“Potter, I am going to give you one chance!” Bellatrix shouted across the empty Atrium. “Give me the prophecy—roll it out toward me now—and I may spare your life!”
“Well, you’re going to have to kill me, because it’s gone!” Harry roared back—and as he said it, pain seared across his forehead. His scar was on fire, and he felt a surge of fury entirely unconnected with his own rage at Bellatrix. Though he couldn’t see her as he crouched behind the Fountain of Magical Brethren, he continued taunting her, mad with fury. “And he knows! He’s not going to be happy with you for losing it, is he?”
“LIAR!” she shrieked, but he could hear the terror behind the anger. “Accio prophecy! ACCIO PROPHECY!”
“Nothing there!” Harry sneered, though the pain in his scar was making his eyes stream. “Nothing to summon! Tell your boss—”
“No!” she screamed. “It isn’t true, you’re lying—Master, I tried, I tried—DON’T PUNISH ME—”
“Don’t waste your breath!” yelled Harry, his eyes screwed up against the pain, now more terrible than ever. “He can’t hear you from here!”
“Can’t I, Potter?” said a high, cold voice.
Harry opened his eyes.
Terrible, scarlet, slit-pupiled eyes stared down at him from a gaunt face as Lord Voldemort levelled his wand at Harry—who stood frozen, quite unable to move.
“So, you smashed my prophecy?” said Voldemort softly, eyes unmoving from Harry’s. “No, Bella, he is not lying. I see the truth looking at me from within his worthless mind… Months of preparation, months of effort… and my Death Eaters have let Harry Potter thwart me again.”
“Master, I am sorry, I knew not, I was fighting the Animagus Black!” Bellatrix sobbed, flinging herself down at Voldemort’s feet as he paced slowly nearer.
“Be quiet, Bella,” he said, tone turning dangerous. “I shall deal with you in a moment. Do you think I have entered the Ministry of Magic to hear your snivelling apologies?”
“But, my lord—”
Voldemort did not get the chance to interrupt her; something else did it for him.
From somewhere far above, there was a roaring sound unlike any Harry had ever heard, a rumbling that echoed throughout the large stone chamber and inside Harry’s own skull. All three of them looked up, and as they did so, the midnight blue ceiling of the Atrium started to crack.
“MASTER!” Bellatrix screamed, latching on to Voldemort’s robes from where she knelt.
He threw her off of him and dove out of the way just as dust rained down from above, and Harry took that as his cue to duck for cover behind one of the nearby pillars.
A deep, deafening screech of metal and stone was the only warning before the ceiling caved in entirely, rubble tumbling down around them in a spray of dust and debris that forced Harry to shut his eyes against the onslaught. A sudden heat washed over him, almost unbearable—like standing too close to a raging fire—but it was gone in an instant.
He could hear nothing over the crashing of stone, and when he at last opened his eyes, he could see nothing: only grey clouds surging around him. A few seconds later, the fountain emerged from the haze, bent and broken… and melted. It was crushed under the foot of a creature so enormous that Harry did not at first recognise it as part of a living thing.
The gleaming white claws were easily the size of Gryffindor’s sword, though broader, and curved like a scythe. They dug into the golden metal and the stone below as if it were nothing but mud. Its scales, each one the size of Harry’s hand, were the same alabaster colour, and he could see his own face reflected in their opal sheen.
Harry craned his neck up to meet the pale blue eyes of a truly colossal dragon. Its ghostly face was sharp and noble, even as it crouched slightly to fit into what remained of the Atrium, slender wings tucked down at its sides.
Harry thought wildly that the very last thing he had expected to see today was a dragon—and this creature greatly stretched the boundaries of the word “dragon” as it was.
But even further down the list of things he had expected to see was the mild young man who casually slid off the dragon’s back and onto the badly damaged floor, holding an honest-to-goodness cup of tea in one hand and running the other through his wind-ruffled hair as if crashing into the Ministry of Magic astride an unfathomably large dragon were something he did every Tuesday.
He was a boy, really, not much older than Harry; he was tall and thin, with sharp features and ears that poked out from his black hair. He stepped out in front of the dragon and looked around serenely at the destruction he and his steed had wrought, still holding a cup that Harry refused to believe had not spilled at any point during the preceding anarchy. He glanced between Harry (crouching by a pillar and covered in dust), Voldemort (quivering in fury and sporting a few minor cuts) and the door, where Dumbledore was now standing, eyebrows raised, one hand lifted to stop the rest of the Order from entering just yet. Bellatrix was nowhere to be seen, though the spot where she had been crouching was now buried in rubble.
With a sigh, the stranger strode out into the centre of the room with a confidence that was slightly unnerving, given the circumstances.
“All right,” he said, watching them all sternly. “Who touched the Veil.”
For a fraction of a second, as Harry looked in astonishment at the others in the room, he actually shared a bewildered glance with the Dark Lord himself. The Order of the Phoenix and Harry’s friends, all beginning to edge cautiously into the room, looked equally baffled. Dumbledore was the only one not moving; instead, he directed his gaze firmly in the direction of the stranger’s boots. Harry, too, stayed where he was.
“Come on,” the strange boy prompted. “I know somebody’s been messing with it, which means I’ve got to come down here in person and fix whatever you lot did. Also,” he added, as if just noticing the battle he had interrupted, “what in all the hells is going on here?”
Voldemort swooped forward with a sneer; the Order raised their wands in his direction, out of habit more than anything.
“You dare to come in here making demands?” he said, sounding almost amused.
“Yeah, actually. Astute observation,” said the boy, and turned to him. “And who are you?”
Voldemort’s eyes flicked briefly toward the people collected behind Dumbledore as if debating making a run for it, but then again, half of them were children; and a greedy glint appeared in his eye that Harry worried meant he saw a potential ally in the apparently clueless boy—or, perhaps, in his dragon.
“You must truly be out of touch,” he said haughtily. “I am Lord Voldemort, leader of the Death Eaters, the greatest—”
“Whoa, whoa, hang on,” the boy interrupted, waving a hand. “I asked for a name, not a CV. And that’s clearly not even your real name, so never mind. Al, who exactly is this goth? And why does he look… like that?”
The boy was still watching Voldemort (who had evidently been stunned into momentary silence), so Harry had no idea who he might be addressing.
And then Dumbledore stepped forward.
“This is Tom Riddle,” he said calmly. “I believe I mentioned him to you on a previous occasion.”
Harry positively gaped at the headmaster—as did the rest of the Order.
“And…” the boy looked around at all of them. “What exactly is happening here?”
It was at this point that Voldemort finally recovered his wits and screamed “Avada Kedavra!”, wand pointed at the stranger.
Before anyone else could react, the boy merely raised a hand, and the jet of green light curved and shot up into the ceiling, breaking off an anticlimactically small chunk of stone that fell onto the floor before the boy’s feet with a small clink. He kicked it away, and as Voldemort raised his wand again, he shushed him, holding a finger up to his lips.
Voldemort looked infuriated at the childish gesture, but when he started to shout again, no sound came out. He paused, looking genuinely confused for a second before pointing his wand at himself and mouthing some more words that didn’t appear to have any effect. A few wordless spells emerged from his wand then, but the silencing spell stuck despite his efforts.
So he turned his wand on the boy instead, who glanced at him and snapped his fingers: Voldemort froze in place as if paralysed, wand aimed, mouth open in a shout.
(It was at this point that Harry realised the stranger had not even once pulled out his own wand.)
“As I was saying,” he continued casually, “I came here expecting some sort of tomfoolery, but this is quite frankly a bit more foolery than I had been planning to deal with on a Tuesday evening—and quite a lot more Tom,” he added, eyeing Voldemort’s frozen form.
He moved to set his cup down beside him as if on an invisible shelf, and when he let go, it simply disappeared. Dumbledore, for his part, was now examining Voldemort—from a safe distance, of course. Behind him, the Order appeared too dumbfounded to do much of anything.
“Tom sent a group of his followers to break into the Ministry in order to steal a prophecy involving him and Harry Potter,” Dumbledore explained, to the continued bemusement of everyone. “Unfortunately, that culminated in an armed conflict between his Death Eaters and a number of Hogwarts students, at which point we intervened.”
“Why were students—” The boy cut himself off, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Never mind. Why didn’t you just call me, if it had gotten this bad?”
Dumbledore shrugged. “You said not to call you unless it was an emergency.”
The stranger let out a snort. “This…” he said, gesturing at the havoc lying around them. “This?” He indicated the various parts of the building that were still smouldering. “This is an emergency.”
“Albus,” said Moody, coming to stand beside Dumbledore, “excuse me, but who is this?” Then, quieter: “He looks like no being I have ever seen.” Eyebrows raised, he indicated his magical eye.
“That’s because there’s only one of me,” the boy said cheerfully, patting the flank of the dragon still standing calmly at his side. “As you can plainly see, given my means of arrival, I am a Dragonlord.”
“Impossible,” said Kingsley. “They went extinct long ago, along with the Great Dragons.”
The boy raised an eyebrow, but this time, he was interrupted.
“Great Dragons are not extinct,” said the dragon.
Pandemonium broke out once more: there were a few screams and even more gasps, a few people aimed their wands (but wisely refrained from using them just yet), and the Order clustered together protectively. Harry merely made himself even more inconspicuous behind the pillar, despite knowing full well that both boy and dragon had already seen him.
“All right!” the boy boomed, and for a moment, his voice sounded more dragon than human. “Everybody just settle down. Thank you, Aithusa, for creating additional problems.”
“You’re welcome,” said the dragon.
Turning back to Dumbledore, he continued, “Anyway, would you like me to get rid of this creep for you—” He jerked a thumb at Voldemort— “or are you good here?”
“I have had limited success in uncovering his… methods,” said Dumbledore slowly. “I fear you could do little until that is accomplished.”
Harry frowned, but the boy seemed to catch his meaning.
“Ah, the little trinkets you were talking about,” he grinned. “As always, old friend, you continue to underestimate me. As a matter of fact, all of them are in England at this very moment, so it shouldn’t be difficult to collect them…” He paused, and his eyes flicked around the room as if looking at something no one else could see. “It ought to take me about five minutes. Ten at most, depending on how many beatdowns I am forced to administer. But I won’t be able to hold the spell I have on him from that distance—Aithusa, would you mind keeping an eye on this situation until I return?”
“No problem,” said the dragon, and curled up on its haunches like a cat, pale eyes fixed on Voldemort.
“Right then. Tom?”
Voldemort staggered forward as the spell was apparently released; he brandished his wand, but didn’t move further.
“How did you do that without a wand?” he demanded.
The boy waved a hand dismissively. “Take it up with Aithusa. Now, pay attention. Nobody move. If any curses are cast—by either side—Aithusa will not hesitate to squash you. So, stay civil. And if you try to Disapparate, she can quite easily stop you, and you’ll probably lose an arm in the process. So don’t try anything.”
“Where are you—"
But with a slight gust of wind, the boy disappeared without a trace.
Voldemort and the dragon—Aithusa—narrowed their eyes at each other, each daring the other to make a move.
“You so much as flinch and I roast you,” Aithusa warned, with a deep voice that carried sparks on its breath.
Voldemort changed tactics.
“So you, too, attempt to threaten me. Why does one so great obey the orders of such a feeble master?” he sneered.
Aithusa’s growl made every single one of them cower. “Emrys is mightier and gentler than you could ever hope to be, you puny, soulless thing! He is the greatest magical being to ever live, and he is my friend—my kin. You should count yourself lucky to have looked upon his face before you die,” the dragon snarled.
Even Dumbledore was stunned at that, and no one moved for some time.
Abruptly, the strange boy that the dragon called “Emrys” reappeared in the centre of the room, arms full of a strange assortment of objects. A silver diadem dangled precariously on his wrist as he held a golden chalice out at arm’s length. As he placed the cup on the ground, Harry saw that it contained some sort of locket and chain; at the same time, the diadem clattered to the floor. Emrys nudged it into the pile with his foot.
“NO!” Voldemort screamed when he saw them, but Emrys sent him flying into the wall with a wave of his hand.
“That was not five minutes,” Dumbledore remarked.
“Don’t you know it’s rude to nitpick at an old man’s timekeeping abilities?” said Emrys. “Besides, I forgot to take into account the fact that I can stop time.”
Dumbledore hummed. “Did you? I didn’t notice anything.”
“You never do,” Emrys grinned. “So, Aithusa—care to do the honours?”
With that, fire lit up the room as a stream of impossibly hot flame flooded from the dragon’s deadly jaws, incinerating the pile until it was nothing but weakly smoking dust.
Harry no longer had any idea what was going on (not that he ever really had), but Voldemort’s high-pitched laughter was never a good sign.
“Now do you see my genius?” he sneered, even as a trickle of blood oozed from his skull-like head. “You have not gathered all of them—you will never be able to find them all, not even—”
“Ahem,” Emrys interrupted, staring somewhere up and to the left. “Are you ready?”
Harry once again had no idea who he was talking to.
Apparently satisfied with the complete lack of response, Emrys nodded—and suddenly, yet another stranger appeared. This time, it was an old woman. Bone-thin and pale, she had dark, tired eyes and grey hair that hung long and untidy around her shoulders. She stumbled forward in an awkward, flat-footed gait, holding a crumpled rag out to Emrys. He rushed forward to help her, holding her by the arms to keep her from falling.
“I have retrieved it for you, Emryss…” she said, in a language Harry had come to recognise as Parseltongue. His grip on his wand tightened. “Thhank you,” she breathed, “for lifting my cursses.”
Emrys took the bundle even as he shook his head.
“Thanks are unnecessary,” he said, and with a plummeting jolt in his gut, Harry realised he had responded in the same evil tongue.
“Who are you?” Voldemort growled in kind. Harry wasn’t sure which of them he was asking, but he must have followed their conversation too.
Emrys ignored him, overturning the rag to allow a golden ring to tumble out onto the scorched floor with a series of clinks that sounded heavier than they ought to.
Voldemort screamed in rage when he saw it, and Harry’s scar burned. A curse flew through the air, but Emrys deflected it again. He pulled the cowering woman to his side, away from both Voldemort and the dragon.
“Aithusa?” he said, and the dragon incinerated the object once again.
When Voldemort let out a snarl and raised his wand again, a curse on his lips, the boy knocked him flat on his back with a word, and started to advance on him.
“Wait!” said Dumbledore, stepping forward. “I believe there to be one other.”
Both men turned to look at the headmaster, Voldemort struggling to his feet and swaying dangerously. As he narrowed his eyes, glancing nervously between Dumbledore and Emrys, the latter nodded.
“Ah. The boy, yes, I thought so.” And with no sign of fear whatsoever, he turned his back on Voldemort and beckoned to Harry. “Come out here, son. I know it doesn’t look it, but you’re perfectly safe.”
Even Dumbledore met Harry’s eyes for what might well be the first time in a year, offering him a subtle nod.
So, despite Harry’s feelings about being called ‘son’ by a man who couldn’t be more than five years his senior, he cautiously stepped out from his shelter, ignored Voldemort’s sneer and his glinting red eyes, and half-ran to Dumbledore’s side.
Voldemort made half a motion to raise his wand, but Emrys didn’t even need to look at him to react. He lifted a hand and Voldemort’s wand flew into it without hesitation. The snakelike face contorted into a snarl, and he started to attempt a wandless spell— “Expelli—" but without a word, the boy snapped the wand like a twig between his fingers. The jagged pieces fell to the floor among the other debris. Voldemort’s face dropped as he watched them fall. The old woman, on the other hand, looked down at the shards with alarming glee.
“Should have thought of that earlier,” Emrys said, half to himself.
The dragon behind him snorted, sparks drifting harmlessly to the ground. “Not as if I haven’t told you a thousand times to exploit that weakness.”
“If you want me to be a better listener, stop giving me advice while I’m trying to brew potions,” he retorted.
“He’s getting away,” said the dragon.
Sure enough, Voldemort was twisting in place, trying to Disapparate; the boy turned and watched, and nothing at all happened. Voldemort tried again, frustration visibly growing, but there was nothing more he could do.
As he started to slowly, unsubtly, back away towards the fireplaces, Voldemort said, “Emrys, is it? You do not need to pledge your aid to this petty collection of children and professors. Join me, and you could have everything you’ve ever desired… these people would kneel at your feet. You could live forever… you’ve seen how it can be done. All you have to do—”
Emrys laughed, and it was so unlike Voldemort’s mocking sneer that Harry turned in wonder to the strange boy.
“Even if I were foolish enough to want any of the things you offer,” he said, “do you really think I would need your help to get them?”
Voldemort continued his stealthy retreat as he snarled, “Who are you?”
Emrys grinned. “Oh, you know exactly who I am. You’re no fool.”
It was that seemingly meaningless proclamation that spurred Voldemort into a flat-out run for the fireplaces—and Harry did not like any of the things that might imply. Emrys made a beckoning motion with one finger, dragging Voldemort across the floor with a long, undignified squeak on the polished stone until he stood in his former position, between him and Dumbledore. He nearly toppled over when he screeched to a halt, but recovered quickly and started to attempt another wandless spell.
Emrys merely sent him an unimpressed glance, whereupon the struggling man froze in place once more.
“I almost feel bad,” he said.
The dragon cleared its throat—a sound Harry had never thought he would hear—and nodded its head in Harry’s direction.
“Right,” said the boy, and grinned apologetically at Harry. “This may be news to you, but you have a piece of this git’s soul inside you; I would like to remove and destroy it. Are you all right with that?”
“Er—” was all Harry could manage for a second. “How did…?”
“It got in there by accident,” he said, “but that’s not especially important now. Your professor will explain everything later, I’m sure—” He shot a pointed glare at Dumbledore— “but it’s the reason you have a connection with him which, I’m sure, has been nothing but bothersome. And as long as it stays inside you, Tom can’t die.”
“Erm,” said Harry. “Well, I guess you should probably get rid of it, then.”
Emrys smiled, and his eyes flashed a luminescent gold. For a split second, Harry’s scar burned like ice, more than it had even at Voldemort’s fury, but the pain was gone in an instant, even before he had the chance to cry out.
Before his eyes, a wispy, floating fragment of… something began to twist and writhe in the air in front of him. The thing was pale and translucent, and seemed to be trying to move in Voldemort’s direction—but it started to blacken and char under Emrys’s still-flaming gaze, withering into a crumpled heap like tissue paper before dissolving to ash and floating to the ground.
Voldemort either broke free or was released from his paralysis, because he let out a scream and lunged for Emrys. In a split second, his hands were on the boy’s throat, and then—nothing. Emrys had disappeared, and Voldemort fell with the force of his own inertia.
“I’m sorry, Tom,” said Emrys, now suddenly standing a few metres away. Voldemort whirled round and scrambled to his feet, hand reaching for a wand that wasn’t there. Emrys’s voice sounded truly remorseful as he had said it; then it turned ominous in an instant as he continued, “But I really can’t let you live any longer.”
Voldemort opened his mouth again—to speak or to curse him, Harry wasn’t sure, because he never got the chance.
The boy stared impassively into Voldemort’s snake-like eyes. He spoke no words, and he made no motion, but his own eyes swam with molten gold once more, and Voldemort collapsed to his knees before him, slumping onto the dirty stone floor without a sound apart from the soft thump that echoed in the cavernous room.
No one moved for a long moment.
Finally, Dumbledore stepped forward, shooting a wary glance at Emrys before kneeling beside Voldemort’s body and waving his wand over him, seemingly to determine whether he was really dead.
“You needn’t have done that,” Dumbledore said as he got to his feet. “I know how much you hate it.”
Emrys shook his head slowly. “Children should not be made to kill. I already have the blood of thousands on my hands.”
Harry was bemused to find himself very slowly backing away.
“But according to the prophecy,” said Dumbledore in a low voice, moving closer to Emrys, “either must die at the hand of the other.”
Emrys shook his head. “That prophecy was already fulfilled. When Tom’s curse rebounded, pieces of his soul remained, but that does not change the fact that he was killed by—or rather via—Harry. Whether his death was permanent, or total, is immaterial.” He smiled wryly at Dumbledore. “At least, that’s how I choose to interpret it. If destiny has a problem with that, it can take it up with me.”
“Now, just what—” said Moody, stepping forward, but before he could speak, all the fireplaces along one wall burst into life with green flames.
A stream of witches and wizards emerged from them, led by a stunned-looking Cornelius Fudge, whose pyjamas poked out from under his pinstriped cloak, and who was gasping as though he had just run miles.
A gasp ran through the crowd, halting them in their tracks completely, though Harry couldn’t tell if it was because of Voldemort’s dead body lying in the middle of the floor or because of the impossibly large dragon taking up at least half the room. Either way, he sympathised.
“Evening, Minister!” Emrys declared as if he had been expecting them. He placed a comforting hand on the old woman’s shoulder before advancing on Fudge, shaking his limp hand as the Minister stared, white-faced, up at the dragon.
Emrys waved a hand in front of Fudge’s face to wake him out of his stupor. “Oi,” he said. “Don’t stare, it’s rude. And Aithusa’s not overly fond of politicians, so you never know what might happen.”
Fudge (and with him, the rest of the crowd) finally looked at Emrys, who smiled and continued, “Now, I really try not to meddle in your affairs too much—” Dumbledore scoffed slightly; Emrys ignored him. “—but this has quite frankly gotten out of hand. You see that man there?” He threw an arm over the Minister’s shoulders and led the confused, reluctant man forward towards Voldemort’s body. “That is Tom Riddle, whom I just killed.”
Emrys’s nose scrunched up and he turned to Dumbledore. “Hang on—is it who or whom?”
“Whom,” said Dumbledore, regarding the scene with the utmost nonchalance. The Order followed his example and didn’t move to interfere, though their bewildered glances spoke for themselves.
“Thanks,” Emrys continued. “Anyway, you see him, right?”
Fudge nodded, unable to tear his eyes away from Voldemort.
“Good,” said Emrys cheerfully. “So I don’t want to hear you accuse any more eyewitnesses of lying, got it? That’s slander. I think. In any case, the man’s officially one hundred percent dead, so he’s your problem now.”
Emrys slapped Fudge on the back amicably and started off toward the dragon.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” said Aithusa.
A few more people shouted and drew their wands when the dragon spoke, but Emrys ignored them, frowning up into its face. “Erm…”
“The Veil?” the dragon prompted.
“Oh, right!” Emrys grinned sheepishly and turned back to the Order. “Now, as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted by this ‘Lord Voldemort’ person, what did you do to the Veil? The Balance has been upset again, and as usual, it’s my job to fix it.”
Harry took an unconscious step forward in the vague hope that this strange man was referring to Sirius and could help him somehow, but Dumbledore spoke first.
“One of our number fell through to the other side during the struggle with the Death Eaters.”
“He fell in?” said Emrys incredulously, then turned to Fudge. “Well, I thought you lot could handle the responsibility of keeping it here, but apparently not, since it isn’t even protected properly. Did it never occur to you to—I don’t know—put up any sort of barrier? Fell in! Of all the… Yeah, I think I’d better just move that somewhere else. Why on earth I thought the government could handle such a thing…”
“Now, hold on just a moment!” Fudge interrupted, having apparently regained his senses. “Are you threatening to steal government property? Dumbledore, who is this?”
Emrys didn’t bother waiting for Dumbledore to respond. “Leave Albus out of it; this is between you and me. And no, I’m not threatening to steal it, because a) I am going to steal it, important distinction, and b) it’s not actually stealing if it doesn’t belong to you.”
Fudge spluttered. “What—you have no right—who do you think you are?”
“Ah, of course,” said Emrys with an impish grin. “How rude of me, I forgot to introduce myself.”
Beside Harry, Dumbledore sighed deeply.
“This is Aithusa,” said the boy, gesturing to the dragon, “and I’m Merlin.”
An uproar rose from the Order and the Ministry alike, gasps and scoffs mixed in with disbelieving mutterings. Harry, on the other hand, who had just witnessed this boy stare a man to death, did not protest—instead, he merely gaped.
“Heresy!” cried Fudge, who could seem to think of nothing else to say.
The boy who was probably Merlin laughed, and with a wave of his hand, the cameraman who had just begun taking photos of the scene suddenly found himself holding a potted plant, camera nowhere to be found.
“Sorry,” he told him. “I’ve managed to destroy every recorded image of me so far, and I’m not about to slip up now. I’d rather not have people knowing my face as well as my entire supposed life story, thank you.”
“And yet,” said Dumbledore, “I become damage control, as usual.”
“It’s your fault for being so nosy back in the twenties,” he reproached. “You’re a part of this now.”
“Yes, fine,” said Dumbledore irritably, more emotive than Harry had ever seen him. “But that doesn’t mean you have to inject yourself into every little scuffle. I told you if there was an emergency, I would—”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “This is the exact, dictionary definition of an emergency, Al. Every part of this is a disaster. In fact, the photograph that man just took ought to be under the word ‘disaster’ in the dictionary.”
“If dictionaries still used photographs,” said Dumbledore, “which they generally do not, the image for ‘disaster’ would almost certainly be your face.”
Harry stared at Dumbledore in wide-eyed dismay, but Merlin’s surprised, delighted laughter set him quickly at ease.
“Well, I’m clearly a bad influence on you,” he said.
“Excuse me—!” Fudge interjected.
“Can you not see we’re in the middle of the seventeenth iteration of this argument?” said Merlin pointedly.
“It isn’t an argument,” said Dumbledore, “it is merely a disagreement—one which we have indeed had on several occasions, because you continue to jump in when I have everything under control.”
Merlin scoffed. “Under control? Please. And anyway, you refuse to call anything an argument until it devolves into fist-fighting.”
“And you have a known propensity for exaggerating.”
“All right,” said Merlin, throwing up his hands, “well, now it’s an argument.”
With a sigh, Dumbledore said, “Could you at least cast your secrecy spell on everyone before I have to attempt to explain to them how you’re still alive?”
“Already done,” he grinned.
“Excuse me!” Fudge screeched again.
“Yes, Minister?” said Merlin politely, and as he looked down at Fudge, both his tone and posture reminded Harry forcibly of a primary school teacher doing his best to act serious in the face of a child insisting that a classmate somehow stole his imaginary friend.
Fudge did nothing to rid Harry of the impression. “I demand to know who you really are!” he squeaked. “You are not only trespassing, with an unlicensed dragon, and… and destroying government property—” Fudge jabbed a finger at the ceiling. “And now you claim to be the Great—”
He couldn’t seem to bring himself to say the name. The man in question just smiled down at the Minister of Magic as he blustered.
“The most powerful—” Fudge continued awkwardly. “The Prince of Enchanters himself?” he finally finished.
Merlin (for that was surely who he was) just smiled wryly.
“Silly nicknames aside,” he said, “just look around you for a moment.” His tone grew sharp as he said, “Now look into my eyes, Minister, and tell me I’m not who I say I am. Tell me the name my mother gave me does not belong to me.”
Fudge gulped, unable to tear his gaze away from the storm-blue eyes that flickered even now with golden lightning.
“I thought not,” he said, turning away. “Now, I’m going to go extract that man from the Veil. Albus, Aithusa—don’t be afraid to threaten everyone a bit if you need to. Nagini?” he said more softly, returning to the old woman’s side. “Would you like to accompany me?”
Harry’s eyes snapped to the woman’s face, panic and confusion warring in his mind as he searched for any sign of Voldemort’s snake in her haunted but altogether human eyes. She, on the other hand, stared raptly at Merlin. Perhaps he had rescued her somehow; was she an Animagus?
“You might take the children with you,” Dumbledore suggested. “The man who fell through the Veil is Harry’s godfather.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, turning to Harry, who glanced downward as soon as their eyes met. “That must have been upsetting. I remember when I lost a friend to that place…” He paused.
Cautiously, Harry looked up into sparkling eyes, older and wiser even than Dumbledore’s, and he saw centuries in them.
Merlin smiled sadly as he explained, “Unfortunately, I couldn’t get him back because it was a willing sacrifice. But your godfather should be fine as long as he hasn’t wandered too far. Let’s hope he’s got some sense.”
Harry thought, privately, that he did not. But strangely, that did not make him despair, because he was with Merlin. He felt Magic itself lay a soothing touch on his shoulder, and he followed without hesitation.