Warnings and Disclaimers: Slightly heavier load of profanity than my usual. It's that kind of chapter.
The suite of rooms the professor had led him to were… Jack's mind hovered between two adjectives, opulent and medieval. He stopped just inside the doorway (the doorway that was situated between two suits of armor, one of which had saluted him with its sword as they approached) and stared for a long moment.
The bed was enormous, easily able to sleep four people rather than just his one, and from each corner rose an intricately carved mahogany post. Those posts supported the midnight-blue velvet hangings; the play of colors drew attention to the silver embroidery that had to nearly double the weight of the cloth. All the other furniture in the room was of the same beautiful mahogany, and if any piece of it was less than a century old, the colonel would eat his pilot's wings.
"Are the rooms to your satisfaction?" McGonagall asked matter-of-factly, waiting outside the door. "It's been quite some time since Hogwarts hosted a guest, and I understand the house elves were quite delighted to clean out several for you to choose from."
"Ah… no, no, this one's good. This one's… great," Jack replied, finally managing to look away from the room and back at his hosts. Harry was covering a smile with his hand, but the American couldn't find it in himself to be offended.
McGonagall nodded. "We'll leave you to get settled in until dinner, then. Mr. Potter will come to take you to the Great Hall." She ushered the boy back into the hallway where his trunk was still waiting, and then, finally, Jack was alone.
His legs suddenly felt as though they couldn't hold him any longer, and he sagged down onto the edge of the bed. What the hell was he doing here? Yes, he'd been ordered to help, but he didn't know anything about magical warfare! He had no idea to deal with moving staircases, or how to defend against people who turned into animals, or what tactics to use when you had flying carpets!
Jack rested his elbows on his knees and buried his head in his hands. He knew nothing about magic, and his superiors had to know that. They wouldn't expect him to teach Harry how to fight…
They wanted him to teach the kid how to kill. A kid who, he had discovered during their journey through the castle, would be turning fifteen in three weeks and change. Fifteen.
Harry wasn't a killer. Just the few hours the American had known him had been enough to drive that point home. He was too genuinely friendly, if wary, and too willing to help a complete stranger. And Jack really, really didn't want to be the one to change that. That was a point he was planning on making very… clear to just whoever was in charge of this farce. Around the same time that Jack was choking an explanation out of him.
And speaking of which… if he was going to be at all presentable for dinner, he had just enough time to splash some water on his face and try to look like he'd gotten a good night's sleep. With a sigh Jack pushed himself to his feet, wincing at the protest from his knees. The flight alone had been enough to have them complaining, but the van and train afterwards would have been torture if he hadn't had so much on his mind to distract him. Maybe there was some sort of magic spell that could fix them…
As he headed towards the bathroom, Jack smirked to himself. See? He was getting used to this magic stuff already. A pretty good adjustment to something so wild, in his opinion.
That thought lasted until he bent over the sink to splash water on his face and was loudly informed by the mirror that his hair looked like a bird's nest. Jack would later admit, though only to himself, that it was a good thing he was in a bathroom at the time. He'd come embarrassingly close to needing one.
There was a knock on his door not quite ten minutes later, and Jack rose from the bed he'd been sitting very still and quietly on to answer it. He'd thought it might be best to keep to himself as much as possible until he had a chance to corner Harry and demand to know what else in his rooms might start talking. Besides the moving portrait of the horses in pasture. The occasional whinny from their direction was actually kind of nice to listen to.
Harry had obviously gone with the same water-splashing plan that Jack had, since there were still droplets clinging to his bangs. The weight pulled his hair aside enough that the strangely-shaped scar on his forehead was in plain view. Jack wanted to know the story behind that scar. In his experience, the only thing that could leave lines as straight and narrow as that, not to mention in the shape of a bolt of lightning, was a knife in the hands of a sadist. The kid didn't come across as a victim, though, so he doubted the explanation was as simple as that.
"Are you ready, sir?" Broken out of his thoughts, Jack nodded and followed him out the door.
The Great Hall was guarded by two twenty-foot-tall solid oak doors, bound at the top and bottom by bands of silver. Symbols had been etched into the silver, but he couldn't make heads or tails of them before Harry lightly touched a door and it swung open as though it were on hydraulics. The room beyond was even larger than the hall they were in, and held five tables, one parallel to the rest on the far side and raised up on a dais. A single figure he recognized as McGonagall was its only occupant.
"No one else coming?" he asked as he approached the schoolmarm, Harry trailing along behind him.
McGonagall gave him a nod in greeting. "Headmaster Dumbledore will be joining us shortly. He had a few matters to clear up first regarding the next school year."
Jack paused, halfway through the act of sitting down. "The next school year? You mean to tell me you people are heading into a war and you're still going to be running things out of a working school?"
McGonagall frowned. "I assure you, Mr. O'Neill-"
"Colonel," Jack interrupted, finally fed up with the liberty being taken by someone who was steadily losing respect in his eyes. "It's Colonel O'Neill."
The professor's frown deepened. "Hogwarts School is the safest place in Britain, Colonel. The students will be perfectly safe here."
The quiet snort drew the regard of both adults onto Harry, who flushed at the sudden attention. "And what would that mean, Mr. Potter?"
"Nothing, Professor." When the stares didn't lessen, the kid ducked his head in embarrassment. "It's just… well, maybe it's just me, but… Quirrell. The basilisk. Dementors. The fake Moody and the Triwizard Tournament…"
McGonagall coughed discreetly into her hand, hints of color high in her cheeks. "Yes. Quite," she acknowledged, glancing at Jack and away again. "Hogwarts is the safest place in Britain, unless you happen to be Mr. Potter."
This did not reassure Jack. It didn't even come close. In fact, it was making him feel even pissier than he had already been, and he thought it might get even worse later when he sat Harry down and dragged the stories behind everything the boy had just mentioned out of him.
"So, this Dumbles guy is the one in charge?" the colonel asked, changing the subject abruptly.
It might have been his imagination that McGonagall looked relieved. "Albus is a very well-respected member of our community, and he has experience in these matters. He is well-known for having stopped the rise of the Dark Lord Grindewald, back in the 40s."
"Yeah? So why isn't he taking care of this one, then?" The words were out before Jack could censor his mouth- assuming he would have censored it, anyway.
"I'm afraid that subject, Colonel O'Neill, is not a suitable one for the dinner table." Jack twisted in his seat in surprise to see an old man standing behind them, and had to wonder how they'd all missed his entrance- especially given the bright blue-and-fuchsia striped robes he wore. A long white beard was tucked into a simple leather belt, and two gentle blue eyes regarded him steadily as the American stared back.
"If you'd care to join me in my office after our meal, however, I would be quite pleased to explain matters," the elderly wizard continued, sweeping around the table to take a seat on Harry's other side. He clapped his hands and in the blink of an eye the table was covered in food.
Firmly controlling his start of surprise, Jack rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. Couldn't these wizards do anything the normal way?
Oh, look. Invisible roof. Or something.
The office Dumbledore escorted him into was the dream office of either a six-year-old or a schizophrenic. The room itself was large, with enormous windows looking out into the night, but any sense of spaciousness was destroyed by the sheer clutter it was occupied by. Portraits of older men and a few women lined the walls, all of whom seemed to be lightly snoring, and a beautiful monstrosity of a mahogany desk reigned from the middle of the floor. Jack took all of this in with a brief glance, before the other objects scattered around caught his attention.
An elaborate sword in a glass case caught his eye first; its hilt was gold and spangled with large rubies, but its blade was marred with odd black stains. A four-foot-tall perch made of gold stood just behind the desk, currently untenanted, and Jack wondered whether Dumbledore kept an owl like Harry did. There were a few dozen strange silver instruments scattered about, a few with parts that twirled or swung. As he watched a propeller-like thing began to spin, and a metronome wound down.
Jack found himself wishing his office back in the mountain was a little like this. He might be willing to spend more time in it doing paperwork if it was. Except then he might get even less paperwork actually done…
"I'm sure you have many questions for me, Colonel," Dumbledore said quietly, seating himself behind the desk and beckoning the other man towards one of the chairs in front of it. "I don't know precisely what General Blake has told you, but I know he is not in possession of all of the details. Ask, and I will answer what I may."
Jack nodded slowly. "All right." The anger that had been simmering ever since the mock-briefing in the van, only fed and abetted by the events with Kinsey and the SGC, threatened to bubble over. He pushed it down as far as he could, promising the emotions they could have full rein once he'd gotten some answers. "Why Harry? Why a fucking kid?"
Okay, so maybe the anger was getting a little free rein. Dumbles could deal with it or not, Jack didn't really care.
The Headmaster sighed and leaned back in his chair, suddenly looking not just old, but ancient. "And of course, you must first ask the hardest question of all." He stared off into space for a minute, sending a flash of impatience through Jack, but quickly came back to himself. "To put this succinctly, there is a prophecy. I will not tell you its precise contents, but the general gist is that young Harry is the only one who is able to defeat Voldemort."
Jack sat frozen in his chair for a long moment, caught staring at the wizard. He… that was… "Are you fucking out of your mind?" he demanded, surging to his feet. "That's the most ridiculous fucking thing I've ever heard! You're going to force a fourteen-year-old boy to kill someone because some fortuneteller somewhere mumbled some fancy words and said it would happen? You bastards can go-"
"Colonel O'Neill!" Dumbledore thundered, and Jack's tirade halted in his surprise. "I appreciate your feelings on Harry's behalf, but we have no choice!" he continued in a more subdued tone. "Prophecies, true prophecies, inevitably come true, regardless of all attempts to make it otherwise. And even if it were not so, Harry would still need you, and all the help you could give him."
"…What do you mean?" Jack asked warily, slowly sitting down again. For a brief flash of time the old man in front of him had, to put a not-too-fine point on it, scared the shit out of him. His blue eyes had seemed to glow, though not in a snaky way, and there had been shadows behind him…
But Dumbledore looked only human now, old and tired and not just a bit haggard. "In his short life, Harry has faced Voldemort not just once, but four times, and thwarted him each time. Even were they not fated to clash, the Dark Lord would not let that go unpunished. He will come after Harry again, and if Harry cannot face him, he will die."
Jack stared down at his clenched fists, trembling with the need to hurt something or someone. "…Fuck."
Dumbledore chuckled, a sound that had nothing of mirth in it. "Indeed, Colonel O'Neill. Indeed."
A/N: I'd expected the confrontation between Jack and Dumbledore (only the first of its kind, not the last) would be the hardest to write, but it's taken less than half an hour in total. Instead, it was Jack's introspective scene in the beginning that took a year.
Enjoy. I need to get back to work now before my boss sneaks up behind me and asks me what I'm doing… again…
We're stocking up on Halloween candy already. Once and future reviewers each get a handful…
9 October 2007