29th October 1994

It was freezing. But then the end of October in Scotland was typically cold, wet and dreary, and just because that Saturday heralded the arrival of the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students for the imminent Tri-Wizard Tournament, it didn't mean the weather was going to accommodate them with a sunny warm day.

Harry pulled his outdoor cloak tighter around him. He noted he wasn't the only one huddling into his outerwear as he looked around the gathered Hogwarts students. The notice at dinner the night before that they had to welcome the visiting schools hadn't met with any kind of school spirit from anyone, even the Professors had looked less than chuffed at the thought of spending their Saturday afternoon on the lawn in front of the Black Lake. At least the schools were coming in daylight though, Harry mused, if it could be called daylight; he squinted up at the grey overcast sky.

"Do we really have to be out here?" moaned Ron beside him.

"Oh, for…" Hermione tapped them both with her wand as she muttered the spell and instantly Harry felt warmer.

She grinned at him. Her brown eyes sparkled and Harry found himself smiling back at her.

"Thanks." He said, nudging her.

Hermione nudged him back. "You're welcome."

Harry tore his eyes away from her with difficulty but determination. He was almost certain that Hermione liked him. There had been the hug after the Quidditch match; a lot more touching in the last week since the match. She smiled at him a lot. It all agreed with the signs of attraction that had been mentioned by his Dad in the memory of The Talk.

He had concluded somewhere around the time that practice dating suddenly became The Thing To Do for the rest of Hogwarts that he really liked Hermione. He liked her smile; her eyes. He liked holding hands with her. He liked being well read enough in their subjects so that he could debate with her and see her come alive with animation; hands flying in descriptive ways as she made her point. He wondered at odd times what it would be like to kiss her. He felt the blush rise on his cheeks as he thought about that again. He had also decided that he liked Hermione too much to ask her on a practice date; he wanted a real date.

There were only two things stopping him from asking her; the Tri-Wizard Tournament and Ron.

Harry glanced over at his redheaded friend. Ron's jealousy about Neville joining their group had abated since the start of school. Some of it was that Harry and Ron got to spend time together alone during Quidditch practice, and it was clearly 'best mate' alone time that Ron valued. Some of it was that Blaise and Neville had developed a friendship that meant Neville paired himself with the Slytherin more often than not in class. And finally, Neville had dived into practice dating with full enthusiasm, spending a lot of time with Hannah (and Harry cast a quick look toward where Neville stood chatting away to her). It all meant Ron couldn't exactly complain that Neville was bogarting Harry or trying to steal him away. Ron had also warmed up to the idea of being friendlier to Neville and had even attempted to inveigle Neville into chess matches, which were very amusing to watch because Neville turned out to be much better at chess than Harry.

What concerned Harry was whether Ron would be OK with Harry dating Hermione. He didn't think Ron liked Hermione that way or thought of her as a potential girlfriend, but he wanted to check his assumption with Ron personally, along with getting Ron's permission to change the dynamic of the friendship the trio shared, because if Harry and Hermione dated, it would change things, Harry wasn't naïve to that. Not that either Harry or Hermione would drop Ron but they would naturally spend more time together without Ron – or at least Harry thought they would when he let himself dream what it would be like. Really, Harry had been hoping that Ron would have asked Lavender on a date (because it was so obvious that she was interested that even Harry had figured it out) and provided Harry with room to date himself.

There was also the added issue that if things didn't work out…he didn't want to think that way but he knew it was something he and Hermione should talk about. Maybe, Harry mused, they could make some kind of promise that they would stay friends. He probably from a protocol perspective should talk to Sirius and confirm that the Head of the House of Black was alright with his Heir courting a daughter of the House – and that just made his head hurt. And made him a little nauseous. But Sirius would be fine, Harry thought candidly; in fact, he'd probably be delighted at Harry's choice.

He'd have all the planned discussions after the tournament opening and the selection of the Champions, Harry determined, his mind drifting to the uppermost reason why he hadn't asked Hermione on a date. If he was placed into the tournament somehow…he'd be in danger and he didn't want to put Hermione in the position of being with someone who was in danger any more than he already was.

He just hoped the security measures were going to be enough. He glanced over at the Professors where a disgruntled Moody was glaring at Bartemius Crouch Senior.

"What's up?" Ron asked, following his gaze.

"Just thinking about the security for the tournament." Harry murmured.

Ron's eyes widened briefly before he nodded in understanding. "Moody doesn't look happy."

"Sirius said Crouch insisted that he do the identity checks for the incoming students and Professors." Harry explained, rubbing his gloved hands together for extra warmth. "Because of diplomatic regulations, the checks are only to be performed once and after that can't be repeated."

"I can't see Professor Moody being happy with that." Hermione commented.

"According to Sirius he blew his top." Harry shook his head. "I don't trust Crouch. I wish he was still at home with the flu."

"Percy'll be pleased he's back." Ron snorted. "Pompous arse!"

"Ron!" remonstrated Hermione.

"What?" Ron argued. "You can't deny Percy is a pompous arse and he's only gotten worse since he became Chief Suck-up to Crouch. You read his last letter to me instructing me on proper etiquette because I was friends with a Lord! Like Harry's ever going to insist I bow to him every day."

"I don't know, Ron," teased Harry, "it is quite tempting."

"Oy!" Ron poked him.

Hermione chided them both for their antics, but sighed and nodded. "Honestly, I don't know how Penny puts up with him."

"Oh, look!"

The cry came from the press corp which was situated on the far side of the grass. Harry believed they were probably the second reason why Moody was unhappy. He strained to see what it was that had got them excited and saw something in the sky.

"It's a gigantic bird!" screamed one girl in the front.

"It's a dragon!" yelled another.

"No," Hermione whispered in Harry's ear, "it's Superman!"

Harry laughed and didn't protest as she tucked her arm around his. He smiled at her instead.

Eventually, the flying object got close enough that they could see it was an enormous blue and gold carriage being pulled by a dozen giant horses with wings.

"Oh aren't they beautiful!" simpered Lavender on the other side of Ron.

"Big." Ron declared.

"They look bigger than the elephants I've seen!" Hermione added.

Something that was verified a moment later as the horses and carriage landed with a thump. A boy jumped out of the carriage and arranged a set of gold steps. As soon as they were in place, a woman, almost as large as one of the horses emerged. She was large, olive in complexion, with dark hair tied back. She reminded Harry of the pictures of traditional Italian women he'd seen somewhere – only much, much, much bigger; almost Hagrid-sized, he realised.

Dumbledore immediately moved forward to greet her. "Madame Maxime!"

"Dumblydoor!" Madame Maxime extended her hand and Dumbledore kissed it.

Their conversational tone lowered and Harry struggled to make out the words through the noise of the wind and the distance. He thought they were talking about the horses but since he'd also thought he'd overheard the word whiskey maybe he was wrong. He focused instead on the gathering students pouring out of the carriage.

"Oh wow!"

A murmur went through the Hogwarts students as they assessed the new arrivals.

"What?" asked Harry irritated.

"Veela!" Ron elbowed him. "Veela, Harry!"

Harry sighed and pushed his glasses back on his nose. All he could make out was a mass of blonde hair.

"Great," Lavender said bitchily, "like we need their sort here."

"Why don't we wait till we get to know them before we pass judgement?" said Harry crossly.

"And it's only a couple by the looks of it." Hermione said.

Across the lawn, Madame Maxine had been introduced to Natalie Warren, the Head Girl, and she was escorting them toward the castle with Crouch, who was presumably going to do the identity checks. Some of the boys' gazes remained fixed on the Beauxbatons group until it disappeared from view.

"Do you think Durmstrang are coming the same way?" asked Ron, stamping his feet and clapping his hands.

Hermione redid the warming charm. "I doubt it."

As though the universe had heard her, a cry went up from the press corp again and someone pointed at the lake.

A mast slowly rose from the silvery water and before long an old-fashioned wooden ship emerged that reminded Harry of the pictures he'd seen in pirate books he'd read in primary school. All it needed was the skull and crossbones, he mused.

The Durmstrang Headmaster, Igor Karkaroff, clattered down a plank that acted as a gangway. He was tall and thin like Dumbledore but with sleek silver hair and a matching goatee beard. He greeted Dumbledore with a jovial bonhomie that seemed entirely false to Harry.

In short order the Durmstrang students were handed off to Robert Ogden who led them back towards the castle.

Ron suddenly clutched at Harry's arm. "Look! It's Krum!"

Harry gently extracted his arm and mused there would be bruises. "I didn't realise he was still at school."

"Krum!" Ron said again.

"He's just a Quidditch player, Ron!" Hermione said exasperated.

"Just a…" Ron spluttered.

"Can we go inside?" begged Harry, already moving back towards the school. "It's freezing out here."

They fell into the flow of the other students. Harry tuned out of the argument between Ron and Hermione over the brilliance of Krum and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that he was at Hogwarts. Harry's thoughts were more occupied with Karkaroff. Sirius had warned him that the man was an ex-Death Eater; one who had turned on his fellow Death Eaters in exchange for a minimal sentence.

After they'd stowed outerwear back in the tower, it was time for dinner. They made their way to the Great Hall bubbling over with curiosity about the likely decorations and the visitors.

Harry ignored the bright banners and shining Hall, leaving others to 'ooh' and 'aah' over them. He sat down and reached for the napkin in front of him. He gave Hermione a pleased smile when she slipped into the seat next to him. Ron sat on his other side; Neville took the seat across from him, flanked by Dean and Seamus.

"Nice of you to return to Gryffindor." Dean teased Neville lightly.

"Hufflepuff must be thinking about making you an honorary member." Seamus joked.

Neville simply smiled. "It's a shame we can't eat at any of the tables."

"You can except for feasts like this one." Hermione said.

Everyone looked at her.

"What?" She demanded, tossing her hair back. "It's in Hogwarts: A History!" She gestured at them. "Haven't you noticed Luna eats with us regularly now and she's a Ravenclaw?"

Harry had a suspicion it was probably Luna who had informed Hermione of the rule or lack thereof.

"Well, good to know." Neville said diplomatically. "Maybe I'll join Hannah at breakfast tomorrow."

"Breakfast, huh?" Dean winked at him.

"Oh grow up!" Neville said laughing. "It's not like that."

"Yet!" declared Seamus.

"Ignore them, Neville," Hermione said firmly, "they're just jealous."

"Yeah, she's right, mate." Dean admitted. "I still can't get Hestia Wainwright to go out with me even on a practice date."

"She's in sixth year." Hermione said with a frown.

"And therein lies the problem." Seamus laughed.

Ron nudged Harry. "Heads up! Snakes are approaching."

Harry looked up and found Blaise, Theo and Draco who had just entered the Great Hall, all heading to the Gryffindor table, Crabbe and Goyle scurrying away to the Slytherin table without them.

"Wonderful." He muttered under his breath. "What now?" He shifted so his body was turned away from the table so he could face them.

Draco stopped just in front of him. "Cousin."

Harry's eyes narrowed at the familial term. "Cousin."

"May I, Nott and Zabini request an audience tonight after dinner?" Draco asked formally.

"About?" asked Harry bluntly, aware they were drawing attention.

Draco smiled sharply. "I don't think you want us to raise the matter in quite such a public forum."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Hermione, Neville and Ron, you're all free tonight, right?"

"Yes!" They chorused.

"You don't need to bring them along!" Draco protested.

"Like we'd let him go alone!" retorted Ron, huffily.

"He's right," Neville said, gesturing with his napkin at Draco, "you know he's right, Harry knows it too which is why he asked."

"Fine, but not Granger!" Draco said.

"Why can't I come along?" Hermione asked tartly.

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Yes, why can't she come along?"

"It's…" Draco struggled to find an acceptable reason and darted a look for help at Theo.

"It's a sensitive subject for Draco." Theo inserted.

"It is not!" Draco protested, glaring at Theo.

Theo stared at him.

Draco grimaced and turned back to Harry. "Can we just go with I would prefer to discuss it without a female audience and leave it at that?"

Hermione crossed her arms. "You're banning me because I'm a girl?" There was a dangerous quality to her tone that Harry knew well.

Ron apparently heard it too because he jumped in. "We need someone sensible left behind anyway to raise the alarm if we don't return."

"And that can't be you because…" Hermione pressed with a stubborn tilt to her chin.

"I'm not sensible." Ron said.

Hermione opened her mouth to argue and closed it again. Her eyes skated to Neville.

"Don't look at me!" Neville said cheerfully. "I swore fealty to Harry."

Hermione huffed out an exasperated breath.

"We'll meet by the library after dinner then?" Theo said, sliding Hermione an apprehensive look.

Harry nodded. He was about to turn back to his original position when the Durmstrang students arrived, streaming through the door and heading for the Slytherin table. Viktor immediately changed direction as he caught sight of Harry, causing many of us fellow students to come to a sudden halt in confusion.

"Lord Potter!" Viktor smiled at him. "It is good to see vou."

Harry stood up and shook the outstretched hand as the Gryffindors around him scrambled out of their seats too. "Mister Krum."

"Viktor, please." Viktor said.

"Call me Harry then." Harry gestured around him. "You remember my family and associates? Hermione…"

Viktor kissed the back of her hand and Hermione gave him a measured nod in response. Draco glared at Harry behind Viktor's back and Harry remembered with a wince that protocol wise Draco should have been first.

"Draco, my cousin." Harry said. "My godbrother Neville, best friend…"

"Ronald Weasley." Viktor smiled. "I remember. Have vou joined Quidditch team now?"

Ron's grin was almost as wide as the Hall. "Yes, I play Keeper now."

"You remember Theo and Blaise from before," Harry continued a little desperately as he took in how much attention they were gaining, "and these are my other friends, Dean and Seamus."

Viktor gestured at the one student that had followed him over. "May I introduce my cousin, Erik Juggen."

There was another round of handshakes and Harry tried not to squirm as Erik stared at his forehead, trying to see the scar.

"I hope we can further our friendship while I am here at Hogwarts." Viktor said.

"I would like that." Harry replied. "We have a training session tomorrow at eleven if you'd liked to join us on the Quidditch pitch?"

"Excellent." Viktor said. "I look…"

"Viktor," Karkaroff appeared behind his celebrity pupil and shot Harry a coolly displeased look, "do you wish to sit here with…Lord Potter. I'm sure it could be…"

"I will be fine with the others at the Slytherin table as has already been arranged." Viktor said testily.

"Draco will be happy to host you there. He, Theo and Blaise are all in Slytherin." Harry offered.

Draco beamed at him happily as Ron's smiled dimmed. "I would be delighted."

Viktor nodded. "My thanks, Lord Potter. It is good to know that I can be vith friends." He gave a short bow and allowed Draco to lead him and Eric away, Theo and Blaise going with him. Karkaroff sent Harry another cool glare and walked away.

Harry slid back into his seat and the rest of the Gryffindors retook theirs. Ron immediately began a spirited conversation with Seamus and Dean about meeting Viktor at the World Cup. Harry focused on his meal, trying to ignore the stares from the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students as they realised who he was. Hermione coaxed him into a discussion about runes eventually and with her distracting him he managed to eat something.

Dumbledore stood up at the end of the meal as the desserts disappeared from the tables. "Thank you all. Firstly, a warm welcome to our visitors! We hope you have a marvellous time here at Hogwarts. Please do take advantage of the Inter-School Common Room available near the library. Part of what we hope to accomplish is to build lasting ties and friendships among us all!" He smiled at them. "Now, onto the matter of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Tomorrow, after being displayed in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, the artefact that will be used to select the Champions, the Goblet of Fire, will be brought to Hogwarts by Mister Crouch, the Head of the Department of International Cooperation."

There was a polite round of applause.

"We will formally open the tournament at that point and request eligible students of age enter their names if they wish to be considered for selection as a Champion. I will reiterate to you all that such an undertaking is a serious matter. The Goblet will enact a formal binding on each Champion which essentially creates a magical contract so please do not enter if you are not certain of your courage and ability to face the three tremendous tasks that will constitute the tournament itself." He smiled benevolently around the Hall. "And now, I believe we should all enjoy the rest of the evening!"

Harry remained seated until the Beauxbatons and the Durmstrang students had gone. He didn't catch sight of Draco but figured he should show up for the meeting. Hermione walked with them, claiming she wanted to spend time in the Common Room.

She slowed as they neared it and saw the Slytherins already waiting for them. "I don't understand why I can't come along."

"Me either but look at this way," said Harry, "we're even numbered and have you as our secret back-up weapon if it turns out they've got something other than talking planned." He waved a hand. "Well, less with the secret, but you know."

"I know." She gave a long-suffering sigh. "If you're not back in an hour, I will come look for you."

Harry nodded and they took the last steps that drew them level with Draco. Hermione gave a wave and disappeared into the Common Room.

"Finally." Draco complained.

"Where are we doing this?" asked Neville.

"There's an empty classroom up by the DADA room." Blaise suggested.

Ron motioned for him to lead the way.

Five minutes later, Harry sat on the professor's desk at the front of the classroom with Ron and Neville flanking him, the Slytherins sat across from him, perched on the first row of student desks. At Draco's request, Harry erected a privacy bubble.

"So, what is this about?" asked Harry impatiently.

Draco cleared his throat. "Due to current gossip in the school, it's come to our attention that you might be thinking of making a move which will not enhance our political alliances in the House of Black but may instead hamper your ability to extend and grow the alliances which we already have, and possibly prevent us from cultivating new ones."

Harry blinked at his former rival and wondered if that had made sense to anybody. He turned to Neville.

"He thinks you're about to do something that will be politically stupid." Neville translated before he frowned. "I think."

"I told him to use small words since you're all Gryffindors but would he listen?" Blaise winked at them.

Draco pinched the brow of his nose. "Yes, you're about to do something politically stupid."

Harry folded his arms and regarded Draco crossly. "What am I about to do?" If Draco thought he was about to enter himself into the tournament, Harry was happy to set him right.

"You're focusing on an existing relationship which is already deeply loyal and deeply committed to the House of Black while ignoring other tentative and newer…"

"Oh for Merlin's sake!" Theo interrupted Draco sharply to gesture at Harry. "Everybody knows you're about to ask Granger out on a real date."

Ron burst into laughter. "Harry and Hermione? That's funny!"

Harry frowned and turned to glare at Ron, ignoring how Neville had placed his head in his hands and how the Slytherins were looking at Ron with ill-concealed astonishment that Ron had apparently not clued in.

"What?" Ron asked. "They've gone mental if they think you're seriously going to ask Hermione out on a real date. Maybe a practice one, yeah, but a real date?" His expression invited Harry to share the joke and laugh with him. "I mean, it's Hermione."

Harry sighed and fidgeted with the edge of his robe. "I was going to talk to you about it on Tuesday."

Ron's blue eyes went wide.

"It's just…" Harry said hurriedly, wishing that he and Ron were alone and not in front of an audience, "so…OK, I know this might change things between the three of us but…I like her and I think she likes me, genuinely likes me, and….and they're right; I want to ask her out on a date."

"Hermione?" Ron said. "Our Hermione?"

"Yeah, Ron," Harry said a little tersely, "our Hermione."

"But why?" asked Ron, plaintively. "I mean, there are literally thousands of girls out there! Why her?"

"I like Hermione!" Harry retorted. "She's smart and funny and pretty. Why wouldn't I want to go out with her?"

"But…" Ron made a flapping motion with both hands towards the outside of the room, "thousands of girls?!"

Harry felt his heart sink. "Do you…I thought…I didn't think you liked her that way but if…"

"I don't!" Ron immediately declared, shaking his head furiously.

"But then…" began Harry confused.

"This is excruciating!" Draco exclaimed.

"Oy!" Ron said, scowling at the Slytherin.

Theo shook his head. "No, Malfoy's right; excruciating!" He pointed at Harry. "Look, Potter – Harry, Weasley doesn't like Granger that way because he hasn't yet noticed she's a girl."

"Oy!" said Ron again before he froze and turned to Harry with a sheepish expression. "Well, actually that's kind of true which is why I don't get why you do, I guess. I mean, she's Hermione!" He poked Harry's arm. "She nags us about homework and complains when we don't study enough and makes sure we eat right and complains about slavery and…and…Hermione things!"

Harry rolled his eyes. "She's also brilliant, Ron!"

"Yes, as a friend." Ron stated firmly.

"As, you know, a girl!" Harry argued, forgetting momentarily that there were others present. "I don't know why you don't see it! She gives really great hugs and her eyes are really pretty…and she does this thing when she's debating with wrinkling her nose that's so cute and…"

"Merlin!" Ron interrupted. "You like Hermione!"

"Now he gets it!" Draco threw up his hands.

Ron glowered at him. "Shut it, Malfoy!"

"So, are you OK with me asking her out?" Harry asked nervously. "I mean, you and I would still spend time together and we'd still spend time all of us as friends, it's just…"

"You'd be dating Hermione and she would be dating you." Ron completed, a small frown on his face that Harry knew meant he was unhappy.

"Well, she still has to say yes when I ask her." Harry said, trying not to show how uncertain he was that she was going to say yes.

"Like she's going to say no!" scoffed Draco.

They all looked at him.

"What?" Draco said, flinging his hands out. "It's perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes and a modicum of sense," he threw Ron a sneering look, "that Granger is going to say yes." He made another flappy hand gesture. "Which is why, getting back to the point of this meeting, you shouldn't ask her."

"Huh?" asked Ron, patently as bewildered as Harry felt.

"This isn't going to go well." Neville predicted with a sigh.

"Why shouldn't Harry ask Hermione out if he wants to?" Ron snapped at the blond Slytherin. He turned back to Harry. "You go for it, mate."

"No!" Draco said, standing up. "He can't go for it!" He waved a hand at the door. "Not with Granger anyway."

Harry felt his anger start to stir.

"Just where do you get off telling Harry who he can go for it with?!" Ron retorted furiously, always quicker to anger than Harry.

"I'm a member of the House of Black." Draco said just as snootily as he'd always proclaimed to be a Malfoy."I'm perfectly entitled to raise my concerns with the Heir!"

"But he's the Heir!" declared Ron. "He outranks you!"

Harry glanced at Neville who sent him 'I knew this was going to disintegrate into a Ron and Draco shouting match' look of sympathy. Harry sighed and stood up which immediately brought a halt to the shouting match.

"Right," Harry said irritated, "someone – not you, Malfoy," he stopped Draco with a look, "is going to explain why I shouldn't ask Hermione out."

"Politics." Blaise said succinctly in an altogether too cheerful voice.

"Look," Theo held his hands up in a placating gesture, "you're the Head of your House, the Heir of another. Hermione is a member of the House of Black. She's completely loyal to you already and is never going to be anything other than an ally for you."

"And this is bad for Harry how?" demanded Ron crossly.

"It takes him off the market." Blaise said bluntly.

"In trying to finesse a closer relationship with some of the other important families, it would be good if Harry was available." Theo expanded. He met Harry's furious gaze. "If you dated a few eligible girls, it would do wonders to help foster goodwill and bring people into your corner. Keeping people thinking you're available is a good way to draw them in."

"Girls want to go out with you, Potter." Draco drawled. "Why is a mystery but it presents an opportunity."

"Which is lost if you take up with Granger." Blaise added. "Everyone will consider you naïve because you've focused on your inner circle and there'll be resentment and hurt feelings among the other girls." He caught Neville's disapproving glare and sighed. "Don't look at me like that. You know I'm right."

Harry cast a questioning glance in Neville's direction.

Neville grimaced and nodded. "They have a point." He shot the Slytherins another disapproving look. "Although how they've made it is not exactly brilliant and hasn't considered everything."

Harry pressed his lips together. "Well?" He asked impatiently, because he knew Neville would be honest with him.

"If you date Hermione, it takes you off the market," Neville explained, "they're right about that."

"Even I get that." Harry muttered. He wasn't quite that dense.

"Right," Neville said hurriedly, "what you're missing is that currently within the many, many admirers you have there are a number of girls who would like to date you because it would benefit them politically; all from prestigious families; all who are in families where an alliance would be useful and advantageous to your Houses, either Black or Potter." His expression turned considering. "I'm guessing that as it's this lot who've raised the issue, probably more advantageous to Black? Probably pureblood and traditional families?"

Theo nodded while Draco made a huffing sound and crossed his arms. Blaise grinned at him.

"A date with you," Neville raised his hand preventing Harry from protesting, "just one date with any of these girls or boys even will make them feel special and their families will rethink their position on you. It'll make you and your agenda more accessible. It gives them hope that if they agree a political alliance that with continued exposure, they'll have the opportunity to influence you. It also does give you and Sirius an angle to get closer to them and influence them; bring others over to us."

Harry's jaw tightened with anger with every word Neville said especially as he could see Theo nodding along in the background. Maybe, in hindsight, Theo had had another motive in suggesting the practice dating thing, he mused.

"If you do go out with Hermione, then some of those families will probably think that you've decided against them already especially as Hermione is a muggleborn. They'll resent you for not providing them with the opportunity to court you and believe you entrenched in your position and therefore determine that you're not worthy of spending the time trying to get you into any kind of alliance with them." Neville continued.

Harry slumped back against the desk, took off his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

"We're not saying you should never date Granger…" Theo offered apologetically.

"Just give us the opportunity to take advantage of your bachelor status first." Draco said almost soothingly.

Harry looked up at that with a frown.

"Bollocks!" Ron declared. "You date who you want, mate."

"Like you're really all that happy if he dates Granger!" Draco returned, annoyance colouring his tone again.

"I am!" Ron protested.

And, OK, Harry knew Ron was lying with that one.

"You so are not!" Draco pointed at him victoriously. "You're going to hate them being lovey-dovey around you! Snogging all the time and making kissy faces!"

Ron flushed and his eyes darted to Harry with a faint air of regret. "It's just…"

"I know, Ron, it would probably be uncomfortable at first," Harry admitted, "but can you honestly see Hermione and me snogging in front of you all the time? We wouldn't; you know that." He nudged Ron's shoulder. "Besides, who's to say you don't go out with someone yourself?" Like Lavender.

"Well, I guess." Ron conceded, glared again at Draco.

"So I'm going to go with the notion that you still want to date Granger, Potter." Blaise commented, idly picking off lint from his robes.

"Yes, I still want to date Gran…Hermione." Harry retorted. He folded his arms and tried hard to see past the knee-jerk reaction of them simply doing this to annoy him. He could believe that of Draco, maybe of Blaise, but not really of Theo. And Neville had pretty much confirmed that there was a real issue under the posturing.

"OK, so thank you for bringing this to my attention," Harry said formally and his words caused everyone to shift position, realising that the discussion part of the meeting was definitely over, "and I appreciate your concern. However, I think the Head of the House of Black has already made his position on this quite clear when he declared that we can find our own life partners." He looked at Draco. "If he wanted us to broker alliance deals in that way, you'd still be arranged with Pansy Parkinson instead of being free to choose who you wish."

Draco winced.

"Good point." Blaise declared with a grin, ignoring the sneer Draco cast in his direction.

"An interesting point." Theo said suddenly, standing and staring at Draco with a renewed spark in his eye.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Draco demanded.

Neville's face brightened with realisation. "Of course!"

Draco's head snapped to him. "What?"

"We need a single unattached male associated with the House of Black to offer up for potential future alliances," Theo pointed at him, "we have you."

"Me?!" Draco whirled around to glower at Theo.

"You." Theo confirmed.

"I am not being pimped out like some cheap floozy!" Draco snarled.

Harry raised an eyebrow and folded his arms over his chest. "So, it's alright if I'm pimped out but not you?"

"He has a point." Ron said cheerfully.

Draco sent him a disgruntled look.

"Actually, it's a much more believable move to offer up Malfoy." Neville said calmly. "You're a pureblood, traditional, and much closer to their politics. You have the whole 'I know your way is best but I'm subject to primacy' thing to placate them with and yet you can still get them close to Harry and Sirius for potential influencing purposes." He made a circular gesture.

"Nobody is going to believe I'm close enough with Potter with our history for it to be believable." Draco pointed out derisively.

"So, spend an hour every Sunday together discussing House business or debating politics or something that you can both say you were ordered to do to build a closer relationship." Blaise suggested. "Somewhere public but private like the new Common Room."

"You can also always say that a date comes with at least an introduction to Harry." Neville added.

"Your idea may have some merit." Draco allowed and sneaked a look towards Harry.

"If it gets me out of dating a whole bunch of girls who just see me as a meal ticket, I'm all for it." Harry said. Not that he looked forward to the whole spending an hour thing but maybe it would be useful if for no other reason to quiz Draco on how the things Sirius was putting in place were going down with the pureblood families in Slytherin.

"On the plus side," Theo said to Draco, "if you're dating a whole bunch of other girls, Pansy may actually get the message that you're not with her anymore."

"I was never with her to start with." Draco said tersely. He took a moment to think it over, his jaw working as he reviewed the idea. "You'll owe me, Potter."

"I don't owe you anything," Harry rejoined briskly, "you're supposed to be a loyal and contributing member of the House of Black; we'll consider this your contribution."

Draco's eyes blazed. "Fine but we do the first Sunday meet tomorrow."

"Well, it is Sunday." Harry sighed. He figured Draco had agreed because it benefited Draco to agree rather than any because it benefited the House of Black or Harry really but that was fine. At least he knew where he stood with Draco.

"Speaking of which," Ron said suddenly, "why Tuesday?"

"What?" asked Draco bewildered, turning to stare at Ron like he thought the Gryffindor was crazy.

"Not you," Ron dismissed him with a flappy hand gesture, "Harry. Why were you going to talk to me about Hermione on Tuesday?"

Harry sighed heavily and shot Ron a 'you couldn't wait until we were alone' look. "Because of the tournament." He sent Ron a 'please remember what I told you about someone trying to get me into the tournament' look and was pleased when Ron got it and went red and white in order under his freckles.

"You do know we're Slytherins and caught that really not very subtle 'get a clue' look, right?" Blaise pointed out dryly.

Harry blushed and rubbed the back of his neck, aware that he and Ron were now looking completely guilty. "It's nothing…it's just…." he sighed again and caved when Neville stared at him in confusion, "Sirius has reason to believe that Voldemort is trying to get me into the tournament."

Everyone fell silent for a long moment as they absorbed that.

"Well, it will be an easy way to kill you without him lifting a finger or whatever he has as a finger these days." Draco said bluntly.

"Thank you, Draco, for summarising the situation so well." Harry said sarcastically.

Neville nodded slowly. "It makes sense." He sighed. "The tasks are constructed for students of seventeen. He has to think you're going to struggle with them at fourteen no matter how powerful you are."

"So, you were going to wait until Tuesday before having the conversation with Ron because you're waiting until after Monday night to see if you're being entered into the competition." Theo stated with far too much understanding for Harry's liking.

"What does that mean?" asked Ron tersely.

Theo looked at Harry.

"Well, if I'm in the tournament, I can hardly ask Hermione to go out with me." Harry pointed out with enough briskness that he hoped they'd drop the subject.

"Why not?" Neville questioned with genuine bemusement written across his sturdy features. "It's not like you're not already in danger."

"Because it's not fair on her!" Harry protested.

"Mate," Ron slapped a hand on Harry's shoulder, "if you like her, you should ask her and let her decide. She'll kill you if you don't give her the option and you know what she's like; she's scary when she's angry."

"And violent." Draco said, a hint of amusement creeping back into his voice.

"Yes, he has the handprint on his face to prove it." Blaise drawled, jumping off the desk. "My vote goes with them by the way; I think you should ask her whether you're in the tournament or not."

"Knowing Granger she'll stick by you," Theo chimed in, "which I'm sure is one of the reasons why you like her enough to ask her on a date in the first place. You should ask her."

Everyone but Harry turned to look at Draco.

"What?" Draco said. "Do I need to point out the irony that we brought Potter here to talk him out of asking Granger out? I'm not entirely certain how we've come round to encouraging him instead!"

"I could draw you a diagram." Blaise offered cheekily.

Ron snorted with laughter. His hand tightened on Harry's shoulder. "Ask her, mate. And you know," he shrugged a little self-consciously, "maybe it'll be weird at first but I'll get used to it."

Harry scanned Ron's determined expression and nodded slowly, a pleased rush of warmth filling him up as he took in Ron's sincere blessing. "Thanks."

"So, when are you going to ask her?" Blaise asked pointedly. "Some of us may have money riding on the outcome."

"Tuesday." Harry said.

"I thought we just agreed…" Ron began.

"Tuesday being also the day after the anniversary of my parents' death, Ron." Harry interrupted him sharply.

"Right." Ron winced. "Sorry."

"I take it Sirius is working on the security with the Goblet and making sure you're not entered?" Neville asked.

Harry sent him a grateful look. "Director Bones has the Aurors on guard while it's on display at the Ministry and they're sealing it behind some protective glass when it's in public. Dumbledore says there'll be a professor on watch around the clock for the twenty-four hours that it's at Hogwarts and open to people putting their names in."

"Maybe we can set-up our own watch." Ron mused out loud.

"He has a point." Neville said, worried. "It's not like you haven't been targeted by professors before."

"Sirius said Moody was in charge at Hogwarts so…he's comfortable that it'll be OK." Harry said firmly. He suspected though that Sirius had other plans than just leaving it to Amelia or Moody.

Which was OK with Harry.

The look Neville gave him made Harry think that Neville also suspected Sirius would be sneaky.

"Right," Harry declared, "I think we're finished?"

There was a chorus of agreement and the Gryffindors and Slytherins dispersed in different directions once they got out of the room.

Harry led Neville and Ron back to the Inter-House Common Room and they all piled into the chairs in the seating area where Hermione was curled up reading a book on a sofa. She didn't even look up as Harry fell into the seat next to her, Ron and Neville taking the chairs.

"Did your boys only meeting go OK then?" Hermione asked, turning a page.

"It ended up being House of Black business." Harry said. "Draco and I are going to meet up every Sunday for an hour to show solidarity."

Hermione's eyes flicked up from the page to meet his. "Seriously?"

Harry shrugged and checked around the room to see who was listening; surprisingly they were almost the only ones in the Common Room. "Pretty much."

"What are you going to talk to him about?" asked Ron, raising his head from the back cushion of the chair he was sacked out in.

"Politics and House stuff mostly, I guess." Harry propped his head up with his hand.

"In some ways it's a good thing." Neville commented.

Hermione nodded. "Maybe Neville, Blaise and I can come along occasionally." She suggested. "Under the guise of that we're all allied or associated with the House of Black."

"Good idea." Harry agreed because he wasn't really looking forward to spending time alone with Draco. He debated for a moment whether to tell her about the tournament; it didn't sit right with him that Draco knew he might be entered and Hermione didn't. He sighed. "We also discussed the possibility of someone entering me into the tournament."

Her brown eyes widened momentarily before she nodded briskly. "Well, with the death threats I guess it isn't a surprise that someone would attempt it." She flipped her book shut. "I assume Sirius is trying to make sure it doesn't happen?"

Harry nodded.

"But you're still worried?" guessed Hermione, scanning his face carefully.

"The guy who attacked us at the World Cup is..." Harry searched for the right words.

"Scarily nuts?" offered Ron bluntly.

"Powerful," Neville suggested with a grimace.

"And smart." Hermione mused, her nose scrunching up as she came to the same conclusion as Harry. "That's quite a dangerous combination."

"Have they made any progress in finding out who he is?" asked Neville. "The last time we talked about it you said Sirius had a new lead."

"Everyone thinks it's someone connected to the LeStranges and Barty Crouch Junior." Harry said. "But as they're all dead…"

Hermione bit her lip. "We could look through the old school-year books in the library. Maybe we can come up with a list of suspects based on his education and abilities."

"It's a plan."

"I'm thinking we put our own watch on the Goblet." Ron said grumpily.

"We'll be in class most of the day." Harry pointed out.

"So, we'll get the alliance together and draw up a plan," Neville said, "those with free periods can help."

Harry opened his mouth to protest.

"Leave it with Neville and me." Ron said brightly. "We'll sort it."

Harry subsided. He didn't think it was going to make a difference (or would work as Moody was bound to spot the watch and send them packing) but he appreciated the gesture. "Thanks, guys."

"Maybe you and Hermione can do the thing with the year-books together." Ron waggled his eyebrows – and OK, Ron was just not subtle.

Harry blushed as Hermione turned toward him with a hopeful smile. "Yeah," he said, "if that's OK with you, Hermione?"

"Sure. Tomorrow?" Hermione suggested, opening her book and raising it a little. "I'd like to get to the end of this chapter before curfew?"

Tomorrow sounded good. Harry nodded happily. It was going to be a good day, he mused. He had Quidditch practice with Viktor Krum, research with Hermione and…and an hour of having to talk to Draco.

It could be worse, Harry thought philosophically. He could be forced into spending time with pureblood girls on dates that he didn't want to go to instead of planning how he was going to ask Hermione out on Tuesday.

He was going to ask Hermione out on Tuesday!

Don't panic, Harry told himself sternly. He thought back to the advice he'd been given; a token, somewhere private and how he would ask her. He had plenty of time to plan; he could do it.

Harry closed his eyes as Neville and Ron started to discuss how they'd put together a watch on the Goblet. He could hear the faint rustle as Hermione turned the pages of her book. He snuggled closer into the cushions, faintly aware the move took him closer to Hermione. Contentment stole over him like a blanket, and between one breath and another, he fell asleep..