Written for the Quidditch League Fanfiction Competition. Thanks again, Lizzie!
Prompt: Emotion: Sadness. [Forbidden: Sad/Sadness]
(song) 'Demons' by Imagine Dragons
Word count: 2,475
Gellert appeared two days after Albus moved back home.
Elphias had left the country some hours before, and try as he might, Albus had not been able to keep his mind off of the way life had pulled his dreams out from under him. Even in the crisp air of Godric's Hollow—a pleasant respite from the violent rain of the weeks before—he felt unbearably confined. His dislike of the house that had brought him so much pain had grown into toxic hatred.
"Dull neighborhood, isn't it?"
Gellert was tall, lean, and blonde, and when he spoke he kept his unblinking eyes fixed on the recipient at all times. It was unnerving, but oddly fascinating. And that full attention he offered with the lazy lean of his body and the starling cleverness of his eyes was exactly what Albus needed.
The blonde wizard eyed the copper lines twined into the fence by Albus' wand as he cast anti-Muggle spells around the silent house behind him.
"That's old magic," Gellert remarked. "Not many people know about it."
"Makes the spells last longer," Albus said haltingly. Gellert's eyes were too blue, and the pressure of them was overwhelming.
"I know," Gellert said, a smirk playing at the corner of his lips. "It's resourceful. I like that."
The night before the first day of class usually necessitated plenty of rest. The second of September was the busiest day of the year, and both the staff and the students would need their headmaster's support.
But tonight... tonight was different.
Albus sank into the chair behind his desk. Fawkes, red feathers gleaming in the light of the recently lit fire, looked at him curiously, perhaps sensing his emotions. The Sorting Hat slumped in a corner, tired after its annual night of work.
Albus usually tried his best to avoid allowing his mind to drift. He had learned, after years of struggle, that he became melancholy when left to his own heart's devices. He flexed his hand on the table, wrinkles moving over his flesh—still hard to get used to, those wrinkles, especially after watching the young enjoy their first dinner back and the prospect of a promising life.
Inhaling deeply, he straightened and clapped his hands together. There was a crack, and a young House Elf appeared.
Albus smiled. "My dear friend," he said. "Could I bother you for a cup of tea? The chamomile sort, if possible. I have a sudden craving for it."
The Elf bowed and disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived.
Fawkes crooned softly, and Albus reached up to stroke the phoenix's silky feathers. Seeing Harry Potter for the first time in ten years had left him in startling turmoil. He had anticipated feeling conflicted, uneasy, maybe even excited at seeing the subject of so many of his plans up close at last... but all these expected reactions had quickly faltered, replaced by a much heavier one. A much simpler one.
There was something akin to guilt layered over of the sorrow. Of course, the boy's fate wasn't entirely of Albus' design. There was something else at work here—Sybill's prophecy, or perhaps something more mysterious. There was something about the way Harry walked, the way he tentatively yet tenaciously made his way across the Great Hall, that spoke of great things to come. And there was little Albus could do to stay fate's plans, or to change the inevitability of Voldemort's return to power. But the systematic planning of the last decade, the development of a contingency plan that rested solely on the shoulders of a child: that was Albus' burden, and his alone. And as he had watched the boy join the Gryffindor table, he had felt an unexpected weight in his chest.
There was a sudden noise as the House-Elf reappeared, a tray of tea in hand, and deposited it gently on a small table beside the headmaster. Albus smiled kindly at the Elf, and it bowed again hastily before it disappeared.
He poured himself a cup of the steaming liquid, still lost in thought. No matter which way he looked at it, all signs pointed to the irrevocability of Harry's role in preventing a war—or in ending one.
But the young boy in black hair had looked so small, so innocently hopeful, and it felt cruel to subject one who had already suffered so much to further pain. Hagrid, bless his soul, had nearly sobbed when recounting how he had found Harry crouching in a shabby hut in the middle of the sea, looking so much like James that it was like being transported into the past. But this was a James deprived of the joys of a powerful magical family, a James who had never been told how much he was worth... or how much he could become.
And it was painful, the knowledge that Albus' protection could only extend so far.
He pressed his lips tightly together. The teacup that heated his old hands remained still, not moving towards his mouth. It was not only James Potter he saw when he looked at Harry. James Potter had never had that look of surprised awe, of sudden understanding that yes, he was different, and he had the right to be different. No, Albus had seen these things much longer ago, when he was merely a professor helping another dark-haired boy leave his orphanage for the first time...
Destiny, it seemed, was unstoppable.
Gellert offered him an apple as they stood at the top of a hill some ten miles from Godric's Hollow, his eyes lingering, as always, not on the lushness of the wild scenery around them, but on his companion. Albus took the apple with a small smile.
"I thought you said you couldn't come." Gellert took a bite out of his own apple. They leaned elbow to elbow against an abandoned fence, facing a cliff. Beneath them, the pastures seemed to stretch out for ages, sunlight and clouds separating the hills below into light and dark.
"Aberforth's with Ariana," Albus said, eyebrows drawn together. Then, quickly: "I wouldn't miss this for the world."
He didn't look at Gellert, but he thought he saw a smile on the young man's lips from the corner of his eye.
"I can't imagine stiff little Aberforth took too kindly to that."
"Well, he was asleep when I left, so there wasn't much he could do about it."
Gellert laughed, the sound ringing in the trees behind them. He tilted his head sideways as he leaned forwards, eyes dancing. "See?" he said softly, syllables buzzing with magic. "We need to do this. You and I—we're unstoppable."
"Gellert," Albus began with a sigh. "I'm still not sure. My sister—"
"—is well under your brother's care." There was a pause. Gellert dropped the apple, only half eaten, on the grass beyond the fence. Slowly, it rolled forwards on its own momentum. Gellert's voice was gentle. "You have an eye for making people useful; unlocking their potential when they cannot see it themselves. You are... resourceful." He smiled, and as Albus turned to meet Gellert's uncontainable stare, those blue eyes flickered languidly with expertly measured slowness, moving down to Albus' lips and lingering there before dragging back up to his eyes. And it was fascinating. "It's what I like about you."
The apple disappeared down the edge of the cliff.
It was what Albus always did: delegate others to do the jobs that he could not find the strength to do himself. He had been reluctant to encounter Harry; surely his own involvement could only precipitate matters? He had a history of unintentionally becoming a catalyst for war.
But Albus was resourceful, and the truth of the matter was that Harry Potter was pawn first and boy second on the chess board of fate that seemed to have been deposited in Albus' control. It was ironic; he had spent his entire youth feeling like a pawn, and now he was the master of the game.
And no matter how he played it out in his head, the end was always the same: The Boy Who Lived would die.
Albus took a drink of tea, inhaling its sweet scent. There was still time—though the circumstances of the attempted robbery of the Stone from Gringotts had left him wary. He feared that matters would reach a climax too soon. Had the boy no right to grow as an ordinary teenager? Albus knew all too well the pains of being torn away from dreams.
There were roles in this game; he had seen it before in both wars he had lived through, and both times his role had been to ruin the lives of others, for—and he could not shake the phrase, not even now, nearly fifty years after he had last heard it from Gellert's bleeding lips, not even though he regarded its inception with shame, not even though no one remembered it but him and a forgotten man in Nurmengard—for the greater good.
When they met again, Gellert eyed him with appraising scorn, and Albus was shocked to recognize the subtle arrogance in his every gesture. Had he really not noticed it before? Gellert had always been dangerously handsome, with sculpted cheekbones and eyes that burned and never looked away. Albus had felt exposed, and under his long list of experiences and achievements he was only a young boy, twisted by ambition and by love.
"So you came to see me yourself," Gellert mused, wand tapping gently against the wall. The castle was cold. Henchmen lay bound on the ground. They had underestimated Albus. Gellert would not make the same mistake.
Because Gellert had a talent for pulling out the worst in one, for feeding dreams in order to extract what he wanted from the people that he claimed to like... because he had those eyes, those eyes like cold fire that inspired fear and love in equal measure...
When it was done, Albus crouched, sweating and bleeding beside Gellert's crumpled body, surrounded by rubble in the dark. Gellert's wand was pinned under Albus' foot, far removed from the reach of its owner.
And still, somehow, the eyes burned.
"Are you going to kill me?" Gellert coughed violently, spattering his robes with blood. Afraid to move him, Albus had called for healers, but anguish battled at his throat; Gellert's body was twisted at an odd angle, he had lines of blood streaming out of his mouth even as he spoke, and through it all that wild smirk stayed his mouth. "You should have brought someone with you. That's how you always do it, isn't it? Have others do your dirty work for you?"
Another attack of coughs left him breathless, and Albus couldn't help the tears that streamed unchecked, and he hated them but mostly hated himself, for everything, and he couldn't help clutching Gellert's body to himself, even after all this time—
Gellert opened his eyes again as the fit receded, a smirk twisting his features, painfully reminiscent.
"That's what I like about you."
There was a part of Albus that lurked beneath the surface, always waiting for a chance to awaken with violence, to feed the ambition of power, to lead legions. It was what had killed Ariana. It was what had abandoned Aberforth. It was what instilled this painful weight in his mind: the weight of knowing exactly what he was capable of. It was what kept him calculating the position of all the pawns, mapping out all the variables. And at the center of it all was an eleven-year-old boy.
There was a knock on the door, and Albus flinched slightly. His tea swished and nearly spilled, and he set the teacup down gingerly.
Severus Snape stepped inside, cloak pulled around him, a look of barely contained agitation on his face. He stopped a few steps away from Albus' desk, dark eyes shifting around the room.
"Ah, Severus," Albus said mildly. "What brings you here at this hour?"
He cleared his throat slightly. "There—there is a matter I wish to discuss with you."
Severus spoke haltingly, the forced calmness of his tone only succeeding in making him look more distressed. "I'm rather confused as to Quirinus Quirrell's qualifications for the position of Defense Against the Dark—"
"Severus," Albus said, and the calm sharpness of his tone cut through the Professor's sentence like a knife. "Do skip the niceties and say what you intend to. It is late, and we could very well discuss Quirinus' credentials on any other day. What is bothering you?"
Severus' gaze halted at last in its mad dance around the room, and he glared at the floor between them, eyes bright with fury.
When he spoke his voice nearly sounded deranged.
"Why didn't you tell me—about the boy—?"
"I thought you'd have done the math."
With a growl, Severus raised a hand and ran it through his hair with such intensity he was bound to tear some of it out. "Yes, yes, of course I did," he said through gritted teeth. "But I—his eyes—"
"They are like Lily's, aren't they? I did think that was quite remarkable."
Severus' gaze flew up to meet his, angry and pained. "They are Lily's! How am I supposed to live here, with those eyes walking around these halls, watching me, taunting me—"
His form trembled slightly, and he looked so terribly young. They were all so young; so naïve, still, and yet so broken. Pawns should not have been made out of the weak, yet the weak were the only ones that could be used. There were too many things left to do, and too little time for so much necessary progress.
And if Albus had never been anything, then at least he had been resourceful. He had been broken, and hurt, and then broken again; used and discarded, trained in the game by losing, over and over, by a teacher with eyes that burned too bright who knew how to harness love in war.
But Albus owned the set now, and he would control the pawns, even if it meant the pain and guilt and sorrow of watching them march to their death.
He sipped his tea. It was late. Before him, Severus Snape shivered slightly. The fire had died down.
"You'll learn to bear it, Severus," Albus said, in a voice that conveyed more calmness than he felt. A clock somewhere in his office signaled the arrival of midnight with a low clang. Somewhere in the castle, a young boy slept with no idea of what was in store for him in the future. "You are a clever man. I like that about you."