Chapter 39 – Changing the Status Quo

The magical district in the city of Aswan was not an impressive sight. The city itself was a bustling tourist center, small, yet vibrant, situated as it was just above the Aswan Dams on the Nile. However, as a small and somewhat remote city, the magical population was undoubtedly equally small, and in that it didn't disappoint. The district was reached through an opening in a busy bazaar, hidden by the illusion of a brick wall, and spelled with the requisite Muggle-repelling and notice-me-not charms. The entirety of the magical presence was a few shops and street vendors hidden away, and very few patrons were to be seen shopping, though that also could be due to the heat of the day. Diagon Alley, it was not, though given the remoteness of the location, Remus supposed it was not surprising that there was little magical presence in the area.

Paying no attention to the hawkers who bestirred themselves enough to call out his interest to their wares, Remus strode down the street toward an old, rundown pub situated at the street's end. On the outside it did not look promising; it was a ramshackle building, weathered in the heat of the merciless sun, its adobe walls bleached and crumbling—in fact, even when accounting for differences in building materials and locations, it was strongly reminiscent of the Leaky Cauldron, leading Remus to wonder if pubs the magical world over were all such disreputable places. The interior of the pub was not much better. It was dim and it smelled of beer, the sweat of bodies in the heat of the day, and the smell of tobacco, and the curiously sweet apple scent with which shisha was so often flavored. It was little more than a collection of a few tables, a bar, a number of hookahs and a few bottles of watered-down liquor.

Likewise there were few patrons in the pub—a few old men, swapping tales and anecdotes, or simply trying to cool down from the heat of the day with a pint of beer out of the murderous glare of the sun. Nowhere in the pub did Remus see evidence of any women, and he involuntarily glanced at Tonks who had entered after him. The face of a stranger stared back at him, disguised as she was to appear as a man—it was a fact that men had greater freedom, especially this deep in the country, and when they were not in their rooms, she generally assumed the form of a man. Still, it was strange to know that it was Tonks as she looked back at him from behind a neatly trimmed beard, her head covered with a keffiyeh in the manner of an Arab man. She said exactly the same thing when he applied his glamour to make him appear like an Arab man himself.

Focusing on the task at hand, Remus searched the cloudy room and, spying an old man in the corner who fit the general description he had been given. Perhaps more importantly, a helpful man in the previous town had described him as one who was familiar with old magics and told them exactly where they could find him at this time of day. The man was ancient; his face was weathered and lined like the leather of an old boot, and he sported a colorful red keffiyeh wrapped around his head. He had an ornate hookah with a cone-shaped blue base and a flowered pattern etched up the sides, situated in front of him, from which he drew at periodic intervals, blowing smoke rings into the air. He noticed them approaching and Remus was drawn to his eyes, as they were bright, showing no sign of his age, and spoke of a rare intelligence. For the first time in more than a week, he felt the stirrings of hope that they would be able to find something.

Indicating the unoccupied seats at the table, Remus politely spoke to the man, "I apologize, but may we join you for a moment?"

The old man squinted and peered up at him. "Do I know you?"

"I was told you may be able to help us," Remus responded, thankful for the translation charms. There was no way to suddenly learn a new language—not even magic could simply insert such information into one's head—but the proper charm could make it so that you understood what another person said, as though they had spoken in your own language, and do the same for them in return. This mission would have been impossible without such charms. "My companion and I are looking for some information on old magics, and I understand that you are acknowledged to be conversant such things."

A toothy grin met his declaration. "I do have some modest expertise, yes. It is good that you have come to Qareeb. Please, sit; I will help you if I can."

Thanking him, Remus sat on the rickety chair, noting the groan his weight elicited from the aged wood. To his side Tonks also sat, though she glanced around the none-to-clean pub with some distaste.

"Now," Qareeb said after taking a long draw on his hookah, "what can I do for you?"

"We are looking for some information on an ancient magic which originated in this part of the world."

"Well, well then, don't hesitate. What is this magic?"

"It is related to soul magic," Remus stated carefully. This was perhaps the most difficult part of their task—asking about horcruxes without coming out and saying it. They had typically stuck to vague inquiries which generally went nowhere—soul magic was obscure, after all, and there were very few who knew anything about it at all. A few times, however, they had been forced to actually come out and state what they were looking for—as of yet, however, they had not had anyone who had even heard of them, let alone knew any helpful information. "We would appreciate it if you could direct us to resources which have information on this subject."

"Hmm…" Qareeb said as he brought the pipe from the hookah to his mouth. "Soul magic, you say. A pretty useless branch of magic."

Remus watched the elderly man and he thought he could detect a little less cheer than he had originally shown—almost as though he was now wary of them but did not wish to show that fact. Was there some taboo on soul magic? They had not run in to any prejudice that they knew of, but their general ignorance of the culture certainly made giving offense a possibility. If this man retreated just from hearing them speak of soul magic, it might be worth it to just come out and ask him what he knew of horcruxes.

"As I said," Qareeb continued, "soul magic does not exactly have many uses, my friends. I'm not sure why you would be searching for information on it—there is a bit of native magic to the region which is more useful and interesting. Could I tell you something about it?"

Shaking his head, Remus replied, "Unfortunately, there is something specific we need information about." He watched their companion of anything which would indicate that he was being evasive, or that he was not telling them something, but the man merely appeared somewhat curious, albeit in a wary sort of way.

"Well, I cannot help you unless you tell me precisely what it is you are searching for."

Exchanging a glance with Tonks, Remus decided that this was one of the times when coming out and stating what they wanted may just lead them to some information. "It is called a horcrux."

The change in Qareeb's demeanor was almost instantaneous, as he frowned and his manner transformed from open and engaging to unfriendly and distrusting. "Why would you wish to know about such a horrible device?"

"Then you have heard of it?" Remus asked eagerly.

Qareeb grunted. "I have. But I know enough of such things to know that they are better left undisturbed. Now, you have not told me why you wish to know of this horcrux."

"Because we suspect a powerful man of having made one," Remus responded, sticking to the vague story they had decided on. Not knowing the sympathies of the area particularly well, they certainly did not want to run around dropping the name Voldemort everywhere they went.

"And you wish to stop him?"

"That's the general idea," Remus replied in a dry tone of voice.

The old man grunted and turned back to his hookah. It was several moments before he deigned to acknowledge them again, but Remus was certain that he was deep in thought during those moments in which he smoked. Finally, his attention did return to them.

"Well, if you are looking for information on horcruxes, I'm afraid you have come to the wrong part of the world."

Ignoring the fact that Qareeb had already guessed that they were not from Egypt, Remus replied, "But all of our information suggests that they were first created here."

"And in that you are correct, by all accounts. However, there is little remaining to be found in Egypt. Over the centuries, it appears that knowledge of horcruxes has disappeared—I doubt you could find more than a few scraps of parchment which would even mention the word, let alone the detailed knowledge you seek."

Dismayed, Remus shared a glance with Tonks. It appeared they had come to another dead end.

"Is there nowhere we can go to find the information we need?"

Qareeb appeared thoughtful for several moments. "You certainly won't find anything here in Aswan. You may have better luck down in the delta. Of course, you may stumble upon some secret cache of knowledge too—uncover some long lost library of parchments containing the treasures of knowledge lost to the world." He laughed at such a thought. "There may still be some information which survives, but I doubt you will find it this far up the Nile. You may find what you seek in some other area of the world—I understand horcruxes have been found elsewhere. You may also discover something by speaking with the Goblins—they are involved with burial grounds and tombs, after all."

Remus peered at the man thoughtfully. "Do you know anything of the ritual?"

"I don't," Qareeb responded, his tone again becoming less friendly. "I stumbled across a reference to a horcrux many years ago, but it was little more than a few fragmented descriptions. I destroyed them all. Such knowledge should be lost—or better yet, never even discovered. Now I have told you all I can; please leave me."

The man's eyes bored into Remus and he could feel Qareeb willing them to be away. Aware that nothing further could be gained by pressing the issue, Remus thanked him before he stood and walked from the pub.

The daylight had faded while they were in the establishment, and now twilight was beginning to fall. Motioning Tonks to be silent, not wanting to be overheard, Remus led them from the magical area and out into Aswan proper. The city was small and dusty—it sometimes went years without rain there, and its position so far down into the desert meant that even in the middle of March, the temperature generally rose to an uncomfortable level during the day, and though it was cooler overnight, it was still not frigid as he had always thought deserts were supposed to be. In a few more months, it would undoubtedly be uncomfortably hot at night, and absolutely stifling during the day.

They walked in silence down the streets of the city, and within a quarter of an hour had drawn close to the Nile. The flowing water was somewhat lethargic in this part of the river, it being just far enough downriver from the dam for it to have slowed back down to its lazy pace. It was an oasis of tranquility in the middle of the harsh desert.

They stopped in a secluded spot along the river and leaned against a railing which stood by the side to the path. Glancing at his companion, he noted with some annoyance that she had reverted back to her natural form and removed her keffiyeh—she complained continually that it was very draining and difficult to maintain the form of an Arab man for long periods of time. Remus liked her looks but the risk of discovery was much greater when she appeared as a woman.

When he admonished her to return to her disguise, she merely shrugged and pointed to the darkening sky. "It's too dark to see me clearly, Remus. Don't worry."

Remus found that he did not have the heart to argue with her. "So what do you think?"

"About Qareeb?" Tonks clarified. When Remus nodded she continued, "I couldn't detect any falsehood from him, if that's what you're asking."

Sighing, Remus nodded his head. "I got that impression too. So assuming that we can't get anything further from him, what do we do next? "

"Further up the river?"

Though he was frustrated, Remus kept his calm. "We're almost to the end of Egyptian territory. The only town of significance along Lake Nasser is Abu Simbel. But that's really not the point."

"What do you mean?" Tonks asked with a curious look.

"I mean that we're not considering this in a logical fashion," Remus supplied.

"Magicals are not exactly known for logic," was Tonks's cheeky reply, to which Remus flashed a brief smile.

"Maybe not, but we had better find some, or we could end up wandering around here for years. Dumbledore gave us directions to search in Egypt, citing it as where the ritual was discovered. Egypt of antiquity was very different from the modern county."

Tonks frowned. "We're taking that into account, aren't we? There's no sense going out into the desert where no one lives. Wasn't ancient Egypt concentrated along the Nile?"

"It was," Remus confirmed. "So is modern Egypt, for that matter. Dumbledore told us it was created three thousand years ago. But if he was even off by a few hundred years, then everything changes. The boundaries of ancient Egypt were somewhat fluid, depending on their conflicts with other powers, the state and strength their own Pharaohs, and even conditions in the world, such as the availability of food and whether there was an outbreak of disease. During its greatest extent, Pharaohs not only ruled all the way down to Khartoum in Sudan, but also west along the Mediterranean, and east, all the way to Turkey. It was a very far flung empire in those days."

"So you are telling me that we're going about this wrong?" Tonks asked, her eyes flinty with displeasure. "And why didn't Dumbledore know all of this?"

"Did you?" Remus rejoined, at which Tonks shook her head. "Dumbledore is a very knowledgeable man, but like most other magicals, he tends to pay attention only to magical society. World history is not taught in our schools, as we tend to label anything Muggle as unimportant."

"Then why do you know it?"

"Because I took the time to find out," Remus replied gently. "I knew we would need this information since we were coming here and we were specifically interested in the ancient world. I've brought a few books and I've continued to read as we have searched.

"And the question is not whether we're going about this wrong—it's how much further we continue to wander up the Nile. Do we go all the way to Khartoum? Even further? And if we do, do we follow the White Nile or the Blue Nile? And the greater problem may be that Sudan and Egypt are not even connected by roads. If we go further, how do we get there?"

"But you said that Egyptian power ended at Khartoum," Tonks protested.

"Their rule ended at Khartoum, but their influence would have extended much further. The other possibility is that the inventor discovered it somewhere else—down in the communities on the delta as we discussed before, for example. And though Israel, parts of Syria, and even Turkey to the east, and Libya almost as far as Benghazi were subjected cultures, who's to say that it wasn't discovered somewhere in those lands during a period of Egyptian dominance? We simply don't know."

"I think I'm getting a headache," Tonks remarked, rubbing her eyes with one hand. They were silent for several moments, Remus lost in thought while Tonks looked out over the river. It was a conundrum to be sure, and if Remus was honest with himself, he had to admit that he was not certain exactly what to do next.

The only thing of which he was certain was the fact that they could not give up; too much was at stake for that. If it took fifty years he knew that he would have to continue to look—he owed James, and would not allow his son to continue living with the soul of that madman if he could help it.

A movement to his side drew his attention and he turned his head to see Tonks regarding him, a serious expression on her face. Remus had to admit that for all her playful attitude, her joking demeanor, or her flippancy—which often kept him from being gloomy—it was when she was serious and focused that he was most drawn to her. There was something about her eyes which reflected her passion and determination that he found immensely appealing.

But then the guilt at feeling such things immediately welled up in him—the situation was not such that he could reasonably entertain such thoughts, not to mention the obstacles which stood in the way of any sort of relationship with her. His lycanthropy, the fact that he was much older, the fact that she was Sirius's younger relation… He did not even know what she felt anyway, not that it mattered.

"Can I take it you have an opinion about what we should do next?" she asked, jolting him from his thoughts.

Sighing, Remus shook his head. "In all honesty, I'm not sure that I do. In fact, I agree with Qareeb—if the knowledge exists, it's very likely that it's hidden in some forgotten cache somewhere, and the chance of our finding it is miniscule at best."

"Then we become treasure hunters?"

That little bit of levity brought a grin to Remus's face, regardless of the severity of the situation. "I doubt that would do us any good."

Pausing again, Remus thought about the situation, before he sighed and fixed his eyes on his companion. "I think we've searched just about as far as we can down the Nile. I believe it's best to return to the delta and begin searching in some of the communities in that region—we my have better luck there."

"You don't sound very optimistic," Tonks observed.

"We've been here almost two months—are you optimistic?"

When Tonks shook her head, he continued. "I think that the larger population centers may have more information if we can find it. The further we have travelled down river the smaller the communities have become, and though the locals claim to be steeped in old magic and old ways, Qareeb is the first we have run into who had even heard of what we are searching for. There's nothing to be found here—we need to look elsewhere."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"Then we move up the coast toward Israel," Remus said with a shrug. "If the most likely locations do not pan out, then we can start looking in some less likely places."

Nodding, Tonks turned away and, lacing her arm through his, began pulling him away from the river. "Let's get a good night sleep, then," she said, her sunny disposition firmly back in place. "In the meantime, I'm starving. Let's get something to eat."

Remus followed her with a smile, but not without peering around surreptitiously, looking for anyone paying an inordinate amount of attention to them. Tonks had arrived as a man, after all, and was still dressed like one, though she wore her natural face. Still, Remus did not have the heart to draw her arm from his—it was too comfortable, he decided, and no one was paying attention to them anyway.

Sitting between his two friends, Harry tried not to fidget. In truth he was a bundle of nerves and though he was trying not to show it, he was certain that both Hermione and Fleur were well aware of his tension.

The problem, of course, was the fact that he was, as yet, underage. He felt that the plan he had come up with was a good one which had a high potential for success, but unfortunately, it also had a potential to be dangerous. If he was of age he would have insisted on it and not worried what others felt, but as it was, he would have to convince his guardians that not only was it possible, but also necessary, given the situation. Harry had thought about it over and over and he was convinced that eventually he would be called on to retrieve the orb in order to keep it out of Voldemort's hands.

"Why won't you tell us what you're up to?" Hermione whispered, her fierceness evident in her demeanor, not to mention the exasperated glare she had fixed on him.

To his other side, he felt, rather than saw, Fleur nod her agreement, her own scowl of displeasure visible for all to see. As of yet, Fleur and Hermione had not been told of his plan, and neither were taking it well. Harry was aware of the fact that his unwillingness to tell them, coupled with his plan to leave them out of it, would get him in hot water with both women, but it was going to be dangerous enough without worrying about both of them. It was better to risk their displeasure, than risk one of them being hurt on his account. He would deal with the fallout later.

The fireplace flaring caught his attention and he looked up as Jean-Sebastian and Apolline stepped through the flames and into the Headmaster's office.

"Ah, Jean-Sebastian, Apolline, welcome," Dumbledore rumbled from behind his desk. "I believe that we are all here now."

The Delacours stepped forward and greeted Fleur and Harry with hugs, while smiling and greeting Sirius and Hermione as well. They settled down into the chairs provided and looked curiously at the Headmaster.

"So what is this about?" Jean-Sebastian asked.

Dumbledore chuckled and motioned to Harry. "I am afraid you are incorrect in assuming that I am the author of your summons. It was in fact Harry who insisted on it."

His eyes swinging to Harry, Jean-Sebastian's eyebrow rose in question. "You have something you wish to discuss, Harry?"

"And he's been bloody closemouthed with us," Sirius said with a good-natured frown on his face for Harry. Then he spoiled the effect by winking.

"Why don't you tell us what you meant when you walked into my office, Harry?" the Headmaster prompted.

Taking a deep breath, Harry looked up and swept his gaze across those in the room. "I think I know of a way to get the orb and get Fudge to admit Voldemort's back."

"Hmm, yes, that is what you said," said Dumbledore as he leaned back into his chair. "Perhaps you should explain to us what you meant."

Forcing his nervousness down, Harry kept his gaze upon the adults in the room. "It's obvious that I'm the only one who can take the orb. I suggest that's what I do before Voldemort can find a way around the protections."

"We have already discussed this, Harry," Dumbledore replied. "It is not in your best interests to alert the Minister of the prophecy."

"But what if we can do it in a way that he will have no choice but to admit Voldemort has returned?" Harry demanded. "I get the prophecy and then we arrange for Fudge to be there so that he can see Voldemort for himself."

A burst of voices erupted in the office, as Jean-Sebastian, Sirius, and Apolline all began to speak, mostly, from what Harry could determine, opposed to even the thought of Harry putting himself in that much danger. And of course Fleur and Hermione were not silent, as they demanded to know what he was thinking of. Only Dumbledore was silent, as he watched Harry with a speculative eye, clearly wondering where Harry was going with this.

"Let us have some calm, shall we?" Dumbledore spoke loudly, gaining the attention of the entire room. "Perhaps we should hear what Mr. Potter has to say."

"This had better be good, Pronglet," Sirius growled. "Your dad would be very unhappy with me if I allowed you to go and get yourself killed."

Harry just rolled his eyes. "Tell me then, Sirius, how many times have you faced Voldemort? I have at least five times, if you count that little encounter in the Forbidden Forest in my first year."

"That's beside the point—" Sirius protested, but Harry interrupted him.

"No, that's precisely the point! Voldemort takes an unhealthy interest in me because of that bloody prophecy and no one seems to realize that I've been fighting him since I was a baby.

"I know that everyone wants to protect me and I appreciate it," he continued when several of his companions would have interjected. "But according to the prophecy, it's ultimately going to be up to me to defeat him, unless of course you don't believe it. If that's the case, then why are we worried about the stupid prophecy? Let Voldemort have it. And keeping me in a gilded cage is not going to see him defeated."

"You know that's not what we are suggesting," Jean-Sebastian responded in a placatory manner.

"The fact remains that Voldemort is one of the most powerful wizards I have ever met," Dumbledore stated. "He has decades of experience and is steeped in the dark arts, as his work with horcruxes indicates."

"You will need much more training if you hope to ever defeat him, Harry," Sirius added.

"Wasn't it you, sir," Harry replied, looking at Dumbledore, "who told me that it's not always the strongest or the most experienced who wins?"

Dumbledore regarded him somewhat severely over his half-moon glasses. "I believe I did say that, Harry, but when I said it, I had no intention of you going off on your own and putting yourself in danger. Careful and deliberate thought is required, not impulsive action."

"And that's why we're here," Harry replied, giving the adults in the room a serious look. "If I had intended to act impulsively on my own, I wouldn't be talking with you about it.

"And by the way, Sirius," Harry said as an aside, "I'm relatively sure that Voldemort won't sit around and wait for me to train for fifteen years so that I can hope to beat him in a one-on-one fight. In fact, I'm not sure we even have six months."

Sirius bristled at Harry's words, and though Harry was not trying to be flippant or dismissive of their concerns, he also was not about to sit quietly and let the adults do all the work like Molly Weasley insisted. And he was also not about to let them treat him like he had no business getting involved, when he was always the target of Voldemort's schemes. The situation called for action, and he would make certain that they took action, rather than waiting around for Voldemort to do his worst.

In the end it was Fleur who spoke up in his support. "Maybe we should hear what Harry has in mind, before we dismiss it. It's not like he's actually told us what his plan is, other than a general statement to go and get the orb."

Harry flashed a quick smile at his betrothed. "Thank you, Fleur." He turned back and surveyed the group. "Voldemort knows that he needs the orb and that he cannot get at it right now. He has told his followers to break the enchantments, but we know he would prefer not to have to divert his resources toward getting the orb.

"I propose we give him what he wants," Harry continued after a short pause.

Leaning forward and placing his elbows on his desk, Dumbledore looked closely at Harry and said, "How exactly do you mean to accomplish this, Harry?"

"By allowing him to think that I'm going on my own to get it." Harry glanced around the room again, and noticed the expressions, especially on the faces of the adults, were not nearly as severe as they were before. "We make it appear like I'm being my old impulsive self by leaving the school in the middle of the night, making my way to the Hall of Prophecy to retrieve the orb. He will undoubtedly set a trap for me—I wouldn't be surprised if Lucius Malfoy and some of Voldemort's other followers are waiting when I leave the hall."

"I assume you are thinking of setting up a counter trap?" Jean-Sebastian queried.

"Yes," Harry confirmed. "But we'd have to make it pretty convincing, and there would be a certain amount of danger. Unless I miss my guess, Voldemort will not be part of that group—he'll likely monitor the situation from elsewhere, but he'll want to be close by in case he has to intervene. So we need to surround the Death Eaters with enough firepower to give them pause, while also making them think that they have a chance of fighting their way out of the trap. Then, when I manage to escape, Voldemort will almost certainly intervene, especially if he thinks I'm alone."

"And the Minister?" Dumbledore asked. "I believe you mentioned that you thought this would expose Voldemort's presence to him."

"I'm not sure I know exactly how these things happen," Harry started hesitantly, "but wouldn't he be called to the Ministry if there's an emergency? If Fudge gets there and sees Voldemort, he'll have no choice but to admit he's back."

Silence descended on the room. Harry watched, trying to get a feel for each person's thoughts, knowing that at the very least he had given them something to think about. Dumbledore appeared to be pensive and lost in thought, while his two guardians appeared a little less enthused about his idea. Hermione appeared to be slightly apprehensive, while, perhaps surprisingly, the Delacour women were regarding Harry appraisingly, Fleur with a slightly proud expression on her face, while Apolline appeared to be watching him carefully, and perhaps smugly.

It was not a perfect plan—Harry was fully willing to acknowledge that fact. But he felt that it was at least enough of a beginning that with a little refinement, it could be modified to fit their needs. More importantly, it was something which would allow them to take the fight to Voldemort to a certain extent, rather than waiting to counter his moves. That as much as anything else was important in Harry's opinion.

Finally, Dumbledore seemed to gather himself and he swept his eyes over the room. "Thoughts, anyone?"

"It's too dangerous," Sirius said immediately. "We have no idea how Voldemort would respond, how many Death Eaters he would task with confronting Harry. Hell, we don't even know that he won't come himself."

"Voldemort presence is indeed a wildcard," Dumbledore agreed. "And I don't know that putting Harry directly in his sights would be in Harry's best interests."

"I've been fighting him all my life—" Harry began angrily, only to be cut off by Jean-Sebastian.

"We all understand that, Harry. But we have your wellbeing to consider, and your past with Voldemort is not relevant here. It's your continued safety which concerns us the most."

"But could we not put precautions in place which keep him as safe as possible?" Apolline spoke up.

Jean-Sebastian turned to her with a certain level of surprise in his voice. "Are you actually considering allowing him to do this?"

"I'm merely suggesting we consider the possibility," Apolline said, gazing at her husband affectionately. "I know you want to keep Harry safe and it does you and Sirius," she glanced at the Marauder, "credit. But I also know that Harry is very capable and he's also right—we cannot simply sit back and try to counter what Voldemort does."

"You are correct in that Madam Delacour," Dumbledore mused. "Part of the problem during the last war was that Voldemort generally dictated the terms and forced us to be on the defensive."

"But what about exposing Harry to Voldemort?" Sirius demanded. "I know he's been practicing, but Voldemort forcing his way into Harry's mind would be disastrous."

"I'm skilled enough that it would take him some time," Harry stated. "He's not going to have that kind of time."

"I believe Harry's right," Fleur broke in. "If we can maneuver this so that Dumbledore is nearby when he confronts Harry, then he won't have the time to force his way past Harry's defenses."

"There is no 'we' about it, Fleur," Harry said firmly. He had been expecting this—the girls would almost assuredly insist on being part of this. "This is dangerous enough for one person. I won't allow you and Hermione to become involved."

Fleur's nostrils flared and Harry could immediately sense the signs of impending eruptions both on her and Hermione's faces. She was neatly counteracted by Jean-Sebastian's next words.

"I think that may be the first sensible thing you've said all evening, Harry." He directed his attention to Fleur and continued, "We haven't even decided that we will allow this, Fleur, so I suggest you keep your emotions under control."

It was evident that Fleur's argument had not been put to rest, but she subsided with a tight nod of her head. Hermione, however, was not to be put off so easily.

"It's foolhardy for Harry to go himself," she stated. "He needs someone to watch his back, and any adult going along with him would almost certainly give the ruse away."

"We can return to that another time," Dumbledore said firmly, not allowing any hint of dissent. He peered at Harry for several moments as though working something out in his mind before he nodded to himself and sat back in his desk. "I believe that Harry is on to something, but I have one further twist to add."

Though Sirius and Jean-Sebastian both began to protest, Dumbledore silenced them with a look and said, "Tappy!"

A house-elf popped into the room and bowed low to the Headmaster. "The Headmaster is calling Tappy?"

"Yes, Tappy. Please have Professor Snape join us as soon as he is able."

"Right away, Professor Dumblydore, Sir," said the elf and he popped away.

Harry, however, was not impressed. "Why would you call Snape here?"

Dumbledore regarded Harry with a faintly disappointed air. "I believe Severus can play an important role in this, Harry."

"Albus, there is no 'this'," Sirius said with some exasperation. "I don't like this plan, and I think we're being a little hasty here."

"I wouldn't have expected you to be so cautious, Sirius," Harry commented.

"While I would expect this kind of reckless behavior from you, Harry," Sirius rejoined.

"If I was reckless, then we wouldn't be speaking of this." Harry's frustration was beginning to boil over at his Godfather.

"I believe we need to keep this civil," Dumbledore interjected, throwing a significant glance at both Harry and Sirius.

"Yes they do," Jean-Sebastian spoke up, "but Sirius has a point. We have not agreed to anything, and I for one believe that this idea is too dangerous."

"Can we not follow it through to conclusion and then make a decision?" Dumbledore asked mildly.

Jean-Sebastian shrugged and gestured for him to proceed. "To be honest, I'm somewhat surprised that you are considering this at all, Headmaster. Given the caution you have exercised in the past to protect Harry, this seems to be going in the opposite direction quite forcefully."

"Perhaps it is," Dumbledore acknowledged. "But I must tell you that I've given this matter considerable thought and it all comes down to the fact that Harry must retrieve the prophecy.

"No, please hear me out," Dumbledore interrupted when both Sirius and Jean-Sebastian began to protest. "Right now we have the advantage. Voldemort has just begun his quest in finding a way past the protections. If we act now, then we put him in the position of having to respond on our terms. The longer we wait, the closer he arrives at breaking the enchantments, the less likely it is that he will be inclined to risk attempting to get Harry to remove the orb. We know that he is at least considering the possibility of luring Harry to accomplish his goal—Harry is right that we can use this against him."

Dumbledore swept his gaze across the whole group. "I can tell you this—though there are obstacles in his path, I believe that Voldemort will ultimately break the protections, and I don't think it will take him an excessive amount of time to accomplish it. There will come a point when Harry must retrieve the orb, and the closer Voldemort gets to obtaining it, the more watchful he will be when we will make our move. That swings the advantage back to him. Therefore, logically, we must act in a manner which he will not expect while we have the advantage."

As his words sunk into the consciousness of those assembled, Harry reflected at the irony that the Headmaster was about the last he would have expected to side with him in this matter, especially given the caution he had shown in the past. Conversely, it was Sirius who was raising the most strenuous objection, though Jean-Sebastian also did not appear to be in favor. Harry did not even try to contemplate the thoughts of his girls, as he knew they were most decidedly unhappy with him.

The question was about Snape—why would Dumbledore insist upon his active participation in this matter? Harry did not trust the man—not as far as he could throw Hagrid. And even more, Harry could not imagine Snape taking any action which would be in any way beneficial to Harry. What was this relationship Dumbledore had with Snape, and why did he trust him so much?

The door to the office opened and the unpleasant man glided into the room, his expression darkening once he saw who was also there. His only other reaction was a sneer in Harry's direction—not unexpected, of course—before he proceeded to ignore the rest of the room and address the Headmaster.

"Headmaster? You wished to speak with me?"

"Indeed I did, Severus," was the Headmaster's good-natured response. "We have been discussing an urgent problem, and I believe your assistance may be instrumental."

Snape's eyes flicked to Harry and he appeared ready to retort something, but in somewhat of a departure from his usual behavior he mastered himself and inclined his head toward Dumbledore while taking a seat. "I am not certain what I can do to help in present company, Headmaster. Perhaps you should explain."

Hesitating, Dumbledore glanced over at Harry as though seeking permission. Harry, though, was not paying attention to the Headmaster, fixed as he was on the potions master, while wondering why Snape of all people should be asked for his assistance.

"Harry," Dumbledore prompted. "I believe we need Professor Snape's help. Do I have your permission to explain?"

Glaring at Snape, Harry said, "I don't know why you think we can trust him, Professor. He's never been exactly trustworthy since I've been in Hogwarts. If I was to guess, I'd say that he is a Death Eater, and he'll go and tell his master everything we tell him."

Snape glared at him. "And you are a feeble-minded dunderhead who should not be sticking your nose into affairs which are beyond your comprehension."

"I suspect that is exactly the kind of comment which causes Harry's distrust, Severus," Dumbledore admonished, while at the same time Harry snarled, "And you are a misanthropic, shallow twat who cannot distinguish me from a man who has been dead for fifteen years."

Though Harry heard Sirius's snickers from his side, he did not remove his attention from the potions master for even a moment. Snape was livid and if his color was any indication, had Harry any concern whatsoever for the health of the man, he would have been worried that an aneurysm was in the offing.

"I do not have to sit here and listen to this… drivel from a subpar student!" Snape finally snapped before he rose and made to depart from the room.

"Would you have your life's greatest desire undone, Severus?"

Dumbledore's voice seemed to reverberate throughout the room and though he did not turn from his position facing the door, it brought Snape up short. For a moment it almost appeared as though Snape would leave anyway, but he appeared to master himself. He turned and faced Dumbledore, expressionless and seemingly emotionless.

"I know you put great faith in this… this… mongrel," Snape spat contemptuously, waving his hand at Harry in an agitated fashion. "But I have never seen any indication that he can successfully oppose the Dark Lord."

"What do you know about Voldemort and me?" Harry demanded. He attempted to rise to his feet to challenge Snape, but Hermione kept hold of his arm, keeping him in his seat. It was likely for the best—he felt like punching the git, and he knew that if it escalated into a physical confrontation that Sirius would not be far behind. Though to be honest, Sirius would likely use his wand, and given the Marauders' reputations, he likely knew many rather unpleasant hexes.

"Nothing other than that the Dark Lord appears to take a rather distressing interest in you," Snape shot back. "It is unfathomable, considering how truly unremarkable and pathetic you are."

"Professor Snape, sit down," Dumbledore commanded quietly. "And cease your attacks. The only reason you have not seen any indication of Harry's qualities is because you have never taken the time to try and see them. You have seen exactly what you expected to see."

"I believe you may have mentioned that my assistance is required?" Snape replied, pointedly ignoring Dumbledore's words. "What can be so important?"

Dumbledore once again turned to Harry with a questioning look on his face. But Harry was not about to be forgiving in this instance—there was no trust to be had for Snape.

"No," Harry said, glaring at the potions master. "I'm sorry, Headmaster, but it's very clear that I can't trust Snape. I want assurance that he won't go running to his master the minute he leaves this room."

"Then my presence is not required," Snape spat, before he turned to leave again.

"Severus, if you leave through that door, you risk the termination of your services," Dumbledore called after him, prompting Snape to stop once again. The look he directed at the Headmaster was as poisonous as any Harry had ever seen on his face, which was saying something, considering disdain the man had shown for Harry himself over the years.

"Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be best just to leave this all behind," Snape growled.

"You have that option," Dumbledore agreed. "But you must remember the consequences of such an action, Severus. And remember that the thing you want most in the world would be accomplished without your assistance."

A raised brow met this statement. "I thought you said that my assistance was required, or some calamity would happen."

"On the contrary, Severus, I believe that the desired goal would be accomplished more readily with your help. However, I also believe in Harry and in our cause."

Though he hesitated for several moments, Snape finally sat again, though it was obviously not what he wished. "Then what do you require?"

"I need the assurance that you will not go to Voldemort with anything you learn in this room," Harry said. "I want your oath that you will not assist him, take him any information, or promote his beliefs in any manner. If you don't give it to me, I will not agree to share anything with you."

Snape sneered contemptuously. "You don't need any of that, Potter."

"Then you can leave."

"I believe that what Severus meant was that he has already sworn to all of your demands, Harry," Dumbledore's quiet voice interjected.

Startled, Harry stared at them both. He had never expected this.

"What do you mean?"

Dumbledore gazed at Snape, evidently asking him silently for his permission to proceed, much as he had done with Harry only moments before. Snape, however, shook his head impatiently and addressed Harry.

"Are you aware of the fact that I knew your mother?" Harry glanced at Sirius before nodding, which prompted Snape to continue. "Lily Evans was my friend before Hogwarts—my best friend; my only friend. We continued our friendship throughout our time at Hogwarts, at times in defiance of our respective houses. She was the dearest person in the world to me."

"So this is some sort of vengeance for her death?" Harry asked.

"You could say that," Snape snarled.

"Then why did you behave the way you did in seventh year?" Sirius demanded. "Why did you call her a Mudblood?"

"Because I was young and stupid."

Harry muttered under his breath that only the fact that he was not young any longer had changed, but outwardly he held his tongue. There was as much tension in the room as he had ever felt, and now was not the time to further antagonize him.

"There is also the matter of the life debt," Dumbledore spoke into the silence.

"Life debt?" Harry asked.

A sneer once again bloomed again on Snape's face, causing Harry to wonder idly at the effortless manner in which he called them up. It must be a talent, he decided.

"Perhaps you should ask your godfather about that. It happened at his instigation."

The attention of the room turned to Sirius, and he glared stonily at Snape. "You are well aware that you challenged me and I merely gave you what you wanted to hear."

"What is he talking about, Sirius?" Harry asked.

Though he hesitated before continuing, Sirius did not visibly shirk from speaking. "In our sixth year, there was a… confrontation between Snape and Moony."

"A confrontation you provoked, Black," Snape growled.

Sirius turned his stony gaze on the potions master. "I am well aware of the role I played in the affair." Turning his gaze back to Harry, Sirius sighed and continued, "It seems that he had become suspicious due to the fact that Moony disappeared every full moon, and though I won't ascribe any motivations to our respectable potions master," he shot a disdainful glare at Snape, leaving no question in anyone's mind of what he thought Snape's motivation had been, "he appeared determined to find out the truth. I merely provided him the means to do so.

"James found out and intervened."

"He in fact… saved me from the werewolf," Snape interjected, though it appeared like he had to force the words from his mouth in a most painful fashion.

"Your father transformed into Prongs and kept Moony at bay while Snape escaped," Sirius continued.

"Why?" Harry asked, feeling a sense of disappointment in his godfather. He had known for quite some time that the Marauders had shared a distinct antipathy with Snape, but he had never imagined that Sirius would have behaved so vindictively.

"You have to understand, that this incident is one of my greatest regrets." Snape snorted at Sirius's words, but Sirius ignored him, preferring to focus on Harry. "I had never imagined he would get so far—I thought Moony's howls would have kept him from going all the way. My intention was to follow him and scare him—taunt him for not having the courage to go through with it. Your dad gave me a thorough bollicking after the fact, I can tell you."

It was, unfortunately, something Harry could well understand. The animosity between Snape and Sirius was visible and profound, and Harry shared something of the same kind with Malfoy, after all. Though he was not the prankster his father and Sirius had both been, he could well imagine the pleasure of seeing Malfoy wet himself in fear. It was not noble, but it was understandable.

"So what does this have to do with now?" Hermione asked.

"James saved Severus's life," Dumbledore answered, "and created a life debt between them. That life debt was passed down to Harry with James's death. This is one of the reasons why Severus has had a hand in protecting Mr. Potter during his time at Hogwarts."

"Most reluctantly, it would seem," Harry muttered.

"I suspect that this is not all there is to the story," Jean-Sebastian interjected from where he and Apolline had been quietly observing the conversation. "A life debt is a powerful force indeed, but there are ways to at least passively resist such limitations. I agree with Harry—unless there is irrefutable proof that Professor Snape is opposed to Voldemort and will not carry information to him, we cannot afford to trust him."

When Jean-Sebastian had finished speaking, silence descended on the room. Snape did not deign to speak, and glared at all and sundry with equal ferocity, while Harry, the girls, the Delacours, and Sirius all returned his stare, waiting for some further form of reassurance that he was to be trusted. It was finally Dumbledore who broke the silence, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

"I know that Professor Snape is trustworthy because I have ensured his compliance," Dumbledore stated with quiet conviction.

Harry waited for him to continue and it seemed like everyone else was content to simply allow the Headmaster to continue in his own time. Snape, however, appeared as though he had swallowed some particularly nasty concoction from Madam Pomphrey's stores, not that he often looked any different, Harry thought with a rueful mental laugh. There was little doubt that whatever Dumbledore had used to ensure his cooperation was not something he wished to be known by others—with what he most certainly considered his most hated foes present in the room, this sentiment was assured to be doubly felt.

It seemed that Dumbledore was almost as reticent as Snape was to begin this conversation, but at length he removed his glasses and buffed them on a cloth before he placed them back on his face and turned his attention back to those assembled.

"Though I am loath to address this any further, it appears that nothing less will satisfy, and for that I can hardly blame any of you. However, I must insist that what I am about to divulge will never be discussed with anyone else." He affixed a stern gaze upon the occupants of the room upon saying this.

"I agree," Harry said, acting as a spokesperson for the entire group. "If your explanation is acceptable and Professor Snape is trustworthy, then we would have no reason to discuss it further. If it's not, then I will wash my hands of him and have no further interest in discussing it." The others murmured their agreement, to which Dumbledore nodded somewhat abruptly.

"In that case, I shall tell you. Your mother's death, Harry, caused Professor Snape a great deal of pain, and his desire for vengeance was acute and all-consuming. I used this obsession, coupled with the life debt he already owed you, and bound him to the light with unbreakable chains. Though I will not inform you exactly of what those oaths consisted, I can tell you that they were in the form of an unbreakable vow. Professor Snape is fully committed to Voldemort's destruction in a way which does not allow him to aid Voldemort in any manner."

"That seems rather unwieldy," Sirius declared. "How is he able to avoid Voldemort's commands then? What if Voldemort were to ask him to do something—like killing Harry or you for that matter? Would he not be exposed?"

"There is a little leeway allowed," Dumbledore explained. "But he must discuss it with me, and I must agree to it. It is required in order to allow him to maintain his cover. For example, I have approved the leaking of certain information in order to prove his loyalty to Voldemort's cause, and to keep suspicion from him."

"And the Dark Lord is more interested in keeping me in place as a spy," Snape interjected, though he did appear like speaking at all took great effort. "I've never been commanded to do anything which would contravene my… oaths."

"But that may change," Sirius said, voicing Harry's thoughts. "I doubt that he will be content to sit back and plan forever."

"Therein lies the dilemma," was Snape's quiet response.

"But how could you have done such a thing?" Apolline said. Outwardly she was calm, but her eyes flashed and her jaw was set in a mask of displeasure. Harry instinctively understood—Veela had a history of bondage to unscrupulous wizards, often being bartered or sold for their beauty and abilities, specifically those of a carnal nature. Seeing another in the situation under which they had suffered for millennia provoked their outrage, even one as morally bankrupt as Severus Snape. A quick glance to his betrothed showed Fleur in a similar state.

Dumbledore, however, was not to be intimidated. "I assure you that I did not do it lightly, Madam Delacour," he responded. "But I was and am forced to focus on the greater issues—it is absolutely imperative that Voldemort be defeated, and I will do almost anything to ensure it happens. I am under no illusions as to what my actions have wrought, and I will gladly pay the price for those actions when the time comes, so long as the greater objective is accomplished.

"With respect to Professor Snape's specific situation, his obligations expire the day that Voldemort is finally and irrevocably defeated. I saw the chance to improve the odds in our favor and I took it. I regret the necessity, but I do not regret my actions."

"And I agreed to it of my own free will," Snape interjected. For once he looked a little less sour than was his wont as he actually defended the Headmaster. Again, through a little insight, Harry understood it was because he respected Dumbledore if nothing else.

This was a man who had spent much of his life alone, his only true friend having spurned him in favor of a man he hated passionately. It could not have been easy to see Lily Potter married to his greatest enemy, though Harry doubted that he had ever truly loved her. If Snape was capable of loving anyone, Harry thought it unlikely he would ever love anyone other than himself.

It was readily evident to Harry that neither Fleur nor Apolline was satisfied by the Headmaster's explanation, but at least they were placated by it. The fact that they could feel indignation for one as completely repulsive as Snape was a measure of their ability love and care for those around them. Personally, Harry could not feel any regret for Dumbledore's actions—in fact, he was using every resource at his disposal to guarantee Voldemort's defeat, and Harry could only admire his foresight and tenacity. Though he was yet young and had never been put in such a situation, Harry could not honestly say that he would have done differently.

"Now, is that sufficient?" Dumbledore asked the room at large. "For if it is not, I will excuse Severus and we may continue the discussion without him, for I will not reveal the exact nature of the vows he swore."

"I believe it is sufficient," Harry replied. And the thought was true by virtue of the fact that he implicitly trusted Dumbledore to oppose Voldemort. However, Harry was honest enough with himself to admit that there was one more powerful incentive to want the man to stay—the thought that sending Snape away might increase the possibility that his plan would be rejected. "I believe you had something further to add to my plan?"

Snape reacted to this, peering at Harry intently, and though he looked like he wished to say something—likely derogatory—he kept his composure, and instead asked, "What plan?"

With Dumbledore taking the lead, Harry's plan was explained in detail. He included the discussion of the prophecy, though Dumbledore did not state exactly what it contained, and finished with the fact that Voldemort was now attempting to claim it, and what Harry had proposed in order to deny him. When he had finished, Snape was silent for several moments as he apparently considered what he had been told.

"It has possibilities," he admitted grudgingly.

"Trust you to agree with something that would put Harry in danger," was Sirius's disdainful reply.

"Perhaps you simply refuse to admit that he may be right," Snape rejoined. "The closer the Dark Lord approaches to obtaining this prophecy, the more he will guard against any incursions to retrieve it. Dumbledore is right—we have the advantage now, and the longer we wait the more decidedly the advantage swings to the Dark Lord."

Snape turned and looked at Dumbledore. "I assume you mean for me to approach the Dark Lord with some information which will make him think that Harry means to retrieve the orb?"

"Yes," Dumbledore confirmed. "Voldemort instructed you to relay anything about Harry which comes to your attention, is that not correct?" When Snape confirmed this, Dumbledore continued, "Then I propose we feed him some information which suggests that Harry has found out about the prophecy and is obsessed about it. We don't even need to suggest that we know that Voldemort is trying to obtain it."

Shaking his head, Snape peered at the Headmaster with some consternation. "You are aware that this may result in the end of my use as a spy, Headmaster. If the Dark Lord suspects me of misleading him, my life won't be worth two knuts beyond these walls."

"Ah, but that is the beauty of your orders, Severus," Dumbledore responded, a trifle smugly if Harry was to be any judge. "You've been ordered to report on him. If we couch the information properly, it will appear as though Harry misled you on purpose."

"But then my usefulness to him will disappear," Snape objected.

"I doubt that," Dumbledore countered. "You may still gain information by observation or spying. He may even decide to have you act against us at some point in the future, or use you as his insurance should he decide to assault Hogwarts. Either way, even if he suspects that we are on to you as a double agent, he will undoubtedly still prefer that you stay in your role, regardless of whether he questions the information that you take to him in the future. We may also be able to make it appear like we found out about Harry's absence and responded to protect him."

"And this prophecy is important enough to limit my effectiveness in the future?"

Dumbledore thought for some moments before he answered. "I believe that we cannot hold resources for a future opportunity which might never come to pass. We will deal with the fallout as necessary. We have the advantage now that we know the entire prophecy and Voldemort does not. We need to keep that advantage at all costs."

"There is one other advantage we may be able to use against him," Snape mused, clearly thinking out loud. "If the Dark Lord has one weakness, it is an arrogance and conceit in his own cleverness. He is very intelligent and can be extremely subtle, but he also has a tendency toward blindness when he believes he is being subtle. He is too arrogant to suspect a counter-trap."

"That sounds like quite a bit of supposition to me," Sirius stated.

"If you have a better idea, Black, then I suggest you share it." Snape's voice was as unfriendly as ever, but it did not contain that challenging quantity he so often exhibited.

Either Sirius did not notice, or he was simply not prepared to give Snape any leeway at all. "The fact that I do not have an idea for another plan does not mean that I am willing to send my godson into a dangerous situation on your say so."

"I believe that this plan is as workable as any," Dumbledore interjected. "I have considered many possibilities, but none have given me the hope for success that this one does. The longer we wait the greater Voldemort's advantage becomes."

"I can do this," Harry said fervently. "I've trained and I've faced him before. We've got to do this, or we risk him getting the prophecy."

Sirius nodded, but it was to Jean-Sebastian that he looked. The Ambassador held Sirius's gaze for several moments before he sighed and looked at Harry. "I can't say that I do not have misgivings about this, Harry. However, I am willing to go along with it under several conditions."

He turned to look at Dumbledore. "Sirius and I are responsible for Harry's wellbeing—every precaution must be taken to ensure his safety."

"I agree. Let us discuss this further, and make certain we have everything covered."

It was much later that evening when they finally broke for the night. The meeting had been productive in many ways, and now the plan was set. As they walked from the Headmaster's office, Fleur glanced at Harry who walked by her side, feeling equal parts annoyance for his insistence upon excluding them from the plan, admiration for recognizing something needed to be done, and resourcefulness for what he had been able to devise. He had once told her that Slytherin had been an option for him, and Fleur was beginning to see that side of him. It was unfortunate that the noble Gryffindor was so intent on keeping her safe.

On Harry's other side, Hermione walked, her gait stiff and her eyes focused in front of her. In some ways, Fleur knew that it was even more difficult for Hermione, as she had been with Harry through almost every step of their escapades over the years. The fact that he wanted to leave her behind was particularly galling to the young witch who was the architect of so many of the things they had shared—she had truly kept him grounded, and her mind had saved them when they might otherwise have been in over their heads.

It was not so much the fact that he was excluding them—Fleur was readily able to admit that he only wished to protect them, which endeared him to her all that much more. No, it was more the fact that someone about whom she cared very much would be marching into trouble and she would not be there to protect his back. She was confident that her father, Sirius and Dumbledore would do their best to keep him safe, but at the end of the day, they were not her. She wanted to be there, sharing his adventures, helping him along and doing her best to make sure Voldemort was defeated. Who would want anything different? Certainly not Hermione or herself—neither of them were shrinking violets who were to be left at home while the men went out and fought the war.

It was that more than anything else which bothered her, Fleur mused. The decision had been made and she and Hermione had been excluded without their opinion even being solicited, as though they were both nothing more than fairy tale princesses. It was exasperating even though Fleur could see Harry had good intentions.

"Well, let's get it over with," Harry's voice broke into her reverie and he stopped and glared at them. "You both clearly have something to say; why don't we have it out now?"

"Harry," Fleur started cautiously before Hermione could say anything, "Hermione and I both know that you want to protect us, and we are grateful that you care so much. Don't you think you should have asked our opinion before you excluded us?"

"Do you really think your father would let you go?" was Harry's pointed response. "For that matter, what about your parents, Hermione? Would they let you go?"

Hermione huffed and stamped her foot in annoyance. "I didn't exactly ask them when we went after the stone or when we went to save Buckbeak and Sirius."

"It's different this time, and you know it," Harry responded. He was still belligerent, but managing his ire quite well, Fleur thought.

"I have just as much right to go as you do!"

"I think we all need to calm down," Fleur said, throwing a significant glance at Hermione. She then turned to Harry. "Again, I will repeat that we appreciate the sentiment, Harry. What we don't appreciate is that you didn't even ask for our opinions."

"I already knew what your opinions would be," Harry responded.

Fleur sighed; he was determined to be bellicose and this discussion was getting them nowhere. He was absolutely correct about what their reactions would have been—both Fleur and Hermione would undoubtedly have insisted on going with him. That much was not in question.

"Harry," Fleur began carefully, "I think what we are both trying to say is that we don't appreciate you making decisions for us. We said we would stick together and protect each other. We can't do that if you're constantly trying to protect us and leave us behind."

His firm façade cracking, Harry passed a weary hand over his face. "I'm sure you will have plenty of opportunities to help me and protect me in the future. I have no doubt we will all be fighting in this stupid war before it ends. But this plan is mine, and I couldn't bear it if either of you were hurt."

To her side, Fleur felt that Hermione was softening, but she appeared that she still had something to say. Shooting her a warning look, Fleur turned her attention back on Harry and approached him, leaning in to place her head on his shoulder, while holding him to her. His arm snaked around her and he held her close as the tension began to drain away. She heard Hermione release a sigh of frustration before she stepped forward and put her arm around his neck, molding herself into his side.

"Maybe I should have consulted you," Harry admitted after a moment in this attitude. "But I could not take the chance. You saw how Jean-Sebastian and Sirius were in there—it was enough of a fight getting them to agree to just me going."

"I appreciate that," Hermione said, shifting a little to face him. "But I want you to know that I will not sit at home like some helpless damsel while you go out and save the world. If that's what you expect me to do, then we have a serious problem."

"You? A damsel?" Harry snorted in disbelief. "This coming from the girl who jumped down a hole into a nest of devil's snare, braved the halls of Hogwarts when she knew a basilisk was loose, and faced down a horde of dementors in order to help me? Perish the thought!"

"And don't you forget it buster," Hermione responded, jabbing him in the side.

"And I'm the same," Fleur interrupted.

"I know you are both gifted witches. I will remember to ask your advice in the future. But I will not promise to stop trying to protect you."

"A protector is good," Fleur replied, pulling her head off his shoulder and reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. "Just don't smother us."

The three made their way back toward the common room. And though the course had been set, Fleur was not about to let him off that easily, regardless of the pretty words he had just recited to them. Now it was time to take steps to ensure Harry made it out of this mission alive.

Updated 05/26/2014