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Chapter Twenty-Seven and Three QuartersFirst String An AtE Guest Chapter by Firelocks
Whoa. A guest chapter. How did that happen? Thank you thank you thank you thank you, , from the bottom of my heart, Arabella, Zsenya and every AtE list member, for not murdering me for taking this long with it. A&Z did not know they would hit what was probably the busiest month and a half of my LIFE when I started writing this, and when they said they'd wait for it. And they didn't go back on their word, though if it were me and my chapter was sitting there, finished, I'd've given up and posted it. I'm sure they've learned their lesson, but I still say thanks, because now I feel all special. Oh. I'm smiling like a goof, writing this A/N, after A&Z's surprise.
Thanks also to Arabella and CoKerry for the betas, CoKerry for talking me through a lot of this, and SlowFox, who GOT the chapter for Britpicking and GOT it back to me in record time, which means I GOT this chapter uploaded before I left work, and GOT to get this thing finished before I died of stress and the rest of you murdered me for withholding.
And thanks also to Oliver, who cannot ever growl enough.
Edited 12/1/02 - thank you for the amazing reviews on this chapter. At least I'm easily identifiable now - I'm the one whose head is too large for her house. I have to go through doors sideways. Thanks.
"Perkins insists that the promotion of Weasley to acting minister can only help the newly reopened Misuse of Muggle Artefacts department. 'In the old days, it was just me and Arthur, alone in this here office," says Perkins, gesturing to the small, crowded room that is now solely his. "But now that he's up there, we've got a lot of new interest, a fair crop of new workers, even volunteers, helping us keep the war damage from the Muggles."
Eloise Midgen held up her left hand to stave off whoever was hovering about her desk. "Deadline - five-thirty - hold on -"
"With recovery efforts moving ahead at the expected rate, Perkins says it won't be long before he can get back to what he sees as the most important part of his job. 'Got to keep those screaming teakettles away from the Muggles,' he laughs. 'Screaming tea kettles, shrinking keys - ah, the good old days.' "
Ten minutes to spare. Eloise relaxed slightly, and her breath released in her chest as she placed her signature flourish at the bottom of the parchment to mark the end of the article. She rushed toward the Features desk without looking back to see who had interrupted her.
"Here - artefacts. Sixteen inches."
Leon Price ran an approving eye over the text. "Good, good, yes, very good, okay." He thrust it into the hands of an editor who just happened to be walking by, and Eloise groaned inwardly to see John Prattleby holding her day's work, a smirk settling on his face.
"Edit that. Five minutes," Leon barked, then fled to the Arts desk. "RUMSON! Get your head out of your arse, I need that story NOW!"
"Well, well." Prattleby scanned the article. "Misuse of Muggle Artefacts, huh?"
Eloise nodded, fixing a smile and hoping Prattleby wouldn't notice its insincerity. A nervous twitch started in her temple.
"So, old Perkins is finally head of his department. Good on him. Looks like a good story, Midgen, I'll get right on it." He turned to walk away, eyes still glued to the parchment, and Eloise exhaled, unwilling to believe she'd got away unscathed.
"Midgen-" called Prattleby from halfway across the newsroom. "Nothing from the minister? Pity, the story could use it. Better luck next time with your Weasley friends, eh?"
A low chorus of snickers started through the room.
"I - r-right." Eloise kept her head down as she turned, trying to shake her ringlets in front of her reddening face. Her desk seemed a mile away, and she slumped toward it. She had thought the others would have given up on her by now, that after almost six months of toiling on stories called New Aurors Begin Training and Florean Fortescue Finances Confectionary, they'd see that, if nothing else, she was trying. She had thought they'd have realized that that first story, back in June, was a fluke; that she had only spoken to Harry because Ginny had been there, and had only spoken to Ginny because Colin had been there. She'd hoped that these people, who were supposed to be her colleagues, would have realized that she never missed a deadline, and that she worked sixty hours a week. She had hoped they would have realized by now that she hadn't been hired because she almost knew Harry Potter.
She had been wrong.
The tiny cubicle was a riot of parchment and scribbles; Eloise stretched her hands out to clean up, but her breath caught and her eyes unfocused, and she realized she was crying.
"Don't - stupid - don't do that," she whispered to herself, only succeeding in dislodging a stream of tears. "You didn't need the minister, you don't go bothering the Minster of Magic for stupid articles about his old office. They're wrong."
Someone nearby cleared his throat, and Eloise snapped her head up to see Colin Creevey standing in front of her desk, his camera tucked under his arm, avoiding her gaze. "Sorry, I - I can come back - "
"No, no," said Eloise hurriedly, swiping under her eyes so furiously that the quill she had been holding slid from her fingers and hit Colin in the chest, nub first.
"Oh, Colin! I'm sorry!" Eloise exclaimed, putting her hands to her face in horror. But Colin just met her eyes and started laughing. "Don't laugh! I'm sorry, I hurt you, I'm terrible, I'm just so distracted-"
"Really, it's fine." Colin's laughter only redoubled when he saw the massive inksplotch traveling down his robes. "I think you missed your calling, though - ever hear of darts?"
Eloise blinked. "Darts?"
"They're - it's not important. I'll take you to a Muggle pub one of these days and show you," he said, then suddenly coughed and turned his head.
Eloise briefly imagined herself walking into a Muggle pub with Colin, and felt her head go light. She clamped her hands harder to her face.
"So." Colin's face was still slightly pink from the coughing fit. "Are you done for the night?"
"Once Prattleby gets through massacr - I mean - editing - my story, yes. You?"
"I'm just waiting for a few pictures to develop." He stared at her a moment. "And, Mitson wants me to be here when they place them." He pushed back his hair. "And, I should restock the camera." The flush had begun to rise back in his cheeks; he looked like he was about to start hacking again, and Eloise thought about running for a glass of water. "So, maybe - have you eaten?"
Eloise flopped into her chair. She must really look peaked, if Colin had taken to asking vague questions about her health. "No. I forgot. It was this story! Oh, I'm so glad it's done. But don't worry, I'll be okay, I won't starve myself or anything. Though I may curse someone," she said, peering at Prattleby, who looked to be gleefully making slash marks all across her article.
Colin laughed again, his hair shaking down around his eyes. Eloise almost sighed.
"No, you won't. You'd never." He thrust his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. "Anyway. I'll be over there." He gestured toward his desk, which was right outside the darkroom, and Eloise wished she sat closer to the photography section.
"And, El? He was wrong."
Eloise watched him walk the full length to his desk before she realized what he had said, and started smiling despite the knot in her gut. He was always so reassuring; often, she didn't know what she'd do without Colin's presence in the newsroom - and he did seem to always be there, the same as she was. She didn't know why she spent so much time there; she had never been part of those last-minute deadlines that made it such an exciting place, but she'd been able to help during a few of times on fact-checking and the like, and that was enough. On most days, she couldn't think of a place she'd rather be, but then worthless idiots like Prattleby made nasty comments, and she felt like running back to her flat for a bubble bath and a nice, long book. That is, until Colin turned up and showed her a picture, or asked about her latest story, and she decided to stick around, just for a few more minutes.
She had certainly not expected him to show up at the Prophet. She hadn't ever expected to see him again, not after what had happened to his brother. She had been on the Hogwarts lawn, halfway around the lake, when it had happened, and remembered the cold sweep of events far too clearly. In retrospect, it had been lucky she was there; after all, few sixth years had been able to produce a Patronus, however feeble, and a second year had nearly been Kissed before a hard-earned shadow of Eloise's protector - now a wide, white swan - discouraged the advancing Dementor. But then a vicious and terrible thing had risen from the sunken banks of the lake, and other second years hadn't been as fortunate.
So when Colin had been hired, just two days after Eloise, it came as a friendly shock. Her sister had come in that day from London, where she was trying to make it as an actress; squib or not, Beatrice had always had a magic way with tall, gorgeous men, which was probably because she was tall and gorgeous herself, and always had been. With wide, blue eyes and long blonde hair that reached her slim hips, Beatrice resembled a Muggle version of a veela. Just a few years ago, Eloise would have traded every bit of her own magical blood to look like that. She still felt silly that she had ever entertained such thoughts.
"El - who is that?" her sister had breathed. Beatrice had perched, legs crossed, atop Eloise's just-christened desk, and pointed one high-heeled shoe at the young man who had just entered the newsroom. Eloise hadn't a clue; she'd never seen him before, though it was clear they were similar in age and should have gone to school together. He did have a familiarity about him but she couldn't place it, certainly not on his broad shoulders and easy posture. No one at Hogwarts had looked like that.
"Midgen!" Leon had bellowed, and Eloise, not yet used to being addressed by her last name, had actually wondered who Midgen was before she jumped up and scurried to the Features desk. The click-clack of heels behind her said her sister had followed. "Meet our new photographer, Colin Creevey."
"I - you're not - I mean - COLIN!" She had said it in such disbelief that she felt she might have insulted him, but Colin had just let his jaw drop and answered with an equally astonished "ELOISE!" that had made her giggle with embarrassment and delight.
"Then you know each other. Good. Creevey's going to take Harry Potter's picture. Go with him, but let him go first. Here, questions." Leon had shoved a small scroll into her hands, and a vaguely shocked Eloise had realized she was being assigned her first interview. And it was with Harry Potter, which meant it would most likely go on the front page.
She'd thought she'd be ill.
"Does he know we're coming?" she'd asked timidly.
Leon had laughed. "On my desk at five," he said, and stalked off.
She must have looked terrified, because Colin had instantly assured her that he'd clear the interview with Harry first. Someone coughed from behind her, and Eloise rushed to introduce her sister, exulting privately at the way Colin shook her hand then turned back, barely noticing the blast of charm Beatrice had tried to send his way. Eloise had wondered if Colin knew what a gentleman he was.
"We should wait awhile before going, just make sure they're awake. Feel like filling me in on some of the things I've missed around here?"
Eloise had ushered Beatrice out of the office quite quickly, then sat with Colin at her desk and tried to catch him up. She'd been shocked at how very mature, and how very different, he'd seemed. They hadn't spoken often at school; he was just the squeaky little kid who took all the pictures. He was also two years her junior, but before that first lunch was over, she felt as if there was no age difference at all between them; if anything, she was intimidated by the professional know-how Colin had picked up during his apprenticeships at Muggle newspapers, which turned out to come in useful. If he hadn't been at the Harry interview, she might have died of nerves. And if he hadn't been around the newsroom after her story ran, reassuring her that the stares she was getting from other reporters were fueled by jealousy, she might have quit altogether.
A sharp CRACK! followed by a loud chorus of groans snapped Eloise back to consciousness, and she jumped so high she banged her knees on the underside of her desk. As she rubbed the pain out of her legs, she saw that the cry had come from the sports section, where a good handful of reporters were bunched around the wireless, listening to the Cannons' game. Half the newsroom was scurrying over to the wireless now, and Eloise jumped up to join everyone. She could barely hear over their anxious voices.
"Sounds like someone was hurt-"
"Hope it was Boomer."
A sober voice fuzzed through the transmission. "Maureen Knight has experienced damage to her cranium and to her neck, and must recover fully before she plays another game-"
"The Cannons are through. Through."
"It's a curse. A bloody curse."
"Bet Boomer did it, he's been responsible for fifteen of twenty injuries on opposing teams this season-"
"Yeah, and about ninety-five percent of their saves."
"Who are they going to get to replace her?"
"Doylan's the alternate, but he might as well be chasing Bludgers, for how good he is."
"Y'might as well pay up now, mate. Told you the Kestrels would come through."
"By way of murder, you raging arse?"
"I never said it would be easy."
Eloise stood on the peripheral of the group, listening hard for word on Knight. Cranium and neck injuries...sounded like she had taken a Bludger to the head, and Eloise wondered how she could possibly survive such a blow, or if she'd be permanently damaged because of it. Perhaps there was some research on injuries she could do to help out the sports section, who'd surely be forced to redesign and expand their coverage now that something so astounding had happened. At least there were still five hours until final deadline. She walked toward the sports desk, where Jim Scrynne, the front page editor, and Timothy Kramer, the sports editor, bowed their heads in conversation.
"Five more inches should do it; I'll contact our guy at the game let him know he's got two hundred and fifty more words," said Kramer. "And we'll need a backup piece on Knight and whoever's responsible for the hit."
Scrynne nodded, then looked up and saw Eloise standing in front of him. "Midgen, Features, yes?"
"I'm - yes."
"Five hundred words on Maureen Knight, can you have it ready in an hour?"
"Of course she can." Leon had stepped up behind Eloise before she could open her mouth to stutter. "Sweeney'll help with the backup. Go on," Leon urged, and Eloise turned away, dazed. She'd just got a front-page story. And it wasn't on Harry Potter.
"KRAMER? ARE YOU THERE?"
A frantic voice bellowed through a receiver on Kramer's desk; Kramer sprinted toward it, knocking over a few stacks of paper on the way.
"Go ahead McCall, we know about Knight, what else is going on over there?"
The entire newsroom had gone still; someone clicked off the wireless. They had to strain to hear the reporter over a growing roar in the background.
"IT'S BEDLAM - NO ONE KNOWS WHAT'S GOING ON - BOOMER HIT A BLUDGER TO KNIGHT'S HEAD, THE CANNONS ARE DEMANDING HE BE PUT DOWN - I'M GOING TO NEED TEN MORE INCHES! AT LEAST!"
"You've got them, it's going front page, what else is happening over there?"
"WAIT - OH BLOODY MERLIN, IS THAT - HEY, YOU, WAS THAT POTTER?"
"Potter? McCall, did you say Potter? What's this to do with Potter?"
"HARRY POTTER JUST WALKED ONTO THE PITCH - HE'S TALKING TO OLIVER WOOD - HE'S WHAT? HE'S SECOND RESERVE? KRAMER, POTTER IS SECOND RESERVE!"
"But he's not on the roster!" Kramer rummaged around on his desk and produced a thick stack of crumpled parchment; he flipped the cover back and Eloise caught sight of an orange logo with a large "C" on it. "McCall, he's not on the roster! What are they playing at?"
"HE'S NOT ON THE ROSTER!"
"You don't say! Why isn't he on the roster?"
"APPARENTLY THEY WERE TRYING TO KEEP IT FROM THE PRESS!"
Kramer snorted, and Eloise tried to stifle a giggle.
"HE'S GOING INTO THE CHANGING ROOM - YES, THE TEAM JUST TOOK HIM INTO THE CHANGING ROOM, LOOKS LIKE HE'S GOING TO BE PUT IN - THE FANS DON'T' SEEM TO REALIZE IT - I'VE GOT TO GO - MAYBE YOU SHOULD MAKE IT TWENTY INCHES! I'LL CHECK IN LATER!"
The receiver clicked off. There was a beat of silence, and then the newsroom erupted.
"Where are my stats?"
"We need a new front page - hell, we need a new back page."
"Get me that fact sheet on fouls!"
"Get me coffee, now."
Eloise had never seen the Prophet like this, not even when the Weasley vs. Malfoy story had come in at near midnight. It was like Potter Central; everyone seemed to pull themselves off whatever they'd been doing, no matter how important the previous mission. Parchment flew through the air, reporters bandied reference books about, little-known trivia about Harry was regurgitated with lightning speed and frightening accuracy: exactly who his friends and relatives were, what he'd done in the war, how long it had been since he played Quidditch. Eloise even noticed, with no small measure of surprise, a packet passed around holding stats from Harry's Hogwarts games.
But she still didn't know what to do with herself. She had just been assigned a story, and she was already through her opening paragraph - a piece on Maureen Knight was an easy job for any decent Quidditch fan - but one look at the front-page editor's desk told her something else important was about to be decided. Leon, Scrynne and Kramer were having some sort of conference, and instinct said not to go far. She rested her quill for a minute and listened.
"So we run McCall's game piece, and a feature on Potter."
"It'll be a miracle if we can get near him," said Wong. "He won't do post-game interviews like everyone else."
"I need to know whether to leave room for the story," said Scrynne, frowning at Leon. "Who can get it? Flummery?"
Leon hmphed. "One, she just did a story on Azkaban," he said, and grimaced, "and that's enough front-page time from her for a while. Two - no. Potter won't talk to her, especially after the Weasley article. And we need the human angle on this one. Don't send Flummery."
"Well, who have you got?"
Eloise froze. This night was getting just a little out of hand. She couldn't deny she'd suspected they'd use her whenever Harry Potter did something spectacular, but now they were talking about sending her to the game, on deadline, to get an exclusive story reporters twice her age and experience couldn't get near. Showing up at Lupin Lodge was one thing; tackling Harry among a mob of friends, relatives, supporters, teammates, photographers, admirers, other reporters... Eloise gripped the underside of her desk with her free hand, hoping no one would notice if she passed out.
"She wrote that story about the wedding?"
"Yes, and the only interview we've got with Potter since the war."
"Right, I remember. And she's ready to get this story to us by eleven?"
Leon nodded, and something rose in Eloise's throat.
"Send Creevey with her."
"Photographer. Rather eager fellow."
"Right, right, whatever you think is best," said Scrynne.
"MIDGEN! CREEVEY!" Leon bellowed, and Eloise jumped again, and hit the tops of her knees on her desk, again. She hobbled over to the front-page desk, ignoring Prattleby's suspicious glare. The sooner she could get out of here the better; she had an urge to grab her quill and run before the rest of the newsroom found out that she'd been handed a story all of them would kill for.
Colin appeared at her side right before they reached the desk. "Took them long enough," he muttered with a grin.
"So. You two," said Leon, "are going to the game. Here." He handed them both rectangular lanyards that Eloise recognized as official press passes; he touched his wand to each and a glowing red version of the Daily Prophet's masthead began racing around the edges. "Check in every half hour, you can get me on this at any time. Don't worry about the game stats; McCall has that. Get me Potter, I want to know everything. Deadline at eleven."
"What about the Knight story?"
"Sweeney can take care of it," said Leon, and pointed toward a pale female reporter who'd been hired barely two weeks ago.
Eloise forced herself to stand up straight; a small crowd of reporters had gathered, each of them registering some form of unflattering surprise. Prattleby had his arms crossed and was making a face Eloise couldn't decipher.
"How many inches?" Eloise asked, forcing herself to sound cool and professional.
"As many as it takes."
She nearly staggered. That - that never happened - they never just made a story fit. At least, they hadn't with her stories, and for a moment Eloise felt like a real journalist. The Prophet's first string. The thought made her queasy.
Leon must have noticed her sudden change of expression, because he pulled her by the elbow and away from the rest of the group. "You're looking a little green," he whispered.
"I'm - I'm fine - I think -"
"Look, Midgen. They," he gestured to the other reporters, all of whom were undoubtedly trying to hear this exchange, "don't think you can do it. I do. So can you do it?"
"That's my girl. Go, now, it's getting late. CREEVEY!" he shouted, temporarily rendering Eloise deaf.
Colin appeared at once.
"Go - now - don't waste more time."
"Come on, El," said Colin, and Eloise had just enough time to grab a quill and a few roles of parchment from a nearby desk before Colin pulled her from the room by the sleeve of her robes. The last thing she saw before the door closed behind them was Prattleby, open jealousy contorting his face.
Then they ran.
By the time they had made it, panting, out of the Prophet building and out into the street, the walls of Diagon Alley were reverberating with the wireless transmission of the game. People hung out of their flat windows to listen as Lee Jordan's voice rung into the otherwise still air.
"RUMOR HAS IT HARRY POTTER IS GOING TO MAKE HIS PROFESSIONAL DEBUT-"
"El, go on, Apparate, I'll run to the Leaky Cauldron to Floo - I'll meet you there in a minute."
Eloise nodded and shivered slightly.
"You're shivering - where's your cloak?"
"I-in the n-newsroom. But f-forget it, I've g-got to get there."
"Go ahead, go, I'll meet you there in five minutes," and without another word, Colin had sprinted back into building for her cloak.
She sent him silent thanks and watched him go, then took several deep breaths, trying to work out the stitch in her chest. She had to calm down; as nervous and excited and completely blown away she was about her assignment, history said far too many reporters got splinched on the job, and she was sure Harry wouldn't fancy speaking to one of her arms and perhaps a leg. If he talked to her at all.
He'll talk to you, he'll talk to you, she repeated to herself. She'd gone to extra measures to be fair whenever a story concerned him in the slightest, because she remembered all too well what that horrid Skeeter woman had done during her fifth year, and the consequences such biased coverage had wrought during her sixth and seventh. Poor Harry hadn't been able to do anything without being seen as a lunatic, and though Eloise's interactions with him were admittedly limited, she knew him to be nothing of the sort. He may hate the press as a rule, but he'd always been nice to her. He'd taken a chance and answered her questions once and, as she'd been told in a thank-you note from Hermione Granger, he'd been pleased with the article.
Harry would talk to her. She was sure. The big problem would be getting to him - but she'd figure that out later. Right now she just needed to stop her head from swimming. She'd turned out stories under tighter deadlines than this before. She knew about the Cannons and the Kestrels. She knew about Harry. She knew about Quidditch. She knew about Seeking. There was nothing to worry about. She was ready for this story.
She pulled her wand and focused on the pitch, and as the world around her went black she repeated her last thought like a mantra. She was ready for this story.
An earsplitting roar, so loud she thought she'd be thrown backward, greeted her arrival. She had Apparated right in front of the press tent, to be sure, but all around her was madness; wizards and witches were Apparating right on top of each other, stampeding for tickets, waving their orange pieces of parchment around as if they were strips of gold. The officials at the gate were fighting off the mob with well-placed repulsion spells, which forced the crowd into several straight, buzzing lines. Not ten feet in front of Eloise was a very large, burly man guarding the press entrance, surrounded by no less than a hundred bustling reporters and pushy photographers. And carrying over the tidal wave of sound whooshing out from the pitch was Lee Jordan's amplified voice: "RUMOR CONFIRMED! HARRY POTTER, SECOND RESERVE FOR THE CHUDLEY CANNONS, WILL BE PLAYING IN PLACE OF MAUREEN KNIGHT!" followed by a cheer so loud that nearby trees quivered.
She was not ready for this story.
"El, let's go!"
It was Colin, running to meet her from the pub down the lane. Eloise collected herself and jogged after him, right to the edge of the throng. She made a grab for her lanyard, which she had swung over her neck in the newsroom, and held it out to be ready for inspection.
"I'll take it from here, Midgen."
Eloise swung around to face a wall of a woman and a wiry, greasy man, both of them staring at her with unreserved disdain. Bleak hair hung lank against the woman's three-chinned neck, and weak, orange-red lips puckered in scorn. Her beady eyes, dull as dirt, pinned Eloise and her press pass right to the ground.
"F-Flummery," Eloise stuttered.
"Oh, you're a smart one. Come on, Peltier," she said crisply, jerking her neck toward the stadium so that her skin rattled. Peltier grunted and began to walk past.
Colin moved in front of them. "This is Eloise's story, Nancy," he growled.
"Undoubtedly," said Flummery sarcastically, drawing the word out like a weapon. "Poor, dear Leon, having to send the baby in my place." She shifted her eyes and raked Eloise over, and Eloise felt her jaw go rigid. "I'll be taking that pass now, Missy. You can just scurry on back like a good little girl and tell Daddy the professionals have arrived." She held out her bloated hand.
"No." Eloise said it quietly, but with conviction, and Flummery narrowed her eyes to slits and took a step forward. Eloise didn't care; she put her free hand up to stop Colin from coming between her and Flummery's fat face. Another roar issued from the stadium, but it was unimportant. It was time a few things were said.
"Leon," Eloise spat, her ears still ringing with Flummery's taunt, "only puts up with you because as wretched and biased as your stories are, no one else is miserable enough to get them. One day, someone will find out how you get the horrible things you do. I cannot imagine whom you've bribed to avoid a libel charge, but I do know one thing - one more misstep and you are gone. Again. This is our story, Colin's and mine, so you can just scurry on back yourself."
Colin was mouthing wordlessly at her side, and Eloise had a brief moment of panic; she'd never come close to letting this much frustration go at once, and surely Colin thought she was a horrible, horrible person now that she had. But heat was rising in Flummery's face, her eyes were darting around in panic, and her tiny mind was surely trying to think up a response. Eloise didn't dare drop her guard. Something hostile and long-coming had been unleashed, and she could no longer control it; she thought of Harry, and how unfairly he'd been treated by people like Flummery, how hard his life, and the lives of countless other good people, had been made in the name of career advancement. As long as she was allowed to go unchecked, the entire wizarding world would - rightly - be scared of the press, and Eloise gazed at Flummery with hate in her eyes.
"When Leon finds out-" Flummery huffed, but Eloise had already anticipated her.
"Why don't we ask him whose story this is?" asked Eloise innocently, holding up her press pass. "Yes, I think we'll do that." She touched her wand to the pass, muttered what she desperately hoped was the right spell, and the lettering still running around the edges turned green. She could hear the newsroom bustling, sounding twice as loud as it had when she left. She spoke into the top corner of the pass. "Oh, Leon? Leon?"
"Midgen? SHH - It's Midgen, SHUT THAT THING OFF!" She could hear the newsroom go quiet. "Midgen? Where the hell are you?"
"I'm outside the stadium - I've run into Flummery, and it appears she'd like to...help...with my story."
"YOU TELL FLUMMERY IF SHE GOES NEAR THAT GAME SHE IS FIRED! NOW GET YOUR BUM INSIDE THAT PITCH!"
"I'll do that, Leon. Thanks." Eloise tapped her pass again and smiled sweetly at Flummery, who was fuming purple. "Seems Daddy would rather I handle this one."
For a moment, Eloise feared for her life. Flummery's nostrils were white and her left eye started to twitch. She opened her mouth to speak, a movement that would have made Eloise flinch - except that it didn't. Eloise kept her back ramrod straight and wordlessly dared Flummery to make another move.
"Let's go, Peltier," said Flummery slowly, but bitterly; without blinking or breaking eye contact, she backed away and Disapparated. Peltier cast Eloise a greasy once-over that made her ill, and then he too disappeared.
Eloise's legs wavered beneath her. She put a hand to her stomach and exhaled several times before she realized Colin had not yet said anything. She turned to find him staring at her, shock elongating his features. He thought she was horrible.
"I'm sorry, Colin," she said, and her whole body started to shake, "I'm not usually like that, oh I can't believe I was so horrible, you must think I'm a terrible person-"
"That. Was. Amazing," he said, and Eloise blushed and looked away.
"No, really- you were am-"
"Colin! The game!" Eloise shouted, suddenly realizing that the ball had officially been released into play. She grabbed her cloak from Colin's outstretched hand and flung it around herself, grateful for the burst of warmth, then tugged Colin by the elbow and urged him forward. Together they ran to the gate, which was now completely empty except for the one leering security wizard. Without pausing or breaking stride, they thrust out their press passes, barreled through the entrance and sprinted the rest of the way to the booth.
A wave of adrenaline, stronger than Eloise had ever felt, coursed through her. She had never been in this, no, any press box before, but the combination of elements were sliding comfortably into place. The roar of the crowd dimmed in her mind and her thoughts became a reel of facts: Seeking, Snitches, Harry. The fans chanting in unison, the vendors watching instead of selling, the mascot Cannonball rolling madly down aisles, grown men hugging each other, parents hoisting their kids onto their heads, orange sparklers flaring in the darkening air; Eloise filed it all in her head, took it all in, knew she didn't need to write it down - she swelled at the sheer volume of humanity at her fingertips, and filled with pride to realize this was a story she could write, and write well.
But she scribbled notes as they ran, just in case.
This guard was twice as large at the last, but Eloise was already feeling like an old pro at the show-your-pass game, and held her card up defiantly. Colin snickered as the guard grunted and stepped aside.
"What?" she asked, risking a small smile as Colin turned and walked backwards to enter the box.
"Nothing, you're just too - oof!" Colin had backed right into a wall of people, and Eloise snapped back into focus to find herself in the most crowded box she'd ever seen. Not only wasn't there a seat to be had, but there were no seats; someone must have magically removed the chairs to make room for all the extra press. Lightbulbs popped at alternate seconds, so that it was like being in the middle of a lightning storm. She couldn't even see the game; some reporters had taken to writing blindly above their heads, probably for want of space, blocking out almost everything. Their voices clamored together as if coming from one large insect.
"DE GOODE'S GOT DE QUAFFLE!"
Except for one. Lee Jordan, looking every bit as ruddy and enthusiastic as he had during Hogwarts games, danced around at the top of the box, where a small space had been cleared for him. He jumped and punched his microphone into the air between comments.
As funny and familiar as it was to see Lee back in action, panic started to sweep over Eloise. She and Colin were still standing on the outside of the crowd, trying to gauge the situation; from the look of it, she'd never get to see anything. She imagined herself slumping back into the newsroom, emptyhanded, and Prattleby's victorious face. "Better luck next time, eh?"
Something snatched her wrist, and her body bent forward.
"Colin, what are you doing?"
Colin rammed into the solid crowd, shoulder first, like a bull.
"Oh, right." Eloise grasped his wrist back, enforcing the connection; the others yelped and cursed but grudgingly gave way as they dug through.
"Oh, sorry - ow - sorry - didn't mean - oh, are you okay? - whoops, sorry there -"
Colin barreled unforgivingly. With a hundred journalists there to do the job usually assigned to five or six, the box had probably filled up far before anyone had thought to magically expand it. The cold December air was now full of statistics and sweat, Eloise crinkled her nose against both. A hairy arm swung out from their left and Colin ducked, taking Eloise with him, making her feel as if she was playing Quidditch herself.
The air cleared. Eloise took a long, grateful swig of it and shifted as best she could to thank Colin. He had carved out a miniscule spot from which they could see the game perfectly; it might even have been comfortable, if the two of them weren't so smushed together. But then Colin leaned back to take his first shot of the game, sliding right against Eloise's shoulder. He smelled of musk. She grinned goofily at her feet, thinking perhaps she was comfortable enough for a while.
Orange and green blurs were racing up and down the field; Eloise squinted just in time to see someone - Harry - plow in front of a Kestrel, and a second later the crowds exploded as Firoza Newland scored for the Cannons.
"EXCELLENT CHASING BY NEWLAND!"
Eloise made a quick mental note of the save, then tried to zone out the other reporter's comments and focus on Harry. It was a difficult thing.
"Don't know how she does it, at her age"
"Like I said, eyes in the back of her head. She's a mother."
"What's her score ratio again?"
"Seven to one!" someone shouted from the other end of the box.
"CHEERS FOR THAT!"
"YES, IT'S HARRY POTTER'S PROFESSIONAL DEBUT," shouted a familiar, yet different, voice and Eloise twisted as much as she could to chance another glimpse at the top of the box. Skip Fetterman, the stadium's floodlights glaring off his precise haircut and tortoise-rimmed glasses, had joined Lee in commentating, and Lee wasn't looking too happy about it. Eloise had heard them do play-by-plays together once before, and it hadn't been pretty; Skip's stuffed-shirt broadcaster training clashed heavily with Lee's all-get-out verve for the game. Tonight's pairing was only going to make things a more chaotic, if that was even possible.
Eloise tried to turn back and almost didn't succeed; she grasped the railing and blinked against flashing lights while Colin snapped an insane amount of photos. She couldn't even get at her scroll; the weight of the crowd was pushing against her and cold metal was digging into her ribs. Occasionally, the mob shifted to follow play, and Eloise felt her entire body move with it; once, she thought her feet actually left the ground.
The next thing she felt, though, was definitely not at her feet.
"You're a pretty little filly, ain't ya?"
The stocky man next to Eloise nudged her with his shoulder and dealt her bum a hard pinch that stung through her cloak and robes. Eloise felt her jaw drop and stared straight forward for a while before she dared to turn, open-mouthed, and face the perpetrator. A man she immediately recognized as Buck Atkins, the American reporter she'd so often heard about in the newsroom, smiled lecherously from behind a grey mustache. She knew he was on special assignment, sent to every game from the Texas Portent to follow Jack DeGoode's cross-Atlantic career. Famous as he was for his wit and sharp writing, Eloise thought she'd rather admire his style from afar.
"Now don't look so shocked there, Missy, an ol' cowpoke like me's still got some life, even enough for your young-" he licked his lips and sucked a breath, "type." And before she could stop it, Buck Atkins had placed his hand around her on her left hip, just above her bum.
Eloise tried to move out of his grip but there was nowhere to go; she made as loud a noise of protest as she could muster.
Colin turned around. He glanced once at Eloise's pleading face and then his eyes dropped downward, traveling back up the length of Atkins's arm, fury building in his eyes.
The crowd around them made a loud, desperate groan - something wild was going on, she could vaguely hear the disappointment in the stands - but Eloise couldn't tear her eyes away from Colin, and the way his chin had gone dangerously still. His camera hung forgot at his side, which Eloise took as a serious compliment. She was sure she was blushing.
Atkins laughed. "Now there's what I like to see, a young man ready to defend his 'lassie'."
Colin hadn't budged. "Move your hand."
"Look at that," Atkins leaned in to whisper in Eloise's ear, "sounds like someone roped this boy in good and-"
Good and what, Eloise never found out. Colin had reached around Eloise and grabbed Atkins by the collar, pulling him back just for enough to dislodge the offending hand and send Eloise scurrying to Colin's left side. Colin immediately pressed into the space Eloise had vacated.
Atkins laughed even harder. "That's the way to do it! I like you, boy!"
Colin wound back with his free hand, and Eloise pulled her wand as fast as she could - she couldn't let Colin get thrown out of the game on her account, and worse, she couldn't let Atkins retaliate. She pointed her wand, cried, "Petrificus Totalus," and Atkins immediately went rigid.
It was enough to make Colin take notice and drop his hand; she couldn't see his face, but she could see his shoulders start shaking. When he turned, he was smiling widely, perhaps even fighting back a laugh. No one seemed to notice that Atkins had been immobilized, and Eloise was hardly surprised. She heard Lee and Skip bantering about a Wronski Feint, and guessed no one in the box had even witnessed the exchange.
But Colin was still smiling like that, making it impossible to turn back to the game. They were almost toe-to-toe, and for a brief second Eloise wondered how silly they must look from the outside, with everyone in their box screaming and jumping and watching the game, and the two of them staring at each other instead.
"Thanks," she said, trying to smile as widely as he was. She got halfway there but lost her nerve and gave the rest of the expression to her shoes. Blue shoes.
Colin's shoes moved closer, and she felt his breath against her ear. "You Hufflepuffs are damn fast. That was perfect."
Eloise giggled, and her head floated again.
"AND IT'S COLE KERRY TO THE HOOPS AGAIN, SHE IS JUST A MACHINE, WATCH THIS WOMAN GO!"
Eloise jumped, bumping the top of her head against Colin's chin.
"Oh! I'm going to kill you one of these days! But the game!" She whirled round to face the pitch, and so did Colin, still rubbing his chin and laughing, just in time to see Kerry swoop effortlessly past the Kestrels' keeper for a goal.
"YES, LEE, SHE'S CERTAINLY BEEN THIS LEAGUE'S BIGGEST FIND, AND YOU'VE GOT TO WONDER WHY IT TOOK SO LONG FOR ANYONE TO NOTICE HER CHASER ABILITIES."
"IT DIDN'T TAKE SO LONG, SKIP, IT JUST TOOK A MADMAN NAMED WOOD."
"WELL HE'S CERTAINLY MAD IF HE THINKS PUTTING IN A COLD SEEKER IS ANY KIND OF WAY TO - OH, WHAT'S POTTER DOING? HE'S DIVING, HE'S-"
Eloise grasped the railing and bent over the edge, watching the flawless, easy way Harry cut through the air as he soared downward. His robes flew out behind him and he was like an arrow, one beautifully straight line pelting down the pitch. She'd never seen anyone as meant for anything as Harry seemed for Quidditch, and remembered feeling the same way at Hogwarts. It was one thing about him the war hadn't touched.
It didn't even matter that he missed. It didn't matter to Eloise that he hadn't caught a Snitch, or that there hadn't been a Snitch to catch, or whatever the ruckus was about. She watched Harry fly and found herself with an angle.
But that was the last time she was able to see Harry clearly for a while. As the game rolled ahead she found she was getting a surprisingly small amount of material for her story; it was all Blatching, Stodging, ploys and feints. She didn't need to know that Abbie Friar could no longer pull off a decent Starfish and Stick, or that Knight was favored to replace Holgate on the English team later in the year. The endless relay of statistics were jumbling her thoughts, making it impossible to focus on what kind of questions she needed to ask Harry, when the game ended.
And if the game ends right now, how am I going to get to him? she thought, suddenly panicked. Harry had just dove after what he thought was a Snitch; what if the real Snitch showed up in the next five minutes? Now? It was a long way from here to the ground, and it would take a miracle to cut through the post-game crowd with any sort of ease. Though she was sure her press pass could get her into the usual press conference, later on in the stadium's press room, that wasn't going to be much help when it came to Harry.
And Leon wanted the human angle. There was no way she was going to get it from up here. She tugged at Colin's elbow, and a flash of light exploded in her face.
"Whoops, sorry," he said.
"It's okay. Colin, I think this might sound crazy, but we have to leave."
"Leave? We can't just-"
"Not the game. This box. I can't focus, I'm not here for the same type of story - McCall's in here somewhere for that." She was yelling, but she was sure Colin was hearing her. "I need to be-"
She stopped, and followed her pointing hand to the lowest partition in the stadium, where, just visible against the wall nearest the pitch, several dots with bright red hair were jumping up and down. "THERE! Colin, it's the Weasleys! THERE! We need to be THERE!"
Colin didn't even look to check. "You're right." He grabbed her wrist and tugged Eloise back through the crowd, a maneuver that was considerably easier than getting to the front had been. They stopped behind everyone else to catch their breath, Colin to refill his camera for the sixth or so time. Eloise looked up at Lee.
"WHAT A DELIBERATE FOUL! LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE'S GETTING WORRIED, SKIP!"
"AND FOR NO GOOD REASON LEE, IF THE SNITCH COMES OUT BEFORE THE CANNONS HAVE MANAGED ANOTHER TEN GOALS - AND IT'S LIKELY THAT IT WILL - THEN THE KESTRELS ARE PRACTICALLY A SHOE-IN FOR THE WIN."
Lee seemed to forget he was holding a microphone and turned to face Skip full on. "OH, IS THAT SO?"
Lee grabbed Skip's microphone and pitched it over the back of the box. Eloise laughed.
Colin's camera snapped shut, and he and Eloise took off again, running at top speed down several flights of stairs, Lee's uproarious and uninterrupted comments bouncing off the cement walls. No one was around - not a vendor, not a guard - to stop them as they entered at the ground level. Everyone must have been watching the game, and Eloise was struck again by what a huge story she had been assigned. Colin led her straight to the front without incident; no one nearby was willing to take their eyes off the game long enough to inspect their press passes with any kind of scrutiny. Or discover they weren't tickets.
Three carrot-topped figures were nearly scaling the wall that separated the pitch from the stands, and Eloise and Colin ran toward them as if they were beacons. As they got closer, Eloise recognized them as Fred, George and Ginny, surrounded by Professor Lupin, Sirius Black and Angelina Johnso- no, Angelina Weasley. Eloise's heart thudded with relief. But where was Ron?
"THAT'S RIGHT HARRY, YOU GET HIM, SHOW THAT PONCY LEPRECHAUN PRAT HOW TO DO IT!"
There was Ron. He was screaming like a lunatic from above and behind, loud enough for the entire stadium to hear, next to a squat, bald man who was doing the same. Eloise made a note to double-check her hunch that Ron had tickets to the game from the off, while the rest of the family showed up when they heard Harry was playing.
And they were like a family, Eloise thought warmly as they skidded to a halt behind the orange blurs that were the Weasleys. A very big, happy one who'd run out at a moment's notice to support one of their own, blood brother or not.
Some sort of explosion happened in the stands; all of a sudden everyone was on their feet, leaning left, and Eloise squinted up just in time to see Adam Holgate tearing downward with half Harry's grace, bolting after a small, glittering item. Harry pivoted in the air and tore after, and Eloise fought the urge to scream for Harry to tear Holgate's arms off.
"TEAR HIS ARMS OFF, HARRY!" yelled Colin, almost dropping his camera. Being around so many Gryffindors again seemed to be going to Colin's head. Eloise welcomed the nostalgia. She almost expected to look into the top box and see Dumbledore cheering Harry on.
But Holgate was close, and Harry was flying desperately, faster than Eloise had ever seen him go. She dug her fingernails into her cheeks.
It was one long, simultaneous Weasley shout, and Eloise exhaled. The game wasn't over, thanks to Marty Gudgeon and Medusa Francis' deadly execution of a textbook Dopplebeater Defense. The Weasleys grabbed each others' limbs and jumping up and down as one ecstatic unit.
Except for two of them. Sirius Black and Remus Lupin stood to the side of their group, Black's hands in such tight fists that white knuckles showed through the skin. They both stared upward as if in some sort of trance, and Black looked to be fighting a swell of emotion. His eyes were bright as he watched his godson.
The teams pulled back for the called foul, and Colin sneaked up behind Ginny, whose hands were buried in her hair, pulling at either side of her face. Colin snapped a picture of her profile, and she swung around.
"COLIN!" she screamed, and hugged him. "Did you see? Of course you saw!" she yelled, looking up and down between Colin and the game. "Isn't it wonderful? He's - oh - YEAH OLIVER! NO GOAL! - we heard it on the wireless and ran here, they were almost out of tickets, and, Eloise! Hi! Hey, wait, are you two here-"
"On assignment, yes," answered Eloise, smiling at how different Ginny looked from the last time she saw her. She was shining, her face flushed with unabashed love, and all of it was very clearly for Harry. Even at the wedding she had not looked this open; gone was the practiced, guarded expression Ginny had worn all throughout Hogwarts, and Eloise thought it a welcome change.
"Ooh, they gave you this story? Good for you, Eloise!" said Ginny, and Eloise knew she meant it.
"Yes, but we sort of need to, you know," she bit her lip, looked at Ginny's questioning but happy face and decided to just come out with it. "We need to speak to Harry. After the game, that is."
Ginny tutted. "Of course you do! Just stick to me after he catches that Snitch. I'm sure he'll talk to you."
Relief so complete swept over Eloise she thought her knees would buckle. "Oh, thanks, Ginny. Really."
Ginny tsked again, then patted Colin on the shoulder and whirled back to the pitch.
Colin was grinning.
"Nothing. It just took me six years to get Harry to let me take his picture, that's all. Six months, and you've got exclusives."
"Oh shh, I haven't got anything yet."
"Right," said Colin, still grinning, and he hoisted his camera toward the game again.
It was easily the fastest and most brutal minutes of Quidditch Eloise had ever seen. Harry flew steadily above it, blanketing the pitch in a swirl of speedy orange. So many things were happening at once Eloise was sure she was missing something vital; she scribbled a few tactics that she was able to spot, but she only needed a few major points for reference in her story, if necessary. She needed the basics, but the important basics, and she didn't trust herself to come up with the right comparisons so quickly; she needed an outside voice, someone who knew Quidditch better than any other fan, and well enough to read between the maneuvers...someone who used to be a team captain....
"Ooh, that was a great Backbeat." Angelina pointed at a dot Eloise could just make out as Medusa Francis. "She has such grace."
Fred, standing next to her, snorted. "Grace my arse, she should have taken his head off."
"Honestly, I can't believe what Oliver's done with this team. That - that right THERE! Just a perfect reverse pass, I've never seen a team have such precision, it's astounding, it really is."
"It's not so astounding," put in George right after Firoza Newland had looped around Hollwedel and under Boomer for yet another Cannons goal, "considering Oliver's actually getting paid to do what he did to us at Hogwarts. I'm just surprised no one's died of bloody exhaustion."
Eloise stood for nearly fifteen minutes, scribbling notes on the Weasleys' talk and keeping one eye on Harry as the Cannons rocketed to near invincibility. Angelina's tendency to point to the widest angle possible was far more helpful than the mad volley of statistics up in the press box, and Eloise allowed part of her mind to wander as she took notes, making herself a mental list of questions to ask Harry.
Kestrel Keeper Abbie Friar was looking worse for wear now, and goal after goal soared past her helpless tending, making the crowd around Eloise thunder and the ground beneath her tremble.
Harry lurched forward toward something Eloise couldn't see - then stopped just as abruptly. Ginny threw out an arm and grabbed Fred's jumper.
"Fred, what's he doing?" asked Ginny. "What's going on up there?"
Harry had flown toward Oliver and the two of them seemed to be having a heated conference near the hoops while the game raged at the opposite end of the pitch. Fred squinted.
"Dunno, Gin - only time Oliver ever stopped to talk during a game was to tell one of us off."
Harry suddenly flattened himself to his broom and took off like a shot, screaming backward to a stunned-looking Oliver. Ginny sucked in a breath and brought her hands up in fists.
"He's after it," she said simply. Eloise scribbled.
"YEAH, HARRY! IT'S YOURS!" came Ron's voice. As two slipstreams on brooms zoomed toward the center of the pitch, the drone in the stands grew to a feverish buzz, then to a deafening roar. Eloise's entire body thrilled; she could see Colin working his camera so hard that it began to smoke in places other than the flash. She dropped her hands to her sides and clenched her robes, her notes forgot in the unbelievable rush that was the last few seconds of a Quidditch match.
Colin dropped his camera on its strap and took hold of Eloise's forearm, his knuckles white against her now-flushed skin.
She threw objectivity to the wind.
"GET IT, HARRY!" she shouted, surprised at her own volume. Colin jumped, a little, and looked down at her with a smirk. Eloise smiled back, but only for a second, because Harry and Holgate were neck-and-neck, two reckless blurs of speed, their little golden prize trapped between them. Eloise's heart lurched with the hope that Harry would get to the tiny, surrounded Snitch first. One more second - they were equal distances apart from the winking gold speck, closing in at matching speeds and - if they kept going like that they'd surely -
It might have been pure imagination, but Eloise could swear she heard the sickening crush of shattering bones as Harry and Holgate slammed into each other. She heard it over and over and over again, thinking she might be sick with it, her head ringing and her arm painful in Colin's grip.
Holgate, his entire face covered in blood, slumped wholly against his broom, which was lucky; the Firebolt immediately kicked into emergency mode, spinning away from the crash and wafting his bleeding, bruised form gently toward the ground.
But Harry was still floating in the air, performing what any broomstick would take to be a decent Starfish and Stick. One arm hung limply at around the shaft of the broom while the other was rigid, making an awkward angle with his body. The one leg that looped the bristles of his broom gave way and he hung, the sudden, lopsided shift of weight causing him to spin out toward the stands. The other Cannons were rushing toward him but it didn't do much good; he swirled to a stop and though his Firebolt seemed to have got the hint, starting a slow float to the ground, Harry's fingers finally uncurled, one by one. He released the broom.
"Lentes!" shouted Oliver, and Harry's limp form instantly slowed, hitting the ground with only a slightly upsetting thud.
There was a split second of silence in which Ginny, her face like ash, made a dry, rattling sort of sound. Then the crowd started up again, humming at first but quickly working themselves into frenzy; they were streaming down from the top boxes, pushing against those at the bottom level for a look at the field. Flashes of light exploded everywhere, though Colin made no move toward his camera. The mediwizards had already rushed onto the field, where all the Cannons and Kestrel players had landed and were standing helplessly by their fallen teammates.
"Out of my way - out of my - oh, hell, move -" There was a great thump, and next second Ron Weasley had appeared next to Ginny, wide-eyed and horrified, and silently took her hand.
Ginny suddenly nodded, as if she had made a decision. In one swift, businesslike movement, she hoisted herself over the barrier and onto the pitch. Ron followed instantly, and the two of them ran.
"Well, come on!" shouted George, and the rest of the Weasleys hopped the gate.
Eloise wasted no time; as loathe as she was to take advantage of Harry's unconscious - or worse - state, she had to stick to the Weasleys, just in case. Colin jumped the barrier with ease and held out his hand to help Eloise over; they ducked the first onset of security wizards putting up wards to stop people from doing exactly what they had just done, and ran to catch up with Ginny.
"Get back now, all of you," said a lumpy official to the group of Weasleys that had surrounded him. "Only team members and mediwizards - back to the pitch, come on now." The guard took a look at Ginny, who had planted her feet in the ground and was sending him darts with her eyes, and did a doubletake. "Hey wait a minute - you all, you're the minis-"
"We are family of Harry Potter's," said Sirius quietly, but with lethal intonation. "And we're going to see him."
The man saw Sirius and visibly jumped. "Right, yes, of course, Mr. Black, go on, go on." And he shuffled off, half-bowing.
Harry and Holgate, both bloodied beyond recognition, lay deathly quiet on the grass. Ginny yelped and lurched herself forward; Professor Lupin gently - but firmly - held her back by the shoulders.
"But," said Ginny, her voice full of tears, "but Remus look at him - I have to - they don't know what they're doing - Harry - oh Harry - "
No sooner had she said the words than Harry stirred; he appeared to be trying to turn his head. "Ginny?" he said weakly. "You're...here?"
"Yes, of course," she sighed, and a tear started down her cheek. "I heard your name on the wireless and came right up - but they won't let me in there and oh, you're talking - thank god - I thought -"
She was crying fully now, and Ron came up beside her and tapped Professor Lupin, who stepped back. Ron took Ginny's hand. "Shh, Ginny, it's all right."
A mediwizard bustled over Harry, obstructing the view. Ron and Ginny stayed close, Ron's hand making small circles against the spot between Ginny's shoulders.
"Leprechaun gold! Never, in all my years, leprechaun gold on this pitch!" someone shouted, and Eloise pivoted to see the Kestrels' Tim Boomer standing sheepishly in front of an irate league official, his pockets hanging out of his robes.
"SUSPENDED!" shouted the official, evoking a chorus of groans and curses from the Kestrels that made the official's face an even brighter shade of red. "INDEFINITELY! At least for the rest of the season, and I'll be taking your case up with the League, see if we can't make it longer!"
Boomer's curses fell deaf on the orange roar that was the Cannons. Oliver looked as if he'd bust, seeming to forget, for the moment, that he was two Seekers down and the game had yet to be called, or even postponed.
"I caught it - I caught it - Oliver - where's Oliver Wood?"
It was Harry, half passed-out on his stretcher. His left hand extended high above him, and glints of silver extruded from his palm. Eloise sucked a breath, and she was not alone; the Weasleys froze, gripping each others' robes.
The silver glints trembled, like trapped wings.
"Yeah, Harry!" yelled Ron, who had jumped so high he nearly knocked Ginny to the ground. Eloise nearly tripped over her own robes to follow Ginny, who had run after the stretcher, Colin snapping pictures at her heels.
Oliver's mouth was hanging open; he had to be pushed forward by his teammates. When he got to Harry, he just looked at the Snitch, and then back down at the Seeker who had saved his season.
"I knew you would," he choked. Eloise could barely write his quote through her tears, and somewhere to her right, Colin was jumping around like a madman, taking pictures faster than she'd ever seen him try.
"AND HE'S GOT IT! HARRY POTTER'S DONE IT AGAIN! HARRY POTTER CATCHES THE SNITCH WITH A PERFECTLY EXECUTED PLUMPTON PASS-"
"PERFECTLY EXECUTED, LEE? THAT'S AN ACCIDENT IF I EVER-"
"HARRY POTTER EXECUTES A TEXTBOOK PLUMPTON PASS, AND THE GAME IS OVER! THE CANNONS REMAIN UNDEFEATED!"
The cheer started low, on the field with the Cannons, and then worked upward until the entire stadium rocked with the sound. The press had broken the wards and started to stream onto the field. Tears clouded Eloise's eyes, and her notes, at the beginning of the night so orderly and legible, were now nothing more than haphazard scribbles tearing across crumpled parchment. She was trying to record everything - the crush of the crowd, the celebratory (orange) fireworks, the way tears were falling freely from Ron Weasley's eyes - but to write any of it down meant looking away or at least dividing her attention, and that was not an option.
The stretchers bearing the unconscious Seekers rose and started floating toward the teams' bunkers; Eloise and Colin immediately ran to the front of the crowd, keeping close to Ron. Ginny, on Ron's right, walked quietly, her bloodshot eyes ever focused on Harry's quiet form. Sirius and Remus stayed close as well, though neither of them had yet said a thing. A squadron of mediwizards surrounded the stretchers, making movement toward the changing rooms very slow business, but also preventing the rest of the press from getting too close to the Cannons, Kestrels or Weasleys. Or me and Colin, Eloise realized, struck by the bizarre confluence of events that had pushed her ahead of all the other reporters.
The door to the changing rooms swung open and the two stretchers floated through, followed by the legion of mediwizards; the Weasleys, starting with Ron, moved to enter as well, but the door slammed shut, and the same lumpy guard that had tried to stop them from running to the pitch stepped in front of the door
"CAPTAINS ONLY! I SAID CAPTAINS ONLY!"
"No!" shouted Ginny. "But that's my - we're family!"
"I SAID CAPTAINS-" the guard glanced sidelong at Sirius and quivered, "-only. Sorry, miss. Sir. Captains only."
Oliver Wood and Kyle Kirkpatrick maneuvered to the front, glaring at each other out of the corners of their eyes. The guard shifted away to let them through, then slid right back in front as the door slammed once more. The crowd groaned.
"Go on, Angelina, you're a captain," prodded Fred. "She's a captain!" he shouted, pointing atop Angelina's head. "Bossed me around for a whole year!"
"Was, and at Hogwarts, you git," Angelina muttered.
"Oh, she's still captain," George whispered to Eloise. "But not on the pitch."
Ginny stared forlornly at the closed door while Ron swore under his breath.
Eloise was starting to lose hope. The way it looked, no one was getting in to see Harry. She scrolled through her notes, frantically looking for a way to spin the story with what she'd gleaned in the stands.
Nothing. There was nothing. Her article was going to have to feature Harry Potter's family watching him play Quidditch. She let out an impatient whimper. Leon was going to be so disappointed.
Eloise's heart dropped. Her press pass was glowing. She brought it to her mouth and stuck a finger in an ear.
"You didn't check in! What's happening?"
"NOTHING - I'M WAITING...TO...GET INTO THE CHANGING ROOM," she fibbed.
"Oh, good show, Midgen, let me know when you've got that interview."
"Harry's, um...injured!" Eloise added, panicking for a distraction.
"Can he talk?"
"Er..." No no no no no no no... "Yes."
"Great! See you in a bit!"
The pass clicked off. Eloise looked at it sadly. Colin shifted his camera bag on his shoulder and offered a sympathetic nod.
"But I liked my job," Eloise sighed.
Colin laughed and nudged her in the shoulder. "You won't be fired."
Ron Weasley was standing there, his eyes bright and red, his face full of worry. "You're not getting sacked, are you?"
"Not yet," said Eloise, and smiled at Ron. "But it doesn't matter. You're all right? And Ginny?"
"Yeah, it's not like we're not used to this by now." He laughed softly and shoved his right hand in his pocket, leaving his left clenched at his side. "You're here for work?"
Colin nodded. "Congratulations on being cleared, by the way," said Colin. "We knew those charges were ridiculous."
Ron smiled. "That might not have happened, without your help," he said. "Thanks. Really. Both of you. And thanks for Hermione, too, because if she were here I'd have to pry her off you two."
"How is she?" asked Eloise. "She's with the Thinker, right?"
"Yep. Still absolutely crazy, you know her. Studying, as if she hasn't had enough school. She'll be home around Christmas." Ron sighed a little, then seemed to realize he'd done it out loud. His ears went pink and Eloise bit back a giggle.
"I'd love to do a story on her," said Eloise. "There's a lot of confusion about what Thinkers actually do. And a lot of people at the paper wonder what Hermione Granger is doing with herself."
"Okay. But listen, you're not really getting fired are you?"
"No," laughed Eloise, feeling silly for even suggesting it. "I was just being stupid. Don't worry."
Ron gave her a suspicious look, but whatever he said next was drowned out by the buzz of the crowd behind them; a mediwizard had stepped out of the stadium and was having a quiet word with the guard, who then stepped to the left of the door and opened it a crack.
"TEAMMATES! TEAMS ONLY!" he said, but the push of the crowd was too much for him. The door was instantly thrown open all the way and Eloise was carried through on the mob's momentum, vaguely aware that Colin was near and the Weasleys were just ahead.
The noise increased tenfold upon encountering the echoing path to the Cannons' area; with the popping, flashing and pounding of feet, Eloise felt as though she was trapped in a tidal wave. Ron and Ginny were still holding hands, and almost skidded to a stop in front of the medical wing; Eloise stayed as close as she could get to Ginny, and made sure Colin was right in step. They had no sooner reached the door to the wing when Oliver slipped out and crossed his arms over his burly chest.
"GET BACK!" he shouted, blocking the door with his body. "NO PRESS! TEAM MEMBERS ONLY! OH ALL RIGHT, YOU TOO," he conceded, flicking his eyes over the hopeful faces of the Weasleys. "YES, AND YOU, AND YOU, GO ON, QUICKLY NOW, GO-" He waved the redheaded group through, but just as Ginny was about to enter, a reporter from the Manchester Mage tried to duck under Oliver's arm, causing Oliver to step away just enough to pick the man up and throw him across the hall.
It was just enough of a distraction. Eloise saw Ron grab Colin's arm just before she felt herself pulled forward; Ginny had taken hold of her robes. "Come on. You're with me," she whispered, and steered Eloise right into the hospital ward.
"Ginny, thank you," Eloise breathed as they were shunted inside the cool, dark room, but Ginny was no longer next to her; she had run over to the beds, which were already surrounded by the brightly uniformed Cannons.
The door clicked shut behind them, cutting off a chorus of disappointed groans. No one else would get in. Eloise thought she might laugh, she was so happy. Harry would talk to her. She had an exclusive. Leon was going to be so proud. Prattleby was going to have to shut his mouth, for once. And Flummery was going to die.
While the Cannons grouped around Harry, offering congratulations and replaying the game's final minutes, a female voice whimpered from the bed on the right. Oliver rushed over to it. Maureen Knight was trying to raise herself up on one elbow and failing miserably; each time she tried, she fell back to the bed and screwed up her face in pain. Her pallid skin contrasted sharply with the bruises that had bloomed around each eye, and she was shooting resentful glances at a cross-looking mediwizard looming above her.
"Sam, I'm fine, let me get up."
"I'll tell you when you're fine, Knight. Now down. Rest."
"How is she, Sam?" asked Oliver. He had put a hand next Knight's head, and was speaking softly for the first time Eloise had ever heard. "She's talking, she's up, so she can't be too bad, but how're her bones?"
"I'll be....fine..." said Knight, struggling to sit up again. "I'll be ready for our next game, I'll be back in practice tomorrow, I swear-"
"That's not what I meant, lunatic, and you're not practicing tomorrow," said Oliver. "Now lie down or I'll have Sam sedate you."
"Not fair," Knight muttered but Eloise could swear she saw her smile at Oliver. Eloise had to stop from smiling, herself. Now there was something she hadn't known about Maureen Knight.
"Still can't believe you caught it, Harry," a ruddy Firoza was saying.
"I didn't, you know," came a weak voice whose owner Eloise couldn't see. "I mean, it just went up my...it doesn't, you know, count."
"Oh it COUNTS," Oliver barked, making Knight jump.
Colin was on his tiptoes, trying to see over the head of the nearest Cannon for a look at Harry; Eloise just readied her quill and checked the time. Almost nine. She'd have an hour to write this story - this story - at most. She crossed her hands in front of her to try and stop them from shaking.
"Hey - what's that? - No press!" Harry protested, and Eloise could see why; Colin was edging his camera through the wall of Cannons in front of him.
"It's just me, Harry!" said Colin, sounding much younger than he had all night. "I won't take a picture if you'd rather."
Harry laughed softly. "Oh, hi, Colin. It's fine. Go ahead." Colin flashed instantly. "Where's Eloise?"
Eloise jumped. "Right here, Harry," she said, raising her arm so he could see. A few Cannons shifted so she could move forward, and she got her first glimpse at Harry; the whole right side of him was battered, and he was pale as death, but a small smiled curved at his mouth. "When you have a minute."
"We sneaked Colin and Eloise in with us," said Ginny, who stood against the wall nearest to Harry's head and looked as if she was fighting to keep herself away. "I hope you don't mind, but I thought since they're our friends-"
"No, it's good," said Harry.
Harry shut his eyes and winced, and Ginny instantly put her hands up, as if to touch him. But she seemed to check herself, and with a sidelong glance at Professor Lupin, she slid back into place along the wall. Eloise was just wondering what that was all about when Harry spoke again.
"How did you get here?" he said to Ginny.
"Floo powder," said Ginny. "Barely in time, too. There was a rush on tickets once people heard you were playing - we almost didn't get ours."
"We?" Harry opened his eyes. The Cannons had drifted over to Knight's bedside, leaving the room for the rest of the Weasleys to gather round. Harry's eyes widened in faint shock. "You all..."
"Wouldn't've missed it, Harry!" exclaimed Fred. "Oliver's still got you running suicide missions."
"At least he's consistent, eh, Harry?" laughed George.
"Bloody Boomer," growled Angelina. "They should just kick him out of the league. Full stop. All this suspension business - look what he did to Knight, and the dirty trick he played on you! Bastard. You all right, Harry?"
Harry nodded, and his eyes glistened in the lamplight. Eloise was slightly taken aback, and her heart ached, a little. She'd always known Harry to be nice, polite, standoffish in the way you'd expect a hero of his kind to be. But she'd never known he was so emotional, and so, well, sweet; he looked at his friends as if they had just brought him the greatest gift in the world, and all they had done was show up. But then, according to what Eloise knew of Harry's childhood, perhaps showing up was enough.
"You've certainly come up since your third year," Professor Lupin said dryly, stepping up to the bed. "Very nice playing, Harry."
Harry laughed. He managed a soft, "Thanks," before Sirius Black moved into view, his eyes shining like silver. Harry fell silent.
It was a long moment before anyone breathed. "You -" rasped Sirius, and shook his head wordlessly. Eloise had been taking swift notes throughout, but she heard the hitch in Sirius' voice, and rested her quill at her side.
"-are phenomenal. Your dad- "
Harry swallowed hard, as did Sirius.
"You have - no idea - when you were little we used to - float you around and joke that one day you'd - and you did."
Eloise couldn't move. Her eyes were cloudy again, and so were Harry's; he blinked several times and stared up at the ceiling; everyone, including Eloise, looked away. She had barely felt the soft pressure at her side before she realized Colin had closed his hand around hers.
Something whirred in the otherwise silent room, and Eloise looked up to see Ron holding out his left arm, a gold and silver ball beating its wings between his thumb and forefinger.
"I nicked it," he said, his voice hoarse. "So you could keep it."
"You keep it," Harry breathed.
"Okay," said Ron.
Ginny's hand gripped Ron's arm with what was very clearly considerable force.
Harry seemed incapable of speech; his eyes were bright and wet, and still full of wonder as he surveyed the crowd around his bed. Objectivity aside, Eloise couldn't help but feel a surge of gratitude to the people who were making Harry Potter's life complete at last.
"Harry?" she choked out. "I won't interrupt if...if you need more time, but...if I had a few questions, would you...would you answer them?"
The look Harry gave her was almost relieved. He nodded. "Go ahead."
Tingles raced up Eloise's spine as Colin raised his camera.
"Great match, Harry," he whispered, then blinded them all with a flash.
"Thanks Colin," said Harry, using his uninjured arm to rub his eyes.
A harried mediwizard bustled past carrying bandages, and Eloise suddenly remembered her most important question. "One moment, Harry," she said, hurrying over to the surly man. "Excuse me? Excuse me - your name is Sam, right?"
Sam the mediwizard put his hands on his hips and stared at her impatiently. "That's me. And?"
"I just wanted to make sure - Harry and Ms. Knight are on painkillers, right?"
"Of course they are, with those injuries."
"Erm, right, so, are they okay to talk? I mean, I have some questions for them, but if their answers are going to be altered because of the pain-easing potions, it wouldn't be right to-" Eloise stopped. Sam was looking at her as if she had suddenly sprouted tentacles and burst into song. "I'm sorry, did I say something wrong, or insult you, or-"
"You want to know if talking to them would be ethical?" said Sam with strong disbelief in his voice.
"I've insulted you, I'm sorry, I didn't meant to imply-"
"No, no," Sam laughed, and his expression softened with respect. "You'll have to forgive me, Miss, but that's the first time I've been asked that question. What was your name?"
"Eloise Midgen, sir, from the Daily Prophet."
"Well, I'm glad to see the Prophet stopped hiring those blasted Skeeters and Flummerys. Midgen. Have to remember that. To answer your question, no, I've only given them Allevium Draughts, which will not affect their speech or thought. They're strictly for pain. Ask 'em anything you want."
"Let's not get carried away, Sam," said Oliver.
"I look forward to reading your article, Miss Midgen," Sam said, holding out his hand for Eloise to shake.
"Thanks," muttered Eloise, shaking his hand. Colin was staring at her, point-blank, wearing an expression she'd never seen before. "Right, so, Harry," she said, nearly overheating with embarrassment. "That was a terrific match."
Eloise poised her quill on a fresh role of parchment and set the instrument to record, leaving her hands free. "Just transcribing, not Quick Quotes, I promise," she said, making Ginny laugh.
"I know, Eloise."
"Anyway, Harry, my biggest question is, how did that feel? To be out on the pitch again?"
Harry sighed heavily, and Eloise wondered if she had started too big.
"It was...wonderful," he finally managed. "I don't know, I mean I can't really describe for you...I haven't played a real game in a long time. And never at night, except for that one long one in sixth year. But even then...I'm sorry, this isn't really answering your question, is it?"
"It's fine, Harry, really. It's perfect. Just talk."
Harry looked abashed for a moment. "Okay. Well. It was sort of like, like being back at school."
"Yeah, with Oliver barking at you and everything!" shouted Fred.
Harry laughed. "Especially with Oliver there. He's very, er..."
"Watch it," Oliver warned. His hand was still on Knight's head, and he and the rest of the Cannons were watching the interview from their side of the room, making Eloise feel as if that Snitch Ron pinched had made its way into her stomach.
"He's very enthusiastic," Harry finished. "Definitely enthusiastic."
"That's one word for it," joked Fred.
"Stark raving madman is another," put in George.
"Do you feel Oliver's style has changed since school, Harry?" asked Eloise.
Harry laughed so hard he winced. "No. Not at all. He's...well, he's Oliver."
"Oliver, can you comment on that?"
"Yes I bloody well can. I treat my men-right, right, men and women," he added when Firoza coughed, "-like the professional ruddy athletes they are which is why we're undefeated."
"Yet, you didn't hug Harry when he caught the Snitch, although you've ambushed Ms. Knight after every game thus far. Can you tell me why that is?" asked Eloise, knowing perfectly well what the answer was.
Oliver dropped his hand from Knight's pillow and backed away, his mouth opening and closing on its own. Colin's camera flashed, and Oliver suddenly looked like a trapped animal. "That's - that's -" he stammered, "that's -"
"Oh, ho...ow..." said Harry, wincing from laughter again. "Oliver? That's fine. I don't feel bad that you didn't try to hug me. Honestly. It's okay to break that, er, tradition."
Maureen Knight looked as if she wanted to disappear into her pillow.
"Midgen, you can't say - you can't print -" stuttered Oliver.
"Don't worry, not tonight," said Eloise, letting a mischievous smile creep onto her face. "Not this time - but we'll talk soon?"
Oliver nodded fervently; Eloise got the idea he just wanted out of the conversation, and that was fine. She had to finish her Harry exclusive before moving on to her Wood exclusive, anyway.
"So, Harry," said Eloise, turning back. "You haven't played a game since school, but you have scrimmaged with the Cannons. Was this game what you expected playing professional Quidditch to be like?"
"I never really..." he answered slowly, and as he struggled for more words, he began to look tense.. "I never really expected it. I mean, I don't think I ever thought...I don't think I ever thought I'd play professional Quidditch. Even when I was trying out for the Cannons - I never really..." He looked over at Ginny.
"You never looked that far ahead," Ginny offered.
"Yeah." Harry relaxed. His eyes lingered on Ginny, and a half-smile touched his mouth. "That's it."
Eloise's quill was scratching away at top speed. "And you just happened to be at the game tonight?"
"Yeah - Ron has season tickets."
"Which she got for me," said Ron, pointing at Knight. Oliver looked down in surprise.
"That's right, Oliver," she said, grinning. "I'm responsible for getting Harry to the game. I did go to the School for the Sight, you know." She tapped her head with her hand. "Knew this was going to happen. All part of my plan."
Oliver rolled his eyes, and Eloise giggled.
"Did anyone else know you were second reserve, Harry?"
"No. I didn't think I'd ever have to play."
"And Oliver - how did you decide to put Harry in over your first reserve, who after all has been practicing with you all season?"
"DECIDE? There was no decide. He's Harry Potter. He's...the only one with the talent to fill Knight's place." Knight looked up at Oliver in shock. "What? I mean it."
The Cannons snickered wickedly in the background.
"That's right, you lot, go ahead, we'll see who'll be running the drills tomorrow," Oliver warned. The room went quiet.
Eloise turned back to Harry. "Can you tell me about the last few minutes before the game?"
"Sure." Harry shifted a little on his bed; Ginny quickly ran over and raised the top half so that Harry could sit partly upright, then gave Harry's good shoulder the briefest of touches before going back to her place next to Ron. Harry stirred at her touch and watched her as she walked away, a grateful look on his face.
"I only had a minute or two," he finally said. "They gave me a uniform and Oliver gave me a quick rundown of the competition. He warned me about the Kestrels' leprechaun gold tricks, but I don't think I really listened, obviously. Then he gave me one of his usual pep talks, and we went to the field."
"Any last minute advice?"
"A little," said Harry, looking sheepish.
"Oh, don't tell me," laughed George. "He told him to 'get it or die trying,' didn't you, Oliver? Oh, Eloise, I don't know if you knew - back in fourth year, Oliver here thought it'd be inspiring to tell Harry to get the Snitch or die trying - and Harry here is always so obliging-"
"Was that the match with the rogue Bludger?"
"Right in one," said George. "We told him what a stupid thing it was to say, but that's Oliver. 'Get it or die trying,' honestly. And then Harry here goes and almost dies-"
"But he got the Snitch!" laughed Angelina. "Harry always got the Snitch."
"Yeah, despite the raving lunatic advice of raving lunatic captains," said George.
"So what was the advice this time, Harry?" asked Eloise.
'It was, erm..." Harry glanced briefly at Oliver. "It was, 'Get it or die trying.' "
Eloise had to fight down a laugh as she watched everyone in the room turn to look blankly at Oliver.
"You're joking," said Fred. "Oliver. Don't you learn, man?"
"What I learned is that that particular bit of advice has worked, twice now, and Harry did not die."
"Third time's a charm," muttered Ron. "Do us all a favor and don't play next time he says that, okay, Harry?"
"Okay," Harry laughed.
Harry was looking more relaxed than Eloise had ever seen him; perhaps it was time to start asking the real questions. If Ginny would let her. She took a deep breath.
"Harry, you..." she started, choosing her words carefully, "you've done a lot for the wizarding world." Ginny didn't seem angry. Harry inspected his bedcovers. Eloise plunged ahead. "People just expect great things from you at this point. Do you ever feel that pressure?"
Harry's eyes darkened, but only a little. He seemed to draw a breath into himself. "People expect...I don't know what people expect."
"What do you think they expect?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry. I just...I think they're just happy things are the way they are."
"Aren't you?" said Eloise gently.
"Yeah, of course I am," said Harry and his face clouded over. He didn't say anything else for a few seconds, and Eloise felt sure he was about to clam up for the rest of the interview. But he drew another ragged breath, and looked up again. "But I didn't do, you know...everything everyone says I did."
For a second, Eloise couldn't think of a thing to say. No one else seemed to be offering helpful hints, either; everyone was either looking at her or at Harry, wearing various levels of intrigue. Colin's camera was silent. They all knew what Harry had done. Harry seemed to be the only one who did not. "What do you think you did, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "I think - I had a lot of help. I think - I have a lot of friends." He looked down at his hands.
"Family," Sirius corrected hoarsely.
Angelina gave a suspicious sniffle and settled into Fred's embrace. Ginny leaned against Ron's chest, a content look on her face; Ron slung a lanky arm around her shoulders and rested his chin on the top of her head.
Eloise thought she would burst into tears, but she bit it back. It was getting late. And Harry was loosening up. She had to keep going.
"H-Harry, that brings me to my next question. Your friends have certainly become your family. What do you think brought you to them?"
Harry leaned back on his pillows. "Your questions were easier this summer," he said weakly.
"Ah, but you didn't get to see the whole list."
"Right, Ginny, go scratch off all Eloise's questions," said Ron, but Ginny didn't laugh with the rest.
"I wouldn't," she said quietly.
"Harry, you know you can choose not to answer if you want, right?" asked Eloise. "Anything you say that you don't want me to use, I won't."
"Really?" Harry looked as if he'd never heard of a stranger thing than journalistic ethics. It would have made Eloise laugh if it weren't so sad.
"But it's okay - I won't...after what you did for Ron...if you need me to answer questions, I will. Can you repeat the last one again?"
"Sure," said Eloise, in awe that one tiny, factual follow-up story had meant so much to the Weasleys. "What do you think brought you to the Weasleys?"
"Easy," said Harry, sitting up, suddenly very bright, "the hair. You really can't miss it, can you?"
"But honestly," said Harry soberly, when the giggles and jeers had died down. "I think it was just luck."
From across the room, Ginny gave Eloise an encouraging smile. Eloise smiled back, and as she asked her next question, and Harry answered even more candidly than he had before, everything else faded away; she settled in to have a nice long conversation, not even hearing the scratch of her quill as it set down material for what was quickly becoming the story of her life.
Eloise slammed her parchment on Leon's desk.
"DONE, DONE, DONE!"
"Two minutes to spare," said Leon, laughing. "Sure you don't want to-"
"NO! It's DONE!"
"All right, all right."
"And Leon? I need a day off."
Leon raked his eyes over the parchment and let out a low whistle. "Midgen. You can have anything you want. Harry Potter really said all of this?"
"Every word. I had my wand record it, you can hear it if you like."
Leon waved impatiently. "Not to check - I just want to listen to it. Jesus, Midgen. Harry Potter, talking like this. What did you do, drug him?"
Eloise giggled. "No."
"But look," he said, tapping the parchment, "Ron Weasley, Ginny Weasley, Oliver Wood, George Weasley, Maureen Knight, Sirius bloody BLACK. Midgen, were you a spy in the war?"
Eloise shook her head, grinning so hard her cheeks hurt. "No. Not a spy, I promise."
"Well, anyway - here." Leon thrust the parchment into none other than John Prattleby's hands. Prattleby had been hovering annoyingly about, but for the first time, Eloise wasn't worried; she stood up straight and offered Prattleby as sweet a smile as she could muster.
"Thanks, John," she said. "Let me know if there's anything you need clarified." And she turned on her heel and walked briskly back to her desk, where Colin was waiting, legs and arms crossed as he leaned against the lip.
"You're done then?" he said.
"Just about. I should hang around, though - wait for Prattleby to do a nice hatchet job on my article. That's always great fun."
Colin snorted. "I'd like to see him try, on this story."
A warm feeling of contentment had spread so far through Eloise that she didn't even correct Colin's praise. Prattleby wasn't going to do much to the story. It was good. Very good. Her best yet, the best she'd get for quite a while. She couldn't believe it was written and done with; the interview ended a close to ten 'o' clock, leaving her exactly an hour to work. She and Colin had raced back to the newsroom as if their clothes were on fire, Eloise scribbling the entire time. Colin had run off to the darkroom so fast she didn't even see him go, and she had thrown her cloak to the side, spread her transcript and notes out on her desk, and had written like a woman possessed. No one had dared come near her while she was writing, not even Leon.
Now Eloise sat at her desk and rested her head on it, watching the newsroom traffic with tired eyes. The last minutes of production were under way, and as long as the day had been and as badly as Eloise needed sleep, she knew she wasn't going anywhere. She wanted a copy of her exclusive, and she wanted it before she left the office. There was an empty picture frame sitting in her flat, waiting for a story like this; it would be full before she went to bed. Maybe she'd act like a total loser and ask Harry to sign it.
"Hey, did you see Sweeney's piece on Knight?" asked Colin, softly nudging the top of her head.
Eloise sat up. "No, is it good?"
"It's great - here." Colin handed her a piece of parchment that looked like it had been through four editors' hands, and together they read through the article; they were just up to the part about Knight "mysteriously" leaving the Ballycastle Bats ("Guess their Keeper wasn't handsome enough," joked Colin) when someone cleared his throat.
John Prattleby stood before them. Eloise braced herself. "That was an excellent piece, Midgen," he said. "Front page has it now. Good work." He gave a little half nod, and one to Colin, and sauntered off.
Eloise turned slowly to look at Colin. "What just happened?"
Colin laughed. "Nothing that wasn't deserved."
"Oh, stop, you haven't even read the article yet," said Eloise, blushing.
"I know," said Colin without changing expression. "So, when the issue is done, how about we-"
"MIDGEN!" Jim Scrynne screamed from across the newsroom. "GOLD! This is GOLD!" Scrynne sprinted over, a few newspapers clutched in his fist. "Here you go, first issues."
Eloise took the paper with a trembling hand. McCall's game piece, under a small " POTTER PLAYS" ran in one column down the lefthand side of the page; the rest was taken up by a five-column headline, with an "EXCLUSIVE" tag waving off the end. The featured picture showed Harry, smiling as he lay battered and bruised in the hospital wing, encircled by his family; next to it, in print just big enough to make Eloise's heart lurch, were the words "By Eloise Midgen, Daily Prophet Correspondent."
"Wow," she breathed.
"Nice, huh?" said Scrynne, grinning widely. "Good work, both of you." Eloise barely looked up to thank him as he walked away.
Eloise leaned back in her chair and looked up at Colin, who was grinning even more widely than Scrynne had been.
"Wait, don't read it," said Colin, settling himself on Eloise's desk with his copy of the paper in his hands. "Let me."
"POTTER FINALLY FLYING HIGH," he read. "The Boy Who Lived Speaks About Professional Quidditch, Family and Life After Voldemort. That's really snappy."
Eloise giggled. "I didn't write that part."
"Moving on. By Eloise Midgen, Daily Prophet Correspondent.
Harry Potter is happy.
He's just fallen 40 feet from a broomstick, his right side is battered as if beaten by a giant, and tomorrow he'll return to work over the icy waters of Azkaban Island, on a Ministry of Magic task force assigned to keep Dementors from escaping the prison. Yet, as he sits in the Chudley Cannons' hospital wing, propped up on pillows and physically numbed by a litany of painkilling charms, Harry Potter is surprisingly content.
Of course, it helps that that Potter has just made his professional Quidditch debut, having been literally pulled from the stands to step in for the Cannons' injured Seeker. It helps that he has just played his first real game since Hogwarts, where he was Gryffindor's star performer. It helps that he has just pulled off a miraculous victory, his stunning capture of the Snitch allowing the Cannons to overcome rotten trickery from the opposition to retain their unblemished season record.
But the thing that's really making Harry Potter smile is grouped protectively around his bedside, displaying worried expressions, freckles, ginger hair, and eyes red from too much joy.
It's his family.
Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and a horde of Weasleys surround him, fuss over him, treat him as though he was born into their ranks. Potter has never known this kind of attention. And to look at him, glowing over their simple presence, is to know how much he's needed it.
'I never thought about having a family,' says Potter. 'It just seems the kind of thing you only get one of.' And Voldemort killed his. So when Potter says it was 'just luck' that brought him to the people he now calls family, perhaps he's right.
'Rubbish,' says Ron Weasley, who Potter has known since his first train ride on the Hogwarts Express. 'Luck is nothing to do with it. Our Mum saw him at Kings' Cross and wouldn't let us alone until we took him in. He's a bit of a nuisance, really, always getting us into trouble,' Weasley jokes.
There's partial truth to that statement; until recently, Potter's life was constantly under threat. 'It's strange, with Voldemort gone,' says Potter. 'I don't know if I ever really believed he would be.' He is, and Potter killed him, thanks to an immensely complex spell empowered by his newfound family's love for their newfound brother.
Six months after that legendary battle, Potter's family is still protecting him, even when there isn't much they can do. Just tonight, as Potter fell from a horrifying height from his his teammate's Firebolt 5, this clan, who had been watching the game with white knuckles, jumped barriers, barreled through security and threatened to hex anyone that stood between them and the injured Potter. The Quidditch, the game, the save, the victory - yes, all of that helps. But having his family around him when he woke up in the hospital wing?
'It was perfect,' says Potter. 'I couldn't ask for - well, maybe one thing. I wish Hermione were here.' He's referring to Hermione Granger, his other best friend (and Ron Weasley's girlfriend), who has been in Cortona since September, studying the subtle craft of Thinking. 'She would have enjoyed this - though she might have had a heart attack first.'
" 'Not to worry, mate,' says Ron Weasley, patting a pair of Omnioculars. 'I have it all saved, she can have her kittens soon enough.'
After spending almost all of the first 18 years of his life unwittingly embroiled in a war he did nothing - short of being born to Godric Gryffindor's bloodline - to start, one might expect Potter to pack his post-bellum schedule with nothing but lazy afternoons, nights at the pub and perhaps a Quidditch scrimmage here and there.
If you think so, you don't know Potter.
Barely two weeks after the war ended, Potter was, quite literally, on the field again - trying out for a Quidditch team for the first time, for his old school captain and the Chudley Cannons' current sergeant, Oliver Wood.
'I thought I'd just see what happened,' Potter shrugs. 'I don't know what I was expecting, trying out.'
Certainly not an easy ride; Wood doesn't get his reputation as a slavedriver's taskmaster for nothing. Potter spent his first-ever summer away from Muggle society at the Quidditch pitch, training from as early as 6 a.m. until as late as 4 p.m., with no guarantee he'd make the final cut. Not even when his old schoolmate was captain.
'Oliver didn't even notice me at first,' says Potter. 'I showed up and he just yelled at me to get in the air.'
'Oh, I knew he was there,' says Wood. 'You can't miss Harry Potter on a broom. But the little bugger made it onto my team without trying out once, and I'll be damned if it was going to happen again! Besides - he had some fair competition.'
Maureen Knight. Ex Ballycastle Bat. Such a threat to the opposition that she was injured before tonight's game even started. Willing to make a Seeker-shaped hole in the ground if it means getting the Snitch.
'We fought for it good,' laughs Knight. 'I went home aching every night, Potter drove me so mad.'
In the end, Wood granted the first-string Seeker position to Potter.
'It's not that Knight didn't have it,' says Wood. 'She had it in spades. But Potter and Quidditch - that's art. With him as first and Knight as second, I knew the Cannons would conquer. Then Potter got that bloody owl from the Ministry.'
Wood growls a little as he talks about the Ministry, and anyone who is thankful to Potter for his conquests would growl too; the wizarding world at large probably wants nothing more than to see Potter play Quidditch for a living, enjoy the rest of his youth, and never, ever, have to wrestle with a Dark force again. Perhaps that last bit is wishful thinking, but it's not out of line to think Potter should steer clear of heroism for a few years at least.
Or even a few months.
On the very same day - indeed, directly after - Wood made his Quidditch position announcements, Potter received an urgent owl from the Ministry, asking for help. The Permanent Azkaban Patrol (P.A.P.) was having difficulty rounding up the nine dragon-riders they needed to effectively surround the tiny prison-island with the natural, positive energy dragons emit, which staves off Dementors. The Dementors, restless now that the free reign they enjoyed while Voldemort was in power has been stripped, constantly threaten to escape Azkaban and infiltrate civilization; as there is no known enchantment to destroy a Dementor, Acting Minister of Magic Arthur Weasley devised a plan to entrap them, in the short term. A round-the-clock patrol of dragons keeps the Dementors at bay. They're cunning in their evil, though, and have been known to try and use the smallest gap in coverage as a wedge, or join forces to attack one rider.
'We all told him not to take it,' says Ron Weasley. 'But Harry couldn't say no. He just couldn't.'
'I went to Azkaban because it felt important,' says Potter. 'I love Quidditch, but helping Mr. Weasley and the rest of the Ministry felt like it was what I should do.'
And so Potter went, leaving behind his childhood joy to pursue adult duty. Again.
'Harry could never have lived with himself if he had chosen what he wanted over what needed to be done,' says Remus Lupin, once Potter's Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, who was one of Potter's deceased parents' closest friends. 'He's just like his father that way.'
The job, however, is getting harder each day. Recent events suggest that the dragons' power is weakening; there are only nine riders, and the shifts are long. The dragons are growing irritable and sickly, and are prone to tossing their riders into the sea. If a beast the size of a hundred men can feel a Dementor's presence, it stands to reason that the riders could also be exposed.
But don't expect Potter to tell you that he's affected by the Dementors' presence. Don't expect him to mope or want pity for having to stave off Voldemort four times before he was of wizarding age. Don't even expect him to be worried at the idea of another Dark force rising within his lifetime.
'Someone gave me good advice about that, once,' he says, looking pensive. 'If it happens, we'll fight. We'll try and stop it. There's no use worrying about it now. What's coming will come. We'll meet it when it does.'
Somewhere, the owner of that quote - the late Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts - is smiling.
Quidditch Lesson No. 1, by Oliver Wood: Get it or die trying.
When Maureen Knight was knocked out in tonight's pre-game by an arguably intentional hit by Kestrel Tim Boomer (now suspended for cheating during the game), the future of the Cannons' undefeated record seemed bleak. So when Potter showed up on the field - after being literally thrown out of the stands by Ron Weasley, a lifetime Chudley Cannon fanatic and one of the many people who had no idea Potter was second-reserve for the team - Wood said he felt as if his dreams had come true. Potter was just as stunned.
'He made me sign that paper saying I'd be second reserve, and I only did it because I felt so bad about leaving the team before I'd really been on it,' says Potter. 'I never, in a million years, thought tonight would happen.'
'It's that bloody nobility complex of his that made him sign it,' jokes Ron Weasley. 'At least it's finally came in useful.'
Wood immediately substituted Potter for Knight, giving him a very short explanation of the Kestrels' key maneuvers, a quick demonstration of a Firebolt 5 and a very old, very useful piece of advice. 'Get it or die trying.'
He's used that advice once before, during a very memorable match in Potter's second year. Both times he's said it, Potter did nearly die - at Hogwarts, because of a tampered Bludger that nearly took his head off; tonight, because of an opposing Seeker who nearly took his arm off. But Potter also caught the Snitch both times, and Wood makes no apologies for his overzealous advice tactics, even when George Weasley calls him a 'raving lunatic.'
'It was wonderful,' says Potter of his return to the pitch. 'I'd forgot, really, what it was like to play a real game.'
'He belongs up there,' proclaims Ginny Weasley. Potter and Ginny are rumoured to be dating, but ask either of them about it and they'll turn identical shades of scarlet and change the subject back to Quidditch. 'He was always most at home in the air.'
He could stay there, too; it's only another half-year until the next tryouts. Potter makes no promises.
'I don't know what's going to happen. Perhaps if the problems are solved at Azkaban, perhaps then. I'd like to play Quidditch,' he says, in a way that makes you think work will be just a little harder, from now on.
He'll go, though. He'll go right back to work, because that's Harry Potter. Even as he sits, transformed, in the Cannons' hospital wing, safe and content for the first time in his young but long life, he's still Harry Potter, his parents' child.
'You have no idea,' says an emotional Sirius Black, talking to Potter, his godson. 'When you were little we used to float you around and joke that one day you'd - and you
Yes he did.
"Eloise. Wow." Colin was still staring at the paper. Eloise could only see the crown of his sandy head shaking from side to side. "You wrote that in an hour?"
Eloise laughed, much louder than she'd intended to. It was such a relief, sitting here with the article printed. It was as if she hadn't worked all evening, though her vaguely aching bones said otherwise. "Yes," she said faintly, seeing visions of her bed dance before her eyes.
"Hey." Colin tapped her over the head with the paper. "Are you with me?"
"Oh - yes. Yes. I'm here. I'm so tired." She needed to just fall down and...rest a while. Quickly, so she couldn't talk herself out of it, Eloise folded her arms over Colin's nearest knee, and rested her head upon them. She closed her eyes; he was so warm and calm. He'd never been that way at school. But then, she thought ruefully, a lot of things had changed since school.
Colin stroked the top of her head gently, pulling hair away from her cheek. Eloise wondered if anyone noticed them, sitting here in the newsroom this way; Prattleby would have new reasons to scowl at her by morning. But suddenly it didn't matter so much.
"Have you eaten?" said Colin, out of nowhere.
Eloise made a face. "Oh...food...I forgot. Oh, but I can't...I need sleep..."
"I know. So how about we meet after we both get a good night's rest?" His voice sounded strange. Strained. "Maybe tomorrow night at eight? At Moon Lights?"
Eloise sat up straight. Moon Lights. Dinner...dancing...ambience...yes... She looked at Colin's face; he wasn't joking. If anything, he looked rather nervous. "Yes," she said, unable to stop herself from grinning. "I'd love to."
"Good." He was grinning, too; for nearly a minute, they did nothing but grin at each other.
"Hey. Yoo-hoo. Hello. HELLO?" It was Leon.
"Yes?" said Eloise, not turning.
"Just checking to see what you were up to," said Leon, and Eloise could hear the snicker in his voice. "Couldn't interest you two in an assignment, tomorrow night, there's a-"
"NO." They had both said it, instantly.
"Sorry, Leon," Eloise giggled. "Is it important?"
"Not really," and his left eye twitched with mischief. "Sweeney can do it. I was just testing. Go the hell home, Midgen. Get out of my newsroom."
"No problems here! See you Tuesday, Leon." She grabbed her cloak and swung it around her shoulders.
"My flat's on the way," said Colin. "I'll walk you." Colin offered his arm, and Eloise took it, feeling rather grand despite the massive amount of ink that had, over the course of the night, landed on her hands and robes.
It was cold at midnight, and Colin tugged Eloise closer as they stepped outside. As they walked up the cobbled, lamplit lane together, pointing out nonexistent constellations and laughing at their own silliness, Eloise thought of Harry, and, not counting everything else he'd done, how much she now owed him.
How very, very much.
Another A/N: Some of the dialogue in the hospital wing - before Eloise starts her interview, including that crazy-crazy-crazy touching quote from Sirius - goes right to the lovely Arabella's credit, as does Ron's Snitch pinch.
The Sugar Quill was created by Zsenya and Arabella. For
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