Changes We Have Wrought (pt 2)

A/N on Part 2–There are direct quotes from Goblet of Fire in this part.  I’m not plagarizing, I just wanted to get it right.

 

Chapter 16:  Boxing Day Follies

 

The rest of Christmas Day passed with little drama.  The adults indulged the teens with parlour games and sweets, and all serious conversation was put away.  For a short while at least, it was easy to forget that there was trouble brewing with the Weasleys, that there were Death-Eaters (at least two) trying to bring Voldemort back into the world, that Harry was possibly in danger while living in the one place (Hogwarts) he should be safe.

That evening, when Sirius escorted Harry and Hermione through the near-empty halls back to Gryffindor Tower, Sirius pulled Harry aside and said, “Tomorrow, after breakfast, I’d like to sit and have another serious chat with you, all about the things you’ve alluded to that I really don’t have details for.”

Harry shrugged and rubbed the toe of his shoe in an arc on the floor.  “I’ve told you most of it, Sirius.”

Sirius stifled a sigh.  “I know, lad, but I’d like details.  There may be a hint in there, somewhere, on how to protect you further, but I won’t really know unless I hear the worst of it.  Remus showed me those horrid articles from The Daily Prophet, but I have a feeling that the true seriousness was glossed over in Rita Skeeter’s efforts to make herself seem like a real journalist.”

Harry’s face screwed up in distaste.  “You know, I really could hate Ron for selling those stories.  All this time, I thought he was my friend, but I was just a treasure map for him, leading him to fame and riches.  When my name came out of the Goblet, the look on his face….  You could tell he was jealous, you know?  He was so sure I did it on purpose, and I meant to shut him out of possible glory.”

Sirius reached out and patted Harry’s shoulder.  “Some friendships aren’t meant to pass the really hard tests, Harry.  Unfortunately, when Peter failed his test, your parents were killed.  At least Ron only hoped to cash in on knowing you, and you weren’t in any real danger from those articles.  Inconveniences and embarrassments can be easily recovered from.”

Harry nodded and turned to enter the portrait hole, but Sirius held him back. “Harry, I’m going to send a message to the Healers that worked with me, to ask that they meet us at Gringotts tomorrow afternoon.  I know you seem to be doing well right now, but I’d feel easier if we could get you fully checked over.  I’d rather not take chances with your health, what with everything else going on.”

“Okay, Sirius,” Harry agreed.  “I supposed I don’t need anything else to worry about.”

 

**

 

Since a larger percentage of Hogwarts students than normal stayed behind for the Yule Ball, most were allowed to use the Floo in the Teacher’s Lounge to go home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so they could spend the actual holiday with their families.  Since those students would be returning to the school on the Hogwarts Express on January 2nd, the House Tables in the Great Hall were practically empty at breakfast on Boxing Day.  Sirius unabashedly joined Harry and Hermione for breakfast, ignoring the serious frown from the Headmaster.  Not all of the teachers were at the morning meal, and Sirius was especially pleased that Moody in particular was missing from that meal.

Severus was likely breaking his fast in his quarters, possibly while reading Lily’s journal.  Since he had maintained a firm hold on the journal after Sirius presented it to him the previous day, Sirius had had a feeling that the dour Potions Master would be preparing to utilize the gift as soon as possible.  As he’d flipped through it before giving it over, Sirius knew that the potions described within were obscure, dangerous, and difficult.  He knew he would never have been able to brew them, but he was certain (as was Lily, apparently) that Severus was up to the time-consuming task.

Sirius happily kept up a conversation with Harry and Hermione while they passed dishes around the table.  Mostly they chatted quietly about preparing Harry for the Second Task, taking care not to be overheard.  The conversations around them centered mainly on gifts received from family and friends, and Harry and Hermione were happy to share that information with friends from other Houses.  Sirius managed to be pleasant and courteous while also making sure Harry ate a full nutritious breakfast.

In all honestly, Harry was preoccupied by thoughts of visiting a Healer later that afternoon, as he wondered what might be found about his physical condition due to the ‘care’ he was given in his aunt’s home.  He’d just gotten Sirius in his life, officially, and the last thing he wanted was to send the man into a homicidal rage over people that really just didn’t matter.  He was also, if he had to be honest with himself, dreading telling Sirius the dirty details of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Chamber of Secrets.  Harry still had nightmares about both ‘adventures’, and it was only because he was easily able to wake himself that he didn’t disturb anyone sleeping near him; that was something that came in handy at the Dursley’s, that was certain.

All too soon, the food was gone and the last of the tea was drunk, and Sirius curled a gentle hand over Harry’s shoulder.  “Are you ready for that chat, Harry?”

Harry shot a sideways glance to his side and asked, “Would it be alright if Hermione came, as well?  It’s just that she’s been a true friend through most of this, but even she doesn’t know the half of it.”

Sirius looked around Harry and barely refrained from snickering at the eager look on the girl’s face.  “If you want Hermione to know your darkest secrets, Harry, then I have no problem with that.  I only want to know the worst of what you’ve been through before we visit the Healer.  There may have been unknown complications that were left untreated, and it’s best if the Healer has all information available.”

Harry rolled his eyes and left the bench seat easily.  “Oh, well then, I supposed you might want to take notes, because the only thing that was actually treated here other than the usual bumps and bruises from Quidditch play was the missing arm in Second Year.  I may have gotten plenty of Pepper-Up Potion and Bruise Balm since I’ve been here, but I’ve never had a real check-up at all.”

Sirius squinted at his godson.  “What ‘missing arm thing’?” he asked, ignoring Hermione’s gasp.

Harry gently pulled Sirius’ arm and led him from the Great Hall and into the empty main corridor.  Harry headed toward a mercifully unmoving staircase and the trio ascended to the second floor and the unused girls’ bathroom there.  Once Hermione noticed where they were headed, she looked around to see if they were being noticed or followed.

There were not.

Hermione entered the bathroom first, to check for occupants, and then she motioned her companions to follow, saying, “Myrtle’s not here at the moment, so I think we’ll be unbothered for a while.”

Harry frowned as the door closed behind him.  “I wonder where she is, then, because I thought this was her permanent haunt?”

Hermione shrugged.  “I think she visits the other bathrooms sometimes.  It has to be completely boring just hanging around in here when nobody uses this one.”

Sirius looked slack-jawed around the practically pristine loo, noting the puddle of water beneath the door of one of the stalls.  “Harry, why are we in a girls’ loo?”

“Oh,” Harry stammered, “I figured we wouldn’t really want to be disturbed, and nobody ever comes in here?”

Sirius frowned at the boy.  “And why is that?”

“Well,” said Hermione hesitantly, “it’s because of Moaning Myrtle.  She’s a really horrible ghost that haunts this bathroom, and she kind of annoys everyone that comes in here.”

Sirius turned his frown to Hermione and asked, “So why do you know to come in here?”

Hermione blushed.  “Well, sir….”

“Hermione, please,” Sirius interrupted, “I’ve noticed that you only bring out the ‘sir’ if you think you’re about to get into trouble.  I’m the last person to give detentions or to take points here, so you can relax, alright?  Now then…on with the story, please.”

Hermione took a deep breath.  “Well, in Second Year there were these stupid rumors about the Chamber of Secrets being opened and that Harry might possibly be the Heir of Slytherin.  Only we figured it was someone actually in Slytherin House that was causing all the trouble, so I wanted to find a way to prove that.  I…convinced a teacher to grant me permission to remove a book from the Restricted Section in the Library, and I looked up the directions for Polyjuice Potions, thinking that maybe Harry, Ron, and I could disguise ourselves and sneak into Slytherin to find some clues.  Only, I needed a place to brew it, you see, and it had to be a secret because it’s not actually legal for an underage person to brew, so I came in here to see if it was usable.  I had to chat-up Myrtle a bit to get her to agree to allow us in, and she threw a right fit when I brought in Harry and Ron because they’re boys….”

Hermione trailed off when she noticed Sirius staring at her with his mouth wide open.  “Um.”

“Hermione,” Sirius groaned, “are you seriously telling me that not only did you brew a highly advanced potion at age twelve, but that you blackmailed a teacher into granting you permission to do so?”

Hermione huffed and stamped her foot.  “I did not blackmail anybody!”

Harry snickered softly.  “No, she just tricked Gilderoy Lockhart into giving her an autograph on a blank permission slip and lied her way into the Restricted Section.”

Sirius groaned again and rubbed his eyes with both hands.  “Okay, so—you chose to come into a haunted bathroom to brew a restricted potion?  Is that the worst of it?”  Sirius shook his head.  “No, that can’t be the worst of it, or you could have told me that in the hall.”

Harry sighed and casually strolled past the stalls toward the row of sinks on the opposite wall.  “Okay, so after we got the finished potion, which worked by the way, Ron and I sneaked into the Slytherin Common Room and discovered that nobody there had any clue as to who opened the Chamber.  When it was first opened, Mr. Filch’s cat was found just outside this bathroom, hanging from a sconce over a puddle of water.  And much later, when I found the diary, I found it in here—with Myrtle complaining about someone throwing it at her in the U-bend.  And then Hermione got petrified and I found the clue she was holding in her hand indicating pipes or plumbing.  I remembered the flooding bathroom, so I came here to ask Myrtle about when she died.”

Recognition settled on Sirius quickly and he began to look earnestly around the bathroom as he remembered the story Harry had told him through letters: Ginny Weasley going missing, Professor Lockhart actually being an incompetent villain, Harry finding the entrance to the Chamber.  “It’s in here, is it?  The entrance to the Chamber of Secrets?”

Harry nodded.  “First Year was, well, magical for me, you know?  I found out that there was more to me than Aunt Petunia let on.  I made friends for the first time ever, and I didn’t have to hide how smart I was.

“Of course, I thought the Headmaster was a bit barmy, what with announcing that nobody should go to the Third Floor corridor unless they wanted to die, because who’s not going to visit there after that?  And then there was the deal with Hagrid’s dragon and all the trouble we went through to make sure he didn’t get into trouble; and maybe we should have let him get into trouble, because I don’t think he’s learned a darned thing about not having dangerous creatures at a school.”

Hermione sighed and crossed the room to hold Harry’s hand.  “Those Skrewts are horrid, aren’t they?”

Sirius opened his mouth to ask about that, but changed his mind.  “First Year was when you found the Philosopher’s Stone, right?”

Harry nodded absently.  “I think it was all a made up trap for me, honestly.  I mean, Dumbledore made sure I had all the clues to get into that maze, and if he’d really meant to keep that stone from someone then this would be the last place to keep it.  Merlin, he could have locked it in a safe in his office and it would have been safer!”

Sirius inclined his head.  “According to Narcissa, there were rumblings about Voldemort returning even before you came to Hogwarts, so Dumbledore certainly knew about them.  Keeping the Philosopher’s Stone here would have been a neat trap for him, but I can’t agree with putting students at risk.”

“Yeah,” Harry sighed.  “So I faced Voldemort at the end of that maze, all alone because I couldn’t get a teacher to listen to me and Ron was injured and I couldn’t risk Hermione.  And then, just a few weeks before Second Year, I had Dobby the crazy House Elf trying very hard to keep me from coming back to Hogwarts.  Looking back, I know it was stupid to let Ron fly that car from Kings Cross, but at the time it seemed like just a cool thing to do.  Now all I can think is it was Ron’s big attempt to be a hero in some way, because he didn’t even suggest that I send Hedwig with a message for help.”

“Sometimes,” said Sirius, “you can only see things clearly when they’ve passed you.”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed.  “Anyway, things didn’t get better once I got here, because Lockhart zeroed in on me right from the start, and tried to act like some kind of demented role model for famous people, and all I wanted to do was disappear into my classes.  And the one time I tried to be a friend to someone who needed it, I was accused of trying to kill Filch’s cat!”

“Pardon?” Sirius asked, incredulous.

Harry waved a hand wildly in a circle.  “One day I got caught in the halls late after a rainy Quidditch practice, and Filch was on the warpath and Nearly-Headless Nick played defense for me so I wouldn’t get caught.  And when I thanked him, he was moaning about a Death-Day party on Halloween, full of famous ghosts supposedly coming to help him celebrate, and was there any way to make him look better to his peers, and I offered to go to the party for him and tell everyone there how scary I thought he was.  Ron and Hermione agreed to come with me even though it was totally my own idea to help a friend.  It was on the way back that I heard this weird whispering, and I followed it and that’s when we found Mrs. Norris and that message on the wall about the Chamber of Secrets being opened.  Because I was first on site, with Ron and Hermione tagging along, I got accused of doing the deed, no proof needed.

“And later, during a massively failed attempt at a dueling club, I accidentally revealed to the entire school that I can speak to snakes.  Of course, I didn’t know it was a huge deal at the time, but even Ron got really anxious about it.”

“But,” interrupted Hermione, “it was that little fact that helped me figure out what the ‘monster’ of the Chamber was.  I just didn’t know where the chamber was.”

“Wait,” said Sirius.  “So Harry’s ability to speak to snakes helped you figure out it was a basilisk that was attacking students?”

Hermione blushed.  “I didn’t figure that Harry was hearing non-existent voices, but he said he could clearly hear someone speaking.  So I did some research into what kind of snake could petrify people.  The fact that Nearly-Headless Nick got petrified almost threw me, until I realized that the reason nobody was killed was because they only saw the basilisk through a reflection or distorted view, like Colin and the camera lens.  Of course, Nick was already dead, so it couldn’t kill him again.”

Harry smiled at his friend.  “I was so worried when Hermione got hurt, but I noticed that she was holding a mirror in her hand, so she obviously used that to look around corners in the halls.  Ron was all about going after the thing alone, but I knew I needed to find a teacher to help.  I just didn’t know that Lockhart was such a fraud at the time; well, I knew he was a fake, but I didn’t know how much of one.  But he was also the only teacher available at the time, and even then we had to threaten him to come with us.”

Harry walked to the third sink in the row and ran his fingers lightly over the faucet.  “I found this after talking to Myrtle, and I had to try really hard to imagine that it was a real snake in order to talk to it.”

Sirius looked over Harry’s shoulder to see a poorly-drawn snake etched on the side of the faucet.  “If you were really stressed, that must have been difficult to do.”

“It was,” Harry agreed.  “I think I tried three times while Ron held his broken wand on Lockhart to keep him from running off.”

Harry motioned for Sirius and Hermione to step back, and then he concentrated on the etching before speak-hissing at it.  Sirius’ eyes widened as the sink moved down and away from the wall, and a huge hole opened behind it.  Sirius was about to move closer to gaze into the revealed depths, but Harry hissed once again, and the sloped floor rippled and changed into stairs.

Harry looked sheepishly at his godfather and said, “I didn’t think to ask for stairs the first time, and we had to slide down.  It wasn’t until we were down there that we wondered how we were going to get back up.”

Sirius nodded gravely and said, “Well, as you said, you were stressed.”

Harry smirked mirthlessly and lit his wand with a strong Lumos, and the other two followed suit.  Harry led the way down the steep stairs, moving silently into the darkened maw.  Sirius placed Hermione between him and Harry for her protection and his peace of mind, but she didn’t complain.  They climbed down and down for an eternity before landing on a slick, moss-covered floor.  Dim torches lit at their arrival as the Chamber acknowledged the presence of Magical people, but the sight that was revealed was less than comforting.

Harry gestured at a dimly-lit passage. “We have to go that way, but I’ll warn you now—there’s a shed skin down there that might frighten you a bit.  Of course, the actual dead snake is in the Chamber, and it’s a bit larger….”

Harry turned on his heel and headed down the passage, walking carefully on the slick stone floor.  Hermione reached out and grabbed Sirius’ hand before following the thin boy into the darkness.  The sound of water trickling down the dank walls was smothered by the footsteps of the trio as they made their way into the passage, and Hermione gasped when they finally came upon the shed skin.  Sirius swallowed down the bile that threatened to choke him as he stared at the long-discarded remains of a horrendous creature that put every inhabitant of Hogwarts in danger.

Just past the skin there was a pile of fallen stones, with only a narrow passage dug through it.  “This,” said Harry thickly, “is where the cave-in happened when Lockhart tried to use Ron’s broken wand to stun us.  I was already on the other side of it, so I had to continue on alone.”

Sirius watched warily as Harry made his way gingerly through the narrow gap before boosting Hermione up and through after him.  Sirius climbed carefully through, feeling the rocks shift slightly under his weight.  Harry could pretend, just for a moment or two, that he was unaffected by this return trip, but Sirius could hear the strain in his voice as he narrated the journey.  Perhaps a Mind-Healer was not a bad idea, after all.

He was brought up short by Hermione’s shocked gasp, and he was himself shocked to see the huge, snake-encircled door that ended the long passageway.  Harry, without any prompting, walked up to the door and whisper-hissed once again, and the snakes began moving in a circuitous pattern, unlocking several bolts that held the door closed.  When the door released, more magical torches ignited, illuminating a sort of canal punctuated by heavily detailed pillars depicting snakes and wizards in various scenes.  They were horrifically beautiful and would not be out of place in a museum, but the centuries spent in the damp and dark had caused them to crumble in places.  Trying to remove them now would be disastrous.

Harry had moved to the edge of the canal so that he was walking away from the water.  Their footsteps crunched with echoes in the passage, and Sirius directed his wand-light downward to see piles of animal bones lining the walls of the canal.

Finally the Chamber opened up into a clearing of a sort, with huge hundred-foot-tall statues carved from black granite and adorned with emeralds and veins of silver.  The floor of the cleared space was smooth stone in shades of grey, laid in a geometric pattern that would have been quite lovely if it weren’t for the moss and mold.

And the gigantic freaking snake corpse that filled almost the entire space!

Sirius stared, horrified, at the still form of the basilisk.  It was more than five feet in diameter at its widest point, and was more than one-hundred feet long.  The deadly eyes were missing, thankfully, but it was still mostly intact even after two years.  Sirius was thankful for that, if only because the stench of the decomposing body would have been unbearable in such an enclosed place.

The hitch of a watery breath drew Sirius’ attention to Hermione, and he realized that while the girl may have intellectually known the bare basics of what happened down here, her imagination was not equipped to fully picture the pure horror of it.

“Ginny was laying down there, near the statues,” said Harry’s dull voice, “and that damned diary was open on the floor next to her.  I tried to wake her, but she was so deeply under and her breathing was so shallow. At first I thought she was dead, and all I could think was that I had to at least get her body to her mother, you know?”

Harry turned tear-filled eyes to Sirius.  “Then I heard this voice, telling me that she wasn’t dead yet, but she soon would be, and I looked up to see this boy who wasn’t much older than me.  But he wasn’t real, either; he was rather like a ghost.  And he told me that his name was Tom Marvolo Riddle.”  Harry lifted his wand and spelled the words in the air in front of him in sparkling letters, then he waved his wand gently and the letters rearranged themselves to spell out “I Am Lord Voldemort” instead.  “He told me that he was sucking out the life force from Ginny; that she put so much of her personal magic into that diary that it started to bring him back to life, and he was just going to finish the job.  And then he called the snake.”

Sirius watched horrified as Harry seemed to fold into himself as he fell to the floor, shaking.  Hermione, proving to be a true best friend, ran to his side and slid down next to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and resting her head on his arm.

Fat tears fell like slow raindrops from Harry’s eyes.  “I tried to stand up to him, you know?  I said that Headmaster Dumbledore would protect anyone in this school, and he just laughed at me.  And when that huge snake came after me, I just ran; it was all I could think to do.  At some point, there was a bright blaze of fire, and Fawkes appeared, holding the sorting hat, but I was too busy running to pay attention.  And then Fawkes started pecking at its eyes, blinding it, but I knew it could still smell me, could still kill me if it got to me.  So I picked up the sorting hat, thinking there might be a telephone or something in it so I could call for help, but I pulled out a sword instead.

“And I could hear that snake coming for me, and Ginny was almost dead, and nobody but Ron knew I was down here and he was useless…and I turned around and that snake was coming at me with its mouth wide open.  And I just stabbed at it.  Right in the mouth.”

Harry sobbed and shook with the effort of telling his tale, and Hermione was petting him now, trying to calm him.  “I felt it bite me.  That huge fang, right in front, just broke off into my arm when I stabbed it, and I knew I was dead.  Tom’s ghost just laughed at me; made fun of me because I tried to defend Dumbledore and all I got for my trouble was a useless bird and an old hat.  It started becoming hard to breathe, and my vision was blurry, like when my glasses are dirty, and I thought, ‘Well, this is a horrible place to die.’  Because it is, you know?  And Tom came to stand over me and laugh some more, and I heard this ringing in my ears; I figured it was all over.

“And then Fawkes cried for me, and his tears got into the fang wound, and everything felt a bit easier.  But Tom was getting stronger, and suddenly it just seemed really horrible that he would live but an innocent kid like Ginny would die.  So I grabbed that broken fang and I stabbed it into the diary, and it started spraying ink like blood.  And then Tom started screaming and fading away.”

At hearing this, Sirius fell to his knees beside the teens and wrapped both of them in his strong arms.  “You did well, Harry,” Sirius whispered harshly.  “Don’t ever think otherwise.  You were so brave for coming down here, for taking the clues and finding the solution.  And Hermione was so smart for finding the truth.  I hurt for the both of you that nobody was here to help you.”

“I was so scared,” whispered Harry roughly.  “I didn’t know what to do.  If Fawkes hadn’t tugged my arm and pulled me to Ginny, I think I’d still be down here.  He carried us out, that brave bird.  He was strong enough to lift us all, even Ron and Lockhart, and carried us up that tunnel and into the bathroom.”

Sirius pressed a gentle kiss to Harry’s brow.  “Whatever happened to Lockhart, anyway?”

Harry snorted a watery laugh.  “That’s what caused the cave-in back there:  He tried to hex Ron again, using that broken wand, and it backfired into him and wiped his memory.  I doubt he knows how to feed himself now, since he bragged how he could Obliviate anyone and steal their stories for his own use.  He was a crap teacher, but that was the one spell he knew, and he used it like a weapon.”  Harry shook his head slightly.  “I can’t believe Dumbledore didn’t see through him at the interview.  I could tell he was a fraud only on the first day of teaching.  I think I might have even been suspicious when I saw the book list, because who is that great a person that has to toot their own horn that loudly?”

Both Hermione and Sirius laughed at that, and some of the tension was broken.  Sirius stood and helped Hermione and Harry to their feet before looking around the Chamber, studiously ignoring the huge snake in the center of it all.

“I don’t suppose you’ve thought to explore down here?”

At Harry’s incredulous look, Sirius explained, “Well, this is Salazar Slytherin’s famous Chamber of Secrets!  I would hardly think the only thing he ever kept down here was that great snake!  Slytherin was, by all accounts, a brilliant man and a talented wizard, so I would think there’d be a library or workshop hidden somewhere.  Maybe even a personal journal or something.”

Harry’s eyes widened and he looked around at the giant statues.  “Perhaps another day?  You know, when this tournament is over.”

Sirius nodded.  “Yeah, of course.  And, just so you know, basilisk parts get good money in the Potions trade, and you sort of own this one by right of conquest.  You might consider allowing a Potions Master or a group of goblins to come down and render it before it begins to rot into uselessness.  They’re illegal to breed, so they’re always in demand.”

Hermione wrinkled her nose.  “That’s gross, but practical.  Even if Harry didn’t personally need the money, he could put it to good use with a charity or something.”

 

***

Sometime later, after another shower and clothing change, Sirius and Harry told Professor McGonagall that they’d be going into Hogsmeade for some ‘bonding time’.  The older woman smiled at them and wished them a good day.  Despite the chill in the air, the duo opted to walk into the village, feeling the need for fresh air after the time spent in the Chamber.

Once in Hogsmeade, Sirius treated Harry to a Butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks before they used the public Floo there to enter Gringotts Bank.  Sirius had to catch Harry upon arrival, as the Floo disoriented the boy greatly, but they did not fall over and embarrass themselves in the bank, which was thankfully not very busy due to the holiday.

Sirius led Harry out of the Receiving Room and found IronShield waiting for them at the door of a private conference room.  “Harry,” said Sirius courteously, “this is IronShield, the War Mage that has been assisting me in gaining custody of you.”

Harry, having been schooled on how to behave properly before leaving Hogsmeade, bowed respectfully to the goblin.  “It is an honor to meet you, IronShield.  May your enemies quake before you.”

IronShield grinned toothily.  “It is my honor to assist you, Heir Potter.  You have brought much profit to my coffers.”

Harry’s eyes widened but he did not ask for clarification.  If he was meant to understand anything, Harry figured someone would explain it to him.  Besides, it sounded like the goblin was pleased to make his acquaintance, so Harry was willing to go with it.

“If you will follow me,” IronShield continued, “there is a cadre of Healers waiting for the opportunity to examine Heir Potter, and we do have much to discuss.”

 

Harry and Sirius were led down a dimly lit hallway in the opposite direction of the vault carts, past several conference rooms and offices, and into a large office that had been furnished with a dark oak table and leather-covered chairs along one side, and a heavily-draped medical table behind a curtained partition in a back corner.  The occupants of the room were an equal mix of human and goblin, and fully half were dressed in the white-and-red robes of the Healing profession.  The other half were smartly dressed in what could easily pass as Muggle business suits, and they were seated at the oak table with files and leather portfolios in front of them, as if they had been holding a meeting prior to Harry’s arrival.

Once Harry and Sirius entered the room, all heads turned in their direction, and a human man of middle age stood and crossed to the door to greet them.

“Harry,” said Sirius, “this is Philip Desmain.”  Harry offered his hand in greeting, and Sirius explained, “Mr. Desmain is an attorney working through the IWC, and it is through him that I’ve been cataloging all of the discrepancies in Dumbledore’s story of your care up to this point.  If that bit about the legal emancipation had never come up, Philip was willing to support me in an international trial for custody, completely bypassing the British Wizengamot, which might bow down to Dumbledore’s supposed authority.”

Both of Harry’s eyebrows raised high on his forehead.  “That’s good, I suppose, right?  I mean, isn’t Dumbledore a big muckity-muck in the IWC, as well?”

Desmain smiled and sucked his teeth slightly.  “Dumbledore holds a largely ceremonial title with the IWC, but he has no real power.  The people who hold authority positions in the IWC have no real regard for Dumbledore’s claims to power. Nor do they have any regard for the British Ministry, because they seem to enjoy holding their citizens apart from the world community.  However, if the British Ministry wants to keep in good standing with the IWC, they will abide by any ruling the IWC sees fit to set down in regards to child abuse cases.  The care of our children should be our highest priority.”

Desmain pulled out one of the chairs around the table and motioned for Harry to take a seat.  “These gentlemen,” said Desmain, indicating the other humans sitting at the table, “are officials with the Department of International Child Welfare, which is a very special department within the IWC, and one that Dumbledore has never had any involvement with.  They are here to witness an official statement from you and Lord Black regarding how you were raised after the deaths of your parents and anything Dumbledore might have said about it.  In regards to the Magical Emancipation, we would like to put that to the test, if you are willing to do so.”

“What would I have to do to test it?” asked Harry.

Desmain looked at Sirius for permission.  When the dark man nodded, Desmain said, “We would like to have you give a Magical Oath, in front of these esteemed witnesses, that you did not find a way to enter yourself into this Tournament, and that you would never have competed at all if you were not forced to do so by the Ministry officials, the Tournament organizers, and the Chief Warlock.”

Harry slumped against the back of the chair.  “Oh, I can do that, easily,” he said in relief.  “I’ve been saying that all this time, but nobody’s really believed me.”

“I believe you,” said Sirius.  “I’ve always believed you.  And Mr. Desmain believes you, and so does IronShield.  Everyone in this room, Harry, believes in you and they’re all here to help you.”

“Quite right,” said Desmain.  “And the Healers want to get a good look at you soon, to make sure you’re in good health and condition, so I’d like to get that Oath out of the way before I turn you over to their tender mercies.”

Harry glanced around the table at the goblins and human barristers and nodded decisively.  “Alright, then, let’s do this.”

 

@@@

 

 

Severus Snape, having spent the morning hours pouring over Lily Potter’s diaries and journals, finally surfaced from his private quarters just before the lunch hour.  His first order of business was to check on the remaining students in the Slytherin Common Room.  After confirming that nobody was in danger of burning the place down, Severus headed upstairs toward the Headmaster’s office.  There was business that needed to be attended to, and much as Severus was loathe to disrupt his personal research, he had a duty to protect Lily’s son to the best of his ability.

Unfortunately, that ‘ability’ involved confronting Headmaster Dumbledore about the possibility of a Death-Eater being responsible for placing Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire.  That task could have easily been dealt with had Dumbledore been alone in his office.  Severus could never be certain if he would be taken seriously, or if Dumbledore would merely scoff at the idea, but if he were alone then Severus had a slight chance of being heard.

Dumbledore was not, however, alone in his office; Alastor Moody was prowling about, muttering about school security during the Tournament.  Severus steeled himself to deal with the unsavory man, who also seemed equally unhappy to see him.

“Ah, Severus,” Dumbledore twinkled, “how might we be of service to you this fine day?”

Severus bit back a scowl before approaching the Headmaster’s desk.  “I have recently come upon some information that may have bearing on this Tournament and the security thereof.”

Dumbledore straightened in his throne-like chair.  “Really, Severus?  And what information is this?”

Severus barely refrained from tugging at his robes, refusing to show any discomfort at the presence of the former Auror.  “There has been made, by a confidential source, a claim that a known Death-Eater may have been responsible for placing Potter’s name in the Goblet, and this person could prove to be a further danger to the boy as the Tournament continues.”

Before Dumbledore could reply, Moody rasped out a barking laugh.  “You’re not serious!” he said with disdain.  “The only Death-Eaters around that boy are you and that coward, Karkaroff.”  Moody turned to Dumbledore and said, “I’ve told you often enough, Albus, that having this scum in a school was a bad idea, but you don’t listen to me!  If the Potter boy is in danger, it’s because of those two!”

“Now, now, Alastor,” said Dumbledore soothingly, “I shall always maintain that Severus has my full faith and support.  And Igor Karkaroff was fully exonerated, and he is now a respected Headmaster of a fine Magical Institution.  They both have a place here at this time, and I’ll not hear another word about it.”

Moody snarled and turned on Severus.  “So, who’s the source of your ‘information’, then?  If you think this is so serious, let me have at him and I’ll get to the truth of it.”

Severus stiffened.  “I rather think not.  I’ll not subject anyone to your version of an interrogation, as I quite know what you’re capable of.  The person who told me of this danger is under strong protections, and I’ll not risk that.  I merely thought that Headmaster Dumbledore would care enough to take extra precautions to insure Potter’s safety—and that of the other contestants.  I see that I was wrong about that.”  Severus nodded to the Headmaster briefly.  “I see, sir, where your concerns lie, and I’ll show myself out.”

Severus turned on his heel before Dumbledore could say another word, and he left without haste.  Clearly Dumbledore was of the opinion that all was well—or at least he was trying to project that opinion.  Severus wasn’t having it, however, and vowed to consult with Sirius and Cygnus Black as soon as was possible.  If Dumbledore was unable or unwilling to show concern for Lily’s son, then he would have to make extra sure that he was in position to do so.

 

@@@

 

After lunch, Hermione and Draco took the time to meet in the library to go over their holiday homework.  The duo was fairly matched in the classroom standing, and once they ceased hostilities with each other, they found that studying with each other was easy and enjoyable.  Theo and Blaise happily took advantage of having two incredibly smart people to study with, and the quiet banter around the table was good-humored.

Once the essays were finished and gone-over, Theo and Blaise left the library in favor of a snowball fight in the courtyard.  Draco and Hermione moved to a table in the back of the library for more privacy and began chatting about everything that went occurred on Christmas day.

“What I can’t figure,” said Hermione lowly, “is that, if your father was arrested while in his Ministry office, why wasn’t it reported in any of the newspapers?”

Draco shrugged.  “Well, we know that the Ministry is invested in keeping a good face, and right now that means reporting about the Tournament.”

“But,” Hermione interjected, “the Daily Prophet was forbidden from coming to the school after Rita Skeeter disgraced herself.”

“Hmmm,” Draco hummed thoughtfully.  “And now they can only ‘report’ the leavings of other, better news sources.  But the general public either doesn’t know or doesn’t care, so the Ministry can still try to save face by hiding undesirable news.  My father was arrested for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was outright bribery of Ministry officials; that’s why the IWC was involved in the arrest.  Do you really think the Ministry wants anything about that to get out to the public?  For all we know, Minister Fudge himself was taking bribes from my father for any number of things, and unless the IWC forces the publicity, we’ll never publically hear about it.”

Hermione frowned.  “We’re supposed to look up to them, you know?  I mean, at one point I’d thought that I could graduate and get a good job with the Ministry, and maybe I could make a difference.”

Draco nudged her shoulder gently.  “You can still make a difference, Hermione.  You still have a lot to learn, and I think maybe you’re very innocent in a way that some of us are not, but there’s plenty of time for you to grow into yourself.”

Hermione nodded.  “I think, if I continue to do well in school now, that I’ll look into continuing my education in a different country.  Maybe an internship in the IWC or something.  After learning what I have about House Elves, I feel that perhaps my education at Hogwarts is severely lacking.”

Draco snickered.  “Hermione, you’re only fourteen….”

“Fifteen,” Hermione interrupted.  “My birthday is in September, so I was technically between ages to begin school here.”

Draco rolled his eyes.  “Fine, you’re fifteen.  You’re still very young, and you’ll probably change your mind about your future prospects several times before you finish school.  And you don’t necessarily need to work with the government to change the world, you know.  I plan to study to become a Healer, and I think that will be incredibly world-changing.”

Hermione smiled ruefully.  “I know.  It’s just that, ever since I found out about magic, I felt that I was meant for more somehow.  My parents are dentists, which is fine and they have a nice practice and make a decent living, but….”

“But what?” Draco prompted.

Hermione hung her head a bit.  “There are specialties, you see, where muggle healers can move forward and make more money or gain greater prestige.  And they could be so much more….”

“Hermione,” hedged Draco, “are you ashamed of your parents?  Or of your social status?”

Hermione wiped away a tear that Draco did not see fall.  “I don’t know.  I was so proud of them before I came here.  And then I kept hearing about how I wasn’t ‘good enough’ because I’m not from a Magical family, so I tried harder to prove everybody wrong.”

Draco raised an eyebrow.  “Everybody?  Or just the Pure-blood prats like me?”

Hermione sighed.  “In school, regular school before I came to Hogwarts, I never had a lot of friends.  I’m too bookish, you see, and I’m really very shy.  I wasn’t pretty enough to be popular, or wealthy enough, and I thought that if magic was real then I could be different here.”

“But I thought Harry and Weasley were your friends?”

Hermione shrugged.  “I think, in the beginning, I kind of bullied Harry into being my friend, and Ron just came along.  I know I’m over-bearing, but I just….”

“You just reach for what you want, and damn the consequences.”

Hermione giggled.  “I have gotten better, though.  I’ve reached out to other people and I have made a few friends in the other Houses.  After last year, I realized that book knowledge isn’t the only thing in the world, and I’ve decided to look beyond that.  Actually, I think it was that whole mess with Professor Lockhart that made me realize that, because he was handsome and looked good on paper, but he was really horrible as a teacher.”

Draco nudged her shoulder again.  “We both need to move past other people’s perceptions of us.  Personally, I think you’re pretty amazing, and I was always jealous of your ability to easily learn new spells.  Most Muggle-borns struggle a bit, but everything seems to come easily to you.  And I’ll personally take to task anyone who says you’re not attractive, because you’re very pretty.  But you’re more than that, and your kindness and intelligence are the best things about you.”

Hermione threw her arms around Draco and hugged him tightly.  “Thank you.  That’s very nice of you to say.”

 

@@@

 

When Sirius and Harry returned from their outing, Hermione was waiting for them in the entryway of the castle, ready to join them for dinner.

Sirius wore a grave expression and Harry just looked wrecked.  Still, he offered her a wan smile when he saw her.  “I don’t think I’m up to dinner in the Great Hall, Hermione.  Sorry.”

Hermione sighed.  “Oh, don’t be silly.  We’re going to the dungeons and joining Draco and Professor Snape for a private meal, and you’re going to ignore everyone else in this castle for the rest of the evening.”

It was a carefully couched statement, and both Harry and Sirius took it to mean that they would actually be using Severus’ secure Floo to visit Cygnus’ home, where everyone from the day before would be gathered to discuss what had happened at the bank.  Harry slumped in relief, knowing that Hermione and Draco would be there, but also would be Severus and Remus Lupin.  Harry didn’t know Draco’s grandfather very well, but the older man seemed to be very earnest in his willingness to help, and Sirius trusted him, so Harry was happy to unburden himself to those people.

“That sounds good, actually,” admitted Harry.  “I’ve got so much to tell you, you don’t even know.”

Hermione linked arms with her friend and led the way to the dungeons, ignoring anyone they passed in the halls (as well as the portraits on the walls, who were no doubt observing on behalf of the Headmaster).  Once they were safely inside Snape’s private quarters, the normally surly man engaged personal security protocols that would keep anyone out and away.  They took turns using the Floo to travel to ‘Black Keep’, the private, secret home of Cygnus Black that might have been located somewhere near Hogsmeade, and were met by Cygnus, Narcissa, and Draco, and a nicely-appointed table full of light finger foods and pitchers of juice.

They ate first, wanting to fortify themselves before answering questions.  The meal was quietly enjoyable, and the only words spoken were requests to pass this or that plate, or to please refill a glass or teacup.  After the meal was finished, the remains were cleared away by a shy House-elf wearing the personal insignia of Cygnus Black on a dark grey tea towel.  Hermione offered the quiet creature a shy smile and was pleased when it was returned—but she did not try to speak with it and tried very hard to respect that it had a job to do.

The quiet group gathered around the sitting room and sat in silence before Hermione couldn’t help herself and asked, “Well?  How was your day?”

Harry laughed, startled, and said, “Merlin, Hermione!  That’s why you’re my favorite!”

Hermione smirked and Harry ran a shaking hand through his hair.  “Well, I met with some really cool lawyers who were all set on helping Sirius get physical and magical custody of me, but they don’t have to do that.”

“And why,” asked Severus, “is that?”

Harry shrugged and glanced at Sirius.  “They had me take an oath—a Magical Oath—that I didn’t enter myself into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and that I would have backed out of it if it had been permitted.  Then they showed me how to copy memories for use in a Pensieve, and we all reviewed Dumbledore’s speech about the age line and all of the preventative securities on the Goblet, and my memories of the Champions being chosen and everything that happened after my name came out.

“They seemed really interested in how Dumbledore reacted and how he basically manipulated everyone else into agreeing to allowing me to compete.  One of the lawyers left the bank for a bit and only returned after I was being seen by the Healers, and he had some documents for Sirius and me to sign, and that basically made me a legally emancipated minor.”

“But what does that really mean?” asked Hermione.  “I mean, surely you can’t live on your own at your age?”

Harry shook his head.  “No, not really.  What it means, legally, is that I’m now considered a legal adult, able to make decisions about my own care and legally able to take on the responsibility of my Magical House.  While before I could have legally claimed ‘Heirship’ of the House of Potter, like Draco is the heir to the House of Malfoy, now I’m able to claim Lordship.  And I did, actually, at the insistence of several of the Goblins in order to protect the Potter Legacy.  But because I’m still in school, I granted legal proxy to Sirius so he can vote for me in the Wizengamot, make investment choices to build my fortune, and review any contracts in my name.  I had the option to not grant proxy, but that was too much responsibility for me to deal with right now.”

Harry grew silent for a moment, so Sirius poured him a cup of strong, sweet tea and he sipped it slowly.  “Before the Healers got to me, I was shown some of the contracts that were drawn in my name before this term.  Apparently, Dumbledore granted himself the position of my Magical Guardian, and he used that title to help himself to a lot of my money—and to set up a marriage contract between me and Ginny Weasley.  It was unsigned, thank heavens, but it was dated right after Second Year, so I figure he used my actions in the Chamber of Secrets to build that union, and was distracted by everything that happened last year to actually sign the thing.”

Hermione gasped in horror and shifted to sit beside Harry.  “What are you going to do, Harry?”

Harry inclined his head toward Sirius, who answered, “Well, considering what Harry told us this morning about the Chamber, I sincerely doubt that he went into that horrid place to rescue his One True Love.”

Harry snorted mirthlessly.  “I went down there because Ron begged me to save his sister.  And maybe I would have gone there for just about anyone, maybe, but it only seemed urgent because my best friend begged me to help.  I’d never spent any time with Ginny, really, and when I tried to talk to her before she went into the Chamber, she just clammed up and refused to speak in front of her brothers.  Maybe she understood, finally, what was happening, but she was either scared or too full of pride to say anything, and we all almost died because of it.  In any case, it certainly wasn’t any sort of bonding experience, and it didn’t make me want to marry her.  If anything, it pretty much convinced me that she was a stupid, silly git to give so much of herself to an inanimate object, and a lot of people got hurt because of it.”

Sirius cleared his throat.  “Yes, well, there is that.  As I was saying, Harry certainly didn’t fall in love at the tender age of twelve, so we took the contract for what it was—a potential scam—and we acted accordingly.  We burned it, just like I threatened to do before.  And we boxed the ashes for posterity, so Harry can gift them to Dumbledore or Miss Weasley should either of them try to push the issue.”

Harry sniggered.  “I think I might gift wrap it, just in case.”

Before the conversation could turn toward the ridiculous, Remus asked, “What did the Healers say, Harry?  Are you healthy despite everything that’s happened to you?”

Harry sobered again and sipped deeply from his tea.  “Yeah, well, it’s like this: my aunt and uncle really hate magic—or anything that doesn’t fit into their little cookie-cutter mould of ‘normal’, which most definitely includes me.  I think they only took me in because Dumbledore threatened them or something.  They kept me in the boot cupboard under the stairs until I got my first Hogwarts letter—which was addressed to ‘Harry Potter in the Cupboard Under the Stairs’, by the way.  Once they figured someone knew about that, they moved me into the junk room upstairs, and I got an actual bed to sleep on.  But they never really fed me, because they were more concerned with their own precious son.  Everything they didn’t allow me to eat, they gave to him, so I barely got fed and Dudley is almost as big as a house.”

“That sounds like there’s abuse all over the place, in that house,” said Cygnus softly.  “Certainly overindulgence is a form of abuse.”

“Yeah, well, Dudley is certainly overindulged,” agreed Harry.  “But it’s a bit more than that.  I had to get bad grades in primary school, because I’d get punished if I got better grades than Dudley.  I did all the chores around the house, including the cooking, and I have since I was big enough to lift a frying pan.  Since I could remember, I’ve done all of the yard work, even in the hot summer weather, and was allowed to sip from the hosepipe only after I was finished, and I only got scraps to eat.

“Once they figured I would get fed at school, they stopped feeding me at home, so I really don’t eat much now.  It makes me ill, you see, if I eat too much or eat anything too heavy. If they’re serving my favorite pudding in the Great Hall, I don’t eat as much dinner so I can have some of it and not get ill.

“And I’ve never seen a doctor at all, so I guess I’m missing vaccinations and such that other kids get when they’re small.”  Harry wrinkled his nose in disgust.  “The Healers gave me this whole nutrition regimen, and I have a huge list of potions I have to take now, before and after meals.  Sirius has a whole case of them shrunk down in his cloak, and he’ll keep them for me so they aren’t tampered with.  Since he’s going to be here for the whole Tournament, he can get them to me every day.”

Sirius huffed.  “Yeah, I’d like to see anyone keep me away from Harry now that I’ve been exonerated.  I might not accompany him to classes, but there are no rules about having meals with him.”

 

Severus sat in his armchair observing Sirius and Harry during the exchange, and he particularly noticed how reserved both were acting.  By all rights, both should be relieved that Harry had finally been freed from his horrendous home situation, and also that Harry’s dietary needs were being met.  But something seemed off, somehow.

“There’s more, isn’t there?” he asked softly.  “Something serious that you haven’t mentioned?”

Everyone turned to Severus, but Severus focused on Harry, who nodded slowly.  “Yeah, there is,” he said softly.

Sirius reached out and clasped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Our trip to the Goblin Healers was more…eventful…than we anticipated.  As it turns out, Goblin Healers have many different skills than human Healers, even those with MageSight, and they saw something horrific shadowing over Harry.”

Harry shuddered and shrank into his chair, pulling away slightly from Hermione and Sirius.  “There was a piece of Voldemort inside of me,” he whispered.  “When he tried to kill me when I was a baby, he left a piece of his soul inside of me.  That’s why my scar is so bad.  That’s why it hurt when I was around Quirrell, and why it hurt in the Chamber.”

Hermione moaned in distress but she did not reach for her friend.  Draco and his family were shocked into silence, as was Remus Lupin, and Sirius just looked gutted.

But Severus understood.  “Lily protected you, somehow, but he managed to survive just a little bit.”

Harry nodded.  “When they looked at my memories of the Chamber of Secrets, one of the goblins took particular interest in that damned diary.  It screamed, you see, when I stabbed it with the fang, and IronShield said it sounded like a lost soul dying.  They couldn’t exactly stab me in the head with a basilisk fang, so they asked for me to come back at a later date, after they figure out how to deal with it.  They had already done so much….”

“What did they do, Harry,” asked Remus, finally finding his voice.

Sirius growled a little.  “Well, aside from finding and fixing the malnutrition, the Goblin Healers found several layers of Magical Blocks on Harry’s Core.  As it turns out, it’s actually a testament to how magically strong Harry is that he can cast spells at all, because the blocks were so heavy and thick that he should have registered as a squib.  Once the Healers decided on a potions regimen for Harry to deal with his health issues, they basically formulated a magical assault on the blocks, tearing them down one by one.  We should have been back long before now, since we left so early in the day, but some of the blocks were stubborn.”

Harry snorted again.  “I got a massive headache, and my nose bled a bit, and then I got really nauseous.  Then they hit me with a sleeping charm and I napped through the rest of it, because I started fighting them while they were working.”

“Oh, my!” exclaimed Remus.  “How?  What?  I don’t even know what I want to know, but this is so….”

“Horrible?” asked Hermione.  “I mean, it’s really horrible that someone would put blocks on him like that, right?”

Narcissa spoke for the first time.  “In some cases, when a child is born with a particularly strong core, blocks are placed so that they do not harm themselves with accidental bursts of magic before they are old enough to be trained.  Usually, those blocks are removed from the child by age four, and the parents begin teaching the child how to actively control those magical bursts.”

“When I was four years old,” said Harry lowly, “I was learning how to fry eggs and bacon for my uncle’s breakfast.”

“Wait,” said Remus, distressed, “do you mean that Lily could have placed those blocks after Harry was born, and then nobody thought to check to see if they’d been removed?”

“Not a chance,” said Sirius.  “Harry was summoning his toy broomstick at nine months, and both Lily and James encouraged the magical bursts.  There is no way either one of them placed Magical Blocks on Harry.”

“Can we just…not talk about me anymore?” Harry asked, clearly exhausted.  “Everybody will be back from holidays soon enough, and I’ll have to concentrate on classes again, so let’s talk about someone else.  Like…Professor Snape, have you had any luck with that journal of my mum’s that you got yesterday?”

Severus scowled.  “The notes are encouraging, but the potion may not be viable.  While I do not doubt my own ability to brew it, some of the ingredients are rather rare, and there are no reliable sources for one of them.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Harry.  “I figured that you’d know every possible place to get potions ingredients.”

Severus smiled wryly.  “While I do have many sources, there is one particular ingredient that it is best to harvest personally, if only to guarantee that it has not been diluted beyond usability.  Unfortunately, it is illegal to breed a source of this item, so personally harvesting will not be possible.”

“Um,” hedged Harry, “if you don’t mind my asking, what is that ingredient?”

Severus scowled again.  “Basilisk venom.”

Harry shared a telling glance with Sirius and said, “Sir, I may be able to help you with that one.”

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Slushing Forward

 

Harry and Hermione sat huddled together on a sofa in the Common Room as returning students chattered loudly around them.  Harry was not looking forward to facing Ron again after the winter holiday, nor Ginny for that matter, but he was looking forward to talking with his other Housemates.  Since his triumph against the dragon in the First Task, and his cheeky waltz with Madame Maxime at the Yule Ball, the Gryffindors that had practically shunned Harry after his name came out of the Goblet began to grow warmer to him.

It was a relief, really, because Harry saw them every day.

At that moment, however, Harry was ignoring the bustle around him as Hermione carefully read through one of his essays.  Harry might have become a minor hero in Gryffindor House, but Hermione was not going to allow him to slack on his schoolwork, especially since she now figured he was magically stronger than anticipated. (“I might have more power, Hermione,” he’d said the night before, “but I still have to learn it all the same way you do.”)

Just as she was handing back the essay, which was marked with suggestions for improvement, a shadow passed over them and Harry looked up to find the Weasley twins settling onto the sofa across from him.  “Hey, guys, how was the rest of your holiday?”

Fred shrugged.  “Honestly, everything sort of went all mental after Hermione Flooed back here on Christmas Day.”

Hermione frowned.  “How do you mean?”

“Well,” said Fred, “Ron started going on about how grateful you should have been for being invited to the Burrow in the first place, but Dad shut him down and told him that you were a perfectly behaved houseguest and that nobody should be grateful for an invitation.”

“And then,” said George, “Ginny and Mom took to whispering in the kitchen at all hours, and shutting up whenever someone went in there to get a snack.  And Ron was still trying to justify his little story-telling scheme to anyone who would sit still long enough.  Dad had to threaten him with Family Magic to get him to shut up, but you can bet he’ll be in here later whining about it.”

Harry nodded.  “Good to know.”

“How would Family Magic keep Ron from saying anything about Harry?” asked Hermione earnestly.

Fred and George shared a look.  “Well,” said Fred, “since Dad is the Head of the Weasley family—including any cousins on the Weasley side—then he can use the Magical Line that runs through all of us to prevent Ron from even talking to Harry if need be.  It’s stuff like that that can cause Magical Feuds, of course, but basically Ron would be Magically prevented from ever even asking Harry to pass the potatoes at dinner.  We don’t think Dad would ever let it get that bad, because he’s a nice guy, but there are options.”

Harry looked at Hermione’s confused face and said, “Sirius told me that his grandfather used Family Magic to prevent some of his cousins from completely giving away the family fortunes to Voldemort and to keep the Black Family from sliding directly into Dark territory.  He said it was the only thing that actually saved the Black Legacy.  Since I’m the last Potter, I’m kind of in charge of the Potter Family Magic, and anyone brought into the Potter family, either by adoption or birth or marriage, would ultimately fall under my Magical Control.”

Hermione’s expression cleared.  “Oh, well, alright then.  As long as Ron doesn’t start anymore trouble.”

Fred smirked at the girl.  “Honestly, Ron may be the least of your troubles.”

Hermione frowned for a moment before saying, “Oh, you mean Ginny?  I’m really not concerned about her, unless she starts distressing my friends again.  And if you were talking about Percy, well, he’s apparently got a lot to learn about the people he works for, and I got some information about that over the holiday.  And no, I’m not telling you anything while we’re in a public area.”

“Ah,” said George with a grin, “you’ve been hanging out with our new favorite snake, haven’t you?”

“I’ve been spending time with a lot of interesting people,” Hermione said haughtily.

“So,” said Harry quickly to forestall any teasing, “are all of the carriages back now?”

George nodded.  “Yeah, we got the very last one just to make sure we could keep an eye on Ron and Ginny.  Why?”

Harry shrugged.  “I kind of need to speak to Cedric as soon as possible, and I wanted to try and catch him before dinner.”

“Well, then,” said George, standing, “we should head down now, to get there early.”

Harry shrugged and gathered his schoolwork together to take up to his dorm.  “Okay, then, I’ll be right back.”

 

@@@

 

Harry and his erstwhile entourage managed to reach the entry to the Great Hall just as Cedric arrived with Cho, so Harry motioned for Cedric to follow him further down the hall.  With an apologetic shrug to his girlfriend, Cedric followed the younger boy away from the gathering dinner crowd.

“What’s up, Harry?” Cedric asked.  “Did you have an okay Christmas?”

Harry nodded absently.  “It was okay.  I, um, got some information, and I thought it would only be decent to share it with you.”

Cedric’s brow wrinkled in bemusement.  “What kind of information?”

Harry rubbed an anxious hand across the back of his neck.  “Well, I spent the rest of the holiday with my godfather, Sirius, and his friend Remus Lupin—yeah, the one who taught here for a year.  And, um, it was suggested to me that I take any advantage I could find while training for this competition, so I asked Remus about the Golden Egg, and he said that horrid screeching sounded like Mermish to him.  So, um, he told me to listen to it under the water, which I haven’t done yet, by the way.  Anyway, I thought that I should maybe tell you about it, because you’re the other Hogwarts Champion here, and it’s only fair.”

Cedric’s eyes widened in shock.  “Wow!  Um, okay, Harry, thanks.  That’s very decent of you.  Are you going to tell the others?”

Harry shrugged.  “I’m not sure how I would go about that, you know?  I mean, we were all chummy at the Ball, but we’re not friends, and we don’t spend time in the same places unless there’s a meal involved.”

Cedric laughed.  “Yeah, I get you.  It would look odd if you knocked on the door to that Beauxbatons carriage or tried to board Durmstrang’s ship, just to ask to speak to their Champions.  Um, I could try to pass the message along to Fleur, if you like?”

Harry’s face cleared.  “If you don’t think you’d get into trouble that would be great.  Since Krum sits with Slytherin during meals, I think I’ll ask Malfoy to pass the information along to him.  Now I just have to figure how to listen to the egg under water.”

Cedric smirked.  “Well, as you know, I’m a prefect, and we have a separate bathroom on the fifth floor—part of the perks, you know?  I can give you the password, and you can use the tub in there.  It’s huge and deep, so there’s plenty of room.”

Harry smiled at Cedric.  “Thanks, Cedric.  That would be great.  I need all the help I can get.”

 

When Harry finally walked into the Great Hall for dinner, there was a slight spring to his step.  Before taking his seat beside Hermione, he caught Draco’s eye and nodded slightly in Krum’s direction.  Draco frowned and looked at the Durmstrang student in confusion for a moment before realization dawned on him.  Draco nodded back to Harry and slid along the bench until he was closer to Krum.  Harry took his seat once he saw Draco begin speaking to Krum.

Hermione leaned in and whispered, “Is everything okay, Harry?”

Harry nodded back to her.  “Yeah, just trying to play fair.”

The twins, sitting across from them, offered twin expressions of eager confusion, but Harry laughed them off, saying, “A lot has happened in the last few days, and I’m just trying to get ready for the Second Task.”

Harry managed to avoid a confrontation with Ron, mostly because Fred and George got in their brother’s way when he tried to approach Harry, but Ginny kept sending longing glances his way, and it was weirding him out.  And she actually tried to push Hermione aside at the table so she could sit next to him.

“Sorry, Ginny,” Harry said slowly, “but I still need to go over homework with Hermione.”  And then he and Hermione moved to the end of the table to sit with Neville, leaving Ginny glaring in their direction.

“Neville,” said Harry as casually as possible, “how was your date with Ginny for the Yule Ball?”

Neville looked down the table to see Ginny scowling into her pot roast and frowned.  “I’m not sure it was really a proper date, Harry.  I mean, I asked her because I really wanted to go but I didn’t want to go alone, and she dropped big enough hints that I caught on, but after we were there, she really didn’t even want to dance.  I danced with Hannah Abbott a few times, and with a couple of Ravenclaw girls who were without dates, but Ginny kept turning me down.  I think she only said yes to me because she was too young to go alone.”

Hermione reached out to pat his hand.  “That’s horrible, Neville.  You should have been able to have a good time with your date.”

Neville shrugged.  “I really didn’t mind, Hermione.  I had a good time just hanging with friends from Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.  I went to the Ball to dance, and I danced a lot, so it worked out well for me.  I think Ginny would have rather had someone else ask her.”

Harry scowled.  “I know she would have,” he said peevishly.  “She actually told Susan not to get too comfortable with me, because I’d soon be with the girl I was meant to be with.”

Neville gaped at him.  “Are you serious?”  Harry nodded and Neville gave him a piteous look.  “That sucks, Harry.  I didn’t even think Ginny ever hung out with you.”

“She doesn’t,” Harry glowered.  “She’s never spoken to me, we have nothing really in common, and she doesn’t know the first thing about me.  Her only personal interaction with me was that unfortunate singing Valentine she sent me when Lockhart was here.”

 

 

Two days later, Harry pulled his invisibility cloak from over his head as he entered the Prefect’s Bathroom and looked around.

The place was enormous!  There were several closed-off shower stalls along one wall, several toilet stalls along another wall, and a beautiful stained-glass window depicting a giggling mermaid sitting on a rock (she kept looking over her shoulder at him, and Harry felt rather exposed even though he was still dressed).  In the center of it all was a huge, pool-sized bathtub, complete with diving board.

Harry marveled at the cluster of faucets along one side, each with a different-colored tap, and he moved to a bench near the shallow end and set aside his cloak and toiletry kit.  Harry was wearing a pair of swimming trunks (purchased by Remus after studying the Golden Egg) under his trousers, so he quickly undressed, ignoring the peeping mermaid, and slipped into the tub.  Water began to fill the tub the moment he entered, and Harry thought that was the coolest thing ever.  He waded over to the faucets and experimented with the taps, producing bubbles of multiple scents and colors and sizes until the surface of the water was completely concealed.

Then Harry climbed out of the water and removed the golden egg from his toiletry kit before submerging once again.  Harry made to open the egg when Moaning Myrtle emerged from hidden water and startled him, and he dropped his egg under the water.

“You haven’t been to see me lately,” she whined as Harry swept his leg back and forth under the bubbles, trying to find the egg.

Harry looked up in annoyance.  “Well, I took my godfather down into the Chamber, but you weren’t in the bathroom when we went it.  Why are you in here, Myrtle?”

The ghost sniffed haughtily.  “Nobody comes to see me anymore.  It gets lonely in my U-bend, you know?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “You could always ‘move on’, you know.  You don’t actually have to stay in the castle.”

“Of course I do,” Myrtle wailed.  “The Ministry made me stay here so I wouldn’t haunt Olive Hornsby anymore!  I told you that!”

Harry’s toe thumped against the egg and he ducked down to pick it up from the bottom of the tub.  “I meant, you don’t have to stay a ghost if you don’t want to.  You can let go of your ‘earthly ties’ and move on—to another ‘great adventure’ or some such.  Why do you want to stick around here, where you died?”

Myrtle glared at Harry for a moment before screeching, “You just don’t understand!”  Myrtle then dived into the tub, near the drain, and a series of bubbles streamed to the surface.  Harry stared in shock for a long moment, waiting to see if Myrtle would return to the surface and again berate him, but she did not.

The water began to cool, so Harry returned to the taps and found one that ran warm, clear water.  Once he was comfortable again, Harry returned to the shallowest end of the tub and held the egg gingerly between his hands.  Since staring at the egg revealed no secrets, Harry took a deep breath and sank beneath the water.  Once he was under, Harry opened the egg, expecting to again hear the unearthly screeching.

What he heard, however, was a beautiful song.  He was so surprised at the normal-sounding voice, that he missed the actual words and had to take another deep breath to listen to it again.

“Come seek us where our voices sound,

            We cannot sing above the ground,

            And while you’re searching, ponder this:

            We’ve taken what you’ll surely miss,

            An hour long you’ll have to look,

            And to recover what we took,

            But past an hour—the prospect’s black,

            Too late, it’s gone, it won’t come back.”

 

Harry climbed out of the tub and gathered a notebook and pen from his toiletry bag, and he began scribbling.  Two more trips under the water provided the exact wording, but Harry had the complete clue written down in his usual, untidy scrawl, albeit with water spots marring the ink in places.

Harry dried carefully and stored the egg back into his kit before dressing and draping himself again in his invisibility cloak and exiting the bathroom.  Just before the door closed behind him, Harry heard the water in the huge tub begin to drain automatically.  As he made his way back to Gryffindor Tower, Harry pondered not for the first time how much he loved magic.

 

@@@

 

With the date of the Second Task set at February 24th, Harry’s main objective, other than keeping up with his classes, was learning how to breathe under water.  Since he couldn’t even swim, this was a major concern.

Harry spent an extraordinary amount of time in the library, in the company of Sirius, Remus, and Hermione. Several of the students bemoaned the fact that Harry seemed to be getting help with his class work, so Harry made a big production of doing his actual homework assignments in the front of the Library in full view of everybody who came in.  Usually this was done just after classes and well before dinner, and the only people sitting with Harry were Hermione, Susan Bones, Draco Malfoy, and Draco’s friends, Theo and Blaise.  Occasionally several other Fourth Year students joined them, but class work was the order of those meetings.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Ron seemed to avoid those gatherings the same way he avoided homework, so Harry didn’t have to stress about him while studying.

After dinner, however, Harry and company took tables in the rear of the library, and they poured over books that quite obviously did not come from the school library.  Sirius brought them from the Black Library at Manor Noir in Lyons, France, or from the library trunks found in the main Potter vaults in Gringotts (he had access due to being Harry’s Regent).  In fact, the only reasons they met in the school library was because there would be too many questions asked if they met too often in Snape’s personal quarters, and there would be too many interruptions if they met in Gryffindor Tower.

Ron Weasley, in fact, was becoming problematic in that regard.

While Ron seemed to think every gathering in the Library was related to homework, which Ron was too lazy to actually do, he kept trying to talk to Harry between classes; in the halls, in the Common Room, in the dormitory.  Harry kept walking away and brushing him off, but Ron was persistent enough that Fred and George began to run interference when he approached Harry.  If nothing else, the twins gave Harry enough time to get to his bed and cast a privacy charm around it so Ron couldn’t corner him there.

Not deterred, Ron asked for an appointment with Professor McGonagall after classes one day in late January.  Thinking her student was requesting help with his class work, she granted the meeting for just before dinner, and was actually astounded when all Ron wanted to do was complain.

“He won’t even talk to me, Professor!” the red-head whined.  “He’s supposed to be my best mate, and he’d rather hang out with that dirty Slytherin than me!”

“Mr. Weasley!” McGonagall exclaimed. “We do not disparage our classmates in such a manner!  Now, is there no way for you to mend your rift with Mr. Potter in a civilized manner without my intervention?”

“I’ve tried,” said Ron mulishly.  “He just turns the other way if he sees me.  He won’t even ask me to pass the potatoes at dinner—not that he sits near me anymore.  He’s even got Hermione ignoring me as well, and we’ve always been the best of friends.  It’s like this Tournament has turned him conceited or something.  Maybe you could talk to him?”

As her student turned hopeful eyes to her, Minerva McGonagall suddenly recalled how distant Severus Snape, a colleague and friend of hers, had pulled away from her in the beginning of the school year.  Minerva had once promised herself to be a better friend to the man, but had gotten distracted and forgot to do so.  Perhaps she could indeed speak to Mr. Potter on behalf of his forgotten friend.  If one friendship could be saved….

“Very well, Mr. Weasley, I shall ask to speak with Mr. Potter tomorrow after class.  Will that do?”

Ron smiled, relieved.  “Yes, thanks.”

 

The next day, Professor McGonagall called out for Harry to stay behind after class.  “I promise that you will not be late for your next class.”

Harry shrugged and waved off Hermione, who lingered by the doorway.  “It’s just History, Professor.  I can get notes from Hermione if I’m late.”

McGonagall smiled genially and perched on the front of her desk in a friendly manner.  “Thank you, Mr. Potter.  I’ll admit, this is not my usual thing, but I was approached by Mr. Weasley about the rift in your friendship….”

“Wait,” Harry interrupted, “you’ve called me to task over Ron?”

McGonagall frowned.  “I’m hardly calling you to task, Mr. Potter.  Mr. Weasley is merely concerned about the state of your friendship.”

Harry frowned and let his bag drop to the floor at his feet.  “Our friendship?  Professor, you know about those articles that Ron got paid for?  The ones about me?  Well, he’s never, ever apologized for that.  Even when his parents came and he was taken from the school before the Yule Ball, he never apologized.  In fact, his only reaction to being caught out was to act like he had a right to make money off of my name, like that was the only good thing about being my friend.

“Well, Professor, I decided that I didn’t need a friend like that.  I’ve been making new friends, like Susan Bones, and I’ve been making better friends with Fred and George Weasley and Neville Longbottom.  They’ve never once betrayed me, and they’ve stood by me since this whole Tournament started.  So, I’m really sorry that Ron dragged you into this mess, but I’ve decided that it’s better for my mental health to find a better quality of friend and to leave him behind, because right now I’m questioning if he was ever really a friend of mine.”

Harry picked up his bag without another word, and McGonagall was left gobsmacked in her classroom.

She was even late for dinner that night.

 

@@@

 

“What do you mean you’ve never learned to swim?”

Sirius stared at his godson in horrified fascination.  “Harry, that’s a basic survival skill!”

Harry sent his godfather an unimpressed glare.  “Really? And do you suppose my relatives ever cared if I could ‘basically survive’?  Dudley got rudimentary classes, but I never did, alright?”

Ignoring the casual mention of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his aunt and uncle, Hermione mused, “I wonder if using SCUBA gear would be allowed?”

“What is SCUBA gear, Hermione?” asked Remus, confused.

Hermione looked up at her former professor and explained, “It stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and it’s basically a tank filled with oxygen, a breathing tube and mouthpiece, and a mask that divers use to essentially breathe under water.  The tanks look rather cumbersome, of course, and I have no idea where to get something like that anywhere near here, but muggles use them all the time.  Of course they have to have training and certifications, and that might be a problem.”

Remus grinned at the girl.  “That’s actually amazing, Hermione.  And it’s a very good idea.  It’s totally impractical, however, considering we don’t know what the conditions will be like under the surface of the lake.  Add to that the fact that Harry has to seek out and retrieve his favorite possession—well, I don’t think a cumbersome tank will be useful.”

Hermione frowned at a page in front of her.  “I’ve been thinking about that,” she said.  “About his favorite possession, I mean.  I don’t think it’s a ‘thing’ at all.”

Sirius turned to her.  “Oh, yeah?  What do you reckon it will be, then?”

“I think it’ll be a person,” she replied rationally.  “I mean, what else could there be that would be important enough for someone to dive into the Black Lake in February?  And things can be replaced, can’t they?  But a living person?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “Of course it’ll be a person!  Why risk only four people when you can risk eight?”

Remus flipped through an Herbology book and said, “I understand your reasoning, Hermione, and it actually makes sense.  That would be another reason using those SCUBA tanks you mentioned would be impractical.  No, I think we should employ the use of …this!” Remus flipped the book around so that everyone else could see the entry on the page: Gillyweed.

“This will allow the user to essentially breathe underwater for an hour at a time.  It will also free Harry’s hands to use his wand under water, so ideally we’ll have to have him practice casting defensive spells under water.  His voice will sound distorted, so he’ll have to practice intent in casting.”

Hermione read the passage carefully before looking at her friend.  “It’ll give you temporary gills, so I can’t imagine it’ll be comfortable.  You’ll need to practice using it a few times, just so the sensation doesn’t throw you off your game.”

Harry grimaced.  “Hermione, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t really been on my game since my name came out of that Goblet.  And if I’m going to be practicing spells underwater, I don’t think I can use the Prefect’s bathtub.  I don’t want to accidentally rupture it, as I’m really not supposed to be in there in the first place.”

Sirius clapped his hands together.  “Great—now we have a plan.  Sort of.  I can easily procure enough Gillyweed for practice runs and the actual event itself.  Now we just need a place to practice.”

Hermione raised an eyebrow at the man.  “Why not use the actual lake?  I mean, he’s going to be getting in there for the task, so why not practice in there?”

“Because it’s going to be cold?” Harry whined.

Hermione turned her eyebrow on him instead.  “Harry,” she said, unimpressed, “it’s going to be cold anyway.  You should take care to practice in the exact conditions you’ll be competing in.  And if Sirius can get enough Gillyweed, we can all help you.  And perhaps Remus can get a warmsuit for you.”

Remus cleared his throat.  “What is a warmsuit?”

Hermione rolled her eyes a bit.  “It’s part of SCUBA gear.  It’s a diving suit that is thicker and insulated, so it’ll help keep Harry warm, but it’s made for divers’ maneuverability.  I think I can write to my parents about where to find one, but you should make the purchase since you’re comfortable in the non-magical world.”

“I agree,” said Sirius decisively.  “I’ll get you the money for it, as well as copies of Harry’s measurements from the tailor that we used at Gringotts. And I also agree that those of us that want to help Harry train should also use the Gillyweed, so we can work right along with him.”

Hermione sat back in her chair, satisfied with that planning session.  Harry packed away the papers with the clue written on them, as well as the books from the Potter Library, and he looked at his friend.  “Hermione, if you’re so certain they’ll be taking a person for me to retrieve, who do you think it will be?”

Hermione frowned a bit.  “Well, it could have possibly been me, or even Ron before he went spare, but I rather think it’ll actually be Sirius.  Right now, he’s the most important person in your life, so it stands to reason that the Powers in charge of this thing would force you to rescue him.”

Sirius opened his mouth to respond, but closed it quickly.

“She’s right, Sirius,” said Remus, entirely too calmly.  “And the other Champions have family members here watching them compete, so it stands to reason that ‘something he’ll surely miss’ will be a person important to him.  Perhaps I’ll have to get a warmsuit for you, as well?”

 

**

 

Oddly enough, it was after DADA class that the whole thing was mentioned again, and the source was quite surprising.

“A word, if you please, Potter?” requested Professor Moody as the students began to move from the class.

Harry tilted his chin at Hermione and Draco, indicating they could leave the classroom, and then he turned to the professor.  “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I’ve noticed the Durmstrang Champion diving off their ship’s bow lately.  I don’t suppose you know what you’re going to do for the Second Task?”

Harry gaped at his surly professor, amazed that the unapproachable man was offering to help him.  “Um, yes, sir, I’m aware of what I’ll be doing for the Second Task.  Sirius has gotten hold of some Gillyweed for me to use, and we’ve been doing swim practice in the lake before dinner.”

It was odd seeing an eyebrow raise over Moody’s magical eye, but there it was.  “What made you think of Gillyweed, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Harry shrugged.  “Well, Hermione mentioned SCUBA diving and using a tank to breathe underwater, but we figured it would take too much effort to get a tank and training, so Sirius went for Gillyweed.  We found it in a book from the Potter Library.”

Moody looked rather taken aback at the thought of so many people helping Harry, so the boy hurried to explain, “Look, at this point I think everybody is cheating to some level.  I mean, we all knew about the dragons before it was officially announced.  Sirius is teaching me how to swim, because I don’t know how, and Hermione was always going to be helping me whether I wanted her to or not.  She’s just a great friend.  And it’s not like I entered the Tournament willingly, or that I actually expect to win or anything, because I don’t.  But I will accept help if it’s offered, and if they want to kick me out of the Tournament for it, I say let them.”

 

 

Chapter 18:  Suspicions

 

Valentine’s Day dawned clear and cold, and the Great Hall was blessedly missing pink and red hearts and cupids.

That being said, the Owl Post was still bustling with the delivery of cards and flowers, and the Great Hall was filled with the noise of it all.  In fact, the regular morning deliveries were coming in waves, with owls swooping in and out of the Great Hall at odd intervals so that they didn’t crowd the room.

Harry received several flirty cards and poems from friends, just like in Third Year, but none as obnoxious as the one he received Second Year, although Ginny did send one that he was happy to put away without reading, and Hermione was happily surprised to receive several cards—including one that was notably from Victor Krum.  She set aside her ubiquitous book to open the cards, her grin growing with each one.  When she reached the last one, she turned surprised eyes to Harry and said, “Oh, Harry, how sweet!”

Harry blushed into his morning tea.  He almost choked on it when he was summarily tackled from behind by a squealing Susan Bones, who wrapped her arms around his chest in a fierce hug.

“That card was so sweet, Harry!” she gushed.  “It’s ever so nice to be told that you’re appreciated.”

Harry carefully set his teacup aside and turned to the girl behind him, ignoring the laughter from the Weasley Twins (and the glare from Ginny).  “Well, I do appreciate you, Susan.  You’ve become a good friend recently, and everybody needs those.  Besides, Sirius told me it was important to tell those you care about how you feel, because you never know if it’s going to be too late.”

Everyone quickly sobered at that thought, but Susan leaned forward and kissed Harry on the cheek.  “I appreciate you, too,” she said quietly.

“Well,” drawled Draco as he approached the small group at the end of the table, “since we’re all appreciating each other’s friendship, what say we all adjourn to Hogsmeade for the day, and get away from the teachers for a while.”

Harry smirked and glanced around, noticing the glares from Moody and Dumbledore, as well as the questioning looks from McGonagall and Sprout.  “Well, I expect Hogsmeade will be filled with couples being sickeningly ‘in love’, won’t it?  And there will certainly be the usual chaperones.”

Draco nodded solemnly.  “Yes, and that means we’ll most likely be ignored.  As long as we avoid the teashop and Honeydukes, we should be okay.”

“Who is ‘we’, Draco,” asked Hermione as she tucked her cards into her book.

“Well, you, me, Harry, Susan, Theo, Blaise, and I suppose anyone else you’d like to spend an uncomplicated day with.  And I suppose Harry’s godfather is going to show up this morning as usual, and he’ll make a proper and entertaining chaperone for us.”

Hermione smiled.  “Well, then, Neville will come, too, as well as Hannah Abbott?”

Neville nodded.  “I’ll go ask her right now,” he said, standing from the bench.

 

**

 

As the students gathered in a line for the carriages to Hogsmeade, Minerva McGonagall cautiously approached her colleague, Severus Snape.  After her meeting with Harry Potter, and his revelation about friendship and trust, she took a long, hard think about her relationship with the dour Potions Master.  They had a genial rivalry when it came to Quidditch, and they butted heads over their respective Houses (and the rivalry therein), but she had always considered him a friend.

Now she had to consider whether or not she acted as a friend to him.  She didn’t see much of him lately, other than obligatory staff meetings, and she rather missed his company.  Perhaps a large reason for the absence was the presence of Alastor Moody on the staff, but certainly Severus’ discomfort around that man would not cause him to distance himself from the rest of the staff?

Seeing the man in question (Snape, not Moody) move toward the rear staircase to the dungeons, Minerva moved quickly to intercept him.

“Severus, could you wait a moment?” she called out as the man neared his destination.

Severus stopped and turned toward her.  “Is there something I can do for you, Minerva?”

Minerva smiled wryly.  “Perhaps there is something I can do for you.  Could we talk for a moment?”

Severus frowned.  “About what?”

Minerva swallowed a sigh.  “I’m worried about you.”  Severus opened his mouth, but she held up her hand to forestall him.  “Hear me out, please.  You’ve been hiding away in your quarters an awful lot lately, and while you’ve never been much of a social animal, that’s just not like you.  I’m worried about your mental well-being, Severus.  Nobody has seen you outside of the classroom and the occasional meal.  It’s not healthy to hide away like that.”

Severus rolled his eyes.  “Minerva, I assure you, I have not been neglecting my charges.  All is well in Slytherin House, and the students know that I am always available to them should they need me.”

“Severus,” Minerva sighed.  “I was not disparaging your ability to discharge your Head of House duties.  I am merely trying to express my concern for a friend.”

Severus’ expression softened slightly.  “Minerva, I have…recently come into possession of a rare potions journal, and I’ll admit to giving it much of my attention.  While I understand that teaching is your chosen profession, Potions is my life-long passion, and I am rather enjoying giving my total attention, during my personal free time, to the study of this journal.  I appreciate that you worry for me and my peace of mind, but I really am fine, and studying this journal is very relaxing for me.  Merlin knows I can use all the relaxation I can get with this damnable Tournament going on.  While the entire school is in a tizzy over it, I shall endeavor to maintain my sanity by researching my private projects.”

Minerva bit her bottom lip daintily.  “If you’re certain you’re alright, Severus, just know that I worry for you.”

“I appreciate the concern, however misguided.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have grading to do.”

Minerva wrung her hands as she watched the dark man descend into the dungeons, wishing she felt better from the exchange.  However dismissive he might have been, she could not help but think he was hiding something.

 

@@@

 

Draco would happily admit that he thoroughly enjoyed the outing to Hogsmeade on Valentine’s Day.  He was with a cluster of like-minded friends who did not have romance on their minds, and there was no pressure to project an aura of distant superiority with them.  Draco was relaxed and comfortable, engaging in small debates with Granger and Theo over books in the bookshop or trading sweets with Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott just outside Honeydukes.  Sirius Black was a slightly improper chaperone, regaling them all with stories of his school-age antics with James Potter, and while Harry seemed to hang desperately to the words, Draco knew he took them with a grain of salt.  Both boys were aware that the duo was horribly bullish in school, as evidenced by the trip into Severus Snape’s Pensieve.

Still, like all good things, the day had to come to an end.  For one thing, mid-February is a chilly time of year, and the air quickly grew too cold for the students to be running about around the village.  For another thing, Draco was due to receive a Floo call from his mother, and he had to be in Snape’s quarters before that happened.  Still—the day was fun and the company was good.

The same could not be said for the Slytherin Common Room.

News of his father’s arrest had still not been made public, and Draco was certain that the trial would also be kept quiet.  Draco’s mother was quick to assure him that Lucius would not be seeing freedom for a very long time, if ever again at all, and that the trial was not being held just yet because the IDMLE was taking their time questioning the aristocratic man about possible cohorts to his crimes.  Because of all the attention going to the Tri-Wizard Championship, Draco was fairly certain that no trials would take place until that was over and done with.  Surely the Ministry would not want to take attention away from it in order to highlight dissent in their own ranks.

So, if only for that reason, Pansy Parkinson was still trying to ingratiate herself into Draco’s favor.  She refused, constantly, to take ‘no’ for an answer, and kept trying to sit close to him while he was studying, or to take a seat next to him in classes or at meals.  Theo and Blaise helped brush her off, but even they stopped seeing the situation as funny.

And Draco also had permanent, constant shadows in the form of Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle.

They hovered, for lack of a better word.

And they were beginning to look very anxious.

Since Draco had begun implementing his project of finding a better class of friends, Crabbe and Goyle had floundered, never managing to latch on to anyone else.  Theo and Blaise had begun to give them pitying glances, and Draco was actually beginning to feel sorry for them.  He knew he would have to deal with eventually, but he’d really had no idea what he was going to say to them.

Of course, when Draco entered the Common Room with Theo and Blaise after that spectacular day, the first thing he saw was Crabbe and Goyle, sitting alone in a corner, shoulders hunched in a defensive pose and looking lost amidst the rest of the Slytherins.  Draco permitted himself a small sigh.

Walking toward his dorm room, Draco jerked his head in their direction, certain that they had noticed his entrance even if no one else had.  Theo shot him an incredulous look when the two behemoths stood to follow them, but all Draco said was, “You told me I’d have to do something eventually, and I’m choosing to do it now.”

“This close to the end of Term?” Theo hissed.  “Fine, then on your head be it.”

Draco whirled on his friend and scowled briefly.  “Look, I merely want to give them something to think about, if they are capable of independent thought.  Next year we’ll have OWL exams, and chances are those two will not move forward with the rest of us.  They’ll stay in the core classes, but that’s all, so….”

Draco trailed off as Crabbe and Goyle entered the dorm looking confused and slightly disgruntled.  Draco opened the door wider and looked out to make sure they weren’t followed before closing it and placing a privacy charm on it, ensuring nobody would follow.  Not that anyone should, but some of the older students have been giving Draco odd, sideways glances at meals and in the Common Room, and he didn’t know what to think about that.  He knew his burgeoning friendship with Potter certainly hadn’t gone unnoticed, and that alone might be enough to have him ostracized within Slytherin House.  He’d have to watch that.

“Are you going to talk to us now, Draco?” asked Goyle petulantly.

Draco swallowed a sigh.  “Look, I really don’t have time to get too into things right now, as I’m expected in Professor Snape’s office shortly, but I did want to apologize for leaving you both behind this year.  I’ve had some difficult issues to deal with recently, and I needed time to see how I fit into this world.”  Seeing the confused looks on the larger boys’ faces, Draco shook his head sadly.  “Look, I just want to give you both something to think about for a few days, okay?  Things are changing, very quickly, and the road you’re both following for your fathers is going to be a rocky one.  If you want to try to make a better life for yourselves, think it over and talk to me.  I can’t go into details now, but hopefully soon I’ll have better answers.  You’ve stood by me for a long time, and it was unfair for me to leave you behind while I was rebuilding myself.”

“So you’re not mad at us?” asked Crabbe.

“No,” said Draco kindly.  “I’m not mad at the two of you.  I am mad at a situation I was placed in, and I reacted by pulling away from everybody.  I’m sorry for that.  Mostly.”

“So you’re going to date Pansy finally?” asked Goyle.

“Merlin, no!  She’s the one person I’m not sorry about pulling away from!”  Draco wiped a hand over his face, trying to ignore the snickering coming from Theo and Blaise.  “Look, I’ve got to go now, but think about what you want to do with your lives, okay?  We’ll talk later.”

With a pleading look to his more sensible friends, Draco left the dorm and headed out of the Common Room.  With any luck, Theo and Blaise could answer any simple questions Crabbe and Goyle might have, leaving Draco with the task of explaining how he was never, ever going to be on the side of the Dark.  That was a conversation best had once the adults figured who was targeting Harry and how to stop him.

 

Draco knocked firmly on the door to his godfather’s chambers, knowing the man would be deeply concentrating on his ‘project’.  Severus opened the door and glanced up and down the corridor before admitting Draco, ensuring that they were unobserved, not that there was anything wrong with Draco visiting the man.  He often did, and his relationship with the Potions Master was well known.

“Your mother should be Flooing in soon, Draco,” Severus said as he closed the door behind them.  “I’d expected you a bit sooner.”

Draco shrugged.  “I had to have a short chat with Crabbe and Goyle before I left.  Things were getting tense in the Fourth Year Dorm, and I wanted to try to settle a few things.”

“They are not threatening you, are they?” Severus asked seriously.

“No,” Draco sighed.  “They’re pouting.”

Severus, Draco knew, would never laugh at Draco’s personal predicaments.  But he did smirk.

“Come, Draco.  The Floo will be activating shortly.”

 

And it did, almost as soon as Draco settled in front of the fireplace.  Through the bright green flames, Narcissa Malfoy looked as beautiful as ever, even with a small frown marring her face.  She brightened only slightly once she saw her son.

“Is everything alright, mother?” Draco asked with no little concern.

Narcissa offered a wan smile in return.  “Things are not at all well here, Draco, but all is not bad.  The IWC has finished with the interrogation of your father, and their charges against him and anyone he mentioned as an accomplice have been officially filed in the Magical World Court.  The British Ministry officially no longer has any say in the proceedings against those named, especially since it seems several Ministry employees have been implicated most harshly, and the World Court is getting ready to publically announce the trials.”

Draco swallowed dryly and nodded.  “We were expecting this, though.”

Narcissa sighed softly.  “We were, yes.  But there have been unforeseen complications of this inquiry, and that is what I must speak to you about now.  As you know, while the Malfoy title exists only in the Magical World, your father is the current head of the Family Magic, and you are his heir.  At one point during the interrogation, Lucius’ Lordship ring disappeared from his hand, presumably to reappear in the Malfoy Vault.”

Draco frowned.  “You know I don’t care about the Malfoy Lordship, mother.  I’ve told you that I fully intend to drop the Malfoy name and become a Black officially when you do.”

Narcissa smiled more brightly.  “And Father and Sirius are fully supportive of that.  However, the Malfoy title must be dealt with, and before that can happen….  Draco, the manor must be cleansed, and only the Lord Malfoy can open the wards around the property to allow outsiders entry.  I suspect that Lucius has many hidden Dark items and artifacts secluded in the under-basements of the manor house and in the out-buildings on the far reaches of the property, and they must be gathered and destroyed.  Also, I sincerely doubt that either one of us intends to inhabit the manor ever again after this trial has been made public, so we must completely inventory the antiques and furnishings so we can decide what to keep and what to dispose of before we can even think about selling the property.”  Narcissa sighed again, deeply.  “I supposed I can only be thankful that Lucius was completely insular and declined owning more than one family home or property, or this ordeal would be nearly impossible.  In any case, only the Malfoy Lord can undertake those tasks.”

“But isn’t there another family member more suited to become the Malfoy Lord?” Draco nearly whined.  Nearly.

“Draco,” said Severus calmly from behind the boy, “perhaps what your mother is implying is that you and she should take full stock of your family possessions before handing the title over to someone else.  I’m certain there are valuables that you’ll want to keep with you, as well as sentimental objects that neither of you will want to part with.”

“Thank you, Severus,” said Narcissa calmly.  “That is precisely what I mean.  I have personal jewelry that I would want to remove from the home and vault before another Lord Malfoy could lay claim to it, and there is the library to consider as well.  Once one of Lucius’ distant cousins becomes Lord Malfoy, anything within the home, grounds, or vault will become his personal property, and that includes any and all of your personal things as well.  The most reasonable, albeit unsavory, solution would be for you to claim the Lordship now, before the official trial begins.  That way, you can invite the most scrupulous of Aurors and Curse Breakers to come onto the property and clear it of any Dark artifacts.  And you and I can create another, personal, vault to house those items we personally want to keep as private property.  Once they are removed from the manor and lands, they no longer will be under the purview of the Lord Malfoy, whoever that should be.  Draco, I know you do not want this….”

“No,” interrupted Draco, “you are right, mother.  There are things—mementos of a better time—that I would not want to give up.  I’m rather fond of my bed and desk.  And will we want to give up the House-Elves if they do not wish to leave us?”

Narcissa visibly relaxed.  “I’m glad you understand the severity of this situation.”

“Of course I do,” replied Draco haughtily.  “I was raised to understand my position in life.  I’ll agree to accepting the Lordship, no matter how temporarily, but it will have to wait until after the second task of the Tournament, which is set for February 24th.”

“Why do you want to wait until after that?”

Draco wrinkled his nose.  “Hermione Granger is of the opinion that Sirius Black will be taken as a hostage of sorts for the second task, and I would rather like him to be involved with sorting through the manor.  He’s been going through his own legal matters, so he’ll have a good opinion of whom else to involve.  I’d rather not include any Aurors from the British Ministry, because they might try to use anything they find as an excuse to arrest you and me, and Sirius would know best who to invite for this task.  I believe he is working with the goblins in Gringotts, so that might be a good idea for us, especially since we have to do inventory on the Malfoy vault as well.”

Narcissa inclined her head.  “Very well, then.  I’ll personally contact Sirius about this matter and we’ll set a date for after the second task to pull you from the school for a few days to deal with ‘family issues’.  As long as you keep up with your class assignments, there should be no issue with that.  And if all goes well, we’ll be able to contact your father’s cousin in France well before the trial begins, and you’ll not be Lord Malfoy for very long.”

Draco frowned.  “You know, Mother, there was a time not long ago when I relished the idea of inheriting Father’s title and standing.  He always seemed so busy and important, meeting with Ministry officials and other wealthy wizards, and now I know he was just spreading his money to help corrupt the government so that he had power.”

Narcissa frowned in sorrow as she watched her son through the magical flames.  “Idols, Draco, often crumble under detailed scrutiny.  You’re young yet, so there is time to rediscover what truly makes someone important.”

“I know, Mother,” Draco said sadly.  “I know.”

 

 

@@@

 

February 24th dawned bright and clear, although incredibly chilly, and as Harry looked around the Great Hall, it became clear that Hermione was correct about human hostages for the Second Task.

For one thing, while Remus was happily present for breakfast with Harry (and happier to deliver the warmsuit he had purchased for the task), Sirius was absent—and he hadn’t missed a breakfast with Harry since Boxing Day, when they received the nutrition potions Harry was required to take each morning.

Hermione was also absent, as was Cho Chang from the Ravenclaw table, so Harry figured she might have been taken as Victor Krum’s hostage as the two had grown close since the Yule Ball.  Unlike other members of Gryffindor House, Harry didn’t mind the growing friendship between Krum and Hermione.  He was kind to her, which was important to Harry, and was reasonably intelligent, which was important to her, and he never treated Harry with anything other than respect despite his young age.

Harry looked around, trying to figure who Fleur’s hostage might be, but Roger Davies was sitting calmly at the Ravenclaw table, so it definitely wasn’t him.  Perhaps there was someone else close to her that had been taken?  From the stricken look on her face as she stared at her breakfast plate, it was someone very close to her, and she knew where that person was right now.

Harry accepted the vial of nutrient potion from Remus before finishing his tea.  The Headmaster had announced at the start of the meal that the Champions would be adjourning to the Black Lake once the meal was finished, so Harry was glad he’d changed into the warmsuit before leaving the dorm.

“Are you ready, Harry?” asked Remus as they stood from the benches.

Harry rolled his shoulders to relieve some tension.  “As I’ll ever be, I suppose.  We’ve certainly trained enough.”

Remus chuckled softly, but the statement was entirely true.  While staying in the shallows of the lake, mostly due to the lack of the warmsuit (and the nagging of Hermione), Harry and company had spent an hour after dinner during the week, and up to three hours during the day on weekends, swallowing Gillyweed and practicing spell-casting under the icy water.  Harry was glad for the practice, because the Gillyweed effects were slightly painful, and they would certainly have distracted him if he’d only used it for the first time on the day of the Task.  Also, casting verbal spells underwater was not easy, as his voice was distorted by the water and the ‘gills’ provided by the magical plant, so Remus was correct in that he needed to practice intent—which led to Harry nearly perfecting silent-casting, which was something that often took years for most adult wizards.

Harry parted ways with Remus in order to meet the other three Champions at the entrance to the Great Hall.  Krum looked composed, but Cedric looked slightly worried and Fleur was almost a complete mess.  When Harry touched her shoulder softly, she whirled on him and cried, “My Sister!  Zhey took my baby sister!”

Harry turned confused eyes to Krum, who replied, “Her family has come from France to watch her, and her ten-year-old sister is with them.”

Harry nodded in understanding and turned again to face Fleur.  “You know—you have to know—that they can’t let anything happen to her.  There’s enough controversy around this Tournament already without allowing someone not competing to be harmed.”

Fleur wiped her frantic eyes and nodded.  “You are quite right, ‘Arry.  But still, I worry for her.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, “well my best friend and my godfather are missing as well, so I know how you feel.”

Harry gallantly offered Fleur his arm and escorted her to the edge of the lake, where they saw large spectator stands that had been erected around the lake.

“Are they serious?” hissed Cedric.  “They actually expect everyone to sit there, in this cold, and stare at the surface of the lake while we do our thing underwater?”

Harry looked up to watch the stands fill with students, faculty, Ministry officials, reporters, and other spectators—all shivering in their heavy cloaks before casting warming charms on themselves.  “That’s certainly what it looks like.  This is going to be real boring for them.”

Harry took his place on the short dock and quietly palmed his handful of Gillyweed while Ludo Bagman ‘informed’ them of their task.  Since none of the Champions looked remotely surprised, Bagman grew flustered before blowing a whistle to start the competition.  Cedric and Fleur both cast a Bubble-Head Charm before jumping into the cold, dark water, and Harry was shocked to watch as Krum transfigured his head into that of a shark—complete with black, soul-less eyes and rows of sharp teeth.  Harry quickly popped the Gillyweed into his mouth and chewed, swallowing thickly before jumping into the water just as he began to feel the effects of the plant.  The sharp tearing sensation at the sides of his neck didn’t even bother him anymore, and Harry easily exhaled through his mouth before the gills enabled his underwater breathing.

Harry’s first order of business was to cast a silent Lumos so that he could see where he was going.  While practicing his underwater casting, Harry was encouraged by both Sirius and Remus to use Parseltongue to ‘voice’ the spells, rightly thinking that Harry’s natural use of Parselmagic could strengthen the spells (Sirius promised to look into finding books about Parselmagic for Harry to study privately).  With the end of  his wand lit brightly enough to see more than two feet in front of him, Harry also cast a ‘Point Me’ on his wand before drawing a handy pocketknife (another gift form Sirius) from a pouch at his waist.  Now armed and directed, Harry paddled quickly through the inky water.

Harry encountered a small clutch of Grindylow, but a silent Disruptor scattered them quickly, and Harry was unencumbered during the rest of his journey.  After fighting his way through a forest of waterweeds, Harry entered a ‘clearing’ at the bottom of the deep lake, and was met by what could only be a merman—a figure with webbed hands and feet, with scaly skin and black eyes like fish and drifting hair like seaweed, holding a sharp trident like a spear.

The merman did not try to deter Harry, so he swam past him and into a village under the water.  If Harry hadn’t been pressed for time, he would have been impressed by the huts and gardens that he passed.  There were even fish and other water creatures tied in yards like pets, which was so normal it was odd.

Harry’s attention, however, was taken by the sight of a huge statue of a merperson dressed in some kind of armour and holding a shield and spear—and all four hostages were tied to it with thick ropes of seaweed, floating lifelessly in the current.

A motion from the corner of his eye alerted Harry to the presence of other merfolk—an entire tribe of them.  They looked menacing, but made no effort to keep Harry from his ‘prize’, so Harry moved to the statue and used his knife to cut Sirius loose.  Harry looked up to see Cedric arrive and move toward Cho, so Harry hauled Sirius close to him and used the cut seaweed to secure the man to his waist.  By the time Sirius was settled, Krum had arrived and used his sharp shark-teeth to release Hermione from her bonds.  Harry was just turning to swim to the surface when he realized that Fleur was nowhere to be seen.  Krum and Cedric were already swimming away, but the small French girl was still floating in the current, tied tightly to the statue.

Harry knew, logically, that no harm would come to the girl, even if she was not ‘rescued’, but some doubt lingered in his mind.  The Tournament organizers made them fight against dragons in the first task, and no matter how that was supposed to be a test of their skills, there was no way in any ordinary circumstance that school-aged wizards could ever have prepared for that!  Ever!  So, yeah, while logic might dictate that no real harm would come to the participants, logic had no place in Harry’s mind right at that moment.

Turning back, Harry again approached the statue.  Only this time, the armed merfolk moved to bar him from his destination.  They gestured wildly at Harry and Sirius, seemingly trying to convey the idea that Harry had already achieved his goal.

Harry, however, was not deterred.  Harry raised his wand and silently cast a light repulsor hex, which forced the merfolk back but did not damage them.  After all, nobody here really asked to be, did they?  Harry casted that spell twice again before the merfolk realized that he was serious about rescuing a second hostage and left him to it, and Harry cut the ropes and tied the small girl to Sirius before beginning the arduous task of swimming back to the surface.

They were nearly there—Harry could see daylight breaking through the dark water—when Harry felt the Gillyweed begin to wear off.  Glancing behind him, Harry could see a small gathering of merfolk that had decided to follow him on his journey, but they were neither close enough to be of any help, nor were they overly compelled to offer any.  Mentally shrugging, Harry began untying his ‘passengers’, pulling them before him and pushing them to the surface with a few hard thrusts, hoping they would break the surface before Harry weakened.

Apparently breaking the surface was the trigger to breaking the spell they were under, because just before Harry stopped breathing Sirius woke and began pulling the girl through the water and into the air.  Harry gave a solid kick to bring himself out of the water and found himself next to the dock, where Sirius was helping to bring him out of the water.  All of the other Champions and hostages were already there, Harry being the very last, and everyone was wrapped in blankets to get warm.  When Sirius wrapped a heavy blanket around Harry’s shoulders, Harry watched as a teary-eyed Fleur wrapped her arms around the younger girl, weeping about ‘the ‘orrible grindylows’ that kept her from rescuing her sister.

Sirius nudged Harry’s shoulder and produced a mug of hot cocoa.  When Harry sipped slowly, Sirius nodded toward Fleur and her sister and said, “I’d have done the same thing, Harry.  There’s no shame in helping someone, Harry.”

“I came in last,” muttered Harry through chattering teeth.  “I mean, I know she would have been okay….”

“But you needed to make sure,” Sirius agreed.  “I don’t blame you, and nobody else will, either.”

Harry looked back at the lake and found Dumbledore leaning over the water, seemingly having a conversation with one of the merfolk.  “What do you suppose that’s about?”

Sirius followed Harry’s gaze.  “Well, I expect Albus is getting a play-by-play on everything that happened under the lake.  The people who were watching from up here probably couldn’t see anything, so how else are the judges supposed to evaluate your performance?”

Harry climbed to his feet and turned to find Hermione, who was happily being coddled by Krum.  “That makes sense, I guess.  I mean, I didn’t think it was a smart idea to have everybody sitting around out here looking at nothing, anyway.  It had to have been dead boring!”

“You’re not wrong,” said Remus when the man met them at the end of the dock.  “In fact, I had a rather spirited game of exploding Snap with the Weasley Twins while we waited for everyone to come out of the lake.”

Harry had almost reached Hermione when he was hugged from behind by an emotional Fleur.  “You saved my sister!” she cried as she wrapped her arms around him.

Harry shuffled uncomfortably before Fleur released him.  “Um…you’re welcome?  I mean, she would have been fine, I’m sure.”

Fleur scowled.  “Of that, I am not sure!  The grindylows got me in the weeds, and I could not free myself.  I was so worried about Gabrielle, but you saved her!”

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed when she caught up with him.  “I can’t believe….”

“Hermione, can you just…not, right now?”  Harry sighed.  “I know you think I have some sort of ‘saving people’ thing….”

“Harry!” Hermione interrupted.  “I was going to say I can’t believe they took me, as well!  But I’m ever so proud of you!”  She turned to offer a bright smile to Krum, who was standing hesitantly at a small distance.  “I’m ever so proud of all of you, because I’m sure that task was not comfortable!”

Harry blushed slightly.  “Sorry, yeah.  I’m very glad for the warmsuit.  But I took longer than was officially allowed, so I’m sure my score won’t be great.”

Sirius brushed shoulders with him again.  “I thought you didn’t want to win this competition, Harry,” he joked.

Harry scowled at him.  “Yeah, well, regardless of that, I think we all deserve high points for having to go into the freaking lake this time of year!”

Dumbledore stepped away from the edge of the dock and approached Ludo Bagman for a short conversation.  When they were done, Bagman amplified his voice to make the announcements about performance and final scores.  In the end, Harry was tied for first place with Cedric, which was a victory for Hogwarts, but rather worrying for Harry.  Not because of the lead, but because of the tie.

It seemed that Harry would have to have a serious talk with Cedric.

 

@@

 

Draco brushed the dust of the Floo from the shoulders of his cloak and stepped into the lobby of Gringotts, where he would be meeting with his mother for official ‘Family Business’.  Beside him, Sirius Black clapped a gentle hand on Draco’s shoulder.

“Everything is going to be fine, Draco.  We’ll have a good, long week to get through the mess that is Malfoy Manor, and by the middle of next month, the name of Malfoy will no longer haunt you and your mother.”

Draco nodded and pulled at the ends of his sleeves.  “I know, cousin.  It’s just…overwhelming, somehow.  Mother said Father wants to speak to me, but I’m refusing to do so until after the Lordship has been transferred to Aloysius Malfoi.  I want to be certain that there is nothing Father can do to me, and that he knows I am free from his influence for once and for all.”

“I admire your fortitude, Draco,” said Sirius seriously.  “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders for one so young.”

Draco smiled wanly.  “I’m a credit to my mother, it seems.  She did much to shield me from my father’s…failings.  The thing is, I know he loves me, in his own way.  I’m just afraid that I would have become a pawn to him in his power games if he wasn’t stopped, and I have no desire to serve any Dark Lord.”

“Well then,” said Sirius with a final pat on Draco’s shoulder, “let’s meet with IronShield and Rookwise, and see what we have to do to move the more personal valuables from the Malfoy vault to one under the purview of House Black.  Once I’ve reintegrated you and your mother, you’ll be given your own Family vault, and everything will go into that for the two of you.”

 

The two entered a conference room and Draco greeted his mother with a kiss to the cheek and his grandfather with a handshake before Sirius introduced him to the other occupants of the room.

“Draco, this is IronShield, the War Mage that has been so helpful to me recently, and PiercePoint, the Malfoy account manager.  Our first order of business will be to make sure the Lordship can pass to you.”

Draco nodded briefly, greeting the goblins properly before taking a seat at the table.  PiercePoint placed a leather ring box on the table in front of him and explained, “If you are worthy of the Malfoy Lordship, the ring will size to fit your finger.  This will be an unusual placement because of your age.  Had your father been deceased, there would be no question, of course.”

Draco hesitantly reached for the box, asking, “And if I’m not found worthy?”

PiercePoint shrugged negligently.  “Nothing.  The ring will fall from your finger, and you and your mother will be completely cut off from the Malfoy Legacy, only able to return if a new Lord Malfoy sees fit to include you.”

Draco swallowed, striving to hide his nervousness, and opened the box, revealing the Mithral and Jade ring he’d only seen on the hand of his father.  Draco looked briefly to his mother before lifting the ring and placing it on the first finger of his right hand.  It glowed silver-white for a moment before shrinking to fit on his finger, and Draco released a small sigh of relief.

PiercePoint sat back with a satisfied toothy grin and said, “Now, let us get to the real business.”

 

 

Chapter 19: A-Maze-Ing Feats

 

Meeting in the dungeon living quarters of the Hogwarts Potions Master was not a common-place occurrence, but it was most sincerely becoming that.

Those were Harry’s thoughts as he descended the stone stairs to meet Sirius and Draco in Snape’s rooms one Saturday afternoon in April.

The dour man had news for them, it seemed, and Harry was frankly happy to have the distraction from the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  The last task was set for June 24th, so technically there was loads of time to prepare, but unlike the Golden Egg and the Second Task, there were no clues to the Third Task.  Harry was left to flounder, wondering, along with the rest of the Champions, what he was in for.

Hermione seemed eager to quiz Harry on literally every spell and jinx he ever learned in class, and the Weasley Twins were eager to teach him things he wouldn’t really learn for one or two more years, and Sirius and Remus seemed eager to impart knowledge from their persona bags of tricks, and…yeah. Harry was ready for a break.  Just a little one.

Harry knocked firmly on Snape’s door and heaved a sigh of relief when it was opened.

“Come in, Potter,” said Snape curtly.  “We’ll be Flooing out shortly.”

Harry entered the chamber and nodded at Sirius and Draco.  “Where are we going, Professor?”

Snape looked at his student with a happy gleam in his eye.  “Once again, we are travelling to Cygnus Black’s home.  I require privacy for this discussion, and Mr. Black was kind enough to share his parlour.”

Harry immediately realized that Snape was going to tell them about the progress he’d made with his mother’s potion.  With Harry’s help (not actual help help, but Harry opened the Chamber for him), Snape successfully harvested the remains of the basilisk, retrieving the vital ingredients needed for Lily Evans’ potion and salvaging enough ingredients for personal use or sale.  Sirius suggested allowing a small contingent of goblins into the Chamber to harvest the meat, bones, and skin of the giant snake, and a day was spent in quiet exploration of the Chamber of Secrets, looking for another external entrance.

They found one, a week after the Second Task.  Also found were a small library, a private potions lab, and a sleeping chamber, and Harry was happy to allow Snape the use of all three in order to work on his ‘gift’ potion.  The exterior entrance opened in a part of the castle wall near the lake, not far from the path to the Quidditch pitch, and was well-hidden by a thick growth of ivy and snakeweed.  Sirius invited IronShield (using the excuse of ‘family business’ in case Dumbledore tried to object) to the castle in order to view the Chamber of Secrets—and to specially ward the exterior entrance so that Snape could use it without knowing Parselspeech.  Because the secret entrance was made by one of the school Founders, it was not particularly covered by the school wards, which Harry thought was a frightening thing considering how many dangerous things happened in that school.  However, because it had to be opened for the first time from the inside of the Chamber, it was ultimately sneak-proof, and nobody could use it until Harry allowed them.

Probably because of his preoccupation with the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and the fact that the wards around the school grounds had to be loosened to account for the foreign students and their families,  Dumbledore seemed to be completely unaware of goblins using the entrance to remove harvested bits of basilisk.  Sirius placed orders for dueling robes and boots made of basilisk hide for him and Harry, and the rest of the hide was put up for private auction, along with the teeth, bones, and venom, and after the goblins got their cut the proceeds of the auction were set aside for an as-yet un-named charity that Harry wanted to set up in his mother’s name.  Harry would be meeting with Rookwise and Sharpclaw over the summer to figure a plan for that charity.

Since Harry now figured that Snape was finished with his potions work, he was excited to hear about the progress made, and he moved further into the teacher’s private rooms, where he met Sirius and an excited Draco.

Draco Black, not Malfoy.  The Malfoy Magical Lordship was passed along from Draco to a distant French cousin of Lucius’ only a month before, and then Sirius absorbed Draco and Narcissa back into the House of Black, along with Narcissa’s sister, Andromeda.  Draco now had a larger family unit to fall back on and it really looked good on him.

Of course, nobody in Slytherin House was aware of that little fact, and it likely would not be reported publically until well after the Tournament was over.  Frankly, Harry was happy for him.  Since Harry was getting a chance with a ‘new’ family, he figured Draco should also enjoy the opportunity.  He was, after all, becoming a good friend—and he was the first other than Hermione to support him when he was entered into the damned Tournament.

 

An hour later, Harry was seated on an over-stuffed chesterfield between Sirius and Draco as Severus Snape paced nervously in front of the parlour bookcase.  Nobody spoke, or urged him to break his silence, because they all figured this was an enormous occasion for him.

“I have,” he finally said, “finished the delicate potion work for the process that Lily Potter created for removing the Dark Mark.  Now I must prepare for the most difficult part of the procedure: the spell work.  I have asked you all here for a two-fold reason.  One—I would like to thank you all for your support during my time-intensive work.  And two—I would request assistance from you,” Severus turned and faced Sirius, “Lord Black, for the second and last part of the process.”

Sirius lurched upright, stunned.  “Me?  Why me?”

Severus inclined his head slightly.  “For several reasons.  For one thing, I cannot cast upon myself.  Nobody can, with any kind of result.  I know your wand work, and I trust it.”

Sirius gaped at the other man.  “What’s another reason?” he asked dryly.

Severus offered a wry grin.  “If anything…debilitating…should happen during the spell work, with either the spells or the potion application, I think I can trust you enough to either quickly get medical assistance or to quickly end my suffering.”

Noise erupted from all of the room’s occupants, but Sirius and Severus remained calm.  Finally Sirius stood and approached Severus in the front of the room.  “So, I’m either to keep you alive or quietly put you down?  Is that it?”

Severus sighed.  “I know you ‘flipped through’ Lily’s journal before you gave it to me, but did you read any of the details of the procedure?”

Sirius shook his head.  “I’ll admit that most of it went over my head.”

“Yes, well, the potion that she devised was quite complex, as you know.  And I’m not even certain how she came up with it or who she tested it on to make sure it would work, because those notes were not included.  And that was probably for a very good reason, because the actual spell work can cause irreparable physical and mental damage when combined with that potion.”

Sirius frowned and said softly, “You know, things were quite hectic in those days during the War.  There were Death-Eaters around every corner, it seemed, and Lily was only in the thick of it during interrogations because she helped refine the Veritaserum used by the DMLE.  I’m not going to imply anything about that lovely lady, because she’s Harry’s mother and was a dear friend of mine—and yours, of course, but I’m not entirely certain that every prisoner actually made it to Azkaban.”

Severus shot a look toward Harry, but the boy wasn’t really paying attention as he was too busy arguing with Draco.  “I see,” he said finally.  “So it may be entirely possible….”

“…For Lily to have had test subjects?  Yeah, it’s possible.  I know a lot of the prisoners sent to Azkaban have been driven insane by the Dementors there, but it’s also true that some were quite mad before they arrived.”  Sirius frowned again.  “I saw a lot of lost souls wander past my tiny cell window, Severus.  Empty eyes and gaping, drooling mouths.  It would kill me if I did that to you inadvertently, so I would appreciate the opportunity to read and memorize the spells you would like me to cast at you, just so we can avoid that, okay?”

Severus nodded.  “That can be arranged.”

 

@@

 

Harry sat with Cedric Diggory at the edge of the Black Lake, each huddled under their heavy winter cloaks.  Both had parchment, quills, and schoolbooks in open view, but they were not discussing class work.

“So you’re really certain that you were entered into the Tournament just so someone could kill you?”  Cedric’s eyes were wide, but he was almost convinced.

Harry nodded solemnly.  “If you’d seen every blasted thing that has happened to me since I got into this school, you’d understand.  I know I didn’t enter my name into the Goblet of Fire, and there is no way I would have paid for someone else to do it.  There is a reason my godfather is hanging around the school so much.  He’s trying to protect me, but we’re both sure that whoever wants to hurt me will wait until the last possible moment.”

“So,” Cedric said dully, “that will be after the Final Task, then.  What are you going to do?”

Harry shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I just figured I’d tell you because you’re the real Hogwarts Champion, and you’ll be around me most often because we both live in the school.  I don’t want you to think I’m somehow cheating or getting extra help because of the adults circling around me.  Well, I am getting extra help, but it’s not for the Tournament.”

Cedric looked interested.  “What are they helping you with?  If you don’t mind me asking, I mean.”

“It’s okay,” said Harry.  “They’re teaching me defensive spells, just in case I get the chance to defend myself.  And they’re teaching me situational awareness, so I don’t get caught by surprise.  Not that I think a Death-Eater is going to actually announce his presence or anything.”

Cedric grinned.  “Is that why your godfather keeps jumping at you from behind corners and closed doors?”

Harry nodded.  “And casting stunners at me in the halls, and trying to drop potions in my meals.  He’s assured me that they’re harmless, but frankly I don’t trust him not to slip me laxatives or sleeping draughts.”

Cedric laughed.  “So you’re becoming very situationally aware?”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry groaned.  “I’m also getting very jumpy.  I actually cast Expelliarmus at Professor Flitwick this morning when he came out of the Teacher’s Lounge in front of me.”

“Oh, no!  What did he do?”

Harry offered a wry grin.  “He gave me ten points for disarming him completely, and then he offered to show me how to do it silently so I wouldn’t show my hand the next time.”

 

The truth was, Harry actually took Professor Flitwick up on his offer of extra tuition.  Sirius was all for it, as well, as the diminutive professor was an expert duelist.  So Harry did his homework in the library with Hermione and that crowd, and in the evenings he took dueling lessons from Professor Flitwick—under the strict and amused supervision of Sirius and Remus.  Hermione claimed to be very jealous, so Professor Flitwick promised to once again raise the subject of a Dueling Club once the Tournament was over—most likely during the following school term.

Of course, sometimes it was just Remus keeping an eye on Harry, since Sirius also had a very important role to play in Snape’s personal project.  Harry didn’t mind, since saving the man would be a very good thing to do.  Sirius wanted very much not to screw up and turn the Potions Master into a walking vegetable, so he was taking the time to use the Chamber of Secrets to practice his spells on rats (he claimed it was very cathartic).

 

Since there were no clues as to what the Third Task would be, Harry was studying everything.  Neville was coaching him on how to deal with over-zealous plants (apparently they were actually a thing).  With permission from Professor Snape, Harry was being coached in Potions by Draco, Theo Knott, and Blaise Zabini, just on the off-chance that he’d be put in a position of needing to brew quickly and accurately.  The Weasley Twins were teaching him joke jinxes to disable opponents without fatally hurting them, which actually might be a good thing since Harry really didn’t want to hurt anyone (he was just hoping to survive the whole thing).  Remus was even working with him on his Transfiguration since Professor McGonagall didn’t expressly object to the idea—even if she refused to help on the grounds that it may be considered cheating.  Harry was also reasonably certain that Hagrid would be called upon to provide creatures for the Final Task, so he studied as many as he could find information on.

Harry was absolutely certain that he’d never spent so much time in the library, ever.

At least Ron had finally given up on stalking him, especially since he was surrounded practically all the time.

Harry thought he was prepared—well, getting there at least—until the day in early May when Ludo Bagman again called together the four Champions for a pre-Task meeting.  The boisterous man led the quartet across the grounds until they reached the Quidditch Pitch.  At least, Harry was reasonably certain it was the Quidditch Pitch.

“What have they done to it?” Cedric asked, aghast.

Harry just mutely shook his head.  In front of them, where the goals and spectator towers once stood, there was a level field with rows of shrubbery growing all over it.

“I’m sure you’re wondering where your Quidditch Pitch went,” said Bagman in an overly-sweet tone.  “Not to worry, it’ll be back to normal in time for the new school term in September.  Now, who wants to guess what your final contest will be, hmmmm?”

“Maze,” said Krum succinctly.

“Yes,” said Bagman, his enthusiasm fading rapidly, “it’s going to be a maze.  And it’ll be filled with all sorts of challenges to test your mettle.  By the time of the Final Task, those shrubs will be thirty feet tall, and those challenges will be well-hidden!”

“And shall we be well-hidden as well?” asked Fleur dryly.  “So zat our families will be unable to watch as we ‘test our mettle’?”

“Well,” stammered Bagman, “I’m sure something will be worked out on that front.”

“Was there anything else, sir?” asked Harry, certain that there wasn’t.

“Um, no?”

Harry nodded.  “Good. I have homework to do.  Cedric, want to join me?”

If Cedric was surprised by the request, he didn’t let it show.  Instead he nodded in agreement, waved to Krum and Fleur, and followed Harry toward the school.  But they didn’t enter the castle, like Cedric thought they would.  Instead Harry led him around to the rose garden near the Great Hall.

Once Harry was sure they were alone, he turned to Cedric and said, “You know how I said anything bad that was going to happen to me would happen after the Third Task?”  Cedric nodded.  “Well, I’d like to amend that, if I might.”

“You think something bad will happen to you inside that maze, don’t you?” Cedric asked calmly.

“It’d be the perfect place for it, you have to admit.”

Cedric hunched his shoulders.  “Harry, all of us will be in there with you.  Don’t you think that will be a deterrent?”

“Honestly?” asked Harry.  “Not really.  I think it would rather be a challenge for anyone wanting to kill me.  And besides, I’d think there would be more opportunities to hurt me in a tall maze where nobody could see me.  I still don’t know who’s behind all of this, you know, and a Death-Eater certainly wouldn’t care if anyone else was harmed in the process.”

Cedric glumly looked at his shoes.  “You’re right.  I hate to say it, but this last challenge is the perfect chance for someone to get to you.”  Cedric looked at Harry and frowned.  “Are you sure you don’t want me to stand with you in this?  I mean, I feel like we should stick together, both of us being Hogwarts Champions and all.”

Harry shook his head.  “I’d really rather not see you, or any of the others, get hurt because of me.  And I’m not trying to be a hero, I promise.  I’m getting training in some difficult stuff, just in case, and Sirius has some sort of plan in place.  I really have no plans to die because of this tournament, believe me.”

Cedric nodded once.  “Okay, then, if you’re certain.  I’ll back off.  Of course, I may ask to tag along with your training, because I’d hate to see you get an unfair advantage in the Final Task.”

Harry smirked.  “You’re very welcome to join me if you want to, but it’s all very hard work.”

 

@@

 

It was during the last week of May, when Harry was finally tired of hearing all of the Quidditch players complain about the giant maze on the pitch, that Harry finally received some good news.  He was asked, yet again, to meet Sirius and a few select others in the private Quarters of Severus Snape.  Harry was not surprised to see Sirius, Remus, and Draco there ahead of him.  He was even half-expecting to see Draco’s mother and grandfather in attendance, but they were not.

Harry was not expecting to find Professor McGonagall sitting in Snape’s favorite armchair.

“Huh—hello, Professor,” Harry stammered.  “What?”

“What am I doing here, Mr. Potter?”  McGonagall asked wryly.  “For once in my life, I would also like the answer to that question.  Severus?  What say you?”

Harry looked across the room to where Snape, Severus and Remus were standing, all three looking rather sheepish.  It was surreal.

Even more surreal?  Was Draco leaning against the mantle and watching everything like he was Harry’s cousin and this was his favorite telly program.

“Well, Severus,” McGonagall snapped, causing Harry to jump a bit, “what are we all doing here, in your private quarters, where students. Should. Not. Be!”

Harry was not the only person to jump.

“Minerva,” said Snape calmly, “I invited everyone, except you, to come and here some personal news.  As to why you are here, I simply have no idea.”

Harry’s eyes widened when Professor McGonagall’s face grew red with embarrassment.  “I am here, Severus, because I am worried about you.  Again!”

Snape rolled his eyes, hard.  “And I’ll tell you again, Minerva, that there is no reason for you to be worried.”  He pinched the bridge of his nose tightly between his fingers and thumb and sighed.  “However, if nobody minds very much, I will be happy to include you in my good news—provided that you make a vow against your honor and magic that the news shall not leave this room!”

When McGonagall opened her mouth to speak, Snape snapped, “I mean it, Minerva.  The only person in this room who is not aware of the processes I was undertaking is you, and there is a reason for that.  So if you cannot make the vow, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

McGonagall frowned in displeasure before standing and brandishing her wand.  “Very well, Severus.  If you insist. I, Minerva Moira McGonagall, do swear on my personal honor and my personal magic to not reveal, for any reason or to any person, what I am about to hear from Severus Tobias Snape unless or until he gives me leave to do so.  So mote it be!”  A bright flash of magic was the only indication that a vow had been made.

Harry relaxed minutely, as did Snape, who promptly conjured more chairs for his company.  As he did so, the clock on the mantle chimed seven o’clock and the Floo activated in the fireplace, startling McGonagall into drawing her wand again.

“Relax, Minerva,” said Snape as he resettled her into the armchair.  “It’s just some more trusted people for my announcement.”

From the Floo emerged Narcissa and Cygnus Black, mussed not one bit by the ash, and Draco and Sirius welcomed them warmly and showed them to their seats.  Once McGonagall was calmed and everyone was seated and settled, Snape took a lecture position in front of the fireplace.  Harry resisted the urge to snicker, and he glanced to Draco only to find the other boy with his head down, smiling into his chest.

Snape cleared his throat, and everyone turned their attention to him.  “As most of you know, I received at Christmas a most personal and valuable gift, and with it a chance for a new life and a possible new beginning. With this gift came a load of hard work and determination, and with the help of some people in this very room, I achieved part one of my personal challenge.

“And after part one was completed, I was left with the most difficult part of the process.  Again, much study and research was involved, and again, someone in this room was part of this achievement.”

Snape paused in his monologue to acknowledge Sirius with a grateful nod, which was duly reciprocated.  Snape then proceeded to remove his teaching robes, leaving him dressed in dark, potion-resistant trousers, and a dark grey dress shirt that buttoned down the front and at the cuffs.  Once the robe was draped over the arm of the armchair occupied by McGonagall, Snape began to unbutton the sleeve of his left arm.

“My unmentioned benefactor knew of my former slavery,” he said calmly as he worked the fastening of his sleeve, “and wanted very much to set me free.  Unfortunately unbeknownst to that person, I had inadvertently become enslaved to another master long after they knew me.  My life as a Death-Eater is not unknown to those of you in this room.  While I never was an active murderer or kidnapper, I did serve a purpose as a potion-maker to the Dark Lord.  I came to regret those choices made in my angry youth, and I did as much as I could to atone for my actions.

“Unfortunately for me, though some may not see it that way, my ‘savior’ used my former occupation to hold me captive, using me as a spy in the Death-Eater network.  Certainly, Albus Dumbledore kept me from prison, and I will never deny that,” Snape clearly said directly to McGonagall.  “But he also used the threat of prison to hold me here, as a teacher, and he often used me as a spy long after the Dark Lord was vanquished.  We all know, Minerva, that I would be much happier as a researcher and inventor of potions, rather than as a teacher.  But as long as I was branded as a follower of the Dark Lord, I had no chance of leaving for greener pastures.”

Snape began to roll his left sleeve up to his elbow.  Once his lower arm was revealed, he turned it to show the clear, unmarred skin to his ‘audience’.  “As you can see, the unexpected gift I received at Christmas has led me to a new freedom.”

McGonagall leapt from her seat and grabbed Snape’s arm, running hesitant fingers across the unmarked skin.  “How is this possible, Severus?”

“That potions journal I told you about?  It held all the answers, all of the processes.  Listed inside that hand-written diary were instructions for a very dangerous potion and a series of untried spells, all designed to set me free from any enslavement.  All I needed to do was want it bad enough to risk my very life.”

McGonagall looked at Snape with horror in her eyes.  “You mean you could have died doing this?”

“Died or gone insane,” said Sirius quietly.  “Either outcome would have been probable if my spell work had not been up to snuff.  And I didn’t even have anything to do with the actual potion that was used.”

McGonagall whirled to face her former student.  “You cast the spells?  But the two of you hate each other!  How could you?”

Sirius shrugged nonchalantly.  “Severus and I recently came to an understanding, Minnie.  The important thing is that he trusted me to cast those spells, and I trusted myself enough to get them right.  Really, you should be happy for him.”

McGonagall spun around again, this time to face Snape again.  “I am,” she cried.  “I am so very happy that this burden has been lifted from you!  I only wish you trusted me enough to come to me for the help you needed.”

“I could not risk it, Minerva,” Snape said darkly.  “You have always been at Albus’ side, his ever-faithful follower.  If you will recall, I did make you give a vow that you will tell no one about this; that included the Headmaster.”

“Severus,” McGonagall pled, “surely you don’t think….”

“What I think, Minerva, is that Albus Dumbledore used me as his pet spy, and with rumors of the revival of the Dark Lord, he would continue to do so.”  Snape gently pulled his arm from her grasp and unrolled his sleeve.  “What I know is that Albus Dumbledore spent the last thirteen years dictating my professional options, allowing me to research only what would bring prestige to the school.  I was forced to publish under an assumed name, sporadically during breaks from school terms, so that he could not claim my personal achievements in the name of Hogwarts.  I will always be grateful for the way Albus spoke for me and kept me from Azkaban, but I will never forget the price I had to pay for that ‘favor’.”

“There is more to that, isn’t there Severus?” McGonagall asked shrewdly.  “There must be for you to be so vehement.”

Snape merely inclined his head.  “As you say, Minerva.  There is often more to a story than what is popularly known.  Now, you have invaded my little celebration for long enough.  I would kindly ask you to leave so that I may fully share my triumph with those that took part.”

McGonagall nodded sharply and turned to the door, pausing before opening it.  “Before I leave, I must know the answer to one question.”

Snape raised one eyebrow.  “What is that question?”

McGonagall looked from face to face, noting carefully who was in the room.  “I understand that you have a personal relationship with Draco and the Malfoys, and that you felt, for some reason, that you could only trust Sirius with the spell casting for your ‘project’, but what did Mr. Potter have to do with any of this?”

Snape turned to Harry and lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.  Harry nodded to the man before facing the departing woman to answer personally.  “I gave Professor Snape access to the basilisk that I killed in Second Year.  He needed some of its venom, you see.”

McGonagall paled slightly as she inclined her head to acknowledge the response, then she turned to the door, opened it, and exited the room.

Collectively, everyone in the room released a breath.

Snape moved to sit in his favorite chair but was interrupted by Narcissa, who moved quickly to hug the usually dour man.  “I’m so very happy for you, Severus,” she whispered into his ear.  “But I would have been very vexed with you if you had died.”

“Then I am very happy that I did not,” he replied, returning the hug.

 

@@

 

Harry endured the speculative glances from Professor McGonagall during meals and in the hall between classes, and he dealt manfully with the glares actually during class (Really. Manfully)  So he figured that Professor McGonagall had finally, hopefully, begun to see him as a reasonable, responsible student; someone who was dealing quite well with the adversity surrounding him at every turn.

So he was honestly surprised when she actually began to argue with Sirius about leaving the school on a weekend, when all of his homework was actually finished and he had no duties to complete in the school.

Sirius promised to have him back by dinner, which he had done previously, and still she argued.

Sirius claimed a yearning to spend time with his godson while not constrained by the castle walls, which he had done previously, and she argued louder.

So Sirius pulled out the heavy ammunition and told her he was taking Harry to see a Healer about a private medical matter, which was the absolute truth, and she tried arguing that Harry could just as well be treated in the school infirmary by Madam Pomfrey.

“Absolutely not, Minerva!” Sirius practically shouted at her.  “With all due respect to Madam Pomfrey, she is not a trained and experienced Healer, and that is what Harry needs right now.  Now, we’ve an appointment we need to get to, with a Healer we’ve both seen before, and I’ll be taking him or you’ll be answering to my attorney about why you would refuse to allow him medical help.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts’, Minerva,” Sirius said sternly.  “You are not his mother or his guardian, and there is no legal reason for you to keep him here.  He’ll be under my supervision the entire time.”

“May I at least know what he’s being treated for?” she asked desperately.

Sirius shook his head.  “That’s privileged information, Minerva, I’m sorry.  Come on, Harry, we’ve an appointment to make.”

Harry scurried to grab his bag and cloak, pausing only to apologize to Professor McGonagall before following Sirius out of the Great Hall and out of the castle completely.  “Don’t you think you were a bit harsh back there, Sirius?” he asked breathlessly.

Sirius slowed and turned to face Harry.  “No, I don’t, Harry.  All through this term, I’ve been allowed to take you from the school with very little in the way of explanation, and now that she knows a tiny bit about your contribution to Severus’ little project, she wants to ask questions and keep you here.  And right now, we really can’t afford her overt interest.”

Harry nodded in agreement, because they really, really could not afford to have this appointment be put off schedule.  This was finally the day that Harry would undergo the entirely painful process of having that Soul Piece removed from his scar.  Being forced to answer Professor McGonagall’s questions about his appointment would put that off for even a small amount of time, and could possibly lead to revealing Harry’s legal and magical emancipation, and that was something they wanted to remain a secret at least until the very last day of the term.

“Okay,” said Harry in partial agreement, “but you know she’ll only ask about my ‘condition’ after we return.  She’ll just hate not knowing something about someone in ‘her’ House.”

“I don’t disagree, Harry.  I know her Patronus is a cat, but sometimes she’s like a dog with a bone if there’s information she wants.  I’ve heard that’s what made her such an effective agent during the Grindlewald War.”

 

Sirius led Harry along the well-trodden road to Hogsmeade, where they once again entered the Three Broomsticks to use the public Floo.  Madam Rosmerta was so used to them at this point that she barely waved to them before they left.

Upon arrival at Gringotts, Harry turned to Sirius and said, “You know, we could have just used the exterior entrance to the Chamber of Secrets to leave the castle, and nobody would have been any the wiser.”

Sirius grinned at him and replied, “Oh, I know that, pup, but we’re trying to maintain an aura of respectability and class.  It would only have hurt us in the long run if we’d gone behind anyone’s back to get these things done.  This way, people know where we are and that we have legitimate business, even if they don’t know what the business is.  It’s all above board, and that’s what we want.”

Once Harry and Sirius entered what Harry considered ‘their’ conference room, they were met with a notably anxious IronShield.  The fact that goblins remained outwardly stoic, even in the most dire circumstances only proved that something momentous had happened to affect the War Mage so visibly.

“What’s wrong?” asked Harry tentatively.  “Are we still going to be able to remove that ick from my scar?”

IronShield nodded and ushered the two wary humans deeper into the conference room, where a medical exam table waited.  “We shall indeed be able to remove the taint of the Dark Lord’s soul from your scar, Lord Potter.  It’s just that an unexpected development occurred between your last visit with us here and the cleansing of Grimmauld Place, and we feel that prompt action will be our best course.”

When Draco and Narcissa contacted Sirius about gathering a crew to clean out the Dark Objects from Malfoy Manor before they sold the property, Sirius took the opportunity to have his family’s London residence similarly cleansed.  He did not have fond memories of growing up in that townhouse, but it was as good a place as any to live and Harry did need a new home.

Of course, upon entry, Sirius and the Goblin DarkHunters were immediately met with the final proof of the madness of Sirius’ mother, Walburga Black, and the last remaining House Elf, who was apparently equally insane.  The only recourse, after removing numerous Dark objects and books, was to remove an entire wall from the main hall and to have Kreacher taken to a healing facility where it was hoped that he would eventually recover.  Sirius didn’t have fond memories of that particular Elf, either, but House Elves were supposed to be cherished members of the Magical Community and if that one could be saved, then all the better.  It didn’t mean Sirius had to keep supporting him if they could heal the damage and find him another home, and Sirius was already planning on taking Winky into the Black Family anyway—after her treatment.  She had already proven eager to join House Black, even coming when Sirius called her in order to begin the Family Bond.

 

“What sort of ‘development’ are we talking about here,” Sirius asked brusquely, “and is it anything that can harm Harry?”

IronShield sneered, but Harry took it to only mean that the goblin wasn’t fond of the situation rather than that he disliked the question.  “Our main Healer, SteelShanks, has the unique ability to scent magical signatures and to remember them completely.  This enables her to not only identify which Magical has cast an unsavory spell, but to counter specifically personalized spellwork long after an attack if we find other…victims.  Goblins are long-lived, and there have been a finite number of truly Dark Dark Lords, so often their victims are found generations later.

“Since SteelShanks was the Healer that diagnosed Lord Potter the first time, and was the one to identify the Soul Fragment, she was in a unique position to have memorized the specific signature of the Dark Lord known as Voldemort.  Therefore, she was the one to identify that signature twice over in the time since then: Once, in a High Security Vault here in this branch of Gringotts, and secondly, in a collection of artifacts taken from the Black townhome when we cleared it out.”

“Great Merlin!” Sirius exclaimed, growing slightly pale.  “You mean that rat bastard split his fucking soul three times?”

“No,” spat IronShield, “because we found another piece this week, after investigating a property near the old Manor of the Riddle family in Little Hangleton.  Since Lord Potter identified the Dark Lord known as Voldemort to be originally the wizard formerly known as Tom Marvolo Riddle in his last visit with us, our team of DarkHunters has been researching the name for clues as to how the Dark Lord may have survived his ‘death’ when he attacked the Potters.  ‘Riddle’ was the name of a non-magical family of minor nobility, but the last of them were killed in the nineteen-seventies.  Possibly by the Dark Lord himself, as they were a link to his former life.  Our research into the name ‘Marvolo’ brought to light several wizarding families, but only one was located near Little Hangleton—the Gaunt Family.”

Sirius frowned.  “I don’t think I’ve heard of them.”

“No,” sneered IronShield, “there is no reason you should have.  There were a Pure Blood family, very Dark, with ties to Salazar Slytherin, but they had long-ago inbred themselves practically into squibhood.  Morfin, the son, was often imprisoned for casting violent spells against muggles, and Marvolo, the father, was known to be abusive at best and a complete wastrel at worst, abusing his children and ruining the family fortune in his lifetime.  He died in prison.”

Harry almost laughed at the Goblin’s insistence that being broke was worse than being abusive, but IronShield probably would not have understood his opinion.

“In any case,” IronShield continued, “the Gaunt shack was located on the edge of the Riddle lands, so it was decided that the shack should also be searched for clues, and that particular magical signature was again found, contained within a cursed ring.”

Sirius wiped a weary hand over his eyes.  “Four times!  He split his soul four times!  No wonder he was insane!”

IronShield shook his head slowly as he again began leading the duo toward the treatment bed.  “You have forgotten the diary that Lord Potter had already destroyed while in the Chamber of Secrets—the one that sounded like a ‘soul dying’.  At any rate, it is very doubtful that he only split his soul five times.  It is only that we have found four other pieces.  Five is not a very magical number and is never used in ritual.  If the Dark Lord’s ambition was to cheat death, he should have stopped at three, or continued on to seven.  It is SteelShank’s opinion that he was stopped before he could continue his plotting, and that placing a part of his soul into Lord Potter was an abstract accident; something that occurred during his attack on the Potters that didn’t quite kill him.”

“So,” Sirius said slowly, “there is a possibility that Voldie meant to create seven soul fragments, but was stopped before he could finish the last two—and that piece inside Harry was accidental, so he never finished that fiendish plot.”

IronShield sneered again.  “We can hope.”

 

Sirius settled Harry onto the treatment bed and watched as the team of goblin healers, led by SteelShanks, prepared him for the painful process of extraction.  Sirius and Harry were both aware that the other soul pieces were completely destroyed, they were being cautiously optimistic that the goblins could pull the fragment from Harry’s scar before they destroyed it.

Since IronShield had developed a fondness for Harry, he promised they would do everything they could to keep the boy safe.

In the meantime, since Harry was once again to be placed in a time-dilation field for treatment, Sirius was leaving the bank in order to meet with someone he hoped he could trust: Amelia Bones, head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.  If Harry was entered into the Tournament because someone was hoping to bring Voldemort back to full life, Sirius was determined that he would have all the best protection available, even if it meant going to someone who believed in his own guilt without question.

Sometimes you had to trust, even when you had no reason to.

 

@@

 

From The Informed Magical, dated June 20, 1985:

“The House of Black, led traditionally by the Earl of Blackmore, was once known for producing a multitude of Dark Wizards and Witches, many of which supported fully several Dark Lords throughout history.  Over time, there were Blackmores who pushed past the Dark magic in order to bring the family back to respectability.  In recent times, Arcturus Orion Black, Earl of Blackmore, publically denounced the Dark Lord Voldemort most vehemently, going as far as disinheriting anyone who supported him from the main family branch.  Lesser branches of the House of Black are fairly divided, with half supporting Dark causes and the other half trying valiantly to keep the family reputation clear.

Arcturus, Earl of Blackmore, recently passed beyond the veil, and his named heir, his grandson Sirius Orion Black—once thought to be a follower of Voldemort until he was proven innocent in a World Court—has claimed the title and responsibilities of the Earl of Blackmore, and is once again working toward bringing the Black name into the Light.

The new Earl of Blackmore has recently brought into the fold of the main Family Branch members of lesser branches who were disinherited for one reason or another, and members of the family who are seeking the comfort of a Light Family.  Cygnus Black, uncle to the current Earl, has come out of hiding after a threat to his life was neutralized, and two of his daughters have joined him in the folds of the House of Black: Andromeda (Black) Tonks, who was disinherited for marrying a non-pureblood, and Narcissa (Black) Malfoy, who recently divorced her spouse, Lord Lucius Malfoy, after years of abuse and threat of her life.  With the former Lady Malfoy came her son, who briefly held the title of Lord Malfoy after Lucius was found guilty of multiple crimes against Magic, but who relinquished the title to a distant cousin so that he could become a Black formally.

The International Magical Community is looking forward to seeing what the new, improved House of Black will bring, as Lord Sirius Black, Earl of Blackmore, has personally declared that the Family will stand against the Dark—and on the side of Magic—always.

 

Draco smirked as he folded the newspaper into quarters and placed it in his school trunk.  There were not many students who read international papers, as most of the Hogwarts population fell into the trap that was Ministry-approved news reported in the Daily Prophet, so he wasn’t worried about being mobbed in the hallways because of the story, but that didn’t mean he was going to leave it sitting on his bed for just anyone to pick up.

Draco’s mother was spending time with an attorney, preparing the way for the both of them to legally change their names back to Black after the current school term was over.  They had their personal fortune secured and the Malfoy title had been successfully transferred to a French cousin, so there was nothing of Malfoy left for them anyway.

Draco wasn’t disappointed.  He was ready for a new start in life.

 

 

Chapter 20: The Final Task

 

In direct contrast to Harry’s mood, June 24th looked to be a bright, sunny day.

Breakfast was a boisterous affair, with loud chattering coming from all four House tables.  Sirius, after giving Harry his nutrient potions, was discussing possible vacation ideas with Hermione.  Harry was not participating.  His mind was elsewhere.

From the unusually subdued expressions on the faces of Cedric, Krum, and Fleur, they were all thinking about the same thing: The Final Tri-Wizard Task.

That damned maze.

 

After Fleur’s unexpected vocal scorn toward the final task, visiting spectators took to the news media to express their disdain for another ‘invisible’ task.  After all, one Ministry employee from Bulgaria said, how could anyone be certain that any of the competitors were actually doing anything?  It was also suggested that, after dealing with the dragons during the First Task, perhaps the organizers of the Tournament realized that they were putting people in real danger, and therefore the subsequent Tasks were being held out of sight to cover for a lack of any real challenges.

For once nobody was taking Albus Dumbledore’s word for anything, and the Tournament organizers began scrambling for a solution that everyone could live with.  So to speak.

The result was something that Harry and Hermione, along with every muggle-born student at Hogwarts, would recognize: extra-large screen televisions.  Sort of.

Because countries other than Britain have actually been participating in the 20th century, the IWC was persuaded to bring in motion-capture and replay devices to the Tri-Wizard Tournament.  Specially designed floating silver orbs would be keyed to each Champion, and would float above them while they were in the maze, capturing their every movement and word, and the images and sounds would play over the large, movie-screen sized monitors that would be mounted on the outside walls of the maze.  Everyone sitting in the spectator stands would be aware of every challenge within the maze as the screens would show each Champion in one quarter of the screen, like a divided television program.  The effect was rather like Omnioculars, and the screens and capture devices were used during Quidditch matches in several IWC countries.  In fact, the only reason Harry didn’t see them used during the most recent World Cup was because it was hosted in Britain.

The British Ministry tried to object to the monitors and capture orbs, but there was enough grumbling about the Second Task and the lack of anything to actually watch (and the suspect judging because the scores were obviously biased) that Fudge had to give in.  He did, however, make a very public general announcement via the Daily Prophet (which was still banned from the Tournament) that this would be a one-time thing and that muggle-like technology would not permanently taint Wizarding Britain.  (Unbeknownst to the British Ministry, that little announcement led to an increase of applications to Magical Universities outside of Britain by current Hogwarts Sixth and Seventh Year students—most of them muggle-born or half-bloods.  There was also a surge of Ministry employees sending in letters of resignation to match their letters of employment inquiry to outside countries.  Because of that blatant display of ignorance and intolerance (and the unintentional acknowledgment of Pureblood prejudice), Minister Cornelius Fudge pretty much guaranteed that the cream of the Magically talented British citizens would be committing a mass exodus of Britain in order to find success and happiness in a more tolerant society.)

But Harry and his friends were completely ignorant of this, because they had stopped taking the Daily Prophet seriously many months prior, when this whole Tournament began.

 

“If the Champions would please follow me,” announced Ludo Bagman loudly at the end of breakfast, “we have a special treat for them before the Final Task begins.”

Harry stood up and was surprised when Sirius joined him.  “Do you know what this is about?” Harry asked.

Sirius clapped him on the shoulder as they followed Bagman out of the Great Hall.  “Yup, I certainly do.  It’s a sort of cheer-up for the Champions.”

Harry looked at Sirius skeptically but allowed himself to be guided into the Faculty Lounge, which was crowded with people.

Harry looked around and saw Cedric being happily hugged by an older woman that could only be his mother, and Fleur was laughing with her sister, whom Harry recognized from the Second Task.  Even Krum was enthusiastically shaking the hand of a rotund gentleman that just had to be his father, if the matching jaw line and hawk-like nose were anything to go on.

Harry, however, suddenly found himself surrounded by Weasleys, with Mrs. Weasley front and center and Ron and Ginny right behind her.  Fred and George looked embarrassed to be there, and waved twin waves of apology. Right behind the twins was Bill Weasley, who Harry briefly remembered from the large dinner the previous summer, but he seemed more interested in looking around at the other Champions—mostly Fleur.

“Mrs. Weasley,” Harry stammered after a short moment of recovery, “what are you doing here?”

“Oh, don’t be silly, Harry,” she clucked at him.  “This is a family meeting!  Of course we were going to be here to support you, seeing as you have no real family here.”

It was the exact wrong thing to say on that day, and the only Weasleys to realize it were Fred and George, who both backed away slowly, dragging Bill with them despite his small protest.

Sirius stiffened beside him, but Harry placed a calming hand on the older man’s arm to prevent him from speaking.  “Excuse me,” said Harry slowly, as if he were speaking to a very small child.  “Did you just imply that I had no family here to support me?”

Mrs. Weasley stared at him briefly before recovering.  “Harry, you know you’re just like a son to me.  Obviously I was going to come and….”

“And what, Mrs. Weasley?”  Harry snapped.  “All throughout this stupid Tournament, my real family has stood by me and supported me, and you have not been present.  In fact, the only time I’ve seen you at all since my name came out of that damned Goblet of Fire was when you came to take Ron to task for being a greedy, self-centered idiot!  I know who my real family is, Mrs. Weasley.  I know that very well!”

“Harry,” she said haltingly, stepping toward him and reaching forward, “you know you’ll always be one of mine, even if I haven’t been able to come before this.  Albus told me you’d want me—want us—to be here for you now.”

Harry looked around and saw Ron and Ginny edging closer, looking for all the world like they’d just been given everything they’d ever wanted.  Mrs. Weasley was wearing a huge friendly grin and was reaching toward him again, as if to pull him into her embrace.  Behind them, however….

Behind the Weasleys, standing next to a stained-glass window depicting the Great Hall, were Hermione, Remus, and the Blacks.  Hermione and Draco looked furious at the way the Weasleys were trying to monopolize Harry—Mrs. Weasley was trying to pull Harry away from Sirius—and Narcissa and Cygnus just looked uncomfortable with the entire situation.

Harry was just turning away to face Sirius when Ron opened his big, inappropriate mouth and said, “C’mon, Harry, you’ve got this thing in the bag!  And once you win, you’ll come home with us and we’ll be all happy again, just like you’re supposed to!”

Harry spun around so fast he knocked his glasses askew.  “I’m sorry, what?  I’ll go with you ‘like I’m supposed to’?  What does that even mean?”

Ron, oblivious, just shrugged.  “You’re supposed to be my best mate, Harry.  Everybody knows that.  And you’re supposed to be part of our family, too.  And after you win this Tournament, you’ll be with us just like you were meant to be.”

“No, Ron,” said Harry calmly, “I don’t think so.  You see, I don’t particularly want to win this tournament, for one thing.  And for another, you personally ruined any chance of a friendship with me when you decided that getting money for telling parts of my private life was a good idea.  And as for ‘belonging’ to your family, well, I simply don’t and won’t.  I have a family.  It’s one I chose, and it’s full of people who supported me with no thought to what I could give them in return, and it might include two of your brothers but it doesn’t include you.”

Harry stepped back toward Sirius and prepared to make his way across the room when Ginny stepped forward and said, “But it’ll include me, won’t it Harry?  Your new family?”

Harry gave her a blank look.  “Why would it?  I don’t know you.  I’ve never spent any time with you, and you’ve certainly never made any effort to get to know me.”

“But,” said Ginny, batting her eyes at him, “we’re meant to be together.  You saved me!”

Harry shook his head.  “I didn’t save you, Ginny.  I didn’t even know if you were still alive or not when I went down into the Chamber of Secrets.  Ron begged me to help, and I would have done it for anyone, really.  Just be grateful that your idiocy didn’t kill you and leave me out of it.”

 

Harry, finally having had enough, stalked toward Hermione, only to be waylaid by Cedric.  “Harry,” he said with a happy lilt to his voice, “this is my mother, and you remember my father, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” Harry replied, offering his hand in greeting.  “It’s good to meet you both.  Cedric’s a great guy!”

 

While Harry was having a meet-and-greet with the families of the other Champions (Fleur and Krum were introducing theirs to everyone else as well), Sirius was having a stare-down with Molly Weasley.

“I’m not quite sure what you hoped to accomplish here,” said Sirius, “but it won’t work.  Harry’s just getting his head in a good place, and he’s moved beyond any little games you might try to play.”

Molly puffed up indignantly.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.  I’ve always cared for Harry.  I even tried to gain custody of him after his parents were killed, but I wasn’t allowed to take him.”

Sirius nodded.  “Yes, I’m sure you having custody would have put a right wrench in Albus’ plans for the boy.  But that’s not the point here, Molly.”

“Then what is the point?  That you’re a terrible influence and will likely lead the boy to ruin?”

Sirius snorted lightly.  “The point is, Harry is going to make his own way, and he’s right tired of playing pawn for others to push around.  That includes you and Albus and whoever entered him into this Tournament in the first place.  I’m doing everything I can to keep him safe, and so are the others that care about him.”  Sirius gestured to the other side of the room, and Molly turned to find Harry being hugged by Hermione while Remus Lupin patted his shoulder.  “As you can see, he’s quite right about the family he’s built.”

Molly huffed and squared her shoulders.  “We’ll see about that once this Tournament is over!  Harry clearly needs the proper guidance, and I’ll make sure he gets it!”

“Molly,” said Sirius before she could stomp away, “you’re not going to win.  You had a chance to make a difference with Harry, but it’s been taken away.”

Sirius watched as Molly gathered Ron and Ginny and left the lounge.  Fred and George had made their way over to where Harry was accepting a handshake from Cygnus, and Draco was introducing the trouble-making twins to his mother.  Sirius quickly joined the group, smiling brightly for all to see.

“Harry,” Narcissa said hesitantly, “I know you’ve been preparing for the very worst with this Tournament, so Father and I have obtained a gift for you. A ‘good luck charm’, if you will.”

Narcissa offered Harry a black velvet box, which he took gratefully.  Opening it, he saw a necklace—a thick chain made of a silver-ish metal with a white owl-shaped pendant hanging from it.  It reminded Harry of Hedwig.

“This is very nice,” said Harry softly.  “Thank you.”

Narcissa’s pleased smile was worth any amount of money, Harry thought.  But Cygnus’ next words were worth far more.

“It’s not just a pretty piece of jewelry, Harry,” said the older man quietly.  He glanced around the room, but nobody was paying attention to the small group by the window.  “It’s an especially enchanted charm, created with a permanent Shield charm, to protect you from most non-lethal offensive attacks.  It isn’t a cheat, exactly, since you aren’t meant to be attacked in this Tournament, but….”

Harry smirked.  “But we all know I’ll be attacked at some point before the day is out.  This is great, really.  Thank you both.”

Narcissa helped Harry fasten the necklace around his neck and said, “The very best thing about the charm work on this is that it shields from all attacks, even the ones you can’t see coming.  Nobody should be able to sneak up on you and stun you from behind.”

Harry turned and smiled at her.  “I’m horribly afraid that that will come in handy.”

“We know,” she replied, offering a small hug.

 

Harry could hardly believe they’d spent almost the entire day in that room with their families.  Meals were even delivered to the Champions so they would not be swarmed by the rest of the Hogwarts population. The outside sky began to darken and all too soon everybody began to filter out of the room.  Sirius stayed by Harry’s side as he and the other champions made their way to the maze.  “It’s quite the set-up they have going out there,” said Sirius in regards to the huge viewing screens on the exterior of the maze.  “Everybody watching will be able to see and hear everything you do.  Of course, you’ll have this annoying little silver orb floating over your head the entire time.”

Harry nodded.  “Like a video camera, I know.  It’ll help to keep us safe in there, I suppose.”

Sirius’ mouth twisted slightly.  “There will be teachers and other security officers patrolling the perimeter of the maze in case anyone gets into trouble, so that’s where Severus will be.  I’ll be sitting front and center, in the family box, and I’ll have a few personally selected Aurors sitting with me.  Severus and I are both magically linked to you through that Black locator charm, and I’ll have a multi-use portkey with me that I can key to my personal magical signature.  If, for any reason, you leave the maze, I’ll be able to get to you, and I’ll have Severus and several Aurors with me.”

Harry shot Sirius a sideways glance.  “So you’re certain any action against me will take place here?”

Sirius snorted. “Aren’t you?  Look, just like in the other tasks, you’re only supposed to have your wand with you.  Obviously nobody said anything about that pocketknife during the Second Task, but they’re going to scan you before you go into that maze.  The necklace won’t register on the scan; Cissy made sure of that.  But you won’t be allowed any weapons of any sort.”

Harry nodded.  “Right.  Well, then, I guess it’s time to face the music.”  Harry turned to face his godfather and said, “I know you have my back, Sirius.”

Sirius reached out and pulled Harry into a quick embrace.  “I’ll always have your back, Harry.  Always.”

 

When Sirius went to take his seat, Harry joined the other Champions at the entrance to the maze.  Once again Ludo Bagman had amplified his voice to give them their instructions, but this time he utilized one of the floating capture orbs to illustrate how everyone in the audience would be able to see and hear everything that went on in the maze.

He also pointed out that only the audience and judges would be able to see, and that each Champion would be unaware of what the others were doing unless they were right beside each other.  As Bagman spoke, an orb began to float over the head of each Champion, high enough to be out of the way and unnoticeable during the task.  Bagman carefully gave a recap of the points gained by each champion (Cedric and Harry both received eighty-five, Krum had eighty, and Fleur had seventy) and indicated that each champion would enter the maze in placement order—so Harry and Cedric would go in together.

Harry gazed intently at the dark path into the maze and wondered where, exactly, everything would go wrong.  Certainly not at the very beginning, when help would be readily available.  The hedge walls were high and daunting, casting dark shadows over the path in front of him, and Harry tried very hard to think of positive things, to boost his spirits.

“So…on my whistle, Harry and Cedric,” said Bagman loudly.  “Three—two—one—.”  And there was a shrill blast, signaling the beginning of the Task.

Harry squared his shoulders and entered the dark maw of the maze, muttering a Lumos to light the way.  He briefly heard Cedric do the same before he turned onto the left pathway and moved away from the entrance.  Cedric went to the right, so they quickly parted ways.  Harry moved quickly, wanting to put a bit of distance between him and the others.  He quickened his pace when he heard the whistle for a second time, knowing Krum had finally entered the maze.

That meant only five minutes had passed.  Harry had seen nothing that might look like a challenge.  He decided to stay on his course, sticking close to walls and turning left at each break or fork.  When he heard the whistle for the third time, Harry paused and cast a Point Me on his wand, searching for the center of the maze.  Harry really didn’t want to win the competition, but he did want to make sure nobody else got dragged into trouble with him.

Every path Harry crossed was empty.  He though briefly that anyone watching him on those screens would be incredibly bored.  Of course, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  There would have to be a reason Harry had had no encounters yet, and that reason might be because someone wanted to lull him into a false sense of security.  Harry touched the pendant around his neck and took a deep breath.

He could do this.  He could.

 

Harry heard a noise behind him, and he whirled around quickly, aiming his wand.  But it was only Cedric, looking ragged and clearly out of breath.

“Hagrid’s Blast-ended Skrewts!” the other boy announced.  “They’re in here and they’re huge!”

Cedric shook his head in disbelief and wandered quickly in another direction before Harry could respond.

And really, of all the creatures Hagrid could have produced, did it have to be the Skrewts?  Harry would rather have dealt with Fluffy again than one of those Skrewts.  Of course, Harry knew how to deal with Fluffy, so that was a rather moot point.  He might not have been in a singing mood right now, but he was centered enough to whistle a short tune to be able to get away.

Not that that was going to happen.  Not now.

Now there were Skrewts.

Harry hurried quickly away toward another side passage, only to see a Dementor gliding silently in his direction.  It was huge and menacing, with a filmy black robe obscuring its face and pale, scabby hands reaching toward him.  Harry could feel the coldness seeping into him, but he knew how to deal with this.  Summoning his best happy thoughts, mainly of leaving the maze unharmed, Harry brandished his wand and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”

Immediately a silvery stag erupted from his wand and galloped toward the Dementor, which fell over backwards, tripping over its own robe.

Wait.  What?

Harry quickly realized that the ‘Dementor’ was nothing but a boggart, but as it was actually moving away from him now rather than toward him, Harry was happy to leave it alone, and he quickly dashed down another path.

Harry turned left, then right, then right again, checking his progress with a four-point spell, but he realized that he was getting confused and was moving too far east of his goal.

Harry turned down a left-hand path and found himself facing a golden mist.  He couldn’t smell anything, other than the green scent of the hedges, so he didn’t figure it was a poisonous gas.  Harry shot a few minor offensive spells at it, but it never even wavered.  Harry thought briefly about turning around, but that Skrewt was somewhere behind him.

So Harry took a deep breath and stepped forward, only to pause when a scream rang through the air.

“Fleur?” Harry shouted, but there was no response.  Something had happened to her, obviously, and she was now unable to respond.  Since the scream sounded like it came from somewhere ahead of him, Harry stepped forward into the mist—and was immediately flipped upside down.

He was helpless and weightless, hanging in mid-air with no clue how to get out of the trap.  Nothing Harry had studied had prepared him for this.  Breathing was becoming an issue, and the blood was pounding in his ears as it rushed to his head.  Desperate, Harry closed his eyes and tried to calm himself.  Unable to see the topsy-turvy world, Harry lifted one foot as if he was walking on solid ground—and the world righted itself.

Falling out of the mist, Harry took another deep breath and moved forward.  The stars twinkled brightly above him, high over the maze, and when he looked back, the golden mist was twinkling harmlessly in the corridor.  Harry shook his head and turned to move on.

Turning and back-tracking, Harry moved through the maze, all the while looking for Fleur.  She might be only hurt, but Harry couldn’t help but think that she also could have gotten caught by whoever wanted him.  He certainly didn’t notice any red sparks going up, which was how they were supposed to signal if they were in trouble.

The center of the maze must have been close, and with it the damnable Tri-Wizard Cup—the prize they were hunting for.  Harry thought, not for the first time, that the Goblet of Fire really needed to be put somewhere where it could never hurt anyone again.  First his name came out of it, beginning this trial, and now he was forced to compete and hunt for it, which should have been the end of the trial.

And still Harry ran.  For several long minutes he saw nothing in the rows.  No monsters, no tests, and especially no Fleur.  He got turned around twice before he found a path that went in the direction he needed.  He ran by wand light, passing the high hedges that swayed in an invisible breeze, and then he passed an intersection—and crossed paths with a Blast-Ended Skrewt.

Cedric wasn’t exaggerating—it was huge!  It was easily larger than Uncle Vernon’s car, and there was a huge stinger at the end of a coiling tail, and it was aimed right at him!

Harry aimed his wand and shouted, “Stupify!”  But the spell rebounded off the armoured shell, and Harry had to duck to avoid his own stunner.  The Skrewt returned fire with a blast of flame from its other end, and Harry was again forced to duck.  He could smell the scent of burned hair as the flame burst over his head.  From down low, Harry cast an Impedimentia at the Skrewt, which temporarily froze it in place, and Harry was able to regain his feet.  Harry backtracked a bit and took another path away from the Skrewt, wanting to put as much distance between him and it as possible.

He’d been running for a few minutes when he heard shouting from a path that ran parallel to his.  He stopped and heard Cedric’s voice shouting, “Stop!  Get Away!”

Harry looked to the left and right, but there were no pathways that would lead him to Cedric, and his friend was clearly in trouble.  Aiming carefully, Harry shot a Reductor Curse at the hedge wall and burned a hole in the hedge.  Pushing through the smoking hole, Harry saw Cedric on the ground, twitching and flailing and moaning in pain.  And standing over him was Victor Krum—casting a Cruciatus Curse on Cedric.

Without thinking, Harry cast a stunner at Krum, knocking him cold.  Harry leaned over and helped Cedric to his feet, and the older boy gasped in pain as he stood.

“Did you see that?” Cedric asked.  “I thought he was pretty cool, but he cast that Crucio at me like it was nothing!”

Harry walked over to Krum and flipped him so he was laying face up on the path, then he shot red sparks into the air so that someone would come and retrieve him.  Then Harry looked at Cedric and said, “I saw a lot, actually.  Like, I saw his eyes when he was cursing you, and they were glazed-over and unfocused.  I think someone hit him with an Imperius Curse, and then used him to take out the other competitors.  He had that same odd look that everyone in class had when Moody cast the Imperius on us.”

Cedric frowned down at Krum’s still form.  “I hate to say it, but that makes sense.  Especially in regards to what you’ve told me about your entry into the Tournament.  Did you hear Fleur scream earlier?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, slightly out of breath.  “I suppose he got to her first.  It would have been easy to hide within the beginning of the maze and wait for her since she came in last.”

Cedric offered a grim smile.  “So, that means whoever wants to get you is someone with access to us as we entered the maze.  It could be one of the judges or one of the security guards.”

“Or,” said Harry ominously, “it could be one of the teachers.  Frankly, given my track record, I’m betting it’s the DADA instructor.  Except for last year, it’s always been the DADA instructor that has had it in for me.”

Cedric gaped at Harry for a moment. “Merlin, you’re serious, aren’t you?”

Harry shot him a glare.  “It’s almost the perfect cover, really.  For some reason, Dumbledore just can’t keep a teacher in that position.  Look, this really isn’t the place for this conversation.  So…should we go on together, or move separately?”

Cedric, who had finally recovered, ran an embarrassed hand across the back of his neck.  “Um, separate, I think.”

Harry nodded.  “Right, then.  Stay safe, okay?”  And he trotted off to the left, leaving Cedric to travel to the right.

 

 

Chapter 21:  Denouement

 

Sirius sat tensely in the spectator stands, watching the most important person in his life enter the maze to face untold challenges.  Beside him sat Amelia Bones and an IWC Auror, who were both studiously watching the viewing screens and waiting for something horrible to happen.

From almost the very beginning of the Final Task, it was obvious that the Champions were too nervous to remember that they had floating recorder orbs circling over their heads.  Not once did any of them look up at the orbs, and several times Cedric was heard to be cursing out loud at the challenges he faced—most especially the horrid creation offered by Hagrid.

“I may need to speak to the Hogwarts Gameskeeper about the sort of animals he thinks are appropriate for the students to study,” said Bones dryly as Cedric let loose a series of foul words that could have set hair on fire—if the crab-thingie hadn’t been about to set his hair on fire itself.

Sirius nodded absently, eyes not moving from the section of the screen that showed Harry.  “Hagrid certainly has an odd penchant for dangerous creatures,” he agreed.

Sirius was slightly confused at the lack of challenges encountered by Harry, but he was shortly distracted by the sight of Krum, who slipped and slouched against the exterior hedge wall before righting himself.  “Did you see that?” he asked Bones.

“See what?”

Sirius pointed in the direction of Krum’s screen.  “That one.  He looked like he was hit by something, but there’s nothing near him in the maze.”

Bones shook her head.  “I saw no curse light, but I wasn’t really watching his part of the maze.”

Ten minutes later, both Sirius and Bones sat stunned, along with everyone else in the audience, as Krum sneaked up behind Fleur Delacour and hit her with a stunner, causing her to scream briefly before she fell to the ground.

“Okay,” said Sirius, “you can’t tell me that was supposed to happen.  That boy was cursed, somehow.”

“I agree,” said Bones.  She signaled to one of her Aurors, who entered the maze in search of Fleur.  “I’ll have Griswald check her out, to make sure she wasn’t really hurt, but it would be pointless to try to find Krum inside that maze.”

“Unfortunately, I agree,” said Sirius.  “But we’ll have to keep an eye on him.”

Bones leaned closer to Sirius and whispered, “You said you suspected Bartemius Crouch Junior of being behind entering Harry in the Tournament?”  Sirius nodded, so she said, “What are the odds that he’s here, somewhere, and that he’s the one that cursed Krum?”

Sirius gave her a grim look.  “No bets, Amelia.  Senior never did find out where his son went after he escaped at the World Cup, and nobody knows what he looks like now.”

Bones shook her head.  “It’s too bad we don’t know his magical signature well enough to do a trace.”

Sirius noticed that Harry and Cedric had crossed paths again—while Krum was torturing the Diggory boy with a Cruciatus Curse.  “What did Harry say about a teacher casting curses on students in class?”

Amelia frowned.  “I know Alastor Moody was asked to come out of retirement to teach this term.  I know he had a history with Dumbledore, and I presume they stayed in touch after Alastor retired, but he’s hardly the person I would have chosen to teach children.  He was once a great Auror, but the war…practically shattered him.  His paranoia almost grew out of control, and we’ve been called in to deal with him when he was having one of his spells.”

Sirius’ mouth twisted grimly.  “Right.  Winky!” he shouted, and the small, still-timid House Elf appeared by his side.  Sirius offered her a slight encouraging smile.  “Winky, I think I need you to do something that might be difficult for you.”

Winky twisted her hands in her handkerchief skirt.  “I’s be doing anything for new master.”

Sirius patted her gently on the arm.   “I know.  I hate to ask this of you, but do you think you could still identify the magic of your Young Master Barty?”

Tears welled up in Winky’s eyes.  “I be thinking so, Master Grim.  I be thinking about Young Master lots, even though Winky is be having a new home and family.”

Sirius exchanged a calculating look with Bones, who waved-over a duo of Aurors.  “Winky,” said Sirius softly, “I think your Young Barty is here, and I think he’s trying to hurt people.  I think one of the people he wants to hurt is my godson, Harry, and I’d rather Harry not be hurt.”

Winky shook her head frantically.  “No, Master Grim!  Winky be liking Master Harry very much, ands Winky be not wanting him to hurt, either.”

“That’s good,” said Sirius.  “What I would ask is that you reach out and try to find the magic of your Young Barty, and if you find him here, can you take these gentlemen to see him, so they can keep Young Barty from hurting anyone?”

Winky turned to look at the Aurors, who each took the time to respectfully introduce themselves to the Elf.  “Winky be doing it,” she said after a moment, and then she closed her eyes and opened her magic, reaching for the lost familial contact.  By the time she opened her eyes again, Sirius could see Harry talking to a Sphinx, of all things.  “I be feeling him near her, Master Grim,” Winky said softly.  “He be feeling wrong, like he be sick.”

“I’m sure he is, Winky,” Sirius told her gently.  “It’s his sickness that is making him hurt people.  Now, so you know, he might fight the people trying to help him, so you have to be prepared for the gentlemen to…subdue Young Barty.”

Winky shook her head quickly.  “No, Master Grim!  Winky be making Young Master Barty sleep so the gentlemens don’t has to.”  And with barely a pop, Winky disappeared.

Sirius looked at Bones and her Aurors and shrugged.  “I absolutely trust her to find Crouch Junior and subdue him without violence.  However, I doubt she’ll bring him back here, so we’ll just have to wait….”

Winky popped back into place in front of Sirius and wiped tears from her eyes.  “Master Grim?”

Sirius knelt in front of the sad Elf.  “Yes, Winky?  What is it?”

Winky sniffed.  “Master Barty is not being well at all.  Winky be making him sleep by the big hedge wall.”

Sirius gave her arm a gentle squeeze.  “That’s good, Winky.  Maybe you should take the gentlemen to him so that they can take care of him.”

Winky nodded and wiped her eyes again.  “I be doing that, then.”

Winky reached out and grabbed the hands of the two Aurors and popped away, unobserved by anyone around them because everyone was staring intently at the huge viewing screens.

Where Harry and Cedric were together again, this time in the center of the maze—battling a huge Acromantula in front of the Tri-Wizard Cup.

Cedric was bloody and limping, and had obviously encountered some difficult things.  Harry’s glasses were askew and possibly broken.  Again.  Both Harry and Cedric cast stunners at the huge spider, but they had no effect.

The monstrous arachnid rushed at Harry, lifting him by the leg with its horrifying mandibles, and Harry hung upside down, staring at the glassy eyes and gaping maw of the creature.  Harry began to kick wildly with his free leg, hitting the pincers but having no effect.  Cedric kept casting stunners, trying hard not to hit Harry in the process, but they just bounced off the spider’s hide.

Harry, in a last burst of inspiration, lifted his wand and yelled, “Expelliarmus!”, aiming the disarming spell at the spider’s mouth.  The spider jerked and dropped Harry, and he fell twelve feet onto his injured leg.  Harry crumpled to the ground under the spider and quickly cast Stupify at its unprotected under-belly—just as Cedric did the same thing.

The spider fell under the power of dual spells and crashed into the nearby hedge wall, all eight giant legs sprawling into the pathway.

Sirius watched as Cedric ran to Harry, helping the younger boy to his feet.  Harry was unstable, with only one good leg, but he thanked Cedric as they both hobbled toward the glowing Tri-Wizard Cup.

“Are you okay?” asked Cedric as he looked Harry over.

Harry lifted his trouser leg to see the torn and bleeding leg beneath.  “Not really,” he said, “but I think I’ll live.  Through this, at least.”  Harry looked up and acknowledged the floating orb over his head.  “You’ve all been watching for I don’t know how long.  You’ve seen some spectacular spell work, I’m sure, and some horrific things.  But what you need to know is this: Cedric Diggory is the true Hogwarts Champion!  He’s the only one who wanted to enter this competition, and he deserves the win.”

Harry paused and looked at Cedric before continuing.  “However,” he said, mainly to Cedric, “I know that I was entered into this Tournament so that someone could, if not kill me, then take me.  And the fact that I actually made it into the center means I was meant to live through this.  So I suppose that means the trophy at the end is supposed to be mine.”

Cedric half-grinned at Harry.  “You think it’s a portkey?”

Harry nodded.  “Yup.  Either that, or it’s been poisoned.  Either way, I really can’t let you grab it.  I know you want to stand by me, no matter what, but I couldn’t live with myself if you got hurt—it any of the other Champions got hurt during this whole thing because of me.  So—I announce, here and now, that Cedric Diggory is the true winner of this Tournament, and he deserves the prize.  So give him the money and the certificate, or whatever, and I’ll just…take…this….”

While he was speaking, and making sure everyone was listening via the floating orb, Harry had been gradually inching his way to the Tri-Wizard Cup, hobbling gently because of his injured leg.  As he finished his speech, Harry reached out and grabbed the Cup—and promptly disappeared in a swirl of magic.

“Oh, Shit!” Sirius exclaimed, and he jumped from his seat and pulled a length of rope from a pocket inside his robes.  “Take this, Amelia.  It’ll go off in five minutes!”  Sirius tapped the rope with his wand and whispered “Portus” just before he disappeared in a swirl of magic.

On the west side of the maze, completely unaware of anything that had gone on in or around the Final Task, Severus Snape was briefly startled by a tingling in his Magical Core before he also disappeared.

 

@@

 

Harry dropped into the middle of a dank, fog-covered cemetery.  He landed badly on his injured leg, and he dropped the Cup with the impact.  It rolled away from him, landing several headstones away.  Harry quickly drew his wand and ducked behind a large, ornate marble angel, looking around to see if anyone else was nearby.

Within two minutes, Sirius and Severus had also appeared, drawn directly to Harry by the blood-born Black Tracking Spell.  Harry sighed in relief.  “I was afraid that the tracker wouldn’t work,” he said in a not-quite whisper.  “This place is pretty creepy.”

Severus looked around and said, “Indeed.”

Before anyone could say anything else, the cluster of Aurors, led by Amelia Bones, dropped into place behind them silently.  Bones opened her mouth, possibly to ask where they were, but a noise in the distance caught their attention.  She directed her Aurors with quick and small hand motions, saying, “Spread out and keep your wands ready.  The boy was brought here for a reason.”

“We’ll stay here with Harry,” Sirius said, “just in case.”

Bones nodded her agreement.  “Don’t be heroes, gentlemen.  You haven’t been an Auror in a very long time.”  And then she faded away into the fog and darkness.

Footsteps grew louder as an unknown person walked closer to where Harry was hidden with Sirius and Severus.  “Find him, Wormtail,” hissed a high-pitched voice, and Sirius growled softly.

“That rat-bastard!” Sirius cursed.  “I should have known….”

“Be quiet!” Severus hissed.  “We have the advantage here, so don’t blow it by losing your temper!”

Sirius nodded abruptly.

“Um,” said Harry, “I know he’s looking for me, but if he sees you first, he’ll leave.”

Sirius gave Harry a sharp look.  “What do you suggest?”

Harry shrugged.  “Maybe I should pop my head out and take a look?  Kinda like I’m backing toward him, maybe.  I’ve got the charm around my neck, so he won’t be able to stun me or anything.”

Sirius frowned.  “I don’t like it, but you’re right about needing to get him closer.  Severus and I are both keeping an eye on you, pup, so please don’t do anything stupid.”

Harry rolled his eyes a bit.  “You mean like participating in a rigged contest?”  Harry smirked and stood up, gasping a bit in pain as he put weight on his injured leg.  “At least I look pathetic and helpless.”

With one final look, Harry turned and hobbled from behind the huge headstone.  As soon as he was clear, the clouds obscuring the moon drifted away, and pale light illuminated the cemetery.  Harry looked around, trying to see if he could spot any of the Aurors, but they were either well-hidden or completely lost.  Harry staggered around for a bit, putting on quite a show of being disoriented and confused.  His wand was visible, but he made sure his hand was shaking.  The limp he didn’t have to fake, because he was seriously hurt.

Harry figured Hermione would have something to say about that, and quite loudly, too.

Shuffling steps came from behind him, and Harry turned quickly, almost over-balancing.  From behind a row of tall headstones came a shrouded figure, ambling along slowly, as if burdened.  The figure came closer, and Harry again heard the high-pitched voice say, “There he is, Wormtail!  Take him!”

Harry looked and saw Peter Pettigrew, looking much leaner than the last time Harry had set eyes on him.  The ragged man was stooped forward, and seemed to be juggling his wand and a bundle of cloth.

Where was that other person, Harry wondered.  Surely ole Wormtail hadn’t taken to talking to himself?

Pettigrew shifted his wand, thrusting it forward, and Harry saw that the bundle of cloth was actually a…baby?  Something baby-sized, at any rate, and there were tiny waving arms poking from the blanket.  Pettigrew aimed his wand and shouted “Stupify!”  The spell it the Shield Charm emitted by the pendant Harry wore and dripped away.

Before Pettigrew could cast again, multiple Incarcerous spells landed on him from several sources, and Pettigrew found himself bound quite tightly in magical ropes, causing him to drop his bundle as he fell over.  The thing in the blankets tried to crawl away, but Sirius stepped forward and cast a Stupify and Incarcerous at it, preventing its escape.

Amelia Bones walked over to it and asked, “What is that thing?”  She moved her leg to kick at it, but Sirius pulled her back.

“I wouldn’t touch that, Amelia,” he said gravely.  “I have a feeling that’s what’s become of Voldemort, and you wouldn’t want that on your shoe.”

Bones grimaced and transfigured a dried leaf into cage, then levitated the tiny thing into it for transport.  “We’ll deal with this back at the Ministry, I think,” she said.  “You should get your boy some medical help, Sirius.  You can come to me at the Ministry after he’s settled.”

Harry looked ragged.  “I’ll be okay, Sirius,” he said weakly.  “I’ve got Professor Snape to watch over me.  You go with the Aurors.”

Sirius gave Harry a gentle hug and said, “I’ll be back with you before you know it, and hopefully I’ll have some answers.”

 

@@

 

Hermione tried very hard to throw herself at Harry when he and Snape reappeared at Hogwarts.  Only the fact that Snape was actually carrying Harry kept her from doing it.

Because there is no Apparition at Hogwarts, Snape had no choice but to Apparate Harry to just outside the main gates.  The landing brought Harry to his knees.  Well, his knee, actually, as his injured leg finally refused to support any of his weight.  Snape didn’t pause at all; he just cast a Feather-light spell on Harry and picked him up, carrying the injured boy fireman-style all the way to the main doors of the castle.

“We’ve all been worried sick!” were the first words out of Hermione’s mouth, and when Harry looked around, he saw Draco and the other three Champions peering through the doors of the Great Hall.

“Some Aurors questioned Victor about being cursed,” Hermione continued, “and then I dragged him here for some hot cocoa.  Draco convinced Fleur’s parents to bring her, as well, and we’ve been hoping you’d show up soon.  Where did you go?”

“Perhaps, Miss Granger,” Snape drawled dangerously, “the questioning can wait until Harry has had some medical attention?”

Hermione blushed in shame as she stepped back.  “Of course, sir.  I’m very sorry.  It’s just that….”

“You were worried.  Yes, so you’ve said.  I would request that you wait until Mr. Potter has been seen to before you again attempt to accost him.”

Hermione stepped back further, only to be replace by a fuming Minerva McGonagall.

“Severus!” she shouted.  “Where have you been?  Why are you carrying Potter?  How…?”

“Minerva,” Snape sighed loudly, “any questions can wait until I get Potter to. The. Infirmary!”  Bracing Harry to his chest, Snape turned toward the staircase to the left of the Great Hall and ascended as quickly as possible without jarring Harry too badly.  The boy had gone quiet and grown quite pale, and Snape worried that Acromantula venom had gotten into his blood through the gash on his leg.

Once inside the infirmary, Snape voiced his suspicions to Madam Pomfrey, who tucked Harry into a bed and began casting diagnostic spells on the boy.

“There’s a hairline fracture of the bone just below his knee,” the medi-witch said, “and the torn skin is becoming infected, but I do not see any evidence of venom present in the wound.  He’s lost a lot of blood, though, and shall need time and rest to replenish that.”

“Poppy,” came McGonagall’s voice quietly from behind them, “I know Harry has been seeing a Healer outside of the school.  Perhaps we should try to contact him?’

Snape turned to face his colleague, and saw the earnest concern on her face. He nodded brusquely.  “I shall Floo Gringotts immediately.  I believe the Healer that has been caring for Mr. Potter is a goblin Healer.”

“Very well, Severus,” said Madam Pomfrey as she banished Harry’s filthy clothing and covered him with a sheet.  “You can use the Floo in my office, and I’ll find some pajamas for the child.  Where is his guardian?  I know Sirius Black was watching the Final Task.”

Snape turned toward Pomfrey’s office, saying, “He’s dealing with something at the Ministry just now.  He’ll be along once that is settled.”

McGonagall hovered by Harry’s bedside as Pomfrey carefully dressed him in clean cotton pajamas.  He looked so small and frail just then, so pale from his trials.

“How did you know he was seeing a private Healer, Minerva,” Pomfrey asked when she was finished.

“Oh?  Um, Sirius told me where they were going when they left the school not too long ago.  I don’t know why, though, and they wouldn’t tell me that.”

Pomfrey exhaled sharply through her nose.  “A private Healer means serious problems, Minerva.  Things like that are best kept private.”

McGonagall frowned.  “So I was told, most sternly.”

 

When Severus returned from Pomfrey’s office, he was followed by a thin, severe goblin wearing Healer’s robes.  McGonagall blinked at that, because rarely were goblins ever seen wearing robes of any kind.

“This,” said Snape by way of introduction, “is Healer SteelShanks.  Since she is very invested in the health of Mr. Potter, I suggest that we leave them alone so she may work uninterrupted.”

 

@@

 

“I would be asking for a tumbler full of Fire Whiskey,” said a weary Sirius Black several hours later, “but I need to keep my wits about me so I can show support for Harry.  Also, I have a fragile House Elf to console, and I should do that sober.”

Amelia Bones sat slumped at her desk in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.  “Perhaps,” she said, “I could drink your share for you.”

 

Against the wishes of Minister Fudge, Director Bones had requested IWC Aurors and guards to be present for the questioning of…everybody, it seemed.  Bartemius Crouch, Junior, was placed in a holding cell with one set of guards while Peter Pettigrew was settled in another part of the containment area.

As to the body housing Voldemort, well, it was decided that that would be taken to an isolated cell somewhere deep under The Hague, where it could not draw upon its followers or regain power in any way (they kept referring to it as ‘it’ because it was barely human, and would never again achieve humanity).

Pettigrew, after a dose of Veritaserum, admitted that he had been caring for the recently corporeal Voldemort since his escape the summer before.  His duties included kidnapping newborns from orphanages in order to find a usable body for his dispossessed Dark Lord, feeding and caring for the thing, and preparing the spell that would be used to bring Voldemort back to full power.  The spell required using the bones of Voldemort’s muggle father, long deceased, and the blood of Harry Potter, and the less Sirius thought about that the happier he would be.

Crouch was also dosed with Veritaserum, and he admitted to cursing Bertha Jorkins and ultimately leading her to Albania, where she was killed by the then incorporeal Voldemort to give him power.  Crouch also confessed to casting the Dark Mark at the Quidditch World Cup in order to incite any remaining Death-Eaters into action, bespelling the Tri-Wizard Cup into accepting a fourth Champion candidate, and entering Harry’s name into the Tournament (using a scrap of parchment from a class assignment).

 

There were only two good parts of the evening’s adventures: One—Sirius got to personally tell both Crouch and Pettigrew that not only was their almighty leader going to be sent far, far away, but that the goblins had identified several soul fragments that the lunatic had left behind in an effort to become immortal—and they destroyed them.  And Two—Albus Dumbledore had not, as yet, been informed of the capture of Crouch, Pettigrew, and Voldemort.

Sirius had no doubts that Dumbledore would try to insinuate himself into the trials, should trials actually be held in Britain, and he would probably try to convince Minister Fudge that he should be the one to contain or punish Voldemort.  That was the main reason the baby-thing was port-keyed immediately out of Britain while his two followers were being questioned.

 

The whole thing shook Sirius to his very core, and it really left a bad taste in his mouth.  He was so very grateful that Harry had survived with (mostly) minor injuries, and that the boy was spared participating in that horrid ritual.  But Sirius was actually serious about consoling Winky and making sure Harry was okay, so he stood from his chair and stretched his back.

“I’ve got to get to Hogwarts, Amelia,” he said as he picked up the outer-robe he’d folded over the arm of the chair.  “Don’t hesitate to call on me if you need anything else.”

“Like an explanation about those ‘soul fragments’?” she asked wryly.

Sirius shook his head.  “There’s no way I can explain those, Amelia.  I know a dark ritual had to have been involved, because souls just don’t split on their own, but I don’t know what it is or how it’s done.  The goblin DarkHunters might know, but I doubt you’ll get any information there.”

Bones frowned into her tumbler.  “No, you’re right about that.  And frankly, I don’t want to know, truth be told.  I suppose it’s good enough that he’ll never again become powerful, though I have no idea what I’ll be telling the Minister.”

Sirius offered a bow as he opened the door.  “That’s all on you, Amelia.”

 

@@

 

Harry groaned as he opened his eyes, and almost choked when a paper straw was placed between his lips.  He blinked twice before drawing a drink of cool water, and then he closed his eyes again.

“Is Sirius here yet?” he croaked.

“Yes,” said Hermione softly.  “He’s having a ‘discussion’ with the Headmaster just now, but he said it would be alright if we visited you for a bit.”

Harry blinked at her again before asking for his glasses.  Hermione dutifully placed them on the bridge of his nose, and Harry looked around the partitioned area surrounding his bed.  Fleur, Krum, and Cedric stood to one side, and Draco and Susan Bones stood on the other.  Hermione was perched on the edge of Harry’s bed, holding a cup of water with a straw in it.

“How long was I out?” Harry asked.

“Not long,” said Draco.  “Severus called in your personal Healer, and you were placed under a sleeping charm so she could work on you.”

The blond raised one eyebrow and Harry huffed a tiny laugh.  “That’s because every time they’ve tried to fix something on me, I fight them.  Hey, Cedric, how are you?”

Cedric laughed in surprise.  “Oh, I’m swell, Harry.  So are Victor and Fleur.”  Those two nodded at Harry, and he smiled in return.  “The Tri-Wizard Committee didn’t want to award the win to me because I didn’t grab the Cup in the Maze, but Fleur and Victor were both conscious by then, and they argued in my favor.”

Harry frowned.  “Well, that sucks, but I’m glad you prevailed.  You did prevail, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Harry,” said Cedric dryly, “I prevailed.  My father is boasting all over the place, like I did it all by myself.  He’s even telling anyone who’ll listen that you only bowed out because you realized that I was the better wizard and you didn’t want to embarrass yourself, so I’m sorry for that.”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t care, really, so it’s all good.”

Hermione huffed loudly, and everyone turned to look at her.  “Well,” she said snippily, “are we all actually going to ignore the fact that Harry was port-keyed off to who knows where?”

Draco snorted indelicately.  “Merlin, Hermione!  Let him tell us only if he wants to, okay?”

Harry rolled his eyes and grabbed the cup of water from her hand.  “It’s fine,” he said after he swallowed some water.  “There’s not a lot I can tell you, really.  I ended up in a cemetery somewhere, but I don’t know where.  And Peter Pettigrew was there….”

Hermione gasped and Draco’s eyes widened, but the other’s only showed confusion.

“…And it looked like he was hunting me, but Sirius had a plan that involved some Aurors, and I really don’t know what happened.  I started feeling really woozy, so Professor Snape brought me back here.”

Hermione could tell that Harry knew more than he was telling, but she let it slide.  She was certain that she would hear the entire story over the summer anyway, and she was just happy that Harry was alive.

 

“…not going to talk about it, Albus!  You have no say in any of this, not anymore!”  Sirius was shouting as he entered the infirmary, and all heads turned to face the doorway.

“Ah, Harry,” said Sirius, reining in his temper, “you’re awake finally.  How are you feeling?”

Before Harry could answer, Cedric said, “Well, we should be going.  I just wanted to say thanks again, and I’m glad you’re okay.”

Hermione stood up and walked around the bed to stand next to Krum, reaching for his hand shyly.  “I’ll be going, as well.  I’ll come back in the morning, alright?”

Draco just nodded at Sirius before offering a brief wave to Harry.

 

And then Harry was alone with Sirius and Dumbledore, and he felt oddly vulnerable lying in that bed.

“So,” Harry said to break the angry silence, “what’s the argument about?”

“Albus,” growled Sirius, “seems to think you’ll be returning to your aunt’s house this summer.”

Harry blinked.  “Um, no.  I’m going to live with Sirius from now on.”

“Harry,” said Dumbledore condescendingly, “you know that your aunt’s home is the only safe place for you.  I’ve told you that repeatedly.  There are protections there for you, and I’m afraid that you could become a target for more Death-Eaters after what has happened during the Tournament.”

Harry blinked again before looking at Sirius.  “You didn’t tell him?”

Sirius shrugged.  “I thought you might want to tell him.”

Dumbledore looked back and forth between them.  “Tell me what, exactly?”

Harry struggled to pull himself higher in the bed, and Sirius reached forward to prop pillows behind him.  “Well, there’s a lot you don’t know, actually,” said Harry once he was settled.  “For one thing, you really should have tried, at least a little bit, to keep me out of the Tournament.  You really screwed up with that one.”

Dumbledore frowned.  “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Well,” said Harry, “it seems that, because you insisted that I compete, and because you basically forced everyone else to agree with you, you pretty much guaranteed that the Goblet of Fire, a very magical, almost sentient, artifact, would consider me a full adult—because only those who were of legal age could compete.  So because of your stubborn insistence that I compete, I was declared legally and magically emancipated.  Congratulations on that, Headmaster.”

“Harry,” Dumbledore began, “I don’t think….”

“And the result of that emancipation,” continued Harry, as if the older man had not spoken, “is that I’ve had a full accounting of my family vaults at Gringotts.  So, I know all about the money that you took from me, and the artifacts.  Gringotts is doing an audit, and all of that will be returned in one fashion or another. And I know all about the contracts you tried to sign in my name, including the marriage contract with Ginny Weasley.”  Dumbledore began to grow red with anger and frustration, so Harry kept going, much to Sirius’ amusement.

“It’s too bad you never actually got around to signing that one, sir,” Harry said dryly, “because that could have planted you firmly in a cell for fraud.  As it is, we’ve burned that, and it shall never be spoken of again.”

“You forgot the really big news, Harry,” said Sirius with laughter in his voice.

Harry pretended to think hard for a moment before saying, “Oh, you mean that part about Peter Pettigrew being caught and arrested while carrying an embodied Voldemort?  Is that the ‘big news’ that you meant?”

Dumbledore paled quickly and he sat heavily on a stool near Harry’s bed.  “But…but…I don’t understand….”

 

“I’m sure there is much you don’t understand, Albus,” said a female voice from the doorway.

Harry and Sirius turned to see Augusta Longbottom, Head of the Hogwarts Board of Governors, standing just inside the Infirmary.

“It’s good to see you, Lady Longbottom,” said Sirius courteously.

Augusta inclined her head in his direction.  “You as well, Lord Black.”  She turned back to Dumbledore and said, “The board has many, many questions for you, Headmaster.  Perhaps we should adjourn to your office—while it is still your office.”

 

@@

 

“I’m glad you’ve decided to ride the Hogwarts Express back to Kings Cross, Harry,” said Hermione from her seat in their compartment.  “It would have felt too odd not to have you here.”

Harry paused from stuffing his trunk into the overhead storage, and said, “After everything that’s happened this year, that’s what would strike you as odd?”

Hermione giggled and shrugged.  “You know what I mean.  It only seems right to end the school term on the train with my friends, so I’m really happy that you’re here.”

Harry sat and opened Hedwig’s cage, allowing her to stretch her wings.  “I’m pretty happy to be here, as well.  And I’ll actually be living fairly close to you now, so we can visit during holidays.”

The compartment door opened, revealing Draco, Theo Knott, and Blaise Zabini.  “I do hope there’s room for us in here,” Draco drawled as he pulled his trunk inside.

“There’s plenty of room for all of us, and Susan will be joining us as well,” said Hermione primly.  “Where are your other…associates?”

Draco shrugged slightly.   “Crabbe and Goyle are still considering what kind of relationship they want to have with me, if any.  Mother figures that the Daily Prophet will reprint that story about Lucius’ trial and our rejoining the House of Black any day now, so I’ll either not hear from either of them ever again, or they’ll decide over the summer if they want to still try to be friends.  Either way, I’m not concerned.  I’ve got a better class of friends now—people I know I can count on, just like they can count on me.”

 

fin

4 thoughts on “Changes We Have Wrought (pt 2)

  1. Absolutely wonderful! Fantastic job with this whole story. I really enjoyed reading the first part again and reading the second part. This is probably my favorite story of you. Well done!

    Like

  2. Wonderful story! I love when Sirius gets to take care of Harry and Dumbledore gets caught!

    Thank you for sharing!

    Like

  3. Awesome! I really enjoyed how you brought everything together. I’m also having fun imagining Dumbledore’s very public fall from grace when his actions became known.

    Like

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