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Lines We've Crossed

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In another world, when a niffler slips free in a catacombs of Père Lachaise, he finds his way to a silver pendant hanging from a coat of a strange looking man. It's not particularly shiny, but he niffs it anyway, and then goes on his way, until Newt Scamander catches him again.

In that world, there is almost twenty years of war brewing, and it all ends up in a duel. A final fight between light and dark, good and evil. Everyone agrees it was a great duel, even if no one witnessed it, and so it goes on. A great triumph and fifty years of loneliness, while the world get caught up in another war, another darkness. Later, when people will remember this story, no one will think of a niffler.

In this world, the niffler doesn't see a pendant, because he's busy stealing a diamond necklace from a witch's neck. It's very big, and very shiny, and so very, very distracting. (Newt Scamander finds him anyway, and then takes the necklace away, so for the niffler it ends up mostly the same.)

And so things change.

 

 

Newt Scamander comes back from Paris empty-handed, weary, and grief-stricken. Albus thought he might, though he hoped otherwise. He sent Newt to Paris thinking it could help avoid the very thing that happened.

He knew what Grindelwald could, would do in Paris, just like he knew his arrest in New York could only be temporary. Albus has long been able to predict Grindelwald's moves, though this knowledge did him little good. It only weighted on his mind, a familiarity he would rather forget, while he uttered warnings only a few heeded.

When he comes down to Hogwarts gates, it to greet a handful of survivors, not victors. They stand near each other, but not quite together, and from the distance he can recognize only few familiar figures. It's a sunny day, unusually warm for Scotland's weather, but the light doesn't suit tired, drawn faces of newcomers. It makes them look solemn and lost, without a sense of purpose. They look nothing like Aurors who came to question him only a few days earlier.

Then again, most of these Aurors didn't return from Paris.

Newt meets him halfway on the bridge, alone, and for that Albus is grateful.

"Is it true?" He asks. "About Leta?"

He already knows, of course, though he hopes otherwise. Nicolas gave him the account of what happened at Père Lachaise, or at least what he could piece together. Albus could guess the rest well enough.

"Yes," Newt answers, and doesn't look him in the eye.

"I'm sorry," Albus says, and he knows he isn't sorry enough, not when he was at the cause of all this. He didn't send Leta to Paris, and he did try to warn Theseus against interrupting the rally, but it wasn't nearly enough. In the end people still died and Grindelwald got away, stronger and with new allies, including Credence. Perhaps, if Albus had done more, it would have ended differently. Perhaps if he had only acted...

"Grindelwald had something," Newt changes the topic suddenly. He still doesn't quite look at Albus. "At the rally. A pendant, or a necklace."

Newt gestures to his own chest, as if to indicate something. His bowtruckle peeks from the breast pocket, then hides away again. It's a shy creature, though admirably loyal.

"It's a blood pact, isn't it? You swore not to fight each other?" Newt says, and Albus feels cold all over.

If only he had acted, things might have happened differently in Paris. But he couldn't act, not directly, could he?

"That's why you cannot move against him?" Newt continues. "Because of this?"

Albus nods. He doesn't trust himself to speak.

"Well," Newt says. He looks back towards the gates, for a moment, where the Aurors are still standing. Albus wonders whether he thinks of walking away. There's a moment of silence and it seems neither of them knows how to break it. Albus has questions, of course, ones he wants to asks and ones he doesn't, really, but should ask anyway. He's sure Newt has his own, but it doesn't feel like a right time or place.

It's still a sunny day, but the air feels cold and unpleasant on his skin. Maybe the Aurors aren't the only ones who are weary.

"Well," Newt repeats. "I had to choose my side."

The following question is unspoken, but Albus hears it anyway: on whose side will he be, in the end?

The admonitors stay firmly on his wrists.

 

 

Later, in Albus's office, they talk more.

Newt tells him about the trip to Paris; of looking for and their finding his friend Tina. More than friend, if Albus correctly interprets his sudden talkativeness when their conversation concerns her. Newt never liked to talk much unless it involved his creatures and even then it was not much. Maybe there is one good thing to come out of this mess; it is a warming thought.

The room gets gradually brighter as they talk, morning light turning into afternoon. It gets softer, more golden, touching the papers and books laying on his desk. There are children running outside, classes Albus should be teaching. The tea doesn't get cold, thank to house elves' magic, but it does taste bitter.

Newt tells him about meeting – and being briefly abducted by – Yusuf Kama, and then looking for the Lestrange records at the French ministry. How Leta found them, and then what story she told them in the tombs of Père Lachaise.

It is a humbling experience, to be wrong, and one Albus doesn't live through often. He'd been sure Credence was Leta's brother, but with the children switched... It will be difficult to learn whose Credence real mother was, but not impossible with proper research. The bigger concern is Credence choosing to join Grindelwald, and then disappearing with him.

He wonders if Grindelwald knew. Was he surprised, when he learned Credence wasn't the missing Lestrange heir? Was it Credence who told him? Did he figured it out on his own?

And, more importantly, did he know who Credence's real mother was?

If he did, he gave no sign of it during his rally, at least according to Newt. Grindelwald had been confident, but not boastful. Respectful towards his fellow wizards to the point of almost seeming humble. His words were persuasive, seductive, enchanting, as they always were. They almost seemed reasonable, Newt says reluctantly, especially when Grindelwald showed them his vision.

His vision. Newt lacks words to describe them, but Albus thinks he can guess what Grindelwald choose to show his followers. War – muggle war – and the devastation it will bring. Weapons strong enough to annihilate cities, in hands of people filled with hatred and ready to use them.

They used to scare Gellert, these visions, and fill him with righteous fire and a need to alter this future. They scared Albus, too, when Gellert first shared them with him. Such weapons in the hands of muggles were unthinkable, not when they used violence so frequently, without any thought. And what if people yielding this weapons were like boys who attacked Ariana? What defence did wizards have against them?

Back then, he was also scared for Gellert. It seemed a terrible burden for a teenager, to know such a dark future, or even a possibility of it. They made plans, together, on how to change the world, how to make it into a place where there would be no such war, no such weapons. A perfect world, really, built on hopes and dreams.

And these plans are still in motion, even if Albus wasn't a part of them in almost thirty years.

He can understand the people – people like Queenie, like Credence – falling for Grindelwald's charm, his charisma, his visions. He, too, believed in Grindelwald's words, not so long ago.

The rally ended much like Albus expected – Aurors, charging in and right into Grindelwald's trap. A perfect proof Grindelwald needed, to show his supporters how his methods weren't truly violent, not when it was the Ministry who used unforgivables on its own people.

Newt struggles to describe the spell Grindelwald cast after. A circle of blue fire, allowing only few chosen to pass, disintegrating all others. Gellert offered them a choice: join him or die. Albus thinks it very like him; he always required absolute loyalty.

There are few words to be said about what happened then: Credence choose to go with Grindelwald, as did Queenie, Tina Goldstein's sister and Newt's friend from New York. Leta Lestrange choose not to and died trying to stop him, and then Grindelwald unleashed an inferno they could barely stop.

It is a failure, and a personal one. Albus sent Newt to Paris hoping to avert this outcome; hoping Newt would be able to bring back Credence and stop whatever plans Grindelwald was brewing, as he did in New York. He thought Credence was a Lestrange and so Leta would be a key to bringing him back, and so advised her accordingly. He misunderstood the situation entirely, blinded by his own sorrow, and it all ended in fire anyway.

Newt doesn't asks anymore questions about the blood pact, and it is a kindness Albus doesn't deserve.

 

 

He's summoned to the Ministry few days later.

He's rather surprised it didn't come sooner. Whatever leniency the Scamander brothers' goodwill bought him, it was bound to run out sooner rather than later. At least this time he's not getting ambushed in his classroom.

The Ministry is as busy – and as ostentatious – as it always is. Albus moves through the Atrium, intent on getting to security, when he's intercepted by two Aurors.

"Mister Dumbledore," says one of them, a tall, well-built woman. He cannot remember her name, though he's sure he's seen her before. Not one of his Hogwarts' students, then. "If you would follow us."

It's clearly an order, not an offer. Albus nods, and she turns on her heel, setting a brisk pace. The second Auror waits a moment, and then follows behind Albus.

It's such a warm welcome.

Albus can feel more than one pair of eyes on himself while they walk, but it doesn't exactly feel good to be recognized. Not when the fear and distrust are palatable in the air. The Aurors, in particular, seem wary of him – but why shouldn't they be, when more than a few of them died in Paris, only a few days after Albus had, once again, refused to fight Grindelwald?

When he looks at it that way, he can almost understand why Travers hates him so much.

The Ministry's corridors are lined with red, plush carpets; they muffle the sound of his steps when he walks. He briefly entertains the notion of whether it's merely an aesthetic choice or if it's supposed to make sneaking up on people easier. He's entirely too aware of his escort, even if he cannot hear their steps. These days, the Ministry seems excessively fond of tailing people.

The Aurors lead him to a corridor outside of Travers's office, and then tell him to wait until his name is called. The woman leaves, but the second Auror stays standing politely a few feet away. He's not exactly looking at Albus, but his observation isn't all that subtle, either. There are no chairs around, so Albus guesses he, too, is supposed to just stand there.

If this is an intimidation tactic, it's rather an uninspired one. He won't suddenly become afraid of Travers because the man made him stand outside his door for an hour. The only thing benefitting from the whole charade is Travers's own ego.

Albus supposes he could be more irritated about the whole situation, but there's no point to it. Whatever he chooses to do or feel, Travers will remain as nice and friendly as a fire crab. It doesn't matter if he gets angry or just spends an hour staring at an opposite wall.

For Aurors' offices, it's unusually busy. There's a number of people getting escorted, most of them looking scared. Ordinary witches and wizards, by the looks of it, stepping in and out of offices. Some of them are waiting, fidgeting anxiously.

If the Ministry is down to calling people for random interrogations, then the war maybe going worse than Albus thought it did. He doubts any of them are going to tell the Aurors anything of use. They certainly don't have such a clear connection to Grindelwald as he does. But they are here, just like he is, waiting to be asked questions they don't know answers to.

It's clearly a power move, one intended to intimidate the same people Aurors are supposed to be protecting. He wonders how they are justifying this to themselves, after what happened in Paris. Does it give them an illusion of doing something, of fighting against some unnamed evil, even when they are only frightening an older witch, who later stands lost in the corridors, quietly crying and squeezing her purse?

He tried to warn Aurors against this, but that had been unwelcome.

There's a sour taste in his mouth by the time he's finally called in Travers office.

It's an ugly room, as boring and unimaginative as the man it belongs to. There's a desk right in the middle of it, massive, made of dark, carved mahogany. The chair standing in front of it looks small in comparison and is no doubt uncomfortable. There are file cabinets by the walls, but these too are bulky, hideous things. The only source of light is magical; a pale, flickering globe hanging over Travers's head, casting his face in shadows. It makes everything look grimmer and greyer than it really is.

"Dumbledore," Travers says, in lieu of the greeting.

He doesn't offer him a seat, but Albus takes it anyway.

"In the light of recent events, it's been determined your behaviour is... unpredictable." Travers's mouth twists on the last word, like he meant to say something else. Albus can easily imagine what it was. Untrustworthy. Dangerous. Traitorous, even.

"It's been decided to extend the current level of surveillance over you indefinitely," Travers continues. He doesn't sound pleased, so Albus can only assume he finds the arrangement unsatisfactory. "For safety reasons, as I'm sure you understand."

"Safety reasons," Albus repeats. "Whose safety?"

"Grindelwald's actions endanger the whole Wizarding World." Travers voice sounds monotone, repetitive. "He almost exposed us in New York, and could’ve destroyed Paris entirely. He plans to start a war."

"And stopping Grindelwald will be accomplished by terrorizing ordinary witches and wizards?" Albus asks, in the same tone he would discuss the weather.

"You're much more than an ordinary wizard, Dumbledore."

"Oh, I don't doubt that." Albus smiles lightly at the unintended compliment. "But I do doubt all those people in your foyer will tell you anything of note."

"Simple precautionary measures." Travers waves his hand dismissively.

"As is stealing memories?" Albus doesn't know how, exactly, Travers acquired the memory of Grindelwald as he has been in the summer so long ago, but he knew enough to recognize it as his own.

"Let's be frank, Dumbledore. I think you should be locked up." Travers looks straight at him for the first time. "But the Minister disagrees, and I doubt you would go quietly. And there's still a matter of your little network of followers."

"Followers?" Albus asks. "I don't have any. And if you mean my friends-"

"Oh, I doubt they are that," Travers interrupts him. "I doubt you have friends. Just people that like to listen to you every word."

He drums his fingers on the table. "You sent Scamander to Paris to being you that obscurial, and look how that ended up. You delivered him straight into Grindelwald's arms. Whatever games you think you are playing, they end now."

There he goes again. Choosing sides and drawing lines in the sand, like the whole world can be divided into simple, black and white pieces.

But this, Albus supposes, was exactly how Ministry sees the world.

"I told you before," Albus says, "we both want to see Grindelwald defeated."

"But you're still not going to do anything that would actually help us defeat him, are you?" Travers looks like he'd prefer to hex him than to talk. "No, you're quite content to sit and wait while others will fight and die in the war against the darkest wizards we've known."

Albus doesn't have an answer to that. It's true, after all.

"The admonitors will stay, as will the watch over you. We will need access to your correspondence, syllabi, lessons plans. Any trips outside of Hogwarts should be consulted with the Ministry. I hope this won't be too much of an inconvenience for you, Dumbledore." Travers tone conveys how untrue the sentiment is.

It's quite clearly end of conversation.

When Albus leaves the Ministry, his hands are still tied.

 

 

There is little he can do, so he chooses to busy himself with other things, as he did before. Teaching has long become his refugee; changing the subject taught has not changed that. It makes him feel useful. On a good days, it almost makes him feel kind.

But these days are not good and even with the additional challenge of writing a new syllabus and teaching an entirely different subject he feels uneasy, unsettled. Restless. He thinks he should be doing more. He knows he should be doing more and cannot think of a way to accomplish it.

Outside of Hogwarts' walls, there's a war in making. People are dying, the Ministry is full of fools, and Grindelwald will only get more powerful.

He longs to stand in front of the mirror again, even though he knows what he will see and he knows it will not bring him any solace. He wants to see Gellert again, and he hates himself for it.

Instead he starts looking for Credence real parents. It is slow and boring work, but it's suitably numbing.

Leta Lestrange said she switched babies on a ship going to New York, moments before it sunk. It's as good a place to start as any. Finding out the ship's name is an easy matter, and then he just has to find appropriate records.

There are always records: passengers names, probable causes of the wreckage, measures taken to avoid similar occurrences in the future. Casualties lists.

He goes through the list until one name makes him pause.

Honoria Dumbledore. And then, right after: Aurelius.

Chapter Text

Albus doesn't really know what he is supposed to do with the names he found on the casualties list.

He thinks of it over and over while he's sneaking back into Hogwarts. His little trip to the Muggle records office was a direct violation of the Ministry's new rules, but Albus finds he doesn't care much. It isn't like keeping an eye on him will truly help in the fight against Grindelwald and, as much as he doesn't want to admit it, the constant supervision grates on his nerves. It's almost nostalgic, in a way; he had to leave using the old secret passageways and avoiding direct magic, thanks to the shackles on his wrists. It reminded him of his last years at Hogwarts, when he was still finding some thrill in escaping his teachers' notice.

The corridors are empty at this time of night. He's sure he could catch a few students breaking the curfew, if he really was out patrolling, but it's not his duty tonight. It's dark and quiet, the only sounds are his heels hitting the floor. Even the portraits are sleeping. It gives him time to think, and he has much to think about.

Aurelius Dumbledore. He turns the name over and over in his mind, but it doesn't start making more sense. Aurelius. He doesn't know anyone by that name, and Dumbledores weren't a big family. It's not a common name, either. Was it some distant cousin he hadn't heard about or had never met? Or a simple coincidence?

But how could it be, if Aurelius was travelling with his aunt?

He remembers aunt Honoria, of course. His father's younger sister was a beautiful woman, but she always held herself aloof, away from almost everyone, especially the children. Albus suspects she and Kendra didn't like each other very much, but he cannot know for sure. He only knows they argued after his father attacked those Muggle boys and got himself locked up in Azkaban, and then aunt Honoria stopped coming to their house. Maybe she still visited his father in prison. Or maybe she cut herself off from the family of Muggle-haters entirely. He wouldn't blame her; theirs was not a happy home, not for a long time, not even when Kendra was still alive. And, after all, didn't he want to do the same?

The last time he saw her was at Ariana's funeral. She was their only living relative at this point, and the only one who could really be called an adult. Someone must've owled her, maybe Bathilda or another one of their neighbours. Albus isn't sure; his memory of the days following Ariana's death has always been threadbare, like an old cloak with too many holes in it. But Honoria was the one to arrange the funeral and deal with the aftermath of his sister's death, while Aberforth avoided both the house and everyone in it, and Albus was too busy hating himself to talk with anyone. The last image of her he remembers is how she comforted crying Aberforth while Albus picked himself off the ground, bleeding, with a broken nose which would stay permanently crooked.

But they never talked, afterwards, and now he wonders why. Did she sense something was off about him, even then? Did she suspect his part in Ariana's death or that he...

Did she have a child she had never told him about?

Albus almost wants to laugh, though not in happiness. He avoided his family and all of their history for so long, so of course it would catch up to him now, just when Grindelwald was trying to start a war. Of course Gellert would somehow find a way to involve himself in it all.

But there is one person who may know, even if Albus doesn’t ever truly talk to his brother.

He's so lost in his thoughts he almost misses the doors to his quarters, taking a turn too late and walking straight into a portrait of some noble lady. She makes quite a ruckus on waking up, screaming something about ungentlemanly ways and molesting maidens. It's pure luck no one is around this part of a castle to see him reaching blindly for a door handle in order to escape to the safety of his own rooms. It's been a while since he had to get by without charms to help him see without light or remain undetected; he's rather out of practice. Suddenly it feels like he's just stumbling in the dark.

 

 

There's a certain routine to life at Hogwarts. Albus can count on that, if not on much else.

The children need to be taught and guarded even with Grindelwald on the loose, and they won't stop suddenly being children just because there might be, possibly, a war in the future. They will still make too much noise, and squabble over the most unimportant things, and ignore everything he's trying to put into their brains. Life cannot be put on hold, not infinitely.

Teaching is an exercise in patience, but he likes to think he's gotten pretty good at it.

It's a little rattling to adjust himself to a new subject – he has to think of new lesson plans and put together a new syllabus for each year, all in the middle of term, when the classes started months ago. It chafes more when he considers how thoughtlessly Travers has banned him from teaching the Defence against the Dark Arts. He didn't think of the students, who would be left without a teacher, and even less of Albus himself. He's been rather lucky Dippet allowed him to take over Transfigurations vacancy and teach alongside professor McGonagall. Where would he even go, if he had to leave the castle that has been his home for over twenty years?

Professor Merrythought has been more than put upon by the whole ordeal. She's been forced to take over his classes while Dippet looked for a replacement, working overtime on top of her own hours, without any assistant teacher. Albus supposes only her good nature and love of children stopped her from quitting outright.

It doesn't stop Albus from apologizing to her extensively. She's been one of his favourite professors while he was still a student at Hogwarts, and he still feels like awkward teenager every time he talks to her.

"There's no need to apologize, my dear boy," Merrythought says, when he tries to, once again, do exactly that. Albus has to smile at hearing it. There are not many people left who would still call him dear boy, and do so without any intent to patronise him. "This was hardly yours doing, so you're not the one at fault. The Ministry likes to stick its nose where it doesn't belong, but what can be done about it? We can only endure."

She shrugs her shoulders. It's still an elegant motion, as is everything about her, from the way she holds her teacup to the style of her hair. She looks like she belongs to a century that has already passed, to a world that has been yet unchanged by one war and the fear of another. Even her office feels like it exists outside of time.

"It's been horrible, that business in Paris," Merrythought says, sipping her tea. "And such a shame about what happened to young Leta. She was one of yours, wasn't she?"

Albus nods, though he cannot bring himself to speak of it. Leta's death is one more thing weighting on his conscience, a tragedy he couldn't prevent. It feels wrong to speak of her as just another one of Grindelwald's victims, especially here, sitting among books and knickknacks and drinking tea out of porcelain cups.

"Clever girl, but troubled, very troubled," Merrythought continues, seemingly unbothered by his silence. "Still..."

She puts away her teacup, shifts a little in her seat. Looks away from him.

"Still," she says slowly, "there is, perhaps, a grain of truth to be found in Grindelwald's arguments."

Albus suddenly feels thankful he has already finished his tea. If he hadn't, he surely would've choked on it now.

It's not entirely unexpected turn in conversation, but it is an unwelcome one. He has no desire to discuss idiosyncrasies of Grindelwald's ideology with Merrythought, even though he respects her deeply. The topic still feels too personal, too raw to touch upon it with others, much less someone who doesn't understand his history, who couldn't possibly understand the choices he faced.

"Do you really think so?" He asks politely, for a lack of a better thing to say.

"Oh, yes," Merrythought says, and smiles, visibly relieved. "Don't get me wrong, Albus; he's a horrible man. His actions are reprehensible, and all this violence..."

She pauses, seemingly lost in thought, and then gathers herself. Her fingers trace patterns on the old quill laying on the couch, the motion oddly mesmerizing.

"But one has to wonder, if one wants to be honest with oneself," she continues, "if there is not at least some truth in what he says. Muggles have come a long way from the time they were hunting and burning us up at the stakes – in some parts of this world, they still are – and that time wasn't so long ago. They are a danger to themselves; the last war proved that easily enough. One has to think, then, if isolationism is really the best policy. Who will be there to stop them, if they ever become a danger to us, however indirectly? Isn't inaction in face of such injustice, such cruelty, a fault in itself?"

"That's-" Albus starts, then stops himself. He can understand Merrythought's words, her questions and doubts, almost too well. After all, he shared the same sentiments not so long ago. They are true, to a degree. Of course they are. That's what makes them so dangerous, so easy to believe in. So easy to convince yourself it's right to act upon them, and to use that right as a justification for all that will follow.

But he can't share any of it with Merrythought.

"That's a very dangerous way of thinking, Professor," he finishes finally.

"Oh, Albus," Merrythought's voice takes on old, scholarly tone every teacher uses when they are talking to their students. "All independent thinking is dangerous, if done properly. The only question is whether we allow ourselves this risk, or whether we'd rather stay safe and unchallenged in our old beliefs."

"However true that might be," Albus says, "I doubt the Ministry would agree with you."

"Yes, the Ministry." Merrythought scoffs. "The Ministry is full of cretins who would much rather fight among themselves for scrapes of perceived power than face any real issues. They want to stop Grindelwald, but they don't have any idea how to do it, or anything to offer to counter his rhetoric. Besides, look at what they've done to you. Could you ever truly trust them, after all this?"

There, Albus thinks, is the greatest danger they might yet face: that Grindelwald will seem a better, more reasonable option, if only by comparison with the Ministry's crimes.

 

 

Sometimes, in his head, he writes letters to Gellert.

He doesn't put them on paper – it would make them too real, too substantial, and he doesn't think he could stand any more mementos to his own weakness. He isn't, shouldn't be feeling nostalgic when he thinks of Grindelwald. He can be angry, reproachful, betrayed. Hurt, and even scared, but never yearning, or wistful, or understood.

But he still misses Gellert all the same, so he composes them in his head.

Dear Gellert, he doesn't write, how have you been? I’ve been rather well myself, in case you were wondering; life at school is as peaceful as ever. The only obstacle is, of course, how my own government has chosen to spy on me, thanks to your actions. Would you please consider not ruining my life for a moment?

That's the best of it, honestly. Sometimes he even thinks he should send that one. Maybe it would be freeing.

Most of them are much worse.

Gellert, he thinks, I was reading an article in Transfiguration Today and I immediately thought of you, of how much you'd like it. (Don't laugh at me –I know what a fool I am, to be thinking of you at all, reflectively, without any intent, all the time. But I have always been a fool where you were concerned, weren't I? Even the smallest things still remind me of you, and I suppose I just learned to accept it.) Then I realized I don't know if you'd like it; I don't even know what you are reading, these days. I don't even know you, anymore, only the ghost of a boy I met all those years ago, who was laughing so freely. That boy, I think, would not have been capable of what you are doing – but maybe, once again, I'm just fooling myself. And yet I can't help but wonder: do you still get excited, when you talk about theory of magic? Do you still drink your tea strong, without any milk or sugar, and only black? Can you still laugh so freely? If I'm missing you, am I missing a ghost?

And:

...what do you think it says about me, if the thing I hate you the most for, the one thing I don't think I can forgive, is that you left? You've done such terrible, horrendous things, and yet I seem to fixate on this one thing. You hurt people I held dear, people I love; surely, it must be a bigger offence. But that blood is on my hands too, isn't it? I know the errors of my own judgement: I choose you, and worse yet, I believed your every word, and shared all of your ideas. I gave you some of them, I know: there was never anything innocent about us. To call it mistakes of misspent youth would be to treat it too lightly; our faults exceeded that. You will remain, I think, my greatest failing.

And:

The light is dancing upon the waters of the great lake and all I can think of is how your eyes were when the light touched them, how they entranced me. It's always worst at summer, when everything seems to remind me of you; even the nature seems to conspire against me. I wait for autumn and the forgetfulness it will bring with a yearning one should reserve for a lover. You broke something in me, I think. There is no one who could touch me as you did, nothing that could enthral me so. How could I ever look at anyone else the way I looked at you? Maybe this is my penance – this longing I cannot fulfil. I thought of a world without you in it, a world when we never met, and I couldn't stand it.

I love you, he never writes. I love you, I love you, I love you.

 

 

Christmas arrives at Hogwarts with a scent of pine needles and gingerbread, and the castle empties. The only people left are those few students who are willing to stay at school over the break, and teachers unlucky enough to drew the short straw on babysitting them – or those who have nowhere else to go. Albus has long counted himself among the latter.

The break is still welcome. He finally has time to read things other than fifth years essays on theory behind vanishing spells and write something else besides lesson plans for N.E.W.T. level human transfiguration, which has a tendency to go terribly wrong when attempted by sixteen years old wizards.

Albus often forgets how loud the children are until they leave, when he notices the absence of noise. The castle seems to echo with silence. It would be easy, he thinks, to wander the corridors alone and get lost in them, without meeting another soul.

It's lucky, then, that he has other things to do.

He sets for Hogsmeade on a chilling Monday morning, when everything is sharp with the whiteness of fresh snow. He can even leave the castle officially, this time. Even the Ministry cannot voice any objection to him visiting his brother on a Boxing Day, after all.

Hog's Head remains, as always, dirty and smelling faintly of goats. Albus still doesn't understand why Aberforth would choose to run a pub, when he clearly didn't held much interest in actually maintaining it. He knows better than to ask, though.

Fortunately enough, the pub is mostly empty when Albus arrives, still dim despite the lightness outside. Aberforth is behind bar, but he doesn't even pretend to be trying to clean it. He looks up when Albus walks in, though he doesn't give any other sign of noticing him.

Albus sits himself on the high stools on the other side of the bar, conjuring himself a cup of tea. He doubts Aberforth has anything non-alcoholic at hand, doubts he would offer it even if he had. And it is still rather early.

"Merry Christmas, brother," Albus says.

Aberforth grunts, which Albus chooses to interpret as agreement. He hasn't yet left, in any case, or tried to throw Albus out. Instead his brothers eyes the tail that has slipped inside after him, and looks at him questioningly.

Albus shrugs. He doesn’t really want to explain himself – or his troubles – to Aberforth.

"The Ministry doesn't trust me much, these days."

"Because of him?" Aberforth doesn't say Grindelwald's name, but his mouth still twists like he's cursing. "They are right to."

They both look as the Auror who followed Albus tries to look unobtrusive inside the empty pub, and fails spectacularly.

"Did they shackle you?" Aberforth asks, eyeing the silver bands on Albus' wrists.

"These are not shackles, they're admonitors," Albus says, even though he does think of them as chains. "They merely allow them to see what spells I am casting, nothing more."

He doesn't mention how the Ministry has restricted his travels, or monitors his correspondence, or tails him whenever he steps a foot outside of Hogwarts. His brothers doesn't really need to know all of it.

"Well, good," Aberforth says. "You deserve it."

That's about what Albus has expected from Aberforth.

They sit in silence, which is how most of their encounters go, until Albus decides it's getting boring. And not what he came forth, besides.

"Do you remember aunt Honoria, Ab?"

Aberforth raises an eyebrow, either at a question or a nickname Albus rarely used. Possibly at both.

"What about her?"

"I was just wondering," Albus says, keeping his tone light. "What has happened to her. And since I didn't have any word..."

Aberforth ignores him for a moment, taking a bottle from under the bar and pouring himself a few inches of whatever it is inside into a dirty glass. It looks like liquor, but who knows with Aberforth. "She died years ago. Thought you knew."

"Did she ever marry?" Albus asks. "Have any children?"

"Not that I know of," Aberforth answers, and he's definitely suspicious now. He eyes Albus warily, and then scoffs. "Why are you asking, anyway? Did you run out of family members to experiment on?"

"No real reason, I guess," Albus lies easily. "Just a bit of nostalgia."

Aberforth clearly doesn't buy it, but isn't willing to press the issue.

"Ah, yes," he grumbles instead. "You're the type to get nostalgic for the days of your youth, aren't you?"

Albus sighs. This conversations isn't accomplishing anything, and Aberforth is clearly in particularly bad mood today. He's gotten used to jabs from his brother, but it doesn't mean he enjoys them.

"Aren't we all?" He asks, and finishes his tea. "Enjoy the rest of your holidays, Ab."

Aberforth just waves him off.

When Albus comes back to Hogwarts, it's to an empty classroom and an empty office. He is none the wiser and a little heartsick, but it's quite typical for him, this time of year. But he comes back to his book and his writings, and that, at least, is something.

 

Chapter Text

The Owlery is dark and quiet when Albus walks in.

The sun hasn't risen yet and most students prefer to sleep at this hour, so no else is here. It's frighteningly cold inside and, if he's honest, it stinks a little. The owls are disappointed to see him. None of them are his own, and he never brings them any treats to buy his way into their good graces. Albus smiles at them all the same; he likes birds.

He finds its comforting. He used to go here to send letters home, back when he was a student, and everything still looks the same. The only difference is how old he's gotten, and how people he used to write to are long dead.

These days he only ever writes to Elphias, however reluctantly. Correspondence by owls is no longer a safe way to communicate, not when Aurors are monitoring it, so he has to relay on Floo connection or other, more covert means. Like the phoenix book, which has proven terribly useful since its creation.

His letters to Elphias, however, are more simpler matter. The Ministry may read through them, if they wish for it so desperately. For Albus, they're a touch of normalcy in uncertain times. Dodge has been a good friend to him, reliable and steadfast. Albus wishes he could say the same thing of himself.

In this letter, in between the wishes of good health and anecdotes about teaching, there's a favour he ask of Elphias. You see, Albus is looking for a distant relative of his, but without great success; perhaps Elphias has heard of someone named Aurelius?

The Ministry is quite welcome to pursue that string.

Albus has done some research of his own, but came up empty handed. Aurelius Dumbledore doesn't show up anywhere: no birth certificate, neither magical nor Muggle one, no mention of his name in Hogwarts's lists of prospective students. There's no sign of him. It's like the boy didn't exist until the day he died.

Maybe Elphias will have better luck.

He runs into little Cassiopeia Black on his way out. She's alone, without her cousin Callidora, and it's an uncommon sight; the two seem to be joined at a hip. Blacks were always a close bunch. Closed off to anyone else; anyone else less pure, likely. Albus has never liked them much, and he has too remind himself not to judge his students because of their families. Or House affinity, if he's honest with himself; he hasn't quite shaken off the old resentment towards Slytherin.

He smiles down at Cassiopeia and hopes she cannot see how forced it is. She already seems nervous, squeezing her letter to her chest.

"Hello," Albus says. "Writing home?"

Cassiopeia looks up at him like he just stated that Slytherin lost twenty points because her robes where askew and her tie missing. They are, but he doesn't mind.

"Uhm, yeah." She mumbles. "My brother."

She runs off then, rushing past him.

It's a little odd, but he quickly forgets about it.

 

 

New Year passes and students return to school, filling it with noise. Albus doesn't know whether he should be grateful to no longer drown in his own thoughts, or despair over the never ending task of herding teenagers.

Newt Scamander asks to see him, a few days after the classes start again. Albus chooses to meet him on Hogwarts's grounds, where there's less chance of someone interrupting them. It's cold outside, even in the pale, winter sun. The entire lake is frozen.

"We don't know where Grindelwald is," Newt says, seemingly not bothered by the temperature. "We don't know what he is doing, or planning, or even where to look for him. I hoped you might be able to help."

Albus doesn't ask how. He has an inkling of what Newt may expect of him, but he hopes to be wrong. In this matter, he can only disappoint.

"It's been months," Newt adds. "And Tina thinks..."

He cuts himself off, suddenly unsure. When he starts again, he sounds different.

"Well. She worries. For her sister. And for Credence, too. The longer they stay with him... We need to find them soon."

He looks to the side, and when he speaks again, he sounds pleading.

"You don't think he would hurt them, do you?"

"No," Albus says, trying to sound reassuring. "He has no reason to. You said they both choose to go with him, and I…"

He pauses, feeling shaky and out of sorts. He doesn't like this topic, but he owes it to Newt not to avoid it or lie. He keeps his words gentle and soothing, even if he knows how useless they truly are.

"I don't think he would harm anyone of whom he thinks as his own."

He doesn't add how quickly this status can change, in Gellert's eyes, and how he never had any problem with disregarding people he no longer deemed useful to him.

This is Albus’s own bitterness, after all, and the knowledge could be hardly of any comfort to Newt.

Newt nods, staring at something in the distance before he turns back to Albus.

"We still need to find them. And I don't... Please, professor. Do you have any idea what he is planning? Where he could take them?"

Albus swallows around the sudden lump in his throat. Newt is looking at him with a mix of hope and desperation, but Albus doesn't have any answers for him.

"I can hardly begin to guess to what is in Grindelwald's mind."

"You know him better than anyone else," Newt says gently.

"I doubt this is true." Albus forces himself to smile, though he can feel how crookedly it comes out. "Not anymore."

The look Newt throws him is a little more than disbelieving, but he doesn't press the issue. He is, Albus thinks, altogether too good of a person.

The snow is crunching under their boots as they walk, and Newt sighs.

"The Aurors are looking for any sign of Grindelwald," he says, "but they have little to work with, and I'm not sure it would help if they did find him, considering... Still, at least they are doing something."

Albus tries not to take it as a reproach.

"I don't want them to end up dead," Newt continues. "Not Queenie and Credence. Not because Grindelwald tricked into joining his side. They aren't like him."

It's a valid fear, Albus knows. The Ministry wanted Credence dead since that mess in New York, and they weren't going to stop trying now, when he was firmly on Grindelwald's side. And they wouldn't care about Queenie's reasons for joining him, either.

Both Queenie and Credence got caught up in something greater than their own desires. They all did.

"Grindelwald told Credence he knew who his mother was," Newt says. "That's why Credence went with him."

Albus considers this carefully. He supposes Gellert could've followed the same trail he did, once he discovered Credence wasn't really a Lestrange, but he doubts Gellert could get much further. Still, Albus doesn't like to think about what Gellert would, could do, if he found Aurelius's name.

Was he overjoyed to discover the connection, another possible Dumbledore to use and discard as he saw fit?

"I don't think he does," Albus answers the unasked question. "Though he may suspect something. Or maybe he thought he saw something in one of his visions, though they hardly can be counted as a reliable source. But he most likely lied."

Newt nods, once again, like Albus confirmed something for him.

"I don't...," he says, and hesitates. "I don't think anyone knows that, not really."

Albus looks at him, feeling curious. There's something Newt is not telling him, and he wonders what it is. Though, if he's honest with himself, he probably deserves a little dishonesty.

It's not like he is telling Newt all that much, either.

 

 

Grindelwald's apparent absence is, perhaps, more distressing than hearing about his actual crimes.

He takes to reading The Daily Prophet at breakfast, much to his own frustration. It didn't get any better in the last few years and he doubts it ever will; most of the articles are a mix of misinformed guesswork and propaganda from the Ministry, with occasional scandal thrown in. These sensations are mostly made up, but he doesn't think anyone actually takes time to think of them, much less doubt them.

Still, he would like to stay informed, especially considering how his other sources are somehow compromised at the moment, and seeing what the Prophet is writing about – and, more importantly, what it isn't writing about – is telling in itself.

For the last few weeks, the headlines read mostly the same. Where will Grindelwald strike next? and Ministry of Magic responds to growing fear. It usually criticises Fawley's lack of deceive action and praises  Law Enforcement Department, casually ignoring how Aurors aren't really fighting Grindewald, either, and how their accomplishment are limited to introducing new safety measures and arresting people suspected of being Grindelwald's sympathisers. Hardly heroic deeds, as the Prophet paints them to be.

The message here, Albus thinks, is quite clear: no one knows where Grindelwald is or what he is doing, and no one knows how to stop him.

 

 

The summons to the Ministry are not unexpected, this time, though Albus wishes they wouldn't come in the middle of a school week.

He wonders briefly if this is going to become a monthly thing. He supposes it very well may; Travers would hate to miss an opportunity to remind him how short the Ministerial leash truly is.

The letter asks him to appear at a ridiculously early hour, but that hardly bothers Albus, whose sleeping habits have been distorted for years now. It suits him rather well, actually. There's still a chance he might get back to Hogwarts before the first period starts.

He puts on his best purple suit before leaving by portkey. He doesn't get to wear this suit often, since children tend to get distracted even more easily if he wears bright colours, and it looks rather nice with a grey shirt underneath. He's quite sure Travers will hate it, too.

The Ministry's hall looks the same, though less busy at the early hour. Two Aurors are here to greet him as soon as he steps a foot inside, same as the last time. But this time they lead him to a different part of the building, and Albus almost laughs when he realises they are about to leave him in an interrogation room.

At least this time, if Travers meant to make him wait, he would be sitting. Though this room, with its grey walls, offers even less entertainment than the Ministry's corridors. The only furniture inside is a table with two chairs on the opposing sides. Albus takes one of them, and looks at the door.

Travers, of course, doesn't appear.

Albus stops himself from drumming his fingers on a table, fidgeting, or giving any other sign of being nervous or impatient. There is no reason, he knows rationally, to grow nervous just because he has to wait once again. But one of these walls is most likely charmed to allow wizards on the other side a view into was happening in this room. It's unnerving knowledge, even though he already got used to the feeling of being observed. For all he knows, Travers is standing behind one of those walls, waiting for him to squirm.

Even his suit is starting to look colourless inside this room.

By the time Travers finally comes in, with a file in his hand, Albus is fighting a headache brought upon by the harsh light and his mood has turned sour. If these meetings do become a regular thing, they will get old really fast.

"Oh, Dumbledore. You're here," Travers says, as though this is somehow a surprise. He looks a little like he had to swallow a lemon, but he usually looks that way whenever he has to say Albus's name. "Good."

"Good morning," Albus smiles politely.

Travers grunts something in reply, then sits down and looks through the documents he brought. The silence between them is not of the companionable kind, but Albus has no intention to break it.

"We need to ask you a couple of questions," Travers says finally. "To... clarify some things."

Albus nods. He expected something similar, though he cannot see the point of it all. Is Travers expecting some sudden change of heart on his part, or a sudden burst of honesty? Or does he think that if he asks enough times, Albus will finally cave in and give him a reason for arrest? He would like nothing more, Albus is quite sure.

"On December 13th, you cast a Patronus Charm," Travers states. "Is that correct?"

"Yes, I think so," Albus says. The question seems random and a little too specific. He does remember casting the charm on a Tuesday afternoon, in an empty classroom. Hector Bones had asked him about the spell, claiming he would be able to explain it better than professor Merrythought. It was terribly flattering, even if untrue; Albus suspects he simply wanted to impress his friends and was too intimidated by Galatea to ask her. Still, actual willingness to learn something is rare in students, and he saw no reason to deny him a little bit of knowledge which could later prove useful.

"And what was the purpose of it?" Travers asks. "There are no Dementors at Hogwarts, nor anywhere nearby."

"I was presenting it to a student," Albus says simply. He sees no reason to explain himself further; casting a Patronus, of all charms, is hardly something that can be done with nefarious purposes. He could, technically, use it to carry a message, but he doubts Travers is aware of this particular application of it. And, in any case, he hadn't been warned against contacting anyone in this manner.

"You've been prohibited from teaching the Defence Against the Dark Arts," Travers says, "but you are still carrying out lessons on the subject?"

"Helping one child understand a subject he had struggled with is hardly carrying out lessons."

"So you admit, then, that you violated the Ministry's rules?" Travers smiles at him, though it's cold and unpleasant. He then looks at one of the walls, triumphant, and Albus thinks oh. Of course they would try and get him caught and technicalities.

"I was not aware the Ministry's rules extended so far," he replies, keeping his tone polite. Travers's games are petty and small-minded and far beneath him. He won't let himself be drawn into them.

"You've been clearly informed of the terms of the ban," Travers states, unmoving and expectant. Does he really believes he can get Albus to cower, to try to explain himself? Is this what he's gotten used to, these past few months, while he was interrogating witches and wizards who couldn't possibly know anything about Grindelwald or his plans, but where so clearly afraid of the Aurors?

"You can't except me to turn down students when they ask for help." Albus tries to keep his tone calm, even if it feels ridiculous to be defending himself against something so trivial and inconsequential.

"If the subject is related to the Dark Arts, I can't except anything else," Travers says. "This is a simple matter; you've been banned from teaching the subject, therefore you cannot give any instructions on it. To be quite frank, I'd fear any influence you might have on the children."

"The Patronus Charm is the furthest thing away from Dark Arts," Albus objects, though he knows it's useless. The whole situation is clearly a farse; if he hadn't cast that Patronus, Travers would think of some other offense – maybe having too many drinks while visiting Hogsmeade or talking to wrong people – to bring him down.

"It would still be within DADA curriculum, if taught at Hogwarts," Travers says. "Do not test my patience, Dumbledore. This is not a negotiation." He straightens, looking very sure of himself, and looks down on the file before him. A list of Albus's crimes, perhaps, in order of their graveness.

Disrespecting Law Enforcement, Albus thinks, on top of wearing hideous suits.

"Consider this an official warning," Travers adds. "Any following transgressions will have more serious consequences."

Albus has to stop himself from asking what exact consequences Travers thinks he could bestow upon him, since his competence quite clearly doesn't extend beyond hunting down imagined offences.

"Yes, of course," he says instead, still smiling. "I shall refrain from anymore infringement of your directives."

This, of course, irritates Travers far more than any outright disobedience could.

"And how come," he asks slowly, "I don't believe that?"

Albus keeps silent; he doesn't need to answer this. Travers's beliefs are his own business and he cares very little for them, even if they are, at least in this one aspect, quite correct. He doesn't intend to stick to any restrictions imposed upon him.

In any case, Travers question was clearly rhetorical.

"You don't care for any rules, you don't even care if it's breaking the law," Travers says. "You believe yourself to be above it."

There's disdain in his voice, though Albus has expected nothing less; disdain and contempt and something close to loathing. Travers is looking straight at him, unmoving, and Albus wonders how long he has waited for an opportunity to say all of this.

"You think you are so much better than we are," Travers continues. "You, who have chosen to stand aside and do nothing while Grindelwald rampages across the Europe. How many people will have to die before you decide it's time to act?"

There's nothing Albus can say to defend himself.

He made his choice a long time ago, not knowing what he was choosing. He swore not to fight Gellert and it felt as natural as breathing; he couldn't imagine a world in which they would have a reason to fight. They wanted the same things, after all, and they planned on bringing them to life together. But beyond even that Albus learned, in a span of few short weeks, to think of them as one entity. Loving Gellert was the simplest, most natural thing in the world. He had been foolishly, madly in love, yes, but it was oh so easy to see Gellert as an extension of himself. His other half, a missing piece of his soul. Fighting him would've been like fighting himself, or denying his own nature. It had been unimaginable.

Sometimes it still feels unimaginable, in the same way loving Gellert feels inevitable, unavoidable, definite, no matter how crooked that love becomes.

And yet, for all the grief it brings him, he can't bring himself to regret loving Gellert, or making the bloodpact, or these two months of insanity and cruel dreams. He only mourns how they ended.

That's a terrible thing about him: if he was given one more chance, even knowing what would happen after, what Gellert would become, he doesn't think he could ever make a different choice.

Travers looks at him like he can see all of it: uncertainty and longing and foreboding certainty that if Gellert is a monster, then he is a monster Albus had created. He looks like it disgusts him, and he is right to. Albus is disgusted with himself.

The ensuing silence is heavy. The room is very small and bleak, and the only noises inside are their voices. Albus can feel more than one pair of eyes on him. His head pounds, and the air feels thin.

Travers sighs, and looks back down to the papers he brought, shuffling them. He seems reluctant, all of sudden, and the change from accusatory tone is even more jarring. Is he acting or is he really unsure on how to proceed? Why would he be, when he has Albus exactly where he wanted him?

This is a farse, Albus reminds himself. Whatever Travers does now, it's only for the benefit of all those eyes watching from behind the walls.

Travers takes out a piece of parchment from within the file and hands it to Albus. A letter, written on fine paper in elegant, practiced handwriting.

"We've intercepted this a few weeks ago," Travers says. "It came France, sender unknown, though of course we have a few suspicions. More curiously, however, it's been addressed to you."

Albus scans through the letter quickly. It's not much.

It's short and vague, doesn't even mention his name. Dear Professor, it says, thank you for all your help in Paris, and then a few lines that read like gibberish, without any meaning – a code, perhaps, or an attempt to make it look like one. As far as evidence goes, it's not even flimsy; it's laughable.

And Travers means to use it against him.

"And you think it implicates me?" Albus asks.

"I think it's quite clear where your real loyalties lie," Travers answers. "I don't need more evidence to see it. There are many, however, who lack that clearness of sight..."

He trails off, lets the words hang in the air.

"Of course, considering the present circumstances," he adds, "we should present a united front. Such a public loss of trust could be detrimental to war effort, and we cannot have that. We want the same things, after all."

His meaning is quite clear: if Travers wanted to arrest him, he could find evidence enough – or make it, if the need arose. And Albus was supposed to feel grateful for being allowed to walk free, and then play along with Travers's little schemes, like a mindless pawn.

It's utterly ridiculous, obviously, and poorly executed. If Travers wanted to blackmail him, he should've searched better; somewhere in Godric's Hollow, there are letters that could truly implicate him, easily, signed by Albus's own hand and addressed to a man much more important and powerful  than a made-up French aristocrat.

But Travers has always lacked imagination.

Albus looks at the paper in his hands and lets the pain of the growing migraine show on his face.

"Yes," he says, "we do."

He's quite sure they don't. Not anymore.

 

 

Albus leaves the Ministry feeling nauseous, unsettled, and unable to deal with his headache. He's disgusted by himself, by his own weakness, but he's used to it. It's more than that; he's disgusted by Travers, by his thoughtless, unimaginative, forceful attempts at subjugation. The conversation leaves him both drained and shaking with a nervous energy, with a need to do something.

By the time he arrives at Hogwarts, he missed both the first and second period. He's rather glad he did; it's lunch hour, so he has some time before he has to face his students. He'd be afraid to do so as he is now.

The Great Hall is noisy and bright, like it always is at meals, so Albus chooses to eat at the kitchens, alone. He sneaks in easily enough, and the elves are more than happy to feed him. They fill his plate with roasted potatoes and peas, but then leave him at unmolested at a table in the corner, with only his thoughts for company.

Teaching at Hogwarts has been, in many ways, a penance for him. A way to distance himself from all things that could tempt him, all he had wanted when he was young; before he met Gellert, before Ariana died. A self-imposed exile to a castle in Scotland, when the worst challenge he would face was explaining to a group of twelve years old kids why setting each other's hair on fire was a bad idea, when they just learned how to and the thought of not doing so seemed unfathomable in their minds.

It has also been a consolation; an only way to quiet his conscience.

He's at Hogwarts, and so he can't be anywhere, can't be anyone else but a kindly, ageing professor with a penchant for sweets. With his students, he's patient, and understanding, and ever attentive; not at all like the boy who couldn't stand the thought of wasting time on caring for his only sister. He can try, each day, to be a little better than he was; to not mind the endless repetitions and boring tasks, or the way the days seem to bleed into one another, or how it sometimes feels like the world has passed him by. The world, he reminds himself, is better off this way. Here, he can learn how to find a joy in little things: in how satisfying it is when the children learn something, and how fascinating his research into magical theory can be, and in newfound, if somewhat distant friendships with his fellow professors. And then not mind overly much when all he can do is to point other people in the right direction and hope for the best. As long he is here, he can have peace, or at least something close to it.

And yet, though he still has a place at Hogwarts, it somehow feels like he's losing all of that.

Chapter Text

Albus snaps at his students on a sunny Monday afternoon.

It's double Transfiguration with fourth year Gryffindors and Slytherins. It is exhausting, of course, because two hours of dealing with fourteen years old – stupid, full of hormones and perpetually trying to rile each other – cannot be anything else, but also because it's two hours of teaching a class he doesn't have time to prepare for, from syllabus that isn't even his own, while the subject itself is notoriously theoretically complicated. He's in the middle of explaining the finer points of cross-species transmutation – for the fifth time, actually, and he's quite at his wits end if how to put it into simpler terms – when he's interrupted by a screaming match from the last row.

It's an argument, obviously, though he hardly can make head or tails of it. It's about Quidditch, maybe, or proper technique of spell casting, the unavoidable superiority of Slytherin green over Gryffindor red. In any case, there's already one table overturned, while Dorian Cole is standing on top of the other, pointing his wand at Ellis Selwyn, who is in a process of getting more and more creative with his insults, green tie askew. The rest of the students already starts forming a circle around them, abandoning their desks. And Alistair McKenzie's guinea pig is squealing frantically over their heads, because while he did manage to give her wings, his attempts at turning her into a fowl weren't otherwise all that successful.

Albus sighs. He should've known the class where students were trying to produce flying pigs would turn to chaos sooner or later.

"...you idiotic, corny-faced scrub!" Ellis continues his enumeration, seemingly unable to run out of breath. "You unlicked cub!"

"Gentlemen," Albus interrupts him. "While I do admire your tenaciousness and creativity, I hardly think this is appropriate behaviour."

"He's the one who started it, Professor!" Dorian informs him cheerfully, still balancing on top of the table. He conjuring little winged serpents, which end up circling over Ellis's head, hissing at him menacingly. "That double-faced snake!"

"Mr Cole, please come down and-" Albus starts to say, before Ellis interrupts him.

"I did not! You're the one who..." He cuts himself of, clearly embarrassed, which just seems to rile Dorian more.

"Well, it's hardly my fault if you're a-"

"Shut up!" Ellis screams at him, suddenly looking panicked.

"Can't make me," Dorian says in a sing-song voice. One of his conjured snakes started chasing the flying guinea pig, who resorted to squealing even more frantically. "You cannot even-"

Ellis is reaching for his wand before Dorian can finish, looking ready to curse him.

"That's quite enough," Albus says, and summons both of their wands with a flick of his own.

He waves his hand, making the still hissing snakes disappear. The turned table rights itself, McKenzie's pig loses her wings and lands gently on top of his desk, and the wood under Dorian's feet buckles, sending him sprawling to the floor. He opens his mouth in surprise, looking at Albus like he'd suddenly grown a second head.

Ellis, in comparison, actually looks relieved. He looks pleadingly at Albus while Dorian gets back to his feet.

"Please, Professor, he..."

Albus raises a hand to silence him. He doesn't care which one of them said what or who supposedly started the whole thing and he doesn't have patience to listen to them blaming each other; he just wants them to be quiet, for once.

"Please go back to your seats," he addresses the rest of the class. "As for the two of you, I think two weeks of detention should be enough".

"But that's not fair!" Ellis exclaims, with all the indignation and sense of injustice only a teenager can have.

"That's thirty points from Slytherin, Mr Selwyn," Albus says automatically, before he can think better of it; before he can think of what could've caused the whole row, and who might've said what. He doesn't even care much, at the moment, not really. He just wants them to be quiet, for once, and let him finish explaining the theory once again, in the vain hope they stop just giving wings to the pigs and calling it proper magic. He feels, quite sharply and suddenly, how much he wants this lesson to end.

"That's unfair," Ellis repeats quietly, before he stops himself from saying anything more, mouth pressing into a thin line. He looks down, avoiding both Albus' frown and Dorian's triumphant gaze. He's clearly unhappy, but he shuffles back to his seat. The rest of class reluctantly follows his example, dragging their feet, and that's the end of it, then.

Albus takes a deep breath and forces himself to launch back into teaching.

Afterwards, when the class ends and he actually has time to think, he feels ashamed of himself. Of course he does; he let his temper fly over such a small, insignificant thing, and took it out on his students, one of the things he promised himself he would never do. Children squabble all the time, they hardly do it to inconvenience him personally. And Albus is both an adult and their supposed caretaker; he shouldn't snap at them for something that is only their natural behaviour, no matter how tired or unhappy or irritated he feels at the moment.

But he had done worse than that, hadn't he? He wasn't only unkind or uncaring; he had been unjust. He did not only care for their feelings or reasons, he also didn't care who got punished or even if they deserved it. He let his worst instincts take over, hurting other just for the sake of his own convenience, without any thought to what they might suffer. He had been easily, casually cruel.

Albus knows this feeling of shame intimately by now. It has been with him for years, for decades, no matter how far he tried to run from it, how many times he resolved to be better, how much he wished, how hard he tried. There is no absolution, no penance, not for him. This is the truth he has to accept: he is no better.

 

 

He spends the next few days wallowing in guilt and self-loathing; he knows he's being irrational, but he cannot stop thinking of it, cannot stop over-analysing every moment. It is rather unlike him, to get so irritated by the students – he tries so hard not to be, to patient and kind and understanding, even forgiving. It doesn't come easily to him, because he is none of these things, not really, but usually he manages it a little bit better. As he should. He is a teacher, his primary concern should be welfare of his students. He should be taking care of them, not allowing his frustrations over Ministry's wrongdoing or his own feeling of helplessness to cloud his judgement. They deserve better than this.

He agonizes over it to the point he almost forgets about the real reason behind his moodiness. Until one morning, when he comes down to breakfast to find the headlines in The Prophet finally changed. Albus instantly wishes they stayed as they were, only speculations and hearsay.

Grindelwald attacks in Vienna: 54 killed

He stops reading after the that, fights the urge to put his head in his hands. He knows what the article will say, after all: more violence, more needless, unnecessary deaths in the name Gellert's boyish, cruel, unattainable dreams. More of the same, as always. At this point, Albus should've gotten used to it, should be able to prepare himself better, and yet he still can't.

He makes himself skip over the rest of the article quickly. He can barely stand it, but he need to know more.

Yesterday the British Aurors, working together with Austrian Magical Enforcement, apprehended a group of Grindelwald's supporters, stopping what would undoubtedly become a brutal attack, threatening the peace and order of the entire wizarding world. Among those fighting were Grindelwald's well-known associates: French pureblood Vinda Rosier and American Albert Abernathy, who has been involved in Grindelwald's escape in New York. Grindelwald himself has not been seen.

It is unclear what was the objective of the dark wizards attack. Thanks to the Aurors decisive actions, Grindelwald's followers were apprehended before they could harm the predominantly Muggle population of the area or cause more havoc. The fighting itself took place in the Margareten district, a Muggle part of Vienna, located in the neighbourhood of the historical Old Town. It is currently unknown what nefarious plans were being put in motion, though the investigation continues. As the Head of the Magical Law Enforcement, Torquil Travers, tells us, "the Auror Department is working tirelessly to put an end to Grindelwald's reign of terror. The international wizarding community has come together to fight this threat and, no matter what may be thrown at us, we will prevail."

Regardless of the Ministry's assurances, the news of the attack come at the time of growing unrest. The majority of our community feels uncertain about the future. Though so far there has been no incidents in the Great Britain, many witches and wizard lack the sense of security or faith in the Law Enforcement.

"It is difficult not to feel afraid, after what happened in Paris", says Alethea Rowle, a 55 year old witch from London. "It seems like no place is safe from them... They could strike anywhere, at any time. Thank Merlin they haven't got to Britain yet."

The declaration of war against Grindelwald seems imminent, and yet it begs a question: are we at was already, even without the Ministry's official acknowledgement? And if so, what's next?

The rest of the piece is speculation on possible reactions of the Ministry and the reasons for their silence. It's pure gibberish, mostly, with maybe a dose of pro-Ministry propaganda. The accompanying picture shows only a smoking building, with people running around it in panic. It could be an image of any attack, anywhere in the world.

There's no further mentioned about the deaths, which most likely means they were Muggles. Albus wonders about the faceless, nameless victims of yet another gas leak. How many more were harmed? And for what? They had no stake in this fight, nothing to do with the interwizard politics, and no way to protect themselves. But no one cared, not even the Ministry, not as long as the wizards were protected, their existence a safe secret.

Gellert used to be so fearful, so apprehensive of the Muggles, with their numbers and their weapons and their all-encompassing, all-destroying wars. He was obsessed with it, even back then. In hindsight, Albus thinks Gellert was actually trying to hide how much his visions, his nightmares affected him. Maybe he didn't want to look like a scared child in front of Albus, who at eighteen thought himself an adult, much too mature for irrational fears. Maybe he had other, more sinister purpose – maybe he already knew Albus could never handle the bloodshed needed to bring forth his vision of a better world. But he was terrified, as any child would be; terrified and slowly starting to hate to cause of his fear, this faceless mass of people who appeared to be so cruel, so dangerous.

And yet it is Muggles who are dying in the war they don't even know about, for no other reason that they happened to be in a wrong place, an accessory to the fight they couldn't possibly understand. And no one will even mention their names.

Albus looks down at his porridge, which has grown stale and unappetizing, and tries not to give in to his own fears. They are all living in dark, dangerous times, but it is not yet a cause for despair – he cannot let it be. Not when he is responsible for so much of it. Not when he has so many other obligations, when so many people look up to him.

Besides, The Prophet hadn't told him anything he wouldn't already know or even anything useful. It is fortunate, then, than he has other means to find out.

 

 

He goes about his day as usual, trying to pay sufficient amount of attention to his lessons and failing spectacularly. He's distracted, half of his mind on other matters, thinking on what he can possibly find out, the right questions to ask. He means to contact Vienna as soon as he's safely back in his own chambers, ponders skipping dinner altogether. Still, it wouldn't be fair to ask the house elves to bring his food to him and he doesn't want his absence to raise any eyebrows. A quick appearance in the Great Hall should do the trick.

He knows it won't be so quick as soon as he sees Galatea Merrythought's face. Her eyes light up at the sight of him.

"Albus, dear!" She says, mentioning to the seat beside her. Minerva, who is sitting to the other side of her, has a strange, pinched look on her face, which Albus takes to mean Merrythought is in a talkative mood. "Where have you been all week? I feel like I've been barely seeing you during the meals, you always run off so quickly. It's like we're not even living in the same castle."

"You know how it is, Professors," Albus answers, sliding into his seat and reaching for a shepherd's pie to fill his plate. If he's bound to make small talk, he could at least eat something during it. "Making lesson plans, grading essays, planning assignments... At this rate, I'm afraid I will become permanently attached to my office chair."

Merrythought tuts at him. "You work too much. You should spend less time with books, Albus, you're much too young for it."

Albus catches Minerva's sympathetic gaze and winks at her behind Merrythought's back.

"If you say so, Professor. I'm afraid it's one of few things I'm still too young for – and even so, I daresay our students would disagree with you."

"Nonsense, you're barely middle-aged." Merrythought reaches out to pat his hand. "Still so handsome, too. And I seem to remember quite a few students fancying themselves very in love with you not so long ago..."

Albus almost chokes on his pumpkin juice.

"This is... I don't think..." He starts to say, but Merrythought ignores his interruptions.

"And, of course, so many young people preparing for their DADA N.E.W.T. levels were so disappointed were I took over your classes," she continues. "But I'm sure this is all due to your teaching skills, Albus, dear. You do have a way of making every lesson seem so fascinating."

Albus is pretty sure he is a very unflattering shade of red by now. He would like to disagree with Merrythought, or say anything at all, really, but that would mean either admitting some of the students fancied him or putting his own teaching skills above hers, which would be both impolite and untrue. She's very aware of this predicament, too, judging by the twinkle in her eye.

He throws a panicked look at Minerva, who looks like she's trying to stifle her own laughter. Fortunately, she does decide to come to his rescue.

"Speaking of our students," she gracefully changes the topic, "what do you think is going on with the younger Miss Black? She seemed awfully distracted these past few weeks."

"Hmm," Merrythought hums, taking a sip from her goblet. "I noticed that, too. She could barely focus on her casting in my last class... Not that she needed much focus, of course. Very well versed in Defence, that one. And even more in Dark Arts, just like the rest of her family."

"Cassiopeia?" Albus asks, frowning. He cannot remember little Cassie Black acting any differently, except... "I run into her a few days ago, at the Owlery. She was writing her brother."

"Was she?" Minerva frowns. "Poor thing."

Merrythought nods. "She must be worried about him, with everything that's going on. But I doubt her parents would be happy to hear about it, too. They would rather pretend he doesn't exist."

"That family, honestly... What sort of people does that?" Minerva shudders in disgust, then takes a look at Albus's confused face. "Oh. You didn't know?"

Albus shakes his head. He doesn't yet know what he didn't supposedly know, but he's sure he will be hearing all about it soon enough. Still, he was under the impression than Cassiopeia's family was rather proud of their existence, if only because of their blood.

"Her brother, the younger one, is squib," Merrythought explains. "They try to hide it, of course. Such a thing would be irreversible stain on the name of The Most Noble and Ancient House of Black. I don't think they ever let him out of the house."

"Can you imagine, Albus?" Minerva asks. "To lock a young boy up, for something he has no control over, just because of who he is. I'm not even surprised you didn't know – no one talks about him, not even his sisters. He's barely ten, and they treat him like a ghost."

Albus stays silent. He could imagine such a thing, yes, but he doesn't really have to. His experience in similar situation is infinitely more personal, after all.

"I do wonder what will happen to the boy," Merrythought muses. "He can never find a place in our world, and the Blacks will never accept it. Maybe they will send him to one of the Muggle schools, let him live among them... But to be without magic, when you've known it all your life; to give it all up, try to forget it ever existed... They may still be a worse fate."

"Nothing could be worse than being locked up in that house, I believe," Minerva scoffs.

Merrythought shrugs elegantly, balancing her goblet in two fingers. "Well, I wouldn't wish it upon anyone, anyway."

"There's nothing wrong with being a squib!"

"Of course not, dear." Merrythought's tone is soft and conciliatory, like she's speaking to a particularly daft student. "But they are rather... less, are they not?"

"Not less," Albus finally speaks up. "Different. Simply different."

He hesitates, thinking of words he could use to explain his point more clearly. There is a distinct sense of discomfort when he tries to imagine being born without magic, the feeling of otherness he does associate with Muggles. Being a squib may not be inherently wrong, but it’s nothing to be envied, either. He is self-aware enough to recognize the prejudice in his own mind, but he struggles to express it.

He thinks of Grindelwald's words in Paris, as Newt repeated them. Not lesser, but other. Not worthless, but of other value. Not disposable, but of other disposition.

For all the words have power, Albus knows, they are ultimately soft and treacherous things. You can twist and twist them, until they lose all meaning, or come to mean the exact opposite. But Grindelwald didn't have to hide his real thoughts, not truly. Not when non-magical life already meant so little to wizards.

He very pointedly does not think about Ariana.

Merrythough sighs, visibly bored with the conversation. "If you say so, dear. Now, won't you try a pumpkin pie? They are simply divine."

 

 

By the time he gets back to his chambers, it's already late evening. There is a little part of him that wants to just take of his suit, sit down in his favourite armchair, have a cup of tea. To trace his fingers over the familiar spines of his books and let them speak to him in soothing tones. But he knows he cannot, not when there's still work to be done. He ponders whether it's still appropriate to call Vienna at this hour, when it's not an emergency, but in the end his impatience wins out. He doesn't want to wait another day to get his answers.

He's quite sure his Austrian contact won't mind, too. Emil Scheinwelt has been his friend for nearly twenty years now. They met shortly before the last Muggle war and worked closely during it, trying to help despite the official Wizarding World stance on non-interference. Their countries were, in theory, on opposites sides, but didn't seem to matter much. Emil is a half-blood, so it's always been rather more personal for him. One of his cousins died in the first few weeks of the war, and then another one closer to the end. Stupid, needless deaths. Emil refuses to speak of them, and Albus never asks. He is well acquainted with guilt, after all; he knows how to recognize it in others.

He uses the phoenix book, of course. It would be much too dangerous to use floo network to asks questions he has in mind; not when the Ministry is already observing him so closely.

"Albus," Emil says, appearing in the portrait almost immediately. "I wondered when I would hear from you."

Albus doesn't waste time on niceties, coming straight to the point.

"How bad is it?"

"Bad," Emil winces. "They blew up a whole building... Margareten is mostly working class families, so it's tight quarters. There has been at least fifty deaths, twice as many injured. But the only victims were Muggles, so of course no one cares much. They just obliviated any witnesses, called it a day." There's a real bitterness in his voice.

Albus nods, not in the least surprised. This just confirms what he knew or suspected and, to be honest, he wouldn't expect anything else from the Ministry. Neither would Emil, which is probably half of the cause of his resentment.

"I'm sorry we cannot help more," Albus apologises. "And I'm sorry to be bothering you at the time like this, but..."

"No, no." Emil waves his hand, silencing him. "Don't apologise, I understand. That's the entire point of this network, isn't it? For us to communicate, to let each other know what's happening. We can't count on anyone else..." He falls silent for a moment, looking at Albus, then continues. "There's nothing you could do, not really. And at least you bothered to ask, which is more than..."

He cuts himself off, but it's quite clear to the both of them how this sentence was supposed to end.

"Do you know what they were looking for?" Albus asks, trying to keep his voice soft, sympathetic. He really hates doing this. "Grindelwald's followers?"

Emil just shakes his head. "No. That's the thing, though. It doesn't seem like they were looking for anything, or planning anything, or even just... doing something. They were just... there."

"Visiting old friends?" Albus suggests.

Austria is, after all, Gellert's home country – or what's left of it, anyway. His influence is strongest among the old pureblood families of Vienna. They would love to have him for dinner, convicted criminal or not.

"They could be," Emil says, "but if they did, I hadn't heard anything... No bragging about an old friend coming down, no talk about the cause. As far as I can tell, no one has seen Grindelwald or any of his acolytes for months."

He frowns, then continues.

"Maybe it was a diversion, I don't know. Maybe Grindelwald is planning something and doesn't want us looking, so he send them to cause a fight. But if you want my guess... I don't think that's it. I don't think Rosier and others wanted to be caught. They weren't prepared for a fight. Whatever they were here for, it wasn't like Paris."

Or maybe it was too much like Paris, Albus thinks. Grindelwald wasn't the first to use violence there, either. Not overtly.

Emil doesn't seem to notice his thoughts. "I know the Ministry were the ones to attack. I think they have been itching for a fight, after Paris. Everyone is so scared here... Or worse. Half of the pureblood families are openly supporting Grindelwald, you know this. Our Ministry has been looking incompetent, even complacent. They wanted a confrontation, wanted to be seen doing something... Same as yours, I suppose."

"Yes," Albus agrees easily. It's only fair that he keeps others informed, too. "Fawley is still hesitant, but the Law Enforcement has been growing increasingly paranoid. Chasing their own shadows, really."

Emil raises his eyebrow. "Their own shadows? I thought they were too busy tailing after you."

"Well, trying to," Albus cracks a smile. "Not that they had much success on that front, too."

He doesn't mention the admonitors, or the threats, or how trying it is, to know his every move is being watched, analysed, stored away to be later used against him. How angry or despondent he sometimes feels, how detached from everything he once held dear. Those things, he believes, are meaningless in the greater picture. There is no need to share them.

"I wouldn't except to have," Emil's smile turns genuine for a second. "You know, it would actually be funny, how incompetent they are, if their actions weren't quite so terrifying."

"It is inconvenient, I know," Albus says. "But to be honest, I can hardly notice it anymore. I got used to it, I suppose."

"This is what we all should do, isn't it?" He laughs, like he just heard something hysterically funny. "Just get used to all of this..."

He trails off, laughs once again. When he speaks again, his voice sounds completely different.

"Do you know how many people I obliviated today? How many bodies I picked up from the rubble? How many families I lied to? Some of them lost everything, everyone, and they won't even know..."

"I know," Albus says gently. "I know. But you cannot blame the Aurors for that, it's exactly what Grindelwald wants. They aren't the ones who started this war."

"Oh, I can blame them for plenty other things," Emil snorts. "It's not like I lack for a reason."

Albus startles at the vitriol in his voice.

"They are trying to stop him, same as we do. Yes, it's misguided, and sometimes even harmful, but it's not their intention..." Albus knows he doubts unconvincing – how could he, when he himself doesn't believe what he says? He speaks of the Ministry like they're a bunch of unruly students with a prank taken too far. Oh, they meant no harm, they're just being boys! Boys who didn't think there would be any consequences to their actions.

But Travers and his underlings are no boys, but men who are very aware of the consequences to their actions; they are counting on them. Men who thrive on power and fear, who will do anything in their might to protect this power and do not care who might get harmed in the process. If Albus was in the mood to be honest with himself, he would admit they were no better than Grindelwald or his acolytes; worse, in many ways. But he cannot allow himself such thoughts. Not ever again.

"We mustn't lose faith, Emil," he adds instead. "In ourselves, most of all, but also in others, even if we don't agree with all of their views or actions. We should stand together, we all have the same aim. They're just doing what they think is best."

"Well," Emil nods decisively. "I think they've done enough."

Chapter Text

Albus spends few days on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Grindelwald to commit a new atrocity, for the Ministry to act.

It's quiet, instead. No doubt something will happen soon; even if Grindelwald was truly surprised to find his supporters attacked by the Aurors in Vienna, he won't make the same mistake twice. Gellert always liked to play by his own rules; he wouldn't like anyone getting an upper-hand over him. Whatever his next move would be, it will be planned more closely.

The silence may be unnerving, but it's also sort of a reprieve. Albus tries to put the whole war – Grindelwald, Ministry, Emil's words – out of his mind, if only for a few days. He focuses on other things: classes, of course, and he finally finishes syllabus for advanced Transfiguration. He catches up on his reading, spends a lovely afternoon with Transfiguration Weekly, and finally writes a long overdue letter to Adalbert Waffling discussing the principles behind mental magic, as applied to objects and places, and a question of consciousness in magical item. He hopes the censor department at the Ministry will find it a good read.

It's good, to remind himself there exists a world outside of this war; and that there's also part of him, however small, which does not exist solely in the context of it.

If it's an illusion, it's a lovely one, and Albus is eager to believe in it. As a result, when the owl from Elphias's arrives, bearing with it the answers he's waiting for, Albus is sitting idly in his office, sipping tea and actually working his way through a stack of essays. Judging from the quality of the afternoon sun, he's been at it for hours already, though it doesn't look like he made much progress.

There's a comfort to be found in receiving a letter from someone like Elphias, no matter how dark its contents may be. Elphias is, after all, his oldest friend; a steady, reliable presence in his life, when not many things had been. Albus wishes he could say the same thing about himself, but he's very aware his friendship is a difficult thing, and there's little reward to be found in it. In all honesty, Elphias probably deserved better; Albus never learned how to care for someone properly.

Still, he has always been happier at Hogwarts than at home and speaking with Elphias brings with him memories of long nights spend bend over books, frantically absorbing all the knowledge he could find; the easy camaraderie of Gryffindor tower and simple, uncomplicated friendships of youth; and how much Hogwarts felt like freedom, a place where he could escape all the lies and misery. It's a connection to a life long lost.

Good old Elphias, Albus thinks with amusement. You could always count on him to ramble about things he deemed important, even if they did not seem so to others. He once send Albus a letter which was more of a treatise on the second Statue of Westminster and its effects on the wizarding community. In truth, Albus had been delighted to receive it, as he had found the topic fascinating and he enjoyed reading Elphias's thoughts on it. But he doubts whatever ministerial lackey has been tasked with looking through his correspondence would share their inclination. That was, at least partially, the reason he had asked Elphias to look into the issue of his possible and missing family member. His letters were always full of the most bizarre topics, so a sudden search for a long lost cousin would fit right in.

Albus hopes so, at least. He also counts on bureaucratic boredom and plain old laziness, which make it easy to not look too closely at boring, predictable letters between childhood friends. It's not like the Ministry has taught him to expect anything but incompetence from them.

The parchment feels heavy in his hands, thick and very white, with elegant, even handwriting. It's a long letter – but all of Elaphias's letters are.

Dear Albus,

I cannot properly express the joy your last letter brought me. It is always good to read words from an old friend. Sometimes I think no one we meet once we pass age twenty can understand us like people we bonded with in childhood. I'll freely admit I miss my Hogwarts days, as I do miss you, my friend.

When had we gotten so old, Albus? I hope it feels different for you – you're constantly surrounded with young people, after all! I think it would depress me even more, to see the truly youthful every day and think how every year takes me further away from them, but I guess it must be keeping you youthful. You never lack energy, that's for certain.

My work has been going well, or as well as can be reasonably expected. It's tedious, of course, and I must admit I'm slowly starting to hate most of the people at the office. If I could find one intelligent person to hold a conversation with! Alas, I'm beginning to grow convinced many of them lack basic reading comprehension. Why, just last week I had a witch come in and ask me about Salic law, when in fact she simply meant patrilineal inheritance. One day I'll start mixing them up myself; it will be a sad end to my career.

Ah, but do not let me bore you with my tales! There is so little excitement to be found in them, I'm quite sure you're facing more daily.

In your last letter you mentioned you had a cause to believe there may be another Dumbledore living in England, distant relative of yours, perhaps. I must admit I never heard of anyone outside your immediate family bearing the Dumbledore name, but I gave myself a liberty of following that string – I hope you won't hold it against me, my old friend. I know how important family is to you, and so I couldn't stand idle at such news.

I'm sorry to say this, but I hadn't found anything to support that claim. There hadn't been any Dumbledores born in England in more than forty years – indeed, your sister Ariana's birth certificate was the last one I found. I know your aunt never married or changed her maiden name, but it seems she left England some thirty years ago, or at least there's no mention of her past that date in any records or documents I've seen. Perhaps, if she left the country, her family line continued elsewhere? Or perhaps she joined some relatives you already had outside of Britain? I'm afraid if you truly want to search for this Aurelius, you might have to extend your reach.

I'm sorry I couldn't be more of help, Albus. But I must admit, I'm glad to see you focus on something other than work or this utterly wretched political situation. It might be wise to sit this one out, I think, and hope this madness does not spread to England. It seems folks here are more sensible than our kin on the continent, and it truly heartens me to see it so.

Take care of yourself, Albus, and give my best wishes to Aberforth.

Yours,

Elphias

Albus traces the shapes of letters, thinking fondly of his friends attempts of calligraphy, then rereads once again.

So Elphias didn't have better luck than Albus; unfortunate, but not really surprising. He rather thinks finding Aurelius, whoever he is, if he exists at all, will not be a simple matter of locating a paper trail. The only fact Albus knows for sure is the presence of two passengers under the names of Honoria and Aurelius Dumbledore on a same ship to New York as the Leta and Corvus Lestrange broaded – and, presumably, Credence Barebone, whatever name he might have born at the time. And, of course, Newt said he didn't know who Credence's parents were, and maybe no one did. So there were three magical babies on the ship that night, two of them of unknown origin. There's an obvious and dangerous leap of logic to be made here, but Albus is reluctant to do so, so he's skirting around it.

He nurses his tea instead, deep in thought.

Then again, Aurelius might not have been a baby at all. Credence could be a muggleborn, which is maybe what Newt meant. And maybe there's no connection between a powerful child with an obscurus and a Dumbledore family; not this time, at least. And, in this matter, he cannot trust his own mind: he's seeing ghosts anywhere he looks.

 

 

And then, of course, the news of Grindelwald movements start coming.

An attack in Munich, a skirmish in Amsterdam, a sighting in Olso. Soon anywhere Albus looks there are reports of new incidents, speculation of his motives, articles debating if and when he will set a foot in England. Albus doesn't even have to work hard to learn Grindelwald's whereabouts or plans: Gellert clearly wants to be seen. Suddenly, after weeks of being an elusive shadow, he is everywhere at once, giving speeches at every rally, persuasive and captivating.

Yet still, Albus notes with resign, there's never any sight of Credence Barebone, or even anyone who might look like him.

Grindelwald, it seems, is wholly determined to look an innocent party: his rallies are peaceful, his words measured. He's never the one attacking first; when he fights with Aurors, it's only in defence of his own followers and even then, he doesn’t use violence on a scale he did in Paris. It's all very restrained, especially by Gellert's standards, which means everything must be going rather well for him. And of course it is: he's gaining followers at every turn, and none of the Aurors are any match for him. He's like a cat playing with mouses: amused, terrifying, and casually cruel.

And it's only matter of time, Albus thinks, before Grindelwald tires of this game.

 

 

Few days later, he receives an owl from Eulalie Hicks, asking to meet him in the Leaky Cauldron. He didn't even know she was in England and not on the other side of the ocean, which is half a reason why he immediately agrees. She wouldn't come all this way, in the middle of a school year while abandoning her own students, if it wasn't important – and best discussed in person.

She's already sitting at a corner table when he arrives.

"Albus," she greets him. "Thank you for coming so quickly."

"Yes, of course," Albus says. "Tough I have to admit, I was surprised to hear you were in England. What happened?"

Lally shakes her head with a wry twist to her mouth. "I'm afraid it's not anything good."

There has been, apparently, an uproar in the American Ministry. Seraphina Picquery has long been a vocal opponent of Grindelwald, but lately she's found herself blocked by her own cabinet. In the light of Grindelwald's escape and recent activity in Europe, they think it best to let European Ministries handle their own mess, without endangering anymore of the American Aurors. It doesn't help that the purebloods in States are quite sympathetic to Grindelwald's ideologies. It seems the American Ministry has decided to close the borders, accept a policy of non-interference, and simply wait to see what will happen next.

It is, more or less, what Albus has expected to happen. He just hoped it wouldn't happen so soon.

He thanks Eulalie for taking time to tell him all of this personally: it is a matter best not trusted to paper, but he's very aware her trip wouldn't be necessary if he wasn't under the Ministerial observation. And, considering the recent development on her side of the ocean, it's not an insignificant risk on her part to be seen with him.

Which is why he is so hesitant to ask anything more of her.

"There is another matter I wished to discuss with you," he says. "It concerns Credence."

Eulalie frowns.

"Why are you so focused on the boy, Albus?" She asks. "With everything else that is happening?"

Albus asked her to try finding Credence's family, before Paris, before Credence choose another path, when Albus thought he saving him would be an easy matter. That pursuit, too, ended in a dead end. But by then he had heard the rumours about Leta Lestrange's brother and chose to believe them, against some of his better instincts. He should have known better than to believe in a truth so easy and convenient; his mistakes always ended up being costly for others.

"If Grindelwald uses him against us..." Albus starts, then trails off. If Grindelwald uses him against me, he doesn't say. If he tries to kill me. He had been honest with Newt, on this matter, but he still hesitates before sharing it with someone else. It's a good reason to be wary of Credence, and one he should certainly warn other about, and yet... It feels disloyal, to tell anyone what Gellert confined in him, even now. It's very foolish of him, he knows, but he cannot help himself.

"When Grindelwald uses him. It's when, not if, you know," Eulalie breaks the silence, ignoring his pause. "He certainly will, now that he has him. And after all the trouble he went to obtain him, too."

"Credence is a person, not a weapon," Albus protests. "He ought not to be treated as one."

"He's a very powerful being who almost exposed us all less than a year ago," Eulalie points out. "Besides, the boy choose to go with Grindelwald. What makes you think he would even appreciate anyone trying to make him come back?"

"Don't you think we owe it to him to at least try?" Albus asks. "The wizarding world has failed him. Credence Barebone has been left alone to bear the weight of our failures, to take on an unfriendly world by himself. And now he's getting dragged in a war he knows nothing about, for a cause he cannot comprehend. He never had a chance to see our world, not until these last few months, which he spend in hiding."

Eulalie pursues her lips. "I think we owe it to him to respect his choices, whatever they might have been, and let him deal with an outcome on his own terms."

"Besides," she adds, "the boy is hardly blameless. He did kill people, in New York."

"His obscurus killed people," Albus corrects. "A force Credence could not control."

"And yet it attacked those who wronged him," Eulalie says sharply. Albus doesn't say anything in response, but he knows something must have shown in his face, because she takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders before she speaks again.

"I know you want to see the best in everyone, Albus, and I admire you for it. But we cannot save everyone, not from Grindelwald's influence and certainly not from their own decisions. If they follow him, if they believe him... Well, I think we should be more worried about people who might end up at the wrong end of their wands."

"I hardly think it's that simple," Albus says.

"I think it will become that simple, very quickly," Eulalie shakes her head. "Look, I don't like it, too. But it will come to this: there will be war, there's no avoiding it. Not now."

"People are dying, Albus," she continues. "If there was ever time to try to reason we're long past it. We just have to stop them."

"No matter what costs?" Albus tries to smile even as he says it. "Because all measures are justified, if the cause is just? Doesn't that sound familiar?"

Eulalie recoils violently. "You don't mean that," she says. "I know it's hard to watch Aurors use so much violence, but... They are not like him."

"They are doing exactly what Grindelwald said they would," Albus points out. "And in doing so, they are playing right into his hands. No matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise, it won't change the truth or end this violence and oppression."

"I'm not saying we should close our eyes and ignore it." Eulalie sounds tired, like she had to repeat this argument one too many times. Albus supposes this might be true, considering just how violent the Aurors' actions have become, how much unease they are creating. "But we can't fight this on our own."

"Oh, I think I'd rather not fight at all," Albus says, and surprises himself with how honest he is.

"Don't we all?" She smiles and Albus notes with surprise it's the first time she's done so today. "I wish this war could just end, or else never started. I wish we could just go back to normal."

She looks, quite suddenly, very weary and sad and defeated. Albus wants to reassure her, to reach out and offer understanding, if nothing else; but he cannot find any words of comfort or hope. And, worse than that, he realizes he doesn't think like it at all; for all he wishes this fight did not come to him or how he longs for a return of his quiet days at Hogwarts, he cannot imagine a world after Grindelwald's defeat, cannot even think of it.

And so he says nothing at all, and hates himself all the more.

 

 

The winter leaves Hogwarts slowly, hesitatingly, like an old lover, leaving a lingering chill in hallways as a memento. But spring comes all the same.

The days are getting longer, the light more bright. The ice on the lake thwarts, and even the air smells different. The students grow more antsy during lessons, more fidgety and distracted, longing to get out of the castle. It's still early enough in the year for them not to worry about exams – they are months away, which might as well be forever. Albus does not share this view and tries to convince them that no, it is not too early to start preparing for OWLs and NEWTs and they will benefit from it eventually, once they won't have to memorize seven years of studies in one night, but it's a pointless effort. Children are children, after all; trusting and hopeful in a way that makes him envious, sometimes. Once upon a time he, too, had such a belief in his own future, visions of grand accomplishments and eternal happiness. He very quickly learned how wrong he was.

Albus takes to walking around the grounds on the days he doesn't have afternoon classes. It's still cold enough for a winter coat, the ground yet frozen in places where sun doesn't reach it. It's calming, just walking and thinking, and he's so used being alone. He watches the student start to come sit near the lake, pretending to study beside the shining waves, and dreams of times when everything seemed much simpler.

One of such afternoons, he happens upon Merrythought, who's apparently coming back to the castle from her class.

"Albus, dear," she calls to him. "Come, give me a hand. Just had a lesson on grindylows with third years. It went rather well, I think, so I decided to let the children go early... Only none of them wants to come back to the castle now – not the I blame them, we had such lovely weather these past few days – and so I've been stuck walking alone."

Albus joins her obligingly, allowing her to take his arm. "Is it wise, to let them go off like this?"

Merrythought leans into him conspiratorially, eyes sparkling. "I'll let you on a secret: the more you try to control something, the harder you try to hold it, the more unhappy it will become, the faster it will slip from your grasp."

Albus has to smile at the tone in which she delivers this obvious wisdom. "I don't think this applies to thirteen years old children released from their lessons."

"But it does, more than to anything else!" Merrythought protests. "Too much discipline will make them chafe and act out; they need space and freedom from supervision – even if it is only perceived freedom – to truly enjoy themselves. But if we just let them be what they are, they will grow, and they will discover their own boundaries."

"I don't doubt that's true," Albus says. "But I still believe you just like going easy on them."

"Well, yes," Merrythought laughs. "I do want them to think of me as the fun one. It comes in handy when I'm trying to trick them into doing their homework."

They walk for a moment in silence. It's good, Albus thinks, to be in a company of another; he has been spending so much time alone, he almost forgot what a comfort it is. In the afternoon light, the lawns surrounding the castle look silvery green, endless and peaceful.

There's a young couple sitting at the edge of a lake, seemingly obvious to the cold. Sixth years, still so very young, but no doubt thinking themselves very mature and very wise and very much in love. Albus would know; he was like that once, too.

Merrythought looks at them, pensive, and smiles wistfully.

"Oh, to be young and in love once again!" She sighs. "Don't you ever feel nostalgic, when you look at them?"

"I do," Albus answers with a self-deprecating smile. "But then I remember how insufferable I've been at that age, and I'm quite happy to have put it behind me." It's only half a truth. He does remember being a teenager all too clearly, and he doesn't have much sympathy for his past self. And yet, for all the pain and heartache, there are things he misses far too much.

"You've been a very good student," Merrythought tuts. "Always so serious, too. I don't think you ever got your nose out of all those books. Not that much has changed, mind you."

Albus shifts a little, uncomfortable. He does not need Merrythought to once again start needling him about how he lives like a hermit, even if it's an apt description, or how he should spend more time amongst his own peers, instead of closing himself with his books and letters and thoughts. He heard it many times, ever since he was still a student here.

"Don't get nervous, dear," Merrythought says. "I won't embarrass you again. But you have to admit, it's good to see something so innocent and pure as young love in those dark times. And I think that we all need a reminder that, the darkness may surround us, there's still light and love and hope in this world."

Albus, who hadn't heard anyone talk much about hope in the past few months, can only nod in agreement. The fleeting instance of light in this world should be cherished, and yet...

"I do wonder," he says slowly, "about the nature of love. It's a great force, I know, but it feels dangerous, when one thinks of the choices that are made for it: what lines could be crossed, what sins justified."

Marrythought looks at him, thoughtful, and there's something sad and weary in her eyes.

"Oh, Albus. What else can we do, but follow our hearts and hope they will not steer us wrong?"

"I'm afraid my heart has always steered me wrong." Albus wishes he could take back the words the moment they leave his mouth, but of course it's much too late. Merrythought seems concerned, but Albus thinks he'd rather have her uncomfortable with this sudden honesty; it's make it easier to change the topic and ignore it. It's strange and uncharacteristic of him, but she recognizes it for what it is – a painful admission he allowed to slip – and she won't let it go now. She's too good of a friend.

"It could not," she reassures him. "Even if it seems like it in this moment, it could not. Love is never wrong, even if it hurts us."

"And if it hurts others?" Albus asks. It feels dangerous, to ask questions like this, but he cannot help himself.

"Even then," Merrythought says, then falls silent. When she speaks again, she does it with a brittle smile. "Look at us: locked away in a safe castle, teaching children how to turn mice into teacups, while our world is at the edge of collapse. We can ask ourselves all the questions about philosophy and morality and what is good and just and right, and then ponder them to the eternity, but we will still end up empty-handed. Of course we have to believe in love. What else do we have, otherwise?"

 

 

Albus leaves Merrythought at the door of Great Hall and goes back to his own chambers. Her words disturbed him, more deeply that he would like to admit, and he paces, agitated, feeling thrown out of balance, untethered.

Hogwarts has long been his home and his safe heaven, but he's very aware it has also been a place of his self-imposed exile, a solitude which has grown to feel stifling, suffocating. Lately, it's been more like a prison, where he's always watched, always judged. There are chains around his hands and restrains on his mind, and he cannot be rid of them.

But Merrythought spoke of things he doesn't allow himself to think of; long forgotten, half formed beliefs and bitter longings. She said that, in face of every adversity, she chose to hold onto love. And what does he have to hold onto? Books and memories and dreams; but these things, too, cause him pain.

When Albus finally settles down, he tries to read. The book he chooses is all too familiar. He knows it will only deepen the ache in his soul, but like with everything else in his life, the hurt is well deserved. He needs this reminder.

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.

He reads those words again and again, like he's trying to commit them to memory, even if he already knows them by heart. It's entirely masochistic, and he knows it; the entire practice is a reminder how deep love can run and how much it can hurt. How it become so twisted, so cruel, so destructive. Even in this particular book, there are passages he to which he should pay more attention: ones about treachery and violence, and spears who wound the ones that wield them. He should be looking for answers about the nature of evil, not love; and yet, in his darkest moments, he cannot help but think they are the same. If he ever followed his heart, it would surely lead him to ruin.

And yet he comes back: to this book, to these words, to this love. Even if he could find a way to purge himself of it, to cut it out from himself and cauterize the wound, he knows he would have never done it.

How strange it is, to find himself understood so well in the words not his own; maybe it's why he forgets, for a moment, the rest of the world which still exists and requires his attention.

When he comes back to himself, the candle has burnt to a stub; only the cold light of lumos illuminates the room. It's quiet, the dark lurking in the corners, like something ready to pounce of him. It takes a while for his eyes to adjust and for the familiar shapes to reveal themselves again: bookshelves, pensieve, window.

And there's an owl in his window.

Albus startles, surprised, puts his book down. The owl stares at him, eyes big and round, seemingly unfazed. It must have been sitting there for a while, while he hadn't noticed her, to enclosed in his own thoughts. How hadn't he noticed her?

She's quite an ordinary looking owl: small, brown feathers, white markings. She looks a little grumpy, but most owls look perpetually grumpy; it's hardly something characteristic. She could be any of the Hogwarts own owls, but Albus is quite sure that is not the case. If there's anything unusual about her, it's how eerily quiet and patient she is, waiting for him to finish his reading, not making any noise, anything to call attention to herself.

Though perhaps, if someone was to owl him in the middle of the night, then that someone wouldn't like his owl to be noticed.

Albus crosses the room in few short steps. He opens the window, and the owl hops inside, already extending her leg so he may take his letter.

"Thank you, little one," Albus says, because it's only polite to do so, even if he doesn't know her name. She preens a little, clearly pleased with herself, then nips at his fingers, expectant.

"I'm sorry," Albus winces, "I don't have anything for you. You've come a long way, haven't you? You'll find something if you go to Owlery."

The owl huffs, turning back to the window. She takes flight immediately, without waiting for his reply.

He turns back to the parcel she carried.

It's a small brown satchel, waterproof and sturdy. When he reaches inside, he only finds two things: a feather, long and delicate, and a brilliant, brilliant red. When it catches light, it looks almost golden. But Albus doesn't need to look at it to know it didn't come from an ordinary bird; it practically radiates power. It's a phoenix feather. He puts it down, thoughtful, and reaches for a second item.

A letter.

The answers you're looking for are simpler than you think; it's just a matter of asking a right question. Come, and I'll show you.

Yours, as always

Goldmund

Chapter Text

Albus stares at the letter in his hands.

He knows this handwriting intimately. He used to receive so many letters written by this hand; in the middle of the night, at breakfast, in the strange grey hours before dawn, when he’d been lying wide awake wondering, dreaming, hoping. Any moment the two of them weren't together. For two short months, it was all he could see. He doesn't need a signature to know who it is from, but it's there nevertheless. Goldmund. Only Gellert would have the cheek to call himself that. But it is fitting, Albus supposes. Golden mouth, golden hair, golden words. All of him had always been golden.

He realizes, with a strange sort of detachedness, that his hands are shaking.

He forces them to stop. Takes a step back from the window, breathes deeply. The room is still the same, he knows; it hasn't changed in the past minute. His books, his pensieve, even his teacup with a half-drank earl grey; it's all still there. And yet the world feels irrevocably changed, different, strange. Even the shadows seem longer. He falls back into his armchair, looks at the opened book he hadn't finished reading.

Of course, Albus thinks. Of course it's him. Who else could it be? What else? He knew the owl was from Gellert the moment he saw her silhouette outside his window; it's like he has been expecting it. All this time, and he still comes back to this one thing, again and again.

He wishes it didn’t affect him so. He wishes Gellert didn’t hold this power over him, still, despite everything. He wishes he could look at Gellert and see only Grindelwald, the madman, fanatic, murder, and not... whatever else Gellert had been to him. Not the one person he loved more than anyone, anything in this world.

He might as well wish himself into a flying pig.

The letter itself is short and to the point, and more cryptic than anything else. A promise of answers, an invitation to come... It doesn't specify what questions Albus had been asking, though he thinks he knows it well enough. There was only one piece of information he searched for and couldn't find: the true identity of Credence Barebone. Following that trail had lead him to Aurelius, and though he did not want to connect them, he couldn't help thinking... But how could Gellert know it and, more pressingly, how is it possible know Albus did not know? Albus assumed Gellert had lied to Credence in Paris in order to manipulate him, but if he did not, if he truly knows who Credence was...

It appeared Gellert still knew him well enough to realize how tempting such knowledge would be.

As for other questions Gellert could give him answers to... Albus cannot bear to think of them, so he doesn't.

He wonders whether he is supposed to take this as a sign of... Of what, trust? Whatever lingering feelings Gellert still has for him which would make him want to arrange a meeting? Or a taunt, meant to show him how Grindelwald is two paces ahead, how Albus can never hope to catch up or stop him from reaching his goals?

There's no place or date written anywhere, but of course it is not needed, nor would it be wise to write such things down. The key, Albus thinks, is the feather, and how kind of Gellert to send him such thing – a part of creature out of legend, with a personal significance to Albus. It's brimming with magic. Innate magic, yes, but also layered, elegant charmwork only Gellert himself could've woven. There's some part of Albus that is ecstatic at the thought of it, that immediately wants to examine it and take it apart to see how it works, but the rest of him... The rest of him is just drowning in dread.

He swirls the feather in his fingers and wonders what he is supposed to do now.

He could, he supposes, take it to the Ministry: give them the letter, tell them from whom it came. But that would be as good as admission of guilt, wouldn't it? Travers would be overjoyed, no doubt. It would be like Albus himself brought him a rope to hang him with.

And besides, what good would it do? It's not like the Ministry would be able to seize Grindelwald, even if they knew where he was; they have proven as much in the past few weeks. It would only end up in more deaths and, most likely, Albus himself getting arrested. Not the most favourable outcome.

He could try to send someone in his stead, if he accepted the possibility of sending them into a trap. And it is most likely a trap; Albus is not yet lovesick enough to think otherwise. It's a perfect lure, a promise of knowledge, and a setting entirely controlled by Grindelwald. And Grindelwald wants him dead, has been searching for a way around the blood pact and for an obscurus powerful enough to fulfil his own prophecy, and now he has found it. He finally has all the pieces he needs.

And even if, on some off chance, it is not a trap, then could Albus send any of his friends to confront Grindelwald by themselves? None of them could ever hope to stand against him. Paris has proven that well enough.

There is nothing he can do, not really, and he supposes Gellert is well aware of that. Perhaps, if the Ministry hadn't treated him with such distrust, if the breaking up of rally in Paris had ended differently, if Albus could use his own magic freely, then he might have been able to react, to try and once again thwart Grindelwald's plans. Perhaps, had he not been feeling so powerless and alone, Grindelwald's offer would not tempt him so.

But Gellert always appeared when Albus was at his lowest.

Albus folds the letter, carefully, and then places it back in a satchel, alongside a red feather. He transfigures his teacup into a wooden box and hides the satchel inside it, sealing with a simple locking spell. The protection feels woefully inadequate, but it's the best he can do without calling the Ministry's attention to the charms he is casting. The admonitors on his wrists are a constant reminder he is not free to do as he wishes.

He drops the box into a drawer and out of his sight. And then, only then, he allows himself to cover his face with his hands and try to breathe.

If only it was so simple to put it out of his mind.

 

 

Albus doesn't truly know why, out of all the things he could've done – should've done, most likely – he chooses to go and see his brother.

It's an exercise in masochism, surely, because he knows Aberforth does not wish to see him and will not be pleased to be disturbed, knows the meeting will only remind him of how distant his brother has always been and how much resentment there is still between them, how many unspoken hurts, and yet...

Maybe he needs to remind himself how much he still has to atone for.

He walks to Hogsmeade the first chance he gets, ignoring the Auror who appears in the background the moment he steps foot outside of Hogwarts grounds. Albus wonders idly what kind of tracing spell they are using, and whether they ever get tired of waiting for him to come out of the castle. He certainly feels tired of pretending he does not see men in unremarkable coats always staying two paces behind him.

Hog's Head looks the same, dark and dirty, but at least this time there are more patrons inside when Albus slips in.

Aberforth actually nods when he sees him. It's an unusually warm welcome, for Aberforth’s standards, and Albus takes it to mean he's in a good mood; he doesn't go as far as to presume his brother may be happy to see him.

"Are they still following you?" Aberforth asks as soon as Albus steps closer to the bar. There's no need to explain who they are; the Auror who just walked in does not make any attempt to hide his presence.

"As you can see," Albus says noncommittally. He has no desire to try and guess whether his brother will approve of this fact.

"Merlin forbids they did something useful and tried to catch real criminals," Aberforth grunts, which is surprising, because the last time Albus was here, his feelings on the matter seemed to be vastly different. Albus is not sure what he had done to inspire this change of heart, or even if he has done anything. Aberforth really must be in a rather good mood.

"Nevermind," Aberforth adds. "You want something. Speak."

Albus smiles. "Not particularly, no. Not beyond asking if you've been well."

"Well enough," Aberforth says. "There you go, task finished. You can go now."

So much for his good mood. It's fortunate Albus has years of teaching under his belt; his smile doesn't even waver.

"You could at least offer me a drink," he points out gently.

Aberforth pulls out a bottle from underneath the bar without a word. He pours out a generous amount of whiskey, then places a glass before Albus, who eyes it doubtfully. He did not actually expect his brother to offer him something; more importantly, he doesn't like whiskey, as Aberforth well knows. It's a sort of unspoken challenge his brother delights at placing before him.

Aberforth raises an eyebrow, clearly waiting for Albus to take a shot.

Albus takes a drink, then winces. The spirit is quite strong; it's moonshine, not whiskey, and it tastes foul. "Thank you," he manages to speak without coughing.

"You're welcome," Aberforth says politely. "Will you go now?"

Albus sighs. "Leaving now would rather defeat the purpose of coming here in the first place, wouldn't it?"

"Mhm," Aberforth agrees, back his attention is already back on the glasses he's been charming clean. It's quite clear he thinks the conversation has run its course.

Albus looks down at the glass set before him. It's a little dirty, edges chipped and uneven, just like everything else in the bar. It's a stark reminder how different his brother is from him; Albus would never even consider stepping a foot in Hog's Head if it wasn't for Aberforth, but they both know it's more out of sense of obligation than anything else. For all they are family, they never seemed to have anything in common, even as children: Albus always had his questions and books and a burning, unquenchable desire to know more, to be more. Aberforth seemed content to be just running wildly outside or talking to his goats, never stepping a foot in the house, never mind settling down to read. He didn't lack magical talent, but he simply didn't care, didn't feel the need to use it, and it was something Albus never quite understood. It's no wonder they didn't get along, even before Ariana got sick, and then...

Well, now they had plenty of reasons to avoid seeing each other.

There's a moment of silence before either of them speaks again.

"Do you ever regret opening up the bar?" Albus asks suddenly. "Settling down here?"

"No," Aberforth answers shortly. "What is it with your questions lately? First you ask about our aunt, now you want to know how I feel about my job. Are you writing up your known family members or something?"

"No," Albus denies. "It's nothing."

"Do you want me to regret it?" Aberforth squints his eyes with suspicion. "Would you rather I didn't?"

"No! No, I like- I appreciate having you so close," Albus says, but he realizes how untrue his words sound the moment he speaks them. He used to be better at this; chatting with his brother always felt like stepping on thin ice, where one wrong move could lead to a disaster.

"Hmm," says Aberforth.

"I just wondered what lead you to choose Hogsmeade," Albus adds.

"You are feeling nostalgic," Aberforth decides, and Albus vaguely remembers the jab from few weeks ago. Out of all things Aberforth could focus on... "Of course you are. Look, if you came here because you wanted to remember good old times- "

"Of course not," Albus protests, but Aberforth just ignores him.

" - then I can certainly remind you of a few things you seem to have forgotten."

"I haven't forgotten anything," Albus snaps.

"Doesn't seem like it," Aberforth grunts. "You do a great impression of not remembering a thing."

Albus bites back an angry retort. He's not above anger, but it will not get him anywhere, not with his brother. "Must we always argue?"

"This would have been easier," Aberforth says, irritated. "If you just told me why you came."

"I did," Albus states, though he knows why Aberforth questions the reason he came. In truth, he's not quite sure why he looked for his brother company himself. It clearly was a mistake. "You didn't believe me."

"I spent years listening to your lies, brother," Aberforth says in a low voice. "I know how to spot them."

"I know we have..." Albus hesitates before choosing right words, keenly aware of the audience at his back. "...differences, and I know I'm the one to blame for that..."

"You are," Aberforth points out, obviously not about to miss an occasion to remind his brother how much he blames him for.

"I know that. I don't deny it," Albus says patiently. "All I ask you is to consider my words without looking for a hidden meaning or whatever truth you think I'm trying to conceal, because I'm not. It was just a question."

"You never just ask anything," Aberforth grunts, putting entirely too much force in his cleaning charms. The glasses are about to crack. "It's all smoke and mirrors with you."

"It warms my heart to know you put so much faith in my candour," Albus says dryly.

Aberforth laughs.

"You don't know how to be honest, Albus. Not even with yourself."

Albus recoils, and then bites his tongue before he says something he will regret later. He knows what his brother thinks of him; he has known it for years. He doesn't understand why the sting of those words burns so sharply. He should be used to it.

And so he stays silent, but something must show on his face; Aberforth look at him and turns away, quietly, which Albus supposes it's meant to be kindness.

He takes a moment to calm himself before coming back to Hogwarts.

Whatever Albus has hoped to hear from Aberforth, it's clear he will not find it.

 

 

Hogwarts, thankfully, stays the same no matter how much inner turmoil Albus is in. He thinks of the ways to make his lessons more fun, more physical, more engaging to his students; paces the corridors relentlessly and gets two weeks ahead with his grading. Still, no one seems to notice anything out of order – except, maybe, sir Nicholas, who comments on how much colour Albus has with clear jealousy. Days pass and the box stays safely in his desk, even if he sometimes aches with the need to take it out, trace the letters written in so familiar a hand, and wonder.

Albus has long been an expert at denying himself what he wanted. He resolves not to think about it, so he doesn't.

And then, as second year Slytherins prepare to leave his classroom, he surprises himself by asking Cassiopeia Black to stay for a moment.

Both Cassiopeia and Callidora linger as the rest of the students leave, sharing an uneasy look between themselves. Albus knows he is not their favourite teacher; he rarely is, with Slytherins. He still flatters himself by thinking they trust him nevertheless.

"It's alright, Miss Black," he smiles at Callidora. "I'd like a few words with your cousin."

She leaves with a murmured goodbye, and Albus is alone with Cassiopeia.

"How have you been, Miss Black?" He asks, sitting down on an empty desk. "You seemed troubled, these last few months."

Cassiopeia shuffles her feet uncertainly. "Well enough, I think. There's a lot of studying, but my cousin always helps me..."

She trails off, and when Albus smiles at her encouragingly, she smiles back.

"I like it here," she adds quietly.

"And you brother? Is he well, too?"

Cassiopeia furrows her brows. "Has Pollux gotten himself into trouble again?"

"I meant your younger brother," Albus says gently.

Cassiopeia stiffens, blinking rapidly. But she doesn't look away from him.

"I don't have a younger brother," she answers in clear, firm voice. "May I be excused, Professor?"

He nods, ignoring his tight throat, and she turns to leave immediately. Albus, who is left behind in an empty classroom, wishes he could be more surprised.

 

 

Few days later, as an unexpected break in the pattern, Travers comes to see him at Hogwarts.

He accosts him in a corridor on the fourth floor and Albus, who has gotten used to being summoned, almost startles. He still does not expect any Auror to show up at his school; not alone, at least.

"Dumbledore," he says. "A word, if you please."

"Here?" Albus smiles, then looks around at the students hurrying to and from their lessons. There's a couple of first years hiding behind a suit of armour who are trying – and failing – to cast a sticky spell on something, seemingly obvious to the adults present. Albus can hardly imagine a place less suited to discussion with the Head of Magical Enforcement.

Travers doesn't answer, just walks into nearest empty classroom. Albus follows him. The class looks like it hadn't been used for years, desks and chairs stacked on each other like child's blocks. There are old pieces of parchment strewn all across the floor, with rude words written over what previously was most likely homework essays; Albus wonders when Peeves has gotten to them.

But they are alone, this time. Compared to Travers previous displays of power, it feels positively tame. Curious, considering how much he seemed to enjoy them.

Travers stops by one of the empty desks, lays down a grey folder. He takes out some papers and spreads them around, fingering through them idly.

"Our intelligence had reports of Grindelwald being seen near the English borders," he says. "We had confirmed sightings of some of his most notorious acolytes in Ireland. But you wouldn't have heard anything about it, of course."

Albus stays silent, puts his hands into his pockets. He pointedly does not think about the box-shaped empty space in his mind.

Travers turns back to face him, measuring him with a look, and his face twists with disgust. "You do not care at all, do you? He could be hiding in the heart of London and you still wouldn't lift a finger, as long as you can stay hiding in this castle..."

He catches himself, stops. Takes a deep breath, nostrils flailing.

"Is this what you came to discuss?" Albus asks calmly. "Because if you think I have some sort of insight into Grindelwald plans..."

"Not at all," Travers interrupts him. If there is one thing Albus learned about him, it's how much he loves the sound of his own voice. "But you're right. Let's bring this to point."

"As you're aware, the Ministry has been monitoring your activities closely; it's a reasonable precaution, I think, considering your involvement in this matter."

Albus thinks he and Travers have very different definitions of reasonable, but he keeps this opinion to himself.

"I simply wished to express how much we appreciate your cooperation, Dumbledore," Travers voice is clearly conveying how insincere this statement is. "Your behaviour has been nothing less than stellar these past few weeks."

Albus tilts his head slightly in a nod. "I told you before, I have no desire to go against the Ministry."

Travers scoffs. "Well, there are still quite a few instances we'd like to have explained."

He looks down to the papers lying on the desk, pretends to read them. Albus wonders what is it in him that inspires such hatred in a man like Travers, such a clear desire to intimidate and subjugate. Is it his inability to fight Grindelwald, his refusal to take any direct action? His power, which far exceeds Travers's own, for all Albus's apparent lack of ambition? Or is it something even more intrinsically him, something that unsettles Travers and inspires him to violence, even when he is not wholly aware of it?

Albus stops the thought form spiralling any further, but the feeling of shame still persists.

"Your casting looks good," Travers finally breaks the silence. "It seems you stayed away from casting the patronus charm, at least, and what else do we have here... Transfiguration, lumos, a couple of locking charms..."

"I am a teacher, Travers," Albus says wryly. "I do have to find some ways to keep the students out of my desk."

"Apparently," Travers drawls. "Even though you're their best teacher, isn't that so?"

"Oh, I wouldn't presume to claim that title," Albus answers, fully aware of how irritating it must sound to Travers.

But the man just clicks his tongue, still looking through the papers.

"And what about your little meeting with Eulalie Hicks?"

"Lally?" Albus asks, but there's hardly any surprise in it. He did expect to be questioned on this issue. "She had a problem with one of her students she wished to discuss, though I'll admit it was all quite sudden."

"So she was concerned about a student?" Travers tone contradicts politeness of the question. "Which made her travel across Atlantic and then required her to cast a silencing charm around the two of you? "

"Yes," Albus nods. "It's a bit of delicate issue, you see – a family matter, I'm afraid, one I cannot disclose freely. So of course she didn't want everyone in the bar to hear what was discussed. She did think I might be of help, and I hoped I helped alleviate some of her fears..."

"And this family matter," Travers speaks with affected boredom, "it wouldn't have anything to do with Credence Barebone?"

"No, of course not," Albus smiles politely, though he does wonder at the sudden change in the topic. Did someone overhear them, after all? Travers clearly planned to bring it up from the beginning, but why? If the Ministry accosted Credence somewhere and Albus hasn't heard of it... "Why would it? Now, if you'd like to discuss anything else about my friends..."

"It's a shame, then," Travers says, acting as if he did not hear him. "If it did, perhaps then you could be of help to Elphias Dodge. He's another one of your friends, is he not?"

"And old one, yes," Albus agrees easily. "But why –"

"Your old friend Elphias," Travers interrupts him once more, "has been – what's the words the teachers like to use? Snooping, I think. Looking into a places he should not have been. Into people, too."

Travers pauses for a moment, looks straight at him. It's obvious how much pleasure he takes from saying those words; how grand he must think himself, how clever.

Albus stays silent.

"Now, of course, you wouldn't know anything about it, would you?" Travers asks, though it's obvious he does not expect an answer.

"Unfortunately, it appears his little inquires has gotten him arrested. I think the charges were for obscuring an active investigation. Or maybe just disturbing public order? Either way, he should be released soon enough. Two weeks should do it, I reckon."

Two weeks, Albus thinks numbly. Two weeks of arrest on obviously made-up charges, spend – where? In the Ministry? Or in Azkaban, among the dementors? And all because Albus dared to ask a favour, thinking himself smart enough to outwit any surveillance placed on him, thinking he could avoid any consequences...

And he did. Nothing happened to him.

"Thought you might want to know," Travers says smugly, "since he's such a good friend of yours. Funny, how we often don't know people as well as we thought we did, isn't it, Dumbledore? Maybe you should consider choosing your friends more carefully."

He vanishes the papers he brought with a flick of his wand.

"It's time for me, I'm afraid." Travers takes a step towards the door, obviously considering this conversation finished. "But we shall see each other soon enough, I think."

"Travers," Albus says quietly. "Going after my friends is taking a step too far."

Travers looks back at him, and his face looks like a mask carved from a stone.

"On the contrary, Dumbledore," he says. "It's not far enough at all. We've been far too lenient, I think. But this will end now."

He leaves without another word.

 

 

Albus stumbles back to his own rooms in a daze.

He feels helpless. Trapped. Desolate, if he ever allowed himself to apply such a word to himself. And, above all of it, guilty.

He knew the Ministry watched him; knew Travers was only waiting for an excuse to lock him up, would not hesitate before resorting threats of violence. Violence he was fully capable of, and Albus knew that too, and still didn't think before asking Elphias for just one small favour, before putting him at risk – solely because he was Albus's friend.

And this is not the only friend Albus has put in danger over the years, just by asking them to do him a simple favour. Only those favours are rarely simple, and Albus knows this, knows he sends people into danger with scarcely any forewarning at all, he had seen what it could lead to in Paris. Aberforth had been right about that, at least.

Albus has underestimated Travers; he had never thought the man would stoop low enough to go after people Albus genuinely cared about, few as they were. He could handle the Ministry invigilating him, but he never wanted to put anyone else in this position.

And this is the Ministry Albus is supposed to trust, the one who asked him to fight on their behalf.

Albus did not expect much of them – had learned not to expect much of them even before he stepped a foot in Hogwarts – but he still held onto hope that they could be somewhat reasoned with, that the Ministry was not wholly corrupt; that for every Tarquil Travers working within it, there was also a Theseus Scamander, trying to keep him in check. It's hard to think of people Albus knows or former student he had taught just standing by while their colleagues built a machine of terror and invigilation – or, worse, joining it motivated by illusions of power and safety. Is it what they had all come to, what Grindelwald had pushed them to?

Then again, it's a one thing he cannot blame on Gellert. Whatever Aberforth thinks of him, Albus can be remarkably honest with himself. He knows his distrust of government has roots much deeper and older than even that one golden summer of insanity; if anything, he was the one who convinced Gellert to despise them so. Gellert, with his respectable family name and pure blood, never had any reason to fear Aurors. Albus, on the other hand...

Albus spend the last twenty years hiding himself in Hogwarts, away from power and all of her temptations. Away from the real fight.

He thinks of the feather hidden deep inside of his desk and tries to breathe.

Chapter Text

Winter leaves Hogwarts almost imperceptibly, and then all at once. The ice on the lake thwarts, and the hills around the school burst with the impossible, vivid green of fresh grass. All of the students suddenly find the magnitude of reasons to spend time outside, now the air is no longer bitingly cold. They all seem happier, too, seemingly forgetting about the exams creeping closer and closer as the weather gets warmer.

Try as he might, Albus cannot share their enthusiasm. His last talk with Travers leaves him not so much unsettled as spiralling down into despair. He knows he's the one at fault for Elphias's arrest, and at the same time, he's painfully aware he could've done little to avoid it. Even if he hadn't asked Elphias to look for someone named Aurelius, Travers would find another excuse to take Dodge into custody – or someone else close to Albus. Newt Scamander, perhaps, if his actions in Paris weren't enough to protect him. Or maybe even Aberforth, though Merlin only knows how badly his brother would take it.

Albus keeps imagining possible scenarios, but the outcomes in his mind just become worse and worse. If he made a wrong choice, then it must've been a series of them, not one single decision – except for introducing himself to Gellert Grindelwald, which he supposes is the root of all his misfortunes. He finds himself unable to think of anything else. Minerva tries to talk to him about ideas for Transfiguration exam over breakfast next day, but he barely hears a word she says.

He desperately wants to do something, to interfere in some way, but he's afraid his efforts will only make matters worse. He does owl Fawley, asking to meet him, but receives no reply, which is an answer enough.

Albus barely lasts two days before coming back to the box hidden inside his desk.

He takes it out slowly, reverently. He traces the lock with his fingers, opens it. The satchel is still inside it, untouched, and so is the cryptic message and the phoenix feather it came with, until he takes them out.

Albus twirls the feather in his fingers and thinks.

It's late evening already; his classes for the day are over, and he had locked the door to his rooms. If he leaves, there's a chance no one will notice it. It's not the best time, he knows, but it will never be a good time for such a reckless decision. Albus shouldn't even be contemplating it, and yet the temptation is still there.

If he goes along with Grindelwald's invitation, Albus at least has a chance of gaining answers he's been looking for, or confirmations of truths he's suspected. He will be doing something, anything, even if just walking straight into an ambush; surely it will be better than this forced helplessness. And if it's not a trap, and he does face Grindelwald...

If he goes, he will break the impasse they maintained for all this time.

The charms on the feather are undoubtedly based on the same principle as the ones used to create portkeys, only much more complex. Phoenixes also possess innate ability to apparate, so Gellert probably used the intrinsic magic of the feather to build upon – a process, Albus suspects, not entirely dissimilar to making a wand. Just making it is an amazing display of knowledge and magical ability, but Gellert's magic always amazed him. All in all, it's a powerful magical artefact, one only a few living wizards could hope to recreate.

And even less could know how to make it work, once faced with it.

"Hallows," Albus says, and the world falls away.

 

 

He lands on a roof.

A city stretches out before him, breath-taking in the light of setting sun.

The roof he's standing on – or, more accurately, standing on a catwalk circling it – is much too steep to walk on freely, covered in beautiful, coloured tiles. The surrounding towers are high, stretching out into the sky like they hope to touch it. The faces of gothic gargoyles around him are twisted in silent screams. He knows this place, though he's never been here before.

The Cathedral of Saint Stephan in Vienna is one of the landmarks of the city, beautiful and splendid – and showing the strength of an empire that fell only a few years ago.

Albus wonders if Gellert ever felt pride when he looked at the black eagle stretching his wings on the roof tiles or if he detested it as a sign of Muggle dominance over wizards. Both possibilities, he thinks, seem equally likely.

It looks like the Aurors were right, for once. Grindelwald really is hiding in Vienna, or at least close to it – close enough to warrant choosing it as a place for a clandestine meeting. In all honesty, it is a better choice than anywhere in Britain, even if Albus would prefer a place different than the most recognizable roof in the city.

But Gellert would choose one place towering over the entire landscape. It couldn't be any less conspicuous; Gellert, as Albus knew very well, didn't believe in half-measures.

Albus puts his hands in the pockets of the coat he had the foresight to bring along, and waits.

It's a while before he hears the characteristic sound of apparition behind him.

He senses, rather than sees, who it is. He didn't truly expect anyone else, but a part of him was almost apprehensive of being right; it would be easier, Albus thinks, if the feather did lead him into an ambush, if the person appearing behind him was a nameless acolyte send with the order to kill, or even Credence Barebone, about to unleash the full force of obscurus on him.

But it's Gellert – of course it's Gellert.

Albus realizes with a quiet certainty that he cannot turn around, cannot bear to face him, not now. Not after twenty-eight years, not when he spent most of these years seeing Gellert's face in his every dream – and every nightmare. He thought he could, but now, when Gellert's presence is actuality rather than a possibility, he knows how mistaken he was, how wrong it was to come here.

He got used to loving a ghost – but seeing him will shatter all the illusions Albus has built for himself.

"Albus," Gellert says, and Albus had to close his eyes at the sound of this voice.

It sounds the same, only older, deeper – but it's still the same. The intonation, slight hint of a foreign accent, rounded ah and clipped syllables. No one else has pronounced his name quite the same way, and Albus used to cherish it so, to think it so special and precious, and then...

And then he learned to forget it.

"You came," Gellert continues. "I didn't really think you would."

It takes Albus a moment before he can find the words to respond.

"Did you not?" He hears himself ask, and is surprised how calm his voice sounds. "Haven't you foreseen this?"

It comes out surprisingly mocking, bordering on openly hostile, and Albus is unsure why he says it. He didn't intend to antagonize Gellert, but then again, he didn't exactly plan on meeting him. If he had, he would likely bring more than just his wand to face the most dangerous dark lord of their times - even if said dark lord cannot truly harm him.

Albus knew it was a possibility, had both hoped for it and feared it in equal measures, and yet...

He feels unprepared, unbalanced; it's like he's standing at the precipice of something dark and terrible, seconds away from falling.

Vienna stretches out before him, beautiful and distant, untouchable. Albus is keenly aware of the footsteps behind him, coming around, though they hardly make a sound. He still cannot bring himself to turn.

"Ah." Gellert's tone is light, airily, and entirely devoid of anger. It would be appropriate if they were having this argument every other week over tea. "We both know it doesn't work like that."

"You asked me to come," Albus says simply.

He sees a movement with the corner of his eye, so he turns his head instinctively.

The person who comes into his view is very different from the one he imagined.

Gellert looks – older, for sure, but it's something Albus expected; his visions of Gellert, both in his dreams and in the Mirror of Erised, have changed and evolved during these years, showing him a face he came to know only through the photographs in newspapers. But Gellert is taller, too, which is something Albus did not expect, and now he wonders why not, why did he still think of Gellert as a slight boy of sixteen years. This version of him is still slender, but he's both taller and broader, more solid – more dangerous, perhaps. His hair is lighter and shorter, making his angular features look even sharper, almost cutting. There are lines on his face that Albus has never seen before, and he looks simultaneously much more mature and more tired. But the way he moves, walks, tilts his head with dance-like quality, the slight turn of his lips, as if he is moments away from bursting into laughter, the startling look of his mismatched eyes – it's all still the same.

Albus wonders what does Gellert see when he looks at him as he is now? With a beard he never used to be able to fully grow as a boy, and silver in his hair, and laughter lines in the corners of his eyes? Does he look old and worn, shoulder hunched with defeat, nothing like this young, brilliant boy who used to dream of changing the world?

Does it matter?

The man before him is Grindelwald, clad in black, excluding danger from every inch of his silhouette. Albus, still in the same boring suit he uses every day for teaching and a coat he grabbed in the last moment, suddenly feels underdressed.

But it's still Gellert, here, almost close enough to touch, when even looking at him feels like too much for Albus to handle.

"I still didn't think you would," Gellert says, with the same deceptive lightness. "It could've been a trap, and you were being oh so cautious... I didn't think all I had to do get you to come out of hiding was to ask."

"Yes," Albus agrees easily, ignoring the second part of that statement. He knows better than to raise to Gellert's baits."It could have been. But I figured if it was, you wouldn't be here, and I could probably handle anything else."

"Did you?" Gellert raises an eyebrow. "How immodest. And here I was, thinking the great professor Albus Dumbledore was a walking epitome of humility..."

He doesn't quite manage to keep the bitterness out of his voice, and it's a welcome change from affected politeness. Albus is glad not to be the only one who still feels bitter, who doesn't control his emotions.

"And you wish to enumerate our vices?" He asks calmly, ignoring the part of himself which is quietly furious at Gellert for even daring to utter such words.

Gellert smiles suddenly, like the sun breaking from between the clouds, and for a moment all Albus can see is the boy who always laughed with such honest, careless mirth.

"It would take rather long, wouldn't it?" He asks. "Better not, then. We don't have much time, I'm afraid."

"Are you in a hurry, then?"

Gellert just keeps smiling, and it's a kind of a charming, lovely smile that immediately makes shivers go down Albus's spine. "I would always make time for you, darling. I just didn't think you were in a position to make your absence from that little school prolonged, less it becomes noted. Though it is entirely possible I am mistaken and you are not currently under any observation..."

Albus says nothing in response, but he does have to remind himself that attempting to curse Gellert would be a very bad idea, as any sort of jinx which had even a slightest chance of touching him was not a spell he could explain casting to the Ministry. He does, however, allow himself to imagine what sort of face Travers would make if Albus told him he cast a Slugulus eructo on Grindelwald for thinking himself much too clever with his words.

Gellert, predictably, looks very pleased with himself.

"I am not, then," he says. "I suspected as much. You know, you always had a surprisingly high tolerance for people trying to shackle you..."

Albus cannot tell if the observation is meant to be mocking or if it only just occurred to Grindelwald, but he's leaning strongly towards the former.

"The feather will take you back to Hogwarts, if you wish," Gellert continues. "Then again, I don't suppose you will have much trouble finding your own way in, if you'd rather not use it."

Albus has to bite his tongue before he says anything. The statement isn't incorrect, at least on a surface, and he doesn't think Gellert is trying to purposefully antagonize him, and yet... He could slip into Hogwarts without any problem, even now; he'd done so before. Apparating halfway across the continent is difficult, but Albus knows it's not beyond his capabilities – or Gellert's, for that matter. They are both, after all, quite exceptional wizards.

But he cannot do so without leaving a trace, without the Ministry knowing. And he thinks Gellert probably knows about this too, has heard of the silver bands on Albus's wrists, and is deliberately trying to provoke him.

Admitting to Gellert the full spectre of the Ministry's actions towards him – the surveillance, threats, banning him from teaching his own subject – feels too much like laying himself bare, showing Grindelwald the exact vulnerability at which he should strike to hurt Albus.

"That's very kind of you," he says instead.

"Don't be tetchy," Gellert answers, taking a step closer. He doesn't actually sound irritated, just amused. Albus wants to tell him to stop, stay where he is, not come closer, but that would be a bigger admission of weakness than just telling him how terrible the Ministry truly is.

"I wasn't," Albus denies, and then, because he still knows Gellert enough to know flattery will get him everywhere, he adds: "It is a very clever piece of magic."

"It is," Gellert admits, pleased. "It brought you here, didn't it?"

"So it has," Albus agrees, surprised how easy it feels to be talking to Gellert like this, how natural. It shouldn't feel so easy, he thinks, not with everything that stands between them, everything that happened. But it is, and he cannot help falling back into easy teasing, like they were bantering over Bathilda's cakes years. "Where on Earth did you find a phoenix feather?"

"Ah," Gellert says again. "I think it's one of the questions you'd like me to give you answers to."

"You mean the ones you offered?" Albus asks politely. He doesn't doubt actually getting said answers won't be so easy, but he has to try, at least.

"Mhm," Gellert hums, and for the first time since he appeared looks away from Albus to Vienna stretching down before them. "Did I?"

"Not freely offered, then?" Albus asks again.

"Well," Gellert drawls, turning his mismatched gaze back to Albus. It's like he knows what effect it will have, how unsettling it is; he probably does. "You can't expect me to give you knowledge and not ask anything in return, dear. That's not how it works."

Albus ignores the frantic beating of his heart, like the wings of a small bird trapped in a cage, trying to get out. Being a subject of Gellert's undivided attention always felt intoxicating; he mustn't let it get to his head.

"A favour for a favour?" He says lightly.

"Something like it," Gellert agrees, with a smile dancing at the corners of his lips.

"And, of course, you won't name your price until after I agreed to pay it," Albus decides. He didn't expect anything less of Gellert, not really; he knew the meeting would be an ambush, one way or another, and there had to be a catch in anything Grindelwald offered.

"Of course," Gellert repeats, and then, because he must realise how absurd the proposition is, he adds: "Oh, don't worry, it won't be anything too terrible."

"So you asked me to come and make a Faustian bargain," Albus says, keeping his tone light, and Gellert-

Gellert laughs, clearly startled. It's such a joyful, familiar sound, without any malice or mischief, Albus has to keep himself from smiling when he hears it.

"Would that make me Mephistopheles?" Gellert says. "I always considered myself more of a Faust figure..."

"It's only fitting, isn't it, when you're tempting me with knowledge?" Albus asks, ignoring the last bit. He does not – should not – care what Grindelwald considers himself to be. It won't change what he really is. "Tell me, then – what answers do you think you can offer that are worth the price of my soul?"

Gellert laughs again.

"Careful, darling," he says slowly, still smiling, but there's something different in his tone now, darker and more dangerous. "Or I'll start to think you enjoy this."

It's enough to startle Albus out of the easy lull of the conversation, to remind him that whoever he is dealing with now, it's not the boy from years ago, even if he looks similar. This Gellert is not only older or more experienced; he's infinitely more dangerous, and capable of things so terrible Albus is quite sure he cannot even imagine them. He doesn't really know what to make of him, this stranger with a face that haunts his every dream.

"I'd enjoy it more if you stopped playing games," Albus says sharply, though it's directed more at himself than at Gellert. He cannot let himself be lured in by Grindelwald's charm; he knows better than anyone how easy it is to fall into it. "Weren't you the one who said we didn't have much time?"

"Unfortunately," Gellert sighs, taking a step back. Albus keeps himself from breathing with relief. "It's back to your answers, then."

"Yes," Albus agrees.

"Shall we start with Credence Barebone's real name?" Gellert says, as he starts circling Albus; a predator to his very core. "It's what you were trying to find out, isn't it?"

"I did," Albus confirms, does not turn around to follow Gellert's movement. "Is it the one you used to lure him to your side?"

"I simply offered him a chance to find out who he really is." Gellert's voice comes from behind him now, smooth and silky like dark chocolate down his throat. If Albus closes his eyes, he can almost imagine the taste of it. "He came to me out of his own volition."

"Because you offered him the truth," Albus states, not bothering to hide how little belief he has in those words.

"Which is more than anyone else has offered him, I think," says Gellert. "But yes. I did not lie to him, no matter how much you'd like to believe it. That, my dear, is your speciality."

"Oh, yes," Albus says, and tries not to think how the topic of his lies is likely the only thing Gellert and Aberforth would ever agree on; tries not to feel the irrational hurt following that thought. "You were always so honest with him, especially in New York."

"Oh, I did misjudge him in the beginning," Gellert says, emerging at Albus's left side, much too close. "I didn't believe he could be what he is..."

He pauses, then adds: "Don't look so surprised, I can admit I was wrong. In any case, I do think Credence has forgiven me for it."

"Does he even know you were the one pretending to be Percival Graves?" Albus asks.

"Of course he does," Gellert says in the same easy tone of voice. "He was there when MACUSA caught me. And they only caught me because I was trying to protect Credence..."

"Because you intended to use him," Albus contradicts. He doesn't like to dwell on the fact the MACUSA was ready to kill Credence as soon as he revealed himself to be an obscurial, doesn't like to be reminded how the English Ministry would likely do the same when given the chance. "And I thought Newt Scamander had something to do with it as well."

"Your little pet sent to stop me?" Gellert's voice loses its seductive quality; it's sharp, now, and mocking. "He's a nuisance, alright. Then again, he didn't manage to do much in Paris..."

Albus can't help flinching, and Gellert seems to get a hold of himself.

"I didn't come here to discuss Scamander with you, Albus," he says calmly, once again collected. "If you want answers, ask."

"Credence Barebone’s real name," Albus starts slowly, "the one he was born with."

"You figured it out, didn't you?" Gellert asks, delighted.

"It's Aurelius Dumbledore," says Albus, and for the first time since he came here, he looks straight into Gellert's eyes.

"Yes," Gellert agrees easily, and Albus knows it's not a lie, even if he hoped it would be. "Though not quite born with, I don't think."

"You don't think." It doesn't quite come out as a question; Albus isn't sure he intended it as one.

"But he is your brother, in a way," Gellert adds, which is not exactly an answer, but something close to it.

"In a way. Because the obscurus he carries," Albus says, giving voice to possibilities he hadn't consider out of fear, or hope, or maybe both, "It's Ariana's. That's why you were looking for it. You thought- it's the one you saw kill me."

"Yes," Gellert repeats, still so calm, so collected. He's no longer smiling or speaking in a voice so silkily smooth it feels like a caress, which is why Albus knows he really believes in what he's saying. Gellert isn't trying to convince him, or anyone else – he's simply stating a fact. "Although I didn't know it when I started looking for him."

"How?" Albus looks back at the city stretching out below him. He slips his hands lower in his pockets, hoping Gellert won't see them shaking. "I thought they couldn't survive without a host."

"So did I. Until your little protégé informed me otherwise-"

"Newt?" Albus interrupts him.

"Scamander, yes." Gellert's mouth twists at the name, as if the taste it left was unpleasant. "He extorted one from its host before, though the girl apparently didn't survive the procedure. But he kept the obscurus, and showed it to me – well, to Percival Graves – in New York."

Some of Albus's surprise must show on his face because Gellert suddenly looks very interested.

"Why," he drawls, "hadn't he told you about it?"

"No," Albus admits. He is – not exactly shocked at the knowledge, because he knew Newt was keeping secrets just like he was keeping secrets from him, from his former student – but certainly unsettled by it. The thought of Newt conducting any sort of experimental procedure on obscurial, of carrying on even in face of failure, is more painful than he's ready to admit. But Newt must've meant well, and he knows better than to believe Grindelwald's words at face value. It's a poor attempt at distracting him, and one he won't fall for.

It's better to keep to their current topic, which in itself is painful enough.

"So you think Ariana's obscurus, it – transferred?"

"Yes," Gellert says quietly. "You see, I think Credence was a Muggle child. And when..." He trails off, doesn't finish the sentence, but Albus hears it well enough in his silence. When Ariana died. When we killed her.

"I think the obscurus has latched onto it, after," he starts again, and his voice is even, gentle, calm; like he's talking to a child he doesn't want to startle. It's a display of kindness Albus would not expect from someone with Grindelwald's reputation, though he might've expected it of Gellert he knew years ago. "Because it wanted to survive, as all living things do. Maybe it has been drawn to Credence's suffering, even then... Whatever the case may be, your aunt must have found out – and that's why she took him to the States as her son..."

"Honoria was always most fond of Ariana," Albus says, nonsensically. "She wanted to save what little remained of her."

He does not know why he says it; Grindelwald, he's sure, does not care for his aunt's reasons, any more than he would care for the love Albus's aunt did or did not have for him. But it's the only thing he can think of.

If this is true, then why didn't she tell him about it?

It must be true. It's certainly a handy explanation – Honoria would want to take care of the child, so she took it away from England, where people would be surprised at her suddenly appearing with an infant just days after her niece's death. There were no birth records for Aurelius Dumbledore, because the boy did not exist, at least until his sister's obscurus – latched onto him, and isn't that a funny word? Latched. The only thing left of his sister – of sweet, innocent Ariana, who used to love flowers and songs and pretty things – was a dark, twisted parasite, one that killed her, that killed their mother, that would kill him... and then it fused with a Muggle child, destroying yet another life, and his aunt wanted to protect it.

Albus isn't sure whether he wants to scream or cry. He almost doesn't notice Gellert taking another step towards him.

"Albus, I'm sorry..." He says, in an unbearably gentle voice, and Albus-

Albus feels irrationally grateful.

He can't explain it. He thought he would feel angry, because what use did he have for Grindelwald's sympathy, and what right did Grindelwald have to express it, when he was the one at the cause of it all, and yet...

This was Gellert – and Gellert was the only person who made him feel, however briefly, like he wasn't alone.

What a strange and terrible feeling it was, to be understood like this.

"And then Leta Lestrange switched the children, and my aunt died, too, and no one left alive knew the truth," Albus says, and he knows his attempts at keeping his own voice even are failing spectacularly.

"Yes," Gellert agrees quietly.

"How very convenient for you," Albus says bitterly, looking straight at Grindelwald. He waits for Gellert to get angry, to snap back at him, but Gellert stays silent, his eyes sad.

Albus cannot bear to look into them.

"How did you find him, then?" He finally asks.

"The vision I told you about," Gellert starts, suddenly sounding unsure. "The one in which..."

"I died. The one in which Ariana's obscurus killed me." Gellert doesn't look like he's ready to say it, so Albus does it for him.

"I kept having it, even after... everything," Gellert continues. "So you see, I thought I was mistaken before – maybe it hadn't been your sister's obscurus, after all, but a different one. So when I heard one was in New York..."

"You decided to find it and use it to kill me," Albus chips in.

Gellert ignores it.

"I found Credence very quickly, you know," he explains. "But I kept searching for a girl; I just didn't think it could be him. He was too old to be obscurial, for one, and even though he had a faint trace of magic about him, he never displayed any abilities of his own... I thought he was a squib, maybe one who had been abandoned by a pureblood family too ashamed to admit their son didn't have any magic on their own. And he doesn't, I think – or at least he didn't use to before the obscurus, and it's why I didn't recognize him at first. But now he's something else."

He falls silent, and Albus thinks it over.

It's true, he knows, or at least Gellert believes it's true, but it's not the whole truth. There's still something not quite right with this explanation, something that bothers him and hides at the corners of his mind.

But that's a thought for another day. He already has the confirmation he came looking for, and Gellert isn't likely to tell him anything else; not for nothing, at least, and Albus is quite sure he won't be able to pay whatever price Gellert asks of him. He will have to find it out for himself.

"Is this what you told Credence?" He asks lightly instead. "That's he's something else?"

"I told him he's special," Gellert says slowly, and he starts circling Albus again. "Extraordinary. Deserving of all the things he has not been given, things he's been robbed of. Power, magic, love..."

His voice, which is now coming from behind Albus's back, has once again regained its hypnotic, seductive sound. And oh, how good it sounds, how exquisitely painful, to hear him enumerate all the things he used to promise Albus, in the same tone of voice. It's like twisting a knife in a wound, and no doubt intended so.

Albus cannot help turning with him, following Gellert with his eyes, trying to catch every word.

"Don't you think so, Albus?" Gellert asks, and it feels like a challenge.

"Robbed of," Albus repeats, ignoring the question. "By me, I suppose?"

Gellert doesn't say anything, which is telling in itself.

"And so you have your answers," he says with a smile, coming to a stop before Albus. It's quite clear he doesn't intend to tell Albus anything else.

"I do," Albus agrees.

Gellert takes another step towards him. "I told you they were closer than you thought," he says.

"Mhm, not quite," says Albus. His mind is only partly focused on the question; the rest of it is focused on not panicking over how close Gellert is. Close enough to touch, if Albus wished to.

"Still so unsatisfied," Gellert smiles, tone mocking. "Have I performed poorly, Professor? Not quite up to par?"

"Why, were you counting on getting full marks?" Albus asks, but it's more of a distraction than anything else. He can't think with Gellert so close, but does not want to take a step back; can't, actually, unless he wants to fall off the roof.

Instead, he crosses his arms in front of his chest, and Gellert's eyes follow them.

Or, more specifically, they follow the admonitors, clearly visible on Albus's wrists.

"Ah," Gellert says, and reaches for his hand.

Albus flinches, snatches it away before Grindelwald could touch his skin. Grindelwald - because this is Grindelwald, not Gellert, not the boy with golden locks and laughing eyes Albus knew all these years ago – and the easy intimacy of the gesture, the presumption that of course he would be allowed to touch Albus, it-

It should make him angry, but it doesn't.

Gellert stays still, hand outstretched, looking at him with a strange sort of calmness.

"Come and see me again," he says. "That's my price."

"Why should I?" Albus speaks before he can think of what it implies, or what Gellert has seen, or why he does not mention it, why he doesn't asks for anything else. "You didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."

"I gave you your answers, didn't I?" Gellert tone makes it clear how it's not a question. "I kept my end of bargain, so you have to keep yours. It's only fair."

"And you're so concerned with acting fair," Albus says flatly.

"When have I not?" Gellert asks, but he's still smiling, still there, so beautiful and present and real, and it's enough to take Albus's breath away.

"I'm not asking for much, Al," Gellert adds. "It's a simple favour."

"It's hardly simple," Albus disagrees, even though he knows how useless it is, because no doubt Gellert is aware of it – nothing about them has ever been simple, isn't simple now, and another meeting is – unthinkable. Traitorous. Dangerous, even more so than this one.

It would break all the rules Albus has made for himself, all the vows he swore.

He does not allow himself to think as to why Gellert would want another meeting, why he would ask for it.

"But it's not as terrible as you feared it would be, isn't it?" Gellert asks lightly. "You see, I'm good at keeping my word."

"No," Albus admits.

"So you'll come?" Gellert asks again, and he's close enough Albus can clearly see the twinkle in his eyes, how he squeezes them when he smiles.

"Yes," Albus says, before he can think better of it, and then reaches for a feather before he can see Gellert's answering smile.

Chapter Text

Life at Hogwarts goes on, as it usually does, and nothing really changes.

Albus comes back from half a continent away to find his rooms looking exactly as he left them, peaceful and undisturbed. He spends the entire night pacing and wearing down his shoes on the stone floors, but the only effect is a headache he has to fight in class the next day. No one seems to notice anything was amiss and Albus isn't sure whether he's giddy at the thought of his little trip going completely unnoticed or terrified by it.

His mind will serve him better being occupied by different things. Albus analyses his conversation with Grindelwald while ostensibly grading essays in his study in the afternoon; ponders the pauses and elapses, hidden meanings and words unsaid. It still doesn't tell him anything new: meeting with Gellert only confirmed Albus's worst suspicions, although Gellert's reasons for wanting to see him in the first place - and for wanting to see him again, which Albus tries to forget he agreed to – remain annoyingly unclear.

Albus tries not to think of Grindelwald himself; it feels dangerous, to remember his smiles or the light in his eyes or the stretched out hand, open, offered. The thoughts still come, unbidden, no matter how much Albus tries to chase them away.

He thinks of storing the memory in pensieve to watch it over, but in the end deems it too dangerous. Travers already got his hands on some of Albus's memories; it still makes him feel vaguely dirty and he has no wish to live through such an experience again. Or give Travers a satisfaction of catching him in cahoots with Grindelwald.

A small part of him is glad not to have look at Gellert again, lest the yearning he feels becomes unbearable.

His lessons provide a much needed reprieve, though he knows his heart isn't really in them. He lets third years get away with making flying paper birds out of their essays about Muggle prosecution of wizardkind for History of Magic; it amuses them enough no to complain about largely theoretical class, as Albus is too distracted to deal with them actually attempting to cast spells. He can't stop himself from thinking he'd rather be somewhere else, making better use of his time, then immediately feels guilty about it. Hogwarts is his home – where else could he be but here, trying to teach and protect those children? At Hogwarts, he's safe from both danger and temptation, but somehow it doesn't feel like enough anymore.

He comes back to hiding, but the thought of it itches like an ill-fitted suit.

The castle seems constant, unchangeable, but Albus fears he himself has changed – or maybe seeing Gellert has reminded him of how he used to be before he locked that part of himself away. He feels restless, discontent, no longer able to just sit and wait for news of Grindelwald's attack or another interrogation by Travers, masked by a thin veil of courtesy.

 

 

Thankfully, whatever Travers may think of him, there are some advantages to being Albus Dumbledore. One of them is the ability to apparate directly from Hogsmeade to London, a distance most wizard would find at least daunting. Another is a reception he receives when he shows up uninvited at the Ministry, politely inquiring about seeing the Minister of Magic in person. Most visitors would be immediately turned down; Albus is simply told to wait a moment. Maybe he cannot stop this war, but he can at least try to help a friend.

Barely half an hour passes before an aide comes by to escort Albus to the Minister's office. He hasn't even had time to get properly bored.

Hector Fawley is a handsome, elegant man older than Albus by a few years, with pale blue eyes and a thick moustache. He's immaculately dressed in traditional robes of fine silk, a stark contrast to the Aurors, who lately preferred to wear clothing in Muggle style, so they could blend in better if they had to work in a field – and they often had to, nowadays.

The Minister’s office is as elegant as he is, decorated with lush carpets and tasteful pieces of art. The heavy desk in the middle of it is ornamented with scenes from mythology: Heracles defeating a centaur, Medea casting a spell that would allow Jason to kill a dragon; a triumph of magic and reason against the unknown, wild chaos. Albus wonders if Fawley had the office redecorated as soon as he moved in: there's no doubt he had chosen the furniture himself.

Albus remembers Hector from Hogwarts: an aristocratic pureblood from Slytherin, with ambition and every chance of a bright future, and just enough talent to justify it. At school he had been calm, collected, kind to others if he had a chance – and if it suited his own needs. Not the most bright or brave, but not dim-witted or selfish, either. If Albus recalls correctly, and he does, Fawley tried to become an Auror after spending a few years abroad, but the job proved rather too difficult for him. Fortunately, he was a much better politician than he was a duelist, and thus able to get himself elected mostly on the basis of being a good orator than actual accomplishments. Then again, that has proven to be rather problematic for him now, when he had to face a threat of war.

Albus could almost pity his situation if he wasn't so disgusted by the Ministry's actions.

"Albus," Fawley says as a greeting, even though the two of them are not exactly on a first name basis. "I'm very happy to see you, but I must admit, this visit does seem rather sudden."

"I am sorry to trouble you, Minister." Albus inclines his head politely, choosing to ignore Fawley's outstretched hand. "I'm afraid I'm here on rather unpleasant business."

"Are you?" Fawley asks, paling. It is not a good look on him; he starts resembling nothing more than a wax figure, a poor attempt at emulating a living man. "Is there any news about...?"

Albus shakes his head. He doesn't bring any news, not about Grindelwald nor anyone else, or at least none he would wish to share with the Minister of Magic.

"Mister Travers," he says instead, "has been kind enough to let me know about the arrest of one of my friends, Elphias Dodge..."

"Ah, yes, Mr Dodge," Fawley laughs nervously, visibly relieved, and waves his hand. "Don't scare me like that, Albus. For a moment I was sure you were going to tell me there was another attack..."

If Grindelwald attacked, there's little doubt Fawley would hear about it before Albus could read about in the papers or react in any way; but the man's fear, however irrational, is understandable. Grindelwald has been nothing but a shadow, striking whenever and wherever he likes, and no one at the Ministry seemed to be able to predict or anticipate his moves. Albus supposes Fawley had at least a few conversations in which he had to hear bad news he hadn't expected.

Fawley sighs, his shoulders dropping as the colour comes back to his face. He takes a few steps back, falls back into a chair by his desk, indicating to Albus that he should sit down too. Albus would rather remain standing, but he's not going to argue with the Minister of Magic. Not about this, at least.

"Surely," he says, ignoring Fawley's still shaking hands. "There must have been some sort of mistake in Elphias's arrest. An upstanding citizen like him, and one who devoted his life to the study of law..."

Fawley makes an irritated noise in the back of his throat.

"There is not," he says curtly. "I've been assured of it."

"Have you?" Albus asks, putting forward his best impression of a concerned friend. He does not ask why the Minister of Magic had to be assured of the rightfulness of any arrest made by a Law Enforcement, much less one of lowly legal clerks made on trivial charges. Then again, he doesn't really have to: judging from Fawley's face, he already realised the implications of his statement.

Though apparently he decides not to admit it, schooling his features into a mask of indifference. "Yes, I have. And I have full faith in our Law Enforcement," he states. "Now, if there is anything else you wish to know..."

"And if I were to ask what caused his arrests?" Albus inquires.

"I'd rather you didn't," Fawley says stiffly. "Really, Albus, must we discuss this? I understand you're concerned about your friend, but I'm quite sure it is all for the best; give it some time. Now, if you excuse me, I do have some matters which require immediate attention..."

His tone betrays how eager he is to be done with this issue, and the attempt at making at excusing himself from the conversation is so poor even Fawley winces as he says it. Hector, Albus thinks, is not a very good actor. It's a wonder he made it so far in politics if he never learned how to mask his impatience.

Then again, who is a better choice: a leader who cannot lie at all or one who does it all too well? Albus doesn't have to think very hard about this question.

"I'm concerned about Elphias, yes," he admits, keeping his tone gentle. "But not only about him."

Fawley avoids looking at him, choosing to study a painting on the wall. More nymphs and satyrs, no doubt: his tastes, it seems, are rather defined.

"If you wish to know more," he says stiffly. "You should ask in the Auror department. They will be happy to help you, I'm certain."

Albus stays silent. He cannot think of a good way to answer that suggestion; there likely isn't one, as it wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It is so quiet in here; the walls must be muffed by the charms meant to keep anyone on the outside from listening in on the Minister's private conversations. The only sound between them is Fawley's fingers drumming on the desk before him. Albus lets the silence grow uncomfortable, heavy and thickening, almost choking, until...

"For Merlin's sake, Albus, I'm the Minister of Magic!" Fawley bursts suddenly. "You can't expect me to know Travers's every move or remember on what charges he made an arrest!"

Albus smiles politely, ignoring the Minister's anger, and then shakes his head slightly.

"I don't think overseeing the Head of Magical Enforcement is such an unreasonable expectation," he says.

Fawley leaps from his chair and starts pacing, hands folded behind his back.

"Travers has proven himself the best man for the job," he explains, with a note of pleading in his tone. Albus wonders if it's for his benefit or Fawley's. "He's more than capable, and we can only admire his determination. And considering his recent successes..."

"Successes?" Albus repeats, not bothering to hide the disdain in his voice.

"Well, yes, that business in Paris was a bit of a mess," Fawley grimaces. "But even you have to admit striking in Vienna before Grindelwald could make his move was a good decision, and he had discovered spies in our borders just a few days ago... That man is relentless, we can't deny it."

"I don't." Albus nods, and then adds with just a touch of irony: "I can certainly admire his tenacity."

"Well, yes, he doesn't lack it." Fawley shakes his head. "But as he says, we must be ever so vigilant..."

"Of course," Albus agrees easily. "One can never be too careful..."

"Yes, exactly!" Fawley leaps at a chance to agree with Albus, like it will make it more likely that Albus will, in return, agree with him and drop the question of Elphias entirely. Perhaps the technique had even worked for Hector in the past. "And, yes, maybe there have been some mistakes, but it's unavoidable. And if, as you say, Dodge is innocent, I'm sure he will be released sooner rather than later."

"Oh, I'm certain of it," Albus fakes a polite smile, nodding. "I just see no reason why he would be arrested at all."

"Ah, yes, well..." Fawley clears his throat, then frowns.

"Besides his association with me, of course," Albus adds, still smiling.

But Fawley stays silent, avoiding Albus's eyes.

"Travers is already keeping such a close watch over me," Albus continues, trying to keep his tone conversational and easy, and not showing how angry he's getting. "Is extending it to my friends, no matter how distant, really necessary?"

"We must take every precaution," Fawley repeats it like a mantra it probably became at this point. "But, Albus, considering your past friendship with Grindelwald... I don't think you could ever support that dreadful man, of course, but it is only prudent..."

"I am aware of the reasons for surveillance over me. I do not question them."

At this point, it's getting difficult to keep the veneer of calmness and politeness, to not let the icy fury in his veins colour his voice or bleed into his words, but Albus still tries.

"Yes, you've been very understanding, I'm sure, but still..." Fawley fumbles, plays with his pocket watch. Opens it, then closes, repeatedly, quickly, a little tick-tack sound. Well, I suppose we all have some past acquaintances we regret ever coming into contact with..."

Albus smiles. "It's a good way to realize the value of true friendship, if perhaps a bit painful."

"Oh, yes," says Fawley. "So of course you would understand..."

"Why the Ministry would arrest someone who had no way of getting into contact with Grindelwald or any of his followers?" Albus asks quietly. "No, I don't."

"Of course you don't," Fawley mutters under his breath, though Albus doesn't think this last remark was meant for his ears. At this point, the Minister is visibly sweating. "Still, he has been..."

"Has been what?"

"Perhaps..." Hector hesitates, closes his eyes for a moment. When he continues, he sounds a little bit more sure of his words. "Perhaps it would be wiser if you went to see Mr Dodge yourself? It would put your mind at ease, I'm sure, and..."

And it would get me out of here, Albus thinks, almost amused.

"I wasn't aware the Aurors allowed visits to the arrested."

"Well," Fawley stutters. "They don't, normally, but considering, er, the circumstances..."

Albus decides to finally take pity of him. It wouldn't do him any good to deal with the fainting Minister, after all, and Hector is beginning to look decidedly pale.

"Then I'd be very thankful for the opportunity," he says. "Today, I think?"

"Today?" Fawley repeats, surprised. "Yes, well, today, just as well, I'll let them know immediately..."

"Thank you, Minister." Albus offers a polite smile, standing up and making for the door.

But Fawley's voice stops him before he leaves.

"Albus," he says, and for the first time in this conversation, he does sound honest. "For what it's worth, I am sorry for this."

But all Albus can offer in response is a pale shadow of a smile and a shrug of his shoulders. He didn't come here to hear how sorry the Minister was, and he has very little use for it. He hoped to help a friend, and he hadn't even fully succeed in doing that.

And in the end, Fawley's apologies aren't worth anything at all, no matter how heartfelt they are.

 

 

Walking deeper into a Ministry proves to be an exercise in self-control; even though Albus knew very well knew the Aurors grew increasingly more violent and paranoid, had experienced it first-hand, seeing it proves to be entirely another matter.

The Ministerial aide leads him through corridors stretching further down, into the rooms that grow steadily darker and more menacing. Plush carpets turn into stone floors, gold and marble into cold, distant lights and black stone. It's a disconcerting feeling, to step into quiet darkness, knowing there are hundreds of people right above him, going about their days, blind to the misery beneath their feet. Not unlike walking into a belly of a great beast, Albus thinks, or mayhap stepping a foot into the underworld.

In theory, the cells underneath the Ministry were built only as a temporary measure – a place for those who had been arrested, but not yet convicted, and so presumed innocent. The Aurors needed a place to hold them before they faced a trial, and sending them off to Azkaban as deemed unkind – at least when it came to full-blooded wizards. Others, Albus knows, often did not have the same luxury extended to them.

But for all the cells were intended as a kinder alternative, they were still dark and damp and thoroughly unpleasant. And, in the last few months, increasingly overcrowded. There's a person in almost every cell Albus and his companion pass along the way; it's quite unlikely even half of these people came into suspicion of a crime serious enough to warrant detainment. But they're still down there, locked up and alone.

Still, Albus is relieved to know Elphias spend those last few days in the Ministry's cells; no matter how terrible they are, they are still a better place to be than Azkaban.

The aide stops a few steps ahead, tilting his head towards a cell door.

"That's the one, I think," he says, tapping it with his wand and turning it translucent.

Albus walks forward, suddenly unsure of what will await him behind the barrier, and comes to stand before it.

He finds Elphias sitting cross-legged on the floor, like a boy he hadn't been in decades, looking quite calm and composed. He's pale, with shadows underneath his eyes, and a little rumpled, his suit dirt and tie askew. But otherwise, he looks unharmed, and as Albus breathes with relief he realizes he hadn't known, until this moment, how worried he truly was for his friend.

"Oh," Elphias says, staring up at him from his place on the floor. "Albus. Hello."

"Hello," Albus repeats without thinking, a little stunned at the normalcy of this greeting. It seems wrong, somehow; out of place, when Elphias is trapped in a cell, in darkness and solitude, and had been for days. Perhaps they should be raging, or weeping, or doing anything else but this; this forced and fake courtesy, which both of them are so good at. Or course they are good at it – it's all they've ever known.

"I'd ask how you were," Albus adds dryly, "but I think we both know it is not well."

"Ah, yes," Elphias smiles self-deprecatingly. "I've been better. But it's not so bad, all things considered, and I do think they will release me soon."

"Elphias," Albus starts, searching for right words. "I do apologise for all of this; if I hadn't..."

His friend makes a hissing noise under his breath, throwing a glance at the Ministry's aide still standing just a few steps from the cell door, but Albus still continues.

"If I hadn't tried to stick my nose into matters left forgotten, you would be able to work in peace, instead of chasing ghosts on behalf of old friends."

"Well," Elphias says after a moment of silence, "it is a rather long nose."

Albus laughs, startled at a jab, which seems so out of character for Elphias – good old Elphias, who always been so faithful and so in awe of a boy who had extended a hand to him. Who always felt like he hadn't been worthy of that friendship, somehow, or maybe not enough, when in fact Albus had been the one to...

Albus shakes out the rest of that thought before it can truly take shape, swallowing around a lump in his throat.

"I am sorry, truly," he says.

Elphias looks down on the floor, avoiding Albus's gaze. "And this is the part where I'm supposed to say you have nothing to be sorry for, isn't it? Well, of course you don't, you've never been the one to..." He catches himself, shaking his head. "No, this isn't at all what I meant to say..."

"I'm sorry, too, Albus," he continues quietly. "But you know me; I like the quiet life. Simple life. I never could handle excitement the way you did... Still do, it seems."

He looks up. In the darkness of the cell, his eyes look bright and wide. He truly does look like a child he had been once.

"If it's all the same to you, I think I'd rather be left alone."

Albus can only nod. He has no right to except anything else and probably deserves a lot worse. But the rejection, even wrapped up in kind words and delivered gently, still hits him like a fist to his too-long nose. The hurt, he thinks, feels much the same.

 

 

Later, when he's alone – when he's safely back at Hogwarts, when he knows Elphias is alright, when the adrenaline from seeing Gellert and getting away with it wears out – he's hit by grief so acute it's almost like physical pain.

He's not mourning Ariana – he's not mourning only Ariana. He does miss her, more than he ever thought he would. They were never close, not even as little children. It was always Albus and then Aberforth-and-Ariana, the inseparable duo; a divide between him and his younger siblings has been quite clear. He would sit in his room and read or help his mother with chores, while Ariana and Aberforth were running around screaming, pretending to be Morgana and Merlin or Circe and Odysseus. Albus never knew how to be this carefree; he wasn't allowed to. And then Ariana was attacked, and she started getting sick, and Albus avoided being home at all.

But he still misses her all the same. On her good days, she could be so sweet, so gentle, but also funny and intelligent and bright. She liked music, and singing songs, and drawing; she made flowers bloom with magic and then made flower crowns for all of them, Kendra and Albus and Aberforth and herself, and they wore them for a week straight before the enchantments wore off and all the flower blooms fell off. Ariana always knew when Albus was getting sad, too quiet and too withdrawn. She used to come and ask him to read to her; she always wanted to hear the same fairytales.

And then she died. And Albus never got to know the person his sister would be if she had time to grow up.

He does not know what he longs for – a different life, perhaps. One in which his sister hadn't died, in which she was never attacked, but instead grew up happy and talented. One in which his father never became violent, never killed anyone – one in which he knew his father as more than a childhood memory of a man who became murderer, rotting away in Azkaban. One in which his mother didn't grew gradually colder and stiffer, more distant with every day, until it seemed like he could never reach her. Until she was killed by her own daughter, whom she was trying to protect so desperately.

Perhaps in that life, Albus wouldn't grow up with lies and secrets and sorrow; and maybe, without such constant companion's he would've known how to love someone without causing them pain, or how to let go of love.

Maybe he wouldn't have loved Gellert at all – maybe a version of him who was wiser and less scared and a better person would have seen right through Gellert's lies and half-truths, would immediately know what he was, what he would become. Maybe Albus would've been smart enough to walk away sooner.

Or maybe – and this is the thought that scares him the most – maybe he would've know how to love Gellert. Maybe he would have known a way for them to love each other without leaving scars. Maybe, if Albus didn't add his own pain to Gellert's visions and fears, Gellert would never become so obsessed with finding ways to stop them from coming; maybe there would be no Grindelwald, no war to put a stop to. Maybe that version of Albus would not only love Gellert, but also be able to keep him.

But it's a world that never was, one existing only in his dreams, and all Albus has left is a hollow emptiness inside of him.