THE BRIGHTNESS OF CANDLES
Disclaimer: This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who created and, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and settings elaborated herein.
This post-HBP one shot is not part of my "Disguise" arc, which will continue instead with a new chapter-fic, "Tell Naught But Lies", in a few weeks (I hope).
Thanks to my previewers, Bellegeste and Cecelle for their invaluable input. This story is a present for Bellegeste, whose "New Perspective 2: Taken on Trust" inspired me to wonder if I could winkle a meaning out of Dumbledore's famous Sorting Feast speech. She thought it couldn't be done, so naturally I had to do it...
Such a little thing had made her doubt; his face, wild with something – misery, heartbreak or despair – when he'd come out of his room that horrible night, till he'd seen them there and gone first blank then angry. Luna had missed it. She'd been scrutinising the opposite wall for Tapping Plipper-Ploppers. Such a little thing; it couldn't have been real. She must have imagined it. Harry and Ron had been right all along; they must have been.
Ron was right. Harry's family were like a private set of mini-Muggle-Malfoys. And yet Dumbledore must have had his reasons for sending Harry there. She hoped they were better than his reasons for trusting – that person. The one she used to defend. Another time that Ron had been right.
Nevertheless, she put a restraining hand on Ron's bare freckled arm, corded with anger, as Harry stared in silence at the crumpled envelopes his aunt was waving at him.
"If you don't take them, I'll burn them," Mrs Dursley said. "I never wanted them in the house and I won't hold them any longer."
Hermione's hand tightened on Ron's elbow. He replied with a tiny jerk of the head, his eyes glaring at Mrs Dursley's bony back. They knew by the thinning of Harry's lips that he'd got her message, thanks very much, but he'd made them promise not to interfere. It would be his birthday tomorrow and then he could leave and they with him. He wouldn't have come at all if he hadn't promised Dumbledore, but as he'd told Scrimgeour after the funeral, he was Dumbledore's man through and through.
"I guess they belong with me then," Harry said, holding out his hand without looking up. "Like anything else that reminds you of my mum."
The horrid old thing opened her mouth to blast him, looked around at two wands held in two clenched fists and thought better of it. He'd told her when they came that his friends were allowed to do magic outside school. Of course, he hadn't mentioned that the Ministry would still find a way to blame him for it if they did.
She slammed the door behind her.
"Old hag," Ron muttered.
"Look on the bright side," Hermione said. "At least she didn't throw them out. We can go away if you want to read them alone, Harry."
They sat on the bed and sorted the messages together. There weren't very many: the letter that had been left with him on the doorstep more than fifteen years ago, explaining how the Potters had died and asking the Dursleys to bring up Harry as their own – "Hah," he snorted, his mouth ugly and his eyes too bright – a curt warning that "Children have long memories. Adults have longer ones. What they experience as they grow up is never forgotten," and a slightly longer one that "The blood protection invoked by providing Harry a home protects you and your husband and son equally with Harry from his parents' killers. Ending it early would be most unwise."
"When the Dementors attacked Dudley and me before fifth year," Harry said, "Dumbledore sent them a Howler that said, 'Remember my last.' I guess he meant this one."
The last envelope contained a smaller sealed envelope with a superscription: To be kept for Harry, in the event of my death before he comes of age.
Hermione's heart gave a small skip-bump in her chest. Had he known he was going to die, then? She'd wondered about that, ever since Harry had described Malfoy's and Dumbledore's wand-point conversation. And if he had, could it possibly mean – No, of course not. A killer was a killer. Ron and Harry were right about him; they must be.
"Blimey," said Ron. "Should have opened this one first."
"We couldn't possibly have known that," Hermione said. "It wasn't marked on the outside. Besides, we've been going in order and this must have been sent some time in the past two years if it was after that Howler. It looks very important. I wonder – What? What is it?"
Harry had already ripped it open and he looked as flummoxed as the time they'd faced Snape's logic puzzle, back in first year, to get to the Stone. His mouth made a funny shape.
"It doesn't make any sense," he complained. "Listen. Muggles measure the brightness of candles, but rarely use them. That's the paradox that shapes the metre and turns a fool into a wit."
"Eh?" said Ron, taking the note from his relaxing hand and holding it where Hermione could see.
"Just one of his jokes, I suppose." Harry looked back at happier memories. "Like that time at the feast, remember? Nitwit, blubber – "
But Hermione wasn't listening. She stared at the loopy scrawl, eyes narrowed.
"More than a joke; a riddle," she said. "It reminds me of something. Something Muggle. Dumbledore knew about Muggles, didn't he? Enough to know his scar was shaped like the London underground, anyway."
" – Oddment – "
As she chewed on her lip, her eyes grew wide. "Muggles measure the brightness of candles ... they measure brightness, luminance really, by one candle - only they call it a candela - per metre squared. It's called a Nit. And nit means fool."
" – Tweak. What?"
"A nit is the same as a nitwit, but a Nit, as a unit of measure, could mean a bright wit, and that turns a fool into a wit," she said.
Harry gave her a narrowed sidewise glance.
"No, Dumbledore was joking," Ron said. "That's brilliant. A secret message in front of all the junior Death Eaters and they'd never guess. He knew we wouldn't forget; it was so weird and unexpected, who could?"
Anyone, thought Hermione. Anyone who didn't love Dumbledore as much as we grew to.
"I don't know," she said aloud. "It seems a bit of a stretch to me." But maybe he thought we'd just keep worrying at it till we made the connection. "That was almost six years ago. Really, I'm surprised you both remember it so well."
"Don't you?" Ron asked.
"Well, yes, of course I do." She stopped and blushed. Insufferable know-it-all … nightmare … if you're so clever… "I didn't mean that the way it sounds."
Ron smirked and reached out his hand as if to pat hers then snatched it back. He turned bright red.
"Not your fault you never forget anything," he said hastily.
Harry didn't seem to have noticed. He was still puzzling over the note.
"But what does it mean?"
They both turned to Hermione for an explanation, but she didn't know either.
"Let's see what else the note says. Maybe there's a clue," she suggested. " 'The searcher finds as he starts his journey, four that will help him. The old one lights the candle, the large one is a friend, the odd one tells the future, the dark one is true to the end; when he ups and pinches the candle's nose, the darker he gets, the brighter it grows. A.P.W.B.D.' " she read out and wrinkled her nose. "That's all he says."
"Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore," said Harry wistfully.
"Weirder and weirder," Ron said. "How do you pinch a candle's nose?"
"I guess you put it out," Hermione said slowly. There was something about that last line that nagged at her, but she couldn't think what. "A candle doesn't have a nose, but the bit that sticks out – which is what a nose does –"
Ron scratched his reflectively and she bit back a grin. He looked so cute when he did that.
" – is the wick and if you pinch the wick, the flame goes out." She turned back to the words in front of her. "And that works for the next words, 'the darker he gets', only it looks like that's meant to be a paradox too, because instead of getting darker, it gets brighter." The darker he gets, the brighter it grows. Curious. She huffed out a weary breath. "But maybe we should begin at the beginning, 'The searcher finds as he starts his journey.' "
"That's now, of course," Harry said.
"I don't think it is." Hermione felt her way through. "I think he reminded us of his speech that first night to tell us to start there." Maybe we're supposed to use those four words as a secret password somehow. To recognise an ally who's undercover, perhaps?
"You mean he knew at our first Sorting Feast that we'd be looking for Horc – " Ron stopped and gave the room a quick once-over in case any of the Dursleys were eavesdropping. Both door and window were tightly shut and surely Muggles didn't have anything like Extendible Ears. Just to be on the safe side, he cast Muffliato before continuing, " – Looking for You-Know-What, and he left this for us to find?"
"No," Harry said decisively. "He didn't even suspect there was more than one then. He couldn't have known we'd wind up like this."
Hermione's teeth worried at her lower lip. Surely, he wasn't planning this far ahead when he made that speech, but he could have thought of using it after the event. It would be a perfect signal to recognise an ally by; no one could possibly say it by accident.
"Not without Trelawney's teacups – Hang on. 'The odd one tells the future' – Well, she's odd, all right."
"That's it! Ron, you're brilliant." Ignoring his mutter of "About time you noticed," she rushed on. "And if the first three are Hogwarts teachers, the fourth must be too!"
"The first three. Have you figured them out already?" Ron eyed her with tolerant admiration.
"The first is Dumbledore, of course. 'The old one", the 'fool' who's really a 'wit' – and how many times did people think he was silly when he was exactly right about everything?"
"And the large one must be Hagrid, because he's our friend." Ron was inspired.
"Yes, and so the second word, 'blubber', was a joke too. Because blubber is what keeps whales warm, but it also means someone who cries," Hermione said. "And you said the third one yourself. Trelawney is 'the odd one' who 'tells the future', because she told the Prophecy."
"Two prophecies," Harry said. "There was that one in third year, too, about Wormtail escaping. But then 'the dark one' … " He jumped up and slammed the wall.
"Oh, Harry," Hermione said faintly. Her hand closed around the note and she almost kissed it except she knew it would shock the boys.
Tweak, because he was always making improvements, like in his Potions book. Dumbledore must have known about it. And because he's the sort of person who always has to tweak your nose somehow.
"He always believed in him, right till the end," Harry choked out, slamming the wall again. "Always telling me to trust him, that he trusted him, even though he killed my parents. Almost the last thing he said to me was 'I need Severus ... Go and wake Severus.' He thought he'd be all right if only Snape came and then – and then – He did and he killed him, just like that." His fist slammed into the same piece of wall a third time, leaving a dent in the plaster. "How could he be so stupid?"
Hermione bit her lip as she slipped the note into her pocket to keep. She understood the last line now and when Harry calmed down, she'd have to try to make him see.
When he ups and pinches the candle's nose, the darker he gets, the brighter it goes.
That said it all. Dumbledore had known. Of course, of course, he had. And now he was making sure they knew it too.
How many times did people think he was silly, when he was exactly right about everything?
A/N Tapping Plipper-Ploppers are not canon. I just liked the sound.
Sorry, I can see how easily I could continue this, with the four-word message being used to signal the person in question that his situation was understood, but I'm not going to write two post-HBP adventures (at any rate, not simultaneously) and I've committed myself to "Lies" instead.
I hope this solution wasn't too obscure. I (and one previewer) thought you should be able to decipher the last line from the clues given, but in deference to my other previewer, I offer an explanation here:
When Snape killed Dumbledore ("pinches the candle's nose"), he returned to Voldemort, where his improved standing ("the darker he gets") gave a better chance of defeating Voldemort ("the brighter it grows") from the inside. Dumbledore's foreknowledge (because he wrote this letter before the event, obviously) shows that Snape was following his orders that night.