Prologue - Circles
A Living Legend Returns
Minerva McGonagall stood before the mighty castle doors, watching as the carriages carrying the students to Hogsmeade Station passed through the Hogwarts gates. Watching the carriages move along the track toward the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, she wondered how many of the departing students would return, how many would be allowed to return, and worse, how many would be capable of returning. As the last carriage cleared the gates, she sighed softly and shifted, allowing her cane to support more of her weight. In front of the students, McGonagall had passed off the cane as if it was little more than a concession to an overzealous Madam Pomfrey (certainly something most who had visited the hospital wing would accept without question), but she still found it necessary at times - not that she would ever willingly admit such a thing.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud popping sound; McGonagall turned quickly, dropping the cane and freeing her wand. Facing her from the base of the steps, a slight man stood, wearing a gray cloak and gently gripping the tail-feathers of a Phoenix, which with a flap of its wings, settled on his shoulder. Taking note of McGonagall's stance and ready wand, he glanced at the bird and observed, "Pymander, I never thought that I would have lived long enough to stand at the doors of Hogwarts and have a daughter of clan MacGregor point a wand at me."
"Pro… Professor Flamel? Nicholas?" McGonagall stared with cat-like intensity, not quite able to accept what her eyes were reporting. His irreverent look and remark confirmed his identity beyond any reasonable doubt; the phoenix on his shoulder removed any lingering chance of polyjuice or other deception. McGonagall lowered her wand. "But… how did you? The… the wards?" It then occurred to her that she had seen Dumbledore do the same thing.
The man moved lightly up the steps to McGonagall and grinned. Reaching out, he pulled McGonagall into a hug that she readily returned. "Minerva, my dear, how wonderful to see you, too. It has been far, far too long." He paused and glanced about them as if ensuring no one might overhear their conversation. "Now, as for the wards, I helped cast many of them, and they have never as much as slowed Pymander down. He was good enough to spare me the walk from the gate."
"And you, Nicholas… from what Albus said… about the stone… I didn't… expect…."
Flamel's grin grew wider. "Oh, come now, Minerva, you know full well that rumors of my death have been premature more than once before. And I suppose it's just as well that I've arrived after the students have all left; otherwise, the whispers would already be spreading through the castle about my favorite dour Scot showing a crack in her armor."
McGonagall felt the unaccustomed rush of blood into her cheeks. "I dare say the rumors would have run far wilder when some of them - and mind you, they would - figured out who you were from the portraits around the school. You're hardly traveling incognito, Nicholas."
"That's true, though the timing of my arrival was no accident." Flamel leaned down and picked up the cane and handed it to McGonagall.
"Thank you, but really, I don't need that silly thing - it's just to keep Poppy…."
Flamel grinned widely. "Save it for the students, Minerva. Most of them see through it as clearly as I do; they merely have better manners. I know what happened, and I know that one doesn't recover that quickly from being stunned as you were, even when one has the advantage of relative youth." He paused, and his expression became serious. "I'm afraid, however, I must confess that my arrival here is more than a social call. Where might I find Brian?"
"You're the only one who calls him that, you know," McGonagall said with a slightly disapproving look.
"My dear, Perenelle and I are among the very few who could possibly remember that was what everyone called him before he passed through these very doors for the first time. While I wouldn't expect one still so young to understand such things, I suppose I have become rather set in my ways," Flamel replied.
"Most likely Albus will be in your… I mean, his office." Minerva turned to re-enter the castle; Flamel moved past, opened the door, and held it as she entered, then followed her inside. "Nicholas, will you tell me what brings you back just this particular moment?"
Flamel stopped and peered intently into McGonagall's eyes for a few moments and sighed. "In all truth, Minerva, I should have perhaps seen him well before this." He looked thoughtful as he continued. "You know, of course, that my involvement with Brian Dumbledore is not unlike his involvement with young Harry Potter. Brian has done many great things, but, just like me many years ago, he has become so caught up in the forest that he has lost sight of the trees. He needs, perhaps, to recall how it was for him at the point where Harry is now." Flamel lowered his voice. "Perhaps his old professor still has another lesson or two to pass along." The smile flared again. "At least, I dare say I shall attempt to pass it along more gently than Godric did."
"Gryffindor himself?" McGonagall was not quite able to completely suppress the surprise or the awe that name evoked. "I had no idea…."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't have used that particular tone after he'd finished telling me just how many kinds of duffer I was, though of course, he was right. He almost always was." Flamel paused, thoughtful. "And yes, Godric Gryffindor was my mentor, as Merlin Ambrosius was his. It would seem," he paused again, as if searching for words, "all of us have… even Merlin, as he once admitted, needed to be reminded that at some point, we must eventually pass the torch to a new generation."
Flamel began moving forward again and falling into step beside him, McGonagall commented, "I suppose there's no need to show you the way."
"Yes, but good company makes the walk seem much shorter," Flamel replied. "You are head of Gryffindor House. What do you make of young Potter?"
"Potter is… complex." McGonagall gathered her thoughts. "Academically, he's gifted, even brilliant at times, but rarely applies himself anywhere remotely close to his ability; thus, he often struggles with theory, but has innate ability with the practical application that in the end places him near the top of his class. And the boy is powerful, not only more so than his peers, but more than many adult wizards. He was able to cast a Patronus as a third year. His bravery has been proven time after time; he cares greatly about his friends, and he would willingly sacrifice himself for them."
She paused, thinking. "He's a superb flyer: he was the first 1st year to make the house teams in over a hundred years. He thinks rules are at best suggestions; he's rather introverted, and has only a few close friends, but he has leadership skills and has risen to the challenge when needed. This past year, I'm afraid he's been very frustrated, very angry, and even fragile at times. He feels… very alone. He was raised by the most horrible sort of Muggles; he had no knowledge of our world at all until he received his Hogwarts letter; he feels personally responsible for each person who's harmed by Voldemort, and the recent debacle at the ministry…."
Flamel nodded, indicating he was familiar with the particulars as McGonagall continued, "I am… concerned for him and for the enormity of the burden he must carry." She motioned with her hands, taking in all of Hogwarts. "We are all concerned: the staff, and the Order… and his friends."
As they neared the gargoyle blocking the doorway leading to the headmaster's office, the guardian sprang aside as Severus Snape exited, obviously in foul humor. As he approached, McGonagall said, "Nicholas, allow me to present…."
"You must be Severus Snape, the Potions professor, are you not?" Flamel gave Snape a questioning look.
"Sir, you have me at a disadvantage," Snape snarled, making it clear he wasn't interested in exchanging pleasantries.
"Forgive me," Flamel replied. "I am Nicholas Flamel. Brian - your headmaster - has spoken to me of you - he clearly seems to feel you have the skills to eventually become a master of the arts of alchemy, or potions, as they now call the great art…."
Snape sputtered something incoherent, his respect for a living legend barely winning out over a burning desire to hex this old man who had suggested he was other than at the pinnacle of his profession. Flamel smiled patronizingly at him, McGonagall struggled and almost succeeded in keeping a straight face, and they resumed walking toward the gargoyle, leaving Snape to continue on his way. Pymander, still perched on Flamel's shoulder, gave a single trilling note and the gargoyle sprang aside at once.
"Minerva, I thank you for walking all this way with me and keeping an old man company. I would have insisted on finding my own way had I not known the staff quarters would have eventually taken you in this direction, and really, that is where you should be. Please consider: right now, you have no classes to teach, no papers to mark, no lessons to prepare… find yourself a comfortable chair and footstool, put your feet up, and rest and heal while you can. Your skills, I'm afraid, will be sorely needed soon, and you need to be at your best."
McGonagall had hoped to sit with Flamel and Dumbledore, but she accepted the dismissal and nodded. "Perhaps I shall. Will I see you again, Nicholas?"
He smiled enigmatically. "I rather suspect you might. But there is much which Brian and I must discuss." He took McGonagall's hand, kissed it, and saying, "Until then, Minerva," he moved past the gargoyle and onto the spiral stairs.
Flamel rode the stairs upwards until they reached the headmaster's office. Then he moved to the door and knocked.
"Come in," Dumbledore answered.
Flamel entered the office and gently closed the door and stood before the desk where Albus Dumbledore was holding what appeared to be a collection of broken parts. Dumbledore muttered, "Reparo," and the parts assembled into a silvery device that began clicking quietly as he set it upon the desk. Fawkes and Pymander trilled to each other, and Pymander spread his wings and joined Fawkes on his perch.
Dumbledore looked up at his visitor, and, recognizing him, seemed to sag back into his seat. "There are not many who can approach this office without my knowing of their approach; yet I am not surprised to see you here, my friend. In fact, I think that in some way I knew you would come, and I wanted to clean this up," Dumbledore pointed at several still broken devices scattered around the room, "before you arrived."
"Ah, Brian, my boy, how history does repeat itself, does it not?"
"Nicholas, I fear I have made a muddle of things…."
"Fear not, my friend, nothing as yet is lost; besides, I can hardly fault you for the same sort of failures I have made. You can hardly have forgotten the night Gryffindor made his way here. I can now tell you the rest of that story, and unlike Godric, I am not held to a single day and night abroad; I am here, and I can help." Flamel paused, looking thoughtful. "And, if the form holds true, some day you shall have the other side of this conversation with young Harry."
"Please teach me, sir." Dumbledore repeated the first words he had said to the legendary wizard many decades before.
"Maid, matron and crone are the traditional symbols of the great cycle; youth, father and patriarch perhaps would be a better fit… or no, not patriarch; perhaps uncle. Yes, perhaps uncle indeed…."
"I'm not sure I follow, Nicholas."
"Consider, Brian, you have been the authority figure in Harry's life since his return to the magical world; if he were just a normal youth, there would be the same sort of issues any boy his age has. But Harry is hardly a normal lad, and while his training and his moral formation have been excellent, he lacks the confidence and certainty he must have. Add to that the rebellion that every youth goes through and the isolation he now feels, and worse, thinks necessary, and you have the makings of a problem."
"Certainly, withholding as much as I did has not helped his confidence," Dumbledore said thoughtfully.
"True, and while that's a factor, it may not be the root cause."
Dumbledore waited, and after a few moments, Flamel continued. "I have watched the boy as he has grown: tell me, have you noticed when he seems the most complete, the most secure, the most whole?"
Dumbledore sat thoughtfully for a minute, and then replied, "I would have to say when he's in the care of Molly and Arthur Weasley."
"Exactly. There he has two people - one in particular - who see their roles as his advocates, his protectors, who put nothing else, even their own natural children or the good of our kind, ahead of his well-being. That, sadly, has been lacking anywhere else he has been. Even Minerva refers to his guardians as the most horrible sort of Muggles; there is no advocate for him under their care. Even here, under your care, he is but one priority among many. What, perhaps, I could offer is a grandfather-like - after all, I am one of his forbears in at least two different lines, if not more - or favorite uncle figure who has the bona fides to say he's been there, knows the score, has dealt with a dark figure or two, and can provide the indulgence that you cannot, having to balance between your roles as Harry's mentor and as the leader of the light side."
Dumbledore sat deep in thought for several minutes and then said, "This indeed seems a solution better than any other I have considered. How do you propose to move forward?"
"I find I have missed being at Hogwarts more than any other part of my life," Flamel replied. "I understand that you have found it difficult to fill the Defense Against the Dark Arts position…."
"Indeed," Dumbledore replied. "Though not for lack of an applicant…."
"You mean your Potions professor?"
"Yes. He has long sought the position, but I dare not place him any closer to the dark than the path he already must trace."
Flamel grinned. "Then you might consider another old Potions master for the position. Perhaps I might also give your current Potions teacher the benefit of my experience as well…."
"That would be a gift beyond my wildest dreams, Nicholas, to have one of your skills teach Defense during these dark times. Severus, however… might be… perhaps a tad resistant to the idea he needs instruction."
"So I gathered."
"But there's more to your offer than just a sudden desire to help the boy and to take up teaching again." Dumbledore's comment wasn't just an observation.
"That's true. I'm quite worried about the boy's having enough time to be ready - he will not have the years you did before the first time you took on Grindelwald. He needs time. Perhaps if I'd said something sooner…."
Dumbledore sighed. "It's not as if I didn't know. I even told myself repeatedly not to fall into that trap…."
Flamel interrupted, "What's done is done. I'm not fond of tampering with the past. We must buy the boy the time he needs and minimize the time needed as much as possible." He smiled fondly at Dumbledore. "I am no longer concerned, as I once was, about needing to stay in the background as I did when you emerged as the next champion. The wizarding world has almost forgotten my name, in no small part due to your history teacher's obsession with goblin wars. But those days are done, my boy. I am unsure either of us can do what must be done, but together, we have a better chance. It appears that the guardianship must pass soon, but the new guardian is not ready."
Dumbledore nodded slowly. "The word of your return by itself may buy some time."
"Perhaps, but we cannot rely on that alone being enough," Flamel stated. "Another thing we might do is…."
Dumbledore leaned forward and listened carefully as Flamel continued.