Forging the Sword (Part Two):
Chapter 14: The Training Grounds

The second week of school of school passed quickly for Harry.

The top scores that Hermione half-killed herself achieving had secured their use of the time-turner for another year. Which was good – was excellent, in fact – but it also meant the three of them were back to thirty hour days. And no matter how careful he, Ron, and Hermione were to make sure they got adequate sleep, nothing could change the fact that the human body was happier on a twenty four hour cycle. By Saturday evening, they were feeling the strain.

He rubbed his closed eyes tiredly, then forced them open again. If it's anything like last year, it'll probably be a month before we're fully acclimated again.

Across from him, Hermione looked sheepish, one hand over her mouth where she was covering a jaw-cracking yawn.

They shared a glance full of perfect understanding.

He tilted his head to the left, where he could hear vague thumping sounds. And the occasional clatter of objects falling. "I'm surprised you're not exploring with Ron."

Hermione shrugged, one hand lifting in a wave that encompassed the echoing, cavernous space that constituted the Room of Hidden Things. "We're not going to run out of things to explore anytime soon." Sighing, she turned her attention back to the table they were sitting at. While his half had his notes on divination as it related to curse-breaking, her half was covered with dusty, damaged books. "Besides, I haven't finished going through the last stack he brought back."

The table had originally been missing a leg, but they'd managed to fix that by shoving a column of books Hermione had deemed useless under that corner, and then applying a multitude of sticking charms to glue the whole thing together into a semi-solid pillar. As long as no one kicked it too hard, it should hold.

Harry smiled ruefully, and propped his chin on his hand. "No fascinating, exotic finds, then? Secret grimoires of powerful sorcerers? Handwritten journals left hidden by the four founders?"

She gave him a speaking look of disgust. "Unless you count thirteen different copies – so far – of An Accurate Account of my Exceedingly Exciting Excursions while Sojourning South Switzerland? No."

His lips twitched. "Not quite so exceedingly exciting as hoped?"

She glared.

He couldn't help laughing. "What were you expecting? I know we have good luck sometimes… but it's clear we're not the first ones to have found this place. Or even the hundredth." He sighed, sobering a little. "Despite what we first thought… we know, if nothing else, that Voldemort must have already picked this place over. Any books containing secret or powerful spells are long gone."

She huffed. "Well, I knew that." The slightest hint of sullenness in her expression, like a treat had been snatched away. "Still. I wasn't expecting what was left to be quite so mundane."

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Hermione denied the prospect of Forbidden Knowledge.

I somehow didn't expect quite so much pouting.

Not that he was going to say so out loud. Hermione could be surprisingly subtle in her revenge. The last thing he wanted to do was give her a reason to support Ron in his current quest for payback.

Instead, Harry shrugged. "Well, there's probably a thousand books still left to go through." He surveyed the stacks of furniture and other items. "And that's just what we can see on the surface."

Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by a splintering sound. A pile to their far left swayed. There was an indistinguishable shout from Ron, a clatter, and the sound of a small avalanche.

Alarmed, Harry sprang to his feet and sprinted in the direction he'd last seen his friend. "Ron! You all right?"

A groaning noise that ended in a coughing wheeze.

He turned the corner and slid to a stop. Then burst out laughing.


Ron had gotten… mostly clear. He lay, stretched out on the ground, well away from what looked like a landslide of furniture blocking the alleyway between two furniture-piles as an avalanche might block off a mountain pass. In fact, the only thing that Ron had not managed to avoid was the large, stuffed taxidermy of the once living troll, which had fallen front-down to pin Ron to the floor with its outstretched arms.

Dead troll embrace was apparently not Ron's favorite thing.

"Your face," Harry managed to choke out.

"Harry," Ron's voice was gritted and muffled – and revolted – but showed no signs of real pain. "Get him off me."

Harry gave himself credit for trying. But apparently, it was hard to cast a spell when you kept snickering in the middle of it.

"Oh, honestly." Hermione sounded exasperated. "Let me."

A swish and a flick later, Ron was free. Harry reached down to help the other boy to his feet. He was relieved to see Ron was moving a little gingerly, but without strain or winces. Then Harry turned back to look at the impressive trail of destruction the pureblood had created. "What on Earth did you do?"

Ron rotated his arm cautiously, then shook himself out. "Grabbed the wrong thing, I reckon. Merlin, thought I was a goner for a second there."

Hermione shook her head and sighed. "I think maybe that's enough excitement for a night. How about we call it 'til tomorrow?"

"Hmmm." That actually might not be a bad idea. They still had at least an hour before curfew, but they could work on homework in the Gryffindor common room. "Start back up after we watch the transfiguration test?"

She nodded. "I can't imagine, whatever it is, that it will take the entire day."

"Let's go." Ron agreed, looking a touch nauseous. "I need a shower."

Harry bit back a laugh. "It's not like it was slimy or sweating or anything."

"No," Ron shuddered. "Because it was dead. I had dead troll skin all over me." Their friend turned and, without waiting for them, strode back towards the entrance.

Hermione's elbow connecting with his side cut off Harry's reply, then she started after Ron. Muffling snickers, Harry followed.

The next morning, just about everyone in the castle was gathered in the quidditch stands, impatient to watch the action that would shortly be occurring down on the pitch. No less eager, Harry frowned, puzzled, as he contemplated the testing grounds.

Well, it's not a giant chess set.

There was a twelve foot wide chasm, the bottom obscured in darkness. There was a wall, obsidian black and smoothly polished, far too high to jump and impossible to climb. On the far side of that, a rushing river (which appeared from thin air on one side and disappeared into the same on the other) barred the way, waters murky underneath the frothing white of the current. Further on, a barrier of blue flames – he flashed back to his first year, and the obstacles to the Stone – burned with no visible source. The odd grey shapes scattered around the course took a moment of squinting before he realized what he saw: a gargoyle sat on top of the ebony wall; granite wolves stood as motionless statues, one on each side of the path in front of the flame barrier. At the far end of the course, floating perfectly still in mid-air six meters up, was a flag in Gryffindor red and gold.

The goal seemed obvious, but far too easy. Granted – it'd be challenging. But some flame-freezing charms here, transfiguration paired with a levitation spell or creatively used sticking charm there, some conjuration, maybe a stunning charm or two if that odd glimmer in the water was what he thought it was… he, Ron, and Hermione probably could have done it easy enough. Shouldn't a test for champions be more difficult?

"Potentials," McGonagall said, voice carrying easily under spelled amplification, "the test is straightforward. It embodies the qualities I believe you will need to succeed in the tournament. Bravery," she looked at the flames, "grace under pressure," a glance at the drop into darkness, "ingenuity," the slightest tilt of her head at the mirror-smooth wall, "and quick thinking." The sweep of her arm seemed to cover the breadth of the course.

Okay, Harry could see that. But still- too easy. And looking at the students lined up at the starting line, ready to try for the flag, he could see they thought so too. Alicia was smiling, looking utterly unworried. Katie whispered something to her quietly, then laughed.

"Oh yes," the slightest cat's smile curled at the edge of Professor McGonagall's mouth as she continued. "And of course: skill at transfiguration. Which, as this is the transfiguration trial, is the only magic you're allowed to use."

The would-be champions suddenly all looked a good deal less confident.

McGonagall's wand flicked out. Across the course, the stone statues of gargoyle and wolves came to life, color bleeding into them as they changed from granite to flesh. One wolf almost as large as Harry met his eyes and snarled, saliva dripping down ivory teeth.

"Now. Who would like to try first?"

When the ninth would-be champion's transfigured bridge – the Hufflepuff sixth year had attempted to create a long wooden board on which to traverse the ravine – started breaking under him as he reached halfway across, Harry groaned.

To his left, Ron shook his head. "This is just embarrassing."

"He didn't account for the pressure of his weight load at the weakest point," Hermione said analytically as the wood cracked in half and the boy plummeted screaming into darkness, shards of his broken bridge following him into the depths.

"Wimp," Seamus said from behind Harry's left shoulder.

Harry grinned. "Right? The professors won't let anyone get hurt." He paused, remembering the fate of the seventh champion, who'd been dragged by the snarling wolves a good dozen meters before McGonagall had rescued her. "Well," he amended. "Not seriously hurt."

"I think the fifth guy was the worst," Neville said contemplatively from where he was sitting behind Harry's other shoulder.

Harry snorted. The Ravenclaw had managed the transfiguration of a metal plank bridge well enough. But he had then somehow managed to lose his balance and just fall off while trying to walk across it.

"I can definitely see why we're having preliminary trials," Hermione added. "Since they're taking place at Hogwarts – and there's no penalty for making the attempt – a lot of the students probably figure they might as well try. If there's any seventh years not lined up to have a go, I'd be surprised. And not more than a few sixth years could have decided to refrain from entering."

"In other words," Ron summed, "this is not the cream of the crop."

McGonagall had, by this point, retrieved the shaken, white-faced Hufflepuff, and was gesturing at the next champion to take her place at the starting line.

Harry squinted. "Is that Angelina?"

She managed a decent showing, crossing the ravine with grace, then getting over the wall through the use of a transfigured ladder and rope. The gargoyle guarding the top nearly got her, but she managed to slither over to the other side and slide down quickly – previous trials had proven that the gargoyle was limited in how far away from the wall it could pursue. The landing looked painfully rough, but she shoved to her feet and stumbled on, pausing when she came to the river.

The first champion who had gotten that far had assumed it was a new version of the ravine obstacle, and had simply made another bridge over the river, only to be swamped by the creatures hiding unseen in the water. His shrieking, panicked screams had certainly alerted the rest of the waiting potentials that something on the far side of the obsidian wall was dangerous.

("What are they?" Harry had asked aloud, fascinated by the three creatures which had shifted from scaled limbs and claws to a harmless human guise - once the shuddering, crying champion had gone limp in submission.

Hermione'd squinted at them. "Nøkken, I think." She'd raised her eyebrows. "Scandinavian. I guess they're taking this seriously.)

One or two of those waiting to be tested had actually slinked away quietly at that point, apparently figuring that whatever had caused those noises was nothing they wanted any part of.

Since then, there'd been a few different ways champions had tried to deal with the third obstacle. Most who'd noticed the creatures had made a enclosed pipe bridge, with solid sides and top. The fourth champion – who Harry recognized as a Beater from the Slytherin team - had eschewed finesse in favor of transfiguring himself a metal beater's bat, then laid to waste any Nøkken which tried to grab him. While Harry had doubts about the strength of that strategy in a genuine hostile encounter – the Nøkkens' claws all looked sharp, lengthy, and disturbingly well kept – it'd served well enough here. Probably because the Scandinavian imports didn't seem too interested in physically fighting – and risking injury - with prey they'd only be allowed to subdue, not kill.

Angelina looked like she was going for a distraction. She'd created an arching bridge over the water, but had yet to start crossing it, still casting more spells. Several minutes later, she'd manage to transfigure a small horde of goats into being and sent them ahead of her as decoys.

"Good idea," Hermione murmured. "Goats are one of their favorite foods."

For a moment it looked like it wouldn't work, when a Nøkken snagged her ankle mere seconds before she reached the other side. She managed to kick it off after a frantic struggle, though, and dove for solid ground. She hit grass and kept rolling, trying to get clear of the water as fast as possible.

Only to come face-to-snarling-snout with the wolves.

Her startled shriek was understandable, but the purely reflex blast of force from her wand – while it threw the wolves back – also marked her as disqualified.

"Ouch," Ron said.

Harry shook his head as Angelina gingerly stood up and started limping off the course. "She didn't plan ahead enough. She knew the wolves were on the other side of the river but she focused too much on just getting across it. She either didn't have a strategy ready for the wolves, or it was nothing she could do while off balance and short on time."

He caught Neville's stare out of the corner of his eye, and turned to face the other boy. "What?"

Neville blinked, a faint tint of embarrassment reddening his face. "Nothing. Just… you sound kind of. Um. Disdainful."

Seamus dropped an arm over Neville's shoulder. "Neville, my boy, you see there the scorn of professional pride!"

Harry gaped at Seamus, because where did that come from? "It is not! It's just that a lot of them are really, really, bad. Especially for seventh years."

Seamus shook his head dolefully. "Thwarted professional pride, I tell you. It's clear the three of them are secretly undercover aurors stationed here. There was that thing in first year we never got all the details about, then, well. Second year. And in third year the three of them were always disappearing somewhere." Seamus nodded firmly. "I bet they secretly run one of these courses every week, just for fun. At midnight. In blizzards."

"Uphill both ways?" Hermione murmured innocently.

Neville shoved Seamus's arm off. "Have you been trying to turn water to ale again?" Then, as the eleventh champion entered the trial grounds: "So, do they have to actually get the flag to pass? Or just make a good enough showing?"

"McGonagall didn't say." Ron scrunched his brows together a second in thought. "Dunno. But they probably just have to make a decent enough showing. Be kind of silly to fail them on one subject, if they're really amazing at all the others."

Thinking back over the performance so far, Harry shook his head. "Given how bad most of them are, they'd better be amazing at something else." A minutes later, watching the would-be champion as he transfigured a cage made of roots and vines, Harry added: "Oh look. This one actually managed to deal with the wolves."

Silently, they watched as the contestant then tried to build a bridge over the fire. The first was made of wood – Harry winced – and promptly caught flames itself. The second melted. The third was high enough over the fire not to be damaged structurally, but when the contestant tried to cross, he was forced back by the sheer heat rising from the wall.

Hermione sighed, sounding pained. "He just crossed a river. Transfigure a bucket and be done with it."

"Hmm." Ron hummed. "I was thinking vanish a tunnel into being under it. It looks magical – might not be doused with water."

Harry drop his head to his hands as the champion, for some bizarre reason, decided the answer was to ineffectually try vanishing the flames themselves. "Hermione, I think you jinxed us."

"I did not!" Then, finally realizing he hadn't meant it literally: "Wait, why?"

"You were the one who said 'I can't imagine it will take the all day,'" Harry paraphrased. "We've been here for more than an hour, and I don't think they're even a quarter way through." Harry ticked off the numbers on his fingers. "Five to twenty minutes per an attempt, about seventy people trying…"

Ron frowned, scanning the line for his brothers. "I want to watch Fred and George… we can head to lunch after that? Skip the rest of it?"

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "They're still convinced they can talk your mum around?"

"They're bonkers," Ron said, voice matter of fact. "But they should be fun to watch."

Having finally managed to cross the flames, the eleventh contestant was now trying to conjure a bird to retrieve the floating flag. The first attempt failed at flying at all, as the creature's wings appeared malformed.

The second attempt simply flew off towards the Forbidden Forest.

"Well," Harry said. "They certainly can't be worse than this."

"Cursebreaking," Harry said Monday afternoon, as they settled around their table in the Room of Hidden Things. "What do we know?"

"That it's bloody difficult," Ron moaned.

"Thank you, Ron," Hermione said primly, "but I think Harry was looking for something a little more precise."

"Well, he's not wrong." Harry turned his mind back to everything he'd learned over the months of summer. "So far all we've been able to do is theory, but from what I read, there's two separate approaches. Divination or painstaking analysis."

Ron nodded. "Right. Because the first part of cursebreaking is trying to figure out the curse. How strong it is, what type it is, what it might do, or what traps might be in it."

In their case, the last one was especially relevant. Harry scowled. Voldemort is just the type to boobytrap his curses. It not only would help keep his stuff safe, it'd punish anyone who dared to meddle.

Hermione propped her chin on her hand. "And you can either try to figure that out with analysis via careful spells in the school of arithmancy, and corresponding research of other clues the cursed item has – whether that be accompanying runic warnings on or near it, or mentions of it in books or research journals–"

"Or," Harry cut in, "you can use divination to gather information about the spell instead. Which has a great deal less charts and tables and graphs and notes, correlating this to the correspondence of that with the probability of the other…"

"But!" Hermione interjected, looking mutinous. "Arithmancy also has a great deal more certainty, thoroughness, and methodological virtue."

Ron was swiveling his head back and forth between the two of them. "Right."

"Divination will be faster," Harry said flatly.

"Arithmancy and research would be safer," Hermione countered, meeting his eyes with a determined stare.

"Look," said Ron into the crackling silence. "Why don't you both do it? Hermione looks into it with Arithmancy, Harry looks into it with Divination, and in the end, we see if your conclusions match?"

Harry quirked an eyebrow at her. "That does make sense," he offered.

"It does," she assented. "But you know that brings up something else. We're going to have to practice. I don't want to try my very first attempt at booby-trap detecting on something of You-Know-Who's. That strikes me as… unwise."

Harry snorted. That's one way of putting it.

Because there was being a Gryffindor, and then there was being a fool. And despite what Snape would say, the two were not synonymous.

But there's only one way to safely get practice. We start with cursed objects we know, ones that are relatively harmless. And to do that…

"So," he said aloud. "Which one of us is going to learn some dark arts curses?"

Two days later Hermione was putting away the updated Bounty Scroll when Ron asked, "So what do you want to do until curfew?"

She looked up briefly. "We still have those Potions essays to finish…"

From the middle of the room where he and Harry were straightening up the chairs left strewn about after the conclusion of the Niffler Club's second meeting, Ron looked like he'd bitten into a vomit flavored Every Flavored Bean. Once she would have assumed that was in response to the subject itself. Now…

"I know Snape's not anyone's preferred teacher," she admitted, "but Potions is important."

Harry was staring at her in disbelief. His eyes are very expressive.

"Not preferred?" Harry echoed. "Hermione. Monday, he sent two first year girls into a crying fit. One of them was convinced he was going to have her sent home in disgrace. The other one would have been happy if he did, as long as it got her away from him."

"Slimy, bullying, git," Ron added. "What kind of a grown man picks on eleven year old girls anyway?"

Considering that she rather agreed with that, (and she had memories, herself, of a time or two in first year that Snape's comments had made her bite back tears), there wasn't much she could say. But all that dwelling on it would accomplish is to make them hate the potions professor even more vehemently, which certainly wouldn't help anyone.

And might make Snape happy, given how he seemed to relish upsetting Harry.

"The homework still has to be done," she pointed out, avoiding the losing topic of Snape's personality deficiencies.

Ron grumbled his assent, but Harry shook his head. "Actually, I think I might go see if I can look up Dobby. It's been almost a month since I've seen him." Harry's expression turned vaguely wary. "I've learned to worry a little when I go too long without knowing what he's up to."

Hermione smiled to herself. Harry's wry and occasionally frustrated second hand accounts of the interaction between himself and his house-elf friend were comedic gold. Although speaking of Dobby, maybe it was time to bring up that vague thought she'd had…

"Harry?" she asked.

"Mhmmm?" It was a distracted hum as the boy gathered his things, quill temporarily held in his teeth as he ran out of hands to do his packing.

"How does the house-elf bond work exactly? Especially once it's broken?"

That had Harry pausing, and he spat out the quill, turning quizzical eyes toward her. "What do you mean?"

She included Ron in the conversation with a tilt of her head. "There isn't a lot of information available on house-elves. They've been with wizards for centuries but they don't seem to be very well written about." She frowned. "I did some research, but I couldn't get a straight answer. What I did find is pretty concerning. There's definitely some sort of obedience magic in the servitude – house-elves have to follow orders given by their masters, no matter how they feel about them."

The more she'd read, the more it seemed like the house-elves were slaves, and she'd felt deeply uncomfortable reading about it. But I have to be missing something - surely the wizards aren't really enslaving an entire sentient species?

But Harry was nodding. "Yeah. When Dobby was trying to help me, he worked around the orders he was given. He couldn't break them, but he surely could do anything else that wasn't forbidden." It was Harry's turn to frown. "And when he did something that he thought his owners would disapprove of if they knew about it…" He shook his head abruptly. "It was sick. He'd have to hurt himself. Some of the things he said: slamming his ears in the oven, hitting himself…"

Just hearing the words made her queasy. Desperately, she looked to the pureblood wizard of their group. "Ron?"

Ron looked disturbed but also uncertain. He ran a hand through his hair. "I can't tell you a lot," he conceded unhappily. "Our family home doesn't have a house-elf, and my parents have never really talked about them. I know they exist, but other than that…" He shrugged. "Harry's had more interaction with a house-elf than I've ever had."

"What brought this on, anyway?" Harry asked, eyes piercing.

She huffed at him. "If wizards are enslaving an entire species, don't you think that's important?"

Harry's eyes darkened. "Of course it is. Dobby's my friend, and I'm the one who saw him abused in front of my eyes. But something brought this to mind; something had you doing research in the first place."

She winced slightly, because that was true. Who knows how long it would have taken her to really look into house-elves if it weren't for the situation the three of them were in? "Touché. All right. We know Dobby worked for the Malfoys, and while he was bound to them, he had to follow their orders completely. If we want information on Lucius Malfoy – why don't we ask Dobby? That's why I was asking about how the ensorcellment worked – does it only hold as long as he's their servant, or does he have to keep their secrets forever?"

The two of them looked thunderstruck.

Then Harry cocked his head. "Let's find out," he said, and strode out the door. Exchanging glances, she and Ron hurried to follow as Harry led them down to the kitchen's.

Dobby wasn't actually there when they arrived, but one of the house-elves who was there had been happy to go in search of Harry's friend. Now, the three of them sitting around an out of the way table, she watched Harry smile warmly at the house-elf. "We had questions about house-elves, Dobby, we were wondering if you could answer?"

Dobby's large round eyes somehow managed to look even larger and rounder. "Dobby will answer anything the Harry Potter asks!"

Harry visibly hesitated. "Are you sure? It's about…" his voice dropped a little, "the Malfoys. And the enslavement bond between house-elves and wizards."

Dobby's thin, small body shrank in on itself minutely, his ears drooping and his expression going from happy anticipation to something that wasn't quite wariness or fear…

Hurt? Hermione thought. No, that's not quite it.

But Dobby marshaled his courage, lifting his chin a subtle micrometer. "Dobby will answer Harry Potter sir."

She watched as Harry's emerald green eyes intently meet Dobby's yellow-green, distinctly non-human ones, and something seemed to pass between the two of them. Finally, Harry nodded. "You're free, now," he said, driving to the heart of the matter. "Does that mean you're completely free? I know you don't have to do anything the Malfoys order, but do you still have to keep their secrets?"

"Dobby does not have to anymore," Dobby answered. "Tis part of the house-elf's enslavement, sir. We keeps their secrets and our silence; we upholds the family's honor, and we never speaks ill of them. But now Dobby can say whatever Dobby wants about his old masters. And Dobby is glad! They were bad- bad-" Dobby suddenly took two steps forward and slammed his head hard into the table they were sitting at.

She started, shocked at the sudden violence, but Harry lunged out of his chair, catching Dobby before he could do it again.

"Thank you, Harry Potter," the house-elf said shakily. "Dobby still finds it dif-ficult to speak ill of his old masters." Harry released him; Dobby straightened but stayed in Harry's reach.

"Can you tell us anything about Lucius Malfoy that would get him into trouble?"

Dobby looked droopy. "Dobby doesn't know. Dobby doesn't know what would get bad master in trouble. Although Dobby has… has heard-" the house-elf broke off and attempted to hit himself hard on the nose with his fist. Harry's hand barely intercepted it in time.

"I think we should stop," Hermione said.

Dobby stuck his chin up. "Dobby can tell!"

"Not stop permanently," she amended, meeting Dobby's eyes. Then she looked to Ron and Harry. "But maybe this isn't the right place for it? And maybe we could do this with more preparation? Or ease him into it gradually, so he isn't trying to hurt himself every other sentence?"

Dobby's eyes shined slightly with hazy tears. "Dobby should have known great good Harry Potter would only have friends as good as himself. Missy Granger ma'am is concerned for Dobby!"

"Honestly, well, of course I am. When I heard from Harry about how some house-elves are treated, I felt sick! I tried to look up more information about it, but there's not a lot of books on the subject." She yanked a curl of her hair in frustration. "How did this situation even come about in the first place? Why did you start working for them? Did they force you somehow?"

She blinked as she felt a change in the atmosphere of the giant kitchens. The hustle and bustle of a dozen house-elves at work was suddenly slightly muted. Looking around, she realized the house-elves near enough to hear must have been listening in, because glances were trading between them.

And Dobby… Dobby looked sadder than Hermione had ever seen him. "No, Missy Granger ma'am. The wizards didn't make us serve. We all agreed. Every house-elf alive is son or daughter to a house-elf that agreed."

"But-" She groped for words, trying to fit this seemingly insane decision into a world she could understand. That the house-elves would all, to the last elf, voluntarily sign up to be slaves in a bond they couldn't break- it was inconceivable. There's something here I'm missing. "But why would you agree?" she pressed Dobby.

Unexpectedly, Harry cut in. "Was it a trick somehow? Did your people not know back then, that a mistreated house-elf wouldn't be able to escape a bad master?"

Dobby shook his head, still looking so very sorrowful. "We know then what we are agreeing to. We know we would be helpless against our masters. But it be better than the alternative. It be better than that we be-" he shuddered so hard his entire frame quaked "-be Lost."

The house-elves around the kitchen all froze, still as a mouse while a predator passed by.

"What's Lost?" Ron asked quietly, as clueless as she and Harry despite the pureblood upbringing.

"It be the house-elves end," Dobby said. "House-elves be strong with magic. Too strong, sometimes. If we get bloodmad…" he shook his head, ears flopping.

"Bloodmad?" she asked.

"Mad," Dobby said. "More than little mad; more than big mad. Bloodmad is madmad. And if house-elf go bloodmad even once, house-elf be Lost." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Lost forever. And while bloodmad… terrible things done sometimes, Harry Potter sir. Terrible things."

She could feel the connections snap into place. "That's why you have to swear your servitude to your masters without reservation. The enslavement bond lets them keep you from going over the line even if you're infuriated. If you could snap the enslavement bond whenever you wanted to – when you wanted to escape a bad master, for example - then you could snap it to go into the bloodrage. The very thing you agreed to serve in order to prevent."

Wow. She felt a little dizzy at the scope of the horror of it. That's… incredibly unfair. Becoming a slave because a quirk of your biology means the only other choice is an ever present risk of going psychotically crazy? "And the required imbalance of power necessary for it to work inevitably creates a system open to abuse." She shook her head. "I ran across the Ministry's published Guidelines for House-Elf Welfare, so I guess some people are doing their best. But if no one can come up with a better system than what we have..."

Ron sighed. "It's kind of pushed under the rug. Like the dementors and the prisoners in Azkaban. Only with even less attention because house-elves are so rarely seen."

But Harry's brain was apparently on a different track. "Wait, was that why it was so hard for you to get another position? I just couldn't understand why no one would want a full, live-in servant who does as much as you do as well as you do for as little pay as you ask. If nothing else, I'd think a restaurant or inn would be positively thrilled to hire you." Dobby hunched in on himself, looking dismayed and terrified, but Harry didn't seem to notice, caught up in his realization. "But that's it, isn't it? Wizards might not remember why, but they remember they're supposed to be wary of unbonded house-elves." He shook his head. "They were scared of you?" His voice was incredulous, but Dobby curled further into himself, ears drooping.

She kicked Harry surreptitiously under the table, and when he looked at her, she nodded towards Dobby meaningfully.

"Oh," Harry's voice gentled as he took in Dobby's posture. "Hey. It's okay. I'm not scared of you; I promise."

Hope and disbelieving joy filled the small elf's face. He hurled himself into Harry's arms. "Dobby knew Harry Potter is great wonderful wizard. But every time Dobby thinks Harry Potter is greatest, Harry Potter does something even better! Dobby will always do anything great Harry Potter sir asks!"

While Harry was gingerly patting the back of the ecstatic but teary eyed house-elf, Hermione's mind had brought up another question. "Do you even like cooking, cleaning, and keeping house?"

"Oh yes." Dobby settled down and took a few steps backward, but his expression remained bright. "Yes very much! House-Elves do. Always have. We used to even do it for muggles sometimes, before the secrecy order. They didn't see us, but they appreciate it. Leave out food sometimes!"

Something was ticking away in the back of her mind. House-Elves liked doing housework. They used to do it for muggles. They could turn violent and be Lost.

"Brownies," she blurted out, as various bits of muggle mythology came together in her mind. "My God. You're the muggle's brownies. And serving wizards keeps you from going boggart."

The three others at the table were staring at her. She shook her head. "It's nothing. No relation to the boggarts Professor Aesalon taught us about, except that muggles apparently connected the word 'boggart' with a frightening magical creature." She looked at Dobby. "Muggles used to have stories about house-elves," she told him. "Back before the Statute of Secrecy. They called you brownies." She blinked, amazed anew at the world she found herself living in. "I didn't realize you were real."

Which was when their reminder alarm spell went off. The three students started.

"That's the ten minute warning for curfew," Harry explained to Dobby. "We have to go. I'll come visit you again, all right?"

Dobby bounced a little on the balls of his feet. "Dobby will be waiting!"

To the chorus of cheerful farewells from the rest of the house elves, the three of them sped from the room.

The Gryffindors are being interesting again.

He reclines against sheets of dark green, tastefully accented with silver, and thinks on weeks recently passed. The time-turner has been reclaimed for another school year; even now his armband's warding stands fast, heating as it casts off the soothing touch of magic that would blind him into complacent obliviousness. He might resent the frequency of the distracting sensation… if he didn't so appreciate the three Gryffindors' latest move.

This Niffler club is something new, and for that it is something fascinating. He wonders whose idea it was. Granger, who has always been fiercely brilliant, but has gained strength and edge to her quick wit: strong enough to endure, honed enough to cut? Weasley, who has proved unexpectedly capable as a club captain: eager and surprisingly charismatic, with good natured humor and a bluntly friendly approach? Or Potter, who quietly fades into the shadows, save for those rare moments and situations when he burns with presence and magic like living flame?

(The creature inheritance from his mother's blood is barely a trace, his resulting birthright heritage outwardly unnoticeable and inwardly only a touch above nonexistent: a few scattered gifts of inconsistent strength. But its maturing power grants him a perception others lack, and he knows one truth: the Boy-Who-Lived's magic is becoming a fearsome thing.)

Potter's magic is fearful not for ugliness nor abomination: it is instead clean, and swift, and mesmerizing as a solstice moon. Not dark, nor light; neither vortex nor void. It swirls through and around the other boy: inconstant and growing, changing from fluid to adamantine with Potter's needs and shifting moods. It is stunning to watch and terrifying in its implications; a lightning storm arcing across the sky in miniature, raw power best appreciated from a considerable distance.

But how he does appreciate it. He gets so little entertainment from his housemates. It is… pleasant… to have another source of intrigue.

And this year's show seems to be shaping up even more amusing than last's.

The Hogwarts trials for the Triwizard Tournament seemed to be scheduled every two weeks, so come a Sunday morning later, the school students again eagerly assembled to watch the second competition. Scrunched between a group of Ravenclaws on the left and some first-year Hufflepuffs on the right, Harry, standing with Ron, and Hermione, scrutinized the quidditch pitch below. At last, he shrugged, baffled. "Yeah. I've got nothing."

Down on the pitch green, the potential champions stood before a line of shimmering gold drawn on the grass. Across the line was a large rectangular space, at least twenty by thirty meters, populated by what might be a hundred pedestals. Most of them were pure white, with the occasional one colored jet-black interspersed seemingly randomly. On the far side of that space was another line on the ground, this one of blazing blue-green.

"What are those little pedestal-stand-column-things, you think?" asked Ron.

Harry shook his head. "I don't know. I mean," he squinted, "I think there might be writing on them?" Squinting and straining his eyes was beginning to give him a headache, so he stopped, and rubbed them, then blinked until his eyes cleared. "I need to learn a binoculars spell. Hermione, why don't we know a binoculars spell? I find this a grave oversight."

Hermione quirked her lips. "Perhaps because we haven't needed one so far?"

"Impeccable logic," he said severely, "is not what I pay you for."

She made a delicate scoffing sound. "As if you could afford me."

Harry grinned, then turned his attention back to the course. "A little anti-climactic, compared to McGonagall's course though, isn't it?"

Ron snorted. "A little? McGonagall had wolves prowling around. And fire. And black abyssal chasms. And predatory creatures lurking unseen in the depths of a river, ready to pounce on the unwary and drag them to their deaths. Here?" He gestured down at the course. "I don't see anything alive. It's just… empty grass and pedestal things."

"Sshh," Hermione interrupted, elbowing Ron as she nodded toward Flitwick, who seemed to be striding with purpose towards the watching students.

"This is the second trial for potential Triwizard Tournament champions." Flitwick announced, voice amplified by a minor vocal enhancement charm. "It will primarily test potential champions' intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, and good judgment. As with Professor McGonagall's trial, the overall goal is simple: cross the line on the far side of this field. However," he raised one finger in caution, "the line will not let a trialee pass unless they have accumulated fifty points." Suddenly, everyone was looking more intently at the blue-green line on the far side of the course. "The points are won by winning challenges, which include solving puzzles, performing spells, and answering questions. In order not to unduly penalize students who specialize in different subjects, there are challenges related to all schools of magic Hogwarts teaches. On each white pillar, the name of the school of magic, and how many points the challenge is worth, is engraved. The black pillars show only the number of points that can be gained."

"Harder challenges presumably leading to a larger number of points," Hermione murmured. "And I'll bet the black pillars give more points in general than the white."

"But why wouldn't someone just chose all easy ones?" Ron asked. "Sure, it'd take a while, but still…"

"Two aspects make this challenge more complicated," Flitwick continued below. "First, this is a timed trial. The quicker you are to cross the finish line, the more points total you receive. The amount of points you have when you cross will be multiplied by a coefficient, and the quicker you cross, the higher that coefficient will be. Additionally, you only have a total of fifteen minutes. If you have not crossed the finish line by that time, you will lose all points gained, and fail the challenge."

"Coefficient?" Ron asked. "Hermione?"

"Say one champion has fifty points. If he crossed the finish line at the eight minute mark, he gets a certain coefficient to multiply that by - maybe an additional thirty percent - which nets him a total of sixty five points. The next champion also has fifty points, but she crosses the finish line at the ten minute mark, so she only gets a coefficient of twenty percent, which gives a lesser total of only sixty. I wonder what the time scale is, though? Linear, exponential, or some combination thereof?"

"Ah," Ron said knowingly.

Harry rolled his eyes. "The quicker they cross, the more points they get. Hermione's wondering if there's a direct correlation between time and points, or if the ratio changes depending on the time it takes."

"Right," Ron said, shiftily. "That's what she said."

Harry smirked, but Flitwick was still speaking. "The second complicating factor is that failing at a challenge loses you points. All champions start with five. The amount of points you gain for succeeding is how many points you will lose if you fail. If a champion's points go to zero, they forfeit, regardless of how much time they have left on the clock. For every point you lose, your finish time bonus coefficient is permanently reduced by a half percent. "

Harry blinked, then engaged in a silent stare down with Ron. The ginger just met his gaze loftily.

Right, note to self, Harry thought, do not tease Ron for doing something I'll need to do sixty seconds later.

"Hermione?" Harry asked plaintively

Below, Flitwick looked to be engaged in a complicated spell, his wand fairly flying through the motions. Large numbers slowly took shape in the air above the course. They currently read 00:00, 00, and more were forming as seconds passed.

Her eyes were twinkling in amusement, but thank God, she refrained from commenting. "My previous example had the champion crossing at eight minutes with his fifty points and a thirty percent coefficient. Let's say that he got one challenge worth four points wrong. That's a two percent decrease. Instead of multiplying his fifty points by thirty percent, he now multiplies his fifty points by twenty-eight percent, for a total of sixty-four points, instead of his original sixty-five."

Ron groaned, and buried his face in his hands. "Of course the Ravenclaw head of house creates a challenge filled with intricate maths calculations. Talk about sadistic."

Apparently Ron had spoken a bit too loudly, because one of the Ravenclaws to their left turned to face them. "You're kidding, right? Compared to Professor McGonagall's course?"

"Professor McGonagall," Ron said, drawing himself up with wounded dignity, "might set vicious, snarling predators with a thirst for blood on students, but at least she has the decency not to make them do maths."

Harry glanced around to see how the pronouncement was being taken. The first-year Hufflepuffs were round-eyed, staring at Ron with flat disbelief until one of the older Hufflepuff students nearby leaned down. "Gryffindors," she muttered in what was probably meant to be sotto voce. The firsties eyes got even wider, but the confusion on their faces cleared.

Harry smirked. And the Gryffindors once again successfully convince the rest of Hogwarts that we're all completely bloody crazy.

Because it's not like it was really hazing when there's seed of truth to it, right? Although honestly, the Weasley twin had been doing half the work for the rest of them ever since Fred and George hit fourth-year.

The Ravenclaw just sighed and shook his head, turning back to Flitwick. The numbers floating high in the air now read: 00:00, 00, -00, %00. Flitwick nodded with satisfaction, then lowered his wand. "The numbers, from left to right, show time elapsed since the challenge started, total number of points gained, the number of points a champion has lost, and the current bonus coefficient the champion would receive if they finished at that moment. And finally," his wand flicked out in a motion, and a blaze of light sparked through the golden line the champions were standing behind, lifting into a shimmering golden curtain that floated in the air. Cries of surprise echoed from the obscured students. "Champions who have not yet participated will not be able to see anything that's occurring on the course, nor hear anything that is announced. They can, however, still see the numbers as each undergoes the trial, that they might better make their judgments on how fast they need to go, and what they dare risk in order to achieve their times. To offset this advantage, the first ten who go will receive a three percent increase to their bonus timer coefficient. And now," he said, stepping back across the golden barrier, ignoring the start of the Slytherin student nearest to him as Flitwick seemingly appeared from thin air, "let the second trial for entrance to the Triwizard Tournament begin!"

"I want that one-way sound/sight barrier spell," Harry told Ron and Hermione, as Flitwick escorted the student back through the barrier and onto the course. Hermione made a noise of vague agreement, but was obviously more absorbed in watching the first champion begin the trial. Harry let it rest, but made a mental note not to forget about it. Magic that let something pass through in only one direction? He could think of so very many uses for it. Especially if there are variations that restrict different things…

The competition was fairly interesting to watch, both entertaining and informative. By the time the first contestant had gotten half-way through, Hermione had whipped out a notebook, and was busily recording several of the spells. Luckily, Flitwick was keeping a running commentary on what each would-be champion was facing, and how they attempted to tackle each problem.

Although one or two students failed, most of them were making it over the finish line before the fifteen minute mark. The fastest completion had been by one lanky Ravenclaw prefect at just under seven minutes. A Gryffindor squeaked by at fourteen minutes and fifty-two seconds. Most passed between the eight and eleven minute mark. By the sixteenth champion, though, Harry was starting to grow a little bored. The challenges didn't change, after all, and although there were still a few challenges worth a large amount of points that no one had yet risked, he'd seen most of them at least once by now.

The current challenger successfully solved his last challenge, the five points pushing him up to fifty one points at the respectable, if not impressive, time of nine minutes. He seemed to hesitate for a minute, then instead of heading towards the finish line, he turned and headed towards another pillar.

A murmur of surprise rustled through the watchers.

Hermione straightened. "What? Oh. Oh, that is clever. I didn't even think of that."

"Translation?" Harry asked. "Why not go to the finish line now?"

"He knows he doesn't have a good enough time to score top points if he finished now. He's betting an increase of accumulated points will outweigh a lower finishing time bonus coefficient."

"Will that work?" Ron asked.

She hummed, and her fingers twitched slightly, as if she was mentally working through calculations and ached for a quill. "It could," she nodded. "Depending on how many points he gets, how long it takes, and how many points he loses."

Harry shook his head. "Well, at least that means he might do some of the hard ones no one else has tried yet. I'm probably going to take off after he finishes, though. This is getting kind of repetitive."

"I'll come with you, mate," Ron added immediately. "Hermione?"

"Ah?" she sounded distracted. "Oh, no, thank you. You two go have fun."

Three minutes later, she waved them off with a smile. Harry led the way back towards the castle. "Want to grab our brooms then go do some flying over the lake? You haven't had the chance to play much with your new one yet."

Ron grinned. "Sure. Race you there?"

Harry raised an eyebrow, and folded his hands into his robe sleeves. "Really Ron?" he said primly. "Don't you think we're kind of old for-"

Which was when Ron tripped him.

And took off running.

"Cheater!" Harry yelled after him, scrambling to his feet and sprinting along behind.

"Like I didn't see you going for your wand?" Ron called back between huffs.

Harry reached out and carefully, carefully, snagged Ron's foot with a flex of will. The ginger's arms windmill-ed, and he tumbled. Harry sent a rude gesture at Ron as he sped by his friend's prone body. He had several gleeful seconds of celebration before his feet tangled and he found himself hitting the ground again.

That, he thought, trying to get back the breath that'd been knocked out of him, was definitely the feel of a tripping jinx.

He rolled over to see Ron, still outstretched on the ground, wand pointing toward him. "Oh?" Harry asked ominously. "We're going to play it that way, are we?"

By the time either of them reached the castle, they were out of breath, bruised, and their robes were covered with grass stains.

"Yeah," Harry said, leaning against Ron at the entrance hall, completely out of breath. "We're not telling Hermione about this, right?"

"Are you crazy? No way, mate."

"Good," Harry exhaled slowly, feeling his heartbeat calm. "Come on. Let's go change before we grab our brooms."

Harry left defense class with Ron and Hermione, his mind buzzing with ideas. They'd covered the basic shield charm that day, which Harry had already known how to cast. But Moody had also taken them through all sorts of scenarios and uses for the shield charm, some of them ways Harry wouldn't ever have thought of. From stunning spells to physical objects to poisonous potion fumes to elemental flame attacks – defense spells, just like transfiguration spells or charms, could be flexible in their uses depending on their caster's intent. A special shield oriented towards a specific threat would be stronger – both more efficient and less likely to break – than the basic shield applied in an enterprising way, but it was known as the basic shield spell for a reason.

Not because it was the easiest to learn, but because it had the broadest application.

Professor Moody might be able to give lessons to a professional paranoiac, but he knew his stuff. Harry knew they were lucky to have the him teaching, although he couldn't figure out why the ex-auror had agreed to do so. The man had to know the defense curse meant his days were numbered.

(Harry still hadn't figured out how Professor Aesalon had apparently managed to escape, by all appearances unscathed, even if he hadn't returned for a second year. Sometimes, that seeming impossibility bothered him.)

Still, Moody's twitchiness, harsh language, and bluntly pessimistic assessments of his students' abilities were all a small price to pay, in return for the knowledge he granted. Their first 'practical' class on Saturday was surely going to be interesting.

Harry still had occasional nightmares, and last year had added a new one to his collection of horrors. He woke up sometimes in a cold sweat, terror, grief, and guilt twisting through him. He had given the same thing that killed Ginny to Hermione with his own hands. And sometimes in his dreams, when he looked up from setting the diadem in her fingers, it wasn't Hermione's face that he saw.

Hermione had never seemed to blame him, but that only helped mitigate his horror a little.

Maybe someday he'd be able to think back on the moment with only calm equanimity at her close call. But he knew that day wasn't likely to be anytime soon.

The third trial started with the regulation of clockwork, two weeks after the second took place. One Sunday morning halfway through October, Professors Sprout and Snape stood in front of the assembled students. Two professors officiating was the first clue the students had that this trial would be different. And oddly enough, they'd also been told to report to the great hall, rather than the quidditch pitch.

The last remaining dishes several students were lingering over all suddenly vanished, and students turned their attention to the teacher's table.

"This is the last trial," Snape announced coldly, standing at the center of the dais with Professor Sprout besides him. "Gryffindor's trial combined transfiguration prowess with bravery, nerve, and poise. Ravenclaw's tested knowledge, wisdom, and judgment. This last, final trial, joining Hufflepuff and Slytherin, will test your perseverance, hard work, adaptability, and cunning." Coal-black eyes seemed to spear the waiting champions. "Because Professor Sprout and I have decided to combine our two trials, the trial itself will run over the course of almost two weeks, the majority of time during which you will be – if you are wise – preparing."

His sneer clearly projected his opinion on the likelihood of intelligence from the general Hogwarts population. Harry wasn't in the least bit surprised at his attitude.

"You were told," Snape continued, "that the tournament was dangerous, had been cancelled due to a death toll, and obviously despite the best efforts, is still dangerous enough that parental permission is required. Despite all this, I have no doubt that the majority of you empty-headed fools dream only of gold and glory. Very well," his lips took on a sadistic curve, "but we professors would be remiss, if we did not prepare you for the likely event that you will be competing while injured, and forced to carry on in spite of this."

Neville eeped.

"Easy, Nev," Ron laughed. "It's not like you're participating in his trial."

"I feel sorry for anyone who is," Dean said with feeling.

"We've been assured that all measures have been taken to ensure the competitors' safety," Sprout interjected, obviously trying to soften Snape's remarks. "But nonetheless, there is a high likelihood you might be wounded in the course of the competition. Success in this upcoming trial, therefore, will require mastering basic first-aid magics. As well as defensive ones."

"The headmaster," Snape added disdainfully, "has informed me that I am not allowed to actually injure the champions themselves."

"Yeah," muttered Ron, "you'd like that wouldn't you, you greasy git?"

"Instead, your task will be to rescue – and heal – a magical proxy of an injured wizard. In order to do this, you will be allowed to take into the trial anything you can carry that you have gathered or created yourself: plants, potions, or knowledge of healing magics."

"In general," Sprout added, "you should come prepared with knowledge of several basic defensive and offensive spells, and the ability to heal cuts, puncture wounds, sprains, bruises, burns, and broken bones. Or at least to temporarily splint and manage them." She smiled at them. "I'll be available for the next half hour if you have any questions. Good luck with your preparations."

Harry shook his head as Snape strode from the room, robes billowing. "I wonder," he announced to the table at large, "how much influence Moody has had on these trials? I mean, each of them definitely have the stamp of their house and creator, but Dumbledore always seemed a little too… hands off, for something like this. Moody, however, would be all for putting potential competitors through their paces."

"And two months of studying and preparing for the trials has probably really improved the spell work of the serious competitors, which he would be pleased about," Hermione agreed. "Interesting that they're requiring first aid. I remember looking at what you need to enter St. Mungo's Healing Academy. You have to score at least an ʺEʺ NEWT level in Potions, Herbology, Transfiguration, Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts."

"Blimey… don't want much, do they?" Ron asked. "Although…" his tone turned considering as he stared down at the wooden tabletop, "They are, at least, all core subjects. None of the electives… Though that would mean two extra years with the Git."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "You interested?"

"Huh?" Ron looked up, then laughed. "Me? A healer? Not likely, mate."

"Hmmm," he responded noncommittally, wondering. Then he pushed the thought aside. "Time to go make that promised visit to Hagrid?"

Agreeing, they all headed towards the great hall's doors.

"What are you up to now, Harry?"

Guiltily, Harry started at Hermione's question. "Er. Nothing?"

Intelligent brown eyes scrutinized him. It felt vaguely like that feeling one acquired when a large predator was near. "Ron," Hermione said without looking away, "Harry has an Idea."

"What?" Ron looked up from the occlumency book. "Wait," he said carefully. "An idea? Or an Idea?"

Her brown eyes still hadn't looked away from his. "An Idea."

Ron closed the notebook. "Oh boy."

Harry felt a flash of irritated embarrassment. "Seriously you two?"

They traded glances. "That classroom thing with the fire protection spells," Hermione started.

"Visiting Aragog," Ron added.

"Wandless magic without supervision," Hermione continued.

"The Bloody Baron."

"Divination of a legendary artifact hidden behind stringent wards."

"Occlumency without supervision."

"The quidditch world cup."

"Last week, when you decided you wanted to check how many different things you could stop with a shield charm-"

"Okay!" he interrupted. "But no one likes dwelling on the past. And hey," he smiled at them winningly, "in my defense, all of those were awesome."

"Aragog!" Ron reminded him again.

"All right," he conceded scrupulously. "If not awesome, then certainly educational."

Ron buried his face in his hands. Hermione sighed, deeply, like her soul was in pain.

I probably shouldn't enjoy it this much, making them regret their unwavering support… Harry took a moment to contemplate. Nah. Then they'd think I was polyjuiced. And worry about me. So obviously, I'm doing them a favor.

Ron straightened up, fingering his wand.

On second thought- "Bear with me," Harry told them. "But I was remembering the first trial, and all the transfiguration we saw. The bridges and ladders and ropes and everything. It made me think." He hesitated a moment, then asked, "We make needles and hedgehogs and teapots and pillows, but Hermione, what's the largest thing we've ever created through transfiguration? What's the largest thing we could?"

She stared at him for a moment, then glanced around the room. Stopped, and met Ron's eyes. "We better take this outside."

A half hour later, Harry was panting, exhausted, and grinning enough to make his face ache. "So," he asked them, "what do you think?"

Ron's head was craned all the way back, staring up at the looming structure. "Bloody hell."

Hermione's tone was more analytical, even as she shaded her eyes from the dazzling reflection of sun bouncing off meters of ice. "Do you think it was because water and ice are already different states of the same substance? That's why you could transfigure so much of one into the other like this?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm honestly not sure. It'd seem like that should make this easier, but it's magic. It doesn't always correlate to common sense, you know?" He stretched, and sheathed his wand. "I'd have to try again, making a different substance. Not now, though. I'm pretty worn out. That was a lot of focused concentration at once." He was fine, but he could tell that if he pushed it much longer, a migraine would be his reward.

"Harry, Ron, Hermione." They turned at the familiar voice coming from behind them.

Hannah Abbot had decided to continue with the Niffler club, so they'd all gotten to know her in a peripherally friendly way. Now, she picked her way towards the shore of the Black Lake, Susan Bones and Megan Jones flanking her. Hannah came to a stop in front of them, and surveyed them with a pained, somewhat rueful air. The other two were just gaping. "Do I want to know," she began delicately, "why there is a giant, four meter high sculpture of a-" her eye twitched, "slightly lopsided Griffin behind you?"

Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione. I really shouldn't…

Then he recalled the conversation after he had first suggested this experiment, back in Gryffindor tower.

Actually, never mind. I regret nothing.

"Well," he said, smiling at their visitors. "Honestly? It's all their fault. You see, they had this Idea…"

October thirtieth arrived quickly, and the last Triwizard Tournament champion trial freshly concluded, the fourth-year Gryffindors returned to the great hall with the rest of the school, to sit around their table staring glumly at their untouched lunch dishes.

"So much blood," Lavender moaned, looking queasy.

Parvati groaned, face tinted slightly pale under her darker skin. "Please. Don't remind me."

Neville shuddered. "Did you hear that snap, when that Hufflepuff had to re-break the bone?"

Seamus looked sick. "It was that whistling gurgle sound every time that one breathed that got to me…"

Harry made a face.

The blood, pain, and other noises hadn't exactly bothered him the way it had his fellows, but he hadn't been expecting it either. "When Snape said that they'd be healing a magical proxy of an injured wizard, I was expecting something a little less.. lifelike."

The screaming had definitely been a surprise.

Also, whoever had decided that one of the proxies would take the form of an eight-year-old girl was a sadist.

(So, probably Snape.)

"They must have gotten some actual training dolls from the St. Mungos Healing Academy," Hermione said. "They're specifically designed to be… extremely realistic."

"Well," Ron said, cheerfully biting into his sandwich, "guess they can't have their trainees fainting on their patients come graduation."

And fainting had definitely happened to a number of the would-be champions. Including the tough-as-nails Slytherin beater who'd approached his task with a swagger, only to go pale and keel over when he got a glimpse of something that normally never saw air outside the body.

"What?" Ron asked, as all eyes on the table stared at him.

"How are you eating?" Dean asked.

Harry shook his head. "Come on, you know nothing puts Ron off his food."

Whatever Dean would have said in return was lost as the teachers filed in to take their places at their table.

Dumbledore moved to the front. "If I could have your attention… oh yes, very good. Now, we will shortly be announcing the students who have been selected to go to Durmstrang. After the announcement, those leaving will have three hours to pack and say goodbye to your friends. We will be departing Hogwarts this afternoon at precisely four o'clock, so you should be assembled on the entrance steps by three-thirty. And now, on to what you all are really waiting for…"

The entire room went silent, as almost three hundred students held their breath.

"From Hufflepuff, we have three candidates. Mr. Cedric Diggory, Mr. Gabriel Tate, and Miss Gayle Pocklington."

Whistles, cheering, sobbing, clapping, condolences, and congratulations erupted from the Hufflepuff table.

"From Ravenclaw…"

Harry leaned back, listening absently to the roll call of selected champions, all apparently eager to head off, risking life and limb, in a tournament that ultimately meant little and took place at a school of unknown location which was filled with students who had all been taught the dark arts.

And, he thought, glancing from Ron to Hermione, leaving most of their friends behind.

Thank God that's not me.

The next evening Harry stole some time alone before dinner, taking advantage of the quiet of his empty dorm room to think. Sitting cross-legged on his bed, Harry closed the occlumency notebook and leaned back, contemplating the state of his magic.

It'd been… over a year since he'd first spent a summer in determined exertion, retraining his magic wandlessly from all it knew before. Closer to a year and a quarter, probably, with all his time turning. He could still remember vividly, from when he first got back to Hogwarts, how disconcerting the effects of that had been. The wizardry he'd been taught in his first and second years at Hogwarts had been a tame thing in comparison, and those early charms and transfigurations had pulled on Harry's own magic but lightly. He'd said the spell, twirled the wand, and things would float, or shrink, or change. It had almost seemed to happen like – hah – magic.

Then he'd come back to start third year, and discovered his magic seemed to have gone insane.

Okay, well, not insane. Just… sensitive. Active. Awake. Both far more eager to be used than Harry remembered, and far more wild.

He sighed, and traced a finger over the cover, which was deceptively titled 'Notes for History of Magic' across the front. The three of them had figured that'd be the least likely topic anyone would be interested in snooping through. The first ten or so pages were history of magic notes, too, in case anyone flipped it open. And that was after whoever it was managed to get through the charms barring anyone other than the three of them from opening it.

But this is why Ron and Hermione stare at me when I try to explain my situation. No matter how he groped for words, they always seemed to come out in a way that made it sound like he was fighting with his magic, or his magic had a mind of its own, and neither of those were at all true.

His magic wasn't separate from himself and his will any more than his arm was separate. But when he'd started at Hogwarts, it was almost as if his magic had been asleep. And now it wasn't. That had been… more than mildly overwhelming, at first.

(Also, there had been explosions. And even more embarrassingly: spell fizzles. Like he was a bloody first year again.)

I started to feel my magic all the time, he remembered, reflecting on those changes. Stretching if I got angry, moving as I used divination, or wandless magic. Sensing the way it shapes itself into spells, the way it's channeled through a wand. How much magic to pull when I need it, how it flexes when I use it.

In retrospect, Harry was probably lucky there hadn't been more accidents. But for months, even after he'd gotten the knack of doing wand spells again, part of him had despaired. Because casting spells now took so much concentration, when it hadn't before.

Such focus, and controlled precision, and I started to wonder how I'd ever be able to fight, when I had to pause for a second or two before each cast. When most of my concentration would be on my spells instead of my opponent. Sure, I could do more with each spell – my transfigurations were more complex, my charms more flexible, my hexes did greater damage – but always, always, the drawback of taking too much time, and too much focus.

But now…

He traced the cover of the notebook again. He'd been right – he'd been doing something very close to occlumency for almost a year before he'd ever heard learned the details of magical discipline. And the further exercises and tips the book had conveyed had been put to ruthless use over the summer.

He'd known occlumency was supposed to help you remember things a little better and think more clearly, even before you got into the benefits of sensing when subtle magic might be influencing you. He hadn't expected the other side effect, though.

Maybe 'side effect' isn't the right word? It's not really the occlumency itself, it's how it's interacting with the way my magic is weird now.

He still felt his magic all the time. When he was casting; when he wasn't. When he was furious; when he was relaxed. Always. Everywhere. Occlumency hadn't gotten rid of that.

But it had… helped him handle it better.

He felt his magic all the time, but it didn't distract him as it once had. Time and discipline had given him the edge he needed, to manage what he had transformed himself into.

By now, he'd cast more magic this way than he had in his first and second years combined. And if part of him could remember how those first fumbling years of Hogwarts instruction had been, where while the results were only mediocre, the casting had been so comparatively easy, and had regretted…

Well, he could finally let go of that wistful remembrance of ease. Learning his magic anew was hard. And it wasn't over. And it probably never would be over, because if he stopped paying attention and practicing, he'd start to backslide in fine control of his magic, (and really, that was pretty bloody annoying). He had some distant hope that maybe he wouldn't have to keep working as hard once he was an adult – surely magic stopped changing or developing when you were fully grown? – but that was a decade off at least.

Approaching footsteps broke his concentration, and he quickly stashed the occlumency notebook under his charms text. He looked up when the door opened, expecting to see one of the other fourth-year boys enter.

"Professor McGonagall?" he blurted out.

"Mr. Potter," she said seriously. "I need you to come with me."

"What? Why?" he asked, already rising.

"The headmaster will explain," she replied, shepherding him out the door, then leading the way down the stairs with a brisk stride.

Bewildered, he followed.

An hour later Harry stumbled, dazed, back into the common room. Ron and Hermione sprang from their chairs, rushing to meet him at the entrance, both looking worried. Ron got there first, long legs giving him an edge. "You alright there, mate?"

Hermione was staring at him, eyes searching his face. "What happened?"

He stared at Ron and Hermione, still feeling stunned. Blank. "I…" he blinked, then shook his head, and lifted his hands helplessly. "I've been entered in the Triwizard Tournament."

Canon Notes:

I didn't realize the first time I read the series, but more than just Dumbledore and his compatriots believed Voldemort still lived. There's Hagrid's words on the subject, of course, ("Some say he died... Some say he's still out there, bidin' his time.") but in PoA, Fudge says: "But, as we all know, You-Know-Who met his downfall in little Harry Potter. Powers gone, horribly weakened, he fled."Fudge knew Voldemort wasn't dead. Also, there's the line about aurors still searching for Voldemort abroad after LV's first fall (GoF, graveyard scene).

Items from the room of hidden things: "There were thousands and thousands of books, no doubt banned or graffitied or stolen... Jewels…. Cups… A sparkling necklace." Also, yes, there was indeed a stuffed troll.

Vanishing and conjuration both fall under the "transfiguration" umbrella.

Other notes:

Brownies in European folklore, (from Wikpedia): "…it was believed that helpful household sprites, "silkies" or "brownies", could turn into malevolent boggarts if offended or ill-treated." There's also Slavic, German, and Scandinavian versions.

I have wrapped up a year-long project, so I should have (some) time to write again. Or more specifically, the free CPU cycles. Also, I've done some minor editing on the story so far. Hopefully for the better.

And on that note, holy italics batman. For everyone who suffered through the original versions of my earlier chapters, I'm sorry.

(see what i did there?)

Next Chapter:

Hermione's hand was in the air. "Granger," Moody acknowledged.

"Professor," Hermione's voice was respectful, but with the faintest edge of challenge. "You said all successful casts of the Killing Curse were murder. But I read that in the conflict with You-Know-Who before 1981, the aurors were given special dispensation to use it?"

Moody's expression hardened, and the gaze he cast over the classroom was cold. It stayed that way for a second, two, then– a sudden thaw. Their professor sighed. "What the hell; I'm retired. I can say whatever I damn well please. Including truths the Ministry would rather not admit, even now." Their professor's expression was odd. No longer the sternly imposing judge, jury, and executioner, handing down sentences from on high. But something more approachable, if no less weighted. "And the truth is, the day the Minister signed the decree allowing aurors to use the Killing Curse in combat with the You-Know-Who's forces, was the day the Ministry of Magic admitted – internally, whatever it might say to the public – that it was at war."