The Hero of His Own Life
fandom: Harry Potter
summary: Dumbledore gen. A not-nearly comprehensive biography of the greatest wizard of the age, and how he got that way. 3700 words
thanks, as always, to lizbee and rj_anderson for betas and handholding. title nicked from Dickens. Not like he's done anything with it lately.
When he is older—still a child, but already uncanny, already watched by all with eyes to see—he hears the story for the first time. He was born to Muggles, says Nurse: and one night, when he was just a few months old, the Muggles found him hovering two feet above his cradle, batting chubby infant paws at the ragged paper ornaments that dangled down from the ceiling. Nurse tells him too, how the Muggles had recoiled; and how, when a Ministry official arrived, the usual bribe in her pocket, his parents had thrust him, soiled and unfed, into her arms, then turned away without a backwards glance.
His brother is six when he too arrives at the orphanage. Albus is eight, already grave and quiet, good with the younger children. Aberforth screams for their mother at night, hiding his face under thin bedclothes from the glow of the charmed fairy lights that hover near the ceiling of their dormitory. He refuses to learn magic or watch any done until one day Albus presses a toy wand into his fingers. "Like this," he whispers, guiding Aberforth's hand with his own. At first, nothing: then silver vapor streams from the tip of the wand, and their parents' faces emerge from the mist. Vibrant and not at all ghostly, they beam down on the boys with pride and pleasure as Albus never saw them do in life.
The spell lasts until a scream erupts in the doorway and Madam Bigglestaff swoops down on them. As the smiling figures dissolve, shame blossoms hot and hard in his throat, because he knows that their smiles were stolen; for him, there is only the white and terrified face of the nurse who wrenches the wand from his hand, hurting him as he knows he deserves to be hurt.
He is not popular at Hogwarts, and he knows this is partly his own fault. He stays quiet and keeps his head down, but he is too busy reading to finish much of his homework, so he's always losing House points. When he turns out nearly perfect performances in all his examinations after a year of what looks like slacking, teachers and students alike begin to despise him. He's on shaky ground to begin with—Mudbloods are at a disadvantage even in Gryffindor House—but he won't band with the rest of the Muggleborns in his year, even to defend himself. He is determined, furiously determined, to be judged solely on his merits. And he is beginning to think that he might hate his Muggle parents, and the Muggle world with them.
Twice, he is nearly expelled from Hogwarts. Just before Christmas of his third year, he Transfigures his Potions teacher into a small, yappy Yorkshire dog. He isn't holding his wand at the time, so the Headmaster rules it a case of accidental magic, but the other students in the class tell anyone who will listen that just before it happened, Professor Gillfang had been remarking what a shame it was that some people hadn't proper Wizarding homes to return to for the holidays. Albus does not tell them that it had been an accident, only not like the Headmaster meant; he had lost control for a moment, and this frightens him. He is only thirteen, but he is already beginning to understand how different he is from most people—even from his teachers, it seems, and this thought makes him feel lonely and sad as he has rarely felt since leaving the orphanage.
The second time he is almost expelled he feels no shame at all, no fear. He is in his fifth year; Professor Nigellus is attempting to teach them several complicated last-minute Transfigurations for their examination. He has Sarah Blankenship up before the class now; a pureblood Slytherin, she still cannot transform a carrot into a radish, and the harder she tries, the worse she does. Eventually, the carrot explode; Nigellus looks at her with something like satisfaction and reaches into his desk. The class stops laughing when he produces a blood-quill and sets her to write lines with it for the remainder of the lesson.
When he sees the quill, something strange happens inside Albus. He gets to his feet before he quite knows what he is doing. Sarah stares at him, eyes wide in a pale, tear-streaked face. Nigellus arches an eyebrow.
"Well, Dumbledore?" he sneers. "Something to say?"
Explosions of white light seem to be going off before Albus's eyes. His mind is an utter blank, certainty replacing thought much as freezing stills troubled water.
"No, Professor," he says.
"Then you had best resume your seat."
Both his teacher and the class watch, transfixed, as he advances to the front of the class, where Nigellus still stands with the blood-quill in his hand. Albus reaches out and takes it from him. For a moment, he thinks to break or Transfigure it. Instead, he turns and walks back to his desk, where takes out a sheet of parchment and begins to write.
For nearly a minute, there is no sound in the room but that of the quill as Albus begins to fill the parchment with scarlet writing. Then Nigellus speaks, his voice high and strained.
"Just what are you trying to prove, Dumbledore?" he asks, his eyes dark.
"It's all blood," he says, quietly, concentrating on the sting in the back of his hand. "Isn't it, Professor?"
He has a great deal of time to think during the month of detentions that follow.
None of his professors will write references for him when he decides to go to Oxford after his seventh year at Hogwarts. "What, after all, could I possibly say?" inquires a bewildered Professor Marchbanks. "The Muggles don't want to know about your Charms work, Albus, they want maths and knowledge of Muggle literature!"
This is perfectly true, as Albus quickly discovers, but they also want skills he does possess: composition and rhetoric, a thorough grounding in the Classical languages. The rest he manages to pick up without much difficulty in his private reading. He reads Literature, because it is the experience and not the qualification that matters to him, but he attends lectures in nearly every subject—he is fascinated with chemistry and biology, and amuses himself for much of his second year in writing academic papers nobody will ever read on the applications of Muggle sciences to Potions and Transfiguration.
He prides himself on how well he is performing the job he came here to do, which is to live among Muggles, to study them, and so overcome the resentment that is his greatest weakness. He has been at Oxford for five years and just begun to tutor students of his own before he realizes something that shakes him to his foundations: women students are not, as he had thought, scarce in Muggle universities—they are in fact nonexistent. When he chances to mention this to one of his colleagues, the look he receives in return tells Albus everything he needs to know. He has been blind, and he has been fooling himself. He has learned nothing about Muggles—he has been far too busy congratulating himself on the success of his charade.
Thereafter, he lives differently. He puts his wand away in a drawer and lights his rooms with gas lamps and candles. He lives out of college and closes his accounts in Diagon Alley, buying everything he needs from shops in Oxford. He severs every tie with the Wizarding world save one: he continues to take the Daily Prophet and observes with bemusement how detached and unreal that world becomes to him the longer he lives among Muggles. He begins to appreciate for the first time how all-consuming the simple act of living must be for Muggles, how hard they work to keep body and soul together. It is no longer incredible to him that Muggles do not notice the magical world unless they are forced to, when only a tiny handful of them have sufficient wealth and leisure to teach their children how to read and write properly. They must shiver in cold wind and endure hunger if they are poor. Resentment gives way to pity, then to admiration, and that is why one day he dons his best suit and sets off for the squalid row of tenement flats where his parents and younger sisters live still.
He does not know what to expect at first, but he is surprised at what he finds: two dark, tiny rooms, scrubbed and tidy, smelling of boiled cabbage. The fear in his mother's eyes when first she catches sight of him is strangely welcome; she knows him immediately, just as he knows her. They have the same narrow face, long nose, and high cheekbones, and there is some auburn left among the grey hair pinned in a ruthless knot at the back of her head. He removes his hat when she opens the door to him, and he sees a tall, thin, stooped man with white hair just behind her. He offers his hand gravely, and receives the grip of a cabman's callused palm against his own.
He does not stay long; he talks mostly of Oxford and his work in the Muggle world, and bit by bit they seem to relax in his presence. To his eyes, they look like children awaiting a blow from the back of a heavy hand. When the teapot is empty, he gathers his hat and rises. His mother walks him to the door. Just before it closes between them her hand darts out, and he feels the pressure of long thin fingers again his.
"Forgive us," she whispers.
And he does.
He leaves Oxford unceremoniously at the end of the next Hilary term, and departs England altogether a short while later. He carries nothing with him but his wand and broom, dusty but serviceable after years in storage.
First to Europe, then to Asia, America, Mexico, Canada, beyond. He spends ten years in Romania studying dragons and produces a piece of scholarship that secures his fame in Britain, though he does not discover this until he returns decades later. He has made a discovery in Oxford that will determine the course of the rest of his life, which is that the wizarding world is as apt to mistake ignorance and prejudice for wisdom as Muggles are to mistake superstition for true magic. Comparisons are odious, he reads while studying the works of a Muggle poet, and in his heart Albus senses the truth of it. So he travels, making it the work of a Muggle lifetime to seek out all the beings wizards most revile—trolls, hags, giants, merfolk, werewolves, vampires, centaurs, elves, a catalogue of despised creatures who have more often than not learned to despise wizards in turn. When he has learned as much as they are willing to teach, he turns again to wizards and the darker secrets they can offer.
In Europe again, Albus meets the Knights of Walpurgis and their leader, an Austrian wizard whose friendly, unpretentious charm, and utter lack of blood prejudice, disarms him at first. Grindelwald is Muggleborn himself, and treats pureblood snobbery with the same merry contempt Albus had once attempted to cultivate in himself, and that is how he recognizes it for what it is—a mask for a deep and powerful rage. Grindelwald's attempts to introduce Albus to the Dark Arts are no less a disappointment to the younger man than to the elder: there is nothing new there, no wisdom at all, nothing but the oldest lie, the worship of power, the strong abusing the weak for their own pleasure. In the end Albus leaves quietly, in the dead of night, because there is no point in open battle. Such contests are fought, not with magic, but in the hearts and minds of men and women. That is why, even as the Great War fumbles to an end and thousands of soldiers begin the long march back to their homes, Albus returns to England and to Hogwarts, and takes his place on the front lines.
Years of painful reflection lead Albus to the conclusion that by the time he had met Tom Riddle it was already too late. It is not an easy conclusion to draw. Some part of him would find it more comforting to believe he had failed the boy when he might have saved him. Why is he at Hogwarts, after all, if not for his belief that children are shaped, for good or evil, by the lessons of their earliest teachers?
But of course Tom had learned hard lessons long before he ever came to Hogwarts. At the orphanage he must have known fear and suffering, and discovered early that suffering could be eased by the exercise of power. Tom has never loved, but just as surely he has never been loved. And that is a failure indeed, but it belongs to the world, and not Albus alone.
The first streaks of silver appear in his hair after, or possibly during, his duel with Grindelwald, from which he emerges tired, saddened, and suddenly very famous.
Professor Dippett retires at the end of that year, and the school governors nearly fall over themselves in their eagerness to offer him the position of Headmaster at Hogwarts. Albus does not accept lightly, but he does accept. If the years have taught him anything it is that there is no greater work to be done than what is done there. And he is beginning to feel the weight of his years; he has been alive for nearly a century, and more than any of his contemporaries he has kept his eye on the changing world around them. He can see, if they cannot, that wizards and Muggles must meet, and meet soon; already Muggle technology has advanced so far as to be functionally indistinguishable from practical magic.
There is a deeper magic of course; older and more powerful than any other. But of this, Muggles have never been ignorant.
There is a child in his office, clutching a tea cup with trembling fingers that seem not to be connected to the rest of his preternaturally still body. He does not know that he is a child; he has committed the crimes of a man and is waiting to be condemned as one. But he is a boy in his understanding and wild grief, and so Albus waits, and listens.
"I've killed her, Professor." The title slips out automatically. Of the two of them, only Albus, perhaps, registers the irony. "I've killed Lily. And James—I know that we—but I never would have—I didn't mean—"
Albus watches as the boy sets his tea cup on the desk with a clatter and stares down on his empty hands as though surprised by them.
He has failed Severus Snape in ways the boy himself cannot yet appreciate. Here is no Tom Riddle, no cataclysmic accident of nature and neglect. There must have been a point at which Albus's vigilance failed, some weary moment when he had uttered platitudes in place of wisdom and shunted the child in his confusion down the path that has led him here.
"I don't know what to do," Severus says, interrupting his reverie. "I know there's nothing—that I don't deserve—oh God, she had a baby, and I—" His hands clench and he raises a fist to his mouth as though to stop the sound of his ragged breathing. The Muggle oath hangs in the air between them. Albus's eyes sharpen, but the boy doesn't notice. No cunning, then, no manipulation; he is truly undone and cannot know that to Albus those words are a reminder of old damage they both share, or a symbol or redemption yet to come.
"What is it that you want, Severus?" he says gently, surprised to find his own voice not entirely steady. "Truly? Look at me, please."
The boy lists his head slowly. He seems unable to speak, but Albus sees the glittering brightness in his eyes and is satisfied.
"You have choices to make," he continues. "Not one of them will be easy. What forgiveness I have to offer is yours for the asking, but what you truly need is not in my gift. What I can give you is work, and in that work, if you desire it—a means to grace." Even to his own ears the words seem inadequate, but then there is no language to convey all that he would wish the boy to understand.
Severus' hand falls to his lap, bloodless and limp. "I don't know what I want," he says tonelessly, a bit of the old iron control reasserting itself. "I can't see past what I've done. Everything I believed, that I felt, led to this. How can I trust myself?" His voice turns bitter. "How can you?"
"That is my problem," replies Albus evenly. "Don't concern yourself with it. You will have plenty of your own."
He is not sure whether the slump of the boy's shoulders is indicative of defeat or exhaustion, but it brings him to his feet and around his desk. Severus' arm is warm under his hand, but he cannot seem to help recoiling a bit, reminding Albus again of his own failures and their consequences, all the more bitter to him when others must bear them.
But even in this, there is a kind of victory. Because Severus is here, at last—broken and beleaguered, but here, at a cost Albus does not underestimate.
"I am going to trust in you, Severus," he says. "Until you can do the same, you must trust in me."
Severus exhales shakily, and Albus smiles. For him, at least, it is enough.
For over a decade now Albus has been watching Harry Potter, and never once has he tired of it. There is a restfulness in the contemplation of purity that only the old, who have known tarnish and compromise, can appreciate. But even in this, regrets intrude. There is an obscene necessity to it, this making a weapon out of a child; if he is not careful his own heart will betray him into some fatal half-measure and every sacrifice will become vain. Harry must remain pure, but Albus cannot grant himself that mercy, if mercy it is.
And yet, when he finds Harry, limp and cold before the Mirror of Erised, the Stone in his pocket, his mind empties altogether of plot and machination. He forgets the battles that have been fought and the great war he wages still. Nothing in that room matters to him except the still form he gathers into his arms, or the dark hair he stirs with his breath as he whispers into the silence and the child's unhearing ears.
"My boy," he says, holding him close. "My fine, brave boy."
Long after Harry leaves his office his voice seems to linger, a reproachful echo in Albus's ears.
He waits a moment, blinking until his vision clears. Then, wearily, he turns to his Pensieve, as to the counsel of a wise and well-beloved friend. It is, considering the events of the last few hours, an indulgence bordering on obscenity—what else but this isolation could have rendered him so blind as to mistake cowardice for prudence? But he has toiled long, and his comforts are few indeed.
So he draws from his mind the memory of another meeting in this office, and casts it into the basin below.
A single image rises up from the mist; a piece of tattered paper, bearing a list of names and emblazoned at the top with the words DUMBLEDORE'S ARMY.
He of all men knows how little he deserves this. He knew when he began this work what he must forfeit to accomplish it—the right to be trusted, the hope of seeing victory in his lifetime.
And yet, here it is.
When he has gazed his fill he puts the Pensieve away and with it his grief, his guilt, and his hope. There is no room for any of it in the task he has set himself to perform now.
But he retrieves the memory before doing so. Often in the next few weeks he returns to it, touching it lightly as a Muggle might rub a strange coin for good luck.
He is, at last, nothing more than a man, and wearier than most.
The orphanage where Albus lived as a child took him occasionally to Muggle churches on the high holidays, when the ancient magics that touch wizards and Muggles alike are displayed in their most effective theater.
Later, at Oxford, he attended university sermon because it was expected of him, and because it seemed to him no bad thing to stop in the course of one's week and remember love's great power over evil.
Now, as the ghost of Tom Riddle's sundered conscience howls in his soul, he derives unexpected comfort from an old lesson, half-remembered. Love, it says, is as strong as death... Harry's hand, guiding him, is warm and steady, and Albus's heart expands with it till it seems it will burst.
But there is fear yet. Not for himself, but for Severus, whom he must ask to play a traitor's part, though Albus knows that it is Severus who is truly betrayed.
His final words are a plea, but only half the plea is spoken before the act becomes actuality. Albus's mind closes on it, a bitter herb in the mouth of a starving man. In the instant before the night leaps up to swallow him there is just enough time to hope that Severus has heard it anyway; that the friend of whom he has already asked so much will do him one final service.
Will forgive him.
The sun rises over the lake, behind the mountains, filling the Headmaster's office with slow golden light.
In his portrait, high above the vacant desk, amidst the whirring of delicate silver instruments, Albus Dumbledore sleeps. He does not dream.