Part 9: Holding Onto Pronglet (The Sticking Like Glue Prank)

3rd December 1994

Spying was often a waiting game.

Severus observed Karkaroff surreptitiously at dinner He took in the tight lines of tension that ran through the other man's body, the pinched expression and shadows under the eyes that spoke of stress and lack of sleep; how Karkaroff would occasionally touch his left forearm when Karkaroff believed nobody was looking.

Without asking him, Severus had verified to his own satisfaction that Karkaroff was being forced to assist the Dark Lord in his bid to, if not outright kill Potter, make the tournament a living nightmare for the boy in anticipation of the ritual.

That Karkaroff was under duress didn't surprise Severus in the slightest. Karkaroff hadn't been the only one to turn on his fellow Death Eaters for a lighter sentence of his own, but he had been the most prominent given those he had betrayed – Ministry workers and men of standing within the wizarding world. Severus was certain the Dark Lord considered the betrayal deserved a death sentence for Karkaroff but no doubt had convinced Karkaroff that the guillotine hanging over Karkaroff's exposed neck would not fall if he helped the Dark Lord with the tournament and tormenting Potter. The freed Dennis Travers was the most probable on site Death Eater keeping Karkaroff in line. His father had been one of those Karkaroff had sent to Azkaban.

It was unfortunate that observing was not enough, but Severus had no quibble with Black's plan. He had always known that when the Dark Lord regained power that he would have to return to spying. The Headmaster had been fooling himself if he had ever thought Severus would escape it. Or maybe, Severus mused as he finished his coffee, the Headmaster was simply put out that it had been Black's suggestion and not his. Severus found he didn't really mind that it was Black and that surprised him.

His view of his former nemesis had changed.

He still didn't like him; that much hadn't changed and Severus fervently believed that it never would. But there was a growing – Severus searched for an acceptable word – respect, he finally determined with well-hidden bemusement. Severus respected Black's political savvy, his strategic eye and his complete ruthlessness in hunting down the Dark Lord. He even had a sneaky respect for the manner in which Black handled his adopted son. It was clear that Black had rules and Potter, whose total lack of respect for authority Severus had deplored since the boy had set foot in Hogwarts, complied with them. Perhaps, Severus considered, because Potter knew Black set them out of love and not out of hate or apathy.

But if he had come to respect Black, Severus also believed, rightly or wrongly, that Black had come to respect him in return. Black certainly respected his skills; he had turned to Severus to deliver an antidote to the potion that kept the elf and the pregnant Summers woman in a coma-like state, after all. And Severus couldn't complain overly much at the assignment because, outside of the need and circumstances of the situation, he was enjoying the challenge – it was why he had become a Potions Master. Black didn't skimp on the ingredients Severus had asked for or the equipment; everything was top of the line and high quality.

Severus also believed given some of their exchanges in the previous weeks, that Black respected Severus's motivations; that he truly believed Severus wanted the Dark Lord dead and revenge for Lily's death.

And it seemed Black respected his ability as a spy.

It was, in part, why Severus had accepted Black's proposition that he approach Karkaroff. Of course, the other part of his acceptance had been predicated on Severus's own belief that Karkaroff held the key to how the first task had been sabotaged, and the method by which the Dark Lord hoped to sabotage the others.

Karkaroff rose from his chair and Severus waited until he had left the Great Hall before following him. Severus had lived for years at the school and he knew its short cuts. He was easily able to place himself into Karkaroff's path just outside of the school in a quiet corner by the rose gardens. He shocked Karkaroff into a stumble by looming up unexpectedly from the dark.

Severus placed a finger on his own lips to signal for the other wizard to remain silent before gesturing at him to follow him. Karkaroff glanced about anxiously but there was no-one about. Severus led the way into a sheltered corner of the gardens where he could see anyone approaching but they wouldn't be overheard.

Karkaroff fidgeted nervously as Severus erected a privacy bubble. "What's this about, Snape?" He demanded.

Severus pinned him with a frank stare that did more to call Karkaroff an idiot than if the word had passed Severus's lips. "I have a message for our Lord."

The other wizard paled so fast Severus thought for a moment he'd faint. "I…I have no idea vhat you are…"

"Oh, please." Severus sneered. "Lose that ridiculous affected accent and stop pretending you know nothing of the Dark Lord's rise after what happened with the dragon at the first task." He held Karkaroff's gaze firmly. "You've done nothing but clutch at your Mark since you arrived and more since last week's events." He smiled without humour. "I'm sure you're being reminded who is your Master after your deplorable lack of holding your tongue at your trial."

"As will you in time." Karkaroff snapped out before flushing, realising he had just admitted that Severus had guessed correctly.

Severus didn't allow any of his satisfaction show. Really Karkaroff was an idiot. Karkaroff had all but confirmed that the suspicions of the War Council and Moody were correct; that Karkaroff was the weak link – and Severus hadn't even had to try that hard. "Ah, but I was a traitor at the Dark Lord's instruction." He said silkily. "And thus no traitor at all."

"So you say." Karkaroff muttered.

"Karkaroff, would I be sending the Dark Lord a message if I wasn't certain of my welcome?" Severus snapped impatiently. He adjusted his robes, smoothing down the black austere lines once again. "He is clearly gaining in strength and I am impressed at what he and his new circle have accomplished but he is not facing Albus Dumbledore and a disorganised Ministry this time but a powerful Lord Black, an equally powerful if youthful Potter, and a Ministry keen to thwart his every move. I have continued in my service as his spy and I have information our Lord needs."

Karkaroff regarded him sulkily. "I should report you to the Aurors."

Severus smiled evilly. "Oh, I rather think your keeper would see you dead before you could get one word past those loose lips of yours, Karkaroff."

Karkaroff stared at him in shock.

"You're a traitor, Karkaroff," Severus pointed out dryly, "the Dark Lord would have made certain of your loyalty this time and taken reasonable precautions."

He was pleased when Karkaroff flushed red and looked away, unable to hold Severus's contemptuous glare.

"What do you want, Snape?" Karkaroff snapped.

"As I said," Snape said evenly, "I have a message for our Lord."

Karkaroff gestured at him. "Well, what is it?"

Severus laughed briefly. "I'm hardly going to give it you, Karkaroff. You will tell your keeper that I have information to relay to the Dark Lord, and I'm sure arrangements will be made that do not involve you at all."

"I am not a messenger boy!" Karkaroff stated forcefully, going red in the face again.

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You're whatever the Dark Lord wishes you to be, Karkaroff, or you'll be dead." He made a shooing gesture. "Run along and relay my message to your babysitter." He stared at him hard. "And know that I will know if you do not and will not be pleased." He let another cruel smile drift over his lips. "It would be a shame if an unfortunate potion found its way into your food."

Karkaroff huffed and walked away quickly with an air of a man wanting desperately to run but knowing it would only provoke the predator behind him into attacking if he did.

Severus waited until he was out of sight before he gave a cough to alert his cohort that they were clear.

Moody yanked the invisibility cloak away, appearing on the bench behind Severus with a grunt. "I was right."

"Yes," Severus agreed dryly, "and thank you for the back-up but as you can see," he made a dismissive motion in the direction Karkaroff had disappeared, "it was not necessary."

Moody harrumphed. "He's a bloody idiot alright, but even bloody idiots are dangerous when cornered and I would say he's well and truly boxed in."

Severus had no argument to muster in opposition. He hummed instead.

"Well, he's at least confirmed he's involved." Moody said grimly. "You think he'll pass the message on?"

"He will." Severus said with certainty. It was more than Karkaroff's life was worth to mess with the Dark Lord's spy getting in touch with him.

"And then?" pressed Moody.

"And then I will receive a summons." Severus said simply. "Whether it will be to the Dark Lord or one of his latest lieutenants…" that he didn't know. He rather suspected that the Dark Lord would keep him at a distance; utilising him but not placing himself at risk of a double cross.

"I'd best get on with the patrol." Moody said. "You should head up and report to Black. Let him know you've made contact."

Severus desperately kept the automatic wince from crossing his impassive features. "Very well." He'd also let the Headmaster know.

Moody whirled the invisibility cloak over him and disappeared from view. Severus could hardly make out the DADA Professor's passage out of the garden. He made his own way out of a different exit. He hovered in the entrance of the Great Hall, musing on whether it would be best to see Albus and allow the old wizard to inform Black rather than tackle it himself. But the thought that he was reluctant because he feared Black had him turning his feet toward the tower and Black's suite of rooms with Potter.

The house elf answered the door and ushered him into the living area. Severus looked around with interest. The space was cosy, warm and welcoming. A host of photographs were crammed onto the mantelpiece and Severus examined them swiftly, settling on a muggle picture of Lily, young and carefree, smiling up at the camera.

"Snape." Black's voice sounded from Severus's right and he turned to see Black dressed entirely in muggle clothing in the doorway to an adjoining room. "Come through." He instructed, withdrawing and forcing Snape to comply.

Snape felt a frisson of frustration but he swallowed it and warily entered the unknown space. It was a study, he realised immediately. It was a small room, no larger than Snape's own office off the main lab in the dungeons. Black's desk sat off to the left; one chair in front of it, another comfortable visitor chair beside it. There were shelves filled with books along the right wall, broken up only by the fireplace which had a cosy seating area in front of it. A window looking out onto the grounds dominated the wall facing Severus. The curtains were still wide open despite the hour and Severus could see the glint of stars in the inky sky beyond.

He was slightly surprised when Black directed him to the seating area and didn't make him stand or take the lower visitor position at his desk. He realised why a moment later, his eyes taking in the stack of parchments Black was obviously in the middle of reading perched on the arm of a chair.

"Would you like any refreshments?" asked Black civilly. "Tea, coffee, whiskey?"

"No," Severus snapped immediately before he moderated his tone and offered a conciliatory gesture, "thank you, but I've just finished dinner." He frowned at the heavy silence that permeated the rooms. "Potter?"

Black pointed Severus at the seat opposite his own as he sat. "He's holding a meeting of the Heirs of the Potter alliance, and some of his other friends and supporters, to talk about the second task in some room Dobby found for Harry up on the seventh floor." He made a dismissive wave. "I take it you made your move with Karkaroff?"

"I've made contact," Severus confirmed, sitting stiffly in the offered chair, "and he confirmed through his reactions and responses that he is involved with the Dark Lord and has some kind of keeper holding his leash." He paused. "I expect to be called to see Crouch Junior within a week to relay the message I told them I had."

"Not Voldie himself?" Black questioned, tapping his fingers restlessly on top of the parchments.

"Unlikely, in my opinion." Severus said. "The Dark Lord is too vulnerable within the body of the child; he will keep his location secret until he is at full strength. But I think he still believes me loyal enough to continue as his spy, although I may have to do some grovelling over my hampering Quirrell." He inclined his head. "I think he will send his most trusted lieutenant in his stead and thus…"

"Junior." Black nodded sharply. "Makes sense."

"My impression is that Karkaroff is acting under duress." Severus continued. "Moody will confirm my observation."

Black raised an eyebrow. "I'll take your word for it."

Severus stared at him blankly in surprise. He shook it away. "Karkaroff is a dead man walking. On some level I think he knows it."

"He has to," Black agreed, "I saw enough on the continent to know if someone was captured as a traitor, they were given no quarter."

"You were captured yourself." Severus murmured. He'd been gleeful at the time when the news had trickled down to him but he felt the first stirrings of shame at his previous response, knowing what Black must have been subjected to in his captivity. Still, Black had managed to kill his captors when he'd escaped.

"Ah, yes," Black said cheerfully, "well, I don't remember much of that experience thankfully." He motioned at Severus. "But I do remember that spying is its own kind of hell. I appreciate your agreement to approach Karkaroff."

Severus nodded slowly, absorbing Black's sincerity. "It will be worth it if it leads to the death of the Dark Lord."

"Or the saving of innocents." Black waved at the parchments. "We lucked out with the information about the werewolf attacks. Amelia and her team have put together a good counter operation, but if Sian hadn't come forward…"

Severus shivered. He remembered all too well the brief moment when he had glimpsed the fury of a werewolf and the thought of knowing that kind of attack was imminent…

"It's not the full moon so they won't be fully transformed." Black continued. "Still, they can do a lot of damage with just teeth and claws in a partial transformation."

"I'm surprised to hear you admit that since you put me in the path of one." The words escaped him before Severus could stop them and he berated himself furiously for the slip because whatever truce had existed between them in their previous exchange disappeared abruptly.

Black glared at him. "Please; you set up that attack when we were at school. You know it, I know it, and thankfully Dumbledore knew it at the time."

Severus rose from his seat and gathered his robes. "I shall take my leave and inform the Headmaster of my meeting with Karkaroff."

"Do that." Black said tersely.

He was almost at the study door when Black called out for him to wait. He turned around and found Black on his feet, his hands in fists at his side, but a determined expression on his face.

"Yes?" Severus prompted snappily.

"We have to work together." Black stated grimly, his low voice carrying across the space between them. "I don't like you and you don't like me, and I doubt that will ever change given our history."

His words echoed Severus's thoughts from dinner and he made to nod briskly but then Black's grey eyes met Severus's, and Severus almost took a step back at the fierce anger that burned there.

"You plotted to get Remus executed and made me an accessory to it. It…it tainted my friendship with Remus for years after. I won't ever forgive you for that or for telling Voldemort about the prophecy." Black shifted weight, rocking a little back on his heels, some of the passion in his gaze dying. "But I'm prepared to admit that I was a…a bully to you for a large part of the time when we were at school, Snape." He snorted. "Under the new anti-bullying policy here, James and I would have been expelled a thousand times over, and I've wondered these last few weeks whether you would have been so quick to fall in with the Death Eaters had James and I simply left you alone, and allowed you your friendship with Lily without interference. So," he breathed in deeply, "I don't expect you to forgive me either. But..."

"But we have to work together." Severus repeated quietly, shocked in truth that Black had admitted his culpability for Severus's school days torment.

"And as much as I hate to say it we need to trust each other in this if nothing else. So: a truce." Black offered grimly. "We leave the past in the past and focus on our mutual goal of seeing Voldemort die once and for all."

"Agreed." Severus said quickly, recognising the truth in Black's words. "A truce."

Black nodded slowly in acknowledgement.

"I should still report to the Headmaster." Severus said, with a wave toward the door behind him.

"Give Albus my best." Black sat down and picked up a parchment.

Severus knew it was his signal to leave. He swept out of the study, through the living area, and out of the portrait. He paused in the corridor outside.

Respect.

He remembered his thoughts after dinner and grimaced; whatever new respect they had for each other clearly wasn't enough for them to work together without occasionally butting heads. They had possibly needed to clear the air and address their enmity too. Severus reluctantly admired how Black had swallowed his pride to offer the truce at all. But it spoke to Black's determination to see the Dark Lord defeated; to Black's need to protect Potter first and foremost because nothing was more important to Black – not petty school boy rivalries or past decisions that had led to nothing but heartache for them all.

And if Black could do it so could Severus.

He gave a firm nod as though to underscore his new resolve where Black and Potter were concerned, and made his way to the Headmaster's office with renewed purpose.

o-O-o

Harry rubbed at his scar absentmindedly as Neville whistled for everyone's attention. He gazed around the Room of Requirement, noting the configuration that Hermione had thought up.

It wasn't unlike the training room in his quarters. One area was arranged as a duelling area; another was clearly staked out as a research point with tables, books, paper and pens (actual pens, Harry noted with amusement, and not quills); and, a final section acted as a planning area with a table staked out like a battlefield surrounded by several blackboards. One was already filled with the clues for the second task neatly labelled in Hermione's writing.

There were a couple of differences; namely, a table at the back held a variety of refreshments gleefully maintained by Dobby and Kreacher, and there was a gathering area with a variety of seating off to one side for group discussions. Such as the one they were having at that moment, Harry thought amused as Neville wrangled them all into silence and nodded at Harry to begin.

Harry cleared his throat. "So thank you all for coming," he adjusted his stance; hands behind his back, legs slightly apart, "and I'd also like to thank everyone for their help with the first task…"

A huge cheer went up from the Weasley twins, rapidly followed by applause and whistles from everyone else, except the Slytherins who clapped but didn't join in the more obvious boisterousness. Neville waited a moment before he shushed everybody again.

"Thanks," Harry said, waving off the plaudits, "but I couldn't have done it without you guys supporting me. The research teams were invaluable in working out the first task was a creature and the spells I needed to learn; the duelling team were excellent at helping me practice; and I can't tell you how much it's meant to know that I have my own cheering section and sounding boards." He figured he was bright red but it was worth it to see how pleased everyone else was to receive praise for their part.

"I think I speak for us all, Harry," Neville said, "when I say it was worth all the work to see you perform so brilliantly."

There was another round of cheers and Harry was the one to quiet them down since Neville was also cheering.

"Right then," Harry said, "as we did so well with the first, we have a lot to live up to with the second. Hermione…" he motioned at her to take over and she smiled as she took a step forward.

"As all of you know, the Champions were given clues about the second task based on the number of eggs they managed to save and Harry received the full set." Hermione said briskly. She tucked an unruly lock of hair behind her ear with one hand and clutched her notebook closer with her other. "Thanks to Remus, he's already managed to decipher the clues which were given in the Mermish language and they take the form of a poem which is on the board." She waved at the blackboard at the planning table. "Water, water, everywhere; of your prized possession take great care; for prisoners rarely work together; and time will not last forever."

"So the language and the words of the poem suggest the lake as a venue." Daphne spoke up.

Hermione nodded, her curls bouncing. "Exactly, although whether under or above water is a question mark. We have to plan for both possibilities. Thanks to our previous research on the tournament we know both have happened in the past. I'm going to need a volunteer to research spells needed above and one to take below."

"I'll take above." Daphne said. "We have a sail boat and I know my father has a library of spells about sailing."

"I'll be below then," offered Luna, "Daddy and I often go diving when we're on our trips and there are all the creatures in the lake to consider as obstacles."

Hermione nodded and noted both names down.

"It also sounds like something or someone will be taken hostage." Draco piped up, examining his nails as though he wasn't that interested.

"Yes." Hermione agreed crisply. "Again, both are a possibility."

Harry shifted, drawing everyone's attention to him. "Frankly, I'm not fussed if it's a something." He admitted. "I have very few things that I would consider a prized possession and while I'd regret losing any of them, for the most part they're replaceable. A person is not."

"Well, that brings up two questions," Anthony Goldstein asserted, "how would the Goblet choose and what are your prized possessions in either case?"

Hermione nodded. "The how is the easy part. The judges are requested to supply a list of possibilities to the Goblet the morning of the day before the task, and the Goblet immediately chooses something or someone. The criteria for making the choice which the Goblet will use, was set in the initiation parameters and the judges are not allowed to tell us what they are. If the Goblet refuses to make a choice, the judges have to come up with alternatives until it finds an acceptable match."

"You can guess at the lists of the possibilities though, Potter." Theo said.

Harry nodded. He sighed, uncomfortable at giving up what he considered very personal knowledge about himself but he knew they needed it to plan effectively. "On the something side: I have a photo album of my parents, my Firebolt and a couple of family artefacts that have been handed down from my father."

There was a moment of silence as they absorbed Harry's minimal list.

"That's it?" questioned Draco in disbelief. "That's all you prize?"

Unsurprisingly Ron bristled immediately. "Some of us don't need things to get by in life, Malfoy."

"Only when some of us don't have things, Weasley." Draco retorted.

"Enough!" Harry said sharply, sending them both a warning glare.

"Well, the good news is that you have a short list of things to protect." Anthony said cheerfully.

"What about your owl, Harry?" Luna said dreamily.

"Hedwig's not a thing though and she's definitely not replaceable." Harry argued, his heart sinking as he realised he hadn't considered that Hedwig probably was considered by others to be among his prized possessions.

"But she should probably be on the list." Hermione said almost apologetically. "Possibly both as we don't know if the judges might deem her a thing or a being in her own right."

Harry sighed but accepted the addition of Hedwig with a nod.

"These artefacts," Anthony said, "I've noticed you've not said what they are?"

He had hoped he'd get away with not saying.

"One is an invisibility cloak," Harry said, shifting again as he knew that wasn't the whole story behind the cloak, "and one is a map my Dad created while he was at school."

"I assume the power of the Goblet overrides any protection on the possession if it's a thing?" Anthony asked.

Hermione frowned. "We don't know. We don't know if there is any way that Harry has of protecting his belongings that would get around the Goblet choosing it as part of the task."

"Why don't I take that?" Anthony offered.

"Which leaves the other kind of prized possessions;" the Gryffindor Quidditch captain spoke up for the first time, "the people you care about."

Harry nodded at Angelina. "It's a weird one because we really don't know what criteria will be used."

Lydia raised her hand tentatively. She had quietened down a lot since her friend Jessica had been expelled for attacking Hermione and she'd been given a bucketload of detentions along with Ginny. She darted a look towards Hermione as Harry nodded at her to speak.

"Isn't Hermione the obvious choice?" She asked.

"Just because your friend decided to make her a target doesn't meant the Goblet will." Ron glared at her, and then Ginny for good measure; Harry had given up trying to get the younger Weasley siblings talking again.

Ginny blushed bright red. Lydia was made of sterner stuff. She fixed Ron with a glare of her own.

"It was supposed to be a prank not an attack!" Lydia threw Harry a pleading look. "We wouldn't attack Hermione."

Harry dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. "Both of you are right on the point of the task; Hermione would be the obvious target as my...as my girlfriend." Hermione blushed beside him. "But equally we don't know that the criteria would lead the Goblet to choosing her. The Goblet might choose Sirius as my father or Ron as my best mate, or it could choose anyone who is notionally under my protection."

The latter had a rush of murmurs rippling through the gathered students.

Robert Ogden stood up. "That's a good point and relates to anyone formally in the alliance in particular."

"Or a member of one of Potter's primary Houses; Potter and Black." Draco said slowly, horror dawning on his face.

"Oh, please, Malfoy," Daphne drawled, "as if you'd be chosen as a prized possession of Potter's."

Draco whirled around on her angrily but Harry dived in before he could speak.

"My history with Draco aside, I do consider him a cousin now," Harry said firmly, "and he's an important member of the House of Black." He sent Draco a look to settle him. "However, I think you'd agree, Draco, that there are others in the House who'd probably come before you on a list of possibilities."

"So some of us are going to be possibilities," Neville cut in before Draco replied, "but some are going to be more likely than others."

"Can I take the statistical stuff, please?" Natalie Warren held up a hand. "We can probably work out who the most likely suspects are based on a few example sets of criteria. That would narrow it down."

"I think it's prudent we all learn some basic defence stuff in case we get taken hostage." Ron said firmly, crossing his arms. "It's only a precaution but…"

"But it's a reasonable precaution." Harry concluded with a nod. "It's a good suggestion."

"Who'll teach us?" Connor piped up.

"Harry." Ron stated.

Harry's eyes widened a little at Ron's declaration but seeing everyone else's pleased expressions couldn't bring himself to argue. "OK. We'll meet here once a week for a lesson. Hermione…"

"I'll work out a time for everyone." Hermione agreed happily.

Harry hoped Sirius or Remus would help him come up with a lesson plan…maybe he could ask Moody…

"Right," Hermione said, bringing everyone back to the issue at hand, "so Anthony will take research into prized possessions when they are things; Natalie will handle when they are people; and, we all practice some defence to ensure we're not helpless as hostages."

"We might be able…" Fred began.

"…to come up with…" George added.

"…a couple of things to help." Fred concluded.

George grinned. "Maybe something…"

"…that will help a hostage…"

"…get free."

Harry grinned back at them. "Great. Let us know when you have something."

"You know that line about prisoners suggests that there'll be more than one." Theo said suddenly.

"One for each Champion?" Blaise suggested, speaking up.

"That's one possibility," Hermione said, "and would make sense. Why would the hostages work together? Each is supporting their own Champion."

"But couldn't it also suggest that the prisoners will be the Champions themselves?" Jeremy Branstone argued. "They aren't meant to work together and isn't life itself a prized possession?"

"Good point, Jeremy," Harry said, "especially as the Champions were told not to talk with each other about this task."

"So I guess we have three possible scenarios around this point," Hermione listed, "one; Harry has to retrieve something that he values; two, Harry has to retrieve someone that he cares for who will be held prisoner alongside the other Champions' hostages; three, that Harry and the other Champions may be imprisoned and have to rescue themselves, and, or, their prized possession be it a something or someone."

"Add in the complexity that we don't know if it's above or below the water…" added Daphne.

"For having clues, there are a lot of bloody unknowns." Ron said bluntly.

"It wouldn't be a challenge otherwise." Blaise pointed out.

Ron sighed as he conceded the point.

"What we have is a lot of work," Hermione said briskly, "we're going to need plans for dealing with each scenario."

"Which brings us on to duelling and physical practice." Neville said. "Obviously we're some way away from having spell plans for scenarios but we'll have the defence lessons and you're probably going to need to practice swimming either way, Harry."

Harry frowned but nodded, relieved that Sirius had taught him to swim in the Summer at the Valley clinic when they'd had their own pool – their own heated pool. He needed to think about how he dealt with swimming in the freezing conditions in the lake in February. He'd talk to Sirius about that, Harry determined.

"I guess the cheerleading section continues as per usual," Jeremy said, "clear up the gossip and support you as much as we can. Are you doing any more press?"

They'd issued a brief statement after the first task, mostly stating condolences for the dragon handler who'd died, with an added statement that he was pleased to get the first task completed and to have established an early lead.

"I think there's something planned for the New Year?" Harry shrugged. "I'll talk to Sirius. I know he and your Dad have something worked out already."

Theo coughed discreetly. "You said you couldn't talk with the other Champions about the task?"

Harry nodded.

"So you can't ask them if they have the same clues or different ones?" Theo continued. "Or to coordinate with them on a strategy for their hostages to work with yours…or for you all to have a plan to work together if you were the prisoners?"

Harry nodded. "That's right. I do know Fleur has one clue now because of the sabotage, Cedric has two and Viktor has three." Amos Diggory had complained when Fleur had been granted a clue, pointing out it wasn't fair to Cedric who'd actually saved one egg. The new arrangement allowed for Fleur to be compensated for her dragon being sabotaged while ensuring each Champion had a clue ratio consistent with their standing in the tournament.

Blaise sent Theo a sympathetic look before focusing on Harry. "You can't talk with them but someone else could, perhaps?"

And Harry suddenly got it. He blushed a little as he gave Theo an apologetic smile. "Ah, yes, I guess. I mean, Bagman said we couldn't talk to each other about it before the task, I think? So…it's possibly best that I don't know about anyone else talking with other Champions or what was specifically discussed either? Just to be on the safe side?"

Theo nodded. "Understood."

Blaise frowned. "And the caveat is before the task, right? Which means there's nothing stopping you from talking to each other once the task begins."

He hadn't thought of that, Harry mused inwardly and gave a nod.

"Right then; I think we're done for tonight." Neville declared. "Thanks, everyone!"

It took a while for everyone to leave. People meandered out in twos and threes, chatting away about their new assignments. He was pleased that most were bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement.

Draco approached him as the room was almost empty. "Cousin."

Harry nodded at him cautiously. "Cousin." He knew it was Draco's method of announcing that what he had to say was family business.

"I have a date with Katherine Gillingwood." Draco said. "The Gillingwoods are a pureblood family who own a great deal of land, some of it bordering the Black estates. They are not politically active per se but have contributed to Minister Fudge's campaigns in the past. I'd like to introduce her to you and Lord Black tomorrow night."

"She's very pretty." Neville commented. "Third year Slytherin. The Gillingwoods went abroad during the last skirmish with Voldemort."

Harry nodded his thanks at the additional information. "Shall we say six o'clock, Draco?" Harry replied. It was an inconvenience but it was part of the agreement he'd made with Draco and he'd keep to it.

Draco smiled. "I'll inform Katherine." It was his parting comment and Harry couldn't quite prevent the sigh of relief that escaped him at Draco's departure.

Eventually, it was just Harry, Hermione, Ron and Neville. Harry poked the boys and gave them his best 'please leave Hermione and me alone' look while Hermione was distracted, packing up her book bag. Ron rolled his eyes but allowed a smirking Neville to drag him out before Hermione noticed.

It was just in time.

Hermione raised her head and looked surprised at finding herself alone with Harry. She smiled shyly at him. "Hey."

"Hey." Harry said giddily. Their first date had gone splendidly as had their second. He hurriedly leaned in for a soft kiss and was pleased when Hermione responded enthusiastically. He had to pull himself away. "This isn't why I wanted you alone. I mean," he continued rueful honesty, "not the only reason."

Hermione grinned back at him. "Oh?"

"Well, I've been trying to find the perfect time but there hasn't been one so…" Harry swiftly reached down to the floor by the refreshments table and plucked his invisibility cloak away to reveal a small box. He offered it to Hermione, nervous again. "I'd like you to accept this token of my regard and hope that you will do me the honour of escorting you to the Yule Ball."

Hermione's face lit up and Harry felt relief swamp him as she immediately nodded.

"I've been wondering when you were going to ask me." Hermione said with a bright laugh. "Viktor was joking the other day that he'd take me if you didn't get a move on."

Harry laughed. Viktor was intensely jealous that Harry had someone who wasn't bothered by his fame as Viktor himself had problems finding someone like Hermione – someone who liked him for who he was rather than someone captured by his Quidditch success and persona.

"Open the box." Harry encouraged, eager for her to see the present now the hard part of the invitation was out of the way.

Hermione glanced at him curiously but carefully undid the ribbon and opened the lid. Her mouth formed a wide 'O' as she drew out the snow globe where a miniature Hogwarts was covered in an everlasting fall of snow. "Oh, Harry!" She exclaimed. "It's beautiful."

"Sirius helped me." Harry said, answering her unspoken question of whether he'd made it. "Apparently my Dad used to make my Mum one for every ball they attended."

Hermione reached across the space between them and kissed him. "I love it and, for the record, I would love to attend the Yule Ball with you."

Harry grinned and they were kissing again, Hermione holding fast to the globe.

A knock on the door had them both breaking away with a guilty expression.

"Aren't you guys done yet?" Ron's strident voice drifted through the wood.

Hermione sighed and put her globe back in the box, reaching for her packed bag. "We really have to get him together with Lavender."

"Or anyone." Harry agreed as he clasped her free hand in his and began the walk to the door. "Anyone at all!"

o-O-o

7th December 1994

The Burrow was quiet in the middle of the night.

Percy stared up at the ceiling above his bed and brooded about the state of his life. It seemed incredible to him that just a few short months before he had been thrilled with his life; good job with prospects and a solid beginning for his political ambitions, a lovely girlfriend, and his family even embracing good connections to revive their status as an Ancient and Noble House. His dreams all lay in ashes.

He had no job, no prospects and he had let Penny go rather than keep her tethered to a dead weight such as he. He was a failure.

Why hadn't he questioned the way Crouch had changed after returning from flu? His remembered pleasure at being finally recognised for his hard work soured his stomach.

Percy heaved a huge sigh into the darkness. He couldn't sleep again. He felt restless, drifting like a useless piece of flotsam on the river of life. His thoughts turned relentlessly over in his head; what was he going to do? He couldn't live with his parents for the rest of his life, and he doubted whether even his mother's patience would last forever.

He tossed his blankets aside and rolled out of bed. Maybe a glass of warm milk would help. He crept out of his room and down the stairs, careful to avoid the places that creaked and would bring his mother running.

The living area glowed amber with the last of the fire's embers; a single chair puddled in the yellow light of an oil lamp. He paused at the sight of his father, dressed for bed and wrapped up in an old flannel dressing gown, reading. His Dad looked up from his book and blinked at the sight of Percy in his pristine pinstriped pyjamas hovering.

"Can't sleep?" His Dad said evenly, keeping his voice low.

Percy shook his head, feeling like he was nine rather than the nineteen years of age he was.

His Dad set his book aside. "Warm milk?" He was up and into the kitchen before Percy could reply.

Percy trailed after him. He felt awkward around his Dad, too aware that he had been dismissive of his father's advice about getting too close to Crouch, working too hard, and alienating his colleagues. His Dad had refrained from telling him 'told you so' but Percy was all too aware that he deserved that and more.

He thought again of how close his family had come to dying at the World Cup, how pained Bill still looked occasionally. He shivered.

His Dad pottered around the kitchen and Percy slipped into a chair at the table. Eventually a warm glass of milk was placed in front of him and his Dad sat down with a glass of his own.

"I should tell you," his Dad said conversationally, "that the reason why I'm up is that we might have a werewolf attack tonight."

Percy almost choked on his milk. "What?!"

"Remus got wind of a rumour that Fenrir Greyback is supposed to menace Harry's supporters tonight." His Dad said, calm considering the news he was imparting. "Amelia's posted a couple of Aurors to watch the Burrow, but I thought I'd stay up and keep watch myself too."

"Does Mum know?" asked Percy worriedly, glancing up the stairs.

"No, I didn't want to get her upset. Bill knows but Alicia asked him to stay over with her and Elphias so he's there." His Dad confirmed. "It may not happen." He raised his glass. "Or it may happen to someone else."

"But you think it will happen to us?" Percy noted.

"We're known to be one of Harry's closest supporters and we've already been targeted once." His Dad shrugged. "I'd be sticking my head in the sand if I didn't consider the possibility that we're top of the list."

Percy suddenly wished he'd thought to bring his wand with him. He took a sip of his milk. "Well, I might as well stay up and keep you company." He offered a little hesitantly.

His Dad's eyes gleamed with an approval that eased something in Percy. "I'd like that. Thank you, Percy."

They sat for a moment in silence.

"I'm sorry." Percy blurted out. "I'm sorry for all of it. I thought…I just wanted to establish myself and prove that I was ambitious and had drive and initiative and…" And that he wasn't like his Dad, content to drift in a department he might enjoy but which didn't have potential – or hadn't had potential until Sirius had intervened.

"And it's not your fault that Crouch Junior took advantage of that to get the information he needed for his plans to hurt Harry and us." His Dad said firmly.

Percy lowered his gaze to the table. "It feels like I should have known."

"According to everyone I've talked to," his Dad replied, "Crouch Junior is a very intelligent, very insane and obsessed individual. You were lucky all he did was play you for information, Percy." His eyes shone behind his glasses. "We're just thankful you're still alive."

Percy hadn't considered that in his brooding. He shivered again, suddenly cold in the warm cosy kitchen of his home.

"I don't know what to do now." Percy admitted with a heartfelt sigh. "I wanted to be Minister one day and now…" he winced, "I'll always remain the idiot who didn't realise that he was working for an imposter because he was so caught up in enjoying the attention from his boss."

"Nothing is an impossibility, Percy," his Dad chided gently, "there are plenty of redemption stories out there." He motioned with his glass. "I would never have thought that Sirius Black would be Lord Black and leading us regardless of Cornelius being Minister."

Percy gave a hum at that because it was very true; nobody could have guessed at what had happened with Sirius.

"All I've ever wanted to do is work at the Ministry," Percy said plaintively, "I never truly considered another career."

His Dad nodded. "Well, now you have to and that's maybe not a bad thing, Percy. Maybe this happened because it wasn't the right path for you to follow."

Percy frowned as he considered that. What path had he been on truly?

In hindsight, he wondered at how much he had pushed colleagues away in his ambition and determination to outperform them at every level. He'd also pushed his family away, considering them a liability to his ambitions more than anything since their revival as an Ancient and Noble House had been so new and they'd never been interested before.

His family had never deserved his scorn; he knew that deep down. His father might not have worked for an important department for a while and he may have been considered without power by some, but he was well liked, well respected and considered an honourable man. His mother had worked hard to raise them all. Bill and Charlie had good careers and his younger siblings might need to mature but they were smart and likely to do well once they did. Perhaps, he mused seriously, all his path at the Ministry had done was to turn him into a person he wasn't sure he liked in retrospect.

"Maybe you're right." Percy admitted quietly. "I guess I hadn't really thought about it in those terms."

His Dad hummed. "When I was your age, I wanted to do a study of actually living in the muggle world; write a book, become the foremost authority on muggles, maybe end up teaching back at Hogwarts. Your Mum was supportive and we'd both secured jobs so we could save a nest egg to fund it. But then…we found all our plans upset by Bill's unexpected advent into our lives."

Percy's eyes opened wide. He hadn't realised that Bill had been an accident.

"So, I stayed with the job at the Ministry because we needed the income and, well, that was that." His Dad said. "And yet here I am years later; considered the foremost authority on muggles, interacting with them and their world on a regular basis in my new role, and the rest of it may come to fruition yet."

"You took a different path but you ended up where you wanted to be in the end." Percy said out loud.

"And I have seven wonderful children including you that we probably wouldn't have had otherwise." His Dad said with a smile.

Percy smiled back ruefully. "I don't think I've been so wonderful recently."

"You're not the first to go through a tough time." His Dad murmured. "You should ask Charlie why he didn't try out for Quidditch teams."

Percy stared at his Dad with blatant curiosity.

"Not my story to tell," his Dad said, "you should ask Charlie."

"What should I do?" Percy asked. "I never really considered any other career. I don't even know what I'm qualified to do."

"There are a lot of possibilities out there, Percy." His Dad said. "You should consider what you enjoy doing; what you would be good at."

Percy nodded. "I…I sometimes thought about law, I guess, when I was young. But you need a sponsor to get a Mastery and I never knew a solicitor to ask and I didn't think it was possible really."

"Maybe we can introduce you to Brian Cutter." His Dad said. "I'm sure even if he can't sponsor you, he can give you some good advice or point you in the right direction."

It rankled that he needed help but Percy swallowed his pride and nodded briskly. "That sounds good."

His Dad stiffened suddenly. "Something's crossed the outer ward by the orchard."

Percy tensed.

Merlin! They were being attacked!

A lizard patronus, a chameleon, suddenly glided through the wall, startling them both.

"Stay inside!" Tonks's voice said when the patronus opened its mouth. "We have two werewolves on the move!"

His Dad stood up and unholstered his wand anyway.

Percy stood up and motioned vaguely in the right direction. "I'm going to get my wand!"

He didn't wait for an acknowledgement just charged out of the kitchen and up the stairs. It took him less than a minute to locate it on his bedside table but as he reached for it, he heard the smash of glass below as a window at the front broke.

He froze.

"Stay out! I'm armed!" His Dad yelled.

Percy didn't think twice about it. He grabbed his wand and rushed downstairs to help defend their home.

His Dad was crouched behind a chair, firing silver javelin curses toward the broken window. Percy dived behind the nearest chair, aimed his wand and did the same.

There was a howl from outside that chilled Percy's bones and then…silence.

Was it over?

His Dad stood up carefully, signalling Percy to stay down. He walked gingerly over to the window and…

A brick flew through the dark and slammed into his father's shoulder; he flew backwards and landed with a thump, his head glancing off the leg of the dining table.

"Dad!" Percy shouted. He scrambled out from behind the chair, scurrying across the floor to check on his Dad, so motionless on the ground.

Hands grabbed his pyjama top from behind and Percy yelped as he felt it tear as he struggled to get free. A clawed hand slapped his forgotten wand away and clamped around his chest. He was held fast when he tried to desperately pry the hairy arm from his body. He found himself being dragged backwards towards the broken window, legs scrabbling wildly against the wooden floor as he tried to free himself.

"Let me go!" Percy screamed.

His Dad moaned and shifted on the floor in response.

A sudden whistle through the air was the only warning as a silver javelin curse impacted the werewolf, throwing Percy clear at last, the pyjama top tearing again as the werewolf tried to hold onto him anyway.

"Get away from my son!" His Mum looked like an avenging angel in her white flowered nightie, her red hair sticking up wildly, as she brandished her wand like the weapon it was. She threw another silver javelin curse at the rapidly retreating werewolf and then another.

Percy finally got a glimpse of his attacker; a youngish man, partially transformed into a wolf – a muzzle distorted his face and his claws were viciously sharp, the dim firelight glinting off the lethal tips.

He regained his senses enough to hurry towards his dropped wand; to turn and stun the werewolf cowering from his Mum's curses against the wall underneath the broken window.

His Mum breathed out heavily and nodded her thanks at him. Her eyes went wide at the sound of his Dad groaning.

"Arthur!"

"Dad!"

Percy was closer but his Mum beat him to it, already casting diagnostics.

His Dad attempted to get up only to get pushed down again by his insistent wife.

"No, Arthur, you've hit your head." His Mum's tone had a touch of hysteria in it.

"I'm fine, Molly." His Dad insisted.

There was a bang on the door.

They all froze.

"Mister Weasley?!" Tonks' voice sounded from the other side of the door. "Mister Weasley, are you alright?"

"Answer the door, Percy!" His Mum said, gesturing for him to answer it.

Percy went with alacrity. He hurled the front door open and pointed at the unconscious werewolf.

"One of them got past you!" He said, more accusingly than he had meant to. "My Dad's hurt; he needs a healer."

Tonks nodded grimly. "Let me secure the prisoner and we'll call a healer for your Dad." She hurried inside and cuffed the werewolf with heavy steel chains. She floated him out of the Burrow where a large mage light ball hung illuminating the area. Percy followed as she handed the werewolf off to another Auror who immediately apparated.

"He'll be placed into secure holding at headquarters for questioning." Tonks promised. "That's the last of them. Greyback wasn't with them. Two of them tried the back, sent the other round the front. He stunned the Auror we had posted there."

Percy grimaced. "He's alright though? The Auror."

"His pride's wounded mostly. He's already gone back." Tonks said as she peered at Percy. "It looks like we should get you inside and have a healer look at you too."

"Hmmm?" Percy looked down to where her eyes had zeroed in on him. His pyjama top hung in rags and across his stomach were five long thin scratches, the sting of them suddenly making itself known as the adrenaline faded.

He'd been scratched.

By a werewolf.

"Merlin!" He murmured weakly.

Tonks placed a hand on his shoulder steadying him. "Come on, Percy. Let's get you inside and we'll call the healer."

"I'm scratched." He said helplessly. "I've been scratched."

Tonks nodded as she guided him back into the Burrow. "I know, Percy. I know. It's going to be OK."