SIYE Time:20:14 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: 34370; Chapter Total: 1766
Awards: View Trophy Room

Author's Notes:

Here's another chapter for my dear readers! Sincere appreciation for the Trinket votes and another round of nominations! I didn't get any responses for my MacBeth challenge (chapter 5) so that's still open, but here's a new one: What is the twins' motivation? If you answer correctly before chapter 9 is posted, then I'll name a wacky beater tactic after you :)

In response to some grumbling about 'Times New Roman', please let me know if you prefer the new font? Perhaps your browser can't tell the difference. Either way, please let me know.


Chapter 7. Flowers in the Spring (Jan. 18-19, 1998)

There was complex detail to much of the aura — loose threads, shreds of memory and flowing thought — but Harry paid it no heed. He had been entrusted with a position of power and responsibility, and his respect for privacy was of tantamount importance. Fortunately, unlike most Legilimens, he had honed the ability to operate with nearly surgical precision — both he and Teri knew that he could enter and leave without seeing anything more than he was supposed to.

And so, he was doing exactly as he promised.

Surprisingly, it did not go unnoticed! Despite the fact that Legilimency is rarely pleasant for either the examiner or the examined, Harry was actually greeted in Teri's mind with a sensation that was ever-so-slightly warm and comforting... It was gratitude!

Harry felt himself heartened. He had harboured many misgivings about doing this. A variety of reasons had prompted him to ultimately cave to Teri's insistence on the training, but logic had still not been quite able to assuage the feeling that invading a child's mind was a violation. Having the sense that she was aware of him — that she understood his presence and was accommodating it, finally let him put aside the guilt and do what was probably best for all.

Harry's first pass through her mind was tentative. Without truly examining any actual thoughts, he wandered around, getting a sense of the layout of Teri's aura structure. It lacked the clear boundaries of an accomplished Occlumens, but neither was it the disordered mess that defined most peoples' minds. Instead there were the preliminary rudiments of walls in places, and it was Harry's task to find the best, most concentrated fortification, and test it.

As Harry explored, he noticed something interesting. Any time he dwelt just a little longer than usual within a given region, he could sense a response. The mind structure close to his perception would subtly reorganize — some thoughts would be whisked away from his proximity; others would be moved in to pad the gaps. This was rather impressive. Harry considered himself to be quite proficient in stealthy exploration (albeit not in quite the same league of subtle Legilimency as Dumbledore and Salvatore Fugo) and assumed that he could do a fair bit of maneuvering in ways that most people with novice-level Occlumency instruction would never detect. The fact that Teri could sense and adapt to his presence suggested that, despite her young age, the girl already had the instincts to become a master Occlumens.

After less than thirty seconds of exploring, Harry identified the fortification that he was supposed to test. While most of the aura contained texture and nuances, this feature was opaque and featureless. Having developed a good feel for the nature and power of Occlumency shields from testing those of his seventh year students who were learning the subject, this one looked similar to what he generally expected to see from someone who had been working on the mind exercises for a while — more evidence that Teri's magical control was extraordinarily advanced for a nine-year-old.

Advanced, yes, but not yet perfect. Harry came up against the barrier and, with a bit of modest effort — enough to quicken his breathing and pulse as if he had bounded up a short hillock — he pushed through.

For the first time, he allowed himself to truly see. Then he chuckled.

He was confronted with a crystal clear image of himself — a look of ridiculous disgust on his face as he attempted to not see that dastardly Rita Skeeter's unauthourised biography sitting on the coffee table.

Clearly the girl had a sense of humour.

He broke the connection and promptly rolled his eyes at the sight of Teri's smirk. "Okay Smartie," he chided her, "were you really even trying to block me, or were you just taking the mickey out of poor Mr. Harry?"

"Of course I was trying!" she protested, but her impatient huff did not completely disguise smiling eyes. "Miss Susan told me that nobody at Hogwarts can block you except Miss Ginny, so I though I would show you something funny."

"Ha ha," Harry said wryly, but couldn't keep a few more real chuckles from escaping.

Teri's face grew more serious. "So how do I make it stronger then?"

"Ah yes," Harry also dropped his smile. "Well once you've proven you're able to make a reasonable memory container, the step I recommend next is to form several containers and begin filling each one with a different type of memory. You may want to use one container for happy or peaceful memories, another for basic facts and common knowledge that you don't care to protect, another for sad or painful recollections, one more for embarrassing or frustrating instances that you'd be happy to never revisit, and finally set aside one very nondescript looking container for hard, crucial secrets. At this point I'm sure you'll have no trouble making the bins. The sorting process itself is a time consuming, very draining, but utterly vital activity."

Teri nodded, but remained puzzled. "Yes, I understand about grouping my memories to understand what needs to be hidden, and where, but how does that make the barriers stronger?"

"I'm not sure how, but it does." A bit sheepish about having to hedge, Harry smiled and shrugged. "Both Ginny and I found that once the sorting and binning was completed, the protections seem to become almost immediately stronger. Part of the effect may come because similar memories are simply able to settle in and coexist better together, making them easier to pack into a stable container. More importantly, though, I believe that with a carefully organized mind, you'll find most aspects of your magic come to you more naturally and in greater strength. After I completed my Occlumency defences, I went almost immediately from being an average student to scoring top of my year. I suppose that when it comes to learning magic, you do your best spell work when you can give pure, undivided focus to the required task. If you've done a good job of memory sorting, your intentions aren't constantly cluttered with daydreams and unrelated worries that contaminate your spells."

Teri nodded enthusiastically. "Okay, that makes sense — I'll do it! Shall I work on it right now?"

Harry smiled. "Perhaps for a few minutes, while you're fresh."

Harry watched for a moment, bemusedly, as the girl settled into her armchair and eagerly resume an activity that he himself rather loathed. He could sense that Teri's excitement likely had as much to do with the prospects of stronger magic as they did with Occlumency. In that sense, he had to force himself not to visibly roll his eyes, since he knew full well that the sort of dedication she showed (and he admired) would almost certainly be regarded by the Ministry and much of magical society with fear and loathing. A furor would almost certainly erupt within the bureaucrats if the wrong person found out what he was helping her do.

Indeed, although the true goal of the exercise (simply to give Teri the tools to protect herself from a horrible menace) was pure, he had come to the conclusion that the legality of the instruction was a bit sketchy, and could land him in trouble. Specifically, Harry knew he wasn't violating the official proscription, which was against teaching wand magic to pre-Hogwarts students (there was no prohibition on using legal charmed objects, or learning rudimentary potions), but on any given day the Wizengamot might decide that the spirit of the law should also prohibit wandless magic, despite the fact that most young Magical children had at least a modicum of wandless ability, not all of which was truly 'accidental'.

In any case, given the circumstances, Harry knew that his social stature would breeze him past some minor violations that could land others in hot water, and he was also aware that Kingsley could probably be persuaded to give him a further bit of cover, but there was no way Harry wanted to test any of that.

In fact, Harry had not yet told Kingsley anything about Teri, and was in no hurry to. He had strong faith in Kingsley's integrity, but if the current DMLE Head was to learn who the girl was, what her risks were, and what Harry was doing with her, the poor man would be placed in a large bind, balancing between instinct, common decency, and his responsibility to his office. Current Minister of Magic Amelia Bones had made sweeping transparency rules aimed at ridding the Ministry of the paralytic secrecy that (among other things) Fudge had been infamous for, thus Harry knew that telling Kingsley the wrong sort of thing could force his friend to disclose the information to others. And while Harry felt he could probably trust many good, open-minded witches and wizards in the Ministry, he was hardly convinced that Voldemort's fall had truly produced a complete purging of dark-minded operatives from the dingier pits and crannies of government.

Consequently, Harry's mind was set — he would remain as silent as possible on the vast majority of his work with Teri... just as he held his tongue on so many other aspects of his life. There were many details of his own power and Ginny's abilities that he had never shared with anyone. He and Ginny had never spoken to anyone about their dealings with the Fugos. These fascinating, sessions with a gifted young witch were every bit as stunningly controversial, and thus seemed fully destined to join the ever-growing volume of secrets.

Yet that brought him back to questions that had begun plaguing him recently.

How big can a world of secrecy grow before it threatens to explode?

When can we put it all to rest?

Will we ever be able to bring it safely out into the open, and just forget about it?

Reaching an impasse on those yet again, Harry made a mental note to shelve the issue for the time being until he had a chance to talk to Ginny about it. For now, though, he sighed to himself, turned his attention back to Teri, and coughed gently.

Teri frowned slightly for a moment as she finished sorting a memory, then opened her eyes. "Yes, Mr. Harry?"

Harry smiled. "It's probably time for me to leave, Teri."

"Oh?" Teri's eyes widened a bit. "This went by so quickly. Thank you so much for coming to help me, Mr. Harry."

"You're perfectly welcome, of course." His smile broadened for a moment, then subsided to a slightly wry tinge. "Unfortunately, in return for me teaching you all these skills, you have to listen to me say it to you one more time..."

Teri nodded. "I am not to talk about my magic to anyone; I am not to practise anything in any place where someone might see me doing something unusual," Teri recited for him in a crisp, businesslike tone.

"Exactly." Harry beamed her a satisfied smile. "The only people who have any reason to know that you're practising magic should know better than to ask you about it or talk about it outside of my presence. If you get any awkward questions, or hear or see anyone saying anything suspicious, please let me know immediately."

"Immediately, Mr. Harry?" Teri frowned. "How?"

"Ah, that's right — I almost forgot!" Harry reached into a pocket to retrieve a plain leather bracelet which he handed to the girl. "Communication bracelet. I have it synchronized with mine." He pulled his sleeve back to reveal a similar one . "To alert me, simply press on the bracelet and say, 'Audite me, Harry.' I won't be able to hear what you're saying, but I'll know that you need me and I'll find you as quickly as I can."

Teri examined the bracelet carefully, nodded, then slipped it on with neither comment nor question.

Harry stood up. "Okay, now it's definitely time for me to get back to the school. I guess I'll see you again next Sunday?"

Teri grinned her reply. "Have a great match tomorrow, Mr. Harry. Do you think you'll be able to show me the Snitch that you catch?"

Harry laughed. "I've got to catch it first, Sugar Plum! But yes, if I get lucky, then sure I'll bring the Snitch."

"If I get lucky...?!" Teri huffed and rolled her eyes.

Harry winked on his way out the door.

Making his solitary way across the front lawn toward the path heading through the trees and vanishing into the mist, Harry caught sight of a lone figure facing toward the undergrowth with his wand extended. Upon closer inspection, Harry could see that he was trimming branches and moving stones, apparently widening the trail. He could also recognize the familiar profile of Theodore Nott Jr.

"Good morning, Ted," Harry called out. "How is everything with you?"

Nott glanced over and made brief passing eye contact. "G'morning Harry. Things are fine, thanks."

Watching him turn back to his work, Harry did not need any special sensory abilities to know that Ted wasn't exactly being honest. The Slytherin looked hollow and defeated, far too well suited to a grey sky, surrounded by a barren, snowless midwinter gloom.

Casting about for something upbeat, Harry reached into his pocket and confirmed his hopes — he still had a couple of complimentary tickets left. "Hey Ted...?" He pulled out the two small parchment slips. "Would you be interested in a couple of passes for Monday's Skegness match? Maybe you and Pansy could escape the routine for a little while — I hear there are some decent cafés and shops along the Esplanade."

Ted looked at the tickets as if they were crawling with maggots. "Erm..., no thank you," he mumbled, turning away again. "You mightn't have heard, Harry, but Pansy threw me over."

"Oh." Harry chewed his lip, sheepishly. "I'm sorry... I seem to be getting more clueless about things like that all the time."

Ted managed a smirk. "Yeah Harry — clueless — that's what all the students say about you."

Harry chuckled at the dry sarcasm. "Yes, well, when it comes to relationships they'd be right. But I do apologize for being so thick. If ever you need anything or want to chat, don't hesitate to track me down."

"Sure." Ted shrugged noncommittally, "I'll keep that in mind — thanks."

Harry left Ted to his dreary labours and walked contemplatively through the woods toward the Apparition point. Harry had not wanted to make an uncomfortable conversation even more awkward by prying, but he was troubled by the fact that, after making it through a difficult autumn and the scandal over the holidays unscathed, Pansy and Nott should decide to split up now. Harry knew that lots of couples had similar relationship trajectories, but it still made him uneasy. Maybe Ginny or Daphne would be able to shed a bit of light on the situation and reassure him that this was just a case of two troubled teens going through the motions.

Reaching the special Apparation copse, Harry Disapparated and emerged in the woods just off the path to Hogsmeade. Gazing about his destination, he blinked in surprise. The weather system that had been draping Wales in dreary grey had obviously turned to a fairly lively snow storm up here in the Highlands! Although Harry had been gone less than two hours, there were already at least five inches on the ground, and more cover was accumulating quickly in large fluffy flakes that muffled every noise and transformed the air into a vista of quiet meditation.

Despite the weight of worries — greater now it seemed than at any time since the Battle of Hogwarts — Harry found himself smiling. Everything looked beautiful. It would be the perfect walk home, if only he had someone to share it with. And, by 'someone', of course that meant...

"Hello dark and handsome stranger." came the seductive voice he'd just been thinking of.

Harry's heart leaped, but when he glanced about, looking for the source of the voice, he saw... nothing. Perhaps it was because of the snowflakes dangling from his eyebrow, or the odd acoustics of a wintery glade, but there was nobody to be-


... hitting him in the side of his head with a moist fluffy snowball?

Harry laughed happily. "Have mercy! Come out of hiding and take pity on a poor dark stranger!"

Ginny cancelled her Disillusionment charm and stepped out from between a pair of snowy pine trees; a small avalanche cascading down as she moved. Frosty breath wafted past her smiling, rosy cheeks.

Harry stood transfixed; a small wondering smile on his face.

"Hello?" Ginny said with a little wave. "Kneazel got your tongue?"

Harry blinked and his eyes sparkled in a way that, for Ginny, suddenly returned the tongue-tying favour. "It's amazing," he breathed. "Of all the times, all the places and settings and backdrops we've been together... I've never seen your hair in the fresh falling snow."

Her eyes widened. She pulled in a taut, expectant breath...

Perhaps it was the uneven ground, but Ginny's knees didn't function quite the way they were intended as she closed the final couple of steps to her fiancé. She stumbled forward, and might have fallen if Harry's hands hadn't wound firmly about her, pulling her in snugly. Their eyes locked, then closed, as lips found their cherished partners. Snowflakes landed and melted sweetly upon their faces. And time stopped....

Sadly, time never seems to stop quite long enough. From deep within a foggy reverie of warm closeness, the soft press of lips and tongue, the tantalizing tickle of breath... an annoying bray of conscience and responsibility lurked, whining plaintively until Ginny could ignore it no longer. Slowly, reluctantly, she pulled away and gazed up with loving regret. "We're late," she said with a sad smile. "Williamson is quite likely laying eggs as we speak."

"Is he now?" Harry smirked. "Did someone transfigure him into a chicken too, or are you speaking figuratively?"

Ginny snickered. "Figuratively, I regret to say." She tugged his hand. "Come on — I'd love to stay and play in the snow all day, but we owe it to Hermione and Ryan to take the starch out of Pompous Prat again, And besides, we'll hear about final plans for tomorrow's match security."

Harry resisted, tugging back on Ginny's hand, pulling her into one final embrace. Their smiling gazes met beneath snowy eyelashes. "Talk later?" Harry's eyes crinkled questioningly. Ginny nodded. Harry kissed her playfully on the tip of her nose then broke away and the couple found themselves running and laughing their way to the castle.

They were still running — and laughing — their way along the first floor corridor to the History of Magic classroom. Ginny burst through the doorway and was rushing to pull it closed when...


A prodigious snowball splattered off the oblique door and sprayed the portrait of an indignantly awakened Barberus Bragge. The five living occupants of the room jumped. Lupin blinked in alarm. Hermione gasped, rolled her eyes, then smiled. Ryan and Tonks smirked, and their faces spread into wide grins as the abominable snow-Harry strode in, waving amicably. "Good morning, everyone!"

"Have an accident, Harry?" Hermione inquired.

"No thank you — I just had one," Harry deadpanned. "I was running up the front walk at the same time as my girlfriend and I, er, suddenly found myself toppled into a large gorse bush. It had collected rather a bit of snow." He began scooping the compacted wet clumps out of his cloak and magically dried himself off.

"He crawled out looking like the most darling little ermine." Ginny couldn't restrain a giggle. "Yet, for some reason, the darling little ermine growled at me..."

"Please please please spare me the tedious youthful frivolity!" Williamson was glaring at the, hands pressed firmly to the sides of his head, as if stoppering a hot air leak. "You're eight minutes late!"

"Eight minutes late?" Harry whistled. "Blimey, Gin' — we made good time!"

Eyes squeezed painfully shut, Williamson massaged his temples. "Merlin help me. Can somebody explain to me how these two ever managed to defeat Voldemort??"

"Threw him in a gorse bush," Tonks quipped. "Made it look like an accident."

"Perhaps it was shrubbilimency," Lupin proposed.

"It was snow problem at all," Ryan chortled.

Williamson's face sank deeper into his hands. It was going to be a long day.

Harry and Ginny had decided, once again, to skip Sunday lunch in the Great Hall. Sundays had become possibly the busiest day of the week for them (especially today, with Blaise calling a two hour strategy session to plan for tomorrow's match) and the opportunity to escape for a while in the middle of the day had become nearly essential to their sanity.

Of course they still didn't want to shut the world out — Ginny did prop open the door to their sitting room in case anyone dropped by to see them — but Harry was busy at the same time casting privacy wards. So they could talk.

"Merlin." Harry shook his head as he finished the last spell. "I thought all the secrets would have ended months ago."

Having overheard him, Ginny slid her arms around his chest from behind and pressed herself tightly to his back. "It will all be over sometime." She sighed wearily. "There will come a day when we can release our poor prisoners from protective house arrest in Dolwyddelan, and all of them — all of us — will be free. We'll be able to open ourselves back up to the world like flower buds in the spring."

"Spring," Harry nodded with a distant look in his eyes. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could put this all to rest by spring time?"

"Yes." Ginny's eyes looked wistful... but her tone did not sound hopeful. For every secret that Harry and Ginny withheld from the world, it seemed as though there were three crucial, tantalizing mysteries that the world was obscuring from them. And while Voldemort had targeted last fall as a time to rush his abhorrent plans to fruition, Bellatrix seemed to have no such urgency. The past week had seemed so unnaturally quiet, it put Ginny and Harry both on edge whenever they took a moment from their busy lives to contemplate the case.

With soup and sandwiches awaiting them, untouched, on the coffee table, this moment seemed like a prime candidate for anxiety, but Ginny broke the ice before it could descend upon them. She smiled, picked up her bowl of soup and turned to face Harry on the chesterfield. "So, you wanted to tell me about today's session with Teri?" She gave him a solicitous smile.

"Yes I did!" Harry returned her warmth and picked up a sandwich. "I have to say, it's all quite baffling to me," Harry began, before taking a bite. "The sessions are going far too well. When I dropped by the manor on Wednesday, I explained briefly to her about the concept of forming protective memory containers, figuring that I could give her more detailed instructions today to get her started. Instead, this morning she informs me that she's already made one and wants me to test it out."

"And it worked." Ginny eyed him out of the corner of her eye as she blew on her soup spoon.

Harry nodded. "It wasn't Auror calibre or anything, but she had created a distinct container in four days that was about as good as any of my NEWT students have come up with — and they've been working on this since early December."

"As good as any of them?" Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Even Ryan?"

"Sure." Harry nodded with a slight smirk smirk. "Don't ever tell Hermione I said this, but Ryan has a bit of the same problem she does — I think they both spend too much time in the library. I wonder if too much reading causes magical instinct to rigidify."

"Oh?" Ginny's already raised eyebrow spiked. "And what exactly does that say about you confining me to Pince's little fiefdom fifty hours every week for endless book research, Professor Potter??"

"Hah — you got me!" Harry laughed. "I'm trying desperately to keep you under control."

Ginny brandished a single, very threatening finger above her soup bowl.

"Just kidding!" Harry flinched and threw his hands up defensively. "I've needed you down there because you're bloody brilliant. Your magic breaks all the rules anyway, so there's no way books will do you any harm... well, except maybe those Anders and Hyperia romance novels."

"You're just jealous of Anders because your Swedish accent makes you sound like a Bavarian badger," Ginny chided him with a wink. "But you're getting us off track, Harry. You were concerned about Teri's magic?"

"Yes, I am." Harry paused for a mouthful of soup. "For starters, there's the ethical issue of me condoning and abetting a minor who's making a wandless mockery of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery."

Ginny nearly choked on her pumpkin juice. "Er, Harry... you do remember how old I am don't you?"

"You, mademoiselle, are incomparable," Harry deadpanned. "Your age is completely irrelevant to everything in life except marriage and Premier League Quidditch."

Ginny smiled and blew him a kiss. "Okay, let me try a different tack. If you needed someone to behave in a basic, responsible manner, who would you choose — an adult Hogwarts graduate like Cormac MacLaggan, or a nine-year-old pre-Hogwarts child like Teri?"

"Good point." Harry grinned. "Although I do worry that the more powers and skills Teri acquires, the more harm Lestrange could accomplish through whatever magical connection she has with the girl."

Ginny placed her empty soup bowl on the table and leaned her head back. She closed her eyes for a moment, but re-emerged quickly with the rebuttal. "Nearly every wizard or witch in the world can be Imperiused, Harry. In all cases, the victim can be forced to do harm with his or her magic, but that doesn't stop us from teaching magic to everyone who will learn. Besides, you're focusing on defensive skills, and anything that we can do to help the girl protect herself is much more likely to have a good outcome than a bad one."

Harry exhaled and smiled at Ginny with deepest affection. "I love talking to you," he said softly. Ginny opened her mouth to respond... but a warm weight of powerful emotion coursed through her; her cheeks flushed and she looked away.

After all this time, there were still times when the thought of Harry — all that he was; all that he meant to the world and to her — made Ginny's head spin. She had grown so much in such a short year; she could go face-to-face with anyone at Hogwarts, with Quidditch scouts, even with the Minister of Magic, but when Harry turned to her and truly emoted — be it love, joy, gratitude or deep respect — it was still possible for her to forget the reputation and honours she had earned.

She frequently had to remind herself that if the saviour of the wizarding world came to her with the deepest conundrums, it was because she had never led him astray. If he loved her, it was because together they had done so much more than either would have done alone. And yet, despite the wonderful, amazing union they had, every once in a while she wondered if she would ever fail him. And in those moments, a part of her mind suddenly reverted to the insecurities of the silly little ten-year-old girl who could never meet him eye-to-eye.

Fortunately, Harry had ways of dealing with those little demons. He put down his sandwich and grasped her hand. The touch of his fingers somehow said it all — how his life had no meaning without her; how challenges were only worth tackling if they could do so together. Without thinking, she found herself shifting on the chesterfield, leaning into him, burying her shoulder into his soft, warm pullover. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes.

Harry stroked her hand in silence a long while before starting to speak again. "Should we tell anyone?" he asked. "About Teri's magic, I mean?"

Ginny said nothing as she pondered the question.

Harry began speaking again. "I'm not even certain how much of a secret it is. Andromeda is being tactfully silent about all of these meetings with Teri, but surely she's piecing things together. Tonks must have realized that if I've been pushing her and Tracey on Occlumency, that I'm not just leaving Teri out of the equation. It would be natural to tell Tonks, of course, since she has a vested interest in the case, but if I let her know then should I come right out and tell Kingsley or Robards too? If I explain how critical it is both for Teri to have these skills and for all of this to remain a closely guarded secret, will bureaucrats respect my wishes?"

Ginny opened her eyes and reached for her sandwich. "So your thinking is that you can trust Tonks with the knowledge, but you'd prefer for her to not have the burden of holding privileged information that could get her in trouble with her superiors?"

Harry nodded.

"And you're worried that if Robards or Kingsley know, it might leak out to someone who could tip off the wrong person?" Ginny pursued before falling silent again.

Harry sighed. "More flowers in the spring, you reckon?"

"More flowers in the spring, love." Ginny exhaled wearily and gave him a solemn nod. She washed down a bite of her sandwich, put the food back onto the table and leaned back into her warm niche in Harry's side.

"Dear witches and gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair here to welcome you all to a special Monday edition of Wizarding Wireless Network's 'Quidditch Tonight'. I'm joined here at the Gibraltar Point Municipal Quidditch Pitch this evening by my trusty mate Septimo Aurrera to bring to you a rather unusual little match."

"Unusual is right, Richard! Normally coming into a match, I have a reasonable idea how things might play out, but I remain quite mystified by this one between the Skegness Shrakes — an upper-tier Class B North Midland League team — and, uh, a traveling exhibition team calling itself the, erm... one second while I find that parchment. Oh yes, here it is. They're called The Great Zabini Flying Circus, dear fans, if you can believe that."

[Chuckling] "So Septimo, what would you say to the writers at Seeker Weekly who've decided that the only reason this off-schedule exhibition match is being played is because of who's playing Seeker for The Flying Circus."

"And that of course is the redoubtable Mr. Harry James Potter, Order of Merlin first class. In truth, if this team wanted to spare itself a bit of incredulity, they could have made a more credible name, calling themselves The Merlins."

"Ah — right you are Septimo! They have, what, five recent Order of Merlin honorees in their lineup? So clearly the kids have a bit of moxie, but the question for our listeners is whether they can actually play Quidditch."

"Well Richard, they clearly all have some competitive Quidditch background, but what nobody really knows is whether they have the skills, experience and coordination to play against professional teams. I was personally on hand ten days ago for a scrimmage at Hogwarts where The Flying Circus annihilated a top student team, but there's a tremendous difference between varsity school and Class B Quidditch."

"Absolutely Septimo — the key difference between student teams and pro squads are the skills, conditioning and discipline that comes with fifty hours of training per week, forty eight weeks every year."

"Very true, Richard. But my instinct — completely unfounded as that often may be — is telling me to be very cautious about everything I say! It's quite possible that the Shrakes will thrash the Circus mercilessly, but on the other hand there might be a very unusual bit of chemistry in this group of misfits that makes remarkable things possible."

"Well dear fans, you heard it here first! Maybe before the night is over, people from all over will be calling for Septimo to be registered as a Seer in the newly renovated Hall of Prophesy. Or just as likely, you will all think that we at Wizarding Wireless Network are a troop of sensationalist blathering berks. Which will it be?? But for now, Septimo, maybe we can put aside what your gut is telling you and hone in on recent scouting notes?"

"Certainly Richard! So we all know that Potter is powerful, but can the boy fly and catch a Snitch? Well, the quick answer is that when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, scouts everywhere were starting to take notice of this flying phenom, and some were enthusiastically projecting him as the next Roderick Plumpton. Unfortunately that was nigh on five years ago, and the young man has, as we know, been a bit distracted of late. Will he pick up where he left off years ago? Has he been secretly improving all the while? Many question marks but few answers."

"How about the other positions?"

"Well, if I was assembling a school team, this would be a great bunch. Ginny Weasley is the class of the Chasers — she's not yet of age, but everyone expects her to sign with the Harpies on her seventeenth birthday and head straight for Holyhead, without putting in any time in Class B. She's a ferocious competitor, a strong agile flier, with good pass and catch skills. If you're drawing up defensive configurations for the Shrakes you have to try to keep her off the Quaffle, but that's not easy because she tends to pick off a lot of interceptions and run them down-pitch for scores. Blaise Zabini is their second scoring option — he's not extraordinarily fast on the broom, but he has a good arm and doesn't drop the Quaffle. He also plays cloying on-Quaffle defence. Keith Summerby is the field general — he has professional-level field awareness, makes good passes, and coordinates an astute defence."

"How about the Beaters, Septimo?"

"Ah! Well this may be the wild card! Fred and George Weasley play with the synchronicity that you'll only find with soul bonds or identical twins. They, like Potter, have played very little in the last few years. If you based the scouting report on their school career, you'd have said that they were good school competitors. Not great, but good. That said, however, when I saw them in the recent scrimmage I couldn't help wonder what the blazes they've been doing in preparation because they practically had those Bludgers dancing like trained seals. They didn't face much of a test, but based on their measurable skills, I do expect them to make life difficult for Skegness this evening."

"And of course we're both familiar with Grant Page."

"Yes indeed — a good young Keeper. Page was just about to ascend to the starting Keeper position out in Kilkenny when he suddenly bolted from a secure, upward track to this mysterious exhibition team. You have to wonder, Richard, if this fellow knows something that we don't?"

"One wonders indeed! He hasn't interviewed since leaving Kilkenny over the holidays, but maybe he'll be willing to provide our listeners with some insight after the game. Septimo, both squads have taken to the pitch. Do you have any quick updates on the Shrakes? They're on a bit of a roll of late, aren't they?"

"Yes indeed — winners of their last four matches, the Skegness squad comes into this match with momentum in its favour. This evening will obviously not affect the standings in any way, but I will nonetheless mention that the Shrakes have ascended to third place in the North Midland League. Long-time Shrakes fans might well be wondering whether their team might be on the way back to recapturing some of those glory days of the Class B championship calibre teams from the early '90s."

"A familiar face back in the lineup too, I hear?"

"You're quite correct, Richard! Last year's star Chaser Liu Song Ye will be back in action tonight. After having been promoted to Puddlemere as an injury replacement for Wilda Griffiths, the charming young Miss Ye has returned to Skegness to ensure that she get lots of playing time. I can't help but think that Ye, who has also played on the Chinese National Under-21 Team, could make for a very interesting matchup with Ginny Weasley."

"Absolutely! And it further tells me that this Skegness team will be playing at a position of strength. One last question before the Snitch is released, Septimo. Why are the Shrakes playing this match in the first place? Why risk injury with an unscheduled exhibition when they're just about to make a play for the league title?"

"Well, coach Bloom said she wanted to keep the team fresh during a two-week layoff, but in truth it all comes down to one word..."


"I'll give you a hint Richard. It starts with the letter 'a', follows with a couple of t's, and ends with 'endance'."

"And there you have it mates — Skegness is apparently looking for a bit of exposure to boost their sagging crowds. Well, the idle turnstiles at Gibraltar Point Municipal Pitch have certainly sparked to life tonight! And a roar erupts from our standing-room only crowd as the Snitch is released!"

Harry soared above the roaring crowd and breathed in the invigorating ocean air swept up from the North Sea. Down below the action was already underway, but he indulged himself in a brief spectator moment. His eyes quickly swept the crowd to locate the Flying Circus section — a lively gaggle of nearly one hundred friends and relatives who had taken advantage of the generous Skegness ticket offerings. Even from his substantial height he could make out Arthur, Molly, Bill, Fleur, Percy, Audrey, Ron and Hermione, flanked by Lupin and Tonks and a substantial contingent of HA students. Despite all the spotlights Harry had stepped into in the last few months, his heart nonetheless swelled with pride and good will to see everyone coming out to honour them in this silly endeavour.

Just as he was turning to begin tailing the Quaffle action, he caught a slight motion out of the corner of his eye. In a friendly gesture uncharacteristic of such a Quidditch connoisseur, Ron was waving at him. Harry grinned at how caught up Ron seemed to be in the whole occasion. He waved back to Ron and to the whole section, then turned to begin the Snitch hunt in earnest.

Nearly sixty feet below, the action was heating up quickly, and Ginny, in complete contrast to Harry, was a gibbering bundle of nerves. They had come into the match with completely different attitudes. Harry, for his part, had spent the afternoon smiling and joking with family and friends, while Ginny had gone stone silent... and snapped at anyone who tried to loosen her up. Harry didn't even know exactly how to spell or pronounce the name of his Seeker opponent (a friendly Tamil fellow who had been quite thrilled to meet Harry and had insisted on being called 'Ven'), while Ginny had spent hours trying to pry loose every last minute detail of Liu Song Ye's strengths and tactics.

Bloody waste of time!

Flying frantically about, seemingly a half-step behind on every play, Ginny was cursing the scouting reports, and loathing the frustrating task of shadowing the Shrakes star Chaser.

In truth, Skegness was a team seemingly built to frustrate The Circus. With a playing style diametrically opposite Ravenclaw's cerebral, artful tactics (which The Flying Circus had chewed up mercilessly), the Shrakes posed a big problem. Poring over play diagrams, Ginny, Zabini and Summerby had come to the unmistakable conclusion that their excellent pass-defence skills would be wasted against Skegness for a simple reason — the Shrakes barely passed at all. Whichever Chaser grabbed the Quaffle at the start of any Shrakes offensive almost invariably held onto it, and relied on teammates to clear an open path to the hoops. Recognizing that they would need to play one-on-one defence almost exclusively, the three Chasers had debated their matchup assignments and eventually come to the conclusion that Ginny was the only one with the speed and agility to fly against Ye.

Now, as Ginny streaked through the sky with a scowl on her face, she wanted to scream obscenities. The Chinese witch had apparently discarded the entire book of documented tactics and was using this exhibition match to try out a whole new line of nifty moves she'd picked up from her friends on the Chinese National Team.

These moves were crisp. They were sharp. They were 'Puddlemere is going to beg me to come back' type moves.

Ye's new marquee tactic was to randomly alternate between double-, triple- and quadruple-feints. In the first minute of the match, Ye pulled a left-right-left triple feint, baffling Ginny who had never seen more than a double-feint in Hogwarts play. Two minutes later Ginny had prepared herself for the triple, and Ye pulled a quadruple. Both plays had produced Skegness scores on Page who was having as much trouble reading the Chinese dynamo as Ginny was.

"Hey Red," Zabini called as he, Ginny and Summerby wheeled about to start an offensive after Ye's latest goal. "Do you want to switch off defensive assignments? You take Thorne?"

Ginny fought back a snarl and instead just shook her head. "Ye's too fast for you Blaise. You can't stick to an opponent you can't catch up with."

Zabini frowned and nodded thoughtfully... Then, just before they split apart to charge up opposite wings, he whistled.

Ginny met his eyes.

Being as subtle as he could, Zabini reached out and tapped his own shoulder, then wriggled it a little.

Huh? Shoulder?

Ginny's eyes lit up. Hey, that's right!

It was just a hunch, but Ginny knew exactly what Zabini was suggesting. Despite Ye's immaculate poker face and exceptional muscle control, he believed that she might have a subtle but readable flinch that Ginny had been struggling to place. When the Shrake's star went into her feint contortions, she did seem to drop one shoulder. Was she reflexively bracing herself for the coming acceleration? Was she tipping her hand?

Suddenly invigorated by the prospect of an exploitable vulnerability, Ginny raced up the pitch to join the offensive. With Summerby playing on the left wing and Zabini on the right Ginny aimed straight for the goal. With a sharp roll, she dodged a Bludger just before George managed to corral it. Her brother launched it straight at Thorne who bailed, creating a sudden hole in the Skegness defence. Ginny charged straight through it and turned on a Sickle. She had barely raised her hands when she saw that glorious russet blur streaking toward her.


Bless you Summerby — the boy always seemed to get her the Quaffle when she really wanted it!

Racing with a clear path to the rightmost hoop, Ginny caught a glimpse of blue — Ye was racing in to cut her off. Ginny grinned. Instead of trying a feint or roll to try to get past Ye, Ginny decided that the little Chaser could use a little dose of adrenaline — she charged straight at the Chinese girl.

In shock, Ye froze, and Ginny, knowing she had carved space to work with, pulled up short. With split second glances at the three hoops, Ginny threw a hard forty foot lateral, forgoing the vacant rightmost hoop that Ye was nervously blocking, and instead drilling the left ring that the keeper, in desperation, had just abandoned in his haste to cover the center.

Bulls eye!

As Ginny cut a hard path to get back on defence, she heard Zabini issue a wild primal yell. For the first time ever in real competition, The Flying Circus had drawn blood!

Still behind 30-10, Ginny was not yet feeling celebratory, but she was definitely stoked. Come on Ye — show me what you've got!

Unfortunately Ye didn't carry the Quaffle on the next play. Thorne had picked up the Quaffle off the score and held onto it as the three Shrakes Chasers made their way back down pitch. Twice Ye signaled for a pass that Ginny was sure wouldn't come. True to form, Thorne hoarded it obstinately all the way down the pitch... only to have it poked away by Zabini.

Ginny raced wide to the right wing to get herself open, turned and caught Zabini's eye. He grinned, whipped the Quaffle to her, then raced to find some open air for himself.

Whipping around to head for the hoops, Ginny gloried in the bracing wind whipping past her as she scanned the pitch, ready to...

Bloody hell...

Traveling at speed and elevation, it is unwise to roll one's eyes, but Ginny was sorely tempted. Suddenly it was as if this was Ravenclaw all over again — her entire forward field of vision was crammed with blue — all three Skegness Chasers were swarming her!

"GET A LIFE!!" she roared with such ferocity that her opponents cringed, barely noticing what she was doing with the Quaffle. In fact, she flipped it downward, beneath all of them, to be snatched up by Zabini who had crept in below the action. The three Shrakes Chasers, tangled by their close proximity to each other, scrambled awkwardly and failed to catch Zabini as he rushed over and across to poke the Quaffle into the open right hoop and make it a ten point game.

Swinging back on defence yet again, Ginny turned to gauge the opponent offensive and grinned an evil grin.

Ye had the Quaffle.

Ginny's peripheral vision swept the pitch to assess everyone's positions — Zabini and Summerby locking up their defensive assignments, Fred and George engaged in a spirited battle with the Shrakes Beaters for the two Bludgers, and then there was little Miss Dragon...

Ye was bearing down on Ginny with a fierce intensity that sought nothing less than to crush this annoying insurrection before it got any further. Her eyes bored through Ginny as if she wasn't there — because, as far as Ye was concerned, Ginny was not there! It was only herself and the inevitable goal.

Ye closed to within seventy feet and made to veer right.

Her shoulders stayed perfectly level as she continued to barrel head on, toward Ginny — toward the goal!

At forty feet, Ye feinted right again, but her left shoulder dropped. Per Zabini's hunch, Ginny pulled hard to Ye's left and — bang — in an instant the two Chaser's found themselves nearly in each other's faces. Shrieking in surprise and vexation, Ye's grip on the Quaffle softened just long enough for Ginny to whisk it away from her, rolling hard to avoid a collision.

Screaming half way down the pitch, Ye wheeled about in fury and, having an extremely powerful broom for such a small woman, rapidly closed the gap. Ginny was just lining up a shot on the open right hoop, both hands off the broom to put more power into her throw...

High above the action, Harry stared, aghast, as Ye reached out to blag Ginny broom.

Damn you wench!! Ginny'll fall!

Harry plunged down to avert possible disaster, when...


Fred's perfectly aimed Bludger smashed Ye's outstretched hand, sending the Shrakes star Chaser into a spine-wrenching spin.

Vaguely aware that wild action was taking place behind her, Ginny tossed the Quaffle through the hoop, then whipped around to see her opponent flailing desperately. She, Fred and Harry all converged on Ye at the same time — Harry grabbed Ye's broom to stabilize it, while Fred caught the woman's shoulder.

Ye blinked in momentary disorientation, her gaze swept over the three concerned faces around her, she opened her mouth...

And let loose the most vile, blazing torrent of Mandarin curses imaginable.

Shocked and bewildered, it took Fred, Harry and Ginny a moment to realize that she was shrieking not at them, but rather at a couple of very sheepish-looking Shrakes Beaters who, once again, had been bested by the twins.

Her foul ejaculation complete, Ye smiled at the three Flying Circus mates. "Thanks!" she said curtly, then broke free of their grips to join the Shrakes offensive.

"Sweet little lady," Fred offered with a shrug as he turned about to head down pitch.

"What cha thinkin', Roonil Wazlib?" Daphne chirped as she descended upon Ron and Hermione where they stood with Percy and Audrey at a relatively quiet periphery of the large visitor's box.

"I think it's bloody brilliant!" Ron's marveling eyes scanned across the action-filled sky. "I never would have... well, I guess I didn't..." He swallowed awkwardly. "Er, well, to be honest I didn't actually think they'd be any good?"

"What do you mean, 'good ', Roon-roon?!" Daphne chided. "They're not good — they're beautiful! They're poetry! They're sprinkles of starlight sundered from celestial realms to illuminate us poor mortals!"

Hermione choked on her pumpkin cider.

"What's the matter, Granger." Daphne elbowed the Gryffindor. teasingly. "Didn't you know that dizzy little Daffy had a vocabulary?"

"Yeah, well," Ron continued obliviously, "I suppose I figured Harry would hold his own... and Page ought to have learned some skills playing in Ireland, but the others...??"

"For shame!" Daphne brandished an instructive finger. "Blasé, Summy and Pagey practice their sweet little hearts out every day. And Harry is so exquisitely Hhhhhaaaaaarrrrrryyyyyyy..." Her rant drifted away breezily for a moment, before she reeled it in again sharply. "But what about your own family, Roony?! Ginny-Gin owns the skies. She's the boss's boss's boss! And your brothers Fearsome and Great — oh my oh my OH MY!"

Ron nodded with a frown that deepened as another of George's pinpoint Bludger missiles scattered the Shrakes defence, opening Ginny's path toward another easy goal. "Yeah, especially the twins," Ron grumbled. "What's gotten into them? Why the hell couldn't they have played like that when they were on our house squad?!"

"I know the answer." Daphne gave him a smug look of the sort Hermione had once practically trademarked.

"Huh?" Ron finally took his eyes off the action to stare at the Slytherin girl as though she had purple seed pods sticking out of her head.

She smiled. "Motivation," she stated simply.

"Huh??" Ron goggled.

"Mo-ti-va-tion," Daphne repeated carefully. "That's a word, right Granger?" She winked cheekily at the bushy haired girl. "You'll figure it out soon enough, Roon-roon. But it's time for me to say cheerio luvs — must head back to the top of the box and watch Harry finish them off!"

"Completely mental," Ron muttered as he turned his attention back to the pitch. Hermione, however, stood silently. Gazing upwards in time to see Fred strip a Bludger from the hapless Skegness beaters, she nodded thoughtfully to herself.

"Not exactly the game story one might have expected, is it Septimo?"

"Woowhee no! No, not at all Richard! Before the match, I guess I might have given The Flying Circus a shot at winning if they kept the score close for long enough to give Potter a chance to catch the Snitch, but that latest Zabini goal actually puts the Circus ahead 240 to 100."

"That means the match is almost out of range of the Seekers!"

"Exactly Richard. And frankly, the way everyone's playing right now, I can't see any real way for the Shrakes to claw their way back into this one — The Circus is playing with skill and poise and they don't appear the least bit tired. If the Shrakes want to win this one, they're going to need a Venkatavisakhapatnam miracle — soon!"

"Snitch hasn't exactly been making itself available for miracles much, has it?"

"Not at all Richard — a couple meager appearances in the first twenty minutes, but it was flying too close to the Quaffle action for the Seekers to risk. It's been utterly shy now for more than half an hour, so you have to wonder when it's going to show again. Anyway, both teams are back in action again after the time-out; Thorne with the Quaffle."

"Whoops — rare miscue by the Weasley brothers. Bludger throws Zabini for a loop and Thorne's coming in hard. Summerby and Ginny Weasley converging on him and... Oh what a magnificent shot!"

"Magnificent or desperate, Richard? Either way, that Thorne's long blast to the left hoop trims the lead a notch — Circus ahead 240 to 110. Summerby with the Quaffle."

"Weasley coming up the right wing, Zabini on the left. Septimo, do you think we'll see..."

"Snitch Richard! Just above the third Shrakes hoop, and both Seekers have spotted it. Ven started with a 20 foot lead on it, but look at Potter flatten out!!"

"Circus and Shrakes alike are scattering, Septimo. There'd be times when one team or the other might try to clutter the path, but it looks like both sides are going to let the Seekers settle this on their own terms."

"Ven and Potter neck-and-neck as the Snitch flutters up and to the right. Potter adjusts... arm out... Snitch! Catch! Match!"

"What blazing speed by Potter! There might be something to that reputation after all, eh Septimo?"

"Oh, no doubt Richard! Oh and I see that Venkatavisakhapatnam is offering congratulations — the Shrakes Seeker doubtlessly put in a legitimate effort tonight, but I have to admit that it almost looked at times as though the little fellow was simply honoured to be sharing the same skies as Potter."

"Yes, but I'm sure that's natural considering the legends surrounding The Flying Circus Seeker. Anyway, legends of not, wasn't this an entertaining evening? The Great Zabini Flying Circus, a touring exhibition team composed of current and recent Hogwarts students, has just defeated the North Midland's third-ranked team, the Skegness Shrakes, by an impressive score of 390 to 110. Septimo, who's your choice for the Wizarding Wireless Network's star of the match? One of the Weasley twins for their brutally disruptive Bludger handling? Ginny Weasley for her thirteen goals? Harry Potter for catching the Snitch?"

"Oh my, what a choice to have to make Richard! I'm going to go with 'none of the above'. One could make a plausible pitch for Grant Page who played well in goal, and Blaise Zabini who proved himself to be a real captain with smothering defense and impressive on-pitch leadership, but I think my vote would go to Mr. Quiet himself — Keith Summerby. He may have only scored three times himself, but he assisted on eighteen other Flying Circus goals!"

"Eighteen assists — he'd have to be chuffed with that indeed! But as much as anything, Septimo, I think this conversation boils down to a simple conclusion — this Flying Circus is playing like a fine machine with all cogs turning in synch."

"Capital phrase, Richard! And with that, dear listeners, please join us as we head to the pitch to hear what some of the players have to say about tonight's match!"

"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly." The short, balding wizard with the friendly face raised his wand, microphone-style. "I have a question for Mr. Zabini. What's next for The Flying Circus? Do you have more matches lined up?"

"You'll have to owl me tomorrow night," Zabini replied. "We have a team meeting tomorrow to confirm our plans going forward. Provided we all vote to charge ahead with a full schedule, we'll then review the letters of invitation we've received for matches and make decisions on which to accept."

Quinticent nodded. "How many invitations have you received so far?"

"Er, let me please refer you to Miss Daphne Greengrass, our Executive Press Secretary." Zabini beckoned Daphne over. "Daffs, how many owls so far?"

"Lots and lots — there are still some flying in as we speak." Daphne took her place, smiling brightly for the cameras. "I've been sorting through them as we go. Many of the notes involve concepts that the Wireless Network probably doesn't want me to repeat on air, and some propositions would require more chocolate sauce than our nation imports in an entire year, but I've counted more than twenty legitimate invitations for Quidditch matches against distinguished competitive squads across the UK and Europe."

Ginny stifled a snicker as she watched Richard Auclair hastily trying to adjust the language filters on his wireless recording charm.

"Er, yes, well, thank you for the enlightening detail, Daffs." Zabini wore a rather forced smile as he worked his way stolidly past the momentary pall. "So, yes, we're getting more requests than we can accommodate, and I should clarify that we're only considering serious matches against professional clubs, national senior and junior squads and perhaps a few very high level scholastic teams. We'll probably take on about one match every two or three weeks from now until the pro camps start in July. If anyone from the press corps wants more details on scheduling, please leave your name with Miss Greengrass and she'll make sure you receive press releases as we negotiate details."

"Luna Lovegood, special correspondent, The Quibbler," came a very familiar voice.

"Oh [bleep]," Zabini muttered.

"Hi Luna." Harry gave his friend an amused smile. "No Heliopaths tonight, please?"

"Of course not, silly boy — we all know perfectly well that Heliopaths do not play Quidditch," Luna replied with her aethereal tone ever-so-slightly tinged with impatience. "I have two quick questions for Messrs. Frederick and George Weasley."

The twins grinned, obviously steeled for anything.

She removed the impressive peacock quill from behind her ear and unfurled a scroll. "Which of you is more sensitive?" she asked.

They blinked. "He is!" they answered, each pointing at the other.

"Thank you, and who is the better singer?"

"I am!" they chimed synchronously.

"Ah. I do love unanimity." Luna smiled broadly as she recorded the answers, then placed the quill back behind her ear as she drifted away, leaving her fellow reporters scratching their heads.

"Okay everyone." Harry straightened up and took a step toward the lockers, "If there are no more questions, then-"

"Excuse me Herr. Potter. Matthäus Gottschalk, Die Beschwörung."

"Of course!" Harry grinned. "Our night couldn't be considered complete without an insightful closing question from our Freiberg friend. Are we talking about security?"

"Ah, but you are ever too sharp Herr. Potter!" The man extended his hand for Harry to shake. "No incidents or plots tonight? Everything was according to plan?"

Harry nodded. "Yes, I would certainly thank the Skegness club for helping to ensure an orderly environment, but the truth of the matter is that the Ministry of Magic has chosen to use some of these matches of ours as test runs for new ward protocols they're developing for the little gathering they're planning for Wiltshire Downs this summer."

"Ah!" Gottschalk exclaimed. "Ist the World Cup, ya? Brilliant! And you will not share details of these wards?"

Harry smiled and shook his head in a polite but firm manner. "Those secrets aren't mine to divulge. Anyway, friends, that's all for tonight! A couple quick photos on our way to the lockers if you need them, but otherwise we're packing it in." He pulled Ginny close and broke away from the media circle.

As Harry and Ginny walked wearily yet happily, arm-in-arm, back to the lockers, Zabini shouldered up beside them, accompanied by Fred and George.

"Oi mates! Thing One, Thing Two and I are going to hit the wizarding nightclub in Croft Marsh with some of our favourite groupies." Zabini projected a grin that mixed exuberance and roguishness in equal measure. "You two want to join us?"

Harry replied with an eyebrow that required no elaboration.

"Hey!" Zabini recoiled in mock dismay. "Some day I might stop asking and you two could get very lonely."

Harry rolled his eyes, but Ginny was more accommodating. "Schedule the next match a bit earlier in the evening Blaise, and maybe we'll take you up on it, but tonight you'll just have to have fun without us. Hope you all have a pint in our honour!"

George snickered. "A pint of Firewhisky in your honour, sister dearest?"

Fred burst out laughing. "Be careful what you wish for!"

Ginny's eyes got their little worry-creases in them... but she didn't have enough energy for a strident rejoinder. "Please be careful," she admonished wearily. "Drunkenness is a security risk, and we should all consider ourselves to be targets, yeah?"

Zabini nodded. "Sure thing, Red — we'll be careful."

"Come on, Parksy-poo," Daphne called from the upper edge of the nearly-empty visitor's box. "Frothy pink sparkly drinks with fairy wings are calling your name!"

Pansy bit down hard on her tongue. "Give me a bloody Ogdens poured over jagged chunks of anthracite," she grumbled to herself. "A bleeding minute, will you Daffs?! I need to drag Space Pixie back from River Styx, then I'll be right with you!"

Pansy stomped as loudly as possible down to the lower lip of the visitors box to where the sleeping girl sat peacefully. "Dingbat — it's time to go!" she hollered.

Tracey Davis did not stir. Pansy was about to shake her, when she noticed, to her surprise, that the girl was not asleep. Tracey was sitting, motionless, with a vague smile on her face, alert eyes trained on the last five Quidditch players ambling off the pitch together, heading for the lockers.

"Er Tracey..." Pansy began, in quiet consternation.

Down on the pitch, a security wizard pulled the locker room door closed behind Harry, leaving nothing but a silent moonlit field.

Tracey's vacant gaze drifted up to her best friend's puzzled face, and she offered a faint smile. "Time to go, Parksy."

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