Disclaimer: Is the original Second Task at all sensibly designed? No? Then I am not JK Rowling and do not own Harry Potter.
A/N: Partial differential equations is the one class Hermione will take that I have not, so I apologise for any errors.
The choice of Beaune was not arbitrary. I actually have a map of ley lines, and Beaune is at the most geographically important location in Metropolitan France.
Baton Vert was not too dissimilar to Hogsmeade, except for being in a sunny Pyrenean valley instead of a snowy Scottish one. Okay, so it was still cold enough for a jumper in February, and it rained almost as much, but it was a beautiful setting, even in winter, and at least it didn't get dark at four in the afternoon. Picnickers were common in the meadows around Baton Vert, where they weren't in Hogsmeade, and it being a warm, dry day for the season, Michel decided to try for a picnic on his date with Hermione.
It was a pleasant meal. Michel had got a picnic basket from the kitchen elves, which was a mark in his favour, if Hermione was keeping score, if he could deal with the elves civilly. They sat on the grass and talked about nothing in particular as they ate. Hermione, hadn't got to know many people at Beauxbatons as well as her Hogwarts friends, so she asked after his life in France.
"I think it's pretty ordinary," he replied. "My mother works at a clothing shop in Paris, and my father is a magical repairman. I'll probably work with him at least for a little while after I graduate."
That seemed a little odd, the way he said it. "And what would you like to do in a few years?" she probed further.
"I haven't thought about it that much. Probably something along the same lines. It helps people, and I like working with runes." Michel would definitely be a Hufflepuff at Hogwarts, she thought, not that there was anything wrong with that. "I'd like to do something fancier, though, like broomsticks or the Floo network…I guess my dream job would be maintaining the rune stone network."
"Sorry, the what?"
"Don't you know about that? There are rune stones placed at regular intervals along all of the major ley lines, maintained by the Ministry."
"You mean like milestones?"
"Yes, like on the old Roman roads. Many of the milestones were rune stones in the Roman Empire. They're linked to a circle of anchor stones at the largest ley line convergence in France at Beaune and another circle of control stones in the Ministry so they can maintain nationwide spells like the Floo Network and the Portkey Network."
And the Trace, Hermione mentally filled in. Maybe even the Unplottability Charm. She filed that for future reference. She'd have to look into geomancy if she could ever find the time.
"So what about you?" Michel asked. "Professional arithmancer, I assume?"
"That's the way it looks. I wouldn't say no to Unspeakable, though. There's less call for arithmancy than runes, so if it's anything like muggle academia, most of the jobs will be at schools or the Department of Mysteries."
"You could freelance," he suggested. "Someone as brilliant as you could make a living writing spellbooks and designing custom spells. You could work from home. Be your own boss."
"And be a housewitch? Ugh. Not my top choice. It is the 1990s, after all. My parents are both working professionals."
"That's right…some kind of muggle healers, yes?"
"Dentists," Hermione confirmed. "They work on teeth."
"And how does that work?"
Hermione paused and thought for a moment: "Let's leave that for later. I don't want you to lose your appetite."
Michel's eyes widened, and a worried look flickered across his face. Wow, Hermione thought, dentists can even intimidate boys who don't know what they do. It was a little amusing.
"So…you don't see yourself following in their footsteps?" he said cautiously.
"No, I could never see myself as a healer, even before I knew about magic. Maths has been my passion ever since I could multiply. You get made fun of for it some in muggle schools, but when I learnt there was a whole branch of magic to craft spells with it, I knew it had all been for a good cause."
"If you go professional, it certainly will…You know, you've been doing an awful lot of work, Hermione," Michel said. "You're working ahead of the curriculum, and you're always working on some special project or other."
"No time to slow down," Hermione said offhandedly. "My curriculum got screwed up when I transfered here, and then there was the mess with Harry and the Tournament, and I have collaborative arithmancy projects…"
"And forging bronze?"
"Well, yes…" she admitted. She was trying to make steel, now, but she was having a hard time finding a hot enough flame, since her parents refused to buy her an acetylene torch. Was it really that weird a request? Anyway, the obvious answer was to make a magnesium flare, but so far, her attempts had only succeeded at nearly burning her eyebrows off.
"I'll be honest. I tend to get too enthusiastic about things," she said.
Michel snorted with amusement.
"Shocking, I know. But I'm serious. I latch onto something that interests me, and I just can't put it down, like a good book. I lose sleep because I forget to go to bed because it's so interesting. I burnt myself out twice in three years at Hogwarts, and I had to ask my roommates to remind me to sleep."
Michel's eyes widened. Hermione's boundless enthusiasm was amusing, but he hadn't imagined the dark side of it. "So all of these projects you're working on…?"
"I try to keep them under control and limit the time I spend on them," she said cagily. She wasn't ready to fully bare her feelings to him—the way she felt like she had been living her life right at the edge of overloading herself for most of the past four years and especially this year. The way she imposed one hour per week for most of her projects as a balance between controlling herself and making steady progress, and she still found herself spending too much time on them sometimes. She had resigned herself that she would probably being struggling with it her whole life.
"That's good, I suppose. Just how many of these projects do you have, anyway?"
"Six, outside of classes." She of course kept constant track of them."There's my advanced arithmancy studies with partial differential equations, my paper on Gamp's Law, and the magical metalworking. Then, I've been reading up on map-making—" She didn't go into it any more than that. "—A small side study into wandlore—" That, she didn't want to tip anyone off that she was doing magic outside of school. "—And, of course, inventing spells for Harry to use in the Tournament. And that's not to mention the extra practice I put into Charms and Defence to cast left-handed…"
Michel looked dizzy trying to keep track of everything she was saying. Hermione sighed inwardly. In her experience, not many people could keep up with her. Heck, her entire problem was that she could barely keep up with her.
"You ever take any time to relax?" he asked with concern.
"Besides this? Probably not as much as I should. It wouldn't be so bad, except for the Tournament…" She trailed off and shook her head.
"Here, try not to worry about it for a little while," he said, and he wrapped one arm around her shoulders, and they sat together on the grass for a while.
Ha, easier said than done, Hermione thought, but she still appreciated the comfort. Honestly, she wasn't expecting this relationship to go anywhere any more than with George, although they would at least be in the same country after Michel graduated. But for now, at least, it was good to have someone close by who cared for her.
Far to the north, students were also out and about in Hogsmeade for the traditional visit of the Saturday before Valentine's Day. Many of the couples from the Yule Ball had been preserved in some fashion or other by today. Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley were there together, although they hesitated to call it a date, both because Harry still felt uncomfortable with the concept of dat-ing and because Ron, who hadn't got anywhere with Parvati, was never really out of earshot from them.
Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood were also there together, although that also wasn't so much a date as it was him escorting her as a friend. Luna had few friends and hadn't had a very pleasant time on her previous visit, so Neville was making sure things went better for her, now.
On the other hand, Fred and Angelina were officially dating, and they had roped George into a double date with Alicia Spinnet. George was much less into it than his twin, doubly so when they went to Madam Puddifoot's.
"Look, we went there once with Hermione as a prank," George said. "I don't see why—"
"You did?" Alicia interrupted.
"Yeah. Last year, Valentine's Day. She was having a bad week, and we wanted to cheer her up."
"You should have seen their faces when we asked for a table for three," Fred added, and both twins laughed.
"Yeah, those were the days," George said wistfully.
"You miss her, don't you?" Angelina said shrewdly.
George didn't react, but he got very nervous. This wasn't the kind of conversation a guy wanted to have on a date. Fortunately, Fred came to his rescue. "Well, not many people can keep up with us," he said. Fred was the only person to whom George repeated what Hermione said about being able to tell them apart. "She's pulled pranks over on us before."
"Right, and she's learnt things about the castle even we didn't know," George added.
"Hell, she even made Filch be nice. Hogwarts is missing something without the Arithmancer."
To George's relief, Alicia nodded. "I get what you mean," she said. "She's a lot of fun to be around."
The rest of the date was significantly less uncomfortable after that.
Considering her options on balance, Hermione decided to return to Hogwarts on Wednesday, the twenty-second of February, two days before the Second Task, and was hoping she could stay till Sunday afternoon so she could relax with her friends afterwards.
"Good morning," she said to the Gryffindor Table, coming in at the tail end of breakfast.
"Hermione! Great!" Harry jumped up and hugged her, rather to her surprise. "Thanks for coming again. How are you? Your letters have been…strange."
"Busy," she said, privately thinking Harry was the one acting strange. "But fine. Hello, everyone."
"Hi, Hermione." Ginny hugged her next, followed by Lavender, Parvati, and then Fred. George also approached her, but when he got close, they both wavered awkwardly and backed up a step, settling for shaking hands. No one else seemed to notice.
"So, Harry," she got straight to business, "have you figured out anything more about the Second Task?"
He shook his head: "Not really. That poem still doesn't really make sense. What about you?"
"Me? I only know what you sent me. I need to take another look at the map. How are you doing with the spells I sent you?"
"Alright, I guess…I still need some work on some of them."
"Okay, then here's the plan. If you don't have any pressing class matters, we'll go up to the Room of Requirement after breakfast so I can drill you on spells. Then, I'll have a look at the map, and you see if you can swing a meeting with the other champions tomorrow."
"Because if I'm right, you'll all do better in the Task if you make a joint strategy." She saw in the corner of her eye all of the Weasleys staring at her with jaws dropped. "What?"
"You just told Harry to skip class!" Ron exclaimed.
"Yes, well, I think surviving the Tournament is more important."
"She's clearly an impostor," Fred said.
"Yeah, probably a Death Eater on Polyjuice," George added.
"Quick, say something only Hermione would say," Ginny insisted.
Hermione rolled her eyes and said, "When second-order linear partial differential equations are written in four or more dimensions, those with more than one positive and more than one negative characteristic value of the coefficient matrix are classified as ultrahyperbolic."
"False alarm," George said. "It's her."
The Room of Requirement arranged itself into a simple training room with a long, flat carpet on the floor for duelling and a few dummies for target practice. Harry had been coming in here regularly to practice Hermione's spells, but it honestly didn't make him feel that much more prepared.
"Alright, Harry, let's see what you've got," Hermione said.
"Er, okay," Harry said. He took his stance at the firing line, pointed his wand at one of the dummies, and cast, "Dasask Cohaerens." A grid-like pattern of green light appeared on the dummy's face, flickering as his wand automatically traced the pattern very rapidly over and over again.
"That looks good," Hermione said.
"Will that really help in a fight?" he questioned.
"Sure. Haven't you tried it on yourself?"
"No! Why would I do that?"
"Well, I tried it on myself to make sure it worked—once I was sure it was safe. Just use a mirror."
Harry considered this for a moment, and a mirror appeared on the far wall. Deciding he would try it, he pointed his wand at his reflection and said, "Dasask Cohaerens—AHH!" He nearly dropped his wand as his hands flew up to cover his eyes.
"Seems pretty effective to me."
"Yeah—I think I got it," he grunted, rubbing his eyes.
"So what about the others?"
"Well, I couldn't quite get that burning laser thing."
"Let's see it, then."
Harry took a deep breath and aimed his wand again: "Lumos Ardens." His wand let out a shower of crimson sparks.
"Hmm…Do that wand movement again slower."
He did, and Hermione quickly adjusted his grip and tightened the figure with her hands. "It takes very precise aim," she explained. "If you go too far outside the figure, it'll lose coherence and produce sparks."
Harry tried the spell again, and this time, a brilliant red beam appeared instantly, connecting his wand to the dummy's chest. The white linen shirt the dummy was wearing lit up brilliantly, smoldered, and, after a few seconds, caught fire.
"Much better. It's not as powerful as I wanted, but I'm hoping its strength will lie in its speed. Very few spells travel at the speed of light."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Just be careful underwater. If the water's too murky, there might be problems."
"Seriously?" he said in frustration.
"Hey, no spell is perfect. I didn't even send you everything I created."
"No. With wave equations, I can scratch out a new electromagnetic spell pretty quickly. I invented a Microwave Charm, but it wasn't nearly powerful enough to be useful. I forgot that it takes a thousand watts for a full minute just to boil a cup of water."
Harry had no idea how to respond to that. That seemed to happen a lot around Hermione.
"Now, how about the Pocket-Sealing Jinx?"
"I, er, didn't really bother with that one."
Hermione sighed. "Eyelash-Curling Hex?"
"I tried it a little."
"Did you at least learn the Mirror Shield?"
"Yeah, I did that one."
"Then let's see it."
"Alright. Reflectere." A shimmering mirror surface appeared in the air in front of Harry—immaterial and flickering, but hopefully, it would be enough. Hermione tested it with her Dazzling Jinx, being careful not to aim directly at her reflection.
"Larry Niven said never fire a laser at a mirror," she muttered. Harry's mirror faltered a little, but it kept her from dazzling him again. "If I were you, I'd practice that a little more if I had the time."
"Why? Will it stop other spells?"
"Well…not many," Hermione admitted. "Okay, don't worry about it, then. Did you practice the Lead Eyelid Jinx?"
"Try it on me."
"Okay." Harry pointed his wand at her, a little nervously. He wasn't used to casting spells on his best friend, especially ones that weren't professionally tested. But it was her spell, after all. "Palpebrae Plumbum."
Hermione struggled not to flinch and let the jinx hit her. She felt the uncomfortable sensation, too often experienced from sleepiness, of not being able to keep her eyes open. It was easy to fix; she could cancel it with a quick Finite, but it would definitely distract an opponent in a fight. "Good," she said. "At least you have that one down."
Harry frowned and looked at her with concern. "Are you doing alright, Hermione?" he asked.
"Well, it's just that a lot of your spells aren't very useful."
"Excuse me? I admit the Taser Hex was ill-timed, but the others—"
"The Iambic Pentameter Jinx?" Harry interrupted sceptically.
"It's the Iambic Pentameter Curse, Harry," she said.
"So? It's still pretty useless."
Hermione gave him a disapproving look and drew her wand: "Iambos Quintapodès Metronés."
"And how is this supposed to help me fight?" The words felt strange on Harry's tongue as the jinx forced him to use different words than he normally would.
"Tell me, Harry," Hermione said sweetly, "even if you can't cast it, what's the incantation for the Stunning Spell?"
"Mm hmm. And how about the Shield Charm?"
"That's right. Two of the most common combat spells, and they're are both dactyls. They don't fit into iambic pentameter. Others do, like Expelliarmus, but it will restrict your opponents' repertoires in ways that they won't be able to figure out easily. Now, try to cancel the curse."
Harry pointed his wand at his own throat and tried to say the counter-curse Hermione had given him: "Iambos d-d-dah!"
"Iambos Diaspos," she said in a sing-song voice. "Amphibrachic dimeter."
Harry frowned and tried again: "Finite Incantatem." That one fit. "Did that work…? Come on, did that repair the—dammit, no!"
"Language, Harry. That's why it's a curse and not a jinx. I'm studying partial differential equations, remember? I can easily make spells that don't respond to a simple Finite, unless it's very powerful."
"Okay, but what about the other spells?" he said.
"Like the Pocket-Sealing Jinx? Do you know how many wizards carry their wands in their pockets? If you sew their pockets shut, they won't be able to draw it in the first place. The Eyelash-Curling Hex? You know how painful it is getting one eyelash in your eye…?" He cringed at that thought. "Leverage, Harry, remember?" she added. "Dos moi pa sto, kai tan gan kinaso."
"Okay, okay, I understand it, now," he said. "Will you dispel the curse already, please?"
"Hmm…no, I don't think I will. I think I'll leave it on and see how long it takes for people to notice."
"That's what you get for criticising my spells, Harry."
In the end, Hermione was merciful. She took the Iambic Pentameter Curse off of Harry immediately after lunch, since he still needed to practice spells properly. However, he did get funny looks whenever he spoke until then. In the meantime, she took a closer look at the map of the Second Task and refined her understanding of how it would work. That afternoon, she drilled him on those of her spells that she thought were most useful.
"You're doing much better, now," she told him once he mastered a few. "The question is, can you use them in a fight?"
"I think so. I do pretty well in Defence."
"Okay. Do you think you could take me in a duel?"
"What? Me?" he gasped. "There's no way! You're the super-genius."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Harry. You did better than I did on the Defence final last year."
"I did?" Harry couldn't believe that.
"Yes. Barely, but you also have faster reflexes. You think faster on your feet. If you've been practising like you should have, I think you could beat me."
"If you keep your wits about you and have some confidence." Hermione took her stance on the duelling carpet. "Come on, I'm challenging you."
Harry was shocked. His mind simply couldn't process the thought of Hermione Granger challenged anyone to a duel, no matter how skilled she was.
"Come on, we don't have all day," she repeated.
With wide eyes, Harry walked to the carpet and faced her.
"Ready? Duel on three," she said. "One. Two. Three!"
"Expelliarmus!" Harry cast.
Hermione dodged and cast back, "Impedimenta! Mordeodigiti! Skontapto!"
Harry dodged the first jinx and blocked the third with a simple Contego charm, but the second one connected while he was trying to hit Hermione with a Relashio, making him jump up and down as his shoes bit into his feet.
"Ow! Finite!" he dispelled the jinx and brought his wand to bear again.
"Myxinos." That one was aimed at Harry's feet, so he made less of an effort to stop it. That proved to be a mistake when he discovered his shoes and the floor around him to be covered with a gunky, slippery slime that made him slip and fall on his arse. "Expelliarmus. Accio wand," Hermione cast, and before he could react, his wand was in her hand.
She sighed as she approached him, cleaning his shoes and the floor with a quick "Scourgify." She offered him her hand to help him up. "Come on, Harry, I know you can do better than that," she said.
"I told you you'd beat me," he groaned.
"Only because you were holding back."
"I didn't wanna hurt you."
"Trust me, Harry. I can take care of myself. Now, let's try it again."
"Dark wizards aren't going to go easy on you, and neither will I. Now, let's do it."
The next duel ended with Hermione sporting antennae and crawling on all fours and Harry victorious, despite having to deal with the yellow goo shooting out of his nose. The third duel ended with Harry spasming on the floor under Hermione's Taser Hex as she said, "You can't just lead with Expelliarmus every time, Harry. It's predictable."
That made him even more annoyed, and, after leading with a surprisingly painful Pepper-Breath Hex, Harry got Hermione's wand away from her in the fourth duel with an Expelliarmus on his second spell while she was trying to make her burnt tongue obey. "What was that about Expelliarmus?" he said smugly.
Hermione wasn't about to take that lying down. She felt a bulge in her pocket and remembered she was carrying one of her homemade wands with her. She drew it left-handed and, before Harry could react, she cast, "Coleoptera Mucosa!"
The left-handed hex she had accidentally invented last year connected, and Harry began coughing up beetles. She disarmed him at once and asked, "You were—cough—saying?"
Harry kept coughing, and she started to come down. "Sorry," she said. "Let me—cough—fix that—cough—" For a moment, she thought they might have to go to Madam Pomfrey with neither of them able to speak properly, but she managed to cancel the spell on Harry, allowing him to cancel the one on her.
"I guess we're more evenly matched than I thought," Harry admitted.
"Yes. Sorry if I got carried away," Hermione said. "Are you alright? I wouldn't want to put you in the infirmary the day before the Task."
"I'm fine. Are you okay? I didn't mean to hurt you."
"No harm done. But I think we both need to work on dodging and shielding if we're going to try that again. Let's go. You still need to see about that meeting."
Ron did not approve of Harry meeting with the other champions, and he made it known: "Why do you want to work with them, again? They're the enemy."
"They're not the enemy, Ron," Hermione insisted. "They may be rivals in the Tournament, but we are supposed to be fostering international cooperation. And technically, I'm the enemy, if you think about it. I'm a Beauxbatons student."
"Yeah, but you're our friend."
"So? I'm Fleur's and Cedric's friend, too. I don't have an interest in who wins. I'm just trying to help Harry survive because he's at such a disadvantage."
"Harry could still win it," Ron protested.
"I doubt it—sorry Harry, but the First Task was just a fluke. I had no idea my spell was that powerful. And most importantly, according to my calculations, Harry will be better off if we convince the champions to work together."
Ron was more interested in the meeting when he heard that. It would have seemed strange if anyone else saw—Hermione, Ron, and Ginny meeting with all four champions in the Triwizard Tournament in an empty classroom.
Viktor Krum was the odd man out in the meeting. He didn't really know anyone else in the room outside of the Tournament itself. "So, vhy are ve here?" he asked.
"Because I believe I have useful information about the Second Task that all four of you need to know, Mr. Krum," Hermione replied cordially.
"You know, we're really supposed to work all of this out on our own, Hermione," Cedric said.
"There's no rule against collaborating with students," she said. "Not like there is with teachers, not that that's being followed, either." Fleur and Krum both had the courtesy to look a touch uncomfortable.
"I do not understand vhy I am here," Krum said. "I do not know any of you. Vhy should I trust you?"
"Because, Mr. Krum, the nature of this information is such that all four of you need to know it for it to be of any use."
All the magical-raised people in the room perked up and listened closer at that, even Ron and Ginny. In the magical world, some knowledge had power in and of itself, and if who knew influenced its effect, it could be very important, indeed.
"Are you saying zere ees meestical knowledge in zee Second Task, 'Ermione?" Fleur said.
"No, not mystical, Fleur," Hermione said. Although there were some eerie parallels, she thought. "This is advanced arithmancy, but I believe it applies to the way the Task is set up. Did you all figure out the clue?"
All of the champions indicated in the affirmative, although Krum had needed to ask a muggle-born fan for help with the Rubik's Cube part.
"I read the poem on the map," she explained. "I was struck by the fourth stanza:
"Release will test your teamwork,
"But in escape, no honour show.
"The traitors first leave the murk,
"Unless all make each other slow."
"I thought that was odd, too," Cedric said. "It sounds like it's giving us the choice to cooperate, but why would it if it's a competition?"
"I took a close look at the map," Hermione said. "They left a lot mysterious, but it looks like you have to go to the merpeople's village and get back what was taken from you. It sounds like there will be some kind of trap, and it will be easier to get out if you work together, but if one of you abandons the group, lets the others do the work, and goes off on your own, then you'll be able to get out faster. Are you with me so far?"
"Oui. Zat ees what eet sounds like," said Fleur.
"Yes, but, and this is the crucial part, if all four of you take the easy way out and abandon the group, it'll slow all of you down. I can't be certain without more detailed information, but it sounds like it's probably a four-way Prisoner's Dilemma."
"What's a Prisoner's Dilemma?" Cedric asked.
"It's basically the classic problem in game theory—the theory of the best possible ways to play games."
"Of course it's math. John Nash just won the Nobel Prize in Economics for it."
"Ugh. Wizards. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a story about two robbers who are captured by…muggle Aurors." She drew a diagram on parchment to help illustrate it. "Remember, muggles don't have Veritaserum, so they have to get one of the robbers to rat out the other to convict them." It was an odd situation for wizards, but they seemed to comprehend it. "The way it works is that, if the two robbers cooperate and don't betray each other out, the Aurors can't prove all of the charges, and they both get one year in prison. If one of them betrays the other, he goes free while his friend gets ten years. If they both betray each other, they both get five years. Now, what's the best outcome for the two prisoners?"
"If they cooperate," Cedric said obviously.
"Yes, it is, but look at it another way. Suppose you're one of the robbers. If your friend betrays you, you're in big trouble, but if you betray him back, you cut your sentence in half. If he didn't betray you, then you go free. In every situation, you have something to gain by betraying him."
"But I would never…" Cedric trailed off. He would never be arrested for robbery in the first place.
"I know you wouldn't," Hermione assured him. "You're a Hufflepuff. But do you trust the other champions to do the same?" She looked around and saw all four champions suddenly eyeing each other suspiciously. "That goes for all four of you. That's what the poem said. They're going to take away something valuable to you, and you have to get it back. The best outcome is if you work together. But individually, if you defect, it's better for you and worse for the others. If it's a true Prisoner's Dilemma, it's better to defect in every situation. But if all four of you defect, it's worse for all of you."
At that, Krum's eyes lit up. He understood strategy better than anyone in the room, except maybe Ron, who also had an understanding look dawning on his face. "Ah, I see it, now," Krum said. "The best thing to do is for all of us to agree to vork together before the Task."
"Oui, zat makes sense," Fleur agreed. "Eef eet was just zee competition, we would not, but eef zey take our zings, zat becomes more important."
"Exactly," Hermione said. "In its pure form, the only solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma is for everyone to defect, but if you can communicate and plan around it, then you can find the best solution for everyone, which is to agree to cooperate in advance and stick to it."
"A very Hufflepuff solution, Hermione," Cedric complimented her.
"Yeah, it makes sense," Harry said. "I know I'm gonna need help, anyway."
"I know. That's the other reason I called this meeting."
"Yes." Hermione looked at the other champions. "Harry can't cast the Bubble-Head Charm well enough to last through the whole task. We've looked all over for a better spell, but we couldn't find one, and I couldn't invent one, either. But if you're going to work together anyway, one of you can cast it on him at the start of the Task." She didn't mention what was worrying her—that if the Task had been designed for three champions instead of four, the other three could safely leave Harry behind. No need to give them that idea.
"Of course," Cedric said. "I hadn't even thought of that. I'll do it, Harry. I don't know if it'll work on someone else as well as myself, but if we stick together, it shouldn't be much trouble. Everyone figured out how to read the map?" The other champions nodded. "Good. It's agreed, then. We'll all go to the merpeople's village together. I don't think we can do much more about strategy. I don't know what all is in the Lake, but I know there are grindylows, the Giant Squid, and I think there's a lot of strangler seaweed."
"Zen we will research zee lake creatures today so we know what ees zere," Fleur said.
"Agreed," Krum said. "And be sure to be on time tomorrow."
With their plans made, the champions went their separate ways, but Hermione pulled Fleur aside for a quick chat.
"'Ermione, you are certain about this plan?" the older girl asked.
"Not one hundred percent, but pretty sure. They left out a couple of arithmantic details, but I'd be very surprised if this plan wasn't at least close to the best."
"Then I will trust your judgement. Your explanation made sense, at least."
"Thank you Fleur," Hermione replied. "There was something I wanted to ask you as well."
Hermione had thought about how best to pose the question both to make it relevant to Fleur and to avoid tipping her hand too far. Not that she didn't trust Fleur, but the Ministry got antsy about this sort of thing. "I heard from Harry that your wand's core is a hair from your grandmother—the full veela one, n'est-ce pas?"
"Well, I was curious. How would that wand compare with one made with your own hair?"
"My own hair?" Fleur said in surprise. "But I am only a quarter veela. My hair might as well be pure witch's hair. It is not powerful enough, and without the veela magic it could only be bound with blood."
"Blood? You mean like the family connection?"
"No, I mean—you do not know, 'Ermione?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Hmm. No, I suppose you might not from the kind of books you read. Using blood is…not dark, but most consider it distasteful, and a wand with blood will only ever work for its owner, so that is another mark against it. Even if it were powerful enough, heirloom wands are important in veela culture. With veela magic, Grand-mère's wand can only be passed to her female descendants, so I have it. Others can use it as that wandmaker did, but only with difficulty. It will never truly submit to one outside the family."
"Ah, I think that makes sense. Thank you Fleur." True, Fleur hadn't told Hermione precisely what she meant by blood, but she could guess. She would get a second opinion, though—with a new line of research to make sure she wasn't falling afoul of any blood-based curses or magical pitfalls. But that could wait for another day.
Things looked to be in decent shape for the Task tomorrow after the meeting. Hermione patted herself on the back that she had arranged things so well. But she was surprised when Professor McGonagall approached her at dinner and asked her to come up to the Headmaster's office afterwards.
"Is there a problem, ma'am?" Hermione asked.
"Not at all, Miss Granger. It is simply a private matter for the Tournament," McGonagall replied.
That immediately got her worried: "There haven't been any rules broken have there?"
"No, why—is there something I should know about?"
"No, ma'am. Not at all."
"Good. See that it stays that way. We'll explain things when you arrive."
Hermione climbed up the stairs to Professor Dumbledore's office after supper, wondering what she would find there. As it happened, all five Tournament judges were there, with Percy filling in for Mr. Crouch again, along with Professor McGonagall. Oddly, Hermione noticed that McGonagall and Madam Maxime were shooting annoyed glances at the four men. Only Dumbledore looked apologetic.
But what really surprised her were the three other people in the office. There was Cho Chang, Cedric's girlfriend, Padma Patil, and a tiny, silver-haired girl whom Hermione knew from photos must be Fleur's little sister, Gabrielle. That, more than anything else, began to make her uncomfortable.
"Ah, now they're all here," said Ludo Bagman cheerfully. Hermione looked him in the eye, and he became noticeably less cheerful.
"Thank you all for coming," Dumbledore said, and he repeated it in French for Gabrielle's benefit.
"What is this about, Professor," Cho asked.
"This is about the Second Task, Miss Chang," the old wizard answered solemnly. Alarm bells started to go off in Hermione's head. "I believe all of you are acquainted with at least one of the champions." They nodded. "You may or may not be aware, but the champions were given a clue to solve that describes the second task. A map that informs them where to find the great treasure that will be taken from them."
Hermione's pulse quickened, and she felt the blood drain from her face. We'll take your greatest treasure, the one that you'll most sorely miss, she remembered. Her brain played back the relevant parts of the poem at lightning speed, and she blurted, "But the clue said—Crap! Dobby!"
"Quick, take us somewhere they can't follow us!" On an impulse, she grabbed Gabrielle's hand and then reached out for Dobby's.
Only McGongall was quick enough to realise what was happening and stop her. "You are in no danger!" she cried.
Hermione's hand stopped two inches from Dobby's, and she looked up at McGonagall. "Explain," she said.
"I assume that you are concerned about your safety as a hostage in the Second Task," McGonagall replied.
She blinked a couple of times, trying to process the words and think of a comeback. Gabrielle started babbling in French in confusion, but she held up a finger to shush her. "I'm concerned that you just used the word 'hostage' without flinching, Professor," she answered. "I feel deeply threatened by the clue that includes the line 'forever hidden in the black'. If you think I shouldn't be, you'd better have a really good explanation."
"The clue was false," McGonagall said.
"I told you zat part was too much, Meester Bagman," Madame Maxime muttered.
That made Hermione more worried rather than less. If Harry was going in there with incorrect information… "False?" she said.
"Or rather, that part of it was," McGonagall clarified. "There is no consequence if the champions fail to retrieve their hostages within the hour. The merpeople will bring them back to the surface unharmed. The rest of the clue is accurate."
That was one crisis averted. It was Bagman who spoke next, still wearing that stupid grin on his face: "You see, we wanted to play up the drama—give the champions a clock to race against—"
"How's that money coming, Mr. Bagman," Hermione cut in, and he shut up at once.
"Miss Granger," Percy huffed. "This is neither the time nor the place to air whatever personal issues you have. Mr. Bagman was simply explaining that we wanted to give the champions an incentive to try their hardest and carefully consider their strategy, so we took the person whom each champion would most sorely miss for them to retrieve from the lake."
"And you thought that was me for Harry?"
"Of course. We were a little unsure because of the failure of your romantic relationship," Percy said. Hermione slapped her forehead. "But since you still seem friendly with him, and he praised your help so highly after the First Task—"
"This is a dirty, rotten trick, you know that, Percy?"
"You give them a clue that, if they read it carefully, tells them they should work together, and then you take live hostages, outright lie and say we're going to die if they don't save us, massively ratcheting up the temptation to betray each other in an environment that will ultimately punish them for doing so. That's got to be some kind of illegal." Cho and Padma were starting to nod in agreement with her. Gabrielle, with her limited English skills, just looked confused.
"Nonsense. The Ministry has acquired all the necessary approvals," Percy said.
Hermione didn't believe it. She looked at Dumbledore. "Professor…?"
"I am afraid Mr. Weasley is correct, Miss Granger," the old man said. "I do not particularly approve of this task either, but we must abide by it by contract. The Goblet of Fire binds the schools and the judges as well as the champions. We were obligated to find the most appropriate hostages available."
Goblet of Fire! Her heart started racing again. This was very, very bad, regardless of the safety aspect, although she wanted to know more about that, too. "And…and how will our safety be guaranteed sitting at the bottom of—need I remind you—a freezing cold lake for over an hour?"
Professor McGonagall spoke up again: "The four of you will be place in an enchanted sleep—a sort of suspended animation in which neither the lack of air nor the cold will harm you. You will be under guard by the merpeople at all times, including some following as your champion returns you to the surface."
One more problem solved, such as it was, but not the main one. There had to be something she could do. Her parents would—of course.
"No," she said.
Everyone's heads turned towards her, including the other "hostages". "No?" McGonagall said in confusion.
"I'm not doing it."
Several of the judges gasped.
"You can't get out of this," Karkaroff barked.
"Oh, yes, I can."
"The contract says—" Percy started.
"That you are obligated to find the most appropriate hostage available, but I am not available," she said slowly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the Goblet of Fire can't possibly bind people whose names were never entered into it. Even under medieval law, it doesn't have that authority. I checked. And I know you didn't enter my name for me because all of you were properly horrified when someone did that for Harry. That means you have to get consent by modern standards to force me to be a 'hostage'. That means you would have to get permission from my parents, and there is no way in hell they would give it—Excuse me, Professors."
"But it's perfectly safe," Bagman tried.
"It is not perfectly safe," she retorted. "I don't like the odds on a fourteen-year-old dragging a comatose person up through a dangerous lake, even with an escort. My parents will like it even less. You'll have to find another hostage. And while you're at it, these other three girls are underage. Do you have permission from their parents?"
"Zee Delacours 'ave agreed to zis," Madame Maxime said, to Hermione's surprise. Their family really must be wholeheartedly behind the Tournament. Meanwhile, Dumbledore and McGonagall looked pointedly at Percy and Bagman, who both started to sweat. Good. And at least it wasn't just her because she was muggle-born.
"I zink you are free to go, Miss Granger," Madame Maxime dismissed her. "We will contact you again eef we obtain your parents' permission."
Hermione considered requesting them not to contact her parents at all. They wouldn't like even being asked. But on the other hand, they would certainly appreciate that the Ministry asked instead of just going ahead with it, so she let it go.
"'Owever," Madame Maxime continued, "zere ees one other zing. Because you have learnt of zee details of zee Task, as your 'Eadmistress, I am both authorised and obligated to order you and your elf not to 'ave any contact with zee champions until zee Task begins."
There was always something. This wasn't good. Hermione wouldn't be able to see Harry off in the morning, nor warn him that the clue was a fake. And Madame Maxime could easily confine her to the carriage to do it. She absently clutched her charmed necklace with worry when she got an idea. She answered, "I agree, but with the proviso that you inform Harry why I'm not at breakfast."
"Very well. Please return to zee carriage."
Hermione left without protest, only taking a moment to whisper to Gabrielle, "Ne t'inquiéte pas. Je suis sûr que Fleur te garder en sécurité." Then, she asked Dobby to follow her and left.
"Phew, that was close," she said. "If they actually took me hostage, Mum and Dad would transfer me to Australia and make me cut off all contact with Harry. Dobby, where were you going to take me?"
"The Faroe Islands, Miss Hermione. It was one of my old masters' emergency getaways—the closest to Hogwarts."
She frowned at that: "Wouldn't we be arrested for illegal entry?"
"Yes, miss, if they was catching us, but we coulds say it was a mistake, and they would not be deporting us until after the Task."
Hermione smiled: "Clever as always, Dobby. I think you'd make a better Slytherin than Draco."
Dobby giggled. She knew he'd lived through the days before Voldemort when Slytherin actually meant something. Plus, it was a nasty dig at Draco. "Harry Potter shoulds be warned about the real Task, miss," the elf pointed out. "What can we be doing?"
"Don't worry, Dobby. I have a plan."
A/N: Lumos Ardens: Latin for "burning light".
Reflectere: Latin for "be reflected". Credit to rdbrown1 and MandibleBones for this idea.
Palpebrae Plumbum: Latin for "lead eyelid". Credit to shahnawaz786 for this idea.
Iambos Diaspos: Based on the Greek for "disrupt iambs".
Contego: Latin for "I protect".
Myxinos: Greek for "slime-fish" or "hagfish". Credit to Benjamin Goldberg for this idea.