The Headmaster's entrance was neither quiet nor discrete. Woken from a fitful sleep, Harry smiled blearily at the flurry of bright robes and pale hair, the old wizard's magic crackling, formless, in the air.
"My dear boys!" Albus Dumbledore exclaimed, coming to a stop between the two beds. Snape inclined his head in greeting, and Dumbledore turned to Harry. "My boy," he said again. There was no twinkle in his eye, only worry and concern. "I have come just now from a most disturbing meeting with the Minister. It seems that the wards around Voldemort's headquarters dropped yesterday. The Aurors apparated in to find him dead, along with his greatest supporters."
"So naturally you came straight here," Snape remarked, but there was a light in his eyes, and a rare smile touched his lips.
A slow answering twinkle grew in Dumbledore's blue irises as he realised that his charges were not greatly harmed. "But of course. Whenever there has been great excitement, I need only visit the hospital wing to find the culprits."
Harry grinned. "I'm glad you're back, Headmaster," he said.
"As am I," Dumbledore replied, turning grave. "I am sorry, my boy, that I was not here when you had need of me. Will you tell me what has happened? The Aurors' information was greatly lacking. They found only the bodies; any magical traces once there were wiped away by a powerful burst of raw magic."
Sighing, Harry ran a hand through messy dark hair, glad that he could feel the strands in his fingers. "It was my fault, Headmaster. I was careless and got caught by Lucius Malfoy. Voldemort, he– he wanted to sacrifice me to summon a Demon."
"The blood-binding potion, Albus," Snape spoke up. "The Dark Lord performed a Ritual of Summoning."
For an instant, Dumbledore's magic suffocated the room in a blazing fury before he gathered it back under control. "My dear boys," he said, at a loss for words.
"Voldemort wanted to make an alliance," Harry continued, rushing the words as the full memory of his terror came back to him. "But he must have done something wrong, because the Demon, it– it wouldn't take me. It killed them instead, all of them. A–and, it– it ate Voldemort's soul." He swallowed back bile, seeing again the dark wraith and the blue lightning, hearing that terrible cry.
"Oh, my boy." The twinkle was gone entirely.
"Minerva and I were with Potter when he was captured," Snape said, taking up the tale when it was obvious Harry could not yet continue. "I was summoned by the Dark Lord, and Minerva had been injured. She followed in her Animagus form. I was . . . incapacitated. When the Demon had finished with the others, it turned to us, and Minerva confronted it."
"And it did not kill you?" Dumbledore asked, not in suspicion, but genuine gladness.
Snape shook his head. "Potter asked it not to. It was amused, I think, and left us alone. But it destroyed Minerva's magic."
"Poppy has told me of Minerva's injuries," the Headmaster said gravely. "She did not know how it was possible, but now . . ." He looked very old, at that moment. "What happened to the Demon?"
"It left," Harry replied. "I– I think it went back to where it came from."
They remained in silence. The curtains were drawn about McGonagall's bed, and Dumbledore stared at them as if he could see through to the woman sleeping beyond. At last he stirred, and bright cerulean eyes turned back to them. "I am so very glad, my boys, that you survived," he told them, and Harry felt the warmth in the words flow through his heart. "And I am so very sorry that I left you to face such an encounter alone, though I think that the outcome would have been worse had I been there, for I could not face a Demon without a costly battle.
"I did not wish such a fate on you."
The last was directed at Harry, and he answered accordingly, "It wasn't me, sir. The Demon killed Voldemort."
"The Demon chose you over Voldemort," Dumbledore corrected gently. "It is a great and subtle power that can turn aside a Demon, and very few are the souls who have it."
"What power?" Harry asked despite himself.
"The same power that saved you as a baby," Dumbledore replied, the twinkle returning to his eyes. "It is the greatest power of all."
"Love," Harry said doubtfully.
"Pure love. Do not doubt it, Harry. The power of love is real and true."
Harry said nothing, but he doubted it indeed. Dispassionate green-gold eyes haunted his memory, eyes that were calculating and cold and could deal death without blinking, and he had seen nothing in them that could be moved by anything so formless as emotion. Those terrible, vivid eyes floated before him, and Harry jumped as he realised that they did not exist in memory alone.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Methos said, and Harry blinked, unable to focus on the menace he knew existed when the man stood mild and genial at the foot of his bed.
"Ah, Professor Green!" Dumbledore greeted merrily. "You are not here for Poppy's care, I hope?"
"No, Headmaster." Methos offered him a shy smile. "It's just that I was the one who found Sev passed out right there in the passageway – didn't they tell you? – and I wanted to see how he's doing. There's all sorts of rumours going around. Terribly exciting, don't you think?"
"Indeed, yes." The Headmaster's smile was beatific. "Rumours are often more exciting than the event itself. But I understood you were leaving us."
Methos pulled a rueful face. "Yes, Headmaster," he replied. "Until the reason for my family emergency appeared right on your doorstep. I must still leave soon, however."
"This has something to do with the man in the chapel, of course?" Dumbledore said, his voice questioning though his smile implied certain knowledge. "Poor Friar Stephan says the man has locked himself in and will not allow anyone else near."
The flash of calculation in Methos' eyes passed so quickly that Harry nearly missed it. "Yes, as it happens. The man is a Squib, you see, the cousin of a close friend. He experienced a large trauma recently and wanted to spend some time in solitary prayer. I'm afraid he can be abrasive at the best of times; he means no ill to the good Father by it. I sent a message to my friend; he'll be out of your hair shortly."
"Good, good," Dumbledore murmured. "I must be off. There is much to do, very much, and it must be done as soon as possible. I have barred the press from entering Hogwarts, Harry, and the Ministry has agreed to wait until you are fully recovered before speaking to you. It is kind of you to keep Severus company, Adam."
Methos stared after his departed back with a disgruntled frown. "That man sees far too much," he muttered.
Harry was quiet, but Methos turned to him as if he had spoken out loud.
"He is right, you know," the ancient Immortal said.
"I conquered you with love?" Harry shot back bitterly. Methos raised a reproving eyebrow, and he subsided, darting a quick glance at the doors to reassure himself that he had not been overheard.
"In a way," Methos replied. "It is nothing so obvious as a sword, but it is a powerful motivator in its own right. I won't explain it to you; you can figure it out later." He chuckled then, mirthfully. "Our dear, too knowing Headmaster is hindered by the limitations of the language. What he said only sounds trite in modern English. Learn to speak a more romantic language, and you'll understand better."
Snape made a disgusted sound.
Delighted laughter filled the hospital wing. "You are feeling better! You'll be arguing with me soon enough." Methos ambled away, whistling a cheerful tune.
"I don't understand him," Harry complained.
"He does not want us to understand him," Snape growled. "He is moving five steps ahead, this way and that, to keep us off balance. Slytherin's teacher, indeed."
For the next four days, enough visitors came to see the three of them that the hospital wing seemed a main thoroughfare and Madam Pomfrey was ready to evict them herself. She had not let them leave earlier, though she seemed glad enough to be rid of them when their scheduled repose was at an end.
McGonagall had healed days ago, and spent the rest of her enforced stay proving that Snape was not the worst patient to grace the hospital wing's beds. She was not impolite in the least, but she had her duties as Deputy Headmistress and Transfigurations professor, and she did not let up on them, even to allow for the loss of her magic. Forced to abandon teaching her own classes, she kept a steady stream of messages and paperwork flowing through the door. The enchanted papers made way for no one, stretching the patience of the poor mediwitch.
For all his irascibility, Snape seemed content to remain relatively idle, sifting through a veritable tower of research notes. Carried still by the euphoria left in the wake of Voldemort's downfall, for the first time in his tenure he did not feel needlessly aggravated by whatever student crossed his path. His newfound tolerance was a great boon to Harry, who had a constant stream of visitors to his bedside.
His most faithful companions were, of course, the remaining part of the Golden Trio; Ron kept him occupied with games, and Hermione with missed coursework. Frequently they were joined by Ginny and other sixth and seventh year Gryffindors, and less often by other members of the former DA, though the presence of Snape nearby put a damper on the other students' exuberance.
Perhaps the most perplexing of Harry's visitors, aside from Methos' occasional appearances, was Draco Malfoy. He came in one day when no other person was about, pale faced and dry eyed. His fine-boned features were smoothed into a mask at once both like and very unlike his father. Ignoring McGonagall's irritable frown – he had interrupted her perusal of the next semester's timetabling – and Snape's warning glare, he came to stand next to Harry.
"Potter," he said eventually.
"Malfoy," Harry returned, striving to achieve the same neutral tone.
"My father is dead."
"Yes." When Draco Malfoy said nothing else, and unsure how to take his expression, Harry said, cautiously, "He died fighting."
Malfoy nodded. The youth in front of Harry was a far cry from the eleven year old boy who had sneered and boasted; he stood, straight-backed, slender, self-assured, and gave little away. The line of his shoulders loosened slightly, and though the pale grey eyes showed no reaction, Harry thought he seemed more at ease.
"You're still a git, Potter," Malfoy said, and left.
Harry looked at Snape, completely baffled, but the Slytherin Head of House's expression was impenetrable.
And so it was that four days passed, and three more, before another of the immortal, sword-wielding Demons arrived.
The tall man in Muggle clothing who ambled through the Hogwarts grounds drew second glances from the student population, and third and fourth glances from the female portion. He was handsome, clearly well muscled beneath the long black coat, with olive skin and dark hair. Warm brown eyes met each gaze that dared his, aware but politely ignorant of the giggles and blushes that followed him. More than anything else, though, he had presence. The man was impossible to ignore.
It was Ron Weasley who brought attention of this wandering stranger to the staff, who had let recent events take precedence over normal school operations. The prefect remarked in passing that there were entirely too many people with trench coats these days, causing Professor McGonagall to hurry her steps in search of the stranger. She found him holding a polite and exceedingly strange conversation with Sir Nicholas on the field tactics of Headless Polo.
"May I help you?" she asked, more sharply that was usually warranted by a visitor to the school. Sir Nicholas took his leave and drifted down the hall.
The man turned to her. His gaze flicked over her, assessing, before he smiled. The expression was entirely too practiced and charming to put her at ease. "I believe so," he replied, the Scottish burr in his voice deeply musical. "I'm afraid there was no one at the gates, so I came in. I'm looking for a friend of mine – Adam Green."
She twitched at that, her hand moving an inch towards the habitual resting pocket of her wand. His eyes hardened and his stance subtly shifted into a defensive posture. His smile remained pleasant, however, and he did not move further until she had her instinctual actions under control. McGonagall opened her mouth to speak, but before she could his head came up, and he looked up and down the hall. His shoulders tensed in a way that told her he was prepared for a fight. A moment later the faint echo of hurrying footsteps reached her.
"Mac! You made it." The pleasure and relief in Methos' voice was hard to miss.
The tension flowed and solidified into something else in the visitor. "Adam," he greeted. "I got your message." His voice deepened, becoming something darker than it had been while talking to McGonagall.
"So I see. You didn't have any trouble finding the place, I hope?" A hint of uncertainty coloured his tone.
"Not as much as you'd think."
"Ah." Looking even more uncertain, Methos evidently decided to leave well enough alone. He began walking; the others moved to keep up. "I don't think you've been introduced to my lovely colleague. Minnie, this is Duncan MacLeod." She paled at that, though she had already guessed his identity. "Mac, meet Minerva–"
"McGonagall. I know," the younger Highlander interrupted. He sounded angry. "I recognise the tartan. And you brought Connor here?"
"It really is the safest place."
"I'm sure." Duncan levelled a doubtful gaze on McGonagall.
She pushed her shoulders back. Decades of teaching rambunctious teenagers came to her aid as she said, "I have no intention of harming Connor MacLeod."
"Forgive me if I don't take you at your word while you carry that claymore. Adam, explain now. What are Connor and I doing here?" The dark gaze that swept over Methos was fraught with danger and doubt.
Methos winced. "Minnie? That's a good point. Why do you still have it?"
She glared at them both. "Mr Green, Mr MacLeod. No doubt you may both overshadow any attempt of mine to fence. As it happens, I will not part with it until that part of my Oath is fulfilled. The sword is needed. It has been made eminently clear to me that its destruction is paramount. Therefore I will not let it out of my sight until Connor MacLeod can witness the act for himself."
"There you are." Methos turned to Duncan with a bright, disarming smile. "That's why we're here."
Duncan sighed. "Explanations any time today, Adam."
"Oh, your kinsman and I were having a grand old time. We ran into each other – quite unplanned, I assure you – he got himself kidnapped, I came to the rescue, we killed a bothersome dark wizard, and Connor got his Quickening scrambled. There's only one of us he trusts enough to help him, so I called you. That's all there is to it, really."
Duncan was silent for a long moment, thinking that over. "And Ms McGonagall?"
Methos glanced at him curiously. "How much do you know about Connor's grudge with the McGonagalls?"
"Not much," he admitted. "Connor always told me that I should never trust a McGonagall. In fact, he said I should always go the other way when I meet one.
"I've seen them from time to time," Duncan MacLeod continued. "The most recent was a little over a year ago. He caught up with me in Paris and started following me. At first I thought he was a Watcher. Joe denied it, naturally. Then I saw the sword and decided he was a leftover from the Hunters. It wasn't until I watched him breaking into my Seacouver apartment with a stick that I knew him for a wizard. I bumped into him the next day and let him have a close up view. I must not have been who he was looking for, because he was gone after that."
McGonagall closed her eyes briefly. Ah, Meriadoc. He had never stood a chance, not against such foes as these. As dedicated a member of the Order of the Phoenix as he had been, veteran of the first war against Voldemort, these opponents had played a deadlier Game for centuries. He had been seen and marked a year prior to the day he had made his move against the Demon, and yet they did nothing. Had done nothing, until he attacked. The Clan Oath had taken his life.
"He was my brother," she said through stiff lips.
Duncan's expression softened. "My condolences for your loss."
"It is done with," McGonagall said. Done and done, if she had her way. She would not allow her nieces, her heirs, to join the long line of McGonagall chieftains who had fallen to the Demon of the MacLeods.
Duncan nodded. He was silent until Methos had taken them to the chapel's door. When he did speak, his voice was filled with shadows and nuances, depths that McGonagall did not know. "Why did you call me, Adam? I haven't seen you for months, and then you send for me, with an owl, no less. Why?"
Methos flinched. He looked away from the other man, regret darkening green-gold irises. "I'm sorry, Mac."
"Where have you been?"
"Here." Methos shifted uncomfortably, unable to meet the accusation held in brown eyes. "Look, I'm sorry I left when I did, okay? I had to. I'm glad you won."
Duncan did not accept his apology. McGonagall would not have, either, and she did not know what they were talking about. She did not want to know. Anything to do with these men, these Demons, was entrenched in blood and death. Beneath lowered brows, Duncan glowered at Methos. "Why call me now?"
Methos opened his mouth, sighed, and closed it. Then he said, "You hate me now. But you'd take my head in an instant if I knew your kinsman needed you and I didn't tell you. I am sorry, Mac." He walked away, leaving MacLeod to glare at his back.
At last, the younger Highlander turned to her. She met his gaze squarely. "Ms McGonagall."
"Mr MacLeod." A moment of indecision passed, and she said, "Please do not disturb the students. Call a house-elf if you wish to speak with me." She left him at the chapel, and had not yet turned the corner before she heard the heavy wooden door open, and close.
What happened behind closed chapel doors, she did not know, but the two MacLeods did not emerge for days, missing entirely the circus of reporters and Ministry officials that briefly flooded the school. Connor, when he appeared, was calmer than she had ever seen him, the strange feral light she remembered so well banished from storm-scudded eyes. Duncan stood beside him, a large brooding shadow that was the very image of a guardian warrior. They met her in a disused classroom, the Claymore at her hip and Severus Snape at her side.
"McGonagall," Connor said. His silky, dangerous voice was just short of a snarl, but there was no malice there, only wariness.
"Demon," the broken witch replied.
Connor's eyes narrowed, and Duncan scowled.
"You will keep your word," said McGonagall.
The shaggy blond hair flipped down and up in a short nod.
"And I will keep mine." With great care, she set the Claymore on the ground. It lay there, cold, bright blade gleaming, a relic of a past best forgotten. The keen metal glowed under the heat of Snape's spell, melting into a formless lump surrounding the pommel stone like a poisonous egg broken upon the flagstones. In one blink of an eye it vanished in the focus of the Potion Master's Banishment, leaving an afterimage that, too, disappeared.
"It's done," Connor said, and McGonagall thought she heard a hint of relief in the quiet words.
"Why?" asked McGonagall with all the strength of her Gryffindor courage. "Why do this?" Unspoken was the intent of her question: why hadn't he killed her as he had the other McGonagall chieftains?
Connor MacLeod looked at her, and in that haunted boyish face she saw a life led long and hard beyond mortal endurance. She did not think he would answer, but he touched quick, slender fingers to the dragon hilt peeking from his coat, and said, "Your dark pisser woke an evil murdering bastard in me. I won't do anything if I'm not sure it's me doing it."
And that answer was enough. They parted ways then, with no more words to be said and a shared desire to leave the other well alone. Snape followed them to make sure they left with Methos as was their stated intent, and as they turned the corner, McGonagall heard Duncan's rolling voice.
"You never told me."
"Told you what?" came Connor's irritable reply. "That the headhunters I fought off when you were my student left me with a bunch of damned persistent stalkers? What difference would it have made? You'd only feel guilty."
The mild argument faded into the distance, and Professor McGonagall turned in the other direction. Her magic was gone, and when things had settled down again, she would not be able to teach her classes. She did not know what she would do then, but she had her life, and the futures of her nieces, and that was a good trade. In the meantime, though, she had a school to help run, and a House to manage.
The three men walked to the great doors, Duncan in the middle, Methos and Connor on either side. There was a certain step, the way they strode in unison, long coats flaring about their legs, that made the three disparate men seem kin, warriors of a forgotten past.
"Wait!" Harry cried, and they paused, as one, and turned. He did not like Methos, who was too close to the things that Harry fought, too deadly, and he did not know Duncan, but Connor had saved his life and spared his professors. And so he fixed his eyes on the shortest and scruffiest Immortal, and did not look away. "I have to ask. Am I– can you– are we the same?"
The awkward question whispered and faded in the air. Storm grey eyes watched him, pinning him still with their intensity. "Why do you ask?"
"I survived the Killing Curse," Harry explained simply, and endured the scrutiny of ancient eyes in youthful faces.
"No," Connor replied at last, the silky texture of mixed accents sliding and settling like balm over his nerves. "Whatever saved you, it wasn't the same. You're not one of us."
"Oh." The relief was fast and soothing; he didn't want to be Immortal and watch his friends die, didn't want to be a Demon. It was bittersweet joy to know that his mother was his mother, and had not sacrificed herself in vain.
The doors opened; rain-scented autumn air swept through the Entrance Hall, bringing with it the taste of laden stormclouds and fresh winds from beyond the portal. Long coats flared, the soaring wings of creatures of legend, and the drifting spray settled, shining, on the tiles; then the doors closed. The clatter of many feet echoed in the castle, a rising tide of chatter as students flowed to the Great Hall.
"What will you do now, Mr Potter?" Snape asked, a solitary raven facing the castle doors.
"You are free."
Free of prophecy, free of Voldemort. Free to have the childhood he had never had. Blinking, Harry looked around. The glimmer of moon-pale hair swaying in a sea of faces caught him. He thought of Shattered Gods and swords and lightning, and called out, "Hey, Luna. You still hunting Crumple-Horned Snorkacks this summer?"
"Yes, Harry," came the answer, floating over Snape's huff of disbelief.
"Can I come too?" asked Harry, and his laughter rose to the ceiling, clear and weightless and full of joy.