Cho had a nice smile, and Harry was rather alarmed when it was suddenly replaced by a look of horror. Harry became aware of several other things all at once; the first was the sharp, sudden scent of anticipation that spread through the room, the second was that Hermione and Draco - who had previously been on either side of him - had stiffened and drawn their wands, and the third was a jet of yellow light coming toward him.
Harry dropped to the ground - the room gave a collective sigh - and drew his wand, ready to let off a jinx in return-
“Good reflexes,” Moody said, rather grudgingly. “But if you’d been paying attention, you wouldn’t have needed them.” Embarrassed, Harry lowered his wand. Hermione lowered hers as well, and then Draco more slowly. “Who else, who else…?” He lunged, sweeping his wand into the crowd of students on his other side and a pretty Slytherin Prefect swatted it away. “Constant vigilance,” Moody said approvingly.
It was the second of Moody’s duelling club sessions, and it had significantly poorer attendance than the first, with perhaps only sixty people showing up; Blaise had come, along with Bulstrode, Davis and Nott, but most of the other third year Slytherins were absent, as were a significant number of girls that had likely only come to Lockhart’s club last year for Lockhart, and the rest of the absences could probably be attributed equally to how intimidating Moody was, and the fact that it was seven in the morning on a Saturday.
“Right,” Moody said, “you’re only going to learn so much from me flinging spells around - much better you fling them at each other.” A murmur ran through the group. “As far as pairs… I want first years with seventh years, seconds with sixths, third with fifth, and fourth years against each other.”
“First years?” Percy said disappointedly to his Ravenclaw girlfriend, just a touch too loudly. Moody’s head snapped in his direction, and Percy’s ears reddened.
“You’ll be better,” Moody said, and Romilda Vane stomped her foot and whispered to her gaggle of first year friends. “You’ll probably even win. But you ought to also get a reminder that it’s sometimes the simple spells that’ll undo you the quickest in a duel.” Moody looked around the room. “Pairs, now, then find a bit of space!”
Roger Davies, the Ravenclaw Quidditch Captain, bumped into Harry on his way over to Ginny, and Luna was leading Colin toward a pair of wary looking sixth year Slytherins. Harry headed for Fred and George, only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
“Nice try, Potter,” Cedric said, flashing him a grin, “but you and I have a score to settle.” Harry grinned back, and trailed after Cedric to a clear bit of the room. Looking around, he saw Hermione pair off with Angelina, Ron with George and Draco with Lee. Alicia was with Susan Bones and Fred was giving Blaise a rather predatory grin. Blaise looked more than a bit unnerved.
“I want to see Shield Charms and Disarmers, like we practiced last time,” Moody barked. “Offensively, anything goes, except for Unforgivables. And Merlin help any of you that uses a spell you can’t undo yourself.” He’d probably use it on them, like he’d done to a Ravenclaw sixth year the week before. She was noticeably absent this week. “Bow, and off you go. And don’t forget to watch out for stray spells from other pairs, there’ll be more than a few going around!” He cackled.
Harry bit back a laugh at George’s elaborate, flourishing bow, which he caught sight of out of the corner of his eye, and bent into a much simpler one, which Cedric returned.
“I s’pose,” Harry said, eying Cedric’s duelling stance and doing his best to mimic it. Cedric gestured with the hand that wasn’t holding his wand for Harry to start. Harry hesitated and then flicked his wand forward.
“Torpeo,” he said, and Cedric twisted out of the way. Harry’s spell narrowly missed Higgs, who’d been the Slytherin Seeker before Hydrus.
“Accio glasses,” Cedric said, and Harry wasn’t quick enough to catch his glasses as they slipped off his nose.
Harry’s world blurred, and he dodged two of Cedric’s stunners before he walked right into a third, trying to avoid a stray spell.
“Sorry,” Cedric said, a little sheepishly, as he hoisted Harry back to his feet, and offered him his glasses back.
“It’s all right,” Harry said, rubbing his shoulder, which had been the first to hit the floor. “It was a good idea - I’m just about blind without them.” Sometimes his excellent hearing and sense of smell was enough to make up for it, but not this time, with the room too full of other smells and noises for him to have much hope of distinguishing them.
Cedric waited a few seconds, then lifted his wand. Harry did the same. Cedric took a few steps, head cocked, and Harry pivoted, wand trained on his every movement. Cedric slowed, just slightly, and tensed, hand flicking up, only Harry was quicker:
“Expelliarmus!” Harry said, and Cedric’s wand soared out of his hand. Harry caught it easily, and tossed it back right away.
“Nice shot, Potter,” Cedric said, raising his wand. Harry mirrored him. “Ready? Stupefy!”
“Protego,” Harry said, swiping his wand across the air in front of him. Cedric’s spell hit his shield - the force of it made the shield shudder and pushed Harry a few inches back, but it held - and bounced off, almost hitting a lanky Hufflepuff fourth year.
Cedric’s second spell - Harry missed the incantation for it, over all the other spells being shouted around the room - made his shield crumble, and it was only quick reflexes that got him out of the way in time. He straightened and flicked his wand at Cedric, casting a disarmer, a sleeping spell and a tripping jinx in quick succession. Cedric dodged the first, blocked the second, and sent off a spell volley of his own at Harry, even as the third caught him and sent him tumbling.
Harry was hit by the first, but it didn’t force him backward, or have any other effects as best he could tell, and it didn’t stop him from dodging the next three.
Cedric was back on his feet, wand held before him, circling.
Harry lifted his wand to cast a body-bind, but when he opened his mouth, no sound came out. He made, what would have been a confused sound, but it never reached his ears. Cedric was watching him with a wary sort of triumph, and Harry narrowed his eyes, realising the first spell must have been a Silencing charm.
He kept his wand out in front of him, considering his options; there were only three bits of magic he could do non-verbally, and those were transforming into his wolf, apparating, and looking at magic. The first two wouldn’t be much help at all, and the third would work against him, overwhelming him and blinding him for a day or two just as it had the last time.
Harry let out a silent huff of frustration, and slowly raised his wand and other hand in a gesture of surrender.
* * *
“Right,” Sirius said, clasping his hands together as he stood before their group of suspects. They’d had to surrender their wands and everything else on them at the door, and had each been subjected to a strong Finite before being allowed in. Behind him, Robards’ quill scratched on his list, taking attendance.
Marlene was there, sitting between Auror Prewett and Bertha Jorkins - who looked equally delighted to be getting inside information, and sulky that she was a suspect. On Prewett’s other side were Trainee Harris and Trainee Long, both of whom looked terrified. Behind them was Ludo Bagman, Amos Diggory, Damaris Sprottle and her assistant Pemberley, and Dumbledore who was sitting calmly beside Scrimgeour and that toad Umbridge.
In chairs on the other side of the room were Pius Thicknesse, Eric the wandchecker, Dirk Cresswell, Albert Runcorn, Broderick Bode, Rita Skeeter, and Skeeter’s photographer Bozo. There had been some debate about whether Harry, Ron and Draco ought to be called in as well, but Sirius and Dumbledore had managed to overrule that.
“If you haven’t yet worked it out, you’re here because you’re suspects in our case. Just before Christmas, we took Crouch Junior’s house elf into custody, after linking her with Pettigrew’s Hogsmeade visit. If you read the paper the day after that-” Skeeter made a pleased sound, and Sirius glowered at her. “-you’ll know Crouch got wind of this and tried to spring her - yes, it was Crouch, not Pettigrew; blame the Prophet for unreliable reporting.” Skeeter’s expression soured, and her ever-present photographer scowled. “Thankfully, he was unsuccessful.”
“There’s no evidence to suggest it was Crouch,” Skeeter said.
“The man that came after the elf was Polyjuiced to look like Crouch, not Pettigrew,” Robards said impatiently. “Whoever sent him, therefore, had access to Crouch’s hair, which makes him a much more likely suspect than Pettigrew.”
“Hmm,” Skeeter said. “So like I said: no evidence.”
“That’s why you’re here,” Sirius said. “All of you saw, heard about or interacted with in some way, myself and or Robards, and or the house elf somewhere between when she was taken into custody at Hogwarts, and when I was attacked in the Auror department. It might have been at Hogwarts, or in the atrium, or a lift, or in a corridor or office within the Ministry-”
“So you think one of us is helping Crouch?” Bertha Jorkins asked breathlessly. Sirius couldn’t decide if she sounded scared or excited.
“We think there’s a good chance one of you is Crouch, using Polyjuice Potion,” Sirius said, and a murmur raced through the room. The two trainees looked like they might be sick, Prewett was pursing her lips, and Bagman looked peaky, though Skeeter looked like she’d received a fantastic - if belated - Christmas gift. Sirius was sure she’d be taking names if they hadn’t confiscated her quill and notepad earlier. “All of you work in positions that would give Crouch certain advantages when it came to getting certain information, or influencing certain events, or people-”
“But there has to be a way to prove we’re not, right?” Eric the wandchecker asked. “Some sort of test, or-”
“We’ve been watching your post,” Sirius said offhandedly, and Umbridge and Bode both made sounds of protest. “And watching records at a few different suppliers.” Robards’ quill scratched again, and Sirius hoped he’d provoked a response from someone. “As far as a direct test, there’s one that’s foolproof, but unfortunately we couldn’t get it at short notice-” They’d tried several Potions Masters and apothecaries down Diagon Alley, but either they didn’t sell such a thing, or refused to - even for a hefty price. Then they’d tried Moody who they’d guessed might be the only person paranoid enough to carry a Polyjuice-Reactor strip on his person. He’d had one, but refused to give it up before it could be replaced, and even if he’d been willing, duplicates were useless and the test strip would only let them test one suspect before it became useless. “-which means we’re testing you all the old fashioned way.”
“Which is what?” Sprottle asked, folding her arms.
“A dose of Polyjuice potion can last anywhere from ten minutes to twelve hours,” Robards said, “depending on the skill of the brewer, and the quality of the ingredients.”
“One such ingredient,” Sirius said, thinking a silent, grudging ‘thank you’ to Snape, who’d been uncharacteristically helpful, likely in an effort to prove he’d meant it when he shook Sirius’ his hand two weeks before. “-is fluxweed, which must be harvested on the full moon. Its potency decreases as the moon cycles, regardless of whether it’s been stored as an ingredient, or brewed. Since the full moon is two nights away, any fluxweed used in a brew is near its minimum potency, and that a dose shouldn’t last for more than two hours.”
Sirius scanned the faces in the room before them, but if they were right, and Crouch was there, he didn’t give himself away.
Robards conjured a large clock and set it down at the front of the room.
“We’ll be here for four, just in case.” He smiled grimly. “Get comfortable.”
* * *
Barty sat in his chair, watching Black and Robards converse in low voices at the front of the room, and made a show of glancing around suspiciously when they looked his way.
They were an hour in, and, since everything had been confiscated upon their arrival, no one had anything to do. Several people were pacing, several fidgeting in their seats, and others were still as statues. Even conversation was fairly sparse, since everyone was half-convinced their neighbour was a Death Eater in disguise.
Barty almost smiled at the thought, stressed though he was, then glanced at Black and caught himself. He had no particular love for Wormtail, but working with him had helped in one regard, at least, and that was that Barty had learned a bit about how to control his scent; it wouldn’t do for Barty to slip and give himself away to Black’s nose.
And speaking of slip… Barty glanced at the clock at the front of the room and counted backwards, frowning slightly. He’d shown his hand more than he might have liked when he Imperiused and Polyjuiced that man to go after Winky, and he’d known the Aurors would have to be idiots not to deduce he was somewhere in the Ministry, and probably using Polyjuice. Thankfully, he’d already had his name down to leave take over Christmas and as such, he’d spent the last few weeks bracing himself for the possibility of an interrogation.
As such, he had not panicked when a pair of Aurors arrived this morning, to take him into custody as a suspect… he’d been careful, established himself well. They had no proof. He’d almost laughed when he saw how many others were also suspects… until Black had explained why they were here.
Then the nerves had set in.
Barty’d toyed with appearance charms and self-transfiguration, but nothing had worked quite as well as Polyjuice, and so he’d had to stick with it. He supposed he should count his blessings, that the Aurors had not been able to procure a Polyjuice Reactor strip, but even that wasn’t necessarily going to save him; without another dose in the next hour, he’d be back to looking like himself, and all his hard work would be for nothing. If they used Veritaserum, he’d unwillingly spill everything; that Wormtail was at Hogwarts (though thankfully he didn’t know where), where the Dark Lord and Polkov were residing, and the details of all their careful plans…
But not all was lost. Not yet. Barty took a deep breath, and forced himself to calm down before anyone noticed. There was one option still at his disposal, and Barty was fervently thankful that option had not been found when he was searched and forced to surrender his wand on the way in...
* * *
One moment Eric the wandchecker was there, the next, he vanished with a flash of blue. Sirius drew his wand and dashed forward, even as Robards raced out, bellowing for Shacklebolt and the other Aurors that were on standby outside. Thicknesse scrambled to his feet, away from the empty chair, and into Pemberley and Dumbledore, who had both been pacing and frozen when Eric disappeared, and Cresswell who’d been startled into an unimpressed Runcorn’s lap. Scrimgeour and Prewett, who’d both also been pacing (or limping, in Scrimgeour’s case) had both gone for their wands on instinct, before realising they were unarmed.
“Everyone move- just- against the walls!” Sirius said sharply. The trainees ran to get there. Marlene caught his eye, stunned, even as she dragged a staring Bertha over to the wall. “Now!” he told Skeeter, who was smiling in a positively dangerous way, and Umbridge, who’d stood but not moved beyond that.
Sirius cast a few spells, mind reeling. He and Robards had been confident - though not certain - that one of their suspects would be Crouch, and though they’d hoped to identify and catch him today, Sirius hadn’t been sure that they would; so far, Crouch and Peter had managed to stay a few steps ahead. That they’d been right, that they’d had him, only to lose him to a Portkey- how in Merlin’s name had they missed it earlier!? Or had Dawlish or Brown let it through…?
Still, Crouch was on the run, now, and wouldn’t be able to show himself as Eric any time soon, which was sure to push their plans back a bit… that he’d been posing as Eric was an honest surprise; behind Marlene, Dumbledore and Scrimgeour, Eric had been one of the suspects Sirius was least concerned about.
But, then, he hadn’t been concerned about Peter all those years ago, and that had ended terribly.
Sprottle’s eyes were sad as she looked at the empty chair: “Who’d have thought Eric could be…”
“It’s not Eric at all, is it?” Diggory said, looking unnerved. “Just Crouch under Polyjuice. Merlin knows where the real Eric is…” Prewett’s mouth turned down, and Dumbledore bowed his head.
“Trace reader’s on her way,” Robards announced, bursting back into the room, with Shacklebolt, Wellington and a wide-eyed trainee behind him.
“Good,” Sirius said briskly. “Right, you lot-” He got looks that ranged from wary to grim to intrigued from the remaining suspects. Former suspects, now that Crouch had fled, he supposed. “-did anyone see Eric- Crouch do anything odd before he disappeared?” He eyed Thicknesse and Cresswell, who’d been right beside him.
“Nothing,” Thicknesse said.
“Does this mean we’re able to leave?” Bole asked mournfully.
“I should think so,” Umbridge said, folding her arms, and tapping her foot on the ground. Prewett curled her lip in the other woman’s direction. “Well?” she asked primly, looking right at Sirius. “Surely we aren’t suspects anymore?”
The Trace Reader arrived then, a short, intense looking woman in silver-trimmed robes, and Sirius directed her to Crouch’s chair, with a muttered, “Portkey.”
“No,” Robards said, rubbing a hand over his chin, “not at the moment. Shacklebolt’s got paperwork for you all to sign before you go - an agreement not to share anything you’ve seen here today, because obviously this is an ongoing investigation...” Skeeter’s expression could have curdled milk. “Once you’ve signed it, see Wellington for your wands and other belongings.” Everyone began to file out, though Marlene, Prewett and Scrimgeour remained. “And thank Merlin for the confidentiality agreement,” Robards sighed, when it was just Aurors and the Trace Reader left, “I can see Skeeter’s headline now; Unarmed suspect escapes armed Aurors from inside the Ministry.”
“It’s embarrassing,” Scrimgeour snapped. “How did you miss a portkey?!”
“We didn’t search them,” Sirius said. “That was Dawlish and Brown.”
“They’ll have to be questioned, to make sure they’re not in on it,” Prewett said. Sirius nodded, having reached the same conclusion earlier.
“But right now, we’re going after Eric- Crouch- whatever you want to call him,” Robards said. “Black, if you could head upstairs, and put together a team; we know Crouch is slippery, and he’s set traps for use before…” Sirius frowned, thinking of Hemsley, and Marlene’s expression darkened; she’d almost been killed in the same attack.
But, as Sirius was striding to the door, the Trace Reader spoke:
“Don’t bother,” she said irritably. “Either the portkey’s Untraceable, the destination’s Unplottable, or there’s other extensive warding or a Fidelius charm involved, because I can’t get a thing.”
* * *
Barty signed the Aurors’ agreement to keep his mouth shut, collected his wand, watch and keys, and went to join the other freed suspects waiting by the lift.
* * *
Eric wasn’t entirely sure what had happened - there’d been the blue light of what he’d thought was a portkey, and he was fairly sure he wasn’t in the Ministry anymore, but he wasn’t holding anything, so how could it have been?
Perhaps he was still in the Ministry, but just in the lower levels. It would explain the dim room, and the musty smell.
He stood shakily, and something cold moved in his shirt.
Bewildered, he untucked it and wriggled a bit, and something pinged as it dropped to the floor. In the dim light, it appeared to be a small silver button - certainly not from anything he was wearing. He stared at it, bewildered, and looked around again, but he still had no idea what was going on.
“Hello?” he called once, but it came out as barely a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again, mote loudly: “Hello!” A light flicked on, illuminating stairs through a doorway, and he could heard footsteps and voices. “Oh, thank Merlin,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m lost-”
“Expelliarmus!” The spell knocked him over, and a man came into view, holding a wand.
“Vhere is your wand?” the man asked sharply, after a moment. He regarded Eric with cold eyes.
“I haven’t- the Aurors have it,” Eric stammered.
“Aurors?” The man levelled his wand at Eric’s chest, and Eric gulped and took a step backward. “How haff you come here?”
“We were brought in for questioning,” Eric said, almost tripping over himself in his haste to explain. “Lots of us - something about Crouch and his house elf-”
“Crouch?” the man asked, frowning.
“Yes, that Death Eater - been all over the papers, you must have seen-”
“I know Crouch,” the man said, flapping an impatient hand.
“Yes, well,” Eric said, “I was there, and then- well, now I’m here.” He gave the other man a helpless look. “I don’t suppose I could use your Floo?”
The man frowned at him for a few long seconds.
“Come,” he said at last.
Eric hurried after him, grateful. The man led him upstairs, down a hallway, and into a large drawing room, where a fire crackled merrily in the grate. A large window overlooked snow covered grounds, and Eric wondered where in Merlin’s name he’d ended up.
“Dmitri?” a chilling voice said. Eric couldn’t see the speaker over the high back of his armchair.
“Ve haff company,” the other man - Dmitri - said, turned and sliced his wand through the air. Eric toppled to the ground, stiff, before he’d even realised what had happened. Then, he was sliding forward, frozen legs dragging along the smooth floorboards.
If he’d been able to move, Eric would have recoiled in horror. The- the thing in the chair, was small like a child, and pale, with a flat, snake-like face and awful red eyes.
They bored into his, and then there was pain in Eric’s head, and images were flashing before his eyes; the Aurors coming to find him at his desk, the uncomfortable, escorted walk through the Ministry, an irritable Auror searching his robes and taking his wand, Black and Robards explaining why they were there, the flash of blue light that brought him here-
“My Lord?” Dmitri said, as the pressure faded.
“Kill him,” the thing in the chair said faintly, and Eric died.
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