With her wet hair draped heavily across her shoulders, Ginny Weasley sat at the small dressing table the First Year girls shared, regarding herself critically in the mirror. Casting a quick drying charm over her long hair, she sighed as the dark mass of hair brightened to its usual fiery red.
She leaned closer and inspected her pale, freckled face solemnly. "You silly little girl, Ginny," she whispered to her reflection – then froze as she watched her face grow even paler.
She had heard those words before.
In the mirror, her scared-looking reflection gazed back gravely. She stared it down, willing herself to repeat the mantra that sustained her through many sleepless nights. "He's not here any more. He can't hurt you any more." Her reflection looked doubtful and Ginny shook her head savagely, leaning closer to the mirror. "He's not inside you any more – get it?" In the mirror, she watched herself nod quickly – too quickly – and sighed. It would have to do.
With an effort, she tore herself away from the mirror, crossing towards her bed and examining the objects on it with an air of quiet resignation. Unlike the other girls in her dorm, she didn't look forward to Saturdays. The weekend meant no requirement for uniform, and that meant-
Her eyes swept over the threadbare assortment of cast-offs, hand-me-downs and worn-out rejects that made up what her dorm-mates laughingly called her wardrobe. Slumping on the bed, she picked up her favorite jumper and ran her hands over it lovingly, ironing out invisible creases. A present from Charlie, it had a fire-breathing dragon emblazoned across the front. He had given it to her at Christmas, eyes twinkling as she read the label – I saw this, and thought of you. She smiled at the memory, but her face fell as she recalled the worry in his eyes at her muted, listless reaction.
Still, she told herself firmly, that was all in the past. Right now, she had to finish getting ready for her visit to see Harry. On cue, her cheeks flared with heat, and she silently cursed – not for the first time – her pale skin. Thankfully, her dorm was empty, otherwise she was fairly sure the other girls would have had been adding more wild speculations about her odd behavior recently.
Cramming the bulk of her clothes heedlessly into her battered trunk, she slammed the lid shut and turned to regard the remaining items. Pressing the back of her hands to her heated cheeks, she mentally chastised herself as she strove to make a clothing decision. Warily, she picked up the other item of clothing that had survived the mass cull, and gazed at it mistrustfully. It wasn't that it wasn't nice – it was. In fact, it was the nicest thing she owned, even if she wasn't the first owner. She looked at it appraisingly. It was lovely, and the one time she had tried it on she'd felt incredibly grown up.
That was the problem.
Laying it carefully back on the bed, she deliberately picked up the jumper instead, pulling it firmly over her head. Ever since Harry's return - and despite her best efforts to act as if nothing had changed – something had. She shivered, filled with an inexplicable mixture of excitement and nervousness. Try as she might, her traitorous mind insisted on replaying the memory of Harry's warm arm wrapped around her waist; the way that he had held her close – as if – as if-
Thrusting the thought aside with a mental effort, she began brushing her hair roughly, wincing as her hair was pulled by the savagery of her actions. After a few moments, feeling calmed by the repetitive strokes of the brush, she looked in the mirror again, scowling as she caught sight of the clothing still lying on the bed behind her. Whirling around, she yanked the trunk open and placed the offending item of clothing on top of the jumble of clothes stuffed inside. Stood over the trunk, she gazed down at it, biting her lip in indecision.
Her lip curled, and she snorted with laughter, suddenly amused by her turbulent thoughts. "For goodness's sake, Ginny," she said aloud. "You've got to stop reading Mum's copy of Witch Weekly." Shutting the lid of the trunk firmly, she turned the lock with an air of finality. As she sat back in front of the mirror, she gave her reflection a challenging glare. "What are you looking at?" she asked, watching her cheeks flame red. "Nothing to see here – right?"
Her reflection returned her gaze doubtfully, but remained silent.
Green eyes unblinking, Harry crouched in the dank cellar, barely breathing. His ears strained for the slightest hint of his approaching enemy. Muscles tensed, he waited patiently, body coiled and ready.
There. Out of sight behind the moss-stained pillars, the faint sound of a foot slipping. It was immediately silenced, but it was enough. Careful not to shift his own feet on the wet stones, Harry oriented his body towards the sound and pounced.
Carried by the released energy of his muscles and buoyed by a non-verbal Levitation Charm he soared high into the air, easily clearing the loose web of broken furniture and ancient statues that had kept him from sight. At the apex of his jump, he twisted in mid-air to prepare for landing, tensing his right forearm to trigger the spring-loaded wand holster. Up ahead, he could see a faint shadow moving quickly as the man reacted swiftly to the threat.
Harry bared his teeth in a lupine grin as he tensed for the impact of the landing. The man was good, no doubt about it. Just not quite good en-
A wave of agony shot through his left leg as he slammed into the hard stone floor. Instantly his knee buckled and he lurched forward, the ground rushing up to meet his face. Desperately, he converted his momentum into a forward roll, flipping up and around, then skidding backwards on his knees as he battled the pain and lifted his wand to strike.
The bright light hit him dead-centre on the chest and he felt his muscles spasm, and freeze. Even as he slid to a halt on the floor he knew that he was as good as dead, helpless in the Full Body Bind as his enemy advanced on him. A wave of shame swept over him, momentarily overwhelming the stabbing pain from his injured leg. After all the long years of training, the discipline and endless practice, to be defeated without even getting off one spell…
The dark room was filled with a warm golden light, and, in a futile effort, Harry tried to brace himself for the impact, but his body was stone, ice waiting to be shattered-
Harry looked up in confusion, or, at least, focused his eyes in the general direction as well as he could in his current state of immobility. There was a soft muttering and he was released. His tense body moved sharply before he could prevent it, and a fresh wave of pain pulsed up from his damaged leg. He let out a brief low hiss of agony before his mouth clamped shut, sealing it in. No sense in compounding his failure by broadcasting his weakness, he thought bitterly.
"Harry, are you alright?" Remus Lupin's voice was sharp with anxiety as he stood looking at the young boy sprawled awkwardly on the filthy floor. Without looking up, Harry nodded jerkily, then laboriously hauled himself to his feet.
Lupin regarded him sadly. His hands twitched with an involuntary urge to help Harry up, but the disciplined and reserved student had made it clear previously that such help would not be welcomed. Instead, he watched helplessly as a white-faced Harry, forced to use a nearby desk for support, stood up slowly and painfully. " I think that's enough for today," he said firmly.
Ignoring the look of displeasure that flickered across Harry's dirt-streaked face, he made a swirling gesture with his wand, and the dark cellar surroundings faded away. In its place, an evenly lit and painfully austere bedchamber appeared. Lupin watched sympathetically as Harry limped towards a chair, then turned to take in the room, preventing the boy from seeing his expression. Neither emotional or physical support were impulses Harry responded well to.
In truth, there was little to look at in the spartan surroundings. A simple bed was pushed into the furthest corner, as if sleep were a weakness Harry didn't want to admit to. A wooden desk, mostly covered with neat piles of books. A hard, upright chair, a fireplace and a chest of drawers made up the remainder of the Harry-sanctioned necessities for life. When he had first seen what Harry had asked the Room of Requirement for, Lupin had laughed, certain that Harry had been making a rare joke. Of course he wasn't. Harry didn't make jokes. Not with me at least, Lupin thought again. Following that thought, his eyes strayed towards the other, non-Harry approved objects that had crept into the room during Harry's two-week confinement.
Shockingly bright against the muted colours of the room, the vase of fireflowers was wedged between the piles of books on the desk, their heads nodding as they dozed. Lupin noted with amusement that the vase had dislodged some of the neat book stacks, destroying the symmetry of Harry's personal library.
Pinned haphazardly to the wall was Ron's contribution – a Chudley Cannons scarf in all its livid orange glory. Lupin winced – even he found the scarf rather garish, but, like the flowers, Harry tolerated its presence.
Finally, a neatly framed and large-scale map of the British Isles hung precisely over the centre of the chest of drawers, decorated with small coloured dots showing Muggle places of interest as well as the homes of people Harry knew. There weren't many dots in the latter category, Lupin noted with a silent sigh.
As Harry sat down stiffly on the hard wooden chair, Lupin lounged back in the newest addition to the room – his old, overstuffed armchair that he had requested from his own meager store of possessions. Harry gave the latest interloper a baleful look, but said nothing, stretching out his injured leg. Lupin regarded him narrowly – the leg had to hurt, but, apart from the one, quickly stifled hiss, Harry had given no indication. He surreptitiously cast a spell and examined the deep violet glow emanating from the tip of his wand.
"You're hurt," he commented quietly. He'd learnt that Harry responded better to precise statements than open-ended questions.
Harry looked up, his quick eyes taking in the spell that still lingered on the older wizard's wand. "Nothing I can't handle," he replied flatly.
"I'm sure," Lupin replied with bitter dryness. After the first time they'd run one of the combat simulations Harry had insisted on, he'd asked Harry why he hadn't cried out with pain. This was after Madame Pomfrey had launched herself out of the Floo in response to the alerts from her monitoring spells. "Practice," Harry had replied, in a voice that indicated the subject was closed.
Lupin had said nothing, but after the second training session, when it became apparent that Harry had somehow managed to cancel Madame Pomfrey's monitoring spells, he had taken to carrying out his own check-ups.
He rose from the chair, crossing to the table and looking down at the one open book. His heart lurched as he saw the familiar faces of James and Lilly Potter staring back at him. "How – how are your studies going?" he asked, as evenly as he could manage.
"I still don't know who they are, if that's what you mean," Harry responded disinterestedly. Lupin's shoulders slumped. As per Dumbledore's instructions, he had devoted considerable time and energy each day in coming up with new ways to try to stimulate Harry's locked-off mind. So far, there had been no discernible sign of improvement.
He turned to look back at Harry, meeting the boy's gaze. He knew that Harry didn't like it when people stood behind him, so he walked in a semi-circle towards the fireplace. The flames burnt neatly, even their elemental forces seemingly cowed into order by Harry's presence. From across the room, he watched worriedly as Harry flexed the leg and winced lightly. "You're pushing too hard," he said, unable to prevent the worry from filling his voice.
Harry looked up, and the hard lines of his face relaxed slightly. "You worry too much," he replied. An outside observer would have thought it a rebuke, given Harry's calm tones, but Lupin knew better than that now.
"And you not enough," he said, his soft voice taking the sting out of the sentence.
Harry shrugged, and heaved himself up, limping towards the washbasin. Slowly and methodically, he began to wash the grime from his face and hands.
Lupin noted that Harry didn't once check his face in the mirror.
The wind howled gleefully, spiteful hands plucking at the frail old man's thin clothes as he trudged onwards. After enduring several stares and even some offers of help from solicitous passing Muggle tourists, he had left the road behind and set off across the flat plains, his destination clearly visible even though still some distance away. Even at this distance, he could feel the power emanating from the ancient monument, waves of disorientating raw energy smothering his magical core, forcing him to make the slow and painful journey on foot.
This, of course, was no coincidence. Given his identity, and the nature of his quarry, it was perhaps inevitable that the meeting he had been seeking for the last two weeks had brought him here. After all, when you were probably the single-most powerful wizard alive, where else could an enemy meet you on an equal footing?
His long robes catching yet again on a sparse patch of brambles, Albus Dumbledore sighed heavily, yanking them free and muttering irritably. High in the sky overhead, a piercing shriek told him that Fawkes was still shadowing his every move. As an entirely magical creature, landing anywhere near the stone circle would have been fatal to Fawkes, but the phoenix had insisted on following him from afar. Tilting his head back, Dumbledore could just make out the dark form of the creature circling directly overhead. He smiled wearily as a faint message from Fawkes crossed the divide between them. Indeed. This really was no place for a man who had celebrated his first centenary some years past. If he had not been who he was, it was doubtful that a wizard of his years could have made the long journey from Salisbury, the nearest wizarding outpost.
He shrugged. Complaining about the wind and mud was futile, given the abundance of both between him and his destination. He gathered his robes more tightly around his thin body and continued on.
It took another three hours before he walked wearily onto the Muggle-made path that skirted around one side of the ancient stone structure. The sky was dimming as night gathered more closely around him. He couldn't make out the faithful phoenix still circling overhead, but knew he was still there. Unlike him, Fawkes never seemed to tire.
He cast a careful look around before taking the final few steps to complete his long and tiring journey. Up close, the giant monolithic circle dominated his field of vision, and it was an effort to tear his gaze of it long enough to check for any Muggles in the vicinity. Of course, their perception of what they knew as Stonehenge was radically different from his. To their eyes, it was little more than the ruined remains of a once complete circle, but he, along with any other magical being, could see the truth. The stones were joined at the top to form a continuous, unbroken structure; essential to prevent the volatile well of naturally occurring magic from blanketing half the country with its violent and unpredictable energy.
Satisfied that no-one else was present, outside the circle at least, he took a deep breath in and drew his wand, even though he knew it was useless above the magical fissure. He tightened his knarled fingers around the smooth wood, drawing some measure of comfort from the familiar sensation. The energy buffeting him was immense, pushing and nagging at his mental shields, sapping them with each passing moment. He couldn't afford to linger outside any longer, and besides, after the last weeks of effort he was eager to get some answers. His burning rage may have cooled considerably since his reckless actions at the Department of Mysteries, but his desire to know the truth about Harry remained unchanged.
Stepping over the boundary of the shield wall, he sighed in relief as the energy levels subsided noticeably; not enough to risk using his own magic but a welcome respite compared to conditions outside. Now that he was within the structure, he could see that he was not alone.
A cloaked figure, its face masked by a hood, sat facing him on the far side of the enormous circular table that dominated the centre of the enclosed space. Dumbledore approached slowly, taking the time to drink in all the details he could. The man - or woman - sat composedly, seeming to regard his approach with equanimity. Dumbledore noted with annoyance that the other figure's robes were perfectly clean, in stark contrast to his own rumpled, torn and mud-stained attire.
The figure made a brief gesture as he drew near, indicating the stone bench opposite. Masking his annoyance at his opponent's superfluous display of courtesy - there were no other places to sit - Dumbledore sat heavily, nearly groaning with relief. The long journey had taken its toll physically - just as the silently watching figure had intended, he knew.
The two cloaked magicians regarded each other, neither speaking. As the silence dragged on, Dumbledore stirred impatiently. He was far too old for these kind of power-games. "I do hope," he began pleasantly, "that you didn't call me here just so we could look at one other?"
The hooded figure shook its head, but didn't reply. Impatience swelled into anger as the silence extended still further, and the elderly wizard spoke again, more harshly this time. "I think you will find that a conversation requires both parties to speak. Please do not waste any more of my time than you have already done."
The figure stirred, leaning forward slightly. "Time," it said finally, in a voice barely above a low hiss, "is irrelevant."
Dumbledore felt his face redden, despite the chill evening air. Two weeks away from Hogwarts was not something he took lightly, despite daily updates from Minvera. "I can assure you that time is most certainly not irrelevant," he snapped angrily.
A dry, rasping chuckle emanated from the figure. "That," it replied more clearly, "depends entirely on one's perspective, wouldn't you agree, Albus?"
Dumbledore sat in stunned silence.
The figure sighed. "Forgive these theatrics, old friend, but the truth is," it said, lowering the hood that had obscured its features, "it's really extremely cold out here, don't you think?"
Albus Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, had rarely been so completely at a loss for words in the long years of his life. Sat facing him was the one man he trusted completely, the only wizard with whom he had confided all his secrets and whom he had worked alongside several times in his career.
Somehow, he found his voice. "For someone whose funeral I attended six months ago, you are looking most remarkably well, Nicolas."
Nicolas Flamel returned his gaze unashamedly, his thick golden hair glowing faintly against the now dark sky. " A necessary subterfuge Albus, as you might imagine."
"Indeed," Dumbledore managed to choke out.
Flamel smiled faintly, then leaned forward, his preternaturally youthful appearance at odds with the weary expression he wore. "I think," he said calmly, "that an explanation is in order."
Dumbledore just stared.
Scratching his head idly, Nicolas Flamel composed himself unhurriedly, as only a man who literally had all the time in the world could, before speaking. When he did speak, however, he came straight to the point.
"I was first approached by the Unspeakables last summer,as Perenelle and I - yes, she's also still alive - made our final preparations. The Unspeakables had found themselves in an...unusual position and requested my assistance."
Flamel nodded heavily. "To be exact, they had made a terrible mistake and now needed my unique gifts in alchemy to try to undo the damage."
Dumbledore looked down at his hands for a moment, breathing evenly. "Harry."
"Harry," Flamel agreed tonelessly. He rubbed his mouth, lost in thought, then continued. "How much do you know, or suspect, about what Harry is capable of?"
The direct question took Dumbledore by surprise. "Well, I saw first-hand his combative instincts, as well as his Animagus form."
Flamel nodded absently. "Impressive, yes, but not what I meant."
Dumbledore frowned. "Elemental magic," he said slowly. "His gifts are almost without parallel, especially for one so young."
"Indeed," Flamel replied, his face grim. "Almost without parallel. But not quite."
Dumbledore's mind whirled and he felt his stomach lurch. "Nicolas, you can't mean...Tom?"
"I'm afraid so, Albus."
"But," Dumbledore spluttered. "How? Some kind of transference?"
Flamel looked pained. "Worse than that." He looked away, visibly composing himself. Dumbledore's face paled. What kind of horrific experiment had the Unspeakables performed that shocked a man who was approaching his seventh century of existence?
"Tell me, Albus," asked Flamel, carefully enunciating each word, "what do you know about H-"
A piercing shriek cut through his sentence and a blinding flash of fire lit up the night sky. Dumbledore gasped, flying to his feet. "I must leave. Now." He was already turning to leave when Flamel interjected.
"Good god man, what on earth is the matter."
The gray-haired wizard turned, his eyes wild. "Fawkes has been summoned by a student at Hogwarts." He gulped, his face ashen. "Ginny Weasley is in mortal peril."
With a whirl of his robes, he raced out of the circle and was lost from view.
Nicolas Flamel sighed, sitting back down again. "That's what I feared," he muttered to himself, and took a mobile phone out of his robes. Curiously, unlike wizard magic, naturally occurring magic had no effect on Muggle technology whatsoever.
The number he dialed was answered immediately. "It's happening. Right now. Hogwarts."
He listened for a moment. "That is correct. Ginny Weasley. Do what you can." He slipped the phone back into his robes and darted for the exit, following the path of his impetuous young friend.