-No. - Severus stated flatly.

-My dear friend... - Albus started.

-No means no, Albus. I am not going to traverse across half the country to deliver a letter to the Brat-Who-Is-Too-Lazy-To-Reply.

-Something might have happened... - Dumbledore stated tentatively. Snape didn't seem to care very much for some reason. - He's Lily's -

-Don't even go there! - Severus snarled, interrupting his old teacher and current employer. - Do not ever go there!

-Oh, well. - Albus stated, disappointed. - We still need to make sure he gets his letter.

-Why can't Minerva do it? She's usually the one who deals with problems like this.

-It seems one of this year's muggleborn families, the Granger residence, I believe, has more questions regarding the wizarding world than usual. She just sent me a Patronus stating that she won't be back for quite some time yet.

-Oh, what do I care! - Severus threw his hands up. - You can send Rubeus and it won't make any difference to me.

-What a brilliant idea! - Albus beamed. - I can't believe I didn't think of it myself.

Severus looked at him flatly, as if expecting a punchline for a joke, but it never came.

-Oh, why do I even bother. - The potions professor muttered, leaving the room.

(())

-Nicolas? I've got your stone. - Albus told his old friend. - I don't know if you follow the news, but whoever tipped you off regarding the theft was correct – the vault was breached by a third party scant hours after the stone was removed. When will you be by to pick it up?

Looking at Mr. Flamel, one would hardly think of the most famous alchemist of all time. Nicolas looked more like a well-to-do businessman – greying hair, professional if expensive clothing, nondescript facial features and slightly overweight. He hardly looked over six hundred years old.

-Oh, when I'll be by, I'll let you know. - The alchemist replied, waving him off. - Perenelle was wondering if you could invite dear Horace to her birthday party, but I'm certain he has better things to do.

Albus sighed at the usual Flamel drama. Ever since his wife let it slip that she found the former potions professor "rather handsome", Nicolas has been doing everything in his power to keep the two apart. For some reason, the man had yet to understand that his wife thrived when presented with a challenge, and Albus was stuck in between the two of them.

It was only a moment later that he realized that Nicolas never answered his question.

-Nicolas? You'll be coming before September First, right?

The alchemist hummed noncommittally.

-You do realize that I can't leave a Stone that attracts all sorts of psychos, including our favorite Dark Lord, in a school full of children, right?

Especially since Quirinus returned form his holiday with an enormous stutter, requiring a small incarceration in the hospital wing to make sure it was nothing more sinister. When Poppy sedated him, Albus personally inspected the poor young man, expecting some sort of a vile curse, but instead finding a Voldemort stuck to the back of the man's head.

The headmaster was stuck in between glee at finally knowing where the man is (and finding proof for his belief that Tom truly did find a way to cheat death), and horror at the fact that he managed to infiltrate Hogwarts, being so close to all the students, their impressionable minds and fragile bodies. Unfortunately, there wasn't really anything Dumbledore could do without proof – and there was no way the Board of Governors would believe that the professor is possessed by a deceased dark lord. Still, Tom wasn't known for patience and Albus was sincerely hoping to witness him committing some sort of a crime that would allow him to fire Quirinus without going into the whole Dark Lord thing.

-I thought Hogwarts was the safest place in Britain, with the possible exception of Gringotts, wasn't it? - Nicolas replied innocently.

-You son of a... - Albus swore, realizing the whole extent of his old friend's plan. - You realize that if you don't pick it up, I will just throw it out into the street, for someone else to pick up?

-No, you won't. - Nicolas called his bluff.

-No, I won't. - Albus caved in.

-Have a good day, Albus and don't forget to come to Perry's birthday party. - Nicolas told him cheerfully. - I think I'll pick up the stone in a year or two.

And with that the alchemist disappeared amongst the green flames.

(())

-You have what? - Albus asked faintly.

-He was jus' a pup. - Rubeus shuffled his feet nervously. On such a large man, the gesture looked comical, but Albus didn't really feel like laughing. - I coudn' leave him to die in da Forest.

-So you raised a Cerberus pup. - Albus stated, feeling as if someone up there was laughing at him. - Still, he can't be too big, or someone would have noticed. Right?

-Nah, he's the cutest thing you'll ev'r see. - Hagrid beamed. - FLUFFY!

The earth trembled as a huge three-headed dog barreled toward the aged headmaster.

-Fluffy? - Albus asked faintly.

-Fits, doesn' it? - Rubeus grinned.

(())

Later that evening, as he was drinking Abe's best Firewhisky, Albus glared at the newest pile of paperwork he received. Apparently one of his coming students, a Granger, has broken the Decree for Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery dozens of times before she got caught, and Minerva was being blamed for not instilling the importance of the law into the girl. Lucius was having a field day with this.

-Is there anything else you want to drop on me? - Albus shouted at the ceiling, feeling just the right combination of intoxication and righteous anger. - Come on, I'm right here! Is this all you've got?

He was interrupted by a timid knock on his office door. Struggling to hide the alcohol, while straightening out his robes and trying to pretend he was completely sober, the headmaster waved in his visitor.

-Pomona! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you to my humble abode so late?

-Well, Albus, you see... It was just an accident! I... might have dropped a few seeds of the Devil's Snare while I was in the kitchen, and you know how quick it grows and... itstrangledfourhouseelves.

Albus blinked, trying to bring his mind to its full, not-intoxicated sharpness.

-Excuse me? I thought you just said...

-The Devils' Snare strangled four house elves before they subdued it.

The headmaster groaned and hit his head on the table.

(())

-Welcome! Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you.

The hall clapped and cheered without really comprehending his words, but he saw Pomona lower her head. The house elves would never allow for a true funeral, so this was the closest he could get to honoring the four brave creatures that gave their lives for the school.

As the banquet commenced, Albus looked over his faculty. Half the teachers were absent, unwilling to end their holidays a day short, when they could still be free until the lessons of the next day. Rubeus was moping in his drink, unhappy with the headmaster's new plan for Fluffy and even unhappier with the reprimand. Albus had once hoped that his expulsion might have taught Hagrid a lesson about raising lethal creatures near a school, but it seemed it wasn't so – so the headmaster had to lay it out in no uncertain terms that he would not be happy if he found yet another "cute" creature raised by Rubeus.

Quirinus was talking to Severus, trying to feel out his true loyalties. Yes, unfortunately he was still here, even if Albus caught him snooping around a few times. It seemed that Tom knew the Stone was at Hogwarts, but had yet to find out where.

It was one of his rather brilliant ideas, he believed. He let all his problems take care of each other. He set an entire obstacle course leading to the stone – the obstructions hard, but passable. They were intended to let Tom through, while occupying his attention and distracting him from the real purpose behind the rooms. Six rooms, six parts of a single spell, inscribed in invisible ink upon the walls, activated by passing them by. The seventh component was held by Albus himself, designed to trap the soul in the body, allowing him to capture Voldemort even if Quirinus dies, just so long as the body was mostly intact. That way not only would he get rid of a possessed teacher, but with a use of Veritaserum he may find out what measures Tom took to achieve temporary immortality and how to disable them.

And the best part? Tom's ego would never allow him even contemplate the idea that he was let through.

As the Feast came to an end, Albus rose to make a full speech.

-Ahem, just a few more words now that we're all fed and watered. I have a few start-of-term notices to give you. First years should note that the forest on the grounds is forbidden to all pupils. And a few of our older students would do well to remember that as well. - Albus' eyes were drawn to the Weasley menaces as Severus fondly called them. - I have also been asked by Mr. Filch, the caretaker, to remind you all that no magic should be used between classes in the corridors. - Albus hoped there were a few of the more creative students who would notice the wording. After all, true magic is being able to circumvent the world's laws, human and natural alike. - Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of the term. Anyone interested in playing for their house team should contact Madam Hooch. And finally, - Albus did his best to keep his eyes from looking pointedly at Quirinus, - I must tell you that this year, the third floor corridor on the right hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.

In the wording was also hidden a warning for the students. Usually, Albus gave a reason for declaring some place out of bounds, or warned the prefects at least. This time he did not, and the smarter students, the ones willing to push boundaries and risk their lives, would take notice of it. This is serious, Albus was saying, keep out.

-And now, before we go to bed, let us thing the school song!

(())

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was officially ticked off.

What else did Tom need, a neon sign saying "Philosopher's Stone Here"? Albus expected Tom to go for the grab that very evening. When that didn't happen, Albus waited another week, expecting the wards to alert him any moment. Tom still couldn't be bothered.

Finally, finally, when the man opened the door... he bolted out of it scant moments later and hasn't been back since.

For Merlin's sake, did Tom even want a new body? It's like he wasn't even trying. Sure, the Cerberus was somewhat intimidating, but his weak spot was hardly a secret – even the muggles had legends about it!

And even if he didn't find out about it, what stopped him from casting a strong protego shield, separating Fluffy from the trapdoor? Sure, the cerberus is immune to most direct-effect curses, but Tom, despite his rather lackluster abilities in direct combat, had to know a few of the more transfiguration-based spells.

That's it, Albus decided, if Voldemort doesn't get his act together by Halloween, I'm placing a batch of cocaine in his quarters and calling the DMLE on suspicion of a dealer in Hogwarts.

(())

It was Halloween, and Voldemort didn't get his act together. Cocaine it is, then, Albur sighed.

Then Quirinus sprinted into the hall, terrified.

-Troll – in the dungeons – thought you ought to know. - And he fainted.

Albus looked at him blankly. This was Tom vessel? Then the headmaster blinked in realization. This was Tom's vessel!

Then the screaming started.

(())

Severus did not lead his House back to the dormitory, Albus realized crossly. Of course, he later recalled that the Slytherin dormitory is in the dungeons, so perhaps it wasn't all bad.

Instead of doing what he was ordered by his employer, Severus slipped out after Quirinus, who slipped out himself, and Albus let himself swear. This was Tom's chance to waltz into the trap and it could fail dramatically because of an overeager ex-spy.

(())

-Severus! - Albus yelped, throwing up a shield just before the third of Fluffy's heads ripped out the downed teacher's throat. With the next two spells, the headmaster summoned Severus to his side and locked the door.

-Albus? - Severus gasped. - Quirrell. It was Quirrell. He's after the stone and was the one, who let the troll in.

-Ah, - Albus shifted, abashed slightly. Severus' eyes narrowed in suspicion.

-You knew. - He stated flatly.

-Maybe?

-What did Albus know? - The aged headmaster felt his heart sink as he heard a familiar voice behind him.

-Nothing. - He replied quickly. - It was nothing, Minerva.

-Quirrell was the one who let in the troll as a diversion in attempt to seize the Stone. - Severus betrayed him in an even tone. - And Albus knew this entire time.

Minerva blinked.

-Well, of course, he did.

Both males stared at her open-mouthed.

-You knew? - Albus gaped.

-You all knew. - Severus glared. - You both knew. And only I, the idiot, actually went after him when Quirrell went for the Stone. Bloody hell, I had a chunk of my leg torn out when he shoved me to the floor on the way out!

-Ouch. - Albus winced sympathetically. Severus' glare told him that his sympathy went unappreciated.

-You should visit Poppy. - Minerva tried helpfully.

-Like hell. I am sticking with you two until I get an explanation. And even then I'm not going to the Hospital Wing to be gawked at by any dunderhead that wanders in. So, an explanation?

-Not to interrupt what is sure to be an interesting conversation, - Minerva intervened, - but there is this little problem of a troll traversing Hogwarts. Maybe we should take care of that first?

That was the exact moment they heard a crash, followed by a dull thud from below.

(())

Severus was most unimpressed at Albus' excuses. Albus was also unimpressed with Severus barging in on his brilliant and absolutely infallible plan. So they decided to resolve their differences by making a new one.

-I must thank you all for arriving so promptly. - Albus addressed the gathered men (and woman). - What I am about to tell you is a secret of utmost importance and must not leave this room. If any of you consider yourselves incapable of keeping it, I would not hold it against you if you leave.

Obviously, after such a speech, none did.

-Earlier this year I was contacted by my old friend and mentor, Nicolas Flamel, who asked me to look after one of his things.

Cue the gasps from those that knew who Nicolas was and were not yet in the know.

-As you may or may not have gathered, the object, which will hereby be codenamed Arni, is stationed at the third floor corridor. I already have some defenses in place, but it was brought to my attention that when all defenses are made by a single man, they tend to become rather predictable.

Severus snorted loudly. For some reason he believed that excuse to work for anyone except Albus himself.

-Thus, I have gathered you all to ask for a favor. I would like each one of you, Minerva, Severus, Filius, Pomona and Quirinus, to create your own defenses. Each of you has long been a member of faculty and I would gladly put the fate of Arni in your hands. Thank you.

The meeting dispersed with much murmuring and speculation, and Severus sidled up to him.

-Arni? - He asked, raising a single eyebrow.

-A Rock Named Immortality. - Albus beamed. - Brilliant, right?

For some strange reason, Severus did not seem to agree.

(())

A week later found Albus pacing in his office on the verge of tearing out his own hair.

-For Merlin's sake, why? - He growled. - I personally lead him past most of the defenses, almost right to Arni's chamber and Tom still didn't take the bloody chance to secure his own future! That was the whole point!

-I still think you should have let me simply make my Warriors of Stone the guardians, instead of some inane game of chess. - Minerva sulked.

Albus groaned:

-That bloody useless lump of a spirit is highly incompetent and reticent as it is. Creating any real obstacle in his way would likely stop him altogether.

-You should have allowed me to make lethal poison where the riddle says the salvation is. - Severus scowled. - That would have solved all our problems.

-No, it bloody well wouldn't have! - Albus exclaimed, stuck explaining his reasoning for an ungodly amount of times. - Voldemort, – cue the flinch, - needs to go through all six chambers before I arrive. If he does not reach Arni's chamber, the spell will be incomplete and Tom will flee Quirinus' body the moment it falls unconscious, and we will be none the wiser in regards to his plans or apparent immortality. The whole point of the course is not to stop him, it's to make him reach the end without suspecting anything! And that idiot still can't even get past a damn dog!

(())

The rest of the year proceeded in a similar vein. Albus gave Tom every opportunity to seize Arni, and Tom repeatedly turned them down. By the time the winter break arrived, Albus had to wonder if he, perhaps, had made a mistake. What if it wasn't Tom in the back of Quirinus' head, but some other dark spirit resembling him?

As the students left for the break, Albus enacted one last desperate gamble – he put the Mirror of Erised along with Arni upstairs in one of the unused classrooms, crafting six similar enchantments in all the corridors leading to the room, and hoping that Tom didn't know some secret passageway right to the room. Albus also had to warn all ghosts away – after all, if one of them got caught in the enchantment and forced into possession of the body of the first student that came by, the consequences were unthinkable.

Several days later he found a young student in the mirror room, one Harry Potter. To his everlasting shame, Albus let him come again and again, hiding behind the disillusionment charm and hoping that not one, but two of the things Tom wishes for most, put in a single place, were enough of a bait. And perhaps they were, because Severus found Quirinus lurking around the surrounding corridors, but...

But with every passing day Harry became paler and more drawn. He spend more and more time in front of the mirror, ignoring everything else. It was when he actually fought his friend, a son of a Weasley and a Prewett, a nephew of the two Prewett brothers that Albus failed so badly due to faulty intelligence, that Dumbledore recalled the original reason he sought to remove Quirrell for. It wasn't to capture the Dark Lord, it wasn't to force Tom into this trap that he spend so much time on, it was to protect the students. And wasn't it counterintuitive to put students in danger in order to protect them?

That was when Albus revealed himself to young Harry and explained to him the original purpose of the mirror, removing it lest more students fall into its trap. Tom was not so important that Albus would compromise the safety of the students for him.

(())

The less was said about Albus' reaction to finding out that Rubeus acquired a dragon and forced students to help him hide it, the better.

(())

Albus' reaction to finding out Rubeus send those same students after Tom who was drinking unicorns' blood was even worse.

(())

When Albus received a summons from the Ministry, he gathered the faculty and loudly proclaimed that he was determined relive his youthful days and fly all the way to London on a broom (under a disillusionment charm, of course) and is leaving the school in their hands.

Because if Tom doesn't take this opportunity, then back to the cocaine it is.

(())

Just as he reached the outskirts of London, Albus received mental notification that the first part of the spell has been activated and decided that Hogwarts needs him more than Cornelius and quickly apparated to the edge of the wards, using his broom to get to the headmaster's office as quickly as possible. That was when he was notified that somebody else triggered the spell.

Severus, he wondered, but no, the man was not so foolish as to directly challenge the dark lord. But who else would... It was then that he recalled Sybill's words all those years ago in Abe's tavern.

Albus Dumbledore had never been a believer in divination. As a matter of fact, more than once he's raised the question of removing it from the Hogwarts curriculum altogether, but the Board would never stand for it.

Perhaps, it would be more correct that Albus did not believe in the possibility if predicting the future. All the prophecies he ever came across have been self-fulfilling. If he had to make a theory, he'd put true prophesies in the same category as Imperius, though a much more far-reaching one, across both time and space. Prophecies were not so much a prediction of the future, as they were an instrument of its fulfillment – a malicious and powerful spell of accidental magic that always ended with somebody dead.

When he came across Ms. Granger and Mr. Weasley he did not even need to ask, but he still did:

-Harry's gone after him, hasn't he?

(())

The obstacles once again repaired themselves to stand in his way, but Albus couldn't allow himself time to waste on them. Summoning chains to bind the cerberus, Albus moved him off the trap door, jumped down with an arresto momentum to avoid breaking something, and then warded the Snare with Lumos. As fond as he'd been of Quidditch, he didn't bother with a broom or the heavily-warded door, instead transfiguring the wall into sand and levitated himself over the chessboard, careful not to step on it and activate the enchantment. The troll was still knocked out and rather than read Severus' attempts at poetry (that must have been shocking for students, who didn't see him around Lily), Albus once again transfigured the wall into sand. For some reason, most people always ignored the easier solutions.

The picture that met him destroyed all his carefully-written plans. Quirinus' body was burned to the point where it barely resembled a human (and was clearly unsuitable for spirit containment) and by the demands of the spell, Tom's spirit was rapidly hurling toward an unconscious Harry Potter. And Albus was done endangering his students.

With a single wave of his wand, the enchantment was dispersed and Tom was unable to possess anyone without their express permission. With a howl, he flew through the ceiling and out of the school, with Albus barely managing to tag him with a tracking charm.

Later his spellwork would show Tom to be in Albania, later he would contact the people he knew in the country and ask them to look after the spirit and inform Albus of any changes, but later would come later. Right now he had a hurt student to look after.

(())

As the rumors continued to circle around the school regarding the happenings of yesterday, as Minerva attempted to explain Quirinus' death to the Board and the DMLE, Albus sat in his office and looked at a red rock.

It wasn't anything impressive, it didn't resemble a ruby, looking rather like a piece of rock that was dipped in day-old blood. It didn't look like a condensation of mankind's hopes, everything the men wanted, it didn't look like the most dangerous object on the planet. But it was. And it had no place in a school full of children.

Yet Nicolas was also right – he was a scientist, not a fighter, he couldn't truly protect the treasure from people like Tom, immensely capable and so determined that not even death would stop them, not their own and not of anyone who stands in their way.

With a sigh, Albus stood and pointed a stick, a stick taken from Gellert and soaked in blood of generations upon generations, a stick just as powerful and just as dangerous as the stone before it (but less sought after for none considered it real and even less knew where to find it), and with a single jab vanished the rock from existence.

(())

-YOU DID WHAT? - Nicolas roared, furious. - I give you a chance, one chance, to tell me that you are jesting.

-I am not. - Albus explained calmly. - I destroyed the Stone.

-Do you have any idea of what you've done? - For a moment it seemed as though the alchemist calmed down, before he roared again. - You murdered me! YOU MURDERED MY WIFE!

-Could you not make another? - Albus asked, suspecting the answer.

-No. - Nicolas growled lowly, hatefully. - It requires too many components, some of which no longer exist, as well as certain celestial conditions, which I would not live long enough to see again.Between me and Penny, we do not even have enough elixir left to see the summer die once more. You killed us.

The silence in the wake of that statement was damning.

-What possessed you to do such a thing? - Nicolas asked, trying to keep a hold of his temper.

-It was too dangerous to exist.

-THA WAS NOT YOUR DECISION TO MAKE!

-You made it my decision when you put your well-being ahead of the lives of hundreds of students. - Albus' voice became quiet and cold, anger burning behind every word. - You're an extraordinary man, Nicolas, and I think because of that you have a problem understanding things that are far more ordinary. Hogwarts has strong foundations, it lasted through battles and wars. Entire empires rose and fell, the Wizards' Council was replaced by the Ministry of Magic and one people were cut into two by the Stature of Secrecy, yet Hogwarts remained standing. It is a strong, but very fragile institution; push it too far and it will break, and it would be such a sad thing to see it falter now. Hogwarts is more than a castle, Nicolas, it's the people, the history, the faith that is put in it. And I won't let it fall, Nicolas, not when I was a teacher and not now that I'm headmaster.

The alchemist's lips thinned and Albus knew that Nicolas did not accept his reasoning. Perhaps, he truly was beyond understanding, unable to comprehend that the lives of little peoples, not even a century old, matter as well.

With a swirl of his cloak, the famed alchemist turned around and left without a single word.

(())

-Yes, yes, well done, Slytherin. However, recent events must be taken into account.

Albus did not consider himself to be a vindictive man and he fully understood that it was not the entirety of the house of Slytherin that supported Voldemort. Yet, when he found out that no less than three of its students knew of Quirinus' possession and actively aided him, he could not leave it alone. However, he could take points away for something he found out from Severus, lest the man loose support and trust of his house (which may result in loosing his life should Voldemort ever come back). Fortunately, there were also a few people who, while absolutely destroying his plan and ignoring the orders of their professors, were brave enough to risk their lives to do the right thing and skillful enough to pass the obstacles created by masters of their fields. Severus in particular was almost frothing at the mouth at being outwitted by a first-year, or even worse – Potter.

Still, Albus made certain to reward the decisive points to someone who tried to do the right thing without going to the corridor they were explicitly forbidden from on the pain of certain death.

(())

The Death of a Legend!

By Rita Skeeter

Yesterday, between eleven pm and midnight, the most famous alchemist of all time, Nicolas Flamel died at the age of six hundred and sixty five, a scant day before his age would have reached the Number of the Beast. Along with him died his wife of many centuries Perenelle Flamel.

Nicolas Flamel was famous for being the only person who managed to create the famed Philosopher's Stone, capable of turning any metal into gold and producing the Elixir of Life, which could indefinitely prolong one's life, though there had been rumors that Nicolas merely found instructions in an old manuscript from Egypt.

What then could have happened to the famed Stone? Was it stolen, did it stop working or did the alchemist simply decide that he was tired of life? Or, perhaps, there is a much more sinister tale hidden here? After all, the killing curse lives no residue and no trace, making it indistinguishable to death of old age. The motive is not hard to figure – after all, what man does not want to live forever with unlimited gold at his disposal?

The famed Philosopher's Stone was not found among the man's belongings, increasing the likelihood that it was stolen, but did it happen before or after the death? Was Flamel murdered to seize the Stone or did he die due to its disappearance and the lack of Elixir of Life? The papers found in his office, delineating a desperate attempt to create a new Stone, as well as a number of dark books on the topics of immortality and something called horcruxes, hint at the second possibility. But where is the Stone then?

The Philosopher's Stone is a small blood-red rock. If you see one, the Ministry is willing to pay a handsome sum as a reward to the one who finds and brings the object to the authorities. Possible characteristics of a Stone-owner include a sudden influx of money, unexpected healing of unhealable illnesses or a permanent age-reversal effect. Warning: the Daily Prophet is not responsible for loss of magic, sanity, limb and life due to any attempt of using the Philosopher's Stone.

On to other news, among Flamels' papers was found a list of people to attend their funeral. One notable absence is Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts and an old friend and pupil of Nicolas Flamel...