A/N: Thousand thanks to Sadsnail for being an amazing beta and wonderful person.
A wizard in voluminous robes walked down to the speaker's stand. In the dim light of the flickering sconces, his beak-nosed Venetian mask and a Mephistophelian goatee looked particularly menacing. Facing the audience of three dozens of similarly masked people, their plush chairs arranged in a semicircle, he made a complicated gesture with his wand, puffed up his chest and started speaking.
"As the Sun follows the Moon, and the Moon follows the Sun in their eternal dance, Light Magic cannot exist without the Dark. Ancient Mages knew it well, but modern witches and wizards forgot all about the Old Ways in pursuit of instant gratification and alien muggle inventions." The last words were spat with derision. "While our ancestors embarked on occult journeys of self-enrichment, pushing the boundaries of magic in spite of perils lurking in wait on their paths, modern generations are content to spend their lives only on the most mundane tasks, forgetting the once treasured rituals, decrying them as black, heinous magic." His voice rose in righteous indignation, and the audience hummed approvingly.
Stifling a frustrated sigh, Harry cast a non-verbal Tempus, hiding the wand between his itchy robes and the seat in front of him. What kind of Lodge of Darkness convened its meetings on Saturday mornings? Probably the one consisting of bored housewives, Ministry clerks, and shopkeepers who were playing dress-up after a long and uneventful week and had to be in bed by ten. What a waste of his time.
The man droned on and on, complaining about younger generations and the sorry state of magic nowadays, peppering his speech with a healthy dose of bigotry and prejudice. His audience were nodding along gravely and clapping at appropriate moments.
Harry was pretty sure by now that the masked wizard in the seat next to him, rapturously listening to every word, was a senior Auror from the DMLE. The one who used to deny any suggestion that wasn't covered by the Auror Rulebook when Harry was a trainee. The Rulebook that hadn't been updated in at least sixty years. Pushing the boundaries of magic, indeed. There was always hope that he was here as a part of an investigation, but somehow, Harry doubted it.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the speaker finished. A corpulent woman stood up from the throne-like chair in the front row. She made her way to the stand in a flurry of gauze and brocade, her face hidden by the black veil flowing down her hair. She repeated the same symbol with her wand and raised her bejewelled hand in a regal gesture.
"Greetings, Adepts of Darkness! First, let me thank you, Brother Asphodel, for your astute and heartfelt speech, which, I'm sure, everybody here agrees with wholeheartedly," she said in a voice that inexplicably reminded Harry of Umbridge, even though it was much deeper and throatier. "I'm delighted to announce that in a fortnight, on the Saturday night when July turns to August, we will celebrate the full moon with an ancient Druidic ritual. For a few hours, it will allow us to become one with the Wild Magic of the Earth."
There were grumblings from the audience. Many of the members were not at all happy about having to gather at night.
"Come now, my children." The woman put her hand over her plunging cleavage. "There will be a buffet."
This time, the audience's response was much more favourable.
The next was the Secretary, a thin and tall woman in plain brown robes. After thanking the Grand Mistress for her gracious rule of the Lodge, she produced a scroll and put a monocle over her mask. In a dry, monotone voice, she read out the aliases of recent patrons—Asphodel was one of the more restrained ones—and reminded everybody about membership contributions.
After that, to Harry's unending relief, the gathering drew to a close. He probably should have tried to mingle with the dispersing crowd, but he had another appointment in half an hour. He still wasn't sure what would be appropriate clothes for a luncheon in a posh muggle restaurant, but it sure wasn't a floor-length embroidered robe. Still, he approached the wizard in a drama mask, who had introduced him—under the guise of a rich foreign benefactor—to the Lodge, and was greeted with a warm handshake.
"Told you it'd be worth your while," the man said in a low voice, crowding into Harry's space.
Harry took a step back from a wave of bad breath and replied with a nod and a grunt. Hopefully, it was enough to convey his sincere appreciation.
"See you on Saturday the 31st, then. Our rituals will blow your mind! Shame you weren't here for the Solstice. That was something else."
"I can't wait."
The man disappeared in the green flames inside the large ornate fireplace, and Harry followed suit, making sure to cast non-verbal Muffliato around himself.
On the other side, his office stood empty, but the door leading to Weasley's Cursebreaking was slightly ajar. Harry could hear familiar voices coming through.
"On the count of three."
Bill and Severus were bent over a china figurine of a cat, intense concentration on their faces. Severus held a dropper in his hand, and Bill had his wand on the ready.
"One… Two… Three!" Severus let three drops of viscous potion fall.
As soon as they hit the figurine, Bill cast a containment field, keeping the thick gaseous cloud and inhuman shrieks it emitted in a semi-transparent bubble. After the air inside cleared, there was a real tabby darting around the table instead of the figurine.
"Don't—" Severus started, but Bill had already cancelled the field. Ears turned back, the cat jumped to the floor and darted under the couch with an angry hiss. "—let the cat out."
"Too late," Bill swore under his breath and dove after the spitting animal.
"Having fun?" Harry smiled, disengaging himself from the doorframe he had been leaning on. Shaking off his layered robe, he banished it, together with the jester mask, into the wardrobe with a flick of his wand. "Why didn't I become a cursebreaker? There's always something exciting going on in here while I'm off on some ridiculous meeting, wearing ridiculous clothes." He might have liked the griffins along the hem, but if he ever wore brocade again it would be too soon.
"Grand Lodge of Darkness didn't meet your expectations?" Severus's face was neutral, but something in his tone tipped Harry off.
"You! You knew this... this... organisation is nothing but a joke!"
"It is? How unexpected." His lips twitched.
"You were watching me run around Britain, doing quests, and learning secret passwords and handshakes to get inside for a whole month, and didn't breathe a word!" Harry fumed. "Is it payback for the Divination thing?"
"You were so excited to discover this great conspiracy of dark wizards. I didn't have the heart to tell you about their rather... amateurish nature." Severus smirked, unrepentant.
"You mean you had a good laugh at my expense."
"Well, I had to suffer through years and years in that illustrious company. Arsenius Jigger ranting about young people today and Griselda Marchbanks describing rituals she did naked on a new moon in her garden. I don't see why you should be spared from the experience."
"Marchbanks? The old bat who'd been running examinations in Hogwarts by the time Dumbledore went there as a student? Naked?" Bill emerged from under the couch victorious, but not unscathed. There were fresh scratches on his face and hands. The cat, however, was calm and smug in his arms.
"The one and only. No words can express that horrifying experience." Severus let out an exaggerated shudder.
"For years and years?" Harry asked.
"Albus wanted me to keep an eye on potential Dark Lord sympathisers."
"You could still have dropped a hint. Nott isn't going to pay us much—if at all—for this case, let alone repay all the galleons I had to spend to infiltrate this group of wannabe 'Adepts of Darkness'." Harry's voice rose, mimicking the Grand Mistress. The 'admission fee' had been more than generous, and Theodore Nott was unlikely to have that money with his Ministry clerk salary. His father, safely incarcerated in Azkaban for life, had left him with numerous debts, a dilapidated tower in the middle of unplottable moors of South West England, and a dubious collection of Dark Arts books. Thankfully, Harry's old classmate seemed to have no interest in the latter. But one of the more—if not the most—dangerous books of the lot had gone missing, and now Harry had to find it before somebody decided to put it to some nefarious use.
"Don't underestimate what disgruntled mediocrity is capable of," Severus said, serious this time. "This could still be useful, and not only for this case of yours."
Harry's wand buzzed the alarm.
"Damn! I have to go. If Pansy returns early, don't tell her where I am!" He hurried to discard his dragonhide shoes in favour of muggle loafers, tripping twice in the process. Then he turned to Severus, planting a quick kiss on the thin lips. "You are going to pay for your deception," Harry muttered in his ear.
"I'll be looking forward to that." Severus's low voice was full of promise. Regretfully, Harry let him go and apparated away.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Mr. Potter."
Wearing an elegant, knee-length black dress, and a string of pearls around her neck, Astoria Greengrass looked much more at home in the posh muggle restaurant than Harry himself. With her updo and oversized sunglasses, which she had discarded after sitting down gracefully at the white-clothed table, she looked like one of those stars of old Hollywood whom Aunt Petunia had always tried and failed to emulate.
"You should call me Astoria, then. I feel like we know each other well enough by now to dispense with formalities." A wry smile ghosted her lips.
Remembering the circumstances of most of their previous meetings, Harry his stomach drop. "Did Pansy—?"
"No, no, it's not about her. Although I appreciate your discretion in meeting me here. I was concerned she would attempt to… intervene otherwise." Astoria wrinkled her nose slightly.
"Pansy is very professional when it comes to our job," Harry said with more confidence than he felt. In the light of the recent events in Astoria's family, even Pansy wouldn't go out of her way to antagonise her ex's fiancé as usual, but Harry wouldn't count on her restraint if she saw Astoria in their office. "I take it this isn't a social call?"
'Unfortunately, it's not." Astoria paused, taking a deep breath. "As you might know, my sister passed away a month ago."
"I'm sorry for your loss, Astoria."
Daphne Greengrass was found dead in her London flat a month ago, allegedly due to a severe allergic reaction to a newly-prescribed sleeping potion. Her face had only recently left the pages of the Prophet, although most of the articles had been surprisingly tasteful, without airing any dirty laundry. The family must have paid a lot of galleons to keep them that way. But no amount of money could stop the speculations completely. Some reporters and 'anonymous members of the concerned public' whose comments found their way to the newspaper doubted the official reason for Daphne's death. There were numerous theories, each one more lurid than the other.
"Thank you." A strange mirthless smile flitted across her mouth before she continued. "I know that despite all the efforts of our family, the Prophet likes to paint Daphne as some potion addict who overdosed on party drugs." That was Pansy's go-to theory as well. "It's not entirely untrue, but—" Astoria paused, hesitating.
"Everything you tell me is completely confidential," Harry assured. He discreetly erected privacy spells around them, keeping the wand under the table.
"She died because of a combination of alcohol, a double dose of Pepper-Up-Plus and a potion called Remembrine in her blood," she admitted in a rush, clearly uncomfortable at sharing her family secrets.
Unlike ordinary Pepper-Up Potion, Pepper-Up-Plus, also known as Party-Up, did not cure a common cold but gave you a jolt of energy and wakefulness that lasted for hours. It was extremely popular among the wizarding club scene and overworked Ministry employees. Remembrine was a very dangerous potion of dubious legality, used to recover forgotten and Obliviated memories. Harry had tried it once and hoped he would never have to do it again.
"You suspect someone Obliviated your sister of incriminating information," Harry guessed.
"I didn't think it was anything other than a tragic accident at first." She seemed to choose her next words carefully. "It wasn't out of character for my sister to indulge in stimulant potions, given her lifestyle and circle of friends, and there could be any number of reasons she would use a memory potion. However—" Astoria fell silent as a waiter brought their food.
Harry eyed the small piece of duck breast surrounded by artfully arranged tiny vegetables, some green leaves, and splashes of sauce dubiously. At least he could see what the ingredients of his dish were. Mostly. Glancing over at the piece of expressionist art on Astoria's plate, even tinier than his own, Harry felt at a complete loss.
Astoria herself seemed to be pleased, breathing in the aroma with a delighted expression on her face. "I'd never thought muggles knew anything about fine dining until recently, but you won't find anything even close to what they have here in the wizarding establishments this side of the Channel," she said conversationally.
Poking the duck with his fork, Harry let out a vaguely affirmative sound. He seemed to be doing this a lot today.
"As I said, I didn't think there was anything more to my sister's death than her simply being careless." She returned to business abruptly. "But a week ago, something odd happened to me."
"As far as I can recall, I spent last Saturday at home alone, catching up with my reading and school plans. However, Draco—he usually has lunch with his parents on Saturdays—returned home for some papers he'd forgotten, and apparently, I wasn't at home. When he came back a second time, I was there, without any memories of having left at all."
"Are you sure you weren't simply in another room when Mal... Draco came?" Harry had to ask.
"I wasn't. For one, the details of the time escape me if I try to think about them too hard." A sure sign of sloppy Obliviation. "And I found this in my robe pocket, even though I have no idea how it had got there." She took a photo out of her purse and handed it to Harry.
It was a picture of two women smiling at the camera. Harry recognised one of them—a blonde in a striped sundress—from the shared Gryffindor-Slytherin potions lessons of his student days. He had rather hazy memories of Daphne Greengrass, except for that one memorable time somebody—he was sure it was Seamus at the time but learned much later that it was Pansy's doing—transfigured her dried newt eyes into much bigger and lifelike human ones, dangling nerves and all.
Severus had to cast Silencio to stop Daphne from screaming like a banshee, but not before she made Goyle's cauldron explode by shoving the eyes away from her every which way frantically. Harry fondly remembered that lesson as one of the few where Severus was mad at his snakes and not him for a change.
The other woman in the photo was wearing a rather extravagant outfit of golden robes, turban, and big blue sunglasses, her arm draped around Daphne's shoulders. Turning the photo around, Harry read the inscription, 'Hope you change your mind about that collection, it's so worth it! See you in Milan, girl! xoxo, Eleni.'
"No idea." A hint of irritation crept into Astoria's voice. "One of my sister's many fairweather friends, most likely. Haven't seen that one at the funeral. The point is that I remember seeing that photo on Daphne's coffee table after... When we came to her flat afterwards. But I'm sure I didn't take it then."
"Did you go to your sister's flat after this incident?" Harry asked.
"Yes, Draco and I went there. Parts of it were in a bit of disarray, but no more than the first time we came. And Daphne was never a very tidy person."
"Do you suppose anything was taken?"
"Her wand, jewellery, and money were there. But then again, maybe things were taken. I haven't been to Daphne's flat often. We aren't—weren't close. She stopped sharing much of her life with me since she'd left for her first year at Hogwarts." For the first time during the lunch, Astoria sounded pained. "If something specific was stolen, I cannot even begin to imagine what it could be."
"Did you go to the Aurors with your suspicions?" Harry had to ask, even though he was certain what answer he was going to get.
"Neither Mother nor Father would hear of it. As you surely know, going to the Aurors would result in all the sordid details splashed across the Prophet, and they want to keep pretending Daphne had been a perfect daughter. They certainly aren't ready to give up all the sympathy they are getting." Astoria's voice was bitter, and more cutting than Harry had ever heard. Even after the worst run-ins with Pansy, she always seemed vaguely rueful and disapproving, in her dignified way. Malfoy's shrill hysterics usually more than made up for it, though. "Not that I have much faith in what the Aurors could do in this case."
"So you want me to look into the circumstances of your sister's death and find out who Obliviated you both and why," Harry summed up.
"Basically, yes. I'll be honest, Draco tried to dissuade me from coming to you, but I believe you are the only one who can help us learn the truth. Discreetly." She put special emphasis on the last word.
"I'll take your case." Harry felt he owed that to her anyway, if only because of the cow incident where he all but sided with Pansy. "If you are free tomorrow, I'd like you to take me to Daphne's flat and tell me more about her daily routine and circumstances of her death." His voice was gentle.
"I don't know much about her routine. And I wasn't the one who… found her that night." She shuddered and looked away, focusing on the bustle of the street outside the window. "But I'll show you the flat. Mother wanted to start bringing Daphne's things over, but I didn't let her."
"This was the right decision. Please leave everything as it is for now."
"We also need to make sure there are no further Obliviation attempts. Would you consider some sort of surveillance?" Harry asked carefully.
"Draco's put a tracker spell on me and rarely leaves me out of his sight these days. Dodging him to meet with you today was difficult enough. Still, I thought it would be better if we first met without him knowing, or he'd insist on—" she trailed off, shaking her head. "Anyway, I think the spell would be sufficient for the time being."
"If something happens, contact me as soon as possible. Even if you think it's small and insignificant."
"I will. Thank you, Harry." Astoria gave him her usual polite if a bit distant smile.
"I'll send you our standard contract so you can read it carefully before tomorrow."
"Money is not an issue." She waved her hand dismissively. The Greengrass family was one of the wealthiest in the British Isles, especially with so many old names frayed by the war. They, however, had stayed well out of it, so they didn't have to spend a crippling fortune on bribes in the aftermath, such as the Malfoys did. Even though she herself had a full-time job at Ceridwen Academy, the first and only wizarding primary school that opened after the war, she didn't have to work a day in her life if she chose not to.
Well, Harry was glad that at least some of his clients thought so, especially after the snooty waiter brought the bill.