CHAPTER EIGHT

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Severus was contemplating an evening spent sipping elf made wine that Lucius had sent him a week ago. It had taken a detention scrubbing cauldrons and quite a few harsh reminders, but Draco was now behaving like a Slytherin, as was befitting a Malfoy heir. Foolishly baiting Potter and proclaiming his distaste for Muggleborns was neither cunning nor intelligent, nor was endlessly antagonising Weasley, though Snape could relate to such motivations. Lucius had sent the wine as a thank you, apparently the difference could even be seen in Draco's letters home.

Lucius and Severus were two of a kind. Death Eaters, who as Slytherins were determined to be on the right side. No matter which side that was.

Lucius wasn't a spy as such, but Severus could only do so much with the information he himself received or he would run the risk of compromising himself as the source. However, near the end of the last war Lucius had confronted Snape in a rather Gryffindor manner. Nothing too explicit was said, but they reached an understanding. Since then Lucius had fed Severus pertinent information when needed. The movement of their more dangerous associates, rumours of the Dark Lord's return to power, even happenings in the political arena. Severus wasn't naïve, Lucius didn't tell him everything, but it was a help to have assistance when entering the Dark Lord's domain.

It was Snape's testimony of Lucius' help that enabled the man to walk free on an 'Imperious' defence. Declared innocent, but not too innocent that his past associates would be suspicious of him, Lucius had established himself as a well know politician and member of various boards. Severus was content to remain teaching at Hogwarts. Teaching wasn't his dreamed of occupation, but it kept him close to Dumbledore, which pleased everyone, and it gave him access to a world famous library for research and greenhouses for ingredients.

If it weren't for the presence of the students, it would be perfect.

Speaking of students, why on earth did they have to interrupt what was promising to be such a relaxing evening?

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Harry had asked for and received the 'updated' rules for the third, and final, task. Luckily, since he had asked the Ministry, whose love of paperwork was legendary, nobody commented on it. Hopefully none of the other competitors heard what he had done. He would hate to lose any advantage.

Now that he had checked that having potions on his person wouldn't be a violation of the rules, he had to talk with Snape. True, he had something that he was sure would interest the man, visiting the Chamber of Secrets on its own would probably be enough for such a diehard Slytherin. But Harry wanted to gain the man's support, not just his grudging acceptance.

Hopefully access to a sixty foot basilisk corpse would do the job.

It was Friday evening, and Harry was making his way down to the dungeons with the aid of his Invisibility Cloak and Marauders Map. Curfew hadn't fallen, but Harry Potter going anywhere near the dungeons when he didn't need to would raise comment. Everyone had agreed that though not completely necessary, secrecy would be for the best when it came to 'Plan C'.

Finding himself standing in front of the Potion Master's office door, Harry took a deep breath and calmed his mind. It would work, it had to work. Harry smiled at how such thoughts had become his mantra this year. But after preparing as much as he could, he had to let events unfold as they would. Hoping that his luck held Harry assured himself he was actually alone before he pulled of his cloak and put it and the Map in his book bag.

After being ordered to enter Harry took a final deep breath and pushed the door open.

It will work, it just has to work.

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Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom were standing to the side of the entrance hall conversing quietly and trying to remain unnoticed. Harry Potter remaining unnoticed was rather a hard thing to do, even in Hogwarts, but luckily the other students were much more concerned about the upcoming exams than the presence of three fourth years. In order to accommodate the Tournament, the theory tests were to be completed in one week and included both NEWT and OWL students.

Placed at the back of the Hall they were able to be the last in and first out. Hopefully the news that they were sitting the OWLs a year early would wait a while. The exams would be hard enough without the added pressure of everybody watching them.

On Monday they had Transfiguration in the morning and Charms in the afternoon. Having the two most difficult theory papers on the same day had made the previous weekend rather stressful, but even Hermione was glad that they were over and done with.

Tuesday morning they had Defence which had been easy for the three students after their combined and separate Hogwarts experiences. The exam covered the expected questions on the more common hexes and spells, as were the essay topics on dark creatures. Werewolves and Dementors featured most prominently, and Harry idly wondered if the person who had set the questions knew the goings on at Hogwarts last year.

Thursday saw Hermione set off alone for the morning Runes exam. When she returned there was little time to discuss it as they reviewed for the COMC exam that afternoon. Like Defence, Care of Magical Creatures had been almost tailor made for the three fourth years for the same reason. There were the usual questions about Bowtruckles and Crups, but the essay question asked for foot long introduction to a rare and/or dangerous species. Neville had written about the Cerberus, he had heard so much about Fluffy that he easily filled the parchment required. Harry and Hermione had opted for Acromantula, as they both thought mentioning the Basilisk was just asking for trouble.

Divination had actually gone quite well, at least Harry thought so. The practical might pose a bit of a problem, but Hermione had made it her mission to find some rigour to the subject, and had tested Harry and Neville extensively on the common practises and uses of the Art.

Muggle studies had left Harry and Hermione bewildered at how easy the topic was. Hermione, as was her wont, was planning on getting all the Muggleborns in their year to sign up for the exam. It was a point of contention for her, that Muggleborns were less likely to get positions in the Ministry that involved the muggle world, just because they didn't have a Muggle Studies qualification. That all of a sudden a quarter of Hogwarts students would have an additional subject on their records was just an added bonus.

That weekend the twins had taken over their studying. After a bit of a struggle with Hermione they had made their point, and had spent the majority of the time randomly quizzing them. Sometimes with a particular spell, sometimes asking for a particular effect. The last part even caught Hermione off guard once or twice. At the end of it, they were all rather confident about the upcoming practicals. It was surprising really, at how good the twins were at teaching.

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"Before we finish for the evening I'd like to thank everyone's hard work during the past week. The students seem to be doing well, and there have only been a few instances of exam stress that needed to be dealt with."

Dumbledore twinkled at the rest of the staff. Of course he didn't mention that the more spectacular breakdowns normally occurred during the practical exams, no need to worry the Professors unduly.

"Now if I may have a few words with the Heads of Houses, the rest of you may leave."

Minerva rolled her eyes at the gracious tone, ignoring the grumbling of her fellow teachers who moved quickly out of the room lest they be called back.

Why the headmaster had insisted on such a long staff meeting at the end of the first exam week, she didn't know. Severus had snarked that Dumbledore was just exercising his power. For all that the tournament had been his idea, the pay off had not come to fruition. The papers were more interested in Potter than the aging headmaster, and when Dumbledore tried to make an announcement it seemed as if the fourth year's opinion held more weight with the press. Not something that was designed to make the Headmaster happy.

Once the rest of the faculty had left the four heads of house turned their attention to the headmaster, all individually praying in their own way that he would be quick.

"While looking over the names of students taking exams, you can imagine my surprise, and concern, that there were three fourth years taking their OWLs."

Snape concealed his emotions behind his usual calm façade. Of course, Dumbledore wouldn't have cared if it didn't involve a certain student named Potter. In fact Dumbledore quite often had trouble placing an individual student's year group unless it had something to do with his favourite chess piece.

"Concern headmaster?" Flitwick's voice was innocent of any sarcasm, but the others could still hear it. "Surely their achievements should be celebrated and given a chance to flourish?"

"Academic achievement should be rewarded of course, but I am troubled of the effect it will have on their interactions with their peers."

"All three of them showed that they had advanced greatly in the time since they have been excluded Albus. In fact, I think holding them back would have had a detrimental effect."

The other three teachers nodded in agreement and Dumbledore seemed to surrender to the unified front his staff were showing. His position as headmaster truly meant he was more of an administrator, even then Minerva took on most of those responsibilities now that Tom was gathering strength. That was how she had been able to enter the three for exams without his knowledge. Why couldn't the people around him just behave? It would make things so much easier. Of course he couldn't help but try one last time.

"Ah, yes. But what of their year mates? It will make integration that much harder when they return to Gryffindor."

Severus couldn't contain his snort at that. "Hopefully it'll shock their year mates into actually studying next year, instead of just trying to cram five years of education into a few days worth of revision."

"And really headmaster. Even a Hufflepuff would find forgiveness hard after what the Gryffindors did. I'm sorry to say I don't see either side willing to take the first step towards reintegration." Professor Sprout was firm in her opinion. She wasn't going to try and force the excluded students to rejoin their house.

"They can't remain excluded forever!"

Harry Potter being excluded from Gryffindor was a black mark that would have people questioning his management of Hogwarts. Let alone making manipulating the boy into doing his bidding that much harder. The boy's isolation at Hogwarts actually worked against his plans, though during the summer months it was exactly what he needed. Luckily the boy hadn't gotten out of the tournament. Tom would make his move soon, and faced with such an overwhelming superior opponent the boy would have to turn to Dumbledore as a mentor. Too busy convincing himself he missed Minerva's parting comment.

"Why not Albus? There is no rule against it, and as it stands everything in the Hogwarts charter forbids them becoming a part of Gryffindor again."

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Due to the special circumstances, and probably slight disbelief on the part of the examiners, their practical exams would be taken separately to the other students. Hermione had spent over an hour analysing the whys and wherefores of the change and had only stopped when Fred mentioned how much time she was losing from practising.

To be honest Harry was actually feeling rather confident, though he didn't say as much to his friends. There was still a disbelief that his magic would actually work. Sometimes he had dreams of being a muggle and foolishly waving a stick around in the belief that something would happen. That and he didn't want to jinx the whole thing.

The divination practical had been relatively easy, interpreting tarot cards and tea leaves. The same with Care of Magical creatures. Identifying a Krup and approaching and grooming a Thestral.

The Transfiguration and Charms practicals had both been stressful but altogether satisfying. Studying with the twins had given them an insight to the uses simple transfiguration or charms could be used for. The constant practise had made even Neville confident, and all three had performed brilliantly.

The highlight of the exams though had to be Defence. Even the presence of Mad Eye Moody hadn't affected them. Their strangest teacher yet, the Professor had barely said a work to them all year, though they found themselves the object of his magical gaze more often then not. Technically they had learned a lot from his classes, even 'Constant Vigilance' had allowed them to avoid a few confrontations with Ron and Malfoy. The man just creeped Harry out for some reason.

The usual testing had proceeded without fanfare, the three fourth years easily able to perform the standard OWL level spells. It was at the end though, when they had finished, that one of the examiners had asked Harry to cast his Patronus for a guaranteed O. Soon Prongs was joined by a frolicking otter and a lumbering bear. The examiners disbelief had Harry explaining his experiences with the dementors the previous year.

"And truthfully, so much magic is about belief, and since I so desperately wanted to be able to protect myself, well" Harry gave a shy shrug, "my magic responded. Neville and Hermione are good friends, and so I helped them learn it. It's not thathard really."

With that the three students left with the knowledge that they had received at least one Outstanding mark on their exams.

Harry stood staring at the hedge in front of him, trying once again to block out the noise of the spectators. Hermione and Neville had just left to find their seats before the task began. OWLs over, Harry had spent the day with Remus, Snuffles and the other four ex Gryffindors. Either by luck or planning all the exams they wanted to take had finished a few days ago, and with the rest of the school involved in their end of year exams, Harry was able to spend time with his family.

Professor Flitwick had been the one to tell him of the tradition and he had quickly asked for Remus, and his pet dog. Flitwick's response was just a small nod of the head. Harry wasn't sure who knew what, and was keeping the true identity of Snuffles a closely guarded secret. Hermione had even gone to the trouble of hexing Ron silent on the topic. Ron's big mouth was one less thing to worry about.

After wandering around the castle and Lunch in their Common Room, where after numerous secrecy spell Sirius was able to Harry Hermione and Remus as a human for once, they made their way down to the Quidditch Pitch. The maze was contained within the stand boundaries but Neville's guess turned out to be correct and the routes were constantly changing. Luckily the hedges were of such a height that very little could be seen at ground level. He idly wondered if, after the first task, the judges had made the action hidden from view on purpose.

Focusing on the hedge Harry spared a smile for Professor Flitwick who had joined him. Taking a few deep breaths he patted his robes down. The shredded skin of the Basilisk had made a brilliant undershirt. Slightly tough at the joints, Harry had taken to wearing it constantly for the last week to get accustomed to moving in it. Over his leather Quidditch trousers and top, he wore a dark grey robe. Purposefully not showing any house colours, nor the black and purple Hogwarts colours that Cedric sported, Harry was enforcing the idea that he was an unwilling participant and that Cedric was the only Hogwarts champion. That and the dark grey was much less noticeable that red, blue or purple.

Knowing that each point difference made for ten seconds Harry was rather glad he had done so well in the previous tasks. Harry was twenty points ahead of Krum and Cedric who were tied in second place. One hundred seconds didn't seem like much, but they could last a lifetime if he made them count. Readjusting his potion belt through his robe once more Harry started mentally berating the minister as he prattled on about nothing of importance. Like Lockhart, the man just liked to hear himself speak.

Finally given the nod Harry moved towards the entrance of the maze. Glancing back at his friends and Remus he gave them one last smile before readying himself for the starting whistle. Felling confident Harry ran into the maze casting a Point Me spell at the centre.

Honestly. What could go wrong?

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Seeing his wand pointing directly forwards when he had to travel either right of left Harry chose the right path, hurrying down until he was out of sight of the starting point. Quickly unfastening his robes he cast a Freezing spell on a smooth patch of hedge. Throwing the potion vial at the roots he was relieved to find that the potion worked as expected. The foliage died and thinned and Harry quickly threw a few wide cutting curses to make a hole. Stooping through the hole Harry cast the point me spell to re orientate himself. In the few seconds he had taken to cast, the hole behind him had started to close up, now it was no longer passable and at the rate it was regenerating soon there would be no damage at all.

Harry repeated the same actions over and over. Once surprised by a Blast Ended Skrewt, Harry quickly levitated the creature over the hedge he had just passed through, releasing the spell only when he was sure the hole was too small for it to attack him from behind.

After thirteen hedges he was starting to worry, the whistle had just sounded for the third time meaning Cedric and Krum had now been joined by Fleur. He hadn't seen any sign of the other contestants, but neither had he seen any red sparks. Hoping that he wasn't just travelling in circles, Harry threw another vial of potion at the roots of the hedge in front of him. Surprised when the hedge seemed to be thicker Harry threw another vial. Was the hedge becoming resistant? Neville had posited that option, but they had decided that even magical plants took longer than a few minutes to gain such a resistance. Hoping his friend was right Harry took careful aim and started casting overpowered cutting curses.

Finally creating a hole large enough, he forced himself through the gap, only to stumble on getting to the other side. Obviously the thicker boundary had marked the centre of the maze.

Wand ready, Harry kept his back to the now repaired hedge and surveyed the clearing. In the centre on a stone pedestal stood the glass and metal TriWizard Cup. The bluish magical light emanating from the cup threw concealing shadows over the area, and though Harry knew the clearing was square-ish in shape there still seemed to be movement in the shadows.

Keeping an eye on the three entrances, Harry checked he was alone both visually and magically, making sure that there were no obvious traps to be found. Knowing that grabbing the cup would end it, he was still cautious about being too confident so he took a small step forward. Luckily for him, his caution allowed him to spot a fast emerging shadow from one of the entrances to his left.

Retreating, Harry turned to face the new threat. On seeing a mid sized Acromantula scuttling towards him, Harry drew upon his magic to throw a powerful 'Depulso' at the creature. Seeing the arachnid tumble over itself as it was pushed backwards, Harry sprinted towards the Cup. He knew from experience that a considered retreat was the best option when faced with Aragog's descendants.

Keeping his eye on the creature that was trying to right itself, Harry grasped the nearest handle on the cup and tried to brace himself for his second experience of portkeying.

As his stomach was turned inside out, Harry was conscious of one particular thought.

That wasn't too bad now, was it?

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