Chapter 19 : Syntax
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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?
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