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SIYE Time:21:28 on 24th May 2017


When Harry Missed the Trick Step
By Srikanth1808

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Category: Pre-OotP
Characters:Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley
Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama, Romance
Warnings: None
Rating: PG
Reviews: 78
Summary: Ever wondered what would have happened if Harry's foot hadn't sunk into the trick step, when he went to investigate Barty Crouch's sudden appearance in Snape's office in his fourth year? Read on to find out! Compliant till a part of the chapter "The Egg and the Eye" of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Chapter 10 up - please read and review!
Hitcount: Story Total: 9746; Chapter Total: 745







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When Harry Missed the Trick Step

Chapter 8: Unwelcome Realizations


Previously on “When Harry Missed the Trick Step”…

And at last, at long last, his head broke through the surface of the water once more; wonderful, cold, clear air stung his wet face; he gulped it down as though he had never breathed before…he dragged the little girl above with him, who spluttered a bit as she opened her eyes, a lost and scared expression on her face. And all around him, the Merpeople emerged out of the water, but they were smiling widely.

But the exhaustion had taken its toll on Harry; his head slumped against the girl’s shoulder, making her squeak with surprise…everything around him seemed to be spinning…darkness was encroaching on his vision; he could not see properly, even with his glasses…

‘It’s okay,’ croaked Harry to the girl, ‘you’re safe now.’

And his world went black.


Darkness.

It was around him, surrounding him, encompassing every single nook and cranny of what he could feel, see, experience. Even with his eyes open (were they even open?) he could see nothing. An endless chasm of black — nothingness.

Silence.

Absolutely, totally quiet, without a sound echoing anywhere: it pressed against him from all sides, so much that he wanted something, anything, to make even the slightest of sounds…

Where was this place? He had no idea. What was he doing here? Absolutely no clue. How did he get here? Not even the foggiest notion or answer cropped up in his addled mind — for his mind was definitely twisted for him to be in this kind of a place — a place where he could not see, feel, touch, smell, hear, or taste anything. Certainly not a vacation spot — even hell, which those stories painted in a horrific way, would have been a better place.

He wanted it to end — but he didn’t know how to end it. How does one get out of something when one has no inkling as to how they got into it in the first place? There were no signs of “exit” from this place — it rather felt like how he had gotten lost while going to every single class of his in his first ever week at school.

School… Hogwarts castle…the grounds…the lake!

And as his memories came crashing down upon him, so did the functionality of his five senses — one by one, they returned to him.

He could not see anything yet — clearly, his eyes was closed, and he did not possess the strength to open them. But he could feel some light against his eyelids — light straining to get into his irises.

He was able to smell…grass. Yes, that’s what it was, grass. And what was that other odour — mud? Yes, that’s right, mud!

He felt grass under him — a bed of soft grass mixed with the hard ground upon which he lay, definitely unmoving, for he could not move his limbs, try as he might. The cold air stung through his wet clothes and skin, chilling him, while a breeze blew across and over him.

He could taste — what on earth was that? A potion? For what — why would he be drinking a potion?

He could hear — well, he was able to hear a lot of things, amidst the background din of cheering and clapping, interspersed with screams of joy and glee, but a few specific sounds stood out against the others: screeching sounds, which were jarring, and yet rhythmic in their intonation, as though someone was speaking that way; a cluster of footsteps close by, with the strict voice of a woman ordering those restless steps to stay where they were; and whispers of conversations taking place to the other side, but much closer…

‘Why isn’t he waking up? Madam Pomfrey said that potion would wake him up immediately.’

Ah, so that explained the potion taste in his mouth. Was he asleep though? What had happened to him for them to speak of him waking up? He tried to recollect, but it was hazy — his head refused to cooperate.

I know that voice though.

‘She just gave it to him, Ginny,’ came another voice — a young boy’s, by the sound of it. ‘He’ll wake up.’

I know that voice too.

Why were they still talking about his awakening from — whatever his state was? He racked his brains to remember, but once again, they did not work.

‘Zat was very brave of him,’ came another female’s voice, one which he did not recognise immediately, but the accent was distinct and pronounced. It was also shaky, and sounded oddly relieved. ‘I did not know zat ze hostages would not be harmed — none of us knew, non?’

Hostages…I’ve heard that somewhere…

‘No, ve did not,’ grunted a fourth voice. ‘It vos supposedly to make sure that ve finished the task in time.’

The task…first task…second task…

‘Apparently the hostages didn’t know about it either,’ came the fifth participant to the conversation. ‘Bagman had promised to tell the girls about it before they were put to sleep, but he never did. Says he forgot about it. Dumbledore was really angry — looked like he wanted to curse him.’

The girls…asleep…Bagman…

‘All right, Harry? Got a plan?’

‘Go get her, Harry.’

‘She is not yours to take!’

‘But I don’t want her to die!’

‘It’s okay. You’re safe now.’


And after what seemed like an eternity, he connected the dots.

With a supreme effort, Harry opened his eyes — only to shut them once more against the blinding glare of the sun overhead. This time, he made sure to open them really slowly, partially to get adjusted to the light, and partially because he was just so exhausted.

His limbs felt like lead, as though they were weighed down onto the grass; he could not lift them, but could he — yes, he could move his fingers, and then his hands, followed by his toes and feet.

His vision was a tumultuous blur — someone had removed his glasses, and everything around him was an indistinct mass of shapes and figures. Against the glare of the sun, he was hard-pressed to discern anything, or anyone, of note.

‘Ron?’ he tried to say, but even that was difficult, and his voice was too soft and scratchy to be heard amidst the general din.

Trying very hard not to panic and feel embarrassed at this new level of helplessness he had achieved, he tried once again. ‘Ginny?’

The conversation he’d heard snippets of a while earlier ceased quite abruptly; he could make out the participants turning their heads to look at him.

‘Harry?’

It was the first voice he had heard in that conversation — the voice of Ginny. It sounded a lot closer than before; presumably she had moved closer to him.

‘Hey,’ he replied, his voice a tad less hoarse now.

‘Are you alright?’

He paused. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Like hell he is,’ came the second voice — Ron. ‘How’re you feeling, mate?’

Harry managed a small smile at Ron’s words. ‘Exhausted.’

‘Well of course you are,’ came Hermione’s voice from his other side. She hadn’t been a part of the earlier conversation — he wondered why that was. ‘Two trips into the lake without sufficient practice — what were you thinking, Harry?’

A slight ripple of anger coursed through him at her words — it was all very well for her and the other hostages, asleep without a care in the world. They hadn’t been there when he’d been surrounded by the Merpeople carrying those razor-sharp spears. They hadn’t been conscious when he had to swim back up to the surface with them.

Hindsight was a convenient perspective to adopt when doling out criticism.

‘Give it a rest, Hermione,’ said Ginny sharply. ‘You would have gone mental too, if you had been in Harry’s position at that time.’

‘Yes, but —’

‘Drop it,’ said Ron, and for the second time that year, Hermione heeded Ron’s words and fell silent.

Harry shut his eyes once more, revelling in the softness of the grass, wishing he could stay there forever. The glare from the sun above him still shone through his closed eyelids, but it was soothing now, rather than scorching. The heat from its rays was a release from the oppressive iciness of the water and wind that threatened to engulf him.

A new set of footsteps signalled the arrival of yet another person; Harry half-considered opening his eyes to squint at the newcomer, but he dismissed the notion almost at once: he was as good as blind without his glasses.

Something I need to correct quite soon.

‘Mr Potter,’ came the brisk voice of Madam Pomfrey. ‘Can you hear me?’

Harry didn’t say anything, but Ginny piped up anyway. ‘Yes, he just awoke a few minutes ago.’

‘Oh, that’s good then,’ said the matron. There was the sound of tinkling glass, and then she said, ‘I need you to drink this, Mr Potter. It’ll help you get your energy back.’

Oh, that sounds like a good idea.

He cracked an eye open; Madam Pomfrey was kneeling next to him, a small vial of potion in her right hand as she moved her left to somewhere behind Harry. Next thing he knew, with a surprising amount of strength, she had lifted his head to an acceptable level for him to swallow something without choking on it.

‘Drink up, Mr Potter,’ she repeated, and Harry acquiesced; opening his mouth, he allowed the surprisingly sweet-tasting potion to dribble down his throat. Almost instantly, the heaviness in his limbs faded; his head — which had been mildly throbbing till then — cleared up, and the compulsion to shut his eyes again vanished. A moment later, something was put on his face — his glasses — and Ginny’s face swam into view.

‘Hey,’ he said, grinning at her.

She grinned back, but before she could say anything else, another face came into his range of vision: Fleur Delacour.

‘You saved ’er,’ she told him in a breathless voice. ‘Even though she was not yours to save.’

Harry could feel the heat rising in his face — he hadn’t imagined it as some sort of heroic act. He had just done what he thought was right at the time, despite Hermione’s views on the matter; and he told Fleur so — leaving the Hermione part out — as he shrugged nonchalantly.

‘Not everyone would ’ave thought of doing zat, ’Arry,’ she said, before she did completely unexpected — she bent down and kissed him on the forehead. Harry felt his face burn even more at the contact, and ducked his head in embarrassment; he missed the scowl on Ginny’s face as he did so.

Bagman’s whistle sounded over the hullabaloo of the crowd of students. As Fleur gracefully straightened up and faced away from Harry, he pushed himself to a sitting position on the floor — from his vantage point, he noticed that he was still on this side of the lake, near the judges’ desk, with the audience and the screens on the opposite bank. He craned his neck, and saw Bagman standing a little in front of the judges — Dumbledore, Karkaroff, and Madame Maxime were right behind him, while Mr Crouch was seated on a chair a little further behind.

‘Students and teachers of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang! The second task of the Triwizard Tournament has finally concluded. The judges, after a conversation with Merchieftainess Murcus, and based on what we observed from the large screens during the task, have to come a decision. As per Tournament rules, the marks out of fifty have been awarded to each champion, as follows…

‘Ms Fleur Delacour demonstrated the excellent use of the Bubble-Head Charm, but was attacked by Grindylows as she approached her destination, and failed to retrieve her hostage. We therefore award her twenty-five points. Her total after two tasks now stands at sixty-two points.’

A round of polite applause rang from the stands. Fleur shook her head, her silvery blonde hair shining magnificently in the sunlight. ‘I deserve zero,’ she said throatily.

‘Mr Viktor Krum used an incomplete form of Human Transfiguration, which was nevertheless effective, and was the third to return with his hostage, five minutes before the time limit of one hour. We award him forty-two points, bringing his total after two tasks to eighty-two points.’

Loud cheers erupted from the stands; the Durmstrang students, in particular, were belting out a chant that sounded more like a war-cry. Karkaroff clapped particularly hard as well, looking quite smug and superior.

‘Mr Cedric Diggory —’ and at this Bagman had to fall silent, for the celebratory cheers from the audience — especially from the Hufflepuffs — drowned out his magically amplified voice. Cedric magnanimously acknowledged the crowd with a raised hand, a broad grin on his face.

‘Yes, well,’ continued Bagman with a grin of his own. ‘Mr Diggory also used a Bubble-Head Charm to great effect, and was the second to return with his hostage, twenty-five minutes before the hour mark.’ Cheers sounded from the Hufflepuffs once more. ‘We therefore award him forty-six points, bringing his tally to a grant total of eight-four points.’

Almost the entire student body of Hogwarts applauded hard at the announcement — one of their own was in the lead to win the Triwizard Tournament.

‘Mr Harry Potter,’ said Bagman, and the crowd quietened down almost immediately — as if someone had pressed the mute button on their volume, ‘used Gillyweed to great effect, and was the first champion to return with his hostage, within thirty minutes of the one hour mark.’

The cheers Harry received from the crowd were as loud, if not louder, than what Cedric had gotten. He noticed even the other champions giving him a sporting round of applause — Fleur, in particular, was quite exuberant about it.

Bagman waited for the crowd to fall silent once more, before proceeding.

‘However, Mr Potter returned to the lake to rescue the hostage of Ms Delacour, borne out of a determination to ensure that none of the hostages were harmed.

‘While we would have awarded full marks to Mr Potter for this display of moral fiber,’ and here, Bagman gave a rather nasty look at Karkaroff, who glared back defiantly, ‘a member of our panel felt that Mr Potter had risked our relations with the Merpeople of the Black Lake due to the threats he delivered while rescuing Ms Delacour’s hostage.’

A chorus of boos and jeers erupted from the stands — nearly everyone knew, and if not, they could figure out, that the member in question was Karkaroff. The Weasley twins, in particular, were quite vocal in expressing their annoyance. From his position on the grass, Harry could make out even some of the Durmstrang students shaking their fists at their Headmaster.

‘Given the circumstances,’ called Bagman over the din, ‘Mr Potter’s score is forty-three points, giving him a total of eighty-three points.’

The derogatory calls from the audience quickly made way for loud and boisterous cheers and applause at the announcement of Harry’s total score. His stomach leapt as he considered it himself — he was in second place, behind Cedric by only a point! The two Hogwarts champions were in the top two places heading into the third task!

Grinning broadly at his success, he was immediately swept into a celebratory hug by Ginny; they broke apart a few seconds later — although a part of Harry had hoped for it to go on for much longer — before the twins arrived, hoisted him onto their shoulders, and proceeded to carry him back to the Gryffindor common room for a party, ignoring Madam Pomfrey’s calls for him to rest a bit more.

It took Harry the entire weekend after the conclusion of the second task to get back to normalcy. His two rapid-fire excursions into the lake had sapped him of all his energy — despite having built up a fairly decent amount of stamina from his Quidditch training, so he spent most of his time up in Gryffindor tower, recuperating his strength either in his bed in the dormitory, or on the armchair near the common room fire.

The party on Friday afternoon had lasted throughout the afternoon and evening, and well into the early hours of Saturday morning. It only ended when Professor McGonagall showed up in the common room, wearing her tartan dressing gown and an irritated expression on her face, and ordered everyone back to bed. Fred and George had been all for resuming it as soon as Professor McGonagall was out of earshot, but Stuart Whitby — the Prefect in Fred and George’s year — and Alicia Spinnet, the Gryffindor Quidditch team Chaser, had put their foots down.

Nothing of note had happened during the party, mused Harry on Sunday as he sank into the comfortable armchair near the roaring fire, unless you counted Fred and George doing a roaring trade of their Ton-Tongue Toffees and Canary Creams amongst the students, or the teasing that Hermione had received from most people on being that thing that Krum would miss most — which caused Ron to scowl heavily at every mention of it.

Or the awkward moment he had had with Ginny, Ron and Hermione about his hostage.

It had begun innocently enough: Angelina Johnson, Katie Bell, Parvati and Lavender had traipsed over to the corner of the room where the four of them were seated, and had started ribbing Hermione over her selection as Krum’s hostage. It was funny for a while, watching Hermione and Ron both go red — for very different reasons of course — when out of the blue, Parvati turned the spotlight onto Harry.

‘What about your hostage, Harry?’ she said with a smirk. ‘I wonder why they chose Ginny as the thing you would miss the most.’

‘Yeah,’ chimed in Lavender. ‘Care to share, Harry? Ginny?’

Harry had turned red, so much that he was sure he resembled a ripe tomato. Ginny was no less, the colour of her skin almost matching the fiery shade of her hair. Ron was gawking at Harry in disbelief, clearly wondering what on earth their two classmates were insinuating, while Hermione was now grinning away to glory, very evidently enjoying the sensation of teasing her best friend.

What a hypocrite, Hermione.

Harry glared at his bushy-haired best friend as she desperately tried not to laugh, amidst the constant pressing and teasing by Lavender and Parvati — Angelina and Katie had wandered off to speak with Fred, George and Stuart. It was only a minute later — though it felt like eons — that the two of them gave it up and returned to the food table.

‘Oh, shut up, Hermione,’ said Harry, just before the girl lost control and roared with laughter at his predicament. In hindsight, he should have expected it from Hermione — her intuition had almost caught him out a number of times when he had been staring at, or thinking about Ginny.

For there was nothing else to it: after almost two and half weeks of constant internal debates and arguments with himself — a sure sign that he was going mad — he had come to accept the fact that he had feelings for the youngest Weasley. It had hit him right when the two of them had broken through the surface of the lake — right when their eyes had met as they bobbed in the water. In that instant, he knew.

It was unlike the feelings he had had for Cho — that was a young teenager’s crush and his hormones wreaking havoc with his mind. No, this was the real thing; just knew that it was, despite the fact that he had never known what it would feel like. The Dursleys had never shown him any familial affection, and he had only experienced the emotional bond of friendship with Ron, Hermione and the rest of the Weasleys.

Until now, he thought as he chanced a glance at Ginny. She had removed her hands from her face — to hide her furious blush when Lavender and Parvati had been there — but she still looked thoroughly embarrassed.

Cute too, came the annoying second voice in his head — the one he knew had almost all but won the battle in convincing him of his more-than-friendly feelings towards Ginny.

Cut it out.

Harry’s eyes slid over to Ron, who still had a slightly gob-smacked expression on his freckled face. More than anything, Harry was worried about the reaction of the second-youngest Weasley: Ginny’s supposed infatuation and crush on Harry was well-known, but Harry’s reciprocation of those feelings was a new development — not something Harry supposed Ron would take kindly to. It was either that Ron would allow his jealousy and possessiveness over Ginny and Harry, as his sister and best friend respectively, to take over and cause him to explode in a rage, or he would decide to be extremely mature about it, and give them his blessing.

Although, why would you need his blessing anyway?

Will you quit it?

Harry wasn’t sure which of the two he preferred in the first place.

Hermione’s full-blown laughter subsided at last, and, still chuckling, managed to pull herself up to sit back on the chair next to Ron. Her face was split in a wide grin though, and throughout the silence that had fallen upon the four of them, she kept shooting annoyingly knowing looks and smirks in Harry’s direction.

She’s going to be the death of me.

But as his eyes moved back to Ginny’s considerably less mortified visage, another, possibly more disturbing question occurred to him.

What am I going to tell Ginny?

The question had plagued him right up till Sunday evening, when he had sunk into the armchair next to the fire. He dropped his head into his hands, his elbows resting on his knees, listening to the sound of the fire crackling merrily in the grate of the Gryffindor common room. The heat from the flames washed over him, as though they were enclosing him in a warm duvet, coaxing him to sleep once more.

But he couldn’t sleep. Not after that question had reared its ugly head again.

What was he going to tell her? How was he going to explain to a girl, his close friend — albeit one he had only began to get to know a few weeks ago — that he fancied her? That he actually liked her, and not in the manner in which friends would like each other? He knew she had fancied him at one point — and even in this state of confusion the infamous ‘elbow in the butter dish’ incident elicited a low chuckle — but that had been two years ago. She had grown up since then: she no longer blushed profusely whenever she was in Harry’s presence — on the contrary, she would try her best to make sure that he blushed at her remarks and comments; she was perfectly fine with talking to him normally, unlike the stutters and squeaks that she’d managed in her first and second years…

In short, all those clear signs that told him she fancied him were now long gone. In her eyes, he was, apparently, just another friend. Just like Hermione, Colin, Ian, Demelza…

Don’t get ahead of yourself — of course she likes you!

Damned if I know. On what basis, anyway?

Well, she hadn’t denied the suggestions made by Parvati and Lavender. That’s saying something.

She didn’t accept them either.

With her brother and you around? Not bloody likely! Don’t you remember how much she had blushed at their insinuations?


That was true — she had blushed at their words of something possibly going on between the two of them. And somehow, that cheered him up slightly, although it did very little to answer his initial question.

What am I going to tell her?

Damned if I know.


Harry returned to classes and studies on the next day, Monday, with a firm resolve on the issue of Ginny. While he had finally admitted to himself that he liked her, he had no inkling of whether she reciprocated the feelings. And so, even though his stomach sank at the thought of it, he decided that he wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise his friendship with Ginny, or Ron, unless there was a clear ‘go ahead’ signal from either of them.

Considering that he was dealing with two Weasleys, it was unlikely that that signal would come around any time soon.

And thus the week began, with Harry forcing himself to see Ginny as just another close friend of his, instead of a potential —

Stop that.

True to his word, as soon as he had felt well enough to do so, Harry had written a letter to Sirius, detailing almost everything that had happened since his last correspondence with his godfather — everything from the events of the “night” till the end of the second task. Tempted though he was to ask Sirius for advice regarding his feelings for Ginny, he didn’t dare to do so, not when Ron was helping him along in describing the second task in great detail. In hindsight, he supposed that he could asked Sirius to refer to the Daily Prophet article that covered the second task — once again, Joshua Smallwood had done an excellent job in providing an unbiased view of the proceedings — but he could not resist showing off a little about the judge’s almost unanimous decision to award him full marks.

February faded imperceptibly into March, bringing with it drier weather and cruel winds that threatened to rip the skin off their hands and faces whenever they stepped out onto the grounds. There were considerable delays in the post because the owls kept being blown off course. Surprisingly, however, Hedwig had arrived with Sirius’ response to Harry’s long letter, only two days later on Wednesday morning, albeit with half her feathers sticking up the wrong way and wearing a slightly dishevelled and disgruntled look. She allowed Harry to stroke her for a bit, before helping herself to a strip of bacon from his plate and flying off to the Owlery, clearly seeking a good long period of sleep and rest.

Sirius had not minced any words in his response.

Harry,

Finally! I was beginning to worry that you had forgotten about me — I’d gotten more updates from Moony about things at Hogwarts than from you, which is saying something — Moony almost never writes.

While I am glad that this whole “Who put your name in the Goblet of Fire and why?” question has finally been put to rest, I will admit that I am disappointed in your lack of judgement in terms of your safety. It was lucky that you and Snape were there together — you should have gone straight to Dumbledore once you had seen who it was on the Map.

I want you to completely concentrate on the Tournament, now that this threat has been removed. You’ve gotten through two tasks, but they say the third one is always the hardest. Start learning a few jinxes and hexes, apart from what Moony’s teaching you. You could always ask him for some reference point to start with — that way, you’re technically not breaking the rules.

I won’t deny it Harry, I’m breathing a lot easier right now, and I honestly think that you can win it. Just don’t do anything rash or stupid that could put you in danger.

Sirius

P.S. I might be seeing you lot sooner than you think. Moony knows, but don’t bother asking him — he’s a tough nut to crack.

P.P.S. I thought I’d told you not to use Hedwig all the time. Make sure you use another owl next time.


‘After all the stuff he did while he was in school, and he tells me not to do anything rash or stupid,’ said Harry in mild indignation as he folded the letter up and placed it in his robes, but he was grinning.

‘He’s worried about you, Harry,’ said Hermione gently. ‘But I think he’s right — you should have gone straight to Dumbledore that night instead of going off to the dungeons yourself. What if Crouch Junior had seen you before Snape arrived?’

‘I could have done a lot of things differently, Hermione. But it’s over, that’s what matters.’ Harry finished the last of his eggs, downed it with a swig of tea, and then stood up from his seat. ‘Besides, I happen to agree with him too — at least on the second part of his letter.’

‘Which part was that?’ asked Ron, who had also finished his breakfast and had gotten to his feet with Harry.

‘About me winning the Tournament,’ said Harry simply.

It was true — he had contemplated it during their Hogsmeade trip to buy Gillyweed for the second task. But after his success in the second task, he was now actively considering it, instead of letting it flit around his head like a distant possibility. What was to stop him from winning it? He was second behind Cedric in terms of total points, with Krum one point behind him — he just need to make sure he performed better than the Hufflepuff, and Krum too, in the third task.

‘I told you so right after the first task,’ said Ron smugly. ‘You’ve been considered as a favourite ever since then.’

‘Yes, but don’t let it get into your head, Harry,’ said Hermione. ‘Snuffles is right, you really should start your preparations for the third task — whatever it’s going to be. Learning a few hexes and jinxes wouldn’t be a bad idea.’

‘Hermione, anything that needs you to visit the library would never be a bad idea,’ jested Ron, and the three of them shared a chuckle as they made their way to Care of Magical Creatures.

Hagrid had only recently returned to the public eye following Rita Skeeter’s article on his part-giant nature and his heritage; even then, he had apparently insisted that he be given an extra week off from teaching duties, to which Dumbledore had benevolently agreed.

His week off had ended on the day of the second task, and so that day’s lesson was the first Care of Magical Creatures lesson the fourth-year Gryffindors and Slytherins with Hagrid, after almost two months out.

Most of the class had been afraid that he would bring in the Skrewts once again, but Hagrid had clearly learnt his lesson. Or maybe he was trying to prove that he was just as good as Professor Grubbly-Plank when it came to teaching. Either way, it was to everyone’s pleasant surprise when they saw two unicorn foals grazing in the paddock near his hut.

Unlike full-grown unicorns, which had pure white coats, the foals were pure gold. Parvati and Lavender went into transports of delight at the sight of them, and even Pansy Parkinson had to work hard to conceal how much she liked them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry noticed Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis standing slightly away from the rest of the Slytherins, but they were equally entranced by the beauty of the foals.

‘Easier ter spot than the adults,’ Hagrid told the class. ‘They turn silver when they’re abou’ two years old, an’ they grow horns at aroun’ four. Don’ go pure white till they’re full grown, ’round about seven. They’re a bit more trustin’ when they’re babies, see? Don’ mind boys so much. C’mon, move in a bit, yeh can pat ’em if yeh want…give ’em a few o’ these sugar lumps…’

As Hagrid had said, unlike adult unicorns — which preferred the feminine touch only — the foals were a lot more trusting towards boys. One of the foals had taken a particularly odd liking to Harry — it had neighed in audible delight when he had run his hands through its sinfully soft gold coat, and looked a little disheartened when Harry had to give way for the next person in line.

All in all, it had been a very enjoyable lesson, even by Hagrid’s standards; indeed, save for Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle, the remaining Slytherins looked quite pleased with the class that day.

‘That was a really good class,’ said Hermione, as they headed back to the castle for a wash-up before Charms.

‘Yeah it was,’ muttered Harry distractedly; he had been watching Daphne and Tracey follow their fellow Slytherins across the grounds to the castle. Hermione followed his line of sight, and gave a small sigh.

‘Harry,’ she began slowly, only continuing once she had his full attention. ‘I know you want to help her, but… I’ve seen her in Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, and she seems to be happy the way she is.’ Harry didn’t respond, so she ploughed on. ‘I’m not saying it’s a bad idea — it’s very sweet of you to think of helping people that way — but don’t go trying to help them when they don’t need any.’

‘That’s a bit rich coming from you, Hermione,’ said Ron as they climbed the main staircase to the huge oak double doors of the castle. ‘Especially with your Spew campaign.’

‘It’s S.P.E.W.! And what’s that supposed to mean anyway, Ronald?’

‘‘Don’t help them when they don’t need any help?’ Isn’t that what you’re doing with the house-elves? Trying to get them to accept freedom and wages and what-not —’

‘That’s different!’ retorted Hermione hotly. ‘The house-elves have appalling working conditions and no wages — don’t you see? It’s slave labour! They need to be freed — look how happy Dobby is!’

‘I’m not sure that’s the best idea, Hermione,’ came Neville’s voice from behind them. He had fallen back a bit as he met up with a few fourth-year Hufflepuffs who had exited the greenhouses. Personally, Harry felt Neville’s timing was perfect — for a moment, it looked as though Ron and Hermione were going to get into another infamous argument of theirs.

Hermione had no chance to continue her discussion with Neville; they had been due in Charms in less than two minutes. Harry spent the entirety of the lesson focusing on the Repairing Charm that Professor Flitwick was teaching them, just so as to avoid getting involved in a potential argument between Ron and Hermione on S.P.E.W. The upshot of this was that he ended up being the first one to master the charm completely, earning him astonished — but not patronizing — praise from Professor Flitwick, and ten points for Gryffindor.

He felt relatively pleased with himself as they exited the classroom and headed to the Great Hall for lunch. Mercifully, Hermione chose not to start her counter-argument until they had taken their seats at the Gryffindor table, and loaded their plates with food.

‘Why isn’t it the best idea?’

Hermione’s loud exclamation caused more than a few heads to turn their way, but she resolutely ignored them in favour of staring expectantly at Neville, who was across her. For his part, Neville seemed to be ignoring the stares as well, but then Harry noticed he was mindful of waiting for those people to turn back to their food and conversations, before answering Hermione.

Well done, Nev.

‘Do you know how a house-elf’s magic works, Hermione?’ asked Neville, and Harry was surprised to hear how restrained and calm his friend’s voice was. It certainly was a refreshing change from the free-for-all shouting matches that usually typified an argument between his two best friends.

‘I do know that they have a brand of magic that’s different from that of witches and wizards,’ said Hermione. ‘But I fail to see how that’s relevant, Neville.’ Her waspish tone at the end of her statement sent out a clear message to everyone who was listening: she would not be swayed by any argument, least of all from someone like Neville.

Low blow, Hermione. Really low blow.

To his credit, Neville did not seem to be affected by her jab — although Harry had a sneaky suspicion that the round-faced boy had not understood it in the first place.

‘You’re right, their brand of magic is different. And it’s extremely relevant, Hermione.’

So he had noticed. Nicely done.

As he helped himself to some more casserole, Neville continued. ‘Witches and wizards — like you and me, and the rest of us — can use magic to do many things. House-elves can also use magic to do a lot of tasks in a similar fashion.’ He paused to take a sip of his juice. ‘What’s different between the two is the way they access this magic.’

It was as though the entire debate was now being telecast on live television — half the occupants of the Gryffindor table were observing the discussion between Neville and Hermione with great interest. Many of them remembered only too well how Hermione had gone up to them to try and coax them into becoming members of S.P.E.W. It was a different matter that most of them had refused outright, but they had had no convincing reasons to give for them to say ‘no.’ Somehow, this had only served to reaffirm Hermione’s belief that the house-elves were being mistreated as slaves, and that the entire concept should be abolished.

Or something to that effect. Most people really had no idea what she was campaigning for, except that it was for the betterment of house-elves.
Either way, who were they to refuse a bit of entertainment during an otherwise mundane Wednesday lunch?

For his part, Harry was staring at Neville in abject and undisguised shock. Where had this boy been in hiding for the last four years? This Neville Longbottom was nothing like the round-faced, forgetful, shy boy he’d first encountered on the Hogwarts, searching for his lost toad; not the boy who had received a Remembrall from his grandmother - but not remember what he’d forgotten — only to lose it later that day after breaking his wrist during their first flying lesson; not the boy who was so scared of Professor Snape that the latter was his Boggart, and always messed up on Potions…

No, this was not the same Neville. This Neville Longbottom was more confident — albeit with the occasional shyness peeking through now and then; surer about himself; kind and considerate; loyal and trustworthy; and above all, a true friend who would do anything for what he thought was right.

The words from their first year at Hogwarts echoed in Harry’s mind:

‘I won’t let you do it. I’ll — I’ll fight you!’

He’s really grown up. He’s become his own person now.

‘The way they access their magic?’ repeated Hermione. ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand.’

‘Alright, maybe access isn’t the right word,’ admitted Neville. ‘It’s more of how their magic functions, really, but seeing as you don’t know that…’ He rubbed his hand — the one free of food — along his chin, seemingly considering the best way to explain what he needed to.

‘You, of course, know about magical cores, and the way magic works,’ began Neville, and received a nod from Hermione in response. ‘You would also know about the ‘life-force’, wouldn’t you?’

This, however, elicited a shake of Hermione’s bushy head, her curls gently flying about. Ginny, Ron, and the rest of the onlookers looked stunned at this admission. Hermione Granger not knowing something intellectual — Quidditch, according to her and despite Ron’s vocal protests, was not an intellectual topic — was a foreboding sign. Harry noticed Hermione going a bit pink at the extra-focused attention she was receiving.

Deciding to help her out a bit, Harry raised his hand, rather like he would have done in class. ‘Err — I don’t know what it means, either.’

‘Neither do I,’ chipped in Dean.

Eyes swung between Harry, Dean, and Hermione as though they were watching a gripping game of tennis at Wimbledon — only that there were three individual players, no rackets, and no tennis balls.

‘What?’ said Harry defensively, as Ginny looked at him, wide-eyed. ‘It’s not like we’ve been taught any of this in class, have we?’

Neville shook his head, cutting ahead of Ginny as she opened her mouth to retort; she shut it with an audible snap. ‘Never mind, I’ll explain. Although, I’m not too sure if I can do it that well…’ He trailed off, looking uncertain.

‘Don’t worry, Neville,’ said Katie Bell. ‘We’ll help you if you need it.’

Neville looked a bit relieved at that, but his round face still betrayed a hint of anxiety as he continued. ‘Right, then. So…life force. Every sentient, living being is imbued with what is known as a ‘life force’ — an innate power that sustains all of us —’

‘Like a God, you mean?’ interrupted Hermione, and immediately looked abashed at the interjection. ‘Sorry,’ she meekly added.

‘Not a God, no,’ said Neville, waving her apology off. ‘To be honest, no one’s really sure what it is — except that it exists. Some say it’s our soul, others say it’s a force that makes our minds think and our hearts pump, but no one quite know what it is. There’s still a fair amount of research left to be done.’

‘Or so they say,’ said Lee Jordan, who was sitting next to Katie. ‘It’s the Department of Mysteries, when have they ever given a conclusive answer for anything?’

‘Quite right,’ agreed Fred.

‘Well said, my friend,’ concurred George.

‘The point is,’ said Neville a little loudly, hoping to forestall another of the Weasley twins’ banter with their best friend Lee, ‘is that all of us have a life force. In humans, our life force is separate from our magical cores. You can survive and live your life without a functioning magical core — that’s why we have Muggles and Squibs.’

Harry found himself hanging onto every word of Neville’s explanation. It was as though he was in a classroom, and Neville was lecturing this theory to all of them as they sat with rapt attention at their desks. In fact, Neville’s argument was so interesting, that the entire section of the Gryffindor had fallen silent, resulting in a sudden lull in the sound levels in the Great Hall. Even their dishes were untouched — the chinks of cutlery on the plates were conspicuously. Over from the Ravenclaw table, Harry noticed a few Beauxbatons students looking over at Neville in interest.

Professor Neville Longbottom. Has quite a nice ring to it.

Hastily, he pulled himself back to focus on Neville.

‘All human beings have magical cores,’ continued Neville. ‘Whether such magical cores are functional or not depends on a combination of good fortune and, err, something the Muggles call ‘jean-ticks’.’

‘Genetics,’ corrected Hermione at once. ‘I’m sorry, Neville, I still don’t see how this is relevant.’

‘Wait, what’s that?’

The question prompted a slight change in the topic of conversation, as Hermione, along with a few other Muggle-born students — notably including Colin Creevey — explained to the others who were listening what exactly genetics was about. Harry had a hazy idea about what it was, but he had completely tuned out the discussion as he pondered something else entirely.

Was this why his Aunt Petunia had hated his mother? Was this the reason that Lily Potter had never seen her sister give her the time of the day, once she had gone off to Hogwarts? The fact that it was down to sheer luck and genetics would definitely have caused some grief and jealousy in his mother’s house when she had been growing up. It would have been — and naturally so, thought Harry — almost agonizing for Petunia to see her younger sister get her Hogwarts letter, and disappear for ten months at a stretch to learn all about the mysterious ways of magic. She would have been jealous of her sister’s ability — an ability that she herself did not possess — and would have tried to counter it by terming it as ‘unnatural’ and ‘freakish’ — just to make herself feel superior and better than her sister.

‘I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak!’

Harry shook his head lightly. The reasoning he had just thought out seemed plausible enough; and yet, if it was true, Petunia had harboured jealous feelings for her sister solely because of sheer luck. And she was now unleashing that jealousy upon her only nephew, in the form of abuse, mistreatment, and negligence.

This explains a lot.

And for the second time in less than two minutes, Harry forced himself to resume paying attention to Neville, who had taken up his explanation post the impromptu science lesson conducted by the Muggle-born Gryffindors.

‘Yes, well, like I said, humans have their magical cores separate from their life force — we can survive without having a functional magical core.’ He paused, just long enough to pique Hermione’s interest. ‘This, unfortunately, isn’t the case with house-elves.’

‘How is that unfortunate?’ asked a puzzled Ian.

‘Well…house-elves have co-existent magical cores and life-forces. If the life-force is snuffed out, the magical core dies out — which is natural. If the magical core dwindles, so does the life-force.’ Neville paused again. ‘The sustenance of a house-elf’s magical core is linked to the bond that it shares with its human master.’

Silence greeted these words, as the realization of their implications slowly crept up on everyone listening. Hermione, being the smartest person in the vicinity, understood it first, and immediately put her hand up to her mouth in horror.

It was a few moments later when she finally lowered her hand — her eyes were wide with shock, and her voice quivered as she spoke to Neville, who himself had a grim expression on his round face. ‘So — that means — they die?’

‘If they’re free, yes,’ said Neville simply. ‘The human-house-elf bond is what keeps the magical core of the house-elf strong enough for it to replenish itself. Take that away, and you get a house-elf who will slowly, but surely, pass on.’

If Neville’s words hadn’t been clear earlier, they was certainly sparkling now. Every single person who had not known about this — and that pretty much meant everyone apart from Neville — was now sporting varying degrees of shock, horror, and dismay on their faces. Most of the pure-bloods and wizard-raised half-bloods knew that house-elves hated being freed, and preferred being bonded to a wizarding family till the day they passed on, but no one knew why that was the case. Hermione’s reasoning, that the house-elves had been brainwashed into thinking so, seemed quite far-fetched at the moment — especially considering the intelligence and consciousness that house-elves possessed.

‘And that’s why it’s not a good idea, Hermione,’ said Neville quietly. ‘You shouldn’t be campaigning for the elves to be freed — it’ll go against their very nature, and would have disastrous consequences.’

‘I didn’t know,’ said Hermione softly, and Harry was surprised to see tears glistening in her eyes. ‘I swear I didn’t know…’

‘But now you do,’ said Harry, his hand reaching up to grip her shoulder. ‘And we’re not saying S.P.E.W. is bad — Merlin knows Dobby needed a better family and working conditions two years ago. You could probably start working towards that.’

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Neville had mouthed ‘Dobby?’ to Ginny, who looked just as confused as the former. Ron, thankfully, mouthed back ‘Later!’ to the pair of them.

‘You’re right,’ sniffed Hermione, wiping her eyes furiously of the tears that threatened to flow down her face. ‘That’s what I’ll do — they should still be treated better. Maybe their magic and work improves if they are treated like equals.’

She turned to Neville, a genuine smile on her face. ‘Thank you, Neville, for telling me this.’ Surprisingly, she turned to Ron as well. ‘And thank you, for constantly questioning and prodding me about S.P.E.W. and why it was a bad idea.’

And to the general astonishment of everyone in the vicinity — particularly his sister and twin brothers — Ron grinned broadly, winked, and said, ‘I learnt from the best, Hermione.’

What in the name of Merlin…

Before Harry could do anything more than sound that thought inside his head, a clap sounded from a few seats down from where the five of them were seated: Natalie McDonald had stood up — although, she was so short that it hardly made much of a difference — and was slowly clapping her hands, looking directly at Neville. It took a few seconds for Harry to register what the young first-year was doing: she was applauding Neville.

And one by one, everyone who had heard Neville’s rounded and extremely well-put explanation — from both the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables — stood up as one and clapped, hard, for the round-faced boy, who was looking exceedingly embarrassed and uncomfortable with all the attention.

Professor Longbottom indeed, thought Harry as he joined in with everyone, including Hermione. He’s definitely his own person now.

The sound of shoes slapping against stone echoed off the walls of the deserted corridor that lead to the office of the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With each step, the owner of the shoes in question, a young boy with messy jet-black hair, and bright green eyes framed by round-rimmed spectacles, considered a million possible answers to the single question that had been plaguing him for the last five minutes.

Why in Merlin’s name had Professor Dumbledore asked him to visit his office — at once?

Harry racked his brains, desperately trying to recall what he could possibly have been involved in, that would have necessitated a visit to Dumbledore’s office at this hour?

Was it the effective disbanding of S.P.E.W.?

Harry shot down that idea almost at once. Hermione’s immediate decision to temporarily cease all activities of the elfish welfare society — at least until she had thought out a new manifesto, with Neville and Natalie’s help, after the former had swept the proverbial rug from underneath her feet on her notions regarding house-elves — was not something that Dumbledore would have overly concerned himself with. A brief image flashed before his eyes — of the Headmaster raising a glass to Neville amidst the applause that rained down on his classmate in the Great Hall — but it was swiftly dismissed; S.P.E.W. was a done and dusted matter.

Could it be his nightly practice sessions for the third task?

Harry, with the help of Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny, had heeded Sirius’ advice and had begun learning jinxes, hexes and a wide assortment of spells that could come useful for the third task. Well, partly because of Sirius’ suggestion, and partly because his arsenal of spells was woefully poor — something he had realised while ‘threatening’ the Merpeople during the second task. The practices were on a daily basis after classes — every evening, the five of them would proceed to an empty classroom and train till curfew. Hermione and Ginny brought the large tomes and books from which they looked up spells, while Ron, Neville and Harry took turns in casting it on each other, and subsequently including Hermione and Ginny when they joined in the fray.

But it had been only three days since they’d started; it was highly unlikely that Dumbledore would have found out about his practice sessions. Even so, it wasn’t against the rules to practice spells in classrooms after lessons, as long as one didn’t damage any property or injure anyone else.

So no, this definitely wasn’t it.

Harry had been so lost in his thoughts that he almost ran straight into the stone gargoyle that guarded the entrance to Dumbledore’s office. Blinking, he stepped back onto the corridor, looking up into the ugly face of the statue as a new problem presented itself: getting into Dumbledore’s office.

‘Sherbet lemon?’ he tried tentatively.

The gargoyle did not move.

‘Okay,’ said Harry, staring at it, ‘Pear Drop. Err — Licorice Wand. Fizzing Whizbee. Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans … oh no, he doesn’t like them, does he? … oh just open, can’t you?’ he half-shouted, his anxiety over the reason for visiting Dumbledore’s office at this hour giving way to anger at not being able to do so. ‘I really need to see him, it’s urgent!’

The gargoyle remained immovable.

Harry kicked it, achieving nothing but an excruciating pain in his big toe.

‘Chocolate Frog!’ he yelled angrily, standing on one leg. ‘Sugar Quill! Cockroach Cluster!’

The gargoyle sprang to life and jumped aside. Harry blinked.

‘Cockroach Cluster?’ he said, amazed. ‘I was only joking…’

He hurried through the gap in the walls and stepped onto the foot of a spiral stone staircase, which moved slowly upward as the doors closed behind him, taking him up to a polished oak door with a brass door knocker in the shape of a griffin.

He raised his hand, grasped the brass knocker, and knocked.

‘Come in.’

Harry pushed at the door, which swung open noiselessly, and stepped over the threshold.

Normally, Harry would have taken the time out to admire at the beauty and charm that Dumbledore’s office had — he had, in his second year, been quite thankful that he had had the opportunity to visit this office at least once before he thought he was to be expelled — but today would mark the second time in less than two months that he had entered this office and not done so.

The first time was because he had been worried about Snape and the intruder in the dungeons.

Today, it was because of the occupants in the room.

Professor Dumbledore was seated behind his desk, his long silver beard and hair glimmering in the light of the candles that floated around the room. In front of him, on this side of the desk, stood Professor Lupin, an unreadable expression on his face. Next to him was Madam Amelia Bones, the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement at the Ministry of Magic; Harry recognized her from her last visit on “the night”. She was wearing her monocle, and had a grim expression on her face.

So did the person next to her, for that matter. And it was the sight of this person that caused Harry’s jaw to drop in horror.

Standing next to Madam Bones, wearing an all-too-serious expression on his gaunt face — the face that had not yet recovered from the horrors of Azkaban — was Sirius Black.
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