Forging the Sword (Part Two):
Chapter 15: First Steps

Harry's words had fallen like stones into the waiting silence.

"What?" Ron's exclamation had half of the Gryffindor common room turning to look at them.

"By whom?" Hermione hissed quietly.

"And how?" Ron added.

Before Harry could answer, Hermione shook her head, holding up a cautionary hand. "Wait. We shouldn't talk about it here."

Harry laughed without humor, feeling hollow. "What does it matter? They'll know soon enough anyway." Two years of work, to make sure I never felt this way again. And now here I am.

The sense of helplessness was infuriating. That it turned back on himself – for not being better, not seeing a way out – only made it worse.

She frowned and reached out, grabbing his sleeve, then towed him toward the corner table.

Still feeling numb, he followed the tug without complaint, sitting when she gently pushed him into the chair. A few steps away, he noticed Ron was carefully moving through the wand movements of what had to be a silencing privacy charm. Momentarily distracted, he asked "When'd you learn that?"

Ron sheathed his wand. "Last year. Hermione worked on it with me for a few days, before I talked to Percy. Now," he slid into the chair across from Harry. "From the beginning. What happened?"

"I don't know," Harry said, helplessly. Baffled. "McGonagall came and got me about an hour ago – took me to see Dumbledore."

"Dumbledore?" Hermione's brows furrowed. "Shouldn't he be at Durmstrang?"

"He came back," Harry said dryly. "Durmstrang's a few hours ahead of us, time-zone wise. They'd already gotten the names from the Goblet. And… mine came out."

"That doesn't make any sense," Ron protested. "I mean, mate – you weren't even there."

"No," he agreed, raising his hands in frustration. "I wasn't. But somehow, my name was entered. And somehow… I got picked."

"So," Ron frowned. "You're the Hogwarts Triwizard champion?"

Harry scowled. "Not if I can help it."

"What did Professor Dumbledore say?" Hermione asked. "Is it-" She bit her lip. "They can't make you compete." She paused. "Can they?"

"Dumbledore said he's looking into it." The headmaster had looked so serious, when he was talking with Harry. As serious as the man had been two years ago, after the Chamber. "He said he's going to investigate all my options, and seems to be protesting it pretty fiercely. But, you know, it's not just up to him. And there was something about putting your name in the Goblet being a 'binding magical contract' – although he didn't explain it that much."

"But," Ron protested, "not to sound like a broken diction quill, but you didn't put your name in."

Harry rubbed his eyes. "And - I don't know. If I was bound into a magical contract, wouldn't I know? I mean, we learned last year that personal magical vows only work because you tie your own magic into them. And shouldn't I have noticed something if mine was tied up like that? I had no clue anything happened until McGonagall got me!"

Hermione frowned, looking serious. "We need more information. Quickly. Unfortunately, I've already read everything in the library that Hogwarts has about the tournament."

Despite the situation, Harry smiled at her words, because that was just so Hermione. "I'll check my Flourish and Blott's catalogue. But if they don't have anything… where else can we get it?"

"Well," Ron shrugged when they turned their attention to him. "Isn't this why we created the Niffler Club in the first place? To get answers for this type of thing?"

Harry felt a brief surge of hope, but hesitated. "Are we sure we should let everyone know?"

Ron's expression was vaguely pitying. "Mate, it's not going to stay a secret. The Hogwarts students at Durmstrang have probably already written their friends here."

"Right," Harry ran a hand through his hair, thinking. "Okay, two bounties. No - three. One asking if there's a better source of information somewhere, and if they'll share it or how to acquire it. It's a centuries old tournament; someone must have written a recent book or two on it. The second asking if there's any way to avoid becoming a Triwizard contestant once you've been chosen. And the third…" he swallowed. "If I have to compete, what exactly I have to do. Not just the tasks, but-" His words turned plaintive: "Do I have to spend the entire year at Durmstrang?"

Ron reached out to grip his shoulder, but none of them had any comforting words to share.

They posted the bounties that night after dinner. Judging from the whispers and stares that greeted their arrival into the great hall the next morning, the reason why had already spread.

Great, Harry thought.

"Forget them," Ron said, elbowing him when he paused. "Keep moving; I'm hungry."

Hermione rolled her eyes as she led the way to the closest open space near the end of Gryffindor table. "You're always hungry." She looked Ron up and down as she settled across from them. "It's a good thing you're sprouting so much vertically – or you'd surely be doing so horizontally."

Which is true, Harry thought, mildly disgruntled. He was now comfortably taller than Hermione, but Ron had continued to shoot up like an overfed weed, and towered over both of them.

Across the table from her, Ron worked through Hermione's words as he continued filling his plate with one of everything within reach. "Hey! Are you saying I'm going to get fat?"

She smirked into her morning tea. "I would never." Her expression was so innocent, it came out the other side at devious.

Ron was eyeing her suspiciously, evidently certain that she'd been implying something, but not sure what. "Well, good." And he lifted a forkful of potatoes to his mouth.

Their mundane banter had at least broken the ice at Gryffindor table, and Harry breathed a silent sigh of relief as the staring around him eased up.

"Morning Harry," Neville said, dropping down into the open seat on Harry's left.

"Neville," he nodded back, grateful. Neville wasn't the type to pry, and by sitting there, he'd kept anyone else who would at bay. "Thanks."

Neville just smiled briefly, then turned his attention toward breakfast. "Looking forward to Creatures today?"

"Not as much as I'm looking forward to Defense afterwards." Harry smirked.

Even nearly two months into the term, it felt a little weird to be having a core class on Saturday; Care of Magical Creatures aside. But since their first Defense class was on a Thursday, there wasn't much of a choice. And once the first two weeks of evaluation and theory were finished – what Moody had called 'How Not To Get Yourself Killed; an Introduction' – Moody had switched to an interesting twist on Kettleburn's 'theory first weekday, practicum second' style of teaching. Which had usually resulted in the Defense students not being in any shape to go on to their next classes at the changing of the hour.

Dean arrived at the table just in time to hear Harry's comment. He groaned, "What do you think he's going to be doing to us this time?"

Harry arched an eyebrow at him, because really? "Well, let's see. Five weeks ago he introduced shield charms. Then we spent three weeks desperately scrambling to shield against everything from jinxes to mud waterfalls to exploding stinksap traps."

Lavender shuddered. "Don't talk about the stinksap traps."

Harry grinned, because every single one of them had come to hate the floating, exploding, frankly predatory buggers with a deep and surprisingly burning passion, but some of Moody's students hated them with that extra, indignant edge that only came from having a perfect outfit ruined by the clingy, smelly, ugly green sap that had been magically altered to defy standard cleaning charms and even Mrs. Stower's All Purpose Magical Mess Remover. That the traps exploded with a shout of "CONSTANT VIGILANCE" when triggered – in Moody's own voice – had to be the professor's own little sadistic twist on the spell.

On the other hand, everyone – and Harry meant everyone, including Lavender and Pavarti, who were normally indifferent defense students at best – could now cast a variety of shield spells at the drop of a hat.

Moody's sadism was an intelligent and inspiring thing.

"Then two weeks ago," Harry continued, "Moody introduced illusion, concealment, and anti-tracking spells, in case we ever need to escape and hide from a magical species or attacker. And we spent two weeks trying desperately to flee and hide from waves of floating, pursuing, stinksap traps… interspersed with transfigured hound constructs, because apparently Moody figured: why the hell not?"

The hounds had been charmed not to actually bite the students – because while Moody might be a sadist he wasn't a monster – but being pounced on and pinned under fifty kilos of slobbery transfigured dog while watching a floating stinksap trap float ominously closer…

"How did he make them slobber so much?" Neville, one of the first to go down, asked pitifully. "So. Much."

"I think he designed them that way deliberately," Hermione added thoughtfully.

The Gryffindor Fourth years all exchanged affirming glances that held nothing of disbelief.

"This last week," Harry continued cheerfully, "he started us on disarming spells. So today, bets are…?"

"The good news," Ron announced, setting his cup of pumpkin juice down with a decisive thud, "is that for once this requires us casting at someone, instead of us shielding or running or dodging some type of attack. So, thank Merlin's beard, there should be no stinksaps!"

Lavender perked up, and a quiet but spontaneous cheer erupted – the other House tables glanced at them, then looked away hurriedly – but Harry just exchanged knowing glances with Hermione.

For someone who grew up with the twins, Ron is surprisingly optimistic sometimes.

Hermione twirled her fingers in the same gesture as she'd use to cast the tempus charm, if she was holding a wand. It was, they'd both learned, the common wizarding equivalent to a muggle tapping their wrist where a watch would be strapped.

Must be time to go, then, if we want to stop by the Room of Hidden Things before class. Harry decided to allow Ron these few, brief hours of hope instead of mentioning his suspicions."Come on," he said, vacating the bench. "Let's go see a Fwooper."

Ron snagged a roll from the table before grabbing his bag to follow. "Well, on the bright side, if the Fwooper drives me insane, Moody won't get the pleasure…"

Hours later, Harry and Hermione were slogging their way up to the castle, covered in what else but stinksap? He could hear Ron behind them muttering to himself. ("Of course there was stinksap. Why not stinksap? Nothing Moody loves more-") And other variations on the theme.

"Someone," Hermione said, pushing gooey, sludgily dripping hair back from where it had fallen into her face, "needs to stage an intervention."

(The words behind them were approaching a snarl: "'Disarm them quickly', Moody says. 'The first cast off is the only one that matters,' he says. 'Let them get theirs off and you're done for,' he says.")

Harry raised an eyebrow. "For Professor Moody, and his frankly rather alarming love of stinksap traps?"

("Then we start practice and we're a fraction too slow disarming the practice dummy? What, just tell us we need to be faster? No! That'd be too easy. Why warn us when instead: boom! Stinksaps!")

Hermione cocked her head, a faint glimmer of mischief in her eyes. "Well, that too. But actually, I was talking about Ron."

Behind them, Ron's mutter transformed into a squawk. "Hermione!"

She sighed. "Well, really Ron. You've been complaining since class was dismissed."

"You," Ron growled, "didn't take one to the face."

"I'm not exactly unscathed," she pointed out, holding out a lock of hair for Ron's inspection. Already suspicious of Moody's teaching style, Hermione had been quick enough turning her head that the stinksap had missed her face.

"It got in my mouth!"

Harry snorted. Because as much as he'd defend Ron to the death – the spluttering shriek that had resulted from the incident had been magnificent. And then Ron'd gotten hit multiple more times while petrified by sheer shock.

"You both suck." Ron informed them with wounded dignity. Then he squelched on ahead.

Harry exchanged another glance with Hermione and tried not to laugh.

"Shower, lunch, then the Niffler club?" he asked.


When they got to the club, it was to learn that at least one of their answers was waiting.

"Fast work," Harry murmured, surprised.

"Yes, well, I'm sure the entire school knows what you posted," Hermione pointed out.

"Right," Harry acknowledged. "So," he addressed the tall, bored looking girl he was told had been waiting for him. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name?"

"Samantha Hopkirk," she answered, tone cool but not necessarily unfriendly. "Ravenclaw. Final form. Future solicitor. Mother, father, and grandfather are historians. Both my aunts work in the Ministry of Magic, one in the International Magical Office of Law and the other in Magical Law Enforcement."

Harry blinked, nonplussed at the flood of information where he expected just a name. "Ah."

She favored him with an apathetic glance. "I'm explaining my sources. As required."

He felt himself flushing. "Right. Um. So, what do you know?"

Green-grey eyes swept him once, unimpressed. "You posted the question: Is there a way to avoid becoming a Triwizard Tournament champion once you've been chosen during the competition, yes?"

He nodded. "Right."

"The answer is no."

Silence echoed for several seconds. He waited, but she was apparently content to leave it at that. He looked questioningly at Ron and Hermione, but they both shrugged back. "Okay. Um, could you maybe elaborate a little…"

She tilted her head. "What part didn't you understand?"

"Why I can't just say no to competing!"

She blinked at him. "That's a different question than the one you asked."

Wait? What? "No, it's not," he refuted automatically.

"It is."

Harry barely refrained from dropping his face in his hands. He sent a pleading glance at Hermione instead, then took a deep breath and focused on centering and calming himself.

"I think what Harry means to say," Hermione offered, "is that we don't understand why they're two different questions. Could you explain more?"

Hopkirk looked vaguely exasperated, although mostly she still just looked bored. "Potter, you can't get out of 'becoming' a Triwizard champion because you are a Triwizard champion. Right now, you are one. Whether you ever compete in an actual task or not. Whether you ever set foot in Durmstrang or not. The sole criteria for being a Triwizard Tournament champion is to have your name come out of Goblet of Fire. Your name came out; therefore, you are a champion."

Well, that is… singularly unhelpful.

Not that it wasn't good to know – for future reference if nothing else – but it didn't really get him out of the tournament. "Okay, is there a way to get me out of competing?"

"You didn't pay for the answer to that question."

"Oh come on!" Ron burst out. "It's what Harry meant to ask."

Hopkirk arched an eyebrow. "But not what Potter did ask. I've satisfied my contractual obligations. If Potter desires to know more, he can make another contract."

"You sound like a Slytherin," Ron said, staring at her with distinct disfavor.

"I'm a Ravenclaw," she answered didactically. "Slytherin is into achievement, and winning by any means necessary. We're into learning - and often into benefiting from what we learn. Similar results, most of the time, but we have much more finesse. "

Ron made a face. "That's just saying you're even worse! Sneakier than the sneaky ones…" he grumbled.

And maybe in other circumstances Harry would be getting angry, but her patronizing attitude and this whole thing was just too ridiculous for words. "Future solicitor, huh?" he asked, eyeing her warily.


"Okay," he said, smiling almost against his will. "Since making repeated bounties will just get tedious, how about I pay you for the next twenty minutes of your time, to be spent answering questions?"

She seemed to consider it for a moment. "Twice the amount of the bounty."


"Very well," she said as he dug out the extra coins. "What more do you wish to know?"

"Like Ron said, is there a way to get out of me competing?"

"I don't know," the Ravenclaw replied. "Possibly. Probably not, though."

"Why not? Can't I just… not show up?" And for all that every Hogwarts student who made it through the Trials but didn't get chosen would despise him for that, Harry was still thinking it might be his best option.

Hopkirk shook her head. "I'm afraid it's not that simple. If your name came from the Goblet, you'll probably be forced to compete. Simple forfeiture due to non-attendance would have intolerable consequences."

"Like what?" Harry growled, fed up with everything. "Is this about the 'binding magical contract' thing? The Goblet will do something horrible to me if I don't participate? Torture me? Turn me into a squib? Kill me?"

Hopkirk's exasperation was more pronounced this time. "Try not to be an idiot, Potter. If it were that easy to force people who didn't agree to it to turn up at a certain place and time, on pain of death or losing their magic, there'd be a tournament every week." She raised her eyebrows pointedly. "Submitting the names of anyone we had arrest warrants out for. They show up to be arrested or they turn into muggles – sounds like a winning deal to me either way."

Harry swallowed his first response to Hopkirk's withering scorn. Okay, it was a pretty stupid comment, he admitted to himself. "Then I don't see a problem. I don't want to be a champion, the Goblet can't make me be a champion, we're all good."

"She said 'intolerable consequences,'" Hermione interjected, "and I think I know why. It's because of all the treaties, isn't it?"

Hopkirk nodded. "The Triwizard Tournament may have started as just a friendly competition between the schools of magic… until the fourteenth century. That's when a scandal involving Beauxbatons' champion – who was from Lorraine – and Durmstrang's champion, from neighboring Burgundy, triggered a minor border war between the two duchies. It eventually spilled out into the non-magical world as well, although this was back before the Statute, so the separation was less stark than it is today anyways."

Harry was just confused. To him, Lorraine was a variety of egg pie, involving spinach, and burgundy was a type of wine favored by his aunt. If they were the names of countries, it was news to him.

Perhaps taking pity on his obvious befuddlement, Hopkirk added, "Both countries were eventually absorbed into magical and muggle France. Burgundy in the late 1400s, partly as a direct result of losing the conflict with Lorraine, and Lorraine later during the 1700s. But none of that is really important. The pertinent part of the whole matter is that the Durmstrang student – who was part of the noble family in Burgundy - withdrew from the competition. That resulted in accusations of cowardice from Lorraine's Beauxbaton supporters. Which prompted counter-accusations of foul play by Burgundy, probably spurred at least sixty percent by wounded aristocratic pride." She rolled her eyes, a gesture which fit oddly with her determinedly apathetic air. "Let's just say it got dirty, quick."

"And that resulted in a treaty?" Harry asked, trying to understand her point.

She nodded. "To prevent such a thing from ever happening again. It's why the Triwizard Tournament involves officials from the Department of International Magical Cooperation as well as the Department of Magical Sports and Games these days. That 'binding magical contract' you hear about. The other champions may be bound to the Goblet, for all I know. But there's no binding between you and the Goblet; that'd be impossible since you didn't enter the Tournament yourself. By definition – by the very fundamentals of contract law, magical or not – you cannot have a contract unless both parties agree to it. An enslavement, maybe, but not a contract. But there is a binding treaty - and make no mistake, treaty is just another word for contract - between the governments of the schools' champions. That treaty requires them to ensure their citizen will follow the rules."

"Wait," Harry said, incredulous. "You mean the British Ministry is going to make me compete? What happens if I say no?"

"If you defy all their persuasive efforts," she said, looking oddly solemn, "they will do the only thing they can to fulfill the contract. Since they must ensure that their citizens compete, if you refuse to compete, then they will exile you, and strip away your identity as a magical British citizen."

He felt the bottom drop out of his stomach, and to his left, Ron swore softly but vehemently. Being exiled would mean leaving Hogwarts forever. Leaving Ron and Hermione. And Lucius Malfoy would still be living in Britain. For that matter, if Harry was exiled and Voldemort came back, Harry'd be helpless to interfere with anything Voldemort did on British soil.

"Well, I guess that's it, then," he said, quietly. "I have to go."

"Wait," Hermione broke in. "He has to compete. Does he have to attend Durmstrang for the year, though? Can he just show up for the tasks and then come home?"

Hopkirk shook her head. "The entire purpose of the competition is supposed to be closer ties between the schools. That's not likely to occur if the only contact between them is a champion showing up for a few hours to compete, then leaving again."

Harry exhaled. "This really, really, sucks." Which was possibly the biggest understatement in the history of understatements. And there were probably more questions he should ask, but right now he just felt too overwhelmed. "Okay, I'm sure it's not been twenty minutes, but I can't think of anything else right now. Thanks."

"In that case," Hopkirk said. "I'd like to claim another bounty."

Harry blinked at her. "What."

It wasn't even a question, Harry felt so confused.

"You asked: is there an extensive source of information on the Triwizard Tournament, and if so, how can it be acquired. Right?"

"Yes…" he said cautiously.

She pulled a book from her bag at her feet, and raised it to display the cover to the group. It was a plain journal, with 'A Complete Reference Guide to the Triwizard Tournament, updated 1994' printed starkly across the front. Underneath it read: 'Published by the International Magical Office of Law; Ministry of Magic.' Then under that: 'For internal use.'

"What," he said again as Hermione squeaked – there was no other appropriate description of the noise – and reached for the book.

Hopkirk pulled it away from Hermione's eager hands. "Ah!"

Harry raised an eyebrow as Hermione made an infuriated sound. Does Hopkirk have any idea what a dangerous game she's playing, doing that to Hermione?

Hopkirk spoke, apparently oblivious to the way Hermione was now thoughtfully fingering her wand. "The bounty was first, to let you know if there was an extensive source of information on the Tournament. Which I am doing now, by showing you this report. And second, to let you know how you can acquire it. Which I am doing now, by informing you that I will consider renting it to you. For a fee."

Ron was staring at her. "This is where you got most of the information you just told us, isn't it."

A shrug. "Some." She tilted her head. "Maybe most."

"And you didn't just claim this bounty first, because…?" But Hermione looked like she already knew the answer to her question.

"Because if I had, you wouldn't have needed to pay me for the other bounties, of course."

Hermione looked Hopkirk up and down. "You're kind of mercenary, aren't you?" Oddly enough, her tone was almost… admiring.

Which, okay, maybe he'd been thinking that himself. But Harry couldn't believe she'd said it out loud. "Hermione!"

His brunette friend blinked at him. "I doubt Hopkirk views it as an insult."

For the first time in the conversation Hopkirk was looking… amused? "I think of it as taking an opportunity to profit from my education," she replied. "So perhaps 'opportunist' is more apt. But no offense taken," she smiled like a cat.

The two girls exchanged a glance full of some positive female communication, and Harry felt a shiver go down his spine. "Right," he said abruptly. "Same price as the twenty minutes, and we'll return it to you in two days, sounds good?"


Exchange made, the three of them were walking up to Gryffindor tower when Hermione made a considering sound. "I think I like her."

Horrified, Harry came to a dead stop and pointed at her. "No." She arched an eyebrow back at him, looking amused and terrifying all at once, silently asking what right he had to tell her what to do.

Hermione had very expressive disapproving eyebrows, sometimes.

"For the good of the world," Harry answered her silent inquiry. "Just. No." Then to Ron, who was looking between the two of them in confusion, and probably wondering why they'd halted. "Hermione's thinking of adopting Hopkirk as a role model."

"What?" It was a dismayed moan.

Hermione sniffed at both of them. "She seems very sensible to me. Confident. Sure of what she wants to do and capable of getting it. And in any case, it's my life to pattern as I wish." Then she turned back and resumed strolling down the hallway.

Ron stared at him. "She was joking, right? Right, Hermione?"

Hermione just kept walking.

Ron started after her. "You were just joking though, right? Hermione? Hermiiiiiione?"

Shaking his head, Harry followed.

The next afternoon, Ron was playing Gobstones with Neville when Harry dropped into the seat next to him. "I've got good news and bad news," his best friend announced.

Despite their normal rule of no schoolwork on Sundays, the three of them had spent the morning going over Hopkirk's borrowed Triwizard Tournament report. Unfortunately, nothing they'd found had seemed to contradict Hopkirk's summary. Looking stressed, Harry had left to go flying alone for a while after lunch. Since he was back – and sounded rather too cheery to be delivering bad news – Ron watched his friend somewhat warily. "What's the bad news?"

"That bad news," Harry began, still cheerful, "is that I won't be transfiguring huge, four meter tall, basalt Griffins to drop on anyone who annoys me out of thin air. Alas." Harry's face crumpled in an expression of – mostly – farcical sorrow. "And here I had so many plans. I was thinking I could branch out from just using Griffins, you know. Maybe add the Giant Squid to my repertoire. Or a three meter high statue of Professor McGonagall in her best disappointed face. You know, the one that says: 'You know what you failed at? Everything. You failed at everything.' I'd like to see any of her former students stand up to that."

Ron, by now intimately familiar with the questionable form that Harry's sense of humor was taking these days, couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief at the news. And one glance at Neville – who knew at least vaguely what Harry was talking about because everyone knew what Harry was talking about it, (a three meter high ice-sculpture is hard to miss), showed that the other boy agreed.

All right, Ron acknowledged silently, so watching that Malfoy bastard apparating around trying to escape giant falling Griffins would be pretty hilarious. Unfortunately, if Harry really could transfigure stuff that'd big on a whim, I'd probably wake up one day to find he'd built himself a giant replica castle of Hogwarts – complete with crenelated towers. Not because he necessarily wanted to live in his own castle, mind. But just to see if he could.

"I think you'll survive," he said dryly. "What's the good news?"

Harry's expression brightened right back up. "The good news is that means it's pretty unlikely that anyone else will be doing the same thing to me." He looked earnest. "As I haven't learned apparition yet, you can see how I feel like I might be on the losing side of that game of tag."

Ron tried to glower severely at Harry, but it was hard to do when his lips kept twitching. Finally, he gave it up with a laugh. "Merlin's wand! Can you imagine what the battlefield would look like, by the time you got done with it? Giant zoological creatures everywhere."

"I'd be a hit with the garden statuary business," Harry agreed.

Still thinking about the sheer crazy Harry seemed to come up with – especially when left to himself too long – Ron blurted out: "Gulping gargoyles, but Durmstrang has no idea what's about to hit it."

Harry's expression fell, and he felt like an absolute berk. "Sorry, Harry."

The other boy shook it off, and smiled back at him. "Nah, Ron. No point in pretending, right?"

"It's certain, then?" Neville asked quietly. "I wasn't going to say anything, but since Ron brought it up…"

Harry ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. I mean, no one has told me officially yet, but it's looking like there's no way out of it."

Neville winced. "Blimey Harry, I'm sorry. "

Harry fidgeted a little, looking uncomfortable. "Honestly, I'm kind of surprised how nice everyone's being. Competition for the spots was pretty fierce. And I didn't even qualify."

Ron was starting to wonder if Harry had a bit of a phobia regarding public attention. I mean, sure, second year sucked. But Harry seems convinced if he can be blamed for something, he will be.

"Are you kidding?" Neville eyed Harry askance. "After Snape and Sprout managed to traumatize the entire school with a bloody – and I mean that literally as well as emphatically – scary glimpse into what you might be facing shortly? Even the ones who failed at the Hogwarts trials – maybe especially the ones who failed – don't begrudge you."

Harry made a face. "Wait, is that why the sixth and seventh years have been staring at me with such gloomy expressions?" He wrinkled his nose. "Actually, I think I might have made one of the Hufflepuff seventh years cry."

Ron snorted. "Hufflepuffs. She's probably certain you're doomed."

Harry shrugged. "His condolences seemed quite heartfelt, so there's that at least…"

"If you need anything," Neville offered quietly. Ron glanced at Neville, who had an unfamiliar look of determination on his face.

Huh, Ron thought. Neville'd always been a decent bloke, but aside from his attempt in first year to prevent them from sneaking out aside, he was usually too timid to put himself forward much. Maybe that's changing?

Ron watched a smile break out on Harry's face, something quiet and warm. "Thanks, Neville."

"But that's all future talk," Ron announced, wanting to change the solemn mood that had abruptly descended. "Harry, Neville's about to beat me at Gobstones, want to play the winner? I have to go talk to Hermione."

Harry blinked. "Sure. Where is she, anyway?"

"Oh, you know her." He waved a hand. "She's looking something up."

Harry shrugged, and leaned forward to study the status of the game. Ron followed suit, sending one last thought to Hermione.

Please Hermione, be as clever as we know you are. Find a way.

We can't send Harry off alone to a school full of dark wizards and witches.

Monday morning, Harry found himself standing in the headmaster's office, listening to Dumbledore apologize. "I'm sorry, Harry. But I'm afraid there's nothing more I can do. We're still finishing out some last minute negotiations, but you should resign yourself to spending the year at Durmstrang. Probably no later than this Friday. Accordingly, we need to start you on learning Swedish – the official language of instruction at Durmstrang – today."

Harry blinked, surprised. There were so many things in that sentence he wanted to address at the same time, that he ended up asking instead: "Not German? You know, from the Sturm und Drang thing… Or even Russian?"

"Ah," Dumbledore laughed. "You have heard, perhaps, that Durmstrang is exceedingly careful to keep its secrets. The castle itself is Unplottable, most visitors are memory charmed before they leave, and even eight centuries after its founding, the exact location of the school is not public knowledge. It's founder, Nerida Vulchanova – an exceedingly clever Bulgarian witch – most likely gave it a German-sounding name at least partly as another red herring. And as to Russian – students from Russia usually attend Koldovstorits."

"I supposed that makes sense…" Harry agreed tentatively. "So then, is Durmstrang in Sweden?"

"Anything is possible, of course," was the serene reply.

"Which means you think not." Harry surmised. Unless the witch was running a double bluff… But thinking too deeply that way was the road to madness. Or Slytherin. Probably both."Why Swedish, then? Or the German name?"

"Perhaps she was merely fond of the language. Or the name. She already hinted at a Bulgarian location with the school's symbol. The Durmstrang flag has some early Cyrillic on it from Old Bulgarian. Which was what she grew up speaking, and itself evolved out of the Macedonian language…"

Dumbledore seemed to get lost in his thoughts, and Harry had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. "Sir?" he prompted, because Dumbledore seemed to be ignoring the important part. Mainly: "How am I supposed to learn an entire language in four days?"

"Ah," Dumbledore smiled at him. "To start with, you're excused from classes for the next three days. Which is fortuitous, as you'll be spending several hours each day speaking with me in Swedish, once you've learned the initial vocabulary and grammatical syntax rules."

Harry stared. "You speak Swedish?"

Dumbledore smiled. "As the lingua franca of the majority of eastern and northern European wizards and witches – that is to say, the wizards and witches who attended Durmstrang – a great many fascinating publications are written in Swedish. Consequently, I undertook to learn it in my youth. Memory dims with age, but I probably started learning it when I was not much older than you."

Memory dims, huh? Harry eyed Dumbledore skeptically. Sure it does. Bulgarian founder, German name, Swedish language. Durmstrang's pretty international, isn't it?

"I'm honored," he said instead. Because as confusing and occasionally aggravating as he found the headmaster, Harry knew the man had to be busy as well. "Wait, but all the other students who left, they left on the day they were chosen. When did they have the time…?"

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled at Harry. "You will find that all the students who were chosen as potential champions undertook - of themselves and on their own initiative - to research if they'd need another language of instruction, and then took steps to acquire the proficiency they'd need."

And there was something to the way Dumbledore said that…

It clicked. "Wait a minute," Harry asked, incredulous. Impressed. "Was that another trial? One that was never actually officially announced?"

That's actually… a really smart test. It finds the people who don't just know academic stuff, but can plan ahead. Even better: people who don't just learn what they're told to, but what they think they might need.

He boggled at Dumbledore a second before saying admiringly, "That's pretty sneaky, sir." Then Harry shook his head. "But that still doesn't explain how I'm going to cram so much into my head so quickly." He frowned, as that seemed to bring up the echo of a long ago conversation. "Wait, Hermione once mentioned a potion that's good for mass memorization…" he scrambled for the memory.

"Ah, Miss Granger. An astounding young witch. Yes, she probably spoke of the Wit-Sharpening Potion." Dumbledore pulled out an acid-green potion-filled vial from his robes, and held it up for Harry's inspection. "Consumption will allow you to retain almost everything you read for the next few hours."

Harry stared at it. It seemed to be bubbling – even inside the sealed container.

"And the vocabulary and grammatical syntax?" he asked gloomily. I bet that's going to taste awful.

And didn't Hermione say something about it being poisonous in too-large doses?

With his other hand, Dumbledore offered a book.

"Right." Harry sighed, and carefully took both objects. "Where should I-?"

A flick of Dumbledore's hand had a chair sliding into the corner. "I'm afraid you have to be monitored for the duration, so you'll be reading in here. The amount in this vial has been carefully calculated regarding your body weight, age and birth month. It should last a little less than three hours. After that, we'll hold a conversation in Swedish for half an hour. You'll be excused for a break and for lunch. At two o'clock, come back for the second – and last – dose." Dumbledore peered at him over his half-moon glasses. "And – I must stress this – do not take another dose of this potion for at least a year. It will kill you, if you do."

Harry untwisted the cap, and held the bubbling vial up to his face. It smelled of rotten eggs and- something sharp. He sneezed. "Not a problem," he said dryly. Then he held his nose and drank it down.

Afterwards, it was impossible to describe the moment the potion took hold. He could feel the magic unwind through his veins. Feel it when his mind shifted. Feel the absolute clarity of the world. His mind was processing a thousand things at once – the slant of sunlight through the windows, the dancing of each dust mote as it spun through the golden shafts, the sound of Dumbledore's breathing, the pulse of his own heartbeat, the color of the books on Dumbledore's shelves – all with absolute focus. It wasn't that he had better senses. His hearing was no sharper, his eyesight no clearer. But it was as if he could focus on all of it at once. As if the automatic filters in his mind – the ones every human had, that blocked out the majority of what was reported to the brain so focus was possible – had been removed. And his ability to handle the results enhanced.

"Harry," Dumbledore reminded him gently, gesturing at the book.

"Sorry sir," he said, absently, marveling at the feel of the leather in his hands. Then he cracked open the cover and set to work.

"My brain hurts," Harry moaned into the Gryffindor table, eyes closed.

He felt a gentle hand pass over the back of his head. "Wit-Sharpening hangover?" Hermione's voice was sympathetically amused.

"He's going to make me do this again. In a few hours."

The very thought intensified the omnipresent throbbing in his skull.

This is as bad as the first time I ran into those anti-scrying protections on the Room of Hidden Things…

"Maybe you should eat something, mate?"

"Not really hungry, Ron." He blindly reached out for his water glass, then turned his head to the side so he could press his forehead against it. The coolness provided welcome relief.

"You should eat something regardless," Hermione said bluntly. "It'll help. It may not feel like it, but it will."

Overhead he could hear Ron asking Hermione, "And all you Ancient Runes students do this voluntarily?"

"Half-doses twice a year," she informed Ron. Then: "Up," she prodded at Harry gently. "Just try some bread. Then you can curl into a ball for a quick nap before you have to be back to Professor Dumbledore."

A nap. He seized on the suggestion, gingerly lifting his head. "You always have the best ideas."

"I know I do," she said, handing him a lightly buttered roll. "Now eat."

When he woke up Tuesday morning, the migraine was gone, and he had an entire book of language in his head. He stared up at the canopy of his bed, marveling. Just taking a moment to feel awe at how amazing magic was.

"I know Swedish," he dreamily informed the world.

"Good," Hermione said, yanking his bed curtain aside. "Then you can help me practice."

Whatever Ron might say later, he did not shriek.

Harry scrambled at his bed covers. "What are you doing here?"

She looked him up and down. "You realize you're wearing pajamas, right?"

Still breathing heavily, he realized he was clutching his blankets to his chest like a Victorian maiden. Dignified, he released the covers. "Never mind that – how did you get here?"

She rolled her eyes, and drew back the curtains farther, revealing the empty boys dorm room. Well, empty except for one person.

"Sorry mate," Ron said from his bed where he was feeding Scabbers. "I tried to stop her."

"Next time," he answered, swinging his feet to the dorm floor, "try harder."

He looked around, but no, it really was as empty as he'd first thought. "Where are the others?"

"Transfiguration." Hermione shrugged. "We're time-turning. The boys decided to let you sleep in, since you seemed so badly off last night, and you're excused from classes anyway."

Harry rubbed his face. "What time is it? I'm supposed to meet Dumbledore at eleven."

"Ten in the morning," she replied. "You have an hour."

"Okay," he said, heartbeat finally settling from the rush of pure adrenaline that she'd given him a few seconds ago. "And what exactly was so important, that it couldn't wait until lunch?"

At that she turned serious, taking a step back to drop down onto the edge of Ron's bed. "We have a plan."

"A plan?" Harry scrubbed his hands through his hair. "Great. Plans are good. Um. A plan regarding what?"

Ron and Hermione exchanged glances.

"I couldn't go to Durmstrang with you, even if Durmstrang allowed it," Ron said, regretfully. "You know how protective my Mum is. She'd never give permission. Never. And Hogwarts would never let me go without it."

Harry waved away the unspoken apology, the wound caused by Mrs. Weasley's cooled attitude long healed. There'd been no sweater last year, and he wasn't expecting one this year, either. There was still… regret. But at least it didn't hurt anymore.

Hermione sat forward. "His parents would never give permission. But mine did."

Harry stared at her. "Hermione?"

She shrugged. "I told them it was an international student exchange program, which it is. That one of my best friends is going, which he is. And that the competition to get into the program was fierce, which it was."

"Hermione," he repeated slowly. "Even leaving aside why someplace as xenophobic as Durmstrang would invite anyone they didn't have to… you're a muggleborn."

"I am aware," she said wryly.

He looked at Ron for help. "Durmstrang doesn't invite muggleborns. Why would they make an exception for you? And if they did…" Harry winced. "Won't they be… rude?"

She raised her chin, eyes fierce. "They can try."

His heart warmed at her determination, but he shook his head. "Thank you. Truly. But I don't think it will work. And even if it did, it's too dangerous. We still don't know why I was entered, or how, remember?"

She sighed. "Why do you think Ron and I are so insistent that I go?" She held up a piece of parchment. Harry squinted at it. It looked like quotations from the Tournament's rules. "Ron has to stay here anyway, even if his parents would agree to let him go. If he disappeared the Niffler club would collapse. But he can run it as Captain without us for a little while."

Ron looked ruefully amused. "She's already left me with basic meeting agendas through April."

"The tournament rules," she continued, "say the hosting school is expected to provide 'reasonable accommodation for the comfort of the visiting champions.'"

Harry looked at her. "I don't think they'll count me missing my friends as serious enough that inviting one of them is 'reasonable.'"

"They probably wouldn't." She took a deep breath. "Which is why we're going to make a magical vow to stick together."

He just stared.

"It's a bit of a gamble," she admitted. "But look, we swear to stay within, let's say a kilometer, of each other, until the tournament ends. Or to attend classes together. Or some similar restriction. On pain of something unpleasant. Then if Durmstrang doesn't let me in for the year, they'll be-" she glanced at her parchment, "'deemed in violation of the sacred obligation of guest hospitality' which, long story short, they have to actually care about, because violating it means they'd forfeit the tournament."

He kept staring.

"A magical contract got you into this mess," she pointed out defensively. "It's only fair to use it to get you out of it. And you're young enough that we can probably get away with something like this; they'll just blame it on impulsive youth or such." A second or two passed. "Besides, I'm supposed to be learning Dark Arts curses for our cursebreaking on the Diadem. Durmstrang should offer plenty of opportunity there."

"…something unpleasant?" Harry finally asked.

She shrugged. "We decided on nothing lethal, of course. Just in case I'm wrong and they refuse."

Right, Harry thought. Nothing lethal. Of course.

He hadn't been aware something lethal was ever in consideration.

"In which case we both spend the entire year mildly miserable?"

She looked at him levelly. "I'm willing to risk it if you are."

He looked at Ron, but Ron just shrugged back at him. "Sorry mate, I'm with her."

Crazy, he thought. Both of them are completely starkers.

He tried to ignore the warmth, the sheer relief at the thought of not facing the future year entirely alone in a hostile school with no friends or even Hogwarts students his age-

"Okay," he said at last. "We can try."

She grinned, then lunged forward and hugged him. "Thank you, Harry!"

Harry looked up at the ceiling long-sufferingly. "It's okay to admit it, you know."

She pulled back, looking puzzled. "Admit what?"

"I heard that part about the Dark Arts curses." Harry looked at her knowingly. "You just want to go with me for access to their librar- oof." He clutched at his stomach.

"Next time, I make it hurt," she threatened, pulling back her elbow.

"What do you mean, next time?" he grumbled, straightening. "So how do we do this?"

Ron stood, and moved to them. "I'll be witness, and bonder."

"Okay." He looked at Ron, then back at Hermione, holding out his hand to her. "Last chance to back out."

She clasped his hand with hers.

Professor Dumbledore is staring at them. It's the first time Hermione's ever seen him surprised.

"…so that's why I have to go to Durmstrang with Harry," she wrapped up. She thought she was doing a fair job of hiding her nervousness, but Professor Dumbledore had a way of looking at you, like he could see right through you.

"Miss Granger," he finally said, quietly. "I am impressed. Such loyalty, bravery, and friendship is not easily found."

She could feel herself blushing up to the roots of her hair. "We couldn't let him go alone," she answered, glancing at Harry. "We couldn't. We don't know why he was entered; the headmaster of the school is a convicted former Death Eater!"

Even the memory of finding that piece of information sent a small wave of terror through her.

"And it is solely because of his status, that your plan holds some hope of success." The headmaster stroked his beard, considering. "Karkaroff's former loyalties allows us a unique amount of leverage in this matter that we otherwise would not have." He suddenly looked very serious. "Make no mistake, Miss Granger, Mister Potter. What you two did was extremely foolish, and with any other Durmstrang headmaster would have been a miserable failure." Dumbledore sighed lightly. "Furthermore, you both must be aware that while many of the students at Durmstrang are not prejudiced against muggleborns, the majority continue to be. Even those who do not disdain muggleborns will still likely never have known one, and have only the stories of their parents, or peers. It will be difficult for you." His gaze moved to Harry. "Both of you."

Less because Harry was a half-blood, Hermione surmised, than because his emotional response to threats against people he cared about these days tread the edge of reflexively lethal. And from what the headmaster is saying, there will be a lot of provocation.

"I've faced prejudice before," she said, her thoughts turning to a message written in blood on a wall, and a blond Slytherin crying out, 'You're next, mudbloods!' Remembering a debate in the great hall and being told she came from 'inferior stock.' "I'm still here."

And I'm still trouncing them in the academic rankings, she thought, with a touch of fierce satisfaction. She loved learning for its own sake. But she'd be lying if she said she didn't get a thrill out of beating all the naysayers who dared to think she wasn't up to snuff.

"As an Ancient Runes student, you will not be able to replicate Harry's regimen with the Wit-Sharpening Potion," Professor Dumbledore reminded her gently. "Another dose will not be safe for you until January."

But Hermione had already thought of that. "We started Younger Futhark in Ancient Runes first," she pointed out. "So I have some of the basics. I might sound like I got lost and wandered in off a Viking longship, but I can make do. I learn quickly. And Harry can translate until I fill in the gaps."

She was vastly, vastly, oversimplifying the difficulty she'd have – and knew it – but since she wasn't going to let it deter her, it didn't make sense to dwell on it.

Dumbledore shook his head ruefully. "Very well. I see that you will not be dissuaded. You will, however, be forced to leave your time-turner in my keeping."

At Dumbledore's words, she froze, then peeked sideways at Harry. None of her friends - or any other Hogwarts student - was supposed to know she had one. For Dumbledore to just say it like that, right in front of Harry, he had to know...

She swallowed, looking back at Dumbledore. Who met her gaze with faint curiosity, like he had no idea why - she was sure - her face reflected panic. "Now, sir?" It came out as a squeak.

"Thursday evening will be soon enough. For now, you are welcome to sit in on the language sessions with Harry. Which I believe it is past time to start."

She exhaled, feeling like she wanted to collapse, the relief was so strong. Both for being let off about the time-turner, and for the fact her mad idea to accompany Harry to Durmstrang would work. "Thank you, sir," she managed, sinking into the chair that appeared next to Harry's. She'd almost had a panic attack this morning before talking to Harry, imagining all the things that could go wrong with her plan. To have it over with – and a success – meant she felt like she could breathe for the first time in hours. She smiled at Harry, and his answering smile was as relieved as hers.

Not that spending a year with the constant, nagging awareness of where he was - and unceasing urge to get back to him - would have been unbearable. But that's still a discomfort I'm very glad to skip.

Then Dumbledore greeted Harry good morning in Swedish – one of the basic phrases she'd picked up studying last night - and she turned her attention to the lesson.

Wednesday morning, Harry pulled Ron off to the side of the common room while they waited for Hermione to arrive for breakfast. "Can you do me a favor?"

Ron nodded. "Sure, mate."

At the instant agreement, Harry grinned wryly. "You might want to ask what the favor is, first."

Ron rolled his eyes, before giving him a look of condescending amusement. "All right. What's the favor?"

The ginger's tone was patronizingly placating. Briefly, Harry thought about asking something truly outrageous to make him pay for it.

Nah, probably better to save that idea. For a more public setting.

"Dobby," Harry said, instead, and watched Ron abruptly sober. "You saw how he was when he tried to talk about the Malfoys. It's been more than a year, if not quite two. But he still reflexively tries to hurt himself when he says something bad about them – when he says something true about them."

Ron's face was sickened, even as he scowled. "Bastards. All of them. The number of times they must have hurt the little bloke for it to be that engrained…"

Harry pushed down the matching fury that rose in himself. "Exactly. But we could use the information Dobby has on them. And…" he hesitated, turning over his idea. Even over the entire summer, Dobby had never said anything about the Malfoys and the situation he escaped. But Harry had finally learned to pay attention to what Dobby didn't say.

"The thing is," he continued, "I think it would make Dobby feel better, if he could tell us something that would help us take Malfoy down. It would feel like he's managed to triumph over his former masters. He escaped, but that's all he managed. And… I can't help but think that must bother him, a little."

Ron's blue eyes were dark with some turbulent emotion. Harry could pick out some – disgust, anger, pain. But also what might be a hint of protectiveness.

Seeing it, Harry felt the tension he was hiding relax.

Harry'd been a little worried, when he first thought of this. Ron had recovered, a lot, since Ginny's death. He smiled more. Laughed more. Teased and relaxed and lived without regret. But mention the Malfoys to him, and his entire countenance seemed to darken.

I was a little afraid Ron might push Dobby too hard, Harry thought. See him too much as just a useful source of information on someone he hates. Ron's nothing like most purebloods, but the way wizards ignore their house-elves…

Harry shouldn't have doubted his friend. Ron might have a quick temper. But he also had a huge heart.

"So," Harry concluded, "if you could try to work with him, maybe? I was planning to do it, but since I'm leaving in two days… See if you can get Dobby to talk about the Malfoys, get him to the point he can talk about what happened to him?"

His friend looked determined, if a little unsure. "I'm not sure how, but. I'll try."

Harry smiled. "Thanks, Ron." Abruptly feeling a little lighter, he added, "Of course, that assumes Dobby doesn't somehow manage to show up two weeks from now in my bedroom, telling me he's been hired at Durmstrang…"

Hermione showed in sight of the stairs at last, as Ron snorted in amusement. "You think he could?"

Grinning, Harry nodded good morning at Hermione, murmuring to Ron: "I wouldn't put it past him."

As they headed out of the common room, Harry smiled slightly. It's a bit of a gamble, but it might work out even better than my original plan of helping Dobby myself.

Ron regarded the house-elf as another victim of Lucius Malfoy's viciousness. But this time, it was a victim Ron could help. The way he'd never had a chance to help Ginny.

And maybe, if Ron succeeded in helping Dobby heal, he'd find he'd helped himself heal as well.

Thursday, Harry led the way into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, for the last lesson he'd have with Moody that year.

Possibly the last lesson I'll have with him ever, he acknowledged regretfully, given the curse.

He was surprised at how much dismay he was feeling. Loud, barking, and gruff, Moody had made it clear that he thought his students were, at best, lackwits who would get themselves killed if released upon the world from the tender shelter of their Hogwarts professors. But somehow, all his insults never cut as deep as, say, Snape's.

Though I won't be missing the stinksaps.

"Settle down," the man in question said harshly from the front, glaring them into silence with his natural eye.

Two months of exposure to Moody had lost him a lot of his original terrifying aura, but had cost him none of his students' wary respect. The classroom obediently quieted, and Moody shoved himself to his feet, moving to the center with his odd, thumping gait.

"You've done shields," he announced into the waiting quiet, meeting the winces of his students with a quick, mad, grin. "You've done escape, concealment, and evasion. You've done disarming." He slowly swept them with a serious gaze. "I told you all, at the beginning of this year, that fourth year was self-defense. Self-protection. But sometimes, defensive actions alone are not enough."

The class, already quiet, went silent. Not even the whisper of clothing as a student shifted positions.

"There may be times," Moody said, still sweeping them with that steady, piercing gaze, "when defensive spells will not save you. When you cannot get away. When your attacker will not stop." It felt like the entire classroom held their breath. "When your only choice, is to make them stop."

Harry's breath rushed out of him.

"It might be a creature which knows not better. It might be an intelligence that's bent on malice. You might be a target, or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. But at that time, and that place, I will not have you killed because you didn't know what else to do."

Moody slapped a hand down on the desk. The students jumped. "I served my entire career as an auror. Decades spent in service. " He made a quick gesture towards his face. "You've seen the price. So if I'm to teach you young brats the offensive side of defense, then I will do it properly. Today, we are going to be talking about curses. Jinxes. Hexes. What you can legally do with them. What you can't." His gaze had progressed from piercing to mesmerizing. Chilling. "What the punishment is, for violating these rules."

Those basilisk eyes swept the classroom again. "If I ever catch wind of any of you using what I have taught you to break the law, you will regret it."

Harry believed him. Glancing around, Harry saw that the entire classroom believed Moody.

"As we start with our discussion of curses legal and illegal, we start with the three that you've all heard about. The three that are never allowed."

Harry blinked. Is he talking about…?

"The Unforgiveables."

A susurrus of whispers through the classroom. Moody kept speaking without pause. "Torture. Enslavement. Murder. I start with these three because undoubtedly, inevitably, you will have questions about them. Why, some of you ask yourselves, are these three Unforgiveable, when there are other curses equally bad, if not worse? Torture curses that also always do permanent harm. Enslavement bonds, in the barbarity of our ancestors' pasts. A hundred curses that kill as quickly – and far more messily and painfully – than the Killing Curse."

Harry forced himself not to hunch, conscious of the stares directed at his back.

"The Killing Curse is a lethal curse that, if used on a human, will buy its user a life imprisonment in Azkaban without the possibility of parole, and regardless of any mitigating circumstances."

Moody's voice was measured, "It does not matter, if you used it in self-defense. If you used it to protect a helpless child. If you use it to save your very own dear blind and crippled grandmother. If you use it on a human being, it is murder." He grinned, an edge of vicious amusement to it. "And I can see you all wondering why."

Harry nodded, almost imperceptibly. The Killing Curse had taken his mother. His father. Had marked him forever. The results of it had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember. To hear it discussed openly – not a whisper, not a sideways glace or a brief, terse entry in a book – was almost a relief. Horrifying. But a relief.

"The Unforgiveables all require intent. You have to want it." Moody narrowed his eyes. "Realize what that means. You can't cast the Killing Curse if you're thinking: 'just leave me alone!' You can't cast it if you just want them to stop attacking you. You can't cast it towards the ground in front of them, as a deliberate warning shot in an attempt to frighten them off. You can't cast it as a mercy stroke, with the desire to ease the suffering of the fatally wounded." He stared them down. "You can only cast the Killing Curse with one reason. You have to want them dead."

Moody smiled grimly out at the classroom. "You begin to see."

Harry wondered what expression the other students were wearing. He wondered what his own face showed.

"A defendant on trial for using the Killing Curse cannot argue that he just wanted to protect someone else, because protection does not fuel the magic of the spell. He cannot argue that he just wanted to escape an attacker, because a desire to escape would not empower his cast. He can't argue that he was just trying to intimidate his victim, that he didn't really mean to do it, or that he didn't know what he was doing. In short, successfully casting the curse is its own admission of guilt. It is also why the law is written as it is," Moody added conversationally, almost as an aside. "Any successful cast is an attempted murder, whether or not the spell actually hits the target."

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 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 weighty. "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."

Harry traded rapid glances with Ron and Hermione.

Moody continued. "Sanctioning use of the Killing Curse was when the Ministry acknowledged Voldemort had moved from a criminal to an enemy combatant – and thus our aurors were no longer keepers of the peace and enforcers of law… but soldiers."

"Did you agree with it?" The words were out before Harry realized he meant to speak them. For a second, he wanted to sink into his seat, expecting to be verbally annihilated. But Professor Moody just looked thoughtful.

"God's truth," Moody finally answered, "I don't know. I didn't know then, and I still don't. It was effectively conscription of the law enforcement personnel. None of us had signed up for the job we were handed. We were taught to investigate, to arrest, to keep the peace and enforce the laws. Those we arrested would have their legally mandated rights; the chance to prove their innocence, or at least plead the case of their circumstances in the court of law. We were taught the importance of that; to honor that."

Moody began pacing. "We didn't sign up to kill people – and with the horror of the Imperius, how could we know if those we were killing were simply unwilling slaves? Yet at the same time, we did sign up to protect people. You-Know-Who fought a savage and dirty war. If stopping him was the ruin of us aurors – was it still not better it fell to us than the innocent citizen on the streets?"

Moody's face was… Not haunted, Harry thought. It's far too at peace to be haunted.

But something to Moody's expression made Harry think that peace had been hard earned.

"In any case," Moody's voice returned to his typical lecture tone, "use of the Killing Curse against people is once again illegal in all circumstances. So I'm going to move on to the Imperius Curse. We'll finish with the Cruciatus, then talk about illegal – but not Unforgiveable – curses, then curses which are legal only for self-defense. We'll finish by walking through several scenarios, dissecting what defensive measures would be open to you in said situations…"

Harry could feel the tension in the classroom decreasing by the second, and he shook his head as he picked up his quill.

I still won't miss the stinksaps. But putting up with them would be worth it, to keep listening to Moody's lectures.

Friday morning came all too soon for Harry. The goodbye to Ron most of all.

They'd been instructed to leave their trunks for pick-up in their dorm rooms, so Harry and Hermione arrived at the Headmaster's office after breakfast empty-handed save for their wands. Leading the way up the steps to Dumbledore's inner sanctum, Harry swallowed down nerves. The butterflies in his stomach seemed to be breeding.

Entering showed them Dumbledore, dressed that day in robes of deep blue, with sparkling stars – and the occasional shooting comment. Next to him was a stranger, a tall, thin, man with short white hair and a curled goatee. The newcomer's blue eyes were both intelligent and cold.

He wasn't smiling.

As if to deliberately underscore the contrast, Dumbledore greeted them warmly. "Harry; Hermione. Did you enjoy breakfast?"

Harry might be getting used to the man, because he just went with it. "It was good. The house-elves did a delicious job."

"Excellent," the headmaster nodded. "I find a splendid early morning feed sets the tone for an equally splendid day."

The stranger looked impatient with Professor Dumbledore's easy pleasantries. "Dumbledore, some of us don't have all day." The man's tone was curt, and as cold as his eyes.

The headmaster's expression was all surprised chagrin. Harry was ninety percent sure it was fake. "Of course, of course. My apologies. You two, this is Durmstrang's Headmaster, Igor Karkaroff. Professor Karkaroff; Harry Potter and Hermione Granger."

So this is a Death Eater, Harry thought. The first he'd met aside from Lucius Malfoy. Despite being convicted as a criminal, Igor Karkaroff had somehow managed to recover from that to become the headmaster of one of the world's only eleven high schools of magic within a decade of his sentencing.

I still wonder how he managed it?

Because school that teaches the Dark Arts or no, it was an impressive – almost mind-boggling – achievement. Surely there were plenty of Dark Arts masters who'd never had the indignity of being caught.

"Pleased to meet you, sir." Hermione said politely.

Harry watched Karkaroff's lip curl the slightest bit at Hermione's address, and immediately discarded all plans for anything more polite than bare civility. Harry inclined his head slightly. "Headmaster."

It was all the man was going to get.

The flare of his nostrils said he knew it. Karkaroff promptly turned to Dumbledore. "Well?"

"Ah," Dumbledore rubbed his hands together. "Time for the arrangements then. Today we will be taking a port-key to the outside of Durmstrang's grounds, where Karkaroff will welcome us to the castle's soil."

Harry had expected a port-key – they were the standard for international travel – but he was kind of surprised they'd not be arriving in Karkaroff's office. If Dumbledore could create a port-key that left through Hogwarts's protections, surely Karkaroff could create one that would enter his own school?

Maybe that's the point, though? Karkaroff's technically not responsible for us until he's welcomes us on and onto Durmstrang's grounds… and for the port-key to arrive there, Karkaroff would have to be the one to create it.

Since port-keys had started being strictly regulated by the Ministry after several incidents of merchants selling defective products (and the messy, lethal, and scattered-across-three-counties accidents that had resulted from using those products) it wasn't a surprise that Dumbledore would prefer not to take a port-key of Karkaroff's creation. Not when Karkaroff regarded the three travelers it would carry as either enemies or subhuman. It probably wasn't that difficult to activate a port-key remotely if needed. The Death Eater could send them off before he touched it, or simply let go in time to prevent being carried away.

"That does lead to an issue, however." Dumbledore stroked his beard. "Arriving outside the school's extensive grounds and their protections also deposits you outside the obscuring barriers that would keep you from finding – or recognizing – your geographical location."

Right, Durmstrang's paranoid secrecy spells.

"Normally, this might be dealt with by memory charms on the two of you-" Harry felt an instinctive wave of revulsion and refusal so strong he almost flinched. No one is messing with mine and Hermione's head. No one. "-Or you can be stunned for the duration of the journey."

He glanced at Hermione to see how she was taking this. Her expression was calm, but her eyebrows were raised. "Won't that make holding onto the port-key rather difficult?" she asked rationally.

Harry's own brows lifted. Good point. Losing your grip on a port-key mid-flight was usually fatal.

"The safety spells on a proper port-key make that extremely difficult. But in any case," Dumbledore held up a pair of linked metal bracelets. "If you can't hold onto the port-key, the port-key will hold onto you. Fascinating things, the muggles invent. So ingenious don't you think, Professor Karkaroff?" The headmaster beamed at them all proudly.

Harry blinked at Dumbledore, then leaned over to his muggleborn friend. "Those are handcuffs, aren't they," he whispered.

It wasn't even a question.

Hermione looked like she wanted to hide her face in her hands. "And now I'll be able to tell everyone that I've been in 'cuffs. My parents will be so proud."

Harry shook his head. "Will you be stunned as well, sir?"

"Ah. No." Dumbledore coughed politely. "I'm afraid I already knew the location of the school, and am thus not required to yield it by the tournament's strictures. So never fear, I'll be watching over you the entire time."

Karkaroff looked murderous at Dumbledore's comment, which rather made Harry suspect that their professor's knowledge had been acquired without official Durmstrang approval.

And the man who'd be willing to try to memory charm Dumbledore was a braver man than Karkaroff.

He must hate that. Harry's thought was more than a touch viciously satisfied.

Harry and Hermione exchanged glances, but he had a feeling they both agreed. "We'll take the stunning spell, Professor Dumbledore," he volunteered.

At least they'd have a good story to tell Ron about all this.

The ceiling had disappeared.

Harry blinked. Squeezed his eyes shut. Blinked again, reorienting himself.

Being stunned was weird. It wasn't the same as falling asleep. And being re-enervated wasn't like waking up. There was no sensation of time passing. No feeling of darkness. One moment things were one way, the next everything might have changed. The level of disorientation that could create was hard to describe.

He shoved himself up into sitting position, looking around. The open-sky above was a dark azure blue, and the dazzling sunlight bounced off the surrounding snow. Next to him, hair disheveled, Hermione was rubbing her eyes. Professor Dumbledore was smiling down at them both. Behind him, Karkaroff was looking impatient.

I'm beginning to suspect impatient and grumpy are his default settings. Except when he's busy being impatient and arrogant instead.

Harry pushed himself to his feet, grateful the area they had been deposited on was – no doubt magically – free of snow. "We're here?" Then he bent and held a hand out to Hermione. She grasped it, and he pulled her to her feet.

"Indeed." Professor Dumbledore smiled at them. "I took the liberty of applying a warming charm for you two. Feel free to request a refresh if you can't manage yourselves."

Looking around at the huge drifts of snow, Harry nodded. "Thanks."

Professor Aesalon had taught them a spell in their remedial survival course last year, but whatever Dumbledore had cast, it was keeping Harry toasty warm rather than simply keeping him from freezing to death.

"Professor Karkaroff?" Dumbledore prompted.

Karkaroff sucked in a breath. "Welcome to Durmstrang," he ground out. The he sneered at Dumbledore. "I trust you can find your way to that muggle monstrosity of yours."

"Of course, Professor Karkaroff," Dumbledore returned mildly. Unruffled. "I'd hate to keep you."

Karkaroff snarled, then turned and stalked off, apparating away after a few feet.

When Harry returned his attention to Dumbledore, three broomsticks had appeared in the headmaster's hands. Harry couldn't help it. He stared.

Okay, the Wit-Sharpening Potion's vial was pretty small. And I figured I'd just missed him picking up the book on Swedish from off his desk. But where the hell did he get those?

Granted, Dumbledore's floor length robes could probably conceal a lot. But brooms weren't exactly tiny.

"Durmstrang is known for the extent of its grounds," Dumbledore informed them. "Flying will save us a great deal of time. Although if the two of you are up for a pleasantly invigorating hike -"

"That's okay," Harry broke in, picking one. "Flying's fine."

Even Hermione, who found broom-travel a little intimidating, hastily took the other.

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "As you wish."

Harry eyed the phenomena suspiciously.

"Shall we then?" their headmaster encouraged. Dumbledore alighted on his broom, surprisingly graceful for a man of his age, and rose in the air. Harry and Hermione followed, and Harry devoted part of his attention to keeping a careful watch on her.

The beautiful mountain scenery kept the fifteen minute flight from being boring. Everything was frost, snow, long shadows and clear blue skies. Finally, Durmstrang Castle came into view abruptly after they rounded a last mountain bend. Four stories high, built out of grey stone, it seemed smaller than Hogwarts, though admittedly not by much. Resting on the open plain at its front was a giant powder-blue carriage, as large as a house, and next to it, white smoke rising from its stacks-

"Is that-?" Hermione asked, voice filled with amazed disbelief.

Harry laughed, delighted, and shook his head at the same time. Muggle monstrosity, Karkaroff had said.

There, gleaming bold, brilliant colors against the stark contrast of wilderness and snow, sat the Hogwarts Express.


This chapter was supposed to cover through the end of the first tournament task. At 20,000 words – and not quite there yet – I decided it was just getting silly. Next chapter ahoy!

Some thought Harry'd be at Durmstrang alone. Some thought the entire trio would go. I don't think I had a single reviewer suggest a split. So many of you guys write these really thoughtful, sharp, analyses of the story – it's good to know you don't see everything coming!

I'm both nervous and super-excited to be fleshing out Durmstrang next chapter. Creating an entirely new school, teachers, students… well, it was a bit of a challenge.

And don't get me started on deciding the tasks…

I seem to be holding steady at a chapter every slightly-less than three months. Sometimes two months. (Disregarding the three year break when I realized the magnitude of the story I'd started as a teenager, and panicked because oh god, what had I done?) But those of you who have been with me forever probably know that by now…

Canon Notes:

The Triwizard Tournament and binding magical contracts – a piece of canon that makes me cry. But the 'binding magical contract' part is straight from the books, so we know some sort of contract exists and is in force. ("The placing of your name in the Goblet constitutes a binding, magical contract.") At the same time, if you don't agree to it, it's not a contract (at least not an enforceable one), and Harry definitely didn't agree to one. If it was that easy to bind someone into something they didn't agree to (and then turn someone into a squib, or kill them, etc, if they break it), I can't believe we wouldn't see much wider use of the magic. Because that'd be brokenly powerful. Although it's also possible that Barty Snr. simply lied (he was under Imperious at the time) and unlike all the other champions who entered the contest, Harry wasn't bound.

At any rate, I tried my best to think it through, although you'll be the final judge here. As a final note: remember how at what seemed to be a breach in the rules, Karkaroff was going to 'lodge complaints with the Ministry of Magic and the International Confederation of Wizards' – that seems to imply to me that there's arguably more going on than just a school tournament, and that official international bureaucracy could be involved.

Fwoopers: An African bird with extremely vivid plumage, the Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity. Nerida Vulchanova was the founder and first headmistress of Durmstrang, before apparently being murdered by her successor. Durm und Strang – literally German for 'tempest and urge' or artistically 'storm and stress.' I have no idea what the official language of Durmstrang is, but as far as I can tell, it has never been stated. The Beauxbaton's carriage is indeed "powder-blue." There are eleven schools of magic (although I suspect that doesn't include in the count the equivalent of trade schools, apprenticeships, or local informal 'village' schools). Russia's was mentioned in Wonderbook: Book of Potions. Stinksap occurs in a variety of plants and trees, not just Neville's Mimbulus Mimbletonia.

Burgundy and Lorraine were real European "duchies" that were generally part of the French or German empires from the 10th to 15th centuries (more or less). With apologies to any actual scholar of European history. I did the best I could?

Next Chapter:

Harry rolled his eyes. "Given that no one even knows where Durmstrang is, I figure I'm pretty safe from Sirius Black. Maybe even safer than if I'd been at Hogwarts."