Harry Potter and the Veil of Time
Chapter Fifteen: The Second Task
Like all good things, the Yule Ball eventually wound to a close, and Harry found himself lying awake in his bed, his heart pumping against his chest. It felt wonderful to be so excited about something again, and he savored every moment that he was able to spend with Ginny in the coming days. His schoolwork certainly didn't improve, as he grew later and later to his classes, stretching every stolen kiss as long as possible in quiet hallways and shadowy corners. The month of January whisked by in what seemed like one long hazy moment, and before Harry knew it he was eying the calendar and watching the 24th of February approach him, the date of the Second Task.
The snows melted and the eggshell-thin crusts of ice that clung near the still shores of the lake disappeared entirely. Soon, only the very tops of the Hogwarts' towers remained cloaked in white, where the icy mountain winds had whipped the snows to a hard icy plaster clinging resiliently to the lonely banner tops of the castle.
Ron and Hermione had somewhat reconciled over the course of the weeks. Harry had convinced Ron that he should simply apologize for the stunt with Dobby, and when he protested that it had not been him, Harry had told him that it must have been some Slytherin's idea of a good joke. Hermione had taken the apology graciously, stonewalling him for only a few hours before the two began chatting again. Harry suspected that part of Ron's eagerness to get back in Hermione's good graces was because Ron wanted someone to talk to about the fact that Harry was dating his sister. He had remained remarkably supportive, given that they had nearly come to blows the last time he had gone out with his sister. Only his occasional and ill-concealed sullen looks betrayed that he was still bothered whenever Harry and Ginny held hands, or brushed against one another "by accident" or, God forbid, kissed.
Harry hadn't even bothered to take his egg to the baths, both because he already knew how to defeat this task and because he didn't relish the idea of running into Moaning Myrtle there. Cedric had dropped clues for him in passing, and Harry had appeared properly grateful. He also knew that it was Mad-Eye Moody who had told Cedric the secret of his egg, which meant that despite whatever suspicions may have arisen during their tense run-in in the hallways, Mad-Eye was still helping him to get through the Triwizard Tournament, which meant that Voldemort's plans had not changed, or at least he hadn't told Barty Crouch, Jr. if they had.
Harry shivered as he threw the blankets from himself on the morning of the 24th. The chill wind of winter still whipped through the window left ajar in the bedroom, and Harry hurried down into the common room to warm himself by a morning fire.
"Oi, Harry, ready for the big day?" Seamus Finnegan greeted him with a smile as he entered the room. The few other students milling about before breakfast gave him smiles and encouragements as well.
"I'm not too worried," he said. "Just going to do my best, you know?"
"Well, I've got ten Galleons saying that your best is going to be enough, Harry, and I'm not the only one. Don't let us down, yeah?"
"Tell me you'll be taking money from a Slytherin and I promise I won't lose."
There was a cheer at this, and after much congratulatory hand-waving and excited laughter Harry managed to slip out and down to Great Hall, where he ate a leisurely breakfast.
"Cool as a cucumber, eh Potter?" Malfoy jeered from the Slyetherin table. Harry responded with a dirty look and a rude gesture, and the Slytherins gave way to giggling and mocking voices. Harry tried his best to ignore them, and finished his breakfast in time to catch Ron and Hermione coming in.
"Wherever are you off to, then?" Ron asked. "Eaten already?"
"Yeah, but I'll sit with you," Harry said, turning on his heel and following the two back to the Gryffindor. He threw another extended finger behind his back to the Slytherin table, much to their vocal consternation.
"Just as ready as you were before, I suppose?" Ron asked when they had filled their plates with food.
"Maybe even more," Harry said. "This time there won't be anything trying to burn the skin off my bones."
"Ugh, Harry, disgusting!" Hermione exclaimed, dropping the well-cooked sausage she had been raising to her mouth. She looked down at the plate of them. "Well, now I need something else to eat."
"Oh, God, I'm not in the mood for this," Harry said, watching the scarecrow-thin figure of Artemius stalk into the Great Hall. "Look, I'll catch up with you guys later, or I'll see you after the task."
"Or maybe during the task?" Hermione said, casting a knowing look at Ron.
"Um…sure," Harry said, throwing them a small wave before leaving out the farthest exit from the Unspeakable that he could, hunching down and trying to keep himself unnoticeable.
Harry made his way up the twisting and turning stairways of Hogwarts until he found himself near the painting of the fruit bowl that led to the kitchen. Looking up and down the cavernous chamber to make sure there were no other students nearby, he reached up and gave the painted green pear in the bowl of fruit a light tickle. With an almost-disturbing high-pitched giggle, the painting opened to reveal the secret passageway to the Hogwarts kitchens.
The sound of running water drew Harry towards the kitchens, and the thick cloudy heaviness of the steam in the air clung to him like a hot moist blanket. The house elves were scurrying about the kitchen in mass, carrying as many soiled dishes as each could manage, or doubling up with a partner to haul some particularly enormous stew-pot towards the sinks, where another dozen house elves moved like army ants, scrubbing and splashing relentlessly as sudsy puddles of warm water gathered around them. Harry pursed his brow, shielding his face from any wayward spray as he looked around for the distinctive outfits Dobby chose to dress himself in. After a few minutes he saw the little elf, back bent under an enormous cast-iron pot, like a turtle wearing clashing plaid socks.
"Dobby, hey!" Harry said, catching the house elf's attention.
"Oh, Harry Potter, sir!" Dobby said. "Today's the big day!"
"Sure is. Here, let me help you with that." Harry reached forward to take some of the weight of the pot, but Dobby began chattering at him.
"No, no, Harry Potter, that will be quite unnecessary I think, I've got it, yes, I've got it right here, very good!" Harry finally backed away, strolling next to the elf as he made his way over towards the sink at a snail's pace.
"Dobby, I wonder if you might do me a favor."
"Oh, another favor? Dobby did so love that last favor, yes he did! So many festive new clothes for him to wear!"
"Right, well, I'm afraid this one isn't quite as fun, but it's really important, okay?"
"Of course, Harry Potter, of course," Dobby said, reaching the sink at last and tipping the pot into a milky-white pool of soapy water. Harry had to jump back to avoid the great tepid wave that sloshed over the lid of the sink. A trio of house elves practically dove in after the pot, sponges in hand, while Dobby turned back to Harry.
"What do you need, Harry Potter?"
"Well, if you go to Snape's office, there'll be-"
"But Professor Snape's office is locked!" Dobby protested.
"Right, yeah, I, uh…I know it is," Harry said. Dobby's face slowly twisted into a mischievous grin.
"Oh, Dobby sees, Harry Potter, Dobby sees. You need him to go on a 'secret mission' is it?"
"Right, exactly! There's a bottle in there of something called 'gilly weed', do you think you could fetch it for me? I'd ask Snape to just lend me some, but there's that thing where he totally hates me, so I don't know how well that would go over."
Dobby straightened his back and threw Harry a sharp salute.
"Never fear, Harry Potter, Dobby won't let you down, no he won't!"
With a loud snap, Dobby disappeared from the kitchens, upsetting the nearby flow of house elves, who, startled, dropped the great cauldron they were hauling, which caused more elves to jump away, spilling their own plates and pans all over the floors. Harry winced with every crash of porcelain and cookware, but held himself back from offering to help. It wouldn't do him any good on this task to get mauled by indignant house elves trying to do their jobs. He was rescued from simply standing around awkwardly by the quick return of Dobby less than a minute later. Grinning, the house elf pressed the slick damp handful of gilly weed into Harry's hands, dipping into a deep bow with a flourish of his free hand.
"As you asked, Harry Potter, so Dobby has delivered. One handful of gilly weed for your noble purposes, sir."
"Thanks, Dobby, you're the best!" Harry said. He dug around in his pockets for a few moments before coming up with one mismatched mitten. "Um, here, for your trouble."
"Oh, lovely, thank you, Harry Potter! Dobby will try it on immediately!" Dobby kicked off one of his heinous-looking woolen socks, jamming the mitten onto his gangly foot like a misshapen moccasin. Holding the woolen sock in one hand, he thought for a moment before throwing it around his neck like a scarf.
"If there's nothing else, sir, Harry Potter, there are many dishes to be cleaned?" Dobby said, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"I wish I had something for you to do that's a bit more fun than dishes, Dobby, but I'll come visit you again soon, alright?"
"Alright, Harry Potter, sir."
Harry made his way through the bustling sea of elves, and found himself having to fend off tentative offers of the food for dinner, which he saw was already being prepared. The house elves were carrying the pots and pans away from the sink and immediately re-purposing them towards that night's meal. Harry shook his head, completely baffled by the workings of the house elf mind.
Harry stood shivering on the shores of the lake, his own unvoiced prayers for warmth drowning out the murmuring crowd around him. The waters of the lake were choppy and crowned with gray-white froth, but Harry knew it was the murky depths beneath the small waves that he would soon be plunging. Nearby, the judges were all seated at their table, with Percy Weasley sitting in for Barty Crouch, as before. Harry noticed that Percy seemed even more stiff and unpersonable than ever, if such a thing were even possible. Next to him, Viktor Krum stepped back and forth from one foot to the other, rolling his neck and shoulders impatiently while Fleur stood with crossed arms, her lips pouted. Cedric caught Harry's eye, and each gave the other a small nod of acknowledgement. Ludo Bagman stepped up next to Harry, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Know what you're going to do?" Bagman added with a knowing waggle of his eyebrows.
"Got a pretty good idea," Harry said. "Easier than getting gold from a goblin, eh sir?"
Bagman opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it and stepped away from Harry, eying him somewhat nervously as he touched his wand to his throat.
"Sonorus," he began, and then "Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed judges and honored guests! All the champions are here and ready, and so the Second Task will get underway. From my whistle, each champion will have one hour to enter the lake and retrieve that which was taken from them. No sense in wasting any more of their precious time, so on my count…one…two…three!"
Harry heard the whistle and forced his body to move, dashing with the other champions into the frigid lake waters. He saw Viktor's shape begin to change as he attempted his shark Transfiguration, and then he himself plunged into the depths, reaching into his robes and cramming the slimy wad of gilly-weed into his mouth. He forced himself to swallow it down, and fought off the sensation of drowning until it passed and he could feel the temporary gills forming on the sides of his throat. Kicking hard with his feet, he put some distance between himself and the other champions, trying to remember exactly where on the lake bed the merfolk village was where he would find the captives. His hands and feet, now webbed, did a good job of propelling him through the murky water, while the gilly-weed also helped his body cope with the nearly-freezing waters as he swam deeper and deeper into the black lake.
He was straining his eyes and ears, trying to find any sign of the merfolk, or to hear any notes of their haunting song, when the grindylows fell upon him. They came up out of the thick growth of weeds at the muddy lake bottom, tiny needle-like teeth bared and flanked by a host of frantic bubbles kicked up by their sudden movement. Harry had known that they were about, but hadn't realized he had wandered into so large a group of them. He fumbled awkwardly for his wand, kicking his feet to try and escape them, but even with the gilly-weed helping him the grindylows were much stronger swimmers, and quickly had him surrounded. One of them ventured too close, intent on seizing him by the wand-arm, and Harry lashed out with a kick, feeling his webbed foot sink into the grindylow's face with a satisfying muffled crunch that echoed in the murky waters. The little beast clutched its face as it floated backwards, while its companions bared their teeth at Harry and tried to set him off with false starts. Harry finally pulled his wand free from the sleeve of his robes and pointed it at the grindylows.
"Relashio!" he burbled. It had worked for him before, and as before, a great jet of steaming-hot water was flung from his wand into the midst of the grindylows, scattering them like papers in the wind. Harry lashed out again and again. Several of the ones he had missed with the first spell tried to charge him, but he beat them swiftly back with more of the scalding water, and their offensive quickly crumbled. Harry took this opportunity to paddle away from their patch of weeds, sending a few more spells into the undergrowth as a parting shot and driving the last few visible grindylows into hiding, their harsh-sounding foreign curses bubbling in his ears as they swore and fumed at him.
Harry could tell that the lake bed underneath him was sloping downwards, which was a good sign. He thought it would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply retrace his steps to where the merfolk village had been the last time he did the task, but in the murky darkness everything had a quality of drab sameness to it that made him constantly second-guess himself. Had he been turned around? Was he going to come up on the lake-shore, his gills gasping for water while his classmates laughed at his foolishness? But soon he heard them, their warbling melody carried through the water to him; the merfolk! Redoubling his efforts, Harry surged ahead in the water, down into the darkest depths of the lake until he found himself suddenly on the edge of the village, the rough-carved stone dwellings looming around him like slumbering krakens. He was approaching the village from a slightly different angle, evidence that he nearly did miss his previous route entirely, but he quickly made his way to the center of the village, where the greatest throng of merpeople were gathered, and where he could see the shadowy forms of the hostages floating like corpses just off the lake floor.
He was the first to arrive, as before. The choir of merfolk continued singing without even acknowledging him, but the other merfolk were bubbling and chattering to each other excitedly as he made his way to the hostages. There was Fleur's little sister, and Cho Chang, and Hermione, and…
"Ginny?" Harry bubbled to himself. Ron's sister floated with the other girls, all eerily serene as small pockets of air slowly escaped from their slumbering mouths. Harry was thrown off by this change of events for only a moment, and, feeling very clever, reached into his robes for the knife that Sirius had given him for Christmas. There would be no fumbling with lake-rocks this time, he thought, as he easily cut through the bindings holding Ginny to the lakebed. As he caught her with one arm, he saw Cedric approaching, the Bubble-Head Charm encasing him in a pocket of air. He gave a wave, pointing to Cho Chang, and then dragged Ginny away with him, swimming more awkwardly with the extra weight but making progress all the same. He got to the edge of the crowd of merfolk before he paused, thinking for a moment as they whispered and hissed around him.
He could easily get back to the judges and take first now. He knew that none of the hostages was in any real danger. But he also knew that he would take second if he saved Fleur's sister. And he was already poised to make connections with Viktor; why not extend that hand of friendship to Fleur as well? Besides, he didn't want to make any changes so drastic that they might influence Fleur's decision to marry Bill Weasley.
Slinging Ginny over his shoulder, he swam back to the hostages, while the merfolk clouded around him, chattering incessantly. By the time he got back to the center of the square Viktor had already come and gone, leaving only Fleur's little sister. When he reached out to cut Gabrielle's bindings, the merfolk tried to stop him.
"Only yours," one of them croaked. "No help."
"Oh, piss off," Harry said, shrugging off their grasp. They gripped him again, pulling him away from the enchanted girl.
"Only your hostage!" another one said.
"Look, Fleur's been attacked by grindylows, she won't be coming. I'm not going to just leave her here, so forget it," Harry said, trying to maintain a sound of desperation in his voice, like he truly believed that Gabrielle might die without his help. When one of the merfolk tried to stop him again, he batted the webbed hand aside savagely, and made as if to draw his wand. The merfolk clutched their stone-tipped spears, baring their filthy yellow teeth and growling, a warbling sound which sent up clouds of bubbles from their gilled necks, but they made no move to stop him again when he severed the little girl's bindings. Slinging Ginny and Gabrielle over both his shoulders, Harry gave the merfolk a nod and a wink and was off, kicking his way upwards as fast as he was able, the light around him slowly growing less dim as he grew closer and closer to the sunlight. He could feel the gilly-weed starting to wear off as he neared the shallows, and he struggled more and more to pull water through his gills. He finally broke the surface, feeling a dull pain as the gills sealed up entirely, and gasping as he put his lungs to use again, pulling great gulps of oxygen from the air as the crowd cheered and screamed.
Harry managed to take second place again, after he was once again awarded a bonus for his selfless actions under the waters. But his true prize, in his mind, was the breathless words of thanks he received from the tear-stained Fleur Delacour, a gratitude he valued more than gold.