Halfway through Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin, now the DADA master again, received a note and sent Harry outside. At first shaken and thinking the worst and that someone else had died, Harry was relieved and delighted to see Charlie Weasley waiting in the corridor outside for him with a big smile on his friendly, freckled face.
The young man swept him into a quick hug and then held Harry at arm's length. "Let's get a look at you, Harry. I haven't seen you for... oh, ages. Mum said I had to check that you were looking after yourself, eating healthy, et cetera, et cetera..."
Charlie sucked air in through his teeth. "We-ell, you're still looking peaky, but other than that I guess I can give you a clean bill of health. Of course, if you had scales things'd be easier. I could check to see if you're moulting in rough patches or not. I'm not so good with non-dragon health."
"How are the dragons going?"
Charlie nodded off down the corridor. "Come on. If you get me past that fat pink lady on the door and into the Gryffindor common room I'll tell you all about it. Got some new scars," he said proudly before adding, in a worried voice, "Just don't tell Mum or she'll go spare."
Harry grinned. "I'll remember not to... well, not until I need to blackmail you over something."
Charlie punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Blackmail? I heard you'd been spending time with Snape. Sounds like you're joining the Slytherins, with your sudden ability to be sneaky!"
"Ouch!" Harry laughed. "No, don't worry. I'm a Gryffindor still."
"So no new tricks learned over the summer? Ron was furious that you stayed with Snape of all people rather than at the Burrow. I got a message from him that was a few degrees away from being a Howler -- he seemed to think that if I'd been a proper big brother and not dragged Mum away for a holiday you'd've been safe in the bosom of the Weasley household." He grinned slyly in an expression that looked odd on his honest, freckled Weasley face. "Ginny was mad at me, too. Any idea why?"
"Um. No," said Harry, blushing. He'd thought Ginny had grown out of her crush on him. The idea of dating Ron's sister was too... weird. As Ron's sister, Ginny was virtually a blood relative. What made it even more awkward was that Harry still had some vestiges of his crush on Cho Chang.
"Oh. Well, never mind. I can ask her while I'm here."
Harry struggled to find a sentence that wouldn't end in him being red-faced. "Staying long?"
Charlie chuckled. "Hopefully not. Not that I'm unhappy being back at the old place... Hello, Sir Nicholas."
"Why, Charlie Weasley isn't it?" exclaimed the ghost heartily. "Good to see you back, m'boy!"
"Thank you, Sir Nick."
The ghost drifted away through a wall.
"...But life's even more interesting outside these walls," Charlie carried on. "That's why I've come to see you, in fact."
"Oh," said Harry, who had been wondering why.
"Oh," grinned Charlie. "I can see you're dying to ask why. Ah. Here we are."
They were at the portrait of the Pink Lady. Harry gave the password ("Wonky Faint") and the portrait swung open for them to enter the Gryffindor common-room.
"Ahh," exclaimed Charlie, planting his hands on his hips and looking around happily at the red and gold furnishings. "This brings back good memories. Funny -- it seems smaller now, though."
Harry looked around and shrugged. "It always seems the same to me." Like home.
Charlie smiled indulgently. "Well, I'm surprised to hear that. You've really shot up this last year or so. You're taller than me, now."
Harry grinned. "Yeah. I didn't want to mention it in case your feelings got hurt."
Charlie clutched at his chest. "Oh -- a hit, a palpable hit right to the ego!" He collapsed into the most comfortable seat by the unlit fire. "Sit down and tell me how your summer went."
Harry skimmed over most parts of it as, judging by Charlie's expression Snape wasn't his favourite topic (Charlie was one of the few people who had been told about how Harry had stayed with Severus Snape in New Zealand), but Charlie asked a lot of questions about Burd Helen's transformation from alpine parrot to woman. Harry answered those he could when they weren't personal questions, but some of Charlie's questions about Grandmother Taniwha touched on subjects he knew little, if anything, about.
"I don't know how she did it," Harry had to say. "I don't how anyone or anything can take a person who's been killed... especially that way... and then bring them back to life." Finding his fingers picking at each other's nails, he gripped the arms of the chair to keep them out of trouble. He'd had a bit of trouble lately by making his fingers bleed by picking at them. "I'm sure I'm not the only person who wants to know -- Voldemort and his Death Eaters did a lot of damage before they left this world."
Charlie nodded. "I'm sorry, Harry. I shouldn't really be asking you all these questions."
"No --" Harry shook his head. "-- don't be sorry. It not like I'm not used to questions and I've had curiosity hit me badly enough to know that sometimes you really need to find things out. I don't mind. It's not like you're Rita Skeeter."
Charlie nodded again, but Harry couldn't help noticing that when he spoke again he had changed the subject to dragons. Of course, Charlie being Charlie, dragons were usually the only subject, so maybe it wasn't a coincidence. "Did you see an Antipodean Opaleye while you were down there?" Charlie asked.
"No. I didn't see any dragons. I hardly saw any magical creatures apart from the pooka -- oh, and the taniwha, of course. I heard Lucius Malfoy got munched by an Opaleye, though."
Charlie's eyes lit up. "Yeah! Just think -- you were near a nesting Opaleye! That's so cool. I've been wanting to see one for years. Little beauties, they are, even when they get a bit grumpy."
Harry bit the inside of his cheek. Charlie's enthusiasm was a bit... er... blinding sometimes. "Actually, I think Lucius probably wasn't happy about seeing one."
"Eh. He probably irritated the poor old thing. Merlin knows he irritated everyone else. I hope he didn't give her food poisoning. The dragon digestive system can be a little delicate."
The really frightening thing was that Charlie was quite serious.
Harry still didn't know what had happened with the Malfoys. Snape had admitted only to Lucius being dead and Draco having disappeared. Narcissa had taken herself off to Paris on extended retail therapy. That last was what Helen had said, anyway, not that she had said much on the subject. Harry suspected Helen was a great deal more upset over Draco's disappearance than she let on. Helen of the overlarge heart could even hold a soft spot for someone like Draco Malfoy. She had mentioned that Malfoy Manor was sealed up until Narcissa decided what to do with it. Harry had the impression that Helen knew more than she was saying, but after only a few months as a human she was learning to keep secrets. Snape's influence, no doubt. Not that Harry was unhappy with this new-found ability on Burd Helen's part -- it had come in useful during all the questioning she had been subjected to once Ron and Hermione had got over their caution in the face of a Mrs Snape.
Helen adored Ron and Hermione.
Snape's attitude hadn't changed a jot that Harry could see. He was still nasty in class -- and out of class, too. If he had eased up a tad on the trio it was only because he'd mellowed slightly in general after Voldemort's defeat. Harry, Ron and Hermione often dropped in to see Mrs Helen Snape when they knew her husband was off supervising detention (and when they weren't the detentioned). Much as Harry enjoyed the cosy chats, he was glad that Helen glossed over many of the more pointed questions she was asked, such as, how can you stand being married to Snape?
Ron needed to visit Madam Pomfrey for the bruised ribs Hermione had given him after he asked that. Hermione had been so embarrassed she hadn't spoken to Ron for a week, all of which made things more interesting in the bumpy road that those two called their love-life. Of course Harry had been stuck in the middle of their spat... "Sorry?" he said, aware that Charlie had asked him a question.
"I was asking," Charlie said with a patient twinkle in his eyes, "If you wanted to take an extra-credit assignment for Care of Magical Creatures."
"Huh? What sort?"
"Well, it'd involve some travel from Hogwarts but it's kind of secret so I can't tell you unless you decide to do it..."
That wasn't helpful. "Did Hagrid say it's be okay?"
"He said I should ask you. But..." Charlie's grin broadened "... he said he was incredibly jealous of the chance and if he wasn't busy teaching he'd go hisself. Himself, I mean."
"Would Dumbledore okay it?"
"He said it's your decision."
"Can I think about it?"
"Of course. But you can't talk to anyone other than McGonagall or Hagrid. Oh, you can talk to Dumbledore, of course. But no-one else. Don't tell Ron or Hermione. Not telling Snape goes without saying."
Harry thought about it.
"Mister Potter -- is it too much to ask for you to pay attention in my class? I suppose you think you have better things to do with your time than learn the intricacies inherent in this study. You will write me a two-foot scroll of those things and how they pale before the art of Potions making."
"Okay, Charlie. When do we leave?"
Shivering, Harry considered that at least the chill of the dungeons had the benefit of being warmed by Snape's temper. Nothing so human penetrated the timeless cold of this God-forsaken continent. The sun bled through in watery rays that in no way mitigated the razor edge on the wind.
"Bit nippy, isn't it?" Charlie called out cheerfully as he tramped across the new snow to the music of ice crystals crunching under his fleece-lined boots.
Charlie Weasley was one of those people unfortunately endowed by nature to be cheerful and bright no matter what the circumstance. When the Titanic had sunk there had probably been someone like him on board saying "Gee -- I hope you guys brought your swimsuits!" Harry was beginning to wonder if he'd been spending too much time around Snape after all, because Charlie was beginning to seriously get on his wick.
"You could say that." You could also say that I'm freezing my essentials off. "Could you run over the reasons why I'm standing out here waiting to be eaten by an enraged dragon?"
Charlie made to reply but was cut off by his superior, Warder Ida Burkett. "You are not going to be eaten, Mr Potter," she said patiently. "We have every spell and trap ready. You are perfectly safe. All you need to do is stand where you are. Your high personal level of magic and the beast's hunger will do the rest."
Harry sighed and hunched down a little and stamped his feet to keep the blood moving. He was well-wrapped in a parka lined with Arctic Skrimt fur and his trousers and under-jacket were made from dragonhide. But even with all the warming spells on his clothing the cold got through. It was like the entire land didn't want him here. A sudden vicious gust of wind was like a slap. It pushed away the scarf he had protecting his face and scoured his bare skin with tiny grains of ice that felt like sandpaper. Or Crookshanks' tongue. Harry wished furiously that he was back in Hogwarts with a nice hot cup of chocolate steaming before him and that it was Hermione's cat licking his face instead of this... this... this unforgiving wind.
It had sounded exciting when Charlie had helped him get ready. Go to Antarctica, where locator spells devised by some of the Ministry's top Arithmancers had given a rough estimate (well, within a few hundred square miles of frozen wasteland) of the whereabouts of a mythical Ice Dragon. Wait for Ice Dragon to show itself. Catch Ice Dragon. Bring Ice Dragon back to England for further study. Triumph and happy people cheering. End of story.
Charlie had been in ecstasies. "A real, live Ice Dragon! There haven't been any seen in -- oh, not since the Goblin Rebellion, at least. Not that they were ever abundant, no. Dragons -- well, I love dragons, I mean, who wouldn't -- they're fantastic! But Ice Dragons are the dragon's dragon. No-one's even sure how they came about. Wolde wrote that they had been around for millions of years, and came from dragons the same way birds came from dinosaurs. If you believe in dinosaurs, of course... We've just got to catch it. There's so much we can learn from it if we can just..."
Harry had listened with growing enthusiasm. Charlie was contagious that way. It had sounded really exciting -- to be part of an expedition to capture possibly the last member of a species that had been thought extinct. "But why me?" he'd asked.
"Your personal magic is really high. Madam Burkett -- you'll love her, she's just great -- reckons that you'll be the perfect lure for our trap."
"I'll be bait?" That hadn't sounded good.
"You'll be a core member of our team. And you'll get to write up a paper with us on the Ice Dragon. It's a great opportunity and a foot in the door if you want to get into meta-zoology when you graduate from Hogwarts."
"If we catch one."
"Harry! Of course we're going to catch one. We have to catch one. It's every biologist's dream to work with an Ice Dragon. When did you get so pessimistic?"
Harry couldn't answer that one.
But now, standing watching his shadow slowly pivot about his feet as the sun progressed around the horizon (it never set at this time of year even if it only lurked around the horizon like a predator weighing up the odds), he was having a very bad feeling in his stomach. Of course things were going to go wrong. And even if they did go right, what were the chances of someone getting killed in the process? There would be no taniwha to bring back the dead this time. And chances were fair to excellent that someone would die. That was the way of the world, particularly when it came to Harry Potter's part of it. He stamped his feet again and muttered a warming spell for the umpteenth time, casting a glance around for the hidden traps. They were well-disguised. No dragon, however smart or magical, would be able to spot them.
His shadow had travelled over thirty degrees by the time Burkett called a halt. "Okay, kids," she called out from her hole in the snow. She stepped out of the snow-covered hide. "Smoko time. Harry, I'll put some hot chocolate on for you. Well done, laddie. You're a patient sort." She grinned at him, showing a gap where (it was rumoured) she'd lost her front teeth biting a dragon to show it who the boss was. (The rumour also said that she'd been the winner on that day.)
Her emergence was some sort of a signal. Like some species of hardy perennial, wizards bloomed from the snow, brushing snow off their dragon-hide jerkins and trousers and straightening their parkas.
"Come on, Harry," Charlie called. "You've stood out here long enough. Back to base, eh?"
"I just want to walk around a bit," Harry called back. "My legs have got stiff."
"Fair enough. I'll keep something hot ready for you."
"Thanks, Charlie." He watched the others trudge back to the large hemispherical tent they were calling base. It was true he needed to stretch his legs, but Harry didn't feel like talking to anyone else yet. Ever since Voldemort's final defeat he'd found himself less and less sociable until Hermione and Ron were the only ones he talked to on a regular basis. He didn't want to go back into the confined space of the tent and talk to (or be ignored by -- which was worse in a way as it made him feel uncomfortable about how much of an outsider he was) the Magical Creatures wizards. Charlie was the youngest and by far the friendliest. Mind you, Harry thought as he wandered over to the lip of the plateau, it would be hard to find anyone less friendly than Charlie. The others were, in their ways, as dedicated to their profession as Charlie, but in a different way Harry couldn't quite put a finger on. They were more... ambitious, was one word that came to mind. Possibly less compassionate. Charlie loved dragons, yes, but he was the sort of man to put them up on a pedestal and worship them. The others... they saw dragons as animals. Of course, dragons were animals, but Harry had always felt some of the reverence for dragons that Charlie had in spades. Maybe after years of working with them Charlie would lose some of that reverence. Harry hoped not -- it was part of what made Charlie Charlie.
He was standing on the plateau's edge now, with the sun to his left. That wind from the teeth of Hell was blowing from behind. It never seemed to stop. Sometimes it was a thin breeze. Yesterday it had roared and no-one had been able to go outside without being tumbled head over heels. Tempers had become short.
From here he could see for miles until the horizon was blurred by a haze of light striking off snow. Harry stretched out his arms. It was glorious. It was cold, unforgiving and inhumane, and it was glorious. Ice Dragon or no, Harry was suddenly glad he'd come.
He stamped his feet again to warm them. Oops -- a chunk of ice broke away. Harry threw himself backwards just in time to avoid following it.
Unable to resist, he slithered forward on his belly to watch it fall. From his perspective it tumbled slowly, turning and flashing blue-green and gold. It hit the side of a wall of ice and bounced, chips scattering and flickering madly in the light of the low sun. With a muffled crash it hit the powder snow on a ledge half-way down. Harry watched to see if it would fall any further but it seemed to be happy to rest where it was.
Harry sighed happily, and considered dropping another bit of ice.
The powder snow shifted.
Harry blinked, then rubbed behind his glasses at his eyes. No -- he hadn't imagined it. The snow was moving.
Something was coming out of it. Harry held his breath, his green eyes round.
A long-snouted, elegant head poked out. Something shouldered its way out of the snow and shook itself off like Snuffles coming out of the lake. It yawned, turning its head lazily so that Harry could make out a row of pearly pointed teeth.
Wings -- slightly translucent and oddly petal-tender -- stretched out to their full span. They swept down as the strong back legs bunched and uncoiled and the beast leaped into flight.
The sunlight caught on the rippling hide and reflected pale silvery rainbows through those wings as the Ice Dragon flew faster and gained height.
It flew like phoenix song.
Harry realised his mouth was open when his teeth began to hurt from the cold. He shut his mouth and watched as the Ice Dragon circled higher and turned into the sun.
Harry blinked through tears and sunspots as the sun blinded him, and it was gone.
He rolled over onto his back. He'd heard the song of a phoenix and the roar of the crowd cheering him as he caught the Snitch. He'd ridden a hippogriff. He'd touched the Philosopher's Stone. But never in his life had he seen anything so beautiful. It was like being able to watch music.
And they wanted to catch it?
To hell with that! Harry jumped up, determined to tell the others that he'd had enough and that this was a wild-greylag chase.
He was halfway back to base when he felt someone -- something -- watching. Turning, he saw it.
I never even heard it land.
The Ice Dragon was standing four-square only a score of meters away. It had its wings half-furled and it tilted its head as it watched Harry. It was even more beautiful close up.
"Hey there," Harry whispered, keeping in mind the talons sunk into the snow and the sharp teeth he'd glimpsed only a minute ago. "Well. Look at you."
The dragon tilted its head and made an inquiring noise that turned into a hiss when Harry tried to step closer. "Okay, okay. I'll just stay here. I'm not going to hurt you, I promise." Harry tried to think soothing, calm, happy thoughts to keep his body language relaxed. Hagrid was adamant in class about the importance of body language around dangerous beasts.
Harry frowned. It was almost as if he'd been asked a question.
With no small amount of shock, Harry realised he'd just seen a picture of himself framed as a question. A distorted picture, true, nothing he'd ever seen in a mirror, and with colours that couldn't possibly exist to the human eye, but perhaps something like what he'd look like through a dragon's eyes. He tried to think something back at the dragon: <beautiful. Happytoseedragon>
<?> again, but this time the question was more confident. The wings folded slightly more. Yes, the dragon was definitely curious about this odd creature walking around on the ice. Harry just hoped it didn't connect him with the lump of ice that had dropped on its head. "Well," he said again. "I guess you're what we've come here to find. And now I'm not sure if it was really the right thing... I saw you flying before." He held the image of the dragon in flight and projected it as strongly as he could, focusing on how beautiful it had been.
The creature blinked and made a noise a little like a purr. Harry hoped it was a purr and not a growl. The dragon stepped a little closer and stretched out its neck to sniff at Harry from a distance of only a few meters. Closer up Harry could see that the creature was slightly translucent. Its hide, though it looked like suede, held an esoteric shimmer that Harry had only ever seen before in pure, undiluted magic, and that only occasionally. It seemed to be both less and more than flesh and bone. Its eyes were a polished silver-blue that scrutinised Harry with curiosity rather than animosity.
Fearsome, yes, with its teeth and claws and sinewy strength. But fearsome in the heartbreaking way that only distilled beauty can achieve. Harry was wary of the teeth and the claws, but the eyes... the eyes told him that the beast wasn't unfriendly. Yes, it was dangerous. It was dangerous in the same way a kitten is dangerous and if it hurt him it wouldn't be out of malice, it would be out of a predator's ignorance of another being's physical fragility. Harry resolved not to be fragile.
He held out his gloved hand.
The dragon blinked and stretched out its neck to sniff at Harry's hand. Harry smiled in delight.
And then the world exploded and everything went to Hell.
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