The normal bustling and whispers that preceded meetings of the Order were as prevalent at this one as any other, despite the fact that the witches and wizards gathered in the kitchen of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place were known - unofficially, although widely recognised - as the 'inner circle' of the Order. Each one could go toe-to-toe with members of Lord Voldemort's own inner circle, and several had fended off the Dark Lord himself, although usually at great personal cost.
After all, for each person to survive a meeting with Voldemort, there were at least a dozen who did not.
The sound of Dumbledore clearing his throat silenced the group as effectively as Hogwarts students before a feast. His countenance was serious but not grim, which gave those present some hope that this meeting would not be preceded by a moment of silence for fallen friends - which, these days would make it an exception.
"As you may be aware, my dear friend and mentor Nicholas Flamel, finally passed away last year, after a long and fruitful life." The corner of his lips quirked, and if the aged headmaster felt any grief at the thought, he hid it exceedingly well. "In fact, there have been numerous complaints about just how long, in particular, it was.
With his passing, however, he left to me a rather impressive library of texts both rare and dangerous on nearly every subject of study known to wizard-kind. While pursuing these, I happened to stumble across a text of rituals related to sacrifice, written by the Mayans some seventeen hundred years ago.
Among these rather gory rituals I found and translated - with the invaluable aid of Lily and Remus, of course - a lengthy cantrip used by their priests to summon the ideal sacrifice. What immediately caught my interest about the ritual was that it seemed to entirely ignore barriers such as location, time period, or, for that matter, dimension."
This statement caused another outbreak of murmuring, which seemed rather centred about Lily Potter and Remus Lupin. The theory that the Veil was a portal to another dimension was widely accepted in the wizarding world - and never officially denied by the Unspeakables, which was as good as confirmation. For the average Joe Magician, however, anything to do with alternate dimensions was about as relevant or attainable as the Fountain of Fair Fortune.
It took Dumbledore clearing his throat twice - at which point Sirius Black offered him a lemon lozenge - before he could capture the group's attention once more.
"I was, naturally, eager to modify the ritual so it might be able to serve our purposes in the fight against Lord Voldemort better." He paused for a moment to let the instinctive flinch pass, taking advantage of the break to shift the lozenge to his left cheek. "And two days ago, I successfully wrote down the requirements for a seven-person ritual to summon a hero to our aid in this war."
Even Albus Dumbledore's magnificent personality was completely unable to stop pandemonium from breaking out at this piece of information. Voices were raised and objections were shouted over each other, which Dumbledore and Snape weathered with identical fortitude, albeit with very different expressions.
An explosion from the end of Moody's wand, however, accomplished what seemed to be beyond even Dumbledore, as every other person in the room froze where they were and eyed the ex-Auror warily. One might think that Order meetings would a reprieve from his habit of hexing people painfully to keep them on their toes, but Alastor Moody had a two-word motto, and he took every word in it very literally.
"Yes, thank you Alastor." Dumbledore beamed, and the members of the foremost group in the war against the Dark slunk shamefacedly back to their seats. (Alice Longbottom's chair bodily flung over out when she tried to sit down, and she fetched a new one to the sound of mutterings about insufficient vigilance.) "Now, I understand that a few of you may have some concerns about this plan" - James Potter scoffed disbelievingly - "so I yield the floor to anyone who wishes to lay forth a cogent argument against its implementation."
"We can't trust 'em." said Moody instantly, ignoring the multitude of people raising their hands like schoolchildren. "We don't know where they'll come from, we don't know what they'll be like."
"I concur." said Severus silkily, his words - like all of his words - drawing looks of disgust from the remnants of the Marauders. "Not knowing the differences between the dimensions, this person may hold a grudge against one or all members of the Order."
The Headmaster held up his hands, signalling for peace. "Yes, Severus, Alastor, both of you raise valid and well-articulated points. However, the nature of the summoning is such that the summoned must obey any commands coming from the focal point of the septagram, and I have modified it further so that they are unable to recognise any of the eight participants of the ritual."
"Is it right, though?" Bill Weasley interjected. "You said the Mayans used it to summon sacrifices; I doubt they gave them a bus ride back home afterwards. How do we plan on sending them back?"
Dumbledore paused for an instant, before sighing. "We do not." he admitted. "For whomsoever we summon, this will be a one-way trip."
Another round of mutterings began, clearly against the idea.
"I call for a vote on this motion." announced the former Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. "For a matter such as this, no less than a two-thirds majority will suffice.
Dumbledore sighed. "Nine opposed, to four for. It would seem my own vote is inconsequential." He nodded. "Very well. This meeting of the Order of the Phoenix is adjourned."
"Astronomy Tower needs reinforcements now!"
"Everywhere needs reinforcements now, you blithering moron!"
"How the fuck did he get his hands on dragons?"
"Three giants killed in the Forest. There's another two on the Quidditch Pitch, but the Weasleys trapped it in some kind of swamp."
"Headmaster! Headmaster, are you all right?"
"We'll hold it down here, Potter. You get up and secure the Astronomy Tower."
Ringing in his ears. The world was blurry, but it was coming into focus. His mind was working again, enough to make sense of what he was seeing and hearing. Blissful incomprehension was at an end, it seemed.
Ah well. This was no time for idle layabouts anyway.
"Quite marvellous, I assure you, Remus. It always warms the heart of an educator when they are surpassed by their pupil."
"It was seven-on-one and she cut off your arm." he growled. "Perhaps admiration is not quite the appropriate response to the situation, Headmaster."
He sighed. How could he explain the pride he would feel in even the worst of pupils when they surpassed themselves to achieve something that others never thought them capable of? He was, at the risk of sounding arrogant, a talented enough duellist that seven-on-one odds would not been favourable for the average witch or wizard. Indeed, had the young Black - well, Lestrange now - been even slightly less capable or ruthless than she was, then the outcome of the skirmish would have been very different indeed.
But then, he was too old and too busy to have time to spend dwelling on 'what if's.
"On your feet, Headmaster. We've got to get you inside. Madam Pomfrey-" Remus swallowed, grimaced. "Well, Snape's taken over the infirmary. He's been stockpiling potions- what are you doing?"
A glowing runic band emerged from the tip of his wand and wrapped itself around what was left of his upper arm. He slumped back wearily. The fight had left him with little.
"A relatively simple spell, Remus." he explained. "Exceedingly handy to deal with missing extremities, but has the significant disadvantage that it can only be cast upon one's own self."
He suspected that it would come of no surprise to anyone if he informed them that he had learnt of the spell from Alastor.
"Headmaster… we don't have many left."
He closed his eyes. "How many?"
"Of the Order? Maybe two dozen."
Add another handful of teachers, Aurors and seventh year students to that. At a stretch, forty. Forty against the combined armies of giants, werewolves, Acromantulas, Death Eaters and Tom himself.
No. Focus. Merlin, if Gellert could see me now.
"The students." he said, pushing himself to his feet with his left arm. He swayed, and Remus caught him about the waist. "Evacuate them."
"We can't, Headmaster. All the passages out of Hogwarts are either blocked or besieged." His jaw clenched, mind no doubt once more churning over Peter's betrayal.
"The Marauders did not find every secret passage in the castle, Remus." he chuckled, amused by the lycan's confidence. "The seventh floor, next to the tapestry of Barnabas and the Trolls."
Aberforth would likely not appreciate a few hundred students being foisted onto him, but he had every confidence that his brother would make the right - if not easy - choice in the end. And while he himself may have been the more renown of the two, Abe was an accomplished duellist in his own right.
In fact, he would likely make a formidable opponent for any save Tom himself, were the man to concern himself with matters occurring beyond his pub. Unfortunately, he had been unable to find any way of getting his brother to look outside those four - rather grimy - walls.
A quiet patronus, too feeble for him to recognise, scampered up to Remus and vanished after leaving a quick message. The werewolf's jaw clenched in futile despair - an expression that he himself was all too familiar with.
"There's no one there, Headmaster." he reported. "Everyone we have is busy holding off the Death Eaters, so there's nobody in the castle to lead the students out."
There were a dozen Order members and teachers around him, all focussing on repelling the enemy forces from this largest breach in the wards. The rest were scattered across the grounds, fighting where they could and falling where they could not, but defeat, followed either by retreat or death, was inevitable.
Seven and one members of the Order…
Oh, but this war has made a monster of me.
"I am considering calling in- calling in reinforcements, Remus."
He was subject to an incredulous stare.
"Considering?" Remus yelped, his voice rising an octave. "If you have reinforcements, we need them yesterday!"
He sighed, watching as another wave of green death was blocked by hastily transfigured boulders. "It is not quite that simple, I am afraid." he said quietly. "The reinforcements I have in mind are in a different… place."
Comprehension washed slowly across his prematurely aged face like a breath of dragon-flame, leaving horror in its wake.
"No." Remus said, shaking his head slowly. "No, no, no. We voted against it, remember? Besides, how could we- I mean- but- no, Headmaster!"
Why are you doing this to me, Remus. Can you not see how this breaks my heart?
But then, no one said that a heart cannot break twice.
"I have often wondered," he whispered, almost distractedly. "Just how far I would go to stop this. Would I take one life to save a thousand? Would I sacrifice all the love and life that is the only thing worth living for and then demand their death, just to halt the rampage of this- this madman? And yet every time I ask myself, I do so knowing that I would do it in a heartbeat, because I understand necessity.
A thousand lives for one, Remus, but the Greater Good does not offer the comfort that people often imagine. The cost is a personal one, and the taste it leaves behind is enough to embitter a lifetime."
"You will be the focus?"
The Marauder's voice was dull, lifeless, and he discovered - as he had so often before discovered - that there was no limit to the amount of hatred that one could hold for themselves.
To destroy the soul of a man so vibrant, so animated; for the crimes that I have committed, there could be no sufficient justice.
Six other Order members gathered around at his behest, none who had any idea of what was being done. They merely knew that Albus Dumbledore was about to do some magic that required their assistance, and thus believed unquestioningly that he would do what was right.
Do not look at me with such trusting eyes; I do not deserve your loyalty.
If you knew, if you had any idea of what I was about to do, you would turn your back on me and never look at me again with anything but disgust.
But you do not know. You do not even ask.
As ever, sirs, your faith - your unanswerable gift - leaves me…
The ritual was long, involving a great deal more ceremonial chanting and dramatic gesturing than one was accustomed to in the age of wands, and the half-a-dozen defenders left were hard-pressed to hold the opposing force at bay while the summoning occurred.
The end result was not spectacular. With a pop that sounded suspiciously like apparition, a figure appeared with its wand out, pointing straight at them.
Both sides froze, staring at each other for a single long moment.
Shorter, perhaps, and most definitely thinner. The wild hair was outrageously messy instead of only artfully so, and the eyes, instead of hazel, were a brilliant, glittering emerald. But the resemblance was too close, the features so uncannily alike that there could be no doubt as to the boy's parentage.
Neither Remus nor he would ever tell the Potters, of that he was certain. To lose a child once was a tragedy; to lose him twice would leave them irreparably shattered.
And how will I ever face them again, after what I am about to do?
Do not lie to yourself, Albus; if you do not tell them, it will be because you are afraid and nothing more.
"I know you." the boy insisted, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on Remus. Slowly, almost painfully, they slid over to him. "I know you."
None of them were yet capable of speech, so they stood in silence, staring in ox-dumb awe at the boy who had appeared in their midst.
"Is this Hogwarts?" the boy asked curiously, oddly composed in the face of what most would consider an alarming turn of events. He was finally able to find his voice.
"Yes." he said, willing a host of apologies and regrets through that single word alone - but the boy heard none of that. How could he?
"Why is it on fire?" the boy asked, in a tone that he was accustomed to hearing during the more soporific of Wizengamot sessions.
"Dragons." managed Remus, clearly not up to a more verbose explanation just yet.
The boy turned, and the full weight of the regard was upon them once more, judging (and to his mind, accusing). "Why don't I recognise you?" he said, tone sharp and brittle as gleaming ice.
What could he possibly say?
"A minor side-effect of the ritual we used to bring you here, my boy." he said at last. "You see, I am afraid that this is not your world." A harsh choking noise came from Remus, which they both ignored.
"My name is Albus Dumbledore. Lower your wand, please."
The boy lowered his wand, then paused, staring at his own hand in confusion. "I was… compelled." he said, raising an eyebrow. "Another minor side effect?"
Every word you say cuts like a dagger to my heart; are you doing this on purpose, child-who-knows-me, or is this a divine justice?
"Yes, I apolo-"
"No need, Albus Dumbledore. " He was interrupted before he could finish. "It was necessary."
He stared, speechless, at the boy standing across of him, who spoke of necessity with the same pained familiarity that he himself had gained through a multitude of deaths, at the boy who knew him…
It seems I am destined to hurt this child no matter which world he is in. Somehow, in some way, this is my fault.
"Do you not wish to know my name, Albus Dumbledore?"
He closed his eyes, wishing for some other question, any other question but that, coming as it did from a face so familiar yet alien.
"No." No, never, child-who-knows-me. To you I am as poison; you should stay away. "It is better that I not know."
And just like that the boy had turned, accepting his words, his wisdom with an ease that took his breath away and left a sharp, sudden ache in his chest.
Now why did you do that, child?
You should have insisted, should have forced your name on me, so that I cannot hide my face from the truth any longer.
After all, I already know what your name was supposed to be.
But you were never born here.
"Why am I here, Albus Dumbledore?"
The words hit him like a bucket of cold water, making him wonder for an instant if he had been thinking out loud. Then he understood what was being asked, and his heart, if possible, sunk even further.
"Defend us." he said simply, turning towards the grounds. Before them were assembled the forces of the Dark, always testing them, ever pushing further. Prod and pull.
The boy inclined his head. "How many?"
"Thirty at least. Perhaps more." Even as he spoke, a series of sharp cracks heralded the arrival of another dozen Death eaters, their gilded silver masks denoting them as members of the Inner Circle. His breath caught in his throat as he contemplated the impossible odds he was consigning the child to.
But then the boy sheathed his wand and pulled out another, one that he himself was intimately familiar with. Its counterpart hummed in his robes, eager to meet its twin from another world.
Brother. It sang in his head. Brother that laughs in blood and betrayal as I laugh.
Hope, immortal hope filled him once more; hope that though the castle may fall, Hogwarts would still survive, and that in pulling a child from his home to this war-torn hell, he had not doomed the child to an untimely death. He would not have thought it possible for anyone, save perhaps Tom or himself, to prevail against such a multitude of opponents, but if the child had won that wand…
"Can you defeat them?"
A wry smile crossed the child's face. Casual flicks of his wand, and magnificent conjurations and transfigurations took hold. Wooden spiders with razor-sharp legs, stone panthers that prowled in the shadows, ground turned to a marsh that hissed and bubbled ominously - it had been years since he saw another prepare magic on this scale. He had been answered.
"Should I pity them, Albus Dumbledore?"
"No." he said sadly. "Just kill them."
The hard-won lessons of a dark, dangerous youth; spare your compassion for those who need it. Do not waste it on enemies, or friends who fell at your side. One man can only hold so much inside of him.
"Pity the living, yes?" the boy agreed. "And they are already dead."
"Meet us at the Hog's Head afterwards. Do you know it?"
"I know it."
He turned back to face the castle, directing the Order members left to head back and help the students flee this madhouse. The sounds of war and death filled the air - screaming dragons and shouted curses - but from behind him there was only an ominous silence, as the boy conjured miracles with a wave of a mythical wand.
Then he arrived.
There was no crack or pop that would have heralded the appearance of a lesser wizard, and with his face towards the castle, he had no way of seeing who was on the grounds. Yet, for an instant, the world seemed to hold its breath, and when it resumed, everything was just that much colder, that much darker.
Before he ever turned around, he knew who had arrived.
The darkness clung to Lord Voldemort (who was once a boy named Tom Marvolo Riddle) like a death knell, as if the moonlight on this cloudless night could not dare to touch him. As he passed, the Death Eaters stood straighter, fought harder, seeking to impress the one who had made it all possible.
At his side, the boy's wand had stilled, staring at the Dark Lord with an inscrutable expression. There was no visible fear or panic as had filled the faces of so many others; instead there seemed only to be a calm recognition.
"See the last who comes, Albus Dumbledore." the boy said softly, eyes still facing forward. "You send me to my death."
I know. Damn it - damn me most of all - but I know, and I do it anyway.
"How long can you give us?" he asked grimly, avoiding what they both knew was inevitable.
The wand was flickering again, faster this time; laying such an array of traps and curses that, were the foe any other, it would have been sufficient to slaughter entire armies. But as it were, he knew, it would be insufficient.
"Three minutes." the boy said. "Perhaps five."
He turned his gaze to the fleeing survivors, the slowly retreated members of the Order. "It will be enough." He murmured. It will have to be enough.
One child's life and one more stain upon my soul is the price to save our world from destruction. So be it.
He turned back once more, leaving the boy to his fate, only to halt as the boy spoke one last time.
"Do you pity me, Albus Dumbledore?"
Save your pity for living, Albus…
But I was never very good at that anyway.
"Yes." he whispered hoarsely.
How could I not.