Chapter 34: Tests, tests, tests


Wednesday 29th March 1995.

Harry stretched his stiff muscles. Hours of sitting in the same position scribbling away the answers to his GCSEs hadn't been overly kind but at least they were done. Normally he loved studying, but exams were always stressful. Especially with his study buddy's neurotic habits.

He turned to face the jittery girl walking beside him and smiled as she mumbled under her breath, reassessing her answers as she always did after such an event. Harry reached out and took her hand in his own and her focus shifted to his face.

"What's wrong?" Hermione asked.

"Nothing. Everything's exactly as it should be." He smiled.

"I know I messed up something. I can feel it."

Harry pulled the worried girl closer and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "I'm sure that you aced everything. As per usual."

"Harry…" She grumbled in reply.

"We've spent just about every waking moment since we left Hogwarts studying for these exams. I know that you've done your best. As have I. We can't ask to do better than that. Worrying about it won't change the grade."

Hermione sighed as they walked, but her jittering ceased. "I know."

Harry allowed her to walk in silence, casting his eyes around the empty playground. "It's sort of weird being back here again." His eyes drifted over to the sandpit by the swings and he couldn't help but smile and did some quick math in his head. "One hundred and ten months. Do you remember?"

Hermione's eyes flicked to his face before they tracked his gaze. Hermione blushed as she recalled the day they had first spoken by that very sandpit. "Of course I do. I've changed so much since then."

"Yes and no. I don't think you've changed much really, just come out of your shell. And you're still just as voracious a learner. But I'm very glad you decided to speak to me that day. My world changed when I met you."

Hermione blushed at the statement. "Stop it."

"Gosh, can you imagine if we'd been in there with Thomas Mitchell? He'd be in his last years by now. The look on his face when he'd have realized we were taking the same exams that he was…"

Hermione chuckled at the thought of their once tormentor's face and Harry smiled as her body relaxed and the sound ran through him in the nicest way. "Harry!" She moaned cheerily.

"Got you to stop worrying about your answers, didn't it?"

She smiled at him and gave his cheek a gentle kiss. "Yes. Thank you." She paused for a moment before speaking again. "To redirect from you trying to distract me by making me blush; we've got our next session tomorrow night."

Harry glanced at her as the two walked towards the small alcove in which they had arrived and he considered the changes the goblins had arranged after the intrusion on their last session.

"I was thinking that we could change the process slightly, even though it might slow things down." She glanced towards him and Harry could see an unspoken question in her eyes. He gave a soft nod and gestured for her to continue. "Maybe, it would be best if one of us stays awake while Lurlor runs the tests on the other. I don't much fancy being so defenceless, even if Lurlor and Ragnok assure us they have posted other guards and security this time."

"Same. I nearly blasted that goblin into the wall the other night." Waking to find a screeching goblin pinned to the table less than a foot from his face had been quite the shock. If he hadn't had the urge to defend Hermione first, he'd have probably caused them no end of trouble with the goblins after he instinctively turned one of them inside out in his momentary panic.

"Me too." Hermione paused and Harry noticed the smile grow on her face. "But I really like Lurlor."

Harry's smile grew as well as he recalled how the enchanter had taken the foolish goblin apart verbally, and the vicious damage she had done to its hand. It was a lesson he would personally remember for a long time. Don't fuck with a goblin unless you intend to finish it. "Yeah, she's great."

"So? Do you agree?" Hermione questioned as they ducked into the space between the two buildings they had once spent so much time learning within.

Harry considered it for a moment. It was a good idea. And even though he knew Hermione was every bit as capable of defending herself as he was, he still could not shake his desire to protect her. Especially when sleeping. A holdover from the aftermath of the ritual she'd helped him undertake so long ago that had only been reinforced by her kidnapping a month ago. Seeing her prone form on the floor of the ritual space, and swaying in the currents of the lake chilled him in a way nothing else in this world had ever done.

"Yeah, it sounds like a great idea." He affirmed, swearing to himself to do a better job of protecting those he cared about from now on. He took her hand in his own and the pair smiled as they silently walked under the cover of the powerful wards back to Hermione's house.

ϟ

Thursday 30th March 1995.

Hermione climbed atop the carved stone plinth in the centre of the room. She once more had to prevent herself from asking Lurlor just how the goblins managed to work and enchant the stone to be so comfortable, though she supposed it would be necessary if its purpose were for sleep studies. She ruffled in her bag for a moment before she pulled out an enormous tome from within and noticed Harry looking at her strangely from over by the door where he was talking to the new guard Ragnok had placed within the chamber.

She simply smiled in return as the guard nodded and closed the door, hiding the other two Gragnar Guards in their polished dragon scale armour. Their presence was comforting after the previous incident, but she was still set on following the plan she'd talked about with Harry the day before.

"What are you doing with that?" Harry asked as he joined her on the pillar of stone.

"It will help me stay awake. Lay down." She replied, gently patting the stone as she held the enormous book under one arm.

"What?"

"Lurlor says you've been the hardest one to get the necessary reads on, so you get to go first. Apparently, you react poorly if my sleep is disturbed, so we're taking that variable out of the equation." Hermione smirked widely at Harry's confused face.

The tall goblin beside the plinth nodded to Hermione's comment as she prepared her probes, but otherwise ignored the exchange, as Harry blushed slightly. Hermione could tell he was embarrassed at being difficult, even if it wasn't intentional on his part. She adjusted her position, getting comfortable and crossing her legs. She gently patted the surface of the stone once more.

"Come on, Harry. Lurlor's time is valuable. Let's not waste it."

"Fine." He grumbled in return and laid on his back on the shimmering dark stone surface.

As he lay back, Hermione pulled his shoulders closer, resting his head in her lap causing Harry's eyes to flick to her face. She smiled softly down at him and held the book out above his head, blocking the already diffuse light from above from his sight. A soft tap on the spine of the book opened it as it now hovered in place, allowing Hermione free use of her hands.

"HEY!" Harry growled, shifting onto his elbows and catching sight of her face around the book. "I wanted to read that one."

"I know," Hermione replied simply, pushing him back down and unfastening the replacement binding she had bought for him after he complained about the wind tossing his hair in his face since the second task had taken his old one. "That's why I picked it."

Harry looked at her in confusion and she rolled her eyes. "I know you, Harry. If I picked a book you had already read, you'd be lying there remembering it in your mind instead of trying to get to sleep like you're supposed to. This way, you have no idea what's on the pages and that will leave it to your imagination. Once you tap into that, falling asleep should be much easier."

Hermione almost felt the deep grumbling chuckle from the goblin beside them but she just focused on carding her fingers through Harry's messy hair. It comforted her to toy with it, feeling the soft black strands warp gently around her fingers and she knew from experience that it was calming to have someone do it to her.

"You can be so bossy sometimes," Harry grumbled one more time as he settled back onto her lap and she heard his breathing lighten as he let himself relax into her touch.

Hermione pulled one hand free of his hair and pressed a kiss to her fingers before gently laying it on Harry's lips. "I know. Sweet dreams, Harry."

She began reading the book before her, her mind only half on the task as she continued to play with Harry's hair. She could feel his body slacken under her touch as he drifted quickly into sleep and Lurlor was soon beside the pair running her probe back and forth. Hermione tried to ignore the goblin as she continued her actions, allowing herself to fall deeper into the knowledge she was absorbing.

She gave a start though when she felt a sudden absence before her and her magic reacted rather poorly, stretching out from her body on its own and lashing out in one direction in particular, two loud thuds filling the previously quiet space.

"HARRY!" She shouted suddenly as she realized his hair was no longer around her fingers and she couldn't sense his magic in the room.

#Calm, girl.# Lurlor instructed, her clawed hand holding Hermione's arm as the panicked girl turned to face the goblin. "It worked. Give it a moment."

The other clawed hand held out the book to her from where it had fallen to the stone top as her magic had reacted to Harry's departure and Hermione took it, pulling it to her chest hoping it could relieve some of the panic she now felt at the unannounced vanishing of her source of comfort in the underground chamber.

With a crack, Harry reappeared on the table, Tybalt holding his arm and his body looking to all observers as if he were asleep. But Hermione could feel the effect of the stunner on his magic. It was discomforting to see him like that, and Hermione understood a little better the way Harry must have felt upon finding her in the lake.

"Had I been informed how close the two of you were, we'd have taken better precautions." Lurlor chimed as she circled the plinth no longer looking at the pair on its surface. "Can you set this one to rights?"

Hermione tore her eyes from Harry's softly breathing form and noted Lurlor was standing above a crumpled human figure on the floor. The Gragnar Guard standing beside it chuckling softly at the sight. Hermione was confused but she complied, reviving the still figure.

"What! What the bloody hell was that?" The now frantic man crowed as he burst to his feet, searching for the wand that had come loose as he fell.

"CALM DOWN!" Lurlor growled harshly and the guard hammered his spear into the floor filling the room with a sharp crack that caught the wizard's attention. "Such is to be expected when you attack someone's mate unprovoked."

"Mate? Attacked? I cast a stunner, like you asked me to."

"Yes, you did. Now be quiet. You may sit." Lurlor pointed to the chair that still had a chip missing in the upper surface from where she had embedded her blade during the previous session and the wizard shook his head.

"I'll stand."

#What happened?# Hermione quietly asked Lurlor as the goblin returned to Harry and began shifting her second probe over his figure, recording the changes.

#You did.# Lurlor replied, not looking away from her work as she waved her hand over a small palm-sized stone tablet and the results raised out of its surface. #Your magic was caressing his body as your hands were his hair. When he suddenly disappeared, your magic reacted, assaulting the one who cast the spell.#

Hermione blushed and turned to the twitchy wizard. "I'm sorry."

#Do not apologize. It is an admirable trait to care for one so deeply. You should be proud.# Lurlor noted as she glanced up from her work and gave the girl a smile that was only slightly disconcerting in the dull light of the chamber. "Though, perhaps we might ask someone with whom you are closer to provide the stunning magic for the remaining sessions."

The wizard slumped in relief at the idea he wouldn't be tossed about again but the moment he caught sight of the glare Lurlor was fixing in his direction he straightened once more.

"Tybalt can ask dog man. He is always so anxious when you are away." Tybalt offered, smiling up at Hermione.

She tried her best not to giggle at the affectionate name that Remus had instructed all the elves to call Sirius by. One of several the pair used to needle the other when they were in a foolish mood. "I'm sure Sirius would love that."

"You can wake him now," Lurlor stated and Hermione moved her hand towards Harry's face only to find it held fast in the goblin's clawed grip once more. "Not you, him."

The wizard paled again as his eyes flicked to Hermione and he very slowly drew his wand.

#Your magic is clearly too entwined. I need you to keep it as separate as you can during the tests.#

Hermione nodded and focused on Harry's face as his eyes opened and he blinked away the drowsiness as he returned to his senses.

"Is it morning?" He asked as she glanced up at her face and Hermione blushed slightly. "What is it?"

Harry pushed up onto his arms and Hermione's eyes flicked to the wizard in the corner before she answered him. #I'll tell you later.# She turned to Lurlor. "Does this mean we're nearly finished?"

Lurlor gave her a look that instantly quashed the hope that had risen within Hermione. "We've succeeded once for his deepest sleep state. We've still several more to go. And we have to replicate all of it for you as well. So, no. But it's a big step in the right direction."

Harry glanced up at her and shrugged before he shuffled back into place and laid his head once more in her lap. Hermione smiled at him and with a snap of her fingers, the book was back in place above him, opened to the page she had been reading. Her fingers once more slipped into the strands of Harry's black hair and he closed his eyes with a contented sigh as they fell back into the procedure once more.

Lurlor stood to her right waiting for the stunning magic to lessen enough to continue while Hermione took steadying breaths, attempting to calm her rapid heart rate which was still quite a bit higher than normal.

ϟ

Friday 31st March 1995.

Nym stared out over the lapping grey waters and sighed to herself. So lost in her own thoughts that she jumped suddenly when she felt a hand touch her left shoulder.

"Bloody hell." She yelled, turning to face the half-shocked, half-smirking face of Fleur Delacour. "Warn a person would you."

"Ve did. You vere lost in thought." Viktor offered from her right.

Nym glanced between the two for a moment before her eyes fell to the wooden surface under her feet, the dock from the Second Task that, unlike the stands, had not been removed after the conclusion of the task. "Yeah, just thinking."

"We know. We miss zem too."

"Who?" Nym asked before cringing inwardly at the look Fleur gave her. "Yeah, well."

"Is tough, being alone all year. Durmstrang isn't the kindest of places to be so. But Hogwarts seems to have its share of bad sorts too."

Nym chuckled softly at the comment, thinking of her other cousin and his nasty behaviour. "You can say that again." She paused for a moment, considering before she spoke again. "It's weird. I didn't have many friends as a kid. Took me a long time before I could control myself enough to be around others without copying their traits. It wasn't until the year I started here that I met anyone I would call a friend."

"Being different ees difficult. I 'ave been looked down on my entire life for eet."

Nym glanced to Fleur and softly smiled, understanding the loneliness it brings. "Their loss."

The French girl replied with a much wider grin and her eyes flicked over to where Viktor was standing.

"I cannot say I can relate on that. I had a normal boring childhood. Fame, however. Makes you question everyone around you constantly. There are very few people I can just stop and talk vith like you all. The veeks between the First Task and the Yule Ball were awful."

The girls could not help the light laughter that escaped at the horrified look on Viktor's face. He looked like he'd been to war, not dodging date requests.

"You think is funny? You are both famous now, too. Triwizard Champions."

The pair looked at one another and this time the laughter was good and proper, Viktor joining in as well and helping to lighten Nym's sour mood. It was several moments before the trio calmed enough for someone to speak.

"It's weird though. I have real friends my own age, you two certainly. But I feel their absence more than ever now. Before, it was just the way things were. I was at Hogwarts and I'd only see them during the holidays. Why is it so different with them?" Nym asked the others.

"Family ees different." Fleur offered simply.

"Da. The love of family feels different to that between friends."

"And you now know what eet ees you were missing."

Nym considered their advice. It was true that before this year she had become used to Hogwarts as a place without the pair. It was where the other half of her life was contained, kept separate from her home and family by the distance. But having not only Harry and Hermione here, but the family coming by constantly had shattered the divide.

"Vhy do you not go to them?" Viktor asked simply.

Nym turned and stared at him with a look dripping in sarcasm. "I'll just jog on over, shall I."

"We are not so unobservant, Nymphadora," Fleur replied. "We know you can do what zey do."

"What they do?" Nym asked, taken aback.

"One moment, they are on dock. The next, they are gone. Right as the organisers come over." Viktor stated as if it were obvious.

"And zey did not dive back in ze water. My seester was looking right at zem when zey left. She has many questions, but I have convinced her to stay quiet." Fleur added at the look of horror on Nym's face.

"It is secret, no?"

Nym looked back and forth between the two for a moment before she sighed. "Yes."

"Good. You don't need to tell us how. But we appreciate the restraint."

"Restraint?"

"You do not use it in ze tasks, no?"

"Er… no, not anymore."

"Anymore?" Fleur queried but Viktor smiled with realization.

"So that is how he did it. Clever." Nym swung to face the boy but was puzzled by the pensive look. "A most devious strategy. Pulled off in front of everyone."

"I promise, we don't do it on purpose. After Harry did that, we agreed not to."

"Nym." Fleur placed her hand back on the panicking metamorph's shoulder. "We are not accusing."

Nym was thoroughly thrown now. She had been out here alone for an hour or so idly daydreaming, and the others had caught her out in their biggest secret. "I…"

Viktor too placed a calming hand on her other shoulder. "Relax. Please."

Nym slumped to the heavy wooden beams making up the dock's surface. Seven years she'd kept the secret, and now it was out.

"We won't tell." Fleur offered, sitting slightly ahead of Nym and turning to face her, back to the water.

"How are you not angry?" She questioned as Viktor mirrored Fleur's position to her right.

"Vhy vould ve be angry?"

"We cheated!" Nym blurted, blushing afterwards.

Fleur and Viktor glanced at one another, smirking. "Ees zere such a zing as cheating when facing a dragon? Eef I could 'ave collected my egg without approaching, I certainly would 'ave."

"And me? I did it twice!"

"On purpose?" Fleur asked softly.

"Well… no, both times I was about to get toasted by the dragon."

"Cannot hate you for that. My magic has acted of its own to keep me safe in matches. And as ve learned since, no one told you about the dragons. You vere first and had to formulate a plan on the spot. I think you did incredibly."

Fleur nodded her agreement as Nym slumped heavily backwards, banging her head rather hard on the timber surface and growling at herself. She didn't know whether to be relieved that her new friends didn't hate her, or livid at herself for her carelessness. The other's sat in silence, unmoving as she gently rubbed the back of her head where it had impacted the wood.

"Mum is going to kill me."

"She will 'ave to go through us."

"And Harry," Viktor added.

All three chuckled at that as they knew that was a much greater obstacle than the three of them combined. The three sat quietly, listening to the sound of the water lapping against the pylons of the dock below them, Nym letting her thoughts float about with the sound.

"Go. We weell cover your absence." Fleur said, startling her again.

Nym leant up on her hands, looking at two of the best friends she'd managed to make. She smiled at that fact and her odd habit of finding friends in the most unusual circumstances. "Fine. You've convinced me." She lay back on the dock and carefully looked over the horizon, confirming no one was watching. "I'll be back soon. And thank you."

With a quick thought, she disappeared from the dock, the sound of the lake vanishing to be replaced by a light conversation a few rooms away. Nym stood and walked out of her room, heading for the sound. Inside she found the people she was looking for.

Hermione noticed her immediately, given she was standing opposite Harry facing the door, and smiled at her. Harry and Sirius seemed unaware of her presence, so she simply walked over behind them and wrapped Harry in her arms, relishing in his presence for a moment.

"Hi, Nym. Missed you." He said, without turning.

"How do you do that?" Sirius asked.

"The easy way, I can feel the difference in the magic of people I'm familiar with. And Nym is the only other person we know who feels even close to me and Hermione. The harder way, her footsteps sound different to you and Remus clomping around."

Hermione chuckled at the look on Sirius's face as he analysed whether he was being insulted or not.

"Hogwarts feels wrong without you two now," Nym said as she tightened her hold on her cousin.

"I know what you mean. It feels wrong being away." Hermione said.

"How goes the process?" Nym asked, letting Harry go and wrapping Hermione in a firm hug instead.

The girl chuckled in her arms. "It's fun. We actually were about to talk to Sirius about a suggestion Lurlor had."

"Oh?" Sirius replied, sounding excited. "Do tell."

The four sat, Harry and Hermione sharing their usual chair as Sirius and Nym sat opposite. "She thinks that we might make faster progress if we had a familiar source of magic for the tests." Hermione smiled softly at Sirius but Nym could tell there was something slightly mischievous to the look.

"I'll do it." Sirius almost shouted, exactly as Nym and the others knew he would. Anything to spend more time with them was good in his book. After his incarceration, the whole family knew they were his tether to reality and that all of this wasn't a long dream caused by the Dementors waiting to be twisted and pulled away at the last moment.

"Are you sure?" Harry asked. "It'll be long nights awake just staring while we sleep. It is sleep testing after all. And Lurlor is a hard taskmaster."

Harry smiled at his godfather and Nym was stunned at how the elder man was missing the quite obvious signs the pair were giving off that they were holding something back. She resolved to ask them for details the moment Sirius was out of the room.

"Yes. I need something to do. Even if it's sitting around watching you sleep."

"Gods you sound creepy sometimes, Padfoot," James said from the nearby portrait.

"Shut up, Prongs." Sirius returned, not looking away from the teens.

"If you're sure. We'll arrange it next time we're going in. It will be early next week. Make sure you're ready." Hermione explained.

Sirius jumped up and looked to the portrait in the corner. "Come, Prongs. We've preparations to make."

Sirius shot out of the room and James sighed and followed. "Padfoot, you won't be pulling any…" His words cut off as he departed the frame.

"Alright, you two. Spill." Nym demanded the moment the sound trailed off. "What are you planning?"

The two teens smiled sweetly but Nym fixed them with a knowing look. "Alright. Turns out when someone randomly casts magic at one of us while sleeping together, maybe our magic fights back. Lurlor thinks having a familiar source will reduce the likelihood…"

"Or at least the severity," Hermione added.

"Yeah, but if it doesn't, can you think of anyone who'd take it better than Sirius? He'll find it hilarious. And spend all his time sitting there trying to think of ways around it."

"So you're doing this to cheer him up?"

"Not really. Lurlor really thinks it will help. We had our first proper success last night." Hermione said.

"And Sirius is much happier with us all back here at home again for now. But that won't last forever. We need to start figuring out what we're going to have him do once we finish all our schooling. We can't all stay here inside together forever. We'll go mad with boredom."

"So what? This is a job interview to get him working at Gringotts?" Nym asked, chuckling at the very idea of Sirius working.

"No, I don't think that would work long term."

The three laughed for several minutes at the premise of Sirius sitting at one of the teller desks serving Lucius Malfoy.

"Really, it was Lurlor's idea, and Sirius is nothing if not creative. If there is some way to get around the portkey while we're sleeping, he'll think of it." Harry finished as they all calmed once more.

"That's good thinking." Nym nodded, settling in to chat with the pair.

It was a far happier Nymphadora who popped back into a side room off the Entrance Hall a few hours later before ducking across the space to the Great Hall, smiling at the two Champions sitting with her other friends at the Hufflepuff table chatting away. She had needed this a lot more than she had admitted to herself.