Chapter 11. Smoke Behind the Glass (Feb. 23-24, 1998)
"My dear witches and Gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair welcoming you to what, we're hoping, will be another lively Monday evening of brilliant Quidditch entertainment. I'm joined by our illustrious sporting analyst, Septimo Aurrera, and the two of us are gazing out toward Wigtown Bay and a view of... well, what can you see, Sept?"
"Eh, well not very much, Richard, due all the fog and drizzle that rolled in from the sea this afternoon. Our guests, that very intriguing exhibition team known as The Great Zabini Flying Circus, have just taken to the skies here at Bladnoch Park, but I can barely recognize any of them out in these conditions."
"The sellout crowd in attendance is still buzzing in anticipation, though. Given the reduced visibility, do you reckon they'll have a chance to watch the match they're all so anxious for?"
"Good question, Rich. The new match safety regulations ushered in by the Department of Magical Games and Sports in November requires that some basic visibility tests be passed before the Marshall agrees to release the Snitch. As I understand it, we should know the results of those tests in about ten minutes."
"Good to know, Sept. Maybe we can take the intervening time to update our listeners on what to expect from the two squads scheduled to do battle tonight?"
"Absolutely! So, Rich, what would you say is the biggest story surrounding the Wigtown Wanderers this month?"
"Errrm, should I say the recent selection of Blythe Parkin as the starting Seeker for Scotland's National Squad for next summer's Quidditch World Cup?"
"Not a bad choice, but I'd suggest something more basic."
"And what would that be, Sept?"
"I would say Wigtown's recent turnaround. True, winning two out of their last five matches would hardly seem like a great phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes, but from a squad that lost every one of its first eight contests of the season, I'd say it's really quite noteworthy."
"Yes, I'd have to agree with you! After such a miserable autumn, the Wanderers have indeed started to show some life, and with their last victory over Wimbourne Wasps, they've moved out of their tie with the Falmouth Falcons for the bottom of the British Irish League standings."
"That's all true Rich, but I think the most telling sign is not their two victories, but one very interesting recent loss."
"Against Montrose, perhaps?"
"Brilliant! Yes indeed, Rich, I was most impressed to see how this undermatched cellar-dwelling squad dogged the second-ranked Magpies all match. It was a short contest of course — Blythe Parkin and Lennox Campbell facing off against each other in fine weather is rarely a grand opportunity to really test the Chasers and Beaters, but even so, many of us were shocked to see Wigtown trailing by a mere ten points when Campbell muscled past Parkin for the Snitch."
"So Sept, you almost might be implying that Wigtown has momentum going into this evening's outing?"
"Yes, I honestly do believe that... but I don't think it's going to carry them tonight. Wigtown is facing a squad that has never yet lost, even though they've played a diverse selection of challenging opponents. Furthermore, The Flying Circus is a group that, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their idiosyncrasies, seems to find unusual ways to win."
"Heh heh. Like flying four Chasers?"
"Oh yes Rich, that certainly earned them notoriety in eking out a victory a couple of weeks ago against the Luxembourg National Junior Squad. Personally, I don't think they'll need anything quite so rum tonight though. Wigtown's Pucey, Farley and Lavoisier seem to have learned a recent few lessons cohesive teamwork, but if The Flying Circus shows up tonight playing the same kind of artful coordination that they displayed against Skegness, and if the match lasts less than ninety minutes, I shamelessly predict that Weasley, Zabini and Summerby will collectively outscore their Wigtown Chaser counterparts."
"Whoa, whoa, Septimo! Are you seriously sticking your neck out to say that a group of school-aged amateurs is going to outclass the front line of a Premier League squad?"
"I am, Rich. I've now seen all of the position players in enough live action to make some bold predictions. Interestingly, the two squads are fairly similar in a lot of ways, but it's their differences that, er, well, make the difference."
"I think you've lost me on that Sept. Would you care to elaborate?"
"Sure. Let's start by looking at what's comparable between the two groups. Beater play, for starters, could be a wash tonight. Adi Saari is a legitimate all star and is Wigtown's best all-around athlete, but Anthony Rickett is a fair bit weaker and the two haven't yet learned to coordinate very well. Meanwhile for The Circus, the Weasley twins are skilled and work well together, so I'd say it all roughly cancels out. Looking at Chasers, I would estimate that Farley, Lavoisier, Zabini and Summerby are all in roughly the same class. However, if you consider each squad's primary scoring options, all of that parity goes out the window — Weasley is head and shoulders above Pucey. And then, when you factor in the keepers, you have another real edge for The Circus. Wigtown's Dell'Acqua has been playing a fair bit better recently than his record suggests, but even on a sharp night, Dell'Acqua doesn't quite match Grant Page."
"So, the keys to tonight's match, Sept?"
"Well, if everyone plays roughly to their abilities, and as long as The Flying Circus gets Ginny Weasley some good shots on goal, Zabini's crew should rack up a decent lead with the Quaffle. The only question mark is who gets to the Snitch, and how quickly. Personally, I..."
"Sorry to interrupt, Sept, but I've just received word from officials that the match will proceed! Visibility is quite poor, but not bad enough to send everyone trudging home in disappointment. The players are all completing their warmups, and we're now expecting the Snitch to be released in five minutes."
"Outstanding! By the sounds of the big cheer from the grandstands, most of our spectators are every bit as excited as we are to hear that! A moment ago I wasn't sure how The Flying Circus would respond, since wet conditions can disrupt a smooth passing game and will obviously make it harder to find the Snitch, but look at them, Rich — they're smiling just as brightly as everyone else!"
Ginny grinned as she fired the Quaffle hard to Zabini... but the grin faltered as he bobbled it. Zabini was able to stretch wide and reel it in, but Ginny was unaccustomed to seeing her reliably sure-handed team mate fumble yet again. She wiped her pasty forehead with her sleeve and cursed silently to herself. The weather was clearly going to shake things up.
Hearing the Marshall's two-minute whistle, she pulled back on her broom handle and began to make her descent — only to see her path blocked by a figure cloaked in red and grey. Above the colourful robes (which admittedly looked rather muted in the gloom) she recognized a familiar face — former Slytherin Chaser Adrian Pucey.
As Ginny approached him, she was uncertain whether or not to smile. Pucey had always played clean Quidditch and had never associated closely with his more thuggish team mates at Hogwarts, but on and off the pitch he had always seemed aloof and unapproachable. Nonetheless, at this very moment he was right in her path, and seemed in no mood to steer clear. So, with a mental shrug, Ginny offered a tentative smile and extended her hand
Surprisingly, he reciprocated. Their hands, rather clammy from the mist, clasped firmly and the young man smiled. "Good to see you again, Weasley. Welcome to Wigtown!" He paused for a moment. "You know, I'll really hand it to you. What you're doing here — it's a good thing."
"A good thing?" Ginny blinked at him. "Playing Quidditch??"
Pucey shook his head. "Not exactly. After all of those famous exploits last fall, a lot of people — myself included to be honest — expected you and Potter to turn your backs on everyone. Rich, famous, admired — a lot of us assumed you'd retreat into the safety some Ministry of Magic ivory tower to gaze down on the lowly masses. Not many people ever thought they'd see you mucking about in the wild fringes of Wigtown on the crappiest night of the year, just to entertain people."
"Ah..." Ginny gave him a quizzical look. "And you did say this was a good thing, right?"
"Sure! Consider all the folks who stayed on the fence throughout the war — to them, seeing you as plucky upstarts trying to put the hostilities to rest and make a go of Quidditch suddenly makes you look like real flesh and blood. To them, you've got a personality now; you seem a lot more human than the Dark Lord ever did."
"Oh? I can't say I ever thought of that..." Ginny met his eyes thoughtfully and nodded. "That's very kind of you to say — thank you Adrian!"
Her opponent smirked. "Of course, you'll seem a lot more human yet if you lose tonight."
Ginny laughed, gave him a friendly wave and flew off. All of the recent time spent sparring with Zabini had taught her not just about Chaser strategy, but also a lot about Slytherin psychology. In particular, she'd figured out that the only way most Slytherins could endure complimenting a non-Slytherin was by following it with something snide. And Ginny could handle that.
Harry scowled as the greased-pig of a Quaffle squirted out of Summerby's hands, setting off yet another merry chase as the slippery red projectile plummeted down toward the pitch.
The officials may have decided it was okay to proceed with the match, but Quidditch connoisseurs were surely starting to question whether it was worth it. The quality of play tonight was sure as hell not going to inspire Vangelis to compose a throbbing, heart-strung commemorative fantasia. Perhaps a requiem, though...
Harry mopped his face with a soggy sleeve, grumbled a bit, then soldiered on. By all rights, he knew he shouldn't complain. He was aware, for instance, that a damp Snitch (if he ever saw it) would probably be easier to catch than the sopping wet Quaffle. He also knew that the conditions were every bit as exasperating to the Wanderers as they were to The Circus. Indeed, by dint of a couple choice interceptions and a trio of Ginny's end-to-end slalom runs (i.e., plays that didn't require anyone to attempt, and presumably drop, any passes), The Circus had actually managed to scrape together a 50-20 lead over the first forty minutes.
Yes, all of that was fine. What bothered Harry was that he had been completely fired up to try a completely new strategy tonight, only to encounter match conditions that thwarted him at every step.
Simply put, Harry's successful experiment with Teri the previous Saturday had inspired him to try flying below the Snitch tonight. In such thick fog and the glaring stadium lights, his magical perception of a Snitch against the featureless open sky ought to give him a rare advantage over Parkin. Unfortunately, the combination of high altitude fog and the constantly Quaffle-bobbling had conspired to drive all of the action right down to the low-altitude level that would have worked best for carrying out his Snitch search. In a chaotic match like tonight's, any Seeker trying to fly down there would spend the entire time ducking Bludgers and dodging wayward Chasers and Beaters.
Unfortunately that left him with no good options. Flying standard search patterns about thirty feet above the action, he alternated between gazing wistfully upwards, and helplessly downwards. The first option afforded him the barest, most ephemeral of hopes — sure he would spot the Snitch with fair ease if it ever flew that high, but statistics that Ron had recently compiled for him showed that almost no Snitches caught in professional or international play were ever caught more than fifteen feet above goal level. Yet if anything, the downward search was even more futile. Reduced to a purely visual scanning, how could he expect to spot a walnut-sized Snitch through the fog if he could barely recognize the eighteen stone Beater Adi Saari?
As a result, Harry felt rather like the butt of an old Muggle joke that Colin Creevey had told him last fall over Butterbeer in the inter-house commons.
Colin: Hi! Hi Harry! Did you ever hear the one about the lush searching for his keys in the pub?
Harry: Er, no...
Colin: So this bloke was sitting in the pub with his mates on a cold winter night. He'd be hoisting a few pints, laughing and carrying on... but every so often, he'd get all serious and totter over to the hearth, poke around on the floor or in the wood pile. Then he'd sigh and go back to the revelry.
The third time he does this, the barkeep comes over and says, "Oi guv. 'Av ye lost summat?"
Lush gives a wobbly nod and says, "Aye mate. E'v lost me keys."
Barkeep frowns and asks, "Ye lost 'em o'er near't fire?"
Lush shakes his head. "Nae, nae mate. Eh lost em oot in t'snow."
Barkeep stares at him and asks, "Then, why ar'n' ye lookin' outside?"
Lush shrugs. "Tae cold."
Barkeep stares some more. "But ye ar'n' goin't find an'thing in 'ere!"
Lush hoists his mug, and says, "Listen mate, af'r nine pints o' bitters, eh'm not bluddy likely tae find nuffin' ootside neither!"
Harry: Heh heh — good one Colin.
Colin: Hey! Hey everyone, did you hear that? Harry likes my joke!
Indeed, in his high vantage point, Harry's search felt just as senseless as the lush's. Unfortunately, unlike the lush, he was not warm, he was not merry, and he certainly wasn't holding a mug of frothy pleasure. His mounting frustration was somewhat assuaged by one thing, and one thing alone — the apparent fact that Blythe Parkin's game plan seemed to be failing just as miserably as his was.
For now, anyway.
Every time Harry glanced toward his illustrious opponent, he reminded himself that she would never have become one of the best Seekers in Britain if she wasn't creative. He knew that she was eventually going to find some unconventional way to defeat the fog and nab that Snitch... unless he managed to do it first.
Harry turned his focus to the Quaffle action, debating once again whether he could possibly chance prowling around close to pitch-level. Would he get a good enough look at the skies to justify the constant risk of being injured or knocked out by the endless series of wayward Chasers, or by one of the erratically flying Bludgers?
On that thought Harry's downward gaze latched, for the first time all match, onto a rather interesting Beater battle...
Fred was not particularly satisfied with the sloppy match, but he could at least take some pride in knowing that there were probably Quidditch strategists from all across the British Irish Premier League watching to see how their 'aimless gambit ' turned out. Variants of this tactic, which mainly involved blithely turning loose one opposing Beater and one Bludger in order to focus on the other Beater (presumably a stronger or more skilled player) was fairly common in casual backyard Quidditch play, but semi-serious professional squads very rarely dared try it, since even a marginal opposing Beater could take our your star Chaser quickly enough.
Unless, of course, you have a trick up your sleeve...
With the help of their younger brother Ron, the twins had figured out what nobody else seemed to have — that one could set Anthony Rickett loose with a Bludger all night and incur surprisingly little risk. The key was to be able to dictate where Rickett was able to play
The twins' gambit was simple. In order to exploit Anthony Rickett's left-handed batting inaccuracy, all either Fred or George would need to do at the start of each play was to figure out which Bludger Adi Saari would corner, get ahold of the other one, and drive it down-pitch, hard and to the left. That would invariable send Rickett off to chase the wayward Bludger, leaving the twins to direct their attention to harrying Saari.
The intent of the tactic was obvious, it was humiliating, and Rickett, needless to say, was not particularly amused... but neither had he figured out how to cope with it. From the advice of every coach and mentor he'd ever had, it was obvious that Rickett couldn't abandon the loose Bludger, but the outcome was invariable frustration. More often than not, he would either end up taking a wild, futile left-handed swing at the Bludger — a swing made even wilder by the moisture that was making bat handling trickier than usual. In the remaining cases, he would try to fly around to the far side of the Bludger, but this had expended precious time, letting the action pass too far down pitch to plausibly disrupt anything.
Yet, however adept the twins had become at this infuriating ploy, it couldn't work every time. Fred had just set his sights on cornering the loose Bludger, when suddenly, he saw a flash of red — Quaffle red — plummet between himself and the Bludger. A torrent of Chasers followed in mad pursuit. When the air cleared (figuratively of course; the fog was as thick as ever) suddenly all four Beaters and both Bludgers suddenly found themselves swept together into a state of utter pandemonium. Amongst a flailing of bats, Saari and the twins ended up scrabbling for control of one Bludger leaving Rickett, for the first time all match, in the middle of the field, unmolested, and in possession of one of the two iron balls.
To further sweeten the deal for Rickett, he could actually look across at an unencumbered, strong side shot at The Flying Circus's leading scorer, who had just cornered the loose Quaffle and was launching herself away toward the Wigtown goal.
As he pulled his bat back, Rickett could practically taste vindication...
Still half-tangled with Saari, Fred had the sudden sense that something was distinctly wrong. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw the look of gloating hunger in Rickett's eyes...
Fred knew instinctively exactly what that look meant.
For the past two months of practices and matches, the twins had forced themselves to treat Ginny as just another team mate. They had balanced their praise with ample amounts of needling. They had protected her, but not really any more than they had defended Harry, Zabini and Summerby. But at this moment, reflected in the gleam of an opponent's eye, Fred saw not his team mate but his baby sister... and his baby sister was flying through the air with her back turned to a vicious assailant.
Without the barest consideration of consequence, Fred yanked his bat out of Saari's armpit, stretched out as far as possible and, with a strength he didn't know he had, windmilled the heavy slab of polished wood.
Having lined up his shot, Rickett launched the Bludger... just as Fred clubbed down across his bat, striking right at the top of the handle.
Rickett's shattered bat sent the Bludger careening off harmlessly down toward the ground.
Chunks of wood careened as well... not so harmlessly...
Rickett's Beater partner, Adi Saari, lurched back in a spray of fine mist.
A fine red mist...
"Shite! Oh whew! Weasley — George — caught him! And there's the whistle."
"Dear listeners, our apologies for the garbled commentary, but there was a bit of a situation just now. Sept, can you fill in our listeners while I listen for updates from the field?"
"Certainly Rich. Immediately following Ginny Weasley's recovery of Summerby's dropped Quaffle, there was a wild convergence of all four Beaters and both Bludgers just up-pitch from the play. In the chaos, it appeared that The Flying Circus's Fred Weasley lashed out wildly and shattered the bat of Wigtown Beater Anthony Rickett, with the broad side of the broken bat striking Wigtown's Adi Saari in the face. George Weasley is currently escorting Saari toward the medic tent."
"Sept, the official ruling is intentional Shwacking by Fred Weasley. As an intentional foul, Wigtown will be awarded a penalty shot, and will take possession of the Quaffle after the shot."
"To be taken by Adrian Pucey, I assume. Rich, do you have any word from the medic tent?"
"Something is just coming through now, Sept. One moment... okay good. Saari's broken nose is mending well — he should be available to return following the penalty shot."
"Great! And speaking of the penalty shot, I now see Pucey wheeling about the center of the pitch, preparing to close in on Grant Page in The Flying Circus goal."
Harry glanced briefly at Pucey, but it was his own team mates that he was most interested in. The three Chasers were all clustered near where Ginny had stopped when the whistle had sounded. Fred seemed to be making his way toward the medic tent, but Harry waved frantically, catching his attention, and directing him back toward the Chasers.
As Harry collected his friends together, Zabini was watching the play unfold on the other side of the pitch. The Slytherin winced, then exhaled. "Okay mates, that makes it 50-30."
Fred stirred uncomfortably. "Sorry about that, I..."
"No worries," Harry cut him off. "Listen, there's a two minute officials time out before Saari is released and we need to use it wisely. I'd like to ask you to restructure your play patterns."
Zabini blinked in surprise. "Eh? What did you have in mind?"
Harry singled out Fred. "Hey, can you get with George as soon as he's out of the tent? Make a plan to clear everyone of the mid-pitch area about twenty feet below goal-level. You're going to need to dictate the Bludger play for five to ten minutes, but I'm betting Saari will be playing a bit tentatively for a little while after that knock, so we have a window of opportunity. Can you pull it off?"
Fred nodded unquestioningly.
Harry turned to the three Chasers. "Please pass as little as possible, mates. Get Ginny the Quaffle and let her improvise. Oh, and Ginny — go ahead and try to score, but don't be in a big hurry, okay?"
Ginny grinned and gave Harry a thumbs up.
Seeing the second twin exit the medic tent, Harry turned to summon George, then continued. "Here's my last request — while Wigtown has the Quaffle, slow them down and make them work every possession. Force them to carry it, get in their faces but don't play for steals. Clog up the passing lanes. Don't double team."
Zabini regarded him skeptically. "It's against my better judgment to ever take strategy from a Seeker, but... okay. This bloody well better work Potter!"
Harry grinned. "It will Blaise. Thank you everyone!"
Despite an unrelenting drizzle, the spirits in the guest section of the grandstands had never dampened. Smiles and jokes abounded, albeit joined by a chorus of groans every time one of The Circus Chasers dropped the Quaffle. Around the periphery of the ever-growing fan contingent for Zabini's squad tonight, however, were four individuals whose sombre, watchful demeanours did not quite blend in.
As the clock above the large scoreboard turned its hands to 8:45 p.m., by standard protocol, Ryan Jenkins glanced over at Neville Longbottom and noted Neville's left hand. Neville's fingers were curled together subtly; a practised eye would read that as the common sign language signal for 'zero'. A glance over at Terry Boot indicated the same. Finally, Ryan gazed over at his girlfriend, Jennifer King. Zero there too.
All was well.
Ryan was about to return his scrutiny toward the upper left region of the visitors' section when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jennifer's hand flinch. His eyes flashed back to her, and saw that her fingers had suddenly spread out flat, with her palm down.
The universal sign for 'Hey!'
Ryan's gaze followed Jennifer's eyes toward the steps below the left side of guest section... to where a young wizard in a green anorak was jostling his way through a stream of spectators returning to their seats from a brief visit to the concession stands.
Instinctively, Ryan studied the young wizard's face, studied his eyes, and followed their focus up to the front of the visitors' seats... to Tracey Davis.
Ryan spread his fingers flat, and waggled his hand slightly to alert Neville and Terry. Then, as subtly as possible, he began to make his way toward the steps.
"Our fourteen stalwart athletes have once again taken to the skies, dear witches and gentlewizards. Wigtown's star Beater, Adi Saari still appears a bit shaky, but he is nonetheless back in the air, placing himself bravely in the path between the Weasley twins and the Wigtown Chasers."
"Yes Rich — Adi is a tough customer. He's has only missed twenty minutes of action in the past two seasons. Wigtown occasionally substitutes for Rickett, but Saari very rarely rides the bench."
"Farley is bringing up the Quaffle for Wigtown, and I would expect... well hello there! What do you make of this, Sept?"
"I, er, well, it would appear that The Flying Circus has opted to shake up their defensive formations a bit. I did notice most of The Circus banding together in a tight huddle during the timeout. They must have seen some reason to alter their strategies."
"That's a strange development, Sept! It seemed to me that The Circus had done an exemplary job of defending against Wigtown's Chasers all throughout the first forty odd minutes, forcing a seemingly endless series of risky passes. Why, all of a sudden, would they start to block off all of the passing lanes?"
"Yes, I'm wondering the same thing, Rich. In this new approach, the Circus Chasers have completely marginalized Pucey and Lavoisier, and are forcing Farley to lock onto the Quaffle."
"Well, perhaps after a minute or two we'll know better what they hope to..."
"Bludger! Close call for Farley. She lurches upwards to avoid Fred Weasley's warning shot — it whistled mere inches past the Wigtown Chaser's knee."
"Ouch! George Weasley spun the same Bludger straight back at Farley, catching her on the shin this time. Wigtown Chasers had better take note — The Circus Beaters are dominating the Bludgers right now, and it's not safe to be handling the Quaffle anywhere in their vicinity."
"No question about it Rich — Farley's feeling the heat right now! She keeps looking for a way out, but she still has nobody to pass off to. Zabini, Summerby and Ginny Weasley are in there, blocking off any pass to the left, right and below the play. She has no option but to drift higher... she's already practically up into the fog bank."
"Hey Sept — look where Potter is all of a sudden."
"Aha! Right you are, Rich! Do you suppose it's a coincidence we now find him flying way down there beneath the action?"
In Quidditch, the Seeker position is generally the loneliest. Most seekers typically spend the match avoiding everyone else, in solitary pursuit of an object that none of the Chasers, Beaters or Keepers are particularly interested in. Among Seekers, however, Harry was almost certainly one of the least lonely. In match after match, he had always found the nearly constant companionship... of opposing Seekers. It seemed inevitable that his counterpart would, to varying degrees of nuisance, tail him throughout the match, giving him plenty of opportunity to become familiar — sometimes very familiar — with his competitors.
As a talented professional, Blythe Parkin had flown her own patterns and paid Harry very little attention all match.
After the injury time out, as Harry gratefully established himself in the newly formed low-altitude hole and began to carefully survey the skies above for the Snitch signature, he couldn't help but notice his opponent giving him suspicious glances. Harry knew what those glances meant — clearly his advantage would be temporary. If he wanted to exploit it, he would need to work quickly!
Even though his team mates had cleared Harry a fair-sized bubble of peace, he still didn't quite dare to completely close his eyes. A Quaffle play could shift or disintegrate quickly, and who knows what could come thundering through his space with bare seconds notice.
Fortunately, Harry had trained his perception fairly well. Even with his eyes open he could, with concentration, push the visual input deep into the background. In his mind, the sky became a grey canvas, smeared with the occasional flashes — comet-like smears of magic as one of the players crossed; smaller meteors corresponding to the Bludgers. Those, he forced himself to ignore. All he cared about was the flickery twinkling of the Snitch.
As Harry partitioned the fog bank above into strips and swept them with a determination that blended focus and urgency, he became aware of two distracting non-Snitch signals competing for his attention. One was half-expected — Harry sensed a magical signature something akin to an orange glow beaming down on him obliquely from the direction of the Wigtown Seeker as she bent her attention away from her own Snitch hunt and onto her enigmatic opponent. However, the second sensation baffled Harry.
The second distraction emanated from somewhere over in the grandstands. In it, Harry felt a penetrating coldness, completely unlike any magical aura he had ever experienced — completely inhuman, yet at the same time animate in a way that differed from any charmed object he had ever examined. The sensation droned in his mind like a throbbing contrabass... it demanded his attention... but he had a job to finish!
Luckily, shunting off those distractions, Harry finally spied what he was looking for! About thirty feet up-pitch of the harried Susan Farley was that distinct fluttery glimmer.
Recognizing that he had both a spatial and cognitive jump on Parkin, Harry abandoned any pretence of subtlety and rocketed upwards, straight at the Snitch, still not actually seeing it, but quite convinced he knew where to find it.
Harry could feel Parkin hesitate for a moment (probably wondering whether or not this was a quirky feint) then rocket after him. It was then that he recognized another of his opponent's great strengths. Parkin — a small witch, weighing nearly four stones less than Harry but riding a powerful broom — was fast! Despite his head start, the Wigtown Seeker was quickly gaining.
With roughly a hundred feet left to the Snitch, the biggest question in Harry's mind was whether Parkin had now actually seen the Snitch, or whether she was still merely following him. Experimentally, Harry angled himself a bit to the left of the Snitch.
Harry grinned. Gotcha Parkin! He shifted his path yet again, pointing himself directly toward Claude Lavoisier who, until a few seconds ago, had been trailing the Quaffle, seeking any clear channel to receive a pass.
The Wigtown Chaser froze at the sight of two Seekers tearing towards him like two fiery missiles, turning himself into an unwitting obstacle.
Close enough that Harry could practically smell the fear bleeding off Lavoisier, he lurched down in a sharp arc to avoid the hapless Chaser. For a brief moment, Harry's sharp trajectory placed Lavoisier in a perfect eclipse position relative to Parkin; in that instant, Harry veered hard right.
A split-second later, Parkin cleared Lavoisier and saw everything in vivid, ignominious clarity.
She was heading left.
The snitch, now visible despite the fog, was nearly twenty feet to her right.
So was Harry's hand.
"Oh my, Rich — brilliant move by Potter!"
"Wow! That's the match, dear listeners! In a series of spine-rattling gyrations, the much-celebrated Harry Potter has just outdueled one of the British-Irish Premier league's finest young Seekers to deliver victory to The Great Zabini Flying Circus over the Wigtown Wanderers."
"I must say, I can't imagine more than two or three Seekers in the whole league being able to pull off a maneuver like that but... eh, now what's going on? Where's he...?That doesn't look particularly celebratory..."
"Indeed Sept. Potter still has the Snitch in hand, but he's streaking off across the pitch toward..."
"There Rich! It's some sort of disturbance in the south stands!"
Ryan knew that security within Bladnoch Park would be good, that everyone within one seating section of the visitors' block would have been swept by a dark detector, and that there should be a dozen Hit Wizards within spell casting distance. Conversely, Ryan also knew that no DMLE law enforcement officer was paying any more attention to Tracey Davis than to anyone else among the hundred or so people in the guest section.
Fortunately Harry had assessed things differently.
Ryan knew that Harry would have greatly appreciated it if Tracey had stayed at the castle where things were a lot safer. However, the girl had a legal right to be here tonight, and she had stubbornly insisted on exercising that right. Consequently, Harry had been forced to come up with precautions.
Or, more accurately, Harry had been forced to ask some of his star students to devise some precautions.
Right now, those precautions entailed Ryan hauling out his wand and breaking into a run.
Some russet-headed people (distant Weasley cousins, Ryan guessed off-handedly) shrieked and hit the deck as he leaped over their seats.
He winced inwardly as his boot made landed on something a lot softer and knobblier than wood... probably someone's hand (ouch — sorry! ) but there was no time for a proper apology, because...
The suspect had jostled his way to within twenty feet of his target!
Catching a bit of motion out of the corner of her eye, Tracey glanced away from the mid-air celebration of Flying Circus players. The smile melted off her face as her gaze sifted through the montage of humanity and she set eyes upon... the last person on the planet she ever wanted to meet again.
Tracey somehow recognized him, even though he was in yet another disguise; even though he had a very bizarre expression on his face — what with the spaced-out eyes, the oddly puffed-up cheeks...
And then there was that strange tube sticking out of his mouth.
Bloody hell — is the idiot trying to spit on me??
The instant that Ryan saw the blow tube, a flash of adrenaline surged through his veins. Two rapid pump strides, and he leaped!
As he flew through the air several feet above the hardwood steps, Ryan saw the suspect's dispassionate eyes staring vacantly through him.
Ryan felt a small tug on his vest — a little tap as if colliding with a honey bee — and knew instantly that his duty was done.
His eyes turned toward the steep, infelicitous steps rising rapidly up to meet him.
Now comes the hard part!
Harry grimaced as he mentally projected his favourite student's trajectory. Ryan's classmates had joked frequently about how the Slytherin always tried to emulate Harry Potter, but this was ridiculous!
Fortunately, over the past year, Harry had learned a fair bit about levitating and cushioning spells. He was vaguely aware that the power signature required to save someone from a head-first plunge down steep hard steps was not the same as catching someone falling vertically from a broomstick, but he had no time to consider magical or physical theories. With only pure instinct to guide him, he lifted his hand and pushed out a bright pulse of energy...
And Ryan bounced, bobbed, then came to rest on the landing.
Harry tipped his broom down and clattered to a halt beside Ryan. He was about to check for injuries, when he heard the shouts of nearby confusion. He glanced down the steps and saw Tonks and Jennifer King wrestling with some unknown wizard. Jennifer had her arms around the man's shoulders, but his hands were still flailing about, brandishing something sharp. Tonks's hand darted out, catching the wizard's wrist in a fierce grip, trying to stop him from...
Bewildered by the frenzy, Harry was about to unleash a stunner, when he heard Ginny's voice from up above. "Expelliarmus! "
The moment the small, dart-like object flew out of his hand, the wizard slumped despondently against Jennifer. Tonks rushed to stabilize him, and the two witches lowered him to a sitting position as Ginny landed and retrieved the discarded dart.
Satisfied that the emergency was over, Harry exhaled and turned to his student.
Ryan, meanwhile, had sat up to watch the scuffle and was now grinning. He opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly remembered something. He glanced down at his chest, scanned for a moment, and pulled out the dart that had struck him.
Harry gasped. "Ryan, is that...?!"
"Tetrodotoxin?" Ryan shrugged. "Maybe, but don't worry — it didn't poke me. I was wearing a Kelvar vest.
Harry laughed. "Leave it to a purebred Slytherin to bring Muggle law enforcement artifacts to Quidditch match! I suppose you have hand cuffs too?"
"Er, well..." Ryan discreetly pulled aside his cloak to reveal a hint of chromed chain. "DMLE security scans don't pick these things up."
"That figures." Harry nodded with pursed lips. "Same thing goes for the assailant's weapon of choice, I assume."
"Well, I guess we ought to factor that into our preparation..." Harry helped Ryan to his feet. "Anyway, let's see if Jennifer, Tonks and Ginny have found out anything about the assailant."
"Well, my charming witches and wizards, I would be lying if I told you I really knew what just happened in the south stands, but at least I can tell you that, fresh off his winning Snitch-catch, Harry Potter raced into the audience to catch a spectator who might otherwise have taken a horrendous tumble down the steps. Meanwhile Potter's fiancée, Ginny Weasley, helped to apprehend a suspicious character nearby."
"Strange events indeed, Rich! You and I have certainly seen some unusual happenstance at Quidditch matches in our day, but I don't ever recall watching two stars, fresh from producing more than 80% of the evening's scoring, suddenly dash to the stands to save lives and fight crime!"
"Well Sept, consider who we're talking about. I doubt that many of our listening audience need reminding that there is more to Harry Potter than the mild-mannered young professor by day; amateur Seeker by night."
"Agreed Rich! Yet however unlikely it is that we will ever learn all there is to know about the mysterious hero and his remarkable girlfriend, perhaps our patient listeners may have a few of their many questions answered if we transfer our Wizarding Wireless Network coverage down to pitch-level to hear some live interviews of some of the stars of tonight's match."
"Brilliant plan! In the mean time, however, this is Richard Auclair and Septimo Aurrera bidding you good night from Wigtown's Bladnoch Field, where The Great Zabini Flying Circus has defeated the home town Wanderers by a final score of 200 to 30."
"Adrian Fenetre, Daily Prophet. I have a question for Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley."
Harry nodded his assent to the gaunt, grim-looking reporter.
"I was wondering if you two could please comment on the incident in the south stands? What exactly happened over there, and why did you feel the need to intercede?"
Ginny rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "I'm afraid, Mr. Fenetre, that our clearance to discuss the incident is the same as it was two minutes ago when the last person asked about it." She raised her voice. "Please listen everyone — we can tell you that the Hit Wizard office has taken a suspect into custody and that they believe there are no imminent threats to anyone else here tonight, but that's all! Any further questions of this nature should be directed to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
Harry nodded. "Thanks Ginny. Now, does anyone have any more Quidditch questions please?"
"Mr. Potter, why did you decide to fly so low after the last time out?"
Harry looked around and his eyes settled on an athletic-looking witch he couldn't quite place. "Sorry madam, I didn't catch your name?"
"Kikus Trecus, Daily Prophet."
"Ah yes, thank you." Harry smiled amiably. "Ms. Trecus, have you ever heard the Muggle joke about the lush looking for his keys in the pub?"
The reporter shook her head.
"Then you might wish to look it up," Harry suggested. "It can make a good analogy."
"Ahem! Luna Lovegood, Special Correspondent, The Quibbler."
Harry grinned. "Hey Luna — so glad you could make it!"
"Mr. Potter, what was I reading when we first met?"
"I, uh... it was the Quibbler, right?"
"Where were you on the evening of June 18, 1996?"
"Luna, er..." Harry shifted uncomfortably. "I don't like to talk about..."
"Umgubular Slashkilters have feelings too. True of false?"
"Sorry, I have no id..."
"Do you deny, Mr. Potter, that you frequently wear purple boxer shorts on Thursday nights?"
"Luna, that's none of your..."
"Thank you so kindly — you've been very helpful!" Luna smiled broadly. Turning on her heel, she strolled away twirling her quill.
Harry gazed bewilderedly at her for a moment, then shivered. "Er, well..." He took several tentative steps toward the lockers. "If there are no more questions, then..."
"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly. I have a question for Mr. Potter?"
"Pah! Who doesn't?"
Harry's eyes widened; he craned his neck from side to side in search of the Blaise Zabini imitator... and his gaze settled on the unmistakable hint a saccharine expression around Ginny's mouth. He chuckled as laughter bubbled up through the crowd, rallying his waning enthusiasm. "Yes, please go ahead Quin."
"Thank you Mr. Potter." An eager smile spread across Marish's face. "So, perhaps not the usual question to ask a Seeker, but what would you consider to be the best catch of the night?"
"You mean apart from the redheaded Chaser with the cute little smirk?"
Marish glanced at Ginny's expression of scandalized innocence. "Er yes, apart from her..."
Harry paused for a moment. "Well, in all due respect to Blythe Parkin, I pulled a trick play on her — one that I very much doubt she'd fall for a second time. So, I'm proud of my Snitch catch, but would prefer not to blow it out of proportion. As far as my little intervention in the stands, I'm certainly glad to have spared my friend what could have been a severe injury... but come to think of it, he's nearly as hard-headed as I am, so who knows what would have happened." Harry shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, but the best catch of the night wasn't mine, and it's one that I'm allowed to discuss yet..."
"So, you mean apprehending the, uh...? Ahh!" Marish nodded, wide-eyed. "Okay, no more questions, Mr. Potter. Thank you and have a good night!"
"Good night Quin." Harry smiled and locked arms with Ginny as the two began moving in earnest toward the lockers. "Good night everyone — we're all weary, cold and wet, and I'm sure my mates are sick of me droning on. Hope you all have a safe trip home!"
"Pardon me Herr. Potter." A familiar face emerged abruptly from the crowd. "Matthäus Gottschalk, Die Beschwörung."
Harry was rapidly losing steam, but he nonetheless managed a polite nod. "Hello Matthäus. The answer is 'probably not', but we'll re-evaluate to be certain."
The reporter with the thin goatee blinked. "Erm, thank you for the answer Herr. Potter, but what then ist the question?"
"Whether tonight's security breach will cause us to alter our match schedule, of course." Harry shrugged. "We may have to consider additional precautions, but I don't believe this will affect our plans."
"Ah, you are very sharp as always, ya?" Gottschalk waved as they walked away. "Danke sehr, Herr. Potter. Have a nice evening, Fräulein Weasley!"
Making their way past the lone security guard manning the only open screening port, Tonks, Harry and Ginny entered a deathly quiet atrium of the Ministry of Magic building. The tremulous light of dozens of flickering torches made the chamber's focal point, a lone marble obelisk to honour the victims of Voldemort's campaign of terror, appear almost flame-like in itself — an effect that Harry found rather moving.
Ginny's hand found his, and the two of them fell quietly into step behind Tonks.
Although Harry and Ginny may have been feeling pensive, the stirring nocturnal scene moved Tonks very little, as she had experienced it many times before. Rather, she gave her watch a business-like glance. "The Hit Wizards brought him here about an hour and twenty minutes ago. It took them about half an hour to process him. Blood work confirmed that he really is Vincent Crabbe, so kudos to the Spacey kid for being able to ID her man. No progress since then, however."
Tonks punched the lift button a bit more firmly than necessary and stepped through as the door juddered open. "Kingsley has signed off on Veritaserum, but his order didn't specify who was to administer it, so Aurors and Hit Wizards have spent the last forty minutes fighting for jurisdiction."
Harry sighed. "Do we have a resolution?"
"Yeah." Tonks flashed a sardonic grin. "Standard DMLE diplomacy — I hold your thing, you hold mine."
Ginny frowned. "Hold what thing?"
"Oops!" Tonks snickered the lift opened and she strode through it into a brightly lit corridor. "Sorry, I always forget, after all this, that you two are still just impressionable kids. What I should have said is that we'll probably have to get the Hit Wizard interview team together with the Auror interview team, and they'll administer the serum together."
"And when is this likely to occur?" Harry asked.
Tonks shrugged. "Paperwork is on their desks, so mid- to late-morning tomorrow. Do you want to attend? Kingsley signed for your visit tonight without hesitation, so I'm sure he'll agree to another appearance tomorrow."
Harry pursed his lips. "Well, let's see what we learn tonight. Has Crabbe been talking at all?"
Tonks held her wand up to a wall panel to open the pair of solid double doors they'd arrived at. "Nah, he's like a vegetable... almost as if he's been... what's the Muggle term? Turned down?"
"Turned off?" Ginny suggested. "Yes, the instant we disarmed him, he went limp and would barely respond to anything..."
Ginny glanced to her side, to find Harry in deep thought, scowling. She arched up to whisper a question in his ear, but stopped, as they now found themselves standing in front of Crabbe's cell.
Tonks was about to direct her wand toward a panel similar to the one she had signaled earlier for access to the cell block, but before she could do so, the cell door swung upon, courtesy of Auror Williamson who stared at them with silent contempt. She entered the cell, muttering her thanks, and crossed past a tall, pale-looking man in the blue-grey Hit Wizard uniform.
Harry and Ginny followed Tonks into the chamber and made their way toward the heavy-set figure in the green anorak who sat motionlessly on the end of the bench, facing the far wall.
Harry cleared his throat. "Crabbe... we've come to help you."
Williamson and the Hit Wizard glanced at each other; if they were initially surprised at Harry's unexpected tack, it was nothing compared to their shock at what came next — the totally catatonic prisoner stiffened and, ever-so-slowly, turned slightly toward the sound of Harry's voice.
Harry spoke again in a deliberate, measured tone. "I think I know what's been done to you, Crabbe, and we're working on an antidote." Despite Harry's outward calm, internally he was in acute turmoil. The overpowering magical aura emanating from the prisoner felt nothing like the petty malevolence Harry would have recognized as Vincent Crabbe — it was a searing cold hatred, completely mismatched with Crabbe's vacant expression and deadened eyes.
Indeed, Harry was convinced that the body of Crabbe he saw before him truly was... a zombie.
Yet, somewhere within the dominant vacuous reek of evil, Harry's Legilimency probe could detect, like a lone cry for help in a hurricane, the faint, bare essence of a stupid, flawed but imminently still-human youth who, until several months ago, had still been a Hogwarts student.
Extending himself as far as he dared into the frigid gale, Harry reached, reached, reached for the last vestige of humanity...
Crabbe stirred several inches further; the whisps of his soul grappling for the lifeline...
Harry reached slowly for the prisoner's arm...
Crabbe spun around, his eyes wild with terror. "Smoke behind the glass!!! Get away! Potter, don't let... eeeuughhhhh!!"
Crabbe erupted into several seconds of frantic convulsions... then collapsed onto the floor. He spasmed once... then lay still.
In horror, Harry felt as every whisp of magical aura and life force — all of the saturated evil as well as the miniscule bit of vestigial humanity — evapourated from the body on the floor.
Harry bit down hard on his lip. "Oh bloody bloody hell..."
In the darkness of their quarters at Hogwarts, with Emerald curled up at Harry's side and the Hungarian Hornback figurine whistling softly in the background, Ginny massaged her fiancé's knotted back.
Harry groaned. "I thought we won... I thought that... once we got rid of Riddle, that would be the end of it. I thought people would start to get along... live together; grow old and die together the... the normal way."
"We won," Ginny whispered. "This time last year, dozens of innocent people were being murdered every week."
"I should have stayed the hell away from him! If I hadn't tried to reach out for him, he'd probably..."
"We had no way of knowing, Harry." Ginny worked her hands deeper into Harry's shoulders. "Not even Ryan or Hermione ever suspected the bitch could simply say 'poof' and kill someone like that. Merlin! Crabbe was inside a class three magical containment facility, Harry — nobody would have guessed he might still have been in danger."
The room fell silent again for several minutes as Ginny continued her ministrations. Then her hands paused. "Well... at least now Trixie's tipped her cards. You were complaining she'd never had a success? Well now she has, and now we know better what we're really up against."
"True — she's made her point." Harry tensed for a moment, then settled back into the bedding. "I wonder what the hell possessed her to do that to Crabbe of all people? Why zombify him in the first place? I'm sure he would have been a fine little foot soldier for her without..." Harry's whole body tensed. "... without torturing his bloody soul and then tossing him off like worn-out stocking. Why??"
"Why, Harry?" Ginny took a deep breath. "It's way too simple. Gloating! That's her signature emotion; the psychobitch likes to show off! I'm sure she would have preferred to enslave or kill Tracey right under our noses, but failing that she couldn't help herself. Crabbe was expendable, and she just absolutely had to trot out her brand new power."
"Braggadocio?" Harry nodded his head slowly. "Bellatrix's fatal flaw?"
"Could be! Personally, I think it was a huge miscalculation on her part Harry — if she's betting her whole operation on Corpus Qualia Dissection, then as soon as we have an antidote, she's got nothing."
"Hmmm... I'd say it's time to double down on the research."
Ginny bent down and hugged him. "I'd say so too! Good thing you saved Ryan today, yeah?"
Harry chuckled softly. "You bet! We're really going to need that head of his... intact!"
"Do be a good professor tomorrow, will you?" Ginny gave Harry a kiss on the back of his neck. "Please tell your star student to take better care of himself?"
Harry nodded as he smiled into his pillow. "Yes boss."
"Good!" Ginny kissed him again, then slid under the covers beside him. "And now the boss says it's way past time for good little professors and research assistants to get to sleep."
A pungent aroma of dark coffee saturated the fifth floor corridor well before the February sun had broken over the frosty hills east of Hogwarts. Yet, however inviting that scent may have seemed to the students (many still bleary-eyed from last night's post-Quidditch celebrations) the brew was strictly off-limits. The vapours were coming from behind the door to Harry's office, which was closed, locked and warded against all but four people... two of whom, at this moment, were standing with their jaws hanging open.
"You can't be serious, Harry!" Hermione's books thudded down onto Harry's desk as the girl's hands flew to her mouth. "Crabbe is dead?!"
Ginny nodded. "We'd just gotten there. Crabbe had been completely catatonic, but Harry tried talking to him and for maybe five or ten seconds he seemed to revive. He was trying to warn Harry about something..."
"Then, just as abruptly, he convulsed..." Harry blew solemnly on his coffee from where he stood by the window. "He was dead within seconds."
Recovered from his momentary shock, Ryan accepted a cup of coffee from Ginny, and frowned analytically. "This really doesn't add up. Crabbe was obviously already programmed to kill himself in Wigtown. He tried his hardest to stab himself with the second dart, so it seems to me that he was trained to either succeed in his task or die, right?"
The others nodded. "One would assume so," Ginny agreed.
"So, if Lestrange wanted him dead, and she had the power to do herself, why didn't she simply do it right there in Wigtown?" Ryan began pacing by the fire. "There were wards at Bladnoch Park, but surely nothing nearly as powerful as a class three Ministry facility."
"Good question Ryan." Harry gazed out the window thoughtfully. "Suggestions anyone? Maybe Bitch simply didn't want to attract attention in such a public place?"
Hermione shook her head. "That can't be it. Lestrange doesn't care for subtlety, right? She runs around battle scenes shrieking and laughing. In the middle of a nationwide man-hunt, she shows up in Wales without any disguise asking people about your safe house. When has she ever shied away from attention before?"
"True." Ryan placed his mug on the mantle and turned to face the others. "Besides, if she really did want something quieter, she would have flipped the switch on him herself to begin with. Getting him into a public scuffle is far from subtle. Sure, people would have noticed if he'd had a little seizure and slumped over, but that's nothing nearly as lurid and indelible as the image of someone thrashing about trying to stab himself."
Hermione nodded emphatically. "My thoughts exactly."
A disorganized series of speculations and counterarguments ensued for several minutes as Ginny sat silently in her chair. She blew on her coffee for a long moment, then rose her hand.
The diffuse chatter stilled and all eyes latched onto her. She took a drink, then cradled her cup thoughtfully. "What time did Harry catch the snitch?"
Ryan tapped his head. "8:48 p.m."
Ginny consulted her notes. "Crabbe's official time of death was 10:21 p.m."
The others nodded silently.
"I think we can assume that Bellatrix knew what was happening with Crabbe the whole time he was in custody, right?"
Harry gazed analytically toward his girlfriend. "Sure — we have evidence that Lestrange has been able to see things through Teri's eyes, and Teri was almost certainly a lot more mentally and magically resistant the Crabbe."
"So let's suppose that Bellatrix wanted him dead, either to show off her power to us or to prevent him from giving us useful information..." Ginny gently tapped her cup. "Plan A — suicide by poisoning — failed right off. Plan B kicked in an hour and a half later. Maybe it simply took her a bit of time to pull off... whatever spell might have been required for that?"
"A bit of time." Ryan paused in his pacing and closed his eyes. "As in, perhaps up to ninety three minutes?"
"Precisely." Ginny continued tapping her cup. "I wonder what kind of magic would incur that sort of delay?"
Harry took a seat and arched his head back, rubbing his temples. "Yes, I wonder. I also wonder what Crabbe meant by 'smoke behind the glass'?"