Apologies for the wait. I've kind of lost my motivation to write consistently…then my not-very-old laptop died tragically. I'm currently using my mobile phone and the app to post this, hope the formatting turns out ok.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Hogwarts Year Five – Lake

Albus Dumbledore was pleased. Sinking into his comfortable armchair beside the fireplace, he twiddled his fingers in a posture of contemplation before once more perusing the letter that his correspondent from Russia had sent.

It was penned by an associate of his – one Boris Popov, a Squib that was currently residing in a remote wizarding village in Russia. Albus had once done the young Boris a good turn. Ah, such a delightful young man Boris had been, albeit sadly untalented in magic. Still, the young man's interest in magic had not waned with the passing years. Instead, he insisted on stubbornly living in wizarding villages – any wizarding village that would have him. The unique thing about this particular wizarding village was that it was located near the local wizarding school, Koldovstoretz, which was a uniquely insular institution (at least from the point of view of Albus Dumbledore, who thought himself to be a wizard of the world).

Koldovstoretz's isolation almost rivalled that of the secret schools of magic in China, several of which had refused to register with the International Confederation of Wizards. Like its counterparts in China, other than the most prestigious of academic competition and events, Koldovstoretz kept to itself. As a result, news from Koldovstoretz rarely reached Britain, and it was only through Albus' own network of friends and informants that he had received the news at all; Albus counted himself fortunate indeed.

In the letter, Boris had informed Albus that he had spotted a teenage boy with jet black hair and a lightning bolt scar in the village recently – a teenage boy clad in the thick fur uniforms of Koldovstoretz. He had even attached a photograph – the scowling boy in the photo did seem as if he could be a teenage Harry James Potter.

Beaming at the letter in delight, Albus hummed merrily under his breath. This was good news, good news indeed. While there were sightings of the Boy-Who-Lived every few weeks, most of it was unsubstantiated. Photographic evidence increased the likelihood that this might just be the boy after all.

The boy in the prophecy...Harry James Potter...the one who had the best chance of defeating Voldemort. Albus stroked his beard thoughtfully with his uninjured hand. It was essential that he send someone over to Koldovstoretz to confirm the veracity of the boy's identity. Immediately.

Unfortunately, there were only a select handful of people whom Albus could rely on to verify the boy's identity beyond shadow of a doubt. The first person who came to mind was one Remus Lupin. Ah, dear, brave Remus. He had been recovering well since the attack at the Ministry, although he had appeared slightly distant and distracted lately – something that Albus had chalked down to worry about his current position. After all, what with that unfortunate werewolves legislation, coupled with Rufus Scrimegeour's suspicion about his presence at the Ministry that night…suffice it to say, Remus' presence would not be missed. Unlike say, James or Severus.

It was time to give Remus another job, one that was preferably far away from Britain, and what better task for him than to assist in possibly bringing the elder son of his friend back home? Albus' eyes twinkled as he thought of the joy that Remus would derive from the job. It was decided – Remus would be heading to Russia at the earliest possible opportunity.

His thoughts then turned to the break-in at the Ministry. Whatever had Voldemort been thinking? Albus did not for a second buy the Daily Prophet's speculation, knowing it to be but a smokescreen. Tom Riddle was not the most brilliant student Hogwarts had ever seen in generations for nothing…Albus found that he could not hazard an answer. He had his guesses, true, but the machinations of Voldemort's plotting mind remained opaque to Albus.

And what a mind it was! Staring at his withered right hand, Albus concluded ruefully that his former student had always managed to surprise him. The powerful and deadly curse on the ring was taking its toil, but fortunately, Severus had recently managed to find a way to delay the curse's effects for even longer. The Potions master had informed Albus that he would be able to ensure that Albus live for another one year.

Unfortunately, Albus was no closer to finding a way to destroy the ring. Which was one Tom Riddle's Horcrux. This was a conclusion which he had reached only a few days ago. It had been an uphill task for even himself to find the requisite books on Dark Arts which had contained even a mention of the object, much less perform the necessary tests to determine that it was indeed a Horcrux. If only it were solely that…but no, in addition to being a Horcrux, the ring also contained the Resurrection stone.

Now, Albus Dumbledore was faced with the unenviable task of choosing his heart's desire or taking the step which might lead to the defeat of the darkest of all dark wizards. On one hand, he could destroy the ring Horcrux immediately, Resurrection stone and all, with the sword of Godric Gryffindor. But that meant that he would never again see his mother or his sister in this lifetime. On the other hand, he could invest the time to find a way to destroy the Horcrux without destroying the stone, and cling on to that little speck of hope. Hope that it would eventually lead to forgiveness, for absolution for his youthful mistakes…Albus Dumbledore sighed deeply.

Remus Lupin stared dully at the table as Dumbledore told him of his latest task. These past couple of weeks, he had been running himself ragged mentally, going over his suspicions over and over again. He had sworn upon Lily's grave to look after her children to the best of his abilities. How could he face Lily, dear, sweet Lily, if her elder son turned out to be the Dark Heir under his watch? It could not be, Remus had thought desperately, the Dark Heir could not be Harry, Lily and James' elder son, no, it was practically impossible. And yet…that small, dark niggling whisper in his mind said otherwise. That animalistic part of him that came out whenever the moon was full, the part that was governed more by instincts than logic, the part that he tried his hardest to suppress once every month.

When Dumbledore serenely voiced the theory that Harry Potter was disguised as a Koldovstoretz student in wizarding Russia, Remus pounced on the idea like a dying man would seize a lifeline. "Of course I'll go, Albus," he agreed a little wildly, desperately, his mind shying from even contemplating that bleak, horrible conclusion that he had previously seemed to be heading towards.

After all, Dumbledore was usually right, Remus reasoned. Hope, fragile and deceptive, crept its way into Remus' heart, and subconsciously or otherwise, Remus allowed himself to be wilfully blinded by it, sinking into its comforting embrace.

That night, Harry sat on his bed, staring at Fitzroy's letter grimly. His father would be furious that Harry's identity ran the risk of being exposed, Harry knew. And it was all because of the Triwizard Tournament, a tournament that Harry had entered into against the Dark Lord's wishes.

Pondering his options, Harry found himself seriously considering something that he had never done so before, not for something so major – keeping the news from his father, and taking matters into his own hands.

Father does have enough problems on his plate at the moment, Harry mused. Deep down, he knew that this was but an excuse. Was this a sign of his growing independence? After all, he did not want to seem like a child, running off to the Dark Lord every single time a problem occurred. Though of course, Harry knew that his father would prefer that he do so.

But it's always easier, after all, to ask for forgiveness if I have successfully resolved the matter, Harry thought wryly. It was a gamble, but one that Harry was inclined to take. Perhaps it was Draco's love of gambling rubbing off on him, Harry reasoned whimsically.

But no. Harry was not one to shirk responsibility, even in the privacy of his own mind. With full awareness and consciousness, Harry had weighed the cost and benefits of his actions dispassionately, as befitting of a true Pure-blood Heir...and made his deicison. He would need Draco's assistance in order to nip Fitzroy's plans in the bud. Or rather, Uncle Lucius' assistance. All without alerting the Dark Lord.

As for Fitzroy himself...Harry stroked Nuit with a cold, vicious smirk. He had always been fond of killing two fwoopers with one spell.

The next evening, Harry surveyed his students coolly. He was conducting a Beginners class of the Dark Arts Association in the Room of Requirements for the Ravenclaws and some of the Slytherin sixth and seventh years who were less proficient in the Dark Arts. They were all taking to the lessons like duck to water, much to Harry's pleased surprise, even the Ravenclaws. He supposed that the Ravenclaws' thirst for knowledge applied to all knowledge, regardless.

Anthony and Stephen both showed talent and curiously little hesitation. Su had been slightly more reluctant to practice the Dark Arts, but was soon easily influenced by her peers and had dived into learning with a vigour that matched the other Ravenclaws'. Padma, on the other hand...

Padma Patil was not taking the lessons seriously. It was apparent, really, from her interactions with Harry. She flipped her hair over her shoulders coyly whenever she thought Harry was looking in her direction, blushed and giggled whenever she made a mistake – something which happened frequently – and pouted at him whenever he chided her for her inattention.

Harry fought to keep his face blank. Internally, he was beginning to regret his decision to date the chit, although it did help to bring the Ravenclaws into his fold. Things had progressed rather quickly with Padma after the Yule Ball, and she was now openly considered his girlfriend, to the excitement and delight of the Hogwarts Ravenclaws. Too quickly, in Harry's mind.

At the end of the lessons, Harry suffered himself to be dragged into a wet, sloppy kiss by Padma. Behind him, he could sense that Daphne was staring daggers at his back. With a whispered "See you later", Harry waved goodbye to the Ravenclaws and turned back to Daphne. Draco and the rest of the fifth-years had gone on ahead – Harry had brought them with him to assist with teaching for the first few lessons, for going forward, they would be the teachers. All of those in Harry's inner circle were well-educated in the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships. None wanted to get in between their prince and his lady.

Harry eyed Daphne with quiet amusement as he took in the smouldering flames in her blue-grey eyes. If not dealt with correctly, it could explode rather spectacularly, he knew.

"Daphne, my dear, you do know that she means little to me," Harry drawled lightly. "A useful tool, nothing more."

Daphne's beautiful smile was honeyed, yet deadly. "Yes, Harrison, I am well aware. And yet...you are dating her because of two reasons – the Ravenclaws and her relationship to the Indian Ambassador, are you not? Now that the Ravenclaws are yours..." Bluish moonstone-like eyes glinted with hidden venom as the golden-haired girl peered up her long eyelashes at Harry mock-demurely. "What if I told you that her relationship with her father the Indian Ambassador is...not as you had assumed?"

Harry eyed Daphne thoughtfully before smoothening his expression into a bland mask. While he admitted that he was attracted to and cared for her, Daphne should know that he would not tolerate any interference in his plans. "Do elaborate, my dear."

Not crass enough to gloat openly, Daphne allowed her tone to slip into the cultured, polite, formal cadences that was the mark of a well-bred Pure-blood lady. "Of course. Simply put, Ambassador Patil's family in Britain is his...Second family. His family in India, with his legally wedded wife, is the only family that is acknowledged and recognised...And of course, he does have a son and heir, back in India – the apple of his eye."

"Of course," Harry murmured, lost in thought, echoing Daphne unconsciously. "This explains a lot." It would explain why Padma Patil had not invited her father to the Malfoy Family Ball during the holidays. There were after all, niceties to observe – it would be a social gaffe for Ambassador Patil to flaunt his second family in polite society. Harry's face was stony as he processed the implications; it would mean that Padma was useless to him, socially speaking. The only person with a lower social status than an illegitimate son after all, was an illegitimate daughter.

"I take it that no one else knows of this particular information?" Harry queried softly, reining in annoyance that Daphne did not deserve. Months of planning, gone down the drain, simply because of a quirk of fate, and Padma's own silence on that matter. As far as Harry was concerned, for wasting his time, the chit deserved a fate worse than death. And he knew that Daphne would never lie about something like this to him. Although deceit and half-truths was the norm amongst players of the Game, Harry trusted his inner circle, and in return, enjoyed absolute honesty from them on matters of import.

Daphne shook her head scornfully as she twirled a strand of her long, golden hair around her fingers. "She would not enjoy the status or regard that she does now if it were common knowledge. Only Lavender Brown knows, and that was only because Parvati Patil was lamenting of her fate to her best friend." The last was said snidely – Daphne clearly had an even lower opinion of Padma's twin.

"I see…" Turning his attention to focus on the enchantingly beautiful girl in front of him, Harry smirked coldly. "Well, we must remedy that, mustn't we, my dear? Spread the news amongst the students and blame the slip on the her little Gryffindor twin. " His eyes were frosty even as his smirk turned cruel. "And when conflict arises, as it inevitably would, and she feels abandoned by her family…that's when we should befriend her once more, my dear. Send someone suitable."

If Harry had not known Daphne so well, he would have described her answering beatific smile as positively angelic. As it was, his heart still skipped a beat as she fluttered her eyelashes at him coyly, whereas he had felt only irritation when Padma had tried to do the same previously. Triumphantly playful and delightfully flushed in her victory, Harry found that he could not resist the sight in front of him. Seized by a sudden impulse, Harry gave in to temptation. Lifting up her fair chin, he slowly leaned forward, giving her every chance to move away – she did not do so – and placed a soft kiss on her tender, pink lips.

It was a heady sensation, light, airy, sweet and mesmerizing all at once. Very different from all of his kisses with other girls, it was altogether too intoxicating to describe. This was the girl that he had known since childhood, had doted upon and protected, as much as he was able. Yet she was also the young lady who assisted him as his Spymistress, who supported him to the best of her own abilities, who elevated his plans and schemes to a top priority in her life.

Daphne Greengrass. Heir to House Greengrass, elder daughter of its current Lord. She was demure, angelic, sweet and seemingly ingenuous. Yet she was also playful, devilish, wicked and deviously manipulative. At that moment, Harry realised that he would not change her for the world and that he would very much like to have her by his side.

For all they were wizard and witch, they still had to breathe. As soon as they parted however, reason asserted itself. His father had always cautioned Harry to be wary of possible weaknesses; this was undoubtedly a major weakness, even surpassing that of friendship. Harry's heart had spoken but his head was as yet more cautious.

Harry never thought that he would ever experience love or romance. From a young age, Harry had a vague notion that he would eventually wed a Pure-blood wife to continue the Riddle family line. Growing up, the idea that he had of this wife, when he had deigned to think about it, had always been a faceless, nameless woman, proper and decorous, able to stand presentably by his side. Basically, it had mattered not who she was, for she would be but a trophy wife. But was Harry prepared to have this woman be one Daphne Greengrass, who was decidedly not a faceless, nameless entity to him that he could neatly categorize and confine in the stereotypical role of 'wife'? The latter was an interchangeable tool of no import that was easily replaced – something which Daphne Greengrass was decidedly not.

There were many issues that Harry had to consider...And to resolve. First and foremost, his father the Dark Lord's opinion on attachments. Secondly, the fact that this was a key weakness that simply begged for the enemies' exploitation. Thirdly, whether this girl, this young lady before him was the one…the person who was fit to be his consort…his lady wife. Harry refused to act upon his impulses until he knew the answer. He was not ready to commit as yet. And he was not about to hurt her with a casual relationship or a fumbling, awkward attempt at romance. Not Daphne Persephone Greengrass, for she was…important to him.

Harry knew that Daphne would know all that with one glance; he had allowed his facial expressions and body language to reflect that much, and what she could not read, Harry was certain she could guess. With the grace and dignity of a Pure-blood lady, she took a step backwards. The two teenagers regarded each other silently for a few moments.

"Don't make me wait too long, Harrison," Daphne murmured serenely. Harry allowed himself one last lingering touch on her silky, soft cheek. His reply was calm, clear and determined. "I would not do that to you, my dear."

Harry was understandably preoccupied when the two of them finally left the Room of Requirements. As they turned out of the left corridor, lo and behold, who should they meet but one Cerise Lavern, seventh-year Gryffindor Durmstrang student. Harry had had his hand placed, rather naturally, at the small of Daphne's back, even as they made small-talk about trivial things. It would have been a display of guilt if he were to withdraw it right now, so Harry left his hand where it was, not even registering Lavern as a threat. Recalling the incident at the Yule Ball, both he and Daphne merely inclined their heads to Lavern coolly, before putting the chance meeting out of their minds.

Behind them, Cerise's eyes glittered malevolently as she stared with heavy-lidded eyes at their retreating figures.

Two mornings later, the news had already spread like wild fire across the school. Harry smirked to himself as he cast his eyes over the Ravenclaw table. Padma Patil had not turned up for breakfast today, undoubtedly hiding in some deserted part of the castle to sob her eyes out. Her social circle had not been understanding. Unlike her Gryffindor twin who solely consorted with Mudbloods and Half-bloods, Padma had chosen to make friendships in Pure-blood circles under false pretences. Perhaps if Padma had revealed the truth from the very beginning, she might have managed to gain a foothold near the bottom of the social hierarchy amongst her circle of friends, or even worked her way up, if she were an especially talented witch. Now, however, she undoubtedly found herself outcast and ostracised.

None of the Ravenclaw Pure-Bloods blamed Harry when he had dumped Padma Patil like a hot potato after the news leaked. In fact, Anthony Goldstein and Stephen Cornfoot had even apologised to Harry earnestly for unwittingly participating in perpetuating a lie when they had previously strongly supported the idea of Padma Patil becoming Harry's girlfriend. Internally amused, Harry had magnanimously forgiven them.

Cedric Diggory however, had looked rather perplexed by the whole incident. Since he had joined Harry's study group with the Ravenclaws (alone, for his girlfriend Cho had taken one look at the other participants and refused to be caught dead studying with them, claiming that it would be social suicide for a Hogwarts student), Harry had been slowly exposing Diggory to the ideologies that the Dark Lord espoused, all the while allowing the others to befriend him. While Diggory's painfully open and honest nature amused most of the Slytherins to no end, Korbin, Anthony and Stephen had taken to Diggory almost immediately. Harry had left it up to Korbin, Anthony and Stephen to explain about the Padma incident, trusting in Korbin to steer Diggory closer to the Dark.

The evening before the Second Task, Harry was relaxing in the Slytherin Common Room with his friends and followers. By now, if he used the term loosely, Harry could confidently say that almost all of the Slytherins were his followers. When the seventh-years graduated come summer, all of them would serve the Dark Lord, in one way or the other and the elite few would be gifted the Dark Mark.

Lounging by the fireplace, Harry was chatting amicably with those in his Inner Circle when a third-year Slytherin came rushing in through the entrance. "Ms. Greengrass, Professor Snape wants to see you," the girl stammered out nervously when all eyes turned to her. Harry raised his eyebrow even as the rest of the Slytherins looked intrigued. Snape had generally left the Slytherins from other schools to their own devices, although he still kept an increasingly attentive eye on Harry. As a result, Snape's overall influence over the whole of Slytherin House had waned, even as Harry's own influence had drastically increased. Whatever could he want with Daphne now?

"I could go with Daphne. See what my godfather is up to," Draco offered quietly as he glanced at Harry. It was at moments like this that Harry was reminded of why Draco Malfoy was his best friend, but… "No. There's no need. I know that Daphne can take care of herself," Harry replied evenly, after meeting Daphne's gaze. Snape was unlikely to try anything overt at Hogwarts, and as protective as Harry felt towards Daphne, it would be too suspicious to insist on someone accompanying her for merely something like a meeting with her Head of House. It was a decision that Harry would soon come to regret.

After eyeing her own nightgown critically, with a wave of her wand, Daphne transfigured it into a long-sleeved white dress, a more appropriate attire to wear to a meeting with a teacher. She bestowed a confident, dazzling smile at Harry before waving goodbye to everyone else.

Once Daphne had left, Harry dragged Draco into a game of Wizarding Chess to help calm his mind. While it would be laughable to be worried about the Second Task tomorrow, Harry could not help but feel a twinge of unease whenever he thought of his…other plans. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. He had prepared as best as he could over the past few weeks, to the extent of ignoring almost everything else around him, even, to Daphne's vivid disappointment, Valentine's Day. A week ago, he had informed his inner circle of his plan tomorrow, and assigned various tasks to them. Given their recent stellar performance, Harry was certain that they would not fail him.

Before Harry could immerse himself in the game however, his thoughts were interrupted by a buzzing of the wards around the Slytherin Dungeons. If it's another student attempting to break into the Slytherin Common Room for a romantic liaison…Harry scowled at the thought. While he did not regret keying the wards of the Common Room to himself that very first night, it was a constant source of annoyance sometimes. With a lazy gesture of his hand, he sent Octavius to open the door for him.

To Harry's surprise, in swooped a tawny owl that Harry recognised – it belonged to Barty. Sure enough, in its talons was clutched a thin magazine that Harry knew was Barty's preferred method of communication. The owl landed on the chess board with a soft thump, sticking out its leg so that Harry could remove its burden. From his position in Harry's lap, Nuit stuck out his head with interest…the owl took flight as soon as Harry divested it of its package. While Nuit would never attack a messenger owl, the owl did not know that.

Had it been any other time, Harry would have been amused. As it was, it had to be a matter of great urgency for Barty to send the owl into the Slytherin Dungeons, instead of merely waiting for the morning post the next morning. Speedily, Harry made his way back to the privacy of his own room before extending a tendril of magic with his magical signature into the magazine.

The magazine floated into the air and formed itself into a white envelope. Growing pale lips, it flew to the vicinity of Harry's ear and Whispered:

"Young Master, I apologise for the late notice – the hostages for the Second Task has just been determined. The hostage that you will need to rescue is the Greengrass Heir – Surprisingly, both Dumbledore and Maxime pushed strongly for her to be your hostage. For your information, the hostage for the Hogwarts Champion is Cho Chang and the one for the Beauxbatons Champion is Hermoine Granger…

Harry snarled. Rage and fury, black and grim as thunderclouds on the horizon, rose to cloud Harry's mind of all but the tempestuous emotions that swirled in his heart. How dare they! How dare they lay a hand on Daphne! It would be all too easy, to give in to the raging maelstrom that was his emotions, and found something, or someone to curse. For a split second, Harry was even tempted to take a leaf out of his father's book, give in to his anger and curse the messenger.

Harry closed his eyes and utilized his Occlumency skills to compartmentalize. He could not blame Barty for his lack of concern, as much as he was tempted to curse someone – the man did not know of Harry's feelings towards Daphne. Harry had kept it a closely guarded secret...or so he had thought.

Since Harry had found out about the details of the Second Task, he had not given much thought as to the identity of the person taken as the hostage. If they wanted to find someone close to him, Harry had supposed that it could have been one of the Durmstrang fifth-year boys, his roommates, or even his best friend, Draco. If he had not broken up with Padma Patil in recent weeks, Harry supposed it might even have been his date to the Yule Ball.

None of them would have evoked this heart-wrenching level of fear, panic and rage in Harry. Especially when Harry had learned that it was Dumbledore and Maxime who had eagerly proposed it. It would be simple, Harry knew, for something to go wrong with the Enchanted Sleep that was used to keep the hostages docile. If Dumbledore had even the slightest inkling, the smallest suspicion about Harry's identity, and somehow knew of Daphne's importance…

In that one moment, Harry was tempted to throw caution to the winds and go after Daphne right there and then. Ignore the Triwizard Tournament, disregard his own status and identity, blind himself to the fact that Dumbledore was a much more powerful wizard than Harry at the moment. Throw away his responsibilities, his duties, forget the fact that his father was relying on him to get the Horcrux ring…it was the last thought that gave Harry pause, that forced him to push past his emotions and to clear his mind. He could not, would not, fail his father…

Father is right, Harry reflected bleakly after he had calmed himself down considerably. Both about Harry's participation in the Triwizard Tournament and about the dangers of having attachments. Now in full possession of his mental faculties once more, Harry's Slytherin self-preservation instincts had kicked in. It had been foolhardy for him to even consider going after Daphne openly…the best course of action was for Harry to stick to his plans and to successfully rescue his hostage during the Second Task.

The morning of the Second Task was chilly with the last vestiges of winter, the sky overcast with dark, low-hanging clouds that stubbornly refused to disperse despite the strong winds. The weather reflected Harry's own black mood as he stared down on the half-eaten toast on his plate. His own inner circle had been apprised of the latest developments and were all currently sombre and grim-faced. Most of them, Harry knew, regarded Daphne as a mixture of little sister and their future lady – all were worried for her. Even those who were not were worried about Harry's reaction; the Dark Prince could be fearsome when crossed, and yet, this was neither the time nor place for a display of his temper. Harry pressed his lips together in an effort to rein in his anger.

Even the rest of the Slytherins were quiet, for word has spread of Daphne's absence. Although most did not understand the implications behind it, the Slytherins were naturally suspicious of Daphne's disappearance as all had strong self-preservation instincts.

Harry pushed aside his own feelings swiftly, choosing to lock it deep down behind his heaviest Occlumency shields. He could not afford to have his own emotions influencing the mood of his friends and followers for the worst – displaying his emotions openly did not a good leader nor a good Pure-blood make. In fact, he had to do all that he could to present an implacable mask, in order to ensure that his followers were in the best frame of mind to carry out their own appointed task later on.

Once Harry stood up, the whole of Slytherin table fell silent. Allowing his eyes to traverse the length of the table, Harry spoke in a soft, clear baritone that nevertheless carried to all at the table – and beyond. "My friends. Although one of our number has been taken from us against her will, fret not. We protect and defend our own." Pausing, Harry allowed his words to sink in. All aroune the table, he saw the Slytherins nodding and drinking in his words with approval and agreement.

"I, Harrison Maximus Riddle, shall do everything in my power to ensure that Daphne Persephone Greengrass is safely returned to our ranks. As I would do for any and all of you." Harry finished with a confident, deadly promise and a vicious smirk that threw the students into a frenzy.

"Dark Prince! Dark Prince! Dark Prince!" The Slytherin and Durmstrang students chanted, entirely of their own volition. Even some of the Hogwarts Ravenclaws had joined in, and Harry could see that Diggory looked thoughtful. For a moment, Harry basked in the admiration and cheers of his peers, then he turned to look at the staff table.

Dumbledore had a pensive expression on his face...it was clear that he had not been expecting this reaction when he had pushed for Daphne to be the hostage. James Potter looked like he had swallowed an insect. Moody's eyes glittered maniacally. And Snape...Snape's eyes were hooded but his lips were pressed into a thunderous grimace. Resentful that the Slytherins are now mine, Severus Snape?

Still, that was a matter for another day. Right now, all Harry needed to do was to save Daphne. And save her he would. Woe betide any who stood in his way.

By the time Harry made his way to the starting position by the lake, he was surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers. Giving them a final crisp nod, he left Draco and the rest to organize the crowd and proceeded to the patch of grass besides the ornate gold-draped judges' table, where Fitzroy and Diggory were already waiting.

"Good showing, Harrison," Diggory grinned at him; Harry knew that he too must have felt some irritation at the fact that his own girlfriend had been exposed to some danger because of himself. After all, the Triwizard Tournament was never a peaceful one. There had been deaths in previous Tournaments...Cedric Diggory had consented to the inherent dangers of the Tournament when he had put his name into the Goblet – he had not however, consented to putting his loved ones at risk.

"Thank you, Cedric. May the best wizard win and all that, but may we all rescue our hostages successfully," Harry replied smoothly and held out his hand politely. There was no reason, after all, to act boorishly simply because Diggory was his opponent in the Tournament.

Cedric Diggory's grin widened. He took Harry's hand into a firm handshake and said with heartfelt sincerity, "Hear, hear. Best of luck, mate." Suppressing a flicker of irritation at the informal address, Harry put on a charming smile for Diggory.

Distantly, Harry noted that Fitzroy watched the exchange with narrowed eyes. The older teenager was no fool. By now, he had to have realize that Harry had no intention of acceding to his request, and furthermore, that he, Fitzroy, was suspected to be the blackmailer. For why else would Harry be so friendly towards Diggory? Let the fool panic. Harry smirked coldly to himself. After today, Fitzroy would no longer be a problem.

Then, it was almost time to begin. Harry watched Ludo Bagman with lazy interest as he announced that the audience would be getting an almost first-hand experience of the Champions' trials and tribulations – a powerful monitoring and tracking spell would be placed on the Champions so that audience would be able to see what was going on beneath the lake. This, Harry knew, was an addition suggested by Barty. Barty knew that Harry's goal in participating in this tournament was to gain more followers. And what better way to do so than by a public display of his not-inconsiderable magical prowess? A public display, which of course had to be viewable by the public in order for it to have any kind of effect. Which the original design of the Second Task had been most decidedly not.

Ludo Bagman, Harry decided, look rather the worse for wear. The stubbles on his face were uneven; it looked as if he had half-heartedly attempted to shave. The deep bags under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights, probably spent worrying about his fate. When Harry met his gaze, Bagman allowed his own gaze to slide away – there was no hint of rebellion or challenge there, so Harry felt quite secure in assuming that Bagman would not defy him.

Quickly enough, Harry put the matter of the judges out of his mind and focused on the lake instead. The Black Lake of Hogwarts. Dark, deceptively placid-looking waters that were green-tinged... For a few moments, Harry wondered if he should have taken the time to research the lake, and perhaps even performed a little reconnaissance of his own. But no, he had not had the time to do so, pre-occupied as he had been with his plans to obtain the ring. It was too late now; all Harry knew of the lake was the information that he had gleaned from reading Hogwarts, A History – that the lake was inhabited by a giant squid, Grindylows and some variant of merpeople. Nevertheless, Harry was extremely confident of his ability to handle anything that the Lake could throw at him.

Over by the judges' table, Bagman was going on at length about the task that the Champions had to complete within the hour. Finally, he ended with the words, "On the count of three, then. One . . . two . . . three!" Bagman's overly magnified voice threatened to deafen Harry; he had to fight the itch to hex the man. Thank Salazar he wasn't one of the audience, or Bagman would soon find himself losing a tongue. Or more.

Casting one last disdainful glance at the lake, Harry did not turn to look at what the other Champions were doing. Without even deigning to remove his Durmstrang school robes, Harry twirled his wand. Once he could feel the effects of the warming, he swiftly followed it with another spell.

"What spell did Harrison use?" Back in the audience stand, Korbin wondered aloud. It was not an idle question, yet his main objective was actually to attempt to break the sombre atmosphere that had fallen over the inner circle once more upon Harrison's departure. Judging by the hemming and hawing from the commentator, Bagman too could not correctly identify the spell that Harrison had used. After pronouncing Alain Fitzroy's spell as an 'incomplete form of human-to-shark Transfiguration' and Cedric Diggory's spell as a 'standard Bubble-Head Charm', Bagman had started making wild guesses about Harry's spell – a fact which had Korbin chuckling and Emlen's lips curling in disgust.

The most proficient at spell theory among them was Theo, who squinted slightly before replying slightly uncertainly, "It looks like a modified version of the Bubble-Head Charm, save that it covers his whole body. And… I don't believe it! He has modified the Levitation Charm to work underwater – look, he's using it to move that bubble along!" Forgetting himself in his excitement, Theo grabbed on to Draco's arm with a force close to bruising.

Amused at his usually taciturn friend's rare display of animation, Draco drawled, "Yes, I can see that." Indeed, from the magnified display screens that showed the progress of the three Champions, Draco could see that the transparent bubble that enveloped Harrison was travelling deeper into the brackish, murky water of the lake at a fast clip – much faster than Fitzroy's or Diggory's progress. Aware that the Slytherin and Durmstrang students seated nearby were hanging on to their every word, Draco flicked an imaginary speck of lint away from his robes. "As expected of our prince, truly."

Catching the hint of warning in Draco's tone, Theo finally became aware that he was clutching on Draco's arm like a child would to his mother. Abashed, he released his friend with an apologetic smile and settled back to watch with proper Pure-blood decorum. It would not do for Harrison's inner circle to behave in an uncouth manner in front of all of the other students from the three schools.

As Harry sped through the lake, he allowed his mind to wander. After all, the wards that he had put up around his bubble would ensure that he would receive plenty of warning should there be any…creatures...lurking in the murky depths. Harry had learnt his lesson this time – there would be no ostentatious display of runic magic or anything similar that might link him to the Dark Lord. Instead, he had modified two very basic charms and adapted them to suit his own needs. One was a charm that any upper-year student could easily learn – the Bubble-Head Charm. The other, even simpler, was the Levitation Charm taught to all first-year students. There was no way that the Dark Lord could call him to task this time, Harry thought impertinently, unmindful of the fact that spell modification was decidedly not a common skill.

As to the other issue of how to find Daphne in the dark, forbidding depths of the Great Lake… well, the joke was on the old fool this time. They must not have searched her carefully enough, or thought anything of that innocuous-looking wristband…Harry mused, taking a certain ironic pleasure in it. Despite most of his friends and followers being Marked, they still wore the wristband simply because it was more convenient in school. Plus, it had the added advantage of being able to display a specific time for their gatherings; useful for setting the date and time for Association classes.

While Harry could not possibly display any sign of using the Dark Mark under the very long and crooked nose of Albus-way-too-nosy-Dumbledore, it was another matter altogether to use a piece of…jewellery, to track one's friend. And that tracking function, keyed to Harry's own magical signature of course, was but one of the upgrades that Harry had built into the wristbands over the years.

Harry was close now, only a few hundred metres away. Before he could reach Daphne's location, however, his thoughts were rudely interrupted by the mental clarion call of one of his proximity wards going off. Silencing it with a swift flick of his wand, Harry readied for battle.

It was a grindylow. Or rather, a herd of them, all ugly little buggers that even a mother could not love. Sickly green creatures with sharp little horns, baring their many teeth at Harry in a parody of a grin. They swarmed out of the seaweed beds and rushed towards the bubble that enveloped Harry.

Glaring at the creatures, Harry prepared to defend himself. The bubble did not have the effects of a shield charm nor was it impervious to physical attacks. Should it pop, Harry's supply of air would vanish. Or he might be crushed under the weight of several tons of lake water. Unfortunately for the grindylows, the bubble would allow spells through, as long as those spells did not result in physical manifestations.

Pointing his wand, Harry aimed the Blasting Curse at the grindylows – he did not even bother to invoke the incantation, confident that his non-verbal casting would result in enough power to damage the grindylows. Sure enough, when the orange, fire-like beam of light hit the grindylows, several of them exploded into chunks of sickly green meat and yellowish blood. In the dim light of the lake, the roasted green meat was almost reminiscent of last night's dinner. The force of the curse caused the chunks to splatter against the bubble and their critters' other compatriots – Harry's lips curled in satisfaction as he surveyed the aftermath.

Harry had been suppressing his rage ever since he had learnt that Daphne had been taken – it felt pleasurable to finally give in to his urge to kill, to destroy. At the same time, he had to be mindful of the image he portrayed to the general student populace, since he was aware that all of his movements were current being faithfully mirrored on the screens in front of the audience. Come on, do give me an excuse…And yes, the little buggers, aggressive by nature, were not giving up. Shaking their spindly fingers at Harry in a display of anger, as one, they hurtled towards Harry's bubble with bared teeth and pointed horns.

It was a massacre – a slaughter, a bloodbath. By the time Harry was done with them, only sickly-green shreds of flesh and oozing yellowish blood remained of the herd of grindylows that had attacked. All except for a lone survivor that Harry had left alive, to bring news to the merpeople in whose custody Daphne was undoubtedly in. Let that be their one and only warning, Harry thought savagely. For no creature or beast shall keep me from rescuing my Daphne.

Random musings: Does Harry love Daphne? That's what I kept wondering as I wrote this chapter. He clearly cares about her, but is he capable of romantic love? Or merely some strong emotion verging on possessiveness? Maybe the answer doesn't really matter, because even if it is true love, in the grand scheme of things, how important is love to Harry? ;)

And yes, I did mention before that I'm kind of bad at writing romance, didn't I? Sorry to disappoint those expecting light, fluffy romance to happen somewhere in this story.