- Ginny Weasley/Harry Potter
- Harry Potter
- The Harry Potter at Hogwarts Years
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 04/17/2002Updated: 01/04/2004Words: 584,432Chapters: 31Hits: 808,247
Harry Potter and the Triangle Prophecy
- Story Summary:
- Harry's 7th and final year of school. In a time of uncertainty, the Muggle world has found a source of comfort and stability. Only Harry suspects that it isn't safe. Wizards are more concerned about themselves than Muggles since Voldemort's return, but are only Muggles at risk? Will anyone listen to Harry? He must decide whether to make a sacrifice that will change him--and the wizarding world-- forever.
- Read Story On:
Chapter 19 - Innovations
- Chapter Summary:
- Harry's seventh and final year of school. In this chapter, Harry spends much of Boxing Day with Draco and a healthy dose of guilt and the European Cup final arrives at last, between Romania and France. It turns out that Charlie is a friend both of the Romanian Seeker and one of the team mascots--but it's not what you think. Harry also learns the secret of Weasley Wizard Wheezes and goes to Sweden for the annual broom race, in which Ron and Charlie are participating. The third part of the
- Author's Note:
- The quote at the beginning of the chapter is from page 126 of
The forces that encouraged innovation in furniture design were absent in
house construction. The eighteenth-century home incorporated no major innovations
in domestic technology. It has been suggested that as long as large numbers of
servants were available to light the candles, tend to the fireplaces, heat up and
carry water, and empty the chamber pots, there was not much incentive to
improve lighting, heating, water supply, and sanitation.
--Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea
Boxing Day dawned bright and clear. However, in his opinion, Harry shouldn't have known how Boxing Day dawned because he bloody well shouldn't have been awake at dawn.
Unfortunately, he was quite aware of how the day dawned because Hermione came tearing into his room wearing her dressing gown and nightshirt, shaking him and Ron awake and screeching hysterically. "Oh, god! I knew there was a reason why we shouldn't have come a day early! I just knew it, but I forgot yesterday because of the row with your mum!" she was ranting at Ron.
Ron and Harry sat up groggily and rubbed their eyes. Ron smacked his lips sleepily and Harry winced when he inhaled a bit of Ron's morning breath. "All right, Hermione, why shouldn't we have come a day early?" Ron ground out sleepily.
"It's Boxing Day!" she cried shrilly, making Harry cover his ears in pain.
"So?" he and Ron said in unison.
"Oooooh!" both boys responded, understanding now. When they had been planning to stay Christmas night at Hog's End, they were also planning to go back to the castle for Boxing Day. This year would mark the third time the new-old tradition had been observed. Hermione was usually the one running things, as it had originally been her idea.
"What do you mean Oooooh?" she cried indignantly, her hands on her hips. "I'm on an island in the Firth of Clyde, miles and miles from the Grampian Highlands and Hogwarts castle. Boxing Day is my idea! How will it look for me to miss it? Hmm? How can I hold my head up after this? I'll be a laughing-stock."
At that, Ron burst out laughing, holding his middle. Harry was shocked; it wasn't like Ron to mock Hermione quite this badly, especially now that they were a "real" couple. "You must be joking," he managed to say with some difficulty, in the midst of his laughter. Hermione folded her arms across her chest and glared at him.
"I most certainly am not. What am I going to do?"
Ron put out his arms to her and said, "Come here," with an affectionate tone in his voice, smiling at her. She walked to him, still looking put-out, and he pulled her down to sit on the bed beside him, his arms around her. He kissed her temple gently and said softly, "What is your name?"
"What?" she said, frowning.
"Your name," he answered for her, "is Hermione Granger, the most brilliant witch I know, but a woman who still sometimes forgets that she is a witch. Bloody hell, Hermione, you just received your Apparition license, and even if you hadn't, you're staying in a house with a fireplace on the Floo network. Even Ginny and I, without licenses, can use the fire to get to Hog's End in a heartbeat, and then we can substitute our morning run for a jog to the castle from the village. There's no reason all of us can't be back at Hogwarts in plenty of time to scrub and cook and tie house elves' hands behind their backs so they can't clean anything. Don't worry, Hermione; you're not going to miss Boxing Day."
She sighed and slumped against him, then gave a small laugh. "I'm sorry, Ron. You too, Harry. You must think I'm mad. I do have an excuse, though. Maybe you'll identify, Harry..."
"Why not me?" Ron said, sounding a little hurt.
"Because you've always known you're a wizard. Harry hasn't. Anyway, the reason is--there are a lot of mornings when I wake up and fully expect to find out that the last six-and-a-half years have been a dream. The idea that I'm a witch still seems too good to be true sometimes, even with all of the things we've been through. Maybe in twenty years that will change, but I still don't wake up and automatically think, 'I'm a witch, so I can learn the geography of a place and think about it terribly hard and then just transport myself there in the blink of an eye using my wand.'" She grinned at Ron. "I know it sounds stupid. You probably never experience that kind of madness..."
Harry smiled ruefully. "I kept wishing I would wake up and find it was all a dream when I was in my other life. The Slytherin common room, for instance, is one of the most depressing places on earth."
Ron nodded. "Yeah, I remember. It looked like Neville's toad had exploded in there, or spewed on everything. Dull green, sick green, olive green, puce, chartreuse... If there was an awful shade of green, it existed in that room."
"You were only in there once. I lived there for five-and-a-half years. Of course, I never reacted badly to it until the beginning of my sixth year. Before that, I didn't know how much nicer the Gryffindor common room was," he laughed.
They were all smiling now, and Ron kissed Hermione quickly on the cheek. "Are you all right now? Looking forward to Boxing Day? We'll be dressed in a few minutes and then we can eat breakfast and leave for Hogsmeade. And next time--talk to me before you start fretting, yeah?"
She nodded and kissed him quickly before leaving the room, a calm happiness on her face that made Harry smile. He went to his wardrobe for clothes, shaking his head.
"You're getting very good at handling her."
"Well, last year was especially good practice for that, since you were sort of missing in action even when you were in the same room with us. She fretted over you quite a lot."
Harry nodded. "Sorry about that. And--this probably can't be said enough--I'm sorry about the way I reacted to what you said at the Burrow, before sixth year--"
Ron waved the apology away, opening some drawers and taking out a pair of old jeans. "I told you, Harry. I was the one at fault there. I was incredibly tactless and had no business saying what I did, and it was largely self-interest. You were right to be upset."
"But even though it was tactless and said out of self-interest, you were also right. And I should have seen that and ended it with Hermione instead of dragging it out and then committing my own tactless maneuver and offering her to you as a birthday present."
Ron grimaced while he tied his old trainers. "Well, I'm not going to disagree with you there. That was very bad judgment," he said simply. "But it's all water under the bridge now. The three of us are still friends, and I've even learned a little tact, as you saw. If I can do it, anyone can," he grinned.
"That's true," Harry said, ready to duck, but Ron only pretended to hit him, also grinning.
"Your morning breath is no bed of roses, either. I could have said, before..."
"No, I meant--in first year, you were the one responsible for her running off and almost getting killed by a troll, because you made her so upset she was crying in the bathroom. And then there was Are you a witch or not? when we were dealing with the Devil's Snare... This morning was a huge improvement over that."
"Yeah." Ron stopped with his hand on the knob and looked thoughtful. "Hermione and I talked about that last year. The crying-in-the-bathroom thing, I mean. And about third year, when I was so upset because it seemed Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers--too bad he didn't really eat Pettigrew, eh? She said she used to get very annoyed with herself whenever she reacted to my being upset with her. Over things like Crookshanks. And Krum, in fourth year. She kept telling herself that everything I said shouldn't matter so much to her, and she kept telling herself that it didn't matter."
Harry snorted. "The queen of denial, she is. Was. Anyone with eyes could see that it mattered a great deal to her. If you said a cross word to her, she was grumpy to everyone else all day. Even getting over one-hundred ten percent from Flitwick couldn't cheer her up. If you said something nice to her, she was all smiles." He shook his finger at Ron. "You shouldn't abuse that sort of power, you know."
"Yeah, well, her revenge was going to the Yule Ball with Krum. Thank goodness balls are the exception and not the rule at Hogwarts! That night she had the power to make me completely miserable..."
"I would say you returned the favor, with your talk of 'fraternizing with the enemy.' Oh, and you managed to make Padma miserable while you were at it. Two-for-one."
"She didn't look terribly miserable when she was out there dancing with Krum. And Padma met up with a nice boy from Beauxbatons."
"Hermione didn't look thrilled when you were having that row in the common room afterward."
He grimaced. "Can we not engage in any more reminiscences of what a prat I was?"
Harry agreed. "Fine. I'm not much better than you, frankly. I can't believe how much time I spent mooning over Cho when Ginny was right in front of me."
Ron made a face. "Let's go. Before you start telling me how wonderful my sister is. Erg."
Harry laughed. They stopped short when they opened the door and found Hermione and Ginny waiting for them. Harry felt a rather large smile creeping across his own face upon seeing Ginny, and realized that he was the same way about her that Hermione had been about Ron. If she was cross with him, his day was ruined. One beatific smile, and the day was suddenly salvaged. He'd had it bad for a while.
They met Neville and Sirius in the kitchen for a quick breakfast before they went into the sitting room to use the Floo network. "A good rule to remember," Sirius had taught them, "is to only Apparate when necessary. If you don't need to Apparate, don't. There are always risks, and it's best to limit your use of Apparition if you can absolutely help it."
Glad to see that no one at Hog's End had awoken yet, they let themselves out the front door and jogged to the castle, Sirius running alongside them in his dog form. Neville brought up the rear, panting noisily, as the only one who was unaccustomed to early morning runs. They slowed down a bit, to be kind to him. Harry ran by Ginny's side; she turned and grinned at him, and he felt infused with an inner warmth. Turning his face toward the castle again, he decided that for once he was looking forward to Boxing Day and working side by side with her. He could think of far worse ways to spend a day.
As it turned out, Boxing Day meant listening to Draco Malfoy whinging about his destitute state all day. And about working.
"When I'm out of this ruddy excuse for a school," he grunted, carrying an armload of school robes down the stairs alongside Harry and Ron, "I'm going to do whatever is necessary to get rich again, and I will have house-elves waiting on me three-hundred sixty-five days a year. None of this Boxing Day nonsense. No more ruddy manual labor. I'm a Malfoy. I wasn't meant to be doing laundry and gardening."
"Yeah," Ron said, rolling his eyes and carrying a load of robes himself. "Because that's how it works. You want to be rich, and bang! You're rich. All the poor people in the world must want to be poor."
Draco Malfoy sneered at Ron. "No, you can't just want to be rich, Weasley. You have to know people. Contacts. You do favors for someone powerful, who will then do a favor for you. Reciprocity. It's how the world works. You choose someone--the right someone--to be indebted to you, and you can write your own ticket."
He seemed cheered by this thought and began whistling as he continued down the stairs to the school laundry, clutching the robes. Harry and Ron stood still on the steps above him, looking at each other nervously. "What do you reckon he meant by that?" Ron whispered to Harry.
"Dunno," Harry said softly. "But now do you think it's a bad idea for me to try to be friends with him?"
They started moving again; Harry was having a difficult time not treading on the robes he was carrying. "Whatever you do, Harry," Ron said out of the corner of his mouth, "don't turn your back on him." Harry nodded.
They had to duck to enter the laundry, as the doorway was only four feet high. Ron had to get on his knees and duck once he was crawling along the floor. He scattered robes as he moved, and once they were inside the laundry proper he was bending over, trying to pick up the dropped robes and dropping more each time. Harry sighed and put out his hand, saying, "Accio," somewhat lazily. Ron's last dropped robe shot into his hand and he added it to the pile he was carrying.
"Show-off," Ron grumbled. Harry grinned at him.
"We can't pop around the castle like the elves. We should have some advantages."
They delivered the robes to some younger students who were overseeing the huge vats where the clothes were being washed by magically churning machinery. On the far side of the enormous, noisy room, Hermione, Ginny and Zoey Russell were magically sorting the clean clothes, along with some students from other houses whom Harry did not know; they then used banishing charms to return the piles of neatly folded clothes to the proper dorms. There were chutes leading up to the dorms which the students never saw. Harry noted that the small door flaps were indicated by the house colors, with the appropriate year number painted on each door. There were twenty-eight in all, four rows of seven doors each.
Ron gave Hermione a kiss on the cheek when he saw her. "Impressive operation you're running here," he told her, as she waved her wand and sent a neatly folded pile of clothes zooming toward the small blue door with a "3" painted on it. "If you can do this with Banishing Charms, I'm assuming we could have been using Summoning Charms to get the clothes here. Why didn't you tell us we could do that?"
She raised her eyebrows at him and smirked. "Are you a wizard or not?" she said, looking like she was trying hard not to laugh. Ron laughed instead, his blue eyes crinkling up, looking happier than Harry had seen him in a very long time.
"I reckon I deserve that," he said, still smiling as he gathered Hermione into his arms, a hungry look in his eyes that Harry recognized.
She colored, looking up at him lovingly, then hit him on the chest lightly, chiding him. "Why didn't you lot figure that out for yourselves? Especially you, Harry," she said, looking past Ron's arm at him and rolling her eyes. "I just saw you summon that robe Ron dropped, and without your wand, too. I'm not sure what your excuse is, Malfoy. Harry is at least used to hard work; I'd have thought you'd be lazy enough to think of it."
She gently separated herself from Ron and walked to the wall with the small doors; when her back was turned, Draco Malfoy made a rude gesture at her, to which Ron responded in kind. Hermione was oblivious to the pantomime behind her. "These chutes are something new I asked Professor Dumbledore about last year," she continued. "Since we have to move about the castle in conventional ways, I asked him whether we could have something like this to aid us. Especially as the school's ultimate goal should be to have a more diverse, paid workforce, including non-elves..."
Harry wasn't listening very closely to Hermione, however. He was gazing at Ginny, who was wearing rather close-fitting jeans and a white school blouse, open at the collar, with the sleeves rolled up. Her hair was caught up in a messy ponytail, tendrils of hair clustered humidly about her face, which was a bit flushed from the warm, moist air in the laundry. He smiled at her and she went on waving her wand over the pile of clothes before her. The shirts and jumpers folded themselves into neat rectangles, the sleeves tucked under, and they stacked themselves on the table before her. Without thinking, he strode toward her, smiling, and kissed her on the cheek, as Ron had Hermione. For a split second, she smiled, before a horror-struck expression took over her face, and then pure fury.
"Harry Potter!" she cried. "How dare you! What do you think you're doing?" She backed up and was pointing her wand at him now. He swallowed and looked sideways at Draco Malfoy, to see what his reaction was. Draco seemed to be glad that Ginny's wand wasn't pointing at him. "I thought I made it very clear how I feel about you!" she cried, her voice shaking just a little.
Her words reverberated in the cavernous room and Harry felt himself go very red. "I--that is, I didn't--which is to say--didn't think--" he stuttered. It was true, he'd been an idiot. His problem was that when he saw her, he felt like they were the only two people in the world. At the moment, however, they were surrounded by other students who hadn't gone home for the holiday, students who were shocked that Ginny Weasley was not only telling off the Head Boy, but Harry Potter. The general population at Hogwarts had not been privy to what had occurred between her, Draco Malfoy, Harry and Mariah Kirkner, and the ones who were seeing this display now looked utterly shocked.
"Um," Harry struggled, "I'm sorry. Really. Not thinking," he said again.
"I could tell!" she said acidly, sneering at him. Damn, Ginny, he thought. You're far too good at this. And I'm far too bad. No wonder I didn't get to know about the Great Plan...
Ron looked at him sympathetically, then pulled him away from Ginny gently but firmly, whispering to him, "You should probably go.". He opted to stay behind in the laundry, to be with Hermione. Harry and Draco left to do other chores. After they ducked through the low, elf-sized doorway again, Harry was walking rather dejectedly. He felt very stupid. Draco slapped him on the back, shaking his head. "You're lucky she didn't hex you. What were you thinking, you git?" He almost sounded sympathetic.
Harry shook his head. "Dunno." But then he had a thought, an excuse. "For a moment--I think I forgot where and when I was. It seemed like I was back in my other life, when we were together..."
Draco nodded. "I wondered whether that was it. Your face looked kind of funny, like you weren't really here." Harry looked at him, smiling ruefully, feeling a pang because he was deceiving Draco, who was being so much like his old friend. Apart from calling him a git (which Draco had sometimes done in his other life in a friendly sort of way), he wasn't insulting him or accusing him of sneaking around with Ginny. Harry almost wished he would. He thought of Sirius forbidding him to tell Draco about him and Ginny. How would he ever forge a real friendship with Draco while keeping this secret from him?
After some floor-cleaning, (with more grumbling from Draco, although they both used their wands to control the mops) they were supposed to report to the kitchens, where lunch preparations were underway. Harry found Neville overseeing younger students while they waved their wands, making food fly here and there, into cooking pots and ovens and onto cutting boards, where knives chopped the vegetables, metal flashing. Harry steered cautiously around the unmanned cutlery, going to Neville.
"Oi, Harry! Good. We have a problem. Our summoning charms aren't working on the root cellars. Maybe. Either something magical is down there preventing the food from coming up when we need it, or we've actually run out of potatoes, carrots, turnips and onions, which seems unlikely. I think it might be a boggart. Could you check into it? I wouldn't trust the younger students to try to keep their heads when confronted by a boggart. These are mostly first and second years."
Harry smiled at him; Neville was very much in charge, confident and sure. Draco scowled at him and started to follow Harry. Neville put his hand on his chest, stopping him. "You stay here, Malfoy. I have some other work for you."
Harry tried very hard not to laugh; Neville was clearly enjoying ordering Draco Malfoy around. Well, he thought; that's what we get for not volunteering to be in charge of anything in particular. We get ordered around all day.
Draco's scowl deepened. "What, you think I can't handle a stupid boggart, Longbottom?"
Neville looked at him levelly. "Yes," he said simply, not bothering to give any reason. "You can mash potatoes," he said, nodding at some pots on the stove with clouds of steam over them. "Be careful when you drain them," he said. "You can get some nasty burns just from steam." A smile played around the corners of Neville's mouth.
Harry forced himself to appear sober again when Draco looked at him; he shrugged and gave Draco a sympathetic look before proceeding to the steep stairs leading down to the root cellars, bracing himself for the coldness inside that he knew that he would feel when the boggart drew near to him and sensed his fear of dementors. He remembered going down to the root cellar to do the very same thing in his other life, when his dad was teaching them to handle boggarts in Defense Against the Dark Arts.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and still hadn't felt the wave of cold. Harry walked slowly, cautiously, with his wand out, then stopped and swallowed. What if it wasn't a boggart? What if it was something he'd never encountered before? Who knew what strange things were living in the bowels of the castle? No one had suspected that a basilisk had been living in a secret chamber for a thousand years.
He opened the door to the potato storage and stood back cautiously, peering into the dark. Nothing happened, so he started to close the door again; when a soft thud was heard in the depths of the room, he froze. Get a grip, Potter, he told himself. Use your head. He whispered, "Lumos," and held up his wand, sending a soft glow into the blackness. Standing on the other side of the room, flattened against the wall, surrounded by sacks of potatoes, was Ginny.
Ginny! he thought. Am I so afraid of Ginny now that boggarts don't turn into dementors anymore, they turn into her?
She leaped forward and threw her arms around him; she felt warm and solid, and he didn't know what to do. He didn't feel like laughing, so how could he banish her with a cry of Riddikulus?
"Oh, good!" she said, her mouth very close to his. "Neville managed to get you to come down here. Isn't he a good friend? I'm--I'm so sorry about what happened in the laundry earlier, Harry. This is how I really wanted to respond--"
And then she was pressing her lips against his, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was no boggart, but Ginny, his Ginny. He liked being able to think of her that way now. He was still a little awkward, having been bracing himself for a dementor, or a boggart, at the very least, and she could tell that he wasn't relaxed yet and pulled her face away from his, putting her head on his shoulder and tightening her hold around his waist. "Poor Harry," she said, sniffing a little. "I didn't mean to embarrass you in front of everyone. I was just so surprised when you kissed me, with Draco there and all. At least I didn't have to lie," she said with a sly smile. "I did make it clear how I feel about you, at Hog's End...."
He put his finger under her chin and lifted it slightly. He brushed his lips against hers, once, twice, three times, before tentatively reaching out with his tongue and tracing the crease between her lips, which opened in answer to his silent question, admitting him with a soft moan that thrilled him. He was holding her tightly now, kissing her deeply as she responded, the moaning a constant now in the back of her throat. Her hands against his back pressed him to her firmly, and he held his left hand in the small of her back, tracing her spine lightly through her blouse, while his other hand slid down and cupped her bottom tenderly, pulling her against him. She sighed into his mouth and squirmed against him deliciously as the hand on her bottom moved in light circles. He remembered, when he'd seen her behind Hagrid's hut with Draco Malfoy on her fifteenth birthday, that she'd been trying to keep Draco's hands away from certain parts of her body. She did nothing about his hand now.
However, thinking of Draco Malfoy made him remember that he was in the kitchen with Neville, and that he was trying to be Draco's friend. That thought had a slightly chilling effect on him, and he pulled back from her, gazing down at her eyes, dark with passion. She looked searchingly back at him, one eyebrow raised.
"Is everything all right, Harry? Why did you kiss me in the laundry, anyway?"
He drew his lips into a line, gently pushing her hair out of her face as he spoke, then stroking the side of her face with his fingers, making her shiver. "I told Draco it was because I temporarily forgot where and when I was, that I thought I was back in my other life for a moment. He seemed to buy it. Now that I think about it, I'm not so sure that's not what happened."
She kissed his chin lightly. "Perhaps it will prove useful after all that he knows about that now. He didn't get upset?"
Harry shook his head. "No. He asked me what I was thinking and called me a git. But--maybe that's why I felt a little confused. Sometimes he really does seem like that other Draco now." He sighed. "I wish Sirius hadn't said he can't know about us. If I'm really going to be his friend--"
She backed up from him and shook her head. "I agree with Sirius, Harry. Yes, at first I was terribly glad that you were making friends with him, in case that meant he'd be happy for us, eventually. But he's been giving me these strange looks lately that are a bit unnerving. Tell me, has he given you any reason to believe he'd react well to being told that we're together? Has he said, 'If you and Ginny become a couple, I will be thrilled for you and promise not to hex you or find a way to deliver your head on a platter to You-Know-Who?' Because if he has, maybe we should talk to Sirius. Maybe he's wrong about Draco."
"Draco would say 'the Dark Lord.'" He sighed. "No, he hasn't. He said that he didn't know what he'd do, that he was being honest about that. He doesn't know and he said he wouldn't be responsible for his actions...."
"He doesn't know," she repeated, shaking her head again. "Not responsible? That doesn't exactly sound like You have my blessing."
"No, it doesn't," he agreed reluctantly. "Sirius is probably right," he admitted, not happy about this. He was also not at all happy about the fact that it felt like Draco was in the room with them. "Plus, I don't want Voldemort to find out what you mean to me and to--" He couldn't say it; the idea of Voldemort getting anywhere near her was too horrid. He cupped her cheek in his hand and gazed at her dear, dear face, just as Sandy hissed at him. He sighed; he knew exactly what she meant, but he couldn't stop gazing at Ginny.
Her voice caught, and she said softly. "Oh, Harry, when you look at me that way--"
"Draco and Neville will be down here in about a minute," he said. "But first--" He leaned forward and breathed warmly in her ear, nipping her earlobe between his teeth. Her sharp intake of breath was beautiful; he slid his lips down her neck, aching to hear more, drawing a small bit of skin into his mouth for a moment, tracing upward to her ear with his tongue again while she moved her hands to his waist once more, and then Oh, god, he thought, groaning, as one of her hands moved further down, cupping his bum in one of her small palms the way he had done with her earlier...
"Harry! You all right down there?"
"He'll be fine, Malfoy! Get back to work!"
Harry sighed; while he had been kissing Ginny, he had been vaguely aware, in the back of his mind, that the creaking sound overhead was the old rusty hinges on the door leading to the stairs to the root cellars. As Sandy had announced, Draco and Neville were coming.
"You're a cold bastard, you know that Longbottom? You think the whole school didn't hear about his boggart turning into a dementor, in third year? You know what those things do to him."
"Yeah, and because you knew, you and your Slytherin toadies impersonated dementors and almost killed Harry during a Quidditch match. Don't act so concerned now. Harry's perfectly capable of conjuring a Patronus, Malfoy. I saw him do it at the end of third year, when Lupin tested us, during our O.W.L.s, and last year, when we were repelling Lethifolds. Let him be."
But Harry heard something in Draco's voice that bothered him. Why was he so determined to come down? Was it really that he wanted to make sure Harry was all right?
Harry backed up from Ginny and pulled out his wand. Pointing it at the sacks of potatoes, he cried, "Expecto Patronem!" with his face turned toward the door, to project his voice into the corridor.
He wasn't very focused, so only a small wisp of a stag flew from his wand-tip. He followed that by crying very loudly, "Riddikulus!"
Ginny quickly grabbed a stick of wood in the corner and tried to snap it, but it was too thick for her. Harry took it and lifted his leg, then snapped it across his thigh, producing a loud crack! not unlike the sound of a boggart being banished. He quickly pulled Ginny to him and kissed her on the mouth once more before stepping into the corridor again and slamming the door shut, only to find himself face to face with Draco Malfoy.
Harry couldn't tell what to make of the expression on Draco's face. Was it concern? Suspicion? Neville stood at the bottom of the stairs, red-faced and panting. "I tried to keep him away, Harry, but he wouldn't listen." Neville looked quite frightened, as though he had made an unforgivable blunder.
Harry shook his head. "Don't worry about me, either one of you. Your potatoes should come when summoned now, Neville. Never fear."
Neville snorted. "Easy for you to say. Your boggarts don't turn into Snape."
Harry smiled at him. "Actually, I'll bet yours don't anymore, either. You shouldn't be afraid of Snape, Neville. He's all right. I'm just glad we got him back, after last year."
Neville shrugged. "I reckon you're right. It's probably more likely now that my boggart would turn into Pa--" He stopped and colored, looking in Draco Malfoy's direction.
"Oh, come on, Longbottom. Don't stop now. You'd deprive me of knowing what your greatest fear in the world is, now that it's not my head-of-house? Not very sporting of you, is that?"
Neville didn't look young and wide-eyed anymore; he smirked at Draco. "And what would your boggart turn into, Malfoy?"
Harry thought back to the boggart lesson in his other life. What had Draco's boggart turned into? When he remembered, he laughed, holding his middle. Neville and Draco stared at him. "What's wrong with you?" Draco drawled.
"I know what your boggart would turn into!" he crowed, unable to stop his laughter. Draco Malfoy glared at him with his arms crossed.
"Oh, you do, do you?"
Harry nodded and smiled, then whispered to him, so Neville wouldn't hear, "A cat."
Draco backed up from him, swallowing. "Yeah, well, plenty of people are--I mean, I'm not the only one in the world who--"
Harry laughed. "That's all right. Let's go back upstairs."
He led the pair of them away from the potato storage, while Neville bounced on the balls of his feet and begged, "Oh, come on, Harry! Tell me what he's afraid of--"
"Never mind," Harry said; he whispered to Draco again, saying, "Don't worry; I won't tell him."
Draco Malfoy frowned a little, as though Harry was a puzzle he hadn't yet figured out. "Good," he said, not sounding completely convinced. "Glad to hear it."
Nonetheless, Neville continued to beg until they were back in the kitchens and after that, they were all too busy to do anything but prepare lunch for the elves and the students and staff who had stayed at the school. He suggested to Draco that they take some tea up to Mrs. Figg, in the staff wing (so that poor Ginny could emerge from the root cellar and eat some lunch). Draco glared at Neville for a moment as they left the kitchen.
The six of them returned to Hog's End after tea, so they could Floo back to Ascog. They were exhausted from a day of hard work, even though much of it had been executed using magic. Doing spells for hours on end wasn't exactly relaxing, because of the mental energy put into it. Harry was glad he wasn't going to be trying to Apparate to Ascog, since he was afraid he'd wind up in the Firth of Clyde, instead of on the Isle of Bute.
When they let themselves into the entrance hall at Hog's End, they found a rather different family scene than the one they had experienced on Christmas day. Mrs. Weasley was hugging George to her. George looked as though she was choking him, but he didn't try to extract himself. She was crying and saying, "I'm so sorry, George! I don't mean to be so old-fashioned...I just never thought I'd become a grandmother before I became a mother-in-law...I'm here for you and Angelina, never you fear. The poor lass doesn't have to go through this alone..."
"She doesn't have to go through it alone, Mum because she has me," George grunted as she continued to hold him, "and Fred and Percy, as well. Plus Lee."
She finally released her hold on him and he stopped turning blue. "Oh, pish. You're just a bunch of men. She needs a woman around, someone who knows about childbirth and babies. Where is the mother-to-be of my grandchildren? We have so many plans to make! Is she upstairs?" George nodded, his hand at his throat. She turned her head and finally spotted her youngest children, along with Harry, Hermione, Neville and Sirius. "Oh, hello, you lot. Had a good day? Can't talk now; too much to do." She turned to George. "This will be thirsty work. Make yourself useful and bring us a pot of tea. And the knitting! I've so much knitting to do!" She shook her head over the extent of the preparations that would be required before Angelina gave birth. Gathering her robes in her hands, she began to climb the stairs. Harry and Ron looked at each other quizzically; Harry noticed that Hermione and Ginny looked rather smug.
"I didn't think it would take long for her to come around," Hermione said quietly, watching Mrs. Weasley go.
"That's Mum," Ginny said, nodding. "Now that all of us are out of the house, for the most part, since Ron and I are practically never home, she's been a bit at loose ends. This will give her plenty to do. If there's one thing Mum can't resist, it's babies."
Ron rolled his eyes. "As if they couldn't have worked that out, Ginny," he said, nodding at the others. "No, she had nine kids because she really didn't care for babies..."
George slapped Ron on the back. "Yeah, well, after Fred and I it's amazing she ever had more," he said, grinning.
Ron did not grin back at him, however. "I know I defended you yesterday, but you might have told Mum about this sooner and not ruined the holiday for everyone. What were you thinking?"
George looked a little sheepish and shrugged. "I reckon we knew that Mum would react that way at first, and were putting it off as long as possible. We also knew she'd come around pretty quickly."
"Still," Ron said, looking like he wanted to hit George, just for a moment. "You do realize now that she'll be underfoot every moment of the rest of the time Angelina's expecting? And even more after the kids are born?"
Fred put his hand on George's shoulder and grinned. "I don't think George was afraid of the row. I think he was afraid of the peace treaty after. He knew there'd be no keeping Mum away once she knew she was going to be a granny. That's what he was putting off, if you ask me."
"Geroff, you," George grumbled, although he was smiling at his twin a little. "You're also going to have to live with Mum over here morning, noon and night."
Fred shrugged. "Yeah, but she won't be paying any attention to me, will she? Angelina's going to be taking the brunt of it."
Ron poked George in the ribs to get his attention. "How about Bill and Maggie? Has everyone made up again? Or do we all continue walking on eggshells?"
George shrugged. "I think we're all okay. Except for Percy. Somehow--he hasn't forgiven Mum. I've never seen those two on the outs before. Very weird. I hope they settle it soon. He was the first one to see her arrive and went storming out of here. I think he's in the office now," George said, meaning the large dining room which was no longer used for dining but as the center of operations for Weasley Wizard Wheezes, Limited. "I can't take being her golden boy," he added, shaking his head. "You know--the first one to pop out kids. With Angelina's help, of course," he said quickly, seeing Hermione's expression of indignation. "That's supposed to be Percy's job: being Mum's pet. Too much scrutiny for me, thanks. I wish he'd just apologize to her already."
"I should apologize to her as well," Hermione said, looking a little pink. "I probably overreacted," she added softly.
Ron put his arm around her shoulder. "You and Percy are a right pair. What do you think she did? Write her a nice letter. You'll be fine. Anyway, I'm knackered and can't think about this anymore. We're going back to Ascog," he told the twins, "and we'll see you at the match tomorrow."
Fred and George nodded. "Right!" Should be a good one!" Fred said. "But--George isn't going," he said, looking at his twin wistfully. It seemed so strange to Harry that the twins' lives were diverging this way.
"Keeping Angelina company," George explained shortly. "Or rather, since she can't go, I'm not going to be able to lord it over her if I don't go. Madam Pomfrey said she'd probably spew all over if she went spinning through the Floo network, as her stomach has been very delicate all through this and Pomfrey was very cross with her for losing weight about a month ago, because so little of what she ate stayed inside her. Broomsticks are out of the question, and so's Apparition. I think even a Portkey would jostle her about too much, so she's not going anywhere. I keep thinking we need to coax Dad's old car out of the forest, see if it's still working. That would have been just the thing for this."
Hermione glared, her hands on her hips. "It's only completely illegal."
George shrugged. "If I was caught I could throw myself on the mercy of the court." He put his right hand over his heart and affected a melodramatic air. 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it was to take the mother of my unborn children to a Quidditch match, the last bit of fun she would have had before beginning the thankless task of raising twins...'" He put the back of his other hand to his brow and closed his eyes as they all laughed.
"And our mum knows just how thankless that is, eh?" Ginny said through her laughter.
"Sorry you aren't playing in the European Cup final, Harry," Fred said when they had sobered a little.
Harry brushed away the comment. "That's all right. I get to see the final, at least. I've been looking forward to it. Thanks for the ticket."
"And thanks for the ticket for me, as well!" Neville added. "I never thought I'd get to see the European Cup before finishing school. And I reckon that even after I'm out of school my gran will have things to say about what I do in my spare time."
They laughed sympathetically, and George said to Neville, "You know, I think I'll take our mum over your gran anytime. No offense."
Neville shrugged, smiling. "None taken."
The twins saw them off, waving as each one stepped into the green flames and said, "Ascog Castle!" very clearly, to prevent any Floo mishaps. Harry stumbled out of the fire in the sitting room at Ascog and quickly moved out of the way for Sirius, who was coming last. Callisto and Walter Black were there waiting for them all to return, but since they'd had their tea at Hogwarts, they were going directly to bed. It had been a long day and they didn't know how much time the match would take. It was to start at nine o'clock in the morning, but Harry knew there was a chance it could last for several days. He hoped that wouldn't happen, though, as he was hoping to have some time alone with Ginny before they went to Sweden for the broom race--without her--on New Year's Eve.
They said goodnight to Neville and Sirius, and when the four of them had reached the top floor, Ron pulled Hermione into Harry's room, saying "We're just going to say goodnight for a moment. The pair of you can do that, also, but stay on the landing."
Ron slammed the door; Harry frowned at it. Stay on the landing. Who did he think he was? But he didn't have time to ponder this as Ginny was pulling him to her, and he had no thought for anything but holding her, kissing her, listening to the sweet gurgling sound in the back of her throat as she wrapped herself around him and he held her trembling body in his arms.... He pulled back from her for a moment and said against her mouth, "I love you so much Ginny. So much...."
He held her face in his hands and kissed her cheeks and brow, while she answered, "I love you, Harry..."
They heard a throat being cleared ostentatiously and looked up in surprise, finding Ron and Hermione standing in the doorway of Harry's room, Ron holding his fist before his mouth to assist him in his mock-coughing. Harry stepped away from Ginny, then turned to Ron with his eyebrows raised. "As commanded," he said somewhat snidely, "we stayed on the landing."
He walked past Ron and Hermione and into his room without looking at them, wishing he didn't have to be apart from Ginny for a single moment, but resigning himself to another night with Ron, whose werewolf hearing made any sneaking about after bedtime completely prohibitive. It was very nearly as annoying as Draco Malfoy having one of the basilisk amulets. He sighed as he brushed his teeth and changed his clothes. Oh, well. At least Neville helped them sneak around a little, although Harry wasn't keen on going back to the root cellar. He could think of far nicer places to be alone with Ginny. Somehow, when he pictured being with her, sacks of potatoes had never been part of his fantasy.
Charlie was friends with the Romanian Seeker and had wangled permission for Ginny and Ron to take the Floo network to a fireplace in the office being used for the Romanian team at the castle. A Portkey for Ginny and Ron was out of the question, as the nearest one was leaving before dawn from Wemyss Bay, well before the first ferry arrived there from the island. Harry, Hermione, Neville and Sirius were Apparating.
When Harry could feel his body again, he saw that he had successfully arrived in the small copse of trees near the castle that had been his goal; it was the designated Apparating area, heavily guarded by Aurors. Harry was surprised to see Katie there. It was odd to see her working at her new job when he was there for fun. She regarded him impassively in front of her colleagues, but winked at him surreptitiously after he had passed, flashing him a smile and whispering to him, "Enjoy the match. I didn't expect to be working today--last minute thing, you know. With luck I'll get to see some of it.".
Once they had passed through security, they were able to show their tickets at the gate and enter. On the way up to their seats, they bought small flags and programs. They'd brought both wizarding and Muggle money, not knowing which would be accepted, and ended up paying in pound notes. Harry's nostrils flared; there was a very strong odor in the castle that he couldn't place; it seemed to be everywhere, and he wondered whether Ron was bothered by it, with his acute sense of smell. Harry also noticed a lot of people standing about having talking while holding wands that were abnormally fat and sharp.
After making their purchases, they continued climbing upward and quickly found Ginny and Ron, already in their seats in the stands on top of the castle wall, behind the parapets. Fred and Charlie were there as well, with Percy (who wasn't working, evidently), Alicia, Bill, Oliver Wood and Oliver's older brother, Alex, to whom Harry and the others were introduced. The odd smell did not dissipate once he was up in the fresh air again.
Harry forgot about this, though, as he looked around the pitch excitedly; he now knew what it was like to play two matches on this pitch, and he waved to Jean-Claude Jones as the French Seeker flew about, getting in some practice. Jones grinned back at Harry, evidently bearing no grudge, and Harry waved his small French tri-color enthusiastically. He bore no grudge either--not toward Jones, at any rate.
Charlie, on the other hand, was flicking back and forth a small Romanian tri-color (blue, yellow and red instead of the French blue, white and red) and waving to the Seeker on that team. He explained to Harry that he knew her from his work with dragons. Her name was Natasha Lemnaru; her parents were both dragon-handlers and she'd grown up on the reservation in Romania. Now she was following in her parents' footsteps--when she wasn't playing Quidditch.
"Bloody brilliant flyer," Charlie enthused. "After I told her about your maneuver with that Horntail, she's insisted there's no better way to control dragons than from a broomstick. You may have revolutionized dragon handling, Harry," he grinned at him. Harry looked at the Seeker. She had flashing black eyes and long raven hair she'd pulled back into a ponytail that whipped around like a heavy rope as she flew. Her nose had a little bump on the bridge, and for a moment Harry wondered how closely related to Bulgarians Romanians were; she seemed almost like she could be a sister of Viktor Krum. She winked cheekily at Charlie; Harry wondered just how good a friend she was.
The roar of the crowd increased as Ludo Bagman appeared in the top box and cast the Sonorus spell to amplify his voice. He welcomed them all to the European Cup Final for 1997 and introduced the two teams.
"I give you Antonescu, Bratiano, Lazar, Lemnaru, Negrea, Radescu and Valsan!" he cried, as the Romanian team zoomed down the pitch to raucous cheers from their supporters, including Charlie. Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Percy also had Romanian flags and were cheering the Romanians, who wore vivid blue jerseys and trousers with red robes bearing the Romanian coat of arms: a large golden eagle holding a sword and scepter in its claws, a cross in its mouth, and a shield with too many small things on it for Harry to make out while they were traveling so fast. He pulled out his program and looked at it there instead.
Then Ludo Bagman was announcing the French team. "Devereux, DuFresne, Fourcade, Jones, Laroche, Laroche and Pierpont!"
As the French team took their turn showing off, Harry leaned behind Hermione and said to Ron, "Laroche and Laroche?"
Hermione shoved her program in front of him. "It says here that they're married. Clarice and Thierry Laroche. And they're both Chasers."
Harry nodded without looking. He turned to Ginny and gave her a small smile, hoping this would be considered subtle enough that Sirius wouldn't shout at him later. Ginny gave him a small smile in return and then turned her head away, reddening slightly. He picked up his Omnioculars (he'd taken the precaution of finally erasing the footage of Draco and Mariah), recording the match so that George and Angelina could see it later.
It was time for the mascots now, and France was going first this time. Harry had to laugh. They were garden gnomes! Then something else appeared on the pitch and Harry stopped laughing, as did everyone else present. There were two large ogres standing at each end of the pitch, one in front of each center goal. Some nervous-looking wizards were fastening chains to the bottom of the goal posts; each chain led to a large metal collar around each ogre's neck. And then the gnomes were actually running up to the ogres of their own accord and the ogres were hurling the small creatures the length of the field, where the opposite ogre had to catch them. Harry laughed in spite of himself, still feeling a little nervous about the ogres. The gnomes actually seemed to enjoy it (they pulled very silly faces and did a lot of posing as they were flying through the air). Even Hermione, whom he would have expected to be outraged over this treatment of the gnomes (she was never very keen on the way they de-gnomed the garden at the Burrow) found it amusing enough to laugh.
"Why, they're like little acrobats!" she exclaimed appreciatively, watching a gnome cleave the air, intentionally flipping over and twisting around as he hurtled toward the other ogre. "But I do hope they keep those ogres in check. They eat babies, you know."
Ron was holding his sides, laughing, watching the flying gnomes. "No wonder they don't seem to mind when we fling them over the privet, and come back for more!" he grinned. "Should have realized they enjoyed it, the little buggers! And it figures that things as annoying as gnomes would come from France..."
"Ron!" Hermione exclaimed, scandalized. "I'm surprised at you! That's very xenophobic. Gnomes have been here for quite some time now. They came over on ships with the Normans..."
Harry squinted at her. "Are you telling me that garden gnomes came to Britain with William the Conqueror?"
She sniffed. "If you two wouldn't treat History of Magic as naptime..."
Harry and Ron grinned at each other over her head. "But those desks are so comfortable, Hermione," Ron said by way of explanation, putting his arm around her and squeezing gently. In spite of herself, she smiled back at him. The gnomes were standing around the pitch now, taking their bows to thunderous applause, while the ogres were being led away again by their handlers.
The Romanian mascots were far more sinister than gnome-throwing-ogres, however. After the gnomes trooped off, a number of people in the stands started pulling out massive necklaces of garlic and sharp wooden stakes. Harry was now able to place the odd odor he'd detected upon entering the castle, and he realized that the fat, sharp wands weren't wands at all. The other spectators seemed to know what was going to happen and had come prepared--but for what? However, after a moment's thought, Harry realized what sort of creatures were probably serving as the Romanian mascots. Sirius was sitting behind him and he turned to his godfather with concern.
"They wouldn't--would they? But--it's daytime."
Sirius looked up. It was a flat white winter sky, with solid cloudcover stretching from horizon to horizon. "No direct sunlight today, Harry, as during most of the winter this far north. You should probably at least pull out your wand, just to be on the safe side."
Harry did this just as a Romanian official, covered, it seemed, in heads of garlic, tentatively approached a large wooden box sitting in the middle of the pitch and unlatched it, stepping back quickly with his wand drawn. The top of the hinged box was flung back violently as a flock of pitch-black bats emerged, moving as one being, spreading out and forming the image of a larger bat, which then rose high above the pitch and swooped over the crowd. Harry was strongly reminded of his stepfather's Patronus, which had saved him from the dementor's kiss in the courtroom. While this made him miss Snape momentarily, he was also glad he had not come to the match; the presence of so many people wearing garlic would probably have sent him into a fit.
The large bat that was composed of so many smaller bats broke up then and the individual bats flew, still in formation, over the crowd on the upper deck. People ducked and waved their garlic or stakes in the air. Harry wasn't sure why, now that he saw that they were just bats. He started to heave a sigh of relief, realizing that the Romanians hadn't actually brought vampires as their mascots--
Hermione let out a chilling screech when, suddenly, a bat that had alit on the stone barrier before them transformed into a rather sinister-looking man who bore more than a passing resemblance to a young Tom Riddle. Harry knew it was stupid, but he had been expecting the first vampire he saw in person to resemble Snape, and was surprised to be confronted with what looked like a handsome, healthy (if rather pale) twenty-year-old man with a red glint in his dark eyes and a large, sharp, toothy smile as he surveyed Hermione's bare neck before him. Ginny gripped Harry's arm painfully, shaking violently. "He--he looks like--" she whispered, and Harry knew just who she meant.
Hermione had the presence of mind to pull out her wand, but Ron had already leaped between her and the vampire; as he was a dark creature, the vampire couldn't harm him. "Don't you come near her, if you know what's good for you!" Ron snarled at the young-looking vampire, holding his wand out.
To their surprise, the vampire smiled broadly, his sharp fangs overlapping his blood-red lips. "I thought I saw quite a bit of red hair in this area," he said, looking at Ron, Ginny, Percy, Bill and Fred. "You must be Weasleys!" he cried cheerfully, without a trace of a Romanian accent. In fact, Harry thought he sounded American. Ron's brow furrowed.
But the vampire had found the person he was looking for. "Charlie? Charlie Weasley! How are you?"
Charlie came forward now and, to the consternation of everyone nearby, hugged the vampire, grinning and laughing. The vampire kissed him twice on each cheek and Charlie did the same to him. Beside him, Harry saw that Ginny was open-mouthed with shock.
"Dimitry! How fantastic to see you! I didn't know you were working for the team now."
"Yeah, well, when someone's promising me a steady supply of food with no chance of angry villagers coming after me, I'm not going to say no, am I?" Dimitry said, laughing.
"Maybe you can visit after the match?"
Harry saw Fred's eyes widen, and Alicia, who was sitting between him and Sirius, seemed to pull both men a little closer to her, shrinking down in her seat.
"We'll see. We might be a bit busy celebrating, after our win and all--"
Charlie laughed. "I certainly hope so. I have a significant amount of money invested in Romania winning."
Dimitry turned and saw that the formation flying was continuing. "Well, got to go. Time to show off some more."
He turned and leaped over the edge of the parapet, and the crowd sent up a collective gasp before he transformed back into a bat in mid-air, swooping low over the pitch and then rejoining his fellows as they zoomed overhead and around the pitch one last time, finally transforming into their human shapes again, standing around the pitch, bowing to the appreciative applause (although no one removed their garlic necklaces yet and stakes were still prominent).
Up in the stands, Harry and the others all stared at Charlie, who shrugged casually. "I met a lot of people in Romania. Lived there for years. What do you expect? You'd never know he was a day over two-hundred, would you? He lived in America for a long time. Only just came back home about ten years ago." Charlie shook his head. "Dimitry always was a ham. He'd have gone to California to try to be in films, but it was too sunny."
"And, er, wouldn't they have noticed his fangs?" Harry asked nervously.
"Oh, he can retract those. Dimitry's a good bloke. Likes dragons--but he hates dragon's blood. We had a good laugh about that. When I worked on the reservation, Mum and Dad sent me sweets, including Chocolate Frogs, and I had a Dumbledore card, you know, the one that says he discovered the twelve uses of dragons' blood. Dimitry likes to say, 'And not one of the twelve is food!' He calls it 'trying to drink rendered bacon fat.'"
Harry shuddered at the thought and tried to put dragon's blood, vampires, his own blood and especially drinking rendered bacon fat far from his mind. He'd been feeling so distracted that he didn't even notice the match start; suddenly the fourteen players were zipping over the field, and Harry's pulse started racing as he remembered being out there with his own team, zigging and zagging in and out amongst the other players. His stomach leaped about excitedly as he watched their acrobatics, the Chasers tossing the Quaffle back and forth, and Beaters hitting the Bludgers at players on the opposite team, while the Keepers watched everything with a tense alertness and the Seekers hovered at the edges of the action, ever watchful for that glimpse of gold.
"Sirius! Move!" Harry cried, ducking suddenly. He also pushed down Hermione and Ginny, sitting on either side of him. However, the reason for this, a Bludger that had been hurtling directly toward him, was quickly handled by a Romanian Beater hitting the Bludger very hard at a French Chaser.
"Ooh!" Bagman cried. "Radescu tries and fails to wing Thierry Laroche. And now Devereux tries to send the same Bludger at Lemnaru, who dodges it handily," he added as a French Beater hit the Bludger with a hard blow, sending it at Charlie's friend Natasha, who moved out of the way easily. Bagman made no mention of the Bludger having been zooming straight at Harry Potter.
Harry sat up, looking sheepishly at Hermione and Ginny, who frowned at him. Ron, however, was laughing.
"What's wrong, Harry, having flashbacks to our match? The Bludger that tried to take your head off?"
Harry grimaced at him. "Yeah. Something like that." He could have sworn that the heavy cannonball-like Bludger was heading right for him. But now both Bludgers were far away, being hit back and forth by the four Beaters at the far end of the pitch. He tried to take deep breaths; it felt like his heart was racing still, and he swallowed, trying to enjoy the game, but when he opened his mouth to cheer with everyone else (Romania had scored) nothing came out but a small croak.
The game continued, a fast and furious display of Quidditch prowess. Harry could see that even had the Welsh team won over France, they wouldn't have had a prayer against Romania. He admired Natasha Lemnaru's agility, dodging Bludgers and other players, and thought that Jean-Claude Jones might not be celebrating a win on this day. The score was eighty to twenty in favor of Romania when suddenly the Snitch was seen flitting about the middle of the field, near the ground. Harry's heart and mind raced as he watched it zip around the players, Lemnaru and Jones ducking and weaving, trying to reach it.
A Romanian Beater hit a Bludger toward Jones. Harry wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't been watching it through the Omnioculars, but the ball swerved in mid-air, making an impossible turn that sent it hurtling directly toward him again. He looked up, not using the Omnioculars; it was still heading toward him. Everyone else was looking to the left, where Lemnaru was inching toward the Snitch, slightly ahead of Jones. Harry waited for a Beater to hit it, but that didn't happen this time. Almost too late, Harry pulled Ginny and Hermione down again and screamed for Sirius to move. Luckily, he did; the Bludger went crashing into the stands, sending wood splinters flying and halting the game. It hit exactly where Harry's head and Sirius' shins would have been if they hadn't moved, going clean through the stands and continuing, moving away from the castle.
"Bumphing! Bagman cried, his amplified voice hurting Harry's head. "And a foul against Romania! Negrea has hit a Bludger into the stands--"
Except he hadn't, Harry thought wildly. He'd seen, very clearly, the ball change direction. It was hurtling at Jones and then abruptly turned.
"You ruddy ponces!" Charlie was screaming, having leapt to his feet and shaking his fist at the Romanians. "Budos olah!" he said, switching languages. Harry had no idea what he meant, but he assumed that if you were Romanian, you wouldn't let your grandmother hear you say that. "Don't you see the bloody Romanian flags?" he cried now, waving his own small example indignantly.
"And Adrienne Fourcade will take the foul for France!" Bagman declaimed. The French Chaser moved into position near the Romanian goal. The Snitch had disappeared.
"But he didn't do it!" Harry cried feebly, his voice catching in his throat. He picked himself up and helped Hermione and Ginny stand. "Negrea hit the Bludger toward Jones," he said to the girls and Ron, just as he heard a small pop! nearby. "It turned and headed for me after that. Didn't anyone else see?"
"I did," Katie said, breathlessly; she was the 'pop' he'd heard. She had Apparated directly to the top of the stands. "I was on my way up, but I stopped and looked through one of the openings down below, and I saw it, so I didn't bother with climbing the rest of the stairs," she explained. "Fred," she said urgently, "do you have some Weasleys' Whacky Whompers with you? I have a feeling that Bludger will be back."
"Uca Lazar blocks the foul shot by Fourcade!" Play resumed, both teams zipping around the field again.
"I have some," Percy said quickly in answer to Katie, producing a drawstring bag from his robes and taking out some small sweets wrapped in paper with rainbow-patterned lettering. Despite the fact that Percy was running the family business, this seemed odd to Harry. He didn't normally think of Percy as the sort of person to carry sweets with him.
Percy began passing them round and Sirius, Neville, Fred, Bill and Katie immediately unwrapped them and started chewing vigorously. Harry looked at the thing Percy had put in his hand; according to the wrapper, it was gum. This being a Weasley Wizard Wheezes product, he was also hesitant to learn of its side-effects the hard way, as Dudley had with the Ton-Tongue Toffee.
"I'm really not that keen on gum, thanks," he said, trying to hand it back.
"Harry!" Percy said imperiously, reminding him strongly of when he'd been Head Boy during Harry's third year. "Chew and swallow it now! That goes for all of you!" he barked at Ron and the girls. "Can't be too careful!"
Ginny and Hermione hurriedly opened their wrappers and popped the gum into their mouths; Ron did too, less urgently, but Harry still resisted. "Swallowing gum isn't good for you. Dudley did once, and--"
"Just do it!" Sirius screamed at him now, alarming him. After an outburst like that from Sirius, Harry swiftly put the gum in his mouth and chewed as quickly as he could, swallowing with great difficulty. The gum tasted like sand, as far as he could tell, and settled in his stomach like a piece of lead. Then he saw something out of the corner of his eye, and when he looked, it was the Bludger, soaring back toward the castle.
Directly at him.
"Duck, Harry!" Hermione and Ginny both screamed, also seeing it.
"No!" Percy objected. "It should be all right now. You did swallow, Harry?" he asked urgently, referring to the leaden Weasleys' Whacky Whomper now sitting in his rather uncomfortable stomach. The Bludger was zeroing in on him. He nodded at Percy, sweat running down his face. "Let it hit you, Harry. Or else the spell on the Bludger won't be broken. If you swallowed, you should be all right."
Harry felt strange all over. He wasn't numb, exactly, but he didn't feel like he could sense the presence of his limbs and his very skin in quite the same way he was used to. He felt as though he were encased in some sort of protective sheath, like a knight's armor, only stronger, and invisible. He faced down the oncoming Bludger, bracing himself for the impact, hoping Percy was right. He knew he would be in big trouble if he was wrong.
"Oof!" Harry was unable to stop himself from grunting when the Bludger struck him. It had taken all of the bravery and willpower he could muster to remain immobile and let the Bludger come right for him, as Percy had instructed. Knowing that Percy was an Auror now helped; he wasn't sure he would have followed such an order previously. It struck him in the stomach and propelled him backward against the stone barrier. He hit the parapet hard enough that he heard some dislodged bits of stone and mortar fall down toward the pitch, bouncing against the wall on the way to the grass.
Ginny, Hermione and Alicia screamed when it made impact, and Ron leapt forward to grab his arm, to keep him from toppling over the parapet. Harry panted and hugged the metal ball to him, which, oddly, felt like the fight had gone out of it. It no longer struggled against him and was strangely inert for a Bludger. He also didn't seem to have any broken ribs, or even a pain in his stomach. He looked quizzically at Percy, who was standing next to him now. What kind of gum was that? he wondered. Katie was on his other side, with Ron and Fred. Sirius was motioning to them to follow him, before Bagman and the other officials bearing down on them arrived.
Harry looked at Neville, Hermione and Ginny over his shoulder, shrugging. (They were following.) Percy was right, but why, and how?
Charlie stayed behind with Bill, Alicia, and Oliver and Alex Wood; Harry could hear Bill trying to keep Bagman, Cornelius Fudge and the French and Romanian Ministers of Magic away. Charlie was speaking to the Romanian Minister in his own language, very fast, without pausing between words, as far as Harry could tell. As he left, he could see out of the corner of his eye that Bagman and Fudge were fuming.
Katie and Percy hustled him down some stairs and into a bathroom labeled "Wizards;" Sirius had run ahead and now stood with the door open, waiting for them. As soon as they were inside, along with Ron, Fred, Neville and the girls, he used a charm to lock the door. Harry was still trying to get his breath. He was also still clutching the Bludger, which he handed to Ron now. Ron looked at it quizzically, tossing it back and forth from hand to hand and shrugging. Watching him do that, Harry wondered whether it wasn't a legal Bludger; surely it was too light to do him damage, and that's why he was all right?
Ron seemed to think that was a possibility too, for after shrugging over the mystery of the Bludger, he tossed it casually toward one of the sinks. It promptly crashed violently into the edge of the porcelain sink, making everyone in the room jump. A large chunk of the sink broke away and dropped noisily to the tiles, along with the Bludger itself, which landed with a loud ringing noise before rolling lifelessly into the drain in the middle of the floor. Clearly it was a regulation Bludger. Harry had forgotten that to Ron it would weigh relatively little. Neville stared at it with large, round eyes and Harry swallowed, surveying the damaged sink. He turned to Percy. "What did you give me?"
"What?" Percy said softly with a sly smile, his eyes glittering behind his spectacles. "You really thought we were just running a business producing silly sweets?" He looked around, at his youngest brother and sister, at Hermione, Fred, Neville and Sirius. Harry also thought that he looked rather fondly at Katie, who looked back at Percy proudly. "Nothing I say leaves this room," he said with authority. "Sirius and Katie know already, as they've had occasion to use our products. Fred, of course, is one of our two masterminds, although we've also had some assistance from Snape and his uncle. Professor Sprout and Neville," he said, smiling at Neville unexpectedly, "know what we're up to because they've been making sure for some time now that we have a steady supply of mandrakes for one of our most useful sweets, one that every Auror keeps with him or her these days. Thanks for that, by the way. I can't believe you spent all last summer growing those ruddy things." Neville nodded in acknowledgment, turning a little pink.
Harry was mystified still, and he could see that Ron, Hermione and Ginny were, too. "Our products are weapons," Percy continued, "for Aurors and for Dumbledore's operatives. Even most Ministry officials aren't aware of it, for security reasons. The gum you swallowed, Harry, has Aegisthos Potion in it; if you read the instructions on the wrapper, you'll see that it's necessary to say the spell printed there for the gum to have any flavor to it. Saying the flavor spell transfigures an inert ingredient in the Aegisthos potion into something that converts the Aegisthos component into an inactive ingredient. Most people don't want sand-flavored gum, so they say the spell before putting it in their mouths. Plus, most people don't usually swallow gum. An Auror who's in a spot of trouble can just pop one of these in, chew and swallow, and they have a temporary protection from bodily harm. It doesn't protect against spells--only physical violence. And of course, the Aegis charm only blocks spells and doesn't protect against physical assaults, so this helps fill the gap. Some Death Eaters have been resorting more and more to purely physical violence that doesn't leave a magical signature. Carrying some select Weasley's Wizard Wheezes products is a lot easier than carting around vials of potion."
Harry looked back and forth at Percy and the others who were in on the secret of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. His mouth was open and working soundlessly. Harry saw that Hermione had colored at the mention of Aegisthos Potion, which had helped her to finally consummate her relationship with Ron. "I don't believe it!" he breathed. "So all of you at Hog's End are really--"
"--fighting the good fight, Harry," Fred said, grinning and clapping his hand on Percy's shoulder. Harry shook his head in disbelief.
Ron was grinning. "And disguising it as sweets!" he said, clearly quite impressed. "Bloody brilliant! The Death Eaters haven't caught on yet?"
Sirius shook his head. "So far we've been all right. I've managed to get out of more than one tight spot because of those 'silly sweets,'" he said, smiling.
"And I'm working on developing one myself that will give Fred and George the irresistible urge to clean up after themselves in the kitchen, instead of treating me like a house elf..." Percy said, looking at Fred and laughing. Fred, ever the mature one, stuck his tongue out at Percy, then grinned.
Suddenly, someone was pounding on the door of the bathroom. They were even more startled by this than by Ron tossing the Bludger at the sink His voice still amplified, Ludo Bagman cried, "Open this door at once!"
"Ludo! End the sodding Sonorus spell!" Harry recognized Fudge's voice.
Sirius strode to the door, saying sharply, "Just a minute!" He turned to Percy and Fred, speaking in a low, urgent voice. "Get the girls, Neville and Ron into some stalls; standing on the seats, so their feet can't be seen. You should do that as well, Fred. You just produce amusing sweets, remember?" he said with a wink.
Fred grinned slyly and herded the others into stalls to hide, then claimed one himself. Percy picked up the Bludger with some effort and handed it to Ron (Harry assumed this was because it was so light for him), and Ron was now hiding in a stall with the Bludger. Sirius repaired the broken sink with a wave of his wand while Percy hustled Harry over to some urinals. "Pretend you're just zipping up, finishing," Percy said softly.
Harry nodded, one hand at his waist as though he was doing what Percy said; he didn't feel so invincible anymore; the potion from the gum seemed like it might have worn off. Percy positioned himself at a urinal two away from Harry; he was actually not pretending to fasten his trousers, but was unwrapping a purple-wrapped sweet, popping it into his mouth and chewing. Harry wondered what it was.
"This is Ludo Bagman!" came the angry voice, no longer amplified. "Open this door immediately before I blast it open!"
Sirius ran his hands under the faucet of the repaired sink quickly, then strode to the door, his hands still wet. He took the spell off the door and opened it, then started flapping his hands around to dry them. Ludo Bagman entered with Cornelius Fudge and the Romanian Minister of Magic. "Hullo, Minister," he said cheerfully, as though former notorious Azkaban escapees were accustomed to addressing the Minister of Magic every day. "I was in the middle of washing my hands." He held them up. "Sorry about that. I took the precaution of locking the door because Harry's with me. You know how it is when you're famous; people always gawping and wanting autographs. I thought--a bloke shouldn't be disturbed in here, of all places, yeah?"
Sirius went to dry his hands on a towel. Harry watched him and the others out of the corner of his eye, then turned away from the urinal, saying, "I should do the same, now." Ludo Bagman, however, positioned himself between Harry and the sinks, looking very suspicious.
"Are you all right, Harry?" Bagman said, sounding less concerned than incredulous. "That Bludger--"
"Yeah," Harry said quickly. "It really smashed through the stands. I reckon that Beater's aim was a bit off," he added, catching Sirius' eye.
Bagman frowned. "No, I mean when it came back and--"
"Now, now, Ludo. Harry's fine. It's wonderful that you're so concerned, and you too, Minister," a familiar voice said. Harry turned in amazement. Where he had expected to see and hear Percy Weasley, he instead saw and heard his father. The spitting image of Arthur Weasley stood before them all now, every hair on his head and line on his face exactly as it had been on Christmas day, when Harry had last seen him.
With a jolt, Harry realized that the sweet Percy had eaten was probably impregnated with Polyjuice Potion, specifically, potion with part of Arthur Weasley in it. Harry swallowed, seeing the way Fudge and Bagman responded to the presence of the ersatz Mr. Weasley; they were clearly far more willing to show respect to him than to Sirius Black.
"Arthur!" Fudge said now, sounding disconcerted. "I didn't know you were here. Thought you were working today."
"I was, I was. Finished early. I decided I could manage to catch some of the match if I hurried. How's it going so far?"
The Romanian Minister of Magic crossed his arms and looked very grumpy; he was about Hermione's height, with a large barrel chest and dark brows which were lowered discontentedly over his black eyes. He only had about three hairs on his head, combed carefully over his otherwise bare pate. His black robes were trimmed with dun-colored fur at the neck and cuffs. His expression said that he was not accustomed to people disobeying him.
But instead of answering the question 'Arthur' asked him, his face suddenly split in a rather gruesome but recognizably friendly smile, and he put out his hand to Harry. "Laszlo Constantinescu. I am indescribably pleased to meet you, Mr. Potter." He had a very robust voice, over-emphasizing his consonants, and Harry started to put his hand out, but he caught Sirius giving him the tiniest of head-shakes and quickly withdrew it, then held up both of his hands, his mouth drawn into a line.
"I would, Minister, but I still need to wash up." He looked pointedly at Bagman with one eyebrow raised. Constantinescu looked grumpy again.
"Well, don't just stand there, you idiot!" he barked at Bagman. "Let Mr. Potter wash his hands!"
Ludo Bagman sent Harry a look that made him shiver as he moved out of the way. While he was at the sink, the Romanian Minister stood next to him, practically gushing about Harry's performance in the match against England, decrying the unfairness that led to Wales losing to France, and how it would have been an enormous privilege for the Romanian team to play against him in the final.
"Unfairness!" the French Minister exclaimed in a honey-rich voice; unable to stay out of the bathroom any longer, she had pushed the door open and now strode over to Harry and Constantinescu. Harry was finishing drying his hands by now and the French Minister ignored her Romanian counterpart long enough to extend her hand to Harry, palm down, at chest height. "Mignonette Beauvais. I am charmed to meet you, Mr. Potter." He had been expecting an accent something like Madame Maxime's, but instead, the Minister's diction was quite perfect, if rather formal, with barely a trace of her origins revealed.
Harry took her hand uncertainly, and as she seemed to be rather moving it upward, bent slightly and gave the back a small peck, before straightening up and releasing it. "Madame," he said uncertainly. Her dark blonde hair was pulled into a loose bun at the back of her head and her sparkling hazel eyes made Harry feel that she was not only taking in everything around her at once but taking possession of it. The lines around her eyes and mouth were minimal, and since she was a witch Harry was unable to tell whether she might be forty or seventy.
She turned to Ludo Bagman. "So, Ludo. I see you were not just trying to impress me when you said you knew Harry Potter."
Ludo Bagman turned deep red, and Harry wondered whether he'd been flirting with the French Minister. "Er, no, of course not." He suddenly threw his arm around Harry's shoulders and squeezed them painfully. "Harry and I go way back." He grinned at Harry, who felt a strong desire to kick Bagman in the shins. "That's why I'm so concerned. Getting a Bludger in the middle is hardly--"
Harry did his best to look shocked. "A what?" Is that what you think happened?"
'Arthur' Weasley stepped forward again, smiling and laughing. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, Ludo. Harry would be a wreck if that had happened. Does he look to you like someone who's taken a Bludger?"
Bagman looked vaguely discontented. "Show us your stomach," he demanded, not really responding to the question. Harry turned deep red, but when Sirius gave him a small nod, he unbuttoned his robes and lifted up his jumper and shirt a few inches, enough to see that he bore no marks, no damage of any kind. Bagman reached out with his finger and poked at Harry's ribs for a second; Harry flinched at his cold finger.
"Ticklish," he lied. He pulled his clothes down again and fastened his robes, feeling self-conscious about everyone standing about ogling his stomach.
"I tell you Negrea did not hit that Bludger at Harry Potter!" Constantinescu declared. "Our Seeker was about to catch the Snitch, and then--"
Madame Beauvais looked quite disdainful. "Oh, please..." she drawled.
Sirius cleared his throat. "Erm, since it is clear to everyone that Harry is all right, perhaps we should all leave? It looks like the rest of the match will have to be played with one Bludger only."
Ludo Bagman looked rather grumpy. "Yes, it does look that way. Odd, that. Even when they're hit out of bounds, Bludgers always come back. I wonder why this one didn't?" He looked very pointedly at Harry, who returned a blank stare.
When he was leaving the bathroom with the three Ministers, Sirius, 'Arthur,' and Bagman, Harry caught Bagman's arm and pulled him back a little.
"How much did you put on today's match?" Harry whispered conspiratorially, but not so softly that the others couldn't hear. Ludo Bagman glared and pulled his arm from Harry's. When the others turned, his glare turned into a grin, and he threw his arm around Harry's shoulders again.
"Well, well, good to see you again, Harry. I--"
"Did I hear correctly, Bagman?" Constantinescu said suddenly, very loud. "Are you permitted to wager on matches as the head of Magical Games and Sports?"
Bagman looked very nervous suddenly, and Harry could see small beads of sweat starting to form on his upper lip. "Of course not, Minister," he said very quickly. "I may sometimes speculate about who will win, of course, just in idle conversation. I predicted, for instance, that Harry here would win the Triwizard Tournament, and I was right about that, wasn't I, Harry?"
He squeezed Harry's shoulders painfully again, and Harry gave him a false smile. "Actually, you were a little off about that, remember? I didn't win outright; I drew with Cedric Diggory." Harry kept his stiff smile in place, looking at Bagman steadily, waiting for the older man to crack. And I cost you a good bit of money, too, he thought. It was very tempting to say it, but he controlled himself.
Bagman finally backed down, taking his arm from around Harry. "Oh, yes, right. Technically you both won, although you were the only surviving winner," he continued, emphasizing "surviving" in a way Harry didn't like. They were all standing outside the bathroom again, and Bagman and Fudge started hustling the Ministers away. "Back to the top box with us," Bagman said. "The game can't start again until I'm up there..." Harry watched them go, then looked quizzically at Sirius. His godfather nodded.
"Yeah, Harry. I don't trust him either."
Harry drew his lips into a line. Then beside him, hands clutched his arm and he beheld Percy Weasley once more, gasping as his body returned to normal and he no longer resembled his father. Harry watched the hair grow thicker on Percy's head, the features change subtly to a smoother, more youthful appearance. Harry was startled to realize, however, that few other changes occurred. Percy was as tall as his father, his glasses appeared to have the same frames, and his clothing clearly didn't cause a problem for Percy when he transfigured, including his shoes. It was like watching Arthur Weasley age backward, becoming his younger self. For some reason, it had never occurred to Harry before that Mr. Weasley must have looked just like Percy when he was young.
Percy swallowed and finally stood upright without having to hold anything. "Sorry, Harry. Wasn't quite prepared for that. Thank goodness it didn't happen before they left."
Harry had a sudden thought, looking at Percy. "I know why you and your mum are still fighting. It has nothing to do with George and Angelina. It's because she doesn't want you to be an Auror."
Percy looked surprised for a moment, then nodded grimly. "She thinks it's too dangerous. But--after what happened to Penelope--I can't not do this..."
Harry looked at him sympathetically. After he'd learned that Ginny had died, in his other life, nothing was the same again.
"She'll come around eventually. But I am confused about something--I thought Polyjuice Potion lasted for an hour?"
"A normal dose does. That's just a small--" Percy stopped and stared at Harry. "How do you know about Polyjuice Po--"
But then the door to the bathroom opened and Fred peeked out, checking to see that the way was clear for the others to emerge. They all went back up to their seats, a few at a time, Sirius and Harry going last. Sirius repaired the hole where he'd been sitting and resumed watching the match as though nothing had happened. Beside him, Harry was startled to see that Ginny had tear tracks running down her face.
Without looking at her, he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "You all right, Gin?"
She nodded miserably. "I just--I thought you were gone when that Bludger was coming for you," she whispered. She hiccuped and looked like she would start crying in earnest any second.
Harry turned to Charlie. "Charlie--can you get us to the Romanian offices where Ron and Ginny used the Floo network? Ginny needs to go back to Ascog. She doesn't feel well."
Charlie looked very grumpy. "Aw, Harry, why do we all have to go? The match just started again!"
"No--I'll take her. But she can't Apparate, so--"
Charlie sighed and took him to the office. He stood by, waiting, while Ginny and then Harry threw the powder into the fire and stepped into the green flames. Nothing mattered, the Quidditch match didn't matter, whether anyone saw them leave together didn't matter, only Ginny mattered...
When they arrived in the empty sitting room at the castle, a new snow was starting to fall, forming small drifts in the corners of the courtyard visible through the sitting room windows. Harry took Ginny to the couch near the window and drew her onto his lap just as the dam burst. She flung her arms around his neck, sobbing uncontrollably. He gathered her to him, warm and shaking. He'd never seen her quite like this, crying like the world had come to an end. That was how he'd cried on her after showing Ron and Hermione his Pensieve, but she'd never opened up and cried like this on him. She'd been very shaken up by her experience with Tom in the Chamber, but it still didn't come close.
After a little while she slowed down; her breathing began to sound more regular, and he put his hand on her tear-stained cheek and gazed at her shining eyes, which looked like liquid chocolate. "All right now?" he whispered.
She shook her head. "No. I--I'm sorry, Harry. I'm sorry for everything. For the ruddy plan Mariah and I cooked up, for ever thinking I shouldn't wait for you, for every moment I ever spent with Draco over the past two years--all of it. I--I had no idea how bad it would be, Mariah making a pass at you. When I held the amulet, I never expected to see the pair of you like that, rolling about with no clothes on..." Harry flushed. Ginny gave a small laugh. "Mariah said she wasn't expecting it either, that when she used her selkie charms for the first time, she hadn't known it would make her get rather carried away as well. She apologized profusely to me, she really did. Offered to let me hex her and everything. One of the hardest things about all of this, apart from having to pretend to be cross with you, has been treating her dreadfully too, at least in public, when she's been nothing but the dearest friend. She said that you were the one to put a stop to it, which shocked me, because selkie charms are very, very strong."
"But I did manage to stop us," he said. "And do you know what did it? One thought: 'She's not Ginny.'"
She stared at him, her mouth open slightly, and he couldn't not dip his head and capture her lips with his, as he showed her that he'd really wanted to be kissing her, holding her, not Mariah, and not anyone else. She sank into the kiss with him, her breathing matching his, the heat from her mouth feeling like it was seeping into his entire body, down to his fingertips and toes. When he broke the kiss gently and looked at her, she seemed much more relaxed, and he kissed her nose lightly, while she smiled lovingly at him.
"When you found me crying in the common room after that, I wasn't really acting. I'd never been more miserable in my life, and it was all my own fault. I thoroughly deserved it. I thought it had been hard to see you in bed with Hermione, and then Katie. But that--" she choked, and he pulled her head onto his shoulder, rubbing her back. "I never should have given up on you," she whispered. "I should have--"
"Gone on pining for me forever? No, Ginny. How would I ever have woken up and figured out what a dolt I was? When we were in the pool this summer, I never had a chance to finish telling you about that time in Flourish and Blotts. You know, that day when your dad and Lucius Malfoy had the fight. When Draco said that it looked like you were my girlfriend, I wished I had had the nerve to say back to him, 'Yes, and don't you wish she was yours?' But--well--"
She smiled feebly through her tears. "But twelve-year-old boys don't do things like that. Especially when they have to listen to the girl's brother talking all the time about what an annoying ninny she is. Ron was your friend--you had to agree with him."
He put his other hand up to her face now, cradling it. "I wish I hadn't. Every time I let some remark Ron made about you pass without comment, I felt this awful leaden weight inside me. It was dishonest of me not to respond--but I wasn't just being dishonest with you, and with Ron. I was being dishonest with myself. The one reason I thought maybe I'd done the right thing not to really acknowledge you was that--well, it did seem to border a little on hero-worship. Putting your elbow in the butter dish, dropping things..."
She smiled at him and turned her head slightly to kiss his palm, making him shiver. "That wasn't because I worshipped you. All right, when I first saw you at the train station, your first year, I was utterly in awe of you. I admit that. But later, when we started getting letters from Ron at Hogwarts--I liked you tremendously. And you know why? Because you were Ron's friend. Silly, I know, but I knew that if the famous Harry Potter had befriended one of the poorest boys at school, and if Ron thought you were worth his time, it was because you were a good person who didn't care about appearances. I heard about Draco offering you his hand. You didn't take a golden opportunity to be connected with one of the wealthiest families in the wizarding world. You became friends with my poor, threadbare brother with only a stupid rat for a pet and second-hand robes. And you did it in spite of the fact that he had an obnoxious little sister." She smiled at him and his heart turned over. "That made me like you, and I was very, very nervous whenever I was near you as a result. I was a ninny. But isn't that what happens? When you first had your crush on Cho, didn't you feel awkward when you were around her? Like your feet were suddenly very large, or like you always had bad breath or a piece of spinach in your teeth or something growing out of your ear?"
Harry laughed. "Oh, yes. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown from trying to ask her to the ball. And then it turned out Cedric had asked her first."
She poked him in the chest. "I think that if you had asked her out at the beginning of your fourth year, she would have accepted. She did like you. Cedric just got to her first."
He pulled her closer. "I'm glad I didn't. I know now that when she turned me down for the ball, that awful feeling must have been what you felt when you found out I didn't have a date, after you'd accepted Neville..."
She put her head on his shoulder, looking at his neck. "I cried for hours after that," she whispered. "I felt like you'd never notice me..."
He rubbed her back and turned to kiss her forehead lightly. "I was a little scared at the thought of going to the ball with you and just a bit relieved, frankly, that you were going with Neville. It seemed--it seemed to matter so much to you, and I was afraid I'd disappoint you. I was still rather fixated on Cho. I don't think you would have enjoyed yourself very much."
She smiled, her head still on his shoulder. "I might have had my feet trod on a little less. You danced very well with Parvati."
He laughed. "It was easy. I just let her lead."
They both laughed then, for a moment, but after that they just sat together on the couch in quiet communion while the snow fell outdoors, until Sirius' mother called them for tea. They joined the rest of Sirius' family, wondering how the match was going, but not really disappointed that they weren't there.
"Here, here! What's this, then?"
Ron's voice hurt Harry's head. Where was he? Opening his eyes, he found that he was on the couch in the sitting room again; he and Ginny had returned there after tea. Harry had picked up the Daily Prophet to try to work the crossword and Ginny, yawning, had lain down with her head on his leg. Soon her nose was whistling in that way that made him smile; he smoothed her hair out of her peaceful face and then went on working the crossword, feeling very content and domesticated. Sirius' mother sat on the other couch for a while, reading. She asked him whether he wanted to hear the match on the wireless; it was still going on, presumably, or the others would have returned. He declined, knowing he'd get a blow-by-blow from Ron, and instead they sat in companionable silence until Callisto Black decided she would go up to bed.
The children had already been put to bed by Ursula, after their tea, and she and Alan had retired after that as well. Walter Black had gone on a short trip to visit Sirius' cousin Ian, whose appearance Sirius had borrowed at the ceilidh. Casseiopeia and Floyd were still visiting his family, and the house seemed much less fraught with tension with them gone.
Harry didn't realize that he had dozed off; when Ron stumbled out of the fire, his exclamation woke Harry, who felt a bit disoriented. He blinked up at his best friend, trying to focus his eyes. To his surprise, Ron was looking at them now with a soft expression, his mouth twisting.
"Aw--do you two have to look so--I mean--oh, bloody hell--" he trailed off helplessly. Harry blinked some more; the world finally stopped looking fuzzy. He heard three pops! from the entrance hall, and then Sirius, Neville and Hermione were entering the room. Hermione stopped, and, after one glance at Harry and Ginny, had the same soft look on her face. She seemed like she was going to say something, but Harry put his finger to his lips, so they wouldn't disturb Ginny.
She smiled and bent over, whispering in his ear, "You look nice together." She straightened up, still smiling, and Harry felt himself color. "However," she added, "Ginny should probably sleep upstairs, not down here on your lap."
Ron nodded vehemently. "Definitely," he agreed, crossing his arms.
Harry managed to gently wake her and Hermione led her up to their shared room. Ron and Harry walked behind them, Ron regaling him with Romania's victory over France. Harry wasn't listening very closely. He was frowning, remembering the Bludger again.
"Did Percy or Katie say anything about trying to work out why that Bludger was coming after me?" he asked Ron as they continued up the stairs.
"Yeah," he confirmed; "Percy said he'd get on it, try to find out who had access to the equipment before the match. Charlie's vampire friend said he'd try to find out something, too. We went to a pub in a nearby village after the match--that's why we're so late. Dimitry's a right nice bloke--for a vampire." Ron laughed. "And he said the same thing about me, using the words 'for a werewolf,' instead."
Harry grinned at him. "I reckon we should have known what the Romanians would be doing for mascots, but it was still a bit of a surprise. Didn't they think it was a bit risky? Others seemed to think so, too, with all of the garlic and stakes they were handing out."
Ron shook his head. "Nah. Less risky than the ogres the French had, if you ask me. The garlic and stakes were for show, to get people stirred up. Vampires are smart. They know that food handed to them without a fight is better than food they have to sneak around for, with the risk that someone'll try to skewer them with a stake. Ogres are just stupid, and indiscriminately violent and bloodthirsty. They're like giants' dumb cousins."
Harry huffed at Ron. "Hagrid's not stupid."
"I didn't say he was! That's why I said they were like stupid giants. And even though Hagrid's not stupid, Harry, he is, well, he's just a bit careless sometimes, isn't he? And has, erm, interesting taste in pets. But he's not stupid."
Harry laughed. "You didn't think the Skrewts were 'interesting.'" They began climbing the last flight. Ron was shaking his head and laughing.
"No. The Skrewts were a prime example of why extinction isn't always a bad thing. I would have gone down there and killed them while Hagrid was asleep--if I could have worked out how, and if I didn't think Hermione would set the W.S.P.C.C. on me."
"Wizarding Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Creatures."
At that, Harry burst out laughing, and Ron joined him. But the hilarity didn't last long; fatigue overcame them as they stumbled into Harry's room, and they were soon fast asleep.
"Ow! What are you trying to do, Weasley, kill me with that broom of yours?"
"Don't tempt me, Malfoy. Do you have a better idea about how to get it here?"
"Well--you can't race if your bloody broom is broken!"
"Oh? And you can't Apparate to Arjeplog if you're broken!"
Draco and Ron glared at each other, toe to toe. Ron having the height, weight and werewolf advantage, Draco backed down, mumbling something incomprehensible.
"I heard that, Malfoy. You talk about your own mother," Ron growled, giving Harry a fairly good idea of what Draco had said.
Sirius cleared his throat. "When you two are quite through, we should make way for someone else to arrive. There's another Portkey in ten minutes."
Hermione drew Ron away from Draco, who fell into step beside Harry. He saw Sirius and Charlie grin at each other and shake their heads. It was the last day of the year, and the trip from Hogsmeade to Kopparberg via Portkey (a battered deerstalker) had been a bit bumpy. Ron's and Charlie's brooms had knocked them on their heads more than once.
"I wish we could have Apparated," Hermione said in a slight whine. "I studied up on it! We're fifteen degrees east and sixty north, about halfway between Oslo and Stockholm--"
"And zero degrees from the middle of nowhere," Draco Malfoy drawled, "just like I remember." They looking around after turning the deerstalker over to a Swedish Ministry official and emerged from the small cottage serving as the arrival point for Portkeys from Britain. Harry suppressed a little laugh, but let Draco see that he was smiling. Hermione frowned at them both. She was still not happy about Harry being friends with Draco Malfoy.
Harry also looked about; there was a single street with just a few houses. There didn't seem to be any restaurants or inns, or even a church or school. He'd never seen a place that looked more deserted.
"We couldn't have Apparated, Hermione," Sirius told her. "Anti-Apparition wards have been erected all around the town, so witches and wizards who haven't done as much preparation as you can't accidentally land in Muggle houses, or in the middle of a street."
"You mean the street," Draco Malfoy said, nodding at the strip that was barely visible in the darkness. They'd taken the five o'clock Portkey; the sun wouldn't be rising very soon, and in fact the race would be starting and ending in darkness, because of the very short days so close to the Arctic Circle. "You can't see my aunt and uncle's house from here, of course. It's across those fields. But how difficult would it have been to avoid so few houses? It would probably be harder to intentionally land in a house."
Harry saw that Sirius was smiling now, too. From what he'd seen so far, Sirius seemed to get along well with Draco. Harry took that as a good sign. Draco called him by his first name (he hadn't been his student), and each seemed to appreciate the other's wry sense of humor. Harry wished Sirius would budge on the issue of telling Draco about him and Ginny; he didn't yet feel that he had an adequate explanation for why he couldn't tell him.
A blue Swedish Ministry of Magic bus with a large yellow cross on the side suddenly appeared before the cottage, and the bus door opened. A large blond man who seemed to be both driver and conductor stepped down from the bus, saying, "Velcome! Velcome! Ve vill vait for the next three Portkeys, and then ve vill go to the race!" He grinned at them, and Harry ducked his head as he passed him, hoping his scar wouldn't be noticed. When they were seated in the rear of the bus (which had seats like any Muggle bus, rather than the Knight Bus's beds) Hermione pulled a book out of her bag and began to give unsolicited information about the race.
"The annual broom race takes a total of about seven to nine hours, depending upon the speed of the slowest flyer," she read aloud. "After all racers have left Kopparberg, the wards are lifted and spectators receive numbers for Apparating. These appear on the back of the race tickets. Each witch or wizard must wait until his or her number is called, then proceed to the A.A.P.s--Approved Apparition Points." She frowned at Sirius, sitting with Charlie behind her and Ron. "It sounds very regimented."
"Well," he explained to her, "they don't want everyone attending the race to try to Apparate to Arjeplog at once any more than they want everyone to Apparate here for the start of the race. That would be utter chaos. It's a good thing the end of the race is about three-hundred miles away. That gives everyone enough time to get there."
Hermione nodded. "True. And if you have a low number and go early, you may have enough time to explore Arjeplog and do some sightseeing. I hope I do." She turned the page. "It says here that there's a museum with a wonderful collection of Lappish silver--"
Ron made a choking noise next to her. "Erm, Hermione, can you not tell me that you're going to be staring at a pile of silver while I'm dodging dragons?"
She drew her lips into a line. "It's a museum, Ron, not a shop. I'm sure it's all behind glass or something like that. It's supposed to be quite beautiful. Anyway, I wouldn't dream of making you go. That's why I'll go when you're otherwise occupied."
Ron's mouth twisted. "Forgive me for being unable to see the beauty in silver these days."
Hermione smiled gently at him and kissed his cheek, where the scar showed from the Three Broomsticks attack. "There's nothing to forgive," she said quietly, looking up at him with wide brown eyes. Ron put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him. She rested her head on his chest and stopped quoting from books, and they waited in silence for the other race spectators to arrive and fill up their bus.
They soon discovered that the Swedish Ministry bus was on the order of the British Ministry cars that had taken them from the Burrow to London in past years, which couldn't bounce about the country like the Knight Bus, but could do extraordinary things when traffic was bad, like leap to the front of a line of waiting cars. This bus didn't need to do that, as there was no traffic, but it didn't technically keep to the road. Their route took them over numerous fields and through more than one wood. Several times, Harry saw rocks and trees leap out of its way, as the bus trundled on in what he was fairly certain was a straight line. He held onto the seat in front of him as they bounced along.
"Well," he said to Sirius, on the other side of the aisle; "the driver clearly believes what they say about the shortest distance between two points..." His teeth rattled in his head.
Sirius looked at him blankly. "What do you mean, Harry?" Harry shrugged and said nothing; wizards probably didn't think the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. There were many even faster ways of getting about using magic.
When they arrived at the starting point for the race, they went with Ron and Charlie to check in with the other racers, and Harry felt his pulse quicken; he'd never seen so many people with brooms before, surely. Then he, Hermione, Draco and Sirius had to move off to the spectator area, but they wished Ron and Charlie luck first. Harry and Sirius pounded them on the back while Draco stood nearby, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. Hermione kissed Ron the cheek before starting to move away, but Ron would have none of it; he pulled her to him in a deep kiss, her face flaming when he finally released her. Harry saw that she had a small lopsided smile. Draco looked like he was trying to studiously ignore the pair of them and failing.
He assumed that Muggle-repelling charms were keeping non-magic people away, for otherwise, the spectacle would surely have drawn a great deal of attention. Fairy lights were shining onto the spectator area at either side of the starting line, and a huge number of racers were taking up positions behind the starting line. When they spotted Ron and Charlie they waved, and Ron and Charlie waved back. There had to be over two-hundred racers, and over a thousand spectators. Witches and wizards moved through the crowd wearing sandwich boards with odds on them; Harry looked at Sirius quizzically.
"There's a lot of wagering on this, Harry. You wouldn't believe how much money people lose on this race."
Harry nodded. "Yes, I would." That made him think of Bagman. "Do you think Ludo Bagman has a bet on the race?"
Sirius shrugged. "He might, although he really shouldn't. He registers the British participants. In a position like his, one has to be above reproach."
Harry guffawed. "Well, that's one thing Bagman definitely isn't."
Sirius drew his lips into a line, looking thoughtful but not responding. Harry was wearing his Omnioculars around his neck, and he lifted them to his face now, peering at the racers.
"They're mounting their brooms. I think it's going to start."
The crowd grew restless and a low murmur started up from somewhere, the crescendo growing until finally the flag was lowered and Harry saw the amazing spectacle of over two-hundred brooms rising into the air at once. They didn't move forward, however, and Harry realized that they were just getting into position. He watched the cloud of broom-riders hovering, waiting. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until the second flag was lowered and the flyers at the front of the pack zoomed into the cold, dark morning air, flying north to Arjeplog.
The crowd almost immediately started up a deafening cheer; Harry's ears were ringing with the noise, and then he realized that his throat was sore from joining in. He saw that even Draco and Hermione were caught up in the excitement, waving their hands in the air as the riders zoomed forward in a dark cloud. They watched and cheered and watched some more. It took over an hour for all of the riders to disappear from sight, especially as many people, like Harry, could see them from quite a distance using Omnioculars. But finally, a mountain obscured the last trailing racer, and the crowd started milling about, clearly wondering who was going to get the low numbers and have the opportunity to get out of Kopparberg first. Harry hoped they didn't have to wait all day; from what Hermione said, Arjeplog was a much more interesting place.
However, when they could no longer see the racers, Hermione grasped his arm tightly, her brow knit with worry. "They will be all right, won't they Harry?"
He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, trying to comfort her even though he had doubts himself. "They'll be fine, Hermione."
"But they're going to be invading the dragons' home, basically," she said, making Harry think she wanted him to tell her it wouldn't be all right.
"Yes," Draco drawled, "and the dragons will be worried that they're going to make off with their women. Dragons are very sexy, you know," he said waggling his eyebrows. "You can bet that all of the bachelor dragons have calendars hanging in their lairs with the best-looking she-dragons in provocative poses...."
Then Harry and Draco couldn't take it anymore and doubled up in laughter, while Hermione crossed her arms on her chest and frowned at them. Sirius was rolling his eyes, but Harry could also see a smile at the corner of his mouth. As they made their way through the crowd to find out when they would be allowed to Apparate, Harry put his arm around Hermione again, saying, "There, there. It'll be all right, really. And now you're too busy thinking about how immature we are to be worried about Ron, yeah?"
She relented, smiling a little. "I suppose." She dropped her voice, looking furtively at Draco Malfoy, walking ahead of them by Sirius' side. "I want you to be careful, Harry. I think he's a bad influence on you." He nodded grimly, looking at the back of Draco's head, wishing Hermione would get along with him better, but knowing that their history of animosity probably made that impossible.
They didn't have to wait all day, but it was a full two hours after the last racers had disappeared from sight. They were all growing restless, tired of salesmen pushing through the crowd trying to sell them their wares, which didn't include enough offers of hot food and drink for Harry's taste, although he did get a bowl of hot meatballs in a brown gravy, with some flat noodles. He shoveled it into his mouth quickly, letting it warm him.
When he finally Apparated to Arjeplog, it was a relief, and for once he wasn't worried, for he knew he was prepared. Hermione had been quizzing him about it constantly. When he felt his body again, he was on the shore of a lake, with a small forest in the distance on the other side of the water, a white church steeple rising out of the trees. There were some other long, low houses visible but not much else.
They were hustled out of the Apparition area and onto buses which would taken them to the town of Arjeplog proper, since it was still about four to six hours until the end of the race. They found that the town was charming, and they wandered up and down the streets for a while, wondering what story the Swedish Ministry of Magic put out about why over a thousand visitors suddenly converged on Arjeplog on the New Year's Eve every year.
When the sun finally rose, they decided to eat lunch, finding a charming inn with a restaurant. Hermione pulled out her phrase book and spoke to the waiter for them. They had a nice meal and let Hermione drag them to the silver museum afterward; there was still at least an hour to go before the first racers would arrive. They returned to the finish line after leaving the museum, watching the sky to the south anxiously as the dark became deeper; the brief daylight hours had passed very quickly, and the sky was covered in clouds, without any starlight at all seeping through. Harry felt like they were at the top of the world. When he said this to Hermione, she rolled her eyes and replied, "We are."
At length, a small speck was seen in the distance, then another and another. An excited noise started rumbling through the crowd. Harry watched with his heart in his throat; even with his Omnioculars to his face, he couldn't yet make out the identities of the first flyers to appear. He wondered how many would make it, not knowing whether to take Quidditch Through the Ages with a grain of salt. He hated to think the book was right about the race. In the second chapter, about ancient broom games, it said that at the annual broom race, the spectators Apparated to Arjeplog "to congratulate the survivors." Although Charlie and Ron were uniquely equipped to handle themselves while flying through a dragon reservation, Harry sincerely hoped that the book was exaggerating.
More and more flyers moved into view, becoming a black swarm against the deep blue sky. It looked to him like a large number of flyers had made it through, and he was almost ready to breathe easy again. Almost.
Next to him, Hermione was looking through her own Omnioculars and jumping up and down excitedly. "Oh, where are they? Do you see them, Harry?"
Harry squinted into the lenses; in the dim light, it was impossible to spot the bright Weasley hair. He thought a couple of tall, lanky riders might be Ron, but they turned out to be other people. Finally he spotted Ron, Charlie flying by his side. He let out a yell.
"There they are!" he cried. They were finally in the finish area, lit by fairy lights, as the starting area in Kopparberg had been. But rather than crossing the finish line, the initial swarm of flyers simply landed on the strip immediately preceding it, the witches and wizards who had flown the race all looking quite shaken.
"What are they doing?" Draco demanded to know. "Why aren't any of them trying to cross the finish line? What is this, some new kind of race that Granger's invented? Where no one actually wins, they just all enjoy themselves, and no one's disappointed at losing..." he drawled sarcastically, rolling his eyes at Hermione. She immediately bristled and opened her mouth to say something, her hand reaching for her wand. "Go ahead, Granger," he said, before she could respond either verbally or with a spell. "I'd love to see you in trouble in a foreign country. Might I remind you that my aunt's here somewhere? She's the one who organizes this race, after all. There would be a nice news story. 'Hogwarts Head Girl Hermione Granger Arrested for Attacking Nephew of Swedish Ministry Official.' You'd have to wait until you're a hundred to be allowed in the country again."
"Shut up, the pair of you," Harry said harshly, although Hermione hadn't said a word. Her mouth was open, though, as if she were about to retort. She shut it abruptly now, looking at Harry sullenly. He didn't usually speak to her that way. But Harry was very worried, and had started to wonder how many had fallen to dragons. Yet another dark swarm came over the horizon, and another and another. They were probably at least an hour from seeing the last of the riders reach Arjeplog, but it was certainly looking as though a large number of them had come through without any problems. So why weren't any of them trying to cross the finish line?
A sense of foreboding gripped Harry as he pushed through the crowd. Sirius called his name; Harry turned his head and yelled, "Come on! I think something's wrong!"
Hermione, Draco and Sirius followed him through the crowd; Harry thought he heard Hermione giving Draco a piece of her mind as they approached. They soon reached the edge of where spectators were permitted. Ron and Charlie stood amid the other racers, holding their brooms, scanning the crowd. As soon as he spotted them, Ron began to work his way through the other riders, parting the crowd and allowing Charlie to travel in his wake.
When Charlie and Ron stood before them, they looked very serious indeed, and Harry couldn't begin to imagine what had happened. Ron let Hermione throw her arms around him with an inarticulate cry; Harry had seen her chewing her fingernails as the first flyers had appeared, before Draco had started trying to wind her up. Sirius frowned at Charlie.
"What is it, Charlie? What's wrong?" There was a worried tone in his voice, which shook. "Is it the dragons? Were a lot of riders lost?"
Charlie opened his mouth to speak, shut it instead, then tried once more. "That's just it. There were no dragons."
Harry dropped his jaw. "What?"
Charlie nodded. "They're all just--gone."
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