Tracey pulled her robes tight around her shoulders. It was technically Spring, but the frigid winter still lingered in the air. Bleachers were set up along the edge of the Great Lake. All around them were hovering white projection screens displaying a variety of images. The same set of spells that powered the Stationary Omnioculars in Trow's classroom were being displayed for the crowd at Hogwarts.
She took a seat next to Pansy Parkinson, budging the girl over in a friendly manner. Scores of wizards and witches from the Ministry were in attendance, and Tracey waved over at her father and mother. They had said hello earlier, and while Tracey knew her father had many questions about her status at Hogwarts, she had no wish to answer them at this time.
"Seven Sickles for a Hogwarts win at one to three. This is what it's come to," Blaise grumbled as he nudged Tracey further into the bleachers.
"No one likes dealing with a traitor," Pansy said, but her barb was without malice.
"I'm the traitor? Potter's the one that made a deal with a Hufflepuff to get back at me!"
"And you were the one that put him in a Body-Bind first. What does that make you?" Pansy asked.
"And look where that got you," Pansy said as a procession of Ministry workers walked in front of them. "You should have stunned Potter the moment you saw him. What else did you think was going to happen?"
"If that stupid Hufflepuff hadn't -"
"Always someone else's fault with you, isn't it?" Pansy interrupted with a glare. "You tried to dethrone Potter and you missed. Get over it. Thanks to you, Potter is now Malfoy's second hand man. You think Draco is going to forget that we were the ones who wanted to knock Potter out of command? You think Potter is ever going to forget?"
"I didn't realize you were such a devout follower of Potter," Blaise said.
Pansy flicked her hair behind her shoulder in a practiced motion. She was not to be cowed. "Bitterness is also unbecoming of you, Zabini. No one likes a sore loser."
Blaise opened his mouth to reply, but Tracey jabbed a sharp elbow into his side. He winced in pain and turned to her, intent on continuing his tirade, but one look from the Slytherin girl silenced him.
"Commander," Pansy addressed Draco demurely.
The blond boy nodded once and placed himself in the benches behind them without another word. His silver eyes looked upwards at the throng of gathering harpies. The winged creatures were grotesque in appearance. Feathery wings sprouted from human backs while their hands and feet were armed with sharp talons. All were female and they wore no clothing, baring their breasts for all to see. Tracey doubted the teenage boys around her would make a comment regarding their nudity. Beautiful, harpies were not.
The harpies were being released by their handlers and all immediately flew towards a glowing circle hovering in the air. The glowing circle hung over the lake, but they had an easy view of the main staging area. Ludo Bagman had explained to the crowd the purpose of the task, and Tracey couldn't help but wonder if she would have to witness more death-defying feats from a certain Slytherin.
She could only hope the Hogwarts Champions had a reasonable plan of attack.
Five, three, seven more harpies were released in tandem. Their total number was clearly nearing fifty and Tracey wondered how they planned to control them. Professor Lupin had taught them that harpies were particularly fickle creatures. While every wizard or witch had heard stories or harpies plucking them from their beds if they were naughty, Tracey never believed it possible. Lupin instructed them to avoid harpies for they were aggressive towards humans. They rarely approached humans, and a skilled witch could escape without too much problem. Yet, Tracey tried to remember what exactly made them so dangerous.
"They are particularly fond of their treasures," Professor Trow murmured from behind Tracey.
Tracey jumped at the Strategy professor's voice. He must have taken his seat quietly while Tracey concentrated on the ever growing mass of harpies.
"Excuse me, sir?" Tracey asked.
Trow nodded towards the creatures. "They steal trinkets and treasures and are loath to part with them. Of course, they also steal food, but it is their treasures that they value most. It took the Ministry quite some time to steal back their treasures and use it as bait for this particular task. That golden circle you see is spelled so that only a human can enter and retrieve the particular treasure. The harpies will no doubt protect their valuables viciously and move to retrieve it whenever possible."
"Do they have any other abilities?" Pansy asked, no doubt looking at their sharp claws.
"They have no qualms ripping apart humans. I say that is quite an ability," Trow responded.
Tracey paled at the response and looked back at Draco, seeking some semblance of reassurance. Draco and Trow were seated some distance from each other, but they were the only occupants of the bench behind them. She continued staring into his silver eyes but found no solace. He was utterly focused on the harpies above.
"Here they come," Blaise announced.
She looked to the sky and whispered a blessing for Harry underneath her breath.
The target was hard to miss.
A swarm of harpies flew around a golden halo. Below, Harry could easily spot the crowd. Torches illuminated the area around the harpies as well as the crowd below, basking the whole sky an ethereal quality. He adjusted in his seat, swinging his broom in a low arc below the main contingent. Green eyes swept the sky, searching for the other champions. If Hogwarts were here, then so would Beauxbatons and Durmstrang.
The red sky was patched with large clouds, providing some aerial cover. Otherwise, it was an almost completely open arena. The powers that be seemed intent on making sure the crowd below would see the majority of the competition. An open arena might have better viewership, but it would hinder the Hogwarts team. Less than half of them were qualified as above average fliers. Some, like Hermione, had no business being on a broom. Harry was somewhere in the middle but found no solace in mediocrity.
Shielding his eyes with one hand, Harry glanced towards the sun. It had disappeared below the horizon but still stretched it's hand into the sky, painting it orange and red. That light would not last for long. Harry estimated the orange and red coloring would be replaced by the light blue of an early evening in about twenty minutes. The harpies would be easy to see in their golden haze, but the other champions would be nigh indistinguishable blurs. Only the brilliant torches of the light below would illuminate them.
Harry completed his arc below his group and ascended to talk to Cedric. The Hufflepuff was scanning the field alertly, no doubt reaching the same conclusion as Harry. Swirling to and fro, Cedric flew with the easy grace of a professional Quidditch player. His balance was perfect, never lurching side to side as he strafed. His broom reacted to him instead of him directing the broom. It was said that the most magnificent fliers were especially skilled with certain brooms, just as wizards were best with their own wands.
"What do you think?" Cedric asked, his eyes alertly scanning the horizon.
"Looks like they want to attract all of us to the target. Open area. Little cover. International Quidditch player on Durmstrang. Beauxbatons always has a surprise or two. Can't say I favor the situation," Harry responded.
"Harpies aren't exactly friendly creatures either," Roger Davies added. "There's got to be sixty of them? Seventy? Resistant to some spells too, though not nearly as bad as dragons. Reckon we can just blast our way through them."
"That would be the easy way to do it," Cedric said.
Hermione sidled up next to them and Harry did not miss the way Cedric drifted towards her, closing the gap between them. The Hufflepuff clearly held his own concerns over Hermione's aerial ability. He was right to worry. Hermione, as genius as she might have been, was a glaring weak spot for the Hogwarts team. Cedric reached a hand out to steady Hermione's broom as she finally managed to fly beside them.
"There's something else to it," she said. "See how the harpies aren't flying towards us? They're known to be aggressive, harassing creatures. They wouldn't just wait for us to retrieve their prize. They should be coming after us, but there has to be a spell holding them back. That circle must be some sort of demarcation line."
"You think it's going to hold us back too?" Harry asked, anticipating the next logical step.
"It's a strong possibility."
Harry opened his mouth to add another idea, but he was interrupted by Fred.
"Look alive, lads! Looks like they've decided to join the party!" Fred yelled, pointing at a figure dropping through the sky at a shocking rate.
"That's a Wronski Feint by my own eyes," George said in awe. "But there's no way. He's flying too fast…"
Harry wished he had Omnioculars to zoom in, but he could still spot the dark figure pitched straight down towards the harpies. Faster and faster he went, seemingly picking up speed during the descent. At the last moment, the flier pulled out of the dive with astonishing skill. A flame erupted from what had to be his wand. Instead of burning the harpies alive, the conjured flames rippled along the protective sphere.
The harpies were completely unharmed.
"Right again, Granger," Marietta said.
"Bloody Viktor Krum. Did you see how fast he was going? I thought the nutter was going to go straight for it," Blaise said, his neck craned as he watch the ever growing amount of brooms in the air.
The stomach turning drop by Krum had certainly drawn gasps from the crowd. The Bulgarian's rapid descent brought out the rest of the Durmstrang champions. Beauxbatons appeared next. Thirteen figures in light blue robes streaked across the sky, barreling towards the harpies. At the last moment, they broke apart into two formations, firing spells all the while. All of their spells bounced harmlessly against the golden shield encircling the harpies.
Again, Beauxbatons made another run at the harpies, but this time, they conjured projectiles and banished them through the golden circle. The winged creatures dodged easily away from the conjured projectiles, hissing and spitting at the flying wizards and witches. Tracey watched as one of the harpies attempted to pursue a Beauxbatons witch, but the harpy crashed harmlessly against the golden shield. The constraints of the task seemed obvious to Tracey, but how would Hogwarts penetrate this golden shield as well as the swarm of harpies within?
"How are they going to get in?" Pansy echoed her thoughts.
From behind them, Trow asked, "I suppose now is a good time to flex the muscles I hope you've been training. Miss Parkinson, would you care to break down the field above and provide an adequate strategy?"
Tracey, Pansy, and Blaise simultaneously groaned. They could not escape Trow's teachings even when observing a non-school battle. She chanced a look back at the Strategy professor and found a small smile on his face. Draco, on the other hand, was utterly focused on the battle above.
"Miss Parkinson, care to try?" Trow repeated.
"If I don't, will you lower my rank on the lists?"
"That depends on how much you care about your rank. Humor me, Miss Parkinson. What would you advise the Hogwarts champions to do?"
Pansy squinted into the ever darkening battlefield. The air was buzzing with activity as the various champions soared through the air with varying degrees of competency. Even from a distance and with little knowledge of flying techniques, Tracey could easily identify the strong and weak fliers. Viktor Krum was an obvious stand-out. The Bulgarian danced through the sky, his broom obeying every command.
"Well, we know the harpies are protected by some of barrier. I don't know exactly what spells are protected by the barrier, but you think that anyone would have to get in close to find out. But, you can't get in close since you're being harried by the other schools. So, I think I would end up trying to take out the other schools first and then deal with the harpies later. Is that a reasonable strategy?" Pansy finally answered.
While Pansy had a tendency to ramble without thought, her strategy was not without merit. Tracey would have most likely arrived to the same conclusion. The harpies couldn't cross the boundaries of their golden halo, but they could not be harmed outside of it either. Any engagement with the harpies inside the golden halo would have a high chance of inflicting casualties. Thus, it would make most sense to eliminate the other houses so that more time could be afforded to eliminating the harpies.
Yet, Tracey felt that she was missing an important piece of the puzzle. She always felt just a bit out of the loop when discussing strategy. Harry was the Commander for more than just his prowess in dueling. He had a penchant for strategy and an unmatched instinct for exploiting weaknesses. Draco was an acceptable Commander, but Tracey felt that the blond Slytherin was holding something back. She looked up at him, faintly hoping that he would be looking back at her.
Draco was focused on the sky above.
A flicker of disappointment radiated through her body, but Tracey quickly put it away. She already had one boy that potentially didn't return her feelings. It would be lunacy to double the amount of unrequited love she currently received. Then again, what was love but madness? Did she love him? Tracey didn't know. She was perhaps too young to know what love truly meant, but Tracey knew that she would do anything to help that suffering boy. The burden he carried on his shoulders would be lightened even if he did not return her fancies.
"...and for the most part, you are correct, Miss Parkinson. Yet, if Hogwarts does happen to whittle away Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, they would have undoubtedly loss a few of their champions along the way. Say they are reduced to half strength. That would be five or six witches or wizards against fifty harpies in close quarters. It could be very well that no one is able to retrieve the Golden Snitch and return it to their respective podium," Trow mused aloud.
"A Golden snitch, eh?" Blaise asked. "And what happens when they return it to their podium?"
"The Triwizard Cup will materialize for the victors."
"And what happens if there are no victors?" Tracey asked.
Trow chuckled, but his laughter was interrupted by his inescapable cough. His breath came in short gasps as he covered his mouth with a cloth. As he regained his composure, Trow smiled with red-stained lips.
"There will be a victor, Miss Davis. One way or another, there will be a victor."
Harry dodged a stray Stunner as he made another run at the harpies. This time, he casted a Whirlwind Hex, but the results were the same. No charm or hex could break through the shield. Banking left, Harry was mindful of anyone tailing him, but the other schools seemed to be too preoccupied trying to find a way through the harpies. Dipping underneath the mob of harpies, Harry climbed into the air
He occasionally veered left and right, trying to follow Cedric's instructions to behave unexpectedly. In this particular case, Harry had nothing to worry about it. Each of the schools were testing the defenses of the harpies, but everyone ended with the same result. The seemingly impenetrable shield had inspired caution from the other schools. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see the blue robes of a Beauxbaton student diving towards the shield but pulling back at the last moment.
The sun completed its disappearance from the horizon and only the fading orange embers in the sky held any light. Already, Harry could see potential problems with visibility. The glow surrounding the harpies was the primary source of light in the sky. Beacons of light shot up from the ground, but the shadows cast by the harpies and the other fliers were playing games with Harry's eyes.
Harry climbed until he was far above the fray. Breathing deeply, he tasted the crisp air intermingled with his own fear and excitement. Snatching the Snitch was already proving to be a challenge, but Harry found himself in his element once more. Hogwarts was quite a distance away and the populace of Hogwarts far below. In the air, Harry was finally free.
Even with this freedom, Harry found himself programmed to do one thing. As he hovered for a moment, Harry watched the tiny dots of wizards and witches flying through the air. In this moment, he realized how insignificant they all seemed. They were specks in the sky, flying and fighting for a reason that now seemed superficial. Yet, Harry found himself at home. The echoed cries in the air of casted spells. The smell of sweat mixed into his silk visual of spells shot back and forth. This was Harry's home even more so than Hogwarts. In battle was the only place he truly belonged.
So it was with excitement, and not fear or trepidation or cautiousness, that Harry dove. Down and down he went, the wind whistling in his ears and pressing his glasses tight against his face. He twisted away from an incoming spell, not even glancing towards the source. What he lacked in experience with flying, he more than made up for in enthusiasm. It felt dangerous, even reckless, to be diving this quickly, but fear was the last thing in Harry's mind. In some ways, Harry felt no fear in battle. The fear came in the quiet moments between the fights, when he had time to think of the past and the future. In the present, only the fight existed.
So as he approached the golden shield protecting the harpies, he did not pause.
He flew his broom parallel to the surface of the shield, extending his arm so that it broke the protected plane. Knowing the harpies would not give him much time, he let loose a torrent of fire and felt justified as he watched harpies scramble away from the intense heat. Withdrawing his arm, he pointed his broom down to avoid another spell. Chancing a look over his shoulder, Harry found no one following his dive and pulled up to steady himself.
The fire had done more than just prove his theory. It had attracted the other schools to try similar tactics. As he curled towards the clouds, away from the majority of the battle, Harry saw Viktor Krum replicate his tactics. The Bulgarian quickly weaved inside the protected bubble and stunned at least one harpy before escaping. His quickness only just kept him out of the grasp of a pair of harpies who slammed against the protective shield as the creatures tried to exit.
Trapped, Harry thought.
Accelerating into the clouds, Harry prepared himself for another run. Pitching his broom down, Harry dropped from the sky. Despite the protective layer of his glasses, his eyes still watered from the wind. The brightness of the protective shield increased as he approached, and as before, Harry stuck out his wand.
This time, the harpies anticipated his move and instead of backing away from the shield, they pressed towards it. Harry only just managed to avoid the sharp talons of the harpies as he pulled away at the last second. The harpies had not taken kindly to his entrance into their domain. Harry observed that they used this same tactic when Tireur made a run at them. They were not letting the wizards and witches attack them without potential loss.
He soared into the sky again, trying to locate his fellow schoolmates. Here and there, he spotted his teammates trying to replicate his run or haphazardly attacking members of Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. It seemed to Harry that everyone was afraid of being lured into a trap. The objective was hidden behind a protective magical barrier as well as blood-thirsty harpies. Harry also assumed that neither of the schools wanted to expend their energy on taking on wizards and witches when they could potentially dart in and steal the objective away from the creatures.
Stalemate. No one wanted to lose.
"They're going to start attacking us soon," Hermione said as she hovered next to him. She still looked awkward and unsure on her broom, but she at least managed not to plummet to her death.
He agreed with her assessment. Durmstrang or Beauxbatons would soon realize that they would have to eliminate members of the other schools in order to escape with the objective. Logically, every member of the two opposing schools would have to be eliminated in order to make a clean escape with whatever forces remained. Krum or Tireur or Fleur would soon come to this same conclusion.
Harry climbed higher, beckoning Hermione to follow him as he watched a small pocket of Beauxbatons students make a run towards the harpies. Tireur ran point on a trio of flyers, weaving and bobbing so that the harpies would not anticipate his penetration point. They crossed the threshold of the golden shield, but whatever spells they tried to use inside the shield were ineffective from Harry's point of view.
The dance continued.
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry spotted Cedric dive into the fray. Fred and George flanked him on either side as they hurtled towards the harpies. The trio were experienced fliers, able to handle more complex maneuvers as they rotated in and out of different formations. They were mixing it up, trying to keep the harpies guessing as to where they would make their breach. Their dance was more coordinated, expertly choreographed as opposed to Harry's rash plummet. As they closed in on their target, Tireur returned and engaged the Hogwarts trio. Four of his Beauxbatons students swooped in with him as they fired spell after spell at Cedric's group.
Harry watched as Tireur then broke off from his attacking force and momentarily flew into the golden circle. The Beauxbatons student succeeded in stunning a harpy, but the monsters were prepared for his intrusion. A sharp claw raked through the back of Tireur's cape, the rips visible in the illuminated circle. Tireur barely escaped, the harpies crashing against the invisible barrier with inhuman shrieks. Harry didn't know if the harpies drew blood, but he could see that Tireur was visibly shaken from the encounter.
"Very difficult to overtake," Hermione murmured. "Maybe an illusion spell of some sort? Disguise your entry into their prison and somehow sneak the target out?"
Harry shook his head and indicated they should relocate. "It still wouldn't work. The harpies are packed in too tight. There's no way anyone is sneaking in there."
What might have worked against the dragons was certainly not going to work against the harpies. In the First Task, Harry was successful in luring the black dragon away from the nest. Through a combination of other tactics, they were able to successfully distract the dragons and steal the egg away. Such tactics would not work in this particular task. The administrators meant to trap the students in their shield with the harpies. What was supposed to be a barrier between the creatures and the champions had became a prison instead. Harry was reminded of a prison of his own, a cupboard underneath the stairs with one golden light.
Harry continued to assess the battlefield, no longer diving into the fray. It was no use. Cedric and company tried coordinating combination runs on opposite sides of the shield, but there were always too many harpies. If there weren't too many harpies, other schools would harass them as Cedric engaged, limiting the Hufflepuff's chances of stealing away the target. More and more, it seemed that the administrators were intent on the schools engaging the other schools first, and then proceeding towards a solution on withdrawing the target.
Unfortunately, that would take away too many resources. Harry calculated that even if they were able to outfly and outduel Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, Hogwarts would still only have seven students, at most, to engage the fifty harpies. Such numbers would have been manageable in an open battlefield, but not in a locked box with the dangerous creatures. The Hogwarts champions would be asked to make split second decisions within a confined area. Any mistake would be punished by the harpies in mere seconds.
That was only if everything went as plan.
Durmstrang had Krum, and he was no mere novice in the air. The Bulgarian danced along the sky, already dispatching a Beauxbatons student who had the temerity to attack him while he made a run at the harpies. Hogwarts had no guarantee it would even survive a direct confrontation with one of the other schools. Harry kept returning to the same conclusion. This task would designed to be a stalemate - a battle of attrition.
But Harry would not wait.
As he floated in the air, watching the ineffective attacks, he knew.
He finally knew what they wanted from him.
During the course of the year, Snape had tried everything to break him. At least, that was what Harry thought. Yet, he knew that Snape did nothing without reason. The headmaster's machinations were carefully planned. Trow and Lupin's lessons were not just a primer in Dark Lords. The whole of the year came to him at once. The Board Room. The challenges. The dysfunction. The betrayal. They were trying to teach him one particular lesson.
It was a great irony that the lesson they were trying to teach Harry was the very thing he set out to learn at the beginning of the year. Did they import his lesson into their plans or was this their plan all along? Harry hated the secrecy, but he knew it was hypocritical of him to think that Snape and Trow would share all their plans with him. After all, he rarely divulged his plans with the rest of the Slytherins. Was there merit in keeping him in the dark? Did he trust Snape and Trow enough to go along with their plan?
Harry did not trust them.
But he trusted himself.
"Hermione, gather the rest of them and climb," Harry ordered.
Harry shot up, his broom perpendicular from the ground. The wind rushed against his face until he could feel the early mists of the clouds. The golden circle surrounding the harpies was a hazy glow beneath him, and he could hardly identify any of the other schools. He made a slow three hundred and sixty degree turn and was satisfied that no one else was near him. The air was slightly thinner at this altitude, but Harry relished the freedom of the skies. He had half a mind to tear away from Hogwarts and fly elsewhere, but for whatever reason, Harry could not walk away.
Hogwarts was his prison. Hogwarts was his home.
Eventually, ten dots increased in size, signaling an approach. Harry held his wand out in front of him in case he needed to cast a shield, but he was sure it was the rest of his Hogwarts team. As the dots became people, Harry could immediately identify the red hair of the Weasley twins. Relaxing his posture, he sat up straight on his broom as they came close. He nodded gratefully at Hermione once the Hogwarts champions gathered around him.
"Running away, Potter?" Marietta snidely asked.
Harry ignored the jibe and focused on Cedric. The Hufflepuff was the one that needed to be convinced. Cedric was the de facto leader of the group, whether he wanted to be or not. If he didn't go along with the plan, it would never work.
"I have a plan," Harry said to Cedric.
When Harry first met Cedric, he was unsure of the Hufflepuff's intentions. Growing up in Slytherin, Harry learned to question everyone's motives. There was always intent behind an action, no matter how innocuous. The constant jostling for leadership made Harry suspicious of the tiniest actions. Friends were friends in name only. The only true friendship he ever had was Tracey. Not once had he ever doubted her. If Tracey trusted Cedric, then Harry would have to trust him as well. The battle could no longer be fought alone.
Cedric stared back at Harry, looking far more comfortable on a broom than anyone else. His blond hair ruffled perfectly in the air, his grey eyes steady and unblinking. Harry matched his gaze evenly, willing the Hufflepuff to understand. Harry knew how to win the task, but he would not wrestle Cedric's leadership away. He needed Cedric's trust, and he would never gain the Hufflepuff's trust if he attempted his usual Slytherin tactics.
It was not easy for Harry to trust.
Growing up, he never had anyone to trust.
But perhaps that is why he stayed at Hogwarts. Tracey was someone he could trust. Hermione was someone he could trust. Cedric was someone he could trust. He would not find that trust anywhere else.
"I have a plan," Harry repeated in a whisper.
Cedric nodded without saying another word.
Trust, Harry thought.
Trust in others.
"Listen closely." Harry instructed the others, giving very specific directions as to how they should position themselves.
"Whatever happens, don't worry. If you get lost or if you get disoriented...no matter what spell...no matter what they throw at us...just remember one thing - the enemy is down."
"Where did they go?" Pansy asked.
Beauxbatons and Durmstrang were still attempting runs against the harpies, but each run was as ineffective as the last. A few students sparred in mid-air, but no one could score a decisive win. Even the indomitable Krum could not punch through the line of harpies defending the target. Flashes of spellfire intermittently occurred overhead, but the fighting had died down for the most part.
Noticeable was the conspicuous absence of all the Hogwarts champions.
"Regrouping," Tracey said mostly to herself. "Has to be…"
Draco interrupted her train of thought by tapping her on the shoulder. She turned around to look inquisitively at him, and Draco indicated with a motion that she should sit next to him. He leaned close enough so that she could feel his breath on her ear.
"After the task is over, meet me at the Astronomy tower," Draco whispered into her ear.
She looked at him in confusion. "Why?"
Draco smiled in that knowing way of his. "I have a surprise for you. A thank you for being so cooperative with me."
Tracey immediately felt guilt. Why would Draco go out of his way to engineer a special rendez-vous? A sadness overtook her as she thought of Draco's predicament. He obviously fancied her, but hadn't she made her intentions known? After all, he helped her write that particular letter for Harry. She opened her mouth to speak, but Tracey could not find the right words to say to him.
"It's just a thank you," Draco repeated. "I wouldn't be in this position if it weren't for you."
As she ran through the timeline of the year in her head, Tracey found his statement ringing a bit false. Truthfully, she had done very little to catapult Draco to his current position as Commander. She had fought Blaise when the boy had attempted his coup. Tracey thought she had made it clear she preferred Harry to be Commander. Nevertheless, Tracey thought that maybe Draco was trying to be nice. The kiss on the night of the Yule Ball was still fresh in her mind. She could not forget the coldness of his lips nor the way she reacted to his affection. It was unnatural. He deserved better than her.
"Yes, that sounds -"
"Look!" Pansy interrupted Tracey, the former standing and pointing at the sky.
Tracey craned her neck and squinted her eyes, trying to determine what caused Pansy's surprise. Descending from the sky was a noticeable series of figures. They were tightly packed, so interweaved that it seemed like they were right on top of each other. As they fell from the sky, their figure became sharper and clearer. When Tracey counted them one by one, she fought the urge to be confused. As they continued their descent, she could hear laughing below her.
Trow put down his handkerchief and tossed his head back in genuine laughter. He clapped his hands together, his laugh carrying across the stands. Slowly, the rest of the crowd spotted the descending group and one by one, they realized what the Hogwarts champions were doing.
"He's done it!" Trow exclaimed, still happily clapping.
Tracey looked up at the falling group and watched as all they conjured their shields as one.
They flew as one, shoulder to shoulder, barely an inch between any of them. Their knees bumped and their elbows occasionally knocked together. Eight of the Hogwarts champions surrounded Harry and Hermione in a cocoon. In between various appendages, Harry could see the glowing circle of the harpies growing larger and larger as they neared their target.
"No Protegos yet," Harry ordered. "Not yet."
Harry tapped Cedric's shoulder and gently veered him left. The rest of the Hogwarts champions awkwardly followed, clearly not used to flying in such a tight formation. Their approach would not be aesthetically pleasing, but Harry knew it was the only way to solve this puzzle. The Hufflepuff had taken point and rode at the point of their spear. Harry tapped his shoulders periodically, adjusting their course and keeping a small pattern of variation. Towards the back, Fred and George could hardly see what was in front of them. The twins were solely relying on the movements of their partners around them.
"Steady approach," Harry said in a calm voice.
Hermione was right at his hip, trying not to jostle any of the other fliers. From an outside perspective, one could hardly see Harry or Hermione. In the darkness, they were just a blob of arms, legs, and brooms. Harry counted on the slight confusion to buy them just a few more seconds to get closer to the target.
"Target at ten o'clock!" Roger yelled out.
Harry peered through the crook of Roger's elbow and spotted the telltale robes of a Beauxbatons student speeding towards them. Harry bit his tongue, willing himself to be patient. Once he revealed his hand, they would know exactly what Hogwarts was trying to do. The Beauxbatons flier came closer and closer, and once Harry determined that the Beauxbatons student was intent to unleash a spell upon them, he flipped over his first card.
"Starboard side, prepare!"
The Beauxbatons raised his wand, telegraphing his spell.
"Stunners!" Harry commanded.
At once, the four fliers to Harry's right fired Stunners. Harry watched the eyes widen on the Beauxbatons student as the incoming barrage meant no escape. One of the four spells struck the Beauxbatons student and sent him tumbling off his broom. Harry tracked his fall until the Beauxbatons boy disappeared with his Portkey. Satisfied that they had drawn everyone's attention, Harry prepared their next move.
"Position to dive!"
Cedric leaned forward on his broom, bringing everyone else down with him. They pitched over, pointing directly at the ground. The speed of the broom combined with gravity increased their acceleration. They were truly tumbling towards their target now.
"Two Durmstrang at nine o'clock!" Marietta reported.
Harry waited until Durmstrang was close before ordering another barrage. The Durmstrang pair, cognizant of recent events, conjured shields to block the hail of spells. As the other school closed in, Harry ordered a roll. The slight rotation bought them a split second as the Durmstrang students tried to beat them to the punch and fired their own two Stunners.
"Shields!" Harry screamed.
At once, the shimmer of the Protego shield surrounded them as the spells ricocheted harmlessly away. The Durmstrang students were too close now. Harry ordered another barrage and took aim himself. A brilliant flash of spells streaked through the sky, striking both of the Durmstrang competitors.
Cedric pressed forward and the blob grew disjointed as they tried to keep up with him. Harry physically grabbed Fred and Marietta, willing the group to stay together. They would have never won if they kept making runs at the harpies. There were too many harpies and too few students. Harry had watched the other schools try to make runs, but it was always with too few people. The only way to retrieve the target was to make one unified assault. All of their petty differences would have to be put aside. If Snape and Trow had their say in designing this task, then Harry knew what they wanted from him.
Unite your House. Unite your school. Make them follow you.
As they fended off attackers with a rotating array of shields, the glow of the protective shield filled Harry's vision. A never ending rain of spells flew towards them as both Durmstrang and Beauxbatons cottoned onto Harry's plan. It was too late. The slight confusion with their formation and the speed at which they were diving left no time for recovery. They fell as one, diving towards the enemy below.
A few seconds before impact, Harry gave one last group order.
"Spells forward! Throw everything forward!"
The sides of the group kept their Protego shields up to protect from incoming fire, but Harry, Hermione, and Cedric all pointed their wands straight down. Stunners, Cutters, Bludgeoning Hexes, Blowbacks rained down upon the golden shield. Harry screamed as he repeated the spells over and over and as they broke the barrier, their forward spells cut through the harpies like a hot knife through butter.
The shriek of the injured harpies was near unbearable. A harpy caught Roger Davies by the cape and ripped him away from the group. The creatures bounced against the raised Protego shields as the group pushed through. Harry did not know whether he was hearing himself scream, or hearing everyone else scream around him. The shrieks and yells combined into one tornadic sound.
In the pandemonium, Harry managed to have the wherewithal to grab the Snitch.
They emerged from the other side of the shield, battered and bruised from their encounter. There was no time to spare, however, as Beauxbatons and Durmstrang descended upon them.
"Fred! George! NOW!" Harry bellowed.
The pair, who had brought up the rear of their formation, splintered off and fired every imaginable distraction spell known to man. Smoke and thunderous concussions filled the air around them. An impressive light show lit up the night sky. A monstrous dragon made of lights and sparkles danced in the low atmosphere, bathing the crowd in color.
"Go Cedric!" Harry screamed at the top of his lungs.
The Hufflepuff peeled off the group, racing towards the spot where they would have to return the Snitch. Harry saw at least half a dozen people give chase.
The remaining Hogwarts students flew off in every direction, firing spells at everything and nothing. Their ultimate job was to simply be a distraction and they were doing a wonderful job. In the resulting distraction, Harry clambered onto Hermione's broom in mid-air and tapped himself on the head with his wand. The Disillusionment Charm trickled over his body until he was a near transparent projection. Hermione drifted below the chaos, flying at a slightly below normal speed in comparison to the havoc above.
Almost everyone knew that Hermione was far from the best flier in Hogwarts. Beauxbatons and Durmstrang would have surely seen how tentative she was during the earlier stages. Given that information, Hermione would be the least likely person to have the Snitch as they exited the cage of the harpies. If anyone should have the Snitch, it would be Cedric, who raced off to the return point.
Harry hoped they all arrived to the same conclusion.
"You still got it?" Hermione said over her shoulder.
Harry felt the Snitch tucked against his ribs, nestled within the inside pocket of his robes.
"I got it. Get lower."
Hermione drifted lower, avoiding a direct path to the return point. Instead, she took a more circular route as if she were simply drifting away from the battle. Harry kept his head turned over his shoulder the whole time, hoping no one would give chase. The battle raged above with Fred and George providing ample lead on their distraction gambit. Green eyes scanned the sky above them, hoping no one would notice.
They were not so lucky.
"Faster, Hermione. We got someone! Beauxbatons!"
Hermione accelerated, her broom jerking forward in a less than smooth fashion. The Hogwarts pair sped along the ground, but their added weight decreased their speed considerably. The Beauxbatons student was easily gaining on them. Harry glanced over his shoulder again and was dismayed to find the Beauxbatons student close enough to identify.
"It's Tireur!" Harry yelled in Hermione's ear. "How did that wanker know?"
Hermione couldn't answer as she was too focused on not crashing into the ground. Tireur gained on them quickly and a spell fizzled over their head. Hermione was no good at dodging at this speed. It would be just a few more seconds until Tireur caught up to them. Harry did not know if he could successfully outduel Tireur in the air.
"Hold on!" Hermione commanded.
Harry gripped tightly around her waist as she inexplicably raised the front of the broom and started climbing!
"What are you doing?" Harry exclaimed, conjuring a Protego shield to block a spell.
Tireur also did not anticipate Hermione's movement as he shot past them. Hermione did not let up, only increasing her speed as she continued their climb straight up. It was harder for Harry to look back due to the angle of their climb, so he abandoned all illusory pretense and kept his Protego up for the ascent.
"Hermione, we're going to be a sitting duck if we keep climbing! Tireur is going to catch up to his with no problem!" Harry said in a panicked voice.
"Just trust me!" Hermione yelled back.
So Harry held on, hearing the ping of a spell bouncing against his shield. Up and up they went, out of view from the crowd below. The gasps and cheers faded away, but Tireur was closing the distance. He would be upon them soon. Hermione veered towards the right, taking them straight through a cloud. Within the misty dew of the cloud, Hermione pivoted with surprising dexterity until she was straddling the broom backwards.
They sat face to face for a split second, her face not two inches from his. She put her wand to his chest and repeated one phrase.
"Trust me...and don't try to catch me."
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Hermione repeated the mantra in her mind as she pointed her wand right at Harry's chest.
Using a trick she had seen Harry do many times over, she launched herself into the air, using Harry's body as a repellent. She cleared canopy of clouds and hung suspended in mid-air. The air was colder at this altitude, and she could see the early dusting of stars in the night sky. Her heart flew to her mouth as she remained unsupported in the air. Suspended hundreds of feet in the air, Hermione fought down the panic that threatened to overtake her mind and body.
I am a Gryffindor. Brave...and reckless.
Hermione mustered the strength of mind to conjure a net as she began her descent. Tireur predictably shot through the clouds, still thinking he had the speed advantage. As Hermione wrapped her net around the Beauxbatons boy and his broom, a triumphant grin broke across her face. She held on tight as the net entangled them both.
They fell end over end, neither of them able to control Tireur's broom. Hermione's wand was jammed into her own side due to her grip on the net, and she was unable to hit Tireur with a spell. The Beauxbatons boy must have lot his own wand in the collision and cursed helplessly at her as they fell towards the ground.
"You miserable cunt! Let me go!" Tireur bellowed.
But Hermione held on tight. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Harry speeding away. He had listened to her or came to the same conclusion. She did not need to be rescued.
Not when she had a Portkey on her body.
As they neared the ground, Hermione felt the familiar pull on her navel as the administrators intervened to prevent their impending deaths. As they teleported to more solid ground, Hermione felt the equally familiar rise of bile in her throat. It was no accident that she directed her vomit all over Tireur.
Harry made sure to watch as Hermione and Tireur vanished out of sight, presumably due to either of their Portkeys. He breathed a sigh of relief when they did, and then cursed Hermione for being so incredibly reckless. Sometimes, he forgot she was a Gryffindor. He pressed forward on his new broom, racing along the ground to hopefully avoid detection. The Forbidden Forest was all that remained between Harry and the return point. If Cedric had managed to trick them into thinking he had the Snitch, then hopefully the Hufflepuff was still leading them on a merry chase around the school.
It was a surprise to Harry when a spell caught his left arm from above.
His arm instantly became numb and flopped against his side. He quickly put the wand in his mouth and used just his right hand to navigate the broom. Chancing a glance upwards, Harry's heart dropped as he saw Krum's monstrous figure silhouetted by the moon. Of all the fliers in the competition, Krum was the last person Harry wanted to race. Another spell shot towards him, and Harry just barely managed to avoid another Numbing Charm. Krum was clever. The Numbing Charm tended to travel faster through the air than other spells. In a normal duel, it was not as effective due to an easy counter-jinx, but in the air, Harry could not take his other hand off the broom unless he wanted to sit their aimlessly.
Krum was a better flier. This was no doubt. It was only about forty five more seconds until Harry reached the return point, but Krum already had the drop on him. With the Bulgarian's skill at flying, he could close the distance and eliminate Harry before the return point. Faced with no other decisions, Harry made the only one that would keep him in the game.
He dove into the Forbidden Forest, cursing as a branch scratched his cheek.
Slowing his speed to a manageable level, Harry weaved in between the thick tree trunks. The forest was one area that did not cooperate with Krum. With his nimble frame, Harry was able to dodge between the tree trunks with surprising comfort. Though Krum was an expert flier, he was known for his slight movements and adjustments that could bring him to top speed faster than other fliers. The Bulgarian could stop on a dime and pull his broom out of reckless dives, but his size would be a hindrance trying to navigate the maze of trees in the forest.
Unfortunately, this tactic would not bring Harry to victory.
As Harry neared the edge of the tree line, a vast expanse of open land was the only obstacle between himself and the return point. Even from a distance, Harry could see the carved hole in stone where he would have to place the Snitch. On the stone dais was a glass container and within the container was the trophy.
Harry looked through the thicket of branches and leaves above him and could barely make out Krum hovering in the air. The Durmstrang student patrolled the tree line, simply waiting for Harry to make a run for it. It seemed that he had no interest in chasing Harry through the woods. Given that Krum would not enter, Harry took the time to stand on the ground and apply the counter-jinx to his arm. With both arms fully functional again, Harry assessed his last obstacle.
Open ground with a superior flier. The objective was to place the Snitch inside the stone structure, but that could not possibly be done without eliminating Krum or distracting him long enough to drop off the Snitch. The second option was a near impossibility, but the first option was not any better. Krum had the advantage in skill and in position. He had the high ground and the better visibility. He also had to defend, and in Trow's classes, Harry learned that simply playing defense made life easier.
"One more. Just have to beat them one more time," Harry said to himself.
He examined the potential battlefield, racking his brain for ideas. One came to mind, but Harry did not know Hermione's duplication spell. If he did, the copy might have just given him enough time to win. Idea after idea failed as he envisioned all the scenarios. Harry was desperate to find one idea that would work. Just one. Yet, they all had flaws. He assumed Krum would know most counters to any illusory spells. Trying to overpower him would be fruitless as solo accuracy in mid-flight was very poor. The only viable solution would be to protect himself long enough to place the Snitch in the stone structure. Could he win on a technicality?
"A win is a win," Harry said to himself. He picked himself up off the ground and straddled his broom, ready for one last ride. In his mind, he had already passed Snape and Trow's test. They wanted him to find a way to win with others. Beating Krum was just for pride.
Harry darted out from the forest, flying so low that his feet skimmed the grass. He did not need to look up to know Krum was giving chase. Harry pressed his body flat against the broomstick, pushing the broom as fast as it would go. After a predetermined time, Harry raised his elevation and flipped upside down on the broom. Hanging on for dear life, Harry produced a Protego shield upside down.
Krum's spells bounced against the shield as he closed the gap. Harry could only hold on and watch as Krum descended from the sky like a vengeful angel. The Durmstrang student flew with such poise and experience that it was only a matter of seconds before he was flying right above Harry. Krum proceeded to hammer Harry's Protego with spell after spell, and Harry was reminded of Krum's unearthly ability to keep up the torrent of spells.
His shield faltered, blinking out of existence after another Stunner smashed against it. Harry conjured another shield, but knew this one would fall as well. The stone dais was just ahead. Harry just had to jump off the broom and scramble a few feet to place the Snitch inside. Harry's shield faltered again as another wave of spells smashed against it. He was exposed. Krum would win.
Cedric dropped out of the sky at a rapid speed and his Stunner was on the mark, striking Krum right in the back.
Harry tumbled off his broom in shock, bouncing along the ground and feeling his hip smash into the ground. Luckily, he was low enough to the ground and had decreased enough speed not to break every bone in his body. He laid on the ground, gasping for breath. Sweat encased his whole body, but he had not noticed it until this current moment. Cedric landed next to him and Harry opened his eyes to see the Hufflepuff's cheeky grin.
"Took you long enough to get here," Cedric said, extending his hand
Harry accepted Cedric's hand and hauled himself to his feet. Together, they walked towards the stone dais. Harry had a slight limp, while Cedric was bleeding from his ear all the way through his robes. As Harry placed the Snitch into the matching compartment, the glass case dissolved into nothingness, leaving just the trophy.
"Fuck me," Cedric sighed as the trophy finally came into view. "They really put us through the ring to get this bloody thing."
Harry had to laugh at Cedric's ignorance. If only the Hufflepuff knew the true reason for the tournament. In a way, Harry envied Cedric's naivete. Life would have been much simpler.
"You did good, Cedric. You lead them well," Harry said with honesty.
Cedric wouldn't have it. "Let's face it, Harry. You were the one that killed the dragon in the first. You jumped on top of another dragon to save Hermione. You figured out the ice battle for the second. Managed to escape Tireur and ambush Krum. Managed to drag Krum underwater and give me enough time to get away. Bloody hell, look at what you did for this task! You're mental. Absolutely, Merlin-awful crazy. But you did it. You won."
Harry had to grin. No one ever truly won at Hogwarts Battle School, but it was a nice reprieve to hear Cedric say it - to know Cedric believed it. The Hufflepuff was already a great leader. Snape and Trow should have picked Cedric instead.
"Together?" Harry asked.
"Together," Cedric confirmed.
As one, they placed a hand on either handle of the trophy. Nothing happened for a moment, but then Harry felt that all too familiar pull against his midsection. He looked at Cedric and saw the surprise in the other boy's face. The Hufflepuff might not have recognized the sensation, but Harry knew it in an instant and he knew it wasn't the one hidden in his robes.
The trophy was a Portkey.
A/N: Projected update time - very soon