Chapter 9 : And Old Friends
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Harry stood in the dark outside the house. No other soul could see, hear, smell, or touch this house. It had been protected by all the spells and charms that he could conjure, including the Fidelius Charm in which he was the Secret-Keeper.
Harry stood outside, listening - to their words, to their thoughts - for any hint of where Hermione might have gone. They were happy, happy to be back in London, happy to be home, regardless of the circumstances.
All of Aunt Petunia's love and attention was being devoted to the baby Violet. Margie's too, though she felt extremely nervous about the situation they were in. This was all so very new to her - she wasn't quite able to comprehend the full magnitude of it. Dudley was happy but reserved, he had a family to worry and care for. And then there was Uncle Vernon, his feelings were much more complex. Excited over the growth of his family but dubious over his grandaughter being confirmed a witch. Happy to be home but nervous of the danger they were in. Wanting to trust in and follow his wife over Harry, Violet and their deeper induction into the wizarding world but still hindered by years of prejudice. Hermione nor her whereabouts were in any of their thoughts.
Harry felt as though he should go in and check on them, but he knew they were more than fine from here and he had more pressing matters to attend to. But then, without warning, his thoughts were interrupted - to his left. It happened too fast to actually see him move, but one moment Harry stood facing the house, the next facing to his left, the house now on his right.
The white light immediately came streaking towards him but Harry carelessly slapped it aside with his bare hand, his wand tucked safely away. The spell deflected into the ground, blasting a large divet where it landed.
"How did you...?" Hermione began to ask as her invisibility charm ran off her, revealing her standing across the yard.
"That was not funny," a very serious Harry scolded her. Hermione frowned.
"And you, you did not exactly go along with the plan, now did you?" she charged at him and punched him angrily in the shoulder, hitting him awkwardly, just as a girl would punch. Harry made no effort to dodge her.
"Things went just to plan."
"Oh did they!" Hermione threw her arms up, exacerbated, into the air. She was becoming angrier by the second. "We were supposed to come here - TOGETHER! No where in the plan were you supposed to disappear without word - with Malfoy no less! I've been worried sick!"
"I told you, if anything happened to me, to gather the Dursleys and meet me back here."
"Happen to you Harry! Not just disappear! You lied to me! You left me Harry, you told me that you wouldn't leave me!" Harry grabbed her gently by the shoulders and looked her deeply in the eyes. Almost instantly a calming sensation swept over her.
"NO!" Hermione suddenly fought off the trance. "No! I'm not going to let you do this. I've held my tongue, I tried to let you tell me when you were ready, but I can't wait any longer. You just up and leave, no goodbye - NOTHING! And then two years later you just show back up with no explanation. You show up completely changed. You show up an inch from death already but still you go about thrashing those wizards in my flat...and then back there - SEVEN - Seven Death Eaters and you just brush them aside as if they were nothing. Something's happening out there and you're at the center of it and you're going to start giving me some answers!" Hermione's rant finally drew to a close. She was left heaving, her chest rising and falling heavily from her anger and a loss of breath.
Harry smiled at her, "May I show you something?" he reached out a hand to her.
Hermione looked at him quizzically, "You'd damn well better!" she threatened him.
"Take my hand," Harry told her. Hermione looked skeptically at it. She hesitantly took it.
"Do you trust me?" Harry asked. Hermione made an odd face and shook her head in confusion.
"Of course, Harry, but..." she was cut short as they both slowly began to rise from the ground, in unison. Hermione was never too fond of flying and never had she flown before without the use of some magical device. A meter or so in the air, an opaque force field began to form, first below them, its walls rose up, forming a large sphere about them.
"You trust me?" Harry again asked. Hermione stared deeply into his green eyes. Harry nearly lost himself within her brown orbs.
They apparated with a loud crack.
"Oh my!" Hermione gasped, covering her gaping mouth with her free hand. They were facing each other, but Harry slowly floated, pivoting himself beside her, unobstructing her view. Hermione was speechless. Her eyes were glaring down, astonished. The two were hand in hand, floating...flying...hovering - Hermione did not know the right word - but they were high above the earth, looking down upon it, at all of it - at the entire globe.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Harry commented nonchalantly, as if he were referring to a simple piece of art. Hermione nodded stupidly. She was utterly dumbfounded. Lost in her astonishment, she began to wobble, as if she had become unbalanced. It wasn't as if she could be afraid of heights from here, they had to be at the edge of the atmosphere, if not beyond, but the reality of it that suddenly came crashing into her - it scared her a bit.
"Hermione, trust me..." Harry again soothed her. She peeled her eyes from below and looked over to Harry. She gathered her nerve and gave him one fertive nod before looking back down at the earth.
The entire globe was visible beneath them. It was night on this side of the planet, only a slim edge of it revealed the Sun's light on the opposite side. The continents of Europe, Africa, and even a good portion of Asia were visible below. Europe was lit up in lights from the thousands of cities within. Hermione could easily pick out the different major cities, aglow with life and wealth: London, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Athens, Madrid and more. The coasts were practically lit solid, defining the break from land to water. The Atlantic to the left and the Mediterranean dead center were pitch black. Africa below was much darker than Europe, dotted only sporadically by its sparser cities' lights.
"Harry, how are you able..." she shook her head in disbelief, unable to take her eyes from the spectacle below.
"Hermione, you must believe me," Harry talked slowly - deliberately, "there is nothing in all this world I would deny you...my tale, where I have been, where I am going...there is nothing I want more than to share it all with you...but right now, I cannot."
Hermione turned once again to look at Harry, but Harry was looking down, staring at the globe.
"I have come to accept my fate, whatever that may be. There is indeed a terrible force at play...there has always been, there will always be, but fortunately there has always been forces to counter it. There is always a balance of one to offset the other. I am here to counter it Hermione, to balance it - that is my calling in life - but because of this, those close to me...they can never be safe."
Harry took a deep breath.
"But I can also not be away from you..." he admitted, "I have learned that. I need you - even if it is only as friends...I need my friends," he tried to correct himself, putting an emphasis on the word friends. They each clenched the other's hand tighter. "My enemies...I am forced to keep you in the dark. You are not safe, your thoughts are not safe, and the less you know, the safer you are..." Harry tried explaining.
They waited in silence for the longest time, Harry staring down at the Earth, Hermione staring over at Harry, tears swelling in her eyes but she was doing her best to hold them back. She could see the pain in his face. Hermione made to say something but Harry interrupted before she could speak.
"I know Hermione...that is why I love you so much," Harry spoke as if he had read her thoughts. He finally turned and faced her too, looking deep into her soft eyes. "I am no longer that lost boy, hoping to survive the Tri-Waizard Tournament or searching hopelessly for some hidden Horcruxes...there is a greater design here...but I cannot share it with you, just not quite yet...I have to ask you to trust me, Hermione, blind trust..."
Hermione nodded in acquiescence. Still holding her one hand, Harry glided back around to face her and take her other. His eyes never left her's.
"You should have never wandered into that boxcar. You should have never asked to see Ron's pathetic trick on Scabbers. You should have never mended my glasses. I have brought you nothing but danger, right from the start...that bloody troll, the Sorcer's Stone, the Basilisk - on and on, nothing but danger - danger to all those who are close to me. But then...here we are. I cannot, now, share all that I would like with you Hermione, but I swear to you, so long as there is life in my body, nothing will ever harm you."
Their faces began to draw together, their mouths, their lips drew ever closer. Oh how badly Harry wanted it, only inches apart...he had to stop himself. Harry abruptly lifted his head away and instead let go her hands and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her body close to his. He hugged his neck into hers, looking away over her shoulder, out into the stars. He winced from the pain this caused him. Could he have seen her face, he would have seen the same pain there also.
"Why did you leave, Harry?" she asked him in barely more than a whisper.
Harry only shook his head.
"Harry?" she again pleaded
She nodded on his chest.
"I had to," was all he said.
Remembering that day, Harry's heart sank into a pit. Overcome, he did not know what he was doing, but before he could again stop it he drew back and grabbed Hermione's face in his hands and pulled her up to him, crushing his lips against hers. At first she was taken off guard - but she did respond.
Hermione grabbed first at his wrists before moving her hands around she wove her fingers into his wild hair and clenched and pulled at it, pulling his lips even hard into hers. She pressed her lips hard back against his. Neither let go.
Lost in the clouds, the duo began floating - drifting - soaring. A shooting star passed where both could see it. Finally pulling himself away, he looked at her with sad eyes.
"I am so sorry, I will never leave you again," Harry promised, "not until you tell me to go."
And then without warning, before she could resond, Harry apparated them back. They were back before the house they had just left, still embraced within each others arms. The sphere that had been about them began to dissolve. They remained holding each other for the longest time, neither making any move to let go.
"I love you," Harry whispered for the second time. Again it was an accident - a reflex of his emotions.
"And I you..." Hermione responded. Harry smiled with relief.
Harry released first. He slid one arm back around her shoulders, moving to her side, and with her arm firm about his waist, they walked side by side to the house.
Most were asleep. They startled only Dudley and Margie as they entered. Aunt Petunia had taken little Violet to bed and Uncle Vernon could be heard snoring from a back room. Dudley and Margie were enjoying a glass of wine, lounging on the couch, listening to some gentle music on the radio. Dudley hopped up from his seat as they entered.
"There you are!" he said enthusiastically. His niceties were still taking some getting used to for Harry. "Let me get you a glass of wine, you must be exhausted!"
Harry was indeed exhausted, but before Dudley could get halfway to the kitchen, a bottle of wine and two glasses came zooming out into the living room, the bottle already pouring itself into one of the goblets. Both Margie and Dudley turned wide eyed to Harry and Hermione. It was one thing to know that they were a witch and wizard, but another thing entirely to see magic performed right before their very eyes. Dudley tripped back to his seat. The two glasses of wine met Harry and Hermione as they collapsed down on an opposite couch. The bottle hovered over and set itself onto the coffee table.
"You might as well get used to it, seeing as you have a witch for a daughter..." Hermione teased them, breaking the silence as she noticed their shocked expressions. They all started laughing.
"Comfortable enough?" Harry asked, "I tried making it as cozy as I could."
"It's wonderful!" Margie thanked him.
"I am sorry for all the trouble..." Harry apologized.
"Nonsense!" Dudley jumped in, "If it weren't for you-"
"You would never have had to leave your home in the first place..." Harry cut in.
"No Harry, you're wrong," Hermione put her own two cents in. "There's just no telling what this world would be like today had you not stopped Voldemort..."
Margie looked to Dudley, unsure of who Hermione was referring to.
Harry sighed deeply, "Please, enough of this talk."
All four turned their glasses up to their lips, taking a large draught.
"Think its time we're off to bed anyways..." Margie tugged at her husbands hand.
"But...Harry just got back!" Dudley protested, eager to talk more with his wizard cousin.
"I know, Dudley, but he's tired...and I'm tired," Margie gave him that look as if to say shut up and do as I say!
"Well, guess its goodnight then, see you in the morning?" Dudley posed what should have been a statement into a question. No one answered as Margie pulled him off down the hallway into their bedroom.
The dial on the radio turned. Harry picked out a classical station, it was one of his favorites playing, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. He took another deep draft from his wine glass, way more than one should from a glass of wine, and then swung his feet up and over onto the arm rest of the couch and laid his head down into Hermione's lap. He was indeed exhausted. He stared up at the ceiling, a frown upon his face. Hermione looked back down at him concernedly. She raked her fingers threw his soft black hair.
"So... " Harry began, "you've asked a lot about me, what about you? I've heard first a Healer, now an Auror...can't make up your mind?" he jested.
Hermione smiled at him. She took a deep breath, "Someone had to pick up the torch without Harry Potter here to save us all."
"Was McLaggen preoccupied then?" Harry teased her. Hermione laughed and slapped him in the arm.
"McLaggen! Really, Harry, was that the best you could do?"
"Yeah, guess so..." Harry shrugged, "wonder what he's up to these days, giving Ron a run for his money?"
The statement was ambigous. Hermione had before asked McLaggen to one of Slughorn's dinner parties to make Ron jealous - so he could have meant it in that sense, but Hermione decided to take it as referring to their old duel for the Keeper position. Hermione guffawed, "wouldn't be hard to do! No, heard he'd taken some job at the Ministry."
Hermione absentmindedly raked her fingers through his hair once more before she began playing with and twirling it around her fingers.
"On a more serious note, congratulations...I know it couldn't have been easy for you...well then again, maybe it was, you are an insufferable-know-it all, aren't you?" he smiled up at her.
"Shut it! They blitzed me right through the program in a matter of months, certainly wasn't as easy as Pixies!"
"Why'd you give up on becoming a Healer, you were obviously very good at it," Harry said, referring to the job she had just recently done on him. Hermione did not answer right away. She took a long sip of her wine.
"I guess you could say that I was recruited..." she trailed off, lost in thought remembering her hopeless search for Harry and her first encounter with the mysterious Lord Byron. She continued to twirl one of his locks around her index finger. They sat in silence for a moment. Harry yawned.
"Stop it! You're infecting me!" Hermione complained as she then yawned right after.
"You've always been there for me Hermione, through thick and thin - always. Thank you."
. . . .
Harry awoke, unable to remember falling asleep. There was weight on his arm - Hermione's head was rested upon it. His face, his nose, they were pushed right up into her brown, bushy hair. He could smell...nothing short of heaven. His other arm was wrapped tightly around her body, her arm cradled within his, their hands, their fingers intertwined. They were still on the couch. Harry was laying behind her, the length of his body flush against hers. His feet held hers, the crook of their knees conjoined, their waists pressed together, his chest flat against her back. They were close, there was no getting any closer, but still he felt too far away.
"Good morning," she called gently to him, sensing him awake but still not yet having opened her own eyes. Harry was left speechless for a moment. The breaking sun was shining through the window, its beams aiming right at them caused Hermione to glow like an angel - his guardian angel.
"We must've dozed off..." Harry tried explaining for laying - sleeping with her like this.
"Hmm..." Hermione let out a deep sigh as she wiggled closer into his arms. She squeezed his hand tighter within hers. "Sleep well?"
"Like a baby..." he told her, his mind wandering off. It had been so long since he'd had a decent nights rest. They heard clanking in the kitchen.
"You two up yet?" Aunt Petunia poked her head into the common room from the kitchen, having heard voices. "Breakfast? Coffee? Its all ready."
"Thank you, that'd be lovely," Hermione answered, picking herself up she moved to where she was sitting. Harry did not let go her hand.
"You know, there are spare bedrooms..." Petunia needlessly informed them. Hermione blushed.
"Yes, we must've dozed off last night, it was a long day..."
Petunia smiled mischievously at her. "Yes, well, come eat before it gets cold."
Hermione stood up to head to the kitchen and then looked back to beckon Harry to follow her. Harry sat up, then began to stand. Something happened - he collapsed back down onto the couch, clenching at his chest. Everything went mute.
Hermione was instantly at his side, kneeling on the floor. He could see her lips moving, but he heard nothing. A great sorrow swept over him.
"Harry, what is it, what's wrong?" his hearing finally returned.
He looked to Hermione, staring deeply into those brown eyes. He shook his head.
"Something's wrong...something's happened - a great sadness."
Harry closed his eyes and sat back in the couch. He leaned his head back and ran his hands through his hair. He sat deep in concentration for a moment. His eyes suddenly shot open. He waved one of his hands before himself turning on the tv. The channels immediately began scrolling until it finally settled on an international news station.
"...the attack came unannounced and apparently without any provocation by the Hungarians. The assault was said to be devastating. No word yet on the exact number of casualties but the initial reports indicate that they are severe. We'll go now, live, to our field reporter Jim Dunkin in Budapest - Jim, can you hear me?"
The screen then split between the anchor and the reporter Jim. Jim was dressed in a flak jacket and helmet. He appeared to be standing on the balcony of his hotel. A shot of the city was behind him. A countless number of buildings laid in rubble, on fire and smoking.
"Hello Rachel, I can hear you just fine."
"Good, how are you Jim, are you okay?"
"I am, Rachel, thank you, but the city of Budapest, I am afraid, is not. I was here reporting on another story, as you well know, when the first shots rang out. The entire city - the entire country - was caught off guard. I cannot make any sense of it. It was about three this morning when the first explosions rocked my hotel, from then it has been non-stop. People by the thousands, hundreds of thousands - have been trying to flee the city - it has been complete chaos. I fear to know the casualties we've suffered."
"Jim...Jim I am sorry but we have to break away. Coming across the wires now, it is said that the Prime Minister of Hungary has signed an unconditional surrender treaty with the newly formed... Yugoslavia? Well, this certainly is a turn of events. Thomas, has there been any word of the UN's or NATO's response," she asked another newscaster.
The camera broke away to another gentleman standing before a green screen that had a map of Eastern Europe behind him.
"Thank you Rachel. No, there has not been much of a response. The President of the U.S. has called this attack outrageous and promised a strong response, but other than that, other world leaders have been absent. We hear that there is an emergency meeting taking place now between Europe's top leaders, coming up with a unified response, but that is all we have."
"Thomas, this is all such a surprise. It was only a few months ago that the former Yugoslavia was fracturing even further, how did this sudden turnabout occur."
"We don't know, Rachel. All things seem to point to rising star, the charismatic Defense Minister Juri Scura of Serbia. Born in Serbia to a native father and Czech mother, Scura has long since advocated for the reunification of Yugoslavia and of a greater alliance with the other Slavic nations. If you look behind me here, you can see all the countries that once made up the nation, and have apparently reformed now within it."
The new castor began highlighting all the countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia.
"If you recall Rachel, it was only a few years ago that the breakup occured, and since then there have been several internal wars and battles fought, even drawing in UN forces to mediate. Several former leaders have since been charged with war crimes. But what is all so surprising about this, Rachel, is how there was virtually no warning of this, and especially of the invasion into Hungary. The entire world seems to have been taken by suprise. It just doesn't make any sense. There has been a virtual blackout across Yugoslavia - who's behind this, who's organized it, we haven't received any firm answers. We'll just have to stay tuned to find-" the tv went blank again.
Hermione looked to her right to see a shocked Petunia standing with her jaw dropped in the Kitchen entry. Harry stood up.
"I'll have to be off."
"I'm coming with you," Hermione said firmly.
"No," Harry said flatly.
"Didn't you promise not to leave me again?"
"You'll be safe here."
"I'll just follow you anyways."
Harry gave her words some serious thought, "Well, come on then, we'll need to hurry."
They didn't bother explaining to the Dursley's. They had no more than stepped outside the protective enchanments of the house than a tired owl came swooping down, dropping a letter right into Hermione's hands. She hurriedly tore it open.
URGENT! Come quickly.
A black raven's feather was folded up within the envelope. Hermione picked it up and looked it over, spinning it's quill between her thumb and index. She looked up to Harry questioningly. Harry reached out and placed a finger on the feather. He nodded back down to the feather. As Hermione turned back to it, it was already lighting up blue. In an instant, they were both gone.
They landed in Hogsmeade, right before the entrance to the grounds of Hogwarts. Professor Flitwick stood before them.
"Ms. Granger, Har - oh my - Harry Potter! How wonderful it is to see you, welcome back, Sir!" Flitwick eagerly shook Harry's hand. "Come now, almost everyone else has arrived, meeting's in the Great Hall."
Harry and Hermione hurried across the grounds. As they prepared to enter, Harry lifted the hood of his cloak to hide his face.
"What's that about?" Hermione asked him.
"There's a large audience inside."
Hermione looked confused by this but Harry did not expound. Indeed, when they walked in, a number of faces turned to them. Most of the members who had been at the last meeting were there: Arthur, Amos, Hestia, and Elphias, Dedalus, George, Bill, and Ron, to name a few, as well as Neville, Hagrid and several of the other Professors. There were even several new faces: Luna, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, Ollivander and Aberforth, Molly, Fleur and Andromeda, Percy, Ginny and even Oliver Wood. Many of the older witches and wizards she again did not know, but this was apparently a much larger meeting than just the Order. The meeting had already started. Professor McGonagall was speaking to them. She did a double take as they entered in the back.
"...I will let the Minister take it from here."
"Thank you all for coming on such short notice, Mr. Robards, Mr. Flamel, Sir Byron," Kingsley Shacklebolt started as he rose from his seat beside Professor McGonagall.
Hermione had not noticed at first, but the Head of the Aurors, Gawain Robards, the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Nicholas Flamel's great - great grandson Fortin Flamel, as well as the Minister of Magic himself, Kingsley Shacklebolt, were all present.
"For those of you who have not heard, the Southern Slavs have invaded and taken Hungary. Whats worse, they've brought the muggles into it, declaring open war, and they have already begun shifting their forces east into Romania. Our intelligence suggests Bulgaria and Albania will soon be annexed as well. The Russians, Germans, and Italians have all signed a non-aggresion pact with the Slavs, practically guaranteeing them their hold on these lands conquered. The French and Americans have yet to declare a response, leaving it up to us to thwart their advance before it is too late."
Several murmurs broke out around the room, these were certainly no minor details.
"Please," Shacklebolt called for quiet, "Due to the inaction of our allies, I have no choice but to rally our Aurors. The Austrians, afraid they'll be next, have invited us to gather in Vienna, to join with their number. Without action from from the three major powers surrounding the Slavs, I daresay there is nothing to prevent the fall of Romania, and subsequently the rest of the Balkans. But we believe their ultimate goal is unification with the Northern Slavs, the Czechs and the Slovakians, and from there who knows what end. Austria then will serve as the gateway to the rest of Europe."
Everyone was dead silent, captivated by the magnitude of the sudden news.
"Per the enemy's great number, I have requested the Wizengamot to authorize the formal commisioning of a Grand Army. As is always the case with poloticians and bureaucrats, this will take time - but time we have not. I have called you all here, our strongest and our bravest, in search for volunteers. I intend to amass as large a force in Austria as possible. Hopefully our show in number will hold the Slavs in check until which time our allies can come to a resolution."
An outright uproar broke out. Again Shacklebolt had to call for silence.
"The Secrecy Act has been grossly violated. Our sources report that the Hungarian casualties are in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. They have taken control of the muggle governments there, specifically using the rising muggle politician Juri Scura, the Serbian Defense Chief as the front man of this invasion. He has since been named Marshall of the newly reunited Yugoslavia. I have made it a priority to infiltrate his office to free him and the other leaders of the Imperius Curse so that we can-"
"He's no muggle."
The entire room suddenly shifted to look back in search of who had said that. Shacklebolt did a doubletake around the room. All heads turned to Hermione and her cloaked companion.
"Who said that?" Shacklebolt asked as Byron rose at his side.
"He's not a muggle," Harry repeated as he threw back his hood to a countless number of gasps,oohs and aahs, "and he's not under the Imperius."
"Harry Potter?" Kingsley spoke first, astonished.
"Harry?" McGonagall seconded.
"Harry?" Arthur Weasley tripted and so on - his name rippled across the room. All were astonished to see him here. Ron caught Hermione's eye. She could not help but see the enmity in his expression.
"Seems like this day shall bear some good news yet!" Kingsley said excitedly. "Harry, welcome back! Come forward, what is this you speak of?"
Harry stepped forward, "Juri Scura is no more a muggle than I."
All but an uproar broke out once more around the room.
Kingsley made to say something more but Byron grabbed him by the arm.
"Mr. Potter, if we could - perhaps this should be discussed in a more...private venue?"
Byron swept his arm to the side, motioning back towards the door that led down to the Trophy room. Harry nodded and began walking towards it, ignoring all the eyes that were locked onto him. Hermione quickly followed and took up his hand. Harry never broke stride nor looked back to her, but he took her hand in and clenched it tight in return.
Shacklebolt, Robards, Flamel, Byron and McGonagall all followed as well. They had no more than entered the stairwell which led down to the Trophy Room than an eruption of chatter filled the Hall behind them.
Byron and Kingsley were ahead of the rest and talking heatedly back and forth amongst each other as the rest filed in. Byron stopped and turned to look back at Harry. Harry and Hermione were the last in and McGonagall used her wand to shut the door behind them and put a Muffliato Charm on it.
"Well then, young man, what is the meaning of this?" Shacklebolt turned to Harry.
"I meant nothing more than to correct your assumption of Scura."
"Forgive me, I did not mean to be accusatory. You seem to have some insight on this matter, what is it exactly you know of this - wizard?"
"Juri Scura?" Harry asked. Kingsley nodded in response. "He is a high lieutenant of Anatol Kaan himself. Born in obscurity, he lived most his life unaware of what he truly is. But he is powerful, one of the most powerful I have ever met. Kaan recruited him a few year back, immersed him deep within the Dark Arts. Kaan has made it a habit of drawing in lost but powerful wizards to himself. Kaan has entrusted him as the leader of his army. Marshall of the Slavs is the title he has given him. He will indeed need to be one of your top priorities, but not to free - to kill."
"This is madness, our sources have not..." Robards spoke but Byron lifted a hand to silence him.
"How you speak - you say you have met Scura...and Kaan?" Byron asked intrigued.
Harry stared down Byron for the longest time. The gaze was intense, all the others were forced to look away but Byron nor Harry flenched. Harry finally nodded, confirming Byron's question. Hermione clenched ever tighter at his hand.
"What would your suggestion then be, one who has come face to face with the enemy?"
"You send an army to confront Kaan...I cannot help but think that this is exactly what he would suspect, and I would strive with all my power not to act as Kaan would suspect. Kaan's recent success in Hungary, I doubt even he had expected it to have been pulled off so flawlessly - and now for Britain to stand alone. It makes me nervous. If this is his plan, then you are stumbling right into it-"
"Then what would you have us do, nothing?" Kingsley charged. Harry shook his head.
"Fortunately I am not the one who has to make such decisions, I understand they are not easy...but Kaan, he is not one to act so boldly should he not already have the next several moves of this chess game played out. If this is your response, then he has already assumed it, and he has a plan in place to counter it. So many more of our bretheren, gathered for war...I fear their fate."
"So what would you then do, Harry?" Byron repeated Kingsley's question.
"Strike at the heart of it. Cut off the head of the snake."
They all stood in silence for a moment.
"You have a plan yourself?" Byron asked. Harry neither confirmed nor denied.
"I cannot let him move unchecked. Austria seems to be the strongest place for us to amass until our allies join us..." Kingsley pitched as if seeking Harry's approval.
"The head of this snake is not so easily taken. Surely you know this?" Byron said.
"Harry," Flamel spoke, "If you have met this Kaan, what do you know of his plots - of his aim?"
Harry gave the Chief Warlock's question a good deal of thought before answering.
"Of his final goals? I cannot speak. Kaan is slavic himself and I believe he takes great pride in his heritage. I believe he seeks to re establish the glory of old for the Slavs. More than that - Wizarding Rule, the fall of the Secrecy Act, world domination - I cannot say. He has sent his agents here in search of a key, a key to a certain temple that holds what is known as the Slavic Scrolls. They are a tome of scrolls, a collection of magic dating back to some of the first witches and wizards of our world. Their knowledge, their depths are unparrelled. One who possess them...well, there is little to challenge them. Kaan is not ignorant of their magic, but he recruits his agents and trains them there. This temple - these scrolls - they have produced some of the darkest witches and wizards in history, most recently Grindelwald...and Voldemort."
Silence fell. Nervous eyes searched from one to the other, seeking some type of reassurance, all eyes that is but for Harry's and Byron's, they were looking at each other. Hermione noticed this lock in their gazes...it was almost as if a silent conversation was occuring between the two.
"And why would he search here for this key?" Flamel finally asked.
"Because I have it," Harry answered turning to face him. Several guffawed. All eyes were once again back on Harry.
"Is it safe?" a nervous McGonagall asked. Harry nodded.
"We could help protect it," Shacklebolt said, but Harry shook his head.
"Very well, we will continue with the plan as is. You hang on to this key, Harry, and make sure that it does not fall into the hands of the enemy. Byron will work to bring down this Scura and we will pray that it does not take long for our allies to join us on the front."
Finished and his mind made up, Kingsley walked past them back up the stairs to conclude his meeting with the rest. Robards, Flamel and McGonagall all followed in his wake.
"Harry, if I could have just one more word," Byron called Harry back. "Hermione, I would have to ask you to give us a brief moment..."
Harry looked to Hermione and nodded. She reluctantly followed the rest out, back into the hall.
"If you have met with Kaan and you are still alive - then he has attempted to recruit you."
Harry nodded. I regretably spent a good deal of time with Kaan - in Romania...and in Abania."
Byron's eyes grew large. "Albania? And you have the key...you have studied from the scrolls?"
Harry gave a sly smile, "You could assume."
"And they have not corrupted Harry Potter like all the rest? I don't imagine Kaan let you willingly leave his service."
"Grindelwald and Voldermort both struck out on their own after having trained at the temple. This only confuses me more as to Kaan's aims. Though I briefly associated myself with Kaan, that is before I had learned what he truly is, I was never in his service."
"If you know half as much as you are letting on, then you know your plan will not succeed," Byron got to it.
"But like the Minister, I have no choice but to act."
"I am not sure you fully understand the scope of Anatol Kaan."
Harry nodded. "I am the only one who can stand up to him. Kaan cherishes his life more than anything - and he fears death more than anything. If I cannot destroy him, I can only hope to scare him enough to flush him back into his cave for another century."
"I believe you are putting a bit too much stock in hope..."
"That is all I have."
"I could help."
"I'm sure you could. The Minister has given you an assignment, I believe we will be working closely together as this thing unfolds."
They stared each other for another minute.
"What do you intend to do exactly?"
"I intend to seek him out and destroy him."
"You?" Byron almost laughed, "surely you are not so blind, you confess you have met this beast and yet you still make such a bold claims."
Harry said nor showed anything in response to this.
"Hmm, very well Mr. Potter, may fate be on your side."
By the time they had returned to the Hall, the meeting had adjourned but all were still present. The Great Hall had practically turned into a mob scene as the witches and wizards argued and debated heatedly amongst each other as to the merits of going to war with the Slavs. When Harry and Byron returned up the stairwell, however, all fell silent once more as their eyes turned to Harry. People whispered back and forth as he passed by.
They followed him carefully, all the while as he passed through the Hall. The Weasley's were grouped together in the back with Hermione, Amos Diggory, and McGonagall joined in with them. Harry made a line right for them. Slowly the noise of the Hall returned.
"Harry, dear boy! We have been so worried about you," Molly rushed to him, taking him in a fierce bear hug. Arthur joined them, putting his arms around both Molly and Harry.
"Everything alright then?" Arthur asked in a serious tone, concerned only for Harry's well being. Harry nodded and Arthur left it at that.
"Look at your!" Molly gasped, "look as if you've aged several years! And your glasses! And these muscles!" she felt his arms. Harry blushed at this last comment.
"Come now, Molly, I believe everyone else will be wanting to say their hellos as well."
Molly hesitantly let Harry go. Silent tears were streaking down her face. George was up next. He started to extend a hand, but as Harry reached for it he grabbed it and pulled Harry into a hug as well.
"Glad you're back, brother," George said before clearing out to let the next of his family greet their missing adopted brother. Ginny stood sheepishly behind George, her cheeks an all too familiar red. Harry smiled at her, opening his arms for a hug. Ginny fell into them as she immediately began sobbing.
"We've missed you so much!"
"I've missed you all too."
Ginny lingered for a moment but eventually pulled herself together and released Harry. Bill, Charlie and Percy all stood shoulder to shoulder facing Harry. Harry shook all their hands as they exchanged brief but heartfelt greetings.
Last, standing apart from the rest was Ron. A mixture of emotion evident upon his face. Harry walked forward and stood facing him with all the rest to his back. Ron could not bring himself to look Harry fully in the eyes.
"Hello, old friend," Harry said. Ron did not respond. "Could we break away for a moment...I have a favor to ask?"
Ron attempted to raise his eyes at this but as soon as they hit Harry's he dropped them back to his feet, both fear and surprise alive in them. He could only nod as they both departed through the Great Hall's main doors. All watched them carefully as they left.
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