The Boy Who Lived … Forever

The Holy Ground Highlander Forum Midweek Challenge

Archivist’s Note: The stories and vignettes offered here from various Forumlanders have not been edited or changed other than having a spell-check performed and being reformatted for this website.

Contents

The Challenge by Leah CWPack
Substitute Teacher by Ghost Cat
Special Delivery by Palladia

MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: THE BOY WHO LIVED ... FOREVER

Posted By: Leah CWPack <bizarro7@aol.com>
Date:
Wednesday, 28 November 2001, at 3:30 p.m.

Your challenge, should you decide to participate, is a crossover of sorts:

Write a short scene or story involving one ore more HIGHLANDER Immortal characters and the Harry Potter universe.

Remember to put "MWC" in your subject line, if you wish to have your entry archived.

MWC: Substitute Teacher

Posted By: Ghost Cat--nearing the end <ghost_cat@hotmail.com>
Date:
Sunday, 23 December 2001, at 3:03 a.m.

It all started with a letter. Deb had been sorting through her mail, thinking how Cassandra would tan her hide for using a dagger as a letter opener, when she noticed the beautifully hand-written script on one otherwise plain envelope. There was no return address, but the delicate handwriting itself announced without a doubt that the letter was from her mentor.

With trembling hands, she unfolded the letter and began to read. "My Dearest Felicia…" Deb paused with a smile, of all her Immortal friends, only Cassandra consistently called her Felicia. "My Dearest Felicia, I hope this letter finds you well. I'm sure you are; after all, you had an excellent teacher. I am writing you with an offer to further your education." Oh great Deb thought, what does she want now?

"My old alma mater lost one of its professors, and has asked me to teach until a suitable replacement can be found. If you join me, it wouldn't be as an apprentice. You'd be more of a Teaching Assistant." Deb's interest was piqued. Curiosity about what kind of school would have Cassandra among its alumni outweighed the knowledge that teaching assistant was often a euphemism for slave labour. She continued to read. "It is a beautiful campus, in England, a private school. It is just the type of place an imaginative, creative person like yourself would adore. Consider it a working holiday. If you accept my offer, please be in London by the end of August, as the train we must catch leaves promptly at 11am on September 1st; ticket enclosed."

Ticket enclosed. Yeah, that's useful; Deb sighed in frustration as she looked down at the ticket in her hand once again, hoping she had just misread it the first time. But there it was, in plain block letters, undeniable: "Platform 9 ¾." What in the name of the Gathering is Platform 9 ¾? Deb was ready to dismiss the whole thing as some elaborate joke, except for the fact that she knew without a doubt that Cassandra was somewhere in this station. She followed the familiar feel of her mentor, but this left her more confused than ever. Cassandra's Buzz appeared to be coming from a brick wall between platforms nine and ten.

Deb was still puzzling this out when she saw a young boy of no more than eleven or twelve aiming a baggage cart at that same brick wall. The boy's jog broke into a sprint and, just as Deb was ready to step in and stop him, he went through the wall and disappeared. She just stood there, slack-jawed, for several seconds. With a frown, she gazed up at the archway on one side leading to platform nine, and on the other side, platform ten. 9 ¾--why not? she thought with a mental shrug, I've seen stranger things. Deb gathered up her own baggage, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Before she could change her mind, Deb launched herself at the wall-and stumbled out the other side, landing practically in Cassandra's lap.

The witch gave her a tolerant smile; "It's about time you got here. I thought you were going to miss the Express."

Deb blinked a couple of times as she took in her surroundings. A sign above where they stood announced clearly Platform 9 ¾ and on the track was a bright red steam engine. The rest of the space was filled almost entirely with people, mostly children. Her awe was short-lived though, snuffed out by irritation. "Why couldn't you have met me out there?" she growled, waving behind her at what was now open air.

"It was a test, dear." Cassandra answered calmly. "I wanted to see if you had what it takes."

"For what?"

"For Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."

§ § §

The train Buzzed like a nest of hornets and the only thing that kept Deb from becoming physically ill was the fact that they had a private car. The experience wasn't helped much by her first encounter with Bernie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. "What is this, Cass?" she asked, after rinsing her mouth out several times, "I thought that Immortals worked on a strict apprenticeship program."

"Not all Immortals have magic, and not all mages are Immortal. There are only one or two true Immortals on the faculty at any one time, and only about one in 5 students is a Pr'imme."

"One in five?" Deb muttered with a groan. "I wish I had brought some Midol." Cassandra gave her a stern glance; "What was that? I didn't quite hear you." Deb blushed, "Oh, nothing."

Cassandra continued, ignoring the interruption. "This class, however, has one spectacular exception--young Mr. Potter." She proceeded to explain the unusual background of Harry Potter: Voldemort, the death of his parents, the rather unorthodox attempt to hide him. Deb sympathised especially with the description of his mistreatment by relatives who seemed to hate magic in general and Harry in particular. The tale ended with his triumphant arrival at Hogwart's last year.

Deb was a bit shocked by the whole story, though it did seem strangely familiar. "Wait a second. If Harry 'almost died' when he was just a baby then how can he be a twelve year old boy now?"

Cassandra nodded, acknowledging a perceptive question. "Magic and Immortality make strange bedfellows; the results can be… unpredictable."

"Well, then will he at least make it past puberty?" Deb asked, thinking of Kenny.

"It's hard to tell."

"Will he… turn out okay?"

"Why are you asking me?" Cassandra snapped, "I haven't had a decent prophecy in over 400 years." With a sigh she calmed herself and smiled gently; "All I know for sure is that he has one enemy, and a great many good friends."

Oh boy. Something told Debra that this was going to be a bit more than a working holiday. The old adage about curiosity and cats seemed somehow appropriate right now.

§ § §

As the new and returning students were given their orientation, Cassandra and Deb watched from a distance. "Who's the Gandalf in purple?" Deb whispered from the staircase where they stood.

"Really, Felicia! You'd better be more civil when you're here. I think Fitzcairn has been a bad influence on you. That's Aldus Dumbledore, the Headmaster, and probably one of the most powerful people you will ever meet." A ghost of a smile flitted across Cassandra's face. "He had quite a crush on me in his youth." Deb managed to bite back her comment about what century that might have been.

"And the stern fellow with the intense Buzz?" she asked, pointing out a pale, dark haired gentleman with a prominent nose and a perpetual frown.

"Severus Snape, Potions instructor; he's been with Hogwart's on and off for, well, forever. Don't judge him too quickly; he's a decent fellow once you get to know him." That last comment was quite a surprise, especially considering to whom Professor Snape bore a more than passing resemblance.

In the maze of halls and staircases, they had an encounter with one of Hogwart's more interesting denizens. "My Lady Cassandra!" called out a voice; Deb spun around, startled, and stepped halfway through the speaker. She quickly retreated, half-stunned, mumbling apologies.

"Sir Nicholas! So good to see you again."

The half-transparent figure in doublet and hose smiled; he seemed friendly enough, for a ghost. "I'd say you haven't changed a bit, but in your case it would be a moot point."

"Would you like me to put in a good word for you with the Headless Hunt this year?" The ghost nodded gratefully, though his head did seem to bob a bit more energetically than the gesture required. "By the way," Cassandra added, "this is Felicia DuChamp, the young lady who will be my Teaching Assistant while I'm here."

"And is she truly a young lady, or an Ageless Beauty like yourself?"

Deb finally found her voice; "A bit of both actually." She was startled anew as the ghost bowed over her hand, even more so when it was obvious that it took a second or two for his head to catch up with the rest of him. The kindly spirit offered to escort them to their rooms, but Cassandra refused politely, explaining that they were on their way to the Great Hall.

Deb could keep a lid on her curiosity for only so long; "Who, or what, was that?" she whispered softly as they walked.

"Oh, he's harmless. That's Sir Nicholas, known to the less respectful of the students here as Nearly Headless Nick. He had the great misfortune to be killed by someone who had no idea what they were doing: forty-five chops with a dull axe. There's nothing worse for a ghost than to have an embarrassing death. He's especially kind to the first year students; keeps them from getting too lost." As she spoke, one of the staircases decided to shift positions.

"Yes," Deb grinned, "I can see how that could be a problem: architecture by Mary Shelley; interior design by M.C. Escher."

§ § §

It was a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit that, even in a place like Hogwart's, Deb could fall into a routine. In the mornings, she graded papers and assignments, in the afternoons she taught labs and practical demonstrations, and the evenings were devoted to Deb's own education, in the form of private tutoring. This of course was after the unexpected revelation of the subject matter. "Defence Against Dark Arts! What do I know about defence against Dark Arts? "

"Relax, Felicia dear. Theory is my job; I'll handle the Dark Arts, you just deal with the defence part. We'll work out a lesson plan together. After what happened with the last Dark Arts professor, I want these children to have a solid practical foundation to go with their book learning."

"And exactly what happened here that they needed to bring in a substitute teacher on short notice?"

"Let's just say he knew a bit too much about what he should have been defending against."

"I'm sorry I asked."

§ § §

She took Cassandra at her word and the resulting lab program was unique even by Hogwart's standards. As with everything she did, she imprinted her classes with her own unforgettable style. Even the way she introduced herself to her students that first day was unconventional to say the least. "All right children, my name is Felicia DuChamp. I am not a professor, here or anywhere else, so you do not need to address me by that title. You may use Lady DuChamp or Miss Felicia; in a life or death emergency I will also answer to 'Help!' " Deb had learned a bit about showmanship from Methos; she put in just enough emphasis to make life and death emergencies a distinct possibility, but not enough to really frighten anyone.

"The first and most important consideration in the Defence against the Dark Arts is defence. Why would an enemy waste time, effort and energy with a spell when he could attack in other ways? I understand you had some trouble last year with," her hesitation was barely noticeable, "a troll. That's a perfect example of a magical threat that needed to be dealt with physically. Now, enough talk. I want one of you to get up here and attack me." Young future witches and wizards turned to each other, muttering uncertainly. No one stepped forward. "Oh come now, there isn't a school-aged child in the world who hasn't harboured a secret desire to take a swing at a teacher. Who's up for it?" She scanned the room, looking for someone who would take the challenge.

A small, hesitant voice spoke up from somewhere in the crowd; "But Miss Felicia, you're a woman."

Timing is everything and now was the time to pull out the big guns, or in this case, the big sword. "You're saying that a woman can't be dangerous. Do you think that Professor McGonagall can't be dangerous when she needs to be? What about Lady Cassandra? I assure you, she is the very definition of dangerous."

§ § §

The situation didn't seem to get any easier as the semester continued. There was one incident in particular that was quite memorable for everyone involved. It was right in the middle of a lecture/question and answer session. "All right everyone, who can tell me how to deal with a curse-spell?" One eager hand immediately shot up. "Yes, Miss Granger?"

Young Hermione stood proudly erect and spoke in a clear voice "A properly executed counter-curse will neutralize any curse or jinx in progress."

Miss Felicia sighed under her breath. "Yes, Hermione, that's the textbook solution, but not always practical in real life. Anyone else?" More hands were raised as suggestions were put out-"Distraction." / "Break eye-contact." / "Run away." This last comment was from Ron Weasley, and earned several boos and hisses, mostly from children in Slytherin colours.

"Quiet children. That's a perfectly valid answer. The old adage is true, discretion is the better--" she noticed something out of the corner of her eye as she addressed the Slytherin group. "Mr. Weasley! Are you eating in my class?"

"No Ma'am; I mean yes Ma'am but…"

"No buts. I want you to open that package."

"But it's a--"

"I know what it is, just open it."

The nervous young redhead reluctantly cracked the seal on his favourite treat. As the enchanted chocolate frog leapt out of its box, it was intercepted in mid-jump by a silver blur. As the confusion died down, all the students stared at the small throwing knife that impaled the energetic confection to the wall. Ron Weasley's eyes went wide. "That was bloody brilliant, Ma'am!"

Deb crossed her arms with a confident smile. "No, that is something I expect at least one of my students to be able to do before the end of the Term. This--" she held up one hand and the blade flew back to its owner, the hilt slapping firmly into her palm. Taking a bite out of the chocolate, she gestured casually with the dagger, "is bloody brilliant. Class dismissed."

§ § §

Deb's own tutorage seemed to be going well. She had a special aptitude for Transfiguration. She and Cassandra spent many a moonlit night as wolves, and she was working on a couple of feline forms as well. Potions was one of her most difficult subjects, but it was hard to concentrate on ingredients and proportions with an Immortal for a tutor. While his lectures left something to be desired, Professor Snape have a role to play-as a midnight sparring partner. They both shared a preference for sword and dagger, and he enjoyed the opportunity to practice against a left-hander. Slowly, Deb's previous experience with Methos helped her get past Severus' shell, and they discovered that they had more in common than they had imagined.

"Put a stopper in Death?" Deb giggled, "Do you use that speech every year or was it just for the benefit of Mr. Potter?" Not a single member of Hogwart's faculty or student body would dare to giggle in front of the stern Master of Slytherin House, but Deb had learned that Severus' severity was nothing more than a flair for the dramatic.

Those same people would be shocked to hear a low chuckle from that tall, lanky figure. "After all this time, I think the students expect it from me. As for young Harry Potter, it isn't very often that Hogwart's hosts a full-blooded Immortal. He needs to be strong to survive, and I want to instil some of that strength of character in him."

"Why doesn't someone just tell him the truth? He could combine his training with his wizard's education and be better prepared for whatever comes his way… including You Know Who."

Snape shook his head quickly but firmly. "Do you really think that Kenneth was an isolated case? With all the potential Immortals that pass through our doors, Hogwart's has to be careful not to push a young mind too far too quickly. When he is ready for the next step, someone will be there."

Miss Felicia's extracurricular activities kept her busy far into the night. She often walked the darkened halls much later than any student was permitted to wander about. Returning to her Faculty rooms after an especially long night, Deb was surprised to sense a presence in what should have been an empty corridor. A quick look around revealed nothing visible at all, but in a place like Hogwart's that meant very little. Resisting the urge to reach for the sword she was carrying from tonight's spar, she deliberately slowed her steps. The persistent Buzz remained; moreover, it was a familiar one.

She spoke in a soft voice, calmly reciting from the school charter. "A student of Hogwart's should not be found outside of his or her dormitory after lights-out. To do so may result in the loss of House points, or in more serious punishments if required." She was almost certain she heard a faint groan. Trusting an instinct that had never failed her, she reached out into the darkness. Her hand closed around a very solid object and this time the startled gasp was unmistakable. "This is especially true for intelligent young gentlemen of Gryffindor House who should know better. Wouldn't you agree Mr. Potter?"

A face appeared in mid-air, wearing an astonished expression. "How-how did you know it was me, Ma'am?"

"That isn't important, boy; what matters is the next time you get caught, it may be by someone much less tolerant than I. Go to sleep Harry, or at least go to bed."

"Yes Ma'am" the partial Harry answered sheepishly. A pair of hands appeared briefly to pull the hood of the Invisibility Cloak back into place and once again there was nothing there. She had to reluctantly admire him for the stealthy silence of his movement; even Amanda would have been impressed.

Fatigue pulled her inexorably toward her bed, and she knew there was another batch of theoretical papers waiting for her to mark in the morning. By the time she settled into her warm bed, she had forgotten the incident entirely.

§ § §

Stephen J. Savage couldn't remember a worse experience in his entire life, and he had spent 5 years in the army. Exactly how does a Watcher, a probationary Watcher no less, explain to his superiors that he lost his Assignment in the middle of a London train station? "Honest Joe, one minute she was standing there, trying to decide if her train was leaving on track 9 or 10; then, all of the sudden, poof! She was gone."

Joe Dawson was a sympathetic, understanding type of guy, but he was Savage's immediate supervisor, and Poof was simply not an acceptable explanation for losing track of one's assigned Immortal. It was bad enough when Stephen received the message telling him to stay in England until Debra was found. The worst part was when a second message informed him that his expense account was going to be suspended until he actually started handing in reports again.

That had been over a month ago. His own meagre savings had run out within the first couple of weeks, forcing him to rely on cramped hostel lodgings and the reputation of Canadians abroad. He briefly considered crossing over into Ireland, where at least he could trade on the hospitality of his relatives, but that would probably get him into even more trouble. His Assignment was last seen in London, and London was where he'd stay.

Stephen was at the breaking point; even barracks living had been better than this. Just when he was sure he'd scream if he saw one more communal bathroom, the letters started coming. The highly detailed reports of Deb's activities were a godsend, except for two things. First was the fact that the events described were so improbable, even for a weirdness magnet like Deb, that HQ would never believe him. Second was the rather unorthodox delivery system: every single letter was transported by… owl. He wasn't sure if the Watchers had their own version of a Section 8, but he wasn't willing to find out either. Maybe if he rewrote the reports himself, made a few changes? He'd do anything just to get his expense account back.

The one saving grace in this whole mess had to be the Leaky Cauldron, a little out of the way pub Stephen found by accident one day. Come to think of it, every time he went to the Cauldron it was like finding it for the first time all over again. When he started to tell other people about the place, he got tongue-tied; if he tried to draw a map, it turned out a complete mess. Even if he just wanted to jot down the route he had taken to get there, the note would make no sense to him when he read it later. Fortunately, none of this stopped him from visiting the place fairly frequently.

Savage rather liked the Cauldron, in many ways it reminded him of the Bonded Blade. If anything, it was even a little bit stranger than the Blade. The day he first walked into the place, he found himself drawn into a card game, the rules of which still weren't completely clear to him. Nonetheless, he won a sizeable pile of coins that night. If he took them anywhere else, people looked at him like he was trying to pass off old buttons, but the bartender at the Cauldron took them quite happily. This meant the poor Watcher could have at least one decent meal per day, even if it was pub food, as long as his stash held out.

Keeping up his habit of quiet observation, Savage got to know some of the regulars. Especially remarkable was one fellow who always sat alone in the corner. This wasn't solitude or loneliness; it was simply that when this man sat at a table, there wasn't room for anyone else. The man was roughly the size and shape of a grizzly bear, and he didn't talk much, which made it all the more surprising when he suddenly started up a conversation with Savage one night. "I reckon you must be feeling a mite better now." The stranger's voice was surprisingly soft for one so large.

Stephen frowned warily. "I'm not sure what you mean."

The giant of a man continued as casually as if he were talking with an old friend. "You've got yerself some spending money now, and with the letters coming in I reckon They're easing off the pressure a bit."

The Watcher's frown deepened. "Letters? I think you've mistaken me for someone else."

The stranger hunched closer, whispering conspiratorially, a gesture that gave the uncomfortable impression of a mountain leaning over your shoulder when you're trying to read. "I've been keeping watch on your lass Felicia; she's doing all right. You shouldn't be worrying about her too much. Hogwart's takes care of their own."

The revelation came out of the blue, shocking him out of all attempts at denial. He managed to keep his voice at a whisper at least. "Hogwart's? You mean everything in those reports is real?"

The man chuckled warmly. "Should be; I wrote 'em myself. You wouldn't be calling me a liar now, would ye?"

"Oh no!" he said very quickly, "of course not. It's just…how do you know about--" he ended the question with a shrug.

The man's black beard split into a grin and he pulled back a sleeve that held enough fabric to make a full-sized jacket all by itself. The tattoo thus revealed was very familiar; Stephen's own wrist itched at the sight of it. "No one pays any attention to Ol' Hagrid, and a feller who ain't noticed much has an opportunity to notice a few interesting things hisself." He shrugged, his shoulders moving like a small avalanche; "And if I just happen write some of it down and send it off by Owl Post; well, then there's no real harm done is it?"

Stephen smiled as if they shared a private joke, which they did of course. It would take a while for him to digest all this new information, and he still felt a bit stunned, but his first impression was that he liked this Hagrid.

§ § §

Just when the school year should have settled down and things start to run smoothly, Hogwart's was hit by a plague of bad luck. The beasts of the Forbidden Forest became more active and aggressive, so much so that even Hagrid had trouble keeping the school safe. Eventually the situation became so severe that students were asked to travel in pairs. A shipment of wild broomsticks turned the First Years' basic flight lessons into an airborne rodeo. Only some daring mid-air rescues by Harry himself prevented any serious injuries. Even so the school's infirmary was kept busy with minor broken bones. Some unpleasant samples from the Herbology gardens ended up in the students' dinner one night and a string of queasy students joined their brethren under Madame Pomfrey's care. This was especially suspicious considering that most of the meals served in the Great Hall were conjured, not cooked.

All these events were mild compared to the one thing that even a school as prestigious as Hogwart's fears the most-- an outbreak of Dark Magic. A senior student was presenting his Defence project when something went horribly wrong. A demonstration of the proper way to banish a demon instead summoned one, and but for the fact that Cassandra was standing right at Ground Zero it could have been a massacre. Deb felt no shame running to spread the alarm while Cassandra held off the creature long enough to allow the student to stumble out of the protected chamber.

The school's crisis response was swift and efficient. Snape and Dumbledore rushed to assist in repelling the hellspawn, while Miss Felicia was quickly conscripted into assisting in the evacuation of the school. She joined Hagrid, Filch and all the House prefects escorting students to safety. Everything became a blur as Deb found herself wandering the castle in search of strays, or loading a seemingly endless stream of nervous children into boats to cross the lake. Debra's quick wits were put to the test as she tried to answer questions and squash rumours without arousing panic.

The serene beauty of the lake as the flotilla crossed in silence gave the scene an eerie unreality and Deb couldn't stop herself from glancing over her shoulder, thinking of the battle that must be raging in the depths of Hogwart's Castle. Hagrid, the sweet old gentle giant, noticed her consternation. "Keep a stiff upper lip, Lass; yer makin' the students nervous. The chil'ren look up to ye now, and ye gots to set a good example." Deb looked up at him with a weak smile, but she still looked sick with worry, and possibly the rickety barge they shared.

In his own clumsy way, Hagrid tried to keep her distracted during the slow trip across the lake. "I, err, went down to London for supplies last week."

"Uh-huh" Deb mumbled, looking back as if she expected to see something horrible.

"I saw yer watchman couple o' times. Got hisself into a spot o' trouble losing you; but he seems to be doing a'right."

Deb stiffened slightly, relaxing when she realised they were alone. They had drifted far enough away from the others that no one would hear. "The proper term is Watch-er Hagrid, but thanks. I've been worried about him, but I didn't dare mention anything around here. People would just ask why I'm getting all fired up over a Muggle."

"He's not a Muggle." One meaty hand scooped up the young witchling before she could topple from the boat in shock. "Leastwise not completely, anyhow. I saw him a few times in the Leaky Cauldron, and a true Muggle couldn't even find the place. You might want to keep an eye on that there feller."

Deb chuckled, true laughter not hysteria. "Funny, that's what he's supposed to be doing with me."

§ § §

After the Day of the Demon, everyone was sure that the worst was behind them, and for a while it seemed to be true. But for some reason it felt to Debra like a lull between storms. Maybe it was just the extra stress of having to do both lectures and labs while Cassandra recovered from her ordeal. Dumbledore was rarely seen in public anyway, and Snape had the advantage of his dimly lit classroom to hide most of the damage, but Cassandra had no such luxuries. And so it fell to the overworked Teaching Assistant to pick up the slack. Within a couple of days though, everything was back to normal; about as close to normal as Hogwart's ever got anyway.

Snape seemed to have changed a bit himself since that day; not that any of the students knew him well enough to notice, but Deb could tell. It wasn't until one of their evening sword sessions that she finally learned what it was all about. With a deep sigh, as if admitting his greatest weakness, the professor asked a question Deb never would have predicted. "Felicia, you know Lady Cassandra well enough; why can't I seem to get close to her? We fought a demon together, for Darkness' sake, but she still won't say more than two words to me! She's such a capable, intelligent, beautiful woman, and I--"

Gods! Professor Severus Snape, Potions Instructor and Master of Slytherin House, was in love. What would the children think if they knew that he harboured such human emotions? They'd never believe it. "It's not your fault Sev. She's an independent woman, and she's had to be for a very long time. And it doesn't help that you remind her of someone she knew. Someone who treated her… very badly."

"Oh. I see," he said stiffly, putting up his sword for the night. "I don't have much of a chance then, do I?"

Deb had to firmly squash her matchmaker tendencies, while still keeping his sense of romance alive. Of all the people in the world, Snape needed a little romance in his soul. "There's always a chance, especially for those of us with all the time in the world."

The subject was dropped as they both walked back to the Faculty wing. The silence was profound in the ancient castle, which was why they both heard the faint crackling as they passed near the Library. Deb looked over and was the first to see the flickering light--Fire! In her mind, there was no greater sacrilege than the destruction of books; the sight of the flames awoke both rage and protective instinct within her. She quickly shoved Snape in the direction of the main building, "Go! Call the alarm. I'll try to stop it before it gets any worse."

"You can't go in there!"

She shook her head stubbornly; "Go on, they'll believe you sooner than I. I have to go in there; I can Feel something, and it might be one of the children. Just bring help as quickly as you can!"

Snape paused for a moment, then decided that argument would just waste precious time. "Good Luck then."

Debra didn't look back, she rushed into the smoky building before she lost her courage. Inside, it was worse than she ever could have imagined. The air was full of thick black smoke. Towering bookshelves blazed like walls of flame. Burning parchment fell from the upper levels like dying birds. And through it all was the nagging sense of something that was almost, but not quite an Immortal, urging her onward.

The flames themselves were unnatural; blazing red and orange in some places, purple or sickly green in others. It acted like a living thing, a hungry animal; it spread in many directions at once, sometimes swirling into whirlwind spirals. Several times she was almost certain that the fire deliberately moved to block her retreat.

"Halloo!" she called out into the darkness, though the roar of the flames swallowed up the sound. The closer she got to the heart of the blaze, the stronger the unknown presence buzzed in her head. For the first time, she found it hard to follow the sensation, and she had to double back several times.

Turning a corner, she suddenly found herself in a large open clearing, ringed in flame. The source of the Buzz was before her, a huge dark shadow. It took several startled moments for her to realise that there was nothing there to cast that shadow. Worse, in close quarters she knew that the Buzz wasn't simply different; it was wrong, horribly wrong. Instantly the shadow-figure turned around, and where a face should have been there was nothing, only a pair of eyes like glowing embers. A voice spoke out, high and reedy, "I don't know who you are, but you shouldn't meddle in things that are none of your business. Not that your foolish self-defence lessons would save the boy anyway."

Deb's own words were braver than she felt. "Make up your mind: are you threatening me, or am I not worth your time?"

The figure loomed toward the ceiling, as the flames leapt high around him; "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"Of course I know who you are. You're a coward who tries to murder infants and children; who would never attempt a fair fight because you know you wouldn't win."

That which had once been Voldemort hissed in anger, drawing the flames to him in a whirlwind of power. "You have no right to interfere!" he howled.

"Tradition only states not to interfere in combat, and I would not call anything that you have done to that child combat."

"You are a fool and weakling; easily destroyed."

A creature of smoke and shadow crashed over her small body like a tidal wave, shrieking in agony, she fell to her knees. "Get out of my head!"

"Felicia? Felicia!" A voice was heard in the distance, coming closer. Cassandra struggled amid the ruins of the library, clearing a path through the flames with blasts of pure will. The huddled heap of a body did not move at all until the witch stepped into the clearing. Then it jerked to its feet as if pulled by invisible strings.

"Cassandra!" The voice that came from Deb's lips was not her own, and it made the name into a hissing curse. "Why is it that every time I think you're gone forever, you always come back?"

"Voldemort!" Cassandra shouted, with equal recognition. "Let go of her right now, monster!"

"Oh, my dear Cassandra," the voice had now turned oily smooth, "such emotion is totally unlike you. Unless… Of course, she's one of yours isn't she? I wonder which would be more amusing: using her to kill you, or forcing you to have to kill her?"

Debra hand closed over the hilt of her dagger, but this host was unwilling. The throw was slow and clumsy, and his attempt to draw sword was met with rigid immobility. Denied his triumph, Voldemort reacted like a petulant child. To punish both his host and his enemy, he marched the body into the very heart of the flames.

"I. Don't. Think. So." Every word was torn from her throat as if it were a titanic struggle, yet the words still came. The voice was equal parts Debra and Fitzcairn, with an undercurrent of something else: a deep, almost sub-audible rumble like the growl of a tiger. "I said, GET OUT!"

She arched her back as though throwing off a heavy cloak, and the shadow-form of Voldemort flew out of every pore. It hung there for a moment before shredding like smoke in a high wind, and as the Immortal wizard disappeared, so too did most of the flames. Debra held her triumphant pose for a few seconds, but the effort of self-exorcism was too much for her. She collapsed in a crumpled heap in the center of the fire. Cassandra rushed forward, wrapping her own black robes around the still body.

§ § §

The true nature of the events surrounding the night of the fire was a closely guarded secret; in a place like Hogwart's, this in itself was a minor miracle. The actual damage was much less than it seemed, for much of those hellish flames had been illusionary: bait for the trap. There was no denying that there had been a fire, but the details were shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, mystery breeds rumour like a corpse breeds flies. One story had a phoenix nesting in the antiquities section; another claimed that a forbidden book had self-destructed. Some students firmly believed that Hagrid's pet dragon had migrated home, while others maintained just as fervently that Norbert had never been taken away in the first place. No one suspected the horrible truth--or so it seemed.

It was the height of midterms and Felicia found herself buried under a deluge of tests, projects and term papers, all waiting to be marked. Deb was just starting to put a dent in one pile of parchment when a familiar Buzz cut through her concentration. By the time a faint knock could be heard at the door, she had quickly stashed her Walkman (Muggle technology being highly discouraged on campus) and arranged herself in a suitable "Important Person being interrupted doing Important Things" pose.

Harry Potter's mop-like bangs and wire rimmed glasses peeked cautiously around the corner. "Excuse me, Ma'am. Can I speak with you?"

Deb sighed loudly; "Well, you are opening and closing your mouth, sounds are coming out, and I understand these sounds as words; so the answer I suppose is yes, you can speak with me." Harry blushed. Hogwart's did not neglect its students' mundane education, much to their regret sometimes, and Deb had been conscripted to assist in the English department as well. "What I mean to say," he stammered quickly, "is may I speak with you?"

Deb glanced at the pile of papers, predicting hours more work, but one had to keep one's priorities clear. She closed the test book she had been working on, sketching a quick sealing charm over it. "Please, come in Mr. Potter. Sit down." With the air of someone violating a holy sanctuary, Harry complied. He sat looking at his lap for several minutes, far too compliant for a Gryffindor; whatever was on his mind must be very weighty indeed. Finally even Deb's patience was taxed to its limits. "Well, Mr. Potter, there must be something you wanted to discuss. Your marks perhaps?"

"No Ma'am," Harry muttered to his shoes. His hands knotted themselves in his lap and a sound burst from him, not a sigh but a gathering of strength. Harry looked up and behind his patched spectacles there was a gleam of challenge in his eyes. "There was a question I asked you once before, and you never answered me. How did you know I was there in the hallway that night?"

Deb paused. How much did he know? How much had he guessed? She projected an air of scholarly rebuke; "One must remember that a Cloak of Invisibility does not make one silent."

"But I've had a lot of practice" he protested. Deb had learned about icy glares from the best of them and Harry's words faltered under her stern gaze. "That is, when I'm trying to be quiet, not even Mrs. Norris can find me."

"But I found you, didn't I? Is there anything else you wanted to say?"

Once again it took a considerable marshalling of resources before he would speak up. "Ma'am--I mean, Miss Felicia, I saw you when you got out of the Library on the night of the fire."

This was becoming more and more difficult. "We won't discuss why you were out of bed at that time of night, but thank you for your concern. As you can see, I'm quite all right now."

"That's just it, Ma'am. I saw you; Lady Cassandra had to carry you out and your skin was black! "

Think fast girl; think fast. "Yes, burning paper does tend to produce a lot of soot." The hard look of challenge was back in the young boy's eyes, along with a cool certainty. He shook his head firmly; "I grew up in England, Ma'am, in a Muggle house no less. I think I know what soot looks like. You were cooked as crisp as a Christmas goose, and yet two days later you still wiped the floor with Draco Malfoy."

"Do you really think that Hogwart's doesn't take care of their own? That I wouldn't receive the best possible treatment from the peerless Madam Pomfrey?" Harry deflated visibly, but only for a moment; "No Ma'am, of course not." Deb nodded crisply, inwardly hoping to be able to get out of this gracefully. "Well, if there's nothing else, I have my duties to return to; unless of course you want your papers to be graded poorly due to fatigue?"

"I have one more question, and perhaps this one you'd be willing to answer." So her verbal evasion hadn't fooled him one bit. "In my first year here at Hogwart's, I had this horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I was in Professor Snape's classes, any time he was around in fact. At first I just thought it was because he made me nervous, but it's started happening in Lady Cassandra's classes, and in yours. Is there something about me that's making this happen, or is it because of you?"

Deb took a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh; there was no turning back now. When he is ready for the next step, someone will be there. But why did that someone have to be her? "I see. Cassandra likes to say, if someone is able to ask a question without any prompting then they are ready to hear the answer. I want you to listen carefully to what I'm about to say, no matter how improbable it may seem. The truth is, you're different, and not just from the Muggles either. I'm sure you've heard a story by now, about how Voldemort killed your parents, and how he tried to kill you too. Well, that story isn't entirely true."

Hope lit up Harry's face like a beacon; "You mean my parents didn't die?" Deb was painfully reminded of Duncan, treading carefully as he spoke with his younger self. She had no such luxury; she spoke with brutal honesty. "No, I mean that you did die." She paused as the significance of the words sank in. "Last year, you got yourself into quite a bit of trouble--and I don't mean the troll." Harry, too shocked to speak, merely nodded. "But you recovered from the ordeal quite quickly, didn't you?" Again, he nodded. "That kind of thing is going to happen to you more often."

He finally found his voice again. "The trouble, Ma'am, or the recovery?" The boy was smart, very smart; if he hadn't been sorted to Gryffindor, he would have made an excellent Ravenclaw. Deb smiled gently: "Both. You, my good man, are an Immortal."

Harry's eyes went wide; his mouth hung open for a moment. "The Philosopher's Stone?" Deb shook her head firmly, "No, this is something you were born with. From the day Voldemort's bolt hit you, you cannot die. More accurately, you will die, but most of the time you will get better."

"Most of the time?" Harry asked sceptically. Deb nodded; "You cannot die, but you can be killed. The phrase 'Don't lose your head' has a very literal meaning among our kind. Immortality comes with a very high price, my boy. Fairly soon, you will start to notice that your friends are growing up, but you aren't. You will be forced to watch them grow old and feeble and die, while you stay young and strong. You won't be able to stay in one place for very long; for fear that others will notice that you don't change.

"That isn't the worst of it, though. You will have enemies; Voldemort is only the first. You will be challenged, attacked, for no other reason than because of what you are. It is called the Gathering; an ancient life and death conflict that is fought to the last man. In the end, there can be only one."

Harry looked startled, but not afraid: a good sign. "What," he stammered, "what can I do?"

"The best thing for you to do is to stay at Hogwart's; your wizard's education will put you at a great advantage over most of the others, and this castle is one of the safest places I have ever seen. When you're off-campus, stay alert. Keep close to cemeteries, churches, temples… anything considered Holy Ground. You'll be safe there. And most important of all, arrange to get some extra-credit courses in swordsmanship. Talk to Snape; he'll give you personal tutelage in you will need to survive."

"But--Snape hates me!"

"Don't be mislead, what seems to be hatred or anger may be something else entirely." Deb smiled gently, "The best thing for you to do right now would be to go back to your dorm and think carefully about everything I've told you. It's a lot to accept in such a short time."

§ § §

Shortly after the midterm rush, it was announced that a new permanent professor had been found for the Defence department. Disappointment was felt keenly throughout the halls and houses of Hogwart's; in a relatively short time, the two Subs had earned the respect, love and loyalty of their pupils. The students weren't the only ones who regretted their leaving though….

"I just wish I could do more," Deb lamented to her mentor in the privacy of their suite.

Cassandra shook her head with a gentle smile on her face. "That is the way with substitute teachers; we put in all the effort, but we rarely get to see the fruits of our labours."

"That's not what I mean! What will happen to Harry, to the others? Voldemort may still be around, and he's much stronger than anyone suspects. And it's not fair that I just dump the truth in Potter's lap and then disappear. I'm not even sure if I should have told him in the first place, but I couldn't avoid those pointed questions for long."

"Our task here is to educate these children, not to protect them. As you yourself said, Hogwart's Castle is one of the safest places in the world. As for Harry's revelation; you made a choice based on the circumstances and it's not my place to say if it was a good choice or not. Mr. Potter is a survivor, of that I have no doubt and I suspect that he may already have a protector of his own." Cassandra suddenly gave a smile that made her look as young as any of her students; "You've been worrying too much. Come on, there's a Quiddich game today and I want to be there. Ravenclaw is playing."

Deb returned the grin in kind; she had become a Quiddich fan the moment she had been introduced to it. Raised as she had been on the fast and rough game of hockey, she found the fast scoring and aerial dog fighting of the wizards' national sport to be quite exciting. The biggest problem she had was in deciding where her loyalties lie; did she support her mentor's former house by following Ravenclaw, or cheer for the superstar talent of Harry Potter on the Gryffindor team? Most of the time she just came to the stands for the thrill of the game itself, no matter who won.

This year, Harry wasn't the only skilled player on the field, and the games stretched to near record duration. Even Deb, who was used to triple-overtime tiebreakers in hockey, often felt the strain. Today's game was no exception and after many hours in a hard bench seat, she finally slipped away to do some packing. She devoted so much of her attention to the seemingly hopeless task that she didn't noticed the tiny golden sphere zip in through a window and dive into one of her bags.

That night there was to be a formal dinner in their honour and those who weren't still out on the playing field gathered in the Great Hall to see them off. The feast was miraculous as usual, but the all the food tasted like paper in Deb's mouth and the praises lavished upon the interim teachers fell upon deaf ears. Cassandra smiled graciously enough for the both of them and did her best to cut short the leave-taking for Deb's benefit.

The Express could not change its appointed schedule for the convenience of two people, so they travelled by broom. Professor McGonagall was kind enough to Transfigure their luggage to be able to follow them and, as long as they didn't stray too close to established Muggle flight paths, there should be no problems getting back to London. To ease their return to mundane reality, the pair took rooms in a lovely little bed and breakfast on Diagon Alley. Neither one of them had any real desire to rush back to their own lives, so why hurry? A couple of appearances in mundane London served to reassure Savage, and his superiors, that all was well.

Deb was destined for one last strange occurrence, though, before she returned to the life of a struggling writer. As she unpacked some of her things that first night at the B&B, she gasped in amazement as something small and fast moving zipped past her ear to fly out the window. Moments later, another blur zoomed past her upper-story suite. Screeching to a halt, the Gryffindor Seeker hovered outside, waving the snitch triumphantly. Deb opened the window and, with a broad grin, congratulated the boy. "Nice catch, Mr. Potter!"

"Thanks Ma'am," he replied with a grin of his own. "Just a touch out of bounds though." Deb chuckled softly to herself as she watched the broomstick rise swiftly above the cloud cover, wondering if she would ever meet up with the incomparable Harry Potter again.


 

Thanks to everyone who joined me on this wild ride, following the whim of my often fickle Muses. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed creating it. I hope to have this year's Christmas story finished before New Year's, but I can't guarantee anything. From what I've read so far, I have a lot to live up to!

Carpe snitch!

The Ghost Cat

MWC: Special Delivery

Posted By: Palladia <cmcintyr@alltel.net>
Date:
Thursday, 29 November 2001, at 8:20 a.m.

Sailing on silent wings, the barn owl flipped its taloned feet forward to grasp the top of the gilt picture frame. Braking, it stalled, and as it landed, it dropped a very small envelope - a barn owl is a very small owl - which fluttered to the flagstone floor in front of the portrait. The envelope flared, smoked, and the tendrils rose to the man in the portrait, making his nostrils twitch.

The pictured figure began to mutter, "worse than snuff," pulled a snowy handkerchief from the lace at his wrist, and sneezed daintily.

Glancing around warily, Hugh Fitzcairn stepped down out of his portrait and disappeared around a corner of the darkened corridor in the far reaches of Hogwarts.


The main problem with Hogwarts, Fitz considered, was that wherever one wanted to go, he couldn't get there from here. He had the impression that the architect had never heard of Euclid, or maybe magic never ran in straight lines.

He needed very badly to get to Professor Dumbledore's rooms, and after his fourth failure, he squeaked like a terrified mouse. Jenny the barn owl arrived in response, her eyes in her heart-shaped face staring at him as she sidled from his wrist to his elbow and back again, leaving small holes in the blue satin of his sleeve. Fitz had once made the mistake of trying to launch her before she was ready, and the holes had gone all the way through his skin. He fumbled around in the many pockets of the suit, fished out a ha'penny, handed it to Jenny, and whispered, "Hagrid." Then, he politely awaited her pleasure and let her think for a while before she spread her wings, and took off.

If nothing else, maybe Hagrid could find Fitz something else to wear. At the time the portrait had been painted, Fitz had been seeing an actress. Well, he admitted to himself, several actresses, and they had (separately) persuaded him to pose for Gainsborough, shortly after the artist had done "Blue Boy." Had Fitz had the slightest idea that he'd be trapped on that canvas for over two centuries, he'd have posed as a peasant, in comfortable rags. Closer to the truth, anyway.

Shaggy and shambling, if anyone could get Fitz where he needed to go, it was Hagrid. It was hours before he showed up, though, murmuring something about a baby dragon. Immediately, he tried to withdraw the comment with "I shouldn't have said that," and Fitz waved his forgetfulness, knowing a lot about things better left unsaid.

By the time they made it to Dumbledore's rooms, the old man was long asleep, the fire burned down to coals. Like a hearthrug, there was a large white wolfpelt thrown down near the warmth.

"Cassie, my love!" Hagrid crooned, "What d'ya know about dragons?"

The rug's outlines became filmy, and Cassandra lay there, sighing with exasperation. "What have you gotten into this time? Dragons are best left in caves: We went over this when you had the griffon pup."

"But the egg was so pretty, and it only smelled a little like sulfur. How bad could a dragon baby be?"

"Dragonets grow up to be dragons, and you don't want to be around when they do. Show me." Again, the shimmering, and a white wolf trotted out behind Hagrid when he left.

Fitz sprawled in a chair, glad to be sitting for a change, and listened to the soft snoring that came from the bed.

Palladia


With the school year drawing to a close, Dumbledore woke up early these days, rising with the sun. Peering around his room, he spied Fitz, encased in satin, lopped over one of the hearth chairs. Crossing the room, the old man patted the tangled curls and mercifully converted the satin into a jogging suit.

Fitz sighed in contentment, slithered off the chair, and suddenly awoke as he hit the floor.

"Mr. Fitzcairn, I presume?" asked the professor, pouring steaming tea from a pot. Fitz realized that even lying on the stone floor, he was more comfortable than he'd been in years, and tried to curl up like a pillbug to sleep longer.

"No, no, no, Hugh, I need you awake. Have some tea." The professor filled two cups, dropped in a cube of sugar apiece, and upon further consideration, two more in the cup he set beside Fitzcairn's hand. The teapot he put on the hearthstone, a careful distance from the fire.

Fitz hated to wake up. It had been so long since he had slept, forever standing in the portrait. Blearily, he looked at the teapot. He was practically nose to spout with it when the lid rose and Fitz found himself staring at a toothily grinning mouse. Never before, Fitz blinked, had a hangover been this bad. Must be the turpentine in the paints.

"Pay no attention to him," Dumbledore banged the lid of the teapot down, "He came with the tea service, and I haven't the heart to evict him. Have a crumpet."

It had been so long since Fitzcairn had eaten anything. He knew he was making a pig of himself, but the tea and crumpets felt so good in his mouth. If only he could have a good, well-stuffed meerschaum, he'd listen to old Dumbledore forever.

"We are having a problem with one of you," the professor began.

"Trust me, Professor, there's only one of me," Fitzcairn preened a little, giving his most winning smile.

"I meant, with one of you Immortals."

Fitzcairn choked on his crumpet, coughing into the fire. Dumbledore might be a wizard, but he still wasn't supposed to know about Immortality.

"Cassandra tells me that you can't have children."

The old eyes were serene, calmly asking for verification.

"That's right."

"And that so long as your head rests upon your shoulders, you live."

What else had that woman said, Fitz wondered, the crumpet suddenly tasting like sawdust.

"That would account, I presume, for Nearly Headless Nick," Dumbledore mused, gazing at a cobwebby corner of the ceiling, from which small eyes glinted back.

"It may be," Fitz admitted, cautiously.

"One of our lads has been kidnapped, we hear. We have been told, further, that either the woman who has taken him has a baby, or he won't be back. He's quite a talented wizard, and a Seeker in quidditch. We'd hate to lose him."


Stroking his chin consideringly, Fitz replied, "Professor, while I am certainly willing to give this project the old school try, I doubt I could quicken her, either." Still, it had been a long time, and Fitz's quick brown fox of a mind leaped over the sleeping dogs into pragmatism.

Watching the surmise play across the younger man's features, Dumbledore grinned behind his flowing beard. "Actually, it wasn't your, ah, prowess at direct efforts that we seek, but something more in the line of chicanery."

"Ch. . .ch. . . Professor, really! Something as important as this deserves an honest attempt, surely. Perhaps several. The boy needn't be back at school until fall, and. . ."

Dumbledore held up his hand, and although Fitz continued to protest, no further sound was heard.
"We need a sample of her DNA. Could you manage that, do you think? For what I suspect you might call a 'con.' " He waved, permissively.

"But the closer to the wellspring, the better, don't you think, Professor? Certainly I would be happy to help." Fitz, considering the possibilities, was signing on for the intrigue.

Smothering a smile, the professor went on, "However you acquire the material, once we have it, we can proceed with the little play. As for the boy, perhaps you could offer yourself as a substitute hostage. The lady is quite comely."

"That sounds. . . promising." Modern jogging clothing was so much more discreet than tight satin, for which Fitz was grateful. With any kind of luck the old man would never know what was happening.

"Obviously, we can't avail ourselves of the services of the police, but then, neither can Lydia. So here's the address. We have made arrangements for you to take the Express back to London with the students. Hagrid will fill you in on the way, and supply you with funds."

Now, that was truly promising. Funds. Ah. All those years of two-dimensional existence were gone, and he was becoming more three-dimensional by the second.

Leaving Hogwarts, he glanced back over his shoulder. There was one particularly grotesque gargoyle on a corner of the building, and it winked at him.


Standing in the June sunlight, he squinted at the scrap of parchment Dumbledore had thrust at him before palming him off on Hagrid. Flowing across in spidery copperplate, it announced, Lydia Jameson, 4 Nigella Lane, Sunbury-on-Thames.

By the time Hugh Fitzcairn had paid the price for harrying an excellent tailor, he looked every inch the gentleman he wasn't.

Still, there was something missing, so as he dawdled past the picket fence at number four, he reached over to pluck one of the blossoms to use as a boutonniere. It was a perfect tiny corsage: dots of sky blue within specks of white, all surrounded by feathery leaves.

As he pulled the stem through his lapel, a voice behind him identified it: "It's called Love-in-a-mist. The perfect name for a beautiful little flower, isn't it?"

Adelie, Fitz whispered to himself in despair. He'd know that voice anywhere. She had been one of the actresses who had talked him into the portrait, but alone among the bevy, Adelie truly could act.

He took a deep breath, turned toward the voice, and held out his arms. The woman's eyes widened, then her face went very still. Without a word, she walked into his arms, and tucked her head under his chin where it still neatly fit, just as it had two centuries ago.


Hedwig arrived on stage, exactly when she was to be there, dropped the envelope on the table by the witch, and exited to thunderous applause. The audience, mostly tourists, loved it. They loved it at every show, and the kids were especially wowed during the matinees. Lydia Jameson got the top billing in Bell, Book, and Candle, but Hedwig's snowy self was definitely the icing. Since he was the owl's "trainer," and since he had shown a particular facility with special effects, the hostage was most welcome to the backstage crew.

Fitz couldn't believe how easily he had settled into this domesticity, if ever an actor's life could be considered "domestic." They were out late, slept in later, and the little wizard seemed to be having the time of his life, a most complaisant hostage.

He had overheard the boy whispering to the owl about "muggles," and wondered what that meant. He and the boy were deep into the logic of whist, Fitz having already learned the hazards of teaching dicing to children who had magic at their fingertips. Clearly, there was no homesickness to be found here.

Fitz, as an agent of Dumbledore's, was finding his coat turning to double. Adelie was persuading him of the innate injustice of her childless plight, and when he tried to summon up arguments for the status quo, he found himself wordless. Adelie was clearly doing very well by the boy, who seemed to be thriving. He wasn't in any sense a prisoner, more an indulged nephew.

Late one night, after a Bell with eight curtain calls, the giddy trio arrived at the cottage to see an old man whose hair and beard flowed over his robes. Running to him, skidding to a halt, his words tumbling out, the boy told of the play, Hedwig's part, and his own contributions.

They sat out even later under the stars, Fitz nursing his last pipe before going into the house, watching as the old man and the actress deliberately charming each other. Finally, they got down to business: the first stage of negotiations.

Gently, with every evidence of merely asking a rhetorical question, Adelie said, "What is a Quickening, if not magic?"


He doesn't even seem very restless, this time, Adelie mused, watching Fitz explain to the boy how delicately a finesse must be done so as not to alarm the prey. All the whist hands were laid out, four rows of suits at four seats, and he subtracted a club from the hand across the table to follow the round of the trick. Always before, a few weeks and his eye would be roving. Well, Cassandra warned me that a love charm might take a very long time to work on an Immortal.

Remorselessly, he pulled down cards, swept up the tricks, and ended with all the cards neatly snaking in front of him. He gestured grandly with his pipe as he told the boy how much money he had just won, assuming the vacant seats had been occupied by players. They grinned together, conspirators, and Adelie knew that she would soon be sitting in one of the vacant seats.

She folded her arms in front of her, wondering what it would be like to hold the slight weight of a baby, to nuzzle the down on top of his head, to watch him laugh and learn.

"Have you got a good understudy?" Dumbledore had asked. "It's nine months for a cow or a countess, and we don't know how long for an Immortal, or even if we can work this out."

He seemed quite unworried about his young protege, and when she had heard some tales about the Dursleys, his only relations with whom he usually spent summers, Adelie knew why. What she didn't was know what would happen next.

When her shadow fell over the cards, Fitz reached back to catch her hand, nudged out a chair with a foot, and there she was, in the game. She watched as the agile fingers shuffled and cut the cards, dealt fast and flat, each card coming to rest at its destination.

As she sorted out her hand, she asked, "Where did you learn to play whist?"

"I knew how to play, but it was Dumbledore who really tuned me up. Your Professor," he said in a chiding tone to the boy, "is a cardsharp."

"Does he know about a finesse?"

Fitz looked embarrassed. "I'm afraid he does, my boy. Took me to the cleaners before I caught on."


Going well tonight, Adelie thought, during the second act, and with a little luck we'll all get through this in one piece, and go out for something to eat.

When Hedwig arrived onstage with the envelope, Adelie opened it automatically, prepared to deliver the line that went with it, but when she looked at the sheet of foolscap, it said, simply, "no."

She knew immediately what it meant. All her coquetry, all her charm with Dumbledore had not availed. One hundred thirty-four previous performances got her through to the end of the act, and as she sat in her dressing room, she stared at the single word in very ornate calligraphy.

She wondered if he'd visit tonight, and if he did, what they would say. There was a finality in that unadorned word that robbed her of arguments.

Adelie got through her curtain calls, then sat numbly in front of the mirror, not looking at her reflection, trying to get the energy to take off her makeup and get into street clothes.

When she raised her eyes to the mirror, it was not her own image she saw, but the long, drifty hair and beard of the wizard. He smiled at her, sadly, sympathetically, as if to encourage her to accept the doom of her hopes.

When Fitz and the boy arrived, Fitz was ebullient, but she saw that the boy had known the contents of the envelope his owl had brought to her. He was quiet, watchful, waiting. Wiping off makeup, Adelie discarded tissues like snow, then ducked behind the screen to pull on a light sweater and slacks for the restaurant.

She walked between the two of them, each holding one of her hands, the first time ever the boy had offered to take her hand. Adroitly, Fitz kept up both sides of a conversation, and slowly, it came to her that he had known, too.

"There are, of course, drawbacks to being Immortal, but I assure you, this is better than being stuck on canvas. Have you ever read Dorian Gray? I used to ask Oscar how he got such an idea, but he would never tell me."

Neatly, he pulled her toward him so he could walk with an arm around her waist, and tucked her hand under his outside enbow, holding it close to his side. As the three of them turned into the door of the late-night restaurant, she asked what studies were on the boy's plate for his upcoming school year.

"Advanced Apparition, Potions and Charms, III, and Thaumatological Ethics," he said. I've heard that Professor Dumbledore himself teached T.E."

"I suppose he would," she replied. "What do you want for dinner?"

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