Severus darted a look toward Black as they made their way through the corridors of Hogwarts towards the Slytherin dungeons.

He didn't want to admit it but Black had been masterful in his negotiations with the Headmaster. Black had gotten a suite of rooms designated for himself and Potter within the walls of Hogwarts as a competing group within the tournament. Black had conceded that Lupin would stay in the Black residence in Hogsmeade rather than at Hogwarts but it was hardly a large concession. Albus had also been inveigled into allowing Black's own house elves to see to their needs rather than imposing on Hogwarts' elves thus ensuring their privacy and security.

The deal had Potter taking breakfast and dinner usually with Black but lunch with the school. Quidditch practice was allowed although Potter would no longer play on the Gryffindor team as he would ostensibly not be a Hogwarts' student, and was banned because of the tournament anyway. Black had wrangled for Potter's friends and allies to be allowed to occasionally dine with in the suite of rooms with prior notification to their relevant Hogwarts' House Head.

The individualised lesson plan for Potter had also been successfully negotiated; Potter's new schedule had him taking private tuition from Moody, Minerva and Filius three evenings a week with the curriculum to be agreed. Potter would attend the rest of the fourth year lessons and his fifth year Runes elective as previously scheduled. It left a good swathe of time free for Potter to prepare for the tournament.

Black would also be notified and have input into the security plans for the tournament events. That had been a tricky discussion because it was clear that some of the plans might give away what the tasks would be. But Black had agreed that he would abide by Moody's word on what he could and couldn't know. As Moody had trained Black, Severus guessed at an established trust and a past of accepting Moody's decisions.

But in essence, Black had gotten everything he wanted.

Masterful.

And Slytherin.

His request for Severus to accompany him so he could deliver a letter from Potter to Draco also hinted at a Slytherin agenda; Severus wasn't unaware of how it would look to the students if the Slytherin Head of House, a known double spy, was seen accompanying Lord Black. Nor had it escaped Severus's notice that the act of visiting Draco would increase the young Malfoy's political standing with his pureblood peers.

It had been so easy to forget in the haze of memory that the Gryffindor nemesis who had so tormented Severus at school had been raised to be the quintessential Slytherin just as Severus himself had. The similarity of their upbringing jarred because the only difference was that Black had rebelled and fallen in with Potter…

Had it ever occurred to Severus to rebel and follow after Lily?

Severus considered the question as he silently led Sirius to the portrait guarding the Slytherin Common Room.

He had once or twice before Hogwarts considered that Lily would not end up in Slytherin herself – she was too open in her reactions, too fearless in her defence of what was important to her – but he had never considered following her so much as trying to convince her of the virtues of Slytherin despite his knowing she wouldn't be Slytherin. Perhaps, Severus mused wistfully, if she had gone to Ravenclaw…maybe then he would have argued with the confounded Hat and attempted his own rebellion. But she hadn't gone to Ravenclaw and, at eleven, Severus would have given up his wand arm rather than willingly enter Gryffindor.

Would Lily still be alive he had made that choice? He would never know.

The Common Room fell into silence as Severus entered with Black beside him. He noted how Black's gaze swept the room almost contemptuously before settling on Draco who was attempting to swiftly erase surprise from his young pointed features.

Draco stood and walked over hurriedly, a small bow of his head giving deference to Sirius as the Head of the House of Black. "Cousin."

"Cousin." Black replied with the same neutral tone. "Your mother and father send their greetings." He reached into his robe and pulled out a letter. "Harry gave me this to give to you."

And with a few simple statements, Black had put the Common Room on notice that he acknowledged Draco's place in his family line; that the Malfoys were part of Black's circle and knew of his movements; that Draco and Harry were building their own relationship and Black approved.

Severus glanced carefully around the room, noting the various reactions and what they told him about each student and their family affiliations.

"Professor Snape," Black recaptured Severus's attention, "is there somewhere more private where I can brief Draco and the other Slytherins allied to the Houses of Potter and Black?"

Immediately, the small group gathered; Nott, Zabini, Greengrass and Marsha Rickett, a first year.

"Of course," Severus's dark eyes flickered back over the Common Room, "if you and the students would follow me to my quarters, Lord Black?"

And there was his own declaration of support, Severus thought with satisfaction as some of the students paled at the implications of Severus falling in with the House of Black. The advantage of a spy was always to know which side was actually winning. He wasn't too worried about his defection getting back to the Dark Lord; he could claim he was cultivating a relationship to use in his spying for the Dark Lord if he was ever questioned about the matter. He didn't expect to be; the Dark Lord had surrounded himself with a few trusted followers and Severus rather doubted he was trusted enough to be brought into that fold before the Dark Lord regained his full strength.

They trooped out of the Common Room and down a set of corridors to Severus's quarters. He showed them into the living area. Most of the group squashed themselves into the large sofa but Draco and Nott remained standing – it looked more dignified, Severus thought with approval.

"Harry is fine," Black began, "he'll be returning to Hogwarts before the Weighing of the Wands ceremony and will continue to take schooling from professors here but he will not ostensibly be a Hogwarts' student." He clasped his hands behind his back. "The Houses of Potter and Black are taking a suite of rooms here. Harry will reside with me there outside of the school day."

Severus noted the satisfied look on Nott's face; he'd evidently guessed at that particular scenario.

"Draco," Black said, drawing the attention of his cousin, "as a member of the House of Black, you are invited to join us. However, I believe there is benefit to the House of Black if you remain within Slytherin."

"I agree." Draco said hastily.

Black nodded before turning to Nott. "The same offer applies to you, Theo, as a member of the House of Potter."

Nott inclined his dark head. "Thank you, Lord Black, but I believe my remaining within Slytherin will be of greater service to the House of Potter."

Black nodded again, apparently unsurprised at the reply. He gestured towards the others. "Harry sends his regards to you all and his thanks for your support on the night of the Champions' draw." He regarded them all seriously. "I will add my thanks to his. To stand up and ally yourself with Harry at this time shows great fortitude and loyalty." He met each of their eyes for a brief moment, connecting with them individually. "It will not be forgotten."

"May I ask what the strategy will be for the tournament?" Nott asked politely.

Black smirked. "Harry has decided he wants to win it."

The Slytherins exchanged satisfied glances.

"You should know that such a strategy is likely to irritate his enemies." Black told them bluntly. "Things may become difficult for you in Slytherin so you should keep in mind that should you need it, you all have the protection of my House and the House of Potter."

Severus cleared his throat. "You may also come to me with any difficulties that you may encounter."

He found himself the focus of their attention and stiffened uncomfortably under Black's assessing gaze.

"You may trust Professor Snape in this," Black stated calmly, his eyes never leaving Severus's, "as I trust him with your safety. He will provide you with protection if I am not immediately available."

It took every ounce of Slytherin guile Severus had not to react to Black's fulsome support. The young Slytherins nodded and Severus knew that his endorsement by Black would be relayed to their parents in short order.

"That's all for the time being." Black ended the meeting briskly. "I'll send word when Harry and I will be moving into Hogwarts through Draco."

There was a flurry of goodbyes and in short order Severus found himself alone with Black.

"Don't expect me to thank you for the character reference." Severus sneered, trying to cover his chagrin.

Black raised an eyebrow. "Perish the thought. If you did, I'd have to thank you for giving the Aurors the tip about Rabastan's and Junior's seaside cottage plans."

Severus hummed at that. "I should have gone straight to the healer as soon as I recognised the memories could reveal the identity of the person threatening Potter." He said stiffly. "My information may be too little too late."

"Let's hope not." Black said bluntly. He gestured at the door. "I should get over to Gryffindor and deliver the rest of Harry's letters."

"I trust you know the way there." Severus replied dryly.

Black's lips quirked upwards in something that might have been a brief smile and he made for the door.

Severus watched him leave and wondered at the civil exchange.

Something had shifted between them, he realised. He turned it over in his head. Perhaps their new détente was because the night of Halloween had been the first time Severus had offered his help because he had wanted to protect Potter, not because of a promise made under duress and in guilty haste to Albus Dumbledore, but because for the first time Severus accepted that Harry Potter was as much Lily's as he was James Potter's son, and nothing was more important to her spirit than protecting her son. Perhaps because Black had accepted Severus's help because clearly Black would do anything to protect the boy entrusted by James and Lily to his care, and Severus had seen that they were right to impart that trust to Black – the memory of Black tending to Potter surfaced briefly.

Or, Severus thought with sombre regret, perhaps their détente existed because Severus had finally faced the truth of his own culpability for Lily's death instead of simply blaming her child.

Whatever the reason, Severus was glad of it. He doubted Black and he would ever be friends but it eased something to know that he would be part of the Dark Lord's defeat, and that he would be allowed to in some small way perhaps find redemption.

Redemption; to finally apologise to Lily for choosing to go to Slytherin rather than follow her; for choosing the Dark Lord and his lies over her friendship; for telling the Dark Lord of the prophecy which led to her death; for projecting his own guilt, self-hatred and blame onto her son, the child she had died protecting.

"I am attempting to do better, Lily." Severus whispered into the stillness of the room.

A faint scent filled the air and had him whirling around in shock.

Lilies. He could smell…

His heart beat loudly as he breathed in the faint scent until he couldn't sense it anymore, half-convinced it was his imagination...half-enthralled that it was real. It was real and he was not forgotten...he had finally earned her approval.

Severus sat down abruptly. He placed a hand over his stampeding heart. He closed his eyes against the storm of emotion that rolled through him. "I won't let you down again, my friend." He promised quietly. He would protect her son in her stead and he would do it with a willing heart.

o-O-o

5th November 1994

"Dear Hermione,

Thank you for the letters and the training plan. It looks great. Everyone agrees that I need more spell knowledge. We should talk it through as Remus gave me a plan too (Sirius says he's the Marauders' version of you) so it would be good to look at both and come up with a joint one. I want to win the tournament if I can, or at least give it my best effort.

I'm feeling much better but I still get tired quickly. Doctor Jordan thinks I used up a lot of magical energy because I resisted the binding for so long. She's said that I can get up and do small things though so I can get started on all the homework Professor McGonagall brought me.

I am coming back to Hogwarts. Well, Sirius is talking about it with the Headmaster and hopefully I'll be back soon.

I hope you, Ron and Neville are OK. From all your letters, it sounds like the last week has been weird at Hogwarts. Can you make sure Cedric knows I think it's brilliant he's the Hogwarts' Champion? The press has been saying some absolute rubbish.

Ron told me he told you what I wanted to ask you, and he told me what you said which made my day. But I kind of had a whole plan to do it properly and I'd like to see it through if that's OK with you? I hope it is.

See you soon (hopefully)!

Love, Harry."

Sat cross-legged on her bed with the early morning sun just beginning to brighten the room, Hermione reread the letter again and carefully folded it up before tucking it between the pages of her book on meditation. Her heart was almost giddy from the final paragraph. He wanted to ask her out properly. Which meant it was real. He liked her. She sighed happily.

It was almost enough to make her forget the rest; Harry's magical exhaustion, the imminent tournament that he had to compete in where his life would be in danger. But the delight of knowing Harry was going to ask her out when he returned to Hogwarts was offset by the very real worry that gnawed at her belly.

Her teeth sank into her lip as she anxiously considered everything she had read about the tournament and its tasks. She knew that Voldemort had changed the planned less dangerous tasks to be more dangerous from what they had been told by Sirius, but the basic structure of the tournament had been left intact along with elements of the original tasks.

So, the first task traditionally involved magical creatures somehow. In some ways that was a good thing because Harry was brilliant with magical creatures. He seemed to have some kind of affinity with them. But she doubted that the task would be as easy as getting a ride on a hippogriff – which had been one of the tasks in an early tournament. There had been several tasks associated with getting past a Sphinx to treasure which would give a clue to the next task. There had been one task involving a unicorn, one involving dragons, and several involving handling dangerous magical snakes. Of all the magical creatures Voldemort could use, Hermione figured snakes were the most obvious but, perhaps because it was obvious, it wouldn't be magical snakes.

She touched the edge of her letter again and wondered what Harry thought. Did he know the first task would be magical creatures? She couldn't wait until he got back to Hogwarts and she could talk to him.

"A letter from Harry?" Lavender's teasing voice broke into Hermione's contemplation. Somehow her dorm mate had woken and wandered over to Hermione's bed without Hermione noticing.

She felt the blush rise on her cheeks but she nodded. "Sirius brought it last night when he came to talk with us."

"It's great news that Harry's coming back." Lavender said, plopping down onto the bed next to Hermione.

Ron had announced it as soon as the portrait to the Common Room had swung closed. The cheer had nearly taken the roof off. Everyone was a little disappointed though when they had explained Harry wouldn't be back in the dorms, but living with his guardian in his own suite of rooms since he wouldn't be a Hogwarts student officially any longer for their fourth year because of the tournament. Hermione had been invited to live with them as a sponsored daughter of the House of Black and she had declined. She believed Sirius had requested the rooms to give Harry somewhere away from other students, somewhere Sirius and Harry could spend time together, and she wouldn't intrude on that. Plus, if she and Harry did start to date, it would create a lot of gossip if they lived in the same set of rooms.

Besides, she was content with living in the dorms. The past week had seen her, Lavender and Parvati spend more time together and Hermione had surprisingly enjoyed it. The other girls still gossiped more than Hermione was comfortable with and maybe she was still too serious about studying for them on occasion, but they were more tolerant of the differences. Maybe they were all growing up, Hermione mused.

"You're up early." Lavender commented, yawning.

Hermione nodded and checked her watch. "There's an alliance meeting before breakfast. We're using Robert and Natalie's office." She gazed at Lavender thoughtfully. "Do you and Parvati want to come along?"

"We're not in the alliance." Lavender said, her eyes wide.

Hermione shrugged. "Luna's coming because she's Harry's friend even if her family isn't in the alliance. So are the Weasleys. You're friends too. You'd be welcome."

Lavender smiled prettily and reached out to take hold of one of Hermione's hands. "Thank you." She glanced over at Parvati's bed and sighed. "I think I'm going to have to say no though since Parvati will kill me if I wake her up now and she'd kill me if I went without her." She turned back to Hermione. "You'll tell me though later?"

"I will." Hermione promised. She put the book in her bag and slid off the bed, making her way down the stairs to the Common Room where she'd promised to meet Ron and Neville.

She had to wait for them but it gave her another chance to read her letter. She made sure though it was all tucked away again when the boys arrived. She wondered at what had been in their letters from Harry as she took in the sight of them.

Neville was first down the stairs, his stride determined, his chin up. Hermione had known in an abstract way that Neville had grown in confidence during the Summer, that he'd shed some of the awkwardness that had characterised him in the previous three years she'd known him; that much had been evident in his improved magic, his easy friendship with Blaise, and his practice dating with Hannah. But it hadn't been until the past week that Hermione believed she'd glimpsed the man Neville was becoming; authoritative, one used to leading, politically astute in a way Hermione could admit she wasn't. He had set the tone for the Potter alliance in Hogwarts; absolute and unconditional support for Harry, but respectful appreciation for the other Champions.

Ron was close on Neville's heels. He also walked with purpose, his freckled face set into stern lines instead of its usual friendly affability. And just as she had with Neville, Hermione glimpsed the man Ron was maturing into with the events of the past week; a true and considerate friend. He had been supportive of her, making sure she was OK – partly as he himself had joked because Harry would go spare if Ron didn't, but there had been genuine caring in his attentiveness to Hermione's state of mind. He had also supported Neville, providing in Harry's absence the encouragement Neville needed to embrace his leadership role. And Hermione believed that the ease in which Ron accepted Neville would lead, that it wouldn't be Ron, was also a sign of how much Ron had matured.

She stood up to join them and wondered whether they saw her differently too; whether they had noticed her quieter confidence about her intelligence instead of her previous brash displays of smarts, and how she accepted their position when they explained that something she thought was a good idea wasn't because of the cultural differences between the muggle and the wizarding world. She wondered if they saw the woman she hoped she was becoming; a confident smart woman who was at ease in both worlds – an attractive woman who could capture the attention of someone like Harry.

They fell into step as they left the Common Room.

Ron nudged her. "Good letter?"

Hermione smiled and nodded. "You?"

Ron nodded back. "Yeah, it was good to hear from him."

"You can say that again," commented Neville, "it was really good to hear from him." There was a note of relief in Neville's voice and Hermione guessed that Harry had confirmed Neville had taken the right tone in respect to the tournament.

The Head Boy and Head Girl's office wasn't that spacious and it was a bit of a squash as they made their way into the room.

Hermione was surprised that so many of the Potter alliance students had beaten them to the office given the early start, but then there had been a lot of owls at dinner the night before, and she suspected some of them had received directions from their parents.

Susan and Hannah waved the Gryffindor trio to the front of the fireplace where they would take centre stage. Hermione nodded briskly at Draco sitting in a corner with Zabini and Greengrass. Nott was over by Jeremy Branstone and Michael Corner, their heads bent together as they discussed something in quiet tones.

Neville cleared his throat and the room grew silent. "Robert, if you could…" he waved a finger in a circle.

The Head Boy immediately got the message and erected a privacy bubble.

"Right, first things first: Harry sends his thanks and gratitude for our support. He says it's helped him enormously to know that he has us standing with him." Neville began.

Hermione noted the pleased faces and silently commended both Harry and Neville for their opening gambit. It had made everyone feel important and valued.

"Some of you may have already heard from your parents that Harry's decided to take the bull by the horns and throw himself fully into the challenge of the tournament." Neville looked around the room with quiet authority. "He believes that it is the best way of fighting back against Voldemort's intent to terrorise him. It'll send a strong message that Harry won't just cave in the face of Voldemort's evil; that he'll continue to stand up against him."

"He can't expect to win it though, can he?" asked Michael sceptically.

"I think he can." Lydia spoke up.

Hermione tried not to grimace at the younger girl, and an abashed and subdued Ginny stood beside her.

"So do I." Connor Sapworthy glared at Michael. "Harry's powerful and he's smart."

Michael held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'm just saying he's going up against the likes of Krum and Diggory, and presumably the French bird has some skills since she was chosen."

Natalie Warren cleared her throat. "Michael has a point."

"Harry was chosen by the Goblet." Luna stated dreamily. "He was considered worthy or the Goblet would have declared no-one was to stand for the Light."

"So the Goblet thinks he has a chance to win it?" asked Heather Belby, a sixth year Ravenclaw. "I guess that makes sense."

"Harry can win." Ron declared firmly. "Have any of the others gone up against a basilisk or a Dark Lord and lived to tell of it? I don't think so."

"On that basis, I wouldn't bet against him." Blaise commented dryly.

There was a smattering of laughter.

"Ron's right," Hermione said, jumping in, "Harry's very good at these types of situations, and he's had more practical experience than the others. Their main advantage is going to be spell knowledge."

"Which he can gain in training." Neville added. "And where we can help – or at least the upper years."

"That's true." Robert said thoughtfully. "We can help tutor him or be duelling partners for him when he tests out some of the advanced spells."

"Agreed," Natalie said with a sharp nod, "my father suggested as much in the letter he sent."

"Which brings up a good point; we need to coordinate with the adults." Robert said firmly. "Presumably Lord Black already has a training plan worked out?"

"Harry indicated as much in his letter." Hermione admitted.

Theo gestured. "According to the tournament lore, Potter has to be the one to determine his training and who he accepts advice from though. He may give more weight to Lord Black's advice but I don't think he'll ignore anything we come up with."

"Well, that makes sense since Harry also said he would look over everything and come up with a joint plan." Hermione said.

"So if we come up with a different view from our parents and guardians, it's good to know Potter won't just disregard it." Daphne commented.

"My Dad mentioned that we'll probably get some of their research funnelled through us." Susan said.

"And research is probably where those without the spell knowledge to help Harry with his training can help out instead." Neville confirmed. "It would be good to have a research group form up that can coordinate with the adults' information as they send it through."

"Granger should head that up." Theo said. "I'm betting you've done a ton of research already and Potter's used to you taking that role."

Hermione felt her cheeks heat as she nodded. "I'll be happy to head up the research group."

"Those of you wanting to assist should give your names to Hermione after then." Neville said. "The rest of us should make ourselves available as sounding boards and…"

"He'll need cheerleaders." Lydia interrupted, flicking her long hair back and staring at the group defiantly.

"She's not altogether wrong." Jeremy said as the others looked at her with irritation. "Harry's going to incur a lot of publicity – some good and some bad. My Dad's going to help out with the media stuff outside school, but at the very least he needs a cheering section during the tasks and maybe some visible sign of support around the school."

"How about badges declaring support for Harry as the best Champion?" suggested Draco.

"Maybe something a bit more subtle." Jeremy said with a frown. "We don't want to alienate those supporting Diggory by being too boorish."

"A thread bracelet with red and gold beads worn as a bracelet might suffice." Hannah offered. "We could also make up combined ones with yellow and black for those who want to show support for both because of House loyalties like me and Susan."

"That sounds great," Neville said with a smile for his practice girlfriend, "and Harry is keen to make it known that he's pleased Cedric was chosen for Hogwarts, and that he's got no issue with us supporting him too."

Zacharias Smith snorted. "He may not have an issue with Diggory but there's a question mark over whether Diggory has a beef with him. The most fervent of Diggory's supporters are saying a lot of stupid stuff in Hufflepuff, although some of them are just repeating what Diggory's father is quoted as saying in the press about Harry being an attention seeker and crazy."

Susan nodded. "Some of the comments are getting vicious and Diggory isn't exactly denying them."

"So, two issues," Neville said sombrely, "first, one of us has to talk to Cedric."

"I'll take that one." Robert said. "As Hogwarts' Champion he's in a similar position to the Head Boy and Girl; he's representing all of us, and allowing his supporters to bad mouth Harry isn't acceptable."

Neville nodded. "Good. I guess the second issue is that possibly some of us need to be actively defusing rumours and hearsay within each of our Houses on a daily basis."

Draco gestured at him. "We're already doing that in Slytherin but someone needs to be doing that for the other Houses."

Ron sighed. "Gryffindor is pretty much pro-Harry but we still have to deal with misinformation and setting the record straight."

"So I can maybe take up that role in Ravenclaw," offered Jeremy.

"And I can do the same in Hufflepuff." Robert confirmed.

"I think having someone take the lead to do it is important," Susan said, "but we can all do our part."

The group murmured their agreement.

"Right," Neville said briskly, "the final thing we should discuss is the possibility that Harry's enemies get annoyed when Harry does well and try to take their frustrations out on us."

"And safety here at Hogwarts is a relative thing." Daphne said dryly.

Ron folded his arms over his chest. "Let's face it; Sirius found ways around security last year enough that he got into the dorm! Moody's good enough that it's not probable that would happen again but Crouch Junior is smart and sneaky and might find a way to slip through the cracks."

"So what are you suggesting, Weasley?" Draco prompted sharply.

"Buddy system." Ron said succinctly. "Pair up with someone else in the alliance and make sure your buddy knows where you should be at all times. Set up a code word with them to make sure they always know you are who you say you are and vice versa."

"Constant vigilance." Daphne stated with a smirk.

"Exactly." Ron said, taking her seriously. "Junior almost killed my family. He's mad and I doubt he'll think twice about killing a couple of kids if he thinks it'll get to Harry."

They all sobered a little and Hermione gave Ron an approving nod.

Neville cleared his throat. "I think that's it for now. Anyone have anything else?"

There was a flurry of offers to help with the research as the alliance drifted out of the office. Luna skipped over to wait with Ron and Neville.

Robert sighed as he ushered the last of the others out. He and Natalie exchanged a look and both of them turned regretfully to Neville.

"I know," Neville said before they could say anything, "we need to find a different place to meet."

"Thanks." Robert said with relief.

"It's just…" Natalie began awkwardly.

"We understand," Hermione said immediately, "you're representing all of Hogwarts and housing us gives the impression that you're completely on Harry's side when you need to appear impartial to Cedric Diggory and his supporters."

"For what it's worth, I don't think Cedric agrees with what his father's said in the press." Robert sank into the chair by his desk and waved his hands expressively. "I think he's embarrassed by it all."

"It can't be easy for him," Natalie commented, "he can hardly criticise his Dad in public."

"But he could do more to stop his supporters from adding fuel to the fire." Neville stated firmly. "Harry only agreed to participate in the tournament to save the life and magic of the other Champions. In some quarters it might be considered a life debt. If Diggory allows his supporters to heap abuse on Harry, at the very least he's going to come off like an arrogant arse."

"And he's going to rack up some serious bad karma." Luna noted.

"I'll talk with Cedric today." Robert promised, sighing heavily again. "He stood up on the night of Halloween, maybe he just needs a nudge to stand up again."

"Let's hope so because if Cedric's supporters insult Harry the way they've been doing the last few days anywhere near Sirius, he's likely to turn them all into newts." Ron pointed out bluntly.

Hermione grimaced but nodded. It would probably be only the beginning of what Sirius would do.

o-O-o

6th November 1994

If there was one thing Peter appreciated about their new accommodation, it was the view. Diagon Alley stretched out below him like an endless river of people; chatter bubbling up to murmur at the window. It made Peter feel like he was part of it in a comforting way. It was a much better situation than the isolation he'd felt at the Crouch house, locked in most of the time with only the creepy house elf for company while his Master napped under his snake's watchful eyes. Of course, Peter reminded himself ruefully, he was still locked in with a napping Dark Lord and his snake but at least the sense of isolation was gone as was the creepy house elf.

He shifted his gaze to look around the well-appointed flat above the apothecary. There was a small kitchenette under the archway to his left. Mostly it was used for potions which luckily the smells from the apothecary masked. There was the Polyjuice Barty primarily used; the nutrient potion that kept the body his Master occupied in good enough condition for him to continue occupying it; the beginning of the potion required for the ritual that would return his Master to a corporeal body of his own.

Peter glanced away from the kitchen, his gaze drifting over the small dining table he sat at by the window, and over the comfortable sitting area. There were two bedrooms; one was set aside for the Master and one was occupied by Barty when he was in residence. Peter slept on the couch.

He didn't mind too much.

Barty had done a good job. He'd developed the alias of Rupert Patch as soon as the first Polyjuice had been made. Patch was a wizard who worked from an eccentric wizard who collected antiques, and whose job entailed being in London enough to need a base. Patch had a wife and child (who would be played by Peter and the Dark Lord if it ever came to that) who had eventually joined him in London following the sale of their country property. Thankfully, their landlord wasn't all that interested as long as Patch paid the rent, and luckily Barty had embezzled most of his father's money into a new account for Patch long before their escape from the Crouch residence had become a necessity.

Barty was riding high on his success at getting Harry into the tournament and Peter couldn't blame him for the celebratory smugness. Barty had done a good job especially since the security had been very tight.

Still, resentment nibbled at him because the Dark Lord had been very pleased at Barty's success.

Peter frowned as he looked out on the surging mass of people all bustling about their daily lives. Since Barty had entered the picture, the Dark Lord had turned more and more to him to do things of importance. In many ways it had made sense back in the Summer when Peter was a wanted criminal and Barty had been an unknown to their enemies, but it continued even with Barty's existence being revealed publicly. And Barty was impressive; incredibly powerful and smart.

Not like Peter.

Oh, Peter had his talents but he was prepared to admit that on pure magical terms, Barty beat him hands down. Like James Potter had done. Like Sirius did.

He shuddered delicately and reached for his abandoned cup of tea, wincing at the cold bitter taste.

So, Peter had been relegated to second best again, Peter thought morosely; he should be used to it.

And it wasn't quite true.

The Dark Lord had granted him a special place as a loyal and willing servant within the ritual that would bring him back to full strength.

Servant.

A position which meant that he would serve the Dark Lord's needs for the next nine months without question, and that rankled in the face of the praise heaped on Barty who clearly occupied the position as favoured lieutenant.

Peter tapped his cup anxiously and darted a look over his shoulder. It was dangerous thinking things around the Dark Lord or even the snake which seemed to have a closer bond than simply familiar with her Master. He shivered and fought the urge to turn into his animagus form because as comforting as being a rat was, he wasn't unaware that a rat was natural prey for the snake.

He dragged his mind back to his previous thoughts. Barty was away again, helping Dennis Travers with his mission; Travers, who was proving just as loyal as his father to the Dark Lord.

Peter had been recruited by Travers's father who had been his supervisor at the Ministry back in the late Seventies; scared by the threat of being hurt and lured by the promise of protection, Travers had brought him before the Dark Lord, and the Dark Lord had taken one look at Peter and seen the rat and the possibilities. Peter had been immediately hooked by the self-importance of being the Dark Lord's hidden spy. Travers had been made to forget Peter and Peter had turned his attention to pleasing the Dark Lord in return for knowing he was protected from harm.

There had been days, of course, when he had questioned his decision, when he had met up with James or Sirius or Remus or worse, Lily, and felt the pang of horror that he was betraying them, betraying what they all stood for in terms of principles and values. Because he did love them; remembered nights when Remus had helped him study; Sirius's help through the final transfiguration into his animagus form; James stepping in between Peter and a Slytherin without thinking. But there had been distance between them since school with James's marriage and Sirius's work and Remus drifting off to the packs so there was also the knowledge that he was safe and that they would never know of his betrayal; of a secret delight in tricking them, in spying on them without getting caught. He had even used his position to save them. Once.

But then, of course, there had been Harry. Baby Harry who had gurgled at Peter and pulled his tie; a strange fragile creature that captivated and repulsed Peter all at the same time; power liming Harry's skin and crawling over Peter's Dark Mark as though he knew and would tell at any moment.

And the Dark Lord had been strangely fascinated with the baby, demanding reports on Harry's progress.

Peter hadn't thought twice about telling the secret of the Potters' hideaway, knowing refusal would be his own death. He'd hoped in an abstract way that James and Lily would survive; had been much more ambivalent about Harry. It had been shocking on the night to witness James cut down fighting to save his family; to hear Lily begging for Harry's life. But more shocking had been the moment when the Dark Lord had tried to kill Harry and the curse had been thrown back at him on the panicked wave of a child's pure power, slamming the Dark Lord's spirit from his body and almost bringing the cottage down around the cot.

Peter had never had any illusion that Harry wasn't a powerful wizard. But he'd cast his lot that Halloween night and he'd known Sirius and Remus would never forgive him his betrayal. He'd considered it a minor miracle that it had taken them until Harry was almost fourteen before they'd tracked him down. Of course, Sirius being in Azkaban, tricked there by Peter, had helped forestall that confrontation as had his living as a rat for so many years.

He still couldn't believe Harry had saved his life that night at the Shrieking Shack.

Guilt wormed its way through Peter again and he was grateful for the soft rap on the window heralding the arrival of the newspaper delivery owl, distracting him from his memories. At least he was grateful until he saw the headline.

"A TRUE CHAMPION: THE BOY WHO LIVED PROCLAIMS HE WILL COMPETE TO WIN!"

"Bugger!" Peter stated under his breath. He quickly read through the rest of the story and squashed it into his chest when he'd finished as though he could hide it there.

In one way, he wasn't surprised.

He had lived as Scabbers long enough around Harry to know that his friend's son had a lot of James's sense of duty and honour underneath the appalling muggle upbringing he'd been subjected to living. Deciding not to destroy the Goblet of Fire (and really Peter had known Harry was probably capable of destroying the artefact – he had destroyed the Dark Lord when he was a baby) to save the other Champions was exactly the self-sacrificing instinct that had gotten James killed.

But in lots and lots of ways, the Harry Peter had known for the previous three years at Hogwarts while he had been masquerading as Ron Weasley's pet, had always reminded Peter mostly of Lily. Lily, who had pitted herself against the Marauders from the beginning and who wouldn't be impressed or intimidated by them; who dealt with their pranking her in second year by pranking them back in a more evil way designed to scare them away from ever pranking her again (it had worked). Lily, whose ultimate victory had been making James grow up in many ways and stealing him away from the Marauders. Lily, who had stood toe to toe with a Dark Lord and begged not for her own life but her child's, and still had cast something that had stalled the Killing curse enough for her son to shove it back at the Dark Lord.

Outside of the Dark Lord, Lily was the most dangerous person Peter had ever met, and that included Sirius Black who was also in a league of his own when compared to normal people.

Harry was his mother's son.

The bold and fearless statement that his enemies might mean for him to come to harm in the tournament, but he would play as a Champion to win it, had Lily's courage and bravery stamped all the way through it.

And perhaps a smidgeon of Sirius's 'Fuck You' reckless bravado.

The Dark Lord was not going to be pleased.

Peter snorted softly. That was an understatement. The Dark Lord was going to be furious; raging and ranting kind of furious. He was going to be furious that Harry eschewed being tricked into the tournament and instead insisted he had chosen it to protect others and he was going to be furious that Harry wasn't cowed by the danger he was facing.

Although maybe in hindsight they should have already known that. Harry had followed a thief into the bowels of Hogwarts to protect a legendary Philosopher's stone; he had battled a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets; he had thwarted the Dark Lord three times. Maybe, Peter mused, they should have considered that Harry wouldn't be cowed.

Maybe, Peter continued to muse, he should have considered that before running to Albania and allying himself with the Dark Lord again.

But what choice did he have?

Harry had granted him mercy in preventing his death only to insist that Peter would face justice and be sent to Azkaban for his role in James's and Lily's deaths…for the deaths of the muggles he'd caused setting up Sirius…for framing Sirius…for being a Death Eater. In some respects he would have preferred the quick and no doubt painful death Sirius and Remus would have given him rather than face Azkaban and the Dementors…a cell and no respite from his crimes.

Yes, Harry was his mother's son. Lily would no doubt have found Peter's fate appropriate and fitting.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and Peter acknowledged the animal instinct by freezing, scenting the air to confirm the presence of the snake as it slithered into view, a deadly black slash against the Argyle carpet.

"He's awake." Peter acknowledged as the snake hissed. "I'll get his potion." He moved slowly so not to alarm her. It only took a moment to pour the potion into the required silver goblet. He snagged the newspaper on his way back through the living room and walked quickly to the Dark Lord's room.

The small child of three that the Dark Lord inhabited had been healthy and robust; dark haired and blue eyed. The latter had long changed to red and the hair was slowly falling out as the body decayed under the weight of the possession.

Peter set aside the goblet and newspaper on the dresser and hurried over to attend the more basic bodily needs of the child. Neither he nor the Dark Lord spoke during the trip to the bathroom, through the bath and change of clothes. Peter clean-spelled the bed-linen, lit scented candles to light the room and propped the Dark Lord up against a veritable mountain of pillows before handing him the goblet. The potion was downed swiftly and the goblet handed back to him without a word. The Dark Lord motioned impatiently at Peter and he slowly laid the newspaper out on the bed, fearing the worst.

He wasn't expecting the low chuckle that emerged from the twisted smile on the Dark Lord's infant face.

"Master?"

"I see our little boy is all grown up at last, Peter." The vocal intonation was not a child's and Peter resolutely did not want to know what body modifications the Dark Lord had made.

"He is arrogant to think he can win it, Master." Peter said obsequiously.

"Is he?" asked the Dark Lord mildly. "I have discovered it is best not to underestimate the Potter boy, Peter." His fingers trailed over the picture of Harry which glared at the Dark Lord and brandished its wand threateningly. "And now…now he finally presents a real challenge."

Peter was speechless. Did the Dark Lord want a challenge?

Something must have shown on his face because the Dark Lord chucked dryly again.

"When I face at him after the ritual," the Dark Lord said, "when I crush him and send him to join his parents," his finger tapped the photo again, "no-one will deny that he was my most formidable challenge nor that I prevailed and he did not."

Ah. Well, Peter could understand that. The whole being beaten by a baby was a tad humiliating and if the Dark Lord thought Harry winning the tournament helped to correct that impression…Peter could understand that.

"Crushing his defiance will make my victory that much sweeter." The Dark Lord continued as he read over the article again, irritation at last seeping through his words and giving away how riled he really was that Harry had chosen to be entered into the tournament in the final analysis and had openly declared he was going to make an attempt to win it. "But defiance will sweeten the blood of my enemy for the ritual and make me stronger."

"Yes, Master." Peter said obediently. He wanted to fidget but knew better than to draw attention to himself.

"But we cannot allow Potter nor his cohorts like your old friend Black to believe that his defiance has cowed us." The Dark Lord looked up finally. "Have we heard from Fenrir?"

"He's waiting for instructions in a bolthole he has in the North." Peter immediately reported.

"Send for him." The Dark Lord ordered imperiously.

Peter bowed his head and scurried out to do his bidding as the snake slid back inside the room with the Dark Lord. He had some idea of what the Dark Lord would ask of Fenrir; terrorising attacks probably on Harry's supporters. He shivered, grateful that he wasn't one of Harry's supporters and feeling a touch sorry for those that were including the Weasleys who had unwittingly provided him with such a wonderful hiding place for so many years.

Perhaps, Peter considered brightly, he had made the right decision.

Harry might be a powerful wizard but the Dark Lord was the Dark Lord, and not even death had stopped him. Harry would be crushed sooner or later. Peter ignored the twinge of guilt and panic. When Harry died he would be nothing but pleased, Peter thought determinedly; nothing but pleased, and richly rewarded for his part in the boy's downfall.

o-O-o

6th November 1994

Harry stepped out of the floo and smiled back at the beaming Head of Gryffindor even as Sirius surreptitiously brushed soot from Harry's hair.

"Welcome back to Hogwarts." Minerva said warmly. "Even if you're not officially a Hogwarts student for the rest of this year, we are pleased to have you return."

"Me too." Harry said simply.

He'd frowned a lot when Sirius had explained the grand plan that he was going back to Hogwarts but not as an official student, but he'd seen the sense in it. It made it very clear that Cedric was the Hogwarts Champion for one thing, and for another, it meant he could stay in his own set of rooms with Sirius.

He darted a quick look at his father and smiled brightly as love bubbled up inside of him. Sirius had given him the best of both worlds that Harry had wanted; he had made it happen so Harry would feel safe and secure within Hogwarts; would have someone he could be just Harry with.

"Here is your new timetable." Minerva handed him the parchment.

Harry took it with a sigh and briefly glanced at it. It was everything Sirius had said he had worked out but Harry passed it to Sirius to make sure.

Sirius nodded. "This looks good."

"All the staff teaching Harry have signed a document that confirms for the duration of the tournament, they are also faculty of 'The Light.'" Minerva stated briskly. She caught Harry's gaze. "That means we will treat you exactly the same as we treat Mister Diggory in terms of the tournament. We'll be happy to provide tutoring for spells and knowledge should you ask specifically but we will not be able to direct you as far as the tournament strategy is concerned."

There was a regretful tone to her voice and Harry smiled to reassure her more than anything.

"Sirius explained the rules." Harry said. "I'll ask for the tutoring if I need it."

"Good." Minerva said. "I understand that you've constructed a training plan?"

Harry nodded. The academic side was a combination of Hermione's and Remus's plan after some advice from Sirius, but there was also a physical training plan that Doctor Jordan had been happy to contribute, and a 'Keep Harry Sane' plan that he had discussed with Sirius which included things like his continued animagus training, Quidditch and what Sirius called goofing off time.

"Let me show you to your rooms." Minerva said. "Dobby has been busy all day and I'll think you'll be pleased."

Harry fell into step beside Sirius, glad of the weight of his father's hand on his shoulder. He knew Sirius had overseen the whole room thing so he wasn't too worried. They followed Minerva out of her office, down the stairs and along a corridor. They went up another very long flight of stairs and along another corridor until they came to a halt outside a floor to ceiling portrait of a lion.

"The password is currently set to Champion but you will want to change it." Minerva said before turning and giving the password. The portrait swung open and Minerva stepped inside, Harry and Sirius following her.

They were on the top of the tower, Harry realised immediately. The circular nature of the space gave it away as did the slightly overcast sky outside of the narrow windows. The room was a half circle; a den area to the left filled with two comfortable tartan sofas in an 'L' formation in front of the roaring fire, with a dining area to the right filled with a sturdy oak table and chairs. Two doors were positioned at the back of the room and a staircase curved up the side of the wall.

"Study," Minerva said pointing at one of the doors and then to the other, "and a training room with a duelling area, small potions store and a condensed library. There's a staircase leading down to a kitchenette although Dobby is also welcome to use the main kitchens."

She ushered them up the stairs.

They arrived on a landing with three doors. Harry was surprised to see his name on one door and Sirius's on another; the third was blank.

"I'm afraid you're sharing a bathroom." Minerva said with a sigh. "Something to do with the plumbing but the house-elves couldn't alter the space further." She pushed Harry towards his room. "Take a look, Harry."

Harry opened the door and took a step inside, freezing as he saw how closely the furnishings had been duplicated to give him a sense of Griffin House. The bed wasn't the same four-poster that adorned his dorm at Hogwarts but a near copy of the bed he had in his own room. He frowned. Actually, he would swear it was his bed. He quirked a questioning eyebrow at Sirius.

"Dobby insisted." Sirius said brightly.

"Hmnph." Minerva snorted.

The wardrobe, desk, chair and bookcase were similar to those in the dorms though, and already filled with his things. Hedwig's perch was empty but the window was open and Harry had no doubt she'd be inside by the time night fell.

"This is great." He said simply.

Minerva exhaled with relief as her gaze moved to Sirius, an eyebrow arched in his direction.

"Yes, it's good." Sirius leaned on the wall, folding his arms nonchalantly. "Thank you."

Minerva nodded. "I'll leave you to settle in." She paused at the doorway. "I'll see you in class tomorrow, Harry."

Sirius straightened once the echo of her footsteps had faded. "So what do you really think?"

"It's…" Harry shrugged, "weird but good?"

"You know that's pretty much how I feel." Sirius admitted with a grin. He brushed down his robes and gestured at him. "I never thought I'd be living here again."

Harry smiled ruefully at him. "Sorry?"

Sirius lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Frankly, I don't want to be anywhere else."

And Harry knew that was true. He wandered over to the window and looked out on Hogwarts. The Quidditch pitch was over to his right, the lake to his left, with the Forbidden Forest stretched out in front of him.

He sighed. "I can still go to Quidditch practice, right?"

"Right." Sirius said, coming over to stand beside him, "I think Minnie's keen you help the new Seeker."

Ginny.

The new Seeker was Ginny. She was the reserve. Harry groaned.

"What?" asked Sirius concerned.

"Ginny must be the new Seeker." Harry explained. "That's just…great."

Sirius gave him a sympathetic look. "Well, you can always stop helping if she spends more time focusing on you than on the practice." He nudged him. "Have you thought about how you're going to ask Hermione out yet?"

Harry nodded. He figured he would go with the same plan just maybe a different location and day. The only problem was that the Hogsmeade weekend wasn't going to be an acceptable date any longer. He and Sirius had discussed it and reluctantly agreed that they shouldn't take the risk of Harry being out so much in public, and definitely not without either Sirius or Remus with him. So he had to figure out a different date other than going into the village. Neville probably had some pointers from all the practicing with Hannah.

"You need any help or advice or…"

"No!" Harry snapped it out hurriedly. "Thank you but…"

"Mind my own business?" Sirius smirked at him. "I see how it is."

Harry motioned at him. "We could always talk about your love life."

"I have no love life." Sirius countered with no hint of embarrassment. "I'm living vicariously through you and Remus."

"Remus is interested in someone?" Harry jumped on that titbit immediately because he hadn't realised that Remus liked anyone.

"Old love affair who is now tragically for Remus but apparently happily for her married to another werewolf." Sirius explained succinctly. "You should be grateful that you missed having to spend an evening with Remus getting maudlin about missed chances and how he's never going to find love." He poked Harry in his upper arm gently.

Harry batted Sirius's hand away and winced inwardly because he knew he had tendency to forget that Sirius and Remus had lives before that Summer, before the Halloween back in 'eighty-one that changed it all for them.

"What about you?" asked Harry, suddenly curious.

Sirius raised both his eyebrows. "What about me?"

"Did you have someone…in the past, I mean?" Harry asked tentatively. "A missed chance?"

"Nope." Sirius answered immediately. He looked out of the window and Harry got the sense that he was gathering his thoughts rather than avoiding the question. "I dated a lot through school but there wasn't any specific person that caught my attention – not the way your Mum snagged your Dad's anyway. When I left Hogwarts…there were occasional dates, here and there? Your Mum did go on a match-making kick soon after she and your Dad got hitched which your Dad thought was hilarious…but then I went abroad undercover and when I got back, I was healing and then there was you just born, and the war and…" he shrugged. "I always thought there was plenty of time."

"You could date someone now?" Harry pressed. "You know if you wanted to; I wouldn't mind." He ignored the churn of doubt in his stomach at the thought of someone else having a right to Sirius's attention and time.

Sirius smiled at him. "Let's get you through the tournament first."

Harry bit his lip as guilt quickly surged through him at the moment's relief he'd felt at Sirius's reply. "I don't…you don't have to put your life on hold for me."

Sirius's eyes widened as though startled. "Nothing's on hold." He reached out and clasped Harry's shoulder. "Look, if there was someone I was interested in, this would be an entirely different conversation. But there's not." He smirked a little. "Despite Nora Zabini's best efforts."

Harry chuckled because Nora was definitely not subtle in her attempts to get Sirius's attention.

"And in all honesty," Sirius said firmly, "I'm happy with the status quo." He paused and waved a hand. "Well, I'd be happier if Voldemort was dead and you were able to have a normal school year without anyone trying to kill you but…"

"I know." Harry said warmly, reaching out and hugging Sirius. He still felt a little guilty that he didn't want Sirius to get involved with someone romantically but as long as Sirius was happy then that was OK wasn't it?

Sirius hugged him back before ruffling his hair and causing Harry to spring back with a warning expression. Sirius ignored it and hooked an arm around Harry's neck, grinning.

"Come on. I'll show you the training room and study." Sirius said.

Harry allowed Sirius to drag him downstairs. The study was decked out a lot like Sirius's study at Griffin House and had the same rule – Harry was always welcome even if all he did was read while Sirius worked.

The training room was cool. Shelves filled with books filled one wall, the duelling area was clearly defined and came with an in-built shield to protect the rest of the room, and there was an array of physical training equipment. Harry knew that Cedric had been given access to something similar in Hufflepuff to ensure there was no question of favouritism. He couldn't wait to get started.

The rest of the afternoon passed getting settled into his new room and finishing off the homework he'd had while he was recovering from the magical exhaustion. Hedwig turned up mid-afternoon, tired and grumpy from the flight. He comforted her with owl treats and she tucked her head beneath her wing and went to sleep on her perch.

By evening, the weirdness of being at Hogwarts but not in the dorm had worn off enough that he moved onto worrying about how everyone was going to react to him living in his own quarters with Sirius so he was pleased when Ron, Hermione and Neville turned up early for dinner.

All three of them sprang forward for a surprise group hug that left Harry breathless when he answered the portrait. He adjusted his glasses nervously as he stepped back and ushered them inside.

His eyes caught on Hermione's immediately and he gestured at her hair, which was smoothed down and pinned back in some complicated female hair-do that he'd seen on Penny before. "You look great."

Hermione's cheeks went pink at his compliment. "Lavender helped me."

"It took hours." Ron complained. "We would have been here ages ago but we were waiting forever in the Common Room."

Hermione rolled her eyes at him. "Like I never have to wait for you." She retorted before turning to Harry with a chagrined expression. "Actually it did take longer than I expected. I don't think I could do this every day."

Harry shrugged at her apologetic tone, unsure why she thought she had to be sorry about it. "Maybe for special occasions then?" He suggested. "It does look great but your hair's good the normal way too."

Her cheeks went red again but she smiled brightly at him. "Thank you, Harry."

They both grinned at each other for a long moment.

Ron coughed loudly.

Harry swallowed the sigh he wanted to make but took Ron's non-verbal point – he had promised not to make his getting together with Hermione uncomfortable for Ron. He moved them into the living room and they all took seats on the sofas as Dobby popped in with mugs of warmed spiced apple juice. He turned to Neville.

"So, how are things?" Harry asked.

Neville straightened imperceptibly, changing from shy friend to confident second. "We're organised. Hermione's leading up research, Heather's in charge of your peer tutors since Robert and Natalie are both snowed under being Head Boy and Girl…"

"Although both will make time for the tutoring if there's something specific you need that they're good at." Hermione interjected.

Ron snorted. "They could do more!"

"They have responsibilities, Ron," Hermione contradicted him smartly, "they can't just drop everything to help Harry especially when they're supposed to representing Hogwarts." She sent him another apologetic look.

"No, don't worry," Harry waved her off, "I get they're caught between loyalties here. If all they can help me out with is an occasional tutoring session then that's fine."

Ron snorted again but softly. "You shouldn't settle for that."

"I kind of see Ron's point," Neville said before Harry could reply, "after all Robert swore fealty." He held up a hand. "But I agree that probably not making them choose gives us the higher ground and ultimately, I think they'll end up helping more because of that."

Ron subsided, taking a gulp of his drink.

Harry exchanged a grateful look with Neville. "OK, so Hermione's got research, Heather's got tutoring and…"

"And Jeremy's got PR." Neville concluded.

Harry grimaced. "Three elements, right? Press, gossip clean-up and cheerleading?"

"Yeah," Neville dug into his pocket and brought out a braided leather bracelet in red and gold, "Hannah made this for you. We were going to go with beads but some found those looked too girly."

"Way too girly, mate." Ron said emphatically.

"Wow." Harry turned it over in his hand. "This is nice."

Hermione smiled at him and displayed her wrist where a thinner version was already tied. "Professor Dumbledore agreed to the bracelets being part of the uniform so long as there was a bracelet for every Champion."

"Diggory's is Hufflepuff colours," Ron chimed in, shaking his wrist to reveal that he was also wearing a red and gold version, "Beauxbatons is blue and gold and Durmstrang's is a plain black."

"They've proved very popular." Hermione added. "And, of course, some of the Hufflepuffs' like Susan and Hannah are wearing both yours and Cedric's." She leaned over and helped Harry tie it around his wrist.

"Or in politically sensitive positions like Robert and Natalie." Neville said. "I have a couple spare for Sirius and Remus." He placed them on the table.

"Thanks." Harry said, knowing both men would be wearing them as soon as they were given them. The wrist-band looked cool. It reminded him of some of the leather necklaces and bracelets that he'd seen Noshi and his family wear in the States.

"All of Gryffindor is wearing yours along with the Potter alliance." Neville said. "So you do have visible support here at Hogwarts, at least comparable to Krum's and Delacour's."

More support than Krum and Delacour if he had all of Gryffindor, Harry mused.

"On the gossip side…everyone in the alliance is on message with you playing to win, but respect for the other Champions." Neville said. "Draco's even managing to not sneer every time Cedric walks near him so that's something."

"I can't believe Malfoy's coming to dinner with us." Ron complained.

"He needs the visible sign that we support him." Harry rejoined. He had been surprised at Draco's tenaciousness in supporting him, especially given their history, but he knew it needed to be rewarded with the same level of support back. "Theo's coming too."

Neville nodded slowly. "It'll be good to get an update on Slytherin. There are a lot of rumours going around about a massive argument once Bulstrode found out about Voldemort's genealogy."

"Yeah, Draco already wrote me a letter about that. Apparently a lot of them are not too happy with their families at the moment," Harry gestured with his cup, "which is great for us. It's undermining Voldemort's ability to gain supporters from this generation."

They all nodded.

"I guess I can put up with Malfoy at dinner then." Ron muttered.

"Speaking of the Houses, Hufflepuff's in a bit of disarray." Neville commented a little hesitantly.

"I think some of them are just upset that your being in the tournament has taken the spotlight off the fact that it's a Hufflepuff representing Hogwarts." Hermione explained. "But there is…hostility there."

"Diggory finally shut up some of his supporters after Robert had a word." Ron said bluntly. "But some of them are still spouting off the same rubbish as his Dad."

"That I entered myself because I'm attention-seeking and just plain crazy?" Harry nodded. Sirius had been furious with some of the comments Amos Diggory had made and Harry knew he had Brian and Mary on the case to see whether something could be done legally about what amounted to slander.

"A couple of them have had warnings from the teachers under the anti-bullying policy but until they say it to your face…" Hermione sighed heavily.

Harry grimaced again. Great. Just what he needed. He rubbed his forehead and shook the thought away. Maybe being called attention-seeking and crazy wasn't nice but it would be worse if he didn't have support and he had plenty. He had to focus on that and forget about the rest, or at least try not to let it get to him. It could be worse, Harry mused, if Sirius hadn't taken over his guardianship…if he'd been entered into the tournament without warning and without people knowing he hadn't entered himself…

He didn't want to think about it. He'd probably be on his own or, his eyes flickered to Hermione, maybe with one friend helping him.

"The articles today have gone down really well though." Neville said, pulling Harry back into the conversation.

Harry waved at them. "Nobody's complaining about my having my own set of rooms and lesson plan?"

"Well, the article made it clear that it was Sirius who insisted so…everyone's blaming him." Hermione said. "We've, uh, kind of encouraged that."

"It worked with your mind healer thing." Ron commented draining his mug and setting it on the coffee table.

Harry nodded. "OK. Well, at least I know I won't get lynched tomorrow."

"Everyone's looking forward to having you back in class, mate." Ron asserted with a grin.

"He's right." Neville said with a smile.

The door chimed and Harry figured it was Draco and Theo. He went to answer it with most of his nerves about returning to Hogwarts settled. He'd made the right decision to come back.

It was a thought that stayed with Harry buoying his spirits as he got dressed in a variation of the Hogwarts' uniform the next morning. The cut was the same but where his Gryffindor crests had resided, the crests of the Houses of Potter and Black were proudly displayed. Harry ran a hand over them, checked his appearance again in the mirror and made his way downstairs.

Sirius glanced across the room from his seat on one of the comfy sofas. The newspapers lay in disarray around him. "All set?"

Harry nodded. "I'm meeting the others at the Great Hall." He made a quick tempus charm. "They should have finished breakfast by now."

"If you need me send your patronus." Sirius said firmly, getting to his feet and walking over to Harry.

Harry hugged him briefly, grabbed his book bag and left before he lost his nerve.

He skipped down the stairs, following the usual path to the Hall. A lot of the students he passed smiled at him and he smiled gratefully back, with each step believing it was going to be alright. He entered the Great Hall and ignored the lull in chatter that followed as he focused on his friends.

Two steps away from the Gryffindor table, his way was blocked by a sixth year Hufflepuff boy Harry vaguely recognised and a Ravenclaw girl. Both of them glared at Harry meanly. Harry's gut tensed in grim anticipation.

"You have some nerve coming back, Potter." The Hufflepuff snarled. "You couldn't resist the attention of competing in the tournament, taking the glory from Hogwarts' rightful Champion."

Harry didn't reply. He could see Minerva and Professor Flitwick racing toward them and he signalled for Ron, Hermione and Neville to stay away.

"We'll be wearing these!" The Ravenclaw thrust a badge at him.

He glanced at it. It was a square badge proclaiming support for Cedric but the words changed in front of his eyes to 'Ignore Potter the Rotter,' and Harry was unable to prevent the flare of hurt that he felt at the nasty message.

"What is going on here?" Minerva demanded.

"Accio badge!" Flitwick said, holding his hand out to catch the badge as it leapt out of Harry's. His expression grew stony as he took in the message. He showed it to Minerva and glowered at the two sixth years. "Miss Tatler, I expect better from you."

Minerva cast a furious look around the Hall. "I suggest that if anyone else has possession of one of these...badges, they get rid of them immediately or find themselves in detention."

Harry noted a few hasty removals by students over on the Hufflepuff and Slytherin tables. He wasn't surprised even if he was slightly disheartened. Hufflepuff was loyal to Cedric and the Slytherins would support a troll over a Gryffindor. He was mostly disappointed by Cedric himself who ducked his head and was obviously intent on pretending nothing was going on.

"Our apologies, Lord Potter." Flitwick said. "This is definitely not the way we wanted to welcome the Champion of the Light to Hogwarts."

Harry admired the subtle manner in which Flitwick had told everyone in the Hall of Harry's changed status. He was no longer Mister Potter, Hogwarts student, but Lord Potter, a competing Champion.

"You carry on, Lord Potter," Flitwick continued, "but be assured the perpetrators will be dealt with."

"I'll take care of informing Lord Black." Minerva glowered at the rapidly paling sixth years. "You will both go immediately to my office and think about your actions and whether they are an acceptable way to represent Hogwarts and its Champion," she said sternly.

The sixth years shuffled out thoroughly chastised.

Harry glanced at Minerva and debated briefly whether he could convince her not to tell Sirius, and gave it up immediately as a lost cause.

"Thank you." Harry murmured. He slid around them and joined his friends who were hovering at the end of the Gryffindor table.

"You OK?" Hermione asked in a quiet voice.

Harry nodded briskly. "Let's just get to class."

They turned for the door and found Viktor waiting with his friend. Harry's heart sank. He really didn't want another confrontation. But he squared his shoulders.

"Viktor." He said evenly.

"Harry," Viktor bowed his head a touch, "I vish to welcome vou back. I am looking forward to competing against vou."

Relief stormed through Harry. "Thank you." He said gratefully. "I hope you can still join me for Quidditch practice."

"I vould like that." Viktor agreed. "Let me know vhen." He made another bow and departed.

Ron gazed after him admiringly. "Now, that is a class act."

Harry and Hermione exchanged a mutual eye roll at Ron's hero worship, and suddenly everything seemed back to normal. It was almost enough to sustain him through the morning classes; through the whispers and stares that followed him on his travels through the castle. By the time he settled at the Gryffindor table for lunch, he was enormously relieved that he would have an escape at the end of the day.

Hermione smiled sympathetically as he played with the plate of chicken stew he had chosen. "It's pretty bad, isn't it?"

Harry shrugged. "About as bad as the Heir of Slytherin nonsense."

Neville sighed. He and Ron had sat opposite to Harry and Hermione. "It's pretty bad that you have something to compare it to at all."

Ron snorted. He was about to speak when his eyes went wide and he stared at something over Harry's shoulder.

Harry looked half expecting to see Viktor. Instead he found the very beautiful Veela representing Beauxbatons in the tournament. He hastily clambered to his feet and kissed Fleur's proffered hand.

"Miss Delacour." Harry said politely.

"Fleur, please," Fleur smiled prettily, "we are fellow Champions, non?"

"Sure," Harry said, bemused, "I'm Harry then."

Fleur's smile widened. "Bon. I am looking forward to competing with you in ze tournament."

"I look forward to competing with you too." Harry said, feeling very awkward in the presence of the poised and elegant Veela. He heard Hermione's small cough and gratefully waved at her. "May I introduce my friends?"

Fleur nodded. "But of course."

Harry smiled. "This is Hermione Granger."

Hermione stood and shook hands with Fleur as Ron and Neville hastened around the table to facilitate their introductions. Both boys were mildly affected by the Veela's allure, but the introductions passed without incident if not without slightly glazed looks. Fleur quietly excused herself after, ostensibly to leave them to their lunch.

"That was nice of her." Hermione said.

Ron motioned with his knife, sending a drop of sauce flying. "She copied Krum."

"It was still nice of her." Hermione insisted. She poked at her food wistfully. "She's very beautiful."

"So are you." Harry stated without thinking.

He was rewarded with a huge smile from Hermione and he resolved to ask her out as soon as he could arrange it.

Ron pointed again with his knife, but toward the door where Cedric was hurrying out with his head down. "You'd think after his whole 'the Hogwarts' Champion stands with you' spiel at Halloween, that he might have come over like the others."

Hermione sighed. "It's got to be difficult for him with the stuff his father is saying."

Harry tuned out their argument; he sympathised with Cedric but he was disappointed in him too. He caught sight of some of the Hufflepuffs glaring at him and pushed the last of his chicken stew away.

He really couldn't wait until the end of the day; the sanctuary of his own quarters and the solid comfort and support of Padfoot appealed more and more with each moment that passed.