“Lumos,” Shiloh hissed quietly to her wand, and its end sparked to life, glowing pleasantly with a dim, but sufficient light. She let the wand hover over the pages of the book, illuminating the letters on the musty smelling parchment. It had taken her forever to find this book, the one that, if any could, held the solution to her problem. Even Madam Pince had had trouble locating the book in all the many volumes of Hogwarts library. The trouble was, the book was old, but was still the largest encyclopedia of potions to date. Now, after she had spent two straight weeks searching for it, after she had been referenced to it from another book, her determination wouldn't allow her to stop pouring over it, even if it was after midnight.
She readjusted to a new position, trying to get as comfortable as she could be as she lay on her stomach. The humongous book rested on her mattress before her and she had her blankets pulled over her head, half to conceal the light so as not to wake her slumbering roommates and half because, even with a fire blazing in the hearth it was still freezing in the Slytherin dorm. Shiloh settled a finger beneath a sentence, marking her spot, and began to read.
For the past two months, Shiloh had done nothing more than peruse the library in search for some method that would allow her to catch Annadel in the act or to force her to confess. She'd searched book of spells and books of potions, until she was dizzy with knowledge. Yet there was nothing short of threatening Annadel with poison that could give Shiloh the tool she needed.
In the meanwhile, Shiloh had kept her eyes on Annadel during Potions class to try to prevent her from being able to sneak ingredients her cauldron. Symone had done the same, but even with two of them, there were times they had to look away. Potions took concentration and focus, and looking away for too long meant catastrophe in the form of an exploding cauldron. Besides, as much as they tried not to fall for it, Pansy and Millicent were treacherous, conniving, little toerags, and they had increasingly dirty ways of distracting Shiloh and Symone. Like the time when Symone's and Shiloh's stools had both 'mysteriously' broken a leg at the same time, sending both of them tumbling to the hard stone floor and Professor Snape demanding what had happened while Shiloh's cauldron began to bubble.
The only thing Shiloh had left to be thankful for was that Annadel wasn't sabotaging her potions as badly as before. Shiloh knew it was not out of mercy, but rather out of knowing that if she were to keep having major catastrophes that someone was bound to get suspicious. It was a smart move; Shiloh had it admit that, as reluctant as she was to believe Annadel might actually have brains. There were no more explosions, only bubbling cauldrons and far-less-than-perfect potions. Even that wasn't every day, for there were some days that Annadel didn't dare attempt, either because of suspicion, or because Shiloh was keeping an extra close eye on the annoying little brat. But still, Shiloh's grades in potions were steadily declining, and if this kept up, Shiloh was looking down the barrier of a 'Fail'. She didn't want to imagine what would happen if Annadel tried to sabotage her end-of-term test, nor what would happen if her parents found out she was failing in her best subject. That was the worst threat. She wouldn't be able to bear the worry it would cause them.
And, so here it was, a bit less than two months after this whole mess started, and she had yet to find a solution. And time was running out. The day after tomorrow, she'd be on the train back home for her holiday break. If she wanted to act, it needed to be soon.
Shiloh flipped the page, scanning and studying it, and found nothing. She lost track of the hours that passed as she went through page after page from Amortentia to Hiccuping Solution; from Pepperup Potion to Skelo-Grow; from Strengthening Solution to Veritaserum; from--
Shiloh froze just as she was about to change the page and flipped back to the word. Veritaserum: the Truth Serum. It caught Shiloh's attention; if there was anything Shiloh needs to get from Annadel, it was honesty. She scrawled down to the definition.
“Veritaserum derives from the Latin word 'veritas' meaning truth and the word 'serum'. As a result Veritaserum is the most powerful Truth Serum in the Wizarding world. With just three drops, the greatest secret keeper would be forced to spill their innermost secrets.”
Shiloh liked the sound of that. It was precisely what she would need to get Annadel to give the confession that would incriminate her. Eagerly, she read on.
“Though there are certain ways to fight against Veritaserum and there are antidotes for this potion, it is considered so strong that it's used only under strict guidelines of the Ministry.”
Shiloh fought against a groan because she highly doubted that Ministry guidelines included use for a first year to get a confession from an eleven-year-old. If she planned to use Veritaserum, she not only would be breaking school rules, but Ministry ones as well. Her father would murder her if he even knew she was considering something like this, and, if she was caught, she would not only be lucky not to be expelled, but not to end up in Azkaban. She would have to be desperate to even consider this plan.
But Shiloh was desperate.
She licked her lips eagerly, wanting to find out how this potion was made.
“Veritaserum is a highly advanced potion that takes one month to create.”
A whole month?! Shiloh growled lowly in despair and let her forehead fall onto the book. To Shiloh six months had never seemed so long. By then Annadel would have won and Shiloh couldn't let that happen. But she couldn't take the time to brew up a cauldron of Veritaserum. This was her last hope, and she felt it slipping through the cracks in her fingers, disappearing like the fumes floating upward in Potions class so that it only left a taunting, lingering smell in Professor Snape's office.
Professor Snape's office? Shiloh lifted her forehead a few inches from the page, as her mind begin to reel in. It took so little to inspire her; even a stray thought could turn into a magnificent plot. It was no different here, for she was instantly imagining the rows of already brewed potions that lined the walls of Professor Snape's office. She scanned them in her mind, trying to remember whether one of them had been marked Veriterserum. There were so many vials of different shapes and sizes that she couldn't be sure.
Shiloh forced her thoughts to come to a screeching halt as soon as she realized in horror what she was doing. Had she gone mad or was she actually considering stealing from Professor Snape's private stores? She must have been, because there was no way Professor Snape would hand her a powerful potion for her own enjoyment. She couldn't steal from Professor Snape. To do so would require breaking uncountable school rules. Not to mention Shiloh's parents had brought her up with a sense of wrong and right – and stealing was wrong. She couldn't do something so immoral.
Then there was a snort from the bed next to her, and Shiloh stiffened, wondering if the person she least wanted to meet while she was plotting had awoken. She whispered “Nox” to her wand, and it fell dark. Lying flat, she carefully and discretely moved the blankets from off her head just enough so she could peek through. She stared at the next bed, holding her breath, as she watched Annadel mumble something about 'Filthy Halfblood'. Shiloh felt her hand tighten on her wand, imagining that it was only moments before Annadel would fly from her bed, complaining about the light or simply wanting Shiloh's life to be miserable. But, instead, Annadel rolled to her other side and continued snoring peacefully.
Sighing quietly in relief, Shiloh turned her eyes back to the book. The word Veritarserum stood out from the page, taunting, tormenting, and telling her it was the only way. She traced the lettering with her fingernail, wishing for the impossible. The risk was so great.
But a small voice deep in her head piped up within her, replaying her once spoken words. “Explosions are half the fun. At the very least, they're exciting in their own right.” Shiloh should have known those words would come back to haunt her. Such a careless statement, no matter how true she considered it, could only come back in the worst moments of time to be used by the mischievous parts of her mind. And, right at the moment, that rebellious side of her mind was relentless, so insistent that it was almost like a demon on her shoulder. Persistently, the part of her mind reminder her of one of the reason she loved Potions and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavored Beans. Despite other equally-liked reasons, Shiloh had to admit that she liked the risk and the adventure, never quite knowing what the next step would led to. Wasn't this the same thing?
Besides, what other choice was there? Annadel would tear her apart if she simply did nothing. There was no way of knowing that Annadel wouldn't move on to sabotage her other classes. Shiloh couldn't live with herself if she flunked out of Hogwarts. Also, it was only a matter of time before Professor Snape decided to write her parents and the only way her parents would believe that she was actually going to fail Potions was if they believed something was horribly wrong with them. She didn't want to worry them. It was why she hadn't mentioned any of it in her letters to her. As far as they knew, she had kept her nose out of trouble, her classes were going amazingly well, and she couldn't be happier. And, as far as Shiloh was concerned, they could keep believing that.
No, Shiloh had to stop her before that worst case scenario happened. And no one was going to believe Annadel was doing it just on Shiloh's word—Professor Snape had proven that. She had already exacted every other route, detour, and crossroad; this was her last and only option.
“All right. I'll do it,” Shiloh hissed to herself, though she quite manage to sound grudging. How could she when she had discovered her only hope of beating Annadel?
But one part of her mind still knew this was a horribly wrong decision. After all, she had just decided to steal Veritaserum from Professor Severus Snape. If she was caught she would be expelled...or worse. But she still didn't see any other choice and as her conscience put up protests, she determinedly squashed all her doubts. She was going to do this. She had to do this. She had to stop Annadel and she had to prove to Professor Snape that she wasn't a liar. And somehow she knew she would succeed at it.
She looked down at the book, smirking silently as she began to make her plan. Her mind would and danced creatively, and before her head had dropped down onto the book and she had nodded into a deep sleep, she had already formed the perfect plot. As she drifted into her dreams, they were filled with pleasant images of three drops of Veritaserum into Annadel's morning pumpkin juice.
For the first time in her life, Shiloh nearly fell asleep in a class. She wasn't exactly surprised, after all, she had woken up that morning with her cheek using her still-open book as a pillow and feeling as though she had only slept for an hour. And with all the planning and reading she had done the night before, it was quite possible. Besides Professor Binns' droning on had a unique talent of causing student's eyelids to start drooping shut. Shiloh had always resisted his skills, but today, with her lack of sleep, she had unintentionally felt her eyes pulling closed and her head nodding toward her desktop. Shiloh's forehead had been a mere inch from resting on her opened book, when Symone had discretely sneaked her elbow towards her side and ground it into her ribs. Shiloh pulled her head upward, looking at Symone with the unaware expression of someone waking up. Symone had sent her a bewildered look, and Shiloh had quickly admitted to herself that she had nearly fallen in her dream world.
Shiloh turned her gaze back to Professor Binns. He was rambling on about something that her weary mind could not possible decipher from gibberish, and Shiloh was forced to delve into a second round with her eyelids, fighting to keep them open. She had to stay focused; she knew that. But it felt like strings were attached, and the world was blurring around her. Sleep seemed so tempting, especially since she had such a big night ahead of her.
That thought made her unconsciously turn her eyes to the girl that sat a few rows ahead, settling her blurry gaze on the back of her blond head. She heard the witch cackled as she whispered in Pansy's ear. A moment later, she turned to Millicent and hissed something to her as well. Soon all three of the girls were grinning wickedly, and Shiloh could feel herself tightening, the desire to sleep disappearing as she became suddenly attentive. Probably planning on what do to my next potion class, Shiloh thought wryly with bitter hatred making her jaw tighten. They probably want to make it extra special; it is the holiday season, after all.
And just like that, Shiloh was energized and alert. She was determined that whatever they had plotted, no matter what devious tricks Pansy and Millicent used to pull it off, it was going to be the last time they ever fooled her. Because by this time tomorrow, Shiloh would have dropped Veritaserum into Annadel's juice and forced to confess in front of a group of witnesses. Soon, all this would be behind her, and this entire mess would be nothing more than a memory.
Shiloh was surprised to find that she wasn't even tempted to sleep, even when she lay in her comfortable bed, her head resting on her downy pillow. With as little slumber as she had gotten the night before, she had expected to have difficulty keeping her eyes open, but she felt energized with excitement as though her blood had been was flowing with electricity. She could feel adrenaline pumping with every mighty thump of her racing pulse. She told her thundering heart to silence, for it was so loud it was difficult to listen to the breathing of her roommates over its feverish beat. Curled into a tight ball, she waited until five pairs of soft, gentle snores—though Millicent's snores were far from soft-- filled the room, and then she knew it was her moment.
Moving slowly so that the mattress didn't make a single sound, she slid upward and lowered her feet onto the floor. The frozen stone ground sent stabs of icy chill into her little toes, so cold it was painful. She did not relish the cold that would meet her just outside of the curtains, the cold that not even her thick flannel pants and large, old sweater could keep out, but nothing as trivial as the cool air was going to keep her from her destination. Reaching the end of her bed, she grasped the fabric of the cloak she had draped through, pulling it to her. With skillful fingers that were unhindered by the thick darkness, she buckled the cloak at her throat and gathered it around her. Not bothering with shoes and having never once owned a pair of slippers, she stood.
By the eerie glow of the fire that burned in their hearth, she could make out only faint shapes in the blackness, the outline of a bed here and the rectangle of a trunk there. But she knew the room well enough that she knew where the door would be, and she set her eyes upon the dim silhouette of her goal. She stepped out carefully, watching her foot placement carefully. She didn't want to trip over something, or unintentionally bump into something that would make any sort of noise and ruin her cover, but it was too dark and she couldn't even see her feet, for they were obscured in shadow. And she didn't see Pansy's hairbrush cast apathetically on the floor for the house elves to deal with until it was to late and she had slipped.
Her arms flew as she reeled forward, trying to catch herself on anything—a wall...a bedpost...she would have settled for a burning hot pipe. Just anything to stop her impending contact with the floor, just anything other than waking up her roommates. But, heart now in her throat, her stomach and chest met the floor with what seemed to be an earsplitting, whap! Shiloh flung her hand upwards to cover her mouth and to keep the loud gasp of the wind leaving her lungs from leaving her mouth. She gritted her lips together, ignoring the desire to suck in great gulps of oxygen to satisfy her now aching lungs. She did not a sound, listening carefully and knowing the worst was bound to come. She expected it: the crunch of a mattress as someone bolted upward, a harsh voice demanding who dared disturb their sleep, or, worse, a concerned Symone running to her side to make sure she was all right and then beginning to immediately question what she could possibly be doing out of bed. She didn't want the inquiries that she wouldn't answer, and she didn't want Symone to know about something that Symone would never agree with it. And Shiloh did not need Symone's approval.
But, as much as Shiloh expected it, none of it came. No harsh voices or worried tones broke through the shadows. The only sound that met Shiloh's ears was a groan from Symone's sleep as she flipped to a more comfortable position. Still, Shiloh remained on her place on the floor until Symone was still again. Only then did she breathe again.
Pushing herself quietly to her feet, she managed to make the rest of the way outside of her room without event. She crept quietly to the stairs, breathing as quietly as possible, though even her shallow inhales seemed blaring. She made her way to the common room, meeting with no ill except when she believed she had one more step than she did and felt the sickening situation as her foot came down into nothingness and her stomach jerked inharmoniously up into her throat. Shiloh didn't cry out, nor did she fall. She simply stood there for a moment, catching her breath, and then squared her shoulder and walked determinedly towards the door.
As she stepped out into the corridor and the blank stone wall entrance closed behind, she found herself plunged into darkness. There was no blackness of night quite as thick as what was in Hogwarts' dungeons. Even as she took out the wand that she had never taken from her pants' pocket and cast Lumos charm, the oval of light did little to slice through the lingering darkness. It was impossibly cold, and she fought back a shiver from beneath her cloak. The chill made the darkness seem deeper, more impenetrable—if that was even possible. There was an atmosphere of horror and foreboding about the place, and she could have sworn she glimpsed one of the ghosts of Hogwarts gliding spookiness around a corner. Shiloh paused for a moment, studying the scene before her. Even the bravest mind would have conjured up ghastly images or what hid in the corners, what evil awaited for them around the bend. Even a fearless person would have thought it wise to turn back and run—not walk—back to her room...not because of the sight, but because there was truly danger of what was ahead if there was so much as one false move. But Shiloh did what she knew what was best in such situations. She didn't think. She only acted.
She moved down the corridors, her steps more confident than she felt, and navigated down the dizzying maze of halls, her wand held before her and her destination set clearly in her mind. It seemed like almost an eternity before she saw the door at the end of the hall, and when she did a mixture of a glee and expectancy surged through her heart. She was halfway there, but this half would be the most difficult.
As she stopped by the door to Professor Snape's office, she paused only long enough to extinguish her wand and point its end to the doorknob. “Alohomora,” she hissed so softly that she barely heard it. She was carefully opening the door, being sure not to let it creak, and had it open an inch when a voice behind her froze her heart.
“Little firstie is out of bed.”
Shiloh didn't have to turn around to know who it was, for who else had such a cooing voice and who else loved to torment students like that stupid, annoying, pesky poltergeist. “Peeves,” she whispered beneath her breath, stomping down her terror and turning to face him.
He hovered three feet off the ground, leaving his face high above hers, but as she craned her neck to look as his expression. It was twisted in delight, the sort of sick pleasure that always came when they took happiness in the moment before they tortured another. Shiloh knew without asking that he was not simply going to leave. Not when such a wonderful opportunity to present itself.
“Oh,” he cooed in joy, drawing out his words. “You're in big trouble now.”
“Peeves, be quiet and go away!” she ordered lowly, though she knew it would do no good.
And, in reply, the poltergeist did the only thing that would have affected her. He could have taunted her for hours, called her filthy names and thrown chewed pieces of gum at her for weeks, made her life miserable for the rest of her time as a student, if only he hadn't done this. But he was not so kind, and so, he did something unspeakable.
He woke up Professor Snape.
With a swipe of his hands, he pushed hard against the door, tearing it from Shiloh's hand and making it slam noisily against the side wall. There was a shuttering 'thud' followed by several crashes as the jars of the self the door had slammed into tumbled down and shattered on the floor. Shiloh was frozen in horror, staring blankly at the mess he had made, but then she heard the footsteps from the door across the office. Severus Snape was now awake.
She bit her lip to keep from gasping, and did the only thing she could do. She fled. Peeves was blocking the way back to the common room, so it left only one way to go. Up. Her legs pounded up the stairs to the Entrance Hall. Her heart thundered, but no matter how much it blared in her chest, it could not drown out the sound of Peeves informing Professor Snape that there was a student out of bed and then turning to chase after her. As she raced just out of the professor's sight, she could hear him swear and began stalking after her.
When she was in the Great Hall, she didn't stop. She hurried to the grand staircase, taking the stairs as fast as her slender legs would allow her. Peeves was whirling after her, making rude noises and taunts. She didn't dare glance behind her to see where Professor Snape was, for fear that he would be close enough to glimpse her face. Her only hope for escape was to make sure he didn't recognize her. Right now, she could be any one of the number of students but once he saw her more clearly, it wouldn't matter how much she ran. It would be over.
So, blindly, she tore up the staircases, taking twists and turns with no real thought. Her heart pounded somewhere near her uvula, and her stomach was currently lodged in her diaphragm. It wasn't long before her lungs were pumping so fast they felt like they might explode, or her legs held a dull, but painful ache. But she didn't slow down, didn't stop, no matter how much she hurt. She kept on, hurrying onto another staircase.
But this one decided not to stand still. With a mighty jerk, the staircase heaved to the side so suddenly that she was thrown off balanced and tossed into the railing. She grasped at the railing frantically, digging her short nails into the wood to keep from tumbling right over it. Only when the set of stairs had come to rest along a different wall, did she let go and allow her heart to start beating again. She used the moment to look around, and she could see Peeves flying towards her...and on the staircase just below was the dark figure of Professor Snape.
She rushed forward toward the landing and the door just on the top of the steps. She yanked on the handle, trying to twist, but it remained firmly closed. She didn't give any thought to why the door was locked; there was no time to think. Instead, she yanked out her wand, and, with a whispered incantation and careful aim, unlocked the door. She disappeared through the door, closing it behind her and locking it, hoping that Professor Snape would not have seen her go in and, finding it still locked, would pass on by. She stood perfectly still, staring at the door as she listened to footsteps going on outside. She heard the taunting cries of Peeves come and go, but she knew better than to call that a victory, because the test was yet to come.
Shiloh bit her lip and held her breath, not even wanting to make the smallest of sound. She focused on the echo of footsteps coming nearer and nearer, wondering and waiting to see if they would pause and to her utter horror, they did. She slowly backed away, prepared to run again. Every muscle in her body screamed at her to bolt, but she could only stare at the door watching as it jingled. It didn't give, didn't budge, staying locked in place, but Shiloh knew it would only be a moment before he took out his wand and unlocked it. She looked around her for escape—a door, a window, a crack would have done nicely – but all she found was an empty set of armor. Quickly, she sidled behind it and crouched in the niche she was in. She sat on the stone floor, feeling the cold through her robes, and her knees nearly came up to her nose. She huddled there, listening to the sound of the door being unlocked and opening. She could feel his eyes as he searched around the room with that same calculative gaze that had the ability to take in everything in a mere sweep of his eyes. She pursed her lips together and for an impossibly long moment she could only listen to the pounding of her heart against her eardrums, thinking it was only a second before she was discovered.
But after a long time, she heard the beautiful sound of the door clicking shut and locking into place. For a second, she stayed there, unable to believe her good fortune, but in a rush she felt such strong relief, that, if she had been that sort, she would have buried her face in her hands and sobbed in joy. But, instead, she quietly and slowly exhaled. It felt good to breathe again.
But her ease was short lived, only lasting as long as took to creep out from around the armor and begin to take in her surroundings. The place looked like an unused classroom. There were desks and chairs piled along the walls with a fine layer of dust and cobwebs clinging to them. An upturned wastebasket gave the place an abandoned and creepy feel. As she studied it, she felt her stomach twinge, telling her distinctly that she shouldn't be here and, if she was smart, she would turn around and leave. But something stopped her, for along the wall there was something that seemed sharply out of place, something she would not have expected to see, something she peered at from the corner of her eye. Her own reflection.
For against the far wall was a large magnificent mirror, framed gloriously in gold and standing proudly on two claw-like legs. On the top was an inscription, one that was in some language that she didn't possess the skill to recognize or to translate. She knew, as soon as she saw it, that this was no ordinary mirror. Not because of its beauty or the almost mystical way it reflected the darkness about it in a wistful blue, but because Shiloh knew that there was nothing ordinary in Hogwarts, especially if it was hidden in a locked classroom.
She felt drawn to it, and though her mind told her she should simply go back to her dorm and soak in the complete failure of her night, a deep curiosity wouldn't allow her. Instead, she crept nearer, her eyes focusing on her own reflection. She wondered what it did, what powerful was hidden in the glass and frame. She thought absently of story her dad had once read to her, when she was little, a Muggle fairytale called Snow White. She could only remember it vaguely—something about a wicked queen asking a magically mirror some rhymed question beginning with Mirror, Mirror, and, in return, the mirror giving an answer. Shiloh wondered if that was how this one worked, if someone whispered so sort of incantation or asked some sort of question, and whatever they wanted, their very heart's desire was given to him. She doubted it though, because the mirror could have done a number of things.
Wanting to explore more, she stopped straight in front of it and immediately whirled back around, instantly uneasily. But there was no one in the room, not a single person other than her. The only other living entity was a mouse that uttered a few, small squeaks as it scurried across the floor to the opposite wall. Standing tensely, Shiloh searched carefully around the room, every corner, behind every desk until she was completely sure she was alone. Perhaps her eyes had just betrayed her, but she didn't really believe that. So very slowly, she twisted back around.
There, standing beside her reflection, was a dark, towering figure. Whoever it was, it was clear it was a man, for he was too tall and masculine to be a woman, but she couldn't see his face for his back was angled towards her. She blinked, wondering what strange power this mirror held and contemplating even more intensely on who the man was. But as much as she tried, she could not recognize him. As much as she searched her memory, he could no be found there. She didn't know him, but something deep within her long for her to find the answer of his identity. She wanted to know who he was. She didn't know why, but she ached for it. Whoever this man was, he was important...at least to her.
Even if she didn't know why.
In the back of her mind, she told herself that she should forget it and go back to her mind, but she couldn't tear herself away from the mirror, or, rather, the man in the mirror. She sat down on the floor, crossing her legs as she stared up at the figure and did nothing but watch. She waited for him to do something, to give himself away, to turn toward her and reveal himself, but he did nothing.
She didn't know how long she was there. It could have been a few minutes, just as easily as it could have been a few hours, but sometime she began to feel it. It was an eerie feeling, when someone became aware that she was being watched. First the hairs on the back of her neck began to get stiff and stand on end, and then every muscle of her back became rigid. She slipped her hand into her pocket, wrapping it around her wand...just in case. And then gradually, she rounded her neck around and gazed over her shoulder.
There sitting on a desk looking as comfortable and eased that they could have been there for hours, was an airy figure. She could feel the person's eyes on her back. There was no use running or hiding; she was caught, but by whom she didn't know.
“Hello?” she called out hesitantly.
“Good day,” the familiar and instantly recognizable voice greeted in return. “Or perhaps I should say good night, though that has always been more of a farewell than a greeting, so that's not quite right either.”
Her mouth felt dry and for a moment she didn't dare to speak, hoping that this wasn't real, and instead a hallucination caused by too little sleep or Annadel catching on to her plan and coming to torment her with illusions. She would have accepted anything, just as long as he wasn't sitting there, watching her. But finally, she gathered up her courage, moistened her lips, and managed to pry her mouth open. “Professor Dumbledore?”
He gave no response, other than to stand and walk towards her. In turn, she pushed herself to her feet and twisted around to face him. In the moonlight that came from the window, she could his eyes sparkle merrily, the way they nearly always did, and yet there was something deep and wise in them as well, making her wonder what knowledge had caused him to come to the conclusion of such happiness, even in this particular moment. His long, white hair and beard looked silvery in the moonlight and his colorful robes made him look like he had just walked out of the books of a Muggle fairytale.
He paused at her side, but he didn't look at her. Instead, his eyes were fixed on the mirror. “Marvelous, isn't it?”
Shiloh mind reeled. Why wasn't he punishing her? Why wasn't he ordering her back to her dorm or demanding why she was out of bed? This was the first time she had actually spoken to the Headmaster, so she could not possibly know how he would behave. But surely he knew she'd broken rules; surely he knew that it was his responsibility to reconcile the situation.
But, though she was utterly unsure of how she should act, she did the only thing she could. She looked back to the mirror and replied flatly, “I suppose.”
He turned his head to blink down at her, his gaze inquisitive. “Only supposing?” he mused lightly. “You do not seem so sure.”
She wasn't sure how to respond. But it seemed that he wanted to carry on a conversation, and she didn't think it wise to deny it. Chit-chat was better than other alternatives. Besides, she had a burning question to ask. “Well, Professor, I'm not exactly certain of what it does.” And she glanced at the figure who was still standing there.
“What do you see?” was the only answer he gave.
Undecided, she didn't reply for a long second. She wondered if she should actually tell him, for perhaps he would think she was insane or odd, to see the reflection of a man who was neither there nor someone she knew. But, in the end, she thought it was worth the risk if she could get an answer to her question. “I see a man...only I can't make out his face and I don't know who he is.”
She tilted her head so she could look up at him. She waited for him to tell her what it meant, but for a time he only looked back down at her, her eyes silently prodding her to continue.
She searched the corners of her mind, wondering what else she could possibly mention. What she found, after she had contemplated carefully, seemed insignificant and quite personal, but there was something about the way that Professor Dumbledore stood there quite patiently and politely, waiting there for her to respond with something quite close to fondness in his eyes. He was willing to help her and be kind, and she wasn't entirely sure that he knew who she was.
“But-” She paused for only one more moment. “But I want to know who he is.” She turned her eyes back to the figure in the mirror, and felt that strange longing that was so deep it nearly made her feel empty. “With all my heart.”
The words whispered past her lips, surprising herself. She would never have said such words or made such a personal admittance to someone she knew for all her life. Never once had she talked about the 'desires of her heart' with her parents, for even with them she'd felt unsafe and insecure. Besides, she wasn't the sort who gave much consideration to her heart. With all her attempts to hide her emotions, her heart was something she'd buried deep within her and forgotten about. Her mind was perfectly strong and each action she took was decided by careful thoughtfulness, not by something as futile as the organ in the middle of her chest. But, almost absently, almost unknowingly, she had muttered the words and now she knew why she had been so unwilling to do it before. She felt impossibly vulnerable.
But he only said, “Exactly.”
She felt confusion, unsure what he was getting at, but something about her words had answered her own question. She thought over her words carefully, weighing each one. Her mind kept coming back to her last, added phrase. 'With all my heart'. She'd admitted that knowing him was a desire of her heart, a thing she wanted dearly. But suddenly it came to her. That had to be it.
“You mean, this mirror shows the desires of your heart.”
He smiled, and his eyes danced with something close to pride. “Very observant conclusion, Shiloh.”
She was more surprised by the fact that he knew her name and called her by her first name, instead of the 'Miss Sanders' she got from most professors, than she was flattered by his compliment. She wasn't sure how to respond, so she didn't reply to it. Instead, she focused on the many questions running through her brain, the most prominent of which found its way out of her mouth. “But, sir, I don't understand. How can the desire of my heart be someone I don't even know?”
His attention was undivided upon her and it was clear he didn't mind the questions. He gave the answers willingly. “I do not believe it is the person that you wish for. Rather, it is the desiring to know. Is there no one you can think whose identity you do not know, but are curious of?”
Shiloh froze, and her heart stilled as every muscle in her small body became impeccably tight. She stared up at him, her expression unreadable, but in her eyes flickered a mixture of realization and horror, like the one that often came when someone made a terrifying, but truthful discovering. For, no sooner had Dumbledore added the final word to the question than she knew the answer. But it was a dreadful answer, an impossible want, and even as she recognized it to be true, she could not allow herself to believe it. It was beyond reason, and it stole her breath away, making it so that her lungs could not expand. The answer was improbable, but it was brutally, uncontrollably, and regrettably true.
She focused on Dumbledore, wondering if he was completely oblivious to her sudden lapse in logic or her inability to reply to the one question that was buzzing through her mind. The inquiry of 'why' suffocated her and the answer was allusive. Nothing about this made sense. Because it didn't make sense. She shouldn't want to know someone who she knew had abandoned her. She shouldn't want to find someone that was more than likely a Death Eater. It made no logical sense. It had to be anyone, anything, other than him.
And, yet, she knew that undoubtedly it was.
She surveyed Dumbledore, and he surveyed her back through his reflective, half-moon glasses with his wise eyes sparkling behind. He was waiting patiently, not about to press her if she had found an answer to his question. She had a feeling that he wouldn't force her to speak if she was uncomfortable, but he was also standing there so diligently that she knew that if she were to talk of the things that were spinning wildly through her mind, he would more than happily help her to understand them. She stood a moment in indecision, even opened her mouth once, but closed it again. She didn't know how she could give him so little information that he wouldn't guess what she was speaking of, and not enough that Dumbledore could decipher the truth of her origin. He was so wise that she knew he could figure much from little and end with the correct answer. But still, she felt the need to speak to someone, because as brilliant as it was, her young mind couldn't figure this out on her own. And if not Dumbledore, than who?
“But, sir--” She just managed to keep the exasperation at her own confusion out of her voice-- “I don't understand. I shouldn't want to know who he is. It's not logical.”
It didn't take him long to start to have an answer. In fact, he immediately replied, “Oh, but the heart never is.”
He could have said that in a foreign language, and she would have understood it just as much, because she didn't comprehend it at all. She tilted her head inquisitively. “Sir?”
He paused for a moment, his aged face unreadable, but those intelligent eyes studying Shiloh intently. After a long second, he spoke, completely serious, “You don't know much about the dealings of the heart, do you?”
It was perfectly true. Shiloh was one who relied on her mind to get her through life. She thought before she acted and rarely ever acted on silly impulse. And her heart...Well, that was something that she didn't even want to touch, something she had kept hidden inside of her so that no one could touch, not even herself. Somewhere between her logic, her brain, and the walls she'd built around her heart, it had been buried, lost and hidden without even a single care to allow her to search it.
When she gave no answer, not even the courtesy of an honest shake of the head, Dumbledore reached out a hand and laid it softly on her shoulder, a touch so gentle it didn't cross her mind to pull away from it. A slightly serious smile twitched at the corner of his lips, wiping the shame of her own ignorance of the subject and assuring her he would try his best to end it. “Let's sit, and I shall share most important knowledge with you. Of course,” he continued, as he straightened and removed his hand from her shoulder, “it would be foolish for me to claim to know all in this matter, for the heart is a mystery to even the wisest of men and greatest of sages. And, believe me--” And, here, he gave a pleasant lighthearted chuckle that showed he held no regret or embarrassment admitting his own faults and imperfections-- “I am neither.”
They lowered themselves onto the stone floor, legs folded neatly beneath them as they tried to ignore the pangs of cold that was aiming to freeze their thighs and buttocks to the ground. As Shiloh angled toward the Headmaster, her gaze expectant, she felt a strange excitement ripple in some deep place in her gut. She felt as though she was about to be taught something that would, perhaps, be the dearest, most wonderful knowledge she could ever possess. The Slytherins—or at least all of the older ones—often told stories and ranted tales about how old and daft their Headmaster was. Most of the things they told her, she knew to be a load of rubbish, spoken only to turn the younger students against the highest authority—why they'd want to do that was the only thing she had figure out. But, looking at him now, she thought that his age gave him extended acquaintance with the ways of magic and the world as a whole, and she could not think him mad—different, perhaps, but she had been called crazy enough times to know that there was nothing wrong with individuality. Besides, she knew that education from books was wonderful, but to learn something from a truly wise and great wizard would be priceless.
She set her eyes upon him, attentively waiting to draw in every bit of his words.
Meeting her gaze, he began, his speech lighting up the darkness with crystal clarity, “What you must understand is that the heart is a strange and peculiar thing—spectacular and amazing, but deviating far from anything else known on earth. It is moved completely by a set of its own rules, ones that it alone knows and it alone follows, and the heart's guidelines are as altering from the mind's as the sun is separate from the moon. Therefore, what is illogical to the head can not be called senseless by the heart, for it is wild and untamed and to put restrictions upon its wants is to put the sea in chains. Not only is it impossible to try, but why would you ever want to? As the saying goes, the heart wants, what the heart wants.” For the first time, his mouth twisted into a thoughtful frown, and he asked considerately, “Do you understand?”
She pursed her lips, thinking on the words deeply, but after a moment she gave a slow nod. “I believe so, sir.”
Because a part of her mind—or perhaps it was her heart—had comprehended every syllable of his explanation. Despite all the things that the man was, she had forgotten one thing more. It was something she didn't want to admit, something she had fought unconsciously never to have to come to terms with, but just as she had had to recognize much, she had to accept this. And that took great bravery, having faith in a distasteful truth. Alongside all the horrible things the man in the mirror was, he held a much more important occupation: he was a part of her. He was in her genes, her blood, even her heart. He was the part of her that had always been a mystery. After all, how many times had Annadel accused her of being a 'Halfblood' and Shiloh had been left to wonder if it was true? Because not knowing him was like not knowing part of herself. And that was something she couldn't live with. Because until she knew, there would always be that missing piece.
But still, a single question remained in her mind, a seed of doubt that kept her from swearing herself to fulfilling her heart's request. But to ask it would leave her vulnerable, exposed to this man. But glancing at him, she thought, that maybe, just maybe it might be worth it, because she trusted that none of this would leave this room. A man that knew so much had to know how to keep secrets.
“But what if following your heart is a mistake?” she whispered, as though to speak louder would surely ruin everything. “What if taking the path our heart leads us on, only ends in pain?”
His gaze softened, and to her surprise she felt not the least bit insecure, because he was soon answering, his voice sweet, understanding, and so truthful it left no doubt that she should trust it, “You know, Shiloh, it just might. But that's a chance worth taking.”
There it was again. Taking a risk, just like in potions, Bertie Botts' Every-Flavored Beans, and stealing Veritaserum. But this time, Shiloh didn't feel bitter in realizing it, because Dumbledore was right. She knew that from experience. Some risks were worth taking, because she would never really know until she tried.
And that's what would torture her forever. Never knowing.
She felt a small smile creep up her lips, because she felt a deep assurance that she had learned something important tonight. Something she'd never forget. Something she could never thank Dumbledore enough for. But her tiny, but genuine smile didn't last for long. It was there only a split second before she remembered something that had fallen to the back of her mind and the thought wiped her smile away. She didn't want to ask the next burning question, because she supposed that she already knew the answer. But she had to, because now that their conversation had come to a close, there was no escaping it.
“Are you going to punish me now, Professor?”
Dumbledore eyes widened and he leaned slightly back as though utterly shocked. Whether it was an act or not, she couldn't tell. “Whatever for?”
She opened her mouth, but the words got stuck in her throat. She honestly couldn't believe him. He knew exactly what for; he was ignorant to his own rules, and she refused to allow him to act that way. She was not someone to be toyed with. If he was going to punish her, she wanted it crisp and clean, no beating around the bush. Letting her annoyance show a bit, she spoke, “You know exactly what for, Professor. I'm no simpleton and neither are you, so we let's cut the rubbish.”
Her words were defiant, she knew that as soon as she finished speaking, and she regretted them, because she truly didn't mean to be rude to the man she did have much respect for. But old habits died hard, and no matter who it was, she'd always been unable to stand when someone messed with her head.
But to her surprise, Dumbledore was neither angry nor upset, and instead, he let out a deep laugh. She froze, unsure what at all was funny, but he explained himself before she could ask. “You're indeed a spirited one. Severus must have his hands full with you.”
Oh, there were several things Shiloh could say to testify how ironically true that was, but she pressed her lips together and said nothing, until Dumbledore had finished his chuckling and was ready to be serious again.
“No, Shiloh,” he replied earnestly. “I'm not going to punish you.”
For a long second, she didn't believe him. She thought this was some game he was playing, something that he thought was a big joke, but he came out with no punchline, no 'haha-I-fooled-you-good'. Instead he continued to stare right back at her, no amusement in his features save for that unstoppable joy that always flitted in his gaze. But as she began to believe her own ears, a thousand questions fought for placement in her brain and it took a long moment for her to sort them out. She wanted to demand 'why not' or to ask if he understood all the rules she'd broken, not the least of which was being out of bed so late. But she quickly thought better of it. It was unwise to play with good fortune.
She didn't know whether to thank him or to smile or to throw her arms around his neck—but that was a strange urge for her and she quickly fought it away, killing it as soon as it dared come anywhere near her. Instead, she went with the first answer, to which he replied with one last smile. “Off to bed now.”
She didn't argue with him, but instead pushed to her feet. She didn't know whether Professor Snape or Peeves was still looking for her her, but she could only hope they had given up the search long ago and she could make it down to the dormitory without being seen. It was wishful thinking, but 'the heart wanted what the heart wanted'. She started towards the door, not looking back for the longest of moments, but something made her stop, a pulling on her heart and a longing in her gut that made her turn back for just one last look. She stared into the mirror, gazing at the back of the man she could now admit that she wanted to know with all her heart.
And she made a promise to herself, that she would fulfill that desire of her heart, because one day she wanted to be able to stand before him and ask the questions that she had always wanted an answer to. Why had he abandoned her? Why didn't he ever come looking for him? Was he truly a Death Eater? And had he ever—even for just one moment—loved her?
Yes, she would search for him. And one day, no matter how long it took, no matter what the consequences were, she would find her birth father.
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