Title: A Change of Heart (Part 3 of 5)
The first sign of the holidays approaching would also be the last; it arrived at Hogwarts when the last leaves spiralled from the oak trees – not via owl post, but delivered by an old house elf who Draco failed to recognise. “Mrs Malfoy sent me,” the creature croaked as bony fingers retrieved a bundle from his crisp tea-towel toga.
It was unlike any previous gift Draco had received from his mother. The lavish packaging was replaced by a chunky Slytherin jumper, seemingly new but outmoded, which wrapped around a crystalline casket. The hollow within was almost egg-shaped, if not for the mild skewing towards one tapered end, and measured roughly half the size of a bludger. The translucent facets at once appeared unbreakable and fragile in the Bluebell flame that accompanied him on the battlement.
The house elf was scrutinizing his every move; the sunken eyes could not conceal a deep-seated scorn, as incongruent with his proper but plain outfit as the luxurious golden locket hanging low from his neck, swinging gently before his stooping frame. He showed no blatant animosity towards Draco, but the unease was clear.
It was infectious as well, and Draco distanced himself from the elf as he opened the casket and smoothed the small piece of parchment folded inside; his mother’s elegant handwriting had fallen into disarray. She wrote:
Since owl posts are screened, I am sending you my love by means of Kreacher. He is no longer at our family’s disposal, but I will ask you to refrain from asking about his current master, as his reaction may compromise your safety. All I shall say is that he has served us well and is living proof that unwavering loyalties need not be exclusive, and subordination does not necessitate a crushing of the will.
Please forgive me for the disorderly state of the package; the casket, which you have no doubt uncovered since this message is contained within it, should be a rightful Malfoy heirloom. Your father has made his disagreement quite clear, but my instincts insist that this is meant for something extraordinarily, a relic that will lift us from savage beasts or fiery seas – it has proven itself unshrinkable and impervious to all revealing charms and destructive spells I have conjured. Thus I trust you to keep it safe, in case it becomes misplaced during the hectic daily occurrences at the Manor.
The jumper is an old one of your father’s, knitted by an aunt of yours while we were still in school; he has never worn it and I doubt he ever will.
Worry not, my son, we are safe. However, given our many responsibilities this season, it may not be an ideal time for you to return to Wiltshire for Christmas. I would like you to remain in Hogwarts, and be sure to report to the Headmaster should any problems arise.
I must stop now. My last favour to ask of you, Draco, is to never mention this letter to your father. Also, while I have paid Kreacher handsomely for this delivery, it seems he may demand more. Appease him.
Take good care of yourself, and never forget that you are what makes my heart, my treasure.
Kreacher’s long ears flapped briskly as Draco carefully folded the letter back into a small square and returned it to the casket. The house-elf showed no signs of departing, however; instead, he muttered into the stillness of this night, “Kreacher lives to serve and the pies are cold, oh, what would Master say, what would Master do ...?” Somehow he found the strength to straighten his frame, and his huge, pale eyes glowed like glass orbs in the moonlight. “Master leaves and Master dies, oh how Kreacher waits, how Kreacher cries; Master leaves and Master dies … Kreacher makes pies and pies are cold …”
If Kreacher had lost his master, Draco thought, his family might stand a chance of claiming his possession; it would be convenient to have a house-elf under his command. Cradling his mother’s gifts to his chest, he knelt beside the elf and whispered, a precaution against the trio returning to the Tower during their detention responsibilities.
“Shut up, Kreacher.”
The house elf flung his head dramatically sideways, but disregarded Draco’s command. Rather, his croaking hastened to a frenzy, as if making a death plea to the forests below –
“Master dies; Kreacher fails. Oh, how disappointed Master is, how he wants to change ...” His hand gripped the golden locket tightly at the pause. “Kreacher carries out his Master’s bidding. Kreacher finds the thief Master wants. Oh, how he thinks Master is pleased, then Master leaves the Noble House of Black and Potter …” He dashed towards the stone wall and swung back his head –
Without rhyme or reason, Draco felt a strong desire to pull the house-elf away from the wall. He was neither fast enough, however, and he stood at a wrong angle; thus he did what he could – he shot out his arm to shield Kreacher’s skull from the stone.
The impact was dampened, at the price of jagged rocks cutting into Draco's flesh; he let out a yelp of pain. Kreacher’s aged body was bent again, but his eyes, impossibly wide, refused to leave Draco as he stepped backwards, his one hand still tugging on the golden chain while the other rubbed against the contour of his scalp.
Fine stretches of peeled skin had formed upon Draco’s Dark Mark, blanching the snake and skull with jagged lines of white. He now knew what he would like to ask Kreacher, or more specifically, about whom.
The Noble House of Black and Potter.
But his mother’s advice spoke to him through the warmth of the sweater, still held close to his burdened heart.
“Go. Just go,” Draco said.
Kreacher did not budge; his haggard features remained tense, his desire to punish himself subdued to a brutal twisting of his long ears; the younger house-elves in the manor had never behaved like this. The mumbling then resumed, vicious and desperate, “Master’s bidding is the law of the house-elves. Oh, why does Master desert Kreacher when he is alive? Kreacher lives to serve …”
Draco rummaged his pocket for the Galleons he got; he had never paid a house-elf before, had always thought them of less value than a Knut. But Kreacher belonged to Potter, and he –
The clatter of a Galleon on the battlement was deafening in the eerie silence of the evening.
No response came from the elf. Draco threw another, then another to no avail, until he had exhausted all but one – the one with the Protean Charm that Professor Snape used to inform him about the password to the Headmaster’s Office. He clutched it in his hand and felt warmth radiating from it; Snape must have just left and reset the key for the night.
He had to pacify the creature, not resort to violence. “What do you want, Kreacher?” he spat. “You can’t stay.”
Kreacher examined him, inch by inch, searching ravenously for a gift, for something that he desired. He was nothing but a slave, Draco kept reminding himself, but it seemed to make little difference when the small frame hunched in predatory stance, the large eyes sharp and hungry. His mother had never trusted or treated with kindness any of the pitiful house-elf his father had bought, and instead had placed her faith in … this. His arms folded defensively across his chest; as he did, a small twinkle flashed across Kreacher’s face – it was the moon’s reflection from Draco's cuff links – a small, old pair with the Malfoy emblem barely visible on its scratched surface.
“Kreacher likes this.” The long fingers shot towards one of them immediately, at a speed that such old age should not have permitted. He did not bother to wait for Draco’s permission; Accio, the house-elf hollered towards the clasps, the withered lips curled into what could be a grimace or a smile. Exhibiting the efficiency of a seasoned slave, he quickly brushed the “M”s on the metal with the pad of thumb, akin to a soldier estimating his latest spoils from a war; then, he proceeded to open the locket and place the cuff links inside.
With another Summoning Charm, every Galleon that had showered the stone floor congregated in Kreacher’s wrinkled palms. “Remind Kreacher of all his Masters and Mistresses,” the house-elf chanted as he handed the coins to Draco, before the jaws tightened to a clench and he completed the sentence with all his might.
A loud pop ensued, and the creature was gone. Alone again on the battlement, Draco realised that he had never heard of house-elves addressing wizards as equals.
Perhaps, in Kreacher’s eyes, he was no better than a servant of Master Potter, or perhaps it was Kreacher had risen from his fate of enslavement for this one moment. Draco was unable to tell, but somehow, he felt by an unexpected warmth of companionship, tangible as the residual heat of the Galleons in his hands – heat that could not have originated from a single charmed coin alone, heat that only blood and life could supply. As it combated the late autumn chill, an old memory sifted in his mind – of Dobby’s plea when a young Master Malfoy had used to question his loyalty.
House-elves are bound to serve one house and one family forever.
An absurd thought came to Draco – One House of Black and Potter. One family. He snickered, cast the Disillusion Charm on the Bluebell Flame and left the jar on a crenel, disguising the magical fire as a mere reflection of the silver moon.
The crystal casket in one hand and the Galleons in the other, Draco left the Astronomy Tower, the moonlight flowing down through the narrow lancet windows as his guide. Several Bluebell flames greeted him as he passed the seventh floor corridor, and there was the trio standing by the guardian gargoyle of the Headmaster’s Office, their book bags cast to one side in a heap and the sleeves of their robes rolled up. Before they saw him, Draco slid behind the corner of the stairwell.
“We’ve tried every possible password,” Longbottom said quietly, “let’s go back and think through this – “
“That sword belongs to Harry!” Weasley gave the stone statue a hard kick. “We’ll get it and send it to him somehow. He needs it.” Her strained whispers were threatening to explode with fury and despair.
“We don’t know where he is yet.” Longbottom pulled her back, seemingly effortlessly. “And you need rest, Ginny. We’ll come back with another list of potions ingredients tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.” Weasley emitted a bitter laugh. “Your plants live forever, Neville, but who knows what another day will do to Harry?” She pried herself away from her friend. “I won’t give up.“
“I know. And I won’t, either.” Longbottom declared solemnly; Lovegood nodded beside him.
Weasley forced a smile and responded in strained calmness. “You two head back first. Hide the flames, if that’s okay – I’ll come in a while.” She raised a hand in an attempt to roll her sleeves down, but her fingers were stiff and trembling; all she managed was a rough yank on the fabric and a ripple of monotonous clicks echoed in the corridor. “Shit! Lost the buttons ...,” she spat under her breath.
“Ginny –“ Longbottom began.
The blue flames were all Disillusioned at that same moment. School bags rustled, blended with Lovegood’s airy plea, “Neville, why don’t we go then? Ginny can come later. I’m hungry, and some rose petals for a snack would be nice.”
She must have put out the light to save Weasley’s embarrassment.
Draco watched the Bluebell flames planted during the past month being lit and extinguished intermittently along mirroring trajectories, one heading towards the Gryffindor dormitory in the south while the other advancing to the Ravenclaw Tower in the north. Further and further they separated, until the flames in both directions were all but faint specks in the distance.
Darkness consumed the air once again. Holding his breath, Draco inched into the hallway, knowing he was not the only one watching the departure, waiting for Longbottom and Lovegood to fade away from sight. For from in front of the entryway to the Headmaster's office, came quiet sobs that were becoming louder and louder; the concomitant chokes and gurgles were jarring, boorish, nothing unanticipated from a Weasley.
Draco cast a silent Muffliato on the unsuspecting, crying mess and tiptoed to the remaining bag on the floor. He threw onto it all the coins he was clutching in his hand.
Every single Galleon, including the one with the Protean Charm. Draco could feel its warmth slip away from his fingers.
She would need money to replace the buttons on her robe, anyway.
Lady Luck, as it turned out, had not ceased to bless the disciples of Godric Gryffindor; it had taken Weasley less than a day to locate the charmed Galleon and decipher its message. The night of Kreacher’s visit had therefore been the last of the detentions, for just after supper the following day, when the first winter snowflakes ended their aimless fluttering to settle on the wilted grass by the lake, Draco was called to the Headmaster’s Office.
Professor Snape was gazing out the window into the early nightfall. A shining gold Galleon on the desk immediately caught Draco’s eye; the ruby-hilted sword lay askew on the burgundy carpet.
“You have succumbed to senseless heroics.” Irony pervaded every word of the former Potions Professor. “What were you thinking, Mr Malfoy? Did the Sorting Hat err on not placing you in the house of baboons?”
Draco refused to articulate a response, just had he had refused to acknowledge to himself what his motivation had been.
He had always placed too much value on tears, even those belonging to a Weasley.
The echoes of Legilimens had not yet all faded into oblivion when dark eyes bored into Draco’s face, widening by the second before they shut close. Howls of laughter ensued. Draco had never seen the professor like this before – crooked, yellow teeth showing as the head tipped backwards, eyes trailed by long, deep lines furrowed prematurely for his age.
The sweet fragrance of elderflowers and alcohol staled to the smell of death –
“You’re drunk, Professor,” Draco said.
“… House of self-deceptive fools … the Hat was right, right after all.” Snape then gasped for air as the numerous buttons on the robe seemed to crush his breath. He recovered quickly, however, his dilated pupils – the only sign of his intoxication – camouflaged by black irises; the brutal indifference returned as well. “Your friends,” he enunciated with a smirk, “I sent them to the Forbidden Forest tonight; obviously, with the evidence of this theft, I can no longer entrust you with their discipline.” Gone was the last trace of amusement; Snape looked … accusatory, betrayed, even. “I confiscated this Galleon from them,” he continued, nodding at the desk as he stepped over the sword with little care. “Yours, I believe.” His voice then smoothened with a sigh. “Do not lose sight of it again.”
Draco nodded as he placed the coin in his pocket. “May I go now?” he asked; he did not wished to dwell on the incident any longer.
Snape merely seated himself in his chair; stroking his chin absentmindedly, he seemed to address the silver instruments in the opposite end of the office.
“The last enchantment conjured to the mirror was a Tactility Charm; what he sees but does not wish to own comes to him, while all that he seeks to possess remains trapped in the mirror, impervious to touch. Use it wisely.”
At a wave of Snape's wand, the double doors of the office had swung open; Draco left, perplexed by the cryptic advice. He wandered aimlessly through the castle, guided by the Bluebell flames, until he found himself losing track of them just before the marble staircase descending into the Entrance Hall – that was the extent of the progress made during the detentions.
Before retreating into the dungeons, he felt his path to the front entryway; leaning against the flanking armour, he pushed open the door to a slit and looked outside.
The snowfall had become heavier; somehow, it brought peace to the night, its pure white drawing light from somewhere deep in the purple skies to weave a lambent cloak upon itself. A lone lamp was lit afar, in front of the line of the dark forest; he remembered that this was where Hagrid’s cabin was located.
In his mind, Longbottom, Lovegood and Weasley were having a merry time with the savage, sharing food and drinks that Draco would not dare to guess at their ingredients. Wrapping his robe closer to himself, he then retrieved the Galleon he had haphazardly stuffed in his pocket.
Despite himself, he could soon feel the corner of his lips lifted to a smile; for while the password to Snape’s office usually substituted the motto Magic is Might on the coin, the serial number beneath the Ministry’s emblem, where Dumbledore’s Army had used to relay their messages two years ago, had been charmed to the following words:
He did not return to his bed; instead, he found himself in the Chamber of Secrets, practicing the trio’s gift on a small animal skull transformed to a clear jar. Once again, he lounged against the edge of the mirror, letting the bright feathers that hemmed his own reflection provide the needed illumination.
The spell was difficult to cast without knowing the needed wrist movement; for the entire night he waved, flicked and tapped his wand in every manner imaginable, and many times he had to stop and wipe away his sweat, heavy as his suspicion that the trio had deceived him. His twin watched on quietly, eyelids drooping lower every hour despite the backlight becoming more radiant – it was this strengthening brilliance that inspired Draco to forge on. The reward for his impending success was the ever tightening embrace of the stranger, whose profile was just short of discernible as the veil of feathers were gaining translucence through the night, whose caresses on Draco's twin’s bare flesh matched every one of Draco’s uncomfortable shifts in his sweat-drenched robe.
The merpeople’s song at sunrise welcomed the first Bluebell flame he had ever conjured. When he had to leave the Chamber, he placed it, along with the jar, in the crystal casket from his mother, left in his book-bag from two nights ago.
He doubted he would ever have the heart to extinguish it.
This had to be the silliest contest ever to be held in wizardkind.
Bathed in the white radiance from the mirror, Draco smiled to himself as he waved his wand at one of the glass jars lined along the opposite edge of the mirror. A small sapphire flame flickered into existence, ribbons of blue stretching hesitantly like the hands of a newborn’s into the world to which they were born.
He peeked downward to check on the reflection. The glass jars were there, but there were no flames within the mirror; not that their light were necessary when the radiance from the mysterious man was strengthening by the day. Still, Draco considered this a significant victory; and since no one was there to catch his childish moves, he wrinkled his nose at his twin, who, in no time, returned the gesture.
Tilting his wand slightly and giving it a wave, another flame danced gracefully before him. He was definitely getting better. His first Bluebell remained ablaze; Draco caught a sideward glimpse of the casket now placed in the open mouth of Salazar Slytherin, the light from within refracted by the crystal facets to a million shades of blue, chaperoned by bands of green and gold. Propped at the statue’s feet was his old school trunk, emptied in the Slytherin dormitory to free up space for transporting the flames to the lower floors; the serpents of the Malfoy crest coiled and flexed merrily on the handle, feeling at home with the many of their kind engraved along the stone pillars, instilling life upon the magical beasts that Draco loved if just for being his namesakes.
One last incantation, and a full arc of Bluebells flickered before Draco; the project would be complete when these jars found their place in the deserted maze on Christmas Eve, which would descend upon the world in a few hours’ time. The trio had continued to do their part, lining the flames along the corridors of the ground floor, while Draco had taken on the task of bringing light to the dungeon.
Each so delicate, the collective luminescence from the flames painted the chamber walls a rich sapphire, and warmed the air with a touch of spring. He shook off his robe and cast it aside.
Perhaps his success with the Bluebells had encouraged him, perhaps the spirit of the holidays that had driven his usual caution away, but his heart felt adventurous and eager to explore the depths of the mirror. He felt like the small child ready for his first summer dip in the pond just beyond the unplottable premise of the Manor; hovering above the mirror’s surface, arms supporting his weight as his hands below gripped the edges at the ends of the Bluebell rainbow. A smirk came easily onto the face meeting his own with a challenge, the twin's body resting self-assuredly against the chest of the unidentifiable man below.
Draco flexed both thumbs, watched the pads slide onto the reflection surface; lifting his chin towards the line of small, fiery tongues flitting into the air, he closed his eyes and let his palms slip inwards toward its centreline, feeling the elaborate relief of vines on the golden edge before it caved downward. A trail of warmth rose and gloved his fingertips, then, a feathery softness so familiar to him – back in the days at the Manor, he would seek this comfort by running his hands through the plumage of a prized peafowl in the garden, and marvel at the iridescence of the transparent ocelli as they found the best angle to kiss the sun. He would then trim off the most beautiful feathers to make quills for his parents and himself.
Once, too, he had succumbed to the feathers’ seduction –
A blush flared to Draco’s cheeks and his eyes shot open; that thought belonged to neither here nor now. Appropriately, it was forgotten the moment he saw his forearms; for even as his nerves sang to every fluttering brush from the barbules, the flesh and bone of his forearms had dived into the other dimension; all that was left was an invisible rendez-vous bridging the blue fire and the white glow, and the two worlds from which they hailed. It was frightening, this vanishing act, and yet indescribably enchanting beneath the Mark, beautiful against the ever more sinister looking snake and skull with incurable trails of dry, jagged scabs crawling over it, the Dark magic making it impossible for wounds to properly heal.
He found himself wanting to immerse his arms further, wanting to know if the two worlds could fuse into one; if he would meet himself. And him.
He took a breath, closed his eyelids again, and hoped.
Like rising neap tides, plumelets gently washed up his arms; he stretched and for a moment shifted his balance such that his knees bent slowly, bringing his shins away from the golden periphery and into the feathery sea; soft down tickled his bare stomach in no time, light as his twin’s hastened breaths, whispering in his ear.
It would soon be time for the final plunge, which would require a witness.
Thus Draco let his vision resume control of his senses; he looked deep into his own reflection, from the grey irises glinting with fear and excitement to the complexion pale even in its illusory health. True, Draco had frequently observed himself in mirrors, but his attention had long trained onto all that had shrouded his own skin – from his boots, his robes, to the numerous pins stabbed into the fabric for yet another unsatisfactory fit.
Now, basking in the light at a heartbeat’s distance across from himself, was himself again but without a care for all these things. The pair of enfolding arms, so protective of what they held, formed a shield for his twin; they seemed to become part of him, and perhaps would prove to be so when the excess plumage was shed. Would they spirit their charge away like with wings of an angel?
Whatever the light meant, whoever was its bearer, Draco decided that these arms – these shields – were what he had sought.
The perfect fit.
With that thought, he felt prepared; eyes closed, he bowed his head as if in prayers and sealed his lips against his mirrored own.
The world spun. Words defied the physical sensations Draco felt – it was as though he was surfing on the sand in a tipped hourglass, his world going topsy-turvy as he rode upon an ocean of dreams and reality.
The feathers undeniably settled against his flesh, as did the warmth, the embrace. The truth of their existence was so humbling that Draco found himself petrified; the impulse to struggle or scream, like he always did in the face of fear, evanesced. What had come to pass, inexplicable as it was, somehow assured him that it had no fangs that would gnaw on his nerves, no claws that would tear into his conscience; thus he relaxed and listened with full intent, searching for disturbances in the silence within the mirror, a silence that was one with the Chamber’s. Quiet sounds of breathing soon became audible – the first train was clearly his own, while the second came as one with the rushes of air against the back of his head, leaving him without doubt to whom they belonged.
A joy that knew no reason pervaded Draco. His face turned towards the warm breaths, and his one hand initiated its dive beneath the feathers. What he sought, however, was elusive. The barbs seemed to become adhesive as Draco’s fingers submerged themselves into them, gluing and lumping to a cocoon that prohibited all sense of touch.
That did little to dishearten Draco, nor did it dampen his will to face the man. Instead, what stopped him came as a flash, quick as lightning before his eyes, a sight so eerie that he stiffened instantaneously, and his torso uncoiled and collapsed upon his back.
It was a ghostly imprint of a skeleton, his skeleton – or was it his twin’s? – lying upon the feathers, the sternum of its ribcage cracked open along a line that traced his wound from Sectumsempra.
Imprisoned within were two hearts, one strong and beating in clear rhythms, the other pale and convulsing feebly.
Was it real? Draco could not tell for certain, but he lacked the courage to confront it once more. He lay upon the light and the feathers, again innocent and luminous like the most fantastic of childhood dreams, and his mind retreated into inner thoughts.
He should escape this world, but his body lingered in its comfort. The arms holding him tighter by the minute were evidence, enticing persuasions for him to remain longer. It’s Christmas Eve, Draco told himself, a time for indulgence. His vision strayed in his growing quiescence, out of the mirror to the jagged roof of the Chamber of Secrets; it was dark, unreachable by the Bluebell flames that were out of Draco’s sight save for the one in the casket, its faint glow steadfast as the astral guides in the nightly sky. It reminded Draco of his parents, of their lives infiltrated by Death …
The last enemy that shall be destroyed, whispered words that alit like fresh snow in Draco’s mind, as if hinting on a revelation unbeknownst to him. They were unfamiliar; had they once been a promise issued by the Dark Lord? But the voice was melancholic, tender as the man behind him who seemed to share his thoughts and snuggled closer. Draco sighed, and soon he drifted off to slumber.
He woke with a start. A chill had seared into his scapula, and the relief beneath the plumage was grotesquely perturbed, the once gentle dips and curves pulled taut at an awkward angle as if bound by heavy ropes – a giant snake, even – intent to squash its prey into suffocation.
This realm was in peril; his bedmate, in danger.
In retrospect, Draco could have reacted differently; but at that moment, chaos reined and he froze in place. Feathers fluttered wildly in a windless storm, while the light fluctuated between a dazzling overdrive and a dreary, flickering existence.
It did not last long. A loud crack ended it all.
The feathers settled.
Despair had won.
A soft glow remained, but no brighter than a few Lumos; the man had lost his rigor – Draco could feel the man's stomach caving in, leaving a cushion of air behind the small of his own back – and his splayed arms were no longer capable of protection. The heavenly bliss was there no more, the comfort he still felt was easily matched by conjuring some Bluebells in the real world for himself.
He should leave; there was nothing here for him to stay– and as easily as this thought had come to him, he found his footing on the gold frame and stepped out of the mirror.
One by one, he collected the Bluebells and secured them in his school trunk for the final night of his mission; there were brief moments when he caught sight of a sliver of his own reflection in the mirror again, but it owned nothing that he did not possess; at least, nothing he could see in the gloom.
This could be a relief, he thought, as he dressed and smoothened the wrinkles out of his heavy school robe, for he would no longer be tempted to return here every few days to watch himself, to wonder, to envy. Fastening the clasp on his neck with one hand, he stepped over the basilisk and stood before Salazar Slytherin, his other hand already extended to reach for the queen of the Bluebells.
It was then he noticed how cold the Chamber had become; the mirror had always blossomed into a fountain of radiance upon his approach, and he had imagined the silver surface to be the portal to a world where light was constant as the sun, and warmth ubiquitous as air.
Now that light and warmth had diminished, would the weakened man behind the feathers survive? Who was this man anyway, he who was inseparable from Draco’s alternative existence, he who had come to Draco not as a minion but in a mirror with the power to reveal dreams, as it had done for Myrtle?
What did this all say about Draco, about his heart’s desires?
Nothing he can understand, thus nothing he can possibly want, he told himself again; but strength had left his grip, and his hand merely brushed the crystal casket before it fell to his side.
And Draco left the Chamber without turning back, his school trunk in tow; the serpents on the handle slithered onto the back of his fingers – to bid farewell, perhaps, to the Bluebell Flame burning behind him, as if blinking away tears at the inevitability of his departure.