AUTHOR'S NOTE: A one-shot I wrote after watching a tear jerker of a Christmas movie this afternoon. (Yes, I know it's October.) Just sat at my computer and jotted this down. Don't worry, I'm still working feverishly on 'Rules of the Game'. This is just—an interlude.
Albus Dumbledore would never forget that Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve every year he would be struck, in one moment, the sight of it, the feeling that head flooded his joints, the shame that burned so hard that he had scarcely managed to persuade it away. It was what he carried with him always, even when it was far from his thoughts. He could never forget that Christmas Eve, for to forget would make him lose a lesson that had been too long in coming and that he could never let go of.
Albus Dumbledore had been an optimistic man all of his life. He had seen too much evil, fought too much darkness. He could not let himself believe that everything was dark, so he went into the opposite direction. Everything was light until they made it dark, and Albus would do his best to keep everything light.
And sometimes that meant doing things that needed to be done, even if it hurts you, even if it hurts someone else, because what is one life against one thousand? What is one boy's safety against the safety of millions? What is one boy's childhood against those who need to protect their own children? And the whole wizarding world, Albus knew, was his child. How could he weigh one boy's life more highly than the rest of them?
But his eyes were so wide, his memory tells him. His arms were so thin.
But wide eyes and thin arms was the price you had to pay.
No, Albus Dumbledore would never forget that Christmas Eve. But perhaps, with time, he could forget the prices that war demanded on the soul.
Christmas Eve was a day in which Albus had taken to setting aside as a day that he could use to do the things he wished he had done in the previous year. His Christmas present to himself, if you would. He did something just for him—his secret indulgence, he thought of it, and it worked wonderfully for him. It had taken him six years to find the time to check up on Harry Potter, and he decided that there was no better time to do it than Christmas Eve. He would visit him, take him out for something to eat, perhaps buy the boy a small gift. Get to know him. Dumbledore had always regretted not being able to spend time in the boy's life. But now, he had his one day, his free day, and he would spend it with Harry and be content until the boy came to Hogwarts. He would be able to satisfy Minerva, too, who had taken to grumbling at the holidays about Harry Potter, the saviour he had shoved aside.
He dressed as he always did when he ventured into the Muggle world—quietly. In the wizarding world he was expected to be and played the part of the eccentric headmaster, but it was nice to be anonymous sometimes. His beard always gained him some attention, but his clothes were as average as the next fellows, and Albus reveled in it. The dark colors, the sober feel—it was like playing a part, which he was. Which he always was.
Dumbledore Apparated as far as he could, then walked the rest of the way. It was a beautiful day, sunny yet cold, with a taste of snow in the air. A white Christmas, Albus thought, that would make all the children ecstatic.
There were children everywhere, he noticed, children playing tag and laughing and screaming. Groups of girls and boys trying to waste away the hours until Santa showed up. Dumbledore grinned at them. They were so small at this age, so free. By the time they came to Hogwarts a little of that freeness was gone, because they had started to understand what being a wizard entailed. It was a responsibility, and on some children, that weighed heavy on their shoulders. Percy Weasley, for example.
He found number four with relative ease. It looked different in daytime, uniform with the other houses yet also glaringly different. The wards smelled, to Dumbledore, like fresh paint and metal, a grid to keep anyone out.
Yet he walked to the door, unhindered, and rang the bell.
There was a scampering sound of feet, and the door was pulled open by a small, serious looking boy with broken glasses held together by sellotape, an unruly thatch of black hair, and wide, solemn green eyes. One of them was ringed by a fading greenish-brown bruise. He was wearing a short sleeved, baggy shirt, frayed jeans, and white socks which Albus only noticed because the boy seemed to have slid the last few steps before the door. A broom was clutched in one hand, and the other hand pushed his glasses up on his nose as he stared at Dumbledore in unhidden curiousity.
"Are you Santa?" Harry asked, and he looked him up and down once. "Did you go on a diet? My Aunt Petunia went on a diet, but she didn't lose as much as you. I thought you were supposed to be fat."
Dumbledore hid a chuckle. "I'm afraid that I'm not quite Santa, though I'm sure that he is as fat as you think—all those cookies, you know. I'm actually an old friend of your parents. May I come in?"
Harry looked at him in awe, then suspicion. "I'm not s'posed to let strangers into the house."
"I understand fully. Very responsible of you. Perhaps you could fetch your aunt or uncle, then?"
Harry bit his limp and looked quickly over his shoulder. "Uncle Vernon's at work and Aunt Petunia says I'm not s'posed to disturb her. She's got a head ache."
"You're a very thoughtful boy." Harry didn't respond to the compliment and simply looked at the man with those wide, solemn eyes. "How about I offer proof, hmm?" Dumbledore reached into his pocket, where he had stored a picture of himself, James, and Lily to show the boy. "See? That's me, and your mother and father."
Harry was staring at the picture with such longing it nearly tore the old mans heart in two. He had thought all this time of the little boy who would grow up much better in the Muggle world, much safer and quieter, but he had forgotten that, wherever he was raised, he would never have a mother and father again. He had forgotten that this boy, this extraordinary little boy, would be just like other children and miss his parents terribly. And he had sensed that, a little, had manipulated it to get him into the house, and Dumbledore was a little sickened, that he was manipulating a seven year old.
The boy let him in, moving away from the door and leading Dumbledore to the living room. It was very light, Dumbledore thought, all in delicate pinks and greens and crème, and over the mantel were portrait upon portrait of the Dursley clan. Smiling, thin faced Petunia, portly, distinguished Vernon, and chubby—what was the boys name? Dudley? Donald?—chubby Dursley Jr.
None, however, of Harry.
"Would you like anything to drink?" Harry asked, reciting it mechanically as he put his broom in the corner and continued to stare at the photo, drinking from it like a man in an oasis.
"That's quite alright, my boy."
"I could go wake Aunt Petunia. If it's important, I mean."
"I came here today to talk to you, my boy."
Harry looked up then, surprised. "Me?"
"Yes. I thought we could perhaps spend the day together, you and I."
The suspicious look was back in the boy's eyes. "Who are you?"
"I'm a professor, Harry. Professor Dumbledore."
"What d'you teach?"
"Nothing now, I'm the headmaster, but I used to teach Transfiguration."
He was met by a blank look, and he sighed a little. So much this boy did not know. So much safer he was, not knowing.
"What about you, Harry?"
"Me? I don't teach anything, I'm seven."
Dumbledore let out a laugh. "No, no, I mean, what about your school? Do you care for it?"
Harry shrugged and handed the picture back—reluctantly, Dumbledore noticed, and went back to get the broom. "I s'pose. I like reading and maths and stuff, but I don't like being in Dudley's year. Last year was all right because he was a year ahead, but he got left back so now he's in my class and he's awful."
Dudley, that was the boys name. "I'm sure he'll settle down soon. Perhaps he's just ashamed about being left back."
Harry shrugged again and started to sweep the floor. "Maybe."
Dumbledore tried another topic as they lapsed into silence again. Merlin, the boy was quiet! He had expected a chatterbox like James Potter. Lily was no silent lass herself. Perhaps his relatives had stressed the truth in his letter very hard to him. Maybe the boy was very serious because of that. Dark lords, Dumbledore knew from experience, made a person solemn enough.
"Helping out your aunt?" he asked instead, nodding to the broom in his hands.
This got him another blank look. "What?"
"Are you helping your aunt out, while she's ill?"
Harry looked at the broom in his hand, then back to Dumbledore. "Oh! Oh, no, this is just my chores."
Dumbledore remembered his own chores in his youth—though back then it was things like getting water from the well or chopping firewood with Abie. "You're a good lad, pulling your share."
He simply received another shrug. "I—" The boy looked up at him through the curly fringe that covered his forehead—and his scar, Albus knew. "I—did you really know my parents?"
Albus softened. "I really did," he said, and he made to sit down on the couch before he heard a terrified 'Don't!' from Harry.
"Don't! Uncle Vernon doesn't like it when people sit on that couch." Harry looked around, then grabbed Albus' wrist and tugged him through a door.
He found himself in a kitchen filled with shining Muggle appliances and sparkling cabinets. Harry pointed to the table. "There, sit there."
Albus sat, a little perturbed, but brushed it off. Different homes had different rules, after all. He smiled kindly at Harry over his half-moon glasses and patted the chair next to him. "Sit down, my boy, and I'll tell you everything you want to know."
Harry carefully took the chair across from him, looking at him from behind those round lenses. They magnified his eyes so that they looked like they took up half his face, and probably did the same for that bruise, Albus thought, and he reached out gently and touched the side of Harry's face.
"What happened here, m'boy?"
Harry shrugged again and looked at the table. He started to intently trace the wood pattern. "Nothing," he said softly. "I got hit in the eye. When I was playing."
"Uhm—I just got hit." Harry changed the subject, pulling his face slowly away from Albus' hand. "What—what were they like, sir?"
"Your mother and father?" Albus leaned back and stroked his beard, trying to think of the best way to describe Lily and James. "They loved, you know, with all their hearts. Their friends, their jobs, you. If it was possible for them to love it, it was loved by them."
"They—they loved me?" There was something so small in that voice, so vulnerable, that Albus barely restrained himself from picking the boy out of his chair and crushing him to his chest and never letting him go.
"Of course they loved you. More than the world and the stars."
"They really did?"
"Oh, my boy. Yes. They did, and they do. Never think that, because they are dead, they do not still hold you as dear as they did while they lived. You are their son, and their love for you remains in every breath you take." Dumbledore thought of mentioning the scar, the curse, the prophecy, but Harry was too young. He wouldn't understand.
"You mean, that since I'm here, so are they?" Harry asked, and Dumbledore could see and practically taste the hope in him, so he nodded.
"Yes. They live on in you, and in the things you accomplish."
Harry looked at his hands, then, and he sighed softly. "But I won't—I won't ever accomplish anything."
You already have, Dumbledore wanted to say, you are destined to, but this boy was so small and his arms were so thin that anything he said about the subject would surely snap them. It was too much for a seven year old to carry.
"You will, my boy," was all the man could say, smiling merrily at the little boy. "You will, never fear. I have great confidence in you."
Harry simply sighed and pushed his glasses up on his nose. "I guess."
Dumbledore was puzzled and a little worried. This was not how the meeting was supposed to go at all. The boy was supposed to be cheerful and chatty, he was supposed to take him out for a hot chocolate and walk him home past a toy shop. He was supposed to buy him a gift and they boy would love him, for thinking of him, and the trip would be a wonderful gift for himself as it always was. No, this trip was not going as planned all.
"Tell me about yourself, Harry."
Harry shrugged again. "Er—what d'you want to know?"
"Tell me about your school and your friends. What about toys? What's your favorite toy?"
Harry dug into his pocket and placed, gently, on the table a heavy looking metal knight.
"Someone off the street gave him to me," Harry said as Dumbledore picked it up and looked at it. "Last week. Aunt Petunia said I should throw it out, but I like it, so I hid it." Harry suddenly looked worried and darted a glance out the open door to the living room to the stairwell. "You—you won't tell her, will you?"
Dumbledore smiled kindly and handed the knight back. "Of course not, my boy."
"Sometimes people do that—give me things, or shake my hand. Aunt Petunia doesn't like to take me out anymore, because she says that I get too much attention."
Dumbledore was frowning inwardly. "These people—do they dress funny?
Harry nodded. "Uh-huh. They were all these funny colors and sometimes the men wear dresses and funny hats. I like them, though. They scare Aunt Petunia, but I thought they're int'resting."
Diggle and Crockford, he was sure. That group had never been satisfied that Harry was hidden away. He smiled, though, and made a point to remember to talk to Dedalus and Doris. "That does sound very interesting, though your aunt is right to be a little worried."
Harry shrugged and put the knight back into his pocket. "I guess. But nobody'd want to kidnap me, or anything. I'm worthless."
The matter of fact way it was said gave Albus a start. "Beg pardon, my boy?"
"I'm worthless. No one else would want me, anyway."
Dumbledore put his hand out on top of the boys and felt a slight tremor run through them. Oh, no, this was all wrong. This was all wrong. "Harry," he said, trying to keep calm, "Why would you say that? Of course people want you. Your aunt and uncle, they want you. They took you in."
A little part of Harry's wide eyes went dark, and he shrugged again. "I—sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for, my boy, but why would you say such a thing?"
"Be—because it's true," Harry said, speaking slowly as if he were talking to a rather dim child. "I—I'm lucky, really, that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia took me in, because I could have gone to a state home or an orphanage and those places are even worse—I watched some of Oliver Twist on the telly once, I'm lucky they didn't send me to a workhouse."
"My boy, workhouses no longer exist."
"But orphanages are just as bad. Uncle Vernon said. So, I'm really lucky, that they took me in. And, and I am grateful, sir." He was looking at Dumbledore anxiously. "You—you aren't from the orphanage, are you, sir?"
Dumbledore could feel his world spinning around and around and he reached out and touched Harry's shoulder. "No," he said softly. "I'm not from the orphanage."
"I didn't mean to do it," Harry said fearfully. "Honest, I didn't. And, and I already got punished, please don't take me away."
"I won't be taking you anywhere, my dear boy." Oh, what a stupid choice this had been, and Dumbledore could do nothing.
"I—I really didn't mean to do it," Harry said in that same small, vulnerable voice as before. Dumbledore was about to ask what, who, where, HOW, when there was the sound of a key turning in the lock of the front door.
"Uncle Vernon," Harry whispered, and the boy lost all the color in his face. The boy looked at the clock and immediately launched himself to his feet, sweeping up a storm in the kitchen as the front door was thrown open.
Harry had pulled himself away from Dumbledore so quickly that the too large shirt had slipped off of one shoulder, and Dumbledore could see painful looking bruises (they weren't the shape of a hand, they weren't, it was a trick of the light), purple and dark and new, and he couldn't move from that spot. Not even when Vernon Dursley came in.
"Potter!" he had yelled, and he'd grabbed the boys thin little arm in one meaty fist and issued one quick, scared look at Albus Dumbledore. "You, freak, get out of my house!"
And Albus Dumbledore had looked at the sight before him. At the little boy with thin arms and wide, frightened green eyes, at the glasses hanging askew and the shirt slipping off of one shoulder, showing Albus things he didn't want to see. At the man who gripped Harry's thin little arm so hard it looked like it might snap, whose purple face was a mix of anger and fear, whose free hand was clenched into a fist.
And Albus Dumbledore, for the first time, looked into someone elses eyes and turned away.
The boy was pleading, with his eyes, for help. For love, for a picture of his parents, for something more substantial than an old man who had not checked on his in six years and magic, which wouldn't serve him for another four.
And Albus turned away.
"I was just leaving, Mr. Dursley," he said softly, and he exited the house without another look at man or boy, just the sound of a yelp and a bellow of 'What have I told you about strangers?' lingering in his ears as he walked briskly down the street.
It started to snow.
On Chrismas Eve, it haunts him, and he tries to explain it away. Bruises come from playing, fear makes me do strange things, nothing is ever solely what it appears to be. He still felt the shame that burned in him all the way back to Hogwarts, the numbness that had come every time Minerva mentioned Harry Potter, the saviour he shoved aside, and always, lingering over everything he touched on Christmas Eve, there was guilt.
And always, on Christmas Eve, he soothes the guilt away.
One life, no matter how young, is enough to risk everything. No life, however precious, can be put ahead of the lives of countless others. And no man, however old and wise he is, can do the right thing all of the time. These are the facts he clings to, he clung to, until September when he saw Harry.
Small and thin and pale, with eyes wider than ever, he looked at Albus at the head table and Albus thought there might be a flicker of memory, a cry of outrage, a scarlet C for coward painted on his chest, but instead there was nothing. No memory, not outrage, no cowardice. It made Albus feel as though Christmas Eve had never happened at all, because the boy did not remember.
Yet here he was, on another dreary, deadly Christmas Eve, wrapping up a possession of James Potter's to give Harry, remembering enough for both of them.
Your father left this in my possession before he died. Use it well.
He had sent it off and prayed that, with this, the memories would be appealed. The gods would free him of this painful truth and lesson.
He made his way, then, to the Mirror of Erised. Christmas Eve was not a day for himself anymore. He had more than himself to take care of. As he finished the final enchantments, he glanced into it briefly, just to wonder what he would see.
Himself, pulling his wand and grabbing Harry and running away from the Dursleys. Harry looking up at him adoringly, the bruise on his eye trapped there, but safe. Safe.
Yes, Dumbledore thought as he left the Mirror, Christmas Eve left it's own memories on everyone. He, personally, would never forget that Christmas Eve.
But he would not let himself regret it, either.