Cold, hard stone pressed into Harry’s cheek. The faint, metallic tang of blood hovered on his parched tongue. A dull, slow beat throbbed somewhere near the centre of his skull. Patches of blurred colour swam before his eyes.
My glasses. He squinted around.
The round-framed lenses lay a few feet from his nose. He pushed them back onto his face and struggled upright.
Salazar snoozed in his frame. The stone floor of the chamber bore faint purple scorch marks where Harry’s blood had spattered the points of his ritual star and triangle. Faded indigo lines lingered where the runes had been.
Harry cradled his throbbing head and watched the violet marks vanish. He scraped his parched tongue round the inside of his mouth and groaned. I really need a drink.
He staggered past the snoring Salazar and retrieved his wand. His head gushed with images of clear, cool, water flowing, pouring, and swirling. ‘Aguamenti.’
A spray of water reflected off his cupped hand like tap water off the inside off a spoon and soaked his chest.
Wonderful. He scowled at the chill creeping down his front. Now I have to go back to Gryffindor Tower and change.
Salazar’s snores rumbled to a stop. ‘Oh look. You survived.’
‘I feel utterly awful.’
‘Why are you wet? The ritual has nothing to do with water.’
‘I wanted a drink.’ Harry stuck his wand in his sleeve and dried his other hand on a dry patch of his robes.
‘Your magic came out more easily than you expected, then. Good thing the first spell you tried was quite a harmless one.’
‘I’ve got to go and change.’
Take me back into the study first. I’ve spent more than enough time near that basilisk already.’
‘Fine.’ Harry heaved the portrait onto his shoulders.
‘You should really make better use of her,’ Slytherin.
Harry hefted the painting back up onto the wall. ‘Of who?’
‘My basilisk, of course.’ Salazar gave him a pitying look. ‘There’s all sorts of useful stuff on that serpent.’
‘Like what?’ Harry glanced back through the door. ‘The impenetrable scales that can’t be cut into anything useful?’
‘The venom,’ Salazar snapped. ‘The skin and the meat’s only valuable if you can use it. You can’t.’
‘I’m not going anywhere near that thing’s mouth again. One dose of venom was enough for me.’ He shuddered at the memory of it burning through his veins. ‘More than enough.’
‘You were bitten?’
‘About the only things the ridiculous birds produce that’s useful,’ Salazar grumbled. ‘Helga had one of the silly things; it never did anything except steal fruit and set fire to things. Snakes are far better.’
Because you’re not at all biased.
‘I quite like phoenixes. Fawkes saved my life. My wand even has a phoenix feather core.’
Salazar stroked the head of his snake. ‘I’d bet it’s a powerful, but rather limited wand. Phoenix feather wands don’t excel at some of the more delicate aspects of magic.’
‘Not for sure. Helga told me it might have something to with their elusive but powerful and emotive nature. I think she was guessing.’ Salazar furrowed his brow in thought. ‘You should get your wand checked, really. That ritual can sometimes have an effect on it.’
Harry pressed his wand into his chest. ‘It can?’
‘That’s why I told you to leave it outside of the runes. You’ve slightly changed your magic, inevitably that will have some effect on the conduit you use to channel magic.’
‘What kind of effect?’
‘Most of the time it’s nothing. Neither I nor Tom Riddle ever noticed a difference, but I heard of instances when the person needed their wand length changed, a different type of wood, or even a new core. I wouldn’t worry about it. You could just have a new one made or, if you can’t afford it, don’t. The old one might not be a perfect match, but it will still work very well for you.’
‘I see.’ Harry pulled the cold, wet front of his robes away from his skin. ‘I should leave.’
‘Visit soon,’ Salazar said. ‘Take it easy for a day or two, though. Rituals can take some time to recover from.’
‘Well, it’s not like I’m involved in anything dangerous.’
Salazar snorted, then settled down in his frame and closed his eyes.
Harry left the portrait to nap. ‘Hey, Myrtle,’ he called on his way past the cubicle.
‘Have you been down here all night?’ Myrtle swooped out of her cubicle, her cheeks flushed silver.
‘Yes, but you can’t tell anyone. I really need somewhere that’s just for me.’
She flashed him a small smile. ‘I won’t share, Harry. You’re the only person that ever comes to talk to poor Myrtle.’
‘Thanks.’ He pulled a wide smile onto his face. ‘I have to go change. I’m all wet.’
Myrtle giggled. ‘I noticed.’ She zipped into her cubicle with her hands clasped over her mouth.
Odd. Harry eyed the closed door of Myrtle’s cubicle, then headed foe Gryffindor Tower. Oh well.
‘Mr Potter.’ Professor Mcgonagall caught him on the staircase up to the Fat Lady’s picture. ‘Where have you been?’
I was practicing what’s probably considered dark magic in the Chamber of Secrets. Harry held his tongue.
Professor Mcgonagall drew herself up. ‘And why are you wet?’
‘I performed the water-summoning spell a little too proficiently.’
‘That’s a sixth year spell, Mr Potter.’ Some of the stiffness faded from her posture and her eyes softened. ‘Very well done. It needs to be, too, since as Triwizard champion, you’re excused from all lessons you don’t wish to attend.’
No more potions. A grin slipped onto his lips. Every cloud has its silver lining.
‘I hope that smile has nothing to do with not having to attend your lessons, Mr Potter,’ Professor Mcgonagall chided. ‘You’ve come forwards in leaps and bounds from last year, but this tournament is still much too dangerous for any child, let alone a fourth year. I can’t believe so many of the younger years would have the irresponsibility to try and enter their names.’ She swept off.
The Fat Lady gave him a cool look, but swung out of his way.
Really? Even the portraits?
A tense, thick quiet fell over the common room. Harry ignored the stares and strode upstairs to his dormitory. Dull white hangings dangled from around his bed.
Petty. He dispelled the charm with a tap of his wand, then checked for anything untoward. If Ron’s set the twins on me, this could be a long year. Harry discarded his wet robes onto the pile of not-so-clean clothes and clawed on some clean ones.
‘H-Harry.’ A quiet shuffle came from the dormitory’s doorway.
Neville steepled his fingers and pushed his hands together. ‘I’m sorry about the others, Harry. They’re just angry that you told them you wouldn’t enter, didn’t want to, and still managed to come away with something they all wanted.’
‘Do you believe I put my name in, Neville?’
He shuffled his feet. ‘I don’t think it really matters. I didn’t ever want to take part, but everyone else, they were so hopeful. When you became champion after being so disinterested in it all, they got really annoyed. Especially the older students who thought they had a good chance.’
Harry sighed. ‘If I could’ve I would’ve swapped with them, Nev.’
‘Yeah, I know, but that doesn’t mean all that much when you can’t.’
He’s right. It doesn’t matter what I say or what I wanted. I still have what they were after and the fact I didn’t want it probably makes it worse.
‘Anyone share your opinion?’ he asked. ‘Or is it just you?’
‘Most of the younger students are annoyed you managed to get past Dumbledore when they couldn’t, the older ones are resentful, especially Angelina, and Ron, Seamus, and Dean were really angry.’
‘I’ll take that as a no, then.’
‘Lavender, Parvati, and some of the girls in our year and below don’t mind. Hermione seems more worried about you and wherever you’re spending all your time than anything to do with the Triwizard Tournament. It’s Angelina Johnson and the few who were tipped to be champion who you need to watch out for. They’re really not happy you stole their place.’
‘I didn’t steal anything, Neville.’
‘Well, I don’t think you’re going to be seeker next year.’ Neville stared at his toes. ‘I don’t think you’re going to be very popular for a while.’
‘I’ve dealt with that before. Remember second year?’
‘Gryffindor house stuck by you in second year,’ Neville muttered. ‘Angelina’s made pretty sure that won’t happen.’
Stupid bloody girl. Harry watched him shuffle away with a ice coursing through his veins. Is Angelina that upset she didn’t get picked? Cedric got chosen over her anyway.
Harry wandered back down to the common room with a tight, cold ball caught up in his chest.
Lavender and Parvati giggled by the fire. They shot him brief glances with soft eyes, then turned away. He slumped down and stared into the flames.
‘There you are, Harry.’ A hand came down on either of his shoulders. The Weasley twins appeared on either side of him.
He let his wand slide down his sleeve into his palm. ‘What do you two want?’
‘No to need for concern, Harrikins. We’re not against you.’ They pulled up two chairs of their own, each sitting on the chair their brother had brought.
‘You believe me?’
‘If we couldn’t get past the age line, how could an ickle fourth year?’ They smiled and shook their heads. ‘That’s not it at all.’
‘Besides, even if you did, then we’d only tip our hats to you for tricking the headmaster himself. Right, George?’
‘Right, Fred. The problem we face is far more tricky. Fred and I, we’re quite close to Angelina and Alicia. Girls, you know.
‘Well, you don’t, but you will, eh, Harrikins.’
Fred shrugged. ‘We don’t want to ruin that, so I’m afraid we’ll have to be keeping our distance a bit. Ginny, too. Ron’s already written home some garbled version of events and told her to stay away from you.’
‘She didn’t look too happy about it, though, did she, Fred?’
‘Indeed not, George. She hexed our littlest brother good, but she said she really wants to join the quidditch team next year… and you know Angelina will hold a grudge, Alicia too.’
‘They haven’t forgiven us for swapping on our double date with them yet,’ Fred said. ‘And that was almost a year ago.’
‘No pranks and no hard feelings.’ They patted Harry on the shoulder, then left him by the fire.
Harry stared into the flames’ flickering orange light. Hermione better believe me, or I might as well just move in with Salazar.
He tossed another log onto the fire and watched the flames curl over it. It cracked and popped, scattering sparks over the front of the grate. Ash trickled from the crevices of the log down into the cooling pile of embers.
‘Screw this.’ Harry thrust himself out of the chair and wandered toward charms.
Hermione always gets there early.
He stuck his head round the door. Empty chairs lingered between bare desks. Harry slipped into a seat in the back corner of the class.
‘Mr Potter!’ Professor Flitwick bounced into his classroom. ‘I was under the impression that you were excused from classes.’
‘I’m excused from the ones I don’t want to attend, sir,’ Harry said.
‘Oh! Your mother always loved charms, it must run in the family. You’re almost as early as she used to be!’ Flitwick teetered on the balls of his feet. ‘Do you have questions for me? Miss Granger normally comes early with questions.’
‘I’m keeping up fine, professor. I’ve actually gotten a little ahead.’
‘That’s great news! You’ll need the time to prepare for the tournament. Where have you managed to get up to?’
A brief warmth surged through Harry’s chest and a hot lump rose into his throat. ‘I’ve finished all of it.’
‘All of it?!’ Professor Flitwick’s jaw dropped. ‘But… it’s October!’
‘I did some reading over the summer.’
‘Quite a lot of reading by the sound of it.’
Flitwick pulled his wand out and waved it at his desk. The cap of an ink bottle unscrewed itself and floated over. ‘Can you demonstrate your banishing charm for me, Mr Potter? It would certainly ease my worries about you being a champion.’
Harry flicked his wand.
The cap hissed across the classroom and pinged off the window.
‘Excellent!’ Professor Flitwick cried. ‘Non-verbal as well. I wonder why you even came to class today, Mr Potter. You’re well ahead of all your peers.’
Hermione cleared her throat from the door to the classroom. ‘Professor?’
‘Miss Granger. Your friend has just been demonstrating his astonishing grasp of the banishing spell. Quite exemplary for a fourth year!’
Hermione’s eyes darted to Harry’s wand. ‘I had a question about our essays, Professor.’
‘It’s a bit late now, Miss Granger. I’m collecting them at the start of class.’
‘Er, Professor Flitwick…’ Harry slid his wand back into his sleeve. ‘I haven’t got my essay.’
‘Don’t worry, Mr Potter. You clearly are in no need of the revision that essay provides. You’ve been excused from classes regardless, remember.’
Harry released a quiet sigh. ‘Thank you, professor.’
‘You can perform the banishing charm?’ Hermione whispered as the other students filed in looking remarkably under eager. ‘You said it looked interesting, not that you’d already mastered it!’
‘I thought it might come in useful. It’s about time I took some of this stuff more seriously, there’s only so many times I can luck my way out of life-threatening scenarios.’
‘That’s probably wise of you. I’m impressed, Harry.’ Hermione pursed her lips. ‘Is that where you’ve been disappearing off to then?’
A smile crept onto Harry’s lips. ‘Yeah. I needed to practise somewhere.’
‘How far have you got?’
Harry weighed the words on the tip of his tongue, measuring the spark of competition burning in Hermione’s eyes. ‘I’ve reached a lot of the sixth year material in both charms and transfiguration.’
‘That’s amazing, Harry!’ She glanced around and lowered her voice. ‘Seriously. I saw you trying to summon butterflies, but I thought it was a one-off attempt. You’ve gotten so good, so fast.’
‘I’ve got the hang of that butterfly spell now. If it wasn’t for this bloody tournament, I might’ve managed loads of new stuff this year.’
Hermione crossed her arms. ‘I can’t believe you’re ahead of me in two classes now.‘
Harry glimpsed more a flash of envy in her eyes. ‘You’ll still be as good as me at potions, our electives, and you’re miles better than me at any essays.’
‘Charms and Transfiguration are my favourites after Arithmancy, though.’ Hermione sighed. ‘And now you’re better than me at them. I’ll have to get the hang of the banishing charm this week now, too.’
Have to? Harry raised an eyebrow. Really? Why does she always feel like she needs to know more than me?
Flitwick handed a pair of small, clay tiles to them. ‘Repairing charm,’ he squeaked. ‘A very useful one indeed.’
Harry nudged Hermione’s elbow. ‘Do you think I put my name in?’
‘Honestly? I don’t think so, but I’m not certain. You’ve been different since the World Cup. Distant, withdrawn, but, I don’t know, more driven. I don’t know what you’re thinking like I used to.’ She poked her clay tile round in a circle with the tip of her wand. ‘Is it me? Is it because now you know all this stuff, you don’t need me to help anymore? So you don’t need to talk to me?’
‘You’re my friend, Hermione.’ Harry caught her tile under his hand. ‘If I just wanted someone to tell me facts, I’d go to the library or ask a teacher.’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t put my name in. I promise. You know how this stuff is for me, anything remotely weird and I get sucked into it somehow.’
Well, not somehow, usually Riddle. Harry froze. Let’s hope it’s not this time. It doesn’t really seem like his sort of thing.
‘That’s true.’ Hermione dropped her tile onto the desk. It shattered across the hard wood. ‘But you’re not acting like you did before. You used to get sucked into dangerous stuff and, well, play the hero, I guess. It was never about you. This isn’t like that. It’s dangerous, but it’s a game. And it’s all about the champions. About you. You can’t pretend you’re not competitive. I’ve seen you play quidditch. You must want to win a bit.’
‘It’s not worth winning. It’s a stupid idea.’
Something worth winning. Harry buried the echo of Salazar’s words somewhere further down where he couldn’t hear them. Maybe a bit, deep down.
Hermione flashed him a smile. ‘At least you aren’t the Heir of Slytherin.’
Yeah, that would be terrible. He frowned. Salazar’s sarcasm is starting to rub off on me.
‘I’m sure it’ll all pass, just like things did that year.’
‘I had to kill a basilisk to prove my innocence! And nobody in Gryffindor listened to the rumours back then.’
‘It’ll be fine.’ Hermione tapped the tile with her wand. It crept back together into a square, marred only by a few thin, dark lines. ‘Ron will get over it, he always does. When it becomes clear you didn’t put your name in, everyone will feel rather stupid and come to apologise.’
‘I’m not sure I want them back,’ Harry whispered.
‘Harry!’ Hermione’s tile slipped through her fingers and shattered. ‘They’re your friends.’
‘They aren’t acting like it, are they?’
‘But it’s not really their fault. You must realise what it looks like. You cast a bit of a shadow, Harry, and it just keeps getting bigger.’
‘If they want to be friends with me, then they should know me well enough to see through it.’ He scowled at her tile as it flowed back into a perfect, clay square. ‘If they don’t know me well enough to get past that, then they can’t really be my friends, can they?’
‘Just because they know better doesn’t mean they can help themselves from reacting. Nobody can.’ Hermione gnawed at her lip. ‘Even me. Look at you, suddenly as good at me at everything, with all the popularity and fame. Why would you need some muggleborn girl hanging off your coattails? And I know that’s not how you see it, but sometimes it’s all I can think about.’
So she has to be better than me. Riddle’s smooth whisper welled up from the back of his skull and several things fells into place in Harry’s head. Because if she’s better than me, I’ll need her. A shard of ice froze beneath his ribs. And being needed, being better than me, is more important to her than just being my friend.
Harry shook his head and swept his bag back up onto his shoulder.
Hermione chewed her lip, then crossed her arms and huffed. ‘What? I can’t help it! None of the others are any better!’
No. You’re just as bad as the others. He bit his tongue before the words slipped out. Maybe if I’m better than you often enough, you’ll get used to it. You can just be my friend, then.
He stalked out.
‘Shouldn’t you be in lessons, Potter?’ Malfoy sneered at him from the end of the charms corridor.
‘I heard your housemates have finally realised what a pretentious, pathetic person you are.’ Malfoy smirked. ‘Even Weasley doesn’t want anything to do with you. How does it feel to be ditched by a charity case?’
Harry glanced up and down the empty corridor. Just the two of us.
He slipped his wand from his sleeve. ‘Anything else you’d like to say?’ He placed the tip between Malfoy’s eyes. ‘I know a wonderful number of hexes now.’
‘You wouldn’t dare.’
‘Try me.’ Harry dragged his widest, brightest smile onto his face. ‘Please, try me. Give me an excuse.’
‘You think you’re such a big shot, Potter,’ Malfoy snarled. ‘You’re nothing. Everyone knows you’re just a cheat and a liar now.’ He shoved himself out from under Harry’s wand. ‘Look at you, all alone. And no wonder–‘
‘You’ve grown brave, Malfoy.’ Harry clawed his smile back over his lips. ‘Talking back to someone who has you at wand point and walking around the castle without your lackeys. Aguamenti.’
Nothing. His thoughts echoed from the back of his mind in Riddle’s voice. I was nothing for eleven years. No name. No hope. Barely even existing. This spoilt brat understands nothing.
A stream of water burst from his wand tip, drenching Malfoy in water.
‘Potter,’ he spluttered. ‘I’ll see you in so many detentions for this!’
Harry laughed. ‘No you won’t. Not unless you want to admit I bested you with a water conjuring charm of all things.’ He grinned. ‘You probably should’ve kept your newfound bravado in check, Draco. It’s really not done you any favours.’
‘I hope you die in the tournament, Potter.’
‘I doubt you’re the only one, but I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you.’ Harry slipped his wand back into his sleeve and out of sight. ‘Oh, and Malfoy, if I find out you or your father have anything to do with my name coming out of the goblet, I’m going to make you wish you’d been competing in my place.