(A/N: A few announcements: To begin with, this is raw, so expect typos. Also, I changed the previous chapter slightly, so it might be worth a quick once-over. It shouldn't matter very much. And expect something of an epilogue. Finally, as always, thank you for reading.)
The day became a series of lasts in Albus's memory. Seven o'clock he woke out of habit; the last time he was so tired and yet so content upon waking.
They had fallen asleep still loosely intertwined; indeed, Albus's bed was not wide enough to maintain any great degree of personal distance, and the morning found them still curled in a loose embrace.
It was not, in fact, the last time Albus would wake in the arms of another; simply the last time his heart would not be haunted with doubt and remorse upon waking. The last time he could think only of the person he was with, the last time he felt that he belonged to and with that person. It was certainly not the last Gellert was the first thing he thought about upon waking, merely the last time he wouldn't feel sick with guilt about it.
The boy in question was still sleeping deeply. Albus thought that he looked…carefree, in slumber; free of the sharp focus and subtly crafted defenses that usually characterized him. It was possible, for once, to imagine that he was only a seventeen-year-old boy, no blood on his hands or darkness in his past. The last time Albus indulged himself in forgetting those things about Gellert.
The usual giddy, fluttery sensation filled him. Mine. He affixed upon the word, repeated it over in his mind like a spell of vital importance. Mine, mine.
His to touch, if he so chose. To nudge awake and pull closer, to whisper sweet nothings to, to kiss and caress and…
…he wouldn't do any of that, at least not at the moment. Just the knowledge that he could was enough.
He stayed there for a long while, not moving, not thinking about anything except how it made him feel. Breakfast wasn't his responsibility that day, nor did he have work to consider. Even back then, he would have been content to live in that moment forever.
Eventually, however, he was compelled by the impetus to get up and begin the day that would be his ruin. Blissfully unaware, he gently untangled his limbs from Gellert's, making every effort not to wake him.
As he passed out of his room and down the hall to the upstairs bathroom, he heard his siblings downstairs, assumedly in the process of preparing breakfast. The last time he would ever hear his sister's voice engaged in conversation with his brother's.
In the bathroom, he ran a hot shower and disrobed, smiling slightly as he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, for several love bites adorned his neck. Barely had the hot water washed over him than the bathroom door creaked open and then shut again, and Gellert slipped through the curtain and into the shower with him.
The last, and first, time someone did that.
"What would you have done if it were my brother in here?" Albus asked, supressing a laugh.
"Not this." Gellert said, stepping closer and -
Once dressed and dry, they made their way downstairs. Albus had been looking forward to food and family, but once downstairs Ariana and breakfast were nowhere to be found. Only Aberforth waited for them in the kitchen, and the look on his face filled Albus with dread. Beside him, he could almost feel Gellert tense up, as though they were still skin to skin.
For a moment, none of them spoke. Then,
"Arianna told me some…interesting things last night." The look in Aberforth's eyes was remarkably like…hatred. "You will not take her."
"You cannot simply forbid me. I do have some say in –"
"You are not qualified to have a say in anything to do with her! If you were, you'd know she's not fit for what you want! All these years, you've done nothing more than deny your responsibility, and you're still –"
"I'm not trying to deny her! I care about her too. I want to help her."
"Yeah, you care about her so much you've never spent a second with her if you didn't have to!"
"That's in the past. I didn't…I wasn't the brother I should've been, but its different now."
"Oh it's different alright. Now instead of ignoring her you're actively trying to harm her! I thought I'd seen the worst of you when you abandoned us in favor of–"
"Don't you dare–!" Gellert interrupted.
"This is between family!" Aberforth interrupted.
"He is family!" Albus interrupted.
"If he is than I'm not!"
"What about Ariana then?" Albus said. "She's still family to both of us."
"After everything our mother did to protect her, you'll have to kill me before I'll let you harm her!"
"Maybe staying cloistered in here is what's harming her!" Gellert snapped. "How do you think it is for her, to live in isolation with guilt and shame as her only companions?"
"I'm her companion, I always have been! We're family – we're enough for one another! He wouldn't understand! Neither of you would!"
"Maybe she wants more than that." Albus said.
"I wouldn't trust her to know what she wants, with that snake hissing lies in her ear!" Aberforth pointed at Gellert.
"Is it a lie, to say that she can hope for more in life than this?" Albus demanded.
"This isn't about her hopes! This isn't about her future! This is about what you want, just like it always is, and your own family is the ones who pay the price, just like we always are! Just go, and take your snake with you – we've been better off without you all along!"
That did it. That was what pushed Gellert over the edge. He no longer cared to reach an agreement, or even to do whatever he wanted regardless of what Aberforth wished. No. Now his intentions were explicitly to harm, whether it was by words or by wand. He would make Aberforth suffer; leave him wounded and broken and silent.
"You hide behind your sister like a cowardly dog – you need Ariana far more than she needs you! She's your excuse for being the sniveling brat you are, and you can't stand that we might take that away from you!"
It was around that time which Albus realized both of them were out of control.
"Shut your venomous mouth! You think you understand her? After knowing her less than a month, you fucking arrogant prick! You don't know her and I don't believe for one moment that you care about her!"
"Does it cost your ego so much, that your sister has any love for a person outside yourself?" Gellert was no longer shouting. It might have seemed as though he was trying to take their anger down a notch, except for his eyes. Both Aberforth and Albus would be haunted by the memory of them: so cold and hard they might have been inhuman. "For the love of all things decent, your fixation on Ariana borders on incestuous."
That was the last straw for Aberforth – to have his love for his sister degraded, mocked, by this manipulating traitor. It was too much to bear, and now Albus was on Gellert's side, and Ariana would soon be as well, and Aberforth was losing the only fragment of family that he had, that he had tried so hard to hold onto…
In all the years after that moment, Albus would wonder, endlessly, what would have happened had Aberforth not drawn his wand. He did not hold his brother accountable for how things turned out, for it was clear to Albus that Gellert had intended to provoke his brother. Nonetheless, his mind never tired of working through ways that it all might have gone differently. What he could have said, what he could have done. What wouldn't he give, for a chance to do that moment over?
Aberforth drew his wand first, but Gellert, quick as the striking snake that Aberforth had named him, who had been waiting for Aberforth to do exactly that, brought his own wand to bear a split second sooner.
And Aberforth was on the floor, screaming, and the sound ripped through Albus like a hundred knives, leaving him frozen for a moment in unthinking horror. Gellert's face was twisted into a snarl of rage and hatred. It did something irrevocable to Albus, to see what was left when all love and warmth had been ripped away – to see what Gellert was, when he was just a killer.
Moving out of instinct, he grabbed Gellert's arm, wrenching his wand, and his attention, away from Aberforth and the torture curse. Albus opened his mouth to say something; even he didn't know exactly what, and neither of them got the chance to find out, because at that moment Aberforth responded with a curse of his own.
Albus would never know if Aberforth had been aiming for Gellert and, still half-blinded by the pain of the cruciatus curse, hit both of them by accident, or if he was aiming for both of them deliberately. Whatever the intention, Albus was half between Gellert and Aberforth, and Aberforth's attack caught both of them.
The force behind the spell would have been lethal, had it been clear and focused. But as it was, Aberforth was wild in rage, and so the impact was spread out, knocking both of them backwards like a child might toss a doll.
Albus hit the table and saw stars. Later, he would discover that he had fractured his left wrist and sustained numerous cuts and bruises, but he would not even feel the pain of them until later. In panic his mind had no attention to spare for the state of his body.
Aberforth shot another hex, but Gellert was already on his feet again, and their curses collided in mid-air with a crack and sizzle like grease on a grill, but barely had the sound faded than Gellert loosed another curse, and it was deflected, this time by Albus; the spells did not clash head-on, but spoiled one another's trajectory, veering off-course and blasting a hole in the wall.
Although Aberforth was never in the same league as his brother, never let it be said that he was lacking power – in fact, he was all power, for it was raw magical potential he and Albus shared through blood. It was knowledge and control that Albus had, and Aberforth lacked. He was a blindly swinging battering ram, while Gellert was a poisoned needle. Gellert was easily as out of control as Aberforth, perhaps more so, but even in that loss of control he was not blind or any less calculating. The opposite was true; his focus had narrowed like a predator's tunnel vision, fixed on its prey. The only reason Gellert had not already won was that Albus interfered with each attack.
For his part, Albus couldn't risk disarming Aberforth or Gellert, for fear that the other would take that opening and do something horrible. He had to settle for interfering when he could, and even shielding one or the other when necessary. And neither could they turn their focus onto him, lest they be distracted from their primary adversary.
The atmosphere was confounded with smoke and sparks, flames had leapt up in several places, scorching the walls black, and now and again Albus was forced to turn his attention to the blaze, lest it consume all of them. And yet everything had gotten much colder. Their breath was coming in pale clouds, and frost was forming on the windows, even as smoke filled the air.
How long did it last? Seconds? A minute? Certainly not more than two. The longest moments of Albus's life.
From her place upstairs, Arianna was disturbed by the sounds of shouting from below. This was to be expected. She had braced herself for it, the inevitable confrontation that would occur. Aberforth was just like that, stubborn and unbending. He would agree, eventually, but damn if he wouldn't make it all hell for Albus in the meantime. She had told herself that Albus could handle that. Now, she was forced to admit that she had been fooling herself. She should not have left them alone to come to this.
Although she was terrified at the thought of their fighting, she knew she had to intervene. Climbing to her feet, she made her way to the stairs, but before she reached them the sounds changed. She froze. Shouts had given way to crashes and bangs, explosions.
They were fighting. Not just arguing, but fighting. The three people she loved most in the world were at each other's throats.
Because. Of. Her.
She wanted to run away, but she was running towards them instead. She wanted to hide, but her magic was flowing out from her, unfolding like unseen wings. She took the stairs two at a time without knowing it. The door flung open of its own accord. Her mind was focused and yet absent, torn between love and fear so deep it cut to the very core of her.
Her magic, wild and raw and powerful, met and mingled with the others. Suddenly the flames leapt upwards in towers of scorching heat, even as the frost shot up and out into icicles sharp as swords and taller than any of them. Albus was burning, or freezing, for heat and cold are indistinguishable from one another at high enough intensities. He heard a scream, or maybe several, and a crack of shattering ice and an explosion that rocked the foundation of the house and battered him to the ground in the fallout.
Then, as quickly as letting out a breath, the fire died and the ice melted.
He was a surprised to be alive. Astounded that he could still feel all his limbs attached to his body, that he could still see and hear and smell, even if the only smell was the acrid after-smoke of things no longer burning.
Close on the heels of his realization of life was the terror for those who might not be. All this, in an instant, and suddenly he wished he hadn't opened his eyes again, that the last, inexplicable impact had thrown him down, never to rise again. Because although his mind had not yet caught up to the situation, his heart was telling him loud and clear that everything, everything was so wrong…
He heard the sound of someone shifting, another body moving through the wreckage, no way to know who through the smoke. In retrospect, he will know that it is Gellert moving, that Aberforth is still lying stunned, and Arianna...
Gellert saw what had happened before any of them. There was a strangled half-scream, half sob, bit back almost before it existed. If despair had had a voice, that is what it would have sounded like. It was like the anvil crashing down on the mallet, the affirmation Albus didn't need, that yes, something is terribly wrong.
The smoke was clearing now, and for a moment, their eyes met through the smoke and vapors. Gellert's eyes were wide, terrified, in a face that had gone almost bloodless. Then he turned, and his footsteps were a desperate clatter receding from the room, fast. Their front door opened, shut. Then silence.
Very rarely, he wondered what would have happened if he had tried to stop Gellert from leaving, but it wasn't a thought he dwelt on. He knew, had known even back then, that there was no way to reconcile what had just happened. No way to make it alright.