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His Majesty's dragon

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Not long after his graduation, Albus Dumbledore received a letter with a heavy seal of crimson wax - embedded in it was the coat of arms of the King George August II. of Great Britain. It had not been him to write to somebody as lowly as a mere boy freshly out of Hogwarts, of course, but his Ministry for Magical Creatures Used in Open Combat – Dragon Corps in short. Albus’ magical power, ability, and control apparently was up to the required standard to be considered for the training program for Aviators.
Needless to say, Albus had absolutely no intention to join the Military and risk a (loyal, heavily armoured, dangerous) beast in the process. So he went back to Godric’s Hollow in the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death, which wasn’t that sudden for close family members at all, really, and met the love of his life. Gellert Grindelwald. His curse, his salvation, his entire fucking world-
Ariana died, too. Aberforth hated him.
In the end, Albus went to the Ministry, well aware that it could take over a decade until a dragon decided to accept him, and him only. What choice did he have? What good lay in wasting years mooning over a blonde boy with mismatched eyes and a dazzling laugh, undeniably aristocratic features, soft hands, quick and gentle, cruel and capable of caressing all the same?
He was Austrian, that boy. Gellert. Albus seldom thought of him these days, didn’t have the time for it. And if he did, all he could feel was a rising panic to meet him on the battlefield. Or, worse: to fly over his fair head without noticing when Gwythyr unleashed her golden fire onto the battlefield. Such thoughts were only a distraction. To think about one man down there meant to think about all men who perished like flies in their wake. Down on the ground, where he no longer belonged.

“A bit to the left, Gwythyr,” he said too quietly to be heard by anyone but his beautiful dragon, a female breed from the northern top of the world. She was too dark in colour and therefore not useful where she should have hatched. Her egg had given it all away right from the start and ex-General Scamander Senior, bless his soul, had refused to let it go to waste in some resort.
Underneath them, Innsbruck rushed past with its flickering lights, so very tiny from above. Albus stood in the saddle because his backside hurt, not for a lack of training, but simply because they hadn’t touched the ground in 24 hours. The freezing wind up here shattered every kind of warming spell thrown up by him again and again and the sight of the black silhouette of the mountains against the clear star sky made his heart seize in his chest with fear. In short, he was beyond exhausted. Of course, getting Gwythyr to Venice for protection against the Holy Roman Empire and Austria just after a battle at the Eastern Sea against the Swedes was more important than time to recover. She growled, a deep, rumbling sound, as his grip on the hard spikes of her neck slipped for a second. Her skin was as wet and cold as the clouds, no warming charm on his leather gloves helped with that anymore. They prevented him from casting wandlessly anyway, and he wasn’t yet desperate enough to whip his wand around a kilometre above ground. Albus patted Gwythyr’s neck soothingly, her growl was as much of a warning as it was a complaint.
“Yes, I know. I’m tired. But you always keep me up, dear, I had a pleasant slumber over most of Germany. You on the other hand must be starving.” The slow flapping of her enormous wings should have prevented any sound reaching her nearly invisible ears, they were more like holes in her thick skin just underneath the largest spikes on her heavy head, really. But the bond between a dragon rider and his companion was a very special one, he never had to go to shouting with her unless she panicked under an onslaught that she had no chance withstanding. She was a Heavy Weight, for sure, but there were even larger dragons such as Russia’s breeds, the Imperial race, which bordered on downright fat.

She dipped to the left in a graceful turn that made the world go all wrong in its directions, up and down became utterly unimportant. Albus went with it as naturally as breathing. Merlin, but he was glad to have made that decision at 18 years old. With nowhere to go and nobody to answer to, taking care of a neglected creature such as his Gwythyr had been the only thing in the world he still cared about, an anchor to prevent him from a slide onto a very dark path indeed. She was his entire world now, and he worried about her as much as she worried about him.
“You do know that I am terribly impressed with you, don’t you? Do you want to rest in the mountains? We can make camp for the night, the sun won’t go up for another four hours at least. Find a cave for us, dear.” Touching ground in enemy territory was downright suicidal, but he’d be damned if he made his entrusted dragon suffer anymore. She was brave and strong, especially for her age, and it prided him greatly to stick it all into the sour Swedish faces who had orphaned her in the first place.
Gwythyr lowered her elegantly formed head, a warm snort went over it within a heartbeat and enveloped Albus entirely. Up here, nobody heard him laughing in delight, but who would have understood the quiet sarcasm of his Queen of the North anyway?
“Alright, alright! I’m a fool and I know it, shut up, I can hear you thinking. But I’m tired, too, and to fall asleep up here would be a terrible idea indeed.” That worked. Without any warning whatsoever, she dove down from the heavens under which she was absolutely invisible without spells needed. She was the night sky. Midnight blue, speckled with a million tiny white spots on her softer belly, shimmering when she wasn’t covered in battle grease for once. Albus instinctively ducked deeply onto her neck and simply endured the slashing wind which seemed to be ripping pieces off his cheeks. He closed his eyes just before she none too gently floated parallel to the northern horizon again, flapping her wings too hectically.
“Show-off,” he mumbled affectionately and searched the city they had just passed now for any rising figures. No. Nobody had seen or heard them, not a soul disturbed in their slumber by an English dragon flying directly over Innsbruck.

“Alright, gently now. We need to get off the pass. Go south-south-east, dive into the mountains, but stay clear off the sharp cliffs. If you slash your wings now, we’re doomed.” It was nothing short of madness. No aviator in their right senses sent their dragon into the mountains at night, not in a million years. But they had to be in Venice by mid-day to warn the Italians of the Austrian-German attack in the making. And going over enemy territory by daylight was even more stupid than avoiding deathly rocks tumbling from their cradle up here, at the crown of the world. Gwythyr took Albus’ order by heart for once and flapped on slowly, it made more noise than he was comfortable with. At least the city lay far behind them now. His coat did nothing in terms of warmth anymore and his fingers had gone numb hours ago, he was hungry, exhausted, weary, hurting in places he hadn’t thought of since his novice days. And Gwythyr must have been feeling even worse. She seldom spoke at all, but dragons were as far from brute beasts as any good man or woman. Rider and dragon shared a connection that made a lot of things easier, some feeling deep inside that couldn’t be described to outsiders in any terms. Deep. That was the word Albus used when he was forced to try. Ancient, he might have added, because he always felt like Merlin himself when he was alone for too long with dragons only. Calming, reassuring, a constant to tie himself to. Gwythyr, of course, didn’t have the means to explain it to him as most dragons only spoke a relative of Parseltongue and had a hard time learning any human language at all, but her possessive protection over him was legendary among the corps. To keep an open mind and sod all Occlumency up in the air made communication possible. Somehow. Indescribable. It was the only thing holding him up right now.

They glided towards the misshaped horizon, barely visible against the night sky. The moon was a weak, half-way formed sickle of milky light that made the shadows thrown by Gwythyr’s neck spikes sharper and all her edges even rougher. Albus, now comfortably leaning on that hard, leather-like skin with most his weight propped up on his arms, watched the shapes swishing by with drooping eyelids. No matter how cruelly the whipping wind bit him, it wasn’t enough to keep him awake anymore. They had to find shelter, and fast.
“Dammit… Don’t be alarmed, I’m only going to cast a quick Patronus to London. If they expect us to make a 36 hours journey in one go, they can bloody well stick it. Keep course, I’ll be fine.”
He was not. Gwythyr let out another one of those unnecessary long puffs of warm air that only left him slightly damp and climbed higher, most likely in fear of the mountain’s deadly edges. Meanwhile, Albus took off his right glove with clumsy movements, half biting, half tugging at each individual finger until it relented and very nearly was thrown into the abyss. He let out a subdued swear. The Aviator Corps really hadn’t done him any good in terms of eloquence.

Not daring to take out his wand which was safely nestled under multiple layers of thick woollen clothing that was supposed to be laden with warming and protecting spells, he formed a pointed bowl with both his hands and tried to think of something other than the cold. The memory bringing forth his Patronus was the same as it had been so many years ago in that smothering summer, when he had produced the strongest Patronus in his entire life so far. Gellert had shown him the powers of blood magic followed by the greatest intimacy imaginable, his caress loving, a fire burning in his mismatched eyes, his passion as greedy as he had been shameless. Albus closed his eyes and allowed himself to smile. That, at least, nobody could take from him ever again, no matter the aftermath.
“Expecto Patronum!” he spoke clearly into his freezing hands. A phoenix as silver as the moonlight broke forth from his fingers which sparked repeatedly, malfunctioning in the casting due to how numb they felt. That he had managed it at all astounded him. The phoenix skittered around his head two, three times and chirped silently. Albus straightened his back.
“Go to General Abraxas, Leader of His Majesty’s Dragon Corps in London and tell him this: We are unharmed, but unwell. If we tread any further without rest, I would risk Gwythyr’s health, safety and sanity. We will take off again at first light and hopefully, nobody will see us. If you do not hear word from me within the day, we either fell or went into capture. Signed, Rider Dumbledore on Gwythyr.” His voice was lost in the black heights, the patronus bowed its head in a graceful arch, chirping with an open peak again.
It took off soaring into the crisp winter night and rather irritated Gwythyr. She let out a rumble that spoke of her mood, none too pleased, and even went so far as to snap at it. Albus quietly pronounced her name like a warning, but too softly. They were beyond their limit by a mile.

Just as he thought that Gwythyr had decided to carry him as far as she could and stay down utterly collapsed for the next three days afterwards, a strange silhouette rose from the ever-changing shape of the Alps. Suddenly, the moon freed itself from the thin clouds. Milky moonlight made the outlines of a castle adorned with uncountable towers like needles stand out against the mountainside as clear as day, Albus nearly bolted out of his seat in panic.
“Gwythyr! Up, as far as you can! Now!” But it was too late. The still shape of what he previously had assumed to be a pile of rocks in front of the castle gates soared into the night sky, blocking stars from view. It was a Heavy Weight which barely even had to flap once on level with Gwythyr who withdrew her wings and all but fell to the earth. Albus knew that bluff from Quidditch, he’d been the one to show it to the Aviators in the first place, adapting game techniques for battle. But Gwythyr was tired and worn out, cold, her wings adorned with frost on the edges where the air was torn into pieces instead of flowing past them properly.
“GWYTHYR!”
He would rather go into capture than to risk her life. Albus’ heart was thumping so hard against his rips, he feared fainting. Breathing was a luxury. Beneath his legs, Gwythyr’s powerful muscles shifted and grew hot within seconds. She was about to blow the last of her strength into a dangerous arch of flames, pointing upwards.
“Gwythyr, NO! Don’t, please, don’t waste yourself!”
She pulled up a mere ten meters above unsteady ground. The mountains grew and grew and grew until there was no horizon anymore, a crown of deadly peaks all around, as tall as standing on its soil. Albus could see the rocks on the ground clearly now, all of their sharp features, unrelenting hard stone partly hidden under snow. Far above them, the invisible dragon roared, diving, diving for his prey. Gwythyr climbed the night sky as if she was heading for the milky way.

'Protect you!'

“Yes, I know, but I’ll be fine. Don’t. For heaven’s sake, don’t, my dear, I don’t blame you.” With a mighty roar of her own, she shot past the bulky Heavy Weight who snapped his mouth shut just inches above Albus’ head. He ducked further, scared, and yet, as long as they weren’t separated, they would be fine. Even the Austrians weren’t so cruel as to kill a Rider to make a dragon submit. It was suicide anyway, that.
The clearly male Heavy Weight forced Gwythyr down to the castle within minutes. She tried to get around him, twisted and turned impossibly fast for her size, but unable to hold up her usual speed in this state. Albus could feel her panting for breath by the time she slumped into the bailey, her tongue was hanging out her slightly parted mouth and if she could have poured sweat like Albus did from holding on, she would have soaked him and the saddle already. With numb fingers, he drew his wand, unclasped the leather belts holding him in place in case the enchantments failed for some reason, it had all happened before.
“You did well, my dear,” he praised Gwythyr quietly before sliding off her back and very near fell to his knees immediately. Next to her still figure, the Heavy Weight floated to the ground so gracefully that the mocking in all his movements was obvious. He was laughing at that young Swedish dragon of his own weight class. Albus scowled. Black as the sea at night, he was. His head gave his sex away, if the almost abnormally impressive size didn’t already.

The castle doors opened with a bang and a swirl of white fabric streamed out into the moonlight.
“Anarawd! Warum zum Teufel weckst du mich mitten in der Nacht? Morgen müssen wir wieder in der Luft sein, du sturer… What in all seven hells is the meaning of this?”
Albus froze. He had heard the raspy German language constantly for the past weeks from enemy soldiers, but this particular intonation he would not forget in a lifetime. The change into English really didn’t make it any easier. Gwythyr growled threateningly and tried to shuffle before Albus, her great left wing obscured him from view almost entirely until he pushed it aside gently. She was in more pain than she showed, his brave Queen. The man, no doubt the lord of this castle, stopped in his tracks entirely and with him Albus’ heart, for more than a second.
“Gellert?” Oh, how big his eyes got, one entirely white except for the wide pupil, the other almost black… Still as fascinating as back in the day. Albus lowered his wand on instinct, they weren’t able to hurt each other anyway. The proof for that dangled from Gellert’s white neck, shining silver, swirling with blood at the innermost centre.

It was only due to his training that he didn’t drop where he stood. Here he was, at the end of the world, still splattered with blood and grime, worn out and numb to the core, and who greeted him in his own fucking castle? Gellert Grindelwald. Sauntering into the courtyard in a long cloak adorned with pelt on both shoulders, wearing only a thin white night skirt underneath that left absolutely nothing to the imagination, thank you very much, on naked feet.
“I must be dreaming.”
“You’re not,” Albus panted and fell to his knees, his legs giving out at last. Gellert wasn’t a threat, no matter for which side he fought. Well. The Austrians, obviously. “Gods, I hate you. I really, really do.”
“That’s a lie. I’d be dead already otherwise.” He groaned and turned his face to the heavens. It all seemed as far away down here as it did up in the air, this castle really was built on the top of the world.
“Yes, it is.”

Gwythyr let out a low rumble again, clearly worried, and urged him up ever so gently with her snout. It felt like being run over by a horse, as usual, but he petted her either way. How did one walk again?
An icy blue wing supported his weight with the thump claw which he leaned on gratefully. His auburn hair hung into his sweaty face in tussled bangs and he was bloody freezing. And standing in Gellert’s castle. Gellert’s. Castle. Merlin and Morgana, when had that happened?
But then, Gellert was most likely wondering precisely the same thing. Albus looked up, their eyes locked instantly, lips parted slightly, a step by a step by a step Gellert came near him, both his hands raised where Gwythyr could see them. He bowed, deeply, before he approached Albus himself any further.
“My name is Gellert Grindelwald and I swear on my life that not in a million years would I hurt your Rider intentionally. May I help him? He clearly is in need of medical attention.”
“And a bed with you in it, you prat,” Albus added before he could stop himself. “A pepper up potion beforehand would come in handy too.”
Gwythyr huffed and didn’t even bother to get up to smell Gellert over properly as dragons liked to do with new humans. She blinked slowly, obviously exhausted, and simply closed her lids with an audible click. Gellert was accepted. Light blond eyebrows rose almost up to his hairline, only that side of surprised. They shared a tired smile and just like that, years of questioning faded away. Albus had forgiven him long ago anyway, they just weren’t meant to be together, it seemed. Too different in their beliefs and in the way they would have treated foreign politicians in their revolution. It was all none and null now, the war had thrown the entire world over years ago.

Gellert offered him both his hands to pull himself up, a look of quiet amusement and open awe written all over his pretty face. His body had filled out a lot, arms and chest and legs packed with muscles, and he had cut his hair which Albus rather mourned right now. Pulling at his locks always had made him utter the most delicious moans back then.
He stumbled, practically falling asleep upright. Their fingers still locked without so much as a thought, fitting into each other perfectly. It felt like becoming whole again, a yawning emptiness he hadn’t been as aware of recently as he had been many years ago closed silently and he was lost. From Gellert’s neck, hidden beneath the fabric of his nightgown, dangled their blood troth.

Albus stopped, still in reach of Gwythyr without her even stretching a claw. As exhausted as he was, he could not afford to tread into an enemy’s castle and leave his dragon behind with a Heavy Weight even larger than her.
“Fuck,” he breathed and swallowed cold air. “Which side are you on?” Gellert’s eyes grew hard with pride.
“The Prussian army took me in because I’m the best at what I do. We know no fear, the two of us,” he said and briefly looked up to his dragon, who appeared to be sleeping, curled in on the cold stone, except for that one eye which wasn’t completely closed. He watched Gwythyr and them silently, a breathing mountain, blacker than the shadows. Albus let out a sigh of relief and all but collapsed into Gellert’s arms. Merlin, he smelled familiar. Like a home long forgotten and left behind.
“Do they appoint the dragons according to magical power levels of the novices in Prussia? It would explain his size, at least.”
“Flatterer,” Gellert snorted and left warm imprints on Albus’ frozen skin. He needed to get inside very soon or he’d be sick by tomorrow. Obviously, he had forgotten to slam his occlumentic shields back up because Gellert let him go slowly without withdrawing his support. There was one thing left to be done, of course.

Albus turned around and took two steps towards the strange Heavy Weight. It was impossible to make out any features in the darkness, and even in daylight, he must have appeared like an all-consuming shadow from above without a precise form. A very intimidating fighter, indeed. He bowed stiffly and tried to find his voice, his throat having gone sore long ago.
“My name is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore and I do not intend your esteemed Rider any harm. While I would have wished differently for our first meeting, I do hope you forgive me my lack of manners just now. Gellert and I go way back and I missed him a great deal.” There, done, he could shut up for the rest of the night now and fall over sleeping. The huge dragon shifted, his scales scratched over stone with a sound like sharpening swords. His eyes were shockingly green with the vertical pupil that was typical for most dragons.

'Anarawd.'

Albus blinked in surprise. Never had a dragon other than his own talked inside his head. They weren’t very eloquent creatures, Riders got one-syllabus or one-word answers at the best of times. Mostly, they didn’t bother with the finesse needed for legilimancy at all. Anarawd’s presence felt… ancient. Yes. Very old, calm, now that any possible danger was done and dealt with, content. His Rider was fine, Gwythyr no threat at all in this state and it was the middle of the night anyway. Albus smiled in gratitude and finally got up. His blood circulation decided to go to sleep then and there. Gellert caught him before he could fall down, of course, a worried smile flickered over his features
“Woah, I get resting with dragons, believe me, I’ve grown to prefer it over a lonely bed – but you are knackered, love.” Albus’ smile only grew wider at the term of endearment. Oh, it had been so dreadfully long…
“’m glad to see you again,” he murmured and hid his cold nose in Gellert’s neck. He, of course, would have none of that.
“You could have told me that you wished to see me again at all much sooner, you know?” A sigh. “No matter. I’m bringing you to bed. Do you have to leave again very soon if you practically fall from the sky like that?”
Albus tried to compose himself. He didn’t want to take off again at first light, dammit, they were safe here. Safe in enemy territory. How on earth was that possible in the first place? Could he trust Gellert at all?
“Afraid so, yes. First light. But I’ll write to you. As soon as… I can hold a quill again.”
He was levitated off the ground and still leaning heavily onto him. Gellert clicked his tongue. Behind them, their dragons rapidly fell asleep, their rumbling snores echoed from the high castle walls.
“Whoever decided to send you all the way from Britain to Austria clearly misunderstands his job as a general. For how long have you two been awake now?” Albus yawned as if on cue and let his head fall onto Gellert’s shoulder, deciding that the matter of trust was a topic to discuss in the morning. Floating had the heavenly side-effect of all his pains suddenly stopping altogether if he also kept very still.

“I’ve stopped counting. Haven’t had any sleep since the last battle at Minden… you seem well rested and neatly put together, as always.” Gellert eyed him in amusement and combed his hopelessly tangled hair, as long as the middle of his back now. Normally, he kept it in a very tight bun at the back of his head most of the time. That bun had failed long ago.
“Why, Albus, was that a compliment?”
“Shut up,” he mumbled and sighed in relief when the main doors out of glass closed behind them. A quick look back showed him Gwythyr blinking at him sleepily.

'Rest.'

He smiled, inclining his head in a silent nod. Then he turned back to Gellert, taking in how well he fitted into this tall dining room with a massive fire place at the front. Everything appeared rather baroque, high and adorned, embroidered, decorated in the most tasteful sense of the word, while the exterior clearly resembled the castles of old more. It must have been a very lonely life in these halls, if Gellert ever had lived here at all.
“This is beautiful,” Albus mumbled, more aware of what this meant now that the dreaded cold slowly slid off his skin. The mere possibility to have his betrothed back, the love of his life, his only equal, made his heart beat so loudly he feared discovery. Their hands were still intertwined, he noticed. Gellert stepped nearer, as usual with no regard for personal space, and laid a chaste kiss onto his cool cheek. Of course, Albus keened and went after him in pulling back, his eyes crinkled.
“Thank you. I appreciate the compliment. And I would love to show all of it to you some day. This is a haven existing only to those who know me well, which is a very small circle indeed. You do remember that I am of Austrian decent, don’t you?”
“How could I have forgotten a single thing about you, Gellert?” Albus breathed with a laugh and let himself be tugged past the long tables with wooden chairs. Had he known about this extraordinary castle clinging to the mountainside earlier, easily accessible through the air but near impossible to reach walking, he’d manoeuvred over all of Austria much sooner. In his tired state, he liked to believe that.

A wide staircase led to the upper floors outside the dining hall, other closed doors to different rooms on the ground floor. Oh, how tempting some warmth and quiet was now, after months in the field, on the back of Gwythyr more often than on his own two feet… Maybe that was why walking felt so wobbly all of a sudden. Climbing stairs would not be easy. Not at all. Albus groaned and stopped, leaning heavily onto the railing.
“Do I have to carry you upstairs?” Peeping through half-way closed lids, he only huffed. Maybe outrage would have been more appropriate. Awake, uninjured, not starved.
“I’m still a wizard. Capable of magic, you see. Very impressive magic.”
“Yes, and you’re going to pass out stone cold if you so much as cast a levitation spell now,” Gellert stated drily and to his great chagrin was right in it. Albus closed his eyes again, sunk into his wonderfully warm embrace and felt his weight being lifted again. He floated up the stairs like a ghost, never mind that Gellert had not in fact brought his wand when flying out the castle doors.

He lost his coat along the way, probably hung it somewhere in his large bedroom overlooking the valley beneath. Like walking on air, the carpet was plush and kept off the cold from naked feet. The bed was way too big for one person alone, worthy of a king, a four-poster one with a ceiling of some dark colour that Albus couldn’t identify in the dark.
“Tell me that’s midnight blue.” He nodded to the bed and stripped of his clammy coat. It was ruined anyway, too much blood dried on it, covered in dust and ice. Next went the first layer of wool underneath, but his numb fingers just wouldn’t cooperate.
“It is.” Gellert pried the soft fabric from him gently with an intoxicating smile, pitying, no doubt, but also every bit as loving as he once had been. Albus inhaled his scent so deeply his lungs hurt in protest. A fireplace, cold and obviously unused, drifted into his tired focus when he took the time to look around again. The room was almost circular. Some tower, then.

“Would you mind terribly if we started a fire and threw some protective wards over it for sleep?” he asked quietly, not sure if he was overstepping. They hadn’t talked about sleeping arrangements yet. Was it too bold to assume that they would curl up together again like old times, Albus the small spoon despite standing two fingers or so taller now?
For a few long seconds, silence fell over the chamber. Their eyes met when he dared to look up again, only a breath apart, sharing air. Gellert smiled ever so slightly, his pale lips curving upwards and his eyebrows following inevitably. He seemed so at peace here, so calm, Albus hated himself for the mere assumption to believe him to be the same man from fifteen years ago. They had been boys. A long way from growing up.
“Not at all. Forgive my habits, you never know when we are to leave here at once. I assume you are on your way to the south and took the risk of the mountains at night so as not to be observed from down below.” Wordlessly, he notched Albus’ arms up and pulled two layers of scratching wool over his head at once. Underneath, he still wore the vest of his uniform, just in case somebody honest to Merlin expected him in good order and appearing well put together after almost three days without sleep in a row. Gods, but he wanted to bathe. Urgently.
“I am. You saw us coming from Innsbruck, then?”
“No, it was the way you sunk down. You were so focused to get past Anarawd farther into the mountains, everything else wouldn’t have made any sense. She’s brave, your queen. Am I right there? A Star from the North?”
“Blue as the Swedish summer night, a chance of one in a thousand, yes. The Swedes would have put her into a lower breeding program for cold blooded dragons for the ground tasks, all the while still showing her off to our Corps. It would have killed me then and there to let her go with them again,” he answered in a fond tone and finally managed to get all of his buttons open. Almost as an afterthought, he pulled out his wand and laid it onto the nightstand. Gellert did the same on the other side. They exchanged a look of quiet understanding. Matter settled. 

“What does her name mean?”
Albus focused on the bed, hesitating. Her name had been his suggestion and she had taken to it instantly, but it was a bit… pretentious.
“Conqueror,” he said with delay, trying and failing to keep the pride out of that one word. Gellert bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“An oversight on my part not to watch the Riders of the English Aviator Corps more closely. I was most interested in your politics, you Englishmen are so full of debates and always holding back until the last second before you decide to intervene at all. Britain’s resources are bound in the Americas and India anyway, but we needed allies, our Emperor got a bit impatient.”
“I understand completely,” Albus replied honestly and started undoing his breeches, blushing when Gellert eyed him with thinly veiled lust. No, he didn’t need to know that Albus was practically a virgin again because he had denied himself any quick intercourse as well as serious lovers. There was nobody for him. Nobody but one, standing not two feet from him.

Damn it all to hell, he wanted to be entirely open. He wanted to ask where Gellert had to take off to tomorrow, how he had managed to find some peace and quiet in the middle of Austria of all countries, what had led to his decision do become a Rider too… He closed his eyes, licked his dry lips, fought back the urge to fuck it all and run with it. He was starved in more than one sense of the word, despite how happy he was amongst his fellow Riders and all those highly underestimated dragons. Every single movement hurt and he needed 14 hours of sleep, not four.
“Albus,” Gellert called softly and just like that, he was done. Albus crossed the distance between them with two big strides, fisted the thin material of his white nightgown and kissed him senseless. All those little sounds, the eager response in body language, warm hands on his stiff back… They could throw out the window every dream about spending any prolonged time here in the next years and still, Albus found himself wanting to stay. In bloody Austria. Merlin and Morgana…
“Tell me the truth,” he panted and fixed his gaze on those dazzling, mismatched eyes. “You really are with the Prussians and nobody knows that you are here? Not the Austrian Habsburg crown, some family likely to talk? I could not bear being on opposite sides with you. I once trusted you with my life.”

Gellert cupped his cheek so gently he wanted to cry or push him back onto that mattress, fuck him right through it, lay him open with no barriers and masks left between them. It must have shown on his face, he thought, if the tenderness laced with deep regret on Gellert’s aristocratic features was anything to go by.
“I spy for the Prussians here in Austria, I admit that much. My Austrian decent makes it very easy to pass each and every test they put me through, but my loyalty lies with Prussia. Any friend of Britain is my friend in this war, Albus, and siding with the Russians would have gone against my very belief of human decency. I do not care for Austria, they buckle and bend over backwards to please the Russians and that’s what disgusts me. But Russia itself… I sincerely hope that you never saw the horrors of the Red Army, my dear.”
“I did,” he breathed and collapsed onto the bed. The relief washing over him dulled the pain, however briefly. “Have I mentioned that I hurt all over? And I mean that. Everything hurts. Otherwise I’d have you here and now.”
“Without doubt,” Gellert purred and pulled himself up to a sitting position at his side. “May I help you with your breeches?” Albus made a vague hand gesture in consent, already half asleep. He felt drunk, too emotional for his own good, drowning in relief and pain while the cold finally retreated. A snap from skilled fingers made the fireplace roar to life, shedding warm light into the dark room. When he forced himself to look at Gellert again, his face was half hidden in the shadows, half glowing gold. Albus’ breeches were gone within a minute, cold and damp, Gellert however stroked the warmth back into his tired limbs with the most meticulous care. To be almost naked right here, right now should have bothered him more. Instead, Albus stretched, catlike, and left his sore arms above his head on the large cushions as if by accident. His smile was slow, his sigh barely audible when calloused hands touched his most intimate parts with tenderness.

“Give me any excuse whatsoever and I’ll just… stay right here. For a while. I want to stay.” A stronger grip, just that side of not enough pressure and he was keening, arching with want. Not a good idea. At all. He was hurting all over no matter how he settled and stretched on the beddings. “Excuse my whining, I’ll, ah, be out of your hair in no time, sadly.” Gellert kissed him anew, cupped his jaw, smirked at his thumping heartbeat. Oh, they still knew eachother like the back of their own hands.
“No need to apologize for following orders, old friend. You clearly are bone-deep exhausted and in urgent need of my care.” Albus felt decidedly like being laughed at. Mere minutes ago, he had wanted for a Pepper Up Potion, now he saw the stupidity in that. What he wished for was Gellert wrapping him in his arms and nodding off to sleep with him, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Sighing, he scooted higher on the bed and lost the blanket on accident in the process, Gellert’s wonderful hands slipped from his hips. That his betrothed still hadn’t moved with him, he only noticed after a while that felt like nothing at all, and yet his eyes flew back open again. He’d be asleep in no time.
“Gellert?”
“Albus, love,” Gellert responded dangerously low with a look of mild shock in his shining eyes, “Do you realize that your pains must stem from something other than two days of flying? I’ve been there, it’s hell alright, but you, my dear, are covered in bruises. That you’re not sincerely wounded surprises me to say the least.” Albus sucked in a breath and turned onto his left side. Nope. That hurt his shoulder too much. On his back again, then. His right hip felt kind of braced, too.
“Went from the battle straight to the south, as I said,” he murmured and made to drag Gellert physically to his side. “Wasn’t that bad at first. Rush of the battle, had orders to get to Italy to defend their northern border right this second, you know the deal. Your French assault on British soil managed to distract us for too long, ’t was already too… way too late when the messenger arrived. Germans and the Austrians joining forces. Not good. Bit not good at all.”

Instead of falling into the soft covers next to him, Gellert took his wand and obtained a more stable position on the mattress. Albus had no time to be afraid.
“I will not let you go off on a diplomatic mission if you can’t even walk properly because you forgot that you’re a wizard who could have healed himself by now. Do you truly need me still for that?”
“It appears so,” Albus said, quietly, and dared not move. With both his arms above his head, he watched Gellert’s every movement with curiosity, sighed when the warmth of skilled healing spells washed over him, vanishing a good deal of the colourful bruises. It felt like silk being dragged over his sensitive skin, nothing short of pure bliss.
“There. Many aviators forget about their wands at the worst possible times, but then, you were pants at easy spells and excelled at the hardest of incantations if I recall correctly.”
“You do. Thank you, Gellert.” There was more to those simple words than the gratitude for healing. Just an hour ago, Albus had dreaded the thought of a cold night in an abandoned cave somewhere in the mountains, lying on stone and hoping like hell he’d wake up again in the morning. This… This came close to a miracle.

Warm, comfortable, in bed with his betrothed at the end of the world and in promise of getting some short rest, Albus had no intention of talking about politics anymore. Gellert, on the other hand, crawled under the covers next to him and carefully draped his long limbs over Albus like he belonged there without question.
“So they sent one of their most capable Heavy Weights as an owl to the front where exactly? Italy is divided.”
Gellert was questioning him, he realized. A sinking feeling settled into his stomach that he simply could not ignore, but he hugged his friend close despite his nagging doubt. The fire quietly crackled to his left, he was warm, he was safe, and everything else could wait.
“Let’s make a rule,” he sighed, barely awake, “No politics in bed. I despise it wholeheartedly.”
“Entirely agreed. Do you really have to get up at sunrise to take off?”
Albus managed the strain to place a kiss on his blond hair, curled despite the shortness in this unkempt state, and regretted his answer from the depths of his soul.
“Yes, unfortunately. Would you set an alarm, please? Otherwise I’ll just… stay.” So very slowly, Gellert lifted from his comfortable resting place on Albus’ chest and whispered two words in Latin in the general direction of his wand. It gave a small sound, maybe it even glowed; Albus’ eyes had slipped shut without the strength to open them again. He’d be absolutely dead in the morning.

“I will get up with you and make you tea and breakfast, everything else would be blasphemy. Gwythyr should eat before you take off too, the poor thing.”
“Why are you still so awake?” he groaned and couldn’t help but laugh because this was just like them. Gellert had been a night owl with 16 and obviously, his 30th birthday hadn’t changed a thing about that. Their eyes locked again, an amused smile turned into a smirk and next he knew, Albus was thoroughly kissed into the cushions. On something like instinct, he buried a hand in those blond locks and held on for dear life, sighing, groaning, lost in pleasure, but the sharp pain in his shoulder made him flop right back again. Healing spells only could do so much, which did not prevent him from biting his lower lip. Gellert watched him, quietly, still half-way propped up on one elbow and glowing in the firelight.
“You have changed, Albus Dumbledore,” he observed almost surprised, it made Albus rather want to kiss him again. Instead, he took their blood troth from underneath Gellert’s nightshirt which earned him a wide-eyed stare. It was as warm as his skin.
“Not much, no. Without the dragon corps, I would have spiralled into a very dark place of self-loathing, but having somewhere to go, something to do, people to slap me before I could sink too deep… War changes everyone, but it’s still me. I would love to fly with you just as much as I long to see you again.” He slurred the words together too much and he was way too honest, truth to be told. To see Gellert so pleased, surprised, so full of adoration, however… It was worth it all. Maybe he had needed this. Maybe they both did.
“Sleep, my love,” Gellert whispered and kissed Albus softly again, “I will be here in the morning to wake you and get you back on your own two feet as good as possible. And after you are done in Italy, you will rest a full night here. My trip to Vienna should be short lived.”
Albus stretched his entire body just to feel the improvements of the healing spells, but he still ached in all the wrong places. A potion would have done more a great deal.
“I look forward to it, in all honesty.” Gellert’s smile turned dirty, followed by a deep kiss.
“You better. Good night, Albus.”

He didn’t notice falling asleep, as neither did his betrothed. A mere four hours of dreamless unconsciousness later, hexing the curtains closed appealed much more to them than dragging their tired bodies out of the soft, warm bed again. Not once during the night had they let go of each other, though such intimacy would be a topic to properly talk about for another time.
Not much was spoken while the first light of the day gradually touched more of the circular room, inch by inch, it was drenched in red slowly turning into gold. A red sunrise always meant blood that had been shed in the previous night. No exception this time. Seeing more of the furniture and the tapestry now, Albus could do naught but marvel at the fine taste of it all. Everything looked expensive, fit for a king’s quarters, pale blues mixed with drawings of different flowers on the tapestry, all the furniture was made from dark wood except for a large secretary that looked much older than the rest. Most impressive without question, however, was the view. Forced into the steep mountainside, the castle overlooked an endless row of crowns of stone, coated as green as Ireland’s wilderness. Delicate flowers withstood the harsh climate of the mountains, white and blue and softly pink, scattered across the grass like droplets on a painting. He wanted to come back here, Albus thought with a plate of bread and cheese in both hands. For the first time in forever, he was overcome by a tentative wish to settle down and he quashed it violently. What nonsense was this? He was a Rider, one of a handful chosen to protect the Kingdom’s borders and inner peace at all times, one who could move quickly on the back of a loyal partner armed with teeth, claws and fire. Wizards apparated, staying in the shadows to strike from behind the lines, Riders mounted their dragons and dealt with the problem swiftly from above. He saw the advantage in both, and sometimes, he thought of his old life with a sense of nostalgia. Nothing less or more than that. He had had a family back then. Siblings. Parents.
Well, Aberforth never wanted to speak a word with him again and probably looked down on him for his choice to join the Military ranks. Albus might as well have done away with his family name. Which family to tie it to?

“I can see your foul mood as if you were steaming with it. Don’t make me tuck you into bed again, every healer in their right mind would put you on bedrest anyway.”
His face schooled into careful neutrality as he turned around to Gellert who was sitting at the table with his legs crossed elegantly. He wore his nightgown again and something at least resembling decency underneath. Albus swallowed the dry crumbs of bread.
“You know as well as I do that I should have left with the sunrise, not an hour after. Forgive me for dreading a diplomatic nightmare with people who speak my language as little as I know theirs.”
“Ugh,” Gellert scoffed, “Italians. Horrible fashion sense, too warm, too flashy even in their way of breeding dragons who only feed off fish.”
“Gwythyr prefers a couple of salmons over cow or sheep too. You’re not one to judge the different types of dragons by their culinary habits, do you, Gellert?” For some reason, this felt as much like flirting as their heated kisses last night had done. In coming nearer, Albus threw all caution into the wind, put his plate of breakfast too small for either of them on the table and shamelessly settled onto Gellert’s outstretched legs. They slid into a proper position before he could do any damage to the knees, but other than that, Gellert only rose an eyebrow while smirking, the bastard. Play it all off, play it cool, yes, he’d always been brilliant at that. It all shattered deliciously when Albus sealed their lips, messed up his blond morning curls even more with both hands, left him panting and with pupils blown wide.
“Albus, heavens…”
“Where will I find you once you stopped spying? What if somebody blows your cover, what if we meet in battle?” His eyes darkened. They both knew exactly what had happened last time when circumstances had pushed them to fight. Circumstances. Being young and stupid, torn between family and a love that had been new and exciting.
“Never forget that we cannot fight each other, my love. If they truly force me into a battle I do not intend to fight, I will have to show my true colours. But I have my means to stop that from happening.” A nicely spoken answer, indeed, though Albus saw through him right away. Gellert had as little an idea what to do in that case as he had. It wasn’t just them, this time, it was their dragons too and comrades on the backs of their dragons on top of that.

For the span of some uncounted heartbeats, they held eye contact without either of them backing away. A silent communication passed between them, something like a promise, maybe. Finally, Albus nodded curtly.
“Very well.”
A kiss sealed the matter, every bit as fiery and demanding as the ones they had shared so far, and he knew without a doubt that next time they saw each other in private, nothing would stop them from shedding every layer of fabric, each barrier left between them.

Their farewell lacked any tears, it was a swift and almost painless matter, in contrast to their last goodbye. Of course they both felt the horror of the possibility of meeting again on the battleground, but Albus didn’t intend to stay in Venice longer than two or three days at maximum, if they let him go so early. They had their own dragons, and while Gwythyr had been meant as a fail-safe protection in the first place on being sent away from the front, neither of them was equipped for the relative warmth south of the Alps or the language for that matter. What use had they in protecting the Italians from the German Emperor and his much more influential Empress, Queen of Austria and Hungary, if they didn’t understand their system of flags for orders up in the air? Translation spells were useless in that area. Besides, Gellert expected them back in his castle Nurmengard within a few days’ time.
When they took off into the clear summer sky, Gwythyr let out a high calling sound and Anarawd, his heavy head held high, jumped onto his four legs as strong and wide as trees. In broad daylight, his many scars were obvious, previously obscured by the night. They were a bit lighter in colour than his black scales, a faded dark grey, differently shaped, but numerous. Gellert stood beside him with a warning  - or maybe rather a comforting - hand on his left foreleg and followed Albus with his gaze until it became impossible to look back anymore.
Gwythyr turned her delicately shaped, almost triangular head so that she could look at her Rider with one sapphire blue eye. Her lid clicked on a slow blink.

'He is old.'

Albus craned his neck, riding out effortlessly the up and down and up and down of her entire back due to the strong flapping of her wings to gain altitude quickly. Gellert and his black veteran of a dragon were only dots in a larger spot darker than the meadows and snowy mountain caps surrounding it.
“Anarawd, you mean? He certainly has seen some battles and has lived a long life. But he’s strong, just like his Rider.” Gwythyr rumbled deep in her massive chest, he felt it vibrating into his very core. Something pulled at him while he was leaving Gellert behind, their blood troth dangling from that pale chest had burned itself into his mind.
 
'Nesting partner.'

“Shut up,” Albus murmured, turning as red as a lobster, but he scratched her behind a particular scale on her neck lovingly where she liked it best all the same. She roared without spitting fire, the mighty sound was almost the same; a battlecry, a promise to return, and he heard her pain, her worry. Anarawd must have been very old indeed if Gwythyr was that desperate to get back to him already. Dragons cared about eachother as deeply as humans did and Albus had never understood it as clearly as now. To see a mother dragon groom her freshly hatched young or a male specimen in brooding season was one thing, but this, the pain… Another reason to end this bloody war. You could never teach dragons patriotism or to love anything other besides their Rider, food, others of their own species and a handful of humans at once. Albus sighed. He had never talked to Gwythyr about his past, almost as if he hadn’t had a life before joining the dragon corps at all.
“I had a sister, once, long ago. A little sister. And she was dying, every single day from a very young age on. She had developed an Obscurus, something that happens if a witch or a wizard denies their own magic in fear of oppression from others. It ate her up from the inside, but she survived a good four years longer than any of us had anticipated. Her death came in an accident at my hand. I feel your pain, my dear. To see someone approach the end of their life is a terrible burden to bear.” He took a huge gulp of air, trying to get some oxygen back into his lungs; talking that much up here wasn’t a good idea at all. To cast a bubble head charm would only do the trick for an hour or two, especially in such heights. He did it quickly, thus calming his racing heart. Gwythyr bowed her head deeper than normal, let it hang down and rounded her hard shoulder blades. Albus was enveloped by hills of muscles covered by scales, shimmering and shining in a mesmerizing dark blue. The message could not have been any clearer: She wanted to protect him from the world, and yet, they were heading south and even further south over the Alps into foreign neutral land.

They kept vaguely to the Brenner pass, too large the risk of discovery as long as they weren’t out of Austria. The cold in the mountains dragged on the hours, stretched each beat of Gwythyr’s wings into a mile. Now that Albus had gotten a minimum of rest, his whole body ached worse than yesterday. His muscles were tired, his spine and buttocks uncomfortably hard, the inner parts of his legs sore. The cold worked in tandem with his exhaustion until it lulled him in, dangerously so. Gwythyr fared even worse, he knew, because she mouthed her discomfort out loud in his mind for once while gliding over a field of untouched snow.
The differences in temperature were enormous, the layers of warm summer air nearer to the ground felt humid, when only a tad higher up freezing winds blew away any sense of August. Clouds obscured the sun now and then, Albus was constantly on the lookout for deadly thunderstorms on the horizon. The last thing they needed now was a storm.
Gwythyr huffed a warm breath of air and dipped lower again, they were crossing the outer edges of the Alps now where the icy winds from above hit the summer heat below. The ground was dry and yellowish-brown with patches of green in between, fields ripe for the harvest, meadows baked to the point of straw by the unrelenting sun. The trees in between looked harder than what Albus was used to, twisted somehow, olives mixed with lemons, hillsides covered by grapes and other fruits strange to him. Tiny houses with orange roofs were scattered between the vast fields, small villages, lonely farms appeared devoid of any life. And if he squinted very hard, he could almost make out the sea on the horizon.

In descending onto the jewel of Italy so very alone in their lagoon, politics fled his mind entirely. Beautiful did not describe it in the slightest. Venice was an island only connected to the shore by a long bridge made for humans and horses. The roofs of the Renaissance houses on wooden piles shimmered in an orange glow, thrown upon the city by the sun standing high in an unobscured sky. It burned down onto every Rider and dragon taking off or landing on the Piazza San Marco, a long, slim space free of buildings and larger than any normal market place. The St. Mark’s Campanile, a huge tower at the corner of the L-shaped Piazza, stood out clearly against the white ground. At its left hand side, the Doge’s Palace resided and together with the Basilica di San Marco, both connected in the middle, towering over all of it. It was so obvious that somebody had steamrolled down several buildings to make space for the dragons and the deliveries of ships too many to count, every visitor from above or on the ground was helpless to the sheer effect of it. It all opened to a myriad of small islands scattered in front of the city of Venice, and behind that, the open Mediterranean Sea lay as blue as the summer sky.

“Softly, softly, slow down!” Albus warned Gwythyr now too exhausted for any finesse at all and guided her down with the conjured British flag almost ripping his wand out of his hand. Underneath, he had simply bound a long strip of white fabric. The Venetians were nervous and rightfully so, better to give his loyalty away from the start. To see Venice from above was a revelation, he had studied maps and paintings years ago in the military academy but nothing came even close to the real thing. The cobblestone streets were so tightly coiled around the channels and the puzzle of almost flat roofs that one overlooked them easily from above, the channels themselves resembled a net of veins with the Grand Canal as its bottle-green artery. In the harbour, the gondolas outnumbered the larger ships for trade like ants swishing around leaves. Albus couldn’t suppress a smile despite his weariness. Now began the tricky part.

Gwythyr landed in an elegant sweep, but too fast and thus had to jump forward on her clicking claws several times before she came to a halt. She almost crashed into a small messenger dragon missing his rider, still fully saddled. A soothing noise erupted between her panting, it sounded a bit like an old pipe, high and apologizing. Albus patted her neck and eyed the Lower Weight, a French Pedestrian coloured like mud. It hopped away from them awkwardly, clearly intimidated, and nothing Gwythyr did seemed to calm its nerves.
“Nous sommes désolés,” Albus said in an attempt not to make his French pronunciation sound too horrible while opening the belts holding his upper legs in place. Sweat was pouring from his neck, with a swift movement of his wand he fixed his hair back into its neat bun and stripped off his overcoat as well as the two layers of wool underneath. The bundle of fabric got tucked away between two of Gwythyr’s spikes on her neck as usual, nobody would dare taking it from there without risking the wrath of her teeth and claws. His uniform jacket was still too much for these temperatures, but needs must do. A cleaning spell and a deep breath later he felt at least somewhat presentable again. In sliding down, he took care not to touch Gwythyr’s wings which hung from her back in obvious exhaustion. All the hustling and bustling around them took no notice of a giant Swedish dragon and its English rider, the oddly dressed tradesmen, colourful like their jewels, were too busy shouting in Italian at the top of their lungs. Albus cupped Gwythyr’s head in both his hands, stroking her chin lovingly while being watched out of one sapphire eye. 
“Just stay here, my dear, have some rest, hop into the shadows if you wish to get out of the way. Don’t do anything stupid without me, you hear me?” She let out an affectionate rumble that sounded rather like the purr of an oversized cat. Overtowering every other dragon on the Piazza, she appeared out of place, but then, Venice was a pulsing point of intersection in international trade. Some heavenly smell drifted over the Piazza when the wind changed directions momentarily and Gwythyr got all starry-eyed. Albus sighed. He couldn’t let her hunt in foreign waters without getting permission first, let alone without watching her.
“I’ll be quick. Watch your back, as usual.” Gwythyr blinked.

'Worried.'

He very nearly threw both arms into the air.
“Yes, I am, and don’t you laugh at me for it! Now, behave, I’ll be back in no time.”

'Me, behave
?'

Chuckling, she urged him on gently with her snout. She followed him to the Doge’s Palace as far as she was allowed to, guards in a ridiculously bright renaissance-esque uniform prevented any dragons from coming near the delicately shaped white facade of the Palace. The upper floors were held upright by pillars, and their intricate stucco archways appeared as delicate as glass. She settled down next to a salesman selling fish on a market stand, rumbling and grumbling like she’d fall asleep every minute now. Little puffs of smoke curled out of her nostrils, upwards, fading. Said salesman wasn’t too fond of a massive Heavy Weight eyeing his stocks while pretending not to, but there was nothing to be done about it. Albus sighed, turned on his heels and steeled himself for the mine field of politics.

As protocol demanded, he showed the guards his lower arms in a proof of no sign of piracy, cast a translation spell and brought forth his urgent wish to see the Doge.
“Sure, everybody does,” they only told him with a haughty sneer and made him wait in front of the gates for an embarrassing amount of time. The minutes passing painfully slow, he couldn’t help but think about how Gellert would have handled such a situation. With intimidation and no kind words at all, probably. But then, he was spying at the heart of Austria, so maybe he had changed and Albus didn’t know him at all anymore.
The merchants were treated with more respect than he was, a mere Rider from northern Europe, sweaty, dirty, too thin for his own liking and without an invitation to the Doge no less. Maybe Albus should have sent a Patronus to him, as the urgency surely excused such rude manners. Well. No matter now.
“I don’t wish to bother His Majesty for matters of trade or some other unpleasant business, it simply concerns the safety of the free Republic of Venice. The message I was ordered to deliver is most urgent and to make me wait will only anger His Majesty when he finds out about it,” he tried again, Gellert’s arched eyebrows in mind, the guards however had most likely seen and heard every possible excuse to get to the Doge in their time of service already. They regarded him with threatening, impatient stares and that was the end of it.

He was made to wait even longer for his little outbreak, no doubt, and Gwythyr started to fuss at her observing point. For heaven’s sake, this could easily go out of hand very soon.
Albus swallowed his pride, scowling.
“At least grant my dragon the permission to hunt for fish in the sea. We can fly farther out, not touching the ground in thirty hours, resting for a mere three to four hours and crossing the Alps in seven hours directly afterwards however have taken their toll on both of us.”
“Why didn’t the Brits send a comfy little messenger bird, then?” one of the guards asked without looking at him, instead staring into the far distance with his pike raised. Albus could blast them out of the way, place a body bind on them, make them dance an Irish River Dance in full display of the merchants and just march into the Palace. No problem at all. He didn’t even need his wand to channel his magic, but this was politics. Diplomacy. Heavens above, how he loathed it all!
“Because we,” he bit back, “are here to protect your temptingly rich city from the Austrians and the Germans who have joined forces to strike an attack from the North-East as we speak!” Gwythyr raised her head and fletched her snout to reveal a row of deadly teeth, each as long as Albus’ upper body and perfectly shaped for tearing into adult tuna, pigs, cows. She did not need to growl. Her attention alone was enough to put some force behind Albus’ growing impatience.
The guards exchanged a look.
“If you require a permission to fish or feed your dragon otherwise, go to the man with the green feather hat at the docks. You will not miss him.” It sounded more like Your fault if you do, but then, the Italians were hard to ignore in general. Albus huffed and bowed despite his biting pride. He bowed to nobody but his superiors, and even to them, he sometimes had his resentments.

Each of his steps back to Gwythyr was done a bit too hard, his head hot with shame, his fists clenched. She got onto her feet before he could reach her and scooped him up in one large claw. To climb onto her back from as far as she could lift him hurt like mad, but this was routine. Normally, she stood still as a mouse during these procedures, now however she only waited until he had a proper grip on her spikes and promptly marched closer to the Doge Palace than anybody in this place would have let a dragon come. Other dragons, much smaller than her, scurried out of her way. At the sight of her growling, standing proudly at her full height which enabled Albus to look into the third story windows when settled on her back, each man in their right mind would have run away screaming. Not that she ever so much as bit a man. Humans weren’t on the dragon’s food plate. At all. Where that nonsense had ever come from, Albus had no idea.
With her head now lowered like a snake, Gwythyr crouched on level with the guards down at the main portal and completely ignored the warning shouts from all around her in several different languages. Silently, Albus cast another translation spell.

'We need your Doge,' she said slowly, obviously not speaking to him and forcing her great mind upon those tiny humans instead. She blinked at the fear of the guards who still stood their ground admirably. 'He is up there, gambling with Concubines. Busy.'
“I don’t think Italians understand sarcasm, my dear,” Albus murmured more than a bit impressed and she snorted, which, regrettably, blew some hot black smoke right into the faces of the insulting guards.
'If you will not let my Rider go to him, that is fine with me. I can deliver our message right here.' Following her slow, heavy words, she took a step back that made a number of merchants and other watchers scramble away in haste and lifted her heavy head to a comfortable height. Albus felt her tired muscles shifting under her scales, the unbearable heat on her dark skin, the fuming anger underneath her threatening calm.
Through the oddly shaped windows in the third story, rooms full of decadent brocade, silken tapestries and expensive furniture glimmered in the scathing sun. Albus had to advert his gaze so as not to be blinded, but Gwythyr blinked again audibly and lifted one large eye directly to one particular set of windows.
'You. In there. Doge? Good. We come from the north, your irritating island is under threat of Austrians and Germans. No matter to me, we just threw the French out of the north. Have not rested well for too long, have not eaten properly for longer. You make us wait. We are here to protect you, but I am not sure I want to anymore.' She turned away, her scales scratching on stone, probably leaving marks in the process.
'Fish, now. Food. For me. My Rider needs some, too. Give him some! Back to nestmate, then. You can fight your own battles.'

With a few slithering steps, she halted in front of the many gondolas, each as long as her teeth. There he was, the man with the green feather hat, Albus mused and stayed silent, completely flabbergasted. Indeed, he was hard to miss. His robes distinguished him from the rest, either he was immune to the summer heat or he had cast some spell to shield himself from it.
“A magician,” he told Gwythyr quietly and she puffed out a hot breath. The man did not lift so much as an eyebrow to her attitude.
'You. May I fish here? I do not want to steal as I would not let others steal from my herds.'
The man bowed to her in a fluid movement resembling a mere messenger at court, swished his wand in a complicated pattern and took a few steps to her left and her right to observe her entire body. Albus saluted to him laxly, enjoying the show way too much for his own good (and for England’s, for that matter). They held eye contact for some seconds until the man seemingly found what he was looking for.
“You are a rare breed, a Star of the North, a Swedish dragon with an English Rider. It would be an honour to show you the fine fish in our clear water, it doesn’t have as much salt as your North Sea, you see…” She shifted in her stance. The man stilled in his flurrying explanation, his feather hat quivered. “Anyway. What is your name and that of your Rider?”

'I listen to Gwythyr and protect Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. You are in my way.'


They were put on some list, the ink dry before Albus could protest that nobody needed to know his many Christian names. The man wisely stepped aside a good deal, people scurried back like ants again, squeaking, oohing, awing, half impressed, half angered. Gwythyr let out a satisfied rumble that, to him, sounded much different to her growls, others would regard it as a threat without a doubt. If anyone was stupid enough now to fire a curse…

Albus felt her powerful movements in a familiar tact to take off, the muscles which fuelled her wings swelled and she ducked at the very edge of the harbour like a cat in front of a mouse’s hole. The moment she withdrew her presence from the general gaping public, several people wavered like the sun made them faint, but Albus had no time to look back. Gwythyr bolted from the ground like a line snapping, she ascended on a booming wind straight into the cloudless sky. The sea beneath was of a brilliant turquoise, the water clearer than the Scottish lakes and filled with swarms of fish zig-zagging over the sand.
“You needn’t show off so, my dear, you are exhausted,” Albus warned her in a calm voice and strapped himself more firmly onto her neck so that she could make a dive for the waves. Every single soul on the shore watched them in awe and fear, the very people they had been told to protect now forgetting themselves and thus making easy victims for thieves. Gwythyr glided down to the surface of the sea more quietly, without flapping or producing too much wind underneath her wide wings so as not to disturb the fish.

'Not deep enough,' she mused and elegantly avoided some smaller breeds skittering over the lagoon like birds. How colourful they were, how brightly the summer sun painted the world – Albus was way too tired for all of this.
“Fly further out, then. Avoid the ships as usual, there are more of them here than what you’re used to. I would still be grateful not to be drowned.”
And she did. She carried him over several tiny islands engulfed by the sea’s many blue waves, crowned by foam, and chose her targets wisely. Wordlessly, Albus cast a bubblehead-charm as for the uppermost heights before she dove into the depths. The water swallowed the light of the sun, all was dark, all was silent, before Gwythyr snapped her big mouth shut and tore into the sky again. Between her fangs hung eels and some smaller fish, nothing that would satisfy her for long. They would have to fly even further out for anything of decent size for her. Albus himself really didn’t have the stomach for fish after such a long journey, a good stew, porridge or soup with bread would have done nicely.

He let her carry her prey to one of the slim islands in front of Venice where she settled down on a large rock, washed out by the sea water. Albus only lay down on her broad back comfortably, always keeping hold of the leather straps and let the sun dry his clothes. He could have done it with a spell, of course, but he rather felt like a dangerous pirate with salt dried on his skin and the linen of his shirt clinging to his pale torso. She made for a wonderful ship, he thought. A living, breathing ship with deep blue sails and a mind of its own that never followed the tug of ropes.
Tired, Gwythyr sighed once she had swallowed all her fish and finished cleaning her snout with her rasping tongue. Carefully, she shifted to settle her head down on her paws so as not to startle him. Albus opened his heavy eyes anyway and only just refrained from rubbing them profoundly.
“Yes, me too. We still have to talk to those Venetians, I’m afraid, or General Abraxas will be very disappointed in us indeed. We have a duty to fulfil, my dear, as impressive as your little speech was. I wouldn’t mind you talking more to me.”
She huffed and hummed like someone blushing until she had finally settled into a comfortable position, snorting at him with mock innocence.

'You think I am holding back?'


Albus nodded and scratched her scales lovingly. Clearly, he had underestimated her so far in listening to the nonsense that other Riders sprouted about their powerful but simple beasts.
“Indeed, you are. I could count the times I have heard you utter a full sentence to me on one hand and suddenly, the Italians offend you enough to properly talk to the Doge personally. What has changed your mind?” When it all came down to it, he really was curious about her reasons and abilities in speech, but most of all, he was wondering. His dragon had just forced some difficult piece of politics forth that he hadn’t been taken serious enough for. What would the Ministry say to that?

Gwythyr lifted her head again and stared into the distance, her blinking slower, her breaths deeper. Here and now she would fall asleep if he didn’t prod her to get up very soon.
'Anarawd. His human talks to him. It is normal for them. I must admit, your language is difficult for me.'
“And that is quite alright, my dear. The intricacies of grammar and a grand vocabulary make the heads of students on all of the globe smoke, neither are you the first or the last to need patience with the English language. German is harder, though, and French a downright nightmare. Your mother tongue is a relative of Parsel, impossible to learn for humans who aren’t born with the rare trait.”
She swung her neck around to look at him directly, her left eye in front of his face wide open in shock.
'Impossible?'
Swallowing, he got up into a sitting position and busied himself with re-adjusting the belts holding him in place. His hands were slow and clumsy. No wonder dragons were so silent with humans if they thought that the much weaker latter ones didn’t even bother trying to communicate properly…
“Yes, completely so. That nobody has ever told you this shames me, I apologize for having been so stupid to just assume you knew. I will get you some books on the topic and read them to you.”

All of a sudden, her focus snapped to the open sky and she got up so hastily that Albus would have fallen, had it not been for the spells in place for exactly that. A dark, threatening rumble made Gwythyr’s torso vibrate with anger. There, coming from the north was an armada of dragons and people on brooms, closing in on Venice by the second.
'Danger first. Books later.'
A great wind was caught underneath her wings and Gwythyr threw herself into the air with a mighty push of her hind legs. They weren’t fit enough for another battle, Albus thought in a surge of panic and spelled his clothes dry, scrambling back up into a sitting position. Utterly alone in skies strange to them, without friendly support from the ground or medical help and, worst of all, without orders of strategy, they were doomed. In war nobody got out alive with the only initiative to kill on sight.
“Don’t let them force you down, Gwythyr, once we touch ground again, it’s over. You are as exhausted as I am and we won’t manage to escape on our own,” he shouted against the whipping wind. Helpless, she roared a battle cry against the burning sun.
'West? South? '
No nerves for full sentences, then. That would do just fine. Albus shook his head no and duck deep onto her warm neck, clinging to the pointed spikes at the very base.
“Venice is surrounded by enemies. In the west, all the land up to the coast belongs to the Holy German Empire, that’s Milan. And in the south, first there is the Austrian Tuscany and after that Rome, and you never want to tread into Rome without explicit permission, believe me. Italy has no place for us.”
Gwythyr was silent in his head, probably too occupied with the avoidance of panicked smaller breeds shooting into the sky in no order whatsoever. Albus heard their Riders shout in Italian, saw them drawing their wands and swords and getting ready for a battle that they would most surely loose. Venice was rich, but tiny, their territory unprotected and without a single military base for dragons and their riders. Soldiers on the ground were useless against an army of dragons.

They would give their lives for Venice, Albus realized with a shocking calm washing over him. A few deep breaths didn’t help either, they were too high up and too near to the city for any clever strategy.
'Your swishy-silver bird. Albus. Your bird can get help. It does not fly like I do, no?'
“What…” He paused, let go of the clenching grip he had on the leather straps and nodded. Heavens, Gwythyr was right. “My patronus, you mean? It’s a spell in the shape of a phoenix for me – yes, at least it will get Venice a chance for survival, if not us.” Hectically, he drew his wand while speaking and fought with the stiff layers of cloth. It felt like days since he had put them on last, this morning in Castle Nurmengard. To conjure a happy memory in the face of an Austrian armada with their stone grey dragons, Heavy Weights smaller and faster than Gwythyr trained for accuracy in the Alps and the German breeds flying in a perfect triangular formation took way longer than they had. Albus closed his eyes and tried to think of anything at all, of Ariana’s laugh – How had her voice sounded? Why was it gone now? – and of getting his diploma at the end of his seventh year in Hogwarts, the taste of scones and tea…
He felt more than noticed Gwythyr opening her mind to him entirely. As always when he entered into a deeper connection with a dragon, he felt a hundred years old and like nothing in the world mattered anymore than to protect his loved ones. First, there was a swirl of colour; the world as Gwythyr saw it, every shade of blue known to mankind and finer shades still, Venice and the sky barely even distinguishable. Then Albus saw himself from behind and Gellert approaching them, bowing, smiling, his eyes shining more than he remembered. They didn’t look that mismatched through the lens of a dragon. Beside him, Anarawd watched them closely while somehow pretending to fall asleep, it was all so very obvious like this.
'Nestmate,' Gwythyr commented once again and Albus understood.
“Expecto Patronum!”

From his wand a strong phoenix burst forth, chirping silently and staying at Gwythyr’s side rather than circling Albus’ head as usual. He only had seconds to send it away.
“To London, Ministry of Magic, Head of Aviator Department General Abraxas: Venice is under attack as feared, we are likely to fall. Armada of approximately a hundred dragons plus two-hundred wizards on brooms incoming. Dragons can speak as we do over legilimancy, they are not beasts!”
And that was it. The phoenix dove underneath the enemy and flickered out of existence to re-appear inside the Ministry. Closer and closer came the Austrian dragons, led by a Medium Weight of a fiery red, long and slender. That must be the Empress, then, on the back of her Chinese Fireball, a present from the Far East as an egg a decade ago. She was followed by whole battalions of Hungarian Horntails, each as vicious as the next, adorned with way too many bronze horns and spikes. They were the Heavy Weights of the formation. And between them, Light Weights of any size from horses to elephants flocked from one to the other, fast and fat like exotic birds. But Albus had no time to observe the other army any longer as a single Ukrainian Ironbelly rose to their level next to them. The male dragon even beat Gwythyr in size, his wings were scarred and his deep red eyes promised nothing good. Satisfaction shot through Albus as he saw the Chinese Fireball falter.

“Rider Dumbledore?” a voice somewhere between those whooshing wings shouted against the roar of the unnatural storm, Albus saluted out of sheer habit.
“Yes, Sir?” Light red curls peeked from an ugly green helmet when the angle of their dragons was just right, for a split second Albus saw a round face dominated by a ginger beard.
“I would suggest you either try to get back to England right this second or you take your place in a formation. Second position will have to do, I will not let a Heavy Weight strange to us lead an attack. Do you have a strong side?”
“The right one, Sir. We were sent to warn and protect Venice, neither of us is an oath breaker.” A satisfied grunt came from between those mighty wings, Gwythyr constantly had to adjust her position in the air and slow to almost complete stop in avoiding them. A single red eye fixated on her, she bowed her head and uttered a very strange sound, a hiss mixed with a high whine.
'They will die for their jewel city. Albus, have I been too harsh?'
Out of sight of the general, Albus stroked her neck soothingly but didn’t allow himself an obvious reaction.
“Orders, Sir?”
“Protect Venice at all costs! And if you desert, you die, Rider Dumbledore,” the rough voice said in retreating, English vowels shaped like Italian curses. Albus bit back his snarking reply and pressed his feet into Gwythyr’s sides. Reacting instantly, she fell into an almost vertical position to find her slot in a triangular formation right in the first line of attack which was led by a Heavy Weight in dotted green, a Tuscanian Serpent. As if somebody had tripped on a bucket of paint, different shades of Italy’s nature covered the whole torso, the wings were irregularly striped like the shadows on a forest floor and all claws were black as the fertile earth beneath the hardened Mediterranean grass. Gwythyr was mirrored in second position on the left side by a dragon as white as snow with blood red eyes, an Albino, impossible to say of what race. Its scales shimmered like chiselled silver and on its back sat a woman in men’s clothes. Albus didn’t have time for so much as introducing himself, they cried for blood in unison and followed the monstrous Ironbelly into battle.

Neither of them knew the details of Italian manoeuvres, nor did the flags which the Sergeant on his Tuscanian Serpent waved just before hitting enemy line spark any recognition for them. The only thing left to do was to hold their position as long as possible, to do as much damage as their exhausted stamina allowed and not be killed or forced to land too early on. Albus cowered onto Gwythyr’s neck where he could help her navigate more easily, hard to hit, almost invisible in his blue coat worn thin. The Austrians, as powerful as a front of Hungarian Horntails appeared, were slower than expected, most likely due to the cold of the mountains nestled deep in their bones. Some of them still bore ice on the edges of their brown wings which hindered the flow of air. Still, their claws and horns were numerous and Albus soon went as deaf as in every battle due to the roars of fire. Each time a man fell from the sky, a scream drilled itself into his head. He was hit by scorching hot dragon blood directly on the head and had no time to wipe it away as he was ducking under a bronze claw.

Gwythyr fought with everything she had, she even went so far as to cover her opponents with golden fire, spitting mad as she was. It was a matter of minutes before she sunk down too far and thus abandoned the formation, its members strangers to her, not friends.
“Don’t break out of formation, dear, hold on!” Albus tried to keep her in line, all the while casting shield after shield. Mortally afraid for his wand, in any other situation he would have resorted to wandless magic, but in his state, that would have been suicide indeed. A silver claw appeared out of nowhere, an entire leg followed and before he could scream at Gwythyr to dive, a Swedish Shortsnout crashed into her tail. It screamed in pain, the poor thing, its wings were broken and halfway torn off by bite marks that looked suspiciously like the Ironbelly as no other dragon had a mouth that large. Gwythyr hissed and snapped, twisting, turning, not giving a rat’s ass about the formation anymore until Albus pressed his heels into her flanks so hard that she all but buckled underneath him. He wasn’t able to hurt her, this was pure frustration. With her last strength she ascended back into the not-quite-triangle of her formation, thus protecting the third position Medium Weight behind her from a Horntail, her spiked tail crashed into its thick skull with a sickening crunch. Blood flooded her scales like water. Albus craned his neck upwards, the chaos of dragons and wizards whipping past them on brooms, taking out Riders with simple, but effective curses left and right was horrendous. Even he without any knowledge about the Italian strategies whatsoever could see that they were losing rapidly. Bodies coiled tightly into slithering knots obscured the summer sun and the lagoon was already turning red with blood.
Their Sergeant went limp from a green flash right in front of them, his beautiful Tuscanian Serpent roared, screamed, dove, broke out of his own formation and that was it.

“North, Gwythyr! If I manage to stun the Empress, this will all be over within minutes. They haven’t broken through to take the city of Venice yet.”
A shadow fell over them, engulfing dragon and rider completely. Day became night.
Yet, she panted, craned her neck to find the Chinese Fireball and suddenly bolted to the left, not fast enough. The shadow became Anarawd in all his glory, now very much awake and growling from deep within his broad chest. Albus’ heart stopped in shock, he knew who was sitting on this particular dragon’s back and yet, he refused to believe it. Gellert had told him – had promised him to be a spy, how could he even be here? He had said something about a trip to Vienna, had he not? Impossible – impossible!
“GWYTHYR!” Anarawd was forcing her downwards just as he had done over Castle Nurmengard and she was still tired, still exhausted and hurting and so much younger than him.
'Why? Albus, why does he do that? He does not have to! He is so old, Albus, why?'
It pierced his beating heart to see her so desperate.
“I don’t know, dear. Don’t let him push you down, we are doomed if we touch the ground. The Austrians do not take prisoners.”

“Albus!”
“Shut it,” he growled and went with each sweeping turn as if he had been born in the air, breathing as one with his Gwythyr who gave her all. As he had told her, she tried to get to the Chinese Fireball high up in the air, watching the battle as its Empress, haughty, arrogant, unapproachable. Guarding her were two Horntails, as ugly as they were dangerous. Gwythyr shot right past them, ignored the sea of claws and teeth from all sides just like Albus didn’t pay most curses any mind. His shimmering shields were strong.

Except when Gellert Grindelwald blasted them into pieces, of course. They shattered all around him like glass, rained down on him in shards and cut his hands until they became slippery with blood. Albus’ muttered curses drowned in Gwythyr’s howls of pain. One of the Horntails had closed its awfully strong jaw around her upper neck just behind the head, thus sparing Albus, but rendering her immobile within seconds. Something snapped, something broke, and his whole world fell apart.
The wind carried her limp weight with her heavy head hung impossibly low, it caught underneath her fully stretched wings and guided her down almost gently until the angle slipped. Albus screamed himself hoarse, ordered her to flap at least once, to hold on, not to be a dead corpse falling from the heavens -
“Albus!” a voice all too familiar called in rising panic and he looked up, cold. Gellert stood with his wand drawn on top of Anarawd who shot past them with his wings drawn close to his body and aimed for Gwythyr’s broken neck. She was still breathing, Albus noticed through a haze of dull shock, alive, alive, but dying. It was enough to throw him out of his stupor, and there it boiled within him, the rage.
“You BASTARD!”
“I am trying to save you, would you kindly-“ The rest got cut off by the sound of a Horntail roaring far above them. Without thinking, Albus shot a series of the strongest, darkest spells he knew out of both hands and cared little about falling to his death. Something deep inside of him opened up as wide as the sky as Gellert leapt from his secure spot, only a few hundred feet above ground, and simultaneously to Anarawd spreading his black wings landed right behind him. Gwythyr was stopped so abruptly that they tumbled together into the magical safety nets just behind her largest spike and the world went eerily quiet.

For a split second, Gellert’s mismatched eyes found his panicked stare. A grim expression of times long gone passed between them, Gellert gripped both his hands drenched in blood and held on as tightly as possible. Magic flooded Albus like the ocean rolling back onto the shore. Warmth spread through him with violent force, made him strong and calmer than he felt, washed clear his mind, made him long and keen and understand. Next he knew, he was babbling healing spells, one after the other while climbing back to his spot on Gwythyr’s neck and kneeled down. He hadn’t used his wand this much in ages, he realized, the thought reaching him from very far away. Gellert pressed his forehead between his shoulder blades where the fabric of his coat was damp with sweat and reeked of the sea. It made the magic all the brighter, kept it up when Albus would have fainted from exhaustion long ago. His heart was hammering so hard, he feared to die of a seizure, and the battle could have happened in Timbuktu all the same to him. The golden glow of Gaelic, Celtic, Latin healing magic weaving together enveloped them in circular patterns, pulsing with the beat of Anarawd’s wings. And when Albus already thought that he might as well throw himself into the abyss because his life was over anyway, Gwythyr finally groaned. The suffering sound made her entire torso vibrate. She was resting on Anarawd completely, her eyes closed and her wings hanging down without any strength left.
'Hurts', she murmured, 'Not dead, then. Albus?' He felt her panic spike deep inside of him, or maybe it was only Gellert realizing they would drown within the next few minutes if they didn’t manage to get the Swedish Heavy Weight off an only slightly larger Austrian Heavy Weight. They had drifted off course drastically, now hovering east of the farthest island of Venice. What on earth had they been thinking anyway?
Still, Gellert was shaking with relief, pressed flush to Albus from hip to neck. He felt every inch of their contact, set aflame where they touched, high from the additional power cursing through his veins. He had to ignore it to keep his sanity, ignore the heat, the familiarity, the longing – Albus wiped his hands on his trousers and gripped the leathery spike in front of him so hard that his knuckles turned white.

“Hold on, my dear, we will get you back into the air soon. You only have to glide, nothing more. Can you do that for me?”
Gwythyr lifted her head in a motion that must cause her agony, a growl rumbled beneath her tired muscles. Parallel to Gellert checking all the belts and buckles with skilled fingers, a trio of Hungarian Horntails descended in sensible distance to one another, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. They guarded the only Chinese Fireball on the battlefield.
'No,' Gwythyr spat and hissed at the same time, spreading her wings to full width and thus lifting her weight off poor Anarawd. He shot out from underneath her, Gellert got onto his feet gracefully before Albus could hold him back. And just as the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia leaned a bit too far over the edge of her Xiung Li, Gwythyr dove downwards to the sea in a desperate arch only to go up again, roll to the left and engulf them in golden fire.

~*~_~*~

Albus woke up without sense of time or memory of falling asleep, the bed beneath him was too hard and his surroundings too quiet. No fort was ever truly quiet, dragons were incapable of that, he had found. To open his eyes did not change much at all. Briefly pondering if it would be too harsh a mistake to lower all his occlumentic barriers in foreign territory, Albus threw caution into the wind. Different to his expectations, he did not find Gwythyr’s calming presence first, but a very distressed Gellert pacing in the room next door. It gave him some structure, somehow, to know that there still existed things like chambers, houses, a roof over his head. He wasn’t dead, then.
A door opened audibly and he sighed in relief.
“Albus! Awake at last, oh, you made me worry, you fool.” The bed dipped with a weight settling onto the edge, Albus scooted over to what felt like a wall. He tried to ask what the hell was wrong with him exactly, but his attempts to sit up failed spectacularly. His body was on fire. Every single muscle hurt, every inch, every part of him ached if he so much as tried to move. A pained sound escaped his lips, instantly the strange darkness was lifted and he could make out contours at least. Moonlight flooded a small bedroom too devoid of any personal belongings to be anything other than a hospital’s chamber. It made Gellert so very pale, even more than usual, his eyes were ridden with red as if he hadn’t had any sleep in too long and his thin smile looked forced. He didn’t wear his uniform, the wrong one, the Austrian green. Stony grey decked his shoulders instead and a white shape that vaguely resembled a dragon with upturned wings adorned his breast pocket. Albus decided then and there that the Prussian colours suited him much better.
“Where in the world… Do I even want to know what happened? Gwythyr!” he groaned and struggled to sit up again, without success. Gellert followed him in propping his long legs up on the bedding. Something was very, very wrong, he knew, if his talkative Austrian idiot was as silent as this.
“Gellert?” he called and touched his calloused hands, fear climbing up his throat like bile. Gellert lowered his head, his expression was carefully neutral.
“Your Gwythyr is alive and resting, just as you should do. We placed a sensory deprivation spell on you so that your body could heal. Don’t worry, I never strayed far from your side. How could I?” He looked vulnerable, the great Gellert Grindelwald, sitting on his hospital bed in a Prussian uniform. Through the window shedding a weak light onto the both of them, Albus saw the Grand Canal on which a myriad of tiny boats traversed like ants. Not a dragon to be seen, no huff or sudden cloud of smoke ascending into the clear summer night.

“This feels wrong,” he murmured, his brows drawn together in irritation. The urge to check on Gwythyr right this second was overwhelming, if sitting up still defeated him, however, he didn’t even need to try. Gellert gave a small nod, his gaze fallowing Albus.
“It does, doesn’t it? The Doge banned all dragons from the city but messengers as they put the least weight on the poles beneath it all. Madness, if you ask me. We brought the wounded and the dead onto solid ground and burned the latter already, ‘t was crucial in this abominable heat.” Turning his head, he sought eye contact. “How do you fare? Are you still hurting?”
“All over,” Albus repeated himself from last night and dimly noted that he maybe should have asked where his wand was first. It all came back to him then, one horrible detail after the other, making him turn away from Gellert. So full of shame, of regret and relief, he couldn’t trust himself.

The silence stretched, a solid thing filled with words. Albus felt dirty, beyond exhausted, strangely heavy.
“You almost killed the Empress, marred her for life at least.” He looked up sharply.
“I did not.”
“Both of you,” Gellert added with an intense stare and held his gaze long enough to get his point across. Albus groaned, hiding his face in his hands, still tired. Aching, hurting, heavy, exhausted to the bone. How in the world was he supposed to get back to England in one piece?
“How many?"
Their hands found each other without thinking, Gellert's fingers bore the marks of every Rider in service long enough. Moonlight painted them almost ghastly pale, but then, he never had been one to develop a taint at all. He sighed, his gaze straying out of the window.

“Twenty three Venetian Heavy Weights are dead, fifteen more are so mortally wounded that only a miracle or a Romanian healer could save them now. The Medium Weights have survived, mostly, let's not talk about the horse-sized birds of the Venetians at all. Speaking of Austrian losses, more have survived, no doubt, but losing their Empress and thus their only Chinese Fireball has forced them back into the Alps in record time." Gellert smiled; a tired, charming smile that Albus adored more than he ought to. “You won. I admit, it was not my plan to show my true colours, too great my use at the heart of Austria, but neither was fighting a battle against you, as I have told you already. That was why we were trying to direct you to the ground further off, so that you could get away without much hassle."
Albus inclined his head, breaking eye contact. It was all the answer needed.
“Gellert, I will be entirely honest with you here, and don't hate me for it, please. That was the single most terrible, the most horrendously scaring moment of my entire life." And that included Ariana lying dead at their feet. That Gellert knew exactly what Albus was hinting at, he only showed in a sharp intake of breath, and once again, their fingers linked, calming.

Silence stretched between them, silence filled with words, and when they fell to the floor like feathers ripped from an angel’s wing, Albus felt his heart seizing up.
“I can only plead your forgiveness for me making you believe in a betrayal. Albus, my brave, dear Albus – I would not have been capable of such. I have learned my lesson with sixteen years of age and not a day goes by that I don’t regret my ignorance, my arrogance, my impatient pressing to make you leave with me.“ Gellert broke their eye contact, grasping for an explanation long overdue. His fingers were cold and ghastly white, dirt and dried blood underneath his nails spoke of just how busy he had been since the end of the battle. He was the most meticulously put-together man Albus had ever met, and to see him like this, eyes downcast, the crushing desperation so visible on his face… It was too much to bear.
“What is done is done,” he spoke up softly and sighed, the night outside that window called for him to get up and rush to Gwythyr’s side. Last that he had seen her, she had been dying, falling from the sky like stone. One step at a time now, he thought, gathering his famous bravery. “Aberforth never talks with me anymore, though I am aware where to find him. My late sister, Merlin bless her soul, has lived fewer years on this earth than I have served for the Crown and she would have died a horrible death very soon no matter what plans we made to take her with us to see the world. Gellert, look at me, old friend,” he pleaded and lifted that aristocratic chin with two fingers to align their eyes, to sit up, wincing; Gellert held his breath, pained. “Ariana had developed an Obscurial as you very well know, my mother had fallen victim to one of her tantrums only months before I met you on the graveyard. I am not saying that her death as it happened was anything to wish for, but to say the least, next time it could have been Aberforth or me. Or both of us, with her dead on the floor. That horrible accident, a stray spell killing her in the midst of a transformation was not your fault. And even if it was- I have forgiven you a long time ago. Look at us now, military men, Riders no less…” They shared a quiet smile, tentative at first, and for all the wounds, the bruises, all the pain and fear, it felt like destiny to sit here in Venice, together at last.

“Albus, you reckless, wonderful fool… I am not a good man, or a gracious one. And still?”
“And still,” he answered, leaving the declaration of a love long given up upon but never forgotten to hang unspoken in the warm summer night’s air. Their lips touched without the carefulness of their youth, both of them sure of what they wanted now, but tired, worn out, hurting. A heady feeling of victory overcame Albus like a wave of the sea, a rush of air, a high sound left his lungs. Drunk on Gellert’s addictive skilfulness, his soft touches gracing Albus’ neck, on the sudden realization that they were both alive and officially on the same side again, he broke out into a smile and fell back into the cushions, grinning like a madman. Gellert observed him clearly amused, elegance incarnate, even sitting on a bed too hard for comfort, half-way covered by the white duvet.
“We survived. Heaven on earth, how did we survive that catastrophe of a battle? Is Gwythyr cared for, will you take me to the camp in the morning?”
“Of course. I made sure to give her into the care of the few magizoologists available in Venice as soon as we touched ground, you passed out on me before the healer I, ah, convinced to see to you at once had so much as the chance to introduce himself to you,” Gellert drawled and stifled a yawn, gone was the insecurity in all his movements. Just like old times, Albus thought and kissed his right hand in overwhelming adoration for this mysterious man; now that they had both made it so very clear whom they respectively belonged to – each other, always each other – there was no need for doubts and questions.
“And I will be forever grateful to you for your bravery today. Thank you, Gellert, I mean it. Will you accompany me on the journey back, as far as you may? Your King simply cannot expect you to make the journey back to Prussia in any near time.”

Gellert lowered himself down next to Albus and slipped under the blanket like a great cat, his expression slightly sour.
“Yes, well, I agree with you, of course, but someone sent a Patronus able to speak with a cry for help, which was duly necessary indeed, and so English reinforcements are already underway. The indecisive islanders are now falling all over themselves to rescue their war hero, who knows how long they will take to trespass the Alps?” Turning his head towards him, he smirked and wrapped one arm over Albus’ bruised torso. He felt better now, overall, but nowhere near up to any unchristian shenanigans. Yet. “When the time comes, I will be glad to fly at your side. Let us just watch from afar and wait what happens for now, we cannot do more. Your impressive Queen of the North needs time to heal during which she won’t be able to leave the ground and even more time to adjust to long journeys again after having been earth-bound like us mere mortals. Really, my Albus, what is so bad about a holiday off front in Venice? Wine, music, games of cards and dices, fishing to sober out, sharing quarters if we play our cards right-“
“You are plotting again,” Albus groaned and smothered his barking laughter in Gellert’s hair. He really, honestly should not have found the prospect of some time off, and if only due to poor Gwythyr having been almost mortally wounded, so alluring. But then, with Gellert by his side, staying in Venice didn’t sound half as boring as he had feared before the battle.

They shared a few lazy kisses, nothing that went too deep because neither of them had the self-restraint to hold back now once they started to devour eachother in earnest. Once in a while, the distant flapping of great wings could be heard, steps and orders of soldiers beneath the window, a gondola steering over the Canal Grande. The moonlight had wandered already, flattened out, sinking into the black horizon.
“I thought you loathed the Italians,” Albus mused after a while of listening to Venice sleeping. Gellert stirred, tracing invisible patterns onto his shirt, soaked with dried sweat and dirt. He could care about all of that in the morning.
“Venetians are not Italians, I will have you know, and never make the mistake to mix them up openly. They will have your head sooner than Gwythyr can snap at them.”
“Mhh. Different, you say. As hedonistic as you, perhaps? Not as boring and stuck-up as the Romans?”
“Rome!” Gellert groaned and flopped onto his back dramatically, limps flailing. “If all roads lead to Rome, I would rather trace them back north, thank you very much. But then, we will. You and I, with Anarawd and Gwythyr, and hell on earth to those who try to tear you from me ever again.”