Summary: AU fourth year. Spurned by everyone, Harry accepts help from Bagman, taking the first step towards greatness. Story elements: charms-prodigy, no-bashing, manipulative but good Dumbledore, dragon-reserve, unspeakables, HarrySusan, Ginny-friendship. Oh, and the veil is a hellmouth. Potentially, some minor crossover with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (much later).

Chapter 1

"So, what do you say?"

Harry looked at Bagman with disbelief. What was he playing at? But then Harry checked himself. He didn't have much going on his favour other than this one thing. He had been thrown into a tournament where participants were known to lose their lives. He had been abandoned by his best friends. He had become a pariah in the school. He was being vilified in the media. He was having nightmares of a dark lord.

What a fool would he be to let go of the one silver lining in the clouds of misery? After all, it wasn't as if he truly cared about winning or losing. All he wanted was to survive the year, as usual.

"Okay," Harry nodded. He shook Bagman's hand; a deal was made between the Boy Who Lived and the Director of the Department of Magical Games and Sports. "Thanks."

Bagman grinned widely. One would think he had an ulterior motive in helping Harry win the tournament. "Excellent," said Bagman happily. He finished his drink. "I would offer to buy you another drink, Harry, but I'm afraid I just spent the last galleon I had in my coin bag."

"That's fine," said Harry. "I'll get it." He got up and walked to the bar and Madam Rosmerta served him a butterbeer for himself and a pint of lager for Bagman. He went back to his seat and saw Bagman was scribbling on a piece of parchment.

"I'm writing a list of spells you must learn before the first task," said Bagman. "The first two should be sufficient, of course. But why take a risk?"

"Can't you just tell me what's coming?" asked Harry.

Bagman sighed regretfully. "I am under oath not to tell anyone what's coming or take part in the training of any of the champions." But he grinned. "However, nothing stops me from telling a young and smart wizard a few spells to learn to prepare himself for the cruel world."

Harry knew just how cruel the world could be.

"But not to worry," said Bagman. "Learn the first two spells as fast as you can, and as many of the others as possible. And don't forget to ask a girl for the Yule Ball."

"The Yule… what?"

Bagman was surprised. "Hasn't Dumbledore announced the Ball yet? There's always a Yule Ball as part of the Tournament, and the Champions open the dancing. You should ask someone before all the good ones are taken." He chuckled, winking at Harry. "Not that you should have any problem… Boy Who Lived… Triwizard Champion… Youngest Seeker in a century…"

Harry's ears turned pink.

"Just a word of advice," Bagman continued. "A lot of important people will be in Hogwarts for the First Task and the Yule Ball. It won't hurt you at all to make a good impression with them."

For a moment Harry's mind screamed out 'LOCKHART' but he held back from commenting and waited for Bagman to elaborate.

"After all," said Bagman, "you won't be in Hogwarts forever. In the real world, you are as successful as your list of contacts in the outside world."

"So, you are saying," Harry began thoughtfully, "people I meet in Hogwarts don't matter?"

Bagman chuckled and shook his head. "No, I don't mean that at all. But they're all at the same stage as you, even those in their final years currently. It is the more senior people in various spheres of employment with whom you need to cultivate relationships, even if you don't really like the person."

"Like Lucius Malfoy?" Harry asked sharply.

Bagman grimaced. "Don't put words into my mouth, Harry," he chided Harry. "It could be anyone from the Minister of Magic to the driver of the Knight Bus. It really depends on what you want to do with your life."

"I really don't know," Harry admitted.

"And there's no reason why you should," said Bagman. "Not at this age at least. Just keep an open mind and make use of the advantage you have over others. Important people are willing to give time to you. Talk to them and understand different career options." He finished his drink. "You should head back before it gets dark. There's over a fortnight left, which isn't a lot of time. Remember what I said, the first two spells."

Harry nodded. He pushed the parchment inside his robes and looked at him gratefully. Without the help of Hermione, who along with Ron had abandoned him in the belief he was lying to them, he doubted he had much of a chance in the tournament. Bagman's offer was godsend, and he couldn't believe he had nearly given it up.

Harry walked back to the school, ignoring the superior smirks he was receiving from everyone, including many whom he had never spoken to. He walked straight to the library, took an empty table in a quiet corner and unfolded the parchment given by Bagman.

1. Flame-Freezing Charm… prevent getting burnt from fire

2. Conjunctivitis Curse… temporary blindness on target

3. Geminio… create clones of yourself for distraction

4. Avis Oppugno… conjure attacking birds for distraction

5. Contego… shield for solid objects instead of spells

"Wow," said Harry. He spent the next hour finding books which would have the curses and copied the relevant information, that is incantation, wand movement and any other special notes for each of them.

Contego and Avis Oppugno were the simplest of the two, but Harry forced himself to learn them in order. Only when it approached curfew time did he realize he had been in the library for well over five hours and had missed dinner. He sighed when Madam Pince came to him.

"Can I borrow some of these books?" he asked hopefully. "It's just that I don't have much time before the First Task and the other Champions know a lot more than me."

The stern librarian held his gaze for a few moments, and in a rare show of sympathy, nodded. "That's an odd collection, if you don't mind me saying. Charms, Offensive Magic, Defensive magic and Conjuration."

Harry hesitated, trying to think of a cover to protect Bagman. "I figured I'd learn a few from a lot of different areas because they didn't tell us what's coming and I just want to get this done with."

Madam Pince was slightly surprised at his answer. "Take any one book you want, Mr Potter," she said kindly. "If you come to return it early tomorrow morning, I will teach you that Geminio spell you were trying to practice a while ago. It is a charm a librarian uses often to make duplicate copies lasting of books for the use of students."

Harry looked at her in surprise. "Thanks, Madam Pince," he said gratefully. "I'll see you tomorrow."

That night Harry entered the common room too late for anyone but Hermione Granger and a few other dedicated students working on their homework.

"You'll get into trouble, Harry," Hermione stated in a bland tone, a hint of concern dripping into her voice. "You took a book out of the library."

Harry glared at her. "What's it to you? I thought you weren't speaking to me." Without another word, he stalked up the stairs to his dorm.

He was glad that everyone was sound asleep, as it allowed him to light his wand at a dim intensity and read the book on his bed.

The Flame-Freezing Charm literally made one immune to fire and heat. So clearly there was the threat of fire in the first task. Harry cast a silencing charm and then spoke out, "Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo."

He felt a slight tingle of magic. He repeated the incantation again. He repeated it a third time. That's when he felt a rush of magic leaving from his wand and he took a deep breath.

To test it, he quietly got out of his bed and walked back to the common room. It was empty by then and Harry walked to the fireplace. He could feel the heat and that disappointed him. He brought his finger near the fire and it became hotter.

Sighing, he moved back and tried repeating the incantation. But he couldn't remember what came after the second Flamma and had to refer to his notes. He decided to first commit the incantation to memory.

A few minutes later, he raised his wand, and chanted the incantation again. He felt the rush of magic and eagerly walked towards the fire. This time he couldn't feel the heat and slowly brought his finger towards the fire. With sudden daring, he pushed it forward and gasped in surprise when his hand touched the fire without any effect on him.

He pulled back and smiled triumphantly. The next thing to check was how long the charm lasted. He stared at his watch with his finger dangerously close to the fire. When the heat suddenly became obvious, he pulled out and checked his watch.

"Only five minutes," he muttered to himself, slightly disappointed. He would have to cast the charm every five minutes.

He returned to his dorm, completely oblivious that he was being observed by Hermione, who had been in the common room all along in an armchair facing away from him. But he returned to his bed. The adrenaline of having learnt the first of Bagman's recommended spells in the first night itself made him unable to sleep and he flicked through the pages of the advanced charms book he had brought.

But he spent the next half an hour learning some fun charms instead of preparing for the First Task, as a reward for his quick study, including a hair loss charm, a hair-thickening charm and a flatulence hex.

The next morning, he stayed true to his word. He left the dorm before most of his dorm mates had woken up and grabbed a few slices of toast and rushed to the library. Madam Pince smiled on seeing him, for what Harry believed, was the first time in his life.

"The first thing you need to know about charms is the classification they fall under," said Madam Pince. "This is ordinarily taught in seventh year but I personally believe it to be the most fundamental theory in charms. Some charms are long-lasting, some are short and others only last while the spell-caster is focusing his magic on the target."

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "So, the Flame-Freezing Charm falls into the short term category?" he asked.

"Yes, precisely," said Madam Pince. "And Wingardium Leviosa belongs to the final category. The moment you release your wand, the levitating object falls."

"How long are the other two?" asked Harry.

"Short term charms can be anything between a few seconds to a few hours, depending on the amount of magic you pour into it," said Madam Pince. "Long-lasting ones are generally more than a few hours to a few days, and occasionally, if powered through another focus, can have the effect of near permanence."

"Really?" Harry was shocked. "Professor Flitwick told us no charm can be permanent."

"And he is right, of course," said Madam Pince sternly, "which is why I said you need another focus to sustain it. But moving on, the Geminio Charm falls under the short term category. The charm only lasts for a few minutes to a few hours."

"How do I control it?"

"With experience," said Madam Pince, who didn't sound like she liked being interrupted. Harry shut his mouth. "The spell as you know is Geminio. The wand-movement is this." She showed it to him. "What is less known is the different forms of this charm. Geminio Sextus makes six duplicates. Geminio Decimus makes ten, and so on."

Harry spent the next hour learning how to make duplicate copies of books, and only when other students started coming into the library did Madam Pince stop and frown at him.

"Don't you have classes this morning?"

Harry hesitated. "I have History," he said. "But I'm exempted from classes and exams this year, so I'm only going for those that teach things useful and necessary for OWLs."

"And you're saying History isn't useful?" Madam Pince's lips thinned.

Harry became cautious, he didn't want to lose her good graces. Something Hermione had mentioned earlier in the year came to his mind. "This year's course is about the goblin rebellions before the tenth century. They are not examinable in the OWLs next year."

Madam Pince nodded slowly. "I suppose you do have other priorities this year. But I cannot teach you, in good faith, while you are missing a class. You may study by yourself. If you are unable to do this charm on your own, then come again tomorrow morning."

Harry nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Madam Pince. I think I'll manage by myself now," he said. "If you ever need help making duplicate copies of books…"

"I'll call you," she promised.

Harry scanned the library. The Gryffindors and Slytherins were in History so the only faces he saw from his year were from Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. He checked himself; the only faces he ever saw in the library other than Hermione were Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs.

He knew he wasn't welcome with the badgers because he had 'stolen their glory' and the Ravenclaws were close to the Hufflepuffs, so he decided to leave. He wandered around the castle, something which he liked doing by himself occasionally, and just exploring different corridors and pathways – steering clear of Slytherin, of course – and he was doing that again.

"Ow," Harry cried out, when something hard hit the back of his head.

"Bulls-eye!" Peeves cheered. He was floating about a dozen feet away, with an armful of chalk, and he was shooting them at Harry.

Another one came zooming towards Harry, but with the swift reflexes he had been training as a Seeker since his first year, Harry dodged it. He whisked his wand out and yelled, "Contego!"

A solid bright silver sheet appeared in front of him and the chalk hit it harmlessly. Harry released the shield, and saw Peeves with a malicious grin, flying around the corridor, to get better access to him. Harry steadied his hand and waited. He spent the next couple of minutes summoning his solid shield to ward off the rest of Peeves chalks.

To his shock, when the poltergeist ran out of ammunition, he descended to the floor and burst out in tears. "Potty's no fun…" Peeves was crying. "Peevsey missed every time after the first… Potty's makin' a mockery of poor ol' Peevsey… what will the other ghosties say when they find o-ou' abou' this… P-Peevsey will b-become the laughin' stock of the undead c-community… Potty's a meanie…"

Harry was taken aback. "Don't be upset," he said strangely, and walked closer to pat his back. But as Peeves was a poltergeist, Harry's hands went straight through him. "I won't say a word to any other ghost or human about this, and you can try again tomorrow. Maybe you'll get me next time."

Peeves froze. He looked at Harry with disbelief and hope.

"Twelve shots," said Harry. "Come when I'm alone."

"With dung bombs?" asked Peeves hopefully.

"No," said Harry, a little too loudly. "Because… because… dung bombs should be left for the final round if it's a draw between us."

"That makes sense," agreed Peeves. "Potty's nice to Peevsey. Peevsey be nice to Potty from now on. Potty and Peevsey are new best friends." He soared to the ceiling and disappeared through it, in considerably high spirits.

Harry groaned at his new unholy alliance. "What have I done?" He heard a laugh behind him and was startled. He turned around and realized he had an audience.

"That was… interesting."

Harry looked at the girl who had been observing him. His eyes involuntarily fell on the 'Support Cedric Diggory' badge, which chose that moment to turn into 'Potter's a Cheater'. All good humour left his face.

"Can I help you?" asked Harry quietly.

The girl saw where he was looking and turned slightly red. She quickly nudged the badge to make it revert to its original 'Support Cedric Diggory' message, and she looked at him apologetically. "House unity," she tried to explain. "Hufflepuff loyalty. I have to wear it."

Harry shrugged. "I don't care if you do."

"I think you do care," she said. "The way you cared that Peeves was upset shows how sensitive you are. I think you do care."

Harry frowned, but before he could argue she spoke again.

"I'll leave," she said hurriedly. "I can see you don't want to talk to me." She turned around and walked away.

Harry gave her a few moments and then took the same route that led to the great hall. He hadn't had a proper meal since lunch the previous day and was starving. He sat down between Neville and Ginny, ignoring Ron and Hermione completely, and dug in.

"How's your preparation going?" Ginny asked. Harry turned to her, and her cheeks turned slightly red.

"I'm managing," Harry forced himself to be civil, not wanting to take out his anger on someone who didn't deserve it. "I'm learning some advanced charms."

"Harry," Neville suddenly spoke out. He looked nervous. "If you need help… I know I'm not much… that is…"

"Me too," Ginny blurted out, before turning her head back to hide a blush.

Surprised, Harry managed to smile at them, feeling a sudden warmth inside him. Ron, Hermione, Gryffindor and Hogwarts had turned in majority against him. But that didn't include everyone. He hadn't realised that there were some who wanted to stay friends with him. "Thanks," he said, his voice was a bare whisper, and he could see from the corner of his eye, Hermione, sitting opposite Neville, was looking like she wanted to say something.

"There's something I was going to try after lunch," said Harry. "But I'd like someone to be with me in case I mess up."

The three of them left the great hall and proceeded to an empty classroom after lunch.

"Ginny, do you know how to cast Aguamenti?" he asked, and the girl nodded. "Neville, do you know how to cast Incendio?" Neville nodded. "Okay, this will sound weird, but you both have to trust me. When I give the signal, Neville cast Incendio on me." He ignored their shocked expressions, and continued, "Ginny, when I turn to you, get rid of the fire. Until I turn to you, don't do anything."

Then, without another word, Harry chanted, "Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo." He felt the tingle of magic, and then nodded at Neville.

A stream of fire hit Harry and he was covered in flames. But the flames neither hurt his body nor his clothes, they just stayed there. Harry took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He kept muttering the spell softly every minute or two, "Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo." Madam Pince had said that the charm was a short term one, so if he kept casting it repeatedly, and got into the habit of doing so, it would become second nature for him to continually repeat the Flame-Freezing Charm for however long it required in the task.

Finally, after about twenty minutes of letting the fire stay on him, he turned to Ginny, and was washed in a powerful jet of water. Harry coughed when some of it got into his mouth.

"I'm sorry!" Ginny exclaimed. "I didn't mean to make it so strong."

"Don't worry; better too much than too little," Harry cleared his throat, and shook the excess water off him. But Ginny cast a spell that instantly dried him. Harry was impressed. "That's handy."

"I've seen mum do it," said Ginny. She sounded awed. "That was amazing, seeing you covered in fire and taking it as if it wasn't anything at all. Wasn't it, Neville?"

Neville nodded. But he was looking at Harry curiously. "Do you know what's coming in the first task?"

Harry shook his head. "Bagman advised me to learn this spell," he paused when he saw Ginny's eyes widen in outrage. "What?"

"Charlie wrote to us," said Ginny, she sounded annoyed. "He'll be here for the First Task." She paused for a moment, and when Harry and Neville waited for her to continue, she rolled her eyes. "He works in a dragon reserve."

Harry paled.

"I thought Ron would have told you," said Ginny. "We've known since the first week of term."

Harry didn't respond to her comment. "Dragons," he repeated in a daze.

"Harry, I have faith in you," said Neville. "You'll do fine."

Ginny nodded. "See, you're already immune to the fire…" But she looked worried as well.

Harry looked at the two of them. He was touched by their concern and support, feeling ashamed for not thinking of them more before that day. Both Ginny and Neville were loners, and although he had always thought of them as friends, he didn't feel like he deserved their friendship to this extent.

"I have to learn the spells Bagman told me to," Harry determined. "He must have known of the dragons, so he must know what would work against them. I have to trust him."

"How are you getting along?" asked Neville.

"He gave me five spells," said Harry. "I think I'm quite good with this one. Madam Pince has been teaching me the Geminio Charm. I think Bagman expects me to make clones of myself to distract the dragon. I have been teaching myself the Contego shield, and Peeves is helping me master it."

"Peeves?" Ginny was shocked.

"Don't ask," Harry was too embarrassed to talk of it. "He'll be throwing dung bombs at me for the next few days and I have to shield myself." The other two looked at him sympathetically. "That leaves Avis Oppugno and the Conjunctivitis Curse."

"I've seen Angelina cast Avis Oppugno on Fred and George before," said Ginny. "You could ask her… never mind." She turned red when she saw Harry's darkened expression and realized that Angelina was one of the many in Hogwarts who didn't like the fact that Harry was a Champion.

"I'm going to practice the Geminio Charm on other objects for the rest of the evening," said Harry. "You guys are welcome to stay or leave. Thanks, I really appreciate your help."

"I'll head to the library," said Ginny, "and find books on dragons to see if there's anything else useful you can learn."

Neville thought for a moment before nodding. "I'll help you, Ginny. But I have a class in half an hour."

Harry watched them leave before returning to his spells. He was quite pleased with his progress. But he remembered quite well that the only offensive spell in that list, the conjunctivitis curse, was still to be learnt.

The next few days went by with Harry practising his list of spells given by Bagman, while Neville and Ginny were busy making a new list. Professor Moody had suggested that he should try to outfly the dragon instead but he decided against it. He already had a plan and he should stick to it. The idea was to blind the dragon, distract it so it couldn't hear his movements, and all the time be invincible to its fire.

A few days before the First Task, Harry wondered if Cedric Diggory knew about the dragons and felt bothered. If he didn't, then he wouldn't have prepared hard enough. Harry decided the right thing to do would be to go and warn him. He headed towards the direction where Hufflepuffs usually went after dinner, and was accosted in a corridor by a group of Hufflepuffs in his year.

"Well, well, well," said Zacharias Smith. "If it isn't St. Potter Scarhead."

"I see you've been hanging around with Malfoy, Smith!" Harry shot back.

"Watch your mouth, Potter," Ernie Macmillan shot at him. "There's five of us here and just you. I'd be scared if I were you."

"That explains why you're not in Gryffindor then," said Harry.

"Ernie, don't, he's not worth it," Justin Finch-Fletchley stopped his friend before he took out his wand. "Besides, he might set his pet snake on us again."

"That's right," said Zacharias. "You call yourself a Gryffindor, Potter. When's the last time you've heard what the Gryffindors say of you? A snake in lion's skin, that's what you are."

"Guys, we should go," said the girl who had seen him with Peeves. "He doesn't mean any harm."

"How can you defend him, Susan?" Zacharias turned to her with narrowed eyes. "After how he stole Cedric's glory and demeaned Hufflepuff again! He's a scumbag, worse than Malfoy!"

Harry lost control. "Listen," he said in a low voice that made the others pause and turn to him. "I didn't put my name in nor did I want to enter this damned thing. And until now, I've only been trying to survive this tournament. But now… now, I'm giving you my word. I'm going to win. I will beat your Cedric Diggory and show that I'm a much better wizard than him. And do you know why? Because you pissed me off right now." He took a deep breath and turned around, letting go of his plan to warn Cedric.

But he had barely walked for a minute when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around and reached for his wand.

"Don't point that at me," Susan Bones looked irritated at finding a wand aimed at her face. "I came to apologise."


"They're idiots for saying what they did," said Susan. "But this isn't about this tournament… or you, Potter."

Harry waited for her to elaborate.

"You like taking the moral high-ground against us," Susan went on, "but have you ever considered things from our point of view? In our second year, Hufflepuff would have won the House Cup, but somehow, a few days before the end of term, Gryffindor was up from last place by four hundred points overnight awarded to you and Weasley. Then, several Hufflepuff students with as good grades as Granger wanted to take more than two electives in third year, but McGonagall refused, saying we won't be able to handle the workload. My aunt told me McGonagall got a special time turner from the Ministry so Granger could get what was refused to us."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"Just that this isn't about you or the tournament," said Susan again. "Hufflepuff is the most downtrodden house in Hogwarts. For the first time, at least since my arrival, we got something good… Cedric Diggory, a Hufflepuff, was Hogwarts Champion… for the first time, we felt proud to be Hufflepuffs… for the first time, we weren't ashamed or embarrassed of our house… For the first time, Potter…"

"You think I took that away," finished Harry. He hesitated. "But it wasn't my doing. I didn't want any of this."

"I think… I think I do believe you," admitted Susan. "But that doesn't change the fact that you're the easiest target to direct our anger and frustration at."

"It's always me," Harry shook his head. "The Chamber of Secrets… now this…"

"Yeah, well," Susan shrugged, as if that was obvious. "You're the only famous person around. It wouldn't be as much fun with anyone else." She grinned when Harry looked at her indignantly and mouthed 'fun' incredulously. "Anyway, I told the others I was going to the toilet. They'll wonder what's taking me so long." She hesitated. "Good luck."

Harry nodded. He too hesitated when she turned to leave and blurted out, "Dragons."

"Excuse me," said Susan, looking at him with confusion.

"The First Task," said Harry. "I was trying to find Cedric Diggory earlier. The First Task involves dragons, and that's all I know about it. The other Champions also know… I've seen them research dragons in the library… Can you tell Cedric?"

Susan looked at him silently for a few moments, as if trying to decide if he was being truthful or not, and then she nodded. "I will. Thanks." She smiled at him warmly. "I guess I didn't misjudge you."

"This doesn't change the fact that I'm still going to beat him," said Harry, as his ears turned slightly red at her final words. He found that he quite enjoyed the sound of Susan's laughter as she walked away.

The morning of the First Task approached and Harry was woken up by Neville. Harry had stayed up late, practicing all the spells he had learnt – the five in Bagman's and a handful of others chosen by Ginny and Neville.

The three of them walked together, Harry completely avoided and ignored a handful of Gryffindors who were now beginning to show support to him, when the big day finally arrived. Unsurprisingly, Draco Malfoy, his goons, Pansy and her group dropped by his table for a few words of discouragement.

"Just so you know," said Draco. "I'm selling boxes of tissues for when you die and people mourn."

"In case you haven't noticed, other than Ginny and Neville, nobody's going to mourn my death," said Harry. "Bad business plan, Malfoy, and a shocking one considering your own contribution to the hate-Potter campaign." He shook his head at the tissue boxes. "Doomed to fail from the start."

Draco was at a loss for several moments. But he picked himself swiftly and smirked. "Well, how about that? Potter's growing a funny bone."

"It's kind of hard not to," Harry shrugged, "what with all of you clowns around all the time." He got up. "Now, if you don't mind. There's a dragon waiting to be outclassed."

"Good luck," one of the girls from Pansy's group called out and covered her face when the other Slytherins turned to her in shock. Harry nodded at the girl gratefully and left.

Dragons were indeed involved in the first task. Four great fire breathing beasts were tied to their posts, guarding dozens of eggs, including a golden one amongst it. Bagman quickly explained the first task to the four champions and then called Harry outside the champions' tent.

"Harry, my boy, are you feeling all ready?" asked Bagman. "Rearing to go?" He was looking at Harry questioningly, but was trying to also hint to keep the answers vague.

Harry nodded. "I know a few decent spells that I think will be useful against dragons."

"I hope you get the most points," said Bagman eagerly. "I also hope you finish within thirty minutes."

For some reason, it felt to Harry that Bagman was putting altogether too much emphasis on those two aims. Then, suddenly it clicked in Harry's mind. During the Quidditch World Cup, he had seen what a compulsive gambling man Bagman was. What is to say he hadn't placed a few bets on the outcome of the Triwizard Tournament, and using his special position in the tournament to make things go in his favour.

"I will try," promised Harry.

He waited in the tent for his turn. Fleur Delacour was the first to leave, and then Viktor Krum.

"Thanks," said Cedric, when it was just the two of them. "Susan Bones gave me your tip. I had no clue."

Harry shrugged. "It wasn't fair otherwise. I've seen both Krum and Delacour check books on dragons in the library. I wasn't sure if you knew."

"So how did you do it?" he asked. "Get past Dumbledore's age-line?"

Harry opened his mouth to protest but then he paused. "If you don't believe me already, there's no point in talking about this. Look, Diggory, we're not friends, and you don't have to pretend just because I helped you a bit."

Cedric hesitated, but a remorseful look crossed his face. "I'll tell the others in my house to tone it down. I'm sorry about all the hostility you've been getting."

Before Harry could reply it was Cedric's turn to go. Harry waited patiently, thinking about how things had changed so swiftly in the past month. He was no longer Gryffindor's Golden Boy, cherished Seeker, member of the Golden Trio. But it wasn't too bad. He was seeing exactly whom he could depend on – Ginny and Neville, and he was discovering how much he enjoyed their company. And surprisingly, he was getting along with Peeves as well.

Soon, it was his turn. Harry stepped out. He could hear the cheers but ignored the crowd. Susan was correct; the only reason they vilified him was because he was the one who always stood in the stage. For the rest of his life, he would have to face their alternating devotion and condemnation. He couldn't change that. What he could change was how much it affected him.

"Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo," he chanted, with his wand held high.

The Hungarian Horntail roared mightily when he stepped closer. For a second there was silence, and then the spectators started laughing, because Harry's spell seemed to have no visible effect.

But then the dragon breathed out a wave of fire, and Harry allowed it to hit his face. He could hear the screams and cries from the crowd but ignored it.

"Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo," he repeated, giving him a fresh round of five minutes.

"Geminio Sextus." Harry pointed the wand at himself. Six clones of himself sprang into existence. "Distract the dragon, lead it away from the eggs."

The soulless clones did as they were told; two of them were burnt to cinders, but the others drew the dragon – whilst still chained – to a bit further than the eggs.

"Madrasaei," Harry sent a beam of red light to the dragon's eyes, and it roared in pain. The curse was temporary, making the dragon blind for a few minutes; while the four remaining clones kept distracting it away from the eggs.

"Flamma attero flamma consumo flamma everto flamma obruo," he repeated, and tried to sneak past the dragon to retrieve the golden egg.

The dragon was sending fire all around, but Harry wasn't bothered by it. The one thing that did bother him was the ferocious tail that came swiping the air to strike at him.

"Contego." Harry had been trained by Peeves to ward himself at the smallest hint of sudden movement; and his shield came in time to stop the dragon's horny tail. But the impact had tremendous momentum, which pushed Harry back. Fortunately for him, he was thrown back to a distance out of reach of the dragon's tail.

"Aguamenti," he washed off the fire attached to his robes, which disappeared without having hurt him at all. Then he dried himself using Ginny's charm, and walked towards the judges. Bagman was beaming at him, thoroughly proud of his performance.

"Take a look at that!" Bagman spoke in his amplified voice. "Our youngest champion has finished his task the fastest, in nine minutes, with no injuries and a display of magic much more profound than the other champions. Full marks, by my reckoning. Please proceed to the medi-witch, just in case, Mr Potter."

Harry ignored the cheering crowd, choosing to flash a look of gratitude at Bagman and headed towards the medical tent. He was surprised, however, when he saw Ron and Hermione waiting for him there.

"Harry," he said, very seriously, "whoever put your name in that goblet — I — I reckon they're trying to do you in!" It was as though the last few weeks had never happened — as though Harry were meeting Ron for the first time, right after he'd been made champion.

"Caught on, have you?" said Harry coldly. "Took you long enough."

Hermione stood nervously next to Ron and opened her mouth. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry we weren't there for you."

Harry saw Ginny and Neville also approaching and sighed. He looked at Ron and Hermione coldly. "If you don't mind, I'd like to celebrate with those who helped me survive the dragon today."

Hermione looked close to tears and Ron looked very ashamed of himself, but Harry ignored them. They slowly walked back to the stands.

"Harry, you were amazing!" Ginny gave him a quick hug, and then Neville clasped his hands.

"Thanks, guys," he said happily, glad not to be alone. "How did the others do?"

"Krum used the conjunctivitis curse too," said Neville. "But his dragon crushed several eggs after being turned blind. They penalised him for that. Delacour tried to enchant the dragon to fall asleep and it nearly worked, but it woke up right at the end and burnt her a bit. Diggory transfigured a boulder into a puppy to distract the dragon but it chose to turn its attention to the human."

Harry was surprised at hearing that. Surely, the three of them didn't think they could use only a single spell in the task. But that's what they did, and they were idiots. Suddenly, Harry felt a glow inside him. He had outclassed them. He could win the tournament.

"Your score," Ginny called out when the judges stood up. "It's being given by the three heads and three Ministry representatives from the different countries."

Dumbledore - 10

Karkaroff - 8

Maxime - 9

Crouch - 10

German Ministry representative - 10

French Ministry representative - 10

"Not bad," Neville nodded cheerfully. "Karkaroff gave Diggory a 2."

"Not bad?" Ginny looked at Neville in shock. "He's got the highest at 57, way ahead of Krum and the others… hey, Charlie's coming here…"

"Great Merlin, Potter," Charlie Weasley looked slightly miffed. "You make my hard years of training look like child's play." He chuckled. "Great going, mum will want to hear all about it." He hugged his sister, and then looked around. "Where's Ron?"

Harry paused, not knowing how to answer, but Ginny came to his rescue.

"Ron stopped being friends with Harry after he was chosen," said she. "Most of Gryffindor and Hogwarts turned their backs on him."

"What?" Charlie was shocked. "Why?"

"Jealousy and spite," Ginny spat out.

"They think I should have told them how I managed to get pass Dumbledore's age line," said Harry. "Nobody believes me that I didn't put my name in. They say I acted in an un-Gryffindorish manner and stole the limelight to myself."

Charlie looked at Harry sympathetically and gripped his shoulder. "They'll come around," he reassured. "Look, I have to go now; the dragons have to be taken back. Ginny, I'll write to you later."

"Bye," she waved at her older brother.

"You guys up for sneaking to Hogsmeade for a butterbeer?" asked Harry. "My treat."

"You bet," said Ginny, and Neville also nodded.

Soon, they were sitting in the Three Broomsticks and sipping a warm mug of butterbeer each. Others came to join them occasionally. Bagman was the first of them.

"Well done, Harry," Bagman was very pleased. "Very well done." He eyed the golden egg on Harry's lap and whispered conspiratorially, "I wouldn't open that here if I were you."

"Why not?"

Bagman shrugged. "Some languages do not make sense when conducted through air," he said. "They require a different mediums for comprehension. I really can't say more." He smiled at the other two. "You're Arthur's daughter, aren't you?"

"Ginny Weasley," she nodded and shook hands.

"Neville Longbottom," Neville introduced himself.

Bagman's eyes slightly misted. "I knew your father… We were in the same year in Hogwarts." For some reason Neville didn't want to continue the conversation, so he swiftly moved on. He placed another parchment in front of Harry, and he swiftly pushed inside his robes, assuming it to be another list of spells.

"Thanks," muttered Harry.

"Anyway, I'll see you on Christmas," said Bagman. "Don't forget to ask a girl to the ball."

Harry turned a little red, and Bagman left.

"You haven't asked anyone yet?" asked Neville in surprise.

"Have you?" Harry was surprised too. He saw both Neville and Ginny look at him guiltily. "You two are going?" He smiled, making them relax. But then he complained, "That means I can't go with Ginny."

Ginny turned a little red. But she made a playful retort, "You're assuming I would have said yes to you, Potter."

Harry rolled his eyes and said something that sounded like, "Elbows… butter dish…" and Ginny shut her mouth wisely. "Honestly, with this tournament, I haven't had time for thinking about the ball or whom I want to ask…"

"There must be someone in your mind," Ginny prompted.

"No," Harry shook his head. "No one at all." For a brief moment, the face of Cho Chang, a Ravenclaw Seeker, crossed his mind, but he recalled seeing her with Cedric Diggory, and pushed that thought away.

"You better hurry then," said Neville. "Seamus asked Lavender; and Dean is thinking of asking Mandy Brocklehurst."

"There's Hermione," Ginny pointed out.

"No," Harry shook his head resolutely.

"I thought you were going to forgive her," said Ginny.

"It's one thing to forgive a friend who made a mistake and a completely different thing to trust someone who let you down," said Harry. He shook his head. "I'm not asking Hermione."

"What about Tracey Davis?" asked Neville. "She's really pretty and wished you good luck when the Slytherins came over this morning."

"I'll think about it. Hey, isn't that Fred and George?"

The twins had sneaked into Three Broomsticks and were buying a crate of butterbeer. On seeing Harry, they walked over to him with broad smiles.

"Harry, old pal," said Fred. "We didn't expect to see you here."

"Just planning ahead for tonight," said George. "Big party to honour our own dragon slayer."

Harry looked at them coldly, and their smiles slowly faded on seeing the expressions on the three. "Like I told Ron and Hermione, I'm celebrating with my friends. But don't let my absence stop you lot from having your party."

"But we're doing it for you," Fred protested.

"To beg that bygones be bygones," George added.

Harry shrugged. "I'm not coming to your party."

The twins left in disappointment, and Harry noted Ginny's curious look. "What?" he asked.

"You're going to start on the new list of spells tonight, aren't you?"

Harry nodded. "It's funny, you know," he started. "Magic is really fun. I don't know why I haven't been more interested in learning things beyond schoolwork." He shook his head to himself recalling his father had already become an Animagus by his fourth year.

"I know what you mean," said Neville. "Since I've started researching to help you, I've found so many interesting things that can be done with magic."

Ginny snorted, making Neville blush, and Harry turned to her curiously. "We learnt the flatulence hex from the book you recommended. Neville cast it on Cormac McLaggen when he was saying something mean about you. The curse makes everyone but the victim aware of his… problem."

Harry chuckled. "How did that go?"

"Cormac's attempts to ask Katie Bell to the ball didn't go as well as he expected."

The next group to enter the Three Broomsticks was a big group of Hufflepuffs, who were celebrating with Cedric, including a few fourth years. They didn't look too pleased to see Harry in there.

"Not got many friends, do you, Potter?" Zacharias Smith smirked. "Except for squibs and dark witches."

Harry clenched his fists. He snapped, "Say what you want to say to me, Smith, leave my friends out of it."

"Or else what?" he dared.

Harry measured him contemplatively. He had just faced a Hungarian Horntail, one of the most ferocious dragons alive. A fourth year Hufflepuff didn't scare him much. Zacharias, perhaps thinking the same thing, took a step back.

"Stop it, Zacharias," said Cedric. He turned to his group. "You lot buy the butterbeer and take it back. I'll come later." He turned to Harry. "Can I join you guys for a minute?"

"You shouldn't stay alone with him," a Hufflepuff sixth year snarled at Harry. "Who knows what he'll do to you alone? One of us should stay with you as witness."

"I'll stay," Susan Bones stepped out and took a seat next to Ginny before anyone else could protest.

Cedric looked a bit lost. He shook his head at Susan when the other Hufflepuffs left. "Honestly, you don't need to stay… Harry's not going to do anything to me…"

"I know," said Susan. "You mind?" She pointed at Harry's mug of butterbeer, and before he could blink, she finished a considerable portion of it. She put the mug down and grinned at Harry's miffed expression. "See? He's harmless." She patted his messy head.

"I don't think I like you very much," Harry grumbled, pushing her hand away and moving his mug safely out of Susan's reach, and the others laughed. He felt a slight pressure in his chest when he saw Susan's smile directed at him.

"Thanks for the warning," said Cedric. "I would have been toast if I didn't know what was coming."

"Can I ask you a question?" Harry said curiously. "When you found out about the dragon… why didn't you learn the Flame-Freezing Charm? That's the most obvious thing to learn, isn't it? But neither you or any of the others used it."

Cedric considered his answer. "If I knew there was something called a Flame-Freezing Charm that does what it does, I would have thought about it. But learning an advanced charm in less than a month… it's not that easy, Harry. It's better to play to your strengths."

Harry looked away. "What if you don't have any strengths?" To his surprise, Cedric chuckled.

"You are strong in magic," said Cedric. "I've heard rumours you can cast a full Patronus in the presence of a Dementor. Even most Aurors are incapable of doing that. That's your strength; to learn useful spells quickly that the rest of us require ages to learn. Anyway, I came to thank you again and apologise how my housemates are treating you."

"Cedric's tried to stop them," said Susan. "But they don't listen."

"What I don't understand," began Ginny, "is why they're being so nasty. I can understand your housemates wanting Cedric to win, but that boy sounded like he wouldn't have minded much seeing a dragon maul Harry."

"Zacharias is a bit of a git," said Cedric. He got up. "I have to go now. I was meaning to ask Cho to the dance before heading for the party. Susan, you coming?"

"Nah," said she. "You go get her, Cedric. I'll leave with these guys."

When Cedric left, Ginny asked Susan, "Has anyone asked you yet?"

"Wayne Hopkins from Hufflepuff, Michael Corner and Terry Boot from Ravenclaw," she said, "and Blaise Zabini from Slytherin. I told them I needed time to think. You're a third year, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but I'm going too," said Ginny. "Neville asked me."

"That's nice," said Susan. "You'll have to get your family to send you proper robes if you didn't bring them with you."

"I know," Ginny looked nervous. "I wrote to my mum and she said she'll fix something. I hope it's not too hideous. I can't afford a new set."

"My dear girl," said Susan, leaning forward as if to share a big secret. "The trick is not just the robes, but how your hair and shoes match with it."

Harry and Neville looked at each other and exchanged a silent message of wanting to be anywhere but there.

"Right," Harry said loudly, pushing his mug of butterbeer towards Susan. "Neville and I will take a look at the shops. We'll be back in a bit."

"You do that," said Ginny absently, not wanting to miss out on any important pointers from Susan. "So you're saying that I need to wear shoes that…"

Harry and Neville rushed out of the pub to preserve their sanity.

"What do you think Bagman meant that some languages cannot be comprehended when heard through air?" asked Neville.

Harry shrugged. "Beats me. But one thing's for sure, the egg reveals something in a different language."

Neville pointed to a shop ahead. "That's Dervish & Banges. They specialise in quirky magical instruments. They might have something to interpret foreign languages. Let's check that out."

"That's a good idea," said Harry.

They entered the shop, where the proprietor looked bemused to see actual customers for a change, and nearly yelled out in shock when he recognised Harry.

"Good afternoon," Harry greeted. "We wanted to know… is there any device that can help us understand languages that can't be comprehended when conducted through air?"

The man listened to their problem. "Do you know which language it is?"

Harry shook his head. "But I can make you hear it," he suggested, bringing out his egg.

"NO!" the man cried out. "Don't! If it needs a different medium, then opening it like this will be most unwise."

"Sorry," Harry apologised.

"No harm done," the man waved him off. "No harm done yet. I believe what you need to do is open your egg, if that is a kind of a recorder as I believe it to be, in different mediums such as water and earth. The best I can do for you is…" He fished out a small silver gadget. "This will indicate the language being spoken." He brought it to his lips and said clearly, "Test… one, two, three…"

The gadget had a blank surface where letters began to form – 'English'.

He tried again. "Eins, zwei, drei, fier, funf…"

The letters changed to – 'German'.

"Of course, it will write the name of the languages in English," said the man. "Six galleons, special price."

"I'll take it," said Harry. He paid for it.

"Harry, do you mind if I ask a personal question?" asked Neville, hesitatingly. "It's slightly inappropriate…" When Harry nodded, he continued. "My grandmother says your family was very well-off, and I've seen you carry plenty of money with you… is there a reason why you wear clothes that don't fit you at all? Not school robes… but your muggle clothes… and your broken glasses…"

Harry was wearing his proper robes then, but he understood what Neville meant. Other than his school robes and his fancy dress robes purchased earlier that year, all he owned were the hand-me-downs of Dudley, who was much bigger and fatter than him.

"I guess… I've never thought much about it," Harry shrugged. "I think I need to do some shopping of my own. I'll do it next weekend. Maybe Ginny will give me a hand."

They returned to find, thankfully, that Susan and Ginny had finished talking about dress robes and shoes. Their triumph was short-lived when they heard their new topic – boys.

"Corner is a pig," Susan was saying. "He has made more girls cry in Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw than any other guy in all of Hogwarts that I know of."

"So that story about him and Su Li… that's true?"

"I'm not sure what version you heard," said Susan. "But yes, he acted sweetly to her until she gave him a…" She paused when she realised Harry and Neville were back. "We'll gossip some other time, Ginny. I don't think your friends quite want us to continue."

They started heading back to Hogwarts, and Harry fell into line with Susan. He had been thinking of her while they walked and swallowed slightly before saying, "Susan, can I talk to you alone?"

Susan nodded. They walked a bit slower to allow Neville and Ginny get ahead.

"I know you have other offers but would you consider going to the ball with me?" asked Harry hopefully.

"No," said Susan.

"No?" Harry was shocked. "Just like that? No 'I need time to think'? No 'I'll get back to you'?" He sounded annoyed. "You think I'm worse than Corner, whom you called a pig?"

Susan giggled at his indignation but softened her gaze when she saw he was truly hurt by her response. "Harry, I don't think you're a bad person at all. Quite the opposite. But I spoke to Ginny earlier about dates and she said you hadn't really been thinking about any. I think you're asking me now because I'm the closest witch around and not because you want to be with me… whereas the other guys actually wanted to be with me regardless of how little I might care about them."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't want to date a guy who doesn't know if he likes me," said Susan, referring to his words from earlier. "If I come with you knowing that, we'll both have an awful time… my housemates will get offended… and… do you know how to dance?"

Harry shook his head.

"And you're doing the opening dance," said Susan pointedly. "You don't really want to be with me; my housemates will get offended; and we'll look like fools in the opening dance. Can you blame me for saying no?" She looked at Harry's crestfallen face at her harsh analysis of the situation. "How about this… sort yourself out and ask me again tomorrow before dinner. I'll think again."

"In front of the other Hufflepuffs?" asked Harry.


Harry narrowed his eyes. "So they can laugh at me when you say no again?"

Susan didn't respond and they walked quietly back for a while. "It's up to you," she said finally. "I'll say yes to someone tomorrow night."

Harry headed straight to the library, skipping dinner. He was troubled by his conversation with Susan. She had called Michael Corner a pig and yet she hadn't outright rejected him; whereas she not only did that to him but also invited him to be a laughing stock in the great hall.

Why would she do that? He was bothered and tried to think of what he knew of Susan Bones. Truthfully, he didn't know her that well, despite being in the same year and sharing several classes. He knew her aunt worked in the Ministry of Magic and had reached very close to the top in a man's world. By all accounts, Susan was not unlike her aunt in that respect.

She had a beautiful smile, he had to concede, and a pretty face. And sometimes when she laughed, her hair…

"Potter, you're drooling."

Harry shook himself and saw Viktor Krum in front of him. "Krum," Harry greeted, wiping his mouth hastily.

"Thinking of Herm-own-ninny?" enquired Krum, with a hint of wariness.

"Herm, what?" Harry frowned. "Oh, you mean Hermione? Why would I be thinking of her?"

Krum was surprised. "You are not… does this mean you're not a couple having an argument?"

"Hermione and I?" Harry was shocked anyone could think that. "No, we've never been… like that."

"She is very upset you don't speak to her," said Krum. "I… I asked her to the Yule Ball and she said yes."

"Oh," Harry was surprised that an international Quidditch star was showing so much interest in Hermione. "That's… nice."

"You don't mind?" asked Krum. "She wants to keep it secret because she is worried how you and Ron would take it… she speaks of you a lot…"

"No," said Harry firmly. "Hermione and I are not… like that. If anything, she's more like a sister to me. She hurt me very bad earlier this year and… well… how upset is she?"

"She was crying in an abandoned toilet earlier," said Krum. "I… uh… I used a spell to find her because I wanted to ask her to the ball…"

"In the second floor?" Harry asked, feeling guilty that he had driven Hermione to that place again.

Krum nodded. He looked relieved. "So, you are fine? Hermione and me going to the ball?"

"Of course." Harry nodded. "If anything, it's Ron you need to be more worried about." Harry hesitated when Krum looked ready to leave. "Krum," he called out. "Err… Viktor… can I ask you a question… about girls?"

Krum gauged him for a moment before nodding. He sat down and waited for Harry to start speaking.

"There is a girl I… uh," said Harry. "Well, I asked her to the ball, and she said no…" Viktor looked at him sympathetically. "She said that's because she thinks I don't like her and was only asking because she was available… then she told me to sort myself out and ask her again tomorrow in front of her friends… What does she mean?"

Viktor chuckled at Harry's confusion. "Ah, my young friend… older and wiser men than you and I have tried hard to understand the female kind and failed… But I think it is clear what this girl wants. She wants you to prove that you really want her as a date. If you do, you would take the risk of public rejection."

"But what if she does say no?" said Harry. "Everyone's going to laugh at me… her house already hates me and this will make them even worse…"

"Then you have to ask yourself," said Viktor, as he stood up. "Is she the kind of girl who would do this to you? And if you think she is that kind of girl, then do you really want to go with her?"

That gave Harry more things to think of. He recalled her coming back to apologise when her housemates had insulted him. She had ended by saying, 'I guess I didn't misjudge you' when he gave her the tip for Cedric. That meant she had a high opinion of him.

He recalled meeting her after consoling Peeves. She had remarked about him being sensitive. He recalled she had left in a rush when he spoke to her in an unfriendly manner.

"But she always wears that infernal 'Potter's a Cheater' badge," Harry complained. He looked around and saw no one was there. Viktor Krum had left, leaving him alone. He rubbed his forehead, deciding there were other girls he could ask.

Like Tracey Davis, who seemed to have a crush on him. She was pretty too, and her hair was a similar shade of auburn as Susan's; although Susan had a prettier smile, and a dimple that…

Harry forced himself to stop that line of thought.

Perhaps Parvati Patil. She was one of the prettiest girls in their year and… not as pretty as Susan, of course.

"I'm doomed," Harry muttered to himself. Susan had asked him to propose in public. Why would she do that? Viktor told him to think about what kind of girl she was. Was she the kind of girl who was trying to get him to humiliate himself in public?

"No," Harry decided. "She's not like that."

Harry rubbed his forehead again, deciding to let go of that thought for the time. He had other things to worry about. Harry unfolded the new sheet of parchment that Bagman had given him.

1. Bubblehead Charm… allows one to breathe underwater

2. Impedimenta… slows enemies

3. Diffindo… cuts things as if with a dagger

4. Point Me… Point Me, by itself, will point to the north. Point me Harry Potter, will show me the direction where Harry Potter is

The first charm revealed to Harry very obviously that the next task was going to be underwater. Point me told him that he had to search for someone or something.

He took notes, once again, of the incantations and wand movements and any relevant theory that he needed to know. But the easiest spell to learn amongst them was Diffindo. The only problem was that Harry didn't have any target to practice it on in the library. So when Madam Pince announced the hour before curfew, he decided to leave.

He walked back to Gryffindor common room, and was surprised when he saw everyone still awake and waiting. The crates of butterbeer the twins had bought were still unopened.

"We waited," said Fred.

"… hoping that you'd forgive us," said George.

Harry frowned. Not everyone was there; but everyone he had once thought a friend and had abandoned him after the Goblet of Fire chose him was present. The Quidditch team, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny and several others.

"You know what," Harry said slowly. "I could understand Hufflepuff… I completely understand Slytherin… and maybe Ravenclaw; they had no reason to support me over someone older and more experienced, so I could understand them… but you lot, you were supposed to be my friends." He looked directly at Ron and Hermione. "You were supposed to stand beside me no matter what happened. But you didn't. Guess it shows why the Sorting Hat didn't put you in Hufflepuff."

There was complete silence.

"We're sorry," said Katie Bell miserably. She and Harry had been close, having joined the Gryffindor Quidditch team in the same year and being the youngest in the team. "How can we make it up to you?"

"You can't," said Harry simply. "I guess I do forgive you all, and we can be friends again, but how do you expect me to forget this?" He saw Ginny and Neville look at him. "Don't expect me to be your best mate ever, all of you other than Ginny and Neville," he looked directly at Ron as he spoke and Ron didn't meet his eyes, "and we might still be friends." He looked around and felt uncomfortable being stared at. "Um… can I have a butterbeer?"

"You silly boy," Ginny grabbed him in a hug, surprising him.

"I… I want to talk to you later," Harry whispered in her ear. But he didn't get that chance for quite a while as several others – including most of the old Quidditch team, his friends and a few others insisted on spending a few minutes with him alone saying how sorry they were and how they would never repeat it again.

But Harry realised there was someone who hadn't spoken to him all night. Someone who hadn't even looked at him. He walked to her.

"Hermione," Harry said quietly. Hermione jumped when he addressed her. She looked terrible. "Come here." He opened his arms, and Hermione walked into his embrace.

"I… Harry…" she seemed unable to form words. "P-Please…"

"I forgive you," he said softly. "Don't hurt me again."

"I won't!" she promised, holding him tightly. "Viktor told me what you said to him… that you think of me as a sister… I… I'm so sorry… I'm so sorry…"

Harry held her quietly for a few minutes and then Hermione said she was feeling tired and left to go to bed. He then scanned the room, and ignoring Ron, who was hoping to be the next person he went to, Harry walked towards Ginny and nudged her.

"Oh, right," Ginny said. "You wanted to talk?"

"In private," said Harry. They walked to a quiet corner, where they wouldn't be overheard. "There are two things. First, what does Susan think of me?"

Ginny was slightly startled at his question.

"I am going to ask her out to the ball tomorrow," he clarified.

A strange expression flashed through Ginny's face, showing disappointment and excitement simultaneously. "She… she thinks you dislike her, but I am very sure that she herself has a crush on you."

Harry was surprised. "Why do you say that?" he asked eagerly.

Ginny chuckled. "The way she was looking at you in Hogsmeade. And also, when we were talking about boys, she briefly hinted that she thinks you're one of the nicest boys in her year."

Harry blushed at her words, feeling pleased to hear that. "So, you think I should ask her?"

Ginny paused. The look of disappointment was back on. But she forced herself to say, "Yes, you should."

"Thanks," Harry looked relieved.

"What's the second thing?" Ginny tried to smile but it came rather strained.

"You," said Harry quietly. "Earlier, Zacharias Smith called you a 'dark witch'. What was that about?"

Ginny lowered her gaze but didn't say anything for a while.

"Ginny, look at me," Harry told her. "Is this because of the Chamber of Secrets?"

Ginny nodded miserably.

Harry felt ashamed of himself, realising how in his previous year the three of them – Hermione, Ron and he – had ignored Ginny once again, choosing to have adventures surrounding the prisoner of Azkaban.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, and his tone made Ginny look up in shock. "I should have… I don't deserve your friendship."

"Don't be silly," Ginny hit his arm playfully. "Anyone with a Firebolt thoroughly deserves my friendship." Harry grinned. "Yes, that was a hint."

Harry leaned back with a pleasant smirk. "You can ride my broom anytime you want, Miss Weasley." He enjoyed seeing her face become redder than a tomato.

Notes: Please review with feedback.