Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to that crazy billionaire woman. I might be crazy, but I'm definitely not a billionaire. And this noncommercial piece of fan fiction is unlikely to change anything about that. Which, come to think of it, sucks.
Introduction: Hullo. Yes, I'm still here, occasionally coming back to the mountain... hill... heap of unfinished Potter-related writings stuck in my Intel-powered typewriter with the whole-hearted and half-assed intention of finishing some more of those glaringly incomplete pieces that over the years have kept teasing me with their... glaring incompleteness. Unsurprisingly, this story is not one of them and was in fact started from scratch just earlier this year, whereas other stories of mine have been desperately awaiting their completion since around 2013. Alas, life was never meant to be fair.
The story before you is comprised of four scenes and was not intended to be separated into chapters. While I still prefer to see it as one continuous narration, faced with its relentlessly increasing length I eventually decided to split it into two parts for the sake of accessibility or readability or some such bility. Since scenes 1-3 together roughly equal scene 4 in length, it at least works out rather neatly like that.
Building on the canonical timeline, as I usually prefer to do, this story unintentionally ended up taking place in the spring of 2018. So it could have briefly been an authentic present tense sort of deal, were I not the lazy bum I undeniably am. This missed opportunity shall make a fine addition to my collection.
But enough about me and my bum. What have you guys been up to? Any of my usual suspects still around after all this time? Is there anyone still around? Hello? Hello-hooo?
Either way, here's something to read. Hope you like it. Bummer if you don't.
A Good Day in
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right...
Spring had finally blossomed. The remnant traces of winter's last stand had melted away almost two months ago, but the stubborn old gods of Albion had been wontedly reluctant to let the sun's first kiss touch the rolling hills and dormant meadows of Somerset. Yet after weeks of harsh winds and unceasing rain the leaden curtain had been lifted and at last the perpetually overcast sky had opened up, revealing a vibrant azure tapestry speckled with cumulus cotton balls, and in verdant lands underneath the vast firmament flower, beast and human alike were at once reawakened from their hibernal slumber.
The flowers, with their deceptive apathy, were in all colors known to man vying for the best spot in the sun's golden caress and the attention of busily buzzing and flamboyantly fluttering pollinators. The beasts were quick to pick up the very same game played merely with a slightly different set of tools, and mating calls from innumerable eager chests—some feathered and some haired—could be heard in every corner of the country, some of which were generally deemed more pleasant to the human ear than others, despite all of them truthfully speaking of the same unseemly thing.
Mrs Fairholme of Godric's Hollow, oldest and dearest resident of the bucolic village nestled unobtrusively into the countryside, meanwhile, was tending to her garden the very moment the first pastel rays of dawn softly whispered their matutinal greeting. Her famously meticulous garden work—famous, that is, as far as fame could be achieved in so small a community—surely wasn't as rambunctious a business as all that mating kerfuffle going around, but then again, Mrs Fairholme of Godric's Hollow was a solid seventy years detached from that particular part of her life, which at this annual time of ubiquitous courtship made her seem like just about the calmest being in the world.
A far more somber part of this seemingly impenetrable aura of serenity surrounding Elizabeth Fairholme these days was owed to the quiet passing of her husband of seventy-one years, three winters before. While Mrs Fairholme was in no way keen on joining the Hollow's prestigious (albeit entirely unofficial) club of centenarians, as some of the well-meaning townsfolk kept egging her on to do, she certainly didn't intend to idly sit by and wait for nature to take its dawdling course, either. There was still work to be done, after all. Occasionally, lo and behold, even one of her three children—or four, was it?—remembered that she was still hanging in there, as some so tastefully liked to put it.
Her life had largely been lived, and lived well for that matter. That she knew. The brightest light of her life had gone out with her dear Ernest's last breath. That much was clear. She would follow him soon enough, and without fear. But for now there was still some life to be had between her hearth and her garden, some joy to be found between the covers of the books her favorite neighbor kept bringing to her from the other end of town, some peace and quietude to be cherished and grief for her husband to be gracefully carried until death would come calling her to that last uncharted land. So for now she lived.
Her precious tulips were holding Mrs Fairholme's solicitous attention when from behind her she heard a genially spoken greeting with her name following after. She came up from her flowers and turned around, a bit slower than she used to back in the day, but still quite sprightly so for her formidable age. She had recognized the young man from the euphonious sound of his voice alone, of course, but she could also tell from that subtle lilt in it that he was smiling that kind smile of his, and that was always a sight worth seeing.
"Your garden is going to be beautiful this year," the visitor observed with an appraising look around from behind the white garden fence.
"How can you tell?" Mrs Fairholme asked in amusement with one gloved hand on her hip.
"Why, because it's beautiful every year."
The woman more than twice but not quite thrice his age laughed rather heartily at that. "I believe your wife would have to say something about that faulty line of reasoning, my dear lad."
An unburdened chuckle came rolling from the depth of the young man's chest. "That's because my lovely wife has something to say about everything, my dear Mrs Fairholme."
They shared a joyous moment filled with laughter young and old melded into one, and it gently transitioned into a comfortable sort of silence in which only the chirping voices of the birds and the susurration of wind and nearby water persisted. The man's refulgent eyes followed a butterfly fluttering by and remained cast upward at the pristine sky above, squinting against the sunlight and hence unaware of the way Mrs Fairholme was watching him attentively with deep wisdom in her wizened countenance.
After just a little while she asked, "How is she?"
With unaffected delay the man first started nodding his head, then returned his gaze to the elderly lady in front of him, a heartened smile returning to his lips. "Better," he said with one final nod. "A little better every day."
Mrs Fairholme inhaled deeply as she mirrored both his nodding and his smile—firmly, staunchly—and they exchanged a few more pleasantries thereafter that were too superficial to mean much and that meant too much to be entirely superficial before the man eventually went his way with words of parting and wave of hand, and that ever-disorderly yet strangely appealing shock of black hair disappeared step by step down the sloping dirt road and past the old briar patch.
All but imperceptible, the smallest of smiles lingered on Elizabeth Fairholme's life-wrinkled face as she watched him cross the crystalline stream via the stone arch bridge. Half a lifetime ago her husband had rebuilt that very bridge with the help of his brother William, after it had collapsed—having valiantly weathered the wear and tear of more than four centuries—in the fabled summer storm of 1973. Just in that moment, showing once again signs of age and perseverance, it struck Mrs Fairholme as more beautiful than perhaps it had ever been.
Her passing visitor vanished from sight between the cottages on the other side of the stream. He had always been such a fine lad, that young raven-haired man. So fundamentally decent. And sometimes, just now and then in some small way, he reminded her of her dearest Ernest, and with secret memories of her lifelong companion's warmth deep and true in her weary, plucky old heart she went back to her tulips.
Today, it just so seemed, would be a good day in Godric's Hollow.
There were four finely crafted cast iron benches with wooden slat seats placed around the Hollow's rather notable war memorial in town square, which in actuality was less of a square and more of a wobbly sort of circle. In its quaint entirety the open area was barely spacious enough to accommodate the dozen densely packed market stalls that were erected there at the break of dawn every Saturday. Surrounded by many of the township's most essential public venues and amenities—its universally cherished bakery, its splendiferous florist and of course the Godric Gryffindor Museum of Local and Less Apparent History (which Muggles commonly mistook for an exhibition of tall tales and folklore primarily aimed at children), as well as Finnigan's Wake, its finest and coincidentally only pub—it was, befitting of a proper town square, very much the beating heart of the Hollow's booming commerce and social life. Three of the resident Muggles, in their weekly state of immoderate intoxication, once dubbed it the Times Square of England's South West. It didn't catch on.
It was early afternoon on a Friday, but even without the weekly market the mellow spring sun and the faint yet oh so promising scent of freshly baked pies in the air were more than enough to entice the Hollow's denizens into various outside activities. Or at the very least activities that had them leaving their own dwellings in favor of entering some other building of their choice, like aforementioned pub for example. When it came to the right time of day to start drinking there truly was no time like the present, or so Winston Toller, the town's only non-anonymous alcoholic, would have you believe. Indeed, it was quite a busy day in Godric's Hollow, meaning that no fewer than eleven whole people could be seen at all times leisurely going about their business at town square or sauntering past the windows of bookstores and antique shops without much of a concrete purpose in mind, to say nothing of the other handful of chaps bimbling about elsewhere in town.
Right in the very center of all this downright boisterous commotion, on one of the four benches, a small human figure was in stark contrast to the general insouciance going about sitting morosely by himself, all but completely detached from the goings-on around him. Young Niall Scott Ingham held his arms firmly crossed over his small chest, like a shield between the world and himself. His brow was deeply furrowed, his jaw tightly clenched. His red cheeks were glistening moistly in the sunlight: half-smeared residue of tears angrily wiped away not too long ago. He would be ten years old a mere two days from now, and he was no longer a year away from attending Hogwarts.
The boy's sullen eyes absently followed the all too familiar man traversing the square after he appeared from underneath the striped awning of Morwenna's Corner Shoppe with a brown paper bag supported on one angled arm. The man was about to pass the memorial, tilting his head to glance up at the bronze statue on top of the granite plinth engraved with the names of the family sculptured above and all the natives and residents of the Hollow that had been lost in the war of 1998 and the tumultuous years leading up to it. The man's pace slowed, however, and the faint and somewhat absentminded smile on his features dropped the moment he noticed the boy on the bench. His expression turned thoughtful as he came to a halt. When the man proceeded to change direction and approach him, Niall averted his eyes and hastily wiped at his face with the sleeve of his red hoody again.
"Hey, titch," the man greeted him amiably. "What's got you looking like the weekend's over when it's really just beginning? School's out neither for summer nor forever, but at least for a couple of days..."
There was a pause long and inconclusive enough for the man to consider a different approach just when the boy finally spoke up in what for a bundle of near-inexhaustible energy like Niall Scott Ingham was an unusually meek voice. "I'll never be like you," he stated flatly, much to the man's subsequent puzzlement. That fundamentally impotent tone of defeat in the kid's voice instantly had the man reevaluating the severity of the situation. He knelt down, putting his paper bag aside on the ground, and looked intently up at the kid's troubled face. Niall somewhat listlessly glanced at the bag's contents and quickly decided he really wasn't interested in any vegetables right now. Or ever.
The man's voice was gentle when he spoke. "What do you mean?"
The boy sniffled and wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. "I'll never be like you," he repeated in the same dejected monotone. "I'll never be a wizard. Never'll be a Quidditch star. Never'll be a hero."
Confusion remained in the man's increasingly concerned expression. "What are you talking about? How do you—" And then it suddenly dawned on him. Everything became clear in an instant with that brutal blow straight to the gut that tends to deliver life's worst of realizations. He understood. Of course he did. In a small village like Godric's Hollow everybody knew everybody else to some extent, because—often for the better, sometimes maybe not—people actually talked to one another. He knew the Inghams better than most. He had listened to their woes and worries over tea and dinner on more than one occasion. He had tried to assuage them with the usual platitudes, for what else could he have done? And now reality had asserted itself once again in all its uncaring immutability.
When young Niall Ingham's bold blue eyes met his gaze, there was more painful knowledge, more jaded certainty in them than there should ever be found in the eyes of a child. The man knew without a vestige of doubt that what had once been a distant suspicion in the minds of his parents, what had soon turned into a foreboding fear lurking beneath the surface, had now at last materialized like a sinkhole right underneath their orderly lives. And with or without the translucent orbs of fresh tears gathering in those bold blue eyes, the boy's following words only served to make heard what was already known in two aching hearts out there in the Hollow's unevenly circular town square.
"I'm a squib," the not-quite-ten-year-old said with a quivering chin, and behind the man's glasses green eyes were glistening faintly with most genuine sympathy.
"Are you sure about that?" the man asked despite himself, his voice halting—almost cracking halfway through, knowing how pointless a question it was. Somehow he just knew it really was true this time.
The boy nodded his head and looked down at his small hands that lay loosely clasped in his lap. "We went to St Mungo's last week and they did some tests and talked about me a lot. Even Mary's shown first signs of magic, and she's just turned four. So my parents wanted the doctors to take a look at me and they did and then they took my blood with a needle too and today we went back to the hospital and got the results of the tests and I think they didn't want to tell me at first but I wanted to know so they did. They said that I don't have the jeans you need for magic or something and now I'm a squib! A stupid, useless squib!"
The man opened his mouth as if to speak, but saw that it was not yet the right moment. This, it struck him just then, was the first time the boy was getting all of this off his chest, and sometimes that just demanded to be properly done.
"All I ever wanted to be was a wizard hero like you," the boy expectedly continued. "I wanted to go to Hogwarts and learn all the spells and fight the evil wizards and maybe play some Quidditch too with Jonny and now it's all over! It's never even gonna happen! Everybody will laugh at me now because everybody laughs at squibs and my parents hate me and Mary too and she'll think I'm a joke and go to Hogwarts and learn all the spells and what will I do? I'm nothing now! Nothing!"
The man had listened attentively as all this pent-up anger, pain and frustration came pouring out of that desperate young heart in front of him. He could see the chest underneath the boy's folded arms going up and down in the furious rhythm of emotional exertion.
"Do you really believe that?" he softly asked the boy after a moment's careful consideration.
Niall seemed hesitant, a child's weary mind at strife with itself. In the end he merely shrugged his still rather tiny shoulders. The Ingham boy had always leaned towards the scrawny side of physique, no matter how much chocolate cake he practically inhaled at any given opportunity. Much like the man he was talking to had at his age, though rarely he had been permitted to partake of such culinary delights as chocolate cake in the house he had been so blessed to grow up in...
"I might be wrong here," the man mused aloud, "but I've always been under the impression that no person is just a single thing and nothing more than that. So how can you be nothing if I still see the same brave Niall in front of me whose friend I've been so lucky to be for years now? Or are you saying you aren't even my friend anymore?"
"Of course not!" Niall was quick to object, and quite emphatically so. "I'll always be your friend."
"A-ha!" the man vocalized his modest sense of triumph in appropriate moderation. "So then the doctors didn't suddenly turn you into nothing after all..."
"I guess not," the boy allowed with some understandable reluctance. "But I didn't wanna be just anything. I wanted to be special."
"Well, statistically speaking—" the man began at once, then quickly bit his tongue. Suppressing an inopportune smile that was about to sneak its way onto his lips at the thought of how much he sounded like his wife sometimes, he cleared his throat and hastily amended, "Never mind. You are special, titch, whether you're a wizard or not. You think all wizarding folk are special just by virtue of being wizarding folk? Most people in the world aren't even aware they exist, and among themselves very few of them qualify as special, as far as their wand-waggling capabilities are concerned. Between you and me," and he leaned a bit closer, his voice dropping into a surreptitious whisper, "most of them honestly are about as good at casting spells as I am at singing."
That at least got a genuine if short-lived giggle out of the boy, and the man secretly counted that as a success, or at the very least a first glimpse of one, for too soon the fleeting mirth in Niall's eyes was gone again, banished by reemerging despondency.
"But what about you?" he mumbled, arms still crossed and brow again creased in defiance, eyes fixed on a nondescript spot on the ground. "You're special."
"Me?" the man calmly replied. "I was mainly made so very special by this." And he pointed at the statue behind him, the head of the boy swirling up to follow his gesture. "The man who did that? Who took my parents from me and gave me this special mark?" He pointed at the prominent scar on his forehead, partly covered but never quite hidden by wayward strands of hair. "Now he was something else. Truly exceptional, no doubt about it. Gifted like few before him and perhaps none since. Almost without equal. And what did he do with all that extraordinary talent, that immense potential?" The man paused, scrutinizing Niall closely, the boy's mind hard at work behind expectant eyes. "No, titch. That's not who you wanna be. You're better than that. You don't want to hurt anyone. You want to be brave and strong so that you can help those who need you. And that's what makes you special in your own way. A better way."
Niall thought about all of that for a moment, and there seemed to be quite a lot to think about. "So..." he eventually and a bit hesitantly voiced his conflicted thoughts. "So you don't think I'm gonna be useless to everybody now? I don't wanna be like that greasy old janitor at Hogwarts. Isn't that all that squibs are good for?"
The man exhaled a weak sigh, his heart going out to the boy. "First of all, you need to stop thinking of yourself as a squib that way before it turns into a bad habit. Don't let that one thing define who you are or what you can be, and don't obsess over labels like that. There's always a sense of failure in that word, too, and you didn't fail at anything." He gave the boy a moment to absorb this perhaps not entirely unimportant point. "And secondly, not even Mr Filch is useless... although—admittedly—he does tend to be rather greasy. But that's got nothing to do with him being a squib." He put a comforting hand on Niall's knee, giving it an encouraging squeeze and a playful little shake. "Hey, no way are you ever going to be useless with all that fire in your heart. There's so much you can do, titch. So much. Life's too short to do it all, trust me."
"What about Mary, though?" the boy asked, uncertainty clinging to his mind. "What's a proper witch like she's gonna be ever gonna need a squib brother for?"
"Magic, shmagic," the man scoffed with a dismissive wave of his hand. "There are more important things, like friendship and bravery. And you have both of those to offer in spades. Little Mary's going to need her big brother to be there for her in times to come, so you'd better be ready. The greatest challenges in life are rarely overcome with a flick of a wand. Magic won't help you when it comes to beating me in Mario Kart. You're gonna have to work for that."
The boy's crossed arms loosened up minimally, but perceptibly. "Being a wizard would've been pretty neat though, still."
The man contorted his face into an overstated grimace of doubt. "Eh," he complemented with a shrug. "Personally, I've always struggled to take anyone seriously who waggles a tiny stick in the air while spouting word salad like a total nutter. Including myself."
Niall giggled even more merrily than before, and the man was incredibly glad to hear it. "But you totally were cool. You were a real hero."
The man chuckled. "Ouch," he then feigned deepest hurt. "What do you mean, were?"
"Now you're just old and boring," the boy teased him with a spark of joyous mischief in his bright eyes, laughing now in earnest at the man's comically shocked expression.
"Well," the man pointedly said when he was done shaking his head at the little rascal, "maybe you're right, though. I mean, it has been an awfully long time since I've been either a Quidditch star or a hero, if I ever even was either one of those to begin with. And yet, somehow, here I still am. Funny how that goes. And you know what?"
"These past few years, boring as they may seem to some cheeky yobs around here," and he poked the giggling boy's ribs, "also happen to have been the best of my life, and don't you doubt it for a minute. I'm a husband and father, a friend and neighbor... a mediocre Quidditch coach. But a decent cook, if I do say so myself. Which, come to think of it, really begs the question why I'm earning my Galleons doing the former rather than the latter..."
"You're a great coach!" Niall fiercely disagreed with the man's sober self-assessment. "You can still win the championship this year, if you don't waste all your time cooking and stuff."
The man laughed. "I'll keep that in mind as I lay out my plans for the rest of the season. Less cooking, more coaching. Gotcha."
They shared a cheerful little moment which soon progressed into a reflective sort of silence, almost-ten-year-old Niall Scott Ingham doing some serious soul-searching as one or two of the Hollow's busy citizens walked by unobtrusively, in passing greeting the two familiar neighbors with amicable smiles. The man, despite managing to reciprocate the greetings, was quite ruminative himself, absently running an index finger along the line of his jaw from ear to chin. He had a feeling in which particular roundabout the boy's mind might be stuck.
"You're still trying to come up with a fail-safe way for you to be super special, aren't you?"
Immediately the boy's sunken head shot up, bobbing rapidly up and down.
The man found it impossible to entirely suppress the laughter rising in his chest. He took a deep breath. "Okay," he stated. "So, magic may be cool, it may be silly—jury's still out on that—but either way you kind of think that witches and wizards are special regardless, because there are so few of them, right?"
The boy gave a single nod of affirmation.
"So they are special because they're rare," the man went on to discover where exactly he was going with this. "It's a reasonable definition of the word, I'll give you that. But you see, Muggles aren't just one big group of identical people either, you know? There are lots of different groups among them, too. I mean, a family is a group as well, right? Maybe the most important one we can belong to. The community of this town is a group. A particularly wild bunch, that one. But if we're talking activities, well, Muggles have their wizards too, in a way. And they've got groups, like professions, that have by far fewer members than the group that consists of all the wizarding folk in the world, making them even more special, going with your definition, than witches and wizards and their weird obsession with wooden sticks."
The man's eyes wandered up towards the brilliant sky above them as if in search of something, and astonishingly enough he actually appeared to have found some thing or another.
"Astronauts, for example," he all but blurted out, his gaze at once turning back to the boy. "Do you have any idea how many astronauts there have been that actually went all the way up there into space? To the moon, even?"
Niall shook his head, his absolutely undivided, saucer-eyed attention all on the man in front of him. "How many?"
"Well," the man answered and drifted off aimlessly, and for a moment the word just hung in the air between them without anywhere else to go. Licking his lips and canting his head from one side to the other, the man slowly caught up with the markedly inconvenient fact that he had not entirely thought this one through. "Not a whole lot," he then added for want of any more satisfying alternatives. "I can tell you that much. Which isn't exactly very much, but... at any rate, the number of wizarding folk in the world at any point in time is by far larger than the number of astronauts that have ever been to space. Not even close. And so that would be just one of the many ways for you to be as special as you want to be without a semi-reliable sparkler in your hand all year round."
Niall mulled that one over for a bit.
"All I'm saying is," the man took the opportunity to elaborate further, "you don't need to be a wizard in order to be special. And that's the truth. There are so many ways to be special or to be part of something special in some way or another, Niall. You just have to find your own, and it'll come to you in time."
"I could be an astronaut," Niall whispered quite momentously, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"Well, uh... sure, I suppose," the man agreed somewhat vaguely, puzzled to see the boy hopping off the bench already, by all appearance fully prepared for his imminent job interview at NASA. "I mean, it was really just meant as an example, you know? My point was... what I said it was, I think. You see, there's lots of things you could potentially—"
"Thanks!" Niall gave him a brief hug, nearly as heartfelt as it was fundamentally impatient, then swirled around on the spot and skipping down the street happily announced to the world, "I'm going to be an astronaut!"
"Oh boy," the man sighed with a hand raking through his black hair. Yet unavoidably a grin spread on his features as he watched young Niall Scott Ingham darting off with those yet-to-properly-grow legs, and quietly he mumbled to himself, "Just don't forget your protein pills, titch."
And past his parents snugly seated on rattan garden chairs with a small round table between them little Niall bounced straight into the Ingham residence of 12 Rose Petal Road, repeating his enthusiastic proclamation so that they too would know what's up. And Mr and Mrs Ingham, having their troubled conversation about their beloved son disrupted in this wildly unforeseeable manner by the very subject of their discussion, found themselves perplexedly staring at each other with amusement burgeoning on their faces, momentarily dispelling all their concerns.
Today, against all odds, was turning out to be a good day in Godric's Hollow.
Thomas Halen was standing rigidly in the soft vernal breeze, his long arms straight and stiff at his flanks, his head slightly inclined. The lone man's shadow like a dark, diaphanous shroud lay on the arrangement of fresh flowers at his booted feet, dulling their otherwise so vivid hues. His shadow's elongated head hung heavily in the very center of the white marble headstone before him, partly covering the name of one Demelza Kyne engraved thereon: the girl whose life the man had taken over twenty years ago. And beneath her name were numbers of a kind that in some better place than this would never be read on the lithic sentinels of a human being's last rest: 1989-1996.
Halen had visited the grave for eight consecutive years now, ever since he had been released from Azkaban, and always on the same spring day: the anniversary of the day Demelza Kyne's sweet voice had within one cruel instant been cut off in an irreversible flash of green, never to be heard again. Few ever came here, for few were left to come. Demelza's most faithful company in silence everlasting lay to both her sides: her mother to her left, her older sister and her father to her right. Locals still tended to the family grave as a matter of course and without ostentation, for the Kynes had been part of the community, and in the Hollow no such thing was easily forgotten. On occasion, to that day, a solitary passer-by paused and for a moment stood in quiet remembrance at these four headstones, but only Thomas Halen did so every year on the same spring day.
A harsher gust of wind like one of winter's last stragglers descended upon him then, tugging at his tattered old coat and sweeping him out of his tenebrous ruminations. A human figure squatting at a grave on a slightly lower slope of the cemetery hill caught his eye: the only living soul there among the dead, Halen thought to himself. He recognized the man almost instantly even with his back turned Halen's way. He knew the grave, and he knew the man. He knew them all too well. He considered retreating, stealing away unseen and unheard like the fugitive he had never ceased to be, yet even as the thought lingered in his mind in restless wait for an answer, the other man rose to his full height and after a brief moment's pause turned around and came ambling up the stepping stone path into Halen's direction, as yet unaware of him.
He would so nearly have passed him by without a tale to tell, if not for the ever-fateful play of happenstance. But just so an involuntary twitch went through Halen's body right in that moment, drawing attention where it was not desired, and when the two men were for one fleeting instant shoulder to shoulder their eyes briefly met. Two slowing steps past the motionless man the passer-by stopped in his tracks. There was silence for a while, and little movement. The wind's low murmur rose to a rustle in the leaves of a lone oak tree on the top of the Hollow's most silent hill, but soon blew on and died away, all but muting the world completely.
"Thomas Halen," was all the man said, having turned around to look at the person he therewith addressed.
Halen gave a weak nod, his posture and orientation unchanged. He had trouble finding his voice at first, for seldom he sought it nowadays. "Wasn't sure you'd rec'nize me," he managed eventually, the sound of his own voice, once cast across his chapped lips with some considerable effort, coarse and strange in his ears. Unsettling even.
"I've seen you here before," the other man revealed. "Couple of years back. Read the article in the Prophet when you were released, too. Saw the pictures. I've always been pretty good with faces, I suppose."
Again Halen nodded, in an ambiguous and barely pertinent sort of way. "Been comin' here every year," he listened to himself speak, unable to discern where the words were even coming from, "though I'm not all sure why anymore." He paused. Hesitance, then capitulation. "The first time, I think, was little more than some mechanical... act o' contrition, yeah? Seekin' penance, that the word? Think it was some sense o' havin' t'do it that drove me more than a real sort o' choice, y'now? A year later, close t'madness back then, I returned lookin' for... man, I don't even 'member what it was. Some kind o' answer? A way out, perhaps? Forgiveness?" He scoffed, having virtually spat out that last word in contempt. "But there's none t'be found in a grave. Think that's the only answer I ever got standin' here. Asked her a lot o' questions o'er the years, I did, but that's the only answer I ever got."
He paused, then turned around to face the would-be passer-by for the first time. The latter, despite identifying Halen on the briefest of sideways glances a minute before, nevertheless found himself startled at the frontal sight of this haggard husk of a human being in front of him: the pallid skin of his face stretched tautly over the bones of his skull, dark circles around sunken eyes and untimely streaks of gray in his matted shock of dirty blond hair. Halen, despite in actuality being a few years younger than him, would easily have passed as several years his senior. He looked, it struck the other man, actually worse than he had in the pictures he remembered.
There was some faint potential of an attractive man underneath that disconcerting exterior, perhaps even the face of a rock star destined to adorn the cluttered bedroom walls of swooning adolescent girls around the world. But he was too far gone from any such potential and looked instead as if he had never gotten out of Azkaban, or left most of himself behind there where Dementors undying forever feast on the unliving.
"Think others would know me too if they saw me here?" Halen asked, the tone of his voice too flat and anodyne to make him seem overtly anxious. "Wouldn't wanna make anyone uncomfortable, or 'rouse their anger or somethin'."
"Nobody would give you any trouble even if they were to recognize you," the other assured him. "They may not bear much love for you in their hearts, but I doubt there was ever any violence in this town that wasn't brought upon it from outside. Ignoring the great pub brawl of '09, of course. Winston Toller lost his pride, and David Ingham lost a contact lens. Neither of which has been recovered to this day."
An evanescent ghost of a smile flashed over Halen's thin and brittle lips, gone without a trace before ever reaching his vagrant eyes. He remained lost in scattered thoughts for a moment, vacillating between the risk of curiosity and the safety of routine, like someone who is seeking answers but is frightened to find them. "What 'bout you?" he at last relented. "Think me bein' here is wrong somehow? Unappropriate?"
The other man shook his head in the negative. "I think that's none of my business. A place of remembrance should be open to anyone who is either unwilling or unable to forget, regardless of where they come from. This is no court of justice, and you faced yours a long time ago."
Halen gave a pensive nod. "Justice, yeah." Something of a hollow, twisted corpse of a chuckle raspily escaped his dry throat. "Prolly takes a bigger mind than me own to figure out what that's s'posed t'be. Not sure I've ever seen a whole lot of it 'round. Not in the places I've been, anyways. Is it justice that I'm standin' up here, y'think, and she's lyin' down there?"
The other man shifted his weight from one leg to the other, discreetly redistributing the weight of the brown paper bag in his arm. "I'm not sure I can answer that, Thomas."
"Sorry," Halen offered with a slight bow of the head, as undeniably clumsy as it seemed to be sincere. "Didn't mean no offense or nothin'."
"It's fine," said the other man. "I just don't think it's my place to be the judge of these matters. I have my opinions, of course, but I suspect you're asking me for more than that. And that I cannot give you."
Halen appeared grateful, as much as any such distinct disposition could be gleaned from his perturbingly torpid mien. It was more in the subtle way his body appeared to relax, marginally but visibly. "Guess I always 'xpected you'd be more spiteful 'wards... someone like me. Hateful, even. Wouldn't hold it 'gainst you, neither."
His jaws incessantly were hard at work, as much at odds with one another as the chambers of his heart. "Still bear the mark, y'know?" He touched his lower left arm with his bony and in multiple spots darkly bruised right hand, and the other man's attentive eyes followed his gesture without giving away the nature of a single thought behind them. "Tried t'remove it once. Others did too, or so I heard. But it always comes back if y'do. Even tried cuttin' out the skin 'neath it." He shook his head, slowly. "It's faded a bit o'er the years since then. Not sure it's ever goin' t'go away completely, but now I've a big ugly scar t'remind me, so I guess it don't matter much no more. Don't know I deserve t'be rid of it, anyhow."
The other man gave him a neutral look of acknowledgment but otherwise did not respond, leaving Thomas Halen to awkwardly clear his throat as he scratched the patchy stubble on his concave cheeks.
"You sure you don't hate me?" he asked with a helpless attempt at a smile that inevitably turned out crooked in all the wrong ways, and it soon fizzled out like a dying candle on its last flicker. He nervously gnawed on his lower lip with yellow if not yet rotten teeth.
"I am," the man replied. "I don't hate you, and I never have. I'd never even heard your name until I read that article in the Prophet years ago. I knew of the raid on the Kyne house before and that it was led by the Carrows, but not who else was involved." He took a deep breath, its exhalation a prolonged sigh. "There was a whole lot I hated a long time ago, but there's little of all that hate left in me now." He shrugged his shoulders, causing some indistinct metallic clatter in the bag on his arm. "No room for it."
A grunt came from Halen, hard to read in its meaning. "Hate was all I had, man. Thought it made me stronger. Tougher. Made people 'fraid o' me. Hate was the only thing I loved... till I saw with me own eyes what good it did. Too late, o' course. Always too damn late, eh?" A noticeable tremor went through his long limbs, perhaps just a chill. He exhaled a quavery breath, then bit down on his bottom lip again as if to steady it. His eyes ended up fixed on the spot of earth where Demelza lay buried, and the seconds went on by. Somewhere in the distance beyond the hill a child's voice cried out in joy and a dog happily barked a couple of times. Briefly there was laughter of at least two human voices, then nothing again.
"Wish I could bring her back, y'know?" Halen whispered scarcely loud enough for the other man to hear. "Still do, every day. Wish it so much it hurts, an' it's the only feelin' I got left. Everythin' else is just numb. If I could somehow trade me fuckin' worthless life for hers, I'd do it in a flash. No hesitation, man—I bloody mean it. Think of all the things she could've been an' done." He snorted and wiped his nose with the stained sleeve of his coat. "But there she is... and here I am."
The reflective look in the other man's eyes persisted even as they wandered off and up to that mighty old oak, its lobed leaves bathing in the spring sun. For quite a while neither of them spoke another word. Then, on a sharp intake of air, something intangible seemed to jerk Halen out of his thoughts all of a sudden, as if he had drifted so far off he had momentarily forgotten all around and perhaps within him.
"Beg your pardon, sir," he stammered with a touch of embarrassment. "Didn't mean t'be rude, takin' up all your time like this."
"Not at all," the other reassured him levelly. "It was me who approached you, if you recall, not the other way around."
"Yeah, sure, but irregardless," Halen sputtered on, making a noncommittal step backward, "I'd best leave y'be now an' be on me way, I reckon."
The man with the brown paper bag readjusted his glasses with thumb and index finger routinely at one rimless lens. "Where's that way of yours leading to, if you don't mind my asking?"
Burying his hands deep in the frayed pockets of his coat, Halen gave an indifferent shrug as he retreated another small step. "Somewhere. Nowhere."
The man pursed his lips and raised his chin. "Haven't found Elsewhere yet, huh?"
Halen looked up, his evasive eyes for once fully focused; for the first time during their chance encounter the two men's eyes truly met, and some implicit understanding seemed to be exchanged between the two that likely neither of them had expected to find. "Been wonderin' for a long time now if the past ever ends, y'know?" Thomas Halen expressed. "But I figure it's not s'posed to for the likes o' me."
"I don't think it ever really does for anyone," the man replied, his eyes following a scattering of flocculent white clouds that lazily drifted across the vast blue sky on unhasting winds. "It only ever dies with us, and usually not even then completely, depending on what we leave behind in this world. If you spend your life trying to kill your past, all you'll ever achieve is looking like a fool."
Halen kept grinding his teeth as he considered the other's words. "But what if... what if your past is too bloody awful t'live with? What if your past is killing you?"
The bespectacled man breathed audibly in and even more loudly out, and much to the puzzlement of his raddled interlocutor went on to calmly take a seat on the weathered old wood bench to his side, opposite of the Kyne graves and those contiguous to them. He put the brown paper bag down on the ground between his legs, leaving the remaining space of the bench conspicuously unoccupied.
"Getting old, I guess," he then commentated on his own behavior, eliciting a more honest, almost lively chuckle from Halen, who still stood there not knowing what exactly to do with this decidedly unexpected turn of events.
"Aren't even forty yet, are you?"
"Thirty-eight this summer."
Halen contorted his mouth and nodded. "Close 'nough, I s'pose."
The man leaned forward, supporting his elbows on his knees. Absently plucking at a loose thread that he found protruding from underneath a sleeve button of his white linen shirt, he asked, "Do you happen to know where I live, Thomas?"
"Your parents' house, right?" Halen answered with an unprecedented semblance of enthusiasm permeating his whole demeanor, by all appearance rather pleased to know anything at all. "The place where they—" He stopped abruptly, then cleared his throat abashedly and turned his head to the side to hide his face from view, a tinge of red emerging on the stretch of skin above his sharp cheekbones.
"Where they were murdered, yes," the man completed the aborted utterance. "The last place they called home." He paused for a moment, his eyes fixed on his steepled fingers. "I was hesitant to go back there for a long time, even while the vague idea was always hovering about somewhere at the back of my mind, whether I admitted it to myself or not. My godfather once told me how much my parents had loved the place. How they had immediately felt right at home there. Like they belonged. Despite the fact that it was meant to be no more than a temporary hideout, originally. Still, in the first fifteen years of knowing who I actually was I came here just one time, and then only of necessity. For some subconscious reason I shunned it." He looked up at Halen then. "You are trapped in the past, I used to avoid it like the plague. Two ways of going wrong, I'd say."
Halen had listened intently, yet remained firmly rooted to the spot three safe steps away from the bench, negotiating, deliberating with himself. The other man stayed where he was, just sitting there with his elbows still on his knees and showing no inclination to stand up again any time soon. His gaze was directed at some indeterminate point in the distance, his fingers still twiddling inconsequentially with the sleeve button of his shirt. The bench did not look particularly inviting on its own merits, but the man did not appear to be outright uncomfortable on it, either.
And so, after a while, Thomas Halen, much in the manner of some wild animal unaccustomed to human contact, first made half an uncertain step forward and then at last closed the distance to the bench to timidly sit down at its unoccupied end, all but pressed into the rickety armrest and leaving enough empty space between the two men for three more. Hunching his shoulders with his hands still in the pockets of his coat, he shuffled his well-worn brown leather boots in the dirt beneath the bench for a bit. Without intent he ended up kicking a small stone with the scuffed tip of his boot and was embarrassed all over again when it inelegantly bounced off of one of the graves on the other side of the path.
"So now y'live there," he quickly picked up where he felt they had left off in his best approximation of a casual conversation.
"Yes," the man confirmed, folding his hands. Three seconds passed in perfect quietude as distant memories resurfaced like long-lost photographs, their colors faded under coats of dust but their meaning yet unclouded. "Eventually I... heeded its call, if you will. But for years prior I preferred to stay far away from it all. Rented a random flat right in the urban heart of London for a year that had no connection to me or my past at all. There was no magic in it, literally and figuratively, and maybe I needed that for a while. When Voldemort fell and all I was marked to do was finally done, I found myself wondering, for the first time in my life, what I might want to do. And at first I didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with that."
Halen nodded his understanding. The man smiled to himself as he went forth, "My best friend, of course, very much wished to properly finish her education at Hogwarts, whereas I had trouble seeing any benefit in that for myself. Didn't do a whole lot for a little while, but eventually and against my initial reservations I picked up the Knights of Kernow on their offer and became a professional Quidditch player mid-season. Got off to a bit of a rough start there... but let's not get into that."
A grin flickered over Halen's lips so briefly it was easily missed, and the man continued, "The following year, which my best friend and I spent mostly apart from one another, turned out to be the year in which we came to realize what we truly meant to each other. Took us a while. Didn't waste much time before I asked her to marry me, though, and never was I more certain of anything. Life was good for a while. Really, really good. I was slowly but surely becoming who I am; the pieces of my life seemed to be falling into place. And I came so close to reaching the peak, the summit, the very top, as I perceived it back then: that sodding world cup! Would've been the first time for Britain in half a century. Merlin's arse, so damn close! Quarter final, safely in the lead, about to get substituted. And then my injury happened."
"Yeah, I read 'bout that," Halen remarked. "Not when it happened, o' course. Was still in... in Azkaban then. But later I did. Must've been pretty brutal."
The man shrugged his shoulders. "Got lucky, though. Evaded the permanent wheelchair by a hair's breadth. Not that I felt particularly lucky at that moment."
"Can imagine. You were pretty good, weren't you?"
The man smiled. "I had my moments."
"Would've been brill to see 'em," said Halen. "Used t'love Quidditch when I was a wee lad. Shite you had t'give it up in your prime like that, man."
"Yeah, well. Felt like I had lost everything at first," the man remembered, absentmindedly turning the single ring on his left hand between thumb and middle finger of his right. "And then, with a new day, my wife was suddenly pregnant, blowing that kind of nonsense right out of my mind. We weren't exactly planning it at the time, weren't yet sure how it would all fit together, but I guess that's how life goes sometimes. And it was that very moment when I knew, from one second to the next, really, that I had to rebuild the only house in which I had ever lived as part of my own family, to make it so again. I finally got it. It was the right thing to do, and I couldn't wait to get started."
He leaned back with a shrug, forgetting his intention of keeping his immaculate white shirt as far away from the soiling threat of the backrest as possible. "Some would deem it morbid or macabre, I assume," he went on, "Someone at the Daily Prophet surely did and promptly informed the eagerly interested rest of our tiny underworld about it in her precious weekly column. Maybe I would even share the sentiment to some extent if I had been older when it all happened, and could remember seeing them... lying there, wherever it ended. Maybe that would have been too much to bear. I never asked anyone where exactly they were found. But I know my father was downstairs and my mother upstairs with me. And that breaks my heart a little bit every time I think of it, you know? That they didn't even get to die in each other's arms, like they should have. But they tried to fight—tried to fight something so far beyond their power. And of course they did. They were parents. It's what you do."
His voice cracked ever so slightly, and he inconspicuously wiped at the corner of his eye with the tip of his middle finger. He softly cleared his throat and went on with a steadied voice, "When I see that cottage nowadays, somehow death is the last thing on my mind. Which is funny, in a way, considering for the longest time it was likely the only thing that people thought or spoke of in regard to it. It was defined by tragedy. But when I look at it I think of my godfather's words, and I hear their laughter, see their joy and feel their love. It's all in there, and it's all in me. And I honestly never felt closer to my parents, never felt more at home than the moment I started working on that house with my hormonally unstable wife and our future child at my side. Mere weeks after feeling as if my life had ended all over again, I saw it beginning all anew right in front of my eyes. Like dear old Fawkes rising from his own ashes. I saw it mending and starting to make sense once more."
Fully immersed in his reminiscence now, the man's words were flowing on, pouring out of him like a stream of time and memory, and Thomas Halen never took his unguarded eyes off of him, leaning closer ever so slightly with one elbow on the backrest and his hands loosely clasped in the air. "But scars remain, even as wounds heal," the man kept telling his story. "You know that as well as I do. The northeastern part of the upper floor was completely ripped apart by whatever inhuman power Tom's first demise unleashed. A little more, I think, and the entire house would've collapsed.
"I think we did rather a fine job fixing it all up, if I do say so myself. Had a lot of help, too. But there's this one spot, you see, which I really only noticed months after it was all done. And I'm getting dangerously close now to arriving at some kind of a point here. See, there's this... ghost of a crack in the wall where it once was blown apart. Not a physical one, I think. You can't feel it underneath your fingertips. Not really. The closer you get, in fact, the fainter it appears. It's like an almost imperceptible shadow that sometimes seems to be gone for good, only to catch my eye in a certain kind of light again on another day.
"I tried to paint over it once or twice. Made the newly painted line stand out more than the stupid ghost crack I tried to get rid of." He chuckled, and with a second's delay Halen joined him. "Ended up repainting the entire room, naturally. And finally, at long last a wiser man, I learned to accept it. It's part of the house, part of my home. It's not going anywhere, and that's okay." And he turned his head then, tearing his eyes away from some faraway place to look directly at the former convict sitting next to him on that moldy old bench. "I think the past can only end when you use the present to build a future. When at least some part of the here and now is a building block of tomorrow. You can't ever erase the past, Thomas. You can only build on top of it. Sometimes you'll have to work around it a little bit, but if you stray too far from the foundation nothing you'll ever build will last. It'll be no more than a cheap façade, toppled by the first breeze."
The man who had taken a life and never found his own thought about that for a while, until at last his head swinging slowly from side to side presaged a dismal conclusion. "I don't know, man. I just don't know. What's there t'build on for me? What'm I s'posed t'do with these kinds o' ruins? There's been a lot o' pain in your life. Like a real lot. Ups 'n' downs 'n' all. I get that—I do. But pain y'can build on, right? Pain y'can heal or deal with or somethin'. But all this guilt an' shame—this kind o' cold, tight guilt I carry 'round with me? If that's all you got? How'm I s'posed t'build 'round that? It's too damn big, man. Too fuckin' ugly. Nothin's ever gonna last on top o' that, an' prolly nothin' should."
"I don't have your guilt," the other man replied, "but I have mine. People died because of me. People died for me, so that I could live on. And I too have killed people. In war, in self-defense or to protect others. Because they were the bad guys, because this, because that—blah blah blah." He scoffed bitterly. "I once saw a Death Eater throwing away her mask and crying—weeping and screaming so desperately over a fellow Death Eater hanging limply in her arms. I was all but paralyzed for a moment, struck by that incomprehensible scene before me and transfixed to the spot in the middle of an ongoing battle, and I remember thinking to myself, 'What an utterly awful mess of a world we inhabit.'
"You can rationalize it all you want, but in the end there's still the unavoidable truth that I have killed human beings. And whether they were or weren't the best our kind has to offer—and how arrogant would I have to be to presume I am?—it nevertheless weighs on my conscience and it always will. Because I didn't just put an end to what they were, but to everything else they possibly could've, might've been. Maybe something better yet. Guess we'll never know."
Halen's eyes, shadowed under a deeply furrowed brow, had strayed off and eventually found their way back to the headstone of Demelza Kyne, the smooth white marble well-nigh blindingly bright in the sunlight. "But people forgive you for it," he muttered in a weak voice.
"Do they?" the man rejoined. "Well, maybe they shouldn't. I certainly don't. Maybe forgiveness has become a bit too convenient a thing. I for one firmly believe there are some things we as humans do that are fundamentally unforgivable. Those curses are named that way for a reason. I forgive my friend for being an incorrigible dunce sometimes. I forgave my children for making the kitchen floor the canvas of their newest crayon masterpiece once. I forgave my wife for eating the last of my favorite Christmas biscuits without sharing. But killing a fellow human being... willfully ending a life like that?"
He shook his head. "No," he said, resolutely. "No. There's no forgiveness for that. No letters of indulgence. No easy way out. The only person who could possibly have the right and the power to forgive you is the one you killed. There are always loved ones left behind in mourning. Wounds that even infinity won't heal. And as long as there's at least one soul out there unwilling or unable to forgive us, who the fuck are we to forgive ourselves so readily? Nobody, not a single human being that ever was or shall be, gets through this mess we call life with a clean slate. Everyone ends up tainted in some way or another. Battered if not broken, scarred if not disfigured. And we'd better bear the scars of the wounds we inflict on others without excuses before we start talking about that all-you-can-eat buffet of absolution everybody is so fond of frequenting for a Knut and a half."
More agitated than he had either intended or expected to get, the man tried to calm the turmoil in his chest as he threw a sidelong glance Halen's way and found him sunken back into himself, his shoulders sagging, his head hanging low between them. His unwashed hands, scarred and scabbed underneath all the accumulated dust and grime, lay folded in his lap as if in prayer.
"Damn it, Thomas," the man cursed to the heavens, his voice subdued. "Damn it all to hell! I know your story, as well as I can without ever having heard it in your own voice. I know you were more child than man, an impressionable youth. I know how lost you were, searching for something to give you meaning and purpose and power in a life without either purchase or direction. You were the perfect recruit for the next best cause: a promising but so malleable mind, a forsaken and oh so breakable soul. I fully realize you were as much a victim of their cult as you were its newest initiate. I understand you were deceived, used and coerced, and I don't see a reason to suspect your remorse is anything but genuine. I wouldn't be talking to you if it were any other way. I know the hand that held the killing wand was yours, but the will that made you scream those words out into the world was not your own, for you had no will to speak of. I can imagine the tears burning in your eyes as that fatal incantation left your throat, and I know how desperately you wanted to be part of something greater than yourself even as you witnessed your own self breaking apart in that moment of annihilation.
"But Thomas, you swore an oath, you pledged allegiance to the man who killed my parents in cold blood, and countless others before and after them. Perhaps you didn't truly know what you were doing, and maybe there is some degree of exculpation to be found therein. But I also know as well as you that before it was too late, before it was all lost in that one defining moment, and before you came face to face with the devastating consequences of your own confusion, there were times when you were fully ensnared by his corrosive promises, his compelling vision... his greatness. There were moments of rapture and utter conviction, am I not right? There was exhilaration in your newfound purpose. For a little while you reveled in that invigorating sense of superiority, and you bore his mark with pride. Until you killed a seven-year-old girl because you knew if you didn't, the Carrows would've killed you both."
Not even the most miniscule of motions seemed to course through Halen's body as he sat there listening to the telling of his own story, taking it all in, weighed down but never cowering away, utterly frozen in place as the uncaring world kept on turning around him. The only thing which in that collapsing moment gave away that there was life in him yet were the hot tears that one after another were falling down directly from his closed eyes onto his hands, where running on they left behind stark trails of exposed skin in the smudges of long-dried dirt.
"The fact that you are incapable of forgiving yourself," the man spoke softly on, "is the reason I'm sitting here with you. Others would disagree, I'm sure, but in my opinion that very fact is what ennobles your character. I mean it. And I realize how that may sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet here as well, seeing how I just went on about not forgiving myself, either. I try not to pat myself on the back for it all the time... but in all seriousness, I can't help but see that nobility in you. In the way you carry that burden even as it breaks you."
"Never felt specially noble," Halen muttered in between half-suppressed sobs.
"I know," said the other man. "Maybe that's an integral part of it, actually. Hell, I've seen people dancing ever onward through their perfectly blissful lives after having done the worst kinds of things. From the everyday betrayal of their friends and loved ones, the constant abuse and deceit, the cheating and the lying and the never-ending backstabbing, to things more abhorrent even than all those. And all of it with only ever one single interest in mind: themselves. And they just keep on dancing and prancing without a care in the world. Like nothing ever happened, and as if their paths aren't littered with the torn-out pieces of all those they trampled over and left behind in the mud. They've got the most charming smiles on their faces, too. Proper sunshines, those fellas. You'll likely find one of these incredibly profound, crisp little calendar mottos, like Carpe Diem, pasted in a neat cursive on their bedroom wall. They've got it all figured out.
"But not you. There are no easy answers for you. No trite motivational poster that makes it all okay. No pretenses. Unlike too many others who bear that same mark on their left arm as you, you never stood there in front of judge and jury and sniveled, begged and groveled for forgiveness and mercy and all those convenient little things they oddly enough never deigned to grant anyone else, but now have the gall to request for themselves. Because inwardly, you had already pronounced your own sentence of lifelong guilt. You accepted responsibility for your actions. You faced their unalterable consequences, and you keep facing them year after year in this very spot right here. You own up to them every day, even at the cost of your own life. And that is worth something. There's a heart of decency in you, Thomas. It's suffered a lot. It's been led astray. You stopped listening to it altogether once. But it's still beating."
A quiet once again ensued, briefly interrupted as if from some other world entirely by a car engine roaring up somewhere to the north and soon fading away in the distance. Eventually one last violent sob jerked through Thomas Halen. He sniffed back the snot in his runny nose in wildly unflattering a fashion, then wiped his face with a minimally less filthy part of his coat sleeve. "But what'm I s'posed t'do with this pathetic heart of me?" he asked with a craggy voice, and he cleared his throat roughly to get it back together. "Best thing I've done in the past eight years was nursin' a pigeon with a broken wing back to health, till it could fly again."
"Well," the other man assessed with a smile, "it's a start."
"Some folks out there really hate them pigeons, though."
Laughter unavoidably escaped the other man's chest, and kind of nature though it was he quickly stifled it. "Can't ever do right by everyone, so you'd best not make a habit of trying."
"I just wanna do right by her an' her family," Halen mumbled, staring at the graves that had defined nearly his entire existence, his bloodshot eyes still glistening with the residual sheen of fallen tears. "Don't see how I ever could."
The man at the other end of the bench sighed the longest of sighs as his eyes were drawn back to another grave: that single black granite headstone whence he'd come, down at a crossing of the stepping stone path and perfectly in view from his elevated spot on the bench, adorned on one side with a single white lily that for some inexplicable reason never seemed to wither in its clay vase.
"A long time ago," he began in a musing tone, "when I was introduced to the world of magic, one of the very first thoughts that entered my mind was the idea that maybe now I could finally get my parents back. Even before I came to know what had really happened to them, when that story of a car accident was still my subjective truth. Surely magic would present me with a way to bring them back, right? There had to be some kind of ancient spell or arcane device that would enable me to go back in time and save them. What was magic if not the means to make miracles happen? Learning that even magic has its limitations was one of my more sobering lessons, because for a while there, deep down, that timeline that never came to be, where my parents live and I get to know them and we all get to be together, was the only thing I truly wanted. It was the only vision the Mirror of Erised could show me. The family I had lost. The family of my past.
"Some small part of me will always grieve for that life that never came to pass, and I'll always, always miss them. But the thing is," and here his voice began to struggle just a bit, "I can't wish for that magical time travel... can't yearn for that other life anymore, because I've built a life of my own now. One I simply cannot sacrifice. Not even for them."
He exhaled a shaky sigh, composed himself with a steeling breath and went on, "I can't even say when exactly I first became aware of it. There was no dramatic moment of realization. It was a slow and gradual thing, subtle and unnoticed, that kept spreading in me bit by bit as I asked the girl I love to marry me, as I started rebuilding the house I would call home, as I became a father once and then again. The unknown truth of it had suffused me and my entire life long before I became conscious of the fact that I had, in that unspoken way, said goodbye to my parents for the second time. This time not to the reality but to the dream of them. To the yearning for that alternate life."
Thomas Halen peered at the man from behind the thick strands of his hair, but had soon averted his gaze in a respectful manner when he saw the other wiping away a thin line of moisture on his left cheek with the back of his right hand.
"And there you have some more of that guilt of mine," the man concluded. "I can only hope they would understand—would forgive me for letting go of them like that, you know? I hope they would be happy for me, with me. Perhaps a bit proud of me, too. God, I hope I'm doing right by them... hope the boy they died to protect became a man who turned out to be worth it."
Halen opened his mouth, then stalled. "I... I think the boy was already worth it. An' I don't think they'd ever question it neither. But I mean no disrespect. Maybe it's not me place t'say—"
"I appreciate it that you did," the man interrupted him with a small but honest smile on his face. He retreated back into his thoughts for a moment before he spoke again. "I know our situations are not the same, Thomas. I understand our lives have taken vastly different courses at times. And yet... here we both are, aren't we? In this place, presently, that is entirely dedicated to the past.
"And I've been very lucky. You laugh, but it's true. I've been lucky where you have not. I have, in fact, been so ridiculously lucky in this life I sometimes still have trouble believing any of it. To have met the people I've met who love me the way they do, and to find in my heart the capacity to love them as hard as I can in return, that's a blessing I'm not sure I'll ever truly deserve.
"But your problems won't necessarily be solved with my solutions. That's the tricky part. So I'm not telling you to go ahead and simply find your soulmate, build a nest, make some babies and get that domestic bliss going and you're set. It doesn't work like that, I know. What I am saying, I think, is that you need... you need a tomorrow to strive for. Something to look forward to. Something other than compulsion to get you out of bed in the morning. Just a... a tiny pinch of meaning here and there until you've got enough of it to get by with. Everybody needs that. And you can't keep questioning whether you deserve it or not. When there's some sort of kindness in whatever it is that gives you meaning, you probably deserve at least that much."
The man paused to watch Halen for a moment, whose eyes, the color of pale ashes in the light of day, were idly following another human visitor passing slowly between two rows of graves far out of earshot.
"All a lot easier said than done, huh?" the man asked quite rhetorically, then sighed as if in response to himself. "We both know you'll never forgive yourself. Not truly. But maybe being beyond forgiveness is not the same as being beyond redemption. You cannot shed the guilt... won't shirk the responsibility. But the punishment needs to stop, Thomas. You've had enough. You can't take any more of it. And what bloody use is another ruined life to anyone? You need to try and bring some of the good you once helped taking from the world back into it. You already know how, too. You've done it before."
Halen's thoroughly creased brow unmistakably spoke of incomprehension.
"The pigeon," explained the man. "Carpe Diem doesn't mend broken wings, Thomas. It's just another convenience for those who are already flying. Any act of healing is a process and its sole purpose is a better tomorrow. The very idea of it is contingent upon a possible future. If today is all there is, a pigeon with a broken wing will never fly again. You need to do for yourself what you did for that pigeon. For her sake," and he pointed at the grave of Demelza Kyne, "and for your own."
Thomas Halen filled his lungs with air until they could take in no more, then pushed it all back out into the world. He began nodding his head halfway through the exhalation and rubbed his forehead with trembling fingers, then raked his hand through his hair to get the annoying strands out of his eyes. Oily as they were they mostly complied, though not in a particularly fashionable manner.
"Yeah," he breathed in a weak whisper, echoing it seconds later.
Eventually, at the other end of the bench, the man with the rimless glasses puffed air out of his cheeks like someone who just participated in a marathon. "I'm forty-two years too young to be that eighty-year-old lady at the vegetable counter in the grocery store that tells you her unabridged life story," he said with a hand in the shaggy hair at the back of his head. "And, for that matter, not nearly lady enough." He turned to Thomas Halen. "Did I by any chance manage to tell you anything you didn't already know? Or maybe that wasn't even the point..."
Halen grinned at him in response, and despite his less than stellar teeth it for once succeeded in making him look just a tad closer to his actual age. "I think... I think I got lots t'think 'bout, frankly. Nobody's talked t'me like this since... well, don't think nobody ever has, t'tell you the truth. I don't even know what t'say."
"That's okay," the other man replied. "You don't have to say anything... as long as I didn't make an utter fool out of myself."
"No way," Halen assured him with a shake of the head. "Honest. It's just that I—I don't—I mean—" Quite clearly at a loss for words, he averted his eyes in manifest embarrassment.
"I'm glad you think so," the man told him. "The thing is," and he leaned forward and put his palms on his knees, "if I'm not home about a minute ago, my wife's going to accuse me of having an affair with Mrs Fairholme again, and I don't think our marriage could take it. So... I'm afraid I really need to get going here..."
"Yeah, sure, o' course," Halen stammered, back on his feet even before the other man had accomplished as much as picking up his brown paper bag. "Mighty sorry, didn't mean t'hold you up like this."
"Thomas," the man compelled him to pause and look at him, both of them now standing a bench's width apart. "That's really not what happened here, so don't even mention it."
Halen, still flustered from this fundamentally perplexing encounter, absently nodded his head as if in a proper daze. The man, with Halen unaware of the attention, watched him quietly for a moment, his eyes pensively narrowed.
"It doesn't really sit quite right with me to just part ways like this after everything we talked about, everything I said," he eventually spoke, his tone of voice still laced with contemplation. "Talk is cheap, as they say. Granted, they generally say a lot of rubbish, but I think they may be on to something there. So... listen, if there's anything specific I can do for you, anything at all, I think there's a couple of ways in which I might be able to help you in a more practical sense. Do you... do you have a place to stay, if it's not too forward to ask?"
"Yeah," Halen affirmed, unoffended. "Nothin' fancy, o' course. Four walls an' a roof o'er me head, eh? Been workin' in a factory couple o' years now. Better than... than before, at least."
The man gave a nod. "Good," he said. "Or better, at least. May I ask, and I'm aware this is widely deemed a touchy subject as well, if you ever sought professional help?"
Halen merely shook his head, his nose in wrinkles.
"People tend to be ashamed of it," the man proceeded, "but they shouldn't be, if you ask me. At any rate, I've met more doctors over these past twelve years than I would've ever cared to know by name, and I could refer you to one who specializes in that sort of thing, too. She doesn't simply dish out pills like they're Bertie Bott's Every Flavored Beans, if that's what you think. She actually engages with people, and it can be a very good thing. There's no judgment, just support. She's a witch, too, so she would grasp the complete scope and context of your history, which I think is important. Just something to consider. Nothing more, nothing less."
Halen nodded with his lower lip tucked between his teeth again, but didn't verbally respond.
"What about the wizarding side of things?" the man skipped past the uneasy moment.
"Nah," Halen was quick to reply, "Muggles only. Don't have no spark of magic in me life, 'part from a glance at the Prophet sometimes. Just to keep up with things a bit, y'know? Always preferred it that way. Haven't held a wand in me hand since... well, since 1996."
"I understand," said the man. "But if at any point in the future you'd like to reconnect to the wizarding world and that part of yourself, to whichever extent you feel comfortable with, I could definitely help you with that in a couple of ways. In fact, if that pigeon is any indication and you generally enjoy working with animals, I happen to know someone who's fonder of animals than perhaps anybody else in the world—maybe... maybe to a fault at times. But I think he might just be willing to lend you a hand if I tell him about the Thomas Halen I met today."
The Thomas Halen he met that day looked abashed. "That's awfully kind o' you, mister, but why—" He choked on his own words, snuffled and wiped at his nose again. "Why the hell'd y'do any such thing for me?"
"Because I misspoke earlier," the man with the emerald eyes replied. "You are that pigeon, Thomas. I got that much right at least. But I got the important bit wrong: no pigeon will ever be able to heal a broken wing all on its own. It'll need a little help. And kind words alone won't cut it."
For a moment the two men merely stared at each other, one of them calm and composed, the other not so much. Overwhelmed, wide-eyed Thomas Halen directed his gaze at the ground instead, because the ground at least did not gaze back.
"I'd really like it if you'd pick me up on my offer," the man meanwhile told him. "I don't have anything with me to write, but you know how to reach me, right? Do it, when you're ready. Think about it, at the very least. And if you don't, well... I'll be here, in this exact spot, a year from now, hoping to meet you again. Hoping you won't have given up on yourself. Because I haven't, and my offer will still stand. Until then, whenever that's going to be... please take care of yourself, Thomas."
And with these words and an affable parting smile the man with the brown paper bag back on his arm turned around and left, leaving a speechless Thomas Halen to stand there, his eyes glistening wetly in the afternoon sunlight with tears in them that were of a decidedly different kind than the ones that had preceded them, and which unlike those would not become heavy enough to fall.
Long he stood, that lone traveler, who for so long had been running away only to run into himself at every corner. His eyes were fixed on the ever more distant figure of that raven-haired man until eventually he disappeared from sight when the path made a downward bend behind the trees that encircled the Hollow's cemetery hill.
And long he stood there still, even then with nothing left to look at but the trees, the headstones and the flowers, the sky and the clouds, before at last volition returned into his inert being, and he turned to his side and cast his eyes on the final resting place of one Demelza Kyne, his shadow now falling mainly onto the green grass in the gap between two of the graves.
He knew then and there in the depth of his heart he would see her again. No matter what all his tomorrows until then would bring, this was the place he would return to. Perhaps, however, with something new to tell her.
And Thomas Halen turned around and in the mild spring air went his own way past the silent headstones, following the stepping stone path into not quite the opposite direction of the one the other man had vanished in, and leaving Godric's Hollow, where it appeared to the restless wanderer a curious sort of day was unfolding, for now at least behind.