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Chapter Nineteen: The Gauntlet

Christmas was descending over Hogwarts, bringing a blanket of snow and the spirit of good will to the school. The ghosts went around in little groups, singing Christmas carols, and Justin Finch-Fletchley set up a hot chestnut stand in the entrance hall. It became very popular, especially among the muggle-born students, and proceeds all went towards the Bright Sparks training program. When asked what the money was supposed to be spent on, Justin's reply was that half-time snacks cost gold.

The Great Hall, as usual, was decorated for the holidays, with twelve towering Christmas trees hung with baubles, icicles, delicate ornamental presents, satin bows and tiny little golden trinkets. The Enchanted Ceiling was constantly sprinkling snow that never reached their heads, and great roaring fires had been lit in every classroom and hall. The grounds were iced with snow and frost that stretched across the horizon as far as the eye could see.

Harry would have been quite interested in the spectacular show that winter was putting on for the school, if he could take his mind off Snape. All his friends, to their credit, were being very helpful and kind about it. Only Ron, Hermione and Kainda knew about the guardian bond and his fight with Snape, but the others could all sense something was wrong, and they tried to distract his mind from it. Hermione's idea of something fun and non-Snape-related was revising for NEWTs, which wasn't exactly on Harry's list of hobbies. Draco, Ron and Ginny took him out into the snowy grounds to play Quidditch, and Neville sometimes joined in, even though he went blue in the cold and they had to keep him wrapped up. Luna wasn't the most comforting person in the world, but Bucket the kitten did a marvellous job one morning by leaping into one of the Christmas trees, trying to climb it and getting tangled up in tinsel. Hagrid had to rescue him, and ended up with numerous scratches before Bucket had all four furry feet back on the ground. The sight of Bucket scampering along after Hagrid and trailing tinsel across the hall made most of the girls coo and sigh over how cute he was. It even brought a smile to Harry's face.

Sneezy was doing by far the best job of cheering Harry up. Harry's fuzzy fungus had long since been relocated to the bin, but Sneezy was doing a marvellous job on his own. He'd started to hold half decent conversations by now, even though his grammar was terrible. Four days from Christmas, on December 21st, he was telling Harry all about an owl he'd seen the previous day.

"Was huuuuuuuge owul!" he squeaked, stretching his arms out as far as they could and hopping up and down. "Biiiig wings! Flap flap flap! And my says, 'Low owul!', but owul says not!"

"Says nothing," said Harry, smiling slightly, giving Sneezy a bit of toast.

"Mmmmmm, bickchit," said Sneezy. He nibbled on his toast for a while, and then went pottering off to pester Draco for some of his croissants and tell him all about the owl.

"What's going on today then?" asked Ron. "I mean, we've got no more school until after New Year. Shall we go out and play Quidditch some more in the grounds?"

"Yeah, okay," said Harry. He sprinkled some salt and pepper on his eggs; it was the only way to stop Sneezy asking for some. Sneezy was always sneezing anyway, but salt and pepper turned him blue in the face and choking for air. After that, Sneezy wouldn't go near any sort of powder, including snow, which was a bit of a problem, what with the castle being surrounded on all sides by it.

"I'll go and ask Justin and Ernie if they want to come, shall I?" said Draco, standing up, and surrendering his pastry to Sneezy. "I'm not going to get any peace here anyway, with Little Mister Chatterbox here."

He went off towards the other side of the hall. In his absence, Sneezy grabbed the rest of the croissant, hurried across the table, dipped it in the ketchup from Ron's kippers, and then put it on Draco's chair, giggling.

"Thanks," said Ron, dryly, picking bits of pastry out of his kippers. "Really appreciate it, Sneezy."

"S'okay," Sneezy said, beaming.

Draco came back from the Hufflepuff table. "I've asked them, and they say it'll be fine. They'll meet us in the grounds at - " And he sat down.

"It was NOT funny."

"Heeheehee, my thinks was very funny."

"How about I dip you in ketchup? We'll see how funny that is."

"My dares you."

"Or... how about I seal you in a little tub of... SALT?"

Sneezy squealed and hid in Ron's pocket. Draco snickered.

"Oh, don't be cruel," said Ginny, frowning.

"And sticking a croissant to my backside isn't counted as cruel?" he said, raising an eyebrow at her, and pulling his Quidditch gloves on tighter.

Ginny gave him a very placid look, as though she couldn't care less. "It's no skin off my nose. And I thought it was funny, it's just a shame that all Malfoys have their senses of humour torn out of them at birth, and cast into the fire."

Ron frowned at them both. "Do you both mind? Sneezy's having a little crisis here, and he doesn't need you two immature people fighting like infants." He tutted. "Honestly, how long can you drag a fight out for?"

"You managed several months," said Ginny, blandly.

"Hello down there? Can you even hear me?" Harry called, up in the air on his broomstick and waving at them. "You'd better not be fighting!"

"No, they're not," Kainda shouted, from her place next to Hermione. "They're talking about Quidditch." She lowered her voice, and glanced sideways at them all, smirking. "Now, get flying before I tell the boss."

Draco laughed, and took off into the air on his broom. "Clever, Kainda."

Ron handed Sneezy carefully to Hermione, and then he and Ginny followed Draco up half-heartedly, not wanting to leave the warmth of Hermione's fire in a jar. Kainda chuckled, and stuck another marshmallow on her toasting fork, holding it over the flames. "Some people don't appreciate the small things in life, huh?"

Hermione turned another page in her book, and glanced at Kainda. "You really miss it, don't you?" she asked, with a kind expression, as everybody up in the air started to do some throwing exercises.

Kainda nodded. "It's like... what if you lost your sight, Hermione? You wouldn't be able to read, or write, or do any of the things you like doing. It's a bit like that with me. Madam Pomfrey says my stomach muscles are getting stronger, and she's going to see if I can walk on my own after Christmas."

"That's good news," said Hermione, smiling. "If you can walk, you'll be able to ride a broomstick."

Kainda shook her head. "Riding a broomstick is nothing compared to playing Quidditch. You've got to be able to duck and weave and stretch and everything. Things I can't do." She sighed, and looked down at her hands. She still wore her fingerless leather Quidditch gloves. "My NEWTs are going well though. I've got no idea what sort of job I want to get. Something in an office, probably. Boring stuff like that."

"You could be a Quidditch referee," suggested Hermione.

Kainda smirked and sat back, pulling her thick coat closer around her shoulders. "I'd end up starting more fights than the players."

Up in the air, things were going well. When he first decided to coach the team, Harry had promised himself that he wouldn't intrude too much, and wouldn't become Oliver Wood. Wood had always demonstrated every special move, and made them do it over and over until there wasn't a hair out of place when they executed it in a game. Harry was determined not to end up like that, but it was very hard watching Ron try a Sloth Grip Roll.

"It's supposed to be a roll, really fluid," he said. "Just grip your broom and swing round. Imagine you're in a washing machine."

"In a what?" said Ron, who was hanging upside down and staring at Harry.

"Never mind. Just roll, and don't flop limply. The idea is to roll, so you can - "

"Harry. I get it." Ron clambered the right way around his broom, and gripped it tight. "Okay, so I roll upside down and then round again. Like in a corkscrew."

"Exactly," said Harry. "Remember it's a roll, than flopping yourself upside-down and then upright again."

Ron bit his lip, and flicked himself to one side. He got upside-down, swung a little, but stayed there. He huffed. "It's the broom, it must be. It's not built for doing this rolling stuff."

"Maybe you've got to sort of... roll the broom at the same time," said Harry, thoughtfully. "Just keep trying, okay? You'll get it in the end. I'm sure that Wood could do it, about three times in a row."

"Wood was built like a body-builder," Ron complained. He rolled the right way on his broom, and just lay across it limply, his arms and legs hanging below him. "I'm not. Hey, do you think if I tried looping it...? Or maybe I'm not moving the broom with me or something."

"Harry! Harry!"

Harry turned to the other end of the pitch, where Ginny and Neville were practicing. She was waving him over. Leaving Ron to keep practicing his rolls, Harry flew over to them, hovering in mid-air.

"Neville's having trouble catching," said Ginny. "His hands have gone all cold."

Harry eyed Neville's hands. They were going very blue. "Alright, Nev, go and sit down. Ask Hermione to conjure you some gloves, you'll be fine once you've warmed up a bit. Draco! Can you come and play Chaser while - "

There was suddenly a scream from across the pitch. Everybody jolted and wheeled around, trying to see where it had come from. Across the stands in the top box, Harry could see Ernie and Justin. Ernie was panicking, and Justin was slowly sinking to the floor.

"Help!" Ernie shouted. "Help, help!"

Harry turned his Firebolt around and sped up the pitch, dropping easily into the top box next to Justin. He was crouching on the ground, cradling his arm, shaking with pain.

"What happened?" he asked, as the others all arrived and crowded around Ernie and Justin.

"The Bludger escaped from the box," said Ernie, frantically. "It cracked him in the arm, and I don't know where it's gone..."

Luna and Hermione came hurrying along the back row of seats. Hermione was pushing Kainda's wheelchair, while Luna had her arms full with Bucket. Neville came shivering along behind them, blowing on his hands.

"What's gone wrong?" said Hermione, kneeling next to Justin.

"Bludger attack, Mione," said Ron. "We don't know where it's gone. Ernie, what direction did it go off in?"

"Towards the forest," said Ernie, quickly, "but it could - "

Suddenly, the wooden ceiling of the box splintered as the Bludger came smashing down through it. Everybody screamed, trying to get out of the way. Harry didn't know quite what made him do it, or whatever gave him the thought he could actually pull it off, but he leapt forward. His arms went around the Bludger and he fell, slamming it to the floor, and clinging onto it with all his might. It struggled and tugged, trying to get away.

"Get the box!" Harry shouted, thrashing his legs to stop it getting away.

Ginny ran and got the box of Quidditch balls, dragging it over. Harry struggled to it, while Ginny undid the straps, and together they managed to force the Bludger back into its case. He strapped it down firmly, panting.

"There," he said, rubbing his chest to get rid of the ache there from hitting the Bludger. "Now... what?"

Everybody was staring at him. He raised his eyebrows.

"What?" he repeated.

"How on earth did you do that and not get killed?" said Ernie, sounding awe-struck.

Harry shrugged. "Wood used to do it. The first time he showed me the Bludgers, he wrestled it back into the box. Look, we'll debate it later. Justin needs to get to the hospital wing."

"How are we going to move him?" said Ginny, worriedly.

"Levitation?" suggested Draco. "Though it's a long way to the castle, and it's never safe to levitate anybody with a broken bone. It could get even more damaged if we don't do it perfectly."

"Can we carry him?" said Luna. Bucket was clawing at the ends of her scarf, but she didn't seem to notice. "There are a lot of us. I'm sure we could manage it."

"That's even more risky than levitation," said Ron, biting his lip. "Shall I fly to the castle and fetch Madam Pomfrey?"

"What good is that going to do?" said Ernie. "We'll still have Justin stuck out here and no way to get him in."

"Wait! I know!" said Hermione. She stood up, rolled up her sleeves and drew her wand. "I'll conjure a stretcher! Then we can just load him onto it, and levitate the stretcher up to school!"

Everybody stood back to give her some room. Justin was still clutching his arm tight. Hermione made sure to point her wand away from him, gave it a few flicks, and pointed it. Harry saw the first flickers of a stretcher start to appear, but there was suddenly a wild hissing and snarling noise as Bucket the kitten leapt from Luna's arms, straight at Hermione's wand. Hermione yelled with pain as Bucket's claws sunk into her hand, knocking her wand off course, and most unfortunately, it landed pointing at Justin's arm. There was a horrible splintering and ripping noise, Justin screamed, and as everybody realised what the spell had done, silence fell. Hermione put her hands over her mouth, choking.

"Oh no! Justin... I'm so sorry! Quick, we'll have to carry him to the castle, it doesn't matter about the risks to his arm... oh no... what have I done?"

It was a very quiet afternoon for all of them, sitting outside the hospital wing, trying not to look at each other. Justin was still inside, being seen to by Madam Pomfrey, who had been exceptionally angry when they brought him in. She wouldn't let them in, as she had other patients who needed privacy (Snape, Harry had thought with a sinking feeling to his stomach), and told them all to wait outside. Hermione was close to tears, and Ron was trying to comfort her. Everybody else was just sitting quietly, and doing their best to forget what it was like to see a stretcher conjured inside somebody's arm. Only Luna was in good spirits.

"It's very quiet around here," she said mildly, still petting a rather smug-looking Bucket.

"Maybe it should stay like that," said Draco, raising an eyebrow.

Luna smiled dreamily at him. "Oh, I don't. I can't see why everybody is being quite so grim..."

"Because Justin's in there with a wooden frame stuck in his arm!" Ernie snapped.

Hermione started to cry. Ron put his arm around her gently. "It's not your fault, Mione," he said, soothingly. He raised his voice, and glanced at Luna. "You shouldn't feel guilty for other people's mistakes."

"I'm sensing some rather negative feelings towards Bucket," said Luna, hazily, her protuberant eyes glancing around at them all.

"Imagine that," muttered Draco.

The door of the hospital wing opened, and Madam Pomfrey stuck her head out. "You can come and see him now," she said. "But him and only him. And not for long! He's got a lot of recovering to do."

They all nodded, and filed into the hospital wing. Luna put Bucket down outside the doors, and he scampered off into the dungeons after a rat.

The bed at the very far end of the ward was shielded by screens. Harry didn't even need to think to realise who must be in there, nursing his wounds and his pride. Madam Pomfrey noticed him staring, and promptly steered him towards Justin, frowning. He didn't argue.

Justin was sitting up in bed, looking rather pained, but perfectly happy. He smiled wearily as they all came over, and opened his mouth to say something, but Hermione got there first.

"I'm so sorry, Justin," she wept. "I just didn't know... and I promise, that never normally happens..."

"It's okay," he said, sportingly. "No harm done... well... actually..."

"What is it?" asked Ginny.

Justin looked slightly nervous. He toyed with his fingers for a moment, and then said, with a weak little laugh, "Our team does seem to come in with a lot of injury-related losses... Madam Pomfrey has fixed my arm as well as she can, but... you see, the thing is, the joint was cut right through, by the... ah... stretcher. And there's a bit of a problem with it."

"What sort of problem?" said Ernie, watching Justin fearfully.

"It's a little... weak," said Justin, in a limp sort of way. "And to save any movement in it at all, Madam Pomfrey had to put a hinge charm in there. But the thing is, she's never used a hinge charm on an elbow before. And... there was an unpredicted effect."

At everybody's prompting looks, he took his arm from under the sheets. Everybody gasped in horror as he managed to bend it the wrong way, so he was touching his shoulder blades with the back of his palm.

"Indeed," he said, blandly, setting it the right way again. "And it's going to be like that for some time, you see. What with it being weak too, it's not going to have much power at swinging a bat."

"So we've lost another Beater," said Draco, gravely.

Justin nodded. "And I didn't even last a single match."

"Well... it wasn't your fault," said Ernie. "I mean... we can find another Beater, can't we? It's not like the whole school are assigned to Quidditch teams. There has to be somebody, somewhere..." He trailed off.

Everybody was looking at Harry, grimly. He glanced back at them and sighed. "We need to find a new Beater then. Any suggestions?"

"Um..." said Kainda.

"Maybe..." said Ron.

"Possibly..." said Draco.

"Who?" asked Harry.

"You," the three of them replied.

"Me?" Harry said, shocked. "Me? A Beater? Firstly, I'm not a Beater. And secondly, I don't play Quidditch anymore. If I did, I'd be a Seeker or a Chaser, not a Beater."

"Harry," said Ron, firmly. "You wrestled a Bludger to the ground. You've definitely got the strength to be a Beater."

"It's completely different swinging a club," said Harry. "At my old muggle school, I was always rubbish at tennis and things like that. I couldn't hit a ball at all."

"The Bludger isn't a ball," said Kainda. "It's attracted towards you. All you've got to do is swing your club vaguely towards it, and you'll hit it."

"I haven't got the power in my arms though," said Harry. "Honestly, guys, I can't be a Beater. Have you ever seen a Beater as skinny as me? I'll get mashed into a pulp out there."

Everybody swapped significantly exasperated looks.

"What?" said Harry.

"You're not eleven anymore," said Hermione, timidly.

Harry stared at her. "Thanks for informing me, but we're talking about Quidditch, Hermione."

"No, I mean... yes, you were skinny in first year..." she said. "But you've grown up, Harry. You're not short and weedy anymore."

"Weedy?" said Harry, eyebrows shooting towards his hairline. "What do you mean, weedy? I wasn't weedy!"

"Um..." said Ron. "Well, don't take it the wrong way, but you were. Sort of. Look, stand up, and I'll show you."

Harry stood up, wondering what all this was about. Ron got to his feet, and then said, "Malfoy, stand up."

Draco frowned, but got up anyway.

"Right. Hermione, in first year, who was the tallest out of me, Malfoy and Harry?" asked Ron.

"Probably you," said Hermione. "Then Draco... then Harry..."

"And who was the weediest?" asked Ron.

Harry choked at that, but Hermione said, "Well... if you mean little and skinny, then probably Harry..."

"And who is now the most well-built?" said Ron.

Harry glanced at Draco and Ron. Ron was actually shorter than he was, only by an inch or so. Draco was the same height as him, maybe a tiny bit taller. It was the first time Harry had taken a good look at Ron and Draco, compared to himself, and to his surprise, he wasn't actually that... well, weedy anymore. Draco was slim, tall and tapered. Ron was still rather lanky. He looked at his own arms and chest, and could have predicted Hermione's answer.

"Harry," she whispered.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to be good as a Beater," he said, quickly.

"Oh, come on Harry," said Kainda. "Look at you, you can be a Beater, easily! You're the perfect build! You know how much you love Quidditch, and the team needs a Beater..."

"But - " said Harry.

"Stop being such a gentleman," she said, grinning. "I don't care that I get to sit in the stands and drink hot chocolate for a few hours every week, it's perfectly fine with me. I know you care about me, Harry, you don't have to give up something you enjoy to prove it... here."

She pulled up her sleeves, and started to undo the buckles of her precious Quidditch gloves. They were her favourites, hand-made, and she had never lost a game while wearing them - but all the same, she slid them off her arms, and handed them to Harry.

She smiled up at him. "Come on, Harry... do me proud..."

He looked down at the gloves, and didn't quite know what to say. A lump almost came to his throat. He knew how much they meant to Kainda, how she rarely took them off, how she'd dreamed of playing Quidditch for England while wearing these. He looked up at her, and her eyes sparkled, hopefully.

He slid the gloves on, buckled them in place, and felt a rush of pride. "I'll do it," he said.

"Excellent!" said Ron, grinning and clapping him on the back. "Let's get you outside then, and start training you to hit things!"

"We'll see you later okay, Justin?" said Ernie, tentatively.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," said Justin. He smiled, and called after them as everybody left the hospital wing, "Oh Ernie, don't forget to do the hot-chestnut stall, we can't lose business!"

Everybody turned left in the entrance hall, heading out into the grounds again, but Harry stopped a voice behind him said, "Harry?"

He turned, and saw Kainda struggling to keep up with everybody walking so fast. He went over to her, and took the handles of her wheelchair.

"Thanks," she said, gratefully. She reached up, and put her hand over his. "You'll be a great Beater, I know you will."

"As long as you're okay with it," he said. "I mean, I wouldn't want you to feel left out or anything... especially because I've got your gloves and your Quidditch position, but you're still stuck doing nothing... if you don't want me to - "

She laughed. "So sweet. But honestly, Harry, I don't mind... I want to see my gloves used, and I wouldn't ever pull you down. Quidditch isn't everything in my life. There are more important things... studying, and homework, and fun stuff like that."

Harry glanced up through the doors of the hall. Everybody else was halfway across the grounds by now, completely unaware that Harry and Kainda hadn't even started on the front steps yet. He looked around to make sure they were alone, then bent down, and kissed her forehead, smiling.

She laughed again. "You soppy thing."

He grinned, as she tilted her face up and kissed on his chin. "We'll have to tie you to one of the trees in the Forbidden Forest sometime," he mused. "So I can come and rescue you from the security dragons."

"You do realise they'd set us both on fire?" she said, smirking.

"Well, anything to keep warm," he shrugged. They both laughed, and he wheeled her out into the grounds, feeling oddly proud and grown-up.

It was growing dark by the time that everybody finally decided to head back to the castle for dinner. Harry felt as though he'd woken up from a long sleep, and was suddenly refreshed. Playing Quidditch, and knowing that it wasn't too long before he'd be doing so in a game, was a wonderful feeling. They had tried a few small matches for practice, and he found that being a Beater was so much more energetic than a Seeker. Even a Chaser had some time to spare if the Quaffle was being handled okay by a team member, but as a Beater, there was never an opportunity to stay still. Harry loved it.

They all got changed, and shared a table at dinner, chattering eagerly and laughing over the day's events. Harry's mind was so exhausted but satisfied that he didn't even have a thought to spare for anything else at all. After dinner, he said good-night to Kainda, Draco, Ernie and Luna, then headed up to Gryffindor Tower with everybody else.

"That was such a good day," said Ron, grinning. "I can't wait for our first game. We're going to flatten whoever we end up against!"

They had reached the portrait hole. Hermione smiled to the Fat Lady, and said, brightly, "Red ribbons!"

The Fat Lady swung forwards to let them in. Still chattering, they all clambered through the portrait hole into the warmth of the common room. The first thing Harry noticed that it was rather chilly, and then his eyes fell on the open window in the corner. He went to close it, but a white shape fluttered over, and landed on his shoulder before he got there.

"Hiya Hedwig," he said, smiling, petting at her. "Where have you been, mm?"

She nipped his ear, and held out her leg, with a letter for him. He took it off, wondering who it was from, before he remembered. He turned around quickly, and cried, "Ron! Hermione!"

"What is it?" said Hermione, looking at him worriedly.

"He's replied!" said Harry. "It's from Bill!"


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