Work Header


Chapter Text


Chapter 1

It was getting late and almost all the students had already retired to bed. Harry fought to keep his eyes open as he flipped through the pages of yet another book on magical contracts. Underneath all his anger and frustration at being thrust into the Tournament, he felt a weary resignation that came from the knowledge that nothing would change. Nothing ever did. It wasn't like anyone had believed him anyway when he said he didn't put his name in—well, besides Hermione, of course. Somehow that was never in doubt.

He was suddenly filled with a warmth that had nothing to do with the fire in the common room setting a pale glow on his face. That's right. Hermione was the one who believed in him even when Ron had cast his words aside. She was the one who dragged him by the ear to the library and forced him to try to find a way out of this nightmare; the one who, for the past few days, had dealt with all his moping with a firm shove forward. She was also the one currently sitting by his side when she could be upstairs in bed and far, far away from the headache Harry called his life. But she was here. By his side. Just like—

Plop. Her head landed on his shoulder and he could feel her breath on his neck. "Hermione?" No response. Harry smiled warmly but his smile disappeared once he considered just how tired she must have been to fall asleep without warning. Have I ever thanked her? Have I ever told her what she means to me? He racked his brain but couldn't find a satisfactory moment where he had expressed to her just how important she was to him. I'll tell her when she wakes up, he promised himself. In…in the morning. I'll tell her: thank you.

He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax. They were side by side, in that moment. Together. Just like always.

ch 1

Harry didn't want to wake up. His dreams were full of bright colours of orange and yellow passing by like a mirage as little snippets of memories ran in front of him: Hermione's worried face as she watched him leave with his aunt and uncle for the summer. Snip. Hermione's overly enthusiastic, bone crushing hugs whenever they first saw each other in September that had almost become a ritual at this point. Snip. Hermione glaring at him to focus on schoolwork, but easily becoming distracted with one of those pesky, life threatening mysteries that came for him every year—the bright gleam in her eye when she made a revelation. Snip. Hermione holding back the tears in her eyes and stubbornly insisting that turning in the firebolt had been for his own good even as he angrily turned away from her.

Snip. Hermione meeting him with toast and taking a walk with him outside, saying "Well, of course I knew you hadn't entered yourself. The look on your face when Dumbledore read out your name!" Snip. Hermione embracing him fiercely for what felt like the first time he had ever been held so closely and telling him what a great wizard he was: "Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and —"

And? And what? Her voice drifted and try as he might he couldn't hear what the last word was. All he could hear were mumbles. Harry. Harry. Harry. Someone was calling out to him but he didn't want to leave just yet. Here, there was nothing to fear. Here, it was warm. Here, he was comforted. Here, he felt loved.

"Harry! For goodness sake!"

The pleasant warmth in his dreams vanished as he opened his eyes only to be greeted by a frustrated Hermione, leaning close to his face and shrilly informing him that it was already morning and "If you don't hurry up, we're going to miss breakfast!"

Harry wisely chose to obey her orders with haste and freshen up in time to meet her in the Great Hall, but perhaps because of the strange dream the night before, he subconsciously avoided meeting her eyes. Hermione said nothing until one instance where he looked up from his goblet of pumpkin juice and caught her staring at him with a look of such concentration that he nearly choked and spurted the liquid out of his nose.

"Harry," she asked slowly in that careful, caring voice she reserved solely for him when he was in one of his so-called moods. "Is everything all right? You've been acting rather off this morning ever since we woke up."

Something about the way she said we had him freezing in his spot on the bench.

"Well, it's—it's nothing—not a big deal—really!" He managed to stutter out and mentally kicked himself for acting like a nervous buffoon. Hermione, for once my dreams weren't empty, showing me dying during the Tournament, or tainted with visions of Voldemort and I think I have you to thank for that. Oh, and speaking of thanks, I realized just yesterday what a giant prat I've been to take everything you do for me for granted and worse yet, never tell you how much you mean to me. For caring about me and not just the Boy Who Lived—

No, that was better suited to stay in his head. He couldn't have Hermione abandoning him too once she realized what an emotional wreck he was. As soon as he had that thought, he felt guilty for even considering it, but the fear from years of stifling his emotions with the Dursleys had him swallowing back the words of confession.

"It's just I feel guilty, that's all," he mumbled, deciding to go with the truth—just not the whole truth. "Here I am wallowing in my own despair and barely going through the motions to get through this Tournament while you spend day and night trying to solve my problems. Merlin, Hermione, look at those dark circles under your eyes! I can't believe I didn't notice earlier how much of a burden you were taking on because of me. Especially when no one else has even bothered to consider whether I'll survive past the first test. "

"Oh, Harry, that's not—"

"But it is!" He was speaking louder now, anger driving him forwards to finally let out the words in his heart. Anger at everyone who had formed their own opinions of him without ever giving him a chance, anger at everyone who stared at him with those cold, judgemental eyes, anger at himself for barely acknowledging the one person who hadn't.

He stood up from the bench, no longer feeling hungry. People from different tables were glancing over at him and whispering and out of the corner of his eye he saw Ron's sullen face with a frown directed his way. Harry let out a bitter laugh.

"None of you even consider that I never wanted to be the Boy Who Lived, you act like it's a badge I'm proud to wear and you use it to condemn me as a liar and an attention seeker. I never wanted to enter this bloody tournament either, but you're all so far up your delusions, you'll never believe that. I could die tomorrow, and you would simper and say that I brought it upon myself. And some of you…some of you I was stupid enough to call my friends."

He looked at Hermione who had also stood up and was staring at him anxiously. "Too bad, I only realized recently: I only have one of those."

Without waiting for a response, he gathered his bag and made to stride out of the Great Hall. On his way past the high table, he caught sight of the professors murmuring amongst themselves and sending disapproving looks his way. McGonagall's face was stern and her mouth set in a straight line, Sprout stared down at her plate as if unsure of what to do, Snape's mouth curled up in a sneer, and the other professors either averted their eyes or stayed silent when he looked at them.

What was he expecting? That they would jump out in his defense? Make a quick little announcement: "Harry didn't put his name in the Goblet, children! Stop harassing him now!" and what, actually, help him? Why in the world would they do that when they could sit back and watch him face ridicule and pressure from every side? Second year and the parselmouth debacle had been much the same after all.

And then, at the centre of them all, was the headmaster. Dumbledore who had admitted that he suspected someone had a reason for putting his name in, that someone might very well be using the tournament as a chance to attack him. Dumbledore who—as the most powerful wizard alive—could probably find a loophole in the wizarding laws and 'binding' magical contract easily or at least find a way where he could participate without the fear of death hanging over him at every step. Dumbledore who had decided to let events play out without interference and was now looking at him with somber eyes.

Harry couldn't bring himself to say anything; the disappointment felt like a bitter medicine shoved down his throat, threatening to choke him. He forced himself to look into the headmaster's eyes and thought, I don't need your pity.

Not, he thought as he finally exited the hall, when every authority figure in his life was ready to stand by and do nothing.

It felt good to let out his grievances and to erase any expectations of acceptance. After all, if there were no expectations, there would be no disappointment—he was free. Once he reached outside and his anger had simmered down, however, he began berating himself again from steering so off course from his original intention. How had he gone from wanting to thank Hermione to ranting at the entire Hogwarts population?

"Harry!" He heard footsteps behind him and turned around to find an indignant Hermione, panting and out of breath.

"You could have waited for me!" She scolded.

"Sorry," Harry rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I just couldn't stand to be there a second longer. "

"Mhm." Hermione hummed noncommittally.

They continued to walk in companionable silence and again Harry was struck with how despite her naturally curious tendencies, Hermione always seemed to know when to draw the line with him and give him the quiet comfort he needed.

He didn't know how much time had passed before she finally spoke up. "Feel better now? We should see about squeezing some time in before our first class and head to the library."

He laughed. "Aren't you going to ask me what happened back there?"

"Is there really a need to, Harry? You're a fourteen-year-old minor being forced to participate in a potentially fatal competition against your will and not only do none of the authorities try fix this idiocy, the general population decides to brand you as an attention seeking prat instead. You're only human. To be honest, I would have broken down long before you."

Harry scoffed. "Hermione, you've come a long way from the girl who ran to the bathroom because of Ron's taunts. I think you're stronger than you give yourself credit for."

"Well," she sniffed. "I should hope so! All these years learning spells and gaining confidence so I could wipe the floor with anybody, least of all Ronald Weasley, had better not have been spent in vain."

Hermione didn't bring up the elephant in the room: Ron wasn't exactly on talking terms with either of them now and Harry had no idea when he would come around to see the truth. In fact, Harry was coming to doubt if he even wanted him to.

"Speaking of Ron," Harry stopped and spoke seriously. "I wasn't just being overdramatic back there. I don't think I can really consider anyone in that hall a real friend."

"Oh, Harry, no, don't say that—"

He held up a hand. "This isn't just me being bitter and taking it out on others unreasonably. You know, I haven't had the best of childhoods and I didn't exactly have a lot of friends at school. I could see early on who cared or was just pretending to care. Maybe I was so desperate for a new start at Hogwarts that I ignored the same signs here." The words just seemed to tumble out of his mouth. Why am I telling her this? He asked himself. Why ever should you not? A voice in his head responded.

She'll think I'm pathetic. Everyone would.

The voice denied him: Not Hermione. Never her.

Harry decided to trust it.

"I was willing to ignore it, I was willing to hold on to the hope that I'd do so well in the first task that everyone would welcome me back with open arms. But then I realized something last night: I don't need them by my side to be happy. Why should I care so much about people who care so little for me? I just need my real friends by my side."

He had barely begun his last sentence ("I just need you.") when he was confronted with an armful of Hermione and his mouth was muffled by her bushy hair. "Mhmph! Hermione!"

She didn't let go of him and squeezed him even tighter. "Be quiet! I am hugging my best friend in the world, and there is nothing you can do about it, Harry James Potter!"

Well, who was he to argue with that? For the second time in less than a day, Harry allowed himself to relax and surround himself with Hermione's warmth. He allowed himself to pretend everything was fine and he was safe.

It wasn't until they had reached the library and his eyelids were drooping from finishing another dry old tome about ancient loopholes in wizarding laws, that he realized he had forgotten to tell her "thank you."

After chickening out four times in a row and finding that it was just too damn awkward to randomly give a sincere thank you to your best friend after three years of taking her for granted, Harry decided he needed a different plan.

Actions spoke louder than words anyway, didn't they?

He started with little things: replacing a quill with a better quality one when she wasn't looking, taking up Hermione's usual role and bringing her toast while they walked outside in the mornings, not rolling his eyes at her obsessive lists ("How to Get Harry to Survive: Part 6," "Top 30 Methods and Spells Used by Previous Champions," "Best Ways to Treat an Injury During Life Threatening Moments," "Potential Offensive Spells to Use: Legal Version," "Potential Offensive Spells to Learn, but Hopefully NOT Use: Restricted Version") and instead rolling up his sleeves and putting his head together with hers to go over them seriously.

"—and if we manage to squeeze in one extra hour or two of practice every day, we could cross out more than half of the defensive spells on the "Fundamental Defense" list."

"Actually, Hermione… I think it's better to divide that time for sixty percent offense and forty percent defense. I know that you're focusing on keeping me alive here rather than aggressively winning, but sometimes the best defense is a good offensive front." He frowned. "And since we're on the subject, what category would evasion tactics and illusionary charms fall under?"

For a few seconds, she simply blinked at him with owlish eyes. He cleared his throat.

"Oh!" Hermione blushed awkwardly. "I was just surprised you were actually listening to me."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "I listen to you all the time."

"Yes— but—I mean…" She wrung her hands a little anxiously. "You don't really. You and Ron would always just sit there and nod to my plans, but eventually space out and make an excuse to leave. I don't really mind! I know you trust me and I'm happy about that. Just, I suppose I'm used to doing all the talking when it comes to these things. It threw me a little off guard, that's all."

"So what?" Harry squared his shoulders defensively. "You'd rather I keep my trap shut?"

"What? Oh! Of course not!" She looked scandalized. "Do you know how tiring it gets talking to yourself? Two heads are always better than one and Harry—you have some really good ideas!"

"Not pulling my leg, are you?" Harry's shoulders relaxed, but he maintained a neutral expression. "I know you think I'm not as smart as you are."

"Well!" Hermione spluttered. "I certainly don't recall ever saying anything like that. I may read a lot and I may know more facts than you, but you have a sharpness of mind, Harry, that I think is truly unique. I think that if you applied yourself a little harder, you could see some amazing res—oh, very funny!"

She broke off and crossed her arms as Harry burst into laughter. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Hermione."

"I was being serious!"

"And so am I," Harry sobered. "I'm sorry for leaving you alone so often and making you feel like you had to do all this work by yourself. Especially now, when all that effort is for me. My own life is at stake; if I don't take things seriously now, when would I ever?"

His bushy haired friend signed in relief. "Thank goodness you've realized that. There really is only so much I can do for you, Harry. I try my best, but I'm worried it won't be enough!"

"Hey, what was that you said about two heads being better than one?" Harry pulled out a book from his bag and handed it to her. "We're a team now, you and me."

Hermione stared slack jawed at the cover of the book. "Where did you get this? Even Flitwick only has one limited edition copy and he won't even let students peek at it!"

He shrugged, not wanting to tell her the truth: that she had mentioned wanting this Charms Guide before the OWLs next year so many times that Harry had memorized the name and— in his quest of 'Properly Thanking Hermione'— decided to test if sending a letter to the author with the Harry Potter name would have any effect. (The owl carrying a lumpy package two days later made it clear that it did.)

"You mentioned a few days ago, didn't you?" He coughed. "That it was 'essential to expand my arsenal of simple, but powerful charms.' If I'm going to commit myself to learning, I might as well learn from the best."

Hermione squealed and was promptly glared at by Madam Pince. "Oh, Harry." She leaned in and whispered to him excitedly. "I know I shouldn't be saying this considering the situation, but this will be so much fun."

"Yeah." Harry watched her smile widen and felt a burst of happiness. I caused that.

"It will be."

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

By the time Harry learned that the first task was dragons, he and Hermione had already progressed quite nicely through the lists and he was gaining growing confidence that he could maybe actually make it through the Tournament alive and with all his limbs intact. It was surprising at first to realize how much he liked learning magic. Hadn't that always been the case? Hadn't he always been fascinated by what his uncle termed 'his freakiness,' wondering what made him so different even at a young age? Hadn't he secretly enjoyed studying in the muggle schools, priding himself on getting better marks than Dudley even when he knew he would suffer for it? Hadn't he stayed up all night before his first trip to Hogwarts, ravenously swallowing any information he could? What had changed?

Perhaps the harshly taught lessons from childhood had been ingrained into his mind more deeply than he had thought. (Hide. Don't attract any more attention than necessary. There's no need to try your best if you just get hurt.)

Perhaps upon coming to Hogwarts, finding a safe home, and settling into an easy companionship with Ron…he had subconsciously not wanted to risk anything or try any harder than he had to. Normal was good.

Normal was safe.

As if! Harry cursed his past self. He was already the bloody Boy-Who-Lived, there was never a chance for him to be normal. Maybe if he had focused more on studying and arming himself up after first year with Quirrell, or the basilisk, or even after learning a convict was after him—granted it was Sirius, but still!—he wouldn't be so numb and terrified at the prospect of facing dragons. Dragons. Studying with Hermione had made him realize just how much he didn't know; just how vulnerable he really was in the grand scheme of things. No matter how much he crammed and practiced, a month wouldn't put him on par with a seventh year, and even they would find it difficult to survive against a dragon.

"Stupid. Stupid. Stupid." Harry slumped against the sofa and put his face in his hands.

"Who is?" At some point, Hermione had entered the common room and sat next to him.

He peered at her through his fingers and mumbled. "Me, that's who."

"What?" Hermione glared at him. "Haven't we gone over this before? You're catching on to all of these spells faster than even I am!"

"It's not going to be enough!" He exclaimed and then lowered his voice. "The first task…the first task is dragons."

He watched as the teasing expression vanished and her face turned a ghostly white; he had never seen her look so terrified. Wordlessly, she grabbed his arm and dragged him out the common room until they were outside the castle and in a secluded spot.

"Tell me everything."

And so he did. Slowly, the colour returned to her face and by the time he had finished, there was a look of steely determination in her eyes.

"Harry, listen to me." She took his hand and squeezed it tightly. "You are going to get through this. We will make sure of that."

He opened his mouth to protest, but the slight trembling of her hand on his changed his mind, and he just sighed instead. She was just as scared as he was, but she was trying her best to hide it for his sake.

"What am I going to do?"

"We'll figure it out." She raised her chin and said firmly. "Remember that you are the boy who faced Voldemort, a basilisk, a horde of dementors—and come out the winner each time. I believe in you, Harry, even if you don't. You can do this. You will survive. I promise you that."

Later, when Harry found himself dodging walls of flame on his broom, it was Hermione's words that echoed through his mind and kept him from becoming paralyzed with fear.

I promise you.

Harry swerved and narrowly missed the spiky tail headed towards his head.

I believe in you, Harry.

Sweat trickled down his brow and he felt so tired, so exhausted, as if he could slip off his broom any moment. But—he gripped his broom tighter—he couldn't fail now, not when he had to prove that her belief in him was right.

You can do this. You will survive.

He raced back to the arena, his sight on the golden egg. He could. He would.

Hermione believed he could win this; now, he only had to believe in himself.

After succeeding in the first task, Harry felt like he was walking on air and everything seemed too good to be true. Everyone wanted to shake his hand or ruffle his hair, screaming his name, and trying to throw him in the air. At one point, Ron came forward and mumbled something ("I reckon someone wants to do you in, mate!"), but Harry was too concentrated on finding Hermione to do anything but absentmindedly nod and hurriedly escape from the noise and celebration.

He found her in one of the empty classrooms they had converted into their practice room, mumbling a spell under her breath that caused brightly coloured sparks to emit from her wand in the form of letters. Harry watched with fond amusement as she painstakingly tried to get them to form the words 'Congratulations, Harry!'

"I think they're fine just the way they are," He leaned against the door and remarked as nonchalantly as he could, pushing down the slight tingle in his chest at the sight.

"Harry!" She jumped, startled. "What are you doing here and not at the celebration?"

"What would I want to do there without you?"

"Well, I just thought I'd give you and Ron a chance to make up without me there interfering." She frowned. "He has apologized, hasn't he?"

He scratched his head and avoided her gaze. "I think he did? Dunno. Wasn't really paying much attention."

She gave him such a stern look that he felt the need to defend himself.

"It just feels so hollow, you know? No one could be bothered to help me before the task. Sure, the Gryffindors were happy that I represented them but it's not like anyone came to my defense while everyone scorned me as a liar and a cheat. Ron literally had weeks to realize that he was wrong and apologize. Why is he talking to me now, only once I'm the golden boy again?" He sighed. "That's not why I left though."

At her look of confusion, he explained: "None of them were there, Hermione. They don't know what I went through to get out of the first task alive. You're the only one who does. This isn't just my victory, it's ours." He smiled. "And I think we deserve a celebration for ourselves."

"What do you have in mind?"

He pulled her out of the classroom, laughing. "Haven't you ever wondered where Fred and George steal all the food from? You told me to try and contact Dobby about wards, but he was here at Hogwarts this whole time and we sort of ended up talking about something else entirely…"

"C-can you repeat that, professor?"

"I said," Professor McGonagall peered down at him from behind her glasses, "that it is mandatory for the champions to attend the Yule Ball with a partner. You will be expected to lead the dance."

Harry groaned out loud. "I would rather face a dragon again."

McGonagall had no time for his dramatics and shooed him out the classroom. "Really, Potter. Your display at the first task was… impressive to say the least. I'm sure you will have girls lining up to go with you."

"None of which I'd want to spend ten minutes with let alone an entire evening!" He looked at her with pleading eyes. "Couldn't you make an exception—"

"No," she spoke sharply and then gave a disdainful sniff, "Besides, I highly doubt that you will have to look far for a partner."

Before, he could say anything else, McGonagall threw him a thoroughly unimpressed look and closed the classroom door in his face.

Harry grumbled his way down the hallway and was surprised to see Hermione waiting for him around the corner.

"Well?" She raised an eyebrow. "What did she say? Did you ask her for any clues about the egg?"

"The egg?" Harry's mind went blank. Oh. Right. The egg. Opening that blasted thing at the kitchens had been a terrible idea. One of the head house elves had screeched, "If Master Harry Potter does not stop the noise, Harry Potter and bushy friend will be thrown out!" before giving him dirty looks and muttering about 'stinky, coarse fish' the whole evening long.

"Completely forgot about it." He admitted. "In my defense, I was a bit preoccupied with the news that I have to attend the ball no matter what. With a partner. And dance."

"That's it?" Hermione's face was doing an impressive job of mimicking McGonagall's earlier expression. "You looked so pale and scared that I was sure she had told you something terrible about the second task! Honestly, Harry. It's just a dance."

"Maybe to you, it is." Harry replied hotly. "I've never exactly gone to any of these fancy functions before. It's not like the Dursleys ever bothered to take me to any of their family Christmas parties. I don't even know how to dance."

Something in Hermione's face softened and she reached out to take his hand, lightheartedly saying, "Well, we'll just have to fix that, won't we?"

Harry's days were packed: somehow grinding through his classes, tirelessly working his way through 'How to Get Harry to Survive: Part 8,' hacking away for a clue from the egg, practicing dancing with Hermione in front of an audience of house elves—

"Hermione, I appreciate you teaching me to dance. Really, I do. But why here and why in front of them?"

She pinched his arm and spoke in a low voice. "Because! Don't you feel sad that they'll be making all the preparations for the evening but won't be able to witness even one dance?"

Harry found it a little funny how as soon as Hermione had waltzed into the kitchens and proclaimed, "Harry here needs some help!" half of the elves had abandoned their duties to squeak out unhelpful criticism across the room. Master Harry is too ungraceful. Master Harry must bend his limbs. Master Harry must not disgrace Hogwarts, the finest school of Witchcraft and Wizardry with his clumsy performance!

He tried to be angry but found himself letting out a chuckle as he leaned against Hermione and whispered in her ear, "For house elves, they can be quite arrogant, can't they?"

"Oh! But that's what's so interesting!" Hermione tightened her arms around him in her excitement and Harry subconsciously stiffened. "Everyone considers them such lowly creatures, but they have such a high amount of pride and they have so much knowledge too. I'm almost certain some of them recognized the sounds of the egg too and I'm sure that if they weren't so strict about rules, we could get a few hints out of them—"

"Uh, Hermione." They were standing almost nose to nose now, still holding on to each other and Harry's face had turned a bright red. "Can't breathe. Need space."

"Oh." She was blushing too as she let go of him. "Guess I got a little overexcited."

"No, it's—" He regained his normal breathing—Merlin, why were his palms sweating?—only to turn around and be confronted with the sight of a dozen elves looking at him with expressions that reminded him of Aunt Petunia when she caught wind of a scandal at their neighbour's house.

"Fine." He deadpanned.

Right at that moment, Dobby apparated into the kitchens and Harry grasped his chance.

"Dobby! Please tell me there's somewhere else in the castle we can do whatever we want where," he glanced at the crowd of elves who nonchalantly went back to scrubbing pans, "no one can disturb us."

Dobby's orb-like eyes grew even larger. "Yes, Harry Potter! Dobby has a way! It is known as the Come and Go Room, sir, or—"

Or as Harry and Hermione would come to call it for the rest of their years at Hogwarts: The Room of Requirement.

Harry had been too afraid of asking Dobby about any clues for the egg in case it went against the rules he was bound to at Hogwarts. The Room of Requirement had already been a massive boon, one he felt he could never repay Dobby back for. He was sure that Dobby would never see it that way, but ever since his realization that fateful day in the Common Room with Hermione, Harry had begun a strange obsession with thanking the few people in the world who actually, truly cared about him.

It shouldn't have been surprising then when Dobby had still found a way to give him a hint. "Dobby is sorry he cannot help Harry Potter, but Dobby knows someone who can: the other Hogwarts Champion has found a way—!"

Before he could finish his words, his mouth seemed to be magically clamped shut and he shot an apologetic look at Harry as he apparated away.

Cedric knew how to decipher the golden egg? As he waited for Hermione to stop experimenting with the Room and come out, he thought about how to approach him for help.

Later the next day, when Harry and Hermione were walking outside the castle and spotted Cedric standing near the lake with Cho at his side, the tempting prospect of finally learning something about that blasted egg had Harry abandoning all his plans of subtlety and striding towards them.

"Harry!" Hermione called behind him. "Where are you going?"

"To get my answer!" He replied cheerily and stopped in front of Cedric and Cho. "Hullo. Do you think I could have a moment to speak with you alone? I have something important to ask."

Cedric eyed him warily and Cho's face turned pink. "Harry?" She asked in a timid voice.

"Oh. Hi, Cho." He glanced at her absentmindedly and smiled. Cho was nice and pretty and had wished him good luck for the first task after all. It wouldn't be right to be rude to her in his hurry. "Do you mind if I borrow Cedric for a bit?"

"Oh!" Her eyes widened and if possible, turned even more pink as she quickly walked away, leaving Cedric and Harry alone.

"Sorry about that," Harry said sheepishly. "This was kind of a spur of the moment thing and I realize I have no real right to ask you this, but have you found any clues for the egg?"

Cedric ran a hand through his—Harry somewhat bitterly noticed—perfectly tousled hair. "That's what you want to ask?" When Harry nodded, Cedric smiled. "Well, now I feel a tad guilty. I was going to tell you after the Yule Ball and pay you back for the first task, but you've beaten me to the punch."

When he went back to Hermione a few minutes later, there was a bright smile on his face. "I got it!"

Hermione stared at him, flabbergasted. "Y-you—actually asked Cho to the ball?"

"What are you talking about?" Harry asked, confused. "Why in the world would I ask Cho to the Yule Ball? She's a nice girl and quite pretty, but I hardly know her. Besides, aren't she and Cedric an item?"

"Of course, they are, Harry. Everyone knows." Hermione rolled her eyes and busily moved the subject back on track. "But never mind that—I thought you liked Cho! You always used to look at her way in the Great Hall and I remember you telling Ron you thought she was the prettiest girl on the Quidditch teams…"

It was Harry's turn to be flabbergasted. "How do you even remember all that? I do think she's pretty, but I haven't exactly had the chance to develop a crush this year, have I? I've been too damn busy trying to survive!"

There was an awkward silence which was promptly broken once Hermione couldn't keep in her curiosity. "So, then what did you go there for?"

Harry told her about what Dobby and Cedric had said as seriously as he could, but his mind kept replaying the hesitant smile on her face when she'd realized he hadn't asked Cho to the ball. He wondered what had made her so happy.

The prefect's bathroom was an awkward affair. First, Harry owned no swimming trunks—since he had never been allowed to go to the beach or swim in the pool, no one had ever thought he'd need them—and had to resort to an old pair of shorts. He desperately needed to buy new muggle clothes.

Second, Hermione insisted on coming along underneath the invisibility cloak despite Harry reminding her it was a boy's bathroom ("You spent hours in a girl's bathroom brewing Polyjuice potion in your second year, I don't see what all the fuss is about!"). And thirdly, Hermione did have a swimsuit and it was very difficult to pay attention to the song underwater when his best friend—who just happened to be female and revealing more skin than she had in the last three years combined—kept bumping against his shoulders in her excitement.

ch 2

His torture finally came to an end when the mermaid in the stained glass winked knowingly at his reddening expression and he mumbled, "Stupid mermaid."

"That's it!" Hermione shouted. "The song is about mermaids, the ones under the Black Lake—that's where the second task will take place!"

Harry nodded, trying not to notice too carefully how different Hermione's hair looked when it was wet. Or, well—the rest of her too.

He really needed to get out of the water.

"That was brilliant, Harry!" Hermione smiled up at him and embraced him tightly. "We're finally half way to finding the solution for the second task. I promised you, didn't I? That you would make it through? Looks like you didn't need my help much after all."

And suddenly, Harry forgot all about the previous awkwardness and the strange feelings churning inside him. All he could focus on was how her fingers trembled on his back, how relieved she looked, like a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Once again, he hadn't noticed how much stress she had been carrying. Once again, he bit back his words of thanks.

He buried his head in Hermione's hair and breathed deeply; the water was getting cold, but she was still so warm. Always so warm.

"That's where you're wrong, Hermione. I'll always need you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Harry was playing a game of chess with Ron when he realized he had yet to ask Hermione to the Yule Ball.

Despite Ron's abandonment of him after his name was announced and despite what Harry had told Hermione about only wanting real friends, Harry couldn't find it in his heart to cut Ron out of his life. The redhead sitting across from him was still the same boy who had similarly sat across him on the Hogwarts Express, who had fought in the tests to the Philosopher's Stone, who had faced giant acromantulas, stood on a broken leg to defend him…He was still Ron. He was still his friend.

When he had hesitantly approached Harry and asked for a game, Harry had silently acquiesced, but the carefree feeling he had felt before in Ron's presence was gone now.

Harry just wasn't sure if he was still his best friend, someone who he could unconditionally trust, someone who he could rely on above all else, someone who would care as deeply for him as Harry did for them. No excuses. No strings attached. Harry had learned that the number of people who fit that bill were alarmingly few.

"I won!" Ron slumped back on the sofa. "Blimey, Harry, this is the fourth time. Where's your mind wandering at?"

"Huh?" Harry startled. "Oh. Just…you know. Thinking about the second task."

Ron waved his hand impatiently. "You still have plenty of time to work on the task, but the Yule Ball is close by and all the pretty girls are being snatched up. That's what you should be worried about."


"Don't tell me you already have a date." Ron eyed him suspiciously, "It's not Hermione, is it?"

Harry stared at him.

Ron groaned. "I can't believe it. You had all the girls in the school to pick from and you asked Hermione of all people, didn't you?"

"It's not—I haven't asked—what do you mean 'Hermione of all people?'"

"I mean," Ron rolled his eyes. "Hermione: bushy haired, know-it-all, a pain in the ass when it comes to making us do work. She's our friend so of course I like her. But, she's not exactly the first girl who comes to mind when you think, 'pretty, fun girl to take to the ball.'"

A whimper sounded behind them and Harry and Ron turned around to see Hermione standing at the entrance to the common room with watery eyes.

"Well," She said, angrily blinking back tears. "I wouldn't have gone with you even if you had asked. So, it's rather pretentious of you to even consider me, isn't it?"

She strode out of the common room and Harry was frozen for a moment, before he snapped out of it and ran after her.

"Hermione!" He caught sight of her turning at the corner of a hallway and reached out to grab her hand.

ch 3

"I'd like to be alone right now, if you don't mind."

"You know that what Ron was saying was utter garbage, don't you? I don't know what the hell he was talking about."

"Don't you?" Her voice was frosty. "I didn't hear you disagreeing with him."

"Hey," He took hold of her shoulders and looked at her in the eyes. "You know that I would never think of you that way. In fact, Ron's little speech there just reminded me. I never did ask you to the ball, did I?"

"Oh, Harry." Her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry for lashing out on you because of Ron. There's no need for you to go and be noble to try and make me feel better—"

"I'm not trying to be noble, I just realized that I'd always assumed we'd go together and somehow forgot to outright ask—"

"Besides, I was already asked to the ball by someone else, so there's really no need to play the hero. I'm not exactly some pitiful girl—"

They both stopped and stared at each other, realizing what had just been said.

Hermione looked like she had no idea what to think. "You assumed that we would go together?"

Harry's throat went dry. "Someone already asked you? Did you say yes?"

Hermione mumbled something about needing to sit down and Harry, who was feeling a little wobbly himself, helped her on to the floor and they sat with their backs against the wall.

"You first." She said, having found her voice again.

"It sounds really bad when I say it like this, but hear me out." Harry pinched his nose. Ugh. Terrible start. "I think after we found out about the egg and started using the Room, I've been so busy, the ball issue was thrown to the back of my head considering its level of importance. Not—not that I think asking you isn't important. I mean, the ball itself! As for asking you, somehow I hadn't even considered it? I think deep down I had already decided we would go together.

"Who else would I ask? Who else would I want to spend an evening with besides my best friend, someone who can make me smile and laugh, and turn even the worst of days into something bearable?" Oh, no. He was rambling now. Get to the point. "It was always going to be you in my mind, Hermione. I think I actually just realized that when I was talking to Ron right now—talk about terrible timing. I'm just so daft I hadn't even bothered to consider that you're not a mind reader and wouldn't see it that way."

"Oh, Harry." Hermione sighed. "I can't say I'm surprised to hear that was the case, when I think about it. You really are sort of slow when it comes to these things."

Harry made a sound of indignation but Hermione simply raised an eyebrow up at him. "Still, it is a relief to have it out in the open. Viktor asked me in the library a few days ago while you were speaking to Madam Pince and I told him I'd give him an answer soon. If you hadn't said something by today, I'd have to ask you myself!"

"Viktor? Viktor Krum?" Harry's mind spun. "Is that why he's always been staring at you like you owe him money?"

"Ooh!" Harry thought that the slight blush on her face was rather endearing. "Forget about that, you still haven't done it!"

"Done what?"

"Asked me to the ball properly, you dunce!"

They stared at each other and burst into laughter.

Harry wasn't an idiot. The first thing he had done when he found out that the second task would likely involve some sort of underwater scavenger hunt for a precious item was pace in front of the Room of Requirement and think, "I need to be able to breathe underwater" repeatedly.

The Room did not disappoint. Really, Harry mused, it was a massive cheat and rather unfair if he thought about it objectively, but this was one time where Harry wouldn't play the selfless hero. This place was his and Hermione's haven alone.

Arranged in a neat little bookshelf were various books written by wizards and witches who had studied underwater species and invented new spells to explore the world beneath the surface or tried to emulate their abilities in a way humans might find useful. Most of it was extremely complicated and Harry doubted that even Hermione could master them all. Painstakingly transfiguring parts of your body to create fins and gills while not hitting an internal organ in the process, using a bubblehead charm to breathe that appeared simple but had an intricate procedure to be cast perfectly if he didn't want to die of oxygen deprivation five minutes in, potions that if made correctly could supposedly emulate the features of merpeople and if made incorrectly could turn you into a puddle of goo upon ingestion...

"We have to pick one of these and start practicing already," Hermione closed the book she was reading with an audible snap.

He groaned inwardly. He'd been dragging the choice for days now and it would have been strange for Hermione to not notice. The problem wasn't the books or the spells, it was him. Harry didn't know how to swim.

He had never had a chance to learn. When the Dursleys went to the beach in the summer, they would leave him with Mrs. Figgs. When Dudley went over to pool parties in other kids' houses, it wasn't like he ever got invited. When Vernon decided to put an inflatable pool in the backyard, Harry was forbidden to go even ten feet near it. Something to which others was a natural, normal thing had become to him a foreign, unknown concept. There had been swimming lessons in his primary school curriculum, but the only memories he had from them was Dudley and his gang pushing his head underwater whenever the teacher turned around and his world going black around him.

Not only did he not know how to swim, he was even...kind of terrified by the prospect. But there was no way he was going to let Hermione know that.

"We can choose whichever option you think is best," Harry said and then tried to change the subject clumsily. "By the way, I noticed things are still a little awkward between you and Ron lately."

Hermione sighed. "He only apologized because you made him do it and it didn't feel very sincere that he ended it with 'why are girls so bloody sensitive?' before walking away."

Harry tried to hide his smile but didn't quite succeed because Hermione sniffed and said, "Just because you forgave him so easily, doesn't mean I have to be as generous."

"Generous?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Do you see Ron sitting here at this table? I accepted his apology; I didn't accept him back right away as my best friend. I think Ron could do with a little bit of growing up before that happens—trust has to be earned after all."

Hermione appeared thoughtful. "That reminds me, I've been thinking over what you said that morning in the Great Hall—about needing only real friends by your side. I think we should both try to be friendly with people outside of our usual social circles. Maybe it's because as a trio we've experienced so much together, an unintentional barrier formed between us and the rest of the students. Besides some classes with other houses or occasionally talking to people in our dormitories, we don't really interact much with others. More friends, more allies, more people you can trust and talk to is never a bad thing."

Thinking about his sense of isolation after he was named in the Tournament and his dismay when he realized how few people he could trust, he couldn't help but agree.

Harry mastered the bubblehead charm so quickly that Hermione couldn't hide her jealousy and sulked for a full day.

"It's not that big of a deal." He rolled her eyes at Hermione who was sitting across from him at the library table and steadily ignoring him.

She slammed her book shut. "You learned it in a few hours. It's been a week and I still have holes in the charm! This is ridiculous."

He had to admit, it did feel sort of good knowing that he was mastering spells faster than her, but that had more to do with the fact that it was Hermione he was subtly competing with. The smartest witch he knew. He didn't think he would have been as proud of his pace if it had been compared to any other person—and he told her so.

"Oh, Harry, why must you be so sweet when I'm acting like a jealous harpy?" She buried her face in her hands on the table. "Now, I feel terrible. I should be happy you learned it so fast; I don't know what came over me!"

"I think I do." Harry frowned, thinking seriously. "You're so used to being number one and the best at everything that you've made it part of your identity. Honestly, I think Ron and I have put way too much pressure on you in the past, expecting you to be miles ahead of everyone so we can lean on you whenever things go wrong. Now that I'm finally not lazing around like a slug and catching up with you, maybe it feels like I'm trying to usurp your role in our group?"

Hermione protested, but Harry was adamant she listen. "But Hermione, don't you see? You're always going to be brilliant—the way you understand complicated concepts at first glance, the way you research, the way you find answers to the craziest of questions… I don't think I'll ever match that. I think I'm just very good at practicals, at applying that knowledge quickly while you understand the reasoning behind the magic much easier than I do. We have different strengths."

"When did you become the mature voice of reason? My dignity as your designated nagger is crumbling." She grumbled before brightening up. "But you're right! Imagine if we combine our strengths: we could speed up and complete those lists with half the effort!"

"Before you take another step in that direction, I have a confession to make." He took a deep breath. "I know we decided on the bubblehead charm because it was the simplest, but I actually have very little confidence in it. Maybe I'm letting my own fears influence my thinking. I never did tell you, but I'm not a great fan of swimming. When I was in primary school, my cousin once held my head down in the water for so long that I was coughing up water for ages. It's a terrible feeling when you don't have air, you feel like you're gagging on the water and you can't even scream. I keep thinking: I can perform the spell perfectly fine right now, but what if in the moment it matters most, I make a mistake? Also, I don't have any swimming finesse to speak of, so how would I even make my way around in the first place?"

"Don't take this the wrong way. I'm very glad you told me this, but I can't think of anything right now besides how badly I want to go over to your cousin and blast him with a stinging hex." Hermione's eyes narrowed menacingly. "I would have to do it very subtly and I would be breaking a few wizarding laws, but it would be worth it!"

"Coming from the girl who feared expulsion over death, that means a lot."

She scoffed at him, but quickly grew grave again. "Harry, it seems like you have a lot of pent up worries. If there's anything you're stressed about, no matter how trivial, you know you can come to me."

Harry hesitated. "I was also reading over the charms guide and there was this portion that really stood out to me: spells can change just based on slight change in incantation or intention. Especially for something like the bubblehead charm that needs to be absolutely concrete, that's a big deal. I tried experimenting with changing my intention slightly and it was so easy to accidentally change the gas from oxygen into something like carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide or something equally as toxic! And—why are you smiling?"

"Huh?" Hermione snapped out of it. "I'm just not used to talking science while working with magic. I'm sorry! Here you are legitimately worried and all I can think of is how many doors this opens for us." She clapped her hands. "Can you imagine how many innocuous spells could be altered into a weapon if we get a little creative?"

He struggled not to smile and instead said as seriously as possible: "Looks like we'll have to make a new list."

Harry was nervous. Dean, Seamus, and Ron were still lazily getting ready, but he had already spent a good ten minutes pacing in his bottle green dress robes and the next ten fighting a losing battle with his hair in the mirror and wearing such a fierce scowl that even Neville noticed something was off.

"Hey, Harry. You all right?"

"No. Yes. No." He threw his hands up in resignation. "I just don't like the idea of dancing in front of a massive crowd. Or dancing. Or crowds in general."

Neville guided him to sit down on a bed and patted him on the shoulder. "Just think of it as a nice break from the Tournament. I know I'm going to have a blast no matter what. Finally, all those dancing lessons Gran forced on me are going to be of use. Finally, something I'm actually good at!"

For the next five minutes, he went on about both traditional Wizarding dances and the new wave of muggle inspired trends. Neville was going to the ball with Ginny, but with the way his face lit up when he mentioned his 'forced' lessons, Harry rather thought that he would have attended the ball even if he had to dance to the tune of an imaginary partner. Harry smiled at his eagerness, but at the same time felt a little guilty that he knew so little about the hobbies of someone he had been sharing a room with for almost four years now.

"You sure know how to pick your hobbies," Harry remarked and then hastily added when Neville's face turned downcast. "Really! It took me ages to get a handle on this dance stuff and I can still barely pass the standards. And speaking of being good at something, you're probably better at Herbology now than I will be in ten years."

"I'm not that great. Can't be compared to someone like you, facing dragons and fighting in a deathly Tournament to represent your school."

"I didn't exactly choose that, Neville. Even after the first task, everyone seems to forget that." Harry sighed, convinced that he had ruined the mood of the conversation and moved to get up.

"Wait!" Neville said, panicked. "That's not what I meant. I know... I know you didn't put your name in the goblet. It was obvious from the start. You're not the kind of person who likes being at the centre of attention, are you? You just always end up in the spotlight anyway."

At Harry's surprised expression, Neville shamefacedly explained. "I watch people a lot, you know, and I notice these things. I'm sorry for never speaking out and defending you. I didn't think I had the courage, but ever since you called us out in the Great Hall, I've regretted it, Harry."

Harry was quiet. "Thank you," he said at last, "for telling me. You don't need to apologize though; I haven't exactly been a great friend to you either."

Neville shook his head. "Harry, I've considered you a friend since first year when you took off after Malfoy for my remembrall. I know we aren't that close—but, you can come to me if you ever want to talk. My gran tells me I'm a pretty good listener."

Maybe it was the nerves for that evening, maybe it was the fact that this was probably the longest conversation he had held with Neville ever, maybe it was because it was the first time someone besides Hermione had insisted that putting his name in for glory just didn't match his character… but Harry felt strangely emotional at that moment.

"How could I possibly refuse such a glowing endorsement?"

Chapter Text

Harry had thought that he knew everything about Hermione.

He knew that when she received an Outstanding on an assignment her eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled widely. When she found a particular paragraph confusing she would lean in until her nose hit the page and her eyebrows were scrunched up like bushy caterpillars. When she fell asleep, she looked so carefree and innocent—finally free of the semi-permanent worried crease on her forehead. When she ate her food, it was cut into delicate portions beforehand and eaten absentmindedly as she perused a newspaper. When she was hurting, she would cross her arms defensively and blink rapidly as she maintained an iron expression.

When she comforted someone, she would embrace them with her arms wound tightly around them, her voice whispering soothing reassurances in their ear. When she walked, it was always with brisk, steady steps that showed she had a purpose and a destination to get to. When she laughed, she would do so deeply and loudly, holding nothing back.

Sometimes Harry thought he knew Hermione better than he knew even himself.

Why was it then that he had been standing still, gawking for who knows how long as she came down the stairs, as if he was seeing her for the first time today?

"Harry!" Hermione smiled. She always smiled at him like that, but why had he never noticed how radiant it was? And her teeth—had they always looked like that? "Those robes bring your eyes out quite nicely. You look very handsome."

Harry blushed furiously. "Thanks. So do you—look very pretty, I mean!"

Hermione didn't wait for him to hold out his hand and simply linked their arms directly. A strand of her silky hair fell out of her carefully coiled updo and Harry felt an irrational urge to put it back into place.

ch 4

As they entered the Great Hall, Harry tried to distract himself with how magnificently it had been transformed into a Winter Wonderland ballroom. It didn't work for long since his eyes kept travelling back to the way Hermione's periwinkle robes flowed down her form and the string of pearls she wore on her neck, and—

"The Yule Ball will begin with an opening dance from our Champions."

And before Harry knew it, he was leading Hermione onto the floor, praying that he wouldn't miss a step and desperately hoping she wouldn't notice his sweaty palms. He could do this. All he had to do was pretend they were in the Room of Requirement, practicing like usual, just her and him. The more he concentrated on Hermione—on the way she felt in his arms, the flowery scent when he pulled her close, the delighted little smile she sent his way whenever he twirled her around—the more he forgot about the audience and started to truly enjoy himself.

He barely noticed that the dance had ended until Hermione tugged his hand and led them off to the side. "You were brilliant, Harry!"

"It was actually sort of fun," Harry admitted. "I can't believe I only stumbled once!"

Hermione gave him a triumphant, 'See! I told you so!' expression and Harry couldn't help but chuckle. "What do you say about going for another round?"

"Already?" She sounded surprised. "I thought you might like to sit down. You know, you don't have to push yourself for my sake."

"Hermione, I asked you to come with me so we could have fun together, not so you could stand guard as I sulk in the shadows somewhere." Now he was really laughing. "Besides, if I don't make use of my newfound skills this evening, all that practice will have been for nothing!"

So they went to join their fellow students on the floor for another dance. And another. And another. At one point, Viktor Krum came forward and very politely asked if he could have Hermione for one dance. Hermione took the chance to dare Harry to ask another girl to be his partner during that time and Harry surprised both her and himself by approaching Fleur Delacour and was even more shocked when she said yes.

"I 'ad been zinking zat you are just a boy, but you faced ze dragons impressively," Fleur commented, sounding a bit put out.

Harry hid his smile and said that it was all luck at the end; he would never do it again, not for all the gold in the world. Fleur, no doubt thinking of her burns, heartily agreed. It had been a spur of the moment thing to ask her, but once the dance ended and they both wished the other luck in the second task, Harry was left with the impression that the Beauxbaton student was nothing like the simpering individual he had thought she would be.

Two dances later, Harry decided to get back at Hermione and dared her to ask someone, but immediately regretted it when she went to Cedric and he ended up with Cho as a partner. He still thought she was very pretty, but really, didn't she talk about anything besides Cedric?

Tired of switching partners, Harry decided he wanted Hermione to himself for the rest of the night and Hermione looked a little too ridiculously pleased when he told her so.

"Your ego is getting too large nowadays, Herm—ow! What was that for?"

Between the dances, they would talk about anything and everything: Hermione wondering about what spell was used to transform the ceiling ("I'm positive this was Dumbledore's handiwork, it's much too detailed and precise to be anyone else!"), Harry asking Hermione how she had ever learned to dance in the first place and Hermione telling him about all the extra-curricular lessons she had been obsessed with as a kid ("You did ballet?"), both of them 'people watching' with Harry making snarky comments and Hermione elbowing him to stop being such a gossip, but smiling all the while ("That poor boy just spilled pumpkin juice all over his date's robes and I think she's about to hex him—Harry! Don't laugh so loudly!").

Everything seemed to go by so fast in a swirl of colour, and warmth, and Hermione's soft laughter. They took a few breaks to sit down and find some refreshments—during which Harry noticed Ron slouching at a table as his partner glared at him—but Harry always found himself whisking her back to dancing.

As the last, slow dance of the night was coming to an end, Harry decided that he didn't regret coming. Hermione's face was buried in his chest, his chin rested on her forehead, their arms hung closely around each other, and even their breaths seemed to be in tandem.

There was something so right about having Hermione in his arms like this. It was, he mused, like she had always belonged there.

He didn't want the moment to end.

After the Yule Ball, Ron had been extra sulky. Apparently, he felt that Harry and Hermione had abandoned him by going together and 'being in their own little world' while Ron had been left to 'rot in the shadows.' Hermione had called him overly dramatic and ridiculous, saying that he had his own partner whom he had pointedly ignored the whole night and that it was no one's fault but his own that he hadn't had fun. Ron had responded that she was a disloyal friend and only cared about Harry, then proceeded to insinuate that Harry had only gone with her to the ball out of pity. Harry's fatigue from all the dancing and dealing with Ron's nonsensical temper tantrums from the last few months had led him to telling Ron point-blank that he needed to 'grow up' if he wanted to remain friends with them.

Harry would have regretted being so short with him if he hadn't already decided that without maturity and trust, whatever friendship he had would be fragile at best and too prone to collapse at the worst of times. It would be nice if Ron would take this chance to change, but with the way his bed curtains were currently tightly shut and without even so much as a goodnight from him in the last few weeks, he wasn't holding his breath.

In any case, he was already swamped with worries and stress from all sides and had no patience to deal with anymore drama. Was he really going to rely on the bubblehead charm to pass the second task? What precious item would be taken from him? What had Karkaroff meant in Potions by telling Snape that his dark mark was burning? Were his ever constant nightmares about that old man and the manor and that voice a mere consequent from his scar or did they actually mean something?

He must have sat there motionless for a while, because he heard a rustle from one of the beds and Neville's drowsy voice calling out to him from the side bed. "Can't sleep, Harry?"

"Sorry, did I wake you?"

Neville rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "You've been sitting there like a statue for ten minutes now."

"Really?" Harry startled. "I was just...thinking."

"I meant what I told you the night of the ball, you know. You can talk to me about anything, especially if it's something keeping you up at night like this."

"Unless you know the details about the dark mark and death eater methods of communication, the meaning of strangely specific nightmares, or how to both breathe underwater and gain a decent swimming proficiency overnight… it would just frustrate you to listen to the problems in my life."

"Well." Neville scratched his head. "Dunno about the rest, but the underwater and swimming problem… I might know a thing or two."

Harry had regretted complaining about his scar hurting in his letter to Sirius when his godfather had decided to instantly return to Britain. No matter how much he had reassured him that everything was fine, Sirius saw through his ruse. Harry hated to think that his godfather was putting himself at risk because of him, but at the same time, he felt comfort from knowing that he was somewhere nearby. Besides Hermione's companionship, Sirius' letters had been one of the only things keeping him sane during the Tournament.

Usually, Harry would have tightly leashed his yearning to see Sirius and talk to him face to face. However, Hermione's frequent reassurances that it was necessary for him to have people he could trust and open up to had slightly lessened the guilt he felt in offhandedly remarking in his last letter that he would like to meet him in person sometime soon. One exuberant reply from Sirius later (ending with "bring some food!") resulted in Harry and Hermione spending their next Hogsmeade weekend carrying bags of packed lunches and dinners from the kitchen to the location Sirius had specified.

A shaggy black dog met them at the end of the road in the countryside surrounding Hogsmeade and scattered off to lead them up a rocky mountain. Hermione and Harry exchanged secret smiles at Sirius' obvious happiness at seeing them, but as they climbed up the mountain and finally entered the damp, tight cave, Harry's smile disappeared.

Buckbeak was standing in one of the corners, still as sharp-eyed and majestic as ever. But Sirius who had transformed back… he looked even worse than he had during third year. He still wore those horrid grey prisoner robes, his long hair was a tangled, matted mess, and even the large grin he gave his godson seemed out of place on his sallow, scarily thin face.

"You don't know how glad I am you asked to see me," Sirius said, hungrily eyeing the containers Hermione carried in her arms. "I thought it would take another month or two before I could safely bring the topic up without you refusing."

"Refuse? Even if I worry about you getting caught out here, I wouldn't outright be against meeting up." Harry eyed the dingy, cold cave with an uneasy feeling growing in his chest. "Not when you've come so far just to be close to me."

"Well, of course I came." Sirius puffed up his chest. "What kind of godfather would I be if I hadn't?"

Hermione unwrapped a piece of chicken and handed it to him sympathetically, but couldn't help but scold him. "Forget the danger involved in case you were sighted, I can't imagine it's easy living here! What made you think this would be a good idea?"

He took a ravenous bite of the chicken. "Not what. Who. We've been in contact and once Harry mentioned his dreams, Dumbledore thought it best I stay somewhere close by his side. This cave he suggested isn't so bad: it's out of the way and if I ever do want some sun, I just go outside and pretend to be a lovable stray. Granted, the food supply is woefully limited to rats, but we can't have everything we want."

"Dumbledore suggested this?" Hermione asked, perplexed.

"Rats?" Harry's head spun.

"It's an acquired taste. Mind you, I won't miss it now that you've brought some actual sustenance with you."

"Why didn't you tell me you were living like this?" Harry's voice trembled with rage. "This cave is barely fit for Buckbeak, let alone a human! You look like a sack of bones—Sirius, I can count your ribs from here! Rats? Even I was fed better at the Dursleys this summer! What—" There was a lump in his throat and his eyes started to blur. "What would my parents say if they saw you now? What would they say to me?"

Hermione unceremoniously dropped the bags of food onto the cave floor and rushed over to him. "Harry, you need to breathe."

Breathe? He was breathing. Harry couldn't understand what she was saying.

His chest felt tight and the world spun around him as he slowly lowered himself to the floor. No, no. He was fine: it was the people around him who weren't. The people who cared, few as they were. His parents had loved him and where were they now? Sirius had offered to be his family and Harry had rejoiced, not knowing that a year later that same man would be living like a dog in order to be close to him. Hermione said she was happy to be his best friend, but how happy was she really to be dragged to death's door every year by his side? Everyone who had ever cared for him suffered and just like his previous revelation about Hermione, he had been too embroiled in his own misgivings to even consider what they were going through for his sake.

Who was he even angry at? Sirius for not telling him what kind of awful situation he was in? Dumbledore for not only knowing, but encouraging Sirius to languish in this state? Or was it at himself for never even bothering to ask? "It's my fault." He gasped.

A strong pair of arms came around his shoulders and patted his back. "It's all right, Harry. This isn't your fault. Breathe now."

Harry hadn't even realized he was crying until Hermione carefully wiped something wet off his cheek. He looked over her shoulder to see Sirius standing stock still, his mouth open, and a half-eaten chicken leg hanging loosely in his hand.

"I-I'm so sorry, Sirius—"

"No! Harry, I don't know what's going on, but I'm the one who—"

"Oh, would the both of you stop! No one should be apologizing here and no one is at fault. Harry, sit back down and lean against my shoulder. Sirius, come over here and throw away that chicken leg, for goodness sake."

The two dumbly followed her instructions. "Now, I think it's about time we had ourselves a nice, long chat."

According to Hermione, he had just had a shock to his system and the emotional distress from seeing Sirius in such a state had led to hyperventilation. Both males nodded mechanically at her explanation and at Hermione's urging began to speak.

"Harry, I realize this isn't the best of conditions to live in, but you've gotta give your godfather more credit than that. I survived twelve years in Azkaban and another year as a fugitive; I can sure as hell survive a year in this little cave. "

"But don't you see?" Harry exclaimed. "You shouldn't have to! Hermione and I, we turned back time so we could save you, Sirius. So you could be free! This isn't Azkaban where no one believes in your innocence, this isn't third year where you had no one to turn to, this time you have people who care about you. You have me."

Sirius looked a little ashamed. "Doesn't feel right, asking for help from my godson. I'm here to help you, not the other way around."

Hermione sighed. "Why don't both of you help each other? That's what a family is for, you know. It's a joint effort."

The word family seemed to jolt both Harry and Sirius.

"I've never had a family," Harry muttered, rather embarrassed. "Dunno how to go on about that, really."

Sirius put an arm around Harry's shoulder. "You're not alone there, kiddo. Never felt like I had one either, not until your dad came around."

"But you let him help, didn't you? You told me when you ran away from home, the Potters took you in. They gave you a home. That's all I want for you."

"I appreciate the sentiment, I do, but it's a little different when I'm supposed to be the adult here. I have my own pride to consider. Besides, I always thought I'd be the one giving you a new home, Harry." Sirius smiled wryly.

"Well," Hermione pondered. "Why can't you?"

"Dumbledore said—"

"Yes, yes, something about Harry's mum putting up a protection for him with his closest blood. But Harry hasn't spent all his time with the Dursleys in the past: sometimes he leaves early to go to the Burrow or the World Cup like this summer. And he doesn't spend all day cooped up in the house, does he?" Harry nodded. "I'm sure he goes outside the neighbourhood too. Why couldn't he spend that time with you?"

"I suppose I just took Dumbledore's words at face value and never thought any further."

Hermione was on a roll. "And! Both you and Harry would benefit from having a place to call your own! From what I researched about the Black family in third year—" Here, Sirius let out a snort and called her a little snoop. "You definitely shouldn't be lacking in money or estates!"

"That's right!" Harry sat up straight. "You bought me a firebolt, but you can't afford better clothes or food for yourself?"

Sirius ran his hand through his matted hair and sighed before explaining. Yes, he was technically rich and yes, he technically owned land as the heir to the Black Family. However, the only reason he had been able to buy the firebolt was by using Harry's name and specifying the Gringotts' vault number as his own in his order to the Owl Office; presumably, the goblins hadn't cared about a single withdrawal from a very small portion of the Black Vault, but he couldn't be sure they would have the same lax attitude if the withdrawals continued or if the Owl Office would notice something was off if he kept sending anonymous requests with the same vault number.

As for the estates he owned, places like the cottage in the countryside or the small apartment from when he was in his muggle phase, would already be well known by the Ministry and regularly watched. The only place that still had wards and anti detection protections working was the ancestral Black home, 12 Grimmauld Place, which had been made unplottable and very difficult to find even for wizards.

"That sounds perfect!" Harry blurted. "Why aren't you living there?"

Sirius looked abashed. "I… don't really have the best memories of that place. My childhood there was pretty dark and not something I'd like to revisit." Harry thought about 4 Privet Drive and how he would never go back there if he had the choice. Perhaps he had been silent for too long because Sirius hastily added. "But that's not all! I could get over it if that was it. The Ministry still knows about that place too and without something foolproof like the Fidelius Charm protecting the location, I don't want to take the risk."

"Well, why not just use the Fidelius Charm, then?" Hermione asked in a isn't-the-answer-obvious voice. "You just need a secret keeper, right?" She pointed at Harry. "There you are."

"Hermione," he spluttered. "I don't know how to do that charm!"

"Yet." She sounded smug. "Oh, Sirius, we haven't even told you anything of what we've gotten up to these past few months!"

She proceeded to go on about how Harry was 'finally applying his strengths,' their very long lists of spells, the Room of Requirement and how they had already made good progress for the second task.

Here, Harry interrupted and told the both of them about the solution Neville had suggested: gillyweed apparently not only had the ability to help the user breathe underwater, it also imprinted on the user the instincts of an underwater creature that would let them easily navigate the environment.

"I was thinking of letting Dobby go to Diagon Alley and pick up the order I placed; for some reason, the herbologist doesn't do owl deliveries in case the purchases are 'damaged.' While he's there, I'll ask him to buy one of those magical tents too—like the ones the Weasleys had at the World Cup! During the time it takes me and Hermione to learn the Fidelius, I won't let you stay in this state. At the very least you need a bed to sleep on and regular meals. I'm sure Dobby could make daily visits here to bring stuff from the kitchens."

"It sounds like a sound plan, Harry, but are you sure you can trust this elf?" Sirius frowned. "If he's a Hogwarts elf, his loyalty doesn't lie solely with you."

"He told me he was only taking Hogwarts as a part-time job. " Harry shrugged. "Apparently, he missed doing work and the shiny coins he gets are a plus."

"P-part time?" Sirius was stupefied. "My family has a house elf too, and from my experience, I can assure you that those creatures are fanatically loyal to their owners and a bit off in the head. Elves don't do part-time jobs."

"Dobby is a free elf." Hermione sniffed and launched into a tirade about how elves were 'horribly mistreated and deserve rights too!' By the end of it, Sirius looked overwhelmed by her passionate speech, but had at least gotten the gist of the loyalty Dobby felt towards Harry for freeing him.

"Well, if he's as loyal as you say and if he helped you find that Requirement Room, then you really should consider bonding with him, Harry. It would make things much easier for everyone involved." He hastily added when Hermione gave him a pointed look, "Of course, there would have to be wages!"

"I'll consider it." He had been relying on Dobby way too much lately; maybe making things official really was the right step.

"Hmm. So, Sirius' living conditions are momentarily solved. We can discuss more options about fully accessing your vault later, once I've looked into it more." Hermione tapped her chin thoughtfully. "There isn't much left to prepare for the second task and you two have finally sat down and discussed your feelings. What's next on the agenda?"

Sirius raised an eyebrow at Harry and mouthed 'Is she always like this?' while Harry struggled to hide his smile.

They ended up moving on to Harry's dreams and the conversation he had overheard from Snape and Karkaroff at Potions.

Sirius was extremely wary about both. "Those dreams of yours aren't normal, Harry. Neither is the dark mark burning in a way that even death eaters are troubled. You need to be careful. I can't shake the feeling off that whoever put your name in the goblet is still out there, planning… waiting. I don't know if any of these occurrences are connected, but you can never let your guard down, do you understand me?"

He nodded seriously, but couldn't help the warm, tingling feeling growing inside him. So this is what it feels like to be worried over, to be cared for.

He looked at Sirius's uncharacteristically stern expression and the tense lines on Hermione's forehead and tried to reassure them. "We can get through this. At the very least, I have you two helping me, don't I?"

I'm not alone. Not anymore.

Chapter Text

Over the last few months, Harry had gained quite a bit of confidence in his learning ability and skills. Although he had always been fascinated by magic, he hadn't really tried to understand or delve further into the what, why, and how. He had been satisfied with knowing the bare minimum; if the spell worked fine, what use was there really to know any more? No one had ever outright told him, but it was rather obvious by now that he was uncommonly powerful for his age—even if his strength always seemed limited to the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Hadn't Lupin told him how rare it was for adults, let alone a third year student, to create a patronus? Wasn't Hermione always telling him that he had 'potential' even when she was miffed he was applying spells faster than her?

It had to mean something. He had to be better than this.

He had thrown the matter of the second task to the back of his mind after visiting Sirius and dedicated the next few days to learn the concept of the Fidelius with Hermione in the Room of Requirement. This time, Hermione grasped the basics much quicker than he did and Harry learned the consequences of overestimating himself when he had barely formed his foundations.

The Fidelius Charm was difficult. It was more complicated and intricate than any spell Harry had ever read about. It involved hiding a secret in the Secret Keeper's soul, a concept Harry could barely wrap his head around. Not to mention, that Harry had been coasting through Charms with an Acceptable all this time.

Harry found himself trying to make up for lost time and effort, by practicing it whenever he could, even during class. In one such History of Magic lesson, he grimaced as he traced wand movements in the air. Around him, people were either drowsing off or doodling on their parchment. Only Hermione sat ramrod straight, decisively taking notes as always.

It was a little surprising then when she pinched his knee under the table.

"Ow!" Harry hissed and then whispered, "What was that for?"

"You've been doing the same wand movements for the past twenty minutes instead of listening to Binns."

"And?" He rolled his eyes. "Half the class is asleep. At least I'm being productive and practicing."

Hermione gave him a mildly disapproving look. "Incorrectly. Check the notes I made for steps four, seven, and nine."

He did and promptly groaned so loudly that he swore even Binns paused his monologue for half a second to stare at him. Half an hour later, a gloomy Harry exited the classroom with a disgruntled Hermione hot on his heels.

"I know I was the one who raised the idea of you learning this spell, but you can't spend every waking moment on this, Harry. You still have to pay attention in class."

"God, Hermione." Harry snapped. "Spare me the lecture, will you? I just can't seem to concentrate on anything else!" At Hermione's slightly hurt expression, he groaned. "And now, I'm taking my frustration out on you. Hells, I'm sorry."

"Maybe I shouldn't have scolded you like that." She blew a strand of hair out of her face irritably. "It's just, you've been stuck on that charm for nearly a week now and no progress has been made. I can't help but wonder if we'll ever be able to make any progress by ourselves."

Harry halted in his steps. That's right. Why couldn't he ask for help? He didn't need to specifically say he was learning the Fidelius; he could just say he was trying to understand a wide variety of charms for the Tournament and bring up the topic from there.

After his next Charms lesson was over, Harry and Hermione dawdled behind.

"Professor, we were wondering if we could come to you for a bit of help outside of class related subjects," Harry said hesitantly.

"Certainly, you can!" Flitwick beamed brightly at them. "If this is about the Triwizard Tournament, I can't offer you any specific hints, mind you. But ask away if you have any general questions."

"After the first task, I realized the importance of Charms and decided to master the ones that might help me out in a pinch." Harry tried to make his voice extra sincere and pulled out his Charms Guide to further his point, watching with satisfaction as Flitwick's eyes widened.

"Oho, you've been putting quite the work into this, haven't you? I'm sure you and Miss Granger have had your hands full with this; we don't usually go into chapter one of that book until fifth year!"

Beside him, Hermione let out a pitiful sigh. "We're trying our best, Professor, but there's only so much we can learn without an expert like you guiding our way. I'm afraid we're still sorely lacking in the fundamentals."

"Nonsense!" Flitwick stood up straight, although it didn't add much to his height. "Miss Granger, you are perhaps the most diligent student I've ever had. And Mister Potter, that spellcasting you showed in the first task was impeccable! Perfect wandwork!"

Both Hermione and Harry blushed and continued to listen as Flitwick went on about how the most potent charms looked deceptively simple, but were extremely multifaceted and intricate when one actually had to cast them. They interrupted here and there to ask about specific charms or points that had been troubling them, but mostly listened; Flitwick was not only a cheerful professor, he was a very good one and Harry found many of the clouds of ignorance obscuring his progress vanishing.

In the end, he didn't even have to bring up the Fidelius. Flitwick did it for him.

"You know, Mister Potter, when you first walked into my classroom, I had wondered if you would take after your mother or your father. Oh, James passed my classes quite well, but his true talent lay in Transfiguration. I dare say, he was a genius in that regard! But your mother, she loved Charms, loved all the enchanting and thinking that went into it..."

"My mother?" Harry had heard tales about his father and the shenanigans he had gotten up to in his time at Hogwarts, but he knew dreadfully little about his mother.

"Yes, Lily! No matter what Old Slughorn said, I always felt her passion lay in this subject rather than Potions alone." Flitwick bounced on his heels. "She was a splendid student and it warms my heart to see you walking in her footsteps."

Harry hadn't known. No one had told him any details about his parents besides a few nostalgic tales about how good and noble they were. He wondered what would have happened if he had grown up listening to stories about his mother's brilliance in Charms and Potions or his father's genius in Transfiguration. Even if he had known first year, would he have approached learning those subjects with the same lacklustre attitude?

Flitwick's eyes seemed to cloud over. "What a pity, that it was the reliance on one charm that took her life in the end."

Harry jolted out of his musings and Hermione asked quietly. "The Fidelius?"

Flitwick seemed to have just realized that they were still standing in front of him. His smile drooped. "You two know about that, do you? Well, after last year with Black and all, I shouldn't be surprised the headmaster told you."

Harry felt like he had been transported back to third year, under his invisibility cloak, muffling his breathing, and listening to Flitwick forlornly describe how the Fidelius should have been foolproof, how "You-Know-Who could have searched the village where Lily and James were staying for years and never find them, not even if he had his nose pressed against their sitting room window."

He fought the rising bile at the thought of Wormtail, the reason why that spell had failed, and left him an orphan. "They trusted the wrong person. But the spell itself isn't inherently flawed, is it?"

"No." The professor replied.

"I've always wondered, you know, why they chose to place their lives and mine in the hands of one charm." Beside him, Hermione found his hand and squeezed, perhaps sensing that he was no longer acting. "I hate the Fidelius for what it represents to me, but at the same time, I wish I could understand it."

"Harry." Flitwick looked into his eyes, noticeably not calling his last name. "I can't say I would have done the same in your parents' shoes, but it is truly a powerful spell and it was cast for them by Albus Dumbledore himself. I might not know their thoughts at the time, but if you wish, I can try to explain how the spell worked—why they decided to trust it above all else."

It was helpful, it really was. By the end of Flitwick's explanation, Harry felt that he could finally understand the fundamentals of casting it, but he couldn't muster any joy in that revelation. When they left the classroom, Flitwick called out to him, "Mister Potter! If you ever wish to talk… about your parents… about anything, my door is always open."

"Thank you, professor. " He managed a smile. "I appreciate it."

The walk back to their dormitories was quiet, with Hermione sending concerned glances at him every few seconds. Half way through, Harry turned to her, unable to keep it in any longer.

"Why?" He asked, not knowing who he was really speaking to. "Why didn't they just leave? Sure, the spell is powerful! Sure, the mighty Dumbledore cast it! Sure, they trusted their friends! But that was never going to be enough to protect them!"

He was so angry, so bitter, so miserable at the thought that his parents might have lived had they not taken the Fidelius as their only option. There must have been other options.

"If it was you and me, Hermione, what would you do? If Voldemort was after me and we had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide?"

Hermione bit her lip. "I-I would run, Harry. And take you with me. Somewhere they could never find you, even if it meant we had to keep running forever. And the whole time, I would be searching for a way to fight back."

"You don't know how many times I've thanked my lucky stars you're my ally, not an enemy." He attempted to smile, but it came out twisted. "My parents had allies too—just chose to trust the worst of them. It's funny. I've had years to get used to the fact that they'll never be in my life, but sometimes, knowing what could have been if only things had gone a little differently… hurts so bloody much."

"Is that why you were so obsessed with this spell?"

"I want to learn more about my parents' lives. The stuff they loved, what made them happy, what made them sad. Even the spell that might have ended their lives. I just want to understand. There's so much I don't know about them. Hell, I didn't even know what my mum's favorite subject was until Flitwick mentioned it!"

"About that, Harry..." Hermione looked thoughtful. "I've been looking up on inheritance laws and Gringotts for Sirius, and the conversation with Flitwick had me wondering about you too. It's bad enough you know barely anything about your parents, but you don't have many possessions from them either, do you?"

"I have my cloak and the map—"

"Both of which were never officially given to you by their will! Dumbledore gave you that cloak for Christmas and that map was found entirely by chance. What about what your parents left behind for you? Books that your mother might have read? Your father's favorite broom? It could be anything really, and not necessarily of monetary value. There should be a Potter Family Vault besides the trust fund you already have access to. Having some of their things might help you feel closer to them. That's not even mentioning that they might have left a personal letter behind for you with their will and—oh!— the Potter Manor—"

"Manor? I thought their home in Godric's Hollow was destroyed?"

"That was just a place your parents used as a hiding spot. Your father came from a respected and rather rich family, not unlike the Blacks. They had to have owned their own estate."

It was too much information to handle at once. His parents' possessions, their last words to him, their home—he wanted it all. He wanted to know.

"Why did no one ever mention this to me?" He closed his eyes, tired.

When he had first been introduced to this world, he was so happy to escape life with the Dursleys he had accepted everything at face value and never delved in deeper. But he had been a child and knew very little. Why had no one sat him down and explained things clearly? If he was going to be paraded as British Wizarding society's symbol of victory, wasn't he owed that much?

Hermione let out a growl of frustration, "I don't know and that's what keeps bothering me! What benefit was there to keep you so ignorant of it all? It's not right, no matter how I look at it!"

Her face grew redder as she spoke and when she ended her sentence with a stamp of her foot, Harry let out a chuckle. Strangely enough, seeing Hermione get angry on his behalf helped calm down his turbulent emotions.

He took a deep breath. "I'm glad you brought this to my attention, but I don't want to stress you over this when you already have so much on your plate. We can focus on it later, once we're done with the Sirius issue and the Second Task."

Hermione looked a little surprised. "Well, that's very… pragmatic of you."

"My best friend is Hermione Granger." Harry deadpanned. "Her no-nonsense disease had to spread to me eventually."

"Very funny, Harry!"

He snickered. "Besides, I can get closer to my parents in other ways in the meantime. Didn't Flitwick mention my mum being great at potions? Can you imagine Snape's face if I suddenly become the top of his class?"

It was a joke but Hermione seemed to be seriously contemplating it which just made him laugh harder

"It's possible, Harry! With a bit of work—"

Hermione prodded at him, Harry laughed, and they both bickered good-naturedly as they passed through the hallways. Harry returned to his dorms feeling much lighter than he had when leaving Flitwick's classroom.

ch 5

Dobby stared at Harry with his large, orb-like eyes. Harry stared back.

"So—did it work?" Harry was skeptical.

When Harry had asked Dobby if he was willing to work for him full time, he didn't know what he had been expecting. Well, no… the part where Dobby threw the laundry basket he was carrying to the ground and seized his hands, shaking them back and forth as he repeated, "Oh, Master Harry Potter Sir! Dobby, would love to. Dobby will quit Hogwarts right now, he will!" … that he expected. The procedure to bond the elf to himself—now, that was unexpected purely because of how simple it was.

Harry had outlined a few straightforward rules and guidelines before Dobby swore an oath of fealty to him in an unrecognizable language. The air seemed to shimmer around them and he felt a warm tingle in the hand Dobby had shaken, but it only lasted a few seconds.

"That's it?"

To Harry's utter dismay, Dobby sniffled loudly and big, fat tears rolled down his knobbly little face. "Dobby is bonded to Master Harry Potter Sir! Dobby shall serve Master for life!"

"Now look here," Harry rubbed his nose self consciously. "You did read that contract Hermione wrote for you, right? There's no such thing as 'serving for life.' You have the right to come to me about any concerns you have and the right to demand a pay raise and even the right to stop working for me should you wish it."

"Dobby would never abandon Master Harry Potter Sir! Dobby is a loyal elf!"

"Yes," Harry smiled. "But you are more than just that to me. You're my friend Dobby, and you'll remain so even when you work for me."

"Dobby… Dobby is Harry Potter's friend?" The sobbing began anew.

Harry patted the elf's shoulder awkwardly. "Come on, I should be thankful you're willing to bond yourself to me. As you might have noticed, it's not easy to be my friend. Someone's always trying to kill me every year and I imagine it gets tiring rather quickly."

The elf paused his sniffles and straightened his shoulders. "Dobby will walk with his friend every step of the way. Dobby is Harry Potter's elf now."

"Didn't you dislike serving wizarding families?" He was curious. "I thought you liked being a free elf because you weren't owned by anyone."

Dobby looked at him with large, serious eyes. "Dobby does not mind work. Dobby minds being owned, not being able to say no. Being Harry Potter's elf is different; now, Dobby has a family. Dobby has a place to belong."

Harry felt a lump in his throat form. Something in the desperate way Dobby looked at him, the earnestness with which he expressed his happiness at belonging, resonated with Harry down to his core. Harry thought of his younger self, the meek little boy in the cupboard who had never thought he would find a family, let alone find someone asking to be part of his.

"Family," Harry mumbled to himself, the corners of his mouth rising unconsciously. "It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

Harry had finally mastered the Fidelius Charm and he was eager to put it to use. Sirius had assured him that it wasn't necessary to actually see 12 Grimmauld Place in order to keep the location a secret, but Harry wasn't willing to gamble when it concerned his godfather's life. Besides, he was more than a little curious to see the place Sirius had grown up in.

"You're just bored and want to get outside," Hermione didn't even look up from her book.

"Am not!" Harry replied hotly. "There's a… purpose to this excursion. A very noble one." When Hermione glared at him, he sighed: "... and the nerves from the second task approaching might be finally getting to me. Yes, I want a break. Happy?"

She snorted. "I'm not accusing you, I want to see it too. I'm just worried about how we'll ever be able to leave in the first place. Wouldn't Dumbledore know that we've crossed the Hogwarts' wards?"

They were curled up on opposite ends of a big, comfy sofa that the Room of Requirement had conjured when Harry paced in front of it, thinking 'I just want to relax.'

A large fireplace provided the room with a cozy sense of warmth and Dobby had just brought them hot drinks and pastries from the kitchen. When Hermione asked the question, Dobby carefully put down the plate he was about to hand to Harry and revealed a proud, wide smile.

"Dobby can come and go from Hogwarts any way he wants, without Headmaster detecting! Wards are no problem to Dobby, Sir!"

"Brilliant!" Harry stood up from the sofa. "Reckon you could inform Sirius and apparate all of us there? I told Sirius we would be coming to take him to Grimmauld in the next few days in my last letter, so he should be prepared. Take my invisibility cloak too, just to be safe."

"Dobby will do so now, Friend Harry Potter, Sir!"

Harry sighed inwardly: he had somehow managed to get Dobby to stop calling him master, but Dobby was stubborn to a fault and had only replaced it with another title. At least this one was bearable.

When the elf came back and informed them that Sirius was waiting for them in the location under Harry's cloak, Harry and Hermione each held on to one of Dobby's skinny arms and tried not to feel sick as the world folded in around them.

12 Grimmauld Place was large and imposing, carrying an intimidating regality to it that shouldn't have worked so well for a three story townhouse. The rooms were luxuriously spacious and the furniture—what was left of it—was tasteful and elegant. Whoever named the house had done it a disservice by not naming it Grimmauld Palace instead.

However, Harry had to admit that there was nothing homely about the place. It was too cold. Too dark. Too dusty.

"Blasted cobwebs," Sirius muttered as he fired off another spell against one of the traps in the living room. "It's bad enough that dear old mum decided to ward the inside of this place with enough curses to kill me ten times over, but she couldn't even give that elf an order to dust the place once a millennium before croaking?"

Harry and Hermione exchanged a wry look. It had been surprisingly easy to get into Grimmauld as the aurors seemed to have given up keeping watch over the place. It was even easier to place the Fidelius over the location despite how nervous Harry had felt while casting it. Instead, the real battle occurred once they were inside and had to disable the endless traps Orion and Walburga Black had employed to protect the house in case anyone dared to sully it after their deaths.

Even that, he was sure would eventually be dealt with. What he was truly worried about was how Sirius seemed to flinch from the shadows of every room and seemed to grow more irritable, the worse they found the place. The condition of Grimmauld was just too depressing; it was like a fossil, a testament to the time that had gone by and the years Sirius had wasted rotting away in Azkaban. Wouldn't breathing in all the dust and mold and painful memories eventually suffocate him?

"Kreacher!" Sirius roared. "Show your sorry self!"

There was a crack and a stooping elf appeared. Unlike Dobby, he had a leathery face with deep lines of skin, a bulbous nose, gnarled hands, and bloodshot eyes that were currently squinting at Sirius with undisguised hatred.

"Ungrateful vermin is back," Kreacher moaned in a raspy voice. "Oh, how Kreacher's poor mistress hated him! Traitor to the family name!" When Sirius sneered at him but cut back his retort as Hermione put a hand on his shoulder, the elf turned his squinting eyes at Hermione and Harry instead.

"Nasty brats! Harry Potter, the boy who stopped the Dark Lord, standing there as bold as brass! Mudblood chit sullying my mistress' living room—the disgrace!"

"Don't call her that!" Both Harry and Sirius snarled.

Before any of them could say anything further, Dobby stepped forward with a glint in his eyes. "You is a terrible elf. Dobby would never treat his master like vermin; Dobby is a true elf who knows respect! And pride!"

Kreacher glared. "Youngling has come to give Kreacher a lesson?"

Dobby gave the older elf a haughty look. "Dobby has no need for ungrateful, lazy sack of bones! Dobby will take over cleaning of house himself!"

Kreacher stepped forward menacingly, "Snotty brat dares to presume authority over House Black"

Dobby cracked his knobbly knuckles. "Old, useless weasel dares to call filthy dump a house—"

"All right! Everyone calm down!" Hermione put her hands on her hips and glared so intimidatingly that even Kreacher took a tiny step back from her. "Kreacher, I know you have no love for Sirius, but tough luck, he's here to stay!" She softened at his aghast expression. "Do you really think your mistress would hate Sirius more than the Ministry? Despite Walburga Black's … disappointment in her eldest son, the Ministry still locked away the heir of the house with no regard to House Black's dignity or Sirius' innocence. They treated a member of the family like scum! Do you think your mistress would have been happy with that?"

"Scum!? Black family is the most honourable house. Most high!" Kreacher growled. "Mistress did not like being looked down on!" A thought seemed to occur to him then as he gleefully said pointedly to Sirius, "But traitor is not true member of Black Family. Ungrateful brat was kicked out."

Hermione gave the elf a sympathetic look. "Your mistress might have told you that in a fit of anger, but by law, she never made the actual move to remove Sirius from the family. I've already checked this, but you're free to do so as well. Upon her death and by her will, Sirius was made the master of the family and inheritor to everything of House Black."

"What?" Both the elf and Sirius screeched.

"That crazy old woman," Sirius muttered, but seemed to be lost in his own little world. "I thought that at most only my personal vault would be left over. What was she thinking?"

"Mistress… Mistress would never. There is still true heirs, Mistress Cissy and Bella to inherit—"

"According to who?" Hermione snorted. "For all she might have not liked Sirius, he was still her son—her only remaining son. You would rather have a Malfoy and Lestrange sully the family legacy instead of serving wholeheartedly the flesh and blood of your mistress?"

"Kreacher—Kreacher doesn't wish to speak with Mudblood any longer!" Harry thought the poor elf looked completely befuddled as he apparated away and he threw a surprised look at Hermione.

"What was all that about? I thought the first thing you'd do would be to advocate for his house elf rights, not turn his world upside down."

She snorted. "Don't worry, Sirius and I are going to have a long chat on how to appropriately treat your elf, especially one in his old age suffering from loneliness and a mild form of dementia." Sirius cringed. "But seeing how loyal Dobby is to you has really made me appreciate the value of trust with your workers. If Sirius is going to live here, we can't take the risk of having a hostile member in the house. Besides security reasons, it's just better for both of their state of mind if they can get along without trying to kill each other."

"I suppose I'll just have to ignore the little bugger," Sirius grumbled. "But enough about Kreacher, what did your elf here mean that he'll take over the cleaning of the place?"

"Dobby is Harry Potter's elf and Paddy is Harry Potter's family so he is Dobby's family now!" Dobby gave Sirius one of his earnest, gummy smiles and even Sirius had to give him a small, uncertain one back.

"I think it's a great idea!" Harry beamed and felt the burden of leaving Sirius in this gloomy place all by himself lessen. "There's not much for Dobby to do for me at Hogwarts anyway and I can always call him through the bond if I ever need anything."

"That's decided then!" Hermione clapped, glad it all worked out in the end.

Later when they were in the kitchen and forcing copious amounts of healthy food down Sirius' throat, they heard Dobby merrily humming a tune as he cleaned the stairs.

Harry swore at one point Dobby exclaimed, "What great practice for Dobby's Potter Manor! Dobby is sharpening his skills, yes he is!"

Chapter Text

The second task was tomorrow morning.

Harry had no doubt that the him from the start of the semester would have been in full blown panic mode, probably having no idea what to expect from the task or how to even pass it. He would probably have buried himself in the library somewhere and secretly wished for a shelf to fall on him while Hermione worked throughout the night to save his sorry arse once again.

But the current Harry was different. He had not one but two solutions under his sleeve: the Gillyweed had worked perfectly in a test trial at the Prefect's Bathroom while the bubblehead charm was saved as an alternative safety measure. He had also spent the last few months using the books provided by the Room of Requirement to research the layout of underwater environments and how to use handy little spells and know-hows to navigate his way towards populous underwater areas.

He was ready. Completely prepared. He had never felt so confident in his life. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Hermione.

Harry subtly reached out and snatched the book her face was buried in out of her hands.

"Why don't we just relax? I swear I've seen you read that book three times already."

"Harry!" She huffed. "Give it back! What if I missed something? What if it was important? What if you'll need it for the task—"

"Hermione!" He stood up from his chair "Look at me, I'm not worried. Why? Because I'm prepared, I'm ready for whatever they throw at me. You made me ready."

Her eyes darted away from his guiltily. "I know! But I can't help but worry! I doubt I'll be able to see how you're doing once you enter the Black Lake. It's such a terrible feeling, knowing that you're in danger, but not being able to do anything."

"Is that what it was like for the dragon?"

"Don't remind me." She shuddered at the memory.

"Hey, if I could survive that, this will be a walk in the park," Harry joked. When Hermione said nothing, he sighed. "I never told you, did I? During the first task, I was flying on the seat of my broom, thinking I would fall any minute or be burnt to ashes the next second. The only thing that kept me sane was remembering your words, your belief that I would win. So... you see, in a way, you were there all along—fighting that great, ugly Horntail by my side."

She seemed too stupefied by his confession to say anything, and so Harry took the opportunity to shove the stack of books by her side out of the way and pull her out of her chair.

"I'll get past this task the same way." Seeing her shoulders loosen, Harry smirked. "Now, can we please leave?"

"Ooh!" She crossed her arms and tried to fight back a smile. "You can't go around saying such unbearably sweet things to try and win against me—not when I'm such an emotional wreck. That's playing dirty."

Harry was about to respond that he didn't care if he played unfairly, as long as it stopped her from looking so damn miserable worrying over him—as long as she smiled again—but at that moment, Fred and George emerged from behind a bookshelf, saying that McGonagall was asking for Hermione.

Walking back to the dormitories alone, Harry somehow felt like his steps were getting heavier and couldn't get rid of the uneasy feeling rising within him.

She never came back.

As the hours passed in the common room, even the fire started to dwindle, with Harry's heart sinking lower and lower. She had promised that she would be back soon. Hermione never made promises to him that she failed to keep—not unless, she had no other choice in the matter.

The timing was too suspicious. She had disappeared right before the second task; surely, that wasn't a coincidence? Harry paced across the large room, the nerves in his stomach not letting him stay still. Was she safe? Was she okay? The order had come from McGonagall and there was no reason for a teacher to take her unless—

Harry felt his knees go weak. Unless she was part of the preparations for the Tournament.

The lines from the riddle ran through his brain haphazardly:

We've taken what you'll sorely miss.

Who. Not what. It was a who this whole time. Who in this school would he ever consider precious enough to 'sorely' miss? There was no one else, really.

Well, Harry thought, that's decided then: they've taken her beneath that god awful lake and I'm going to have to get her back.

The last two lines of the poem seemed to mock him:

But past an hour, the prospect's black,

Too late, it's gone, it won't come back.

All the ease and confidence from before vanished like smoke, leaving him trembling on the floor with an all-consuming fear. If it was just his life at stake, he wouldn't care as much. But this was Hermione. Hermione, the only true friend he really had.

The world had taken almost every spark of happiness from his life; he would be damned if he let them take Hermione too.

The Gillyweed worked like a charm: the icy water no longer felt like the Tundra and was instead pleasantly cool against his skin, his gills passed on oxygen to his body so there was no fear of suffocating, and his flipper-like feet propelled him forward with mind-numbing speed. It was almost too much to take in for the boy who had at most played once or twice at the shallow end of the pool before being choked by Dudley. He was moving too fast, the water rushing past him, as he entered the seemingly endless depths of the lake. It was too black—the darkness seemed to want to swallow him whole.

But all those fears meant nothing to him when he remembered that Hermione was down there somewhere. Go faster, he urged himself despite his apprehension, go further into the darkness.

The scenery flashed by quickly and he came to an area of gray-lit water where strands of black seaweed and a group of grindylows were floating. He recognized the setting from one of the many descriptions in the books about magical underwater environments. He wasn't far, he only had to cross that expanse of black mud—

Faster. I can do this. Just a little faster.

When he heard the familiar singing of the merpeople, he almost wept from relief and the want to give his exhausted muscles a reprieve. But it wasn't over, yet. He had to find Hermione.

He saw the merpeople first: with their grey, scaly skin, wild hair, and sharp, yellow eyes. Some of them leered at him mockingly but he paid them no mind as he swam directly to the center of the crowd where four people were tied to a stone merman statue.

I've found you. Harry sighed in relief, even as his heart sank from the way Hermione floated there—so listless and lifeless, so much like that terrible time when she had been petrified and he hadn't known whether she would ever wake up again.

A sense of urgency seized him and he brandished his wand towards the ropes binding Hermione, whispering a spell and hoping it would work despite the bubbling noise that came from his speech instead. It didn't. He searched around for something sharp and gathered the rocks from the lake's floor, using them to saw away at the ropes. One of the jagged edges sliced his hand but he hardly noticed.

Thankfully, the ropes soon fell away and Harry hurriedly grabbed Hermione. The texture of her wet hair brushing against his face, the reassuring weight as he took her into his arms calmed him down slightly—she's here, she's safe now. I've got her.

He looked towards the three other people still tied to the statue. Cho with her head hanging listlessly downwards, a petite, silver-haired girl whose face was turning green, and a dark-haired boy who reminded him of Krum. His head swivelled, and he craned his neck to see if any other champions had arrived, but no one was in sight. What should he do? He couldn't just leave the rest of them, it wasn't right. What if the other champions didn't make it—

". . . your time's half gone, so tarry not.

Lest what you seek stays here to rot. . ."

Harry froze and his blood ran cold as he stared at the unconscious girl in his arms. Time was running out: was he willing to stay here and risk Hermione's life? For what? So he could play hero, as always?

I'm sorry, he thought as he hung on to Hermione tightly with one arm and started swimming back in the direction he had come from. If it was just me, I would have stayed. I would have saved you.

ch 6

But he couldn't do that now. Having someone more precious to him than anyone else, he realized, had made him selfish.

It was slower going back with the extra weight and only one webbed hand to wade forward. Ignoring his sore leg muscles, he used his flipper feet to rush out of the darkness. His shoulders ached and even with the gillyweed, the frantic exercise was making it hard to keep his breathing steady. It made him worry about Hermione; he had taken her from the statue, how long did he have before she woke up and needed air? The thought made him double his efforts.

Finally, he saw light from above and pushed forward. As soon as they emerged to the surface, he heard a sharp inhale of breath and turned to look at Hermione blinking water out of her eyes.

The people from the stands were cheering and someone came to help them onto the stage while another wrapped towels around their shivering forms.

"You did it, Harry!" Hermione sounded ecstatic, even as she spoke through clattering teeth. "You passed the task and you're the first one too!"

"Who the hell cares about that right now?" Harry muttered under his breath before yanking her back into his arms and satisfying himself with the knowledge that she was here—wet and shivering, but safe.

"Did you know this is the first time you've hugged me and not the other way around?" She mumbled against his shoulder. "I think I should play hostage more often if this is the reaction I'd get. "

"Don't even joke about that," he groaned while inwardly thinking, Is it really the first?

He was still shaking from the cold or from something else; he didn't know. "I thought I was going to lose you. Do you know how terrified I was?"

"Oh, Harry," She didn't need to say anything else and held onto him tightly.

As she turned her head to the right, Harry caught sight of a beetle in her hair and casually flicked it off.

There was the sound of shouting and Harry looked up to see a frazzled looking Fleur dashing his way. She had a towel wrapped lopsidedly around her and there were tear tracks staining her face. "Please, 'ave you seen my leetle sister, Gabrielle? Is she alive? Is she safe? Is she 'urt?"

Harry couldn't look into her eyes, ashamed. "I saw her. She was petrified like the rest of them at the bottom of the lake... that's all I know."

Fleur broke down into sobs and Harry felt the need to apologize. "I'm sorry, I wish I could have done something—but there was so little time—I was so scared something would happen to Hermione—"

Hermione shook her head at him. "I know that must have been terrible for you. But don't worry, I wasn't in any real danger and neither should Fleur's sister—"

"No real danger?" His voice rose. "You weren't awake down there. You didn't see… the pitch-black darkness, your face turning grey and losing all signs of life, those damned merpeople surrounding us with their spears and looking like they'd skewer us at any moment."

The volume of his voice attracted the attention of the judges, and both Dumbledore and Bagman looked over at him curiously.

"Harry," Dumbledore said, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Your concern for your friend is admirable, but I assure you all hostages were treated with the utmost care. The merpeople and I formed an agreement so that any remaining hostages would be brought up to the surface. Their lives were never in question."

Bagman nodded and looked at Harry with sympathy, which just angered him further.

"I don't care if you took every precaution possible, you still had no right to take Hermione or any other hostage down there. None!"

Dumbledore's face remained impassive, but Harry was sure he caught a flicker of disappointment in his eyes. Perhaps he thought that Harry was acting unreasonably. Maybe he was. Maybe he was an idiot for being so scared and believing the stupid riddle word for word. But that didn't make it right.

"It's bad enough that I was forced into this tournament against my will, but pulling innocent people into this? Designing a riddle that would scare us half to death? What was it all even for—some cheap entertainment factor? No one could see beneath the lake anyway!"

Hermione was pulling at his arm and he couldn't stand the silence after his words, so he turned away from the judges in frustration.

"Whoever made this task is a blithering idiot." He grumbled quietly, but perhaps not quietly enough as Bagman's face soured.

Hermione seemed to have had enough and dragged him to the edge of the platform overlooking the lake. "You can't just insult the organizer of the events like that! What if Bagman designs the last task to be even harder to get back at you?"

Harry snorted. "What else can they do to me that they already haven't?"

She groaned, but stopped scolding him when Fleur approached.

"Zank you for saying vat you did back zere, 'arry. You are right, I never signed up for zis. I can get 'urt in zis tournament, but my sister is not to be placed in danger. No one is allowed to 'urt my family."

Harry unconsciously glanced at Hermione, remembering her comatose state in the lake, and nodded his agreement.

Hermione gave up on continuing to scold him when she caught sight of his hand, which Harry had quite forgotten was wounded. "Harry, you're bleeding! Why didn't you tell me you'd gotten hurt?"

It was a little embarrassing going to Madam Pomfrey for a shallow wound when he had gotten rather used to only seeing her for life-threatening injuries. But Hermione was adamant ("You got that from saving me, I have to take responsibility.") and led them to Pomfrey who kept giving Harry secret little smiles that he had no idea what to make of.

When they made it back, they joined the audience in waiting silently for the rest of the Champions to return: Cedric emerged from the water first, looking exhausted but carrying Cho, who was coughing up mouthfuls of water, to see a healer. Next was Krum, who gave a one-armed embrace to the dark-haired boy who was likely his brother. Finally, a merperson tossed up Gabrielle and vanished with a swish of its tail; Fleur screamed and cradled Gabrielle in her arms immediately, fidgeting over her like a mother hen and hissing what Harry assumed were French curses under her breath.

All around him, people were simultaneously crying and smiling and embracing their loved ones. It gave him a strange sense of deja-vu, reminding him of the existence of a boy who would stand alone in the shadows in such reunions. A boy who had neither someone to care for nor someone who cared for him.

Beside him, Hermione squeezed his uninjured hand and jolted him back to the present.

Now I have both, he thought as he squeezed back.

As they were heading back to the castle, Viktor Krum suddenly approached them and asked if he could have a moment alone with Hermione. Harry eyed him suspiciously as Hermione led the Dursmstrang student a small distance away to speak. At some point in the conversation, Krum glanced Harry's way and she turned a furious shade of red and shook her head. She shook her head a few more times and seemed to be talking very fast before Krum gave her a helpless smile and held out his hand. Hermione shook it amiably.

When she returned, Harry was overcome by curiosity and couldn't help but ask, "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing much," a light dusting of pink still covered her face and she seemed adamant on not talking about it so Harry dropped the subject.

They were eating breakfast at the Great Hall when owl after owl landed near Hermione's plate and dropped off a mountain of letters.

"What in the world!" Hermione exclaimed as she opened a letter, her eyes widening as they travelled along the page. "Oh, for goodness sake!"

Harry ripped open one of the letters near him: 'You are a sad, miserable excuse of a witch. Stay away from Harry Potter if you know what's good for you, muggle.'

He grabbed another.

'You think you can play the Boy-Who-Lived like a puppet. In the end, you'll be the one crying. Shameless wench!'

Another. And another. They were all the same, insulting Hermione in every way possible, mocking her looks and her heritage, accusing her of debauchery and low moral standards. Harry would have thought it hilarious in any other situation because clearly these people knew nothing about his best friend and how brilliant she really was. But Hermione kept ripping one letter after the other, her eyebrows furrowing with frustration the more she read and Harry felt his ire rising at these nameless people who had dared to put that expression on her face, supposedly for his sake.

"Ouch!" Hermione cried, as the last letter opened and covered her hands in a sickly looking yellowish-green liquid. Harry stood up in horror as large boils erupted all over her hands and tears sprang to her eyes.

"We have to go to the Hospital Wing!" He grabbed her bag and made a hand motion for her to hurry up. "Come on, before those boils get any worse."

"Harry!" Hermione protested. "I'll go by myself, you have Potions right now and Professor Snape—"

Harry proceeded to use a colorful list of words for where Snape could shove his opinions, ignored Hermione's shocked gasp in favour of gingerly grabbing her by the arm, and marched them to the Hospital Wing.

Madam Pomfrey fussed over Hermione, but she didn't seem all that surprised to have her there, and neither did she ask her any details for what had happened. When Harry asked her, she sighed and said, "I had expected something like this after reading the paper."

"What paper?"

She tutted, "Miss Granger, you are hardly in the state to worry about that right now. What you need is rest."

"How can I when people out there are talking about me and I didn't even know about it? I hate being behind on information!" Hermione begged and pleaded before Madam Pomfrey finally relented.

After the bandaging was done, she placed a Witch Weekly article in front of them and informed Harry that in no circumstances was he to allow his overly enthusiastic friend to turn the pages or use her hands for the next two hours at all.

Hermione looked at him impatiently and he rolled his eyes before squeezing on to the hospital bed and holding up the article in front of her. It said in large, bolded letters: "MUGGLEBORN WITCH TWO-TIMING THE BOY-WHO-LIVED AND FAMOUS QUIDDITCH PLAYER." Underneath that in fancy cursive was the subtitle: "Harry Potter's Secret Heartache."

Hermione's eyes skimmed it over with lightning speed. The article stated Harry was in a one-sided love with his 'plain but ambitious' girlfriend, who was merely latching on to him for his fame while she turned her eyes elsewhere.

Harry ignored both the word 'girlfriend' and the awkwardness it made him feel, choosing to focus on something more important.

"Ambitious, that I can see. But plain? I reckon Skeeter needs a new glasses prescription." He nudged Hermione who let out an unladylike snort, but couldn't quite hide her smile.

Skeeter cited that only a short while after they had engaged in a 'scandalous' display of public affection during the second task, Hermione had 'abandoned' Harry for Krum's side.

"Scandalous?" Harry sputtered. "It was just a hug!"

"Which," Hermione raised her chin smugly, "you initiated."

Harry snorted. "Are you still going on about that? How many times will I have to hug you first before you let it go?"

She nodded gravely. "You have three years of hugs to make up for, Harry James Potter. Three whole years of Harry Hugs."

Well, Harry thought as he recalled the pleasant way she had felt in his arms, that doesn't sound like much of a hardship.

Hermione was continuing her rant: "And honestly! I was standing not ten feet away from you! I would hardly call that 'abandoning!'"

The article continued to spin a tale of betrayal and heartache, inserting the fact that Hermione had been 'the person he would miss most' to spice up the tale in every other sentence. Apparently, Krum had confessed to Hermione and asked if there was a chance for him with Harry in the picture. Rita reported that she had made a 'sly move' by acting like Harry and her were 'just friends' and in refusing Krum's approach, she was only playing 'hard to get.'

'Miss Granger seems to have a very unique definition of friendship,' one line said mockingly.

"Now, that's just not right." Harry frowned, frustrated. Hermione had her own faults: she was too demanding at times, a little headstrong and stubborn, sometimes a little too bossy… But she was not a bad friend. On the contrary, his friendship with Hermione was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. It rattled him to see strangers poking their noses into their friendship and acting as if they had a right to tear it apart for entertainment.

Hermione made a sound of agreement. "Yes, I think so too! Something's not right at all. How did she know what I told you after we came out of the lake? How did she know that Viktor confessed to me? She had to have been spying somehow—either through an invisibility cloak or something else I'm overlooking!"

"Wait," Harry swiveled his head to look at her. "He actually confessed to you?"

"Yes," Hermione squared her shoulders, as if expecting to defend herself.

"I mean," Harry rubbed his neck awkwardly, "I just thought Skeeter was exaggerating things like she always does. So, Krum really did that—asked if there was something between you and me?"

"Yes—well," she fidgeted, "I set him straight on that one, but he didn't seem to believe me for some reason. Anyway, I just ended the conversation by telling him that although I didn't see myself visiting him in Bulgaria any time soon, I was flattered by his invitation and hoped we could be friends. Then we shook hands. That's it."

"That's it." He echoed.

There was an awkward silence for a long moment before Harry blurted out. "He was too old for you anyway!"

She raised an eyebrow, and he struggled for something else to add: "And too gloomy!"

Hermione giggled. "Harry, there's no need to worry. I wasn't going to say yes. I barely know anything about him! Besides, I'm too busy trying to make sure you survive to even think of anything else this year."

"Well, now I feel even more guilty."

"What for?"

"Being my friend has brought you nothing but trouble." He motioned towards her heavily bandaged hands. "And I make you too invested in my problems to the point that you worry all the time and barely have time for yourself."

Hermione snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. Need I remind you that I chose to be your friend? I think, in some twisted way, I even appreciate all these headaches you get involved in. Otherwise, how would I ever challenge myself?"

"What, plain old Hogwarts too boring for you?" Harry smirked. "You need dark lords, basilisks, dementors, and dragons to get that excitement going?"

"You face increasingly dangerous situations every year; if I don't level up accordingly, where would that leave me? There's no fun if we're not winning!"

She meant it as a joke, he knew, but it struck him at that moment how true it was. Every year he faced something more terrible. His first year he had faced Voldemort's wraith. By seventh year, would he be facing Voldemort in the flesh? He shuddered at the thought and quickly banished it to the back of his mind.

Despite Hermione's repeated assurances that she was fine and that the letters didn't bother her, Harry decided that they bothered him.

Usually, he would have gone along with her and been happy to let the issue rest; he didn't like confrontations and complicating matters if he could avoid it. But this was Hermione. What kind of friend would he be if he abandoned her to deal with the scrutiny alone?

He doubted that the lowlifes sending threatening, malicious letters to an innocent fifteen-year-old girl would be difficult opponents.

"Finally, I get to use some spells from those damned lists," Harry muttered to himself as he opened a bag of letters and arranged them in neat rows on the floor of the Owlery. He had already cast Tracking Charms on Hermione's letters and addressed the ones on the ground to each sender.

Dear Helper,

Thank you ever so much for offering your assistance in regards to my relationship with Hermione Granger. I had no idea she held such malicious intentions. You see, Miss Granger has been my constant companion from the moment I stepped into the wizarding world. Perhaps her unwavering loyalty, selflessness, and determination to be a true friend have blinded my eyes to her true colours. I am very glad that strangers who know nothing about me have decided to interfere in my life.

I am sure you will be saddened to know that the threats sent to Miss Granger had very little effect on her. Please find my consolation gift attached; it should have taken effect by the time you've finished reading this message.

Forever grateful,


A stinging hex had been attached to the parchment and was designed to activate within thirty seconds. He thought it fitting that their sharp insults would be returned back to them, sting for sting.

For the last letter, Harry had decided to use a hex that caused just as many boils and sores as the bubotuber pus, but all over the body and lasted a full day before a counter charm could be applied. Yes, it was included in Hermione's "Harmful Hexes" list, but it was fairly low on the list and, really, Harry was tired of playing nice.

"All right," Harry whistled. "Time to set off now." The owls around him one by one dropped down and picked up a letter, before setting off to the sky. Hedwig took the last one from his hand and hooted happily before leaving as well.

"Well," he said to himself, "Must have been the right thing to do if even Hedwig approves." Others might not agree with getting 'revenge' and choose the moral high ground instead, but Harry was beginning to realize that not stifling his emotions and indulging in his pettiness was quite refreshing.

I should really do this more often.

Harry's eyes ran over the list titled: 'Potential Offensive Spells to Learn, but Hopefully NOT Use: Restricted Version.' All the other lists had spells in the double digits, but this was the only list with less than ten items. Even when McGonagall had given them permission to access the Restricted Section, they had been too focused on preparing for the second task to add many spells to the list. As for the first task, once Harry had found out his opponent was a dragon, he had quickly focused on escaping rather than fighting. There had been no real need to double down on the offensive tactics.

For some reason, he kept getting the feeling that there was a need now.

Beside him, Hermione let out a small yawn and stretched her arms in the air. "There! That's the homework for this week done. Now we can start planning for the third task."

These days, they divided their time outside classes mostly between the library and the Room of Requirement. Currently, they were in the library and sitting only a few shelves away from the Restricted Section. Harry wondered if McGonagall's permission slip applied for the third task as well. If it didn't, he would have to find a way to persuade her or Flitwick to allow him access.

"I've been thinking," Harry said slowly, "We really need to expand this list."

She took the parchment from him and frowned. "What brought this on?"

"It was something you said, actually. About me facing greater dangers year after year. Always at the same time too—at the very end of the year—almost like I've been cursed."

"Don't be silly, why would anyone curse—"

"Why not? I'm the bloody Boy-Who-Lived! From the moment I survived that night, I've had a target literally carved on my forehead. All it would take is some overzealous death eater to waste powerful magic on making sure that I never make it to adulthood."

"It sounds far-fetched, but at the same time, I can't outright deny it." Hermione mused. "Every end of the year something terrible happens to you without fail."

Harry rubbed his head tiredly. "I'm not even arguing that a curse exists—just that it might as well from how consistently horrible the end of the year is for me. I know I should be glad that I've passed two out of three tasks and that I'm in the lead for points, but something doesn't feel right. Things never work out so happily for me."

"You think the third task is going to be on the same level of dangers you've faced the last three year ends?"

"I sound paranoid, don't I? I don't know if it's because the world hates me or fate doesn't like seeing me go back to the Dursleys without having a near escape from death, but the pattern is there. I might as well learn from the past and prepare early."

"You're not paranoid, Harry." She looked grave. "I don't know why I never noticed it either, but now that I have, I don't want you entering those types of situations without being ready. Voldemort in first year, the basilisk, the dementors—I know you used your own strength to face them, but there was also a heavy dose of luck involved."

His smile was bitter and self-mocking. "You don't need to mince words. I survived despite my recklessness and stupidity because I was a lucky bastard."

"What! No, you survived because you were brave, resourceful, quick on your feet and lucky. I doubt that many other people could have filled your shoes and survived. Never sell yourself short, Harry."

"Maybe that was enough then." He stared at the list, unease stirring in his stomach at the looming threat of the third task. "Somehow, I don't think it will be enough now."

Chapter Text

He had grown so close to Hermione this year—more open, trusting, and comfortable than he had been with anyone else, really—that he had forgotten what it was like to get into an argument with her. And how much he truly hated it.

It was late evening when Dobby apparated him back to Hogwarts from seeing Sirius and he nearly bumped into Hermione in his rush to enter the dormitories before curfew started.

She was standing in front of the Fat Lady's portrait and blocking his way, with her arms crossed and foot tapping on the floor. "Why the rush? You've already been gone so long you might as well wait in the corridors for Filch to catch you on his patrol."

"Hermione," Harry said, exasperated. "Let me through."

"Why should I?" She turned up her nose at him. "You said you would be back to the dorms in two hours. Do you know much time has passed? Six hours. Six!"

"So I lost track of time a little—it happens!" He was beginning to get frustrated. "Padfoot was telling me some old stories of his and I just forgot, all right?"

"Just—just forgot?"

"Yeah, you know, that thing where your brain decides not to remind you of something."

"I know what it means, thank you very much. What I don't understand is how you could be so scatterbrained—"

"Oh, will you two shut it!" The Fat Lady led out a massive yawn. "What are you doing having a lover's spat while I'm trying to sleep? Get in already!"

Both teenagers glared at the other and reluctantly shuffled inside the Common Room. Only a few stragglers had yet to go to bed and Hermione dragged Harry to one of the far away, unoccupied corners before hissing, "Harry, you have got to be more responsible than this! If you disappear for such long hours at a time, someone is bound to notice and try to find out the reason why."

"Dobby already said that Dumbledore can't sense when we leave the wards, who would be able to track me? Even if I'm not seen for a while, I can just say I was studying at the library and fell asleep or something."

"Yes, but disappear often and long enough and even Dumbledore will get suspicious. I doubt he would approve of your frequent visits to Sirius. And what if it isn't Dumbledore who notices—what if it's someone who would want to do you harm when you leave Hogwarts' wards? Have you forgotten that we still don't know who put your name in the Goblet?"

"It's not like I go every day! I don't know why you're so upset about this—you could have come along too, but you said you were too busy."

"Busy with schoolwork! Busy with trying to keep you alive for the third task! It's not just me, you don't have the time to waste."

"So, it's a waste now, is it?" Harry said bitterly. "Haven't you seen him trapped in that big, old, dusty place with no one but two elves for company? He's lonely and miserable. Don't you even care?"

"Of course I care! How—how could you even insinuate that I don't?"

He snorted. "I get it, he's not your family. You have more important things to worry about."

She threw up her hands in the air and stalked away from him.

Harry avoided Hermione for the most part of the next day. Out of pure annoyance, he summoned Dobby and asked if he could apparate him to Grimmauld.

Dobby wrung his hands, looking distraught. "Dobby… Dobby can't. Dobby doesn't want Harry Potter to get hurt!"


"Harry Potter's Miss Granger has told Dobby that it is dangerous to visit Paddy too often. Harry Potter promised that Dobby could choose to do what he wants and Dobby only wants to do what will keep Harry Potter safe!"

He stared up at Harry as if dreading him changing his request into an order—something he was loath to do anyway. He never wanted to be like Dobby's previous master who would strip away his choice of free will. No, the cause of his current state of anger was that Hermione had gone behind his back and manipulated Dobby by using the elf's concern for him.

"When did she tell you it would be 'safe' for me to go back?" He tried to keep his voice steady.

"The end of this week, Harry Potter Sir," Dobby replied meekly.

Harry spent the rest of the day fuming and refused to speak to Hermione when she tried to approach him that evening. If she was going to be like this, he might as well not talk to her at all until she realized what she had done wrong. A week… what would Sirius think of his absence without any explanation?

The next morning, he made his way to breakfast with a headache and heavy bags under his eyes. Hermione was already there at the Gryffindor's table, munching on toast and staring at the paper without much focus. She looked up and froze as their eyes met.

Harry, too, paused in his steps. Hesitating.

After what felt like forever, he walked past Hermione and sat next to Neville further down the table.

"Morning, Harry." Neville eyed him curiously. "Rough night again?"

He rubbed his forehead wearily. "You could say that."

One day passing hadn't done anything to lessen the frustration at his best friend and worry over his godfather, keeping him awake that night. For some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about third year and that time Hermione had gone behind his back to McGonagall about his broom. It had been about his safety then too, and yes, she had been right after all, but her apparent lack of trust in him had rankled him then and it rankled him now.

Neville glanced at Hermione, but wisely chose not to say anything.

Harry, too, looked over at his best friend who had her shoulders hunched and was staring down at her hands. He felt a surge of guilt rising within him, but somehow managed to squash it down.

He ate as quickly as he could and exited the Great Hall, feeling a strange emptiness grow inside of him as he stood motionlessly in the hallway. Usually, he and Hermione would take a short walk outside or leisurely make their way to their first class as they discussed their plans for the day. There was still time until class and Harry found himself at a loss for what to do in between.

"Oh, good. You're still here." He turned around to find Neville, panting slightly and holding out a school bag to him. "You forgot this."

Harry cringed as he realized the bag was his and awkwardly said his thanks.

"Don't mention it. I could tell you were distracted about something." Neville gave a faint smile. "I don't think it's about the Tournament or breathing underwater this time, so I won't be of much assistance."

Ever since that night when Neville had mentioned the gillyweed to him, Harry found himself speaking more often to the soft-spoken Gryffindor. There was something so unassuming and open about him, that made it easy for people to relax.

"No, not the Tournament this time." Harry still didn't feel comfortable talking directly about Hermione. "What would you do if someone you care about showed a lack of trust in you?"

Neville winced. "Have you met my grandmother? She didn't trust me to be alone with a wand until I was already on the Hogwarts Express."

Harry suddenly had an absurd image of Hermione wearing a stuffed vulture hat and holding a bright red handbag as she stared down at him disapprovingly, and couldn't help but let out a bark of laughter.

"See?" Neville shook his head self-mockingly. "I don't know how to deal with the trust issue myself, but whatever problem you're having simply can't be as bad as my gran. Cheer up."

Well, that's certainly one way of looking at it.

Classes went by uneventfully. It wasn't as bad as Harry thought it would be, especially while sitting next to Neville. Sometimes the boy stuttered and when he couldn't muster up a topic of conversation, he almost always resorted to droning on and on about Herbology. But he also surprised Harry with his occasional dry humour and random tidbits about the Wizarding World.

During the evening, Harry caught sight of Hermione making her way to the library and at the spur of the moment started walking in the opposite direction, deciding that he might as well drop by Hagrid's Hut. It had been a while since his last visit.

He was a little taken aback when Neville followed suit.

"Um, Neville," Harry started to say awkwardly. "Classes are over."

"I know."

"I'm just going to go some—"

"I'll come with you! I've got nothing else to do!"

Harry groaned. It seemed that his little bout of depression that morning had caught Neville's attention and the usually meek, uncertain boy was oddly determined to keep Harry company.

By the time they arrived at Hagrid's Hut, Neville looked a bit apprehensive.

"It's just Hagrid," Harry said.

"I know that," Neville whispered, "but he's looked so down this last month. Are you sure he'd want visitors?"

It was true that after Rita Skeeter's article exposed his giant blood, Hagrid had taken it very badly—barely speaking to anyone and hiding in his hut whenever he didn't have to teach his class. It wasn't until Harry and Hermione knocked some sense into him and assured him that no one would think less of him just because his mum was a giantess, that he had come out from seclusion and tried to go back to normal. However, Harry knew all too well the power of gossip, scornful stares, and poisonous words and he was concerned that Hagrid might relapse into a bout of self-doubt and depression.

He need not have worried: Hagrid opened the door with a large grin on his face and heartily welcomed them in.

"If it isn' Harry! An' Neville—this is a surprise!" He patted the two on their shoulders and Harry chuckled when he saw Neville jump at the enthusiastic greeting.

Hagrid's smile faltered as he looked behind them. "Hermione didn' come with yeh?"

Harry looked down at his feet, not sure if he should tell the truth—poor Hagrid was already so confused at the rift that had developed between him and Ron—but Neville spoke up in his place: "I saw her heading to the library."

That answer seemed to satisfy him for they were soon settled on the table and Hagrid rummaged for cakes and tea to feed them.

Harry had always been aware of the candor and easy-going nature Hagrid had in the trio's presence compared to other students, but it was especially apparent now as Hagrid awkwardly stumbled with his attempts to engage Neville in conversation.

The shy boy responded with one-word answers until Hagrid said: "So—er—Neville, Professor Sprout tells me yer a prodigy at Herbology."

That was all it took for the dam to burst. Neville lit up and began talking at length about a new plant he was studying that was the main diet of one of the creatures that had been introduced in their last Care of Magical Creatures class. Hagrid stroked his chin in thought and started firing off questions while Harry sipped his tea, content to watch their exchange with amusement.

Once the conversation paused, Harry noted the large smile on Hagrid's face and remarked with heartfelt sincerity: "It's good to see you like this, Hagrid. I'm glad you're doing better."

"Better?" The giant man seemed confused before he thumped his knee in understanding. "Yer talkin' about Skeeter? Bah, I won' give her any more attention."

"Forget about me," Hagrid waved a hand, "What about Hermione? Heard she got some nasty letters."

"Oh. That...I took care of it." Harry shrugged and began to explain how he had given those letter senders a taste of their own medicine.

"That's brilliant!" Neville said with a look of awe on his face. "Did any of them reply back?"

Harry smirked. "Hedwig did bring me back some letters with their signature magical trace, but I threw them in the fireplace. Couldn't be bothered to read."

"And what did Hermione have ter say about this?"

"Don't tell her about this," Harry said, panicking slightly. It would be so awkward if she found out now, while they were in the midst of an argument. What if she thought he was trying to get back into her good graces? Worse...what if she looked down at him for it? He didn't want her to know yet of that darker part of him—the one that had rejoiced at the retaliation, in getting some small revenge. 

"I—I didn't do it to gain any sort of recognition. I know it probably wasn't the most mature thing to do, but I was just so furious and it felt right, as strange as that sounds."

Hagrid appeared confused but Neville just gave him a long look and said nothing.

He kept his silence until they had left Hagrid's Hut and were walking back to the castle, where he suddenly blurted: "I know it's not any of my business."

"What?" Harry paused in his steps.

"About you and Hermione—obviously, you're having some sort of argument with each other. It's not my place to tell you what to do, but I just wanted to say...she looked rather lonely today."

Neville looked down at the grass.

"And so did you."

After a while, it became clear that Hermione was avoiding him just as much as he was avoiding her. Harry was tired and frustrated—with himself, with Hermione, with Neville for telling the damn truth. Still, he didn't want to be the one to break.

He was initially hell-bent on keeping his silence, but it got harder and harder as the days went by. The first day he almost sat next to Hermione in the Great Hall instinctively. The second day, he had to stop himself from calling out her name when he saw her in the corridor. The third, he looked beside him after finishing up his assignments in the library only to realize there was no one there to offer him the smile he had become used to. A few times he bumped into Hermione in the Common Room or during classes and they would both open their mouths only to close them and turn away awkwardly. By the end, his resolve had almost completely crumbled and he was operating on sheer stubbornness alone.

He missed her.

When the day finally came where Dobby felt it 'safe' to take him to Sirius, Harry expected to be faced with a miserable godfather and an earful of complaints about his absence. Instead, Sirius' face looked fuller and brighter than ever and he greeted Harry with cheer.

Harry had eaten less that morning so that he could eat with Sirius to his heart's content—his godfather was never satisfied unless he left the dinner table completely full— and was thus a bit surprised to see that the meal was lighter than usual.

Sirius noted his puzzled gaze and explained, "Turns out my body isn't well suited to eating large amounts of heavy food just yet. According to my nutritionist, I have to strengthen my body first and start small."

"Your nutritionist?" Harry's fork paused in midair.

Sirius frowned. "Did I mispronounce it again? I swear Hermione said I was saying it right."


"Didn't she tell you? She pointed out that although I can't enter wizarding society no matter what disguise I put on, the same risk doesn't apply to muggles. All they know is what I looked like in that wanted poster and a decent disguise plus a few charms can pass me off as a normal muggle pretty easily."

"So… she had you go to a nutritionist?" Harry was still trying to wrap his head around the concept of hearing that term associated with someone besides his obese cousin.

"Nutritionist. Psychol—a muggle mind healer, I think. And an exercise trainer. I told her a few potions from St. Mungos and I would be as good as new but she insisted on doing it the 'proper way.' Dunno how she convinced Kreacher to go to Gringotts and exchange for muggle pounds, but he did and I have a fake identity to boot now. Can't wait to buy one of those motorcycles again and tinker with it since Hagrid has my old one."

Harry didn't know what to think. He hadn't seen Sirius so happy and bubbly since, well… ever. "When did she do all this?"

"The beginning of the week? She came bloody early in the morning too—I was still half asleep!"

Harry's heart sank. So the morning right after their fight. Was this what she had been trying to talk to him about? So he wouldn't worry as much about Sirius?

"Now," Sirius turned sharp eyes to his godson, "how come you had to hear this from me and not your best friend?"

He mumbled and grumbled but somehow managed to tell his godfather that they had argued. Sirius was baffled at the reason why.

He ran his hand through his long black mane exasperatedly. "Harry, while I appreciate how much you think for my sake, you know that she was right, yeah? I've been so happy with your regular visits that I didn't even think of the consequences. Thank god Hermione was there to knock some sense into us. I don't want anyone to find out about our arrangement just yet."

"For one, if it's Dumbledore, he might not approve of you travelling out of Hogwarts' wards. And remember that the one who put your name in the Goblet might still be out there, still watching, still waiting. What if this is the opportunity they need to catch you off guard?"

"That's not to mean I don't understand your side too. She definitely should have spoken to you about it instead of going behind your back. But I just want to say—" Sirius sighed and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "I can't be the reason you get hurt, Harry."

"I wasn't thinking. I—" Harry choked out. "I just didn't want you to be alone."

Like I was.

His godfather enveloped him in a tight hug and Harry closed his eyes for a moment, wondering what he should do next.

"How about this? You and Hermione can visit me once a week. I don't mind if you do it together or individually, but the next visit, you two better have kissed and made up."

Harry groaned when Sirius winked at him.

"I also don't want to be the reason you're distracted from preparing for the third task. What do you say about rummaging through those nasty curse tomes in the Black Library and seeing if we can find something useful for you?"

Harry agreed, but his mind was occupied elsewhere.

He was scared. What if he apologized and she told him that she'd already decided she was better off without him? She was there in the Common Room, frowning at her books and taking notes. Harry noticed that she had heavy bags under her eyes and her expression was weary. Did I cause that? He wondered and felt his chest tighten painfully.

He should have walked up to her then, but his courage failed him at the last moment and he ended up sitting on a sofa a fair distance away from her, pretending to read his Potions textbook. Great cover, he mocked himself, like she won't see through that right away. Contrary to his expectations, Hermione didn't look up even once and Harry unwittingly dozed off.

He woke to an empty common room and startled at seeing Hermione missing from her spot. He let out a sigh of relief when he spotted her sitting cross-legged on the carpet near the fireplace, gazing at the flames and lost in thought.

Harry walked over to her and sat down, his back facing hers.

"Hi." He said in a barely audible voice.

She flinched and was silent for a moment before asking, "Harry?"

"It's me." He stuttered: "Don't—don't get up, all right? Listen to what I have to say. Please."

He was relieved when she leaned against his back and continued, "Before I apologize, I figured I should try to explain why I was so angry in the first place. I wasn't thinking straight—I didn't really want to. Maybe having not just the opportunity to visit, but having someone to visit felt like such a novelty I got carried away. But at the core of it, I really just didn't want Sirius to be lonely. I know what it feels like—to be trapped in a house with no one who cares about you—and I didn't want that for him. I didn't want the loneliness to eat him alive."

"So when you said it was a waste, something just snapped inside of me. If you didn't care about Sirius and what he was going through, what would you say about me? I thought that you didn't understand—that you couldn't or wouldn't want to. Because there are more practical things to worry about, like rules and schedules and who cares about useless, overdramatic feelings anyway?"

"Harry, I would never—"

"I know."

Harry reached behind him and grasped her hand; Hermione didn't pull away and instead squeezed back tightly.

ch 6

"Like I said, I wasn't thinking straight. By morning, I regretted the argument. But then… then I went to talk to Dobby and found you had reached him already. It really rubbed me the wrong way to know that you had used his loyalty and concern to turn him against listening to me. It felt like last year when you went behind my back to report my Firebolt to McGonagall. Maybe if you had talked to me in advance about limiting the visits to once a week when I had calmed down, I might have listened to you. But you didn't even try! You went ahead and made the decision yourself!"

He paused and took a big breath, trying to calm down and center himself. Harry turned his head and stared into the crackling flames in the fireplace, wishing he could find the right words to say. Wishing that he was a bit better at this whole communicating thing.

"All my life, I've been controlled and restricted and manipulated, with people taking away my right to a choice. And I know that was never your intention, but I can't have that with my friends too. As much as I respect and care for you, I can't have you making my decisions for me. We can make them together. Haven't I grown this year enough to prove that?"

"How was I supposed to know?" Hermione burst out, her voice rising in volume. "I'm so used to you going off on your own, being reckless and rash, getting yourself into danger and me having to bud in and save you somehow! That's practically my role in this school: Hermione Granger, Harry Potter's brainy, bossy friend! Three years of habit is hard to break. How was I supposed to know that you wouldn't just ignore my advice and do whatever you wanted anyway like—like with third year?"

She suddenly sounded miserable, all the anger draining from her voice.

"I know my faults. I'm too used to being independent and taking charge, of wanting my own way. It hasn't been a problem as much until now because you and Ron didn't care about planning and the burden of that was always left to me. Yes, burden. It always felt like it was my responsibility to stop you from doing stupid things and keep you both alive; it sounds funny when I say it like that—like it's a job—but I took that responsibility very seriously. Maybe that's why I went ahead and just dealt with the problem myself."

"I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, Harry, or made you feel like I don't value your right to a choice. It's only because for so long, I've been valuing your life more than anything else. It's the same reason why in third year, I went to McGonagall even though I knew you would hate me for it."

"I never hated you—"

"You didn't speak to me for a month! A month, Harry! You and Ron ignored my existence because I wanted to check a suspicious item when an alleged killer was after you. Imagine if Sirius hadn't been innocent and really was a Death Eater like the Ministry had reported; you would be dead the moment you sat on that broom. How was I supposed to know that you wouldn't be as stubborn and irrational as you were then?"

"Back then, you tossed away my advice and my friendship for a broom. With the Scabbers issue, you went with Ron while I was thrown to the side for months. I was second best then too. What now when it was me against Sirius—your family?"

Harry felt her tremble against him and turned around, forcing her to face him. There were tears glistening in her eyes and his heart constricted with the knowledge that it wasn't Ron or some other git who had put them there, but himself. He had made her— his best friend— cry; Harry had never hated himself as he did at that moment.

He forgot about keeping a distance or reasonably explaining why he had been angry as he gathered her in his arms and pressed her teary face into his shoulder, murmuring, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Hermione," over and over again.

All that mattered now was that she stopped crying.

When she stopped sniffling, she miserably said, "Oh, I've made a terrible mess of your shirt…" and made a movement to leave Harry's arms. He pulled her right back in.

"Stay," He commanded. "You are going to listen to me and remember this well, Hermione Granger. There are two people who matter to me the most in the world. Yes, Sirius is my family and he's one of them. But the other is you. You will never be second best in my life. Not now, not ever."

For a long moment, Hermione looked like she didn't know what to say.

"I don't want you to think that I don't trust you and—oh, I know I shouldn't have gone behind your back like that!" She took a shaky breath. "Not when—not when you're one of the most important people in my life too."

He felt she was owed the truth, no matter how embarrassing it was. "You don't know how miserable this week has been. I've come to a realization: we may have more arguments and fights in the future, but I never want to be separated from you again. It just—it feels—"

Hermione supplied the answer: "It feels wrong."

They looked at each other, the corners of their mouths turning up slowly.

"Are we friends, again?" Harry asked tentatively. "I really am sorry, you know."

"I know. I'm sorry too," Hermione said. "But I would never stop being your friend, Harry—not even in the worst of times."

He blinked rapidly, not knowing why his eyes felt prickly all of a sudden. All he knew was that Hermione Granger was his best friend once more and they were together—both of them wearing the same giddy smiles on their faces—and everything in the world was right again.

Chapter Text

Harry wasn't sure what he had been expecting after pacing in front of the Room of Requirement and desperately thinking, I need practice—no, I need real experience in fighting! In combat with actual dangerous situations!

He certainly had not expected to see dozens of towering statues lined up in front of him: some were three meters in height and made of stone, others intricately carved and made of metal, all of them sculpted in the form of different magical creatures. Harry recognized a few like the Acromantula or the Cerberus or the—was that centaur pointing an arrow right at him? Something about them reminded him of the chess pieces from the tasks for the Philosopher's Stonemotionless yet intimidating, as if they would come alive at any moment.

"Look," Hermione pointed at the painted lines on the floor that squared in each statue. "Try and see what happens when you cross that line! Don't worry, I'm right here with you."

"I'm not scared," Harry protested as he stepped over the boxed line containing the centaur and instantly regretted his words when three arrows whizzed towards his face in rapid succession. He had barely raised his wand to cast a defensive shield when he felt Hermione unceremoniously yanking him behind the line and watched with awe as the arrows stopped in midair, as if they had hit a wall. Harry looked towards the statue and was unnerved to find the centaur frozen in the action of pulling back his bow.

"What are they?" He marvelled, his head swirling around to study the dozens of other creatures, trapped in their mini arenas.

"An advanced enchantment, I'm guessing." Hermione warned: "Though you shouldn't underestimate them just because they aren't real. Did you see how fast that thing reacted? I think we should enter those spaces, but keep as close to the line as possible before we gain enough confidence to face them further in. We'll also take turns so that someone else can watch for anything going wrong."

Harry looked down the massive hall and spotted a statue he swore had come straight from the last chapters of The Monster Book of Monsters, feeling a strange mixture of apprehension and excitement wash over him.

The more he and Hermione practiced, the more his excitement dwindled and his apprehension grew. The statues not only had the advantage of size, weight and raw power, but paradoxically moved so swiftly and sharply that he had trouble believing they were just enchanted imitations. Too many times he took a wrong step, responded too slowly, and let panic overtake him before he stumbled back over the line or relied on Hermione to interfere and save him.

Still, every day he and Hermione would find time to battle the stone monstrosities. The more he practiced and the less time it took for him to get in and out of the outlined arenas, the more he could feel himself improving. Harry had always been quick on his feet, but now he was learning to strategize and make the most of what he had, instead of acting recklessly. His responses grew faster, his movements turned sharper and more fluid, and he no longer felt wary of using more 'dangerous' spells on the statues if it meant he could get out in one piece.

Sirius' eagerness to make use of the Black Library had helped grow the 'Potential Offensive Spells' list by quite a bit, but Harry wasn't satisfied just yet.

Harry knew that he could probably just go to McGonagall about getting a pass into the restricted section of the library, but he felt hesitant to do so when he had another option. It wasn't that he disliked his Head of House, it was just that he sometimes felt like he was under interrogation in her presence—as if she was always silently measuring his worth. He also couldn't shake the feeling that whatever he did tell her would find its way to the Headmaster eventually and after this year where almost all of the Hogwarts staff had turned a blind eye to his situation, he didn't feel very charitable in letting any of them be privy to his thoughts.

Flitwick was different, somehow. Harry had been unsure about taking the small, cheerful professor up on his offer to 'talk' at first, but the allure of learning more about his parents had led him back eventually. One thing he liked about the visits was that he never felt pressured to talk; Flitwick was more than happy to chatter on about silly anecdotes and random musings while Harry relaxed on a chair opposite him with a cup of tea and pitched in here and there. Hermione had come along with him for the first few visits, but later decided it was best for him to go alone.

He had a feeling that she knew how hungry he was for the stories Flitwick told, the small crumbs of knowledge about his family, of how his parents used to act when they were his age, how they spent their days, how they performed in their classes, even the little phrases Flitwick happened to remember them saying...they were like pieces of a puzzle that he eagerly held onto and clumsily tried to put together.

Of course, there were other matters brought up during their little chats as well. For one, Flitwick was ecstatic about how much Harry had improved in Charms and was always ready to delve into the subject or encourage Harry to ask him questions.

"Such a pity," Flitwick sighed that day. "The gillyweed you used for the second task was very practical and I wholeheartedly congratulate you on your excellent results, but I was so hoping you would try another charm."

Harry smiled into his teacup, wondering if the professor would once again break into praise over how 'wonderfully' the Accio charm had been cast, with 'no holes in the enchantment whatsoever!'

"The gillyweed was the best option in the end, but I did experiment with the bubble-head charm as well."

"Oho!" Flitwick clapped his hands. "Let's see it then."

Harry got up and demonstrated the regular bubble-head charm on himself and when Flitwick asked to see his 'experiments' he pointed his wand at the professor and chuckled as a half-goblin sized bubble surrounded him, lifting him off the ground.

"Marvelous," Flitwick's voice came out dimmed from behind the bubble. "These walls are very tight, almost solid. What was the reason for the change?"

Harry scratched his head. "Before I found out about the gillyweed, this charm was my only option and it just didn't seem enough. So I played around with it like the charms guide showed me, making sure I would be guaranteed a supply of oxygen that wouldn't run out and making sure that nothing else could come in. Then, I got bored and tried different things."

"Well, I hope you get bored much more often." Flitwick looked much too pleased for someone trapped inside an air chamber. "It takes more than just talent to modify charms, it takes ideas and a willingness to try new things. Usually, we don't teach modification until after your O.W.Ls. I was right when I said you have a knack for charms, just like your mother!"

Being compared to his mum always filled him with pride, but he was barely given any time to bask in the glow when Flitwick murmured, "These enhancements, however, can be rather dangerous. You could use this to render your opponent immobile in the middle of battle. The layers making up these walls are so thick that even I would take some time breaking out and in that delay you could have either deprived me of oxygen or substituted it with another gas entirely. Was that inten—"

"Intentional? I don't know." Harry let out a bitter laugh, cancelling the charm. "Anything I try to learn or do this year, I always end up thinking, 'How would this help me if I was attacked? How would this help me in the tasks?' I guess that's what happens when you're forced into a tournament of death and have your life hanging in the balance by a thread. Everything gets twisted, no matter the original intention."

Flitwick walked over to his desk and sat back down, with solemnity in his expression that had been absent from their meetings so far. "I wasn't accusing you of anything there, Harry. Frankly, it bothers me that you—a fourteen-year-old boy who should be at most stressed over exams—have to worry about survival to the point of obsession. It's not right."

"A fourteen-year-old boy? No one seemed to remember that when it came to me. It was just finger-pointing and judgemental stares, even from the professors who I was supposed to be able to turn to."

Flitwick looked stricken. "The professors were under instruction to not help any champion in order to make it fair."

"Fair?" His voice rose. "Is that really what you all thought? That ignoring and leaving me to fend for myself was fair? When all the other champions are older, all of them legally adults, all of them prepared and trained, all of them ready for what they signed up for. And then there was me—I just wanted to get out in one piece. I never cared about winning, not when I was forced into this. Was that never factored in?"

Harry was silent for a moment and his voice was low when he asked, "What do you make of this scenario? A player in the shadows goes past the defences of the Ministry and the Headmaster in order to enter one particular student into a tournament of death. You know that letting the student participate is giving the suspect exactly what they want, yet you force the student to go through with it anyway, with minimal help. Why? Is it still for the sake of fairness?"

"Harry. That's not—" Flitwick turned pale. "I'm sure Dumbledore had no such intentions—"

"I never said his name." Harry said quietly.

Harry had realized early on why he was being forced to participate in this farce. Going through the old wizarding laws and magical binding contracts had made it clear to him that no matter what Dumbledore had said about having no choice, there were ways that it could have been made easier on him. He could have been made an honorary participant and given permission to merely go through the motions instead of risking his life. They could have compensated his young age and lack of knowledge with real training if they really wanted to make it fair. So much more could have been done, yet in the end… nothing.

The answer was simple, really, once he stopped seeing everything through rose coloured glasses. He had realized as early as that morning, when he had woken up on Hermione's shoulder and opened his eyes to reality. After, he had pushed that thought to the back of his head for most of the year. There was nothing he could really do about it at that point, but dwelling on the truth hurt more than he cared to admit.

He was bait.

Flitwick got up from his chair and started pacing around the room, heavy lines on his forehead. For a second, Harry was sure that he heard something resembling grunts and snarls, but it was so jarring with the polite, gentlemanly image he had of the half-goblin that he convinced himself he had imagined it.

The professor turned around then and barked. "What have you learned so far?"


"I may be a Charms professor, but I'm no stranger to offense. I'm half-goblin, Harry, we know how to protect ourselves against an enemy. So tell me, what spells have you learned to defend yourself?"

Harry was taken aback at the frenzied look in Flitwick's eyes but listed out the basic spells he had been practicing with Hermione in the Room of Requirement. Spells like Incendio to set things on fire, Bombarda to make explosions, Defodio to gouge out weak spots like the eyes, Reducto to disintegrate objects near the opponent, Stupefy to knock them out and the list went on. He was careful not to mention any of the Black Family spells.

"All good, decent spells. Some of them you won't learn until sixth year." Flitwick scrunched up his eyebrows in thought. "But if you're right and you really are being used as bait for a person even Albus can't handle, then that might not be enough."

"If I'm right?" Harry raised his eyebrows. "Wait, so you really didn't know about all of this? About someone else putting my name in?"

"The professors weren't told explicitly what happened, no. Perhaps your Head of House knew the details, but the rest of us were given the basic rundown: somehow your name got past the goblet's defenses and you would be participating. I remember that Professor Sprout was quite irritated with the whole affair."

Harry felt his ire rising once again. "No one even bothered to ask how a fourteen-year-old had gotten their name in? Even if I had asked an older student to help me, there was no explanation on how I was chosen as a separate choice from all the other schools. That's not simple magic!"

Flitwick had gone back to his desk and was rummaging through a stack of books but he looked up at that moment, impressed. "Correct. Not simple magic at all, especially when manipulating Albus Dumbledore's enchantments. I suppose none of the professors really thought about it, they just—"

"They just thought, 'oh, there goes that Potter brat making trouble and seeking attention again!'" He felt numb.

The professor sighed and didn't say anything; his silence was answer enough.

"I can't do anything to erase how you were treated at the start of this year. What I can do is help you with whatever I can for the last task. Granted, you only have a couple of months left, but better late than never."

A book flew out of Flitwick's hands and floated over to Harry. "We'll start with this. My speciality lies in charms which you should know by now is just a subset of spells. It doesn't mean I'm incompetent with the rest or that I'm a stranger to the dark arts. Do you know what makes a normal charm or spell dark, Harry?"

Harry thought carefully, remembering the feeling when he had devised the air chamber. "Intent, professor."

"Well said!" Flitwick smiled sincerely. "If you turn to the first chapter, you will find various spells that were created in history for practical means and later used for different purposes. Wizard masonry, for example, relied heavily on a spell used to cut through stone as easily as cutting through butter. Then someone had the... lovely idea to use that on people instead and…"

The professor went on and highlighted different spells throughout the book which he felt could be useful to Harry. They weren't dark in the sense that Harry felt disgusted learning them; they were dark in the sense that he could see the possibility of turning them into weapons. He quite liked the approach.

When Flitwick ended the session and wordlessly passed Harry a note allowing him passage into the Restricted Section of the library, Harry couldn't keep his curiosity down any further.

"Not that I don't appreciate the help—because I do. But when I came to you last time for help, you clearly stated that you wouldn't involve yourself in the Tournament. What changed?"

For the most part, Flitwick's enthusiasm and larger than life cheerfulness made people forget about his height. But at that moment, his eyes dimmed and he seemed to shrink in on himself and looked so small—smaller than Harry had ever seen him.

"Do you remember, Harry? That day shortly after your name was called from the Goblet, in the Great Hall when you made a speech denouncing your fellow students and then turned to us—the professors—with such disappointment in your eyes, not saying a word and just leaving. I remember seeing that and feeling shaken, without understanding why. Today, I saw that look in your eyes again and it filled me with shame.

"I know that it might be far too late of an apology, but I hope you can forgive us professors for failing you so spectacularly."

Harry didn't know what to do with the apology. He wasn't used to his rants and emotional outbursts being taken seriously by anyone other than Hermione. Almost unconsciously, he tried to lighten the atmosphere.

"Well, you were all treating me like an adult, weren't you?" Harry attempted to smile. "I might have forgiven being expected to handle the tournament like an adult, if I had been given the adult status and benefits of it too. Maybe even given the right to manage my own accounts and have full rights over where I can stay or go."

"You mean—" Flitwick sounded aghast. "You don't have those rights? You're not speaking of Gringotts, are you? Have I been living under a rock this whole time or have you always been treated like this? Next thing you'll tell me that this isn't the first time you've been used as bait either! Merlin forbid…"

"Huh. Weren't you one of the professors in charge of making the obstacles to the Philosopher's Stone? I thought you knew that already." Harry himself had only realized much later this year when he had gone back to pick apart his experience at Hogwarts with his newfound suspicions. Hindsight was sometimes just plain depressing.

Flitwick sank into his seat and Harry reached out to refill his cup of tea.

He had a feeling he would be there for a while yet.

With the note allowing him entry to the Restricted Section, books on 'harmless but deadly' spells which Flitwick had loaned, as well as Sirius' eagerness to make use of the Black Library, Harry could finally deem his list of offensive spells sufficient. The only reason to hold back on practicing them on a target was for fear of causing too much destruction.

But that wasn't a problem for Harry. The Room of Requirement repaired each statue anyway, even that giant skrewt he had accidentally blown to smithereens. This was a massive boon to Hermione who kept extolling praises about how efficient the Room was. When they took turns and Harry switched to watching from the sidelines, he noticed that although she wasn't as fast or creative in her battle tactics, all of her spells accurately targeted the statues' weaknesses and never missed. There was a calculating edge to her approach that intrigued him.

Harry let out a low whistle as he watched Hermione freeze her monstrous opponent with a strong immobility charm and then proceed to blast off both of its legs.

"Soon enough, not even the worst of the monsters this room has to offer will be a challenge for you."

"Well," Hermione huffed and pushed the sweaty strands of curly hair out of her eyes. "I'll just have to duel you then."

He raised an eyebrow. "I'm a challenge, am I?"

Hermione studied him with a pensive look and then—in a way that sent a shiver down Harry's spine—smirked slyly.

"As a matter of fact, you are. It's not exactly a secret that you're the strongest student of our year in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Year after year, you manage to achieve some impossible feat. People call you the Boy-Who-Lived for something that happened when you were a baby, but as far as I'm concerned, the Boy-Who-Survived would be more fitting considering all the horrible situations you've survived."

At his scoff, her voice grew fierce. "You don't know how you look when you're completely focused in a battle, do you? I've watched you fight these past few days and there's this—this intensity in you. Wild. Powerful. Burning in your eyes. Maybe it should scare me, but all it does is make me want to face that energy head-on."

Harry stood stock still, not expecting Hermione to have seen into him so closely. Seen the anger and fear and storm of emotions that he always kept bottled up inside of him being channelled into his training. The truth was that he liked not having to hold back, liked setting himself loose, liked not having to care about the consequences.

It frightened him how much he liked it.

Why didn't it frighten her?

He met her determined eyes and said, "Let's do it then. A duel."

"Just one?"

"As many as it takes for you to defeat me." He said and was promptly forced to duck a stinging hex. "Hey!"

He chuckled and got into a fighting stance, readying his wand. "You may not be frightened of me, but I can't say the same for you. You are brilliant, Hermione Granger. And a little scary."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, Harry James Potter." Hermione sniffed, raising her own wand. "Let's begin."

And so they did.

The first duel didn't last long. Hermione was quick and precise, but he was faster in the moment and better at dodging her curses.

Harry fired off an Expelliarmus which Hermione parried easily. She returned fire by chain casting a body binder, tripping jinx, and a banishing charm.

Harry ducked and rolled out of the way instead of casting a shield, watching how Hermione moved and waiting for his opening.

Before she could start another spell chain, Harry took the offensive. "Furnunculus! Diffindo! Stupefy! Stupefy!" Harry called as he moved in a semi-circle around Hermione.

His spells rained down on her and she dodged the first and cast a Protego against the following. It was exactly what Harry had been hoping for, and he pushed all his power in a banishing charm. It slammed against her Protego and threw Hermione off balance.

Harry shouted "Stupefy!" before she could right herself and the red beam struck her square in the chest, causing her to fall.

He took a steadying breath and walked over to where Hermione lay, picking up her wand and casting Enervate.

Hermione gasped as she came to, but her eyes quickly narrowed with purpose and she was on her feet again before Harry could say anything.

Silently, they took their places across from each other and began again. This next duel took longer than the first and felt twice as fierce. Hermione was relentless, but what unnerved him the most was the way she focused on every little movement he made—like she was studying him, memorizing his fighting style. Harry won again, but by the end, sweat was beading down his forehead and he was breathing in between gasps.

"Again." She said.

"Again." He repeated, feeling a thrill go through him.

They took their positions at opposite sides of the room and raised their wands once more. At the shout of go, Hermione didn't wait for Harry to fire and immediately began to move and cast spells one after the other. "Avis! Oppugno! Incarcerous!"

The birds she conquered dive-bombed Harry and while they were easily dispelled, It made him vulnerable to the ropes that flew in his direction.

He yelled "Reducto!" just before the ropes wrapped themselves around him.

Harry's curse landed on the floor in front of Hermione, causing her to be hit with bits of stone from the floor. He dispelled the ropes, while Hermione cleared the dust and debris from the air. They volleyed spells, ducking, dodging, and shielding as they moved about the room.

Hermione must have seen an opening in his movements because she tried another chain: "Langlock! Diffindo! Reducto!"

When he still chose to dodge instead of raising a shield, she aimed the reducto at the floor just as Harry had. As soon as it landed, she cast: "Petrificus Totalus! Expelliarmus!"

Harry felt himself falling and his wand go flying.

When he gained control of his body again, he opened his eyes to see Hermione standing over him with her wand levelled towards his chest.

"Thank you," Hermione said with a gleam of triumph in her eyes and a large grin on her face. "For the challenge."

"I'll beat you next time," Harry promised.

  ch 8

If possible, she smiled even wider. "I look forward to it."

And as Harry lay on the ground—tired, sweaty, and his muscles aching from the practice—he couldn't help but laugh, feeling happier and more alive than he had in a long time.

A month after practicing in the room, they had battled and defeated nearly all the enchanted targets save for the last three at the very end of the line.

"Is there a need to fight them?" Harry, for some reason, felt hesitant in fighting these human-like dummies with the same violence he had shown the magical creatures. "Do you think they'll make us fight among ourselves in the third task?"

"Even if they don't, can you guarantee that no humans will be involved in the third task? What if they're shape-shifters? What if one of the champions goes crazy and tries to hurt you? What if the person who put your name in the Goblet decides to intervene?"

Harry felt his hesitance waning. He knew all of this already, really—Hermione's words were just the final nail in the coffin.

Creature or human: did it matter? If they were trying to kill him, there was only one real way to respond.

He tightened his hold on his wand and stepped past the line for the first human dummy. The first one was small and seemed to specialize in speed, illusion, and spells Harry never saw coming from the shadows; the second one took only a minute to memorize his fighting style and imitate him to the degree that it felt like fighting himself; the third one was aggressive and ruthless in its attack, pushing Harry to retaliate with the worst of the spells from the list.

Thud. Thud. Thud. The spell had sliced through the statue's body at three different locations: neck, abdomen, and knees. Harry should have felt sick imagining what it would have looked like if it was a real person, lying on the floor in pieces of blood and gore. However, all he felt was an unfamiliar buzz and a sense of satisfaction—of winning, of surviving.

"You did well, Harry," Hermione said quietly, beside him. She too had shown visible discomfort when a particularly powerful spell had turned her statue to dust.

"I know this isn't easy. I don't truly want you to fight anyone else like this. Maybe I'm being over-dramatic, but as you pointed out... it's nearly the end of the year. If someone wants to hurt you, the logical thing to do is to eliminate the threat. No matter what, you have to survive."

"I will." A shiver ran through him out of nowhere, the voice from his nightmares suddenly laughing in his mind. "I promise you, I will."

Chapter Text

His latest nightmare had put Harry on guard even more than usual. If Voldemort was still in his wraith form, how could he have tortured Wormtail? No, things had changed and even Dumbledore's cryptic answers seemed to be warning him to be careful. The Headmaster had been quiet when Harry asked him about the dream, offering confirmation that yes, Voldemort was getting stronger, but nothing else of substance. What am I to do? Harry had wanted to ask, but held himself back, knowing that he would get no answer besides a sad, sympathetic smile.

Hermione was uncharacteristically silent after he told her about his conversation with Dumbledore.

"I don't like this. Not at all. A clear threat we can deal with... but Voldemort lurking in the shadows and growing stronger in your nightmares? I don't know how to protect you from that."

Harry laughed, momentarily freed from his turmoil. "While I appreciate the thought, there's no need for you to protect me. You don't always have to be my knight in shining armour, Hermione."

"Why not?" Hermione put her hands on her hips. "You protect me and I'll protect you—I think that's a fair deal."

"All right," Harry held up his hands in mock surrender. "But we can worry about Voldemort later. The third task is tomorrow."

With the way she made him revise all thirteen lists and duel against her for two hours straight before she deemed it acceptable to return to the dorms, Harry doubted her concerns were alleviated.

The next day at breakfast, McGonagall informed him that the champions' families were congregating in a chamber down the hall.

"What's wrong?" Hermione asked.

"What if it's the Dursleys?" Harry's stomach churned unpleasantly at the idea of seeing them here. "I don't have any other family besides Sirius."

Her expression hardened. "Well, if it is your aunt and uncle, I have a few words I'd like to exchange with them."

"Hey! You have a History of Magic exam in ten minutes!" Harry yelled after Hermione who had already gotten up and was striding towards the chamber McGonagall had mentioned.

Thankfully, the Dursleys weren't in the room; instead, Mrs Weasley and Bill greeted him with warm smiles. Harry's responding grin faded when he noticed the sharp glance Mrs Weasley threw Hermione's way as she gave her a stiff "Hello."

He was reminded of Easter and the way Hermione's face had turned downcast at the tiny chicken-sized egg she had received from Mrs Weasley in comparison to Harry's giant, dragon-sized one. By that time, he had already developed a heavy disdain for anyone who had sent those cruel letters because of a stupid tabloid article. This was a different crueltyone that Harry remembered facing often as he was slighted in his childhood—and it stung to see it targeted at his best friend, especially when it came from someone he had always respected.

"Mrs Weasley, you didn't believe that rubbish Skeeter article about Hermione and me, did you? Hermione has been nothing but the best of friends to me."

"Ohthat is" She stammered, turning a bit pink in the face. "No, of course not!"

"I'm glad," he took Hermione's hand and squeezed lightly. "It's terrible enough that strangers were sending hate mail and curses to a fifteen-year-old girl over lies in a gossip rag, but you know Hermione and her character too well from how much she's done for me and Ron to ever believe that nonsense."

"Yes, yes, of course, dear. Never doubted that." She gave Hermione a strained smile.

Bill tried to diffuse the tension. "Where is Ron, now that you mention it?"

"Going to Binns' class, I suppose." Harry shrugged, not sure if he should let the Weasleys know about the shaky state of his and Ron's friendship.

Although neither of them had talked to each other for months now, it had more to do with Harry forgetting about the matter and busying himself with studying and preparations rather than any petty grudge from the Yule Ball. Ron had never approached him or apologized after their argument and Harry couldn't be bothered to go out of his way and try to fix things.

Still, the Weasleys had been nothing but kind to him all these years and they had come all the way to show him support. He wasn't about to throw that back in their faces.

Hermione slapped her forehead and groaned: "Oh, no! The exam!"

Harry struggled not to chuckle as Hermione muttered an apology and ran out of the room at lightning speed.

"Thank you for coming, both of you. I truly appreciate it." He said instead, turning towards the Weasleys to make small talk for a while before he decided to take his leave as well.

By the time evening arrived and Harry was confronted with the vast, sprawling maze in the Quidditch field, the twisting feeling in Harry's stomach had returned in full force.

Somewhere in the audience stands, he knew Hermione was watching, probably even more nervous than he was. I'm ready for this. I've practiced. I've prepared myself.

Bagman called out his name to enter: "Three—two—one—"

He thought of the mystery person who had put his name in the Goblet, Dumbledore and Sirius telling him to be careful, the human dummy being sliced and falling apart on the floor, and Hermione whispering, "You have to survive, Harry. No matter what."

He took a deep breath and stepped inside the maze.

Merlin help whoever stands in my way.

It was too easy.

As Harry traversed the maze and defeated boggarts, skrewts, and other magical creatures with relative ease, he kept doubting the difficulty of the task. Nothing ever worked out so well for him.

Every action he took was mechanical and well-practiced as he made his way through the obstacles faster than expected. Only when he reached the Triwizard Cup and finally had a chance to catch his breath, did he realize that something else was strange. He had met no one on the way to the cup. Don't tell me I practiced so hard for this task that I sped through the obstacles faster than anyone else?

Maybe the others had run into a harder opponent or were just taking the careful approach as opposed to his adrenaline-charged path. It wasn't so strange when he thought about it: after all, he had arrived first in the second task too. There was something else niggling at him, an uncomfortable sense of wrongness that wouldn't go away, but he was so tired. So goddamn tired. He had worked so hard this whole year with barely a moment to rest and rushed forward to this cup with everything he had and now it was right there. Just waiting for him. He was almost done. The end was in sight, finally.

He pushed the uneasiness aside and reached out to grab the cup.

That was his first mistake.

The second was the moment he took to reorient his senses when he found himself transported to a graveyard; the dizziness from the cup—'Portkey!' his mind screamed at him even as his head spun—added to the exhaustion he had from barrelling through the obstacles, caused him to stumble and crash into a tombstone as his legs gave out.

By the time he had lifted himself off the ground, a short, hooded figure had already approached him. Every instinct of training of the past year, of whispered warnings, and an eerie sense of foreboding had him settling into a battle stance and readying his wand.

It was that small glance at the bundle the figure was carrying in its arms, the single second of hesitation of possibly hurting a baby that had the spell pausing on his lips.

That was his third mistake.

Suddenly, his scar burst with pain—such unimaginable pain he had never felt before in his life. The nightmares had nothing on this agony and it was all he could do not to lose his grip on his wand and fall to the ground screaming.

Harry felt the man reach out and grab his arm, and even though the searing pain and blackness wanted to envelop him, he resisted the hold and struggled to raise his wand towards the man.

It was too late. He heard a "Stupefy!" and when he woke up next he was tied from neck to ankle to a marble tombstone. He blinked his eyes, hoping to erase the terrible headache that was keeping him from seeing clearly, but when he turned his head and his sight settled on the words 'TOM RIDDLE' written on the headstone, he almost wished he had never woken up.

Of course, Harry thought hysterically, as the man lowered his hood to reveal himself as Wormtail.

Of course, he thought, as the baby turned out to be none other than Voldemort's pseudo living, homunculus form.

Of course, he thought as his blood was used to raise a man out of the cauldron, a man who looked at Harry with scarlet eyes glowing with both hatred and triumph.

Of course, it ended like this.

Harry didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He had trained so hard this whole year, so desperate to survive, so bent on escaping the Tournament in one piece, but never had fighting directly with Voldemort factored into his plans. What use was everything he had worked for? What use was one year of preparation against a man known as the Dark Lord?

He was powerless now, lying like a limp rag doll, tied up tightly with no room to escape, bleeding and exhausted, with his head exploding with agony and—without his wand. Forced to stay silent and wonder deliriously if he would really spend his last moment on earth listening to Voldemort wax poetic about his history: of a muggle father he had killed, a witch mother he had despised, and growing up in an orphanage.

Perhaps even Voldemort grew tired of Harry's lack of response for he soon said: "Listen to me, reliving family history… why, I am growing quite sentimental... But look, Harry! My true family returns… "

Harry had never hated himself as much as he did when Voldemort whispered the tale of his mother's sacrifice to his death eaters and mockingly placed his finger on Harry's cheek, laughing, "I can touch him now."

The pain was still there, worse than before, but his hatred kept Harry lucid. Hatred towards himself for ending up in this situation, for that bloody moment of hesitation, of being noble that had stopped him from taking out Wormtail. Hatred at Voldemort for so casually explaining his plan, as if Harry wasn't even there, as if he was worth nothing since he would die at the end of tonight anyway. Hatred for the 'faithful Death Eater, stationed at Hogwarts' who had been behind this whole thing, who no one—not even the great Albus Dumbledore—had taken seriously enough to sniff out. Hatred for the Death Eaters who remained silent as Voldemort spoke, but laughed uproariously as Harry was tortured.

Even through his delirium and the agony which wracked his body, Harry forced himself to keep his eyes and ears focused. He remembered every detail of Voldemort's sordid tale of his past, of his suffering, and of his plans. He remembered the names and faces of every Death Eater as they stood there, sending smug little glances his way. Harry knew that he would probably die tonight, but he kept himself sane by thinking: If I survive, I'll make you regret it. The plans you so casually exposed. The masked faces that I now know. The laughter. The pain. Everything.

Hermione would probably be proud of him for making plans and lists even upon his deathbed.

Hermione, he thought soullessly, would probably be the only one who missed him when he died. Oh, and Sirius. And poor Dobby. What would they do without him?

When Wormtail untied him at last and gave him back his wand, Harry's head spun and his vision grew blurry as he collapsed to the ground. He closed his eyes in pain and when he opened them again, he thought that he could see Hermione reaching out to him from the blur of darkness, desperately shoving past the throng of Death Eaters in search of him.

Harry raised his own hand feebly in return but the vision of Hermione shook and disappeared like a mirage that had never been there.

ch 9

But then it came again. When he stood facing Voldemort on shaky feet and his torture induced state of exhaustion, he thought he could hear Hermione screaming in his ears: Wake up! Don't give up just yet! What have you learned this year? Make the first damn move!

So he did. He didn't wait for Voldemort to throw him around like a rag roll with various unforgivables until finishing him off with the killing curse. Harry chose one of the many staple offensive spells he had a list of, half not even caring if it was diffindo or something else that came out of his lips. Not when the spell itself made no difference.

No, all that mattered was that he raised his wand first and fired the spell in time to watch Voldemort's smile fade as he was forced to respond. If Harry was going to die, he would die with his dignity intact. On his own terms.

And then the miracle happened. He remembered telling Hermione that he always survived because he was a lucky bastard, but this… this was something else. As both Voldemort and he were raised into the air, as the phoenix song started and he forced the bead of light towards Voldemort's wand, as he was confronted with the smoky, greyish forms of his mother and father… all of his exhaustion fled. There was a fire in him now, growing stronger by the second. He didn't even need his father to tell him: "... you must get to the Portkey, it will return you to Hogwarts."

From the moment he had been raised into the air, he had already been surveying the scene around him, making plans and outlining the best route back to the Triwizard Cup.

No matter what obstacles were in his way.

This time—Harry gritted his teeth as he broke off his connection with Voldemort's wand and started to run—there would be no hesitation.

Wormtail was the closest to him, having been the one to give him the wand and release him in the first place. He stared at Harry with beady little eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but found himself surrounded by a massive bubble instead. Unable to breathe. Immobile.

Harry had no time for the traitor; he had already shoved past him and behind one of the headstones, pointing his wand and shouting "Reducto!" towards the tombstones where two Death Eaters were approaching him. The marble slab exploded in their faces, stopping them in their tracks.

He kept moving, zig-zagging between whatever momentary shelter he could find, firing off a spell, and running back to the path towards the Cup. One Death Eater got too close—MacNair, he remembered the sharp, arrogant eyes that had laughed when Harry was being tortured—and Harry responded by making a yanking motion with his wand and muttered, "Defodio."

The next thing he heard was a high, ear-piercing scream as the Death Eater fell to the ground, cradling his head in his hands. Those arrogant eyes lay on the dirt beside him.

Perhaps Harry should have been more affected. It wasn't like he went around gouging eyes on a regular basis: the Harry before this night may have been shocked, disgusted even. But the Harry before this night didn't know the hatred that was pulsing through him now, almost like a steady heartbeat, keeping him alive. As it was, Harry simply thought with satisfaction, one man down, and moved on.

While he ran, he couldn't help but look back at the place where he had first started. Voldemort was still occupied by the ghosts of his victims. Wormtail—Harry shuddered, almost stopping in his tracks at the sight.

When Harry had performed the modified bubblehead charm, he was only thinking of the context he had explained to Flitwick: make the opponent immobile, substitute the gas inside, keep them occupied. The fact that Wormtail was enclosed in what was essentially a sealed chamber of toxic gas—Harry had chosen chlorine without much thought—was just a footnote in his mind. He had never actually performed the charm on a living being, after all. He had never envisioned what it would look like.

But he was seeing it now.

The walls of the air chamber and the distance between them ensured that Harry couldn't hear anything. He didn't really need to when Wormtail's face was twisted and scrunched up with more pain than even when his hand had been cut off. He slammed against the chamber desperately, tears and mucous streaming down his face to the point that he was choking on them. Tears and burns started appearing all over his skin like cracks in a clay statue.

No one was paying Wormtail any attention. The Death Eaters were either at Voldemort's side while he fought the ghosts or had taken different routes to get to Harry.

When Harry ripped his attention away from Wormtail, he found one of them, Lucius Malfoy, staring him down with a mocking smile.

"Now, boy. No hasty movements here. The Dark Lord may have said to bring you back alive, but he never said a word against a few broken bones or missing appendages." The man said in a silky smooth voice as he inched closer.

Harry wanted to laugh then. He was still being underestimated. All the Death Eaters had seen of him tonight had been a weak, snivelling boy being tortured like a puppet. They had moved forward before the chlorine had taken effect on Wormtail and Lucius had taken a different path towards Harry, missing MacNair with his gouged eyes.

"Put down that wand, boy." Lucius spoke softly, as if placating a child. As if he truly expected Harry to listen.

Behind the Malfoy, Wormtail's suffering only continued. He was coughing now, great big gulps for air that left him convulsing. The blood vessels on his face and skin were visibly red and they popped one after the other. The gas was burning through his mucous membranes, and scarring, and then burning again in a vicious cycle. He's melting, Harry realized, horrified at the gruesome spectacle but unable to help the chilling thought that ran through him at the moment that Wormtail took his last breath. A fitting end for a traitor.

Barely a few seconds had passed. Harry was so close to the Cup, but his next steps forward was blocked by Malfoy.

"Down." Lucius said, more forcefully this time. "Now."

And suddenly, Harry was no longer in the graveyard. He was back in the Room of Requirement, the Triwizard Cup was the boxed line that he needed to reach and Lucius—he was just one of those human dummies. His opponent. Nothing more, nothing less.

Harry had plenty of practice with those.

In the span of a few seconds, the spell was uttered, the slashing motions were made, and—

Lucius' stately face froze in disbelief as his formerly luscious locks fell loose over his shoulders. His body stumbled slightly and the slight movement was all it took for the no longer connected tissues of his neck to come apart. The body arced slowly backwards, making a dull wet thud as it hit the mossy grass before the head and neck landed beside it with a much louder squelch. In death, his signature smirk was replaced with open-mouthed horror and his mocking eyes were blown wide open with shock and denial.

The head rolled a small distance, before stopping next to the hand which had held Lucius' wand. A hand that could now do nothing to threaten Harry.

He tore his gaze away from the severed head and made his last leap towards the Triwizard Cup. Even as the portkey took effect, Harry couldn't help but recall how the blood had leaked from the Malfoy patriarch's paling face and the lines of crimson that had trickled down his neck, and think that there was nothing special about purebloods after all.

They bled and died, just like everyone else.

Chapter Text

The portkey transported Harry to the edge of the maze. He was back where he had started, with the hordes of people screaming in the stands and the great looming hedge of the maze casting a shadow over him. He was back and he was alive, he had survived the graveyard, done the unthinkable and escaped Voldemort, but then why—

Why did it feel like he was still there? Still writhing on the ground from the pain and wanting to die.

His face was pressed against the grass and there was so much noise hammering against his ears. He wanted it all to just go away. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't feel—he just wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere but here where hands were roughly shaking his body and shouts of "Harry! Harry!" surrounded him.

Someone lifted him off the ground and asked him questions that he couldn't make out. He felt like he was underwater and everyone around him was blurry, moving in slow motion, and speaking a language he couldn't understand.

"Harry… are you … all … right?" It was Dumbledore holding him straight up, preventing him from collapsing.

"What's... wrong... with … the boy?" Cornelius Fudge looked at him with a curious expression.

"I'll take … him," a gruff voice spoke up and Harry strained his ears, but all he caught were snippets of "needs… healing" and "he's… delirious."

Then somebody else was grabbing him, dragging him along and Harry felt a shiver run through him. The cold hands felt repulsive on his skin and laughter rang through his ears: "I can touch him now."

Harry struggled against the tight hold. Where was he being taken? Where was he going? Harry wanted to not care. He wanted to shut his eyes and sleep, to stop fighting the drowsiness. But he couldn't do that yet. There was still something… something he needed to remember, something he had to let the others know.

He needed to be in the clear, he needed comfort and warmth to drive away the icy touch of Voldemort's hand on his scar. He needed to be safe. He needed—

"Hermione," he croaked.

"Don't worry, lad." It was that same gruff voice. Harry blinked blearily to find himself looking up at Mad Eye Moody's mechanical eye. "I'll take you to her."

But...Harry struggled to turn his head and look behind him at the stands which they were getting further and further away from. Was Hermione not there? Where was she, then—

"Harry!" Amongst the shouting and music and chatter, a certain voice rang out. Harry felt like he was emerging from the water, the world relenting its unceasing spinning and settling around him. He knew that voice.

It came again. "Harry!"

"You're going the wrong way," he spoke, clearer now.

Moody grunted and said nothing, gripping Harry's arm with even more force.

"Let go of me." He was speaking normally now. Hermione's shouts were growing softer and panic started growing inside of him.

No response.

"I said," Harry tightened his hold on his wand. Even delirious, he had never released his hold. "Let go."

He saw a glint in Moody's eye and his mouth rising into a sneer and that was all he needed to kick the man in his bad leg, escape his hold, and knock him out with a loud, "Stupefy!"

There was a hush as the crowd in the stands turned eerily silent before exploding into chatter once again.

"What on earth is that boy doing?" Fudge said, aghast, as he struggled to keep up with Dumbledore's long stride. "I told you there was something wrong with him, Dumbledore! Look, he's attacked a professor!"

"Harry, I need you to explain to me what is going on." The headmaster's expression was grave.

Moody hadn't managed to take Harry far. They were still on the Quidditch field and as soon as Harry had stunned Moody, Dumbledore, members of the ministry, various professors, and even a few people from the stands had rushed over.

One of them was Hermione.

The relief he felt upon seeing her was insurmountable. Harry trembingly lowered the wand that he had still been pointing anxiously at the crowd and let out a sigh. The energy he had procured upon sensing danger fled his body and he swayed on his feet before crumpling to the ground, just in time for Hermione to catch him.

"Is that really what matters right now?" Hermione said shrilly, glaring at the adults. "Look at him—he's in no state to be interrogated! He needs a healer!"

She held Harry tighter in her arms and he rested his head against her shoulder, shutting his eyes and taking a shaky breath. The cries in his head screaming at him that there was still a death eater out there, the instinct to get up and fight, the images of gouged eyes and severed heads that were cycling through his vision… finally receded.

He focused on the strand of bushy brown hair tickling his cheek, the tight hold of her arms around him, the familiar, comforting scent of his best friend. For the first time since escaping the graveyard, he allowed himself to accept that the ordeal was truly over. He was safe.

Hermione wasn't done yet. "If you want an explanation, ask Professor Moody what he was doing dragging Harry away from public sight when he was half unconscious. And certainly not in the direction of the healer's tent!"

Dumbledore appeared pensive. "You make a valid point, Miss Granger. That is not something that the Alastor Moody I know of would do."

"You can't be serious, Dumbledore! Not letting the boy get away with this, are you?"

"Regardless,"—Dumbledore ignored Fudge—"I still need to hear what happened from you."

The puzzle pieces came together then. Everything Voldemort had said about the faithful servant at Hogwarts, the uneasy feeling he had this year as if someone was always watching him from the shadows… he had been there the whole time, hadn't he? And no one, not the minister, not the headmaster, not all the professors had noticed.

"What happened?" Harry didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "What happened is that the Triwizard Cup was a portkey that transported me to the graveyard Voldemort chose as his site of resurrection."

There were gasps in the crowd and Fudge exclaimed: "Preposterous!"

"What happened is that my blood was used to create his new body. Do you know what that means, Headmaster?" Harry asked. "I was tortured with the Cruciatus while his horde of Death Eaters laughed. How did so many of them escape Azkaban, I wonder, Minister?"

"The boy isn't in his right mind, Dumbledore."

Dumbledore was silent. Unmoving.

"It could have all been avoided, you know." Harry stared at the man he had once so respected with red eyes, trembling with resentment and a bone aching sadness. "If one of you had simply decided that putting a fourteen year old boy into a death tournament was wrong. If my life was worth more than being bait. Instead you gave Voldemort everything he wanted on a silver platter. A lamb for slaughter." His voice shook as he remembered lying there, limp on the ground, and Hermione squeezed his hand tightly.

He glanced over at Moody's unconscious form and laughed hysterically. "You don't need to believe me. You'll know soon enough."

And so they did.

The crowd around him grew louder and chaotic as they watched Alastor Moody twitch and convulse and transform into…

"Barty Crouch!" Fudge exclaimed. "What in the world is he doing here?"

Dumbledore stepped forward with fury in his eyes and started barking orders to Professor McGonagall and Snape. The crowd around them had grown even larger, more people wearing the Ministry's insignia surrounding them. Fudge was no longer bumbling about and seemed a bit pressured as his contemporaries, especially a woman with a hawk like nose and silver streaked hair, started questioning him.

All of it was no concern to Harry. His vision was growing blurry again, his head dizzy. The smallest of triggers—a blonde head here, beady little eyes there—brought back the memories of the graveyard and the reality of what he had done. What he had become.

Murderer. The wind of that evening seemed to whisper to him.

Harry let go of Hermione and retched into the grass, emptying his stomach until there was nothing left, but the sickening pit inside him only grew.

He was dirty and bloody and bruised. "I'm filthy," he said, pushing Hermione's hand away as she tried to wipe his face with a handkerchief and patted his back soothingly.

The only response he received was a teary, "Oh, Harry," before he was pulled back into her arms.

He stayed there as Dumbledore, looking more enraged than Harry had ever seen him, questioned Barty Junior under Veritaserum. As the death eater exposed how he had cheated Azkaban, how he had put Harry's name in the Goblet and manipulated events under everyone's noses, and how he had been the pivotal player in bringing about Voldemort's return… Harry was silent, but his anger simmered under the surface.

This was the man directly behind his suffering in the graveyard, the man who had made it possible for Voldemort to return. Seeing him smirk in triumph and boast about his plans succeeding infuriated Harry until all he could see was red, all he could hear was his obnoxious laughter ringing in his ears, and all he could feel was that same mind numbing hatred that had seemed to have found a home rooted deep inside his heart.

"This is madness!" Fudge spluttered. "The man is clearly out of his mind and—and—colluding with whatever cock and bull story Potter devised! We can't take a word of what he's said seriously."

The hawk nosed woman shot Fudge an unimpressed look. "He is under Veritaserum. He is telling us the truth, Minister."

"The truth of a mad man, Amelia!"

"Mad!" Crouch let out an insane laugh. "Mad, am I? We'll see! We'll see who's mad, now that the Dark Lord has returned, with me at his side! I, his most loyal servant. I, who delivered Harry Potter under the nose of the great Albus Dumbledore right to his doorstep! I, who ensured his resurrection! He will place me by his side and grant me the highest of titles, the greatest of rewards!"

"Don't believe me, do you? Proof that the Dark Lord has returned!" He shook his bound hands until the sleeve of one fell down, exposing the dark mark: a snake that was black as night and slithering on his left arm. "The Ministry used this to hunt us down, but it is once again our mark of pride. Our connection to the Dark Lord. Why don't you show them too, Potter? Show them how the Dark Lord has marked you as well, how you carry the sign of his resurrection. We carry twin marks, you and I."

Harry's heart went cold. He had shown no one his wound—even that detail of his suffering had been planned in advance? Was he just a puppet in the end? A doll for others to toss around and carve as they willed?

No one spoke as Harry let go of Hermione and stood up. He walked up to Crouch and slowly lifted his sleeve to reveal the snake that had been carved into his skin with Wormtail's knife.

"Twin marks?" Before anyone could stop him, he had raised his wand and slashed exactly where the inky Dark Mark began on Crouch's proudly exposed arm. "Not quite."

There were gasps in the crowd and people started shouting but they were all drowned out by Crouch's high pitched scream that seemed to echo into the night.

"What—what have you done?" the man half sobbed, half screamed, holding his stump of an arm against his chest.

"Not so different from the rat, now, are you? When your dear Dark Lord comes for you,"— Harry smiled maniacally through the furious tears blinding his eyes—"at least now you'll know what reward to ask for."

The turbulent waves of hatred in his heart settled down—satisfied for now—and Harry finally gave in to the exhaustion rampaging his body, welcoming the blackness to overtake him as he fell over and fainted.

When Harry appeared outside the maze, collapsing to the ground and not moving, the blood in Hermione's veins felt like they had frozen, as if her heart itself had stopped beating.

She shot up from her seat in the stands and elbowed her way through the throng of people, struggling to keep an eye on him the whole time.

Someone's hat blocked her view and when she could see again, he was gone from the spot. Panic grew in her chest. "Harry!"

Then she saw him being carried like a sack by Mad Eye Moody, away from the Quidditch Pitch. Where was he taking him? If Harry was injured, the healer's tent was the opposite way—

"Harry!" she shouted, louder now, running towards him.

By the time she reached him, she was confronted with a wild eyed Harry standing above the unconscious form of Moody. Other people had come forward too, encircling Moody and buzzing with noise. And Harry, his wand was still raised towards the crowd, his eyes shifting nervously between everyone, his back hunched in a defensive posture. He reminded Hermione of a trapped animal, bearing its teeth.

She broke through the circle, not caring that she had just shoved aside the Minister of Magic, and watched as Harry's whole being seemed to relax when she appeared. He swayed towards the ground and Hermione caught him before he could truly fall, taking him into her arms.

When Moody was discovered to be Crouch and questioned, she felt Harry tremble and was stunned at the pure fury she saw in his eyes.

When Harry cut off Crouch's arm containing the Dark Mark, everyone screamed, but Hermione was quiet. Numb. She wondered if she was the only one who had seen the helplessness in Harry's face, the vulnerability.

He didn't look like a "vicious brute!" as Fudge later claimed.

He looked like a boy, lost, and with nothing left to lose.

"Will he be okay?" Hermione asked anxiously, after Madam Pomfrey was finally done with healing Harry. "Why is he still not waking up?"

"I've fixed all the external wounds I could, but the mental trauma he's suffered tonight will not be as easy. He's been tortured with the cruciatus—more times than I can identify. His body has also been overworked beyond what it can handle." She looked worriedly at the infirmary bed where Harry lay, twitching and murmuring in his sleep. "I expect that he will wake several times throughout the next few hours, but he might not be in his right mind. If you can't handle that Miss Granger—"

"I'm not leaving him!" Hermione said fiercely.

Madam Pomfrey gave her the first smile of that evening and replied, "I had expected as much."

The first time Harry woke up, he shot up in bed, looking wildly around at the white curtains surrounding the bed as if he expected something to jump out of them.

"Harry," Hermione said softly, careful not to startle him.

"Hermione," he grasped her hand as if reaching for a lifeline. "Hermione, he's dead."

"Who is?"

"Wormtail. Peter Pettigrew. I killed him, Hermione."

Hermione went still, but showed no change in her outward expression.

"I didn't mean it, not really. He was in the way—I was trying to escape and get to the cup—and he was going to try and stop me. So I used the bubblehead charm—the new one that I experimented with—and I left him behind. I think I assumed that he would break free of it quickly like Flitwick had, but when I looked back he was burning. Melting." Harry was babbling. "And do you know the worst part? I didn't even feel sorry. I was glad—glad that he died. Glad that it was painful."

He looked at her as if expecting her to accuse him, as if waiting for some terrible blow. But all Hermione could find in herself to say was, "I'm glad too."

When he froze in surprise, she scoffed. "What, did you think I would want him alive? He's the reason your parents were murdered. He's the reason Sirius spent twelve years in Azkaban, not to mention all those poor muggles he killed. The reason why you grew up without a family. You gave him a chance last year and what was the result? He ran off to Voldemort and crawled on his knees to be traitorous, murdering scum. Wormtail deserved to die and pay for his crimes long ago."

"He deserved it," Harry murmured and fell back to sleep.

The second time he woke up, he was calmer; the solemnity in his expression unnerved her.

"Lucius Malfoy," he said quietly.

"What about him?"

"I cut off his head." Harry held up his wand hand in wonder. "I knew what I was doing this time. I pretended I was back in the Room of Requirement, practicing. That he was just another dummy. But when his head rolled on the ground and I saw the blood trickling down his neck and into the grass, I couldn't lie to myself anymore."

"And if you hadn't?"

"Hadn't what?"

"Hadn't killed him. What would have happened then?"

His expression morphed into one of pain; Hermione hated to see it on him but she forced herself to wait for his answer.

"He would have stopped me from reaching the cup by cutting off an arm or leg. He threatened to break my bones too, actually. Then he would have taken my limp body back to Voldemort and they would toss me around like a doll again. And then I would die."

"And what did I tell you before you went into that maze?"

Harry scrunched up his face in concentration, trying to remember. "You told me… to survive. No matter what."

"That's right. You survived, Harry. That's all that matters, do you understand?" Harry nodded his head hesitantly, but Hermione wasn't done yet.

"Lucius Malfoy was no ordinary Death Eater. His power and influence in the Ministry ensured that many, many others escaped from punishment scot free. He worked directly under Voldemort to spread chaos and propaganda from within during the first war, and I have no doubt that if you hadn't killed him, he would have done the same again. By killing him, you robbed Voldemort of a weapon he sorely needed. By killing him, you gave justice to a man who would probably always slither his way out of the legal system. A man with more blood on his hands than I could possibly know."

"I wasn't thinking of all that when I killed him." Harry frowned. "But I suppose it's for the best he died. He would have killed more people if I hadn't."

"You had no choice, Harry." Hermione said, trying to keep her voice from shaking.

He seemed to accept that fact and went back to sleep.

The third time he woke up, he seemed angry. He looked at Hermione with reddened eyes and clenched his hands into fists at his side.

"Why are you trying to excuse what I've done?" he said. "I heard what people were screaming before I fainted. They called me a brute—a monster."

"For cutting off Crouch's hand? After all he's done! After he was responsible for this whole predicament in the first place! He's the reason you were sent to that graveyard, he's the reason Voldemort is back! Whoever points their finger at you instead of him is just deflecting blame for not knowing what he was doing right under their noses!" Hermione stood up from her chair. "That's not even mentioning that he was already sentenced to life in Azkaban!"

"I hated him," Harry whispered. "I still do—all of them."

"I hate them too," she answered, venom in her voice as she thought of the people who had reduced Harry to this broken state. "It's only human to hate monsters like them, Harry."

The word 'monster' seemed to jolt him back to his senses. He stared at her so earnestly she wanted to cry.

"If I'm not a monster, then… what am I?"

He looked so small then, so scared of her answer. Hermione dug her nails into her palm, fighting back her tears, but in the end her bottom lip still trembled when she replied:

"You're a boy, Harry. A boy thrust into a war with no choice but to survive." She reached out and gathered him in her arms, hugging him tightly. "You were strong and brave in a situation you had no control over. You did nothing wrong."

He said nothing but the tears she felt on her shirt were answer enough.

ch 10

Chapter Text

Harry woke up several times after that. Sometimes he would forget where he was or what he had spoken with her previously and other times he would be quiet and still, but Hermione made sure that she would always be there when he woke up.

Eventually, Madam Pomfrey took pity on her. "He's settled down enough for me to give him some of the heavier potions. Dreamless sleep will do him good and he'll likely be out for quite some time. Take the time to rest, Miss Granger. I assure you he will still be here when you get back."

Hermione relented and made her way to the Great Hall to grab something to eat. It was already very late, but surprisingly the hall was full. It seemed like no one could sleep after the events of the third task.

She ignored the stares and whispers directed her way and filled her plate. Throughout her meal, she kept her ears focused on the conversations happening around her.

It seemed that there were two different stories going around. Some people who had been close to the chaos of that evening insisted that Mad Eye Moody had been an imposter Death Eater and that an insidious plot of sorts had been directed towards Harry Potter who was now grievously injured and on the verge of death.

Others dismissed the idea of a Death Eater working at Hogwarts as 'preposterous' and seemed more eager to gossip about how Harry Potter had gone mad and attacked a professor with no provocation.

As for the news of Voldemort's return… the very mention of it was met with nervous laughter and a hasty change of topic. Not even the worst gossip mongers were willing to touch that issue.

After this night, Hermione knew that everything would change whether people were willing to believe in Voldemort's return or not. She had to be prepared for those changes. She had to know who were her allies, who were her enemies, and who were the people in between who had potential to hurt Harry even if they had yet to do anything? At the Slytherin's table, Draco Malfoy sat and laughed with his goons, no different from usual. She supposed that he had yet to receive the news of his father's death. Once he did, that laughter would be replaced with hatred.

Hermione didn't fear a bratty, incompetent child, but she did fear the unknown. She feared what a revenge obsessed boy with little logic, but the tools and connections to cause damage could inflict if left unwatched.

Silently, she added the blonde haired slytherin to her mental list of potential threats and people to be wary of.

When Hermione was about to leave, McGonagall stopped her and said, "Miss Granger, the headmaster has asked that you meet him in his office in fifteen minutes."

Hermione replied that she would be there and exited the hall.

On her way out, she bumped into the last person she had expected to meet.


After months of not talking, things were awkward between them with neither knowing what to say.

"Harry," Ron finally opened his mouth. "How is he?"

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "As well as can be expected from someone who's just faced off Voldemort."

"Bloody hell!" he blanched. "So the rumours are true? Mad Eye was a Death Eater? You-Know-Who is back? I thought Fred was just pulling my leg!"

"It's true," Hermione said coldly. "Now, if you'll excuse me—"

"Wait!" Ron said, looking ashamed. "I—I know you said he's okay, but how is he really? There are rumours going around that he's—that he's dying. I know we're not really friends anymore and you don't have to tell me the truth, but I still care."

Hermione sighed, her heart softening at the worried expression on his face. "He's not dying, Ron. He's exhausted and suffering from an experience straight from hell. And for the record, you don't need to beg me for the details. You can go visit him yourself when he's awake."

If possible, his face grew even whiter. "I don't think Harry would like that. We haven't talked since the Yule Ball and… it's almost summer break now."

Summer break. Hermione gasped, feeling as if a cold bucket of water had been dumped over her head. She had been so worried about Harry in the now that she hadn't even considered the future yet.

"W-why are you looking at me like that?" Ron asked, backing against the wall as Hermione stalked towards him with a grim expression.

"The Dursleys. Tell me everything you know about them," she said in her no-nonsense voice.

So he told her. About the time he had tried to call Harry on the telephone and Vernon Dursley had screamed that he wanted nothing to do with 'you freaks!"

About second year when Harry had stopped responding to letters and Ron and the twins had gone to pick him up only to find him trapped in a small bedroom with bars on his windows and all of his belongings locked away. About how Harry had been so happy to eat a full meal at the Burrow, how they had been starving him.

Hermione couldn't stop shaking. "Why did I never know about this?" She wanted to scream. She knew it was bad for Harry at home, but not this bad. "Why did no one tell me?"

"Well, you never asked." She turned her murderous eyes on Ron and he hastily backpedaled. "And Harry didn't seem to want anyone to know. Can't blame him, can you? Having a muggle family like that is enough to drive anyone bonkers."

Hermione had heard enough. Without another word, she marched to the headmaster's office, not even caring that she was ten minutes early.

She reached the gargoyle and shrieked, "Acid Pops! Cockroach Cluster! Fizzing Whizbee! Lemon Drop! Sherbet Lemon! Toffee Eclairs!" She stamped her foot in frustration. "Ooh! Work, one of you!"

It seemed one of the passwords was indeed correct because the entrance opened. Hermione wasn't even half way up the stairs when the shouting reached her ears.

"You had no right! This is a gross dereliction of duty!" A stern, female voice was berating someone.

"I had every right! I am the Minister of Magic! I don't see the problem here: Crouch was a criminal and already sentenced to Azkaban. I merely quickened the process!" Fudge shouted.

Hermione paused on the stairs, apprehensive of what the bumbling minister had done. Surely, he hadn't—

"By bringing a dementor onto the school grounds, breaking into a locked room, and forcing the Dementor's Kiss on the only witness we had." There was a deep sigh from Dumbledore. "Do you know what this means, Cornelius? Do you understand the gravity of this mistake?"

"Don't lecture me like a school boy, Dumbledore. You and that Potter boy expected me to fall for that ridiculous story, about You-Know-Who being back! Crouch was clearly senile—you would have used him for your agenda and convinced the Wizarding World with this—this farce!"

The venom with which Fudge uttered 'that Potter boy,' made Hermione's blood boil. It was clear that Fudge would be actively trying to denounce Harry's claims.

Another name added to the list.

"Need I remind you, Minister, that you do not have the authority to carry out any sentence without a majority vote from the Wizengamot. Crouch was sentenced to Azkaban—not the Kiss. By taking this into your own hands, you have denied the rest of the Wizengamot the chance to judge Crouch's story. You have erased a witness because you did not approve of the words they said. As head of the DMLE, I will tell you now that your actions can be used as grounds for stepping down."

"Well—I never! Was that a threat, Amelia?" Fudge blubbered. "You have no involvement in this matter. You weren't even supposed to be here today!"

"Then I shall have to thank my niece for inviting me to spectate the third task. And the Potter boy for making such a spectacle that I had to intervene. Otherwise, you would have broken your duty as Minister and I would have been none the wiser."

"That is enough. We shall speak of this at a later time." Dumbledore sounded tired. "For now, I have a student outside waiting to talk to me. Come in, Miss Granger."

Hermione froze at the top of the stairs and couldn't help blushing in embarrassment when the door to the office swung open to reveal all three adults scrutinizing her.

Fudge barreled past her while Amelia Bones gave her a small nod before leaving.

Hermione stepped into the office and faced Dumbledore. "Sir, about Barty Crouch Jr. Is he really—"

"Yes." Dumbledore sounded weary and exhausted; the wrinkles around his eyes seemed more prominent than ever before. "He is a soulless husk now and of no use to anybody."

She stayed silent, but internally berated the Minister for being such a short sighted coward.

"Let us not dwell on what we cannot change, Miss Granger. I called you today to entrust a task to you." He took a letter from the desk and placed it in her hands. "It is of the utmost importance that this letter reaches Sirius Black."

"Pardon?" Hermione had not been expecting that at all.

"All of my letters to Sirius have been returned unopened. It seems that not even Fawkes can locate him which makes me suspect that he has taken extra… defensive measures. My hopes are that you are still able to contact him."

"Well—I can ask Harry and let him try," Hermione murmured, never one to disappoint the headmaster yet still cautious about exposing the details of the Fidelius to outsiders.

"You have my gratitude, Miss Granger." When she still didn't leave, he looked at her curiously through his half-moon spectacles and asked: "Was there anything else?"

"Yes, actually." Hermione straightened her posture. "I was wondering what the plans were for Harry's summer. He's not going back to the Dursleys, is he?"

"Why ever would he not? Surely you can see why now, of all times, it is crucial for Harry to return to his aunt's home and under his mother's protection." He sounded genuinely surprised with her question.

"But Voldemort used Harry's blood. Harry even told me that he could touch him now. Wouldn't staying at the Dursleys be useless at this point?"

Dumbledore grew grave. "On the contrary, it is necessary. His mother's protection still applies to all of the Death Eaters that Voldemort may send after Harry. Voldemort is unlikely to attack alone and if he does, I assure you, I would be ready for him."

"But, Sir!" Hermione exclaimed, bewildered. "Surely, if the only use is to ward off against Death Eaters, that can be accomplished elsewhere! There has to be a better alternative for Harry— a healthier environment."

When Dumbledore didn't react to her to her mention of a healthier environment or question what she was talking about, Hermione felt her blood go cold.

"Sir, h-have you known this whole time? About what Harry has had to go through in that horrible place? And you still think that's the best place for Harry to go?"

Dumbledore sighed softly and looked at her with sorrowful eyes.

"When I left Harry on his aunt and uncle's doorstep, I knew I was condemning him to ten dark and difficult years. Why did it have to be so then and why must it remain so now, you ask? My answer is that my priority has always been to keep Harry alive. It is not the ideal solution, no. But it is the best one we have."

Hermione looked down at the floor, struggling to put her thoughts together. She had no idea what to think, let alone what to say back. Everything about the headmaster's posture, his facial expressions, and even the somber tone of his voice told her that he genuinely believed what he was saying.

But how could he? How could he think Harry living in a home where he was starved, where he was seen as a freak, where his guardians were the type to put bars on his window—as if he was an animal that needed to be locked up!—was the best solution? Hermione didn't understand and quite frankly, she didn't want to try.

Her world view was collapsing around her. She had always respected Dumbledore, revered him even. Part of it had to do with the respect for authority that had been instilled in her since childhood; teachers were the only ones who had ever paid her any attention as a child, they were the only ones who had cared when she was ostracized and she had never really forgotten that part of her life. Another part of her simply admired the headmaster for the legend that he was. Albus Dumbledore, the man who had defeated Grindelwald, the man who was one of the most powerful wizards alive—who wouldn't look up to that?

Even when Harry had confided in her this year and told her his suspicions that perhaps… Dumbledore could have done more to help him or keep him from participating in the tasks, Hermione had been dubious. In her mind, if there was a way to help Harry, Dumbledore would surely have taken it; since he hadn't, there had to be a reasonable explanation for why he didn't act.

Being wrong was always a bitter pill to swallow, especially for Hermione, but it was nothing compared to the crushing disappointment she felt.

"While we are on the subject of painful necessities, Miss Granger, I might as well inform you of another. I will have to ask you to not contact Harry this summer, no matter how much you may be tempted to try. His mail will without a doubt be monitored by spies from both the Ministry and Voldemort's forces and it would be a liability we should avoid at all costs."

Hermione was never one to swear, but at that moment she had a torrent of curses dying to escape her mouth. Not contact Harry? Harry who she had left on the hospital bed, wracked by nightmares and tormented with demons of his ordeal. Harry who looked like he would fall apart at any moment. Harry who no doubt was drowning in pain and guilt and fear—Dumbledore wanted her to leave him alone? All by himself with those terrible Dursleys who would rub salt on his wounds and make him feel even worse?

Dumbledore looked at her sternly, as if expecting her to argue. "You might not like it, but this is for Harry's safety. Do you understand, Miss Granger?"

She was silent for a long time before she nodded. "I understand."

Hermione turned around and exited the headmaster's office.

I understand that you are no longer worthy of my unconditional trust.

With a heavy heart, she mentally added Dumbledore to her list.

As she stepped off the stairs, Hermione felt a tiny vibration next to her ear and startled when she saw a beetle fly out of the lower strands of her hair and on to the gargoyle. It had little circles around its eyes, almost like glasses—

Hermione froze. No—it couldn't—but it made so much sense—it had to be her! All the agonizing of the past few months as she searched for a way someone could have eavesdropped on so many private conversations finally came together.

One minute later, Hermione was walking back to the dorms with a secret, little smile on her face and a knocked out Animagus in her hands.

Dobby had visited Harry in the Hospital Wing earlier, but had broken down into such loud sobs that Hermione had given him a handful of menial tasks to do in order to keep him busy and hopefully somewhat calm, promising that she would speak to him later that night and tell him everything.

When she arrived at her dorms, she found them empty. Parvati, Lavender and the others were still in the Great Hall but she could have sworn that she had told Dobby to meet her at this time—

There was a loud sniff from the direction of her bed. She walked over and yanked open the curtains to find Dobby curled up in a fetal position at the edge of her bed, with big, fat tears rolling down his nose.

He peered up at her through his bulbous, weeping eyes and asked, "Mistress Hermy, is Master Harry Potter going to be alright? Dobby has finished all of his tasks, but he has heard the most terrible of things being said in this castle."

"Oh, Dobby." Hermione reached out and gave the bony elf a careful hug. "Didn't I tell you earlier that Harry was all right? When you saw him, he was just tired. Sleeping. Not dead. I wouldn't lie to you about that."

"Dobby knows this, but—but Dobby had to be sure. Master Harry looked so weak, Dobby was afraid that—" Here the elf growled and a vicious glint entered his eyes. "Dobby will make sure that Dark Wizard pays for what he has done."

"All right, let's not get ahead of ourselves." Hermione was worried that Dobby—lovely, crazy elf that he was—actually would do something. "When Harry gets better, we can think of a plan together. Until then, don't go off trying to break Voldemort's bones or something."

Dobby's ears wilted and he muttered to himself. "Dobby would be very sneaky. Voldy Moldy would never see him coming."

After a lengthy lecture including the ever-so-subtle guilt trip of "Harry wouldn't want to see you hurt!" the elf finally agreed to postpone his revenge.

"Did you give Sirius my message?"

Dobby confirmed that he had. Hermione had sent a message early on as one of Dobby's tasks, telling Sirius that he could not under any circumstances come to Hogwarts. She couldn't take the chance that Sirius would get worried while waiting to hear of the results for the third task and come to find Harry himself.

Not when people from the Ministry were swarming the castle.

Not when after tonight, Harry would need his godfather more than ever.

When Dobby apparated Hermione to Grimmauld Place, she wasn't surprised to see Sirius pacing back and forth across the room anxiously.

She was surprised that as soon as Sirius turned to her and asked urgently, "Is Harry all right?" she promptly burst into tears.

Sirius looked at her sobbing form, aghast, and awkwardly came forward to pat her back. "There, there. It can't be all that bad, can it?"

"Oh, Sirius! It's horrible!" Hermione cried, so relieved to be in the presence of somebody who would understand what she had gone through these past few hours. Someone who cared about Harry as much as she did and wouldn't offer her half hearted pleasantries.

"Voldemort's back! Harry won that stupid task but the Triwizard Cup was a portkey and Harry—Harry killed Wormtail and Lucius Malfoy and Mad Eye Moody was a bloody Death Eater this whole time and now Harry is lying on a hospital bed ridden with guilt and trauma and I want to help him—I need to fix this insanity somehow but I don't know how."

"Breathe Hermione. Breathe and then wait until I sit down before you tell me that again. I think I might be going mad."

Sirius did not take the news well. He swore and raged and kicked a few things around while Kreacher appeared and screeched at him to stop destroying furniture. In between his fits of fury, he would mutter, "I need to see Harry!" and Hermione would need to explain again why that was a bad idea. When he had calmed down, he simply collapsed onto the sofa and moaned into his hands: "What the bloody hell are we going to do?"

By now Hermione had regained her senses as well. "You can start by reading this letter from Dumbledore. Looks like he's figured out you're under the Fidelius."

Sirius' expression grew pensive as he read the letter. "He wants me to offer up Grimmauld Place as the Headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix." At Hermione's questioning glance, he explained, "The Order was a resistance group against Voldemort—I was part of it in the last war. Now that he's back again, it makes sense to revive it."

"You're not going to say yes, are you?" Hermione asked, furrowing her eyebrows.

"Why not? It would be nice to be of use for once instead of sitting here and gathering dust."

"Don't you find it strange? When you needed a place to live, Dumbledore recommended you go to a cave and survive off rats. Now that he needs a place for this organization, he suddenly remembers you again. I'm sure there are plenty of other Order members that could give up their homes and he could fortify it just as well. Why you?"

Sirius rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "All valid points—it is a bit strange and I won't lie and say I don't hold a grudge against the old man. Still, I'm dying to know how Dumbledore got on your bad side."

Hermione flushed. Had her newfound paranoia been that obvious?

"Before I go into that, what do you know about Harry and how he's been living with the Dursleys?"

"I gathered that they were an unpleasant lot from the way Harry jumped at the prospect of living with me when I was still a fugitive and didn't even technically have a home."

"Unpleasant is too kind." She struggled to keep her voice even. "Did you know that they treated him like an animal? That they put bars on his windows and locked him in a room? That they starved him?"

Sirius looked like he had been hit with a bludger.

"No. No, they can't be that bad. Otherwise, Dumbledore wouldn't have let Harry grow up with them—"

"Dumbledore knew," Hermione whispered. "I asked him if Harry could stay somewhere else this summer—I don't think he can go back there in his current state of mind—and he said that there was no other choice. That he knew he was 'condemning Harry to ten dark and difficult years' when he dropped him at the Dursleys, but did it anyway. To keep him safe."

"Bollocks!" Sirius's face was turning purple with rage. "There were so many other choices. So many people who could have taken him in, so many who could have protected him and loved him. And he was given to those muggles all because of that blood protection nonsense? Lily would never have wanted that! She would hate it—"

His voice broke. "She would hate me for letting this happen. Lily and James both. For failing their son."

"Stop it!" Hermione cut in sharply. "Didn't you tell us that the first thing you did when you arrived at Godric's Hollow was to look for Harry? To make sure he was safe? You gave Harry to Hagrid, trusting in Dumbledore and trusting that you would be back soon. It wasn't your fault that things ended up the way they did. You haven't failed anyone, Sirius."

He covered his face with his hands, trembling all over.

"You still have a chance," she said, more softly now. "To make things right. To give him a real family."

"I just want him to be happy. That's all," Sirius said. "Why is the world making it so bloody hard?"

"That's it!"

"What is?" He lowered his hands, confused.

"I didn't understand at the time why I was so furious at Dumbledore. Logically, I should be agreeing with him. After all, he seems to genuinely want to keep Harry alive.

"But that's the thing: he only wants to keep Harry alive. And you and I, we want Harry alive and happy. Free." Hermione thought about it carefully. "They sound similar on the surface, but there's such a world of difference."

"That's because one of those concepts is treating him like a chess piece while the other is treating him like a human being," Sirius said grimly. "I think you're right, Hermione. The Order and Dumbledore can wait. My first priority is Harry."

"That's something we can both agree on." She smiled and began to outline her plan.

When Hermione returned to Harry's side the next morning, he was still fast asleep. Having nothing else to do, she pulled out her notebook and decided that she might as well put her list on to paper.

Potential Threats that May Cause Harry Harm

1. Voldemort and his followers

a) Level of Harm: Silencing, Maiming, and Killing Harry

b) Dealing with the Threat: Convince the Wizarding World he's back so they can deal with him more efficiently instead of relying on a child to save the day. Keep practicing defensive and offensive spells. Remember that Death Eaters deserve no mercy.

2. The Dursleys

a) Level of Harm: Damaging Harry's mental and physical health

b) Dealing with the Threat: Until Harry can be safely taken away from there, follow Plan A with Sirius. Don't leave Harry alone: exchange phone numbers and addresses. Find a way to commute there, expensive cab fares be damned.

3. Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry

a) Level of Harm: Legally capable of limiting Harry's rights. Depending on Fudge's ability to sway the Ministry to his side, could sway the Wizarding World to view Harry as a liar. Harmful to both Harry's mental health and plan to prepare the Wizarding World for Voldemort (see 1.b).

b) Dealing with the Threat: Capitalize on the divide in the Ministry shown by Amelia Bones. Assist the side that believes in Harry and lower Fudge's influence. Utilize Rita Skeeter.

4. Draco Malfoy

a) Level of Harm: Holds personal grudge against Harry for his father's death. Weak, but unpredictable and volatile depending on the help he receives from Death Eaters. Dangerous due to near and frequent contact within school walls. Is already inside Hogwarts Defenses: could potentially serve as a mole or point of entry for other Death Eaters.

b) Dealing with the Threat: Watch him for any suspicious movements. Keep note of places he frequents and times he disappears. If suspicious action confirmed, alert trustworthy authorities. Remember that Death Eaters In Training deserve no mercy (see 1.b).

5. Albus Dumbledore

a) Level of Harm: Unconfirmed if due to misguided or manipulative intentions. Responsible for child negligence (see 2.a). Holds many secrets. Has shown a pattern of keeping Harry ignorant through ten years of no contact and encouraging me to do the same this summer. If the pattern continues, results may be disastrous.

b) Dealing with the Threat: Do not trust him to keep Harry's happiness in life a priority: Plan A with Sirius will be carried out without his knowledge and Plan B will be carried out if he protests. Demand clear, precise answers; if denied, do not be content to stay in the dark and search for them yourself.

"What are you writing?"

Hermione jumped, startled out of her thoughts, and found Harry wide awake and giving her an amused smile.

"Harry! You should have told me you were awake!" She couldn't help but scold him.

"And break your concentration? I may be taking potions for my mental health, but I haven't gone mad yet." At her huffing that it was too early to make jokes like that, he chuckled. "Besides, I like watching you."

Hermione brushed a strand of her hair back self consciously, not knowing how to respond to that revelation and hastily blurted out: "I was making a list."


"People who could hurt you. It's always smart planning to know your potential enemies in advance."

"What? It hasn't even been a full day!" He looked at her in astonishment and then began laughing for real this time.

"I don't see what's so funny here," she sniffed haughtily, but was secretly glad that he was feeling well enough today to joke around.

"Nothing," he wiped tears from his eyes and gave her a lopsided smile. "I was just thinking how lucky I am to have you as my friend. What would I ever do without you, Hermione Granger?"

The question made her pause.

Harry had changed this year, always going out of his way to thank her for little things that he wouldn't have batted an eye at before or spouting off lines like: "You mean the world to me, Hermione" or "You will never be second best in my life. Not now, not ever." She really didn't know what to do with him when he looked at her with those large, sincere eyes; it was almost too much for a girl to handle.

And at the same time, she wondered if he knew what he meant to her.

What would she have done without Harry Potter in her life?

She didn't want to consider it even for a second.

Did he know how much her life had irrevocably changed that Halloween night? She had come to Hogwarts with so many hopes and dreams and it had almost all gone down the drain in the swirl of depression and helplessness she felt when she realized nothing would ever change for her. And then an eleven year old boy—with little skill and a heart too big for his own good—had barged into the girl's washroom to save a girl he barely knew from a troll.

Harry had proved her wrong. Did he know how much she treasured that moment when they had become friends? How proud she was to stand next to him, through thick and thin?

Silently, she reached out and took his hand in both of hers. Holding on tightly.

People looked at him and saw someone from their stories and legends, the Boy-Who-Lived, or whatever image they wanted to push on him. When she looked at him, she saw a boy struggling under the weight of the expectations and danger that came with his name. She saw a lonely boy who understood what it felt like to be ostracized and was as desperate for a place to belong as she was. Despite the rough hand he had been dealt with in life, she saw that he had a strong will and a compassionate heart.

Throughout the years, she couldn't help but be impressed with his bravery, his loyalty, and his selflessness. Oh, he had plenty of admirable feats: he had faced Voldemort's wraith in first year, battled a basilisk in the second, and dementors in the third. But it was the other moments that had imprinted in Hermione's heart.

The little things.

Harry standing up for Neville and going after the remembrall. Harry visiting her when she was petrified and holding her hand, talking to her in a soft voice. Harry being sneaky and tricking Lucius Malfoy into freeing Dobby, later proudly telling her that he considered the elf a friend. Harry telling her to hold on tightly as they flew on Buckbeak and Hermione forgetting her distaste for flying, overcome with how safe, how carefree she felt in that moment with his arms around her.

Harry caressing her hair and mumbling into her neck, "You're safe. You're safe" after she had been rescued from the lake. Harry in front of the fireplace that day, confronting her faults—that she was often stubborn and self righteous—and admitting his own—that he was reckless and hotheaded, but being adamant that they would find their way together anyway. Always.

He had looked so shocked in first year, when she had told him: "Harry - you're a great wizard, you know."

"I'm not as good as you," he had replied, looking so unsure of himself and Hermone's heart had melted.

"Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and—"

ch 11a

"And love."

ch 10

"What was that?" He looked at her curiously.

"I'm lucky to be your friend too, Harry." Hermione smiled. "Don't you ever forget that."

Chapter Text

No matter how much Harry protested that he was fine, Madam Pomfrey wouldn't let him leave the Hospital Wing.

"I've been here for a day already!" Harry groaned. "I drank all the potions, I'm not hallucinating anymore, and even the nightmares aren't so bad. Isn't that enough?"

"No, Mister Potter. It is not enough." The stern matron put her hands on her hips and glared down at him. "My job is to make sure that you are completely healthy and 'not so bad' won't cut it. Your simple reflexes still show the after effects of being under the Cruciatus for a long duration of time. And Miss Granger tells me that you're still not able to keep down all of your food without feeling nauseous."

"Of course she did," Harry sighed and looked at the empty seat that Hermione had been occupying for most of the day.

Pomfrey's expression softened. "Don't blame her. That girl is going to give herself grey hair from worrying over you as much as she does. She wants the best for you."

"I know," Harry said, feeling guilty.

He knew all too well the lengths Hermione went to for his sake. The hours directly after the third task was still fuzzy for him: all he remembered was a cycle of nightmares, waking up to a hospital bed and a disorienting reality that forced him to confront what he had done. He remembered the eerie contrast of the white curtains surrounding the bed and the visions of red assaulting his mind. He remembered how the silence of the infirmary had amplified the screams ringing in his ears and he remembered

Hermione. Hermione who had shown up in the graveyard even if it had just been a figment of his imagination, stretching her hand out towards him in the darkness of that night. Hermione who had comforted him when he felt like he was going insane, who had tried to rationalize the madness of the third task in her firm, steady voice and brought peace to the chaos of 'what have I done, what do I do now' swirling through his mind.

He had gone to sleep and woken up to her sitting exactly where he had left her: beside his bed, scribbling on a notebook, and doing what she did best—planning. Not a day had passed and she was already noting down his—their—enemies and thinking of ways to defeat them.

He shouldn't have been surprised. This was the girl who had stood by him through thick and thin, even when everyone else had abandoned him. This was Hermione. No, he was just… relieved. Consoled by the fact that his entire world could turn upside down, Voldemort could return, he could become a murderer of Death Eaters overnight and she would still be there. Waiting to fight by his side.

Hermione returned from the kitchens five minutes later, carrying a tray of food that looked much more appetizing than the bland meals given in the Hospital Wing.

"I just don't like lying here, feeling useless," Harry told her after they had finished breakfast. "Voldemort's back—I should be doing something."

She huffed. "You've hardly had a break this whole year, working yourself to the bones. You can do something after you've rested. One day of rest will hardly kill you."

"No, but boredom might," he muttered.

"No danger of that—I expect that you'll be swarmed with visitors soon enough." At Harry's confusion, she smirked. "I haven't told you of the rumors flying around yet, have I?"

Hermione was right, as usual. A slew of visitors came that day to check how he was doing. Some like Molly Weasley, who cried and engulfed him in a hug as soon as she saw him, were expected.

Others like Cedric Diggory… were not.

"Congratulations on winning," Cedric blurted out after Hermione had left them alone. He winced visibly and gestured to the bag of winnings on the bedside table. "Winning that… not the other stuff."

It was rare to see the perfect Hufflepuff boy look so awkward and uncomfortable.

"Yes, congratulations to me," Harry said dryly. "Only had to fight off a Dark Lord and his minions to earn it. Ten out of ten, would do again."

Cedric exhaled loudly. "That was a bad start. I came to let you know I believe you. About Voldemort coming back. About everything."

"Some of my friends don't. My father—he thinks you're lying for attention. Says that winning wasn't good enough for you so you made it all up. I asked them if they would have said the same thing if it was me who had gotten to the Cup first."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I think I've always known," he said hesitantly, "that you were never a liar. When your name was called from the Goblet, you looked like the ground had been pulled from underneath your feet. I was… bitter then. I wanted to believe what they said you were. It was a competition for me—a game I wanted to win. But it was never like that for you, was it? You didn't think twice before telling me about the dragons. You walked around the castle with this serious, heavy air around you—like you were preparing for war—and I thought secretly it was a bit silly. 'There goes that Potter kid acting like he's carrying the world on his shoulders.'"

"But the joke was on me." He smiled sardonically. "I don't know how a fourth year student trained to be better skilled than three seventh years, but if you hadn't, it would have been one of the other Champions taking that Cup. It could have been me facing You-Know-Who."

The irony wasn't lost on Harry. He had trained so hard this year, preparing for the worst. Perhaps if he had abandoned the Tournament preparations altogether, he would have been last and someone else could have taken the Cup. A small, resentful part of Harry wished that someone else could have suffered in his place. Why did it always have to be him? Why was it that no matter what he did, he could never win?

"So you're here to thank me," Harry said dully.

"No," Cedric said, his gaze serious. "I'm here to say that I won't ignore the signs right in front of me again—especially if those signs are telling me that you're right and Voldemort's back. I won't stay silent as my friends and family label you as a liar. Not like last time. "

Cedric's visit had been a surprise, Harry mused after he had left, but not an entirely unwelcome one.

Neville was another surprise. Not that he came to visit Harry—no, they had begun speaking much more after the Yule Ball and became closer. What was surprising was that he walked in with bloodshot eyes, not bothering with a hello, and simply said:

"I'm glad you cut off his arm."

Harry was caught off guard with the pure hatred in Neville's voice, but then the memory he had seen in the pensieve hit him. Hermione turned white, probably remembering the trial he had told her about, of Bartemius Crouch Jr being sentenced for the torture of Alice and Frank Longbottom…

"You know what he did, don't you? Barty Crouch." He scrutinized their expressions. "The others—they think he's just a random Death Eater imposter. But I grew up memorizing the names and faces of the people who tortured my parents from old newspaper clippings—I saw his face when they were carrying him out of the fields and I knew."

"After you fainted, he wouldn't stop screaming and wailing. He kept saying, 'Give me back my arm! Give me back my mark!' It's not like me crying, 'give me back my parents!" ever did anything; I'm glad he felt a taste of that helplessness." Neville looked at them with searching, desperate eyes. "Where is he now? Do you know?"

Hermione spoke hesitantly, "Neville, the Minister already subjected him to the Dementor's Kiss. He's gone."

"Gone? Just like that?" He seemed to deflate before their eyes, appearing lost. "He gets off like that while my parents will spend the rest of their lives at St Mungos. He was at Hogwarts this whole time, probably laughing when he taught classes on the cruciatus! I bet my parents would have seen through him—they were renowned aurors, you know. I'm their son. I should have known."

"No one knew. Not Dumbledore. Not the Ministry. He fooled everyone!" Hermione was getting agitated. "You couldn't have known, Neville."

"Harry knew, didn't he?" Neville turned to Harry. "He saw through Crouch. My grandmother sent me a letter this morning telling me that she wants to thank you for being brave and doing the right thing. For making him suffer. She always wanted someone smart and brave like my father, but she got me instead."

"Your grandmother wouldn't want you to be like me either," Harry said quietly. "It wasn't bravery that made me hurt him. It was hatred."

"You think I don't hate too? There's just nothing I can do with it." Nevillle said bitterly.

Harry groaned out loud. He didn't know if what he was about to say was good advice, but he knew the pain of being orphaned, the all consuming loathing when he realized exactly what had been taken from him. He knew that horrible feeling of being helpless all too well.

"Then learn—turn the skills you do have into something useful or gain new ones. Tell your grandmother to prepare too. We're going to need all the help we can get now that Voldemort's back."

"I t-thought that was just a rumour."

"Not only is he back, he's depleted his death eaters," Harry said. "And where do you think he'll go to fill up his ranks?"

It was strange to see Flitwick walk into the Hospital Wing without his customary smile and spring in his step.

"Do you have any idea how relieved I am that you're alive?" the half goblin said, his eyes glistening. "I keep asking myself: if you hadn't come that day to ask about the Fidelius, would I have still turned a blind eye? Would I have watched unflinchingly as you walked into that maze and shook my head had you died?"

"But I didn't die," Harry said, confused. "You made sure of that with your help."

"If I had known you were bait for You-Know-Who of all people, I wouldn't have waited so long to break the rules to help you! Merlin, I would have taken you out of that tournament myself!"

"Was that even possible?" Hermione asked.

"Don't underestimate the convoluted means goblins have devised to cheat Wizarding contracts, Miss Granger." Flitwick humphed. "It would have likely been a nasty deal, but it would beat fighting a Dark Lord! I didn't—I just never thought it would turn out like this. Harry, did you have any idea at all about You Know Who's involvement in this? Did Dumbledore?"

"I had nightmares. Terrible ones that left my scar aching," Harry recalled the tale Voldemort had told in the graveyard. "Looking back, they weren't nightmares at all. They were visions showing what Voldemort was doing. I saw him discussing a plan with his Death Eaters, discussing Hogwarts. I saw him kill a muggle: Frank Bryce was his name."

"That can't be." Flitwick shook his head, as if willing away the truth of Harry's words. "It's impossible unless—that can't be."

"What can't be?" Hermione's voice was steely. Harry had never heard her speak to a professor that way before. "If it concerns Harry, he deserves to know."

"You'll have to forgive me if I don't inform you right away. Something of this caliber must be researched heavily before confirming." The half goblin asked Harry again, this time more urgently: "But did you tell Dumbledore of this? About the scar? The dreams? Your connection with the Dark Lord?"

"I did. He said it was a product of the killing curse and that there wasn't much to go on since no one had survived it before." Harry frowned. "As for the dreams, he confirmed that Voldemort seemed to be up to something and told me to be careful."

"T-told you to be careful?" Flitwick looked devastated. "Product of the killing curse indeed!"

"I don't understand. I've told you of my mistrust towards Dumbledore before, but it didn't bother you then."

"I respect Albus Dumbledore, Harry." Flitwick sighed. "He took me into his inner circle despite my heritage and hired me at Hogwarts when others would have shrunk away in disgust. He had been nothing but an exemplary wizard to my knowledge when you confronted me with your suspicions. But… doubts have grown since then."

He took out a letter from his robes and handed it to Harry. "What I'm about to say next concerns your vaults and your parents' will. If you would like to be alone for that—"

"Hermione stays," Harry interrupted, reaching out and grabbing her hand.

"Well." Flitwick looked at their grasped hands and cleared his throat. "You once said that since wizarding society forced you to participate in a tournament only for adults, you should have been allowed the status and benefits of an adult to go with it. The good news is that we goblins are a reasonable lot: the moment you fought in the first task as an adult, you were given adult status in their eyes and all the rights along with it. For example, you are no longer restricted to your student trust account and have full control over the Potter Vault and all Potter Estates."

Harry's head spun with the possibilities of this revelation. The Potter Vault—would he finally be able to hold some of his mother and father's belongings in his hands? Have tangible proof of the people they had been? The Potter Estates—would he finally have a home?

"The bad news is," Flitwick jolted Harry out of his thoughts. "That your vaults, your investments, and your estates have been left to gather dust. Usually, you would have a legal guardian to manage your accounts and keep everything in order until you're old enough to do it yourself, but… well, let us just say your guardian took the 'hands off' approach to another level. Oh, there was no interference of the sort, but it has been… quite forgotten. Even if you do wish to visit the Potter Manor, it will likely be in a state of disarray."

Forgotten. Just like he had been all those years at the Dursleys. Forgotten.

"And then, there is the matter of your parents' will. Mind you, I have no authority to read into the details of your account nor the will. I only know general information by making use of my connections and asking a limited number of 'yes or no' questions. The first question I asked was if your muggle relatives were on the list of people you were supposed to go to according to the will. The answer," he sighed, ''was a no."

"What?" Harry said. "Then why was I put there? Who—"

"Dumbledore," Hermione said quietly. "He was the legal guardian, wasn't he?"

"Correct," Flitwick said, appraising her curiously.

Hermione looked down at the ground. "There's something I haven't told you yet, Harry. I went to ask Dumbledore yesterday if we could find a better place for you to stay during the summer. I know I might have been overstepping my bounds again, but I was worried sick at the thought of you with those horrible relatives—especially after everything you'd been through—"

"Hermione—" Harry placed a hand on her shoulders, "—I'm not angry."

"You aren't?"

"Why would I be? This is the first time anyone's cared enough to try and stop me from going back to that hell hole. The first time anyone's even considered an alternative." He squeezed her shoulder gratefully. "Thank you."

Her expression turned crestfallen. "Well, I didn't manage to do much for you in the end. I was turned down. The headmaster seemed to think that the Dursleys were the only option for you. I asked him how he could say that considering how terribly you're treated there. And—he didn't even ask what I meant by that—he just launched into a speech about how he knew that when he left you on your aunt and uncle's doorstep, he knew he was condemning you to ten dark and difficult years. But that, due to your mother's blood protection, it was the best place for you to be safe."

"Safe? Safe?" Harry couldn't help but laugh. Flitwick and Hermione looked at him with concern but once he started, he couldn't stop. I was safe all right, he thought hysterically. Safe in that dark, small cupboard. So safe that no one would know whether I lived or died.

"If he sent me there to be safe," Harry said in a raspy voice once he could finally stop laughing, "then why did he never check for himself? Not once in ten years! He just—just resigned himself to the fact that I would be miserable there, as if there was nothing else to be done?"

Harry felt cold all over. He remembered the terrible pain of a child who had reached out for his aunt's hand only to be knocked backward to the ground as she yanked her hand away. He remembered primary school and coming home with grades better than Dudley, Uncle Vernon locking him in the darkness of the cupboard, and the emptiness in his stomach as he listened to the sounds of a boisterous dinner. His classmates snickering at his baggy, washed out clothes. Shoves and rough handling that were so frequent he should have grown used to them—not dreaded the pain they would bring, the overwhelming loneliness that always wanted to swallow him whole—he remembered it all. It was a dull sort of pain that never truly went away.

"Couldn't he at least have tried?" Harry asked, a lump in his throat. "Did my happiness mean so little? Or was it me—was I just not worth the extra effort in the end?"

What a waste! Aunt Petunia grumbled as four year old Harry ducked his head and quietly finished his meal.

You know what you are, boy? Uncle Vernon squinted at eight year old Harry. Useless. Unwanted. We didn't want you here. And neither did that miserable sod who dropped you on our doorstep.

"Oh, no—Harry, you mustn't think that!" Hermione sounded close to tears as she grabbed his hand, "I knew I shouldn't have told you! You're still not fully recovered—breathe, Harry. Listen to me."

"You deserved more than the pitiful amount of care shown to you. You deserved to be cherished and loved. To be happy." She took a deep breath. "I've tried my hardest to understand Dumbledore's actions and in a way, perhaps he was doing what he thought was right. Perhaps, the Dursleys really were the best option for you. But when he decided to put you in that household, he acquired the responsibility to look after your well being. The negligence to do so speaks of his failure as a guardian, not your worthiness.

"I can't think of a soul more deserving of happiness than you. Do you understand?"

He nodded numbly.

"I am sorry to have been the bearer of this distressing news." Flitwick sounded tired. "More sorry than I can say."

"No," Harry found his voice. "Thank you for telling me. Both of you."

It hurt. Despite his resentment and suspicions against the headmaster, there was still a small part of Harry that had yearned for his approval. Dumbledore was eccentric and strange at times, but he had seen Harry. Seemed to understand him even, read his deepest thoughts. Harry remembered waking up in the hospital bed after fighting Quirrell for the stone and feeling such enormous relief at the sight of the headmaster—a weight lifting from his chest. He had instinctively thought of Dumbledore as someone larger than life, someone who could keep them safe, someone he could rely on.

But it seemed Dumbledore, too, was only human. Someone who could cause pain.

"I deserve to know the truth," Harry said. "No more lies."

He was no longer that little boy in the cupboard.

He refused to be left in the dark.

After Flitwick left, Harry was silent and moody for the rest of the evening. He couldn't bring himself to smile or talk or do anything, really. He just felt… empty. The letter containing the will sat unopened on his bedside table, taunting him. He was scared of opening it only to find more lies, more secrets, more hurtful truths.

Hermione did her best to offer support, but even she couldn't erase his past.

When the Weasley twins dropped by, dragging Ron along with them, Harry was jolted out of his brooding. They came armed with a basket of their strange inventions and treats that Harry didn't have the heart to tell them Hermione had already smuggled for him from the kitchens.

Once the twins had finished tussling Harry's hair jokingly and making over dramatic exclamations about his rumoured comatose state, Ron spoke up from the side.

"Hey there, Harry," he said.

"Hi Ron," Harry replied, feeling strange.

Before this year he had never felt uncomfortable in Ron's presence, but now a heavy blanket of silence and awkwardness lay between them.

"How—" Ron shuffled his feet. "How are you?"

Terrible, Harry wanted to say. I've just fought Voldemort and his merry band of Death Eaters. I've found out that a man I had once respected sent me to my childhood prison. My head is bloody aching. And this is the first time you've spoken to me in almost six months after I told you to choose between apologizing and remaining my friend.

"Fine," Harry said instead. "You?"

"Oh. That's good to hear." Ron looked relieved at his response. "Nothing much going on with me, really. Just the usual."

Taking Harry's silence as an indication to continue, Ron started to talk about how the past few weeks had been, the grueling year end exams, something Seamus and Dean had been up to, his excitement at Quidditch returning to Hogwarts next year... the words seemed to meld together as Harry began to zone out.

Ron was an ordinary boy, talking about ordinary school things, and at one point in his life Harry would have soaked in the normalcy his presence offered. But the Harry of the moment could not bring himself to care about what was being said. He felt like he and Ron were standing on opposite sides, with an ocean of differences separating them.

Ron, too, seemed to run out of things to say and began to fidget before muttering that he had forgotten about meeting someone and made a hasty exit.

Fred and George raised their eyebrows at each other and shrugged, taking over Ron's role as conversation starter. Harry truly was not in the mood for talking, but the twins had the ability to inject laughter into any room they stepped into. After entertaining Harry and Hermione with silly anecdotes and lighthearted gossip, the twins grew serious.

"You really gave us a scare there, Harry," Fred said. "When you fainted, we didn't know what to think. Thought you were a goner."

"Take care of yourself, yeah?" George frowned. "I can't imagine fighting You-Know-Who was easy."

"It wasn't a walk in the park, that's for sure." He shrugged, not ready to go into the details of that night. "But most of my injuries have already healed."

"What about you two?" He changed the subject, noticing the heavy bags under their eyes. "Rough night?"

"It wasn't like we could sleep after everything that happened!" Fred said.

"But Bagman running away with our money definitely didn't help either," George muttered.

"He did what?" Hermione exclaimed.

After a little urging, she managed to wrangle the story out of them. With every word they spoke, their shoulders seemed to droop and their voices lost their previous energy.

"I know what you're going to say," George sighed. "It was stupid of us to bet all of our savings. Foolish."

"But when you're desperate, you don't really think clearly." Fred shrugged. "Next year will be our last year at Hogwarts. It was either settle for one of those Ministry jobs Mum's been nagging us about or bet on our last hope for setting up our own joke shop. And now that plan's dead in a ditch."

Harry looked thoughtfully at the bag of winnings at his bedside table. "It doesn't have to be."

Fred's gaze followed Harry's line of sight and he stiffened. "Harry, you can't—"

"Can't what?" Harry grabbed the bag and turned to Hermione, asking if she could take out a quill and some parchment to write on.

"Can't just give us your winnings!" George had caught on too.

"I'm not giving anything," Harry snorted. "I'm investing."

An idea had slowly been growing at the back of his head while he casually played with the silly inventions the twins had brought and listened to their story. Silly was the key word. Everybody seemed to perceive them as a couple of jokesters, but now that Harry had learned the value of twisting a simple spell, he could easily see their pranking through a mean spirited lens instead. Perhaps, people would always consider what they did as harmless fun or look down on the pranks.

But being looked down on wasn't necessarily bad, Harry considered carefully. Being underestimated was what had saved his life at the graveyard after all.

He started writing down terms on the parchment. Money wasn't really important to him, but having the right to point the directions of their inventions and use them exclusively was.

"If you decide to take the winnings, you decide to enter into a partnership with me. I would be a shareholder, I suppose. You would still be running the whole business, but I'd be entitled to chime in here and there for things I'd like to see you try."

Hermione was looking at him with a contemplative expression, as if surprised by this turn of events.

Identical, slow smiles spread across the twins' faces. "What do you have in mind, Harry?"

Harry smiled back. "If you're allowed to go crazy with your inventions, just how nasty can you make them?

The sun had just set but Hermione's eyes were already drooping.

"Hermione," Harry said exasperatedly. "Will you please get some rest? I bet you didn't get any sleep last night either. It's not like I'll disappear once you come back."

"I am perfectly fine where I am, thank you very much," Hermione said sternly, but the yawn that escaped her a second later said otherwise.

"At the very least, come lie down," Harry said, sitting up from the bed. "You've been sitting on that chair all day."

She half heartedly protested, but Harry just rolled his eyes and pulled her along.

Once they were lying side by side on the small hospital bed with the blanket pulled up to their chins, Harry whispered: "Hermione?"

Hermione turned on her side and faced him. "Yes?"

"Did you feel that same thing earlier? When Ron was here?" Harry frowned. "I know it's been a long time since we've spoken, but I didn't expect to feel so... alienated from him. I didn't even know what to say."

She looked thoughtful. "You two are on different wavelengths now, emotionally and regarding what you consider important. You grew apart, Harry. That's all it is."

"Is that normal?" He asked. "Was it like this with you too?"

"When I stopped talking with Ron?" Hermione sighed. "You have to understand that me and Ron were never the best of friends. He insulted me or ignored me or belittled my opinions and I would snipe at him and insult him right back and it was just a vicious cycle. Honestly, the only thing we had in common was you. I doubt we would have ever become friends otherwise."

Harry was taken aback for a moment, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized Hermione was right.

"What about us?" A sudden thought hit him. "We won't ever grow apart like that, will we?"

"You and me?" Hermione laughed, bringing her face closer to his. "You think you could get rid of me that easily? I'm here to stay for the long run."

Harry reached down and grasped her hand tightly. "Good."

That night, there were no nightmares.

The whole time he had been recuperating, Harry waited for Dumbledore and his inevitable interrogation. Surprisingly, the headmaster seemed to be busy with other affairs and did not visit him until the very last day of his stay in the Hospital Wing.

Perhaps this visit would have gone unnoticed had Harry not woken up early that morning, thirsty for water, and found the headmaster sitting in the chair besides his bed with one hand rubbing the creases on his forehead and his eyes closed.

"Professor?" Harry called out, uncertain if this was still a dream. Dumbledore had always been an elderly respected figure, but Harry would never have classified him as old. Yet, as he looked at the man who seemed to have aged another decade overnight, noticed the wrinkles on his face and the sunken bags under his eyes, Harry was once again struck by the thought that Dumbledore was…human after all. The usual aura of power and authority that surrounded the headmaster had vanished and left behind a brittle old man.

Dumbledore opened his eyes at the sound of his voice and the sharp glint in his gaze along with the imposing pressure it brought—as if those eyes could see through all the lies of the world, all the hidden grievances in Harry's heart—made Harry wonder if he had imagined what he had just seen.

"Good morning, Harry." Dumbledore gave him a slight smile as he reached out and handed him a glass of water, ignoring how Harry tensed up in response. "I did not wish to disturb your rest these past few days, but Madam Pomfrey tells me that you have made a full recovery. I am glad to hear it."

Are you? Harry thought.

At his silence, Dumbledore's smile slowly faded and he sighed. "I know this will be painful, but I need to know what happened after you touched the portkey in the maze. Can you tell me, Harry?"

Harry had long seen this question coming. He told the headmaster of the homunculus form of Voldemort that he had mistaken as a baby, Wormtail tying him up, the torture he had endured, the strange phenomenon where his and Voldemort's wands had connected, seeing his parents…

"And then?" Dumbledore prompted quietly when Harry suddenly stopped speaking.

Harry's throat felt dry. "And then while the ghosts fought Voldemort, I used the Accio charm to get the portkey and found myself lying on the ground outside the maze. You already know the rest."

The headmaster seemed to accept this as he nodded and proceeded to explain to Harry what exactly had happened with Voldemort and Harry's wands ("Priori Incantatem," Harry whispered and felt a shiver go through him at the notion that he held such a powerful connection to the Dark Lord….that he mirrored him) and the significance of what Voldemort had done with the blood protection Lily Potter had left behind.

Surprisingly, Dumbledore did not ask about what he had done to Barty Crouch and Harry did not mention it.

After Dumbledore finished explaining, it was his turn to fall silent. Harry looked down at the white bed sheet and tried not to fidget or show his discomfort. Surely, he hadn't realized that Harry was hiding something?

Then the headmaster spoke, his voice low and mournful:

"Your words after the third task have haunted me. I have had many regrets throughout my years and now I have another to add. You should never have had to experience what you did that night. But as much as I regret the pain you have been subject to, I cannot help but be overcome with pride.

"You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you, Harry. You have shown bravery equal to those who died fighting Voldemort at the height of his powers. You have shouldered a grown wizard's burden and found yourself equal to it — and you have now given us all we have a right to expect."

Once upon a time, these words would have brought indescribable joy to Harry, pride at receiving Dumbledore's high praise and relief that he had done the right thing. But now, the Harry who sat motionless on the hospital bed felt like someone had carved out his insides and left behind a hollow shell of a person. He was not the brave, honorable boy Dumbledore said he was. He was nothing and he felt nothing.

Regrets? Harry wanted to ask. Do you regret leaving me behind at the Dursleys and never checking to see how I was doing, if I was suffering? Do you regret using me as bait in this tournament even though I begged you to believe me?

Would you say those same words if you knew what I did that night? If you knew how I slaughtered those Death Eaters and watched them die with satisfaction in my heart? If you knew what I've become?

Harry didn't want to know.

He had a feeling he knew what the answer would be.

Dumbledore sighed, placing a hand on his shoulder in what was probably meant to be a comforting gesture, and then finally got up and walked out of the Hospital Wing.

Harry remained motionless and silent long after he had left.

The rest of the days at Hogwarts passed by in a blur. Even once he was released from the Hospital Wing, Harry and Hermione kept to themselves and spent more time in the Room of Requirement or taking walks outside rather than subjecting themselves to the whispers and stares of the student population. By the time of the year end feast, Harry was in control of himself enough to sit emotionlessly through Dumbledore's speech of Voldemort's return and not react to the half hostile, half curious looks directed his way.

Before he knew it, he was on the train and on his way back to the Dursleys.

Hermione had been acting strange all day; she urgently pulled him into one of the compartments and shut the door with a loud bam.

"Harry, I have something to tell you." She wrung her hands nervously. "When I went to ask Dumbledore if you could go somewhere else this summer and he gave that whole speech about keeping you safe, he added another condition. I'm not supposed to contact you either."

"What?" Harry's stomach sank. "Why not?"

"Apparently, it's too much of a security risk to exchange owls when both the Ministry and Voldemort's people will be keeping an eye on surveillance. Frankly, I don't buy it." Hermione lifted her chin. "Besides, there are other ways to keep in contact."

"What's this for?" Harry asked as she passed him a parchment and quill.

"Your address and your phone number. I'll be needing them." Hermione said in her no-nonsense voice. "I can't believe we've never thought to use muggle methods of communication before, but better late than never. I can always just taxi over if I need to or find something to do in your area so my parents drop me off."

"As for calling…" She handed him another paper. "That's my address and number. There's bound to be a telephone booth near your area that you can use if the Dursleys don't let you use theirs. And in the case of emergency, you can call a taxi too. Just ask Dobby to go to Gringotts with your key and convert a bag of galleons to pounds, and you're set."

Harry was dumbfounded. "You seem to have been planning this for a while."

"I'm not leaving you alone this summer, Harry." Her eyes blazed with determination. "No matter what."

As Harry got on to the platform and spotted the Dursleys, he felt his heart grow heavy.

"I guess that's it then," he said, attempting to smile but not quite succeeding. "Goodbye."

"Bye, Harry!" said Hermione, and she did something she had never done before, and kissed him on the cheek.

ch 12.1

Harry froze for a second, unable to process the feel of her soft lips against his cheek and her scent surrounding him.

She stepped back and turned away to go, but before he knew it, he was pulling her back and into his arms.

"I'll miss you." His voice was muffled by her hair. "I never did tell you, did I? Thank you for everything, Hermione."

"You really are silly sometimes." She laughed, leaning into him. "Thank you for giving me one of my Harry Hugs."

ch 12.2

ch 12.3

ch 12.4

ch 12.5

When they finally separated, Harry approached the Dursleys who had been watching the display of public affection with more than a little horror.

"Who was that girl?" Aunt Petunia asked, her nose scrunched up in distaste.

"My best friend." Harry smirked. "Don't worry, you'll be seeing her around more often."

The car came to a stop in front of #4 Privet Drive. The house loomed in front of Harry, as perfect and immaculate as ever. As Harry stepped out of the car, he thought he could hear voices taunting him: You don't belong hereWhy have you come back? You don't belong.

Harry ignored the stifling sensation in his chest and focused on taking deep, steady breaths like Hermione had taught him.

Aunt Petunia's shriek broke him out of his panicking. "What's that mutt doing on our doorstep?"

Harry moved in front of her and stared down at the doorstep, feeling like his heart was about to burst with all the different emotions swirling inside of him.

"Padfoot?" He bent down and whispered, barely daring to hope.

The black dog—Sirius, it was him, wasn't it? He wasn't dreaming?—barked and nudged a letter into his lap.

Harry opened it with shaking hands and began to read out loud.

"As the godfather of Harry James Potter, it has come to my attention that my godson has been treated abysmally ill by his so called guardians Petunia and Vernon Dursley. In consideration of the years my godson has spent with these guardians, I have refrained from appearing personally and showing just why I have become infamous among the muggle police as a wanted criminal. From now on, this dog will be my eyes and ears in this place. You treat him or my godson ill and I will know. Signed, Sirius Black."

Behind him, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were shouting and yelling, but Harry couldn't bring himself to pay them any attention. He wrapped his arms around Sirius' frame and closed his eyes, unable to help the smile growing at the corners of his mouth.

For the first time in his life, he thought: So this is what it feels like. Coming home.

Chapter Text

Plop. Her head landed on his shoulder and he could feel her breath on his neck. "Hermione?" No response. Harry smiled warmly but his smile disappeared once he considered just how tired she must have been to fall asleep without warning. Have I ever thanked her? Have I ever told her what she means to me? He racked his brain but couldn't find a satisfactory moment where he had expressed to her just how important she was to him. I'll tell her when she wakes up, he promised himself. In…in the morning. I'll tell her: thank you. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax.

They were side by side, in that moment. Together. Just like always.

-Awakening Chapter 1


Note: This was the first image drawn for Awakening in October was just meant to accompany a short drabble that I wrote on a whim. When it turned into a full fledged story, Arishatisic redrew it to the image that was included in chapter one and that you can see below. 




And before Harry knew it, he was leading Hermione onto the floor, praying that he wouldn't miss a step and desperately hoping she wouldn't notice his sweaty palms. He could do this. All he had to do was pretend they were in the Room of Requirement, practicing like usual, just her and him. The more he concentrated on Hermione—on the way she felt in his arms, the flowery scent when he pulled her close, the delighted little smile she sent his way whenever he twirled her around—the more he forgot about the audience and started to truly enjoy himself.

-Awakening Chapter 4


yule ball extra 1



Yule Ball Alternative Proposal: 

Hermione Takes the Lead

Hermione was tired of waiting. 

It had been a week since the Yule Ball had been announced and Harry had yet to say anything about asking her to the ball. Oh, she was well aware that he had more important things to worry about. After all, she was the one with him nearly every second of the day as they practiced and researched and did everything they could to prepare for the second task. She was ecstatic that  Harry had become so focused and driven towards his goals this year, but for once in her life she wished he would think of something else.

He...he hadn't forgotten to ask her, had he? Hermione shut the book she had been reading and groaned so loudly Madam Pince looked her way with a stern glare. 

Of course. Of course that was it. This was Harry. She remembered the way he had awkwardly stumbled into her arms when she had first taught him how to dance in the kitchens. The way he had blushed furiously when she had brought their faces closer together. He wasn't used to dealing with girls in that kind of setting.

As Hermione learned more and more about his upbringing, she was coming to realize that it had left him rather emotionally and socially stunted.

"Hermy-own." A voice interrupted her musings. It was Viktor Krum and to Hermione's surprise, he had come to ask her to the ball. 

She gave him a small smile and turned him down as politely as she could, saying that she was waiting for someone else to ask her.  

It was in the middle of that sentence that she froze. Waiting? Why on earth was she waiting? She was Hermione Jane Granger! Whatever she wanted, she would work her hardest to go after it... not sit around and mope. 

She mumbled an apology to Krum and hastened out of the library only to see Harry exiting the Common Room once she arrived by the Fat Lady's portrait. 

"Harry!" she seized his sleeve, panting.

"What's wrong?" Harry frowned. "Did you run all the way here? I was just about to go meet you at the library—"

Hermione sighed and said something she would otherwise have not said in a million years: "Never mind the library. I have something to ask you."

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, looking at him with determined eyes: "Harry James Potter, will you go to the ball with me?"

Harry looked flabbergasted. "W-what? Aren't we going together already?" He put a hand to his chest. "Bloody hell, you scared me for a second there. Using my full name and everything!" 

Hermione closed her eyes. "You do know the boy is supposed to ask the girl, don't you, Harry?" 

"I suppose," Harry looked a little chagrined but then smiled down at her. "But I have you, Hermione. I'm glad sometimes that you're the one to take charge."

"Well, someone around here has to!" Hermione huffed, but she was smiling too.

As they entered the Common Room while holding hands, Hermione could have sworn she heard the Fat Lady exclaim: "Finally!"



"What do you say about going for another round?"

"Already?" She sounded surprised. "I thought you might like to sit down. You know, you don't have to push yourself for my sake."

"Hermione, I asked you to come with me so we could have fun together, not so you could stand guard as I sulk in the shadows somewhere." Now he was really laughing.

"Besides, if I don't make use of my newfound skills this evening, all that practice will have been for nothing!"

So they went to join their fellow students on the floor for another dance. And another. And another...

-Awakening Chapter 4

yule ball extra 2

Chapter 4.5

"Will you be all right, Sirius? Is the food from the kitchens enough to last more than a few days this time?" Harry's eyebrows furrowed in worry.

"The tent Dobby bought from Diagon Alley does look quite cozy, but it's getting so cold outside, maybe we should have chosen a more sturdy one." Hermione looked at the recently set up tent with a less than impressed stare, shaking her head in thought. 

"You two have been nagging for half an hour now," Sirius rolled his eyes, wondering when they would stop. "I'm fine and I'll be fine even when you're gone. Harry, you've had poor Dobby fill the cave with what must be Hogwart's entire pantry! Hermione, you spent four hours going through magical catalogues—I highly doubt that there is a better tent in existence. I know you're worried about me living here, but it's only temporary and you've done your best to make this cave fit for a king. Repeat after me: you've done enough. "

The two teenagers stared at Sirius blankly. 

"If only I could learn the Fidelius faster," Harry's shoulders slumped and his face was downcast.

"If only I could understand the parameters of the charm better. This book from the library is a great resource, but it's so limited in information..." Hermione grumbled and turned the pages of the charms book that she had smuggled off of school grounds.  

"Stop!" Sirius yelled with a hint of panic in his voice, raising both of his hands as if he could ward off their words. "You're kids, you can't spend all your time worrying like this. When you're not stressing over the second task, you're here worrying over me. Take a breather, relax a little, have some fun, go on a date—"

"A... date?" Harry cocked his head sideways in confusion. 

"A date?" Hermione raised her eyebrow doubtfully. 

Merlin, these kids were hopeless. 

"Yes!" Sirius clapped his hands enthusiastically, latching on to the idea with fervor. "Isn't today one of your Hogsmeade weekend trips? You should be spending it having fun together." 

"I have fun here with you," Harry said so sincerely that Sirius had to pause for a second to get his expression under control. As if his godson's simple, straightforward words hadn't just squeezed his heart painfully and yet also filled his chest with a warm happiness that he had seldom felt in the past twelve years. 

"You don't know happy it makes me to hear that, Harry," he said softly. "But I want more for you than this. I wish you and Hermione could be carefree like other kids your age instead of being saddled with so many burdens. There's not much I can do to help you with the task, so let me have this at least. Let me see you two relax. When's the last time you took a break?" 

Harry looked at the ground and was silent.

"You don't remember." Sirius said for him and then turned to the bushy haired girl who was biting her lip in thought. "Hermione?"

"There hasn't been any time to spare—"

"There's always time to spare," he said firmly. "Now I'm going to tell you what's going to happen next. You two are going to leave me behind to enjoy the luxury of this ridiculously expensive tent in peace and go down to Hogsmeade. You are going to forget about the Tournament, about the Fidelius, about everything. And just have fun." 


"No buts." He fumbled around in the pockets of his newly bought coat and brought out a bag full of galleons and sickles. "My mission is for you to spend this entire bag within the afternoon."

When Harry hesitated to take it, he added: "Bring me back some souvenirs. It's been too long since I visited, I miss the sweets at Honeydukes..."

Harry took the bag. "Don't worry! We'll bring back loads of things for you. What else do you want?"

Sirius rattled off a list of trivial items, rummaging through the dusty corners of his school day memories to make the list as long as possible. 

Harry nodded seriously as if he was trying to memorize everything, but Hermione just raised her eyebrow at him. 

Damn. He thought. That girl really was too smart for her own good. 

"Anyway," he coughed awkwardly and pushed both teenagers to the entrance of the cave. "Off you go."

"We'll visit again soon, Sirius!" said Harry. 

"Very soon," said Hermione. "So take care of yourself."

"Yes, yes." Sirius waved and watched them go, a satisfied smile emerging on his face. 

He watched them make their way down the mountain. Hermione smirked and said something that he couldn't quite make out, but it must have been witty because his godson laughed out loud and stared at the girl with undisguised mirth in his eyes. At one point, they paused on their path as Hermione carefully tightened Harry's wayward falling scarf around his neck. Once she let go, Sirius didn't miss how Harry reached out and laced his fingers with Hermione's, squeezing her hand tightly. Their unoccupied hands had on matching red gloves, but the hands involved in the hand holding were noticeably bare.


These kids... Sirius shook his head in amusement.

A cold gale of wind blew past him, reminding Sirius that he was still standing at the entrance of the cave and should probably be retreating to the warmth of the tent. 

But he stayed where he was, unable to take his eyes off the figures of his godson and his best friend as they grew smaller and smaller with distance. 

"Harry is a good boy," he said to the wind. "Loyal and brave like you, James. Kind and caring, but fiercely protective of those he loves like you, Lily. But funnily enough, he reminds me of myself the most: he's so eager for love. I wish I could have had a chance to see him grow up, wish I could do more to protect him, but I can barely even protect myself right now. Will you forgive me?"

The wind grew quiet, a soft whisper in his ears.

"My only consolation is that, at the very least, he hasn't been alone. At least he has her." Sirius thought of the girl who had turned back time with Harry to save him. "I think you would like her very much."


"Thank you," Hermione said with a gleam of triumph in her eyes and a large grin on her face. "For the challenge."

"I'll beat you next time," Harry promised.

If possible, she smiled even wider. "I look forward to it."

And as Harry lay on the ground—tired, sweaty, and his muscles aching from the practice—he couldn't help but laugh, feeling happier and more alive than he had in a long time.

-Awakening Chapter 8


ch 8 extra


When Wormtail untied him at last and gave him back his wand, Harry's head spun and his vision grew blurry as he collapsed to the ground. He closed his eyes in pain and when he opened them again, he thought that he could see Hermione reaching out to him from the blur of darkness, desperately shoving past the throng of Death Eaters in search of him.


ch 9 extra








Harry raised his own hand feebly in return

-Awakening Chapter 9

ch 9 extra



"What about us?" A sudden thought hit him. "We won't ever grow apart like that, will we?"

"You and me?" Hermione laughed, bringing her face closer to his. "You think you could get rid of me that easily? I'm here to stay for the long run."

Harry reached down and grasped her hand tightly. "Good."

That night, there were no nightmares.

-Awakening Chapter 12

ch 12 extra

Alternate Ending to Fourth Year

"I'm not leaving you alone this summer, Harry." Her eyes blazed with determination. "No matter what."

Hermione's words kept repeating in Harry's mind throughout the rest of the train ride. 

No matter what

When was the last time someone had made a declaration like that about him? He couldn't remember... when it came to his life, it was always filled with empty platitudes or worse—indifference. Which adult at Hogwarts didn't know that Harry Potter was a skinny, malnourished little boy when he had first come to to the school? Surely, someone had to have taken note that he always filled out during the school year and yet came back from each summer looking as impoverished as ever. During second year, the twins had told their parents of the bars on his window, but nothing had been done about it. During third year, no one had asked what on earth had prompted a thirteen year old boy to blow up his aunt and run away from home...Fudge had gone as far as to dismiss it as youthful joke. During the summer of fourth year, he had been on the brink of starvation and relied on the birthday cakes from Ron and Hermione to satisfy his hunger. 

At this point, Harry had accepted that he would return to his childhood prison every summer and no one would ever say anything about it. For those months, being completely separated from the magical world was a foregone conclusion and the loneliness that plagued him was inevitable. It wasn't a big deal. He could always endure—he was good at doing that. 

But here was Hermione now, telling him that he didn't have to

She wasn't going to leave him alone. 

Why am I so surprised? He asked himself suddenly, looking at the bushy haired girl who sat in front of him. She never has. 

Not after his name came out of the goblet of fire, not even when he was writhing in pain on the graveyard floor. Somehow, she always found her way to his side. 

No matter what

Harry covered his face briefly, trying to control his facial expressions and hoped that Hermione didn't notice the strange shift in his mood. 

No matter what

But try as he might to calm down, the turbulent waves in his chest refused to settle down, and his heart raced for reasons he couldn't understand—was too afraid to understand.

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

No matter what. No matter what. No matter what

Harry was both relieved and distressed when the train finally reached the station. As soon as he got on to the platform and spotted the Dursleys, the distress won out and he felt his heart grow heavy.

"I guess that's it then," he said, attempting to smile but not quite succeeding. "Goodbye."

"Bye, Harry!" said Hermione, and she did something she had never done before, and kissed him on the cheek.

Harry froze for a second, unable to process the feel of her soft lips against his cheek and her scent surrounding him. Hermione was always a very physical person around him and he was no stranger to her tight hugs, but there was something different this time. Something sweet and tender about the way she had tiptoed slightly and held down his shoulder before leaning up to give him a small kiss on the cheek. Something that made his heart pound and an unstoppable blush sweep across his face.

The station was suddenly too hot, and time couldn't stand still long enough for Harry's mind to unfreeze and process what had just happened. What should he say? Should he kiss her cheek back? Should he tell her—

But in the time he took to make up his mind, Hermione had already stepped back and turned away to go. 

ch 12.2

And before he knew it, he was pulling her back and cradling her face with his hands. 


He kissed her. 


It was clumsy and slightly awkward at first. Harry had never kissed anyone before and knew little about how it was supposed to go. His eyes fluttered to a close and he focused on the sensation of his lips lightly moving over hers. All he knew was that her lips were soft and warm. All he knew was the steady beating of his heart, echoing in his ears. All he knew was Hermione's hands suddenly winding around his neck and bringing his body flush against hers and—his hands shook before they wrapped around her back just as firmly—she was kissing him back

"What on earth is that boy doing?" A high pitched voice rang out and Harry was faintly reminded that they were still on the platform and he had no idea how long he had been standing there with Hermione in his arms. He couldn't really bring himself to care. 

Unfortunately, the voice seemed to have brought Hermione back to her senses for she was the first to break the kiss. 

"Harry?" she asked again, but this time there was a breathless quality to her voice and her cheeks were tinged with pink. 

"I—I—" Harry stuttered. What was he supposed to say? How could he translate all of the emotions inside of him at that moment into actual words?

"I'll miss you," was what he ended up whispering.  

"Oh, is that all?" Hermione grinned at him, her eyes shining. 

"And..." Harry touched his lips a little sheepishly. "I really should have done that a long time ago." 

She laughed loudly and reached up to kiss him again. Only this time, not even the repeated shrieks of Petunia Dursley ("In public, Vernon! No common decency whatsoever—well, I never!") could get her to let him go.