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.
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!"
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?"
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.
"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!"
"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'? "