After the confusion finally became order, after the screams became stern words of command, Crouch Sr. walked through the woods and found Winky, her frail bones piercing skin, and knew what hold he had had over his son was now gone.
He doubted the boy had taken any part in the terror that night around the large Quidditch pitch; but his son was a Slytherin, and as such knew how to use any situation to their own advantage.
Crouch fell to his knees beside the loyal elf, and though she lay cold and still, rested a hand upon her face and wept.
Harry read about the World Cup in the Daily Prophet. He took the news with a judicious grain of salt; Death Eaters were not a menace without a Dark Lord, and a Dark Lord would have been there had he existed.
Of course, there was always the chance that the Dark Lord was biding his time. Harry accepted this possibility, and wrote the first letter to his shadows that he had ever sent that consisted of more than a single paragraph.
It contained lists of books to be purchased and studied that could not be obtained at Hogwarts.
Sometimes, it was best to make good choices in advance, so that the best choice could be accessible in the future.
He found it too much of a coincidence that some ancient tournament would be exhumed the very month after a supposed Death Eater attack.
He was prepared to suspect the students of the other schools; he was prepared to defend himself. He prepared his shadows for the possibility, and they all were on guard.
He was not, however, prepared to be entered into the tournament himself.
He felt the push to stand; he did not look at the Headmaster. He considered his choices as the silence rang around him, as the whispers grew, as the accusations began.
And he decided to take the moment, knowing in this he was beaten, out maneuvered, hemmed in. His enemies had revealed their hand, and shown the battleground. It was an advantage, if a small one.
Harry stood, graceful and silent, and walked to the front of the room, his gaze fixed straight ahead, his mouth set in neutral lines.
He disregarded the other Champions; ignored their questions. When the Headmasters and Headmistress began to argue, when the professors began to hurl their own threats, Harry only leaned against the wall and observed.
Someone had put his name in the Goblet. Someone who wished him incapacitated, if not dead.
And the Headmaster had pushed him.
So he had two enemies then, two forces who fought over his bones and sought to make him dance to their tune.
Harry did not like the feeling. He was no ones pawn.
Harry had no doubt he would be forced to compete. There was no other reason to force the Goblet to take him.
The means was simply that; the loopholes that had been exploited. Harry did not fight a losing battle.
Instead, he retreated when he was dismissed, met with his shadows, and made plans for war.
The first task was elegant in its simplicity. What better way to publicly execute a celebrity than by dragonfire?
Harry showed no surprise that he happened to take the most dangerous beast. He only stepped back and watched the other Champions primp and fidget and glare. He listened to the roar of the crowds as each stepped out of the tent to take their test.
Hermione ambushed him then, when he was alone, pulling him in for a hug that was uncomfortable in its very comfort.
Harry stood stiffly for several long moments, before he made the choice to relax. It was a good one, as Hermione immediately pulled away, a worried frown on her face.
She chattered about spells. She chattered about strategy. And when they called Harry’s name, she hugged him again before bounding out, a glimmer of light on her cheeks where moisture had fallen.
He wanted to pause and consider that; the fact that he had received the only two hugs he could remember, and that his shadow had cried for him.
Hermione. Why had she chosen to cry? What did that gain her? Her tears changed nothing. They could not influence Harry, or fate, or the tournament.
With a frown, Harry stepped from the tent, ignoring the crowds, and met the dragon’s gaze.
He allowed himself to believe it was this dragon that caused her tears. He chose to blame the giant reptile for her distress. Then he looked into the mother’s eyes, saw the fury there for her eggs, for the threat Harry and the crowd represented.
The fervent hate, the caged helplessness, the cornered beast.
He had a choice, still. Both good and bad, both right and wrong. He could kill this dragon; he could slaughter her over her unborn children, could pull the golden egg from her bloodied talons. He had planned to do just that; it would be a statement, a sign of intent.
He was reminded at once of his own mother, only a fragment of time, a scream and a green light. She had not been an animal, and yet she shared her motherhood in common with this dragon. Both would fight until death.
Harry stood there, silent, as the crowds hushed, and the expectation built, as precious time passed.
The dragon settled down, her belly low, her yellow eyes piercing him.
He did not want to kill her. It wasn’t that such slaughter was wrong or right; the case could be made both ways. Perhaps she was due for slaughter anyways, for hide or blood or heart; perhaps sparing her would only delay the agony of any livestock to the butcher.
But he found himself reluctant to bloody his own hands, to cast the magic with his own wand.
Harry looked down at the pile of eggs, put his wand to his throat, and wandlessly cast the Sonorous spell.
Then he raised his voice and spoke one word.
It was a technicality only. No champion before had backed out of a task; it was a grave dishonor, and a solid loss.
Harry thought it made its own statement. Harry would only play their game when it suited him.
Killing the dragon had not, neither had the effort to steal a single golden egg.
Dumbledore saw fit to berate him on his cowardice, and punish him by withholding the egg, which was also the next clue.
Theo said nothing. Hermione sniffed. Neither of his shadows met his eyes.
Harry found himself speaking, a fact that surprised him even as he spoke.
“It was my choice. It was a good one.”
He did not wait for an answer, but turned and walked away.
There was to be a ball.
“It’s tradition for the Champions to lead the first dance.” Hermione declared as she sat across from them in the library.
Nearby, giggles followed the Durmstrang champion as he walked through the stacks.
“I do not know how to dance.”
Theo snorted out a laugh, then began fervently reading when he noticed Harry’s scowl.
Hermione perked up.
“Mcgonagall is offering lessons!”
Harry did not dignify that with an answer.
He had to dance, which meant he had to have someone to dance with. There was only ever one choice he considered.
“Will you be my partner?”
Harry asked her, as the bushy-haired Gryffindor crouched down to pull a large tome off the shelf. Brown met green, paused.
Then Hermione smiled.
“Of course I will, Harry.”
Hermione was not simply pretty. Harry couldn’t decide what one thing made her appear so different.
Perhaps it was her dress, a smooth thing of sparkling pink that clung to a body he had not realized was no longer a young girl’s, but a young woman’s. Or perhaps it was her hair, smoothed down and long against her shoulders. Or her teeth, magically altered to be straight and perfect.
He rather thought it was her eyes, liquid brown, the color of almonds and chocolate. Why they made him hungry he could not say.
Theo stirred at his side, his breath catching. The boys own date, another Slytherin girl Harry knew only as Greengrass, had not yet appeared.
Harry turned and met Theo’s eyes, saw the intent there, and tried to find the right words, struggle to explain something he himself did not yet understand.
Theo spoke first, and it was enough.
“You’re lucky, Harry.”
Harry danced with her for more than the opening dance. A secret weekend visit with his recently freed godfather had given him the skills to adequately hold his own in the simple wizard dances.
Harry did not want to dance, but Hermione did, and would whether Harry wanted to or not. He saw the boys who looked at her with new eyes, saw even Viktor Krum pause as she passed, and knew she would have no lack of dance partners.
So he made the good choice, and danced until both their feet ached, and it was Hermione who led him to a seat with a grateful sigh.
When he walked her back to her dorm, he took her hand without a word.
She only smiled at him when he spoke two words in parting.
He found suddenly that saying farewell was not so wasteful afterall.
For the second task, they took her from him.
Theo met him at the lake shore, his eyes dark and grave. Harry did not have to speak. Fire burned in his blood, anger that she had become involved, anger that they had found a way to force his hand.
He would not forfeit, with his shadow in the water.
With relish his spells sliced the Grindylows to ribbons when they sought to delay him. He left the blood in inky trails behind him, its meat to be eaten by the Giant Squid.
Hermione had been the one to find the book on underwater spells, when she had overheard Hagrid speaking of the next challenge.
The thought of that only made his rage build higher, and his lust for revenge grow.
He propelled himself through the water on heated blasts of magic, forcibly moving forward and down, until he found the merpeoples city.
If any had held one finned hand in resistance, he would have slaughtered them all.
But it seemed they recognized his intent, or perhaps only smelled the blood in the water.
They moved apart before him, sharp teeth grinned, slitted nostrils flaring.
Harry cut Hermiones bonds, and did not spare a single thought to the three bound beside her. They were not his concern.
When Dumbledore magnanimously announced that the hostage who had not been retrieved, the sister of the Beauxbatons champion, would be returned unharmed Harry did not allow any emotion to show.
It had all been part of the game, part of the thrill, to claim they would be lost forever. Of course Hogwarts would not condone such a thing. The Headmaster would not have allowed it. The hostages were safe the entire time.
Harry wondered if that would still have been true had he not jumped into the water. Theo placed a blanket around Hermione’s shoulder as they watched the judges rank the champions.
He found himself even with Beauxbatons, as she had failed this task and Harry had forfeited the first. He did not look towards her tear-stained face as the french girl still wept over her shivering sister.
Instead, he looked straight ahead and made his plans.
He had suspected the third task would be the last time for his enemies to strike easily. He merely wandered which one would strike first.
Hermione and Theo were safe among the throngs of Hogwarts students, lost in a crowd of cheers.
The maze stretched ahead of him. Krum and Diggory had already vanished within, leaving himself and Delacour to wait as the time passed.
They only had to get the cup, and the tournament would be over.
The Champions entered side by side, the french girl quiet.
Delacour was struck first, from behind as they turned a corner, taken out by the Durmstrang Champion whose face was perfectly blank. Harry did not have to see his eyes to know the boy was under a spell.
With that knowledge, he made the choice to only incapacitate, and not permanently disfigure, the man whose eyes had lingered far too often upon Hermione.
He continued on alone, sending up a lone flare to signal help to the two fallen champions.
A riddle and a sphinx later he stood in the center of the maze, and watched Diggory struggle with his choices.
Harry only watched the Hufflepuff, watched as Diggory eyed the cup and then himself in the dark gloom of night.
Harry spoke, and the sound caused the boy to jump.
“Take it. I do not want it.”
Diggory frowned and hesitated. Harry stepped towards the dais the cup rested on. The Hufflepuff sprang into action, as if the threat of a fight was enough to ease his conscience.
Harry watched the two disappeared, and turned around to leave the maze.
After the shock of the dead body, after the reporters clamor and the crowds dumbfounded shouts, Harry found himself pulled away by Alastor Moody, that years defense professor.
His heart raced. His choices loomed. Harry let fate make them for him, a choice in itself, as he allowed himself to be dragged along, the old man mumbling about enemies and risk and safety.
It was no surprise when the man locked the door behind them, fixing a twisted stare onto Harry, his thick lip curled in distaste.
His tongue flicked, quick like a serpent, and the man giggled as he held his wand towards Harry. And Moody changed, his body bulging and then shrinking upon itself, the ugly old man fading away to a ugly young one, though this one’s ugliness stemmed more from his expression than his appearance.
Harry remained silent, and let the man talk. Let him confess his devious plans, his resurrected Lord, let himself be shown the vivid Dark Mark upon his arm.
Harry listened as Barty Crouch Jr. reverently described the sacrifice of his own mother for himself in a sick parody of Harry’s own past.
He tucked away a thought, that perhaps all mothers had an ingrained instinct to protect their children, that it was a choice made at birth, written in their DNA, unable to be fought or denied. Perhaps Harry’s mother had not had a choice when it came down to herself or her child. Maybe Lily Potter was a slave to the life of her child.
Crouch giggled again, his wand waving, and Harry struck.
The Death Eater had only thought to take his wand, but Harry had always carried another weapon on him since that day long ago, when Dudley pushed him to the ground, though its form was far more elegant now.
No longer a kitchen knife, but an elegant blade, a present from Theo his first Christmas at Hogwarts, the first gift he had received in his memory. A dagger fit for a pureblood heir, for a dignified wizard, for a discerning man.
Harry watched the surprise on Crouch’s face as he pressed close, their chests touching, Harry's fist around the hilt touching the man's skin above his heart. He looked up into eyes still sparkling with giddy mirth, their depths beginning to dull, a slow drip of life spilling forth.
His first murder, within a professor's office in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry leaned against the man, and the wizard fell back, sliding off the dagger with a wet sucking sound, falling to the floor in a tangled lump of robes and blood.
He watched it for a moment, that steady red stream pumping forth, matching the color on his fingers, his palm, his wrist, painting his forearm in splashes of color, sprinkling his black robes with darker depths. On the Slytherin patch on his chest, a dot of red pierced the snakes green scales.
It had been his best choice. Harry decided he felt no regret, only a small portion of sick fascination, that a man held so much red inside.
When the Headmaster broke down the locked door, Harry was looking out the window, eyes on the distant horizon, making hard choices and easy ones.
Two wizards and one witch stared at the body as it lay sprawled upon the floor before them, a man already dead now dead again, a mystery, a puzzle.
A moment of shocked silence, incomprehensible denial.
A human’s face can react in mysterious ways to a surprise. It can pale; the blood leaving the cheeks and fleeing for safer places. Or it can flush as the person sucks in their breath and holds it, the heart hammering, adrenaline rushing to respond to danger.
Severus Snape was a pale man, but his face was the only one to gain color. The man braced, wand lifted, ready to face the wizard who killed a death eater, ready to bind or stun or kill, as the scenario required.
Snape was a Slytherin who believed that action worked far better than reaction.
But he reacted when he saw Lily’s boy turn, the dark stains upon his dark robes, unharmed and whole.
Green eyes, Lily’s eyes, so cold and unaffected, a wand in one hand and a bloody dagger in the other.
Dumbledore felt his old heart seize; felt his limbs tremble. He had seen himself as the rescuer; had hoped to forge a bond this night, to rescue the boy, to show him there was one wizard who thought him worth saving.
But he paled to see that even in this, the boy who could save the world needed no savior.
He cursed the missed opportunity, cursed the boy for his brutal method of self-defense, cursed himself for letting the situation progress so far in his fool’s hope.
Dumbledore set his mouth in firm, disapproving lines, and prepared to repair the damage.
McGonagall wanted to confiscate the dagger.
It was her only thought, as she watched the Headmaster scold the boy, as she watched Severus dispose of the Death Eater’s body to a place the Ministry could handle it in.
There was something about the knife, not just the blood upon the blade but the chunks there as well, pieces of a humans flesh, being held so casually in a child’s fingers.
A child. He was just a child. A Slytherin, yes, and a odd one at that. But still a child.
Of course she had heard rumors about the Potter boy, and knew the other children respected him with a feeling that bordered on fear or even worship. But this… why had the boy responded in such a ruthless manner? Hadn’t there been some other way? Hadn’t he known that help was coming, that his absence had been noted almost immediately?
Where had the dagger come from?
It must have been the Death Eaters. It was the only reasonable explanation. Crouch must have threatened him with it; perhaps they struggled, and the man fell upon it.
Of course Potter would retrieve it; he was probably scared, the poor dear. He must be in shock.
Minerva met those green eyes, and felt a shiver run down her back. The step she had begun to take towards him faltered, and she found herself turning away instead, heading towards the door.
She would need to inform the Ministry, of course, of what must have happened. Needed to find the real Alastor Moody, if he still lived. She had pressing matters to attend to; Dumbledore would care for the boy now that the immediate danger was past.
She thought of those eyes again as she left, how blank they had been, calculating and emotionless. How specs of blood dotted his collar and robes in a pattern that could only be caused by close contact with a bleeding man soon to be a corpse.
Minerva shivered, her face still ghostly pale, and her steps gathered speed.
Harry let the Ministry take the dagger. He chose not to disagree when he was told the blade belonged to Crouch; He only regretted losing his first Christmas present.
Perhaps his shadow would get him another.
Hermione embraced him when he finished his part of the story of that night; she muttered the details of the message carved into Diggory’s naked back, for she had been nearly beside the boy when he reappeared where she sat in the stands. Her breath was hot on his neck as she spoke, her arms holding him tight.
“THE DARK LORD HAS RISEN.”
Harry could care less about Diggory; taking the cup had been a bad choice. But he found he cared that Hermione was speaking to him of the Hufflepuff, cared because she bothered to give him the knowledge in a shaking voice, because she found it important to tell him what he already knew.
Diggory was dead, and it could have been Harry, if he hadn't made the better choice.
Over Hermione’s back, Harry met Theo’s eyes. The Slytherin smiled softly, and outlined upon the air in front of him the shape of a crude dagger.
Harry tipped his chin, once, a motion easily disguised as one that brought his lips in contact with the skin beneath Hermione’s ear. She shivered in his arms.
Theo’s smile faded, and he returned the nod with dark eyes. They understood one another, his shadow and he.
The dagger would be replaced.
Harry met Hermione's parents that summer. Her mother talked endlessly; in her father Harry found a kindred silent spirit. Together the men sat as the chatter flowed over and around them, like rocks in a stream, boulders on the ocean shore.
Whenever there was a pause, Harry learned from Mr. Granger that an appropriate non-commentative noise was enough to resume the chatter. He was relieved to find an alternative to words.
Harry did not return to Nott manor again. The Dark Lord was back; and Theo’s father had been among those welcoming him.
Theo had told him as much, by owl, before Harry thought to enquire. The Slytherin did not say words of loyalty or trust; Harry did not write back.
With the short parchment had been a small parcel, and within its confines a simple steel blade with no adornment save a single stylized sun, whose swirls may or may not have contained the initials H.J.G, depending on how the light ran across the hilt.
They understood each other. Shadows do not betray their masters to darkness, only to light.