Inside the tiny courtyard of a certain well-hidden ministry, Ed Subtle, junior Unspeakable, strained with fatigue and perhaps a little too intoxicated for that hour of the night, stared down at the sky. His sneakered feet were firmly affixed to the ground but his head was still reverberating with the force of the breaking notion within. Miles below him, the material of a universe was undulating outwards, rushing past stars, swelling with strange planets and flowing to unfathomable depths.
My head is hanging in a chasm, Ed thought, a little bit dizzily.
A sudden noise startled him and he stepped backward, half surprised to find his footing on hard stones. His mind abruptly snapped back, and he blinked as down returned to being up.
"Stargazing, Subtle?" said the soft voice at the door.
Ed glanced at the berobed figure and jerked in surprise. "Master Flamel!"
Alexander Flamel was one of a long line of the alchemist's descendants to conduct his studies at the ministry. Even amidst a department full of them, Flamel was a bit of a mystery, working alone and communicating little. Ed wasn't sure he'd ever heard the man's voice before at all.
The man didn't respond.
"I was just contemplating," Ed said, a bit flustered.
The balcony, the Unspeakables' equivalent of a break-room, overlooked a rather dull sector of muggle London, backdropped by night. Out in the distance, a tired siren wailed, and Ed spared a brief hope that that it was one of the regular muggle things and not You-Know-Who's followers prompting the distress call. Such dangerous days these were becoming…
"Do you know what travels farther than starlight?" Flamel said abruptly.
Ed glanced back up, shaking his head.
"Come with me," he said, his robes swishing as he retreated into the building.
As Ed moved to follow, his gaze caught the sky and he reached for the railing, faltering. After a second, he let go, casting another wary glance at the heavens. As if I'd fall, he thought, disconcerted. Imagine that!
A moment's reflection was enough to restore his faith in his own reasoning. It was the drama of the night, he thought. Unnerving, even for an Unspeakable.
The route Flamel took him was familiar. He strode down a small corridor to a set of lifts, unobtrusive as any other such arrangements sprinkled throughout the ministry. Ignoring the buttons, they waited a few feet from the rightmost elevator, which opened after precisely forty-seven seconds. They stepped inside.
Ed had always hated this part of the process.
"Please state your name and business," the lift said.
Ed and Flamel ignored it.
"Please state your name and business," the lift said, more insistently.
Flamel rubbed his fingers together impatiently, though he was careful not to make a sound.
After a moment, the elevator jerked to life, sinking into the floor. Inwardly, Ed cursed whatever inspired initiative had the Ministry hiding the access-password in its department names. Whenever the issue was raised at meetings, Bode argued that requiring visitors to perform no magic, nor indeed, speak at all, would be bafflingly counterintuitive to any invading force. Privately, Ed's worst nightmares involved being laughed out of the international sphere following an infiltration by mute muggles.
Flamel led him to the Hall of Prophecy. It was empty, the contents of its high aisles slowly gathering dust. Ed expected Flamel to show him one or another of the egg-shaped vessels, but the Unspeakable just paused in the middle of the fork, gesturing widely.
Ed shrugged, gazing around helplessly until the man burst out, "Prophecies, Subtle!"
"Sorry," Ed said, glancing at the shelves. One of the newer orbs jumped out in the gloom. Harry Potten, or something. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
Flamel took out his wand, and Ed tensed, but the other man merely muttered a spell that allowed him to draw a squiggly blue line in the air.
"I'm only explaining this once," Flamel said. "This is the Grand Current through which all reality flows. We and all the other realities move along it this way, towards the Future."
"Sorry, realities?" Ed said.
Flamel paused to draw another line, this time in the other direction.
"Prophecies," he said, "are a kind of psychic undertow. They are stories so powerful they resist the drag of the current and stick around for those with the talent to hear."
"So, you're saying prophecies are descriptive, not proscriptive," Ed said, his mental haze breaking up. "That's amazing! With that, we c—"
"Yes," Flamel said, moving again. He made a sharp turn and tapped a bland-looking wall. Yellow-office light pooled into the aisle. "Quickly now. There is not much time."
Ed glanced around the office, which he realized must be Flamel's own, and saw that the desk had been pushed out of the way to make room for a large, square device. The clock on the wall had five hands.
"Prophecies always come true," Flamel said, "because the reality from which we draw is so close as to be virtually indistinguishable from our own. Do you understand?"
"You're saying… the differences are so slight that any matter of prophecy that we are close enough to hear has to occur," Ed said. "But why are we here?"
The thin smile Flamel gave him was enough to send shivers down his spine.
"I'm glad you asked," he said, digging into his pockets and withdrawing a small, red stone.
"That isn't— that couldn't be—" Ed faltered.
The stone was placed on the device's bronze dish, looking innocuously small and lusterless.
"Let's see how true they become if we jump the current," Flamel said with a grin.
At that moment, Ed realized why the Flamels were kept sequestered in little-used corners of ministry basements. They were utterly insane.
"Don't look so nervous, Subtle, I've calculated the jump to a fraction of a degree. With a powerful enough channel," he nodded at the stone, "we should be able to move the magical representation of this planet crosswise into a branch-off stream."
"So, you're not really moving anything, then?" Ed said.
"I wouldn't say that," Flamel said. "I wouldn't say that at all."
The clock's second hand was departing twelve. In the short interim preceding its return, Ed was split four ways. The first impulse, corresponding from about twelve to two-thirty, marched back towards the elevators to turn Flamel in. The second actor, the largest part, apparated home and tried to pretend none of this had happened, with tolerable success. The bravest, horrified part drew his wand and quietly stunned the scientist. And the smallest, remaining piece of Ed, the part of his mind shaped by a year and a half at the department of mysteries and a night spent staring at the skies, that had withstood the last three flitting thoughts and remained to watch the second hand cross eleven, this version of Ed turned to look Flamel square in the eye.
"What do I do?"
"Just cast a spell you know well, putting all your energy into it," Flamel said. "I will perform the ritual."
Ed cast the strongest lumos he knew, but instead of emerging from his wand, the light seemed to be going into the stone. Flamel pricked his finger and began chanting in Latin while pacing around the square device. The blood disappeared as soon as it hit the dish. Eleven thirty-five and twenty-three seconds, Ed thought, watching the light disappear. January 25th. He was already regretting assisting this mad ritual, but it was too late to back out now.
After a while, Ed stopped watching and focused instead on the sensation of magic streaming from his chest. The effort of the spell, almost negligible to begin with, had faded to nothing— Ed didn't think he could stop even if he tried.
Around him, Flamel began to blur and double, and he blinked to clear the tearing of his eyes. He wasn't sure how long he'd been standing there, staring at the floor before the stone. His world had dimmed to faint chanting and the ache of magic in his chest. Gradually, it seemed, Flamel seemed to be everywhere— mirrored around the room, the chants echoing and blending eerily. The sound and pain grew to almost unbearable heights, and Ed felt his hand seared with his wand's increasing heat.
After a moment, the stone shattered, Flamel fell back, and the wand in Ed's hand dropped. He picked it up numbly, staring at the black swath of his right palm. It felt different. Lighter, somehow.
Flamel was white and still on the floor.
Ed wasn't sure what, if anything, had happened, but part of him was suddenly terrified. He tried to apparate, but the telltale rush of air never came. So instead, he turned, robe-tails whipping, and rushed headlong for the elevators.
The Earth Ed knew had made a fantastic journey, cleaving its way through a relatively wide swath of universe before colliding with this particular time, but the London street was dark and quiet, and Ed was focused on something less grandiose.
"Lumos," he muttered as he ran, glancing down at his wand-tip. "Lumos. Lumos. Lumos."
But the spell would not come.
His robes flapped crazily in the wind, his breaths giving the words bad form. "L'mos, Lu… mos— come on."
Like a winded marathon runner long past the finishing hour, Ed panted and ran down the quiet streets until his knees found the wet lawn, spent. He knelt there for a long time, cold soaking into his knees, quietly weeping in the dark.
On the night that would become the same night, the golden halls of Asgard were lit with revelry. Dogs and young children ran underfoot, snatching pieces of food and miming great sword-fights. Odin leaned atop several tankards of mead, trying not to fall asleep. He did have an image to maintain, after all. Further along the gargantuan table, Thor and the Warriors Three were on their fourth go-round of "I Am the Jolly Prince of Drinkers," assisted reluctantly by Sif. Loki had left his projection to be scolded by Hoder while he turned the shoes of drunken party-guests to lead.
His last mark was Odin himself, and had Loki not turned to watch his progress, he would have missed entirely the sudden shock that lit up the sky. The young prince took a step out of his corner, then stopped abruptly as a tremor pulsed through the building, and his finely trained vision burned with magic. Loki nearly stumbled, his mind recoiling from the sudden blaze of what seemed to be every spell in the vicinity's dying burst.
Sensation returned to the sound of screams.
"Jotun!" someone cried. "Frost Giant!"
Loki smiled blandly, ready to step in, because whatever magic disturbance they had just witnessed, it had certainly not been Jotuns, when he caught a glance of his hand.
After that, it was only the barest vestiges of dignity and wispy denial that kept him from screaming too.
James Potter read the auror reports in bed. If asked, he would have said that he was prudently sparing himself from falling asleep on the hard kitchen chairs. Really, he preferred to be near his family at night, where he could keep close watch. For the first few months after the prophecy, he had watched his wife and the unborn baby like a hawk, until Lily had indignantly declared that there was a reason she hadn't married Mad-Eye Moody. He glanced down at her now, her red hair splayed over the pillows, brows creased with worry, even now. Circumspection had worn them both out, though a good part of that could be attributed to a certain eight-month old.
James smiled fondly. The wonder of watching Harry grow was unlike any other in his life, save, perhaps, the occasional, old rush of incredulity when he remembered Lily was his. Still, it was hard to believe that the baby who still babbled nonsensically, who had dumped whole pints of mashed carrots over the side of his floaty-chair, who burst into mournful tears when Miss Tabby fled his affectionate ministrations, could be someday have "the power to vanquish the dark lord." When he had time to spare from work, James sketched out some vague plans of how he would train his son, to make him strong and keep him safe. He knew Lily was performing some similar research, though he hadn't caught up on her findings.
The clock slipped from eleven thirty-five to eleven thirty-six, and James yawned, extinguishing his wandlight. The auror reports could wait, he decided. The Fidelius charm shone on, and the Potter family was safe for the night.
The magic had failed. That was the source of the Bifrost's terrible collapse and the disgrace of the young impostor prince, as well as a thousand other disturbances, large and small, throughout the planet. Most of it had returned immediately, of course, but much was still broken and the elder royals had been busy trying to repair the damage. They had heard Loki's questions. He had demanded, and they had answered, those that he had once called his parents. They had answered ill.
He had fled to his rooms, anger and disgust erupting in his chest so fiercely he thought he might die, and several times since had he dismissed the glamors and attempted with a dagger to extinguish the source. Of his brother, his perfect, false brother, he had made no requests, and had barred his doors by magic to preclude attempts at communication. The last time, the cries of a mob had gathered below his window, and he'd considered going out to fight them, taking as many as possible before they slew him. No doubt Thor would have done as much. But he'd just stared at the people, invisibly, clutching the sill so hard it dented, until they passed.
Something had changed after that. Loki had taken up his dagger— it was never far from his grasp now, held it to the light, and flipped it, watching the double-edged mirror flash with green and gold and pale. He'd cracked a smile.
Because the commoners, those specks on the horizon of their betters, would do well to fear him. There was a power near-at-hand, something greater than anything before seen to have so threatened the balance of Asgard. If Loki could harness it, possess something that Odin himself was struggling to control, they would all come grovelling back to him.