he had gotten older, he hadn’t been making the trip as often. He preferred his days of quiet in Hogsmeade, running the Hog’s Head and tending to his goats. But Christmas was different—Christmas was a day for family, and his long-dead sister was the closest thing he had to that.
Christmas had always been Ariana’s favorite holiday. She loved the stockings hung by the fireplace and the tree with wrapped presents peeking out underneath, as though they were playing a game. Christmas was the day when she most seemed present, when she seemed most like her old self—that girl who she had been before her mind shattered. And even though it hurt Aberforth every time Christmas rolled around, as he remembered with regret his baby sister, he always smiled a little to think of how she would love the decorations going up all over town.
Christmas was Ariana’s special day, and Aberforth always treated it as such.
There came a Christmas when Aberforth’s bones ached from cold and his heart from a loneliness that he refused to acknowledge, a day when no one passed by the Hog’s Head to sing merry carols or to nod to him in greeting, smiling their indulgent Christmas smiles at their cantankerous old neighbor. Aberforth only grunted and tended to his goats, and then prepared for his journey to Godric’s Hollow.
The snow swirled around him as he stepped outside to Apparate. When he appeared at the entrance to the graveyard, his stomach roiling from the unpleasant form of transportation, it took him a moment in the gathering twilight to gain his bearings. He began to walk past the tombstones, towards the stone that he knew so well, when he drew abruptly to a halt. A man stood by Ariana’s grave.
Freezing in place, Aberforth regarded the cloaked figure warily. The wizard—for Aberforth assumed that it had to be a wizard—had his back to Aberforth, and was shrouded in a dusky gray cloak. As Aberforth strained his failing eyes in the growing darkness, he realized that the man had long silver-white hair—and then he narrowed his eyes, setting his jaw as he unconsciously took a step forward, his hands curling into fists.
In the many, many years that Aberforth had been coming to visit Ariana’s grave, never once had he crossed paths with his brother. What could Albus possibly be doing there, after so long a time?
Curiosity got the better of him, and he crept closer, crouching behind a nearby tree. He could only hope that the snowstorm that was steadily increasing in strength around him would stop Albus from noticing him. For a moment, Aberforth hesitated, wondering if it was really right to essentially eavesdrop on the words he could just hear Albus muttering, but then he shook off those treacherous scruples. As far as he was concerned, after so many years of silence, Albus was an unwelcome intruder, and it was within Aberforth’s rights to ensure that he was up to no trouble.
“Ariana…” The word was a whisper carried on the breeze, and Aberforth snapped his attention towards his brother. Could he really have spoken her name with so much regret, with so much love? Impossible.
“My dear girl, I am so very sorry. But then, I imagine I’ve told you that often enough. Still, once more can’t hurt.
“It was, of course, my fault. I should have done… something. But alas, alas for foolish childhood!” Albus shook his head, his half-moon spectacles glimmering amidst the snow. “I was quite irresponsible, wasn’t I?”
He touched one hand to the gravestone a moment, the other hidden in the folds of his robe. Aberforth could not quite make out the expression on his brother’s face from his vantage point, but he could have sworn that he saw Albus’ shoulders shake slightly.
Albus stood there for several moments, fingertips against the white weathered stone, and Aberforth turned over in his mind the words that he had by chance been privy to. He wouldn’t have thought that Albus regretted what had happened, hadn’t thought it possible. But of course, Albus ought to be sorry. He deserved to be—Aberforth did not deserve to be the only one haunted daily be her face. He felt his heart, treacherously soft for a moment, twist and then blacken again. A scowl came to his face, disgusted by his own momentary weakening.
Just for a moment, Aberforth had actually considered approaching his brother. He had felt a deep, sharp pain within his grizzled heart, and in that one instant, he had ached to simply forgive his brother. He was not much of a one for words, but even a companionable silence might have been+ better than the decades of self-enforced solitude. The two could, perhaps, have remembered Ariana as she was, soothe away the cutting guilt that they both still felt so many years later. He could have done it. He could have forgiven his brother.
But then he had hesitated, and Albus had turned away and Disapparated.
Shaken from a trance, Aberforth stared in silent contemplation at the spot where his brother had stood. Without Albus’s shadow blocking the headstone, his eyes rested on the too-familiar words upon the stone.
“Here lies Ariana Dumbledore—an Innocent, and gone too soon.”
Aberforth scowled again, the resentments coming more sharply to the surface. He was not going to follow Albus all the way back to Hogwarts; he would not appear like a lost puppy in desperate need for attention. He would visit with Ariana, and then he would go back to Hogsmeade, and then he would care for his goats. He would return to the world he knew—a world of pain, but still, one familiar. Dully, he recognized that he did not entirely want to have to give up on his resentment of his brother—he had fed it and nurtured as though it was a baby goat born too soon. He had treasured it, for it was his one constant companion through the many years. In a way, he loved blaming Albus—it was something he knew how to do, and it hurt less than blaming himself.
His eyes traced the delicate lettering of his sister’s name, and then his frown deepened. It was, after all, Christmas—Ariana’s day. And she had loved her brothers. He knew, as instinctively as he knew his own name, that she would have wanted Aberforth and Albus to get along with each other. She would have asked for it for Christmas. She would have given him her shy little smile, and he would have done anything for her. But he could not forgive his brother for her death. Not for anything or anyone—not even for her.
His rage was all he had.
He could not give it up, not quite yet.
And yet… he was so tired. He was a stubborn and cranky old man, but even he could not hold on forever. Closing his eyes for a moment, he came to a sudden, impulsive decision. Next year. Next year, next Christmas, on that day he would do it—he would at long last forgive his brother. It would be a Christmas present to all of them in a way—to Albus, and Ariana, and even himself.
Next year. A twelve-month. He would grant himself three hundred and sixty-five final days of anger, and then he would find the strength to speak the words of forgiveness to his brother.
Aberforth moved slowly to his sister’s grave, and, in a voice gravelly from too little use, muttered, “I will do it, Ariana. I know that you would want me to. So I will do it, for you—one final thing that I can do for you. I will forgive him—I swear it.”
He stared at the grave for a moment, his eyes dim, and then turned away. The wind and snow whipped around him as he disappeared from the cemetery, his resolve firm.
By that time next year, it would be done, and they would all have release from those long-ago events.
A year until Aberforth Dumbledore forgave his famous brother, or at the very least, tried to.
He never got the chance.
Six months later, Albus Dumbledore was already dead and gone.
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