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In my father’s study, the candles jumped and sputtered off-beat, thick purple stubs of wax and lavender-scented, accompanied by the soft, insistent scratchings of my quill over the parchment, the thin nib leaving slanted, curling ribbons in aquamarine blue trailing behind it, a flourish here and there, a faint smudge in one or two places. The only other sound was the cooing of Archimedes, my owl, as he slept on his perch in the corner, and the loud tick of the grandfather clock just outside the study door – broken, still, almost two and a half weeks after my mother’s death.

My father’s study… my father’s study… every time, almost every day that summer, that phrase would leave my mouth so easily, without thinking, and yet every time it was a lie. My father had never sat in that room, had never worked in that room: going over the books, adding up figures and deducting others, filling out shipment forms and signing contracts, as he had done in Mould-on-the-Would. My father had never seen that room, but somehow, it was his.

I have often wondered if my refusal to call it mine – my study, my room – was merely just another symptom of my ardent, desperate fear of admitting that there was no one else.

If the room was mine, then the house was mine – and if the house was mine, my mother was gone and my father would never return, and I would have to find some way to be everything: caretaker and provider, brother and parent at once.

Oh darling, I never told you how before you came I would spend the evenings after Ariana was asleep and the house was still sitting in the study, in my father’s study, with its mahogany desk and tall, black-painted bookcase, both of them carved and polished and scarred, floating in a pool of warm, yellow light, trying to find the courage to say out loud what I could barely think.

This is my duty; these are my obligations, my responsibilities.

(Almost instantly, every time, they would be followed by their hellish friend with his cold, crippling voice: these will be your failures.

I wanted to be capable, to be more than just brilliant and talented and praised – for those two and a half weeks, I wanted more than anything to be just like Aberforth: to be patient and kind, to know how to soothe and calm, how to comfort.

I wanted to prove I could manage and I wanted to confess, choking on the words, that I could not, and I could never determine which would be best to say – which would have been less shameful, more honest. Which would have meant Aberforth did not loathe me.

Now, I can never admit it – what would be the use? – so it is another heavy, icy secret which sits in my chest and burns gently.)

Hours into our fledgling friendship, eggshell scattered around us and slowly being ground into dust under our feet and the excited, demanding words we flung at each other like marbles, and there you were: sitting in the armchair I never used, legs draped over one side – I am a heathen, you had announced, with a bright, salacious smile – flicking through book after book. Your coat was dropped over a small table, lamplight picking up the deep, ruby red sheen to it, and your shirt was cream and beige in the glow.

We were discussing – honestly, for the life of me I cannot recall: something to do with Transfiguration, I believe, possibly an experimental theory – and you were frowning, watching me intently as I talked.

“– you see, it is all quite esoteric, in truth, but the suggestion that you can associate the Afroudakis phenomenon with cross-elemental spells is, as they say, to bark entirely up the wrong tree.”

“I am not wrong,” you told me, plucking the word from the idiom, closing your eyes briefly and swinging your legs off the side of the chair. You gestured once, sharply, hesitantly, towards the window, “Can I open the window? Only the lavender is hurting my head.”

Outside it was raining, a damp drumming echoing down the narrow cobbled streets, drowned under the hiss as the wind caught the rain and spun it almost sideways, slicing through the air harshly, only to taper into a delicate curve at the end. The sky above was brimming with grey storm-clouds – the rains would last another day and a half, reduced to stuttering, coughing showers in its final hours – but I nodded, and you reached for the latch, stretching round the side of the desk to reach.

It always stuck in the damp, and I, such a cruel host, watched as the struggled with it, smiling genially as you muttered something undoubtedly quite rude in German – and pretended magnificently that I was not noticing how you looked as you leaned over the desk, that your war with the latch had tugged your shirt half out of your trousers, that you were biting your lip in concentration.

Eventually, you won, pushing the window open and the wind, howling and giggling, crashed into it and stole it from your hands, flinging it out into the street with a faint crash and a screech of the hinges. A flood of rain thundered into the room, toppling the tulips in the vase, drenching the windowsill and the desk, puddles of water spreading across paper and catching swirls of black and blue in them as the ink swam; the wind caught hold of the mess and blew, sending a fanfare of dripping, spotted paper flying, quills here and there, a bottle of ink wobbling dangerously.

I laughed – how I was cruelly lazy then! – even as you uttered a word and held out a hand to whip the window back shut, locking the hurricane and the sea back outside. I laughed, and when you looked at me, blushing a fine rose pink, biting your lip with a hundred apologies on your tongue, I felt something in my chest sigh and smile – and when you laughed too, the tension falling off you as water off an elephant’s back, I could no longer pretend that I was not seeing you smile and already desperate to see you smile again.

I was lonely, I was afraid, I was desperate to not be myself, and I wanted more than anything, then, to tuck the stray curl behind your ear and kiss you.

I was not prepared for any of that summer – not for the responsibilities, not for the duties and the burdens, and not for the whirlwind that was you.

Alas, as they say, when it rains, it pours.

2nd October, 1929; Brighton, England

The tea was too weak, tumbling out of the spout in a warm, red-tinted gush, strands of orange and yellow catching the light and twinkling, bright against the white china of the cup; the milk swirled around it, a handful of drops blooming into cream clouds, spreading out from the centre where they had landed, silent and smooth. On the spoon, the tiny sphere of sugar sparkled in the sunlight, and opposite me Elphias’ spoon clinked as he stirred a heap of brown sugar into the mug sat in front of him, the old cups scattered to one side, cold and stained with grey-brown rings.

All around, people were chattering, china knocking against china, chairs scraping and the metal bell above the door ringing shrilly with each twist of the handle: it was a perfectly pleasant scene, the air delightfully thick against the thin chill outside, but somehow, I could not relax – I sat there, stiff and stubbornly polite.

“I saw your last article in the Practical Potioneer,” Elphias told me, an admiring tone colouring his voice, a smile decorating his face: enthusiastic, awed, blinking quickly. “Of course, I couldn’t understand most of it – not much more than the first paragraph, to be honest – but it seemed brilliant, as always.”

“Quite derivative stuff, in truth,” I murmured in reply, the words tripping absently off my tongue as I took a sip of tea; the taste, light and faintly sour, softened by the milk and sugar, was hidden by the sudden heat as hot water pressed itself against the top of my mouth, burning and charring.

“Nobody else thought of it,” Elphias persisted, his fingers looped through the handle of his coffee mug. “Not in years. Isn’t that how all brilliant things happen?”

For a moment, I considered the question: how do brilliant things happen? How do brilliant articles get written, brilliant discoveries made? Is it merely luck – fortune that the discoverer, the author happens to write it first, find it before anyone else? Is it skill which pushes you to ask, what is here? What could be here?

I remembered Ivor Dillonsby and the dragon’s blood, the hot rush of jealousy which had flared up my throat into my mouth, toxic and addictive; the way I had smiled, darting and transparent, and rushed home to rifle through leaf after leaf of parchment, covered in scribbled sentences, meticulous formulae and circled, underlined conclusions.

Luck plays a much greater role in life than we would believe – so eager to consider ourselves masters of the world.

“Perhaps,” I said slowly, thoughtfully. “There is something in that.”

In the quiet, a baby started to fuss and cry, his mother cooing at him, apologising to the friend she was meeting as she rocked him, singing softly in an attempt to soothe him; a miserable addition to the hum and buzz of town life, loud and boisterously friendly even in Holyhead – perhaps especially in Holyhead.

“We are hosting a dinner next Saturday,” Elphias said, studying me carefully in a way which seemingly tried to be unsettling but was merely concerned. Bless him, but he has never been the best at reading me – though he is a wonderful friend in all other aspects. In his defence, I suspect I have hardly helped with deciphering myself: frankness is hardly a natural bedfellow of mine. “Valerie and I; Tiberius and Euphemia are coming – you ought to come too. It has been a while since we all saw you.”

“Alas, I believe I am occupied already then,” I apologised, though the words sounded hollow even to me, and when I took another sip of tea, it tasted distinctly sour. “Perhaps next time.”

Outside, a light sprinkling of rain began falling, the dark clouds overhead blooming plump and heavy, crowded the sky and drawing a curtain in front of the sun; here and there, she peeked through, weak and feeble, flickering like a dying candle. Steadily, the downpour grew, gathering pace and force until it was thrumming into the pavement with a crescendo which did not end – a lingering, constant drumroll.

Nine days later, as I stood in front of the fireplace in my quarters in Hogwarts, it was raining then, too: this time only a gentle, soaking shower – the kind which wets you to the bone, trailing down your neck and seeping into your skin, luring you out of shelter with a mild, glistening façade.

I hesitated – that much I am glad I can admit truthfully: I hesitated because Elphias had always been there, had always found time for me and tried to do his best, and to offer only selfishness in repayment is unkind and unjust.

Still, I did not hesitate that long, and I could not pretend to myself that it would have been better to go – after all, what would be more selfish, in the end: to lie once and only harmlessly, or to spend the evening weaving a tapestry of them, resplendent and artfully detailed?

Which one, my darling, would give the greater good?

I thought it, Gellert – I thought those words, our words from so long ago, and I heard them in your voice, and in my hand the Floo powder was embedded into my palm as the painting above the fireplace cracked from the centre outwards and a vase in the corner exploded with a soft, tender pop.

I thought, and then I did not think anymore, but dreamed of far too much.

The path out of the Floo terminal was the same as ever: the white paint on the wooden struts chipped and faded, worn down by time and the fierce coastal winds whipping up along the Channel, picking at the beaches and the rocks, and the wooden sign bearing the slogan ‘welcome to Brighton’ in dulled orange and blue swirls was battered, hanging limply from its bronze holders and swaying with minute, feeble squeaks. As always, it was quiet, long since abandoned by the business travellers and the fashionable youth who preferred the ease of Apparition; a series of brightly coloured pamphlets arranged neatly on a table admitted its true use as a tourist hub.

Smartly, I slipped out of the Floo terminal and out onto the sea front, tasting salt on the flat of my tongue as the breeze rippled through my hair and at my beard, pulling playfully on my robes. Shouts and laughter were ringing through the air already, children tugging on the leads of dogs twice their size, elderly couples sitting on benches with hands entwined, enveloped in their own world where all that was left was the comfortable silence time had blessed them with.

The sunset gleamed over the sea, the ridges of the waves glittering as they rocked back and forth; above them, the sky was burnished bronze, the sun a deep gold at once end and the coming night a speck of black and leeching dark cobalt on the other, hidden behind pastel-painted buildings. It was beautiful – wonderfully, wildly romantic – and I thought briefly of white violets and hurried on.

It was all quiet when I pushed the door to King’s Haberdashers and Tailors open, the tiny bell attached to the door frame giving a sweet little chime, jolting the elderly man behind the counter awake.

“May I help you, sir?” he croaked, coughing once, loudly, and reaching for a quill and a pile of parchment automatically, his eyes raking me up and down as though already taking stock of my measurements for a new robe or suit.

“Of course,” I replied pleasantly, stepping past a mannequin bearing the newest style of dress robes – lower cut at the chest, straight at the waist – and up to the counter. “I was wondering if Mrs King was available?”

He blinked once and then broke into a weathered, crinkled smile, littered with echoes of a long-running conspiracy.

“Always, always, my boy,” he chuckled, shuffling out from behind the counter over to push a standing, floor-length mirror in gold gilt half a foot round to the left and tilt it just a few centimetres down to reveal the outline of a door hidden in the wall and a doorknob made of silver gossamer. “On you go – don’t keep her waiting now.”

Murmuring a quick ‘thank you’ I ducked through the door, shutting it with a click behind me, and made my way down the tight, steep stone staircase, the lavender flames in the chains of miniature lanterns strung from the ceiling cold and familiarly welcoming, strands of jazz floating up to me on a warm, rising draught, honeyed and staccato.

At the bottom of the staircase, it almost glowed: a cacophony of colours – royal blue, mint green, and highlights of orchid purple – light up by the sunflower yellow fire to one side, and the clusters of candles, violet and sky blue and deep forest green, here and there, flickering and dancing in time to the music. Above the bar, cream lights twinkled like stars strung on a thread and looped around pins; nothing about it was magical and yet everything was so very extraordinary.

In one corner a saxophone was playing, bobbing up and down in front of a stand of sheet music while its owner – a dark-eyed, Muggle-suited young man – was whispering in the ear of a man at the nearest table, his hand resting on his arm, thumb absently stroking. Behind him, at the piano, another young man – far paler, with light, watered eyes and a solemn, hungry air – was gliding his fingers over the keys, his high collar hiding anything one might suspect to see on his neck.

Everywhere, men sat with men, laughing and swapping drinks, lacing fingers through fingers, hands brushing the insides of thighs without shame; women spun each other about the floor, arms possessive about waists, eyes locked and bodies flush.

You have always loved freedom, my darling, more than anything – perhaps more than you could ever have loved anything else – did you ever see this? Did you ever feel this kind of freedom?

I hope you did; truly, I do hope you did.

If it made all of its normal, ordinary patrons radiant, it would have rendered you incandescent.

(You should know, however much I enjoyed it there, however much I enjoyed the company I found there, I could never help but wonder – once each evening, without fail – how it would have felt to take you there.

How would it have been, do you think, for us to hold hands without fear? To pull you close without skulking in the shadows like criminals? How would it taste to kiss without caring, without having to care who sees, who knows our names and our stories and the truth about the glances and the brief, static touches we shared?

There was always, of course, the possibility of exposure – the slim chance that the bar might be found, Aurors crashing through or the Muggle police rounding us up on the streets, one by one – but there it was a different world.

It would have changed everything for you and I, this different world, Gellert; it would have rewritten history, as you would say.)

I had not found it by accident, stumbling into a tailor’s at nine o’clock at night, thanking the stars it was still open and unwittingly giving the password – Linford had introduced me to it, on an occasion some months after the night of my birthday, three years before then.

We had met for a few drinks, though I had left the choice of the place to him, and he had met me at Brighton Floo, smiling and polished as always – and he had led me to this place, underground in more ways than one.

(Is it terrible of me that I hope you would be jealous, if I ever told you – if this should ever reach you? That I hope you glare and frown, setting your jaw and tossing your head in that irritated, discomforted way you used to.

Even if it is only because it means I am not yours, that any strings you once tied around my wrists are cut loose, I hope you are furiously jealous.

You would not be surprised, I suspect, since you have always known how secretly, earnestly petty I can be.)

He and I had not lasted beyond a year: it had been sporadic, random, a connection forged solely on the fact that we both possessed owls and a want society claimed was foul. I will admit I enjoyed it – I enjoyed him, in truth – but not enough to lament the loss when we parted and he vanished into the murky throng of bodies on the dancefloor, drunk on elderflower wine and a distinct lack of heartbreak.

There I sat on a divan tucked away in a nook to one side, opposite the fire and bathed in the jumping, fractured light of thirty-three kaleidoscope candles, sipping at coils of crème de menthe and lime, dusted with rings of sugar, the melody of the saxophone swinging in my head, and a selection of bitterly sweet, confident kisses.

For once, it never meant anything, they never meant anything, and it was liberating in a way I had never imagined it could be.

It did, though, I should confess, do absolutely nothing to ease the raging storm in my head, nor to stop the thud and the tight, sudden squeeze whenever I saw your face in the newspapers or heard your name sounded out in voices I never remembered.

You were everywhere, then – in every newspaper, on every radio channel, the syllables of your name tumbling out of the mouth of almost every person I spoke to. You were a constant, invisible weight on my chest wherever I went; you ran ahead of me, childlike and gleeful, down the corridors of Hogwarts, beating me to the staff room, to the dinner table, where you would entice Horace or Silvanus to regurgitate your mantras, your words, your fervent, spotless ideologies.

You were dragging me back to that summer – to the glory and the beauty and the bitter gall of it – and I was more afraid of the coming ascent than the fall I could feel myself slowly tipping towards.

Years and years, it took me to recover from you, and even then I only managed to bury you shallowly, in an open casket, your chest still rattling, your body still warm, the shovel clattering to the ground in the seconds I stole to flee as far away as I could.

It had not, I discovered then, been anywhere near enough, not for love.

I stopped reading newspapers, I begged out of eating dinner in the Great Hall, I avoided the staff room: I surrounded myself in radio silence of you and still you curled up in my lap, leaning your head in the crook of my neck and dropped a lit match down my throat.

Seeing you living your dreams, fulfilling your – our – ambitions and creating your own, longed for world where I had not yet managed to reunite the parts of myself, it teased open wounds I had thought healed, examining them with a lover’s caress and wiping away the tears it provoked.

At once, I was indescribably proud of what you had managed, of what I thought you would manage, and so very jealous that in comparison I had done so little.

You had weathered the storm, sinking rumours and shattering the world’s lazy naivety with the same absolute, enchanting certainty you had always had, and I had sunk, drowning slowly, steadily, peacefully, under the weight of being not English, not a man, not quite sure who exactly I was.

You challenged me and you threatened me, and the gauntlet was dropped on the table in that bar, hidden behind a haberdasher’s on the Brighton sea-front, abandoned for evenings overflowing with sugar-rimmed cocktails and nameless lines and curves, evenings when I could forget about the hunt for the pieces of myself, forget that I dreamed of adventure and thrills teaching could not provide me, forget that I still loved you and ached for you and breathed for you…

Alas, that such things are never clever and such remedies are always our most simple weaknesses.

(Alas, too, that I was brave enough to love you still, and foolish enough to think that a world could exist where that did not matter.) 

A/N: The phrase Albus asks the old man in the tailor's shop contains a reference to an old euphemism for homosexuality: gay men (and possibly women but I'm not sure on that front - I extended it to women as well here, though) in the UK would often ask 'are you a friend of Mrs King's?' as a kind of code to find out a man's preferences. So, both the name of the shop (King's Haberdasher's and Tailor's) and the 'password' Albus gives the old man are both references to that :) 

(Technically, it might not have been used in 1933 - but it was definitely used during the Second World War, so I extended it back in time to the early 1930s as well :P)

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