Enter the Dragon
On the nice days, Harry and Hermione had taken to exercising after classes near the Black Lake instead of the Room of Requirement. But even though it was a cold November day and it was starting to rain, it still felt too glorious to hang around inside. The sting of icy raindrops striking Harry’s cheeks made him feel alive as he jogged by the lakeshore, and Hermione breathed in the beauty of the Scottish Highlands as she ran beside him.
Harry knew that it was too much to expect that he and Hermione wouldn’t still be a target of scorn by many at Hogwarts, but for today at least - and perhaps a few days ahead - the topic on the lips of most students wouldn’t be the Boy-Who-Cheated and his Personal Succubus, but the Redhead and the Slytherins who had lost their clothes at breakfast that morning.
And with a bit of luck, perhaps between that and the Quibbler article, most people would think twice before harassing Hermione so badly anymore. Harry reckoned that he could manage to bear the brunt of the insults as long as everyone left her alone. He’d had plenty of practice at it after all.
Harry slowed his pace when he spied someone else in workout gear ahead, jogging in the opposite direction towards them. He tensed when he recognised who it was, and glanced at Hermione before coming to a stop. The figure halted in his tracks, looking more than uncomfortable himself. For a moment all that could be heard was heavy breathing and the lapping of the water at the shore - nobody said a word.
Viktor Krum awkwardly cleared his throat and tentatively reached out his hand.
“Er... Hallo...” Krum began.
Harry wasn’t sure what to say or do; this was the first time that they had come face to face since the wand weighing, and Krum had made his displeasure with Harry quite apparent ever since Harry’s name had come out of the Goblet of Fire. It was true that Krum had barely said a single word to Harry, but Krum’s expressions had spoken volumes.
But even if Hermione’s presence hadn’t been there as a reminder, Harry knew it would be impolite not to respond. Harry extended his own hand stiffly and grasped Krum’s.
“Er... Hi...” said Harry, unable to keep the hint of suspicion out of his voice. Krum took a deep breath, as if to steady his nerves, before speaking haltingly in a thick accent.
“Harry Potter... I... er... I vould like to apologise for my behaviour tovards you! I haff disrespected you... and for zat, I am sorry! I hope you can accept my apology.”
Harry’s eyes nearly fell out of his head and his jaw dropped as he goggled in astonishment at Krum. Dumbstruck, Harry stood there speechlessly as the rain dripped from his hair until Hermione gently nudged him.
“Er... yeah!” Harry gasped, shaking Krum’s hand properly. “Of... of course! Apology accepted... er... but if you don’t mind...”
“You vant to know why!” Krum raised his eyebrows and nodded. “I understand - I would vant to know too... I read ze Quibbler article - it makes much sense - is more true than ze Daily Prophet. I hear your interview with zat Skeeter person - but you say nothing that is in ze Prophet! ... But ze Quibbler, it tells of your deeds...”
“You are good person Harry Potter,” Krum continued, “and I vos rude. I did not believe you! Now I believe!”
“Th...thanks Krum!” Harry’s face broke into a grin. “Call me Harry! And this is Hermione...”
“Your girlfriend!” Krum reddened, and gave them both an abashed looking smile. “Please, call me Viktor! ... Er... I must also say... Harry... you are very lucky man! Before I know zat Hermione has boyfriend - I almost ask for date - but now I must look elsewhere...”
Hermione turned crimson at Viktor Krum’s frank admission, too stunned to say anything. Harry’s grin broadened; he glanced at Hermione.
“Thanks Viktor! I am very lucky...” said Harry. “By the way, we might know someone... if you’re interested.”
“Do you mean Lavender?” squeaked the still red-faced Hermione, cringing at the sound of her own voice. Harry nodded.
“If she is friend of yours - then she must be nice person! I think I vould be interested to meet her,” said Viktor, looking pleased and hopeful. “But... er... I vos also wondering Harry - perhaps ve could fly together sometime - I haff heard you are very good flyer!”
“Yeah!” Harry agreed quickly, still grinning. “I’d love to fly with you sometime Viktor!”
Hermione was thrilled that Harry had made a new friend. The three of them jogged by the edge of the lake together and chatted until the wind picked up and the rain began to sweep across the surface of the lake in sheets. Viktor climbed into a little boat and waved goodbye as Harry and Hermione made their way back to the castle.
They were only partway up the hill when Harry stopped under a copse of evergreens. It was still relatively dry under the dense foliage of the trees. Hermione gave Harry a puzzled look. Her heart began to race as he put his arm around her.
“See how wrong she was?” Harry murmured, gently brushing dripping strands of tawny hair from Hermione’s wet pink cheeks and planting a little kiss on her lips, “...Rita Skeeter I mean... Viktor Krum could have nearly any girl he wanted - but it was you who caught his fancy Hermione.”
“He obviously sees what I see...” Harry continued, gazing into Hermione’s golden eyes, “...how beautiful you are! ... inside and out! I don’t know how I got so lucky...”
Hermione melted in Harry’s gaze and flung her arms around him, crushing his lips passionately with her own. She tingled from the tips of her toes to the top of her head in that moment of eternity, breathless when their lips parted.
“It could only be you Harry!” said Hermione as drips of rain finally began to seep through from the upper branches of the evergreens. “Nobody else could ever make me feel like you do! You’re my best friend... I couldn’t possibly love anyone more than I love you!”
Their lips met again for another long burning kiss. The heat coursed through Harry, and he felt so warmed that the icy downpour seemed to turn to steam around him when they continued up the hill to the castle.
Harry walked Hermione back to the Gryffindor common room. He stood dripping on the red and gold carpet with a big soppy grin plastered on his face as he watched Hermione head up the stairs to her dorm. Once she was out of sight, Harry turned around to leave and make his way to his own quarters, sighing happily. Seeing that Harry was free, Dean rose from the sofa by the fire where he had been sitting and chatting with Ginny.
“Hunh? Wha...?” Harry was still in such a cheerful daze, it took him a moment to realise who was talking to him. “Oh, hi Dean! What’s up?”
“I just wanted to say sorry, Harry!”
“Er... what for?” Harry asked.
“For not being more supportive of you...”
“Oh...” Harry still felt a bit perplexed. “We’re all good Dean! You haven’t been rude to me or Hermione...”
“Maybe not,” said Dean, looking ashamed of himself, “but I didn’t stick up for you when others were. I just wanted you to know that I never really believed that you cheated to get into the tournament Harry.”
“Thanks Dean,” Harry grinned. “But it’s alright... really! I... I know how hard it is to say anything when a friend is being a prat. I’ve been there - I can’t really hold that against anyone.”
“Righto then...” Relief flooded through Dean and he grinned back at Harry. “Thanks for being so understanding Harry! Er... I suppose I should let you go... you look really wet.”
As the days passed, so did the storm, and the wet grounds of Hogwarts turned to ice in the bitter chill which followed. At the first opportunity, Harry grabbed his Firebolt and spent an afternoon chasing a Golden Snitch with Viktor Krum. They both caught it several times each.
Harry wasn’t all that surprised to find that a crowd had gathered to watch them when he and Viktor finally lit upon the crispy grass of the frosty quidditch pitch, most of them clearly enthralled for a chance to ogle Viktor Krum in action.
And though the snide comments about the Daily Prophet article had lessened considerably since the Quibbler had come out and the very public disrobing of Ron, Pansy, and Malfoy, Harry had been correct to assume that the chilly attitude of much of the school towards him wouldn’t be banished so easily.
Many clearly still gave the Daily Prophet’s version of Harry more credence than the Quibbler’s - including Ron apparently, whose scowl seemed even deeper than ever when Harry spotted his face in the crowd of Krum-watchers. Still, at least nobody was harassing Hermione anymore, and that was all that really mattered to Harry.
Hermione beamed at Harry and gave him a hug when he climbed off his broom. Luna waved at him from the stands where she was sitting with Neville and Ginny, all of them bundled up against the cold.
“You are most excellent flyer Harry,” Viktor earnestly told Harry. “Ze British team vould be lucky to haff you as their Seeker!”
“Thanks Viktor!” said Harry with a grin, flushing slightly. “Especially for the Wronski Feint pointers...”
“I am thinking I may regret zat someday, should you ever play against me professionally!” Viktor laughed. Viktor spied Lavender working her way towards him through the crowded pitch and his face lit up.
“By ze vay,” he said quietly to Hermione, “thank you for introducing me to your friend. I am liking her very much!”
When Harry reentered the castle with Hermione, Professor Moody pulled Harry aside. Harry swallowed nervously, wondering if the suspicious ex-Auror was going to berate him for making friends with someone from Durmstrang. Sirius had already warned Harry to be careful about Karkaroff - the Durmstrang Headmaster. But Moody seemed to have something else on his mind.
“Potter, Granger, you two should be prepared for a late night,” Moody growled. “I’ll be by your place after midnight Potter... Dress warm and have your invisibility cloak ready!” Professor Moody turned on his wooden heel and stomped away.
“I wonder what that’s all about!” Harry muttered, peering at Hermione.
“I have no idea!” Hermione shook her head, as baffled as Harry.
Draco Malfoy spat bitterly as he watched Potter and Krum showing off together from a bluff overlooking the quidditch pitch. The betrayal of the Champion from Durmstrang was the topper on some of the worst days of Draco’s time at Hogwarts.
No broom flying privileges, and any wand use outside of class promised a risk of confiscation. Draco’s father was a member of the school’s board of governors, but the rest of them had ignored his demands for leniency after their pathetic babies had whined about being frightened by Draco’s perfectly justifiable response to an insult on his family’s honour.
On top of that, Draco was still smarting from the embarrassment of being pranked in front of the entire school the other day, and he was puzzled by Snape’s seeming change in attitude, which appeared to have become even more pronounced since Third Year.
Last year Draco had begun to suspect that Dumbledore had ordered Snape to lay off Potter and Granger, but Snape had never given Draco detention prior to this year. Draco knew it was Potter’s fault somehow - he always had been Dumbledore’s favourite - and Snape must have been carrying out that Muggle-lover’s orders.
About the only good which had come from pickling rat brains with Weasleby was that Draco had taken the opportunity to continue pushing the blood-traitor’s buttons. Draco could at least take some satisfaction in knowing that Weasley hated Potter and Granger almost as much as he did now.
But that satisfaction wasn’t enough to make up for his humiliation. It was bad enough that Potter and the Mudblood continued to live... as long as they did, they also continued to make a mockery of the natural order. Draco was of noble blood. They should both be groveling at Draco’s feet, not upstaging him at every turn. Draco had been infuriated that Potter had somehow managed to fool the Goblet when he couldn’t manage it himself.
Learning later from his father that it was all part of another elaborate scheme to deal with Potter once and for all had been of little consolation to Draco. He was still angry that his father hadn’t revealed that crucial little piece of information about the tournament until after Draco had zapped himself trying to enter... and Potter always seemed to survive everything somehow.
Still, Draco was looking forward to watching the First Task. If Potter didn’t die, at least he’d probably end up horribly burned or mutilated.
“Survive this Potter!” Draco muttered to himself, stalking back to the castle.
Even though he was expecting it, Harry started when someone rapped on his heavy oak door. He glanced at Hermione and took a deep breath before answering.
“Got your cloak Potter?” Professor Moody growled. Harry nodded; he had his arm around Hermione, ready to go.
“Good!” said Moody. “Throw it over both of you - keep quiet and follow me.”
Harry and Hermione did as they were told, both nervous with anticipation as they followed through the dimly lit passages of the castle to the foyer. The Auror guarding the front door nodded at Moody, but didn’t even give them a second glance, seeing only his ex-instructor from the Auror Training Programme leaving the castle for a midnight stroll.
The grass was frozen, crunching underfoot. But only Mad Eye’s thumping loud footsteps carried through the moonlit night. Once past Hagrid’s hut, and well into the Forbidden Forest, Harry finally dared to ask a question, being careful to keep his voice low.
“So, what’s this all about Professor Moody?”
“We’re going to have a look at what you’ll be facing in the first task Potter,” Moody replied quietly.
“Isn’t that against the rules?” Hermione’s disembodied voice asked. Mad Eye snorted.
“Poppycock! Reconnaissance is all part of the game Granger. The trick is to not get caught by anyone who matters!”
Hermione didn’t really have a response to that. She frowned and stayed close to Harry, one arm around his waist as they crept carefully through the forest together under his invisibility cloak. She jumped with a start, gasping when a nearby roar shook the trees. Harry’s pulse quickened and he gulped.
Moody stopped suddenly, whispering, “Right then, don’t say a word... Just look where I’m pointing. Whaddya see?”
It was so dark in the shadows under the canopy of the forest, that for a moment, Harry and Hermione couldn’t see a thing, but then they made out what looked like a person crouched under some bushes. Whoever it was, their attention was fully engaged on whatever was in the clearing ahead.
“That’s Karkaroff doing his boy’s work for him... Now that’s cheatin.’ If he’d brought Krum with him, that would be training, like I’m doing with you two.”
Mad Eye doubled back through the forest a bit with his two pupils, and then worked around a prickly thicket and a copse of oak-trees to approach the clearing from another direction. The trees shook again from another loud rumble and a flicker of orange light briefly lit up a few near the clearing. Moody stopped and pointed again - this time at two enormous shadowed figures.
“That’s Hagrid and his lady-friend, Madame Maxime,” Mad-Eye whispered, shaking his head with a low chuckle.
“Poor sap doesn’t realise he’s being had... Oh, she likes Hagrid well enough, but she’s also playin’ him so that she can get a look at what’s out here without being taken for a cheater. But again, without her student here, she’s doing all the work instead of givin’ her girl the opportunity to learn a bit about surveilling undercover.”
They watched Hagrid and Madame Maxime walking up to a fence surrounding the clearing and heard voices. Harry suddenly realised that they were actually talking to whomever was in the forest glade.
Professor Moody gestured for Harry and Hermione to follow once more. When the trio had finally finished traipsing around more trees and foliage to find another view of the clearing they came to a halt. Hermione had to cover her mouth to stop herself from squealing in terror. Harry gasped with shock, his heart thumping loudly in his ears. This was definitely worse than a Basilisk.
The tableau was chaotic. There were numerous keepers and four dragons in cages, though they could only make out one properly as the others appeared to be more or less under control. A massive sinewy scaled beast at least sixty feet long reared, angrily trying to unfurl its wings as it roared and screeched, a raging inferno escaping its wide maw.
The dragon handlers were yelling at each other, trying to stay out of reach of the dragon’s fiery outbursts of fury. They kept shooting red bolts of lightning from their wands at the dragon to little effect.
“Stunning spells,” Mad Eye grunted with a shake of his head. “As you can see, they’re not very useful against dragons. You’d need at least a dozen wizards firing stunners all at once at a dragon that size to put ‘em out - there, you can see some more dragon handlers coming to help...”
They watched as the dragon bellowed in rage, shooting another long jet of flame and scattering the handlers. Finally, after numerous stunning spells, the dragon teetered dangerously. The ground trembled with a loud boom when at least ten tons of scaly monster collapsed and hit the forest floor.
“This is the Hungarian Horntail,” a voice which Harry recognised told the enormous shadow which he knew was Hagrid.
“Charlie Weasley...” Harry whispered.
They listened while Charlie chatted for several minutes with Hagrid, gleaning as much information as possible about the upcoming task.
...I don’t envy the one who gets the Horntail. Vicious thing! It’s the largest, deadliest dragon breed on the planet and its back end’s as dangerous as its front, look...” Charlie was saying, pointing at the deadly looking bronze spikes jutting from the dragon’s tail.
Harry sighed, knowing instinctively that this dragon was meant for him - but then a little smile tugged at his lips when a comforting thought occurred to him. He listened with Hermione and Professor Moody for a few more minutes until they heard Charlie anxiously talking about Molly Weasley.
“...I didn’t dare tell Mum what Harry’s facing for the first task. She’s already having kittens about him being in the tournament as it is...”
“Yeah... well, don’ worry yerself Charlie,” Hagrid said reassuringly. “I’m sure Harry’ll be jus’ fine. Tha’ lad’s got a good head on his shoulders - one o’ the brightest at Hogwarts, - an’ I’ll be sure ter let him know exactly what he’s... er... facin'... ” Hagrid trailed off, glancing at Madam Maxime, suddenly aware that he had perhaps revealed a bit too much.
Charlie chuckled and shook his head, certain that the Durmstrang headmaster was hiding in the bushes somewhere, watching the arrival of the dragons as well. He felt slightly better about things, knowing that the Champions would at least have a chance to prepare themselves.
Professor Moody quietly led Harry and Hermione away from the dragons, back towards the edge of the forest. Hermione was silent, decidedly glad that Moody had thought it worth “breaking the rules” to show Harry what he would be facing. Indeed, she was fuming at the incredible indifference towards providing the champions adequate information to prepare them for their tasks. Then Hermione remembered that someone at the Ministry had apparently instigated the entire tournament with the goal of killing Harry.
Once they were far enough away from the clearing and Moody was certain that nobody was around, he spoke again.
“So Potter, whaddya thinkin’?”
Harry grinned. He knew Moody couldn’t see his face properly, even though Moody’s eye appeared to be looking right at him through the invisibility cloak, so he gave a little chuckle as he responded, startling his terrified girlfriend.
“I’m thinking that I’ve got a good shot at this first task Professor Moody.”
Mad Eye was astonished by Harry’s nonchalance and pulled up short.
“Really?” Moody growled, “Just like that eh! What gives Potter?”
“I agree with Professor Moody, Harry,” Hermione complained with a frightened voice, “You must be joking. You have to take this seriously!”
“Runes!” Harry replied simply with a grin.
Mad Eye raised an eyebrow, wondering if the lad was crazy. Hermione couldn’t talk. She felt like someone had just punched her in the stomach. Harry felt Hermione stiffen, and he could just make out her furious features in the moonlight.
“Harry...” Hermione finally sputtered, on the edge of hyperventilating, “what are you on about?”
Hermione began trembling violently and Harry swallowed guiltily when he realised how terrified and angry she was. And it was obvious that Professor Moody thought he’d gone mad. Harry sighed and knew that he’d have to explain himself with more than a one word answer. He addressed Professor Moody as he wasn’t quite able to bring himself to meet Hermione’s eyes.
“Er... According to Professor Babbling I’m brilliant at Runes,” Harry began. “We learned fire protection runes last year. And... and a few weeks ago I... er... I even beat Hermione on our homework assignment on using Runes to ward against...”
“...dangerous magical creatures!” Hermione gasped, light suddenly dawning on her. She was crestfallen at how she’d treated Harry. “I’m so sorry Harry. I shouldn’t have got cross with you. I was just so scared... I don’t know what I’d do if... if...” Hermione couldn't bring herself to complete her sentence.
Tears trickled down Hermione’s cheeks and Harry knew that he’d made a huge mistake. He swallowed again and wiped a tear from her cheek with one hand, stroking her hair with the other.
“No, I’m sorry Hermione! It was my fault! I didn’t mean to frighten you. I... I was just so excited that I already knew how to deal properly with something as magical and dangerous as a dragon that I wasn’t paying attention to your feelings. I should have been clearer from the start...”
Harry gently kissed Hermione then stopped, having the oddest feeling again that Professor Moody’s eye could see them through the invisibility cloak. He glanced at Moody anxiously, wondering if he still thought Harry was a nutter.
“Hmmm... Runes eh?” the grizzled ex-Auror muttered skeptically. “Never heard of usin’ ‘em against dragons before. I’ll speak to Professor Babbling tomorrow and see what she has to say about it. Meanwhile, get some sleep... you’ll need it!”
But neither Harry nor Hermione fell asleep easily that night. Harry still felt terrible for upsetting Hermione when she was clearly already scared to death for him. After Hermione changed into her nightie and crawled into bed, Harry held her tightly and gave her little kisses until her trembling stopped.
When her gentle minty breath finally slowed, Harry knew Hermione had finally drifted off, and eventually joined her in slumber.
When he’d finished his breakfast, Harry glanced at the Hufflepuff table and frowned, nearly half of the Hufflepuffs were wearing those ridiculous badges. Cedric Diggory wasn’t wearing one though. Harry supposed that was something at least. Harry sighed, knowing what he had to do.
“Are you coming Harry? We don’t want to be late for Arithmancy.”
“Just a moment Hermione. I need a word with Cedric Diggory.”
Hermione frowned and bit her lip anxiously, hoping that Harry wasn’t going to get himself in trouble.
“Oi, Diggory...” said Harry.
Cedric waved on his friends and they reluctantly headed off to class without him. Then he turned and scowled at Harry.
“What do you want Potter? If you think that Quibbler article changed anything between you and me, you thought wrong. Everyone knows that magazine is a load of rubbish!”
Harry returned Cedric’s glare.
“Right! And everyone knows that Rita Skeeter is the Gold-Standard of Truth!” said Harry sarcastically. “You know Diggory... I’d give you a swift kick in the arse if I thought it would do you any good. But that’s not why I want to talk to you.”
“What then?” Cedric snapped.
“Dragons!” Harry replied curtly.
“What...? What are you on about Potter?” Cedric was puzzled now. “What are you playing at?”
“The first task is Dragons. Just thought you should know, seeing as you’re the only Champion that doesn’t know yet.”
Now Cedric was really confused. Was Potter having him on? Trying to trip him up?
“Get out of it Potter! Why would you tell me?” Cedric snarled.
Which was a good question. Harry wasn’t entirely sure why he was telling Cedric. The git was still obviously too bloody thick to see that Harry was an unwilling participant. Harry really didn’t like unfairness. That was all it really came down to.
“All the other Champions know already. It’s only fair!” said Harry firmly. “Though if you were a Slytherin, I’d probably let you find out the hard way. But I don’t think Professor Sprout would appreciate that - she’s a good person... Mind you, she ought to have taken you to see them firsthand herself though. They’re in the Forest - you should go and have a look for yourself.”
Cedric shot a look at Professor Sprout, who was just leaving the Staff Table with Professor Moody, and caught her eye. She didn’t seem pleased with her Champion at all. Cedric gulped. He flushed in shame as the truth of his uncouth behaviour suddenly washed over him. Cedric glanced back at Harry and with clear eyes, finally saw that he wasn’t lying.
“Dragons? Really?” Cedric said plaintively, looking really small.
Harry’s features softened. He could see that his rival had finally made a breakthrough.
“Yeah Diggory! Really!” Harry sighed, “I just don’t want to see you get killed.”
“Th...thanks Potter. I still don’t really understand why you’re being nice to me after I’ve been such a prat. But I owe you one... and... er... I’ll tell my friends to stop wearing those stupid badges.”
“Look, as long as you’re nice to Hermione and my friends.... that’s all I really care about, alright!?” Finished, Harry turned on his heel and strode back towards Hermione.
“That was really sweet of you Harry!” said Hermione, giving Harry a quick kiss on the lips.
Harry turned a bit pink when he spotted Fleur smiling at them. He thought Fleur looked a bit nervous, and expected it was the news about the dragons.
After classes, Harry and Hermione were surprised to find Mad Eye waiting when they got to the Room of Requirement for their daily exercises. They had thought he wasn’t meeting with them again until the following day.
“I heard what you said to the Diggory boy Potter.” Moody’s magical eye bored into Harry. “That was somethin’ else. Never seen anything quite like it... except for your mum though. She’s the only other one I’ve ever seen who could dress someone down good and proper for bein’ a berk... and give ‘em a chance at the same time. It’s good to see that you can tell the difference between a bloody pompous jackass and a Death Eater...”
Professor Moody paused before continuing, “Anyway, I’m really here about your plans for fighting dragons...”
“Yeah, about that...” Harry began as he flushed in abashment.
“You're alright Potter,” Mad Eye said gruffly, “I spoke to Professor Babbling to find out what you were on about. And you’re right. Seems like you do stand a good chance. But overconfidence kills. You can never put all your eggs in one basket Potter.”
“You always need a backup plan - or two. I’ll show you a few things tomorrow. For now, just get crackin’ on your calisthenics, and keep practicin’ your stunning and shielding spells,” Moody concluded.
When Moody met Harry and Hermione at the Room of Requirement the following day, he had already converted it into a fake dragon-fighting arena with a large cardboard box sitting in the middle. Harry glanced around at the boulders as Moody opened the lesson by discussing the alternative options for fighting dragons.
“Right then Potter! I reckon you’ll do just fine with those Runes if you’re as good as Babbling says. But you’ll need to practice the Aguamenti Charm for water just in case your fire protection rune isn’t effective. And if you get that Shield Charm perfected in time, it’ll actually protect against dragon-fire, but it has to be a bloody powerful shield - and most wizards just have to dodge the flames.
“Now some might suggest summoning your broom for extra manoeuvrability - but remember, dragons were born to fly... It’s almost impossible to outfly a dragon unless you’re the very best. It’s a great way to get yourself killed.
“I told you the other night that it’d take at least a dozen wizards firin’ simultaneous stunners to bring down a dragon, but there are exceptions to that rule. And that exception is probably the best option for someone with good aim.
“Now, in muggle myths, the hero always goes for a weak spot, but the fact is that there are no weak spots on a dragon except for the eyes and inside the mouth - the only spots on a dragon which aren’t armoured. Aiming for a dragon’s mouth with a spell is problematic for obvious reasons.
“But if you can hit a dragon in the roof of its mouth with a stunner, it’ll drop like a sack of potatoes. Same with the eyes. If you hit a dragon in the eyes when they’re open, it’ll go down with one good shot.
“Even if you use a Conjunctivitis Curse, you’d still need to hit a dragon directly in the eyes while they’re open... and the fact is, you’re just most likely to get it good and riled up. Which is the last thing you want to do, as a blind dragon is just as dangerous as one which can see...
“So practice your aim, and you won’t need to stun Granger for that...” At this point, Professor Moody dramatically kicked open the lid of the cardboard box. Harry and Hermione both gasped at the contents.
“There’s a few hundred Snitches in this box,” Moody said with a grin. “They’re not gold mind you - just cheap knock-off’s for kids - but they work just the same, and it’s the best way to practice aiming - though they tend to explode on impact. If you can hit a Snitch with a stunner, you can hit a dragon in the roof of the mouth or the eye.
“Timing is important. After a burst of flame, it’ll take a dragon about 10 seconds before it can shoot another burst. So wait until after the first burst, then fire a stunner before it can get the next load of fuel into its jets. Again, as small and fast as Snitches are, practicin’ with those will give you the best chance.
“If I were you Potter, I’d spend at least an hour and a half a day working on what I just told you, on top o’ your hour of calisthenics. On Saturday, you can start practicing dodging techniques and cushioning charms to prevent broken limbs if you crash into a boulder.
“Now we’ve only got limited time - barely a couple o’ weeks - so this is what we’re focusin’ on. Whatever you do, don’t try transfigurin’ anything to distract it, dragons’ll always be more interested in you. Stick with the basics, and don’t try any other fancy stuff you might see in books, and you’ll get through this Potter - and as always, stay alert - Constant Vigilance!” Mad Eye concluded with a roar.
Harry’s practice in the fake dragon arena in the Room of Requirement over the next couple of weeks improved his skills immensely. He had learned how to dodge, roll, and tumble. Harry had also become relatively quick with cushioning charms - but that was the one spell he felt the least confident in. He had become quite proficient with the Aguamenti Charm though.
Harry’s aim with stunners had become extremely accurate after a week of practice. And Moody had had to order another entire stock of Snitches. Harry and Hermione had also gradually increased their strength and stamina with their exercise regimen.
Harry studied his Runework with just as much diligence while Hermione helped him translate to find the most useful combination of symbols. He practiced painting them on his skin with the magic ink while looking in a mirror which Hermione had charmed to show him an unreversed image of himself.
The last weekend before the First Task, a blizzard blew into Scotland from the North Sea. It was the first proper snow of the season. Harry and Hermione took Sunday afternoon off from training after the storm died to play in the snow with Neville and Luna, Parvati and Lavender, the Twins, Ginny, and Dean.
They built two snowmen and the Twins animated them with charmed Top-Hats which they had invented. Harry was surprised, because he didn’t think they’d ever seen any muggle television.
“We got the idea from some muggle boys who live in the village near us one Christmas,” Fred admitted.
They all cheered the snowmen on as they wrestled and pummeled each other into powder. Following that, they had a snowball fight: Harry, Hermione, Luna, and Neville vs the Twins, Ginny, and Dean, while Lavender and Parvati watched. The Twins goggled with awe when Harry started blasting their snowballs out of the air with stunning spells.
By the time November 23 rolled around, the day before the First Task, Harry and Hermione were both convinced he was ready. Harry had decided which runes he thought would be most effective, and Hermione had agreed that it was best to prepare them the night before.
Hermione watched as Harry took off his shirt to carefully paint the runes on his skin. Harry’s slight build was even more cut than it had been when he’d been playing Quidditch. Hermione flushed and started to feel a bit warm at the rare but pleasurable sight of shirtless Harry.
Hermione wanted Harry to go to sleep early so that he would be well rested, but Harry was too nervous. So they cuddled and shared kisses together by the crackling fire in his sitting-room with hot cups of cocoa until at last they drifted off.
Harry had tried to eat some breakfast, but found that despite his confidence in his abilities, his stomach still churned with anxiety. What if he’d made a mistake? Perhaps he should have tried a different set of runic symbols. What if the dragon attacked and he couldn’t dodge or get a shield charm up in time?
Harry was grateful that everyone had just kept quiet and left him to his thoughts that morning. He had given his Firebolt to Lavender and Parvati - just in case - and asked them to hold on to it for him in the stands nearby, where they would be sitting with Luna, Ginny, the Twins, Neville, and Dean. Harry didn’t really expect to need his broom. He hoped he wouldn’t.
Hermione curled her arm around Harry as Professor McGonagall led them through the snow to the tent where the Champions were to wait while each of them had their turn in the dragon arena. McGonagall regarded her anxious charges, looking very pale herself.
“Professor...?” Hermione began, her lower lip quivering.
“Yes Miss Granger, you may enter with Potter,” McGonagall interjected in a slightly shrill voice, giving them both a sympathetic smile. “If Bagman or Crouch have a problem with that, they can bloody well just hang!” Professor McGonagall seemed to be straining to hold back tears.
“Good luck Harry!” she concluded hoarsely.
When Harry entered the tent with Hermione, all eyes turned to them. Viktor Krum appeared even grumpier than usual, but he managed a sickly grin when he spotted Harry and Hermione. Viktor kicked himself for not thinking of asking Lavender to join him in the tent too. Cedric gave Harry a nod, and tried to smile, but he looked like he was about to be ill too. Fleur smiled at them both as well, but her usual radiance was muted by fear.
After what seemed like an interminable length of time, Bagman and Crouch finally arrived. Ludo was holding a purple velvet sack in his hand, looking far too cheerful for Hermione’s taste. Harry was right; there was definitely something off about him, but there was really very little she could do about it. As for Crouch, he looked as pale and shaky as the Champions himself.
Bagman held open the sack and urged the champions to each take the first item they touched. He fussed with the velvet bag as it wriggled. Fleur reached in dejectedly and pulled out an animated replica of a Welsh Green dragon, the smaller, much less dangerous cousin of the Welsh Red.
Krum scowled and thrust his hand in as Bagman tried to stop the simulacrum dragons from squirming. The Durmstrang Champion pulled out a Chinese Fireball. Having done a lot of research over the last couple of weeks, Hermione and Harry both knew that Chinese dragons, while extremely dangerous if provoked, generally held humans in great regard and were highly sentient.
Bagman held the sack much more firmly when Cedric extended his shaking hand into it and retrieved a Swedish Short-snout. They were definitely ill-tempered and dangerous creatures, but not particularly large or agile.
Finally, with a sigh of resignation, Harry reached into the bag and pulled out the one which he’d seen in the clearing with Hermione and Mad Eye: the Hungarian Horntail, the largest and deadliest of all dragons. None could compare to its size and viciousness. It was at least double the length of the Chinese Fireball, which was the second longest dragon on the planet.
Hermione’s blood began to boil, but she tried to keep her temper for Harry’s sake. Bagman caught the look in her eye and glanced away.
“Heheh!” the shifty-looking Ministry employee chuckled. “Well now that you’re all sorted, I can reveal your task. Nothing too risky mind you - you don't have to try and kill the beasts. All you have to do is grab the Golden Egg from the Dragon’s Nest...”
Hermione gasped in horror.
“You want them to steal an egg from nesting female dragons?” she shrieked. “‘Nothing too risky?’ Are you bloody mad...?”
Ludo Bagman withered at the onslaught and backed up a few steps. He chuckled nervously again, and shared a look with Crouch.
“Well... er... the egg contains a clue as to the nature of the Second Task. That’s it then. Good luck all!” said Bagman. Ludo patted Crouch’s shoulder, and they hurriedly departed the tent before Hermione could really lay into them.
“It’s alright Hermione... I’ve got this,” Harry said quietly, much more calmly than he felt.
“I know Harry. I have utmost confidence in you!” Hermione responded firmly, cheeks still flushed. “I just hope everyone else makes it through.”
Harry had been nervous, but Hermione’s statement hit him hard. He had no real idea of the other champion’s strengths and weaknesses. He could only hope that their greater age and experience with magic would see them through this. Harry didn’t want to see anyone else get killed just because someone was trying to kill him.
“Hermione, maybe... perhaps you should go and keep an eye on things. I’ll be alright by myself while I wait my turn. You’ve got your mirror right?”
“Y...yes,” Hermione responded, already knowing what Harry was going to say. She bit her lip hard to stop herself from crying
“Good!” said Harry quietly. “I’ve got mine too. If it looks like things are going badly - for anyone - call me and I’ll be right there and I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“Alright then... I love you Harry!” Hermione whispered. “Good Luck!” They kissed briefly, and Hermione tearfully exited the tent.
The clock ticked, and one by one, the champions met their beasts in turn. Harry could hear the dragons roaring and the crowd screaming, gasping, and cheering, as first Cedric, then Fleur, followed by Krum, entered the arena.
Nearly an hour and a half passed before Harry was called. He took several deep breaths to steel himself and departed the tent. The gate to the arena was only a few metres away and he strode resolutely towards it through the slush, ignoring the smug looks and smirks on most of the dragon keepers' faces. Harry knew that they were thinking he'd have to be rescued from being burnt to a crisp.
As Harry emerged from behind the boulders near the gate, the crowd went silent. Everyone watched with bated breath, keen to see how the Youngest Champion would handle the worst dragon of the lot.
Harry’s breath quickened, clouding in the biting air. The black dragon eyed him warily and hissed, steam rising from her curled lips.
The dragon’s long sinewy body undulated and rippled as she hunched, protectively spreading her enormous scaly bat-like wings over her clutch of eggs. Harry nervously looked at her fangs. Horns protruded from the dragon’s head, and the ridges of her heavily armoured body bristled with long sharp spikes, from the end of her snout to the tip of her tail.
Harry stood rooted to his spot and cleared his mind. Slowly, without making any sudden movements, Harry slipped off his cloak. Then, just as cautiously, he removed his blazer and his shirt while the audience collectively drew a gasp of shock. They couldn’t fathom why anyone would remove their clothing in this freezing weather.
Goosebumps rose on Harry’s bare, rune-covered torso. He stretched out his tattooed arms, open handed, so that the dragon could see that he was unarmed. And carefully, continuing to move as slowly as possible, Harry bowed to show his respect.
The dragon blinked twice, visibly relaxing. She bowed her own horned head towards Harry, and lifted a wing invitingly. Only the sound of Harry’s footsteps crunching on the frosty gravel could be heard as he steadily walked towards her. He cautiously raised his hand and pointed at the golden egg in her nest.
The dragon looked where Harry was pointing, then turned her amber slitted gaze back to Harry. She nodded, wisps of steam emerging from her flaring nostrils. With her snout she carefully nudged the foreign object out of her nest, away from her own eggs. The golden egg tumbled with an echoing clatter over the boulders and rolled to a stop at Harry’s feet. Harry bowed again in gratitude, and picked up the egg, allowing a smile to creep to his face as he gathered his clothes and exited the arena.
The entire audience was stunned, not sure what had just happened. It didn’t make any sense. Where were the flames and violence? Where was the running and the screaming?
They had expected action and a bloodbath - certainly not this.
Harry walked past the stony-faced dragon keepers and approached the tent. Only a red-headed dragon keeper who looked a bit like a younger Arthur Weasley showed any emotion. Charlie flashed a thumbs up and whispered, “Good Show Harry,” as Harry strode by grinning.
“Thanks Charlie,” said Harry. Charlie pointed him towards the first-aid tent where the other Champions were being taken care of.
Harry began to turn blue and shivered violently as he entered the first-aid tent. He cursed himself for stupidly not remembering to add the rune to ward off the cold. His fingers were too stiff, and he fumbled his clothing, his golden egg tumbling to the floor. Madam Pomfrey rushed over to examine him and threw a blanket over Harry.
“Sit Mr Potter. Stay still, you’re going into hypothermic shock.” Madam Pomfrey rushed back to the table and shot a dark look at Professor McGonagall. “Last year Dementors, now Dragons, what else are they going to throw at the boy Minerva?”
Professor McGonagall had no answer. Madam Pomfrey darted back to Harry’s side with a steaming potion, and pushed back Harry’s forehead. Gingerly, Poppy drizzled the potion into Harry's mouth and it flowed through his chattering teeth. Gradually, a glow of warmth emanated from his stomach, spreading through his body. After a few minutes, his shivering stopped altogether and he felt much better.
“That should do it Mr Potter. You’ll be right as rain in a few more minutes,” said Madam Pomfrey with profound relief.
After he put on his clothes and strapped his wand-holster back around his waist, Harry made his way up to the stadium to find Hermione. A loud cheer rose from the crowd when they saw him arriving. He barely got to the stands when Hermione pounced on him, squealing jubilantly. Harry grinned at her, glad to be alive. Suddenly not caring what anyone else thought, Harry kissed Hermione steamily in front of everyone.
“That was brilliant Harry!” Hermione shouted to be heard over the crowd, blushing furiously when their lips parted. “You were amazing! You were in and out in under three minutes. The next fastest was Viktor, but he was over ten minutes. Not to mention that his dragon went berserk and crushed some of her eggs - he lost a lot of points for that.”
They both turned around to watch the judges give their scores. Bagman and Crouch sat with the Headmasters. Ludo Bagman glared at Harry, who had just lost him a lot of money. Bagman really didn’t have any choice but to give Harry a top mark. It would look extremely odd and raise a lot of questions about the integrity of the process for one of the event organisers to give someone who had just completed the First Task to perfection less than a perfect score.
All of the judges appeared to feel the same way, except for Karkaroff. One by one, each judge gave him a 10, except for the silver-haired Durmstrang Headmaster who gave Harry a 7.
Harry looked around for the rest of his friends with a big grin on his face, but the only person he spotted emerging from the stands and walking over to him had freckles and red hair - otherwise looking nothing like Ginny or the Twins.
Ron gave Harry a tentative apologetic grin. Harry’s features turned as Frosty as the Hogwarts grounds.
“I... I’m really sorry Harry! I mean it!” Ron said with as much sincerity as he could muster. “You’d have to be absolutely barking to enter yourself...”
Harry’s stomach clenched; his nostrils flared. He stared speechlessly, looking for something in Ron’s demeanor which he couldn’t find, and Ron’s ears began to turn pink.
Harry couldn’t believe it - that after everything he’d been through and put up with, Ron would choose this moment to make a half-arsed apology! Ron could have chosen any moment to believe Harry and apologise - a moment when Harry had really needed his support - when he had been down and nearly everyone else hated him.
But now that Harry was the Boy-Who-Lived again - now was the moment Ron chose to try and be friends again?
All the anger that Harry had held in began to bubble up - the ball of fury that Harry hadn’t quite been able to put words to when Ron had finally blown his stack completely and accused Harry of being a pampered prince and a liar - it all flooded through Harry’s brain and suddenly it was clear, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say.
“Really? You’ve got to be joking Ron!” Harry said quietly,
“You’re an arse Ron! A Bloody Selfish Arse! You think I actually like being bloody famous because I survived when Voldemort killed my parents, and because I avoided becoming Dragon Food?” Harry’s voice began to rise, and people nearby turned to stare.
“You grew up with everything I never had Ron! Family! Friends! Three squares a day! Parents who love you! So what if you had some homemade sandwiches and second-hand clothes? At least your Mum made sure that your clothes bloody fit you! But you’ve always been jealous of ME haven’t you? Go on! Admit it!” Harry shouted.
Ron hung his head in shame. He knew Harry was right, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. Harry kept going.
“And look at how you always treat Hermione... That’s the REAL pisser Ron! I managed to put up with you being jealous of me - until you called me a liar - because I sort of get it, but I’m not going to put up with you being jealous of Hermione anymore....
“She’s just a Bossy Know-It-All to you, and the only time you ever really acted like you liked her was when she helped you with your bloody homework. You always treat Hermione like rubbish! Well I’m over it! She’s my girlfriend, and I’M NOT HAVING IT!” Harry thundered.
Tears began to run down Hermione’s face when she saw how worked up Harry was getting. She put her hand on his arm.
“Please Harry. It’s alright...”
“No... it’s not! It’s not alright Hermione. I’m not going to let this bloody selfish git treat you like rubbish ever again!” Harry could see that he was upsetting Hermione though, so he turned back to Ron, and tried to bring his temper under control.
“It’s not all about you Ron. You need to fucking grow up and get over yourself!” said Harry in a more even tone. “Maybe someday we can be friends again Ron, but not today.... Not like this...” Harry's voice crumbled, and he swallowed, remembering the good bits of their friendship, a tear trickling down one cheek.
“Maybe someday...” Harry said quietly. “I don’t know why I still care about you Ron, but I do...”
Harry turned away from Ron and gently took his girlfriend’s arm. “Come on Hermione, let’s go. I don’t feel in the mood to celebrate, or being around anyone else right now.”
Hermione gave Ron an angry glare, then turned her back on him too as she marched back to the castle with Harry.
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