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L'optimisme by Aphoride
Chapter 3 : Words
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 14


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Words

“Lumos,” you whispered, a grey-black outline against the faint starlight dipping in through the window, watery and shadow-thin; instantly, a light flared, ivory and shimmering, blinking into focus the tables and counters of the kitchen, the china teacups mother had always favoured – chipped and faded now, after so many years – stacked neatly in the cupboards.

Cold and dim, I squinted at you, taking in the navy-blue cloak flung over your white night-shirt and thin, billowing trousers, the ends tucked into heavy, long boots, their toes stained with the remains of mud and dirt and the green-dark scratches of nettles and twigs. Your hair was mussed, wild and knotted, but you looked wide-eyed and anxiously alert; you were still staring at me, then, glancing down at the hand I had wrapped around your arm, the base of my fingers brushing your wrist, and now I had brought you inside, I could not think of what to do.

“There are some things,” you had said, hushed and breathless and deadly serious. “I do not think I can write to you – I think… it is better if I say them, I think.”

In the pale light, as I watched you, waiting patiently for your nerves to unwind and your thoughts untangle, the words to line up on your tongue and trip gently, steadily out, I began to notice little things: the way you bit the inside of your lip, on the bottom left corner, the strange flush in your cheeks, the way your eyes were wet and rimmed with smudged red rings.

Carefully, delicately, I slid my hand down your arm, and took your hand, running my thumb over the back.

I wanted to drop your hand, to put an arm around your waist and pull you close, your head on my shoulder and run my fingers through your hair, absorbing whatever emotion it was which had shaken you so – but, alas, I confess I was a greater fool: I did not want to let you go; to lose contact with you, however small.

“Albus,” you murmured, looking up at me, your hair a cream-tinted silver and your eyes dark, nothing of blue in them at all. It reminded me unnervingly of Ariana, and I struggled, I admit, not to shiver. “I do not know how to say it.”

I waited, the words you had just spoken dying two inches from your mouth, smothered by the night, and I could hear you breathing, slight and quick, could feel my heart beating, growing louder and stronger, could hear my own thoughts reverberating around and around and around, a maelstrom of anxiety I was whipping up myself, god and victim both.

Silence, you see, my darling, is a terrible, wonderful chameleon; it is, at heart, possibility in raw, naked form.

If silence is the killer and the jester and the lover all in one, the joker in the desk, then words are the simple, lowly twos and threes. As compared to the twisting, turning, thousand possibilities of silence, words are restricted, confined within the pages of books and the short, sweet meanings ascribed to them – capable of mutating and changing with inflection and tone, but limited all the same. They are the building blocks of languages, the very foundation from which all things begin, whether literature or ordinary conversation.

Though their meanings are often simpler to decipher, words are as potent as silence can be – and, in my experience, are far more likely to be used to hurt: how much easier is it, how much more natural and instinctive is it, for us to shout and scream at someone, to blurt out ‘I hate you’ and leave a cooling, plummeting silence behind; in arguments, we are reaching, always reaching, for the words we know will hurt the most.

How cruel we are, as a race, that we take something so beautiful, so inherently free and magical, and develop it to be the sharpest of blades.

Spells are simply words and power, after all, so when we stamp them unforgiveable and shun them from our lives, what does that say about language – about the limits it too has?

As we strolled down the tiny, wandering path, tripping over tree-roots and tramping through wildflowers, your arm tucked through my elbow, warm and solid, words flew through the air between us, thick and fast, like a fierce summer storm, filling everything around us completely and leaving us with nothing left to breathe. Laughing and exhausted, we would stumble along, lost in our marvellous, heady world, so certain the easy, sweet tumbling of conversation between us was a sign of great things to come.

Stuttering, grinding to a halt, you would slip up, frozen in place while you searched desperately for that missing word in English, the one thing you could not say in the whole conversation; frustrated and blankly hunting, you would run your fingers through your hair, press your knuckles into your jaw, leaving pink marks, swear in a cacophony of languages, and apologise profusely for failing.

I confess I found it utterly endearing: whenever you frowned, you looked somehow melancholy and lost and determined to find it again. It made me want to reach for you, pull you close and kiss your hair, kiss your mouth slowly.

Perhaps I should have.

It is strange to think how, after all those words – thousands upon thousands of them a day – we exchanged, in a multitude of languages, I cannot find the words to speak to you, not even simply to say ‘good morning’.

Ah yes, but I have forgotten how words can injure the wielder just as much as the recipient, bearing equal strength and equal ferocity. Clogging my throat, stiffening the joints in my hand and the cogs in my mind, the quill on the page rests still. My voice, rough and scratchy, remains silent.

Silence again, my darling. You must forgive me.




14th April, 1900; Pays-de-la-Loire, France

Spring had come: the first flourishes and flowerings in a new age, bathed in the soft, orange-lemon light of dawn, the sky behind me pressed here and there with patches of purple, even as the new century began a long and slow procession down through the years; I stood there, under the far end of the grove of blossom trees which lined the walk down to the jut of hillside which stuck out from the rest, covered in a mess of moss and leaves, silent and morose as only a jilted lover at a wedding he does not wish to be at can be.

There were petals in my hair, littering the red with shades of pink-tinted cream, buried underneath and twisted, woven in so they shook and fluttered in the wind with the strands; I was a mockery of a bride that day, in royal yellow and a starch white cravat and shirt.

Alas that for all it looked like an absurdist wedding, distorted and changed, for all it seemed like it should be happy, content and gently serene – surrounded by new life, the rebirth of the ages, all the hope and possibilities the aching stretch of time in front of me opened up – I struggled to feel any of it; if, indeed, I found myself feeling anything at all.

I ought to say that the trails of flowers in my hair were hardly intentional: long ago, Nicolas had confided in me once, he had charmed the trees, swaying and heavy, to shed their blossoms, pink-edged and plump, when someone strolls underneath – young lovers, arm-in-arm; amis and confidantes, mothers and fathers and sweet, sighing children, lost in dreams of love and romance they are tasting for the first time. Shuddering, the trees would rustle in an unfelt wind and sprinkle the blossoms onto hair and clothes, leaving a trail of petals, glistening and soft, following after them.

Once, I enquired with Nicolas as to why he had bothered with it – such a simple and frivolous charm; a petty waste of magic – and he had laughed, shrugging in that expressive, Gallic way, and said:

“Eh bien, mon ami, the question is not why, non? It is why not.”

I had been confused, uncertain whether or not he was mocking me, laughing at my expense, my naivety that I could not understand, could not see the importance and necessity in small, harmless childish tricks.

“It is the timing,” he explained further with a secretive smile. “It makes things beautiful.”

It did, that much I had to admit then and there – and the frivolity of it could hardly offend me; no, my irritation with the enchantment had nothing to do with any idea of wasting power on a cheap trick or any potential breach of international security, but more with the fact that I was, to put it simply, miserable.

Darling, dear Gellert, I am not telling you this to hurt you, to somehow throw over your shoulders all responsibility for my state of mind – that, more than anything else, is my own affair. Simply, it is what happened, and so it must be told.

I have never lied to you, not on parchment, not in words, and I do not believe now is the time to start; we know each other too well for that, too deeply and too intimately.

The final chimes of celebration, bright and ringing, were still echoing around in April, any superstitious fear of the new century had faded, and life, for the most part had returned to normal – though even then, people still toasted the new age at parties and gatherings, clinking glasses together and declaiming loudly their hopes and dreams and half-formed predictions of the future.

Even in the countryside, laughter still lingered, leaking out of houses and into the fields and the winding, beaten tracks which scythed through the forests and down the slopes of valleys. It slipped through the cracks and down the chimney, bringing a wealth of fantastical stories and myths to the forefront of Nicolas’ mind, all of them pinned in place at the turn of the century, and stripping the years from them both in ways the Elixir never quite managed: Perenelle hummed as she went, an old song I have not heard before or since, and Nicolas smiled, filled to the brim with boundless, ageless energy, his mood pinned perilously high.

It was a time when everyone’s thoughts were tipped forwards, shaded light and leaping free – the future had arrived, fresh and blank, and everyone flitted about, bursting with ideas and dreams of what could be painted onto it; what could be made out of the scraps of the last century.

Everyone, I suppose, except I.

So many of my friends were happy, merry and excited, and yet, it seemed as though that same, infectious spirit simply slid off my robes and my shoulders, falling to my feet, shunning me time after time. I would run, with Elphias and Tiberius and Euphemia, odd quartet that we were, through the streets to the bars and the balls in London and Hogsmeade and Paris, determined that this time, this time the happiness would stick – and it never did; I could not force it to stay, could not hold it in my hands like a gold-rimmed glass and keep it captive.

Eventually I wearied of the battle, slipping quietly out of those evenings early and drained, declining invitation after invitation until my friends gradually began to stop asking.

One memorable time, Tiberius Ogden had attempted to cajole me into going by mentioning that dear Euphemia Bones had expressed personal interest, as he had put it, in whether or not I would be attending. I confess I nearly choked on my tea, wracking my mind for any possible reason not to go, suddenly seized with a panic I could not quite explain. It was not Euphemia herself – she was a lovely and talented woman, with the virtue of being both handsome and forthright – but the prospect of spending an evening fending away advances, the horrifying thought that this might be the start of a long train of avoiding proposals and advances and polite, flirting enquiries; what could I say to do so without arousing any suspicion?

Naturally, admitting glibly to the world at large that I had spent a summer contentedly learning how best to bed a beautiful blonde boy would certainly have done the trick, but the following scandal would not, I think, have been worth the few moments of amusement it would have produced.

The damage was done, however: the familiar ache and fear that I was not normal, that what I wanted was not normal, was somehow shameful and wrong; the familiar daydreams and twilight memories of you, sprawled across my bed, on your knees with that wickedly sly smile, the rasp of your voice when finally I reduced you to begging – it all resurged, triumphant and cruel, cutting me to the quick, and I had fled, muttering some feeble excuse to Tiberius as I left.

(By all accounts, it turned out to be a magnificent party: Elphias took four dances with Honoria Prewett (and accidentally stole her gloves), Tiberius ended the night singing in a bed of geraniums and honking daffodils, and Euphemia Bones quite forgot all about my absence and quickly gathered a circle of admirers, half of whom she would go on to marry and then promptly divorce after lengthy affairs.)

So there I was, while my friends were off back in England, nursing sore heads and being escorted from the bushes bleary-eyed and studded with twigs and grass, standing on top of a hill in southern France, feeling the wind murmur in my ear, cool and chilly, feeling, more than anything, exhausted and resigned to the apathetic melancholy which had taken root in me.

Spread out in front of me was countryside, somewhat ordered and lacking in any true sense of wild, but countryside nonetheless. It was a mess of greens and yellows, bushes sprouting up here and there, but my gaze was much more for the sky. I had always preferred to watch the sky rather than the earth, even as a boy; I loved how the clouds changed shape, whipped up and sped along by the wind, far mightier cousin of the little breezes which reached me on the ground, and how the sun would poke his fingers through them, lighting them up in golds and silvers and pure, clean whites.

It was not peace that I felt then, nothing like it, but it was comfort on some minor level. Out there, I could breathe, leave everything else behind and just look, blank and listless, studying the scene with a blind, detached eye.

Far away, there was the silvery gleam of a river winding towards the ocean, a single boat drifting down it, white sail flapping in the breeze; above them, reduced to mere faint dots, a flock of birds tumbled and wheeled, startled out of the trees. Spring was coming, but dawn still bathed the land in a thin, delicate coating of frost, making the grass crunch under my shoes and the leaves almost melt away at my touch. There was a dreamy, mystical quality to the Loire at daybreak which I could not help but love; it tugged softly at the strings in my chest and summoned up the handful of smiles I still possessed.

“Ah, monsieur, I did not think I would see you up here,” Nicolas’ voice was quiet from behind me, and, as always, faintly amused by something I could never put my finger on. “I ‘ope you are not ‘aving trouble sleeping – madame would be ‘appy to brew you a potion, if you require…”

“No, thank you,” I said, allowing another small smile and a quick, jerky shake of my head. “I have simply always enjoyed walking at dawn; I find the peace delightful.”

For a fleeting moment, I wondered if it sounded brusque, rude, as though I wanted him to leave – and for a moment, I hoped that it did; that somehow it adequately conveyed the spike of anxiety, of irritation which had flared when his voice sounded, faint and invasive, shattering the cocoon of silence I had built around myself.

“It is,” he agreed, surveying the land with a strangely distant gaze; it was unsettling, to see him allow some glimpse into the truth of his soul, underneath the jovial and solemn exterior – I wondered for a second what he could have lived through for such melancholy to emanate from him at the sight of a dew-sprinkled field?

Only for a second and then it passed, and I continued looking out over the fields below, watching a bird in flight vanish into a cloud and then dip out of it, banking on a rising stream, beak emitting a hoarse, sharp cry that rang shrill even in my ears. Something about it seemed out of place, too loud and too alive for such a time of day.

To me, down on the ground and watching as the bird settled on a branch some way distant, it seemed that the bird had merely turned my own discomfort into sound; it rang in my ears, rude and discordant.

I can admit now, since the years have passed, how very nervous I was on that hilltop – nervous in a way I had not been in years: my stomach turning and squeezing and my throat tightening, a string pulled sharply around my neck with a lancing pain – even though we were not talking, we were not interacting in any way, simply stood side by side, surveying the countryside in the fresh, Spring air.

I was nervous he would ask me what was wrong; frightened he would enquire, polite and worried; I was ashamed and afraid that he would read on my face that I thought his arrival was an intrusion into a place I had come to consider my own, where I would spend that handful of moments in a day where the past and the present and the future did not all converge themselves upon me, the expectations and memories, the failures I had birthed and the guilt they had left me with crashing down on my shoulders to beat me to the ground.

I was resentful and irritated – I wanted to leave, in truth, though I felt pinned in place, unable to move and unable to think of how to escape.

“‘ave you finished the equations?” Nicolas asked abruptly, turning to face me and studying me with an intense, thoughtful look which I fancied could see all the dark things I had tucked away in drawers a long time ago; could see the grey drizzle dripping in the inside of my mind.

All the intelligence in the world could not make up for the youth and inexperience I felt then, painful and obvious to him as I thought it must be.

“Yes, I completed them last night,” I responded, my voice even.

“Bon, bon,” he murmured, not looking away from me. Under the scrutiny, I held myself still and silent (not such a feat as it sounds, perhaps, considering I have had far worse tormentors in that arena – you yourself are far more guilty of that than he was, with your warm, gliding hands), and calmly looked back. “Then we shall start the real work today.”

He left then, with a nod and a smile and a light ‘bonjour, monsieur’, and I was bobbing along in his wake, feeling, for the first time in a year, a frisson of excitement – thin and piteous, certainly, but present all the same – shudder down my spine.

Alchemy holds the strange honour of being both an exact and precise science, and being utterly and completely inaccurate. The inconsistencies in the field as a whole are not helped by exaggerated, incomplete, or simply falsified documents narrating wildly bizarre techniques and methods, ranging from the dud to the dangerous, meaning much of the work in the field is based on guesswork and ingenuity, incorporating theories from other subjects.

It was, however, fortunate for me that it is such a singularly bizarre and frustrating field, for it meant that breakthroughs and discoveries – the kind by which names and reputations were established and established quickly – were somewhat easier to come by.

For all the advantages of it, it was hard, testing work, and I spent hours poring over texts in candlelight, the fire long dead in the grate, the last of the smoke curling lazily up the chimney, a half-drunk glass of port on the table next to me. I found myself going to bed late, accompanied by piles of old, worn papers and my own illegible notes, exhausted to the bone from the work of the day – stirring cauldrons and scribbling down results, racing out of the laboratories before the explosions hit and chuckling when we discovered all we had created was a bar of copper with a selection of fragrant, purple bubbles – too tired to even think or to dream.

My correspondence with my friends suffered accordingly, letters going unanswered for weeks at a time before I penned hasty replies when politeness was just about to flutter out of the window and off back to England. I admit I had always struggled to muster up as much enthusiasm for the gossip of the day as they could find, having no interest in who was seeing whom and which politician was currently teetering on the edge, but with my attention wholly captivated by something which truly interested me, there was no competition.

Of course, I still thought of you – I do not want you to think that I forgot you so soon, that you had so little effect on me as my words imply – but over time, as I concentrated and focused, narrowing my gaze to Alchemy and only that which I was studying (avoiding, very carefully, the prospect of immortality and eternal youth which came with it, for even little mentions of those reminded me of Hallows and revolutions and the way you had breathed against my neck at night as you slept), I thought of you less and less. I tried not to think of you, I admit I did not want to think of you, and I found that it became easier as time passed: memories shifting back in my mind, replaced by newer, fresher ones. It is not true to say that these memories were perhaps happier than the ones of the summer before, but they were less tainted with circumstance and grief.

Summer progressed, slow and stately up the coast of France, and I began to feel lighter, better; my burdens and my conscience and my festering, rotting secrets were still strapped to my back, bending me double, but my apathy was starting to lift day by day by day. The letters I sent to England doubled in length; I made sure to set aside time to write, describing my new life to my friends and inquiring after their own, and I found I had holiday enough to take a Portkey to England, to invite Elphias and Tiberius and Euphemia (now thankfully quite over any notion she had once had of attempting to woo me) to Paris and Marseilles and down the winding streets of York.

After so long, it seemed only inevitable that it would infect me as well, sinking in through my skin and down into my blood, poisoning me limb by limb and organ by organ, though I had been stubbornly resistant at the beginning. It worked its magic slowly, encouraging me to smile, then to quip glibly at comments made, them eventually to laugh.

I cannot tell you how it felt to laugh again, how it punctured the grey cloud hovering over the landscape of my mind, releasing out the sense of freedom I had missed, and with it a reminder that I was still young.

There was time, I recalled then, time for everything I had said I would do, time to be everything I wanted to be. Possibilities swirled around my head, endless and whirling in a kaleidoscope of colours, making me stumble into Tiberius, who simply laughed as we righted ourselves, oblivious to the disapproving looks of the more sedate Parisian locals.

Perhaps, I thought, drunk on damson wine and a spiced orange liqueur which had bubbled and fizzed even as I swallowed it, perhaps this could be the turning point of me. Perhaps I would step forward, close that chapter of my life – the chapter with you and Ariana and my mother and the thousand and one mistakes I made, tumbling down like a row of dominos – and start a new one; perhaps I would make a name for myself, carve out a place in history for myself, whether as inventor or Minister or theorist. Perhaps I would even manage, somehow, sometime, to reconcile with Aberforth, find a path in the middle of the road we could both agree on, however begrudgingly.

Perhaps, and it was the last thought – guilty, secret, and hopelessly honest – perhaps I would see you again, love you again, that you would love me.

We had promised each other forever, after all – why should we not take it?

Really, my darling, I should have been far more specific – for I have done all of those things (though the last, I think, I shall never know if it was ever true), and yet I am alone and companions with misery and exhaustion and cold, logical apathy once more, slowly feeling my limbs leaden with poison and wilt, one by one by one.

It was there, though, on the bridge over the Seine, surrounded by friends, warm and blissfully indifferent, that I decided that there were better ways to deal with the lodestones around my neck: better ways to deal with loving someone I should not love, better choice to make and better men for me to become.

I decided, foolish and brazen, that I would let you go, then and there, as simply and weightlessly as tossing a pebble into a river; it would be unwise to love you when there was every reason not to – we could both be happy, I theorised, we would both be happy, one day.

My darling, I was so certain then that it would be easy, so convinced this was something I could force through stubbornness and sheer will – after all, if I could fall in love so effortlessly, why should falling out of love be any different? What could possibly stop me?

Ah, I imagine you are shaking your head at me, that smug, knowing little smile on your face. Yes, I must reply, I forgot, of course, about you.


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