Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter.
A/N: I know a lot of you have already read Chapter One through once. I would strongly recommend reading this version as I've changed quite a lot in the second half of the chapter.
Charlie Weasley's entire body was sore and he couldn't be happier about it.
He'd been at this job all of a week and he loved every minute of it, even the boring and mundane physical labor that sometimes came with it. His mother had cried, oh, how she'd cried, but Charlie had loved dragons ever since he'd been just a little boy and he hadn't been able to imagine doing anything else with his life. When Professor Kettleburn had recommended him to the Romanian reserve, Charlie had seized the chance gleefully.
"Still glad you came all the way out here, boy?" Jacques asked, and thumped Charlie on the back, hard enough that Charlie's sturdy frame rocked forward a bit. Jacques had run the reserve since before Charlie had even been born, and it showed in every inch of the old man's weathered body. He had short, wiry gray hair and a scraggly scruff of a beard, coupled with a bright, vibrant grey eye that sparkled with entertainment at the world. Jacques was incredibly spry at the ripe age of eighty. He was also missing two fingers, one leg, and an eye, all apparently lost in various scuffles with nesting dragons in the past forty years. Despite the injuries, Charlie thought he was amazing and hoped to look half so good as he did when he'd been working at the reserve for forty years.
"Sir, there's not a thing in this world that could make me regret this," Charlie said with an honest smile. He always had a smile for Jacques. The man was as close to a hero as Charlie had.
"Oh, yes sir," Anna chimed in teasingly as she settled across from Charlie, her tray of food striking the table with a familiar clatter that blended well with the din of the mess hall. Her long red hair was pulled into a tight bun, meaning that she'd only just come from working around one of the dragons, and her blue eyes were filled with laughter. Charlie was always making her laugh, be it accidentally or on purpose. "C'mon, Char, call him Jacques like the rest of us!" she chided with a good-natured smile.
"Whatever," Charlie said with a roll of his eyes. He couldn't help it if he was so used to calling authority figures 'sir'. He didn't think there was anything wrong with a little bit of politeness, anyway.
Jacques laughed loudly, raucously, and slapped Charlie on the back once more. "Let him do what he's comfortable with, Anna. He'll learn soon en-" he cut off rather abruptly.
Charlie realized then that the entire hall had gone eerily silent. He had only a moment to wonder what had made all the conversation cut off, and then he heard it.
There was a sound coming from outside, soft at first, but growing louder with every second. A sound like... like singing, Charlie realized. It was the sound of the dragons on the reserve lifting their voices in a haunting, lovely, sorrowful song that tore at his heart and filled him with grief and sent shivers down his spine all at once.
"Might've been old Benezza going," Anna said quietly as the conversation in the mess hall gradually picked up once more. But Charlie couldn't help but notice that everything seemed much more subdued than it had been, and how could it not? That eerie sound hadn't stopped.
"What... what is that?" Charlie asked, more than a little unsettled by the noise from outside. Nobody seemed as though they were going to talk about that unsettling noise, and he wanted answers rather desperately.
"Haven't you heard of Dragon Singers, boy?" Jacques asked, then shook his grizzled old head. "Never mind. Not surprised you haven't, especially with the way you British wizards look down on Parseltongue in general. They're something I always thought was a myth till we got our own Singer."
"It's a shame what schools aren't teaching these days," Anna said with a nod of her head. "Don't be embarrassed not to have heard of them, Char; I hadn't either 'till Singer showed up five years ago."
Charlie grinned, a rueful thing. "If there's one thing that being out here's taught me, it's that I don't know anything. So yeah, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I have no idea what the two of you are talking about."
Jacques smile didn't fade at all as he explained quietly, "Dragon Singers are half-man, half-dragon. Nobody knows where they come from except the dragons, and they ain't talking. There's only two others out there right now, a man out in Southern America, and a woman somewhere in Asia. Neither of them were particularly willing to talk to us when we sent feelers out to their reserves. One thing that all Singers apparently have in common is that they speak Parseltongue. It's how they communicate with the dragons. As far as we can tell, Singers lead the dragons in... well, in their religious rites. That particular song is a funeral song; you learn to recognize the different ones."
"So you're saying that the dragons have... priests?" Charlie asked. He wasn't really all that sure why he was surprised by the fact. He'd known that most dragons were as intelligent as humans; it was a fact that all keepers came to acknowledge after a time, but he'd never considered that they might have a religion.
"Sort of. Best way to describe it, I guess," Jacques said with an uncomfortable little shrug. Charlie knew the man well enough to know that he didn't hold too much with religion. Most wizards didn't. "Singer also acts as a voice for the dragons. When they need something, Singer comes to us. He'll be by tonight to let us know which of the dragons went, most likely."
"I just hope that it was Benezza, and not an unexpected one," Anna murmured into her soup. "The hatchlings are always the worst when it happens."
"Can't be a hatchie this time," came Sean's thick Irish accent. Charlie turned to look at the smiling, black-haired man. "Aren't any nesting mothers that we know of, and Singer always warns us when we need to stay clear of one of them for a while."
"So what's the Singer's name?" Charlie asked, curious. He was a bit lost in the conversation, but he was used to that. He'd only been employed at the reserve for a week, after all.
Anna, Jacques, and Sean all burst into loud and raucous laughter. This was something else Charlie was used to, and he didn't take offense. He was still learning and they did always make sure to answer his question once they'd gotten over their amusement. And he'd learned quickly that dragon keepers as a whole were more likely to be loud and raucous off duty. Something about grabbing life by the horns before you got a dragon's horn or some such nonsense.
When they'd finally stopped chortling at him, it was Sean who said cheerfully, "If Singer's got a name other than Singer, not a one of us knows it. He pretty much only talks to Jacques."
"His English is... difficult to understand at times," Jacques admitted easily. "He spends most of his time talking to the dragons in Parseltongue, after all."
"Huh," was Charlie's only response. After that the conversation shifted away from the peculiar topic of Dragon Singers and Charlie, despite his extreme interest and the thousand questions on the tip of his tongue, let it happen. He would have plenty of time to learn more about Dragon Singers, after all.
It was much later in the evening, after most of the reserve had gone off to bed and the only light left was the light of the full-moon and the stars. Charlie was out alone by the lake, watching a young female Ridgeback bathe in the moonlight. She was a majestic sight that took Charlie's breath away. All dragons could take Charlie's breath away, as a matter of fact, and he hoped that he never lost the feeling of awe that overcame him when he looked at the incredible creatures.
"Sariya is lovely, yes?" came a quiet, shy, unfamiliar voice. Every 's' sound was strangely lengthened into a peculiar hissing noise and there was a strange, almost melodic rhythm to the words.
"She is," Charlie agreed, and turned to look at his new companion. He didn't recognize the accent; maybe it was a handler from another reserve? "Charlie Weasley," he said, just before his breath left him in a startled gasp.
The strange voice belonged to a child, no older than Charlie's own youngest brother, possibly much younger if Charlie went by the size of the little one. He had long, wild black hair that fell to his waist. His green eyes were rimmed in gold and bright enough to glow in the semi-darkness of the night. He wore only a pair of dragonskin breeches, no shoes or shirt which revealed the fascinating swirls of emerald green scales on his chest and arms and face. He was exotic and beautiful and breathtaking. And a child, a fact which Charlie had to remind himself of rather forcefully.
"They call me the Singer," the boy offered, a small smile revealing just a hint of abnormally sharp teeth. A fang, really, if one were being accurate. "Well met, Charlie Weasley."
And then the Singer vanished into the night and Charlie was left staring and feeling like the worst kind of pervert for the spike of attraction the young child had inspired.
"~I think I met Him today,~" Singer whispered, curled against Marlis, a massive and beautiful and deadly Hungarian Horntail.
"~Did you?~" he asked, entirely uninterested. Though he did shift around a bit so that Singer was just a little bit more comfortable.
Marlis was a wonderful example of why Singer loved the dragons. They were all so uninterested in mortal affairs. Singer knew that he could say anything to anyone of them and they would do the dragonic equivalent of patting him on the head. It was a freeing thing, and Singer adored his freedom after the years spent with the human monsters.
"~He's older than me. By a lot.~" Not by dragonic standards, of course, because the seven years that would stand between him and Charlie Weasley were nothing in the long run, but right now they seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle. If he had some kind of flashback during the Heat...
"~You'll be fine,~" Marlis rumbled. "~Your body will remember who he is to you.~"
"~Do you promise?~" Singer asked, curling even closer to the Horntail for comfort. Marlis' scales were warm and soothing and Singer needed that just then.
"~Nobody can promise that, little Singer. But you will be fine,~" came the more gentle voice of Tyara, the lovely Antipodean Opaleye that had taken Singer under her wing when Benezza had become too ill to care for him. She'd been sick for a very long time before she'd finally passed.
Tyara crept closer while Singer was turning that thought over in his mind and nosed at him, her breath warm against his bare chest. Singer laughed and wrapped her arms around her snout and shrieked with joy as he was lifted and tossed gently into the air. He landed on her neck and then they were off, soaring through the night sky and Singer was no longer concerned with much of anything at all.
It was noon the next day and, despite the uncomfortable heat, Charlie was helping to dig out the funeral pit for old Benezza, the Welsh Green that had gone last night. Her body would be laid in the pit by a dragon, then burned by Fiendfyre until nothing was left of her but the bones, at which point Singer would arrive and take the skeleton for a rite that no human had ever witnessed. After that, her bones would be free for the wizards to use as they saw fit.
Sean was digging beside him, quiet and calm in a way that the volatile Irishman so rarely was. Charlie was reluctant to disturb him, but...
"I spoke to the Singer last night," Charlie said hesitantly as he heaved a shovel of dirt over his shoulder. This would be so much easier if they didn't have to dig out a new pit by hand each time a dragon passed. But apparently the ritual demanded it. Charlie supposed he should just be grateful that dragons didn't die all that often and that his reserve had enough keepers that this was actually easy compared to other reserves.
Sean had stopped digging and was staring at him. "Singer actually spoke to you?" the Irishman asked, shocked.
"Is that rare?" Charlie asked. He'd gotten the idea that it was, but he didn't think it was that shocking. Surely Singer would have spoken to others before him. Other than Jacques, of course.
"You... you could say that. He's pretty... unfriendly, I guess. He flamed a keeper just last month," Sean said with a small shrug.
"He can... he can flame?" Charlie squeaked. Singer was beautiful and wild and dangerous, and the knowledge that Singer could flame him was just... terrifying. Dragonfire was frightening enough without a child having access to it. Young dragons didn't generally get their flames until they reached maturity.
"Oh, yeah. He's got claws, too, nasty ones. He doesn't use them that often, though. In fact, the only time I can remember him using them was on that keeper just last month. Jacques fired the man, for what we don't know, but we all saw the claw marks and the burns. Bastard'll be lucky if he ever recovers full use of his legs after that mess. I wouldn't want to be the one to piss Singer off." Sean shrugged and went back to digging. "But if he spoke to you of his own volition, you ought to be fine."
After a moment's consideration, Charlie went back to digging as well. The funeral pit wasn't going to dig itself, after all, and Charlie had things other than Singer to worry about.
Later that night, Charlie was out by the lake once more. The pit had been dug and Benezza's body had burned in a terrifying spectacle of heat and flame. Charlie could do with the cool peace of the lake right about then. The area was pretty well empty; all of the dragons had gone off with Singer to an undisclosed location to complete the ritual. They were slowly trickling back to their normal haunts now, but none were currently in the lake.
"She was mother to me," came Singer's quiet, oddly accented voice.
Charlie startled. "Who?" he asked, then wanted to smack himself on the forehead. He wasn't such an idiot, really.
Before he could retract his ridiculous query, Singer was answering, "Benezza. She brought me... gave me this..." Singer was obviously struggling to say what he wanted, then just as obviously gave it up as a lost cause. "Without her I would still be lost," the Singer finally settled on.
Singer still sounded a bit lost, if Charlie were going to be honest. And a bit sad, and Charlie couldn't blame him for that. "I'm sorry for your loss," Charlie murmured, and turned to face the Dragon Singer. The boy appeared even more alien in the moonlight, and Charlie forced himself to push the thought aside. It was clear that Singer needed comfort, not curiosity.
Singer was shaking his head, his long black hair dancing with the motion. "She's gone... to the stars." When he spoke, he halted oddly as though trying to think of the right words. "Is better place."
"But you must still miss her," Charlie said gently, and before he could re-think the action, he reached out and rested a gentle hand on Singer's shoulder.
Singer started, stared at him through wild green eyes and Charlie thought for a moment that he was going to learn first-hand the touch of a dragon's flame, then the boy relaxed all at once. "Kind words," he said quietly, and shifted slightly closer to Charlie. "Is kindest any human has ever been to me."
Charlie's brow furrowed. That didn't seem... that didn't seem right. Singer was young, very young. "Where are your parents?" he asked.
Singer's head fell to one side in a distinctly animal gesture. He shifted a bit, then shook his head. "Have never had parents. Had... had monsters. Then had the dragons. Am happy with dragons."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Charlie said honestly. He couldn't imagine growing up with a family comparable to monsters. Even as much as he loved dragons, he couldn't really imagine growing up with a family that made growing up with the massive reptiles seem preferable. He loved his parents.
Singer shifted awkwardly and stepped back a few steps. "Is fine," he said. "Am happy here. Beautiful dragons, am left alone, am free."
The emphasis placed on that final word was impossible for Charlie to miss, and he smiled. "Is that important to you? Being free?"
Singer stared him in the eye until Charlie grew genuinely uncomfortable, then said quietly, "Is not important to everyone? Am free. Am safe. Can protect... not hurt here. Can retaliate if attacked."
Charlie felt his heart break a little. "You certainly can," he said agreeably. "I heard about your flaming ability."
Singer's lips curled into a vicious grin. "Had it coming," he said with a distinctly proud tone. "Was... was a monster. Lucky he got what he did. Lucky he lived."
"What was he doing, anyway? That you felt threatened enough to flame him, that is."
Singer let out a small hiss, a lick of flame curling from between his lips. "Was attacking someone," he said shortly. His nails lengthened into sharp, vicious looking claws and he clenched his hands into fists. "Made him stop."
"That was very good of you," Charlie said hesitantly. Singer seemed very agitated now, and Charlie didn't really want to do anything to make that agitation worse. That struck him as a potentially terrible idea. He knew as a dragon keeper he was always in some measure of danger; that didn't mean that he had to actively court it.
"Was decent," Singer said flatly. His head fell to one side again and his eyes went distant, as though he were listening to something only he could hear. "Must go," he said after a moment in the strange stance.
"I guess I'll see you later, then," Charlie said.
Singer nodded once, sharply, and then stalked off into the night.
Charlie hesitated before tapping on Jacques' door. The Head Keeper's office was located in one of the few permanent buildings on the reserve, the others being the medical wing, the bathing facilities, and the mess hall. The keepers all lived out of their tents, although with magic to assist their tents were, in several cases, more impressive than the Burrow.
When he finally did knock, Jacques immediately called out, "Get in here, then, and don't give me any bad news!"
Charlie grinned as he ducked into the room. "I don't think I have any bad news, sir."
"Charlie, Charlie, I hear you've been talking to our Singer. He's not normally a social one, so you understand my surprise." Jacques dropped his quill onto his desk and studied Charlie. "But that's not what you're here for. What are you here for?"
"Actually, I was kinda here to talk about Singer, if you have a few minutes."
"Of course I do. Anything to avoid this Merlin-damned paperwork, and talking about my favorite half-dragon? I can handle that." Jacques shoved back from his desk, then, and leaned back in his chair in a picture of relaxation.
Charlie hesitated once more. Was this really his place to start with? How long had Singer even been at the reserve? Maybe his questions had already been answered. But then, if they had been, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have them answered once more.
"Has anyone tried to figure out where he came from originally? What he's doing here? How he even got here, for that matter?"
Jacques sighed softly. "We've looked into it, of course, but Singer isn't exactly talkative. We can't even get his real name out of him, much less information about his family." Jacques rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then, and slumped forward. "And believe me, I tried. I first saw Singer five years ago. Do you know how young he was? He was this little slip of nothing and he looked like he went through a meat grinder."
"And you didn't do something then?"
Jacques' eyes narrowed. "You think I didn't try? I'd have done just about anything to figure out who'd messed him up like that. The dragons treated him like a hatchling of their own, though, and it was impossible to get near him for a year or so, and then all of a sudden he just took up his duties. He would talk to me then, but not much and not often."
"We had a full conversation last night," Charlie said, and leaned back in his chair. It seemed like he would never has his questions answered, because Singer himself might not even know. If he'd been that young, and if things had been that terrible for him wherever he'd come from, he might have forgotten on purpose.
"Yeah? Some of the other keepers mentioned seeing you with him. You making a friend out of our most antisocial resident?"
Charlie grinned. "I might be," he said agreeably. "Do you think that's a bad idea?"
Jacques' laugh was loud and raucous. "A bad idea? Oh, no, I think it's the best damn idea I've heard in forever. If anyone could use a friend it's Singer." He studied Charlie for a moment then added, "And I think you could be a good friend to him. You're steady, and I think Singer needs that." And then he waved a hand at Charlie and said, "I know you have work to be doing. Get back to it. See if your new friend will help you with it."
Charlie stood up and nodded to Jacques. "Yes sir," he said, his grin not leaving his face. He left the office with his concerns... not gone, but at least addressed. And they probably never would be gone, so that was the best he could expect.
Albus had known, in his head, that Harry Potter was most likely dead. Despite the fact that the Dursleys had never confessed to murder, not even under Veritaserum, he'd known the boy was dead. The world had known. But some part of him, some small part, had held out hope that the boy would surface in time for to attend Hogwarts.
But no. No such luck. The boy was dead and gone and, Albus hoped, at peace. It was the least the child deserved after the terrible hand fate had dealt him.
Albus would simply have to find a new way to defeat Tom once and for all. A way that, perhaps, did not involve luring the madman to Hogwarts with the Philosopher's Stone. Morosely, he put the Stone back into its plain brown sack and began to write the missive to Nick, knowing that the other would understand why the plan had to be tabled.
What good did a villain do without the hero to save the day, anyway?