SIYE Time:20:12 on 16th December 2018


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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Draco Malfoy, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Humor
Warnings: Death, Mental Abuse, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Negative Alcohol Use, Violence/Physical Abuse
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 134

"But now old friends are acting strange..." - Joni Mitchell.

Voldemort is dead; Harry and Ginny are in love and living the dream. What's not to like, right? Then, a sudden rash of strange incidents piques Harry's anxiety. After years of war, are people just having difficulty adjusting to peace? Or is someone out there playing dirty 'trix'?

The story is set three months after the end of 'The Prevailing Counterpoint', and builds on characters and events elaborated therein. TPC is probably not required reading if you accept that Dumbledore and Snape are dead; that Lupin, Tonks and Fred are alive, and that Slytherins are fundamentally neurotic.

Hitcount: Story Total: 34363; Chapter Total: 1143
Awards: View Trophy Room

Author's Notes:

No more Splinters or Biscuits -- back to Trix!

Tremendous thanks to everyone who voted for this story for best comedy. It truly has become a comedy, hasn't it? Not in the slapstick manner of the Fuddle Fog series, but more in the silly situations that life can place our friends in. I knew at the very start there was bound to be a comical element to element to the story when I decided the level to which neurotic Slytherins would play a role, but it has gradually solidified as a stronger element than angst. There will still be a bit of darkness ahead, as well as some bitter-sweetness, but I think the story is transforming a bit from original vision.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the latest round!


Chapter 13. Elders' Insights (Feb. 28 — March 2, 1998)

"Huh." Bill scrunched his face, stroking his chin. "Well most of the curse victims I've worked on have had some kind of preconceived notion of where they might have gotten the affliction. You know — tomb breakers, people who received suspicious gifts, and so forth. It's not so easy to diagnose someone who has no idea how, or even whether, they might have picked up a curse."

"Right." Harry nodded and poured ounce of black coffee into his cup. "I didn't think it would be easy, so I'm not expecting miracles. I guess we're just hoping that you could meet the girl, run some simple tests and take it from there. If you find anything obvious, then great — we'll work on a solution. If something puzzles you, then let us know and we can ponder it."

Ginny smiled at her eldest brother. "To be honest, Bill, it's all just due diligence. We actually don't believe that there's any curse on the girl, other than maybe that very human curse of having had a rotten upbringing."

"Okay, I see where you're going with this." Bill reached for a small notebook and scribbled some quick notes. "I can't guarantee I'll find anything, and it's possible that I'll miss something, but if you're looking for an extra pair of eyes and bit of a different perspective..."

"Exactly!" Harry drained his coffee and rose to his feet. "If you spot of anything now or later, or any little hunches occur to you, then we'll be interested. It doesn't matter if it's in your areas of expertise."

"Understood." Bill nodded, pushed back from the table, and turned to Ginny. "You coming, Snap?"

"Nah." Ginny shook her head. "I'll be hiding up in our den doing what Saturday mornings were truly made for."

"Oh, and that would be...?" Bill raised an eyebrow.

"Poring over Brother Ron's latest Caerphilly scouting notes and preparing to debate Chaser strategy at tonight's meeting."

"Ah!" Bill's eyes widened. "I'd almost forgotten about the match. Monday, right?"

"Yes." Harry sighed. "I hate going into something like that so unprepared, but damn — things have been busy!"

Bill shrugged. "That barely matters, right? You folks probably stack up better against Caerphilly than any against other squad in the Premier League."

Harry frowned at him. "How do you figure?"

Bill casually donned his cloak. "There are only two things keeping Caerphilly out of the basement. Those are..."

"How pathetic Falmouth is?" Ginny suggested with a grin. "Hard to sink beneath a club that hasn't won a match in two years."

"Okay, make that three things." Bill smirked. "But really there are only two reasons why the catapults ever win. First of all, Hermann Wiel is probably the best Keeper in the league..."

"Don't rub it in, Bill." Ginny brandished a nearly blank parchment. "Ron's assessment of Wiel's weaknesses can be neatly summarized in one word. None."

Bill shrugged. "Sure, but Wiel hasn't seen you in action, so he might not be accustomed to Flying Circus antics. Besides, they can't win matches based on a good Keeper alone. The only other reason Caerphilly remains competitive is because, other than Lennox Campbell and Blythe Parkin, the Seekers in the league are historically weak. Four of the Catapults' five victories have been on the Snitch."

Harry wrinkled his brow. "Uh, well, is that because the opposing Seekers are weak, or because Lamont is good? He's played in two World Cups."

"Lamont? Good??" Bill grinned. "To be honest, I idolised Hector Lamont... back in my first year at Hogwarts. Blimey, Harry, he's literally twice your age! If you can sneak past Parkin for the Snitch, then you certainly ought to be able to leave Lamont huffing in the dust long before either squad cobbles together any real lead."

"Maybe." Harry glanced at Ginny. "But since when is anything easy for us? I'll do what I can, but I'd certainly feel better if our Chasers find ways to put a few Quaffles behind Wiel."

Ginny bobbed her head. "Well, yeah, that makes two of us."

Harry hadn't assumed that this was going to be easy. In an ideal world where he'd been able to plan a bit in advance, he would have gently broached the topic with Teri — brought her on board gradually over a couple of weeks rather than suddenly bringing a stranger to see her.

A stranger. A curse-breaker. A Weasley. Harry winced at all of the strikes working against winning Teri's cooperation.

Unfortunately, they had to try, and it pretty well had to be now or never. Tonks and Lupin wanted a quick resolution to the 'curse' question, and this was likely to be Bill's last free Saturday in quite a while (starting next week he had committed to meet with builders contracted to construct a new home for him down on the Cornish coast), so Harry had been forced to spring the visit on the girl with only a day's notice.

If not outright hostile, Teri was not especially welcoming. She stood over by the window of the drawing room, facing away, gazing out into the mist, nodding or mumbling in response to some of Harry's questions, ignoring others, and assiduously avoiding any eye contact with Bill who remained standing carefully (uncomfortably) just inside the entrance.

Harry sighed. "Yes, well I knew it would be a touchy subject, Teri, but this is only a precaution. Everyone likes to believe that we each control our own destiny. We all would like to think that our decisions are our own..."

Teri shrugged, but said nothing, so Harry continued. "In the vast majority of cases, our decisions really are our own. But, every once in a while, there comes a person, or a situation, where all that self-determination stuff is thrown into doubt."

"Oh yes?" Teri fidgeted slightly; her voice was low and contained no aggression, but Harry could detect a slight acidity to it. "And I'm your exception?"

Harry shook his head. "Actually Teri, I was thinking about myself."

Teri went stock-still.

"For the longest time, I had no idea who was running my life." Harry leaned back in his arm chair; his eyes drifting toward the fire. "A couple of years ago, I was forever stumbling about through one horrendous misadventure after another. There were some strange accolades in there — winning the Triwizard Championship, saving a few people's lives, but it was all haphazard, meaningless and depressing. Every time I succeeded in something, it seemed hollow, and in fact generally proved to be hollow, because for every good thing I thought I had accomplished, it was stained by nasty repercussions."

Harry glanced at Teri who remained quietly attentive, even if she hadn't yet turned to face him. He leaned over to add a stick of wood to the fire. "I was horribly conflicted. On one hand, I had the sense of half believing that I was being manipulated, while also half hopeful that I was breaking that manipulation. Everything finally collapsed around me and, in the dust and debris of it all, my head was raging in pain from having been possessed by Voldemort who had just announced for all the world to see that he was back and prepared to kill and conquer. And, if all that wasn't bad enough..." Harry paused for a moment, lowering his voice to a bare whisper. "I had just been manipulated into leading my own godfather into the trap that killed him."

Ever so softly came the sound of Teri inhaling. Harry regarded her for a moment, then spoke once more toward her oblique form. "Nobody's saying that you're being manipulated, Teri, but take it from me — the only thing as bad as being manipulated is worrying that you might be getting jerked around like that; not knowing how to find out for sure, and not knowing what to do about it."

Teri turned slowly — enough to allow Harry to see the corner of her eye, but still not acknowledging Bill's presence. She exhaled, softly but raggedly. "I understand, Mister Harry. But can't you run the tests? Can't you learn the tests from him...?" Her thumb twitched slightly in Bill's direction. "And then you and I can work on them together? Just the two of us, alone?"

Harry steepled his fingers. "It might not be the most efficient way, but I suppose I could try."

Teri nodded; a trace of enthusiasm beginning to tinge her body language.

"But..." Harry paused and hummed softly to himself for a moment. "Teri, I would hate to deprive your of this opportunity to learn a few curse breaking techniques from a true master."

Bill's eyebrow shot up. He opened his mouth, about to voice an obvious protest about the legality of teaching curse breaking to a minor. Then that little part of the responsible, decorous eldest Weasley (a mischievous part that showed he was also related to Fred and George and, for that matter, to Ginny and Charlie) shot Harry a glance... and smirked.

Harry's eyes twinkled slightly for Bill's benefit, then he turned back to Teri in earnest seriousness.

Teri turned to face him in full. "Mister Harry, I-I'm going to learn some curse breaking?"

Harry nodded. "Sure, if you're up for a little challenge?"

Teri's eyes widened. "How much?"

Harry blinked. "Er, how much what?"

"How much curse breaking are you — I mean him..." She gestured at Bill again. "How much is he going to teach me?"

Harry shrugged. "Well, I can only really guarantee his availability this morning. There are another two and a half hours before we have to leave, so I guess it all depends on how much motivation and energy you and Bill have."

"Two and a half hours?" Teri stared for a moment as calculations ran through her head. Abruptly she turned to Bill, her hands on her hips. "Well Mr. Weasley, what are you waiting for? Mister Harry, might you please see if Kreacher can bring some tea and scones for our guest?"

"... so Mr. Weasley is right, Mister Harry — you'll have a big advantage against Lamont and you'll really need to press it on Monday in case their Keeper gets really hot again. Did you know that against Kenmare, he stopped 48 out of 51 shots and if Aidan Kiely hadn't finally caught the snitch, the Kestrels would have lost! And that was when the Kestrels were in third place, so you can see how dangerous it is to..."

"Er, Sugar Plum?" Harry held out his palm.

"... how dangerous it is to lay off the Snitch against Caerphilly." Teri noticed Harry's raised hand and blinked. "Yes, Mister Harry?"

Harry smiled. "Teri, you have Bill's cloak."

Teri blinked again and turned to stare at her hand which was, indeed, holding the long blue cloak she had retrieved from the closet. She laughed and handed it to Bill.

"Thank you Teri." Bill smiled at the girl and accepted his garment.

"You're welcome sir. But Mister Harry — before I forget, please tell Miss Ginny that a Chaser can sometimes beat Wiel by flying above him and shooting for the bottom fringe of the leftmost hoop. For some reason he doesn't like those dropping laterals..."

Having followed Harry and Bill to the front threshold, Teri paused in chagrin. If not for her thin dress and a cold drizzle outside, she likely would have followed them all the way to the ward lines without even realising it. But as it was, the time had clearly come to bid farewell.

"Good work today, Teri." Harry turned from the edge of the landing. "See you next week!"

"Well done, curse breaker!" Bill also turned and waved. "Don't suppose you'd come to the Orkneys with me next Thursday to help me clear up an issue with the stone circle up there?"

"Er, I don't know if I'm allowed to leave Dol..." Teri paused and blushed. "You're joking, right?"

"Only partly." Bill smiled. "You probably learned as much in two hours as my last apprentice did in his first week."

"Oh." She scuffed her feet self consciously on the welcome mat. "Well that's only because you're a good teacher, Mr. Weasley."

Bill grinned to see, beneath the girl's diffident blush, the distinct trace of a smile.

After the farewells, Teri stood in the entrance way for nearly a minute watching the two wizards recede into the mist... until Andromeda noticed the chill of an open door, and came over to summon her back inside.

Entering the woods at the fringe of the property. Bill glanced back at the manor. "Quite the spark plug! You ought to get her talking Quidditch with Ron."

"Heh." Harry gave Bill an equivocal smirk. "Spark plug, yes. Talk Quidditch with Ron? No thank you."

"Oh?" Bill stooped to pick up a branch that had fallen onto the path. "She and Ronnie have a history?"

"You could say that. Remember the broken arm he suffered over the holidays? A part of Ron still kind of blames her for that."

"Seriously?" Bill gave Harry a curious look. "He was pretty vague about the incident. If I remember correctly, the extent of his explanation was basically, 'er, cough, fell off a broom.'"

Harry nodded. "And that's accurate as far as it goes. In truth we still don't know exactly what happened to him other than to say that the circumstances were suspicious. I can state with confidence that it wasn't Teri's fault... although admittedly she wasn't exactly helping matters at the time."

Bill gave Harry a shrewd look. "She was goading him?"

"I'm afraid so. Not one of her finest moments." Harry paused a moment to squint through the mist to locate the final path across the meadow to the Dolwyddelan Apparation point. "I'm actually rather glad she got on so well with you today, Bill. She's decided that Ron is a plonker, believes that the twins are cheaters, and considers Ginny intimidating; I was starting to wonder if she simply had a thing against Weasleys."

"Well blimey Harry, a lot of Slytherins do, don't they?" Bill chuckled. "Not all of us get on as badly with that crowd as Ron does, but we have a bit of a reputation, and not all of it is undeserved."

"I suppose so." Harry shrugged. "In any case, I'm glad she interacted so well today."

"Yes, no problems there. It doesn't hurt that I have some good experiences in mentoring powerful little witches."

Harry grinned as he caught the subtle allusion. He knew that there had been a few bumps in the road, but it was clear to Harry that Bill would always be Ginny's favourite brother.

"So Bill..." Harry paused at the Apparition point. "Did you detect anything magically problematic about Teri? Any red flags?"

Bill thought for a moment. "Obviously her magical instincts are unusually strong, but that's an observation, not a red flag. All of my standard curse affliction analyses came out negative."

"Right." Harry glanced at him in unsurprised affirmation. "But any non-standard observations?"

"Yes — one subtle thing that I don't have a simple explanation for." Bill frowned. "In order to be confident about curse detection, I always try to measure and subtract out background magic — people's auras, old spell residues, plus any active wards.

Harry nodded. "Makes sense. So, you found something in the background?"

"Exactly. Whenever she moves around, I'm detecting this low-level oscillation that follows her — I'd kind of imagine it being like a swirl you'd see when someone walks through low-lying mist."

"Oscillations?" Harry squinted in thought. "So that's something you wouldn't normally expect?"

Bill shrugged. "I routinely get little bumps and intermittent fluctuations, but this is more of a constant noise."

"What do you think it might mean?"

"I don't know for sure." Bill shook his head. "Instinctively, I'm guessing it's something you would observe for a spell that was being mostly, but not completely blocked."

Harry suppressed a shiver as a small gust of wind shook cold droplets off the overhead branches. "Can you give me an example?"

"Hmmm..." Bill kneaded his temple for a moment. "Maybe like someone casting a strong Expelliarmus against a wizard whose shield was up."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Harry groaned under his breath. "Well I'm afraid there's one little understudy who won't be accompanying you to Orkney next week."

Ryan held aloft two strange, woven... things...

Hermione gestured toward the objects. "The reeds used to make both of these were simply harvested from a marsh at the corner of Black Lake."

"We could have borrowed actual wand-wood from Professor Flitwick, but we wanted to make them as authentically as possible," Ryan added, leaning back as Dobby whisked a tray of sandwiches and fruit onto the table.

Hermione nodded. "We ran some wand making tests on the reeds. If we steam-treated them and bound them together into tight cords, we found we could produce material with about the same magical focusing capacity as what Ollivander might consider to be marginal wand woods, like balsa or larch."

Ryan held the two scraggly fetishes to the side to examine them. "It seemed that if we bundled a number of cords together the right way we could improve the magical conduction behaviour, but we weren't able to figure out a reliable strategy for that, so we mostly just cobbled together these shapes by trial and error."

"Right." Hermione laid her notes on the table. "We're definitely still novices at this, but the two Bocios do work. Somewhat."

Tonks leaned over to select a sandwich from the tray. "So who are the little dollies anyway?"

"Both are coupled to me. One of them has some of my hair clippings." Ryan held up the fetish in in left hand. "The other has a few drips of my blood for comparison purposes."

"They're also both bound together with Ryan's old stockings." Hermione gestured at wool scraps tied about the centre of each.

"Interesting." Lupin nodded thoughtfully. "So will you be giving us a demonstration?"

"Er, well..." Hermione glanced uncertainly at Ryan. "I suppose we could..."

Ryan nodded. "Sure, why not?" He stood and carried the two fetishes over to the window sill, leaving them to stand there as he returned to his seat. "Now you should be able to see Hermione cast spells on the fetishes over there, and have the spells affect me over here." He grinned Hermione. "Be gentle, please."

Hermione smiled. She pointed her wand toward the rightmost fetish. "Nuntius Capillos! "

Murmurs swept the room as Ryan's hair suddenly scattered into horrendously pillow-mussed disarray.

Ginny grinned. "Don't suppose you could make me a Blaise Zabini Bocio, do you?"

Ryan chuckled. "Anything for a price." He glanced back to Hermione. "Now can you tame the coiffe again please? I don't want to I accidentally poke someone's eyes with this mess."

Hermione again pointed her wand toward the rightmost fetish, but Harry raised his hand. "Could you try this spell using the other fetish, 'Mione?"

Hermione frowned. "Well, yes, I can. But the effect will be weaker. My spells work a lot better through the one on the right, since the blood core couples a lot more strongly."

Harry nodded. "Please try it anyway. I doubt Bellatrix had much blood to work with, so I want to get a feel for how much variation you get from the different recipes."

Lupin pursed his lips. "Good idea. It would stand to reason that Lestrange likely had quite a bit of variety in the quality of substances she used for making the various fetishes.

"True." Hermione moved her wand a bit to the left. "Bonem Corrigens."

Everyone all watched as Ryan's hair shivered somewhat, began settling, but did not quite fall back into its normal straightness.

Hermione turned to Harry. "Maybe you'd like to try to finish the spell?"

"Okay, but..." Harry sat back, examining the fetish on the left. "How should I approach the casting? I don't do magic like you -- once one goes all wandless, magic is less directional. With a wand you need to point the right direction and know the right enunciation and hand motion, but for me it doesn't matter if I stare at Ryan or at the fetish or at the ceiling; if I want to cast a spell to straighten Ryan's hair, my magic will focus on straightening Ryan's hair."

"Ah, interesting dilemma." Ginny's glance darted from fetish to Harry to Ryan. "Would it be a fair test if Harry tried to straighten the fetish's hair? "

Ryan and Hermione stared at each other.

"Hmmm." Ryan chewed his lip. "Well, why not try it? I have no idea if it will work, but it's an interesting question."

Harry shrugged. "Well, it won't be easy, considering that the fetish doesn't exactly have hair, but..."

"Wait." Ginny met the Slytherin student's eye. "Why not put a shield up, Ryan? That way Harry will be forced to try channeling through the fetish."

"Either that or he'll knock me over." Ryan grinned and reached into his pocket for his wand. "Protego! "

"This is bloody brill!" Tonks clenched the table excitedly. "Why don't DMLE teams ever do interesting stuff like this in their meetings?"

Harry rolled his eyes, but only fleetingly. In an instant, before anyone could propose any more challenges, he was already focusing on the fetish and assembling his magic.

Harry had never tried to magically straighten anyone's hair before and (prior to Hermione's spell a short while ago) he hadn't even known there was a documented spell to do so but, like all of his magic these days, he approached the task instinctively. Feeling the magic beginning to pulse out from his chest toward his arms, Harry looked at the fetish — its braided reeds folded back and forth into a small humanoid shape bound together with scraps of two stockings. He tried to picture the small head as having unruly hair that he wanted to tidy...

It didn't work. The reed cords twitched and twisted slightly against their constraints, but nothing happened to Ryan.

Harry was suddenly hit with an inspiration — maybe the fetish was best viewed not as a representation of his student, but rather as a magical portal to him.

Staring at the reed bundle, Harry blotted out details of its construction, and instead imagined it as empty... a tunnel... Somewhere within that tunnel, Harry tried to picture his target...


Harry shook his head. Bellatrix was quite possibly casting spells from hundreds of miles away as if she was right in the same room as the victim. Surely she wouldn't picture her target as being 'somewhere' in that tunnel; Surely the target needed to feel 'close' — just as close as the fetish itself.

Having fixed his target, Harry let his magic flow...

"Well done, Harry!" Hermione beamed at him. "You got through without any problem, even though that Bocio was fairly weak."

Harry turned around to look at Ryan, whose dark hair was not only perfectly straight but seemed to have grown several inches. Harry rubbed his chin. "Blimey. And Ryan has one of the strongest shields at Hogwarts."

Ryan shrugged. "Your spell didn't go anywhere near my shield, Harry. If it had, I would have felt it."

Harry glanced from Ryan to Hermione. "Are you two planning to do tests across the Hogwarts ward boundaries?"

The two students nodded.

Ginny frowned. "Maybe try Dolwyddelan too? Some of the new wards we established there are different from what the castle has."

"Right — my thoughts precisely." Harry steepled his fingers. "I consider tests at Dolwyddelan to be doubly important now. Bill's observations this morning suggests to me that a tiny bit of Lestrange's influence might still be getting through. It's weak enough for Teri to block pretty easily, but..."

Ginny sighed. "But only as long as Trashy Trixie doesn't improve her own technique."

Harry nodded.

"Effortlessly casting spells across shields and wards?" Lupin kneaded his brow worriedly. "I never would have believed it possible. This could completely undermine the entire OWL and NEWT level hex defence chapters."

"More fundamental than that, Remus." Tonks shook her head. "The real problem is that it makes a bleeding monkey out of a lot of Auror and Hit Wizard defensive training. That's a tad scary, mates."

Harry nodded earnestly. "That's why it's critical to move past this phase and onto the next."

Tonks leaned forward in her seat. "Which is?"

"Countermeasures." Hermione stood and gathered her scrolls together. "Now that we know how to make these things, we need to figure out how to break them." Slinging her ruck sack over she shoulder, she turned to the fifth year Slytherin student, "I think it's time to get back to work, Jenkins."

Making his way back up the castle's front steps, Ron Weasley stepped out of the preternatural brightness of a beautiful early spring day, and into the morose gloom of the Entrance Hall.

Along with the adjoining Great Hall, the corridors felt thoroughly desolate. Being a Sunday afternoon, and a beautiful one at that, the castle had been abandoned by nearly all of the students (and even many faculty) who were out joyously frolicking on the grounds.

Not Ron though; he groaned at the thought of spending the rest of the afternoon in a Flying Circus meeting.

Not long ago, the thought of sitting in on a high level Quidditch strategy meeting would have been more than adequate compensation for missing out on a few golden rays. Not today, though. He was actually feeling a bit (gasp!) sick of the game... having just finished a very different Quidditch session — another miserable Gryffindor squad practice. Confident that nobody was around to see him, Ron let his shoulders slump and, for a moment, lowered his face despairingly into his hands.

As Ron saw it, his woes all boiled down to one simple fact — the Gryffindor's Chaser corps was pathetic. He had tried to cajole, mentor and mould them. He had tried, tried, TRIED! But now, sixty percent of the way through the season, their play was just as hopelessly uncoordinated as ever, and simply couldn't find decent ways to score.

Even in practice. They had played a full hour-long scrimmage (Ron had been joined by Coote and Peakes) in defending against the Chasers, and the Chasers had scored a grand total of... once.

Ron raised his head and began to trudge his way up the grand staircase. Within a moment, he found himself making that familiar journey from demoralisation to impotent indignation — the kind of moral journey where deeply suppressed ulterior motivations begin to seep through. He gritted his teeth.

Ginny just doesn't understand!!

Yes, that was the real problem. It wasn't so much that Gryffindor's offense sucked so badly — it was more a matter of the fact that Ginny had finished her N.E.W.T.s so early, depriving the house of two years of her playing eligibility, and forcing him (as captain) to remake the whole team. What's worse, she was rising to levels of stardom unheard of by Weasley standards. And what was absolutely worst was that little Miss Bright Rising No-Longer-Gryffindor Star had the gall to not only show no remorse for leaving her rightful squad, but actually even criticize him about the ways in which he tried to adjust for her absence.

Ron shook his head vigourously. Of course Ginny (the perfect Harpies recruit) would stick up for other girls and moan about how much better Gryffindor would be better with Lisa and Stephanie playing, but why couldn't Ginny (who supposedly had impressed professional scouts with her Quidditch acumen) understand the liabilities of having an all girl Chaser corps??

Not that George was much better — always agreeing with Ginny, then reminiscing about the three-girl-Chaser glory days of Alicia Spinnet, Angelina Johnson and Katie Bell.

What a daft comparison! Alicia and Angelina were big girls and could hold their own against the blokes. Lisa Parkes, Stephanie Burroughs and Demelza Robbins were all tiny, and they'd only get pushed around. Blimey, playing those three together would give Gryffindor a front line at least three stones lighter than any of the other squads!

'So what difference do a few stones make, Ronniekins?' Fred would then quip. 'Seems to me that the stones you should be concerned about are the ones in Dean's and Seamus's heads.

Bloody unhelpful, undercutting siblings!!

And now, Ron observed ironically to himself, he was just two more flights of stairs and one corridor away from spending all gorgeous afternoon freely donating his valuable time to those oh-so-very gracious and appreciative siblings...

Uh, well okay, he was also helping Harry. At least Harry appreciated him, but the others?

Well, for starters, there was Zabini (slimy snake!) who made it abundantly clear he tolerated Ron's presence only as a favour to Harry. Then there was Keith Summerby (filthy tosser!) who had scored nine goals on Ron in the ill-fated Hufflepuff match last month and had assisted on fourteen others. Pah!

And there was Grant Page who...

Ron scrunched his face up reflectively.

Nah, Page was okay. He was a Ravenclaw (and thus, by definition, a bit of a dork), but he was a bloody fine Keeper and had given Ron some really sharp advice on net-minding techniques...

Even still, this group was hardly Ron's cup of tea. They were flashy, talented, jocular... and they offered barely any appreciation whatsoever for the effort he put into scouting and strategising on their behalf, when he'd much rather be strolling along the lake with his girlfriend...

His girlfriend...?

Ron's weary climb part way up the final flight of steps to the sixth floor ground to a halt, and he issued a deep, plaintive sigh.

Maybe that was what was bugging him so much? Maybe it wasn't all of the under appreciation, snarky siblings, and brash athletes. Maybe it was that Ron missed his girlfriend?

Sure he saw her often enough in the Gryffindor common room, and they usually took a couple meals together each day, but they almost never spent time... alone.

Ron couldn't deny that even if he himself hadn't been tied up with these tiresome Flying Circus meeting, he would still not be able to spend a quality Saturday afternoon with Hermione, because she was stuck in the library at all hours with that weird, snotty, fifth-year Slytherin, researching some obscenely exciting dangerous something or other that Ron knew nothing about.

It used to be that when Hermione was up to exciting, dangerous stuff, it meant that he (Ron) was a part of it. Why not now? He had survived some of the most ridiculously dodgy capers with Harry and Hermione over the years, so why wouldn't they come to him for...?


Ron jumped at the sound of a frantic female voice. He set his bewildered eyes on the hastily approaching figure of...

Daphne Greengrass??

"Roonil, did you see which way they went?!"

"Whuh? Who went what??" Ron blinked wildly at the girl.

"What do you mean, 'who'?" The annoying Slytherin girl put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. "Harry, Blasé, Summy, Pagey and those crazy Weasleys of course! They were all up in the commons just a minute ago. I excused myself to go to the loo, and when I got back they'd all vanished!"

"Vanished??" Ron's blinking and his nervous hand gestures seemed to be agitating the girl, but he couldn't help himself. "What do you mean, vanished? Where'd they go?"

"Umm, Roonie..." Daphne seized both of Ron's aimlessly flitting hands and stared up at him with raised eyebrows. "That's what I was asking you. Have you seen them?"

Wide-eyed, Ron shook his head.

"Well, do you suppose we should go find them, then?"

Ron stared at her. "Whuhh??"

Daphne closed her eyes, counted silently to three, and re-opened them. "Do you suppose that we..." She released his hands so that she could carefully tap his chest then gesture back toward herself. "... should go find..." She put a hand to her brow and pretended to scan the empty corridor. "Them!" She swept her arms in an encompassing gesture.


"Roonie, if we don't find them, we're liable to miss the meeting."

Ron blinked. "Miss the meeting...?"

Daphne examined him incredulously. "Missing the meeting would be a 'bad' thing, Roonil. They have that big match in Wales tomorrow, and I can't staaannnd the thought of them trying to play without the benefit of your wisdom."

"Errmmm..." Ron blinked again and scratched his jaw.

"Besides..." Daphne's jaw firmed into something a bit steelier than her usual demeanour. "As far as we know, they might be in trouble!"


"Trouble!" Daphne nodded emphatically. "Seven people don't just vanish like that, Roonie. What if something happened to them?"

"Bloody hell!" Ron's eyebrows rocketed into his red fringe. "Where did they go?!"

"That's what I was just asking y..." Daphne froze, then slowly pointed down to the fifth floor landing below Ron. "What's that?"

Ron's eyes tracked in the direction of Daphne's finger and settled on a messy confection lying on the stones below him, hastily discarded and partially squished. "Why that's a..." He frowned. "I'd know those sodding things at midnight with my eyes closed. That's a Canary Cream!"

"Canary Cream?" Daphne tapped her chin. "Your brothers make those, right?"

Ron nodded, frowning. "Must have dropped one on their way down the stairs. I wonder how they got past me?"

Daphne crossed past him on the way down to the landing. "Oh look! Someone stepped in the cream. There are little greasy footprints going... that way." Her eyes tracked to the side. "They didn't get past you, Roon-roon; they veered off before you got here. Those tracks lead off onto the fifth floor corridor."

"Harry's office, maybe?" Ron hurried down to join her, and they entered into the dim corridor. "Damn. How are we going to see the tracks in this low light?"

Daphne knelt down and pointed her wand toward the last footprint illuminated by the light from the stairwell. "Vestigia Invenire! " Suddenly a long line of prints glowed white in the dusky hallway.

"Huh?" Ron stared. "Where'd you learn that spell?"

Daphne grinned. "DADA class last October. You were there too, right?"

"I? Uh, yeah, of course." Ron began following the tracks. "So, Harry's office is right around this bend. I'll bet..."

Daphne caught up with Ron and joined him in staring at the line of prints which continued straight past Harry's office without veering. "Of course, Wazlib. You'd bet they continued on past the office, heading somewhere else?"

"Uh yeah." Ron looked around perplexedly.

The trail swung to the right, down a short spur corridor, leading to a closed door. Ron glanced at it dubiously. "They're in there?"

Daphne shook her head. "They probably did go through that door, but I doubt they're still in there — it's just a staircase."

"Staircase? Where to?"

"It's a short cut down to the dungeons."

"Ugh." Ron made a face. "Why the hell would they head for the dungeons?"

"Dunno Roonie." Daphne shrugged. "Hopefully we'll find out."

After whispering a spell to open the locked door, Daphne led them through it and knelt again to renew the footprint-revealing spell which had been starting to fade. The pair gazed down the dark narrow stairwell, illuminated only by a single torch several floors below, and by the ghostly white footprints.

"I don't like this." Ron scowled. "All seven of them suddenly bolting, and heading down to the dungeons by the queerest path. It's like they've all gone mad."

Daphne shrugged again. "I hope not; they're so much cuter when they're happy."

"Ehh..." At a loss for words, Ron closed his mouth and frowned perplexedly.

After descending enough steps for Ron to begin despairing of ever emerging from the cramped staircase, the footprints finally reached a final earthen landing and headed toward an old wooden door. Daphne leaned her shoulder into it, and it swung back, revealing an odd green illumination of the corridor beyond.

Ron followed her through and found himself emerging from behind a large suit of armor into a hallway he had only ever traversed a few times — the main route to the Slytherin common room, currently lit only by the soft, water-filtered sunlight of the lake above.

Ron's gaze traced the faint footprints, and his eyes widened. "Bloody hell! They must really have all gone mental!"

"Oh?" Daphne gave him a wry look. "And what makes you say that, Wazlib?"

"They all went, uhh..." Ron gestured shakily toward the entrance to Slytherin House. "They all went in there."

"Hmm." Daphne's eyes narrowed. "I admit that the choice seems a little... surprising? But with all of the students gone outside, maybe Blasé and Harry just wanted somewhere with a bit more space than the sixth floor commons?"

Ron swore under his breath. "I can't go in there!"

"Sure you can, Roonie. I'll escort you in, and we'll get to the bottom of this delightful little mystery."

"But..." Ron stared balefully at the entrance way. "Ugh, okay."

Daphne smiled sweetly. "That's my brave little Gryffindor." She took his hand and began tugging his reluctant form toward the green-lit chamber.

Ron shook his head as he stumbled along the polished stone passageway. "If this is a trap, I swear I'll hex Zabini, or Ginny, or Fred and George or whoever is responsible for such a bloody tasteless..."


Ron leaped three feet in the air; wand flailing wildly at...

Luna, Neville, and Hannah Abbott...

Zabini, Summerby and Page...

Fred and George; Harry and Ginny...

And Hermione...

Ron's girlfriend came up to him with a big grin on her face; wrapping her arms around him as Daphne charmed a silly-looking tasseled hat to stay on his head.

Hermione kissed him on the cheek. "Happy birthday, Ron."

"Whuh? Birthd...?" Ron gaped at the others, who all seemed to be wearing equally silly hats. "Is today March first?"

Hermione nodded, grinning.

A red tinge creeping up from his neck, Ron glanced sheepishly about at the smiling faces. "Aww, thanks mates!"

Don't thank us..." Fred winked at his younger brother. "... until after you've tried the cake."

"Enchantresses and gentlewizards, do not adjust your dial. I am going to lower my voice to the barest of murmurs. I would like you to hear something very special..."

[Airy sound of the wind, slowly rising into a lilting, undulating chant, scaling up to a lone high C before falling away into a patter of overlaid whispers...]

"Ah! So beautiful, Septimo! After eleven years of broadcasting in this league, I never get tired of that sound."

"Yes indeed Richard! And that, dear listeners at home, was the Caerphilly Choir and String Ensemble's impression of the mournful call of the Banshee Sini, beckoning all Catapults faithful to Dai Llewellyn Stadium here atop beautiful Mynydd Meio."

"Eh, well, if the Banshee's call sounded just a little more mournful than usual this evening, it might be a reflection of the difficult times that the storied Caerphilly Catapults franchise finds itself in these days. Not since Dai Llewellyn himself ruled the skies here with his brash rolls and Quaffle picks have the hills of south central Wales had much to cheer about."

"That's true, Richard, and the gate proceeds have suffered in these recent years of mediocre squads. However, as you and I have been discovering, there seems to be one sure-fire way to inject a bit of thrill back into anyone's lagging Quidditch culture."

"Beg pardon, Septimo? And what would that sure-fire thrill injection be?"

"Elementary, dear Richard. Just set up a match with that barmiest bunch of blazing barn-burners — The Great Zabini Flying Circus! "

[Chuckles] "Well, I can't deny that The Circus is quite the entertaining crew or aerial rogues, Septimo, but there's one little problem with that quick fix. I think it sets up the thousands of faithful fans here tonight to witness their beloved Catapults in yet another raw defeat."

"Richard, I'm impressed! You're going to pipe up in front of the entire Wizarding nation plus all of our overseas subscribers and make a prediction?"

"I, er, yes. But don't you agree?"

"Of course, Richard. I just finished speaking with four highly respected Quidditch journalists, and there was a unanimous consensus that Blaise Zabini's exhibition squad stacks up exceptionally well against Caerphilly."

"Should we break down the match ups for our listeners, Sept?"

"Certainly, Richard. Let me say up front that I believe there's only one pairing in tonight's match that really matters, and it's not the one that everyone's been talking about."

"Eh? You don't think the Keepers will decide matters tonight then, Sept?"

"That's correct — I don't believe so. I admit that a tremendous amount of attention has been paid to the battle between the best Keeper in the British Irish Premier League, Hermann Weil, and the best British Keeper who's not currently in any League, Grant Page. However, on a crystal clear night up here in the thin mountain air, I'm absolutely convinced that all of those two Keepers' best efforts will only set the stage for the real drama."

"Which is?? Spit it out, Septimo — the suspense is killing me!"

"It all comes down to how quickly the young Harry Potter torches old Gramps Lamont for the Snitch."

"Whoa, whoa! Hold your Hippogriffs, Sept! Don't you realise that hundreds of fans have likely just cast Reductor curses on their wireless sets to hear such apostasy?"

"Just telling it like it is, Richard."

"Don't you pay heed to those youth versus experience debates? Potter may have nifty moves, but Lamont's surely picked up some foxy instincts in his nineteen years of professional play."

"True, but Potter made a believer out of me in Wigtown, Richard. There were layers and layers of his own foxiness in the last play for the Snitch; you and I may never know the whole story there. Besides, no Seeker who bested Blythe Parkin has anything to fear from a thirty eight year old Hector Lamont."

[Whistles] "High praise, Septimo! So, what other subplots should we be looking for tonight?"

"Well, there's the battle for the Bludgers. What I'm going to be watching for on that front, Richard, is whether play is dictated by the three S's of skill, speed and stamina, or whether it will all come down to survival."

"No end to the provocative statements tonight, is there? Would you care to elaborate on your fourth 'S', Septimo?"

"Sure Richard. Let me phrase it like this — one of the Weasley brothers committed a distinctly unsportsmanlike act in the Wigtown. If either Fred or George Weasley pull anything like that tonight, they're liable to wind in St. Mungo's."

"Ah yes, of course. The Caerphilly Beaters take no guff."

"That's a bit of an understatement, Richard. The Catapult's headline Beater, Frank Broadmoor, is every bit the nephew of those notoriously chippy Broadmoor brothers who played for the Falmouth Falcons back in the 60's. Now, if Broadmoor is a bit of an old style aggro, he had nothing on his line mate. Lemuel Dobbin is, according to my son's dialect, what we might call a real chav."

"You don't sound like a big fan of the Caerphilly Beaters, Sept?"

"No Richard. I'd rather not sound partisan, but Quidditch is dangerous enough without contaminating the skies with thugs and sociopaths. The Weasley twins may have the Bludger handling skills to compete with Premier League Beaters, but I'm not sure I want to find out if they're tough enough to roll with the thuggish underside of the modern game."

"So good luck to them, eh? And what's your take on the Chaser match up?"

"Clear advantage to The Circus on that one, Richard. Weasley, Summerby and Zabini have a cohesive style that reminds me of the best National Junior squads and, believe me, that's a compliment. On the Caerphilly end, things are more fractious. Sophomore Chaser Ismail Acemoglu is a top end talent, but he hasn't integrated well with veterans Filemina Aitken and Katherine Higgs. Taken separately, those are three fine Chasers, but the chemistry isn't there for them to put many Quaffles behind a hot Keeper like Grant Page."

"Ah. Now what about the battle on the opposite end of the pitch, Septimo? What about Ginny Weasley versus Hermann Wiel?"

"I honestly can't project that one, Rich, but I'll be excited to find out. Everyone knows that Weasley is ready to take her Chaser act to the big stage, but tonight's match up is a fine test for her. Let's just say this — if she scores as many as five Quaffles before her boyfriend pulls down the Snitch, then I'll stick my neck out and project her as a top candidate for the 1999 Premier League rookie of the year."

"Well well well, dear listeners! A plethora of predictions from the Oracle of Aragon — Mr. Septimo Aurrera!"

"Er okay. On that awkward note, let's take you down to our correspondent covering the opening ceremony."

Harry slowed his flight and descended a bit as the stadium announcer proclaimed the arrival on the pitch the match's honourary marshall, Agatha Llewellyn. Watching her measured walk out to the centre of the field, he didn't even notice that he had company.

"Feels rather like I'm a part of history."

Harry's glance darted to his right, to find the speaker — a slight, wiry man with greying hair. Harry blinked in surprise. "History, Mr. Lamont? How so?"

The elder Seeker's eyes remained leveled toward the pitch-level preparations, but his lips turned slightly in a vague half-smile. "The great Harry Potter leaving his brief indelible mark on Quidditch. Capturing a nation's attention for another brief moment of brilliance."

"Brief? Brilliance?" Harry stared at him. "Sir, I'm hardly brilliant at Quidditch... and who knows how brief I'll be?"

"Brilliance is a trajectory." Lamont turned to face Harry directly. "When the sun makes its first joyful leap above the eastern hills, it is sheer brilliance. Yet the moment it clears the horizon, it is simply there — illuminating our day perhaps, but no longer dazzling; no longer new."

"Ah." Harry nodded in recognition. "Well, you would know more about Quidditch brilliance than I, Mr. Lamont."

"I know a little." Lamont shrugged; his piercing grey eyes scrutinising Harry. "I know not to blink when I see it. I know what to savour." He smiled. "Have a great match, Harry."

A quizzical look on his face, Harry watched the veteran's scarlet and green stripes flutter off toward the other end of the pitch. Turning ostensibly toward the distant sight of some politician winding up a short ceremonial speech down below, Harry waited for the release of the Snitch... and pondered the brevity of the moment.

Ginny Weasley was... in the zone!

In the barest of split seconds, her eyes swept the skies in front; her ears and other unknown senses mapped out to the periphery, above, below, behind...

And yet again, just like her previous five trips down the pitch, everything made perfect sense — her beloved brothers were again driving both Bludgers way off to the fringe; Zabini was tying up Aitken in knots; Summerby swerved and dodged off to the left to keep the Quaffle clear of Higgs... and Acemoglu was juddering about directly ahead — fear painted in his eyes.

When you're truly in the zone, your every choice seems to make sense. Sometimes you choose to bring out your top shelf moves. Sometimes you don't.

On this particular drive, Ginny didn't feel like doing anything wild. She knew Acemoglu was expecting another crazy barrel roll, or perhaps a stomach-squishing plunge. Every quivering muscle in his stubbly cheek told Ginny that her opponent was dancing on a hair trigger, ready to leap for whatever trick she threw at him.

So she threw nothing.

Aiming for a clear spot about eight feet to Acemoglu's right, Ginny accelerated.


The Catapults Chaser twitched, twitched again... and gaped. His infuriating opponent had done absolutely nothing extraordinary, except fly straight past him.

Ginny rolled her eyes at the barrage of Armenian curses fading into her slipstream. She caught every inflection of every syllable of her opponent's rage, but didn't care. Because she had something more important to catch.

With a slight deceleration she angled left, leaned across her broom, raised both hands — and Summerby's pass dropped into them, light as a feather. Exactly as it was supposed to be.

That's what life is like, when you're in the zone.

On three of her scores, Ginny had needed to contend with Acemoglu on her final approach to the nets. On the other two scores, she'd confronted Weil alone. Such was going to be the case again this time.

Ginny rocketed along a slant upwards as Weil rose up to trim her angles. Quaffle clutched in her fingers, Ginny glanced to the far right hoop. It had been kind to her all night, but the tail of Wiel's broom was occluding about half of the opening.


From the look in Wiel's eyes, Ginny knew that the Keeper couldn't see what she did — the Keeper was still nervously cheating a bit right.

Dropping every hint of an expression from her face, Ginny whipped the Quaffle hard to the right.

Wiel committed — both arms firing out to cover...


In the final millisecond of Ginny's shot, her fingernails clamped hard into the leather. Shot fake!

With a flick of her wrist, she instead jabbed the Quaffle downwards, toward the open center hoop.

Belated horror in his face, the Premier League's best Keeper saw his folly. With no hope of proper coverage, he kicked out desperately, wildly, and...

Wiel's toe miraculously scraped the Quaffle, deflecting it two inches clear of the hoop.

Ginny gave her first miss of the night a fleeting glance, smirked, and met the eyes of the startled, relieved Keeper.

"Next time," she mouthed to him, before wheeling about to stifle another Catapults offensive.

"Merlin, Septimo — the crowd's gone wild! I'm not sure if they're cheering Wiel's incredible save, or the latest amazing play by Weasley to necessitate those acrobatics."

"A bit of both, perhaps? On one hand, the crowd has to be a bit shocked to see an under-aged amateur score her first five shots on a wizard that many people consider to be the best Keeper in the Premier League, but on the other hand I'm sure there are many Quidditch fans in attendance who understand that they may be in the process of witnessing a truly exceptional performance, Richard. If Wiel can put aside his initial shock, build on this save, and give Weasley the challenge to show us just how awesome she can be, people may be talking about this match for a long time."

"Speaking of the match, Sept, what do you think the Catapults need to do in order to get back into this one?"

"Find Lamont the Snitch before it's too late? No, to be honest Rich, they need to slow things down and not panic. Yes, they're behind 50-0 after only six minutes, but I can't seriously believe that The Flying Circus can keep up this kind of frenzy for a full hour. Blimey, I'm not certain even the Irish Nationals could sustain this pace."

"Heh. Katherine Higgs must be channeling you, Sept. She's slowed this offensive right down and is calling out a very deliberate play. Summerby's closing in on her, but I very much doubt he'll play for the st-"

"Wow, no foul! That was a clean strip by Zabini, folks — crept in on Higgs's blind side to poke the Quaffle away. Zabini pumps it back to Summerby, who laterals to Weasley who... Look Rich! Acemoglu and Aitken are tangled; Weasley's in the clear!"

"She sure is! Weasley's blasting straight up centre; nobody left back there but Weil, who's coming way out to try to force her off to the side..."

Not only did Harry and Lamont both see the Snitch at the same time, but in fact they both knew the other had seen it.

While Ginny battled Weil, yet again, at the Caerphilly nets, the Snitch was flying a lazy bobbing pattern near centre-pitch. Harry had a thirty foot lead on the little ball; he braced himself for acceleration, but for some unknown reason he paused... and met Lamont's eyes.

The elder Seeker glanced from Harry to the Snitch and back again.

The crowd erupted as, down below and a few hundred feet to the south, Ginny scored again.

Lamont gave Harry an inscrutable smile. "She wants it more than you, Harry."

Harry stared in bafflement as the Catapult Seeker flew off in a direction opposite where the Snitch no longer was.

Harry chewed his lip.

Wants what?

Is he messing with my head?

"Dear Listeners, in view of your questions about whether we may, in fact, be witnessing a record performance, I've patched in Premier League Archivist, Feofan Logothetides. He joins us from League Headquarters in Tutshill, Gloucestershire. Feo, have you been following the match?"

"Yes indeed, Septimo. This Flying Circus squad is certainly full or surprises, isn't it?"

"Oh, not doubt about that! So did you have a chance to look up some numbers for Chasers getting matches off to a hot start?"

"Yessir, Sept. So here we have amateur Chaser Ginevra Weasley, who has tallied the first six... sorry, make that the first seven scores of the evening. For the Premier League, that tops this season's best start to date which, if you'll recall, was Ballycastle's Cian Healy who scored the first five goals against Falmouth last December. To put things in proper perspective, though, Weasley has a long way to go to match Fabius Watkins' all-time record of thirteen straight goals for the Montrose Magpies to open their 1971 match against the Appleby Arrows. However, if The Flying Circus can hold off Caerphilly's next offensive, Weasley may well have a chance to equal Catriona McCormack, who set the rookie Chaser record in 1963 by scoring the first eight goals against the Chudley Cannons, during her stellar first season with the Pride of Portree."

"Ah, thank you Feo! Well, that should set to rest some of the arguments brewing at the Hogshead and the Leaky Cauldron. So Richard, the Catapults have come out of their time-out sporting rather grim looking faces."

"Grim indeed, Sept. Like so many Flying Circus matches, this hardly feels like a meaningless exhibition. If the Catapults considered this to be meaningless, I very much doubt that you'd see Acemoglu getting called for an aggravated Blatching foul as he was a couple of minutes ago.

"Yes, well Weasley certainly made the Catapults pay on her resulting penalty shot. Weil seemed completely outclassed — she seems to have the star Keeper completely rattled. You can bet there are scouts studying this performance with mind to learning how a supposedly impermeable Keeper can be systematically shredded."

"Too true. But the only impermeable Keeper on the grounds tonight has been Grant Page. Admittedly, he's only had to face five shots in ten minutes thus far, but he's certainly looked sharp."

"That's definitely true, Richard. But let's see if Caerphilly gives him a bit more of a test now that they've had a time-out to get their heads on straight."

"Higgs bringing up the Quaffle again and... oh, look at that, Septimo."

"Interesting Rich. Dobbin and Broadmoor are ceding both Bludgers to the Weasley twins and are instead playing bodyguard to the three Chasers — protecting against the steal, and pushing The Flying Circus Chasers out of the passing lanes."

"Hmm, well they had to try something I guess. Higgs is bringing it up on the left; passes to Aitk-"

Oi! Higgs just barely avoided a Bludger fired in by George Weasley. That's the downside to the Catapults' Beater ploy, Richard."

"Definitely Sept, though the Catapults Chasers have been a fearless crew ever since the days of Dangerous Dai Llewellyn. Aitken handling the Quaffle now; she has some extra room carved out for her by Broadmoor."

"Zabini is still managing to cut off some of Aitken's angles, and Ginny Weasley has Acemoglu marginalised on the far right. The Catapult Beater presence has really freed up Higgs, though — she has a clear lane straight up the centre."

"And there's the pass back to Higgs, Sept! Zabini got finger on it, but Higgs reels the Quaffle in anyway, and she's off! Summerby's nowhere near — he's tied up by Dobbin; the thug is using his bat like a weapon and the officials haven't called him on it."

"No foul unless Dobbin actually hits someone with the bat, Rich. He hasn't yet, but if I was Summerby, I wouldn't count on the Catapults being afraid to give up another penalty shot."

"No indeed. Higgs is closing in; sees Aitken on her left, whips it over to- Wow, what a pump feint, Sept!"

"Page is out of position; Higgs fires at the open right hoop. Sc - oh! Page got his hand on it — amazing save!"

"Acemoglu pulls free for the rebound; he turns and — Bludger, Sept!"

"Fred Weasley nailed him, Rich. Ginny Weasley grabs the loose Quaffle!"

"Chaser Weasley swings wide to try to escape the scrum around the Caerphilly goals, but... Hell! Broadmoor's coming after her!"

"He's a menacing sight, but with Weasley's speed, I doubt that... Oh — forget it, Rich. The other Weasley — George — drilled Broadmoor with a Bludger, sending him spinning off the play."

"Ginny Weasley passes to Zabini, who carries the Quaffle up on the right as The Flying Circus looks to build on a seventy to nothing lead."

Lamont sidled up to Harry. "Enjoying the show?"

Just as Harry was about to glance at his elder competitor in askance, Harry saw a telltale flicker of gold over Lamont's shoulder, about forty feet up the pitch.

Harry played dumb, nodding coolly. "Not a bad start." Pretending to watch the Flying Circus offensive, Harry attempted to edge away in a direction oblique to the Snitch in order to try to set up a discreet play for it.

Lamont held out his hand to stay him. The Caerphilly Seeker smiled. "You can try to grab it if you like, but I could have captured it a minute ago when my troglodyte teammate was threatening your girlfriend."

Harry gaped at him. "Why didn't you, then? You would have won the match!"

Lamont shrugged. "This is just an exhibition, Harry. Didn't seem sporting of me to make you look bad when you were really just worried about a loved one."

Harry could only stare, open-mouthed.

Lamont smirked. "Besides, I love this place and I love our fans. Tonight the audience down there doesn't care who wins or loses — they came to this match in numbers we haven't seen in years hoping to see some good, wild, entertaining Quidditch of the sort we lowly Catapults rarely provide."

Harry nodded slowly as Lamont continued. "Three quarters of the crowd would love to see your lady set a record. About as many are hoping to see some mad dash for the Snitch. So, my young friend, why don't we cool our heels here for another little while to see if the red comet can bag another Quaffle. And then..." His eyes sparkled. "And then we'll see which of us can pull down the little Snidget first. You reckon, Potter?"

"You're on, Lamont." Harry grinned.

Thirty seconds later, at the instant when Ginny set the crowd into delirium (clinging upside down from her broom to windmill the Quaffle past a bewildered Weil), the Seekers' race launched. Harry saw that Lamont had spotted himself a fifteen foot lead on the Snitch, but hardly cared — that would only make it more of a real race.

The Snitch was at normal playing height, about sixty feet in front of the Caerphilly goals. Harry knew he would have to hurry — at the very least to beat Lamont, but also to grab the fluttery orb before that whole area swarmed with the next Catapults offensive.

Air shredding past him, Harry used his competitor's slipstream to quickly close the gap, then, calling on a huge burst of exertion and willpower, rocketed out from behind Lamont's shock front to fly abreast with the older Seeker.

Harry calculated that he and Lamont were about the same weight, and were riding very similar brooms, so there was no straight-line advantage for either. The one case where Harry's youth could prevail was in any spine-contorting acrobatics, such as in avoiding... oncoming Chasers!

The Snitch had just crossed directly into a line between the two Seekers and an area where Aitken was jostling with Zabini. Distracted enough with each other, the Chasers took a precious moment to recognise the hazard. Zabini looked up in time to bail, but Aitken froze.

In the slimmest of split seconds, Harry did a quick calculation. He locked eyes with the Catapults Chaser.

Don't move don't move don't move...!!

The thirty feet between them closed with near instantaneity; the Snitch hovering just over Aitken's head. Even before Harry's fingers had fully pinned the pair of little golden wings, he was leaping up, off his broom, diagonally over the petrified Chasers' shoulder.

Six thousand people gave a collective gasp.

Harry's hands and legs parted with his broom, leaving it to thread its way through a small triangle of open air between Aitken's arm and her own broom.

In mid air, Harry arched his legs back to avoid kneeing his opponent in the face... then splayed his limbs, wildly, a bit like a Siberian flying squirrel... and wrapped them back around a trusty broomstick that had risen up to rejoin him.

Taking a huge breath, Harry stabilised his careening broom, rose to a guarded crouch, and set his eyes upon a familiar competitor who was somehow back at his side.

"Good show, Harry Potter." Lamont took both hands off his broom to clap, but his face still had an unmistakably wry look. "Good show, but I still say that she wants it more than you."

Harry blinked. "Who wants what??"

But Lamont had already turned to head back toward the Catapults bench.

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