Number 12 Grimmauld Place stood quiet and solemn in the early morning hours of late summer, unseen by her somewhat less maudlin neighbours whose electricity chased away some of the gloom with artificial warmth. London had been saddled with near constant rain since the peak of summer, leaving the city grey and with an atmosphere not unlike when one had been entertaining an unwanted houseguest for far too long. Despite the ill-favoured weather, the most noble House of Black was gloomier still than her neighbours, eternally tainted by the dark wizards who had long ago moved her into the magical realm.
In the darkness of the smallest bedroom on the second landing, years and miles away from the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive, Harry Potter came awake with a shout that shook the very foundations of the house he had inherited. Disoriented as he was, wand outstretched almost wildly in his left hand, the wizard took no notice of the lingering trembles of his dreams as his wide, green eyes searched the room. Slowly, his harsh breathing evened out as he registered where he was and that no enemies lingered in the darkness of his room. Holding his breath briefly, he released it and lowered the Hawthorne wand once more, setting it down on the mattress so he could reach for the potions lined up at his bedside.
Awkwardly unstopping the first potion with only his left hand, he tossed it back, swallowing thickly before coughing out a gruff, “Kreacher.” He grimaced at the answering crack that announced the Apparition of his house-elf and muttered, “The lights. And tea.”
“Yes, Master.” The oil lamps illuminated at once, and the fire in the small grate at the opposite end of the bedroom came to life for good measure. Another crack followed after a few moments as the elf left to acquire his tea, though not before Harry heard him muttering, “My poor master is in such pain…cannot sleep through the night…what can Kreacher do to ease his suffering?”
Sighing irritably, Harry picked up the second of the two Blood-Replenishing potions and tossed this back as well, relaxing back into his pillows as the malignant pain in his wand arm faded to a dull throb. He ran his fingers lightly over the heavily charmed bandages encasing the damaged limb, wondering how much the angry black and purple curse lines had spread during the night. Though he recognized the paranoia for what it was, Harry couldn’t help but feel as though each dawn a little more of him had been consumed by the dark magic.
Sitting up fully at the third crack into the pre-dawn quiet that announced his tea, Harry reached for his Anti-Paralysis potion next and shuddered at the taste of it sliding down his throat. With great effort, he carefully opened and closed the cramped fingers of his right hand with excruciating slowness, feeling the shards of holly in his palm and wrist as he did so. Looking over the silver tray Kreacher was levitating onto the bed beside him, Harry saw that the house-elf had actually plated an overlarge slice of treacle tart beside his steaming tea and felt his lips twitch in the ghost of a smile. Sneaky little bugger.
Despite that his stomach was turning itself over with the remnants of his nightmares and his potion regimen, he took a careful bite of the tart under Kreacher’s watchful eye, then thanked and dismissed the house-elf. Even the small bite sat like a lump inside him, but Harry pushed the feeling aside as he washed it down with his tea, eyeing his remaining potions with an unkind gaze. Resolutely, he reached for the Murtlap Essence next, followed by Star Grass Salve and a small vial of Skele-Gro. He let his fingers linger for a moment on the Draught of Peace, frowning severely at it before he pushed it further back on the nightstand and picked up the last of his tea instead.
Every morning and evening he went through this, with additional Blood-Replenishing doses throughout the day. His mouth felt like the bottom of a first year’s cauldron and Harry knew he had lost more than a little weight from the curb to his appetite. Honestly he imagined if it were not for his beard, he would not look that far removed from when he’d been in the Dursleys’ tender care. Harry gamely tried a second bite at this thought, before dropping his fork back to the plate, taking up the Hawthorn wand he had set aside and levering himself out of bed.
Despite that it had been close to two years since Belize and the curse that had reshaped his life again, Harry still found operating with only his left-hand gave him an off-balanced, clumsy feeling. In the bathroom he splashed some cold water onto his face, cupping a handful to press over his eyes for a long moment before he let it fall and dried off. Taking up his glasses from the shelf below the mirror, Harry stared at his reflection as though he were a stranger.
His face was gaunt and somewhat hollow with exhaustion and the near-constant pain that was his life now, his green eyes over bright behind his square, frameless spectacles. He honestly wasn’t sure whether or not the short beard covering the lower half of his face helped to hide or accentuate the state of his physical health.
The beard had come in overnight when he had turned twenty-five. It had alarmed him initially to wake up to, given that his father had been clean-shaven in all the photographs Harry had ever seen of him. But his father had been murdered at twenty-one…it was entirely possible that this was a trait he would have shared with him, had James Potter been given the chance to live so long.
His beard, much like his hair, tended to do whatever it felt like doing on any given day and only accepted the barest of suggestions from Harry himself in the styling. Shaving was wholly ineffective beyond the span of a day, but his beard did appreciate a good brush to smooth down into something presentable. There were times when Harry wondered if he would end up like Dumbledore…his hair growing ever longer and wilder as he hit certain milestones in his life. He was used to the short beard now at twenty-eight, but he would prefer things stay as they were before disguising himself became more trouble than it was worth.
Some of the tension began to ease out of his body as the potions and the little food he’d managed worked through him and for a moment Harry simply leaned against his sink and breathed, resting his forehead against the cool surface of the mirror. It murmured soft encouragements to him, but Harry tuned it out, his mind turned inward. Once he was ready, he leaned back and began Transfiguring his features with careful movements.
Harry had been fortunate that Aurors were trained to use their wands in their non-dominant hand, but the loss of his wand meant that he couldn’t be as casual with the movements as he might once have been with the wand of Holly and Phoenix. The Hawthorn and Unicorn wand had been with him for over a decade now, but he had used it so rarely prior to his accident that it was still not fully comfortable to him. Some part of Harry suspected that the wand knew how he resented having to use it and reacted in kind, but that could be the paranoia.
Regardless, Harry was talented in his disguises, especially as he had been using the same particular Transfiguration off and on for years now, and almost daily the past eighteen months. This face, after all, was that of the J. S. Evans, Private Investigator.
Despite his skill, Transfiguration did not take well to Harry, thanks to the peculiarities that came with his father’s pureblood heritage. They would last at least until nightfall, but the further after sunset he remained disguised, the more those who recognized Mr. Evans would begin to remark at how his hair seemed darker and his eyes brighter and greener. The lightning shaped scar that marred his forehead was given a layer of Muggle make-up and a Disillusionment charm. Even more than the rest of his features, that particular part of him resisted magical means of disguise.
When Harry was finally finished, he bore the gloriously non-descript face he had long ago created when the weight of his infamy felt as though it were going to crush the life from him. At first it had been a whim, even a bit of a laugh to hide in plain sight, but as time wore on it became more and more necessary to be anyone other than himself. Now he did not enter the world without it, to the point where Harry wasn’t entirely sure when he’d last felt the sun on his actual face.
Breathing easier under his disguise, Harry found himself moving a little easier as he returned to his room to dress for the day. His Muggle clothing was charmed against the damp weather, though the overcoat he pulled on over his useless right arm was not. He found that having the outermost appearance of being wet and miserable to be enough to fool Wizard and Muggle alike, as Muggles had no reason to suspect that he was actually fully protected against the elements and most Wizards simply wouldn’t think to leave a single layer of their clothing mundane in the name of illusion. Usually Harry took the time to put his injured arm through the sleeve of his coat, but lately it had been aching so badly that he had no interest in having it exposed in any way.
Making his way down to the front door, he called for Kreacher, though Harry saw as he neared that the house-elf had already been waiting for him. The ancient old elf held up the steel thermos that held his doses of Blood-Replenishing potion out to Harry, muttering to himself about the state of his ‘poor master’ as he did so. Harry took it with a nod and held up the canister in a salute to him.
“Kreacher has also made soup for Master Harry…” the ancient elf gestured at the thermos, then rubbed his old, gnarled hands together. “Kreacher will make a pie for supper…”
Harry barely resisted sighing and carefully unscrewed his thermos one way to see that he had indeed filled it with a steaming soup, then screwed the cap back on until it came off again to reveal the Blood-Replenishing potion. Usually he liked to keep both compartments filled with potion in case something were to prevent him getting back to the house, but Kreacher was clearly going to keep at this feeding business until he was satisfied.
“Right. Kreacher, you will take time to rest today above all else. You remember what Healer Winky said about over exerting yourself.”
Kreacher sniffed at this, looking away from Harry. “The healer is a free elf…cannot be trusted, no…such a disgrace… But…Kreacher will do as his master commands. Kreacher is a good, proud house-elf…”
“Thank you, Kreacher,” Harry replied tiredly, putting his thermos into the inner pocket of his coat once the lid was properly secured once more. “And…thank you for the, ah, soup.”
Giving the house-elf a final nod, Harry opened the door and stepped out onto the landing, turning on the spot immediately to Disapparate before he could be spotted. These days, and with the weather especially, there was usually only one or two Witches or Wizards staking out his home. These tended to be the most junior members on staff with the Prophet or Witch Weekly, and he suspected they might actually be satisfying their internships by trying to catch a word with the reclusive Chosen One. They looked younger all the time, though some part of Harry wouldn’t put it past a Dark Wizard to use a disarmingly young appearance to get a shot at him. Most mornings he would leave his home by way of his Invisibility Cloak so that he could inspect his ‘stalkers’ more closely and check his wards, but today he didn’t have the patience for it.
Letting out a pained breath as he landed in the alleyway outside his office building, Harry put out his hand to brace himself on the damp brick as he waited for the pain to stop arcing through his arm. Big magic had that effect on him now, which was the other reason he usually walked to the Tube. It passed more slowly than he would have liked, feeling exposed in the open as he was, but Harry was moving again as soon as he could shake it off.
The building was already open, as the cleaning service had come to see to the lobby and those businesses within who paid to have their studios and offices cleaned as well. Harry was not one of these, as he used just enough household cleaning spells to keep his own rooms mostly presentable. Truthfully, he’d rather work under a thick layer of dust than allow strangers access to his offices, Muggles or not. Stopping only long enough to get his post, Harry gave the cleaners a brusque nod before unlocking the door emblazoned with ‘J. S. Evans, Private Investigator’ and ducking inside to shut and lock it once more behind him.
Almost at once, a small green square of paper shot off his desk and came to flutter about his head. Grimacing, Harry stuffed his post into his pocket and snatched at the appointment slip, which read ‘St Mungo’s, 9:00 AM Thursday, Healer Abbot’ in neat script beside the crossed wand and bone emblem of St Mungo’s Hospital. He briefly considered cancelling the appointment, but his arm throbbed in a way that suggested it would be quite foolish to do so. Besides which, Hannah would most likely come to find him if he tried to dodge her.
Crumpling the appointment slip irritably, he tossed it aside, ignoring the paper as it smoothed itself out again and followed him over to his desk, hovering just in view and out of reach as he switched on his electric kettle. Most of the objects in his offices were Muggle in nature, like the kettle, which gave him the ability to use an ancient computer to check his business’ email. His clients found the big, boxy display rather amusing, but newer technology was far more likely to short itself out in his presence.
While the kettle heated, Harry pulled the post from his pocket once more and awkwardly looked through what little he had. He paid an obscene amount of money to a private firm who sorted through the numerous letters he received and forwarded only what was relevant in nature. It was also run through a number of tests to ensure that nothing he received was cursed, hexed or spelled in any way. All Aurors were given a similar service while in the employ of the Ministry of Magic, though Harry had strongly believed they used it primarily as a way to read through employee correspondence. He trusted his own firm well enough, though he also never received anything he felt would compromise him as it was.
The first letter was from Hannah and was perhaps the kindest threat he’d ever received, should he decide to miss his appointment today. Snorting softly, he gave the appointment slip hovering off to his right a look and then picked up the next letter. This one he set aside unopened as soon as he recognized Hermione’s neat writing. Harry didn’t feel nearly awake enough to deal with that particular headache. The last letter actually brought a smile to his lips as he recognized Teddy’s untidy scrawl.
Teddy was joyful and warm even in his childish writing as he described how his summer had been going and his excitement for the upcoming school year. With a start, Harry realized as he read that Teddy was about to head into his first year at Hogwarts. Was he really already eleven? He seemed so much younger now than Harry had ever been. Tucking the letter into his coat, he promised himself that he would write back when he returned home that evening, and send an additional letter to Andromeda to see what he might gift his godson as congratulations on his entrance to Hogwarts.
His mood and health buoyed far more than any of his potions had done for him thus far, he finished making his tea and sat down at his desk to check his Muggle correspondence and email. It was mostly bills and adverts, though he had received yet another letter of invitation to apply to the Association of British Investigators. They always amused him to read through, imagining what exactly the ABI would think if they knew the sort of cases he took or the methods he had for solving them. He rather thought he might not live up to their standards of credibility to the industry had they any idea that the majority of cases he took on were for Muggles affected by the magical world.
Speaking of cases…he had two new inquiries waiting for him in his inbox once his computer finally finished booting up. The first seemed to be a fairly routine inquiry from an elderly chap who almost certainly had a boggart in his attic. The second however…
Harry was fairly simmering with rage as he stepped into the front lobby of St Mungo’s from the Muggle department store that quickly disappeared from view as he crossed over. People instinctively moved out of his way as he stormed through reception and headed straight for the lift without a word to the Welcome Witch, who looked rather glad to be excluded from his flight path. Everyone else waiting to go up to the other levels suddenly seemed to remember that they had somewhere else to be as he strode onto the lift and jabbed at the dial for the Fourth Floor.
He felt a curl of satisfaction in some dark place that he went unchallenged, angry as he was to take time out of his day to have to be there. Harry wanted to be out on the streets working his new case, not poked and prodded at like some kind of specimen. When he reached Spell Damage, having passed Floors 1, 2 and 3 without any other passengers willing to take him on, he stalked out onto the landing and headed for the Margo Elliot Ward, which specialized in curses and dark magic.
Hannah was immediately visible at the reception desk, her fair head bent over a number of scrolls before her. She looked up with a frown as though sensing his approach, and it only deepened at the sight of him before her eyebrows rose in recognition of his disguise.
“You’re in a right strop today, aren’t you? Come on then, let’s get you to the exam before someone calls a security troll.”
Some of his anger deflated and Harry let out a harsh breath, but nodded and followed her down the passageway to a private room. “Sorry. There’s a case and I…let’s just hurry and be done with this.”
“Oh yes, let’s rush the extremely delicate lifesaving procedures because you’re a very busy person with many important things to do,” she replied brightly, shutting the door and gesturing for him to sit on the table. “Get your kit off and let’s have a look, shall we?”
“Hannah…” Harry began, but was cut off almost immediately.
“Harry…” she imitated him in an exaggeration of his tone. “The sooner you stop being a right arse of a patient, the sooner you can be on your way, yes? Now get your kit off. It’s nothing I haven’t seen.”
His rage fully spent now, Harry sighed tiredly as a sort of numbness settled over him. He began taking off everything above the waist with slow, pained effort. “I should request a new Healer…isn’t there some rule about relationships with patients?”
“Ah, but you weren’t my patient when we were together. And besides, no one else here would put up with your bloody dark moods. Or worse, they’d start falling all over themselves to treat you once they found out who you were and let you have your run of the place.”
As soon as he’d removed his clothing, the Healer began to unwrap the spelled bandages on his arm with professional efficiency and Harry couldn’t help but smile a little. They had only dated a brief time several years back, barely dipping into the beginnings of intimacy when he’d re-introduced her to Neville at a pub night. She’d broken things off with him a few days later and though Harry thought he ought to be offended, he rather felt that he’d gotten what he deserved. After all, they’d first gone out after he’d met her again through Ernie Macmillan, who Harry had been shagging at the time.
His smile slipped away quickly as he heard her intake of breath and looked upon the ruin of his arm. Harry didn’t think now that it was his paranoia telling him that the blackened area of the curse wound had spread further up his arm, shot through with angry violet except in places where the shards of his wand were still lodged in his skin. When he’d first been brought in for treatment, there had been some debate on whether or not to remove his wand where it was imbedded in him. Eventually the Healers had come to the conclusion that, whatever the reason may be, they were the only thing keeping the curse from spreading faster than it was.
“Well,” Hannah said after a moment, breaking the tense silence they’d fallen into looking at the damaged limb. She began moving her wand in slow, practiced movements over him, taking diagnostics. “It doesn’t look that much worse, but obviously it hasn’t gotten better. How’s the mobility?”
“Limited. It’s been worse with the rain,” Harry admitted, managing a slow flex of his hand to show her.
“I know I’ve said it before, but keep it moving as much as you can manage. Circulation is just as important to preventing atrophy as it is to keeping the potions moving through there. Do you think the bandages have been helping? I’d like to try a new sequence of runes, I think…”
“The muscles cramp more with them on, but I do think it’s been helping to slow the spread.”
“Good, that’s what we’re aiming for right now. And the potion regimen?” she asked as she began to carefully spread a silver salve over his skin with gloved hands.
“Awful,” he glowered at her, then sighed. “But essential. I’m up to six full doses of Blood-Replenishment a day now.”
“You know that you wouldn’t have to take so much if you improved your diet,” she said sternly, giving him a knowing look. “You look like you’ve lost a stone since I saw you last.”
Harry only shook his head and looked away in reply, his mouth tight. Truthfully, he doubted managing a few more crisps would do much to improve things. The problem wasn’t that he was losing blood…it was that his blood was becoming useless. It had taken the Healers some time to realize what was happening, that the curse was pulling oxygen from his blood. Slowly suffocating him from the inside.
Hannah sighed and put aside the silver salve, giving him an earnest look. “Harry, I can’t force feed you, but you’re bloody well old enough to know that you need food to survive. Let me give you a Nutrition Draught at least if you can’t manage eating.”
A wave of revulsion went through him at the thought of the potion with had the exact taste and consistency of paste. “How’s Neville?” he asked abruptly in a desperate attempt to change the subject.
The Healer gave him a withering look at the transparent move, but then her eyes softened with affection and she smiled. “He’s just fine, thank you. Misses you, of course,” she said this with a pointed look and raised her wand to begin bandaging his arm in a fresh length of linen, tracing complicated runes in glowing lines. “This time of year is always a bit hectic for him with school about to start. He makes noise about having to spend so much time away from me, but I know that he loves teaching and all the chaos that brings.” She hesitated a moment and seemed to be weighing her words before she spoke again. “Actually…rumour has it that Madam Pomfrey is set to retire after this year. I’ve been thinking about applying for the job, if she does.”
She glanced up at him at this, as though she worried he might feel betrayed that she was thinking of leaving St Mungo’s to be nearer to her husband. It did pain him briefly to think of having to go through this with someone else, but Harry couldn’t find it in him to be at all upset. He managed to give her a warm, genuine smile and nodded. “You’d be a wonderful Matron of the Hospital Ward. They’d be mad not to hire you on.”
Hannah relaxed and gave him an equally warm smile in return. “That’s very kind of you to say, Harry… I’m still sending you home with Nutrition Draught.”
Harry’s arm was throbbing dully as he got back into the lift, a far more healthy ache than he’d come in with, if such a thing were possible. He knew from experience that the feeling wouldn’t last, but he savoured the relief while he could. His mind started drifting back towards the new case, looking at it more calmly now that the initial wave of rage had passed through him. Lost in thought as he was, he almost didn’t notice when the lift stopped at the First Floor and the doors slid open to reveal Draco Malfoy.
For a moment Harry stared, unmoving from his position near dead centre of the lift, completely caught off guard to see the wizard there. Noticing his stare as he stepped inside, Malfoy tensed, jaw tightening, and then gave him a haughty look that was devoid of recognition.
“May I help you with something?” he sneered, arching a pale eyebrow coolly.
Startled into movement, Harry remembered that he was disguised and stepped backward to give Malfoy room, averting his gaze. “No. Sorry,” he replied gruffly, lowering his voice in case it gave him away.
Malfoy’s lip curled, but he turned to face the doors, stiff and clearly avoiding acknowledging Harry’s presence any further. A hand shot between the golden gates before they slid fully shut and a harried looking Mediwitch pushed them apart again.
“So sorry, Professor! I forgot to give you this!” She hurriedly pushed a vial into Malfoy’s hand and dipped into a brief curtsey before she spun on her heel and bustled off again. Malfoy slipped the vial into the pocket of his robes and Harry could see glimpses of a bandage starting at his wrist beneath his cuff.
“Professor?” Harry blurted out in surprise, staring at him openly again.
Breathing out shortly through his nose in exasperation, the grey-eyed wizard shot him a withering look. “Yes,” he drawled scathingly. “At a school, even. Perhaps you’ve heard of those? It’s where one learns such valuable lessons as to mind one’s own business.”
A flush crept up Harry’s neck and he opened his mouth to retort when the lift reached the Ground Floor and Malfoy abruptly strode out of the lift without waiting for the doors to fully open. Feeling an irrational urge to chase after him and have it out like a teenager, Harry stomped out of the lift and glowered after Malfoy’s retreating back. Suspicion started to blossom low in his gut as he wondered what exactly Malfoy had even been doing there, finding himself drifting toward the Welcome Witch before he caught himself and reigned in his paranoia. It did spark an idea however, and he walked over to the wary looking witch.
“Is…there something I can help you with, sir?” she asked cautiously, clearly remembering the state he’d been in upon arrival.
Harry pulled his Private Inquiries and Investigations license from the Ministry of Magic from his jacket and held it out. “I need to know the names of any wizards who have been treated recently for facial staining caused by Muggle means.”
Veronica Ware was putting herself through university by working as a barista during her free daylight hours and picking up shifts as a barmaid at her local pub at night. It wasn’t unusual for patrons to chat her up and it was usually harmless and led to better tips. While she was always polite and friendly, she was always quick to signal the doorman if anyone tried to get fresh. Truthfully she had never really had any problems, until a few weeks ago when a strange man called Bryndon came to her caff.
Though he claimed to have travelled no further than Cambridge, he wore strange clothing and had seemed almost like a tourist, looking at everything with jejune interest, Veronica included. Used to seeing other university students on some substance or another while working the pub, she tried to be kind and patiently answered all his questions as he lingered far longer than any of the other patrons. When she finally had to explain that she needed to close up shop so that she could go to her second job, he offered to escort her and she refused. That was when things had changed.
She didn’t see him again that night, but the following evening he showed up at the pub and the stalking began. Though Veronica didn’t see Bryndon every day, he began routinely inserting himself into her life, asking questions as though their first conversation had never quite ended.
Nothing she did seemed to make any difference. The doorman would come over when signalled, but then would grow confused as he neared and turn to go back to his post. The policeman she solicited never managed to do anything to intervene at the caff, and after several attempts she was warned that they would charge her if she kept having them on. Even direct confrontation made no difference, as Bryndon would laugh her off and tell her not to be ridiculous…that she was only a ‘muggle’ and should be honoured, really.
It had gotten to the point that Veronica quit both of her jobs, afraid to be anywhere that Bryndon would know to look for her. For the better part of a week she’d had some peace until he’d broken into her flat four nights ago, unlocking the door as if by magic and demanding to know where she had been. Then he’d pointed something at her and she didn’t know how exactly it happened, but she started to do whatever he asked of her. It was like being in a waking dream, but part of Veronica kept fighting against the strangeness in her head until suddenly she was herself again. Desperate to escape before she was caught up in whatever drug he’d used the first time, she got hold of her defence spray.
Getting Bryndon full on in the face until the can was empty, Veronica had made a run for it and hadn’t been home since, sleeping in hotels and burning through what savings she had the last few days. She’d tried going to the hospital to be tested, but they’d found no evidence of a drug in her system and the police claimed that according to their databases, Bryndon didn’t even exist. Sending her email to Harry was her last, desperate hope to wake from the nightmare her life had become.
Harry had been accused more than once of having a bit of a saviour complex, but he was feeling far from noble as he cornered Bryndon Rowle in a side street only a block away from Veronica Ware’s flat. His arm was throbbing sharply from having already disarmed the wizard, but it only helped to focus his anger. He cast the Muffliato Charm around them for good measure, and just in time as it were.
“How dare you! Do you have any idea who my family is? I’ll see you in Azkaban before the night’s end for this!” the wizard hissed at Harry, though his eyes darted around for an escape. Rowle’s trip to St Mungo’s had removed most of the staining from Veronica’s defence spray, but there was still a faint pink tinge to his pale face. He’d been caught red-handed. “What are you after? Money, is it?”
“Levicorpus,” Harry bit out in reply, flicking the Hawthorne wand and watching with relish as Rowle was yanked up by his ankles. He stepped forward slowly as the wizard sputtered indignantly. “Bryndon Rowle…have you been casting Unforgivables on Muggles?”
Rowle’s eyes widened with sudden understanding, then he sneered, despite the fact that he was currently dangling by his ankles. “So that’s it, is it? Feeling tender over some stupid joke on that cow?” he laughed coldly, looking almost relaxed now that he knew Harry’s intention. “Go ahead and take me in, then. I’ll never see the inside of a cell…my family could buy and sell the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and the bloody Wizengamot twice over.”
Harry’s blood went cold at the implication, though he kept his face impassive. He didn’t trust the Ministry, as the Ministry was well aware, but had they really sunk so far as to being bought and paid for by pureblood tossers like Rowle? Part of the reason he had begun working as a private investigator was to help those Muggles who were affected by magic and ignored by the Ministry…but were they really overlooking Unforgivables?
“You’re right about one thing, Mister Rowle...” he mused with a mirthless smile, leaning towards the upended wizard. Harry’s eyes, still Transfigured a deep brown, were filled with dark intent. “You won’t see the inside of a cell.”
The sky was darkening as Harry stepped up to the Hour Glass Hotel, the exterior lamps lit rather cheerfully against the ruddy brick. The pub at the ground level was beginning to empty of the local nine-to-fivers who’d come directly after work, leaving that small gap in business before the regulars would emerge for their late night drinking. Not for the first time, Harry rather wished that he could carry a cell phone so that he might have called ahead, especially when he saw that the desk clerk had apparently abandoned their post.
He made sure to tread heavy up the stairs to make his presence known, stopping on the second landing and knocking gently on number 203. Hearing rustling on the other side, he tried to look as non-threatening as possible, mentally distancing himself from the agony of his right arm. All the big magic he’d used in the last few hours, including the Apparation of the last few minutes, had largely undone all of Hannah’s careful work.
After a few moments a timid voice came from the other side of the worn old door, paint chipped and scratched. “Y-yes?”
“Veronica Ware?” Harry asked gently, attempting a smile that he thought might at least be neutral, if not comforting or friendly. “I’m Evans…the investigator you contacted?”
“Oh! Oh of course!” There was the sound of a chain and lock being undone and a tired looking young woman opened the door. “I’m sorry, please come in… I…I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”
By her tone, Harry doubted she had expected to see him at all, given the response she’d received from all other avenues. “I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced, but I like to work fast when I’m concerned for my client’s safety,” he explained, stepping inside the small room.
Her blue eyes widened and reminded him uncomfortably of Luna as she gave him a cautiously hopeful look. “Then you…you believe me?”
“I believe you,” Harry assured her firmly. “And I’ve handled the situation.” He held up Rowle’s wand, careful not to point it at her as she flinched. “Is this what you saw the night he broke in?”
“Y-yes! I…I can’t believe… You found him?” She took the wand from him carefully when he held it out for her, sitting down on the bed in shock. “I’d started to think I was going mental…I really did… What…what is this thing?”
“A sort of…hypnosis device. Black market stuff. I’ve relieved Mister Rowle of it and ensured that he won’t be able to come after you again. You’re safe, Miss Ware…it’s over.”
Veronica stared at the wand, hands tightening on it until it rather abruptly snapped in half. “Oh! I…I’m so sorry, I… This was probably evidence, wasn’t it? I just…” Her shoulders shook slightly and she bit her lip as tears welled in her eyes.
Harry carefully reached out and put his good hand over hers, crouching before her. “No evidence…this is off the books. Mister Rowle’s family has quite a bit of money…it’s why the police couldn’t get involved. But I…well, I worked around that system.”
Taking a shuddering breath, she swiped at her eyes and nodded, firming her chin to look at him squarely. “Is he dead?”
“I wouldn’t tell you if he were,” Harry said firmly, holding her gaze. “Just know that you can go back to your life now without fear of his return.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then dropped her gaze back to the broken wand in her hands, nodding slowly. “Right. I…I can live with that,” she decided after a few moments. Holding out the pieces of wood to him, Veronica seemed to gather herself, walling off her emotions in a way Harry knew all too well. “It will take some time for me to make good on your payment, but if you’d be willing to accept a payment plan-“
“That won’t be necessary, Miss Ware,” he cut her off, accepting the broken wand and tucking it into his jacket. “When I said ‘off the books’, I meant it. Not on record, not in my ledger…and not in your memory, should you want.”
Veronica looked taken aback by that, eyes widening. “I…what…what do you mean?”
“I’m sure when you contacted me you knew that my services are a bit…different than most private investigators. That I’d be willing to take on an unusual case like yours because of that,” he paused while she nodded slowly in assent. “Part of those services is that I can help you forget about this experience. Let you go back to your life without the memory to keep you moving forward.”
She stared at him for a long while as she processed this, running an unsteady hand over her untidy hair as she did. After a while, she drew in a breath and closed her eyes, shaking her head. “No, I…I don’t want to forget. Or I do, but…I shouldn’t forget. I can’t just be who I was before, not anymore.”
Harry nodded, careful not to show his relief to hear it. Memory charms had always made him feel ill, but since his injury it had gotten far worse. “You know how to reach me if you change your mind,” he said, and turned to the door. He stopped a moment later at the hand on his arm however, looking back at her and seeing the determination to survive clear in her face now.
“Thank you, Mister Evans.”
Harry was feeling fairly exhausted by the time he returned to his office, fully intending to use the Portkey he kept in his desk rather than go through the pain of another Apparation. He briefly considered using his Invisibility Cloak to take the Tube, but between the rain and the thought of being closed in with all those strangers, he banished the thought almost as soon as it had formed.
The building itself was still unlocked, as the dance studio on the second floor began their last class at half past eight on weeknights. That wasn’t to stay the simple Muggle lock would have stopped him, but he tried not to do anything so obvious as breaking and entering when he could avoid it. Putting his hand on the door to his office, Harry froze, his adrenaline picking up. There was someone inside.
Drawing his wand, he pointed it at the door and moved fast as it flew open with a shuddering bang, a non-verbal disarming spell leaving the end of his wand in a streak of red. It collided with a shield charm, but he stopped abruptly as he caught sight of bushy brown hair and wide, frightened brown eyes. Harry stared at Hermione Granger for a long moment, her own wand held out in a somewhat unsteady hand before he used his foot to close the door.
“Do I want to know how you got in here?” he asked roughly, not willing to lower his wand while hers was still raised against him.
“W-what?” she said in surprise, wand trembling slightly before her eyes widened with recognition. “Harry? Oh, Merlin, Harry you scared the life out of me bursting in like that!” She put a hand to her chest as she finally lowered her wand, leaning back against the desk.
“How exactly were you expecting an ex-Auror to react to someone breaking into their office, Hermione? Aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?” he asked as he moved around his desk, never turning his back to her, though he did put his wand away. Pulling out his thermos, he opened it awkwardly to drink down the last of his Blood-Replenishment potion.
Hermione looked a bit flustered at his words, but raised her chin stubbornly. “Kreacher said that you hadn’t come home yet and I wasn’t about to stand in the hallway all night waiting for you. Charms was always my best subject, you know that…it was hardly any effort at all to get in,” she said primly, folding her arms across her chest and watching him drink from his thermos with a disapproving air. “You’re really going full Moody with that, aren’t you? Don’t tell me you’ve started hexing the bins, as well.”
Harry wanted to be angry, even annoyed, but he couldn’t help a snort of amusement as he shook his head, taking a seat behind his desk and forcing himself to ease off his adrenaline and paranoia. “It’s the Blood-Replenishment. I have to take it every few hours now. Rather thought the thermos was more acceptable to polite society than a flask. Civilized, even.”
Seeing that Harry wasn’t outwardly upset with her, Hermione relaxed and rolled her eyes fondly as she sat down across from him. “Quite. I am sorry for breaking in, Harry…but I did write to say that I was coming today. Haven’t you been getting my letters?”
His eyes flicked guiltily toward the still un-opened letter and then shrugged in a non-committal way. “I had a busy morning…didn’t get much chance to go through the post.”
“Oh, Harry…I sent that ages ago! This security screening you’ve set up really is taking far too long,” she bemoaned in exasperation. “Please tell me you’re still taking the Draught of Peace I’ve been sending you.” Hermione could see immediately from Harry’s expression that he had not and frowned deeply at him. “Mental health is a serious matter! It’s not a sign of weakness for you to treat-“
“Hermione,” Harry cut her off before she could settle into her scolding. “Did you really come here tonight to chat me up about my mental state?”
“I…well, no. No, I didn’t,” she said softly, suddenly seeming both very young and very worn at the same time. “It’s…I’m actually here to hire you, Harry.” She looked up into his surprised face, her brown eyes welling with tears. “I believe s-someone may be trying to…to kill me.”