A/N: Once again, tons of thanks to my pre-beta, The Plaid Slytherin, and my beta Jules. Whenever my brain refuses to work, they always tend to let me borrow theirs. Check out PS's work on Schnoogle.com and Jules' here at PhoenixSong - they're both tremendously talented writers, and I feel honored to call them friends and betas.
Disclaimer: I, in no way, shape, or form, own these characters. That honor belongs to the one and only J.K. Rowling. This is simply my excursion into her magnificent world. No profit is made from this, nor is any copyright infringement intended.
Actually, see where I said that I don't own these characters? That's not the total truth - you see the Muggles? They're ALL mine *evil grin*
Four extremely odd men stepped out into the morning sun. They had recently done a lot of running and had nearly reached Jason's neighbor's house before realizing they didn't have the proper equipment for the job. Having traded in their Dungeons and Dragons garb for varied ghost-hunting equipment, the four men made their way to the seemingly haunted house that belonged to Mrs. Treanor.
Jason, who had formerly been dressed as a knight, now was in some kind of futuristic outfit, which had actually been quite popular in the 1980s. It was a dazzling silver tracksuit, and if the glare was any indication, Jason must have been cooked to, at the very least, medium-rare at this point. He had pointed out to the other members of his Dungeons club that ghosts were afraid of light, and that if he wore this suit, with the light it emitted, the ghost was a sure goner.
Steve, on the other hand, was in no special outfit, instead opting for a casual button-down black shirt and jeans. When asked about his clothes, he responded with the following: "Well, if I'm going to be chasing down ghosts, might as well look good doing it."
Rich must have been a diehard fan of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, Carl had deduced. There was no way any grown man would be wearing a Cosplay Ghostbusters outfit otherwise. Instead of the prop proton pack, Carl had a modified vacuum on his back. He wasn't going to capture the ghost with a nuclear accelerator - no, Rich was going to suck the thing right into the vacuum.
Carl had to have the oddest costume for hunting this ghost. Dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, he had packed a homemade makeshift biohazard suit made out of various plastics and material. When asked about it, Carl flatly responded that to get to the offending rodent, they might have to somehow get through the wall to retrieve it, and he was not going to risk exposure to asbestos.
"So, ready to do this?" asked Jason, with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and a dash of dread.
"Yeah, let's hunt some ghosts!" responded a fervent Rich.
"Yeah, ghosts, whatever. Let's just get this over with," muttered Carl, much less enthused than any of the others.
The four men threaded their way through the old woman's yard, through grass so high it must not have been cut since the ghost of the woman's husband had been a walking, breathing man. Carl had to shield his eyes from the glare emanating from Jason's suit. Once they reached the house, they opened the door and were hit with a stuffy malodorous smell. It was sickeningly sweet; one which Carl figured had to have come from an overabundance of perfume. Or, as he realized, as he examined the room, it could have come from the multitude of mismatched plug-in air fresheners. Such a mixture he had never seen before.
The house itself seemed meticulously spotless. Sparkling stained wood floorboards and furniture stared menacingly at the four men, more prone towards downright messiness than the cleanliness they were witnessing. The room was painted a light pink, and there were no smudges anywhere. There was no evidence that anyone actually lived here. Actually, scratch that, Carl thought, the sterile condition of this room was the best evidence that someone actually lived here, no matter how obsessive-compulsive it seemed.
One of the tables in the room was covered with photos over every square inch. Walking over to it, Carl noticed that they were all photographs of a younger version of Mrs. Treanor with the same man. He must have been her husband, he realized. He felt sadness tug at his heart as he reached toward the photos. He knew how it was to lose someone; his father had died the year before. Even so, he couldn't imagine how it felt to lose the love of your life. Maybe that was the reason for the obsession with the cleanliness of the room.
Just as he was about to touch the photo, Rich grabbed his hand and prevented him from actually touching the picture.
"Don't touch that. We don't know what was contaminated," he warned.
Carl noticed a strange device in Rich's hand. "What's that?"
Rich scoffed, spitting a bit. "This," he said arrogantly, as if everyone knew what it really was, "is an Ectoplasm Sensor. It will tell us what is contaminated."
"Really?" Jason asked in wonderment, coming over to Rich to gaze longingly at the device. "That's sweet."
"It looks like a broken compass," Carl said, dismissing the small object.
"It was made out of a compass, but I have it on good authority that it is a genuine Ectoplasm Sensor," Rich responded.
"Really? Huh. Where'd you get it?" Carl questioned.
"I bought it on eBay."
"How much did you pay for it?" asked Carl, skepticism growing larger and larger.
"One hundred and fifteen dollars--a real bargain for something like this."
"Uh-huh," said Carl, straight-faced, not allowing his face to betray his inward snickering.
The group of ghost-hunters cautiously made their way up to the bedroom. Carl was still struck by the cleanliness of every square inch of the house. The carpets were vacuumed, the railings were pristine. The grief of this woman fully hit Carl; no wonder she was a bit eccentric. Her husband must have meant the world to her, and this was her way of coping. He knew he had gone through a rough patch after his father's death, himself. It was something he didn't discuss and no one else really brought it up anymore.
Trying to mentally change topic as they wandered throughout the house, Carl decided to prod Rich a bit more.
"So, how is that compass working out?"
"Ectoplasm Sensor!" Rich nearly shouted. "And it's working out fine, thank you very much."
"Carl, just leave him alone," Steve said, glaring at Carl with an overtly frustrated gaze.
"Aw, all right, Mother," Carl responded, rolling his eyes, "but it's so much fun."
"Knock it off Carl."
The group made their way through the doors on the second floor, looking for the bedroom. They found a clutter-free reading room, a room with a television without a hint of dust, and a room with absolutely nothing in it, just floorboards and a wall, still meticulously cleaned.
Finally, after exhausting the rest of the possible rooms in the house, they came to a door at the end of the upstairs corridor. All four men just looked at it.
"I'm getting some odd reading from the sensor," stated Rich.
"You sure the needle's not just moving because you just switched directions? You know...so that it points North?" Carl asked, receiving a glare from the other three.
"I'm going to open the door very slowly," said Jason, "everyone stand back."
Rich and Steve hung back, looking somewhat scared while Jason, ever the leader, cautiously walked to the door. He hesitated just a second before he meant to touch the doorknob, giving Carl just enough time to bravely grab the knob and turn, stepping into the room to Rich's gasp.
Suddenly Carl let out a bloodcurdling scream and collapsed on the floor.
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Rich as he rushed over to the doorway and just stopped, looking helplessly at Jason. "I want to go check on him, but you saw what happened when he went in there!"
"He'll be okay...I hope," Jason replied, staring at Carl's crumpled body.
Startlingly, the body of Carl rose, his face contorted into an extremely angry expression. "Who dares disturb my slumber?" his body asked in a low, growling voice that didn't seem to belong to Carl.
"Um...we did," answered Rich, his voice soft and meek.
"Who is we?"
"My friends and I did. What are you doing here? What's your name?" asked Jason, his voice cracking just a bit, despite his obvious attempts to remain composed.
"My name?" asked Carl in the same voice, "is...Carl." Carl's voice changed back to his normal tone and timbre as he convulsed in laughter.
"Wow...you got us," said Jason, clearly annoyed at the joke.
"Oh come on!"
"Not cool, Carl. You know we all pretty much believe in this stuff. Preying on Rich like that, just not cool man,"
"What, you can't take a joke?"
Rich just shook his head as the rest of the group walked into the room.
"The sensor isn't reading much of anything right now," Rich said, looking down at his instrument
Carl opened his mouth to say something, but his joke was preempted by Steve's glare.
"So here we are. I don't hear anyth-" Jason was interrupted mid-sentence by an eerie scratching that could be heard through the walls.
"Guys? Wh-what was that?" asked Rich, who was shaking just a bit. He dropped the instrument he was holding, and upon picking it back up, announced to the group, "the Ectoplasm Sensor is going berserk! I've never seen it this active before!"
Three of the men instantly put their guards up, cautiously examining the walls, waiting for a face to push out of the wall or something similar. Only Carl was walking around the room nonchalantly, keeping an ear out for the noise. Stopping at the bed, he put a hand around his ear and bent down.
He dropped down on all fours and lifted up the bedskirt. Smirking, he called to the others, "Hey you three, want to see your ghost?"
Jason, Steve and Rich all gathered around the bed, and once they were down low enough, lifted up the bedskirt to look. What they found astounded them as a squirrel scurried its way into a hole in the wall.
"You know, out of all the places this woman cleans, she manages not to clean under her bed and see this hole. She doesn't need us, she needs an exterminator," Carl stated, rolling his eyes for what must have been the hundredth time that day.
* ~ * ~ *
"Aw man, that was simply the bomb," stated Steve, in a futile attempt to act cool. They hadn't caught a ghost by any means, but catching the squirrel had certainly been an adventure. After several attempts to lure the squirrel out with a nut that had ended with the squirrel batting it out of Jason's hand, they had finally caught the blasted creature with a dish of peanut butter and a butterfly net. Once caught, Rich had giddily run outside and released the animal back into the wild.
"Yeah, if your definition of a ghost is a small rodent with large teeth rather than a supernatural ectoplasmic phenomenon," responded Rich glumly, his eyes downcast. Carl had noticed him go into a bit of a snit after finding out that his "ghost" had been a squirrel all along, and, despite Carl's best efforts to cheer him up, Rich had remained that way.
As the men walked on the green grass, inhaling the crisp summer air, Carl's head was abuzz with turmoil.
On one hand, when they reached Mrs. Treanor, she really deserved to know the truth, that what she believed had been the ghost of her dead husband was really no more than a wayward squirrel. But Carl didn't know if he had the heart to put her down in such a manner.
"Rich, can I have your vacuum?" Carl asked as Jason's elderly neighbor came into view, her face brightening as the men approached. His three companions stopped their conversation and looked at him with the same curious expression.
After a brief moment, however, Rich relented. "Sure," he responded curtly, "not like I have any use for it anyway." He unstrapped the vacuum from his back and handed it to Carl.
"Thanks," he said as he grabbed the vacuum, turned it on, turning his back and hiding the vacuum as he stuck the nozzle to the ground, picking up a bag of dirt. He rushed towards Mrs. Treanor.
"Oh, you've caught him, haven't you? My Reginald can finally rest in peace?" asked the elderly woman, a spark in her eye as she remained ever-hopeful.
"Yep, we caught him," Carl lied through his teeth. He removed the bag from the vacuum and handed it to her. "This is what we've got. He wanted us to tell you that he misses you."
"Bless your heart," cried Mrs. Treanor, as the corners of her eyes began to moisten, threatening to unleash tears of joy. She eagerly took the bag and walked off towards her house, whispering sweet nothings to the bag of dirt.
Carl was startled when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. Turning his head, he gazed up at Jason, who was taller than him by a good half of a foot.
"What you did for that woman was really sweet," Jason said honestly.
"Yeah," Carl agreed, proud of himself, "I guess it was, wasn't it?"
Jason, Rich and Steve all just nodded at Carl.
"Well, you'd better not get used to it!" Carl laughed.
~^~ * ~^~ * ~^~
Draco's body still stung in a painful reminder of the Cruciatus he had undergone almost a week prior. He couldn't even bring himself to stand straight. Every movement he made brought a different ache to a part of his body. Leading what amounted to essentially a homeless life for the past weeks had not helped matters either.
Of course he had made sure to pack whatever money was in the house before his blazing departure, but money had done him little good for shelter. Prejudices ran deep these days. If you were even thought to be related to or an acquaintance of a known Death Eater, most every hotel would turn you down, Draco had found out, much to his chagrin. Even if you had no ties to the Dark Lord, simply being a Slytherin meant that suspicious gazes and blatant discrimination awaited you wherever you went. No one was easily forgiving those who had a part in the war.
It was pouring outside, and, save for the few awnings Draco passed under, he had little protection from the rain. He wished his wand was still intact, that it had not been broken in two by the arrogant git who had dared to use the Cruciatus on Draco.
Draco worked himself into a fury as he scuffled along the damp pavement, doing his best to avoid the puddles of water that formed a sort of obstacle course. Faceless people passed Draco on the street, staring at the hunched-over, soaked Wizard as if he were mad. If only he had the chance to meet up with the man again. Once he bought himself a new wand, Draco would give him a taste of his own medicine. After all, it had only been by luck and the element of surprise that the man had gotten the better of Draco. He was clearly the inferior wizard, Draco knew that much. On a level playing field, he wouldn't stand a chance.
Any progress that had been made in Draco's mind about Muggles and Mud-bloods and the way the Death Eaters had treated them had been forgotten. After all, if they were all to eager to hex and discriminate against Death Eaters, did they really deserve his sympathy? They were no better than he was, and the fact that his blood was untainted made him inherently better than them. Filthy Mud-bloods and Blood-Traitors, they're all the same.
Draco's stomach growled ferociously, yelling at him out of hunger. Pain emanated from his torso and seemed to shoot in all directions simultaneously. He couldn't recall the last time he had actually had anything to eat. It just hadn't seemed important recently.
Straining his neck to look upwards, he gazed at the lit signs all around him. He marveled crossly about how just that simple motion could cause the top of his back to throb in pain. Giving the environment a cursory glance, he quickly found the sign he was looking for - the one that bore the insignia of a serpent intertwined with a mug. As Draco watched, the snake reared up and flicked its tongue out at him menacingly.
The Snake Pit was a pub that had been a favorite haunt of the Death Eaters stationed in the area. Draco had been there a few times with his father on business, and he was sure the barkeep, Russell, would let him in.
Swinging the door open and stepping inside, Draco was greeted by the distinctive and familiar pungent odor of alcohol. Russell, a diminutive and stout man was tending the front. He looked like he had aged twenty years in the two years since last Draco had seen him. Russell's once-full head of ruddy brown hair had thinned itself out, a bald spot growing ever larger on the top of his head; what hair he had left now was streaked with gray. Wrinkles adorned his face, and Draco could plainly see the weariness the war had set upon the man.
Draco sat down at the bar, noticing a few of the patrons cast disapproving glances his way. The pub quieted to a silence for a brief moment before the deafening indistinct slurred chatter began again.
"Draco!" greeted Russell, a genuine smile lighting his face, allaying some of the weariness. Draco allowed his own face to lift into a smile, something he hadn't been doing a lot of recently. "What can I do for yeh today, lad?"
"Firewhisky would be good," Draco responded. Russell turned his back to pick up a bottle of Ogden's Finest and the refreshing sound of liquid pouring into a glass was like music to Draco's ears. He sat the glass to Draco's left and placed the bottle right beside it.
Russell took the opportunity to give Draco an appraising look, his eyes examining Draco's emaciated features. He reached under the counter and pulled up a platter which he placed in front of Draco.
Ordinarily, the sight of the breaded fish and greasy fried potatoes would have caused Draco to gag. Malfoys did not eat common food, after all. But Draco was starving. At this point, he didn't care what it looked like, he'd take it. He looked up at Russell and gave him a genuine, "Thank you."
"Don't yeh worry about it. That's on the house."
Draco felt a moment of indecisiveness, unsure which to partake of first - the alcohol or the much-needed food. He found his mind leaning more towards the Firewhisky, but his growling stomach won out as he tore into the fish n' chips.
"That's Malfoy's boy?" Draco heard across the bar. He ignored the comment, not that it had been directed at him anyway. The man the voice belonged to was probably drunk, Draco guessed, from the slurred quality of his speech, but Draco didn't care to tear away from the food he had deprived himself of for so long.
"Yeah," slurred another. "What's he doing out here? Shouldn't he be with his fam'ly in Azkaban?"
Draco winced, looking downward at his food. It was taking all the restraint he could muster not to respond. All he had to do was avoid drawing attention to him. If he could only do that, he'd be fine.
"I reckon you're right. Why would they let a git like him loose?" said the first voice.
"Maybe he wasn't a threat. Maybe he was weak and they didn't fear him, I dunno" responded the second. Draco was literally shaking as he continued to eat. He knew they were drunk and speaking louder than they meant, but he didn't know how much more willpower he had left.
"Execute the lot of 'em. That's what they ought to do."
Draco shot his head up, finally losing his cool, and glaring at the faces of his tormentors. One had jet black hair that reminded him of Potter's, with a moustache and a goatee. The other was bald and clean shaven, judging from the muscles his white shirt barely concealed, he was probably someone who knew his way around a fight.
Noticing his gaze, the two cracked into an uproarious laugh. "What's he gonna do, Cale? I'm pissing in my boots now!" Tears streamed from their eyes as they continued their raucous laugh.
Russell walked over to the men, his condemnation of the men's actions obvious. "You two had best leave my pub now. You don't want things getting messy," he gestured over to the well-toned bouncer at the pub's entrance.
"Yeah, harboring Death Eaters then?" asked the bald man, seeming to sober up a bit "We don't want to eat here anyway."
The men stood up from their seats and walked towards the door. The man with the moustache stopped by Draco to mutter, "Tell Mum and Dad we said hello."
Draco couldn't hold his temper anymore, and he clenched his fist, delivering a sharp uppercut to the man's jaw as he rose swiftly from his seat. The man yelled out in pain as an off-white tooth poked its way painfully through his upper lip. A look of unadulterated hatred dawned on the man's face, and he raised a fist to strike Draco. Just as he was about to swing, the man was jerked aside by his companion, who caught Draco off-guard and delivered a devastating punch to Draco's left temple, causing Draco to crumple like a rag.
"Take them out!" Russell yelled to the bouncer. "All of them!" He cast a sympathetic, yet stern look at Draco.
Draco drifted in and out of consciousness, woozy after the blow he had taken. He barely felt anything as the bouncer grabbed him, threw his body over his shoulder and unceremoniously dumped him on the ground.
I have to get out of this bloody country, thought Draco, steadying himself and waiting for the world to stop spinning. He had to go somewhere where no one knew who he was or who his parents were, and he needed to do it fast, before he ended up dead.
~^~ * ~^~ * ~^~
Harry was in Ron's room at the Burrow. He had slept over the night in anticipation of attending the Quidditch World Cup. As he finished putting the daily necessities in his pack, he went through his mental checklist, making sure that he hadn't forgotten anything.
Ron had finished packing nearly thirty minutes ago, and had left to "go help Hermione finish packing." Harry shuddered at the thought of what they were probably doing. Of course, he approved of their relationship (it had certainly taken long enough for them to get together), but he didn't want to think about their intimate activities.
When he had risen for the day, Ginny was still asleep, and he hadn't seen a trace of her so far. He was sure, though, that Hermione had made sure Ginny had woken. She was probably just scrambling to get ready after sleeping in.
Finally finished, Harry sat down near his pack and let his head droop downward. It really hadn't occurred to him that the World Cup might not be as fun an experience as he had originally thought. The last time the Weasleys had taken him to the sports competition, the festival had been crudely interrupted by hatred and violence. The couple of years that had followed had been the worst of Harry's life, first having to deal with the guilt over Cedric's death and then losing Sirius only a year later. A depressed sigh escaped Harry's lips.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't notice the bed shift with added weight until he felt a slender hand on his shoulder. Turning his head to face the unexpected guest in the room, he forced a smile onto his face as he recognized the pale skin, freckles, and long red hair that belonged to Ginny.
"Knut for your thoughts?" Ginny asked, concern furrowing her brow. She had an uncanny ability to seemingly read Harry's emotions as if he wore them on his sleeve.
"I'm fine," he lied, "there isn't much going on up there right now anyway."
"Harry, you and I both know that's not true. What's bothering you?"
Harry sighed and his shoulders slumped. "I know I should be excited about the World Cup. It's like a first step into a normal life, if that's even possible. But I can't help but thinking about the last time we went."
Ginny's hand gently massaged the muscles in his shoulder. It felt good, and Harry wished they could stay like this forever. "You don't just mean the attack though."
As always, Ginny was unnervingly perceptive; it was an ability that never ceased to amaze Harry. "No. That was the year Voldemort returned, the year my scar began to hurt and the year Cedric died, and the year Sirius..." he trailed off, thinking of the past.
"But that's all over now, Harry. You did it. You defeated him," Ginny reminded him.
"I know, but that doesn't make any of the memories easier, you know?"
Ginny nodded, "I do know. The memories of my first year and the diary still live in my nightmares from time to time. The thing is, we just have to learn to live with our memories, to live without letting them affect us. It's not always easy, but you, of all people, can do it."
Harry nodded, "Thanks, Ginny."
Ginny patted his shoulder and rose from the bed. "I'm going to go see if Ron and Hermione are finished snogging and ready to go," she said, an insidious smirk upon her face. Harry laughed at her expression. "Are you all ready?"
"Yeah, I'm good."
Ginny left the room, and Harry grabbed his things, moving to the Burrow's den. Shortly thereafter, a smirking Ginny arrived, Ron and Hermione in tow, both quite obviously mussed up.
"I'm not even going to ask," Harry stated, chuckling.
"Good, I won't have to lie to you," Ron responded, a mischievous grin lighting up his face.
"Let's get going, shall we?" asked Hermione, extremely eager to change the subject.
"First, we need to make sure we all know where we're going," said Ron. "Remember, it's the Gringotts Arena in Yorkshire."
All four heads nodded. "So, you two go first, and I'll side-along Apparate Ginny," said Harry. Two pops were audible as Ron and Hermione Disapparated.
"Ready?" Harry asked, turning to face the slender girl beside him.
"You bet," Ginny responded excitedly, leaning her head to Harry's, quickly pecking him on the lips. He put an arm around her, and both smiled at the touch. The slightly unpleasant squeezing sensation grabbed hold of Harry once more. In no time at all, Harry and Ginny found themselves standing on a grassy knoll, Hermione and Ron in front of them. Tents and the remnants of now-dormant campfires dotted the hill, too many in number to count. In the distance, the outline of the stadium was clearly visible.
"Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny!" called a pleasantly familiar deep voice behind Harry. Spinning around, Harry's face lifted into a beaming grin as he recognized the interim Minister of Magic and a personal friend, Kingsley Shacklebolt.
Harry walked over to the man, holding out a hand casually. Kingsley looked dismayingly at it, and instead enveloped Harry in a hug Harry didn't certainly didn't expect of the man. "Don't be shy, Harry, you're as good as family now. How are you?" he asked as he moved down the line, hugging each of the other three. Harry chuckled in amusement as they each reflected his own surprise at the hug in their faces. Harry couldn't help but notice how the war being over had lightened Kingsley's mood. He hadn't seen him since that night at Hogwarts, and he only now realized that he had never known the man during a time of peace.
"I'm doing good," Harry responded, and it was the truth. For once in his life, he was beginning to feel a semblance of normalcy. "It's a little odd, but in a good way. How are you doing?"
"Oh, I've been extremely busy," responded Kingsley. "Being the Minister certainly comes with its share of work. I can say, though, that I'm doing a lot better than when Voldemort was still on the loose."
"I noticed," Harry laughed. Ron, Hermione and Ginny all sniggered.
"Come! Let me show you around," Kingsley motioned inside the tent he was standing in front of.
Ducking below the entrance, Harry was amazed upon seeing the interior of the tent. It was fit for a king. Red velvet carpets lined the floor, and ornate furniture was strategically placed in various locations. It looked more like a house than the tent Harry had been in, and it made that tent look like a rickety old sty. Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Hermione dropped their packs off to the right of the tent's opening.
"Wow...how did this get here?" Harry asked, clearly stunned.
"Don't ask," Kingsley said, chuckling. "I told the Ministry I didn't need all this, but they insisted upon it."
Ron had run into the bed chambers, and jumped onto one of the beds like an eager child. "Oy! Try out this bed, Harry! I could sleep for weeks on this thing!" Harry rolled his eyes at his friend's immature antics.
"You should have told me earlier that you wanted to come see the tournament," Kingsley told Harry. "I've had to waste some of my tickets entertaining some rather unpleasant diplomats. I'm sure they wouldn't have minded missing the game if I had to give the tickets to the savior of the wizarding world."
"Williams is sure doing a great job with Team England, huh?" asked Ron from the bedroom.
"Ron, get off the bed, and come in here if you want to talk to Kingsley," Hermione reprimanded sternly. Looking behind him, Harry noticed Ginny stifling a smirk at the comment.
"Spoilsport," Ron complained as he dragged himself back to the entrance of the tent where the group stood.
"He is," Kingsley agreed, nodding his head. "But he'll have his hands tied in the finals tonight against Bulgaria. Viktor Krum and the rest of the team are back with a vengeance after losing to Ireland last time around."
"Oh, great, Bulgaria won," muttered Ron sarcastically, "I just knew Vicky would find his way here."
"Oh, lighten up Ron," retorted Ginny, wearing an impish smirk. "You know it's you Hermione's snogging, not Viktor." Her words had the intended effect on Ron as his face turned a brilliant shade of red.
The conversation continued, with Kingsley recalling some of the most memorable parts of the tournament so far for the four, who were captive listening to the tales of the sports feats. Even Hermione was listening with interest, Harry was surprised to notice.
"And the thing is, the stadium isn't as big as it was the last time. Since it was a last-minute decision to have it here, they had to use an already existing stadium, but-" Kingsley was cut short by the sound of a commotion outside the tent.
In a few moments, a tall, lanky man stumbled into the tent. As he dusted his red suit coat, allowing the others in the tent to get a proper look at him, Ron's mouth hung open and threatened to make its way to the ground. Harry thought he looked rather like he had been hit with a slack-jaw curse. It took Harry a moment to place where he had seen the sharp features of the man. The slightly crooked nose, pointed chin, and brown hair in a Widow's Peak style were strikingly familiar, but it took a while for Harry to piece it together with Ron's reaction and realize who this man was. Standing in front of them was Veeck Williams, the man from the article Ginny had showed him and the manager of Team England.
"How are you today, Williams?" asked Kingsley, considerably cooler to the man than he had been just moments before. Harry wondered whether the two men had a history he wasn't privy to.
"I'm all right," came a curt answer from Williams, "considering that my nerves are wound tighter than a rubber band in anticipation of tonight." He paused for a moment before setting his eyes on Harry, "Ah, there you are!" He extended a hand, which Harry warily shook. "So nice to meet the savior of our race," he said in an oily fashion that reminded Harry a bit of Snape. He didn't know what it was, but something didn't strike Harry as quite right with the man. Harry looked over to Kingsley, with a markedly annoyed stare; Kingsley just shrugged as if to say 'I didn't invite him.'
"I have a once in a lifetime offer to make you," Williams said, grinning arrogantly. "I know the members on Team England would give their arms to meet you. While I hope you don't require that sacrifice, as I do want to have a standing chance at things, I wanted to know if you'd come and agree to meet the players in the locker room with me. And after that, you can spend the game on the sidelines."
Ron's mouth fell open even wider, and Harry saw him trying to speak, but apparently, Ron was too flabbergasted to speak, instead mumbling incoherently.
"What's his problem?" Williams joked, his face tightening in disappointment when he didn't get an answer.
Harry already knew Ron's answer, but he had his misgivings. He didn't enjoy being fawned over as a celebrity. He wanted to live his life in a semblance of normalcy. If his decision was to solely affect him, he would have politely declined the offer, but the simple fact was that it impacted his friends as well. Turning to face Ginny, he looked at her questioningly.
She knew what he was thinking without his having to voice a question. "It would mean a lot to me, Harry. Gwenog Jones is on the team, and I would give anything to have a chance to talk to her. But if you're not comfortable, that's fine with me," she whispered.
The tips of his mouth curled into a small, tense smile. While she didn't want to put him in any situation that was uncomfortable, he knew that she, like Ron was jumping at the chance. She had admitted to him in the past about her potential desire to play Quidditch professionally. He had made up his mind, and he turned to face Williams again. "I'll meet with the players, but on one condition."
"Sure, Harry," Williams responded, calling Harry by his name for the first time. "Name it."
"There's to be no acknowledgement of my presence to the audience. At least not officially. I'm not your mascot."
Veeck Williams frowned momentarily. The little he had learned about the man led Harry to believe that he had definitely wanted to make some sort of promotion out of "The Boy Who Lived." Harry wouldn't allow it. "Done," Wiliams replied tersely. "It'll be great motivation for our team though," he said, "if someone like you can beat the Dark Lord, then anything's possible," he added, barely audible.
Harry ignored the comment as Williams led him out of the tent. Harry looked back at Kingsley who shook his head. "You guys go. I'll see you at the opening ceremony of the game."
Williams led them, walking without a sound, trying to avoid the paparazzi that seemed to be trying to take more pictures of him than Harry. Harry laughed to himself as he realized that this was probably the only thing the two men had in common.
"So, who is this guy?" Hermione asked.
Ron stopped in his tracks, looking scandalized, "You don't know who Veeck Williams is?"
"Other than the fact that he is coaching the national team, no, Ronald. I'm not the one who would rather research Quidditch statistics than snog."
Harry and Ginny broke out into a raucous laugh as the color of Ron's face once again matched his hair as he mumbled something that sounded like, "I'm not the one who'd rather do research though."
"Oy! Keep up with me! I haven't got all day!" Williams called, plainly irritated.
The group of friends resumed walking, following Williams. "I can't believe you've never even heard of him, though," Ron said, "he's only the most brilliant Quidditch mind of our generation."
"He also used to be the twins' Quidditch idol," added Ginny, a genuine smile on her face as she thought of fond memories of Fred. "He's revolutionized Quidditch promotions."
Harry was only listening to half of what was said, as he was now trying his best to ignore the photographers who were now flanking them as they made their way to the stadium. "Why don't we just Apparate?" Harry called to Williams.
"Are you mad?" Williams asked. "We've got to keep anti-Apparition charms within twenty yards of the stadium. We can't have just anyone gaining access to the locker room. Besides, it's good exercise!"
"Anyway," Ron continued, "Williams is most known for a couple things. The Exploding Scoreboard that literally exploded whenever a Chaser scored...they had to sack that idea after some of the crowd was burned, the great goat debacle."
Ginny giggled, "That was the twins' favorite! He actually put a goat on a broom and had it play Chaser after a Falcon's game was out of hand and kept him in there until the game was over!"
"Yeah, it actually scored too," Ron laughed. "Hit right off the goat's head and went into the hoop. Then there was Jamal the ageless, the greatest player of the 1800's. Williams signed him right when he began to manage the Falcons, and at the age of one-hundred seventy three, Williams was both the oldest player to ever play a Quidditch game and the only player to play in three centuries. Too bad a rogue bludger hit him in the head and killed him," said Ron.
Harry was getting the distinct impression that the man didn't really care too much about the actual game, just that he wanted to put on a show. He put his head down, mulling it all over. Lifting his head a few moments later, he blinked a few times; somehow, without him realizing it, they had reached the locker room.
"Stay here while I make sure the team is all decent," said Veeck, opening the locker room door and disappearing behind it. The corridor Harry stood in was painted white, with a concrete floor. It smelled like a gym, reeking of sweat and other bodily secretions.
After a few moments, Williams poked his head out again and beckoned the four in.
"Team, I'd like to introduce the savior of the wizarding world, Harry Potter."
Harry stepped into the room, self-conscious as ever. He was a little unnerved by the fact that these world-class Quidditch players were staring, awe-struck at the sight of him. He smiled as he felt Ginny's hand snake its way into his and give it a reassuring squeeze. A familiar face rushed up and held out a hand.
"Congrats, Harry. I always knew you would do it!" said Harry's former Quidditch captain, Oliver Wood.
"Oliver, good to see you," Harry said sincerely.
"Good to see you too," Oliver responded.
"So, I see you've made it pretty well in Quidditch."
"Ah, I'm just the reserve Keeper," Oliver brushed the comment aside nonchalantly.
"But at least you made it onto the team," Ginny pointed out.
"That's right, I suppose that's an accomplishment in itself," Oliver admitted. "Come, I'll introduce you to the rest of the team!"
The next three hours were a blur. Harry met at least twenty Quidditch players he had never before heard of in his life, as well as some he had. Ginny had almost immediately broken apart from Harry, kissing him before she went off to talk to Gwenog Jones, her favorite player, and captain of the Holyhead Harpies.
Harry must have been asked at least a hundred times about how it felt to be Harry Potter. How could he honestly answer that? That it was a hardship and he longed for a normal life that he'd never had? He couldn't say that. These people just wouldn't understand. After all, Quidditch afforded them a lavish lifestyle and plenty of publicity that most didn't seem to want to stray from. To them it was a novelty, to Harry it was an unwanted burden. Any thoughts he had of playing Quidditch professionally flew from his mind, and he was suddenly glad he had come. He just wasn't cut from the cloth of a Quidditch player.
The game itself was a glorious event, a great example of sports at their finest. To Ron and Ginny's surprise, Veeck Williams was extremely subdued, even as his team fell into an early hole. For all that Harry didn't like about the man, he had to credit Williams with the ability to keep his word. No mention had been made that Harry was on the field, and the only person who had really paid him any real attention was Kingsley, but Harry welcomed that. There were a few female trainers who had been trying to flirt with Harry early in the game, but fierce looks from Ginny quickly scared them off.
Harry had just been relaxing, his arm around Ginny's shoulder as they sat watching the game when he spotted the Golden Snitch. He jerked his body, eliciting a playful shove from Ginny, but eagerly watched the Seekers, Krum and Hector Conley, Team England's seeker. The two dueled in midair, and Harry thoroughly enjoyed the aerial spectacle.
Conley pulled ahead, and was in arm's length of the Snitch. Just as he reached out his arm, a Bludger shot out of nowhere and he had to execute a sudden barrel-roll to simply stay on his broom, giving Krum a chance to pull ahead of Conley. He reached out and snared the Snitch, not noticing the return volley from England Beater Brutus Edwards. The Bludger hit him square in the chest, knocking Krum off his broom, and the breath out of Krum. Even without bothering to look, Harry knew Ron was beaming a brilliant, toothy grin from ear to ear as the Snitch popped out of Krum's right hand and right into the hand of Conley, who pulled his broom upwards and shot towards the sky, hooting in victory.
"Ron?" asked Hermione, tapping his shoulder to gain his attention.
"Didn't Viktor catch the Snitch? Shouldn't Bulgaria win?" she asked.
"Well, yeah he did, but the rules state that you have to have possession of the Snitch for at least five seconds before the points are awarded. In fact, one of the most well-known games of Quidditch--" Ron's mouth kept moving, but all sound was lost as a loud burst of noise signaled the first of the fireworks.
Harry leaned over and captured Ginny in a deep kiss as red and white fireworks went off around them in celebration of England's victory, the first in over one hundred years. Harry wondered how it could ever get better than this.
After the game, Harry tried to hurry out of the stadium as quickly as possible to avoid the press, nearly dragging Ginny, Hermione and Ron, who seemed distressed that Harry wouldn't let him spend more time in the locker room, with him. Just as they were about to exit the stadium through the staff exit, an out-of-breath Veeck Williams finally caught up with them.
"Harry, I just want to thank you for what you did today," he said, holding out a hand.
"Yeah, well thanks for keeping your word," Harry responded.
"I always do. I wouldn't have made this into a publicity stunt anyway," Williams said smoothly. Harry still didn't believe him though. "I've seen you play at Hogwarts when I paid my scouting visit there a few years ago, and you've got plenty of natural skill. If you want to play, there's an open spot as the Falcons' Seeker."
"What about Munroe?" Ron asked
"He's easily sacked or made a reserve," responded Williams, brushing off the notion that his incumbent starter should remain one.
"I think I'm going to have to decline," Harry said. "Thanks for the offer and all, but it's just not for me."
Williams cast a speculative look at Ginny, seeming to size her up. She squirmed a bit under his gaze, clearly uncomfortable. "Alright, that's your right, I suppose. I can't believe you're passing on what's everyone's dream job, though. National attention, championships, all the girls one could want..."
"It's not my dream," Harry responded. He put a firm arm around Ginny, "And I've already got the only girl I want or need." Ginny blushed, wearing a smile that only enhanced her beauty.
Veeck didn't respond, simply leaving the exit to go back to the locker room. "Drinks are on me, boys!" echoed his voice, "And girls," he added more than a few moments later. Harry supposed that Gwenog had shot the man a piercing look.
The four friends made their way back to the campsite, idly talking amongst themselves, and not really paying attention to the people around them.
The area around Kingsley's tent was now vacant and devoid of people, as people were still sitting in the stadium or in the rush of people trying to leave the stadium. They stopped at Kingsley's tent, and gathering their packs, Ron and Hermione Apparated back to the Burrow, while Harry and Ginny again waited behind.
"Did you have fun today?" Harry asked Ginny.
Ginny looked up at him and gave him a luminous grin. "I did," she nodded. "And I have to thank you for everything, all the attention couldn't be easy for you."
"It wasn't," Harry admitted, shrugging, "but you know I'd do anything for you." I've already died for you. His thought went unsaid, but by the look that came upon her face, he was sure it had crossed both their minds.
She stood on her tiptoes, and they brought their mouths together. Harry ran a hand along the small of Ginny's back and she purred into his mouth. They were lost in each other for what seemed like forever, albeit an extremely pleasant forever. All too soon, they were interrupted by an annoyingly familiar voice.
"Well, well, look who we've got here," said the unmistakable whining voice of Draco Malfoy. "Odd meeting you here," sarcasm was evident in his voice, "at the World Cup of Quidditch. Here to soak up even more glory and fame now that you're the 'Man Who Saved the World?'"
Harry ignored the question. "What are you doing here, Draco?" he asked, put off by the tone in Draco's voice. Ginny also was clearly annoyed, but Harry cheekily thought that might be more because Draco had interrupted their intimate moment.
"I'm just stopping through. I am allowed to walk where I want, aren't I, Potter?" Draco spat.
"Of course you are."
"Then I'd suggest you move. I don't really need to see you and the Weasel here eat each other whole. I nearly lost my lunch."
It was just then that Harry noticed the haggard appearance of his former rival. Draco looked emaciated and dirty, in need of a bath and a good meal. "Doesn't look like you ate one," Ginny responded.
"Shut your Muggle-loving mouth," Draco said tersely. "Where's your Mud-blood shadow anyway, Potter?
"What's wrong with you, Malfoy?" Harry asked. He had evidently been fooling himself when he thought that Draco had finally been turning a corner.
"None of your business. I've just seen the truth of the people you try to protect. No wonder Voldemort wanted to kill all of them."
Harry hissed and Ginny reached for her wand. "Draco," Harry said through clenched teeth, "I'd suggest you get out of here now."
"Gladly," said Draco, dragging his feet past the two, making sure that his shoulder collided with Harry's as he passed.
Harry's brows furrowed as anger screwed over his face. "Let it go, Harry, the ferret isn't worth your time," Ginny said as she threw her arms around him in a hug and lay her head on his chest. "What do you say we head back to the Burrow?"
Harry quickly forgot his anger as his body responded to Ginny's touch. Part of his mind still dwelled on Malfoy as he Apparated himself and Ginny back to the Burrow. Draco looked as if he'd been chewed and spit out by a pack of ravenous dogs and the curious side of Harry wanted to know exactly what had happened, but he let it go as the squeezing sensation took over his body.