The Phoenix and the Serpent
"There is no Dulcinea, she's made of flame and air,
But how lovely life would seem
if ev'ry man could weave a dream
to keep him from despair!
To each his Dulcinea, though she's naught but flame and air."
- Man of La Mancha
Chapter XXXVI: Warmer for the Spark
Evening had fallen when Professor Dumbledore concluded the debriefings in his office. There had been many concerns to address among the war leaders, and many more stories to tell. Harry's friends, Ron and Hermione, elected to stay with him, so they all sat still and listened to Alastor Moody's duel with his old foe Gallowbraid, the Battle at the Door of Fire, the return of the Cimmerian Sorceress and the subsequent rescue of the Order.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Harry had fallen asleep on the sofa. Dumbledore decided to leave him be, quietly asking everyone to retire to a side room. He smiled as he noted that neither Ron nor Hermione left their seats, as if they were afraid Harry might vanish again if they let him out of their sight.
"So he's the one we've pinned our hopes on," said Melvincent Galino when they were out of earshot. "Such a frail-looking boy. I do not envy him his responsibility."
"Nor I," Marius Haggerty replied. "But if you'd only seen him at the Door of Fire, then you would not doubt that he can save this world."
The meeting quickly turned to what the next step in the war was going to be. Galino stated that it was best to press south to reclaim lost territory. But Mad-Eye Moody quickly disagreed. "We can ignore it for as long as we want," he growled, "yet we all know nothing can be done until Hogwarts has been rendered completely safe."
He gave Dumbledore a knowing look, and the headmaster understood. "Agreed," he said. "From now on, our first priority is to find and neutralize Voldemort's spy in Hogwarts. All this time, I have fed the spy false information to fool the Dark Lord into thinking that Harry was still in the school premises. Now, that usefulness is at an end." At this, Lyle Bishop ordered Moody to lead the effort in eliminating the spy.
When the meeting finally adjourned and the Order filed out of Dumbledore's quarters, Harry and his friends had already left for Gryffindor. It was just as well. Now that Dumbledore was alone in his office, it was time to settle one final matter.
He turned to the portrait of Phineas Nigellus on the east wall. "Where is he?" the headmaster asked.
"I had him brought in after Potter left," said Nigellus. "He would not come willingly, but I had prepared for that. You'll find him in there." He nodded towards a door far to their right, and Dumbledore felt a stab of guilt. It was a cupboard under the stairs.
There was no point in admonishing Nigellus; mercy was a foreign concept to the man. Dumbledore strode to the cupboard door and flung it open.
The homunculus was sitting on the wooden floor, gagged and bound by filthy rags. Seeing him, Dumbledore quelled a surge of anger. Even if it was true that the homunculus did not want to obey and this was the only possible way to keep him out of sight, it didn't mean Dumbledore approved of it.
The homunculus raised his wide green eyes, so indistinguishable from Harry Potter's. Ever since he was brought into this world, those eyes held nothing but deference and gratitude towards Dumbledore. Now they were filled with shame, and to the professor's regret, an immense fear.
Dumbledore dispelled the homunculus's bonds and extended his hand. "Come," he said. "You needn't be afraid."
Why am I running away?
Ginny pelted down the deserted stone corridor. It didn't occur to her that she only had the vaguest idea where to go, only that Harry Potter was behind her and she needed to put as much distance between the two of them as possible.
Outside the twilight fell, slow as a silk veil, throwing serrated shadows of distant trees against the tall glass windows. A suit of armor swung its head as she hurtled past it. "No running in the corridors!" it barked. Ginny clapped her hands around her ears. Despite that, she sensed Harry's footsteps not far behind her, and his voice leaked through her hands.
Part of her ached to hear the longing in his voice, but another part only pushed her to run faster.
I should stop, Ginny thought to herself. I should face him. I should talk to him. Why am I even doing this? She argued the point with her legs. They elected to ignore her.
She ran through an open doorway that led her outdoors, down a flight of stone steps, and found herself in a deserted garden just outside the Great Hall. It was the same one she had walked through during in the Yule Ball, seemingly a lifetime ago. It looked threadbare now by comparison, just a few well-trimmed bushes and a single evergreen tree in the center. Across this little courtyard was another open doorway leading into darkness. She was about to sprint towards it when she heard Harry shout behind her.
"Ginny, you said you'd wait!"
She stopped, turned and looked up at the doorway as Harry came running through. She hadn't even broken a sweat, but he was panting and wheezing and his pale skin stood out in the gloom. He halted at the top of the stairs when he caught sight of her.
I'm hurting him, Ginny realized, seeing the look on his face. She wanted at that moment to apologize, to give some sort of explanation for running away.
Instead, she screamed back: "I DID WAIT!"
"I've been waiting for you to come here on your own," said Dumbledore, "but it seems you would not."
The headmaster led them to a pair of chairs near the window and they sat across from each other. The homunculus could not look him in the eye.
"Would you like something to drink?" Dumbledore asked him. His guest shook his head. Dumbledore conjured a pot of tea and two cups for them anyway.
"I would have come, Professor," the homunculus said quietly. "I would have come eventually, but I needed some time first. There was something I had to do."
"Yet you realize the gravity of the situation, the danger involved if anyone outside of our circle knew that you…"
"That I'm an illegal magical construct impersonating a real person." The homunculus said this without a trace of mockery or reproach, but Dumbledore sensed his bitterness. "Yes, headmaster. I haven't forgotten what you said when you brought me out of my jar."
"Then…tell me. Have your feelings on the matter changed? Am I to understand that you do not wish to return?"
The homunculus stayed silent. Dumbledore sighed. In truth, he could already guess the reason for this, or at least a part of it. The homunculus had been out from his jar too long. Who wouldn't be enamored with this world? Who wouldn't grow attached to living here, surrounded by sunshine, friends, good food…
The homunculus met his eyes. "Before I tell you, there's something you should know about me first. I have a name now, sir. Jamie."
"Jamie," Dumbledore repeated. This was a surprise. "Did you come up with that name yourself, or…"
"It was given to me, sir, as a gift."
"Indeed? By whom?"
The homunculus hesitated, then said, "Ginny."
"Ms. Weasley? She gave you your name?"
"Yes sir. She said I should at least have something of my own, even for a short time."
He paused, and a long, uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Dumbledore finally understood what had happened.
Good Merlin, he thought. This means trouble.
"Jamie," he said, "how long has this been going on?"
"Six whole months, Harry!" Ginny screamed. "I waited six months, without a word or a sign or ANYTHING to give me any idea on where you were and how you were doing, or even the flimsiest hope that I would ever see you again! NOTHING!"
Harry seemed at a loss for what to say. "Ginny," he began, "I can explain…you don't have to run…"
"I WANTED to run! I wanted to run because I'm so mad! It was bad enough that my Mum and Dad wanted me to stay here and keep my head down while the rest of my family fought out there. Bad enough that they wouldn't tell me anything about how they were and what they were doing, bad enough that I had to force my way into contributing something, anything, so that I wouldn't feel like a useless lump—I had to carry on without knowing if you were dead or alive!
"I'm so angry—and I don't even WANT to be angry, Harry! Because you're here now and we should be happy and everything should be alright and it should be a bloody perfect day, and instead we're still in the middle of this blasted war and I just…I just k-killed someone, for Merlin's sake—I killed someone for the first time in my life! And…and I lost a friend in the bargain. He was my responsibility and now he's gone, as easy as that. Gone… just like you were. I'm angry about losing him, angry at this school for celebrating, angry at Dumbledore for not keeping any of this from happening, angry at you for not being there when I needed you most. And most of all, I'm angry at myself!"
She paused, huffing, feeling as if all the blood had risen up to her head and bubbling at her temples. Harry still stood there, watching her and not saying a word. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to bring her trembling voice under control.
"I…I thought you were dead too, Harry. Can you believe that? When Dumbledore didn't even bloody know if you were alive, I thought you were gone and I was never going to see you again. It felt like…like the world had already ended, but I was the only one who knew it. The sun kept rising and people kept going…and there was still so much to do. So I had to let you go. I needed to let you go. It was either that or go mad.
"And I was wrong, boy was I wrong. Because here you are! Alive!" She let out a harsh, self-mocking laugh she never knew she had in her. "Ironic, isn't it? I…I wanted you nearly all my life. All these years, I was in love with you, but I was the first to let you go, the first to move on. Shit, I hate that phrase. That thing they tell you to do when bad stuff happens. I've never been so mad at myself for doing that, for being so bloody stupid. And I've never been so ashamed. Ron and Hermione never gave up hope that you'd come back. But I did, Harry. I did."
She choked on the last word and looked down.
"And now, I don't even know where to begin with you," she said. "I don't know what to say to you. You've…we've been apart so long, we may not even be the same people we were before. I'm so scared to find that it's true."
She did not look up again until she heard Harry's soft footfalls. He approached her slowly, eyes locked with hers, as if she might flee at any sudden movement.
"You're not stupid," he said to her. "I understand how you feel. I've felt just as helpless, as responsible, as guilty as you. I still do."
"Have I…ever disappointed you in any way, Professor?" Jamie asked. "In my time here, have I otherwise performed up to your expectations?
"You did was I asked of you," Dumbledore replied as he smoothed his beard.
Hope flashed on Jamie's young face. "Then, sir, would you consider letting me stay in your service?"
Dumbledore's hand ceased to stroke his beard. He said nothing.
"I…I can help you," said Jamie. "I learn fast, so I can help you research spells and label all your ingredients. I can catalogue your scrolls for you—you said you've always been meaning to do that but could never get around to it. I could be your assistant."
This earned a derisive snort from the Nigellus portrait. Dumbledore himself did not reply.
Jamie said in a lower voice, "If…if not that, then just make me your servant. I can learn to cook and clean. I can sweep your floors and make your bed in the mornings, and you won't ever have to worry about bird droppings on your windowsill. You won't even have to pay me. If you'd only…"
Dumbledore stared at him through his half-moon glasses, and Jamie dropped his eyes.
"Jamie," said the headmaster. "Your wish is a selfish one, is it not? Ms. Weasley is the reason you want to stay. In essence, your offer of service is a bribe."
"Please sir," Jamie said. "I don't mean to insult you. I don't know what else to tell you. I did not plan to feel what I feel for her. I never knew what it was until I found a name for it. But now that it's here, I can't help it."
"And what exactly," said Dumbledore, "do you think you feel for her?"
Jamie sat still for a moment, then quietly said, "When I first met her, she was just a memory in my head, one of hundreds of thousands I inherited from Harry, and I felt nothing. When I first spoke to her, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. She didn't want to be around me, wouldn't even look at me. I didn't know what to say to make her feel at ease.
"But after she defended me from those bullies, we spoke openly for the first time. I realized that she saw me as a friend. And when she hugged me and held my hand, I understood, little by little, what it meant to be happy.
"And now I get up from bed looking forward to the day, knowing that I would have time to sit by her side and talk to her again. Yes, she is the reason I want to stay. I want to share my life with her for as long as I can. I did not mean for it to happen. All I know is that it's what I want."
Dumbledore's face remained impassive. Jamie dropped his eyes.
"I only want to make her happy, the way she made me happy," said Jamie. "I want to be worthy of her. I want her to love me. Professor, is it wrong to feel this way?"
"I can't tell you to stop feeling all those things," Harry said as he came down the steps. "You've got every right to be angry and disappointed. All I can do is say I'm sorry, Ginny, that I haven't been there for you during the worst times. I know I keep apologizing a lot, and it does no good at all when you look at what's happened. I've done nothing but hurt you, both unwittingly and on purpose."
He took a deep breath.
"But it's not going to be like that anymore. I don't want it to be. So I'll also promise you something, Ginny, if you'll forgive me."
He held his hands out to her. "No matter what happens, I won't leave you again."
Ginny's felt her breath, which had been racing just a while ago, suddenly catch in her throat.
"Why?" she asked. "Why would you promise me such a thing?"
He was standing at the foot of the stairs, level with her, his face tender and certain and happy.
"Because it's all I ever wanted," he answered, "all I ever thought about when I was away from you. I was a bloody fool not to tell you. I was afraid too, you see. Afraid of risking your safety. Afraid of losing you. And you know what? All my worrying, my trying to be…"
"Noble," Ginny said, glowering at him.
Harry smiled, that same boyish smile he wore back in the Burrow. "Yeah. And it amounted to nothing. I was being selfish and stupid and I only thought about what I wanted. Not about what would make you happy."
He paused, cocked his head to one side. "You cut your hair."
Blinking, Ginny's touched her red locks. "It was too risky to keep it long. It might catch on something during combat, or get in my eyes. I can let it grow back."
"No." Harry shook his head. "Don't change. I like you just the way you are."
He stepped closer now, coming to stand before her. Ginny felt no compunction to run. Far from it. She felt an absurd desire to fall forward, knowing she might hurt herself, and not caring.
"Maybe we're different people now, just like you said," Harry went on. "Maybe we don't know each other anymore. But I want to try anyway. I want to discover as much as I can about you. I may not know you anymore, Ginny Weasley, but I still love you."
"Wha…what?" Ginny's eyes had gone round owl-round. "What did you just say?"
Harry grinned and said something, but the blood was rushing too loudly in her ears for her to understand. But there was no need for words, it was plain for her to see—how his lips moved, the slightest lift of the corners of his mouth, the bright green of his eyes, like sunlight through leaves. And something was blazing inside of her, hot like the core of a star, its radiance erasing the shadows in her mind.
She realized her face was wet and she wiped at it with her sleeve. "Ginny?" she heard him say. "Ginny, I'm sorry...I'm so sorry..."
"Don't," Ginny managed. "Harry, just—don't." She reached for him.
Harry did not hesitate. He was in her arms in two strides, then they were two bodies merging into a single, new-born, awkward being.
"I'm the wuh-one who should be sorry, Harry," she burbled. "I'm the buh-bloody idiot…I said I'd whu-wait but... Can you forgive…?"
"Shhh," Harry murmured in her ear. "Nothing to be sorry for. Nothing to forgive. We're both alive and that's what matters. So shhh."
The scent of him surrounded her, and she clung to him as tightly as she could, as if he were the last warm thing in the world.
"The world is not always as bright as you see it," the headmaster said. "The feelings you have, by themselves, are not wrong. But you must understand that these very same feelings will later cause you grief."
Jamie frowned. "Ginny has never given me a reason to feel sad."
"No?" Dumbledore said. "Would you say the same, knowing that she cannot return your love?"
Jamie blanched, his eyes dropping to his hands. "I was hoping…perhaps…with time…"
Dumbledore arched his brow. "With time?"
The homunculus heaved a deep sigh. "It is because she has Harry, isn't it."
"She has Harry. Even when he was not here, he never left her mind and heart. You can lay claim to neither. You can never make yourself worthy of someone's love, no matter what you do or how you try. It is love that deems you worthy, for reasons you may not expect. You can but accept its judgment."
He put his hand on the homunculus's shoulder and looked him square in the eye.
"Jamie, I speak to you now not as your master, but as your friend. This path you choose will bring you nothing but sorrow, I guarantee it. Wouldn't you rather, for your own sake, return to your jar and save yourself the pain?"
The homunculus stayed silent, then shook his head.
"Professor," he said, "there is a grove of elders west of the castle keep, a grove that never withers through the seasons, always ready to warm and shelter those who walk into it. I want to be like that for Ginny. I want to be someone she can turn to even in the worst times of her life. I will remain her friend. If I cannot have her love then I will settle for just the dream of her love."
Dumbledore sighed. There was no avoiding it. He had to deliver the cruelest blow of all. "Jamie," he said gently, "Ginny is mortal and has a soul. You do not. You were never born and thus cannot age and die. Where she goes after her death, you cannot follow."
Jamie went rigid as if electrocuted. "She will die and…and I'll be alone?"
"Yes," Dumbledore said, "She will marry, grow old, and depart this life, while you shall stay as you are for all time. Such is the nature of love, this mortality." He turned to look out the window, where the moon was beginning to rise, and his voice grew soft and distant. "One thing is certain: no matter how good or powerful or wise we become, we are guaranteed to lose all that we love. And there is no greater grief in this life than surviving the ones you hold dear."
As he watched Jamie's face, a drop of blue liquid leaked from the homunculus's eye and crept down his pale skin. It fell on the back of Jamie's hand, who gasped at the sight of it.
"This is why you must not cry in public," said Dumbledore, wiping the tears away with his hand. "You cannot hide or deny what you are, Jamie. Reconsider. You have a chance to escape this grief precisely because you are not human. You can live for hundreds of years and see the world again through a hundred human lives. But for now, I implore you, go back to your jar. Go back to where you will be free from all mortal constraint, where you will neither want nor dream."
"And I'll neither laugh nor cry," said Jamie, staring down at the teardrop on his hand. "I will live for years, but in the end, I will just turn into nothing. Like the mermaid in the story." For a long moment, the homunculus sat still like an abandoned marionette, staring into space with his bottle-glass eyes.
Then he said, "Is it possible to obtain a soul?"
Dumbledore blinked at him.
"Professor," Jamie said, louder. "Can you tell me how to get my own soul?"
"Tell me," Ginny said, leaning her head on Harry's shoulder. "What happened to you?"
They sat together on the stone bench, beneath the evergreen, with Ginny's blanket around their shoulders. Harry's hand was warm in hers, and Ginny believed she would be blessed if it never moved from its place again.
Harry smiled, caressed a lock of her hair with his fingers. "You tell me your story first. Everything I know I heard second-hand from Ron and Hermione."
"Then you already know something about me. There's plenty of time to tell you the rest. But I have to know…where have you been? What kept you away so long?"
He leaned slightly away from her. "Before I say anything," he said, "I have to warn you that I won't keep anything from you. I won't try to hide any of the bad stuff."
"I don't want you to," Ginny said, squeezing his hand. "Tell me everything."
And Harry did, to the best of his ability. He told her of the Death Eater he had killed, of Flamel's end, of his time in the Crystal Cage. He told her about Dahlia. He related the awful things he saw and did in the hinterlands, how the mists had laid bare his desire for vengeance, his self-centeredness, his guilt from surviving where others had perished. He told her the story of Eirin and Arlen, and of the wonderful, terrible moment when he and Dahlia had discovered their bond. He told her, finally, of the battle at the Door of Fire, and the last thing Dahlia ever did.
An hour came and went, unnoticed. Through it all, Ginny's hand never left his, and when he would pause, voice on the verge of breaking, she would squeeze his hand to urge him on.
"It's almost funny," Harry said at the end. "Dahlia had lived for revenge once. She caused so much suffering and suffered just as terribly. And because she knew what it was like, she saved me from that path, and…"
His mouth twisted, as if the words turned bitter in his mouth. He lowered his head. "S-sorry."
"No," said Ginny, tilting his face up. "Don't hide them, please? I waited a long time to see them. They're my tears, too."
"I-I couldn't save her, Ginny!" Harry said. "I couldn't repay her kindness! I couldn't do anything for her! I wanted so much for her to live and be happy with me, but I couldn't give her even that. I let her go. She asked me to, and I did. Because I loved her. Isn't that stupid? I loved her, but I let her burn."
He was shaking, so Ginny slipped her arms around him and kissed his forehead. She waited for him to stop trembling before she spoke again.
"Harry," she said, "Harry, listen. My mum never asked anything of me. She waited a long time to have me, and when I was born she raised me and took care of me and taught me everything she knew. She never once asked me to repay her."
"I know," Harry said, choking, "but I wanted..."
"Shhh. You must understand how Dahlia felt. You didn't have to repay her and she didn't want you to. It's enough for her that you two met. She knows exactly how you feel, even if you never said. You can't imagine how happy you made her, and how grateful she felt that you loved her despite what she was and what she did. Don't say you never made her happy, Harry, because you did that just by being born."
Harry sank deeper into her embrace as Ginny leaned her head against his.
"I wish I could've met her," she added. "I would've liked to be her friend."
"She has taught me everything that is good in this world," Jamie said. "She taught me to hope and dream, even for things that are out of reach. If I have an immortal soul, if I can be as human as her, I will share something with her that's eternal. Even if I should die, I will see her again, and it won't be the end."
"Jamie," Dumbledore said, a bit of exasperation entering his voice, "what you're asking for is beyond reasonable."
"Forgive me sir," said Jamie, "but I want something of myself to survive this life. I want to be where my loved ones are after I'm gone. Isn't that what any human wants for themselves? Why can't I want it too?"
Dumbledore massaged his temples. "I'm sorry, Jamie. I personally know of no way for a non-human to gain a soul."
"But even if you do not know, there must be someone else who does, right?"
"I cannot say. It seems unlikely…but perhaps."
"Then…" Jamie sat up straight. "Then I want to try! Let me find the way! I want to see if I can have a soul. Please sir, don't send me back to my jar."
Dumbledore got up from his chair and paced around his office. Eventually, he stopped and turned to the homunculus.
"You are a foolish boy," he snapped. "I have met many, many fools in my life, but never one such as you, grasping at moonbeams, turning matters on their head, and demanding that things not be what they are!"
Jamie shrank back in his chair. Dumbledore sighed, then said, "And perhaps, precisely because of that, you seem most human to me.
"You know what joy is, you know what fear is. You have known what it is to regret. You have laughed. You have wept. You are now every bit a child of this world as I am, and I shall not send you away."
"I will say this, however," he went on when the homunculus's face lit up. "You may stay, but you shall sever your ties to Ginny Weasley. You are not to interfere with the life she wants to build for herself. For as long as you wear that face, even the sight of you may cause her and her loved ones difficulty."
At the stricken look on Jamie's face, Dumbledore added, not unkindly:
"You may speak to her once more, to say goodbye. And once I have done something about your appearance, she may visit you at her leisure, if that is what she wants. But not often, mind you. We will, after all, be busy with finding out how to instill a homunculus with a soul."
With a gasp, Jamie sprang from his chair and threw his arms around Dumbledore.
The headmaster hesitated, then smiled and returned the boy's hug. A part of him was glad to have found this compromise, yet there remained a lingering doubt that he had done the homunculus any good.
Ginny sighed in contentment. Nestling close to Harry, she could feel his every breath, the pulse on his neck so strong against the inside of her arm. She briefly wondered how everything can go so wrong and so right in just a single day.
"So where do we go from here?" Harry murmured.
"We start over, just like you said," Ginny whispered back. "We've got time to figure it all out, if we give it to ourselves." She raised his head to look at him. "If that's what you really want, Mr. Potter."
Harry smiled at her. "I've never been more sure of anything, Ms. Weasley."
She shifted closer to him, but he abruptly looked up at the lit windows of Gryffindor Tower. "Think Ron and Hermione are looking for us?"
"Maybe," Ginny said. "Sorry if I don't exactly care at the moment."
"We probably should head back," he said. "It's not safe out here." He got up and offered his hand to Ginny.
"Hmm," she said, grinning broadly as they walked arm in arm towards the entrance. "I'm wondering what people are going to say now when they see us like this."
"Um, Ginny?" said Harry, "I've been meaning to ask…"
"Are you currently…seeing anyone?"
She looked at him as if he'd asked her to jump off the top of Gryffindor Tower.
"Because," he added lamely, "that's the first thing I thought when you ran away from me—she's got a boyfriend."
"Gods, Harry," she said. "You think I wouldn't tell you that from the start? No, I most certainly do not have one!"
"Oh." Harry looked relieved. "Well, what a coincidence…" And they both laughed.
"I'm going to have to get used to living here again," Harry said, gazing up at the castle. "Being around people, sleeping in a bed, having cooked meals…I just realized, the last cooked meal I had was back in September."
"Mum will fatten you up," Ginny warned. "When she gets her hands on you, she won't let you catch a breath between spoonfuls."
"I can imagine." Harry laughed again. "And it's okay, you know, all of it. I'm looking forward to it as much as you are. Because…I think in the end, that's all Dahlia wanted me to do…to live my life as best I can and be happy. I'll do exactly that, Ginny—but this time, with you. I want to spend every day with you. I want to make up for all the time we lost. And I want to hold hands with you all the time, just like this." He linked his fingers with hers.
"Oh, Harry," Ginny giggled, in a way that meant "you silly boy."
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "What's so funny?"
"You've been away all this time, and all you want to do is hold hands?"
Ginny took a moment to savor the look of surprise on his face before pulling down on his arm so that his lips were within reach of hers, and for a long time thereafter neither thought or said anything, while above them the spring moon washed Hogwarts in the palest light.
To be continued
Up next: Daniel. Ellie. Holding back the years. The same singular shade of grey.