It was very quiet the night Professor Trelawney was sacked. The Entrance Hall was packed full of people, students and teachers alike, but no one dared to make a sound as the Headmaster of Hogwarts squared off against the High Inquisitor. Everyone was giving them a wide berth, like an audience that wouldn't dare step on the stage of the show, much less actually make a sound to interrupt it. Even Trelawney's sobs had quieted down to silent hiccups, while she was escorted to her chambers by McGonagall and Sprout, with Flitwick following a little behind with her luggage.
Harry Potter watched her disappear up the stairs before looking back at Dumbledore. The old wizard's expression was one of absolute serenity as he stared down Umbridge with a little smile, and the boy-who-lived had no idea how the old wizard was able to do that. Rubbing his scar furiously was all he could do not to reach for his wand and curse the woman back to where she had come from.
His gaze automatically shifted to the DADA teacher, her pleased expression almost sickening considering the brutality of her recent actions. She was a bully of the worst sort and he hated bullies, probably as much as Dresden did. The fact that the object of her cruelty had been a woman herself only made it worse. She was still waving her Minister's signed Order of Dismissal as she talked, a victorious smile playing on her lips. That parchment was the symbol of her power, a power she used both to shield herself and to strike at her opposers, and at the moment, Harry wanted nothing more than to tear it to pieces and burn it to ashes.
A hand touched his shoulder firmly and he forced himself to look away and at Hermione. She was staring at him in warning and deep concern, and he suddenly realized that some of his magic had started pouring out under the pressure of his emotions. All around him, the Gryffindors observing the scene were squirming uncomfortably on their spots, unknowingly sensing the foreign energy that was Dresden magic.
Harry exhaled, clenching and unclenching his left hand repeatedly as if to let go of his anger, while reining on his powers to bring them back under control. He stopped scratching his scar and looked back at Hermione, smiling what he hoped was a reassuring smile and letting her know it was alright.
'Thanks' he mouthed silently, internally impressed that she had picked up on it so fast. He imagined she was getting used to it, to the sensation she had described as a chill rolling up and down her spine. He looked around for a couple of seconds and was relieved that no one else seemed to be any the wiser. Ron too continued looking on obliviously as Umbridge spoke up again.
"You aren't doing her any favours, Albus, deluding her into thinking she can keep on living at Hogwarts," she said in a mock-sad voice. "But I guess she's not the only deluded person here."
Dumbledore's smile didn't waver in the slightest at her condescending tone.
"Oh, I am most certain this very room houses at least one more," he said calmly.
Umbridge bristled at the veiled jab and her next grin was so unnatural that it looked more like a pained grimace than anything else.
"That woman will be out of the castle soon," she forced through gritted teeth, "as soon as the Ministry and I find a much more suitable candidate for the position."
The old wizard turned sorrowful at that.
"If that is the case, then I will simply take solace in having provided a friend with a few more days of hospitality."
"I'm sure that will warm her heart," she said sweetly, "hopefully enough to get her through the winter… in whatever cold place she will stay at."
Harry scowled at the woman. She was practically glowing, so smugly and self-righteously. And for what? Kicking someone out of their home? How sick was that? He tried to imagine what he would do if thrown out of Hogwarts - for all intents and purposes the only place he had ever called home and meant it - and he couldn't help the lump forming in his throat. The sensation only got sharper and hotter, extending to his chest and gut, when he thought about Dresden's life after his father's death and before Justin's arrival, when he was constantly being moved from one grim orphanage to the next at the mercy of American social welfare.
He didn't need Hermione's warning to realize that his magic had once again made its presence known, but this time he didn't try to stop it. Directing it with his will, he focused on defining a precise image in his mind's eye and waved his hand, hidden behind Ron's tall frame.
"Mirago," he whispered harshly, and his voice carried over a little more than he would have liked. Some of the nearest Gryffindors turned to look at him and he had to show them his empty hands in an innocent gesture. They soon went back to the showdown between Dumbledore and Umbridge, right as Peeves appeared out of nowhere.
He descended from the ceiling, though no one could have said how long he'd been there, dropping in between the two Professors with a mischievous grin on his translucent face.
"Boo!" he shouted right in the face of the High Inquisitor.
The woman yelped, badly startled, as she brought her hand up to her chest in an unconditioned reflex. She exposed her parchment to do so and Peeves snatched it from her fingers with speed worthy of a Seeker.
"No!" she screeched, reaching for the Ministry document again and falling short.
"Mine!" the poltergeist retorted jovially, cackling in derision as he zoomed away and up the large staircase. Umbridge cried out in outrage and looked around as if searching for help, but the students were more amused than anything else, and no one moved to stop Peeves. Her eyes fell on Dumbledore for a moment, knowing that only the Headmaster of Hogwarts truly had power over the creature, but she visibly swallowed her next few words, replacing them with an infuriated snarl.
"Stop! You little-"
And she set off in pursuit of the mischievous poltergeist, pushing students out of the way and climbing the stone staircase as quickly as she could. Loud snickers resonated in the chamber well after she had disappeared around the corner. Harry didn't join in, though he had to suppress the urge to cry out in exultance as he focused on the spell he was still weaving in the area in front of him.
"Very well," Dumbledore interrupted the laughter, but there was a small smile playing on his lips as well. "I think Professor Umbridge's sudden exit puts an early end to our little gathering. I suggest we move the scene back to the Great Hall to finish our dinner."
And with those simple words, the circle of students surrounding the wizard started trickling into the adjacent room, murmurs about what had just happened finally breaking out among them.
Harry waited where he was, briefly gesturing at his friends to go ahead. In front of him, the Headmaster of Hogwarts stood still as well, watching as the last few Ravenclaws stepped beyond the threshold and moved towards their table. Then he crouched down slowly, reaching out with his hand and closing his fingers onto the invisible – for everyone else – piece of parchment on the ground.
"Magnificent," the old wizard commented. "Truly a remarkable show of Illusion magic, Harry."
The boy-who-lived finally let go of his spell together with a tired sigh. A heartbeat later, the Ministry document that the poltergeist had supposedly stolen appeared in Dumbledore's hand.
"It didn't fool you," he grumbled in disappointment.
"I am afraid Peeves' behaviour gave it away," Dumbledore admitted. "I have had more than a century to familiarize myself with his antics, and his actions tonight were quite a bit too mild."
Harry considered that for a second. "Too little taunting?"
"I would say."
He snorted, then shook his head.
"I'm sure that's all there was to it, sir," he said sarcastically. "Of course, actually sensing my magic didn't give you a big heads-up on what was going on. Right."
The old wizard looked at him for a moment, then sighed and shifted his gaze to the parchment in his hand.
"You realize that Professor Umbridge will not be deterred by Peeves' mischief, yes?" he said. "This is simply a delay, a hindrance vanishing as soon as a new document will be drafted and given to her."
Harry glared at the parchment sourly. "I know. But I thought it would give you enough time to figure out something more permanent."
"Ah, my boy," Dumbledore said in amusement. "You appear to be under the impression that I have remained idle all this time. The signs of such an occurrence have been evident since the teachers' evaluations by Professor Umbridge were made official."
Harry felt like he should have expected it. "You have a solution, then?"
"I am working towards it right as we speak."
The twinkle in the Headmaster's eyes gave him pause. He looked at the old man in suspicion.
"Am I somehow part of this solution?"
"Only if you wish to be," Dumbledore was quick to reassure him.
The boy-who-lived held the Professor's gaze for a long second while his mind went back to Trelawney's cries and Umbridge's triumphant expression. He sighed.
"What do I have to do?" he asked, and the old wizard smiled.
"Walk with me. I would like you to meet someone."
After one last quick glance at the Great Hall, Harry followed the man as he stepped towards the gates leading outside. Cold hit him as soon as he passed the threshold, leaving behind whatever magic kept the castle warm. Dumbledore had his wand out already and a simple flick in his direction was enough to stop the freezing wind from reaching him. Harry wanted to retort that he could have taken care of it himself, but managed to hold his tongue in time. He knew it was childish and silly, but it was still hard to stop himself from venting at the Headmaster at any chance he got.
"And here I thought we were finally going Horcrux hunting, tonight," he said instead, glancing briefly at the old wizard. "I guess you're not that worried about the one hidden somewhere in Hogwarts."
"On the contrary," Dumbledore said, "I am quite troubled by the risks its presence in the castle entails. But, alas, finding it by proxy appears to be the only viable solution, and that requires a few precautions. I am confident we will be able to start our search in a few days."
Harry nodded, breathing out in slight annoyance. Despite his best efforts, he had been unable to follow the Horcrux trail to a more specific area of Hogwarts. The castle's magic was simply too powerful and all-encompassing, disrupting the Thaumaturgic spell whenever he tried to narrow down the artifact's exact location. He had recently admitted to himself and Dumbledore that he needed a stronger link in order to find it, a stronger link that could be nothing if not another Horcrux. That meant tracking one outside the castle, and that, according to the Headmaster, meant taking security measures of some kind.
They moved through the Hogwarts ground at a slow pace. The sky had been clear in the past few days, but there was still a thick layer of snow covering everything, and the evening was dark enough that they needed to be careful. For a moment, Harry thought that Dumbledore was taking him to Hagrid's hut, but it soon became obvious it wasn't so. They walked past it and the trail of smoke rising from its chimney, directed to the woods beyond.
"The Forbidden Forest, huh?" he commented. He had immediately thought of Hogsmeade when the Headmaster had mentioned taking a walk. How come he was still so optimistic about anything? "Who is it that I'm going to meet in here?"
Dumbledore didn't turn around as he answered. A light had appeared after a swish of his wand and their path was now as clear as day in a radius of twenty feet.
"The new Divination teacher, I hope."
The boy-who-lived frowned in confusion. "How is that helping Trelawney?"
"Professor Trelawney," the Headmaster corrected him softly. "And that should work quite nicely. There is little I can do to stop Madame Umbridge from sacking our Sybill, but I can take action so that leaving the castle will not be forced upon her."
"Simply enough," he said, a note of amusement evident in his voice. "Hogwarts' regulation states that teachers are obliged to vacate their chambers only to clear them for their successors. Imagine, now, if said successors did not need them, or better yet, would actually found reaching them a quite troublesome endeavour, considering their location atop the highest tower of the castle."
Harry's eyebrows shot up at that explanation. His brain took the obvious next step a second later.
"Sir, are you going to ask a centaur to teach Divination at Hogwarts?" he asked.
The old wizard stopped walking long enough to point his twinkling eyes at him.
"I already did," he said. "Tonight I will have his answer."
The boy-who-lived nodded silently. It was well known that centaurs had practiced their own form of Divination since thousands of years, and although it was presumably very different from the one taught at Hogwarts, the Headmaster's offer made sense. It would also serve to undermine Umbridge's authority and ideals, racist bullshit and all, which was a big plus in his mind. That said, there were still a couple of problems he could see.
"Aren't centaurs bound to the forest, though? I thought…" He stopped a moment to duck under the low branch of a slanted tree. "I always thought they weren't interested in mingling with humans."
"Not this one," Dumbledore said at once, his lips quirking upwards. "You could say he is a rare breed among its kind. You should be well aware of that."
Harry ignored the joke. He had met only a few centaurs in his life and only one of them had given him a ride on his back, which was probably what the Headmaster was referring to.
The old wizard nodded. "Yes."
The boy-who-lived murmured noncommittally. He thought about what he knew of the centaur, both first hand and from some of Hagrid's stories. "I guess I can see him accepting the position, actually, all things considered. But why would you need me?"
Dumbledore paused for a long moment before answering, while Harry chanced a look away from the tangled brushwood to observe his face. Their eyes met briefly.
"He requested to speak with you," the old wizard said simply.
Harry didn't like the direction the conversation was taking. Not at all.
"He would not say," was the rather unsatisfying answer.
"Wait, when was this?"
"A week and half ago, I believe. Why?"
Harry looked at the Headmaster in exasperation. "Why the hell am I finding this out only now?"
He was about to launch himself into a long and accusing tirade about things being kept from him again when Dumbledore intervened.
"I temporarily withheld this information only so I could ascertain the risks were bearable," he explained calmly, stopping for a moment and looking at him. "You know better than most about the perils the Forbidden Forest harbours. Before yet again introducing you to them, I needed to make sure our path would be as clear as possible."
At that familiar argument, Harry felt his cheeks getting slightly warm.
"So you did it to protect me? Again," he said. "You really love that excuse."
It was a bit cheap and something twisted in his stomach at the sight of Dumbledore's saddened look.
"I am terribly sorry that my attempts to keep you safe anger you," he said, and Harry tried and failed to find anything resembling sarcasm in his voice.
He sighed, part of his annoyance gone.
"Forget it," he said, resuming his march.
At least the man had told him on his own accord, this time. And he doubted that Umbridge's actions had forced his hand that much. On the contrary, a part of him, the one still looking at the Headmaster in suspicion, couldn't help but wonder if the wizard had deliberately waited for Trelawney's dramatic ousting before coming forward with the solution. Maybe to see what Harry's reaction would be or even to manipulate him into helping.
"Isn't it sad", he started suddenly, speaking up before his brain could even register what was coming out of his mouth, "that what I'm doing right now is trying to find the secret motive behind your actions?"
He thought he heard the old wizard sigh as they moved carefully over the snow.
"It is, my boy," Albus Dumbledore replied quietly, not averting his eyes from the darkness beyond his spell. "If it puts your mind at rest, another reason why I took some time before approaching you with the subject was so I could figure out what Firenze's interest in you was. I have ties with some of the informed creatures in here, some of them less tight-lipped than the centaur race."
Harry nodded, silently conceding the point. "What did you find out?"
"Very little, I must confess. Firenze's tribe has been in slight turmoil recently, as well as this whole section of the Forest. However, there should be a very specific reason for that, one that does not concern you."
Harry weighed that in for a moment.
"Is Voldemort trying to make allies with the creatures in here?" he asked. "Because that does concern me."
"No, that is not the case."
"What is the reason behind their 'turmoil', then?"
"I cannot say," the Professor admitted, but stalled any protest by raising a hand. "This is not my secret to reveal, Harry. I would betray a friend's trust if I did."
The boy-who-lived swallowed the words on his tongue and kept on walking. He broke the silence a few seconds later.
"Why would Firenze ask to meet me?" he wondered aloud, and the Headmaster shook his head.
"We are here to find out."
Harry frowned in thought, but kept on following the Professor. They moved through tall grass and undergrowth, amidst trees the size of the Whomping Willow, while the sounds of the forest resonated all around. A few minutes in and the snow had completely disappeared, the umbrella of branches above too thick to let any through. The ground was muddy and slippery, though, and their advance slowed down significantly as a result.
Harry palmed his wand nervously before deciding to take it out. They were very deep inside the forest now, maybe deeper than he'd ever been, and the woods had grown quieter and quieter as well. He was starting slightly at every little sound, as he loosened the shield bracelet jingling around his left wrist, readying its magic for good measure. He had made the focus recently, after his second trip to Dresden's world, but there had been no time for a too extensive test, nor the willingness to do that, admittedly. There was a limit to how much stress – be it magical or physical – the bracelet could bear before burning out, and he didn't plan to get close to that limit with simple experiments. Besides, with fresh in mind Ebenezar's lesson as to how to create one, things had gone much more smoothly than with the blasting rod – for which he had only had very old and faded explanations from Justin and Bob as points of reference – so he was positive it would work as intended.
Looking into the darkness beyond the reach of Dumbledore's spell, Harry had the impression there were shadows moving about, just out of sight. He was just wondering whether the magical focus would be put to the test, after all, when the trees in front of them thinned out and the natural light of the moon began shining through. Soon enough, Harry could easily see the sky through the foliage above, while walking in the snow again. A large clearing opened up before his eyes, as the Professor led him a few more steps in, towards a lonely tree standing tall against the wind.
Firenze was waiting for them beside it, his silver mane glimmering in the moonlight. He was peering up at the sky with a contemplative expression on his face, but looked down immediately when the Headmaster greeted him.
"Albus Dumbledore," he said softly, but his deep voice carried over the whole clearing. His gaze moved to Harry after a moment of consideration. "Harry Potter. It was foretold in the night sky that we would meet again."
"Nice to meet you, too," the boy-who-lived said, "but that's cheating. You asked to meet me."
"I did," the centaur agreed. "And yet, the conditions for our encounter to happen were entirely unrelated to anything any one of us might have done in this life."
"Well... here I am," he said hesitantly. "What did you want from me?"
He shifted a little under Firenze's stare. His eyes were a startling shade of blue and so intense that they felt like they were seeing right through him. The centaur just observed him in silence for a few seconds. Then he pushed back his head and looked up.
"My brethren's findings over the centuries have taught me that our world's fortune can be seen in the heavens above," he started quietly, gaze roaming about the sky. "Throughout the last decade, my herd and I… we all agreed about what was to come, the events made even more clear by the fumes of our herbs burning. The indications had been that wizardkind was living through nothing more than a brief calm between two wars. Mars, bringer of battle, shined ever so brightly, suggesting that the fight might have broken out again soon. And you, Harry Potter, have always floated at the centre of it all."
Harry sighed at those words with something akin to resignation.
"Great," he muttered. "I really needed another one of these fun prophecies."
"Not a prophecy," Firenze corrected at once. "Just the whispers of the universe."
"Well, at least the Prophet is right, now?" the boy-who-lived said. "I do believe I'm at the centre of the universe after this." He sighed again, not really amused himself. "Doesn't it have something more interesting to whisper about?"
Maybe it was the sudden cold wind sweeping through the clearing, but he thought the centaur's following smile was quite chilling.
"It appears it does," the creature said. "The signs have been proven false."
A few seconds passed before Harry realized that maybe he could speed up the process a little.
"Huh," he said in interest. "Does it happen often?"
"The heavens have been read wrong before," Firenze admitted candidly. "It can take centaurs years to decipher and interpret the movement of stars and planets, and time often influences our perspectives, and as a result, our understanding. But that's not what took place with this. We were not wrong." He looked much more serious after a pause. "The universe was."
Not really sure of what that even meant, Harry looked at Dumbledore for help, but the old wizard seemed to be quite content on his backseat for the moment, and an expressionless face was all he got in return.
"Alright," he said eventually, trying to refrain from shrugging. "And I'm guessing that doesn't happen very often."
"Never," Firenze said. "As far as we know, at least. But the fact that the whole heavenly vault seemed to shift overnight to accommodate for its mistake points at a rather unique occurrence."
"Over-" the boy-who-lived started to repeat, then shut his mouth. "When exactly was this... this shift you mentioned?"
"Precisely one moon past, tonight. January the 29th, by your calendar."
This time, the look he exchanged with the Headmaster of Hogwarts was a knowing one. January the 29th was the day he first crossed over into Dresden's world.
"Ah," the centaur said, intelligent eyes intent on the both of them. "That night has particular meaning for you, it seems." He peered up at the night sky once again, almost a longing expression descending on his face. When he lowered his gaze again, it had completely left place to a resolute one. "Very well, Albus. I accept your offer, if it still stands. I will be the Divination teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
While the student still struggled to warp his mind around what was happening, the Professor didn't miss a beat.
An inhuman scream stopped Harry on his tracks. It shook the very ground he stood upon, a cry of rage so loud that he had a hard time believing a Sonorus wasn't involved. His wand was in his hand in a heartbeat, while Dumbledore moved in front of him a second later. Firenze beat his whooves against the ground, as many more screams, this time definitely human, added to the first. They also helped in pinpointing the direction and especially the distance from which they came, although it was impossible to make out anything beyond the clearing.
"This remains an almost nightly occurrence," Firenze said, actually sounding calm. "Something needs to be done, Albus."
As he said that, a few lights started appearing in the darkness beyond Dumbledore's spell. Small yellow points at first, but they grew bigger and bigger until Harry could finally see they were lanterns, and the ones holding them were centaurs. The creatures seemed to make a beeline for their clearing, but the boy-who-lived could only take his cue from his Headmaster and, like him, he stayed rooted where he was. Soon, the shouts became comprehensible - most of them turning out to be curses of the non-magical variety and the likes - and the centaurs reached their meeting place. There was a dozen of them, some looking dishevelled if not injured, and Harry recognized both Ronan and Bane at the head of the herd.
"Damn giants," the latter was saying heatedly as he approached. "And half-giants, too!"
Definitely more composed, Ronan stopped a few feet from them and nodded, red mane shaking in the cold wind.
"Firenze. Albus," he greeted, before his eyes travelled to the young Gryffindor. "Ah," he said simply, and just like with Firenze, Harry almost felt naked under the stare.
Beside them, the Headmaster of Hogwarts bowed deeply.
"Ronan," he greeted. "Can this old wizard be of any assistance to you and yours?"
It took him a long second, but the centaur's gaze eventually shifted away. The boy-who-lived found himself releasing a breath he didn't even know he'd been holding.
"We are fine," the creature said. "Hagrid's ties hold. Our scuffles with the giant remain under control. For now."
Bane muttered something under his breath, but remained silent otherwise. The other centaurs surrounded the clearing in the meantime, their demeanour not exactly threatening, but not reassuring, either.
"I'm sorry, what?" Harry said. Did he just say they had a fight with Hagrid? He looked from Ronan to Dumbledore in confusion, but it was actually Bane that spoke up.
"A giant," he repeated with a sneer, "that your overgrown friend brought in our forest. You humans should-"
But he stopped when Ronan raised his hand in a halting gesture. A moment of awkward silence followed, as the creature - evidently the leader of the group - kept on staring at the old wizard.
"What brings you, and the boy-who-lived, here?"
Harry gulped, immediately feeling the weight of the herd's gazes as they moved on him.
Before the Professor could speak, Firenze stepped forward and looked straight into Ronan's eyes.
"They are here because I requested it," he said, "before I accepted the Headmaster's offer of teaching the human foals at Hogwarts."
A stream of muttering came after a stunned silence. Bane looked like someone had just punched him in the gut, while nothing could be glistened from Ronan's expression.
"You... you can't!" Bane eventually managed to say. "How can you-"
But Firenze cut him off, as more centaurs started raising their voices.
"Brothers," he resumed, turning on his hind-legs to meet everyone's gaze. The clearing quieted down immediately. "We all have seen the signs, both before and after that inexplicable night. And this young wizard," he said while putting his hands to rest on Harry's shoulders, "is the only consistency of notice to be found. I am but holding onto it before losing myself."
The centaur's grip tightened at those words, as again, all eyes turned to the boy-who-lived, who could only squirm uncomfortably under all the attention.
"My beliefs were shaken that night," the creature continued, "as most do when facing events going beyond their confines. My hope is that... this difficult decision will result in broadening them. Until I can understand."
Complete silence descended in the clearing, then, as the whole herd visibly pondered what their brother had said. Despite thousands of questions screaming in his mind, Harry didn't make a sound, knowing that the balance was too delicate for him to risk anything else.
"Wizard," Ronan said after what felt like an eternity. And he was looking straight at him. "Do you believe a single mortal can change the heavens?"
That was not one of the questions that had been floating in his brain, so Harry took a long minute to answer.
"I believe everyone of us can to an extent," he said clearly. "I don't believe in destiny or in everything being written in stone, the stars or whatever."
The centaur smiled ever so slightly. "Neither do we. But you misinterpreted the question. The heavens, as we understand them, are not the future alone. They are present, and past."
"So..." he tried again. "Do I believe anyone can change the present and the past? I guess... yes to an extent and no, respectively."
Ronan nodded slowly. "Until one fateful night, one moon ago, we believed your world was drifting through a transitory period of peace before a new, old war would start again. Around you."
"Yeah," Harry said, "I was just told. I was also told that was wrong, right? But wrong how?" he asked, hope filtering in his voice. "Am I not in the middle of it, anymore, or... are there no wars in sight, maybe?"
But as Ronan's eyes softened, he knew that wasn't it.
"No, young wizard," he said. "You remain, indeed, in the eye of the storm."
"Then what..." He exhaled in frustration "What has changed?"
Firenze's hands left his shoulder and he suddenly felt very much alone.
"This war we see... it has grown bigger, Harry Potter." Ronan said, and the boy-who-lived stiffened in surprise. The centaur had pronounced his Name almost exactly right. "And it's already here."
Words failed Harry, stunned and rattled as he was, but, almost sensing it, Dumbledore took that moment to step in.
"What do you mean 'it is here', Ronan?"
As the centaur's expression turned even more grim, it was Firenze that answered.
"War is already raging, Albus. In fact," he said quietly, "it has been for centuries."