Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals 34

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.
Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

Notes: I do not own this. J. K. Rowling does. This is just fan fiction. No money is being made. Not by me, anyway.

There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though, but there's a lot more in this one than usual because it was unavoidable. Still, lots of details are changed, so don't skip by familiar parts or you might miss something.

Just as a reminder, so I don't have to shoehorn in descriptions in the text of the story as a reminder, but in this fanfic Harry and Hermione, apart from having Asperger's Syndrome, are both black as well.

'Italicized text between single quotes is almost always Parseltongue.'

Note: Samhain is pronounced "saw-when."

Chapter 10: “Fight For Your Life”

The next day, the day of their new Samhain ritual, was a school day. And as bad as he'd thought it would be, it was worse. Practically everyone in school but Harry's friends thought he'd entered himself somehow, despite his panic attack, and only the Griffindors were impressed by it. He found out from overheard comments that most people were convinced he'd entered himself on a lark and had a panic attack because he hadn't actually expected to get in. Which was ridiculous; if he's simply put his name in as the Hogwarts champion, he would've been the only Hogwarts champion. Draco tried explaining this to some people, and they just looked at him like he was a slimy snake. Probably they thought Draco had helped him.

Harry wasn't surprised that the Hufflepuffs were especially put out with him, for they thought he'd stolen Cedric's glory, and they rarely got any glory. They all seemed to have forgotten he'd been rooting for a Hufflepuff champion as well. Either that, or they were thinking he'd only said that to deflect suspicion.

After Herbology – during which the Hufflepuffs had laughed at him for getting hit by a bouncing bulb, was Care of Magical Creatures with the Slytherins. His only friend there in his year being Draco, he and his new entourage – Daphne Greengrass, Blaise Zabini, and Tracey Davis – didn't join in Theo Knott's comments, but they didn't speak against them, either, just stood apart from them, over near Harry. Draco later explained this was part of Slytherin code; Slytherins show a united front in public even if they disagree with one another, and they discuss those disagreements in the safety of the Slytherin common room.

Hagrid talked to him quietly during class, while everyone was distracted by trying to take the horrible Skrewts on a walk. It was basically Hagrid saying he believed Harry didn't put his name in, and wondering who had.

In Potions, Harry had taken to wearing his magical earmuffs in class once Snape was done talking, so he could ignore Knott's lot of Slytherins. This worked pretty well, but made Snape cross with him on occasion when he had to wave his hand in front of Harry's face to get his attention. He'd lost some points that way, but he didn't care. He'd probably lose even more points if he listened to Knott and his lot, because he'd probably react badly to their bologna.

After class, Draco asked him, “Ready for the ritual tonight?”

“Yes, very much so.”

~

That night after dinner, eight students went out to the grounds, Draco leading the way with a black candle, black being the color of protection. He led them out past the place where Harry always did his rituals, into a clearing where a bonfire had clearly been burning a couple nights before.

The ritual itself had been fairly straightforward, if slightly different. Draco had lit a magical fire in the ashes of the previous bonfire, and they had each taken lit candles from Draco and arranged themselves at the eight cardinal directions around the circle. Draco had done something differently with his silver athame knife (which acted somewhat like a wand), the point of the four pentacles he drew at the four main directions around the circle had had their points pointing various directions, not just up. The first had been pointing down, the next pointed right, the one after that pointed left, and the final one pointed up. The silver line he'd drawn around the circle, connecting the stars, had briefly become a sphere before returning to a line, and Harry could still see a faint grayish light in a sphere around them, protecting them. Draco's words to the elements had been different as well; instead of saying “amen” at the end of each call to the elements, he had said “So Will it Be.”

With that out of the way, Draco had led them in remembering the dead. They each spoke about someone they'd lost. Harry spoke about his parents of course. Luna had remembered her mum, Ron his uncle Billius, and Antigone, Angela, Hermione, and Draco all remembered grandparents of theirs. Then Danzia had spoken the saddest thing of all, in Harry's opinion.

“Uncle Alfonse Jacobson,” said Danzia. “Taken from us in what should have been his prime by a horrible disease called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS for short. Another promising young gay man taken from the world too... too soon. Another death that could have been prevented, if only the world cared enough to try!” Danzia began to cry quietly, but not quietly enough to not be noticed. Harry felt his own eyes tear up at her pain.

They hadn't just mentioned these people; many of them spoke at length about them, remembered happy memories, Danzia included, once she recovered from her crying. Draco had been one of the people who had refrained from sharing memories, as had Angela. Angela because she was crying; Draco... he just looked sad and regretful, though it was hard to tell in the weird light of the fire and the glowing silver line and stars of the circle.

“We shall not let their lives have gone in vain,” Draco had said. “We will remember them, keep them in our hearts, better the world in their name.” Here he looked at Harry and then at Danzia.

Levitating a large stone from around where the bonfire had been (and technically was again, now that there was another fire there), Draco had used his wand to carve the names of the dead, making sure everyone was okay with their dead loved ones' names being carved there first. When the names were all in place, he put the stone back where it had been. Harry looked and noticed there were dozens of other names on that and other stones, most carved a lot more neatly than Draco had done, but Draco had still done a lot better than Harry thought he could have.

With that all done, the ritual soon wound down. Draco dismissed the elements and opened the circle, all the magic lights going out. He put out the fire, and all the candles, and they walked back to the castle by wandlight.

~

On the second Thursday since the Champion announcement, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were waiting outside Potions class. The Slytherins arrived, and Draco tried to warn him about something, but Theo beat him to the punch.

“Look here, Potter, see what I made?” Theo asked.

Harry looked, and saw what he thought was something Hermione had been trying to get people to buy lately, badges for her Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to House-Elves. But on closer inspection, he saw they said, instead, “Support Cedric Diggory, the real Hogwarts Champion!”

“Like them, Potter?” Theo asked. “Look what else they do,” he said in an exaggerated slow tone like Harry was an idiot.

Theo pressed down on the badge, and it changed to say, in glowing green letters, the words, “Potter stinks!”

Theo's lot howled with laughter. Each of them pressed their badges too, until the message POTTER STINKS was shining brightly all around Harry. He felt the heat rise in his face and neck.

“Oh very funny,” Hermione said sarcastically to Pansy Parkinson and her gang of Slytherin girls, who were laughing harder than anyone, “really witty.”

“Shove it, Knott!” Ron shouted.

“Want one, Granger? Weasley?” said Knott, holding out badges to Hermione and Ron. “I’ve got loads. But don’t touch my hand, now. I’ve just washed it, you see; don’t want a Mudblood or a blood traitor sliming it up.”

Harry turned red with rage. He was about to do something very rash when Draco leaped forward, his own face pinker than Harry had ever seen, glaring at Knott. All thought of Slytherin solidarity forgotten, Draco had whipped out his wand and was pointing it at Knott. Knott had barely any time to react, ducking out of the way just in time to avoid getting hit with Draco's jinx, firing off one of his own a moment later. But Draco was already reacting, and had fired off another spell at the same time, the two spells hitting each other and bouncing randomly. One hit Goyle, another hit Hermione.

Goyle bellowed and put his hands to his nose, where great ugly boils were springing up — Hermione, whimpering in panic, was clutching her mouth.

“Hermione!”

Ron had hurried forward to see what was wrong with her; Harry turned and saw Ron dragging Hermione’s hand away from her face. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Hermione’s front teeth — already larger than average — were now growing at an alarming rate; she was looking more and more like a beaver as her teeth elongated, past her bottom lip, toward her chin — panic-stricken, she felt them and let out a terrified cry.

“And what is all this noise about?” said a soft, deadly voice.

Snape had arrived. The Slytherins clamored to give their explanations; Snape pointed a long yellow finger at Malfoy and said, “Explain.”

“Malfoy attacked me, sir —”

“We attacked each other at the same time!” Malfoy shouted.

“— and he hit Goyle — look —”

Snape examined Goyle, whose face now resembled something that would have been at home in a book on poisonous fungi.

“Hospital wing, Goyle,” Snape said calmly.

“Knott got Hermione!” Ron said. “Look!”

He forced Hermione to show Snape her teeth — she was doing her best to hide them with her hands, though this was difficult as they had now grown down past her collar. Pansy Parkinson and the other Slytherin girls were doubled up with silent giggles, pointing at Hermione from behind Snape’s back.

Snape looked coldly at Hermione, then said, “I see no difference.”

Hermione let out a whimper; her eyes filled with tears, she turned on her heel and ran, ran all the way up the corridor and out of sight.

What happened next was bedlam. Draco, Ron, and Harry all rushed Snape, wands drawn, but all three of them ran into each other on the way to the teacher and collided, falling to the ground cussing up several blue streaks. It was lucky their voices echoed so much in the stone corridor, for in the confused din, it was impossible for him to hear exactly what they were calling him. He got the gist, however.

“Let’s see,” he said, in his silkiest voice. “Fifty points from Gryffindor, 15 points from Slytherin, and a detention each for Potter, Weasley, and Malfoy. Now get inside, or it’ll be a week’s worth of detentions.”

Harry’s ears were ringing. The injustice of it made him want to curse Snape into a thousand slimy pieces. He passed Snape, walked with Ron and Draco to the back of the dungeon, and slammed his bag down onto the table. Ron and Draco were shaking with anger too. On the other side of the dungeon, Knott turned his back on Snape and pressed his badge, smirking. POTTER STINKS flashed once more across the room.

As Snape talked about poisons and antidotes, Harry imagined the man being eaten by a blast-ended skrewt, or being thrown into a pit full of basilisks, or something else nasty like that. But it didn't last long before Colin Creevy was knocking on the door and coming in for some reason. Which, to Harry's horror, turned out to be for a Triwizard Tournament related photo shoot.

“Shit!” Draco said. “I was trying to warn you about that before class. I found out from Father, who found out from Rita Skeeter. She's going to be there. Listen, she's going to want to sensationalize this, don't talk to her. Hand her this.”

He handed Harry a rectangular card that read 'Draco Malfoy, Public Relations for Harry Potter.'

“Tell her 'Any questions you have, you can ask my PR manager,' then hand her the card. Oh, and drink this before the pictures,” he added, handing Harry a bottle. “It'll prevent you getting ill from the flash.”

“You've assigned yourself my--”

“POTTER!” Snape shouted. “take your bag and get out of my sight!”

Taking the card and his bag, Harry left with Colin.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it, Harry?” said Colin, starting to speak the moment Harry had closed the dungeon door behind him. “Isn’t it, though? You being champion?”

“It's horrifying, Colin. I didn't enter. I don't want to be in this stupid tournament.”

“What? What d'ya mean?”

“Didn't you see my panic attack on the night it was announced? I thought I was going to die. I probably will die. You should know by now I loathe crowds and loud noises. This tournament is going to be utter Hell for me, even with Sirius there to help me cope.”

Colin's face fell. “Oh. Sorry, I forgot. Um... so who d'ya reckon put your name in?”

“No idea yet. Probably a Death Eater, though.”

Colin's face now went white as chalk. He didn't speak again all the way there, except to mumble 'good luck' to Harry at the end.

Harry drank the potion before entering the room where the photoshoot was taking place. It didn't feel like it was doing anything, but he supposed he'd find out soon.

He was in a fairly small classroom; most of the desks had been pushed away to the back of the room, leaving a large space in the middle; three of them, however, had been placed end-to-end in front of the blackboard and covered with a long length of velvet. Five chairs had been set behind the velvet-covered desks, and Ludo Bagman was sitting in one of them, talking to a witch Harry had never seen before, who was wearing magenta robes. From talks he'd had with Draco before, he figured this must be Rita Skeeter.

Viktor Krum was standing moodily in a corner as usual and not talking to anybody. Cedric and Fleur were in conversation. Fleur looked a good deal happier than Harry had seen her so far; she kept throwing back her head so that her long silvery hair caught the light. A paunchy man, holding a large black camera that was smoking slightly, was watching Fleur out of the corner of his eye. Harry was a bit creeped out by that.

Bagman soon spotted him, and Harry put up with the man in order to find out what exactly was going on. Which, as it turned out, was something called a 'wand-weighing ceremony,' which was meant to make sure the Champions' wands were functioning right. Why they weren't doing this the day of the Tournament, or the day before, he didn't know. Except that, he supposed, if there was something wrong with the wand, he'd have over a week to get a new one before the First Task.

The door opened then, and Sirius came in, looking wind-swept and irritated. “Came here fast as I could, Harry,” he said. “Blasted tournament... Dumbledore only told me about this stupid wand-weighing crap an hour ago. I was in the middle of Auror training, too. I might have to take a leave of absence for this thing. How are you?”

“Harry was just about to talk to me, weren't you Harry?” Skeeter said.

“No I wasn't,” Harry said. “Any questions you have, you can talk to my Public Relations manager.”

Harry handed Skeeter the card. She looked at it like it was some strange new creature she'd never seen before. She looked up at him, baffled.

“In other words, no comment at the present time.”

“Yeah Harry, you tell her. Hey, is that the Malfoy boy's name?”

“Later, Sirius.”

Skeeter recovered, pocketing the card and smiling at Sirius. “Ah, Mr. Sirius Black, what a pleasure! I hear you're helping young Harry here with the tournament.”

“I'm only going to be there to help him cope, to keep him from going catatonic, like a human comfort object and mental health monitor all in one. The rest is up to him; I'm not allowed to help with the tasks themselves. And just so you know, Skeeter, if either Harry or I don't like the article you write about this wand-weighing ceremony, I have my solicitor – Ms. Lilith Pennyroyal – ready and willing to sue you for libel.”

“Oh now, there's no need for that, Mr. Black. I never lie in print.”

“I'll believe that when I see it,” Sirius said. “Come on, Harry, over here away from this woman.”

When they were out of earshot of her, Sirius bent down over Harry's ear and whispered, “You should get someone better than her to represent you in the press. Draco's idea was good, but we can do better.”

Thinking back to his special edition of The Quibbler, Harry had an idea about that, but didn't want to discuss it where Skeeter might overhear.

Several minutes later, the ceremony began. The other champions were now sitting in chairs near the door, and he sat down quickly next to Cedric, looking up at the velvet-covered table, where four of the five judges were now sitting — Professor Karkaroff, Madame Maxime, Ms. Selby, and Ludo Bagman.

“May I introduce Mr. Ollivander?” said Dumbledore, taking his place at the judges’ table and talking to the champions. “He will be checking your wands to ensure that they are in good condition before the tournament.”

Harry looked around, and with a jolt of surprise saw an old wizard with large, pale eyes standing quietly by the window. Harry had met Mr. Ollivander before — he was the wand-maker from whom Harry had bought his own wand over three years ago in Diagon Alley.

Mr. Ollivander first checked Fleur's wand, telling the whole room that the wand was rosewood with the hair of a veela – Fleur confirmed it was from her grandmother, meaning Fleur was part veela. Harry frowned; he hoped Ollivander wasn't going to announce his wand specs to the whole room, too.

When Ollivander checked Cedric's wand, Harry was shocked to find some wizards polished their wands. Sirius snickered at Cedric's admission of polishing his wand; Harry didn't want to know what Sirius was thinking. Harry's wand was kind of gross with finger marks and stuff, but he decided not to try polishing it here, in case it made Sirius burst out in full laughter.

After Krum's wand – a Gregorovitch creation – was checked, it was Harry's turn.

Harry got to his feet and walked past Krum to Mr. Ollivander. He handed over his wand.

“Aaaah, yes,” said Mr. Ollivander, his pale eyes suddenly gleaming. “Yes, yes, yes. How well I remember.”

Harry was again worried Ollivander would reveal the fact his wand shared a core with Voldemort's wand, but he didn't. The old man just examined it for a lot longer than the others, then used it to make a small fountain of wine come from the wand.

The photo-taking went fairly smoothly with Sirius helping run interference against Skeeter. It was a bit difficult to get Madame Maxime into the photo, but finally they managed it, and everyone got to leave for dinner. Sirius went down to dinner with Harry, sitting next to him and telling Ron what had happened for Harry. He would have told Hermione as well, but she was missing; probably getting her teeth fixed still.

“By the way, Harry, we've got our detentions with Snape tomorrow in Snape's dungeon.”

“Detention?” asked Sirius, who was chuckling. “What'd you do, set Sniv's robes on fire?”

“Nah,” Ron said, “Hermione did that back in first year, but he never found out. Harry, Draco, and I have detentions because, well...”

He paused a moment to think, then launched into a retelling of the incident that had gotten Hermione in the hospital wing.

Sirius frowned. “Snivelus actually said 'I see no difference,' did he? I'm going to be having some words with Dumbledore about that, I can tell you right now.”

Ron shrugged. “No point. I heard Snape gets a dozen complaints a week from parents, Dumbledore never does anything about it.”

“Well I'm going to try anyway. I'll do it in person so he can't ignore me, and remind him that I have a very clever solicitor on my side, who I'll use if I have to. Snivelus is a Death Eater. Reformed, supposedly, but honestly, what a crock of shite. Once a Death Eater, always...” Sirus trailed off, then, looking thoughtful, even wistful. “Well, maybe some of them can reform, but Snivelus was always fascinated with the dark arts. Hmm... well I suppose my brother was, too...”

Slamming his fist on the table, startling everyone in earshot, Sirius said, “Damn him! Everything was always so clear before I found---well, never mind. Point is, I guess I'll give Sniv the teensiest benefit of the doubt. But I still don't think he should be teaching, if he's that much of a bully to students.”

Harry and Ron looked at each other in confusion, but Sirius didn't seem inclined to explain himself, so they went back to their food.

“Anyway, Harry, we still haven't really talked like we should. I have some things to tell you that you need to know.”

“Well now's as good a time as any, there's so much noise.”

“Right. Okay then, first of all, Karkaroff was a Death Eater. He was caught, he was in Azkaban with me, but he got released. I’d bet everything that’s why Dumbledore wanted an Auror at Hogwarts this year — to keep an eye on him. Moody caught Karkaroff. Put him into Azkaban in the first place.”

“Karkaroff got released?” Harry said slowly — his brain seemed to be struggling to absorb yet another piece of shocking information. “Why did they release him?”

“He did a deal with the Ministry of Magic,” said Sirius bitterly. “He said he’d seen the error of his ways, and then he named names … he put a load of other people into Azkaban in his place. … He’s not very popular in there, I can tell you. And since he got out, from what I can tell, he’s been teaching the Dark Arts to every student who passes through that school of his. So watch out for the Durmstrang champion as well.”

“Okay,” said Harry slowly. “But … are you saying Karkaroff put my name in the goblet? Because if he did, he’s a really good actor. He seemed furious about it. He wanted to stop me from competing.”

“Yes, I saw his performance too, Harry. But we already knew he's a good actor, because he convinced the Ministry of Magic to set him free, didn’t he?

“Now, I’ve been keeping an eye on the Daily Prophet, Harry, and reading between the lines of that Skeeter woman’s article last month, Moody was attacked the night before he started at Hogwarts. Yes, I know she says it was another false alarm,” Sirius said hastily, seeing Harry about to speak, “but I don’t think so, somehow. I think someone tried to stop him from getting to Hogwarts. I think someone knew their job would be a lot more difficult with him around. And no one’s going to look into it too closely; Mad-Eye’s heard intruders a bit too often. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still spot the real thing. Moody was the best Auror the Ministry ever had.”

“What, you reckon Karkaroff's trying to do Harry in? Why? I mean, he turned against the Death Eaters to keep out of Azkaban, I don't reckon he'd be welcomed back, do you?”

“No I don't. I suspect that if Voldemort ever returns, Karkaroff is a dead man walking. He might be trying to get in Voldemort's good graces by killing you, though. I reckon Old Ugly might give him a second chance if he managed to do that, and could prove he'd done it.”

“But Voldemort is still a spirit-thing, right? He's not a threat, surely?”

Sirius hesitated.

“I’ve been hearing some very strange things,” he said slowly. “The Death Eaters seem to be a bit more active than usual lately. They showed themselves at the Quidditch World Cup, didn’t they? Someone set off the Dark Mark … and then — did you remember about that Ministry of Magic witch who’s gone missing?”

“Bertha Jorkins?” said Harry.

“Exactly … she disappeared in Albania, and that’s definitely where Voldemort was rumored to be last … and she would have known the Triwizard Tournament was coming up, wouldn’t she?”

“What, you reckon she just stumbled into You-Know-Who? Quite a coincidence, two people doing that in four years, don't you reckon?” Ron asked.

Sirius looked quizzically at Ron. “Two people?”

“Professor Quirrell, our first-year Defense teacher,” Ron said. “He was possessed by You-Know-Who. The old monster was sticking out the back of Quirrell's head, so he was wearing a turban to hide it.”

Sirius's eyes went wide. “Voldemort was in the castle for a whole year and nobody figured it out?”

“Dumbledore knew,” Harry said. “I'm sure of it. Couldn't prove it, I guess, but Snape suspected Quirrell was up to something, and Dumbledore always gave me the impression he knows most things that go on in this school. In fact, I half suspect the obstacle course leading to the Mirror of Erised was meant to be a trap. It was absurdly easy to get through. I bet me, Ron, and Hermione could've gotten through it without our other friends. I'm only in fourth year, and I'm sure I could think of a much more effective series of obstacles right now. Couldn't do half the things I thought of, but that's not the point.”

“I really hope you're wrong on that, Harry, because I'm already starting to distrust some of Dumbledore's decisions as it is.”

Harry shrugged, and took another bite of his food.

“Anyway, I knew Bertha Jorkins in school. She wasn't very bright, but she was extremely nosy. If she was in Albania and saw something remotely suspicious, she could and would have stuck her nose in where it didn't belong, and it might have gotten her captured or killed. She'd have been easy to lure into a trap, as well. And don't forget, Wormtail is loose in the world, and he's the kind of person who'd go running back to his master to help him, in the hopes his master would protect him from the wrath of those who want revenge on him.”

“So you think Voldemort could have found out about the Tournament?” Harry asked. “Is that what you mean? You think Karkaroff might be here on his orders?”

“I don’t know,” said Sirius slowly, “I just don’t know … Karkaroff doesn’t strike me as the type who’d go back to Voldemort unless he knew Voldemort was powerful enough to protect him. But whoever put your name in that goblet did it for a reason, and I can’t help thinking the tournament would be a very good way to attack you and make it look like an accident.”

“If half the things I've read about the Tournament are true enough to give an idea what the Tasks are going to be like, it's looking like a good plan to me.”

“About that, Harry. We don't know what the First Task is, but nothing says we can't make some educated guesses. It wouldn't even count as me helping you cheat, since I don't have a bloody clue what they're actually going to do.”

“Yeah, we've discussed that, my friends and I.”

“Right,” Ron said. “I reckon it's dragons. It's been ages since they've done this Tournament, they'll want something big and showy for the First Task, and I can't think of anything half as big and showy as dragons.”

“Hmm... yes, that's a logical guess. I reckon you might be onto something, Ron. There are other big and showy magical creatures, of course, like thunderbirds, snallygasters, and even sea serpents. But a dragon has the benefit of being the easiest to use. There's dragons in Britain, after all, whereas thunderbirds and snallygasters are American creatures.”

“There's dragons in Britain?” Harry asked. “But wouldn't people see them?”

“I'm sure some of them do. It's not an easy job, covering up a truth that big from the Muggles, but it gets done, for the most part. Anyway, if it is dragons, and honestly I'm half convinced it won't be just because the universe likes to play jokes on us, but if it is dragons, there's a simple spell to deal with dragons. It's called the Conjunctivitis Curse, hits the one weak spot a dragon has, right in the eyes. It's a painful curse, but not life-threatening, though its only counter-curse is some kind of potion, I forget the name of it offhand. I remember thinking it sounded expensive to brew.”

“Oh, right, I'll hit a dragon in the eye with something painful from a distance of like 30 or 40 feet away, depending on how big dragons are, and then let it crash around in agony, to stomp me underfoot or crash into the stands, what a brilliant idea!”

“Okay, stow the sarcasm, it was just an idea.”

“Wow, I really hope it's anything at all but a dragon, if that's the only thing that can be used against it. Except... Ron, you said Charlie is a dragon handler? How do wizards handle dragons?”

“Takes loads of wizards, like seven or nine at least, I think. Maybe even a dozen. Takes loads of stunners to take one out, they're powerfully magical, and magic just splashes off their hides. I think they may have to aim their stunners at a dragon's eyes, if that's the only weak place on them.”

“I wonder if I could use a stunner, then? Can stunners be made extra powerful?”

“Yes. But that's not a technique you're going to be able to master before the First Task. You'd have better luck looking up a more advanced stunning spell, I think. Or... hmm... you're in Ancient Runes, aren't you, Harry?”

“Yes. But we're still mostly learning the different runic languages. We won't start on actual rune enchantment until after Christmas.”

“Well you're ahead of your class on a lot of things, right? And you have friends in years ahead of you?”

“Yeah. You reckon I should learn something with runes?”

“Couldn't hurt. Runes can be used to do things that take a lot more power than a wand spell can do, or for longer than can be sustained with a wand. And hey, whatever the First Task is, a powerful enough sleeping rune couldn't hurt. It's most likely to be a creature of some kind, I think you've got that much right.

“Or, wait... I just had a thought. I remember something from my own Hogwarts days... I don't remember what it's called, but oh, right, I can ask Moony.”

Sirius pulled a two-way mirror out of his pocket and said 'Remus Lupin' into it. Soon, Moony's face was in the mirror.

“Sirius? Is something wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong. I was just trying to remember something we did in school once. Azkaban kinda shot my memory to heck, you know, but I recall you using some kind of rune thingy in our dueling club. You used to draw it with your wand on the ground, then cast spells into it, and it acted like some kind of trap that went off when your opponent stood on it.”

“Ah yes, I know what you're talking about. But uh... you're not trying to help Harry cheat, are you?”

“Not at all. We don't know what the First Task is, even though we have some shrewd guesses. Anyway, this is just a general knowledge sort of a thing, we don't even know if it would be any use during the Tournament.”

“Hmm... but the odds are high it will be useful at some point in the Tournament.”

“Perhaps. But he could always look it up himself now, even without knowing what it's called. Just might take him a while. Besides which, the Tournament hasn't really begun, doesn't truly begin until the First Task.”

“I find that extremely shaky reasoning, Padfoot. But well... he is at a bit of an unfair disadvantage, just based on his age, and moreso with his other issues. Hmm... okay, I'll tell you what it's called. Honestly, if your dueling club was half as good as ours had been, you would've run across it on your own already. It was called a Second Wand Sigil, because it functioned as a second wand, holding onto a spell for you so you could activate the sigil either as a trap or on a timer, or from a distance with a bit of Will pressure. It's not easy to aim, though, which is really the only reason it was allowed. But if your target is big enough, or not moving a lot, then it's useful. Or if your target is likely to step on it, that's useful as well.”

“Second Wand Sigil, eh? So would that be in the runic magic section of the library.”

“Yes. By the way, I heard how long it took you to find Nicolas Flamel in your first year. There's a trick to using the library; if you touch your wand to any of the bookshelves and say 'Library, find me X,' where X is what you're looking for, it will find it for you. It's sometimes a little tricky to use. Ask your friend Luna, she's a Ravenclaw; if anyone will know about that, it's a Ravenclaw.”

Harry smacked his forehead with his hand. “All that looking, and we could've just asked the library to find us a book about Nicolas Flamel?”

“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Remus said. “McGonagall wasn't telling us about that in our day, either. I had to find out about it two years into my schooling from a Hufflepuff, who seemed quite shocked that I didn't already know.”

“Wow,” Ron said. “Studying is gonna be a lot easier, now!”

Harry snorted. “You study?”

“On occasion,” Ron shot back.

“Oh by the way, Sirius, I have an idea. I didn't want to tell you in front of Rita Skeeter, but I want to give Xeno Lovegood exclusive interviews about the Tournament. We should arrange for him to come here for the First Task, and we can talk to him after that, somewhere private.”

Sirius barked with laughter. “Oh that's brilliant! He's a great journalist when he's not talking about mad things, and it'll irritate Rita that you take him more seriously than you do her. Yeah, let's do that!”

“Great. I'll talk with Luna about it later, then owl him if she agrees.”

After dinner, Harry went to the library and tried out Remus's trick.

“Library, show me the Second Wand Sigil.”

There was a sound that sounded rather like a robot saying no with sound. So he tried it again.

“Library, show me books about sigil magic.”

The tone that sounded this time sounded positive, and a little ball of white light popped out of the bookshelf and flew ahead to the end of the row, looking like it was waiting for Harry to follow it. So he stowed his wand in its holster and followed the little ball of light. It led him to a part of the library he recognized from Ancient Runes class, and down a little further to a part of the row he hadn't been to before. A whole quarter of the row was lit up with a faint yellow glow. When he stood in front of it, all the lights went out, including his guide light.

Putting his wand back on the shelf, he said, “Library, show me books about the Second-Wand Sigil.”

The negative tone sounded again, so he tried again. “Library, show me books about sigils that can be used in dueling.”

There was a pause as though the magic behind this system was thinking, then two of the shelves lit up.

“Library, show me books about sigils that can store wand spells for later use.”

This made only six books light up, books that had been in the section about combat sigils. These were actually several copies of two books, so he took one of each and took it over to a table to read through.

The books themselves weren't nearly as helpful as the shelves had been; like many wizarding books, there was no index or even table of contents. So he tried something. He put his wand on the open book and said, “Show me the Second-Wand Sigil.”

He was startled when the book actually started to move as though in a breeze, right to a page about the very sigil he'd been looking for. Well, that was something to remember from now on, and to tell Ron and the others. Harry took out some paper and a pen and started copying down the relevant instructions for the sigil. It sounded simple enough until you tried to aim it, if you could work out how to distract your opponent long enough to make the sigil. The book recommended conjuring disks of wood or ceramic with your wand, putting the sigil on those, and tossing them about to lay traps, but Harry didn't have the skills to conjure much of anything useful, and the rules said you couldn't take anything into the Task except your wand.

As he thought that, he paused and sat up, thinking. It occurred to him after a minute's thought that the rule said only that you couldn't take anything but your wand in with you. (Well, with the exceptions being made for his coping tools.) It had not at any point said you couldn't use your wand to summon something you needed. It then occurred to him that, whatever creature he had to fight, the gift he'd gotten from Antigone – the unfolding basilisk-skin shield her dad had made – would be an excellent thing to Summon. So he made a note to himself to do that, which he wrote in the margins of his notes about the Second-Wand Sigil.

Then, too, he could summon a bit of wood from somewhere, cut it into pieces with his wand, and use those like the disks the book mentioned. He wondered what would be useful to deal with a creature. Would he have to tame it, or just get by it? It seemed unlikely he'd have to tame a wild animal, so the more likely thing would be getting past it. So a distraction would be useful. But what kind of distraction could he, a 14 year old wizard, use? He couldn't transfigure well enough to make anything that moved, not reliably anyway.

It suddenly occurred to him to wonder why, in four years of living in the wizarding world, he'd never heard of a class teaching how to cast illusions. He knew illusions were possible, there was one on the castle that made it look like an old ruin to Muggles. Then too, wizards somehow managed to hide an entire train as it chugged along the countryside. And Muggle fantasy was full of wizards and witches and other magic-wielding beings who could make others see things that weren't there, or not see things that were. If there was something in the library about illusions, or glamours, or whatever they were called, he might be able to manage one of those. It'd be a lot easier than transfiguring something, anyway. Unless there was some reason, in the laws of magic, that it wasn't possible, or was more difficult, but he didn't see how that could be.

When he was done writing out his notes about the Second-Wand Sigil, he put the books back on the shelf and set to work asking the library about illusions and glamours. It took a bit of creative asking before he found what he wanted, but there was indeed an entire section of the library about illusions. He wondered why he hadn't heard of a class that taught them.

The rest of his time in the library he spent looking through the books about illusions, trying to find ones he could reasonably expect to learn in the weeks he had left before the First Task. He was also on the lookout for a way to combine the Second-Wand Sigil with an illusion.

Of course, illusions weren't without their drawbacks. One reason illusions weren't often used was that they weren't solid, and they didn't smell. There were a great many magical creatures who could 'see' right through the illusions by the fact they didn't have a scent, or because the light of the illusion hadn't been designed to fool eyes that could see spectra that humans couldn't, for instance snakes could sense body heat through pits in their noses. And so it became clear that he wasn't going to learn an illusion to fool most magical creatures, not without years of hard work, anyway.

Was there something he could do to make up for the limitations of illusions? Maybe a spell to create a horrible stench that would disguise the fact the illusion had no scent?

Of course, illusions weren't easy even if they were just images, either. It was one thing to create something that could only be seen from one angle, that didn't move; it was something else entirely to make a 3-D moving illusion that could be seen from any angle.

However, he did find a few interesting possibilities for a much easier alternative to illusions. He'd stumbled upon something that had great potential, if he could make it big enough. He'd have to ask his friends for help with the maths to adjust its size, but there wasn't a rule against them helping him. He wouldn't be able to take notes in, so he'd have to memorize whatever they came up with, but he thought he could do that in the weeks they had until the First Task.

And the best part of all of this was that the plan he was cooking up would probably work no matter what creature it was, though he'd probably be out of luck if it wasn't a creature but something else instead. Oh well. The sigil thing might help in any case.

~

It was a good thing Harry had his First Task project to focus on, because the following weeks were very difficult. Rita Skeeter had published her piece about the Triwizard Tournament, and it had turned out to be not so much a report on the tournament as a story about Harry. Much of the front page had been given over to a picture of Harry; the article (continuing on pages two, six, and seven) had been all about Harry, the names of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang champions (misspelled) had been squashed into the last line of the article, and Cedric hadn’t been mentioned at all.

Skeeter had been as good as her word, and had not written any lies in the article about him. Instead, she'd made him out to be some kind of tragic hero, and had speculated heavily about his life, and the lives of his friends. She also appeared to have gotten around her promise not to lie, in places, by being grossly misinformed. The article had begun with a retelling of his past and had a lot of parts that were difficult to tolerate when people quoted them back at him.

Starved for love after being raised by emotionally distant guardians, young Harry Potter has since found two different kinds of love. He now lives with Sirius Black, his godfather who was pardoned by new evidence after a twelve year stint in Azkaban, reunited with his deceased family through this old friend of the family.

Harry could almost laugh at that; he wished the Dursleys had merely been emotionally distant. It would have been a huge improvement. But there was more.

But Harry has also found romance, it seems. His close friend Colin Creevy says he is often seen in the company of a number of girls, all apparently vying for his attentions, including several Slytherin girls. Yet of all the girls trying to snag him, Harry seems to spend the most time with a stunningly pretty Muggle-born girl named Hermione Granger, a fellow Griffindor who, like Harry, is one of the top students in the school.

By far the worst part, which filled him with shame, was this part:

However, it seems the boy who lived might not even be interested in girls that way at all. A source who wished to remain anonymous claims to have witnessed Harry asking young Draco Malfoy if he (Draco Malfoy) was asking him out after young Mr. Malfoy informed him he'd need a date for the Yule Ball being at Hogwarts this December, and seemed quite distraught at being very kindly rejected.

Draco had raised his eyebrows all the way up when Harry had showed him that. Draco would not have been bothered about it for his own sake, but when he finished reading it, he glared at the page for Harry's sake.

“Who in the ruddy Hell did that woman hear from about that conversation we had in the library? Who told her about that?”

“I dunno. I don't remember seeing anyone, but someone could have been hiding in the stacks.” He sighed again. “I wish I could legally contest it, but I can't; it's not a lie, just a truth bent with a heavy load of speculation.”

“Well however she found out, Harry, I think we should use privacy spells when we talk from now on. That might further fuel her speculation, but there'd only be so much she could do without being able to eavesdrop, however she's doing it. You might have the rest of your friends take that advice as well.”

“Right. Sounds like a good idea.” Harry sighed. “I wonder if I can get away with Disillusioning myself between classes?”

“Not without bumping into everyone who can't see you. If I knew a spell to make you intangible as well, I'd tell you. But sadly, only ghosts and certain spirit creatures can do that.”

“Well I guess I could always just block out all sound and ignore other people entirely, unless they're friends.”

“I wouldn't if I were you. It would open you up to being hexed without you having any warning.”

“I doubt that, after what Moody did to Knott.”

Draco's face grew pinched. “Yes... about that. I may not care much for Knott anymore, but Moody should not have done that.”

“Yeah, I told him off for that.”

“Good. It's not right, someone who's been an auror for over 70 years should not be in the habit of hexing minors. Especially not someone as paranoid and unstable as Moody. He could have hit Knott with something life-threatening instead!”

“Yeah... anyway, enough about this stupid Skeeter article. I have a plan for what to do about the First Task, and I'd like your help on the arithmancy for it.”

“How can you have a plan? You don't even know what the task is!”

“My plan works no matter what creature it is, and can even be adapted to possibly help with other possibilities.”

“Oh. Well in that case, I'm very curious to see what you've cooked up.”

~

From the moment the article had appeared, Harry had had to endure people — Slytherins, mainly — quoting it at him as he passed and making sneering comments.

“Want a hanky, Potter, in case you start crying in Transfiguration over Malfoy not wanting to date you?”

“Since when have you been one of the top students in the school, Potter? Or is this a school you and Longbottom have set up together?”

Whenever this would happen, Harry thought back to some of his old coping habits from the Dursleys, and sort of drifted off in his mind, as though his head was 100 miles from the taunts and jeers, though it made paying attention in class difficult; he had to choose between not being able to concentrate due to spacing out, or due instead to snide remarks stage-whispered at him.

Hermione had come in for her fair share of unpleasantness too, but she was handling the situation even better than he was. So well he wished he knew her secret.

“Stunningly pretty? Her?” Pansy Parkinson had shrieked the first time she had come face-to-face with Hermione after Rita’s article had appeared. “What was she judging against — a chipmunk?”

“Ignore it,” Hermione said in a dignified voice, holding her head in the air and stalking past the sniggering Slytherin girls as though she couldn’t hear them. “Just ignore it, Harry. You too, Ron.”

“How can I, 'mione? They're making fun of you!”

“And if it isn't bothering me, why ought it bother you?”

“I... it just does, okay?”

“I admire your loyalty, Ron, but it's fine. Reacting to them just gives them more ammunition. Ignore them and they'll get bored and go away.”

Harry snorted. “More likely they'll try even harder, in my experience.”

She sighed. “Well whatever. No matter how hard they try, if you don't react they'll eventually give up.”

Harry didn't say anything, but he privately thought that wasn't very likely. Stop reacting to words, and bullies resort to more painful ways of getting your attention. Like hexes to the back. Which, speaking of hexes to the back, since Harry had been practicing carving and using the Second-Wand Sigil anyway, he'd taken to using his more successful attempts to cast a Shield Charm into, wearing it around his neck and activating it between classes, especially out on the grounds, since he didn't know how to make it activate itself in response to incoming hexes, nor if it were even possible to do so. He had to keep re-casting the charm into the sigil before getting into the classroom, something fraught with danger of getting him caught doing magic in the corridors by a teacher or Filch, but he thought it was worth the risk.

The real problem with the sigil wasn't so much the times he messed up and had to start over again with a new piece of wood, it was more the fact that it was slow, and he was trying to do it as fast as possible without messing it up. He needed to get fast enough and good enough to make one set of workable sigil disks in five minutes or less, he could use a handy copying spell for the rest of them once he'd managed that. He contemplated just making a perfect pair and Summoning them with the rest of the things he was Summoning, but he wanted to show people he was doing the work himself and not having others fighting his battles for him; it might shut some of them up, at least. And if not, hey; it might come in handy someday as a battle technique, since Voldemort kept coming after him.

With all the work he was doing for the First Task, he and Hermione were spending a lot of time in the library, sometimes joined by Draco or one of the Slytherin girls they were friends with, and sometimes Luna joined them as well. Harry didn't mind Ron not wanting to join in, he knew it would be dull for anyone who wasn't in on the project to have to sit through their technical discussions.

Viktor Krum was in the library an awful lot too, and Harry wondered what he was up to. Was he studying, or was he looking for things to help him through the first task? Hermione often complained about Krum being there — not that he ever bothered them — but because groups of giggling girls often turned up to spy on him from behind bookshelves, and Hermione found the noise distracting.

“He’s not even good-looking!” she muttered angrily, glaring at Krum’s sharp profile. “They only like him because he’s famous! They wouldn’t look twice at him if he couldn’t do that Wonky-Faint thing —”

“Wronski Feint,” said Harry, amused at the thought of Ron's face if he'd heard Hermione refer to it as a 'Wonky Faint.'

~

It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up. The days until the first task seemed to slip by as though someone had fixed the clocks to work at double speed. Harry’s feeling of barely controlled panic was with him wherever he went, as everpresent as the snide comments about the Daily Prophet article.

On the Saturday before the first task, all students in the third year and above were permitted to visit the village of Hogsmeade. Hermione told Harry that it would do him good to get away from the castle for a bit, and Harry didn’t need much persuasion. But he really didn't want to be seen by anyone quoting that stupid article at him, so he insisted on coming under the Invisibility Cloak. Luckily for Hermione and Ron, they were both visible, so it didn't look like either of them was talking to themselves.

Harry felt wonderfully free under the cloak; he watched other students walking past them as they entered the village, most of them sporting Support Cedric Diggory! badges, but no horrible remarks came his way for a change, and nobody was quoting that stupid article.

Hermione and Ron were both put out by trying to figure out where he was to talk to him, though. They wanted to be able to see his expressions, too. But he refused.

“Come on, please just take off your cloak for a bit, no one’s going to bother you here.”

“Oh yeah?” said Harry. “Look behind you.”

Rita Skeeter and her photographer friend had just emerged from the Three Broomsticks pub. Talking in low voices, they passed right by Hermione without looking at her. Harry backed into the wall of Honeydukes to stop Rita Skeeter from hitting him with her crocodile-skin handbag. When they were gone, Harry said, “She’s staying in the village. I bet she’s coming to watch the first task.”

As he said it, his stomach flooded with a wave of molten panic. He didn’t mention this; instead, he focused on reminding himself that he had a plan. He had no idea if the plan would even work, no idea what he was facing, but he still had a plan, a plan that would work on a lot of possible things, he hoped.

They ended up going to the Three Broomsticks for some butterbeer, the three of them talking. Harry had taken up a third seat that had been left open. He just hoped nobody tried to sit on his lap. The three of them talked, secure in the fact they were off to one corner in a crowded and noisy room. For once, Harry didn't mind the noise. It was a little grating on his nerves, but in a way the discomfort of that was distracting him from his impending panic.

Naturally, a couple of their other friends came to join them. Luna wandered over, looking lost as usual, and Danzia was with her.

“This seat taken?” Danzia asked.

“Yes. Harry is in it, under his cloak.”

“What? Oh.” She poked at the air surreptitiously and made Harry say “Ow!”

“She's right, Luna, there's an invisible person there, and it sounds like Harry.”

Luna nodded wisely. “Good thinking. The fnords won't be able to find you that way. If the fnords can't see you, they can't hurt you. Or was it the other way around?” She lapsed into thoughtful silence and took an empty chair at the table, Danzia leaning against the wall instead, like she'd meant to do it all along and didn't care to sit down in that perfectly good empty chair, which was also next to the wall she was leaning against. Nothing suspicious to see here, run along now.

Ron rolled his eyes at Luna's talk about weird creatures, but otherwise made no comment. Hermione sighed, but also refrained from commenting.

Harry was only half listening to the conversation his friends were having. He was too busy trying not to panic about the upcoming First Task. But when it came time to drink his butterbeer, he had to duck under the table so people wouldn't see the bottle vanishing into thin air. Ron handed him a bottle under the table.

While Harry drank his butterbeer, he watched the people in the pub. All of them looked cheerful and relaxed. Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbott were swapping Chocolate Frog cards at a nearby table; both of them sporting Support Cedric Diggory! badges on their cloaks. Right over by the door he saw Cho and a large group of her Ravenclaw friends. She wasn’t wearing a Cedric badge though. This cheered up Harry very slightly.

What wouldn’t he have given to be one of these people, sitting around laughing and talking, with nothing to worry about but homework? He imagined how it would have felt to be here if his name hadn’t come out of the Goblet of Fire. He wouldn’t be wearing the Invisibility Cloak, for one thing. They would all probably be happily imagining what deadly dangerous task the school champions would be facing on Tuesday. He’d have been really looking forward to it, watching them do whatever it was... cheering on Cedric with everyone else, safe in a seat at the back of the stands.

He wondered how the other champions were feeling. Every time he had seen Cedric lately, he had been surrounded by admirers and looking nervous but excited. Harry glimpsed Fleur Delacour from time to time in the corridors; she looked exactly as she always did, haughty and unruffled. And Krum just sat in the library, poring over books.

Harry thought of Sirius, and the tight, tense knot in his chest tightened. He worried that without a wand, Sirius would get hurt. He decided he'd give Sirius one of the sigils, one charged with... what? A shield spell didn't defend against anything but spells, and not even all of those. What could he charge the sigil with that Sirius would find useful? And how close to Harry would Sirius be, in all this? Presumably close enough to see if Harry was feeling well, though how close that would be, he didn't know.

“Look, it’s Hagrid!” said Hermione.

“And Sirius!” Ron said.

Harry wondered how he hadn't spotted Hagrid at once. The man, who had mercifully stopped trying to use up the entire world's supply of hair gel on his hair, was enormous. But he'd been bent over talking with Professor Moody, and Sirius had been behind Hagrid's great bulk.

As he watched, Hagrid started to leave. Without thinking, Harry waved at Hagrid under the cloak, then remembered that Hagrid couldn’t see him. Moody, however, paused, his magical eye on the corner where Harry was standing. He tapped Hagrid in the small of the back (being unable to reach his shoulder), muttered something to him, and then led Hagrid and Sirius over to them.

“All right there, Hermione? Ron?” Hagrid said loudly. “And you too, o' course, Luna, Danzia?”

Everyone smiled and said their hellos back to Hagrid, and greeted Sirius as well. Luna, however, bowed her head and said something in a foreign language.

Moody limped around the table and bent down; Harry thought he was reading Hermione’s S.P.C.H.E. notebook, until he muttered, “Nice cloak, Potter.”

Harry stared at him in amazement. The large chunk missing from Moody’s nose was particularly obvious at a few inches’ distance. Moody grinned.

“Can your eye — I mean, can you — ?”

“Yeah, it can see through Invisibility Cloaks,” Moody said quietly. “And it’s come in useful at times, I can tell you.”

Harry looked to Hagrid and Sirius. He wasn't completely sure, but it looked like they were looking at him; Moody must have told them Harry was under the cloak. Sirius and Moody began a discussion with the others about something, and Hagrid used the opportunity to whisper so low that only Harry could hear it, “Harry, meet me tonight at midnight at me cabin. Wear that cloak.”

Straightening up, Hagrid said loudly, “Nice ter see yeh, Hermione,” winked, and departed. Moody followed him. Sirius stayed behind.

“Why does Hagrid want me to meet him at midnight?” Harry said, very surprised.

“Does he?” said Hermione, looking startled. “I wonder what he’s up to? I don’t know whether you should go, Harry. It'll be dark, and it could be dangerous!”

“Oh, I think I can arrange a bodyguard for him, Hermione,” Sirius said. “I don't know why Hagrid wants Harry to join him at midnight of all times, but I trust him. Padfoot will keep an eye on Harry.”

Hermione relaxed. “Well, okay. Just... don't get him caught. We don't want him in trouble for being out past curfew.”

“I'm his guardian, I have a right to be out after curfew with my godson,” Sirius said. “If we get caught, I'll just remind them of that.”

Harry, too, wondered at Hagrid's request, but he too trusted Hagrid, and thought it must be important if Hagrid thought it worth the risk of being out after curfew; Hagrid didn't know Sirius would be with him, after all. At least, he didn't think he knew.

At half past eleven that evening, Harry, who had pretended to go up to bed early, pulled the Invisibility Cloak back over himself and crept back downstairs through the common room. Quite a few people were still in there. The Creevey brothers had managed to get hold of a stack of Support Cedric Diggory! badges and were trying to bewitch them to make them say Support Harry Potter! instead. So far, however, all they had managed to do was get the badges stuck on POTTER STINKS. Harry made a mental note to send them to Hermione for help, then crept past them to the portrait hole and waited for a minute or so, keeping an eye on his watch. Then Ron opened the Fat Lady for him from outside as they had planned. He slipped past Ron with a whispered “Thanks!” and set off through the castle.

Harry met Sirius a little ways past the portrait hole, since Sirius hadn't wanted to alarm the Fat Lady, Sirius pretending to study a portrait before apparently deciding he was bored, and leaving, though he was really walking alongside Harry once Harry had whispered to him that he was there.

When they were out of the castle, Sirius turned into the massive black dog that was his animal form. The fur that had once been matted, tangled, and filthy when they'd met was now clean and had a healthy shine to it, which he could see in the moonlight. Padfoot had also fleshed out a bit, though he was still slightly too skinny.

Without speaking, he and Padfoot walked along down to Hagrid's hut; lights shone from the hut, as well as from the Beauxbatons carriage. Harry could hear Madame Maxime talking inside it as Padfoot scratched and whined at the door.

“Sirius?” Hagrid said when he opened the door. “Is Harry with yeh?” he whispered.

Sirius barked once, wagging his tail and sticking his tongue out as he did.

“Good. Got summat to show yeh, then. Won't take Fang, he won't like it.”

Hagrid was plainly excited over whatever it was he wanted to show them. But at first, Harry thought he was just showing them Madame Maxime, for they went over to her carriage first.

Sirius whined, but Hagrid ignored him. So he turned back into his human form.

“Why are you taking us to the Beauxbatons carriage, Hagrid?”

“Oh, I want ter show Olympe, too. But I didn't know yeh were comin too, Sirius. Yeh should be a dog again.”

Sirius looked unsure, but turned back into a dog anyway.

Soon, Madame Maxime, also clearly excited, joined them. She didn't seem to know any more than he and Sirius did, because after a while she said playfully, “Wair is it you are taking me, ’Agrid?”

“Yeh’ll enjoy this,” said Hagrid gruffly, “worth seein’, trust me. On’y — don’ go tellin’ anyone I showed yeh, right? Yeh’re not s’posed ter know.”

“Of course not,” said Madame Maxime, fluttering her long black eyelashes.

Sirius whined again, getting her attention.

“Is zis your dog, 'Agrid?”

“Nah, it's Harry's. I'm, er, dog sittin' him fer the night.”

She looked confused by this, but shrugged and went back to facing the way they were going.

They walked a long time, Harry getting more and more curious about where they were going that both he and Madame Maxime would want to see. Something that would excite Hagrid. He hoped Hagrid wasn't going to show them anything dangerous. Though if he did, Hagrid and Sirius could protect him. And Madame Maxime must have been a formidable witch herself, to be headmistress of a major school of magic.

But then — when they had walked so far around the perimeter of the forest that the castle and the lake were out of sight — Harry heard something. Men were shouting up ahead … then came a deafening, earsplitting roar.

Hagrid led Madame Maxime around a clump of trees and came to a halt. Harry hurried up alongside them — for a split second, he thought he was seeing bonfires, and men darting around them — and then his mouth fell open. Sirius's canine ears pulled back in fright, but he looked back and forth between Harry and the sight before them.

Dragons.

Four fully grown, enormous, vicious-looking dragons were rearing onto their hind legs inside an enclosure fenced with thick planks of wood, roaring and snorting — torrents of fire were shooting into the dark sky from their open, fanged mouths, fifty feet above the ground on their outstretched necks. Each looked like a different species, colored differently and with different distinguishing features.

At least thirty wizards, seven or eight to each dragon, were attempting to control them, pulling on the chains connected to heavy leather straps around their necks and legs. Mesmerized, Harry looked up, high above him, and saw the eyes of the black dragon, with vertical pupils like a cat’s, bulging with either fear or rage, he couldn’t tell which. … It was making a horrible noise, a yowling, screeching scream.

“Keep back there, Hagrid!” yelled a wizard near the fence, straining on the chain he was holding. “They can shoot fire at a range of twenty feet, you know! I’ve seen this Horntail do forty!”

“Is’n’ it beautiful?” said Hagrid softly.

Harry stared in horror and rising panic as he witnessed it taking eight wizards using simultaneous Stunning Spells to knock out a single dragon, the giant mass of angry, dangerous muscle falling to earth with a thunderous BOOM!

The dragon keepers lowered their wands and walked forward to their fallen charges, each of which was the size of a small hill. They hurried to tighten the chains and fasten them securely to iron pegs, which they forced deep into the ground with their wands.

“Wan’ a closer look?” Hagrid asked Madame Maxime excitedly. The pair of them moved right up to the fence, and Harry followed. The wizard who had warned Hagrid not to come any closer turned, and Harry realized who it was: Charlie Weasley.

“All right, Hagrid?” he panted, coming over to talk. “They should be okay now — we put them out with a Sleeping Draft on the way here, thought it might be better for them to wake up in the dark and the quiet — but, like you saw, they weren’t happy, not happy at all —”

“What breeds you got here, Charlie?” said Hagrid, gazing at the closest dragon, the black one, with something close to reverence. Its eyes were still just open. Harry could see a strip of gleaming yellow beneath its wrinkled black eyelid.

“This is a Hungarian Horntail,” said Charlie. “There’s a Common Welsh Green over there, the smaller one — a Swedish Short-Snout, that blue-gray — and a Chinese Fireball, that’s the red.”

Charlie looked around; Madame Maxime was strolling away around the edge of the enclosure, gazing at the stunned dragons.

“I didn’t know you were bringing her, Hagrid,” Charlie said, frowning. “The champions aren’t supposed to know what’s coming — she’s bound to tell her student, isn’t she?”

“Jus’ thought she’d like ter see ’em,” shrugged Hagrid, still gazing, enraptured, at the dragons.

“Really romantic date, Hagrid,” said Charlie, shaking his head.

“Four …” said Hagrid, “so it’s one fer each o’ the champions, is it? What’ve they gotta do — fight ’em?”

“Just get past them, I think,” said Charlie. “We’ll be on hand if it gets nasty, Extinguishing Spells at the ready. They're juvenile males, so that'll make it easier. Far more docile than the females, you know. I heard the Ministry originally wanted nesting mothers for some reason, but the Dragon Handlers Associations of Britain and Romania both had fits over that, and finally convinced them that was a ridiculous idea. Honestly, endangering the eggs of several endangered species for a sporting event, truly mad idea.

“Anyway, I tell you this, I don’t envy the one who gets the Horntail. Vicious thing. Its back end’s as dangerous as its front, look.”

Charlie pointed toward the Horntail’s tail, and Harry saw long, bronze-colored spikes protruding along it every few inches.

“So, Hagrid, how's Harry?” asked Charlie.

“He's fine,” Hagrid said, still in awe of the dragons.

“Just hope he’s still fine after he’s faced this lot,” said Charlie grimly, looking out over the dragons’ enclosure. “I didn’t dare tell Mum what he’s got to do for the first task; she’s already having kittens about him. …” Charlie imitated his mother’s anxious voice. “ ‘How could they let him enter that tournament, he’s much too young! I thought they were all safe, I thought there was going to be an age limit!’ ”

Harry had had enough. Trusting to the fact that Hagrid wouldn’t miss him, with the attractions of four dragons and Madame Maxime to occupy him, he poked Sirius in the shoulder of his forelegs to get his attention, and whispered that he wanted to go back now. Sirius made a quiet wuff noise in response and guided him back the way they'd come.

He didn’t know whether he was glad he’d seen what was coming or not. Perhaps this way was better. The first shock was over now. Maybe if he’d seen the dragons for the first time on Tuesday, he would have passed out cold in front of the whole school … but maybe he would anyway. He had a plan, yes, a plan already tailored to dragons, but actually seeing one had put things into a terrifying sort of perspective. He was going to be armed with his wand — which, just now, felt like nothing more than a narrow strip of wood — against a fifty-foot-high, scaly, spike-ridden, fire-breathing dragon. And he had to get past it. With everyone watching.

Harry took a Calming Draught, since he'd felt the beginnings of a panic attack, and immediately relaxed enough to continue on behind Sirius, his nose to the ground as he sniffed out their path.

Sirius stopped without warning, and Harry nearly ran into him. When he was certain he wasn't going to fall over, he began to pay attention and heard Sirius growling at something in the woods.

“Go away, you filthy mutt!” a fruity, unctuous voice said. He recognized it at once as Karkaroff.

Sirius didn't obey; instead, he barked at Karkaroff, who took out his wand in response.

“Just leave him, Sirius,” Harry whispered. Sirius turned to glance at Harry, then relaxed. Karkaroff relaxed a tiny bit, too, but kept his wand trained on Padfoot as he continued on to where the dragons were.

When Karkaroff was gone, Sirius continued leading Harry back to the castle, huffing and puffing and growling in agitation all the while, clearly upset about meeting Karkaroff in the woods at night.

Harry had no doubt whatsoever what Karkaroff was up to. He had sneaked off his ship to try and find out what the first task was going to be. He might even have spotted Hagrid and Madame Maxime heading off around the forest together — they were hardly difficult to spot at a distance … and now all Karkaroff had to do was follow the sound of voices, and he, like Madame Maxime, would know what was in store for the champions.

By the looks of it, the only champion who would be facing the unknown on Tuesday was Cedric.

The two of them made it back to the castle, Sirius turning human again to escort an invisible Harry back to where they'd met up. Harry whispered a goodbye and continued on to the Griffindor common room. He said the password to the sleeping Fat Lady, but she woke up just enough to open herself up anyway.

Harry pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and threw himself into an armchair in front of the fire. The room was in semidarkness; the flames were the only source of light. Nearby, on a table, the Support Cedric Diggory! badges the Creeveys had been trying to improve were glinting in the firelight. They now read POTTER REALLY STINKS. He frowned at these, waited a half an hour for Sirius to get home, then took out his two-way mirror, the one marked as Sirius's.

“Sirius Black,” he said into the mirror.

“Heya Harry, glad to see you got back alright.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, it was really touch and go for that 20 feet from you to the common room, but somehow I soldiered through.”

“Ha! Sarcasm suits you. Anyway, how're you feeling?”

“Fine. No really, I took a Calming Draught. Had to; it wouldn't have helped either of us if I'd had a panic attack in the middle of the forest at night.”

“Right. Gods, I could use a different kind of calming draught myself, right about now. But first thing's first, Harry. So... dragons for sure, eh?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “I thought as much, of course, but the reality of it... whoever organized this thing must be mad! It took eight adult, specially trained wizards to take out a single dragon!”

“Just be glad it's not nesting mothers, like they'd wanted. I shudder to think at the very idea!”

“Yeah. Anyway, nothing new to cover there, the plan already having been for dragons. I'll have to give Ron a thank-you note for thinking of that one.”

“Right, so we talk instead about Karkaroff being out there.”

“Clearly he saw two very large people wandering off at night, one of them being the gamekeeper and the other being the head of one of the competing schools, and decided to tag along. Now all the Champions but Cedric will know.”

“Damn, I really want to ask Hagrid what the Hell he was thinking, leading Maxime out there like that.”

“Probably thinking he could impress a lady he had a crush on.”

Sirius barked with sarcastic laughter. “Yeah. Bloke needs to think with the head on his shoulders instead of the head in... er... never mind.”

“Oh gods, too late, too late! The image is already burning itself into my memory!”

“Sorry about that, Harry.”

“I suppose I can forgive you for that. Anyway... Sirius, I'm worried.”

“I know. But you have a plan, and Charlie's lot will be there to keep it from getting disastrous, so--”

“Not for me, Sirius! I'm worried about you! You should sit this one out, for your own safety.”

“I'm not going to do that. If it comes down to a really dangerous situation, I'll use wandless magic. I've been getting back into practice. I can't do a lot with it, but it should be enough to secure a getaway for us. Better you lose that round than lose your life.”

“No! It's not--”

“Harry, seriously, it'll be alright. Worst comes to worst, I'll grab your wand and defend you with it. Like I said, it matters more that you get out alive than you winning. And if you get all zeroes, I'm sure a lot of people will be mollified by that. Like Maxime. And Karkaroff, too, assuming he's not the one who put you up to this.”

Harry grumbled. “Fine, fine. If you insist. But I'm doing this under protest.”

“Fine by me. Whatever lets me help keep you safe. Oh and hey, remember I don't need a wand to change to Padfoot. I can always become Padfoot, and I'm big enough as a dog that you can hop on and I'll run you out of there, okay?”

“I already said it was fine,” Harry said, sighing.

Harry heard someone coming down the spiral staircase. He turned around to see who it was, and saw Ron.

“Oh good, you're back,” Ron said. “What did Hagrid want?”

“Sit down,” Harry said, and Ron sat down next to him.

“Sooo... you gonna tell me?”

“Dragons. The first task is definitely dragons. Great, huge, fire breathing dragons.”

Ron's eyes went wide. “Holy crap, really?”

“Yes. You were right. I owe you a Chocolate Frog for that stroke of brilliance.”

Ron beamed. “Thank you. I look forward to it. In the mean time, though... dragons. Good thing you got a plan.”

“Yeah. Good thing you thought of dragons, so I could have a plan already.”

“Amen to that. The First Task is only a day and a half away, now. You'd have been dead meat if I hadn't guessed dragons weeks ago.”

“I might be dead meat anyway.”

“Well I hope not. Life won't be any fun around here without you, mate.”

The three of them chatted a bit more, catching Ron up on what they'd talked about plus a few other things, but then Harry yawned very loudly, and Sirius insisted he go to bed. Harry did so, gratefully.

Endnotes: Yes, I modified Draco's version of the ritual Harry did in book 3. I thought 'Amen' was too Christian-y for Draco, and there's other symbols there befitting Draco. The pentagram pointing downward is symbolic for the Earth element. That much I know for sure. The other variations on that theme I just kinda made up.

I had more, in fact I had most of the ritual written out in detail, but then I had this weird idea for something to happen during the ritual that I had half written before I decided it was stupid and so rewrote part of it, then I just kind of gave up, not knowing what to do. I almost decided to just go on to the next day and have them discuss the ritual a little bit, but I thought I ought to do something with the part I was cutting (especially since it had that bit about Danzia's uncle dying of AIDS), so I condensed it, which made it easier to know what to do with the rest of it.

Yeah, I titled the chapter after a song again. It's not so much for the literal meaning of the title, as it is for the lyrics of the song. Not sure who originally sang it, but the version I know is by Van Canto.



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