It was strange that more of his classmates weren't looking at him angrily. After all, he'd apparently cheated the system that half of them had been trying to cheat and he'd succeeded. Worse, he was a Slytherin and he was going to represent the school.
As he glanced at the Gryffindor table he saw the Weasleys grinning at him. Hadn't they listened when he'd told them it was all a plot?
Apparently his killing of the troll the first year, the basilisk the next year and most especially saving everyone from the dementors had bought him more goodwill than he'd thought. It was a far cry from the way he'd been received the first year.
Harry suspected that if he'd been a glory seeking Gryffindor everyone wouldn't be quite so accepting. However, he'd been making his opinion known about this the entire time and no one could accuse him of being a glory hound.
It was strange. Harry was taking the first steps toward dying again and he felt like the entire school was cheering him on.
Not everyone was cheering; there were some Slytherins and some Gryffindors who weren't. Ron Weasley was one of them, although even he didn't look as angry as Harry would have expected. He simply looked constipated.
Harry reached the table, took one look at Dumbledore and said, "What did I tell you?"
With that he turned, walked along the teacher's table and headed for the door the other champions had gone through.
The other two champions stared at him as he entered.
"It looks like we have our champions," the Ministry official said, beaming.
He looked too happy for it to have been a coincidence. Harry wondered for a moment if Scrimgeour had gotten his name placed in the Goblet, either as revenge or as a publicity stunt.
It'd be strange to be killed simply because a politician wanted to make headlines.
"He's too young," Krum said bluntly.
The Ministry official shrugged. "His name came out of the cup...it doesn't seem as though we have a choice."
"I'm underage," Harry said. "Doesn't that invalidate my selection?"
"The Goblet predates the age limit," the official said. "Which was only put in place this year as a formality. No one thought that someone as young as yourself would prove worthy, although we shouldn't have been surprised."
"No you shouldn't," Harry said dryly. Considering that he'd been telling everyone exactly that for the last month, there shouldn't have been anyone in all of Scotland that was surprised.
"This seems irregular," Madam Maxine said, sweeping into the room.
She was followed by Dumbledore, Karkaroff, Snape and Moody. They had apparently already been arguing.
"If Hogwarts wishes to put themselves at a disadvantage by having a child compete, the blood will be on their hands. I am satisfied." The Durmstrang headmaster seemed almost to gloat.
Madam Maxine seemed troubled. "It does not seem fair, and it does not seem safe."
"I have heard of Mr. Potter," Fleur said. "Isn't he the one who killed a troll in his first year, and fought off a hundred dementors only last year?"
Apparently his legend had begun to spread outside of the country. Harry fought the urge to scowl at Fleur. He was trying to get out of the contest, not stay in.
"Perhaps it would be best if we had the Goblet choose someone else," Madam Maxine said. "No matter how capable, he won't be a match for an adult wizard."
The Ministry official stepped forward. "The cup has gone out, and it will not relight until the next ceremony. The choice has been made."
The three headmasters were silent for a moment before nodding their heads.
"Who thought a magically binding contract was a good idea for this sort of thing anyway?" Harry asked. "And what would happen if I just said no?"
The Ministry official leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
Harry felt the blood run out of his face. He wasn't sure if that would follow him through a reset either. Damn...he was trapped.
"So what do we have to do?" he asked. "Kill a dragon?"
The headmasters glanced at each other, giving each other significant looks that Harry didn't have to be a legilimens to interpret.
A dragon was likely to be involved in one of the tasks.
"Part of what is being tested is your ability to think on your feet," Dumbledore said. "As such, you will not be allowed to know what it is. The first task will occur on November twenty fourth in front of a panel of judges. You will face the first challenge armed only with your wands."
He looked at Harry. "Other...equipment will not be allowed."
Harry supposed that he was talking about the Peruvian Darkness Powder. He hadn't used any in quite some time, but it kept indefinitely. He wouldn't be able to use the wall walking shoes, or any of the other Weasley gadgets to help him get through the challenges.
He scowled. The things he carried with him were part of what kept him alive. He'd feel naked and defenseless without them.
"Fine," he said. "But don't expect me to play fair."
The party was in full swing by the time Harry arrived back at the dungeons.
Although Harry could never be openly popular with his classmates for political reasons, they were overjoyed to have a Slytherin become champion. It was better than winning the House cup, and it was the perfect thing to push into the faces of the Gryffindors.
No one could say that Harry was anything but a Slytherin either. He wasn't brave or friendly, and although he worked hard on magic, he didn't love knowledge simply for the love of learning.
Yet saving everyone from the dementors had been noticed.
Harry hadn't paid attention to the slow changes in people's attitudes toward him because he'd been more concerned about his own affairs, but the contrast from first year was astounding.
As Harry walked into the room, everyone stared at him. The sounds of merriment stopped and everyone looked at him almost with an expression of sympathy.
The Gryffindors might have thought that he'd jinxed the Goblet somehow, but not a single Slytherin was likely to believe that he had.
He walked straight to his room.
As he began digging into his trunk, Malfoy stepped into the room behind him.
"I thought you were being paranoid," he said. "but you were right about everything."
"Ministry or the Dark Lord," Harry said, "It doesn't matter who set me up. I'm in it, and I'm going to survive."
"What do you have there?" Malfoy asked, looking over his shoulder.
Harry pulled out a thick book. On the front of the book was a picture of a massive fireball.
"Explosive materials: Classification, composition and properties," Malfoy read out loud. "That doesn't look like any book I've seen in Diagon Alley."
"It's not," Harry said shortly.
"Why are you reading a book about things that explode?" Malfoy asked uneasily. Harry noticed that he was slowly edging his way out of the room.
"I'm figuring out how to kill a dragon," Harry said. "Since they are mostly immune to magic."
"That seems like overkill," Malfoy said. He hesitated. "You aren't going to practice whatever it is in here, are you?"
Harry had the feeling that if he said yes that Malfoy would be requesting a room transfer. While he didn't particularly care whether he did or not, that would mean that he was replaced by someone who didn't understand the rules as well as Malfoy did.
Malfoy at least had a decent sense of self preservation.
"No...I'll find a place," Harry said. He glanced at the windows. "Probably not a good idea to risk flooding the entire Slytherin dorms and drowning everyone."
Another humiliating way that Harry didn't plan on dying...not that he'd have a choice if someone else did it. He didn't have to hasten his own death along however.
He had three and a half weeks to learn what he had to learn. If he didn't he'd be in trouble and he might have to repeat it all again, something that he did not want to happen.
Finding a safe place to conduct his experiments was harder than he'd thought it would be. The dungeons were out due to the risk of massive flooding, and places higher up were more difficult because they were always being watched.
Harry finally settled on the Astronomy tower on nights when class wasn't in session. He began sneaking out at night and using muffling spells and transfigured walls to block the visible light from what he was doing.
Even so, he only dared practice on minuscule amounts. If he did more he risked killing himself or revealing what he was doing to his teachers.
Although he carefully checked the map each night, there was always the chance that a teacher would see something through a window that they weren't meant to see, or that they'd take a sudden detour when he wasn't looking at the map.
Despite this, he found learning what he had to learn easier than he'd thought. Transfiguring inanimate objects to inanimate objects was much easier than turning hedgehogs into pincushions. Dealing with life in either direction was very difficult, but changing objects to object was relatively easy.
He'd had to risk slipping away to Hogsmeade to meet with Sirius in secret. The things he wanted to transfigure he couldn't learn without a sample, and he didn't want to run the risk of a school owl being intercepted.
It had taken Sirius three days to find the things he needed and some of the things were difficult to find because they were used to make methamphetamine and other drugs. The explosive nature of the materials also made them under strict controls.
Fortunately Harry only needed a small sample of all the different things he needed to learn how to transfigure more.
However, with only three sessions he was still struggling. The worst thing was that given the small amounts he was forced to use, there was no way to know just how much he could use and still be safe. If he'd been a muggle he'd have worried about losing a hand, but fortunately he could do everything from a distance.
Still, he had to worry about shrapnel and he was acutely aware of just how dangerous what he was doing was.
As the next weekend approached, Harry became more and more irritable.
Malfoy and Weasley were at it again.
Taking endless delight in taunting Weasley about Harry's being Champion, Malfoy didn't seem to know when to let it go. He kept picking away at him over and over until even Harry could see that Weasley was ready to explode.
Harry ducked as the voices suddenly got louder and angrier; he had taken to ignoring both boys since neither had anything he wanted to hear.
Spells went flying in the hallway and Harry quickly dodged. Unfortunately he heard a scream from Hermione, who was holding her teeth behind him.
Already unfortunately large, her teeth were growing at an incredible rate. The expression on her face was one of horrified incredulity.
"Who cast that?" Harry asked. His voice was cold, and it took him a moment to realize that his wand was in his hand.
Both of the boys looked up at him, and they blanched at something they saw on his face.
Hermione's teeth kept growing and growing and her agitation was becoming more and more obvious. The thought that she had been hurt because he'd ducked brought up feelings he'd thought he'd left behind about Creevy and Pucey.
Malfoy and Weasley both stepped back.
"We didn't mean anything," Malfoy said cautiously. "It's nothing that's not easily fixable."
Harry took a step forward, suddenly irrationally angry. "I didn't ask if it was easy to fix. I asked who cast the spell."
He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but something within him made him want someone to hurt.
Before he could take another step, Harry felt a hand on his shoulder.
"What's going on here?" Snape asked.
"These two were fighting in the hall and they hit Hermione," Harry said, without looking at the older man.
"And why is your wand out, Mr. Potter?"
Harry looked up at him. "They started it...I was planning to finish it."
"I've seen what you consider to be finishing things, Potter, and I suspect that no one would be happy with what would happen if you did."
The looks on everyone's' faces suggested that they thought so as well. The fact that even Hermione looked frightened suggested that Harry might have looked at least like he was going to go to far.
"Fifty points from Gryffindor," Snape said. "And Weasley and Malfoy I'll see in detention. You, Mr. Potter will come with me."
Hermione was covering her mouth and Goyle was gasping like a fish out of water.
"Both of you go to the Hospital wing."
Snape led Harry into his office and carefully closed the door behind him.
"I'm sorry," Harry said. "I know I shouldn't..."
Snape looked at him and said, "You've had bad experiences with dementors before."
Harry blinked. That wasn't remotely what he'd expected Snape to say, and he wasn't sure what it had to do with anything that had just happened.
He nodded after a moment.
"Felt how they suck every small bit of happiness out of you to your very bones," Snape said. "No happiness, no light, simply agony and pain for as long as they are around you."
Harry didn't say anything, simply staring at him.
"Why would you risk going to Azkaban for a schoolyard squabble?" Snape asked. "You've killed before, and so far you've always gotten away with it for one reason or another. But this?"
Snape moved to stand next to him, and Harry's fingers twitched toward his wand.
"You are dangerous, Potter," Snape said. "The Ministry accepts this...is even pleased about this because it means that you are a better weapon against the Dark Lord. That tolerance has its limits."
Harry flinched as Snape leaned closer to him.
"You are a loaded weapon with a hair trigger, and I can only hope that no one you care about will be caught in the cross hairs."
Harry blinked, surprised that Snape would use a muggle analogy.
Snape stepped back and said, "Three nights of detention Potter, next week."
The fact that Harry had gotten more detention than Weasley or Malfoy didn't bother him much. Snape had been right. He had been getting more and more angry and irritable.
Harry couldn't help but feel that it was only a matter of time before something set him off.
"We've got to weigh your wand to make sure it is operational and in good order," Bagman said.
Having been pulled out of potions while learning antidotes, Harry was irritated, especially to learn that this was for pictures. Antidotes were a particular favorite of Harry's.
Harry caressed his wand. "I can assure you that my wand is very operational."
The thought of giving it to anyone else, even for a moment gave him a moment of anxiety. He needed to start thinking about carrying a back up wand, just in case he was ever disarmed. He was making some progress with wandless versions of some spells, but results were never as satisfactory as he'd like.
The woman beside him tittered. "Such a naughty boy. Can I quote you on that?"
Harry shrugged. "Who are you?"
He knew who she was, of course. Skeeter had taken his story about the Ministry's carelessness with the dementors. Pretending he didn't know who she was would hopefully put her in her place. He hadn't liked her the first time he'd met her, but he'd needed her.
She didn't act as though his implicit insult bothered her at all, although there was a glint in her eye that he didn't like.
"I'm Rita Skeeter, with the Daily Prophet. I'm doing an article on the event and I'd like to do an interview with you. From what I've seen, you aren't any stranger to interviews."
"I'm not sure I can do the event justice," Harry said.
He was unhappy with Scrimgeour, but spouting off about how it was all a plot by Voldemort would make him seem like a crank. Without any kind of proof, he might as well accuse the Ministry.
"I'm sure we can work something out," Skeeter said, smiling. It didn't reach her eyes. "Can I have a quick moment to interview him?"
Before Harry could protest, he found himself pulled into a broom closet. He could have pulled away, tried to fight, but he knew that the press had powers that even wands couldn't conquer. Attacking a member of the press would be tantamount to committing suicide, and with his luck he'd reset after it happened and he'd be stuck with it.
Pulling up a stool, she said, "Do you mind if I use a quick quote quill? It'll leave me free to ask you questions..."
"I'd prefer that you not," Harry said. "Those things aren't particularly accurate, and I'd like to be pilloried in the public for things I actually said instead of what I didn't say."
The other reporter had used a quick quote quill; after Harry had seen what the quill was writing, he'd forced him to write it out the old fashioned way.
The fall of Fudge's administration had proven him right.
She scowled. "Most people aren't so picky."
Harry shrugged. "I've got more at stake than most people."
Pulling out a pad and quill, she asked, "What do you say to people who believe that you are the next Dark Lord?"
Harry smiled unpleasantly and said, "I say let's worry about one dark lord at a time. It's not as though I have much of a following."
"People are concerned that your classmates are...not reliable after the incident with the dementors."
"You mean where I saved them?" Harry asked. "Popularity is fleeting. I'm like any other student. I've got friends, but I've got enemies too."
"More than most," Skeeter said. She leaned forward. "Who do you think put your name in the Goblet?"
Harry looked her in the eye and said, "I don't know, but when I find out I'll make them regret it."
"A threat, Mr. Potter?"