"When I was sixteen all I wanted was to take the world and shatter it. The why of it doesn't concern you." He glared, as if daring Harry to ask. "But I didn't have the power for destruction of that scale, so I turned to someone I thought did."
They were sitting on two chunks of ice Harry had transfigured into wooden chairs. As chairs went they weren't very comfortable and Harry's squeaked every time he moved, but it was better than sitting on ice and neither of the wizards were up to much in the way of standing. Although they should have been working on a way to get home, Harry had asked about the taniwha's last words. You no longer need to guard the world from him, she had said. Harry wanted to know why Snape thought Harry was a threat.
(Although given the fact that Harry had just released a number of very angry ortho-elementals, maybe Snape had been right. In the privacy of his own heart Harry could admit that he was knee-numbingly petrified over facing up to the rest of the world.)
"But... what about Rona and Wiri... weren't they your family?" Harry whispered. He thought he could guess the why Snape didn't want to tell him about; sixteen-year-old Severus Snape had probably just survived the Shrieking Shack incident. Had Sirius ever been punished for that? Did Sirius have any idea what he'd tried to do? But the idea of Snape being so upset at nearly being killed by Remus that he didn't think about his own family... Harry couldn't imagine being that angry, but then he didn't have a family -- or not one that counted, anyway, Dursleys being Dursleys -- so maybe it was possible.
Snape hesitated over the answer and Harry suddenly took in the situation: one unarmed person telling an armed person why he thought the armed person might be the teensiest bit unstable. "Wait..." He dug into the pocket of his parka and pulled out a wand. Snape's wand, which he had rescued from the ice sheet on the bay. It all seemed like a long time ago, now. "Here. And... take mine, too. If I'm really as dangerous as Grandmother Taniwha implied, maybe you should hold onto it for me until I know... what I need to know."
Harry held out the two wands.
Snape stared at him, inky eyes unreadable. When, after a long, uncomfortable silence, he reached out, he took his own wand and left Harry's in Harry's hand.
"I think you are capable of making your own mistakes." Snape's eyes were as dark and dead as Harry had ever seen them. Even without a breeze his hair moved back to shadow his face. "As for Maman, Rona and Wirimu, I forgot them. It's easy to do."
"But..." Harry trailed off as Snape's stare pierced him and ripped out the truth.
Snape spoke rapidly and with his eyes almost closed. It was as if the words pained him. They tore at Harry like barbed wire. "The first time I saw you walk into the Great Hall I knew you had power. It poured off you. And when you came up for the Sorting I looked closer and saw that you had something in your heart. A stone ... a seed." He shifted uncomfortably on his chair. "I'm the only person I know who can see them. I think my mother might have had the ability, too, but I don't really know for sure. I see a seed in every person I see; friend, enemy, stranger. The only person I know who doesn't have one is Helen. Everyone else -- and I mean everyone -- has at the very least a small seed in their heart. It doesn't need sun -- it needs fear and hate and pain. Envy is good, too. And when it grows it swallows up all compassion until there is no longer a connection between you and other people. You see yourself as separate. With that seed and your power you could be the threat Voldemort only dreamed of being." Snape sat back, his boots crunching in the snow, and looked down his nose at Harry. "How would it feel, Mr Potter, to have the world remade to your desire? A fair world. A just world. You would make it so. And you would do it out of shame."
Harry made himself sit there and not flinch at the terrible images Snape conjured without magic.
Snape spoke in a whisper. "You told Charlie that you didn't care about his species any more. His species. For you there was no 'we.' 'Maybe Voldemort was good for you lot,' you said. And you were ashamed to be part of the same species as Charlie, the Ministry officials, and everyone in the wizarding world for whom you had worked so selflessly. Do you remember, Mr Potter?"
Snape spread his hand in front of Harry's eyes and Harry did remember:
Merely belonging to the same species as Dibbles and the two Aurors at Malfoy Manor was at best embarrassing and at worst criminal by association.
Harry suddenly realised that he wanted out. Out of being the Boy Who Lived to Serve. Out of being the weird kid with the scar who was a target for every hack reporter wanting a scoop. Out of being of being stared at. Pointed at. Laughed at and picked over by vultures whenever he stumbled. Out of being expected to mop up after every idiot wizard on a power trip. Out of the wizarding world.
Harry Potter wanted out of the entire damned species.
It was like he suddenly saw everything clearly. It was all so cold. It was all so perfect. Little wheels of ice turning and turning inside each other, driving a process that had no morals or ethics. People living or dying did not matter in the end because there were no morals and there were no ethics.
Harry remembered and was horrified. It was like looking into a pensieve and feeling each emotion anew. And the emotions there were terrible.
When he remembered the dream where he'd charcoaled Voldemort he could see how easy it had been to disregard Helen and her baby. He'd thought it wasn't his problem. He'd thought it was nothing to do with him. And he hadn't seen a need to intervene even though he was the only one who could save them.
Merlin, it had been so cold.
"And you have been selfless for them, Harry," Snape said earnestly. "Or you thought you had been. But at rock bottom you're human and giving without receiving isn't something we are designed for. So, like any normal child would do, you lashed out at those who took from you without returning even the courtesy of gratitude. But," he continued as his eyes narrowed their focus on Harry's face, "you are sixteen and you are on the brink of adulthood and as soon as you finish school you will no longer be my student."
"And you won't let me be the person you were?" Harry asked brutally, because what Snape was saying stung him badly, then wondering after he'd said it if Snape would hex him through to the North Pole for his cheek. He didn't care -- not if it meant finding out the truth.
Snape flinched and took a sharp breath. "No," he said softly after a moment's recovery. "I won't. More than that, I won't let you be the person I wanted to be."
He looked so sad. "And if you think I'm going to be that person?" said Harry more quietly, wishing he could take back what he'd just said. Being able to hurt Snape was the sort of power he had dreamed about once but now all it brought him was regret.
"You will not be him."
"Because Sunonice healed me. I think I understand. But if I slip back...?"
Snape said nothing.
Harry took a deep breath. "If," he started slowly, "if you thought I was going to be the next Voldemort, what would you do?"
Snape kept his face utterly impassive. "If I was certain you were, I would destroy you," he said gently.
"You think you can do it?"
"I know I can."
There was utter silence before Harry licked his dry lips and asked:
"Why? Why you?"
"Because I know what you are capable of. Because you're not just Harry Potter the Boy Who Lived Despite Himself. Because I know what goes on in the heart of a monster and I will not let you become one."
Harry, his heart hammering, asked, "And you -- you think it's up to you to do the dirty work to make sure I don't?"
"I promise, Harry, that if it ever becomes necessary, I'll make your death as quick and painless as I possibly can."
Which was probably the last kindness he could give, Harry realised, and nodded. "Thank you."
Snape's eye's widened. His mouth twisted in a non-smile. "Never thank me. Not for that."
"For that, and for everything," Harry said determinedly.
Snape bent his head and let his hair cover his expression. "Don't thank me, Mr Potter. Just... choose to be who you are meant to be."
"Yes, sir." There was a moment while Harry sorted through his whirling thoughts. Oddly enough relief was uppermost. "But will I ever have it back -- the seed, I mean? And what about you? Do you have that in your heart, too?"
"Being human means making those choices." Snape reached out and tapped over Harry's heart with a knuckle. "You don't have it now but you will. Again. You were fortunate to have the intervention of an Ice Dragon's tears. They gave you the ability to stand back and see what you wanted and allowed you to discard the dross. How many people are so fortunate? Do try and capitalise on your blessings, Mr Potter."
"I will. And I know you'll tell me as soon as I forget," he added wryly. "And you -- do you...?"
Snape's expression was blank again, but this time not cold or unkind, merely thoughtful. As if he were remembering. "I have a stone in my heart, yes," he breathed, "and if I were offered Ice Dragon tears I wouldn't accept them. I want the reminder of who I was -- who I am -- and..." He trailed off.
But Harry understood, although he wished he didn't. Snape chose to fight the destructiveness in his own nature on a daily basis. To Harry it was crazy -- especially after being healed himself; surely a sensible person would take the easy route of a quick healing? Well, Severus Snape was not necessarily Mister Sensible Person and he often did things Harry considered weird in the extreme such as hold an unnervingly strong interest in Potions and the Dark Arts, but he wasn't lazy and Harry knew better than to tell him how to live his life. Some people choose to climb Mt Everest, some to tame dragons. If Snape wanted to conquer his inner demons by himself Harry wouldn't tell him he was crazy, even though Ice Dragon tears would probably be on offer should Snape want it and he wanted to give the Potions master a smack over the back of the head for being so pig-headed.
But he would remember that Snape had promised him a quick and painless death if Harry ever turned back to the road Voldemort had walked. And he would especially remember that Snape had chosen to let Harry keep his wand before telling him this. That suggested Snape had some sort of faith in Harry. Maybe it was a measure of how crazy Harry himself was, but there was something reassuring about this latest death threat. It meant Harry could get on with things.
"I think... I think I'm beginning to understand."
But it was hard to get on with things when he knew that the world back home was probably in chaos. Or baying for his blood. He rubbed his hands together for a warmth that was more than physical. They should talk about going back now, but... "What did the taniwha mean when she said she made a... a 'carry kea'? And a 'why-something'?"
"Karakia means 'chant,' waiata means 'song'," Snape explained, his voice clipped and running to impatient. "Words are power; particularly for wizards, for taniwhas, for journalists like your friend Skeeter... and politicians like Fudge. You must have noticed that by now."
Harry drew in his shoulders reflexively at Snape's (probably deliberate) mention of Rita Skeeter and Fudge. Another reminder of what would be waiting for him. If the Ice Dragons hadn't annihilated everyone, of course. "I guess that was something else I didn't notice," he said numbly, not knowing what else to say.
"So you admit to a vast lack of knowledge?" said Snape after a long moment in which anything could have been said, and to Harry it sounded like he was trying to remember his usual barbed modus operandi. "Or are you merely procrastinating about your triumphant return?" he sneered.
Ouch. It was a little close to the bone; Snape was recovering his form fast. Harry opened his mouth to retort then, realising Snape was trying to goad him out of his fear by making him angry, had to cover his smile by standing and brushing a few glittering specks off the sleeve of his parka. "Both," he replied serenely, because he knew that would irk Snape more than an angry answer. "Although certain people seem to have a hobby in pointing out the first one out to me." He held out his hand.
Snape took it. When he stood the colour drained from his face and Harry grabbed his arm to steady him until his eyes could focus again. The brief weakness had Harry's heart thumping louder. He couldn't stand it if Snape died, not now ... but if something happened Harry knew that now he would manage. Somehow. It was a good thing to know.
"Are you alright, Professor?"
"Just... a little tired. Merlin... how long have I been without coffee?"
"You're doing pretty well. Sir."
Snape wasn't so far into caffeine withdrawal he didn't smile at Harry's careful politeness. "It's been a long day."
"Another four months or so, I believe." And then it hit Harry -- the most incredible thing of all about this incredibly strange day was:
We're still alive.
The realisation shook him to his bones. And an adventure this dangerous could only be capped by something even more dangerous. Harry gave in to impulse and, laughing, wrapped his arms around Snape in a bear hug.
Just as Snape's shock began to wear off, Harry stopped laughing. "We're still alive," he muttered into the cloak Grandmother Taniwha had given Snape. "We're alive, we're alive, we're alive..." He couldn't stop saying it, just as he couldn't stop holding on. Like him or not, Snape was human and it suddenly hit home how close Harry had come to throwing away what he loved most in the world. People. "You won't let me turn into him, will you?" Harry got out between chattering teeth. "I don't want to shatter the world ... I don't want to turn into the next Voldemort..."
Snape went rigid again at the name, then relaxed. A little. "I promise. But you won't. Grandmother Taniwha said so herself. The Dark Lo- Voldemort... Voldemort isn't in your nature. Probably he never was." He rubbed circles on Harry's back but his hand was awkward. It was entirely possible he'd read about comforting distressed students in some Hogwarts teachers' manual and this was the first time he'd tried putting theory into practise. It wasn't warm and as far as compassion went it was studied, but the effort was very human and Harry appreciated that more than anything.
"What if the Ministry wants to send me to Azkaban?"
"Albus won't let them. Exile, possibly, but not Azkaban."
"What if I've already destroyed the world?"
Silence. Then: "I suppose we shall work on a way to fix it again. Besides, the world is quite durable."
Harry laughed a little, and then hiccuped.
Snape gave him one final pat on the back. "Shall we go? We have so much to look forward to. There's the wondrous likelihood of finding out the latest inanity -- or series of inanities -- Fudge has managed to inflict on the world today. Or shall we return to the simple pleasures of Hogwarts, where cauldrons explode as soon as Neville Longbottom walks into a room and giant three-headed dogs are considered pets? I hear Rita Skeeter has picked up her quill again...?"
"Okay. And thanks for making the world seem ... well, less of a place I'd want to save."
"Just doing my job."
Harry stepped back and appreciated that Snape didn't look at his expression. "But what if they exile me?"
A snort from Snape. "If the dragons haven't eaten Fudge I'd say he's going to cause a lot of trouble for you. Us. Well, me, most likely..." He scowled. "But if you do get exiled there are so many places in the world you can go where your friends can visit it's not going to be a major problem. With a bit of luck Fudge will blame me for corrupting you and force me to resign from Hogwarts." He brightened at the thought. "Then I can go home and get some real work done."
Exile wasn't something Harry would have ever considered a happy solution. Snape seemed to view it with a frightening enthusiasm. But... if it had to be so, then it had to be so. "If they're going to lynch me I suppose I have to get it over and done with sooner or later," he muttered, not realising he'd spoken aloud until he felt Snape's eyes boring into him.
Snape opened his mouth to say something, but then a puzzled expression flitted over his face. What now? thought Harry. Then Snape's mouth twitched and he turned his head and spat out a small black feather.
Harry stared down at it. "Penguins? You've been eating those poor penguins?"
Snape's angry expression looked like it was covering embarrassment. "You think House Elves deliver to Antarctica?"
Harry's own mouth twitched as he suppressed a smile. "Won't Helen have something to say about it?"
"I doubt she will care. Especially as no-one will ever tell her about this," Snape replied huffily. "Shouldn't you be concentrating on more immediate things?"
"Hm. I guess." Harry was having real trouble keeping a straight face now. But when he looked up and around at the lonely wasteland they were in -- two wizards with so little magic left between them -- he found nothing funny. "So how do we get home?" he asked, squaring his shoulders.
Snape frowned and pulled his new cloak tighter around his shoulders. The effort was enough to force him into grabbing the back of his chair for support. "I suppose I could Apparate us to the coast. I might be able to get a message to Professor Dumbledore from there."
He didn't look like he could Apparate anyone anywhere. He was ghostly pale and his fingers shook as they gripped the back of the chair hard enough to splinter the wood ... and Harry couldn't help thinking how close the word splinter was to the word splinch.
"What did Grandmother Taniwha say about the path home?"
"Ah," said Snape, in a tone that added, and how much more of that conversation did you hear? "She showed me the best wind currents to the coastline. The katabatic wind that starts up here doesn't have an even flow." He frowned. "Not much use without -- ow."
"What?" Something bounced off Harry's head. "Ow!" Just a piece of ice. As if he hadn't seen enough of them lately.
Looking up and squinting at the rim of the bowl far above them, Harry could see a wedge-shaped head silhouetted against the bright blue sky.
<sorry ... taniwha = gone?>
"I think we've just found our ride home," said Harry, and grinned up at <sunonince>.
Wild bells rang out in a wild sky.
Norbu's tribe was cousin to the Sherpa tribe -- that is to say, they niggled at each other and said bad things at relatives' weddings, but if an outsider were to come in and stir up trouble the two tribes would present the sort of united front that left the imprudent outsider out in the cold.
And it gets very cold in the Himalayas.
Norbu's tribe wasn't big and it wasn't famous and even most of the Sherpas had forgotten its name, but it had held onto its traditions and its stories for generations.
And Norbu knew on the day he was out tending to the Wind Horses that something was coming. Rather, he knew something was coming back. He felt it as he bent to brush snow off the stone carving of his clan's totem. The sinewy form seemed to move in the shadows cast by the fluttering Wind Horses, and ice clung to the grooves.
The prayer flags tied to twine were snapping in the wind as if they wanted to break their bridles and gallop up to Heaven to deliver their messages. Never, in all Norbu's years, had he felt such urgency in the Wind Horses. He had seen them flutter in the drowsy heat of summer. He had seen them snap and battle the winter snow demons that started avalanches.
On the death of his wife and brother they had rippled with his sorrow.
Today they flew in the wind with joy. He wanted to laugh with the gleeful anticipation fluttering in their cloth.
In that moment he knew he was on the roof of the world and beneath his feet the world turned. It was a brief, giddy moment, and the sky flared with untamed light and the bells of Heaven rang from the mountain tops.
When the shadow fell over him he looked up and into lambent yellow eyes. The pupils dilated and contracted into slits as they studied him. They seemed surprised that he was looking back at them. Was he not meant to?
Was it a ghost? Was it a demon?
It was a --
Norbu looked at the stone carving and remembered the teachings of his grandfather, who had been the wisest of all the priests in his clan.
One day in your lifetime you will be there to greet the ancient ones on their return. The old man had waved a knobbly finger at the young Norbu. You will show respect.
Norbu clasped his hands and bowed as far as the arthritis in his back would allow. He straightened slowly, and slowly he extended his arms.
"Welcome!" he called. "Welcome home, old friend! You are once, twice, three times welcome!"
And the creature smiled down on him. <<My friend, it is good to be Home>>
Far to the south of Norbu and up in the highlands of India was a village. Slightly apart from the village lived an old man. He was a Muslim, something that had given the Hindu villagers some grievance when he had moved in. Only the local doctor, now another old man, had bothered to visit him. The late afternoon under the whispering, spreading branches of an ancient fig tree was a time for battle.
"Let me see you find a way out of that," said Rabendra.
Deepak brushed his greying beard as he thought. "Ah-hah! Got you! Check! I win again."
"Ah! Your pride will be your downfall. Learn humility."
"Chelo Pakistan. Krishna does not require me to learn humility. My soul is purified by graces your prophets can never comprehend."
"Spit the beetlenut out of your mouth and speak with politeness. Krishna has not taught you manners. Chelo Pakistan yourself."
They happily insulted each other's religion and personal habits for a while before setting up the chess board again. Rabendra drew white. He moved a pawn forward one space. "My sister wrote to me today," he said conversationally.
Deepak appeared to study the board. While religion was the source of much good-natured argument, the subject of Rabendra's family, especially his nephew, was taboo. "Is she well?" He, too, moved a pawn one space.
"She is old. She wishes to meet with me."
"It was her son who died."
It had been in the news at the time. A bus, filled with Hindus, had been blown up. It wasn't uncommon in some parts of the country where Muslims and Hindus clashed on a daily basis, but in this region it was almost unheard of. A young man had been arrested. When his uncle went to get him out of jail the young man, a Muslim, had proudly confessed to planting the bomb. The uncle hadn't spoken another word, just turned on his heel and walked out of the jail.
The young man had died in jail.
There had been riots, of course, and the uncle had disappeared. He'd simply walked away.
Deepak had read the papers and when a man had walked into this village in the southern highlands and up to the old falling-down bungalow on the outskirts, Deepak had held his tongue even while the other villagers had loosened theirs.
"My sister has forgiven me. After all this time." Rabendra sighed and shifted a bishop. "My nephew, who killed all those people... ah, he was a sad young man."
Deepak held his tongue.
"I know you know the story although you have never said so to me. It was all the village was talking about when I came here. But you are a good man, even if you worship false gods, and you let me have my silence. I think you think I am crazy for giving him sympathy after he killed all those poor people, yes? Or worse. But you are a doctor, so I ask you: if a patient hears voices in his head telling him to do these terrible things, what do you do? Do you leave him in a cell where the guards will ignore his suicide attempts until after the attempts have become truth? Do you walk away, saying, My boy, you defile the teachings of the Prophet when you kill these poor, innocent people? Do you curse his name for the shame he has brought to your family? Do you, a doctor, ignore the fact that he is ill?
"I was a doctor, and I did all these things. He was sick and I let him die. I let him kill those other people. Who, I ask you, is the one who should have been locked in that cell? And now my sister writes to say she wishes to forgive me."
"Will you let her?"
"Do I deserve forgiveness?"
"Is that not for her to decide? Or your God?" Deepak moved another pawn. "All this time you have spent trying to convince me of the strength and compassion of this Allah of yours and now you doubt his wisdom?"
"I... do not think I have a place in His wisdom. Or His compassion."
"You have lost your faith."
"No. But I no longer think it needs me. And my family doesn't need me either."
Deepak was a doctor and a good one. But this sort of healing wasn't one he'd trained for. He kept his silence and they continued the game until Rabendra looked up and squinted into the trees growing on the slopes above the house.
"Do you hear something?"
Deepak listened. "No," he said. "But my ears are not so young as they once were. What do you hear?"
"Bells. And for a moment I thought the sky had shifted."
Most alarming. Deepak had heard of stresses masked for decades suddenly breaking free when an end was in sight. Was this guilt driving his friend mad? Then he heard the bells, too.
A woman, not young but not old, was walking down from the forest. Her buttercup-yellow sari was bright with modern dyes, but she wore it in the Hindu fashion of a few hundred years ago. The peculiarly rich Dravidian hue of her skin and the inky blackness of her hair combined with the elegant bone structure Deepak had learned to appreciate while still in medical school stamped her as a local. But she lacked the Pottu, the spot over the spiritual eye. Although she might have been a widow or a rather old maiden, what was truly alien about her was the way her two physical eyes were not dark as premium coffee. They were ghostly pale. Deepak heard the music of the bells as she walked. Above one slender, arched foot she wore an anklet. Most people favoured gold for decoration, but she had chosen silver. Tiny silver bells hanging from it sang with each step.
Deepak was a religious man but he wasn't superstitious. And just by existing, this woman shattered all his university-acquired rules about the implausibility of spirits.
"Are you a ghost?" he heard himself asking. He was standing now, with Rabendra standing next to him, two honour guards welcoming their rani back to her palace.
She smiled. "No. Merely a weary traveller who has decided to return home and make a new beginning."
Her voice was like the bells. Rabendra was nodding. "Then welcome home," Rabendra said, his voice rough and his expression unreadable. "Thank you for returning ... Forgive me, I don't know who you are. I only know that you have been missed."
"Yes," agreed Deepak, racking his brain for where he'd seen her before. He knew he had seen her once upon a time, a long time ago. "Will you sit down with us?"
"Thank you. What is this you have on your table?"
"It is a game," Rabendra told her, holding the chair for her as she sat down. "It is called 'chess.' Can I get you food or drink?"
"Do you have ice?"
"Iced water, please. Is this a difficult game to play?"
"For some, yes; for some, no. It is a game of strategy. We can teach you, if you would like..."
"I should like." She accepted the class from Rabendra in both her hands, as if she couldn't quite remember how to hold a glass. "It has been a long time," she said quietly. "And now I am home again. I have missed my home ever so much."
"How long, Madam, have you been away?" asked Deepak when it became obvious Rabendra wouldn't or couldn't say anything.
"Too long. Too long. And it was a nasty time of exile. But now is a new time, one for homecomings and new beginnings." Her smile was radiant, and sparkled like the ice floating in the glass.
"Yes," said Rabendra, his grey head nodding slowly. "This is a good time for new beginnings."
On the other side of the world dawn was breaking.
Orville and Denise had left their hotel room in the dark to be at this place when the sun rose. Sedona was meant to have energy vortexes, whatever those were, and Denise had heard they might be able to see them if the angle of the sun was just right. Orville didn't like getting up early and he especially didn't like mosquitoes, but he liked Denise. A lot.
So they sat together on the side of a hill and watched the sky as it first turned dusty grey then shaded into purple and gold. By the time the first deep blues were painting the sky Orville and Denise were holding hands; Denise was watching the sun rise with the colours reflected in her purple eyes, and Orville had forgotten all about the hassles of getting up early because he was lost somewhere between the twin wonders of the melting sky and Denise's eyes.
This was the best morning of his life. He hoped it would be the best of hers, too. But as he felt the weight of the little box in his pocket like plutonium, his courage withered in the face of her beauty.
No-one that... that... that glorious would want...
That was the moment the sun rose over the hills and spilled its light into the valley and the sky rioted.
Wild bells rang over the desert and Orville saw a miracle.
Rising from the valley floor were what looked like columns of warm air. And soaring through them using them as updrafts for their flight were dreams.
Five of them.
One of them broke away and glided over to where the couple sat.
Orville wondered if he'd completely lost it -- he'd tried a few things in his first year at university, but nothing that should have given him delayed hallucinations... and were hallucinations this fabulous? But when he checked Denise he saw that she had her mouth open and she was watching this... this... dragon as it landed just down-slope from them.
Now that it was close Orville could see that the wings were translucent and the body not quite real. He could see rocks and some of the scraggy bushes through it. Its eyes were the most real thing about it, and they changed colour as the sky did.
The elegant head tilted as it looked down on them.
<<Orville>>, a silvery voice said into their minds. <<And Denise>>
When Orville looked at Denise again, she was crying. He hugged her. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," she wept, and the tears were streaming down her face. "I don't know. But they're back and they've been away so long and, oh, God. I'm so happy they're back!" She stood up and pulled him to his feet.
To his horror she dragged him down the slope. Luckily they stopped just out of biting range.
"Welcome back," she sniffed, and scrubbed at her nose. "Damn. This should be more... I dunno -- more ceremonial or something. But I... I don't know who you are and I don't know what you are and I don't know what's happening... I just know that you've come back to us!"
The translucent dragon reached out with a claw and tenderly wiped her tear away.
Orville had thought Denise was glorious from the first moment he'd seen her at a friend's party, but now she eclipsed that first impression. She was past glorious into a whole new realm. She glowed like the dragons.
Orville was shabby next to her and was glad he'd decided not to say anything until the sun had risen. He never would, now.
The dragon with the eyes of molten sky looked at him and into him.
And he saw what Denise saw.
He saw himself: Orville; tall, a bit shy and not the most handsome guy on the block but the one with the nicest eyes, the student in the group who'd gotten into university through a football scholarship and thought he wasn't smart but really was if he'd just relax and get over himself. Orville, the one who had something every other man lacked. Orville, who made Denise's heart flutter in her chest like a bird when he smiled at her. The one who was destined for Denise but she was too scared to tell him in case he laughed at her for being a weirdo hippie like her mom.
"Is that what you really think?" he whispered.
Denise bit her lip and nodded.
<<Give me the box>> the dragon commanded.
Orville obeyed, and noticed Denise's eyes go wide. She was blushing a little. Orville couldn't help blushing too.
The dragon's claws circled the box and it shimmered. Orville winced, wondering how a paltry little diamond set in 12 carat gold would stack up against the golden treasure bed this dragon probably slept on. Scholarship money and the pittance he got from the part-time job stacking shelves only stretched so far. Once he graduated he'd get her a --
<<Give it to her>>
Orville blushed but he held out the little box and opened it. "Um," he said, and it immediately went down in history as the worst proposal speech ever.
But as Denise took the ring out of the black velvet box all of that didn't matter.
What had been cheap gold was platinum. Where the chip of diamond should have glinted, a stone half a centimetre across dazzled. It was tinted yellow and as Orville blinked in the light it cast he wondered what sort of trick this was.
"Oh. My. God." Denise took it out reverentially. "Orville -- how could you afford...?"
<<It was what you and he wanted>> said the dragon. <<Orville does not have the money but his value is reflected in this stone>>
Denise, being Denise, whipped out the geological eye-piece she carried around and took a closer look. Her mom's penchant for crystals combined with her dad's fascination for the natural world would make her a brilliant geologist, Orville considered.
"This can't be real," she said quietly. Her brow was furrowed in concentration. "I've never seen one of these before."
<<I am real. It is real>>
"It's a chameleon diamond," she whispered. "They aren't the prettiest, but --"
<<But they hold their secrets>> the dragon finished, smiling.
"Yes," she breathed, looking up at the dragon. "And I always wanted one..."
<<And you have one standing next to you. Well? Aren't you going to answer Orville?>> The dragon sounded impatient now, but its eyes sparkled like the diamond.
Denise's mouth dropped. The she whirled and threw her arms around Orville. "Oh yes," she breathed. "Yes, forever yes."
The sun rose.
When they remembered the rest of the world and looked around the dragon was gone. But the ring was real, and the diamond would keep its secrets for more than twenty years.
Whenever Denise and Orville wondered if it had been a dream they would touch the diamond and hear the distant music of bells. And twenty-six years later their daughter would graduate top of her class from the California University of Magical Arts (Law Division) and study for a post-graduate diploma in trans-species law under Professor Sunonice at Otago Alternative. There she would meet and fall in love with the brilliant rising star of ortho-elemental magics, Oscar Snape. The two would go on to rewrite many of the old segregation laws and set up a law firm specialising in interspecies arbitration. And, of course, live happily ever after.
Just like her parents.
Where midday had just passed a pair of Ice Dragons flew into winter. As they reached the coast of Ireland one kept going north to Scotland while the other, larger one, turned east.
They had made no human friends. But many humans had made them their enemies. London and Hogwarts would freeze before they burned.
The King reached his target first. He landed on the roof of an undistinguished building somewhere in Central London. He had never cared for humans of any sort, so the Muggles scurrying back to the warmth of their offices after their lunchtime breaks never saw him.
He dug his claws into the roof and considered ripping it off like the top of a termite mound just to watch the panic.
It felt good. Magic flowed here, thick and juicy. His mouth watered at the smell of it. So many witches and wizards, all waiting to be drained of magic. Maybe he would eat some of them, because blood was more satisfying than magic without body. Hum. That bloody taniwha would have something to say about that, he didn't wonder. But she couldn't complain about the Ministry of Magic being levelled -- he'd learned from the little one <sunonince> that the body politic of the human magical world had hunted him and that [<<GAH!>>] that wizard the taniwha claimed as her descendent. Taniwhas were not above a little payback, providing it was done within the rules. When the wizards came out and attacked him he'd have every right to ... defend himself.
He had been fighting when they trapped him. Down all the long years his body had been fixed his muscles had stayed ready, remembering they were meant to be fighting, and he had slept little in that time as he planned how he would fight again.
He smiled to himself and flexed his claws.
When the first three magical humans came onto the roof they did not leap to the attack as he'd hoped.
The youngest one had its wand in its hand. It didn't look like a traditional wizard -- this one wore animal skins instead of woven plant material, and its red hair was obscenely bright. One of the older ones -- she, he guessed, although it was sometimes tricky to work out the appropriate pronoun for the ape-things -- she did not lift her wand. A trick. The King could smell the wand in her pocket. The third was male; it had hair on its face but none on the top of its head. That one had no wand at all but the King could smell potent magics woven into his clothing.
The King thundered a challenge at them.
The witch's grizzled grey hair in its plaits shook and her yellow [<<AUROR! ENEMY!!>>] robes rippled, and although the trio flinched at his power they didn't run. Or fight.
"Your anger is justified," the witch said, her voice scratchy. She knelt and -- to his horror -- carefully took her wand from her pocket and placed it at the King's forefeet. The red-headed wizard did the same.
"Will you give us the courtesy of hearing our story?" asked the bald wizard.
The King growled softly, but inclined his head once, all the time keeping his senses alert for a sneak attack.
"Thank you. My name is Dermus Dryskull, and I am in charge of a Ministry group known as the Unspeakables. We are chiefly responsible for protecting knowledge most people are not capable of using wisely. My companions are Nora Blavatski, of the Aurors, and Charlie Weasley, who up until this week was a Warder but has resigned in protest over methods used by other members of that group. The leader of our community, the one who wanted one of your children dead, was removed from power a few hours ago. He has been accused of several charges ranging from misuse of authority to treason. A charge of inciting a murder may also be pressed. With what the Ice Dragon child taught my companions, new laws are being drafted. We have begun the changes, but our society needs some time to fully implement them. We three are quite prepared to open our minds to you to show that we mean what we say."
The King, knowing in his bones that somehow that old bitch of a taniwha had managed to trick him out of his revenge again, sighed. And when the witch and wizards opened their minds for his scrutiny he was careful to be gentle.
When the Queen landed on one of the turrets of the castle she wrapped her tail around the pillar and bared her teeth. Ahh, it all smelled so good. Down below were screams as tender magic-humans, made little by distance, scurried back into the castle. Not that it would protect them, of course.
She would tear the castle down stone by stone, drinking each one dry and throwing it away. There were other schools in other parts of the world, of course, but this one had the highest level of magic. Oh, and the fact that most of her enemies had trained here did, of course, help her with her decision.
She could smell one of those enemies... but surely he was dead by now? Humans did not live so long.
She sniffed again. Hmm. No. Not the one who had killed her son. But it was that wizard's son or grandson, surely. Ah, irony. She would feast on this wizard and then reduce this castle to rubble.
And now the wizard was coming up to this tower, accompanied by one other. He probably wanted to make a deal. The Queen snorted. The taniwha was a long way from here and the Queen had waited too long to care, anyway.
When the wizard stepped out onto the top of the tower, she was very pleased. He was even more powerful than his father. But with no binding spells to protect him, he was helpless. It would take more than the threat of that long white beard sticking in her throat to stop her biting his head off.
She was just about to do that when the wizard's companion stepped in front of him.
"Don't you dare," said the witch. Or perhaps she wasn't a witch. The queen couldn't quite read her magical aura. "You can't go around killing people. It'll reflect badly on Draco."
Draco? Oh, yes. That had been the human name of the kidnapped baby. How dare she try to manipulate the Queen out of her revenge by bringing a child into this?
Whatever else she might be, this woman was a pest. The Queen slapped at her with a paw, meaning to slice her into ribbons.
The claws never connected. There was a thunderclap and a light so intense it was black and left its shadows dancing in her eyes.
The air reeked of elemental magic.
As warnings from a taniwha go, this one was pretty subtle, the Queen decided angrily as she shook the spiking pains out of her forefoot. She took a closer look at the woman, who was still standing next to the wizard and looking very cross.
Oh. Her scent confirmed it. The woman would be the mother of the next child in the taniwha's line. The Queen cursed.
The wizard stepped forward a little and bowed. "I realise my family has done you a great wrong," he said, solemn but not afraid or guilty as he deserved to be. The Queen bared her teeth and raised her spines. The wizard continued despite this threat. "And although there can be no recompense for what my father did to you, it is time to move on. We have the power here to banish you from Hogwarts, but that would do nothing in the long run. When you were captured and bound away from the rest of the world, the world suffered for it. You are necessary. You are needed. We of the wizarding world have only just managed to achieve peace within our species, but if you had been here war would have been less likely. We need your balance. Peace," he sighed wearily, "between our two species is long overdue."
The Queen replied with the image of ripping magic from wizards who had glutted themselves on it. There had been great stores of magic gutted by ortho-elementals of different species, and powerful wizards toppled from their authority. Why would this wizard, who wore magic like a cloak, want to be stripped of it? Was this a trick or was he just a fool?
She threw her scorn into the winds, happy for all to hear it.
"I have been called a fool many times," the wizard replied, daring to smile. "And I don't find I care all that much for authority. The world is a much nicer place when authority figures leave me alone and let me get on with running my school."
The Queen sneered, and replied that she was quite happy to take all reason for authority from him. What was the wizard word? Oh yes: Squib.
The woman seemed to be listening to someone else. "But Grandmother Taniwha asks you not to take the magic out of this man," she said. "He is not ambitious. The world doesn't need to be protected from him. Like you he is necessary. What he does is valuable. And Grandmother says that Draco will have the kind of protection here he can't get anywhere else." This said, the woman seemed to snap out of her trance. She clapped her hands together. "Oh, goodie! Grandmother thinks Draco-chick should come back here!"
The Queen grunted unwilling acknowledgement. There was thinking to be done, and none that she wanted to do here. Grudgingly she flicked an image at the elderly wizard. Then she uncoiled her tail from the tower and flew away to the north, far from meddling taniwhas and wizards and strange, possessed humans.
"Well? What did she say?" asked Helen Snape.
Dumbledore offered her a lemon drop. "She showed me where your husband and two of my straying students are. I suppose I shall have to go and get them." He popped a lemon drop into his mouth. "I haven't been to Antarctica in the longest time now... probably because the place is so cold. I wish Severus would stop getting himself into predicaments in such inhospitable places. I remember the time in that fjord in Norway, when that poor, Muggle fisherman..."
"Can you get him now, please? I have a few things to say to him myself."
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