The Phoenix Paradox
Part 1: Bigger on the Inside
It was a little known fact, but at precisely three and a half minutes past four in the afternoon, on the second Wednesday of the month, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry sprouted a fifth tower. Nobody quite understood why or how, but at three minutes and twenty-five seconds past four, a door would shimmer into existence in the back of the headmasters' office, permitting access to all who desired.
It was Albus Dumbledore's favourite spot in the castle, in large part because no-one else knew about it. It was his own personal haven in a sea of administration and concern; he would often schedule governors meetings for early afternoon on the relevant Wednesday, specifically so that he could retreat there to recover. It stretched up higher even than the Astronomy Tower, commanding outstanding views of the mountains around the castle and lake.
At the appointed time, on the second Wednesday of April, 1980, he took his seat on the balcony, letting the cool breeze wash over him and the spring sun warm his face, a glass of Mermish sherry in his hand. The meeting that day had been particularly long winded, with concerns raised about the future of the potions department that, while admittedly understandable in many respects, had descended into furious repetition of well-worn points, with neither side of the argument actually listening to the other. Albus had spent most of the last hour of the meeting idly sketching out some theories on the alchemical properties of Lethifold hair on the back of some parchment, and the issue had ultimately been left hanging. Again.
Today was one of the times that he wished he had never stepped away from the classroom. He had to admit, however, that a life of tedious administration was far superior to the life he had been leading for most of the last decade.
He cast the dark thoughts aside, and settled his gaze on the view. It looked as if the Forest was expanding up the mountainside; he would have to get Hagrid to pay the dryads a visit again and see if an arrangement could be made. For some reason, the spirits seemed to far prefer the half-giant to the Headmaster, and Hagrid always became unusually close-mouthed if asked about the matter. He would talk to him at dinner.
All of a sudden, there came the faint sound of a tolling bell. Albus frowned, and reached into his robes for his pocket watch. It was making no sound, and a look at the clock tower confirmed that it was not yet the quarter hour. The tolling became louder, and louder, and Albus rose to his feet, putting his hand to his wand. It was like no bell he had ever heard – it seemed to echo within his head more than his ears.
And then came a burst of blue, and a terrible wind, as something flew over the castle turrets, careening into the mountainside on the far side of the lake with a terrible crash. Albus gaped for a moment, then leapt into action. His sherry fell to the floor as he summoned a broom to his hand, and as he mounted he flicked away a Patronus to Professor McGonagall, instructing her to keep everyone indoors while he investigated. He launched into the air straight from the balcony, dropping slightly before rising back up, his wand still out to allow safe passage through the castle protections.
He hovered over the mountain for a moment, wind whipping his hair into his eyes, surveying the scene below. In over a century of life in the magical world, he had not seen anything like it before. A blue box, about the size of the telephone box used for public access to the Ministry, with the words 'POLICE BOX' along the top. There was a flickering light atop it, although that happened to be nearer the ground than normal at present; the box was on its side, steam rising gently from it. It had landed hard. Trees had been torn up, and a deep rut was etched into the ground where it had skidded upon impact. He landed, his wand ready for a closer inspection.
The door burst open, and a wild flop of hair burst out, followed by a chin that could snap through goblin steel.
"Hello! Sorry about all this, my friend's fault – we had a thing, and she decided to reverse the polarity of a neutron star. I told her it was a bad idea!"
"You're always going on about doing that in the good old days!" came another voice from within the box, a woman's voice, slightly older if Albus was any judge.
"Neutron flow, River, neutron flow. Very different to stars." The young man in possession of the chin looked back at Albus, beaming at him. "Sorry. Be with you in a jiffy."
The chin vanished, and the wind came again. The box began to shimmer, flitting in and out of visibility before his eyes before vanishing altogether. It reappeared a second later, now upright and a foot or so to the left of where it had been lying. Both doors opened, and all of the young man now appeared, the prominence of his chin matched only by the gangliness of his limbs. He hopped over to Albus, and shook him by the hand.
"Much better! Terribly sorry about the trees, I know a guy, Capability Brown, he'll sort it out in a trice, I'll go get him in three ticks of a dog's back leg." He frowned. "Sorry, that's not quite right is it? You know what I mean, anyway. I'm the Doctor, by the way, hello!"
"Albus Dumbledore," the Headmaster said, uncharacteristically dazed by the sheer cheerfulness on display before him."
"Dumbledore, that rings a bell, I'll have it in a minute. Come on inside, the smoke's nearly clear – but, erm…well, brace yourself." The Doctor flashed him two thumbs up, and disappeared inside the box again in a flash of tweed. Albus stared after him for a moment, and then sent another Patronus to Professor McGonagall, indicating that things were, on balance, probably alright. Then he ventured forth through the doors.
He nodded appreciatively as the doors closed behind him, the box clearly the result of some well-cast Expansion charms. There was a short flight of stairs leading up to…something. It looked rather like an altar used for certain archaic rituals, if one were to create such an altar out of things left behind in the attic by previous occupants of a house. A woman, maybe ten or fifteen years older than the Doctor, although a good sixty or seventy years younger than Albus, was fiddling about with various levers on the probably-not-an-altar.
"River, this is Albus, Albus, this is River, my…what are we calling each other at the moment, Doctor Song?"
"Personally, I've always tried to be a bad influence on you, sweetie." She looked up, giving the Doctor a cheeky smile, and her hand to Albus. He bowed over it.
"Charmed," he murmured. He turned back to the Doctor, who was eying him curiously.
"So, Albus…what do you think?"
Albus cocked his head in query, and the Doctor span a full circle on his heel, lifting his arms to gesture around the box.
"I know it's a bit unsettling at first, but honestly, you get used to it. Although I'll admit, not usually as quickly as you seem to be."
Albus looked around, then back at the Doctor. "It's very impressive. Rare to see an Expansion Charm performed so well – where did you study, if I may ask? I am afraid that I do not recall seeing you in our classrooms."
The Doctor stared at him for a moment in complete silence, an expression that Albus might have been tempted to call a pout on his face. "You're not even a little surprised by it? The whole bigger on the inside thing?"
Albus cast a glance at the lever strewn not-an-altar. "I will concede that the style is a little…unusual."
River snorted, still twiddling levers. "That's the Doctor for you."
"But spatial abnormalities are not – well, not that abnormal, my boy."
The Doctor flopped back into a comfy looking armchair by the stairs, crossing his legs and his arms in one smooth motion, his expression becoming calculating. "I see. Well that's interesting."
"I have to ask, Doctor – what brings you here? The magic is common enough in principle, but the execution is rather extravagant. And you said something about a star?"
"Oh, we had a thing," the Doctor replied with an airy wave of his hand. "Not a big thing. Well, a pretty big thing. If you had to scale it as a thing, then it was probably nearer a pocket-sized thing than a planet devouring thing, if you see what I mean."
"Not entirely, no," Albus said. He looked at River. "Perhaps you could shed some light on the matter, my dear?"
"Oh, he gets ever so cross when I explain his explanations," River said. "I am curious about magic though."
"How so?" Albus asked.
"Oh! That's a good point. Magic! You said this was common enough magic!" He pointed a finger at Albus. "Love a good magic trick, but that's not what you meant, is it?"
The beginnings of uneasiness began to stir in Albus. He didn't recognise either of them, and there were few people in magical Britain who he did not at least recognise. He might have put that down to a glamour charm, or Polyjuice, or even latent metamorph talent, but to appear unfamiliar with magic as a basic concept…could they possibly be Muggles?
"If you will forgive me, Doctor, I feel we should perhaps take a step back in the conversation." He straightened his back a little, and had any of the governors board been present, they might have been shocked at the change in the eccentric old man they were so used to. "What are you doing here? How are you here?"
The Doctor gave him a long, measured look. Although Albus did not turn his head, he could no longer hear River fiddling, and assumed that she was bracing herself, one way or the other.
"Who are you worried about?" the young man asked quietly.
"Who are you, Doctor?"
"Just a guy. Meandering. Seeing the sights."
"And what sights bring you here?"
"Well, we didn't exactly plan on it, but gotta say, that castle's a real beauty."
Albus raised an eyebrow. "The castle?"
"Oh yeah," the Doctor said enthusiastically. "You don't often see them that well preserved, not these days – we are in the eighties, right? Tasted a bit off, but I was only out there for a couple of seconds, and it could have been the smoke from the engines – normally you'd have to be right there in the tenth century to see one that pristine."
Albus did not reply for a moment, absorbing that statement. If the Doctor could see the castle, then there seemed little chance that he was a Muggle. Surely there was no way they could have overcome the illusions and wards that protected Hogwarts without someone in the Ministry becoming aware of it? But if he wasn't a Muggle, and he didn't know about magic…
"Look, I promise you, nothing funny about us being here at all. Cross my hearts." For some reason, the Doctor illustrated this by drawing crosses over both sides of his chest. "Just a quick crash landing, we'll soon sort it out. Nothing for you to worry about."
Both men turned to look at River, who was leaning against a bank of levers, arms folded as if she had been enjoying the show. "That might not be entirely accurate. There's no response at all from the temporal engines. Spatial, yes, but not temporal. We might be stuck here a while longer than we thought."
"What? Oh, that's rubbish, let me have a look." So saying, the Doctor cast aside his tweed jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and disappeared under the levers. There quickly came some muttered curses, sparks, and a cloud of steam. River rolled her eyes, and grabbed Albus' arm.
"Come on, he'll be ages. I'll pour us a drink, and let's see if we can't get a little understanding, hmm? Is it too early for cocktails?"
She didn't wait for an answer, turning away and slinking down another flight of stairs. Albus looked back at the Doctor, still rattling away under the levers, and came to a decision. The duo were undoubtedly strange, and evasive, but he liked to think that he had become a rather better judge of character in his old age than his more arrogant youth, and neither of them struck him as a threat, really. Answers beyond that could be ascertained under more convivial circumstances. He followed River.
"I think it may be a little early for cocktails, my dear, but I was enjoying a glass of sherry prior to your arrival, if that can be managed?"
She paused to open a concealed cupboard in the wall of the box, and handed him a full glass. "Drink up – he got the bottle from Magellan's supplies."
"Ferdinand. The Doctor gave him his maps for his round the world trip. So!" River took a seat, curling her legs up beneath her, catlike. "What is the story with the castle?"
"It is Hogwarts castle – Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," Dumbledore said. "I am the Headmaster."
"Witchcraft and Wizardry," River murmured. "Well, well, well…"
"And you, Doctor Song? What are you a doctor of?"
"Archaeology, mainly. Although I can fix a broken bone, should the need arise."
Albus nodded in acknowledgement. He didn't doubt it, although he suspected that she had not learnt the skill in a medical environment. There was something about her that suggested, if not quite danger, then a certain risk. If ever she did find herself setting broken bones, he would be very surprised if they did not belong to someone who had under-estimated her.
"And your…friend? He is Doctor…"
"Just Doctor. Not really a doctor of anything particular, to be honest. He dabbles."
"But I dabble very well," came the Doctor's voice, followed by the man himself. He poured himself a glass of wine, sipped it, grimaced, and tucked the glass under River's chair to be ignored. "So, good news and bad news, pros and cons, plusses and minuses – the temporal engines are, in fact, kaput. Not a spark left in them. On the more positive side, I've found us a power source! Not sure what it is, but it's lighting up the old girl's sensors like Christmas – and it's in that castle."
"Hogwarts?" Dumbledore asked, confused. The Doctor glanced at him.
"Hogwarts. The castle."
"Hogwarts…Hogwarts!" The Doctor slapped his hand against his forehead. "Of course! That's Hogwarts and you're Albus Dumbledore! I knew I recognised the name – sorry, it's been a while since I…read about you. But – River, quick word?"
He bounded back up the stairs to the main platform, River following him at a more leisurely pace. They began to talk in hushed tones that Albus could not quite make out, but the Doctor sounded very unhappy indeed.
Albus's brow furrowed at the Doctor's explanation. What on earth could the man mean? He drew his wand, intending to enhance his hearing for the rest of the conversation,, but before he could cast the spell River and the Doctor returned, the latter wearing a slightly fixed grin.
"Sorry about that, Albus, very rude of me I know. I wonder…is there any way we could have a quick gander at your school? Try and find this power source? Then we'll be out of your hair, I promise."
Albus hesitated. Common sense said no. It said it very loudly, and repeatedly. But in his near century of life, Albus had learned that sometimes the best thing you could do was ignore common sense entirely. He could not quite explain it, but he somehow knew that the Doctor would no more harm a child than Sirius Black would shake Severus Snape's hand. Besides, he was curious about the alleged power source.
"Very well. If you will follow me?"
The journey back to Albus' office was oddly illuminating regarding the Doctor and River. The Doctor was almost childishly enthusiastic about the castle, but did not seem especially surprised by anything, while River gave the impression of being completely unfazed by the whole thing – although Albus would have bet good galleons that she had picked out all sorts of details about the castle as they walked through.
He had agreed to let the Doctor guide them towards the power source, which the younger man was somehow tracking with the aid of an odd looking muggle torch. It wasn't the most accurate device in the world; the Doctor had first taken them all the way through the ground floor of the castle, out of a back door Albus didn't think he'd used since he was a student, down to the greenhouses, and then back round to the main door to go upstairs. Minerva had shot Albus a very odd look as they entered the castle for the second time, and all he could do in response was shrug.
Eventually though, the torch led them upstairs. The Doctor slid to a halt in front of Aloysius, the gargoyle guarding the door to the headmaster's office.
"Albus, this is your cue, I think?"
Albus filed that away for further consideration as he stepped forward; how did the Doctor know there was anything behind the gargoyle at all, if he hadn't been to Hogwarts before? He whispered the password into Aloysius' ear ("candied grindylow claws") rather than declare it for all to hear, and the gargoyle slid aside. When they reached the office itself, the Doctor let out a gleeful little laugh.
"Look at all this!" he cried, spinning round with his arms spread wide. "I need an office like this on the TARDIS."
"To do what?" River asked. "Forget important historical information?"
The Doctor looked at her confused. "No. Why would I need a special room to do that? It happens all the time anyway…hey, shut up!"
"Doctor? Are we any nearer this power source?" Albus asked, trying to head the incipient argument off before it started. The Doctor clicked his fingers.
"Yes, sorry. It's…hang on."
His eyes had lit up, and he bounded over to the shelves in the corner, snatching the threadbare hat that sat there.
"Sweetie…" River started, but the Doctor ignored her, putting the Hat on and grinning at her.
"I'd be a brilliant wizard – not sure about the robes, but I used to have a coat just like your robes, Albus. No-one liked it, actually – " He tailed off, frowning. "Am I the only one who can hear that?"
"A voice in your head?" Albus asked, and the Doctor nodded. "Not to worry. The Hat is just saying hello. Possibly trying to sort you, or sing you a song.
"The Hat can talk?! That's the coolest hat ever!"
"Albus, please tell him he can't keep it," River begged, turning to face him. Albus ran a hand over his beard to hide a smile.
"Of course he can't, my dear. Although we really only use it one day a year – he would be very welcome to borrow it from time to time."
The look River gave him could and probably had sent armies fleeing in terror, but Albus merely smiled. The Doctor meanwhile was deep in murmured, one-sided conversation with the Hat.
"No, don't worry, I won't tell him, Scouts honour! Well no, not now, but I was when I was younger. Yes, of course, where do you think I learned Venusian aikido? No, I won't let her shoot you, either." He paused for a moment, listening intently. Then he took the hat off, holding it gingerly by the brim. "Quite a hat this, Albus. Knows all sorts of stuff."
"It is layered in ancient enchantments," Albus explained. "Most of them are lost to the mists of time – even I do not fully understand how it works. But it was enchanted to see into the depths of your soul whenever it is worn."
"And passes judgement on you? You have these secret thoughts, so you must be this type of person?"
"I would not say judgement. Perhaps more of a guess, based on experience and extrapolation. It is not a perfect system by any means, but it is tradition."
"Tradition," the Doctor scoffed. "Anything can be a tradition if you do it long enough. That doesn't mean it's good."
"It tends not to be," River chpped in, "speaking as someone who's dug up more civilisations than most people have heard of."
"Perhaps not," Albus agreed, "but it is a mostly harmless tradition. You have your own, surely, wherever it is you hail from?"
The Doctor's lips twitched in a movement that might almost have been a smile, if you squinted. "One or two, yes. Mostly the exact opposite of harmless though." He clapped his hands together as if dispelling some dark spell, his previous enthusiasm shining out of his eyes once again. "Anyway, power source! We're looking for something big, something old – any ideas, Albus?"
The Headmaster waved his hand towards a cupboard in the corner of the room, which contained various trinkets that he had accumulated over the years. "I would suggest you start there, my boy."
The Doctor bounded over to the cupboard, producing his torch once more – which Albus was starting to think was not in fact a torch at all – and waved it over the assorted items. The instrument produced a humming noise, and the Doctor frowned. "It's nothing here. What's the oldest thing in the room?"
"Perhaps some of the books?"
"Unlikely, but let's have a look."
Albus moved to join the Doctor at the shelves, helping him to find the oldest editions, while River cast her own eye over the trinkets. A couple of them fizzed at her touch, which was interesting – she moved past those quickly. The Doctor was just about to discard a copy of Pratchett's treatise on the magical significance of the number eight when River spoke up.
"Albus – is that a phoenix?"
The Doctor spun around, dropping the book in his excitement, leaving Albus to snatch it out of the air.
"A phoenix! Where?"
"Just here…" Albus said, replacing the book with a sigh of relief. Madame Pince rarely drew her wand in anger, but when she did it was a sight to behold. "His name is Fawkes."
The phoenix in question was studying the guests, trilling softly, just on the edge of Albus' hearing. The Doctor crept in close, bending down with a look of wonder upon his face.
"Oh you are beautiful. How does he work?"
"The whole rebirth from the ashes thing – how does that work? It does work, right?"
"Oh yes," Albus said. "On a Burning Day – which he won't be having for quite a while, I'm afraid – he will toast himself down to a chick, and begin his cycle again."
"I know what you're thinking, Doctor," River said with a grin. "It's not a spell, is it?"
"Well, it probably is – but it's a spell that's causing a time loop! A never-ending circle of time, kicking it right back to the birth stage whenever it gets old enough. It's perfect!"
"Fawkes is your power source?"
"Power source? He's rocket fuel!" the Doctor exclaimed, waving his torch at Albus. The light at the end was glowing intensely green, and the humming was louder than ever. "Just a fraction of that energy will be enough to kick us out of here. I just need a feather. May I?"
"It is not I you should be asking." Albus explained, gesturing at Fawkes. The Doctor nodded, and turned back to the noble bird, murmuring softly to him. Fawkes cocked his head as if he could understand the Doctor, which wasn't too unlikely. After a moment, Fawkes dipped his head, and when he looked up again he held a glowing feather in his beak.
"Thank you, Fawkes," the Doctor murmured. "What d'you think, River? Think the old girl'll like it?"
"I should say so," she replied, crossing the room to take a closer look. "You can almost smell the Vortex on it, can't you?"
"Oh yes," the Doctor said. "Well, shall we crack on? We'd best get back to…well, we'd best get back, and I'm sure you've got a thousand and one things to do tonight, Albus."
"There is always something, I'm afraid," Albus agreed. He found the Doctor's inclination towards secrecy rather amusing; the various clues had fallen into place, he believed, leading to one obvious conclusion. The Doctor and River were time-travellers, and had some sort of attachment to the Department of Mysteries. It was the only solution that made sense, although their vagueness about magic was a bit of an issue – but then, they were both dressed in clothes that seemed more Muggle than anything. Could it possibly be that the Statute was breaking down when they came from? The scholarly side of him burned to know, but he knew the risks of learning one's own future. Rarely would he have said that ignorance was bliss, but on this occasion the old maxim was true.
The Doctor's blue box was an oddly eerie sight in the early evening light, something definitely uncanny about it in a way which sent a shiver down Albus' spine. For all the high quality enchantment around, he felt it would be a good thing for it not to be at Hogwarts any longer than necessary. He had developed quite a nose for trouble over the years. But the Doctor strolled inside perfectly happily, flinging the doors back to allow River to follow him. Albus hesitated, briefly uncertain whether he should follow or not. Curiosity warred with common sense, before forming an uneasy alliance with politeness to achieve victory, and he followed the two time-travellers inside.
The Doctor was up at the centrepiece, stroking the glass column that stretched up to the ceiling with Fawkes' feather. Golden light was shimmering through the glass to mingle with the silvery-green mist inside.
"There you go, that's right. Soon have you back on your feet again, eh?"
The mist within the column suddenly flared, and the Doctor yelped as the feather burnt up in his hand, all the light it was giving off evaporating straight into the column. The doors to the box slammed shut behind Albus, and the box gave a great, bone-shaking groan. The column began to move up and down, which seemed to make the box spin, forcing Albus to cling to a rail to keep upright. The Doctor and River were running around the centrepiece, flipping switches and pulling levers – neither seemed entirely sure what had happened, which did nothing to settle Albus' mind.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the box fell still. The Doctor let out a long breath.
"Wow. Sorry about that, Albus. She enjoyed her dinner a little too much, I'm afraid. Still, shows we're back up and running!"
"Up and running?"
"Yeah, just a quick little hop to break the engines in. She does that, don't you?" the Doctor said, caressing the centrepiece with a fond smile. He seemed to think that was a sufficient explanation.
Albus let go of the rail, and hurried down the steps towards the doors. It was night outside, the moon low in the sky over Hogwarts. He sighed.
"And how long did that quick hop take, Doctor?" he called back. "We appear to have been gone several hours."
"Oh? Oh. Sorry. Yes, that…that can happen. She's a little temperamental."
"Only when you're driving," River said.
Albus shook his head, ignoring the playful argument striking up behind him, and set off down the hill. Merlin only knew what had happened in his absence. Minerva would be frantic, he was sure – she never minded running the school when he stepped away, but she expected at least a little warning.
Something made him slow his pace as he neared the castle, putting the lake behind him. There was an unfamiliar magic in the air – he might have been tempted to attribute it to the Doctor's box, but he hadn't felt anything like it there…which, it now occurred to him, was unusual in and of itself. Something as powerfully magical as the blue box ought to have been blazing like a beacon fire to his finely honed senses, but he had felt nothing.
He looked back, and realised that the gangly figure of the Doctor was running after him. His uncertainty starting to take on a sense of dread, Albus drew his wand. Something was clearly wrong. The Doctor caught him up and grabbed him by the shoulder, panting after his run.
"What is it, Doctor?"
"There's…there's been a slight…thing. Bit of an issue. That quick hop, you see…"
Albus closed his eyes, following the Doctor's train of thought all too well. "It was more than a few hours, wasn't it, Doctor? Days? Weeks?"
The Doctor took a step back, smiling a sickly smile. "Welcome to 1997!"
Albus stared at the young man. It wasn't often that he found himself rendered speechless, but the Doctor had managed it. "Seventeen years?!"
"'Fraid so, yes…sorry. But don't worry! We haven't seen anyone yet, so if we get back to the T.A.R.D.I.S now, we can get you back to the right time and place with no-one any the wiser."
Inevitably, it was then that someone attacked them.