Cairo, Egypt, 1899
Squinting at the bloodied sun swinging low on the horizon, Albus unhooked the top button of his shirt, his finger sliding against the sweat pooling at his collarbone. He grimaced, wiping his hand on his robe, taking small, short breaths of the thick, pungent air; spice and perfume mixed with camel dung and human stench. He longingly considered his wand, strapped to the inside of his boot, so close...but the smallest trace of magic could ruin them, so he tried to turn his focus elsewhere.
He sighed, kicking at the sand in annoyance. Gellert was taking longer than made him comfortable, leaving him stuck outside with the sun and the sea of Muggles that continuously poured through the marketplace. He licked his lips, tasting salt and dead skin, his fingernail tapping against his belt buckle.
Albus thought back to their last conversation in his family's garden, barely six hours ago, far from this stinking heat. Back home, summer was cool this year, the trees bright with pale green leaves, and a brisk breeze crawling through the branches. The once vibrant flowerbeds were now unkempt and filled with stubborn weeds.
"Cairo?" Albus asked, eyebrows raised. Gellert looked up from his book, blond eyebrows drawn together. "I haven't been there since-"
"Winning your beloved gold medal at the International Alchemical Conference. It was barely two years ago. Yes, I remember, Albus. I daresay all of Britain remembers, the way you go on about it," Gellert interrupted as he flicked some dirt away with a fingernail.
"Jealous, are you?" Albus asked, unable to keep the grin from his face. He wasn't as good as Gellert at hiding his satisfaction.
Gellert shrugged, lounging further into his chair and turning back to his research. "Hardly. It is a rather insignificant achievement, when you think about it. In the future I plan on doing great things, Albus. You can have your precious medals. I plan to liberate all of our kind. I plan on being remembered...forever."
"Both of us desire that," Albus corrected.
"Desire," Gellert said crisply, "has little to do with it."
Albus shook his head. Those words still stung. He reminded himself of why he was here, and reached into his pocket for a small, worn photograph. The corners of his mouth curved up at the sight of his mother, her gaze distant, tendrils of gray hair blowing softly behind her. His thumb traced the line of her cheek, the slope of her neck. His chest ached. He carefully placed the photograph back in his pocket.
A lazy fly buzzed across his gaze, its slow, drugged movements contrasting sharply with the constant whirl of motion in the marketplace. Albus followed its path, half-closed eyes tracking the insect, hypnotized. He blinked sluggishly, and when his gaze refocused, a tall, pale man with hair matching the sand at his feet stood a few inches from his face.
"We have to get out of here. Now."
Albus snapped into action, the heels of his boots sliding in the slippery grains as the fly smacked into his cheek. Gellert whirled around in a blur of white, ducking into an alleyway that looked even worse than it smelled. Albus yearned to catch a glimpse of their pursuer, but resisted the urge, instead focusing hard on the man running ahead of him.
Something snarled behind him. Albus sucked at the foul air desperately, his throat burning. As he ran, he tried to reach down for his wand, but the movement slowed him further, and the snarling grew louder. He turned down another alleyway, dodging small figures in threadbare blankets. They barely moved as he brushed against sharp shoulders, wide eyes staring blankly as he whipped by.
Gellert always was faster than him. Every time his foot hit the sand, it felt impossibly hard to drag it back up. The sun sunk lower, throwing their shadows in front of them. He chanced a quick, darting look behind him, but saw only a dark blur. A high-pitched hum whirred through his skull, throbbing throughout his body. He spit into the sand as he ran, the dark magic in the air leaving a sickly sweet taste in his mouth.
Gellert was a shimmery blur far ahead of him now. He tried to run faster, his vision narrowing to a thin strip of light. His heart thumped erratically against his ribcage. Not far now. Ahead, Gellert turned into a low archway, their destination. Albus tried desperately to gather speed, nearly missing the turn as his boot slid ahead in the sand. He grappled at the stone arch for support, the pads of his fingers scraping open as he surged forward.
Not fast enough. Pain exploded in the back of his calf, and the whirring noise in the air split through his temple. His body hit the ground hard, his palms barely catching his fall. He tried again to reach for his wand, but snatched his hand away as long fangs nearly crunched down on his fingers.
"GELLERT!" he roared, looking around in vain. He felt his blood run cold, his heart sinking into his belly. He kicked out with his uninjured leg, and the heel of his boot made a satisfying thud! as it connected with the creature's face. It hissed loudly while Albus watched its shadow rear up in front of him.
Then a firm, smooth hand was on his wrist and he was yanked away from the monster and the sand. Within seconds he was falling onto a thin mattress in a dingy gray room. The heat lingered. It took a moment to recognize their hotel room, before the pain in his leg came searing back to life.
"Gellert," he rasped, his lungs still fighting to work properly. "My leg…"
Without a word, the other wizard retrieved a few vials out from his suitcase. He opened a small black bottle with a skull-topped stopper, then paused before tilting the liquid onto the wound. A sliver of golden light slid across his face when he looked up, making his cheekbones sharper, his eyes brighter.
"Albus, this bite is dripping with dark magic. I can clean it out but this will be...unpleasant." His mouth worked into an echo of a concerned frown, but his eyes were clear, void of warmth.
Albus nodded, loosening his belt buckle. "Just do it," he muttered, before gripping the leather between his teeth.
When the potion spilled onto the wound, Albus lurched forward with a grunt, grasping at the bedpost for support. Gellert worked methodically, never once looking up as he cleaned and dressed the wound. His once pure white robes were stained with Albus' blood. When he was done, Albus moved his leg gingerly; it still ached, but the pain was dull. The whirring noise in his skull faded.
"Well, aren't you going to say thank you?" Gellert asked brusquely as he reorganized his ingredients satchel. "Your usual impeccable manners are lacking, Albus."
Albus leaned back against the headboard, the old mattress groaning beneath him. He watched Gellert for a few moments, his eyes following his hands as they moved efficiently around the room; putting away healing supplies, cleaning blood stains from the floor and blankets. His fingers were long and slim, spidery, with perfectly even fingernails.
When he finally spoke, he kept his gaze on his own blood-encrusted nails. "I thought you were going to leave me, back there."
Gellert looked up from his suitcase, eyebrow raised. "Of course not," he said shortly. Albus couldn't help the relief that those three words brought him, and sunk lower into the pillows.
"Without you," Gellert continued, his voice dry, "it would be significantly more...inconvenient to locate all three Hallows."
The relief faded as quickly as it came. "I see," Albus murmured, unable to keep all of the hurt from his voice, and hating himself for it.
Gellert glanced at him sharply. "Don't play the sniveling victim now, Albus. You want that stone as much as I do. Maybe more. I'd wager that you were looking at that photograph you keep in your left pocket the entire time I was gone."
Albus stiffened visibly. "And what if I was?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light.
Gellert moved to the side of the bed and leaned forward smoothly. This close, Albus could see the drops of sweat forming on the tip of his nose. "Tell me, friend," he purred while Albus recoiled. "If you were the one ahead, resurrection stone in hand, knowing they were so close to being with you again...and I was behind you, being attacked, screaming your name...would you return for me?"
"I...of course I would," Albus replied hastily, his cheeks reddening.
He knew Gellert noticed his stutter, but his friend's face remained impassive, save for a slight flare of his nostrils. "As I would, for you."
Albus opened his mouth to voice his disbelief, then closed it, realizing something. "Wait. Does that mean...do you have…?"
"The stone? No, I do not." Gellert stepped away and sighed, bringing a hand up to squeeze the bridge of his nose. "Our contact was...displeased with our offer. To say the least. That's why he sent his cat after us. I don't think he has the stone anymore, anyway. Something was off. I can't believe we came all the way to bloody Cairo to find out we have nothing. Another dead end."
Albus' mouth fell open. "That...that monster was no cat!"
Gellert rolled his eyes as he elegantly lowered himself into a chair on the other side of the room. He flicked the edge of his white robe away from his leg as he lifted his foot to rest on his knee. "Well, perhaps not anymore, but it was, a long time ago. A lot of black market dealers around here resurrect mummified cats using blood magic, to use as a sort of guard dog...ah, cat. But the spell, shall we say...distorts the creature a fair bit."
Albus frowned. "You knew that there was a chance the cat - I can't call it that...monster - would be there?"
"Oh, enough with the accusing tone. Yes, I knew there was a chance. I didn't see the point in telling you - I assumed you could handle yourself." His lip curled upward into a cold smirk. "You should be flattered."
"I'm not." Albus shuddered, remembering the long fangs, the blur of darkness and claws. "It was much stronger, and larger, than our family's old cat. Ariana used to play with him before she...well. You know."
Gellert looked away, out the window, where the belly of the sun was gone, only a few last crimson and orange beams poking over the horizon. "Dwelling in the past is fruitless."
"The past is the whole reason I'm here," Albus shot back angrily, his hand curling around the photograph in his pocket. Gellert looked back at him, saying nothing. Albus felt his face warm even further, and forcibly swallowed, trying to calm down. He despised how powerless Gellert could make him feel.
"We should return to Godric's Hollow," he said finally. "My brother will-"
"Your brother is ridiculous," Gellert muttered. "But yes. We should leave this place. That Portkey should have been untraceable, but I'd rather not take unnecessary risks."
"It was definitely untraceable," Albus said quietly, a hint of resentment in his tone. "I created it."
Gellert sighed as he stood, then walked back over to the bed. "You are tired, and acting much too sensitive, Albus. You'll feel better at home after some supper and a hot bath." He awkwardly placed his hand on Albus' shoulder, his fingers lingering for a moment before falling away.
Albus resisted the urge to touch his shoulder with his own hand. He refused to be the dog being thrown a bone. Instead, he gave a half-hearted smile. "Perhaps you're right."
Gellert flashed a Cheshire grin, his teeth glinting in the dark room. "Of course I am, friend." Then he turned away, the last of the evening light falling away from his face.