Balance: by rabbit

Author notes -- check the reviews in a day or so and I'll see what I can do.

Disclaimer: 'Tisn't mine, 'tis true. Thanks to Ozma for letting me borrow her view of Filch, Ariana Deralte for her Uric the Oddball, and JKRowling who started it all... but especially Jinx and Moonbeam, for whose sake I picked up my pen once more.

Chapter 23: All Hands

"Don't just stand there!" a piping voice demanded, and small hands tugged at Harry's fingers. "Into the dance with you!"

"Dance?" Harry wondered, dragging his attention down to the source of the command. Flitwick was even tinier as a child, no taller than Harry's knee, on which that thumbling pushed with all his small strength so that Harry found himself stumbling forward. Once his feet were in motion they would not stop, and he collided with someone, a girl he did not know, and found himself tangled with her in an awkward foxtrot.

He changed partners, dipping like a crane to catch the hand of a small girl who was still standing flatfooted in the row of ropeskippers. The girl he had been dancing with linked arms with Neville and they spun away like marbleshot, careening off people who took motion and began to dance as well.

All across the great stone floor there were pockets of people in motion, pulling others into a growing terpsichorean tumult of swirling partners and frantic soloists. A conga line snaked by, uninterrupted by nimble limboists. A dozen wizards morrissed solemnly in the distance, clacking wands together with enough force that Harry's hands stung in sympathy.

Harry's partner grew to a more comfortable size as they polkaed their way through the crowd, scattering new dancers in their wake. They danced past people he knew: Dean Thomas gyrating on his back to the giggles of a Ravenclaw witch, Seamus laughing as he tried to match his feet to the jigsteps of an ancient wizard. Harry was startled to see Ron doing something that looked like ballet with Susan Bones. Flitwick had disappeared beyond the forest of legs, but Professor Sprout was jiggling about with merry abandon, grinning from ear to ear. Snape and McGonagall knifed fiercely across the floor, tangoing like duellists.

And all the while the line of the wardspell swept around through floor and wall and all, anchored by Dumbledore and Filch, and on each circuit more and more people were gathered within the safety of the bounds to stand a moment as wallflowers before being drawn into the dance.

Hermione was among them for a moment before melting younger at Gilderoy Lockhart's elaborate bow and accepting his offered hand with baffled delight. There was Professor Sinistra, who was twisting gracefully alone, catching and releasing invisible moths. And there was Draco caught up in four-handed fandango, moving with a practiced grace, as if he'd taken lessons.

He saw a red-haired girl and suddenly wanted to dance with his mum if he could, but it was hard to find anyone specific in the confusion. Witches and wizards weren't the only ones dancing. Above them owls and house elves had found the safe air within the wards, and tumbled in their own peculiar pavane. At their feet cats and toads and other creatures tread dances of their own devising. Round dances became square dances, rumbas twisted into mambos, partners changed, became soloists or were absorbed into larger dances that broke apart again into pairs and trios. Almost everyone was dancing now. Almost.

At the edge of the crowd, Harry saw Tom Riddle, scarcely eleven and wearing a makeshift robe, standing with envy and hunger in his eyes as dancer after dancer passed him by. He should dance too, Harry thought, and was glad when Ginny Weasley skipped through the confusion to take the boy by the hand and pull him into the dance. And then Parvati Patil grabbed Harry and whirled him back into a waltz and he lost sight of the others as he tried really hard not to disappoint her again.

Beyond the wards the whirlwind still raged, forced back at each turn of the wardline, but crumbling everything else it reached. The ceiling was long gone; the walls were coming apart. The dancers grew more agitated; their feet sought out safe patterns but they could not do more than echo the chaos without. It seemed for a while that they would run out of room, Harry bumped elbows and knees, stepping over a badger to change partners and dances for the seventh time. He was knocked to the edge of the crowd, and yet he didn't fall. The stones of the walls were joining the floor at the edges of the circle as they fell, and always there was more room to dance, and less castle to dance in, until there were no walls at all, and all of Hogwarts past and present was cavorting desperately on slates grown translucent, suspended in wild nothingness.

"Circulus Absolvere!" Dumbledore called, and Filch stepped off the last solid stone and into the circle inside the bounds, twisting his bony frame like a cat to keep the rope turning. It trailed rainbows as it rose and fell, like a hoop twisting through soapsuds to form a perfect sphere. Around them and around them all, one last time the narrow line ran, setting wards ablaze with colors and light shouting defiance to the darkness while the rope which wasn't a rope glowed golden before vanishing from Filch's hand as the circuit was complete.

Everyone stopped.

Harry's breath came hard in his chest as he looked upwards, willing the wards to hold. It's a bubble, he thought unhappily, We 're floating through Nothingness, in a bubble. A memory came to him, from long ago in the school at Little Whinging: Mr. Hancock's voice droning over the whispers and teasing in science class about the thinness of a bubble's skin, how fragile it was, and why it was made of rainbows.

No one spoke. They couldn't have, even had they breath enough. How could the chaos of the dance have left them standing in concentric circles, the quarters divided by house as neatly as a pie could be cut by a knife? How could the creatures have found their masters in the mess, and come to rest on shoulders and in hands? Harry glanced at Hedwig and saw her feathers ruffling as if drawn by static, and he realized how strange the air felt in here, as if it were peculiarly dense and rich. It throbbed with power.

The floor felt level under Harry's feet, but looked terraced to his eyes, as if the center of the circle had sagged toward the base of the sphere, and each of the circles partway descended in turn, like the tiers of a medieval operating room. There were almost no adults now, just a few scattered through the rows after rows of students and eight at the center. The Founders themselves, facing each other like statues, stood staring across the midpoint with wands drawn. Just beside them were the four current Heads of House: McGonagall next to Gryffindor and Flitwick beside Ravenclaw, a tiny green parrot on his shoulder; across the circle from them were Sprout, with a rabbit snuggled into the bodice of her grass-stained apron, and Snape, a barn owl huddled on his shoulder, its pale face and dark eyes making them strange twins.

It was like standing inside a witchball. Harry was almost at the edge of the crowd, but he could see every face clearly, even the most distant. across the way the Slytherins ranged before him, proud and young, and he was surprised to see his own wayward hair on not a few heads. He looked again and recognized them now – not just Blacks and Malfoys, but Potters, Weasleys, Longbottoms and all – even a girl with Dumbledore's eyes. The families were scattered through Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw as well, generation after generation of wizards and witches, like constellations unchanging in the night sky. He could see them strung through Gryffindor as well, could see everything, even the back of his own head.

Dumbledore and Filch began to move, weaving step by matched step as they took their winding paths down to the bottom of the basin. They stepped into the central area at last and came to face each other, the rustle of Dumbledore's robes audible in spite of distance and impossibility.

"Headmaster," Filch rasped, making a formal bow.

"Caretaker," Dumbledore said almost fondly, returning it just as formally. He stepped into the ranks of the Gryffindors. Overheard sparkled the brilliant clear notes of phoenix song as Fawkes came spiraling downwards to drop the Sorting Hat right into the center of the cleared space, before alighting upon Dumbledore's shoulder and giving his ear an affectionate nip.

Filch hesitated, looking from House to House, and his cheeks went dark with blood. "I was never a student," he admitted gruffly. "I don't know where to stand."

"Well I don't need that scruffy old hat to tell me when I see a loyal heart," Professor Sprout spoke up cheerfully. "You're a Hufflepuff, Argus Filch. And you always have been."

Filch shot a wary look at the other Hufflepuffs and was met by a field of welcoming smiles. Mrs. Norris came out of the crowd to sit by Professor Sprout and that seemed to decide him. Cautiously, he approached the quarter and his cat jumped into his arms. He soothed her with one callused hand and then turned into his place, his leathern face cracking into a grin that looked almost painful as the buttons on his battered old coat turned to bright gold.

At once a change came over the Founders. If Harry had had to say if they'd been breathing before he would have been guessing, but now their robes took hints of the rainbows of the wards, as if they were standing in a prism's spill. Threads of light formed at hems and whispered forward, touching the Sorting hat. The patches and threads which held it together began to glow, green and silver and blue and bronze and yellow and red and gold. Between a breath and breath it unravelled, the patches flying every whichaway, the circle which might once have been the brim coming briefly to rest on Godric Gryffindor's head before disintegrating with the rest into bright dust.

The four Founders stepped out of their statue poses and walked forward until they made a tight circle of their own, each of them more real than anyone else in the world, as bright as illuminations in a monk's chronicle, all connected by a spiderstrands of light to a tiny opalbright tangle of magic which hung suspended at the very heart of the room.

"And so it has all come to naught," Slytherin said gruffly.

"Well, it's a knotty problem, sure enough," said Gryffindor, into his beard.

Slytherin shot him a glare, "Your precious dream has ended."

"Twas your dream too, Salazar," Ravenclaw reminded him.

"And it hasn't, you know," said Hufflepuff. "Unravelled, perhaps, but that can be mended."

"Unravelled?" Slytherin questioned, gesturing to the nothingness beyond the increasingly translucent floor at his feet. "There's not much left to knit again."

"A castle's a convenient home, I grant, but a school is more than stone," said Gryffindor. "'Tis flesh and bone. And hearts and minds as well, and of those we have aplenty. We have but to restore the patterning."

"That's the answer to a tangle, sure enough," said Ravenclaw.

"Something from nothing?" Hufflepuff laughed, "Aye, that's the best of magic. You'll help us, Salazar, as you did before?" she smiled at him fondly.

"Since you ask it," Slytherin bowed to her. "But I do not see where we should catch up the thread. Or how."

"We begin with ourselves of course," answered Hufflepuff. "It is our pattern and all must follow it."

"And as for how," said Godric Gryffindor, "It must be a dance. Nothing else has served as well to hold back this darkness."

"Aye, a Wizard's Reel," said Rowena Ravenclaw, "The one we danced tae when we set the cornerstones would turn the trick."

"One last dance for old times' sake?" Helga Hufflepuff smiled at Slytherin, and for a moment his age slipped younger and his eyes grew sad.

"I am not certain that I recall the steps," he admitted.

"I remember them," a small voice said. A young witch with silver eyes and pale eyebrows pushed her way past Snape and took Salazar's Slytherin's hand, looking up into his face with perfect trust. "I could show you if you like."

"I remember too!" "And me!" "And me!" Three more children darted out to take places by the Founders, giggling as they waved greetings to each other.

The adults looked down at them with varying degrees of approval.

"But will the pattern be woven strongly enough by children?" Godric Gryffindor asked.

"If not, then our dreams are truly dead," Helga Hufflepuff laughed.

"But how tae best go on tae those who will build the pattern after them? By strength or wit or heart or blood?" Rowena Ravenclaw asked.

"By blood I say," said Slytherin. "That is where our power lies. Bring forth the Families and let the Muggleborn move to the outmost circle."

"That pattern will not serve," Snape interrupted. He stepped out of his place to loom over the elderly founder, in much the same formal pose he had in Potions class when he was about to dress down a student. "For once we've started down that path we must identify the rest, find circles for half-breeds and quarter breeds, and so forth, down to the slightest tincture of Muggle blood. A thousand years have not devised a certain test."

Beyond Snape, Harry glimpsed Tom Riddle, sixteen and proud, his expression flickering from anger and fear to reluctant approval of the housemaster's argument when it became clear that his ancestry would not be called into open view.

"There's neither witch nor wizard here who hasn't courage enough," McGonagall added, coming forward too. She met Godric Gryffindor's startled glance with equilibrium.

"And strength of heart" said Sprout, taking her place by Helga Hufflepuff. "This is a task for all of us, soon or late."

"Go on as you've begun," Flitwick said, lecturing Rowena Ravenclaw blithely. "The one thing certain is the order in which we've come to Hogwarts through the years, so choose as you chose before. From there the pattern should weave back and forth through the years, some from your time and some from ours, for strength throughout."

"He has the right of it, you know, "Helga Hufflepuff said. "We'll all have to dance, soon or late. As these four Heads of House are last to our first, so should their youngest students come to dance with ours. Sixteen's a better number for the reel than eight in any case."

"Sixteen?" Harry saw a flicker of dismay skip through the four Heads of House who had defied the Founders, as they realized that they'd put themselves in the way of yet another round of energetic spellcasting. The Founders noticed it too, judging by the smiles they were hiding as they took their places in a row across from their

"So be it," said Godric Gryffindor and the other three echoed his words.

As if on order, the crowd rearranged itself, some stepping forward and some back. Harry found himself between Ron and Hermione, closer to the center space, but still able to see and hear as he had before.

Four students made their way to the front. They looked small to Harry, and nervous, the way that first years always did. But when they reached the Founders they all bowed and curtsied as neatly as if they'd been practicing for years.

Helga Hufflepuff laid a hand alongside the youngest Hufflepuff witch's face, looking into her eyes with a warm smile. "Yes," she said. "Here is strength indeed."

The other Founders seemed as pleased, and put the children into the care of the Heads of House, who stepped back again, to make room. "Watch us," Ravenclaw told them. "And you will know what to do in your turn."

But it was everyone watching as the Founders and the very First Years took hands and began to dance. First as a circle, and then as pairs they interwove, feet skipping a little on each step, as if they trod a country dance. Hand to hand, wand to wand, turning and twisting as each pair formed an arch for the others to pass under. The pattern broke apart, and reformed, with the modern Heads of House and their students brought into it. They made four circles in a row which danced their pairs through the pattern before intertwining, forming lines long enough to be seen, that braided themselves through arches formed of arms and wands and broke apart again as all the dancers spun out and back with new partners at their sides.

"A geometric progression," Hermione breathed, watching eagerly. "This won't take long."

Sixteen became thirty two, and thirty two turned to sixty four, and on to a hundred and twenty eight, and before long Harry was pulled into the pattern. He found himself smiling as he followed the steps of the dance. He touched twice a dozen hands as he passed up and down the circles, even Salazar Slytherin's, and yet no hand was different to him. And when he had run under the gauntlet of arches and formed his own arch with a plaid-wearing witch, he broke away to find someone else to bring in with a laugh bubbling up in his throat. A part of him wondered how the line would fit inside the bubble, but he didn't really care.

In time a round of the dance reached its end and the pattern changed, for when the Founders ran the gauntlet they glowed with inner light, and the creatures which danced at their feet or flew over their heads glowed too, until they reached the arch the Very First Years, now tall and proud, had formed foursquare of wands raised high, and there they vanished.

And yet the dance went on. In the next round it was the Very First Years who vanished in their turn. And so the progression continued. Though more dancers were pulled in each round as breathless youngsters, a portion of the students, grown to the cusp of adulthood vanished each time the arches formed, though sometimes they reappeared as ghosts on the far side of the arch and turned to join the House Elves, who had conjured instruments and were spinning music to match the rhythmic stamp of feet, as they danced a counterpoint in the air. And some flickered in age and stayed and danced as adults, teachers and heads of houses and headmasters and headmistresses. Harry wondered how long the dance could go on, and how Filch had joined it when he never was a student, and whether he would miss his steps from weariness before he'd stepped the pattern yet another time.

And then he noticed that the walls were rising.

"It's working!" someone shouted, and the laughter rang out. Harry, passing Draco, grinned and was grinned at in return before the Slytherin caught himself and tried to sneer. But Harry had moved on. He danced beside Hagrid for a moment, and found his hand caught up once by a laughing girl of seventeen who had his own green eyes and something of Aunt Petunia's eyebrows. The walls grew higher. Lucius Malfoy promenaded through the arch and disappeared. Neville Longbottom danced past, his face flushed and happier than ever Harry had seen it.

The walls were higher now, and torches filled the sconces on the pillars, flaming green and gold, red and blue. If anything the pace grew faster. The ceiling began to take shape.

Harry knew almost every face now. Tom Riddle was gone, vanished like the rest, and only Remus Lupin remained of the Gryffindors of Harry's parents' year. Their was no one left to join the dance, but the circles formed again and again, as the remaining visitors passed through the pattern and were gone. The last to vanish was Cedric Diggory.

The dancers broke apart.

The music stopped.

For a moment all was dark.

And then sunlight – true, glorious, unmistakable sunlight - flooded in the clerestory windows and through the great panels of stained glass.

A stunned hush, and the horrocks of their drawing breath and someone shouted joyfully "It's real!" Harry thought that was Lee Jordan. Someone else shouted "We're saved!"

And many people cried out gleefully "WE DID IT!"

Shouts of joy and cheering swelled to fill the Great Hall, rising to the rafters and the brilliant dawnlit sky magically counterfeited above. They studied this awhile but all gazes fixed hungrily upon the real sky visible through the glowing windows with their blessedly familiar depictions of Eagle, Lion, Serpent and Badger.

Hagrid stepped up and began to crank open the sidelights, allowing a rush of cool, pine scented mountain air to relieve the warm fug of too many bodies engaged in vigorous exercise.

Filch opened the great doors at the other end of the Hall and there for all to see stood the wall of the corridor beyond, as sturdy as ever it was.

The Great Hall was a still a mess, though, the tables pushed up against the walls, like barricades. Everything possible seemed to have been piled on them: books and plates and satchels and wrinkled clothing. The students were a mess too, their faces flushed and streaked with sweat, but they had the breath to go on cheering until Dumbledore clambered nimbly onto the High Table, and waved them to a happy, waiting silence.

"Excellent. Very well done, all of you." He bowed to the Hall and Harry found himself bowing back with all the others. Dumbledore smiled benignly at them. "Take your rest, now, and refresh yourselves," said the Headmaster. "As soon as the House Elves have restored the kitchens we shall have a grand feast to celebrate, but know this and know it well, no feast will be thanks enough for the gift you have given Hogwarts this day."

"It would be a good start!" Seamus called as Dumbledore drifted back to the ground and as if the laughter that greeted this remark were a signal, the crowd, so long one thing, broke into its component parts. Some headed for the doors, and some for the benches. Harry saw the four youngest students, who had danced every step of every permutation, smile at each other before collapsing together into a tangle of sleep.

Hermione was already going over to help Madam Pince rescue the books which had avalanched from the tables. Neville was sitting on the floor, staring at the Remembrall in his hands. He looked as stunned as Harry felt. Already it all was beginning to seem unreal except for the ache in his legs from dancing. Draco was blinking, as if he felt the same way.

"Everything's gone back the way it was," he said softly.

"Everything?" Harry asked, and their eyes met. It was Draco who looked away first. He put his face in order, like he was dragging on a suit of armor and raised his chin defiantly.

"Enough," he said. "Anyway, you needed us."

"And the other way round," Harry agreed quietly. "No matter who our parents were."

"Yes." Draco might have said more, but some of the Slytherins were beckoning him. He took a step in their direction and then stopped, looking back at Harry. "But I don't think they'll believe us, the ones who didn't stay. Without any proof they'll think they dreamed it, if they remember it at all. And don't forget, Potter, not everyone's been to Hogwarts." The observation must have been bitter on his tongue, from the way he spat it out. He nodded jerkily and stalked away, schooling his gait into its accustomed arrogance.

Harry wasn't sure that Draco was right -- but he wasn't sure that he was wrong, either. Still, something had changed, and perhaps, if they were lucky, it would stay changed long enough to make a difference. The Sorting Hat was right – they needed to work together somehow.

As if to echo his thoughts he saw Snape and McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout giving each other small formal bows. The heads of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff headed off industriously, but Gryffindor and Slytherin stood measuring each other with challenge in their eyes. McGonagall broke the silence, inclining her head slightly. "I'll sit down if you will," she offered, drawing two chairs over with a wave of her wand.

Snape smiled faintly and nodded acquiescence, took a chair and turned it around, holding it politely so that his colleague might seat herself.

McGonagall let out a faint snort of exasperation and daintily accepted this courtesy, and then nodded to the other chair, "Severus, sit. Before you fall down."

Snape unhinged gratefully, closing his eyes, and fumbling a hand along the empty pockets of his bandolier.

McGonagall drew something from a pocket hidden in her robes and nudged him with it. "Here," she invited. "I do, once in awhile, have the appropriate potion on hand."

Snape glanced down at the hip flask she was offering, and actually grinned. He took it carefully, saying softly, "Thank you, Minerva." He shook it lightly, judging its contents, and took a hefty swig, made an odd face and then coughed slightly as faint color returned to his cheeks. He passed the flask back to its owner, approving sincerely, "That's good. " He swallowed several times quickly, blinking rapidly. Muttered, "I commend you for having any left, after such an ordeal."

McGonagall looked almost victorious, and somehow fond. "I decided to save half of it for you, in the event of your survival."

Snape bestowed a pleased and private expression on the flask. "So I remain mysterious to you," he estimated, and his smile widened a little to include his colleague. "For if you really knew me so well as you like to believe, you would have realized the great incentive to live which I should have found in knowing, as I was dangling over the abyss, that you had in your possession a flask of century-old Scotch."

She only smiled back, brightly. "I assumed you knew."

"Harry? Harry!" Ron tugged insistently at Harry's sleeve, distracting him again.

"I'm coming," Harry let himself be dragged away. "What is it?"

"Look at the light." Ron waved a hand at the wall by the door, where colored squares of sunlight were sliding slowly down the pillars, and growing more diffuse. "See the way it moves."

Harry watched for a moment before he realized that he'd seen patches of sunlight move on walls that way a thousand times before. He shrugged. "So we've been up all night. It's morning, not sunset, that's all, or the light would be moving the other way."

"Yes," Ron said. "Yes of course, but Harry... doesn't the sun rise on the other side of the castle?"

—— fin et commencement