|[FIC] - 'Theatre of War' [Round Three]
||[Feb. 5th, 2008|08:08 pm]
62days: The Albus/Gellert Fandom Challenge
Title: Theatre of War|
Pairing(s): Albus Dumbledore/Gellert Grindelwald
Word Count: ~7,800
Summary: Two different encounters, two scenes mirroring each other. An account of what could have been.
Prompt: 43. AU, 1940 - the height of the Blitz. "Albus, if you will not come back to me, then at least give me one kiss. Just one kiss. What must I do for one kiss?" "For one kiss? ...Call off this muggle madman of yours, Hitler. That has gone too far, not even you can say that all that is for the greater good. Call him off and you will certainly have earned a kiss."
Warnings: Angst, vague WWII references. I also took some minor liberties with canon for the sake of this AU working.
Notes: This was completed in time for the deadline but posting got delayed because I am a n00b. Enjoy anyway? Feedback/concrit is much appreciated.
Disclaimer: Everything Harry Potter is property of JKR, no profit is being made off this story. Also, before someone gets any ideas, the only reason why Hitler and Nazi Germany are mentioned in this fic is my attempt at keeping it historical to some degree.
September 16, 1940
The field was rustling with grass, whipped by the wind; but aside from these soft sounds, all was silent. Even the tall cloaked figure which was moving steadily in the landscape was absorbed by the expanse of nature as its booted feet hit the ground.
Albus Dumbledore found it hard to believe that, while he made his way towards the dark shape he could already make out in the distance, thousands upon thousands of Muggles supported by their lacking technology and abilities entirely unenhanced by magic had been fighting, killing, dying through the dragging months of the war, and nobody could proclaim to be untouched any longer. More difficult still was to imagine any of the information many of his friends and formal associates have confided in him about terrifying laws, unjust accusations, and intolerable prisons being true, now that he seemed to be cut off from anything that might have aspired to call itself a civilised society. Any sort of organisation seemed impossible.
But there was no room left for doubt, all the same. He had heard – and, indeed, seen – too much to feign ignorance before coming here. And he remembered all of it, not attempting to relieve his mind of such crucial pieces of memory. To argue his case against an unpredictable opponent, he needed them preserved in all their darkness and despair, in sharpest detail.
He approached the decrepit building that was the supposed destination of his journey. Getting here had been easy for a wizard – first Apparate to Germany, just a short while away from this bland field, and then cover the remaining distance in the most conventional manner. He would not have risked leaving such easily traceable magic any closer than this. What he had actually done was not the safest strategy, either, but the mere thought of the travel possibly taking longer had been unacceptable from the beginning. For the first time in whole years, Albus found himself impatient.
The house appeared to be a cross between an old hangar and unused barracks as it loomed before him, looking for all the world completely deserted. The twin windows on the upper floor were so streaked with grime that their glass seemed black. But Albus knew better – and, moving swiftly forward, placed one hand against the front door and pushed. It opened for him noiselessly, although a second ago nobody but an informed observer would have presumed it to be either unlocked or so unbelievably easy on the ears. As Albus stepped in and sealed the entrance again, he felt a wave of familiar magic.
He was in a large, cluttered hall, so immediately he murmured, “Lumos!” over his drawn wand. Seeing more clearly in the dim light, he could make out shapes of unspecified Muggle machinery that must have been discarded here in the past, already half-eaten by corrosion and most likely no longer functional. The only piece that still recalled a small measure of its former glamour was a motorcycle deposited by the opposite wall, complete with a sidecar. Even if Albus was no enthusiast for technology, for some reason this was the sight that truly brought home the misery of this place to him. Turning around with a slight shake of his head, he finally noticed the low end of a stairway.
As he neared it, each step he took only served to increase his mounting sense of unease. It was the first time during his journey, and during all the painstaking manoeuvres preceding it, that the reality of whom he was about to meet struck him full force. The stunned, dazed denial he had felt when he received the call was now completely gone. If he had not prepared enough, soon it would show, causing him to lose even before any battle was on at all.
Still, he ascended the steps.
Upstairs was divided into several interlocking corridors framed by yellow-grey walls, or that was the impression Albus had of it from where he was standing. He had just started to wonder which of the impersonal doors he should look behind first when a jolt of energy surged towards him from across the corridor, so powerful that the dust covering every available surface was lifted and dispersed in the stale air, almost making him gag. Unpleasant as the reminder was, Albus realised that there would be no need for a search. He simply had to rely on the tide of magic. Even in case he walked blind from here on, he would be sure to reach his aim.
He proceeded slowly, though, already feeling some resentment for his opponent’s early attempt to grasp full control of the situation. Let him wait. An advanced awareness of the strength of one’s enemy could always prove useful. However, even as Albus considered this, an idea crept along his mind that he should have kept himself more composed, and he wondered whether the man awaiting him had trouble containing his unquestionably great magic as well as Albus himself did.
Finally, the door to which the invisible trail led appeared before him, as nondescript as any of the others in this small maze. The only difference was what would be revealed after he had reached out for the handle – and in the kind of sinister calm that usually prefaces a storm, the singular truth ringing in Albus’s skull sang that Gellert was in that room.
He sucked in a deep breath, let it out, and entered.
The disorder around hit him first. There were crumbled boxes heaped in one corner, while another was occupied by a large dreary thing that might have been a bookcase, other assorted pieces of furniture being scattered about with neither rhyme nor reason. The windows indeed barely allowed one to look out through them, let alone provide enough light; to compensate for this, a bare lightbulb was hanging above a table loaded with papers from the ceiling, swaying to and fro on the protruding wire. In its harsh illumination, Albus saw his host at last.
“Why, I am honoured, Albus,” said Gellert silkily by way of welcome. There was nonchalance in his demeanour, as if the two of them had only talked yesterday, and as if today’s concerns were of no greater importance than inventing a discreet justification for one of them to stay in the other’s bedroom overnight. His voice had become deeper and was tinted with something Albus was reluctant to pin down, but it was nonetheless instantly recognisable. Albus returned the greeting coolly, making sure he used the other’s surname, after which Gellert asked him to close the door and have a seat. Albus did so without any delaying, if only because the request was a trifle away from an outright command.
Much as Albus tried to ignore it, he could scarcely help comparing the man sitting opposite him to the phantom from years past, checking for differences. They sprang forward at him from every angle. Gellert’s hair, though obviously golden in spite of the insufficient lighting, had been cropped shorter and lost the flowing quality Albus remembered from running his hands through it so many times. His face was still elegant, but somewhat more angular, which gave it an aura of severity that disturbed Albus more than anything else. Even Gellert’s lips seemed thinner. On the whole, he exuded an ugly feel of malice, of subdued cruelty. For a brief moment it made Albus wish he had never agreed to come here – because his own memories were rapidly getting tainted with this new image and its strange mixture of past and present. Gellert’s eyes, if examined without flinching, were the worst of it: as passionate as Albus recalled, but lying beyond the fire and the brilliance was something that could not have been there that lost summer, but it was apparently spreading like the plague. And although Gellert was regarding him calmly now, Albus had no doubt that he could shoot deadly glares when he pleased.
Gellert interrupted his musings abruptly; Albus thought he ought to have been shielding his mind. “You had no trouble finding me, I see.” His long fingers toyed with a buckle on his coat; he was dressed in Muggle attire.
“Your note was quite specific concerning the location,” he replied, “if nothing else. I hope you have not already been made an outcast in Germany to have to hide in a place such as this. Or are those the unintended benefits of your position?”
Gellert laughed at that – a curt sound, not in the slightest reminiscent of the way he had expressed mirth decades ago. Perhaps that was the most striking difference of all. But Gellert – why was his mind still refusing to address him Grindelwald? – wasted no time laughing except those few seconds. “Oh, not that, Albus, have no fear. I chose this house because it was remote, and very easy to enchant so that you alone could be admitted in. You must appreciate the privacy.” He waved his hand in emphasis, making the air crack and sparkle.
Only then did Albus realise that the entire room was positively bristling with Gellert’s energy. First those faint stirrings at the gate, the charge in the corridor, the strong thread of magic guiding his path... All that caught him off guard now, shattering his impassive mask as surely as glass and mirrors break when knocked over.
Naturally, Gellert noticed. “My apologies. It seems I’ve made myself too comfortable.” His eyes slid shut for a moment. When he next opened them, Albus felt as if the air had cleansed itself of some oppressive force he could only estimate when he no longer had to endure its burden.
He breathed deeply. “Thank you.” Whatever the rest, gratitude was only polite. Gellert nodded. Was this what truce would have been like?
Possibly, Albus decided, but a truce is temporary. He had come for answers. “Well, Grindelwald, let us cut to the heart of the matter. What have you called me for?”
He could pick up the shift in Gellert’s bearing, from a near playfulness to all business. It was more than clear that Gellert had hardly been idle from the beginning of their encounter, although he had bothered to put up an easy-going front. Ridiculously in the given situation, his own perceptiveness made Albus proud.
“I invited you,” began Gellert self-assuredly, “because I have an offer to make. Certainly you have observed what situation this foolish Muggle war places us in, or how we can profit from it.” He glanced at the papers stacked on the table. “The truth is that our chances to seize control in the end stand high. Join me, Albus. If you do, the ambitions we held before may come to life still. And once the war is over, it will be us who will rule, not any of the Muggles who only think they will. With power secured, our hands shall be free to unite the Hallows. Nobody – nothing – will stop us this time.”
Albus sat with his vision clouding, listening even as his mind was running astray. All he knew of the war came crashing on him, the politics and the monstrosities, in a stark contrast with his once friend’s off-handed calculations. Ariana’s lifeless body flew before him, and Aberforth’s devastated face as he shook and yelled at her, not willing to believe what he already knew. Then he remembered himself with blood gushing from his nose.
It took him a while to register that Gellert was silent and certainly expectant. But there was nothing to debate. “You don’t know what you demand of me. Even provided that I forgot about my family, or about how quick you were to vanish when our first plans only succeeded in bringing about a tragedy, asking that I cooperate with this tyranny is far too much. If that is all you meant to tell me, I need not have come.” He barely realised he sounded angry.
Briefly averting his eyes, Gellert let out a sigh that was surely unguarded. He fixed his gaze at Albus again, bright with determination. “I thought you would say that.”
Such a reaction was unexpected, but Albus could not afford to give in. “Take credit for it. But then you must have been aware that your efforts would be in vain.” It stung him to deny Gellert something he clearly desired, but there was no helping it. He had hoped against hope their meeting would perhaps have them part on acceptable terms – it would definitely have been preferable to living with just the bittersweet memory of Gellert forever – but now that seemed to be the one impossible dream neither his nor the other’s magic could achieve. Then again, he doubted Gellert would have considered such a modest campaign worth embarking on. He liked his successes seen.
Albus had known as much ever since their ephemeral two months, though he himself had been the same. They had both craved glory and would have done anything to attain it; together, they could have stepped over corpses. At least, as it turned out, Gellert could. For Albus there had only been guilt and disillusionment.
“One should not give up hope too soon,” said Gellert quietly, startling him. “Isn’t that the best belief of yours? You may think me heartless, Albus, but I’ve not forgotten.” His hand disappeared below the table, quickly emerging again to lay a polished wand upon its surface. Albus’s eyes widened.
He recognised it, although he had never touched it in his life, save those many breathless times when his fingers traced old scriptures that happened to include schematic illustrations if he got especially lucky. Now, watching it quiver on the sturdy table-top, he felt a terrible, penetrating chill grip him like a vice, creeping into his very bones. He could deal with Gellert having obviously beaten him, but learning about it so suddenly with Gellert’s prize placed between them like some warped victory sign made the whole thing unbearably drastic.
He asked the inevitable question as soon as he had recovered enough for the entirely predictable answer. “The Elder Wand?”
Gellert was eyeing him with cool smirking amusement. One of his hands, which had been partly covering the ancient wood, slid away from it with confidence. Albus permitted himself to guess whether it was a gesture of implicit trust or merely a tactical move counting on his honour, but, in any case, he was indeed above a theft. When Gellert finally replied, his tone carried for the first time traces of serious concern mingling with the deliberate irony.
“While you devoted yourself to an academic career – by the way, congratulations on your continued exploits at Hogwarts! – I travelled across Europe keeping up the work we had started. There is much left to do, but as you can see for yourself, my effort was not completely fruitless. But we are going in circles.” The ensuing pause was to give Albus a warning, though one that was quite unnecessary. “Join me.”
He had expected it, prepared for it, and was determined not to let Gellert know how bitterly he had to fight the proposition still. From this decision, in turn, emerged the only possible answer. “No, Gellert. I told you.” It came off as cold and uncompromising, a fact which made Albus relieved.
The careless glimmer of frustration in Gellert’s eyes served to push the situation towards both the worse and the better. “Albus, you’re not even letting me try. If you’ve grown so fond of telling things, then tell me why the two of us should be at war. Why must we turn our powers against each other? This should never have happened. You feel it as much as I.”
All that Albus felt at the moment was the fierce blue stare boring into him across the cluttered table. He was at a loss. There was not much common ground for himself and Gellert in the role of the tyrant he was becoming, and even less for himself and the Gellert who had once upon a time shrugged off the killing of his sister. And yet, underneath the piled-up layers of difference and dislike, Albus could not rid himself of the infuriating affection he seemed to feel for this ruthless man. It belonged in the past, he knew, but that would be easier done if his memories, frayed already with the churning of time yet devastatingly sharp, had possessed half the decency not to come chasing him whenever some little triviality provoked them. A sigh that should have been long forgotten unfurled disastrously in his mind, lending truth to his self-accusations.
Gellert sailed on, apparently sensing his chance. “You do know you’re not whole without me, don’t you? No, don’t answer. I will have you know, Albus, you are not the only one who has noticed. I may have captured the first of the Hallows, but my magic no longer gives me any pleasure. It functions only as a very reliable mechanism. But what are skills if you have no fire to fuel them? Nothing, as I am sure you’ve found. For a long time, I pretended not to be tied to you in any way except what I had attributed to it earlier. I was wrong. We do need each other.” He put his elbows on the table in the exact same manner Albus remembered him doing over their voluminous research or while blowing out candles or just before – “As that other saying of yours goes, resistance is futile.”
Albus shook himself and levelled a piercing gaze at the other’s face, half-attempting to revive his rarely used Legilimency skills. He mostly thought it too disgraceful a strategy to be employed against a respected foe, but anything would have been better than the all-pervading sense of Gellert constantly manipulating him. With uncharacteristic silent rage, he realised that even this wish alone was a testament to the effect of Gellert’s manipulation.
“Sometimes resistance is the only option left to us,” he countered in the typical tone that with anybody but Gellert he could have disguised as wisdom. “Gellert, there is a war. Hundreds of people are dying as we speak, and will die yet no matter what we agree on here. Unless I am very much mistaken, you don’t consider them worth a lot as most of them are Muggles to begin with. And, unless my intelligence is even less capable of gathering information than I, you quietly stir up more conflicts and then step aside for the war leaders to lap up the mud. Clever as you undoubtedly are, do not ask for my assistance. Your plan entails nothing I could do.”
At last, Gellert was visibly taken aback. The air surrounding him swirled as his power almost snapped out of control, but his voice betrayed no emotion except profound indignation. “You have no idea what we could do! We prepared everything we will ever need that summer! Do you even remember how –”
“I remember,” interrupted Albus loudly, for the first time sounding forceful, “perfectly. It would have been rather irresponsible to erase my memory on a whim, or to store those particular memories involving you in a Pensieve where accidental onlookers might gain access to them.” Dimly it dawned on him that Gellert had fallen silent. He pressed on. “And I know for certain that if we had been making our schemes for glory now, here in your fortunately dispensable Germany, we would have been left with no hope at all. What we would have gotten our sentence for is up to your informed judgement.”
“That – that’s unless we were wizards.” Gellert seemed to have recovered in the very last second that would allow him to save face, although he suddenly looked paler and his eyes had the unhealthy glint of fever. “Any wizard with an ounce of ability wouldn’t have allowed a lot of Muggle officials to lock him up in prison.”
Albus was merciless. “You do believe it, then? Go to any of those death factories and tell me not a single person in them has magic. Then, perhaps, you will see the flaw in your logic better. Besides, there is no wizard network in Germany anymore. The Nazis have destroyed it with your aid most of all, like everything else except their own system. Magic does not make people safe.” An imploring note was strung on that statement, but no more than that – just a note. Albus had wanted to keep his voice clear of it, too, but constantly working to preserve his detachment was painful enough. He didn’t think Gellert deserved to be spared whatever his conscience could still manage to do to him, anyway.
Indeed, Albus exploited the stricken, tense silence Gellert granted him. “I can’t join you, not with all those atrocities going on. In fact, I believe that even if Germany lost the war this very instant, it would already be too late.” Torn between a general sense of failure and a more private anguish, aware that he needed more urgently than ever to conceal it, he stood to go.
However, just as he did so a crash resounded off the walls as Gellert jumped to his feet, kicking back the chair to confront him over the disarrayed table. Some of the icy edge in his demeanour seemed to have melted, raw cracks in the once impenetrable image running in its wake, and at last Albus could truly place who the person facing him was – his enemy, his friend, the boy sealed in a cherished memory forever, his love. He felt as if he had awakened into the same morning full of beauty as he had years ago, when his blood pounded with the life and intensity of a thousand fragments of the Resurrection Stone and he asked himself whether he hadn’t already died as his fuzzy mind clumsily retraced its most recent recordings of unsurpassed joy. Back then, his skin had been so warm that he refused to imagine winter ever coming back. His eyes refocused with the poignant knowledge that Gellert was about two metres far from him and that technically nothing barred Albus from reaching out to touch him. The air, blackened once more, hissed like a snake.
But then Gellert spoke in a voice that was everything except aggressive. It sounded forlorn, resigned; unless Albus’s imagination was overexerting itself, this sudden proclamation could almost pass as sad. “Albus, if you will not come back to me, then at least give me one kiss. Just one kiss. What must I do for one kiss?”
Albus’s breath hitched, his consciousness falling further into the precious, untroubled part of the past, into a no man’s land where bounds and restrictions never held any significance. Gellert was asking as if he knew exactly... Albus’s mind whirred to a halt. Of course.
Albus considered himself lucky for his timely recognition of what was about to take place between Gellert and him; that he could have made himself a victim without a second thought was a thoroughly maddening prospect. As though only to keep himself from swaying on the spot, he looked straight into Gellert’s eyes, willing the effect of his Legilimency away as firmly as he could. The sensation this produced had a semblance of removing something toxic from the immediate proximity, light and purifying. He remained staring at Gellert until he made him surrender.
“For one kiss?” Albus repeated in a calm, collected tone. “Call of this Muggle madman of yours, Hitler. That has gone too far, not even you can say that all that is for the greater good. Call him off and you will certainly have earned a kiss.”
A look of mixed surprise and consternation twisted Gellert’s features as, Albus supposed, the gravity of the offer sank in. The tension escalated to an insurmountable pitch. At long last, Gellert broke it.
“Sorry.” Pitiless, unapologetic. “I won’t.”
Albus nodded silently. Without any pointless loitering, he turned and exited the room.
October 31, 1976
It was close to morning when the knock came. Albus lifted his head from his ink-adorned papers; the white swathes of his hair brushed the surface like a gentle but unstoppable breeze, so that the newest additions to his fine print were smeared the slightest bit. The recent upsurge of Tom Riddle’s power as a Dark lord had him reviewing strategies and planning both his and his former student’s next move in every moment he could spare, even if that sometimes constituted all night. Now he paused in his work in order to call out a formal, “Come in,” although he recognised the knock.
Presumably enough, it was Minerva McGonagall who entered the study, clad in her customary tartan cloak. She smiled slightly, but Albus distinguished an unusual twinge of nervousness in the way she stood by his desk and looked at him. “Good morning, Albus.” In her hand was clutched a shabby envelope.
“Good morning, Minerva,” he relayed pleasantly, hoping to set her at ease. Not a great many things had the power to unsettle him anymore and he knew the same could be said for his colleague, so the question what had shaken her like this was not entirely inappropriate.
Always direct and to the point (something Albus was often thankful for) Minerva announced, “A letter arrived in the night. It seemed to me a little suspicious, so I had it scanned for any signs of Dark magic first.” She held it out, firelight and the rising dawn flickering along its creases. “It happens to be safe as far as I can tell.”
“Thank you.” He glanced where the address should have been, but the place bore instead a single commanding line: To Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts.
Despite its scrawled state and awkward tilt, the handwriting instantly hit home. Not counting one unfortunate exception, Albus had not laid his gaze on it for the better part of a century.
Some of his quiet astonishment must have breached the confines of his self-control, for when he lifted his head again, Minerva was already on her way out. As soon as the door swung closed behind her, Albus opened the letter and began to read.
I hesitate to allow myself the hope that you may read or even receive this letter. Rest assured, no enchantment was placed on it, or at least not by myself. There is no telling what all the people protecting your safety might do.
There is a certain matter I must discuss with you. I know it has been years since you last saw me, and indeed I wonder whether you would recognise me anymore, but this is more of an emergency than you imagine. I will not elaborate in case this note falls to the wrong hands.
It might interest you, though. You know where to find me.
Below was a large empty space, signed only with the initials G.G. in the bottom right corner of the parchment.
Albus went over the text once, twice more as though he hoped to discover some concealed message literally between the lines. Despite the letter’s forced politeness (had Gellert forgotten how to talk to him?) and its secretive nature devoid of all grace (was Gellert’s mind going rusty from lack of exercise?), he did not for a moment doubt its authenticity. Gellert was writing to him from prison for the first time since their final duel – and he was asking for his visit. Albus could well imagine how he must have detested putting himself at another’s mercy, let alone at the mercy of the man who had defeated him. Now that he pondered it – he glanced at the opening sentence again – Gellert was hardly anticipating any real outcome from such a blatant shot in the dark, but it had been worth the risk to him, all the same. Carefully, Albus folded the letter and slid it into the inner pocket of his robe, over his chest.
A horrible sense of deja-vu engulfed him, thrusting him right back into the last moments before his leaving for Germany loosely following a similar bleak prelude. Rushing to Nurmengard now just because of a few paragraphs with Gellert’s signature would be pure foolishness, but Albus was already failing to summon the resolve necessary not to. It was as if Gellert were some unfinished business in his life that he had to either confront or escape. The problem was that his escapes never lasted long enough to rinse out the emotions still boiling under the usual scope of his consciousness, even while he persuaded himself that his life had finally moved on.
But, perhaps, the matter could be settled properly at last. He would fulfil this one wish of Gellert’s and free himself in the act. Redemption for everybody.
He walked through the still mostly empty corridors of Hogwarts and off the school grounds, then Apparated as close as he dared to the impenetrable barriers of Nurmengard.
Getting inside was easy enough if he ignored the inscription FOR THE GREATER GOOD carved above the main entrance. Nobody ever braved this prison even as a common visitor, and when the guards recognised the man standing before them as the one who had the most to say about Grindelwald’s incarceration, they were far from objecting to his going to see what his intervention had resulted in. Albus suspected they were merely flattered by what seemed to be his keen interest in the prison’s current functioning, but more the advantage for him. As they led him upstairs, higher and higher in the gloom, he had enough on his mind resisting the chill that flooded him like icy water, underlined by the sheer inhospitability of his surroundings. He was acutely aware of it all, as if experiencing a physical pain, although that might also have been the effect of going in circles around the question, Is Gellert feeling this way here all the time? The idea seemed perverse, too morbid to be thought of.
All in all, Albus felt a profound relief when his guides showed him behind a foreboding heavy door and stayed watching guard outside. It must have been the reputation.
He was sure, of course, that they were not allowing him to be with Gellert in one undivided room, especially when the said room was not being under surveillance. From what he remembered of his only previous visit to Nurmengard, the cell itself was a little farther along the meagre hall he found himself in, separated by some kind of bars he did not even dream of crossing, his famed magical ability notwithstanding. Already his power was suppressed in him, and if the paralysing rigidity around him was anything to judge from, so was Gellert’s. He walked on, another hall and another time projecting themselves before his eyes.
The corridor ran into a dim room: on one side he could see a robust wooden bench, the other remained hidden from view. A strange sense of not belonging here, of needing to announce himself before he went in seized him, unbearable in its raw insistence. There was no point in defying it.
Something rustled in the yet unseen space and went quiet again.
Albus felt his hands clench, a tic he had not experienced in years. Whatever was in store for him now, Gellert was there, apparently not removed from reality, and he had heard him. Albus hoped there would be some more substantial recognition, which also urged him onward. Solemnly, as if afraid to violate a sanctuary, he left the last part of the way obstructed by the wall and finally regarded the cell in full.
It was dark, much darker than a normal room anywhere else would have been, and it smelled of dust and, oddly, of stone. There was a lone window in the farthest wall behind the bars, evocative of the ones found in the spires of medieval buildings. Whatever light fell in through it seemed to endlessly wither in this closed space; even as Albus attempted to follow its path, it only teased him and dissipated. Shadows crept along the walls like vines filled with some mortifying venom. Lying over the scene of desolation was a pure, resonating silence that suggested nobody and nothing could dwell here and still be alive after the first day and night.
But all those years... and many more to come, many more...
Slowly, Albus approached the bars, shaking his head in a vain effort to clear it. Then he looked properly, and his eyes passed on the information sooner and faster than his brain managed to process it. He saw a figure in rags huddled next to a dilapidated table, facing away from him, its hair a mess of greyish white, a figure that started almost imperceptibly when he asked, “Gellert, did you want to talk to me?”
The next second Albus desperately wished he had kept quiet. He had expected anything but niceness to greet him in Nurmengard, and indeed he had lived through enough horrors to arm him against anything, but his own defamation of someone so dear to him he had only faced once – on that terrible, victorious day in 1945. Now he was meeting it again, prepared for the fact but not the reality.
Gellert looked nothing like the beautiful boy he had met in Godric’s Hollow. He looked nothing like the unscrupulous Dark wizard Albus had encountered later on, either. As he stood up and turned towards the voice, Gellert resembled more a shimmering ghost than a person of flesh and blood. Certainly no blood.
His clothes were faded and seemingly ingrained with filth; Albus was not sure if they couldn’t be the same ensemble Gellert had worn as a splendid battle outfit to their final violent combat. Even more weakened was his hair, bleached and vaguely reminding one of spider silk. His skin was nearly white enough to match it, his dried-up hands made Albus inwardly cringe and wonder how on Earth he had managed to write that letter. Once Gellert had steadied himself enough – he was apparently in a state of mild vertigo – it seemed a miracle that he could actually make his throat work to speak.
The awkwardness of that voice caused Albus’s own reply to be a notch softer. “I thought I was invited,” he said, cautious for it not to come off as sarcastic. There was a million of things he would have chosen to speak of over this.
Gellert moved slightly closer to the bars, making it increasingly difficult for Albus to avoid his eyes, which were blue as always but as if watching from behind a veil. His visibly parched lips quirked to a smirk.
“How come the guards aren’t with you?” Just the invaluable opportunity to use human speech again, Albus guessed, made the ordeal of it easier to overcome. “They didn’t show so much courtesy to the Minister for Magic last year. At least...” he paused, uncertain, “I think it was.”
That caught Albus unawares. “The Minister for Magic was here? They wouldn’t have advertised that.”
“Oh, it was – he lasted for ten minutes or so. I pretended not to know what was happening. They think I’m gone, now.”
Albus deliberately neglected to contemplate who it was that Gellert was referring to as “they” – it could have been the prison guards, it could have been the world. Either option was sickening.
“How did you send that letter?” he found himself asking, not having the courage to bring up anything more important.
At that, Gellert grinned, a momentary sparkle in his eyes reviving the charisma that he had possessed and which had been his downfall despite his current lack of about a half of his teeth. He drew even closer, almost touching the bars with his outstretched hands. “I terrorized them and screamed like a madman until they caved in... went back to playing dead as soon as they sent it. Easier that way. This castle has brilliant acoustics. Manipulation is a wonderful thing, Albus... I wonder if you’ve discovered it yet?” The sudden burst of energy radiating off him was disconcerting in the extreme, although not as much as his words. Not sure what a good reaction to something like that would be, Albus made a step forward, face to face with the prisoner whose expression had become, again, dull and exhausted. It took all of Albus’s restraint to keep his composure.
“I expect the matter was something urgent, then. You said as much,” and with that, he located the note in his pocket and pulled it out. Gellert’s eyes lit up once more, this time maybe in some feeble tremor of hope he must not have experienced in whole decades.
“Of course. Let me out. Let me out of here, please, Albus. You are the only one who can.”
For one blind second, Albus just gaped at him. He had come to Nurmengard anticipating a broken man, a wrecked individual pursued by his own past crimes, or even a vengeful former lover who would spit insults at him, but this, the fact that Gellert would attempt to negotiate freedom for himself, was unthinkable. How could he actually suggest it aloud? But it was already too late; Albus could feel his mind spiralling into places he had never wished to revisit, towards deals and acts and arguments he had frenetically tried to erase. They stood before him now, crying and laughing at him in the same breath, and he could do nothing to drive them away.
Finally, fully aware that he was yet again slipping under Gellert’s spell (how could someone be half-dead and still so persuasive, how could he?), Albus recaptured his voice. “You know that is impossible.”
“No,” countered Gellert immediately, gripping the bars in both hands and leaning on his elbows for support. Albus could not help noticing how his tattered robes hung off his frame, as though they were fastened to a skeleton. However, there was far too much intensity in Gellert’s tone and in his uncannily sharp movements to quite account for the likeness. “The Minister, when he was here, he said something about a wizard calling himself Voldemort. You’ll have to stand up to him, sooner or later you will, who else is there? I’ll work for you. Surely my experience with the Dark Arts will prove useful.”
Albus was meticulous in making his face appear inscrutable. He only said, “So you have changed your mind all of a sudden? You are willing to fight a Dark wizard as you were yourself, if only you can go free? I don’t understand.”
But then he looked at Gellert and saw it, as plain as the barren surrounding walls. Gellert wanted out, needed out. The truth explained itself, really, when Albus let himself take it in. Ever since the summer they had first met and parted, Albus had seen Gellert as a symbol – new friendship, love gone wrong, merciless tyrant, evil defeated – but never again as a living entity. In his mind, in his effort to relieve his old grief, Albus had immortalised Gellert the boy and killed Gellert the person. Yes, he saw it now.
That admission made him feel off balance, as if the floor was suddenly swept from beneath him without a warning word. Hot on the heels of this crazed emotion was his belated, many times denied comprehension of Gellert’s fate. He could barely bring himself to do it, but at the same time there was no way he could have detained his impending understanding that Gellert Grindelwald, one of the most gifted wizards who had ever lived and arguably a genius in his own right, was condemned to languish in the worst misery someone like him could conceive of. Gellert was restless: Albus remembered how he had been always in motion, always urging him along, whether it was in their research of the history of Godric’s Hollow or in the tall swaying grass in the back of Bathilda’s garden under a reddening sky. The few times Gellert had tried to teach him Legilimency had mostly resulted in failure because Albus found himself unable to latch onto any steady point in the other’s hyperactive mind, and they had both laughed at the dizzying sensation he described afterwards. To cage Gellert in stillness was like forbidding a phoenix to fly, or burn. It went against nature.
It was then that understanding passed between them at last.
Both of Gellert’s fists were still curled around the metal, but now almost the entire length of his body was pressed against the disenchanted bars. Carefully, Albus covered the bony hands with his, longing to do more but pitifully incapable of it.
Albus... then at least give me one kiss.
He leaned forward, not to withdraw, not questioning for once, until his forehead came to rest against Gellert’s in a tentative, half-remembered brush. Albus’s eyes closed. A cascade of past impressions broke free behind his eyelids, crushing him with the weight of beauty and sorrow and lost time, but still Gellert made no move to pull away. Albus didn’t have a care about the dirty and by all standards unattractive image he would be looking at if he opened his eyes again. He could recall only one other ocassion when consequences had been nothing to him, and he knew the price of his recklessness. But that price had already been paid.
Just one kiss.
And a kiss it was – nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing in between. To Albus, it felt surreal regardless, which might have been the reason why one of his hands was suddenly cupping the back of Gellert’s head, caressing his tangled hair as if that action alone could restore it to its original luminosity. The fingers of Albus’s other hand mimicked the caressing motion in their position on Gellert’s wrist; Albus noticed that his skin was still remarkably soft, but it was the paper-thin sort of smoothness, rather than the kind caused by youth. Gellert’s lips were dry and did not taste of anything.
What must I do for one kiss?
They parted indecisively, this time watching each other, but neither retreated any further. Their faces remained within inches from one another. Gellert, who seemed to have held his breath previously, let out a weak sigh. “Albus, please.” In spite of the whisper his voice was reduced to, it was shockingly, irrevocably clear that he was begging.
It would be the cruelest necessary thing Albus had ever done. “No, Gellert. No. I can’t.” He drew back, and as he gently let go of the other’s head, he felt Gellert crumble in his hand.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Gellert snapped at him abruptly, all semblance of tenderness gone from him. The whole transformation had occurred in a heartbeat. “Was everything we’ve done for nothing? You need me. You can’t help that, remember?”
Albus merely gazed at the prisoner before him, who was once more looking quite deranged. Of course he remembered. It was through this, through his distant yet crystal-clear memory of a better past, that he realised the mistake he had repeated when he set out to confront Gellert later, every time. Not even the great wizard Dumbledore had the might to take back what was already done – the shadow of a man opposite him was a testament to that. And, although he was now convinced it made him an incorrigible old fool, Albus had not wished to hurt Gellert in any of those added meetings. But what else was he doing here, apart from prying open wounds that had never healed in the first place?
Better to finally concede just how wrong he was. “I’m sorry,” he said more to himself than to his companion, feeling like his voice was only a lame imitation of another. Louder, he added, “This should never have happened,” only to know that he was repeating someone again.
“Damned well it shouldn’t,” echoed Gellert in a rattling exhale. “Is there anything with you or me that should have happened? Or am I the shameful evidence you have to keep behind locked doors till your dying day?”
Albus felt his blood drain from his face and was certain that was precisely the intention. The sharp stab of pain was not cushioned by it, however. At last he managed, “You know that’s not true.”
But Gellert was already too far gone. “Prove it, then! Find some way to get me out! Either that or kill me, even that would be a mercy! Come now, do it!” His voice cracked and stumbled at every other syllable, but a slight shake of Albus’s head was his only answer.
Naturally, that seemed to infuriate him even more, so much that he resorted to throwing himself against the despised barrier. “You can’t leave me to rot here, Albus!”
Albus watched the struggle, motionless, until Gellert appeared to have exhausted whatever supply of energy he had at his disposal. He shivered slightly when Gellert finally slumped by the bars, his head bowed in undisguised despair, but still Albus stood his ground. When the cell was filled with no sound save Gellert’s ragged breath, Albus could no longer bear his own supposed stoicism and offered, “I will have some books sent for you. Rare scrolls, if you prefer. I can have a connection established between Nurmengard and the outside world, so that you do not stay in such isolation.” Listing possible improvements like this made him feel like a benevolent dictator, an ironic analogy under the circumstances, but he honestly had no other idea how to make Gellert’s continued existence at least a smidgen more tolerable. He was not very surprised when the proposal did not elicit a reply.
Gellert mumbled something else, though; Albus had to sit on the ground next to him to hear, willfully ignoring the protests of his aging joints and muscles. “Suppose this is what I deserve... I refused you when you asked for a favour, too... but you should know one thing, Albus... by then I couldn’t have called him off. Even if I wanted...”
For ages to come, Albus would be haunted by that line.
The sky looked frosty and limitless the morning Albus walked out of Nurmengard. He felt frozen himself – frozen in time, in space, his emotions locked and silenced. It was just as well. If he could feel everything he ought to have done right then, perhaps he would never have made it back to Hogwarts and to the comforting solitude of his study.
Still, contemplating the wreckage of his intentions and their outcomes, there was one thing he knew for certain: nothing was over. He had made sure of it. For him and for Gellert, there could always be absolution.