Albus knows it isn't another of his nightmares, or he would be screaming by now. Nonetheless, the quill drops from his nerveless fingers; the halting letter to his brother is forgotten as he stares, frozen, out the open window over his desk, down into the street below.
There is a girl ambling down the lane. She is slight and slender and fair-haired, and her expression is a little vacant. The fine wool of her light grey cloak dances around her feet. Her wand is nowhere in sight, but there is no doubt she is a witch—no Muggle woman would dare appear in public wearing a dress like that.
Behind her are three youths in Muggle clothing, rough features alight with anticipation; Albus has no sooner spotted them than he has come to his feet, hands splayed against the surface of his desk. It is not the look of the boys, their Muggle clothes or their stupid faces, that fills Albus with pulsing dread; it is the sound of their voices, rising up to drift through his window, the cruelty in their laughter.
The girl continues to drift along, stopping to caress the head of a large pink rose that droops over the rails of a painted white fence. The smallest, surliest-looking boy points at her, then shoves one of his larger companions forward, and the whole gang begins to walk more quickly, eroding the distance between themselves and the girl.
She doesn't seem to hear or see them. She doesn't look up, or turn around. They are drawing nearer and nearer, but she isn't running—and Albus is too far away, they will hurt her and he will watch it happen, useless, helpless...
He pushes back from the desk, turns on his heel, and Apparates to a point directly between the girl and her followers. His wand is in his hand before the boys can do more than gape at him.
"Protego!" he shouts, and the spell erupts with such force that it blasts the boys off their feet entirely. They fly through the air and land several yards away, up against a prickly hedge. Albus has taken another step towards them, when someone brushes past him—he watches, dumbstruck, as the girl, her long hair swinging, dashes past him with her wand aloft.
"Immobulus," she says, and the boys cease thrashing. "Confundus. Oblivate." Glassy-eyed and vague, they look at one another, as though for clues as to their whereabouts. "Finite," the girl adds, and slowly the boys begin to pick themselves up off the ground, shaking their heads and brushing dust from the seats of their trousers.
Albus glances from them to the girl, who has put her wand away so quickly that he missed the moment of her transition from duelist to demure maiden. She is looking at the boys with a stern, kindly eye, rather like a schoolmistress of the better sort addressing bright but rowdy students.
"I expect you'd better get along home now," she tells them. "Your mothers will be waiting for you."
Still appearing bewildered, but glad of direction, they do as she suggests, making their quiet way back down the lane in the opposite direction they'd come from before. Albus stands silently, watching them go, trying to calm his breathing. His fingers twitch on the wand at his side; he stows it in his sleeve hurriedly, uncertain how far he will continue to be able to resist temptation.
He stands quite still as the girl turns on the spot, slowly, and favors him with a blinding smile.
"Thank you," she says. "That was very gallant. Although there wasn't any danger, really. I was only trying to lead them somewhere I could Confund them quietly, as this seems to be a mixed neighborhood."
She brushes the hair out of her eyes behind her ears. She is wearing earbobs in the shape of bright yellow sunflowers.
"My name's Luna," she adds. "Luna Thomas."
She is more, not less like Ariana to his eyes, now that she is near enough to see closely. Or perhaps she merely suggests to his imagination what Ariana might have been in a few years' time, had she lived, had Albus used his precious gifts to coax her just a bit more outside herself...
"I am Albus Dumbledore," he says, conscious that his tone, his manner is a little stiff—but then, his pulse is still racing, the panic of moments earlier not entirely receded. "I apologize if I startled you," he adds, though he must admit to himself that she doesn't look startled. The small smile that clings to her lips is serene, the keen once-over she gives the surrounding houses observant rather than nervous.
"Oh, I don't mind being startled, really," she says, in an earnest voice of reassurance. "It doesn't happen very often, and the adrenaline is always a bit of a treat."
The girl—Luna—tilts her head to one side, and the cheerful vagueness of her expression gives way for a moment to something sharper as she looks directly into his eyes. He does not look away; not even Gellert was a sufficiently accomplished Legilimens to break the barriers of his Occlusion.
He does, however, fidget just a bit.
Whatever Luna Thomas decides she sees in him, she appears to be satisfied. She breaks the intense gaze with another bright smile and says, "Could you tell me where I am, please?"
"Did you Apparate blindly?" he asks, appalled—or possibly curious—more than concerned. He runs his eyes over her body, discreetly—there is no obvious Splinching, but perhaps she's lost something she wouldn't miss.
"No, not blind," says Luna. "But with one eye shut, perhaps." She glances around herself. "I should like the date too, please."
"It is the seventh of September." Six days since his brother left for Hogwarts, swearing that Albus was no brother of his, he could whistle for his family from now on— "And you are in Godric's Hollow."
This, apparently, is what the strange girl wanted to hear, judging from the way her shoulders sag in relief. "Excellent," she says . "And the year?"
"I beg your pardon?" Albus says, his voice sharper than he intended.
Luna does not repeat herself. She merely continues to regard him with wide blue eyes and an expression that is, Albus feels suddenly sure, deceptively inattentive.
"The year is 1864," he says finally. "May I ask why you need to be told?"
"You could, yes, but I don't think I'd answer you." Luna points towards the last house at the end of the lane. "Is that where George and Mary Potter live?"
"It is," Albus replies, more nonplused than ever.
"Oh good!" Luna clasps her hands. "I arrived so far off-point that I was afraid—well. No matter." She beams up at him. "Thank you again for your help. It was nice to meet you."
She skips down the walk, and Albus remains motionless until she turns and looks over her shoulder at him. "I like your hair that way," she tells him seriously. Then, between one skip and the next, she is gone—has Disapparated, leaving Albus alone in the street.
Albus hooks his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat and turns back to his parents' house, empty now of everything important, to try and regain his concentration. He will fail; he will stare at his books, thinking only of the girl for the rest of the day. It is not what he wished, precisely, but it is better than many of the alternatives.
Three days later he sees Luna Thomas in the village churchyard, laying a wreath of white flowers against his sister's headstone. A dry, cold panic, different from what he felt when he feared for her life, grips him as he strides out to confront her.
Today she is wearing a Muggle dress of blue serge beneath her silvery grey cloak, and her hair has been swept into a knot at the back of her head. She is less intimidating this way; she looks more like a respectable witch of his own age or a little younger, and less like a fey child who sees into his thoughts.
"What are you doing here?" he demands from several yards away, still walking toward her. His voice is rather loud for a churchyard, but there is no one else nearby to be disturbed.
"Saying hello," she says in a voice of mildest unconcern. "It didn't look as though anyone had been here in awhile, and I thought, since the grave was quite new, they might not be used to it yet. I think it's a little lonely for them, just at first."
Albus looks at her sharply, but he cannot see her face. There is, however, no mockery in her voice.
"Do you often seek acquaintance with other people's dead?" he says, wishing for the sake of his own pride that he sounded less defensive, less bitter.
"Most people aren't very possessive of their dead, for some reason," she says, and Albus cannot decide if it is just his imagination or if there is a hint of reproach in her voice.
Albus takes a few steps forward and stops even with the girl, giving her a quick, sidelong glance as he does so. The serenity, the knowing smiles of the day before are gone; she looks grave, sad, as though she has entered the presence of a tragedy in an old fairy tale that moved her when she was a child.
"That is my mother." He says it like a dare, indicating Kendra's name on the left side of the stone.
Luna nods. "I thought it might be," she says. "You seemed so sad before."
"Did I," says Albus, a little coldly.
"My mother died when I was nine," she says, as though this is an explanation. "Where is your father?"
"In Azkaban," he says, the practice of many years bringing the answer to his lips easily.
"Really?" she says, then, inexplicably, smiles. "So was mine, for awhile."
Albus's head jerks around to stare at her, but again there is no mockery in her expression, nothing but the quiet light of understanding.
"That is my sister," he continues, indicating Ariana's name—then, not sure what leads him to speak on a subject he has barely been able to face in the privacy of his own thoughts, he adds, "my best friend killed her. I think accidentally, but there is no way to be certain."
Luna turns around to face him then, and for the first time since the funeral, perhaps, the sight of the quiet compassion in her eyes soothes rather than burns him. She offers no condolences. She says, "I never had a sister. I should have liked one." And then, almost as an afterthought: "My friends blew up my house, and it was quite on purpose. I think it was for good reason, and in a good cause, but I rather miss it."
Albus stares at her. The buzzing of insects in the early summer morning sounds impossibly loud to his ears.
And then, quite without meaning to, he begins to laugh, a low deep chuckle that rises from his chest and spills out in the air, beyond recall or control. He notes with a little relief that Luna does not look offended—quite the opposite. Her face lights up with a smile like the sun breaking through clouds.
They stand in silence together a moment longer. A fat golden honeybee comes to light on the flowery white wreath at their feet.
"I suppose," says Albus after a moment, "You can't tell me your real name."
She does not look surprised by this, nor does she deny the implication. She shakes her head, looking a little regretful. "I really shouldn't."
"I take it, then, that we know each other, in your own time? No, never mind, I shouldn't have asked." He swallows. "You—are you here because of me? Did you come to—change something, to fix some mistake of mine?"
He hears the plaintive, hopeful note in his voice and despises himself, even as he waits for her answer. But the pitying look in her eyes tells him everything he needs to know.
"I'm afraid not," she says. "I wish I could do something for you, but the laws are very strict—I'd be afraid to try."
"Of course," says Albus, and even as he speaks, temptation unfolds like a cankerous flower in his mind. His eyes move from Luna's face to her slim neck, where the fine golden chain of the Time Turner disappears beneath her collar.
He sees history and the rewriting of it all in a single, delirious flash—the argument that began so stupidly, the outrage on his brother's face, the cruel light in Gellert's eyes, Ariana shrieking in her corner. He has been over it a thousand times; one thing done differently at the right moment, a single spell and they would have been protected, and everything would be different, his sins redeemed, his mind unburdened—
His fingers twitch on his wand; he is aware that he is gazing at the girl with a hunger he cannot conceal. She sees it too—her eyes grow wide—she takes a step back from him, and Albus moves closer, unconsciously. The palm of his wand hand is sweating.
"Don't," she says. "Please."
The fear in her voice nearly brings him back to himself. The pair of them are figures in an age-old tableau, the weak at the mercy of the strong—finding himself in the place of the aggressor fills him with a revulsion almost more powerful than his longing.
But not quite.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Me too," says Luna, and suddenly he finds himself gazing at her over the point of her wand.
He has just enough time to register the regret in her face, stronger than the fear, before she says "Stupefy," and the world behind his eyes grows dark.
When he comes back to himself, an hour or so later, he finds himself sprawled over his sister's grave, tears already in his eyes. He lies there for a moment, giving himself up to wracking grief—not for his family, not even for his own loss, but for himself, for what he is becoming.
The next morning, Albus wakes early. He lies in bed until dawn, then rises and dresses and goes into the back yard to feed Aberforth's goats. He takes a cup of tea and half a day-old muffin for breakfast, then reads an article in the Muggle morning paper about the war in America At half-past nine he rises from the kitchen table (his habits are less particular since he let the maid go) and walks up the stairs into the dust and silence of his parents' bedroom.
Inside the wardrobe that stands in the corner he finds what he is looking for, Percival Dumbledore's best hat and coat. Albus stands in front of the mirror and shrugs into the coat; the last time he saw his father, he had been a full head shorter than the older man, and now the coat pulls slightly in the elbows and shoulders. Still, no matter. He shrugs out of it again, taking a brush to it and the hat both. When he is done, he checks the watch that also belonged to his father once. It occurs to him that if he should begin saving now, if he is ever to buy one in time for Aberforth's birthday. He tucks it back into the pocket of his waistcoat and sets out of the house, down the lane, toward the cottage where George and Mary Potter live with their infant son Henry. In the seven years since his family have lived in Godric's Hollow, Albus doubts he has spoken with the family above a dozen times; even now, he isn't sure how he will explain his presence when he arrives on their doorstep.
He is confident, however, that he will think of something to say. He is quite clever, after all.
But the Potters do not question him at all; their door is opened by a plump maid with a fair face and bright coppery curls pinned neatly under her cap. She blushes when she sees him; Albus has learned by now that it is almost always more courteous to pretend he hasn't noticed.
"I was given to understand I might find a Miss Luna Thomas here," he says, as delicately as he can.
"Miss Thomas is upstairs, with Mrs Potter and the baby," she says at once. "If you'll just step in sir, I'll tell them you've come."
Albus steps into the front hall and stands, hat in hand, studying the room around him. The Potter house is much like his own in its design, though it lacks the threadbare appearance the Dumbledore house has acquired since his father's imprisonment. He is grateful that the maid returns for him barely more than a minute later, the better to keep his mind off unproductive lines of thought.
"Mrs Potter's gone to put the baby down for his nap," the maid informs him cheerfully. "Miss Thomas will see you in the upstairs parlor, if you'll follow me."
Albus does so, after surrendering his hat. There are a number of framed paintings and tintypes along the staircase wall, the figures within them all quite stationary. Albus has already deduced that the maid is a Muggle, so he keeps his wand stowed in his sleeve. He would not have gone armed into Miss Thomas's presence anyway; if she chooses to hex him when they are alone it will be no more than he deserves.
The maid leads him into a small, cheerfully furnished room full of sunlight. Curtains flutter around the frames of two large picture windows that stand open along the wall that faces the road below. On the side of the room opposite the empty fireplace there stands a large canvas in an easel, though it is turned so that Albus cannot see what sort of picture is being painted. Nor can he see the girl seated on a stool behind it, save from the waist down; the full outline of her skirts flutter in the sweet smelling breeze that drifts inside through the branches of the flowering trees outside.
Albus stands facing her, and clears his throat, opening his mouth to speak. But a voice startles him into silence—a voice that comes, not from behind the easel, but behind him. He spins to face it, but sees no one.
"A friend of mine once told me," says the disembodied voice of Luna Thomas, "that it was really rather dangerous of me to go on behaving as though people are what they ought to be, rather than what they are."
A second later she shimmers into view, the Disillusionment charm fading. She stands with her back to the fireplace, looking quite calm, in the same blue dress as the day before. Her wand is in her hand, but she does not point it at him. Albus blinks, then ventures a glance back towards the easel behind him. The crumpled heap of an empty cloak lies in the floor around the legs of the stool where she had appeared to be sitting.
"I don't think that quite applies to this situation, though" she continues, in a thoughtful voice. "I do know you, you see. So I thought I might as well let you apologize, as long as I took a few precautions." She smiles, and touches the collar of her dress. Albus follows the movement of her hand with his eyes; the golden chain of the Time Turner is nowhere in sight. "No point making it harder for you than it has to be," she adds, almost apologetically.
"You are more gracious than I deserve," Albus says heavily.
"You know," she says, "I think I'm in a better position to know what you deserve, all things considered." She tilts her head, looking up at him. "Are you going to try to hurt me?"
"No," says Albus, as humbled by the necessity of the question as he is by the simple way she smiles and seems to take him at his word.
"Then let me show you what I'm doing," she says, and catches hold of his hand to lead him across the room. He returns the slight pressure of her grip automatically, glad she isn't looking at his face—he can't remember the last time a girl touched him. Her hand is small and warm on his, and he can feel the fragile bones of her fingers under surprisingly calloused skin. He wonders, not for the first time since she Stunned him, where she comes from, what dire circumstance has given a slip of a girl the dueling expertise and tell-tale scars of a soldier. But he doesn't dare ask.
They come to stand side by side, gazing down at the canvas in its easel and the smiling figures painted there. The foreground of the picture looks complete, to his admittedly inexpert artistic eye.
"It's my first magical painting," she says. "I'll charm it to move as soon as I'm done with the background. Mr and Mrs Potter are still deciding which memories to put into it."
Her brow furrows suddenly; she releases his hand and reaches for one of the brushes that stand in a jar of clean water on a nearby table, and dabs the tip of it in a bit of paint on the palette floating at waist height beside her. Bending forward, she adds an almost imperceptible fleck of white to the wide blue eyes of the little boy seated in Mary Potter's lap. Albus has only seen Henry Potter once or twice since his birth a few years ago, but even so he recognizes that this small addition renders the image infinitely more like the living child—there is a faint, impish gleam now under the bland infant sweetness of his expression.
"I suppose," says Albus carefully, "once the painting is finished, you'll have no more reason to stay here."
She doesn't reply immediately, and when she does there is a sad, thoughtful turn to her countenance. "I think," she says slowly, "that I'll still have reason. Being here is very nice. There are—things happening, where I come from. It's been very ugly for a long time. In some ways it's even uglier now that it's all over. I've enjoyed being away." She turns her head to look at him, and Albus is startled to see tears standing in her wide blue eyes. "And it's been so nice to see you. I hope you don't mind me saying so."
"Mind?" says Albus, his voice sounding faint and slightly cracked to his own ears. "No. No, I don't mind."
She gives a watery smile, and looks back at the painting. "But you're right. When it's finished, I'll have to go. It would be selfish not to." She shrugs. "Of course, I may be a little while yet. Mr and Mrs Potter are thinking very hard what memories they want to go into the painting. You see, I've had to be quite careful what I tell them, but they're very clever—clever enough to guess why I've come here to paint them in the first place. And anyway, it's going to be a surprise for Harry's birthday, and that isn't for a few weeks yet—oh." She frowns at him. "You should probably try to forget I said that."
"I'll do my best," says Albus, though he knows he is unlikely to forget anything about Luna Thomas. He has a tenacious memory, and she is...more than usually memorable.
Just then, the door opens behind them, and the smiling face of Mary Potter peers in. "I hope I'm not interrupting, Luna, I've just got Henry to go down. Honestly, if he doesn't decide on a new favorite book soon I'll have that one memorized." She spots Albus then, and her kind, pretty features cloud with a familiar, sympathetic look he has come to dread seeing in the faces of all his mother's acquaintances in the village. "Good morning, Albus, how nice to see you. How have you been?"
"I am very well, thank you, Mrs Potter."
He excuses himself a moment later, waiting just long enough to avoid the appearance of rudeness. Mrs Potter sees him to the door herself. Just before he slips back out into the bright morning light, he turns to glance back at the stairs, where Luna stands smiling down on him with a sad, affectionate look he already finds familiar and comforting.
He returns to his house and begins the process of trying to forget her.
Two days later, in the mild heat of a golden summer afternoon, Albus answers a knock at his door to find Luna standing on his doorstep, a large canvas wrapped in brown paper under her arm.
"Hello," she says. "I thought perhaps you'd like to see it, now it's finished."
Albus blinks, and tries to dispel the strange relief that floods him at the sight of her smile. He knows, without being told, that she has come to say goodbye; but even that, he finds, is preferable to the alternative—to never having seen her again.
"Please come in," he tells her, and leads her to the kitchen table. He turns his back on her and sets about making tea, more in the hopes of prolonging the visit than out of any desire for drink.
When he is finished, he conducts the tray laden with pot, cups, and the last of his mother's precious store of visitor's biscuits through the air at wandpoint to settle on the table. Luna has unwrapped the painting and propped it upright in a chair across the table from her. George and Mary Potter greet him enthusiastically from within their frame, and little Henry coos up at him, then blows a raspberry.
Albus comes to stand behind Luna's chair as though to study her work, but he only gives the portrait a cursory glance, looking down instead on the top of her head, where the sunlight is reflected in a bright circlet of purest gold.
"Very—very fine," he says quietly.
"Thank you." She reaches for the pot and fills two cups, setting one by the chair beside her, and Albus is forced to take a seat and pretend to drink.
"They decided that most of the painting's memories should be of them being happy together as a family," she says, studying the picture over the brim of her own cup as Albus studies her face in profile. "I was glad. It can't be easy, deciding how you want to be remembered after you die, but in the end I think it all comes down to the people you love, don't you?"
For a long moment, the only sounds in the room are those drifting in from outside through the open window—children playing in the yard of a neighboring house, the wind rustling in the trees. Albus looks down and realizes that the cup in his hands is trembling; he sets it down in its saucer and studies the clean wooden surface of the table for awhile.
"You know," he starts to say, and then stops. "You know," he says again. "If we are—acquainted, in your own time, then you—must know about me. What I've done."
She doesn't say anything, but there is a quality to her silence that is somehow more comforting than words.
"You said—" He swallows. "Forgive me. You told me before—your mother died."
"Does it—how long does it last? Feeling like this."
"Oh, forever," she says, perfectly serene. "Time doesn't make the sadness any easier to forget."
Albus nods without looking up. It seems...a fitting penance.
"But I think," she continues, "that it makes happiness easier to remember. For awhile, you know, everything is painful. Your best memories hurt more than the others, because they remind you what you've lost. After awhile, though, you remember what you had, and it's good again."
Albus pushes back from the table and turns to stand at the window. His hands are still shaking; he shoves them deep in his pockets, and gazes out into the hedges. From the backyard, he can hear the faint bleating of the goats—it's nearly time for their supper.
A scrape of a second chair behind him tells him that Luna has also risen. He doesn't look around.
"I'm afraid I must be getting back now," she says.
Albus knows this is his cue, that courtesy demands certain actions of him in response to those words, but he cannot seem to face her. Whether she senses this, or whether the rules of courtesy are more flexible where she comes from he doesn't know, but instead of waiting for Albus to pull himself together she takes a step toward him, and he feels rather than sees her arm slipping through his, her other hand coming to rest on his shoulder in a light grip that tightens suddenly, as though in an embrace.
A moment later he is able to step back from the window and escort her to the front door, and then, on further thought, onwards to his garden gate. He does not release her arm until the gate swings open before them.
And then, as though they weren't standing in his front garden in full view of a dozen houses, she throws her arms around his neck and stands on tip toe to whisper in his ear.
"It will be all right," she says, her breath tickling his hair, warming the side of his neck. "Trust me."
And then, with equal abruptness, she releases him, takes one step backwards, and turns on her heel. The cracking noise that accompanies her Disapparition rings in his ears for a long time afterwards.
Trust me, echoes the memory of her voice in his mind.
Somewhat to his surprise he finds that he does.
The next morning he walks to the churchyard, rather than Apparating as he normally does. He nods to the people he meets on the way, even exchanges a polite word with some of his mother's closer acquaintances when he runs across them. Summer is beginning to give way to autumn; leaves have begun to pile up against the headstones of some of the lonelier graves, including his mother's. Not against Ariana's, though. He draws closer, and finds that the wreath Luna placed there almost a week ago is still as fresh and blooming as the day she conjured it.
Albus kneels at the edge of the grave and withdraws his wand, studying the smooth expanse of marble beneath his mother and sister's names. He had not been able to settle upon an epitaph before his mother's funeral, and after Ariana's death it had been all he could do to remain upright through the ceremony. Now, though, he knows what he wanted to say all along; he points his wand at the headstone and the words begin to take shape, letter by letter, as though carved in fire by an invisible hand: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
He stands when he is finished and gazes at his work—and it is all his work, the words, the headstones, the graves and the bodies within them.
It is, however, perhaps not past mending. At least in part.
Albus turns back down the road towards his house, his office, his desk, where lies a letter to his brother, halting, awkward, and half-written. It is time to finish it.