A soft warmth blanketed Harry’s back like he was lying on a mound of pillows, but he stood upright in a small, dark space.
Like my cupboard. Only there’re fewer spiders.
The inky black drew back. Hermione stood brewing something in a vast black cauldron. Her hair shifted from bushy brown to bright, sleek silver and back again in time with the beat of Harry’s heart.
That’s very strange. She hasn’t been messing with polyjuice again has she? He reached up to rub at his glasses, but found them absent. Why isn’t everything all blurry?
Harry squinted at the cauldron and pretended Hermione’s hair wasn’t doing anything untoward. ‘What’re you making?’
She turned to face him. Her eyes had grown to almost twice their size and beneath the huge, black orbs, a cruel, hooked beak protruded.
‘Amortentia,’ she whispered, dipping a ladle into the cauldron. ‘Liquid love.’ She strolled toward him, wand in one hand, ladle in the other.
Harry tried to take a step back, but found himself rooted in place.
Hermione’s brows curved into a deep vee and and her vast, dark eyes narrowed. ‘It’s for you, Harry. Just what you need. Drink up.’ She proffered the ladle.
A bright, silver liquid shimmered under his nose. Sparkling steam rose from it, warm against his nose, but he smelt nothing. Harry peered closer and found it full of twisting, slithering, silver serpents.
‘I don’t want to drink that.’
She raised the ladle to his lips. ‘It’s for your own good, Harry.’
‘No,’ he spluttered, turning his face away.
The silver snakes went squirming all down his front and the ladle clattered to the floor.
‘You should’ve drunk it, Harry,’ Hermione screeched. ‘You should’ve drunk it!’
She lunged. Feathers exploded over her body and her beak gaped towards his throat. A flash of green light seared at Harry’s eyes and he flinched upright with a gasp.
The familiar white sheets and square beds of the hospital wing surrounded him.
Harry pictured a small dark circle of ink on a white page until his heart slowed and his breathing calmed.
‘Mr Potter.’ Madam Pomfrey’s stern tone rang out from the far end of the ward. Her heels clicked as she strode toward him. ‘You’re awake. Good.’
‘I hope so,’ Harry replied.
Weird, veela-Hermione dream. He shuddered. That dream is going straight into the too disturbing to think about category.
Madam Pomfrey gave him an odd look. ‘You’re in the school hospital wing. Term hasn’t actually started, but it was so close it was decided you’d be better off here than at St Mungo’s once we knew you were stable.’
‘What happened? I remember falling asleep in the ashes of the camp at the World Cup, but that’s it.’
‘You were found by one of the Bulgarian team’s cheerleaders after the chaos was over. She, of course, recognised you and brought you to the nearest hospital point. The Weasley family and Miss Granger then brought you here once your condition was established to be non-severe.’
‘Are they all okay?’
‘Miss Granger and the Weasley family were all quite worried, but otherwise fine. You however, Mr Potter, have somehow exhausted yourself well past what ought to be possible for a child your age, and in recovery you have set a new record for your lengthiest stay in my hospital wing. I daresay it is the first time that a student has managed that before term has begun.’
‘That’s good.’ Harry released a quiet sigh.
They’re all ok.
Madam Pomfrey fixed him with a stern look. ‘It’s not good, Mr Potter. Honestly, you seem to almost die at the end of every year, you’d think you might have learnt some caution by now.’
‘It’s the start of the year,’ Harry said. ‘I wasn’t expecting anything for months.’
‘Be that as it may, Mr Potter, you are awake. Once I have made sure you are fine, you may return to Gryffindor Tower.’ The nurse placed the tip of her wand against his forehead, tutting when Harry flinched.
‘Everything seems fine.’ She nodded. ‘Off with you and don’t let me see you back in this bed for the rest of the year.’
At least I can finally use my wand to do magic again. Harry charmed his hospital gown into the guise of a set of school robes and padded toward the Great Hall in borrowed slippers. I hope they saved my stuff and Hedwig.
‘You’re alive.’ Ron greeted him midway across the Great Hall.
‘Yes, Ron,’ Hermione said. ‘That’s a great way to say hello to your friend who was in a coma because he used too much magic.’
‘I don’t mind.’ Harry laughed at the outraged expression on her face and walked with them toward the Gryffindor common room.
‘So what happened, mate?’ Ron prodded him on the arm.
I killed someone. He felt the bile rise and swallowed it and everything else that’d churned up with it back down somewhere safe. Someone who probably deserved it, but still.
‘I’m not actually sure,’ he said. ‘It was just chaos. One moment I was running with you guys, then I got hit by something and a few minutes ago I was waking up in the hospital wing.’
‘The healer at the World Cup said you’d forced so much magic out of yourself you should be dead, Harry.’ Hermione folded her arms. ‘That means you tried to push so much magic into a spell that it took every scrap of energy you could muster and your basic body functions almost shut down as a result.’
The basilisk. Whatever I did, did that, but I just remember being angry.
‘I don’t remember casting a spell like that.’ Harry shrugged. ‘So what actually happened to cause all that havoc?’
Ron gaped. ‘They haven’t told you yet?!’
Hermione sighed and let her arms slip back to her sides. ‘Harry only just woke up, Ron. How could he know?’
‘Oh.’ Ron rubbed at his freckled nose. ‘Well, it was Death Eaters, mate. They attacked the site, only you can’t tell anyone I said that, because we heard it listening to Percy and Dad talking before work. Apparently, they went after the muggles near the site and anyone nearby they didn’t like. It’s been chaos at the Ministry and Dad reckons something’s up, because Percy’s boss, Mr Crouch, has supposedly resigned–‘
‘That’s not what they said.’ Hermione frowned and gnawed at her lip. ‘Mr Crouch is supposed to be resigning later in the year. Something’s happening that he’s organised before he can retire easily. He’s tendered his resignation unofficially according to Percy.’
‘Same thing, Hermione,’ Ron said.
Harry shook his head. ‘It’s not the same thing, it means whatever he’s doing must be really important if he has to carry on after that fiasco.’
‘There are loads of rumours flying around the Ministry. Bill says he heard one of the auror captains talking about Barty Crouch’s son being found dead in the campsite.’
A cold chill traced down Harry’s spine.
‘He was a Death Eater, Harry,’ Hermione said. ‘Honestly, Ron, you never explain anything properly. Barty Crouch Junior was supposed to have died in Azkaban ages ago.’
‘What else happened?’ Harry asked.
At least you know he did deserve it. The small voice piped up from somewhere in the back of his mind. You killed before. The voice that sounded like Riddle returned with it. Professor Quirrell quite literally died by your hands. And you did grab him on purpose…
‘Not much,’ Hermione replied. ‘We were all so worried about you. Mrs Weasley went around every healing point trying to find you.’
‘Yeah. Mum was beside herself. Thought you were dead.’ Ron rolled his eyes. ‘I told her you weren’t going to just give up and die after all the stuff you’ve got through already. Some gorgeous Bulgarian girl carried you to the refuge tents in her arms about an hour or so later. It might have been worth being injured just to be in her arms.’
Hermione elbowed Ron in the stomach. ‘It’s not funny, Ron. That was a veela, they’re not just pretty faces you know.’
‘They are gorgeous, though,’ Harry noted, only to receive Hermione’s elbow himself. He rubbed at where her sharp elbow had dug into his ribs. ‘So, when does term start?’
‘Today, Harry,’ she told him.
‘Where is everyone, then?’
‘It’s only ten, mate.’ Ron waved a hand at the ceiling. ‘Still another hour or so before anyone arrives. You need to speak to Dumbledore about what happened. He asked us to tell you when you were awake.’
‘I need to change as well,’ Harry said.
Hermione shot him a odd look. ‘You’re in school robes, Harry.’
‘I charmed my hospital gown,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how long it will last.’
‘That’s quite advanced spell-work, Harry.’ Hermione beamed at him. ‘I only read about doing that last year.’
‘Headmaster first, then. Get it out of the way.’ He detoured toward the gargoyle. A knot of dread coiled tighter in his stomach with every step.
‘Sugar quills,’ Hermione commanded the gargoyle.
‘Ah, Harry.’ The old headmaster opened the door with a smile. ‘Come and have a seat. Are you feeling better?’
A bit sick, really. He tried to bury the images of Barty Crouch Junior’s corpse. I did nothing wrong. He was a Death Eater and it was self defence.
‘Much better, sir.’
‘I was beginning to fear you might not wake up in time for the school year and end up missing classes.’ Dumbledore steepled his fingers. ‘It would be a shame to be so behind on your schoolwork so soon.’
The portraits snoozed on the walls of the office, but Fawkes peered at him with a beady eye.
I’m sure Snape would’ve been gutted if I’d missed potions.
‘Do you remember what happened?’ Dumbledore asked. ‘I don’t want you to feel I’m forcing you to think about anything unpleasant, some quite atrocious things were done to the muggle owners of the site, but anything you can tell me may help bring the perpetrator’s to justice, Harry.’
‘Actually I don’t remember much at all, sir,’ Harry said. ‘We tried to run out of the camp into the woods, but something hit me and I blacked out. As you know, I was found afterward and brought here.’
The old headmaster ran a hand through his famous, silver beard. ‘At least you don’t remember anything terrible, then.’ He smiled. ‘You’re too young to have to live with such things.’
‘Professor Dumbledore?’ Harry measured his words on the tip of his tongue. ‘Is it true about Barty Crouch’s son? The Death Eater? I heard he was found in the camp.’
‘Unfortunately it does seem to be the case, though I recommend you keep this information to yourselves. It could cause great panic if everyone suddenly starts to think Azkaban can’t keep hold of its prisoners.’
‘We will, professor,’ Hermione promised.
‘You had best go and prepare for the welcoming feast, Harry,’ Professor Dumbledore suggested with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Those charmed robes, while impressive, may not last for the whole meal.’
‘I was just going to, sir.’
‘Very well, then. Try and stay out of trouble this year, Harry. There will be unfamiliar faces around us soon.’
‘Of course there will unfamiliar faces,’ Ron blurted the moment the gargoyle closed. ‘The first years will be here, they come every year.’
‘I doubt he means the first years, Ron.’ Hermione laughed. ‘It’s probably something to do with whatever Mr Crouch was organising. He mentioned being at Hogwarts to Percy at the World Cup. He seemed quite cross that Bertha Jorkins had up and vanished on him, I got the impression she was meant to be organising and sorting a fair amount of it out for him.’
The fire at the heart of the Gryffindor common room crackled in front of empty chairs. The gold and red hangings swayed in the faint chimney draft, rattling against the stone walls. A thick sheaf of parchment fluttered on the notice board.
‘Look, someone’s given us our schedules!’ Hermione accelerated across the floor, dragging both Harry and Ron on either arm.
Someone who deserves a good hexing. Harry exchanged a grin with Ron. She’s about to get stuck into one of us over our choices.
Hermione glanced at Ron’s and went pink in the face. ‘Divination! Just because you think it’s an easy OWL doesn’t mean you should suck up that washed up old bat’s drivel, Ronald!’
Harry slipped away to change, listening to Hermione’s voice echo up the stairs while she chewed Ron out.
‘It’s not the right attitude,’ she scolded as he returned. ‘You’re not here just to get some easy grades, Ron. You need to know this stuff for later life!’
Well, best to remove mine before she gets stuck into that, too. Harry pulled his out of the bundle.
Hermione’s gaze snapped to him and she tugged the schedule from his hands.
He frowned. It’s not very polite to just snatch it out of my hand. What if I’d minded sharing it?
‘Fourth year Ancient Runes and Arithmancy,’ Hermione read aloud. ‘How did you get into the classes without doing the third year exams?’
Harry grinned. ‘Magic.’
She huffed. ‘Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll find out from Mcgonagall.’
‘Why did you take those?’ All the blood had drained from Ron’s face. ‘Divination and Magical Creatures are easy OWLs. You’ve gone and done a Hermione, mate.’
‘If by that you mean he’s made an intelligent decision about his future, then you are quite right, Ron.’ She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, then bit her lip and waved Harry’s schedule at him. ‘You might be really far behind in your electives, Harry. It’s good you want to try, but I don’t know if you’ll able to manage everything.’
Thanks for the faith. A flicker of irritation passed through him.
‘I’m sure, I’ll be fine.’
More than fine. Harry thought back to his list. Ancient Runes has a couple of tricky long essays, but is mostly about arrays and intuition. Arithmancy’s just the magic of maths, it’s the most logical of all the subjects. All pretty easy to visualise and not too much writing.
‘If you say so.’ Hermione gnawed at her lip again. ‘I’m just worried you’ll really struggle. You’re not at the bottom of the class or anything, Harry, but you’ve picked a tough couple of subjects for you.’
Harry swallowed down another short flare of annoyance. ‘I’ll be fine, Hermione. I know what I’m doing.’
‘Well, when you need help, you can always come to me, Harry.’
Oh I can, can I? He clenched his jaw and took a quiet, deep breath.
Ron glanced between the two of them a couple of times. ‘The welcoming feast starts soon. We should go down and join everyone.’
‘Yeah.’ Harry slipped his wand into his sleeve. ‘Let’s go.’
Students teemed in the corridors, their shouts bounced off the ceiling, a cacophony of footsteps and conversation reverberated through the castle like a thunderstorm. Younger students brushed past him as he wove round groups of older ones.
Loud. Harry frowned as a cluster of second years squirmed through the three of them. And they always get so close.
He joined Neville and Seamus about halfway along the table. Ron slipped in alongside him, gazing down at his sparkling plate with some consternation.
Harry patted him on the shoulder. ‘Food soon, Ron.’
The sorting hat drooped on the chair at the front.
No doubt it’ll be singing soon. And that’s always loud.
‘Do you think it makes up a new song every year?’ Harry wondered as it broke into verse.
‘Dunno, mate, but my brothers say they’ve never heard the same one twice.’
‘That probably means it does. Your brothers must’ve covered the last decade and it does have all year to write them.’
‘When it’s not delivering swords to you, you mean,’ Ron said.
‘It’s a good thing it does deliver swords,’ Harry replied with a chuckle. ‘What happens if there’s another giant snake in Hogwarts and Neville needs to kill it? He can’t be expected to go get the sword himself now can he.’
‘Hush,’ Hermione hissed. ‘You’re not supposed to be talking.’
The first years squeezed onto the ends of the tables and Dumbledore rose to speak.
Harry cocked his head. If something really is happening, he’ll probably mention it now. Let’s hope it’s not another deathtrap corridor, dementor swarm, or giant snake.
‘A few announcements before we all get too distracted by our impending food to forget them. Firstly, I would like to welcome Professor Moody to our teaching staff. He will be taking over the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts. Secondly, I must remind members of all years that the Forbidden Forest is so named for a reason. And lastly, this year, after centuries, a great sporting event will be making its return. This means, unfortunately, that there will be no quidditch.’
A murmur of rose from the hall at this announcement. It blossomed into full mutiny.
They were less upset about that time a troll got in and nearly killed us.
‘The Triwizard Tournament will be held at Hogwarts come October,’ the headmaster said. ‘A chance, for those who enter, to earn eternal glory as school champion.’
‘So that’s what’s happening!’ Ron pounded the table with his fist. ‘I’m definitely putting my name in. He let out a long sigh. ‘Eternal glory…’
‘Professor Moody looks none to impressed about it,’ Hermione said.
The new teacher’s gash of a mouth turned down, twisting the scar-ravaged face above into a forbidding frown.
‘He looks like he’s been through the wars,’ Harry noted.
‘He has,’ Ron said. ‘That’s Mad-Eye Moody, that is. Dad says he was one of the greatest aurors back in the war against You-Know-Who, but that he’s sort of lost it recently. Can’t deal with peace time, or something like that.’
‘His eye is a bit creepy,’ Neville piped up.
Ron nodded. ‘It’s supposed to be magic. Don’t know what it actually does, though.’
Harry helped himself to bread, avoiding Hermione’s attempts place dishes pointedly close to his plate. He scrapped some butter across it and took a small bite.
‘You need to eat more than just bread, Harry.’ Hermione tried to spoon half a bowl potatoes onto his plate. ‘You’ve been in a coma!’
Harry deflected the serving of potatoes onto Ron’s plate. ‘Ron’s eaten enough for all three of us.’
Ron speared and devoured the largest of the potatoes without pausing for breath.
She huffed. ‘Just because Ron eats enough food for a small country doesn’t mean you should starve yourself to compensate.’
Is this what having a mother is like? Harry wrinkled his brow. How annoying.
‘I’m doing it out of protest,’ he tried. ‘The food is all made house elves. That’s practically slavery, Hermione. I can’t exploit their efforts in good conscience.’
Hermione dropped her fork as if it had bitten her.
‘You’ve done it now, Harry,’ Ron muttered. ‘We’ll be hearing about this for the rest of the year.’
‘Should’ve taken the potatoes,’ Seamus said. ‘Who knows where this will lead?’
Hermione stared down into her plate of food as if it had all turned to ash in her mouth.
Seamus rolled his eyes. ‘Did you hear about the World Cup?’
‘Yeah,’ Ron griped, ‘Ireland won. Congratulations.’
‘Not that.’ Seamus grinned. ‘Well, a little bit that, but I meant the attacks.’
‘We were there.’ Hermione said.
‘Harry was in a coma until this morning.’ Ron swallowed what looked like half a chicken. ‘He got carried out of the camp by one of those beautiful, Bulgarian cheerleaders.’
All of the nearby guys turned to stare, even Neville.
‘You learn that your friend was in a coma and the first thing you do is imagine the cheerleaders.’ Hermione shook her head. ‘I’m going to the library.’
She stalked off down between the tables.
‘Wasteful that is.’ Ron helped himself to Hermione’s plate. ‘Can’t leave good food to go off.’
Seamus chuckled. ‘Imagine what the house elves would think?’
Dean slid into Hermione’s spot. ‘What was the cheerleader like?’
Harry shrugged. ‘Don’t remember. I was in a coma.’
‘I saw them during the game,’ Ron said. ‘They were gorgeous.’
‘Hermione said they were veela, apparently they can charm men with their magic.’ Harry felt he should at least try to defend her viewpoint while her back was turned. ‘So they aren’t naturally attractive. Well, they are, but they can also cheat.’
‘Anyone that looks like that is going to charm me. Until they grow all this feathers at least.’
Seamus choked on a sausage. ‘Feathers?!’
Ron nodded. ‘When they got angry at the end of the match they grew feathers, beaks, then started throwing fireballs around. They didn’t like that Bulgaria lost.’
‘Is that what started all the fires then?’ Neville asked.
‘Nah, that was Death Eaters, or people dressed like them,’ Ron said. ‘Dad says there was no Dark Mark like they used back in the war, so it might not have been real Death Eaters, just sympathisers.’
‘Ministry didn’t catch anyone, though,’ Neville piped up. ‘Gran was furious that they all got away with it. She spent an hour muttering to herself about how useless Fudge is.’
Seamus grimaced. ‘It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Still, the Irish won, and that’s what counts.’
Harry forced down a few more bites and pinched his nose to drink some pumpkin juice.
‘Let’s head back to the common room,’ Dean suggested. ‘I’ve got to unpack everything still, but I’m fairly sure I’ve brought the new exploding snap cards to replace the ones Lavender lost. Anyone fancy a round or two?’
A quite murmur of mutual consent rang round the table and the group rose to return to Gryffindor Tower.
‘Harry.’ Three familiar voices caught him halfway along the hall.
‘Angelina, Alicia, Katie.’ He smiled at them each in turn. ‘You look quite unhappy.’
‘They cancelled quidditch,’ Katie fumed. ‘This was going to be a really important year for us. We needed to start to add new faces to the squad, like a keeper, or the other teams will start to catch us up.’
Harry chuckled. ‘At least you’ve got the Triwizard tournament. Eternal glory obviously can’t compete with quidditch, but at a pinch…’
Alicia and Angelina laughed, but Katie continued to fume.
‘Aren’t you going to enter?’ Angelina asked. ‘I am.’
‘No,’ Harry said. ‘I’m going for a nice quiet year. No snakes, no dogs, no dementors, and hopefully no more trips to Madam Pomfrey, either.’
‘Fair enough,’ Alicia said. ‘Hogwarts’ champion will be from the upper years anyway. We know more than you cute little fourth years.’
Harry dodged the attempted pat on the cheek. ‘Where do the other two champions come from?’
‘Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, they’re magical schools in Europe. Some of their students will probably come here to support their champions when we compete.’
‘Well good luck, Angelina.’ He waved a hand toward the tower. ‘I promised the guys I’d play exploding snap with them.’
‘Bye, Harry,’ they called after him.
Something will go wrong, though. Harry slipped through the stream of students heading from the hall. Something always does. Barty Crouch Junior’s face and the basilisk, part ash spell, part creature from the chamber, flashed through his head. I should be ready. Every time something goes wrong, I scrape out of it with luck and a lot of help, but that Death Eater caught me without either. If it happens again, I’d be good as dead.