Chapter 20 : Luxembourg
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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 ;)
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