Forging the Sword (Book Two):
Chapter 13: And Lift Your Blade
As excited as Harry was at the prospect of attending the World Cup, nothing changed the fact that it was still more than a month away. The match would occur a scant week before Hogwarts' term started.
He still had a summer of studying to do. Ticking his fingers off, he went over his priorities again: Occlumency. Wandless Magic. Curse-Breaking.
Hermione's most recent letter had been enlightening in several ways, as she'd finally found time and energy to look up both Hagrid's Black bloke, and curse-breaking. The Black issue had gone nowhere. The only wizarding Black family members in the books were now deceased or in Azkaban, and it was still in question whether the one Hagrid knew was even from the same pureblood British family. In either case – dead or in prison – it was understandable enough why Hagrid hadn't wanted to talk about it.
An oddly unsatisfactory ending to a little mystery, but Harry was just as glad not to have yet another thing to investigate.
Curse-breaking, however. He picked up the book Dobby had bought for him earlier that morning. Curse-breaking is much more promising.
Bill wouldn't be visiting the Weasleys 'til closer to the World Cup, so for now the three of them would have to make do with books as their primary information source. But from what Hermione wrote, and from the reading Harry had done so far, it wasn't certain they'd be able to accomplish their goal of removing Voldemort's taint from the diadem. Hermione did have hope that the three of them would at least be able to figure out what curse Voldemort had used.
Whether they'd actually be able to break that curse without outside help… well. That would depend on which curse it was.
He turned the book over in his hands, feeling the solid weight of numerous pages. It was a pretty large book. The comprehensive introduction to the subject, according to Bill.
Underage magic restrictions mean none of us can practice casting over the summer. Not even the curse-breaking diagnostic or divining charms.
He sighed. So that leaves the part I like the least.
He dropped down on his bed, and cracked open the book, resisting the urge to sulk.
Ron had always been dimly aware that Percy was one of those people. By which he didn't mean a ponce – although Percy had done a great job of that for years too – but one of those straight-O overachievers that every parent seemed to want their kid to imitate. The type that got twelve O.W.L.S., and top scores on their N.E.W.T.S.. The type with two years of prefect, then the head boy badge. The type that got promising, excellent, positions in the ministry right out of Hogwarts. That type.
Bill, for all that he'd also displayed most of those markers, was not – quite – that type. Bill was, Ron had to admit, just too cool for it. Too unwilling to conform.
Charlie, of course, had been mad for dragons from first storybook, and hadn't bothered with any subject that didn't get him closer to them.
The twins… enough said.
Percy, who had started his job at the Department of International Magical Cooperation this morning. Who had returned with an expression that Ron had only started seeing on him since Ginny's murder. A kind of bland, unassuming blankness.
It'd been an expression that cracked more often than not, in the beginning.
It didn't crack much anymore.
(And if that disturbed Ron a little, as just one more proof of how his world had changed, he shoved it away.)
Still, the very fact that Percy was looking so nonchalant – instead of humming with suppressed excitement like when he left that morning – was proof something was up. So when Ron snuck down to the kitchen for a midnight snack and found his father and Percy taking tea in the kitchen, he didn't quietly retreat. Instead, he sank to the floor just out of view, and waited. Listening.
After a few long minutes, (Ron painfully resisting the urge to shift), Percy broke the silence. "Mr. Crouch keeps calling me Whetherby."
Ron winced at that, but their Dad just made a kind of noncommittal humming noise.
"I corrected him." Percy said. "Politely. Several times. And he just…keeps mangling my name." Emotion had made it into Ron's older brother's voice at last. Pure bewilderment suffused his next words: "I don't know why."
Their dad made another sound that could have meant anything. It was a pretty unhelpful answer, Ron thought.
Percy must have agreed, because his next sentence was tinged with frustration. "He's the head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation. His memory can't be that bad?"
From the sound of the question, Percy didn't know what answer he preferred.
"Crouch addresses me properly," their dad replied gently. It was answer enough. The man could hardly have missed the familial connection.
Another minute of charged silence. Then-
"Why is my boss calling me names?" Percy burst out. "It's…" Ron heard a soft swish of robes, as if a hand was groping through the air. "It's bloody unprofessional, if nothing else." Like a broken dam, the words poured out. "You warned me, last summer, about corruption. But this isn't corruption, or letting Death Eaters off completely free-"
(What? Ron thought wildly, jerking to attention.)
"This is just- I don't even know what it is! Him confusing me with someone else? Him being mean? Him trying to prove a point? Him protesting my hiring even though he must have approved it?"
A half-hitched breath, so quick Ron wasn't sure he'd heard it, and Percy continued, his voice a little softer, showing the effort it took to stay in control. "If… things had been different. I might have just assumed that he was testing me. That I had to be worthy. He seems to be stern but… respected. Sharp and by-the-book, but admired for it. He gets things done."
Wow, Ron thought. Percy sounds so… the thought petered out, as he tried to grasp what exactly he'd heard in his older brother's voice. Uncertain, he decided. But not just uncertain. Disappointed?
Like a dream had been snatched away.
Unseen by the pair in the kitchen, Ron made a face. Had Percy actually wanted a stuck-up, rule-abiding, bureaucrat boss?
Then again, this was Percy.
And, well, their Dad was a pretty good Dad. Easy-going, kind, and even with seven children, always able to make time if they needed to talk. But… sometimes Ron thought their Dad didn't really relate to Percy. Or at least, that Percy didn't relate back. An older bloke, who seemed to embody what Percy wanted to be: respected, admired, deferred to and acknowledged for his ability to get things done…
It was like looking at the world sideways, but Ron could kind of see, sort of, maybe, why Percy would want that.
"And if it's not a test?" their Dad prodded gently.
"I don't know!" A thud, and the sloshing of liquid, as – tea? – spilled over the rim of a cup set down with too much force. "I don't know." It was repeated, softer.
Helplessly: "This wasn't what I wanted."
Another sound like moving robes or a moving body – a hand reaching out to clasp a shoulder? A hug? – and Ron knew he wouldn't like the way they'd react if they caught him listening.
I'd better go.
He rose as silently as he could, holding his breath, and retreating back up to his bedroom, avoiding squeaky stairs and floorboards with the practiced ease of a decade of such trips.
But what was that about corruption in the Ministry?
Then, as his stomach growled: I never even got my snack.
Questions and hunger took a long time to settle into uneasy sleep.
Harry stared as he wandered, trying (and probably failing) not to gawk.
The World Cup campgrounds were awesome.
Huge, too. And crowded. And filled with wizards and witches from the far corners of the globe.
Harry'd been through Diagon Alley several times, but that neat zig-zag of colorful shops could hardly compare with the display in front of him. Early-morning light revealed grounds populated with a bewildering array of 'tents' that looked more like buildings. The dwellings ranged from fantastical creations like the miniature palace made of striped silk he'd passed a ways back, to the full house (complete with turrets!) on his left, to the tent up ahead with its own (in full bloom!) front garden attached.
He could recognize influences, if not exact origins, in some: the brightly colored rounded dome towers he'd seen in a postcard of Moscow, the curving upsweep of the roof corners that paid homage to was some flavor of Asian architecture, and those white pillars that brought to mind ancient Greco-Roman temples.
But others were harder to pinpoint: here, a tent that seemed to be not pitched, but grown from interwoven trees; there a triangular creation of silk and shimmering web-work. Taking up space enough for a half dozen normal tents was a vast open-air silk pavilion where wizards in foreign dress lounged on pillows around low tables. Farther back across the moor, he could even see sets of circular canvas-like tents (and animals that had to be horses, but with a flowing elegance that suggested a genetic kinship closer to unicorns than anything as mundane as muggle-bred mounts).
Everywhere he looked, there was something new, wondrous, or amazing to see.
He'd known, in a distant way, that the wizarding world was bigger than just Great Britain. But this was the first time he'd really understood what that meant. A dozen languages, a hundred sights and sounds, and – despite the apparent best efforts of an entire team of beleaguered ministry workers – magic everywhere.
He loved magic, and Diagon Alley, and Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, but muggle-raised as he was, he'd have to have been blind to miss how, well, small the magic world had seemed. A tiny, cult-like community, almost.
But this was an entire people.
"Harry Potter, sir, is pleased?"
He glanced down to meet Dobby's eyes, and couldn't help smiling. "Yeah. It's awesome. I never really understood, you know? How many of us there are. Hogwarts is so small, compared to all this." He spread his hands wide, trying to encompass the whole of it.
Dobby's eyes followed the gesture, but the alien features were, for once, difficult for Harry to read. Harry felt his face flush, a touch of humiliation breaking through his amazement. "I guess I must seem pretty stupid to you. You've seen it all before, right?"
"Oh no sir!" Dobby shook his head so hard his ears flopped about. "Harry Potter is not stupid. Could never be stupid. And Dobby has never walked among wizards like this!"
Which doesn't necessarily mean you haven't seen it before, Harry noted silently. For all that Dobby seemed to be overly emotional, enthusiastic, and incapable of lying… Harry had begun to realize that there was a lot to be learned from what his house-elf friend didn't say.
Like how I learned that it's not what he did when given orders that is important, because he had to follow those. It's how he manages to do stuff he's not been specifically ordered to do.
But he didn't want to confront Dobby about it. The house-elf had been enslaved to a brutal master for decades, and managed to survive. Picking at what had let his friend do so…
It just seems wrong.
"Having fun, then?" Harry asked instead.
"Dobby is glad Harry Potter asked him to come!"
Which, again, isn't the same thing as a yes.
Biting back a sigh, Harry started up his wandering again, drifting through the magical hordes. He was still amazed by everything he saw – and the stuff that was being sold! – but he'd been shaken out of his wide-eyed daze.
So this time, he noticed the looks.
There was nothing hostile about them, really. Nothing unwelcome or aggressive or disapproving. But when the eyes skimmed across him, and then Dobby, and the two of them occasionally chatting back and forth…
Harry hadn't seen so many double-takes since the time that Fred and George Weasley had managed to enchant Gildroy Lockhart's hairbrush to turn the fraud's obsessively-cared for blond mane into multicolored afro-spikes.
That shriek of horror had been heard several floors away.
"You don't have to stick around, if you don't want to," he told Dobby.
Wide, perfectly round eyes blinked back up at him in surprise. Uncomfortable, Harry shrugged. "If you're not having fun, I mean. I can just… keep wandering. We can meet back up later."
Dobby frowned. "Harry Potter is not to wander around alone."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I think I can take care of myself. I get top marks in defense, you know. Besides," he waved a hand at the crowds, "it's not like I could be alone here, even if I wanted to. Can't go fifteen seconds without almost bumping into someone."
There was the quietest of mutters from Dobby.
Harry blinked. Did he really just say "That be what Dobby be worried about," under his breath?
"What?" he asked out loud.
"Dobby is remembering Harry Potter's stories. Harry Potter is great powerful wizard. But Harry Potter is most humble wizard too!"
As much as it was nice to be appreciated, he wasn't sure what the house-elf was getting at. "Okay…?"
Somehow, in a way he couldn't quite describe, the stare Dobby was giving him contained the slightest flavor of Hermione when she thought Harry was being unimaginably dense.
"Harry Potter be sure to beat bad wizards! But… how Harry Potter beat supporters of his amazingness?"
Supporters of my…? Oh. Urk.
His utter confidence vanished as quickly as it came. Monsters, incompetent teachers, Voldemort- maybe he wouldn't come out on top, but Harry had proven he was damned hard to kill as well. Harry might lose, but he would make it hurt.
But Harry Potter fans?
He shuddered, remembering previous trips to Diagon Alley. Getting almost swarmed in his first trip to The Leaky Cauldron with Hagrid. Lockhart grabbing him and pulling him up by the back of his neck in front of an entire crowd of middle-aged witches and reporters at the bookshop…
He glanced around again at the vast crowds of magical people surrounding him, pulling his hat lower down on his head. Oh God. I'd be crushed.
Still, he hadn't been recognized yet, despite the attention his casual friendship with Dobby was drawing. And Dobby had yet to say he actually wanted to stay.
I'm fourteen years old. I can handle myself for a day.
"Go ahead and get out of here," Harry told his friend. "Go do whatever you want. I'm pretty sure you're not comfortable with all the stares." When Dobby looked like he might object, Harry hurried on: "Dobby, I can't have fun if I feel like I'm dragging you along while you're not having fun. And I'm pretty sure that right now, you're not having fun at all."
Dobby appeared to consider him for a second, then beamed at him brightly. "Harry Potter proves he be great wonderful friend again. Dobby will do what Dobby wants."
"Sounds brill." Harry stared up at the sky, calculating outcomes. He didn't have a campsite, so he'd have to go back to the Dursley's to sleep, even if the match hadn't finished by then. But although he'd left a note for his Aunt and Uncle before he sneaked out of the house that morning, he was just as happy to put off any confrontation as long as possible. "Want to meet back up at 11 pm? At the exit to the Quidditch stadium?" That was one landmark he was sure he'd still be able to find, even in the near-pitch darkness that would descend come nighttime, this far away from city lights.
"Dobby will be there!"
"Brill," he said again, then smiled. "Ta then."
Dobby bowed, then pop'd away.
Right. Well, now that's taken care of… Harry turned a slow circle, trying to orient himself in the crowds. I've still got an hour before the match starts – so where do I want to go next?
Hermione followed along on Mr. Weasley's heels as they moved through the Quidditch World Cup campgrounds, barely noticing Ron's occasional gentle nudges and pulls as he kept her on track. Because how could she concentrate on where she was going, when there was so much to see?
"Is it always like this?" she asked Ron, feeling vaguely like Harry's owl as she swiveled her head from sight to sight.
"Dunno." She could hear the shrug in his voice, but her eyes remained fix on the fantasy-like palace made entirely of colored cloth in front of her. Were those peacocks in front of it? "We've never been before. England hasn't hosted the Cup since before I was born."
She turned her head to look at him at last. "So it's a pretty big deal?"
Ron's blue eyes were brilliant with excitement. "A very big deal," he confirmed. "The other ones were all out of the country, but even with the Cup being here in Britain, we might not have been able to come if Dad hadn't gotten tickets through work."
Which had been an interesting, if somewhat censored, dinner story. Something about someone named Ludo, whose brother got in trouble over a lawnmower with unnatural powers…
Why on Earth would a wizard enchant a lawnmower? And what did it do?
It was pretty impressive, though. Mr. Weasley seemed to know everybody. He'd kept up a fairly constant stream of comments all the way to retrieve the water and back. ("That was Cuthbert Mockridge, Head of the Goblin Liaison Office... Here comes Gilbert Wimple; he's with the Committee on Experimental Charms; he's had those horns for a while now...")
She glanced at the small, tightly curled horns poking through curly hair, just like the Greek myths of fawns and satyrs. So does he still have the horns because he likes them, or because they can't get rid of them?
With wizards, who could say? Transfiguration should make vanishing them easy enough… but if he was on an experimental committee maybe it was an accident they couldn't yet fix. In any case, before she could decide if it'd be rude to ask, the man had already disappeared again into the sea of witches and wizards.
By the time they reached their camp again, Mr. Weasley had pointed out an obliviator, two unspeakables, an auror, a secretary for the improper use of magic department, a diplomat for the being division in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, and a member of the Floo Regulation Committee.
Ron was apparently used to it, because he didn't seem all that captivated. But from what her friend had said, she'd gotten the impression that even though Mr. Weasley headed the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office, he wasn't really that important.
That wasn't what she was seeing now.
Well, maybe he isn't important important, but he sure seems to know a lot of people.
Though come to think of it, hadn't he sponsored a bill a year or two ago? The one that Lucius Malfoy had been so determined to foil that he'd placed the Diary in Ginny's hands. And before that, she'd heard from Harry that Mrs. Weasley had said something about Mr. Weasley deliberately writing loopholes into one of the laws so he could make his magical car…
She stared at the man. He was kneeling by the fire, trying to light a match. The evidence of failed attempts lay all around him in splintered litter. Finally he managed to spark one into flame – and promptly dropped it in surprise.
She tilted her head.
It's like looking at one of those illusion drawings.
One way: friend's father, kind of silly about muggles, a good man. Another way: writes and sponsors his own laws with private loopholes, trades favors for favors, knows everyone in the Ministry by name.
Both are true.
Which meant seeing him only one way… would be false.
"Dad's been having fun with matches," Fred sighed.
At her side, Ron was rolling his eyes. "Want to help him, Hermione?"
"Of course." She shook herself out of her thoughts but tucked them away carefully for later contemplation, then stepped closer to the fire. "Here Mr. Weasley, let me show you how it's done."
An hour later, and she was reconfirming the odd but long known truth that making breakfast over a campfire guarantees it will taste twice as good as the same breakfast prepared in the convenience of your home.
They were halfway done with their sausage and eggs when Mr. Weasley leapt to his feet, waving a greeting towards the main thoroughfare. Curious, she turned to see who he was hailing.
Bouncing toward them was a wizard who was not even pretending to fit in with muggles. He was dressed in black and yellow striped quidditch robes, with a giant wasp stretched across a vast, flabby chest that might have once – a long time ago – been sleekly muscled.
"The man of the moment!" Mr. Weasley cried. "Ludo Bagman! Good to see you."
Hmm… the Ludo with the brother who got in trouble, I suppose? So he's the one who arranged for the tickets.
"Ahoy there!" Bagman called happily. He was walking as though he had springs attached to the balls of his feet, and charismatic enthusiasm radiated outward to all nearby as he bounced up to their camp all aquiver.
"Arthur, old man," Bagman continued, "what a day, eh? Perfect weather, a cloudless night ahead, everyone abuzz with excitement – I've barely anything to do!"
Hermione glanced askance from Bagman to the crowded chaos in the background. The assorted ministry officials on hand had utterly failed to restrain wizards into anything at all like orderly attendance, and their boss had nothing to do?
"Mr. Bagman," Percy said calmly, standing smoothly. "How wonderful to meet you. Since you've said you have a bit of free time, might I have a word? I've been trying to schedule an appointment with you on behalf of Mr. Crouch, my boss. I assure you it won't take but a moment."
"Ah." The middle-aged wizard's ebullience collapsed around the edges. He looked vaguely hunted. "Ah. And you are…?"
Mr. Weasley stepped forward. "My son, Percy," he introduced. "He's just joined the Ministry. Oh, and this is Fred - no, George, sorry - that's Fred - Bill, Charlie, Ron, and Ron's friend, Hermione Granger. Everyone, this is Ludo Bagman. I told you all, he's the one who got us these splendid tickets…"
"We're very grateful, Mr. Bagman" Percy spoke up, cutting short Bagman's attempt at a wave of benevolent nonchalance. Unashamedly blunt as only a Gryffindor could be, Percy continued with: "But about that appointment…?"
"Look," said Bagman, a little testily. "I know what this is about. I've already told him! Barty Crouch foisted Bertha Jorkins off on the rest of us in the Ministry years ago when he hired her then transferred her out of his Department. Now that her vacation abroad seems to have finally helped her get her head on straight, he doesn't get to poach her back." He jabbed his chin in the air, and turned back the way he came. "And tell Crouch that's my final word on the matter!"
It was rather more a flouncing off than a storming, but there was no mistaking his displeasure.
"Son," Mr. Weasley said, wincing a little, "perhaps this wasn't the best time…"
Percy was unrepentant. "If he knew what Mr. Crouch wanted, why didn't he just see me and say so? He wasted his time and made me look bad. I've been trying to make an appointment with Mr. Bagman for two weeks. Requesting Bertha Jorkin's transfer back to the Department was the first task Mr. Crouch assigned me. Even a flat refusal is better than trying to explain to Mr. Crouch, yet again, that I've not had the chance to ask."
Hermione had to wince at Percy's frustration. Two weeks without being even able to schedule an appointment does sound like the kind of thing that gets you certified as an incurable incompetent.
Mr. Weasley sighed. "I know, Percy. I know." He ran his hand through his hair, then shook his head. "Ah, well. No use dwelling on it." He sent them all a beaming smile. "After all, it's about time we get ready to head out for the Cup!"
She stood as everyone else scrambled to their feet, but as she stacked her dishes to take them into the Weasley's improbable tent, (to be magically cleaned later out of muggle eyesight), part of her wondered again at that seamless shift Mr. Weasley seemed able to employ at will.
From wincing at his son's tactlessness to grinning at the prospect of the upcoming match…
The World Cup was turning out to be even more interesting than she expected.
Ron felt his muscles trembling. Hermione's hand was digging so hard into his bicep that she'd probably leave bruises.
The stadium was amazing. The seats were amazing. They'd said hello to the minister himself! Everything was perfect.
And then he had arrived. Him and his snobby wife and his rat of a son.
"You can't!" Hermione was whispering in his ear. "Everyone's here. Watching. Recording. The aurors are all around us. That's the Minister for Magic!"
Ron didn't care. Malfoy was so close, and all Ron could think of was Ginny. Ginny should be here. And the man who murdered her dared to be here instead?
His hand twitched toward the pocket where his wand was stored. Hermione's other arm wrapped around it, joining her first. Dimly, Ron was aware that from a distance it probably looked like she was just one more girlfriend hanging on her boyfriend's arm.
"Please Ron," she hissed, sounding desperate. Scared. "Remember your plan."
The plan, he thought, almost emotionlessly. The one to prove Malfoy's crimes. To break his reputation. To take everything the man valued and grind it to dust.
Far away, at Hogwarts, it had seemed like a good plan. But Malfoy was right here.
In Hermione's quiet whisper, desperation froze into something sharper. "Do you want to get me killed?"
For the first time, he took his eyes off his target, meeting hers instead. "Hermione?"
Her eyes held a despairing strength. "If you attack," she said lowly, "I'll move with you. And when they take you down, they'll take me down as well."
The threat – the blackmail, he knew it was blackmail – jolted him.
"Let you do this alone?" she interrupted him quietly. And in the midst of her terror and despair, Ron could see the beginnings of cold anger. "Let you throw away a year and a half of ceaseless, grueling, work in the heat of the moment? My effort? Harry's effort? Your own? For a suicidal attack likely to fail?"
For one fraught moment, he hated her.
Hated her for her strength. Her determination. Her logic. For being right.
Then he closed his eyes, and tried to focus on the fledgling occlumency exercises he'd managed to complete. When that proved insufficient, he focused on his friend instead. The feel of Hermione's fingers digging into his arm. The warm strength of her. "Get me out of here."
It might have been a demand. It might have been a plea.
Ron didn't know what excuses she made. He rose when she tugged him up; he moved when she pulled him along. He couldn't look at the murderer without losing his mind, so he focused only on the one thing in the world with him that he could purely trust.
He breathed, followed Hermione's lead, and let the rest fade away.
By the time Harry finally found the row of his seat in the huge stadium, the announcer was halfway through introducing the Irish National team as they zoomed onto the field. ("-Troy! Mullet! Moran! Quigley! Aaaaaand -Lynch!")
I shouldn't have spent so much time at the stadium shop…
Still, his seat was far enough from the action that he would need the omnioculars to see what was going on, so he couldn't count the time as a waste, even if he felt rather embarrassed at his lateness now. Squeezing past the knees of various already seated wizards and witches, he felt a momentary flash of awkwardness (and why was there no option other than sticking either your butt or your crotch in the faces of people who were sitting?) Up ahead was an empty space that had to be his waiting seat. End in sight, he tried to speed up, eager to be done with it.
Which of course meant he promptly tripped over a bag sitting by one wizard's feet, and almost face planted in the lap of a blond witch, maybe a few years older than him. He barely caught himself in time, slamming hands out to the hard wood of the bench next to her.
His brain was still trying to catch up with his new spatial location when a grouchy voice intruded. "Well boy, you going to stay like that forever?"
At the sound of the elderly but imperious voice, Harry jerked back upright, feeling the burn of heat on his face. "Sorry! Really, very sorry." He cautiously straightened up, shaking out stinging palms which had borne the brunt of the impact. "I just… tripped."
"Do not worry yourself." Her accent was a faint lilt but nothing he could identify. "This is your seat?" She indicated the empty space next to her.
"Of course it's his seat," was the cranky comment from the wizard sitting on the other side of the open space. The voice matched. "Why else would he be here?"
The girl's face was the depiction of aggrieved longsuffering. "I was attempting to be polite."
"Yeah," Harry confirmed, not knowing quite what to say, but wanting to forestall any conflict. "This is my seat." Settled in safely, he turned to the outspoken man he'd most likely be sitting next to for the foreseeable future. And blinked.
Er. Is that a nightgown? A woman's nightgown? With flowers on it?
While wandering about in search of his designated seat, he'd noticed that the uniform of the attendees was as eclectic as it was eccentric. Some of the wizards and witches had discarded their muggle costumes entirely, in favor of robes in the colors of Bulgaria or Ireland's teams. Others (especially up by the commentators) were clad in fancier creations.
Probably the ambassadors and ministers and other rich people, he guessed.
But some people were – for whatever reason – still dressed as muggles.
Or, he thought, sliding his glance to the right, dressed like they apparently think muggles dress.
"I'm Archie," the man said, thrusting a wrinkled hand out at him. Archie looked pretty old – maybe as old as Dumbledore – and seemed to be every bit as stubbornly unusual. Or perhaps crazy was the right word.
"Harry," he answered, briefly shaking the proffered hand. Immediately after, he turned his eyes towards the pitch, where the teams were beginning to line up in front of the referee. Maybe if I look completely absorbed with the game, he'll leave me alone?
"Got distracted by the veelas, did you?"
And maybe not. "What?" He took his eyes off the sky, turning to look at Archie. "What are veelas?"
Humor lit ancient brown eyes. "Apparently not." The man cackled. "They're the Bulgarian mascots. You'll see." The older wizard suddenly looked entirely too gleeful.
Well, that sounds… ominous.
But Harry'd gotten to the stadium in time to catch the beginning of the Leprechaun's fireworks display, and that had been pretty awesome. If these veela had done anything similar, he was kind of sorry he missed it, and couldn't be too worried about the chance to see it in the future.
"Theeeeeeeey're OFF!" screamed the announcer, pulling his attention back to the game as the players rose like a cadre of butterflies taking flight. "And it's Mullet! Troy! Moran! Dimitrov! Back to Mullet! Troy! Levski! Moran!"
Harry needed to find a better word than amazing, because it seemed like everything he'd seen that day qualified. This was quidditch like he'd never dreamed – the complexity, the teamwork.
If Hogwarts's teams played at a run, this was a sustained sprint.
Every time it seemed like this had to be the pinnacle of quidditch perfection, the match only seemed to get faster and more brutal. Ireland scored once, twice, thrice, (Archie cheered loudly each time), then Bulgaria at last managed a successful shot of their own.
And Harry finally found out what the big deal about veela was.
The pretty women below started to dance, and entranced by their beauty, Harry almost missed it. It felt like a silken net, at first, and he closed his eyes, (barely, regretfully, because he didn't want to stop watching) to try to figure out what he was feeling. Light, floating – it settled against his thoughts as gently as a loose spider web coming to rest, as it drifted on the wind.
It wasn't uncomfortable, but it wasn't really comfortable either, and he tried to mentally shrug it off.
Which was when he realized the strands were sticky. And seemed to pulse.
But panic didn't have time to fully manifest before the strands were wisping away, evaporating into nothingness.
The whole thing couldn't have lasted twenty seconds.
Frowning, utterly confused, he opened his eyes. And nearly had a heart attack.
A furrowed face was peering at him closely. "That's it?" Archie sounded disappointed.
"What was that?" Harry asked, resisting the urge to shove the wizard away.
"Veela." Harry turned his head. The girl on his left looked faintly surprised. "Teenage males usually do not fare so well in their presence."
Harry wasn't quite sure what to say to that, but fortunately Ireland scored yet again, so he had an excuse to turn his eyes back to the game.
Ireland continued to pull ahead, and it gradually became obvious that no matter how skilled Bulgaria's lineup, they couldn't quite keep up with the peerless teamwork of Ireland's chaser trio. But Bulgaria was putting up a good fight, and for every two goals Ireland claimed, Bulgaria managed one. Volkov and Vulchanov, the Bulgarian Beaters, were whacking the Bludgers as fiercely as possible at the Irish Chasers, and were starting to prevent them from using some of their best moves; twice they were forced to scatter. A brief break occurred after Krum pulled a defensive Wronkski Feint that left Aiden Lynch groaning in the dirt. Then the stadium fairly shook with the roar of the crowd's approval as the Irish seeker climbed back on his broom. Fouls were called, penalties shot, chaser's scored and keeper's blocked- and Harry was so very, very, glad he was recording this. He'd be able to re-watch this later for hours.
Still, no matter how brilliant, nothing could last forever. And as the sky slowly darkened with coming dusk, Krum caught the snitch to Ireland's victory.
The stands went crazy.
Harry didn't even remember jumping up with the rest of them, but found himself screaming and hollering with the crowd as he thrust his fist in the air.
The leprechauns were zooming all over the field even as the Irish team flew their victory lap. Then both teams rose in formation to head towards the top box, and the award ceremony commenced.
The crowd kept clapping and cheering for what felt like five minutes straight. The noise only began to ebb as wizards and witches began to flow back down the stairs, out to continue their celebrations at their individual campsites.
"Do you want to come to our party?"
He turned towards the voice: the blond witch he'd almost trampled hours ago, and spent the day trading occasional comments with. "Me?"
"Yes, you." She raised a challenging eyebrow at him. "You don't seem like you're with anyone, and neither am I. So if you want to go..." Despite the invitation, she gave the impression that she really cared less what his answer was.
He hesitated, unsure. He had a feeling the after-Cup parties were a bit wilder than anything Gryffindor tower ever got up to. Hermione definitely wouldn't approve. (Ron probably would.) But – he checked his watch – he still had hours before he was supposed to meet up with Dobby. And he could already hear the singing starting as campfires across the campgrounds crackled to life (some in colors not even remotely close to what a muggle would expect).
On the one hand, there's wandering around by myself for a few hours through other people's parties, and then back to Privet Drive. On the other hand…
He glanced back at the girl, who couldn't be more than a couple of years older than he was. Maybe three. She tossed her blond hair and smirked a little. She was very sure of herself.
Harry wasn't sure what he was going to say. He didn't get a chance to find out.
Archie cut in. "A pretty girl invites you to a party, and you hesitate? What kind of fool are you, boy? Unless you don't think she's pretty?"
Harry nearly groaned. Refusing now would be very awkward.
This might not be the smartest thing I've ever done. But it could be fun. And at least it'll get me away from Archie.
Harry smiled back. "Why not?"
Hours later and after bidding the partiers a friendly farewell, Harry finally set out towards the quidditch stadium for his rendezvous with Dobby.
The stars were glorious, this far from the city, and the occasional leprechaun sponsored fireworks continued to launch into the night. Around him singing, good-natured shouts, and banging sounds filled the air. The mood was mellower, but no less celebratory.
In every sense of the word, it had been a magical day.
Maybe it was because he was daydreaming over some of the quidditch moves he'd seen. Maybe he'd just tuned out the noise of the campgrounds in self-defense. For whatever reason, he wasn't entirely sure when he realized that the cacophony in the background had changed from shouts of joy to screams of fear.
But the screams were getting louder. Whatever was happening, it was close.
He stumbled as the byways filled with people running to get away. Occasionally, in the brief moments lit by the flashes of spell light, he could see figures disappearing midstride. Anyone who was old enough, clear-headed enough, or familiar enough with English soil was apparating away from danger.
Which left the foreign, the panicking, and those encumbered by young.
Barely a hard stone's throw across the field, he could see a group of wizards, tightly packed and moving in formation, wands out and pointed towards the sky. In the uncertain light of spells and campfires, it took him a moment to make out the hooded cloaks and skulled masks.
When he did, it felt like all the air left his lungs.
Two years ago, he wouldn't have recognized them.
Now, they triggered clashing waves of rage and disbelief so strong he nearly swayed.
But how-? Where-?
A sustained shriek – something more than a scream - pierced the air, and he realized that the wands were pointed upward because high above them, floating in the air, four struggling figures were being contorted into grotesque shapes.
The world seemed to dim as he stared at those helpless, struggling silhouettes.
Two of the figures were… very small.
(Like Ginny had been small.)
He sprinted forward, not sure what he was going to do, but knowing he had to do something. Meanwhile, a small part of him was garbling in fear. He wasn't stupid: there had to be at least fifteen of them.
I can kill one. I can stun them one at a time. But how do I fight an entire group?
He threw a wild glance around the night, trying to make a coherent picture coalesce from mad impressions of chaos. It looked like he wasn't the only one who was moving to help.
But he was the closest.
He continued moving, wand gripped tightly in hand even as he hesitated over what to do. A few drunken revelers decided to join the fun, merging into the original pack of masked murderers, swelling their numbers even higher. Then one of the marchers flipped the hapless woman upside down with his wand. Her nightdress fell down to reveal her drawers. She struggled powerlessly to cover herself up as the crowd below her screeched and hooted with glee.
She was too far away – too high up – and it was far too dark for him to see any tears on her face. Any terror. Any pain.
But he didn't have the slightest ounce of doubt it was all there.
Snarling, Harry took aim (a brief flash of coherent thought: not at the center, what if that makes them drop the spell holding the people aloft?). He re-adjusted, targeting one of those gutless jackals just joining the edge of the pack, halfway through conjuring a mask to disguise his face.
It was a hiss. It was a shout. It was barely a word at all, subsumed in the raging emotion that cast the magic out, arrowing towards Ginny's murderers.
(Because if Lucius Malfoy wasn't among them, these were still his ilk.)
Fire roared through the sky.
(Once, at Ron's urging and Hermione's sly poking, he'd thrown his all into testing the strength of a fire protection spell in an empty classroom. They had seen a small explosion result. (This bore no comparison.))
The backwash of heat scorched the surroundings, hot enough to burn the air he was trying to breathe. Bullets of flames arched across the field, impacting on the edge of the ranks and blazing into a wall of fire. Some dodged. Some shielded.
Some screamed: panicked or high-pitched and keening.
The screams cut through his hot anger like a drench of ice water. He faltered a second, and the flames faded away. Here and there, a few figures lay on the ground, robes on fire still. The ones rolling and screaming were horrible; the ones lying motionless were worse.
But most of them were unharmed.
His eyes widened.
A mass of lights slashed through the air towards him, green the most prevalent color. He threw himself to the ground without hope.
(He, Ron, and Hermione had traded the occasional duel. Nothing much more complex than jinxes and basic shields, when anything more dangerous could see them killing each other by accident. Healing is hard, once you get past fixing minor cuts and scrapes. Harry had told himself to be satisfied with practicing ducking. Aim. Reflexes.)
He could dodge a spell.
How do I dodge twelve?
All the promises he'd made that wouldn't be kept-
(Ron. I'm sorry.)
Small, spindly, green arms stretched to close around his body, and reality wrenched away.
Shock stiffened him for a moment, then he relaxed into the pull. Sky-ground-sky-ground, the world whirled and dissolved and reformed, and he landed skidding, rolling to a stop near a tree.
"Harry Potter be great and wonderful and stupid wizard!"
He coughed and propped himself up on his elbows, scanning first for nearby threats. He was in the middle of the woods. Distantly, he could still see the flashes of spell lights and cries, but it was a ways away.
Thin feet landed on his chest, and his breath woofed out as he sank back a few inches towards the ground. Dobby bent nearly double, staring down into Harry's face, pointed nose only inches away.
"Dobby?" He'd recognized the magic as it grabbed him, but adrenaline was still flooded through his veins, and his pulse beat in his ears. Clear thinking wasn't the easiest to achieve. "How'd you find me?"
Though thank God he did.
Dobby scowled down at him, poking one finger out towards Harry's face. Harry's eyes went crosswise as he tried to follow it from so close a distance. "Dobby never left."
Tennis-ball eyes narrowed. "Harry Potter said Dobby do what Dobby wants. Dobby wants to make sure great wonderful idiot wizard not get himself killed!"
House-elf voices were squeaky on the best of days. Dobby was approaching a level that would probably shatter glass.
Then what the house-elf said sank in. "You mean, all this time…?" He took a breath as best he could. House-Elves were pretty small and light, but it still felt like he had a satchel of books on his chest. Hermione's satchel, at that. "And could you get off of me?"
Dobby surveyed him for a moment as a king might survey conquered territory, then hopped off, small feet lightly touching ground besides Harry in a soundless landing. Harry rubbed his chest and sat up. "Well?"
Part of him kept distant track of the noise of the fight in the background, but battle-readiness faded as time passed with no indication that the fight was getting nearer.
Perhaps the same thing was happening to Dobby, because when next the house-elf spoke, he sounded more like normal. "Dobby did follow Harry Potter all day. Harry Potter not see."
Harry blinked, then shook his head.
Part of him wanted to find that creepy.
Part of him was ruefully amused that he hadn't guessed what Dobby would do.
Most of him was stuck on the awareness: If Dobby hadn't, I'd be dead right now.
Suddenly, he was feeling very shaky and cold.
(Because now he was remembering again: The robed figures screaming as flames licked at them. The figures lying still. The massed bolt of green light as it swept down on his form.)
I really, really don't want to go back there. Not until I've had a chance to think things through. But…
"Dobby, do you know what's going on?" Harry took a deep breath. "Do they still need help?"
"Dobby will find out. Harry Potter will stay here."
Then the house-elf pop'd away before Harry could argue.
Minutes later, his friend was back. "Ministry wizards be here. They be taking care of bad wizards." Then, firmly: "Harry Potter be going home."
A small part of him wanted to argue just for the sake of arguing. A larger part of him wanted to go find Ron and Hermione. He wasn't too worried about them – the first thing the Weasleys would do if there was trouble was take care of their kids – but it'd be…. reassuring… to be in their presence. And a loud part said the threat wasn't finished, so why was he still sitting here?
But if I go back to fight, Dobby will go with me.
Harry had almost died to the Death Eaters. Dobby had almost died saving Harry.
Yet Harry couldn't regret his decision to stand up and fight.
(A memory of those figures helplessly twisting in air, marionettes to sadists who viewed a child's terror as entertainment for a celebration.)
I think I've had enough of wizards for a while.
"Sure," he said quietly. "Let's go home."
For Harry, the week between the end of the Quidditch World Cup and the start of Hogwarts's term inched along at an infinitesimal rate. There were letters to Hermione and Ron, of course, but that wasn't the same as seeing they were all right with his own eyes.
Now, as he latched his trunk for the last time until he arrived at Hogwarts, he could barely repress his excitement.
Dobby disappeared with Harry's trunk and Harry headed towards his open window, Hedwig on his arm. He stroked her head, feeling soft feathers and supple warmth beneath his fingers. "See you at Hogwarts, girl."
She hooted and took flight, winging up into the distance. Harry was confident that she'd be at Hogwarts, waiting for him when he got there.
He turned around at the quiet pop, to see Dobby had returned, waiting with hand outstretched.
The Dursleys had been pleased when he'd let them know he had other transportation arrangements, so he no longer needed them to drop him off or pick him up at King's Cross. Though he had a feeling they'd be considerably less pleased if they knew what he was doing instead.
Not that he really felt any guilt at his decision not to inform them of Dobby's frequent presence over the summer.
Harry took the smaller hand.
When his senses returned, he was standing on a familiar platform. He slowly inhaled a deep breath and held still for a moment, letting his disorientation fade.
I wonder if wizarding apparition feels like that too?
It'd be another two years before he could find out.
Once he felt steadier, he smiled down at the person, more than any other, who'd made his summer bearable. "I guess this is goodbye then. Until next summer anyway. Thanks for everything, Dobby. Including saving my life."
Dobby beamed up at him. "Dobby is happy Harry Potter is happy. Dobby would like to see Harry Potter sometimes at Hogwarts-" A brief hesitation, then almost shyly: "If Harry Potter wants?"
Harry blinked, surprised. "I… Sure. But, ah, do we need to get the headmaster's permission for you to visit or anything?"
Not that Dobby can't pop in and out at will. But if he's doing it regularly, someone might notice.
"Dobby works at Hogwarts now!"
There weren't a lot of people that could wrong-foot Harry Potter consistently.
Harry's only house-elf friend was, unfortunately, one of them.
"Wait, what?" Harry asked.
"Harry Potter, sir, did say Dobby should seek more employment if Dobby needs more work."
Yes, he did remember saying that, way back before summer even started.
But I'd kind of meant more, you know, the traditional house elf employment. Working for some pureblood family somewhere or something.
"Dumbledore agreed! Dobby is even being paid. Dobby will be seeing Harry Potter, sir, soon."
Harry stared at the floorboards where the house-elf had been standing, bemused at his own bemusement.
Why am I even surprised?
Dobby had long ago proven himself perfectly capable of interpreting commands, comments, or passing whims into whatever the house-elf decided were the proper orders regarding Harry Potter.
Wizards, madmen, and beings of all types – and yet the one who ended up surprising him most consistently was green, and deferential, and not even as tall as his waist.
How does Dobby keep doing that?
Sighing, he turned and boarded the train.
Harry looked up as Ron slid open the compartment door and lugged his trunk into the room. Hermione had shown up twenty minutes earlier, but by mutual agreement, the two of them had focused on discussing the summer homework they'd completed, instead of plunging into the topic burning on their minds.
As Ron sat down, Hermione flicked a locking spell at the compartment door. "The Quidditch World Cup?" she asked, looking at them.
"What was that all about?" Harry demanded, glad to have someone to share his bewilderment with at last. "I mean, I recognized the Death Eater masks, but… thirteen years of absolutely nothing, and then they do something like that out of nowhere?"
Ron frowned. "They only caught a few of them – and the ones they caught were all berks who'd joined in when it already started. Maybe the leaders also just got drunk and were off their heads from the Quidditch Cup victory and Firewhisky?"
And isn't that a thought to make your skin crawl. Bad enough to know there were Death Eaters who had never been convicted. Worse was the thought they might have been in the stands beside you, cheering.
Then gone out to toss helpless muggles in the air, and burn down half the campgrounds?
Well, maybe not those besides Harry. Annelise had still been at the party when the attack started, and Archie didn't seem like the type.
Harry shook his head, frustrated. "It just doesn't make sense. Everyone who couldn't keep their heads down got sent to Azkaban with Voldemort's fall. And everyone who was in there for service to Voldemort is either still there or dead. Even drunk, why throw away a decade of safe anonymity for… what? That wasn't a raid. No one even actually died."
Not even the injured attackers the aurors had recovered. And Harry still couldn't figure out the emotions he'd felt when he'd seen that news report. A moment of pure relief, yes. But also the icy knowledge that it just meant those who'd escaped were free to attack again.
"And why at the World Cup?" Hermione asked.
…didn't follow that train of thought. "I'm not sure what you mean," he admitted.
But Ron was nodding. "There were ministry workers everywhere. You could barely go a minute without tripping over one. From how Dad was talking, it sounded like three quarters of the Ministry was on shift that day. You'd have better chances striking anywhere else, while everyone was distracted by the Cup."
For a moment their eyes met as an electric current seemed to jump through the air, and Harry knew Ron and Hermione were echoing his thought: Could that be it?
Then Hermione shook her head. "There was nothing in the papers about anything else getting attacked, stolen, or disrupted."
"Maybe it was something secret…?" Harry half suggested, half hoped. It was such an elegant theory; it hurt a little, to so easily discard it.
Ron shrugged, bluntly practical. "If so, then there's no way we'll find out anytime soon."
Hermione was looking thoughtful.
That's usually a good sign… "You have an idea?" he asked.
"Well, not about finding out the true target if this was just a diversion. But maybe – and this is just pure speculation – but… what if they weren't real Death Eaters?"
Ron stared at her. "They cast the Dark Mark," he said slowly.
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, honestly. I know that. But how likely is it that only Death Eaters can conjure it? And know it? And have never, ever, passed on the knowledge, even to family or friends? Or even if all that is true, how hard would it be to create a really convincing fake?"
"Pretty hard, I'd think." Ron said.
"Maybe," she admitted. "But not impossible."
"But that just leaves us with more questions!" Harry complained. "I mean, Death Eaters apparently losing their mind and striking out after thirteen years of peace for absolutely no reason to achieve no benefit, that's weird enough. But why would non-Death Eaters pretend the same?"
"We're not the only country with conflict on the pureblood-muggleborn-muggle issue, you know." Ron put in. "We're actually better than a lot of them. In some countries, there's no conflict not because everyone gets along, but because it's just accepted that purebloods are superior in every way." Ron paused. "And some of those countries surely had citizens at the World Cup."
Hermione's expression chilled. "Imagine Draco Malfoy. In a foreign country, sure of his anonymity, high on a celebration, egging and being egged on by his friends, and with a defunct group that his parents probably told bedtime stories about available to take any blame…"
Harry made a face, because he could see that all too easily. Draco Malfoy was a cowardly little rat, but the Slytherin was just the type to do something like that. And despite what Malfoy's ego surely thought, Malfoy was far too odious to be unique.
Harry sat back, and sighed. "The whole thing – vandalizing and terrifying, but not actually really mass-slaughtering, and then running when the aurors came instead of just the occasional citizen fighting back – it does sound, in hindsight… juvenile." Although that almost made it worse for him in several ways: both the screams he remembered from his incendio, and the fact that Harry'd had to be rescued from them. "I'm not sure which I'd prefer."
"I think the muggles would say something about whether they'd been hurt," Hermione rebutted coolly. "If they could remember any of it." Then relented: "In any case, resurgent Death Eaters would probably be the worse option, but also the less likely one. Last time You-Know-Who was forced to flee, it took him ten years to return. It's only been two since the Philosopher's Stone."
"We can't count on that," Harry warned her.
"We can't count on anything," she corrected. Then raised one eyebrow. "After all, that's what all our hard work and preparation is about, right?"
By the time they'd reached Hogwarts, the weather was nasty enough to make further conversation near impossible during the carriage ride to the castle. Dashing up the steps into the cavernous, torch-lit entrance hall with its magnificent marble staircase, Harry had only one thought: Thank magic for drying charms.
He nodded a friendly hello to Nearly Headless Nick, who had put in his customary attendance at the welcome feast, but the majority of Harry's attention was on trying to get warm again. It took several minutes to completely de-soggify himself, and he, Ron, and Hermione spent the majority of the sorting likewise drying out the third and second years, as well as each first year as he or she arrived. The poor firsties, if anything, were even more soaked. (Including Colin Creevy's brother, who had, apparently, actually fallen into the lake and been promptly rescued by the giant squid.)
A second Creevey in Gryffindor was a gloomy prospect. What are the chances that Dennis Creevey is more… restrained… than his older brother?
But at last the procession of miserable, bedraggled eleven year olds finished, and Professor McGonagall carried the hat and its stool away. Students neatly sorted, Dumbledore stood, his demeanor summoning all eyes to him as he ran through the traditional announcements of the start of term.
The annual ritual of declaring their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was memorable mostly for how terrifying the man looked.
Scars covered every visible inch of skin, and a large chunk of his nose was missing. But it was the man's eyes that made him frightening. One was small, dark, and beady, but the other was large, round as a coin, and a vivid, electric blue. The blue eye was moving ceaselessly, without blinking. It was rolling up, down, and from side to side, quite independently of the more normal eye. Ultimately, it rolled right over, pointing into the back of the man's head, so that all they could see was whiteness.
Gross, Harry thought, somewhat fascinated despite himself.
"May I introduce our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?" said Dumbledore brightly into the echoing silence. "Professor Moody."
The students just stared.
"What happened to him?" Hermione whispered. "What happened to his face?"
"Dunno," Ron whispered back, watching Moody with fascination.
When it became clear the Professor Moody would not be receiving the customary welcoming applause, Dumbledore cleared his throat, and resumed his start-of-term announcements.
Harry only half paid attention as Filch's list of banned items was predictably expanded, and students were – once again – reminded that the Forbidden Forest was named so for a reason.
But the next announcement caught his attention.
"This year Hogwarts is participating in the Triwizard Tournament, a friendly competition first established seven hundred years ago amongst the three largest schools of European Wizardry. For the tournament, a champion was selected to represent each school, and the three champions competed in three magical tasks. The schools took turns to host the tournament once every five years, and it was generally agreed to be a most excellent way of establishing ties between young witches and wizards of different nationalities - until, that is, the death toll mounted so high that the tournament was discontinued."
Harry felt like his eyebrows were touching his hairline. Death toll?
"There have been several attempts over the centuries to reinstate the tournament," Dumbledore continued, "none of which has been very successful. However, our own departments of International Magical Cooperation and Magical Games and Sports have decided the time is ripe for another attempt. We have worked hard over the summer to ensure that this time, no champion will find himself or herself in mortal danger."
And yet there's nothing like mentioning a death toll to get people talking, Harry thought cynically. Now I wonder if that will actually deter anyone from entering?
From the dais, the Headmaster continued speaking, to all appearances oblivious to the whispered speculations filling the great hall. "Places are available for up to twelve students who wish to accompany our delegation to the northern school of Durmstrang. Requirements include parental permission, endorsement by at least two teachers, completed O.W.L.s, and success in the preliminary competitions that will be taking place at Hogwarts over the next two months."
Preliminary competitions? Harry echoed silently. Wonder what those will be?
"An impartial judge will make the final decision regarding which Hogwarts student is most worthy to compete for the Triwizard Cup, the glory of their school, and a thousand Galleons personal prize money." Excited whispering rose once again among the students. "But please note: this is not a decision to be made lightly. Students who elect to participate but are not chosen as the champion, will nevertheless be spending the entire year at Durmstrang. As this will be N.E.W.T. year for most candidates, you are advised to weigh your decision carefully.
"The first competition will be a test of your transfiguration skill, and will take place in two weeks. Additional details will be supplied beforehand. Actual departure for Durmstrang will occur in early October. Now," Dumbledore clapped his hands in disconcerting glee, "the elves have prepared a delicious feast for us, so why don't we all dig in?"
The Headmaster had barely taken his seat when the hall erupted into noise.
"I'm going for it!" Fred Weasley hissed down the table, his face lit with enthusiasm at the prospect of such glory and riches. A moment of silent conference with his twin, then, "Make that: we're going for it!"
Ron snorted. "Right. Good luck with that. You have your O.W.L.S. and you may even get the professor endorsements. But no way is Mum agreeing to let you compete in a tournament people have died in before. Especially if enough died that the death toll is why it stopped."
Both twins grimaced.
"We'll see about that," said George. Probably George. Maybe. "A thousand galleons prize money!" The twin continued, sounding somewhat dreamy, "Think of what we could do with that."
I'd rather not, Harry thought with slight humor. If I did, I'd probably be terrified.
Because yes, the twins were awesome sometimes. Also: far too fond of explosions.
"Where is Durmstrang anyway?" Harry asked, curious. The World Cup had made him aware there had to be other schools of magic out there, but he still knew little to nothing about them.
"No one knows, actually," Hermione said. "Well, no one who hasn't attended. Although it's possible the students themselves don't know the exact location, if they take some kind of magical transport…" She seemed to get distracted by that train of thought for a moment, and feeling impatient, Harry poked her in the side. She swatted him lightly, then continued. "It's been speculated to be located everywhere from the Ural mountains in Russia, to somewhere in Scandinavia, to as far south as Hungary. The school uniforms are usually heavy and fur trimmed, but that could be a deliberate attempt to mislead."
Dean looked puzzled. "I wonder why they don't let anyone know where they are? That'd be pretty inconvenient sometimes, don't you think?"
Harry could think of a lot of times when it'd be pretty handy if no one had any idea where he lived, but he didn't say anything.
"They've kind of got a reputation," Neville put in, hesitantly. He glanced around, and lowered his voice. "For teaching Dark Arts."
Harry blinked, surprised. "What, like an actual class?"
Ron wrinkled his nose. "Ugh. Freezing cold and populated by mini-dark wizards. And the tournament competitors have to spend a year there? I think I'm glad I'm not old enough."
"Me too." Neville looked gloomy. "Otherwise Gran'd probably want me to try – she's always talking about upholding my family honor…"
Glances traded about the table. They'd all heard enough from Neville to get an idea of what Neville's Gran was like. Harry couldn't say he thought very highly of her.
And I don't really get the connection between honor and entering a school competition.
As far as Harry was concerned, honor was about doing what was right and necessary. Competing in a school tournament for glory and money didn't qualify.
"I wonder what the champions will have to do?" Lavender twirled a lock of hair around her finger. When the attention all turned to her, she had to raise her voice to be heard clearly from her position a little ways down the table. "If so many students have died before, how much will they have changed about the tasks?"
At the reminder of the death toll, Neville looked even more pale. "Right. Actually, I'm definitely glad I'm not qualified."
And despite the notable enthusiasm flowing throughout the Great Hall, in the little isle of fourth years at Gryffindor table, Neville's was a surprisingly common opinion.
"Well," Hermione said at last, "at least the preliminary competitions should be fun to watch."
"Yeah," Ron concurred, lifting another fork of mashed potatoes. Then he smirked. "Maybe McGonagall will make them fight a giant transfigured chess set?"
Hermione ducked her head to hide her smile, and Harry felt the corner of his mouth turn up. The other Gryffindors looked puzzled at where that suggestion had come from, but followed the conversational redirection. The rest of the dinner was spent speculating on the nature of the first test.
But if Ron's right, I'm going to laugh so hard.
The next morning, the favorite topic on everyone's tongue was still the Triwizard Tournament, only eclipsed once the schedules were distributed.
"Looks like Herbology with the Hufflepuffs," Ron said, running his finger down the Monday column. "And Charms... damn it, we're with the Slytherins…"
"Double Divination this afternoon," Harry said, not bothering to veil his disgust. By now, Ron and Hermione knew full well his opinion of their batty professor. And rather agreed with it. "Potions, History, and Transfiguration tomorrow… looks like we won't be seeing the new Defense professor until Thursday."
"That should be-" Hermione seemed to be searching for the right word. "Interesting," she finally concluded helplessly.
Ron snorted. "That's one way to look at it. Stinks that we'll have to wait so long."
"We'll have enough to do in the meantime," Hermione pointed out. "Before summer break, we told everyone that the first Niffler Hunt Club meeting would be the second Monday evening after school started again. That's seven days from now. We need to prepare."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Didn't we get our tentative agenda for this meeting all squared away over the summer?"
"For this meeting?" Ron laughed. "I'm pretty sure Hermione's got plans for the next six!"
"It's good that you remember that, Ron," their friend said primly. "Since you'll be conducting the meeting, we should make sure you go through what you're planning to say several times beforehand."
The laughter fled so quickly Ron looked pale. "Wait, what? I thought you were going to be leading – you're the one with all the ideas."
"I," she said haughtily, "will be far too busy to run a club."
Ron turned to Harry. "Come on, shouldn't you head this? That way everyone will come!"
Harry smirked, feeling a little vindictive. "But it was so obvious that the idea of joining a club was close to your heart. Remember? This was all. your. idea." He didn't even try to restrain his grin. "I couldn't possibly take credit for it."
Ron slumped, pushing his plate of toast crumbs away and dropping his face to the table.
"I think you'll make an excellent club chairman," Hermione said reassuringly.
Harry stretched, smiling. "And I think this will be funny as hell."
Ron groaned. Over the pureblood's head, Hermione frowned at Harry reprovingly. Harry just laughed, and rose to head towards class.
Herbology had seen them with the rather disgusting job of squeezing bubotuber puss, but charms had been fun as they did the annual new-year-warm-up/last-year-review. Divination was as utterly worthless as predicted. The next day, potions was… horrible. As expected. Transfiguration was educational, and that was the best Harry could say about it. Astronomy was simply more facts to cram in his head, and History was completely boring.
All of which only made the rampant but conflicting rumors from the students coming out of their defense lessons stand out even more. By Thursday, the fourth year Gryffindors had heard all sorts of exciting - if contradictory - reports.
They finished lunch quickly and hurried towards the defense classroom. Professor Moody was already at his desk, studying something written in front of him, and didn't look up when they entered. Several other students – apparently as eager as he, Ron, and Hermione – were there already, but there seemed to be a wide berth between the front of Moody's desk and the first inhabited seats.
Harry scanned the classroom, then lifted his chin and strolled to the very front, to the three chairs right in front of the teacher's desk. The three of them settled, then took out their copies of The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection, and waited. In the tense atmosphere of the scarred professor's presence, the classroom was unusually silent.
As more students trickled in by ones and two, Moody continued to ignore them all. He never even looked up.
Wait, with the way that eye of his rolls around – does he even need to look up?
That Moody didn't, was probably its own answer.
Then the clock hit the hour mark, and the grizzled old professor lifted his head. "That's time then," he said gruffly, and shoved himself to his feet, stumping from his desk to the center of the room.
"I've been told that last year Albus managed to lay his hands on someone who was actually competent for once, and I've got the lesson plans, notes, and evaluations for all of you that Aesalon did. Between the supplemental lessons and required subjects, he seems to have gotten you mostly back on track. You should now be able to deal with class three and four magical creatures, and you at least know all the class fives."
Heads around the room were nodding.
"You've been taught how to deal with animals." Moody barked a laugh. "Well then. Time to teach you how to deal with humans. Year four is self-defense. That means legal curses and counter-curses. Hex-deflection. Shields. Possibly dueling." Moody frowned, and on his craggy, damaged face, the result was terrifying. "We'll see. Some of you are likely to blow your own damn fool feet off. Might be good for you."
Did a professor just… swear? In front of us?
"Questions?" Moody growled.
When the professor's eyes roved over the seated students, (usually different students at the same time, given his eyes were rarely looking in the same direction at once), most kind of just hunkered down, shaking their heads. If it hadn't been for his experience at the Quidditch Cup, Harry might have done the same. But he'd learned that night that there was stuff he desperately needed to know. And he needed to know, now, if he could learn it in this classroom. He raised a hand.
The magical eye spun around to focus on Harry, so for a brief moment both of the professor's eyes were on him. Then the electric blue eye spun on. "Potter. What?"
"Dueling is one-on-one. What happens if there's a group?" Harry paused a second. Should I-? Yeah. "Like at the World Cup?"
"Hah!" Oddly enough, the man actually seemed pleased. "Looking ahead. Good." He shifted, turning to pace in front of the board. "Fourth years won't be able to fight a group of adult wizards. If you don't run away, you're an idiot." Another few limping paces. "Now, you're teenagers, so of course you're idiots." Turn, and start pacing back, apparently not the least distressed by the insulted expressions half the classroom wore. "Albus would hate it." A fierce grin. "Well, he owes me a favor for this, so." Moody stopped, and nodded decisively, facing the front. "We'll do basics. Real training in fighting with multiple targets is auror level, so plan for N.E.W.T.s if you find yourself with a knack."
Auror level would be past seventh year, Harry thought, dismayed. And we can't wait that long. But if Professor Moody can get us started on the basics…
"All right, enough time-wasting!" The sudden loudness of the command made him – and Ron and Hermione and probably everyone else – jump. "We'll start with chapter one. The book's not perfect, but I chose it for a reason, and it has a good way of dividing up the fundamentals."
There was a rustle of pages as some students opened to the first page of the first chapter. Harry left his book closed and focused instead on taking notes. All three of them had already read the first chapter, anyway.
Hermione had probably already read the entire book.
"The very most basic part of self-defense," Moody started, "is staying aware. Aware of your location and avoiding potentially dangerous situations. Constant vigilance! If you don't put yourself in a bad situation, you've half the battle done. If you know where the exits are before the fight breaks out, you're not going to get trapped! Attackers will be better prepared than you, because they're the ones on the offensive. They're the ones likely to have a trick, trap, or accomplice. So don't play their game! You're fighting to escape."
Fighting to escape, huh? As Moody continued with his first lecture, detailing the first process in developing a discerning awareness of ones surroundings, Harry smiled sadly.
Sorry, Moody. I don't think I'll be fighting to escape. I can't afford it.
I'll be fighting to incapacitate. Or kill.
Ron nervously eyed the gathering crowd waiting for the start of the first Niffler Hunt Club meeting.
The closer it got to eight'o'clock, the more students drifted in. A lot of them probably wouldn't stay: they were only here to check out the club that the Boy-Who-Lived was part of creating. Countering that, it was possible others who were not there tonight would come to later meetings, once word of the club's activities spread. In any case, there was probably a good thirty students present, and that was more than enough for a first night.
As planned, Hermione started the meeting by introducing herself and Harry as club officers, then Ron as the club leader. Ron swallowed as the students, most of them younger but many of them older, all turned their stares on him.
There had been a time Ron dreamed of fame. There had been mirror, three years ago, that showed him as a prefect, as a quidditch captain, as adored and respected and fêted.
Watching the eyes watching him, he took it all back.
Why, oh why, did I agree to be Niffler Club Chairman again?
Somehow, he was sure this was all Harry's fault.
(It might have something to do with the slightly malevolent giggles the boy had come down with, when they'd planned out this first meeting.)
"Hi," he said, feeling awkward under scrutinizing eyes. "Like Hermione said: I'm Ron Weasley. We kind of have an idea on how this will go, but it's going to be your club too, so it's not unchangeable. We named the club the Niffler Hunt Club because we want to be a club that's all about searching out interesting – shiny – pieces of knowledge. Right now, we're thinking we could raise a topic or several the group is interested in, with suggestions being collected biweekly maybe, and then find the answer to that suggestion as a group."
A Hufflepuff – third? – year looked puzzled. "So it's just another study club?"
"Not exactly," Ron said. "See, we were also planning on posting knowledge bounties."
"Knowledge bounties?" an older Ravenclaw asked.
"We'll have a list," Ron explained. "In addition to any official group research topic, individual members can add their questions – and these should probably be somewhat specific – to the Scroll of Bounties. On it, you put what you want to know… and what you're willing to give to the person who finds it out for you. What you offer can be anything: from sickles, to trading a book, to doing a service. Anyone can post a bounty, and anyone can answer it. The catch is, once that person finds the answer for you, the answer also goes into our Scroll of Treasure. Sharing the information with the entire club is the "finder's fee" of the club for matching up a person looking for an answer and a person who can provide it."
Some of the students still looked unimpressed, while others looked interested. Several looked down-right acquisitive.
"Does that include questions from our homework?" Dennis Creevey asked.
Ron was really glad he, Harry, and Hermione had spent a few evenings brainstorming all the issues that could arise from this. "The knowledge itself won't get you in trouble," he answered. "Unless a professor tells you otherwise, getting your information from a book or getting your information from a person telling you what was in a book is no different. That being said, asking: 'What happens when I harvest Foxglove on a full moon versus a new moon' is different than asking 'In essay format, please tell me what the potential effects of adding armadillo bile to different stages of brewing swelling concoctions are' because only one of those will give Snape an excuse to assign you a month's worth of detentions for cheating."
"Which is something no one wants to endure," Harry added.
"Right." Ron nodded, starting to feel more comfortable. He'd been afraid that there'd only be a little interest, and he'd be standing in front of a group of bored people feeling awkward. But a lot of students were interested, and it was easy to just keep the meeting moving by giving out the answers the three of them had already come up with. "Another question?"
This time it was one of the Slytherins. "Can people from outside the club also submit bounties?"
Ron hesitated. "We're not sure. Maybe. I mean, if we have too many people not doing any of the answering, only asking, then it's not going to work. On the other hand, the more bounties that get posted, the more this club proves its usefulness, and the more likely any random individual member will happen to already know or run across an answer to one of the bounties, thus snagging the reward. For now, we're saying yes, anyone can post a bounty, but that might change later."
More hands went up, and Ron just pointed at the Ravenclaw. "You."
"How do we know the answer is correct?"
"Good question." Ron waved his hand to encompass the three of them standing in front. "We figure that each time you answer a question, you also document where you got the answer. The book title and page number, the professor you asked… however you learned it. That way we officers – or anyone else – can double check it. If it's wrong and it's an honest mistake, you won't get the bounty, and you'll have a temporary ban on being able to claim bounties. If it's deliberately wrong, you get kicked out of the club."
"And if someone doesn't pay a bounty after they post it?" A Hufflepuff he didn't know.
Ron rolled his eyes, 'cause the answer was pretty obvious. "Then they get kicked out of the club."
This time it was Lavender, who knocked over a doxy nest by asking: "Can we post bounties on stuff outside of book knowledge?"
As people around the room looked surprised, Ron studied her carefully. "Like what?"
"Well," she shrugged. "What if we wanted to know a boy's favorite food? Or a boy wanted to know what type of flowers a girl likes? Can we post a bounty on that?"
His eyes cut towards Hermione and Harry, because that was one question they hadn't been expecting. Hermione looked displeased – probably at the distraction from schoolwork – and shook her head. Harry looked thoughtful, then slightly rueful. He whispered something to Hermione, and she made a face, then reluctantly nodded.
Huh. Wonder what Harry said?
But that nod meant they agreed, and Ron personally thought it wouldn't hurt anything. As long as it didn't backfire. So- "Don't be a prick about it," he said bluntly. "We'll try it, in the beginning, but don't forget one of the reasons the club has officers and the Scroll is being moderated, is so everyone knows they can trust the answers and we don't get shut down by the professors. Asking what type of flowers someone likes, fine. Ask what color of knickers they wear, and you'll get your ability to post bounties revoked for a month. For the first offense."
He narrowed his eyes as he looked around the room, trying to make them all understand how serious about this he was. No one seemed unhappy with the restriction, so he moved on. "Next?" Several hands went up.
Wait a second, is that-?
"Zabini," he said.
There was actually a fairly high amount of Slytherins in the audience, but he hadn't noticed any of the fourth years before. But standing next to Zabini were Greengrass, Nott, and Davis. They must have been in the back.
Zabini sneered slightly, but his tone was polite enough. "Can we post anonymous bounties?"
From the expressions around the room, that hadn't occurred to a lot of them. But it obviously had appeal. Ron raised his eyebrows. "Like if you have a girl you're interested in, but don't want to make it obvious until you ask her? Yeah, I can see that." He tilted his head. "When you post the bounty anonymously, you also hand over the reward with it. Me, Harry, and Hermione will hold it in trust until it's answered. Then, after verification, we'll take care of dispensing it."
Greengrass didn't even wait for him to call on her. "And if someone posts a bounty on something that doesn't seem disrespectful, but we still just don't want it known to all sundry?"
Confused, he stared at her. If it's not disrespectful, why does she care who knows? "Like what?"
"A list of every single boyfriend I've ever had," Abbot suggested. "What I said in defense during the debate about dementors last year. What I buy in Hogsmeade Village next visit. It's all public information, of a sort. Information that can be found out by others just by watching. But the idea of being watched like that is kind of creepy. My opinions on dementors might change when I get older, and I don't want people thinking I still believe whatever I said as a third year. And what if I don't want everyone in the school to be able to look up on whim who my past boyfriends were? Because that part still applies, right? That anything discovered goes on the Treasure Scroll?"
Ron stared at all of them. "Then you come talk to us," he enunciated slowly. "You guys are way too paranoid. This is supposed to be fun and helpful. Not-" he waved his hand, frustrated, "evil. We're trying to get people helping people," -more specifically, you people helping us- "not make them cry. You have an issue with a bounty, talk to me or Harry or Hermione. We'll get it resolved."
Skepticism and relief showed on various faces. He moved on to the next question, and the next after that, then on to talking about the actual mechanics of how it'd work: where the bounty request box was located, where the open bounties would be posted, how often the Scrolls would be updated, who'd be keeping the master copy and keeping both scrolls organized, and so on. But part of him was still thinking about the question Greengrass had raised.
Sure, Harry, Hermione, and I would just take the question down when asked. 'Cause we're not arses. But what if we didn't? I can see some of the Slytherins - or even the Ravenclaws - saying 'We gathered the information, so it's ours. And it's not like we're telling lies about people.'
Merlin, that would suck.
By the time the meeting broke up, and the three of them chivied the potential club members out of the room that'd been designated for their club, Ron had come to a conclusion.
"I'm really glad we came up with this idea, instead of someone else," he announced.
Harry looked at him, from over by the wall where he was attaching the – currently empty – open bounty board to the wall with a sticking charm. "The personal-information bounties?"
He shuddered. "Yeah."
Hermione finished straightening the last of the chairs, then picked up her satchel. "We'll have to be careful how we handle it. If someone gets really upset, it could ruin everything."
Curious, and remembering the discussion he'd seen between the two of them, Ron asked: "Then why'd you change your mind? When they raised the topic you were a no, then Harry said something, and you changed it to yes."
She looked regretful as they headed towards the door, pausing to grab his and Harry's book bags. "Harry reminded me: Now that we've raised the idea of exchanging money for personal information – and you saw how much interest there was in it – we can't stamp it out."
On the other side of Hermione, Harry's face was serious. "If we don't do it, someone else probably will. Hell, you know how pissed off Malfoy was when we banned him from our club – he'd organize it for spite. If one of the others didn't do it for a percentage of the profits first. And they may or may not be decent about it. So someone has to do it and do it right. If we can't count on anyone else doing so…"
Almost to the exit now, Ron stopped dead in his tracks. "Wait. That means we have to keep doing this for the rest of our time at Hogwarts? I thought we were just trying it out!"
The others had stopped with him. Hermione patted his shoulder absently in a comforting manner, but her expression was calculating. "By which time we'd have people used to going through us to ask and answer questions for four years…"
Harry looked at them both, then smiled, something the slightest bit sly in his expression. "They might even still send us occasional bounties after they graduate. Like we noted last year: Hogwarts does have an excellent library not freely available to the public. And if they're out working, they'd have more money available to put on their bounty. It'd make it more likely the question got answered."
Ron felt his jaw drop open. "Wait, you planned for this?"
Green eyes blinked innocently at him. "I don't know what you mean."
It might have been more convincing if the other boy wasn't edging towards the door.
Dawning realization had a thread of outrage. "This is the real reason why you were giggling when I said: 'How much work could it be? Sure, I'll try being chariman as a temporary thing,' isn't it?"
"I don't giggle," Harry said with careful dignity, taking another small shuffling step back towards the exit.
"That doesn't answer the question!"
"Come on, Ron," Harry's eyes were playful. "You wanted to join a club. Make contacts! Network! We can't do that if we only join one temporarily. This is what you wanted, right?"
Dimly, Ron became aware that his hands were clenching and releasing into fists.
"And on that note," the other boy concluded, "I'd best be off. I want to stop by and say hi to Dobby before bed. See you, Club Chairman!"
By the time Ron got his wand out, the other boy had darted through the door.
Laughter trailing behind him.
"That- that!" Words escaped Ron and he closed his eyes. "Argh!"
A gentle touch had him opening them again. Hermione's lips twitched, like she was repressing a smile herself.
He frowned at her. Traitor.
"It won't be so bad," she said, opening the door herself and gesturing him through. "It really is a temporary trial. If everyone loses interest in a few months, we can just let the whole thing quietly fade away."
"And if it doesn't?" he challenged her.
She glanced at him, eyes bright. "Well, chairman sir, then I guess you're stuck."
He groaned and rubbed his face with his free hand. Why was he friends with these people again?
Canon timeline of GoF summer: (since I've noticed from various reviews that people are misremembering events/causes.)
Bertha Jorkins goes on holiday, and meets Pettigrew in Albania in an inn at the edge of Voldemort's forest lair
Pettigrew takes her back to an (already embodied) scaly!baby!monster!Voldemort,
Voldemort interrogates her, breaks her memory charm, and learns:
1) Barty Jr. is alive.
2) The Triwizard Tournament is taking place at Hogwarts.
3) Moody was going to teach at Hogwarts
Voldemort kills Bertha, creating a horcrux in Nagini.
Voldemort comes back to England w/Pettigrew, inhabits Riddle Manor, kills muggle caretaker Frank
Two days later, Harry, the Weasleys, and Hermione arrive at World Cup
At World Cup, Barty Jr. temporarily breaks free of his father's imperius and steals Harry's wand from Harry's back pocket as the game is being played.
That night, the 'Death Eater riot' occurs.
During the riot, Barty casts the dark mark, causing the Death Eaters to flee
Barty is stunned (but still hidden under an invisibility cloak) by aurors who tracked down the dark mark; Winky is interrogated and freed/disowned.
[offscreen] Barty, still stunned, is recaptured by his father after others/aurors leave
[offscreen and sometime in the next 7ish days,] Voldemort+Pettigrew free Barty Jr, then imperious Barty Snr.
Roughly a week post World Cup, Moody is replaced by Barty Jnr.
Next day: Hogwarts Express leaves King's Cross.
FtS timeline of GoF summer:
(that would be telling)
The majority were fond of the summary, so for now it stays, although I'm toying with a few of the suggestions. I appreciate the input, as it was a concern only readers could answer.
Please remember that Harry, Ron, or Hermione's opinions are not necessarily my opinions. Also, they're not necessarily correct. Although they often are, especially when others are the least likely to believe them.
Finally, more in this book than ever before, there is a ton of stuff happening offscreen/beyond-Private-Drive/Burrow/Wherever-Her mione-Lives. If you can't figure out the origin of a change, (and dear readers, I invite you to speculate to your heart's content) then have faith it will eventually all be made clear.
"Potentials," McGonagall began, "the test is straightforward. It embodies the qualities I believe you will need to succeed in the tournament. Bravery," she looked at the flames, "grace under pressure," a glance at the drop into darkness, "ingenuity," the slightest tilt of her head at the mirror-smooth wall, "and quick thinking." The sweep of her arm seemed to convey the breadth of the entire course.
Okay, Harry could see that. But still- too easy. And looking around at the students lined up to try for the flag, he could see they thought so too. Alicia was smiling, looking utterly unworried. Katie whispered something to her quietly, then laughed.
"Oh yes," the slightest cat's smile curled at the edge of Professor McGonagall's mouth as she continued. "And of course: skill at transfiguration. Which, as this is the transfiguration trial, is the only magic you're allowed to use."
The would-be champions suddenly all looked a good deal less confident.
McGonagall's wand flicked out. Across the course, the stone statues of gargoyles and wolves came to life, color bleeding into them as they morphed from granite to flesh. One wolf almost as large as Harry met his eyes and snarled, saliva dripping down ivory teeth.
"Now. Who would like to try first?"