Disclaimer: HP characters aren't mine.
AN: Sorry for taking so long. Thank you for your patience and all the reviews encouraging me to continue the story! I have no plans to discontinue the story, but have been having some trouble writing lately.
Draco watched the Nott during lunch discreetly—noting that the Slytherin gave him thoughtful looks as well. Crabbe and Goyle had stayed at Nott's side in the same way they had before he'd left Hogwarts and couldn't say that he was surprised. He still didn't remember much of what had happened those last months at Hogwarts and his father had argued that as a reason for him to remain at Durmstrang… and yet something had drawn him to return to Hogwarts. Fortunately the Deputy Headmaster had seen it prudent to allow him to work out the lingering issues he had left unsettled at his old school and given him permission to attend the Tournament. Following several conversations with his father and various promises to be vigilant and avoid the group-mentality of the Houses at Hogwarts, he had received parental permission for the trip. Lucius Malfoy had changed over the past two years—he could trace the change to the day Dumbledore had called him in to alert him of what had transpired in the Chamber of Secrets. He had never seen his father as pale as that day in the Hogwarts Infirmary and had been surprised at how feverishly he'd worked at getting him transferred to Durmstrang.
Then he'd received an unexpected lecture. Throughout his years growing up in Malfoy Manor, the overwhelming sentiment had been the importance and draw of power, the depravity of the current government, and the importance of blood purity—and in the span of two hours, the head of the Malfoy family had turned the first of those three pillars into a horrific story of servitude that went against the grain of the noble Malfoy line.
Ambition was better served by cunning than outright expression of power.
His grey eyes raked the Slytherin table, bypassing Nott for the moment. He paused as he recognized Blaise Zabini—one of the few students that avidly declared his family neutrality, and his thoughts drifted to the Maximus twins' invitation to join their study group. A study group widely known even during his first years at Hogwarts for its inclusion of students from all four houses. The twins had proven to be interesting characters—still Gryffindors at heart, but curiously hesitant to declare the world in black and white as so many of their counterparts did. He had taken a calculated risk in befriending them and had not been disappointed, even if he was periodically disgusted by some of their rash actions. Perhaps, he thought, it's time to make another controversial decision.
The next few days proved to be a trial for Neville Longbottom. As he dodged stares, whispers, and taunts, he found himself drawn towards the only place he could sometimes find himself free of judgement: the library. He found himself a secluded corner to do some reading but hadn't settled in for more than a few minutes when a group walked down the aisle and settled themselves around a large table not too far away. He watched his fellow fourth year students whisper and bring out their assignments, Hermione talking to Hannah while Harry spoke in soft whispers with Blaise Zabini. Neville briefly debated joining them when four Durmstrang students walked in.
"Christelle, Leevi!" Hermione greeted. "Take a seat!"
Harry eyed Malfoy apprehensively. "You guys brought Malfoy?"
The blond Durmstrang student looked at the Gryffindor in the eye. "Is there a problem, Potter?"
"Listen, we've all grown up some the last few years, yeah?" Leevi interrupted, making a placating gesture with his hands. "Draco's got a keen mind on political discourse and has gotten over that irrational inter-house rivalry, right?"
Draco snorted. "Somewhat."
Hermione glanced back and forth between them.
"We've managed to have interesting conversations with each other, quite civilly, I might add." Christelle said, catching Hermione's eyes. "And he lends an intriguing viewpoint of a wizard raised in a dark, pureblood household."
"And how will you refer to me, Malfoy?" Hermione asked.
"What are you talking about, Granger?" Malfoy inquired, confused.
Hermione smiled. "All right, as long as you don't stray from using my last name to refer to me, I have no problems with you joining the group." Harry smiled in understanding. The fact that Malfoy had not instantly referred to as 'mudblood' was more telling than anything else.
"Sure. Sit down, Malfoy. And who's the fourth?"
"Aleksander Krum." The fourth student spoke up, nodding slightly to the group.
"Well, take a seat then." Hermione said, taking out a piece of parchment and her wand. She made copies of it with her wand and handed them out to the new comers.
Blaise watched Draco grimace at the multicolored study schedule with a smirk. "Welcome to the fold, Malfoy."
It was another week before Christelle walked over to Neville's secluded corner and asked him a herbology question. He explained in a neutral voice and only looked up when she stood there after he'd finished his explanation. She sighed and crossed her arms.
"I'm not going to be able to explain that to the rest of the guys. Would you mind?" she asked, nodding over to the study group at the other end of the room. Neville joined them hesitantly and spent the next few meetings watching and listening, especially apprehensive when one of the Slytherins or Durmstrang students spoke. As Halloween drew closer however, he began to tentatively offer his own views on the questions posed and found himself looking forward to their meetings and discussions.
"I can't believe Severus Snape's class is so…"
"Awful?" Harry supplied helpfully when Aleksander trailed off.
"He's a world-renown potions master. Youngest in ceturies." Aleksander said, shaking his head as Hermione brought out her potions textbook. "And you all let him goad you all day."
"So tell us, how would you deal with such a thing at Durmstrang?" Blaise asked blandly.
Draco raised an eyebrow as Aleksander turned towards the Slytherin. "The Deputy Headmaster would object to it for one thing. He doesn't believe in wasting time—and your potions class is simply that, a waste of time."
"But if he were at Durmstrang and the headmaster didn't do anything about it—how would you handle Snape?" Harry asked curiously.
"The same way we do here, we read up on the potions to be brewed ahead of time." The Hogwarts students other than Hermione and Blaise grimaced. He paused before asking, "Has he taught this way since your first year?" Hermione nodded. "How do any of you learn anything?" he asked.
Neville snorted. "You got me there."
"Professor Snape gives students what they need, but if they don't take up the knowledge on their own accord, you can't expect him to spend all his time spoon-feeding you the information." Draco responded.
"I've done all the reading and can follow directions fine for making potions—"
"Then what's the problem, Granger?"
"It just doesn't make any sense! Why certain ingredients need to be prepared a certain way, collected at certain times, why—"
Draco stood up and walked to a different part of the library, returning a few moments later with a large, old alchemy tome. Neville looked at it curiously. He set it on the table and flipped three quarters of the way through the book before pushing it under Hermione's nose.
"There you go, Granger. Read to your heart's content." He said before picking up a book ancient philosophy. Hermione stared at him for a moment before looking at the book. Her eyes widened and she quickly skimmed through the next three or four pages. Draco ignored her completely when she squealed and the librarian sent a glare in their direction. Aleksander and Blaise looked amused, while Harry and Neville had moved behind her to read over her shoulder.
"Draco—this is exactly what I was looking for!" she said excitedly. He merely raised an eyebrow at her use of his first name. "Why didn't I look here before?"
"Current potion-making came from two sources: herbology and alchemy. Most people don't study the art in such an in-depth manner since it's not necessary to successfully brew a potion." Blaise stated as Harry and Neville returned to their seats. They watched for a few moments as Hermione flipped back and forth between her potions textbook and the old tome.
"Granger, are you telling me that you've had this library at your disposal for the last four years and you haven't used this book to supplement your potions study?" Draco asked incredulously.
Draco's eyes narrowed. "Are you saying that you have not perused Hogwarts Library to its entirety? You've had four bloody years, Granger!"
Harry snorted, trying to not laugh at the blush creeping up his friend's neck and elbowed the gobsmacked Neville sitting next to him. One glance at him and Neville realized what was going on and turned an incredulous look at Draco.
"Did you just… tease… Hermione?"
Hermione glanced up at Draco with wide eyes, as he leaned back in his chair and held up the book he was reading a little higher to cover his face. Millicent and Blaise traded smirks while Terry and Hannah looked mildly surprised, but pleased.
They worked quietly for an hour before Hermione finally looked up from her reading. "Where are Leevi and Christelle?" she asked with a frown.
"Said they had some business to take care of." Harry said with a shrug.
"Not sure, really." Harry said as he pulled out some parchment to start his Charms essay. "Don't worry, they do this all the time—sometimes they just have to attend to something not school related."
Draco furrowed his brows. "Drop it Granger, it's none of your business."
"But they should be taking their studies seriously! I mean—you have to take your exams this year—we at least have another year before the OWLS…"
"They said they'd be back by dinner. Don't worry, they won't miss the Halloween Feast." Aleksander said with a smile.
Two brooms soared disillusioned through the air, circling the town of Little Hangleton.
They transformed into their animagi forms and ran through the woods towards the graveyard. Christelle switched back and inspected the graves while Leevi scouted the area. Finding Tom Riddle Sr.'s gravesite, she began drawing a rune circle around the site. Leevi came up after setting up temporary wards over the small graveyard.
Christelle finished laying down a continuous line of off-white powder at the edge of the rune circle. They worked without needing to talk to each other, their movements belying their past experiences going on missions together. She spelled the soil inside the rune circle to lift and separate onto two piles at the sides of the grave until the simple wooden casket was revealed. Another swish of her wand and the top was removed. Leevi transfigured the inside to be fire resistant and spelled an electric blue fire onto the bones of the late Tom Riddle Sr. until there was nothing but dust left. The fire continued its controlled burning sustained by his magic until there was nothing left. Christelle transfigured some rocks into bone remains and placed them carefully in the casket as Leevi returned the inside of the casket to plain wood and replaced the top. They used the soil to cover up the grave. A controlled accio lifted the white powder back into the vessel in Christelle's left hand and a soft spoken spell lit the runes in succession. The magic washed over the tomb, leaving it looking undisturbed.
Leevi smiled as the spell came to an end and nodded in satisfaction. He cast a quick tempus and grinned. "Well," he said as Christelle turned to him, "we have over an hour to get back to Hogwarts before they serve dinner."
She smiled as she cast disillusionment spells on both of them and followed him out of the graveyard. "We wouldn't want to miss that now, would we?"
The Great Hall had been decorated with floating jack-o-lanterns and the tall windows spelled into colorful stained glass paintings where the inhabitants of the castle portraits could intermingle during the feast. The food was delicious and as the faculty kept a keen eye on certain students in the room, nothing untoward happened during the meal until dessert was served.
"Aaaah!" Lavender Brown shrieked as she fell off her seat.
Large black vultures flew out of the dessert pies and black bats spiraled out of drinking goblets, their forms somewhat insubstantial despite the wind their wings picked up. The headmaster had been about to take a drink and instead spilled it over himself, staining his beard purple. Snape cursed as a large vulture flew in tightening circles above his head and Moody's magical eye remained steadily on the bat perched calmly on the cane leaned on his chair. McGonagall passed some extra napkins to the headmaster as she looked over at the student tables where girls shrieked and boys ducked. "Weasleys!" The twins gave her innocent-looking shrugs that convinced no one on the head table.
Hermione tried to banish them with an evanesco spell but the spell seemed to have no effect on them. Some Slytherin boys tried to stupefy the birds, also to no effect. Some students across the Great Hall looked at their goblets interestingly while others pointed and laughed as the flying creatures intermingled with the jack-o-lanterns, tipping some on their sides as they flew past and canceling their levitation charms. They stopped ducking the sweeping flying creatures and started to pay attention to avoiding falling pieces of pumpkin that would explode into small orange and red fireworks when they hit something.
Dumbledore stood up. "Please remain calm and seated." He waved his wand, banishing the vultures and bats into the enchanted windows where they flew past the celebrating portraits and into picturesque dark woods. Professor Flitwick drew out his wand to immobilize everything pumpkin in the room as he chuckled at the sight.
Leevi and Christelle grinned when instead of stopping their drifting or falling motion, the pumpkins exploded over the tables to cover most, if not all of those attending the feast.
Hagrid licked his lips appreciatively. "Mmm!"
Flitwick used a finger to wipe some off his brow and tasted it with an astounded face. "My, this tastes like pumpkin pie! Wondrous!"
"WEASLEY!" Snape thundered.
"Now, now, Severus—no need to get overly excited by a little innocent fun!" Dumbledore said gaily as a house elf made itself present beside him. "Tibby, please have the rest of the house elves remove the…. Ah, altered drinks and desserts and bring new ones to the tables." Tibby nodded quickly and disappeared with another pop. "Filius, some light, perhaps?"
The diminutive professor smiled and flicked his wand towards the windows, making the windows glow softly with light. Professor McGonagall shook her head, walking down the Gryffindor table and banishing the sticky mess on the table as students took it upon themselves to scourgify each other. The prefects helped the younger years who hadn't learned the spell yet. The other heads of houses followed her example as Karkaroff leaned across the table towards the headmaster who was clean again, except for the purple stain on his beard that refused to come out with the scourgify he had cast.
"Dumbledore, are your students always this rowdy on all Hallow's Eve?" Madame Maxime looked at him inquiringly as well.
"It has become something of a Hogwarts tradition." Dumbledore said with a smile.
At the Gryffindor table, Harry looked inquisitively at the Weasley twins. Fred caught his eye, smirked, then nodded lightly at the Durmstrang table. Harry laughed when he turned his head and looked at Leevi and Christelle who winked at him in turn.
Aleksander nudged Leevi with his elbow but whispered his question to the twins, "how much of that was your doing?"
Leevi shrugged with a smile while Christelle spooned some pie into her mouth. "Mmmm."
Aleksander laughed, knowing better than to ask if there were any pranks they would have to worry about at the celebration on the ship later that night. They would make and tend bonfires around the ship, gathering around the fires in small groups to tell stories of old knights, kingdoms, wizards, and witches. They would keep watch until the logs turned to ashes, paying their respects to the magic in the air. The eldest of them would scatter the ashes into the winds at the first ray of coming day. No, he didn't need to ask. The pranks on the ship would come tomorrow night.
On the other hand, the purple stain on Dumbledore's beard stayed there for the next two days.
The day of the First Task dawned cheerfully sunny. Despite the blue skies reflected in the ceiling of the Great Hall, Neville felt nauseous, his skin clammy, and his heart beating too fast. He attempted to eat something at breakfast and lunch but couldn't keep anything down.
"Just a couple more hours, mate." Leevi said encouragingly as they left, Neville glancing back at Ron, who had taken to eating with Seamus and Dean and still refused to acknowledge him. Harry, Leevi, and Christelle walked him to the Gryffindor common room where he'd decided to stay until the First Task was scheduled to begin at three in the afternoon. They left the young champion and headed outside, towards the bleachers surrounding a long enclosed area, intent on staking out the best place to observe. They were met halfway to the doors with the other members of their study group and walked outside together, splitting up to sit with respective houses and schools.
Neville followed the second year Ravenclaw to a large tent situated on the grounds, a little ways off from the bleachers full of spectators and students. He noticed that the bleachers seemed to block off a large section of the field except for one side which led to the Forbidden Forest and suppressed a shudder. Walking into the tent, he resolved to portray a calm, collected façade for as long as possible. He was wearing the armour Leevi and Christelle had given him, as he had had to admit after half an hour of throwing spells at it, that it was a definite improvement from the dragon hide armour, even if a number of its features were tuned to the magic of the wearer, making its constant usage a grand advantage. He hadn't told Dumbledore about it thus keeping his promise to the twins, but he couldn't help but feel a bit guilty about it. After all, the old wizard had helped him over the summer and as much as legally possible with the tournament itself. He watched nervously as Bagman walked around with a small pouch in his hand.
"Now champions, please gather around and pick a number—it will tell you in which order to leave the tent and start on the task. There is a time limit of one hour for each of you to obtain your goal--a golden egg that will help you with your second task. Questions? No? All right."
Neville waited as Fleur walked out the tent to face the first task. Victor and Cedric had both gone before her so he found himself alone in the tent. Well, almost. Looking down, he glanced at the two Asian gold snakes laying unconcerned at his feet.
"The first task is in two weeks. You haven't heard anything about it?" Harry asked as they walked to the library.
"What are we talking about?" Leevi asked as he joined them at the library doors. Christelle and Hermione were already at their designated study table—early, as usual.
"The first task." Neville sighed, shaking his head.
"No hints from anyone?" Leevi asked, a bit surprised.
"None." Neville repeated dejectedly.
"I thought you met with Dumbledore yesterday." Christelle said, motioning for them to sit down.
"Yeah. All he said was that my friends would have the devices to help me more than I realized and then told me I had all the tools I needed to succeed. I almost feel like it's a test to see how well I've learned the last couple of summers. Do you guys know anything?"
"No. Any unusual activity around the grounds? They must be getting ready to set up for the task."
"Hmmm… now that you mention it, I noticed something in the forest during Quidditch practice two days ago. I don't know if it's anything, but…"
"We could take a look! I have my dad's invisibility cloak—"
"That's cheating." Hermione interrupted Harry. "You're supposed to learn what your challenge is the day of the first task."
"Hermione," Christelle admonished, "Neville is already at a disadvantage by being the youngest champion selected and he didn't even put his name in the goblet! Add to that the fact that the others most probably already know what the challenge entails… do you really want him to go in with that much of a disadvantage?"
"Besides," Harry added, "gaining as much of an advantage over the other competitors is practically an unwritten rule of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Nothing blatant can be done, no sabotage tolerated… but other than that, it's all fair game."
They had argued for a few more moments before the others showed up for the study session. That night, Harry and Neville had snuck out of the dorms under the invisibility cloak, leaving Ron's snores behind as they tip-toed down the staircases and into the edge of the forest.
"What is that sound?" Neville whispered. Harry shrugged and kept walking carefully into the brush. The clicking sounds had gotten louder and it was mere moments before they found Hagrid speaking to what looked like large spiders. The light from his lantern threw shadows around them, showing smaller spiders crawling over the trees around them. They hastily booked it out of the forest and back to their common room. They sat down in front of the fire shakily and didn't really go to bed that night.
They had brainstormed ideas on how to take on acromantulas after that and used the Room of Requirements to help him work on a few specialized spells. Leevi and Christelle had insisted on helping him train in the evenings, even if it brought some friction between the twins and the other Durmstrang students. Fortunately that hadn't escalated above a heated discussion that Victor stopped by stating his indifference to the fact. Neville knew that they had done the best they could to prepare—even if he had initially protested learning the serpensortia spell, claiming he didn't want to use dark magic. The twins had countered by saying that it wasn't as if dark magic was contagious and was perfectly safe if used judiciously. He'd almost stopped training with them then. He didn't want anything to do with dark magic—and he was sure that the headmaster would intervene if it became too dangerous. In the back of his mind, Neville knew he was ignoring the small paragraph in his book about the tournament stating the deaths of some unlucky champions… but Dumbledore wouldn't let that happen to him, would he?
He looked at the snakes at his feet as his name was called.
"They've just called my name." he hissed uncomfortably. Damon and Melton looked up and wordlessly slithered up unto his outstretched arms, hiding under the sleeves of his robe.
"Don't worry, we promisssed Leevi and Chrissstelle to take care of you." One of them hissed. "We keep our promisssses."
Neville nodded and stepped gingerly out of the tent and into the small clearing. Students, professors, and visitors crowded the bleachers around him but he only had eyes for the small stretch of forest in front of him. Grasping his wand tightly in his hand, he started the wand movements and incantation to make an illusion of a large band of snakes spread in front of him.
"Spiders are afraid of snakes, so I just need to make lost of snakes. Lots and lots of snakes." He repeated to himself as five snakes materialized around him, leading the way into the trees. The two Asian gold snakes wound around his arms hissed reassuringly as he gingerly followed.
He froze at the sight of the first acromantula he encountered. It climbed over a fallen tree quickly, its mandibles clicking menacingly as it neared him. Concentrating on his illusions, he sent two of the snakes after it while moving slowly to circle around it. As he had practiced with the twins, he aimed carefully and sent an incendio towards the large spider as one of the illusion snakes darted forward as if to strike. The acromantulas backed away, clinchers attempting to cut the snake into pieces. Neville let the illusion drop and quickly made his way to the tangled web where his prize lay. Leevi had offered to lend him his broom as he had an extra dimension with which to avoid the spiders if he was on air, but he hadn't trusted his flying skills and had decided to take his chances on the ground. He was starting to have second thoughts about that decision.
He set a fallen tree ablaze to bar the spiders from approaching him in that direction and took some time to make another snake illusion to guard his back. Hesitantly, Neville holstered his wand to climb one of the trees around the web to get a better angle at cutting the sticky strands. Gasping with the effort, he hadn't noticed that his lack of concentration on the snake illusions had made them less tangible and he didn't notice the approaching acromantula. The only warning he got was a slight tightening of the snake on his arm before it shot its head out to strike at the spider. The Asian gold launched itself towards the soft spot between the acromantula's head and body, deftly avoiding the spincers. Neville on the other hand, lost his balance and fell into the sticky web. The second snake traveling with him snuck its head out of his sleeve and with quick swipes of its tail, got rid of enough of the web material around his wand arm so he could use several small reductos to free himself and the golden egg. He stumbled out of the brush, pausing by the Asian gold snake slithering towards him, trying to avoid looking at the overturned, dead body of the acromantula. After letting the snake crawl back up onto his arm and under his sleeve, he set forth towards the open area, holding the golden egg in plain view of the judges and spectators.
"Thank you for saving me back there." He hissed quietly amongst the cheers and applause. As he watched Madame Pomfrey approach him to check him over for any injuries, he thought he felt a reassuring squeeze from both snakes. His eyes searched the crowd and landed on his uncle, standing proudly and clapping next to Professor McGonagall, then moved on to find the friends that had helped him—and the one friend that had shunned him. Ron was sitting, pale and worried, next to Dean and Seamus. Neville wondered if Ron still thought he had entered the tournament for fame. He hoped not, since he'd missed his friend the last few months. His thoughts were interrupted as the judges presented his score, and he noticed with a surprise that he was third, having surpassed Fleur Delacour by three points. And with that, Madame Pomfrey led him off to the Infirmary where she insisted on completing a thorough examination of every champion.
He'd have to remember to hide the twins' snakes before Madame Pomfrey found them under his robes.
AN: I have the most of the next chapter planned out so hopefully the next update won't take as long. For those that were wondering about the plot, I have the main events planned out but the details are worked out as I write. Cheers!