Chapter 11 : Clichés
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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 ;)
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