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Chapter 10 : The Last Enemy
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Chapter Ten: The Last Enemy
December 31, 1946
You did not kill Ariana Dumbledore.
What’s this, you ask, remorse?
Remorse by Gellert Grindelwald, your shadowy bane stepping on your heels, sticking out his foot to trip you up and break that smug gait of yours? Certainly, remorse, and more than remorse.
You did not kill Ariana.
You are not obliged to believe me, but know that I speak with neither pity nor ridicule. I would not.
I never understood your sister and all her mysteries and how we always treated her like a fragile seashell. I understood her less the day she stepped sideways from life and left us abject souls behind. I’ll never come to know her, and it has always bothered me these years, how she could have existed so closely to us, breathed our words in through plaster and wood and brick and yet we could sense nothing of her secrets.
I swear that I still see her. I see the shape of her face and the mimicry of her hard stare pressing through walls made of skin. She passes through dreams and waking, through twilight and shadow, membranous and accusatory. But perhaps her accusations are part of my remorse. I saw her descend the stairs that day. I see her, and I now remember that I saw her. (If this is my own memory fabricating new stories, I swear I’ll wring my own neck. Enough of the stories!) She came down the stairs, peripherally, uninterrupted. I saw the resolve in her stride, the way the world unfurled at her feet, the pre-established sequence of her sacrifice. She knew where she was going.
If I tell you that Death was her veritable destination all along, will you hate me with an even greater intensity than you do?
(I know you hate me; all these letters I send and I’ve only had your silence to eat.)
If I tell you that she walked into that room of her own accord, fully conscious, will you continue to think of me as a coward, reallocating the blame to poor, innocent Ariana, the magically impaired girl with the delicate constitution?
There was a time when I wanted you dead. I wanted to crush your throat beneath my heels, slam my knees down onto your ribs, and all the while I would be writing to you. I wrote with my hands and I passed the letters down to my feet where you were and I made you eat them. I wrote you the vilest curses, the most venomous of words. I spat fountains of ink from my teeth, but by the time the letters got to my feet, they had changed. Morphed into pleas, into shouts of “Hear me! Hear me! Hear!”
But in the end, I could not find it in me to turn the Elder Wand on you. And so the Wand forsook me and my weakness, and chose you. I thought I could destroy everything that once held us together.
Is it too late to ask for forgiveness?
I’m sitting in this cell, half-icicle, half-wretch, writing this final letter to you. I suppose I ought to wish you good things for the New Year.
Can anything truly be new for either of us? Sleep has been a scarce creature over the years and now I’m safely excluded from the rest of humankind, I will continue to eat your silence, drink your hatred, and dream these dreams which you’ll never come to know, so pure is your intention to repent a wrong you never committed.
I was meant to write to you all along, but I am finished now.
What I said all those years ago, that very day Ariana died, I still hold them true in my own way (which you will, of course, find scornful and perverse). But they are true. I swear it. All these years and I have scourged the world in my aimlessness, living on a mantra you gave me. All these years and I have swallowed my own poison and cankered. All these years and I have always loved you.
I will not bother you any longer. If my words mean nothing to you, then lay the blame on me. Absolve yourself of all guilt. Ariana’s death is in my hands.
After all, I have always duelled as I have lived: to maim, to blight, to destroy.
Bathilda is reading in her library upstairs when Gellert bursts in. She can hardly understand the onslaught of his words and the slurring of his distress. But her concerned eye registers his torn shirt, and the cut carving his cheek open, down to the corner of his lip, so his mouth blooms from the wound. Those sharp bright eyes of his have become red-rimmed and feral.
She slips the ribbon marker between her pages and snaps the book shut. “What is the matter, Gellert? What has happened?”
“Exactly what, I do not care to know,” he snarls, then falters. “But I have never felt this way before.”
Bathilda attempts to rise, but Gellert reaches her first. He presses her shoulder down so she is forced back into her armchair, much to her surprise. He drops to his knees and buries his face in her lap, a gesture that Bathilda finds unusually intimate for her occasionally disingenuous great nephew. She had always hoped that he would display a little more tenderness toward her instead of his usual flippant manner, but not like this. This is alarming. She can smell the prickly saline of his sweat; his pulse is a feverish stutter in her lap.
Inwardly, Bathilda chides herself. Gellert is still her great-nephew, so she strokes his hair with as much placidity as she can muster.
“You must tell me what’s wrong,” she presses. “I can help you in this predicament of yours. Does it involve Albus? Did you both quarrel? I can speak to him for you.”
At the mention of Albus’s name, Gellert starts and jolts away from her. “I wish to leave. I will not stay in Godric’s Hollow any longer.”
“Gellert, please!” she exclaims. “Sit down.”
Instead, he snaps to his feet. “I see now. I see with all the clarity that this God-forsaken town tries to obscure from me. I should never have stayed this long; after all, I have everything that I need.”
“What is it that you are looking for? You never told me you were seeking anything when you first wrote to me asking to stay.”
He doesn’t answer. Perhaps she should give him time to calm his thoughts. She rests her hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then goes downstairs to put the kettle on. He follows. In the kitchen, she bustles about, lighting the fire, putting the water to boil, clattering about with her saucers. The more noise and movement, the better to distract herself from Gellert’s presence behind her.
“I need a Portkey out of this country as soon as possible.”
Bathilda sighs. “I don’t understand what’s happening with you. But it will take me at least two and a half weeks to arrange for a long-distance Portkey from the Ministry.”
Gellert’s knuckles clench as he grips the edge of the kitchen table. “She’s dead, Great-aunt. Albus’s sister. I—I don’t know how—however it happened—it was an accident, I swear!”
“Ariana?” Bathilda is aghast. “How did this happen? If Ariana is really dead and you’re a witness, you can’t run away like this. The Ministry will want to know what happened.”
“I already have a sullied reputation; I was expelled! Nobody will believe me. And they will snap my wand again, just like they did at Durmstrang. How can I live and never be allowed to practise magic? I will not.”
Bathilda is silent for a minute. She gestures for him to follow her into the sitting room. On the mantelpiece is a squat black jar. “There is Floo powder in there, if you really must go. But I beg you to stay and reconsider, Gellert. You need not run. You have friends here, and I will of course support your word.”
He ignores her advice, and instead embraces her. The gesture is perfunctory. “Thank you for your hospitality throughout my stay, Great-aunt. But I must go.”
He reaches for the jar and brings out a handful of emerald green powder. A quick Incendio, and fire fills the grate.
“Are you leaving this moment?” Bathilda says, astonished. “You haven’t packed anything.”
“What I do not have with me right now, I do not need.”
The flames billow into a brilliant green cloud when he casts the Floo powder.
“Aren’t you going to at least write Albus a goodbye note?”
“As I said: what I do not have, I do not need.”
He steps into the flames. Bathilda, on the other hand, puts on her hat, knots the laces beneath her chin, and goes to visit her neighbours, afflicted by yet another terrible tragedy.
The clouds today hold a grey, sickly rain. Weight colours the sky, tumbling down onto the squared shoulders of the village of Godric’s Hollow, the cottages hunkering down to earth, and the streets pressed clean of people. In the cemetery by the abandoned church, the birch trees shroud a small gathering of people standing before a new grave. It is an acceptable day for a funeral.
Albus Dumbledore has no excuses to make, no thanks to offer to the attendees: strangers, all of them. His words turn to loose stones, dried seeds that he can’t spit out for fear of lack of courtesy.
An ache sits on his left molar; his appetite for sweets often gave him toothache. When he was a child, Kendra made him gulp down a bitter potion that sent pins shooting through his gums before making the insides of his mouth thicken into the taste of rubber. She proceeded to slip a thread around his bad tooth and tie the other end to a doorknob.
“Shut your eyes and be brave, Albus.”
He trusted her. Kendra slammed the door and out came the tooth. Warmth and salt oozed from the hole in his mouth. Loss was a sharp wrench of movement that sent needle-thin echoes cracking through his skull.
Kendra is becoming an increasingly comforting memory to Albus. She had died for him, for Aberforth, and most of all for Ariana. When she died, she took all the burden of blame with her, and still he had been resentful and bitter because hadn’t she left him with the twin anchors of brother and sister? He was ungrateful, inflamed with his sense of self, but how clean her death had been. Kendra’s death was the concept of a sacrifice. Now—now, Ariana. Ariana’s death is different. This is a death that has stained him, that looks him in the eye through the gaze of every stranger present, that whispers the shadowy syllables of doubt behind the proffered condolences. He is implicated, and deserving of implication.
It is not our burdens that kept us sealed to our fates, but our love of enslavement.
Gellert’s voice slips through the fissures in his thoughts, throbbing with the ache in his cheek.
You keep her imprisoned. Does she want this? Surely she deserves a little humanity.
Ariana’s casket had sat in their repaired sitting room for the past two days. Last night, both Albus and Aberforth sat by her, keeping vigil. Ariana was featureless in death, and she seemed to shrink into her favourite forget-me-not blue dress. Flowers smothered the lower half of her body, gladioli and waxen roses. Her fingers were pinched around a bouquet. She lay there, a frilly garden, the blooms sponging up what little colour left of her. When morning light cut across the floor, Aberforth had gone upstairs to the attic, sat on the small rocking chair and rocked back and forth, back and forth violently. A crack splintered through the house.
Bathilda breaks away from the semicircle of funeral attendees to stand beside Albus and squeeze his shoulder, and he is grateful for this. He is excused.
The casket lowers itself into the earth beside Kendra’s grave. He didn’t have time to arrange for a new headstone, so Ariana’s name is simply inscribed upon Kendra’s headstone. There are no eulogies for his sister, and the watchers whisper to each other. These are Kendra’s few acquaintances in Godric’s Hollow, and most of them were completely unaware that she had a daughter.
Earth slides into the grave until it is filled. Rain falls in tatters.
Aberforth turns away abruptly but Albus catches up with him in two long strides. He must not let his brother go.
“I’m leaving,” Aberforth says.
“I can see that.”
“I mean I’m not going back to Hogwarts. I’m through with school. And no, I’m not merely being rash.”
“Hardly the wisest choice for yourself, Aberforth. I know it’s hard going back, but you’ve just got a year left of school, and I can assure you that it will make all the difference in the years to come. I’ll help you through your last year, I promise.”
“Yes, you would know all about wise choices,” Aberforth spits. “We’re both standing here today because of your glorious wisdom and your brilliant choices.”
“I understand your anger at me,” Albus says quietly. Dread closes around his airways and a light-headedness settles between his ears. “But you needn’t turn that anger in on yourself. Please, just consider this. Mother would have liked you to at least complete your magical education.”
“She would,” Aberforth agrees. “But she would rather have Ariana alive.”
“However I’ve acted in the past, I want to make amends,” Albus says, at last, desperation evident in his voice. “We are the only ones left of our family. Mother and Father and now Ariana are gone, and I don’t want to lose you, or us to lose each other.”
In response, Aberforth spins around, bringing his fist with him, and with the momentum of his body, lands it right in the centre of Albus’s face. There is a crunch of bone yielding and a collective gasp from the few attendees still present. Pain snaps like a released spring, striking the back of his eyeballs and he blinks, blood leaking from his broken nose.
“Do not beg anything of me,” Aberforth shouts. “You never saw Ariana as anything more than her illness—all through her life you analysed and studied and tried to solve her, you only sought to measure how much she would hinder you and your brilliant dreams, what quantity of her was sticking in the way between you and him. You saw her as a problem that needed a solution, but of course you wouldn’t have guessed that she was a lot more complicated than a Potions recipe, because aren’t you the most complex, the most misunderstood, the most gifted of us all? Well, you have your solution now.”
Truth and shame split Albus’s tongue with the gall of his brother’s words.
Aberforth continues: “And I know they’re all dead, by the way. You needn’t remind me. I have no use for your regrets; you can keep those.”
He Disapparates in a whorl of wind, and the onlookers emit another gasp of collective disapproval.
But Albus no longer cares.
Aberforth arrives home, intact. Miraculously.
Just a few months ago at Hogwarts, he had failed the Ministry’s Apparition test, Splinching himself badly and leaving behind a thick band of his torso, while the rest of him made it to the destination.
The feeling is somewhat similar now. He stumbles through the house, eviscerated by loss. He storms up the stairs but that brings him too close to Ariana’s attic and the chair he had just broken this morning so he goes downstairs again and paces through the rooms. He turns the space of the kitchen and the living room into spirals of aimless miles. If he stays still, he becomes all too aware of the disconsolate certainty of his body, composed of nothing but empty chambers stacked on top of each other, amplifying his heartbeat. He feels like this house.
There is nothing left for him here. Well, there is Albus, but he won’t have anything to do with Albus any longer.
In his bedroom, he kicks a trunk out from under the bed, draws his wand and begins directing his possessions inside. He strips the room and when it is bare, sits down heavily on his unmade bed for the last time. Something hard presses against the side of his thigh, and he draws out a wooden pinecone doll from his pocket: the same doll he had crafted and given to Ariana, only for her to return it to him.
For protection, she had told him.
Had he been protected? It is hard not to think so; during the altercation, Grindelwald, with his volley of deadly curses hadn’t come close to harming him seriously. He had emerged from the scuffle with nothing more severe than an assortment of scrapes and cuts. Unlike Ariana.
Aberforth squeezes the doll and presses it over his heart. It grows warm in his hand, and the stiff flakes of the pinecone are familiar against his palm.
“You’ll live,” he tells himself. “Because she didn’t.”
He lugs his trunk out the door, but pauses outside Albus’s bedroom. If only he can uproot all those tidy sheets and sweep all his brother’s carefully arranged books from the shelf. At the funeral, watching his stricken brother, Aberforth had never hated him so fiercely before.
But he doesn’t do anything except toss the pinecone doll onto Albus’s pillow.
He has no need for protection, not any longer. Albus doesn’t deserve this, but he’ll get it anyway, because Ariana would want Albus safe and unharmed, because Albus gets everything, anyway.
Aberforth’s trunk thuds and smacks down the steps and out the front door. He picks it up and hauls it out the garden gate. He will not return to this village.
Albus remains in the churchyard, beside Ariana’s grave, long after the last guest (Bathilda) leaves. A number of the other attendees had milled around in a rather infuriating fashion, pretending to examine the names and inscriptions on the ranks of headstones. He rather suspected that Aberforth’s public outburst had stirred up some excitement among them, and they lingered, scavenging for gossip.
Ariana is in the earth now, still unacknowledged by life.
He kneels and touches the carved letters of his sister’s name on the headstone, though his blessing feels tainted.
“I cannot undo this, little sister.” The tenderness in his voice is foreign. “Just a few days ago, I would have tried, but I know that this is now beyond me. You have taught me that.”
If only he could beg for forgiveness! He would offer her everything; he would pledge anything for her, for Aberforth, for the ruins of this family. But there is nothing to forgive; there is nobody to forgive or be forgiven. Death has destroyed the possibility of any transaction of forgiveness. Death has left behind an unbalanced equation.
If he were to make amends, it will never be toward his sister. She isn’t here, and he doesn’t believe in any form of her lingering behind.
He cannot face this empty churchyard any longer. The trees shush each other, and the crooked lines of headstones offer him neither compassion nor judgement. The world is this: a godless, gentle thing, accepting him and his every deed without a word. He feels minuscule, undifferentiated from his dead sister or his unruly brother, who by now would have left Godric’s Hollow. Aberforth is true to his words.
Albus wanders into the desolate ivy-choked church. A new kind of silence drapes over him: the silence of places consecrated by humanity. The nave of the church is filled with the decrepit ranks of pews. Parts of the roof have been pulled off by storms, and sunlight is cut into falling lace by the tangle of vines. There are plans being made by the town’s Muggle councillors to restore this church.
Standing at the lectern, confronting an invisible congregation, is Gellert. He looks down at Albus with disinterest and a condescending familiarity.
“My guess is right, then,” Albus says, coolly. “I had the feeling that you weren’t far, even though Bathilda told me you’d left for London and were on your way back to the Continent.”
Gellert leaps down the steps of the sanctuary, landing beside Albus. “You are bleeding, amid other things.”
His nose is crusted with dried blood from Aberforth’s punch, and his cheeks are encased in hardened tears. He had not even noticed that they had been falling. His face is throbbing.
“It was Aberforth,” Albus replies, dully.
All of a sudden, Gellert pulls him into an embrace, and the sides of their faces chafe. Albus is too surprised to respond; he tumbles into Gellert, his height making his drape slightly over Gellert’s shorter frame. This display of intimacy is jarring but not unwelcome, and for a moment, Albus toys with the idea of not letting go.
But the thought disintegrates even as it forms.
“Let me fix this.” Gellert traces a fingertip along the raw, skewed outline of Albus’s nose.
Albus pulls away in a trice. “Not everything that is broken can be pieced together so easily.”
Gellert’s expression hardens. “You are now a free man, Albus, whether you accept it or not. What will you do with all this freedom?”
It is true: the future is an endless field before him, directionless space. All that can be seen is the disc of the horizon. Time falters and drops to his feet, begging to be marked, to be defined, to be put to use. He cannot bear this desolation.
“I only know what I mustn’t do.”
“It is really true, then,” Gellert laughs. “We do become attached to our burdens. We love the things we claim to hate. We love our subjugators and our subjugation. You are the perfect example of this, a living breathing microcosm for the wretched state of our magical world, and the chains it imposes upon itself. But I shall not be like you, Albus. I shall be different.”
There is nothing more that he can say. “I wish you well, Gellert.”
The syllables drop like stones punching through the glassy film of a still pond, stirring up the sediments at the bottom. The church is silent, and the stagnancy between him and Gellert is silted with both their joint insincerity.
“The next time we meet, we may no longer be friends.”
“So it may be.”
“Who is the last enemy, Albus? Because it is not I.”
Albus doesn’t answer. He turns away from Gellert, who stands at the foot of the altar, bright and upright like a sapling, or a saint among the ruins, growing upward to break the ceiling with his bare, branching hands, slab by slab until he strikes the sun.
Gellert calls after him as he walks out the doorway: “Maybe I will write to you, my friend!”
These are his mother’s words to him, spoken as a daily Charm threading his life together: May the saints guide you always, Gellert.
Prayers and charms will always be the same to her. Magic and the glory of the saints are synonymous.
He shuts his eyes in the sunlit gloom of the church, lifts his wand above his head and summons all the power within him, then releases his spell without an incantation. From all their recesses in the walls come the saints: headless, half-limbed or intact, some of them shapeless trunks of stone, blighted by frost and mould, with faces weathered into indeterminacy. They drop their crosses and holy books and swords as they lumber down the aisles to encircle him in their monolithic, crumbling communion.
He smiles evenly at his mute witnesses. They meet his gaze. Then he breaks them all with a flourish of his wand. His spell grinds them down to meal, to ashen dust swirling in the air, the grit beading in his eyelashes.
Nobody but Albus knows that he is still here in Godric’s Hollow.
It has been two days since he’d emerged from the fireplace of a London inn, after leaving Great-aunt Bathilda’s. Two days he stayed in that inn, unwilling to depart, even though the Continent called him home, even though he felt the tug of the Hallows, impatient for their discovery by him. And last night, a tap on his window had startled him. There was an owl outside, and for a moment, excitement and hope flared in his heart, for he recognised the bird: Albus’s owl, Pythagoras, who had been delivering their letters all summer.
But the note he received was not written by Albus’s hand.
That which you seek is not for you.
Those whom you call will answer with your destruction.
I have heard the dead speak, seen them draw cold breath, and in my blood I have bound death itself.
And the last enemy that I shall destroy is death.
There is no name on the letter.
It seems strange that Ariana Dumbledore would ever write him a letter, and even stranger that she would write such a cryptic message. Certainly, she had her secrets when alive, and what a great pity it is that he never found them out, that he never learnt the true extent of her uninhibited magic. It was this letter that had made him return to Godric’s Hollow and attend Ariana’s burial from afar, cloaked in Concealment Charms.
Gellert leaves the rubble of the church and goes outside. At the foot of Ariana’s grave, he buries her note there.
“Destruction is a strong word for you, little Ariana, but not too strong.Let perpetual light shine upon your soul, now and forever.” It is the best eulogy he can offer. After all, she had never really cared much for him when she was alive.
Gellert rises to his feet. Never mind the meek saints, the martyrs, or the one whom he was named after, dying his ignoble death. No, he will live and he will seek the power that he deserves. He will reshape the world and bring triumph and justice to magic; he will eliminate the yoke of secrecy and oppression from a unified wizarding world. For the greater good, he will live. He will bring together the Deathly Hallows, as he and Albus had promised to do. He will carry both their dreams with him, and do what Albus cannot do.
Maybe he will forgive Albus for his betrayal.
But that will come later.
For now, he has a Portkey to catch. For now, the day is still new, and the light is still glowing with promise, and so Gellert Grindelwald laughs as he Disapparates into a future spun with gold.
A/N: So ends my very first completed novel! *sobs*
A huge, huge, huge thank you to everyone who has been following this fic; your support has been amazing. Thank you to all who have left reviews and gave me such encouraging feedback.
Thank you to Kristin, Laura, Dan, Kenny and Mo for all your latest reviews on this fic. Thank you to everyone who has read but never reviewed--I appreciate your reads so much. And thank you to Isobel, for whom this fic was originally (and still it!) dedicated to, for being a great friend and keeping in touch with me.
It's sad that I'm no longer able to celebrate my completion of my first ever novel on the forums, which has been my internet home for the past four years, but that's alright. Home is where the people are, so long live HPFF.
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