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Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

Note 2: There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though. And the more this deviates from canon, the less that will happen. But some descriptions and things like that are too good to skip or try to reword.

 

Note 3: Just as a reminder, so I don't have to shoehorn in descriptions in the text of the story as a reminder, but in this fanfic Harry and Hermione, apart from having Asperger's Syndrome, are both black as well.

 

Note 4: I'm just as bad as Rowling at forgetting about birthdays of characters other than Harry, at least in this fic. So I'll just act as though Harry and the others remembered in the past offstage, and I'll try to be better in future to at least mention them.

 

 

Chapter One: Dog Star Man

 

Harry had been met at the train station by Dumbledore again, who was his escort to the Dursley house, since Netty couldn't be seen by Muggles. Harry was excited, because in just one short week, his godfather would be picking him up to take him to Sirius's house.

 

Dumbledore was wearing a purple suit with a silver tie, a purple pork-pie hat, and black shoes with white spats. Harry eyed his outrageous outfit and suppressed a laugh at the thought of the Dursleys' reaction to him.

 

“Ready, Harry?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Netty has already taken your things ahead, I believe. So if you take my arm, we can apparate there.”

 

Harry nodded, and took the man's arm. This time, Harry managed just barely to avoid being sick. He looked around and saw they were in a blind alley. Dumbledore started walking out of it, Harry following behind.

 

“I know it was a bit unexpected,” Harry said, “but did you get my letter I sent you from the train?”

 

“Yes, Harry, I did.”

 

“And what do you think?”

 

“I did as you suggested and checked the room you referenced, and did indeed find the cobra from last year. Interesting that you've managed to keep such good care of it for so long.”

 

“Yeah. But I can't really keep it as a pet, so, uh...”

 

“Agreed, Harry. As you said in your letter, I agree Cleo is better off in a zoo. I had Professor McGonagall take care of it. It will likely take a few days to be taken fully care of, as there is the Muggle government to deal with first.”

 

“Yeah, that makes sense. So she really is a real snake?”

 

“It would appear so. If not, then she is such a remarkable facsimile as to be utterly unique, and I cannot imagine such magic coming from a second-year student, even one as clever and academically gifted as young Mr. Malfoy.”

 

“And Snape wanted to destroy her.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

“If I got another snake, one that isn't venomous, would that be allowed?”

 

“Despite what the Hogwarts letters say, we do allow more familiars than just cats, toads, or owls. It's just that it would be rather tedious listing all of what is allowed or not, in the letters.”

 

Harry nodded.

 

“So Sirius's house is supposed to be really big, at least on the inside. That sounds neat.”

 

“Agreed. But the best part, Harry,” Dumbledore said as they walked down the street, “is that Sirius's parents had put every imaginable ward and security measure on the house. It is also unplottable, meaning it cannot be put on a map. It has everything one could hope for in a secure location, shy of a Fidelius Charm.”

 

“I've been wondering something about the Fidelius Charm, Professor.”

 

“I will endeavor to answer you, Harry.”

 

“Was there some reason one of my parents couldn't have been the secret keeper? I mean, it's like the old adage goes, 'Three men can keep a secret if two are dead.'”

 

Dumbledore chuckled. “Well, now that is complicated to answer. The simplest answer I can give is that the charm is already highly complex, and part of it is a complex ritual. The complexity of that ritual triples in difficulty if one of the people subject to the charm is the secret keeper.”

 

Harry thought a moment. “But sir, isn't it just keeping the secret of a single location? Anybody could be in there, if they had the secret divulged to them. You could theoretically put a Fidelius Charm on Hogwarts, even, if you needed to, couldn't you?”

 

“Another part of the difficulty of the charm, Harry, is that if there are people who already know the secret before it has been placed under the charm's protection, the complexity of the whole thing increases the more people knew the secret before the charm went up. If there were three of me, Harry, the three of myself could probably band together to cast the Fidelius Charm on all of Hogwarts, but I'm afraid the effort of doing so would kill all three of myself.”

 

“That doesn't really answer my actual question, which was 'why can't we just cast the Fidelius Charm so that someone living at the secret location could be the secret keeper?'”

 

“It is a complex answer, as I said. Perhaps I will send you a letter to explain it. It would be rather a long letter. Anyway, we should probably go inside before your uncle has a fit of temper at us on the lawn for talking of magic in front of his house.”

 

“Oh yeah, okay.”

 

Harry knocked on the door, and it immediately flew open, Uncle Vernon glaring at Harry in undisguised hatred.

 

“Don't worry, Uncle Vernon,” Harry said, “I'll only be here a week. You stay out of my hair, I'll stay out of yours, okay?”

 

Vernon grunted angrily, then said, “Well are you coming in or not, boy? You're letting all the cold air out of the house.”

 

“Sorry, coming now.”

 

Dumbledore stepped inside as well. Uncle Vernon looked like he wanted to object, but he didn't. He just slammed the door behind Dumbledore.

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley,” Dumbledore said when he spotted Petunia crossing her arms and chewing her tongue, “lovely to see you again. I won't take up much of your time, but there have been some updates over the past school year that you should be made aware of.”

 

Petunia snorted. Vernon stood beside her and glared at Dumbledore. “Well get on with it, then.”

 

“It seems that Harry had a godfather who was being falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and so was unable to take Harry in after Lily and James died. His name was cleared at the beginning of June this year, and he has been released. Harry will be going to his home at the end of the week. He needs to stay here for a week to recharge the blood wards that keep him and your family safe from Voldemort and his followers. Harry will also need to come back for a time next summer as well, and on until the summer of his 17th birthday.”

 

The Dursleys nodded curtly.

 

“Excellent. Netty?”

 

The little female house elf appeared with a crack. Both Dursleys present jumped (Dudley was nowhere to be seen; probably out bullying some first graders), but had apparently been expecting this enough to not scream.

 

“Netty is here now for Harry Potter, Dumbledore sir.”

 

“Thank you, Netty. Now, are there any other questions, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley?”

 

They gave non-committal grunts.

 

“Excellent. Now Harry, you may go to the library during the day, but take your wand with you. I do not think you will be attacked by anyone or anything from our world, but best to have it with you just in case. With that in mind, I shall now be going. See you at Hogwarts in September, Harry.”

 

“Wait, so does that mean Sirius is picking me up?”

 

“Yes, he is. I believe he's planning to send you an owl about it, so you two can settle the details.”

 

“Cool. Thanks, sir.”

 

“You are most welcome, Harry. Now one last thing before I leave. Netty, you have brought all Harry's things to his room already, correct?”

 

“Of course, master Dumbledore sir. Netty is being waiting in Mr. Potter's room for you to be calling Netty, sir.”

 

“Excellent. And now, at last, I go. Au revoir!

 

Dumbledore tipped his porkpie hat and went out the door.

 

“Sirius?” Aunt Petunia said. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

 

Harry thought about that a moment. Netty looked to him for permission to speak. Coming to a decision, he shook his head ever so slightly. As fun as it might have been to let them scream in terror when Sirius showed up on their front stoop, he worried they might have a gun and shoot him in self defense.

 

“Sirius Black is his full name.”

 

The Dursleys frowned in thought. It looked painful.

 

Vernon was the first to figure it out. “What the bloody Hell do you mean, boy? How can he be one of your lot? He was on our news!”

 

“He, uh... he escaped from our prison. They thought at the time that he was dangerous enough to warn the Muggles, since the crime he was framed for involved the murder of 12 Muggles with a single curse. But this year, we found out one of his supposed victims was the real murderer, and there was proof, so he's free now.”

 

Petunia snorted. “I remember now. They even canceled the hunt for him on the news. And here was me thinking he'd been caught again.”

 

“He was innocent.”

 

She snorted derisively at this. “Not Guilty and Innocent are two different things. Now go get out of our hair like you promised.”

 

Harry sighed, and climbed the stairs to his room. He didn't bother to unpack, but he did look through his trunk and took out a book to read. He wasn't sure he wanted to leave the house or not yet, because the Dursleys got angry if he was out later than Dudley, and he didn't exactly trust them not to damage or destroy library books.

 

He was just about to read his book when an unfamiliar owl came to the window bearing a letter for him. Getting up, he got the owl some owl treats and took the letter. It was from Sirius.

 

Dear Harry,

 

I made a plan with Hagrid to pick up my motorbike this week at The Three Broomsticks. I don't know if you'd want to ride on it or not, I understand you have a problem with loud noises. Let me know one way or another soon, so I can know whether or not to get you a helmet and dragon-skin bike leathers. Heck, I might get you something in dragon-skin anyway, if you don't have any issues with it, because dragon skin is very resistant to magic, and can deflect a lot of hexes.

 

Oh wait, silly me, I can just put a silencing charm on the motorbike. There are enough charms keeping us safe from Muggle traffic that the noise isn't really necessary. But let me know if the vibration, the wind, or anything else is likely to be a problem, okay?

 

Love from,

Sirius

 

Harry sat there and thought about it for a few minutes before replying.

 

Dear Sirius,

 

Well, every form of magical transportation I've experienced thus far has been horrible in some way or another, so I might as well try something as relatively Muggle as a motorbike. Silencing it would be great. I've never felt dragon hide clothing before, so I don't know how I'll respond to it yet. I know we have dragon-hide gloves, but I've never felt their outside. Just a second while I go do that now.

 

Back! Dragon skin clothes should be fine. The dragon-hide gloves are nice and bumpy now that I've finally bothered to feel their outsides.

 

I'm excited to see what your house is like! I'm excited to have a room of my own that I can decorate as I please and leave stuff there without having to worry the Dursleys are going to burn my things in their backyard.

 

I know I haven't even gotten there yet, so apologies if this is too soon to ask, but could I have a friend or two over? I'm not sure which one, yet. But I know Hermione would appreciate having somewhere to get away with using magic at without getting in trouble with the Ministry, and Ron already has that.

 

Also I don't think you've met any of my friends. You went straight from the Hogwarts gates to St. Mungo's that one day. I mean, Ron kinda saw you at the trial and he met you as Shadow, but you never officially met as far as I know of, and there's still Hermione, Antigone, Angela, Danzia, Luna, and Draco to meet besides. So if there's some way to introduce them all to you and vice versa, and you're up for it, that would be awesome. If not, I understand.

 

Oh and did I tell you I'm a practitioner of the old ways? Well I am. Do you know any stores at Diagon Alley or elsewhere that might have stuff for like, altars and stuff? I want to honor nature, I want to have an altar or two. One at your place and one for school, is what I was thinking. Or maybe Moony knows somewhere? He gave me a bunch of books about the old ways, after all.

 

Dumbledore was impressed by the security on your house, saying that the only way to make it any more secure would be a Fidelius Charm. I have to say, that is indeed pretty impressive.

 

Say hi to Ms. Pennyroyal for me if you see her. I know it was her job, but we owe her so much.

 

Anyway, that's all I can think of for now.

 

Love from,

Harry

 

PS = I don't know if you noticed that day or not, but I did; my patronus is a stag! Didn't you say Dad's animagus form was a stag?

 

~

 

The next day after breakfast, Harry found a different owl – a barn owl – with a letter for him from Sirius.

 

Dear Harry,

 

Say hi to my new owl, his name is Frodo. The other owl was an owl post owl. I decided that if we were gonna write a lot of letters this year, I should get an owl, so I went down to the Magical Menagerie and got Frodo here.

 

I'd love to meet your friends. I'm not 100% sure about the Malfoy boy, but if you trust him, then I guess I'll try to do so too. After all, my parents were just as bad as his. Maybe worse, despite not being Death Eaters themselves. Though I'll admit I was always confused why Narcissa would marry a Death Eater, she never seemed quite as bigoted as her sister Bellatrix did. Never hung out with most of the Death-Eater wannabes in school, Lucius and Snivelus being two major exceptions. Well, and Bellatrix of course.

 

Anyway, yeah, we can invite some of your friends over. You can start out writing them about their availability this summer. Especially for July 31st, because I want to throw you a birthday party if you're up for it. And if you are indeed up for it, I'd welcome your input to help me make it as friendly to your sensitivities as possible. Let me know if you're up for a party, okay?

 

According to Dumbledore, I can come get you on the 26th of June. Technically it's a little past a week, but since the 'one week' marker the spell needs is late at night on the 25th, I can't get you until the morning of the 26th. Is 9 am too early for you? Also, I recall you're not fond of flying, so that will make the journey take longer, since we'll have to take the Muggle route and stick to the speed limit.

 

Well let me know about 9 am on the 26th, okay pup?

 

Love from,

Sirius, your lovable dogfather

 

Harry wrote a quick note back saying that 9 am was fine, and he was looking forward to the day, and then sent it off with Frodo.

 

“Fly, you fool!” Harry couldn't resist quipping as Frodo flew away into the twilight. But just to himself, in case it offended the owl.

 

~

 

The rest of the week passed slowly. Harry did homework to pass the time, since it occupied his mind and would get the work out of the way for the summer if he did. He ended up finishing it all with two days to spare, which meant he had to find something else to occupy himself with. When he could, he had conversations with Netty, but the two of them only saw each other a short time every year, and the life of a house elf sounded pretty boring to Harry, from what Netty related to him. So he wrote to his friends instead. He didn't have much to say after only a week aside from asking about the possibility of them visiting, but he did it anyway.

 

Finally, though, the last two days passed. Not needing to pack, since he'd never unpacked, he spent most of the morning in a state of high anxiety. He found himself wishing he'd said 9 am wasn't early enough, because he was up at 6 am and spend the next three hours climbing the walls, figuratively speaking. He ended up in such a state of agitation that he spent the last hour tapping out patterns on the wood of the floor in his bedroom until Petunia screamed up the stairs for him to stop driving her mad with his relentless tapping.

 

All in all, everyone was thoroughly happy when the doorbell rang.

 

“You can get it, boy. I've no interest in being civil to one of your lot.”

 

Silently thinking Vernon didn't know how to be civil to anyone, really, he answered the door. As soon as he opened it, Sirius excitedly shouted Harry's name so loudly that everyone in the neighborhood peeked out their windows to see what was going on. Sirius gave Harry a hug, Harry hugging his godfather back. Harry wondered if any of the spying neighbors recognized Sirius from his wanted photos. He looked a lot better now, more well-fed, more filled out in the face, and his hair was clean and trimmed but still long. And he was wearing motorbike leathers made of dragon skin. Harry felt the material under his skin, and reveled in the sensation. He would have to see what the inside felt like.

 

Wasting no time, Sirius got Harry's own bike leathers out, and Harry got changed in his room. He found the leathers a little stiff but otherwise acceptable. Then Sirius sent Harry's things to his house with his wand, Netty went back to Hogwarts, and Harry followed Sirius outside to his motorbike.

 

“Sidecar or riding bi—er, well, behind me?”

 

“Um, I think the sidecar looks more secure. I'm gonna look ridiculous in it, but that's okay.”

 

“Alrighty then. Here's your helmet. Gotta keep you safe.”

 

It was a mostly plain black helmet, with lightning bolts on both sides. Harry snickered at this and got into the sidecar, which was actually kinda comfortable. He found a seatbelt, too, and belted himself up.

 

“Like the helmet, do you?”

 

“Yeah, it's funny.”

 

Sirius nodded and donned his own helmet, a plain black affair, but very shiny. The neighbors were staring disapprovingly at Sirius and Harry and the motorbike. But he saw enough to see that they were very surprised when the motorbike didn't make any noise except a little engine noise when he got it started. The two of them put their visors down and Sirius rode off down the road and out of Little Whinging.

 

With the helmet protecting him from the wind and the vibration of the bike pleasantly stimulating, Harry found to his surprise that the nearness of the speeding-by road only made him a little ill, which he could avoid by closing his eyes and leaning back in the sidecar.

 

“Hey Harry, can you hear me?” said Sirius's voice from inside his helmet.

 

“What...? How...?”

 

“Just a simple spell on the insides of the helmets to let us talk with each other. It would work even if the bike wasn't silenced.”

 

“Nifty. That could come in handy. You should teach it to me.”

 

“I was hoping you'd say that. By the way, I put an engorgement charm on the sidecar, making it much roomier. I think even Moony could fit comfortably in it now.”

 

“It's very nice. I like the vibration. I might even fall asleep.”

 

Despite this, they didn't talk much on the ride over. Sirius liked to concentrate on driving, and Harry enjoyed leaning back. And just as he had predicted, Harry did indeed fall asleep on the drive from Little Whinging to London.

 

After some time, Harry was woken by Sirius talking to him.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Ah, you're awake now. Good. I said we're almost to London. Do you want to go out to eat anywhere?”

 

“Sure. I've always wanted to try pizza.”

 

“You live with Muggles and you've never had pizza?”

 

“The Dursleys consider it 'foreign rubbish.'”

 

“Wow. Well I'd better take you to Rubian's. It's the best place I know of for pizza.”

 

“Cool.”

 

A few minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of a place that looked like an Italian villa, with a large sign saying 'Rubian's' that had a slice of pizza on the sign as well. Harry got out of the sidecar, grateful to stretch his legs at last.

 

“Aren't you worried about the bike getting stolen?” Harry asked Sirius as they left it behind.

 

“Not even a little. It's got every anti-theft measure on it possible. Even a wiz-- er, one of our lot would have a hard time stealing it. Oh, we can leave our helmets in the sidecar, by the way. Don't worry about rain.”

 

Harry was a little surprised to find that they were at a Muggle pizzeria, but pleasantly so. He was even more pleasantly surprised to find that Sirius had no trouble at all with Muggle money, except that prices had gone up quite a bit since he'd last been out in Muggle areas of the world.

 

After conferring with Harry on his tastes, Sirius ordered them a pepperoni pizza with mushrooms and black olives. The pizza was huge, too; nearly as big as the table itself. It smelled heavenly, too. Sirius served Harry and himself a pair of slices, and they began to eat.

 

Both of them moaned in pleasure as they ate their pizzas. Harry, because he'd never had proper pizza before and was suddenly eating the best pizza ever; Sirius because he hadn't had pizza at all for at least 12 or 13 years.

 

Since Harry had been eying the Parmesan and hot pepper shakers while they'd waited, for his second piece he tried a little of each on his pizza. He liked it so much that his third piece was so red with pepper that Sirius goggled at him, and dropped his jaw comically when Harry ate it all with barely any reaction to the heat of all that pepper.

 

“Wow. I think even James would've balked at that much hot pepper!”

 

“I like the sensation it makes in my mouth,” Harry said. “I like the burn.”

 

“That one of those 'stims' of yours? A sensory experience that really hits your pleasure centers?”

 

Harry nodded. “I guess so. You might have to buy me some hot sauce for Hogwarts, now. Not sure I could go back to bland old British food now.”

 

Sirius barked with laughter. “Right, I'll do that. But what are you doing now?”

 

Harry had been opening his mouth and just standing still.

 

“Just letting the pepper oils continue to burn. Opening my mouth like this makes a really interesting experience.”

 

Finally taking a drink of his soda, Harry did something similar with that, holding the soda in his mouth for a minute before swallowing.

 

“The carbonation in my mouth feels awesome too.”

 

Sirius tried it with his own soda for a minute. “I see what you mean. That's a pleasant feeling. Neat. I guess even us non-autistic people can have stims.”

 

They kept on eating their pizza until it was halfway gone and the two of them were stuffed like Christmas turkeys, leaning back in their seats to digest awhile before attempting to get up. Their waiter got them a to-go box for the rest of their pizza and they eventually managed to leave.

 

Sirius rode the motorbike into a rather grungy looking neighborhood that the Dursleys would have been horrified to be anywhere near, and pulled into a parking space that apparently was in the back yard of his house. The house itself was nestled between two Muggle houses and nobody but them appeared to even be aware of it.

 

“Welcome to number 12, Grimmauld Place, London.”

 

Sirius took Harry in through the back door, which led into a hallway that connected to the kitchen, among other places.

 

“Welcome back, Master Sirius,” said a very croaky voice.

 

“Thanks, Kreacher. Harry, meet Kreacher. Kreacher, Harry Potter.”

 

The ancient elf bowed to Harry. Wearing a clean pillowcase with the Black family crest on it, Kreacher looked ancient. His skin seemed to be several times too big for him and though he was bald like all house-elves, there was a quantity of white hair growing out of his large, batlike ears. His eyes were a bloodshot and watery gray, and his fleshy nose was large and rather snoutlike.

 

“Would Masters like anything to eat?”

 

“Not now, Kreacher. We just got back from having pizza. Harry had never had any before.”

 

“Kreacher has never heard of pizza before. Should Kreacher learn to cook it for Masters?”

 

“Uh, sure,” Sirius said, shrugging. “I'll find some recipes for you when I can.”

 

“Kreacher could ask other house-elves for the recipe.”

 

“Well you could try, but I don't know how successful you'd be. I don't think I've ever heard of purebloods eating it, unless they were Italian.”

 

“Kreacher knows some house-elves who serve Italian masters. Kreacher could talk with them.”

 

“Really? That's brilliant. Thank you, Kreacher.”

 

Kreacher smiled and bowed. “You are most welcome, Master Sirius. May I go search for the recipe now?”

 

“If you want to, sure thing.”

 

“Thank you, Master Sirius.” In mid-bow, Kreacher disapparated with a crack.

 

“I, er... I thought you two didn't get on?” Harry asked.

 

“You're right, we didn't. But, er, something happened that forced a reconciliation. I'd tell you about it, but Dumbledore would want you to learn occlumency before I could do that. All I can say for now is that I helped Kreacher to finally be able to obey my brother Regulus's final order. It had been bothering him an awful lot, apparently.”

 

“Wow. I might take you up on learning this occlumency stuff, just to hear that tale. Is Dobby here, too?”

 

“Yes, actually. Netty helped introduce us formally. Dobby?”

 

A much younger elf appeared. “Harry Potter sir! You is here at last!”

 

Dobby grabbed Harry round the middle in a surprisingly strong hug which Harry returned. Then they pulled apart and Harry looked a little more closely at his elf friend. He looked almost exactly as Harry remembered him; the enormous, green, tennis-ball shaped eyes, the pencil-shaped nose, the batlike ears, the long fingers and feet — all except the clothes, which were very different.

 

When Dobby had worked for the Malfoys, he had always worn the same filthy old pillowcase. Now, however, he was wearing the strangest assortment of garments Harry had ever seen. He was wearing a tea cozy for a hat, on which he had pinned a number of bright badges; a tie patterned with horseshoes over a bare chest, a pair of what looked like children’s soccer shorts, and odd socks. One of these, Harry saw, was the black one Harry had removed from his own foot and tricked Mr. Malfoy into giving Dobby, thereby setting Dobby free. The other was covered in pink and orange stripes.

 

Thinking of the Malfoys made Harry think of Draco, and suddenly he worried about inviting Draco over. Dobby sensed the change in Harry's face and looked concerned.

 

“Is Harry Potter not happy to see Dobby, sir?”

 

“Oh sorry, no, it's nothing like that. I'm glad to see you, Dobby. I'm thrilled you've got a job for Sirius. I just was wondering about something.”

 

“What is it, Harry Potter sir? If Dobby may be so bold?”

 

“No problem. Um... were you aware that I'm now friends with Draco Malfoy?”

 

Dobby's face twitched a little, but he nodded. “Master Sirius is telling Dobby about your friendship with the Malfoy boy, yes. Dobby...” now it was Dobby's turn to look thoughtful for a moment before answering. “Dobby would not mind too much if young mister Malfoy were to come over. He is not hurting Dobby, unlike his father. He has not been very nice, either, when Dobby is knowing him, but if Harry Potter says he is mending his ways, Dobby will keep an open mind, sir.”

 

“Well, Dobby, if you ever feel uncomfortable around Draco, like if his presence reminds you too much of your past with his family, you can leave the room whenever you need to without worrying what we'll think about it. Right, Sirius?”

 

“Right. My godson may not have been beaten or kicked around like you, Dobby, but he knows what emotional abuse is like, and neglect as well, so if you ever feel like being around the Malfoy boy is too much for you to handle, neither of us will mind you going somewhere safe to recover. We want you to feel safe in this house.”

 

Dobby burst into joyous, thankful tears at this, crying into Harry's bike leathers. Harry gently stroked the elf's ears in sympathy.

 

“Dobby knew of Master Harry's goodness, but Dobby is having no idea he is so blessed to have two good and kind masters!”

 

After a minute of this, Dobby blew his nose on a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes with the clean end. “May Dobby go now to regain his composure?”

 

“Of course, Dobby.”

 

Dobby smiled and disapparated.

 

“Er, Sirius?”

 

“What is it, pup?”

 

“Is there enough work, even in a house this big, for two house-elves?”

 

“Not really, no. But Kreacher is getting very old and slow. I mostly have him cooking and keeping the kitchen clean, now. Well, that and the boiler room. He was living in there when the cleaning crew found him. But I have him in a converted cupboard now, with his own bed. Yes, I know those Dursleys had you in a bloody cupboard, but he wouldn't accept his own bedroom no matter how hard I tried to insist, short of ordering him to. And Dobby is sleeping in one of the cupboards as well. But both are quite large cupboards. In fact, in most houses I think they'd qualify as entire rooms. Not as big as your bedroom in that wretched house, but roomy for elves.”

 

“Oh, well I suppose that's alright, then. So then Dobby does the cleaning for most of the house and Kreacher does all the cooking?”

 

“Er, not all of it, no. I had a devil of a time moderating their squabble over who got to cook. It seems Dobby likes cooking, it got him away from his old masters more often than any other task did, apparently. So they take turns. Kreacher cooks on Sundays through Wednesdays, Dobby cooks during the rest of the week. I've had to keep an eye on him, though; he has a bad habit of shutting his ears in the over door.”

 

Harry winced. “Yeah, he had it pretty bad with the Malfoys. Er... speaking of that, you should watch him around the ironing, as well.”

 

“Why's that?”

 

“I know of at least one occasion where he said he had to iron his hands.”

 

Sirius growled angrily at that. “Bloody Lucius Malfoy! I wish there were laws against house-elf abuse so I could nail him for it. Of course, even if there were laws passed now, we wouldn't be able to nail him for abusing Dobby, since that happened when it was legal. But I'm damned well going to get my solicitor to getting me on my family's Wizengamot seat so I can introduce legislation to protect house-elves. In fact, I'm going to owl her right now. You should get changed into something more comfortable, pup.”

 

“Okay, yeah. And I wish you luck on that. I want to help house-elves too.”

 

Sirius nodded at Harry approvingly and went off to go write to Ms. Pennyroyal.

 

Harry grinned at his godfather's righteous anger on behalf of Dobby, and went to his room to change out of his bike leathers.

 

Looking around the house, he thought it looked very nice. A little old and creaky, but nice. It was only later, when Sirius explained to him the many changes, that he had any idea of what it had been before. He goggled at Sirius's descriptions: a screaming portrait of Sirius's mother that took four professional arithmancers, a retired auror, and three Charms experts to work out how to remove from the wall; a number of other magical portraits which were now in storage in a Gringott's vault, including one so badly degraded they had no idea who the portrait was supposed to depict.

 

In fact, one of the few remaining relics left behind was a restored family tree. Sirius explained that several good people had been blasted off by his mother, who were now back on the family tree. But others, Sirius had blasted off himself; Bellatrix Lestrange, for one. He'd done the same for Narcissa Malfoy as well. But there were others who had been blasted off who were back now.

 

“You'll be meeting some of them, too. Andromeda Tonks, her husband, and their daughter Nymphadora; I've already started writing them about a time to come over. It's a little difficult getting them all together at once, since Nymphadora is a brand-new auror, only just qualified like, last month I think. You'll love them, they're great. The only downside, really, is that Andromeda looks scarily similar to Bellatrix LeStrange.”

 

“No idea who that is,” Harry said.

 

“Bellatrix LeStrange nee Black, a Death Eater currently serving time in Azkaban.”

 

Harry's eyes went wide, and he gasped.

 

“Like I said, my family were horrible people. Well, except that Regulus – who had been a Death Eater as well – apparently turned against Voldemort in the end, for all the good it did him. Berk may have gotten himself killed, but I'm proud of him nonetheless.”

 

Sirius sighed wistfully.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“What? Oh, yeah. I will be. I was never close to Regulus. Hated the lot of them. But he was still my brother. Ah well, no sense moaning about it. When are your friends coming over?”

 

“We haven't settled anything yet. But now I know where the house is, I can relay that information to them.”

 

“Excellent. This house is so big, it'll be good to have some more people in here. You can have friends over as many days as you want, Harry. Just make sure to check with me and their parents before letting any of them stay overnight. Especially your friend Luna, eh?” Sirius winked at Harry. Harry raised an eyebrow back.

 

“Why'd you single her out, Sirius? I'm friends with five girls in total.”

 

Sirius sighed, shaking his head and clucking his tongue. “Never mind, pup, never mind.”

 

~

 

A couple days later, Harry received something unexpected from a familiar owl, Mr. Malfoy's owl. It arrived when Sirius happened to be passing, and Sirius stopped him from taking the letter in case it was cursed.

 

“We've been writing back and forth before without him cursing me yet.”

 

“That may be, but I'd feel safer checking first.”

 

Sirius got out his wand and scanned the letter and the owl for curses or any other kind of spell.

 

“Well, there's some magic on here, but it seems benign. I'd better investigate more.”

 

A few minutes of waiting later, and Sirius said, “Aha! It's very subtle and well done, to the point I doubt I would've found anything at all if I weren't one of the intended recipients, but I think there's a Blood-Secrets Charm on it.”

 

“A what?”

 

“Didn't you mention to me once that your friend Draco sent you a letter that added an extra postscript to itself when Hermione bled onto it?”

 

“Yeah, I did. Is that the Blood-Secrets Charm?”

 

“Yes. I think it's set to you. That makes sense; he could just ask his son for help, if you two traded hair or blood samples. You should bleed on it a little. Pinprick's worth will do.”

 

Harry took the letter from the owl, which waited there, probably for a response. Slitting the letter open with his wand, he took it out. It looked, outwardly, like another angry letter from Mr. Malfoy, but since they knew it was a decoy, Harry used his wand to produce a tiny drop of blood that he smeared on the page. The parchment burned off the blood and the text of the letter changed before their eyes. Harry read the letter to himself first, then aloud to Sirius.

 

To Mister Harry James Potter,

 

I have given the matter a great deal of thought over the summer, as well as discussing it with my wife, Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy nee Black. While I am still concerned for my son's safety, I have decided to make you an offer. I will give the friendship between you and my son my blessing and stop harassing you about it if you will promise on your magic to do everything you can to keep him safe if the dark lord rises again.

 

If you accept this accord, there are some things I can offer. First is that I will allow him to remain at Hogwarts rather than sending him abroad to another school. I will also permit him to visit you over the summer at your godfather's house, something I would not have permitted before this deal. But I understand your godfather's house is very well protected, so I ask you this: if the dark lord rises again, please implore your godfather to put his house under a Fidelius Charm, and when he does, please keep Draco safe there. He is our sole heir, despite many attempts to produce a spare, and has inherited his mother's stubbornness. I cannot talk him out of his friendship with you, and I have not been able to intimidate him out of it, so I am shelving my pride to ask you and your godfather and yes, even Dumbledore if needs be, to keep my son safe. I have no doubt the dark lord will return someday, and I fear that day is drawing nearer even as we speak.

 

I would also like your godfather to swear on his magic to protect my son if the dark lord returns as well. I know he has no love for our family, and I understand that, but hopefully he will also understand my desire to keep my son safe.

 

I realize this is all rather an unbalanced accord, perhaps more so than you do. In truth, if the dark lord rises again as I fear he will, there really would be nowhere safe on this earth for my son if the dark lord were sufficiently determined to hurt him, save possibly under a Fidelius Charm. So you stand to both lose little and win little in the deal, realistically, and my family gains much if you accept it. I do not know what else to offer to balance the equation. I hope that either your Griffindor values will prompt you to accept the accord anyway, or else ask for something else from myself or my wife to balance things out more in your favor.

 

Whether you accept this accord or not, please also destroy this letter once you have read it and responded to it. I do not wish any physical evidence of this accord between us to remain, in case the dark lord should discover it. He may misinterpret this as disloyalty from me, or use my son against me. As you may have guessed, the parchment is spelled with a Blood-Secrets Charm, so it will look different once activated by your blood for a time, but there is still a risk he may find out, so best to not tempt fate overmuch.

 

Please let me know your answer as soon as you are able to. You need not rush into a decision, of course, but the sooner we have your answer, the better for our sanity.

 

Yours in fellowship,

Mister Lucius Malfoy, Lord of House Malfoy

and

Mistress Narcissa Malfoy nee Black, Lady of House Malfoy

 

The letter faded back to the decoy. Harry, testing a theory, tried activating the spell again. Nothing happened. The magic was gone, the real message with it. It was a true testament to the degree of their paranoia to want them to destroy the letter even though the magic that made the secret message, along with the message itself, was gone as though it had never been.

 

“Well that's interesting,” Sirius said, stroking his chin in thought. “Hmm... do you think I should discuss this with my solicitor?”

 

“I don't know. Maybe not. I mean, the more people know a secret, the harder it is to keep. 'Three men may keep a secret if two are dead,'” he quoted.

 

“I wouldn't go that far,” said Sirius. “There are entire branches of governments devoted to keeping secrets from the people and from other governments. Of course, there are spies who can find out those secrets, but still... anyway, moving on. I know Ms. Pennyroyal knows occlumency, so I suppose she's safe to talk with.”

 

“Do you know it?” asked Harry. “Because I don't.”

 

“Well, I was being taught it when I was training to be an auror, but I hadn't progressed terribly far on it when I was arrested, and I've been out of practice for over 12 years.”

 

“Do you think Mr. Malfoy knows about this occlumency thing?”

 

“It's possible. He was certainly a Death Eater, but kept out of Azkaban. Largely with his money and power, but there may have possibly been more to it than that. Anyway, if he's aware of occlumency, he's trusting us with a secret I'm sure he knows is insecure with you, since you don't know occlumency.”

 

“Well he wants to keep his son safe. That's not a terribly huge secret. I mean, it puts Draco in danger, but Mr. Malfoy can just say his son turned against him. It'd be the truth, even.”

 

“True. Anyway, I'll probably get my solicitor or one of her people to help with this. This is too good an opportunity to pass by.”

 

“Oh? Why's that?”

 

“According to Ms. Pennyroyal, Lucius and Narcissa are holding my family's seat. I can ask for it back. Might even be able to leverage them to vote however I do.”

 

“I don't know about that second one, Sirius. If he's this worried, he's probably going to have to go back to Voldemort and serve him to keep his family safe, and he can't be seen supporting our side in public.”

 

“Damn, you're right. In fact, even if they do agree to give me my seat on the Wizengamot, they'll have to at least appear to put up a good fight. It won't be easy for them or for us. And their solicitor is Rowle.”

 

Harry winced. “Oh boy. And that man hates to lose.”

 

“Worse, I doubt they'll be able to tell him about the deal. Even if he knew occlumency, his politics are pretty Death-Eater friendly. I think he has at least one relative who was a Death Eater, in fact. So he'll fight as hard as he can, thinking it's what the Malfoys really want.”

 

“Plainly we need to get together with them somewhere and discuss things.”

 

“But how to respond to his letter? I know the spell he used, it's an old pureblood spell, but I don't have any hair or blood or skin of his.”

 

“We can address it to Draco. He hasn't gotten around to teaching me the spell, but I have a small vial of his hair.”

 

“Ah, that's that solved then. You go write out a decoy letter and fetch that hair, and I'll plan out the real response.”

 

“Gotcha.”

 

It took them over an hour to complete the secret letter to Sirius's satisfaction, but they eventually got it. They sent it off with Mr. Malfoy's owl and destroyed his letter as he requested.

 

To Mister. Lucius Malfoy,

 

We received your letter and we wish to discuss this in person with you in a secure and mutually agreed-upon location if you are amenable to doing so. We're also curious if it would be acceptable to have a witness there for the meeting, such as Ms. Pennyroyal – our solicitor – with us. Or perhaps Albus Dumbledore, if you feel you need more security? Aside from the obvious trust issues between us, an arbiter might be useful anyway.

 

Please let us know as soon as possible what you think of this.

 

Your in fellowship,

Mister Sirius Black, Lord of House Black

and

Mister Harry James Potter

 

Less than an hour later, they got back another response.

 

To Mister Harry James Potter and Mister Sirius Black, Lord of House Black,

 

My wife and I agree to a meeting in person. We agree to have Chief Warlock Albus Dumbledore there as arbiter and witness. In light of this, would it be amenable to meet in the office of same, at Hogwarts? If so, and if you will contact the Chief Warlock to arrange a time convenient for him as well as for the two of you, we will make ourselves available at any hour you choose.

 

Yours in fellowship,

Mister Lucius Malfoy, Lord of House Malfoy

and

Mistress Narcissa Malfoy nee Black, Lady of House Malfoy

 

Once the words faded away again, Sirius went into the kitchen and tossed some Floo powder into the fireplace to fire-call Dumbledore. Dumbledore came on through the Floo into their kitchen once Sirius gave him permission.

 

“Is there any evidence of these letters?” Dumbledore said, sounding wary.

 

“Just our memories.”

 

“I see. Sirius, do you know how to extract memories for pensieves?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I wish to extract such memories to review them, if that is fine by you two?”

 

They nodded. Within minutes, they were providing Dumbledore with the memories. He went back through to his office. Within twenty minutes, his head popped up in the fire.

 

“Sirius, Harry, I have reviewed those memories. I believe them to be genuine in this desire. You may let them know I am available at any time to arbitrate the meeting.”

 

“Thanks, Dumbledore,” Sirius said.

 

“You are quite welcome. Of course, I am very curious. This is rather an unexpected turn of events. One which is, at the same time, somewhat worrying.”

 

“Yes, he seems so certain Voldemort will come back soon.”

 

“He may know something we do not, which is relevant. But I must be going now, my knees are complaining. I should put a thicker rug down here in future. Goodbye for now, Sirius, Harry.”

 

They waved him goodbye, and his head disappeared from the fireplace, the green flames returning to normal fire.

 

~

 

Their meeting with the Malfoys ended up getting set for the next Friday at noon. That left several days free, during which Harry managed to settle plans to get Ron and Luna over one day, Antigone and Hermione the next, and Angela on the third. Danzia and her family had plans to go to China for the summer, but she promised to come over on the Saturday following their meeting with the Malfoys (not that she knew they were doing so; they had told nobody but Dumbledore about that).

 

That first day, an owl and a very large raven showed up at Harry's window. The owl, Errol, smacked pathetically against the closed window and onto the planter box that Harry had been preparing to plant a small garden in. He opened the window to let Errol in, and a raven nearly as big as Errol perched on the sill and cawed at Harry, its leg held out, a letter tied to it. This raven was distinctive. Not only was it bigger than any raven Harry had ever seen before (and Harry had seen a lot of ravens), it also had a white mark on its back that looked a little like the letter W.

 

“You must belong to the Lovegoods,” Harry said as he untied the letter from the raven's leg. “It'd be just the sort of thing they'd do, using a bird that's only active in the daytime, as opposed to owls which are nocturnal.”

 

The raven cawed at him again, in an impatient sort of way.

 

“Yeah yeah, I'm doing it fast as I can.”

 

He untied the final knot and pulled the message off at last. The raven cawed in a more friendly way and flew inside all the way, snooping around through his things for shiny objects.

 

“What, you don't want food?”

 

The raven cocked its head thoughtfully, then cawed again.

 

“Greedy, aren't you?” he said, giving the raven some owl treats. He hadn't been sure the raven would like them, but it seemed pleased with the offer.

 

He read the letter, from Luna of course.

 

Dear Harry,

 

This is Writing Desk, our raven. We named him that partly because of the W shape on his back, and partly because Daddy and I love both Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll. Writing Desk also likes the name Edward, though. We like him much better than owls. He doesn't cough up the skeletons of small animals, for one thing, and he loves shiny objects. He's been collecting things for years, and has quite a huge collection by now; it has its entire room in our house, his collection. Well, it's also the room Writing Desk sleeps in, but mostly it's taken up with shells, buttons, coins, bits of shiny thread, pieces of colored glass, and even the skulls of what we think are deceased friends or family of his. Those he keeps in a special space that looks a lot like an altar, which he decorates with ribbons, wire, and his shiniest trinkets, including several gold galleon coins. He even honors his fallen loved ones once a week by sitting silently on the altar for half an hour, then cawing rather loudly at the ceiling for twenty minutes. It's so sad and beautiful all at once, the poor dear.

 

Writing Desk likes to collect names, too. Along with his given name and Edward, he will also answer to Karl Marx, Napoleon, Merlin, Black Swooping Death, and Apostle Thomas. We don't know why he does this, or how he chooses the names he collects, but we respect his creativity.

 

Yes, I would very much like to visit you today if I can. You can fire-call if you want, I'll take Writing Desk home with me in the Floo. He likes it, for some reason. I think he likes being able to go home without putting forth any effort, the laz---

 

“CAW! CAW! CAWWW!!!” Harry's reading was interrupted as Writing Desk started cawing loudly, flapping his wings defiantly at a much larger Hedwig, who was shrieking in an outraged sort of tone and puffing herself up angrily.

 

“Hedwig! Leave him alone, he's Luna's familiar!”

 

She turned her head all the way around to glare at him, then turned to glare at Writing Desk, who somehow managed – without an expressive face – to look very smug as he continued picking through Harry's belongings for something shiny to take home with him.

 

---the lazy dear. He even tolerates the Knight Bus, though sometimes he'll land on the back of the driver's seat and screech at the driver as though he knows better than the driver how to steer a bus. Anyway, I can tell you more about him when I come over. When should I come over, anyway?

 

Sorry for having to communicate with letters instead of the two-way mirror, but Writing Desk and I had a row the other day and he hid it from me to show his displeasure. He'll give it back in a day or two, though; he always does. He's a forgiving soul. And he's good at understanding when something is an emergency; he'll return it if there's an emergency.

 

I know I've sent you things by owl before, back on your last birthday, but that was a post owl. Writing Desk doesn't like taking most packages, he only tolerates taking letters.

 

Looking forward to visiting you!

 

With love,

Luna

 

PS = Daddy says to say Hi to you for him.

 

Harry chuckled at the rich personality of Writing Desk and put the letter down to go fire-call Luna.

 

Kneeling to put his head in the fire, he said Luna's address and felt his head spin around. When it stopped in her fireplace, it still felt like it was spinning. He wondered what would happen if he were to get sick with his head magically detached from his body like this, until he looked up into the familiar kitchen of the Lovegoods.

 

“Harry! There you are. My, that was fast. Writing Desk will sometimes take hours extra to make a delivery, just because he values his own time so much, so I was worried it would take longer. Anyway, can I come over, now?”

 

“Of course you can. Sirius just doesn't want anyone staying overnight without his say-so. But during the day, I think he just wants a little fore-warning, a fire-call or something first.”

 

“Good. Daddy! I'm going to Harry's place now!” she called back at him.

 

Xeno poked his head out from the other room. “Have fun, my delightful moon-calf! Hi there, Harry!”

 

“Hello sir. Well I'd better pull my head out of the Floo so Luna can come over.”

 

“Watch out for Floo bugs,” Xeno warned. “They'll make your head feel like it's floating along like a balloon on a string if you're not careful.”

 

“I'll keep an eye out for them, sir. See you!” Harry said, and pulled out of the Floo.

 

Luna came out of the Floo a couple minutes later, and Harry only now registered what she was wearing. She had on a knee-length dress that looked like it had been designed by Picasso, in concert with Rene Magritte. She also wore a red beret on her blond hair, and great big hoop earrings of pink wire with pentagrams of wire inside of them. Her fingernails were also painted, in ten different colors: one color for each finger. Harry saw bubblegum-pink, Kelley green, red, sunflower yellow, periwinkle, gold, silver, lavender, sunset orange, and mauve. He looked down at her feet; she was wearing one white sandal and one green one, and her toenails were all painted different colors too. In this case: forest green, black, dandelion, a metallic dark blue, the 'salmon' shade of pink, indigo, red wine, brown, neon orange, and white.

 

What was more, she or her father had painted multi-colored flowers and green leafy vines on her face and down her neck to her collarbone, which continued down along both of her arms to her hands. And there was a painting of a hippogriff on her left leg. He didn't understand how he could've missed it during the fire-call.

 

“Harry, is that your friend Luna coming ov---” Sirius said, freezing mid-sentence when he came in and saw Luna. He gaped at her strange appearance as she smiled and waved at him.

 

“Er, welcome, Miss Lovegood,” Sirius said with a grin, holding a hand out for her to shake.

 

Luna looked at his hand, held both of hers out to her sides, spun herself rapidly around three times, waited a moment for the dizziness to pass, and only then took his hand to shake it.

 

“Sorry about that, Mr. Black,” she apologized quietly. “But I could feel the shake-wraiths trying to get inside me, and I couldn't risk them passing on to you.”

 

“Er, okay,” Sirius said, confused, as Harry tried hard to suppress his laughter.

 

“Um, anyway Luna, you can just call me Sirius. I shall always think of Mr. Black as my father, I think, and I never much liked the man.”

 

“Okay, Sirius. Thank you for inviting me into your home.”

 

“Any friend of Harry's is a friend of mine.”

 

She beamed at him, then turned immediately to Harry. “So where's Writing Desk?”

 

“Pardon?” asked Sirius.

 

“He's my familiar. He's a raven.”

 

When he was able to stop snickering at Sirius's continued bafflement in regards to Luna, Harry said, “He's upstairs in my room looking for something shiny to take with him.”

 

“You left him up there alone?” she asked in concern.

 

“No, Hedwig is up there with him. Why?”

 

“Harry! If you leave Writing Desk unsupervised in your room, anything could happen! Come on, let's hurry!”

 

She took his hand and they ran up the stairs to Harry's room. What they found when they got there was best described as bedlam. Writing Desk was wearing an origami admiral's hat and a sock as a scarf while flying around the room carrying Harry's entire coin purse in his talons; he was trying to get away from Hedwig, who was screeching and flapping after him in a rage, several of her feathers – plucked out – lying on the bed. Harry's Sneak-o-scope was spinning and whistling on his desk, probably in response to Writing Desk, and Dobby had joined the fray and was trying to corral the two familiars. He was somewhat hindered by Writing Desk tossing heavy gold coins at his head every now and then and cawing in a way that sounded like mocking laughter.

 

“EDWARD WRITING DESK NAPOLEON APOSTLE THOMAS!” Luna said in a very loud and cross voice, “YOU PUT HARRY'S COIN PURSE DOWN THIS INSTANT!”

 

The large raven somehow managed to trip in midair, falling down and dropping Harry's coin purse. When he got back up – his admiral's hat on crooked and his feathers ruffled – he hopped over to Harry and bowed his head, giving a mournful sort of croak that Harry took to be an apology.

 

At this, the Sneak-o-scope stopped spinning and whistling. Hedwig looked angry enough to spit nails, but she landed on her perch and preened herself in an annoyed fashion instead.

 

Harry looked to Luna for direction. She nodded at him, smiling.

 

“Er, Writing Desk, I forgive you. Try not to do it again,” he said.

 

“Caw!” quoth the raven, and began preening himself as well.

 

“Miss's raven is being very disruptive,” Dobby said. “Begging Miss's pardon,” he added, looking scared.

 

“Oh it's fine, you poor sweet little man.”

 

Dobby blinked at her in surprise, mouthing the word 'man' in bewildered astonishment.

 

Smiling at him, Luna held out her hand. “Hello. I'm Luna Lovegood. Are you Dobby?”

 

Tentatively, Dobby took her hand in his and shook it. “Yes, Miss Lovegood, I is Dobby.”

 

“It's an honor to meet you at last, Dobby. Harry has told me so much about you.”

 

“An... honor?” Dobby said, his eyes growing wide as dinnerplates. “Me? Miss is honored to meet... D-Dobby?”

 

“Of course I am. Any friend of Harry's is a friend of mine. Or at least, I attempt to make friends with them. They're not always interested in being friends with me.”

 

Dobby's eyes dribbled great runnels of tears as he smiled and then bowed to Luna.

 

“Miss Lovegood is truly as great and as good as Harry Potter, Miss. Dobby is also being very honored to be meeting you, Miss.”

 

“Please, call me Luna.”

 

“Yes, of course Miss Luna.”

 

She smiled at him.

 

Harry turned to Luna. “You are very colorful today, Luna.”

 

“Why thank you, Harry,” she said, curtsying. “I was experimenting with some new art styles earlier – well, new to me – and I wanted some inspiration from Picasso and Magritte.”

 

“Did you get it?”

 

“Yes. I had just finished a painting of Writing Desk on his perch before you called.”

 

Harry felt a tug on his pants leg and looked down. Writing Desk was looking pleadingly from him to a shiny fifty-pence piece and back again.

 

“Did you find that in my things?” Harry asked gently.

 

Writing Desk nodded his feathery head, still looking pleadingly at Harry.

 

“If you want it, you can have it. But that's it for now, okay?”

 

The bird nodded, rubbed his head against Harry's leg, readjusting his origami hat before taking off to go play with his shiny new toy.

 

“Hey Dobby, you've been bored lately, right? Not enough to do?”

 

“Er, yes, Harry Potter sir. What would you likes Dobby to do for you, sir?”

 

“Do you know how to knit?”

 

Dobby bobbed his head enthusiastically. “Yes, Dobby does indeed, sir.”

 

“Well... it probably won't take you long, but I'm hoping you'd be so kind as to knit Writing Desk here his own little scarf.”

 

The bird turned around at these words and cawed, hopping up and down excitedly. Then he flapped his wings and contorted in a weird way, rather insistently.

 

“Oooh, he's playing charades, Harry! Let's see... two words. First word, something that starts with R. Has two limbs... flies—OOH! A raven?”

 

The bird nodded, and started miming the second word.

 

“Feet? Legs? Toes? Wait, talons? No, claws? AHA! You want a Ravenclaw scarf?”

 

Writing Desk nodded, cawing excitedly.

 

“Wow,” Harry said. “I knew ravens were intelligent, but this much so?”

 

“Well, Harry, he is a magical raven. Magical animals are more intelligent than their Muggle counterparts. Owls, for instance; Muggle owls aren't really the brightest of birds, at least among birds of prey. But of course magical owls are very clever indeed.”

 

Hedwig looked annoyed for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders as though conceding the point.

 

“So,” she continued, “with Muggle ravens being so very clever, of course magical ravens are even cleverer still.”

 

Writing Desk puffed himself up proudly and gave what could only be described as a regal pose, especially considering the hat he was wearing.

 

Harry laughed at the bird. “Now Luna, if you inflate his ego too much, he might explode!”

 

“CAW!” Writing Desk said in a very put-out sort of tone, and went back to playing with the fifty-pence piece.

 

Harry turned and just happened to notice Errol sitting on his bed.

 

“Oh crud, I forgot Ron sent a letter too!” he said, running over to get the letter from Errol's leg.

 

He read the short letter as quick as he could and ran down to the kitchen, Luna – with her raven on her shoulder – following shortly behind.

 

“What's the rush, pup?”

 

“In all the excitement of Writing Desk's company, I forgot Ron wrote to me too. The Burrow!” Harry shouted as he stuck his head in the green flames.

 

“Harry! About time! What took you so long? Did Errol pass out halfway there?”

 

“No, Errol made it here fine. I just got distracted by Luna's raven.”

 

“Luna's... raven?”

 

“She and her dad use a raven instead of an owl.”

 

Ron chuckled. “That figures. But don't you and she have those two-way mirrors?”

 

“She and Writing Desk – her raven – got into a fight, and he hid her mirror.”

 

Ron laughed again. “A raven named Writing Desk, that's classic Luna!”

 

When Ron came through the Floo and finished brushing the soot off himself, he looked up and stood transfixed by the weirdness of Luna and Writing Desk.

 

Sirius barked with laughter. “Close your mouth, Ron, you'll catch flies if you don't!”

 

Ron closed his mouth and blinked at Luna, looking her up and down.

 

“Very colorful,” he said at last. “Ah, member of the old religion, I see?” Ron continued, pointing at Luna's earrings.

 

“Yes. What about you, Ron?”

 

“More of a hybrid, really. I guess. I mostly just like Christmas and Easter.”

 

“They're very lovely holidays, I agree.”

 

“Yeah, plus we get out of school on them.”

 

“That too.”

 

The three of them, accompanied by Writing Desk, started exploring the house. There were quite a lot of bedrooms, a parlor, a sitting room, a library, a ballroom, and even a dueling room. Ron was especially amazed by the size of the place, with its many levels. Harry was impressed, too, as he hadn't gotten as good a look as he'd wanted to before.

 

Luna gave her raven a ball of yarn to play with when they went into the massive ballroom to run around in. It was an odd thing to give a bird, but he seemed to enjoy it, attacking it with gusto and rolling around with it.

 

The three of them had tea that afternoon, Luna giving Writing Desk his own place setting and tea, casting a cooling charm on the tea so he could drink it without getting hurt. The bird also got a biscuit and half a scone, which he ate with excitement.

 

Sirius, who had been staring at the raven all during tea, got up as tea was ending to sit next to the bird and look right at it. The bird stared back in annoyance.

 

“Say 'nevermore,'” Sirius told it.

 

“HAR HAR HAR!” quoth the raven, sounding very peevish.

 

Sirius laughed. “Worth a try, anyway!”

 

They ended up staying for dinner, too. Kreacher made steak and kidney pie. Harry thought about using hot sauce, but didn't want to risk offending the elf, so he didn't. For desert they had black pudding and leftover biscuits from tea.

 

Harry was a little sad when they went back home, but he was looking forward to tomorrow when Hermione and Antigone would show up, and he had lots of fun today, so he fell asleep to pleasant dreams.

 

 

Endnote: The character of Writing Desk AKA Edward, etc the raven came about by accident. I forgot about the two-way mirror for several minutes, and decided the Lovegoods would use a raven instead of an owl, and it just kinda snowballed from there. But I like him, I'm keeping him.

 

I've been ashamed of the diminishing amount of humor in this fic lately, so I'm glad to say I've started making up for that here. :-D And what better way to do so than with Luna?

 

Speaking of Luna, in the next chapter we will be seeing VERY strong hints about Luna being autistic as well, since I'm certain she was meant to be autistic in canon. (Thus, I don't consider Luna's being on the spectrum to be part of the AU of this story, rather an expansion on canon.) If I ever meet Rowling in person, I'm going to ask her about Luna's and Hermione's neuro-status. (Whether they're autistic or not.)

 

American readers: I'm an American myself, but I use a lot of British terms in my HP fanfics. Sorry if that's confusing at all.

 

One last thing: Along with thinking Luna is autistic in canon, I'm really convinced now that Hermione is also autistic in canon. As a friend of mine pointed out in this Quora post of his: https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-your-Harry-Potter-theories/answer/Alexander-Antonin Not sure what this says about canon Harry now that it appears two of his closest friends appear to be autistic. (There's also a theory out there that Ron is on the autism spectrum as well, but I don't really see it. I mean yeah, he's a chess prodigy and he focuses on Quidditch a lot, but there are non-autistic people with similar characteristics as well. I'll keep looking for evidence, but I'm not convinced on that one.)

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though. And the more this deviates from canon, the less that will happen. But some descriptions and things like that are too good to skip or try to reword.

 

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

 

I'm just as bad as Rowling at forgetting about birthdays of characters other than Harry, at least in this fic. So I'll just act as though Harry and the others remembered in the past offstage, and I'll try to be better in future to at least mention them.

 

I also fixed the mistake in book 2 of this fic where Draco claimed Sirius was an uncle, when Sirius is, in fact, Narcissa's cousin. I fixed that before I posted this chapter.

 

 

Chapter Two: Building Bridges

 

The next day, Sirius side-along apparated Harry to the Granger house where they picked up Hermione to take her to Grimmauld Place. Sirius had gotten strong enough since his release to where he side-along apparated both Harry and Hermione without splinching anyone, though he had to sit down at the dinner table and recover while Kreacher served Sirius tea and biscuits.

 

Antigone, for her part, came by Floo.

 

“Ah,” Sirius said when he saw her come out of the kitchen fireplace, “so you must be Antigone, one of Harry's Slytherin friends?”

 

The Indian girl smiled and brushed her black hair out of her face. “Yeah, that's me. Antigone Dreyfuss.”

 

She held out her hand, and he shook it jovially.

 

“Nice to meet you, Antigone. I hear you helped Harry out during his first and second year against Voldemort, is that right?”

 

She nodded. “Yes, I did. In the Chamber of Secrets, I got Slytherin's flaming sword from the Sorting Hat!”

 

“A flaming sword, that's perfectly Biblical,” Sirius said.

 

“That it is.”

 

“Well you go run along and meet with your friends.”

 

“It's nice to meet you, Sirius.”

 

“Likewise. Now go, you don't need to keep this old codger company.”

 

She grinned and ran off to find Harry and Hermione.

 

“Oh good, there you are Antigone. Now I only have to tell the story once. Come on, I'll tell you about my day yesterday, it was loads of fun!”

 

~

 

They were all still laughing about the antics of Luna's raven when Sirius came to the doorway and said, “Harry, Luna and her father are here. Their raven is missing, and they thought they'd check here.”

 

“What? Oh okay,” Harry said, getting up. Hermione and Antigone followed him, and as they came out of the drawing room, they came face to face – so to speak – with Luna and Xeno.

 

This time, Luna was dressed in a dress that looked made of spider silk, it was so gauzy. She had some short pants and a tank top on underneath, which was good because they could see it clearly. Luna also had a wreath made of various sorts and colors of flowers, very artfully done, with a daisy the size of a fist as the crown jewel. She also had flowers attached to the gauzy silk dress, around the fringe of the bottom and around the neckline, which continued down to her abdomen. She was barefoot, and her ankles had anklets of tinkling bells. Her skin art from the day before was still there, looking almost as good as it had the other day. She had her back to them when they first saw her, and Harry had seen a brief glimpse of a large sunflower with green vine rays emanating from it painted between her shoulder blades before she turned back around.

 

Xeno, for his part, was wearing an outfit that looked like someone from Robin Hood's era had made an outfit out of green fabric that bore a strong resemblance to actual leaves. He wore a similar, but understated, flower crown on his head, more on the order of a flower circlet than a crown. He wasn't barefoot, but his sandals looked like he'd woven them by hand from corn husks.

 

Catching the stares of everyone, Xeno smiled as he gently turned Luna around to face them.

 

“Admiring out religious garb, I see?”

 

“Er... is that what it is?” Antigone asked.

 

“Religious garb?” asked Hermione in confusion.

 

“Well it is for me,” Xeno said. “For my little fairy gift here, I suppose it counts as part of her cultural heritage.”

 

“Xeno, Luna! I found your bird. He was in the library,” Sirius said, coming into view carrying Writing Desk on his shoulder.

 

“Ah, excellent. He was probably trying to see if you had any Edgar Allan Poe or Shakespeare books in your collection, he's a connoisseur of fine literature.”

 

Writing Desk flew over to land on Xeno's shoulder instead. Luna looked momentarily disappointed at this, but smiled.

 

“He must want to feel tall today,” she said.

 

“What did you mean by 'cultural heritage,' Mr. Lovegood? And 'religious garb'?” Hermione asked, sounding like she was waiting for confirmation of something before she went off on an Aspie rant.

 

“Yes,” Harry said. “And 'fairy gift'? Why'd you call her that?”

 

“Well... when my Luna was little, some ignorant people used to call her a Changeling Child, saying she was stolen away by the Fair Folk and replaced with a changeling, like in the old stories. But they had it all wrong. Pandora – my wife – was having so much trouble getting pregnant that she and I sought the help of the Fair Folk using some of the ancient rituals. Well, the very night after we did that, Pandora was taken away by the Fair Folk overnight. They plied her with ambrosia and food, and several Fair Folk – including a satyr, a faun, and a Tuatha de Danaan – er... 'made merry with her' as they say, and in the morning she was returned. Two weeks later, though we hadn't tried again ourselves, Pandora was with child. Luna was born nine months later. Hence, she's a gift from the Fairies.”

 

“Aren't fairies the little human-looking creatures with insect wings?” Hermione asked, looking incredulous.

 

“Oh no, those are just one of the kinds of fairy to still live in our world. Those of us who still believe in the Fair Folk call them nixies. Others include pixies and doxies, trolls, mer-people, centaurs, dwarves, goblins, and elves. Anyway, the land of Fairy cut itself off from ours one or two thousand year ago, at least officially, but there were known to be hundreds of species of Fair Folk. Some of them were human-sized and mostly human-shaped, as well, like the Tuatha de Danaan. The fact that they answered our prayers and gifted us with Luna proves they still care about our world.”

 

“Do you have any proof of any of this?”

 

“Did you have any proof of magic before you got visited by Professor McGonagall?”

 

“Well, no. But---”

 

“My dear, there's all kinds of evidence of these things if you know where to look. Ever seen rooms or trunks or bags that are larger on the inside than on the outside? Ever wonder how those work? Ever wonder where all the missing mass goes when you transfigure a hippopotamus into a garden snake? Well the answer is simple, Miss Granger: between our world and the land of Fairy is a dimension known as The Borderlands. Trunks that are bigger on the inside than the outside are really portals to constructs within The Borderlands, and the missing mass of the transfigured hippo slides into The Borderlands until it needs to return.”

 

“Yes, Hermione,” said Luna. “The land of Fairy is how we have magic in our world at all. All magical creatures can trace their lineage from Fairy in one way or another. The Fair Folk bred with humans and made witches and wizards, too. And of course, the Fair Folk and their magic are why we have magical versions of normally non-magical animals, like owls and ravens.”

 

Hermione opened her mouth to object, but didn't seem able to find an argument. Either that, or she decided not to bother. She closed her mouth again and sighed.

 

“And these are some reasons why my Luna and I worship the Fair Folk, especially the Tuatha de Danaan, the High Lords and Ladies of Fairy. Our home altar is dedicated to them, especially to Brigid and Lugh.”

 

“Well that explains the 'religious garb' bit, but what about 'cultural heritage'?” Antigone asked.

 

“Isn't it obvious, Miss, er...?”

 

“Dreyfuss.”

 

“Ah yes, Miss Dreyfuss. Isn't it obvious, Miss Dreyfuss?”

 

“Um, no.”

 

“I told you how Luna was gifted to us. I don't know... you seem old enough to know how these things work, how babies are made, I mean---”

 

Her face turning so red it was visible through her brown skin, Antigone hurriedly said, “Yes I know okay don't tell me!”

 

“Well, when I say some of the Fair Folk 'made merry with' my wife---”

 

“I GET IT, I get it! Forget I asked.”

 

“Of course, that term usually has some darker connotations, I suppose,” he said, looking thoughtful. “So I should specify that Pandora was completely willing. She knew why she was there, after all; she'd asked for their help, and she knew their help always comes at a cost.”

 

Hermione frowned. “So you think Luna is half Fairy, and half mortal?”

 

“Oh no, not at all.”

 

“But---”

 

“No, you misunderstand, Miss Granger. Given that Pandora was most likely sterile, I'd say Luna is more likely full-blooded Fairy. Probably Tuatha de Danaan, since she never had a tail or faun ears, and she's never shown any sign of horns yet.”

 

“Yes, I was very disappointed by that. Horns would have been fun to have, even if people would make fun of me for it,” Luna said.

 

“It'd certainly be a talking point,” Antigone said, trying not to laugh.

 

“But yes, Miss Granger, I do think my Luna is one of the Fair Folk. Just like those mean people who called her a changeling, but in this case she's a good thing, a special gift, a child for a barren couple. And I have other evidence of this, too. She took far longer than other children to start talking, skipping the babbling stage altogether, and her first words were an entire sentence – 'I love you, Mummy and Daddy.' She's extremely creative, she can see things we humans can't, has always been very curious about animals and even plants but has always been very gentle with them, she's honest to a fault – a well-known trait of the Fair Folk, and she always seems to be standing in two different worlds, like part of her attention is always back in the land of Fairy. Isn't that right, my Luna?”

 

Luna smiled in that far-off way of hers. Now that Harry thought of it, 'away with the fairies' sounded like a good description of the way Luna often looked.

 

Hermione, her arms crossed, snorted in disbelief. “That sounds like what Harry and I have, Asperger's syndrome. Nothing to do with fairies at all!”

 

“If that's what you believe, Miss Granger, you won't hear any condemnation of it from me. To each their own, after all,” Xeno said.

 

“Yes, Hermione,” Antigone said. “If it's not hurting anyone, what's the harm? And arguing about it just makes you sound rude, I'm sorry to say.”

 

Looking hurt and defiant at the same time, Hermione turned to Antigone, but backed down at the older girl's gentle expression. “I didn't mean to be rude,” Hermione finally said in a small voice.

 

Xeno chuckled amiably. “Don't worry about it, Miss Granger, I'm well accustomed to accidental rudeness. Like I said, my Luna is honest to a fault.”

 

There was suddenly one of those silences that meant the conversation was over, simply because it had run its course, and it was time for a new one.

 

Taking this as a hint, Sirius said, “How'd that raven even get into the house in the first place?”

 

~

 

On the Friday of their meeting with the Malfoys. After a delicious breakfast of truly sublime cinnamon rolls, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the fluffiest, richest omelet Harry had ever tasted – made by Dobby, who was trying to outdo Kreacher's cooking, and after sitting for a couple hours in the sitting room digesting and waiting to leave, they were on their way through the Floo to Hogwarts. Dumbledore greeted them and bade them sit down. Harry noticed there were five chairs around a round table, where Dumbledore's desk had been before. Knowing Dumbledore, he probably transfigured his desk into a table for this meeting.

 

As they sat waiting for the Malfoys to arrive – since they were early themselves – Sirius and Harry talked.

 

“I got you an appointment with a Muggle mind healer, Harry. Psychiatrist, I think the term is. She'll be able to get you an official diagnosis at last.”

 

“Good. I don't really need it, because I know I'm right about my self diagnosis, but it'll be nice to have anyway. When is it?”

 

“It's on this coming Wednesday, if you're up to it. If not, I can reschedule.”

 

“No, Wednesday is fine. Thanks, Sirius.”

 

“You're welcome, pup.”

 

“So, have you heard from this Malfoy boy at all since his parents sent their letter?”

 

“Yeah, I got something yesterday from him. He was astonished that his father was being so reasonable. But he thinks Lucius is being genuine about it.”

 

“Well even if it is some clever ploy, at least it can't be an outright trap. Not under Dumbledore's nose, anyway. Still, don't touch anything from either of them in case it's a portkey.”

 

“Sirius, my dear boy,” Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eye, “you're getting quite as paranoid as Alastor.”

 

“My godson is marked for death by an immortal dark lord who blames Harry for being a powerless wraith for the last 12 or 13 years. Paranoia is a survival trait, in this context.”

 

Something in Dumbledore's collection of whirring, puffing, and occasionally whistling collection of unidentified artifacts made a tinkling chime.

 

“Ah, that will be Minerva letting the Malfoys in through the gates. I give it 10 minutes before they're at the gargoyle.”

 

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, a small gong went off from the artifact cabinet.

 

“That will be them,” he said.

 

A short while later, there was a knock at the door.

 

“Enter,” Dumbledore said.

 

The door opened, and in came the familiar Mr. Malfoy, looking very similar to the first time Harry had seen him, but in a different set of robes. He held his snakes-head cane casually at his side. Despite what he was here for, his expression still looked like he was disapproving of a very bad odor in the room.

 

Following behind him was a blond woman who had to be his wife. She was wearing an elegant dress, her hair in a knot at the back of her head. She looked like she was here for a formal dance or a ritzy party. Well, they both did, now Harry thought of it. He was reminded strongly of how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon would dress up fancy to impress people. From there it further reminded him of the kind of dominance displays he sometimes caught glimpses of when the only thing on the telly that didn't bore Dudley to tears was nature documentaries. He had to fight to keep from laughing at the image of Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy as a pair of silver-back gorillas putting on a display.

 

“Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy,” Dumbledore said. Harry was momentarily thrown by this; Dumbledore usually addressed adults by their first names.

 

“Thank you,” Mr. Malfoy said, making it sound like a threat.

 

Harry regarded Mrs. Malfoy. Unlike her husband, it looked like she was trying for 'icy bitch' and was failing at it. She couldn't quite hide her concern for her son, if Harry's guess was right. He figured most people could tell right away without thinking about it, while he himself had to guess based on a mix of experience with the Dursleys and the greater context of why they were here. He looked at Sirius in silent question. Sirius wasn't looking at him, he was looking at Mrs. Malfoy, but the expression on his face suggested that he was thinking along similar lines.

 

“Please, Lucius, Narcissa, have a seat,” Dumbledore said.

 

“Thank you kindly,” Mrs. Malfoy said this time. Her tone suggested she was feeling slightly ill.

 

“Is this room protected from eavesdroppers?” Mr. Malfoy asked before sitting down.

 

“Yes, Lucius. I have put every relevant security spell on this room for the day. Nobody will be hearing us but we who are seated at this table.”

 

Mr. Malfoy looked up at the portraits of old headmasters. “What of them,” he asked, gesturing with his head.

 

“The portraits? Lucius, I have trusted them with things far more sensitive than this matter. They are as secure as house elves. More so, even, as they are very limited in where they can go.”

 

“Good,” Mr. Malfoy said, and pulled a chair out for his wife, waiting for her to be seated before he took his own seat.

 

Once seated, Dumbledore said, “So, Sirius here tells me you are both very concerned for Draco, and you wish Sirius and Harry to pledge to protect your son.”

 

“A succinct summary,” Mr. Malfoy said with a sneer. “But true in essentials.”

 

“Very interesting, how far we've come in less than two years,” Dumbledore said.

 

Mr. Malfoy looked a little paler than before, and he was gritting his teeth. “Are we here to trade barbs at each other, or are we here to negotiate?”

 

“I meant no offense, Lucius. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

 

“Headmaster Dumbledore,” Mrs. Malfoy said, the ice back in her voice, “we have no wish to be here at all. But our son is more important than our comfort or its lack. Let us dispense with the small talk and get right to the meat of the matter.”

 

“Indeed,” Dumbledore said. “But relevant to the matter at hand, I find myself very curious why you feel it necessary. Perhaps I should clarify; I understand that you seem certain Voldemort will return, and soon. And I understand that Draco is siding with his enemy. What I seek to ascertain is why you did not simply send Draco away to Beauxbatons or Durmstrang, as I know you are capable of doing. If Draco were away from Harry, it would be very difficult indeed for Voldemort to have any quarrel with Draco. In fact, such a thing might make it easier to get Draco back on Voldemort's side.”

 

Harry was impressed; the two Malfoys had barely flinched at all when Dumbledore said Voldemort's nom de guerre. Most people jumped, and some people even shrieked. Even Professor Snape would flinch slightly at the sound of the name.

 

Mr. Malfoy sneered at Dumbledore more intensely than before. “Clearly, you have forgotten what it is to be young. Sending Draco away would only drive him further from the Dark Lord's views, and put more of a target on him as a result. Plus, how would we forbid owls between him and Potter? We couldn't.”

 

“At least not without making things look even more suspicious,” Sirius said.

 

Mrs. Malfoy glanced briefly at Sirius. “My cousin is unusually perceptive today.” Her emphasis on the word 'cousin' sounded about the same as Harry's did when he talked about Dudley.

 

“Avoiding the question, are you?” Sirius asked. “I'm curious for the answer, too. A real answer, I mean. Not just the obvious answer.”

 

“Whatever do you mean, dear cousin?” Her words made Harry shiver.

 

“I think what my godfather means is, have you changed sides? Not completely, I'm sure; you probably still think yourselves superior to Muggles and anyone who isn't pureblood. But Draco once told me, Mrs. Malfoy, that you always disagreed with your husband being a Death Eater, that you disagree with Voldemort's tactics. He said that you believe magical blood, no matter how impure, was too precious to be spilled.”

 

Breaking her icy facade completely, her eyes widened in surprise momentarily before she got her face back under control. She didn't respond right away, looking like she was mulling over what to say. Her husband looked to her for guidance, waiting to let her speak. Harry was again impressed; this was a marriage dynamic Harry had never seen before. It was plain, even to Harry, that Lucius respected his wife a great deal, and valued her opinion, giving her first crack at a conversation instead of presuming to speak for her. Likewise, she plainly felt the same respect for her husband, as she looked at him as well, almost like they were communicating with glances alone.

 

Finally, she spoke. “Surely my son also told you I have never opposed the Dark Lord, however much I may privately disagree with him. He is a powerful man, and he has my respect, despite my opinion of his tactics.”

 

“You mean 'was,'” Sirius said. “He's powerless at the moment.”

 

“Yes, but he yet lives. No body to speak of, and yet he isn't dead. That in itself is worthy of respect. And then there's your little rat problem to consider.”

 

“You think Pettigrew is going to go back to Voldemort?”

 

Mr. Malfoy sneered. “Of course he will. He fears the rest of us. The Dark Lord went to the Potter house on his information, and met his downfall there. There is nowhere safe in the world for Pettigrew to go, save for the side of the Dark Lord.”

 

“Enough of this,” Mrs. Malfoy said in a tone like a blade rammed into the table. “My husband and I do not trust your security, Mr. Potter. Nor yours, dear cousin. We have ways of keeping ourselves safe. We tried giving Draco the same training, but it didn't take. So we are here to make other arrangements. We will brook no more irrelevancies.”

 

“Alright, then,” Sirius said. “In that case, let's talk about what we're going to want from you in return.”

 

“Make your offer, cousin.”

 

“For starters, my seat on the wizengamot returned to me.”

 

“You mean the Black family wizengamot seat?”

 

“Yes, that.”

 

She glanced slyly at her husband a moment. Then---

 

“That can be arranged. But it won't be easy. Mr. Rowle will expect us to fight to keep it.”

 

“Expected as much. Ms. Pennyroyal can take care of it.”

 

Mr. Malfoy snorted as though he didn't believe that.

 

“Anything else, cousin?” Mrs. Malfoy asked.

 

“It would be nice if I could count on your own vote for things.”

 

“You ask too much, Black. It would not be safe for us to side openly with you.”

 

“Oh I'm sure there's some clever Slytherin way of doing it while keeping plausible deniability.”

 

Mrs. Malfoy paused to consider this. Her husband looked thoughtful as well.

 

“I do not think we can guarantee being able to side with you on everything,” she said. “It will depend on what is up for vote, as well as your arguments in favor of your side. Did you have anything specific in mind?”

 

“Legal protections for house elves, similar to how Muggles have legal protections for animals.”

 

“Like some sort of Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to House Elves?” Mr. Malfoy sneered.

 

“Yes, something like that. What you did to poor Dobby is a crime against human decency, for instance.”

 

Mr. Malfoy looked suddenly ill, but also angry. Mrs. Malfoy looked at him in a way which seemed to say 'I told you so.'

 

“I see,” Mrs. Malfoy finally said. “I think, if I give it some thought, I could find a way to make it seem reasonable I would support that. Everyone knows my husband and I are equal partners in how we vote on the Wizengamot. Yet I am a trend-setter, I could see myself successfully starting a new trend among pureblood circles. 'Oh, you punish your house elf with physical pain? How gauche.' 'You still find their pain entertaining? How dull. I have much better things to do with my time.' Yes, I could have the majority of the pureblood elite on your side of that issue in a matter of months, and it would be far more effective than a mere law being passed, though at that point passing the law would be child's play. Yes, cousin, I could do that for you if we can come to an agreement.”

 

Mr. Malfoy actually smiled, then, as he considered his wife. “You are a wickedly clever woman indeed, my love. I never cease to be amazed by your cunning.”

 

Sirius didn't quite manage to suppress a gagging noise at this.

 

“Excellent,” Dumbledore said. “We're making progress, it seems. So is it agreed? Sirius's seat on the Wizengamot returned to him, and efforts made to vote his way when possible?”

 

“My husband and I are in agreement with that, assuming you hold up your end of the bargain.”

 

“If Voldemort returns, I'll be putting a Fidelius on the house anyway, to protect Harry and any of his friends who need the protection. That includes your son.”

 

“Would you swear an Unbreakable Vow to it?”

 

“HA! No way. I'm not suicidal. I'm a Griffindor, my word should be good enough. But if you want, I'll sign a contract about it.”

 

“We want no physical evidence of this accord,” Mr. Malfoy said.

 

“In that regard, I have a solution,” Dumbledore said. “As much as I do not like them, there are some magically-binding rituals that would be akin to a contract, but with no physical evidence, and without the dangers inherent in things like the Unbreakable Vow.”

 

“We are game if Sirius is,” Mrs. Malfoy said.

 

“I'm game. What does this ritual entail?”

 

Dumbledore summoned a book with his wand, and opened it up. “A little blood from all the signatories mixed together in a small bowl, and some ritual words. Simple enough.”

 

“Er... I'm not a signatory, am I?” Harry asked.

 

“No, Harry. You are a minor. Sirius will be signatory in your place.”

 

“Good to hear.”

 

Dumbledore summoned a small metal bowl with his wand, and set it in the center of the table. Then the two Malfoys and Sirius pricked their fingers over the bowl, where the blood mixed. Dumbledore was swirling his wand over their hands the whole time in a spiral pattern, making a faint spiral of light in the air that traveled through their wrists toward the bowl. Taking their cues from Dumbledore, they said the ritual words.

 

“I, Lucius Malfoy, do hereby swear that I will do all I can to get Sirius Black his seat on the Wizengamot, and to make serious attempts to vote as he does unless I believe doing so will put my family at risk. I swear to do these things unless Sirius Black breaks this accord first. So shall it be.”

 

“I, Narcissa Malfoy nee Black, do hereby swear that I will do all I can to get Sirius Black his seat on the Wizengamot, and to make serious attempts to vote as he does unless I believe doing so will put my family at risk. I swear to do these things unless Sirius Black breaks this accord first. So shall it be.”

 

“I, Sirius Black, do hereby swear that I will do all I can to keep Draco Malfoy safe, especially in the event of the return of Lord Voldemort to power, including putting my house under a Fidelius Charm if Lord Voldemort should return, unless I truly believe doing so will put my godson at risk. I swear to do these things unless either Lucius Malfoy or his wife Narcissa Malfoy nee Black breaks this accord first. So shall it be.”

 

“I, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, do hereby bind this accord among Lucius Malfoy, Narcissa Malfoy nee Black, and Sirius Black. So shall it be.”

 

The spiral of light flashed brightly, then vanished.

 

“It is done.”

 

“Good. I am sure my son will be glad to spend some time with his new friend,” Mrs. Malfoy said, practically glaring at Harry.

 

“I bid you good day, Dumbledore, Black, Potter,” Mr. Malfoy said, again sounding like he wished they would all drown. He took his wife's arm in his, and the two beat a dignified yet hasty retreat from Dumbledore's office.

 

“Well, that was an experience,” Sirius said. “What do you think she meant by 'I do not trust your security'?”

 

Harry blinked. That must have made a huge impression on Sirius for his godfather to bring it up after all this time.

 

“She meant occlumency. Theirs is very good, and would have had me fooled if she had not said that; she did, after all, specify the two of you but not myself. They know occlumency, and they know I do as well. Whatever their secrets, they will not tell us until you and Harry know occlumency as well, if even then.”

 

“Yeah, I kinda want to learn that anyway, because Sirius and Kreacher made up over the summer, and Sirius won't tell me why until I learn occlumency.”

 

“Indeed? Well, that sounds like a good thing for you to learn anyway, Harry, given that Voldemort is a legilimens. It means he can peruse the surface thoughts of others, and correctly interpret them, generally as a means of knowing whether or not someone is lying to him.”

 

“Oh. And occlumency protects against that?”

 

“It does.”

 

“Even more reason to learn it, then.”

 

~

 

The next day, by way of plans changing, Angela and Danzia both showed up at Number 12, within five minutes of each other. First to arrive was Danzia, who came out of the kitchen hearth looking like a Muggle tomboy in a football jersey, shorts, and dirty trainers. Her strawberry-blond hair was tied up in a hastily-done knot in the back that looked like she'd just wrapped her hair around the base of her ponytail and kept it contained with a purple hair scrunchy.

 

Looking up at Sirius's incredulous stare, Danzia raised an eyebrow. “What?”

 

“A Slytherin wearing Muggle clothes when she doesn't need to?”

 

Danzia shrugged. “I like this style when I'm at home. At school, not so much; some of the other Slytherins would have fits. Anyway, I was playing football with my brother and some cousins not long ago.”

 

“Slytherins playing football, too? Well, you're very interesting, Danzia.”

 

“Oh you haven't seen interesting yet,” she said, a mischievous spark in her eye that reminded Harry of a similar spark in the eyes of the Weasley twins.

 

As Harry and Danzia left the room, Sirius said, “I don't know about that one, Remus. Something in her eyes reminds me of myself at that age.”

 

Lupin smiled, pouring himself and Sirius some tea.

 

“Yes, I hear she can be a bit of a troublemaker. Or at least, suspected to be. She doesn't often get caught, from what I hear.”

 

Just then, the flames in the hearth turned green and out popped Angela.

 

“Let's see, older girl with glasses, black hair, Japanese ancestry if I'm not mistaken... you must be Angela.”

 

Angela nodded silently.

 

Danzia came back in. “Is that—oh Angela, there you are! Sorry, didn't know you'd be here so soon. Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, this is Angela Whitechapel. She starts out shy, takes some getting used to people before she opens up.”

 

“Well I promise I don't bite,” Sirius said.

 

Angela smiled a little. “H-hello, Sirius. Um... Harry said to call you Sirius, because you and your father didn't get along.”

 

“That's correct. My parents weren't Death Eaters, but they approved of Voldemort. I very much do not.”

 

She nodded again.

 

“I notice you didn't flinch at Voldemort's name,” Sirius said. “Interesting. Most people do.”

 

“I'm a Muggle-born. I never learned to fear the name.”

 

“Ah. Muggle-born Slytherin, that must be difficult.”

 

“I've had some help pretending to be otherwise. I met Antigone at Diagon Alley over the summer before my first year, and she helped me out.”

 

“Well that was lucky. Anyway, you two go join your friends, I know you'd rather be with them than a couple old mutts like us,” Sirius said.

 

Angela looked uncertainly between Sirius and Danzia for a moment. Danzia took her arm and pulled, so Angela nodded and took off with her friend.

 

“So, Remus,” Sirius said as the girls left the kitchen, “any word on who's replacing you this year as the Defense teacher?”

 

“I hear Dumbledore is trying to get Alastor Moody to do it,” Remus answered.

 

“Really? Mad-Eye? He retired. And an ex-auror for Defense, that'll be an interesting year if he manages it.”

 

“I hope Mad-Eye won't curse any of the students.”

 

“Oh, he won't. Might jinx them, or hex them, but even in his old paranoia he won't curse kids.”

 

“Good, good. And I hear you're taking Harry to a psychiatrist for an official diagnosis?”

 

“This coming Wednesday, yes.”

 

“Have you ever been to any kind of Muggle hospital before?”

 

“Once. I went with James and Lily on one of their pre-natal trips to the hospital. Lily wanted to have Harry in the hospital, but James and I finally convinced her to go to St. Mungo's, the maternity ward.”

 

“How'd you convince her?”

 

“Well of course, St. Mungo's does water births, they're so much easier on the mother and the child. We did a lot of research on Muggle hospitals, how they deal with births. They actually lay the women flat on their backs and have them push with no gravity assist, of all the ridiculous things. And then, I dunno if this applies to the UK or not, but apparently in many Western Muggle hospitals, if a baby is born with unusual bits between their legs, the doctors will operate on their bits without even asking permission from the parents, or even informing them. They do a similar thing if the baby is a boy, something called circumcision, sounds painful. Believe me, you don't want to know what that entails. And again, without the parents' permission or awareness.”

 

“That's terrible!”

 

“Exactly. And I'm glad that was sufficient to get her to change her mind, because I imagine a witch trying to give birth the Muggle way would result in the hospital's electronics burning out, maybe even causing a blackout. We watched some on video, it looked incredibly painful. Not that water births are a walk in the park either, but those are still a lot easier than the way Western Muggles do it.”

 

Remus shook his head disapprovingly. Then he paused. “Wait... we got off on a tangent, what were we discussing?”

 

“Harry's appointment with the psychiatrist.”

 

“Oh yes, that. Anyway, I'm not sure a psychiatrist's office is going to be the same as a hospital. I believe some hospitals have psychiatrists, but others have their own offices.”

 

“You sure you're not thinking about psychologists?”

 

“Possible. But I think they can both have their own offices. Well, I suppose they do have all sorts of specialists with their own offices outside of a hospital, so that would make sense.”

 

“Well I can tell you for a fact that psychiatrists do sometimes have their own offices. The one we're going to does, anyway.”

 

“I see. Well Sirius, do try to behave while you're there, won't you?”

 

“Yes yes, I will. I don't want the Ministry to have to arrive to clean up any messes.”

 

“Good. Now, do you have the necessary paperwork from Gringotts and the Ministry? Muggles are fond of paperwork, you know. And theirs are on actual paper, too.”

 

“Yes, Moony, I got everything I need. I checked with Dumbledore and with Charity Burbage as well just to be sure.”

 

“Ah yes, Professor Burbage. Lovely woman. Well it does sound like you've done the thing properly. All the same, I think I'll double-check your work.”

 

Sirius sighed. “If you want to go to the extra work, then do so. Not like I've ever been able to stop you.”

 

“Yes, well this is rather more important than schoolwork, Padfoot old pal.”

 

“It may come as a shock to you, Moony, but I am a responsible adult now.”

 

Lupin raised an eyebrow like an expert. Sirius barked with laughter in response.

 

“Okay, fine, so I'm not. But I do know how to fake it, and how to ask others – like my solicitor – for help.”

 

“He can be taught! I may die of shock!”

 

Sirius punched him in the arm and the two men laughed over their tea.

 

~

 

Harry received an owl from Draco over the weekend, and they exchanged a few more owl letters nailing down a time for Draco to come visit, and after checking with their guardians, decided on the Tuesday before Harry's appointment.

 

So, on Tuesday morning after breakfast, Sirius was pacing around the kitchen as Remus and Harry sat at the table waiting. When the fire in the hearth turned green, Sirius stopped and straightened, turning to face the fire. His face was thus the first Draco saw as he popped out of the fire and into the kitchen, exiting the Floo as gracefully as though he were stepping down from a horse-drawn carriage.

 

Draco froze on seeing Sirius, then bowed, taking Sirius by surprise.

 

“Thank you, Lord Black, for your hospitality. I am most grateful.”

 

Sirius blinked. “Er... okay. Um... you can just call me Sirius.”

 

Now Draco blinked. “Oh. Thank you, Sirius.” Draco turned. “Ah, Harry. There you are. And... Professor Lupin?”

 

“Just Mister Lupin now, Mr. Malfoy.”

 

“Ah. I see why you wish to be called Sirius, now. Mr. Lupin, you and Sirius can call me Draco.”

 

Lupin smiled. “And you may call me either Lupin or Remus, whichever you prefer, Draco.”

 

“Thank you, sir. I still think of you like a teacher, though, so I suppose I'll call you Lupin, in that case.”

 

Lupin sipped his tea. Beside him, Harry had stood up and went to Draco's side.

 

“How 'bout I show you around the place, Draco?”

 

“Oh, yes. That sounds lovely. Hmm... I remember this place, somewhat. It looks very different now.”

 

“You've been here before?” Sirius asked.

 

“If I was, it was right before great-aunt Walburga died. I don't remember much, just that it's familiar, but different.”

 

“Well yeah, I had to hire professionals to clean this place out, it was a death trap crossed with a pigsty in here. Kreacher had stopped cleaning years ago. I think I know why that was now. He was pining for my brother.”

 

“Kreacher is still here?”

 

“Did Master call Kreacher?” came a croaky voice from the kitchen entrance. Kreacher was there, walking in.

 

“Kreacher thought he heard Master say Kreacher's name. Did Master want something of Kreacher?”

 

“Sorry, Kreacher, we were just talking about you. But since you're here, meet Draco Malfoy, a friend of Harry's.”

 

“Malfoy? Master Malfoy? Begging your pardon, young master, but are you Narcissa's son, by chance?”

 

“Hello, Kreacher,” Draco said. “Yes, my mother is Narcissa Malfoy nee Black. Mother still talks of you fondly, Kreacher.”

 

Kreacher's eyes went wide and watery. Some tears rolled down his cheeks, and he wiped them off. “Mistress Narcissa still speaks fondly of Kreacher? Kreacher is touched. If you would be so kind, master Draco, would you tell mistress Narcissa that Kreacher sends his fond regards to her in turn?”

 

Draco smiled. “I will gladly relay the message, Kreacher.”

 

“Um... 'master'? Does that mean Kreacher takes orders from the Malfoys as well?”

 

“I don't think so, Harry,” Sirius said. “If he did, I think he would have gone to the Malfoys when my mother died. Am I correct about that, Kreacher?”

 

Kreacher nodded. “Yes, Master Sirius. Kreacher was very lonely when Mistress Walburga died. If Kreacher could have gone to mistress Narcissa, Kreacher would have done so.”

 

“Well, maybe we can arrange a reunion sometime,” Sirius said without enthusiasm. “She and I are at least on speaking terms again now, even if it isn't exactly amicable.”

 

“Master would do that for Kreacher?” Kreacher said, his voice breaking with emotion.

 

“I would try, at least,” Sirius said. “And if you're going to cry loudly, Kreacher, please do it elsewhere. That's not an order, just a request.”

 

Kreacher wiped his eyes again. “Kreacher will not weep tears of joy just yet, Master. Kreacher has masters to serve now, because Master has a guest. Would young master Malfoy like anything to eat or drink?”

 

Draco looked to Harry and the two adults as though seeking permission. Sirius gave a 'go ahead' gesture, and Draco asked, “Do you have any biscuits, Kreacher?”

 

“Yes, master Malfoy. Several kinds. There is chocolate chip, peanut butter, snickerdoodles...” he went on, listing more than he could count on two hands.

 

“Merlin's pants!” Sirius said. “We have that many kinds of biscuits in the house?”

 

“Yes, Master. Dobby started making biscuits during his turns in the kitchen, then Kreacher made better biscuits, Dobby tried to outdo Kreacher and so Kreacher made better ones still--”

 

“Are you telling me that you and Dobby have gotten into a biscuit-making contest with each other?” Sirius asked.

 

“Yes, Master, you could call it that. We compete for your favor.”

 

Lupin chuckled. “I'd wondered why there have been so many biscuits around here the last few days. They've been offered at every meal, Sirius, or hadn't you noticed?”

 

“Kreacher, I won't order you to cut down on the biscuit-making, at least until after I've talked with Dobby. But it sounds like you've made more biscuits than we could possibly eat before they go bad.”

 

“Oh no, Master. Kreacher and Dobby both know how to keep food fresh. All of the biscuits are under charms, as fresh and warm as they were when they came out of the oven. Which kind can Kreacher get for you, young master Malfoy?”

 

“Well, with so many options, I'll take one of each of the first five you listed, Kreacher.”

 

“Right away, master Malfoy.” Kreacher bowed, then with a crack, he disapparated.

 

Another voice spoke up then, higher-pitched. “M-master S-sirius? Dobby's ears is burning.”

 

“WHAT?” Sirius shouted, spinning around with his wand already in his hand. “Here, I'll put them out for you!”

 

Dobby jumped back with alarm, his hands up in the air defensively as Sirius brandished his wand at him.

 

“Sirius, I don't think he meant it literally,” Harry said.

 

“What? Oh. Sorry Dobby. I... Dobby? Dobby, it's okay, I wasn't going to hurt you. I thought you were hurt, and I was going to help.”

 

Dobby peeked out from behind his arms. Then he looked thoughtful, probably reviewing the recent conversation. After a few moments, he relaxed, chuckling nervously.

 

“Sorry, Master Sirius. Dobby is only meaning people is talking about---”

 

CRACK!

 

Dobby jumped back in alarm again, but it was just Kreacher with a tray of biscuits.

 

“Would Master Harry or master Lupin like any biscuits too? There is being plenty for everyone.” Kreacher asked.

 

“Sure, I'll have a chocolate-chip one or three. Dobby, Kreacher? Do you want any biscuits?”

 

Both elves looked in astonishment at Harry.

 

“Master Harry is offering biscuits to... Kreacher?” Kreacher said.

 

“And Dobby?” Dobby added.

 

“Well, yes. This is your house, too, both of you. And you said there's plenty for everyone.”

 

The two elves looked at one another, confused.

 

“Dobby... Dobby will have one later, Master Harry.”

 

“Kreacher will as well, Master Harry. It is not proper for elves to eat in front of masters.”

 

“Why not? Why can't you eat at the table with us for meals?”

 

“Harry, it just isn't done,” Draco whispered gently. “I mean, if you want to invite them, go ahead. But don't be surprised if neither of them want to.”

 

Dobby finally seemed to realize that Draco was in the room. He backed up a few paces, his back against the door to the kitchen, wringing his hands and looking nervously from Sirius to Draco to Harry and back again.

 

Draco, too, noticed Dobby, his face falling when he did. He set his biscuits down on the table, and slowly walked a couple paces toward the cowering elf. Dobby started shivering against the door, but didn't move. Then, to everyone's astonishment, Draco got down on one knee and bowed to the elf.

 

“Dobby,” Draco said, “I offer my humble apologies for my own role in your abuse when you lived in our home. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I will understand if you can't. The way you were treated was truly terrible. I'm sorry, Dobby.”

 

The moment seemed to freeze like that, everyone – Harry, Sirius, even Kreacher – completely at a loss for words. Most with surprise bordering on shock, though in Harry's case, he was waiting to see what Dobby would do or say.

 

“Young master Malfoy is...” his throat seemed unable to form the words 'asking forgiveness.' “Is... is... to Dobby ?” Dobby finally said, a distinct note of awe and bewilderment in his voice.

 

Harry didn't know how long it had been, but Draco's head was still nearly touching the floor. Finally, though, he looked up at Dobby, though he was still bowing and kneeling before the elf.

 

“Yes, I am. And you needn't say anything yet, Dobby. I... I guess this must be a lot to process, for you. I'll... is it okay by you if I stand up again? I'll back off when I do.”

 

Still looking stunned, Dobby nodded. Draco stood up in a way that took him no closer to Dobby, and went back to his biscuits once he was up.

 

“Master Sirius?” Dobby asked, finally.

 

“What is it, Dobby?”

 

“May Dobby please be excused?”

 

“Of course, Dobby.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

And, so stunned he apparently forgot about apparating, Dobby walked out the kitchen door with one or two glances back at Draco before leaving.

 

“Well, that was certainly unexpected,” Lupin said, taking a biscuit for himself from the still-confused looking Kreacher. This seemed to wake Kreacher out of his state of confusion. He walked over to Sirius, mutely offering some biscuits – Sirius taking a few – before leaving the room himself.

 

The rest of Draco's visit went a lot more normally, Harry showing Draco around the house, the two boys playing some card games and talking in the sitting room until lunchtime.

 

For dinner, Harry did in fact invite the two elves to join them. Kreacher refused, saying he was still serving people and thus was busy. But Dobby tentatively took Harry up on the offer, looking positively gleeful to be sitting with wizards like an equal at their dinner table, even though Draco was there. In fact, Dobby kept looking at Draco, and didn't seem afraid anymore. He didn't say whether he forgave Draco or not, but his behavior seemed to indicate he was at least being open-minded about Draco.

 

“Oh Remus,” Harry said halfway through dinner. “I just remembered. You helped me with stuff about the Old Ways before. Do you know somewhere good to buy stuff for an altar?”

 

“Ah yes, I remember Sirius mentioning that before. Yes, I do happen to know an excellent place in Diagon Alley. What time is Harry's psychiatrist appointment tomorrow, Sirius?”

 

“It's 8:30 am. Should only take a couple hours at most, from what I understand. But we've got plenty of time. Why do you ask, Moony?”

 

“Because I want to take Harry to the store I mentioned after his appointment, if he's up for it.”

 

Oooh! Can I, Sirius?”

 

“Sounds good to me.”

 

“Excuse me, Mr. Lupin,” Draco said. “Do you, by chance, mean Moonrise Supplies?”

 

“Why yes, Draco, I do. Are you of one of the old faiths, too?”

 

“Yes and no. I believe in magic, and nature. Beyond that, I don't know, and personally find it pointless to speculate. And I don't worship either one. But Father goes to druid circles often, and Mother has an altar to Aradia. So I've been to Moonrise Supplies before. They're quite good.”

 

“Excellent, I have something to look forward to after my appointment.”

 

“Do you think I could join you?” Draco asked, curiosity in his voice. “I've never been inside a Muggle hospital before.”

 

“We won't be in a hospital, but a clinic. They're a lot smaller than a hospital. And since it's dedicated to the psychiatrist, there's not going to be physically sick people there. It's just going to be a lot of waiting and boredom for anyone who goes with Harry.”

 

Draco's face fell somewhat then. “Oh. Never mind, then.”

 

“Curiosity is a good thing, Draco,” Remus said.

 

Draco nodded, going back to his food. “Thank you. But if it's going to be boring, I'll just stay home.”

 

~

 

Harry was nervous the next morning, but not so badly he couldn't still enjoy his breakfast. After breakfast, he and Sirius got into their dragon-hide bike leathers and took the motorbike to the psychiatrist's office.

 

“You know,” Harry said when he got off the motorbike. “I just noticed that this bike looks kind of... old fashioned. Why is that?”

 

“That, Harry, is because it's a classic. It's an American bike, the Indian Sport Scout. It was made back during World War II. They don't even make these anymore, but they're the best motorbike in the world, even now. Their name is a bit unfortunate, but they're excellent motorbikes.”

 

Wow. A motorbike they don't even make anymore? It must have cost a fortune!”

 

“It was a bit pricey, yeah. An uncle gave me some money when my family disowned me, and he gave me enough I had some leftover after rent on a flat to treat myself to this beauty. Naturally, it has a few enchantments on it now, so those would have to be removed first if I ever wanted to sell it to a Muggle. But I have no desire to do that, and no need, now that I have my family's money.”

 

“If you were disowned, how do you have the house and money and a house elf?”

 

“According to my solicitor, it's because after Regulus died, they changed their mind about disowning me. They may not have liked me at all, but I was their only heir at that point.”

 

“What about Narcissa?”

 

“If it was just about the money and property, they would have given it all to her, I'm sure of that. But if they'd done that, then all that stuff would belong to a Malfoy and not a Black. Unless I have children of my own, the Black name will go extinct in the male line. Meaning the surname – at least the one associated with my family – will be gone forever. They wouldn't want that to happen. As much as they hated me, I'm their only hope for their family name continuing, now.”

 

“Ah, okay. That makes sense.”

 

They checked in at the front desk, and then sat down to wait. Harry got out a Muggle novel to read, while Sirius picked up an out-of-date magazine to read, a magazine about motorbikes. He made a lot of scoffing noises as he did, which was a little distracting.

 

After half an hour, Harry was called into the office, and Sirius waited out in the waiting room for him.

 

When Harry came out again, so did the psychiatrist, who went over the results with the two of them. Harry had gone into great detail about the experiences and perceptions of his that were relevant to a diagnosis. Given what Harry had described to her , and the results of some written tests she'd had him do, she'd declared that Asperger's Syndrome best fit Harry's symptoms, and so she agreed officially with his self-diagnosis.

 

With official papers now showing Harry's diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, Harry and Sirius secured everything and rode the motorbike to The Leaky Cauldron. Remus was, of course, waiting for them inside, and the three of them went together into Diagon Alley to go shopping for altar items.

 

 

 

Endnotes: So there we are. Luna is an Aspie, too, not that Xeno will ever acknowledge that particular label. His label is suitably weird, and takes a negative (“changeling baby,” which a lot of historians are certain really was a reference to autistic kids) and turns it around to a positive, in his own weird way. (I have decided I headcanon that explanation into the canon story as well.)

 

Also, given that I wasn't diagnosed until my 20's, my parents are artistic creative types, and Mom is a New Ager, I can relate to Luna's experience, even if it's still very different from my own in other ways.

 

Just as there are many different kinds of neopaganism, the Lovegoods help show there are many different ways to do The Old Ways, by worshiping the Fair Folk instead of gods and goddesses.

 

Writing the Malfoys for this chapter was a lot of fun! And yes, I know in a previous chapter (of the third year's fic) I misidentified Narcissa as being a sibling of Sirius, rather than a cousin. That was a mistake, one I'll fix before I post this chapter.

 

It seems that I never mentioned Danzia's school year, unless I'm just being forgetful again, even though the file with my notes about the OC's in this fic has always said she's a year ahead of Harry. Whereas Antigone and Angela are two years ahead of Harry. So here, in Harry's year 4, Danzia is in her fifth year, Antigone and Angela in their sixth year. Or will be, that is, when school starts again. Sadly, none of them is old enough to try out for the Triwizard Tournament.

 

The things Sirius says in this chapter about intersex babies being operated on (including circumcision for non-intersex infants designated boys) without asking or even informing the parents is true in the US at least. Like Sirius, I don't know if it happens in the UK or not, and it was easier to have Sirius be ignorant than to waste hours going off on another research tangent. (Seriously, I think I may have ADD in addition to autism.)

 

Harry's experience with the psychiatrist might be a little inaccurate, I dunno. I don't remember any psychiatrist trips when I was a minor; I was an adult when I got my own diagnosis. I tried looking up if guardians had to go with minors into the office for the appointment itself, but the Internet wasn't cooperating.

 

But yeah, getting a diagnosis was, for me, pretty much go in, describe my experiences and the reasons I thought it was Asperger's, do some tests, and then I got the diagnosis. I gather it's that way for a lot of people, too. But not everyone, of course. Not everyone knows what they have when they go in, so for them there would be a lot of the psychiatrist going “Well it might be this, or this” and reading the diagnosis criteria off, which could take a dozen or more appointments before they find one that fits, or they might get the wrong one, try a medicine, find it doesn't work right, and keep trying other stuff til they find something that fits.

 

Assuming, of course, that your shrink isn't an arse or arrogant. Some really not-good psychiatrists will be like “Oh you have this. If you disagree, well that's tough turds because I know better than you, nyeh!” Which is silly, because it's not like physical illnesses, where you can look in someone's throat or whatnot and say for sure “Oh looks like you have whooping cough” or “I'm afraid you have a terminal case of brain weasels.” With mental illnesses, pretty much all the shrink has to go on is what the patient tells them, and the results of written tests, or studying someone's behavior. There's a lot of uncertainty in the field, as it's practically a brand new field. Conventional medicine has been around for thousands of years, and look how long it took us to get out of the “four humours” and bloodletting and other nonsense: hundreds, thousands of years. Whereas psychiatry/psychology as a field is what, 100 or so years old? And there are still people who take Freud seriously! Sure, he was the founder of the field, but his theories are the equivalent of the “four humours” thing.

 

Not that modern psychology is much better, of course. Sure, scans of patients who are pretty securely diagnosed as one thing or another can show differences in brain scans from able-minded people, but it's still early days yet. It's going to take a few hundred more years at least before there might be enough certainty in the field for a psychiatrist to be able to scan your brain and say with certainty “You have X, because of these bits here in the scan.”

 

Autistic rant over with now.

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

Notes: Trigger warning: In the scene just after Harry has woken up from his vision of Voldemort killing Frank Bryce, Harry describes to Sirius what Voldemort looked like, using some terminology that is graphic if you know what it means, or if you Google it. I genuinely don't know how to tag this trigger warning without it being triggery on its own. But when you get to that part, if you want to skip the description, do a CTRL+F (or Open Apple + F or whatever) and search for “Voldemort is a legilimens.” That will take you past the bad part.

 

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

 

There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though. And the more this deviates from canon, the less that will happen. But some descriptions and things like that are too good to skip or try to reword.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter Three: Familiar Things

 

The next few weeks flew by in a comfortable pattern of Harry having one or more friends over, or spending the day quietly reading on his own, interspersed with the occasional time spent at his altar. Upon his altar he'd put some pretty stones he'd found in Moonrise Supplies, a couple of incense holders for when he burned cone incense, a small magical painting of a forest scene, and a picture of his parents. He had also added some interesting bits of driftwood he'd found one day when Sirius had taken him to the beach to see the ocean for the first time. Fourteen years he'd been alive, and all that time he'd never seen the ocean.

 

A full week prior to Harry's birthday, Sirius took him on a special trip. The Muggles had built a tunnel under the English Channel, and there was a shuttle that could transport vehicles as well as passengers, so they drove to Cheriton to take the shuttle into France, where they spent several days taking a motorbike tour of France and part of Germany, staying at a series of Muggle inns for those few nights, taking in some of the sights in places like Paris, and buying things like German chocolate and souvenirs. Sirius had also brought a camera, and they got pictures of themselves in different places, which of course would be made into wizard photos later.

 

When they came back from their trip, Harry was glad to be home. He'd had a lot of fun of course, but he liked the familiarity of home again. Also, he was looking forward to his birthday party. They hadn't taken Hedwig with them of course, since she wouldn't have liked the wind from the motorbike, but there had been places to send owls from in some of the cities they went to, and so they'd been able to plan Harry's birthday party from abroad.

 

On the day of his birthday, the kitchen hearth became a thoroughfare as Luna (along with Xeno and Writing Desk), Ron, Ginny, the twins, Percy, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Antigone, Angela, Danzia, and Draco came through. Hermione even came in through the Floo, because Remus had gone to pick her up and side-along apparated her to The Leaky Cauldron to use their Floo. It was such a riot of people that Sirius told Remus to remind him to get the Floo switched over to the hearth in the drawing room later.

 

Lunch that day was amazing. Kreacher had found out how to make pizza from another elf, and had made half a dozen very large pizzas for the party. The slices were so huge they took two hands to eat, but they were the most delicious pizzas Harry had yet eaten. They'd come in a number of varieties, including pepperoni, Canadian bacon with black olives and mushrooms, a veggie lover's pizza, sausage pizza, and even a Hawaiian pizza that was a hit with the Weasley twins and Danzia. Kreacher had also made spaghetti for anyone who didn't want pizza (or wanted it in addition to pizza), and breadsticks with marinara dipping sauce.

 

There were several puddings to choose from as well, including spotted dick and chocolate gatto. And, of course, there was a cake. It was very tall, being three-tiered, and each tier was a different flavor. One was chocolate, another was yellow cake, and the top was strawberry. It was all covered in vanilla icing, that had been made with real vanilla. Even Writing Desk had a slice of cake, preferring strawberry cake. The bird was wearing a party hat that he had apparently made with Luna's help before coming over, much like the origami admiral's hat he'd worn many weeks ago, except this one was glued together due to its conical shape.

 

Next, of course, was presents! Sirius got him a two-way mirror that linked to one of his own. Harry had to mark it with an S to differentiate it from the one that linked to Luna's mirror. Sirius also gave him a bag full of spending money.

 

Like Harry and Sirius, Hermione had also been to the mainland via the Chunnel this summer with her parents, and had spent a few weeks in Italy, so she'd bought him a birthday present there, a little snow-globe of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Being a wizarding snow-globe, it didn't need to be shaken to make the snow; the snow was constantly going down, vanishing when it hit the bottom. Also, there were minuscule little people and motor vehicles moving around in it.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley got him homemade fudge, cakes, and a pie. Ron got him a medallion of wood that he had somehow burned the shape of a triskelion into. Harry was surprised, especially as it was rather well done, if a simple version of the symbol. He turned to Ron.

 

“Wow, thanks Ron! It's lovely! How'd you make it? I thought wood-burning kits were electric.”

 

Ron shrugged, grinning. “I had Percy use his wand to heat up the tip of a metal tool and burned it into the wood that way. Took a few tries to get it right, but I managed it.”

 

“You went to all that work for it? Thank you, Ron! I'll put it on my altar later.”

 

Ron blushed. Harry set the piece aside gently and went on to the next present.

 

From Angela he got several Chocolate Frogs and a box of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans. The twins got him some Zonko's products of the non-noisy variety. Remus got him some more photos of his parents that Remus had dug up somewhere. Danzia got him a wizarding phonograph player, that was built into a portable wooden box. Being magical, it didn't need any speakers.

 

“I didn't know what kind of music you like, so I couldn't get you any records. You'll have to get some later.”

 

“Sounds like something to do tomorrow,” Sirius said, smirking.

 

“Thank you, Danzia! A music player that will work in Hogwarts, that's really cool!”

 

“Yeah, and even better, it came with these,” she said, handing him what looked like wooden earmuffs with cloth padding on the ears.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Magical headphones. To switch from the main 'speakers' to the headphones, tap them with your wand. To switch back to the 'speakers,' tap the phonograph's box.”

 

“This is amazing, Danzia! You must have spent a fortune on it.”

 

“Er, actually I didn't. I have a friend who knows a guy, so I got a discount on it,” she said, glancing at Antigone for some reason.

 

“Huh?” Harry said.

 

“Oh, you'll find out,” Danzia said.

 

“She's talking about my dad,” Antigone said. “My dad is an artificer. Wizarding phonographs are easy, he could whip one up in his sleep, but this one was likely made by one of his underlings. They're probably one of the cheapest magical artifacts there are, not counting small things like Sneak-O-Scopes.”

 

Harry opened Draco's gift next. He carefully removed the wrapping paper, as he always did because he kept it. (Dudley always tore his off and threw it away. Naturally, Harry did things differently.) Opening the box, he pulled out another, smaller box, that was flat and long. Curious, he took the lid off the box and revealed what was either a long knife or a short sword, Harry couldn't really tell, except that the blade was thin enough he was leaning to the side of 'knife.' It was oddly plain, for a gift from the wealthy Draco. It was polished and bright, and looked to be made of silver, but it had no decorations on it, not even simple lines. It had a wooden handle, and even that hadn't been carved.

 

“A knife? Or is it a sword?”

 

“You can think of it whichever way you like,” Draco said. “It's not sharp, don't worry about that. It's not meant to cut anything. It's a magical athame. If you cast your circle with it, calling the elements with it, it will let you draw lines of light in the air, like some of the rituals ask you to do, so you can do it without your wand. Won't set off the Trace, you see. Also, it can find true north. Hold it, say 'Point me,' and it will move your hand toward north.”

 

“Oh my goodness, this is cool! I've been wondering how to do rituals during the summer. I mean, technically I could use my wand here because of Sirius, but I couldn't help worrying that the Trace would figure it out and get me in trouble anyway. Thank you, Draco!”

 

“You're welcome, Harry.”

 

“Er... is this silver?” Harry asked, glancing at Lupin.

 

“Why?” Draco asked, then noticed Lupin. “Oh. Right. Sorry, I didn't think of that. Yes, it's silver. As long as Mr. Lupin doesn't touch it by the metal part, though, he should be fine.”

 

“Oh, no worries there. It's very rude to touch someone else's ritual items without permission. I doubt I'd ever have reason to want to touch it no matter what it was made of.”

 

For some reason, Percy got Harry a pair of books, one about the wizarding culture in France, and another about the wizarding culture in several of the countries in eastern Europe, mostly Slavic nations. The look on his face told Harry there was some special significance to this, but he refused to tell anyone anything about it. Harry looked through them a bit and was surprised to find that there were two other schools of magic in Europe – Beaxbatons Academy and Durmstrang Institute. He'd figured there had to be other schools, but he hadn't known anything about them until now.

 

The next gift to open was from Luna, in a smallish box. He opened it up. There were three things inside it. The first thing he pulled out was a necklace of a five-pointed star, which as Harry knew represented the four elements and spirit. He put it on, thanked Luna, and took out the next thing, which was...

 

“Er... a stone with a hole through the middle of it? And it's on a leather cord?” Harry said, confused.

 

“It's for seeing Faery creatures through. Some creatures from Faery are invisible unless you look at them through a stone with a hole in it.”

 

“Oh, uh... okay,” Harry said, putting that necklace on as well. He now had three necklaces, and it was a bit too much. He'd have to put one or two of them away later, but for now he was fine.

 

“There should be one more thing in there,” Luna said.

 

Harry reached in and pulled out a bracelet. It was like a bangle bracelet, but it was covered in dragon hide.

 

“You told me one night that you loved the sensation of dragon hide under your fingers, so I got you that so you could feel it whenever you want.”

 

“Thanks, Luna!” He put the bracelet on, and immediately started caressing it.

 

“Okay, Harry, one last present,” Antigone said. “I think you'll like it. My dad's company made this, too, but Daddy made this one himself.”

 

The box was big enough to put a loaf of bread in, but not the size or shape of a breadbox. He opened it up and reached inside. What he pulled out baffled him. It looked like a very large bracelet, or like one of Wonder Woman's arm cuffs, but more than twice as long, made of what looked to be bronze rather than gold, and one side of the thing was thick enough to hold a paperback book in it, but was curved like the rest of the thing.

 

“What is it?”

 

“It's a custom-made piece. My dad invented it, he only made seven of them, and there's nothing else in the world like them. Put it on, with the thick side facing up.”

 

“What is it, though?”

 

“It's better if I show you before I explain. Put it on! The thick part goes on top of your arm.”

 

Harry sighed, and put it on as instructed. It slid on so easily he wondered how it would stay on until it suddenly shrunk its circumference to exactly fit his arm, which it didn't do until the thick part was facing up.

 

“Okay. It's a fancy bracelet?”

 

“Oh, it's more than that. Here, come over here where there's plenty of room. Yes, right there. Now before I tell you what to do next, remember you need to expect a sudden loud noise and movement when you open it, and move your hand toward your body first, to get it out of the 'blast radius.' Got that? Good. Now point the top out, and say ' Volvere .'”

 

Confused, Harry did as he was told, holding the top of the bracelet? Gauntlet? Whatever it was called, he held it top out, and said, “ Volvere .”

 

With a very loud SNAP!, something green and flat had snapped open like a cross between an umbrella and a car's airbag. The green thing, whatever it was, was flat and covered Harry's entire body from view of anyone in front of him.

 

“What is it?”

 

Looking and sounding extremely excited, she said, “It's a basilisk-skin shield.”

 

The whole room gasped and then muttered.

 

“Say what?” Harry said.

 

“Dumbledore was selling off parts of the basilisk for more money for the school. Dad heard about it and bought some of the skin. Most of it, really. Dad used the basilisk skin he bought to make this shield. Harry, this shield will deflect most curses. And since it's a solid object and is magically reinforced on top of the basilisk skin's existing magical properties, it could even take a hit from a Killing Curse without taking much damage. I know because he tested it on a small bit of basilisk skin before making any of these. If it only gets hit by one or two Killing Curses, the damage is repairable, but on the third one it would lose its extra protection and start to get scorched. Fourth time, and the Killing Curse would burn a hole right through it, and you'd die.”

 

Harry was speechless. He just stared at the shield, amazed, examining the skin, the metal slats that held it open, and the bronze part of it. Then he noticed there was a realistic-looking snake emblazoned on the bronze part.

 

“It's got a snake on it,” Harry said.

 

“Special design just for yours. It's just in case you want to change the password for opening it to something in Parseltongue.”

 

“Oh, cool. This is... I don't have words that are good enough. Amazing? Awesome? Spectacular? Something like that.”

 

“You're welcome, Harry. Dad likes inventing things, and given your history so far, running into old snake-face twice in two years, he thought you could use something like this. Dad's one of those people who's certain that old what's-his-ugly-face will come back some day.”

 

“Thank you both. Man, I'm going to have to write one heck of a thank-you letter for this!”

 

“Yeah Harry, you could buy a small mansion with that!” Percy said. “Antigone, your father just gave this to Harry? When he could've sold it for a fortune?”

 

Harry's brow creased with thought. “You know, that's a good point,” Harry said. “There's this... then there was that box you gave me last year, the antique that opens with parseltongue. I know you said it was probably a replica, but still...”

 

She stared at them, looking confused. “He just wants Harry to say that Apollyon Dreyfuss made it, if anyone asks. I mean, he likes Harry as a person for being my friend, but still, Harry Potter wearing something my dad made would be great advertisement for daddy's business. Not that he really needs the advertising, but still, why not?”

 

“What do you mean he doesn't need the advertisement? And why give me something he could sell for a fortune? I mean, I know you said he made seven of them, but still...”

 

She looked even more confused now. But then something clicked in her mind and she said, “Ohhhh! Wait, you mean you guys don't know?” she asked.

 

“Know what?” Percy and Harry asked in stereo.

 

“Um... well, not to brag, but we're bloody loaded. Filthy rich. Daddy has made and sold things that make the two gifts he gave Harry look like cheap baubles by comparison. He made his fortune founding Dreyfuss Artificing.”

 

“Your dad is the founder of Dreyfuss Artificing?” Percy asked, bewildered.

 

“What's that?” Ron asked.

 

“They sell magical artifacts all over the world. Her family is probably richer than the Malfoys! Hell, her dad's company probably made that athame Draco gave you, too.”

 

“It did, actually,” Draco agreed, nodding.

 

There was a lot of muttering at this.

 

“Yeah, well I didn't want to make a big deal of it,” Antigone said, blushing. “I wanted people to like me for me, not for Daddy's money. Still, I thought word would've gotten around to you lot over the years.”

 

Angela leaned over and kissed Antigone on the lips briefly. “And I do love you for you, Tig, you know that. We were dating for a year before I found out, remember?”

 

“Yeah, I remember, Angie,” she said, kissing her girlfriend a bit longer this time. “And you didn't treat me any differently after you found out.”

 

“Did you know about this, Danzia?” Harry asked.

 

“If I had, I would've asked for 1000 galleons for my birthday. Just kidding, Tig!”

 

“That nickname is reserved for Angie's use only,” Antigone said haughtily.

 

“Sorry, Antigone.”

 

“You're forgiven, 'Zia.”

 

Danzia stuck her tongue out at Antigone and blew a raspberry at her.

 

“Antigone, I thought your father was a historian?” Harry asked.

 

“Well yes, but it's not his primary thing. He and mum have that in common. She's the real serious historian, though. For Dad, it's mostly a hobby though it's useful for his line of work at times too, but for Mum, it's her life and her living. They met at one of her lectures.”

 

“Cool.”

 

“How did none of us guess Antigone Dreyfuss was related to the founder of Dreyfuss Artificing?” Percy said.

 

“No idea. Does it matter?” Harry asked, getting up to try out some of his new gifts.

 

With presents and drama over with now, the party changed shape. Harry got out his magical phonograph player, and Sirius got out some of his own records to play for the party. Everyone there started dancing, or at least all the kids and some of the adults danced. Since Sirius was playing something by The Kinks, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley opted out, the music too strange for them. But even Writing Desk the raven was getting in on the action, unmistakably dancing to the music by bobbing up and down on his little legs and spreading his wings, sometimes rocking his body back and forth to make his wing tips go up and down.

 

During the party, there was butterbeer and other things to drink like apple cider and pumpkin juice, as well as some light snacks people could eat once the memory of lunch was a bit more distant in their bellies.

 

Ron was looking down, upset about something. Harry went over to talk with him.

 

“What's the matter, Ron?”

 

“What? Oh, nothing, Harry.”

 

“Don't give me that line, I know something's up with you. Out with it.”

 

Ron sighed. “Well, only because you're gonna keep pestering me about it until I do. I'm annoyed that so many people were giving you gifts so much better than I could.”

 

Harry paused a moment, cleaning his glasses while he thought.

 

“Ron, money's easy to spend when you have it. Remember there was a time I didn't have much money either; I had to earn money myself by mowing lawns and stuff. I know what it's like to be poor. You put a lot of thought and effort into this,” Harry said, taking the wooden medallion out of his pocket. “Even more thought than Remus put into his gift, and probably a lot more effort than his, too. All he had to do was send some owls or visit people. Not that I don't appreciate his gift, I do. But you put what, hours? Yes, you put hours of work into this gift, possibly days, you talked with Percy to get him to help you, and it can't have been easy burning a shape like this into wood when you had to have Percy keep heating up the tool with his wand. I'm going to cherish this, Ron. It's going to go on my altar. The home one for now, and then the school one later.”

 

“You really are? You'll really cherish it? I mean, it's just a bit of wood.”

 

“A very beautiful piece of wood that you made even more beautiful with your hard work and skill, Ron. Of course I'll cherish it.”

 

Ron was blushing and looking down at his feet. “Well, thanks, Harry.”

 

“In fact, let's go up to my room right now, I'll put it there right now.”

 

Harry and Ron went upstairs then, and Ron watched Harry put the piece prominently on the altar.

 

But that hadn't been the only thing bothering Ron. Harry asked him what else was wrong. Ron was hesitant at first for this one, too, but finally it came out. As Ron pointed out, Writing Desk had been acting so much like a person during the party – eating cake, dancing to the music, even cawing to the tune of the birthday song they sang for Harry before the cake was served – that since they were up there already, Ron got out Harry's Sneak-O-Scope and they went downstairs and checked the bird with it. The Sneak-O-Scope spun and whistled, but Xeno told them that didn't mean anything; he'd tried a Sneak-O-Scope around regular corvids and it often went off around some of them, too. Ravens and crows were just natural trouble-makers, and magical ravens could be a lot worse. Hermione confirmed this a little by saying she'd seen a scene in a nature documentary once showing a raven hopping onto the back of an eagle, grabbing some feathers in its beak, and riding the eagle like it was a hippogriff, much to the eagle's chagrin. Ron still made a point to tell Harry he was going to run the bird past Crookshanks later just to be sure. Harry didn't blame him at all for this paranoia, after Scabbers.

 

To try to put Ron's mind at ease, though, he got out his necklace that Luna had given him last summer and pressed the button that made the sound that only Harry and animals could hear, making sure to be out of sight of Writing Desk so he couldn't fake it, but with Ron watching the bird. Harry pressed the button, and Writing Desk at the party along with Hedwig upstairs both went nuts, the raven going nuts first because he was closer to the noise. Hedwig was shrieking very loudly, and Writing Desk was cawing and flapping around the room angrily trying to locate the sound. Harry turned it off, but the bird was still hunting for the source of the noise. When he finally located it, he glared angrily at Harry and very pointedly pooped right on Sirius's carpet before flying off again. Harry told Sirius about this, and once Sirius stopped laughing, he cleaned it up with his wand.

 

“I'm still not convinced, Harry. I mean, you can hear it too, even if it doesn't bother you like it does them. What if Luna's bird is an animagus with Asperger's? He might be able to hear it well enough to fake it. I'll wait til Crookshanks can check him before I warm up to him.”

 

Harry shrugged. “Okay. That makes sense.”

 

~

 

The day after Harry's birthday, Remus and Sirius took him out into London to find the Muggle shops that still sold phonograph records so Harry could get some of his own music, after first exchanging some of Harry's spending gold for Muggle money. Since the albums he got failed to deplete the large bag of spending money Sirius had given him, they went to Diagon Alley. First they stopped at Flourish and Blotts to browse the books. Remus and Sirius having an in with Dumbledore, they got most of Harry's books for school year while they were at it (Sirius bought those himself.) Since there wasn't a new DADA teacher yet, and they'd heard that Binns was being fired but they didn't yet know if there would be any new books for History of Magic, they couldn't get all of them.

 

Harry also missed Cleo, the snake he'd rescued from Snape's wand in second year. He'd had to get rid of her because she was venomous. Even though he had an owl already, he decided to get a snake, too. They went to the Magical Menagerie, and he browsed the selection of snakes. On his way there, though, he noticed something colorful in a cage and made a detour to check it out.

 

“'Occamy,'” Harry read from the plague. “'it can shrink or grow to fill the available space. Price on request, special handling licenses needed. Very aggressive species, do not attempt to put your fingers in its cage.'”

 

“I guess you're not getting an occamy, then. Given they're endangered, I'm surprised there's one for sale here at all,” Sirius said.

 

“Oh, I don't want to buy it. I just saw an actual, honest-to-goodness feathered serpent and had to test a theory, which I will now do.”

 

As the two men stared at each other in confusion, Harry cleared his throat, then spoke in Parseltongue to the occamy.

 

'Can you understand me?' Harry asked the occamy. The snake-like bird cocked its head at him quizzically and chirped several times. Harry didn't understand the chirps.

 

“I guess that's a 'no,'” Harry said. “Too bad. It would've been interesting to hear what an occamy was thinking.”

 

His curiosity satisfied, he examined the various magical snakes available, which weren't many. Harry suspected the owners had the same silly superstition against snakes a lot of people did, which especially annoyed him since he knew the pagans of old used to worship snakes. Just because some of the venomous ones could be used in dark magic didn't mean they were evil themselves. After all, bicorns and boomslangs could be used to make Polyjuice Potion, and they weren't considered evil.

 

Though he'd read about magical species of snakes like runespoors and horned serpents, these snakes were magical versions of normally non-magical species of snakes like boas and pythons. Harry wondered if they were naturally born magical like wizards and witches were, or if there was something else that made them magical, but had no way to answer these questions.

 

Harry looked at a lot of different snakes, of the ones they had available. A few boas, some corn snakes, a couple pythons. And then Harry spotted a beautiful Rosy Boa that was black with yellow stripes, and about a foot long.

 

'Hello there, you're very pretty.' Harry said to it in Parseltongue.

 

The snake looked up at him. 'If you wish to mate, you're not my type. I'm a male.'

 

Harry chuckled. 'Well I'm a boy too, and anyway, I'm not even a snake, or hadn't you noticed?'

 

Harry could have sworn he heard the snake chuckle, too. 'Oh I know. You're one of the humans who can understand and speak our language. Well, I use “speak” rather loosely here, as snakes are deaf.'

 

'So all this hissing and spitting we humans hear when I speak snake-language isn't what you hear?'

 

'No, it's not. I don't hear anything. I just feel the meaning slither into my mind.'

 

'Fascinating. I guess that makes sense, since it works on all sorts of species of snakes. So would you be interested in being my pet?'

 

'I think you mean you would be my pet, human. After all, all I have to do among humans is sit around looking pretty, and I get warmth, food, and shelter. But yes, if you're willing to be my pet, I would like that.'

 

Harry laughed again. 'I like you, you have a good sense of humor. I'm glad you want me to be your pet, I think we'll get along great.'

 

'Good. Tell the human currently caring for me of our decision so I can get out of this awful place. I may not be able to hear anything, but the noise is often strong enough to feel, and the smell leaves much to be desired.'

 

'Alright then, I'll do that.'

 

The clerk, who had been conspicuously ignoring Harry while he talked with the rosy boa, was still absent. Harry had to enlist Sirius and Remus to help get her attention, and she came over only reluctantly. Once she came over, she quickly handled the necessary steps as quickly as possible. They bought the snake, a 20-gallon magically-reinforced glass terrarium for it, some interesting gnarled branches for it to crawl on, some moist moss in a smaller tub, a magical heating box for the enclosure, some aspen bedding, and a container full of magically-preserved dead mice.

 

“How often do I need to feed him?” Harry asked the clerk.

 

Not looking at Harry as she spoke, she said, “He's pretty young, that one, only a year old as of yesterday. So feed him every week until he's three. Once he turns three, you can feed him once every two weeks, but they're still going to prefer weekly feedings even at that age. There's some books about caring for snakes over there,” she said, pointing at a display rack of books. Harry picked one up and added it to the pile. “You'll need it.”

 

They picked up a copy of the book and added it to the pile. When all was paid for, Sirius called Dobby and Kreacher to move the terrarium and supplies back to Harry's bedroom, while Harry kept the snake curled up around his arm, inside his sleeve.

 

'What's your name?'

 

'Snakes don't have names, usually, but I'm smarter than the average snake, being magical. You may call me Mouse-Stalker.'

 

Harry laughed again.

 

“That must be a very funny snake,” Remus said. “You keep laughing at things it says.”

 

“He is, yes. He just told me to call him Mouse-Stalker.”

 

Remus smiled. “Sensible name for a snake.”

 

“Does he do any tricks?” Sirius asked.

 

“You mean like magic stuff? Well he said he's magical, so I suppose so. Let me check.”

 

'Hey Mouse-Stalker, you said you're magical. Do you do any tricks? Do you have any powers?'

 

'Yes, I do. I can predict rain, snow, frost, storms, earthquakes, and other weather or natural disasters about an hour before they happen, longer for some things. That's not my only power, though. I can also sense attacks and other dangers, sometimes. It's not foolproof, as it isn't every time, but it's an edge when I can do it.'

 

'How do you communicate the threat of danger to those who don't understand your language?'

 

'I have my ways. You humans have Parselmouths, we magical snakes have Apemouths, which is what we call the ability to communicate with humans. And I am an Apemouth. Observe.'

 

Mouse-Stalker turned his head to face Sirius, who wasn't watching where he was going. Instead of running into someone, like he almost did, Sirius instead danced gracefully around the person, looking almost like a ballerina.

 

“Holy... why did I just do that?”

 

Mouse-Stalker turned to face Remus, who slapped himself on the face.

 

“Harry, did Mouse-Stalker just make me do that?” Remus asked.

 

“I think so.” 'Did you do that?'

 

'Yes, human, I did. It took a lot out of me, though, since they are not my humans. If you were a normal human, it would be the same with you until we grew closer. But of course, I can 'speak' my own language instead around you, which is much easier.'

 

“He did, but it's not easy for him. He was just demonstrating one of his powers. Did either of you hear anything when he did it?”

 

“Just the sound of my hand smacking my face,” Remus said. “Sirius?”

 

“Not a thing.”

 

'So, Mouse-Stalker, I assume this Apemouth doesn't register in people's minds consciously?'

 

'Not usually, but it can. Some species' versions of the ability are quite different. I've heard stories that the horned serpents of the New World can make themselves understood by humans, in a way that the humans realize is a form of communication, and not just with Parselmouths like you. And if you were a normal magical human, you would eventually be able to hear my meaning in your mind.'

 

'Amazing.'

 

Turning to Sirius, Harry relayed the snake's words back to them.

 

“Apemouth, eh? I find the name somewhat offensive,” Sirius said.

 

“Well, humans are apes, so the term makes sense.”

 

“Pardon me? I am not an ape. I'm a dog.”

 

Harry sighed. “Remind me to get you some books about the theory of evolution.”

 

“It was just a joke, pup. I know about evolution. Lily told me about it once.”

 

'Come to think of it,' Mouse-Stalker said, 'I think if I practice my Apemouth skill enough, I can be understood by even ordinary humans on a conscious level. But that make take months to master.'

 

'Well it sounds like something to try, anyway. It could come in handy if you do. Like, if I got in danger I could release you and you could fetch help.'

 

'I could do that anyway even without the practice, but it would be less work if I could make them understand consciously.'

 

'Good. It's a plan, then.'

 

~

 

Harry, Sirius, and Mouse-Stalker got into a comfortable routine over the next few weeks. Sirius occasionally had to leave Harry with Lupin, while Sirius went to see his solicitor or others. Some of the highlights, from what Harry heard, was the Ministry settling out of court for damages from Sirius being imprisoned for 12 years without a trial or even a proper questioning; they apparently settled for 374,400 galleons plus Sirius's old job back as an Auror, for which he would have to retrain. That would start in September, while Harry was at Hogwarts.

 

Also, after a month of fighting with Mr. Rowle over it, Sirius got his family's seat on the Wizengamot back. He named his solicitor, Ms. Pennyroyal, as a proxy in case he was ever unable to attend the Wizengamot meetings.

 

According to Sirius, the first couple Wizengamot meetings he went to were dreadfully dull, but he'd always had the kind of mind that could tune out the dull while pretending to be daydreaming and still get the important information, something that had given his teachers a lot of grief in his school days.

 

“I won't bore you with the details,” Sirius said, “but that anti-werewolf legislation that Umbitch woman proposed is not progressing in either direction very fast, and apparently that's pretty normal. Ms. Pennyroyal said it could be almost a year before they're ready for a final vote on it, and in the meantime there's a lot of little votes to fix wordings and stuff, make amendments or retractions, that sort of dull rubbish. Then there's a lot of bloody politics involved as well. She's hired on someone to help me with that aspect of things.”

 

One new thing was Harry taking the Floo a couple times a week to go to Dumbledore's office to learn occlumency. He wasn't very good at it, as it was kind of the opposite of something he did a lot to cope; usually, he had to tune out the outside world and get lost in his own mind to block out the excess input, but in the case of this skill, he had to try to close his mind of emotion. Strangely, Harry found this easier the more overwhelmed he already was, and his ability to occlude his mind was rather hit or miss as a result. Not that he was doing very well anyway; in a month, he kept Dumbledore out of his mind a few times, but never for very long. Worse, it didn't feel like Dumbledore was trying very hard yet.

 

So it was probably no surprise when he had some kind of vision in his sleep, of a cowering Wormtail helping Voldemort get healthy in a new body. Harry somehow managed to get a glimpse of Voldemort just as he murdered an old man who was the caretaker of the house Voldemort was staying in. The image was grotesque, and horribly familiar.

 

Sirius came running when Harry screamed in his sleep, and woke Harry up by poking his shoulder. Harry immediately hugged Sirius like a drowning man might clutch a life raft.

 

“You're awake now, Harry, it's all over. It was just a nightmare.”

 

Harry wiped his eyes and sniffed, only then realizing he'd been crying as well.

 

“Thanks, Sirius. But I'm not going to be able to sleep now.”

 

“That bad, is it?”

 

“I don't think it was a normal dream. I don't know how, possibly the same way I sense him when he's near, but I think I had a vision of Voldemort.”

 

Harry explained what he could of the nightmare, which was fading fast. He could only tell Sirius that Wormtail was nursing Voldemort back to health in a horrible small body, and that they were planning something to do with Harry, which wasn't terribly surprising. Harry looked about ready to cry all over again when he came to the point of trying to describe what Voldemort had looked like.

 

“I don't know how I saw it, but I saw Voldemort, his temporary new body. It... gods, I'll never forget what it looked like. Mainly because I've seen something like it before.”

 

“You have? Where?”

 

Harry paused, weighing his words before speaking.

 

“Have you ever heard of something called 'harlequin-type ichthyosis'?”

 

“Can't say that I have, pup.”

 

“Years ago, I was reading through some medical texts in the library once, in Little Whinging, and stumbled onto a picture of it. It's a birth defect. The babies with it are born with a horrible deformation where their skin grows into these thick diamond-shaped plates. It affects their whole appearance, and no written or spoken description does it justice. The condition is horribly painful, makes it hard to breathe, and most born with it die within a month. Apparently the symptoms can be... eased somewhat. But given what they look like, and the agony they must be going through, I'd say death is probably the most merciful thing for them. The day I saw that image was the day I stopped believing in the Christian God.”

 

“That... wow. Just... wow. That must've been a hell of an image, Harry.”

 

“Yes. If you don't want nightmares for a year or more, I suggest you never, ever look up pictures of anyone with the condition.”

 

“And in this vision, Voldemort looked like one of these babies?”

 

“Not an exact match, but close enough that I'll be having nightmares of it again, I'm sure. Only thing I don't understand is how I could see it at all. I was seeing Voldemort from the old man's perspective, there at the end.”

 

“Well, Voldemort is a legilimens, remember. Maybe you were viewing the old man's thoughts as Voldemort was using legilimency on him?”

 

Harry nodded. “Sounds about right. But then of course, how did I see into Voldemort's mind at all? I think there's something Dumbledore isn't telling us. He told me Voldemort transferred some of his powers to me the night he tried to kill me the first time, and that explains the parseltongue and being able to sense him, but it doesn't explain this vision thing. There's some missing piece of the puzzle, Sirius.”

 

“Hmm... you may be onto something there, Harry. Of course, I doubt Dumbledore will tell me unless I know occlumency as well. I suppose I should learn, too. I'll talk with Dumbledore about it. In the meantime, pup, if you can't sleep anymore tonight, then feel free to do whatever, as long as you don't make too much noise or break any laws or rules. Also, don't leave the house.”

 

“I won't, Sirius.”

 

“One quick thing before you go, Harry.”

 

“Sure. What is it?”

 

“About how far away would you say Voldemort is.”

 

“I don't know. Far. In Britain somewhere, but not very close to London. Wherever they were, Voldemort seemed familiar with it, like he'd been there before.”

 

“Well Dumbledore has been digging into Voldemort's past for years, maybe he'll find it.”

 

“I guess we'll find out later, eh?”

 

“Yeah, I reckon he's sleeping at the moment, we wouldn't want to wake him.”

 

Harry nodded. “Well, Sirius, you can go back to bed. I'm going to stay up and read or something, since I don't think I'll be able to get back to sleep.”

 

Sirius nodded and left the room to go back to bed. Harry got up to grab a book. As he did, he couldn't help but feel a bit more scared now that Sirius wasn't in the room anymore. It wasn't likely Voldemort was in London, and the wards on the house would hold him back long enough for them to escape if he was. But even the thought that Voldemort was a weak, ugly, baby-looking abomination didn't ease his frayed nerves much.

 

'I smell fear, Master. Are you in danger?'

 

Harry jumped with fright, turning his wand on the source of the voice. He put it down as soon as he saw it was his pet snake, Mouse-Stalker.

 

'No. At least, I don't think I am. I just had a scary dream.'

 

'Would you like me to keep you company? If danger comes, I will most likely be able to sense it. Depending on the nature of the danger, of course.'

 

'Sure, that would help.'

 

He picked up the snake, draping it over his shoulders. The black and yellow snake tickled his cheek with its tongue, making Harry laugh as he retrieved his book and sat down in an armchair to read, idly stroking Mouse-Stalker's scaly head and neck, enjoying the sensation of the scales under his fingers. Mouse-Stalker had been right, he felt much better now with the comforting weight of the snake around him, such as it was for a snake that was only currently a foot long. And if the information in the book he was reading was accurate, Mouse-Stalker would only ever get two, maybe three or three-and-a-half feet long, depending on which specific kind of Rosy Boa he turned out to be.

 

When Sirius walked by Harry's room a couple hours later to check on him after having gotten up to go to the loo, he saw Harry asleep in the armchair, his book in his lap but having closed itself when he let go, and Mouse-Stalker still in place around his shoulders. Sirius thought it was looking at him at first, until he remembered that snakes don't have eyelids. He carefully closed the door and went back to bed.

 

~

 

The next day, Harry woke up still in the armchair, Mouse-Stalker stirring in response.

 

'I hungerrrr for fleeeesssshhh...' Mouse-Stalker said in a half-joking tone. 'Mouse-Stalker demands his weekly tribute! Appease him, mortal, or suffer his wrath! FEEED MEEEE!' The snake wiggled its head around in the air in a funny way at this last bit.

 

Harry – who had been suppressing giggles from the moment the snake started to talk – burst out laughing at that last bit of silliness.

 

'Fine, fine,' Harry said in response. 'Patience, youngling, while I fetch the tribute.'

 

Harry lay Mouse-Stalker down in his terrarium and went over to the container of magically-preserved mice.

 

'Would you like a pinkie or an adult?'

 

'Oooh, choices, choices. Hmm... give me a pinkie. I'm only feeling slightly peckish today.'

 

Harry got out one of the dead baby mice with the metal tongs and set it down in front of Mouse-Stalker.

 

'At some point, Master, I think it would be fun to hunt and eat a live one every so often, for the thrill of the hunt and to hone my skills in case we ever need to rough it in the wilderness. Do you think you could arrange that sometime?'

 

'I'll look into it. In the meantime, eat your dinner.'

 

Mouse-Stalker flicked his tongue out at the dead mouse.

 

'It's too cold. Make it warmer.'

 

Deciding to trust that the Trace wouldn't be able to tell if the spell came from him or Sirius or Lupin, Harry got out his wand and cast a warming charm on the dead mouse. Mouse-Stalker flicked his tongue again.

 

'Acceptable. Thank you.'

 

'You're welcome.'

 

Harry stayed put to watch the snake eat its meal. It was fascinating, how Mouse-Stalker bit the mouse to hold it and constricted it even though it was already dead. Also fascinating was how his jaws unhinged, and he swallowed the baby mouse whole.

 

The snake done, Harry went about his morning routine, and went down to his own breakfast.

 

“Hey pup. I noticed your snake helped you get to sleep last night.”

 

“Yeah. It was comforting having him around my neck. And I like the feel of his scales under my fingers.”

 

“Ah yes, that makes sense. Similar to dragon hide in that way, I suppose. Oh hey there, Moony!”

 

“Hello Sirius, Harry. What's for breakfast?”

 

It being Saturday, Dobby had made breakfast. There was eggs, bacon, sausage, toast with jam, and fluffy, fresh-baked croissants. Harry ate with gusto.

 

“You did remember to wash your hands after handling that snake all night, right? Reptiles do have some diseases humans can get.”

 

“Yes, Sirius. I took a shower this morning. Dried my hair with magic.”

 

Sirius chuckled. “Yeah, might as well take advantage of that convenient loophole in the rules, Harry, that's what it's there for.”

 

The three of them chatted about this and that while they ate, Sirius finally finishing but choosing to stay at the table to read the paper. Harry was on his third helping of bacon when Hedwig flew into the room, dropping a letter in Harry's leftover egg yolks. He gave her a strip of bacon and read the letter.

 

“Glad we got that owl-window installed. I remember when I lived here before, we had to go to a special room in the back of the house to send and receive owls.”

 

“Oh hey, it's from Ron. He says his dad can get tickets to the Quidditch World Cup. Wants to know if any of us want to join him.”

 

“The Quidditch World Cup? Wow, how's Arthur paying for that? Those tickets cost a fortune!”

 

“Says here he's getting them free from Ludo Bagman.”

 

“Ah, that would explain it. Anyway, doesn't Ron know you don't like Quidditch?”

 

Harry sat there, thinking and chewing his bacon, for several moments. He knew it was something that didn't happen often in Britain, and Ron liked Quidditch. He liked hearing Ron talk about it, even if he couldn't watch his fellow students playing it. But this was different. He thought some more before finally speaking.

 

“I want to go,” he finally said.

 

“What? But I thought... I heard you had a panic attack the one time you watched a Quidditch game,” Sirius said.

 

“Yeah, because friends of mine and other fellow students were playing a dangerous sport. I think I could watch professionals play, though. They know what they're doing, and they're adults. Plus, I don't know any of them.”

 

Sirius and Lupin both gaped at him.

 

“Harry,” Lupin said, “what about all the noise? Both visual and auditory. I thought you had issues with those?”

 

“Oh I do. But I've got those sound-blocking earmuffs. And between the two of you, you could probably modify them to be able to let the commentary through while still blocking out everything else. Also, if the visual noise gets to be too much, I've got those special sunglasses.”

 

The two men looked at each other, then back at Harry. Harry shrugged.

 

“What? It's a difference between being prepared or not. If I'm prepared for it mentally, I can deal with it.”

 

“What if you're wrong?”

 

“Then I put the sunglasses on, take a headache cure, and close my eyes. Anyway, Luna and her dad have already been there a week.”

 

“Ahhh,” both men said in stereo.

 

“It all makes sense now, Remus; Luna is there,” Sirius said, grinning wryly.

 

Harry's face felt hot for some reason. “Hey, Luna's like me, even if her dad thinks she's one of the Fair Folk. If she can do it... well, I want to at least try . At least two of my friends will be there.”

 

“From what I know of the World Cup, Harry, the stands are quite high. Higher than the ones at Hogwarts. And if Ludo Bagman is providing the tickets, it'll be up in the nosebleeds. Probably the Top Box, since that's where the commentator sits, which will be Ludo's job.”

 

“It will also be very crowded, Harry. Lots of people crushing their bodies up against one another.”

 

“Earmuffs, sunglasses, headache cure, calming draft, something to stim with,” he lifted up his arm, showing off the dragon-skin bracelet he was wearing. “I'd be prepared. It may still be a challenge, but I think I'm up to it.”

 

The two men still looked uncertain.

 

“Am I Griffindor or am I Griffindor?” Harry added.

 

Sirius barked with laughter. “He's got us there, Moony. The Hat did sort him into Griffindor. What do you say, Moony old pal? Since you're the voice of reason.”

 

Remus sighed. “I suppose if you're willing to try, then we'll go.”

 

“Yes!”

 

“But if it gets to be too much for you,” Sirius said, “don't hesitate to let us know. I don't know if they'll allow apparition there or not, so getting out of there fast might be difficult.”

 

“Does the letter say who all is invited?” Lupin asked cautiously.

 

“It's addressed to all three of us, and asks if any of us want to go. We could always fire-call for clarification, though.”

 

“I guess so. If you want to go do that, go ahead. You know where the Floo is.”

 

Harry got up and ran to the drawing room, where the Floo had been relocated to. Before long, his head was in the Floo for the Burrow, and he was talking to Ron. Ron still hadn't remembered Harry's usual problems in his excitement, but Ginny happened by mid-conversation and expressed the same concerns Sirius and Remus had done, which got Ron siding with her now that he remembered. But he told them he was going, had convinced Sirius and Remus, and he explained his preparations to them as well, which finally convinced them. And so they had finalized plans for Harry, Sirius, and Remus to join them at the Quidditch World Cup.

 

 

 

 

Endnotes: Cutting this chapter a little short because the next part is the World Cup, which will be longish because while I won't be including everything, there are enough differences that it'll be enough for its own chapter.

 

Yes, ravens and other corvids do sometimes ride eagles and other large birds like they're hippogriffs. It's hilarious to watch. Corvids are my favorite birds. Of course, real-world crows ravens are intelligent enough that frankly, I think they should be given personhood recognition. Speaking of which, just to clarify something, Writing Desk is not an animagus, he's just a smarter than usual raven because magic. But someone sent me a comment wondering if he was an animagus, and it made sense that Ron would be suspicious, which is why I included those parts. Ron will become convinced in time.

 

I hadn't been planning on giving Mouse-Stalker any powers, but then I realized he was being bought at the Magical Menagerie, and instead of having them go somewhere else instead, I looked up snake symbolism and use in magic, and came up with some powers for him. Like he says, it's not foolproof.

 

Also, my apologies if anyone looked up [that thing that's triggery] on Google as a result of this chapter, or had PTSD flashbacks of such images, but I did put in a trigger warning at least. Anyway yeah, when I first read about Voldemort's ugly homunculus/baby body being so hideous it made a seasoned war veteran scream in horror and drop his cane, that's the image that came to mind.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though. And the more this deviates from canon, the less that will happen. But some descriptions and things like that are too good to skip or try to reword.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter Four: Bagman, Crouch, and Winky

 

The three of them took the Floo over to the Burrow the next day so they could all set out together on the following morning. Since they would have to dress as Muggles to go, Harry had on jeans, a polo shirt, and his trainers. Sirius was wearing a Led Zepplin shirt and the pants from his bike leathers, with some pretty rad looking boots. Remus was dressed in a red sweater with a white, collared shirt underneath and a red-and-gold tie on. His pants were blue and he wore Keds brand trainers. He looked like Mr. Rogers, if Mr. Rogers had cool scars on his face.

 

“Sirius Black! Remus Lupin!” said the familiar voice of Fred, who was coming into the room just as the last of them got through the Floo.

 

“Or should we say Padfoot and Moony?” George said.

 

“Hello boys,” Sirius said, grinning.

 

Fred hugged his twin in a melodramatic way, appearing to be so overcome with joy that he had tears in his eyes. “Oh George, this is the happiest day of my life! One of my absolute heroes actually spoke to me!”

 

George hugged his twin in the same manner, also putting on a show of crying. “I know, Fred! I know exactly how you feel! If I start sobbing like a small child, please make sure you get a copy of their autographs for me! Do that, Fred, will you? Please?”

 

“Of course, George! And will you do the same for me?”

 

“In a heartbeat, Fred!”

 

“You're the best, Gred!”

 

“No, Forge, you're the best!”

 

And the two boys burst into tears of joy, sobbing into one another's shoulders, occasionally laughing as they did, to the bemusement of some and the amusement of others. Harry, for his part, was trying to stifle his laughter; he didn't want to miss a word of their performance.

 

“Okay you two, that's enough of that goofing around,” Mrs. Weasley said, coming into the room. “Sirius, Remus, welcome to our humble home.”

 

But the twins weren't listening; they were both kneeling on the ground, crying and laughing at high volume.

 

“FRED! GEORGE! I SAID QUIT GOOFING AROUND!”

 

They stopped crying at once, grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats.

 

“Sorry Mum, just got a bit carried away,” said Fred.

 

“We're in the presence of gods, after all.”

 

“Mischievous gods, to join the ranks of Loki,”

 

“Eris,”

 

“Coyote,”

 

“And Crow.”

 

“All hail Moony and Padfoot, Gods of Pranking! HAIL! HAIL!”

 

ENOUGH! ” Mrs. Weasley barked.

 

The twins stood up at once and looked at their feet, abashed.

 

“Sorry Mum,” they mumbled in stereo.

 

Ron and Ginny were laughing fit to burst at their antics. Harry lost control of himself and started to guffaw as well, and Sirius was actually turning blue, he was laughing so hard. Remus, who was simply grinning, helped Sirius up into a nearby armchair.

 

“What is going on in here?” asked the familiar, slightly bossy voice of Hermione. She had just entered the room.

 

“Nothing, dear, just the twins making fools of themselves again,” said Mrs. Weasley.

 

“Ah. A normal day at the Weasley house, then.”

 

When everyone had themselves back under control, Mrs. Weasley went into the kitchen, and Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny followed. Mrs. Weasley picked up her wand and started pointing it at things in preparation for cooking.

 

“We’re eating out in the garden,” she said when they came in. “There’s just not room for thirteen people in here. Could you take the plates outside, girls? Bill and Charlie are setting up the tables. Knives and forks, please, you two,” she said to Ron and Harry.

 

“Can I help, too, Molly?” asked Sirius.

 

Mrs. Weasley looked uncertain. Harry thought he knew why; Sirius was still a prankster, even though his pranks had been fairly mild since his release from Azkaban.

 

“I suppose so,” she said. “You and Remus can take the cups, and maybe the jugs of pumpkin juice as well, if you can.”

 

They were all getting their respective items while Mrs. Weasley cooked, having to stand in line for them in the small kitchen, when in the middle of pulling out extra saucepans, her wand emitted a loud squeak and turned into a giant rubber mouse.

 

“OH NOT AGAIN! One of their fake wands again!” she shouted. “How many times have I told them not to leave them lying around?”

 

She grabbed her real wand and turned around to find that the sauce on the stove was smoking.

 

“C’mon,” Ron said hurriedly to Harry, seizing a handful of cutlery from the open drawer, “let’s go and help Bill and Charlie.”

 

They left Mrs. Weasley and headed out the back door into the yard. Dodging Hermione's cat Crookshanks, Harry asked, “Fake wands?”

 

“The twins,” Ron said. “They're trying to start a business, joke shop sort of thing. Calling it 'Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.' Mum found this stack of order forms when she was cleaning Fred and George’s room,” said Ron quietly. “Great long price lists for stuff they’ve invented. Joke stuff, you know. Fake wands and trick sweets, loads of stuff. It was brilliant, I never knew they’d been inventing all that.”

 

“You talking about Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes?” Ginny asked, and they approached her and Hermione.

 

“Yeah,” said Ron.

 

“We’ve been hearing explosions out of their room for ages, but we never thought they were actually making things,” said Ginny. “We thought they just liked the noise.”

 

They had to pause their conversation then because Bill and Charlie were using their wands to float the tables in a game of mid-air dueling tables, creating loud bangs as the tables knocked into one another, each attempting to knock the other’s out of the air. Fred and George were cheering, Ginny was laughing, and Hermione was hovering near the hedge, apparently torn between amusement and anxiety.

 

Bill’s table caught Charlie’s with a huge bang and knocked one of its legs off. There was a clatter from overhead, and they all looked up to see Percy’s head poking out of a window on the second floor.

 

“Will you keep it down?!” he bellowed.

 

“Sorry, Perce,” said Bill, grinning. “How’re the cauldron bottoms coming on?”

 

“Very badly,” said Percy peevishly, and he slammed the window shut. Chuckling, Bill and Charlie directed the tables safely onto the grass, end to end, and then, with a flick of his wand, Bill reattached the table leg and conjured tablecloths from nowhere.

 

“Cauldron bottoms?” asked Harry.

 

“Yeah,” Ron said, groaning. “Percy's got a new job at the Ministry. Department of International Magical Cooperation. He'll talk your ears off about cauldron bottoms from foreign imports if you let him. Though with you, I suspect you'd enjoy listening to his prattle.”

 

“It does sound interesting,” Harry admitted. “At least, I'm curious why he's talking about them.”

 

“You can ask him later. Anyway, about the twins and their business; most of the stuff they were trying to sell — well, all of it, really — was a bit dangerous,” said Ron, “and, you know, they were planning to sell it at Hogwarts to make some money, and Mum went mad at them. Told them they weren’t allowed to make any more of it, and burned all the order forms. She’s furious at them anyway. They didn’t get as many O.W.L.s as she expected.”

 

Harry sighed. “Honestly, I know she wants them to have 'respectable' jobs, but destroying their property isn't right. And anyway, it's just going to make them even more determined to keep doing it.”

 

“What? Why d'ya think that?”

 

“Psychology. The science of how people think. People – at least the people in Western culture – tend to respond to forbidden things by pursuing them with even more passion. Make those same things permitted, though, and most people will lose interest, or at least they won't be nearly so tempted to try it.”

 

Ron's expression went pensive for a few moments, then he nodded. “Yeah, I can see that being true.”

 

“Anyway, so you said they didn't get enough O.W.L.s?”

 

“Oh yeah. Their Ordinary Wizarding Levels. I don't think they really tried, on most of them. The twins aren't stupid, especially not if they're inventing all sorts of cool things. But their plans don't require good grades. They did just well enough to keep from having to redo their O.W.L.s. It makes sense, I guess; they still want to learn more so they can invent more stuff, but they don't really care about N.E.W.T.s. All they need for their joke shop is money, which is really the only reason they're going back to Hogwarts at all.”

 

“Well I think they'll be brilliant at it,” said Harry. “Mind you, I've only seen their fake wands, but that was impressive enough.”

 

By seven o’clock, the two tables were groaning under dishes and dishes of Mrs. Weasley’s excellent cooking, and the nine Weasleys, Harry, Hermione, Sirius, and Lupin were settling themselves down to eat beneath a clear, deep-blue sky. Despite having two different house elves competing over who could make the best food for their employers back at home – and Harry took a moment to appreciate that he'd just thought of the house Sirius and he shared as home – this was paradise, and at first, Harry listened rather than talked as he helped himself to chicken and ham pie, boiled potatoes, and salad.

 

Harry had sat next to Percy, as he often did, and now that he had someone willing to listen to him, Percy was telling Harry all about his report on cauldron bottoms. Ron sat on Harry's other side, and Hermione and Ginny were down that way as well.

 

“I’ve told Ms. Selby – new head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation – that I’ll have it ready by Tuesday,” Percy was saying pompously. “That’s a bit sooner than she expected it, but I like to keep on top of things. I think she’ll be grateful I’ve done it in good time, I mean, it’s extremely busy in our department just now, what with all the arrangements for the World Cup. We’re just not getting the support we need from the Department of Magical Games and Sports. Ludo Bagman —”

 

“I like Ludo,” said Mr. Weasley mildly; he'd been sitting on Percy's other side. “He was the one who got us such good tickets for the Cup. I did him a bit of a favor: His brother, Otto, got into a spot of trouble — a lawnmower with unnatural powers — I smoothed the whole thing over.”

 

“Oh Bagman’s likable enough, of course,” said Percy dismissively, “but how he ever got to be Head of Department … when I compare him to Ms. Selby! I can’t see Ms. Selby losing a member of our department and not trying to find out what’s happened to them. You realize Bertha Jorkins has been missing for over a month now? Went on holiday to Albania and never came back?”

 

Harry's eyes widened, and he forced himself to swallow. “Someone who works at the Ministry has been missing for a whole month and her boss isn't looking for her? Why not?”

 

“Well,” Mr. Weasley said, “she is a bit of a hopeless case, keeps getting shuffled around from department to department, has for years. And she is known to get lost frequently.”

 

“Yes,” agreed Percy. “A bit more trouble than she's worth, but still, someone ought to be looking for her.”

 

“I'll say,” Harry said. “In the Muggle world, if someone goes missing for longer than a day or two, the police and rescue crews put out a manhunt looking for them. I don't know if they do it every time or not, but usually I think that's what they do.”

 

“Yes, I agree someone should be looking for her,” Mr. Weasley said. “Still, it's been very busy lately, what with the arrangements for the Quidditch World Cup. The Ministry doesn't really have the manpower to spare for a search and rescue, especially in another country. We're all running around like a bunch of headless cockatrices as it is. I was extremely lucky to get myself and Percy time off to watch the match.”

 

“Maybe Mr. Crouch can spare somebody in his sub-department, Father. Some of the other interpreters, you know. I mean, he's been taking a personal interest in her disappearance. She worked in our department at one time, you know, and I think Mr. Crouch was quite fond of her — but Bagman just keeps laughing and saying she probably misread the map and ended up in Australia instead of Albania. However” — Percy heaved an impressive sigh and took a deep swig of elderflower wine — “but you're right that we’ve got quite enough on our plates at the Department of International Magical Cooperation without trying to find members of other departments too. As you know, we’ve got another big event to organize right after the World Cup.”

 

Percy cleared his throat significantly and looked toward where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were sitting. “You know the one I’m talking about, Father.” He raised his voice slightly. “The top-secret one.”

 

Ron rolled his eyes and muttered to Harry and Hermione, “He’s been trying to get us to ask what that event is ever since he started work. Probably an exhibition of thick-bottomed cauldrons.”

 

In the middle of the table, Mrs. Weasley was arguing with Bill about his earring, which seemed to be a recent acquisition.

 

“… with a horrible great fang on it. Really, Bill, what do they say at the bank?”

 

“Mum, no one at the bank gives a damn how I dress as long as I bring home plenty of treasure,” said Bill patiently.

 

“I think it's cool,” Sirius said. “Where can I get one, Bill? It'd go great with my outfit.”

 

Mrs. Weasley looked at the two of them as though this proved her point exactly.

 

“And your hair’s getting silly, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley, fingering her wand lovingly. “I wish you’d let me give it a trim.”

 

“He's young and rebellious, Molly, but he's of age. Leave him be,” Sirius said.

 

She glared daggers at him. “You mind your own business, or I'll make your two Black eyes into two black eyes,” she threatened, pointing her wand in his direction.

 

“I'm shutting up now, Molly,” Sirius said, putting his hands up in a placating gesture.

 

Next to Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, and Charlie were all talking spiritedly about the World Cup.

 

“It’s got to be Ireland,” said Charlie thickly, through a mouthful of potato. “They flattened Peru in the semifinals.”

 

“Bulgaria has got Viktor Krum, though,” said Fred.

 

“Krum’s one decent player, Ireland has got seven,” said Charlie shortly. “I wish England had got through. That was embarrassing, that was.”

 

“Ye gods yes,” Sirius nearly shouted. “I listened to that game on the wireless, I nearly cried when it was over.”

 

“What happened?” asked Harry with mild curiosity.

 

“Went down to Transylvania, three hundred and ninety to ten,” said Charlie gloomily. “Shocking performance. And Wales lost to Uganda, and Scotland was slaughtered by Luxembourg.”

 

“Hey Harry,” Ron said. “Have any of your other friends mentioned coming to the World Cup?”

 

“I sent some owls off after our fire-call yesterday, and got them back by evening. Danzia's going, no surprise there. Angela's family are in Japan visiting relatives. Antigone is going, though. And so is Draco and his family.”

 

“Doubt we'll run into the Lovegoods, if they've already been there a week,” Mr. Weasley said. “Those are the cheapest tickets possible, I think, and we'll be in the top box. Draco being from a rich family, we'll probably see them there. Not sure about Antigone or Danzia, though.”

 

“Antigone's dad is an artificer, he makes cool wizarding devices. Given that he recently bought enough basilisk skin from Dumbledore to use as a down payment on a large mansion and then gave me one of the finished products as a gift, I imagine he'll either be in the top box or very near it.”

 

The people who hadn't been at Harry's birthday party – Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Bill, and Charlie – gaped at him.

 

“Harry, Mr. Dreyfuss bought basilisk skin to make something for you? Why?” asked Mr. Weasley.

 

“In Antigone's words, her family is 'bloody loaded. Filthy rich.'”

 

Harry pulled something out of his pocket. It was the shield, shrunk.

 

“Can you do the honors, Sirius?”

 

“Sure thing, pup,” Sirius said, tapping the thing with his wand to make it return to its normal size.

 

Harry put it on his arm, top out away from his body, and stood a ways back from the table while everyone watched.

 

Volvere!

 

With a loud SNAP, the basilisk-skin shield snapped open.

 

“WICKED!” the twins shouted in unison, even though they'd already seen it.

 

Harry closed it up again. “I thought I should bring it with me just in case. It's a magically-reinforced basilisk snake-skin shield.”

 

“Harry, that thing must be worth... well... more than Sirius's house!”

 

“Arthur,” Sirius said. “Apollyon Dreyfuss is the founder of Dreyfuss Artificing, so like Harry said, they're filthy rich. Probably richer than the Malfoys.”

 

“Also, Harry's a world famous celebrity, so him wearing that is great advertisement, not that they need it,” Ron said, remembering what they'd said on Harry's birthday.

 

“And he made seven of them in all, so doubtless he made a killing from the other six,” Sirius added. “Or will, in time.”

 

“Look at the time,” Mrs. Weasley said suddenly, checking her wristwatch. “You really should be in bed, the whole lot of you — you’ll be up at the crack of dawn to get to the Cup. Harry, if you leave your school list out, I’ll get your things for you tomorrow in Diagon Alley. I’m getting everyone else’s. There might not be time after the World Cup, the match went on for five days last time.”

 

“That shouldn't be a problem, Mrs. Weasley. We got most of my stuff already. All we weren't sure about was the History of Magic book.”

 

Mrs. Weasley used her wand to summon Ron's booklist and read it to herself.

 

“Well, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said, “there's a new Defense book of course, always is every year, but it sounds like you have that. There's a new history book, too. It's called, 'An International Perspective on Magical History' by Jala Dreyfuss.”

 

Silence.

 

Then, after several heartbeats, “Dreyfuss?” Ron asked. “I wonder if that's any relation to Antigone?”

 

“She did say her mum is a pretty serious historian.”

 

“Oh hold on, there's a parenthesis here. Says the author of the book has pre-paid for 500 copies of the book at Flourish and Blotts, and students' families can pick up the copies they need for free. Well that's very generous of them.”

 

Harry's brow furrowed in thought. “The author donated 500 copies of the new book we need? Isn't that a bit convenient?”

 

“What are you thinking, Harry?” Ron asked.

 

“I'm not sure.”

 

“It must be someone very well off,” Hermione said.

 

The three of them looked at each other. “Antigone's mum?” they all said at once.

 

“What's that, dears?”

 

“Mrs. Weasley, we think the new History teacher might be Antigone's mum,” Harry said.

 

“Why do you think that?”

 

“She's a serious historian, she wrote that book, and her family is wealthy enough where paying for 500 books would barely register to them.”

 

“You know,” Sirius said thoughtfully, “I wouldn't be at all surprised if you're right, now that you mention it. I guess you'll find out for sure at the welcoming feast.”

 

“Or owl Antigone.”

 

“True. But in a week, you'll be on the school train. So you might as well ask then.”

 

“Well fascinating as this is, you all really do need to go to bed now,” Mrs. Weasley said, and hurried them inside.

 

~

 

Harry felt as though he had barely lain down to sleep in Ron’s room when he was being shaken awake by Mrs. Weasley.

 

“Time to go, Harry, dear,” she whispered, moving away to wake Ron.

 

Harry felt around for his glasses, put them on, and sat up. It was still dark outside. Ron muttered indistinctly as his mother roused him. At the foot of Harry’s mattress he saw two large, disheveled shapes emerging from tangles of blankets. It was the twins.

 

Groggily, they all got up. Sirius looked like he was sleepwalking, even though he'd managed to get dressed. He looked basically the same as yesterday, except he was wearing a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt. As it turned out, Sirius, Mr. Weasley, and Mrs. Weasley were the only adults who were up. The rest were going to apparate to the game later and got to have a lie-in.

 

“Why can't we apparate?” Ron asked peevishly. “I mean, Dad could take me, Sirius could take Harry, Percy could take Hermione, Charlie could take the twins, and Bill could take Ginny. Then we wouldn't have to be up so bloody early!”

 

“Percy isn't licensed for side-along apparition, Ron,” Mrs. Weasley said. “And mind your tongue, young man!”

 

“So Remus could take Hermione, then. Or Dad could. Cummon, let us sleep some more!”

 

“He's got a point there, Molly. I'm barely functional. I won't be much good like this.”

 

“For Heaven's sake, you'll have tents. Catch up on your sleep when you get there, if it's so important. It's a lot safer to take a portkey than to have everyone going side-along. You can't get splinched by a portkey.”

 

“That's not a bad point. Okay, fine. We will. Since we're already up.”

 

After a breakfast of porridge, Harry got Mouse-Stalker to curl up around his arm under his sleeve, and they walked together to the portkey site, which was at the top of a huge hill so hard to climb that everyone had to rest a few minutes before they could look for the portkey. Someone else had already found it, though.

 

“Over here, Arthur! Over here, son, we’ve got it!”

 

Two tall figures were silhouetted against the starry sky on the other side of the hilltop.

 

“Amos!” said Mr. Weasley, smiling as he strode over to the man who had shouted. The rest of them followed.

 

Mr. Weasley was shaking hands with a ruddy-faced wizard with a scrubby brown beard, who was holding a moldy-looking old boot in his other hand.

 

“This is Amos Diggory, everyone,” said Mr. Weasley. “He works for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. And I think you know his son, Cedric?”

 

Cedric Diggory was an extremely handsome boy of around seventeen. He was Captain and Seeker of the Hufflepuff House Quidditch team at Hogwarts.

 

“Hi,” said Cedric, looking around at them all.

 

Mr. Diggory looked at Sirius oddly.

 

“What?” Sirius asked.

 

“I don't think you should be advertising your religion like that where we're going, son,” he said, pointing at Sirius's shirt. “Most of these Muggles are Christians, you know, and just as rabid against anything they perceive as paganism as they are against magic.”

 

“It's a Muggle shirt, actually, and has nothing to do with religion. I'm an agnostic, myself. The shirt is a picture of one of the albums of a Muggle music group called Blue Oyster Cult. Occultism is becoming a fad in Muggle music, and has since the 70's at least.”

 

“What? Really? Hmm... well now you mention it, there was that one fellow, Crowley I think his name was? Wanted to reintroduce the Old Ways to the Muggles.”

 

“He had some success at that. One of his Muggle friends, Gerald Gardner, had more success though,” Mr. Weasley said.

 

“Quite, quite,” Amos said. “Sirius Black, correct?” he said, having turned back to Sirius.

 

“That's me.”

 

“Shame what happened to you, I can't quite believe it. Twelve years in prison with no trial! Dreadful, simply dreadful. It's a miracle you survived.”

 

“Yes, it is.”

 

Apparently at a loss for anything else to say to Sirius, due to the awkwardness of the situation, Amos Diggory peered good-naturedly around at the three Weasley boys, Harry, Hermione, and Ginny. “All these yours, Arthur?”

 

“Oh no, only the redheads,” said Mr. Weasley, pointing out his children. “This is Hermione, friend of Ron’s — and Harry, another friend —”

 

“Merlin’s beard,” said Amos Diggory, his eyes widening. “Harry? Harry Potter?”

 

“Er — yeah,” said Harry.

 

Harry was used to people looking curiously at him when they met him, used to the way their eyes moved at once to the lightning scar on his forehead, but it always made him feel uncomfortable.

 

“Harry here is the reason I'm free. He helped me catch Pettigrew, and had the foresight to take photos of the man before he escaped again.”

 

“And you're his godfather now, right?”

 

“Yes. We're living in my parents' old house. Of course, I had to have it professionally cleaned out. The place was a death trap even before it turned into a pigsty on top of that, my parents had so much dark stuff there. It's all gone, now, all destroyed or sold off if it was harmless enough. Like the silver goblets, I think Gringotts bought those.”

 

“Is it true you're being retrained as an auror?”

 

“Yes. I start training on the second of September. Kingsley Shacklebolt is going to be training me.”

 

“Excellent choice, he's a very capable wizard. Quite handsome, too. I may not be queer, but I can recognize a handsome man when I see one!”

 

“Must be nearly time,” said Mr. Weasley quickly, pulling out his watch again. “Do you know whether we’re waiting for any more, Amos?”

 

“No, the Lovegoods have been there for a week already and the Fawcetts couldn’t get tickets,” said Mr. Diggory. “There aren’t any more of us in this area, are there?”

 

“Not that I know of,” said Mr. Weasley. “Yes, it’s a minute off. … We’d better get ready.”

 

He looked around at Harry and Hermione.

 

“You just need to touch the Portkey, that’s all, a finger will do —” This must have been more for Hermione's sake, because Harry already knew that, having traveled by portkey before.

 

With difficulty, owing to their bulky backpacks, the ten of them crowded around the old boot held out by Amos Diggory. They all touched a finger to it, Mr. Weasley counted down, and off they went flying through the air after feeling like they'd been hooked behind their navels.

 

His feet slammed into the ground; Ron staggered into him and he fell over; the Portkey hit the ground near his head with a heavy thud.

 

Harry looked up. Mr. Weasley, Mr. Diggory, Sirius, and Cedric were still standing, though looking very windswept; everybody else was on the ground.

 

“Seven past five from Stoatshead Hill,” said a voice.

 

~

 

Once they got disentangled and Arthur had a quick conversation with the men tending the portkey station – one of whom was wearing a kilt and a poncho to Harry's confusion, they walked over to the campsite manager, one Mr. Roberts. Though they were registered under Mr. Weasley's name, Sirius – who was intimately familiar with Muggle stuff, having spent his after-Hogwarts years in mostly Muggle areas – paid the rent for the night.

 

Mr. Roberts rummaged around in a tin for some change.

 

“Never been this crowded,” he said suddenly, looking out over the misty field again. “Hundreds of pre-bookings. People usually just turn up. Strangest thing, too; some of 'em tried paying with great big gold coins big as hubcaps!”

 

“Is that right?” said Sirius, his hand held out for his change, but Mr. Roberts didn’t give it to him.

 

“Aye,” he said thoughtfully. “People from all over. Loads of foreigners. And not just foreigners. Weirdos, you know? There’s a bloke walking ’round in a kilt and a poncho.”

 

“Shouldn’t he?” said Mr. Weasley anxiously.

 

“It’s like some sort of … I dunno … like some sort of rally,” said Mr. Roberts. “They all seem to know each other. Like a big party.”

 

“Have you ever heard of a Renaissance fair?” Sirius asked.

 

“You mean where people dress up like knights and court ladies and jesters and whatnot?”

 

“Yes. This is a bit like that. Or like a fantasy convention. People dress in costumes, they talk geeky things with one another, and there's entertainment. The theme of this festival is that we're all pretending to be aliens who are trying to fit in with humans, and not all of us are very good at it. But the really funny costumes will come out when it's time for the big concert later.”

 

“I see,” Mr. Roberts said. “Well that makes sense, then. So these people having trouble with money are...”

 

“They're in character, of course. Their characters did just enough research to know gold was something highly valued, assumed it was human currency, then get flustered when they find they were wrong, you see?”

 

“I do see, now.” He chuckled. “Well isn't that just the funniest thing. Ah, yes, well I wish you all good luck with your entertainment, everyone. Na-nu na-nu and all that!”

 

He gave Sirius his change back and the map of the campsite, and they all went walking toward the campsite.

 

Once they were out of earshot, Mr. Weasley said, “That was a very clever story, Sirius. I think that man just avoided being obliviated thanks to you.”

 

Just ahead of them, there was a POP and a wizard in plus-fours stood there. “Quite right, Arthur,” he said. “Roberts has been giving us a lot of trouble. Needs a Memory Charm ten times a day to keep him happy. And Ludo Bagman’s not helping. Trotting around talking about Bludgers and Quaffles at the top of his voice, not a worry about anti-Muggle security. Though maybe now he'll be happier and it'll make our jobs easier. Thank you for that by the way, Mr. Black.”

 

“Call me Sirius.”

 

“Of course, Sirius. Anyway, I’ll be glad when this is over. See you later, Arthur.”

 

He Disapparated.

 

“I thought Mr. Bagman was Head of Magical Games and Sports,” said Ginny, looking surprised. “He should know better than to talk about Bludgers near Muggles, shouldn’t he?”

 

“He should,” said Mr. Weasley, smiling, and leading them through the gates into the campsite, “but Ludo’s always been a bit … well … lax about security. You couldn’t wish for a more enthusiastic head of the sports department though. He played Quidditch for England himself, you know. And he was the best Beater the Wimbourne Wasps ever had.”

 

They trudged up the misty field between long rows of tents. Most looked almost ordinary; their owners had clearly tried to make them as Muggle-like as possible, but had slipped up by adding chimneys, or bellpulls, or weather vanes. However, here and there was a tent so obviously magical that Harry could hardly be surprised that Mr. Roberts was getting suspicious. Halfway up the field stood an extravagant confection of striped silk like a miniature palace, with several live peacocks tethered at the entrance. A little farther on they passed a tent that had three floors and several turrets; and a short way beyond that was a tent that had a front garden attached, complete with birdbath, sundial, and fountain.

 

“Always the same,” said Mr. Weasley, smiling. “We can’t resist showing off when we get together. Ah, here we are, look, this is us.”

 

They had reached the very edge of the wood at the top of the field, and here was an empty space, with a small sign hammered into the ground that read WEEZLY.

 

“Couldn’t have a better spot!” said Mr. Weasley happily. “The field is just on the other side of the wood there, we’re as close as we could be.” He hoisted his backpack from his shoulders. “Right,” he said excitedly, “no magic allowed, strictly speaking, not when we’re out in these numbers on Muggle land. We’ll be putting these tents up by hand! Shouldn’t be too difficult. Muggles do it all the time. Here, Harry, where do you reckon we should start?”

 

“No idea. The Dursleys never went camping. Aunt Petunia hates nature because it's so dirty. I suppose I should count my blessings for that, though; if they did go camping, they would've taken me and left me to starve to death atop some mountain somewhere.”

 

“Here, Arthur. James and I went camping once. I think I remember how it works.”

 

In a matter of minutes, Sirius had the small tents up.

 

“Um... I don't think we're all going to fit in there.”

 

“Magic, Harry, remember?” Sirius told him.

 

“Oh.”

 

They went inside, and sure enough the place was bigger on the inside. He had walked into what looked like an old-fashioned, three-room flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Oddly enough, it was furnished in exactly the same sort of style as Mrs. Figg’s house: There were crocheted covers on the mismatched chairs and a strong smell of cats.

 

“Well, it’s not for long,” said Mr. Weasley, mopping his bald patch with a handkerchief and peering in at the four bunk beds that stood in the bedroom. “I borrowed this from Perkins at the office. Doesn’t camp much anymore, poor fellow, he’s got lumbago.”

 

He picked up the dusty kettle and peered inside it. “We’ll need water. …”

 

“There’s a tap marked on this map the Muggle gave us,” said Ron, who had followed Harry inside the tent and seemed completely unimpressed by its extraordinary inner proportions. “It’s on the other side of the field.”

 

“Well, why don’t you, Harry, and Hermione go and get us some water then” — Mr. Weasley handed over the kettle and a couple of saucepans — “and the rest of us will get some wood for a fire?”

 

“But we’ve got an oven,” said Ron. “Why can’t we just —”

 

“Ron, anti-Muggle security!” said Mr. Weasley, his face shining with anticipation. “When real Muggles camp, they cook on fires outdoors. I’ve seen them at it!”

 

“About that, Arthur, once you've got the wood, I have the tinder,” Sirius said, pulling from his pockets a strange assortment of things: a clump of steel wool, a rod of some sort of metal that looked like it had pieces cut from it, a piece of rock, a different metal rod, and a knife. He considered them all, put the first metal rod and the knife away.

 

“What's all that, then?” Mr. Weasley asked.

 

“Steel wool, something Muggles make. Usually used to scrub hard-to-clean messes, it makes great tinder. The shaved metal rod was magnesium, but that stuff burns pretty hot and is hard to put out, so I decided against it. Too dry. If it was wet, we could use it; magnesium burns even wet wood. And this is a flint stone and a steel rod to strike against it. Makes sparks.”

 

Everyone wanting to see this, they all helped Mr. Weasley gather some wood. Soon they had a nice bundle, and Sirius arranged it, wedging the steel wool in there. Then he used the flint and steel rod to make lots of sparks that landed on the steel wool. It took him a few tries, but then the steel wool caught fire. Sirius was right, it made great tinder, because it burned hot enough and long enough that it caught the wood nicely on fire as well.

 

Mr. Weasley was gaping at this display. “Muggles know how to burn metal?”

 

“Yeah. Something about how steel wool is designed means it burns well as a side effect. And magnesium is a kind of metal that naturally burns pretty nicely with not a lot of encouragement. The trick is getting it out of the ground and purifying it first.”

 

“It's the surface area,” Harry said. “Of the steel wool, I mean. A chunk of steel like that rod won't easily burn, but as you saw, it does make sparks. The steel wool has lots of surface area, and is full of air, so it burns well because of those things.”

 

“Muggle science is so cool,” Ron said.

 

Fred turned to George and said, “Are you thinking what I'm thinking, George?”

 

“If you're thinking we need to get books about Muggle science, then I think so, Fred.”

 

“Well it's basic chemistry. The science of chemical reactions. Um... a bit like Potions, but cooler. And some chemical reactions involve powders and other dry stuff. Like burning steel wool.”

 

“Wicked! Definitely something for our list!”

 

When Mr. Weasley started making sausages over the fire, Sirius joined the kids to fetch some water from the tap. Fred and George moved next to Harry.

 

“Hey Harry,” Fred whispered to him. “Want to help us prank Sirius and test a Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes product at the same time?”

 

“What kind of a prank?”

 

“A harmless one. Here, just give him this toffee. Don't eat it yourself, obviously.”

 

“What does it do?”

 

“You'll see. It's harmless, but funny.”

 

“Why are you doing this?”

 

“A chance to prank a prankster? Especially the legendary Padfoot? Are you kidding me?”

 

“I see. Okay. Give me two, then, so I can pretend I'm gonna eat the other one.”

 

He took the toffees and decided to wait, as giving Sirius something so soon after talking with the twins might be suspicious.

 

They saw a great many things on their way to the tap. Little boy wizards and little girl witches, American wizards and witches, African wizards cooking over a purple fire, and much more. They briefly met Seamus Finnigan in what appeared to be the Irish quarter, where all the tents looked like green hills covered in shamrocks.

 

“All those shamrocks, Seamus,” Sirius said after they assured him they were supporting Ireland. “You should demand your money back, get some real rocks!” Then he barked with laughter at his own joke.

 

“Har har, never heard that one before in me life,” Seamus said sarcastically. “Anyway, you should see what the Bulgarians have on their tents.”

 

They said their farewells to the Irish, and moved on. They did indeed see the Bulgarian tents, which were covered in wizard posters of Viktor Krum, though you couldn’t really tell they were wizarding photos because he wasn't moving much. Just some blinking and scowling.

 

“He looks really grumpy,” said Hermione, looking around at the many Krums blinking and scowling at them.

 

“ ‘Really grumpy’?” Ron raised his eyes to the heavens. “Who cares what he looks like? He’s unbelievable. He’s really young too. Only just eighteen or something. He’s a genius, you wait until tonight, you’ll see.”

 

They finally got to the queue for the tap. While they waited, two men were arguing nearby. One of them was a very old wizard who was wearing a long flowery nightgown. The other was clearly a Ministry wizard; he was holding out a pair of pinstriped trousers and almost crying with exasperation.

 

“Just put them on, Archie, there’s a good chap. You can’t walk around like that, the Muggle at the gate’s already getting suspicious —”

 

“I bought this in a Muggle shop,” said the old wizard stubbornly. “Muggles wear them.”

 

“Muggle women wear them, Archie, not the men, they wear these,” said the Ministry wizard, and he brandished the pinstriped trousers.

 

“I’m not putting them on,” said old Archie in indignation. “I like a healthy breeze ’round my privates, thanks.”

 

“He can wear what he likes,” Sirius said. “I gave the Mr. Roberts a good excuse about what we're doing here, that we're pretending to be aliens trying and failing to blend in among humans. He'll just think Archie is wearing a costume.”

 

“Plus, I've seen Muggles wearing more outlandish stuff than that as everyday wear,” Harry added.

 

The Ministry wizard gave up, Archie looking quite smug.

 

“Thank you, sonny. What's your name?”

 

Sirius held out a hand. “I'm Sirius Black.”

 

Archie looked panic-stricken for a moment. Before he could start shouting, though, Sirius added, “You know, the innocent man who was recently released from Azkaban?”

 

Archie calmed down at once. “Oh yes, I remember that now. Sorry, old habits you know.”

 

“I understand,” Sirius said.

 

Soon, they had their turn at the tap. Walking more slowly now because of the weight of the water, they made their way back through the campsite. Here and there, they saw more familiar faces: other Hogwarts students with their families. Oliver Wood, the old captain of Griffindor House Quidditch team (according to the twins, who were on the team). Wood had just left Hogwarts, dragged Harry over to his parents’ tent to introduce him, and told him excitedly that he had just been signed to the Puddlemere United reserve team. Next they were hailed by Ernie Macmillan, a Hufflepuff fourth year.

 

Harry caught a brief bit of French as they passed some teenagers. “I wonder if they go to Beauxbatons,” Harry said.

 

“To what now?” Ron asked.

 

“Beauxbatons Academy, one of the other major European schools of magic,” Harry said. “I read about it in a book Percy got me.”

 

“Oh yeah, I 'spect they are,” Ron said in a bored sort of voice. “You know, Bill once had a penfriend at a school in Brazil – this was years and years ago – and he wanted to go on an exchange trip but Mum and Dad couldn’t afford it. His penfriend got all offended when he said he wasn’t going and sent him a cursed hat. It made his ears shrivel up.”

 

Within a few more minutes, they got back to the campsite, where Mr. Weasley was cooking some sausages and eggs. They dropped off the water and went into their respective tents to get some more sleep until the match.

 

~

 

A few hours later, Mr. Weasley woke them all up. Bill, Charlie, Remus, and Percy had all arrived and Mr. Weasley was making more sausages, and a pot of coffee was bubbling away on the fire. Though they'd only gotten a few more hours sleep, it was enough added to their previous sleep. Everyone sat around the fire awaiting breakfast, talking as Mr. Weasley served everyone, starting with the girls. When it was Harry's turn, he gave Mouse-Stalker a bit of sausage, once it had cooled down to body temperature. The snake said he liked it, but preferred mice.

 

Mr. Weasley was in the middle of a conversation with Ludo Bagman when Luna showed up, looking like she'd wandered over after being lost. Harry almost didn't recognize her, because she was dressed as a leprechaun, complete with red beard and sideburns. Her green suit and green top hat were rather ridiculous, it made Harry smile.

 

“Over here, Luna,” he said, patting the ground next to him.

 

“Thank you, Harry.”

 

“Let me guess,” Sirius said, looking thoughtful. “You're supporting... Bulgaria?”

 

“No, silly; I'm supporting Ireland.”

 

“Yes! Quite! I thought that outfit looked familiar for some reason,” Sirius said, winking at her.

 

Mr. Weasley handed Luna some eggs and sausage, which she took with a grateful bow, pulling her beard off to eat without dirtying it.

 

Ludo Bagman and Mr. Weasley then continued their conversation.

 

“Anyway, Arthur, if you see Mr. Crouch, let me know will you? I know he's around here somewhere, and I need an interpreter, my Bulgarian opposite number’s making difficulties, and I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Barty’ll be able to sort it out. He speaks about a hundred and fifty languages.”

 

“I still can't believe he didn't he get fired for his role in my wrongful incarceration,” Sirius said, annoyed.

 

“Yes, it was a very near thing,” Mr. Weasley said. “But they decided if things were hectic enough even Dumbledore overlooked it, that they just demoted him. He's no longer the head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation, he's been demoted to an interpreter. I guess his language skills were too important.”

 

Sirius frowned. “Yes, I'm not terribly happy with Dumbledore about that, either.”

 

“Barty's an interpreter now you say? Ah, well, he should still be around then in any case,” Ludo said. “Any idea who's the new head? I haven't been to the office for a few days until just before coming here, and that was just to pick something up quick.”

 

“They've promoted Caroline Selby to Head of that department,” Mr. Weasley said.

 

“Ah yes, Caroline, I like her. First time we met, she had me sign her, ah... well, she's a fan, let's leave it at that.”

 

“Yes, she is rather intense at times, but she's good at her job.”

 

“That she is, that she is.” Bagman turned to Percy. “Ah yes, Percy Weasley, I believe you work in the DIMC as well, do you not?”

 

Percy, beaming, nodded. “Yes sir, I do. Just started this summer, after school ended.”

 

“Good lad, good lad,” Bagman said.

 

Bagman turned to Mr. Weasley again. “Fancy a flutter on the match, Arthur?” he said eagerly, jingling what seemed to be a large amount of gold in the pockets of his yellow-and-black robes. “I’ve already got Roddy Pontner betting me Bulgaria will score first — I offered him nice odds, considering Ireland’s front three are the strongest I’ve seen in years — and little Agatha Timms has put up half shares in her eel farm on a week-long match.”

 

“Oh … go on then,” said Mr. Weasley. “Let’s see … a Galleon on Ireland to win?”

 

“A Galleon?” Ludo Bagman looked slightly disappointed, but recovered himself. “Very well, very well … any other takers?”

 

Sirius shook his head. “I know your reputation, Ludo; I don't trust you'll pay anyone back.”

 

Fred and George had been counting money, doubtless to make a bet, and looked disappointed at this news, putting their money away.

 

“Oh come now, Lord Black, I'm good for it. I admit I had some asset liquidity issues a while back, but that's all settled now.”

 

“Not buying it. And even though I'm a Lord now, don't call me Lord Black. Call me Sirius.”

 

“Er, sure, Sirius.”

 

“Any news of Bertha Jorkins yet, Ludo?” Mr. Weasley asked.

 

“Not a dicky bird,” said Bagman comfortably. “But she’ll turn up. Poor old Bertha... memory like a leaky cauldron and no sense of direction. Lost, you take my word for it. She’ll wander back into the office sometime in October, thinking it’s still July.”

 

“You don’t think it might be time to send someone to look for her?” Mr. Weasley suggested tentatively as Percy handed Bagman his tea.

 

“Barty Crouch keeps saying that,” said Bagman, his round eyes widening innocently, “but we really can’t spare anyone at the moment. Oh — talk of the devil! Barty!”

 

A wizard had just apparated at their fireside, and he could not have made more of a contrast with Ludo Bagman, sprawled on the grass in his old Wasp robes. Barty Crouch was a stiff, upright, elderly man, dressed in an impeccably crisp suit and tie. The parting in his short gray hair was almost unnaturally straight, and his narrow toothbrush mustache looked as though he trimmed it using a slide rule. His shoes were very highly polished. Mr. Crouch had complied with the rule about Muggle dressing so thoroughly that he could have passed for a bank manager; Harry doubted even Uncle Vernon would have spotted him for what he really was.

 

“Pull up a bit of grass, Barty,” said Ludo brightly, patting the ground beside him.

 

“No thank you, Ludo,” said Crouch, and there was a bite of impatience in his voice. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. The Bulgarians are insisting we add another twelve seats to the Top Box.”

 

“Oh is that what they’re after?” said Bagman. “I thought the chap was asking to borrow a pair of tweezers. Bit of a strong accent.”

 

“Are you trying to tell us members of the Bulgarian government, specifically sent here to help you lot with this business, can't speak English? I think they're having you on, Mr. Bagman,” Harry said.

 

“Oh come now, Mr. Potter, they wouldn't do that! These are important government officials, they're quite serious!”

 

“I quite agree, Ludo,” Mr. Crouch said, looking like he'd rather not be agreeing with Bagman.

 

Harry thought about pointing out that Mr. Bagman wasn't exactly taking his job seriously, but decided against it. Not with Mr. Crouch there, anyway.

 

Mr. Crouch talked with Mr. Weasley for a bit as well, something about a man wanting to import flying carpets into the country, and they talked of that for a while. Then Bagman mentioned something else they were organizing later, at Hogwarts. That got everyone's curiosity up, but the two men wouldn't answer. Nor would Mr. Weasley.

 

Just before they were about to go, Mr. Crouch turned to Harry, looking at him oddly. “My boy, it's the end of August, why are you wearing earmuffs?”

 

Harry's face twitched. “I'd really prefer if you didn't call me 'boy,' sir.”

 

Mr. Crouch frowned. “And why not? You are a boy, not a man yet.”

 

“Complicated emotional-baggage reasons, sir.”

 

“Harry here was raised by Muggles,” Sirius said. “And Muggle racism is a bit different than ours. 'Boy' is an offensive thing to call someone with his skin tone, in their world. The Muggles who raised him were racist against him for multiple reasons.”

 

“I see. Well I apologize, Mr. Potter. I was unaware of that fact, and I meant no disrespect.”

 

“Apology accepted,” Harry said.

 

“Still, you didn't answer my question. About the earmuffs.”

 

“It's very noisy here. I have several sets of these earmuffs; this one blocks out all noise but lets in the voices of those nearby me. If I didn't have them on, I'd be curled in a ball with a migraine.”

 

“I see,” he said, nodding. “Anyway, I must be going. I have more interpreting work to do,” he said, sounding disgusted that he'd been reduced to such a lowly position.

 

With that, he stood up and disapparated with a slight POP.

 

Bagman stood up as well. Before he could go, Harry said, “Mr. Bagman sir?”

 

“Yes Harry? You wanted something?”

 

“I was just curious if you could upgrade the tickets of my friend Luna and her father to Top Box tickets? I can pay the difference, if it helps.”

 

“Oh my dear b—er, young man, no no, there's no need to pay. Anything for Harry Potter, anything at all. Yes, I believe we do have a couple more seats available up there. Yes, bring them both along, that's fine by me. Here you are,” he said, handing Harry a couple more tickets. “Lucky, that, really; I think those are the last two available. A couple of minor Irish dignitaries were going to come, but they dropped out at the last minute, something about their daughter catching dragon pox, I think. Anyway, I'll see you lot in a bit. Ta-ta!”

 

With that, he apparated away.

 

“Oh Harry, you didn't need to do that,” Luna said.

 

“I know I didn't. But as much as I hate being famous, if I can use it to do something good for a friend, why not?”

 

Sirius smirked at Harry. Harry pointedly ignored him, but knew Sirius was still smirking at him. Remus was as well. Harry let some time pass until Sirius stopped smirking at him, then a bit more. He hadn't seriously been considering pranking his godfather, but after that, well, it was so much easier. Remembering the trick sweet the twins gave him, he took one out after Sirius was done eating and said, “Fancy a sweet? I'm having one too.” He showed Sirius the other one.

 

“Oh alright then,” Sirius said, trusting his godson, and took the sweet.

 

The twins were pretending they weren't watching as Sirius popped the candy in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. There was a brief pause, and then...

 

“AHH!” Sirius shouted, standing straight up. His tongue was swelling, growing to enormous size, quickly getting big enough where he could've licked the back of his own head if he'd wanted to, and just kept getting bigger, as Harry, Ginny, and the twins burst out laughing. Ron looked horrified at first, then spotting everyone laughing, joined in. Remus chuckled at his friend's expense. Hermione was even having a hard time keeping her laughter in. Luna was giggling so hard she was leaning against Harry.

 

“Not to worry, Sirius, I'll shrink it for you,” Mr. Weasley said, pointing his wand at the massive thing. He said some incantation Harry didn't catch, and the tongue started shrinking back to its normal size.

 

“Bleh, I tasted grass and my own clothes there for a moment,” Sirius said before rounding on Harry and glaring at him, his fists on his hips.

 

“That was a mean and nasty trick, Harry James Potter!”

 

Harry froze, worried. “Um...”

 

Sirius burst out laughing, laughing so hard he fell over. When he got it out of his system, he stood up and said, “Well, I'll just have to get you back for that at some point!”

 

“Get back at the twins, too; they put me up to it.”

 

Fred made a pained noise, then began melodramatically wailing. George said, “Traitorous tattle-tale! What did we ever do to deserve this treachery?”

 

“Do you want a list? Because I can get a pretty good one going for this week alone,” Harry said.

 

The twins smiled. “Nah, that's fine Harry, we don't mind being pranked by the legendary Padfoot!”

 

After the last of their food was eaten and the adults filled up on coffee, Harry and the other kids, Remus, and Sirius got up and started wandering around. As the match got closer, people stopped hiding their magic as much, and there were even salespeople apparating every few feet selling merchandise and souvenirs.

 

“Been saving my pocket money all summer for this,” Ron told Harry as they all strolled through the salesmen, buying souvenirs. Though Ron purchased a dancing shamrock hat and a large green rosette, he also bought a small figure of Viktor Krum, the Bulgarian Seeker. The miniature Krum walked backward and forward over Ron’s hand, scowling up at the green rosette above him. Sirius got an Ireland Quidditch team shirt and dancing shamrock hat, as well as paying a face painter to paint all their faces with the Irish team's colors and symbols. He insisted on getting the same for Remus, over his objections. Harry, for his part, got a hat for himself and an action-figure sized hat for Mouse-Stalker, which he attached to the snake's head with a sticking charm. It made Mouse-Stalker look absolutely adorable.

 

“Wow, look at these!” said Harry, hurrying over to a cart piled high with what looked like brass binoculars, except that they were covered with all sorts of weird knobs and dials.

 

“Omnioculars,” said the saleswizard eagerly. “You can replay action … slow everything down … and they flash up a play-by-play breakdown if you need it. Bargain — ten Galleons each.”

 

“Wish I hadn’t bought this now,” said Ron, gesturing at his dancing shamrock hat and gazing longingly at the Omnioculars.

 

“Ten galleons?” Harry said, confused. “But a wand is only seven, and there's a lot of hard work that goes into those. Not that omnioculars don't have a lot of work put into them too, but they're still less work than a wand.”

 

“Actually, no they don't just cost 7 galleons,” Sirius said. “Hogwarts subsidizes a student's first wand. They're actually 47 galleons. If you ever get a second wand, you pay full price.”

 

Everyone gaped at Sirius. “Forty-seven galleons?” Ron said. “Thank gods for that subsidization, then. Without it--- wait a minute, Mum only paid seven galleons for my new wand in the summer before third year!”

 

“Your first wand was second-hand, thought, right? So that would have counted as your first school wand.”

 

“Oh. Right.”

 

“I'll take eight pairs,” Sirius said.

 

At the objections of the Weasleys, Harry said, “Sirius is loaded, right Sirius?”

 

“Yes. Nowhere near as rich as Antigone's family, but right up there with the Malfoys. And it amuses me to think what my mother would say if she knew I was spending the family gold on omnioculars for a bunch of 'blood traitors' and a Muggle-born.” Seeing their continued uncomfortable looks, he said, “If it helps, consider them an early Christmas present.”

 

“Oooh, thanks, Sirius,” said Hermione. “And I’ll get us some programs, look —”

 

“So who were you two going to bet on to win?” Harry asked the twins.

 

“We were going to bet Ireland would win, but Krum would get the snitch. Too bad Bagman's not trustworthy.”

 

Their money bags considerably lighter, they went back to the tents. Bill, Charlie, and Ginny were all sporting green rosettes too, and Mr. Weasley was carrying an Irish flag. Fred and George had on hats and face paints as well, but were keeping most of their money for their joke shop business.

 

And then a deep, booming gong sounded somewhere beyond the woods, and at once, green and red lanterns blazed into life in the trees, lighting a path to the field.

 

“It’s time!” said Mr. Weasley, looking as excited as any of them. “Come on, let’s go!”

 

~

 

Clutching their purchases, Mr. Weasley in the lead, they all hurried into the wood, following the lantern-lit trail. They could hear the sounds of thousands of people moving around them, shouts and laughter, snatches of singing; well, everyone but Harry could hear them, since he was wearing his earmuffs. The atmosphere of feverish excitement was highly infectious anyway; Harry couldn’t stop grinning. They walked through the wood for twenty minutes, talking and joking loudly, until at last they emerged on the other side and found themselves in the shadow of a gigantic stadium. Though Harry could see only a fraction of the immense gold walls surrounding the field, he could tell that ten cathedrals would fit comfortably inside it.

 

In addition to his earmuffs, Harry also had on some sunglasses that could be turned off and on, letting him see when he wanted to and blocking things out when he didn't. He held hands with Luna as they all went up into the Top Box, which was empty except for a house-elf in the row behind them. But it wasn't Dobby, and it wasn't Netty. The elf had its face hidden in its hands, so he didn't know who it was.

 

“Hello,” he said, holding out his hand. “I'm Harry. Who are you?”

 

The elf stretched its fingers, revealing enormous brown eyes and a nose the exact size and shape of a large tomato. It looked at Harry's hand in confusion, then at Harry's forehead.

 

“Harry Potter?” squeaked the elf curiously from between its fingers. Its voice was higher even than Dobby’s had been, a teeny, quivering squeak of a voice, and Harry suspected — though it was very hard to tell with a house-elf — that this one might just be female, like Netty, but probably younger given the high-pitched voice. He wasn't sure, though; elf voices were all pretty high pitched. “Is you Harry Potter?”

 

“Yes I is--I mean am. And who are you?”

 

“Er... I is Winky, sir.” She stared at his hand. “Why is you holding your hand out, sir?”

 

“I thought wizards knew what handshakes were.”

 

“Yes, they does, but none has ever wanted to shake hands with Winky, sir.”

 

“Well I would,” he said. “I'm pleased to meet you, Winky.”

 

“Er,” she said, taking his hand in one of hers. It was like shaking hands with a five year old, if five year olds had very long fingers. “Winky is pleased to meet Harry Potter as well, sir. Dobby is talking about you all the time, sir. Netty speaks of you sometimes too. Does you know them?”

 

Shaking her hand and then letting go, Harry said, “Yes, Dobby and Netty are friends of mine.”

 

Winky's eyes looked wide under her fingers, with were all covering her eyes again. “You is friends? With house elves?”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“Dobby is telling Winky, sir, that he is working for Sirius Black, with the house elf Kreacher, and that you is living with Sirius Black now. Is that being true, sir?”

 

“Yes, Dobby was telling the truth. He and Kreacher have something of a rivalry going on between them. So how do you know Dobby, Winky?”

 

“Oh, all house elves in Britain and Scotland and Wales is knowing each other, sir.”

 

“Ah, I see.”

 

Luna turned around and knelt into the chair next to him, her father sitting down on her other side and turning around too. Luna held her hand out to Winky.

 

“Hello Winky,” she said. “It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Luna Lovegood.”

 

Winky reluctantly shook Luna's hand, immediately covering her eyes up again. “It's a pleasure to meet you too, miss. Is you a friend of Harry Potter?”

 

“Yes, we've been friends for years.”

 

Harry nodded. Winky smiled a little.

 

“Why are you hiding your lovely eyes, Winky?” Luna asked.

 

“I is not liking heights at all, sir and miss” — she glanced toward the edge of the box and gulped — “but my master sends me to the Top Box and I comes, sir.”

 

“Why’s he sent you up here, if he knows you don’t like heights?” said Harry, frowning.

 

“Master — master wants me to save him a seat, Harry Potter. He is very busy,” said Winky, tilting her head toward the empty space beside her. “Winky is wishing she is back in master’s tent, Harry Potter, but Winky does what she is told. Winky is a good house-elf.”

 

She gave the edge of the box another frightened look and hid her eyes completely again. Harry and Luna turned back to the others.

 

“She's not being entirely honest,” Luna muttered to Harry. “I don't think her master intends to come up at all, whoever he is. She's here for some other reason, I just don't know why.”

 

“Well he must have told her to come up here, otherwise she wouldn't be here. You saw how terrified of heights she is.”

 

Luna shrugged. “Well it's a mystery. We'd need more information to solve it.”

 

“Hello again, Mr. Lovegood,” Harry said, waving at Xeno.

 

“Hello to you as well, Mr. Potter. Thank you for getting us seats up here. It's quite swanky. Don't tell anyone but, er, I scalped our old tickets.”

 

Harry chuckled at that. “They won't hear it from me.”

 

The box filled gradually around them over the next half hour. Mr. Weasley kept shaking hands with people who were obviously very important wizards. Percy jumped to his feet so often that he looked as though he were trying to sit on a hedgehog. When Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic himself, arrived, Percy bowed so low that his glasses fell off and shattered. (Harry made a mental note to remind Percy about sticking charms.) Highly embarrassed, Percy repaired them with his wand and thereafter remained in his seat. Minister Fudge came along then, and greeted Harry as though they were friends, which confused Harry because they'd never actually met before.

 

“Harry Potter, you know,” he told the Bulgarian minister loudly, who was wearing splendid robes of black velvet trimmed with gold and didn’t seem to understand a word of English. “Harry Potter … oh come on now, you know who he is … the boy who survived You-Know-Who … you do know who he is —”

 

The Bulgarian wizard suddenly spotted Harry’s scar and started gabbling loudly and excitedly, pointing at it.

 

Xeno looked like he wanted to say something, but just smiled knowingly and sat back in his seat.

 

“Knew we’d get there in the end,” said Fudge wearily to Harry. “I’m no great shakes at languages; I need Barty Crouch for this sort of thing. Ah, I see his house-elf’s saving him a seat. … Good job too, these Bulgarian blighters have been trying to cadge all the best places … ah, and here’s Lucius!”

 

Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Luna turned to see Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy and Draco edging along the row towards them. Draco waved at Harry, his parents giving each other disgusted and long-suffering looks as he did. There was a seat on Hermione's other side, and Draco sat down there. He tried talking to Harry from there, but Hermione, Xeno, and Luna were between him and Harry. There weren't any other seats, either; Ron was on Harry's other side, and Sirius was just past Ron, the other Weasleys and Remus were in the next row down.

 

“He says he's surprised to see you here,” Luna relayed to Harry. “Harry, I think he's out of range of your earmuffs.”

 

Harry pulled one of the muffs aside, and immediately put it back at the sudden inundation of noise.

 

“Well I guess we can always meet up after the match,” Harry said. “Tell him that for me.”

 

She relayed the message to him through Hermione, and Draco sent back a thumbs-up of understanding.

 

“Ah, Fudge,” said Mr. Malfoy from the row behind them. “How are you? I don’t think you’ve met my wife, Narcissa? Or our son, Draco?”

 

“How do you do, how do you do?” said Fudge, smiling and nodding to Mrs. Malfoy. “And allow me to introduce you to Mr. Oblansk — Obalonsk — Mr. — well, he’s the Bulgarian Minister of Magic, and he can’t understand a word I’m saying anyway, so never mind. And let’s see who else — you know Arthur Weasley, I daresay?”

 

It was a tense moment. Mr. Weasley and Mr. Malfoy looked at each other and Harry vividly recalled the last time they had come face-to-face: It had been in Flourish and Blotts’ bookshop, and they had had a fight. Mr. Malfoy’s cold gray eyes swept over Mr. Weasley, and then up and down the row.

 

“Yes, I know him,” Mr. Malfoy said with a disgusted look on his face, but for once he didn't have anything mean to say. Instead, he just ignored Mr. Weasley.

 

Fudge said, “Lucius has just given a very generous contribution to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, Arthur. He’s here as my guest.”

 

“How — how nice,” said Mr. Weasley, with a very strained smile.

 

Mr. Malfoy’s eyes had returned to Hermione, who went slightly pink, but stared determinedly back at him. Harry knew exactly what was making Mr. Malfoy’s lip curl like that; for all he was allying himself with them for Draco's sake, he was still a pureblood bigot. Draco glared at his father, who looked at his son, huffed air out of his nose in annoyance, and proceeded to ignore Hermione as well.

 

Luna turned to the Bulgarian Minister of Magic and started gabbling at him in Bulgarian. The man soon had the bemused look most people got from talking with Luna. Fudge looked excitedly at her, glad to have another interpreter. No doubt Luna was asking Mr. Oblansk something strange, like whether or not he thought crumple-horned snorcacks were real, or maybe asking if there were any sightings of satyrs or other Faery creatures in Bulgaria lately.

 

“Your friend knows Bulgarian, Mr. Potter?” Fudge asked.

 

“It appears she does.”

 

“Well that's a relief. I can't find Mr. Crouch anywhere. What's your friend's name?”

 

“Luna Lovegood.”

 

“Miss Lovegood, what are they saying?”

 

“Oh, we're having a lovely conversation about the Bulgarian three-toed fire weasel, Mr. Fudge. It's quite rare, been endangered for years.”

 

“I don't think I've ever heard of it.”

 

“Neither has Mr. Obalansk. A pity, that. But I guess he's got a department that handles things like protecting endangered animals for him.”

 

Before he could hear Fudge's response, Harry saw Antigone and her parents go past him farther up the box. She waved at him, and he waved back. So did Luna and Ron and Hermione. But that was all they could do; she was too far away to even hope to talk with her from here.

 

Ludo Bagman charged into the box then.

 

“Everyone ready?” he said, his round face gleaming like a great, excited Edam. “Minister — ready to go?”

 

“Ready when you are, Ludo,” said Fudge comfortably.

 

Ludo whipped out his wand, directed it at his own throat, and said “ Sonorus !” and then spoke over the roar of sound that was now filling the packed stadium; his voice echoed over them, booming into every corner of the stands. The voice was loud in Harry's ears, but not too much so; Harry suspected the earmuffs were muffling the magically amplified voice.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen … welcome! Welcome to the final of the four hundred and twenty-second Quidditch World Cup!”

 

The spectators screamed and clapped. Thousands of flags waved, adding their discordant national anthems to the racket. The huge blackboard opposite them was wiped clear of its last message (Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans — A Risk With Every Mouthful!) and now showed BULGARIA: 0, IRELAND: 0.

 

“And now, without further ado, allow me to introduce … the Bulgarian National Team Mascots!”

 

The right-hand side of the stands, which was a solid block of scarlet, roared its approval.

 

“I wonder what they’ve brought,” said Mr. Weasley, leaning forward in his seat. “Aaah!” He suddenly whipped off his glasses and polished them hurriedly on his robes. “Veela!”

 

“What are veel — ?”

 

But a hundred veela were now gliding out onto the field, and Harry’s question was answered for him. Veela were women. Or at least, they looked like women. Harry looked at them through his omnioculars. They appeared to be dancing and singing, but of course Harry couldn't hear them. But something about the dancing... it was doing something funny to his brain that he didn't like, so he shut his eyes and put the omnioculars down.

 

“RON!” Hermione shouted, and Harry opened his eyes in time to see her pulling Ron back into his seat as he tried climbing down to jump at the veela.

 

Angry yells were filling the stadium. The crowd didn’t want the veela to go. Draco had tried getting up, but his mother had stopped him; Mr. Malfoy had his fingers in his ears and was glaring at the veela. Ron was absent-mindedly shredding the shamrocks on his hat. Mr. Weasley, smiling slightly, leaned over to Ron and tugged the hat out of his hands.

 

“You’ll be wanting that,” he said, “once Ireland have had their say.”

 

“Huh?” said Ron, staring openmouthed at the veela, who had now lined up along one side of the field.

 

Hermione made a loud tutting noise. She reached up and pulled Harry back into his seat. “ Honestly !” she said.

 

“Hermione,” Luna said in her dreamy voice, “Ron can't help it. Veela magic is very seductive to most men. And some women, too. It's a magical compulsion, very powerful.”

 

Hermione rolled her eyes but didn't argue the point; even she could see Luna was right this time.

 

The Irish team mascots were, of course, leprechauns, like Luna's bearded costume. Clouds of tiny little men in green outfits floated around making shapes with their bodies, like a murmuration of sapient starlings made of green sparkly light. They tossed gold onto the people below them, and the fact that nobody got knocked out or killed by the falling gold clued Harry in to the fact it was fake even before Sirius could confirm it, to Ron's chagrin.

 

And then the players were introduced. Soon after, the game begun. Harry had to hide his face on occasion, but mostly he'd been right that watching people he had no emotional investment in, professional adult players who knew the dangers involved, was a lot easier. Didn't stop him from getting queasy when the Irish seeker hit the ground so hard he had to be revived by medi-wizards. Harry was thankful magical people were sturdier than Muggles, or any one of those would have killed the man.

 

It was a fast game, too. Bagman only had time to say the names of the players the quaffle had been passed to, and occasional comments on fouls and scores. Ireland's team was so much better than the Bulgarian team that the game quickly became heated, to the point that the mascots fought each other and the veela threw fireballs at the referee, who tried having them sent off. In the end, it got so bad that Krum caught the snitch even though it wouldn't help his team win, and it seemed the twins had been right in the bet they never got to make.

 

Everyone was cheering, even Harry, whose earmuffs had slipped long enough to give him a slight headache from all the noise before he got them back on. On the way back to the tents, he had his sunglasses on and blocking all his vision as Sirius and Mr. Weasley took him by the arms and guided him along like a blind man to the tents.

 

 

 

Endnotes: Again had to cut the chapter “short,” sorry. Lot going on in the next bit.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Warning: This chapter has some naughty language in it. Sirius, in one part, makes liberal use of the f-bomb, among other words.

 

 

Chapter Five: Danger, Will Robinson!

 

They talked about the match well into the night, and only stopped when Ginny fell asleep at the table, spilling her cocoa. Luna and Xeno went back to their tent before that happened, though, as they were both exhausted.

 

“Oh I am glad I’m not on duty,” muttered Mr. Weasley sleepily. “I wouldn’t fancy having to go and tell the Irish they’ve got to stop celebrating.”

 

Harry, who was on a top bunk above Ron, lay staring up at the canvas ceiling of the tent, watching the glow of an occasional leprechaun lantern flying overhead, and picturing again some of Krum’s more spectacular moves. He fantasized about getting into a flying race with Krum, since he did like flying, just not playing Quidditch. At some point, the fantasy drifted into a dream instead. A dream of what, he didn't know, as he was soon awoken suddenly.

 

'HUMAN, WAKE UP! DANGER! I SENSE DANGER!'

 

Harry bolted up, grabbing his wand holster, checking to make sure his wand was there, and strapped his wand to his side.

 

'I don't hear anything unusual,' Harry told the snake.

 

'My danger sense is tingling, telling me something is happening, or is about to happen. Something not good. Get everyone up.'

 

'This better not be a false alarm.'

 

'I don't think it is.'

 

As he climbed out of bed, Harry thought he heard something. The noise of the celebration had changed. The singing had stopped. He could hear screams, and the sound of people running. He went over to where Ron was.

 

“Ron, wake up! Something bad is happening!”

 

“Five more minutes,” Ron muttered.

 

“No, NOW! DANGER!” He shook Ron awake, and Ron finally bolted up.

 

“Fine, fine, I'm... wait, what's those noises?”

 

Sirius, Remus, and Mr. Weasley ran into the room then, momentarily surprised Ron and Harry were already awake, but recovering quickly.

 

“Ron! Harry! Grab your wands and let's get out of here. It's not safe!” Sirius said.

 

“Got mine,” Harry said.

 

Ron grabbed his wand holster, and goggled at it. “My wand is gone!”

 

“Is it on the table?”

 

“No, I always have it in its holster. Bloody hell, I don't know where it is!”

 

Sirius tried Summoning Ron's wand, but nothing happened.

 

“No time, Ron!” Mr. Weasley said. “Grab a jacket and go with Sirius and Remus, they'll protect you. We'll go help the Ministry.”

 

Harry did as he was told and hurried out of the tent, Ron at his heels.

 

By the light of the few fires that were still burning, he could see people running away into the woods, fleeing something that was moving across the field toward them, something that was emitting odd flashes of light and noises like gunfire. Loud jeering, roars of laughter, and drunken yells were drifting toward them; then came a burst of strong green light, which illuminated the scene.

 

A crowd of wizards, tightly packed and moving together with wands pointing straight upward, was marching slowly across the field. Harry squinted at them. They were masked and hooded. He'd read the description before, so he knew they were Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers.

 

More wizards were joining the marching Death Eaters, laughing and pointing up at the floating bodies. Tents crumpled and fell as the marching crowd swelled. Once or twice Harry saw one of the marchers blast a tent out of his way with his wand. Several caught fire. The screaming grew louder.

 

The floating people were suddenly illuminated as they passed over a burning tent and Harry recognized one of them: Mr. Roberts, the campsite manager. The other three looked as though they might be his wife and children. One of the marchers below flipped Mrs. Roberts upside down with his wand; her nightdress fell down to reveal voluminous drawers and she struggled to cover herself up as the crowd below her screeched and hooted with glee.

 

“That’s sick,” Ron muttered, watching the smallest Muggle child, who had begun to spin like a top, sixty feet above the ground, his head flopping limply from side to side. “That is really sick.”

 

The twins, Hermione, and Ginny joined them then, along with Sirius and Remus, with their sleeves rolled up and their wands out.

 

“We’re going to help the Ministry!” Mr. Weasley shouted over all the noise, rolling up his own sleeves. “You lot — get into the woods, and stick together. I’ll come and fetch you when we’ve sorted this out!”

 

Bill, Charlie, and Percy were already sprinting away toward the oncoming marchers; Mr. Weasley tore after them. Ministry wizards were dashing from every direction toward the source of the trouble. The crowd beneath the Roberts family was coming ever closer.

 

“Come on, you lot,” Sirius said, guiding everyone to the nearby wood they'd walked through to get to the match. Remus hung back to cover their flank.

 

Sirius lit his wand and told everyone else to do the same; the trace wouldn't know who had done what anyway, and the situation was one where the Ministry would forgive any magic anyway even if that weren't the case. Only Ron was left out, his wand missing. Sirius kept him and Harry as close to him as he could.

 

“Harry? Is that you?”

 

Draco came out of the shadows. He looked terrified, but relaxed a little when he saw Harry and Sirius.

 

“Draco? Where's your parents?”

 

“I don't know where they are. They told me to hide and find you, and then they both took off.”

 

“Gone to join that masked lot, have they?” Ron asked nastily.

 

“I don't bloody well know, Weasley! I just bloody told you that! Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. I'm not sure what they're doing, because I don't know for sure where their loyalties are anymore. But I'm concerned; Mother leaving me alone in this situation isn't something I would have expected.”

 

“Draco,” Harry said, “do you know any spells to find specific people? Or you, Sirius?”

 

“What? Why?” asked Sirius. “Oh wait, you're looking for Luna? Well, I do know one.”

 

With complicated patterns drawn in the air, he did something that looked both familiar and not familiar to Harry, and drew a series of runes in a small circle in the air with his wand. Then Sirius pointed his wand at the runes, they glowed, and rearranged themselves in the air so the circle was like a watch made of light on Sirius's arm, one of the runes pointing like a compass arrow.

 

“Ah good, she's deeper in the wood, let's go,” Sirius said.

 

“What is that thing, Sirius?”

 

“Runic casting circle, one type of them anyway. Slightly different use for runes than the usual, and they don't last as long as regular runes, but useful. Complicated technique to learn, but worth it.”

 

In a few minutes, they found Luna and Xeno. They both looked scared, which was unusual for both of them. Harry held Luna in a close hug to comfort her. Xeno hung back, covering their flank with Remus just in case the Death Eaters got too close.

 

A huddle of teenagers in pajamas was arguing vociferously a little way along the path as they all went deeper into the wood. When they saw Sirius, Harry, Ron, and the others, a girl with thick curly hair turned and said quickly, “Où est Madame Maxime? Nous l’avons perdue —”

 

“Er — what?” said Ron.

 

“Oh …” The girl who had spoken turned her back on him, and as they walked on they distinctly heard her say, “ ’Ogwarts.”

 

Draco stepped forward and said something in French to the teens. Then Sirius joined in the conversation. When it was over, the French teens all stayed with Sirius and their group.

 

“What were you two talking about with them?” asked Harry.

 

“Sirius and I invited them to stay. Strength in numbers, and all that. Plus, we explained that he's had auror training, even if it's been years and he has to retrain. Well okay, Sirius explained that.”

 

“Sirius can speak French?” Ron asked, amazed.

 

“Of course he can, you dolt, he's a member of the ancient and most noble house of Black. A pureblood. Most purebloods can speak French at least, as well as others. I wouldn't even be surprised if your mother knew French, she was a Prewett before she became a Weasley.”

 

“She's never spoken it around any of us.”

 

“In that case, if she wasn't rusty before, she'll be rusty now.”

 

A rustling noise nearby made all three of them jump. Winky the house-elf was fighting her way out of a clump of bushes nearby. She was moving in a most peculiar fashion, apparently with great difficulty; it was as though someone invisible were trying to hold her back.

 

“There is bad wizards about!” she squeaked distractedly as she leaned forward and labored to keep running. “People high — high in the air! Winky is getting out of the way!”

 

And she disappeared into the trees on the other side of the path, panting and squeaking as she fought the force that was restraining her.

 

“She's not telling the whole truth again,” Luna said quietly to Harry. “I wonder what she's hiding, and why.”

 

“What’s up with her?” said Ron, looking curiously after Winky. “Why can’t she run properly?”

 

“Bet she didn’t ask permission to hide,” said Harry. He was thinking of Dobby: Every time he had tried to do something the Malfoys wouldn’t like, the house-elf had been forced to start beating himself up.

 

“You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!” said Hermione indignantly. “I realize things are different for them than for humans, that their psychology is closer to dogs than to humans, but still, the mistreatment! I wish there was some way to give them a bit more freedom at least, like the right to refuse orders as long as they have a good reason, something like that. Winky's master made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents! Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?”

 

“Hermione,” Sirius said, “this isn't the time or the place. Anyway, I'm working on it. Ask Harry about it later, he knows what I mean.”

 

Another loud bang echoed from the edge of the wood.

 

“Let’s just keep moving, shall we?” said Ron. Sirius nodded, and they continued on. Draco translated for the French teens.

 

They followed the dark path deeper into the wood, passing a group of goblins who were cackling over a sack of gold that they had undoubtedly won betting on the match, and who seemed quite unperturbed by the trouble at the campsite. Farther still along the path, they walked into a patch of silvery light, and when they looked through the trees, they saw three tall and beautiful veela standing in a clearing, surrounded by a gaggle of young wizards, all of whom were talking very loudly.

 

“I pull down about a hundred sacks of Galleons a year!” one of them shouted. “I’m a dragon killer for the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures.”

 

“No, you’re not!” yelled his friend. “You’re a dishwasher at the Leaky Cauldron. … but I’m a vampire hunter, I’ve killed about ninety so far —”

 

A third young wizard, whose pimples were visible even by the dim, silvery light of the veela, now cut in, “I’m about to become the youngest ever Minister of Magic, I am.”

 

“No he's not, he's Stan Shunpike, a conductor on the Knight Bus,” said another. “But I'm a dragon killer for the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures.”

 

He turned to look at Ron, and saw Ron’s face had gone oddly slack, and next second Ron was yelling, “Did I tell you I’ve invented a broomstick that’ll reach Jupiter?”

 

Honestly !” said Hermione, and she and Harry grabbed Ron firmly by the arms, wheeled him around, and marched him away, Sirius laughing at Ron's problem. By the time the sounds of the veela and their admirers had faded completely, they were in the very heart of the wood. They seemed to be alone now; everything was much quieter.

 

Harry looked around. “I reckon we can just wait here, you know. We’ll hear anyone coming a mile off.”

 

The words were hardly out of his mouth, when Ludo Bagman emerged from behind a tree right ahead of them. Sirius's wand snapped up to point at the man.

 

“Ludo, what are you doing here?”

 

“What? I could ask you lot the same thing.”

 

They looked at one another, surprised.

 

“Well — there’s a sort of riot going on,” said Ron.

 

Bagman stared at him.

 

“What?”

 

“At the campsite … some people have got hold of a family of Muggles.”

 

“Death Eaters, Bagman,” Sirius added. “The wizards in question are Death Eaters.”

 

Bagman swore loudly.

 

“Damn them!” he said, looking quite distracted, and without another word, he disapparated with a small pop!

 

“Not exactly on top of things, Mr. Bagman, is he?” said Hermione, frowning.

 

“Yes,” Sirius said. “He does seem oddly distracted. I wonder what he's up to?”

 

Ron was saying something about Bagman's history as a Quidditch player, but Harry wasn't paying attention. He had a headache from all the noise earlier, and now everything was quiet it was all he had left to focus on. He pressed the green gem on the necklace Luna had given him the year before, and its soothing musical tone eased his headache symptoms just as she'd told them it would. He was grateful for this; too many headache potions could be toxic, and now he knew he had an alternative.

 

“I hope the others are okay,” said Hermione after a while.

 

“They’ll be fine,” said Ron.

 

“Those poor Muggles, though,” said Hermione nervously. “What if they can’t get them down?”

 

“They will,” said Ron reassuringly. “They’ll find a way.”

 

'I sense danger, human,' Mouse-Stalker said, looking in one direction in particular. 'Over there.'

 

“Mad, though, to do something like that when the whole Ministry of Magic’s out here tonight!” said Hermione. “I mean, how do they expect to get away with it? Do you think they’ve been drinking, or are they just —”

 

“Hush, Mouse-Stalker senses danger,” Harry said, pointing the way the snake had.

 

Hermione looked over her shoulder. Sirius, Harry, Ron, Draco and the others all turned to look around too. It sounded as though someone was staggering toward their clearing. They waited, listening to the sounds of the uneven steps behind the dark trees. But the footsteps came to a sudden halt.

 

“Identify yourself!” Sirius shouted into the trees, his wand pointing at the location of the sound. “Now!”

 

There was silence. Harry got to his feet and peered around the tree. It was too dark to see very far, but he could sense somebody standing just beyond the range of his vision.

 

“I SAID IDENTIFY YOURSELF!” Sirius shouted.

 

'Human,' Mouse-Stalker said, his head poking out of Harry's sleeve.

 

'What is it?'

 

'I don't know. The danger to us is lesser now. The danger is not turned toward us. Best remain wary though.'

 

'Thanks.'

 

“Sirius, Mouse-Stalker says the danger isn't turned toward us, but we should remain wary.”

 

Not answering Harry, Sirius shouted, “IDENTIFY YOURSELF NOW OR I'LL HEX YOU!”

 

And then, without warning, the silence was rent by a voice unlike any they had heard in the wood; and it uttered, not a panicked shout, but what sounded like a spell.

 

MORSMORDRE!”

 

And something vast, green, and glittering erupted from the patch of darkness Harry’s eyes had been struggling to penetrate; it flew up over the treetops and into the sky. Immediately, Sirius fired a stunner into the trees, as did Remus and Xeno, who were closer now. They followed it up with half a dozen more just in case.

 

“What the — ?” gasped Ron as he sprang to his feet again, staring up at the thing that had appeared.

 

For a split second, Harry thought it was another leprechaun formation. Then he realized that it was a colossal skull, comprised of what looked like emerald stars, with a serpent protruding from its mouth like a tongue. As they watched, it rose higher and higher, blazing in a haze of greenish smoke, etched against the black sky like a new constellation.

 

Suddenly, the wood all around them erupted with screams. Harry didn’t understand why, but the only possible cause was the sudden appearance of the skull, which had now risen high enough to illuminate the entire wood like some grisly neon sign. He scanned the darkness for the person who had conjured the skull, but he couldn’t see anyone. Of course, they were probably knocked out.

 

“Did you get him?”

 

“I hope so. Stay there, I'm going to check it out.”

 

“Harry, come on, move !” Hermione had seized the collar of his jacket and was tugging him backward.

 

“No! You lot stay here.”

 

“What’s the matter?” Harry said, startled to see her face so white and terrified.

 

“It’s the Dark Mark, Harry!” Hermione moaned, pulling him as hard as she could. “You-Know-Who’s sign!”

 

“Voldemort's sign?”

 

“Quel est ce crâne?” one of the Beauxbatons students asked.

 

“C'est le symbole du Seigneur des Ténèbres,” answered Draco.

 

“Vol de la mort?”

 

“Oui.”

 

Suddenly, a series of popping noises announced the arrival of twenty wizards, appearing from thin air, surrounding them.

 

Harry whirled around, and in an instant, he registered one fact: Each of these wizards had his wand out, and every wand was pointing right at himself, Ron, and Hermione.

 

Without pausing to think, he yelled, “DUCK!”

 

“DESCENDRE!” Draco yelled in French.

 

“STOP!” Sirius shouted. “THEY'RE KIDS!”

 

But they weren't listening, so Sirius quickly turned into a dog and fell to his belly.

 

STUPEFY!” roared twenty voices — there was a blinding series of flashes and Harry felt the hair on his head ripple as though a powerful wind had swept the clearing. Raising his head a fraction of an inch he saw jets of fiery red light flying over them from the wizards’ wands, crossing one another, bouncing off tree trunks, rebounding into the darkness —

 

“Stop!” yelled a voice he recognized. “STOP! That’s my son!”

 

Harry’s hair stopped blowing about. He raised his head a little higher. The wizard in front of him had lowered his wand. He rolled over and saw Mr. Weasley striding toward them, looking terrified.

 

“Ron — Harry” — his voice sounded shaky — “Hermione — are you all right?”

 

“We're fine, Arthur,” Sirius said. He was human again.

 

“Que se passe-t-il?” asked one of the Beauxbatons girls.

 

“Je ne sais pas,” Draco said. “Mais le Ministère de la Magie est là.”

 

“Out of the way, Arthur,” said a cold, curt voice.

 

It was Mr. Crouch. He and the other Ministry wizards were closing in on them. Harry got to his feet to face them. Mr. Crouch’s face was taut with rage.

 

“Which of you did it?” he snapped, his sharp eyes darting between them. “Which of you conjured the Dark Mark?”

 

“We didn’t do that!” said Harry, gesturing up at the skull.

 

“We didn’t do anything!” said Ron, who was rubbing his elbow and looking indignantly at his father. “What did you want to attack us for?”

 

“Do not lie, sir!” shouted Mr. Crouch. His wand was still pointing directly at Ron, and his eyes were popping — he looked slightly mad. Then he turned to Sirius. “You have been discovered at the scene of the crime!”

 

Sirius brandished his wand at Crouch. “Listen here, Crouch. I already spent 12 years in Azkaban because you were too incompetent to give me a fucking trial or even question me at all, and I don't fancy doing it again. If you want to arrest me for something, you'd better damned well get my solicitor over here before you do, because I'm not taking any of your shit ever again!”

 

“Sirius,” Remus said warningly, putting a hand on his shoulder. Sirius brushed him off.

 

“And anyway,” Sirius continued, “The three of us already stunned the berk who did it before you lot even got here, we must've sent half a dozen stunners in there!”

 

“Out of the way, Barty,” Mr. Weasley said. “You're not in any position to be making threats anymore.”

 

“Oh yeah, that's right,” Sirius said, half-smirking. “You're just a lowly interpreter now, aren't you? Oh how the mighty have fallen.”

 

“Don't antagonize him, Sirius,” Mr. Weasley said. “Where did the Mark come from, you lot?” said Mr. Weasley quickly.

 

“Over there,” said Hermione shakily, pointing at the place where they had heard the voice. “There was someone behind the trees … they shouted words — an incantation —”

 

“Oh, stood over there, did they?” said Mr. Crouch, turning his popping eyes on Hermione now, disbelief etched all over his face. “Said an incantation, did they? You seem very well informed about how that Mark is summoned, missy —”

 

“You shut the fuck up, Crouch! Leave these kids alone, you paranoid old git! It's not bad enough you have to have a go at me, but now you're accusing children of dark magic? Pull your head out of your arse!”

 

“I WILL NOT BE SPOKEN TO IN THIS MANNER! I AM--”

 

“A DISGRACED OLD LOONY! That's what you are! A washed up old has-been, reduced to--”

 

“SIRIUS! BARTEMIUS! This isn't helping, you two!” Mr. Weasley said.

 

“Hermione is right,” Remus said. “Right, Xeno?”

 

“Yes. The voice was an adult human's voice. Though I suppose it could've been a vampire, but they generally don't have wands, and I didn't hear any of the usual vampire accents from the voice.”

 

None of the Ministry wizards apart from Mr. Crouch seemed to think it remotely likely that Harry, Ron, or Hermione had conjured the skull, and they looked doubtful Sirius had done it either; strangely, nobody even considered Xeno for having done it, though some of them were giving Remus distrustful looks. So at Hermione’s words, they had all raised their wands again and were pointing in the direction she had indicated, squinting through the dark trees.

 

“We’re too late,” said the witch in the woolen dressing gown, shaking her head. “They’ll have Disapparated.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said a wizard with a scrubby brown beard. It was Amos Diggory, Cedric’s father. “Our Stunners went right through those trees. There’s a good chance we got them.”

 

“Yes, and then there was the stunners Sirius, Remus, and Xenophilius shot through the trees before you even got here,” Harry said.

 

“Amos, be careful!” said a few of the wizards warningly as Mr. Diggory squared his shoulders, raised his wand, marched across the clearing, and disappeared into the darkness. Hermione watched him vanish with her hands over her mouth.

 

A few seconds later, they heard Mr. Diggory shout.

 

“Yes! We got them! There’s someone here! Unconscious! It’s — but — blimey …”

 

“You’ve got someone?” shouted Mr. Crouch, sounding highly disbelieving. “Who? Who is it?”

 

They heard snapping twigs, the rustling of leaves, and then crunching footsteps as Mr. Diggory reemerged from behind the trees. He was carrying a tiny, limp figure in his arms. Harry recognized the tea towel at once. It was Winky.

 

Mr. Crouch did not move or speak as Mr. Diggory deposited his elf on the ground at his feet. The other Ministry wizards were all staring at Mr. Crouch. For a few seconds Crouch remained transfixed, his eyes blazing in his white face as he stared down at Winky. Then he appeared to come to life again.

 

“This — cannot — be,” he said jerkily. “No —”

 

He moved quickly around Mr. Diggory and strode off toward the place where he had found Winky.

 

“No point, Mr. Crouch,” Mr. Diggory called after him. “There’s no one else there.”

 

But Mr. Crouch did not seem prepared to take his word for it. Harry didn't blame him; Diggory had only been there a few seconds. They could hear Crouch moving around and the rustling of leaves as he pushed the bushes aside, searching.

 

“Bit embarrassing,” Mr. Diggory said grimly, looking down at Winky’s unconscious form. “Barty Crouch’s house-elf … I mean to say …”

 

“Oh come off it, Amos,” Sirius said. “The voice we heard was deep, a wizard's voice, not an elf. And you'd have to be a fool to think the elf could do it anyway. For one thing, she'd need a wand.”

 

“Yeah,” said Mr. Diggory, “and she had a wand.”

 

What ?” said Mr. Weasley and Sirius at the same time.

 

“Here, look.” Mr. Diggory held up a wand and showed it to Mr. Weasley. “Had it in her hand. So that’s clause three of the Code of Wand Use broken, for a start. No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand. With occasional exception,” he said, glaring at Remus.

 

“Oh, that's fair,” Harry said sarcastically.

 

“Pardon me, young man?”

 

“Gods,” Harry swore. “Bloody humans and their egotistical nonsense. It's no bloody wonder the goblins rebelled so many times.”

 

“Harry, let's not antagonize the Ministry officials,” Remus said.

 

“Why not? Mr. Diggory is being foolish. There's no way an elf would turn a wand on a human, or use one at all; it's not in their nature. And if, by some chance, she knew enough to cast that thing, she would've had to have been ordered to do so!”

 

“Good thing Crouch wasn't here to hear you say that, pup.”

 

“Winky was trying to get away from the Death Eaters, sir,” Hermione cut in. “She's afraid of heights, and they were floating people in the air. She was disobeying an order, but her safety was at risk, so I don't blame her.”

 

Just then there was another pop, and Ludo Bagman apparated right next to Mr. Weasley. Looking breathless and disorientated, he spun on the spot, goggling upward at the emerald-green skull.

 

“The Dark Mark!” he panted, almost trampling Winky as he turned inquiringly to his colleagues. “Who did it? Did you get them? Barty! What’s going on?”

 

Mr. Crouch had returned empty-handed. His face was still ghostly white, and his hands and his toothbrush mustache were both twitching.

 

“Where have you been, Barty?” said Bagman. “Why weren’t you at the match? Your elf was saving you a seat too — gulping gargoyles!” Bagman had just noticed Winky lying at his feet. “What happened to her?”

 

“I have been busy, Ludo,” said Mr. Crouch, still talking in the same jerky fashion, barely moving his lips. “And my elf has been stunned.”

 

“How do we know you didn't do it, Mr. Crouch?” Harry snapped.

 

Excuse me? ” The man said, gritting his teeth.

 

“Harry, now would be a great time to shut up,” Draco said.

 

Mr. Crouch's attention turned to Draco. “Aha! You, boy: son of a Death Eater! YOU did this!”

 

“That was never proven! And anyway, I don't believe that bigoted rubbish anymore! I'm on Harry's side now.”

 

“Draco was with us the whole time, Crouch,” Sirius growled. “And does he look like an adult wizard or sound like he has a deep voice to you? If so, you need your eyes and your ears checked!”

 

“I don't know HOW he did it, but I know---”

 

“My godson trusts the boy, Crouch, and I trust Harry's judgment. Just because someone comes from a bigoted family doesn't make them bigots. You're trying to pull the same shit on Draco that you pulled on me, and I won't stand for it!”

 

“I say we check the clearing again, in case Mr. Crouch missed someone,” Harry said. “He's acting oddly suspicious.”

 

“Do you doubt my veracity, boy?”

 

Harry frowned. “Don't call me boy, ever again. I don't like that word, remember? And yes, I do doubt your veracity. Your behavior is very strange tonight, sir. How do we know you didn't conjure that mark?”

 

Draco and Sirius both groaned at this.

 

NOW who's throwing around baseless accusations?”

 

“Baseless? You're an adult male, with a deep voice. You fit the profile better than any of us do. Even Sirius's voice isn't the right pitch or timbre to be the one who cast that thing!”

 

“What evidence do you have for this?”

 

“If you want, we can all provide memories of the incident, to peruse in a pensieve. We could take veritaserum, too, if you'd like.”

 

“Harry,” Remus said, “I really don't think Mr. Crouch had anything to do with it. You would too, if you knew his reputation from the war.”

 

“Enough of this!” Amos Diggory said. “I found this elf holding a wand. If it’s all right with you lot, I think we should hear what she’s got to say for herself.”

 

“Admittedly, that is a bit odd,” Harry said. “But I'm sure she just picked it up off the ground, found it.”

 

“If so, then she would've been close enough to have seen the culprit!”

 

Nobody had anything to say to this, not even Sirius. So Mr. Diggory raised his own wand, pointed it at Winky, and said, “Rennervate!”

 

Winky stirred feebly. Her great brown eyes opened and she blinked several times in a bemused sort of way. Watched by the silent wizards, she raised herself shakily into a sitting position. She caught sight of Mr. Diggory’s feet, and slowly, tremulously, raised her eyes to stare up into his face; then, more slowly still, she looked up into the sky. Harry could see the floating skull reflected twice in her enormous, glassy eyes. She gave a gasp, looked wildly around the crowded clearing, and burst into terrified sobs.

 

“Elf!” said Mr. Diggory sternly. “Do you know who I am? I’m a member of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures!”

 

Winky began to rock backward and forward on the ground, her breath coming in sharp bursts. Harry was reminded forcibly of Dobby in his moments of terrified disobedience.

 

“Oh for fuck's sake , Amos!” Sirius shouted. “Even I was treated better than that when I was being arrested and thrown in bloody Azkaban for a crime I hadn't committed! Let me question her instead!”

 

“No! This is my jurisdiction, my department! You're just a bloody Auror recruit, Mr. Black!”

 

“Yes, and a sad state of affairs the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures is in if people like you are working there!”

 

“What is THAT supposed to mean?”

 

“It means you're a wizard supremacist, with little or no respect for the other sapient beings we share this planet with!”

 

“Just because I don't shag a bloody werewolf--”

 

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Mr. Weasley said. “Neither of you is in a fit state to question anyone calmly. How about I do it?”

 

The two men, their arms folded, said nothing, just glaring daggers at each other. Mr. Weasley took this as assent. He turned to Winky and sat down on the ground in front of her so she didn't have to crane her neck at him.

 

“Winky dear, you were found with a wand in your hand. How did it get there?”

 

“I – I – I is finding it on the ground, sir. Over there, sir,” she said, still rocking back and forth. Harry sat down next to her as well, and handed her his dragon-hide bracelet, to see if stroking it would help calm her. To his relief, it did. She smiled at him.

 

“Th-thank you, Harry Potter. I is being very grateful, sir.”

 

“Is this the wand you found, Winky?” Mr. Weasley said, holding it up.

 

Before she could answer, Ron shouted, “Hey! That's mine!”

 

Everyone in the clearing looked at him.

 

“Excuse me?” said Mr. Diggory, incredulously.

 

“That’s my wand!” said Ron. “I lost it!”

 

“You lost it?” repeated Mr. Diggory in disbelief. “Is this a confession? You threw it aside after you conjured the Mark?”

 

“Amos,” Sirius said warningly. “Don't you start in with this nonsense too!”

 

“Er... right.” Mr. Diggory said. “Sorry, got carried away.”

 

“I didn’t lose it there, anyway,” Ron said. “I noticed I was missing it when I grabbed my holster in the tents. It must've been snatched up or snagged on something during the match, or on our way to or from it.”

 

“So,” said Mr. Diggory, his eyes hardening as he turned to look at Winky again, cowering at his feet. “You found this wand, eh, elf? And you picked it up and thought you’d have some fun with it, did you?”

 

“WOULD YOU STOP THIS NONSENSE?” Sirius shouted.

 

“Enough! You two, separate! Now!”

 

Grumbling, Crouch and Sirius moved apart. Mr. Weasley nodded, and went back to talking with Winky. He was kind and gentle, but she was so shaken up by the fighting that he couldn't get a word out of her, though he tried for several minutes.

 

“Arthur,” Xeno Lovegood said, “I think I can help in this matter. I know elf-speech.”

 

Mr. Weasley sighed. “Fine, alright. Might as well give it a shot, I'm not making any progress. You take over, Xeno.”

 

Xeno took Mr. Weasley's place on the ground, did something to his throat with his wand, and started speaking to Winky in a high-pitched language that barely even sounded like language. It was squeaky, like he had inhaled helium just before speaking, and yet it was also oddly musical; suddenly the elves' naturally high-pitched voices made a lot of sense. Though Harry hadn't the foggiest idea how Xeno was able to get up into some of the higher registers the language apparently required, though that was probably what he'd used his wand on his throat for. Point was, he was managing it somehow, and it seemed to soothe and comfort Winky even more.

 

Mr. Diggory was suspicious, though. He was glaring at the two of them like they were doing something obscene. If Harry had to guess, he thought Mr. Diggory was suspicious of what they were saying in a language he clearly couldn't understand. Mr. Crouch looked suspicious as well.

 

Ron, on the other hand, was trying to hold back laughter at the sound of Mr. Lovegood talking like a sped-up tape of a chorus of mice practicing for a big concert at Disney World. He wasn't the only one, either; the twins were laughing into their hands, the girls were giggling, and even Harry was starting to crack up. The adult wizards who'd come when the Mark had been made were also holding back laughter, with the exception of Mr. Diggory and Mr. Crouch.

 

Xeno put his wand to his throat again, then stood up.

 

“She's calmer now, Arthur, if you want to start questioning her again.”

 

“Right. Thank you, Xeno.”

 

They traded places again, and Mr. Weasley said gently, “Is this the wand you picked up, Winky?”

 

“Yes, sir. That is being the wand Winky is finding.”

 

“Good. And where did you find it?”

 

“I is finding it over there, sir. In that part of the woods, sir.”

 

“Did you see anyone else when you found the wand, Winky?”

 

“No, sir. I is seeing no-one, sir.”

 

“Okay. Why did you pick it up, Winky?”

 

“I is not doing magic with it,” she said earnestly. “I is not knowing how, sir. I is just finding it, sir, on the ground. Some wizard or witch is lost their wand, sir, and Winky is wanting to return it.”

 

“Well we should probably see if whoever had this wand before you was even the culprit.”

 

Mr. Weasley put the tip of his wand to the tip of Ron's.

 

Prior Incantato.

 

Harry heard Hermione gasp, horrified, as a gigantic serpent-tongued skull erupted from the point where the two wands met, but it was a mere shadow of the green skull high above them; it looked as though it were made of thick gray smoke: the ghost of a spell.

 

Deletrius, ” Mr. Weasley said, and the smoky skull vanished.

 

Mr. Diggory opened his mouth to speak, but Sirius pointed his wand at the man, and suddenly Mr. Diggory was voiceless. He glared at Sirius, who glared right back.

 

“I is not doing it,” Winky said, her eyes watering. “I is not knowing how.”

 

“I believe you, Winky,” Mr. Weasley said. “Did you hear anyone before you found the wand?”

 

“I is hearing a wizard shouting something; a spell, I is thinking. I is not remembering the words, sir.”

 

“And how close to you was the voice?”

 

“Not far, sir. Several feet. But I is seeing no-one sir.”

 

Xeno asked Winky something in elf-speech. She answered back.

 

“She says, after I asked her for clarification, that whoever it was was invisible.”

 

“Thank you, Xeno. Winky, did you recognize the voice of the person who conjured that skull?”

 

Winky shifted in place uncomfortably a little, wringing her hands, then said, “I is never hearing such a voice before in my life, sir.”

 

Mr. Weasley sighed. “Well thank you, Winky. It's not terribly helpful, but that's not your fault.”

 

“Amos,” said Mr. Crouch curtly, “I am fully aware that, in the ordinary course of events, you would want to take Winky into your department for questioning. I ask you, however, to allow me to deal with her.” He glared at her. “You may rest assured that she will be punished,” Mr. Crouch added coldly.

 

“M-m-master…” Winky stammered, looking up at Mr. Crouch, her eyes brimming with tears. “M-m-master, p-p-please...”

 

“Are you mad?” Sirius shouted. “She didn't do it, and she didn't see who did it! What're you punishing her for ?”

 

Mr. Crouch stared back at Winky, his face somehow sharpened, each line upon it more deeply etched. There was no pity in his gaze.

 

“Winky has behaved tonight in a manner I would not have believed possible,” he said slowly. “I told her to remain in the tent. I told her to stay there while I went to sort out the trouble. And I find that she disobeyed me. This means clothes.

 

“No!” shrieked Winky, prostrating herself at Mr. Crouch’s feet. “No, master! Not clothes, not clothes!”

 

Harry knew that the only way to turn a house-elf free was to present it with proper garments. It was pitiful to see the way Winky clutched at her tea towel as she sobbed over Mr. Crouch’s feet.

 

“This is just like my lack of a trial all over again, Crouch! What is with you and punishing innocent people for things they didn't do?”

 

“And she was frightened!” Hermione burst out angrily, glaring at Mr. Crouch. “Your elf’s scared of heights, and those wizards in masks were levitating people! You can’t blame her for wanting to get out of their way!”

 

Mr. Crouch took a step backward, freeing himself from contact with the elf, whom he was surveying as though she were something filthy and rotten that was contaminating his over-shined shoes.

 

“I have no use for a house-elf who disobeys me,” he said coldly, looking over at Hermione. “I have no use for a servant who forgets what is due to her master, and to her master’s reputation.”

 

Winky was crying so hard that her sobs echoed around the clearing. There was a very nasty silence, which was ended by Mr. Weasley, who said quietly, “Well, I think I’ll take my lot back to the tent, if nobody’s got any objections. Amos, that wand’s told us all it can — if Ron could have it back, please —”

 

Mr. Diggory handed Ron his wand back, Ron putting it back in his holster, carefully securing it the way he should have to begin with.

 

“Just a moment, Arthur. I've had about all I can stand of this... this... man. This Crouch. How dare you punish your elf when she did nothing wrong!”

 

“I told you, Black, she disobeyed me!”

 

“So what? If kids break the law and use magic out of school because their lives are in danger, we don't punish them. Your elf's life was in danger, that's why she disobeyed!”

 

“She is my property, I can punish her if I so choose!”

 

“We'll see how long that remains true, Crouch. Remember that I'm a Lord with a seat on the Wizengamot now.”

 

“Are you threatening me?”

 

“If that's what it takes to convince you to treat your house elf with the dignity and respect she deserves, then yes!”

 

“She is a house elf, not a person. I am well within my rights--”

 

“You really are a piece of work aren't you? No mercy, no compassion. Probably no soul.”

 

“I'm warning you, Black...”

 

But Sirius was ignoring Crouch again. He whispered something to Xeno, who nodded at Sirius and then turned to Winky, speaking with her in elf-speech again. It took him a little bit to get her to stop crying enough to listen, but when she did they had another conversation for several minutes.

 

“What was that you were saying to her?” Crouch demanded.

 

“That's between Winky and Xeno and I,” Sirius said. “You're dismissing Winky anyway, what do you care?”

 

Crouch narrowed his eyes at Sirius. “If this is about that mistake with your incarceration---”

 

Sirius let out several barks of laughter. “Oh that's a good one, Crouch. You know, I was going to just chalk it up to incompetence, but now I see you're a malicious bastard, in your own way. There's nothing more important to you than your bloody fucking reputation , is there, Crouch? You even sent your own bloody son to Azkaban, I heard. The boy died in prison, and you didn't even attend his damn burial. I know, because I saw it from my cell's window. Come on, you lot,” Sirius said, grabbing Harry's hand. “If I have to be around this man any longer I might just puke.”

 

But Hermione didn’t seem to want to move; her eyes were still upon the sobbing elf. “Hermione!” Mr. Weasley said, more urgently. She turned and followed Harry and Ron out of the clearing and off through the trees.

 

“What’s going to happen to Winky?” said Hermione, the moment they had left the clearing.

 

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Weasley.

 

I do,” Sirius said. “Once he dismisses her, she's going to come work for me. That's what I had Xeno talking with her about in that last elf-speech conversation they had.”

 

“Exactly,” Xeno said. “Such fascinating beings as house elves, they need to be treated with honor and respect.”

 

“Work for you?” Hermione said, confused. “But you already have two elves.”

 

“Not a problem. Dobby is going to be going to Hogwarts on loan to Dumbledore, so he can help keep Harry safe, since something always seems to happen every bloody year. I don't know whether she'll get on better with Kreacher or Dobby, but whichever one she does, I'll put her with, to try to keep her stable.”

 

“Stable? What do you mean 'stable'?” Hermione said.

 

“House elves don't like being freed, usually; Dobby was a highly unusual case. Ever abandon a dog, Hermione? No I didn't think you had, but surely you've seen things on the telly about it. They pine for their masters. Sometimes they manage to adjust, and other times they die of a broken heart. House elves are much the same way. She might be fine, or she might become extremely depressed. I want to try to make sure she'll be fine. I'm going to go have Dobby track her down in case she decides not to take me up on my offer.”

 

“You're a good man, Sirius,” Luna said.

 

“Thanks, Luna.”

 

“Well I'm glad you're taking her in, Sirius,” Hermione said. “I don't blame you getting angry with those two idiots. Mr. Diggory, calling her ‘elf’ all the time... and Mr. Crouch! He knows she didn’t do it and he’s still going to sack her! He didn’t care how frightened she’d been, or how upset she was. It's just good she'll have you afterwards, Sirius.”

 

“Yes. Though I admit I'm not terribly hopeful she'll be okay. The level of devotion she has to that man, I could hear it in her elf-speech; she's going to be a wreck, the poor dear.”

 

“You know elf-speech too?”

 

“Not really. But I heard enough of it growing up that I could understand her tone at least, and a few words here and there. She adores Crouch for some bloody reason.”

 

“Dad, why was everyone so uptight about that skull thing?”

 

“I’ll explain everything back at the tent,” said Mr. Weasley tensely.

 

But when they reached the edge of the wood, their progress was impeded. A large crowd of frightened-looking witches and wizards was congregated there, and when they saw Mr. Weasley coming toward them, many of them surged forward.

 

“What’s going on in there?”

 

“Who conjured it?”

 

“Arthur — it’s not — Him ?”

 

Before Mr. Weasley could answer, Sirius cut in. “No comment! No really, no bloody comment!”

 

“Right,” Mr. Weasley said, catching on. “No comment!”

 

“Not to worry,” Xeno said to the crowd, “I'll print up a special edition of The Quibbler all about it later, never you fret. But suffice it to say nobody was hurt.”

 

When they were away from the crowd, Mr. Weasley said, “Thanks for that, Sirius. In all the fuss I almost forgot and said something. Better Xeno said something than I; he doesn't work for the Ministry, so the most Skeeter can do is lampoon Xeno.”

 

“I figured you needed the reminder, with all the hubub. I know I was tempted to say something too. But that Rita Skeeter cow would've twisted it around somehow, as you say. I remember her from back during the war, and from what I've read of her tripe in the Daily Profit, she hasn't gotten any better.”

 

The two men kept leading them all back, the French teenagers from Beauxbatons catching up with the adults in charge of them along the way. A few minutes later, Draco found his parents and left with them.

 

When they were gone, Luna turned to Harry and whispered, “I didn't want to say anything in front of those horrible men before, Harry, but Winky wasn't being entirely honest again.”

 

“What? She was lying?”

 

“Not exactly. Everything she said was true. Elves can't really lie, it's not in their natures, but they can refuse to speak, dance around the truth, word things so they can be deliberately misinterpreted, or leave things out and let you fill in the gaps yourself. She wasn't lying, but she wasn't telling the whole truth, either. She was leaving something out. And that last answer she gave was so close to a lie it almost wasn't allowed, I could tell by her body language. She knows who did it, and isn't telling anyone for some reason.”

 

“But why? Who's she protecting, her master?”

 

“It's possible. Elves are bound to keep their masters' secrets and their silence. They might be able to tell other elves, but I think that depends on a lot of other factors. And I don't think she'll tell anyone – human, elf, or otherwise – unless she trusts them. Which at this point, I think that means she'll only tell family members, if she tells anyone at all.”

 

Harry didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing.

 

“Well, Harry,” Xeno said, “Luna and I are going back to our tents, assuming they're still there. Later!”

 

“Bye!” he said, waving.

 

When the rest of them got to their own tents, Charlie’s head was poking out of the boys’ tent.

 

“Dad, what’s going on?” he called through the dark.

 

“Did you get them, Dad?” said Bill sharply. “The person who conjured the Mark?”

 

“No,” said Mr. Weasley.

 

Between him and Sirius, they managed to relay to the others the important parts of what had happened in the woods. When they had finished their story, Percy swelled indignantly.

 

“Well, Mr. Crouch is quite right to get rid of an elf like that!” he said. “Running away when he’d expressly told her not to … embarrassing him in front of the whole Ministry … how would that have looked, if she’d been brought up in front of the Department for the Regulation and Control —”

 

“Not you too, Percy!” Sirius growled.

 

“Sirius, let me handle Percy,” Harry said.

 

“Fine, you know him better than I do.”

 

“Percy, she didn't do anything wrong,” Harry said. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shouldn't have punished her.”

 

“But she disobeyed an order!”

 

“She was scared of heights. And there were bad men hurting people. Really, can you seriously blame her for being scared?”

 

“She was running amok with a wand!”

 

“No, she picked it up off the ground, to return it to whoever lost it. If she were a human child doing the same thing, would you say she should be punished?”

 

“I... well no, but she's not a human child, she's a house elf!”

 

“So what? She's still an innocent.”

 

“I...” something about Harry's tone and expression melted Percy's resolve. “But... she disobeyed.”

 

“Do you think rules are always right, Percy? If the Minister of Magic told you to murder your dad, would you?”

 

Percy's eyes went wide with shock. “Of course not! Don't be absurd!”

 

“So she disobeyed, so what? She only did it because she was terrified. Sure, Mr. Crouch can't predict everything that might happen, but he should have had some kind of understanding with her, exceptions to her orders, orders to get to safety if she's in danger, over-riding any other orders. Crouch didn't punish her so much for disobeying as he did for his own failure to take her terror into account, and for his failure to care about her life and safety. He was being unreasonable.”

 

Percy sighed, running his hands through his hair. “I suppose you have a point, Harry. I just... I don't know. No, you're right. Sorry for being... well, sorry for being a bit of an arse.”

 

“Apology accepted, Percy.”

 

“Look, can someone just explain what that skull thing was?” said Ron impatiently. “It wasn’t hurting anyone. … Why’s it such a big deal?”

 

“I told you, it’s You-Know-Who’s symbol, Ron,” said Hermione, before anyone else could answer. “I read about it in The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts.

 

“And it hasn’t been seen for thirteen years,” said Mr. Weasley quietly. “Of course people panicked … it was almost like seeing You-Know-Who back again.”

 

“I don’t get it,” said Ron, frowning. “I mean, it’s still only a shape in the sky.”

 

“Ron, You-Know-Who and his followers sent the Dark Mark into the air whenever they killed,” said Mr. Weasley. “The terror it inspired … you have no idea, you’re too young. Just picture coming home and finding the Dark Mark hovering over your house, and knowing what you’re about to find inside.” Mr. Weasley winced. “Everyone’s worst fear, the very worst.”

 

“It's a trigger,” Harry said. “The war would've given anyone who lived through it PTSD, and seeing that skull thing would've been like being right back in the middle of all that terror and death again.”

 

“Oh,” Ron said, turning green. “Bloody hell, no wonder everyone was so scared.”

 

There was silence for a moment. Then Bill, removing the sheet from his arm to check on his cut, said, “Well, it didn’t help us tonight, whoever conjured it. It scared the Death Eaters away the moment they saw it. They all Disapparated before we’d got near enough to unmask any of them. We caught the Robertses before they hit the ground, though. They’re having their memories modified right now.”

 

“We can’t prove it was them, Bill,” said Mr. Weasley. “Though it probably was,” he added hopelessly.

 

Sirius slammed his fist on the table, startling everyone. “What the hell were those berks thinking?”

 

“No idea, Padfoot old pal,” Remus said wearily. He looked exhausted.

 

“I reckon they got drunk and wanted to relive their glory days,” Mr. Weasley answered in disgust.

 

“Sorry,” said Harry quickly. “But what were You-Know-Who’s supporters up to, levitating Muggles? I mean, what was the point ?”

 

“The point?” said Mr. Weasley with a hollow laugh. “Harry, that’s their idea of fun. Half the Muggle killings back when You-Know-Who was in power were done for fun. I suppose they had a few drinks tonight and couldn’t resist reminding us all that lots of them are still at large. A nice little reunion for them,” he finished disgustedly.

 

“But if they were the Death Eaters, why did they Disapparate when they saw the Dark Mark?” said Ron. “They’d have been pleased to see it, wouldn’t they?”

 

“Use your brains, Ron,” said Bill. “If they really were Death Eaters, they worked very hard to keep out of Azkaban when You-Know-Who lost power, and told all sorts of lies about him forcing them to kill and torture people. I bet they’d be even more frightened than the rest of us to see him come back. They denied they’d ever been involved with him when he lost his powers, and went back to their daily lives. … I don’t reckon he’d be over-pleased with them, do you?”

 

“So whoever conjured the Dark Mark,” said Hermione slowly, “were they doing it to show support for the Death Eaters, or to scare them away?”

 

“Your guess is as good as ours, Hermione,” said Mr. Weasley. “But I’ll tell you this: it was only the Death Eaters who ever knew how to conjure it. I’d be very surprised if the person who did it hadn’t been a Death Eater once, even if they’re not now. Listen, it’s very late, and if your mother hears what’s happened she’ll be worried sick. We’ll get a few more hours sleep and then try and get an early Portkey out of here.”

 

Harry looked at Remus, but he was falling asleep in his chair, so Harry instead looked at Sirius, who caught his eye. Harry mouthed, “Dream: coincidence?”

 

Sirius shook his head and stepped outside, a white light briefly flashing after he did. Harry was glad Sirius agreed that it wasn't a coincidence. Three days ago — it felt like much longer, but it had only been three days — he had awoken with his scar burning. And tonight, for the first time in thirteen years, Lord Voldemort’s mark had appeared in the sky. What did these things mean?

 

When Harry went back to bed, he thought about these things for a very long time, unable to sleep, until exhaustion finally caught up with him and he dozed off at last.

 

 

 

Endnotes: Borrowed the idea of runic casting from “To Reach Without” by inwardtransience, but in this 'verse some forms of runic casting are legal, just difficult to learn; some other applications of it may still be illegal. If you like long, well written stories with transgender characters in them, “To Reach Without” is a great one, as it features trans-girl Harry! That story also gave me the idea for elves having their own language. As to where Xeno learned it, well, he's a magizoologist among other things. Primarily into cryptids, but still, it makes sense he'd want to learn elf-speech.

 

I may have gotten slightly carried away with the scene where Winky got caught with Ron's wand (Harry's in canon). But Sirius is a good man and doesn't suffer fools or bigots lightly.

 

By the way: in this fic, Crouch Junior stole Ron's wand instead of Harry's because Harry's was too well secured in its holster. Ron – being lazy – had his wand unsecured in its holster, it was a lot easier to slip his wand out than it was to try to figure out all the straps and buckles and buttons Harry has his wand secured by when he isn't using it much, like in the summer months when he's technically not supposed to be using it at all.

 

Also, I spelled it Daily Profit (with an F) on purpose, because that's the spelling Sirius was picturing in his head.

 

I don't actually know much French, so those parts are thanks to Google Translate. Any mistakes are Google's.

 

I haven't decided if Sirius and Remus are an item or not. But they are close enough it does get noticed and talked about.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sorry this took so long, my life is full of issues. Depression, IBS, writer's block, etc.

 

 

Chapter Six: Back in Black

 

Something occurred to Harry when he woke up that morning, and he bolted out of bed and found Sirius, who was already cooking breakfast.

 

“What's the matter, pup?”

 

“Mrs. Weasley doesn't know we're safe! What if she reads the paper and worries about us? And then there's that clock of hers!”

 

“Don't worry, I thought of that myself last night and sent her a patronus message about it. 'Spot of bother at the match, might be in the paper. Don't worry, we're all safe. Nobody got seriously hurt.' Good message?”

 

“A great one, thanks for thinking of her. Wish I'd thought of it myself.”

 

Sirius tousled his hair. “Not a problem. Her kids were involved. If something happened and you were involved, I'd want to know as soon as possible.”

 

Harry smiled at this, and speared a sausage on his fork.

 

When everyone else was up, they all ate as fast as possible, and the tents got put away and stowed so they could get an early portkey back to the Burrow as quick as they could. Mrs. Weasley was still worried despite Sirius's message, and chided him for saying the Dark Mark showing up at the match was “a spot of bother,” but it could have been a lot worse. The event did indeed get into the paper; no doubt Skeeter had been to cover the match anyway and took advantage of the chaos to write an article about it titled “SCENES OF TERROR AT THE QUIDDITCH WORLD CUP,” complete with a twinkling black-and-white photograph of the Dark Mark over the treetops.

 

Bill handed his father the newspaper. Mr. Weasley scanned the front page while Percy looked over his shoulder.

 

“I knew it,” said Mr. Weasley heavily. “Ministry blundersculprits not apprehendedlax securityDark wizards running uncheckednational disgrace … Who wrote this? Ah, of course … Rita Skeeter.”

 

“That woman’s got it in for the Ministry of Magic!” said Percy furiously. “Last week she was saying we’re wasting our time quibbling about cauldron thickness, when we should be stamping out vampires! As if it wasn’t specifically stated in paragraph twelve of the Guidelines for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans —”

 

“Do us a favor, Perce,” said Bill, yawning, “and shut up.”

 

“Xeno's mentioned,” Mr. Weasley said. “Listen to this: 'If the terrified wizards and witches who waited breathlessly for news at the edge of the wood expected reassurance from the Ministry of Magic, they were sadly disappointed. A Ministry official emerged some time after the appearance of the Dark Mark refusing to comment. Though infamous kook Xenophilius Lovegood, who was walking with the Ministry official, claimed that nobody was hurt. Whether this statement will be enough to quash the rumors that several bodies were removed from the woods an hour later, remains to be seen.’ Oh really,” said Mr. Weasley in exasperation, handing the paper to Percy. “Nobody was hurt. Rumors that several bodies were removed from the woods … well, there certainly will be rumors now she’s printed that.”

 

An owl flew in just then and dropped something on Harry's lap before flying off. He opened it up and looked at it.

 

“That was fast,” Harry said.

 

“What is it?” Mr. Weasley asked.

 

“That special edition of the Quibbler that Mr. Lovegood mentioned.”

 

The magazine was much, much thinner than usual, and was titled “Death Eaters Resurface At Quidditch World Cup.” The picture on the cover was a color version of the same picture the Prophet had. He opened it up and read.

 

Death Eaters Resurface At Quidditch World Cup

By Xenophilius Lovegood

 

For the first time in thirteen years, members of the terrorist organization known as the Death Eaters have resurfaced to cause mayhem and panic at the Quidditch World Cup, though thankfully nobody was hurt or killed, despite the appearance of the Dark Mark. (This is according to Xenophilius Lovegood, who was there personally and witnessed the Ministry actions to try to stop these dangerous criminals.) These Death Eaters, who somehow managed to worm their way out of a sentence in Azkaban, staged a riot on Monday night after the match to remind us all that they escaped imprisonment through deceit, and that they are still just as dangerous and vile and hateful as once they were.

 

Once led by Tom Marvolo Riddle, better known by his nom de guerre of 'Lord Voldemort,' these cowards pleaded ignorance, coercion, and bewitchment to avoid Azkaban after Mr. Riddle fell from power mysteriously on Samhain of 1981, but their resurfacing at the match for a spot of Muggle torture and chaos proves them all liars and cowards.

 

The identity of the one who cast the Dark Mark is still under investigation by the Ministry of Magic, but whoever it was, the appearance of the Dark Mark scared away all the other Death Eaters, further cementing their reputation as cowards. It became clear, in that moment, that no matter how much they may still enjoy being sadistic monsters who love torturing and killing innocent people, that they are still nonetheless no more keen to see Tom Riddle return to power than any of the rest of us are.

 

I don't know about you, dear readers, but I for one am deeply concerned that these violent terrorists we saw at the Quidditch World Cup are not only free to do as they like, but are also in the Ministry either as employees – like Mr. Walden MacNair, an acquitted Death Eater who now works for the ministry as an executioner for the Committee For the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, or independently wealthy yet with the ear of Minister Fudge and giving him bribes like Mr. Lucius Malfoy. Why are these men, who bribed and tricked and pulled strings to get out of trouble for their monstrous crimes, allowed power in the Ministry of Magic? If Tom Riddle were to return to his full power again, as many of us believe he will some day, doesn't their presence in the Ministry mean they may be weakening it from within, preparing for his return? And even if they think him dead, as many do, could he not still take advantage of their positions of power on his return?

 

Given the nature of many of the laws that have been passed or repealed in the last 13 years, I lean more toward the belief that they're weakening the Ministry from within, preparing for his return. It took Mr. Riddle and his gang of terrorists 11 years of war to try and fail to take the Ministry, but with 12 years for these lying cowards to worm their way into positions of power, and possibly even many more years (we hope!) for them to keep doing so, who knows how swift the next war may be lost to the Death Eaters?

 

Instead of letting these people run amok, preparing our country as a sacrifice to their dark master upon his return, we should instead cut the corruption out of our government. Anyone who was so much as accused of being a Death Eater should be given a proper trial with veritaserum, pensieve memory evidence, and hard evidence to exonerate them, rather than back-alley bribes and political tits-for-tat. We should look for Dark Marks on the left arms of all the accused, such as the Dark Mark seen on the arm of convicted-in-absentia Death Eater Peter Pettigrew. We should be able to know for sure that our government is free of this corruption. Even if all of the accused are truly innocent – which the riot at the Quidditch Cup tells us is not so – they should still prove they are innocent in a court of law. For as it stands now, the only accused Death Eater to be proven truly innocent of the accusations against him was Lord Sirius Black, thanks to his recent and long overdue trial.

 

Friends, country-men, the chaos at the match was a wake-up call: there are vipers hiding in the Ministry, ready to strike the moment their master tells them to. Tom Riddle, AKA You-Know-Who, may not be back yet, but we cannot afford to sit idle while his followers infiltrate the Ministry, no matter their reasons or motivations.

 

Harry checked the rest of the magazine, what little of it there was. It was mostly reprinted articles about the unofficial hearings of accused Death Eaters who avoided Azkaban, though there were also ads for subscribing to the magazine, and an order form for ordering back issues. Harry saw familiar names in it like Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Crabbe, Mr. Goyle, Mr. Knott, but also a few he didn't recognize.

 

“Not exactly up to professional standards,” Harry said, “but I like his bias a lot more than Rita's.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I wonder if I should tell Xeno that Tom is a half-blood?”

 

“Bloody stupid fool is going to get himself killed!” Sirius said, shaking his head in disbelief.

 

“Yes, I rather think that's a distinct possibility,” Mr. Weasley said. “Wasn't Igor Karkaroff one of the people who was released? He's not going to be happy with Xeno.”

 

“He was, yes. He was actually convicted of being a Death Eater in a trial. He only got released because he named names. Bloody stupid if you ask me. By all rights, he should still be in Azkaban. If anyone deserves Azkaban, it's scum like Karkaroff. And no matter what Dumbledore says, I don't trust Severus Snape, either.”

 

Harry's eyes went wide. “Professor Snape was a Death Eater?”

 

“Yes, he was. Dumbledore admits as much, but claims he turned tailcoat on the Death Eaters before Voldemort's fall. But the slimy git was always fascinated by the dark arts, was always hanging out with a whole load of people who became Death Eaters later.”

 

“So you're telling me that Dumbledore let someone who was essentially a magical Nazi into a school to teach children?”

 

“Exactly! You understand my feelings exactly, Harry.”

 

“And Dumbledore trusts him?”

 

“Yes. But Dumbledore is a trusting man. And he won't tell anyone why he trusts the git.”

 

Mr. Weasley stood up then. “Molly dear, I'm going to go into work to help smooth all this over.”

 

“Why?” Mrs. Weasley asked. “It's not your fault, you said no comment! It's Xeno that said something.”

 

“Yes, but more importantly, Rita Skeeter said something, and now it's going to be bedlam at the Ministry, I just know it. And since Xeno was there with me...”

 

“Arthur, it's not your problem.”

 

“Maybe not, but they're going to need all hands on deck. Anyway, I'll get paid overtime if I do.”

 

Mr. Weasley and Percy were soon both rushing off to work. Harry understood Percy going, but Mr. Weasley's motives were still a bit muddled to Harry.

 

“Oh by the way, Harry dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, “I got your last textbook, the new History of Magic book. Accio Harry's history book!”

 

A huge tome, easily 2000 pages thick, came hurtling through the air. Mrs. Weasley had to Banish the book slightly to slow it down before she could catch it, lest it break her hand. She almost dropped it when she did, Sirius having to jump up to catch it for her because it was too heavy to be held by just one hand.

 

“Good gods!” Harry exclaimed. “It's like, two or three times the size of the Bagshot book!”

 

Sirius shrunk it for him with his wand and handed the shrunken book to Harry. Harry took it, amazed at the fact that the shrinking spell reduced the book's weight as well as its size.

 

“Wow,” Harry said. He opened the book and looked at the inside book covers, squinting at the small text.

 

“'Jala Dreyfuss, wife of artificing magnate Apollyon Dreyfuss of Dreyfuss Artificing,'” he quoted. “So we were right! Our new teacher is Antigone's mom!”

 

“Well that sounds interesting,” Sirius said.

 

Ron came in then. “Hope she's a better teacher than Binns,” he said.

 

“It'd be difficult to be worse than Binns,” Harry remarked.

 

 

When Sirius and Harry went home shortly thereafter, Harry turned to Sirius.

 

“Do you think I should tell my friends about the dream I had the other day?”

 

Sirius sighed. “I don't know, pup. That's entirely up to you. On the one hand, they might worry. On the other hand, maybe worrying about the possibility will make it less shocking if he ever does manage to come back. And maybe we can stop him before he can do that. How's your occlumency going, anyway?”

 

“Not great. What about you? You getting lessons?”

 

“Kingsley Shacklebolt is going to train me in it, among other things. It was on the schedule during the first war, but we hadn't gotten around to it before your parents had to go into hiding. Now it's going to be prioritized.”

 

“Well I wish you better luck than I've had so far.”

 

~

 

A couple days later, Antigone and Harry were visiting the Weasleys again. They'd just gotten in from outside, where Mouse-Stalker had been doing tricks for the three of them, and were about to go eat lunch when Harry got a fire-call from Sirius. Harry went to take it, while Antigone wandered around looking at things.

 

“Yes, Sirius?”

 

“Well, Harry, good news. I talked with Ms. Pennyroyal, then talked with the Gringotts goblins, and I've managed to get the Exile Order on Andromeda Tonks lifted, so she and her family are officially part of the Black family again, in all but name. I haven't talked to them yet about whether they want to keep their Tonks surname or become Blacks in name again, I'll do that later. But I also owled them with the news, and since they're relatives of yours as well via James, they'd like to meet you if possible. Are you interested? Their daughter Dora is pretty fun, and she's training to be an auror.”

 

“Yes! When are we meeting them? And where?”

 

“I was thinking we could meet them in the drawing room of the house, tomorrow or the day after.”

 

“Excellent! I look forward to it,” Harry said, grinning. Real, genuine magical family members, even if they were distant relatives? He was looking forward to it.

 

“Wait, does this mean you and I are related, too?”

 

“Yes. Charlus Potter, your great-great-grandfather on your father's side, married Dorea Black. I'm sure that's not the only connection between our families, either, given how much pure-blood families inter-marry.”

 

“Um... are there any other black people among, well, the Blacks?”

 

“No. Euphemia Potter, James's mum, was black like you. She was a half-blood.”

 

“Ah, I see. And she only had the one kid, or what?”

 

“Yes. James was her only offspring. Not for lack of trying, I assure you. I suspect Fleamont – James's dad – was the issue. Inbreeding can create fertility issues, after all, and I'm pretty sure both of Euphemia's parents were either Muggleborn or had Muggleborn parents. Anyway, my knees are hurting, so I'm gonna go. You have fun there, okay? I'll come get you at five.”

 

“Sure thing, Sirius.”

 

With that, Sirius's head vanished from the flames, which in turn vanished because it was still summertime.

 

“Mrs. Weasley,” Harry heard Antigone say, “where did you get this clock?”

 

Mrs. Weasley came over to check which clock she meant. It was the one that told where everyone in the family was, and included options like 'work,' 'home,' 'traveling,' 'jail,' and 'mortal peril.' Harry wondered which one it would go to if someone ended up in Azkaban, since being around dementors could put you in mortal peril. He also knew he didn't want to ever find out the answer.

 

“Oh that old thing? I made that shortly after Arthur and I got married.”

 

Antigone's eyes went wide. “You made that? Mrs. Weasley, I'm reasonably certain this is completely unique. Daddy would pay you a generous percentage of the profits if you'd tell him how you did it and let him make and sell copies.”

 

Mrs. Weasley blinked. “Would he really?”

 

“Yes. Daddy is a good and honorable man, and I would make sure he kept his word. And while I'm not an expert, I'm pretty sure you'd never want for anything again for decades to come with a contract like that.”

 

“Really? I mean, it was just something I threw together one week, didn't seem all that difficult to me.”

 

“Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't, I dunno, but I am fairly certain nobody else has anything like it. Do you mind if I talk with my dad about it?”

 

“Well, goodness knows we could do with some more money, and if it's money for having invented something other people will find useful... sure, Antigone, you do that. Tell him to owl me with a time to meet.”

 

“And I'll see if Sirius can get you Ms. Pennyroyal there too, just in case. A little peace of mind, you know.”

 

“Oh my, but solicitors are so expensive!”

 

“I doubt Sirius would mind. Heck, it'd probably amuse him to use his bigoted family's money to hire a solicitor to help a 'blood traitor' family. And if it pans out, you can pay him back for her fee.”

 

“Well... I'll have to talk with Arthur about it before I agree to anything.”

 

“Naturally,” Antigone said.

 

That out of the way, Harry and Antigone went back outside.

 

“So, Antigone, your mum is our new History of Magic teacher, isn't she?”

 

“Drat! Should've known you'd figure it out. Yes, she is.”

 

“Cool. What's she like as a teacher, do you know?”

 

“Pretty good. She tutored me in History because she knew about Binns being horrible. I can't stay awake in that class, and nobody in my year can, but I still managed to ace all my tests thanks to Mum.”

 

“That sounds pretty good to me,” Harry said.

 

~

 

The next day – a Friday, Sirius had Harry get dressed in his nicest Muggle clothes, since Andromeda and Nymphadora Tonks were coming over to meet Harry for the first time, and Harry didn't have any robes that were nice enough without being too much for the occasion (he'd gotten some dress robes but those were way too fancy for meeting family). He put on some black slacks, a white button-up shirt, and some black loafers and waited with Sirius by the Floo. (Off to one side in case it wasn't someone friendly, so they couldn't get a clean shot right out of the grate.)

 

With a whoosh, green flames rose in the grate and out stepped a tall, beautiful woman with kind eyes and brown hair. She was regal in bearing and had come out of the Floo with almost unnatural grace, something Harry wondered strongly how she managed.

 

“Andi! Good to see you again!” Sirius said exuberantly.

 

“Siri,” she said with a smile and a nod, still getting out of the way.

 

The green fire rose up again, and a better reason for being off to one side occurred: Nymphadora shot out of the Floo like a bullet, tripped on the hearth rug, and fell in a heap on the ground.

 

“I'm okay,” she said, standing up again and siphoning dust off her robes with her wand.

 

“Harry Potter, meet Andromeda Tonks. Andromeda Tonks, Harry Potter.”

 

Andromeda and Harry shook hands, both smiling.

 

“And the human cannonball over there is her daughter, Nymphadora Tonks.”

 

“Yes, and if you know what's good for you, you'll never call me Nymphadora again. I'm just Tonks.”

 

“Though as her mother, I know she tolerates being called Dora by family members.”

 

“Ones I like, anyway,” Tonks said. “I haven't made up my mind yet on you two, though.” She looked warningly at Sirius and Harry.

 

“Harry Potter, Auror Tonks,” Sirius said. “Auror Tonks, Harry Potter.”

 

Harry and Tonks shook hands.

 

“You're an Auror?” Harry asked with a note of disbelief in his voice.

 

“Yeah, only just qualified back in April,” she said. “Old Mad-Eye – my mentor in the program – was glad I finally managed it, so he could finally get around to retiring, like he'd been planning. I nearly didn't manage it, almost failed on stealth and tracking – I'm dead clumsy. But I made up for it in Concealment and Disguise.”

 

“Glad to hear it,” Harry said with an indulgent smile.

 

There was silence, Tonks looking at Harry with an expression he couldn't decode for about 30 seconds before she got impatient and said, “Aren't you gonna ask me how exactly I made up for it?”

 

“Um... should I?”

 

Tonks sighed, as her mother chuckled. “Well I suppose I'm just used to people taking the bait I set up for them. Anyway, it's because of this,” she said.

 

Before Harry's eyes, Tonks screwed up her face like she was concentrating on something, and she shrank down, her skin color darkening, her face changing shape, her hair turning black and unruly, and her eyes turning bright green. In seconds, he was looking at a replica of himself, but without his glasses.

 

“Wow! That's some impressive transfiguration,” Harry said.

 

“Thanks,” she said (and boy was it weird to hear a woman's voice come out of what looked like his body), “but the only part I did with my wand was changing my robes. The rest is because I'm a metamorphmagus!”

 

“That's the one where you can change your appearance at will, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Cool!”

 

“Thanks,” she said, shifting back into her normal appearance, but with bubblegum-pink hair.

 

“Hmm... you know, I think I know why you're clumsy,” Harry said.

 

“Oh? Why?”

 

“Well if you're always changing your body's appearance, even its size and proportions, that's got to be playing havoc on your proprioception. It's a Muggle scientific word. See, for a long time Muggle scientists have been debating how many senses humans actually have. Most agree we have more than the well-known five. Proprioception is one of these other senses, it refers to the sense the human brain has for what the body feels like. It allows us to move around without always running into things, but any changes to the body that happen faster than the brain can adjust to, like growth spurts during puberty, can make people clumsy because their brain doesn't know the dimensions of the body anymore. It's why people going through puberty can be awkward, hormones aside.”

 

“Oh, I think I get it,” Tonks said. “So because I keep using my conscious mind to change my body, the subconscious part of my brain that does that proprioception thing can't keep up, so I get clumsy. Hmm... you know, I think you're right. There have been times I've gone months without doing more than changing my hair color, and I was a lot more graceful during those months. Then I started changing more again, and got clumsy again.”

 

“You know about subconscious versus conscious minds?”

 

“Oh yeah. My dad insists I keep up with my Muggle schooling, including taking some college correspondence classes.”

 

“All that on top of your Hogwarts classes and then Auror training?” Harry asked.

 

“Yep,” she said proudly.

 

“Cool!”

 

“So, young Harry,” Tonks said in an affected tone of voice, “what do you want to do when you grow up?”

 

“I don't know. The only wizarding jobs I know about are Auror, Ministry worker, teacher, and curse-breaker.”

 

Tonks frowned in concern. So did Andromeda.

 

“Aren't you about to enter fourth year, Harry?” Tonks asked.

 

“Yeah. Why?”

 

“Well what did your Head of House tell you about your career options?”

 

“Nothing. Why? Should she have?”

 

Tonks and her mom looked at each other significantly.

 

“I thought careers advice was a fifth year thing,” Sirius said.

 

“Well yes,” Andromeda said, “there is a careers advice meeting in fifth year before O.W.L.s, but for me it was my second meeting. The first was at the end of second year, to help me choose my electives.”

 

“Me too,” Tonks said. “Mum was a Slytherin, I was a Hufflepuff. What are you, Harry?”

 

“Griffindor.”

 

“So was I,” Sirius said.

 

“In that case, Sirius,” Andromeda said, “Professor McGonagall is slacking in her duties as Head of House. Harry, did you ever discuss careers with her in any of your other meetings with her?”

 

Harry looked confused. “What other meetings?”

 

“Sprout had monthly meetings with every student when I was in school,” Tonks said, “and that was only back in '91 and '92.”

 

Andromeda nodded. “My Head of House, Professor Slughorn, met with the Slytherins monthly too. I've heard from some of the recent graduates that Professor Snape does the same thing.”

 

“Some of the Ravenclaws I've, uh, dated over the years have mentioned similar meetings with Flitwick,” Tonks said.

 

Harry blinked. “Uh... the only time I ever see Professor McGonagall is in classes or in the corridors or Great Hall. I haven't heard of it being any different for anyone else in Griffindor. In fact, I've only ever seen her at the dorms like, two or three times, and those were during that whole Heir of Slytherin fiasco.”

 

Andromeda was shaking her head and clucking her tongue. “Sounds like Professor McGonagall is taking on too much work. Head of House, Deputy Headmistress, and Transfiguration Teacher to boot, I always did wonder about that. Seems I was right to wonder.”

 

“Heir of Slytherin fiasco? Where all those kids got attacked? I heard about that from Mad-Eye, but it wasn't in the papers. Thought he was having me on. But you say it was real?”

 

“Uh, yeah, it was. Voldemort – a younger version of him trapped in a book – took over er, someone's body, a first-year, and was attacking people with a basilisk.”

 

Andromeda nearly fell over in a faint at this, her daughter catching her just in time.

 

“A basilisk? In the school? Why wasn't the school shut down and thoroughly searched before reopening?”

 

“Um, well, by the time anyone knew what was attacking students, Antigone and I had killed it, down in the Chamber of Secrets.”

 

“That was real?” Andromeda said.

 

“Yes.”

 

She shook her head. “Maybe Lucius wasn't so wrong about Dumbledore after all, if that's what's become of the school. A Head of House not doing her full duty, and the school not being thoroughly searched for basilisk eggs or babies after one of them was running around the school for a year. You do know basilisks are always female, right? And that they can lay viable eggs?”

 

“I didn't. But uh, I think all she had to eat down there was rats. And she was huge! I doubt she had enough food to do more than sustain herself.”

 

“Well I very much hope you're right, but I'm not at all comfortable with you being there anymore. I know I have no say at all over that, I wasn't implying I should, but honestly, I'm glad Dora got out of there before that thing got loose.”

 

Thinking back to something he remembered, Harry added, “If it helps, Armando Dippet wasn't any more helpful. Nobody knew what was causing the attacks fifty some years ago when Voldemort was attacking people with the basilisk back then, and someone actually died during that one.”

 

“Perhaps, but I would hope Dippet would have had enough sense to tell the Ministry immediately upon finding a basilisk in the school, even if it was dead.”

 

“If it helps, I can have Mouse-Stalker, my pet snake, explore the castle looking for basilisks and their eggs.”

 

“Whadda you mean by that, Harry?”

 

“I'm a Parselmouth. And even if I wasn't, Mouse-Stalker is a magical snake, he can communicate with ordinary humans.”

 

“Oh. Um... does he know what their eggs look and smell like?” Andromeda asked.

 

Harry shrugged. “Dunno. I'll have to ask him later. He's upstairs napping now.”

 

“I'm bored now,” Tonks said. “This conversation is boring. Come on, Harry, is there anything fun to do around this place?”

 

Sirius scoffed loudly. “Harry mostly reads, talks to his snake, or goes to his friends' houses. The most fun that's been had in this house was when his friends have been over. Especially Luna and her bird, that raven of her's. But at least my mother isn't around to make our lives miserable.”

 

“Oh well then, I'll just have to find a way for us to have fun,” Tonks said, grinning.

 

“There's a dueling room if you're interested. Harry keeps running into trouble, he could use as much dueling training as he can get, and you're an auror.”

 

“Cool. Whadda ya say, cousin Harry?”

 

Harry smiled too. “Sounds like fun. I'll just have to do a few things first to prepare, since it's likely to be noisy.”

 

~ ~

 

In a dark alley, a feral cat was picking through garbage for something tasty when a small CRACK rent the air, making it run off in fright. Under a stolen invisibility cloak, two men had appeared, if the word “appeared” could apply to two people under an invisibility cloak. But even though they were unseen, they were making some noise as one ran into the other and cursed at him under his breath.

 

“Honestly, Wormtail, you're worse than useless,” Crouch said irritably. “If it was anyone less than Moody, I wouldn't have brought you along. No, don't say anything, we're trying to be sneaky here.”

 

The smaller, rat-faced man glared at his fair-haired partner in crime but complied. If he didn't cooperate, Crouch would no doubt tell their master, and he would be... displeased. Peter shuddered at the thought of his master's displeasure. Then he remembered what his master looked like, and he shuddered again.

 

Peter nodded and sighed, thinking as he followed along. He was mostly just here to help watch Crouch's back, he wasn't even really necessary. His only skill had ever been as a spy. He wouldn't even be any good at any heavy lifting, if it was needed.

 

It didn't help that Peter didn't like Crouch to begin with. It had been Crouch that had gotten him into all this shit to begin with. Peter had just been trying to get a desk job at the Ministry, something easy enough he could do but paid well enough for him to help his aging mother. He and Crouch Junior hadn't been friends in school – Peter's only friends had been the Marauders – but Crouch had been polite to him in school, and had tutored him a little when James, Sirius, or Remus had been unavailable, so he'd tried talking to Crouch to see if he could do anything to help him get a job. He hadn't known that the man hated his father, and that his father hadn't been too fond of him in turn. But Crouch Junior had taken advantage of his ignorance, had worked his charm on Peter, and had tricked him. By the time he'd figured out what he'd gotten involved in, it was too late to back out.

 

He had considered telling Dumbledore, and becoming a spy against Voldemort, but the thought had filled him with pants-wetting terror. Voldemort was a legilimens, among other things, and Peter was a talentless blob. It would've taken a master occlumens to be a spy against Voldemort, and he'd die horribly or, from what he'd heard over the years, something far worse like tortured into insanity, if he failed. So he'd gone along with it. It hurt him to do so, and there had been many nights he'd cried himself to sleep, but if he didn't cooperate, they might kill his mother. He was afraid for his own life, of course, but it was even worse considering his mother was at risk.

 

And here he was helping the powerless Dark Lord rise again. Why? He could've just run for it. He'd figured out how Sirius had found him, so he could have taken a Muggle plane to the states or something and hide. But that would have involved getting hold of Muggle money, and a passport, and all that stuff. No, that hadn't been a real option. He could have slipped onto a barge or some other boat as a rat, but he got seasick easily; just the short trip to the continent had made him too miserable to ever try that again.

 

“Hey rat-face, I need you to scope out the place. Become a rat and do it.”

 

Without complaint except to glare at the man, Peter nodded and turned into a rat, running out to check out the defenses on Moody's house, sniffing around for as much as he could.

 

Maybe a train? He could have slipped onto a train as a rat and gone to China or India. Some of those cities would've been a great place for a rat to live, eating remains of various Chinese or Indian dishes. No, wait; India was too hot. Maybe northern China, or Mongolia? Yes, he could have done that. So why had he gone to Voldemort?

 

Oh, right. Because Dumbledore, Harry, Remus, and McGonagall knew about him. The Minister had seen him. Some Aurors had seen him. And they had photos of him. He'd since heard that he'd been tried and convicted in absentia and would go to Azkaban if the Ministry found him. And the Ministry would hunt for him, even if they had to send Aurors around the world to do it. It might be hard for them to find one particular rat in a world where billions of rats lived at any given moment, but, well... he knew himself well enough to know he'd have to become a pet. The life of a wild rat wasn't for him. He'd gotten pampered. He'd hid among a family with lots of great food, out of fear the other Death Eaters would hunt him as the Aurors would be now, and he would die. He'd grown spoiled.

 

Finishing his reconnaissance, Peter crawled under the cloak again and turned human once more to give Crouch his report. Then he followed along as Crouch did his own tests of the wards. He had no idea what Crouch was doing, exactly; the man was a brilliant sorcerer, could probably see or feel the wards like he'd seen Dumbledore do before. He remembered Crouch had received 12 O.W.L.'s, and just as many N.E.W.T.'s. He couldn't help remembering it; Crouch had mentioned it so many times in his rants against his father (“12 O.W.L.'s, 12 N.E.W.T.'s, and nothing is ever good enough for him! Just because I'm asexual and refuse to have a nice proper marriage and have kids, as though it's my fault he and mother only had one child!”)

 

It was too late to back out now. Either Crouch or their master had some kind of animagus tracking spell or ritual or something, he was sure those two massive brains would know how to find him now they knew he was alive. Why had he done this again? Oh right, proof he was alive. The Death Eaters who hadn't gone to prison would be looking for him. Even if they didn't have proof, even if he hadn't been caught in that cage, he was sure Sirius would have eventually told Remus, and Remus would have told Dumbledore. Dumbledore had resources, too, and he would call on those to find Peter, certain he'd do... exactly as he'd ended up doing: running back to Voldemort, because what other option did he really have? Powerful wizards would be after him no matter what he did. Might as well get the biggest, baddest one of the bunch on his side.

 

During the interrogation, Remus had sighed in response to telling them he'd been afraid to die, and then Remus had said, “Then you should have died to protect your friends, as we would have done for you.” It had been weighing on his mind ever since. Sure, running away would have meant being hunted forever, but well... he hadn't wanted any of this to begin with. Voldemort's return would mean Sirius or Remus could die, and he still loved them, despite everything that had happened. But his mother was still alive. She'd be fine, she was a pureblood and didn't rock the boat. As long as Peter remained loyal to the master he'd been tricked into following, she'd be alright.

 

Still... they'd all be fine if he'd just gone into hiding again. Voldemort couldn't rise again without help, and he'd had only one unsuccessful try in 12 years. But then, Crouch was alive. He hadn't known that at the time, of course, but it was still true. Eventually, his father's control over him would have slipped, or the old man would have died. And Voldemort – an undying wraith – would have had a loyal follower seeking him out at the first opportunity. Given that Crouch had broken through the Imperius curse enough to steal a wand and cast the Dark Mark into the sky at the Quidditch World Cup, Peter figured it would've been another year at most before the man broke free on his own. So even though the most logical choice at the time would have been to just flee, he'd somehow still made the best choice for himself and his mother. Yes, he was convinced. Probably.

 

“Okay, it's time.”

 

Snapping out of his thoughts, Peter listened to the plan. He didn't understand most of it, but something about Crouch having some tools he'd enchanted to help him slip through the wards. Peter didn't know much about wards or enchanting, but given this was Crouch Junior, he assumed these enchanted tools had to be something ridiculously difficult to do, if they could get through the wards of the oldest still-living and still sane (mostly) Auror in a long time, even if he was extremely paranoid. He trusted that Crouch was smart enough to do it.

 

Crouch got out the tools, and they absolutely reeked of Black Magic, which went some ways to explaining how they would work. Peter was just worried that they'd set off some alarm. But, as if anticipating this, Crouch did something to the tools that made the Black Magic in them retreat inside themselves so they no longer gave off the reek of Black Magic. Then Crouch got to work.

 

After a long, tense period of time, Crouch said “Aha!” and led the way forward through the wards and up to the house. He paused for another space of time to check for more wards or traps, and after carefully undoing the few he found, they quietly sneaked into the house.

 

Creeping through the house, they soon found Moody's bedroom, where the man was asleep. He still had that horrible magical eyeball in its socket, and so was literally sleeping with one eye open, after a fashion.

 

It should have been a simple matter to stun the man in his sleep and replace him, but despite all their careful ward-cracking, Moody apparently had something unknown to Crouch on his bed, and was able to duck out of the way of the stunner just in time, feathers flying everywhere from the impact of the stunner on the mattress.

 

Peter ran off as a rat when the fighting broke out, amazed at the epic battle. Moody didn't have his fake leg in, but he was still hopping around, spells flying and splashing off each others' shields. This was no good; the noise would alert the neighbors, and the Ministry would soon come, if Moody didn't win the duel first. So Peter sneaked behind Moody in the chaos and turned human again, stunning the man in the back. He fell over, but Crouch caught him and put him on the bed, taking the time to draw some sort of runic casting spell over him with his wand, which he briefly explained would keep Moody asleep until the spell was manually lifted.

 

Crouch dug a flask out of his pocket, plucked one of Moody's hairs for the potion. It bubbled and fizzed and changed colors, finally settling on the shade of yellow that had been really popular in the Muggle world during the 70's, very similar to the color of dijon mustard. Crouch pulled the magical eye out of Moody's socket, washed it off with the aguamenti spell, then pulled his robes off and downed a dose of the potion. His skin bubbled sickeningly and his body shifted into the scarred form of Moody. Peter hurried to fetch the wooden leg for Crouch, who put it on, and put the eye in his own socket. With some more help from Peter, Crouch got dressed like Moody, and got the real Moody into his own magical trunk, which was in the room because he'd been packing for his new job at Hogwarts.

 

Then Peter hid under the bed as a rat while Crouch as the fake Moody talked to the Muggle policemen who came to investigate the disturbance, and later people from the Ministry. Crouch went to the Ministry with them to try clearing things up, and when he did, and the coast was clear, Peter waited for him, still as a rat.

 

Hours later, Crouch returned, pulling a little mirror out of his pocket to inform their master of their success. With that out of the way, Crouch and Peter both got some sleep, Crouch taking the bed while Peter slept as a rat.

 

After waking up and having breakfast, Crouch incapacitated Moody with some more runic casting spells before lifting the one that made Moody sleep. The ones he'd added made Moody unable to move on his own (except for his eyes), or speak, or make any kind of noise. Nor could he apparate or even use magic. Crouch then Imperiused Moody to make him compliant, using the same spell to wake him up the rest of the way. Then Crouch looked into Moody's eye and cast a spell: legilimens! Peter knew just enough about that spell to know that Crouch was scanning Moody's memories, probably to better imitate Moody. Crouch would, after all, be very close to Dumbledore for a year. Not only was the old man a legilimens capable of reading someone's mind without using a wand, he was also very perceptive and wary, despite always being willing to give people second chances.

 

In fact, it had been such a worry to Peter that he'd actually spoken up about it to his master's face – well, his back actually, because Peter found it hard to keep from vomiting when he saw the face of Voldemort's ugly baby-sized homunculus body. No, wait; “ugly” wasn't a strong enough word. “Ugly” applied to Moody, his body so scarred by curses he looked like a mutated tree that had been through a hurricane and then attacked by a troop of angry baboons wielding woodcarving tools, but Moody was as gorgeous as Bellatrix compared to Voldemort's vile, hideous, grotesque, grisly, horrid, revolting monster-baby body. No, even those words weren't strong enough. Repugnant? Frightful? Monstrous? An abomination that should be immediately killed by throwing it into the hot, cleansing fire of the sun itself? Yes, that was better.

 

Wait, he'd gotten off track there. What had he been thinking about? Oh yes, that's right; he'd been worried enough about Dumbledore figuring out Crouch wasn't really Moody that he'd brought it up to his master, summoning his weak courage to poke a hole in the plan. He knew Harry had been talking with Sirius, he could have just brought Peter to Sirius, but he turned him in instead. And even if that weren't true, he didn't want any of his friends to die, nor did he want Harry to die. But Voldemort's return was inevitable; at least this way, he could try to help his friends and Harry a little.

 

His master had put his mind at "ease," though; Crouch was an accomplished occlumens, their master had taught him during the first war for reasons Peter didn't know. So with Crouch being an occlumens, all he had to do was act the part and have enough of the right memories to say the right words and do the right actions, and Dumbledore could be fooled. And Crouch was brilliant, with a nearly photographic memory. Which was a good thing, because today was September the first, and Crouch had to be there in time for the feast. They were running out of time, but Crouch spent most of that time sorting through Moody's memories, the Imperius Curse making Moody compliant enough to cooperate with the process, making it faster and more efficient.

 

“Good thing I was in the drama club in Hogwarts back in the day,” Crouch said. “And thank goodness for The Method. That will make this mission much easier.”

 

Crouch ended up leaving – as Moody – late enough that even Apparating straight to the gates of the castle, he'd still be late for the feast. But Peter was just glad to see the back of him. He sighed, and steeled himself before returning to his master for the most miserable and disgusting year of his life to date.

 

~ ~

(The Hogwarts Express.)

 

Harry and Sirius took the Floo directly to King's Cross Station – which was something you could do, Harry hadn't known that – with Kreacher floating his trunk along ahead of them. Dobby had wanted the job, but then Winky had shown up on Sirius's back doorstep, bawling her eyes out over being dismissed by Mister Crouch. That had been a couple days ago, and she was still wearing the neat little dress and shoes Crouch had dressed her in. Well, Harry supposed it had been neat once upon a time; she'd apparently gone wandering through some very dirty places in the days between her dismissal and her appearance at Grimmauld Place. She was still prone to crying jags, and had taken to drinking butter beer, which apparently was strong enough to get House Elves drunk. Kreacher refused to have anything to do with her, so it fell to Dobby to take care of her. Thus, Kreacher was with them at the train station.

 

As Kreacher loaded the trunk onto the train and into a compartment filled with Luna, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, giving Hermione a nasty look as he did so, Harry wondered why people didn't just Floo to Hogwarts, or to some place in Hogsmeade. He was still glad he had permission to go there now, he hadn't had that last year. He'd been to the village to see Sirius, but he hadn't really properly seen the village yet, and he was looking forward to that.

 

“Hello, Harry,” Luna said, smiling, as she looked up from an issue of the Quibbler.

 

“Hi, Luna,” he said back with a smile. He went on to say hi to the others as well.

 

Ron got up to say goodbye to his parents after this, and Harry and Hermione followed him, since they liked the Weasleys, and it would give Harry a chance to say goodbye to Sirius. As they hopped onto the platform, they saw Charlie and Bill were there for some reason.

 

“I might be seeing you all sooner than you think,” said Charlie, grinning, as he hugged Ginny good-bye.

 

“Why?” said Fred keenly.

 

“You’ll see,” said Charlie. “Just don’t tell Percy I mentioned it … it’s ‘classified information, until such time as the Ministry sees fit to release it,’ after all.”

 

“Yeah, I sort of wish I were back at Hogwarts this year,” said Bill, hands in his pockets, looking almost wistfully at the train.

 

Why?” said George impatiently.

 

“You’re going to have an interesting year,” said Bill, his eyes twinkling. “I might even get time off to come and watch a bit of it. …”

 

“A bit of what?” said Ron.

 

But at that moment, the whistle blew, and Mrs. Weasley chivied them toward the train doors.

 

“Ask Draco,” Sirius whispered to him while giving him one last hug before the train left. Harry nodded – the only reply he had time for – and quickly joined Hermione in boarding the train.

 

Hermione stuck her head out the window; they'd picked a compartment very close to the exit for once. “What's happening at Hogwarts?” she asked. “If it's big enough, I think we ought to be forewarned.”

 

“Oh no, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, Hermione,” Mrs. Weasley said.

 

“Mum!” said Ron irritably. “What d’you three know that we don’t?”

 

“You’ll find out this evening, I expect,” said Mrs. Weasley, smiling. “It’s going to be very exciting — mind you, I’m very glad they’ve changed the rules —”

 

“What rules?” said Harry, Ron, Fred, and George together.

 

“I’m sure Professor Dumbledore will tell you. … Now, behave, won’t you? Won’t you, Fred? And you, George?”

 

The pistons hissed loudly and the train began to move.

 

“Tell us what’s happening at Hogwarts!” Fred bellowed out of the window as Mrs. Weasley, Bill, and Charlie sped away from them. “What rules are they changing?”

 

But Mrs. Weasley only smiled and waved. Before the train had rounded the corner, she, Bill, and Charlie had Disapparated.

 

“Hey Gred, Forge,” Harry said with a grin.

 

“What is it, Harry?”

 

“Yes, do you know something we don't? Maybe from a certain dogfather?”

 

“No, but Sirius told me to ask Draco about it.”

 

“Oh,” one of the twins said, his face falling. “Well okay, Draco's not so bad anymore. Alright, let's go find out what Draco knows. You coming too, Ron? Hermione?”

 

Ron got up to join them, but Hermione decided to read and wait for them to tell her what Draco had said. But she hadn't gotten far in her book, because they found Draco in less than a minute. He was with Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis, apparently deep in some kind of discussion, which stopped the moment the door of the compartment opened. Draco excused himself, promised they'd talk again later, and went to see what Harry and the others wanted, following them into the compartment with Hermione in it.

 

“Yes, Harry? You wanted something?”

 

“Hi, Draco. We wanted to know if you know what big event is supposed to be happening at Hogwart's this year.”

 

Draco's eyebrows raised. “You mean you didn't know? Weasley has family in the Ministry, I know Sirius is rejoining the Aurors, and nobody's told you yet?”

 

“No, we're asking on a lark,” Ron said sarcastically. “Of course we don't know! Wouldn't be any point asking if we already knew, would there?”

 

“Alright, Weasley, no need to get snippy with me. I'll tell you.” Draco paused for dramatic effect. “You may want to sit down for this.”

 

Anyone who wasn't already sitting sat down at this.

 

“Good. So... for the first time in hundreds of years,” Draco said in a dramatic voice with dramatic hand gestures to match, “Hogwarts will be hosting the event of a lifetime! Full of danger, daring stunts, puzzles, and a cash prize at the end. For glory and honor, long ago canceled because so many people died--”

 

“The Triwizard Tournament,” Hermione interrupted. “I've read about it. Am I right?”

 

Draco made a frustrated noise something like a growl or a groan. “Yes, Hermione! Gods, why did you have to go and ruin the moment?”

 

“What's the Triwizard Tournament?” Harry asked.

 

Looking annoyed now, he said, “Oh, well... it used to be, a long time ago, that the three most prestigious schools of magic in Europe – Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang – would have this contest every few years or so, the Triwizard Tournament. They'd have to get through three Tasks, often involving dangerous magical creatures, like cockatrices or chimeras or whatever.”

 

“Cool!” the Weasley twins said in stereo.

 

“Fame---

 

“--glory--”

 

“--babes--”

 

“--and you said there's a cash prize at the end?”

 

“Yes. This year it's 1000 galleons.”

 

“WOW! Fred, think how many snackboxes we could make with that!”

 

“Yeah, we could totally get our business off the ground with that!”

 

“We should enter!”

 

“Hold on, you two,” Draco drawled. “There's more to it. Father told me, they're restricting who can enter to ages 17 and older.”

 

WHAT? But that means only seventh years will be able to do it!”

 

“Well, and a few sixth years.”

 

“Which would be us, dear brother, if... wait a minute, when does this thing start?”

 

Draco looked thoughtful, trying to remember. “Hmm... I think it starts on Samhain.”

 

“Damn!” the twins shouted.

 

“What's the matter?” Hermione asked.

 

“We're not 17 until April.”

 

“We need to research ways of restricting things by age, and how to circumvent them. If we figure it out, any of you want in?”

 

Draco smiled. “I'd like that. If I were the school's Champion, that would further strengthen my new position in Slytherin.”

 

“A Slytherin champion?” one of the twins said.

 

“Well hey, Gred, they're cunning, resourceful, and ambitious. A Slytherin could make a good champion. A Griffindor would be a better choice, but still, a Slytherin wouldn't be bad at it.”

 

“I see what you mean, Forge. Sure, Draco, we'll let you know when we've figured something out to get you considered. But in exchange, you need to tell us absolutely everything you know about the Tournament. Any detail might be the one that helps us unlock getting into it.”

 

“Plus, Antigone's helped Harry do dangerous stuff before. She'd make a good Champion, too.”

 

“Speaking of Harry, do you want in, Harry?”

 

“What? Oh no no no. No thank you. I doubt I could do that even if I wanted to. I imagine you have to do it in front of a crowd, right? With lots of screams and other noises?”

 

The twins' faces fell. “Oh, right. Forgot you can't handle crowds and loud noises very well.”

 

“Wait,” Draco said, “weren't you at the World Cup? Rhetorical question by the way, I know you were there, and you know I know.”

 

“Yeah, but I had my earmuffs and sunglasses and potions and stuff to prepare me. They cut down on the noise and stuff so I could watch the thing. But adding in the stress of being in front of all those people, which I've never done before... well, I highly doubt I could do it. So no thank you. It'll be difficult enough just watching the thing. Which I will, because it's such a big deal.”

 

“Ah, okay,” Draco said, nodding. “Never mind, then.”

 

They continued talking amicably about the other schools of magic, the Triwizard Tournament, and other things for a while, before Draco wandered off to talk with Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis again. The remainder of them kept talking until lunch, when they too started wandering around to visit with other friends in other compartments.

 

Like last year, the weather got worse the farther along they went. Harry wondered why this was; there weren't any dementors left at the castle, they'd long since been removed back to Azkaban.

 

All in all, it was a rather uneventful train ride this year; no dementors, no mysteries to solve, and nobody bothering them. Some people, like Crabbe and Goyle, were standoffish, but largely it was an easy train ride.

 

Harry and the others, sans Draco, were back in their original compartment when it was time to get ready. Ginny left to find another compartment to change in, and Harry waited, assuming Luna would follow her, but instead Luna got up, nonchalantly pulled her dress off over her head to everyone's shock, and put her robes on. Harry had been looking right at her when she'd done it, and had gotten an eyefull of Luna's knickers and bra. They had been brightly colored, in eye-watering neon yellows and blues. He stood there, frozen with shock and... other feelings. It took Ron dragging him out to find another compartment to change in before he snapped out of it.

 

The Hogwarts Express slowed down at last and finally stopped in the pitch-darkness of Hogsmeade station. As the train doors opened, there was a rumble of thunder overhead. Hermione bundled up Crookshanks in her cloak and Ron made to grab Scabbers, pausing when he remembered and looking disgusted. Soon they left the train, heads bent and eyes narrowed against the downpour. The rain was now coming down so thick and fast that it was as though buckets of ice-cold water were being emptied repeatedly over their heads.

 

They said Hi to Hagrid on their way past him to the carriages, expressing pity for the poor first-years who had to cross the lake in the downpour. They were much relieved to finally enter the warm, dry castle. Well, it was dry at least.

 

Or it was, until Peeves started chucking water-bombs at them. They'd just happened to enter around the same time as Antigone, though, and after the first one landed on Ron, she used her wand to catch the others and chuck them back at Peeves.

 

When McGonagall came to the rescue, Antigone dried the floor with her wand and led them all into the Great Hall, where they took their seats at their respective tables. They sat down with the rest of the Gryffindors at the far side of the Hall, next to Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor ghost. Pearly white and semitransparent, Nick was dressed tonight in his usual doublet, but with a particularly large ruff, which served the dual purpose of looking extra-festive, and insuring that his head didn’t wobble too much on his partially severed neck. Harry wondered how ghosts changed clothes, it didn't seem like something they should be able to do.

 

“Good evening,” he said, beaming at them.

 

“Says who?” said Ron, taking off his sneakers and emptying them of water. “Hope they hurry up with the Sorting. I’m starving.”

 

Just then, a highly excited, breathless voice called down the table.

 

“Hiya, Harry!”

 

It was Colin Creevey, a third year to whom Harry was something of a hero.

 

“Hi, Colin,” said Harry warily.

 

“Harry, guess what? Guess what, Harry? My brother’s starting! My brother Dennis!”

 

“Er — good,” said Harry.

 

“He’s really excited!” said Colin, practically bouncing up and down in his seat. “I just hope he’s in Gryffindor! Keep your fingers crossed, eh, Harry?”

 

“Sure thing,” he said, masking his sarcasm well.

 

Harry looked up at the staff table. There seemed to be rather more empty seats there than usual. Hagrid, of course, was still fighting his way across the lake with the first years; Professor McGonagall was presumably supervising the drying of the entrance hall floor, but there was another empty chair too, and Harry couldn’t think who else was missing. But he did notice a woman of Indian heritage up there, too; must be Antigone's mother.

 

“Where’s the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?” said Hermione, who was also looking up at the teachers.

 

“Dunno,” said Harry.

 

“Maybe they couldn’t get anyone!” said Hermione, looking anxious.

 

Harry scanned the table more carefully. Tiny little Professor Flitwick, the Charms teacher, was sitting on a large pile of cushions beside Professor Sprout, the Herbology teacher, whose hat was askew over her flyaway gray hair. She was talking to Professor Sinistra of the Astronomy department. On Professor Sinistra’s other side was the sallow-faced, hook-nosed, greasy-haired Potions master, Snape — Harry’s least favorite person at Hogwarts.

 

On Snape’s other side was an empty seat, which Harry guessed was Professor McGonagall’s. Next to it, and in the very center of the table, sat Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster, his sweeping silver hair and beard shining in the candlelight, his magnificent deep green robes embroidered with many stars and moons. The tips of Dumbledore’s long, thin fingers were together and he was resting his chin upon them, staring up at the ceiling through his half-moon spectacles as though lost in thought. Harry glanced up at the ceiling too. It was enchanted to look like the sky outside, and he had never seen it look this stormy. Black and purple clouds were swirling across it, and as another thunderclap sounded outside, a fork of lightning flashed across it.

 

“Oh hurry up,” Ron moaned, beside Harry, “I could eat a hippogriff.”

 

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than the doors of the Great Hall opened and silence fell. Professor McGonagall was leading a long line of first years up to the top of the Hall. If Harry, Ron, and Hermione were wet, it was nothing to how these first years looked. They appeared to have swum across the lake rather than sailed. And one young boy, who Harry soon learned was Colin's brother Dennis, had even fallen into the lake, and was wrapped up in Hagrid's coat, struggling to pull it along with him. The effect was like putting a half-drowned chihuahua inside of a woolly mammoth pelt and watching it try to drag the enormous thing around. His small face protruded from over the collar, looking almost painfully excited, despite his predicament.

 

Harry traced shapes on the skin of his hand as the Hat sang its song for the year, and all through the Sorting. Harry couldn't help but think they could make the train a little faster, or serve everyone a proper lunch, so the wait wouldn't be so aggravating every time.

 

Naturally, Dennis ended up in Griffindor with his brother, to Harry's chagrin. The situation with Creevey wasn't as bad as it could have been, but Colin still annoyed him, and Dennis looked worse.

 

Finally, the Sorting was over and the food appeared. Harry was so hungry he ate without talking at all, even though Sir Nicholas kept trying to talk with him. Ron engaged Nick in conversation instead, talking with his mouth full.

 

They talked of this and that during the feast, whenever they weren't eating. But finally the feast was over, and Dumbledore did his usual announcements. Aside from adding to the list of banned items and introducing the new History of Magic teacher Professor Jala Dreyfuss (to much enthusiastic applause), he also declared that Quidditch wasn't going to be played this year because of the Triwizard Tournament, which didn't surprise Harry at all. But Dumbledore had barely begun to say anything about the Tournament when there was a deafening rumble of thunder and the doors of the Great Hall banged open.

 

A man stood in the doorway, leaning upon a long staff, shrouded in a black traveling cloak. Every head in the Great Hall swiveled toward the stranger, suddenly brightly illuminated by a fork of lightning that flashed across the ceiling. He lowered his hood, shook out a long mane of grizzled, dark gray hair, then began to walk up toward the teachers’ table.

 

A dull clunk echoed through the Hall on his every other step. He reached the end of the top table, turned right, and limped heavily toward Dumbledore. Another flash of lightning crossed the ceiling. Hermione gasped.

 

The lightning had thrown the man’s face into sharp relief, and it was a face unlike any Harry had ever seen. It looked as though it had been carved out of weathered wood by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what human faces are supposed to look like, and was none too skilled with a chisel. Every inch of skin seemed to be scarred. The mouth looked like a diagonal gash, and a large chunk of the nose was missing. But it was the man’s eyes that made him frightening.

 

One of them was small, dark, and beady. The other was large, round as a coin, and a vivid, electric blue. The blue eye was moving ceaselessly, without blinking, and was rolling up, down, and from side to side, quite independently of the normal eye — and then it rolled right over, pointing into the back of the man’s head, so that all they could see was whiteness.

 

The stranger reached Dumbledore. He stretched out a hand that was as badly scarred as his face, and Dumbledore shook it, muttering words Harry couldn’t hear. He seemed to be making some inquiry of the stranger, who shook his head unsmilingly and replied in an undertone. Dumbledore nodded and gestured the man to the empty seat on his right-hand side.

 

The stranger sat down, shook his mane of dark gray hair out of his face, pulled a plate of sausages toward him, raised it to what was left of his nose, and sniffed it. He then took a small knife out of his pocket, speared a sausage on the end of it, and began to eat. His normal eye was fixed upon the sausages, but the blue eye was still darting restlessly around in its socket, taking in the Hall and the students.

 

“May I introduce our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?” said Dumbledore brightly into the silence. “Professor Moody.”

 

Instead of the normal applause at such announcements, there was dead silence. Well, he had made a rather dramatic entrance, hadn't he? And he was rather scary looking. Harry wondered if maybe another Auror mightn't have been a better choice.

 

“Mad-Eye Moody? Damn, that reminds me, Harry. I forgot to mention, in all the fuss on the train, but Moody got into some kind of trouble with the Ministry earlier and Dad had to help him out of it. I can tell you more about it later.”

 

“What happened to him?” Hermione whispered. “What happened to his face?”

 

“Dunno,” Ron whispered back, watching Moody with fascination.

 

Moody seemed totally indifferent to his less-than-warm welcome. Ignoring the jug of pumpkin juice in front of him, he reached again into his traveling cloak, pulled out a hip flask, and took a long draught from it. As he lifted his arm to drink, his cloak was pulled a few inches from the ground, and Harry saw, below the table, several inches of carved wooden leg, ending in a clawed foot.

 

Dumbledore cleared his throat.

 

“As I was saying,” he said, smiling at the sea of students before him, all of whom were still gazing transfixed at Mad-Eye Moody, “we are to have the honor of hosting a very exciting event over the coming months, an event that has not been held for over a century. It is my very great pleasure to inform you that the Triwizard Tournament will be taking place at Hogwarts this year.”

 

The noise level in the room went back up to normal, then slightly higher, at these words.

 

“Some of you will not know what this tournament involves, so I hope those who do know will forgive me for giving a short explanation, and allow their attention to wander freely.

 

“The Triwizard Tournament was first established some seven hundred years ago as a friendly competition between the three largest European schools of wizardry: Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang. A champion was selected to represent each school, and the three champions competed in three magical tasks. The schools took it in turns to host the tournament once every five years, and it was generally agreed to be a most excellent way of establishing ties between young witches and wizards of different nationalities — until, that is, the death toll mounted so high that the tournament was discontinued.

 

“There have been several attempts over the centuries to reinstate the tournament,” Dumbledore continued, “none of which has been very successful. However, our own departments of International Magical Cooperation and Magical Games and Sports have decided the time is ripe for another attempt. We have worked hard over the summer to ensure that this time, no champion will find himself or herself in mortal danger.

 

“The heads of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang will be arriving with their short-listed contenders in October, and the selection of the three champions will take place at Halloween. An impartial judge will decide which students are most worthy to compete for the Triwizard Cup, the glory of their school, and a thousand Galleons personal prize money.”

 

“I’m going for it!” Fred Weasley hissed down the table despite already knowing about the Tournament, his face lit with enthusiasm at the prospect of such glory and riches. He was not the only person who seemed to be visualizing himself as the Hogwarts champion. At every House table, Harry could see people either gazing raptly at Dumbledore, or else whispering fervently to their neighbors. But then Dumbledore spoke again, and the Hall quieted once more.

 

“Eager though I know all of you will be to bring the Triwizard Cup to Hogwarts,” he said, “the heads of the participating schools, along with the Ministry of Magic, have agreed to impose an age restriction on contenders this year. Only students who are of age — that is to say, seventeen years or older — will be allowed to put forward their names for consideration. This” — Dumbledore raised his voice slightly, for several people had made noises of outrage at these words, and the Weasley twins were suddenly looking furious — “is a measure we feel is necessary, given that the tournament tasks will still be difficult and dangerous, whatever precautions we take, and it is highly unlikely that students below sixth and seventh year will be able to cope with them. I will personally be ensuring that no underage student hoodwinks our impartial judge into making them Hogwarts champion.” His light blue eyes twinkled as they flickered over Fred’s and George’s mutinous faces. “I therefore beg you not to waste your time submitting yourself if you are under seventeen.

 

“The delegations from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang will be arriving in October and remaining with us for the greater part of this year. I know that you will all extend every courtesy to our foreign guests while they are with us, and will give your whole-hearted support to the Hogwarts champion when he or she is selected. And now, it is late, and I know how important it is to you all to be alert and rested as you enter your lessons tomorrow morning. Bedtime! Chop chop!”

 

Dumbledore sat down again and turned to talk to Mad-Eye Moody. There was a great scraping and banging as all the students got to their feet and swarmed toward the double doors into the entrance hall.

 

“Who’s this impartial judge who’s going to decide who the champions are?” said Harry.

 

“Dunno,” said Fred, “but it’s them we’ll have to fool. I reckon a couple of drops of Aging Potion might do it, George.”

 

“Dumbledore knows you’re not of age, though,” said Ron.

 

“Yeah, but he’s not the one who decides who the champion is, is he?” said Fred shrewdly. “Sounds to me like once this judge knows who wants to enter, he’ll choose the best from each school and never mind how old they are. Dumbledore’s trying to stop us giving our names.”

 

“People have died, though!” said Hermione in a worried voice as they walked through a door concealed behind a tapestry and started up another, narrower staircase.

 

“Yeah,” said Fred airily, “but that was years ago, wasn’t it? Anyway, where’s the fun without a bit of risk? Hey, Ron, what if we find out how to get ’round Dumbledore? You never said, before.”

 

“Sure,” Ron said. “It'd be cool to enter.”

 

“What about you, Harry?” Neville asked.

 

“Not interested. I'd probably get badly sick from the stress and the noise,” Harry said. “Besides, we're in fourth year, we probably haven't learned enough yet.”

 

“I definitely haven’t,” Neville said gloomily. “I expect my gran’d want me to try, though. She’s always going on about how I should be upholding the family honor. I’ll just have to — oops.”

 

Neville’s foot had sunk right through a step halfway up the staircase. There were many of these trick stairs at Hogwarts; it was second nature to most of the older students to jump this particular step, but Neville’s memory was notoriously poor. Harry and Ron seized him under the armpits and pulled him out, while a suit of armor at the top of the stairs creaked and clanked, laughing wheezily.

 

“Shut it, you,” said Ron, banging down its visor as they passed.

 

Endnotes: This is the second chapter I've named after a song. :)

 

Ended the chapter there because it's been so long since I updated, and if I went on, it'd be another couple weeks before I got to publish this.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Heh, this year in aspie Potter's adventures looks like it'll have the most chapters of them all so far. Already on chapter seven, and we've not even gotten to Samhain yet.

 

Sorry this took so long. I've been mostly focusing on an original-fiction project of mine that is really entertaining to write. But since I can thank the Aspie Potter fanfic story and my Many Faces fanfic story for being able to do that one as well as I am, and for giving me loads of ideas for it, and because I'm going to be using these fics to test out things like writing about the emotions of characters with anxiety and so on, I won't be giving up on them. (You'd think, with my having anxiety and depression, that it'd be easy to write that stuff for characters, but honestly I generally ignore all that stuff, so it's going to be a challenge.) I know this chapter is short, but hey, it's been a month, you've waited long enough. Anyway, enjoy!

 

 

Chapter Seven: X-Ray Eyes

 

In the morning, Harry realized he hadn't told his friends about his dream with Voldemort. He'd told Sirius immediately, and had remembered it again after the fiasco at the Quidditch Cup, but had forgotten about it since then. He felt like they should know about it, but he couldn't think when would be a good time to tell them now, without a bunch of other people overhearing.

 

He pulled them aside after breakfast, which hadn't been easy. Hermione had wanted to go to the library for some reason, but upon seeing Harry's expression, she had agreed to delay her trip. Danzia was worried she'd miss her first classes, but came anyway, while Antigone and Angela left, Danzia promising to pass on the tale later. So the four of them had gone into a spare classroom and set up privacy wards their older friends and Sirius had taught them, so they wouldn't be interrupted or overheard.

 

“What’s up, Harry?” said Ron, the moment they were sure they couldn't be eavesdropped on.

 

“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Harry said. “On the Saturday before the Quidditch Cup, I woke up with my scar hurting again.”

 

All their reactions were almost exactly as Harry had imagined them. Hermione gasped and started making suggestions at once, mentioning a number of reference books, and everybody from Albus Dumbledore to Madam Pomfrey, the Hogwarts nurse. Ron and Danzia simply looked dumbstruck.

 

“But — he wasn’t there, was he?” Ron said. “You-Know-Who? I mean — last time your scar kept hurting, he was at Hogwarts, wasn’t he?”

 

“I’m sure he wasn’t in London,” said Harry. “But I was dreaming about him … him and Peter — you know, Wormtail. I can’t remember all of it now, but they were plotting to kill … someone.”

 

He had teetered for a moment on the verge of saying “me,” but couldn’t bring himself to make Hermione look any more horrified than she already did. Danzia, however, looked at him like she'd seen something in his expression, but she didn't say anything.

 

“It was only a dream,” said Ron bracingly. “Just a nightmare.”

 

“Yeah, but was it, though?” said Harry. “It’s weird, isn’t it? … My scar hurts, I have this very vivid dream, and three days later the Death Eaters are on the march, and Voldemort’s sign’s up in the sky again.”

 

“Don’t — say — his — name!” Ron hissed through gritted teeth.

 

“Sorry, I keep forgetting,” Harry said.

 

Danzia was looking thoughtful.

 

“And remember what Professor Trelawney said?” she asked. “At the end of last year?”

 

Professor Trelawney was their Divination teacher at Hogwarts. Hermione’s terrified look vanished as she let out a derisive snort.

 

“Oh Danzia, you aren’t going to pay attention to anything that old fraud says?”

 

“You weren’t there,” said Danzia. “You didn’t hear her. This time was different. I told you, she went into a trance — a real one. And she said the Dark Lord would rise again, greater and more terrible than ever before. Said he’d manage it because his servant was going to go back to him … and that night, Wormtail escaped.”

 

There was a silence in which Ron fidgeted absentmindedly.

 

“Yes,” Hermione said, “but you also told us the servant in the prophecy was 'chained' for 12 years. Pettigrew wasn't chained, he was in hiding.”

 

“Well who else could it have possibly meant? Harry had a dream with Wormtail in it! Clearly he went back to Voldemort!”

 

“Why would he do that, though? Couldn't he have run and hidden somewhere else?”

 

Danzia shrugged. “No idea, Hermione. Maybe he didn't like his chances.”

 

“But You-Know-Who has been a powerless wraith for the last 12 years! He only had the one shot at returning, and we cocked it up for him,” Ron said. “So I don't reckon he'd be coming back anytime soon without Wormtail helping him.”

 

“It's weird, I'll admit,” Harry said. “But the fact of the matter is, for whatever reason, he went back to his old master. So the prophecy is at least partly coming true. And Sirius and Dumbledore both seem very concerned; why else get Moody out of his very short retirement to become a DADA teacher? They could've used Aurors every year this whole time and didn't, why use one now all of a sudden? And Moody's said to be the best of the best, isn't he?”

 

“Um, yeah, maybe,” Ron said. “I mean yeah, he's the best for sure, I was saying 'maybe' to the rest of it.”

 

“Well as interesting as this conversation is,” Danzia said, “I need to get to class before I'm late. Adios!”

 

The others nodded and took off as well to get to their own classes.

 

~

 

Harry, Ron, and Hermione were outside all morning. They had Herbology with the Hufflepuffs first, where they squeezed horrible pus out of a plant called a bubotuber; it smelled like petrol. Harry wondered first how something so horrible could possibly be used to fight acne (especially when it caused skin problems when undiluted) and then wondered if it was just the smell or if the pus was actually chemically similar to petrol, and whether or not a Muggle car would run on bubotuber pus as a fuel source.

 

After Herbology was Care of Magical Creatures with Hagrid. Harry had some hope that Hagrid's first year had taught him to teach them more normal magical creatures rather than monsters or boring things like flobberworms, but the moment he saw Hagrid standing around several open crates, he had a very bad feeling he wasn't going to like what was in the crates. As they drew nearer, an odd rattling noise reached their ears, punctuated by what sounded like minor explosions. This did not fill Harry with hope.

 

As it turned out, his suspicions were correct. For in the crates were some of the most foul creatures Harry had ever seen. Called blast-ended skrewts, they looked like deformed, shell-less lobsters, horribly pale and slimy-looking, with legs sticking out in very odd places and no visible heads. There were about a hundred of them in each crate, each about six inches long, crawling over one another, bumping blindly into the sides of the boxes. They were giving off a very powerful smell of rotting fish. Every now and then, sparks would fly out of the end of a skrewt, and with a small phut, it would be propelled forward several inches.

 

“On’y jus’ hatched,” said Hagrid proudly, “so yeh’ll be able ter raise ’em yerselves! Thought we’d make a bit of a project of it!”

 

“And why would we want to raise them?” said an annoyed voice.

 

The Slytherins had arrived. The speaker was Theodore Knott. Crabbe and Goyle were chuckling appreciatively at his words.

 

Hagrid looked stumped at the question.

 

“I mean, what do they do?” asked Knott. “What is the point of them?”

 

Hagrid opened his mouth, apparently thinking hard; there was a few seconds’ pause, then he said roughly, “Tha’s next lesson, Knott. Yer jus’ feedin’ ’em today. Now, yeh’ll wan’ ter try ’em on a few diff’rent things — I’ve never had ’em before, not sure what they’ll go fer — I got ant eggs an’ frog livers an’ a bit o’ grass snake — just try ’em out with a bit of each.”

 

“First pus and now this,” muttered Seamus.

 

Harry didn't know if he really wanted to do this, but he liked Hagrid, so he did. But the skrewts burned people when they shot off, even through dragon-hide gloves. Harry would even swear he felt their slime through the gloves.

 

What was more, some of them had stingers, and others had suckers on their bellies, which Hagrid supposed was to suck blood. Harry idly wondered how they were supposed to learn about the skrewts when even Hagrid didn't seem to know much of anything about them.

 

“Well, I can certainly see why we’re trying to keep them alive,” said Knott sarcastically. “Who wouldn’t want pets that can burn, sting, and bite all at once?”

 

“Just because they’re not very pretty, it doesn’t mean they’re not useful,” Hermione snapped. “Dragon blood’s amazingly magical, but you wouldn’t want a dragon for a pet, would you?”

 

Harry and Ron grinned at Hagrid, who gave them a furtive smile from behind his bushy beard. Hagrid would have liked nothing better than a pet dragon, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione knew only too well — he had owned one for a brief period during their first year, a vicious Norwegian Ridgeback by the name of Norbert. Hagrid simply loved monstrous creatures, the more lethal, the better.

 

On their way back to the castle after class, Draco pulled up alongside them and said just loud enough for them to hear, “Theo may be an arse, but he has a point. If Hagrid wants to keep his job, he really should tone it down a bit. If we have another incident in class once those foul things grow up, even that solicitor Hagrid had last year won't be able to save his job.”

 

“Well let's all hope it doesn't come to that,” Harry said.

 

After lunch, Ron went to double divination, while Harry, Hermione, and Draco went to Arithmancy. It was still mostly just learning maths at this point; there wouldn't be any spell crafting for another year or two yet, that was more of an NEWT level thing. So far, Harry was struggling in this class. Maths had never been his strong suit, and it wasn't any better now. He was a little jealous of Hermione and Draco, to be honest; the two of them were #1 and #2 in the class, respectively. Harry wondered if Draco being so good at maths was due to the private tutoring he'd gotten growing up.

 

“Hey Draco,” Harry said as they made their way to dinner, “what do middle and lower class people do to learn to read and stuff, do you know?”

 

“Oh, they have their own school. I have to say, when I first heard about it, I was a little jealous to be honest.”

 

“Really? Why is that?” Hermione asked.

 

“Oh, well, it's just that it gets kind of lonely sometimes, being an upper-class kid. Wizarding population has been going down for centuries, and sometimes that becomes very obvious. My family used to live in France before moving here before the last war. According to Mother, they moved because their house was too big for their needs. Malfoy Manor feels too big for our needs now, in fact. It's made for fifty people or more to live or work in, and with just the three of us there now, it just feels so... wrong.

 

“Plus, of course, I hardly ever saw other kids my own age. Oh sure, there were planned gatherings with the other pure-blood children, but there weren't nearly enough of those. And I spent so much time being tutored I didn't have much time for anything else. Occasionally several of us would be tutored together in one location, but it's a mark of prestige to have a private tutor, so that only happened with subjects that were difficult to find tutors for. Thus, a lot of long, lonely days. Which is why I was jealous of the middle and lower-class school. Especially since they start there when they're about seven and stay together until they're seventeen.”

 

“What?” Harry asked. “They do? How? I mean, they have to go to Hogwarts at some point, don't they?”

 

Draco sneered slightly, then sighed. “Did you really think Hogwarts was for all classes of wizards and witches, Harry? Think of the people who come here. Almost all of them are from old noble families. The ones that aren't are Muggle-borns. It's in the school charter that Hogwarts has to take the Muggle-borns. It's been there since the beginning; debate over that clause in the charter is why Slytherin left the school. He didn't trust Muggle-borns, and at the time that point of view made sense. It's obsolete now, of course, but the school was founded long before the Statute of Secrecy.”

 

“So the middle-class and lower-class witches and wizards go to a different school?” Hermione asked.

 

“Yes. There's a couple of them. One of the two isn't very popular, it struggles to stay open; I don't remember its name, even. The other one, though... Winterbloom School, they call it. It may teach mundane topics for most of the years, but it does also teach magic, which is why they named it after another name for witch-hazel.”

 

Harry shook his head, amazed. “Wow. So that's why the school population here is so small?”

 

“Yes. The pure-blood elite used to have huge families that would have made the Weasleys look like slackers. Only the first-born could inherit, of course, but the whole family would live in the manors their whole lives, and there would be human servants as well as house elves. For instance, some of the older fashions were easier to get on and off attended by wizards or witches than by house elves.”

 

“Wow. Houses built for so many people, and there's only the three of you there?”

 

“Well, and we have a house elf. We used to have two of course. We got Dobby at a time when the family was larger.” He sighed sadly.

 

They might have continued, but as they met up with Ron and then reached the entrance hall, which was packed with people queuing for dinner, a loud voice rang out behind them.

 

“Weasley! Hey, Weasley!”

 

Harry, Ron, and Hermione turned. Knott, Crabbe, and Goyle were standing there, each looking thoroughly pleased about something.

 

“What?” said Ron shortly.

 

“Your dad’s in the paper, Weasley!” said Malfoy, brandishing a copy of the Daily Prophet and speaking very loudly, so that everyone in the packed entrance hall could hear. “Listen to this!

 

FURTHER MISTAKES AT THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC

 

 

It seems as though the Ministry of Magic’s troubles are not yet at an end, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent.  Recently under fire for its poor crowd control at the Quidditch World Cup, and still unable to account for the disappearance of one of its witches, the Ministry was plunged into fresh embarrassment yesterday by the antics of Arnold Weasley, of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office.”

 

Knott looked up.

 

“Imagine them not even getting his name right, Weasley. It’s almost as though he’s a complete nonentity, isn’t it?” he crowed.

 

Everyone in the entrance hall was listening now. Knott straightened the paper with a flourish and read on:

 

Arnold Weasley was yesterday involved in a tussle with several Muggle law-keepers (“policemen”) over a number of highly aggressive dustbins. Mr. Weasley appears to have rushed to the aid of “Mad-Eye” Moody, the aged ex-Auror who retired from the Ministry when no longer able to tell the difference between a handshake and attempted murder. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Weasley found, upon arrival at Mr. Moody’s heavily guarded house, that Mr. Moody had once again raised a false alarm. Mr. Weasley was forced to modify several memories before he could escape from the policemen, but refused to answer Daily Prophet questions about why he had involved the Ministry in such an undignified and potentially embarrassing scene.

 

“And there’s a picture, Weasley!” said Knott, flipping the paper over and holding it up. “A picture of your parents outside their house — if you can call it a house! Your mother could do with losing a bit of weight, couldn’t she?”

 

Ron was shaking with fury. Everyone was staring at him.

 

“Get stuffed, Knott,” said Harry. “C’mon, Ron.”

 

“Oh yeah, Potter, you've stayed at their hovel before, haven't you? So tell me, is her mother really that porky, or is it just the photo?”

 

“Why do you want to know, Knott? Want to see if she's fat enough for your own mom to eat?” Harry said in a rare fit of wit, then looked at Ron to see if he was okay.

 

“Oh Hell,” Draco muttered. “Harry, let's go. Now.”

 

“Why?”

 

Draco pointed jerkily at Knott, whose face was a shade of puce that Uncle Vernon would have been proud of. His hands were flexing into and out of fists, like he was fighting the urge to grab his wand.

 

“DON'T. YOU. DARE. TALK. ABOUT. MY. MOTHER!”

 

“Whatever you're going to say, Harry, Ron, I suggest you don't. Knott's mother died years ago.”

 

Harry went a paler brown at this.

 

“Knott, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I--”

 

“I DON'T WANT YOUR PITY, BLOOD TRAITOR!”

 

“Come on,” Draco said, trying to get them to leave. “He won't accept anything less than a duel at this point.”

 

Harry turned around to go with Draco when it happened.

 

BANG!

 

Several people screamed — Harry felt something white-hot graze the side of his face — he plunged his hand into his robes for his wand, but before he’d even touched it, he heard a second loud BANG, and a roar that echoed through the entrance hall.

 

“OH NO YOU DON’T, LADDIE!”

 

Harry spun around. Professor Moody was limping down the marble staircase. His wand was out and it was pointing right at an all-brown ferret, which was shivering on the stone-flagged floor, exactly where Knott had been standing.

 

There was a terrified silence in the entrance hall. Nobody but Moody was moving a muscle. Moody turned to look at Harry — at least, his normal eye was looking at Harry; the other one was pointing into the back of his head.

 

“Did he get you?” Moody growled. His voice was low and gravelly.

 

“No,” said Harry, “missed. But that's... what did you do?”

 

“LEAVE IT!” Moody shouted.

 

“Leave — what?” Harry said, bewildered.

 

“Not you — him!” Moody growled, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Crabbe, who had just frozen, about to pick up the white ferret. It seemed that Moody’s rolling eye was magical and could see out of the back of his head.

 

“Wait,” Harry said, comprehension dawning, “is that ferret... is that Knott?”

 

Moody started to limp toward Crabbe, Goyle, and the ferret, which gave a terrified squeak and took off, streaking toward the dungeons.

 

“I don’t think so!” roared Moody, pointing his wand at the ferret again — it flew ten feet into the air, fell with a smack to the floor, and then bounced upward once more.

 

“I don’t like people who attack when their opponent’s back’s turned,” growled Moody as the ferret bounced higher and higher, squealing in pain. “Stinking, cowardly, scummy thing to do.”

 

“Stop it!” Harry shouted. “You're going to hurt him!”

 

Moody paused, the ferret in midair. “He attacked you when your back was turned. By the look of it, that spell would've hurt a lot, put you in the hospital wing. I heard enough of the conversation before it to know the context, Potter. I don't care how upset he was or how much right he had to be upset. He should've challenged you to a duel instead of attacking you when you couldn't defend yourself.”

 

Moody went back to bouncing the ferret, and Harry rushed forward to rescue Knott. Just as he was about to grab the ferret, Moody spoke again.

 

“I wouldn't do that if I were you, Potter. If you grab him going one direction and I'm moving him with my wand in another, that'll hurt worse. But if you're that keen on helping this scum, I'll let him go,” Moody said.

 

Knott dropped to the floor, becoming human again in the same instant. His hair was ruffled, he looked bruised, and he was clutching his arm in pain. But when Harry tried to help him, Knot yelled.

 

“Don't touch me, freak!”

 

“Professor Moody!” said a shocked voice.

 

Professor McGonagall was coming down the marble staircase with her arms full of books.

 

“Hello, Professor McGonagall,” said Moody calmly. “Lovely weather today, isn't it?”

 

Professor McGonagall glared at Moody. “Don't think I didn't see that, Professor Moody. We never use Transfiguration as a punishment! Surely Professor Dumbledore told you that?”

 

“He might’ve mentioned it, yeah,” said Moody, scratching his chin unconcernedly, “but I thought a good sharp shock —”

 

“We give detentions, Moody! Or speak to the offender’s Head of House!”

 

“I’ll do that, then,” said Moody, staring at Knott with great dislike.

 

Knott, whose eyes were still watering with pain and humiliation, looked malevolently up at Moody and muttered something in which the words “my father” were distinguishable.

 

“Oh yeah?” said Moody quietly, limping forward a few steps, the dull clunk of his wooden leg echoing around the hall. “Well, I know your father of old, boy. … You tell him Moody’s keeping a close eye on his son … you tell him that from me. … Now, your Head of House’ll be Snape, will it?”

 

“Yes,” said Knott resentfully.

 

“Another old friend,” growled Moody. “I’ve been looking forward to a chat with old Snape. … Come on, you. …”

 

And he seized Knott's upper arm and marched him off toward the dungeons.

 

When Harry came back, he thought Ron looked like he was fighting to keep from laughing. He glared at Ron.

 

“It wasn't funny, what Moody did to Knott. Even if he did attack me when my back was turned, that's no excuse.”

 

“I don't know, Harry,” Draco said. “In a combat situation, taking out an enemy who's hexing you in the back is probably a good thing. I mean, he shouldn't have bounced him around like that, but honestly I think we're lucky he didn't do something worse to Knott.”

 

At dinner, Fred and George tried talking about how cool Moody was. Harry didn't say anything, just focused on his food. He supposed he shouldn't let one bad experience with the man color his perceptions, but he thought Rita Skeeter might have had a point where it came to Moody.

 

~

 

Moody was in front of his third-year class of Ravenclaws and ready to start taking roll when a blond girl who looked like her head was permanently in the clouds wandered in as though she was just exploring the castle and had spotted something interesting inside this room she wanted to look at. Her eyes were large, making her look permanently surprised.

 

“Can I help you, missy?” he asked her.

 

“I'm sorry I'm late, Professor. I was having trouble finding my shoes. I think the nargles were hiding them, the little tricksters.”

 

There were stifled titters throughout the class at this. Moody glared at them, and they stopped.

 

“Well sit down, missy, I'm just about to start taking roll.”

 

“I like rolls,” she said as she began to practically float, like a cloud on a lazy summer day, toward her seat. He stared at her, bewildered, until she sat down.

 

He began to take roll. When he got to 'Lovegood, Luna,' the weird blond girl who'd been late said happily, “I'm here. More accurately, my physical body is here, and my mind is mostly focused on the here and now. Other parts of me are elsewhere, but I suppose for the purposes of your question, it's the same thing as saying 'I'm here.'”

 

“Rrright. Moving on...”

 

When he finished taking roll, he began. When he told his students to put their books away, he'd noticed the Lovegood girl hadn't even taken hers out. He found he couldn't remember if she'd even had a backpack with her.

 

“Right then,” he said, when they'd all put their books away. “I’ve had a letter from Professor Lupin about this class. Seems you’ve had a pretty thorough grounding in tackling Dark creatures — you’ve covered boggarts, Red Caps, hinkypunks, grindylows, Kappas, and werewolves, is that right?”

 

There was a general murmur of assent, but there was also a voice.

 

“Are you going to teach us about umgubular slashkilters, heliopaths, and other highly dangerous dark creatures?”

 

It was the Lovegood girl again. He was confused about how to answer. He'd never heard of umgubular slashkilters, even after studying every dark creature he could find out about, but he couldn't preclude the possibility she'd discovered something new. Some magical creatures had only been discovered fairly recently, by Newt Scamander, after all. But the other students were laughing at her. So he wasn't sure the best answer. He tried to think of what the real Moody would do in this situation, as was his standby.

 

“No, girlie, we're doing curses now. I reckon you've all got a pretty good handle on the kinds of dangerous magical beasts you're likely to run across in everyday life. But you're far behind on what wizards can do to each other, so we're going to be studying curses so I can get you lot up to scratch in case you ever need it, and I only have one year to do it.”

 

As expected, someone made a comment about that, and he told the class that yes, he was only doing it as a favor to Dumbledore before going back to his quiet retirement. Then he went back to teaching the class.

 

Just as with all his other classes, he was starting out with the Unforgivable Curses. That had been hard to convince Dumbledore about, especially where it concerned the younger students, but the old goat had agreed it was necessary, if his worries and suspicions were true.

 

Giving essentially the same speech for the demonstration with the spiders that he did in all his classes, the reactions were much as expected. Most students laughed at his demonstration of the Imperius Curse. A few looked sick. The Lovegood girl's expression didn't change at all, though. She watched it attentively, but she might have been looking at something completely normal, for all the reaction to it she showed in her face.

 

It went much the same way for the Cruciatus Curse. Many people screamed, many looked sick, others just jumped back in their seat or quivered in terror. But Lovegood just looked mildly disapproving, like he'd said 'arse' or some other mostly harmless thing.

 

For the Killing Curse, the whole room was frozen in horrified awe, and even here she stood out, for her expression looked no different than the one she'd given for the Cruciatus Curse.

 

When he had them taking notes afterward, as he was writing on the board (by looking out the back of his head – this magical eye really was miraculous and useful!) he noticed the Lovegood girl wasn't taking notes. He paused and turned around.

 

“Miss Lovegood! You're all supposed to be taking notes now. Why aren't you writing this down?”

 

“Oh, I don't need to, sir. I'm memorizing it all.”

 

He blinked at this. “You can do that, can you?”

 

“Yes. I used to take notes, but they kept disappearing, so I started working on mnemonic devices to memorize everything important instead. If things start going missing from inside my head, I'll have bigger problems than failing tests and missing homework.”

 

He decided to test her. “Okay, girlie, then repeat what I said right after I shrunk the second spider back to normal size.”

 

“You said, 'Pain. You don’t need thumbscrews or knives to torture someone if you can perform the Cruciatus Curse. That one was very popular once too. Right … anyone know any others?'”

 

His magical eye stopped looking every which way and looked right at her along with his other eye. “Impressive. And after the third spider?”

 

“That time, it was 'Not nice. Not pleasant. And there’s no counter-curse. There’s no blocking it. And only one known person has ever survived it. You all know his name, I'm sure, but I'll say it anyway: Harry Potter.'”

 

Crouch Junior was suddenly reminded of himself as a kid. Not in demeanor, he and this girl could not have been more different. But it sounded like she got bullied. Missing shoes, missing notes, who knew what else. And so she adapted by memorizing everything. They had the missing notes and the memorization in common, his notes used to keep going missing until he got to be a strong enough duelist to make the bullying stop. It was an interesting experience, seeing part of himself in someone else.

 

“Right. Carry on then,” he said, turning back to the board to continue the lesson.

 

He paid a bit more attention to her after that, especially at dinner that evening. She had gone over to sit with the Griffindors, next to Potter, in fact. It looked like she was friends with the boy, along with the Weasley boy and the Granger girl. That was potentially useful. Very useful indeed.

 

It was Potter's friendship with the Malfoy boy that had surprised him the most, though. It seemed Potter had gotten his hooks into the lad, making Lucius's boy turn blood traitor. Oh well, he was still angry at Lucius for wriggling out of being sent to Azkaban. He wasn't going to go out of his way to hurt the Malfoy boy, but if it happened to become a good idea to hurt or even kill him, well so much the better. Lucius deserved to suffer, after failing their master so thoroughly.

 

On Thursday, he finally had the Potter boy in class. Potter was predictable, where his Ravenclaw friend wasn't. He laughed with the others for the Imperius Curse demonstration, until 'Moody' ruined the mood by chastising them for it. Potter had also stared in horror as he tortured the spider, until Granger's shouting pointed out to him that one of the other students wasn't taking it well. He turned to look.

 

Ah, Longbottom , he thought. His greatest regret. He still believed it had been necessary to question them, even to torture them, even if Bella went too far. If she hadn't done that... if he'd been brave enough to stop her, they wouldn't have made the Aurors so keen on finding them and arresting them. What was more, their master had wanted to kill the Longbottoms himself, and would have done so if his curse against the Potter boy hadn't backfired on him.

 

Granger wasn't the only one concerned. Crouch could see in Potter's eyes that he was concerned, too. It looked like he and Longbottom weren't close friends, but were still friendly with each other, and Crouch already knew they shared a dorm. Well, he'd already been planning to give the boy that book, might as well use this as the impetus.

 

For now, back to the role of teacher. He'd already lifted the curse from the spider. He shrunk it, and went on with his lesson.

 

Potter's reaction to the Killing Curse was as predicted. He looked ill, and upset, but was bearing well under it. Crouch had heard the boy had been taken away from some pretty nasty Muggles, to live with the formerly imprisoned Sirius Black. Poor bastard; 12 years in Azkaban, and he hadn't even done what they'd accused him of. Crouch himself had nearly died in there, but at least he'd been given a trial. Honestly, didn't people see the rot that was infecting this government?

 

When the lesson was over, he clunked over to Longbottom, having to go down some stairs to catch up to him. Now it was time to play the caring teacher, suck up to the boy a little, and give him that book about water plants. It would be important for Potter to get through the Second Task alive. So he had tea with Longbottom. As predicted, the boy was cheered somewhat by the praise of his Herbology acumen and took the book readily. The seeds, figuratively speaking, were planted.

 

~

 

After his memorable first class with Professor Moody, Harry was glad to be sitting down to eat dinner, and even gladder to head upstairs afterward, even though he still had homework to do. He was putting the finishing touches on his Transfiguration homework when there was a tapping at the window. Harry got up to see what was making the sound. It was a raven. Assuming it was Luna's raven, Harry opened the window to let it in. It flew in, looking harried, and landed on a desk nearby.

 

Harry closed the window and looked at the raven. Unlike Writing Desk, this one was completely black. And it looked worried, somehow.

 

“Harry!” it said, in a voice he recognized as Luna's, while hopping up and down, flapping its wings in alarm. “Harry! It's me! Luna Lovegood!”

 

Harry's eyes went wide with shock. He knew ravens could talk, but that was Luna's voice alright. It couldn't really be her, could it? But then he remembered Moody had turned Knott into a ferret.

 

“Luna?” he asked.

 

“Yes, Harry. It's me! Help me! I'm a bird! Get Professor Flitwick!” The bird was again flapping its wings in distress.

 

“Right,” he said, bolting from the room so fast that he left the Fat Lady's portrait open, even though it was well past curfew.

 

The moment he got out there, he realized in a panic that he didn't know where Flitwick's office was, and anyway McGonagall's was closer. Running right past Filch's cat, he hurried as quick as he could to her office, hoping he didn't run into Filch on the way.

 

He made it to her office, and he hammered on the door.

 

“You don't have to knock so hard!” came McGonagall's voice. She opened the door. “Potter? You look like you've seen a chimera!”

 

“You gotta come quick, Professor! It's Luna, she's been turned into a bird!”

 

“Luna Lovegood?”

 

“Yes, in the Griffindor common room! Hurry!”

 

She nodded and he tried to run, but she grabbed his robes. “Slow down, Mr. Potter. I doubt she's going to get hurt in the few minutes til we get there. Try to keep it to a fast walk.”

 

“Right,” he said.

 

The two of them, walking as quickly as they dared, headed to the Griffindor portrait. They were waylaid by Filch.

 

“Not right now, Mr. Filch, we're in a hurry.”

 

Filch grumbled and let them pass. Not long after, they got to the portrait, which was closed now. McGonagall gave the password and they went inside.

 

The raven was still sitting where he'd left it. It looked up as they came in and started flapping around again.

 

“Professor McGonagall! It's me! Luna Lovegood!”

 

“Yes, I'll help you Miss Lovegood, don't fret.”

 

McGonagall waved her wand at the raven. Nothing happened. She frowned in confusion and tried it again, using a different spell this time. Again, nothing happened.

 

“Mr. Potter, I'm afraid this is an ordinary raven familiar, and not your friend Miss Lovegood.”

 

“But... what? But she spoke!”

 

“Ravens can speak, Mr. Potter. They can even imitate other voices.”

 

A sudden suspicion fell over him then, and Harry touched the feathers on the raven's back. When his fingers came away, they were slightly damp with a small amount of ink.

 

“Do you know a spell to siphon ink away?” Harry asked.

 

“Yes, of course. Why?”

 

“There's ink on this bird's back.”

 

Taking up her wand again, McGonagall removed the ink from the raven's back without even ruffling a feather. There was a large white mark there, shaped like a W.

 

“WRITING DESK!” Harry shouted in hurt anger.

 

Writing Desk opened his beak and laughed raucously, falling over on his back and rolling around as he did so. The noise was so great that several people came downstairs to see what it was all about.

 

“I'm going to hex all your feathers off, you little git!” Harry shouted, his wand out.

 

The raven's laughter stopped abruptly as it hurriedly got back on its feet and took off flying. Harry shot several hexes at the raven, who was squawking in true alarm now.

 

“MR. POTTER! Please stop it at once! You'll hit some bystander if you're not careful!”

 

He stopped throwing hexes around. McGonagall Summoned the bird into her hand, where it squawked louder than before.

 

“To whom does this raven belong, Mr. Potter?”

 

“He's Luna's. And given what I know of her sense of humor, she probably wasn't in on this trick. Writing Desk is just an over-intelligent, feathery git.”

 

McGonagall mouthed the words 'Writing Desk' in disbelief, then shook her head. “Thank you, Mr. Potter. You will not be punished for being out after curfew, this bird tricked you after all. I shall ask Miss Lovegood about it, and if she gets punished or not depends on her responses.”

 

“Just don't hurt him. Luna will be sad if he's hurt.”

 

“Understood, Mr. Potter. You should go to bed now.”

 

With that, McGonagall left the common room.

 

“Luna Lovegood has a bird that plays awesome pranks like that?” one of the Weasley twins said.

 

“A bird after our own heart,” said the other.

 

“Hey Fred, maybe we can re-form the Marauders. Us, Lee Jordan, and Writing Desk.”

 

“Yeah, Padfoot and Moony will bust a gut laughing when we tell them we've got someone's pet raven as a fourth neo-Marauder!”

 

“We're all doomed,” Harry said.

 

~

 

The next morning, Luna pulled Harry into an empty classroom before breakfast.

 

“What's this about, Luna?”

 

“Writing Desk needs to apologize,” she said, pointing at the raven sitting on the teacher's desk. He looked suitably abashed, his head down, somehow managing to look glum.

 

“Oh,” said Harry. “Did you get in trouble, Luna?”

 

“No, Harry. I promised to thoroughly scold him, make him apologize. If he does anything else that mean, I'll send him home to Daddy.”

 

“Okay. Well let's hear it, then.”

 

Writing Desk rolled over on his back and put his legs down. Harry didn't know if this was a normal avian submission posture or if Writing Desk was just being weird, but it was a start.

 

“Use your words, Writing Desk.”

 

“Sorry I tricked you, Harry,” he said in Luna's voice.

 

“Why is he still speaking in your voice?” Harry asked.

 

“He can only mimic words he's heard. But he's clever about it. He can cut and paste things together from different things he's heard, making entirely new sentences from pieces of other sentences. I suspect he did something like that last night. He's heard me say my name and your name plenty of times, after all. What did he say, exactly?”

 

“Well first he said, 'Harry! It's me! Luna Lovegood!' Then after I said 'Luna?' he said 'Yes, Harry. It's me! Help me! I'm a bird! Get Professor Flitwick!'”

 

“Writing Desk, can you repeat what you said last night, the same way you did?”

 

The raven did so. Luna turned to verify it with Harry, and he nodded. It sounded exactly the same.

 

“If you listen carefully to what he said, you can hear where he cut and pasted words. I think 'Harry! It's me!' is a complete sentence I've said before, but I'm not sure. I know I've said my first and last name together around him before as well. 'Yes, Harry' is another complete sentence. So are the two after that. And I know I've told people to get Professor Flitwick at least once around him.”

 

“What about 'I'm a bird'?”

 

“Hmm... yes, a few weeks ago I was saying to him something like, 'Who's a good bird? Are you a good bird? Can you say 'I'm a good bird' for me?' I heard a bit of a slight... off-ness to 'I'm a bird' that suggests he cut the word 'good' out to make that sentence.”

 

“I dunno. I'm starting to think he should be checked out, see if he's an animagus.”

 

“Oh I doubt that. I've had him since he was old enough to leave his nest. But you can run him by McGonagall if you want.”

 

“Good idea,” Harry said.

 

“Forgive me?” Writing Desk asked in what sounded like Xeno's voice.

 

Harry pondered for a moment. “Say 'I promise not to play mean pranks on Harry Potter again,' and I'll forgive you.”

 

“I promise not to play mean pranks on Harry Potter again,” Writing Desk said.

 

Harry recognized his voice from the few times he'd ever heard it on a tape recorder. It was a little unnerving to hear his own voice parroted back at him like that. Especially since it was a lot harder to tell the difference between the raven mimicking his voice and a parrot mimicking people. A parrot could repeat words, but only in its own voice, so far as Harry knew.

 

“Okay, I forgive you. Just keep your promise not to do it again.”

 

Writing Desk got back up on his legs. “I'm a good bird!” he said.

 

“Yeah, and the Weasley twins are sticklers for rules,” Harry said, grinning. “Oh by the way, we should introduce him to them, they were talking about making him a partner in crime.”

 

Luna giggled. “That sounds funny. Let's do it.”

 

Taking Writing Desk onto her shoulder, they left the unused classroom and walked back to breakfast, where the table was fast filling up. They sat as close as possible to the Weasley twins.

 

“Ah, there he is now, Fred! The master of chaos himself! Did you lot hear? Last night that raven, the white part of his feathers covered in ink, tricked Harry into thinking Moody had turned Luna into a bird! And that he – that bird – was Luna!”

 

Harry felt his face grow hot as everyone in earshot of George's loud voice laughed at the tale. Harry distracted himself by scooping food onto his plate.

 

“So... Writing Desk is your name, is it?”

 

“Yes. I'm a good bird.”

 

“That you are. But Writing Desk, mean pranks should only be played on people truly deserving of it, like Theodore Knott, Vincent Crabbe, or Gregory Goyle.”

 

“Yes. People truly deserving of it,” he answered, and started preening his feathers.

 

“Fred and I are starting up the Marauders again. Want to join, Writing Desk?”

 

The raven looked up from his preening and cocked his head curiously at George. “Napoleon,” he said.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“Napoleon. Call me Napoleon today.”

 

Now Harry knew what to listen for, he could hear the slight deviations in the bird's speech that meant he was stringing cut and pasted words together from various sources.

 

“Okay Napoleon, want to be a Marauder?”

 

“What is a Marauder?”

 

“The original Marauders were Harry's dad, his godfather, Remus Lupin, and another bloke. They were pranksters extraordinaire, becoming legends for the pranks they pulled when they were in school. We aim to make the new Marauders just as legendary.”

 

Napoleon/Writing Desk looked like he was thinking, again. Then he spoke.

 

“Napoleon, want to be a Marauder?” he said, mimicking whichever twin had said it. “Yes. Napoleon, Writing Desk, is a Marauder.”

 

“Excellent!”

 

“Ha,” Ron said. “Now you two really are bird brains.”

 

“Comparing us to such a handsome, majestic, and devilishly clever raven? Best compliment we've gotten in a long time!”

 

“I'm such a handsome, majestic, and devilishly clever raven,” Writing Desk/Napoleon said. By replacing the word 'raven' at the end with one the twins had said previously, he had changed it from a question into a statement.

 

The table burst out in laughter. Even Harry was laughing.

 

~

 

A couple weeks after his first class with them, Crouch (disguised as Moody) had the Ravenclaws again, which meant that same odd little blond girl that was Potter's friend, looking again like she'd wandered in and was sitting down to rest her legs before wandering off again.

 

He announced he was putting them all under the Imperius Curse to help them build up resistance to it. There were a couple protests, as he expected, but he quickly shut them down. He had Dumbledore's permission, after all.

 

So he began beckoning students up to the front to put them all under the Imperius Curse, one at a time, and made them do entertaining and incredible things. When it was Lovegood's turn, he thought at first that it was working, for she was doing the pirouettes he had told her to do, but when he told her through the spell's connection to slap a fellow student, she just stood there passively, not doing anything at all. He tried a few more things, making the spell stronger each time. Some things she did, others she didn't.

 

“I can't figure you out, girlie,” he said after lifting the spell from her for the last time. “Tell me, what do you remember of the experience?”

 

“Hmm,” she said. “Well at first I didn't think anything was happening at all, after you said the incantation. I thought maybe a wrackspurt had gotten into your head and made the spell fail. But then I heard your voice in my head telling me to do pirouettes, and I thought, 'Oh that's a lovely idea, I haven't done that in a few weeks, thank you for suggesting it,' and so I did it.”

 

“I see. And did you have similar thoughts when doing the other things I told you to do?”

 

She nodded, smiling. “Oh yes.”

 

“What about when I told you to slap someone?”

 

“Oh, I don't agree with slapping someone unless it's the only way to wake them up in an emergency, or if they want you to do it because they enjoy the sensation. I did pause to consider asking her if she enjoyed being slapped, but we hardly know each other, so I thought the question might be a bit too forward. Also, I was hoping Ha-- one of my friends would realize he's attracted to me finally, and I didn't want to risk doing anything that might be seen as cheating later, even though I'm currently single.”

 

He blinked at her. Ignoring both the laughter of the other students and most of what Lovegood had said, he simply said, “I don't think I've ever met someone with a natural immunity to the Imperius Curse before today, Miss Lovegood. You're lucky; they won't be able to control you, and you won't even need any discipline to do it. I'm envious, Miss Lovegood. It wasn't so easy for me.”

 

“Oh, I don't think it's a natural immunity. I've been working on my mental discipline for years. It's got so many uses, you know. For instance, it's a lot harder for wrackspurts to get into your head if your mind is well-disciplined. Wrackspurts don't like order, which is why they try to confuse people to begin with. They're a bit like Dementors that way, except Dementors eat positive emotions rather than cause mental confusion.”

 

He thought about that for a moment, trying to figure it out. But then it clicked.

 

“I think I see what you mean, Miss Lovegood. A disciplined mind is to these... wrackspurts... as a Patronus is to a Dementor?”

 

“Exactly,” Lovegood said, nodding.

 

He ignored, again, the laughter of the other students. A girl like this – free-thinking, nerdy, and a bit dotty – was doubtless the target of bullies; he'd thought so before, but was even more sure of it now. He used his own memories of being bullied to try to manipulate her a little so he could use her later. She seemed a decent person, and decent people were always so easy to manipulate. Though she was also extremely clever, so he'd have to proceed with caution.

 

“You have a keen mind, Miss Lovegood,” he said, and the laughter stopped in an instant.

 

“Thank you, Professor.”

 

Potter was another stand-out here, he found out the next day. He could feel Potter fighting the curse from the very beginning. The boy had bent his knees to obey, and then had paused. Crouch had needed to increase the power to get him to finally attempt to jump onto the desk, and even then he sort of half-disobeyed and smashed into the desk instead, knocking it over. Crouch was impressed.

 

“Now, that’s more like it!” he growled. “Look at that, you lot, Potter fought! He fought it, and he damn near beat it! We’ll try that again, Potter, and the rest of you, pay attention — watch his eyes, that’s where you see it — very good, Potter, very good indeed! They’ll have trouble controlling you!”

 

He watched the boy leave with his magical eye, keeping an eye on him whenever he could. He'd noticed something odd lately; Potter was making weekly visits after dinner to Dumbledore's office for some reason. Crouch could see inside, of course, and it looked like Dumbledore was casting some spell on the boy repeatedly, and the boy was fighting it. But since he couldn't read lips and there wasn't any light coming from the wand to clue him in on what spell it was, he was stumped. He wondered if he dared ask. Probably not; Moody may have been paranoid, but he doubted the man would have taken another second to watch Potter once he'd figured out where the boy was going.

 

After thinking about it, he decided to risk sending an owl to his master about it. His master might have some ideas about what was going on.

 

Endnote: I don't always name chapters after song titles, only when I find one that's fitting. This chapter is named after the Blue Oyster Cult song “X-Ray Eyes” from their album “Heaven Forbid.” Given that the fake Moody gets his big introduction here, I think you can see how it's fitting.

 

I again feel the need to clarify that Writing Desk is just a raven, and a familiar. And remind people that in this fic, magic makes animals smarter than normal; ravens being scarily smart to begin with, increasing their intelligence further with magic is bound to create interesting results.

 

As to these scenes from Crouch Junior's perspective, I was having a lot of trouble keeping going on this chapter, didn't feel like redoing the same old scenes with slightly altered details. So a change of perspective helped.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Note: I made a mistake and forgot to include the first day of History of Magic in the last chapter, so we'll be backtracking a little to cover it.

Also, I had been intending to get this out by Thanksgiving, but well, clearly that didn't happen.

 

Chapter 8: “The Importance of History”

 

One other class Harry and several of his friends were most looking forward to was History of Magic, now that they had a new teacher. The first class, on the day after their first DADA lesson with Moody, everyone had entered the new History of Magic classroom (the old one was still haunted by Binns) and were waiting to find out what the class would be like, now. A few people complained about lost nap time, but mostly people were glad they'd have an actual class for once.

 

When they were all seated, they waited only a couple minutes before the teacher came in and closed the door. She was a woman of Indian descent, tall for a woman, and looked like an older version of Antigone.

 

“Hello, students,” she said with the faintest of Indian accents, getting everyone's attention. “I am Mrs. Dreyfuss. I am your new History of Magic teacher. And yes, before you ask, I wrote the textbook, too. I do not normally approve of teachers writing their own textbooks, it's a bad habit some universities let too many professors get away with, but in this case, the only decent textbooks around are all in other languages. Both the UK and the US, I hate to say, have their own peculiar biases, and there's more fiction than fact in history books from both countries. I did write the textbook, though, but I had not intended to also be teaching it. But since nobody was stepping up to take the position, I took the job when Dumbledore offered it to me.”

 

Harry was already impressed; her voice caught the attention, and made you want to hear what she had to say. Though her reference to universities made him wonder if she was Muggle-born. Not that it mattered, but it would be cool if she was.

 

“First, I'll take roll.”

 

This was another change. Binns never paid any attention to his students, not even to take roll. It had been an easy class to get away with skipping. No more, it seemed. She went through roll, and Harry was impressed to note that neither her voice nor her mannerisms changed when she reached his name. Either his fame meant nothing to her, or she'd braced herself to act normally towards him. Either way, he approved.

 

“Good,” she said when roll was done. “Now on to history.”

 

She paused to consult some index cards for a moment, then set them aside to begin.

 

“First off, I want to tell you right now, there's no such thing as facts in history, not really. And why not? Well, for the same reason eyewitness testimonies in the Muggle justice system are fraught with error. People all have their own perspectives on the world, their own reality tunnel that colors everything they experience, and beyond that, memory is very suggestible to change, very fallible.

 

“Have you ever heard of 'leading questions'? Those are questions where the solicitor asks a question in a way that loads the meaning with emotion or changes the entire context of the question and answer, often resulting in changes of content. Muggle scientists have done studies that found it is scarily easy to alter someone's memories, even implant false memories, without even needing to use magic. The brain, given the right verbal stimuli, will often accept something stated as fact by another person and accept the lie, filling in the blanks until suddenly you're remembering something that never happened. You may have even experienced this effect in your lifetime; ever had a vivid memory of doing something, or being somewhere, and later you found out it was just the memory of a dream? That's the sort of thing I mean, except it happens when one is awake as well, and often the brain forgets that the false memories are false.

 

“The only reason I specified this as a problem with the Muggle justice system is because the magic of Pensieves is slightly related to time-turners; it takes your memory of the event, and looks back in time to fill in the details. Without that aspect of Pensieves, eyewitness accounts in the wizarding justice system would be just as unreliable. In an alternate universe where Pensieves didn't have that aspect to them, Pensieve memories would be basically worthless as testimony, because our brains don't know things, they tell themselves stories about their lives, and stories can easily change the more you tell them, which is why we need hard evidence. Take the recent trial that exonerated Sirius Black, for instance. In a world where Pensieves couldn't look through time to fill in details, the only worth all those eyewitness accounts of Peter Pettigrew being alive would be that they all agreed that the man was alive, and only the photographs of the man taken after his capture would have been worth anything as evidence.

 

“And so, what we historians call 'facts' in history is really nothing more than 'two or more sides of this issue agree that such-and-such happened at such-and-such time and place.' Did it really happen at all? Well, we have to assume it did, because we don't have any better information without using a time turner and risking damaging the timeline, or contemporary written accounts, photographs, archaeological evidence, and so on. In the wizarding world, we have other options as well, for instance Pensieves, but those have limitations. Biases can also get in the way; it is easy to get wizard or witch Pensieve memories for events, but getting the same thing for Muggles, Goblins, and other sapient races is not so easy. First, they're not allowed wands, so they can't do it themselves. And second, most wizards or witches never offer to help them copy those memories. And let's be honest here, most of them wouldn't trust us to do that anyway, because the memory copying spell involves a wand right to the temple, and they don't exactly trust us.”

 

There was some laughter here. She paused, smiling, and waited for it to pass before continuing.

 

“Perception can also change the content of memories and 'facts.' For instance, did you know that the ancient Greeks didn't have a word for the color 'blue'? We know this from the writings of Homer. His color descriptive palate was limited to metallic colors, black, white, yellowish green and purplish red, and those colors he often used oddly. He calls the sky "bronze" and the sea and sheep as the color of wine, he applies the adjective chloros (meaning green with our understanding) to honey, and a nightingale.

 

“Now this might just be a quirk of Homer, but we've seen the same thing in other cultures, living cultures. Some call the daytime sky a shade of black, for instance. And some cultures have words for colors that English doesn't. But my point here is, if something as fundamental as color can be so subject to perception differences, anything can.”

 

She paused to take a drink of water before continuing.

 

“And so, we don't really have facts, we have a bunch of stories that say what happened. Which is why the word 'history' has the word 'story' in it. What's more, a lot of history around the world has been entirely one-sided, only one story being told. In a world so full of uncertainty in the form of fallible memories, quirks of perception, and problems with bias, we can't rely on one side of the story to get the facts. We need to hear other sides, compare them, see where they agree and disagree. But there are other benefits to hearing other sides of history, as well.”

 

She paused, walking a little ways as though thinking, before going on.

 

“You've learned over the years all kinds of lists of names, dates, and other facts and figures about things like the goblin rebellions, but have you ever stopped to wonder why the goblins rebelled? Or what exactly a goblin rebellion is? We don't often stop to think about the motivations behind these events, because our prevailing idea is that it all happened in the past, it's over and done with, it has very little to do with our present. But that's incorrect, in so many ways. History is important because the past informs our present, and because we can draw parallels to the modern day. History has a tendency to repeat itself, especially if we don't pay attention to history. Many of the same problems our ancestors faced, we still face today, whether we are aware of it or not.

 

“So let's take the goblin rebellions for a start. Goblin and human relations haven't gone very well for a very long time, but it might surprise you to know that our two races were once very friendly. Way back before wands or staffs were invented, human magic was mostly just wandless magic, runic magic, or ritual magic. Wandless magic is, of course, basically accidental magic that people can learn to control and shape with the power of their Will. It used to be the most common form of magic in use by humans, until staffs and wands were invented, which made learning wandless magic mostly obsolete. Aurors sometimes use it, mainly to summon their wands if they lose them, but also often to keep on fighting if their wand gets broken or irretrievably lost. But wands and – to a lesser extent staffs – are incredibly useful. They speed up the process of controlling one's magic by a significant margin, and make it significantly easier to do at the same time.

 

“See, if wands and staffs hadn't been invented, we'd all be starting to learn how to control our magic as young as seven years old, if not earlier, and most of us would still be working on mastering it into our early twenties, if not longer. But despite this, it was more popular than runes and rituals because it was faster, easier to control than either, and needed no tools to use. Also, ritual magic can be very dangerous and unpredictable, as it usually requires the same kind of focused Will power and control as wandless magic, but usually uses far greater amounts of magic. To compare the two, wandless magic is like learning to move streams into new paths, while ritual magic is like learning to do the same to rivers.

 

“Well these kinds of issues aren't just limited to humans. Some species, like house elves, have a greater innate control over their magic. Even Goblins have this extra innate control, to an extent. But there are limits. I doubt a house elf's magic would be much helped by a wand, but Goblins are another matter altogether. Wands would help them almost as significantly as they helped humans, but humans refused – and still refuse – to share the knowledge of wand making with Goblins.

 

“And there, students, is where the enmity began. Human magic took a great leap forward in power and control. The speed and ease it took to learn magic with a wand, even if wand magic has to wait until the student is around age 11 to best master it, means that wands freed up a lot of time for humans, time we spent inventing new spells, where once we used to use that time to struggle to learn the old spells.

 

“Because of this leap forward, we quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Species that used to prey on us started to fear us. Even allies like the Goblins – and yes, our two races were once allies – started to fear our power. Being allies of ours, the Goblins asked for us to share our new technology, these wands, with them. But by then we'd already grown inflated by our newfound power. The human race wasn't keen on slipping back so quickly into a world where we were prey, for our ancestors feared the secrets of wand lore getting to sapient races that were not as friendly to them as Goblins were, so they refused to share wand lore with the Goblins or any other sapient race, a policy which still dominates the globe to this day.

 

“Out of their understandable fear and jealousy, the Goblins and the humans started to wage war on each other. And despite being a warrior culture with great magical metal-smithing skills, the Goblins started to lose to us. It eventually got to a point where their race was being threatened with possible extinction. And so they made peace with humans in order to survive, accepting we would not give them wand technology. They even gradually convinced us to let them handle our gold and our banking for us, using their magic to make counterfeiting impossible, something that didn't go over very well until Christianity started to overtake Europe, for despite paganism still having a good foothold in the wizarding world, Christianity is still rather popular among us as well. With Christianity back then banning usury – money lending, that is – the Goblins eventually gained control of the wizarding banking system for much the same reason so many Jewish Muggles got into banking and finance: because they didn't have a cultural stigma against usury, and finding a job they could do where they weren't persecuted was difficult, for both groups also struggled to survive in a world that hated, distrusted, and even feared them. Thus, going into banking helped both of these groups survive and even thrive, despite the oppression.

 

“So now I think we have a good idea of the root cause of the Goblin rebellions: a proud warrior race reduced to being thought of as greedy, gold-loving bankers, when Gringott's only exists as a means to ensure the survival of the Goblin race. Such a culture, knowing its history and still valuing its martial nature and its weapons-crafting skills but being oppressed by another species that had proven repeatedly it could end their species, well... if you were in their position, wouldn't you lash out on occasion? Wouldn't you want to have the same edge as your oppressors, so you would no longer have to demean yourself to survive?

 

“Why am I telling you all this, you may be wondering. Well, I admit I am an optimist. I hope that in the centuries we've been around, we've learned a thing or two. Sure, countries like Britain have become corrupted by a blood purity mania that doesn't exist in most other places around the world, where we're fighting each other over whether we're old blood or new blood, the whole time letting it become the downfall of many ancient Houses via the negative effects of inbreeding. Still, those attitudes are being fought, and good thing, too; intermarrying with Muggles has made the wizarding communities of a great many countries around the world thrive, where British wizarding culture is on the decline thanks to this whole blood purity nonsense. Anyone telling you the wizarding population as a whole has been declining in numbers is repeating a falsehood; that is only true here in the UK.

 

“What's more, all over the Muggle world, people are rising up for social justice causes, fighting hatred, ignorance, and fascism to make the world a better place for everyone living in it.

 

“So as I say, I'm an optimist. An optimist who hopes that by educating you on the complex nature of history and how it affects us in the modern era, that you'll recognize the old mistakes that are being re-made in the present day, and fight them so that our world can continue to thrive and prosper. Which extends to other races, too. For as intelligent and crafty as the Goblins are, they will eventually figure out how to make wands. It would be better if we shared that information with them freely with an aim for peace, rather than force them to develop the technology in secret and surprise us. For nothing good can come of continuing to deny the Goblins the chance to expand their powers via wands.

 

“I'm going to warn you now, I will also be teaching some Muggle history as well. Prior to the Statute of Secrecy, Muggle history and Magical history were deeply intertwined, even inseparable in places. Even after the Statute, events in the Muggle world have affected our world, and vice versa. For instance, there will be a section in this class about World War One and World War Two, Muggle wars that impacted the wizarding world too. World War II is going to get the greater bulk of the coverage, because of Gellert Grindlewald's hand in it. Also there are some other parallels between World War II and the wizarding world that I will get into later.

 

“But that's not where we'll be beginning. No, to start with we will be going back to the beginning of the persecution of witches and wizards, and exploring that era, for that was the time when Muggle and magical history began to divide. But in the process of exploring the differences, we'll also explore the similarities, the ways that Muggle history is our own history, even into the modern, post-Statute world.”

 

Hermione raised her hand.

 

“Yes, Miss Granger?”

 

“Will we be learning dates and names and so on, as well?”

 

“Yes. But those will be secondary to the greater context of events, the motives of those involved, and how those events are relevant to the modern day. Because names and dates and that sort of thing are dry and boring. History is a story, as I said before. How many stories have you remembered that were boring and dry? Probably not very many. How many years would you remember a boring old tale like that? I'm sure the figure would be closer to 'weeks' or 'months' for most of you!”

 

She paused while many people laughed.

 

“No, dry and boring is not the way. The stories we remember are the ones that grab our attention, hold it, and fill us with a thirst to learn more. Stories like that are hard to forget, which is why I'm teaching history as a series of stories. My hope is you'll remember them for decades to come.

 

“But now, we are almost out of time. I'd like you to read the first two chapters of the textbook, take notes, and be ready to participate in a class discussion on them next Friday. I suggest you read through your notes the day before, to refresh your memory. That is all. See you next week.”

 

The bell rang then, and they all got up to leave, talking excitedly among themselves about the lecture, for only the second time in the history of the class, as far as Harry could remember. The first had been when Hermione had convinced Binns to tell the story of the Chamber of Secrets, back in their second year.

 

Harry had since read the two assigned chapters, dealing with the events that led up to the witch persecutions, and he got so hooked on the story that he read the next couple chapters as well, which went into the witch persecutions themselves. According to the textbook, there weren't very many burnings; most witch trials involved being held under water, or heavy stones put on a person's chest, and the use of many gruesome torture devices. What was more, this book referenced the Bagshot book, the bit about Muggles being pants at finding real witches and wizards and burning not being very effective, and ripped into it mercilessly. The first part wasn't even true; at first, they'd been quite good at finding real witches and wizards, and hurting or killing them. But then the witches and wizards got cleverer, getting away more often, and the witch hunts died down eventually. Witch persecution was a thing that came and went over the centuries, waxed and waned, and the more recent European witch hunts hadn't involved any witches and wizards at all, but had instead been mostly an excuse to persecute women – especially old women who knew useful things like herbalism and how to perform an abortion.

 

And the idea that burning had no effect was only relevant if you managed to keep your wand somehow, knew the flame-freezing charm, and could get out of the ropes binding you. There were also children to consider, the fact that staffs were almost as common as wands back then (and it was a lot harder to hide a staff), and also there were squibs who could do potions but not other kinds of magic (or just happened to be living with witches or wizards when they got caught). The book also said there was no evidence at all that Wendelin the Weird ever got caught even once, but plenty of evidence to suggest she liked to tell tall tales for attention.

 

These weren't all baseless suppositions, either; she gave a great many references, both magical and Muggle, in her book. There were footnotes on every page, an endnotes section, a bibliography even; it was like no other book Harry had ever seen in the wizarding world. Most wizarding books rarely cited any sources, and now he came to think about it, you pretty much just had to take it on faith that most wizarding books were accurate. It was no wonder Gilderoy Lockhart had gotten away with stealing other people's achievements for so long, it was like nobody in the wizarding world had ever thought to attempt to verify things said to be facts.

 

According to Draco, the Slytherin reaction to Professor Dreyfuss's lecture was markedly different than the other Houses' reactions. There'd been interruptions, arguments, and detentions assigned for disrupting class. Harry worried, after hearing this, about how long she would be able to teach before the parents of the Slytherins pressured someone into firing her. Dumbledore wouldn't fire her, but the school governors probably could, and Harry worried they might. He hoped they wouldn't, though; controversial as her lecture might have been, it still left an impression that didn't easily vanish. Even Ron was talking about it still a week after the fact.

 

~

 

Crouch Junior was dismissing the last class of the day when he saw an owl in the classroom window, waiting for him. He ushered everyone out and closed the door, moving to the window to let the bird in and take its package. It was a two-way mirror from his master. He stumped along to his office, locking it behind him as he went in, and covering the room with as many anti-eavesdropping spells as he could think of, which was quite a few more than the average person could, some spells covering methods of eavesdropping that only dark wizards and witches knew. Once he knew it was safe to talk, he pulled out the two-way mirror and spoke.

 

“Master,” he told the mirror.

 

A moment later, his master's face appeared in the mirror.

 

“Master,” he said again reverentially, this time in lieu of greeting.

 

“Greetings, Barty,” said the cold voice. “I called to discuss the Potter issue you brought up in your letter. I assume it is safe to speak?”

 

“Yes it is, Master. I remember your lessons well.”

 

“Good. I do not know, of course, what Potter is doing with Dumbledore. I could make a joke suggestion, but no, I will not. For all his faults, he is not that depraved.

 

“But I digress. Have you seen any new developments since your letter?”

 

“No, Master. Just more of the same. Potter visits Dumbledore every week, and it appears as if Dumbledore is casting a spell on him, and he is resisting. The old goat did, to my surprise, let me do the old auror training routine of casting Unforgivables on the children to teach them resistance, it's possible he's doing more of the same. But... no, I don't think so. He doesn't behave the same way in Dumbledore's office as he does in my class, fighting the Imperius. I think it is another spell.”

 

“Interesting. Am I to understand that the two spells look somewhat similar to one another, though?”

 

“There are indeed similarities to the Imperius curse, my lord.”

 

“Hmm... well the only thing that makes sense in that case is occlumency, the art of occluding the mind from external penetration. But we cannot be sure. It is too bad you cannot eavesdrop on them, Barty.”

 

“Would that I could, Master, but I have a magical eye, not a magical ear.”

 

His master laughed with genuine amusement at the joke.

 

“Oh my, you are a witty one, Crouch. Perhaps you could turn your talents toward inventing some sort of magical ear. Hmm... I think it could be done, and it wouldn't even be very difficult. Surprising nobody's thought to do it yet.”

 

“I shall put my mind to that task, Master.”

 

“Good, good,” his master said distractedly. “But that is for later. For now, this Potter problem. Is it occlumency the old fool is teaching him? And if so, why? That is what I do not understand. Is there any way for you to find out more without being suspicious?”

 

“I doubt it, my lord. Moody would not think twice about why the boy goes to see Dumbledore, I think. But...”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Well, Moody is quite paranoid. And even someone he trusts as much as Dumbledore might get looked at askance for seeing so much of the boy without any other witnesses around. If I play my cards right, I might be able to work up a case for asking about it. Maybe come in toward the end of one session and express curiosity that way. Something like 'The boy was in here with you pretty late tonight, Dumbledore. Just the two of you in here together? I trust you, Dumbledore, but if the wrong person saw it, they might come to the wrong conclusion,' that sort of thing.”

 

“Excellent. I see your mind is still as sharp as ever, even after your long imprisonment under the Imperius curse. Yes, proceed with that plan if you are able to, and report back to me later. I shall think more on this conundrum.”

 

“Thank you, Master. I will do that, Master.”

 

His master grinned. “I know you will, Barty. You are my most faithful, and my most capable, servant. Go, continue your ruse.”

 

With that, his master's image disappeared from the mirror. Barty hid the mirror in one of the compartments of Moody's trunk. He tore down the anti-eavesdropping spells, and continued on with his greatest acting role ever.

 

~

 

One day, when they arrived in the entrance hall, Harry, Ron, and Hermione found themselves unable to proceed owing to the large crowd of students congregated there, all milling around a large sign that had been erected at the foot of the marble staircase. Ron, the tallest of the three, stood on tiptoe to see over the heads in front of them and read the sign aloud to the other two:

 

TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT

 

The delegations from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang will be arriving at 6 o’clock on Friday the 30th of October. Lessons will end half an hour early —

 

“Brilliant!” said Harry. “It’s Potions last thing on Friday! Snape won’t have time to poison us all!”

 

Students will return their bags and books to their dormitories and assemble in front of the castle to greet our guests before the Welcoming Feast.

 

“Only a week away!” said Ernie Macmillan of Hufflepuff, emerging from the crowd, his eyes gleaming. “I wonder if Cedric knows? Think I’ll go and tell him. …”

 

“Cedric?” said Ron blankly as Ernie hurried off.

 

“Diggory,” said Harry. “He must be entering the tournament.”

 

“Who's he?” said Ron as they pushed their way through the chattering crowd toward the staircase.

 

“He's on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team, at least from what I've heard. He sounds pretty smart and capable, I hope he ends up being the champion for the school.”

 

“Oh him. Yeah, I remember him. But a Hufflepuff, school champion?”

 

“Why not? They value hard work and fairness. Who better than a Hufflepuff?”

 

“Well yeah, I guess. Better a Hufflepuff than a Slyth—er, nevermind.” Ron said, turning red in the face. “I guess Antigone or one of the others would make a great Champion. Heck, even Draco wouldn't be bad at it.”

 

“I dunno about Draco,” Harry said. “I like him and all, but he's a bit of a scaredy-cat. Dunno if he could manage a cockatrice or whatever.”

 

Ron laughed. “Yeah, he'd probably scream and run away.”

 

The appearance of the sign in the entrance hall had a marked effect upon the inhabitants of the castle. During the following week, there seemed to be only one topic of conversation, no matter where Harry went: the Triwizard Tournament. Rumors were flying from student to student like highly contagious germs: who was going to try for Hogwarts champion, what the tournament would involve, how the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang differed from themselves.

 

The school was getting extra cleaning as well, from the halls and the suits of armor to the paintings, which were somehow getting scrubbed clean without damaging them. And all the teachers were on edge, Professor McGonagall even snapping at Neville about what Durmstrang would think after he switched his ears onto a cactus.

 

When they went down to breakfast on the morning of the thirtieth of October, they found that the Great Hall had been decorated overnight. Enormous silk banners hung from the walls, each of them representing a Hogwarts House: red with a gold lion for Gryffindor, blue with a bronze eagle for Ravenclaw, yellow with a black badger for Hufflepuff, and green with a silver serpent for Slytherin. Behind the teachers’ table, the largest banner of all bore the Hogwarts coat of arms: lion, eagle, badger, and snake united around a large letter H.

 

Sitting next to Fred and George at the Griffindor table, most of them began to discuss the Tournament. Soon Harry's Slytherin friends came over to join the discussion. After Fred and George mentioned that the teachers wouldn't tell them how the Champions were picked, Ron took a turn speaking.

 

“Any of you lot going to try to join?”

 

“Don't look at me,” Harry said. “It took me loads of planning and coping tools just to watch the Quidditch World Cup without needing the hospital, I don't even want to think about trying this Tournament thing. What about you, Antigone?”

 

“Can't. I don't turn 17 til November 5th.”

 

“Ouch! That's some rotten luck,” Fred said.

 

“Yeah, worse than ours. We won't be 17 til April.”

 

“What about you, Danzia?”

 

“I'm only 14 until November 3rd,” Danzia said.

 

“Darn. Angela?”

 

“I'm younger than Antigone by a month,” she said. “Sorry.”

 

“Damn. Oh well, we'll figure something out.”

 

There was a pleasant feeling of anticipation in the air that day. Nobody was very attentive in lessons, being much more interested in the arrival that evening of the people from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang; even Potions was more bearable than usual, as it was half an hour shorter. When the bell rang early, Harry, Ron, and Hermione hurried up to Gryffindor Tower, deposited their bags and books as they had been instructed, pulled on their cloaks, and rushed back downstairs into the entrance hall.

 

The Heads of Houses were ordering their students into lines, so they couldn't stand with their Slytherin friends. But they could see them, and Draco seemed to have bulked up his entourage again, this time with Daphne Greengrass, Tracey Davis, Blaise Zabini, and a couple other Slytherins Harry didn't recognize.

 

Professor McGonagall was chiding people for the way they were dressed, so she must have still been on edge. When she was done, they filed down the steps and lined up in front of the castle. It was a cold, clear evening; dusk was falling and a pale, transparent-looking moon was already shining over the Forbidden Forest. Harry, standing between Ron and Hermione in the fourth row from the front, saw Dennis Creevey positively shivering with anticipation among the other first years.

 

The wait was long and cold and annoying, but eventually something happened. First, a giant carriage pulled by enormous winged horses arrived. The carriage was the size of a house, and the size was soon explained. For, along with several dozen students was a woman who had to be 11 feet tall. Whatever caused Hagrid to be absurdly tall had affected her as well, but where Hagrid was bumbling and looked a bit like a mountain man, Madame Maxime was beautiful and elegant, even regal as she walked down the steps.

 

The boys and girls of Beauxbatons being all cold, she and her students were led indoors while the rest of the school waited for Durmstrang. Again the wait was kind of long and annoying, but soon something was happening; the lake appeared to be boiling. Then it swirled around, and a ship came out of it, like a reverse whirlpool. Soon, a bunch of boys and girls in furred capes were climbing the gangplank down to land, led by a man in sleek silver furs, who spoke to Dumbledore in a fruity, unctuous voice. The man was tall and thin like Dumbledore, but had a goatee instead of a Gandalf beard like Dumbledore had. It didn't quite hide his weak chin.

 

“Dear old Hogwarts,” the man, Karkaroff, said, looking up at the castle and smiling; his teeth were rather yellow, and Harry noticed that his smile did not extend to his eyes, which remained cold and shrewd. “How good it is to be here, how good. … Viktor, come along, into the warmth … you don’t mind, Dumbledore? Viktor has a slight head cold.”

 

Karkaroff beckoned forward one of his students. As the boy passed, Harry caught a glimpse of a prominent curved nose and thick black eyebrows. He didn’t need the punch on the arm Ron gave him, or the hiss in his ear, to recognize that profile.

 

“Harry — it’s Krum!”

 

“Huh. Didn't know he was a student still,” Harry said.

 

“Me neither! Oh my god, I need to get his autograph!”

 

Harry rolled his eyes. He'd gotten the impression, from Krum's usual behavior, that the boy didn't much care for his fame, either. But Harry didn't want to presume, so he didn't say anything.

 

Ron was far from the only person excited by Krum; girls and boys alike clamored for a look, bemoaned not having quills or parchment or even paper and pen on them, and other such silliness.

 

In the press of bodies on their way back into the castle, Harry ran into Antigone.

 

“Has it ever struck you as odd that the thing most people want most from celebrities is their signature?” he asked. “I mean, how do they sign checks if they're always giving out their signature? Surely someone could use the autograph to forge their signature on a check?”

 

“No idea. Maybe they use a different signature for autographs. Or, you know, they're famous, so who's going to accept a check in Krum's name if it's handed over by a 30 year old Chinese woman, or something of the sort?”

 

“Good points.”

 

“Have you ever given any autographs?”

 

“No. And I never will. If it bothers people, so what?”

 

“What if it's a small child suffering from cancer or dragon pox?”

 

“Maybe I would, then. Dunno for sure.”

 

They walked over to the Gryffindor table and sat down. Ron took care to sit on the side facing the doorway, because Krum and his fellow Durmstrang students were still gathered around it, apparently unsure about where they should sit. The students from Beauxbatons had chosen seats at the Ravenclaw table. They were looking around the Great Hall with glum expressions on their faces. Three of them were still clutching scarves and shawls around their heads.

 

“It’s not that cold,” said Hermione defensively. “Why didn’t they bring cloaks?”

 

“They might not need cloaks where they're from, Harry said.”

 

“Over here! Come and sit over here!” Ron hissed. “Over here! Hermione, budge up, make a space —”

 

“What?”

 

“Too late,” said Ron bitterly.

 

Viktor Krum and his fellow Durmstrang students had settled themselves at the Slytherin table. Harry could see Krum talking with Draco and his new entourage.

 

“Oh well. At least he went to Draco and avoided Theodore Knott,” Ron said.

 

“Where d’you reckon they’re going to sleep? We could offer him a space in our dormitory, Harry … I wouldn’t mind giving him my bed, I could kip on a camp bed.”

 

Hermione snorted.

 

“They look a lot happier than the Beauxbatons lot,” said Harry.

 

The Durmstrang students were pulling off their heavy furs and looking up at the starry black ceiling with expressions of interest; a couple of them were picking up the golden plates and goblets and examining them, apparently impressed.

 

When everyone was seated, Dumbledore said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and — most particularly — guests,” said Dumbledore, beaming around at the foreign students. “I have great pleasure in welcoming you all to Hogwarts. I hope and trust that your stay here will be both comfortable and enjoyable.”

 

One of the Beauxbatons girls still clutching a muffler around her head gave what was unmistakably a derisive laugh.

 

“No one’s making you stay!” Hermione whispered, bristling at her.

 

“The tournament will be officially opened at the end of the feast,” said Dumbledore. “I now invite you all to eat, drink, and make yourselves at home!”

 

He sat down, and Harry saw Karkaroff lean forward at once and engage him in conversation.

 

The plates in front of them filled with food as usual. The house-elves in the kitchen seemed to have pulled out all the stops; there was a greater variety of dishes in front of them than Harry had ever seen, including several that were definitely foreign. Harry tried some of them out of curiosity, but Ron avoided them, and even moved them to where the Beauxbatons boys and girls could see them.

 

Hagrid showed up late, because he'd had some issue with the skrewts, and Ron's gambit paid off, for a girl with long, silvery hair came over to ask for the bouillabaisse. Ron gaped like an idiot at her, and Harry took over for him, passing her the soup. She took it carefully over to the Ravenclaw table. Harry laughed at Ron, which snapped him out of it.

 

“She’s a veela!” he said hoarsely to Harry.

 

“Of course she isn’t!” said Hermione tartly. “I don’t see anyone else gaping at her like an idiot!”

 

But she wasn’t entirely right about that. As the girl crossed the Hall, many boys’ heads turned, and some of them seemed to have become temporarily speechless, just like Ron. Even some of the girls were staring at her in much the same way.

 

“I’m telling you, that’s not a normal girl!” said Ron, leaning sideways so he could keep a clear view of her. “They don’t make them like that at Hogwarts!”

 

“They make them okay at Hogwarts,” said Harry without thinking. Luna happened to be sitting next to the girl Ron had been goggling at, and was talking with her. Harry laughed at the perplexed expression on the French girl's face as Luna talked.

 

“When you’ve both put your eyes back in,” said Hermione briskly, “you’ll be able to see who’s just arrived.”

 

She was pointing up at the staff table. The two remaining empty seats had just been filled. Ludo Bagman was now sitting on Professor Karkaroff’s other side, while Ms. Selby, Percy’s boss, was next to Madame Maxime.

 

Eventually, the feast ended and Dumbledore began to speak. He introduced the judges, and then Filch brought in a 'casket' – a wooden chest encrusted with jewels. Harry wondered briefly if the one who chose the Champion was a zombie, but then he looked closer; if it was a zombie in there, it was the zombie of a toddler, for the casket was rather small.

 

“The instructions for the tasks the champions will face this year have already been examined by Ms. Selby and Mr. Bagman,” said Dumbledore as Filch placed the chest carefully on the table before him, “and they have made the necessary arrangements for each challenge. There will be three tasks, spaced throughout the school year, and they will test the champions in many different ways … their magical prowess — their daring — their powers of deduction — and, of course, their ability to cope with danger.”

 

At this last word, the Hall was filled with a silence so absolute that nobody seemed to be breathing.

 

“As you know, three champions compete in the tournament,” Dumbledore went on calmly, “one from each of the participating schools. They will be marked on how well they perform each of the Tournament tasks and the champion with the highest total after task three will win the Triwizard Cup. The champions will be chosen by an impartial selector: the Goblet of Fire.”

 

Dumbledore now took out his wand and tapped three times upon the top of the casket. The lid creaked slowly open. Dumbledore reached inside it and pulled out a large, roughly hewn wooden cup. It would have been entirely unremarkable had it not been full to the brim with dancing blue-white flames.

 

Dumbledore closed the casket and placed the goblet carefully on top of it, where it would be clearly visible to everyone in the Hall.

 

“Anybody wishing to submit themselves as champion must write their name and school clearly upon a slip of parchment and drop it into the goblet,” said Dumbledore. “Aspiring champions have twenty-four hours in which to put their names forward. Tomorrow night, Halloween, the goblet will return the names of the three it has judged most worthy to represent their schools. The goblet will be placed in the entrance hall tonight, where it will be freely accessible to all those wishing to compete.

 

“To ensure that no underage student yields to temptation,” said Dumbledore, “I will be drawing an Age Line around the Goblet of Fire once it has been placed in the entrance hall. Nobody under the age of seventeen will be able to cross this line.

 

“Finally, I wish to impress upon any of you wishing to compete that this tournament is not to be entered into lightly. Once a champion has been selected by the Goblet of Fire, he or she is obliged to see the tournament through to the end. The placing of your name in the goblet constitutes a binding, magical contract. There can be no change of heart once you have become a champion. Please be very sure, therefore, that you are wholeheartedly prepared to play before you drop your name into the goblet. Now, I think it is time for bed. Good night to you all.”

 

“An age line!” Fred Weasley said. “Well, an aging potion might work for that. Anyone else want us to put their names in if we can?”

 

“No way,” Harry said.

 

“But I don’t think anyone under seventeen will stand a chance,” said Hermione, “we just haven’t learned enough.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” said George shortly. “But Fred and I are a lot more clever than we appear to be.”

 

“Yes, but only one of you would be able to be Champion.”

 

Fred shrugged. “So what? We'll still be co-conspirators. Doesn't matter which of us gets made Champion, we'll both share in the glory.”

 

“And much more importantly, the gold. A thousand galleons! We'd be able to start our joke shop for sure, with that kind of money!”

 

Everyone started to get up, then, and they made their way to the doors. Karkaroff was talking with Krum and another student, then turned and led his students toward the doors, reaching them at exactly the same moment as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry stopped to let him walk through first.

 

“Thank you,” said Karkaroff carelessly, glancing at him.

 

And then Karkaroff froze. He turned his head back to Harry and stared at him as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. Behind their headmaster, the students from Durmstrang came to a halt too. Karkaroff’s eyes moved slowly up Harry’s face and fixed upon his scar. The Durmstrang students were staring curiously at Harry too. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw comprehension dawn on a few of their faces. The boy Karkaroff had been talking to nudged the girl next to him and pointed openly at Harry’s forehead.

 

“Yeah, that’s Harry Potter,” said a growling voice from behind them.

 

Professor Karkaroff spun around. Mad-Eye Moody was standing there, leaning heavily on his staff, his magical eye glaring unblinkingly at the Durmstrang headmaster.

 

The color drained from Karkaroff’s face as Harry watched. A terrible look of mingled fury and fear came over him.

 

“You!” he said, staring at Moody as though unsure he was really seeing him.

 

“Me,” said Moody grimly. “And unless you’ve got anything to say to Potter, Karkaroff, you might want to move. You’re blocking the doorway.”

 

It was true; half the students in the Hall were now waiting behind them, looking over one another’s shoulders to see what was causing the holdup.

 

Without another word, Professor Karkaroff swept his students away with him. Moody watched him until he was out of sight, his magical eye fixed upon his back, a look of intense dislike upon his mutilated face.

 

 

As the next day was Saturday, most students would normally have breakfasted late. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, however, were not alone in rising much earlier than they usually did on weekends. When they went down into the entrance hall, they saw about twenty people milling around it, some of them eating toast, all examining the Goblet of Fire. Even Mouse-Stalker poked his head out of Harry's robes to look at it. It had been placed in the center of the hall on the stool that normally bore the Sorting Hat. A thin golden line had been traced on the floor, forming a circle ten feet around it in every direction.

 

“Anyone put their name in yet?” Ron asked a third-year girl eagerly.

 

“All the Durmstrang lot,” she replied. “But I haven’t seen anyone from Hogwarts yet.”

 

Someone laughed behind Harry. Turning, he saw Fred, George, and Lee Jordan hurrying down the staircase, all three of them looking extremely excited.

 

“Done it,” Fred said in a triumphant whisper to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. “Just taken it.”

 

“What?” said Ron.

 

“The Aging Potion, dung brains,” said Fred.

 

“One drop each,” said George, rubbing his hands together with glee. “We only need to be a few months older.”

 

“We’re going to split the thousand Galleons between the three of us if one of us wins,” said Lee, grinning broadly.

 

“I’m not sure this is going to work, you know,” said Hermione warningly “I’m sure Dumbledore will have thought of this.”

 

Fred, George, and Lee ignored her.

 

“Ready?” Fred said to the other two, quivering with excitement. “C’mon, then — I’ll go first —”

 

Harry watched, fascinated, as Fred pulled a slip of parchment out of his pocket bearing the words Fred Weasley — Hogwarts. Fred walked right up to the edge of the line and stood there, rocking on his toes like a diver preparing for a fifty-foot drop. Then, with the eyes of every person in the entrance hall upon him, he took a great breath and stepped over the line.

 

For a split second Harry thought it had worked — George certainly thought so, for he let out a yell of triumph and leapt after Fred — but next moment, there was a loud sizzling sound, and both twins were hurled out of the golden circle as though they had been thrown by an invisible shot-putter. They landed painfully, ten feet away on the cold stone floor, and to add insult to injury, there was a loud popping noise, and both of them sprouted identical long white beards. Neither of them had even gotten close enough to try putting their names in.

 

The entrance hall rang with laughter. Even Fred and George joined in, once they had gotten to their feet and taken a good look at each other’s beards.

 

“I did warn you,” said a deep, amused voice, and everyone turned to see Professor Dumbledore coming out of the Great Hall. He surveyed Fred and George, his eyes twinkling. “I suggest you both go up to Madam Pomfrey. She is already tending to Miss Fawcett, of Ravenclaw, and Mr. Summers, of Hufflepuff, both of whom decided to age themselves up a little too. Though I must say, neither of their beards is anything like as fine as yours.”

 

Fred and George set off for the hospital wing, accompanied by Lee, who was howling with laughter, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione, also chortling, went in to breakfast.

 

“Oh well,” Harry said. “At least they tried.”

 

As Harry went toward the Great Hall, he was stopped by an older Slytherin student, a boy, who handed him a pamphlet. “I heard from a mutual friend, Potter, that this might interest you. There's an Old Ways club in school, you're invited to join our Samhain ritual tonight. Sorry I didn't get this to you sooner.”

 

“Oh. Thanks. Um... is the invitation just to this ritual? Or to the club?”

 

“Both. If you're not interested in this ritual, and still want to join the club, I can invite you to the Imbolc ritual. There won't be a Yule ritual this year, because there's going to be a Yule Ball instead, thanks to this tournament. As to the Samhain ritual, that's tonight at midnight in the same wood where you do your own ritual. Oh don't look at me like that, Potter. Your spot in the woods leaves enough magical traces behind that we've run across it on our way to our rituals before. I didn't know whose spot it was until Draco clued me in. Anyway, the club gets special dispensation to be out after curfew for religious rites. And if you doubt my word, just ask McGonagall or any of the other teachers.”

 

“Hmm... well I was going to do my own ritual, but... I suppose if this one isn't enough for me, I could always do my own on November 1st.”

 

The older boy smiled. “That's the spirit, Potter. So I'll see you there?”

 

“Yes, I'll be there.”

 

“Great!”

 

“Hey, what's your name, by the way?”

 

“Oh sorry, I got excited and forgot that part. My name is Anton Selwyn.” He held his hand out. Harry shook it.

 

“Harry Potter.”

 

“Yes, I know.” Anton Selwyn said, smiling.

 

Harry shrugged. “It's in the script for the interaction we just had. I don't know how to go off-script in that instance.”

 

“Uh... okay,” Selwyn said, looking bemused. “Well anyway, for the Samhain ritual, we meet in the Great Hall beforehand. We leave the Great Hall at a quarter til midnight. Tonight, of course.”

 

“I'll be there.”

 

“Good. Draco and I will both be pleased. Some of your other friends might be there, too; Draco has been inviting some others. And since you're you, Potter, you can invite as many as three people along for the ritual, too. Your Slytherin friends are already invited, don't worry about that.”

 

“Oh. Thanks. Um... would it be a problem if I invited Hermione?”

 

Selwyn's eyes widened a little in surprise. “Well I hadn't been expecting that, Potter, but if she's interested, it shouldn't be a problem as long as she follows the rules: first, save questions for before the ritual or after, but once we've started, everyone is to be quiet unless their role in the ritual calls for speaking, or if those in charge of the ritual tell others to speak. Second, if the ritual gets too intense for you, get down on one knee and bow your head, this will be the sign, and the people in charge will let you out of the circle. Third, do what you're told during the ritual or you'll be let out of the circle and expected to leave. And fourth, be respectful to everyone at the ritual.”

 

“Huh. That's surprising. I was worried Hermione wouldn't be let in.”

 

“I understand your surprise. But the thing is, the reasons for the blood bigotry have largely changed over the centuries. At first it was distrust of Muggle-borns. Now it's mostly a mix of horrible lies about them and fear of our culture dying out. Which honestly, our culture is in danger of dying out if we don't accept Muggle-borns in, but try telling the worst of the blood bigots that. Those of us who think as I do, though, want to introduce Muggle-borns to our culture, to... convert them, I guess. And since Draco stopped believing his father, that turned the tide of the group in favor of Muggle-borns. Sure, she'll get some dirty looks from some people, but that'll be the most she gets if they want to keep being in the ritual.”

 

“Cool. I'll ask her, then. Thank you.”

 

“You're welcome, Potter. Oh by the way, don't forget your wand when you come.”

 

“Thanks,” Harry said.

 

They nodded to each other, and Selwyn left. Harry hurried to the Griffindor table to sit with Ron and Hermione for breakfast. They were already eating.

 

“What'd he want, mate?” Ron asked.

 

“He was inviting me to a Samhain ritual held by the school's Old Ways club.”

 

“Really, Harry? Oh that sounds so fascinating, a real group ritual with people who probably learned from their parents. I'm so jealous!”

 

Harry chuckled. “Don't worry, Hermione, I can invite up to three people, and my Slytherin friends were already invited. I already asked if I could invite you, and he said it was okay.”

 

Ron's eyes narrowed. “I think I've heard of that group, Harry. It's inter-House, but there's a lot more Slytherins in it than just about any House. Did that boy know Hermione's a Muggle-born?”

 

“Yes, Anton Selwyn knows she's Muggle-born.”

 

Harry told them about the rules Selwyn had given them, and what was expected of the others in the group as well, and Ron relaxed.

 

“Well that's good,” Ron had said. “And Antigone and the others will be there, too. Just take your wand with you just in case.”

 

“Selwyn told me to bring my wand. I gather it might be needed for the ritual.”

 

“Yes, and we'll be out in the woods at midnight,” Hermione said. “Not the Forbidden Forest, of course, but there could still be dangers.”

 

Harry piled food onto his plate and began to eat. “You know,” he said, thinking, “I might see if Luna wants to come along, too.”

 

“Listen!” said Hermione suddenly, before anyone could respond to Harry.

 

People were cheering out in the entrance hall. They all swiveled around in their seats and saw Angelina Johnson coming into the Hall, grinning in an embarrassed sort of way. A tall black girl who played Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Angelina came over to them, sat down, and said, “Well, I’ve done it! Just put my name in!”

 

“You’re kidding!” said Ron, looking impressed.

 

“Are you seventeen, then?” asked Harry.

 

“ ’Course she is, can’t see a beard, can you?” said Ron.

 

“I had my birthday last week,” said Angelina.

 

“Well, I’m glad someone from Gryffindor’s entering,” said Hermione. “I really hope you get it, Angelina!”

 

“Thanks, Hermione,” said Angelina, smiling at her.

 

 

After breakfast, the three of them went down to Hagrid's hut. Hermione was telling them that she was thinking about starting a group, which she wanted to call Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to House Elves, and in her spare time she'd been writing out ideas for how to go about it, including talking to more house elves. She knew Netty, of course, and had spoken with her. But she wanted to be sure she was representing their best interests, so she needed to talk with as many as possible.

 

“I'd suggest Kreacher, but he's not too keen on Muggle-borns, last I knew,” Harry said.

 

They stopped talking then, because they were at Hagrid's hut. They knocked on his door, and when he finally opened it, they stood there staring at him, dumbstruck. He was wearing the fine suit Ms. Pennyroyal had bought him for his hearing about Buckbeak, and they could smell the frankly ridiculous amount of Muggle hair gel he'd put in his hair to tame it. His hair looked like he'd been trying for Draco's slicked-back look, but had given up halfway through the attempt.

 

Hermione, deciding not to comment on his appearance, said, “Erm — where are the skrewts?”

 

“Out by the pumpkin patch,” said Hagrid happily. “They’re gettin’ massive, mus’ be nearly three foot long now. On’y trouble is, they’ve started killin’ each other.”

 

“Oh no, really?” said Hermione, shooting a repressive look at Ron, who, staring at Hagrid’s odd hairstyle, had just opened his mouth to say something about it.

 

“Yeah,” said Hagrid sadly. “ ’S’ okay, though, I’ve got ’em in separate boxes now. Still got abou’ twenty.”

 

“Well, that’s lucky,” said Ron. Hagrid missed the sarcasm.

 

At Hagrid's, they talked about the Tournament, and Hagrid nearly ruined the surprise of the first task. They also talked about Harry's invite to the Samhain ritual.

 

They ended up having lunch with Hagrid, and the beef casserole Hagrid had made wasn't really beef, unless cows had started growing talons lately without Harry hearing about it, for Hermione found one in hers, which made the trio lose their appetites. However, they enjoyed themselves trying to make Hagrid tell them what the tasks in the tournament were going to be, speculating which of the entrants were likely to be selected as champions, and wondering whether Fred and George were beardless yet.

 

A light rain had started to fall by midafternoon; it was very cozy sitting by the fire, listening to the gentle patter of the drops on the window, watching Hagrid darning his socks and discussing SPCHE with Hermione.

 

“Good on yeh, Hermione, fer tryin' a help 'em out. Mos' these days are fine, a course, but evry once in a while yeh get some berk like Mr. Malfoy mistreatin' em. I wish yeh luck on that, hope yeh can get the laws changed.” Then he paused, thinking, and continued, “Ain't Sirius doin' somethin' long those lines at the Wizengamot?”

 

“Uh, yeah. I don't know how that's going, but--”

 

“You mean you didn't hear, mate?” Ron interrupted.

 

“Hear what?”

 

“Oh wait,” Ron said, thinking. “I guess I just found out about it myself yesterday.”

 

“WHAT?” Harry asked, louder.

 

“Oh, sorry. It's just, Dad wrote me yesterday and I forgot to mention it in the excitement over the Tournament starting. Sirius and Narcissa Malfoy are spearheading a move to get house elf protections in the laws.”

 

“Really? I wonder why Sirius didn't tell me.”

 

“Well, it's just in the early stages, I doubt the press even knows about it yet. Dad only found out about it because one of his contacts in the Wizengamot let him in on the rumors.”

 

“Mrs. Malfoy an' Sirius, workin' together on summat?” Hagrid got up and peered out his windows.

 

“What're you doing, Hagrid?”

 

“Oh nuthin, jes makin' sure the sky ain't fallin' down round our ears.”

 

The three of them laughed at this, Hagrid chuckling along too as he sat back down again.

 

“Anyway,” Harry said when the laughter stopped, “I kinda forgot to tell you, I think, that that was happening. We uh, made a deal with the Malfoys. Sirius and I, I mean. They'd help us with a few things, and we promised that if Voldemort ever came back, Sirius would put a Fidelius Charm on his house and Draco would stay with us, to keep him safe.”

 

The room went silent, so Harry looked up. They were all staring up at him.

 

“Well think about it,” he said. “Draco isn't going along with the pure-blood supremacy rubbish anymore, and they haven't been able to get him to stop it. He's their sole heir, they want to make sure he's safe, even if they disagree with him.”

 

Ron frowned. “No offense, Harry, but Draco doesn't exactly strike me as brave. What if he pulls a Pettigrew, betrays you?”

 

“Or gets Imperiused!” Hermione said.

 

“I'll take that chance. After all, it could happen with either of you, or my other friends.”

 

The three of them were staring at him open-mouthed.

 

“Don't look at me like that, you know it could. I don't think any of you would betray me willingly, but I'm not discounting the possibility completely. I'm more paranoid than my dad was, I have less reason than he did to trust people. If he'd had my healthy amount of paranoia, he and mum might still be alive. They weren't holding their wands when he killed them. They'd gotten careless, trusting too much in the Fidelius Charm and their secret-keeper.”

 

Now they were looking sad. He sighed.

 

“Listen, Ron, Hermione. I trust you two, Antigone, and Danzia with my life. Angela too. Draco hasn't quite proven himself fully, but I mostly trust him too. So it's not that I distrust you. It's just that, well, I'm leaving my mind open to the possibility I might be wrong about one or more of you, so I can keep an eye out for signs of betrayal – not that I'm probably terribly good at spotting such things – and not be totally taken off-guard if someone I trust betrays me. It's just... I guess what I'm saying is it's just me taking Moody's 'constant vigilance' advice to heart.”

 

“Oh,” said Hermione. “Well that makes sense, I suppose.”

 

Ron exhaled a sigh of relief. “Thanks for explaining it, mate. You had me worried for a minute there.”

 

“It's not just my friends, either. Something has happened every year for three years, so I'm watching all the adults and all the other students as well. I don't want to be taken by surprise.”

 

“Right, we get it mate,” Ron said. “Can we talk about something else now?”

 

 

At half-past five, it was getting dark, and Hagrid said he was going to take them back to the Great Hall to hear the announcement of the Champions, but then he got distracted by Madame Maxime, whom he seemed to fancy, walking with her instead. They went back to the castle by themselves instead, and caught sight of the Durmstrang students coming from their ship.

 

When they entered the candlelit Great Hall it was almost full. The Goblet of Fire had been moved; it was now standing in front of Dumbledore’s empty chair at the teachers’ table. Fred and George — clean-shaven again — seemed to have taken their disappointment fairly well.

 

“Hope it’s Angelina,” said Fred as Harry, Ron, and Hermione sat down.

 

“So do I!” said Hermione breathlessly. “Well, we’ll soon know!”

 

Harry put some earplugs in his ears. These didn't block out as much sound as his magical earmuffs did, but muffled the extra noise of the busier-than-usual Great Hall enough that it made being there bearable.

 

“Well I'm just glad I'm not eligible. Not that I'd be be trying out for it even if I were. Being in the crowd to watch is going to be hard enough as is, I don't even want to think about being a Champion.”

 

The Halloween feast seemed to take much longer than usual. Perhaps because it was their second feast in two days, Harry didn’t seem to fancy the extravagantly prepared food as much as he would have normally. Like everyone else in the Hall, judging by the constantly craning necks, the impatient expressions on every face, the fidgeting, and the standing up to see whether Dumbledore had finished eating yet, Harry simply wanted the plates to clear, and to hear who had been selected as champions.

 

They waited. Finally, the Goblet of Fire began deciding. With a sudden change of color to its flames from reddish to bluish, it spat out a singed piece of paper, and Viktor Krum became the Durmstrang Champion. People cheered as he left the room for the place the Champions were to wait for instructions, and they waited again. Another minute later, and the Goblet had picked Fleur Delacour – the girl Ron thought was a veela. Next was the Hogwarts Champion.

 

And the Goblet of Fire turned red once more; sparks showered out of it; the tongue of flame shot high into the air, and from its tip Dumbledore pulled the third piece of parchment.

 

“The Hogwarts champion,” he called, “is Cedric Diggory!”

 

“Damn!” Ron said, but only Harry could hear him; the Hufflepuffs were cheering too loudly and exuberantly.

 

“Good,” Harry said. “They deserve some glory.”

 

“Excellent!” Dumbledore called happily as at last the tumult died down. “Well, we now have our three champions. I am sure I can count upon all of you, including the remaining students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, to give your champions every ounce of support you can muster. By cheering your champion on, you will contribute in a very real —”

 

But Dumbledore suddenly stopped speaking, and it was apparent to everybody what had distracted him.

 

The fire in the goblet had just turned red again. Sparks were flying out of it. A long flame shot suddenly into the air, and borne upon it was another piece of parchment. He grabbed it out of habit and looked at it with more astonishment than Harry had ever seen on his face. There was a long pause as he continued staring at the name, before he spoke.

 

“Harry Potter.”

 

 

 

Endnotes: Some of the text about color in Professor Dreyfuss's lecture was lifted from this page:

http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/ananda-triulzi/ancient-greek-color-vision And there's more evidence of it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2976405/Could-ancestors-blue-Ancient-civilisations-didn-t-perceive-colour-didn-t-word-say-scientists.html I know it's possibly a slight anachronism, as I don't know if people were aware of that fact before 2006, but if nothing else, the wizarding world might. (They might have more surviving ancient Greek texts, for one.)

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Note: As a reminder, “Samhain” is pronounced “saw-when.”

 

TRIGGER WARNING: Realistic depiction of a panic attack, starting at the fourth paragraph. If this is a problem for you, skip to “Harry took a bracing breath”

 

Also, Harry uses some naughty words in this chapter, taking after his dogfather.

 

 

Chapter 9: “No Way Out”

 

Harry sat there, aware that every head in the Great Hall had turned to look at him. He was stunned. He felt numb. He was surely having a nightmare. He had not heard correctly. His head felt fuzzy, his vision narrowing as the sides blacked out. It took him a few moments to realize he'd developed a spontaneous headache. Just a baby one at the moment, but he knew it would grow. He thought about taking a pain relief potion, but he couldn't get his body to move; he was frozen in place.

 

There was no applause. A buzzing, as though of angry bees, was starting to fill the Hall; some students were standing up to get a better look at Harry as he sat, frozen, in his seat.

 

Up at the top table, Professor McGonagall had got to her feet and swept past Ludo Bagman and Professor Karkaroff to whisper urgently to Professor Dumbledore, who bent his ear toward her, frowning slightly.

 

Harry turned to Ron and Hermione; beyond them, he saw the long Gryffindor table all watching him, open-mouthed. He tried to speak, and found he'd gone mute. Well, that was hardly surprising. He pinched himself instead, managing to yelp with pain. So he was awake after all. He started to hyperventilate, and his heart in his chest began beating faster than felt healthy or safe. He broke into a cold sweat and was shaking and dizzy, light-headed. Harry clung to the table for support, but found he was too weak to hold himself up, and was sliding out of his chair.

 

His vision had narrowed so badly that he could only see a narrow strip in front of him, and that was very blurry, even though he could still feel his glasses on his head.

 

 

Hermione looked at Harry as soon as her own shock wore off enough to move, and saw he looked very ill. He was sweating, breathing shallowly, and falling out of his seat, clutching his chest. For a moment she worried he was having a heart attack, but he was so young that another more likely possibility came to mind. Remembering something she'd read in one of her parents' medical books over the summer after she'd told her mother about her DADA test the week before, Hermione was the first to speak.

 

“He's having a panic attack! Stay back! Don't touch him, you'll just make him worse!”

 

Hermione got up and used her wand to push people away from Harry, and Silenced the area around him. Harry had fallen out of his chair entirely.

 

Popping her head into the area where she knew he'd be able to hear her, she said, “Harry? Harry, breathe. Try to breathe. Big, deep breaths. Oh, what did the book say? Right. I know what to do.”

 

Getting Harry's attention, she started to ask him to think about the maths they'd been doing in arithmancy lately. Harry didn't respond at first, but as she kept it up with a gentle tone of voice, his eyes turned toward her, and his expression looked thoughtful. He was trying, but people kept crowding around the invisible bubble she'd made with her wand, so his eyes kept falling on them, making him slip back into panic.

 

Taking her wand out again, she cast a blindfold over his eyes and levitated him toward the door. She wished she knew a way to hide him from everyone's eyes, but she didn't. Luckily, though, Antigone came running up and cast some sort of spell on him that turned the image of Harry into a blurry, shapeless blob.

 

“Thanks, Antigone.”

 

“Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said, not touching her but freezing her with his voice.

 

“I need to take Harry somewhere quiet to calm down,” she said, sounding on the

 

“Harry needs to go back with the other Champions.”

 

“NO,” she snapped angrily at him, making everyone in earshot gasp. “I've read about panic attacks, he needs a quiet place to calm down before he can do anything else. You can't die of a panic attack, I don't think, but they can make people feel like they're dying. So I'm very sorry, Professor Dumbledore, but I'm taking him out of here.”

 

Dumbledore sighed. “Alright then, Miss Granger. I shall go explain to the other Champions what has happened.”

 

She ignored him, and continued moving Harry out of the room, glaring so vociferously at anyone in her way that she looked like she might use accidental magic to hex them while her wand was occupied. It struck her that it really was quite inconvenient that she only had one wand. She'd have to see about getting a spare when she could.

 

“Over here, Hermione,” Antigone said. “This room ought to work.”

 

It was one of the unused classrooms. She took Harry in, set him down in a corner, and closed and locked the door behind her, warding it with every spell she'd learned from books and from the older Slytherin girls. She then cast a dispel on Antigone's blurring spell, and sat across from Harry, using a conjured parchment and quill to try to distract him with maths. She would have preferred wizard chess or checkers or something like that, but she didn't have any of that on her, so maths it was.

 

It took a long time to begin working, and longer to really get working. But slowly, as Harry's mind focused on the maths, he began to calm down. His breathing eventually returned to normal, his face looked more relaxed, and he began to slowly get the color back in his face. She kept it up anyway; the books had said to keep the panic attack sufferer distracted until they were thoroughly bored.

 

It took over an hour for Harry to get to that point. Only then did she risk talking with him about what happened next.

 

“Dumbledore said you have to go meet with the other Champions. Do you feel up to that yet?”

 

Harry took a bracing breath, and nodded. “I think so. I just... I hadn't been expecting this.”

 

“I don't think any of us did. Even Dumbledore looked astonished.”

 

“Where are we supposed to go, anyway?”

 

“No idea. I can go find out for you.”

 

“Okay. And find if there's a way there that I can use to hide from everyone.”

 

“Right.”

 

Hermione undid the wards on the door and opened it, seeing Sirius pacing in front of the door. He stopped and turned when he heard the door open.

 

“Sirius, stay back. He's okay for now, but it's possible to trigger him again if you're not careful.”

 

“Right. Okay, Hermione, I'll trust your judgment. At least I know he's okay.”

 

“Do you know where he's supposed to go?”

 

“Yes, only I'm not sure I'd recommend it, after what you said. Karkaroff is livid, in the middle of a shouting match with Moody and Maxime. Dumbledore has been trying to calm them down. I tried listening to some of it but I had to come here instead, once Antigone told me where you were. She's been keeping me updated.”

 

“I'm better now, Sirius. It was scary while it was happening, but I'm better now.”

 

“Have you ever had one of those 'panic attacks' before?” Sirius asked.

 

“Yes, but it was years and years ago. The Dursleys used to... but never mind. Point is, I trained myself out of them. I guess the last few years have made me out of practice.”

 

“So what's the verdict, Sirius?” Hermione asked. “He can't possibly be expected to compete, surely?”

 

“I have no idea. I hope he doesn't have to. I've already sent a message to Moony, Harry, and he's fetching your diagnosis papers and Ms. Pennyroyal. They should be here any minute, it's been nearly 40 minutes since then. Then we can get this sorted out. You've got a diagnosis that shows you can't compete in this bloody competition, that has to count for something. They wouldn't expect a quadriplegic to compete in a swimming contest, it's unfair of them to expect you to do this.”

 

“They might be able to make a case for it, though, Sirius,” Hermione said. “He fought You-Know-Who twice and survived.”

 

“Yes, but he had help, and he wasn't in front of a bloody crowd of over a thousand spectators when he was doing it, either.”

 

Professor McGonagall showed up then.

 

“Ah good, Potter, you look a little better. I'd take you to the Hospital Wing, but the headmaster insists you come with me to meet the other Champions, if you're up to it.”

 

“I think I can do that. Come, let's get this over with,” he said.

 

Harry swallowed a Calming Draught and let McGonagall lead the way. Hermione slapped her own forehead for not thinking of a Calming Draught. But clearly Harry hadn't thought of it himself either until now, or hadn't been capable of taking it.

 

 

When the four of them got to where they were going, McGonagall only let Harry and Sirius join her. Hermione stood outside the door while they went in and closed it. From the sound of it, unless they thought to ward the door, she'd be able to hear them.

 

When Harry went in, he saw Dumbledore, Moody, Karkaroff, Maxime, Mr. Bagman, Ms. Selby, and the other three Champions in the room. Snape was there as well. Now he and McGonagall had joined, the room was starting to get a little crowded.

 

“There he is, finally!” Karkaroff shouted. “We have been waiting for you for over an hour, you cheating scoundrel! What have you to say for yourself!”

 

“Quiet, Igor. I will handle this. Harry,” he said calmly, “did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?”

 

“Are you kidding me? Of course I didn't. That panic attack wasn't enough to convince you lot of that?”

 

Dumbledore nodded. “And did you ask an older student to do it for you?”

 

“No, I did not,” he said vehemently.

 

“Ah, but of course ’e is lying!” cried Madame Maxime. Snape was now shaking his head, his lip curling.

 

“We have been over this, Madame Maxime,” Dumbledore said calmly, if with a touch of annoyance. “The age line worked as expected with Mr. Fred and George Weasley, they could not have gotten close enough to put their names in before they were pushed back and given beards. At no point did Mr. Potter come in with a beard, nor did any of his other friends, the Weasley twins excepted. And there were many witnesses to the attempt those two made.”

 

“'e could 'ave done eet when nobody was looking!” Madame Maxime protested.

 

“If he had, he would have a beard. Minerva, you asked Poppy about it, did you not? What did she say.”

 

“Mr. Potter hasn't been in the Hospital Wing all school year so far,” she said.

 

“Good.”

 

“That proves nothing!” Karkaroff spat.

 

The door opened suddenly, and the short, fat, and usually pleasant form of Ms. Pennyroyal came bustling in, a briefcase in her hand.

 

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Ms. Lilith Pennyroyal, solicitor for Mr. Harry Potter and his guardian, Mr. Sirius Black. And regardless of how this has happened, it cannot be allowed to continue.”

 

“Well, on that we can agree, Ms. Pennyroyal you said it was?” Karkaroff said.

 

“Yes. Now clearly, this young man was entered into this competition against his wishes, for he knows his own limitations and knows he cannot possibly compete. I have proof with me that he cannot be allowed to compete, for he is not emotionally equipped to handle the demands of this competition.”

 

She pulled out a copy of his diagnosis papers, a much thicker file than Harry remembered having seen before.

 

“What is this?” Karkaroff said, flicking through the papers. Ms. Pennyroyal was passing out copies to the others to look through as well.

 

“Mr. Potter here has been to see a Muggle psychiatrist and gotten a diagnosis of a mental and emotional condition that impairs his ability to cope with certain kinds of situations, such as social situations, especially those involving large numbers of people. He has been observed on many occasions becoming ill when forced to be around too many people. The stress of a competition such as this, performing in front of a thousand or more people, is too much for him to cope with and he cannot be allowed to compete, for his own mental and physical health and well-being, as evidenced by the file I have given you all copies of.”

 

“I don't claim to understand this Muggle rubbish, Ms. Pennyroyal,” Karkaroff said, “but if it means we agree, then I will say no more of it.”

 

“'ere 'ere,” Madame Maxime said.

 

“I'm sorry to have to contradict you, Ms. Pennyroyal,” Ms. Selby said. “If I could agree, I would; this should not be permitted. But the Goblet of Fire is older than our laws; his name was entered into the Goblet, it came out of said Goblet, therefore he is obliged to compete under penalty of his magic being stripped from him.”

 

“He was entered against his will,” she countered.

 

“That doesn't matter,” Ms. Selby said. “His name came out, the geas says he must compete.”

 

She glared at Ms. Selby. “If the Goblet of Fire was so poorly made that it could be tricked into putting in the name of someone who has no desire to compete, then I move we destroy the accursed thing and find some other way to pick Triwizard Tournament Champions in the future.” Harry noticed Bagman gaping at her like an idiot.

 

“There will BE no more Triwizard Tournament after this outrage,” Karkaroff shouted, “for Durmstrang will not be competing again!”

 

“Professor Karkaroff, there have been so many centuries between now and the last time the Tournament was played, that it may well happen again in a century or two, under different headmasters.”

 

Destroy the Goblet of Fire? It's a priceless artifact!” Bagman shouted.

 

“We do not even know if that would work,” Ms. Selby said. She looked sympathetic. “We cannot risk the life of the savior of the wizarding world on something we don't even know will work.”

 

Ms. Pennyroyal snorted. “'Savior of the wizarding world' indeed. He survived the Killing Curse, which makes him famous, but the so-called 'Lord' Voldemort has never been strong enough to be a real threat outside of Britain. The rest of the world has had many dark lords and dark ladies far more formidable than him and his Death Eaters, so calling Mr. Potter the savior of the wizarding world is to forget that there exists a wizarding world outside the bounds of the United Kingdom.

 

“And anyway,” she continued, “by your own admission he wouldn't lose his life, just his magic.”

 

“Lilith! Are you hearing yourself?” McGonagall asked. “With all the people after him, who want him dead? Losing his magic would be as good as losing his life!”

 

“I doubt that, Minerva,” Ms. Pennyroyal countered. “Without his magic, he's no longer a threat to Voldemort, they'd have no reason to go after him. They might capture him and parade him around a bit, but there'd be no reason to kill him. But I do agree that I'd rather he not lose his magic. It would be a terrible waste of potential. That's why I suggested destroying the Goblet of Fire. The worst that can happen if we do is he lose his magic before the Goblet dies.”

 

“And what of us?” Fleur snapped. “Are we three, the rightful Champions, to risk losing our magic as well? I assure you, eef that 'appened, my family's solicitors would come down on you like an 'erd of angry dragons!”

 

“Yes!” Karkaroff agreed. “My star quidditch player, a squib? I will not hear of it! No, we are not destroying the Goblet of Fire!”

 

Ms. Pennyroyal looked around at all their faces, then sighed. “You're right, legally we can't risk you all for the sake of one teenager. But surely there must be some way of getting him out of this?”

 

“Like I said,” Ms. Selby told her, “it is an old geas. He is bound to compete, and to try his best, or he loses his magic. Or he might die, even. The records aren't exactly clear on that point.”

 

“You should have led with that,” Ms. Pennyroyal said. “But the fact remains, he is not emotionally equipped to compete in this tournament. I hear he had a panic attack when he found out he'd been chosen.”

 

“Be that as it may, he must compete. However this happened, we are left with that fact.”

 

“ENOUGH,” Karkaroff exploded. “After all our meetings and negotiations and compromises, I little expected something of this nature to occur! I have half a mind to leave now!”

 

“Empty threat, Karkaroff,” growled a voice from near the door. “You can’t leave your champion now. He’s got to compete. They’ve all got to compete. Binding magical contract, like Dumbledore said. Convenient, eh?”

 

Moody limped from the door toward the fire, and with every right step he took, there was a loud clunk.

 

“Convenient?” said Karkaroff. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you, Moody.”

 

Harry could tell he was trying to sound disdainful, as though what Moody was saying was barely worth his notice, but his hands gave him away; they had balled themselves into fists.

 

“Don’t you?” said Moody quietly. “It’s very simple, Karkaroff. Someone put Potter’s name in that goblet knowing he’d have to compete if it came out.”

 

“Evidently, someone ’oo wished to give ’Ogwarts two bites at ze apple!” said Madame Maxime.

 

“I quite agree, Madame Maxime,” said Karkaroff, bowing to her. “I shall be lodging complaints with the Ministry of Magic and the International Confederation of Wizards —”

 

“If anyone’s got reason to complain, it’s Potter,” growled Moody, “but … funny thing … I don’t hear him saying a word. Though his solicitor has.”

 

“Why should ’e complain?” burst out Fleur Delacour, stamping her foot. “ ’E ’as ze chance to compete, ’asn’t ’e? We ’ave all been ’oping to be chosen for weeks and weeks! Ze honor for our schools! A thousand Galleons in prize money — zis is a chance many would die for!”

 

“Maybe someone’s hoping Potter is going to die for it,” said Moody, with the merest trace of a growl.

 

An extremely tense silence followed these words. Ludo Bagman, who was looking very anxious indeed, bounced nervously up and down on his feet and said, “Moody, old man … what a thing to say!”

 

“We all know Professor Moody considers the morning wasted if he hasn’t discovered six plots to murder him before lunchtime,” said Karkaroff loudly. “Apparently he is now teaching his students to fear assassination too. An odd quality in a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dumbledore, but no doubt you had your reasons.”

 

“Moody's got a point,” Sirius said. “Champions have died before in this damned contest, we all know that. It's the reason the age was restricted to 17, to reduce the chances of deaths. Harry here has faced Voldemort twice now, I wouldn't be surprised if Voldemort or one of his cronies is trying to kill off my godson. Put his name in the Goblet, then if he gets killed during a Task, it looks like an accident. And there's a lot of Death Eaters in the government I know could pull off the skills needed to hoodwink the Cup like that.”

 

“Hoodwinked ze Goblet? Ah, what evidence is zere of zat?” said Madame Maxime, throwing up her huge hands.

 

“Isn't it obvious?” asked Moody. “That thing is old and powerful. It would have needed an exceptionally strong Confundus Charm to bamboozle that goblet into forgetting that only three schools compete in the tournament. I’m guessing they submitted Potter’s name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category.”

 

“You seem to have given this a great deal of thought, Moody,” said Karkaroff coldly, “and a very ingenious theory it is — though of course, I heard you recently got it into your head that one of your birthday presents contained a cunningly disguised basilisk egg, and smashed it to pieces before realizing it was a carriage clock. So you’ll understand if we don’t take you entirely seriously.”

 

“There are those who’ll turn innocent occasions to their advantage,” Moody retorted in a menacing voice. “It’s my job to think the way Dark wizards do, Karkaroff — as you ought to remember.

 

“Alastor!” said Dumbledore warningly. Moody fell silent, though still surveying Karkaroff with satisfaction — Karkaroff’s face was burning.

 

How this situation arose, we do not know,” said Dumbledore, speaking to everyone gathered in the room. “It seems to me, however, that we have no choice but to accept it. Both Cedric and Harry have been chosen to compete in the Tournament. This, therefore, they will do.”

 

“Ah, but Dumbly-dorr —”

 

“My dear Madame Maxime, if you have an alternative, I would be delighted to hear it.”

 

Dumbledore waited, but Madame Maxime did not speak, she merely glared. She wasn’t the only one either. Snape looked furious; Karkaroff livid; Bagman, however, looked rather excited.

 

Sirius spoke, then. “Is there any way Harry can be allowed someone to help him get through this? Just for moral support? And he's going to need his coping tools. Calming Draughts, his sunglasses, pain relief potions---”

 

“He cannot be allowed to cheat!” Karkaroff shouted. “Hasn't he done enough already?”

 

“These aren't cheats,” Ms. Pennyroyal said. She looked at Harry. “Harry, are those earplugs in your ears?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How long have they been there today?”

 

“Since before going to the feast. It was so noisy with the extra people the night before, I needed them to prevent a headache. Got one anyway from the panic attack, but it's a dull ache now.”

 

“You get headaches from that sort of noise?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How bad are these headaches?”

 

“If I don't take the potion in time, they become migraines very quickly. Not sure why this one hasn't yet, in fact; I didn't take a pain relief potion for it yet.”

 

“You see, Karkaroff, Maxime,” she said. “A few dozen extra students in the Great Hall and he needs ear plugs and pain relief potion to cope with that. He's going to need his coping tools if he's going to have any chance of getting through this Tournament.”

 

Karkaroff said nothing. Dumbledore spoke instead.

 

“Lilith, what all does Harry need?”

 

“Harry?” she asked him. “What do you need?”

 

“Bare minimum, based on what I needed to cope with the Quidditch World Cup--”

 

“You went to the World Cup but expect us to believe you need all this--”

 

“Igor,” Dumbledore said warningly, cutting the man off.

 

“As I was saying, what I needed to cope with the World Cup was sound-blocking earmuffs, my sunglasses, pain-relief potion, Calming Draught in case I'm getting near a panic attack or jump right into one like today. Let's see, what else? Oh, this,” he said, holding up the dragon-skin bracelet.

 

“It's... well, it's an emotional comfort object. Calms me down. And then there's this,” he said, showing them the necklace Luna had given him.

 

Ms. Selby held her hand out. “May I check those objects to see what they are?”

 

Harry looked to Sirius, who didn't object, so Harry nodded and handed him the objects. Selby scanned them with her wand.

 

“A simple metal bracelet covered in dragon skin,” she said, handing it back to Harry. “And... some sort of magical artifact.”

 

Harry explained briefly what it did.

 

“It was given to me by my friend Luna Lovegood. Each stone plays a different tone. Here, this one supposedly chases away Scrabjabbles, whatever those are,” he said, pressing the green gem. Airy, tinkling music came from the necklace. “I find it soothing.”

 

Everyone who didn't already know about it stared at him, except for Dumbledore, who smiled, and Snape, who sighed and shook his head slightly.

 

“And this stone, well... it does this.”

 

Pressing the purple stone, it made a noise like rock grinding against rock.

 

“You don't want to hear the red stone, trust me on that. It makes a horrible ruckus. That just leaves the blue one. Only animals can hear that one. Well, I can hear it faintly, but most humans can't hear it. Not even animagi.”

 

Harry pressed on the blue stone. There weren't any animals in range, at least none he could hear reacting to it.

 

“The animal one, if it really works, could be used to unfair advantage.”

 

Harry shrugged. “I can leave it in my room before the Tasks. It's the only thing I can manage without. Well, I could most likely manage without the bracelet, but somehow I doubt that one's gonna get shot down.”

 

“But the rest you truly need?” Ms. Pennyroyal asked.

 

“Yes. The potions, the sunglasses, and the earmuffs are non-negotiable. I won't be able to even enter the ring, or whatever you call the competition area, without those. I'd probably have a panic attack without the Calming Draughts, I'd be blinded with pain if I tried to function with a migraine in the middle of a Task, and I sometimes get those even with the earmuffs and sunglasses.”

 

The adults who were directly involved with the Tournament talked it over for fifteen minutes in the corner with silencing wards up. When they were done, they came out. Karkaroff and Maxime looked annoyed. Ms. Selby handed Harry's necklace back to him, but Sirius intercepted it and scanned it with his wand first, Moody making a noise of agreement with this.

 

“We've talked it over, and you will be allowed your coping tools, sans the necklace. The Calming Draught is to be taken only if you're on the edge of a panic attack. Both potions will be given to you by Madam Pomfrey, you are not to take your own usual supplies into the Tasks. And your bracelet will be scanned before every Task to ensure it remains at its current level of mundanity,” Ms. Selby said.

 

“You will also be allowed one companion, who will be in charge of judging your coping level and helping you recover mentally if you are unable to cope, or pull you out of the Task if you are unable to recover to complete the Task. This companion will not be allowed to use their wand to help you, and their wand will be confiscated before the start of the Task and only returned when the Task is complete.

 

“They will also, during the Tasks, only be allowed to talk to you enough to inquire about your state of mind and anything you need related to your state of mind, if it does not also relate to gaining an unfair advantage in the competition. There will be a spell put on you both to monitor your words during the Tasks; only the judges will be able to hear these exchanges. If the judges agree that something said gave you an unfair advantage in the Task, you will lose points equal to the amount of help received. If the judges agree that your companion managed to use wandless magic to give you an unfair advantage in the Task, that will also count against your points.

 

“Standard rules apply as well; teachers or other school or Ministry staff will not be allowed to help you at any point during the Tournament, except of course librarians, and then only in the context of their usual duties.”

 

Harry raised an eyebrow. Ms. Pince barely liked to help kids at all, she wouldn't give him more help than she absolutely had to.

 

“Do you agree to these terms?” Ms. Selby asked.

 

Harry turned to Ms. Pennyroyal, who nodded.

 

“Yes, Ms. Selby, I agree to those terms.”

 

“Who do you choose for your companion?”

 

“Sirius? Do you want to do it?”

 

“I don't like not having my wand. But I guess with everyone watching, nobody would be fool enough to attack you in the open. So yes, Harry, I'll be your companion for the Tasks. If there are no objections.”

 

“Do you think you'll be able to resist the urge to help him win, Black?” Snape said, sneering.

 

“Even if I can't, Snivelus, better he try his best, fail completely, and get out alive than the alternative.”

 

Snape had nothing to say to this. He settled for more sneering.

 

“Do you accept the terms, Mr. Black?”

 

“Yes, I accept your terms.”

 

“Even though you are training to be an Auror, are thus a Ministry employee in training, and are thus bound to abide by the rule to not help any of the Champions to cheat, even between Tasks?”

 

Sirius's face fell a little at this, but then he looked determined. “Yes, I still accept the terms of being Harry's companion during the Triwizard tasks.”

 

Ms. Selby nodded. “Good. This is all highly irregular, but if you break your word and Mr. Potter fails completely, I daresay the others would be somewhat mollified.”

 

“Well, shall we crack on, then?” Bagman said, rubbing his hands together and smiling around the room. “Got to give our champions their instructions, haven’t we? Caroline, want to do the honors?”

 

“Yes, yes, fine,” Ms. Selby said. She looked like the day had been wearing hard on her, but she soldiered on.

 

“The first task is designed to test your daring,” she told Harry, Cedric, Fleur, and Viktor, “so we are not going to be telling you what it is. Courage in the face of the unknown is an important quality in a wizard … very important.

 

“The first task will take place on November the twenty-fourth, in front of the other students and the panel of judges.

 

“The champions are not permitted to ask for or accept help of any kind from their teachers or Ministry staff to complete the tasks in the tournament. The champions will face the first challenge armed only with their wands. They will receive information about the second task when the first is over. Owing to the demanding and time-consuming nature of the tournament, the champions are exempted from end-of-year tests.”

 

Ms. Selby turned to look at Dumbledore.

 

“I think that’s all, is it, Albus?”

 

“I think so,” said Dumbledore, who was looking at her with mild concern. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay at Hogwarts tonight, Caroline?”

 

“No, Dumbledore, I should get back to the Ministry,” said Ms. Selby. “It's a very busy, very difficult time at the moment. I’ve left young Percy Weasley in charge. Very enthusiastic; a little over-enthusiastic, if truth be told.”

 

Dumbledore tried again, but Ms. Selby refused. Nobody else seemed interested in a nightcap either, except for Ludo Bagman. Maxime and Karkaroff were already leaving.

 

“Harry, Cedric, I suggest you go up to bed,” said Dumbledore, smiling at both of them. “I am sure Gryffindor and Hufflepuff are waiting to celebrate with you, and it would be a shame to deprive them of this excellent excuse to make a great deal of mess and noise.”

 

Harry groaned and pulled out his earmuffs. “I wish I could turn into a mouse or a lizard or something small to avoid the others.”

 

“Do you want any help fending off your well-meaning if misguided fans?”

 

“Yes please.”

 

Harry glanced at Sirius, who nodded, and they left together. Hermione was there, too, but she didn't speak except to say his name in a sympathetic way. Harry supposed she was waiting until later, when Cedric wasn't there; he was currently tagging along at Harry's other side.

 

The Great Hall was otherwise deserted now; the candles had burned low, giving the jagged smiles of the pumpkins an eerie, flickering quality.

 

“So, we're playing against each other,” Cedric said.

 

“I s’pose,” said Harry. He really couldn’t think of anything to say. The inside of his head seemed to be in complete disarray, as though his brain had been ransacked.

 

“So tell me,” Cedric whispered, “how did you get your name in that goblet?”

 

Harry stopped walking, making the others stop short. Harry was glaring at Cedric, his fists clenched, his teeth grinding. The first thing that came to his mind to say was shot down by a part of his mind that told him Cedric hadn't been there to witness his panic attack. He wondered if it would have made a difference.

 

“Harry?” Sirius asked, concerned.

 

Hermione was looking from him to Cedric; Cedric had spoken softly enough Harry didn't think she'd heard him, because she looked confused. Harry wanted to tell them both what was going on, but he was so angry he couldn't speak. Nothing he could think of to say was good enough. He'd been through an hour, more or less, of Hell even before being in there with all those other people arguing back and forth, and he thought the only thing that could get his point across, really, was to make Cedric feel as he'd felt, but since he didn't know how to do that, he could only stew in his anger.

 

“If you believe I would put my name in that bloody goblet, Cedric, then you are just... SO completely stupid!” he shouted at Cedric, who recoiled in alarm. “I would no more have put my name in that bloody goblet than I would join the Death Eaters! If I find out you've been telling people that lie, I'll hex you so thoroughly it'll take them a week just to figure out who you are!”

 

He was about to storm away angrily, but Cedric shot back angrily, “They're all thinking it anyway, Potter! Don't hex me if they're all saying it. Even the other Griffindors will be thinking it! Because it's obviously the truth, no matter what Dumbledore thinks.”

 

Harry swung a fist at Cedric, he was so mad, but he missed; Hermione yelped in surprise.

 

“YOU WEREN'T THERE!” he yelled at Cedric. “You weren't there when my name came out of that goblet, you bloody berk! I couldn't breathe! My heart was going a thousand kilometers an hour! I felt like I was going to die, really truly die! I had cold sweats, my vision was blacking out, I was dizzy, and I couldn't bloody move! Hermione had to levitate me into an unused classroom to give me somewhere to calm down, and it took me over an hour! I wasn't making you all wait out of some stupid celebrity reason, I felt like I was having a bloody heart attack! So don't you go thinking you know what I'm like! You have no fucking idea what my life is like! All I've ever fucking wanted is peace and bloody quiet! I just wanted to watch this fucking thing like everyone else, be a normal damned kid for once! But gods-damned fucking Voldemort won't even fucking give me that much!

 

“So if you think I put my name in that fucking goblet, then you can just go to Hell! You and everyone else who thinks it!”

 

With that, he stormed off, not even knowing or caring if Sirius was with him. He was still in a seething rage when he got to Griffindor tower and barely noticed Hermione running along after him, trying to keep up.

 

Harry got a shock to find himself facing the Fat Lady already. He had barely noticed where his feet were carrying him. It was also a surprise to see that she was not alone in her frame. A pale, wizened witch he'd never seen before was now sitting smugly beside the Fat Lady. She must have dashed through every picture lining seven staircases to reach here before him. Both she and the Fat Lady were looking down at him with the keenest interest.

 

“Well, well, well,” said the Fat Lady, “Violet’s just told me everything. Who’s just been chosen as school champion, then?”

 

“Balderdash,” snapped Harry.

 

“It most certainly isn’t!” said the pale witch indignantly.

 

“No, no, Vi, it’s the password,” said the Fat Lady soothingly, and she swung forward on her hinges to let Harry into the common room.

 

The blast of noise that met Harry’s ears when the portrait opened almost knocked him backward. A dozen or more people tried to grab him, which he was not in the mood for. He whipped out his wand and threw a dozen harmless but effective jinxes at people so vociferously that it only took about 10 seconds for people to clear a path, letting him storm up to his bedroom.

 

To his great relief, he found Ron was lying on his bed in the otherwise empty dormitory, still fully dressed. He sat up when Harry slammed the door behind him. The door opened up again a moment later, and Hermione appeared, looking questioningly at Harry.

 

“Come on in, Hermione,” Harry said, a bit of an apology in his tone. She came in after him, closed the door, and locked it with a spell. She then sat cross-legged on the floor.

 

“Er... what happened, mate? If you don't mind saying.”

 

“What happened, in a nutshell, is that it took me an hour to calm down from a full-blown panic attack before I was able to join the other bloody Champions. Oh yeah, and I have to compete. Doesn't matter I didn't put my name in or have someone else do it for me. Apparently I could either die or lose my magic if I don't compete, Ms. Selby didn't seem all that sure. And then Cedric had the gall to ask me how I'd gotten my name in the goblet! I was so angry I tried to punch him and failed, so I settled for yelling at him about what a panic attack feels like, instead.”

 

Hermione nodded solemnly, confirming his story. “I heard it all through the door. They didn't bother warding it.”

 

“Damn. So you really have to compete?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How're you gonna manage that?”

 

“Well, Ms. Pennyroyal was there. She tried getting me out of it, but failed, so she managed to get them all to agree to let me keep most of my coping tools. And Sirius is going to be there too. He won't be allowed to help beyond emotional support, but still, I might be able to get through this alive, with his help.”

 

“Wow. Hell of a day you had, mate.” Ron sighed. “The others were talking about how they thought you put your name in the Goblet, too. I tried talking some sense into them. I mean, that 'panic attack' thing... that was scary. Dunno how anyone could think you'd done it willingly after witnessing that.”

 

“Well, if you and Hermione are on my side, I can get through this. It can't be worse than second year. Wait, you are on my side on this, Hermione, right?”

 

“Of course I am, Harry.”

 

“I didn't really doubt it, but I didn't want to presume. Thanks.”

 

“Not a problem, Harry.”

 

“Yeah, and you'll have Luna, too,” Ron said. “And Sirius. Right?”

 

“Sirius, yes. Luna... I'm sure she'll believe me too.”

 

“What about Draco?”

 

“Hmm... he can get a bit jealous at times. I guess we'll find out later.” A pause, then Harry said, “You're not jealous?”

 

“I didn't say that, Harry. I am jealous. Extremely jealous. But I'd have to be a right idiot to let that get in the way of our friendship, especially after witnessing that panic attack of yours. You say you didn't put your name in that goblet, so I believe you.”

 

Harry smiled. “Thanks. I'm glad to hear it. Even if the rest of the school hates me for it, I've got my friends on my side.”

 

“Harry Potter!” came a voice from Harry's trunk. He opened it up and dug out the two-way mirror he used to communicate with Luna.

 

“Luna?” he said into the mirror.

 

“Oh good, there you are. I've been calling every fifteen minutes checking for you. How are you? You looked terrible tonight at dinner, after Dumbledore read out your name.”

 

“I'm better now, Luna. Thanks for thinking of me.”

 

“I waited for you outside the classroom until Dumbledore told me you would have to go back with the other Champions when you were better. He also told me to go back to my dorm. Very kindly, though. So I went back like he said, and started calling you then.”

 

“Thanks, Luna. I appreciate it. I'm okay now. Not fond of the idea of having to do this Tournament, but they're letting me use my coping tools, and letting me have Sirius with me as a mental health monitor. He's not allowed to help at all with the Tasks themselves, just to monitor my state of mind and help me get functioning if I start having another panic attack. But that's still a huge comfort.”

 

“Yeah, I heard it all through the door,” Hermione said, “and they'll be monitoring everything the both of them say with eavesdropping spells. During the Tasks, anyway. They can't monitor Harry and Sirius between Tasks.”

 

“Cool,” Ron said, smiling. “So maybe he can help you after all.”

 

“Ron! I don't think Harry should be cheating!”

 

“He'll be up against three much older, more experienced students though! The Tasks were probably designed with the age limit in mind, too. What if Harry can't do whatever he needs to do?”

 

“If worst comes to worst, and he's tried his best and failed, he'll lose that round of the Tournament but get to keep going. All that matters is we get him through this alive.”

 

“Fair point,” Ron said.

 

“You've got at least four Slytherin friends on your side, Harry,” Luna said. “Did any of the rules say other students were banned from helping?”

 

Harry looked thoughtful. “No. Just that teachers, school staff, and Ministry staff aren't allowed to help me or any of the other Champions.”

 

“Good. Then all your friends can help, including Hermione, whose help would be quite significant, I expect.”

 

Hermione nodded, then said aloud, “Yes, I'll help of course. Even if I was banned from helping, I'd find a way anyway. If rules get in the way of saving a friend's life, then the rules can go hang. Remember the polyjuice potion?”

 

“Excellent,” Luna said, her tiny face in the mirror smiling. “Eight heads are better than one. That's why nobody has ever caught the Ghanian hydra except for glimpses, they're too clever to be captured.”

 

The trio's heads turned toward Luna's voice. Harry smiled. By Luna's standards, that was very sensible and logical and realistic. Given hydras were in Muggle mythology alongside chimeras and dragons, Harry would have been surprised if hydras hadn't been real once, too, if they weren't still real.

 

“Well now we've settled that,” Harry said, “I'm tired. I've had a long, hard day, and I need to sleep.”

 

Hermione nodded and stood up, pausing to hug him first before leaving. Harry said goodbye to Luna, and got ready for bed. A few minutes later, he was laying in bed, Mouse-Stalker in his arms under the blankets, stroking the snake's scaly skin idly as he thought. The snake's presence made him realize he hadn't been carrying Mouse-Stalker around with him, but if someone was trying to kill him, maybe he should. He didn't think there was a rule against taking a familiar into classes, as long as it didn't disrupt class, but he'd have to ask Professor McGonagall to be sure. After an hour of troubled thoughts going through his head, he finally drifted off to sleep.

 

~ ~

 

When Harry woke up the next morning, it took him a moment to remember why he felt so worried. Then the memory of the night before came back to him, and he sighed. He had his friends, or at least Ron, Hermione, and Luna. He'd have to find out about the others today if he could.

 

Harry looked over into Ron's bed; Ron was still asleep. Harry decided to let him sleep in, and got up to go to breakfast. He considered Mouse-Stalker, too, but the snake was sleeping soundly in its enclosure after Harry had moved him there upon waking. The snake had slept through the whole process of moving.

 

Harry dressed and went down the spiral staircase into the common room. The moment he appeared, the people who had already finished breakfast broke into applause again. The prospect of going down into the Great Hall and facing the rest of the Gryffindors, all treating him like some sort of hero, was not inviting; it was that, however, or stay here and allow himself to be cornered by the Creevey brothers, who were both beckoning frantically to him to join them. He walked resolutely over to the portrait hole, pushed it open, climbed out of it, and found himself face-to-face with Hermione, Antigone, Angela, and Danzia. It suddenly struck Harry, for no apparent reason, to realize that all but two of his friends were girls. He liked Neville, too, but he didn't really know Neville well enough to call him a friend yet.

 

“Hey there,” Danzia said. “We figured you'd want to be away from adoring fans and hissing enemies alike. Picnic breakfast?”

 

She was holding up a basket that was steaming faintly.

 

“It was Hermione's idea,” Danzia specified. “Well, she was thinking toast, and I was like, 'I know how to get to the kitchens, why not get him some sausages and scrambled eggs as well? Oh and there's some fresh fruit in here, too. A well-balanced breakfast.”

 

“Thanks, girls,” he said, smiling. “Where should we go?”

 

“Would it be presumptuous to have you lead us to your special boulder in the forest?” Antigone asked.

 

“Not enough room there for five people,” Harry said.

 

Luna appeared then, looking like she'd wandered in by accident. “I know a lovely place for six people, if you're up to it.”

 

“Sure, Luna, that sounds good.”

 

“Is Ron still asleep?” Danzia asked. “Hermione says he took it well. He might want to join us. If there's room?” she asked Luna. Luna nodded serenely.

 

“I'll go check,” Harry said.

 

“I'll fend off the Creevy brothers for you,” Hermione said.

 

A few minutes later, Ron was dressed and coming along with them. He still wasn't entirely comfortable with Luna, even after all this time, but he'd gotten good at keeping it to himself. So the seven of them followed Luna out to a spot by the lake that had some tree cover and plenty of space to sit down on the ground.

 

“Where's Draco?” Harry finally asked Danzia.

 

“Probably either asleep or at breakfast,” she responded.

 

“Do you happen to know his take on last night's events?”

 

“Not really, sorry. He was in the room when we were all talking about it, but he didn't say anything. He's hard to read, he's got the pureblood Slytherin 'don't let on much' face down pretty good. Not as good as our illustrious head of House, but pretty good.”

 

“Right,” Harry said, trying not to worry. He didn't know Draco's casual, amongst-other-Slytherins behavior well at all, so he couldn't begin to guess at Draco's mood from what Danzia had said.

 

“That's actually a good sign,” Antigone said. “Well, kinda. If he had an opinion one way or another on the topic, he wouldn't have hesitated to let it be known. I think he might be waiting for your side of the story. Which would mean he's giving you the benefit of the doubt. So, not a great sign, but not bad either.”

 

“Is he jealous?” He served himself some sausage and eggs.

 

She shrugged, grabbing a piece of toast and an apple. “Probably. Enough for it to be a problem? Probably not. I guess we'll find out later. You want one of us to send him your way?”

 

“Yes, please. He's one of only two bloke friends I have.”

 

She chuckled. “Alright then, we'll send him your way later. Library?”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

Since the Slytherins hadn't actually heard anything of what happened after Harry's panic attack, they listened as Ron and Hermione and Luna told them the story for him so he wouldn't have to repeat it again.

 

“Wow. Sucks you were entered against your will, even worse that you have to compete,” Danzia said between bites of sausage. “But at least you'll have your coping tools and Sirius. And us to help you between Tasks.”

 

“We figured you'd been entered against your will,” Antigone said. “Knew that you didn't want to be in the Tournament, didn't have the temperament for it. Which the panic attack proved for us.”

 

“That must've sucked,” Danzia said. “Sure looked like it sucked.”

 

“That's putting it lightly,” Harry said.

 

“Did you and Sirius get a chance to talk about it yet?”

 

“Oh damn, no we didn't. I ran off after the fight with Cedric. I'll call Sirius on the mirror later if I don't see him before then.”

 

“Yes, do that,” Hermione said. “The Tournament hasn't truly started yet, you can still talk until the First Task without having to worry about cheating. And he might have some ideas about how to fend off the Daily Prophet.”

 

Harry went a paler brown and looked up at Hermione. “The Daily Prophet?”

 

“Well yes. This Tournament is famous, and you're famous. You and Sirius should talk with Ms. Pennyroyal about how to deal with the press.”

 

“The press. Great. Lovely. Just what I need.”

 

“You might also talk to Draco about the press, if he's on your side. His father is famous, at least within the UK anyway. Or infamous as the case may be. Point is, Draco might be able to help. Possibly.”

 

“I'll keep it in mind.”

 

“Hey,” Danzia said. “What'd they say about the First Task again?”

 

“It's supposed to test our daring, so they won't tell us what it is.”

 

“Could be anything, then. But you know, I've read all about the Tournament,” Danzia continued. “Once I knew it was happening, anyway. I'm guessing the First Task is gonna involve getting past a creature. Probably something big and showy, since they haven't had the Tournament in a long time.”

 

“Oh, like the cockatrice I read about?” Hermione asked.

 

“That's a possibility, but they're kinda small. Let's see, big and showy... they could probably get creatures from all over the world, too. So... sphinx is a possibility, they're pretty big. Though they just ask riddles, so doesn't really fit the 'showy' category.”

 

“What about a snallygaster?” Angela asked.

 

“What's a snallygaster?” Ron asked.

 

“American magical creature. Like a cross between a bird and a dragon.”

 

“Yeah but those are a lot smaller than dragons,” Danzia said. “They're dangerous, sure, but small. Not showy enough.”

 

“Heliopaths!” Luna exclaimed. “Harry, you should learn a fire-proofing spell.”

 

Ignoring Luna's weird suggestion, Ron said, “I'll bet it's dragons. That'd be big and showy for sure. Can't think of anything else big enough, in fact.”

 

“Well thunderbirds are pretty big,” Danzia said, “and changing the weather is showy. But I'm not sure how to make that into a Task. Dragons, though; that's easier. Best case scenario, just get past one. Worst case scenario, knock it out somehow in order to 'vanquish' it without hurting it for real.”

 

“Gods, I hope it's not dragons,” Harry said. “I'd even take a basilisk over dragons. At least with a basilisk, I'd be able to tell it to leave me alone.”

 

“It's not gonna be basilisks. The one you and Antigone fought was over 1000 years old, there's no way there's any more that big, or if there are, they're gonna be too hard to find. And even if they could be found, they're too dangerous for a Task.”

 

“Besides,” Antigone said, “dragons are probably too big and showy. It takes dozens of wizards to subdue a single dragon, I can't see how even 17 year old students would be able to get past one.”

 

“Cunning and trickery!” Danzia exclaimed. “If it's any kind of creature, Summon your invisibility cloak, walk right past it!”

 

“What if it can smell him?” Antigone asked.

 

“If so, then... okay, good point. Are there potions or salves that can hide a human scent?”

 

“No idea. But he could slather himself in mud.”

 

“Wouldn't that involve him getting like, naked? Or at least down to his skivvies? Not sure he'd be able to live that down, even if it would be entertaining to watch.”

 

“Hey!” Ron said. “I thought you were asectional?”

 

“Asexual. And that just means I don't look at people and go 'ooh la la I want to get in their pants!' Doesn't make a naked Harry any less funny to imagine.”

 

“I'll hold that idea in reserve,” Harry said. “My dignity isn't worth my life.”

 

“Anyway, if it's dragons, well... they're giant lizards. And people used to consider them giant snakes with legs. Maybe parseltongue will work with dragons.”

 

“I doubt it,” Ron said. “My brother Charlie works with dragons, he says they roar, growl, and shriek. He never mentioned hissing.”

 

“Well whatever it is, if its a creature, at least I have one plan,” Harry said. “Get naked, muddy, and invisible. I just hope mud will wash out of the invisibility cloak.”

 

That got a laugh out of everyone, Harry included, making him feel a little better about all this.

 

 

When they were done with breakfast, they all went their separate ways, Harry going to the library to wait for Draco, stopping to pick up Mouse-Stalker first. He was now in the library reading a book about the Triwizard Tournament to try to get ideas about what the First Task might be, Mouse-Stalker curled around Harry's shoulders. Ms. Pince had frowned at Harry and Mouse-Stalker when they'd come in, and snapped something about snake poop, but had let them in.

 

It was almost lunch before Draco showed up and stood in front of Harry.

 

“Hi Draco. Sit down.”

 

“Thank you, Harry, I would like that,” Draco said, and sat down across from Harry.

 

“So, uh... did the girls tell you what we told them?”

 

“Yes, they did. Honestly, I wasn't terribly surprised to hear you hadn't put your name in. I can't recall ever seeing you like that before. I thought you were really dying somehow, but Hermione seemed to think you'd recover if you could just get calmed down, and between that and the words 'panic attack,' I trusted her judgment. I didn't really know what a panic attack was, but I made a guess based on context that you were beyond even 'freaking out.'”

 

“I'm relieved to hear you're on my side, too.”

 

“I wasn't sure what to think after the panic attack, honestly. I thought you had put your name in somehow – I tried to put my own name in, of course – but then when the reality of it struck, you... well. But then I thought about it, and it started to sound ridiculous, didn't fit what I knew of you. The incident in Flourish and Blotts our second year stood out in my mind. And if you had found a way to put your name in, I didn't doubt you'd find a way to tell me, too.”

 

“Okay,” Harry said, not sure what else to say.

 

“So the story they told me made sense. Any ideas on who put your name in?”

 

“Nope. Sirius reckons a former Death Eater. Gives them motive and the skills to do it.”

 

“I see. Yes, that makes sense. In that case, Harry, you should know Karkaroff was a Death Eater. The ones in Azkaban aren't happy with him; he gave up a lot of names when he was captured, to get out of prison. This was after the dark lord fell, of course.”

 

“Okay... but what's his motive? I doubt Vol-- sorry, You-Know-Who would welcome him back after that.”

 

“Hmm... unless he was trying to make up for it by killing you. Father has been acting strangely all summer, rubbing his left arm a lot. Then making that deal with you and Sirius.”

 

“You know about that?”

 

Draco sneered. “Of course I do. Mother and Father left me home with the house elf so they could go somewhere together, after appearing to worry about the return of the dark lord, and arguing with me less, like they didn't have the time or energy to spare arguing with me, and were focusing on worrying about their sole heir, who had gone blood traitor.

 

“And if that wasn't enough to convince me they thought he was returning, I also heard about Mother and Sirius working together on protections for house elves, and I was around for one of mother's little soirées where she all too casually turned around her peers' thoughts on the issue. If Mother were a widow or divorced and changed her opinion like that, I'd believe she really felt that way and no longer had Father to overrule her. But since Father is still in the picture, clearly he agreed with her. And since he was the main one in the family who abused Dobby, I doubted he'd agree to that without the promise of something more important in return.

 

“Then I figured that if Mother were aligning herself with Sirius – who had been exiled from the family, though not disinherited – that she had made some deal with him. Since he lives in the old Black home, it wasn't difficult to figure out she wanted me to live there with you and Sirius if the dark lord ever comes back, probably under a Fideleus Charm. Since they're worried about that possibility... well, I had a hard time not freaking out when I figured that out. But it's what I would have done in their position. Thus, not surprised.”

 

“Wow. That's... you figured all that out on your own, just by watching and listening?”

 

“Yes. Unlike Crabbe and Goyle, I'm in Slytherin for a very good reason.”

 

“I'll say,” Harry said.

 

“Anyway, Harry, that actually brings me to my next point. If the dark lord is getting stronger, if he's about to rise, then it's likely Karkaroff is trying to get back in his good graces by getting you killed in this Tournament. If so, it's a horrible plan. The dark lord was – is – the vengeful sort. You spurned him in our first year, stopped him getting the Philosopher's Stone. He's not going to be happy about that. He'll want you dead, yes, but by his own hand.”

 

“Well according to Dumbledore, he can't. I'm protected by my mother's sacrifice. If he tries to kill me with magic, it'll rebound on him again.”

 

“Really? Well that's useful, and explains a lot. Especially since he wouldn't think to try killing you the Muggle way. Hmm... if he really wants you dead by his own hand, that's a significant hurdle to him killing you himself. He'd have to find some way around that. Though I suppose he could use magic to collapse a wall on you, crushing you under the stones.”

 

“Gee, thanks for that.”

 

Draco smirked. “You're welcome.”

 

After a few moments of silence, Draco spoke again. “So... I forgot to mention it earlier, but in light of you being a Champion now, I figured I ought to tell you that the reason we were told to bring dress robes this year is because there's a Yule Ball this year. And since you're a Champion, you'll be expected to attend. With a date.” Draco smirked again.

 

Harry stared agog at Draco, mouth gaping like a fish. “A date? You mean with a girl?”

 

“Or a boy, if you prefer.”

 

Harry's eyes narrowed at this. “Are you asking me out? Because--”

 

Draco snorted with laughter and burst out laughing, smacking his hand on the table as he did.

 

“Mr. Malfoy!” Ms. Pince snapped, “No laughter or hitting tables in the library! Don't make me kick you out!”

 

Draco stopped, still struggling to not laugh, and said, “Sorry, Ms. Pince.”

 

'The other human is making noise. Laughter, I think. Is he a friend?'

 

'Yes, Mouse-Stalker, Dragon is a friend.' Parseltongue didn't really have a better translation for Draco's name.

 

'Dragon? A noble name.'

 

Draco had stopped laughing, but was still struggling not to.

 

“So I take it this means you weren't asking me out?” Harry asked quietly, to appease Ms. Pince.

 

Draco shook his head, holding his mouth closed with his hand as he continued to fight laughter.

 

“Good, because I'm not into blokes.”

 

When Draco finally recovered from his struggle to not laugh, he said, “I'm flattered, of course, and if you did ask me out, I'd take you up on the offer even though I'm not into blokes either. It would be hilarious on the one hand, and score me social and political points on the other hand, what with you being both the Boy Who Lived and Triwizard Champion. Though it would be something of a minor scandal, too, the last scion of House Malfoy essentially declaring he's dating a boy. But the look on Ronald's face would be priceless.

 

“In fact,” he continued, “you should have Creevy bring his camera. You and I could dance just to get a rise out of people, and Creevy could take a picture of Ronald's face for posterity.”

 

“You're not... angry or indignant at the suggestion you might be gay?”

 

“Not at all. Why should I? I said it would only be a minor scandal, after all. Now if you and I got married, that would be a major scandal. Marriages, in pureblood society, are for producing children. Nobody cares if you don't love the person you married, nor if you only have one child together and then you go out and be a pouf the rest of your days. All that matters is producing a child, and raising it to adulthood. You know, fulfilling the terms of the contract.”

 

“Oh. This cultural divide is still something I'm getting used to. Where I was raised... oh boy. If I'd casually asked... oh gods... the Dursleys! Uncle Vernon would kill me!”

 

Draco chuckled quietly, but stopped when Harry shot him an angry and incredulous look.

 

“I'm not kidding around! If I had said something like 'are you asking me out?' to another boy where one of the Dursleys could hear, I'd be dead, unless Netty stepped in.”

 

“Sorry, I forgot Muggles can feel so strongly about something as random as who someone loves.”

 

“It's not your fault, I'm just a little scared. I mean, I should be fine. I'm not gay myself, I doubt there'd be much reason to bring it up. As long as... well, if I ever need to mention Angela and Antigone, I'd have to be careful to call them friends. Oh man, Uncle Vernon wouldn't like Antigone at all. He'd call her a foreigner, she's dating a girl, and then there's—uh, I mean... never mind.”

 

“The fact she was born a little different, you mean? Mislabeled at birth?”

 

“You know about that?”

 

“They're my friends, too, Harry. So yes, I know. It's another thing that isn't a big deal with wizards. I'm fairly certain she's been taking potions regularly for it. I'm not sure if she's gone through the blood alchemy rituals yet, but she's old enough to have done so already.”

 

“There's an age limit on that, is there?”

 

“Yes. But only because it's an unsafe procedure before you turn 15. Before 15, your magical core is generally not up to such a major change. It can go disastrously wrong. Anyway, as curious as I am about it, there's really no polite way to ask. It's not really anyone’s business but hers and Angela's, right now. And that's only if she and Angela are having sex yet. Which is another personal question I have no right to ask about. Not that I really want an answer, mind.”

 

Draco looked at Mouse-Stalker suddenly. “Harry, you haven't introduced me to your new familiar yet. We've been here two months now, and I'm only just now meeting them.”

 

“Sorry, he spends weekdays in his enclosure under his heat lamp, and he tends to hide inside my robes most of the time. His name is Mouse-Stalker.”

 

Draco smiled. “I take it that's the English translation of his Parseltongue name?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Introduce him to me?”

 

“Sure,” Harry said in English before switching to Parseltongue. 'Mouse-Stalker, meet Dragon. I have told him your name already.'

 

'Excellent. Tell Dragon I am honored to meet someone so noble as to be named after one of the great fire-lizards.'

 

“Mouse-Stalker says he's honored to meet someone named after one of the great fire-lizards. Your name translates to the Parseltongue word for Dragon,” he explained.

 

“I'm not surprised; that's what it means in Latin as well. Tell him I am honored in turn, to meet a magical serpent.”

 

“You know he's magical?”

 

“I guessed. Mundane snakes don't understand concepts like honor, and from what I've read, the word doesn't translate well for them.”

 

'Dragon says he is honored to meet a magical serpent,' Harry told the snake.

 

'Naturally,' Mouse-Stalker said with amusement in his voice. Harry relayed this to Draco, who chuckled quietly.

 

“So, Harry, Selwyn says he was disappointed you didn't turn up to the Samhain ritual, but he understands. You're still invited to Imbolc, of course.”

 

“Yeah, but that means I miss out until February.”

 

“Well,” Draco said, “you and I and our other friends could do one. The girls and I missed the ritual, too, from worrying about you.”

 

“Really? Cool. When?”

 

“Tonight or tomorrow, either one. The Samhain season doesn't really end until after November second.”

 

“Tonight if possible. Um... but we won't have permission to be out late.”

 

“So we'll do one after dinner, and get back before curfew. There's plenty of time.”

 

“Right. Can Luna come? I haven't asked her, but I want to.”

 

“Yes, Luna and Hermione can come. The more, the better.”

 

“Cool. Thanks for this.”

 

“Hey, it helps me too, remember?”

 

“Yeah, I guess. Thanks anyway.”

 

The two boys talked about this and that some more before settling down to read at the same table together. When lunch came, they put their things back in their dorms and then went to dinner, where Harry went over to the Ravenclaw table, quailing a little at all the angry faces there but braving them to tell Luna about their new plans for tonight, and to ask if she wanted to come with. She did, so he thanked her, hugged her, and went over to tell Ron and Hermione.

 

Hermione, of course, wanted to go. Even Ron said he'd go.

 

“Great. So there's Draco, you two, Antigone, Angela, and Danzia, then Luna and me. That's eight people.”

 

“Enough for a proper circle, at least,” said Ron.

 

“I've been doing some reading about Samhain since you invited me to the one for last night, Harry, and it's fascinating.”

 

“Uh huh,” Harry said, concentrating on his food as Hermione began chattering away about what she'd read. He listened with part of his attention, just in case she said something new and interesting, but mostly it was stuff he already knew from his own reading. He smiled as he ate. Tomorrow's ritual was going to be a lot of fun.

 

 

Endnotes: I've never quite had a full-blown panic attack myself, but I've had minor, brief panic attacks that I managed to fight off, so writing this chapter was difficult for me, as I've felt some of the symptoms at times, and writing this out made me feel an echo of them again. Hence the trigger warning. But I felt it's a realistic reaction, and I wouldn't have been surprised if canon Harry had had the same reaction, given all he'd been through by then.

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter 10: “Fight For Your Life”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes, very much so.”

 

~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Shove it, Knott!” Ron shouted.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Hermione!”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Malfoy attacked me, sir —”

 

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

 

“— and he hit Goyle — look —”

 

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

 

“Hospital wing, Goyle,” Snape said calmly.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You've assigned yourself my--”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What? What d'ya mean?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Later, Sirius.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sirius hesitated.

 

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

 

“Bertha Jorkins?” said Harry.

 

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

 

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

 

Sirius looked quizzically at Ron. “Two people?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harry shrugged, and took another bite of his food.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sirius? Is something wrong?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harry snorted. “You study?”

 

“On occasion,” Ron shot back.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

“Library, show me the Second Wand Sigil.”

 

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

 

“Library, show me books about sigil magic.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yeah, I told him off for that.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I... it just does, okay?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“This seat taken?” Danzia asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Look, it’s Hagrid!” said Hermione.

 

“And Sirius!” Ron said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Can your eye — I mean, can you — ?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sirius whined again, getting her attention.

 

“Is zis your dog, 'Agrid?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dragons.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sirius Black,” he said into the mirror.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sorry about that, Harry.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“No! It's not--”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sooo... you gonna tell me?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I might be dead meat anyway.”

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter 11: “If I Die In Battle”

 

Sunday morning, Harry woke up, and for a few moments he was fine. Then he remembered the events of the night before, and felt a knot twisting in his guts that began to restrict his breathing. He closed his eyes and kept telling himself he had a plan, it was a good plan, he'd be fine. Sirius would be fine. He just had to convince himself it would be fine, and it would be.

 

It wasn't working. He ended up taking a Calming Draught, then checking the Potions book about the potion to find out how often he could take those before overdosing, because obviously.

 

He ended up dressing so inattentively that it was a while before he realized he was trying to pull his hat onto his foot instead of his sock. When he’d finally got all his clothes on the right parts of his body, he hurried off to find Hermione and Ron, locating them at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, where they were eating breakfast with Ginny. Feeling too queasy to eat, Harry waited until Hermione and Ron had finished eating, then dragged them out onto the grounds. There, he and Ron told Hermione all about the dragons, and about everything Sirius had said, while they took a long walk around the lake.

 

“Well you've got a plan, our brainstorming session helped, so you're prepared.”

 

“Yeah, I guess. And I can keep practicing for that. I've got it pretty good, but another two days of practice will distract me and make me even better. Even with the Calming Draught, I'm feeling pretty anxious.”

 

While on their walk, Harry Summoned a fallen branch and practiced cutting it into disks and carving the Second-wand Sigil as quickly as possible, empowering it to function and then casting the spell he was using into it. He tested it out, satisfied it was working, and kept practicing. He spent most of the morning doing that, then spent the afternoon practicing the other part of his plan, which was a lot easier; the trick there was doing it quickly without it exploding in his face.

 

~

 

Harry's dreams that night had him practicing his plan in his dreams, for what felt like hours, and he woke up on Monday morning feeling not very rested. His anxiety was growing despite his planning and practicing, and he briefly contemplated running away back to Sirius's house before dismissing the idea. He didn't want the Goblet of Fire to think he'd chickened out and punishing him for it, maybe in a fatal way.

 

As he, Hermione, and Ron got up from breakfast, he saw Cedric Diggory and realized Cedric didn't know about the dragons. Sure, the point of the task was to see what you could make of an unexpected danger, but he was the only one of the Champions who didn't know the task was dragons.

 

“I'll catch you lot up, I've got something important to do,” he said.

 

“Harry, you’ll be late, the bell’s about to ring —”

 

“I’ll catch you up, okay?”

 

By the time Harry reached the bottom of the marble staircase, Cedric was at the top. He was with a load of sixth-year friends. Harry didn’t want to talk to Cedric in front of them; they were among those who had been quoting Rita Skeeter’s article at him every time he went near them. He followed Cedric at a distance and saw that he was heading toward the Charms corridor. This gave Harry an idea. Pausing at a distance from them, he pulled out his wand, and took careful aim.

 

Accio Cedric's bag!

 

Cedric's bag jerked out of his grip, flying across the room but giving up halfway to drag on the floor. Harry Summoned it again, and Cedric went running after it, his friends staring in confusion after him.

 

When Cedric got to the bag, Harry was there.

 

“Wait, was that you messing with my bag?” Cedric asked.

 

“I had to get you on your own to warn you. Cedric, the First Task, it's dragons. They’ve got four, one for each of us, and we’ve got to get past them.”

 

Cedric stared at him. Harry saw some of the panic he’d been feeling since Saturday night flickering in Cedric’s gray eyes.

 

“Are you sure?” Cedric said in a hushed voice.

 

“Dead sure,” said Harry. “I’ve seen them.”

 

“But how did you find out? We’re not supposed to know. …”

 

“Never mind,” said Harry quickly — he knew Hagrid would be in trouble if he told the truth. “But I’m not the only one who knows. Fleur and Krum will know by now — Maxime and Karkaroff both saw the dragons too.”

 

Cedric straightened up, his bag dangling off one shoulder. He stared at Harry, and there was a puzzled, almost suspicious look in his eyes.

 

“Why are you telling me?” he asked.

 

Harry looked at him in disbelief. He was sure Cedric wouldn’t have asked that if he had seen the dragons himself. Harry wouldn’t have let his worst enemy face those monsters unprepared. Not even Knott or Snape. Well, maybe the Dursleys.

 

“It’s just … fair, isn’t it?” he said to Cedric. “We all know now … we’re on an even footing, aren’t we?”

 

Cedric was still looking at him in a slightly suspicious way when Harry heard a familiar clunking noise behind him. He turned around and saw Mad-Eye Moody emerging from a nearby classroom.

 

“Come with me, Potter,” he growled. “Diggory, off you go.”

 

Harry stared apprehensively at Moody. Had he overheard them?

 

“Er — Professor, I’m supposed to be in Herbology —”

 

“Never mind that, Potter. In my office, please.

 

Harry followed along, wondering what was going to happen. He hoped Moody wouldn’t turn him into a ferret, he might need his hands and wand, even if it would be easier to get past a dragon as a ferret.

 

He followed Moody into his office. Moody closed the door behind them and turned to look at Harry, his magical eye fixed upon him as well as the normal one.

 

“That was a very decent thing you just did, Potter,” Moody said quietly.

 

Harry didn’t know what to say; this wasn’t the reaction he had expected at all.

 

“Sit down,” said Moody, and Harry sat, looking around.

 

Moody was talking about his Dark Detectors, the Foe Glass and so on, but Harry wasn't really listening. He was worried Moody would punish him for doing the right thing.

 

“So … found out about the dragons, have you?”

 

Harry hesitated. He’d been afraid of this — but he hadn’t told Cedric, and he certainly wasn’t going to tell Moody, that Hagrid had broken the rules.

 

“It’s all right,” said Moody, sitting down and stretching out his wooden leg with a groan. “Cheating’s a traditional part of the Tri-wizard Tournament and always has been.”

 

“I didn’t cheat,” said Harry sharply. “It was — a sort of accident that I found out.”

 

Moody grinned. “I wasn’t accusing you, laddie. I’ve been telling Dumbledore from the start, he can be as high-minded as he likes, but you can bet old Karkaroff and Maxime won’t be. They’ll have told their champions everything they can. They want to win. They want to beat Dumbledore. They’d like to prove he’s only human.”

 

Moody gave a harsh laugh, and his magical eye swiveled around so fast it made Harry feel queasy to watch it.

 

“So … got any ideas how you’re going to get past your dragon yet?” said Moody.

 

“Yes. Weeks ago, my friends were wondering what the First Task might be, Ron guessed dragons, we prepared for that with a plan that would work equally well for most other creatures.”

 

“Mind telling me about it?”

 

“Um, okay,” Harry said, and outlined the idea for him.

 

When Harry was finished, Moody whistled. “Clever idea. A little bit time consuming and probably boring to watch until you really get it going, but clever nonetheless. Well good. Sounds like you're in for a good chance of getting out of that alive, which is the important part. Good on you. I look forward to seeing it.”

 

“Um, thanks.”

 

“Well, you'd better run along to class now. Here's a note to excuse your tardiness from me.”

 

“Thanks,” Harry said, taking the note and leaving at once.

 

~

 

Harry had his plan practiced so thoroughly he firmly believed he'd be able to do it at a moment's notice just as quickly years from now, all he had left to do now was hide the things he needed over by his favorite boulder in the woods, so it would be easier to Summon. He cast warming charms on them, and some other spells to keep animals and vandals away. He contemplated putting a stasis charm on them, but decided it wasn't necessary.

 

Whenever the panic would start to creep in again, Harry recited the steps of his plan in his head, making it into a sort of mantra that calmed him. Time was behaving in a more peculiar fashion than ever, rushing past in great dollops, so that one moment he seemed to be sitting down in his first lesson, History of Magic, and the next, walking into lunch … and then (where had the morning gone? the last of the dragon-free hours?), Professor McGonagall was hurrying over to him in the Great Hall. Lots of people were watching.

 

“Potter, the champions have to come down onto the grounds now. … You have to get ready for your first task.”

 

“Okay,” said Harry, standing up, his fork falling onto his plate with a clatter.

 

Luna came over to the Griffindor table then, looking very worried. He wondered if someone had told her what was going on.

 

“Mr. Potter has to go to the First Task, Miss Lovegood.”

 

“I know. I just want to wish him luck first.”

 

Luna's voice had lost some of its airy quality. She sounded tense. Harry worried about her now. He opened his mouth to say something comforting to her, but before he could get any words out, she kissed him on the cheek and said, “Be safe, Harry. Come back to me.”

 

Harry stood there, stunned. He vaguely registered several people wolf-whistling at him, Fred and George among them. His face felt hotter than it had ever been, barring once when he'd had a very high fever when he was in second grade.

 

“This way, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall said, nudging him forward. “Your godfather is just outside in the entrance hall.”

 

Still stunned, Harry walked along obediently until they got to Sirius. Even in his stunned state, he thought Sirius looked nervous, too.

 

“Heya, Harry. It's time. You ready?”

 

Harry nodded vaguely.

 

“Now, don’t panic,” McGonagall said, “just keep a cool head, both of you. We’ve got wizards standing by to control the situation if it gets out of hand. The main thing is just to do your best, and nobody will think any the worse of you. Are you all right?”

 

“Yes,” Harry heard himself say. “Yes, I’m fine.”

 

“Oh Harry, I had a thought,” Sirius said. “I'm gonna take my dog form during the Task, only turn human if it looks like you need me to talk to you. That way, nobody can say I'm really helping you. Everyone knows Animagi can't talk in their animal forms. Well, I suppose Animagi who become parrots or ravens might be able to, but I don't become anything that's capable of speech.”

 

“Right,” Harry said, still sounding far-off.

 

McGonagall was leading the two of them to where the First Task was going to be, around the edge of the forest, but when they approached the clump of trees behind which the enclosure would be clearly visible, Harry saw that a tent had been erected, its entrance facing them, screening the dragons from view.

 

“You’re to go in here with the other champions,” said Professor McGonagall, in a rather shaky sort of voice, “and wait for your turn, Potter. Mr. Bagman is in there... he’ll be telling you the — the procedure. Good luck.”

 

“Thanks,” said Harry, in a flat, distant voice. She left him at the entrance of the tent. Harry went inside.

 

Fleur Delacour was sitting in a corner on a low wooden stool. She didn’t look nearly as composed as usual, but rather pale and clammy. Viktor Krum looked even surlier than usual, which Harry supposed was his way of showing nerves. Cedric was pacing up and down. When Harry entered, Cedric gave him a small smile, which Harry returned, feeling the muscles in his face working rather hard, as though they had forgotten how to do it.

 

Mr. Bagman was indeed there. So were Karkaroff, Maxime, and Ms. Selby. Ms. Selby confiscated Sirius's wand, checked him all over for spare wands or other suspicious items, then thoroughly checked Harry's sunglasses, earmuffs, and dragon-skin bracelet, then checked him for suspicious items that might help him. Then they reviewed the rules Sirius was expected to abide by, and she cast an eavesdropping charm on both of them, making it so she and the other judges would be able to listen in on everything either of them would say. Sirius asked if the charm would stay on him through Animagi transformations. They tested it out and found that it did. When she and the other two judges were satisfied, they left the tent. All except for Bagman.

 

Bagman looked somehow like a slightly overblown cartoon figure, standing amid all the pale-faced champions. He was wearing his old Wasp robes again.

 

“Well, now we’re all here and ready — time to fill you in!” said Bagman brightly. “When the audience has assembled, I’m going to be offering each of you this bag” — he held up a small sack of purple silk and shook it at them — “from which you will each select a small model of the thing you are about to face! There are different — er — varieties, you see. And I have to tell you something else too … ah, yes … your task is to collect the puzzle box!

 

Harry glanced around. Cedric had nodded once, to show that he understood Bagman’s words, and then started pacing around the tent again; he looked slightly green. Fleur Delacour and Krum hadn’t reacted at all. Perhaps they thought they might be sick if they opened their mouths; that was certainly how Harry felt. But they, at least, had volunteered for this.

 

Sirius was pacing back and forth in dog form, probably because his emotions were less complex in animal form. Harry was reciting the plan in his head again. As such, he almost didn't hear when Bagman got the bag out and offered it to each of them in turn. There were little moving dragon figurines inside the bag. Fleur got the Welsh Green, Krum got the Chinese Fireball, Cedric got a Swedish Short-Snout, and Harry of course got the nasty Norwegian Ridgeback. They all had numbers on them as well, and the order was Cedric, Fleur, Krum, Harry.

 

It was Hell waiting for each of the others to go first, hearing the shouts and screams of the crowd and the occasional vague commentary from Bagman. Harry felt close to a panic attack by the time it was his turn, and when his turn was announced, he thought he was very close to going over the edge into full-blown hysteria. But Padfoot nuzzled his hand, calming him down at once, at least enough to get moving. He put his earmuffs on and walked forward into the arena.

 

He saw everything in front of him as though it was a very highly colored dream. There were hundreds and hundreds of faces staring down at him from stands that had been magicked there since he’d last stood on this spot. And there was the Horntail, at the other end of the enclosure, standing there agitated, his wings half-furled, his evil, yellow eyes upon Harry, a monstrous, scaly, black lizard, thrashing his spiked tail, leaving yard-long gouge marks in the hard ground. The crowd was making a great deal of noise, but whether friendly or not, Harry didn’t know or care. Sirius was at his side, in dog form, a comforting presence. It was time to do what he had to do. He lifted his wand.

 

Accio cauldron!

 

He waited. A few moments later, a cauldron full of supplies flew into the arena and right at him. He caught it, and hurriedly lit a fire and began to brew his potion. Once he had it to where he could set the stirring stick to stir by magic, he stood up again.

 

Accio branch!

 

A moment later, a small branch flew into the arena and into his hand. He immediately set to work cutting it into disks with his wand, and carving the sigil he needed, looking up every now and then at the dragon in the distance, which wasn't moving much.

 

When he had the first set of sigils carved, he copied the others with his wand, empowered the sigils, cast the spells he needed into them, and levitated them into place. This took a few minutes. Once they were in place, he Summoned one last thing – the Basilisk-skin shield, put it on his arm and deployed it with a SNAP! Then he Disillusioned himself and Sirius, levitated the potion contents out of the cauldron, and chucked it through the air at the dragon, activating the sigils once the potion was on its way. They activated just as the potion exploded, filling the entire arena with the stench of rotten eggs. He heard the crowd reacting in horror to the stench, but wasted no time thinking about it; instead, he ran forward.

 

Anyone distracted by the stench of the potion he'd dispersed would be excused for missing the gigantic, razor-thin mirror suddenly standing right in front of the dragon. Even the dragon didn't notice at first, distracted as it was by the stink assaulting its giant nostrils. But once it noticed, it tensed up and glared at what it thought was another male dragon invading its territory. The reflection, delayed by a half second, tensed up as well. The dragon growled, clawing at the ground threateningly. A half second later, so did the reflection. The dragon roared, flailing its tail. A half second later, so did the reflection, complete with an actually noisy roar.

 

It was working; the plan was actually working. He'd been right to guess that a dragon wasn't smart enough to recognize itself in a mirror, especially a mirror on a slight delay. Add to this the fact that its nose was full of nothing but the stink of rotten eggs, and it had no way of knowing that this other dragon wasn't a real threat. But who knew how long it would be until the dragon attacked? So Harry ran for it.

 

The magic mirror illusion the sigils were conjuring was far enough away from the other dragon to lure it away from the puzzle box it was guarding, but close enough to be a threat. And so once the roaring challenge was accepted with the mirror's own roar, the dragon leaped forward, flapping its great wings in a display that said 'Look at how big and impressive I am!' Naturally, the mirror followed suit. Harry was halfway to the puzzle box, hoping the dragon would be distracted long enough for him to make it.

 

He glanced back and saw the dragon leaping forward again, right at his opponent, and then right through the mirror. The dragon emerged from the other side looking very confused and angry, turning back to see the back of the mirror, which – because it had been simpler to do it that way – was also a mirror. The dragon looked even more confused and angry than before, swiping at the mirror with one of its fore arms; it passed right through, like moving through mist.

 

Harry and Sirius were almost to the puzzle box when the dragon figured out he had been tricked. He reared up, looking around the arena for something to attack for this indignity, but didn't see anything. He took a tentative sniff, but the air still reeked of rotten eggs, and the dragon sneezed, a giant gout of flame rushing forward as he did. Harry snatched up the puzzle box, but got burned by the fire, his robe sleeves on fire, because the Basilisk-skin shield was on his other arm and he hadn't pulled it up in time. He screamed, which drew the dragon's attention to him, where it saw the fire moving as Harry hurried to put it out by beating his arms on the ground. Sirius whined in concern, but Harry managed to put the fire out on his own, but the Disillusionment Charm had collapsed, he was visible again.

 

The dragon roared again and rushed forward at Harry. The fire out, Harry grabbed the puzzle box in his burned hands and ran full tilt for the exit, but they wouldn't make it in time to avoid another jet of flame, so Harry stopped, grabbed Sirius with his burned hand, and knelt, shield up, the fire splashing against the shield. Some magic in the shield shot the fire to the sides so it didn't spill over the shield and burn him anyway, but he still felt uncomfortably hot.

 

When the dragon's fire stopped, Harry activated another set of sigils he'd prepared at the same time as the main mirror's sigils as a 'just in case' measure, and ran for it, Sirius ahead of him. The newly-activated sigils – also set with variations on the mirror spell – made it look like there were a dozen sets of Harry and Sirius running in a dozen different directions, confusing the dragon long enough for them to get away and through the exit.

 

Harry ran right into Hagrid, falling over backwards but getting caught by his robes and pulled back up just in time. Moody and McGonagall were there too, sharing Hagrid's look of concern at his burned hand.

 

“Oh my goodness, Potter! You're injured!” cried Professor McGonagall. He noticed that her hands shook as she pointed at his burned hand. “You’ll need to see Madam Pomfrey before the judges give out your score. Over there, she’s had to mop up Diggory already.”

 

“Yeh did it, Harry!” said Hagrid hoarsely. “Yeh did it! An’ agains’ the Horntail an’ all, an' yeh--”

 

“Thanks, Hagrid,” said Harry loudly, so that Hagrid wouldn’t blunder on and reveal that he had shown Harry the dragons beforehand.

 

Professor Moody looked very pleased too; his magical eye was dancing in its socket and he escorted Harry to Madam Pomfrey. His remaining normal eye was focused intently on Harry's Basilisk-skin shield, which he'd retracted just before following Moody to the medical tent.

 

Harry walked out of the enclosure, still panting, and saw Madam Pomfrey standing at the mouth of a second tent, looking worried. That must be the medical tent, he thought.

 

“Dragons!” she said, in a disgusted tone, pulling Harry inside. The tent was divided into cubicles; he could make out Cedric’s shadow through the canvas, but Cedric didn’t seem to be badly injured; he was sitting up, at least. Madam Pomfrey examined Harry’s shoulder, talking furiously all the while. “Last year dementors, this year dragons, what are they going to bring into this school next? Oh my, that looks painful. Hmm... you're lucky, though, Potter, these burns don't look very bad.”

 

She smeared some orange-colored salve over the skin of his hand, and it immediately felt better, healing in a couple of minutes.

 

“Now, just sit quietly for a minute — sit! And then you can go and get your score.”

 

She bustled out of the tent and he heard her go next door and say, “How does it feel now, Diggory?”

 

“I did it, Sirius! I really did it! Got hurt, but I did it! I'm alive!”

 

“That you did, pup!”

 

At that moment, Ron ran into the tent.

 

“Brilliant!” Ron said. “Absolutely brilliant!”

 

“Where's Luna and Hermione and the others?”

 

“Oh they'll be around, I ran ahead. Anyway, you were the best of all of them. Fleur did some kind of sleeping charm but got burned when the dragon blew fire in its sleep, Krum used the Conjunctivitis Curse and nearly gotten trampled for his trouble, and Cedric used transfiguration to distract the dragon, but it didn't work all that well, and he got burned, too! But really badly.”

 

Harry was going to answer, but several people barged into the tent. It was the judges. Maxime and Karkaroff looked furious.

 

“Cheater!” Karkaroff shouted at him. “You cheated again!”

 

“Say that again, Karkaroff, I dare you,” Sirius said angrily.

 

“Sirius,” Harry said. “Don't.”

 

Ron scooted back a bit, trying to look like he wasn't there. Probably he didn't want to get himself or Harry in trouble by saying the wrong thing.

 

Karkaroff looked at Sirius furiously and said quietly to him, “Been on any nightly walks, Black?”

 

“No more than you have,” Sirius said quietly back.

 

Karkaroff glowered at Sirius, but nodded slightly, apparently admitting they had a stalemate on that point.

 

“CHEATER!” Karkaroff bellowed again, pointing at Harry.

 

“Now now, Mr. Karkaroff,” Ms. Selby said, “let's not rush to conclusions.”

 

“There is no way he could have done all that on his own, and ahead of time no less!” Karkaroff shouted.

 

“Harry,” Ms. Selby said, “as angry as Mr. Karkaroff is, he has a point that it looks very suspicious. You clearly had this planned ahead of time.”

 

Stopping Sirius with a look again, Harry said, “Well I did. But I didn't know for sure it was dragons until today.” Which was a lie, of course, but close enough to the truth.

 

“What do you mean by that?”

 

“I mean my friends and I made an educated guess, weeks ago. We figured you'd want something big and flashy for the First Task since it had been so long since the Tournament had been held, and since the First Task was usually a creature of some sort, we figured it would be a dragon. Well, Ron thought of it. We couldn’t think of anything bigger or flashier. Still, I came up with a plan that would work on a great many creatures just in case.”

 

“Your godfather helped you!”

 

“I did not!”

 

“No, he really didn't. He wasn't there when my friends and I thought it might be dragons. And I came up with the plan myself.”

 

“Then you cheated with the help of your friends!”

 

“Now Igor,” Dumbledore said, “there is no rule against Harry's friends helping him, none of them are in the Ministry nor work at the school.”

 

“They didn't think of the plan. They helped me with the arithmancy a little, but the idea was all mine, and I probably could have figured it out without their help, it just would have taken longer.”

 

“You expect us to believe a fourteen year old wizard guessed correctly that the Task would be dragons, came up with a complex plan on his own, and only needed a little help from his friends to figure out how to do it?”

 

“Well yes. Because that's what happened. Anyway, as I said, it was Ronald Weasley who figured out it would be dragons, you can question him and the rest of my friends if they let you, that's Ron right there in fact. As to the rest, I ran into a useful sigil in dueling club and adapted it to a simple illusion, which was the one thing I could find that was within my ability to do. I couldn’t do transfigurations, I don't know any sleeping spells powerful enough for dragons, I didn't want to risk lives hurting a dragon with a Conjunctivitis Curse (and couldn’t safely practice it anyway), but it occurred to me that I might be able to do an illusion. As it was, I had to use that stinky potion to make up for the fact that the dragon would be able to smell that there wasn't anything there.

 

“Oh, and also, two of the friends who helped me were almost old enough to have entered the Tournament themselves. Angela Whitechapel and Antigone Dreyfuss.”

 

Dreyfuss? Like the artificer?” Karkaroff looked at Harry's Basilisk-skin shield.

 

“Yes. Her father is the artificer you mentioned. He made this shield for me, gave it to me as both a gift and as free advertisement for his business. I included it in the things I decided to Summon.”

 

“I see. And you figured out how to do all this in just three weeks?”

 

“Yes. I'm pretty decent in Arithmancy class, the sigil instructions were simple enough, I've been friends with older students since year one, and ever since I found out I was a wizard I've been trying to learn everything about magic that I could, because it's amazing and cool to be able to alter reality with willpower and words, so whenever I'm not studying for classes, I'm usually reading ahead. I've been able to do the Summoning Charm for years. Also, the stink potion was pretty simple. Some eggs, boom berry juice, diluted bundimun solution, heat and stir, then deploy. I just put the things I knew I'd need outside where I could easily Summon them, and I've been practicing the sigil thing so much I could do it in my sleep.”

 

“I don't know about you, Igor, but that sounds reasonable for a fourteen year old wizard to manage with a little help from his friends. Especially such a bright student as Mr. Potter. Ms. Selby, am I correct that there's no rule against getting help from friends?”

 

“It's not against the rules. It's not encouraged, but it's not forbidden. I could show you the relevant passages, Mr. Karkaroff, if you wish?”

 

Karkaroff snorted. Maxime was looking at Harry like she'd suddenly realized she'd grossly underestimated him, and was now very wary. Or at least, that's what it looked like to Harry.

 

“Fine! But I'm taking points off for that horrible stench you made!”

 

He stormed off. Dumbledore tipped his hat at Harry, then he and the other two judges followed Karkaroff out of the tent. A moment later, two people came darting into the tent – Hermione and Luna.

 

“Harry, you were brilliant!” Hermione said squeakily. There were fingernail marks on her face where she had been clutching it in fear. “You were amazing! You really were!”

 

Luna ran up to him and hugged him, making his cheeks heat up again. “You're alive,” Luna said into his ear. “Thank the fair folk!”

 

He thought he felt wetness where her cheek was touching his neck. Had she been crying? He felt bad that she'd been crying, but he felt oddly good, too, some emotion he couldn’t identify, almost like... pride? Pride, at being cried over by Luna? That didn't make sense, that couldn’t be right. He wondered what this emotion was, and wondered how people knew what emotions were which. Anger was usually obvious, he had a lot of experience with anger. Fear, too. But others were not always so easy to identify. This one was especially odd.

 

“It's okay, Luna, I'm alright. There's no need to cry.”

 

“I know, silly. These were tears of joy. Well, relief anyway. You're my first ever friend. I don't want to lose you. I'm relieved I didn't, when I was terrified I would.”

 

She pulled away at last, smiling at him and dabbing at her eyes. She was looking at him oddly. He couldn’t identify the emotion behind the look, but it seemed familiar for some reason.

 

Harry finally noticed she was wearing a pin that said, in great glowing blue letters, 'Support both Hogwarts Champions!'

 

“Nice button. Did you make it yourself?”

 

She smiled at him. “Yes, I did. I'm glad you like it. I wanted it to say 'Support Harry Potter AND Cedric Diggory, Hogwarts Champions,' but there wasn't room.”

 

“It's brilliant. You're very clever.”

 

Luna blushed. “Thank you, Harry. That's kind of you to say. Oh, it does something else as well.”

 

She pressed the button and it changed to a sickly orange color, saying 'Bullying stinks!' Harry laughed at that. Even Ron and Hermione chuckled at that, and as they left the tent to go find out Harry's score, Ron and Hermione were asking Luna for buttons just like it.

 

“Oh, by the way, Luna, you should give some of those pins to the Creevy brothers, they'll want one.”

 

“Yes, I had planned to do that. Thank you for the reminder, though.”

 

Soon, they all reached the edge of the enclosure, meeting Danzia there, who had come to get the news for the rest of Harry's Slytherin friends; they hadn't wanted to crowd him, and knew there were three people with him already. Now that the Horntail had been taken away, Harry could see where the five judges were sitting — right at the other end, in raised seats draped in gold.

 

“It’s marks out of ten from each one,” Ron said, and Harry, squinting up the field, saw the first judge — Madame Maxime — raise her wand in the air. What looked like a long silver ribbon shot out of it, which twisted itself into a large figure eight.

 

“Not bad!” said Ron as the crowd applauded. “I suppose she took marks off for your burns.”

 

Ms. Selby came next, giving Harry an eight as well.

 

“Looking good!” Ron yelled, thumping Harry on the back.

 

Next, Dumbledore. He put up a nine. The crowd was cheering harder than ever.

 

Ludo Bagman — ten.

 

“Ten?” said Harry in disbelief. “But I got hurt. What’s he playing at?”

 

“Harry, don’t complain!” Ron yelled excitedly.

 

And now Karkaroff raised his wand. He paused for a moment, and then a number shot out of his wand too — three.

 

“What?” Ron bellowed furiously. “Three? You lousy, biased scumbag, you gave Krum ten!”

 

“They really should get judges from somewhere else,” Luna said. “Someone who can be as objective as possible. The heads of the schools shouldn't be allowed to be on the judges' panel, nor Ministry employees either. It's too biased.”

 

“Well it worked in his favor this time, Luna.”

 

“For the most part, yes. But I stand by my statement.”

 

“I'm with Luna on this one,” Danzia said.

 

“Second place, Harry! Right behind Krum!” said Charlie Weasley, hurrying to meet them as they set off back toward the school. “Listen, I’ve got to run, I’ve got to go and send Mum an owl, I swore I’d tell her what happened — but that was unbelievable! Oh yeah — and they told me to tell you you’ve got to hang around for a few more minutes. Bagman wants a word, back in the champions’ tent.”

 

Ron, Luna, Danzia, and Hermione said they'd stay behind, so Harry reentered the tent the Champions had waited in, Sirius following him in from the medical tent. The tent somehow looked quite different now: friendly and welcoming. He thought back to how he’d felt while dodging the Horntail, and compared it to the long wait before he’d walked out to face it. There was no comparison; the wait had been immeasurably worse.

 

Fleur, Cedric, and Krum all came in together. One side of Cedric’s face was covered in the thick orange paste that was the burn salve. He grinned at Harry when he saw him.

 

“Good one, Harry.”

 

“And you,” said Harry, grinning back.

 

“Well done, all of you!” said Ludo Bagman, bouncing into the tent and looking as pleased as though he personally had just got past a dragon. “Now, just a quick few words. You’ve got a nice long break before the second task, which will take place at half past nine on the morning of February the twenty-fourth — but we’re giving you something to think about in the meantime! If you look down at those puzzle boxes of yours, I know they don't look like much. But press your hand to a side and it will ask you a riddle. Answer the riddle, and the box changes slightly. Answer all six riddles in the right order and the box will open up and tell you what the Second Task will be, thus enabling you to prepare for it! All clear? Sure? Well, off you go, then!”

 

Harry left the tent, rejoined Ron, and they started to walk back around the edge of the forest, talking hard; Harry wanted to hear what the other champions had done in more detail. Then, as they rounded the clump of trees behind which Harry had first heard the dragons roar, a witch leapt out from behind them.

 

It was Rita Skeeter. She was wearing acid-green robes today; the Quick-Quotes Quill in her hand blended perfectly against them.

 

“Congratulations, Harry!” she said, beaming at him. “I wonder if you could give me a quick word? How you felt facing that dragon? How you feel now, about the fairness of the scoring?”

 

“You can have a word,” Luna said before Harry could. “Well, several words: Harry will be giving an exclusive interview to my father, Xenophilus Lovegood.”

 

Skeeter made a face like she'd smelled Harry's stink potion again. “That nutter? You're talking to him, but not me?”

 

“That's right, Rita,” Harry said. “His article about the World Cup was much more factual than yours, I trust him more.”

 

“Also,” Luna added, “it was very lucrative. If his article about the interview with Harry does well enough, he's going to launch a second magazine, one with nothing about fantastic creatures. I'm glad; articles like that don't really match the tone of the Quibbler.”

 

“Why, because they're grounded in reality, unlike that rag he prints?” Skeeter asked disdainfully.

 

“What would you know about reality, Skeeter?” Sirius asked. “Your own articles have a very tenuous affiliation with reality. That last one was riddled with false assumptions and speculations.”

 

“Sirius, come on, don't give her anything to work with. NO COMMENT!” Harry said, and pulled Sirius and Luna away.

 

To distract Harry from Skeeter having been there, Ron continued his play-by-play, which had been interrupted at the part where Bagman had explained Harry's coping tools and Sirius's presence.

 

Halfway to the castle, at the part about Cedric's attempt going badly, Harry froze. His friends and Sirius stopped shortly afterward, when they realized he had stopped walking.

 

“Griffindor is going to want to throw me a party, aren't they?” He knew they threw parties whenever the Quidditch team won, it made sense they'd do it for this, too.

 

“Probably, mate. I'll bet Fred and George are nicking things from the kitchen as we speak.”

 

“Is there any way I can get out of it?”

 

“Hmm... well, you could Disillusion yourself again, but you might bump into someone.”

 

“I don't suppose telling people I don't want to join the party is going to help?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

Harry sighed, but then he looked thoughtful and turned to Sirius. “Any chance you could get Dora to pretend to be me for the night?”

 

Sirius barked with laughter at the idea. “Oh my goodness, yes, I should ask. I'm gonna go to Dumbledore's fireplace, see if I can Floo-call her. Yes, what a prank that would be!”

 

He handed the puzzle box back to Harry and took off for the castle.

 

“Who's Dora?” Ron asked.

 

“Nymphadora Tonks, though you should call her Tonks if you value your life. She lets family call her Dora, but I don't know if that applies to you or not, Ron.”

 

“How's she supposed to pretend to be you?”

 

“She's a metamorphmagus.”

 

“Really? Cool!”

 

“I want to go to Hagrid's place,” Harry said.

 

“You do that if you want, Harry, but I wanna meet this Tonks girl. What're you two gonna do?”

 

“Do you want company, Harry?” Luna asked.

 

“Yeah, you two can come with if you want.”

 

The two girls nodded and followed Harry to Hagrid's.

 

~

 

When Harry got up the next morning, Seamus welcomed him.

 

“Wild party last night, Harry! Your cousin really had us fooled for a couple of hours. We thought you'd gotten drunk until she revealed the truth. That was a hoot and a holler!”

 

“Right. I'm just glad I didn't have to be there. Too many people.”

 

“You don't like parties, Harry?”

 

“No. They make me ill. Crowds always do. I think the only reason I didn't get ill yesterday was because the crowd were so far away. Also I was a bit too focused on the dragon to pay them any mind.”

 

“Ah, alright then. Well we'd better get to breakfast.”

 

Harry nodded, and followed Seamus and Ron down to breakfast. Harry thought back to last night, spending time at Hagrid's with Luna and Hermione. Then he realized he'd forgotten to try the puzzle box at all.

 

The mystery of the puzzle box bothered him all night long, until he could get back up to his room to try it out. Ron, Seamus, and Dean happened to be there when he tried it. First, Harry studied it. It looked like if the colored squares of a Rubik's cube was made with a hodgepodge of different shapes instead of squares, like diamonds, triangles, squares, star shapes, pentagons, and other assorted polygons.

 

He put his hand on one of its sides, activating the light and the riddle-telling part of that side of the box. The voice coming out of it sounded calm, polite, and androgynous.

 

“If you're 8 feet away from a door and with each move you advance half the distance to the door, how many moves will it take to reach the door?”

 

“Ooh,” Seamus said. “Um... four! Four moves!”

 

The box buzzed, turning briefly red. Harry reactivated the same side, and as soon as the box asked the question, he said, “You'll never reach the door, you'll always be going half the distance, no matter how small.”

 

The box turned green this time, and suddenly expanded into hundreds of floating pieces, rearranging itself. When it reassembled itself, the shapes were all different.

 

“Interesting.”

 

He tried another side.

 

“What relation would your father's sister's sister-in-law be to you?”

 

The boys all thought for a few moments before Ron said, “Your mum!”

 

Once more, the box turned green and rearranged itself. Harry didn't think any of the sides were any more or less one color or another, either time it had changed. He tried a different side.

 

“What begins but does not end, ends all things that begin, but begins nothing?”

 

“Death,” Seamus said.

 

It was correct. When it was done reassembling itself, one of the sides looked more red than it had before.

 

“You can easily touch me, but not see me. You can throw me out, but not away. What am I?”

 

“Air!”

 

Wrong.

 

“That was a stupid guess. How do you throw out air?”

 

They tried other answers.

 

“A quaffle?” Wrong. “Emptiness?” Wrong. “A house guest?” Wrong. “A pet?” Wrong. “Your hopes and dreams?” Wrong. They gave up on that one.

 

“I am a protector. I sit on a bridge. One person can see right through me, while others wonder what I hide. What am I?”

 

“Glass bottomed bridge?” Wrong. (“Of course not, you idiot, it sits ON a bridge!”) “Invisibility cloak?” Wrong. (“How would outsiders even know they were wearing one? And why would they be on a bridge?”) “Camera?” Harry asked. Wrong. (“You doofus, who wonders what's inside a camera?”) “Glasses?” Wrong.

 

“Sunglasses!” Harry said. That was right. The box reassembled itself, and suddenly looked more jumbled than ever.

 

“How was that the answer?” Seamus asked.

 

“Because they sit on the bridge of your nose, you twit!” Ron said.

 

“And they hide your eyes, so while you can see through them, others wonder what they hide.” Harry added.

 

There was one last riddle to try.

 

“I am a word of seven letters. My first three letters is the past tense of cut; my last four letters refer to a girl. My whole refers to a sharp metal object. What am I?”

 

“Well the past tense of cut is cut,” Harry said. “So that part is dumb. Cut... girl?”

 

“Oy, it's a cut lass!”

 

They tried that answer, and it was right. But the puzzle still wasn't solved. They tried the one about throwing out something you can't throw away.

 

“Oh wait, I think I know this one,” Ron said. “My dad said something about someone he worked with. I think the answer is 'your back.'”

 

Harry smacked his forehead. “Of course! Throwing out your back!”

 

They tried it, and it was the right answer, but the puzzle still wasn't solved.

 

“Puzzle unsolved. Resetting to original configuration,” the puzzle said, then rearranged itself to its original state.

 

“Hey Harry, I just noticed something,” Ron said. “Look, there's little numbers on the middle of each side!”

 

Sure enough, each side was numbered. They answered one of the riddles, and the box rearranged itself again, but the numbers remained.

 

“Bagman said we have to answer the riddles in the right order. These numbers must be the numbers of the faces, we have to get the right combination,” Harry said. Then he sighed deeply.

 

“What's wrong?” Ron asked.

 

“I don't know offhand how many possible combinations of six numbers there can be, but it's a huge number. A massive number, in fact.”

 

“How big could it be?” Ron asked.

 

“Let's put it this way: Muggle computers can calculate combos of numbers like that at a speed of hundreds, maybe thousands, per second, and it would take one of them probably 100 years or more to come up with all possible combos. And I may be way off, too. It could be some number so high that a Muggle computer would still be calculating it when the universe started to die.”

 

“Oh, well,” Seamus said, “there's six sides. I reckon you have to use all six sides, no repeats. Does that cut the number down?”

 

“I'm sure it does. Don't know by how much, though. Still probably more combos than we can go through before the Second Task, even going through them as fast as we can nonstop the whole time.”

 

“Well, what combos have we used already?”

 

They checked which riddles went with which numbers, then figured out from that that they'd first used 6, 4, 2, 1, 3, 5.

 

Harry wrote out something on a piece of paper then, related to their task:

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 | 6 5 4 3 2 1 | 2 4 6 1 3 5 | 5 3 1 6 4 2 | 6 4 2 1 3 5

6 1 2 3 4 5 | 1 6 5 4 3 2 | 5 2 4 6 1 3 | 2 5 3 1 6 4 | 5 6 4 2 1 3

5 6 1 2 3 4 | 2 1 6 5 4 3 | 3 5 2 4 6 1 | 4 2 5 3 1 6 | 3 5 6 4 2 1

4 5 6 1 2 3 | 3 2 1 6 5 4 | 1 3 5 2 4 6 | 6 4 2 5 3 1 | 1 3 5 6 4 2

3 4 5 6 1 2 | 4 3 2 1 6 5 | 6 1 3 5 2 4 | 1 6 4 2 5 3 | 2 1 3 5 6 4

2 3 4 5 6 1 | 5 4 3 2 1 6 | 4 6 1 3 5 2 | 3 1 6 4 2 5 | 4 2 1 3 5 6

 

“So that's just 30 possible combinations, not even close to being all of them,” Harry said.

 

“Well,” Ron said, “we could try some of these each day, write down any promising changes to the sides and which number combo those went with, and that at least would let us narrow it down some.”

 

“Yeah,” Dean said, “then we could put X's by the combos we'd tried, maybe put a little P for Promising, circle the part of the number that gave a positive result.”

 

“Great plan,” Harry said. “With thirty combos to start with, maybe we'll get enough of a positive hit to narrow it down. The more we narrow it down, the faster this will go.”

 

“Yeah, set this thing on your desk with the list of number combos to try, and we'll help you cycle through them, Harry,” Seamus said.

 

“Thanks, guys. If we do that, maybe the thing will actually get solved in time!”

 

~

 

The start of December meant wind and sleet for Hogwarts. It also meant they had to deal with the skrewts while being outside in the cold weather. As if that wasn't bad enough, the fumes from the whiskey that Madame Maxime's giant flying horses preferred were making them fuzzy-headed at the same time.

 

About the only good thing about the skrewts, besides providing a warming exercise as they chased you around the grounds, was the fact there were only ten of them left. It seemed the skrewts' favorite activity was killing one another.

 

Hagrid had also decided to try putting the skrewts in the boxes to see if they hibernated, which, as it turned out, they did not. They also did not like being forced into boxes. As such, the class was in a state of bedlam when the worst possible sound of all was heard.

 

“Well, well, well … this does look like fun.”

 

Rita Skeeter was leaning on Hagrid’s garden fence, looking in at the mayhem. She was wearing a thick magenta cloak with a furry purple collar today, and her crocodile-skin handbag was over her arm.

 

Hagrid launched himself forward on top of the skrewt that was cornering Harry and Ron and flattened it; a blast of fire shot out of its end, withering the pumpkin plants nearby.

 

“Who’re you?” Hagrid asked Rita Skeeter as he slipped a loop of rope around the skrewt’s sting and tightened it.

 

“Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter,” Rita replied, beaming at him. Her gold teeth glinted.

 

“Thought Dumbledore said you weren’ allowed inside the school anymore,” said Hagrid, frowning slightly as he got off the slightly squashed skrewt and started tugging it over to its fellows.

 

“Hagrid, don't talk to her, she'll twist everything you say,” Harry said, not caring if Skeeter heard.

 

“Yeah, I kinda got that idear,” Hagrid said. “Seemed ter think Danzia and the others was trying ter court yeh. Ha! What little she knows.”

 

“Hagrid, hush! Don't give her any ammunition!”

 

“Oh, right. Sorry, Harry.”

 

“What are these fascinating creatures called?” Rita asked.

 

“Blast-ended skrewts,” Hagrid said automatically.

 

“Really?” said Rita, apparently full of lively interest. “I’ve never heard of them before … where do they come from?”

 

Harry noticed a dull red flush rising up out of Hagrid’s wild black beard, and his heart sank. Where had Hagrid got the skrewts from? Hermione, who seemed to be thinking along these lines, said quickly, “They’re very interesting, aren’t they? Aren’t they, Harry?”

 

“What? Oh yeah … ouch … interesting,” said Harry as she stepped on his foot.

 

“Ah, you’re here, Harry!” said Rita Skeeter as she looked around. “So you like Care of Magical Creatures, do you? One of your favorite lessons?”

 

“Yes. Now please go away; as Hagrid said, you're trespassing.”

 

“No, Harry, what he said was I wasn't allowed inside the school. I'm not inside the school, I'm on the grounds.”

 

“We're having a class here, so I think it counts as 'inside the school,'” Harry said.

 

“Toe-may-toe, poe-tah-toh,” Skeeter said.

 

“The expression,” Hermione said, “is toh-may-toe toe-mah-toe.”

 

Rita shrugged. “Been teaching long, Hagrid?”

 

Hagrid smiled and opened his mouth to answer, but noticed Harry's and Hermione's expressions, froze, his face falling. He said, instead, “No comment. Now git out before I have ter kick yeh out!”

 

“Whatever for?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes.

 

“Fer trespassing, as I already told yeh!”

 

She sighed. “Fine, fine, if you insist, Mr. Hagrid. But you know what they say about angering writers. Good day to you, Hagrid!”

 

With a little wave, she took off. Harry, Ron, and Hermione looked at each other fearfully. “Let's hope that wasn't her declaring war,” Ron said.

 

~

 

With the First Task over, most of the school had warmed up to him some. He no longer saw “Support Cedric Diggory” buttons except among Knott's group of Slytherins, and he was seeing far more of Luna's “Support both Hogwarts Champions!” buttons instead, anyway. Even Draco and his new entourage were sporting Luna's buttons. The Hufflepuffs were nicer, too; maybe seeing the danger they were in had helped. Also, he suspected Cedric had a hand in it as well; while he couldn't tell them that Harry had warned him about the dragons, Harry had still done that, and Cedric likely felt he owed Harry.

 

His mind free from worry about the First Task, and figuring out the puzzle box being such a tedious task of going through several permutations of the six sides every day, his mind was free for other things, now. Like who he was going to take as a date to the Yule Ball. It had been announced in transfiguration, after all. McGonagall had been surprised Harry already knew he'd need a date for the ball, at least until he told her that Draco had warned him about it weeks ago.

 

Before the ball had even been announced, he'd been thinking about who to take. The only girls he really knew who were available were Angela, Antigone, Danzia, Hermione, and Luna. Obviously the first two would be going with each other, Danzia being asexual might not be interested, Hermione was like a sister to him, and Luna... well, he liked Luna enough that he thought about asking her out as a friend. But he had a problem there, too, because he had figured out that Luna had feelings for him.

 

The first clues had been the good-luck kiss before the First Task and her tears of relief after it, but he hadn't figured it out then. Over the last two weeks, though, she'd been around him more often than ever before, like she was afraid he'd vanish if she didn't keep an eye on him. And when she was around, she held his hand a lot. The first time she'd done that, he had stared at her hand in confusion, heat rising in his face, but hadn't said anything about it.

 

So yeah, he'd figured it out. And now he didn't know what to do. Would asking her out as a friend hurt her feelings? There was also the fact that he felt a really strange feeling when he thought about asking her out as just a friend. A different strange feeling happened if he thought at all about just asking her out normally, as a date. The first feeling felt... kind of bad. Like guilt, or shame. Probably guilt; he didn't want to hurt her feelings, after all. But it also felt like there was something else to it, too, something he wasn't getting.

 

The second feeling was a bit harder to sort out. When he thought about asking Luna out to the Yule Ball as a regular date, something wriggly felt like it was squirming inside him, but unlike the nervous knots he sometimes got in his belly, this was different. It was a loose kind of wriggliness, not a tightening. In fact, it felt almost pleasant, but unpleasant at the same time. It was very confusing.

 

Still, he thought it likely he'd ask out Luna one way or another, and so he needed a script for all the other people who would be asking him. One had already asked him, and he'd just sort of stared at her in confusion; he didn't think he'd seen the girl in his life, and had no idea what to say. She had ended up walking away looking very hurt and confused.

 

“Antigone, I need your help,” he told her the day after the Yule Ball's announcement during class. “It's about the Yule Ball.”

 

“Harry, I'm flattered,” she said, “but Angela and I are already going with each other. And I'm not interested in boys that way.”

 

He stared at her. “Uh... I wasn't... I mean, I sort of figured that out already.”

 

She chuckled. “I was just having you on, Harry. What were you gonna say?”

 

“Um,” he said, since he had to pause to remember. “Oh, right. Uh... well first, I was curious if Danzia is going to the ball.”

 

“She is, but she's going by herself. She says she's determined to dance with everyone there. Boys, girls, doesn't matter.”

 

“But I thought she was asexual?”

 

“Well I don't think she's also aromantic, though I don't know for sure either way. Anyway, she's a huge flirt despite being ace, I thought you knew that already.”

 

“Um, what does 'aromantic' mean?”

 

“It means 'doesn't experience romantic attraction.' It's distinct from 'asexual' because some asexual people still have romantic partners. There's lots of different kinds of attraction, after all. Attraction is a whole mess of possible types that often overlap. There's not a lot of agreement on the different types, either. Some say the options are romantic attraction, aesthetic attraction, platonic attraction, sensual attraction, and sexual attraction. But I've also heard of emotional attraction, intellectual attraction, and physical attraction.

 

“Aesthetic attraction is when one is attracted to someone based on their looks, and can be sexual, but not necessarily. It's mostly just wanting to look at someone because they're pretty or handsome. So I think that could also be called 'physical attraction.'

 

“Platonic attraction... I'm honestly kind of confused by that one. I think it might be kind of an umbrella term that includes intellectual attraction – being enamored of someone for their mind and ideas, but can also include aesthetic attraction, or sensual attraction – which is when you want to be physically close with someone without being interested in a sexual relationship... things like cuddles, hugs, hand-holding, that sort of thing. But I've also heard Platonic attraction defined as wanting to be friends with someone, so I'm not sure.

 

“When young kids have crushes on people, they're usually experiencing aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction, and/or possibly platonic attraction. Maybe intellectual attraction, depending on the kids and their personalities.

 

“I think it's also possible that 'romantic attraction' might be a kind of nebulous umbrella term itself, in a way, since it can include any combination of aesthetic, physical, sensual, sexual, emotional, intellectual, or platonic attraction. It's kind of like a Venn diagram; you can take any of those kinds of attractions by themselves, in pairs, or in groups and make a Venn diagram of them and call it 'romantic attraction.' So uh, yeah... it can be confusing. But a person being 'aromantic' basically means they don't experience romantic attraction, however they define that.”

 

“Okay. That's... that's a lot to take in.”

 

“Yeah, sorry. Also, I got sidetracked. You said the first thing was curiosity about Danzia and the ball. What was the other thing?”

 

“What? Oh, right. Um... well, I thought Danzia might not be going, so I'd already decided I'm going to ask Luna. I just don't know whether to ask her as a friend or as a date. I think she has feelings for me.”

 

Antigone sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, she does. I've known for months. And anyway, you---er, never mind.”

 

“Um... okay. But what I really wanted help with was, what do I say to other people who ask me?”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Because I don't know what to say. I need a script for this situation, I don't already have one.”

 

“Oh, right. Okay, well that depends. Easiest one I can think of is asking Luna out, then telling everyone, 'Sorry, I'm already going with someone.'”

 

“What if they ask who I'm going with?”

 

“Well that depends on if you want them to know it's Luna or not. There's pros and cons to both, and it depends on if you ask her as a friend or as a date, but you might want to ask Luna which she prefers, assuming you ask her before someone else does. I don't really see that being a problem with Luna, sadly, but you never know.”

 

“Yeah, the cons of telling everyone it's Luna is she might get teased or harassed for me choosing her.”

 

“That's a good point. They might even accuse her of using a love potion. Of course, anyone who's been paying attention would... but never mind.”

 

“What are you not telling me? That's twice now in this conversation you've stopped yourself saying something.”

 

“I don't think you'd believe me if I told you.”

 

“Try me.”

 

She looked at him appraisingly, then sighed. “Okay, fine, but don't say I didn't warn you that you might not believe me.”

 

“Just get on with it, will you?”

 

“Fine, fine. It's just... the people close to you and Luna – the girls and I, Draco, Hermione, even Ron – have noticed you and she seem to be rather into each other. We've been noticing it for years.”

 

“I... what?” Harry asked, confused.

 

“I mean you have feelings for her, too, we think. It's kind of obvious to us. What those feeling are exactly is up to you to decide, but well... You hang out with her a lot more than any of your other friends except Ron and Hermione, you're always holding hands or touching each other in some other way, and you routinely talk with her at night via that two-way mirror thing. You don't do that with any of your other friends, not even your Slytherin friends. Oh, and you give each other the most beautiful, thoughtful gifts. You put more effort into giving gifts to each other than you do for your other friends. So clearly something other than mere friendship is going on there.”

 

“I...” Harry said, trailing off, his mouth open.

 

“And there's the way you look at each other. You're both clearly smitten with each other in some manner.”

 

Harry stared at her, his eyes wide.

 

“Anyway, if you can remember all that stuff I said about the different kinds of attraction, maybe you can sort out your feelings with it. Or maybe I confused you even worse, I dunno. But whether you ask her as a friend or as a date or whatever, you need to decide that yourself. Oh, and there's other options as well.”

 

“Um... like what?”

 

“Well, friends can have dates too, so you could ask her out both as a friend and as a date. And you can always just set aside the question of yours or her feelings for another day and just ask her out. And of course, whatever you decide, you could always ask Luna for her opinion about it all first.”

 

“Ask Luna about---I can't do that! That's mortifying! I'm not even sure I can ask her out without tripping over my own knotted tongue!”

 

Antigone shrugged. “Who said you had to ask her verbally? You could make her a card that asks her.”

 

Harry sat there for several minutes, thinking, and Antigone went back to her homework.

 

“Well, thank you for your input, Antigone,” Harry said, getting up. “I'm going back to my room to think.”

 

She smiled at him. “Well good luck, whatever you decide.”

 

He nodded at her and left.

 

 

 

 

Endnotes: Once more I titled the chapter after a song. It seemed fitting. :)

 

A little shorter than usual, I know, but at least it's done and published. :)

 

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

Notes: Sorry this took so long. On top of my usual issues, I got a head cold that hung around for at least two weeks and decimated my energy to do things. I'm still not fully recovered, but I'm about 85 to 90 percent recovered.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter 12: “Important Questions”

 

After a delay in publishing that he'd never really explained clearly, Xeno Lovegood finally printed his own article about the First Task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a full two and a half weeks after the First Task on the Saturday right after Harry's talk with Antigone, despite the fact he'd tracked down Harry at Hagrid's the very day of the Task. It might have annoyed Harry more if it weren't for the fact that Rita Skeeter had apparently decided not to write about the First Task for some reason. Instead, another Daily Prophet reporter whose name Harry couldn't remember, had done it instead. It hadn't made the front page for some reason, possibly because it was dull reading.

 

Xeno's, however, was quite different, and it was featured heavily on the Quibbler's cover. Harry first spotted it across the Great Hall in Luna's hands as she read it, though she had to pause every now and then to sell copies to interested parties.

 

Sitting down to breakfast, Hedwig flew over to him and dropped off a copy of the Quibbler. He handed her some sausage, which she scarfed up. Mouse-Stalker chose this time to poke his head out of Harry's left sleeve, startling Hedwig. She gave Harry a dirty look and flew off. Harry hadn't noticed this, being too intent on the Quibbler.

 

'Might you spare some food for a poor starving snake?' Mouse-Stalker asked Harry.

 

Harry chuckled, handing the snake a sausage.

 

'You're incorrigible,' he told the snake. He'd apparently said it in Parseltongue without meaning to, because several people nearby jumped in alarm and scooted farther away.

 

“Don't worry, he's not venomous. He won't bite,” Harry said. Nobody answered him.

 

Shrugging, he went back to reading.

 

The Tri-Wizard Tournament First Task

by Xenophilius Lovegood

 

The Tri-Wizard Tournament, brought back after centuries of being nearly forgotten, has started this year off to a bumpy start. Despite many steps taken to make the Tournament less dangerous and restrict competitors to of-age (17 or older) contestants only, some foul fiend has managed to subvert the Tournament to serve their own unknown agenda. For, despite there being only three schools in the tournament, young Mr. Harry Potter (14) was entered against his will under a fourth (unidentified) school, alongside the three willing participants of Viktor Krum (Durmstrang), Fleur Delacour (Beauxbatons), and Cedric Diggory (Hogwarts). Investigation into the plot is ongoing, we at the Quibbler will update you with more information on that matter as soon as we have it, but for now I leave you with the words of Alastor Moody, retired Auror and current Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher: “only a very powerful dark witch or wizard could have tricked the ancient and powerful Goblet of Fire into thinking there was an extra school involved in the Tournament.”

 

For now, we move on to the First Task. All four contestants did very well when faced against the til-then unknown threat of dragons. Mr. Viktor Krum of Durmstrang Institute hit his with a Conjunctivitis Curse, very narrowly avoiding being trampled to death to get the puzzle box the competitors were tasked with retrieving.

 

Ms. Fleur Delacour of Beauxbatons Academy attempted to use some sort of sleeping spell to put her dragon to sleep. This worked well, except for the fact that the dragon caught her robes on fire in its sleep, which she put out with some water from her wand before carrying on.

 

Mr. Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry used inanimate-to-animate transfiguration, turning a rock into a dog to distract the dragon. This seemed to work at first, but he too got burned when the dragon changed its mind. His burns were much more severe, but the school Healer mopped him up very well indeed, and last I saw him he appeared to be in fine health again.

 

The real surprise was young Mr. Harry Potter. There were fears he wouldn't manage it because of his age and some problems with socialization and anxiety, and so he was allowed to have his guardian, Mr. Sirius Orion Black, on hand to keep him mentally steady. Mr. Black was not allowed a wand, and in fact took to the field in his Animagus form of a large black dog, standing back and letting his godson do the Task without interference; he was merely there for moral support and mental health monitoring.

 

Mr. Potter's own go at the dragon was much more impressive than the previous three attempts. Not knowing what he would be facing or if he would even be able to handle it, Mr. Potter and his friends analyzed previous Tournaments and deduced a magical creature would be involved in the first task. Not knowing which creature in particular would be involved, they came up with a brilliant plan that would work against most creatures. Using his wand to summon a cauldron and ingredients, he began brewing a potion while setting up something else with runes carved into bits of wood from a summoned tree branch. The end result of his initial prep work was a giant glamour in the shape of a mirror and a stench potion that were used together to trick the dragon into thinking it had a rival, distracting the dragon until it discovered that the mirror was a trick. Mr. Potter, too, got burned, but not very much. He too is in perfect health again after the care of Madam Poppy Pomfrey, the on-site Healer at Hogwarts.

 

While the rules forbid contestants getting help from adults including teachers or Ministry officials, and while only contestants or other participants are allowed on the field during the events, nothing in the rule book forbids help from friends during the planning stages, so what Mr. Potter and friends did was completely within the letter of the rules. And whether or not it defies the spirit of the rules is of little consequence, for Mr. Potter did not wish to compete and is merely trying to survive the Tournament so that whoever put his name in the Goblet of Fire will fail at their nefarious goal, so I think it would be in poor taste to blame Mr. Potter and his friends for using every loophole they can to their advantage so he can survive the event.

 

I interviewed the contestants after the Tournament. Going in reverse order, I start with some highlights of the interview with Mr. Potter.

 

Quibbler: “The mirror I get, but tell me, why the stench potion?”

 

Mr. Potter: “Dragons can smell pretty well. If I'd just used the mirror, it would've known it was a trick. It's possible it knew Cedric's transfigured dog was fake for similar reasons. So I had to fool it, and I did that by blinding its sense of smell with the stench potion.”

 

~

 

Quibbler: “I noticed something else you summoned, aside from the things you needed for the potion and the mirror. What was that?”

 

Mr. Potter: “If you're talking about what I think you're talking about, it was a basilisk-skin shield that was made for me by Mr. Apollyon Dreyfuss of Dreyfuss Artificing.”

 

Quibbler: “That must have cost you a fortune!”

 

Mr. Potter: “It didn't cost me anything. I killed a basilisk in my second year – with a little help from my friends – and aside from somehow managing to survive despite all odds, I also got an incredibly valuable basilisk carcass out of the deal. It was stripped down and sold off, and part of it went to Mr. Dreyfuss, who made the shield from it for me, saying it was free as long as I told him who made it. It opens up mechanically and unfolds into a pretty decent shield. It can fold back up again, too.”

 

Quibbler: (For a picture of the basilisk-skin shield in use, turn to page 6.)

 

Quibbler: “How is it you got burned, with a shield like that?”

 

Mr. Potter: “I was grabbing the puzzle box with the arm it was on, so I wasn't able to bring it up in time to not get burned.”

 

From there, the article moved on to interview highlights from the other three competitors, which were all done in a similar fashion. Harry liked how Xeno had stayed on topic and not gone wandering off to other issues like personal stuff. He didn't even appear to have asked Fleur about her Veela heritage, or if he had, he hadn't included it in the article. The article finished off with a quick recap and an expression of hope that the next Task would be at least as interesting as the first, while wishing all competitors a safe trip through all three Tasks.

 

“Do you like it?” Luna asked him.

 

“I love it! It's amazing, Luna!”

 

“Thank you for saying so. I'll tell Daddy you liked it. He got a lot of praise for his coverage of the Quidditch World Cup, and the Quibbler even sold out twice from it. If this one does as well, Daddy is going to make a second magazine for articles like that, so the Quibbler can stay about important conspiracies and articles about hidden animals.”

 

“Oh? What's he gonna call it?”

 

“Last I heard, he was going to call it Fortnight Wizarding News. He's looking for other reporters to add to it if he goes that way, so he's not doing two magazines by himself.”

 

“Well I wish him luck, whatever he decides.”

 

She smiled. “Thank you. I think he will do it, if school sales are anything to go by. They're higher than they've ever been in three years.”

 

“Does he advertise his magazine anywhere?”

 

“Oh no, that would cost too much money.”

 

“Well I've got a lot of money sitting around in my vault. If he needs some money to really get his second magazine, or newspaper, or whatever he calls it off the ground, I'll provide start-up capital.”

 

“You don't need to do that, Harry.”

 

“I know. But I want to. The Quibbler itself aside, it would be good for the Daily Prophet to have some competition. And I've got more than enough money to spend on doing just that.”

 

“Oh. Well, you can always ask him if you want. And I can tell him you offered.”

 

“Good. I want him to succeed, I like him.”

 

As she smiled and was about to turn away back to breakfast, Harry came to a decision. The way her smile made him feel had done it.

 

“Luna?”

 

“Yes, Harry?”

 

“Could we talk privately somewhere?”

 

“Well I would like to eat breakfast first, Harry. But once I'm done with that, we can talk privately.”

 

Harry nodded, and they both sat down at the Griffindor table to eat breakfast. Harry was nervous the whole time, but still managed to eat. Luna continued selling Quibbler issues, this time at Griffindor. Harry tried to mitigate his nerves by reading the rest of the magazine's articles, but found he had to keep repeating the same paragraph over and over again, so he finally gave up. It was frankly something of a relief when she finally finished eating and they went to find an abandoned classroom to talk in.

 

Remembering that Rita Skeeter had somehow heard about his conversation with Draco that one time, Harry cast a bunch of privacy spells around the room to make sure they weren't overheard. Then he put his wand away and turned to face Luna. He stood there awkwardly, trying to pluck up the courage to speak, but it wasn't happening. He'd gone mute again, like he sometimes did. So he tried a different tactic: charades.

 

Pointing at Luna, then himself, he then clasped his hands together and danced in place as though with a girl, then outlined a Christmas tree shape in the air with his hands.

 

Chuckling at him, Luna said, “Are you asking me to the Yule Ball, Harry?”

 

Harry nodded.

 

“As a friend, or... or something else?” she asked.

 

“Um,” he finally managed to say. Then the floodgates burst forth, and he began to babble. “I uh... I don't know. I know I like being around you. A lot. I know I like talking with you, and holding your hand, and being close to you physically. I know I love it when you laugh. You being happy makes me very happy, too. And I know you make me happy, too.

 

“I don't have much experience with, you know, love. My aunt and uncle hate me. So does my cousin. I don't know what love is supposed to feel like. I don't know if I'm in love or what. But I like how I feel around you, Luna. So, uh... Antigone mentioned we – you and I, I mean – could go on a date without putting a label on it, and put that question off til later, but yeah, a date, not just as friends, even though we are friends--”

 

“Harry, stop babbling. I would love to be your date for the Yule Ball. If you don't know what your feelings concerning me are yet, that's fine. Maybe I can help you figure them out?”

 

Harry grinned. “I'd like that.”

 

“Good. So it's a date, then.”

 

“Great. Um... just one other thing.”

 

Very awkwardly, he described his need for a script to turn down others who asked him out, his desire to be polite, his dislike of hurting people's feelings, and asked her about her thoughts on if she wanted people to know yet or not that they were going to the ball together.

 

“Harry, it's just one dance. Just because two people go to the dance together doesn't mean they're dating. And anyway, I think a lot of people think we're dating already anyway, even if they don't want to believe it. We're also known to be friends, so it wouldn't surprise most people. Most importantly, though, when have I ever cared what other people thought of me?”

 

“I know, Luna. It's just... Voldemort's still after me, he's probably why I got in this bloody Tournament in the first place, and then I keep hearing about you getting bullied. Missing clothes and stuff, that sort of thing. I don't want to make your life any harder than it already is.”

 

“You're sweet, Harry, but what Voldemort or the bullies do isn't your problem or your decision. They're going to do what they want no matter what. If I was worried about Voldemort coming after me because of you, I wouldn't be your friend to start with. For me... I'd been so lonely for so long that having friends is worth the risk of being targeted by dark wizards. You're worth the risk, Harry.

 

“And anyway, when Voldemort comes back, we'll all be at risk. He's not a nice person, even to his followers. Everyone would suffer. And I'd rather suffer with friends at my side than suffer alone. And I hope that whatever our relationship status, that we always remain friends.”

 

Harry grinned sheepishly. “I hope so too, Luna.”

 

She hugged him for a few moments before they tore down the privacy spells and left. They were halfway to the library before Harry realized she'd said Voldemort's name twice without even flinching at all.

 

“What are you going to do today, Harry?”

 

“Hmm... well, I don't know what's going to be coming in the Second Task, so until I decode that stupid puzzle box, I'm going to practice defensive spells in the Room of Requirement. I should see if anyone else of our group of friends wants to join. I'll start by asking you.”

 

“I'd love to help, Harry, if I can. I could use some defensive magic practice, too. I've been going to Dueling Club, but I could still use more practice.”

 

Harry nodded. He looked in on the Dueling Club sometimes, not nearly as often as he should. But last year he'd skipped most of it from worry about Sirius before finding out he was innocent, then it slipped his mind the rest of the year. Now this year there was being entered in the Tri-wizard Tournament against his will, and most of the school's reactions to it, that had distracted him.

 

“I need to do that myself more often. When's it held?”

 

“It's every Sunday afternoon after lunch,” she said. “Some people don't get to go because of Quidditch practice conflicts, so you're far from the only person who keeps forgetting about it or not being able to go. It's not all that unusual for a club to get forgotten by those who aren't in it often; how often do you think about the Gobstones Club, for instance?”

 

“Still, I helped make sure it stayed in existence after Lockhart, and it would be useful, so I should go more often.”

 

“Would you like me to come get you at lunch on Sundays and we can go together?”

 

“Sounds good. Let's ask the others, too.”

 

“Well some of them already go. The Slytherin girls in our friends group go semi-regularly, as does Draco. And Neville has been going regularly this year and last year. But yes, we should remind Ron and Hermione. But today we're going to the Room of Requirement, yes?”

 

“Yes, we are.”

 

They walked for several minutes in silence before Harry spoke again.

 

“So you're still having problems with bullies? I noticed you're not wearing shoes again today.”

 

She sighed. “Yes. They always return my things eventually, but it is rather vexing.”

 

“Don't you have a lock on your trunk?”

 

“Yes. But it's a mundane lock and mundane trunk. Daddy doesn't make a lot of money from his magazine.”

 

“So an alohamora is all they need to break into it?”

 

She nodded. Then she abruptly changed the subject by discussing what spells they would be practicing. He knew he was going to have to do something about this. But what? He'd told Flitwick when she wouldn't, but there wasn't a lot he could do without hearing it from her, and even then there had to be evidence. But if anyone could sneak into her trunk at any time with a first-year spell...

 

Well, had it not been Antigone who said he got Luna thoughtful gifts? So that's what he would do. There was, after all, another Hogsmeade weekend coming up before the Yule Ball, and Sirius could always get him out of school on weekends to go to London if what he needed wasn't in Hogsmeade. He had some important shopping to do soon.

 

~

 

Saturday afternoon had been fun and productive. He and all his friends had gotten together and took turns pairing off, because there was seven of them and that was an odd number. Whoever wasn't one of the pairs at the time would play around with the puzzle box, going through combinations and crossing out the ones that went nowhere, circling bits that seemed to go somewhere before stopping.

 

Sunday afternoon was also fun. Luna had gotten Ron and Hermione back to the Dueling Club with her and Harry, meeting their Slytherin friends there, including Draco. A few other Slytherins were there as well. Some were unpleasant, but others were okay. Tracey Davis, Blaise Zabini, and Daphne Greengrass were distant but polite enough, being part of Draco's new group in Slytherin.

 

Harry learned some more things about these three Slytherins from Draco during the Dueling Club meeting's quiet moments. Zabini's family were considered dark gray but had remained neutral during the Voldemort war. Tracey Davis and Daphne Greengrass were members of strictly neutral families as well. It seemed this was largely because they had too much to lose to risk joining either side. But Tracey and Daphne had their own ideas and had been thrilled when Draco went to Harry's side. It seemed they were also trying to convince their dorm-mate Lily Moon to join them, and were making good headway on that front.

 

When Harry asked about why she used to hang out with Pansy Parkinson, it turned out to have been protective camouflage. It wasn't wise to defy the status quo of Slytherin at the time, but Draco's defection to Harry's side and openness about it made Daphne and Tracey feel brave enough to let their true allegiance show. Though it wasn't so much that they were for Harry as they were against Voldemort. And they still thought Dumbledore was an old fool who was trying to do too much at once.

 

There was more. Tracey and Daphne didn't hate Muggleborns, but they feared wizarding traditions dying out, and so they agreed with the Wizarding Studies class that Harry had gotten started by suggesting it to the teachers, even though the headmaster had been fighting opponents of the class ever since its inception. But another part of wizarding tradition was that Muggleborns should know their place as basically foreign immigrants to wizarding culture. Harry could see their point, but at the same time, it's not like Muggleborns had a choice in the matter; you were either born with magic or not, and going from thinking you were a mundane person to knowing you were a wizard or witch was not the same thing as immigrating. Unless... well, it had some similarities to children forced to immigrate by parents. But Daphne and Tracey told Harry he was being too literal.

 

They didn't have the chance to explain further before the Dueling Club was over with and everyone was heading back to their common rooms. But knowing he had been too literal made Harry switch gears to think more metaphorically. There was a hierarchy, Harry knew. Lords and Ladies of the various Noble Houses were at the top of the social hierarchy, with Common Houses beneath them, and un-Housed commoners beneath the Common Houses. Muggleborns were considered un-Housed once they left Hogwarts, which put them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Which is why so many wizard-raised witches and wizards didn't like it when Muggleborns tried imposing their own cultural biases on wizarding culture. For instance, Hermione would likely have gone on a major offensive against the owning of House Elves if Harry hadn't been able to educate her on why House Elves were kept.

 

Still... the fact that Hogwarts had in its charter to take in Muggleborns... there was something about that which confused him. What was the reason? Wouldn't it make more sense for Muggleborns to go to the Winterbloom school or the other one that was for common witches and wizards? Sure, it could be a simple case that Hogwarts was the only magic school for a long time, since he had no idea when the other schools were founded, or if there'd been any other schools of magic other than Hogwarts. But he still felt like he was missing something. After all, it sounded like Hogwarts had always been intended to be a school for the nobility. So why Muggleborns, too?

 

Well that was a dead end of thought. He would need more information, so he gave up on it for now.

 

Instead, he decided to mirror-call Sirius.

 

“What can I do for you tonight, young man?” Sirius said in a half-joking tone of voice. Harry felt his eye twitch at this, and was momentarily confused.

 

“I wanted to tell you something, and then ask you something related to it.”

 

“Cast, pup.”

 

Harry paused at this, confused. “Huh?”

 

“Oh, I guess Muggles would say 'Shoot,' rather than 'cast.'”

 

“Oh. Right. Anyway, um... at the risk of you taking the mickey, I uh... you know there's a Yule Ball this year, right?”

 

“Yes. I plan on crashing the party, to be honest. Why? Wait, don't tell me; because you're a Champion, you need to have a date?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you want advice from an old lady's man on how to ask out a girl on a date, huh?”

 

Harry grinned. “Well sure, if you know anybody who fits that description, you'll give me their contact information, right?”

 

Sirius looked disappointed for a moment before realizing it was a joke and laughing. “Nice one! You got me good!”

 

“In seriousness, Sirius,” Harry said, ignoring Sirius's snorts of laughter, “I already asked Luna to be my date to the Yule Ball.”

 

“Ah, so you figured it out, did you?”

 

“No. Antigone told me. But uh... Luna and I aren't dating. We're not putting a label on it yet. I don't really know what I feel; love is still something of a foreign emotion to me, the Dursleys never had any for me. So until I figure things out, we're just... it's just one date. For now.”

 

Sirius looked sad and angry. “I'm sorry you had to be raised by those... people. If Lily came back to life and found out you'd been put with her sister and her sister's horrible husband, she'd hex Dumbledore into oblivion for doing it.”

 

Harry shrugged, not knowing what else to say.

 

“So if it wasn't advice you wanted, what did you want to ask?”

 

Grateful for this change of subject, Harry said, “Help with a Yule gift for Luna. She's still getting bullied. Mainly by her stuff going missing, though I suspect there's more she's not telling me. Anyway, I was thinking she needs a trunk only she can get into. Or rather, that can keep seventh year students out of it unless it's her.”

 

“Ah, trunk shopping. I can do that. Hmm... if we're going that route, it'll be expensive enough you might as well get her name engraved on the trunk, too. And let's see... there are trunks with extra compartments and entire rooms inside them. Maybe give her one with a small bedroom in it so she has somewhere to sleep if the bullying gets bad enough.”

 

“If you do that, better make sure nobody but Luna, her dad, and house elves can pick it up.”

 

“I think that's doable. I'll ask the shop owner, anyway. But I'm curious, has Luna told her head of House about the bullying?”

 

“I don't think so. I get the feeling I'm the only person she's told.”

 

“Maybe you should talk to Flitwick for her, then. If she won't.”

 

“There's only so much he can do unless she talks to him herself.”

 

“Well then we need to convince her she should. But in the meantime, the trunk is a good idea. Also... if you can get some names, I'll see what I can do as Lord Black to punish the evildoers.”

 

“I'll look into it, Sirius.”

 

“You're a good man, Harry Potter.”

 

Harry felt his eye twitch again. “Thanks, Sirius.”

 

“You're welcome. Say, back to the dance... do you need any dance lessons before the Yule Ball?”

 

“McGonagall is providing dance lessons, but thanks for the offer.”

 

“Ah yes, I'd forgotten McGonagall did that. We used to have dances every year at Hogwarts, until after a spring formal in my fourth year erupted into chaos as the school's Death Eater supporters and the kids of Light families got into a huge duel that wrecked the Great Hall before the teachers could intervene. My date ended up in the Hospital Wing. Her name was Marlene McKinnon.”

 

Sirius sighed sadly at this. His voice had cracked as he'd said her name, too. Harry watched his face in the mirror, and thought Sirius looked about to break down.

 

“Sorry pup, gotta go,” he said, his voice cracking again. “It's... Dobby's burning the biscuits.”

 

Before Harry could return the goodbye, Sirius had hung up. Harry stared sadly at the mirror, wishing he could comfort his godfather. The man needed to date again. After losing so many people in the war, and then over a decade in Azkaban steeped in bad thoughts and memories, he needed to move on. Harry hoped the man was seeing a Mind Healer, too.

 

~

 

Harry was glad he was going with Luna to the ball, since for several days after asking her, he'd gotten a dozen girls and several guys asking him out, and he'd been able to politely decline, explaining he had a date for the Yule Ball. Loads more people had asked him who he was going with, most of them people who didn't really like him. To them, he simply said, “You'll find out on the night of the Yule Ball.” The truth he only told his friends. Luna might not mind extra bullying, but Harry wanted to avoid as much unpleasantness as possible for as long as possible.

 

Ron wasn't having much luck finding a date. Harry tried convincing him to go stag, but Ron wouldn't hear of it, said it was pathetic. Harry pointed out Danzia was going by herself. Ron had scoffed.

 

“Sure it's okay for a girl to go by herself, but if a bloke does it, it's just pathetic.”

 

Harry knew Ron well enough to read between the lines: Ron felt pathetic enough already, he didn't need more humiliation.

 

As if confirming this, Ron's face grew sour and he said, “Though I suppose I'll look pathetic anyway, with the hideous moldy maroon rags she bought me for my dress robes. They look like a dress, and were probably the height of fashion in the 1890's.”

 

“There's a Hogsmeade weekend the weekend before the Yule Ball. I'll buy you some decent dress robes.”

 

Ron's face went scarlet in embarrassment. But before he could speak, Harry said, “I insist. It can be an early Yule present from me if you want. Plus, it'll be a gift to myself in a way. If you're miserable at this thing, that'll make me miserable. So I insist on buying you some decent dress robes. I'll even give you the gold ahead of time, you can look like you're paying for it yourself.”

 

Ron sighed. “Okay, fine I suppose. I just feel bad about... about...”

 

“Accepting charity?”

 

“Yeah, that.”

 

“It's not charity if we're friends, Ron. Listen, I know what it's like being poor. The Dursleys never gave me any pocket money, they made me wear Dudley's old hand-me-downs which fit me like a circus tent, and they fed me just enough to keep me from dying of starvation. Also, I had to do lawn work for neighbors – despite being desperately hungry – to have the money for pain relievers for my headaches when I was growing up. Finding out I was filthy rich in the wizarding world is still pretty surreal for me. The least I can do is help a friend in need. 'Be the change you wish to see in the world,' and all that.”

 

His first friend still looked uncomfortable. “Yeah,” Ron said, “I get that, I do. I just... I don't like feeling like a mooch. Accepting expensive gifts from you feels like being a mooch. I don't want you to think I'm only your friend because I get expensive stuff from you.”

 

“I don't think that at all, Ron. Anyway, I can't let my best friend suffer. I couldn't bear to watch you suffer, not if I can do something to alleviate it.”

 

“You're a good man, Harry. Thanks.”

 

Harry's eye twitched again, but he smiled. “You're welcome.”

 

“Hey, if you're feeling like helping me enjoy this Yule Ball thing... any chance you could help me get a date for the Yule Ball? I don't know who to ask, and I'd rather not ask someone and get shot down. Also, I don't want to take someone... well... I'm gonna sound shallow for this, but I don't want an ugly date. For kinda the same reason I don't want to wear those ugly robes.”

 

“What about Hermione?”

 

“What? Oh... hmm... good idea. Yeah, I'll ask her. Thanks, Harry!”

 

“You're welcome.”

 

Along with helping Ron, something else making Harry happy was that there was no article about Hagrid in the Daily Prophet, which he supposed would've been hard to do with Hagrid wisely taking their advice not to talk with Skeeter. Still, he was worried she'd dig up something on Hagrid just to spite them both. Skeeter didn't seem to care what she said, as long as it sold papers.

 

On the other hand, Ms. Pennyroyal stopped by to see him one day after classes were over to inform him that she couldn't find any way out of the contract for him. He wasn't disabled enough to be declared legally unfit for the Tournament, which would void the contract if it happened, and the other Champions would have to resubmit their names into the Goblet of Fire. This had been put in place mainly in case someone submitted the name of a child too young to even wield a wand. But Harry was neither 'invalid' enough to get out of the Tournament nor was he too young to be allowed to compete. So that was a bust.

 

Ms. Pennyroyal did, however, find out he wasn't contractually obligated to go to the Yule Ball, as that was a tradition but not part of the contest. The fact he was going anyway rendered that a moot point, though. Also, she told him what the other two tasks were in general terms, according to the contract; the Second Task was some sort of race, and the Third Task was a maze of some sort, where the end of the maze was the Tri-Wizard Cup.

 

Since Draco was his PR manager, Draco was there too. After Ms. Pennyroyal stopped talking about the contract, Draco pointed out that if Harry wanted to make a point about how he hadn't entered willingly, that he should ask the judges to award him no more than one point each, that way it would be basically impossible for him to win.

 

“But Ms. Pennyroyal said the Second Task is some kind of race, though,” Harry said. “So points wouldn't really matter in that case, would they?”

 

“A fair point,” Draco said. “But consider: the magical contract says you have to compete. Does it say anything against throwing the competition? You know, being deliberately slow in the race?”

 

They turned to Ms. Pennyroyal. She turned some of the pages of the contract and skimmed through them. After several tense minutes of reading, she turned back to them.

 

“Okay, so the contract does forbid throwing the competition, unfortunately. But their definition of 'throwing the competition' doesn't include asking the judges to award them low points on purpose. It just means you have to try your hardest to win each Task. There's no punishment for being injured or held up by a creature or obstacle, unless you do it on purpose. It's intent-based.”

 

“Intent based? So if I intend to do my best, that's good enough?”

 

She narrowed her eyes and smirked at him. “Why do I see a Slytherin tactic in your eyes, young man?”

 

Ignoring his eye twitching again, Harry said, “I was wondering if intending to do my best and just having a bad day that makes me perform poorly would count against me with the Goblet? For instance... like, if there was a creature to get past to get the Tri-Wiz Cup, and I just... couldn't get past it?”

 

“Do you mean to say that you could get past it if you racked your brains, but you just gave up?”

 

“Yes. Mostly.”

 

“Sorry, but that's still intending to fail. The problem with trying to bypass an intent-based spell by deliberately warping your own intent is that if the spell caster is even remotely competent, it's impossible. Trying to intend to win while also intending to fail is still intent to fail. You do your best, no attempts at trickery, or you lose your magic, period, according to this contract. And it looks like the Goblet is clever enough to spot such deceptions, and has the power to do as is warned. Any attempt to harm the Goblet will count against you, too. Of course, the Goblet can't punish you for merely wanting to harm it, or even going so far as researching how to harm it, but the moment you raise your wand or your hand to it with the intention of harming it, it knows, and it strikes.”

 

“This is absurd! I didn't put my name in!”

 

“Yes, and normally that would make a difference, according to everything I've found out. If someone put your name in under Hogwarts without your consent, merely by putting your name in the Goblet and nothing else, then the Goblet would ignore your name, because consent does matter with it. But someone used a ridiculously powerful Confundus charm on it, according to Dumbledore's examination of the Goblet, as Moody surmised. So not only was it tricked into thinking there was a fourth school, it was also tricked into thinking you submitted your name intentionally.

 

“I did ask Dumbledore if he could use an equally strong Confundus on it to trick it into knowing the truth and therefore dropping you from its obligation to compete, but according to Dumbledore, a Confundus strong enough to fool something as old as the Goblet of Fire requires a boost from a Dark Magic ritual bad enough that he said nobody sane should risk using it. He wouldn't tell me more than that, not even the name of the ritual. But he did suggest that a decade in Azkaban would be preferable to the price such a ritual would exact from anyone foolish enough to use it.”

 

“So Dumbledore doesn't have the power to do it?”

 

“Dumbledore said that not even You-Know-Who at his height of power would have had the power to do it either, without the aforementioned Dark ritual. The Goblet is an extremely old and powerful artifact.”

 

“Damn. Oh well. Guess there really is no way out. I wouldn't want anyone to pay a price like that for my sake.”

 

“Good. Anyway, I like Mr. Malfoy's suggestion to ask the judges to award you minimal points. It sends a nice strong message, and isn't forbidden by the contract, as it doesn't really impact the chances of winning much. The points don't really matter, ultimately. They're merely used to determine what order the contestants enter the maze in the Third Task. So from a competition standpoint, you lose nothing of significance and gain the PR advantage. No matter how much you protest you didn't put your name in, and no matter how dangerous the Tasks are, there's always going to be those who say you entered willingly. Even with this PR stunt, there will be those people. But with it, those people will be few and far between.”

 

“Then that's what I'm going to do,” Harry said.

 

“Good,” she said, writing something on a blank piece of parchment as she spoke. “And also, a suggestion of my own: even though you've decided to go to the Yule Ball with Ms. Lovegood anyway, you could always send another PR message at the Yule Ball by refusing to start the dancing with the other contestants, and even refusing to sit with the other contestants for the dinner. And if anyone gives you any grief about it, like the teachers, remind them you were entered against your will, and hand them this.”

 

She handed him the parchment she'd been writing on. It was an official letter from her, with her wax seal on it, which explained what the contract said he was and wasn't obligated to do for the Tournament, with the things he was NOT required to do in nice big, bold letters. And an invitation to talk with her if they had any questions.

 

“Thank you, Ms. Pennyroyal.”

 

“It's what I'm being paid for, Mr. Potter. But you're welcome all the same.”

 

Reading the parchment, he frowned at some of the wording. “Hey wait, does this right here mean what I think it means?”

 

“What do you think it means, Mr. Potter?”

 

“I think it means you're going to be present at the Yule Ball.”

 

“Then it does indeed mean what you think it means. I wanted an excuse to drop in on the event anyway, and this is as good an excuse as any. Better, even.”

 

“Cool. Well I'll see you there, then.”

 

“Excellent,” she said, standing up and putting her papers away in her briefcase. “Is there anything else before I go, Mr. Potter?”

 

He looked to Draco. Draco shrugged.

 

“Not that I can think of, Ms. Pennyroyal. If I think of anything, I'll owl you.”

 

“Don't put anything sensitive in an owl. If in doubt, Floo call me. Your head of House is legally obligated to let you use her Floo if it's for a legal matter.”

 

“I'll do that, then. Thanks again, Ms. Pennyroyal.”

 

“You're welcome, Mr. Potter.”

 

She smiled, shook his hand, and left the room – an unused classroom they'd chosen for this meeting.

 

“So, now she's gone, who are you taking to the Yule Ball, Draco?”

 

“I'm not sure. Pansy Parkinson asked me, she's still interested in me for some reason, but I turned her down. I never really liked her much. I just hung out with her because it was expected of me.”

 

“Anyone you fancy?”

 

Draco's face turned pink, and he turned his eyes away from Harry's face. “Perhaps. But I'm not sure how to ask her. Also not sure she'd accept.”

 

“Is it Daphne or Tracey?”

 

“Er... no. Though one of them might make a nice backup.”

 

Harry blinked, trying to think who Draco could be meaning.

 

“It's not Danzia or one of the other Slytherin girls in our friend group, is it?”

 

Draco made a choking noise. “No, none of them. I doubt any of them would be interested, anyway. I know Antigone and Angela are only into girls, and I'm not 100 percent sure about Danzia's interests.”

 

“So then... oh. Hermione?”

 

Draco went even pinker than before, and silently nodded.

 

“Oh. Oh shit. You'd better ask soon, then. I uh... didn't know of your interest in her, and sort of suggested Ron ask her.”

 

Draco winced. “Damn! Blast and damn! Do you know where she is right now?”

 

“Um... probably either in the library, in our common room, or on her way between the two.”

 

“Thanks sorry gotta run bye!” Draco said, grabbing his bag and running off, ignoring several loose parchments spilling out of it. Harry Summoned them with his wand and put them in his own bag to return to the blond boy later.

 

Later, Harry tried to call Sirius on the mirror to tell Sirius all this. He didn't get an answer for several hours, making him very worried until Sirius finally answered.

 

“Shorry for the wait, pup,” he said, his speech slurred. “I wash at a rock concert, I didn't think it worf the rishk to talk on the mirror in front of a bunch of Mugglesh. Plush, the noishe would've been too much for it to be worth the time anyway. What's up?”

 

“You were at a rock concert?”

 

“Yeah. I had to get outta the houshe and go shomewhere other than work, for my mendal... menthal... for my shanity. So I went to a conshert. Again, what'sh up?”

 

Harry smiled at the knowledge Sirius was doing something social again, and told Sirius everything he, Ms. Pennyroyal, and Draco had discussed.

 

“Well that shucks you can't get outta it, but yeah, I agree with thoshe ideash for getting people to realishe you didn't enter willingly. Refushing pointsh for the tashksh would shend that meshage nishely.”

 

A muffled voice in the background of Sirius's side suddenly spoke. “You almotht done in there, Siriuth? I gotta pith like a rayshhorth!”

 

“Jusht a few minutesh,” Sirius called back.

 

Harry grinned at the mirror as Sirius turned back. “That was a girl's voice, Padfoot! You brought a girl home with you!”

 

“Er, not eggsagt... not ezag... um... not quite. I'm at her playsh, in fact. She'sh a Muggle, sho I couldn' bloody well take her to my playsh. Had to claim I don' live in town, wizitch... wish ish a lie ash we're in London ri' now. Anyway, nuff bout me.”

 

“Padfoot, you're at a girl's house?” Harry said teasingly.

 

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Chucklesh. I'll get ya back later. But I should go, she drank enough vodka earlier to drown a shmall village, and she's shtill vertical. I jusht wanted to make sure you were okay, and let you know I wash okay too. Drunker than I been shinsh before Ashbakan, but yeah.” Sirius giggled just then.

 

“Right. Well you'd better call when you're sober tomorrow night and tell me all about the girl whose house you're in. If you can still remember it, that is.”

 

“I'll conshider it, pup. G'night.”

 

“Goodnight, Sirius.”

 

Sirius gave Harry a drunken thumbs-up and closed the mirror, hanging up. Harry smiled at the disconnected mirror and chuckled to himself at his godfather's antics before getting ready for bed.

 

 

Endnote: Bit short I know, but since I'd been sick for half a month, I figure it's better than nothing.

 

Harry is a bit clueless about positive emotions like love here and in canon, likely because, well, he never had any love directed at him. It's honestly unrealistic that Harry turned out as good in canon as he did, rather than becoming a new dark lord. The only way that could happen in reality is if Harry had one good, loving adult in his life. And somehow I doubt Mrs. Figg would qualify for that; he didn't seem to like being around her. Only other thing I can think of is “because magic.” Like... because of magic, his mother's love was magically pushed into his mind and soul by her sacrifice.

 

Oh yeah and I only noticed while writing this chapter that Skeeter never covered the First Task in canon, or if she did it wasn't mentioned for some reason. It's odd. But seeing as I nearly forgot to have Xeno do the same thing, maybe Rowling just forgot?

 

Speaking of forgetting: yeah, I keep forgetting about Dueling Club being a thing in this AU. I don't do my best work on anything remotely resembling a deadline, I prefer to make up for gaps in my memory by taking my time with things and adding/subtracting stuff scores of times before being satisfied with a chapter, but I don't do that with fan fiction nearly as much; I tend to breeze through these fanfics by comparison to my usual writing habits because the longer it takes me to write and publish a chapter, the more antsy I get. Writing original stuff intended for eventual legit publication, where I can keep going back to previous chapters and adding or subtracting things, is my preference. There are SO many changes I would make to previous chapters of this story if it wasn't so much of an excess of hassle for me to do.

 

Oh and if you noticed certain clues: no, I'm not making Harry trans in this one. Not exactly. What I have planned won't change anything about Harry's gender presentation. If you want a trans Harry, go read my other fanfic “The Many Faces of Har—er, Adira Potter.”

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter 13: “Important Answers”

 

The next day when classes were over for the day was a MAC meeting. With all the fuss about the Tri-wizard Tournament and the student body's anger at Harry for supposedly putting his name in the Goblet of Fire, attendance had dropped like a stone. Even Harry had stopped going, though that was mostly because he needed to train for the Tasks.

 

After missing meetings for weeks, though, he'd asked Hermione about MAC and she said there were still people going. Some of their friends, some first years who hadn't been around long enough to follow the anti-Harry anger on behalf of their Houses or just thought the whole thing stupid, Ginny was there, the Weasley twins popped in now and then, and there were also some new Slytherins in the group. Draco had brought Blaise Zabini, Tracey Davis, and Daphne Greengrass into the group, and apparently they were finding the experience interesting and enlightening. Daphne had also brought her younger sister Astoria into the group.

 

When Harry came in that day, Draco was helping some younger students with their maths. Harry smiled to see his club still going, even if attendance still hadn't recovered from what it used to be. He wondered who was maintaining it, because Hermione was with him and Ron so often he doubted it was her.

 

Harry got closer and Draco looked up at his approach. He gave Harry a wry grin, kind of an almost sneering smirk.

 

“So you're still alive after all, then, Harry?” Draco said.

 

“Er... yeah. I think if I'd died, it would be big news.”

 

Draco shook his head. “I just meant I haven't seen you around here much lately. A bit odd, considering you started this club.”

 

“Are you the person who's been keeping it up in my absence?”

 

“Yes, well, someone had to do it. I'm not quite qualified for the position, but there wasn't really anyone else. So I've been delegating. Having the newbloods get textbooks and stuff from their parents, that sort of thing.”

 

“Newbloods?”

 

“Ah, yes. New term several of our members here came up with for Muggle-borns. Since inbreeding is slowly killing off the old blood families, we need some new blood to keep magic alive. Oh yes, that reminds me: 'newbloods' actually replaces both 'Muggle-borns' and 'half-bloods.' That bit was Willem Stone's idea. If the idea is to end the stupid blood purity mania, then there's no need to differentiate Muggle-borns from half-bloods anymore.”

 

Harry looked around the room and spotted the violet-eyed, brown-haired, third-year Slytherin boy, who was watching their conversation with a blush in his face. His hair was even longer than Harry remembered it, and was braided with metallic green ribbons through it. He was also wearing a silver and green Slytherin choker. Harry couldn't help but classify Willem as 'rather pretty, for a boy.'

 

Next to Willem was the red-headed black Muslim girl named Qintar Contee, a year below Willem. Last time Harry had seen her, her hair had been in Afro puffs. Now it was in box braids that only went down to her chin. She was still choosing not to wear a headscarf.

 

“Cool,” Harry said, not really knowing what else to say.

 

Draco rolled his eyes. “'Cool'? That's the best you can do?”

 

“Er... really really cool? Sorry, I do think it's cool, and I don't really have any idea what else to say. Except maybe... oh yeah. Thanks for the cool idea, Willem.”

 

Willem, still blushing, gave a mumbled “You're welcome, Harry.”

 

Just then, Harry spotted someone else familiar.

 

“Cedric?”

 

Cedric Diggory stood up and shook Harry's hand.

 

“Hello there, Harry. Glad to see you back. Um... after the First Task, I decided to come back here, once in a while at least given the Tournament is still going. I haven't had much luck getting my friends to return, this club is still associated with you and they're still sore. I just can't get them to accept you didn't put your name in. They're stubborn.”

 

“Oh. Well at least you're here, and trying. Thanks, Cedric.”

 

“No problem. Er, by the way, can we talk in a private corner?”

 

Harry shrugged. “Okay, sure.”

 

With Draco and several others watching them, Harry and Cedric went into an unused corner. Cedric cast a bunch of privacy spells that Harry recognized.

 

“So, uh, what's this about?” Harry asked.

 

“Have you made any progress on that puzzle cube?”

 

“Not really. I've solved all the riddles, but there's an order to them I haven't cracked yet.”

 

“Damn! Me neither. Though I don't know whether I wanted you to have made progress or not. I kinda want to pay you back for helping me with the dragons.”

 

“I... well, I was going to say I didn't do it for a reward, but I reckon you'd say the same thing.”

 

“Yeah. You'd have made a good Hufflepuff, Harry.”

 

“I know. The Sorting Hat said I'd be well suited to any of the Houses.”

 

“What, even Slytherin?”

 

“Yes, even Slytherin.”

 

“Huh. Well it's a shame we didn't get you instead, but oh well.” He sighed. “Well, I guess if neither of us has made any progress on that cube, there's nothing left to discuss privately. Unless you want to satisfy my curiosity about who you're going to the Yule Ball with. There's loads of rumors flying around about it.”

 

“You'll find out when everyone else does, Cedric.”

 

“Right,” Cedric said with a grin. “Of course.”

 

Cedric tore down the privacy spells. Harry went over to sit by Draco.

 

“What was that about?”

 

“I'll tell you later,” Harry said, glancing at the other students.

 

“Of course.”

 

“Thanks for understanding. Now, where is everyone? While I'm here, I might as well contribute, but I need an idea where everyone is first.”

 

~

 

Harry was sitting at the Griffindor table Saturday morning when something unusual happened; Draco came over to sit next to him. Ron was still in bed, and Harry didn't know where Hermione was at the moment. He looked at Draco, who was looking annoyed about something. This impression was verified when Draco started scooping food onto his plate with unusual vehemence.

 

“What's the matter?” he asked.

 

“I asked Hermione to go to the Yule Ball with me. She said she already had a date, but wouldn't say who it was. Said I wouldn't believe her if she said. Which rules out Weasley, I'm sure.”

 

“Why does it rule out Ron?”

 

“Because I would believe she'd say yes to him. Though it is a bit odd if he managed to ask her.” Draco sighed. “I guess I'm more hoping it isn't Weasley. She's much too good for him.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“He's a horrible student, and lazy. I hear things about it. Apparently he has Hermione help him on his homework frequently and he's still not doing well in the class rankings.”

 

“She doesn't do his homework for him, just reads it over and points out corrections that need to be made.”

 

Draco snorted. “It amounts to the same thing. Anyway, did I say she was doing it for him? No I did not. I know she wouldn't.”

 

He shook his head. “How he can be getting help from her and still be doing so poorly, I don't understand.”

 

“Tests,” Harry said.

 

“Right! Good point. He wouldn't be able to cheat on the tests. Still, with her giving him the answers, you'd think he'd be able to revise for tests with that.”

 

“So who do you think it is, if not Ron?”

 

“I don't know. I was hoping you knew. I didn't think to ask before my rant.”

 

“If I'd known she had a date already, I would have guessed she turned you down, rather than asking what was wrong.”

 

“Right, of course. Sorry. I just wish she'd tell me who it was. I mean, I assume she said yes to the first person who asked her, as she's not terribly popular and doesn't make much of an effort on her appearance. I just wish she'd known she didn't have to settle for some acne-scarred Hufflepuff berk, or whoever she's said yes to.”

 

Draco was suddenly very violent against his scrambled eggs, like he was punishing them for his problems. Harry watched this for a few minutes as he ate his own meal.

 

“Oy, what's he doing here?” asked a voice from behind Harry.

 

Harry looked up. It was Ron. He was glaring daggers at Draco.

 

“Why are you trying to kill Draco with your eyes, Ron?”

 

“Don't change the subject, Harry! I want to know what this git is doing here!”

 

“Weasley, if the sudden return of your belligerence toward me is due to you asking Hermione to the Yule Ball and being rejected, let me stop you right there. She rejected me as well.”

 

“Bollocks! She told me I wouldn't believe who asked her, and the only person I could think of that fit that description was you!”

 

“Really, Weasley? So if Adrian Pucey asked her to the Yule Ball, you'd believe that?”

 

Ron blinked, taken aback. “Er... alright, so there are other options. But the odds of Pucey doing that are like the odds of me suddenly being able to fly to Jupiter. Which makes you much more likely.”

 

“Well I'm terribly sorry to disappoint you, Weasley, but no amount of bluff and bluster is going to change the fact that she rejected me as well! I don't know who asked her, but I assure you I want to know just as much as you do.”

 

Ron examined Draco's annoyed and sour face for several moments, then deflated. “You really are telling the truth, aren't you?”

 

“Well spotted, Weasley,” Draco said, turning back to his food.

 

“Right,” Ron said. “But still, you're a Slytherin, yet here you are at the Griffindor table. Why?”

 

“There's no rule against eating at other tables, Weasley. Not unless it's the welcoming feast or the leaving feast.”

 

Ron sighed and sat down. “Whatever.”

 

When Hermione appeared ten minutes later, she froze in confusion at Draco and Ron sitting across from one another at the same table. She looked at Harry and chewed on her lower lip questioningly. Harry shrugged.

 

“Don't worry, Hermione,” Draco said. “No hard feelings. Come, join us.”

 

Shrugging, Hermione sat down on Draco's left side, but a person's width away, still looking at both boys worriedly.

 

“Who're you going to the ball with?” Ron asked the moment she sat down.

 

Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed, ignoring the question as she started doling out breakfast onto her plate.

 

“Ron, don't forget we're going down to Hogsmeade later today to get you some dress robes.”

 

Draco looked up, opened his mouth to speak. Harry glared at him, and he shut it quickly, going back to his food. Ron didn't seem to notice.

 

“Yeah, I remember.” He looked up at Draco. “I don't suppose you need anything there? Your parents already got it all for you, I expect.”

 

“Not that it's any of your concern, Weasley, but I do intend to go down to the village. I may not need anything, but one never knows until something pops out at them.”

 

“Can you two stop with the passive-aggressive BS?” Harry asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose like Snape sometimes did.

 

Ron's face turned red. “Sorry, Harry.”

 

Harry looked to Draco, who slowly looked up.

 

“What? I have nothing to apologize for. He's the one who was being an arse. I was just responding, rather politely I might add.”

 

“Okay,” Harry said, going back to his food. After all, that was an excellent point.

 

“So, Harry,” Draco said after a few minutes, whispering. “Are you going to tell me what Diggory said to you at MAC the other day?”

 

Whispering back, Harry said, “Just asking about the puzzle box. Neither of us have made any progress. He was hoping he'd made more progress than I have, so he could help out. You know, after I told him about the dragons?”

 

“I see,” Draco said at regular volume. “Explains why he's been coming to MAC meetings despite it being both his NEWT year and the Tri-Wizard Tournament.”

 

“Doesn't he get exempted from end of year tests, as a Champion?”

 

“Well yes. But that likely just means he'll study for his exams over the summer and take them in the autumn or later. It's NEWTs, he's not going to have put in all that work just to not do them.”

 

That made too much sense to Harry for him to ignore. He nodded, and finished the last of his breakfast.

 

After breakfast was over, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Draco went down to Hogsmeade together, even though the tension between Ron and Draco was still fairly high. Ron kept asking Hermione who she was going with, as though hoping to startle an answer out of her, but she remained tight-lipped, doing rather a good impression of McGonagall by the time they were in the village.

 

Harry and Ron split apart from the group soon after arriving, with Hermione and Draco going different directions from one another as well. They went at once to the local dress robes shop and spent an hour getting something for Ron that wouldn't clash with his hair or cost more than he was willing to let Harry spend on him, which wasn't an easy balance to strike. Finally, though, they purchased a set of dark purple men's dress robes for Ron.

 

“I still say the green looked better on you,” Harry said as they left the shop with their purchase.

 

“Yeah, well, you're wearing green aren't you? I didn't want us looking like twins. Besides, green is a Slytherin color.”

 

“First of all, green is the color of nature. Secondly, the Irish have been pairing red hair with green for longer than Slytherin has existed, probably. Third, so what if it was? You know a bunch of good Slytherins. And fourth, we wouldn't look like twins. You're pale white with red hair and freckles, and I'm dark brown with black hair. We look nothing alike. Besides which, I'm sure lots of blokes are going to end up wearing the same or similar robes for the Yule Ball.”

 

Ron shrugged. “Maybe you're right. I just like the purple better.”

 

“The color of royalty.”

 

“What now?”

 

“Oh, probably not for wizards, but until a couple hundred or so years ago, making purple clothes was very difficult for Muggles. The natural dyes available to do it were expensive to produce and ship, so only royalty could afford purple. Of course, then Muggle chemists figured out how to make cheap purple dyes during the Industrial Revolution, and now it's one of the most popular colors in the Muggle world.”

 

Ron chuckled. “I bet the royalty didn't like that change.”

 

“Probably not. But there wasn't anything they could do about it.”

 

“Glad the purple wasn't as expensive as back then for the Muggles. You spent more than I'm really comfortable with anyway.”

 

“We can always return it afterwards, if you want.”

 

“You can't return tailored clothes, Harry.”

 

“With as easy as it is to re-tailor them with magic?”

 

“Oh. Right.” He paused a moment, then said, “Mum would probably insist I keep them, but I reckon by the time I need dress robes again, I'll be too big for this set anyway.”

 

They caught a glimpse of Hermione as they went around to their usual stops, and Ron looked disgruntled.

 

“Ron, it's just one dance. So someone beat you to Hermione, it's not the end of the world. It doesn't mean she's necessarily going to date whoever it is who asked her, after the ball is over.”

 

“It's a possibility, though.”

 

Harry sighed. He didn't know what to say. Mostly because he thought Draco had a point. Ron was a lazy student, not very motivated to do much of anything, which was a real shame because he had a great, clever mind when he put in the effort. Ron and Hermione had so little in common that Harry was pretty much the only reason they were even friends with each other. Harry couldn't really see anything being there between the two friends. Granted, he also thought Draco's parents would have a fit if he ended up with Hermione, so that wasn't a great option either.

 

“Anyway, with Hermione taken, you should probably find someone to ask to the ball,” Harry said.

 

“Yeah, I guess. Got any suggestions?”

 

“Anyone you fancy?”

 

“Not really. Well, there's that Veela girl, one of the champions, but if Hermione's got a date already, she surely does as well. And honestly, I think I only like the Veela girl because she's a Veela.”

 

“Well, how about Lavender Brown or Parvati Patil?”

 

“Oh. Right. Um... I suppose so. But I don't think I've said more than ten words to either of them before. But uh, I suppose it's worth a try. If I see one of them, I'll ask. I'll just... I'll blurt it out, or something.”

 

“I could ask for you, if I see one of them first.”

 

“Oh, would you?” Ron said in a relieved tone. “That'd be a huge load off. This whole Yule Ball business is a real pisser for the nerves.”

 

Harry grinned. “I get that. It'd be a lot easier for me to ask someone for you than it was for me to ask Luna.”

 

“Luna doesn't have a sister, does she?”

 

“No, sorry,” Harry said, privately thinking that if Luna did have a sister who was old enough to ask to the ball, that she and Ron would probably be an even worse match than Ron and Hermione.

 

~

 

As it turned out, neither of them got to ask Lavender or Parvati to the ball for Ron, because something completely unexpected happened instead. Draco came up to Ron in the Great Hall at dinner and sat down to talk with him.

 

“What do you want?” Ron asked grumpily.

 

“Listen, Weasley, you're angry with me over something stupid. Hermione isn't going with me. If she were, I could understand your anger, but she's not. Anyway, since I'm not sure you'd listen to that logic, I've decided to give you a peace offering.”

 

“I'm not going to the ball with you, either, Malfoy.”

 

Draco snorted with laughter. “That's not what I was going to say. Maybe you should listen to find out, instead of making snide comments.”

 

Ron sighed. “Fine, what is it?”

 

“I happened to run into Tracey Davis and Daphne Greengrass while in Hogsmeade. I'm going with Daphne to the ball, because I asked her earlier after Hermione turned me down. When I saw them I inquired of Tracey, casually, if she had a date yet. She said she did not. So I asked her for you. She was a tad reluctant, but I told her you were getting some nice dress robes from Harry, and I promised her that if you were a boorish lout during the ball, that she could hex the both of us. Please don't make her make good on that threat, she knows more hexes and curses than I do. Anyway... If you agree, I'll go tell her and then you can stop stressing out about asking someone.”

 

“A Slytherin ? You want me to take a Slytherin to the Yule Ball?”

 

“You have at least three Slytherin friends, Weasley; I would have thought you'd be over this ridiculous prejudice by now.”

 

“Er... well I'm not really prejudiced against Slytherins anymore, not really.” - Ron ignored Draco's snort of disbelief - “But I'm worried what Mum will say if I take one to the ball. Er, one other than the ones she knows are Harry's friends, I mean.”

 

“How would she even know if you don't tell her?”

 

“The twins,” Ron said.

 

“Ah, that is a fair point. Anyway, Weasley, if it helps, you can inform your mother that Tracey Davis is firmly on the anti-dark lord side of things. And that she's a half-blood.”

 

“So is Voldemort,” Harry said.

 

Both boys winced.

 

“If you say so, Harry. Anyway, does that help, Weasley?”

 

Ron sat there thinking a moment. Then he sighed. “I suppose so. I don't really know Lavender or Parvati any better than I know Tracey Davis. So why not? Sure, go tell her I accept. I hope her robes match with my dark purple ones.”

 

“Good,” Draco said. “I'll tell her.”

 

Draco stood up. As he did, Ron said, “Wait, one more thing.”

 

“Yes?” Draco asked, looking curiously at him.

 

“You can call me Ron if you like. I get tired of hearing my surname all the time.”

 

“Good. I'm tired of saying it so much. I'll go tell her for you now, Ron.”

 

Ron nodded his acknowledgement and Draco left the table, heading back to the Slytherin table. Ron turned back to Harry.

 

“Now I have to tell Mum I'm going to the ball with a Slytherin she doesn't know. I don't know if that's easier than asking someone out myself or not.”

 

“Your mum will understand,” Harry said. “If she doesn't, I'll write her about it, give her a piece of my mind if I have to.”

 

“Thanks, Harry. You're a good friend.”

 

“You're welcome.”

 

~

 

The next day, a Sunday and the day before the Yule Ball, Harry and his friends went to dance classes all morning. After lunch, they all spent time in the Room of Requirement, where Harry was practicing defensive magic for the as-yet unknown Second Task. Luna was sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing with the puzzle box, answering its riddles in different orders. Harry was impressed; he hadn't gotten around to telling her any of the answers, she'd figured them all out on her own.

 

“Oooh, Harry, I think I found a pattern!” she said suddenly.

 

Harry stopped what he was doing and sat next to her.

 

“What did you find?”

 

“Well, I noticed from all the circled sequences that the ones that failed but had a promising start all start with one, then six. Then I went on to a '1 6 5' sequence, but it failed. So I tried 1 6 4 2 5 3, but that one failed after the first two digits, too.”

 

“What's next, then?”

 

With the others sitting nearby, Luna tried the next combo, which was 1 6 3 4 5 2, which failed. They tried some more sequences. They didn't make any more progress until the sequence 1 6 2 3 4 5, which got them up to three digits.

 

“So it starts with 1 6 2. Let's move on,” Harry said.

 

They tried 1 6 2 4 5 3, another failure. The last number left to try after that was 1 6 2 5 3 4, which – thankfully – was the right answer. The box opened up, its six sides unfolding like one of those 2D drawings of unfolded cubes, then flipped itself over and re-folded itself inside-out so that the box now had a big green button on the top of it that said “Press me.”

 

“Oh gods, I see what they did there,” Harry said before they'd even pressed the button.

 

“Huh?” Ron said, confused.

 

“That sequence, 1 6 2 5 3 4. Gods, I can't believe I didn't think to try that earlier!”

 

“See what sooner?”

 

“Think of the number sequence '1 2 3 4 5 6.' Now start with 1, then switch to the other end of the sequence, what do you get?”

 

“Er... a six?”

 

“Yes. Then back to the other end again, and you get '1 6 2.'”

 

“Ohhh,” Ron said, getting it now. “Then you go to the other end again, and it's 1 6 2 5. Then all that's left is the three and the four, to get 1 6 2 5 3 4.”

 

“Yes. Front to back to front to back, and so on. Or rather, outside numbers to inside numbers. So if the sequence options had been, somehow, one through ten, it'd be 1 10 2 9 3 8 4 7 5 6. Simple, but kind of clever. It's an easy way to encode a numerical password sequence but not so easy that anyone would think of it right away, if at all.”

 

“Right. But er, you should probably push the button, see what it does.”

 

“What? Oh yes, of course,” Harry said.

 

He reached forward and pressed the button. The box began to speak, then.

 

“Congratulations, riddle solver, on this first step of your quest!

But weary though you may well be, still you cannot rest.

 

“ A Second Task awaits you, to test your smarts and mettle,

So mind you listen well 'ere you then can settle.

 

“Like Odysseus of old, you'll be taken from one you love,

To find your way back to them while watched by those above.

 

“ Enemies and obstacles you'll fight with wit and wand,

An hour you shall have to find with whom you need abscond.

 

“To aid you on your journey, a seed I have to sow:

A clue to help you figure out where thou needst to go.

 

“As Homer in his great work wrote,

Thou shalt be traveling by boat.

 

“It docks where many people dread,

For danger lies within its spread.

 

“But tis not to black you need to seek,

Instead tis olive, thou temp'ry Greek.

 

“From there you go to the distant place,

To meet the challenges you must face.

 

“Survive the battles, resist the bait,

And escape the traps, lest ye be late.

 

“But worry not, if late, lost, or lame,

Or even if you fail, for this is just a game.

 

“ The stakes are not so dire as Odysseus once faced,

But you only have an hour, so please do make some haste.”

 

The box stopped speaking then, and remained as it was, the button still there. Luna got out some parchment and a quill, writing down the poem as Harry played it a few more times to make sure they had everything.

 

“A quest themed after 'The Odyssey,'” she said, scanning the parchment. “Sounds fun.”

 

Harry snorted. “I doubt it. I've read 'The Odyssey,' back in primary school. Odysseus faced a lot of monsters as well as other obstacles. A cyclops, some sirens, a couple possessive goddesses, and a many-headed monster were involved, as I recall. Among other things.”

 

“Well it's a good thing you've practiced a lot of defensive magic, then,” Hermione said.

 

“Yeah, but will it be enough? Hmm... I could always use the trick from the first task that I did.”

 

Ron said, “I'm pretty sure Snape would kill you if you did that. Plus, you don't know how many monsters there's gonna be there.”

 

“If any,” Antigone said.

 

“Yeah, but my point is he may have to do it a lot.”

 

“If this task is so far away from the school, I don't know how the spectators are going to see anything,” Hermione said.

 

“I think I know,” Antigone said. “I happened to overhear, over the summer, that Dad got an order from the Ministry for several flying omnioculars and half a dozen large magic mirrors for displaying images on. Now I know why, if this task is what those were for.”

 

“Good to know,” Harry said. “But what exactly IS this task? For instance, what thing of mine that I love am I going to be taken from?”

 

“I think, Harry, that you mean to ask which person you'll be taken from. The first relevant line is 'Like Odysseus of old, you'll be taken from one you love.' Odysseus was trying to get back to his wife and son. The second relevant line is 'An hour you shall have to find with whom you need abscond.' It says 'with whom.' You'll need to abscond with the person you've been 'taken' from. Not quite faithful to the epic, but I suppose they had to be a little creative with the theme.”

 

“Right, that makes sense. It also sounds like whoever it is I need to abscond with is going to be held somewhere that we'll both have to escape from, otherwise why use a word that relates to sneakiness and fleeing from consequences?”

 

“That makes sense too, in a way,” Hermione added. “Odysseus absconded into his own house as a beggar because of all the suitors there. You might have to do something similar to that, Harry.”

 

“What's all that about a boat?” Ron asked. “Surely you're not going out on the Black Lake in the middle of February? That'd be mad! What if you fell in? The water's bound to be cold enough to freeze to death in it, even with warming spells!”

 

Harry looked up at Ron in surprise and thoughtfulness. “Black Lake... Hmm... 'But tis not black you need to seek,' the poem said. It said I was looking for 'olive.' But that doesn't make sense either, olives are also black.”

 

“Only ripe olives are black, Harry,” Luna said. “Olives picked at full ripeness before being pickled or fermented are black. Unripe olives are green, though, and there's a color called 'olive,' which is a shade of green.”

 

“Oh, right. I feel silly now.”

 

“Olives are pickled or fermented?” Ron asked.

 

“Yes. They're much too bitter to eat otherwise,” she answered him.

 

“So what's dangerous but green, around Hogwarts?” Antigone asked.

 

“I think it means the Forbidden Forest,” Luna said, pondering. “Yes. Yes, that makes sense to me. Obviously they made a joke of sorts with the connection between olives and Greeks, to point us at something green. The poem is clearly talking about a place, refers to its 'span.' So if not the Black Lake, then the Forbidden Forest is where they mean.”

 

“Makes sense to me,” Harry said. “I just hope we're right. Is there anything else it could mean? Just so we can eliminate possibilities.”

 

They all stood there thinking for several minutes.

 

“There's lots of green around Hogwarts, during the spring and summer and part of the fall,” Ron said. “But dangerous and green? Yeah, I'm with Luna on that one. Can't think of anywhere else that could be. The Forbidden Forest is forbidden because it's known to contain loads of dangerous magical creatures. It's the only thing that fits.”

 

“It's also dark enough to contain shades of green like 'olive,'” Antigone added.

 

“Yes,” Harry said, “but catching a boat in a forest? I suppose it could be a flying boat, but the Forbidden Forest is huge! And what if it's a regular boat? Is there a river going through the Forbidden Forest? It might be large enough to have one. So where exactly in the Forbidden Forest am I supposed to go?”

 

“Well, the first part is probably supposed to be the easiest. Odysseus had no trouble getting to Troy, as I recall. It was getting home that gave him trouble. So I think you should just go into the section by Hagrid's hut.”

 

“I have a different concern,” Antigone said.

 

“What's that?” Harry asked.

 

“Well... how far away is this place going to be? Will it be outside the wards of Hogwarts? If so, how can we be sure someone can't come in and try to kill Harry? What's keeping the Champions safe?”

 

“Aside from the flying omnioculars?” Ron asked.

 

Harry sighed. “No, she's right. There are ways, if you're clever and driven enough, to get past those. Something to bring up with Ms. Pennyroyal, then. Have her look into the details, if she hasn't already.”

 

Antigone nodded. “Right. Well it looks like we solved it. Now you just have to get through the Second Task intact. I'll help you with that however I can.”

 

“We all will,” Ron said. The others agreed.

 

With that, they went back to helping Harry practice defensive magic.

 

 

Endnotes: Short chapter I know, but the next thing after this was the Yule Ball, which I figure should be its own chapter. And it could've been shorter; first draft didn't have the MAC stuff in it.

 

I haven't gotten any comments about it, but that on its own is enough for me to point out that in the previous chapter, the title of Xeno's proposed new newspaper – Fortnight Wizarding News – is inspired by the infamous Weekly World News. :D

 

This time the delay was at least partly wanting to sort out the Second Task's safety issues in the next chapter before publishing this chapter.

 

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Four.

Or, "Autistic Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

 

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

 

Just to clarify: Yule Ball is actually on Yule because honestly, having it on Christmas always struck me as stupid because then the students didn't get to go home for Christmas. Fine for people like Harry who in canon didn't have anywhere to go that he wanted to be, but everyone else got the shaft.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Chapter 14: “The Yule Ball”

 

Since he knew she would be showing up to the Yule Ball, Harry hadn't bothered sending Ms. Pennyroyal a letter, instead deciding to find her and ask her during the ball to look into the Second Task's safety measures.

 

With that decided, he could go back to focusing on preparing for the Yule Ball. School was out, of course, but everyone was staying behind for the ball. The Hogwarts Express would take everyone home the day after the ball, after lunch. This just confirmed Harry's suspicions that the Express didn't travel across the country in a linear way, and so didn't have to leave at 11 AM on September 1st, nor take all day to get to Hogwarts.

 

Harry, Ron, Seamus, Dean, and Neville changed into their dress robes up in their dormitory, all of them looking very self-conscious. Ron might have been more self-conscious if he hadn't been so nervous about going to the dance with a girl he barely knew, who was also a Slytherin. When he thought about it, he realized he didn't even know for sure what Tracey Davis looked like. Harry only managed to calm him down by pointing out she was never far from Daphne Greengrass. When this was pointed out to him, Ron realized he did in fact remember what Tracey looked like.

 

“She's the blonde one, right? And Greengrass is the brunette who looks kinda stuck up all the time?”

 

“Yes to both questions,” Harry said idly, adjusting his collar. “And that 'stuck up' look is just, as I understand it, the facial expression of people who know occlumency but aren't like, great at it. Just passable. It's a blank look.”

 

“She looks unhappy when she does it.”

 

“Yeah, well so does everyone else who does it, unless they're really good. Even Snape does it most of the time.”

 

“Sure, but in his case he's just a grumpy git.”

 

The common room looked strange, full of people wearing different colors instead of the usual mass of black. The girls, especially, were colorful and a lot of them had dresses that revealed far more of themselves than they usually displayed. This was not true for the boys, though, which was something Harry thought was silly. Why was it more classy for girls to have dress robes that revealed more skin, but the same wasn't true for boys? People were just so silly, Harry thought.

 

“Did Draco tell you where you were meeting Tracey?”

 

“Yeah, yesterday on my way to the Room of Requirement,” he said quietly. “Said she was meeting me in the entrance hall. Is that where Luna's meeting you?”

 

“Yes. I asked her about it last night on the mirror.”

 

“Good. How do I look?”

 

“Fetching. Handsome. Royal,” Harry said. “What about me?”

 

“Like a reverse tree, but handsome. What'd you do to your hair, though?”

 

Harry rolled his eyes. “Rather than having it stick out in every direction, I used a hair charm to make it into these twists, then used a hair potion to get them to stick to my head like this. Got both from Dean.”

 

“Well it's a good look for you. Just gonna take some getting used to.”

 

Harry beamed at this. Ron was right, it was a good look for him, but he hadn't known for sure it was until Ron had said so. He'd have to see if others thought so, too.

 

He looked again at his outfit. Bottle-green dress robes of either satin or silk, he wasn't sure but probably satin. Silver pentacle cuff-links on the sleeves. It looked nice, but the neckline was too high, and it was making him feel like he was choking. It was bad enough that he left the boys' area and went looking around to see if any if the girls were available to take a message to Lavender Brown or Parvati Patil. He knew if anyone could help him, it would be one of them. Or, well, there was always Professor McGonagall, but he had no idea where she was. And Hermione of course, but he didn't want to bother her.

 

Finally he found someone willing to go upstairs to check for one of those two girls for him, and after ten minutes of waiting, Parvati came down looking curious. She was also dressed for the ball, looked very pretty in robes of shocking pink, with her long dark plait braided with gold, and gold bracelets glimmering at her wrists.

 

“What do you want, Harry? I'm not quite done with my makeup.”

 

“This neckline is too high, it feels like it's choking me. I figured if anyone here could help, it'd be you or Lavender.”

 

“Ah. Not quite our area of expertise, really, as we're more about makeup charms than transfiguration, but should be doable.”

 

She pulled her wand out of the front of her dress. Harry looked away suddenly, his ears burning, but Parvati didn't seem to care that she'd just casually reached down the front of her dress while a boy had been looking at her. She pointed her wand at his collar and concentrated. A moment later, the neckline dropped an inch. He shook his head to indicate it wasn't low enough yet, and she shifted it down another inch. But he wasn't satisfied even then, nor when it was three inches down from its original position.

 

“One more inch, Parvati.”

 

“Harry, are you sure? That already looks a little... feminine, at that position.”

 

“How does that--- never mind. I don't really care about stuff like that, I care about not feeling like there's a noose around my neck.”

 

She shrugged and lowered it again with her wand. When she did, he sighed with relief.

 

“Now if you could put a gap between the edges, that'd be even better.”

 

Sighing, she used her wand to put a half-inch gap between one edge of the fabric and the other. He sighed with relief again.

 

“Thank you so much, Parvati, that feels loads better.”

 

“You're welcome, Harry,” she said. “Anyway, you'd better let me seal that with a spell to make it last the night, or else you're going to be partway through a dance when it returns to normal.”

 

“Right,” he said, holding still. She cast the spell on it to seal the transfiguration for 24 hours just to be on the safe side.

 

“Anything else I can help you with?”

 

“No, that's all. Thanks again, Parvati.”

 

“Any time, Harry,” she said as he nodded at her and turned to go upstairs again to look at himself in the mirror.

 

Parvati was kind of right, the neckline did now look a bit on the feminine side, but he hadn't been lying when he said he didn't care about that kind of thing. It felt nice. In fact, the whole outfit felt nice, now he was no longer being choked by it. The slick coolness of the enchanted fabric against his skin was very nice, so much better than the usual Hogwarts robes. In fact, it felt a bit like changing out of a suit of armor and into pajamas. He hadn't realized quite how much the normal uniform had been bothering him all these years until today.

 

Ron showed up behind him as he was finishing looking at himself in the mirror, the two of them nearly running into each other.

 

“What happened to your robes, Harry?”

 

“They were choking me, so I had Parvati help me alter them to stop doing that.”

 

“Er, it kinda looks a bit--”

 

“Yes yes, I know. It looks slightly girly. I don't care. And no, it doesn't mean I'm really a girl like Antigone, it means I care more about comfort than appearances.”

 

Ron held his hands up in a placating gesture. “Sorry, mate. Didn't mean anything by it.”

 

Harry sighed. “Sorry for snapping at you, Ron.”

 

“Apology not needed, mate. Now, where's Hermione?”

 

“No idea, but she might be downstairs. I didn't see her earlier, though.”

 

"Probably off reading or sulking somewhere," Ron said. "You know, cuz she's too proud to admit she lied to me to make her point."

 

Harry chose to ignore this, he and Ron going down to the common room.

 

“Well we'd better get to the entrance hall to find our dates,” Harry said.

 

“Right.”

 

Colin Creevy ran into them just then.

 

“Oooh, looking good, Harry, Ron! I'm taking photos for the Yule Ball, gonna give copies to those who want them. But I'm asking permission first, Harry, you taught me that's polite. Can I take a photo of you two before you leave the common room?”

 

“You have my permission, Colin,” Harry said.

 

“Yeah, mine too.”

 

“Great.”

 

Colin lifted his camera up, stood back, and said, “Say cheese!”

 

Harry grinned. Ron looked nervous. The camera flashed.

 

Having known in advance what this ball was going to probably do to him, Harry had gone to Madam Pomfrey ahead of time and gotten a special potion from her that dulled the senses, as well as an anti-nausea potion. They should last the whole night, she'd said. He'd taken it before putting his robes on, and it was a weird sensation, being on these potions. Everything was quieter than he was used to, but sharper in some respects, like sometimes happened when he was tired and closed his eyes in a room where people were talking.

 

His vision was also quieter. Normally, with his glasses on he could see ridiculous levels of detail on things; when flying, he had frequently noticed he could see the grass petals moving at distances that should have been impossible to see more than just green. Whenever he was outside, he had over the past few months taken up the habit of seeing how far away a tree had to be before he couldn't see its leaves anymore. He wasn't great at judging distances, but he thought it was a lot farther than most people could see. And of course, on several occasions he'd read text from across the room that other people could barely recognize as even being text, from the same distance. So it was like his senses were normally turned up to 12 or 13, and the potion brought them down to like, a seven or an eight.

 

The difference was obvious to him. Instead of being able to count individual tree leaves of trees off near the horizon, he could now barely see the trees, so to speak. His near-range vision was dulled, too; from his current position, he normally could have seen tiny cracks in the stones of the floor that most people could only see by getting their faces as close to the stone as they could. Now, he could tell the floor was stone by the texture, but he couldn't see the cracks.

 

He couldn't help but notice that the difference in how it affected him was astonishing. There were presently so many people in the common room milling about and talking, even shouting, that on a normal day he would have been getting sick even before Colin's camera went off. But now with the sense-dulling potion, he felt like the noise level could triple, and the density of people in the room could double, and he'd still be okay.

 

But as tempting as it might be to ask for this potion all the time, he knew he wouldn't be able to. Over the years he'd found his absurdly powerful senses to be very useful. He was always the first to notice leaks in the roof, no matter how small, even when Aunt Petunia was in the room. He used to use his vision to expertly assess how much food he could steal from the fridge before his aunt and uncle would notice some had gone missing. And he still often surprised Hedwig when she tried to sneak up on him, for as quiet as she was, he could still hear the faint sound of her wings through the air if there wasn't some other noise covering up the sound. So no, despite the fact he was still going strong in the midst of all this chaos, he wouldn't be making a habit of using the sense-dulling potion.

 

Colin got some more photos of him and Ron, then moved on. Harry and Ron took off out the portrait hole and toward the entrance hall. On the way there, Harry answered Ron's inquiry about how he was able to stand all the noise.

 

The entrance hall was packed with students too, all milling around waiting for eight o’clock, when the doors to the Great Hall would be thrown open. Those people who were meeting partners from different Houses were edging through the crowd trying to find one another. Draco came up to Harry and Ron and guided Ron over to Tracey Davis, where Ron took her arm in a gentlemanly fashion. Harry could tell by his face that Ron was trying to be open minded and not ruin this day for Tracey, even if she was a Slytherin.

 

Draco was wearing dress robes of black velvet with a high collar, which in Harry’s opinion made him look like a vicar. Daphne was wearing metallic silver dress robes, though honestly Harry couldn't tell the difference between girls' dress robes and Muggle formal dresses. Daphne's silver dress robes were backless, and the front seemed to be stuck in place with a sticking charm. They also had a slit up both sides of the dress, showing off her legs now and then. Legs that ended with shoes that looked to be made of real silver. Daphne had Draco by one arm and a very small metallic-silver clutch purse in the other arm.

 

Daphne's hair was tied up in an elegant knot at the back of her head, the knot festooned with glittering emeralds in silver settings, another glittering emerald at her neck. Each piece was probably expensive enough to pay for new school things for the Weasleys for the rest of their time in Hogwarts.

 

Tracey's dress robes matched Ron's purple pretty well, seeing as they were a metallic gold color, but much more modest than Daphne's, exposing only Tracey's shoulders, arms, and her golden, heeled shoes. Both girls wore opera gloves in colors matching their dresses, and these gloves went all the way to just past their elbows. Tracey's clutch was metallic gold, like her dress.

 

Like Daphne, Tracey's hair was up, though hers was a braided bun. Also in her hair were dazzling red-and-orange fire opals, with another such fire opal at her neck.

 

Harry waited for Luna, not knowing where she was going to be. He asked several students he knew to be Ravenclaws, and most of them made faces of dislike and told him they didn't know where “Loony” was. He tore into each one who did that with a vicious verbal throw-down, and most of them apologized before fleeing. Harry made notes of names of people who called Luna names to his face, to talk with their head of house about it later.

 

Ron and Tracey remained nearby, along with Draco and Daphne. They chatted idly while Harry waited for Luna.

 

“Oh no …”

 

Ron bent his knees slightly to hide behind Harry, because Fleur Delacour was passing, looking stunning in robes of silver-gray satin, and accompanied by the Ravenclaw Quidditch captain, Roger Davies. When they had disappeared, Ron stood straight again and stared over the heads of the crowd.

 

“Where is Hermione?” he said again. Tracey rolled her eyes at this.

 

A group of Slytherins came up the steps from their dungeon common room. Pansy Parkinson was at the arm of some Slytherin boy Harry didn't recognize, and she looked very put out by it, glaring daggers in Draco's direction now and then. Behind that pair was Crabbe and Goyle, who were both wearing green; they resembled moss-colored boulders, and neither of them, Harry noted, had managed to find a partner. Unless... but no, that didn't seem very likely.

 

Finally, Harry spotted Luna coming down the stairs. It was rather difficult not to, though she wasn't quite as obvious as he'd anticipated. Luna's dress – a spaghetti-strap dress with straps made of what looked like the kind of ribbon you put on Christmas gifts – was striped red and green like wrapping paper, with a red satin belt in a fancy bow at her abdomen like the bow on a present. She had a smaller, matching red satin bow on her right wrist as well, held in place by a silver pentagram. Her earrings were miniature glass Christmas balls, one red and one green, lit from within so they were glowing.

 

Luna's shoes were black, buckled boots looking a lot like Santa boots, but they only went just past the ankle before ending in white fur trim. What little he could see of her legs – the dress went just past her knees – looked candy-striped like candy canes. Her purse looked like a Christmas gift box, wrapped with wrapping depicting half a dozen Yule logs drawn and colored by hand, an animation on the images making them look like they were cheerfully burning in a hearth. The purse straps were the same red string as the string around the “box” of the purse.

 

On her dress, Luna's corsage was a kind of flower Harry had never seen before. It was pale as moonlight, glowing faintly, and had five petals, making it look kind of like a pentagram without the circle, and stood out against the background of her dress.

 

Her hair was another matter. It was no longer blond, and no longer looked like she'd gotten out of bed without combing it. It was done elegantly in a crown of braids on top of her head, and had been colored red and white so that her hair looked like a braided candy cane. Some charm or potion on it even made it look like it was made out of candy. There was also the star from a Christmas tree poking out of her hair, and it was lit up like Christmas lights. As she approached Harry, he could even smell she was wearing peppermint perfume in her hair.

 

Even Draco, Tracey, Ron, and Daphne were staring at her as she approached, in awe of the effort she'd put into the outfit. Harry was staring, too; he'd never seen her look so beautiful before.

 

“Hello Harry. You look nice this evening. I like what you've done with your hair, it suits you.”

 

Harry swallowed, trying to speak. Finally managing it, he said weakly, “er... you too, Luna. Your hair looks good enough to eat.”

 

She smiled. “Yes it does, I know. But please don't, it might make you ill, and it wouldn't taste very good.”

 

He chuckled. “I'll try to restrain myself.”

 

The oak front doors opened then, and everyone turned to look as the Durmstrang students entered with Professor Karkaroff. Krum was at the front of the party, accompanied by a pretty girl in blue robes Harry didn’t know. Over their heads he saw that an area of lawn right in front of the castle had been transformed into a sort of grotto full of fairy lights — meaning hundreds of actual living fairies (or "nixies," as Luna and her father called them) were sitting in the rosebushes that had been conjured there, and fluttering over the statues of what seemed to be Father Christmas and his reindeer.

 

Then Professor McGonagall’s voice called, “Champions over here, please!”

 

“That's our cue, Harry,” Luna softly told him, gently pulling him by the hand, for he was still a bit stunned at Luna's appearance and had barely noticed Krum and his date.

 

Luna and Harry said “See you in a minute” to the others as they got in place with the other Champions and their dates, the chattering crowd parting to let them through.

 

Professor McGonagall, who was wearing dress robes of red tartan and had arranged a rather ugly wreath of thistles around the brim of her hat, told them to wait on one side of the doors while everyone else went inside; they were to enter the Great Hall in procession when the rest of the students had sat down. Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies stationed themselves nearest the doors; Davies looked so stunned by his good fortune in having Fleur for a partner that he could hardly take his eyes off her. Cedric had gotten Cho Chang, the Ravenclaw Seeker, for his date. He waved at Cedric, who waved back. Then Harry's eyes moved and fell on the girl at Krum's side. His jaw dropped.

 

It was Hermione.

 

But she didn’t look like Hermione at all. Her hair was no longer bushy; she'd changed it from her usual bushy Afro to a great many thin dreadlocks that she had then pulled back like a ponytail, but into a bun of sorts, so that the dreads were making a whirlpool sort of shape at the back of the bun. A few stray dreads hung like long bangs, framing her face without hiding it at all. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material that looked good against her dark brown skin, and she was holding herself differently, somehow — or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling — rather nervously, it was true — but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.

 

“Hi, Harry!” she said. “Hi, Luna!”

 

Luna looked over to Hermione curiously, her eyes widening in surprise when she saw Hermione. Harry heard her say “Oh my!” in an impressed tone.

 

Nearby, Parvati Patil was gazing at Hermione in unflattering disbelief. She wasn’t the only one either; when the doors to the Great Hall opened, Krum’s fan club from the library stalked past, throwing Hermione looks of deepest loathing. Pansy Parkinson gaped at her as she walked by, too. Daphne was looking impressed though, as was Tracey.

 

Draco, however... his eyes burned with anger at the sight of her with Krum, and then he turned away and pretended he hadn't seen her. And Ron walked right past her without looking at her, in a very pointed fashion. Harry sighed, hoping Ron wouldn't make an arse of himself tonight. Nor Draco, either, but Draco had better manners than Ron and so Harry wasn't too worried about him.

 

As they went into the Great Hall, Harry spotted Antigone and Angela. Their dresses were pretty, but much more subdued than the others Harry had seen so far. Antigone wore a dress of a darkish pink satin, and Angela's dress, also satin, was robin's-egg blue. For jewelry they wore simple silver chains about their necks, silver bangles at their wrists, and silver crescent-moon earrings. All their jewelry matched one another's jewelry.

 

Then Danzia came along behind them. She was a sight to see, as she was wearing men's dress robes in black and white, which looked like a tuxedo from the waist up. In fact... it looked like she had a tuxedo top on over-top a black robe. But despite the masculine look of her robes, her strawberry-blond hair was done in a feminine, elegant knot at the back of her head, and she was wearing diamond earrings and diamond cuff-links, her fingernails painted with metallic silver nail polish. She was also wearing lipstick and eye shadow, and though it was well done, they'd never seen her with makeup on before, so the effect was quite striking. Especially since she had on her characteristic mischievous grin.

 

Once everyone else was settled in the Hall, Professor McGonagall told the champions and their partners to get in line in pairs and to follow her. They did so, and everyone in the Great Hall applauded as they entered and started walking up toward a large round table at the top of the Hall, where the judges were sitting.

 

The walls of the Hall had all been covered in sparkling silver frost, with hundreds of garlands of mistletoe and ivy crossing the starry black ceiling. The House tables had vanished; instead, there were about a hundred smaller, lantern-lit ones, each seating about a dozen people.

 

Harry concentrated on not tripping over his feet. Luna was enjoying herself, beaming at everyone, ignoring the stares and mutters of the people who didn't like her. He caught sight of Ron and Tracey as he and Luna neared the top table. Ron was watching Hermione pass with narrowed eyes. Tracey was glaring daggers at Ron.

 

Dumbledore smiled happily as the champions approached the top table, but Karkaroff wo