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Drunkard's Walk VIII:
Harry Potter and the Man From Otherearth
by Robert M. Schroeck
0. Forbidden Magic and Primal Fear
Glendower: I can summon spirits from the vasty deep!
Hotspur: Ay, so can I, but will they come when you do call them?
— Henry IV, part I
Show me the magic. C'mon. Show me the magic.
— John Cassavetes, Tempest (1982)
Peer's Law: The solution to a problem changes the problem.
Ottery St. Catchpole, Devon, England, UK. Saturday, July 17, 1995, 11:21 PM
Although the moon was just past full, beneath the treetops little light penetrated; it was pitch dark. In the shadows, the quiet tread of two pairs of feet upon the soft layer of dead leaves and other litter that made up the forest floor was the only sound — at least until there was a sharp crack followed by a rustle of leaves. "Ow!"
"Honestly, Ginny," Hermione Granger sighed, then added, "Well, I suppose we're far enough from the Burrow now that we can use my torch without alerting anyone." There was a moment or two of fumbling, and then a brilliant beam of yellow-white battery-powered light shone out across the underbrush. With her free hand she swept her bushy brown hair back away from her face. "No need to walk into tree branches any more."
The petite redhead accompanying her sent a dirty look in her direction. "I thought I knew the way. I did grow up in these woods, after all." She turned her attention forward again and made a vaguely affirmative noise. "Okay, there's the clearing. I knew it was around here somewhere."
Half an hour later, the two of them were kneeling within a complex design of both concentric and interlocking circles scratched with almost mathematical precision into the bare dirt of the clearing. Long looping strings of runes and symbols swirled around and along the scribed lines, cast into sharp relief by the electric torch laying on the ground and shining across their work space. To one side lay the string and styluses that had made creating the circles a simple task.
"I'm not sure we ought to be doing this," Hermione muttered as she added the last few characters to the circle in which she sat. "After all, theurgic rituals have been banned by the Ministry of Magic for centuries."
In her own rune-inscribed circle, Ginny Weasley rolled her green eyes. "Fine time to worry about that now, Hermione. Wasn't it you who found the book, and you who wangled an early visit to the Burrow so we could use it as soon as possible?"
"Yes, yes," Hermione huffed impatiently. "I know. You can't fault me for having second thoughts, can you? Especially with the Minister turning against Harry after the Third Task — I'm sure he would love to have an excuse to arrest us and use us to discredit him. But still... you saw what Harry looked like on the Express. If there's even the slightest chance this could help him against Voldemort..." She swallowed. "I'd offer anything I have. Even my soul."
Slowly, Ginny nodded. "Me, too." Her hands rested on a tiny drum between her knees, and she brushed her fingertips across the taut leather of its head.
Hermione smiled grimly. "Then we'd best begin, hadn't we?"
Ginny grimaced. "I suppose. I'd feel more confident if this were a regular spell, though."
Hermione looked up from the bag which rested between her knees and raised an eyebrow. "What, with a Latin incantation and a swish-and-flick of the wand?" As she watched Ginny, she reached into the bag and retrieved a pair of maracas she had liberated from her parents' box of vacation souvenirs.
Ginny nodded, sending her hair swinging. Its normal bright red was reduced by the low light to a near-black with the occasional red highlight. "Yeah. I'm still afraid I'm going to mess up and mispronounce a word or two in the chant — and we'll get something we don't want."
Withdrawing a small leather pouch from the bag, Hermione paused for a moment, closed her eyes and shuddered. "That was one of the reasons the Ministry outlawed theurgic magic, after all. It was far too easy to call up something — or Someone — who was both hostile and very powerful. And which couldn't be sent back to where it came from." She huffed and untied the rawhide thong which held the pouch closed, revealing a grainy, off-white powder within. "We'll just have to be especially careful."
"If you say so." Ginny resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. This was too important. She glanced down at the drum — rescued from the depths of Ron's closet, where it had been left since he was six — and tapped its surface lightly with her fingertips. She felt its slight give at the impact and the bounce its return imparted to her fingers, and listened to the faint, almost tinny sound it made. It was a bright orange that almost glowed in the light of Hermione's Muggle torch, and animated text flowed along its sides, morphing back and forth between "Chudley Cannons" and "Season Opener 1985". "Let's do this before I lose my nerve."
"All right." Hermione studied the younger girl's face for a few moments before closing her eyes and trying to center herself. She deliberately slowed her breathing before opening her eyes again to see Ginny making the same effort. When the redhead's eyes opened, Hermione silently nodded to her. Then she held up the maracas in one hand, and began to shake them slowly and rhythmically.
Ginny joined in a moment later with a matching beat on the little orange drum.
Hermione nodded infinitesimally to the rhythm, counting out each shake/strike with silent lips, until the right moment came. Then she stretched out her arm and sprinkled a handful of the powder from the pouch along the lines of the ritual circle, chanting in a language so foreign that the book she found had no name for it, only a phonetic pronunciation and a translation that she prayed was accurate.
"<Eastern Wind, blow clear, blow clean>," she sang out, strong and firm, and Ginny sang along:
"<Cleanse my body of its pain.
Cleanse my mind of what I've seen.
Cleanse my honor of its stain.
Maid whose love has never ceased,
Bring me healing from the East.>"
Then Hermione reached into the pouch for another handful of the grainy white powder, and readied herself for the next verse.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Scotland, UK, Sunday, July 18, 1995, 12:10 AM
Sybill Trelawney, a dressing gown belted tightly over her nightdress, blinked owlishly through the heavy lenses of her glasses as she held up her wand, its tip blazing with light from a Lumos spell, and drifted slowly through the darkened and empty Divination classroom. She had just completed a long and tiring evening of communing with the currents of fate, of becoming one with the forces of destiny. So much had she learned! The secrets of the universe had been laid bare for her to see with her inner eye, and the course that the future would take had been displayed before her.
She would have to place that bet on the Cannons taking the championship as soon as possible.
But that was a task for the morrow. Her ultimate destination was bed, for the inner eye needed its rest in order to perceive that which was invisible to the unenlightened. But first, as was her habit of many years, she would partake of a nightcap, a small glass of sherry before retiring. To her surprise, though, the bottle she kept on the credenza in her quarters was empty. She couldn't recall finishing it off, but there it was. Or perhaps wasn't.
Fortunately, she kept another in her classroom.
Thanking the spirits once again for advising her to take residence in the rooms at the top of her tower rather than in the wing where the other professors dwelt, Sybill stole down the spiral staircase to the rear door of the classroom. Stopping at the wooden desk which served more as a shelf for her various divinatory equipment than a proper workspace, she quickly withdrew a bottle and glass from the lowest, deepest drawer.
As she straightened up, though, a violent spasm ran through her body, her eyes turned glassy, and the glass and bottle both fell from her quivering hands to smash on the floor. As the sherry pooled around her feet and soaked into her slippers, she began to speak to the empty room in a voice that did not belong to her.
"CHAOS COMES, SERVING ORDER: MAGIC-BORN, FLAWED AND PUISSANT. SWORN TO ONE, FAVORED OF EIGHT; TIME AND FATE GUIDE HIM, THE DAUGHTER OF THE STORM CALLS HIM TO DUTY, AND TWELVE WHO LOVE HIM WILL FOLLOW IN HIS PATH. HE COMES ON WHEELS OF LIGHT THROUGH A WHEEL OF LIGHT, AND WHERE HE PASSES, ALL THINGS CHANGE AND NOTHING REMAINS THE SAME. CHAOS COMES, SERVING ORDER..."
When the last echoes of the unearthly voice had faded away from the empty classroom, Sybill Trelawney shook herself and blinked twice, then looked down at the shattered glass and the aromatic puddle in which she now stood.
1. Okay, So, You Meet This Wizard In A Tavern...
A knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney;
Three leagues beyond the wide world's end,
Methinks it is no journey.
— "Tom o' Bedlam" (Traditional)
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does. — Margaret Mead (attributed)
Wind's four quarters, Air and Fire,
Earth and Water, hear my desire!
Grant my plea, who stands alone,
Maiden, Warrior, Mother and Crone.
— "Wind's Four Quarters", Mercedes Lackey
The British Ministry of Magic, London, UK. Monday, July 19, 1995, 3:00 PM
"Well, then, man, out with it. What have you learned?"
The Unspeakable glanced around the office, shifting from one foot to the other. "We've determined that the damage began when several key prophecy spheres spontaneously shattered, all at the same time, as best we can tell."
"Spontaneously? That's impossible."
"Not necessarily," said another of the Unspeakables, stepping forward and holding up a finger with a decidedly pedagogical air. "There are several ancient records of prophecies self-destructing when all conditions for their fulfillment were suddenly eliminated. According to authorities of the time, the backlash of magic from the alteration of fate was such that it fed back into the sphere, which could not contain it and thus exploded."
"But we didn't lose just one or two prophecies," Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge objected. "Hundreds were destroyed. It was a disaster!"
"Ah, yes," the first Unspeakable interjected. "That's what's so very interesting. According to witnesses, the subsequent destructions were not simultaneous. In fact, they were staggered in waves or pulses a half-second apart. By careful examination of the shards and their distribution on the floor, plus pensieve replays and... other information available to us... we've determined that each pulse destroyed more prophecies than the one before it until about halfway through the process, at which point the number of prophecies destroyed began dropping. It continued to drop until no further prophecies exploded."
"Plus!" added the second Unspeakable, finger still raised, before the Minister could get a word in edgewise. "Plus, our first few efforts at reconstruction seem to indicate that the prophecies that were destroyed may all have been related to one or more of the other destroyed prophecies."
Fudge frowned as he considered this. "Related? How?"
The two Unspeakables glanced at each other. "Well, sir," the second replied, "It is of course difficult to tell with the often obfuscated nature of prophetic composition, and the labels which survived were not much help, but..."
"We believe that they may all be linked... causally," leapt in the first. "That is to say, each of the prophecies that were destroyed in any given pulse were dependent on the results of one or more of the prophecies destroyed in the immediately preceding pulse, all the way back to the initial few."
The Minister pushed himself back in his chair and ruminated on this. "So, the obvious conclusion is that something has happened which has significantly altered the fate of the Wizarding World."
"Yes, sir," the first Unspeakable replied. "That is the conclusion we have come to as well." He resisted the urge to scowl; he'd bet his partner twenty galleons that Fudge wouldn't have been able to figure it out himself, and instead would've needed to have every last detail spelled out for him.
"For the better or worse?" the Minister asked, almost rhetorically.
"It's impossible to tell at this time," the second Unspeakable declared.
The Minister didn't seem to have heard him. "I wonder what it was," he said with a frown of concentration.
The second shifted uncomfortably as the first coughed. "We may have an idea, Minister."
The Minister whirled on him. "You do? Well, spit it out, man!"
The Unspeakable grimaced. "Well, as we said, the destruction began when several prophecy spheres spontaneously exploded. These spheres were all equidistant from one specific prophecy, which was one of the few spheres left intact."
"It was? Which one was it?" the Minister demanded.
"Row ninety-seven, case two, shelf one, position five," the Unspeakable reluctantly replied. "It was labeled 'S.P.T. to A.P.W.B.D. Dark Lord and (?)Harry Potter'."
I awoke to the smell of brimstone and a pair of reptilian eyes which for size would have put a couple of hubcaps to shame.
Naturally I reacted in a manner that both my training and instincts agreed on. My right arm snapped forward with all the strength I could put behind it, and my fist (fortunately still encased in a gauntlet with polykev plates across the knuckles) impacted the scaly skin between those two eyes with a full-power strike.
Oops. I'd intended to hit it on the nose, like smacking a dog or a shark with the intent to drive it off, but the odd angle and attacking from lying on my back messed up my aim. And of course, lacking a newspaper to smack it with, this probably wasn't going to end well.
Before I could draw my arm back for a second strike, though, the eyes crossed momentarily then rolled upwards, the pupils disappearing under a pair of eyelids the size of pizza pans. A veritable gale of sulphurously bad breath suddenly engulfed me, and slowly, eeeeeeever so slowly, the dragon that had been standing over me fell first to its knees, and then over onto its side. The impact was heavy enough to bounce me off the ground.
I blinked once, then levered myself up into a sitting position before studying the creature before me. Yes, it was a dragon. And yes, it was quite thoroughly unconscious.
Then I lifted my eyes and realized that it had not been alone — a small herd of other dragons were now staring at me. I made ready to flee until I realized that they were all crouching down in what was obviously a submission posture.
Oh great, I thought. I've just become the alpha dragon. I groaned at the very idea, and in Yosemite Sam's voice I said out loud, "Dragons is soooo stupid."
"Sweet bloody Merlin!" said a voice somewhere outside of my line of sight. An audience. Just what I needed. If I hadn't been wearing my helmet I would have facepalmed.
Several hours later I found myself sitting across a rough-hewn trestle table from the vocal member of my audience, who happened to be a fellow named Charlie Weasley. Also in front of me: my first meal in this world, a simple but hearty stew, into which I dug with great gusto. Charlie was British, as it so happened, and very much the outdoor type, which only made sense since he had a job that was equal parts park ranger, livestock handler, and zookeeper. It showed in his stocky, muscular build, the mass of sun-born freckles that went with his longish red hair, and in the dozens of scars — shiny burns mostly, but there were a few long-healed cuts and punctures — that ran up and down the length of his forearms.
Oh, and he was a wizard. Complete with an honest-to-Merlin wand. And not the kind that was a ritual implement, but something more like a classic fairy-tale "wave it and voila" tool, complete with little incantations in Latin or Greek.
So were all his co-workers.
Did I mention that I'd awakened in a dragon preserve? In Romania?
The weird thing? It was 1995. And most of the world was a pretty average late 20th century Earth in all ways (save for the absence of obvious metahumans, which after all these years I'd come to expect) — except that around its edges and in hidden enclaves, there was an entire civilization of people with a minor magic talent. Very minor, compared to, say, Dwimanor and myself. Or just about any average mage throughout the worlds, in my experience.
Despite living among and around their non-magical neighbors, these self-proclaimed wizards seemed to be stuck in a blend of the Middle Ages and the Victorian era, and regarded the non-wizards — "muggles", as they called them — with a mixture of pity and snobbish disdain. Because lacking magic, they were clearly inferior and relegated to living lives devoid of meaning and purpose. Of course.
I learned and/or deduced all this from my first few hours in the company of Charlie and his co-workers. Or perhaps "custody" would be a better word, as the preserve wasn't open to the public (magical or not) and I was most definitely an interloper. However, my arrival — complete with getting catapulted off my bike and landing flat on my back unconscious — had been witnessed by another of the dragon-keepers (a fellow with the improbable name of Erebeus Pillock), who had alerted Charlie and the others. He then spent the time between that and their arrival dithering about whether to interfere when the dragons decided to perform their own investigation of my arrival.
(Apparently one local wizard versus a small wing of dragons is not an even match, especially if the wizard wants to herd them away from something. The odds are vastly against the wizard. In this world, dragon-handling is very much a team operation.)
So Pillock just stood and watched as the alpha dragon walked up to me, trying to decide if he could save me from becoming Purina Dragon Chow, while Charlie and the other handlers converged on the scene.
Then I woke up, punched out the dragon, and — as they say — the rest is history.
Or maybe sociology.
As far as Charlie and his co-workers were concerned, the coolness factor of me going "Boom! Headshot!" on a dragon with my fist made up (a little) for my being in restricted territory. Pillock testified that my arrival looked like an accident, and the two factors combined got me a lot of leeway those first few hours.
I still had to answer questions, though — the first of which was, "what in Merlin's name was that spell you used to get here?" I was able to pass that off as unplanned, wild magic — or "accidental magic" as they call it here. (Usually the province of the under-ten set, but not unheard of in trained wizards put under serious stress.) Beyond that, well, since there was no point hiding anything — and since they were magic-users (however weak) and could possibly help me — I saw no reason not to tell them everything.
(Well, everything that was relevant. Even that early on, I was certain that the casual integration of magic and technology in my home timeline would shock or perhaps even offend them. It seemed an article of faith with these wizards that magic was both better than and incompatible with "muggle toys" — even though my careful counter-questioning indicated that they had about as much real idea what the non-magical world was like as one of their dragons did. Arrogance born of ignorance. Gotta love it.)
"The question now is," I said between bites of one of the better mutton stews I'd had the pleasure to consume, "what do I do with myself next? Assuming you guys don't turn me in to the authorities for being a trespasser on the preserve."
"Well, that depends," Charlie said while tearing off bits of bread from the loaf between us, and soaking them in his own bowl's gravy. "Do you support the Dark Lord?"
I frowned. "Dark Lord? What Dark Lord?"
He suddenly looked uncomfortable. "The Dark Lord. You-Know-Who."
I really wanted to answer him, but his question was too vague to let me. "No, I don't know who."
"V..." he stammered, apprehension crossing his features. He looked around quickly, then leaned forward and almost whispered, "Voldemort!"
I blinked. Vol de mort? I automatically thought in French. "Deathflight"? Or maybe "Flight of Death", if you had a thing for overblown drama. Either way, though, my immediate reaction was, "really?" Admittedly, it might well have been his actual birth name. Gods know that the English have more than their share of strange names brought over from France as part of the Norman Conquest, and just as many more mutated out of terms from the original Celtic languages of the Isles. And, hell, my freshman year roommate at Princeton had had one of the German words for "terror" as his last name. (He was overly fond of explaining to anyone who would listen that someone far back in his family tree had evidently Not Been A Nice Man.)
In this case, though, with what Charlie had already said, there was only one conclusion I could draw.
I burst out laughing. "What is it with so-called dark lords and their pretentious self-inflicted titles? I swear, they must all come up with these things while they're whiny emo teenagers planning how they're going to revenge themselves on the entire world for how sucky their childhoods were. There's no other explanation for it." I rolled my eyes. "'Flight of Death', indeed. Give me a goddamned break."
Charlie looked shocked at first, but then a smile broke over his freckled mug and he began to chuckle as well.
"Geeze," I went on, "I thought you were talking about something serious, like a Sauron or a Vader, or worse, a Chessandar. But no," I continued as the urge to explain myself peaked again, "I don't support anyone who fancies himself a 'Dark Lord'. In fact, you might say part of my job at home is being a dark lord killer."
He gave me an odd, intent look. "Well, that's good to hear," he said, tearing off another hunk of bread. "Did you come here with the intent to commit any kind of crime?"
"Hell, no." The truth bubbled up out of me again without thought. "I have no control over where I go to begin with, so I had no specific intention of arriving here at all. Of course, being a stranger in these parts, I don't know if there's anything I'd consider innocent that you'd consider a crime. Rules are different everywhere, y'know." I took another bite.
"I can accept that," Charlie said, leaning back after dredging a wad of bread through the gravy in his bowl with his thick fingers. "But you'd say your intentions were innocent?"
I shrugged. "It depends. My standard procedure on arriving in a new world is to establish some manner of false identification for myself, which is usually illegal. But I don't do it to defraud or deceive — instead it's to protect myself from unwelcome attention from the authorities, or from persons or organizations who'd like to take me apart and find out how I tick. It's more a matter of survival than anything else." You know, I was being unusually voluble with someone I'd only met a few hours before.
Charlie nodded slowly while chewing. After he swallowed, he asked, "So if you could get established without falsifying any papers?"
"Oh yeah, I'd do it," I said with a sigh. "But that's pretty much impossible most places I end up."
He smirked at me. "You wouldn't need to fake anything to get established in the Wizarding World."
I looked at him over my spoon. "I thought you had a well-organized government."
"We do," he said with a nod. "Several, in fact. But none of them require identification papers like the Muggle governments do. Or at least not to the same degree."
"Well." I put down my spoon and considered that. "That would be a welcome change from the usual post-arrival runaround." I scratched my ear. "I'd still need a job, though. My gold stash won't last long in your economy."
"Tell you what," Charlie said, leaning back. "I know a few folks back in England who could help you with that, and might be able to help you find a way home, as well. I've got some leave time coming in a few weeks — I can take you home with me, introduce you around, see if we can't find something for you."
"Hm." I studied him for a moment. "That's awful kind of you, going out of your way like that. How do you know I'm not just feeding you a line?"
Charlie's brow creased in sudden confusion. "Feeding me a line?"
I sighed. "Muggle idiom. How do you know I'm not lying to you, and am as trustworthy as I seem?"
His brow uncreased and he grinned broadly. "Oh, simple. I dosed your stew with veritaserum."
"Veritaserum?" Breaking that word down into its roots was simple enough. A truth drug of some sort, presumably magical in nature. Interesting that I was affected. Then again, most medicines affect me normally, because I voluntarily let them into my body. Just like I let food — say, a good hearty mutton stew — into my body. "Wasn't that a bit impolite?"
He shrugged good-naturedly. "Well, yes. Illegal, too. But we keep a supply on hand to interrogate possible poachers, and, well..." He shrugged again.
I nodded, understanding. "And for all you knew, I was an unusually clever poacher. Fair enough." I laughed. "I was wondering why you accepted my story so easily. I wouldn't've bought that story before I got kicked out of my home world."
"The truth is the truth," Charlie said simply.
"It is at that," I agreed. "Okay, say I go with you back to England and hit up your contacts for a job. What do I do with myself until then?" I gave him a mischievous smile. "I'm a terrible troublemaker when I'm bored."
He laughed merrily. "You can't be any worse than my brothers Fred and George — I swear they'll turn my mother gray before they get out of Hogwarts."
I picked up my spoon again. Sure, the stew was still laced with truth serum. But it wasn't like I had anything more to hide, was it? "Hogwarts? What's Hogwarts?"
Charlie grinned again. "Only the best school of magic in the world. It's one of the places I thought you might be able to find a job, as well as someone to help you. How are you at teaching?"
For some reason I couldn't identify, I felt a strange pang of loss at that question. Weird. "I can teach — I've been a combat instructor back home, and I taught the occasional class at the Academy we had set up. And I've done a little teaching here and there on my journey."
"Good, good. I was planning on introducing you to the Headmaster as soon as I could. He's always got an opening or two at the school, and with those qualifications..." He winked at me. "Until then, though... how do you feel about learning dragon-keeping?"
I pretended to consider that. "Well," I finally said, "it beats just about anything else I can think of doing in rural Romania."
And that, children, is how I ended up learning how to be a lizard cowboy.
Somewhere in England, Monday, July 19, 1995, 7:09 PM
It had once been a ballroom, in better times. Elegant dancers had spun across its parquet floor, coquettes had led young swains on merry chases as musicians played on the raised dais. When it had first been built, candles had bathed the room in a warm, golden light when the parties had stretched long into the night; in later years, gas lamps had replaced them, and even later electric lights.
And after that, no lights at all shone there for many years.
Although the hour was early enough that the lowering sun could still illuminate the ballroom through its great windows, thick, heavy tapestries had been hung over them, rendering the room as dark and dank as a cave even at the height of noon. The air was heavy with the scents of moisture, earth and decay. The only light came from the candles which had retaken some — but far from all — of their lost places of glory, barely shedding enough of a glow to make possible navigating the rotting, splintered floor that had long ago played host to so many dancing feet.
On the dais that had once been graced by musicians plying their instruments for the amusement of the party-goers, there was now a single piece of furniture — a chair of dark wood, large, heavy and ornate, with a straight vertical back almost as tall as a man. In it sat a figure that might once have been a man, but was now both more and less. Black robes of a simple cut but expensive fabric draped his form, baring only his hands and his hairless head. His flesh was as white as that of the blind salamanders which dwelt in the lightless depths of the earth; his all-but-noseless face was dominated by burning, blood-red eyes. In the taloned fingers of one hand he held a wand made of yew. "What news do you have for me from the Department of Mysteries, Avery?" he asked slowly. His voice was high in pitch, almost the sound of a raptor's cry, and held the same unpredictable cruelty and predation.
Before him, kneeling in the crumbling parquet, was a tall man with long, fine brown hair, tied back with a leather thong. He raised his head, revealing an aristocratic face almost placid in its well-schooled blankness. "My lord, there has been an incident in the Hall of Prophecies. Some of my fellow Unspeakables are calling it a disaster." Quickly he sketched out the mass destruction of prophecy spheres which had occurred the night before.
"And at the center of it all was the prophecy concerning you and the Potter brat," Avery concluded. "It is the general consensus among the Unspeakables that something about the prophecy has changed so radically that it has shifted the entire destiny of the Wizarding World."
The Dark Lord Voldemort stroked his beardless chin as he considered this. "They are certain of this conclusion?"
Avery shook his head. "No, my lord. But it is the only explanation that makes sense to most of them."
Voldemort tilted his head as he studied the man before him. "And what of you, Avery? What is your opinion?"
Bowing his head, Avery declared, "I believe it heralds your inevitable triumph over the mudbloods and blood traitors whose impurity has contaminated and weakened our world for too long! What else could it mean?"
"Perhaps," the Dark Lord mused. "Perhaps." He looked off into the distance, absently caressing his wand. "Continue with your efforts in our plan to gain the prophecy. With this... incident, it has become even more vital that I learn its full contents."
Avery glanced back up in shock. "But my lord, it will be impossible to acquire it now. Before the disaster, the prophecy was forgotten, its own obscurity aiding our efforts. But now it is the most important object in the Department — every Unspeakable with even the least interest in Divination wants to study it, and the protections on it have been increased tenfold."
The Dark Lord did not respond immediately, and Avery dropped his head, fearful of Voldemort's wrath. As the seconds dragged on, he began to tremble.
"I am sure," the Dark Lord finally said, "that you will find a way. I will ensure that our catspaw is ready; it remains up to you to see that he can play his part." He took a long, satisfied-sounding breath. "You are dismissed, Avery."
"Yes, my lord," the Unspeakable whispered. "Thank you, my lord." And, still trembling, he slowly backed out of the decaying ballroom and the terrifying miasma of the Dark Lord's presence.
12 Grimmauld Place, London, England, UK, Saturday, August 7, 1995, 1:13 AM
Harry Potter sat bolt upright in his bed, panting as though he had just finished running a footrace. A chill trickled down his back like a stream of water, and he ran his fingers through his eternally-messy hair as he strove to control his breathing.
After it finally settled down, he fumbled for his glasses on the nearby nightstand, then put them on. Only a few feet away his best mate, Ron Weasley, lay motionless in his own bed. Harry worried for a moment that he might have wakened the other boy with his night terrors, until a snore like an asthmatic chain saw erupted from across the room. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists in his covers before he took off his glasses again and all but flung them back onto the nightstand. For two months he'd been having nightmares about Cedric Diggory's death at the hands of Wormtail and Voldemort, reliving the horrific conclusion of the Triwizard Tournament every night. He couldn't sleep more than a couple of hours without Cedric's dead eyes staring at him, accusing him. It would almost always launch him, screaming, straight out of the dream and into the waking world.
Tonight was different. Tonight Cedric, Wormtail, Voldemort and the graveyard had all surrendered to a new dream, a dream no less disturbing in its own understated way. Harry had found himself in a long, dark corridor, with a door at the far end. A door he knew he had to reach, although he had no idea why, either in the dream or now. All Harry could remember was that he had to reach the door and open it.
And the failure to do so had frightened him completely awake. As he settled back in to go back to sleep, Harry wondered if it had been the Dementors that were responsible for the change in his dreams. The black-cloaked, skeletal figures, with their aura of ice and despair, had attacked him and his cousin Dudley in Little Whinging five nights earlier, though, and the new nightmare had only begun tonight, after Headmaster Dumbledore's Order of the Phoenix had rescued him and brought him here.
As he pulled the covers back over himself, Harry's thoughts turned to the questions that had occupied him since the night of August second. The Dementors were the guards of the Wizarding prison Azkaban, which perched on a desolate island somewhere in the North Sea. And not just guards, but executioners as well; Harry didn't think he'd ever forget that moment two years before when both he and Sirius were had been attacked by a horde of Dementors a hundred strong. They would have lost their souls to the Dementors' Kiss had they not been saved by a Patronus cast by Harry's own time-traveling self from three hours in the future.
He shuddered at the memory; the experience had been so horrifying that he was grateful that he had been spared the sight of Minister Fudge's Dementor bodyguards sucking out Barty Crouch, Jr.'s soul after the end of the Triwizard Tournament, when Fudge couldn't bear to have a witness testify to Lord Voldemort's return from the dead.
Harry realised he was shaking and clenching his teeth in anger at the Minister's deliberate refusal to accept the truth. And not just a refusal, but deliberate action to destroy any evidence of the truth. An action that just underlined the questions that had occupied him for five days.
Everyone knew, everyone said, that the Dementors were supposed to be under the control of the Ministry of Magic.
So what were two of them doing in Surrey? In Little Whinging? Only blocks away from the house where he spent his summers?
Had the Minister decided that Harry was another piece of evidence that needed to be destroyed in order to preserve his precious little illusion of peace and tranquility? Or had Voldemort turned some of the guards of Azkaban to his side and sent them after him? And the upcoming hearing on Harry's Underaged Magic Use charge — a charge brought because he had defended himself and Dudley from the Dementors with the Patronus spell — was that just going to be another opportunity to silence him?
He growled softly in frustration at the thought of all the complications added to his life by that one incident — the hearing, the change in nightmares, the implications of the attack itself. He so wanted to hit, or hex, or curse something, anything. Finally, in the last moments before sleep claimed him again, he wondered if he was strange for thinking that it was almost a good thing that he had a new nightmare to replace the old one. At least he no longer saw Cedric's eyes.
Antonescu Memorial Dragon Preserve, near Ciacova, Romania, Wednesday, August 11, 1995, 3:00 PM
All-in-all I spent about three and a half weeks learning how to wrangle dragons before Charlie's leave came up.
And may I just say that when Yosemite Sam declared "dragons is so stupid", he was vastly understating the case. These were not the great, wise, ancient creatures that I had encountered in myth and legend and occasionally in real life. These were nothing more than stupid beasts that resembled the great wyrms. And when I say "stupid", I mean that they made the average cow look like Einstein or Tsung. Something that dim should not be 15 meters long and weigh several tonnes.
As a result, "dragon-keeping" was a deceptively literal job description. One's time was spent almost entirely keeping the dragons on the preserve, keeping the dragons from fighting, keeping the dragons from eating things that would disagree with them, keeping the dragons alive when they managed to eat something that disagreed with them anyway, and keeping the dragons' range reasonably clear of accumulated dragon dung. (The less about which I remember, the better.)
It was tedious, tiring work, much more so if (like me and unlike Charlie) you weren't all that crazy about dragons to begin with. It was also dangerous work — much more so if your co-workers all knew you could knock out a dragon with one punch and thus kept nominating you whenever one of the beasts got a little ... rowdy.
The upshot of this was that after three weeks, I was thoroughly sick of dragons — but I had also accumulated just about all the hazard pay doled out during that time, in addition to my regular salary. I went to England with a very nice nest egg socked away.
I also had a much better picture of the Wizarding World. And thanks to the time to practice with Charlie and the guys — not to mention at a local Wizarding settlement — I was pretty good at passing myself off as a native-born wizard of non-wizard stock; what they called a "muggle-born". My act did have the unfortunate side effect of making me a target for the still-active followers of the late and unlamented Lord "Flight-of-Emo", but if I couldn't defend myself against a bunch of inbred hedge wizards like them, I'd resign my commission and take up needlepoint.
A week before our departure, I crated up my motorcycle and had it shipped via a wizarding parcel delivery company to Charlie's family homestead somewhere in Devonshire. I have to admit I was more than a little worried — I hadn't entrusted my bike to anyone else for longer than a couple hours since Skuld took it apart and rebuilt it, lo these many years ago. But Charlie assured me the parcel company was trustworthy and secure, so I forced myself to calm down and trust them. And what I could determine about the security spells on the wooden crate they sent seemed to bear their reputation out — once it was properly sealed and the spells activated, even I would have had a hard time getting into it without the unlocking sequence.
Even so, I made sure the motorcycle's aura shielding was up and at full power, and before I sealed up the crate I set its anti-theft systems to "where shall I mail the ashes, ma'am?"
If the combination of their protections and mine wouldn't ensure that my motorcycle made it to its destination, nothing short of me flying it there myself would.
Believe me, I had considered doing just that.
And after actually making the trip, I wished I had.
Getting to England was faster and easier — sort of — than I had expected. It was also typical of this civilization's approach to magic, as I would come to learn.
It's called a "portkey". It's a magical device that takes you to a preset location upon invoking any of several different kinds of triggers.
It also has to be one of the stupidest magical transportation methods I've ever encountered. It's like going through hyperspace naked while handcuffed to a tilt-a-whirl.
I knew they had some kind of teleportation — I'd seen more than enough wizards popping onto and off of the dragon reservation in my time there. So why the hell hadn't they taken the next logical step and developed a gateway teleportation spell? Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, after a twenty-minute "flight" from darkest Romania, I found myself sprawled on a patch of bare dirt in the late-afternoon sun, with Charlie standing next to me, laughing his fool head off. I rolled over onto my back, then knocked him off his feet with a quick leg-sweep. As he went sprawling himself, I hopped back upright with a quick kippup and took a good look around me.
The bare patch was actually part of a dirt road running through a good-sized meadow. On three sides of us, the meadow was bounded by lush old-growth forest; the road ran toward the forest in one direction, and in the other vanished over a low hill that blocked my view of anything beyond it. The sun was shining to beat the band in a brilliantly clear, bold blue sky. It was hot, almost uncomfortably so.
Nodding to myself, I looked back down at Charlie, who had gotten to his hands and knees during my glance around. "That," I said, "had to be the single worst magical transport I've ever used, and I've used some doozies."
He laughed and looked up at me. "Heh. Should have guessed you'd never used a portkey before." He held out his hand. "Here now, give us a hand up."
I gave him a dubious look. "If you pull me back down into the dirt when I do, Charlie, I will so kick your ass."
He laughed again. "Would I do that?"
"In a heartbeat," I said. "I haven't forgotten who dunked me in the camp cistern."
"I told you, that wasn't me! It was Tannenbaum!" Rather than wait for me to offer a hand, Charlie climbed to his feet.
"Tannenbaum was visiting Vrajitor lui alee in Bucharest that day, and you know it." As he straightened up to his full height, I began slapping the dust and dirt off his clothes. Maybe a bit harder than I needed to, but he deserved it. "If you'd decided to blame someone who was actually in the camp, I might have believed you."
"I swear on my mother's grave..."
"Charlie, two things. First, your mother's still alive, which is one of the points of this visit. Second, you would swear on your mother's grave that you were a 140-centimeter Swedish girl with three legs if it would further one of your gags."
A thoughtful look crossed his freckled face. "Yeah, I suppose I might, at that."
I whapped him on the back of the head, but not hard enough to cause cranial trauma. "C'mon, Laughing Boy. Lead me to this Burrow of yours before I decide to bury you out here up to the waist — head down."
As it turned out, the Burrow was on the other side of that low hill — which was only low on our side: when we crested the top, I saw that it sloped gently down into a broad, low dell, in the center of which was what I could only assume was a house.
It was either that, or someone had spent his life creating a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle out of building supplies using an Escher collection as a guide.
It was, as best as I could determine, about six stories tall, or trying to be — but rooms and wings hung off the thing with an arbitrary whimsicality that made it difficult to determine what floor they were supposed to be on. The lowest level looked like it might once have been a classic British cottage or farmhouse, but so many random architectural encrustations had been applied to it that it was hard to be sure. At least one part seemed to be upside-down and reachable only by an exterior door and a crawlway past a working chimney. It was much larger in the middle — where I figured the third and fourth floors were likely to be — than at either end, but had no supports of any kind. Despite this, it defied all logic by appearing to be rock-solid. A sign was stuck in the ground near the one visible door, but at that distance I couldn't read it.
Nearby was a much more reasonable-looking structure that seemed to be half garage and half chicken coop, judging from the big doors on one end and the small openings on the other through which chickens occasionally passed. More chickens wandered the overgrown yard between the two buildings, deftly avoiding a large rusting cauldron and several shapeless black blobs that I couldn't readily identify.
Beyond the house and garage-coop appeared to be some kind of orchard.
"And he built a crooked house..." I muttered to myself as I stopped short at the sight of the place.
"Well, there it is, the Burrow," Charlie said as he came up alongside me. "The Weasley ancestral home, the family's been living there for... Merlin, I don't know how many generations." He slapped me on the back. "What do you think?
"Charlie," I said softly, "I now understand you far better than I did five minutes ago." I shook my head and snorted a brief laugh. "Whoever built this house clearly was in a blood feud with both physics and architecture. Either that or clinically insane."
"Actually, my da did a lot of the most recent work on it, like the room at the top." He pointed at the upside-down section.
I opened my mouth, then shut it again, then opened it again to say, "I definitely want to meet this man."
"Well, then," Charlie replied, starting down the road toward the front gate, "best be moving on. I haven't had one of me mum's dinners in far too long." Calling back over his shoulder he added, "Besides, you want insane, you need to visit our neighbors the Lovegoods."
The sign next to the door was a little lopsided, and read "The Burrow", naturally enough; it was painted with more care than skill, which gave it an endearingly homey look. This contrasted with the shapeless blobs, which were orphaned rubber boots apparently left to rot in the overgrowth.
For a moment I had the uncharitable thought that all the yard needed was a car up on cinder blocks to look like the dwelling of American white trash.
Charlie didn't slow down as we passed the sign — he just burst through the door bellowing, "Oi! I'm home!" I followed him into a kitchen that looked like it came out of a historical recreation — ancient scarred slab table, oil lamps, wood-fed Rayburn stove (cold, its top bare of pots), an antique mechanical clock, a similarly antique radio, and bundles of herbs and root vegetables hanging from the ceiling beams.
And absolutely no one present.
A moment's observation told me no one had been around for at least a couple days. There were no lingering cooking odors in the room, and every dish was clean and away. The sink — a fairly primitive wooden one with a hand-pump next to it — was dry as a bone and empty. Under it was what looked to be a trash bucket, as clean as the day it was bought.
There was a boot tray by the door, but it was devoid of footwear.
Charlie was moving deeper into the house, shouting things like, "Hey, where is everyone?" and "All right, great prank, you can all come out now!" while I switched to mage sight and gave the kitchen another once-over, this time counting the items that had magical fields — and then, after a while, giving that up and counting the items without magical fields instead.
On my third inspection of the table itself, I realized that somehow I had until that point failed to notice that there was a folded piece of paper there with a single word written on it.
I walked around the table to get within arm's reach and realized that it wasn't paper, it was parchment — pretty ritzy medium for what appeared to be a simple note — and the single word was "Charlie". Without thinking, I reached for it.
It reared up like a snake, grew a mouth filled with sharp paper teeth, and snapped at my fingers.
"Hey, Charlie," I yelled toward the door he'd gone through as I drew my hand back. "There's a carnivorous letter here for you."
The kitchen door burst open as Charlie stiff-armed his way through it. "No one's home," he muttered in confusion before looking at me. "What'd you say?"
I pointed at the parchment, which was still in defensive configuration. "I believe the saber-toothed stationery there is for you."
He glanced at the animated parchment then favored me with a lopsided smile. "Tried to pick it up, huh?"
I shrugged. "What can I say? Back home we don't routinely enchant our letters to bite people."
Charlie snorted and reached for the fanged notepaper. The moment his fingers touched it, it flopped back down into an ordinary-looking sheet of parchment — but only for a moment. Then it spun in his hand, lifted into the air, and folded itself like an autonomous origami into the shape of a human, and vaguely female, mouth — which pointed itself at him and began to speak.
"I'm so sorry we're not home, Charlie dear, but something's come up." The voice was female to match the paper mouth — pretty obviously that of Charlie's mother — and I got the impression of a plump, bustling woman firmly in middle age but nowhere near "old". "We're all in London — I'm sorry, but I can't tell you where. Talk to Headmaster Dumbledore, he'll tell you how to find us. Don't dawdle, come join us as quickly as you can." The floating paper lips suddenly turned to face me. "And Douglas, I'm so sorry we weren't there to welcome you to the Burrow. We'll just have to do something special when you two finally catch up to us. Charlie's told us so much — we're all looking forward to meeting you. Oh, and we brought the crate you sent along with us, so don't worry about it."
Then the parchment mouth exploded into a shower of confetti.
I looked at the pile of shredded paper, then at Charlie. "Must make it hard to keep file copies, eh?" Charlie didn't respond; he was rubbing his chin and looking thoughtful — something he rarely did unless matters were very serious. "Charlie?"
"Mm?" He started, then looked up at me. "Sorry, just thinking. This might be more serious than it seems. Mum or Da would have normally sent an owl to let me know of any changes in plans. That they didn't... something odd's going on."
I nodded. "The 'addressee-only' enchantment plus the refusal to say exactly where they were — they're in hiding. And your Headmaster Dumbledore is their trusted contact."
Charlie frowned. "But why would they have gone into hiding?" He shook his head. "This makes no sense." Abruptly, he turned and strode into the living room.
Shrugging, I followed him.
The living room was maybe a bit closer to the late twentieth century than the kitchen. It was a touch shabby, but not a decaying shabby — more a "seven kids were raised here on a tight budget" shabby. Worn and threadbare at the edges, but clean, neat, comfortable and inviting. My bubbe's house had been like that — a very distinct contrast to our home in Beverly Hills, which was as much a showpiece for my parents' wealth and status as a place to live. I always got the feeling that my mother was embarrassed by her mother's home, but I loved it. It was so... lived-in and real, unlike our house.
The Weasleys' home — despite its architectural peculiarities and the way it seemed to spend part of its time in the Victorian era — felt like my grandmother's home.
I liked it.
Anyway, I found Charlie standing in front of a clock on the wall, studying the dial. "What's so interesting about the time?" I asked as I walked up to him.
"Not looking at the time," he said, stepping aside and gesturing at the dial. It took me a moment to register that while it looked like a clock, it wasn't one. For one thing, it had nine hands. And it had no numbers — instead, the circumference of the dial was marked with words like "Home", "School", "Work", "Traveling," and "Mortal Peril". (I blinked and re-read that just to be sure. Yup, "Mortal Peril". Ooooookay.)
One hand — which I realized upon closer examination was marked "Charlie" — pointed at "Home". All the other hands (the top one of which read "Ginny") pointed at "Unknown".
"Well, that isn't good," I said.
"Actually, no, it's probably good," Charlie said. "The most likely reason they're 'unknown' is if they're behind some serious wards. The clock's enchantment is pretty sophisticated but it's not all-powerful — strong enough defenses will block it."
"If you say so," I replied dubiously as I dropped into the aging, patched couch that was — along with another antique-looking radio — one of the centerpieces of the room. "So what next, o fearless reptile wrangler?"
Charlie leaned on the armchair next to the clock and chewed his lip for a minute. "Well, we were going to go see the headmaster tomorrow anyway. We can ask him then."
"Right." I looked around and considered our situation. Despite the relocation of Charlie's family, I doubted we were in any kind of danger. It was clear to me that the evacuation of the Burrow had been calm and orderly — more like a family leaving on a vacation than fleeing their home in the face of an immediate threat. This was supported by the pristine state of the house — if an attack had been imminent when the family had left some days earlier, it would have taken place by now. But the house showed none of the damage or vandalism I would have expected from the frustrated members of a thwarted killing spree. The only conclusion to draw was that the Weasleys had relocated "just in case", or perhaps because they were needed, en masse, elsewhere.
And even if we had arrived between an evacuation and an attack, I was more than confident I could handle a squad or two of the rather weak mages they had in this timeline.
I quirked an eyebrow at Charlie. "We crash here overnight, then?"
"Yeah. I'll sleep in my old room, you should probably use Ron or Bill's." He grinned at me. "Unless you want to take your chances with Fred and George's room."
Charlie had told me a bit more about those two over the past weeks. "Ah, no thank you."
The Burrow, Thursday, August 12, 1995, 7:30 AM
We overslept a little the next morning, thanks to portkey-induced jet lag. Oh, they didn't have a proper name for it in the Wizarding World, but they knew of it, and Charlie complained that we should have allowed for it. But frankly, we weren't running all that late.
I got up first and whipped up a breakfast for us from ingredients left behind in the kitchen. There was a pantry and an icebox, both with what looked to be limited stasis enchantments on them, and both still fully stocked — apparently the evacuation of the Burrow, while orderly, had been a relatively sudden thing. In the icebox I found eggs, milk, cheese and bacon; in the pantry I found coffee, bread, and rolls. By the time Charlie had stumbled to the table I'd brewed a pot of coffee and was in the process of building some egg, bacon and cheese sandwiches.
(Oh yeah, there was tea, too. This was an English home, after all. Given my druthers I'd've had tea steeping instead, but both of us needed the caffeine.)
After breakfast, washing up and getting dressed (me in borrowed robes over jeans and a T-shirt, God's Toothpick stuck in the pocket-like depths of one sleeve), we cleaned up after ourselves in the kitchen. For me, it was only polite. For Charlie, it was a matter of keeping his mother from nailing him to the shed wall when she got back, or so he claimed. Between a few household wand spells, and a couple of my less-frequently used songs, we quickly had the house returned to the state in which we'd found it.
That morning we employed the second of the Wizarding World's most commonly-used transportation methods — teleportation via fireplace, or as they called it, the Floo. (Yes, with two "O"s instead of the usual "ue" on the end.)
The way Charlie had explained it, many (if not most) fireplaces in Wizarding Britain were connected to a network that sounded suspiciously like a twisted version of the telephone system. You could connect any two fireplaces through the network and then hold a conversation between them — by sticking your head in the gods-be-damned fire! (Oh, it was safe, Charlie assured me — the magic supposedly made sure of it. He had never ever heard of anyone being burnt using the Floo. Or so he claimed.) Above and beyond that, you could actually step through the connection and physically move from one fireplace to the other.
And I thought portkeys were stupid.
The thing that turned a regular fire into a Floo connection was a powder that the Weasleys kept in a crock on the mantel. When Charlie took it down and showed it to me, I had a sudden Bugs Bunny flashback and wondered if I could turn him into a plowhorse by spritzing him with a pinch of it. I resisted the urge to make the experiment, though, and paid close attention when he explained the voice-triggered aspect of the process.
(Gods save anyone who mumbled while flooing — wrong numbers were a bit more serious when the person on the other end could drag you through and thrash you for disturbing him.)
So along about 8:30 AM on Thursday the 12th, we stepped through the kitchen fireplace, our destination being a place called the Three Broomsticks.
Or at least we tried. Charlie let me go first so he could watch and make sure I did it correctly. (A few years earlier a friend of his youngest brother had bungled this step on his first Floo trip and ended up somewhere unsavory.) I took a pinch of the floo powder and threw it into the fire. When it blazed up green, I loudly and clearly announced my destination: "The Three Broomsticks!" Then I stepped into the flames.
Which promptly erupted in a burst of green fire followed by black smoke, then went out.
Completely — right down to the glowing embers in the ashes under the logs, which had winked out. Cold as ice.
Charlie blinked as he cleared the air with a spell. "I've never seen anything like that before. Let me try." He relit the fire with his wand, thew in a pinch of powder, yelled out "The Three Broomsticks!", stepped in and vanished. The flames promptly changed from green back to their usual color.
Seeing that, I began to get an unpleasant suspicion as to the cause of my trouble.
Several seconds later, they turned green again and Charlie stepped back out of the fireplace. "Huh. Works fine for me."
I sighed. "In that case, I think I know what it is."
Charlie raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? What is it, then?"
I sighed again. "Me." I stood up from where I'd perched myself on an ottoman, stepped to the mantel, and took another pinch of floo powder from the crock. I tossed it into the fire, calling out the name of our destination, and again the flames shot up green. Instead of stepping in, though, I simply stretched out my hand, forefinger extended, to touch them.
As soon as my fingertip got about ten or fifteen centimeters from the fire, it exploded again in a gout of green and black, then went out. I sighed. "Light it again."
Charlie did so with a wave of his wand. I tossed in yet another pinch of powder, shouted "The Three Broomsticks!" and reached for the flames once more. Once more I got a belch of flooflame, followed by a cloud of black smoke, followed by a cold fireplace and Charlie frantically vanishing soot from his mother's slipcovers.
I nodded, more to myself than to Charlie. "Yup, it's me. Or rather, my field."
I stepped back and let Charlie relight the fireplace a third time. "You're not going to get soot all over the living room again, are you?" he asked as he put his wand back in his belt.
I shook my head, then took another pinch of powder out of the crock and stood in front of the fireplace. "Give me a minute or two."
"Nudging" my field is not something I do lightly. It took a long time to "train" it to leave my clothing and food and a few other essentials alone, and it still isn't entirely happy about it. Add something new to that list, however temporarily, and you can be sure unpleasant weird shit is going to be happening in my vicinity for a while afterward.
I hadn't been expecting it to short out a magical transportation system, though. Especially not one that I needed. Like many wizards, Charlie could teleport — the Wizarding term was, bizarrely, "apparition" — but he couldn't carry me along with him. So the Floo was a necessity. I had to make this work.
I closed my eyes and took a moment to center and ground myself. Then I visualized the green flame of the Floo, and the mental image I had of the network (accurate or not). I visualized myself stepping into the green flames, entering the system, and arriving at my destination. I pictured it as something simple, something routine, like getting on a subway or driving a car. Then, with all my force of will, I pushed that image as hard as I could.
I snapped open my eyes, and threw the powder in the fire, which obediently blazed up as green as leaves in springtime. Shouting "The Three Broomsticks" — and still pushing with all my not-inconsiderable willpower — I stepped into the flames.
And into the Floo network.
From Charlie's description I expected something on the order of a standard teleport gate — portal opens, you step through, you're at your destination. Sorry, no. Apparently, the Floo system was designed by a wizard enamored of the spinning effect of portkeys, but who thought it needed to be spiced up with audiovisual aids. I found myself tumbling like a towel in a dryer, passing by fireplace after fireplace and getting momentary glimpses of life beyond the flames in most of them. Somebody could use this to spy on people, I thought between tumbles, if they could get around all the tossing and spinning...
A few moments later I was spat out of a fireplace into a dimly-lit room. And when I say "spat", I mean sent flying completely across the room and into a couple of tables, accompanied by a quite creditable "Ptui!" sound.
I blew through the tables and fetched up against a wall — at which point my field decided to get even with me. There was a "poof" and suddenly I was surrounded by a cloud of two-toned dust as the plaster-and-lath behind me and the floor boards under me spontaneously broke down, leaving me half-embedded in a hole in both the floor and wall. Above my head a shelf of crockery rattled threateningly, then gave up the ghost — one of its supporting brackets simply melted away, sending the shelf swinging and the plates and mugs it had supported falling around me.
None of them struck me, although they came close. Naturally, as they hit the floor, they played out the classic "Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!" rhythm.
The entire room, which had gone silent a moment after the Floo had fired me at the wall, held its collective breath. When nothing else seemed to happen after several seconds, the murmur of conversation restarted and everyone seemed to ignore me. I shook my head to clear it, and found Charlie standing over me, a hand out. "And what happened to you?"
I took it and let him haul me to my feet. "Don't ask." As I brushed myself off, the barmaid — who bore a striking resemblance to Julie Christie, and whose pile of ash-blonde curls reminded me a little of Marller — sauntered out from behind the bar. She looked me up and down, then studied my landing zone. She waved her wand and incanted "Reparo!", and the entire site reassembled itself. She shook her head and gave me another look. "That was the worst Floo arrival I've ever seen," she chuckled. "Are you hurt?"
"Only my dignity, which was practically non-existent to begin with," I said.
"Thanks, Rosmerta," Charlie said. "We'd stay but we're off to see Dumbledore."
"You're welcome, Charlie. As long as you remember to come back and spend a little time in the bar," she replied with a saucy, flirtatious smile. Then she turned and sauntered back to the bar, her robes swishing just a bit more than necessary from the waist down.
Charlie grinned and waggled his eyebrows at me, then led me out of the tavern.
I realized as we stepped out into the morning sunlight that we must have traveled far to the north — the temperature couldn't have been more than 10 or 15 degrees. Compared to Devonshire's heat, it was positively frosty.
"Say, Charlie," I asked as a thought suddenly struck me.
"What's going to happen to that fire we left burning in the Burrow?"
As it so happened, The Three Broomsticks was a pub and tavern in a village called Hogsmeade, which was somewhere in Scotland. (The far north of Scotland, if the temperature and the angle of the sun were any indication.) According to Charlie, it was the only all-wizarding village in the entire British Isles, mainly because it was the "town" half of a "town and gown" arrangement with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
(And may I just note, if this tiny burg was the only all-wizard settlement in the UK, how did wizards manage to be so freaking ignorant of the non-magical world? They had to go among the mundanes part of the time. Or maybe not — the various magical transportation methods pretty much obviated the need to travel through non-magical areas, and if they kept to themselves, they could probably enforce their ignorance rather efficiently. But surely there would be some exceptions. And why didn't the continuous influx of wizards born of non-wizards carry along its own payload of knowledge and familiarity? I still didn't quite get how or why the wizarding world was so backwards.)
Anyway, Hogwarts, as it turned out, had no link to the Floo network of its own save for a fireplace in each of the common rooms of the four dorms (which could only accept inbound "talk" connections), plus one in the headmaster's office, which was not open to casual arrivals. This arrangement was intended, Charlie claimed, to keep the students on the grounds of the school, to keep politicians and reporters off the grounds of the school, and to prevent endless Floo calls by homesick first-years to their parents.
It also had the effect of turning what should have been a quick and convenient arrival into a long walk. Only the cool, spring-like temperature (by my standards) made the twenty-five minutes of trudging along yet another dirt road endurable. Said road led us up and around a long, tall hill and brought us to the front gates — and my first view of the school. I stopped cold to take it all in.
It was a castle. Not a vertical Disney fairy-talesque confection of white stone and gingerbread, but a broad, walled fortress built of dark local granite. It had soaring towers that did add a bit of a fairy-tale feel, but they looked like an architectural afterthought, added to the fortress later in its life and scattered about the grounds without regard for defensive (or offensive) positioning. In the middle of all this squatted a large central keep, a blocky structure which had had even more towers added to it at some point long after its construction.
Sitting as it did on the edge of the loch which formed a backdrop for the school, Hogwarts possessed a stark but strangely enchanting beauty; at night, lit up from within, it must look almost, well, magical.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Charlie asked at my elbow.
"It is at that," I replied.
"When you get a job here, you can admire it all you want." He grabbed hold of my arm and started dragging me onward. I shook myself free and drew up alongside him.
"I appreciate your confidence," I muttered.
A few minutes later we walked into a cloister-like courtyard, at the back of which were the gates to the castle proper. Tall, iron-bound oak, they had to weigh hundreds of kilos, but they were so well-balanced that Charlie could open them unaided — and did. "Hullo!" he called out as we stepped through, and into a large, broad foyer in a distinctly medieval style. Apparently someone had discarded all thoughts of defensibility and roofed over the castle bailey, or at least parts of it. Probably the school's founders, I realized. Who must have had an odd sense of style I decided after spotting the four monstrous hourglasses, the top halves of which were each filled with huge jewels, one type to each glass -- what looked to be rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds. With that kind of decor, Hogwarts almost certainly didn't lack for funding.
"Charles Weasley!" The voice was female, with a touch of age to it, flavored with just a touch of a Scots burr. "This is quite a surprise." The speaker appeared from between two columns and strode toward us; she was a tall, stern-looking woman with black hair in a bun, her face lined with the beginnings of age. A set of square-framed glasses sat on her nose. One look at her and I could see that she was the kind of woman who must have been a heartbreaking beauty in her youth, and even now could turn heads, as much from her presence and force of personality as from the beauty which remained to her. She was dressed in emerald robes, and to my surprise, her pointed hat had a band in a clan tartan.
"Professor McGonagall!" Charlie all but shouted as he rushed up to her. I followed at a slightly more sedate pace, smiling at the sight of the reunion. Charlie jogged up to her, then sort of stalled out. He looked like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to hug her or shake her hand.
She looked amused at his indecision, and decided to relieve him of it, by gently wrapping her arms around his shoulders and touching her cheek to his. "How're ye, Charlie?" she said softly, her burr growing somewhat more pronounced, as he finally brought his arms up around her for just a moment. As soon as she released his shoulders he dropped them again, and they stepped back from one another.
To my vast amusement, Charlie was blushing slightly. "I'm doing well, Professor. I'm head of my own team at the preserve these days."
"Is that so?" she said, a pleased smile appearing on her lips. "Well, good for ye, Charlie. You'll be runnin' the place in a few years, mark my words." Then she turned her attention to me, the burr dropping almost entirely out of her voice. "And who might your friend be?"
"Ah, right!" Charlie turned back a little and gestured at me. "Professor, I'd like you to meet Douglas Sangnoir, one of the most unusual wizards I've ever had the pleasure to know. Doug, Minerva McGonagall, Professor of Transfiguration and Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts."
I stepped forward and held out my hand. "A pleasure, Professor."
She took it and we shook. "Likewise."
"Doug and I are here to talk to the Headmaster, Professor." He leaned in and stage-whispered conspiratorially, "I think I've found you a new Defense professor."
Professor McGonagall turned to him, her eyes wide with surprise. "You have? Oh, Albus will be glad to hear of it. We've gotten word that the Minister is planning to pass a law that lets him appoint a defense professor if Albus doesn't have a candidate by the end of the month. And we've had no luck at all this summer finding a single witch nor wizard willing to take the job." Her surprise vanished, wiped away from her face by a sudden realization. "Oh, but you've missed him entirely. He's in London today, at the Ministry, for Mr. Potter's hearing."
Charlie and I traded glances. He seemed as clueless as I about Mr. Potter and his hearing. "London, then?" I asked him.
"Needs must as the devil drives," he agreed, then turned back to McGonagall. "Professor," he asked with the same smile he'd used to charm a pair of twin Romanian witches out of their robes the previous weekend, "do you think we might use the Headmaster's Floo?"
The Professor gave him a look that said she knew exactly what he was up to, but didn't mind. "You're a scamp, Charlie Weasley, and you have been since you were a firstie. But you're a good man, and this is important enough. Albus shouldn't object, but if he does I'll give him a piece of my mind."
"Thank you, Professor," Charlie and I said almost at the same time.
The walk up to the Headmaster's office was a bit longer than I had expected and had more interesting features than I could really take note of at the time. I did notice animated paintings, moving staircases, and a gargoyle statue (or perhaps a genuine gargoyle) that acted as the guard to a stone escalator which led to the office in question.
This time I managed to make it into the Floo network on my first try.
The British Ministry of Magic, London, England, UK, Thursday, August 12, 1995, 8:42 AM
Nothing exploded, disintegrated, vaporized or broke when I came out of the giant economy-sized fireplace — one of what looked like dozens — at the British Ministry of Magic. Mainly because there wasn't much there for my field to affect. I also managed to exit on my feet instead of being fired out of the flames like a cannonball, which helped cut down on the breakage.
Charlie stepped out a moment later, and was very obviously disappointed that I hadn't provided a floor show as I had in the Three Broomsticks. He said as much, and I replied with a short, pithy response that got me more than a few scandalized looks from the few government functionaries passing by us on their way into or out of the Floo network.
I glanced around. We were in a largish room with a dark wood floor, about a third as wide as it was long, with nothing but fireplaces lining the long walls — huge fireplaces, each large enough for a man to stand upright in it, their gilded surrounds and mantels shining in the firelight. They were all lit, and every minute or so the flames of one would turn green, and a witch or wizard would step in or out of it.
The entire feeling was something like a subway platform designed by an interior decorator specializing in Victorian living rooms.
The fireplaces on the right side of the room seemed to be reserved for outbound traffic, while the hearths on the opposite wall — through one of which I had arrived — were inbound traffic only. The near end of the room was a blank wall, but the far end was an arch opening on a much larger chamber. Clearly visible through it was a fancy gold fountain of some sort. Exercising my deductive faculties, I concluded that it had to be the entrance to the Ministry proper. I turned back to Charlie. "So. What do we do now?"
Charlie shrugged. "I figured we'd hang in the atrium and wait for the Headmaster to appear. If he's in a hearing, that's going to be official business and they wouldn't let us in."
"So it'd be better to wait where we know he has to come out and flag him down there." I nodded. "Makes sense. Let's do this, then."
At the end of the room, as I expected, was the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. I stopped and took in the sight for a moment.
It seemed very typical of Wizarding society as a whole — gaudy, aggressively antique, and outrageously arrogant. The overall feel was a kind of reluctant Victoriana — as though the entire structure had been forced to be "ultramodern" some time near the end of the 19th century and still hadn't quite stopped being quietly resentful about it. The atrium was easily a dozen stories in height, ringed with mezzanines and windows which presumably led to cube farms or whatever the Wizarding equivalent was. The dark wood of the Floo room floor continued here; it was probably safe to say that the Floo room was an extension of the Atrium. The ceiling was a deep, shimmery blue hue, over which golden runes and symbols — many of which I recognized — drifted in an almost Brownian motion.
The golden fountain I'd spotted turned out to be an incredibly tacky gold statue doubling as a fountain, complete with coins in the water. It depicted several nonhumans, among them a centaur, looking up with a sickening, obsequious worshipfulness to an overly-idealized human witch and wizard, all of them much larger than life. I couldn't identify the other creatures in the sculpture, but they all bore the same simpering "oh please tell us how to live, you are so much more intelligent, powerful and right than we are" expressions on their faces.
Well, I mused to myself. Nineteenth-century British racism is apparently alive and well and living in a fantasy world.
Not that it ever wasn't, but still.
Hanging directly over this oversized piece of kitsch was a huge banner several stories tall, bearing an animated photo of the current Minister of Magic and vaguely celebrating his alleged achievements. He was a pudgy, disreputable-looking career politician whose name (as I'd learned some weeks earlier) was, improbably enough, Cornelius Fudge. If I were reading between the lines properly (and correlating it with what I'd learned from Charlie and the other British dragon-keepers), his entire platform was based around being a cross between Professor Pangloss and King Log — in short, it was impossible that Wizarding Britain could ever be in any but the best possible state, so there was no need to do anything to improve it or prepare for the worst.
I'm sure he presented a very reassuring figure to the average witch or wizard, but the moment something bad actually did happen, he'd be out on his ear. I'd lay good money on it. I laughed, then dismissed the thought. Wizarding politics was ridiculous, to be sure, but it was far away from me and would stay that way if I had anything to say about it.
Charlie and I made our way around that godawful tacky fountain and found ourselves a couple of seats on a bench conveniently positioned to let us watch everyone coming and going. At the far end of the atrium, walled off by a line of golden gates and some kind of security desk, was a bank of elevators which seemed to go both up and down from this level. I wondered briefly what might be under our feet.
Charlie nudged me and pointed at them. "The headmaster will have to come up one of those lifts in order to get to an exit, since you can't apparate into or out of here."
"Right," I said, and settled in for a long sit.
While waiting I took the time to study and memorize the Ministry atrium in case I ever had the need to teleport back here. You never know, right? Which reminded me, I needed at some point to check out Mundane London as well. I doubted it was very much different from London back home, but it would be nice to confirm, just in case I had to teleport somewhere there, too.
When I was done fixing a detailed image of the Ministry in my memory, I then began studying the people around me. We had just missed the rush hour, so the traffic in and out was light, but there were enough passers-by to get a good idea of what the Ministry, at least, thought were proper working clothes.
The vast majority of the people going past us wore robes — like college academic robes, only heavier; made for daily use, not special occasions. The shoes worn with the robes seemed to be all over the place — mostly low, soft leather boot-like things, but I know I saw more than a few wingtips and pumps, and I swear I spotted a pair of Converse All-Stars under the hem of a particularly ornate robe. Red ones.
Beyond shoes, I wasn't sure what else was worn under the robes. I saw lots of bare legs, but also trousers and leggings of various types, on both sexes.
I decided to leave it at that.
The ones who weren't in robes ran the gamut from Renaissance to almost the middle of the twentieth century. I saw a woman in an elaborate gown that Lucrezia Borgia would have killed for (and may have), and a fellow who wouldn't have looked out of place in a jazz club during World War II. And the opposite as well — I spotted a gaggle of what seemed to be secretaries, all done up in classic 40s style right down to identical harlequin glasses, and there was one fellow who looked like he'd stepped right out of a production of Romeo and Juliet except he had no sword.
It was as fascinating as it was inconsistent, and I wondered who, if anyone, determined what was acceptable. I mean, why the apparent cut-off in the 1940s? Was that the latest period that wizards felt comfortable with? I knew from talking to the other keepers in Romania that many wizards' concept of non-Wizarding life seemed to be anywhere upwards of two hundred years out of date, and a couple seemed to be absolutely confident that "Muggles" all still lived in wattle-and-daub shacks with straw thatching for roofs, grubbed in the dirt for their food, shat into holes in the ground, and never traveled farther than a few miles from their places of birth, and then only by walking or riding horses.
One had actually said as much to me while a passenger jet passed by overhead, leaving an arrow-straight contrail behind it!
Why did Wizarding society as a whole seem single-mindedly insistent that normals were all gormless primitives? And did it have anything to do with the range of Wizarding fashion cutting off abruptly at the middle 1940s?
I spent the rest of the time we were waiting for Headmaster Dumbledore pondering that question, and came up with several hypotheses — all of which stemmed from the simple fact that World War II ended with a nuclear punctuation mark.
I had gotten that far in my ruminations when Charlie elbowed me and hissed, "There he is!"
I scanned the small crowd in front of the elevator bank, but no one leapt out at me as obvious. Charlie had jumped to his feet, though, and began striding toward the gates, so I pushed off and followed him.
When we got closer, it became obvious which one was Dumbledore — the guy who looked like the wizard on the cover of every paperback swords-and-sorcery novel published since the 1970s: obviously elderly, verging on ancient, with long silver hair and beard, the latter gathered together near his waist with some kind of little chain-and-pendant dojiggy. He wore robes, like most of the other magicals who had passed through the atrium, only his were obviously finer — they were an expensive-looking velvet, trimmed in satin, both fabrics deep, rich midnight blue in color, contrasting starkly with all the gilt and varnished wood around him.
He also wore little "half-moon" style pince-nez glasses perched on the end of his nose — a nose which someone had once broken quite thoroughly and with great professionalism, leaving it distinctly crooked in the middle. He had an abstracted, grandfatherly air, at least until Charlie caught his attention, but even without engaging my mage sight I could feel the power rolling off him — far more than most of the magicals I had met so far in this world, enough in fact to flag him as a serious practitioner even by my standards.
Yes, this was a Wizard with a capital "W".
"Charles!" he declared, clasping Charlie's hand in one of his and laying the other on his shoulder. "I must admit I am surprised to see you here — I had thought you would be in Romania still."
"I would have been, Professor," Charlie replied with a broad grin. "But I had a few free days coming to me, and decided to spend them with my family."
"Indeed," Dumbledore said, immediately grasping the unspoken request. "And who is your friend?" he asked with a tilt of his head.
If anything, Charlie's grin got even wider. "Headmaster," he said, "I'd like you to meet Douglas Sangnoir. I owled you about him last week?" he added in a querulous tone.
Dumbledore nodded with an almost ponderous slowness. "Ah, yes, the traveler looking for help in returning home — and a job." He held out his hand. "Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, at your service. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Sangnoir."
I took it and shook. "The pleasure is all mine, sir. I don't know what Charlie's told you about me," I shot a mock-irritated glance at him, "since he forgot to inform me that he was writing to you, but I assure you all the bad parts are utterly false, and all the good parts are merely understatement."
The old wizard laughed. "Charles spoke very highly of you indeed in his letter. If that were mere understatement, then I hesitate to imagine the true scope and magnificence of your person." His eyes twinkled as a good-natured smile appeared through the veil of his whiskers. "I am most eager to discuss both helping and hiring you, Mr. Sangnoir, but I must first attend to a small personal matter. However, if you and Charles would care to meet me at the Leaky Cauldron in, say, half an hour?"
I traded glances with Charlie, who nodded. "We'd be happy to, sir."
"Excellent, I will see you then." He bowed slightly to us, before turning to stride off to the hall of fireplaces at a surprisingly quick pace for someone of his apparent age.
I watched him until he vanished into the crowd. Then I turned to Charlie. "Okay, so where's this Leaky Cauldron place?"
The Leaky Cauldron, Thursday, August 12, 1995, 9:50 AM
Thirty minutes later Charlie and I were sitting in a genuine medieval tavern on Charing Cross Road, noshing on the Wizarding idea of snack food, when Dumbledore stepped out of the green flames of a Floo connection. We caught his attention with a wave, and after greeting the barman like an old friend, he crossed the floor and slid into the booth we had claimed.
"Charles," he said, nodding at Charlie. "Mr. Sangnoir. If I may, I would like to assure our privacy. With your permission?"
"Sure," I said, at the same time Charlie said, "Certainly, Headmaster."
"Thank you." From the sash which belted his robes, Dumbledore drew a wand. Compared to those I had seen in use over the past three and a half weeks, it was a little different — it had the usual wand shape, but it looked more grown than carved like the wands I'd already encountered. There were several small bulges along its length, evenly spaced and of increasing size from the smallest about 10 centimeters back from the tip to the largest near the grip. They didn't look shaped by any tool, either, but more like growths similar to oak galls, although the pale color of the unvarnished wand was unlike any bare oak wood I'd ever seen.
He twirled the wand through a complicated series of movements while reciting a short incantation in Latin or something close to it. When he was done, he slid the wand back into his sash and nodded. "There," he said. "We may speak in complete privacy now."
"Cool," I said. The booth now felt... enclosed, as if we were in a sealed box. Sounds seemed slightly muffled, with a very faint echo to them, and my ears felt like I'd just dropped a few hundred feet in altitude and needed to equalize the pressure on my eardrums. Interesting.
Dumbledore fixed me with a surprisingly steely look and began the interrogation. "In his missive to me, Charles made some very... unusual claims about you, Mr. Sangnoir. Perhaps if you were to tell me in your own words about your travels?"
"Very well," I replied, and launched into an abbreviated version of my life story as Charlie nursed his drink — not ale or lager at this hour of the morning, but something called "butterbeer" which was mildly carbonated, had the consistency of malted milk, and possessed a flavor reminiscent of butterscotch — sweet, but not cloying. Kind of like a butterscotch egg cream, if you catch my drift. After tasting my own I thought it might also be a smidge alcoholic, too.
Anyway, when I completed my recitation about forty-five minutes later, Dumbledore took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his crooked nose. "That is... quite the tale, Mister — no, Colonel, wasn't it? — Colonel Sangnoir."
"I've confirmed it, Headmaster," Charlie offered.
Dumbledore stopped rubbing his eyes, replaced his glasses, and looked over at Charlie for the first time since casting his privacy spell. "Confirmed it, Charles?"
"He's seen me in action, and the photos and other records I carry with me," I said. "He also dosed me with your magical truth serum."
Charlie grinned and shrugged. "I put veritaserum in his stew and asked him questions over dinner, the day he arrived. I can vouch that he's not Dark, and not a follower of You-Know-Who."
I rolled my eyes at the euphemism. "I kill the kind of people who fancy themselves 'dark lords'. I don't follow them. I don't serve them. I bury them."
Dumbledore looked slightly troubled at that, but slowly nodded. "Judging from your history, I have no doubt that you do, at that. Well, then." He folded his hands together on the table before himself. "I believe I will take you at your word, Colonel, and trust Charles' judgment in this matter. Which means that, firstly, I am willing to aid you in finding your way home, or at least closer to it."
I released a breath that I had not realized I'd been holding. "Thank you, sir."
He held up a finger. "Understand that this is not an area of study in which I have more than a cursory knowledge. Magic involving communication and transport between the planes of existence is traditionally considered dark due to its misuse and the ease with which the inexperienced may bring disastrous consequences upon themselves and others. The Ministry has banned it accordingly. This will be a learning experience for me, and I cannot guarantee any results at all."
"I understand, Headmaster." Even a microscopic chance was better than no chance.
Dumbledore went on. "Now, Colonel, it would be most convenient for these researches to have you close to hand. Therefore, to facilitate them accordingly, and in consideration of your most impressive curriculum vitae, I do indeed have a position at Hogwarts that I might offer you."
"Go on," I said.
The old wizard frowned. "Before I actually do offer it to you, though, I must explain to you certain relevant facts about the position."
"This is the Defense Against Dark Arts professorship, right?" I asked. "Charlie told me that you have a problem keeping people in it."
He sighed. "Charles understates the case. It is commonly believed that the position is cursed. You see, for several decades now, no individual has been able to keep the professorship for more than a single academic year, and many have been unable to stay in it for even that long." He coughed and frowned, then added, "And I find I must admit that more Defense professors have died during their tenures during that time than in all the other professorships combined."
I laughed. "That's not going to be a problem. Something has been keeping me from dying from natural causes for three quarters of a century now. And I'm an expert at deflecting unnatural causes of death." I took a sip of my butterbeer. "As for leaving the job for non-terminal reasons, well, I'm not intending to make a career here, I just need a way to support myself until I find a song that will take me out of this universe." I shrugged. "Even if I am forced out of the position prematurely, I'll at least have savings to tide me over for a while afterward."
Dumbledore smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. However, this year there are other complications. I have become politically... unpopular because I have been attempting to alert the Wizarding World to the return of Lord Voldemort."
Charlie gasped and shuddered, then buried his face in his mug. I just looked at Dumbledore. "The return of Voldemort? According to what I've heard, he's supposed to have died some fifteen years ago."
He studied me over the tops of his glasses through half-lidded eyes. "One of my students, a young man of impeccable character, witnessed his resurrection several weeks ago. Since then, though, Voldemort has made a point of remaining out of the public eye."
"And let me guess," I offered. "The Minister, whose whole career seems to revolve around telling the public that everything is the best it could possibly be, didn't want to hear that your Voldemort had come back from the dead, and didn't like the idea of you telling people he had, either."
A bushy grey eyebrow rose above one half-moon lens. "You have more political acumen than I had suspected, Colonel. Yes, that is the case, precisely. And as a result, the Minister and his allies are doing what they can to undermine and marginalise me." He sighed. "Among other tactics, they are attempting to insert a Ministry representative into Hogwarts' faculty."
Charlie nodded. "Professor McGonagall mentioned that the Minister is pushing the Wizengamot to pass a new law that will let the Ministry assign a professor if you can't get one."
"Who will no doubt be one of his toadies." I spread my hands and smiled. "Well, then, Headmaster, you're in luck. Here I am — your new Defense professor, guaranteed non-Ministry."
"Bloody right," Charlie laughed, and I clinked my mug to his.
"Are you sure you wish to do this, Colonel?" Dumbledore pressed. "I suspect that the Ministry has been actively 'discouraging' many of the potential candidates I sought to recruit. You may come under some... pressure to refuse or resign the professorship."
I snorted and made a point of cracking my knuckles. The sound echoed weirdly in our little bubble of privacy. "Let them try."
Dumbledore studied me for a long moment, and then suddenly he smiled, his eyes twinkling. "In that case, Colonel, welcome to the staff of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"Thank you, sir." I leaned back from the table. "I look forward to the challenge."
Charlie thumped me on the back. "Congratulations, mate!"
The Headmaster beamed at the two of us before continuing. "You will be paid the standard starting salary of 6,343 galleons per annum, which will be deposited in your vault at Gringotts on a monthly basis. You will of course get room and board at Hogwarts year-round, plus professional healer care in our own hospital wing when needed, and St. Mungo's if necessary." He smiled benevolently. "We'll go over your other benefits — and your duties in addition to classroom hours — when you arrive at the school."
"Excellent," I declared, and we shook on it. "Beyond that, is there anything else I need to know?"
Dumbledore studied me for a moment. "Perhaps. It will take approximately a week for the Board of Governors to formally approve your hiring — a purely symbolic gesture but a necessary one, I fear. After that you may move into your quarters in the castle. Until then," Dumbledore added, "I cannot but assume that you will need a place to live, unless you wish to return to Romania."
"No, thank you," I said with a bit of disgust at the thought of going through another pair of portkey trips. "I suppose I could get a hotel room here in London after I exchange some of my dragon-keeping pay for pounds..."
"That may not be necessary," Dumbledore interrupted. He turned his attention to Charlie. "Charles, I presume you trust Colonel Sangnoir around your family?"
"Of course, Headmaster!" he sputtered, surprised at the question. "I took him right to the Burrow yesterday, after all."
Dumbledore nodded sagely, then drew a scrap of parchment out of his sleeve. "In that case, I can offer you temporary lodgings at the same location where the Weasley family is currently dwelling, at no cost to you. Is that acceptable?"
I laughed. "For free? Sure."
He smiled, then pushed the scrap of parchment across the table. "I recommend that both of you read this, then."
Charlie picked it up and glanced at it with a sudden intake of breath. "This is where...?"
"Yes," Dumbledore replied.
I snatched the parchment out of his limp fingers and took a look at it. On it was written, "The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at 12 Grimmauld Place, London." At the moment I read those words, I felt an incredibly complex magical effect strike me, and took a moment to try to analyze it. It was part compulsion, part evocation, part something I'd never seen before, and it bypassed my field and other protections as if they hadn't been there. If I were understanding what it seemed to do, it had to be one of the most elegant and intriguing pieces of security magic I'd ever encountered. I wondered if Dumbledore had cast the spell himself, because it seemed well beyond the capability of the average wizard if my experiences to date were any indication.
I slid the paper back across the table to Dumbledore, who picked it up and made it vanish back into his sleeve. "The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix..." I began, but couldn't get any further. I steeled myself and tried again. "The headquarters of the Or... Or..." I couldn't even get as far as I had the first time. I gave up and looked back at Dumbledore. "Oh, that is one impressive piece of spellcraft. What's it called?"
His eyes twinkled again as he smiled. "It's generally referred to as the 'Fidelius'."
"Mmmm. I think I'm going to want a copy of that spell, if only to see how it's done." And to make sure nothing else could bypass my defenses the same way, I didn't say aloud.
"I think we can arrange that, once you settle in at Hogwarts," he said, still smiling.
"So," I went on. "What is this Order?"
Dumbledore studied me for a moment. "It is a private group dedicated to the defeat and destruction of Voldemort."
I nodded my comprehension. "A magical militia of sorts, then. Would it be safe to assume that it dates back to Voldemort's original period of activity? And dammit, Charlie, chill! It's just a stupid emo alias." Charlie's gasping and gulps at every repetition of "Voldemort" was starting to get on my nerves.
"Yes," the headmaster intoned, smiling faintly as I threatened to smack Charlie one. "Quite so. It has been reactivated in the wake of the events of this past spring."
"In that case, since I'm going to be teaching anyway, let me offer my services to the Order. While my oaths as a Warrior won't let me become a member proper, I can certainly train your forces if you need it," I said. "And even if you can't use me as a trainer, I can gather and analyze intelligence on the enemy for you. Plus I could be your outrider — you never know when you might need an unexpected reinforcement or backup at a crucial moment."
The rising of Dumbledore's eyebrows betrayed his surprise. "Thank you, Colonel. I will certainly keep your offer in mind." He glanced between me and Charlie. "Well, then, gentlemen, I believe our business is concluded. I expect I shall see you both tonight at Headquarters."
He took his wand from his sash, to remove the privacy spell I guessed, and I quickly said, "Just one more thing, Headmaster. You said Voldemort had resurrected. Which method did he use?"
Dumbledore frowned. "Which method...?"
I nodded. "I know of no less than five ways by which a sufficiently powerful magic user may ensure his return from death." I held up one finger. "Your basic soul anchor, AKA the partial soul jar, plus a homunculus body." I raised a second finger. "The lich ritual and transformation." Finger three, and I looked like I was doing the Boy Scout pledge. "A directed reincarnation event triggered by a 'dead-man switch' spell." I raised my pinkie. "An externally-applied directed reincarnation." I unfolded my thumb from across my palm. "Or, finally, a demonic contract."
As Dumbledore blinked at me while I held my hand up, a thought occurred to me as I paused in counting. "I suppose it might be possible to make a contract with Heaven to ensure one's return from death, but it would have to be for an extraordinary and unselfish reason that serves their purposes, and I sincerely doubt that Yggdrasil would approve one for a self-declared dark lord. Still, it's a method, so that would actually make it six."
I lowered my hand. "There's also the Koschei-style soul jar, but you said 'resurrection'. A Koschei soul jar gives you physical invulnerability and immortality — it's like the lich ritual but without all the messy dying and possessing your own preserved corpse. They're a hell of lot harder to make than a simple partial jar, but with one you just can't die, no matter what happens to you, so resurrection never comes into the picture." I looked up at Dumbledore. "Do you know which one he used?"
Dumbledore had started looking troubled as I began my list, and had grown only more so as I went through it. "I must admit that I thought I did, for I knew of only one means. Learning that there are others..." He shook his head. "Already I am thankful for hiring you, Colonel." He shook his head. "I must research this, and more, we must discuss this matter at length, soon."
"Whenever's convenient for you, Headmaster," I agreed.
He inclined his head to me — more than a nod, less than a bow. "Thank you, Colonel."
"Please," I said. "Call me Doug."
12 Grimmauld Place, London, England, UK, Thursday, August 12, 1995, 1:17 PM
For nearly a week now they had been cleaning and exterminating, and Hermione (though she was far too well-mannered to say so) was thoroughly and utterly sick of it. She had arranged to stay with the Weasleys that summer as part of a plan to help her friend Harry Potter (which had, unfortunately, not worked). She hadn't planned on spending it as an unpaid housemaid.
Where she was spending the last weeks of the summer just added to her discontent. The Black home at 12 Grimmauld Place seemed to be a den of all things dark and foul, and not in an amusing "Addams Family" way. No, the Black family — except for Sirius, that is — had wallowed in evil magic like hogs in mud, rolling around in it, covering themselves in it, and splashing it everywhere. Why would anyone in their right minds make doilies that hexed anyone who touched them? Hermione wondered, as she had about so many other items of random undirected malice that the six of them — Harry, Ron, Ginny, the twins Fred and George, and herself — had uncovered during their labors over the last week.
The Blacks had to have been utterly insane. That was the only explanation. Sirius was a dear, sweet man, obviously very different from his relatives, but even he was clearly a little off-balance. More so than the average wizard, that is. And after a week's exposure to the house in which he'd spent his childhood, Hermione was beginning to think it hadn't been the twelve years in Azkaban which had left him that way.
She suppressed a sigh. It would have been nice if the impromptu celebration over Harry's exoneration that morning had lasted longer — if you could call Fred, George and Ginny dancing around and chanting "He got off, he got off!" a celebration — but it seemed that Mrs. Weasley was determined to purge 12 Grimmauld Place of all dark influences before the start of school and the loss of her unpaid workforce.
Hermione blew a lock of her brown, uncontrollable hair out of her eyes, and felt a small ache in her back. With a sigh, she straightened up from where she had been crouched at the baseboards of yet another room — she'd honestly lost count of how many it had been now — removing unidentifiable filth from the woodwork with a rag soaked in Mrs. Scower's Magical Mess Remover. She dropped the rag on the floor, then stretched and twisted back and forth at the waist to try to banish the annoying little pain. At the same time, she discreetly watched and enjoyed the effect her stretch had on Ron.
To her amusement, Ginny and Harry didn't even notice. Ginny had eyes only for Harry — what else was new? — while Harry seemed to be brooding. Over what, she could make a few guesses, but she resolved to corner him at some point before bedtime and make him tell her anyway.
Whether it was the cleaning or her figure (Hermione smiled very smugly to herself), at least Ron was focusing on something different for the moment. The move to 12 Grimmauld had thrown him into a near-panic. The second-eldest Weasley son, Charlie, had been scheduled to come back and visit with the family for the first time since the World Cup the previous year. The sudden relocation from the Burrow and the Fidelius protection cast on the Black home had prompted endless rambling monologues in which Ron worried about Charlie never learning where they were, giving up and going back to Romania without the family ever seeing him.
And to her irritation, it seemed that except for Mr. Weasley and the twins, the rest of the family actually shared Ron's concern, though not to the degree that he seemed to feel it. The previous evening Hermione had actually caught Mrs. Weasley going out of her way to take worried looks out the front windows of the Black home, as though she might spot Charlie out in the street with the co-worker he was supposedly bringing with him, fruitlessly searching for his hidden family.
The twins, she'd also noticed, seemed far more interested in the contents of the very large and mysterious crate addressed to that co-worker, a "Douglas Sangnoir", care of the Weasley family. She didn't think they'd broken into it yet. She couldn't fault their curiosity, though. What could be so important to Mr. Sangnoir, and so big, that he had had to ship it rather than just carry it shrunken in a pocket? When her own curiosity grew too strong, she found herself hoping that Fred and George had actually worked their way around the crate's protections... or were about to.
Another part of her insisted on worrying about the name on that crate — "Sangnoir" meant "black blood" in French, and despite her rational side insisting otherwise, she had the tiniest persistent dread that it was some manner of portent or omen.
Hermione closed her eyes and forced herself to focus on the task at hand again. As boring as it was, as backbreaking as it was proving to be, it was what they were supposed to do right now. She picked up the rag from where it lay on the floor between her knees, poured a little more of Mrs. Scower's Remover on it, and prepared to attack the next stretch of baseboard.
Suddenly the sound of a loud, clanging bell echoed up the stairwell, followed by a slamming door and a deep male voice bellowing "Hulloooo the house!" To her immense surprise, the painting of Walburga Black for once did not begin screaming at the disturbance. Hermione looked heavenward and mouthed "Thank you!"
"Charlie!" Ginny squealed and pelted out of the room, followed closely by Ron. Hermione smiled fondly.
She glanced over at Harry, who had straightened up and was staring at her. "Well?" he asked sullenly. "Shouldn't we follow them?"
Hermione huffed. "Mrs. Weasley told us to finish this room before lunch," she declared, more as a matter of form than as a real objection.
Harry gave her a disbelieving look. "Oh, come on, Hermione."
She considered stringing him along for a little longer, but then relented. "Oh, all right," she said in mock exasperation. "I suppose."
By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, the front hall of 12 Grimmauld Place was awash with a sea of redheads. The only Weasleys not present were Mr. Weasley and Bill, both of whom were still at work, and would be so for at least another four hours. (And Percy, of course, but he had his own home in London, and his estrangement from the family suggested nothing was going to change about that.) At the center of the mob, a sobbing Mrs. Weasley hugged a burly-looking red-haired man barely taller than she was, whose face was home to a veritable galaxy of freckles along with a couple of shiny burn scars.
"And there's Charlie," Harry murmured somewhere outbound of her ear. She glanced at him and realised Harry was watching the reunion below with such a naked longing that she ached for him. Rather than say something that would set off his recent moodiness again, Hermione forced her attention back to the scene before them, where her eye was drawn to an unexpected swirl of grey robes behind the mob of Weasleys.
There, near the front door, that had to be Charlie's co-worker, the mysterious Douglas Sangnoir. She couldn't see much because he had his back to her and was pulling his wizarding garb off — to her surprise, he had on well-worn blue jeans underneath them, and an expensive-looking pair of trainers. While she was taking this in, he finished doffing his robes (revealing a black T-shirt and close-cropped blond hair) and hung them on the coat rack by the door. Then he turned around.
Some part of her which had been dormant since the end of second year and Gilderoy Lockhart's fall from grace suddenly awoke, saw the stranger, and to her complete and utter mortification went "Yum!" He was handsome, with blue-gray eyes, and the jeans and T-shirt ("I Do All My Own Special Effects"?) he had worn under his robes did nothing to hide a physique that was solid and athletic without being musclebound. He was watching the Weasley reunion with a gentle smile on his face that seemed to be equal parts amusement and wistful longing.
I wonder what he's thinking, Hermione found herself musing.
Meanwhile, Charlie had finished going through the rest of the available Weasleys, and was laughing, "Enough! Enough!" He glanced about, finally spotting the blond man who lurked behind him. "Doug, help me here."
"I don't know, Charlie, you seem to be handling things well enough," the other — now confirmed as Douglas Sangnoir — said with a smirk. To Hermione's surprise, he had an American accent. "Better than that litter of Norwegian Ridgebacks that were trying to use you as a chew toy last week, at least."
"And whose fault was that?" Charlie demanded. "Get over here and meet everyone." As Doug stepped forward, a look of mock trepidation pasted on his face, Charlie turned back to the other Weasleys. "Everyone, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Doug Sangnoir. Doug, this is my family."
"Hello, Charlie's family," the other man declared. This got him a friendly smack on the back of the head from his host even as Fred, George and Ginny chorused "Hullo, Doug!" back, laughing.
Then as she and Harry watched, Charlie introduced them one by one, starting with Mrs. Weasley and progressing down through the available siblings until he ended with Ginny. With that completed, he spotted the pair of them at the base of the stairs. "And ... I have no idea who you two are."
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry." Mrs. Weasley suddenly turned to them and, taking their hands, drew them into the mob. "Charlie, these are Ron's friends..."
Hermione stepped down off the staircase and flashed a smile at the pair. "Hermione Granger. I watch over these two and make sure they do their homework on time."
"Woman's a bloody taskmaster, too," Ron muttered from somewhere in the center of the group, to his other siblings' laughter.
She ignored that and finished, "It's good to see you again, Charlie."
He returned the smile. "You, too, Hermione." Charlie's gaze tracked over to Harry and he nodded with a lopsided grin. "And this," he said, turning back to Doug, "is the famous Harry."
"Not the Harry?" Doug asked with a slightly conspiratorial wink.
What an odd reaction, Hermione thought absently, but it apparently to be the right one as far as Harry was concerned. She had felt him stiffen at Charlie's introduction, but when Doug seemed to make a joke of it he relaxed to a degree she'd never seen before around someone new.
"No, just a Harry," Harry replied with a delighted smile that, to Hermione's bafflement, was completely at odds with his recent sulky mood.
"Oh, well, then, that's better. I'm glad we got that straightened out," Doug said. He looked around the room. "I feel like I know you all already," he continued. "Charlie's told me so many things about all of you — and they were all much better than the bad things he says about me behind my back," he added with a laugh.
"Hey," Charlie objected. "I don't say bad things about you behind your back. I say them to your face."
"You see what I have to deal with?" the blond man asked, looking at the ceiling with hands outstretched. "Is it any wonder I'd take any job just to get out of Romania?"
"Oh, yeah," Charlie added. "As of this morning, Doug's the new Defense professor at Hogwarts."
When the resulting noise and din had faded back to a dull roar, Mrs. Weasley managed to drag Charlie and his friend down to the kitchen for a late lunch. Momentarily forgotten by the Weasley matriarch, the six teens retreated to Ron and Harry's bedroom on the second floor.
The twins were the last into the room, and as George closed the door, then did something to it with a brightly-colored bundle he drew from his pocket, Fred looked around the room with a grin. "So. New Defence professor. What d'you think, should we start the pool early?"
"Pool?" Hermione demanded. "What pool?"
"Well, there're actually two," Fred replied. "The first one isn't all that interesting — it's just for how long the Defence professor lasts this year. It's terribly straightforward — we could run it in our sleep."
"However," George said as he turned away from the door, "there is the other pool — on when the Defence professor will attack ickle Harry here." George smiled contemplatively. "Now that one is a challenge to run. We offer bets on exact date, before/after date, method of attack..."
"Injury or death," Fred continued, "type and degree of injury, length of stay in the hospital wing afterward — for both the professor and Harry — and the number of potions consumed during recovery."
"We even offer very handsome odds on Harry's death followed by an immediate resurrection afterward," George concluded with a manic grin that was matched by his brother's. "The Creepy — excuse me, the Creevey brothers always bet on that one."
As Ginny giggled, Hermione stared, disbelieving, at the pair. "That's disgusting," she finally said, then whirled on Harry, who had somehow drifted to one of the windows during this and was staring out at the street below. "Harry, aren't you upset at them, making money off of you that way?"
"No, not really, Hermione," he said flatly without turning around. Hermione waited for him to expand on that, but he said nothing further. She crossed her arms and huffed, to the amusement of Ron, who was seated beside her on the loveseat that occupied one end of the bedroom.
"He's not very like any of the other professors, is he?" Harry suddenly said, still staring out the window. "He's an American, for one."
"Charlie says he's muggleborn," Ginny pointed out. "I don't think we've ever had a muggleborn defence professor before. I know we've never had an American professor before."
Ron snorted. "Charlie said a lot of things about him, and you can't believe half of them. It all sounds like something out of that prat Lockhart's books," he sneered. "I certainly don't believe he took down a dragon by himself."
The twins shared a pair of knowing looks while Hermione turned to stare at Ron. "Took down a dragon? What letter was that in? I thought I heard all the letters Charlie wrote to your family this summer."
"Charlie owled me a couple times," Ron answered, shrugging. "Just me."
"And you didn't share them..." Hermione began, before Fred cut her off.
"So what about a dragon?"
Ron perked up. "Oh, right. Charlie said the day he met Doug..."
"Professor Sangnoir," Hermione grumbled, folding her arms across her chest again.
"...he knocked a dragon out cold by punching it once, hard, between the eyes." Ron snorted again. "Bollocks, if you ask me. There's no way you could get close enough to a dragon to punch it. Charlie was just trying to take the mickey out of me, like when I was real little."
"Well," Fred offered, "you were quite gullible as a five-year-old. When I think of all the things we told you..."
"Don't remind me," Ron growled, and the twins laughed.
"He's not comfortable with robes," Hermione suddenly said, as a few pieces of information gelled together.
"What's that?" Ginny asked.
Hermione looked up and around at the others. "He may be muggleborn, but I don't think he's spent any time in the Wizarding World at all. The first thing he did when he came inside was take off his robes — and he was wearing Muggle clothes underneath — Muggle clothes that were broken in and comfortable."
"We noticed that," George said. "What did that writing on his shirt mean? 'I do all my own special effects'?"
Hermione bit her lip. "Special effects are... well, there are Muggle entertainments that, as part of their story, have to show things that look like magic, or futuristic technology, that aren't really possible. For Muggles, at least. So to do this, they have a whole field of work in which people come up with the... well, the illusion of magic for those stories. And that's called 'special effects'. You know," she said as a thought occurred to her, "some of what you two do could be considered 'special effects'." She thought for a moment as the twins shared a glance and a wink. "I think that his T-shirt might be a joking way for Professor Sangnoir to say 'I'm a wizard!' to the entire Muggle world without anyone being the wiser."
"Wicked!" Ron breathed. "Like he's flipping the bird to the Secrecy Statutes."
Hermione sighed and continued. "Another thing — he's not carrying a wand."
The room, except for Harry, was in a sudden uproar. Hermione waited for it to die down enough to shout over. "I mean it. T-shirt with bare arms — no place to hide a wand 'up a sleeve'. No wand in his belt. His jeans are too tight to hide a wand in a pocket or down a leg — if he could even fit one in, we'd see it. No wand holsters anywhere — in fact, the only thing he's got that looks like a holster is the wrong size for a wand completely." She looked about smugly. "Ergo, no wand."
"So... he's really a Muggle?" Ron said after a moment.
"No," Fred answered immediately. "First off, this place has all kinds of Muggle-repelling wards on it — Black family manor, after all. He got through them as easily as Charlie did."
"And he did get hired as Defence professor," George continued. "Say what you want, I don't think Charlie would prank us over that, and I don't think he'd get a co-worker to help him with it. So unless Dumbledore is completely barmy..."
"Which people have been saying for years," Ron pointed out.
George nodded. "Unless he's so barmy that he'd hire a Muggle to teach defence, then Sangnoir's got to be a wizard."
"Harry?" Hermione said, looking over to where Harry still stood by the window. "What do you think?"
For a long moment Harry appeared not to have heard her at all, so distracted was he by the view outside. Then he blurted out, almost wonderingly, "He has no idea who I am."
The other five exchanged confused looks.
"What?" Hermione asked. "What do you mean, he has no idea who you are?"
"You're joking, right, mate?" Ron added.
Harry turned around from the window for the first time, shaking his head. "Didn't you notice? When Charlie introduced me to him, Doug..."
"Professor Sangnoir!" Hermione insisted.
Harry shot her a sour glance. "He didn't look at my scar, he seemed to take 'the famous Harry' as a joke. It was like Charlie said 'This is John Smith'. I was just another teenager out of a half-dozen to him." Harry's eyes shone with an emotion Hermione couldn't identify, but felt she should. "He's never heard of the bloody 'Boy Who Lived'!"
"But how is that possible?" Ginny asked. "Everybody knows about you!"
"Even as far away as Japan and Bangladesh they tell your story," Hermione confirmed. "You can't go anywhere in the Wizarding world and not find it in the history books."
"Lovely," Harry muttered, half to himself.
"He is muggleborn," Ron reminded them unnecessarily. "Maybe that's why?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'm muggleborn, Ron, and I knew about Harry before I even got on the Express our first year."
"Yeah, but you're obsessed with books," Ron said offhandedly. "He doesn't look like the kind who would be."
"He's clearly in his 30s, Ron," she pointed out. "He'd've had to have heard the story by now even if he couldn't read."
Ginny ignored the interplay between Ron and Hermione and instead looked at Harry, who seemed almost to be in another place entirely. "What are you thinking?" she asked.
He turned his attention to her and smiled at her, a broad, gleaming smile unlike any he'd ever before worn in her presence, one that was very much at odds with his recent moodiness. "I think it's bloody brilliant that we're going to have a professor who doesn't give a damn who I am for once."
"Harry, language," Hermione sniffed prudishly, but then her lips quirked into a tiny smile of her own. "It will be a new and unusual experience for us, won't it?"
I laughed at the way Molly Weasley manhandled Charlie until she took a firm grasp of my arm and dragged us both down a short staircase and into a large basement kitchen. There we were gently but firmly deposited at the large table that filled most of the center of the room and told to sit.
Grinning at each other, we sat.
As Molly bustled about assembling a meal for us — upon finding out that we hadn't had lunch yet, she had taken it upon herself to provide us with it — I took a look around at the second room I'd had the dubious pleasure of experiencing here at the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Like the foyer before it, it was dark, dirty and thoroughly unpleasant — completely unlike the Burrow. Based on the mental image I'd assembled of Molly from my short time there, I couldn't imagine how she could cope being here.
Oh, the house was showing her touch — the kitchen looked like someone was slowly but surely beating back centuries of accumulated grime, but even so it was still dark and overbearing. And the foyer had been worse — black-on-black (or so it looked) wallpaper, dark wood wainscoting, poor illumination, and a delightful, omnipresent snake motif — the place looked like it had been intentionally designed to be oppressive. The umbrella stand that appeared to have been made from the leg of some large humanoid just added an extra little macabre touch. So did the large animated portraits of various stern and unpleasant-looking people, one of which had been hidden behind a curtain.
At least there was daylight in the kitchen. Of a sort — it was a slow, tired daylight, weakened almost to death by the effort of fighting its way through the defensive perimeter formed by the room's tiny, dim windows. These had been placed so sparingly about the walls that one suspected the architect had misplaced several zeros when pricing them out.
"So," I said. "That was the infamous Weasley clan."
"Most of them," Charlie agreed. "The only ones who weren't here... Mum?" He glanced over at her.
"Bill and your father will be here for dinner after they get off work," Molly interjected without missing a beat at the stove — another enchanted wood-burning Rayburn or a Wizarding knockoff. There was the slightest tension in the air, as though there were something not said, that would not be said in front of strangers.
Charlie seemed to pick up on it. "Thanks, Mum," he said after the barest pause, then looked back at me. "So there you have it, you'll meet them tonight at dinner." He leaned back in the old, rickety chair Molly had parked him in.
"Your dad works at the Ministry, right?" I asked.
Charlie nodded. "He's a department head. And Bill works at Gringotts in Diagon Alley as a cursebreaker. We probably won't see much of him because the goblins like to work their junior employees pretty heavily."
"Goblins?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Actually, Bill's managed to get a half day off tomorrow morning in order to see you, Charlie," Molly interjected as she laid plates of roast beef and vegetables before us. The aroma wafting from my dish was exquisite. A moment later and silverware appeared — literally — followed by mugs and a pitcher of something that sloshed thickly.
"Thank you, Molly," I said, salivating at the scent.
"Mmm, thanks!" Charlie was already digging in. "Anyway, that's good to hear, Mum. Doug needs to go to Diagon Alley to get his teaching supplies for the school year; maybe Bill and I can give him the five-knut tour tomorrow morning."
I took a bite of beef and gravy and moaned at the flavor. If this is the way this woman cooks on limited means in this kitchen, I wanted to drop her into Kitchen Stadium with an unlimited budget, just to see what she could do.
"That's a fine idea, Charlie," Molly said. "I'm sure Bill will be happy to help."
"Perhaps you can pick me up a thing or two while you're there," a new voice said. I looked up from where I was involuntarily playing trencherman to see a fellow about my (apparent) age standing in the door which led to the staircase back up to the foyer. He had dark hair, shoulder-length, and bit of beard and mustache of the same color which looked like a goatee or Van Dyke that had been neglected for a few weeks. He was pale, and he had the look of someone who had been close to starvation for a long time, and hadn't yet gotten back up to his ideal weight.
"Sirius Black," he said, stepping fully in and taking a seat at the table near us. "I'm allegedly the owner of this house," he added with a smile that carried just a little too much pain in it to be truly happy or amused.
"Charlie Weasley," Charlie said, reaching across the table and offering his hand to Black, who shook it.
I had already stopped eating when I noticed him, so I laid down my knife and fork and reached over to shake his hand as well. "Doug Sangnoir, new Defense professor at Hogwarts." This got me a raised eyebrow. "Let me just thank you for your hospitality. It's very kind of you to open your home to me, even if it's only for a week."
Black barked a laugh. "You're welcome, although I didn't know about it until now." As I made noises about imposing on him, he dismissed them with a casual gesture. "No, no, it's quite all right. These days the place is more the property of the Order than it is my home, and mostly I like it that way." He leaned in conspiratorially. "I didn't much get along with the rest of my family," he said, "and growing up here was a kind of hell for me. If I lived here alone, I swear I'd go crazy. Not that living here with the Red-Headed League isn't crazy-making in its own right," he added with an off-kilter smile and a waggle of his eyebrows.
Molly laughed as she laid a third plate down in front of him. "It's about time you showed up for lunch, Sirius. How are you ever going to manage if you keep skipping meals?"
"Any meal with Snivellus at it that I skip is food for my soul," he said piously before digging in. "Oh, thif if wunnerful, M'ly," he managed through a mouth full of beef and gravy.
After we'd finished our late lunch, I asked where my bike had been put.
"Oh, that's right, you're the owner of the mystery package," Sirius said, an excited glint in his eye. "That big box of yours has been causing quite a stir among the younger set." Charlie and I shared an amused glance at that.
"You've been lurking around it as much as the twins, and you know it, Sirius Black," Molly scolded him affectionately. "And I daresay you've made as many attempts to open it as they have."
"Just for the challenge!" he protested, and I laughed.
"Well, I'm sorry, but I'll be depriving you of your entertainment now." I stood. "Would you care to come watch? It won't be all that exciting, but I'm sure you'd like to see what's inside."
"Of course!" Sirius shot to his feet. "We've kept it on the rear porch. It seemed weatherproof, I hope you don't mind."
I shook my head. "Not at all. A little rain wouldn't hurt it, or so I was told." I made a broad, "after you" gesture. "Lead on, please."
A moment later, the three of us were standing in the British sun. It had been a hot, dry day, easily in the high 20s, almost 30, but somehow the back yard seemed darker, cooler and damper than the street out front. Before us lay the enchanted packing crate which held my motorcycle. The twin Weasley brothers were, as I had half-expected, already there, poking at it. (In a figurative sense only — they were in fact carefully casting what appeared to be diagnostic and informational charms on it — interspersed with the occasional lock-pick spell.)
I looked at my companions, and with a smile held a finger up to my lips in the universal (among humanoids with lips, at least) sign for silence. As Charlie and Sirius watched, grinning like maniacs, I slipped up behind the twins as stealthily as I could manage. (Which, if I do say so myself, is pretty damned stealthy.)
"Do you want to keep at it, boys?" I asked them suddenly. "Or can I just go ahead and open it now?"
When both boys jerked in surprise, Sirius and Charlie cracked up. Gotta love people who appreciate sophisticated humor.
The twins — although I'd been introduced to them separately not an hour earlier, I had no idea which one was Fred and which was George — looked at me for a moment as though they couldn't believe someone had gotten the drop on them. Then they exchanged glances before, in reasonable synchrony, stepping back to bow and wave me on to the crate. "By all means, Professor," one said.
"Don't let us stand in your way," the other followed on the heels of the first.
"Although we enjoy the challenge," the first continued.
"We'd rather see what was inside," the second concluded.
"Thank you," I said as I stepped between them, wary of some gag or prank thanks to the extensive stories Charlie had told me about them. "Twinspeak, eh? Nice trick," I added offhandedly as I ran my hands along the lid of the crate. "You do that a lot?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Thing One shrug. "Not as much as some people believe." I turned around to look at them.
"It's harder than you might think," Thing Two added.
"But if we get in the right rhythm," Thing One offered.
"We can make anything sound like it." This time I saw the other one shrug. "It's mainly about picking up on each other's cues. As long as we say something that makes sense in the context..."
And then he pointed at his brother, who made an exaggerated show of pretending to think oh-so-hard. After a moment he smiled and held up a finger as though just coming up with an idea. "...Then it sounds like we're reading each other's minds and finishing each other's sentences!" The two of them then laughed and shook hands, congratulating each other — for what, I don't know, but it was amusing to watch.
I looked at Charlie and Sirius, over on the other end of the porch, and crossed my arms across my chest to indicate each twin with a forefinger. "I like them, they're silly."
The twins then bowed to me, and thanked me effusively. "High praise indeed," Thing One said, wiping away an imaginary tear. "But enough of us, it's time to open that wonderful box."
I glanced sidelong at him. "For all you know, it could hold nothing but my dirty laundry."
The two of them just did a synchronized eye roll and hung elaborate and complementary "Please, kind sir, I was not born yesterday" expressions on their faces.
Laughing, I turned back to the crate and decided to make a show of opening it. I carefully and obviously touched the four points (unmarked, of course) on the lid that needed to sense my magical signature. Then I laid my hand over the spot where a latch would be if the crate were a steamer trunk, and recited the pass phrase ("I wasn't built for comfort, I was built for speed") that would complete the unlocking.
Then I dramatically flung the top back and over to bang on the far side of the crate and dropped the side to reveal my beloved motorcycle, all two and a half shiny black-and-chrome meters of it.
The twins applauded enthusiastically, and Sirius gave a low whistle. "Merlin's beard, now that's a bike," he said admiringly while next to him Charlie chuckled. The twins made vague noises of agreement.
"Wait until you see it in action," he murmured, but Sirius didn't seem to have heard him.
"Thanks," I replied as I toggled the bike's anti-theft systems and then worked it out of the box.
Sirius walked around it as I did so, followed by a very a mused-looking Charlie. "I've never seen its like before. Where did you get it?"
I looked up with a smile from the dash. "Oh, I built it myself starting with a junked frame, and then a few years later a friend rebuilt it from the ground up." I checked the fuel level — oddly enough, turbines love firewhiskey — and eyed the battery charge, then climbed on.
"Wait, wait," Sirius objected. "You're not going to start it up here on the porch, are you?"
I winked at him while setting the turbine noise suppression to 90% of full. "Sure!" I hit the start button, and the turbine spun up with the barest whisper of sound. I glanced over at Charlie, who gave me an amused wink. I'd made frequent use of my bike during my stint as a dragon-keeper, both on duty and off, and he knew what I was going to do next.
Which was, of course, engage the grav drive and lift off the porch entirely.
Because I hadn't turned that option off, holographic flames appeared in place of the wheels.
"Wicked!" the twins declared with a single voice as Sirius just stared. I grinned at them and slowly drifted the bike off the porch and into the long, broad backyard behind the house. I spun in place until I was facing back toward the porch, then came in for a two-point landing on the stone walkway which ran down the center of the yard.
Instantly, the twins were next to me — and I do mean "instantly", as they teleported from the porch to either side of me with that funny little spin-in-place-and-pop thing that wizards do when they "apparate". They peppered me with questions, which I tried to answer as best I could while powering down the bike. Since most of my answers were "no, it's not magic", though, they were more frustrated than informed.
Meanwhile, a chuckling Charlie sat himself down on the top step of the wooden stairs that led up from the yard to the porch. Sirius just stood there behind him, smiling and shaking his head. "And here I was going to tell you about my motorcycle and bet you that it was cooler than yours..."
"You've got a bike?" I asked. "Feel up to a little ride?"
As it turned out, Sirius couldn't go out for a ride because he was an escaped convict — but innocent and framed, he claimed. I'll admit that my initial reaction to that admission was not good — I didn't do anything to insult my nominal host, but I took my leave of him as quickly as I could to query Molly about his story. She confirmed that it was true, complete with eyewitness accounts of several recent encounters with the actual culprit — a man Sirius had been imprisoned for killing — and his acknowledgment (if not actual confession) of guilt for the other crimes on Sirius's record.
When I asked why he hadn't been cleared, but was instead forced to stay in the house 24-7 to avoid detection by the wizarding cops, Molly muttered something about the actual criminal never being caught, and Ministry officials whose positions would be threatened by the truth. Which left me even less impressed with the Ministry of Magic than I'd been earlier in the day, if that were possible. "If you're still unsure," she said at the end of the whole sordid tale, "talk to the Headmaster. He'll vouch for Sirius."
I decided that I would, but in the meantime I had no reason to be impolite to the man whose house I was living in. I thanked Molly, found Sirius out in the yard still admiring my motorcycle, and came right out about my reactions to his revelation. He laughed, told me he appreciated my honesty, and asked me if Molly had reassured me enough that I felt comfortable around him.
I thought about it, and consulted my gut, and even though I was going to quiz Headmaster Dumbledore about it when next I saw him, I had to admit I was getting good vibes off of Sirius Black. He didn't feel like a bad guy to me. So I admitted that yeah, I was okay with him for the moment.
Which led to us, the only two males in the house in their thirties (well, simulated thirties, for centenarian me), hanging out through the afternoon together. Charlie by this time had vanished to spend time with his family, so it was just the two of us, sitting in the backyard of 12 Grimmauld Place, each with a bottle of wizard-brewed ale in his hand. Sirius talked a little about his time in Azkaban, the high-security wizarding prison, and I talked about life as a Warrior and my exile, without really saying I was from another universe. During Sirius's half of the conversation I learned about Dementors, the prison's guards. They sounded like a variety of undead not unlike the wraiths we occasionally ran across back home, and I decided that I did not want to encounter one. Not without proper preparation, at least.
After that, Sirius decided to change the subject to something happier. He downed the last of his ale, vanished the bottle, and then dragged me off to show me both his motorcycle — a huge, heavily-enchanted Triumph of a model I'd never seen before — and his hippogriff — the likes of which I'd also never seen before.
Buckbeak and I hit it off, despite how dangerous Sirius claimed he could be. I didn't see it, though — Bucky seemed to take to me as soon as I walked into the makeshift paddock Sirius had made from his late mother's bedroom, bowing like the dragons had as soon as he spotted me, and then generally acting like a big dog around me from that point on. (Which, mind you, is pretty weird behavior for a creature that's half horse and half eagle. Not that I complained.)
I gradually relaxed around Sirius, and decided my gut knew what it was on about where he was concerned. Most of the afternoon later, he and I made our chortling way down to dinner, discussing plans to break him out of the big house for just a few hours by getting all three of us — Buckbeak, Sirius, and me — out and up into the night sky one evening soon. We had just determined that we needed to drag Charlie in on this plan (riding Buckbeak, of course) when we made our entrance to the dining room, right off the foyer.
There we found a large table as packed with diners as a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting. It was almost as well-appointed, too — Molly Weasley seemed to be a kitchen mistress of the first water, and had whipped up a meal for over a dozen in that dank and lightless workspace.
As we came through the door, Charlie was leaning back in his chair while addressing someone who could only be his brother Bill — another freckled redhead, with his hair long and in a ponytail and some kind of dangly earring in one lobe that I couldn't quite make out between the distance and the low light. "So, tell me about this bird you're dating," he said.
As Bill began to wax rhapsodic about a young lady named Fleur with whom he worked at Gringotts, Sirius poked a threadbare-looking fellow sitting near the end of the table. "Budge up, Moony, give us some room."
"Moony" looked up and smirked. He seemed a bit tired and careworn, and a little grey around the edges, but without the air of cynicism and defeat that often goes with those traits. His robes were shabby, with patches here and there, which just added to the effect. "And good evening to you, too, Padfoot." He seemed to notice me for the first time, and held out his hand. "Remus Lupin. Sirius and I are old schoolmates."
I suppressed an urge to start singing the "Dennis Moore" song and shook his hand, which was only the latest in a long series that didn't evince any signs of stopping any time soon. "Doug Sangnoir. I'd guessed that might be the case from the nicknames." I turned to look at Sirius. "Padfoot?"
Ignoring me, he said, "Doug here is the new Professor of Defense at Hogwarts, Moony."
Lupin's eyebrows shot up almost into his hairline. "Really? Well, then, we should talk. I was Defense professor there two years ago."
"And the best one we've ever had, too," the teen with the glasses and the unruly black hair — Harry, was it? — called out from the other end of the table. Lupin had the grace to look somewhat embarrassed at that.
I grinned. "Ah, a victim of the infamous curse. How long did you last?"
Embarrassment turned to sheepishness mixed with... regret? And maybe a little anger? "Almost the full year. I was let go just a couple of weeks before the end of the spring term."
I could tell the circumstances around that were a sensitive issue with him, so I didn't push for details. "Far better than some. Yes, we'll have to sit down one evening soon — I'm only staying here for a week."
This time one eyebrow only rose, as he glanced between me and Sirius. "Just a week?"
I shrugged. "Until my paperwork clears. Then I can move in to quarters at Hogwarts itself."
He nodded. "Ah, I see. I was rather a late hire, myself, and arrived with the students on the first day; I didn't have much chance to settle in before the term started." He leaned forward and stage-whispered, "I'm afraid I hadn't had much time to prepare a syllabus either. I ended up improvising most of my first week or so of classes."
Chuckling, I said, "I get the hint." A thought struck me. "You know, maybe we can chat after dinner tonight? I'm going to this Diagon Alley of yours tomorrow for supplies, and I'd like to get your recommendations for textbooks." I shrugged. "I have no idea what's on the shelves here."
"Certainly!" Lupin replied. "In fact, I..."
Sirius placed a hand over his mouth. "Shop talk later, Moony. Dinner now. Or Molly will skewer us."
"Sirius Black!" that worthy huffed indignantly from her seat next to an older red-headed gentleman who had to be her husband Arthur. Laughing, Sirius and I took our seats.
After dinner, as the dirty dishes were being levitated off the table and down into the kitchen, I had the opportunity to formally meet both Arthur and Bill Weasley.
Bill was still talking about his girlfriend when the meal ended. He clearly had it bad for her. It was equally clear that neither Molly nor his sister Ginny thought very much of her, if I were reading their identical expressions of distaste correctly. On the other hand, his brother Ron seemed to have been conditioned, Pavlovian-style, to drool at the sound of her name.
From all this, I deduced that Fleur must be a very attractive girl.
Charlie managed to get him to shut up about her (ah, young love!) long enough to be introduced. When the inevitable handshake was taken care of, Charlie added, "Doug here's the new Professor of Defense at Hogwarts. We're going into Diagon tomorrow morning to get him set up with supplies — d'you want to come along?"
Bill's broad smile was infectious. "Since I took the morning off to spend time with you, what choice do I have?" He laughed. "Sure, we can steer him away from the clip joints."
"Thanks," I said. "Although, you know, if you don't want a complete stranger horning in on your brotherly bonding time, I'm sure I can get by alone."
"No, no," Bill said. "If you've never been to Diagon Alley before, you'll never find anything without a guide."
"Or a pair of guides," Charlie amended.
"Before my boys begin planning out your day for you," came a softer voice from behind me, not unlike Bill and Charlie's, "if I may?" I turned around to find myself face-to-face with Charlie's dad, who held out his hand. "Arthur Weasley. A pleasure to meet you, Professor Sangnoir."
"Oh, please, just 'Doug', at least until school starts," I said with a smile as we shook. Behind me, Charlie and Bill apparently were planning out my day, starting with something called "Flourishing Blots" and proceeding from there.
"Oh, certainly, if that's what you prefer," Mr. Weasley replied. "In which case, please call me Arthur."
"Thank you, Arthur. A pleasure to meet you as well."
"We've heard quite a bit about you through Charlie's letters these last few weeks," Arthur said, ushering me out of the dining room and into the foyer. "Some of it quite... difficult to believe. We thought he might be telling tall tales," he added with a smile as he led me into a sitting room.
I settled into a burgundy leather wingback armchair — very comfortable — as Arthur seated himself opposite me in another which was identical to mine except it was a deep, royal blue. "I can imagine how you might think so, but unless he was particularly outrageous, he probably told you the truth. For example, I did knock out a dragon with a single punch — but it was more accident and luck than a deliberate act. The dice rolling in my favor, you might say."
Arthur leaned forward in his seat. "Still, it was something quite astounding to hear of."
I nodded. "Yeah, I can see that."
"And not knowing what to believe, finding out that Charlie was recommending you to Albus for the Defense professorship, I thought he was perhaps being a bit..." He trailed off with a little shrug.
"Optimistic?" I asked.
He chuckled. "That's one way — a very diplomatic way — of putting it. But seeing as Albus actually hired you..."
I held up a hand. "Given what I've heard about my immediate predecessors, you shouldn't necessarily take that as evidence of my competence."
Arthur laughed outright. "No, I suppose I shouldn't, should I?"
We chatted for a good quarter hour, mostly about Hogwarts and the history of the defense professorship. It was a good, idle after-dinner conversation — something I don't usually get much of, given the worlds and places I've been. All we needed was a snifter of brandy each to look the perfect cliche.
We'd just reached a natural lull in the conversation when there was an interruption, almost as if scheduled.
"Ah, there you are." Remus suddenly appeared at the entrance to the sitting room. "May I join you?"
"Sure," I said, waving at a nearby seat that he could easily carry over to our little nook.
"Actually," Arthur said, suddenly standing up, "I think I should go help Molly in the kitchen with the last of the clean-up. You sit here, Remus," he said, gesturing to the chair he'd just vacated. "Doug, I'd love to talk to you some more later. I understand you're muggleborn? Perhaps we can discuss plugs."
"Plugs?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"Oh yes!" Arthur enthused. "I have quite the collection. Well, excuse me." And with that he left the room.
Remus chuckled softly as he took Arthur's place across from me. I looked at him and said, "Plugs?"
He shook his head, smiling. "Arthur's very keen on Muggle technology, but he doesn't understand it at all. I'm not quite sure why he seized on plugs to express his obsession, but there you have it." He lifted his head and caught my eyes. "So I take it you already know that Defense education at Hogwarts these last few years has been... well, 'irregular' would be the kindest word for it."
"Yes," I said. "Charlie's told me some, as has Arthur just now, and the Headmaster a bit more this morning. Is it really as bad as it seems?"
"Possibly worse," Remus confirmed. "In the past four years, two of the professors have been incompetent, one was a disguised Death Eater, and, well, one was me."
"Death Eater?" I asked with a frown. "Oh, right, a follower of that Voldemort character."
Remus shuddered at the sound of the name, and I wondered for a moment just what the hell was up with that. Had Flight-of-Emo been so horrible that he'd turned into some kind of bogeyman in the popular memory? Everyone but the Headmaster seemed to jump whenever his name was mentioned, and to a one they preferred to use all manner of euphemisms when referring to him.
"Oddly enough," Remus said when he'd finished shuddering, "the Death Eater was a competent instructor, if a little extreme..."
"Talk about your irony," I interjected.
He nodded. "And I do believe I acquitted myself well during my term there."
"What about before that? Five and more years ago?" I asked, leaning back and steepling my hands before my face.
Remus sighed as he sat back as well, almost vanishing into the shadowed depths of the chair. "Even worse, I've been told."
"Joy." I thought about this. "That means every student currently in the school has had at best a half-assed education in magical self-defense during an age of equally magical terrorists."
"I'm afraid so," Remus said from the shadows.
"Well, then." I laced my fingers and rested my chin on top of them. "I suppose I'm just going to have to make up for all that lost time. Somehow."
"I'll give you a list of all seven years' standard texts to pick up on your shopping trip tomorrow," he said. "If you can read through them all before classes start, you'll know what you need to cover."
"Oh, I can do that, easily," I murmured as I considered my options.
"You're not limited to the standard texts, though," he added. "You can specify your own choice of textbooks, if you get your list to Professor McGonagall quickly enough."
I caught his eyes, a glitter in the shadow of one of the chair's wings. "Got any suggestions?"
White teeth joined the eyes in that shadow. "I know a few books that are a bit more... aggressive in their approach than the standard texts."
A smile grew on my face to match his. "Tell me more."
END OF CHAPTER ONE
This work of fiction is copyright © 2012, by Robert M. Schroeck and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
The Harry Potter universe and the settings and the characters thereof are the property of J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury and Warner Brothers, and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.
Lyrics from "Wind's Four Quarters", recorded by Leslie Fish, words by Mercedes Lackey, music by Leslie Fish, copyright © 1989 by Firebird Arts & Music of Oregon, Inc.
Lyrics from "Bad for Good", recorded by Jim Steinman, words and music by Jim Steinman, copyright © 1981 by SBK Songs.
These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.
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Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Christopher Angel, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Shaye Horwitz, Helen Imre, Eric James, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, Peggy Schroeck and Amanda Stair-Duran.
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