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Chapter 2 : Two
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Stephen Odell could be categorized into both. Back during the first war, the Ministry had wanted as many young recruits as possible to help replenish numbers; now, at forty-four years of age, he would never think to bring children out into the field, but back then he'd been one of those young recruits. What was one more year, he'd told himself. His grades at Hogwarts had been among the best, thanks to his genius of a best friend, and it had been more than enough to graduate and start Auror training at seventeen rather than eighteen. He'd done his training while working in the field and he'd seen more than his fair share of nasty cases. But he'd still had his best friend and they'd been the best at their job.
He hadn't become an Auror, Stephen's friend. His family owned the magical world's largest - and only at the time - potions company and David had become an expert in poisons. His job was to act as a consultant to anyone who hired him; Aurors, Healers, insurance companies wanting to know if a claim was legitimate. Murders were his fascination and they'd become partners quickly, always working the weird cases. The bad ones.
David would have loved this case.
As Head Auror now, Stephen didn't have a partner; he was called out on many different cases and worked with every one of his Aurors at some point in their career. It was part of the job, especially now that the department was making changes ever since the war - he and Kingsley had ideas. This was one of them.
But not for this case; no, his reputation for the weird cases had preceded him and he'd been called in personally. Bring a team, call the Healers, but come yourself, he'd been told. He'd done exactly that.
Now he was looking at a crime scene he'd never witnessed before, not even during either war. Of course he couldn't rule out Death Eaters, it had barely been three months since the war had ended and many were still at large, and he'd check it out, but this didn't look like the work of a Death Eater. In fact, his gut told him it was someone entirely new.
Why would a Death Eater kill a random stranger, in the middle of the night, in Gringotts bank?
It just didn't make sense.
"It could be a warning," a senior Auror by his side mused aloud. "Or just a sick present for us, saying they're still active. They don't need someone specific for that."
Stephen finally took his eyes off the body - if you could call what was left a body - and faced the only senior Auror on the team who'd stayed inside. He was older than Stephen, by a couple of years, and had fought through the first war. He would have stayed for the second war as well, but by then he had a family he needed to look after, so had left the country. Stephen didn't blame him for that; his own family - a wife who would soon be his ex and two teenage daughters - had left with them.
"Maybe," was all he said in response, not wanting to reveal his doubts yet. Not until he fully understood them anyway.
Circling the deceased, an easy task because the victim was hung upside down and in the middle of the room, Stephen made a mental note of everything he could find, both obvious and not (deduction, David had called it). The cause of death was inconclusive from his vantage point, the senior Healer would have to do a full autopsy to confirm that and that person wasn't at the scene yet. But from what he could see, the murder was precise - the accuracy with which the victim was marked, the small amount of mess despite the violence, and the lack of evidence left by the killer.
Precise was not in random killings.
The war was over, most of the Death Eaters named thanks to witnesses and plea bargains from the convicted; if they wanted to show they were still active, could still brutalize the city and the people in it, if they wanted to make a statement, they wouldn't cover their tracks. What was the point? They were already known, they didn't need to. Hit Wizards knew who to look for.
This seemed like the work of someone else, someone of intelligence - of the law, of the human body, of a great number of things to be able to pull off such a crime with little evidence left and no witnesses.
A Death Eater just didn't make sense.
But he'd check it out anyway. He knew who to talk to.
"I bet that David would have loved this case. He always was sick, worse than most of the people he helped our new Head Auror lock up."
Stephen didn't turn to the voice; he'd heard them finally walk back in, could smell the youngest Auror's cologne from the door, and he knew that, though he meant what he was thinking, he was only saying it to appear brave. His stomach hadn't been able to handle his first crime scene and he wanted to retain as much dignity as he could.
David would have crushed what dignity remained with just a few words. Stephen didn't have the heart to. Because the kid was right; his friend was sick and he was far worse than many of the bad guys they had put away. No one knew just how much... or the things David had been doing to control it.
He chose not to answer at all, which was just as well; the senior Healer had arrived. Jane Caruso was a hard woman to get to know, her only real friend seeming to be a woman currently helping to improve law enforcement with the lawyers. She often forgot how to respond to the living thanks to spending so much time with the dead. She'd been a Healer in training when Stephen and David had first met her, she'd been their number one contact for an expert opinion on cause of death. That had been her unofficial job at the hospital until a month and a half ago; after the war she had gotten a small group of Healers together and created a medical examiner's office. A month and a half ago, the hospital's basement had become her lab and office as well as the morgue, making it official. Jane Caruso was St. Mungo's chief medical examiner, the junior Healer trailing behind her with a face as pale as death was one of her interns, and she was the best at her job.
She'd help Stephen.
"Son of a bitch," the woman blurted out, stopping beside Stephen and unable to take her eyes off the body. She spoke to her intern. "No wonder you stayed outside."
"What do you think, Jane?" he asked curiously. "First impressions, I'll wait for your report for anything else."
Like Stephen had done before, Jane circled the body, her eyes glancing at every part in what looked like a brief observation, but he knew she was studying everything.
"Beyond the fact that it was a controlled fire." She took quick look around the room and noticed the lack of scorch marks around the bank. "I can't say for sure until I get the body back to the morgue. God, I hope the poor sod was dead when it happened."
Agreeing with her completely, Stephen only nodded as he stepped further back to let her work. She and her intern were the ones who had to cut what was left of him or her down, without compromising any evidence or the body. It would likely be a harder task than he could imagine.
"What are the marks on the floor, do you think?" she asked him, knelt down on the floor with her clothed hand hovering over it.
The mark was black and thin, circling the body perfectly. Stephen had a theory the moment he saw it.
"Can't say for sure, it needs to be analyzed, but given that it's the only thing left by the crime, I think it's what's left of a really good shield charm. The killer would have set the fire, and then cast the shield. Whether the killer stayed or not, that shield would have to have an immense amount of power to be so close to a fire and not break, otherwise there would be evidence that the fire had spread. There isn't. Now shields aren't illegal or even just monitored, you don't need a permit from the Ministry or anything to cast one."
"Of course not," Jane agreed, standing up. "Shield charms are used every day, from Auror training to basic home security wards."
"Exactly. But the person who cast this would have to be a powerful enough wizard, which means they might have permits for other things," Stephen added.
"So you want to go through the permits in hopes of matching the magical trace left from the shield charm to a person in one of the files, because that goes into the file so that they can be contacted faster if something goes wrong," she guessed, an odd look of pride in her eyes and a slight smile on her face.
"That's the plan." Stephen took another step back. "I should let you and the others get to work. Sadly, this is not my only case of the day. Call me when you've finished the autopsy. Hopefully you can find out what his name is."
Waving him off, Jane got back to work. Stephen gave the Aurors orders, wanting to know everything they found, and left the bank. He had someone he needed to see.
Unlike the first manor she'd ever entered, there was nothing you could consider eerie on the outside. First of all, the July sun was shining brightly and had been since it rose at around half six in the morning; no shadows could hide monsters. In fact, there didn't seem to be anywhere for shadows to roam, the entire front was open with nothing more than a driveway to the front doors, for which she was thankful for. She'd dealt with enough monsters recently.
No, it wasn't the manor that made Hermione Granger wary, it was the man who lived in it. He'd never done anything to outright look like a dangerous man, in fact she rarely saw him and when she did he was only ever smoking and drinking and reading, but he spoke to her with a kind of indifference that was almost cold, sometimes sending real shivers down her spine. And he had this air around him, this feeling that seeped into her very blood and screamed with malice. He didn't do anything dangerous - except maybe the smoking - but he could be, she just knew it. There were whispers of him during the war, louder now that Voldemort's followers were talking, and if they held any truth, he was capable of anything.
Then there was his name and his father.
Hermione was here for only one reason, a reason she wished would pack his stuff and leave. But until that happened, she'd grit her teeth and step into the snake pit.
Taking a deep breath, she rang the doorbell. It was dreadfully loud, like a cannon boom. It was necessary for a house this size - they could be anywhere - but it still made her ears ring. The only reason the rest of the neighborhood had no knowledge of it was because of the silencing charms embedded in the wards, wards that covered the centuries old manor's entire estate.
It was still a few minutes before one of the large oak doors opened and the sole owner of the house revealed himself. He was taller than her, about six two, and she had to look up to see him. But she didn't look at his face. She looked at the tattoos, three tiger stripes going across his right shoulder to his chest and the Celtic knots that started at his left hip and down to his knee. She looked at the piercing on the right side of his chest, a small and thin bar that went through the skin; it was white gold if she had to guess and the shape reminded her a little of a shark tooth you can buy as necklaces on holiday, only this was smooth at one end and sharp at the other. She looked at the scars that covered his body, some old and some new.
She could see all of this because the man was completely naked, leaning against the door with his eyes squeezed shut because the sun was in his face.
When she did finally look at him properly, he chose that moment to close the door over, hiding both the sun and the left half of his body, and then he opened his eyes. Navy blue, a blue she'd never seen as eye color before, bore into her, and once more she felt cold dread wrap around her. they spoke of secrets and lies and he didn't even try to hide it because he was confident that no one would figure them out anyway. She also noticed the bruises around his nose and eyes, dark and seemingly painful. Brand new. His nose had been broken recently. Maybe he'd finally pissed of someone enough to risk the man's wrath.
Clearing her throat, she aimed for nonchalance and gestured to his body. "You know, most people put pants on before they open the door."
"When I'm not in my own house, I'll bear that in mind. How did you get through my wards?"
"You blocked your floo."
"There was a reason for that," he pointed out sardonically. "But it wasn't an answer to my question."
Hermione smiled politely, though it was stiff and awkward, and pointed to the huge, metal gates behind her. "Well, since your intercom is apparently not working," he raised his eyebrows at the sarcasm in her tone, "I spent the last hour breaking your wards - they're very well done, by the way. Congratulations. Since the silencing charm was the only thing I recognized, it was the only one I could put back up. So you may want to fix them. Anyway, I knew you'd hear the cannon, so I feel good about not breaking in."
"Thank you. What do you want?"
"You know what I want, Theodore. Is he in?"
Theodore didn't answer, he only stepped away from the door, keeping it open, and went up the stairs. To get him, she hoped. Another intake of breath was needed to steady her heart, and then Hermione stepped into the darker and more ominous Nott Manor.
The door closed behind her of its own accord. Probably because Theodore had it spelled to do so, or maybe he had cast a spell from the top of the stairs to close it. Rationality was her ally in this house; twice before she'd been inside, both times through the floo and with Ron, and she still didn't know what was safe and what would jump out at her.
The home of David Nott was a ghost story, the home of a sociopath. And his son was no better. Apparently the older Nott had taught his son all kinds of magic as a boy, teaching him, preparing him. She didn't know truth from fiction, only that a number of Death Eaters swore he should have been able to graduate from Hogwarts before the age of ten according to Kinglsey. The stuff the Notts knew, they said, was terrifying.
"David more than Theodore?" Kingsley had asked.
"The other way around," they'd whispered, as though he could hear them.
Wanting to be quick but not wanting to run, she would not left fear control her now, Hermione strode across the hallway and into the large kitchen area.
It was probably the lightest part of the house, with large glass windows and a slide-through glass door to the garden, though it was only one of two rooms she'd actually been in so she couldn't say for sure. The home of Nott manor, a place in Essex, used to be a wizarding town. As the Statute of Secrecy came into place, the wizards slowly moved out and the Muggles moved in. Only the Notts stayed. But they didn't keep to themselves or remain with the old ways; blood superiority wasn't their thing, power was. Knowledge. Control. When the Muggles dominated the town they didn't shy away, they embraced it, but letting it into the manor meant that some magical things were restricted. The wards worked because they were old, from a time when wizards and Muggles coexisted; most were forgotten and none were taught, which was why modern magic ruined Muggle electronics. Like the fridge, where Hermione found juice, and the microwave in the corner.
Hermione wondered if that was what scared her the most when it came to this particular Pureblood family; the mix of magic and Muggle. With all the other families, like the Malfoys, it was easy to understand them because of they were once vocal about their beliefs. The Notts, until they spoke of their life, had no known beliefs. They did want they wanted, when they wanted and with whatever they wanted.
I can't believe he thinks he's okay here, she scolded silently. But apparently it was true.
"Helped yourself, I see," Theodore said, coming into the kitchen - sweatpants on this time. She pushed one of three glasses of juice his way. He took it, but there was no thanks.
"What happened to your face?" Hermione asked, more for something to say than genuine curiosity. She stepped away to lean against the breakfast bar as she did so, frowning when her back seemed to be against something uncomfortable and used her free hand to pull a bra to her front. She didn't ask.
"A punching bag at the gym." He used one hand to mime being hit in the face, making a whooshing sound as he did so, and the other to snatch the garment out of her hand. "I wouldn't recommend it."
"You leaving your dirty clothes out in front of guests again?" a voice asked in what is usually considered in jest. And maybe this was in his head, but for everyone else it sounded as hollow and broken as the rest of him.
The war had damaged Harry Potter and now he was hiding, somewhere no one had thought to look yet. The home of a Death Eater's son.
Hermione had no desire to change that, wouldn't wish the torment of the media on anybody, and she understood why her best friend would choose to find a place no one would think to look - no one knew the two had even shared a conversation, never mind sharing a house - but she wished the person he'd chosen didn't make her feel so... scared.
"Good morning, Hermione," Harry said, taking the last glass of juice from the counter. "What brings you here so early in the morning?"
"It's almost ten thirty," she reminded him. "And I came to see you. Molly has been asking when you're coming home. I thought I'd pass along the message."
"Well, let's see." He leant back against the counter opposite her and pretended to think. They both ignored Theodore, which was good because he was making himself breakfast and didn't seem to care about the conversation. He'd probably heard it before. "Dead parents, unwanted by an aunt and uncle, and my best friend's family lost their son because a mad man wanted me dead. Why would I go back to silence and grief and the sound of each photographer who finds out where the Burrow is when I have this place? This place is a bloody fortress."
"And that's what's keeping you here?" Hermione enquired.
This time Harry turned to Theodore; he bit on his slice of toast and headed for the door. "That's my cue to leave. I have to go out anyway; places to go, things to see, people to do. Or is it the other way around?"
He left the kitchen and climbed the stairs.
It was two minutes and thirty-six seconds before Harry finally answered her question; she counted. "I stay here because he doesn't look at me like I saved the world."
Though it wasn't what her friend wanted to here, she knew she had to say it; the war was over and he couldn't hide forever. If he was ever going to have something close to the normal life he'd once claimed to want, he had to accept everything that had happened to get there, the good and the bad. So she replied, "But you did save the world."
His answer was as cynical as she expected it to be. "And doesn't that just suck."
With nothing else to say on that matter, even though it had felt right to say something she knew it was not the time to have that conversation, Hermione pushed it to the back of her mind.
"Why don't we go out? Just the two of us? We'll have breakfast."
"Because it's been almost three months since the war, almost two since you moved in here and I miss you," she admitted, staring at him with earnest brown eyes and a soft gaze. His resolve appeared to crumble. "You barely get out now. Ron, Ginny and I have to floo to see you. That's if your new friend let's us in."
"That's because he doesn't like you."
She knew that already, but it was the first time she'd heard one of them admit it - and she never expected that one to be Harry - which made her curious as to what else he'd say. "And why is that?"
Harry shrugged as though Theodore's reasons didn't matter, or she hoped that was why; it would hurt her to think that her best friend shrugged because he himself didn't care that they weren't liked. "He doesn't understand why I'd remain close to Ron, since he's abandoned me twice. He thinks Ginny is another obsessed stalker and the only reason she knows me so well that she could pass for someone who genuinely cares is because of said friendship with Ron."
"Do you believe that?" she had to ask. God only knew what the Slytherin was telling him and what he might believe. Ron had made mistakes and Ginny had once crushed on Harry because he was famous, but they had grown up a lot, especially during the war, and they cared for Harry just as much as she did. Ginny would think the best of Harry whether they were together or not and Ron would always consider him a brother.
"If I believed it, I wouldn't have persuaded him to invite them in," he murmured, deadpan. "Do you think so little of me now? A few days with one Slytherin and I can suddenly be manipulated."
"I just don't trust him, Harry."
"We're all entitled to our own opinions. Mine happens to go against both yours and his where my friends are concerned."
"What about me?" she asked next, curious as to why he'd left her out. It was clear Theodore didn't like her either. "You didn't say why he didn't like me?"
"Yours is more personal, you'll have to ask him," he answered.
"You mean he didn't tell you?"
Harry's lips twitched in a way on might consider a smile if it weren't so quick. "Of course he did. He tells me everything. You'll still have to ask him."
"Because it's more personal?" Hermione didn't like how she had to voice it as a question, but she wasn't quite sure what he meant by that. Her and Theodore barely spoke at Hogwarts, except a few occasions in the library when one had had a book another wanted.
"It has nothing to do with me, the others did," Harry said unnecessarily; that bit she understood.
With nothing else to go on and knowing immediately that Harry would never say, Hermione could only lock it away in the back of her mind, ready for the day she could go back to it, and focused on her original question.
This time he actually gave serious thought to the question. "Okay," he said at last, which both surprised and delighted her. He didn't look sure of himself, but it was the first step in being ready to face the world again. "But we're staying here in Essex. No apparition. I'm not going anywhere near Diagon Alley or magical places in general. I think we're anywhere close to one and I'm leaving you in the street and coming home."
"Deal," she said with a smile, too happy that he'd finally accepted a day out to care where they ate, and she ignored him refer to the manor as home.
"I'll go get dressed," he muttered, apparently regretting his decision already. She was thinking of ways to make him see the benefits when he stopped suddenly. He didn't turn around. "Theo's an asshole," he told her simply, stating an opinion they shared. "But he's a good person to those who care enough to know him. He'll do anything for you. That's why I'm here. I trust him with what little life I have left. Which is more than I can say for some people."
He took off for his room.
A/N: So I got this awesome new review for this story and I just had to write a new chapter. I shouldn't, it's a bit further down on my list, but as a reward for sticking to my list for. Few months now I decided to reward myself by breaking it just for this chapter because I felt guilty about it not being updated in so long (it was for a challenge and when the challenge was over I kind of pushed this back for others). I may also finish and post the next chapter, while also co timing with my list, but this and the next will probably be the last for this story for a while.
So I hope you enjoy a chapter for what is quite possibly my darkest story on HPFF... so far. :D
P.S. Don't be fooled by the pairing above the banner, if you're a canon fan. This story is all headcanon, something I think for what might have happened after the war, so will be as canon as I can make it.
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