When young Harry Potter was in his first year at Hogwarts, he asked Albus Dumbledore about the Mirror of Erised. “What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I?” said Albus. “I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.”
Harry could have been forgiven for thinking this was not quite a truthful answer. Oddly, it was one of the most candid and least studied things that the great wizard ever said.
There, on the other side of the glass, Albus saw his younger self standing only inches away. His eyes were closed and he had his head thrown back in laughter. He was dressed in dark velvet robes with lace accents that had been the height of style sixty years ago. He was clutching a pair of wildly colored socks in one hand and a piece of torn wrapping paper in the other.
It was a simple scene, surely nothing of great import, and Albus had had every intention of ignoring any foolishness the mirror tried to show him. However, that mirror has always had a way of throwing even the greatest minds off balance. Albus was no exception. To see those long-ago socks in the mirror, newly knitted and solid, made him pause.
He couldn’t help remembering the soft click of Horace’s knitting needles as the two of them sat talking in the staff room late into the night. At first he had only gone there because it was one of the few places the students couldn’t follow him. He had found himself coming back for reasons he didn’t entirely understand. Horace had introduced him to the pleasure of good gossip and better mead.
The socks themselves, when they were finished, were entirely unremarkable. They were lumpy things that were almost, but not quite, foot shaped. Wearing them gave Albus the oddest calluses, yet they delighted him in a way that Horace’s later, more masterful knitting never did.
Albus had kept those first socks much longer than he could logically explain, years past the end of the affair. He had simply gone on casting reparos until they were more spell than sock. By the end not even magic could hold the last wisps of thread together.
So some part of Albus wasn’t surprised by what the mirror showed him. However, Albus was a master at compartmentalization. He set aside the mirror with the same determination with which he had once set aside his sister's memory. He made the conscious decision not to think about the mirror’s call, to let old hopes be reburied under the steady accumulation of new memories. After all there was no reason to believe that Horace ever thought of him. Surely it was better to let those dreams sleep in the same dim corners that held Gellert’s passionate speeches and Ariana’s laugh.
Every so often the world conspired to remind him of Horace. The next year's Defense professor used the same lavender hair potion that Horace had used. Then, the year after that, Filch found some of Horace’s old brewing equipment in a storage room that was being emptied and cleaned. However, these were little things. Albus shrugged and moved on.
What mattered was the bigger picture of a land on the edge of war. There were increasing signs that Lord Voldemort was trying to return. The dark mark had been spotted over the World Cup grounds. Even the mark on Severus’ arm seemed to growing clearer. Albus was tireless in his pursuit of ways to keep the wizarding world safe. He didn’t waste time on dreams.
Therefore, it was several years before Albus understood how the mirror had weakened him. Or maybe he would have weakened anyway, with or without the mirror. In any case, it was the Yule Ball that made it clear that he was losing his ability to balance the past and the present.
Maybe he was simply having too much fun. The Yule Ball was turning out to be just the thing for loosening people up and making them forget old rivalries, and Albus himself was having a grand time trying every dance step he could remember and several that he couldn’t.
Anyhow, one moment he was waltzing with Pomona and telling an exceptionally bad joke. The next moment he was staring open-mouthed across the dance floor, unable to move. There, on the far side of the dance floor, stood a living version of the younger self he had seen in the Mirror of Erised. The same reedy height. The same ginger hair. And those dress robes. Those were his.
Albus stumbled and almost fell. Pretending a leg cramp, he hobbled to a seat while Pomona got him a drink.
By the time he sat down, Albus had recognized his doppelganger as Ron Weasley, who for some unfathomable reason seemed to have exhumed Albus’s 1930s dress robes, cut off the lace, and worn them to the ball. It was odd behaviour even for a Weasley. It had to be some sort of dare or prank. Whatever the reason, Albus felt thoroughly unsettled. To see his old robes up and walking around again, as though Ron was his younger self, was to be flung back into the past the way a rock is flung into a lake.
It was the winter of 1931...
Outside, the wind sulked and howled. The snow was doing its best to fall, but the wind was having none of it. As fast as the snow could land on the ground the wind was scooping it back up and flinging it at the sky. It was like looking into a freshly shaken snow globe.
Inside the castle was a different world. The great stone walls muffled the wind till it could barely be heard over the music, and in the Great Hall the whole storm was reduced to a sparkling ceiling decoration. Here, the Yuletide celebrations were in full swing. The fires burned bright and hot, and the mulled wine made the dancers flush even hotter. The band was playing a song filled with innuendos about Old King Cole and the things that made him Merry, and a number of the students were showing entirely too much leg.
The staff were no more sober than their charges. Headmaster Dippet and Galatea Merrythought were dancing much too close. Ogg was loudly declaiming love poetry to a puzzled ghost in a corner. Even Peeves was looking pleased, having spiked one of the punch bowls with hiccuping solution.
As for Albus, he had spent his first Hogwarts paycheck on dramatic new dress robes in the latest style, fancy ones with spell-woven lace at the cuffs and collar. They were cut from a rich maroon velvet that hugged him a little bit tighter than it needed to, but that stopped just this side of vulgar. He felt modern and daring, and more than a little drunk.
The other recent hire, Horace the potions teacher, was an effusive fellow and a bit of a flirt. So it wasn’t entirely unexpected when the two of them ended up exchanging wine-flavored kisses in the staff room. Then they were rubbing up against each other as though they were trying to fuck the fabric of their dress robes instead of each other.
It had been Albus’s first time coming in his clothes, but he was much too tipsy to care. He had woken up the next day with the mother of all headaches and the feeling that he had badly embarrassed himself. However, Horace didn't seem to share his worries. He greeted Albus cheerfully at the breakfast table, passed him “tea” which turned out to be a restorative potion, and then proceeded to drown him in a steady stream of conversation that left Albus both amused and slightly bewildered.
“Albus? Albus!” The hand on his shoulder pulled him back to the present. If Pomona appeared mollified once he had drunk the restorative drought that she handed him, Albus himself was far from reassured. How had the sight of Ron Weasley led to a memory like that? He needed to pull himself together. He needed to focus.
Up till now that had worked. But now….
Now everything reminded him of Horace. The new wallpaper in the staff room was just the sort of floral confection that Horrie had loved, and Filius had somehow convinced Argus to outfit the room with a piano.
Hogsmeade was no better. Gladrags had a display of lushly embroidered waistcoats in their window. The Three Broomsticks brought back Horace’s favorite style of oak-matured mead, after Rosmerta found her mother’s old recipe. As for Honeydukes, it seemed to carry more crystalized pineapple every day.
Even his own magic worked against him. When he absent mindedly conjured a chair at the Ministry, it was exactly the sort of squashy chintz armchair that Horace was fond of. When he conjured himself a drink, it was almost always one of Horace’s favorites.
Then the elves took to serving crystallized pineapple at the high table. When he asked them why, Dobby had looked startled and hadn’t seemed to have an answer. “Dobby is not understanding. You doesn’t want it, Sir?” And the damnation of it was that Dobby was right. He did want it. He couldn’t say he didn’t.
He wanted pineapple in every shape and form. Crystallized. Iced. Gingered. Fresh. In pudding. Frozen.
He wanted to watch Horace commune with his favorite pineapple pudding, the iced one they served in summer. He was always silent for the first several bites. It was as though he was in private conversation with the food. He would savor each bite the way a wine connoisseur savored wine, rolling it on his tongue and smiling whenever he got a particularly delicious bit of crystallized pineapple. Then he would turn to Albus and beam, “Our elvish friends have outdone themselves again.”
Albus knew he wanted all this, but if his longings were so strong that they were registering on the house elves’ sensibilities, things were bad indeed. Still, he did his best to ignore the intrusive memories and keep focused on the tasks at hand. This was no time to coddle himself or grow maudlin. He had a war to fight and he was used to shrugging off the merely personal.
Meanwhile he still had to handle the ten thousand administrative details involved in keeping Hogwarts open and functioning. It was an ongoing struggle to keep all the positions filled. There were only so many favors he could ask, only so many deals he could make.
When the day came that he was finally forced to offer Horace a teaching position, Albus studied the challenge like a chess game. He was under no illusion that Horace wanted any kind of personal connection with him. If there had been a chance of that he would have made some move, some gesture.
So Albus planned to let Harry do the actual tempting. Harry, simply being who he was, would be far more attractive than any games Albus might play. All Albus needed to do was to facilitate their meeting and then stay thoroughly out of the way while Horace took the bait.
Albus felt mildly foolish retreating to the bathroom, but it was as effective a strategy as any. He hadn’t counted on the knitting magazines. Yet there they were, stacked in a pile. He couldn’t help looking through them while he waited, though he knew that they changed nothing. They were just something to look at.
When he came back out, Horace was still holding out. Perhaps he had misread the situation.
Albus had planned this campaign so carefully. Nothing personal. No mention of their past. Yet what he heard himself saying was, “I was merely reading the muggle magazines. I do love knitting patterns.”
No. That wasn’t the right message at all. He wasn’t here for personal reasons. He wasn’t here to make awkward advances. Horace looked as uncomfortable as Albus felt, and Albus felt guilty about the mixed messages he was sending.
It was clearly time for them to leave, but Albus stalled for one last minute. “Well, I’m sorry you don’t want the job, Horace. Hogwarts would have been glad to see you back again.” What did he think he was saying? Why was he saying this? “Our greatly increased security notwithstanding, you will always be welcome to visit, should you wish to.”
Then they were leaving. They had got as far as the front door when Horace called after them, “All right, all right, I’ll do it!”
Albus felt a great lightness fill his body, and he smiled in spite of himself.
“I must be mad,” said Horace, and he seemed to be fighting his own smile. It was only a faint twitch, there and then gone, but Albus had known his old lover too many years to be fooled.
Albus walked away, still focused on school business, still instructing Harry as he ought, but inside him the feeling of lightness kept growing. At any moment it seemed that his feet might leave the ground and he might sail into the sky. It was the purest feeling of joy he had felt in years.