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Interlude - A Leader's Doubts

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May 16, 1992, 4:00 AM, Headmaster's Office

Albus Dumbledore

"You shouldn't be up and about so early." One of the portraits said, sounding concerned.

But, Dumbledore paid it no mind, going through the missives he'd received at some point in the night. There was no time to waste, no time to be idle.

No rest for the wicked. He thought. Albus knew that he was losing precious sleep, and that he was growing more irritable as a result. However, he maintained control over himself.

He was a hundred and ten years old, and he needed to comport himself in a manner befitting his age. He knew that falling prey to his own anger was a mistake— one that Voldemort tended to make more often and not.

His old friend, Grindelwald, however, was no such fool. There was a reason that his reign of terror had lasted for decades, as opposed to Tom's short few years.

Albus allowed himself the luxury of a yawn before calling for one of his house elves. "Dinky?"

A pop, and Dinky appeared before him. "Master calls?"

"Would you go and fetch me some tea, please?"

"Yes." The little elf chirped. "Right away, Master!"

And then she popped away.

A small smile made its way on his face before he focused himself on his task. He wrote a few quick missives and turned to his ever-present companion. "Fawkes."

But the bird was already gliding over to his position with a surreal grace the likes of which were unseen by most people alive.

Phoenixes were creatures that Dumbledore understood quite well, but his understanding did little to quell the amazement he felt every time he was witness to their elegance. If anything, his knowledge enhanced this feeling.

"Always a step ahead, my friend." Dumbledore smiled at the ancient creature. "Where would I be without you?"

Fawkes landed atop the desk and gave the Headmaster a blank stare before reading over the bits of parchment lying at his feet.

A moment later, Fawkes raised his head towards Dumbledore with a ready look in his eyes. Albus waved his wand and the missives rolled themselves up and wrapped around the bird's leg.

"Alastor's message takes priority, Fawkes." Dumbledore said, and his friend gave him a nod before erupting in bright, crimson flame. A moment later, there was naught but the displacement of air left in the majestic creature's wake.

Dumbledore took his half-moon glasses off for a moment and rubbed his eyes before getting up and moving towards the window.

His eyes swept over the school grounds, taking in the Sun that was only just rising in the horizon. It smiled up at the black heavens with promise of light and warmth.

The true Gubraithian Flame of the world. He thought. He knew, whether society's evils won or lost, that the Sun would continue to rise, long after they were all dead and buried.

Albus exhaled just as he heard a pop from behind him.

"Master, your tea is ready."

He nodded and turned with a smile towards Dinky, appreciative of the House Elf's speed. "You have my thanks, my friend."

Dinky popped away without being prompted. Seeing the tray set up at his desk, Albus went about pouring himself a cup. A while later, he relaxed in his chair, taking slow and careful sips of the hot liquid.

The moment of reprieve was much appreciated, Albus thought— and then it was interrupted.

"Interesting events of late." Phineas Nigellus decided that now was the right time to open his mouth.

Of all times…

"Indeed." Albus murmured between sips, hoping beyond hope that the unpleasant man wouldn't say something to annoy him.

"Your old companion's escaped." Phineas said, heedless of the man's thoughts. "Quirrell is plotting behind your back. The Ministries of the world are running around like frightened cattle, and here you sit; in this office, writing letters and exchanging correspondence."

Alas, hope is a pointless thing when it comes to Phineas. Dumbledore thought, sending the portrait a dismissive glance. I could bring down the Castle on that man, and he would still continue to be a pain to deal with.

Phineas was ever the pessimist, the contrarian. He was callous, often to the point of cruelty. Albus knew that the man would say almost anything within the bounds of his oath if it let him get a rise out of the Headmaster. They both knew this, and so Phineas continued to play these games.

Just as the portraits of previous Headmasters were not allowed to betray the sitting Headmaster, so too the Headmaster was not allowed to attack the portraits. It was one of the few parts of his oath that he wished he could rescind.

He could still silence them, of course, but he tended to avoid resorting to such measures.

Today may be the day I do.

"Maintaining an information network is key to having a successful operation." Albus said and took another sip. "But you already knew that."

"Of course; gathering information is one of the cornerstones of warfare." Phineas said, buffing his nails on his robe and giving them close scrutiny. "But you never act on it. Will you wait for your enemies to strike first, once again, just as you have done in the past?"

Dumbledore did not answer, and he saw the expression on the man's face morph into something ugly.

"Of course. Dumbledore, the pacifist." Phineas scoffed and sent a disdainful look towards the Headmaster. "Quick to scurry around in the dark and too afraid to face his enemy in the light."

This was why Dumbledore disliked the man.

"As usual, you misunderstand the nature of my tactics." Albus said, not at all impressed by the portrait. "This 'scurrying', as you put it, will be putting measures in place to save lives. The lives of the children in this castle, as well as the safety of as many wizards and witches as can be saved from the coming darkness."

Phineas said nothing, and so Albus took this as his chance to continue.

"That is not enough for you, is it? Do you think me willing to seize control over the entire Continent?" Albus raised his hand. "Even if I did possess the power to do this, what would it accomplish? I would become no better than those who stand against the people."

Albus knew the truth of things. He had learned his hard lessons when he was young and got his little sister, Ariana, killed. All men and women were corruptible. It was only a matter of circumstances.

I am no exception. Albus thought, taking another sip as Phineas absorbed his words in silence. I could seize control— with the best of intentions, but that is not the way.

"It would accomplish much." Phineas said in complete disagreement. "And you do have the power. You're simply too afraid to use it."

"Phineas!" Dippet cried out in protest and considerable annoyance. "That was out of line!"

There was a chorus of agreement from the other portraits.

"Is it?" Phineas said, not acknowledging the others with a look. His piercing black eyes were still trained on Dumbledore. "The power held within that wand of yours, we've all heard tell of it, over the years."

Dumbledore did not answer, but he did turn a curious look to the old Headmaster's portrait.

"Oh, yes." Phineas said. "We learned the old stories, and told them to our own children: the Stone of Resurrection, the Cloak of Invisibility, and the Elder Wand."

"The Tale of the Three Brothers." Albus said in a tone that implied his clear dismissal. "A story told to children."

"A tale that rings true, as it happens." Phineas gave a gesture at the wand the man carried. "The Deathstick. The Cloak of Invisibility which you possessed, for a time— a relic of the Potters, I imagine?"

Dumbledore frowned.

"Think of it, Dumbledore." Phineas said. "With that sort of power, there's no telling what limits there are on what you could do— what you could accomplish!"

The portraits surrounding them were growing concerned, with some turning angry. And yet, Albus continued to be silent.

"You could end the threat that Quirrell poses in a matter of moments." Phineas said, voicing Albus' deepest thoughts. "He does not possess a fraction of your talent, let alone your breadth of experience. Quirrell cannot withstand your assault. Neither, I suspect, can your former companion. Now is the time— the time to strike at them while they are still unwary!"

Dumbledore sipped at his tea again as the other portraits began to threaten Phineas with violence.

"Threaten me all you like." Phineas said, glaring at his colleagues with great contempt. "It does not change the truth."

"Peace, friends." Albus raised his hand to forestall any more threats. "I understand your position, Phineas. Truly, I do."

"But you will not heed my advice." Phineas said, a glint of annoyance appearing in his eyes. "Why?"

"It is quite simple." Albus said, lifting the Elder Wand to the same level as his face. "This wand— it is a power unmatched by my former one, or any wand I have encountered since. You are right; I could take it and lay Professor Quirrell low with ease. I could venture forth into the Continent and root Gellert out of whatever stronghold he's made for himself."

"I do not understand, then." Phineas said, wringing his hands with exasperation. "Why do you not move against your foes?"

"Because." Albus said, lowering the wand. "To move against the wishes of the Ministries and flout their laws would remove the faith the people have in these institutions. All will fall into chaos."

"Anarchy." Phineas said, shaking his head. "You claim there would be anarchy."

"It is no claim." Albus said, a little condescension entering his voice. "It is a certainty. I may be powerful, but I am still subject to the laws of the land. As long as the laws are just, I cannot, in good conscience, disregard them as easily as you seem to be able to."

"Flowery words." Phineas said. "But that's all they are; words. When the people start dying like flies, what then? When they are ground into the dust, what will you do, Dumbledore?"

Dumbledore did not say anything.

"Will you leave them to their fates? Abandon them like the Ministries surely will?" Phineas said. "The longer you stay your hand, the more followers either of these twits will amass. And yet you are still writing letters to ineffectual wizards who can barely compare to a flobberworm. Even that foolish boy Clarke has shown more spine than you—"

"That will be quite enough." Dumbledore said with a steely voice. "You will be silent."

And so it was that Phineas' mouth shut itself against the man's will. The glare that the old Headmaster sent Dumbledore was murderous in its intensity.

Albus shook his head and took a deep breath before exhaling. He let himself relax over the next minute before lifting the spell off of Phineas' portrait.

"I apologize for that, Phineas." Dumbledore said, now much calmer. "It was not respectful of me."

"Apologize?" Phineas repeated before bellowing out in laughter.

"That, Dumbledore, is the first thing you have done that I have approved of." Phineas said, thoroughly confusing the former Headmasters and Headmistresses around him. "Now use that spine you've found— that anger of yours— and direct it to your enemies. They will not wait for you to strike, and so you must do so, first."

Dumbledore nodded and gave him a serious look. "I will give your words careful consideration, Phineas. Thank you."

Mollified, the man nodded and left his portrait.

"Is it wise to take that man's advice, Albus?" Dippet said. His sentiment was shared by the rest of the portraits, from what it looked like.

"The situation is in flux, my friend." Albus said. "It is hard to tell what will happen, but we are nearing the critical point."

Quirrell was plotting from within the walls, Gellert from without. There were two threats, but there weren't two of Albus. He could not deal with both of them at the same time.

Severus, Minerva and Filius could hold the Castle if the worst were to occur and he had to face his old friend in battle, but things were never certain.

He could not help but think that this school year would end in tragedy.

With all of his heart, he prayed that he was wrong. He stared down at the spare bits of parchment left on the table. Always more letters to send, but these can wait.

There was something else that had been on Albus' mind for quite some time. The events from a few days prior made it something that he could no longer ignore. At the very least, he needed to explore it, if only to set his own mind at ease.

It would be one less problem he would have to deal with, down the line.

Albus got up and moved towards the nearby cabinet. Opening it, he stared down at the shallow basin filled with the memories of events past.

Placing the tip of the Elder Wand against the side of his head, he siphoned off his excess thoughts and memories on the matter he wished to investigate and poured them into the basin.

He gave the young, pudgy face appearing in the basin a single glance before diving into the memories head-first. He went through memory after memory, watching his target with curious, discerning blue eyes, and listening to every word that was spoken.

"Calm, am I? Oh, not at all, Potter."

"Maybe even sing a few songs at dinnertime?"

"Have you ever heard of something called the 'atom bomb'?"

A flinch when he saw the Elder Wand.

"Was it really that impressive?"

"I have a lot of trouble trusting people to do what needs to be done."

"When I set a goal in my mind, I meet it."

"Whatever I want?"

"Adopt me."

Dumbledore pulled himself back from the Pensieve with a strange expression on his face. He paced around the office for a few moments, letting the viewed series of memories settle in his mind.

He threw a quick glance of appreciation down at the Pensieve. It was a true marvel of magic, and allowed him to gain a far better understanding of the people around him.

However, even with the help of this artifact, Albus still could not pin the subject of his thoughts down.

Adam Clarke. He thought.

An orphan with a talent for magic matching— no, surpassing— Voldemort's. If he were to be honest with himself, the boy's aptitude and talent surpassed his own, as well.

Professor Dumbledore had been delaying this investigation for as long as he could. He did not think to study the boy's behaviors and actions until recently.

On the surface, Adam Clarke was an introverted boy who loved to explore all existing aspects of magic and to master every lesson imparted upon him. He still remembered the day where he watched the boy make a pineapple dance with the use of the Locomotor Charm.

Albus could not deny that the boy possessed talent.

However, there were other, curious things of note; when Professor Snape had first mentioned the break-in at his Potions' stores, he had listed Adam as a possible suspect, if only for the reason that he was capable of the action— magically speaking.

Severus had not thought that the boy lacked the moral sense to stop him from committing crimes, however. In fact, Albus had considered dismissing the man's counsel, as the boy seemed to make him feel uneasy for a reason he could not even specify.

Now, Albus knew that there was something off about Mr. Clarke. Nothing was ever quite right when it came to him.

Their various previous meetings had been innocent enough— even positive, at times— but it was as Severus said: the boy was at war with something inside of himself. The memories confirmed it.

Many times, he'd witnessed Adam's body language shift in various ways to reflect his moods, and they shifted so many times for no discernible reason. There had been no outside force to cause it, no catalyst to spur him.

Unless he was speaking to someone. Albus thought before shaking his head. But there had been no one for him to speak to, aside from myself and others. In his own mind, then?

What could it mean?

Albus moved back to the window and stared out onto the grounds once again before nodding to himself.

Whatever it is that ails the boy. Albus thought. He does not seem to let it affect the people around him. Hagrid speaks of him as fondly as he does of me. So does anyone who has ever met him.

Tom had done something similar in his time at Hogwarts. He had charmed the teachers and the staff, with the exception of himself. Adam, however, did not seem interested in their admiration the way that Tom was.

Vanity was not something Adam understood, it seemed.

Either that, or the boy rejects it as pointless. Albus thought, nodding to himself.

Perhaps he truly was overthinking the matter. There were many people he had met over the years who did not fit the norms of the society they inhabited. It did not mean that they were evil— only eccentric.

In fact, many wizards and witches viewed him as an overly eccentric man; some had even gone so far as to say that he'd taken leave of his senses.

Albus stroked his beard.

True, Adam possessed incredible skill and knowledge for a boy his age, but Albus knew that the boy did not pretend to be superior to others. From his teachers' various reports and table discussions, Adam tended to keep to himself, but was always happy to help others if asked.

If anything, he was thorough and eager to help others reach new heights. He seemed to enjoy helping his fellows increase their knowledge and skill. The rising grades of his small, but tight-knit group of friends spoke for itself— though perhaps the group is now growing in size, if what Pomona said about young Mr. Longbottom is true.

The only negative thing the boy had ever done in his time at Hogwarts, so far, was not pay attention in classes that he'd long since realized he had mastered and far surpassed.

Albus found that he could not blame the child for that. It was a waste of his time and talent. A true shame to let him rot. Students needed to be stimulated and challenged in order to thrive, and good students even moreso.

Strange, but harmless behavior aside, Albus concluded that Adam Clarke was only a threat to those who would do him harm; and, until he saw real evidence of misbehavior, he did not think that he would change his mind.

Nodding to himself, Albus made his way back to his high chair and got back to work.

There is much to do. Real threats to the wizarding world to combat.

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