SIYE Time:20:31 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: 34377; Chapter Total: 1468
Awards: View Trophy Room

Author's Notes:

A not-so-long-awaited chapter this time. This one truly wanted to get written and so I indulged. Hope you enjoy a little change in pace!

Et aussi, la challenge! Aimless was indeed closer than one might have guessed. I held back my judgment to see if anyone would peg it a bit closer to the mark, but nearly full credit regardless! Now I need inspiration for a suitable reward!

By the way, nobody responded to my MacBeth challenge (Chapter 5). It is quite obscure, and my one little hint (relating to potioneering) was veiled. If nobody gets it before I post chapter 10, I'll reveal it.


Chapter 9. Weasley Whimsies (Jan. 25 - Feb. 9, 1998)

The scene looked idyllic — a crackling fire, mugs of hot cocoa, Harry stretched out on the chesterfield with Emerald purring in his lap, and Ginny at his feet. Unfortunately, the conversation did not seem destined to settle comfortably into the trivial chatter with which Harry and Ginny usually liked to close out their Sunday evenings.

It was not for lack to trying of course. Ginny casually stroked Harry's ankle with her fingers, and scrounged for casual topics. She hummed, recalling one of the day's unexpected little developments. "So, what did you say to Ron about his little proposal?"

"Ah, you knew about that?"

"Believe it or not, yes." Ginny laughed. "He actually asked my opinion before going to you. Ron never asks my opinion about anything!"

"Huh." Harry raised a curious eyebrow. "What did you tell him?"

"I told him that if he was serious about offering to help with strategy, and if he was honestly willing to cooperate with Blaise, Keith and me, then he should definitely approach you."

"Seriously?" Harry's eyes widened in surprise. "You actually told him up front that he would have to negotiate with... well, with the bunch of you of course... but especially with Zabini? I'm amazed he didn't just turn his heel and shelve the plan right then and there. "

Ginny nodded, a grin spreading across her face.

Harry shook his head. "This I will have to see to believe!"

"So you're going to bring him aboard?" Ginny asked as she sipped from her mug.

Harry shrugged. "Well, not quite yet — I sort of dodged the issue for now. I was up to my ears in grading essays, and fussing over... well, you know — what I'm always fussing over. So, no, I was too distracted to just give Ron a carte blanche invitation. But I did agree to ask Daphne to include him in the next meeting. This way we can all hear what he has to say, and decide together whether he could fit into the strategy team."

"That sounds very reasonable." Ginny stirred her drink. "But about that 'fussing' bit — the whole shrake spine business is still weighing pretty heavily on you?"

Harry nodded, frowning. "Nothing in the case adds up."

"In what sense?" Ginny put her mug down. "It seems to me as though some details are finally converging. Shrake spines and tetrodotoxin and a West African tradition of dark magic all fit with Ryan's and Hermione's hypothesis. So maybe Lestrange is planning to turn people into... what was that word again? Zombies?"

"Yes, but is she?" Harry quirked his cheek. "Every other bloody week there's some new bizarre trick... targeting somebody new. I knew that witch was psychotic, but I never pegged her as having attention deficit disorder!"

Ginny snickered for a moment then grew serious again. "Well, maybe it's part of some elaborate master plan, and we just haven't pinned it down yet."

"Well, let's see. Drunken brawl... broomstick accident... domestic dispute... psychopathic mind assault... nightclub Mickey Finn... Any pattern?"

"No," Ginny admitted.

"Nott, Davis and Pansy..." Harry began enumerating on his fingers. "Ron and Teri... Remus and Tonks... Teri and me... Davis alone... Any pattern?"

"Nothing solid." Ginny retrieved her mug and blew on it. "You could suggest that maybe Tonks is due for some more excitement, or maybe she's a lower priority because she's the only one of the three cousins who really seems capable of locking herself down with Occlumency... or maybe it's just random."

Harry stroked his chin. "The number of affected parties per incident is declining. That could mean that Bitchytrix is refining her strategies to go with what's most effective."

"Perhaps." Ginny shrugged. "Or maybe it's just random."

"Or maybe it's just random." Harry nodded.

Emerald stretched, gave Harry and Ginny each a skeptical look, then closed her eyes.

Ginny stroked the cat's fur as she continued to turn details of the case over in her mind. She glanced back at Harry. "So what has been most effective?"

"It depends on what one's trying to accomplish." Harry mused thoughtfully. "The Diagon Alley incident had the greatest overall chaotic impact, but it's not easy to coherently avenge Riddle's death with sporadic incidents of bottle throwing anarchy."

"Very amateurish." Ginny gave a scornful sniff that made Emerald's whiskers spike.

"The incident with Teri was probably my own most singularly frightening experience in a good while," Harry continued.

Ginny glanced at him appraisingly. "But it's already made you stronger, yeah?"

"Right." Harry nodded. "And it quite possible weakened Lestrange. Thanks to you."

"You're welcome." She squeezed Harry's foot affectionately. "But other incidents were certainly still serious enough. We could have lost Ron and then later Tracey, if not for timely interventions by friends."

"Yes." Harry gazed off into the glowing embers. "That implies we may need to try to stick together."

"Or it may mean that if the Bitch was smart, she would try to isolate us."

Ginny's statement brought an uncomfortable silence as their minds both tracked through worrisome scenarios. Finally Harry broke the pall. "Divide and conquer, eh? A frightfully nasty thought... but do you reckon that Bitchy is smart to think it, though?"

"I honestly don't know." Ginny took a long drink of her cocoa and tucked her feet more comfortably beneath Harry's leg before finally shrugging. "I'm only certain of one thing in all of this."

"Ah?" Harry gave her a curious glance. "And what would that be?"

"That you're not nearly as bored as you were a month ago..."

Three male visitors – two whom with distinctly red hair – strode into the Hospital Wing. The two red-heads wore blatantly roguish grins, while the third could do little but roll his eyes.

Gazing at a reflection in a nearby window, Tracey Davis spotted the trio. Seeing the facial expressions sported by the two Weasley twins, she smirked for an instant then closed her privacy screen just before they turned into her chamber. "Sorry gentlemen," she said in her best imitation of Madame Pomfrey, "the Davis girl has been sent home."

"Ah, is that so?" George's tone drooped with an exaggerated air of disappointment. "Tragic! All of these gifts will be wasted..."

"Not wasted at all." Fred shook his head. "I believe we'll just have to have a little gift exchange among ourselves."

"Oh goody!" George exclaimed. "I've always fancied having a fairy-silk negligée!"

"You did not buy me a fairy-silk negligée?!" Tracey gasped, whipping open the screen; scandalized expression on her face.

"No, of course not." Fred glanced casually at the apparently not-so-absent Davis girl. "Brother George merely fancies having one, that's all."

"Ah, well fair enough. I think." Tracey gave the twins a skeptical eyebrow. "And to what purpose do I owe a visit from you clowns?"

"Clowns?!" Fred's own eyebrow more than matched Tracey's pique.

"Erm Harry." George tapped the non-red-headed male on the shoulder. "I think the poison is affecting her vision – she's seeing more than one of you."

"Oh, of course!" Fred exhaled in relief. "Miss Davis, I feel it's important to correct you. There is actually only one 'Harry Potter' here in front of you, and he's not really all that clownish. I believe he prefers to be called 'eccentric'."

Tracey giggled. "Okay, I give up. How about I just shut my mouth until somebody starts talking sense?"

"I, er, guess that's my cue." Harry sighed patiently. "You might find this difficult to believe, Tracey, but Fred and George are supposedly here to cheer you up."

"Do tell?"

"Yes, Mademoiselle." Fred grinned. "We truly do come bearing gifts."

"Which is better than gifting bears," George explained. "But alas, no fairy-silk negligée."

Fred shook his head solemnly. "No, we left that under George's pillow, where it rightfully belongs. Instead we brought this!"

"Ummmm..." Tracey frowned as she reluctantly accepted the proffered gift. "A tin whistle?"

"No, dear lady, it's a WWW-patented personal hex detector!" George announced.

"Notice the tiny lever on the side," Fred fingered the device carefully. "If you flip the pin into the up position, the device will shriek bloody murder if anyone is wielding a wand with the intent of hitting you with a hex."

"Now if you turn the lever the other way..." George mimed the direction. "The whistle will not sound, but the premeditating caster of any ill-advised hex will begin emitting horrific sounds of, er, well, flatulence... This rather eliminates their element of surprise."

"Then finally, if you blow into the mouth-piece..." Fred puffed his cheeks. "The whistle will sing, 'Incy Wincy Spider' in a very loud and disturbing way – guaranteed to scare the trousers off any would-be prankster."

"It's actually a recording of our Aunt Muriel," George clarified.

"Please don't blow into the whistle," Fred added.

Tracey stared at the gift in appalled silence.

Fred grinned uneasily. "It's the perfect present for any fine, upstanding denizen of Slytherin House."

"Er yes, it sounds sort of, um, useful." Tracey's expression seemed caught somewhere between dutiful gratitude and awkward confusion.

"Of course!" George nodded with great enthusiasm. "Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes merchandise is the epitome of usefulness. We're actually developing a more sophisticated version of this for the Ministry of Magic."

"But lest you mistake us for dour, humourless engineers," Fred interjected, "We also brought you a gift certificate from Fortescues!"

"Oh!" Tracey grinned, grateful for both the offering and for a legitimate reason to respond graciously. "A sincere thank you, kind sirs!"

Harry smiled. "I know that this is a bit belated, but I also brought you a gift."

Tracey's eyes widened. "Harry, you didn't have to..."

"Actually, yes I did." Harry pursed his lips. "Madame Pomfrey and I are prepared to sign off on your release."

"Ah!" she shrilled. "Finally! I've been feeling completely healthy for days now, and being stuck in this place has been driving me batty!"

"Oh, I don't doubt that, and I do regret delaying" Harry shifted awkwardly. "The issue was less about your outward health, and more to do with the stability of your magical powers, and your potential susceptibility to spells. Since we're still worried about the long-term effects of exposure to those shrake spines, we were hoping that you'd consent to wearing a special amulet that will engulf your body with a magical interference field."

Harry handed Tracey a silver chain with an elegant oval pendant, inset with amethyst. Despite the object's exquisite craftsmanship, she accepted it with with a look of profound ambivalence. "So you really think that git is still after me? That wasn't just an opportunistic one-off?" A deep frown spread across her face.

Harry nodded. "You're one of several people we fear may be targeted. Whether by Crabbe or someone else, we don't know, but we'd prefer to minimize risks. The detector and the amulet aren't foolproof, but they should help give us — and hopefully you — a bit more peace of mind."

"Argh!" Tracey seized clumps of her hair. "If I'd known it would lead to so much hassle, I never would have led a bunch of Slytherin rabble up a few flights of stairs to waggle their wands at Death Eaters."

"Don't give me that, Tracey." Harry's admonition came with a sympathetic smile. "You were a hero and you knew there were risks when you stood up there with Ted and Pansy. Now stand tough for a while longer, and I promise we'll get you your life back!"

The girl shrugged, and slipped the chain over her neck, letting it settle under the neckline of her gown. "Okay then, are there any usage instructions for the pretty little necklace?"

"Actually yes," George replied seriously. "You will not be able to cast spells of your own while you're wearing it, so when you need to do magic, you can take the amulet off and store it in this pouch." He handed her a small bag that appeared to be made of a specially treated mokeskin.

Fred nodded. "We'd suggest you wear the amulet when you're sleeping or relaxing. Whenever you're up and about, and might have need of the occasional magic spell, then leave the amulet in the insulating pouch, but do make sure you have the hex detector handy to give yourself the edge in case of trouble."

Tracey nodded comprehendingly. "Any other conditions for my release, Harry?"

Harry bobbed his head equivocably. "Well, with the tools you now have at your disposal, I can't imagine you'll have much trouble at Hogwarts, but things may be a bit dicier outside of school grounds. If you decide to go on leave, it would be great if you could bring a friend."

"Okay, I can live with that," Tracey replied.

"By which, I mean, ideally a friend with good defensive skills." Harry handed her a parchment. "Here's a list of students who would be happy to accompany you on minor excursions."

Tracey grumbled something unintelligible, but then examined the list of fourteen names, noted with satisfaction that it contained five upper-year Slytherins. She shrugged resignedly and gave a conciliatory smile. "Sorry if I don't seem as grateful as I should be. This is all quite a lot to take in... and since becoming of age, I'd grown rather accustomed to my independence and freedom."

"It's certainly understandable," Harry agreed. "I'm no fan of belittling people and denying their liberties in the name of protection. I have personal experience with people trying to shroud me from unarticulated and misunderstood threats and would hate to condemn you to the same." He frowned for a moment, staring out the window at the misty grounds that had been forbidden to Tracey for the past week. He returned his gaze to her sympathetically. "People in positions of power are perfectly content treading all over innocent people in pursuit of what they feel is the best or safest solution, and I don't want to become like that. So if you see me, or "It's certainly understandable." Harry nodded equably. "I'm no fan of belittling people and denying their liberties in the name of protection. I have personal experience with people trying to shroud me from unarticulated and misunderstood threats and I'd hate to condemn you to the same."

Harry frowned for a moment, staring out the window at the misty grounds that had been forbidden to Tracey for the past week. He returned his gaze to her sympathetically. "People in positions of power are perfectly content treading all over innocent people in pursuit of what they feel is the best or safest solution, and I don't want to become like that. So if you see me, or others, acting with that sort of arrogant disregard, please just come up to me and demand some respect, okay Tracey?"

Tracey stared at Harry as she digested his candour, then nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

Harry smiled. "Great. So now you're free to go!"

"Brilliant – best news I've heard in ages!" She turned to watch the twins who were idly examining medical instruments. "Now, about your friend George and his negligée fetish...?"

"Okay, attention everyone!" Daphne's wand made a sharp gaveling sound on the table to draw to order all members of the The Flying Circus as they gathered around the fire in the Interhouse Commons after a tough practice. "Harry has asked that we take a few minutes out of our usual weekly strategy update to speak to someone who may be able, or at least willing, to help us with our upcoming match."

A few puzzled glances flitted across the room, then Harry angled himself toward the corridor and called out, "Hey Ron, would you like to join us?"

Some very wide eyes swiveled around to see Ron Weasley enter, somewhat stiffly and ill-at-ease.

Zabini blinked, then gazed at Harry and Daphne. "Okay, ha ha," he said rather humourlessly, "you've managed to pull old Blaise's leg."

Zabini paused, and noted that neither Harry nor Daphne were laughing or even smirking. "Er, this is a joke, right?"

Ron took one brief, slightly baleful look at Harry, then turned to leave.

"No joke." Harry shook his head emphatically. "Blaise, I'm sorry I was too busy to fill you in on this before now, but Ron has some comments and suggestions to make about the Luxembourg match, and I thought it could benefit us to hear them."

Ron paused under the archway, one foot back out into the corridor, but the other half-turned to await any response. Ginny caught his eye to give him an encouraging look... which he did not reciprocate.

Zabini fixed Harry with a skeptical eyebrow. "Yes, well I too happen to have a long list of comments and suggestions to make about Luxembourg. So what's going to happen when I end up contradicting one of Rooster's opinions? Is he going to blow his volcanic lava dome on me like usual?"

Ron chuckled, in spite of himself. "Rooster? I thought you always called me 'Chess'?"

"Chess was so 'last September', Rooster." Zabini waved his hand dismissively. "So, please answer my question, Potter – what happens when the two of us disagree?"

Harry shrugged. "I find that debate and resolution is crucial to good strategy development."

"In an ideal world," Ginny added, "Blaise and Ron would bash each other's ideas to shards, then Keith and I would pick up largest salvageable pieces."

Summerby digested the metaphor thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded.

Zabini glanced petulantly around at the other faces. "So what exactly are you suggesting, Red? You don't like my ideas?! We aced our last two matches!"

Grant Page shook his head. "We all appreciate that, mate, but look at the schedule – things are only going to get tougher and tougher. Daffs has us hooked up with a pair of Premier League squads!"

"Er, well, Wigtown and Caerphilly..." Zabini quirked his lip equivocally.

"Don't knock them, Zabs." Page waggled a finger at the Slytherin. "The worst Premier League squad can pound the best Class B by a lot more than the 280 point margin we hung on Skegness. And you can bet that the Wanderers and Catapults each have five to ten full time scouts trying to get them any edge they can find. We can use new ideas of suggestions from any source."

"Only if they're good ones," Zabini argued.

Ginny shook her head. "Ron's head for Quidditch strategy is as good as yours, Blaise."

Zabini stared at her. "Oi Red, come again?! His Gryffindorks lost to Hufflepuff last week! I mean, we're talking... Hufflepuff?! "

"Ron's head for Quidditch strategy is as good as yours, Blaise," Ginny repeated unapologetically, "but unfortunately he's not a very astute judge of talent."

"Hey!" Ron protested. "That's..."

"That's painfully obvious, Ron" Ginny rolled her eyes. "Seeing Dean and Seamus play Chaser last Saturday was like watching a pair of three-toed sloths getting stung by gnats! Stephanie Burroughs and Lisa Parkes can blast up and down the pitch three times in the time it takes..."


"Oops. Sorry Harry!" Ginny clapped a hand to her mouth, then re-emerged with a chastened grin.

"Ron, please come in and sit down." Harry beckoned his friend in. "Blaise, I greatly appreciate your role in drafting strategy, but I also know from seven years experience that Ron sees shapes and patterns that none of the rest of us do. I'm betting that after careful consideration, we'll find value from both of you, and I think our squad will grow up a lot faster if we have frank exchanges of view. Is everyone okay with that?"

Daphne smiled and waved her cheery assent. The twins, quietly amused by the unfolding drama, grinned. The others signalled affirmatives, and finally Ron and Zabini both nodded stoically.

"So what were you going to tell us, Rooster?" Zabini asked, not quite meeting the Gryffindor's eye.

Ron cleared his throat awkwardly. "Er, well, I've been reading play-by-play transcripts of the last World Junior Championship, and I owled Roger Davies, who joined the Bigonville Bombers last year as an apprentice scout. And, well, when I put everything together, it seems clear to me that..."

"Yes?" Zabini's voice betrayed a note of interest.

Ron fidgeted in his seat. "Er, well, that you won't have any plays that can beat them."

A long, uncomfortable silence followed. Finally Zabini rolled his head back and chortled in exasperation. "Okay, I can certainly see how this is helping us to grow as a squad! Potter, thank you very much for arranging a most insightful..."

"No, no, wait." Ron shook his head vigourously. "I wasn't done yet!"

"Ah?" Zabini smirked. "So now you're going to tell us how much we're going to lose by?"

"No." Ron continued to shake his head exaggeratedly. "I means that you won't be able to beat them unless you try something completely different. You see, Luxembourg has an elite program to train their best talents from a really young age, which is the only way such a small country can compete against the traditional Quidditch powers. Because of how the program works, the current Chaser corps..."

"De Salle, Dreikirchen and Jacobs," Ginny interjected.

"Yeah, them." Ron nodded, consulting his notes. "They've been playing as a constant unit for five years against international competition, and the three of them are absolute soul-mates. Every play they make is a team play; each of them always knows what the others are doing. They've seen every Chaser trick in the books, and know precisely how to defend against everything you could throw at them."

"Yes, well I'd sort of come to that conclusion too," Zabini admitted. "I've been thinking of some unconventional plays we can try, but first I'd like to hear what... little gems of wisdom... you're proposing."

"Well, over the last few days I've been sitting down and drafting a bunch of basic plays that I can guarantee the Luxemboug trio has never tried to defend."

"And how can you guarantee that?" Zabini raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Because Luxembourg has never played a squad..." Ron paused for emphasis. "That flies four Chasers!"

Sitting alone in his office, Harry picked up the next scroll from a stack of sixth-year assignments he was working his way through. After squinting at the text for a moment, he turned the scroll upside down, tried again... and nodded. Another 'Luna Lovegood' work of art.

He was less than six inches through her puzzling diagrammatic treatise on the shield-strengthening properties of Ungubular Slashkilter stubble, when he was mercifully interrupted by a knock at the door. He put down the scroll. "Come in."

Looking up, Harry was surprised to see that it wasn't one of his regular students, but rather he smiled to discover that it was Ted Nott Jr. "Hey Ted. How can I help you?"

"Hi Harry," the seventh-year Slytherin responded. "I was wondering if I could come to you for a bit of advice and, er, perhaps also for a favour. Or maybe a couple favours..."

"Are you going raise the ante any further, or have you topped out?" Harry winked.

Ted chuckled. "I think I'll hold myself to that. I wanted to talk to you about my dad."

"Ah." Harry nodded, a faint chill of trepidation crossing his brow as he recalled how deeply Ted Jr. tended to blame himself for his father's arrest and imprisonment. Harry nonetheless forced a smile back onto his face. "Have you heard from him?"

Nott shook his head. "Not directly, but some of the minor offenders have starting getting released from Azkaban recently, and one of them was saying that Dad has been asking about me."

"Asking in a 'good' way," Harry suggested hopefully.

"Yes, as far as I can tell." Ted shrugged. "It sounds as though he actually misses me... or 'us' I should say. It would seem he developed a soft spot for Anna Blevins and Teri Nott."

Encouraged by the direction the conversation was going, Harry nodded enthusiastically.

"Anyway," Ted continued, "last weekend when I was at your manor in Wales, Teri asked me about Dad and was wondering whether... well... when we might be able to see him again?"

"Teri talked to you about your father?" Harry's brow rose curiously, remembering the vitriol that the girl had expressed at Christmas regarding Ted Jr.'s supposed role in Ted Sr.'s incarceration. "So you and she are getting along now?"

"Yes." Ted offered the hint of a smile. "When I first started to visit Dolwyddelan for my public service duties, Teri looked like she wanted to slit my throat... But she's gradually warmed up again. I assume it's Anna's doing — little miss sunshine kept tagging along with me on my visits, and she rarely lets Teri go off and hide alone, so, well, we've all kind of patched things up."

"Fabulous!" Harry grinned. "So basically you, Anna and Teri want to see your father?"

"Well, sort of. Basically, if it might be possible to arrange for me to visit him in Azkaban, I would go... though I wouldn't feel right bringing Teri or Anna to that place."

"Correct!" Harry's voices was a bit more emphatic than he intended, so he reined it in. "As their temporary guardian of record, I'll make it clear to you that I would forbid anyone to take Teri or Anna anywhere close to Azkaban right now. But we could probably get you there. And if your dad seems to be genuinely rehabilitating, I suppose it might be time to start on an early release petition."

"Seriously, Harry?" Ted's eyes widened in astonishment. "That was precisely what I was trying to work up the courage to ask you!"

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "Well, it's good that we're on the same wavelength... but now that I think of it, I'm not sure I'm the right person to be asking. Have you approached your head of house, or Headmistress MacGonagall?"

"Yes," Ted answered reluctantly. "Slughorn refused to even discuss any of this for some reason, and MacGonagall said I should talk to you."

Harry frowned and gazed distractedly out the window as a stream of unrelated thoughts began to flow through his mind.

"To be honest, though, I only went to them to follow the formal chain of request," Ted added. "I more or less figured, or at least hoped, that they'd send me to you anyway."

Harry nodded again, and brought his focus back to the matter at hand. "Yes, well I assume that Professor Slughorn has his reputation to mind, and I have an inkling as to why the Headmistress sent you to me. Anyway, that's fine — let's plan for you to go see him, and then make a decision about the early release petition accordingly. I'm willing to start the paperwork required for your Azkaban visit... on two conditions."

Ted blinked at the unexpected response. "Conditions? Er, sure. Like what?"

"I want to escort you on the visit," Harry stipulated, "and, strictly between you and me, I would also like a few minutes alone with your father."

Despite the cold mist hanging about grounds like a clammy veil, Harry whistled his way back from the Apparition point, rather pleased with how the morning at Dolwyddelan had gone. Teri had indeed begun making real progress with Occlumency, and had once again marched him through a long string of inquiry that had alternately amused Harry, made him think, or as often as not, done both simultaneously.

The highlight for the morning had come just as Harry was preparing to leave. Logically Harry knew that the bald pronouncement was the product, not of a seer, but rather of the black-and-white confidence that accompanies many nine-year-old minds. It had nonetheless tickled him immensely for Teri to have declared that Luxembourg would fight them to the brink, but that The Flying Circus would emerge victorious... and that Harry would catch the snitch.

The girl had certainly not fawned on him through the prediction, though. Rather, she had closed by shaking her head and waggling a pale finger at him. "But don't dawdle this time, Mister Harry!"

The recollection of her stern, fiery eyes brought a wide smile to Harry's face as stepped through the doorway into the classroom and found his seat for the weekly Lestrange briefing.

Harry looked over to see Operative Williamson staring at him. "My, isn't this exceptionally irregular!" With arched eyebrow, the Auror scanned the faces assembled around the table. "Today, the illustrious Mr. Potter is... almost on time! "

A few chuckles ensued. Harry shrugged good-naturedly. "I was able to wrap up my session at the safe house early and satisfactorily, and obviously I was just so excited to get back here for our regular little chat that I didn't tarry along the way."

"Well, I suppose there's a first time for everything." Williamson scowled at his parchment. "And also a last time. In consultation with Head Auror Robards, I have decided to suspend the investigation."

Tonks sputtered her tea. "What?! "Why??"

Lupin, Hermione and Ryan all stared in perplexity at Williamson. Harry and Ginny exchanged a glance and shrugged.

"We've been going at this for five weeks now," Williamson recounted, "and in all that time we have yet to encounter as much as a single shred of tangible evidence to suggest that what we're supposed to be investigating is real."

"What?!" Her face aghast; her mauve hair inadvertently beginning to streak crimson, Tonks couldn't help repeating herself. "What's not real about... about...?"

"What is real about any of these cock-eyed, so-called incidents?" Williamson interrupted. "Show me a body! Show me a cursed object, residual hex traces — anything! All I see is a random string of unrelated drunkenness, lovers' spats and idiopathic dizziness."

"Lovers' spats?!!" Trembling, Tonks began to rise to her feet, but Lupin laid his hand on her wrist and she paused and subsided back into her seat. All eyes upon her, she hissed something under her breath for a moment before changing tack. "I'm your partner, Williamson. Why wasn't I present for the meeting with Robards?"

The pony-tailed Auror met her glare coldly. "We didn't know if you would be suitably objective. As you're aware, although DMLE has a policy that permits operatives to investigate matters in which they are real or possible victims, the same policy requires external oversight to ensure that the investigation is not compromised by any personal stake, and to ensure that the case is legitimate and not frivolous. Ultimately, Nymphadora, since no evidence points to anything other than possible paranoia on your part or the part of several of your cousins, we decided that Auror resources would be better invested elsewhere."

Tonks' nostrils flared dangerously despite Lupin's continued gentle ministrations to her forearm.

"You'll be happy to know," Williamson added with a smile that Tonks longed to bludgeon into purplish slime, "that as long as you cooperate, your personnel record will not reflect any wrongdoing or dereliction."

A moment of teeming silence followed, in which eyes gradually drifted toward the person who had been most unexpectedly quiet through the argument. "I see." Harry stroked his chin, then gave a resigned shrug. "Well, I don't agree with your reasoning and I feel it's wrong to discount victim and witness accounts without directly contravening evidence, but my opinion wasn't requested in reaching your decision, so I doubt it will have much sway now. So be it — I hope I speak for all of us in saying that all of us wish you the best as you move on to your other cases of greater gravity."

Williamson nodded in a matter-of-fact manner.

"Such as cataloguing dark emblems..." Harry's straight face was only slightly betrayed by a twinkle in his eye.

Williamson scowled. "Identifying dark emblems is a very serious activity, Potter," he replied stiffly, ignoring Ginny's attempts to choke back an attack of snickering. "I'll have you know that in 1943, the Auror Department successfully apprehended a dark wizard after he inscribed a dark emblem in the margin of a Portkey request."

"Ah yes, that's right." Harry nodded solemnly. "Sorry to have been fifty five years late in commending your office for this remarkable doodle-inspired breakthrough."

Harry smirked as Tonks, Ginny, Lupin and Ryan burst out laughing. Hermione looked somewhat ill-at-ease for a moment, but then gave in hid her mirth behind a chaste hand.

"In any case, thank you for your service, Operative Williamson," Harry continued. "Your work here is done and you can depart the premises now."

Williamson looked startled. "I, uh, we still have uh, forty five minutes and, er, need to... um... fill debriefing... forms?"

Harry shook his head firmly. "No, no, you can leave immediately Williamson. I'll sort out any formalities later with Robards. Unless of course you would like to join Operative Tonks and the rest of us for an off-duty lunch?"

Totally flustered by the unexpected dismissal, Williamson stammered his regrets, hastily picked up his attaché case, and spilled the contents onto the floor. After a couple of ineffectual summoning spells, he managed to shovel most of his belongings back inside (albeit with several papers and a sandwich bag protruding half-way out of the semi-closed case) and scurry from the room.

Harry shook his head and released a sigh that blended pity and ennui. "Lunch?" he repeated with a half-smile.

The others nodded tacitly, and the group made their way toward the stairwell.

Harry brought up the rear with Tonks as they all ascended toward sixth floor. "This isn't your fault in any way, Tonks." He glanced at her, and scuffed his trainer distractedly on the landing. "I'm not going to pretend that this case is easy to justify, Lestrange's sheer unpredictability makes the whole affair look like a ridiculous pipe-dream, so the case is hard to sell to pin-heads like Williamson or to a bureaucrat like Robards."

Tonks bit her lip and shook her head angrily. "Yeah, but their judgment is completely bollixed. I can't believe those plonkers won't believe a word we've said!"

"Do you reckon Williamson and Robards will believe it when we drag Bitchytrix in by the ear?" Harry gave her a roguish smile.

"They bloody well better," Tonks seethed.

Harry nodded. "Yes, well don't you think it will be easier to accomplish that without Williamson hanging onto this case like a whiny ball and chain?"

Tonks raised an eyebrow as she reasoned things through... then she grinned.

Harry grinned back at her. "Patience, m'lady. It may take some time, but we're going to skin this rat."

"Dear witches and gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair joining you from the Schwärzerbaach-Sûre Kolosseum, in the hills above Bigonville Luxembourg, to bring you another special Monday edition of Wizarding Wireless Network's 'Quidditch Tonight'. I'm accompanied by your friend and mine, Septimo Aurrera, as we prepare for the latest intriguing exhibition match featuring those delightfully unpredictable aerial athletes — The Great Zabini Flying Circus."

"Unpredictable they truly are, Richard, which is why I'm going to be very careful in making any predictions for tonight's match. Fortunately, at least on one side of the pitch we will find a known quantity. The Luxembourg National Junior squad returns the Seeker, Keeper, and all three Chasers from the group that placed third in last year's World Juniors. I saw their semi-finals match against Haiti, and let me tell you this, Richard — if not for a balky snitch, I'm convinced that Luxembourg would have beaten Haiti and gone on to play Bulgaria for the championship. Frankly, I think they could have made a fine challenger for the Bulgarians too!"

"A balky snitch, eh? Do you suppose that means The Flying Circus will have an advantage in the person of Mr. Harry J. Potter?"

"That may be, Richard. Potter displayed his superior flying skills in The Flying Circus's last match against the Skegness Shrakes, and it's tempting to try to portray Luxembourg Seeker Johannes Kurtz as a schoolboy facing off against a polished veteran. However, the truth is more complicated. Although Kurtz is still finishing his education at Beauxbatons while Potter is already well-established as faculty at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, let me remind you that Kurtz is actually two weeks older than Potter, and had played in at least four times as many matches in his career as the legendary hero of British Wizardry."

"Whew! You completely caught me off the hop Septimo! It's all too easy to forget that Potter is so young. Would you view the Seeker matchup as a wash then?"

"Like I said, no predictions Richard! However let me say that Kurtz has good field awareness — definitely better than Venkatavisakhapatnam showed against Potter a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps better than Potter himself. That's why I'm still astonished by Luxembourg's loss to Haiti last year."

"Well, it will be interesting to see if Kurtz can capture a bit of vindication tonight in an internationally broadcast match against a famous opponent. But moving on to other matchups, what do you think about the Keepers, Septimo?"

"I'm going to be a bit more forthcoming about this one. Luxembourg Keeper Antoine Longchamps has good skills for a junior, but what I've seen from The Flying Circus's Grant Page recently has me very impressed... No, make that 'very puzzled' — I can't figure out why he's not already playing in the British Irish Premier League. Page is very reliable in front of the hoops and takes away a lot of shots that most keepers will just bail on. That should help make up for The Flying Circus's offensive deficiencies."

"Ah! You tipped your hat on that one, Septimo! You consider The Flying Circus Chasers to be deficient?"

"I do Richard. I have no scorn for Weasley, Zabini and Summerby and find them immensely entertaining to watch, but the Luxembourg trio is truly special. Here's the difference: if you look at the scouting reports on Weasley you say 'scorer', for Summerby, you say 'passer' and for Zabini, you say 'blocker'. You might get thrown off a bit like Skegness was by the occasional role shift such as Weasley's sudden burst of on-quaffle defensive intensity, but in general, The Flying Circus needs each of them to be doing what they do best. If Weasley isn't scoring, if Summerby isn't passing, or if Zabini isn't blocking, then you have a good chance to beat the Circus. "

"As opposed to Luxembourg, Septimo?"

"Exactly! De Salle, Dreikirchen and Jacobs are completely interchangeable. They all defend fiercely, and are constantly swapping off their defensive assignments just to keep you on your heels. Each of them is perfectly willing to block off defenders and carve out holes for their mates. You never know whether any one of them is more likely to pass or shoot. So don't you dare double-team Jacobs — even if she's scored five goals in a row, she's every bit as likely to dish off to De Salle or Dreikirchen if they're in the clear. How can you beat that kind of selflessness?"

"With good Beaters, perhaps?"

"Heh heh! You're on the quaffle tonight, Richard! Yes, a few minutes ago when I was debunking that 'polished adult versus schoolboy' comparison between the two Seekers, it actually occurred to me that the analogy works pretty well... for the Beaters. This is Luxembourg's weakness. You see, the one big difference between the group from last year's World Juniors and the squad flying tonight is that they've recently lost their experienced Beaters to professional contracts in Australia. The two young fellows in the sky right now, Atteville and Schwartz, are really still just feeling their way at this level."

"And the Weasley twins from The Flying Circus, Septimo?"

"They're the real deal, Richard. They might be a bit too short to get serious consideration from the Premier League, but they can sure make those bludgers skip!"

"Oh look — the players are winding down their pre-match spin, and former Bigonville Bombers great Louis d'Harcourt is stepping out onto the pitch to release the snitch. Quick Sept! What's your call on tonight's match?"

"Uh uh uh, Rich! My lips are sealed!"

It had taken the well-intended criticism of a nine-year-old girl to reset Harry's mind when it came to Quidditch.

Harry had been enjoying the camaraderie of playing on The Flying Circus, but he had hardly been... taking it seriously. Something about the lifestyle he had been leading — a perilous existence in the shadows, followed immediately by an equally perilous life in the glaring public spotlight; something about fulfilling a prophesy to confront manifest evil, about fulfilling society's need for a unifying voice to center around... somehow in all of that, the gritty drive to excel at something trivial like Quidditch had gotten buried.

Now, because of a nine-year-old girl who kept asking pointed questions about his commitment to the sport, he was trying to find that instinct again.

Or more to the point, he was trying to apply his latent instincts to finding that blasted snitch before Kurtz did.

Unfortunately, tonight's snitch wasn't particularly interested in being found by anybody yet.

Harry thought back to his final Hogwarts games in his sixth year when he had honed his magical senses to detecting the presence of the snitch even when it was nowhere to be seen. He had been concentrating fiercely on that same sense of faintly humming magic, but as the clock continued to tick away, the best he had achieved was a vague sense of the fluttery golden object, somewhere perhaps within a two hundred foot radius, probably lurking in a confusing mess of bludgers, bodies and brooms.

Kurtz was faring no better, of course... but the rest of his team certainly was.

In the first half hour of the match, Luxembourg had raced out to a 100 — 20 lead. The Circus had adjusted their play to slow the bleeding somewhat, but now, during an official's time-out to repair a loose goal hoop, Harry dropped down about fifty feet and gazed anxiously at the scoreboard. The tally, after more than ninety minutes of play, was 260 — 130. Another Luxembourg goal, and The Flying Circus would drop onto the brink of the dreaded 'red zone' — too far behind to win with the snitch alone.

Harry brushed off any thoughts of the bitter cold wind stinging his face as he ascended back up high into the brisk winter evening. The chill didn't matter. It was time to focus on one thing and one thing alone — catching the snitch. Soon!

"Bear down!" Fred called out to George.

George flashed him a quick thumbs up, and braced for the official's whistle — ready to race out and try to ensure that the two of them monopolized both bludgers.

Indeed, the twins had commanded the bludgers nearly all match... but all to no avail. It didn't pay to control the bludgers if you couldn't hit the opposing Chasers... or barely even scare them, for that matter.

Once again, George beat Atteville to the bludger and began to dribble it up the pitch in the hopes of disrupting yet another crisp-looking Luxembourg offensive.

Out of the corner of his eye, George saw Jacobs pull just far enough away from Zabini to cleanly whip the quaffle to De Salle.

George grinned — smelling the sweet scent of retribution! He bobbed the bludger a few inches off his bat, judged De Salle's trajectory, and...

WHACK! Perfect shot! The bludger rocketed off, heading straight for...


George gaped at De Salle's tight barrel roll — the Luxembourg Chaser pulled out of one of the most vomit-inducing maneuvers George had ever seen from anyone not named 'Ginevra'. Still gripping the quaffle, De Salle pulled up short and jabbed his red payload through the rightmost hoop, a split second before Page could adjust to the unexpected move.

The magical score board blinked out for a moment, then flashed back up reading 270 — 130.

Fred and George both glanced toward Zabini, looking for the sign.

Zabini shook his head.

Ginny reared her head back, and roared. "****!!"

It was just about the worst expletive to have ever emerged from her less than decorous mouth. Seething in frustration over De Salle's score, Ginny grabbed the quaffle from behind Page and gave her captain an expectant, almost plaintive look.

Blaise Zabini shook his head. Status Quo.

Zabini was obviously uncomfortable with Ron's suggestion, and even Ginny wasn't positive it could help stem the tide... but her patience was wearing very thin. The Circus needed a spark to shake them out of the doldrums, and as far as she was concerned it was far better to try something wildly infamous and fail spectacularly than to be bled dry in play after play.

But Ginny bit her lip, and nodded back to Zabini in recognition. She knew that he had slaved long hours to sculpt this squad, and had given out plenty of good advice, so she would stick by him. A little longer, anyway...

She raced up the pitch and immediately felt the suffocation of two white jerseys converging into her flight path. She didn't huff silently or even roll her eyes — Luxembourg had been double teaming her all match, so why hope they might change now? She was used to dealing with that sort of chicken-play by passing off to Zabini or Summerby, but tonight's match was unlike anything she had ever encountered before. Every time she had passed away from a double-team, somehow... Somehow!!... Somehow the bleeding Luxembourg chasers always found a way to regroup in no-time and either tie up whomever she had just passed to, or else intercept the quaffle.

After an extraordinarily miserable first half hour in which the squad had failed to execute any of their set plays, Ginny had given up on the concept of teamwork and let herself become the quaffle-hog she always vowed she would never be. She had scored all but one of The Flying Circus's last eleven goals. That might sound impressive, but she took no pride in it. She was flying to win, and a one-trick offense usually came at a big cost. Case in point — interspersed around those scores, she had missed 18 shots on goal because of the poor shooting angles Luxembourg forced her into. Furthermore, she had committed an additional seven turnovers on the sorts of steals that the double-teaming facilitated. No glory there, and no bloody wonder they had fallen behind by one hundred and forty points!

She gritted her teeth, ready to try again, hoping that maybe this time she would find some way to get the occasional pass off...

Ron's hand was sweaty and tense, and twitched violently every time Luxembourg scored, but Hermione didn't let go of it. She was trying her best to be a calming influence for her boyfriend but, truth be told, she actually found herself getting nervous too — caught up in the moment.

"Go Gin'..." Hermione heard Ron mutter as his muscles went taut again. "Hell, I wish she could pass, but they just can't... it doesn't... it won't..." His muttering devolved into incoherenc as he watched another offensive take shape.

Hermione found that, in a strange way, it was actually very sweet to see Ron taking such an interest in his siblings' performances — especially Ginny, whose tremendous Quidditch skills he had disrespected (or secretly envied) for so long. It was peculiar, Hermione thought, that a silly game like this could bring a family closer together, but it might truly be doing that.

A huge change had recently come over the gangly redhead, and Hermione had found herself studying this boy, watching with surprise and amazement as he truly began growing into manhood before her very eyes.

The best thing in the world that could have happened to him, she realized with a secret smile, was for Gryffindor to defy even the most pessimistic odds and lose their January Quidditch match to Hufflepuff.

The whole school, minus Gryffindor Tower, had buzzed in titillation over the impossibly embarrassing outcome. Several days of constant taunts had burned the ears of the mopey, tetchy Lions, and Ron could have sulked for weeks over that sort of humiliation. He could have thrown and smashed things. He could have pounded Seamus for his fourteen idiotic turnovers.

But he didn't.

Hermione could tell that Ron was saddened by the disappointment of Gryffindor being the first house eliminated from Hogwarts Quidditch Cup contention... but the tallest Weasley had held his head high — as a captain should. He had politely congratulated the Hufflepuff players — as a captain should. He had offered words of encouragement to his own dismayed players, given friendly shoulder cuffs to those who'd made the worst mistakes, and even hugged a weeping Dean Thomas. As a captain should.

The morning after the loss, bright and early, Ron had pulled Hermione out of the library and invited her on a long walk around the frosty grounds. He never mentioned Quidditch. Instead, he had asked her about her classes, about her plans for after graduation, and things like that. And he had, surprisingly, listened to her answers. He had asked followup questions, and absorbed the replies to those as well.

Then Ron had asked her if she could talk about the research she was doing for Harry.

Biting her lip, holding her breath, Hermione had quietly shook her head... and braced for the worst.

And yet, in response to what was surely another grave disappointment, Hermione's boyfriend (the young man she was now seriously considering spending the rest of her life with) had actually said nothing. He had taken a moment to gaze out over the lake, a little sadly, and then he had squeezed her hand. And they had walked on.

After running out of things to ask Hermione about, Ron had started talking about all of the things in his own life that he had been ignoring for far too long.

That was when it happened, wasn't it?

Yes it was.

That was when Hermione finally understood why she had ever made this bizarre, illogical decision to let herself fall in love with the oaf. Hermione's boyfriend may have been a bit of a loser... but he was the best damned loser she would ever find.

"Bloody hell — she missed!"

Ron's shout inadvertently jolted his girlfriend out of her reverie and back to this unfortunately stressful Quidditch situation. Hermione permitted herself another furtive grin. Her boyfriend may, himself, have become a good loser, but he certainly didn't enjoy seeing any of his friends and family losing. Hermione clutched Ron's hand tighter, and pressed herself into his chest, silently trying to infuse within him the sudden feeling of calm and certitude she had herself just acquired.

It worked — sort of.

Ron's red flush subsided a bit and he dropped the decibel level on his ensuing rant down to a level that wouldn't offend the locals. "What rotten luck," Hermione heard him grumble. "Ginny's clanged, like, eight or nine shots off the far rim. It's bad enough that those damned Limburgers cut off all her angles, but it's like even the hoops are ganging up on her. Zabini you bleeding git — call the trick play. It'll get Ginny some real chances!"

Call the trick play, Zabini! Hermione mouthed quietly to herself. Make my boyfriend happy...

"Wow Septimo! Don't know when I last saw a string of bad luck like what Ginny Weasley's been going through."

"Too true, Richard! Statistically, nearly half of all shots that touch the rim should actually end up going through the hoop, but Weasley hasn't gotten a good bounce all game. However, the fact of the matter is that even if she had been getting her due, The Flying Circus would still be trailing."

"True. I thought for a while that the Circus might be able to claw their way back into the match, but Luxembourg is just too polished a squad to let that happen. Septimo, I think the only way The Flying Circus can keep this match within Harry Potter range is by trying something radical to get Weasley some open looks at the hoops."

"I agree, especially given the fact that the bludgers have been such a non-issue. The Weasley twins haven't surrendered control of the bludgers all match, but the Luxembourg Chasers have proven exceptionally proficient at avoiding them, so that part of the game has been a stalemate."

"Speaking of which, Fred Weasley just took a hard shot at Dreikirchen, but she kept herself clear with a sharp swerve. She's comes out smothered by Zabini, but quickly dishes it off to Jacobs, who races up the right wing, flanked by De Salle. Dreikirchen is bringing up the rear."

"Whew! Nifty move by Jacobs to shake off Summerby, Septimo!"

"Jacobs has been ultra-sharp all night, Richard. She's in the clear for the hoops, but Page is way out trying to cut off the angles. She looks left, but Ginny Weasley has De Salle tied in knots. Jacobs accelerates; her arm's cocked, ready to..."

"Mother of Merlin! Drop pass to Dreikirchen!"

"Dreikirchen's all alone; quick flip — score!!"

"My oh my oh my, Septimo! Luxembourg has their holy grail — one hundred and fifty point lead!"

"The crowd is absolutely screaming Richard! So now let's... whoa! Zabini and Potter just exchanged signals, Richard. I don't know what's afoot, but The Flying Circus regroups with lightning speed. Picking up the quaffle is... bloody hell!"

"Language, Sept! This is live... Holy shit Septimo!!"

"George Weasley is bringing up the Quaffle for The Flying Circus. Yes, everyone, you heard that right — George Weasley has dropped his Beaters bat and is bringing up the Quaffle as one corner of... well, let's call it a box formation. Zabini is up on his level, to the left, Ginny Weasley is on a diagonal flying thirty feet below, with Summerby on to her right."

"Septimo, look — Fred Weasley has actually cornered both bludgers. Atteville and Schwartz are buzzing about him like panicked moths. Weasley hefts his bat and... what??"

"Heh heh, Richard. Neat choice! Fred Weasley must have figured that he didn't need both bludgers, so he just clobbered one, sending it at least two hundred feet up-pitch to the left, and now Atteville is way off the action, trying to track it down."

"Brilliant! Meanwhile, Fred Weasley makes short work of Schwartz and races down pitch to join the Chasers."

"Look, Rich! For the first time all night, Luxembourg has dropped the double team on Ginny Weasley — they're still trying to figure out what George Weasley is doing in the mix."

"What he's doing, Septimo, is passable quaffle-handling. The quaffle is over mid-pitch, and George Weasley finally tosses it down to Summerby, who whips it across to Ginny Weasley."

"Double team, Richard! Luxembourg just can't let Ginny Weasley fly clear, even with three other Circus Chasers to try to defend. She feints left, Dreikirchen flinches. Weasley, right, splits the double team!"

"Jacobs, Weasley and Dreikirchen are streaking down the pitch neck-in-neck. Longchamps is coming out from the goal to challenge Weasley!"

"Ginny Weasley's swarmed three-on-one, Richard. There's got to be a whole lot of open space somewh..."

"Wow — rocket pass by Weasley, straight to... Weasley! George that is. George reaches up to..."

"Shi... sugar! De Salle, swoops out of nowhere to intercept..."

"Oi — nice shot!! Fred Weasley just leveled De Salle with a bludger!"

"Loose quaffle, Sept!"

"Scooped up by Fr — I mean George — Weasley! He shovels it two-handed through the... Score!!"

"Weasley, uh Fred, is dropping down to check on De Salle. Hey, what Septimo? The other fellow — George — is pointing upward toward..."

"Potter! Sweet Circe, look-ee up there, Richard!"

Higher altitude... lower drama.

Way up in the colder, thinner, and far quieter air high above, Harry chuckled at the Weasley frenzy that he'd just spectated in all its glory. He could help but feel a bit sorry for the poor continental Europeans far below him who had no idea what had just hit them.

He waved to catch Kurtz's eye. The Luxembourg Seeker had dogged him through nearly the whole match, but seemed to have been just as distracted by the wild action below as everyone else in this riotous Schwärzerbaach-Sûre Kolosseum, and had not followed Harry's last subtle, yet deliberate, move.

With one hand Harry saluted his worthy opponent.

The other hand closed around the snitch.

Hundreds of miles away, inside a Welsh manor hidden immaculately from the entire world, a young girl shrieked with utter euphoria.

Harry grinned and began making his descent.

"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly." The short, amiable reporter struggled to catch his breath. "I have a question for Messrs. Weasley."

"Pah, who doesn't?!" Zabini smirked as he waved dismissively and began to follow Harry and Ginny back toward the lockers.

"Is it okay if I address both of you together?" Marish asked.

"But of course." Fred grinned. "Your chances of getting witty answers are astronomically better if you interview us as a pair than if you were to speak to brother George alone."

"Er, I see." Marish scratched his head. "I think I'll leave that off the transcript for now... Anyway, I have a question that none of the other reporters have asked you yet."

"Ah!" George shook his head. "The answer is no. Fred does not perform at private parties."

Fred gave his brother a sideways glance. "That's not strictly true... but I would certainly want to preview the guest list and drinks menu before making any commitments."

"Uh, did you fellows want to hear the actual question?"

"Um Fred," George raised a puzzled eyebrow. "It sounds as though our friend here has yet another question to ask."

"Another?" Fred blinked. "Oh well, I'm feeling generous right now — please proceed with the interrogation."

"Thank you... I think." Marish consulted his notes. "Um, so what were the two of you doing visiting Azkaban yesterday afternoon carrying boxes of equipment?"

Fred and George exchanged surprised glances. "Sharp little fellow, isn't he?" George mused.

"Indeed!" Fred nodded with an expression of mild admiration. "Say, is this thing 'live'?" He gestured toward the modified wand that Marish was holding up toward the twins' faces.

Marish frowned. "Er, the wand has a direct feed to the Wizarding Wireless broadcast, if that's what you're asking."

"Good." Fred smiled. "So Mr. Marish, I would assume that you've also been wondering why my brother and I have embarked on this little Quidditch fling, especially when we have demonstrated ample success in most other aspects of our lives?"

"I, uh, well I do recall Ms. Lovegood from the Quibbler raising the issue, but I don't want to horn in on her..."

"Oh, don't worry about Luna." George waved his hand reassuringly. "She's a personal friend, and besides — she'll answer that question her own way, regardless of what we tell you."

"Absolutely!" Fred agreed. "So to answer the question that you wanted to ask us but failed to, let's just say that we embarked on the Quidditch lark to impress a certain little lady."

"Little?!" George's eyes fluttered wide, startled.

"Well, you have to admit she's really rather short," Fred explained.

"Short? As in, two bricks short of a load?" George scratched his head. "One bakewell tart short of twenty stone?"

"Eh, well I suppose there are some who would question whether she's little..." Fred shrugged. "Others might question whether she's a lady..."

"Flobbery toad, is more like it," George offered.

Fred rolled his eyes. "Now George, let us be charitable to the old dear as she is currently in a state of some privation."

"That's true." George equivocated, turning back to the reporter. "This is to say, Mr. Marish, that the person in question is a convicted felon, currently serving time in Azkaban."

"Hence our excursion to the North Sea yesterday," Fred added. "You see, a couple of years ago the person in question took a tremendous interest in our well-being."

"More precisely, the utter stifling thereof," George clarified. "You see, she worked briefly at Hogwarts and rather delighted in the torment of many students, including ourselves, whose happiness and creativity she sought to smother beneath her aura of putrescent ill-humour."

"I was going to say 'bad breath'." Fred made an unpleasant face. "But you get the general picture. Anyway, given the sparsity of real outside world news within the cells of Azkaban, George and I decided to inject a bit of colour and inspiration into the life of the poor lady..."

"Toad," George corrected.

"Er yes." Fred gave his brother an admonishing look, then shrugged. "Very well. We decided to inject a bit of colour into the life of the poor toad, and make certain she is fully apprised on how effective her attempts to destroy our livelihoods..."

"And Quidditch exploits!"

"Er, okay." Fred sighed resignedly. "Anyway, we just thought it would be a special little treat for our lovely old acquaintance to listen to a real live international Quidditch broadcast and hear precisely how miserable she has made our lives everlasting!"

"Mr. Marish?" George laid a hand on the reporter's shoulder. "Can your wand pick up the sound of very loud grinning?"

"I, em, well, not sure if..."

"A pity — we'll just have to be more prosaic." Fred shrugged. "Okay then, George — all together now..."

"Goodbye Dolores, my love!" Fred and George sang out. "Our stereophonic broadcast into your cell will fade to the pre-recorded sound of yowling, demented kittens at the count of... three... two... one... now!"

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