Chapter Twenty Eight

A/N: I do not own any of the characters in this story with possibly the exception of Nina and Lord Black as they are original characters. Everyone else either belongs to JK Rowling or Disney.

*ducks thrown projectiles* I am so sorry, I honestly did not mean to leave this story on the backburner. Here's the thing, I recently moved and between preparing for the move and actually doing it, I didn't really have a lot of time for writing. Then I went on a lot of mini-trips (went to NY last month, that was a lot of fun! I got to see a couple of plays-if you want details, send me a PM. I'll be glad to talk about it!). But I am back and raring to go. Next month is NaNovWriMo so you should be seeing a lot of updates for this story (if work doesn't kick my ass like it did last year).

Please feel free to leave a review! I always look forward to them-they make an average day shine. Also be sure to vote in my poll of stories you want me to update if you haven't already. Though it may not seem like it, I honestly do take the standings into consideration when I look at which story to update next. This one just happens to be in the lead, hence all the updates.

Okay, I'm going to stop now before this AN becomes the length of a chapter. Enjoy!

Ariel sighed as she combed through yet another book that Harry's room had produced. It had been one week since Lord Black had told her about Nina's condition. In those seven days, Ariel had done little more than read any and every book she could think of to try to find a cure, stopping only to sleep and eat.

"You okay?" Harry called over from his odd smelling lake. He had offered to help many times, but Ariel refused. She would not let Harry be hurt because he was helping her instead of preparing for this thrice Neptune damned tournament. He seemed to take it in stride, but Ariel kept finding pieces of parchment with book suggestions inside the books she was reading. It was sweet and helpful since it prevented her from wasting time hunting for new books, but he needed to stop doing it. The last thing he needed was to wear himself out before the second task.

When she tried to explain that to Harry, he told her that there wasn't much else he needed to do for the task. She had already helped him figure out what was in the egg. Now all he needed to do was gather his strength for the task.

Ariel didn't know if Harry was purposely driving her crazy or if he had just forgotten the part of the riddle where it stated he'd have to spend an hour under water. Harry was a good swimmer, but no human could last an hour underwater without aid of some kind. Either that or they'd have to become a merperson. Unfortunately, with the trident currently in the Black Lake, such an option was not feasible.

"Just tired," Ariel called back, shaking her head to clear her thoughts before pushing her hair out of her eyes. Her ponytail had been fixed about three separate times, and yet the stray bits of hair still insisted on falling into her eyes. "These texts are not an easy read."

"Considering that's a Potions textbook in your hand, I'm not surprised in the slightest," Harry said, hopping out and grabbing a towel that the room had provided. Ariel noticed that the medallion that seemed to permanently be around Harry's neck was flashing softly. It was almost as if it was trying to warn Harry of something.

"You're not leaving already?" Ariel exclaimed, tossing the aforementioned text to the side and glancing at the watch Harry had left on the table with her; the thoughts of the flashing medallion driven from her mind.

"Have to, I'm afraid," Harry sighed as he toweled off his hair, having ducked behind a room-provided divider to change into his uniform. "If I don't make an appearance, Hermione and Ron'll lead a search party looking for me."

Ariel sighed but knew Harry had a good point. Harry even made his visits more spread out than they had been earlier in the week. It was almost as if they were done in a way to throw someone off.

"Harry, what are we going to do when your classes start back up?" Ariel asked. It had been a question that had been bothering her for the past few days, but she never had the chance to bring it up. While Hogwarts was off for the holidays, it wasn't as strange for an "out of town" guest to be there. But once classes started back up, Ariel would only gather unneeded attention if she was seen.

"I think we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," Harry sighed, running a hand through his slightly damp hair before quickly doing up his tie. Thankfully, his hair was so dark that the only way someone could tell it was wet would be if they ran their hand through it. Grabbing his bag, Harry headed toward the door but then paused, as if realizing that Ariel was not there with him.

"Are you coming?" Harry asked, turning to look at her. Ariel shook her head and gestured to the stacks of books that had been surrounding her.

"Harry, I need to get this figured out," she told him. "There isn't much time between the second task. I don't want to be the reason the already shaky relationship between Atlantica and the Black Lake is worsened."

"How would that be your fault?" Harry asked, dropping his bag and walking over to her. To his shock, Harry saw that her green eyes were brimming with unshed tears. Ariel paused for a moment and took a slight breath as if to calm the raging thoughts roaming around her head.

"I asked Nina to come with me. I'm the reason she's fallen into this sleep-like curse. W-why shouldn't the blame fall to me?"

"You're forgetting one thing," Harry said and sat down across from her so that he was looking her square in the eye. Gently, he grabbed one of her hands and held it in between his own.

"What's that?" Ariel asked, wiping away some of the tears with her free hand.

"You were going to the Black Lake to try to see me-so that's where the blame should go as well."

"But you didn't do anything Harry!" Ariel exclaimed, yanking her hand free as she leaned back in alarm. "How can it be your fault if you did nothing wrong?"

The small smile on Harry's face gave her pause. If he wanted the blame, why would he be happy that Ariel was absolving him of it? Then, as if the idea was a wave crashing into the shore, it hit her.

"You're a prat, you know that?" she said, shaking her head and using one of the new words Ginny had taught her. Quickly, she wiped her eyes again-seemingly removing any evidence that she'd been crying. The last thing she wanted was for the Duke to call in unexpectantly and think the work was too much for them. If he got that impression, then he would probably end up contacting Ariel's father regardless of how much time was left before the tournament.

"Yeah, but I'm a prat who's right," Harry told her as he stood back up. "If I can't be blamed for what happened with Nina, then neither can you."

Ariel couldn't help but give him a small smile at that, one which he quickly returned.

"You coming?" Harry asked, motioning to the door. He couldn't help the small frown that appeared as Ariel shook her head.

"Go on," Ariel told him but gave him another small smile to try to ease his worries. "You don't want that Skeeter woman writing another article about us do you?"

"I'm still lost as to how she managed to write the last one," Harry muttered as he looked over at their theory board that was off in the corner. Despite being filled with ideas, they had struck out as to how Skeeter was able to know about their time in the Room of Requirement during the Yule Ball. Their memory parchment, taped to another board, had gone forgotten in the rush to figure out a cure for Nina.

"We'll figure it out," Ariel said, but the tightness in her smile indicated that she was losing faith that two fourteen-year-olds could do this on their own. Harry inwardly sighed-he wished more than anything that he could help Ariel with the research. But she was right; the last thing he needed was to get hurt because of this tournament, and getting worn down by research would be the fastest way to guarantee an injury.

Still, he could see that just a week of constant research with no results or answers was draining her. What would it be like in seven weeks when the second task finally arrived?

Now more than ever Harry wished he could confide in his friends the real reason Ariel was still here-but Ron would probably scoff and get jealous again while Hermione (while drooling over the idea of another research project) would probably run straight to McGonagall like she did with the Firebolt.

Ginny was too new of a friend to predict how she would react and Neville...Harry could see how Ariel changed when she was around Neville. It reminded him almost of Ginny's reactions to him her first year. He wanted it to work out well, but Harry knew that even the most progressive of wizards could still harbor a bit of prejudice.

He still remembered Ron yelling at Professor Lupin to get away from him after they had discovered that he was a werewolf. Ron, the same boy who had attempted to curse Malfoy for calling Hermione the M-word their second year.

The last thing he wanted was for Neville to hurt Ariel, even inadvertently, due to some idiotic wizarding prejudice.

"Harry?" Ariel's voice seemed to break into his thoughts, and Harry shook his head, realizing that he had been standing still for about five minutes. Ariel's smile had shifted into a look of concern.

"Sorry, guess I was wool-gathering," Harry said with a chuckle. "Now, do you want me to meet you here for dinner or will you be okay getting to the Great Hall?"

"Harry, I've been here about a week at this point. I think I know my way around the castle," Ariel told him, giving her surrogate brother an eye roll.

"There are days I still get lost around this castle due to those staircases," Harry said, hoisting his bag over his shoulder, "and I've told you about the adventures Ron and I had getting lost our first year here."

"You were eleven," Ariel said, shaking her head but shot a smile in Harry's direction. "I'm fourteen."

"Alright," Harry said with a smirk. "If you think you can handle getting to the Great Hall by yourself, I'll meet you there for dinner."

Harry gave Ariel a quick hug before walking out of the room. Ariel watched the door shut before sighing in relief. It was hard to keep up the act of everything being fine, but she had to. The last thing she wanted to do was distract Harry before the second task.

He had enough on his plate without her adding to it-between the tournament, Skeeter and their memories, she honestly wondered how Harry had time to prevent his friends from butting their noses into what was going on.

Though, if she was honest, it would be nice to have another pair of eyes going through the research with her.

Ariel's hand skimmed over one of the few Atlantican texts the room was able to provide for her to use. Maybe it didn't have anything to do with Harry's human magic- perhaps it was something from Atlantica? But that would mean that all the work Ariel had already put in would be at a dead end-her father didn't start teaching them the dangers of magic in their world until they were 15.

Sure Ariel had had the basic lessons on how to recognize magic and certain magical objects, but only her sisters had been taught the dangers of magic in their world. The only one of her sisters who might know the same amount as Ariel would be her sister Alana, who had just turned 15 a few weeks ago.

Ugh! If only she had Attina or Andrina there! Her eldest sisters were 20 and 19 respectively and had completed all the classes into the dangers of magic. More importantly, how to identify magical effects from artifacts from their world.

But Attina would never disobey their father's orders. Even getting a message to her would require using the device-something Attina would never do. Never mind getting her to the Black Lake or turning her into a human!

Andrina was the same except for possibly becoming human. If there was one thing Andrina could not turn down, it was a dare. If Ariel phrased it the right way, Andrina would be walking on two legs with her.

Ariel groaned in frustration and dropped her hands into her head, resting her elbows on the desk. Maybe she was looking too deep into this? Just because Nina was a mermaid didn't mean that the cause of her condition came from her world, right? After all, the Black Lake was so close to Hogwarts that it could have been something from the Wizarding World!

Shoving the Atlantican text aside, Ariel quickly pulled one of the human texts that Harry had recommended. But even as she started to read, she knew that her mind was not on the task at hand. Once the seed of doubt entered her brain, it was hard to ignore it as it took root.

If the cause of Nina's condition were Atlantican in nature, that would be great in that it would give a starting point instead of just guessing. In her head, Ariel tried imagined the library in the palace, to see where exactly she could start looking. Unfortunately, she hadn't spent much time there; preferring the vast ocean landscape to the stuffy library.

Besides, any books that may have been of use were all in the Restricted Areas, and Ariel would have needed her father's permission to look at them before she was 15. King Triton would have sooner given her permission to go to the Black Lake than give her access to the Restricted Areas before he deemed her ready. Ariel sometimes wondered if her father would ever think she was ready for that knowledge.

Maybe it was time she took a break from the texts and went to join Harry and his friends for a while. She did need to eat and maybe it wouldn't hurt to stretch her legs. But going back out there would mean having to deal with the general population of Hogwarts. If Ariel was honest with herself, the research served a dual purpose.

While it was essential to find a cure for Nina quickly, the long sessions also provided a way to insulate Ariel from the cruelty of the other students. At least until Skeeter targeted someone else and everyone forgot about her article.

Ariel sighed and sat back in her chair, unsure of what to do. If she stopped the research now to go and be with Harry, she would feel guilty about abandoning Nina. But if she continued the research, she'd feel like a coward for not wanting to face the other students of Hogwarts and their snowballs.

She knew that not everyone was going to like her. Even as a princess, they were taught that not everything was going to go your way diplomatically. Heck, Attina had even taught her how to avoid being criticized by the press last year. But theory and lessons were so different than the real world. Ariel couldn't help but think about how her sisters would handle Skeeter and the Hogwarts general population.

One thing was sure-none of her sisters would be hiding from either group. Maybe Skeeter had finally changed the subject of her latest smear campaign. Perhaps the Hogwarts population decided to focus on more important things, like how foolish the male population got around the Beauxbatons Champion. Thank Neptune Harry wasn't like that.

Sighing, Ariel got up from her chair and made her way to the door. It wouldn't do to sit there and speculate. Ariel would have to see for herself. Quickly gathering her courage, Ariel opened the door and swiftly closed it behind her.

Unfortunately, in her haste, she missed the swirling light from Harry's odd-smelling lake signaling that either an Atlantian was trying to speak to them or Lord Black wanted a moment of their time.