Characters: Albus Dumbledore, cameos by Aberforth, Snape, and Harry
Length: 2,200 words
Summary: You don’t expect forgiveness. You do the best you can, always, but you of all people know that it will never be enough.
Warnings: DH spoilers, angst
A/N: Everything belongs to JK Rowling, of course. Quotes from canon are paraphrased or from memory.
This is for omniocular 's August challenge. I had prompt #18. Strayed from it a bit, but it fits the challenge regardless.
The timeline isn’t linear, so don’t get confused thinking that it is.
Betaed by the wonderful lunamorgaine , to whom I owe many thanks.
"He won't blame you, Albus... and he's the only one of us that has any right to--including you."
When you first meet Tom Riddle, you immediately recognize the signs. Years of hating yourself for ignoring the same signs in another bright, charming young wizard have left you extremely good at recognizing them.
Sometimes you wonder whether things would have been different if you hadn't been so quick to label Tom as the next great danger, if only in your mind. You wonder whether eleven was really old enough to know.
"I am not such a coward," Severus says to you, and it makes your blood run cold to think of your reply, because it places the blame on you, rather than Tom. Rather than Severus.
"Sometimes I think we sort too soon."
You forget that the sorting is not your guilt alone, and that you, too, perhaps, are a victim of it.
Ariana is with you wherever you go, your biggest secret and your greatest guilt. You give people second chances because you want to believe that you deserve your own.
"How do you expect to rule the world if you can't even be trusted to look after your own sister?"
You are seventeen, and what you want most is for the world to stop spinning out of your control. If you were in charge, you think, you could make things better.
If wizards were in charge, you think, they could protect themselves.
No more Arianas.
You do not think of rights, only of what is easy--the easiest way to accomplish what you want: peace (safety).
It is only later, with your baby sister's blood on your hands, that you discover that shortcuts lead to only one place: betrayal (hell).
When you look into the Mirror of Erised, you see your family. But what's more, you see a time when people were responsible for you, not you for them. There is nothing you want more than to hold nothing but your own fate in your hands.
You gave up that right a long time ago, when you chose power over others instead of power over yourself.
Your brilliance could have been yours, once, but Gellert wrapped it in chains of guilt, and you have only yourself to blame for letting him.
Now your brilliance belongs to Ariana's ghost.
"You disgust me," you say to Severus, but the words are as much directed at yourself as they are at him.
When Lily and James are dead, betrayed, just like Ariana, you know, know, the price Severus must pay for this. You have been paying for over a century.
"If you loved her, really loved her, then your way forward is clear."
"I... It wouldn't have mattered, you know, except... I thought you didn't care."
It is a relief, almost, to hear that you only have a year. One more year of this mortal purgatory and then...
Perhaps the green eyes boring into yours will be Lily's, rather than Harry's, and the rage and accusation that you imagine you can see when he looks at you will be real in her eyes.
It would be a relief to have the ghosts of those whom you have failed berate you. It's worse when they forgive. (Harry always forgives).
"Dumbledore's man through and through," Harry says, and suddenly you find that you cannot keep yourself controlled any longer.
"I'm touched, Harry," you say, which is the understatement of the century; you're touched, yes, but you're also appalled, because he has no idea what he is saying. No idea... and it's all your fault, but there's nothing, nothing, that you can do about it anymore.
The tears come, and he looks away in embarrassment, which is fortunate, because it drowns any questions he might have asked you which you wouldn't be able to answer.
You have no right to care what he thinks of you.
"I am not worried, Harry. I am with you," you tell him, and in that moment, because you are weak and exhausted and losing control again, you mean every word. It's true; it's the most honest thing you've ever said to him, because in that moment you accept that you both knew, even if you wouldn't admit it, that he was lying when he promised he would leave you to die. He is Harry Potter, and he doesn't leave anyone to die. So you don't tell him to leave you, even though you should. Even though leaving you here to be dragged under the water would spare Severus the trouble of finishing you off. But you can't, Harry can't; you have plans for this, and Severus must do it.
You know that Harry would try to bring you back safely if it was the last thing he ever did, even though you made him promise, before you left, that he wouldn't. The promise was a pretense, a sham, so that you may pretend to yourself that you are less important than you are.
Fate is cruel, you see, and now you have the glory and importance that you once wanted in your youth, but it is bitter and you would give anything, now, to be able to trade it back, except... You wouldn't, because someone has to be responsible for this boy, and you hate yourself for what you're doing, but you love him, and maybe, maybe, that will be enough.
"Harry is barely more than a child, Albus! If you can't defeat Voldemort, how can you possibly believe that he will?"
"It isn't right, Albus," your brother shouts at you, when you tell him what the mirror does and ask him to keep an eye on Harry. "Always watching him, but never doing anything. Letting him go on and get caught up in this war. He's younger than his parents were, and they died young enough! What's he going to think of you when he finds out the truth, that he's never been more than a pawn in your grand plans, disposable, like all the rest? If you really cared, you'd tell him to forget it all, you included."
At first, you say nothing, though inwardly you cringe. Aberforth has always been able to pinpoint the nature of your guilt, and state it clearly, baldly, as though the world was simple and you were the stupid one.
At Ariana’s funeral, he had shouted: "Are you happy now, Mr. I'm-too-brilliant-to-love-my-own-sister?
When you didn't move, Aberforth punched you, broke your nose, stormed out of the house, and you just stood there, blood dripping to the ground and everyone staring, until Bathilda pulled on the sleeve of your robes and led you away.
"It's too late for that, Aberforth," you tell him. "He wouldn't listen."
Again you wonder whether it was always too late. Whether you could have done something, once.
"Think that makes it any better, do you? Think that excuses you? Think that just because he'd rather be a martyr than disappoint you makes what you're doing any nobler?"
"Look after him, please," you say, but Aberforth's words are ringing in your ears even as you wave your wand to open the school gates.
"I wish I were dead," Severus tells you, and you know that he means it.
"What good would that be to anyone?" you ask, because you wished for death once too, and you hope, pray, that you have done more good by living than you would have if you'd died.
You wonder, though, at times, such as when Sirius shouts at you in a fit of rage that he and Harry would be better off if you'd just leave them both alone. If you'd left them both alone. You wonder, but you know that the time for that was past a long time ago, if it ever really existed. "The consequences of our actions..."
Sirius apologizes the next morning, of course, but you can tell that he is apologizing not because he didn't mean the words, but because he did. It changes nothing.
There can be no absolution for you. Most people can plead some degree of ignorance, but you, with all your brilliance, must tell your judges that you knew exactly what you were doing.
You don't expect them to care that you're sorry. You won't bother with apologies. You won't pretend that your feelings have any relevance in the wake of what you have done.
"I'm not angry with you, Albus. It's hurt you more than it'll hurt him, in the end."
You remember Sirius' sorting, when the hat shouted "Gryffindor," and the hall fell into a steely silence.
You remember the Howler Sirius received the next morning, which Minerva, at least, had the sense to destroy before it could finish off the sentence which began:
"I never would have believed that a son of mine would be sorted into a house..."
You remember this, even as you tell Sirius to remain in the home that he hated. Sirius would die for Harry, and this is why you must keep Sirius alive. Sirius must stay in number 12, Grimmauld Place, because as long as Sirius is safe, Harry will have at least one person with undivided loyalties. Between Harry and the world, Sirius would choose Harry, and Sirius may be the only one who would.
(You envy Sirius this.)
In the back of your mind, you know that while Sirius would die for Harry, he cannot live for him.
You ignore this, because there is nothing more you can do other than hope.
"You should have come to me sooner!" Severus shouts at you, and of course he's right. But you offer no explanation, because the explanation isn't an excuse, it's a condemnation.
You put the ring on, and it carries a curse which burns your hand the instant it touches your skin. This brings you back to reality long enough to rip the ring off and throw it onto the desk. You grab the sword at your side and raise it, but as soon as you do, something happens which is much worse, oh God so much more terrible, than the shooting pain in your hand. You had wanted to see Ariana, and you are getting your wish. But.
She sneers at you, her eyes a malicious red. You open your mouth to say the words that you have been longing to say for a hundred years, but as you do, another figure blossoms out of the ring.
"I know about her," Harry says to you, indicating Ariana. "I know about everything. You lied to me. You never cared. I was just a pawn in all of this, only told enough to do my job, but never the truth." He starts screaming, then, his voice choked with sobs. "It was all a lie! How could I have loved you if I had known the truth? What use would I have had for you? I would have been better off if you'd have left me alone. Love! My greatest weapon? What good has love ever been to me? What has it ever done for me other than trick me into trusting lying cowards like you?"
You stare, horrorstruck, at the two of them, your baby sister and the boy-who-lived, two you had promised to protect, two whom you have failed. Then Ariana, dear, sweet Ariana, puts her arm around Harry's shoulders, and in an instant, both of them have turned their backs on you.
"No," you whisper, making to reach out to them, but when you do pain shoots through your hand again, and you realize where you are--what is happening. It is all you can do to bring the sword crashing down between the two figures. The ring cracks, the figures disappear, and you collapse into your chair.
"Severus," you manage to croak in the general direction of the portraits. "Get me Severus." Then everything goes black.
"I couldn't have done it without you. Maybe you don’t think forgiveness is that simple, but it is to me. Beating ourselves up about what could have happened doesn’t do anyone any favors. You’re the one that taught me that, or don’t you remember?"
A/N 2: The years on the quotes are significant; I have specific scenarios in mind for each of them.
1) Remus, shortly after the death of Sirius. He and Dumbledore are having an argument about how to get Harry from the Dursley's.
2) Aberforth, after Kendra's death but before Ariana's, in the midst of the fight where he tells Albus that he can't run off with Grindelwald when he has Ariana to consider.
3) Harry, right before he left Dumbledore's office on the night Sirius died.
4) Remus, during the same conversation in which Dumbledore tells him and Kingsley "Harry is the best hope we have. Trust him."
5) Lily, upon meeting crying!Dumbledore in the afterlife.
6) Harry, to Dumbledore's portrait after the war is well and truly over.
Oh, also, this is gen. Any use of the word "love" is strictly platonic. I am aware that this could be read as Albus/Harry if you squint. If you did squint, please don't tell me.