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SIYE Time:21:54 on 28th June 2017


Trix
By GHL

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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Draco Malfoy, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Humor
Warnings: Death, Mental Abuse, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Negative Alcohol Use, Violence/Physical Abuse
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 98
Summary:

"But now old friends are acting strange..." - Joni Mitchell.

Voldemort is dead; Harry and Ginny are in love and living the dream. What's not to like, right? Then, a sudden rash of strange incidents piques Harry's anxiety. After years of war, are people just having difficulty adjusting to peace? Or is someone out there playing dirty 'trix'?

The story is set three months after the end of 'The Prevailing Counterpoint', and builds on characters and events elaborated therein. TPC is probably not required reading if you accept that Dumbledore and Snape are dead; that Lupin, Tonks and Fred are alive, and that Slytherins are fundamentally neurotic.


Hitcount: Story Total: 24104; Chapter Total: 1070
Awards: View Trophy Room




Author's Notes:

This chapter is dedicated to my most reliable reviewers, LunaGranger and Aimless and skiutahnum1. Life is busy, but you three are a big reason I continue to carve out time for this story!

The "what's up with the twins?" challenge is still open. Quibbler dropped a hint, but Luna isn't spilling all the beans...





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Chapter 8. Soul Skulduggery (Jan. 20-24, 1998)

"Urgh..." Harry groaned softly to himself.

He recognized the faint chirping noise resonating through their bedroom, not as a seasonally maladjusted cricket, but rather as a ward alarm. Out in the corridor, outside the peace and privacy wards that they had placed on their quarters, someone was pounding on their door.

Gently decoupling his hand — his tired and calloused hand — from it's happy resting place on Ginny's shoulder, he edged himself carefully out of bed.

"Hmmm...?" Ginny whimpered.

"'S'okay," he whispered hoarsely. "Just someone in the hall. I shouldn't be long."

"Mmmm..." she affirmed unconsciously.

In morbid curiosity, Harry cast a tiny lumos charm to check his watch, and grumbled to himself.

It read 2:38 a.m.

Reaching in the dark for a traveling cloak draped over the back of an arm chair, he swung the garment around himself and stumbled his way to the main entrance to their quarters. Trying not to disturb Ginny any further, he opened the door just widely enough to squeeze through and stepped into the hallway where he was confronted with the face of Mary Jo Clark — disheveled but intensely focused.

"Trouble, MJ?" Harry coughed, still finding his voice.

Mary Jo nodded. "Blaise, Daphne and Pansy Apparated back from Skegness with Tracey Davis. Tracey is really, uhh, drunk, or sick, or... or something..."

"Or something ?" Harry raised an edgy eyebrow. "What are the symptoms?"

"From what Daphne told me, Davis started vomiting at the nightclub," Mary Jo related. "By the time they were helping her back from the Hogsmeade Apparition point, she was all shaky, drool was running down her face, and she was drenched in sweat, despite the cold front moving in."

"Bloody hell!" Harry's eyes flashed wide. "That sounds just like what..."

Harry paused and frowned in consternation, momentarily forgetting that he was supposedly conversing with someone.

Eyebrows raised well up into her rumpled hair, Mary Jo stared at him. "Just like what ?"

Harry shook his head guardedly. "Something improbable. I need more detail before I start spouting wild speculation. What else do you know about her condition?"

"Very little." Mary Jo shrugged. "I'm only telling you what I managed to extract from Daphne. She banged on my door, jabbered at me frantically for a minute, then ran off to find McGonagall."

"Okay..." Harry pursed his lips. "Maybe I should go find Daffs myself. By now she might have calmed down enough to give a measured acc..."

"Oh! Shallow breathing!" Mary Jo interjected. "Daphne said that Davis could barely breathe by the time they reached the castle."

Harry's jaw dropped. "Bugger! Where's Tracey now?"

"Hospital Wing." Mary Jo gestured vaguely eastward.

"Thanks!" Without explanation, Harry turned and raced down the hallway.

As he sped through the castle, Harry's mind paged rapidly between the symptoms hist student had described, and a recent conversation — an eerily relevant exchange that he'd never really expected to be pondering again so soon:

Harry: Okay, those are my best privacy wards. Now what did you want to show me?

Hermione: Harry, please read this document. I know the scenario sounds terribly far-fetched, but under the circumstances, I don't think we can afford to ignore it.

Ryan: At the end, we've listed some specific signs to watch for, as well as a few first aid steps to try in a pinch. Remember, though, that this is based on a short medical abstract from Muggle sources. We haven't found any magical texts that corroborate the concept.

Harry: Er, okay ...

Hermione: What do you think? Do you suppose there might be anything to this, Harry? Should we keep digging?

Harry: Whew! I have to say yes, please try to find out some more — especially real case histories. But blimey do I ever hope this is all a daft waste of time!

That hope grew fainter with each of Tracey's symptoms that aligned with those on the summary sheet. By the time he banged his way loudly through the Hospital Wing doors, and skidded to a halt on the smooth floor, Harry had reviewed a few final diagnostics and response tips in his memory and was prepared for the worst.

Seeing a light in one of the examination beds, he dashed to it and arrived, gasping, at Tracey's bedside. Eyes closed and face rigid, the girl was trembling slightly. Blue tinges about her mouth and hands further supported the diagnosis.

"Bezoar!" Harry shouted to Madame Pomfrey.

"First thing I tried!" The healer scowled at him impatiently. "Honestly, Potter, do you think...??"

"Charcoal!" Harry demanded.

Zabini, Pansy Parkinson and Madame Pomfrey all gaped at him in confusion.

"Powdered charcoal, and water to wash it down!" Harry's voice was clear but urgent.

"I don't keep charcoal in my stores, Harry," Pomfrey replied, shaking off her startled fugue.

Harry growled. Spying a wooden chair about across the room, he pointed it at. "Incendio! "

The chair burst into flame. Ignoring the others' gasps, Harry held his hand up to prevent any interference as the wood burned in fierce white fire for about ten seconds, then he cast rapid Aguamenti and Reducto spells to reduced it a sodden pile of soot and fine sawdust. As Harry rushed over to scoop blackened dust from the floor, Zabini, grasping the plan, whisked a goblet full of water from the bedside table and held it out to Harry. Harry hurriedly swept several charred handfuls into the proffered water, swirled it quickly with his finger, then carried it back to Tracey's bed.

As Madame Pomfrey pried the girl's mouth open, Harry poured the grey slurry straight down Tracey's throat and gently sparked her pharynx with his finger to trigger a swallow. Harry lifted her head a few inches up off the pillow, while Pomfrey folded the padding in on itself and pushed it into place to raise the elevation of Tracey's head.

As Harry took a step back from the bed, unconsciously wringing his hands, Pomfrey reached over with a sterile cloth and wiped a trace of grey spittle from the girl's chin, then exhaled and sternly confronted her faculty colleague. "Professor Potter, if you would be so kind as to explain?"

Harry blinked, momentarily speechless as he shifted from blind instinct back to rational thought. He took a deep breath to clear the adrenaline and summon the finer details of Hermione's and Ryan's notes back into his mind. "Suspected tetrodotoxin poisoning," he answered, finally meeting Madame Pomfrey's inquiring stare.

"I beg your pardon?" The sound of Headmistress McGonagall's voice filled the dimly lit room as she strode briskly toward them, with Daphne and Mary-Jo in tow. "Could you repeat that please, Harry?"

"Suspected tetrodotoxin poisoning," Harry reiterated. "It's a powerful nerve toxin that, uh, we've been speculating about for a very confidential case that I'm working on."

Turning his attention back to Tracey, he studied her face. "It seems like a ridiculous coincidence — I'd never even heard of tetrodotoxin poisoning before last week, and suddenly we have a case on our hands." He shook his head. "I never would have believed it possible, but the symptoms seemed to be a perfect fit. Now perhaps we should take a few minutes to look for confirmation — if I've guessed correctly, we should start seeing initial recovery signs fairly quickly."

"She's stopped shuddering," Pansy observed.

Madame Pomfrey leaned over to examine Tracey carefully. "Her colouration is normalising. Pulse remains weak, but has stabilised... Unless there's a sudden relapse, I think she's going to pull through." The healer raised her head to look Harry in the eye. "So, why did you use charcoal?"

"It binds the poison," Harry replied. "Tetrodotoxin is slow acting, but extremely potent — I saw Tracey turning blue, and I guessed that a bezoar alone wasn't strong enough to counteract the toxicity. The carbon black should soak up the excess poison fairly quickly; please leave her as is for roughly twenty minutes to maximize the absorption, then, well.... I guess you should evacuate her stomach."

Madame Pomfrey jotted down several notes on a scroll and nodded thoughtfully.

McGonagall nodded seriously "I will have to notify the girl's parents and file a report to the Hogwarts Board of Governors. Do any of you know how the poisoning might have occurred? Where was Miss Davis when the incident took place?"

Harry's gaze scanned across Blaise and Daphne, who, in turn, were both staring at Pansy. The Slytherin prefect shifted awkwardly and cleared her throat. "Er, well, I don't know precisely how it happened. We left the match and went with a number of other fans to The Spiny Swampe — a nightclub in the magical community at Croft Marsh. I suppose that is where the poisoning must have taken place." Pansy rubbed her temples uncomfortably. "I don't know any obvious way, either deliberate or accidental, for her to have gotten so messed up. She had a few drinks and seemed to be having fun. Nothing unusual..."

Harry frowned. "Did anyone unexpected show up? And shady characters? Anybody who might have looked like he or she could have belonged on the Death Eater watch list?"

"Not really." Pansy shook her head. "Tracey and I chummed around with the Circus gang until nearly midnight and then she... well, this bloke came over and... er, she started to get rather friendly with him."

"Bloke?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Someone you didn't recognize?"

"Right — never seen the sod before," Pansy replied. "He bought Tracey a drink, gave her a drippy line of some sort, and she appeared to fall for it, which is rather strange because..."

"Because Tracey hasn't let any bloke touch her in all the years at Hogwarts." Daphne tapped her lips. "A lot of us figured she was either really shy, or that she might be a tom."

"Nah, I know Tracey better than anyone else here and she's straight." Pansy glanced at her friend who was now sleeping peacefully. "Weird but straight. In fact, the last couple weeks she's barely been able to take her eyes off Harry..."

"She's been ogling Potter??" Zabini gave an exaggerated shiver. That's beyond weird — that's absolutely barmy..." He projected a smirk around the circle, an insidious glint in his eyes only slightly tempered by exhaustion.

"Everyone, please focus," McGonagall exhorted urgently. "It's woefully late. I need a bit more information, then we all must find our beds." She turned toward the bed to examine Tracey. "Harry, this tetra... er, the toxin you diagnosed — how is it generally administered?"

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, sifting through his mental notes. "Injection and inhalation are possible, but ingestion is easiest. Which means that any stranger buying drinks is automatically a suspect."

McGonagall nodded seriously. "I've never heard of the substance before. Is it common? Where would someone get hold of it?"

Harry shrugged. "I believe it's rather exotic around here. I think Hermione said that it's mostly found in amphibians and sea creatures but, if I understood correctly, they're primarily tropical species that are rare at our latitudes — especially in winter. I suppose if the nightclub was serving some rare delicacy like imported puffer fish, we might be looking at an accidental poisoning..."

"No food on the menu, Harry," Zabini interjected, "but all around the dance floor there was a huge aquarium filled with swimming shrake. Do you suppose...?"

"Shrake? Yes perhaps." Harry pursed his lips thoughtfully. "All we know right now about tetrodotoxin is from Muggle sources, but it's entirely possible that some magical creatures may synthesize it."

Mary Jo raised her hand to interject. "Shrake spines are a notoriously finicky potion ingredient. If you don't brew them properly, your potion can interfere with a person's magical skills."

"Do tell?" Harry stiffened, his eyes scanning the sixth year student.

She nodded. "In the NEWTs potion text Slughorn assigned, it says that there are reports of poorly prepared boil ointments causing people to lose control of their magic. In serious cases, victims have been reduced to nothing better than erratic, accidental magic. Control has sometimes returned to normal after a few days or weeks, but other people have had to relearn their whole repertoire of spells, and in some rare instances, sufferers have never truly regained normal magical abilities."

"Harry!" Pansy stared in dismay. "Will that happen to her? Is she going to become a Squib??"

"Listen." Harry exhaled wearily, then caught himself lest he sound too frayed. He swept an even gaze around at the assembly, and assembled a tone of carefully girded calm. "It's too late at night to waste our energy speculating. Nobody knows anything yet. We don't know for certain that Tracey was afflicted with tetrodotoxin, or exposed to untreated shrake spines, and we don't know whether that's effectively the same thing or not. We don't know how much of a dose of anything she might have received, other than that it was too much for a Bezoar to handle alone. We don't whether we treated it in time to prevent lasting consequences, and thus won't really have much of an idea what sort of recovery to hope for until maybe noon tomorrow at the earliest. All we know is that we responded to the best of our abilities and that her preliminary responses have been good. So, at least that affords us a little optimism, okay?"

The others nodded solemnly.

"MJ, can you please tell Ryan that I'd like to see him and Hermione in my office for a lunch meeting tomorrow?" Harry continued. "Pansy, I need you there too. Minerva, I can contact Robards about this, if you'd like?"

"Something basic like an alleged poisoning isn't considered to be dark magic, so we'd be contacting Kingsley rather than Robards," McGonagall corrected. "But yes, let's Floo call together tomorrow morning, Harry. Would 7:45 suit?"

Harry nodded. "Do you have everything you need for the time being Minerva?"

"I need for this student to recover," McGonagall sighed; a plaintive edge tinged her normally stoic voice. "But, apart from that, thank you all for your assistance. I don't believe there's anything left to be accomplished standing around here at this hour. Considering the nature of this emergency, any curfew violations are forgiven, but let's not push this any further — all students please return to your quarters and try to get some sleep."

McGonagall, turned and strode from the wing, followed by Zabini, Mary Jo and Pansy, with Daphne trailing. Madame Pomfrey returned to Tracey's side and began to run a series of standard magical scans. Harry quietly turned his attention to the messy remains of the incinerated chair, which he began to systematically banish.

Aware of the weight of someone's eyes upon him, Harry looked up. He noticed that Daphne had stopped and was giving him an inquiring look.

Harry smiled and shooed her off with flick of his hand. "It's okay Daffs," he told her. "I'm just tidying up after myself — go get some sleep."

She shrugged and her footsteps receded toward the door.

His cleaning complete, Harry gazed around the darkened ward, empty now except for Pomfrey finishing her final ministrations. He walked quietly over to Tracey's bed. "Poppy?" he inquired softly.

Pomfrey looked up, startled to see that he was still around. "Yes Harry?"

"Would you mind if I cast a few ward spells around Tracey's bed?"

"What sort of wards?"

"Er, well." His eyes darted around the alcove that housed Tracey' bed. "I'd basically like to create something like a makeshift magical containment box."

She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment the raised a wry eyebrow. "I assume you're not planning to explain why?"

Harry shook his head sheepishly. "Sorry, I'm operating on a hunch, based on a case that's highly confidential. But basically I don't want anyone to be able to take advantage of her while she's in a weakened state."

Pomfrey nodded her assent.

"I can make it so that you'll be able to cast any spells you need within two feet of her bed," Harry promised. "The wards will block spells from inside going out and from outside transmitting in. If anybody detects the wards, I suppose we could say that they're a protection in case Mary Jo's guess is right and Tracey displays magical control problems."

"Yes, I suppose we could say that." Pomfrey nodded. "Go ahead, but if the wards interfere with her treatment in any way, I'll drag you back here by your heel."

"Er yes, thanks." Harry gave her a slightly uneasy smile, then turned to craft a protective net.

"Mother of Merlin, Harry!" Aghast, Ginny shook her head as Harry closed his office door. "Soul snatching?!"

"It's still just a guess," Harry replied, trying to project calm reassurance. "And even if we're right, at least we're discovering it now, before she's perfected the technique."

The pair of them had just completed a meeting more dour and grim than any in months — an experience as loathsome as last autumn's panel sessions tasked with cataloging Death Eater atrocities. This time they had no murders to revisit, but if Hermione and Ryan were correct, Bellatrix Lestrange might be trying to acquire a ghastly dark power to rival Voldemort's worst moral abominations — an ability to indefinitely imprison and torment the minds and magic of innocent witches and wizards, turning their still-living bodies into mute, unquestioning slaves.

Ginny had remained stoic and engaged through the meeting, but now that everyone else was gone, she found herself agonizing over nightmarish scenarios. Harry embraced her, rocking her gently. She accepted his comforting words for a moment, but then pulled back, shaking her head. "This is more than a guess, Harry. If Hermione, Ryan, you and I all agree on something, what's the chance we're all wrong? All evidence points to tetrodotoxin; there are hundreds of easier ways to kill, so why would anyone choose something so exotic if not to try to steal her soul?"

Harry bobbed his shoulders. "Well yes, it's hard to argue with that."

"How long until we have proof?"

"DMLE is contracting with a Muggle law enforcement lab to do the toxicology tests, so maybe a week to confirm tetrodotoxin. As far as whether tetrodotoxin weakens the magical essence enough to make it vulnerable to capture and confinement will be harder to prove — the hypothesis is based on Muggle myth and pseudoscience. Unless we do find a link to shrake spines, there's no corroborating precedent in legitimate magical scholarship,"

"Magical scholarship — pah!" Ginny rolled her eyes. "The blasted West Africans never write any of their secrets down, and stiff-necked Europeans wizards won't believe anything that's not transcribed in triplicate!"

Harry couldn't help but chuckle for a moment, before the weight or worry sank down on him again. "Well, whatever the real threat, I'm confident that we'll find some way to counter it. I just hope that Tracey comes through okay, and that there aren't too many more victims before we can get this all sorted."

"Yes, let's hope." Ginny agreed softly, pulling Harry back into an embrace. They held each other in restorative silence for a while, gazing through the window of Harry's office at the surroundings, still cloaked in the remnants of the morning snowfall. After a while Ginny shifted. "Almost time for the next meeting, yeah?"

Harry nodded.

Ginny permitted a small smile onto her face as she reached into the rucksack she had left on Harry's chair. "I brought a few papers that covered last night's match."

"Oh?" Harry smirked. "Are you testing my fine, sunny mood?"

"No worries on that!" Ginny winked. "The press coverage was nice... pleasant, really. Most people still consider us a curiosity, not a threat. Look — we made the Daily Prophet!"

Harry took the proffered paper and read.

From Mystery to Mastery — Chaser Weasley Takes Control as Flying Circus Shreds Shrakes

GIBRALTAR POINT, LINCOLSHIRE — At the four minute mark of last night's intriguing exhibition Quidditch match, everything was as it should be. The surging Skegness Shrakes of the Class B North Midland League had opened an early thirty point lead on a disorganized rabble of suspect Quidditch talent calling themselves 'The Great Zabini Flying Circus'. The venerated Skegness squad seemed ready to settle into a relaxing evening of casual 'pass and score' drills as a welcome break from their strenuous league schedule when, to nearly everyone's surprise, everything completely unraveled.

In the intervening 65 minutes before the renowned Harry Potter pulled the Snitch down for the visitors, the Shrakes found themselves schooled in every aspect of the game, limping away from a 390 to 110 pounding that featured dominant performances by every player in The Flying Circus lineup.

The catalyst in the Circus's resounding turnabout was none other than sixteen-year-old Holyhead Harpies recruit, Ginevra Weasley, a talented Chaser firebrand who scorched Shrakes stellar junior catalyst, Liu Song Ye, on both defence and offence. Weasley finished with thirteen scores, and a mind-bending eleven Quaffle steals as she helped limit Ye to fifty points. Although Weasley's scouting card describes her as primarily an off-Quaffle defender, Captain Blaise Zabini cited his star Chaser's performance as an example of how The Flying Circus adapts to each opponent's playing style.

Skegness coach Lucilma Bloom complimented The Circus on playing clean, exciting and fundamentally sound Quidditch. She professed gratitude for a hard lesson in humility as the Shrakes head toward the most demanding and crucial stretch of their Class B season.

"Wow — that's great!" Harry stared at the paper in astonishment. "Factual, unbiased and doesn't try to over-interpret anything. What else do you have?"

Ginny smiled. "I scanned a few more articles with similar viewpoints; nothing particularly hostile or insightful. But, as usual, the Quibbler has a different take."

Harry raised an eyebrow as he accepted the smaller periodical and took a seat at his desk while Ginny walked over to reopen the office door.

Beating with One Heart: Weasley Twins Settling Old Score

By Luna Lovegood

Quibbler Special Correspondent

In the skies, I can tell them apart because one twin smiles more, and the other shouts a lot. On the ground, one of them watches my lips, while the other contemplates my chest. Apart from those distinguishing features, Frederick and George Weasley are identical twins in all important respects — the way they laugh, their fierce familial loyalties and, once again after a long intermission, the way they synchronize their primal instincts to strike fear into the hearts of their airborne Quidditch foes. And what great fear this Weasley pair inspires!

'Fear' is not what comes to mind when the two affable rogues are surreptitiously conjuring large slug antennae in their captain's hair during pre-match press conferences. 'Fear' is absent as the pair jests with fans and reporters before another successful match. Rather, fear awaits the skies above a grassy pitch where Messrs. Weasley own and wield the Bludgers with absolute precision and authourity. Quibbler readers take heed — at the vanguard of a revolution, the Weasley twins are poised to take the world of Quidditch by storm!

Why would these two successful entrepreneurs defer their cherished pranks and personal safety device business to return to a schoolyard sport with too-many balls and too-few safeguards? Proclaim it on the mountaintops. Whisper it by the hearth. Pump it into the stoney walls of Azkaban Cell 318. The Flying Circus's talented Beater corps are settling an old score, and when they finish making their statement... (Continued on Page 9; See "Beater Score")

Harry flipped several pages, then frowned in confusion. "There's no Page 9..."

"Quibbler print editions never run longer than eight pages, Harry," Ginny advised as she sipped her coffee.

"Then why the hell does the article say it's continued on Page 9 if it doesn't exist??"

"Luna told me once that Quibbler sales increase 10% whenever they foster an element of mystery." Ginny offered an amused smirk.

"Mystery?" Harry huffed in exasperation. "One out of every ten readers plunks down an extra Sickle at the news stand thinking somebody nicked his Page 9. Where's the bloody mystery in that??"

"A bit shirty today, Potter?" Zabini grinned roguishly as he, Daphne and Summerby entered the office.

"Yes I am!" Harry tossed the Quibbler into the bin and immersed his face in a coffee cup.

"Oh Harry Harry Harry," Daphne moaned as she circled quickly around behind him and pressed herself into his shoulders, draping her hands around his neck. "Look on the bright side. You saved Tracey's life and she'll be all right. You can't ask much more than that can you?"

A somewhat tense moment followed. Harry stiffened, uncomfortably aware of Daphne's fingers making their way down his chest. Ginny's eyebrow spiked. Zabini shifted awkwardly, eyeing Ginny and wondering how quickly a 'shirtiness' epidemic might spread through the office. "Er, yes. About that Davis business, Harry?" Zabini quickly interjected to shift everyone's focus. He took a seat and not-so-subtly indicated to Daphne that she should do the same.

"Yes?" Harry breathed a bit more easily as Daphne reluctantly parted from him.

"Spacey getting herself in trouble in a nightclub had nothing to do with the Flying Circus," Zabini asserted. "It's not our fault, right? This isn't going to affect your commitment to the squad, is it?"

Harry sighed deeply and didn't answer.

Standing by the door, Ginny met Zabini's expectant gaze and tapped her wrist watch. "Let's wait until Grant and George arrive, then we'll talk things through as a group."

Fortunately the Keeper and Beater were already bantering their way up the hallway. "Frederick the Great sends his regrets!" George announced cheerily as he strode in the door and handed his cloak blithely to Zabini. "Someone has to mind the shop and keep all those sponsorship Galleons rolling in!"

"Oi!" Page looked around at the assembled group as he closed the door. "Quite the sour-looking bunch aren't we all? I assume you've been discussing the Davis girl, then? How is she?"

"I was in the Hospital Wing over lunch," Daphne responded. "Tracey was conscious and has been able to speak softly, but she doesn't have the strength to lift her arms much or handle solid foods yet. But still, it's a big improvement."

"Poor sprog." George shook his head somberly. "I'll talk to Fred after the meeting and we'll knock together a gift to cheer her up. We can present it on behalf of the team if everyone agrees."

"That would be sweet — thank you George!" Ginny patted her brother fondly on the arm.

"Yes, thank you very much George — very thoughtful." Harry smiled gratefully, then turned to face the group. "So to get everyone caught up, just a couple of minutes ago, Blaise asked the question of the hour. Does Tracey's misfortune affect our plans to move ahead with a full season schedule for The Flying Circus?"

The others nodded silently, expectantly.

Harry folded his hands. "What I would propose is that we discuss some of the deeper issues here and then we can either try to hammer out a consensus, or else put some propositions on the table and take a vote."

The others signaled tacit assent.

Harry pursed his lips. "I would very much prefer a consensus. If it comes down to taking a vote, then I'm going to state clearly that I'll do anything I can do to protect any dissenting minority. Fan and player security is critical, and I don't believe that any majority has the moral prerogative to force anyone to act against their conscience for the sake of something as trivial as exhibition Quidditch."

Zabini's brow furrowed. "Without unanimity or a guarantee of majority rule, we might split up?"

"Yes, it's possible we might split up — maybe now or maybe later," Harry admitted. "But first let's see how far we can get as rational, accommodating human beings."

George shrugged equably. "Sure, Harry. That's reasonable."

Various murmurs of agreement ensued.

Harry gazed around at the serious faces. "Thank you for your understanding. I will be honest and state what you're all probably guessing, which is that I have serious misgivings about going ahead with a series of high-profile exhibition matches. My concerns relate to an Auror investigation that most of you know nothing about. You'll probably leave today's meeting still knowing less than you'd like, but to be fair to you I'll give you a bit of background as long as you all swear to repeat nothing of it to anyone."

Everyone nodded earnestly.

"Since late fall, a fringe dark element has emerged and is laying the foundation for some very unpleasant scheme. Their precise agenda remains unclear, but for the sake of argument let's propose that they would like to avenge Voldemort's death," Harry explained calmly. "To this end, we would assume that there a number of primary targets, all of whom played roles in the Battle of Hogwarts. Not surprisingly, I appear to be on the endangered list."

Nobody blinked. Apart from Ginny, none of the other Flying Circus members had been privy to the Auror investigation or any of the secret research, but juxtaposition of the phrases 'danger' and 'Harry Potter' wasn't particularly shocking.

Harry waited a moment in case there were any questions that he would probably refuse to answer, but the savvy audience just sat, waiting for him to continue.

"Up until I went to bed last night, I thought that the Flying Circus events were fairly well protected by the advanced security precautions that DMLE has agreed to implement for us. You probably couldn't tell, but last night's facility at Gibraltar Point was well locked down. It was probably even more secure than the last World Cup. I took to the skies without much fear that anything would go wrong at the match, and I was right. But unfortunately nobody anticipated problems that might arise as soon as fans step outside of the secure area."

Harry paused as Dobby Apparated into the office bearing coffee, tea, and biscuits for everyone. He smiled his thanks to the thoughtful house elf, who bowed and vanished. Harry picked up a fresh coffee mug whose handle bore a tiny placard inscribed 'Professor Potter'. He took a sip before resuming.

"Okay, to get to the point, last night's incident might seem at first blush to be a random, nightclub crime. Most Aurors wouldn't blink at a report of some brainless minger on the loose with a badly brewed Mickey-Finn — they'd pass the case onto local law enforcement and forget about it. In this case, however, there are strange aspects that only make sense to me if I look at them in the context of something much more sinister than attempted sexual assault. In fact, although proof still eludes me, I'm fairly certain that last night's incident was perpetrated by the same fringe dark element I mentioned a moment ago. Tracey Davis received an Order of Merlin citation for helping to rally Slytherin House to our cause, which might hint at vengeance as a motive for targeting her, but the real plot could be a lot stranger and more insidious than anybody's best guess."

"I don't see any connection between this dark plot and The Flying Circus, Harry. Did anything about the match place anyone at undue risk?"

Everyone's eyes swiveled around, astonished to note that it was Daphne who had spoken.

"Wouldn't Tracey have been in danger regardless of whether she went to the match?" she continued. "She's of age. She's entitled to request weekend passes whenever she wants, so which is riskier — going out shopping with her mum, or hanging out with a bunch of Quidditch fans who happen to be Order of Merlin recipients with extensive defence training from some sweetie named Potter?"

Daphne paused to let a ripple of whispers spread through the office, before capping off her speech. "Listen Harry..." She proceeded to stand, and placed her hands firmly on her hips, "If we kill The Flying Circus, the crooks will find other chances to attack, and they'll probably giggle in glee knowing that they strangled a fun, exciting diversion in a society still reeling from war and privation."

Harry blinked, met her fiery eyes with a genuine smile, and clapped slowly three times. "Wow Daffs! Not a bad little speech from someone who got, what, three hours of sleep?"

Daphne laughed. "Actually, I ditched my morning classes..." She smiled momentarily before reassembling her business mien. "But as Flying Circus Senior Advocate, my suggestion is that we all defer completely to Harry's and Gin-Ginny's judgment when it comes to squad and match security. Let's all promise that we'll go along with any recommendation they make regarding safety issues. In return, Generals Potter and Weasley will assure us that they will only cancel a match if there's a credible threat targeting that match, or targeting people trying to get to or from the event."

Harry eyed her shrewdly. "Ah! So Ginny and I get to decide on a case by case basis, huh? Not putting any pressure on us, are you Madame Senior Advocate?"

Daphne's shoulders equivocated coyly.

Harry frowned. "You're forgetting one possible scenario. What if somebody uses the match as a diversion to distract from some operation taking place elsewhere?"

Daphne regarded him analytically for a moment then nodded. "Okay, you can cancel a match any time you have strong reason to believe that cancellation will prevent a crime from occurring."

Harry pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Ginny?" He glanced deferentially to his frowning girlfriend who seemed to be lost in thought.

After a moment, Harry shrugged. "I want to reiterate how important it is to keep this secret, but let me make it clear to everyone that the alleged criminal mastermind we're competing with is a wild-card who thrives on the unconventional. There may be times when the most solid reason we can possibly give is a hunch. Sometimes hunches save lives!"

Harry paused to take a slow sip of coffee as the room fell deathly silent in anticipation.

He put his cup down, steepled his hands pensively, then finally spoke. "All that said, I find myself agreeing with Daphne. We can't let a small noxious fringe take all the fun out of life, so let's try to make a go of it for now."

Harry paused to examine the response from the assembly. He smiled to see huge grins spreading over Zabini's, Daphne's, George's and Grant's faces. He noted more soberly that Ginny's and Summerby's enthusiasm was distinctly muted by comparison, but they didn't protest.

"So..." Harry took back his seat. "I suppose Daphne's next agenda item is to begin negotiating a schedule?"

Daphne nodded enthusiastically and began pulling scrolls out of her hand bag, but Harry raised his hand before she could begin speaking. "That's fine, but before we officially approach any more opponents, I want Madame Senior Advocate Boss Lady to agree that any contract we sign will give us an explicit exit clause in case of possible security issues. And furthermore, the term 'security issues' must be defined as vaguely as possible so that Ginny or I can improvise if things smell fishy. Is that a fair compromise, Gin'?"

Ginny's frown abated. "Yes, that's a responsible way of going about it. Thank you Harry. And thank you too, Daphne, for being reasonable about this." Ginny's smiling eyes alighting on her long-time frenemy.

Daphne grinned. "Goody good! Up-or-down vote on Harry's proposal?"

"Aye!" came the resounding response.

"Brill!" Daphne continued. "Now, let me tell you about some of the squads that have thrown down the gauntlet!"

"Surprise!" Harry and Ginny waved jauntily to the bed-ridden student. "Triple chocolate gelato straight from Fortescue's, courtesy of a most charming house elf!"

Looking weak and pale, but alert, Tracey smiled.

"We have a freezing charm on it in case you'd prefer to save it for later, but if you'd like to try eating some now, I can help you," Ginny offered, holding up a spoon.

Tracey gave a slight nod. "Seeing as you're not from Slytherin House," she whispered with a weak grin, "I'll assume that you didn't spit on the spoon."

Harry chuckled, then met her eye. "Would you be up to answering a few questions about the wizard you met at the night club?" he asked gently. "Please don't feel pressured, because we could come back again tomorrow if you'd prefer."

"No," she said softly, after swallowing a small mouthful. "Let's talk a little while my memory is fresh."

"Thanks!" Harry gave her a warm smile. "First I want to gauge your recall prior to the poisoning. Do you remember how much money you went into the nightclub with?"

Tracey nodded. "I went in with eight Galleons and ten Sickles." Her tone, although still weak, was clear and certain. "The Swampe had an all-night special on Phlaming Phoenixes — only fourteen Sickles per urn. I bought three and tipped one Sickle each time, then I spent three Sickles on a packet of pumpkin seeds just before midnight, so I should have returned here with five Galleons and thirteen Sickles in my pocket."

His eyebrows raised, Harry looked up from Tracey's small tray of personal effects where he had been counting coins. "Well done!" He pursed his lips, impressed. "So clearly you still had your wits about you as long as you were buying your own drinks!"

"Pansy claimed that the Phlaming Phoenixes were actually quite watery, so I think we're safe to assume that by the time you stopped buying drinks, you really weren't headed for a bender," Ginny surmised, as she offered Tracey another spoon full of the confection. "How many drinks did the mystery wizard buy you?"

Tracey paused to swallow, then wheezed as she gestured toward the bedside table. "Water."

From the look in her eyes, Harry knew immediately that Tracey wasn't talking about the nightclub binge — she was having trouble swallowing. He quickly grabbed a glass from the table and helped her take a drink.

"Thanks," she croaked. She coughed slightly, then shook her head to clear it. "Fugly bastard bought me two drinks. First one seemed okay, but the second drink went down like a mouthful of Knarl quills. I vomited from the first mouthful, then ditched the drink — and the ponce! "

Harry glanced at Ginny in consternation, chewing his lip. "Strong mix!"

Tracey smirked slightly and beckoned with her finger for another spoonful of gelato. "I don't know how much alcohol it had in it, but it sure as hell was no... what do the Muggles call them? Shirley Temple?"

Harry shook his head. "Actually I wasn't talking about alcoholic strength, but rather the amount of foreign substance in there. To be honest, I don't know much about the way different poisons act, but it's always my assumption that if a crook is trying to poison someone, he'll try to disguise the taste and make it as seem as harmless as possible. If it's the poison we're thinking of, the effect you describe sounds quite... harsh, wouldn't you say Gin'?"

Ginny shrugged. "Muggles in the Far East are known to self-administer non-lethal doses of the stuff in food and claim that the effect is 'tingly'. If the dose was stronger, perhaps the sensation would be harsher as well."

"I suppose." Harry nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to ask Hermione if she can clarify that. Anyway Tracey..." Harry returned his attention to the patient, "I couldn't help notice that you used some uncomplimentary terms to refer to the bloke who poisoned you?"

Tracey nodded, frowning. "He was pure slime. If I'd had any say in the matter, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near him."

"If you'd had any say...?" Harry raised an eyebrow.

Tracey bit her lip. "Sorry Harry," she replied sheepishly. "I've been having a lot of difficulty getting anywhere with Occlumency ."

"I see." Harry's frown deepened. "So you felt like you weren't in control of your actions?"

The girl shook her head with surprising fervour. "Around midnight I started getting impulses to act stupidly. My head got a bit fogged, and it seemed like I just got swept along... until I swallowed that filth he gave me. When the poison hit me, I panicked enough to straighten my head again. I spewed on the floor, pulled my wand on him and was about to yell for help but, by that time... well, I guess it was already too late..."

Ginny stared at the girl. "Too late? You mean the poison was already starting to affect you?"

"I guess so." Tracey shrugged. "My muscles went all weak and I could barely talk. It was nothing like the earlier impulses — I had my wits about me for a while, but I was too shaky to do much."

Harry stroked his chin. "Tet... er, the poison we're thinking of, takes longer to act. Thirty minutes or more after exposure."

"Could it have been a mix of poisons?" Ginny speculated.

Harry nodded.

Ginny turned to Tracey. "So going back to Mr. 'Fugly'. We've gotten vague details from the others, but I was wondering if you could describe him?"

Tracey nodded, but first pointed toward the spoon. "More chocolate please?"

Ginny smiled affirmatively, and as she began to scoop another morsel from the container, Tracey turned to Harry with a set jaw, speaking only two words dripping with vitriol. "Vincent Crabbe."

The metal spoon clanged to the floor. Ginny stared, agape. "You think the bloke was Crabbe? Polyjuiced??"

"Blimey!" Harry shook his head as Ginny knelt to scourgefy the spoon and floor. "Crabbe, Goyle and Bulstrode haven't been seen since they left the castle the day before the Battle of Hogwarts. Shite, Gin' — do you reckon they're working for Lestrange?"

Tracey shrugged. "He called himself Victor Carling and said he came from a Muggle neighbourhood in Lincoln, but his accent was obviously Home Counties." She devoured another spoonful of gelato. "Something kept telling me that the git really reminded me of someone — the smell, body language, crass vocabulary. The connection eluded me, but I kept fussing over it and finally, just a while ago, I sorted it out. The more I question myself, the more I'm certain it was him. Crabbe cornered me one night last year in the Slytherin common room, and I guess he still can't take 'HELL NO ' for an answer!"

Tracey unclenched her jaw and looked down in surprise to see her hands, both raised off the bed, clenched in rigid trembling fists like she was ready to take a swing at someone. Forgetting her anger, she laughed spiritedly. "Is this your idea of therapy, Harry?" She gave him a wicked grin. "Fill me full of chocolate, then hack me off?"

"Ha!" Ginny snickered. "Well, there is still almost a pint of chocolate for you to keep working on, but I think we're done with the provocation exercises for today!"

Tracey extended her newly empowered hands to reach for the pint and the spoon. "Leave those right here, please. A bit of scooping is the perfect cool-down exercise for me right now!"

"Psssstt!"

Harry and Ginny swiveled around on the stairwell and spotted Pansy beckoning them down a quiet, dimly-lit corridor on fourth floor. The pair looked at each other, shrugged, and descended a few steps to follow the Slytherin a short ways along the hall and into an unused classroom.

"What's up, Pansy?" Harry asked, as the Slytherin closed the door.

"I'm worried about Tracey," she replied in a low tone.

Ginny gave her a puzzled look. "Yes, of course. She obviously gave a lot of people quite a fright, but things are looking up. Harry and I just left the Hospital Wing and are thrilled to report that her recovery is really starting to hit stride. Another few days and she may well be completely back to normal!"

"Normal!" Pansy huffed loudly, rolling her eyes. "That's precisely the problem. Tracey's been a whacked-out nutter for weeks now — she's been off so long now that 'normal' is the last bleeding thing I'd expect from her." She turned to stare at the puzzled looks on Harry's and Ginny's faces for a moment, before completing her thought. "Why would near-death by poisoning suddenly straighten her out?"

Harry scratched his head. "Er, well, I don't know exactly, but the problem is that I'm not really sure what you're talking about. I mean in terms of describing her as a whacked-out nutter, that is. Admittedly I never got to know her when we were students, and had never taught her until we started the twice weekly Occlumency tutoring. So I guess I don't know what 'normal' should be, but nothing I've seen recently has seemed cause for alarm." He paused to think for a moment. "I do admit that she's a poor study at Occlumency, but at least she's been taking the sessions seriously, paying attention, and making an honest effort to apply the techniques. Are you sure you haven't been judging her too harshly, Pansy?"

"Huhh??" Pansy scratched her head in disbelief. "You say she seems normal? Around you ?!"

"Yes," Harry confirmed. "Why is that so strange?"

"Because, sh-.... er, well... forget it." Still scratching her head, Pansy stared off into a dim corner.

Ginny took a step toward the Slytherin. "Pansy, please tell us. It could be important."

Pansy glanced uncertainly at Harry and Ginny before resolving to proceed. "Don't hex the little ninny or anything because of this Weasley, but like I hinted to Potter last night, Tracey seems to have developed a crush on him. To be specific, a couple times in the last week or so, I caught her gawking at Harry like he had a diamond-studded butt or something."

Harry frowned. "Uh yes, I seem to remember you mentioning something like that, but I had other things on my mind at the time. You're suggesting that she's been acting fixated? Toward me?"

Pansy nodded.

Harry shook his head and exchanged glances with Ginny. "No, neither of us have noticed anything of the sort. You're certain it wasn't confusion or distraction of some sort?"

Pansy snarled impatiently. "I know her, and I know what I bloody well saw, okay?"

"Sorry to have sounded doubtful, Pansy." Ginny smiled solicitously. "As far as I'm concerned, this seems very relevant." She turned to Harry. My immediate concern is how we could have failed to notice?"

"Right," Harry nodded. "If she's fixated, then does the fixation get turned on and off somehow, so we don't see it when we're around her? Or does it mean...?"

Harry didn't complete his sentence. Instead, he and Ginny nodded subtly and thoughtfully to each other, both embarking on a similar trail of speculation.

Does this mean that Tracey is another walking confundus charm?

Who else might be affected? In what ways? Would people know if they were influenced?

Could she have inadvertently confunded Ted Nott?

Harry shook himself out of his internal deliberations. "Pansy, I have another indelicate question and..., well I hate to pry, but it may also be salient to this discussion."

Pansy gave him an unpleasant look. "I hate indelicate questions, but people tell me that I ask them all the time."

"Okay..." Harry eyed her cautiously, gauging whether to interpret that as tacit acceptance. "Why did you and Ted break up?"

Pansy grimaced. "Gah! Should have seen that coming!"

Harry and Ginny averted their eyes from Pansy's scowl and waited patiently.

"I caught Ted making a blatant pass at Tracey," Pansy answered after some time. "Tracey looked like she would rather have kissed an Aquavirius Maggot, so if you were about to ask whether she might have been slutting around, the answer is definitely no. It was all Ted pushing himself on her."

Harry frowned. "Er, well fortunately I wasn't going to ask for details, but I suppose it's useful to know the perspective anyway."

"Don't spread this around!" Pansy waved her hand emphatically. "I did break up with Ted, but he's been through enough hell and I, uhh... well, I don't exactly want to drag him through any more mud. If you know what I mean?"

Ginny nodded. "Don't worry, we'll be discreet."

Harry pushed back against his private worries to give the girl a grateful smile. "Thanks for coming to us, Pansy. If you notice anything else peculiar, it would be very helpful if you could tip us off. There could be a lot more at stake here than reputation and relationship angst."

Pansy half nodded, half hrugged. "Okay, I'll keep an eye out, as long as you watch out for Tracey — the little barmpot actually means quite a bit to me. Is that a deal?"

"Deal!" Harry and Ginny replied in unison.

"Is anyone home?" Harry's voice sounded through the large Dolwyddelan kitchen as he looked around. In truth, he could sense Andromeda's presence, but preferred not to draw attention to unusual abilities of that nature, so it seemed wiser to just call out like every one else did.

Andromeda emerged from the pantry, dusting her hands. "Oh, hello Harry! Sorry, but everyone here is running behind this morning, mostly due to the frightful wind storm that tore through the valley last night. I lost several hours of sleep myself and completely forgot about your weekly visit."

"No problem." Harry smiled casually. "So where is Teri?"

"Teri? Ah yes." Andromeda took a moment to collect her thoughts. "I believe she's outside with several of the children, helping Theodore Nott clear some deadfall from the grounds and paths. They would likely be somewhere around back by now."

"Thank you!" Harry gave her another smile and made his way out of the kitchen through the back door. His boots crunched loudly over the recently frozen ground. Harry gazed at the trees and bushes all contorted under their icy sheaths. If the sun were to make an appearance, the icescape would likely be dazzling, but under the grey skies it seemed hard and cheerless.

But not quite so dreary that the morning couldn't be brought to life with children's laughter.

Pausing his noisy footsteps for a moment, Harry looked around to pinpoint the source of distant shrieks and giggling. In the middle of an orchard to the southwest, Harry spotted the distinct sight of several small, cloaked figures chasing each other about the leafless undergrowth. Eyes lighting to a twinkle, Harry made his way toward them. As he approached more closely, he saw that two of the boys (Troy and Carl) were thrashing about with sticks, shattering ice from a small stream, while Ted Nott was groaning exaggeratedly, and staggering about from the weight of Anna and Teri, who had latched onto his two arms and were tugging him in opposite directions.

As he approached, Harry intentionally kicked at a brittle piece of deadfall; the resulting crack echoed through the glade and five faces turned to face him.

"Mr. Harry! I forgot all about our lesson!" Raising a worried mitten to her mouth, Teri released Ted's arm, inadvertently breaking a delicate balance, sending Anna and her young uncle tumbling to the ground.

Harry chuckled as several of the children burst into laughter again. He turned to Teri, who apparently didn't quite know whether to grin or grimace. He smiled. "Don't worry about it, Teri. The Aurors ought to be accustomed to me being late getting back to the castle by now, so I might as well live up to that right?" He winked cheerily.

Teri's face settled into a carefree shine that Harry couldn't recall having seen before from the normally stoic and sardonic girl. With a light laugh, she joined Harry and the two of them ambled together back to the manor house.

Harry offered his arm as they walked past a slick glaze near the back steps, and glanced appraisingly at his young companion. "You've had a good week?"

"Yes!" Her head bobbed enthusiastically. "Every new week without the bitch in my head seems even better than the last."

Dwelling much more on her general happiness than on the coarse slip of language, Harry nodded. "I'm glad to hear that!"

"And also, you won at Quidditch!" She grinned. "We were so excited! We all clumped together in the den, listening to the match on the wireless. Then the moment before you started chasing the snitch, I swear I could practically feel it. The announcers hadn't mentioned the snitch in ages, but somehow I knew you'd seen it!"

Harry gazed thoughtfully at her for a moment, then his eyes twinkled. He reached into his cloak and pulled out something small and golden. Teri gasped as he handed it to her.

Harry gave the girl a quizzical look. He was about to ask her if she'd never seen a snitch before, but he stopped himself. That question, like many that he could ask the girl, probably had an unpleasant answer and he felt no interest in spoiling a warm moment. Instead he allowed himself a private grin and quietly watched as she turned it carefully over and over in her hands, examining it intently as they entered the house and made their way toward the grand staircase.

"You can keep it," Harry told her.

The girl gasped again. "You can't mean that!"

"I can, actually," Harry replied. "Don't worry — I already have a... a few snitches."

"The snitch from the first ever Flying Circus victory!" She held it high against the grey sky, staring at it with reverence.

Harry laughed. "Er, yes, I suppose you could say that. But don't prize it too much, Sugar Plum. A snitch is meant to fly — and to be caught!"

"You want me to play with it?"

"Sure, or better yet, practise with it," Harry replied.

"Practise?"

"Exactly! I'm not going to play Seeker forever. You can't expect to take my place on The Flying Circus if you don't practise, right?"

Teri grinned for a moment, then turned her attention back to the snitch.

Harry opened the library door and closed it again behind them. After first checking to make certain nobody else was in the room, he cast several privacy wards and took a seat. "Do you have any questions before we start our lesson?"

"Yes," Teri replied eagerly, placing the snitch on the desk and finding a seat. "Who are you playing next?"

Harry laughed. "I meant, did you have any questions about magic?"

Teri folded her arms over her chest. "But Quidditch is magic, Mr. Harry!"

Harry rolled his eyes, but answered nonetheless. "We'll face the Luxembourg National Junior squad on the second Monday in February."

"Wow — they're good, Mr. Harry! They played into the semi-finals in last year's World Junior Championship!"

Harry shrugged agreeably. "Yes, I'm sure we'll have to adapt quite a bit for that match."

Teri nodded. "You're all good at adapting, right? Seeker Weekly said that was the key to the Skegness match — Miss Ginny adapting her defence to get all those steals!"

"Er, well, in truth it's better to have really good scouting so you can start with a solid plan and don't have to change it. But yes, if you're like us and have no scouts, then it helps a lot to be able to shift strategies quickly when things are faltering."

"So how did Miss Ginny figure out how to defend Liu Song Ye?" Teri leaned forward on the edge of her seat, studying Harry's face.

"You're not to tell anyone at all," Harry admonished, "but as I understand it, Miss Ginny and Mr. Zabini figured out how to read Ye's body language. Supposedly, her lead shoulder would cheat toward her preferred turning direction."

Teri nodded. "And how is it that the twins doing so well? The boys here all say that the twins were terrible cheaters at school, but in the last match the wireless went on and on about how skilled they were and how clean they were playing!"

Harry laughed again, reminding himself just how much of an innate Slytherin-bias there must be among these children of Death Eaters, and how deeply that house had hated Fred and George during their school days. He nonetheless opted to respond as diplomatically as possible. "At Hogwarts, every house assumes their opponent is cheating," Harry explained. "And half the time they're probably right. But as far as how the twins managed to improve their playing so much, I honestly don't know either. Maybe I'll have to invite them here so that they can tell you themselves. Now, are you ready to start on your lessons?"

Teri shook her head. "One more question!" she demanded.

"Okay, go ahead," Harry replied, quirking an eyebrow in amused resignation.

"I'm certain, Mr. Harry, that you spotted the snitch before the Shrakes Seeker did. Why did you let him get a twenty foot jump on you?"

Harry sighed. This was not a morning destined for much Occlumency practice.

After Williamson, once again, refused to join the other investigators for a late lunch, the remaining group of friends relaxed, and chatted amicably on their way up to sixth floor, temporarily setting aside the strain of an increasingly bewildering investigation. An hour later, however, after the last plates had vanished and the butterbeer was beginning to flow freely amidst lively conversation, Lupin pushed his chair back discreetly, and put his hand on Harry's arm to draw his attention.

"Harry," he whispered, "We barely spoke about the Davis girl's poisoning in this morning's meeting. Do you think the incident has any connection to the case?"

Suddenly the table went very quiet, as Tonks, Ryan, Ginny and Hermione suddenly turned in unison toward the whispering.

"Ah yes." Harry scanned the attentive faces and not bothering to whisper. "Yes, that would be the proverbial purple Erumpent in the corner, wouldn't it? As far as DMLE is concerned, the Davis poisoning has nothing to do with the Bellatrix Lestrange investigation, and hence Williamson displayed little interest in asking about it."

"Yes, 'as far as DMLE is concerned '." Lupin eyed his friend inquiringly. "But she's on the list of possible Lestrange targets. Surely that would warrant some attention?"

Harry equivocated. "Well, for better or for worse, DMLE always proceeds with a certain semblance of logic. So, when Minerva and I reported the incident to Kingsley, he decided that since poisoning is not a dark art, the investigation should be referred to the North Midlands constabulary. Then, when we contacted North Midlands to alert them to a possible Vincent Crabbe connection, the local chief referred the matter back up to the Auror Department, but..."

"But the case was assigned to the general Death Eater search team, rather than the special Lestrange inquiry," Tonks interjected. "Which would make perfect sense... except if it doesn't. Do you know anything to suggest that they're missing the boat?"

Ginny smirked wryly. "'Know' is such a strong word."

"Forgive the language cock-up, Ginners." Tonks winked at her. "But you 'suspect ', right? So dish it out you two — what's your speculation?"

"Ryan? Hermione? Care to comment?" Harry gestured across the table, shifting everyone's focus onto the two students.

Ryan and Hermione exchanged glances. Ryan gestured his thumb toward Hermione, saying, "Better to ask the Muggle-born than the Muggle-fan."

Hermione blinked, and took a moment to equilibrate to the sudden attention. 'Ahem, er, yes. I have to admit some discomfort in discussing something that most Muggles believe is a fanciful fiction, and most Magical authorities won't even acknowledge as even a theoretical possibility."

Tonks shrugged. "Go ahead — we'll give you at least five minutes to explain yourself before we take the mickey out you." She gave Hermione a not-quite-reassuring grin.

Hermione raised her eyebrow but continued nonetheless. "So, within a certain school of Muggle metaphysical psychology, there is a concept called, 'Corpus-Qualia dissection ', which basically entails..."

Ryan shook his head vigorously. "That won't help anyone, Granger. Use the term you told me about. The one that Muggle literature uses!"

"But..."

"No — go ahead and use real words if you want them to understand!"

"Oh, all right." Hermione sighed and sank, red-faced, down into her seat. Everyone leaned in close, as Hermione was, for some reason, speaking into her hand. "So, who among you has heard the term 'zombies'? "

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