Chapter 29 : Morphology
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Do you remember, my darling, how we once ran through the thicket of trees on the very outskirts of the village, out across the wide open fields beyond, through stalks of wheat, golden-brown and nodding, waving as we went by; how we ran further and further, leaping over fallen branches and jagged, half-buried stones, winding our way up round and round hills, before tumbling down the other side, breathless and exhilarated and somehow, still laughing, giddy and peculiar and wonderfully lost.
Do you remember how we fell into each other in a heap, the grass wet underneath our fingers and soaking into our clothes, staining them with the sticky mess rainwater on moss leaves behind, lying on our backs without a single thought, never quite touching, staring up at the sky through dappled, apple-green leaves, so far away it felt like freedom, like we were explorers somehow new and bold.
For a while, there was only the harsh sound of our breathing, the echoes and soft, panting flutters of our laughter still humming in the air, and then, slowly, we fell silent, sleepily thrilled.
Minutes, hours later, you rolled over onto your stomach, resting your head on your folded arms, blonde curls - damp and already dotted with countless green blades - spilling over amongst the daisies and buttercups growing around us, and smiled at me, a small contented thing which made my mouth dry and my hands damp.
"Tell me again," you had demanded quietly, gently, your voice low and secretive. "Tell me again how you dreamed of me."
You were looking at me, your eyes glittering in the sunlight as long eyelashes cast thin, translucent shadows over your cheeks; there was nothing in it - no heat, no intensity, no wobbling fragility - but still I flushed, suddenly thoughtless and mute.
(There is a strange sort of perversion in innocence, in the way minds run when something so pure is uttered or done so that it seems filthy, tainted with a colour is has never had.
You asked how I had dreamed of you - darling Gellert, did you know even then the multitude of answers which bloomed in my mind at those words? The cacophony of stories I could tell you even then, all linked by the fact that I dreamed them all and dreamed them of you?
Sometimes I think perhaps I am growing paranoid in my old age, restlessly imputing to you things you could not possibly have known - things Seer blood and Legilimency cannot simply give you - but I am a foolish and sentimental old man, and so I linger on these things long after I should have passed, twisting them this way and that and forever wondering as to what the truth of it all was.
I think, in the end, perhaps the truth does not matter - all that matters is the truths of it you and I hold - but that is a debate for another time.)
"Then I will tell you," you had pronounced, your smile curving wider, louder, your eyes darkening as a cloud passed over the sun, white and puffy. "How I dreamed of you."
My breath stopped; my heart felt as though it were jumping in my chest, thudding painfully into my ribs and my lungs; and I could not move, could not twitch a single muscle - everything in my was concentrated on that thought, the thought I had heard before (though not in so many words) but still, still was so completely disarming.
You had dreamed of me.
"It has only ever been glimpses," you began, slowly and softly, as though telling a secret, sharing with me the weight of a cross you had borne alone for too long. "Fractions of something which I could not put together - like a puzzle where I do not have all the pieces yet.
First, I dreamed of sunlight on a valley somewhere: the trees in full bloom, no one else around but for me and a certainty that someone else was there too, beside me, in time with me; I woke up with a start, shouting for someone but I had never had a name, only a sense.
Second, I dreamed of a creeping darkness, like a sickness, spreading over things and devouring them whole; I saw my hands on an old, carved wand, and someone else's hands on mine, tracing over the bones.
Third, I dreamed of red against green; it was a blurred dream, and in it I ran and ran and ran away from someone, from a boy with red hair who followed me, calling and calling, until I had escaped far enough. He was there, though, in the corner of my eye when I woke: just a flicker, red-haired and watching me.
The fourth time, I dreamed of a voice - with no body, distinct and alone; I still hear it sometimes, as though it is echoing somewhere - whispering to me, together, together. There were fingers in my hair, and I did not want to ever wake up, wracked with a fever and alone."
"You cannot know," I said eventually, breaking the long silence which had followed with a steady, sensible voice - too steady, perhaps, and too sensible; inside, I was reeling. "That it meant me."
You had shrugged, then, a jerky, small thing, one hand shifting to pluck at grass absently, every ounce of your famous, feared concentration focused on that tiny, childish fascination. The sound of the blades breaking was quiet, dimmed, beaten out by my own heart still thumping away loudly, double-quick.
I had studied you for a moment more, seeing how your face was shaded, clouded; how you did not look at me anymore; how you were too blank, too carefully neutral to be calm; how you bit at the edges of your lip, painful and restrained.
Looking up at the sky, staring with an intensity which hummed in the air around us, I reached out and skated my fingers across the back of your hand, stopping you from your wanton destruction; then, aligning our palms, I held your hand, lightly, delicately.
We had known each other five days, then - five days of constant communication: hours and hours of quibbling and debating, arguing and agreeing, challenging and accusing and laughing; five days in which our fledgling friendship had grown and hardened, cooling into something we thought even then - secretly, separately, in those still, sedate moments - could not possibly break. Five days alone, and we were best friends already, and if, perhaps, there were hints, tentative and shaky, of something more, something running deeper again, they remained in the shadows, wrapped in fantasy and technicolour dreams.
(On the sixth day, everything changed.)
26th November, 1935; Covent Garden, London, England
There is a muggle saying that the more things change, the more things stay the same. However strange and foolish it seems, over the years, watching the world spiral through phases, lunar in their planes, of Dark Lords and steady, upwards rebuilding, I have come to believe that there is a truth in it - an accuracy it would be foolish to ignore.
In a way, it is magical in itself: that things can change shape, change form, evolve and mutate and transform, fundamentally, all the while retaining their heart, their essence, their - if it is not too blasphemous to say, darling - soul. As though something inside is fixed, stationary in time and place across the universe, ignorant of the metamorphoses whirling around it.
Think on it a moment: after all, we talk often of how each adult retains something of how they were as a child, beyond mere memories? We talk of how people cannot ever truly change themselves, remake themselves away from past names and lives and habits; we talk of how, in scientific terms, in Transfiguration, there is always something left behind when you vanish something, when you conjure something, when you flick and swirl and watch a mouse twitch into a pocket watch - it is never the same, we say in every journal on the subject, it is as though something is missing, something is not quite right and the pocket watch is not entirely a pocket watch.
Constancy is a virtue, or so they say, and I cannot pretend that the idea of it, of there being some unnameable heart to things, some unique code to things we cannot decipher, does not appeal to me.
Perhaps I should have turned to your God, after all, when that summer ended and I slept alone with my sorrows.
(I am being flippant; it is unnecessary of me, and I am sorry for it - however much I can imagine you if you had heard it: frowning and pursing your lips at me, that haughty, fire-bright glare pinning me in place, handsomely indignant.)
In my office, the heat from the fire in the huge sandstone hearth skittering along the stone floors, slowly worming its way into the beds of the thick fur rug - a beautiful russet red, strains of gold glinting in the light - spread out on top, I sat by the fire, nursing a goblet of brandy between my hands, turning the cup round and round and round until my fingers moved without thought and my brain scattered to the four winds, restless and sighing. Opposite me, Elphias held his own glass between blue-tinted hands, huddled underneath his sturdy velvet-coated cloak even then.
We had been inside for half an hour, or thereabouts; our route back from Hogsmeade had been a perilous trek, full of whipping winds and shards of ice scratching like nails on our cheeks as we attempted to bound through the swirls of snow lashing down on our heads and our backs, on the fir trees and hardy Norwegian pines which flecked upwards into the sky.
Alas, but we were not so young as we once were, and bounding through snow in an excellent imitation of a highland goat is a speciality of the young; regretfully, we spent more time sinking and wading than leaping.
"I must say," Elphias murmured, taking a sip of brandy, long and slow. "I do see why you hardly go outside in the winter - it's quite hazardous!"
I laughed at that; I could not help it - as much as it was true, it was hardly the death-trap the alarm in his voice painted it to be.
Snow was simply water, after all: the worst it would do was make your skin cold and that strange sticky-wet, chilling you right down through your flesh until it resounded, painful and sharp, around the hollows and echoes in your joints, pooling like water through the side of a ship; fast and harsh and unrepentant.
(In those days, it reminded me of you - how it would sting me, how it would reverberate in my chest and in my head, lingering on long beyond when it should have fled; how it would leave me there, in front of my fire, lethargic and shiveringly restless, dreaming of feather-light touches, of a warm body pressed against mine, skin to skin and burning, until I emerged (for I always did emerge, my darling) into a world twice as cold as I had left it.
Then again, perhaps it means very little - in those days, almost everything reminded me of you in some fashion.
My very own ghost, from that point onwards, you haunted me quite thoroughly, and I, fool that I was, thought that I could outrun you; an impudent thought, to think I could outrun Europe's famed unstoppable force.)
"You get acclimatised," I advised Elphias gently, though I had not stopped smiling yet. "After a while. I believe it was three years in when I eventually gave up and simply accepted that no matter what I did I was merely going to be wet and cold all the same. A man cannot win in a fight against nature, after all."
"Mm, I suppose," Elphias replied distantly, with a distinct frown making plain he did not accept either statement I had made at all; then again, he had always been better suiter to the milder, softer climates, having been born and bred in Kent, near the seaside and the sweet winter frosts which lightly dusted over lawns and treelines, breathing a faint mesh of condensation along the arches of windows.
I had lived half of my childhood in the north moors, surrounded by wide, open flats where the wind howled across them like a screaming cavalry charge, sabres and pole-axes scything through throat and belly; I had run outside, shoe-less and coat-less, with my cuffs unbuttoned and my trousers rolled up, to tumble down slopes and splash through marshes and wander breathless through the fringes of the forests, from the damp warmth of summers to knee-high snows in winter, and had not cared a jot.
Ah, but we are fearless when we are young.
"How have you been, Albus - and honestly, please, none of this, ‘oh, busy as usual' joss you throw out for Tiberius and Euphemia on occasion," Elphias asked, a wan, knowing sort of smile pulling at his mouth.
Fatherhood had changed him: mellowed and sharpened him. He saw things I had never known him to see before; shifts in behaviour, secrets bubbling underneath skin, lies and false platitudes coating my tongue with lead even as it pooled, poisonous and thick, at the back of my throat. A strange development, one I had never expected and left me suddenly disarmed and squirmingly uncomfortable as I had not been in such a long time.
I will confess, I could not decide if I should be thrilled or terrified at the thought of what he would see lying plastered over the red, sore muscles underneath my skin, a thin veneer of love and shame and razor-edged guilt.
"I find myself preoccupied lately," I said slowly. "I find work is more distracting than I had previously thought - it leaves little time for anything else, I'm afraid."
"Oh Albus," Elphias sighed, a familiar, amused tone creeping into his voice, and it spoke of a rush of affection I felt quite ill-suited to. "You haven't changed a bit since school - though I hope I no longer have to remind you to attend lessons. What was an unfortunate habit as a student would be disastrous as a professor."
"It was hardly a habit," I replied blithely, my mouth pulled easily, so easily, into a small smile. "Merely an occasional occurrence."
"Enough of an occurrence that Professor Nithercott threw you out in fifth year," Elphias returned, quick and louder, stronger now half his brandy was gone; evidently his spirits were returning as he warmed through bit by bit by bit.
"Hardly worth mentioning," I let out a soft laugh at that, leaning back in the armchair and glancing down at the gold-tinted drink in the goblet, the light twinkling off the surface of it. "She raved about me for most of my time at school."
"She adored you," Elphias commented. "Do you remember how she announced to us all one day in sixth year how one day you would be Minister?"
Yes. Yes, I remembered it - how could I forget? Even now I remember every accursed time someone claimed or swore or assured me that I one day, one day I would be Minister; they resound in my head at night, endless repetitions of the same phrases in a thousand and one different voices, all promising me glory.
Alas that I lost my courage for it long before I ever had a chance to have it.
(You would say it was courage; some days, kinder days, I would agree with you. Others, I am certain it was nothing to do with courage but a red-tinted ambition, a craving and a lust for redemption I thought I needed, I thought my family needed; some way, perhaps, to prove myself, to show the word that I was more than what I was and seemed and knew myself to be: that it did not matter how dark my skin burned, the shape of the body I wanted against mine, the tarnished, bloodied history staining my family name.
Perhaps it was courage, perhaps it was not - in these days, my darling, I find that I am more unsure than ever of what precisely courage is. In my mind, alone, I define and redefine and redraw it endlessly, searching for a meaning in it, a principle and a morality in it that I can ground myself in.
I have dreamed of bravery beyond anything: for years, it was my father, embodied in vague, translucent memories of kind smiles and his proud, angry defiance when the Aurors came to take him; for everything people say of me, it has never been me.
Sometimes, though, Gellert, the things we want most are the things we do not deserve to have.)
"I do not think," I murmured quietly, taking a sip of brandy. Opposite me, Elphias was staring at the fire with his eyes half-shut. "Politics is for me, my friend."
For a moment, the room was silent and still; neither of us moved at all, allowing it so envelope us in a warm, hazy cocoon as little by little brandy trickled down our throats in hot, orange-bronze bursts and the fire crackled noisily in the grate, biting at log after log and leaving black fingers of soot printed on the stone walls. Elphias glanced at me once or twice, and I did not look back, too lost in thoughts of political discourses I had no right to read and tumble over in my mind, spinning them into new forms, slicker versions, and waking dreams of half-formed futures, all of them pretty and glorious and absurdly impossible.
I could not look at him, then, too anxious that with his newfound perceptiveness he would be able to read something of the fear and guilt and longing on my face, written deeper and etched into my very being.
(Three weeks previous, in a weekend at the beginning of November, I had been summoned with a ribbon-bound note to go to Liechtenstein, to comment and give testimony on international academia, inter-continental studies, fellowships and research; I and some thirty-five other professors and researchers, none of us delighted by the invitation, being as it was set right in the middle of the school term, and so forcing us all to reschedule meeting after meeting after meeting in order to be present.
I happen to know that at least one researcher from Castelobruxo, mortally offended by a perceived insinuation that she should always be at the International Confederation's beck and call to give her opinion when they wanted it, sent a rather rude letter of complaint in three languages and containing a nasty hex.
The poor official who opened it spent a month eating flies like a frog - his tongue darting out and lapping them up with a quick whip round their fat bodies, perched on windowsills and near ponds in an ungainly crouch - and the bill the researcher had enclosed was unfortunately lost amongst the post.
A humorous anecdote, I like to think, and one which always brings to my mind that revenge is almost always a two-way street: if you start racing down it, you ought to be prepared to receive something in return.
Or, no doubt as you would say with a smug smile, you must simply close off the other side of the road.
Digressions aside, it was a surprisingly relaxing break: I spent much of my time there sat on a balcony overlooking the dips and valleys of the land, mountains jutting out of the green fields and forests in a hazy swathe of grey-white cloud and pale, watery sky, their sides littered with trees and patches of snow falling in jagged circles from the very tops. The air was fresh and chilled, a gentle bite nipping at my neck and the backs of my hands, lifting my hair and trailing it through its fingers, leaving it mussed and knotted and two shades darker.
I took lunch with Nicolas; brunch with Hesper Starkey (who beat me soundly at Wizards' Chess four times in a row before I begged off the games for the good of my self-respect); and a solitary memorable dinner with Dzou Yen, where I stuttered like a teenager and we wandered the roads of the town for six hours without a single pause in our conversation.
Ah, it was a lovely time - and then, and then, my darling, your spectre emerged once again, to wrap your arms around my waist and press cold, leech-like lips to the tips of my fingers, one by one.
"Mr Dumbledore," Maria Anastas, at that time Head of the Department of International Magical Law, approached me as I ambled down a hallway, humming something - perhaps Handel, I think? - to myself. She was tall, with broad shoulders and a firm, determined gaze; clever and brusque and a former child prodigy herself, I suspect she would have made a good adversary for you. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
"Of course," I nodded with a courteous smile, stopping where I was; we were alone in the corridor, every door leading off it shut, and the courtyard below us was empty. "Would you prefer to go somewhere else?"
"No, this is fine," Maria looked at me steadily and rested a hand in a pocket. "The International Confederation would like to ask a favour of you - we understand this is not in your remit, and normally we would not consider such measures, but at this stage, we feel it is necessary and perhaps preferable to other paths we could take."
She paused for a moment and I waited, assuming even then that it would be something simple, something easy and quick to achieve; how foolish I was then, in hindsight!
"The Confederation are growing concerned over Grindelwald's actions in Germany," Maria told me, her voice low and clear, her accent growing thicker as she spoke quicker. "They need to make overtures, to offer a reminder of the assistance which remains available to him and his country should he ask for it. They feel - we feel - that it would be best to come from someone on the same level as him, who could perhaps understand him, and who is somewhat less official than a dignitary.
It would, of course, be treated as an official visit, and we would offer you every compensation you felt was necessary in return should you choose to do it, though we understand if you would prefer not to involve yourself in such matters."
There was a beat or two of silence as I stood, numb and stony, the words of the proposal echoing in my head, fainter and fainter and fainter, bouncing back off my skull to repeat again and again and again; my head felt cavernous and my chest squeezed tight enough I wondered, absently, distantly, if I could even breathe at all.
To oppose you... to set myself against you, as opposite kings on a chessboard; to go to you, run to you as I had always dreamed of doing at night, promised myself I would be brave enough one day, always one day...
They did not know what they were offering me; they did not know of the apocalypse which lay at the bottom of the cliff, my name and yours written on the rocks in sun-dried vermillion.
"I am sorry," I heard myself say, feeling my jaw move but nothing else except the constant thud, thud, thud, thud of my heart, impossibly loud I thought it ought to be shaking the walls, cracking tiles. "But alas, politics is not for me."
I had walked away with a parting, glassy smile, locked myself in my room and spent the night dreaming wide-awake of a hundred and one things which had never been and a hundred and one more which had been; in the morning, I was red-eyed and shaking and dimly I could still hear you laughing in eighteen ninety-nine.)
Then, as November drew to a close and Winter proper bedded himself in among the rocks and the needle-tipped trees in the Highlands, burying the castle under flourishes of snow, I watched as the cuckoo clock on my mantelpiece - German, of course, from the Black Forest; a present from an old friend, I always said - ticked along, the second hand, slim and fine and glinting gold, passing over the five and the six, heading halfway to seven. Beside me, Elphias was still watching me, still with that same curiously clear gaze, something illegible written in it.
"They have asked me if you would reconsider," he said after a while; his glass empty now, he placed it on the table with an earthy chink. "I told them you wouldn't budge."
How was it, I thought, then, toasting gently by a fireside, my best friend with me, and silence coalescing in the air between us, that the further you try to run from things, the tighter they cling to you?
Everything changes, and nothing changes - it is vexing and frustrating and incomparably wonderful all at once; some things, after all, remain steadfast and it is those things which anchor us.
You and I; you and I - we are held down by the same chains, wrapped together in the same chains, a mockery of silk ribbons as they wind about our clasped hands. Then, it is not a marriage of sorts, my darling: following from that vow we made so long ago, when words were free to be spoken.
You and I, we said, you and I and not even death between us.
"I do not understand," Elphias commented, bravery making his voice harsh and brash; bronze, it trumpeted through the quiet of the room, and he did not look sorry in the slightest. In truth, I did not have the strength or the interest to comment on it. "Why you write so much - on politics, on rights, on everything you do - if you won't do anything more."
I did not explain; I could not explain. An explanation, short and concise and woefully inadequate rested under my breastbone, tucked away in an ivory-white alcove where no one would ever find it, where no one could hear it whispering constantly, softly.
I love him.
I love him. I love him. I love him.
There are words in my blood and on my tongue, written underneath everything I do and say, and yet... and yet I have never said them, not in this world.
Alas, my darling, that I have never had the courage to be honest.
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