Chapter 1: Mysterious Gifts
Nuala had worked in this bar ever since leaving Faerie in 1991. Over the past six years, she had come to love the place, and had leapt at the chance of owning it herself. It was dark and dingy at times, but it was only two blocks from Central Park and a simple bus ride to Greenwich Village, where most of the displaced magic in New York City was centered. There was still a goodly amount of magic in Central Park, and it was just plain pretty besides. Nuala adored it, and knew just about every footpath in the park, real and magical alike. She felt safe there in a way she had really never felt safe in Faerie. Here, if she wanted to have her hair short and brown and spiky, it was perfectly okay. She hid her pointed ears with a touch of glamour, but no longer felt the need to use massive amounts of it to make herself appear to be a tall, lithe blonde with a haughty demeanor. If she wanted to laugh out loud at the butterflies, she could do so and not worry about it getting back to the Court.
Nuala smiled as one of her favorite couples entered the bar. She had first met Virginia three years ago during a rainstorm. She had been walking in the park late at night when it had started to pour. Virginia ran in a random direction and had landed in her bar. Nuala poured the soaking wet girl a hot toddy and struck up conversation since it had been a slow night. Virginia had been a regular ever since, and she was flattered when Virginia had called her a friend. Nuala was one of the first people to meet Wolf two weeks ago. The man had a definite air of magic around him, which didn't surprise Nuala in the least. He was tall, with wavy black hair and dark eyes that sometimes flashed yellow in the light. He was fairly witty and quick on his feet. Nuala could see what Virginia liked in him, and was almost jealous that Wolf didn't have a brother. She knew that for certain; she had asked.
Virginia had cut her hair short a few weeks ago, and it was a cute little bob with curled ends. She was a little on the thin side, the product of working one too many shifts as a waitress in a popular restaurant on the Upper West Side right next to Central Park. She smiled easily and often, and it lit up her blue eyes. Virginia was a charmer herself, and made friends easily. She watched as the couple waved at her, then headed to a quiet booth in the back of the bar.
Nuala flitted about happily behind the bar. She looked up when the door opened, and her jaw dropped open. "Clurachan!"
He had the appearance of a tall blonde Adonis, and he grinned at her cheerful greeting. "Hello, sister mine. I see you still enjoy playing barkeep."
Nuala ran around the bar and hugged her brother tightly. "I own this place now, thank you very much! When did you get in? You didn't tell me you were coming this way!"
Clurachan flashed her a brilliant grin that hid nothing. "Oh, just another trip amongst many for our Fair Queen."
"Oh dear. What did you do now?"
"Not me, really... My Nemesis, however, refuses to believe that we can't just avoid our mutual demise. The Queen caught wind of his existence yesterday. She was furious with me, and I've very politely bowed out of Court for the nonce."
"Oh no... What are you going to do? You live for court!"
"This is where you come in, sister mine. Surely there's something in this city that can amuse me until the Bright Lady gets over this unfortunate turn of events." He sat down at the bar and watched his sister flit about the bar and pour him a beer. "You really do shine here, Nuala. I truly am happy for you."
Her grin was infectious. "It's a wonderful place. There's all sorts of people here, even magic areas. I feel as if I have a little bit of everything. It's almost like being back in the Dreaming." Her grin slipped slightly. "Only, there's no Dream here."
Clurachan covered her hands in his. "Sister mine, you could find yourself a fellow that would make you deliriously happy."
"You could, too. When will you settle down?"
"Oh, I haven't met the right chap that can satisfy me yet," the Clurachan said with a grin.
Brother and sister turned at the excited whoop from the back booth. Nuala's face softened at the sight of them, and the Clurachan looked at her questioningly. "Who are they?"
"Virginia's a dear friend, actually. She visits regularly and we talk a lot. I met Wolf a few weeks ago. Nice guy. They've even invited me over to their apartment for dinner."
"How very mundane."
"It was lovely," Nuala protested, watching the couple walk to the bar. "Virginia, Wolf, what is it?"
Virginia was grinning hugely and held out her left hand. The third finger now sported a diamond solitaire on a platinum band. It smacked of magic, something Nuala couldn't quite place her finger on. "Wolf asked me to marry him! We're engaged!"
"That's wonderful! Congratulations!" Nuala cried, grasping Virginia's hands. The ring definitely held a magic quality about it, but not one she recognized from the Fae realms. It was likely bought in Greenwich Village in one of the mortal magic shops.
"Congratulations," the Clurachan echoed, raising his pint of beer. "May you two have the happiness of the ages and always see the magic around you."
Nuala's eyes widened slightly, but Virginia and Wolf didn't seem to notice. Other regulars in the bar were congratulating them, and they took it graciously. "But in a bar, man? What the heck is that about?" one man asked. "You should've tried to get into some fancy restaurant and propose over dinner."
"It only seemed fair to do it here, we spend all our time here anyway," Wolf was saying, putting an arm around Virginia's shoulders. She leaned into his embrace and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Plus, it was a complete surprise for Ginny here."
Nuala noticed that Virginia smiled but didn't seem all that surprised at all. Her hand was also resting over her stomach a little too protectively for comfort. Was that why she hadn't had any beer in the past two weeks? Oh dear...
Nuala circled the bar slowly and pulled Virginia slightly away from the congratulatory crowd. "Virginia, are you sure it's okay? It's been two weeks..." Nuala saw Virginia frown at her, and rushed on. "I mean, even with a baby, are you sure?"
Virginia gasped in shock and grabbed Nuala about the shoulders. "How did you know?!"
"You touched your belly... like you knew something we didn't. I'm your friend, Ginny. I just want to be sure you're happy..."
Virginia hugged Nuala desperately. "It happened so fast, with Daddy going missing and then Wolf... but I'm sure. I'm really sure. This is what I want, and he makes me so happy. We're going to make it, I just know it."
Nuala grinned and ruffled the short curls. "All right. I'll be the baby's fairy godmother, all right? You're one of my favorite people in all the world, I just want to see you happy."
Virginia grasped one of Nuala's hands. "Nuala, would you like to be my maid of honor? We've been talking about it for the past two weeks, how to make the announcement, how to do this and everything. And somehow I think you would be the best choice."
Nuala covered her mouth with her other hand as she nodded. "Oh, Ginny, I'd be honored to! Thank you!"
Wolf sauntered over to the two women. "You asked her, Gin?"
"I've said yes," Nuala said. "Oh my, when do you want to do this? As soon as possible?"
Wolf and Virginia exchanged a look. Something in Nuala melted at the sight, that they could communicate with merely a single look. "We've been in contact with Daddy. It's a secret how, but we know a place where we could have the ceremony. There's a spot in the park..."
"Near the Strawberry Fields, right?" Nuala asked gently. "It's always felt like magic."
"Wolf and I definitely want to have the ceremony in the park," Virginia said.
"Oy, plotting now, are we?" the Clurachan said, sauntering over to their corner of the bar. "Sister mine, do make proper introductions."
Nuala rolled her eyes. "Clurachan, I'm busy. Don't be a bother."
"I might be able to help. I've nothing to do at the moment."
Wolf glanced at the man and extended his hand. "Wolf."
Virginia sneaked a glance at Nuala's long-suffering face. "Men and their fondness for pissing contests," she whispered.
Nuala grinned. "Get used to it, Gin."
"Where you from?" Wolf was saying. "You sound like you're not from around here."
"Er... Ireland, I suppose you could say. It's a lovely place to visit. Or Scotland. The Highlands of Scotland are a beautiful place. Why not honeymoon there? Lots of romantic castle tours and the like."
Virginia suddenly grinned. "That's a wonderful idea!"
"I know you like castles," Wolf began wearily, "but I thought we were going to the Fourth Kingdom for our honeymoon."
"Yes, but with Dad hanging around, we might have to go somewhere else. And who knows if they still hold grudges against you."
Wolf winced. "Good point. Scotland it is."
The Clurachan grinned openly at Nuala. "And you always thought I was a piece of fluff."
"You are," Nuala said cheekily. "But I love you anyway."
"Good thing, too, since you're stuck with me for a brother. All right then, I'm off to wander about this gracious city. Sister dear, I'll be back when you close up shop."
"No place to stay again?" Nuala asked dryly.
"What? And spoil a visit with my dear sister? Whatever for?"
Virginia and Wolf both laughed at Nuala's expression as the Clurachan sauntered out of the door. "Oh, Nuala, how long is he staying?"
"I don't know, but it's too long already," she said, shooting a dark look at the closed door. "That one brings trouble wherever he goes."
"Oh, I don't know. He seems harmless enough," Wolf said.
"I know. Don't trust a thing he says, though. That's where the trouble is."
They all laughed and sat down to discuss wedding plans. Over the course of the next hour, Nuala got the impression that tonight was all for show, and they had honestly had everything planned out to the last detail. She wasn't sure what this "Fourth Kingdom" nonsense was, but apparently they had friends there that would help with the reception. Maybe it was some ritzy and glitzy restaurant opening up. Nuala certainly didn't head Uptown that much.
"All right. Now we've set everything except the date."
"Next week?" Wolf asked.
Nuala's jaw dropped. "What?"
"We're kinda in a hurry," Wolf hedged.
"I know, but to get a reception together in a week? That's impossible!"
"Oh, we know people with lots of money," Wolf said with a rakish grin. "It's their gift to us. All we have to do is show up looking nice."
"There's a shortcut through the park, where we want the ceremony and pictures," Virginia said. "It really will be beautiful, I promise."
Nuala laughed. "Oh, I'm sure it will be. I'm in. Next week it is."
The next week passed by in a blur. It was going to be truly small and intimate in New York, with a justice of the peace officiating in Central Park. Virginia wound up confessing to Nuala the real circumstances of how she met and fell in love with Wolf. Suddenly, it made all kinds of sense. The strange creatures sighted in the news, the bank robbery, the suddenness of her relationship with Wolf and the sudden pregnancy. Virginia was thinking that Nuala was taking it too well, and had said so. Sheepishly, Nuala told Virginia for the first time that she was more or less a runaway fairy.
"So you see, I really will be a fairy godmother. And I promise not to give your kids stupid gifts that will make them prick their fingers on spindles."
Virginia had laughed, relieved that she was able to share her secret with someone and not be thought a raving lunatic. Her coworkers and other friends all thought she was either a hopeless romantic or a slut. Having Nuala believe her story implicitly also validated her sanity. This was a very good thing. Wolf had agreed, and promised that if he ever found a good enough boy fairy for her, he would introduce them right away.
As a result of the mutual confessions, Nuala had gone along with the newly wedded couple to the Fourth Kingdom for the reception. She had been duly impressed by their important connections to King Wendell, and had found Anthony Lewis to still be his usual funny self, if a bit impractical. Nuala left the reception and walked through Central Park back to her apartment in the building above the bar. She knew that Virginia and Wolf would spend the night at their apartment then take a cab to JFK airport. They were off to Scotland on a scenic two week tour of the Highlands. The Clurachan had amazingly enough remained in the Fourth Kingdom as a visitor to King Wendell, and Nuala was glad of the peace and quiet in her apartment. She sat down on her couch, layers of crinoline and satin billowing out around her. She stared at the wall in front of her without really seeing it.
The Clurachan sometimes Spoke Truth. It was rare but devastatingly accurate. Nuala held onto the charm on her necklace, a gift from a dead incarnation, and hoped with all of her being that his Gift to her friends would bring them luck.
She had a dread feeling it wouldn't.
It was during the second week of the tour when Virginia spotted the castle's spires out of the corner of her eye. She tried pointing it out to Wolf, but it seemed to shimmer and vanish right in front of her. He had ruffled her hair playfully and nipped at her neck. "Hoping for a palace to call our own? We already live by the woods, remember? We don't need a castle, just a place to live in peace."
"Oh Wolf..." Virginia turned her head and kissed him soundly on the lips. "It looked like a beautiful place, high on a hill, with forest all around it, and a lake too..."
"All this in your peripheral vision? What big eyes you have..."
Virginia laughed. "Well, why don't we try to find it tomorrow during the free time? We can make it into a picnic. Even if it's not a real castle, there's bound to be a perfectly romantic spot for a picnic lunch."
Wolf wiggled his eyes suggestively. "And a blanket to lie on?"
"We didn't need one the first time," Virginia teased, leaning in for a kiss.
There was a vague throat clearing sound behind them, and they parted. It was one of the other couples on the tour. The wife was a mousy little blonde, and looked uncomfortable to be interrupting them. "The guide says we have to get back on the bus now."
"Oh. Okay, thanks," Wolf said, showing a little too much tooth in his smile.
"Be nice," Virginia warned playfully, disentangling herself.
"I am being nice! I'm a good Wolf now." Wolf widened his grin, showing his pointed teeth. It was getting a little too close to the full moon.
Virginia laughed. "Sure you are..." She looked back at the rest of the tour group, obediently boarding the bus. "Look at them. No imagination."
"Like sheep," Wolf whispered into her ear. He nipped the lobe playfully. "Let's go play with the sheep, and tomorrow we'll find your disappearing castle."
"Don't laugh... Our luck, and we'll have found an Eleventh Kingdom."
Wolf groaned, and followed his wife back onto the bus. Wife. It thrilled him even to think the word. He had somehow managed to find himself a creamy, dreamy little girl, and she loved him back. It never ceased to amaze him. It was still so new and frightening, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. He was a husband. He would soon be a father. A father, all the Gods above! How did this happen in such a short time? He still didn't know how it happened, but wasn't about to question it too hard. Someone upstairs thought he had learned his lesson and deserved a second chance. He wasn't about to waste it.
Armed with a fully loaded picnic basket and a thick woolen blanket, Virginia and Wolf backtracked to the spot where she had seen the mysterious castle from the corner of her eye. The tour guide had been very helpful about that, and had even managed to find someone local to the area to help make them a traditional Scottish picnic lunch to take with them. The blanket wasn't a tartan, but it would serve its purpose well enough. The guide had thought it was an awfully romantic idea to go picnicking, and willingly dropped them off at the spot they had stopped at the day before. "And if it's a good enough spot, let me know. I'll add it to the tour next year."
Wolf carried the basket and Virginia carried the blanket. They walked around the meadow amiably enough, and talked about all sorts of things people must talk about while dating. Having always been too busy working and helping her father at the old hotel, Virginia had never really had time to date. Her two years at Borough of Manhattan Community College hadn't really widened her horizons in terms of eligible bachelors. She might have been only twenty-one, but she usually felt so much older and wiser for her age. Werewolves generally didn't date, so this was a new experience for Wolf also. He was a little more intense and thoughtful than he usually was, but Virginia chalked it up to the full moon. The cycles here were slightly different than those of the Nine Kingdoms, so having two full moons so close to each other must have been a little unsettling.
"There it is!" Virginia cried, pointing. "Look, isn't it beautiful?"
Wolf followed Virginia's line of vision. She had interrupted his tales of past misdeeds that had landed him in Snow White Memorial Prison, but couldn't even jokingly reproach her. The castle was in front of them, as if rising out of the hilltop. There was a lake and a forest, just as Virginia had mentioned the day before. What truly took his breath away was that it rivaled any castle of the Nine Kingdoms. "I take it back. Your world isn't dingy at all."
Virginia grinned and leaned into Wolf. "Don't judge everything by the City, Wolf. The world is huge, and there's so much of it that's beautiful."
Wolf turned to her, his eyes shining yellow and black. "You're the most beautiful thing in it, Virginia. Castles don't mean anything without you."
Virginia dropped the blanket and wrapped her arms around Wolf as she kissed him. It was long and deep, all dueling tongues and roving hands. When they finally broke apart for air, she grinned at him. "You really are the best thing that's ever happened to me, you know that? C'mon, let's go see if it's as beautiful close up as it is far away."
They hiked for another hour, working up a good appetite. There was a small cottage on the castle grounds not that far away from the wood's edge. "Let's not go in there," Wolf said suddenly. "You never know with these strange cottages in the middle of nowhere."
"Oh, I remember," Virginia said with a nod. The last magic cottage she had been locked inside of had involved much too much hair and fighting with the Huntsman. "But look, there's a pumpkin patch over there. Why not put the blanket down and eat over there?"
"Let me scout the woods first," Wolf insisted, putting the basket down. "We're in the middle of nowhere, and this place reeks of magic."
"How can you know that?" Virginia asked, beginning to walk to the pumpkin patch. "It's just a cottage, and those are just woods, and that's another laird's castle like all the others we've seen this week."
Wolf's instincts were starting to riot. "Gin, I don't like the look of those woods. Please, just let me look them over first."
Virginia caught the desperation in his voice and looked up at him as she was unfurling the blanket. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"I don't like how they look." Wolf scooped up the heavy basket and strode quickly to her side. "Maybe we should go closer to the castle. It looks creepy in there."
Virginia eyed the edge of the forest, but couldn't see anything different about it. She could definitely feel something strange about the whole area, something that didn't feel the same as the meadow they had walked from, but she couldn't put her finger on it. "Are you sure?"
"No, dammit, but I'm not taking any chances with you!"
Virginia touched Wolf's arm gently. "All right, then. You take a look. I'll set everything out for when you get back. Okay?"
"Okay. It's probably just foxes or whatever those chieftains used to hunt." Wolf sniffed the air. "There is something around here that smells like animal."
"Go on, then," Virginia said, giving him a playful shove. "You do what you do best and I'll have everything set up when you get back. Just don't wander too far. I don't see any paths in there, and it's easy to get lost in the woods."
Wolf flashed her a playful grin. "Don't we know it. Don't worry, I won't go too far."
Virginia laughed and began spreading out the edges of the blanket. She was just opening up the basket when she heard Wolf howl. It was loud and angry, a tone she had never heard before. Startled, Virginia looked up. There were six robed and hooded men coming out of the forest, sticks in hand. Two were fighting Wolf, pointing those sticks at him. Four were headed in her direction. She was halfway hidden by the pumpkin patch, so she doubted they were headed for her specifically. Were they trying to head to the castle?
What the hell was going on?
The only thing Virginia had was the basket and a cell phone in the pocket of her jeans. She doubted there would be signal here, and in her panic she couldn't remember if 911 worked in Scotland. "Shit!" she muttered, rooting around in the basket. There had to be something in there she could use...
And there was the steak knife, long and wickedly sharp.
"God bless you, Mrs. McMurdo," Virginia whispered.
"Over there! There's one over there!"
Two of the hooded figures kept moving toward the castle. Two were headed back toward her, sticks in hand. Well, she had a knife now, though her hand was still buried in the basket. One of her required classes at BMCC had been Phys Ed. Now she was grateful for it, since she had taken karate. While she didn't remember the exact forms, they did do two weeks of weapons defense as part of the class.
"What do we have here?" one of the robed figures asked. His voice was silky, and it slithered down her spine. She'd waitressed enough to know that kind of voice when she heard it. The owners were usually rich, spoiled and of the belief that they owned the world.
The other figure laughed. "It looks like a lost seventh year. What? Not out at Hogsmeade with the rest of your friends? Did we interrupt a lover's holiday? How sad for you..." The figure stepped a little closer and raised his right hand, stick in hand. "Ava-"
Virginia ran at him, knife in hand, keeping her torso low and out of range of his stick. She remembered the sticks from karate class being longer, but any stick could hurt when brought down with enough force. She slashed at his arm, forcing him to drop the stick. He shouted in pain and struck her on the side of the head. She lost balance and tried to tilt forward to regain her equilibrium. To her horror, the knife plunged into the man's chest, sinking down to the hilt. She looked up into the hooded face, her eyes wide and her mouth slack with shock.
He was wearing some kind of mask, but the brown eyes were clearly visible. "You bitch," he gurgled, blood beginning to bubble on his lips. "How dare you..."
And then there was the other man, shouting something at them. Pain danced along her spine, and Virginia began to scream. She barely registered falling down on top of the other man, pushing the knife even deeper. Something broke beneath her from the force of the fall. She couldn't feel her hands, could feel nothing but the fire sprinting along every nerve, every piece of exposed skin. It felt as if her throat was shredding from the force of her screams.
And then suddenly it was done. Wolf cradled her in his arms, blood streaked across his face and mouth. "Ginny? Ginny, love, say something..."
"W-Wolf..." Virginia whispered. She tried to reach up to touch his face, but her arm wasn't responding properly. She wanted to tell him not to worry, that she would be fine, but her mouth wasn't working. She watched helplessly as tears formed, making his eyes shimmer.
"I did a bad thing, baby. I couldn't help it. We've got to get out of here before they find us. We've got to get back to the village."
He's killed them, Virginia thought. That explained the blood. But now I've killed too, and it was only in self-defense...
"Two more," she whispered hoarsely. "Castle."
Wolf looked up, eyes narrowing. "Getting more of their friends, huh? Not if I can help it. I won't let them touch you."
He laid her down gently, then sprinted off as fast as he could go. Normally it would take about twenty minutes to reach the castle walls from where they had planned their picnic. In his rage, Wolf crossed it in five, reaching the two men. He wasn't scared of their puny sticks. The others had tried saying strange incantations through them, but he had dodged the sparks easily enough and had started breaking bones. He did it again, fingers sinking into eye sockets, teeth closing on throats. Warm blood spurted against his mouth, and he spit it out as he tossed aside one attacker to get the next. The other hooded man tried to run, but Wolf caught the robe and yanked him back. He could hear the jaws clack together as the head snapped back. His hands circled that fragile mortal neck, squeezing and forcing the figure to his knees. With a vicious twist, he turned the head around hard enough and fast enough to hear the crack of bone. Only then did he drop the body.
There were shouts coming from the castle. "Oh fuck," Wolf muttered.
His adrenaline rush wouldn't last for long, he knew. He had to get Virginia and get out of here as soon as possible. Wolf sprinted back to the pumpkin patch and knelt down next to his wife. "Gin, can you sit up? Can you stand?"
"Hurts," Virginia croaked, trying to push herself upright.
"All right. Gotta carry you, then. God, I hope the baby's not heavy."
Virginia tried to smile and swat him, which was more than he had hoped for. Wolf scooped her up into his arms and looked around.
The figures coming from the castle weren't more hooded figures. One was rather short, as a matter of fact, and wearing lime green robes over a lime green suit. There was an older woman with a purple conical hat on her head, which matched her purple robe. It was buttoned up tight to the neck, and she was waving at them. "Wait!" the woman shouted. Her voice sounded Scottish and authoritarian.
"Gotta run, Gin. Hang on tight," Wolf whispered.
"We can help you!" the woman in purple shouted.
"Wait," Virginia murmured.
"Are you sure?"
"No. But you can't run forever carrying me."
"I can give it a good try."
"Just wait. See what she wants first."
Fighting his instinct to run, Wolf stayed put. The short man and the Scottish woman soon closed the distance. She took in the sight of the hooded bodies, Virginia's limp form, and the blood covering Wolf's clothes and face. "Oh heavens, you were attacked. We'll have to get you to the Infirmary at once!"
Virginia merely smiled, then leaned into Wolf's embrace. She closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take her.
When next she woke, she was in a hospital. It looked rather old fashioned, with little metal beds, crisp white sheets and white curtains separating each bed. She remembered how St. Luke's had looked when she had broken her leg at age eleven. It had been so modern, with machines beeping and doctors running around in scrubs and white coats. This must be a European hospital then, Virginia thought.
"You're awake then, are you?" a gentle voice said from off to her right. Virginia turned toward the voice. "Frightful scare that was. Had no idea Death Eaters were in the Forbidden Forest, none at all... Now dear, which House are you in? I'm afraid I don't know you."
Virginia blinked in confusion. "Where's Wolf?"
The plump woman clucked gently. "The Cruciatus must've scrambled your wits, poor thing. I'll have to talk to Albus about this, I simply can't bear it any longer..."
Virginia's hand shot out to grasp the woman's arm. "Where's my husband? Where's Wolf? What's happened here?"
Now the woman seemed to realize that Virginia was a stranger. "Oh dear. That young man that was here? Professor Snape escorted him to the Headmaster's office. I'll have to let them know you're awake. They'll be wanting to talk to you, too."
This was a school? If the schools in the City had been like this, maybe she would have been more interested in staying a student.
"I'd like that," Virginia said, letting go of the woman's arm.
"All right. Wait right here."
Virginia watched as the woman walked to a little office in the rear of the Infirmary. She sat up and looked around. She had been dressed in some sort of white cotton gown, but it wasn't the typical kind of hospital gown that opened in the back. There was a chair and night stand next to her bed. Her clothes were folded neatly on the chair, her shoes and socks tucked beneath it. The belongings from her pockets were piled neatly on the night stand's surface. She smiled a little at the sight of her wallet, phone, change and pack of gum. It looked like everything was there. You never could tell with hospitals sometimes.
Virginia pulled her legs to the side and swung them off the bed. Experimentally, she swung her legs back and forth. They seemed to work all right, so she got to her feet and started to change back into her clothes. She shoved everything back into the pockets of her jeans. The sooner she got out of the hospital and back together with Wolf, the happier she would be. There was something a little odd about this place, something tickling the back of her mind. She would puzzle it out later.
"Hermione," the plump woman's voice called out. "Can you escort our guest to the Headmaster's office. He wishes to speak with her."
There were hushed whispers from somewhere off to Virginia's right. "All right," came a girl's voice. The voice was brisk and no-nonsense.
What kind of school was this?
Virginia pulled the curtain back and saw a teenage girl walk toward her. The girl had brown hair and was almost as tall as she was. The school uniform was apparently gray with red and yellow accents. "Hello," the girl said with a crisp British accent. "My name is Hermione Granger, and I'm Head Girl. I'll take you to Headmaster Dumbledore's office now."
"Uh, hi." Virginia said after a moment. "Er, I'm Virginia Wolf."
Hermione nodded. "If you'll follow me, I'm sure we'll get you sorted out."
Taking that to be Scottish slang, Virginia merely nodded at the girl and followed her out of the infirmary. Virginia goggled at the walls once they left, however. The figures in the portraits were moving, and one of them was waving at her. Dazed, Virginia waved back. "Uh, Hermione? Do they always do that?"
"Not usually. But you're new here, so they're saying hello. They've seen me dozens of times, what with all the scrapes Harry and Ron get into. And this year I've started taking extra Healing classes, so I spend lots of time working with Madam Pomfrey."
"Ah," Virginia said, at a loss for anything to say. "So, what do you do as Head Girl?"
Apparently, this was a favorite topic of Hermione's. She began to talk at length about the duties of Prefects and Head Girls and Boys, and how Head Boy Ron Weasley really wasn't at all serious about the post. Hermione felt she had to make up for it, and often had plenty of color-coordinated charts at Prefect meetings. Most of the other Prefects didn't really pay much attention to her plans, which bothered her. She worked hard on presenting a good example, and felt that Prefects should take their job seriously.
"Oh, and here we are. I'm sure I must have bored you to death," Hermione apologized. "I didn't mean to, but as you can see, it's a sore spot. And we just had a meeting yesterday... But here's the Headmaster's office entrance." Hermione turned toward the gargoyle. "Sugar Quill," she said, enunciating it clearly.
The words were a password of some kind, because the gargoyle began to turn, and a staircase began to form. Hermione stepped onto one of the moving steps, and Virginia followed suit. The staircase continued to turn, bringing them higher in the stairwell. It finally opened up into a brightly lit office overstuffed with books and knickknacks of all kinds. In front of the massive desk were Wolf, a red headed boy, some dour looking man in black robes, the woman in purple and the little man in green. Virginia visibly brightened. "Wolf!" she cried, darting past Hermione to cross the distance to her husband.
Wolf turned, obvious relief on his face. He caught her up in his arms and held her tightly. "Moon and stars and all of the nine kingdoms, I thought I'd lost you."
Virginia returned the squeeze. "What happened?"
"A Death Eater attack," the woman in purple said. Her voice was crisply Scottish, and she sounded an awful lot like Mrs. McMurdo back in the village.
Virginia pulled herself slightly away from Wolf and looked at the woman. "The woman in the hospital said that, too."
"Infirmary," the dour man corrected. "And that would be Madam Pomfrey. That blasted woman talks too much about these things..."
"Please, everyone. Sit down," the bearded man behind the desk said. Suddenly there were more chairs than Virginia remembered, and she sat down next to Wolf. "I am Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Lemon drop?" he asked, indicating a bowl on his desk. Wolf and Virginia obediently reached for one, and noticed that no one else did. "I have a fondness for sweets, I must confess," Dumbledore said, reaching for one himself. Only when he actually ate the sweet did Wolf and Virginia eat theirs. "My staff is used to my eccentricities, but don't often indulge, I'm afraid. But enough of that. Let us introduce ourselves."
The dour looking man turned out to be Professor Severus Snape, the little man in green was Professor Filius Flitwick, the woman in purple was Professor Minerva McGonagall and the teenage boy beside Hermione was Head Boy Ronald Weasley. Virginia and Wolf introduced themselves using their married names of Virginia and John Wolf. Dumbledore quirked an eyebrow at them, as if he knew of the slight lie.
"Well then, now that we are all acquainted, perhaps we may speak of this afternoon's incident. I'm very sorry this has happened to you during your outing."
"What are Death Eaters?" Virginia asked flatly. "What the hell is going on around here?"
Dumbledore paused, and whatever he was about to say was lost. "I'm afraid you've stumbled into a bit of a war."
"A bit of a war? Isn't that like saying you're only a little bit sick?" Wolf snarled. "The tour guide didn't mention anything about this!"
"Oh dear, they're Muggle," Flitwick said, voice hushed. He looked imploringly at Dumbledore and McGonagall.
"Oh, but they are more than Muggle. They knew the castle was here, they could see all of our magic for what it was."
Suddenly Virginia remembered the odd statement Nuala's brother Clurachan had made back at the bar in New York. May you two have the happiness of the ages and always see the magic around you.
She turned to Wolf. "Nuala's brother. Do you remember? Back at the bar?"
Wolf blinked in surprise. "That toast, you mean?"
"May you two have the happiness of the ages and always see the magic around you. I've never forgotten it. It sounded too strange to be a toast."
Wolf suddenly smacked his forehead. "Dammit, Nuala's a fairy."
"Perhaps we could all explain what we're speaking of?" Dumbledore suggested gently.
Virginia shrugged. "We're from New York. One of my best friends runs a bar, and she's originally from Faerie. Apparently her brother gave us a gift toast."
Dumbledore smiled gently at the couple. "Ah. Gifts from the fae are generous ones, indeed. Well, then. You have accidentally chosen to have your picnic on the grounds of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
"That's why no one else knew what we were talking about," Wolf muttered.
"Precisely. This castle is in ruins to most non-magical eyes. Here, the children of the British Isles train in the basic arts of magic. For the most part, the magical and non-magical peoples of the world are separate. Within our Wizarding World, however, there is a war going on. There are those who would cleanse our people of all those originally born to non-magical folk and separate ourselves entirely."
"You called us Muggle," Virginia said, looking at the man in green.
"It's the term we use for non-magical people," Dumbledore said gently. "Muggles don't know of our existence and can't see magic for what it is."
"But we can," Wolf said, sitting up at attention. "So where does that leave us?"
"Squibs, I suppose," McGonagall mused, chiming in to the conversation. "Those are Wizarding folk that are born with little or no magical ability," she explained.
"Oh, what's the use? Just Obliviate them and send them on their way. They don't belong here, Headmaster," Snape said suddenly.
Dumbledore blinked. "On the contrary. I do believe they may be safer here than elsewhere at the moment. And they may be of some great benefit."
Wolf didn't like the sound of that. "How 'bout we do like this guy says? We'll just go, we won't say a thing, we'll finish our tour and go home. We won't tell anyone."
"But your child is magical," Dumbledore said, voice mild and even. Both Virginia and Wolf stilled. "And its signature is quite strong and distinctive. I do believe the Death Eaters would try and track you down. Your child would be Muggle-born, and that is precisely the very thing that they want to destroy."
Virginia turned to Wolf. One hand rested on her belly, the other squeezed Wolf's hand tightly. "What do we have to do?"
"Dumbledore..." Snape began in a warning tone.
"For now," Dumbledore began, overriding Snape. "I think I'll let our Head Boy and Girl escort you around the castle. That will help you get acquainted with everything we have here. I'll see if I can make more permanent arrangements for your safety. It may take some time for me to do so, I'm afraid."
"Nuala," Virginia whispered dully.
"Excuse me?" Dumbledore asked.
"She's supposed to pick us up at the airport. I'll have to call her."
"My phone..." Virginia pulled her cell phone out of her jeans pocket and started at it numbly. Instead of "Roaming" on its screen, the phone said "Unregistered."
"What the hell?" Wolf cried, seeing the little screen. "What's wrong with this place?"
"I'm afraid gadgets don't work well here. Magic tends to interfere with technology," Flitwick said. He hopped off his chair and approached them. "May I see? I've never seen such a thing before..."
Virginia watched numbly as the little gnomelike man took her cell phone in hand and tried punching in numbers. He twittered happily when it made sounds and handed it back. "I don't think they've ever talked about such a thing in Muggle Studies. I can't wait to tell Marta about it."
"We can try to send your friend an owl," McGonagall suggested. "We can probably get a transatlantic owl from the Ministry. Though they read those messages carefully."
"I'm sure a Muggle would know what to do with Owl Post," Snape said in a condescending tone. "Honestly, the Death Eaters wouldn't go as far as America. If we just send them back, they'll be just fine."
Suddenly the small fire in the office roared to life. A head popped out of the flames and looked around at the assemblage. "Headmaster, did I call at the wrong time?"
Wolf growled at the head in the fireplace and positioned himself so that he was blocking Virginia from view. Startled, the head in the fireplace gazed at Wolf.
"Remus," Dumbledore said in his same mild tone, "we have a situation here at the castle. Would you or other Order members be able to Floo here?"
"I think Tonks and Kingsley could make it over. I'm a little busy with the cleanup at Hogsmeade. But I could probably Floo over a few hours from now. I'll need to get another dose of Wolfsbane anyway."
"Good. Please do so. I'll be expecting them."
The head in the fireplace disappeared, and Wolf relaxed his alert pose. Dumbledore nodded at the two teenagers in the room. "Please escort our guests on a tour. Try to make them comfortable. We have much to discuss here..."
"Anything about us we'll stay for," Wolf hissed. His hand tightened almost painfully around Virginia's, but she understood it. "We want to know what's going on."
"Certainly. But we have other things to discuss besides your unfortunate attack."
"Are we going to be charged with murder?" Virginia blurted. All eyes in the room swivelled toward her. Wolf nearly choked. "What? I had to ask."
Dumbledore smiled and stood up. "Certainly not. I told you both, we're in the middle of a war. They would have killed you both without a thought. It was self defense. I hope you'll allow us to discuss school defense now, and enjoy your tour."
And before they knew it, the couple was on their feet and going down the staircase with the teenagers. "Does he always get like that?" Wolf groused.
Ron smiled. "Yeah, but you get used to it after a while."
Wolf sighed. "All right. Take us on this tour of yours. But it better be good."
Hermione smiled, her eyes actually twinkling. "I've read Hogwarts: A History a dozen times. I think I know more secret corridors than Ron does."
"Do not! Harry and I have used the map dozens of times, we know lots of things."
"A contest then? The winner is whoever shows the more interesting things."
Ron grinned. "You're on."
"What are you betting for?" Virginia asked, curious. When both Ron and Hermione became red in the face, she and Wolf began laughing. She had a feeling she was going to like these two. They almost reminded her of herself and Wolf.
"They have come! The ones to help the Boy Who Lived!"
Virginia and Wolf stopped short. Virginia blinked at the sight of the woman in front of them, the various scarves, dangling jewelry in myriad colors and the thick lenses of her glasses magnifying her eyes. "Who is this nut job?"
"Professor Trelawney," Hermione said, her tone indicating just what she thought of that particular professor. "She teaches Divination."
Trelawney rushed toward the couple and grasped Virginia's hand. "Oh, you're prettier and younger than I'd thought you'd be. But it's you, all right." She dropped Virginia's hand abruptly and took up one of Wolf's. "And you! So strong! You're perfect!"
"As nice as that sounds, who are you? What are you talking about?"
"I am Sybil Trelawney, Divinations instructor," Trelawney said with a grand voice. "I so rarely come out of my tower. But today, I knew it was a good day to venture forth. And I have found you, the secret gift that the Dark Lord knows not, I know it!"
Virginia and Wolf glanced at Ron and Hermione. "What's she talking about?"
"Long story," Ron muttered. "And not really ours to tell. That would be Harry's."
"And who's this Harry you two keep talking about?" Wolf asked.
"Don't you know?" Trelawney asked, voice sharp. "Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, will be the one to save us all from the Dark Lord. And it's your destiny to help him!"
Chapter 2: Mysterious Gifts
"We need a place to talk. There, that room over there looks like it would be good," Virginia said, pointing to a door half-hidden behind a suit of armor.
It had taken some work to get rid of Trelawney. Virginia and Wolf had to promise that they would obey their destiny and help save the Wizarding World. Only then did the odd woman smile and retreat back into the depths of the castle. Ron and Hermione grudgingly had used a locator spell to find Harry, who had been practicing on the Quidditch pitch. They told him about Trelawney, and he rolled his eyes. "Fine, I'll come down and talk. But with all of the attacks lately, the last thing I want to talk about is the war."
Ron and Hermione threw each other a silent glance, then as one pointed to Virginia and Wolf. "But they need to know what's going on," Hermione said. "They're caught up in this now, and they don't know anything about it."
Virginia had been surprised at the sight of Harry. He was all angles and height, with messy black hair, and bright green eyes behind round-framed glasses. He didn't look like a war hero should look like. "You're just a kid," she blurted. She was suddenly aware that she wasn't that much older than the eighteen year olds with her.
Harry's mouth quirked. "Yeah. The name 'Boy Who Lived' fits pretty well."
So now the five people had found a spare room in a deserted hallway to talk. Harry told them about the events surrounding his famous nickname. He told them a little bit about his famous scar, and the current war as he saw it. His voice had hitched over the names of the dead, the fact that nameless Muggle and Muggleborn families had been slaughtered. "The Daily Prophet can't help it, they can't hide any of this anymore."
"Somehow I always thought magic would a wonderful thing," Virginia mused.
"Virginia, you've seen the Nine Kingdoms. Can you still say that?" Wolf asked.
"All right, you have a point. But still. Fairy tales and all... You grow up not thinking they're real. You don't think magic really exists outside of a book." Virginia shrugged a little helplessly. "But it's always been nice to believe that if magic existed, somehow things would turn out a little bit better."
Wolf wrapped his arms around her. "Well, you said this war was almost over, right? So it could be."
Harry sighed. "It's not that simple. The Aurors are outnumbered. They're getting hurt left and right, so a lot of the seventh years have been taking either Healing classes or Junior Auror training. They'd skip the usual training and directly apprentice to the Aurors. They're hiding me here instead of letting me do something because of that fucking prophecy."
Wolf blinked. "You know, that's what everyone keeps talking about. What prophecy?"
"Trelawney may teach Divination, but she can't really see the future. Ever since I started taking the class, she's been predicting my death." Harry smiled suddenly. "I can't really die a hundred different ways, so she's got to be wrong, right?" Harry's mouth drooped slightly. "The only problem is, she's given two true prophecies in her entire life. Maybe more, but two have been recorded. And one of them predicted Voldemort's demise. And it describes me. So I have to kill him. But all of the Death Eaters have orders to kill me or take me hostage, and Voldemort hasn't shown himself since Yule. So they're keeping me here, where it's safe."
"But those Death Eaters attacked us on school grounds. If it wasn't for Wolf..."
Harry nodded. "It means they're getting stronger. And it means they'll probably try to hide me somewhere else."
"But why? Why not let you fight like you're supposed to?"
Harry's lips twisted in bitterness. "Because I've become a symbol. Because of last year, they almost lost their figurehead."
"I'm not even going to ask," Virginia said, shaking her head. "This is insane."
"I never expected to finish school," Harry said slowly. "This was all too good to be true in the beginning. Now it's like a nightmare I'll never wake up from. Instead of doing something useful, I'm stuck here in classes learning silly things that won't help me fight."
Wolf looked at the three teenagers. "You're all pretty close, right? Can't you do something about that? Sneak around the teachers?"
"We've been doing what we can," Ron said. "Hermione's been getting the books with all kinds of spells, and Harry and I've been practicing. But it's not the same as fighting a real Death Eater. We won't kill each other, but they won't think twice about it."
Virginia thought of the masked and robed figure and shuddered. She felt Wolf's arms tighten around her. "You need a game plan. And you probably should learn self defense." She looked at the teenagers' shocked faces. "What? It helped me. That guy kept pointing with his stick thing and never expected me to stab him with a steak knife."
The teens blinked in surprise. "Dumbledore never mentioned that part," Ron muttered, shaking his head. "All he said was that you killed the intruders."
"He never said you've stabbed them all to death," Hermione said reproachfully.
"She stabbed one," Wolf said. He cleared his throat. "I... ah... didn't use a knife. I'm just stronger than they are."
Virginia patted his arm. "And you were worried about me."
"Well, you were screaming so much, and then you wouldn't move..."
The teens were nodding. "Sounds like Crucio," Hermione said, voice brisk. "Well then, would you be willing to teach Harry what you've learned? None of the Aurors here are willing to do it, so Harry really isn't on their level."
"I wouldn't know where to begin," Virginia protested.
"I fight dirty," Wolf said grimly. "I do."
Draco Malfoy heard that there had been an attack on the school and repressed a shudder. He noticed that most of the Slytherin common room was quiet. While likely half of them were active in the Death Eater cause, none of them had honestly believed that Hogwarts would be attacked. They had been told it was a safe haven, that they should play both sides for as long as possible. Only if they were trusted would they be protected, and they were not needed on the front lines yet. As a Malfoy, he knew what had been expected of him by his family and his peers. He also knew that if anyone knew of his change of heart, he wouldn't last more than two seconds in the common room.
It had been sometime early last year. True, he had sworn vengeance against Harry Potter for putting his father in Azkaban. He had spent all summer brooding over ways to get revenge. It had taken almost the entire summer to come up with a good enough plot, but it had been shattered by a simple conversation with his mother. "Stay out of trouble, Draco. I know you're trying to be your father's son, I can see it. But don't end up like him, whatever you do." Her lips had trembled slightly, and Draco had marveled at it. His mother had never been the emotional type, and on some level Draco felt almost guilty for invoking a response.
"Mother, I'll be careful."
And then suddenly Narcissa Malfoy had seized Draco's chin in her hand. "I know what's happened. Bella came to see me not long after the incident. She stayed long enough to clean up and catch up on what she's missed. She's not right," Narcissa hissed, and Draco's eyes nearly watered at the pressure exerted on his jaw. "Azkaban does that to people. You can't go in and come back out sane. So you're the only true family I've got left. You are the Malfoy heir, but now you're the Black heir. Toujours pur," Narcissa said, lips twisting around the words. He had never seen her look so bitter. "I believe in the purity of our Houses, but not at the cost of the lives within it. If you follow in your father's footsteps, you will end up in Azkaban. I'd take any future for you over that one."
"You're asking me to betray Father?" Draco had asked, half in wonder.
Narcissa drew herself up to her full height as she let go of Draco's face. Her face was its usual haughty mask, but for the first time, Draco could see right through it. She was terrified, and something inside of him broke. "I'm asking you to live, Draco. I'm asking you to be careful, to never get caught at what you choose to do. I'm asking you to choose the path that lets you come home to me."
They never spoke of it again, but Draco had taken the conversation to heart. He had seen the looks of curiosity and near panic in the Golden Trio all through sixth year. He had known they were trying to follow him, trying to see what he had planned. But after speaking with his mother, suddenly his carefully laid plot didn't seem so careful. He could see the holes in it, the desperation that had marred his thinking. Oh, it was still a good plan, Slytherin to the core. It might have worked, but he would have gotten caught. It would have been too obvious who had orchestrated it, and he never would have gotten away with it.
Just before Hols, Ginny Weasley had approached him after the Prefects meeting. "What are you planning, Malfoy?"
Draco had looked up, lip curling automatically in distaste. "I'm going home for Hols. What? Did you want to lock me up as well?" Something in her face softened. He didn't want her pity, and he snapped the folder containing the meeting minutes shut. "I have things to do, Weasel, so if you won't-"
"It's a war going on outside, Malfoy," she said softly. "It's more than just us in here, there's people dying out there every day. Innocent lives."
"I can read the Prophet as well as anyone. I'm surprised you can even afford it."
Ginny ignored the barb. "I've heard the rumors as well as anyone," she pressed, coming around the table to face him. "A lot of the Slytherins say they'll be inducted over Hols. They say they'll be more important for it, that they'll bring the war inside Hogwarts."
Draco's face schooled itself into a mask, but he could tell Ginny wasn't fooled. "Out of my way, Weasel. Go to your cramped hole in the ground."
"You don't say it like you mean it," Ginny taunted. "Where's the Draco Malfoy that made Harry's and Ron's lives miserable? Where's the pale ferret that vowed he would get revenge? What happened to you?"
She was so close to him, he could have hit her. "Get out of my way," Draco said through grit teeth. He didn't understand her, but didn't want to walk around her. That would be giving in, and Malfoys never gave an inch to inferiors.
Ginny took a step closer. "You saw how real this is, didn't you? It didn't become personal until the end of last year, didn't it? Suddenly you knew the truth of it all." She was invading his personal space, eyes locked onto his. "And you're better than that."
Draco dropped the folder in his hands and grabbed her arms. "I'm Draco fucking Malfoy, Weasel. I'm better than everybody."
"No, you're not. Not unless you try to be," Ginny said, voice soft and gentle. "And now you know it, too."
Draco squeezed her arms painfully. "Don't you turn me into your Golden Boy. Don't think you know me."
Ginny moved her arms so that a hand laid itself to rest on his chest. It seemed to burn. "I know pain when I see it. I know darkness when I see it."
"What can you know, Weasel? You ride off Potter's fame."
"Not me. Never me," Ginny said simply. She rose to her tiptoes and planted a soft kiss onto Draco's startled lips. "I know my own truths, I have my own secrets. But no one's bothered to ask, and no one's bothered to look."
"Why me?" Draco asked, startled.
"Because I think now you can understand where no one else will." Ginny smiled suddenly. "And I happen to like pale ferrets."
So this strange relationship between them had started then, something too odd for Draco to describe. Draco didn't know what to call it, but somehow they tried to spend time together. Sometimes they talked about silly things that happened in class, sometimes they talked about their families. He heard funny stories about the Burrow, about being the youngest in a large family and the only girl in several generations. He heard what it was like to never be truly noticed despite that difference. He found himself telling her about searching empty rooms for something to play with. He told her about dinner parties and fancy foods laid out on gold-laced plates. He told her about knowing almost from birth how important he was. He told her about the Manor, its labyrinthine corridors filled with silent and watchful ghosts. He told her about his first broom, about whizzing past his mother's rose garden to snatch a handful of them. It was the first time he had ever ridden a broom, and he had found the best and largest blooms to give her. He hadn't cared that his hands had been torn by the thorns; the startled look on his parents' face had been worth it. His father had immediately gotten him Quidditch coaches, and had booked his place in expensive and exclusive Quidditch summer camps so he could train properly.
"But there's something about catching something you're not supposed to..."
And Ginny had understood. Amazingly, she had understood exactly what his odd longing had been, and she understood the need to live up to and surpass the expectations placed on him. It had always been difficult, and his parents had never been effusive with praise. "But when they did approve..." Draco's voice had trailed off.
Now it had been over a year. They talked more than anything else. He counted her as a close friend, not quite a girlfriend. They didn't always meet to snog or shag. Somehow, he had grown content with talking. Draco liked spending time with Ginny, regardless of how they spent it. She was someone that didn't judge him by the Slytherin standard, and he found himself forgetting she was a Gryffindor and girl Weasley. She was a patient listener and gave terrific advice. She had comforted him when he hadn't made Head Boy, when her brother had gloated on the Hogwarts Express. A well-placed kick in the shin had stopped Ron short, and it had shocked everyone in the compartment. "Head Boys don't act that way, Ron," she had admonished. "Grow up."
And amazingly, he had. Draco had to admit that it was still easy to bait him, and he still had the temptation to start trouble. Not serious trouble anymore, but just enough that he wouldn't be dismissed. He had his reputation to think of, after all.
Speaking of which...
Draco got up. The common room was cold and indifferent. He picked up his books and headed for the library. No one really noticed. Pansy was off trying to seduce Blaise, thank Merlin. She was good as a friend, and always was quick in her defense of him, but he couldn't ever imagine kissing her. It would be like kissing a sister.
There was a table in the back of the library that he frequented. It was too out of the way for Slytherins to sit at, and even the Ravenclaws didn't want to venture too far into the hidden depths of the library. Draco considered this alcove his as a result, and had only told Ginny about it. They sometimes met here to do their schoolwork together in comfortable silence, or talked in hushed tones about the war. Her older brothers were involved, and she worried about their safety. Draco didn't know what that was like. His Aunt Bella was nothing more than a name on the family tapestry, and her involvement was more like a dim piece of knowledge he had to memorize. He wasn't surprised at her belief that Muggleborns should learn magic, but was surprised by her reasoning. "They don't know the damage they could do if left untrained. Can you imagine? Magic let loose among the Muggles? They would try to pin it down and label it, they would try to find the source of it. And then the next thing you know, they'll discover us and try to label us and tax us into submission. It's what they do to each other. You pay the price for being different. I don't think they're any better or worse than what we're capable of doing to each other with magic."
It had sparked a conversation on politics. She had been a wonderful sparring partner, and had honestly considered his statements before dismissing them. It had been new for him, to be listened to and then treated as an equal. Others treated him as superior or someone to be disdained, but so rarely was he treated as an honored equal.
He liked it.
And so, without realizing it, he was fulfilling his mother's request. Slowly, he had chosen to live for himself rather than live for revenge. He had seen a rare true smile on Narcissa's face when she had greeted him at the train station. Usually he was collected by an attendant and brought back to the Manor for a perfunctory tea. He had been surprised by the personal attention, by the sheer joy shining in her eyes at the sight of him. "My boy," she had whispered. "I'm so happy to see you."
Other mothers surely said the same thing. And though she merely touched his arm, he felt the force of her emotion as surely as if she had held him in a bear hug. "I'm glad to see you, too, Mother. I hope I've done right."
"Oh yes. Yes, you have," she had said, eyes shimmering. "Let's get out of this rabble and truly talk."
And they had, that was the mystery of it all. He had never known his mother as anything more than a silent figure in his life, lithe and pale and perfect. Suddenly she was speaking, her dreams and hopes for his future spilling out in a flood during the carriage ride. Draco found himself answering back, primed by a term of speaking with Ginny. It felt the same, the same wondrousness of connection. It was the missing part of him, that silent thing he had craved. He had never realized how important it was before.
Someone now was standing at his table. "Ginny?" he asked before he could stop himself. The girl standing there wasn't Ginny by a long shot. She was dressed in Muggle clothes and had short curly brown hair. She turned around and looked at him with wide blue eyes. "I'm sorry, you're not Ginny."
"Oh, but it is my name. Sort of. I'm Virginia," the girl said, holding her hand out to be shaken. She looked terribly common, but politeness dictated that he introduce himself.
Hesitantly, Draco did so. "Draco Malfoy."
"Lovely to meet you, Draco. Sorry I'm not your Ginny."
"Ah. I was looking for a Ginevra."
Virginia smiled, and it lit up her face. Ginny's did the same. "Beautiful name. I'll bet your girlfriend's pretty."
Draco dropped her hand abruptly. He didn't do anything so crass as sputter, but he did manage to choke out "She's not my girlfriend, exactly."
Virginia's smile softened. "Sorry, my mistake. But you looked so hopeful, I thought maybe she was."
"She's my friend," Draco said, suddenly knowing the words to be true. "Maybe more, but I don't know."
"Don't rush anything," Virginia said wisely. "I think you find that special someone just when you decide to stop looking." She looked at her watch, a Muggle contraption. "Dammit, I keep forgetting that these things don't work here. Do you know what time it is?"
"Just past five."
"Oh, I'm going to be late. I told Minerva I'd meet her at the main staircase." Virginia took a few steps out of the alcove, still holding a book in her hands. Draco noticed it was about magical births. "Er... I don't think I could find my way. Which way is it out of the library? I could probably ask the paintings how to get to the main staircase."
Draco sighed. So much for quiet study. "I'll take you there."
"I don't mean to interrupt," Virginia protested. "I just wanted somewhere quiet to read for a little bit..."
"It's all right. It won't take long at all."
Virginia smiled at Draco. "Thank you, Draco, I really appreciate it."
"I'm a Prefect. It's what we do."
"I know," Virginia laughed as Draco led her out of the library. "Hermione gave me a long list of Prefect duties."
"Yes. I think that's her last name. The Head Girl. The Headmaster asked her to take me and Wolf on a tour this afternoon." She looked around wistfully. "It's so beautiful here, and so much magic all around..." Draco had the sinking feeling that she was Muggle, but couldn't think of a polite way to ask for sure. "Oh, my friend Nuala told me there's plenty of magic in New York if you know where to look," Virginia continued blithely, "but I couldn't even explain what magic looks like until I see it. It just looks different, like the colors are off or something, like the sounds are a little sharper."
"You don't know magic, do you?" Draco asked, keeping his voice neutral. He had slightly edged away from her. Just because he could be polite didn't mean he wanted to be in touching distance.
"Oh no. But Wolf and I can see it."
"Who's this Wolf you keep talking about?"
"My husband... Oh! There he is! Thank you!"
Draco watched as Virginia waved and jogged up to a tall, slim man dressed in Muggle clothing. He turned before she even approached, and wrapped her up easily in a hug. He pointed down the hall, past the staircase. McGonagall was on her way, and Draco decided it was time to retreat to the library. He didn't like the Transfigurations professor very much, and the way she kept staring at him for the past two years was unnerving. He felt almost as if he was being judged as wanting in some way.
He ran into Ginny along the way and told her about the strange Muggle woman that could see magic. Ginny had apparently heard more about them from Ron and Hermione, and shared it with Draco. Filing away the information for a later time, they retreated to their alcove in the back of the library and began to study. Even with a war on, Draco was still required to take his NEWTS in a few months.
This full moon had been the worst one yet. Remus Lupin had taken his Wolfsbane dutifully and had locked himself in the Shrieking Shack on the night of the full moon. He had heard a new voice howling at the moon in the Forbidden Forest, but didn't know what that meant. Were werewolves now fighting on Voldemort's behalf? It was a thought that frightened him, since everyone else he knew was painfully human. Humans could never survive a determined werewolf attack.
He had dutifully made his report to Dumbledore the night before. Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt had arrived earlier, at about half past five, and had been introduced to the Muggle couple that had been honeymooning nearby. Bad luck on their part, since now Dumbledore had decided that it would be safest for them to stay at Hogwarts and discontinue their tour. It was left up to Remus to offer apologies on their behalf to the tour guide, collect their belongings and then Apparate to New York to collect their friend Nuala. He didn't understand why Dumbledore was so adamant about it, but he had twinkled and merely referred to an unrecorded prophecy made long ago by one of Trelawney's aunts.
So now Remus waited out the moon in the Shrieking Shack, hoping the worst wouldn't come to pass. Harry was all he had left of his friends, and he could never forgive himself if something happened. He hadn't been able to stop Sirius' death, but he could sure as hell try to stop Harry's. If Dumbledore said that these Muggles and their friend could help them, he was going to make sure they did.
Remus tucked his tail under his nose and tried to settle down for sleep. It was going to be a long night, and it was the first time in a long time that he wished he could run in the forests with someone. Sirius, I miss you, Remus thought sadly.
His howl was sad and plaintive, and echoed in the wilds of the woods.
Come out with me, the howl said. It's not frightening out here at all.
Remus' ears perked up. Was there someone else out there taking Wolfsbane? He nosed open the front door to the shack. The only thing he had taken care to lock had been the trapdoor leading to the Whomping Willow. The shack was too far away from people to truly require its door be locked. He sped out of the shack and into the woods. It beckoned, dark and dangerous and wild. Remus hadn't run in the woods since his Hogwarts days, when he hadn't been so afraid of the magic within it, wild and untamed.
He saw the bright yellow eyes first. Another werewolf, shaggy brown and in better shape than Remus, was sitting beneath a towering oak tree. He rose to his feet and padded over to Remus, eyes yellow in the moonlight. Remus thought suddenly of the fragment of prophecy Dumbledore had deigned to give him the night before.
Out of darkness comes yellow lampen eyes, to see the dark and narrow path to prize. His mate will walk amongst kingdoms old, their companion thousands ages old. Their magic new and old and wild, the knowledge born to save the child.
Remus let the strange wolf sniff his muzzle and flanks. Remus sniffed the strange wolf, feeling as though he was familiar somehow. The wolf bared his teeth and growled low, clearly stating he would defend himself and his territory if attacked. The growl sounded familiar, even though Remus was sure he had never met the wolf before.
When he saw a glint of gold on the left forepaw, suddenly it made sense.
Remus let out wolfish laughter and ran in a tight circle around the wolf. He nipped at the other's tail playfully, indicating his wish to be friends. The wolf held himself stiff for a moment, then relented. They ran among the trees, deeper into the woods, howling at the moon and chasing the wild creatures. Remus couldn't remember having so much fun on a full moon before, not since all of the Marauders had been together under the pale light. The woods were fantastic, so much better than he remembered. He howled in happiness and abandon, only to hear it echo in his companion's howl. They ran in various directions at random, nipping at each other's heels and racing each other along the ragged pathways. Remus almost couldn't believe it, but he had seen this wolf in both of his skins now. This werewolf, believed to be a simple Muggle, held both sides of himself in check. If this stranger could do it, so could Remus. He didn't have to be afraid of his wilder side; he didn't have to fear the cold moonlight.
When the next day dawned, Remus stretched and yawned. He was surprised to find himself unscarred and feeling jubilant. Usually at the height of the full moon he was frenzied, attacking anything nearby, even himself. He rolled over and took a look at Wolf, snoring gently a few feet away from him. "Hey, Wolf."
"Erm?" Wolf muttered. He swatted his face gently, hand still curved into a paw shape.
"It's dawn already."
"Ugh. Go later. Sleep now."
"Your wife will be waiting. She must be worried by now..."
"She knows," Wolf said. "I'll see 'er at breakfast. Go to sleep."
Amazed, Remus watched as Wolf turned over and rolled himself into a ball. She knew? He had seen the Muggle girl briefly, before Wolf had covered his line of vision. He had the faint impression of youth there, and had been able to scent the new life she carried.
"I can't," Remus murmured. All of this newness boggled his mind.
"Then go get our stuff 'n Nuala," Wolf muttered, rolling over. The name was pronounced the Irish way, Noo-lah. "And you be good to her. I told her I'd find her a nice fairy boy so she could be happy. She makes Ginny happy, so if you hurt her I'll kill you. Got it?"
Remus nodded. "Don't worry, she'll be safe with me."
"Humph. You're a wolf. She's creamy. Not like Virginia, but she's soft and so very edible." Wolf suddenly sat up. "Don't you even try to eat her. Virginia doesn't like it when you try to eat people she loves."
An eyebrow quirked, Remus grinned at Wolf. "Do you know this from personal experience, Wolf?"
"What?! I didn't know it was her grandmother! She looked plump enough to be tasty!"
Remus suddenly laughed. He couldn't help it. All his years of restraint and self-denial had done nothing but give him pain and misery, scars and the uncanny ability to pack everything he had ever owned into two suitcases. He had been taught to suppress his wolfish nature, and here was someone who embraced it with every breath.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But still! I've been in therapy. I'm cured of that now. But you! I don't know you, but you run well. So you've hunted before. If you hunt anyone Nuala or Virginia love, you answer to me."
"Were you born a werewolf?" Remus asked.
Wolf looked almost insulted. "But of course!"
Remus shook his head. "I was bitten. So I'm different from you. I have to take potions not to become a monster."
"Bah. Potions. People and their medications." Wolf sprung to his feet. "It just means you don't control your instincts. Pity, you're a good runner. You would've been good in a pack. I once was in a good sized pack, though I didn't have any litter-mates survive..." Wolf's voice trailed off. "But that was in a different place. It's different here."
"Were you hunted?" Remus asked.
"It doesn't matter," Wolf said shortly. "I have a new pack now. And I won't have you ruining it for me!"
And with that, Wolf sprinted off back to the castle. Remus watched him, shaking his head. He had a job to do now, and that was that.
It was easy enough to lie and say that Virginia had broken her leg during their hike, and he was a hospital representative. He produced a letter from the couple asking for their belongings to be brought to them, and saying how lovely the trip had been. The picnic site had been beautiful, though Virginia warned the tour guide not to let others picnic past the meadow, since the ground was very uneven and craggy. The guileless guide helped Remus collect the couple's belongings from the hotel and load it into the weatherbeaten Ford Anglia he had found in the forest. The car had deigned to be used for the retrieval in exchange for a good waxing and polishing. Remus had been nice enough to comply, and the car had been nice enough to play the music he liked without losing reception along the way. Once out of sight of the guide, the Anglia sped up of its own accord toward Hogwarts. The luggage was pitched out of the boot and the car jauntily sped back into the Forbidden Forest.
After delivering the bags to Dumbledore's office, Remus Apparated into the back room of a New Age shop in Greenwich Village. Years ago, he had stowed away on a boat headed for New York. He spent two years in the magical enclave there, then had Apparated back to England out of homesickness. He occasionally kept in touch with the witches and wizards he had met there, though transatlantic owl post was costly. He was glad of it now, since Remus had a place to go to. "Remus, you poor thing!" Lydia Littersky boomed from the front of the shop. "Not a note in three years and here you are in my shop!"
Remus grinned. Lydia never explained how she knew who it was in her Apparition Room, though many had tried to guess. He opened the door into the front room of her shop, still grinning. Lydia had gotten married to an Orthodox Jew since he had last seen her, and married life seemed to agree with her. Her face was as unlined as it was fourteen years ago when they had met, and her brown hair didn't have any grey in it. She was wearing a bright yellow blouse over a long black skirt, and it looked as though she had on black granny boots with yellow laces. "As bright as ever, Lydia. Where's Milo?"
"At the Synagogue. Lucky you, it's Sunday and we were at Temple yesterday. Otherwise you'd be in a closed shop. Oh, Remus, look at you! All skin and bones! Do I need to bring you home and feed you? I think I still have some good summer stock in the freezer."
Remus held up his hands. "Lydia, I'm on a mission. No time to stop and eat."
"Oh sure, sure." Lydia rolled her eyes. "Look at you, rail thin. I'll bet you're not even dating anyone."
"Lydia, for Merlin's sake..."
Lydia laughed. "Oh come on. I wouldn't really fix you up with anyone here. You're not a Jew, for starters. Most of my not-Orthodox friends don't like waifish skinny types. And my daughter's friends are all still twelve, barely even aware that boys are good for more than throwing hexes at."
Remus's face softened. "How is Batya?"
"A living cartoon. Come on, you can spare a visit with your friends, can't you?"
"I need to find someone and bring her to England."
Lydia's smile died just a fraction. "There's a nasty war there, Remus. Please don't tell me that's what your mission is for."
"Someone needs to stop them."
"Oh, you're too noble by half." Lydia darted over to him and hugged him tightly. She then fussed over his shirt. "And you're still too thin."
"Some girls like that kind of thing, Lydia."
"Bah. Those goth girls out there on the street? That clove smoke will kill you. You need a good woman to feed you every night, that's what you need."
"Yes, Mother," Remus teased. Lydia laughed along with him and gave him another hug.
"I'll try to stop by. You still carry the true magicks in the other back room?"
"Of course. You'd know that if you wrote to me more than once every few years."
Remus ducked his head. "It's expensive, Lydia. Three years ago I had a steady job."
Lydia clucked her tongue and then reached into her pocket. "Here, then."
"I'll bet you came here with the clothes on your back and no money for the bus." Remus couldn't even deny it, and Lydia nodded. "Uh huh. Just take it. I do well, think of it as a gift. It's my mitzvah. You need it for the bus and for lunch, and I won't take no for an answer."
Remus pocketed the bills. "You're too good to me, Lydia."
Lydia gave him another hug and then shooed him out onto the street. "I'm a mother, it's what I do. You find your mission and you come back here. We'll have a good lunch and send you on your way. Milo and the kids would love to see you again, they keep asking me where my wolf friend is."
"I'll do that," Remus promised.
And then he slipped into the Sunday morning crowd, disappearing from sight. Lydia sighed and offered up a quick prayer for his safety. England simply wasn't a safe place for witches and wizards, and especially not ones that were magical creatures.
The building was exactly where Wolf and Virginia had said it would be. He rang the buzzer and a cheerful voice answered through the speaker. "Hello?"
"I'm here with a message from Wolf and Virginia."
There was a long pause, as if the voice's owner had to catch her breath. "Okay. Come on up. I'll buzz you in."
Remus took the stairs to the fourth floor and knocked on the door. A short woman with brown hair and brown eyes was staring up at him. He felt huge and gangling next to her, and let her seat him on the couch. The apartment was small, but homey. There were pictures of flowers and skyscapes everywhere on the walls. "My name is Remus Lupin. I don't know how much of anything you know..."
"Are they okay?" Nuala interrupted. "I was supposed to pick them up from the airport tomorrow night. Did anything happen?"
Remus took a deep breath. "They were attacked. They're fine now," he rushed on, seeing her gasp in shock. "They asked me to bring you to England." It was a slight lie, but she didn't need to know about Dumbledore yet.
"You're lying to me, wolf," Nuala said, crossing her arms over her chest. "Tell me the truth, I'll scent it on you."
Remus shook his head. "I can't explain, not here. There's others that can explain better."
"No. I want to hear it from you."
Sighing, Remus rubbed the side of his jaw wearily. He could feel the old scars under his palm and contemplated what to say. The next thing he knew, Nuala's hands were on either side of his face and she was murmuring in a strange language. His skin felt warm under her hands, and it spread throughout his body. When the warmth died, all of the aches were gone. He touched his face and all of the thin scars were gone as well. "What...?"
"They told you about me, surely. The Clurachan warned me of this before he left. He said I couldn't hide forever, and he said a wolf would be the one to claim me."
Remus blinked. "What?"
"Just tell me what you've come here to tell me."
"All right. There's a war going on. Nothing obvious, but it's between wizards and witches. Your friends were picnicking and they were attacked. They killed the attackers, and it was felt that they would be safest in Scotland. And you really need to come with me."
Nuala touched the side of his face gently. "You're too good by half, wolf," Nuala whispered. "You weren't supposed to even tell me that much, were you?"
"No, but I know what it's like to worry about your friends and not know if they're dead or alive. Virginia and Wolf are fine. But there is a war, and we'd like to keep them safe."
"So when do we go into the woods?"
"As soon as you're done packing," Remus replied.
Nuala nodded, and then picked up the phone on the desk near the window. She dialed a number from memory and then smiled slightly after a moment. "Hey, Maritza, I got a favor to ask you.... No, I'm fine. But I'll need you to mind the bar.... I don't know for how long.... It's my auntie in Ireland. She never told anyone, but she's been sick for years. Now she's in the hospital, poor dear.... Lung cancer, they said. Too many years of smoking. And the daft woman thinks she can still smoke with oxygen in her nose!" Nuala laughed along with her friend on the phone. Her fried said something else, and Nuala sighed. "You're wonderful, Maritza. I'll send word when I know how she is and when I can come home." After a moment, Nuala bid her friend farewell and then went into the bedroom to pack.
"You took it pretty well," Remus commented from the couch.
"My brother," Nuala began, rifling through her closet, "sometimes Speaks Truth. And not only did he give my friends a Gift, he told me I would need to go with them." She looked up as Remus got up and walked to the doorway. "You'd like him, I think. Everyone does. Charming to a fault, drinks everyone under the table."
"I met someone like that in Ireland once." Remus blushed at the memory. "Tall, blonde and liked telling stories. He... ah... Passed out."
"Liar," Nuala said, grinning. "Shagged you within an inch of your life, he did."
Remus suddenly laughed. "I don't even know you!"
"Well, you're about to help me pack my under things, so I guess we get to know each other better." Nuala winked and grinned at Remus.
"You know, Wolf told me you needed him to find you a good fairy boy. I think you can do just fine on your own."
Nuala looked up at Remus. He was thin and bony, with shaggy brown hair that was streaked with grey. There was a weariness in him that spoke of too much sadness. His dark eyes were soft, though, and not distant at all. Though he towered over her in the same way that Dream used to, she didn't feel small and insignificant at all. It was all in the eyes, she decided. This soul wasn't nearly so vast and empty. She reached out and grasped his hand gently, the other around the pendant at her neck. "And what do you want?"
"Just to be happy. I don't know with who. I've never really cared before. I only fall in love with people, not their bits." Remus laughed nervously. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this. I don't even know you."
"So you said. But now we know things about each other that friends know, don't we?"
"Yeah, I guess we do. Come on, let's pack. I met a friend of mine on the way here, and she offered us lunch before we leave."
"Yeah? What's for lunch?"
"Ooh. Good faerie dish. Your friend is a gem."
Remus' face softened. "That she is. I think you'll like her."
"And a good judge of character you are, aren't you?" Nuala grinned. She liked playing with the Irish brogue. True, everyone seemed to think that faeries were from Ireland. But the softness between dimensions could happen anywhere, in Ireland, in Scotland, in China, even in Central Park. But Ireland was as good a place as any to be from, and she had fallen in love with the land when the Tuatha de Danaan had been just growing strong. "You show me the way, Remus, and I'll follow you."
Remus smiled at her, and Nuala could feel her insides start to melt. She always did have a thing for tall, thin and world-weary.
Chapter 3: True Prophecy
The first thing Nuala did in Scotland was to hug her friends tightly and express thanks that they were fine. The second thing she did was give her first True Speech.
Her eyes had glazed over and she had shifted to look at the old bearded man. The voice that came out of her mouth was not her own. She had heard the Clurachan tell her of such things when they happened to him, but she had never been the one in the family who Spoke True.
Born of death and blood of child's hands,
Carrying destruction in skulls of green,
Pestilence and death in shadows unseen.
The child shall waken, lightning to tree,
To break the hold of terror over bent knee.
Out of darkness comes yellow lampen eyes
To see the dark and narrow path to prize.
His mate will walk amongst kingdoms old
Their companion thousands ages old.
Their magic new and old and wild,
The knowledge born to save the child.
Then Nuala came back to herself and sighed. "Oh bugger, not me, too."
"Nuala?" Virginia asked, concerned.
The old man grinned. "How very lovely. I was hoping you would be the one Cymbeline Trelawney was speaking about."
"Wizard, now is not the time for this," Nuala said. She was trying to be polite, but there were more questions than answers in her mind. First and foremost, she wanted to ask the Clurachan if headaches were normal. Then she remembered that he was off gallivanting around the world as the boon companion to Prince Wendell. And probably shagging the boy rotten. And that he was probably the blonde drunk Adonis her wolf had remembered. And that she was now caught up in a war not her own. "I need to sit down."
Remus was at her side in an instant. "Albus, she probably needs to rest. I don't think she's ever Apparated before."
Dumbledore waved his concerns aside. "Young Nuala here has crossed dimensional lines. I should think a little transportation shouldn't be so harsh."
Nuala looked at Dumbledore and felt more than a little afraid. "Who are you?"
"I'd like to help you," Dumbledore said. "But in doing so, you would all be helping us as well. You see, there's more to that prophecy, but not much. You missed the part about how to save the child."
Nuala straightened in the chair angrily. "But there is no more! The Speech will rise when it's ready and no more! And if there's no more to the Speech, it will not be said!"
Dumbledore's head bowed. "I'm sorry. I was hoping Cymbeline was right. But I see now that she was wrong, there is no more to it."
"You think this is us," Virginia said suddenly. "You think we're the ones to save your precious Boy Who Lived." All eyes were on her now. "What possessed you to do such a thing to him anyway? He's just a boy! You can't expect him to take on an entire army!"
Dumbledore sat down heavily in his chair. "And yet, this is precisely what we must do. I'm afraid that the hour grows near where this school is no longer a haven." He steepled his fingers together and looked at the four adults assembled in front of him. "Our magicks have failed us, our defense is failing. They outnumber us and kill innocents out of spite. If I believe that you hold the key to success, I must ask for help."
"What the hell do you think we can do that you can't?" Wolf asked. "We don't know magic! How are we supposed to stop that?!"
Dumbledore looked at Nuala. "My dear... isn't there a spell?"
Nuala covered her face with her hands. "I won't do it, I won't."
Virginia turned to Nuala. "What is it? What?"
"There's an old spell. It's one of the strongest protection magicks known to the Fae, but it's also one of the most dangerous. It's been told that it was cast wrongly, and that's what led to the Sundering, the separation of Faerie from this land."
"But if it works?"
"Then any evil touching it would dissolve into nothingness."
Wolf sighed. "All or nothing, eh? Sounds familiar."
"You will need help. But while the Aurors fight, we have capable students that may help you in your task," Dumbledore said. "I believe you'd find much help here, if you know what hidden corners to look in." At this, he smiled at Virginia and stood. "But I do believe that you should all rest. It's been a very trying day."
The four were shuffled politely but efficiently out of Dumbledore's office. "I never know how he does that," Remus said ruefully. "Well, I suppose I should let you all talk. You probably have a lot to catch up on."
Nuala touched Remus's arm, stopping him. Virginia and Wolf shared a glance. "Why don't you show us a good place to talk?"
"Or how about, you two talk? We're good. See you." Wolf grabbed Virginia and raced down the hall toward the library.
Nuala and Remus looked at each other and then laughed. "I see where they're going with this," Nuala said wryly.
"Not in the least."
"I'm a werewolf, you know."
"Of course. I'm a fairy, you know."
Remus shrugged. "Doesn't bother me."
"Good. Now why don't you show me around and introduce me?"
Wolf and Virginia stopped running when they were some distance from library. "The look on her face!" Virginia cried. "Do you think she'll be mad at us?"
"Nah. She likes the scent of him, I can tell."
"Nothing a good girl likes better than a bad ol' wolf boy to stir things up." Wolf gathered Virginia up in his arms. "Am I wrong?"
"No." Virginia kissed him. "But I do think we need to get back to our rooms. What if they saw us like this?"
"Oh, let 'em watch! It's legal!" Wolf spun Virginia around in a circle, hearing her shriek with laughter. "I love you, Ginny. I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat, whatever it was."
Someone clapped behind them. Both Virginia and Wolf turned to look. "Aw... isn't that sweet? Little Ginny all grown up. You've changed, but I think Our Lord will still be pleased to see you again."
The woman stunned them both, then shook out her long black hair. Lines were etched into her face. She had once been beautiful, but some kind of trauma had aged her horribly. She bent down and pulled Virginia away from Wolf. "Don't worry, little boy. We'll take good care of her. Until Lord Voldemort is ready for her. I can't promise anything then, and I usually break all of my toys."
Her laughter was horrible to hear, and Wolf couldn't move anything but his eyes. She laughed all the harder at his terror. "Tell that old fool we've got the girl. He knows about the High Vesting Ceremony. Tell him we'll be ready for him."
The woman with black hair pulled a silvery cloak over herself and Virginia's frozen form, disappearing from view. He was paralyzed, but desperately wanted to howl with rage and fear. If anything happened to Virginia or their child...
He didn't know how long he remained frozen there. He heard the voices first. "Oh Merlin, Draco, look!" a girl's voice cried.
"Finite incantem," the boy named Draco cried, casting the spell on Wolf.
Wolf howled, the pent up frustration finally released. "I'll kill the bitch!" he raged. "How dare she take her?!"
"What? Who?" the girl asked, confused. She looked to be about seventeen, with bright red hair, brown eyes and freckles across the bridge of her nose.
"That bitch! She took Ginny!"
"But I'm right here," the redheaded girl said, confused.
Draco's eyes widened. "Virginia. They took Virginia. They must have heard you call her Ginny," Draco said. He turned to Ginny. "I told you something was happening, I told you! You should've gone into hiding!"
Wolf watched as the girl touched Draco's sleeve gently. "Who took her? Who took your Virginia?" she asked.
"I don't know, she didn't exactly introduce herself," Wolf spat bitterly. "She had black hair and she was insane! She said something about a Vesting Ceremony, and she disappeared with my wife!"
They were attracting quite a large crowd now, but Draco didn't notice. "Did she have a scar in front of her left ear?"
"Yes, thin and jagged. I saw it as we fell."
"Bellatrix," Draco muttered. "The Death Eaters got her."
Wolf howled at the ceiling again, hands fisted at his sides. "I'll rip her heart out with my bare hands! How dare they touch what's mine!"
Draco nodded, approving of the words. "Look. We'll have to get you out of this hallway, too many ears..." Draco and Ginny could see Ron, Hermione and Harry wading through the bewildered students. "Too late," he muttered.
"What's going on here? Where's Virginia?" Harry asked. "I thought we were going to meet in one of the ballrooms?"
"They took her!" Wolf raged, pointing at Draco. "He knows who did it!"
Instantly, wands were out. With a soft cry, Ginny rushed in front of him. "Gin, get out of the way," Ron said, teeth grit. "He'll need to be taken into custody."
"You don't understand, he wasn't involved!"
"Wolf just said..."
"He knew her, I didn't say he did it! You people deaf?" Wolf bellowed. "Now how are we going to get my wife back?"
Now teachers were approaching the library. "Good heavens!" McGonagall cried, seeing the mob. "Everyone! Back to your common rooms at once!"
Hearing her commanding tones, the Prefects in the crowd begin shooing students away from the library. Ron and Hermione kept their wands out, trained on Draco. Harry looked over at McGonagall uncertainly. "Professor, they've taken Virginia."
McGonagall sucked in a deep breath. "To Dumbledore's office, all of you! I'll get Remus and Nuala. Hurry!"
Nuala later remembered that meeting with a touch of bitterness. So much for True Speech. Why hadn't she been able to see her friend getting kidnapped by a ruthless killer? That was so much more useful than repeating a prophecy already told.
There wasn't a question now about brewing the potion for the protection spell. If she made it large enough, it could cover all of the British Isles. Then they could be rid forever of the taint hovering over it.
"Are you sure?" Remus asked gently, giving her the bag of items she had bought in his friend's shop. "You said it's dangerous."
"Wouldn't you do anything in your power to save your friends?"
Remus thought of Sirius, of Lily and James, and finally of Harry. "Yes."
"Then I'm doing this. I don't know what a High Vesting Ceremony is, but I don't think Virginia wants to find out."
While Ron, Hermione and Harry didn't trust Draco within an inch of his life, they trusted Ginny's judgment. If she said that he had been tutoring her in Potions, they trusted her. He didn't bother to even look at the Trio, but pored through the books Snape had brought to Dumbledore's office. He had quickly gotten over the shock of finding out that Snape was a spy for the Order of the Phoenix and had simply asked to help. He remembered Virginia's smile in the library, her easy acceptance of his presence and the book she had been reading. She was Muggle, but she wasn't all that bad. She just didn't know the first thing about Malfoys. And she certainly didn't deserve to die in a Death Eater ceremony.
"There's one problem with this. Well, two," Nuala admitted.
"What?" Wolf asked, looking up.
"One part of the potion has been extinct for centuries. And it takes two years for the base of the potion to brew properly."
Nuala winced, expecting Wolf to be furious. He looked stunned instead. "But..."
"There's a way... I could always try to return to the Dreaming and ask Lord Shaper to give me the potion. If someone dreamed of it, he could find it and give me some."
"Isn't that risky?" Draco asked. "I remember reading about that somewhere..."
"In History of Magic," Hermione supplied. "Ethelred the Sleeper. He tried to strike a deal with the Lord of Dreams, but failed. He never woke up, and his tribe lost the battle."
Nuala sighed. "It's different. I lived there once. And the Lord Shaper is different now. He might be able to help me."
Remus gave her hand a squeeze. "What do we do?"
The Dreaming was different from what Nuala remembered. She wandered around the fields, waving at her old friends. She approached the gates and smiled at the unicorn and griffin guarding the door. "Hello. I'd like to see the Lord Shaper, please."
"Who asks the way?" the unicorn asked, dropping his head down low to see her better.
"Nuala of the Bright Folk. I used to live here."
"Why, so you did. When our Lord wore another face. Enter freely, Nuala of the Bright Folk. And welcome back."
"Thank you." She stroked their heads briefly, then walked into the palace.
It was as if no time had passed at all. Seven years were a magic number, and she had changed mightily in the seven years since she had been released of her service in the Dreaming and decided to leave Faerie for Earth. She was sorry to know that the former Dream was dead, that the Furies had to kill him. She hoped it was painless.
Nuala took the straight path to the Heart of the Dreaming. She remembered cleaning those steps, the stained glass windows. She remembered dancing on the dais while singing, she remembered chatting with Lucius in the Great Library. So many memories...
Dream was there in the throne room, the Heart of the Dreaming. He was sitting on the chair she used to polish meticulously until it shone. He was dressed in white, wearing an emerald on his chest. He seemed to have a faint smile on his face.
"Hello, Dream," Nuala said, bowing. She was dressed in her best Faerie finery in her dream, though she still looked like herself. She had stopped dreaming of glamour years ago, and didn't miss it.
It's Daniel, now, actually.
"Hello, Daniel," Nuala said, her mouth quirked in a smile. "I'm Nuala. I was here when the other Dream was here."
Yes, I remember you from my other self. I've followed your dreams, Nuala. I'm glad to see you're happy.
Nuala smiled. "Thank you, Daniel. That means a lot to me."
I'm not the same, Nuala, Daniel said gently, rising. He got up from his throne and walked down the steps deliberately. I'm not the one you loved.
"I know. That's not why I'm here. I've come to ask a favor."
You've already used your boon, Daniel said, indicating the pendant around her neck.
Nuala flushed. "No, not that. I mean, a real favor. One I'll repay if I can. I need a potion, part of the great Ashdod protection spell."
I know the potion of which you speak. It has not been made since the Sundering, and there are none who would attempt to make it now.
"My friend was kidnapped. I need to get her back."
Daniel nodded, and closed the distance between them. I understand. But those who made the potion have not dreamed of it since long before you were born. I have none to give you, Nuala.
Nuala felt the tears well up in her eyes. "Poor Virginia... I've failed her."
Daniel touched her face gently. Don't cry, Nuala. You haven't failed. Give this necklace back to me. You have no need of it. I'll give you another in its place, and then you will know what to do.
Daniel's hand moved down to the pendant around Nuala's neck. She had worn it every day since Dream had given it to her. He touched the stone and it changed into a tiny hourglass held within several rings.
Good luck, Nuala. You've served me well, and for this I would thank you. Give your love to another that can return it.
On impulse, Nuala grasped Daniel's hand. He was so different from her version of Dream, it was almost as if her Dream was dead. "Did it hurt? I've always hoped that the Kindly Ones didn't hurt you. I never wanted you to be hurt."
No, it didn't hurt, Daniel said with a smile. I took my sister Death's hand, and then this self was reshaped from the child born in this realm. It wasn't painful at all.
"Thank you," Nuala whispered. She leaned up and kissed Daniel's cheek. "I hope you're happier in this form."
Me too, Daniel said wistfully. Now go back to your realm and save your friend. You have the tools to succeed, little one.
And then Nuala woke, wearing a Time Turner around her neck.
Over everyone's protests, it was decided. Nuala would go back in time, to before the Sundering, and steal enough of the potion to stop the Death Eaters. Wolf would go with her as protection. When she returned, Harry would walk into the High Vesting Ceremony holding the potion in his hands. He would perform the incantation and then drink the potion.
"And then?" Ron prompted.
"And then we hope it works," Nuala whispered. She threw the chain around herself and Wolf, keeping an eye on Remus. "I'll be back."
"I'll be waiting," he promised. "We haven't finished our conversation yet."
"I'll hold you to it," Nuala said with a grin, beginning to turn the rings.
And then they were gone.
Wolf didn't land gracefully. He fell, skidding along the ground, grass and dirt going up his nose. Nuala fell onto her bottom with a thud. Wolf spit out the dirt and wiped his mouth. "So where are we? When are we?"
"We're in the same place Hogwarts will be, only so far in the past that its founders won't be born for several millennia."
Wolf's eyes boggled. "Wow. That's a long time."
"Yes, it is."
"You know the way?"
"Can't you feel the magic?"
"But it's everywhere! I don't know where to look first!"
Nuala heard shouting in the distance and tucked the Time Turner under her blouse. She quickly cast a glamour over them both. She now looked tall, lithe and blonde, wearing Grecian robes. It had been her usual countenance at Faerie Court. Wolf now looked like a brown-haired version of her brother, the Clurachan. "Quickly, follow me. Don't talk to anyone or do anything. We can't impact history!"
"All right, all right. You do the talking, I do the fighting. Deal?"
They walked in silence, tense and alert. Nuala was trying to remember the stories she had heard as a child, long before she had realized that such stories were real. There had been an attack upon the Fae by the Horde. As a last resort, Nuala the Fair had begun to brew the potentially deadly potion. Nuala had always loved the stories, since her name had been in them, though she was anything but fair. Nuala's brewing had been interrupted, possibly by agents of the Horde, and then came the Sundering. It was a massive explosion generated by the force of such a powerful protection spell. Nuala the Fair had likely perished in the attempt to rescue her people and keep them safe.
"Oy there! Fae or foe?"
Nuala turned toward the voice. It was a fairy, far off in the distance, waving at her. "Fae!" she returned easily enough in the Old Tongue. She nodded at Wolf and they headed in the direction of the fairy guard.
"Your companion," the guard asked suspiciously as they approached, "has he no speech?"
"We were attacked by the Horde," Nuala lied. "I know not where, he barely managed to spell us to safety. But the effort has left him deaf."
The guard nodded sagely. "We must get you to Nuala the Fair. She is a skilled healer, and may restore his hearing. It will give her respite from her arduous task."
"My thanks, good sir. It's been a long walk."
"Of course. Continue toward the Evenstar, and you'll see the Fair City."
Nuala and Wolf continued north. "I had to say that you're deaf," Nuala explained. "Just play along."
"What's going on?"
"We're back in the past, just before the Sundering. According to the stories, a Horde spy must have interrupted the efforts of the Ashdod potion, which triggered its premature use. The explosion was so great, it caused the Sundering."
"Then we better hurry, because I smell something like rotten meat nearby."
Nuala gasped. "The Horde. We have to hurry!"
They ran as fast as they could toward the Fair City. As far as Wolf could tell, the source of the rotten meat smell was a stealthy band of three or four stinking members. He and Nuala were ahead of them, but the Horde agents were merely walking. They were taking their time, easing through the underbrush and keeping out of sight. He supposed that they were going to approach the city and storm its gates at nightfall.
"Horde!" Nuala screamed as they passed through the gates. "Horde agents!"
She pulled Wolf along with her. Panic had broken out in the streets, and they had only her memory of tales to direct them to Nuala the Fair. But she remembered the tales well, since they included her namesake. She found the Healer's tent and ducked inside. Nuala the Fair wasn't there, so Nuala scanned the shelves for the extra bottles or jars containing completed parts of the Ashdod potion. She gave Wolf five small bottles that wouldn't be missed and held one of her own. She threw the thin gold chain about Wolf's neck and began to turn the rings of the Time Turner. She heard the dim shouts of panic behind them as someone entered the tent, but they had already vanished.
The unfortunate fairy backed away in surprise, upsetting a corner of the tent. The shelves rattled, and several bottles were knocked off the edge and shattered onto the floor. Black smoke rose lazily from the spilled liquid, and the fairy turned around to face the Orc that had snuck into the city as part of the Horde's advance guard. The fairy screamed as the curved blade sank into his neck, spilling his blood. It spread across the floor, reaching the spilled liquids. The black smoke roiled angrily, and hurtled itself at the startled Orc.
The explosion was massive, and rocked the world. The Sundering was actually so strong that it had the same force of a meteor impacting the Earth. The dust clouds rose high into the sky, blocking out the Sun for a small age.
When the Sun shone across the world again, the Age of Mammals had arrived.
Nuala and Wolf arrived at Hogwarts grounds still cloaked in glamour. They ran straight up to Dumbledore's office and Nuala swept his desk clean of all its papers and artifacts. Something glass shattered on the floor. "We haven't much time, we've shaken the bottles too much to wait!"
Draco and Ginny, both excellent potions students, assisted Nuala in the intricate brewing methods. In tandem, they chopped, mixed and boiled. Dumbledore had been nonplused at having been peremptorily shoved aside by a slip of a fairy, but watched in fascination as a potion that had not been made in millions of years began to take shape on his desk. When Snape arrived with Ron, Hermione and Harry two hours later at Dumbledore's request, the simmering had already begun. Snape grunted his approval of Nuala's choice in assistants, but the fairy ignored him and kept slicing the herbs she had bought in the New York shop with Remus. Once the contents of the bottles were shaken, mixing their contents, the entire potion had to be brewed within six hours. They had lost a half hour running back to the castle from the depths of the Forbidden Forest, but Wolf had an unerring sense of direction. That, and he could smell the food cooking in the kitchens.
And finally, the last of the ingredients had been dropped into the cauldron beside Dumbledore's desk. Nuala finally allowed herself some rest, and sank into an overstuffed armchair near the bookshelves. Remus walked up behind her and began massaging her shoulders. "Now what do we do?"
"Another two hours of simmering, and it should be ready. Harry, I have to teach you the proper incantations. It's in the Old Tongue, in a variant of High Elven. You have to say it perfectly, or the spell can backfire."
Everyone watched in fascination as Nuala began to speak in the Old Tongue, a fluid language that evoked colors and shapes along with speech. Harry blundered his way through it, having always been a poor language student. But Nuala merely repeated the spell again, and Harry repeated it as well as he could. They did this repetitively for two hours, until the potion was completed. Nuala poured the condensed liquid into a glass jar and put in a single drop of lemon juice. Then she quickly capped it.
"The High Vesting Ceremony is tomorrow, Harry. Do you think you can do it?"
Harry nodded, taking the jar. He looked over at his two best friends. "I'll be all right, just wait and see. I'll see you when everything is over."
In tears, Hermione ran up and gave Harry a hug. She was too distraught to say anything, and let Ron gently pull her aside. "You take care, mate. You still have to take the NEWTS, you know." He smiled at Harry and clapped him on the arm bravely. "Just come back."
Draco nodded at him brusquely, and had to look away when Ginny gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "You're stronger than you think," she said softly. "You've always been, but now you have to believe it, too."
Harry smiled at her. "Don't worry, Ginny. I'll be fine. Really."
But deep down, he really didn't think so.
Virginia hadn't been able to keep track of where the strange woman was going. They appeared outside the castle after exiting through a secret passageway, the twists and turns confusing Virginia. She had been too frightened to ask where they were going, and the strange woman had been ranting about the purity of blood and that Muggle lovers such as her family had to be struck down for the good of the community. After at least a half hour of being dragged down the tunnels beneath the castle, they finally emerged into fading sunlight. It sounded as though they had somehow walked far enough to be near a village. The woman had used her wand to point to the ground, making them disappear with a cracking sound.
They reappeared in the very center of Stonehenge. There were probably a hundred hooded and masked figures. The only thing keeping Virginia from shuddering in fear was the fact that she was still stunned. He managed to gasp, and the strange woman laughed. She bent low to Virginia's ear. "Don't worry, Ginny-girl. The Ceremony is two days hence. But you'll be too starved and weak to stop it."
There was no way to stop the robed figures from grabbing her from the strange woman, no way to stop them from looking at her frozen face.
"Bella, you fool!" one of them said. "This isn't the right girl!"
"Her name is Ginny," Bella hissed, her lined face becoming downright hideous with her anger. "I heard them say it with my own ears."
"Perhaps," the voice said silkily. "But this isn't the girl I gave the diary to. This isn't our Lord Voldemort's consort."
"Well, she'll just have to do," Bella hissed. "It was a different incarnation, this one will never know."
"He will if I tell him," the voice said.
And then suddenly Bella's wand was pointed at the robed and masked man. "Eviscero!"
Virginia watched helplessly as the stranger's robes parted down the middle. His intestines and internal organs all tumbled out, blood pouring from the edges of the wound. Groaning in pain, the stranger dropped his wand and vainly tried to pull his organs back. They tumbled from his fingers, which were going slack with shock.
"I never did like you, Lucius. You took my sister away from me and never let me see her, as if she was too good for me. But I saw my little baby sister, did she tell you? Before they threw you into Azkaban, she let me into the bosom of her home, gave me the generosity of Malfoy Manor to the fullest."
Virginia was startled. Malfoy? That was the name of the Prefect that had shown her out of the library. He was such a nice boy... and this strange man bleeding to death was his father? The psychotic Bella was apparently his aunt. No wonder he had been so quiet. With a family like that, she wouldn't have been very talkative, either.
"Anyone else think I've got the wrong girl?" Bella snarled, kicking her brother-in-law's body. "Someone get rid of this mess."
Out of the corner of her eye, Virginia could see that several people hurried to do her bidding. She was roughly placed onto a large stone altar and tied down. "Don't worry, little girl," Bella crooned, stroking Virginia's face. "Soon enough it'll be all over for you, and our Lord Voldemort will have even more power to draw from. He will be able to obliterate their pitiful defenses with a flick of his hand." Bella caressed Virginia's face and licked her cheek. "The end is near, and we shall be victorious."
"Bellatrix," someone called. "Rodolphus calls for you."
"Bugger that fool," she hissed beneath her breath. She left Virginia's side and stalked off past the periphery of her vision. "No one touches the girl! She is to be saved for Lord Voldemort and the High Vesting Ceremony!"
Virginia wanted to sigh. She'd been in worse situations, surely. At least she wouldn't have to worry about untoward advances while she was spelled as stiff as a statue.
Hurry, Wolf, she thought silently. Please come for us, I'm scared.
When Nuala declared his pronunciation good enough, Harry transfigured the jar into a ring on his hand. He looked up at Nuala, who nodded in approval. "Even if they don't know what's happening, they'd still try to take it away from you."
"Will it work?"
"I hope so, for everyone's sakes." Nuala looked far away. "Now would be a good time for a True Prophecy."
"Ah, well, it was too good to be true," she said with a sigh.
Harry cleared his throat, forcing Nuala to look at him. They were currently the only two people on the Quidditch pitch, and he was about to walk to Hogsmeade to deliberately be captured by Death Eaters. "Look, Nuala... Remus looks at you a lot. I think he likes you."
Nuala smiled. "He's a wonderful man. Just my type, too."
Some of the strain in Harry's expression eased. "Um... Take care of him, will you? I mean, even if everything goes well, and I get to do something with the rest of my life, I don't want him feeling alone. You know?"
Nuala gave Harry a quick hug, startling him. "Don't you worry. He's in good hands."
"Okay. Okay, then. I think I'm ready now."
"You'll be fine, Harry. You don't have to feel as if you're doing everything alone."
Harry nodded uncertainly. "I'm no warrior."
"No. But not all the great heroes are. Some of them were just ordinary folks that had to do the right thing."
Harry looked up at the sky and sighed. "Does the sky look the same where you are?"
"Er... I live in a city. It's hard to see the stars at night since there's lights all over," Nuala said, taking a good look at the darkening night sky. Some stars twinkled merrily; some gave off a steady glow. "Plus, I own a bar, so I work all night. You know, I think I've gotten used to not being able to see them anymore."
"I've never seen the world, you know. Here I go, off to save it, and I've never even seen everything in it."
"Do you have to in order to know it's worth saving?"
Harry looked down at Nuala and shook his head. "You're right. You're absolutely right."
Nuala grinned. "It'll all be waiting here for when you get back."
"You'll be okay, Harry. Just take a deep breath, and then get your feet moving. The less you think about it, the less you scare yourself."
"And does it work?"
"I live in New York City and I own a bar. Of course it works."
Harry answered Nuala's smile and then turned toward Hogsmeade. "All right, then. Wish me luck."
"You don't need it. But good luck anyway."
And then Harry broke out into a run, headed down the path to Hogsmeade. He was headed to a trap he knew existed so that he could save another Ginny.
Virginia must have dozed. She heard cheers and laughter, which woke her. She still couldn't turn her head, but she knew what the cheering must mean.
Voldemort had arrived.
Chapter 4: The Tenth Kingdom
Matthew the Raven flew down from the rafters deep in the Heart of the Dreaming to land on the back of Daniel's throne. "Hey boss, you still following their dreams?"
Yes, Matthew, Daniel said slowly.
"You're hoping they win, right? You're not going to stay impartial, are you?"
Daniel gently stroked the raven's glossy feathers, something the previous Dream had never done. Virginia is dreaming right now.
"What are you going to do, boss?"
Daniel smiled. This is where you come in.
Harry may have wanted to get caught, but that didn't mean he planned on making it easy for the Death Eaters. He cast hexes and ducked out of the way. It was a firefight, the kind the ghosts waxed poetic about, ten against one. Harry knew he had to make it believable. Voldemort would never believe that Harry merely allowed himself to be caught, not when an official ransom for Virginia hadn't even been made. A hex caught him in the left arm, and it spun him around. It felt as if his arm was on fire, a thousand crawling tongues of flame reaching to his neck. Harry shouted in pain and felt his knees begin to buckle.
"Kill him right here," one of the Death Eaters said, laughing. "The boy is nothing."
"Don't," another voice said.
"Who are you?"
"That's not important now. Our Lord should be the one to kill him. We'll get rewarded for the capture of the Boy Who Lived."
The Death Eaters laughed. "Good point." Ropes shot out of Harry's peripheral vision, wrapping tightly around him. "Lord Voldemort surely will overlook the problems with Saturday's attack, then."
The stranger who had defended Harry swam into his view. "My Lord Morpheus tells you that you have much potential, Harry Potter. Don't waste your chances."
Harry looked up, confused, and watched as the man turned into a raven and flew away.
He blinked rapidly and shook his head, trying to clear it. If he wasn't to waste any chances, then he had to be alert enough to watch for when they came. The ring was still on his finger, so he still had the potion. The High Vesting Ceremony wasn't for another night, so Virginia was still alive. He could still pull this off.
Harry Potter was the Boy Who Lived. He'd find a way through this.
He let the Death Eaters pull on the ropes to drag him a little. They all began to Apparate, and one carried Harry with him.
They were at Stonehenge. Death Eaters milled about aimlessly, chatting amongst themselves of what they would do with their new positions of power. Harry found it rather dull and dreary, rather like hearing Uncle Vernon and his coworkers talk about drills and new distribution patterns. Evil really wasn't all that terrifying when you saw it up close, Harry decided. It was really mundane and dull on a personal level. Knowing this eased some of the tension in his belly, and Harry couldn't help it.
He began to laugh.
His laughter seemed to echo throughout the stone clearing, and the Death Eaters were startled to silence. Bound and dragged along the ground as a sacrifice, Harry couldn't help but laugh. These were ordinary people dressing in monsters' clothes, trying to become more important in a world they were losing control of. It was a war of desperation. Even if the Death Eaters won, they would still lose to the Muggles. Denying Muggleborns their place in Wizarding society did nothing but strangle it and condemn it to a slow decline. They would become nothing more than a collection of magical Vernon Dursleys, all trying to outdo each other for the most renown in a place where it long since stopped mattering. The Death Eaters were most like the banal little Muggles they despised. The horrible irony of it all was staggering.
Someone slapped Harry across the face. "Do not laugh in our Lord's presence."
Harry's head swiveled. He didn't see Voldemort anywhere, didn't feel any twinge of pain in his scar. "I'd hate to tell you, but you got lied to. Voldemort's not here."
There was a murmuring. Harry Potter wasn't supposed to talk back. The last time he had been in their grasp, he was easy to taunt. And before that, he was weak and useless, unable to stop a classmate's death or his own use in a resurrection spell. What right did he have to laugh at them, to mock them as if they were inferior?
Someone struck Harry on the back of the head, but it only made Harry laugh harder. This was what he was afraid of? Utterly mundane evil playing dress-up in robes and masks to make themselves feel important wasn't as frightening as they had hoped it would be. A weight had been lifted from Harry's chest, and he laughed until tears streamed from his face. He had been so afraid since the attack in the Ministry of Magic, after the events of the last year, the reports of wanton death and destruction... Suddenly it wasn't real at all. It was all a game, all shadows and puppets playing pretend while a distant Voldemort pulled the strings.
Harry saw Bellatrix Lestrange approach him. He soon sobered at the haughty look on her face. Of all the Death Eaters he knew about, he was probably the most afraid of her. She didn't care about anything, and had no love for anyone but Voldemort. She was the dangerous one here, and she was the one to fear.
Unfortunately, Bellatrix knew it, too.
"Little Harry Potter, trying to save Ginny. How sweet."
"It's what I do," Harry said. He could feel the ring on his finger, and was comforted by its presence. The Death Eaters may have held him captive and taken his wand, but he still had another way to defeat them.
Harry watched as someone handed Bellatrix his wand. She ran her fingers over it lovingly. "I feel the power in this wand. Did you know it has the same core as my Lord Voldemort's wand? Did you know they are brother wands?"
Harry nodded. "I've been told."
"Well, we can't have brother wands here at our revels. That would ruin things." Bellatrix smiled at Harry sweetly, then broke his wand over her knee.
Harry winced, and watched the mournful sparks sink into the soil. It had been fun, he thought sadly. He could always get another wand from Ollivander's, but it was his first wand, his first true magical object. A new wand just wouldn't be the same.
"Bring him over to Ginny. I want him to watch the revels."
"But they're tomorrow, Bella," someone said.
Bellatrix's smile was slow and sinuous. "Now it's tonight."
Anonymous hands dragged Harry over to Virginia's side at the altar. His hands scrabbled across the dirt, trying to find anything with a wandlike shape that would help him focus. The most he could feel was a twig, which wasn't much of anything.
You're stronger than you think, Ginny had said.
Harry was tossed beside Virginia on the stone slab, and then the Death Eaters moved aside. Bellatrix would contact Voldemort now; she was the only one that knew his hidden location. "Virginia, are you okay?"
He heard a strangled sound from deep in her throat, and realized she was still stunned. "I know what to do," he whispered. His fingers touched hers, and he tried to focus all of his will into that contact. "Finite incantem," he whispered fiercely.
Harry heard Virginia suck in a breath and smiled. "Harry, what's going on?"
"They think you're my friend Ginny Weasley."
"That's the one."
"How's Wolf taking it?"
"They couldn't stop him from helping Nuala get something to help."
"So what are you doing here?"
"Because I'm the trap."
Virginia sighed. "Harry, in case you haven't noticed, we're both tied up."
"But don't you see? I ended that spell even though they broke my wand."
"They don't know I can still do magic."
Virginia's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh!"
"Exactly. Hold on, I'll try to loosen those ropes so when the time comes, you can run."
Harry focused on the stone, on where he had seen the ropes connecting to the stone. He pictured the rope knots loosening. "Solvo."
Virginia tested the ropes by flexing her wrists. "Harry, they've loosened."
"That's an untying spell. I think I did my own ropes at the same time." Harry felt giddy. Was this the power he possessed that the Dark Lord didn't know about? If he focused enough, he didn't need the wand at all.
"So none of them can do magic without their wands?" Virginia asked.
"No. You have to really concentrate for that."
"So can you make their wands disappear?"
Harry frowned. "I don't know."
"It's worth a try," Virginia snapped. "They're going to kill us!"
"Okay, hang on." Harry raised his head slightly from the slab. The Death Eaters were milling about, talking excitedly. The Ceremony would be tonight. Tonight Voldemort would absorb the power of his mortal enemies and become the strongest magical creature on earth. No one could counter his might.
Harry took note of where everyone's wands were. There was a simple way to get rid of them all... "Incendio."
Virginia's delighted laughter made Harry open his eyes. The Death Eaters were trying to put out the fires that had erupted in their wands. Their voices were now changed to panic. None of them knew what to do. Magical fire couldn't simply be stamped out, and no one left had a wand capable of dousing the flames.
Harry shimmied out of his bonds and helped Virginia down from the slab. "One more thing, just wait. I have to make sure he shows up."
"This weapon of yours... it's going to work, right?"
"We hope so," Harry muttered, crouching down next to Virginia behind the slab. "Either that or blow us all up."
"Great," Virginia said sarcastically. "Just when I get my life in order, someone decides to go and fuck it up."
"Oh come on, I'm only eighteen!"
"I didn't mean you, I mean those morons out there."
"Oh. In that case, yeah. They fucked everything up."
"Hey, watch your language!"
"You said it first!"
"Yeah, but I'm older. I should be a role model. And you shouldn't say things like that anyway, it's not nice."
Harry bit back his retort. "It got really quiet."
Virginia winced. "Uh oh..."
"I'll check." Harry raised his head to peek over the top of the altar and came face to face with Bellatrix Lestrange. "Oh. Hullo."
With a cry of rage, Bellatrix reached across the stone slab for Harry and hauled him across it. Screaming, Virginia stood up and grabbed Harry about the waist, pulling him backward and away from Bellatrix. Harry started yelling in pain, and suddenly Bellatrix let go. Virginia and Harry fell backwards into an untidy heap behind the altar. Harry looked up in time to see Bellatrix round the corner of the altar. She aimed a swift kick for his ribs and laughed when she heard something crack. Harry cried out and fell back against Virginia, who soon began shaking him in a panic. "C'mon, Harry, get up! Get up!"
"Oh, poor little girl... did I break your little boyfriend? Did I break my toys too soon?"
Harry's breathing was light and shallow, and another cracking sound was heard. Both women looked at him, and Bellatrix's mouth fell open in shock as Harry rolled to his feet. "But what-? But how-?"
Harry felt the power of his rage flow out of him and through his fingertips toward Bellatrix. All of the pain he had ever felt since coming to Hogwarts came pouring out of him. Sirius had died because of Bellatrix. Neville Longbottom would never have a normal relationship with his parents. She had perfected torture into an art form, delighting in the torture of innocents while working beside Voldemort. Harry hated her, an altogether new and ugly emotion for him. This wasn't the petty hatred he had felt for the Dursleys, but something stronger. Bellatrix began to scream, writhing in pain. Other Death Eaters were beginning to scatter, but suddenly a magic shield of some kind surrounded Stonehenge. There was no way out.
Harry looked past Bellatrix into the face of Voldemort.
He kicked Bellatrix in the stomach, just as she had kicked him. She staggered backward, then fell down the steps to the stone altar. She lay sprawled at Voldemort's feet. Harry stood there defiantly, knowing that Virginia was pulling herself to her feet behind him. He stood there, his hands slightly crooked behind him. As Voldemort stared at him, Harry slipped off the ring on his finger and transfigured it back into a jar. Voldemort took a long moment to study Harry, his longtime nemesis. It allowed Harry the time to transfigure the ring back into the jar containing the Ashdod potion. Hiding the small jar in his hands, he brought them around to his front. Harry returned Voldemort's stare as he unscrewed the top.
Voldemort raised his wand. "You've caused me no end of problems, boy. But that all ends here, tonight."
"You're right," Harry said amicably enough. He began to speak in the Old Tongue, just as Nuala had taught him, every inflection and tone perfectly enunciated. He said the words quickly, seeing Voldemort begin to raise his wand in the traditional swish and flick motion.
"Avada," Voldemort began, his wand pointed at Harry's heart.
He drank the potion quickly, noting that it tasted vaguely of lemons.
He dimly heard the "k" sound begin, heard Virginia begin to scream as his skin began to catch fire. Harry's eyes never left Voldemort's, not for a moment. He wanted to know what this protection spell did; he wanted to remember this.
The fire spread along Harry's skin but he couldn't feel it. It then fanned out from him, spreading in a large sphere. It looked like the air was shimmering with red and gold and blue and white, like the heart of the hottest fire he had ever seen.
It touched Voldemort first, still mid-spell. His wand turned to ash, and his skin began to bubble and burn. Voldemort's mouth opened in a cry of pain, but fire came out instead of his voice. He began to burn from the inside out, flesh melting from his bones, fat dripping on the ground and sizzling. At his feet, Bellatrix was consumed by the flames, screaming as she hadn't screamed when faced with Harry's fury.
As the sphere of fire widened, it slowly engulfed every Death Eater present at Stonehenge. They all began screaming and writhing in pain, rolling around in a vain attempt to try and put out the fire. But this was a magical fire of another kind, something stronger than a simple Incendio spell, something more primal. He could feel the magic flow within him, ebbing and flowing, pulling at the wild and hidden desires deep within his mind. This was for starting the first war. This was for forcing his parents into hiding. This was for killing his parents and leaving him with the godawful Dursleys that hated him. This was for nearly killing Ginny to resurrect a madman. This was for killing Cedric. This was for murdering the untold innocents in their mad attempts to instill fear. This was for killing Sirius. This was for ruining any chance he might have had to be happy. This was for everyone and everything they had ever hurt in the foolish attempt for power and immortality. This was their reward, pain and suffering revisited upon them, three times the misery they had inflicted upon others.
This was the Threefold path, this was Karma, this was Justice.
The sphere of fire continued outward on its path, striking Voldemort's barrier and then extending outward. It spread across the land as fast as Harry could blink.
Harry couldn't move; he was suspended in the middle of a magical fire, feeding its flames, spurring it on and farther into the world.
"Harry, are you all right? Harry?" Virginia's voice was rising in panic. "Harry, answer me, say something!"
And then suddenly, it all stopped.
The fires burnt themselves out, and the flames suspending Harry were spent. He collapsed onto the ground, panting heavily. Virginia ran to his side. "What happened?"
"I think... Nuala's protection spell worked." Harry grinned up at Virginia's worried face. "I did it. I avenged them all..."
Harry passed out to the sound of Virginia's frantic cries.
When Harry woke, he was in a familiar place. Everything was clean and white; everything smelled fresh somehow. He breathed a deep sigh of relief. He was in the Hogwarts Infirmary, then. He had been there often enough every year thanks to Quidditch accidents inflicted on either himself or his teammates. In the past year, he had gone to visit Hermione after her Healing classes as well. He knew the smell of the Infirmary, knew the feel of the place even with his eyes closed. He would miss that smell after he graduated, he knew. He would also miss the dorms up in Gryffindor Tower, sharing a room with all of his friends.
But the world was new now. He didn't have to worry about that anymore. Now he could be normal, worrying about NEWTS and graduation, worrying about what to do with the rest of his life now that he had one to live.
It was a wonderful feeling.
"Hey sleepyhead," a cheerful voice said at his ear.
Harry cracked open an eye. Virginia was sitting next to his bed, reading a book on magical pregnancies and deliveries. "You gave everyone a horrible scare."
"Tired," he rasped.
"I thought you might be," Nuala said, ruffling his hair a bit. Harry turned to his other side and saw her there, smiling at him. Remus was standing next to her, looking pleased and finally at peace with himself. "I told everyone it was a really difficult spell to control."
"And wandless magic, Harry!" Hermione called from the foot of the bed. He opened his eyes wider and saw most of Gryffindor Tower clustered around. "Virginia told us all about it, it's so amazing!"
"I got you proper food to eat while here, mate," Ron said, holding up a bag of sweets from Hogsmeade. "Can't let you have everything healthy."
"All right, all right, everyone out. Let our patient rest!" Poppy Pomfrey called from her office. "Visiting hours are over!"
"But he's only woken up!" Neville protested. "We've hardly even talked yet!"
"He'll be there in the morning, all of you. Shoo! Let him recover!"
Everyone slowly dispersed. Madam Pomfrey fussed over him a bit and then spoon fed a tonic that she promised would allow his burnt skin to remain pain free as it healed.
There was a single visitor by the side of his bed. The man was tall and thin, wearing all white, with deep eye sockets as dark as the deepest night. He wore an emerald on his chest and had a raven perched on his shoulder.
I see you dream of normalcy, the figure said, his voice deeply penetrating Harry's mind. I wondered what you would feel when your quest was finished.
"Do I know you?" Harry asked, confused. He looked at Madam Pomfrey's office. "If she catches you, you'll be in trouble."
I appreciate your concern for me, child. But no, she won't catch me. Even now, she dreams of discovering a fascinating new cure that will get her written up in magical medical texts for others to read about. Having no children of her own, it's her own way of trying to grasp immortality.
Harry tried to think. "You're Dream. Nuala talked about you."
Yes. Right now, you hover between my realm and that of my sister's.
At Dream's indication, he could see a pretty young girl, pale and slim, wearing all black. Her hair spread out around her in waves, and she wore a silver ankh on her chest. She hung back slightly, allowing Dream to speak with Harry. She waved at Harry, grinning at him and then giving him a thumbs up.
"She seems nice."
Death is always kind, but not everyone considers her nice.
"So I'm dead?"
You could be. Do you wish to be?
Harry pushed himself to a sitting position. He held his hands in front of him, seeing the blackened skin. "It's going to take forever to heal."
Not forever, not with your magical medicines. But it will take time, and it will be painful. You may miss your exams.
Harry winced. "I can't finish the year without them."
Do you want to let my sister visit with you?
"Would that mean I have to die?"
Dream shook his head. My sister and I have spoken. We feel that after all the suffering you have endured for your world, it's only fair to let you decide your fate. Maybe you will decide to remember this as a dream, and wake to a long recovery. Maybe you will decide to die and begin again. The choice is yours.
Harry thought for a moment. "I'd like to talk to her for a bit before I make up my mind."
Very wise, Harry.
And then Death was sitting beside him, in the very seat Virginia had been sitting in. "Hiya Harry. Tough call there, but you made it. You did the right thing."
"Of course. I practiced the words."
Death grinned. "I don't mean that. I mean waiting for the right time. You could have taken Virginia and run. But you waited and you cast that wicked spell right when it needed to be cast. Not everyone could have done that. It takes guts."
Harry smiled at her, shaking his head to contradict her. "But it was revenge, too."
"You're human, Harry. Of course it was."
"What's it like being dead?"
"I don't know. What's it like being alive?"
Harry thought for a moment, taking her question seriously. "Warm. Sometimes cold. But I remember being alive mostly as warm. From running around, from the sun, from heating spells, from Mrs. Weasley's sweaters every Christmas, from playing Quidditch, from hope."
Death smiled at him and ruffled his hair. "I like that answer. Most of the time, I ask what was the best thing you liked about being alive."
"Quidditch," Harry answered promptly.
Death laughed, and it sounded like the rustle of wings. "Spoken like a boy."
Harry smiled shyly at Death. "You're beautiful."
"So I've been told."
"I'd like to see you and Dream again. But I want to be alive, too. I want to see what I've helped to do. I want to know what it's like not to worry that someone's going to kill me before the year is up. I want to know what it's like to fall in love now that I can. Is that bad?"
Death shook her head and gave Harry's hand a squeeze. "Of course not. That's why we're giving you a choice. Because you've been given such a rotten deal, and in Destiny's book there's two endings for you. In one, you're dead. In the other, you live. It's so close, Dream and I were talking about letting you choose."
Harry thought of something. "Death, can I ask you about people that died?"
"What about them?"
"Well, my parents. Or Sirius. What happened to them?"
Death shrugged. "I don't know. I'm the train station, not the destination. I just take them where they need to go."
"So where did they need to go?"
"I took your parents to a place with lots of light. I think they were happy to go. And I really haven't brought Sirius anywhere. He's... still resting between worlds."
Death actually blushed. "Your godfather's my boyfriend, Harry."
Harry laughed out loud. "How did that work?"
Death laughed. "He's loud and charming and utterly irresponsible. He'll shag anything that moves." Her face softened. "But he's also a sweetheart, and cares about those he loves. We got to talking while we were trying to decide where he'd end up. You see, it wasn't in Destiny's book, except as a little footnote. So it was pretty much up to Sirius what happened to him. And while we were talking in Destiny's garden, he asked to stay with me."
"Is it a nice place? It's not too tiny is it? He doesn't like cramped spaces."
"Harry, my place can look like whatever I want it to. I usually wear jeans and a tee-shirt, I sit on my couch doing crossword puzzles or I feed my goldfish. I usually like it comfortable when I'm there. It's not a cramped place at all."
Harry relaxed. "Oh good. Sirius should be happy, then."
"You want to ask him yourself?"
Harry's eyes widened. "Could I?"
"Of course. Here, touch the ankh," Death said, holding out the pendant on her chain.
When he did, Harry found himself sitting on an overstuffed white couch in the middle of a comfortable living room. There was a mahogany coffee table over an oriental rug, a few potted plants here and there, and various pieces of art he recognized from his Aunt Petunia's museum magazines. Sitting on the easy chair was Sirius Black.
"In the flesh... so to speak." Sirius grinned and accepted Harry's embrace easily. "Good to see you turned out good. Your parents will be proud."
"Do you see them?"
Sirius shook his head. "I'm not allowed where they are, since I chose not to really die."
"So where does that leave you?"
"With the hottest anthropomorphic representation of Death ever." Sirius winked at Harry, and he laughed along with Sirius. "Seriously, she's a busy gal, but a great girl. I'm glad it worked out this way. I think I might not have appreciated her enough if everything hadn't happened the way it did. I might've still done all those crazy things. And what I've seen following her around, all those diseases that started up around that time... I would've probably shagged myself into an early grave. You learn from what could've been, and you take care of yourself. Promise me, Harry. You take care of yourself, live properly and be an old man like Dumbledore. You got me? That's the best thing for you now."
Harry smiled at Sirius, suddenly relieved. "I've missed you."
"I keep watch over you. It's not the same, though. We really can't interfere."
"Harry?" Death called softly from the door. She was dressed in a simple pair of black jeans and a black tank top. "Time to go. Time to wake up and heal."
Harry gave Sirius a last hug. "I love you, Sirius."
"I love you, too, Harry. Take care of yourself. And tell Remus, eh? Tell him I still love him, the daft old man, but I want him happy."
"I'll remember. I'll tell him." Harry got up and walked over to Death. "I'm ready to wake up now. Thank you."
Death smiled, understanding what he was thanking her for. "You're a good kid, Harry. Be sure to stay that way, all right? I'll see you again, when it's truly time."
And then Harry woke.
In the days following Harry's return to consciousness, he told the story of his dream to as many people as he could. He could see the peace in Remus' expression when he got up to the part about Sirius taking up with Death in a large comfy apartment with lots of greenery and sunlight filtering in. Nuala had squeezed Remus' hand in support and he gave her a watery grin. "He's my best friend and I've loved him forever. I'm just glad he's happy."
"You can be, too, Remus." Nuala took a deep breath. "Come with me to New York. You saw my place. It's small, but I think you'd fit in great."
Remus looked at Harry. "I'll be fine, Remus. And I'll come visit."
Remus turned to Nuala. "In that case, I'd love to. Thank you."
Hermione had actually bought the very same magical pregnancy book that Virginia had been reading in Harry's dream as a gift to the couple. Virginia had laughed and given Hermione a hug. "Thank you. I'll be sure to read it."
Harry was surprised when Ginny and Draco wandered into the Infirmary together. "I just wanted to thank you for the advice, Virginia," Ginny said shyly. Harry noticed their linked hands and wondered if he had missed something in the days he had been asleep.
Virginia grinned. "No problem, Ginevra. Anytime."
As Ginny fussed over Harry for a bit, he noticed Draco give him a little half nod of recognition. Something really odd must have happened while he was unconscious, he decided, and then focused on Ginny. She seemed happy, and he could live with that. As Harry gave Ginny a hug, he whispered into her ear "If he's ever mean to you, I'll hex him."
Ginny had only grinned and patted Harry on the shoulder. "Of course. You're another one of my brothers, after all."
Finally, after all of the visitors had left, Wolf and Virginia remained behind. "So now that you're a hero, what do you want to do?" Wolf asked.
"I dunno. I don't think I can take the NEWTS yet. I think Dumbledore said he'd let me take them in a summer session. After that, I don't know yet."
"Well, in any case, you've saved the Tenth Kingdom."
Harry didn't know what Wolf meant by that, and let it slide. "Thank you for all your help, really. And tell Nuala thanks again. I couldn't have done it without the three of you."
Virginia grinned. "You're very welcome. I think I'm getting used to this hero thing myself," she said. "What, with our other adventures and then this one..."
"Hush, Ginny. Don't tempt fate. I just want to go home and have a litter," Wolf said, squeezing her shoulder playfully.
"All right, all right. I get the hint." Virginia got up and gave Harry's hand a squeeze of support. "If ever you visit New York, look us up. We'd love to have you visit."
Wolf clapped him on the shoulder. "You're a good kinda guy. I'd be glad to have you as a pack mate."
Harry smiled at them. "Thanks so much. This means a lot to me."
"So you get better and pass your exams."
At the end of the day, when all of the visitors were gone and Harry was alone in the Infirmary, he dreamed.
"Hello, Daniel," Harry said, appearing in the Heart of the Dreaming. It looked exactly the way Nuala had described it.
Dream looked confused. Harry? But we've already spoken. You've made your choice.
"Yes, I did." A chessboard table appeared in front of Harry, along with two chairs. "I'd like it if you played chess with me."
Dream's expression changed to one of interest. Really? But you're a poor player. You lose to Ron all the time.
"I never had an incentive to play before."
So what are you playing for now?
Harry motioned for Dream to sit in the chair opposite him. When Dream did so, the pieces appeared on the board, and the table was now appearing to be situated in the middle of a forest. It looked something like a cross between the Forbidden Forest and Virginia's descriptions of Central Park. "Winner takes a piece of the loser's clothing," Harry said with a grin.
You'll wind up naked, then, Dream said, frowning.
"You'll just have to think of something to do with me, then," Harry said easily, moving his pawn two spaces. "I think it sounds like a good game."
Dream suddenly laughed. Yes, Harry, that sounds like a good game, indeed. I think I could grow to like this game.
"I plan on playing it for a long time. Maybe the rest of my life. What do you think?"
Dream smiled, his entire face softening. Harry thought he could see stars in the depths of Dream's eyes. Mortal lives are not so long as mine can be, Harry. Are you sure? He moved a pawn two spaces as well. Your move.
Harry grinned, feeling lighthearted for the first time in years. His move, indeed.
"I'm sure, Daniel. I'm absolutely sure."