It was only the next day that Harry sheepishly apologized to Parvati for being a horrible date, saying he'd been nervous and overwhelmed and frightened to dance. Parvati, if she didn't accept the apology, certainly was looking at him in a less unfriendly manner by the end than she had at the beginning.
Once that was over, Harry looked meaningfully at Ron, and it was only an hour later that Ron worked up the gumption to apologize to Hermione for 'overreacting.' Hermione looked as if she wanted to say something about that, but accepted the apology instead, and Harry figured things were near enough to back to normal, the strange formality that had been between them at breakfast falling away.
They were sitting at their usual spot in the Common Room, the boys contemplating whether they needed to start on the homework they'd been neglecting all break or if Boxing Day were a holiday too when Hermione spoke up.
"So," she said. "How's the egg coming?"
"It's coming along fine," Harry answered. Though in fact, it wasn't. Guilt twisted through his gut at the lie, and he couldn't think why exactly he was telling it. And Harry had oh so recently given himself a lesson on the value of being straight with his friends, even when it was uncomfortable.
"Actually, said Harry, "it's not coming along at all. I open it and it screams at me. Not any different than the moment I got it." The more he thought of it, the more his good mood declined, but at least the guilt wriggled away.
"There must be something you're missing," said Hermione. "Have you looked it over properly?"
"Right," said Ron. "Something he's missing. Looking at it. I'm sure Harry hadn't thought of that himself."
Hermione bit her lip. Harry knew she was dying to ask to examine it herself.
But it was his egg. He was the champion. There was a line between his friends helping him prepare, and his friends helping him pass the challenge. And the egg, in Harry's view, was part of the challenge. He'd made that clear enough to them, and it was the sort of reasoning Hermione couldn't help agreeing with.
"You don't have any clues?" Hermione said.
"Other than to bring earmuffs to the next task? No."
"Nothing at all?" She leaned closer.
"No, just, Cedric." The moment the words got out his mouth, Harry wished they hadn't, because he knew precisely where they'd lead.
"Cedric?" she said, sharply. "Did you see him doing something?"
"Er," said Harry. "He told me something. But I think he was just joshing me." Trying to embarrass him, rather. "Just playing a joke on me."
Hermione said, "What did he tell you?"
Hermione crossed her arms. "This could be important, Harry."
Ron said, "If Harry thinks Cedric was trying to-"
"Shush," she said Hermione. "Harry, let's-"
"Don't you shush me."
"Would you two let each other speak?"
They both stared at him, surprised. But they didn't protest, really, and Ron motioned for Hermione to go first.
Hermione said, "Whether or not Harry thinks Cedric was playing a nasty joke on him, if there aren't any other leads, I'd like to at least know what it was. I don't think that's too much interfering on my part, do you, for you to tell us what Cedric told you?"
That was exactly what Harry knew to be good sense, and he hated to hear it. He motioned for Ron to go.
Ron addressed his remarks to Hermione. "You need to lay off," he said, simply.
Affronted, Hermione said, "Where exactly do you think Harry would be if I had lain off?"
Lying in the ground somewhere, Harry figured, burned to a crisp by that dragon.
Ron said, "And why would Cedric help Harry? They're enemies."
"This again, Ronald Weasley. They're not enemies, they're competitors."
"Er," said Harry. "I told him about the dragons. He said he was paying me back. He said I should take a bath with the egg."
"He did?" said Hermione eagerly. "Oh, it might be the echoes. You know how echoey loos can be. And I guess we'd better put the water on."
"He suggested the Prefect's Bathroom," said Harry. "He even told me the password. But he didn't seem to think that was the only way. He just said, 'a bath,' at the start."
"Right," said Hermone. "Let's go to the boy's baths and try it out."
Ron complained a tad about the reading and said they ought to pace themselves, and Hermione told Ron the tournament was horribly dangerous and he ought to take it seriously, and they got loud enough on one occasion to attract Madam Pince's ire, but once it had a few days to get going, the research engine of Hermione, Harry and Ron ran as efficiently as ever.
By January 21st, with nearly four weeks of frantic research in the tank, several days of it over Christmas break with no classes, Harry had a fleshed out plan for whatever it was he'd have to do in Black Lake. The Bubblehead Charm to breathe by, the Clinging Water Charm to stay warm by. And the transfiguration of a few pebbles along the shore of Black Lake into diving fins so he could swim fast. Another spell to turn two pebbles into a headband with a clear stone at the end, and a Lighting Charm to cast on the headband. Plus spells known to work well for Defence underwater, with particular focus on the Grindylows, and a version of the Ascension Charm that worked better underwater.
Now, if he could just learn all the magic.
The Transfigurations he could manage. He'd done harder ones in class last year. Lighting Charms were easy, even if casting it on an object was a bit harder than the Wand Lighting Charm. A pair of defence spells reputed to be of special use underwater were the work of an afternoon. The Ascension Charm was no big issue.
The Clinging Water Charm and the Bubblehead Charm were more difficult.
"You have a month," Hermione said encouragingly. "It's not a lot of time, all things considered; it will pass very quickly. But it's enough time for you to learn two spells, so long as you buckled down and focus."
Harry took a deep breath and cast the Bubblehead Charm.
The bubble formed around his head, just as it was supposed to. He touched it lightly with his pinkie, and it popped, hardly tougher than a soap bubble.
The Bubblehead Charm was upper-year material, but performing it at a low level wasn't all that hard. Performing it well enough that he'd trust it at the bottom of Black Lake, with all that dark water squeezing down on it, that was a different story. It was easy to imagine it popping suddenly under the pressure, Harry accidentally breathing in water before he'd realized what had happened. Lungs full of water, he wouldn't be able to cast the Ascension Charm, and he'd drown, his body floating slowly up to bob facedown on the surface of Black Lake.
"Another try," said Hermione.
Harry put his wand down, leaning back in the chair.
"This isn't getting anywhere. I'm not any better at it than two days ago." When they'd first found the spell.
"Nothing to do but practice, then."
Ron said, "He's got a month. I'm sure he'll be able to do it once he's in the water."
Hermione said, "Ron, that's brilliant."
"Harry, do you still remember the password to the prefects bathroom?"
"Pine Fresh," said Harry, seeing where she was going.
Hermione said, "According to Hogwarts, A History, the prefects baths are enormous. Practically a heated swimming pool. We could practice much more realistically there."
"But we're not prefects." And Cedric had told Harry the password, and he really didn't want to take any more help from Cedric than he had to. Partially because Cedric was also in the tournament, and partially because even though he knew it was stupid, he was still upset at Cedric for going out with Cho Chang.
Ron said, "We could go at night."
Caring as little for the rules as she usually did when they got in her way, Hermione said, "Yes, I think so. Perhaps go there just before curfew and sneak back."
Seeing no good reason to object, Harry sighed and assented.
They snuck out to the Prefects' baths that night just before curfew, Ron keeping a wary eye on the map, Harry's invisibility cloak ready to be pulled out at a moment's notice. They dodged the few other people in the corridors, and found the baths empty.
"Blimey," said Ron, entering the baths, and Harry agreed. It would be worth it becoming a prefect just to use those baths. It was softly lit by a splendid candle-filled chandelier and everything was made of white marble, including what looked like an empty, rectangular swimming pool sunk into the floor. There was also a diving board.
Hermione used the Locking Charm on the door and they advanced.
After the pool was, in very short time considering its size, full of warm water and a good few bubbles, Harry shed his robes, revealing he was in an old holey shirt of Dudley's, and baggy shorts held on with a belt.
"Is that all you have to swim in?" said Hermione.
Harry said, "Just about. Figured I'd wear my robes, during the task."
Hermione frowned. "We should get you a proper swimming suit, then. It'll reduce drag and help you go faster. A swimming cap on your head will help too."
Wondering how he'd even get such a thing, Harry stepped in the pool. Hermione shed her own robes and got in as well, wearing a modest one-piece swimming suit. Harry wondered why she'd even thought to bring such a thing to Hogwarts, but being Hermione, the answer was probably, 'just in case.'
Leaving Ron to keep watch on the map, Harry ducked underwater and tried the Wand Lighting Charm.
Casting magic underwater felt a little different than normal, but not badly so, and the Charm was hardly more difficult than it usually was. He surfaced, cast the Bubblehead Charm on himself, and ducked under again.
The bubble of air collapsed in on itself after only a few seconds, but he felt it collapse, and got his mouth closed before the water rushed in.
Harry tried again and again, feeling that he really was making good progress at the Charm with something to push against. Hermione was casting it too, and having more luck with it, as per usual with anything wasn't Defence.
They'd been at it little more than 10 minutes when Ron said, "Oh no."
Moments later, the ghost of a very glum girl floated through the wall and settled cross-legged on one of the taps. It was Moaning Myrtle, who was usually to be found sobbing in the S-bend of a toilet three floors below.
"Myrtle!" said Harry. "Could you not, could you just keep this between us, could you?"
She blinked at him through her thick spectacles. "You haven't been to see me in ages. And now you're here with that girl."
"Hello Myrtle," said Hermione, clearly displeased at being referred to as 'that girl.'
"It's a girls' loo," explained Harry.
"You didn't used to care," said Myrtle. "You used to come in there all the time."
"I got told off for going in there. I thought I'd better not go back."
Hermione gasped in realization. "What are you doing in here? Have you been spying on the prefects taking baths?"
"Sometimes," said Myrtle, rather slyly. "But I've never come out to speak to anyone before."
"Myrtle Warren!" Began Hermione. "Spying on bathers is not a joke. It's a very serious-"
"We're honored you're speaking to us," interrupted Harry, shaking his head furiously at Hermione. They hardly needed her to get upset and tell someone they were here, or even just make a ruckus.
"Why are you here in the first place?" asked Myrtle. "And in bathing suits.
"We're practicing swimming," said Hermione.
Myrtle said, "Maybe the other boy wants to get in the water too?" She looked pointedly at Ron, who managed both to look deeply uncomfortable and to blush prettily.
"I didn't bring a suit," mumbled Ron.
"That's no problem," said Myrtle.
Ron managed to look even more uncomfortable and to blush even more deeply.
Harry resumed practice, Ron chatting irritably with Myrtle, and they'd been at it a good long while when Ron shouted "Oi!"
"What is it?" said Hermione, wiping suds from her eyes.
Ron said, "It's just that on the map, I see Mr. Crouch in Professor Snape's office."
Exchanging only an urgent glance, Harry and Hermione quickly got out of the bath, drying themselves thoroughly before approaching the map.
Just as Ron had said, the dot labeled Barty Crouch was inside Snape's office.
The watched as the dot of Snape approached the office, and the dot of Barty Crouch exited, yet remained nearby.
Myrtle!" said Harry, not caring if she found out about the map. "I need you to go to Professor Snape's office. Right away, please."
"Why should I?" asked Myrtle.
"We'll do you a favor. I don't know what, we'll talk about it later. Just go, please, now!"
"It'd better be a good favor," said Myrtle, and she disappeared through the wall.
The dot of Snape went back into his office, then back out. He and Crouch came closer together, hardly a hair between them, and Harry supposed they must be talking. Myrtle showed up in the corridor as well, and nearly as quick was gone. The dots of Crouch and Snape parted, Snape going back into his office, Crouch walking the corridors.
They waited a tense minute, tracking the dot of Crouch through the corridors before Myrtle came twirling back into the room.
"You saw Crouch talking with Snape?" Harry said eagerly, ignoring Hermione's reflexive correction to 'Professor Snape.'
"Oh," said Myrtle with relish. "I did. He looked horrid, and he made me leave immediately. He was talking with Snape by Snape's office."
"How did he look?" said Harry, curious. Perhaps Mr. Crouch really was very sick, and he'd gone to Professor Snape to get a potion.
"All scarred up, with a peg leg and that horrible blue eye. He saw me right away and made me leave. Warned me off ever coming into his office."
Harry stared. "Myrtle, you're describing Professor Moody, not Mr. Crouch."
"Oh, is he a new Professor?" She giggled. "Another Defence Professor. I don't usually learn their names unless they die at the end of the year. Though that Professor Lockhart was dreamy."
Ron said, "Hear that, Hermione, you and Myrtle could bond over Lockhart."
Hermione looked sick and deeply disturbed, but not at that. She hissed, "Harry, the map didn't show Professor Moody anywhere near Professor Snape."
"I know that," Harry said. He traced a finger over the map. Mr. Crouch was still stalking the corridors, and the dot of 'Alastor Moody,' which he'd never seen in the corridors, come to think, was in his office.
Harry wondered what that meant.
If anyone wants to continue this, you're welcome to. Just send me a message. I, however, will leave it here.
Had a problem with uploading earlier. Both chapters showed up in this chapter. Should be fixed now.