07 - Albus Dumbledore

July could be summed up in one word: disaster. Long gone were Albus Dumbledore's plans for unwrapping Voldemort's past and finding his (possibly numerous) horcruxes. The sword of Godric Gryffindor was still literally on his table, a reminder that finding the horcruxes was just step one.

He'd wasted an entire week tracking Igor Karkaroff, who kept fleeing at the news of a British wizard being after him. Dumbledore persisted in the hopes of solving the DADA problem for at least this one year. However, when he was eventually found, the wizard had scoffed at him. 'Your record is not good, Dumbledore. Out of only your past twelve Defence teachers, three were killed on the job inside the castle, one was kissed by a dementor, one was turned into a vampire and another is confirmed to be a werewolf, one lost her magic and one lost his memories, and two were permanently disabled. There are rumours about a witch who had been... You know... Centaurs. And let us not forget about the fianceé of poor Shafiq, scorched by a Hebridean Black dragon. These are what I know about and I certainly don't want to be the thirteenth in the row! How many of them did you promise sanctuary to, as well?'

The man was terrified of Voldemort, and more frightened still of Dementors. Albus grimaced to himself: he should have remembered that Karkaroff had seen his fellow Death Eater, Barty Crouch, after he had been Dementor-Kissed for no other reason than to allow Cornelius Fudge and the British Ministry to maintain their denial for one more year. Albus had been so desperate for a Defence professor that he had ignored the evidence: there had never been a chance that Karkaroff would say yes. When he had insisted that his best-case end to the year was being delivered to Voldemort by Severus Snape, in order to solidify the potioneer's position with his dark master, Albus had to concede that he was not exaggerating the dangers.

But perhaps it was wrong to call the time spent a waste. At least Karkaroff had given Albus a list of families that might still have had a few members willing to hide Gellert – not that any of these seemed to have any inclination to have staged a prison break. Furthermore, it seemed clear that Gellert had not been part of the planning, either. The idea that Gellert had commanded the rescuers to wait until the circumstances were right was raised and discarded: an escape during the Triwizard Cup would have been far more devastating. If it had been up to him, he would have escaped the year prior, either shortly before the event or immediately after the third task. There was no way Gellert hadn't foreseen Voldemort's return, and he was not one to be merciful on a fallen or distracted enemy – he would have taken full advantage.

It quickly became clear that there was nothing more to be gained from Karkaroff, so Albus settled him into a safehouse in New Zealand. When he returned to Britain, he sank into his pensieve to go through their discussion again, searching for a clue about Gellert's whereabouts. But there were too many unanswered questions. If there were still supporters capable of this miraculous rescue, why hadn't they acted sooner? What had changed? Why rescue Gellert now? Or had it not been a rescue at all? If Gellert was free and recovering, why couldn't Fawkes find him?

Albus had entered the pensieve looking for answers, and instead had found more questions. This called for tea. This called for cheese and savoury biscuits, a scone with red currant jam, chocolate covered stem ginger… Comfort eating would not fix anything, but an hour invested in travel and shopping for fifteen minutes of hedonistic escape seemed like the best he could hope for under the circumstances. He would shop, he would eat, and then – then he would pick up the problem again. Perhaps viewed from another angle, everything would become clear.

Predictably, food had not provided quite the escape that Albus had hoped for. The Fortnum & Mason Food Hall had been distracting enough, but once he had sat down to tea? No cheese was up to the task of stopping his mind from returning to the problem of what Gellert was doing.

Albus had always assumed that, if Gellert ever did manage to escape, that he would come for Albus before anything else – for no other reason than to try to reclaim his wand. But Gellert had not approached Hogwarts, had not attempted to contact Albus or do anything that might draw him out… Why?

There was always the slim chance that he had given up on destroying the entire muggle world, which had been his reason for holding the wand in the first place. Maybe he'd given up on his dangerous views, let go of his horrible plans. As much as he'd prefer to believe that, it was more likely that Gellert simply wasn't in any condition to duel and win the Wand back. The last report Albus had heard painted the picture of a miserable old man, still having his wits to himself, but little more.

Albus would have known what condition Gellert was in, if he had ever found the courage to visit him. "Gryffindor," he muttered to himself derisively. "That was a mis-sorting." All these years, he had told himself that he would have happily thrown away all the power the Wizarding World had entrusted to him in exchange for just one hour of talking to Gellert, but the reality was that it had always been as simple as deciding to do it. There had been nothing to stop him but himself – his cowardice.

Well, that and – to be fair, Britain did still need him in the fight against Voldemort. It would have been extraordinarily selfish to destroy what credibility he had and so clear Voldemort's path to victory.

"And what was your excuse in 1950?" He asked himself. Or 1955? Or 1960? What had he known of 'Voldemort' at that time? What had Albus thought was required of him at that time beyond teaching, day in and day out? And as far as Albus' reputation went, surely he could have made a visit to Nurmengard undetected, if Gellert could be gone for more than a week without anyone missing him.

It was wrong to pretend that there had ever been a reason not to visit Gellert beyond his fear. And as a result, he may have even handicapped himself against Voldemort – what visions might Gellert have shared with him, if Albus had gone to see him?

No, it was far more likely that Gellert would have taunted him with his failures after the fact. No one had known how to hurt him with a handful of well-placed words quite like Gellert had – even before he had broken Albus' heart and walked away still holding the pieces.

Some fears were entirely reasonable. It wasn't as if Albus would bottle feed a manticore, either – and no one would call him a coward for his refusal.

Of all the wizards in the world, why had Albus had to fall in love with Gellert Grindelwald?

"Because no one else has ever seen me so clearly."

Fawkes chirped at him.

"Yes, well, however wonderful you are, no bird could be all that I hoped for in a companion," Albus answered.

Fawkes chirped again, flapping his wings as he always did when he wished to communicate his disagreement whenever he was a chick.

"Your wings are getting too big for that, friend. You are going to knock something over," Dumbledore quietly reminded the bird.

Fawkes hopped onto his shoulder to grab a lock of Albus' hair in his beak and pull.

"What has gotten into you?" Albus asked – though he knew what had gotten into Fawkes. Jealousy. If asked, Albus would have denied that the bird's shameless attention-seeking was part of his appeal.

"Stop being so childish. You are nearly an adult again – you've not the excuse now that you did last month."

He was still lost in his thoughts when the new Minister of Magic contacted him through the floo, asking for just one picture that could be snapped of the three of them during Harry's birthday. Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore both supporting him would boost morale, he reasoned.

The headmaster declined, reminding Rufus that Harry was staying with his muggle relatives, and that it was against the law to bother them. Surely, the Minister didn't want to start his career with a case of muggle harassment?

In two days, that rejection backfired the worst way possible. Albus had forgotten about Percy Weasley, who would have sold his own family to the Ministry if anyone would have bothered to ask. The black sheep of the Weasleys had somehow cajoled Harry's address out of one of his brothers, and as early as 8 a.m. on the 31st of July, Scrimgeour and his lackeys besieged Little Whinging in Surrey.

Nearly a week later, the front page of The Daily Prophet was sporting yet another photograph of Harry's door with the many muggle locks and the slim gap for occasional feeding, this time with the caption, 'This Is What Dumbledore Sees As A Safe Place For A Child.' Albus was deluged with owls from concerned parents in need of reassurance that they could still trust Headmaster Dumbledore with their Hogwarts-aged children.

Albus felt particularly ashamed, however, by Harry's reaction to the sudden interest in his home life. He stood his ground, a far cry from the eleven-year-old boy whom the wizarding crowd had scared on his first shopping day in Diagon Alley – and he told the journalists, in somewhat profane words, that he wouldn't be their next weapon against the harassed headmaster. He had stopped Voldemort, or so they had kept telling him, shouldn't that have been enough for them? The young Potter then recalled how, in his second year, that same paper had accused him of petrifying students in Slytherin's name. Then they had called him a cheater during the Triwizard Tournament, and 'The Boy Who Lies' immediately afterwards. What had The Daily Prophet done to inspire Harry's loyalty to them, over and against the only person who had had unwavering faith in him during those times? No, his loyalty was to Albus Dumbledore, and he would not be manipulated into throwing mud at a wizard who had never betrayed him. And from that tirade on, Harry refused to talk to the press, again.

Albus knew that he had done little to deserve that sort of devotion. Harry had grown into such a warrior, at the cost of his entire childhood. It was bittersweet to look at him, protectively flanked by the Weasleys and a werewolf. Albus wished he could have done anything differently, but there was no protecting Harry from both fame and malice. He tried to tell himself that as a headmaster and as a friend to the Potter family, he had done everything he could, but had he?

For instance, right now, why was so much of his energy going to locating Gellert (an utterly fruitless endeavour so far)? He should instead be trying to exclude the worst-case scenario: had Voldemort, already having made multiple horcruxes, split himself once again without even realizing fifteen years before? Knowing the answer to that question was vital to Harry's future, and yet it had slipped to the backburner.

'You cannot put Harry's well-being over the well-being of the rest of the world,' Albus reminded himself. 'You made that mistake once before – elevating your feelings for one boy over what you knew to be right.' That was why he was focusing on Gellert. If Gellert wanted to be (and Albus had no evidence that Gellert's ideals or intellect had changed), he could be far more dangerous than Voldemort.

Albus had therefore hoped to find Gellert and to have minimally formed a strategy for recapturing him before the next Order of the Phoenix meeting at Headquarters. Instead, he was forced to deflate the optimism that had built in the members of the Order after having read the recent article in The Daily Prophet that had once again neglected to mention Gellert by name.

It would have been bad enough to have simply left all of Wizarding Europe ignorant of Gellert's escape. Instead, the ICW's vague press release had given all Britain the impression that they were not alone in the struggle against Voldemort any longer. Why would it have occurred to any of them that there was an additional dark wizard on the loose, next to whom Voldemort was only of a local concern? It was, as it ever is in such cases, unpleasant disillusioning them.

"So, it's not You-Know-Who," Hestia Jones sighed in disappointment.

"We thought the ICW was finally taking note of him," a dejected Arthur Weasley added.

"They didn't when he was at his peak the first time," Remus commented. "I suppose it should not surprise us that they would leave us to our own devices now."

"Lichtenstein was the only member state that had all of its adult citizens checked for the Dark Mark," Emmeline recalled. "They, at least, still refuse to let in anybody without checking both arms."

"But Lichtenstein isn't a member of the International Conference," young Hermione immediately corrected her.

"No. That may be why they were able to act contrary to ICW policy on the matter. They have received a lot of criticism for submitting their people to an unnecessary botheration," Dedalus Diggle added.

And so, the Order was once again distracted by their perennial complaint: the international assistance that Britain should have received, but never did. From the ICW's perspective, Voldemort was a trifling concern, especially when compared to Gellert, whose reach had been international, and who had been far more disruptive overall. But from an individual wizard's point of view, it really didn't matter whose follower murders you.

"Do we even have a name?" Miss Tonks queried. Her hair had suddenly taken on the red of a caution sign, which in Albus' experience was an indication that she was losing her patience.

"I'm afraid…"Albus began to answer.

But he was interrupted by Mundungus asking: "And do we even know where this dark wizard is?"

"With my luck, I'll meet him before the school year is over," Harry bitterly replied immediately.

Albus felt all blood leave his face. The Cloak of Invisibility! What else would Grindelwald be after, if he could not yet get his hands on the Elder Wand again? Why had he not anticipated it? What else would a wizard on the run need, if not this cloak that could hide him even from Death itself? Had Gellert Seen that Harry had the cloak?

"Don't be stupid, why would he be after you?" Molly immediately snapped in a tone that she perhaps meant to be reassuring. "It would be foolish to try, even if there were a reason, with all of us taking care of you and keeping you safe!"

Hearing this, her youngest son broke out coughing. Unlike Molly, Ronald had more than enough personal experience of how trouble always managed to find Harry. He'd been by his side through five years of adults failing to keep Harry safe.

"It's all right, Mrs Weasley, I'm getting used to it," Harry replied. "And I'm grateful for being told in advance if something inevitable is approaching."

Dumbledore protested mildly, "I wouldn't say inevitable. We've not located him yet, but we do not have any indication so far that he is in Britain."

The Weasley twins immediately responded that they agreed with Harry: why would anyone not be in London? Their mother then slapped both boys on the back of their heads and told them not to make a joke out of a serious situation.

But the twins did have a point: if Albus couldn't say where Gellert was, then he certainly could not say where Gellert was not. Why wouldn't Gellert set foot in Britain? The island was better warded than most European countries, but not warded as well as to keep Gellert out if he were determined enough. London seemed unlikely – it was too well watched – but there was a small village to which he had a blood connection…

The rest of the Order meeting was uneventful. Remus had no news, as the packs dispersed under the waning crescent. The Ministry workers grumbled about how Scrimgeour was hardly doing more than Fudge had done ("How different is saying, 'We have it all under control,' from saying, 'Voldemort has not returned?' It is reassuring the people with lies in either case," Emmeline complained.) And the twins were running up and down whenever Fawkes as much as flapped his wings, in search of any dropped feather from him.

Having collected what they could without removing the feathers directly from the bird, one of the twins approached Tonks after the meeting, as she was chatting with Harry and Remus. "We upgraded the Sticky Trainers with an additional stabilizing charm, if you're interested. No more falling over your own legs, be it on the ceiling or down here! Want to try them on?"

Albus had always had a particular soft spot for the twins – so lively and brave. He enjoyed watching their antics. Or – he remembered having been entertained by them in the past. Now, whenever he paid attention to them for too long, his mind blanked. He had read that this could be a leftover sign of a memory charm, when performed by novices. But when would have the twins obliviated him, and why?

Next to him, Hermione was peppering Hestia with questions about the way the Ministry operated, and Hestia was replying to the endless barrage of judgment with her own questions and examples demonstrating that the muggle government was not any better. Kingsley joined them, sharing observations gleaned working for both governments – most recently as a 'secretary' to the muggle Prime Minister. Emmeline followed him over, and the auror placed a soothing hand on her shoulder in an offhand and practiced way, without breaking the stream of his story. It was perhaps only that they had been drawn closer by what the two had been through together just a week prior. It would be natural for them to find comfort now in one another's continued existence. But in Albus' experience, it was easy for comfort and camaraderie to develop rapidly into something more under the pressure of war. It had happened in the Order often enough before now.

There was surprisingly little interest in the elusive and still unnamed dark wizard, much to Albus' relief. Sirius and Amelia were brought up more often, as the two latest casualties. Even the forever-cheerful Arthur Weasley seemed to have been brought down with the loss of those two. At some point during the Order's shared dinner, he pulled out a few bottles of muggle spirits – not cheap ones – and offered them around. The one fermented from potatoes was so strong that it put fire whiskey to shame.

"Huh, good stuff!" Mundungus yelled happily. "Where'd you grab this?"

"Fred brought it along yesterday. They're now accepting muggle money in their shop. It's more convenient for the parents of muggleborn children."

"Doesn't Gringotts have a monopoly in converting between muggle Pounds and our Galleons?" Tonks asked.

"Well, yes. They could get into a great deal of trouble for converting currency, but that's not what they're doing," replied Remus. "Accepting muggle payment isn't forbidden to wizards. Otherwise, we would not be able to work in the muggle world at all. Then you can take your muggle money to the bank, and have it converted yourself."

"Or spend it outside, buying muggle goods from muggle shops," Hestia contributed. "Although muggle stuff is ridiculously overprized, compared to what we can normally buy for ourselves."

"That's because they can't use magic for labour- and time-consuming procedures," guessed Remus.

"Nor do we use house elf slave labour!" added Hermione proudly.

At this, Harry just stared down at his plate, his facial expression grim. Perhaps he had heard young Miss Granger criticizing elf labour too often in the past two years.

"Excuse me, sir, may I get that plume off you? Thanks."

Albus turned his head. One of the twins had come over to stand just beside him.

"I'd be honoured – if you share why you need it, Mr Weasley."

"It'll be the core of the fake wand that goes into the Dung Holster. It responds beautifully to the disarming charm, never missing the hand of the wizard casting the spell."

"That's what saved my life, Albus," Emmeline added from across the table. "A brilliant invention."

"See, sir, the disarming hex is popular – it can be cast quickly by a wizard of the least capacity, and it immediately disables one's opponent. But it has a couple of weaknesses. To begin with, the point of the hex is to remove a wand from the wearer, but it is not particular as to which wand. And the caster is prepared to grab – in fact, has usually trained themselves to grab automatically – whatever comes flying at them next. Now, a 'bait wand' is loaded into the Dung Holster, and if you disarm its wearer, along with the wand, you'll get no less than three XL size bombs filled with top-quality unicorn manure along with it. It works from all angles and doesn't miss the target even with the clumsiest caster. We are now in the testing phase of using dragon..."

That accursed attention fallout happened again. Nevertheless, Albus recalled that being distracted by a series of dung bombs was exactly what had happened to Antonin Dolohov. His Death Eater mask's holes were still filled with the smelly material even after Kingsley had locked him up in the Ministry's holding cell. After the same attack, Alecto Carrow was hospitalized, impaled by Emmeline's trusty broom's handle. Two others had gotten away, though.

"Really, you should come and check out our shop, Professor, perhaps outside of the usual opening hours… We feel quite sure that you would like to see our newest item."

Hearing his title drew Albus' attention back to… whichever twin this was. Visit their shop? Wouldn't that be delightful? If he were not so busy. Albus was impressed that the twins had found a way to use their considerable gifts in the struggle against Voldemort, but he could not waste time admiring joke products, no matter how brilliant and effective. In fact, their brilliance was an argument against going – there was nothing Albus needed to add to their efforts – they were doing fine unassisted. There were too many demands on his time: finding Gellert, destroying the Horcruxes, staffing the school, making sure that Harry was prepared for… whatever was next.

But even if he had had the time, there was the memory problem… Albus did not want to bring attention to that. The twins were bright – they would be sure to notice if they had him alone.

He managed some excuse, hoping it was plausible enough – he was already beginning to forget what he had said, exactly. At this rate, he was not going to have to spend time alone in their shop in order for them to notice his inability to focus around them. At his earliest opportunity, Albus bid everyone a good evening, with the excuse that Fawkes was getting irritated with the boys constantly hunting for his plumes.

He did not return directly to Hogwarts, but apparated to Godric's Hollow. The sun was almost down, and the edges of the dark clouds were gilded with light – a red-gold colour that recalled the flare of embers just breathed on. The village's muggle inhabitants were probably relaxing in their homes after dinner. As for the wizarding populace… so far, he had seen little evidence of any magical person still living here.

He couldn't help but walk by the Potter house, devastated and now preserved in its ruins. Surely Harry would have voiced his desire to have it rebuilt, if he had wanted to move in again. The Weasleys had been friends with Lily – surely, they knew the location? But even if they didn't, Harry had already had over five years to ask… anybody else. He couldn't imagine Minerva or Rubeus denying such a request, for example. He could only assume that Harry had no interest in the house, and he couldn't blame him.

With a weary sigh he moved on to the nearby house that he had so often visited in his youth. A revealing charm informed him that dear old Bathilda had already retired for the night, which was a relief. He had not wanted to see her, but there would have been little avoiding her notice if she had been awake. This way, they would both be unbothered. Of course, his comfort mattered little if she was in some sort of danger, but he could easily tell, even from outside, that she was alone, safe, and well protected.

The wards piqued his curiosity. Those against theft were the first he noticed. If anyone were to leave the old house with an object that magic recognized as belonging to the famous historian, the thief would be transfigured into a pebble and remain so until somebody lifted the curse from them. That was… curious. Darker than he would have expected from her. Then, there was a spell against uninvited guests: any invader to set a foot inside would slowly start losing their memories, as if they were being gradually obliviated over the length of their stay. Perhaps five minutes of lingering would make an average wizard forget what year it was and why they had come. A quarter of an hour would be enough for them to forget their own names.

Albus shook his head, this was definitely not sweet dear Professor Bagshot's style. But what really mattered, was the third layer of finely crafted warding spells: should anyone enter the house with malicious intent towards the rightful owner of this house….

Albus Dumbledore gasped. He had to conjure a chair and sit down, examine the ward lines more closely, their black and electric blue dancing in front of his eyes. Should anyone try to harm Bathilda Bagshot, they would perish immediately in a burst of diabolical fire.

Gellert.

Albus spent a good three minutes marvelling at the elegantly refined, deadly, irresistibly strong aura of magic. He touched the nearest ward-stone, cleverly concealed in one of the pickets. The magic felt familiar to his fingers, powerfully swirling around and inside the stone. He wished he could take it and carry it everywhere in an inside pocket, a tangible memento of the wizard who'd left those wards behind just recently. Mesmerized, he actually attempted to pry it lose, not even considering that successfully removing the ward-stone from the fence would leave him worse than petrified. The only thing that saved him from being utterly lost – one pebble among dozens along the edge of the road – was how firmly the object was fixed in place.

Fawkes's trill brought him back to reality. His familiar was sitting on a nearby tree branch, singing beautiful soothing-encouraging melodies. When Albus turned from the stone to look at him, the bird hopped on the fence and looked his master in the face defiantly.

"This is the closest I can get," Albus whispered to his bird, without knowing whether what he meant was 'the closest to the house' or 'the closest to Gellert.'

"He certainly came to Godric's Hollow, but not to stay. And he could have done all this without her even knowing he was here."

The phoenix looked back at him, still not leaving his perch.

"You don't understand, dear friend. This means that he is free."

His feathery companion stared back critically, as if asking if that was meant to be good news.

Albus wasn't sure, himself.

"I've got to find him, Fawkes. For his own safety as much as everyone else's. But please, don't tell Aberforth I said that."

The bird chirped, as if laughing politely without going so far as to agree. He then jumped from the fence and onto the headmaster's shoulder, and the two of them disapparated from the quiet street