Six weeks seemed long enough to wait for the Aurors to stop postulating and annoying people with their questions. She was becoming impatient. She had to act now. She had to know definitively whether her theories worked and her potions were aggressive enough to get the job done, and the sooner the better.
She had the perfect "volunteer" in her ward, too. Two days ago, Madam Pomfrey, that old crone up at Hogwarts, had sent a critically wounded fifteen-year-old boy to St Mungo's after a freak Quidditch accident. The lad had ended up in her ward paralyzed from the waist down. Healer Stilwell had been using her potions on the boy, and he had made tremendous progress in the short time he'd been in hospital. It was time to stop that progress…
The boy was napping on his side when she entered his cubicle. The back of his hospital gown gaped open above the bedclothes at his waist in just the right places: she wouldn't have to move them. She smiled and silently approached the bed. With practiced ease, she opened the first vial and shook out a long, thick needle with two tiny barbs on its tip. With her wand, she guided it and three additional similar needles towards the boy's lower spine. The moment the points touched his skin, the needles began worming their way into his spinal cord, disappearing completely as the pierced flesh closed over the needles. She smiled as she gave her wand a small tug, feeling the barbed needles catch in the tissue, tearing it and doing irreparable damage. Her victim stirred in his sleep, then settled down again.
She paused to listen to the ward before she began her second task.
With feather-light fingers she located the spaces between the three vertebrae which were her next targets. She opened two more vials, one half-filled with blue potion, the other with green. Working quickly, she extracted three tiny needles from the blue potion with her wand and directed them at the spaces between the boy's vertebrae. Just like their larger counterparts, these needles slid in easily and healed the entry wounds almost before they completely disappeared. She repeated the process with three needles from the green vial one bone down. Her work done, she capped the vials, left the cubicle and strolled out of the ward, giving one of her helpers a quick nod as she went.
Several minutes later the paralyzed boy woke up screaming.
Healer Stilwell bent over his newest patient, the fifth year from Hogwarts whose name was Brian. Poor Brian was in inexplicably agonizing pain, pain that shouldn't have occurred this late in his treatment. Between screams, Healer Stilwell tried to get the traumatized lad to tell him what had happened. All he could make out were the words sleep, tickle, and hurt.
The healer bowed his head. He had no explanation for why his patient should suddenly act like he was being tortured. Unless…
He threw back the sheets covering Brian and frantically searched the bed, looking for anything that would prove his theory correct.
Almost immediately, his eyes found what he'd been looking for; two minute drops of blue and one of green, drops so tiny and faint that if he hadn't known what to look for, he'd have missed them. They were located on the sheet close to Brian's back. Quickly rounding the bed, he cast a spell, groaning inwardly when two areas on Brian's back showed signs of recent healing. Healer Stilwell closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, a flood of sympathy for the boy's predicament filling him. The poor lad was going to need the same surgery Mr Potter had undergone all those weeks ago.
Acting quickly, Healer Stilwell gave orders for specific pain potions to be administered and Brian's parents to be summoned to his office. Then he requested a trolley be brought to Brian's cubicle. With the ward staff scurrying about to do his bidding, he charged up the back stairs, sealed his office door and cast a series of privacy spells on it and his fireplace. When the flames turned green with the addition of Floo Powder, he stuck his head in and asked the Network for the Auror Department and specifically, Auror Ronald Weasley.
"What's up, sir?" Auror Weasley asked a few minutes later.
"I need you at St Mungo's immediately. There's been an incident of medical tampering that I need you here to witness. This is of utmost importance to one of your investigations," he explained.
Weasley visibly blanched. "I… I'll be there in less than five minutes," he stammered.
"Bring your investigative team, if you can. Come through my office fireplace," Healer Stilwell directed. "I'll be waiting."
Brian's parents arrived first.
"What's wrong with our son?" the father demanded. "I thought you said he was making remarkable progress."
"He was until an hour ago, Mr Nelson," Healer Stilwell admitted. "However, I believe that someone has tampered with Brian's spinal cord and I've asked an Auror to be present when I cast the detection charm. If my suspicions are correct, I'll need your permission to immediately operate on your son."
Mrs Nelson dove into her purse for her handkerchief as Mr Nelson demanded angrily, "Who did this? Do you know who is responsible? How will your operation help our son?"
Healer Stilwell had just finished answering Mr Nelson's questions when Auror Weasley and two other Aurors arrived via the Floo Network. After introductions were made, the six returned to Brian's bedside.
Ron recognized the boy in the bed. He'd seen him on several occasions when he'd visited Hogwarts for Quidditch matches. He didn't recall which house the boy was in, but he remembered that he was in James Potter's year. At the moment, the boy—Brian, his parents had said—lay curled on his side, pale and frightened-looking.
Auror Garrett Carmichael, who Ron had asked to accompany him inside the ward, squatted down at Brian's eye level and gently touched his hand. "Brian, I'm Auror Carmichael," he murmured. "My partner, Auror Weasley, and I are here as witnesses for Healer Stilwell who is going to perform a spell on you. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Brian whispered.
"Good. Your parents are here as well, but they have been asked to stay outside the ward with Auror Chambers until Healer Stilwell is done. Do you want me to hold your hand during the spell?"
Again Brian answered, "Yes," so Garrett smiled at him, his signal to Ron and Healer Stilwell that they could precede with the spell.
Ron nodded to Healer Stilwell who cast the Foreign Body Detection Charm. To Ron's horror the same areas that were documented in Harry's file glowed bright blue on Brian's back.
The spell was still glowing when Brian suddenly arched his back and screamed as if he was under the Cruciatus Curse. At the same time, Healer Stilwell's spell indicated something leaking from the upper set of foreign bodies: they weren't leaking on their own, someone was causing the suspected needles to leak! On instinct, Ron cast a Magic Detection Spell that homed in on the direction of the cast spell he suspected of causing Brian's pain. An orange arrow left Brian's body and zoomed through the curtains towards the back of the ward.
Almost immediately, there was a crash of overturning equipment and the sound of pounding footfalls as someone tried to make a break for it. Ron hurtled out of Brian's cubicle and made a flying leap towards the fleeing Matron's Assistant, tackling the man as he sprinted past. With a mighty crash the two fell against another patient's bed, Ron pinning the other wizard to the floor. He wrenched the wizard's wand from his hand.
"Why were you deliberately hurting one of the patients?" he demanded as he pocketed the confiscated wand.
"Geroffme!" the wizard cried.
"Not until you tell me why you were hurting one of the patients," Ron insisted. Angrily, he sent a Patronus message to Auror Chambers, who was out in the corridor with Brian's parents. Then he repeated his request a third time, still not getting an answer.
The door to the ward banged open, admitting Brodie, who entered with his wand drawn. "Take this piece of dragon dung to Headquarters," Ron ordered as he magically bound his prisoner. "Process him and come back here as soon as you can. I need you to stay with the parents."
"Yes, sir!" Brodie returned. He yanked the prisoner to his feet. A moment later, they disappeared with a loud pop.
Ron brushed off his robes and dropped the confiscated wand in an evidence bag, then Banished it to Evidence. I'm getting too old to be tackling suspects, he thought as he went back to Brian's bedside where Healer Stilwell seemed to monitoring his patient with several spells at once. Auror Carmichael was still holding Brian's hand and seemed to have the boy's attention.
"Caught the perpetrator," Ron reported to the healer.
Healer Stilwell kept his eyes on the spells as he asked, "Who did you catch?"
"One of the Matron's Assistants," Ron replied. He jerked his head towards Brian. "Will he be all right?"
"The sooner we get him downstairs the better. All the progress he's made over the last two days has just been undone," Stilwell growled. Then his tone changed to one of admiration. "Would your partner consider a job change? He's been remarkable at keeping Brian calm while we treated his pain."
Ron couldn't help but smile at the praise. "Sorry, sir, but that's not possible. Auror Carmichael is a vital member of the Department."
"I thought as much," Healer Stilwell grumbled. He leaned over the bed towards Garrett. "Auror Carmichael, I'd like you to stay with Brian until we get him sedated."
"Yes, sir," Garrett smiled. "Ready to go?"
Healer Stilwell replied, "Almost."
Ron backed out of the cubicle. "Save the sheet, Garrett. We'll need it as evidence. I'll stay with the parents until you need me, Healer Stilwell," he volunteered.
A short while later, Ron found himself standing next to Garrett in the Observation Deck of the underground operating theatre. Below them, Healer Stilwell was wielding two wands, extracting bits of magical metal from Brian Nelson's back. It was hard to watch because Ron's thoughts kept wandering towards Harry and the fact that he was missing his meeting with his friend. He thought Harry would understand, but he vowed that as soon as he'd written his report and reviewed the evidence, he'd go to The Groves, even if it was just to say "hello" again because visiting hours were over.
Healer Stilwell's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I extracted six epidural-like needles, Auror Weasley. Do you want them now or when I've extracted the others?"
"I'll take them later," Ron said as he peered through the glass at the brightly illuminated operating table.
"Very well," Healer Stilwell said and he went back to his work.
"Brodie still standing guard outside?" Ron asked Garrett.
"Last time I checked. He brought Susan. She's with the boy's parents," Garrett reported.
"Brilliant," Ron praised his young partner. "By the way, thank you for keeping Brian calm upstairs. You were a big help to Healer Stilwell. He wanted you to change jobs and join his team here at St Mungo's. I told him you were too important to us."
Beside him, Garrett shuffled his feet. "Just doing my job, sir. Glad I could be of help." He sounded embarrassed.
Ron changed the subject. "Was Brian able to tell you anything?" he asked.
"Not much, and that's quite understandable with the way he was feeling. He did say that he was awakened from his nap by someone touching his back. He said he felt several pin pricks but was too scared to let the person know he was awake."
"Poor kid," Ron choked. He cleared his throat. "Make sure to put that in your report and copy the memory for the Pensieve. We'll review everything tomorrow morning," Ron directed, already wondering if Terry Boot was getting anything out of the Matron's Assistant or if the wanker had clammed up just like the two that Harry's team had arrested six weeks ago had done.
The two Aurors lapsed into silence. It was a long time before Healer Stilwell finally looked up at them and reported, "I extracted a total of four barbed needles from the second site. I've bagged the evidence and it's ready for you."
"Thank you. I'll send Auror Carmichael down to get it," Ron said. He nodded to Garrett who immediately left the Observation Deck. "How's Brian doing?"
"Would you meet me in the ante-chamber, please," Healer Stilwell requested. "I want us to talk privately." He sounded exhausted.
A moment later, Ron met Healer Stilwell at the theatre door. "What couldn't you tell me aloud?" he enquired as he cast Muffliato on Healer Stilwell's two assistants.
The healer cast a silencing spell of his own. "I'll put this in my report, but the barbed needles were dipped in some sort of tissue-destroying potion, one slightly different from the blue and green potions released in the second set of needles," he reported. "They dissolved as many cord fibres as they ripped. I'm not sure I can repair the damage."
Ron exhaled forcefully. "So he's going to be paralyzed like Harry?" he finally asked around the lump in his throat which was caused by regret and concern for Brian.
"I'm afraid so," Healer Stilwell said. "As soon as Brian is able to travel, I'm going to transfer him to The Groves. Do you think Harry would be willing to talk to him and his parents?"
"I'll talk to him this evening. I think he'll agree. I'll leave you a note with the Welcome Witch after we've talked," Ron said.
"Thanks. I'd better get upstairs. Mr and Mrs Nelson need to know about the transfer," Healer Stilwell said as he cancelled his spell and left the room.
Ron cancelled his own spells and stepped aside as the healer's assistants brought Brian into the ante-chamber to recover. As soon as the trolley's wheels were locked in place, Ron conjured a chair and sat down next to it, taking one of Brian's limp hands in his own. He was encouraged to see that the boy's colour had changed from the pasty white it'd been upstairs to a much healthier one. Ron couldn't help it: he reached up and gently brushed the crown of Brian's sandy head with his fingers as he vowed, "I promise we'll catch all the criminals who did this to you."
An hour later, Brian and his parents were on their way to The Groves.
Someone tapped gently on the frame of his door. Grateful for the distraction, Harry looked up from the book he was trying to read and having little success with—his brain injury was still preventing him from reading anything for very long. He smiled when he recognized Ron lounging against the door.
"You don't have to knock," he said. "Come in, come in."
Ron looked tired and frustrated to Harry as he said, "I apologize for coming so late. There's been some trouble and I need your help."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "What's up?"
"We caught one of the suspects," he answered as he pulled one of the chairs from the table over to Harry's bedside and straddled it.
Harry put his book aside and turned his body to see all of Ron. "Brilliant… but you're not happy about it?"
"Nope. Another victim's been added to the list. A fifteen-year-old Ravenclaw boy by the name of Brian Nelson. He fell off his broom during Quidditch practice earlier in the week and was recovering nicely in Stilwell's ward until someone decided to poke ten needles into his back, just like they did you."
Harry swore loudly. "That poor kid! What's been done for him?"
"The same operation Healer Stilwell did on you to extract the needles. He'll do his rehab here at The Groves. They've put him in Room Three," Ron reported with a long-suffering sigh.
Harry closed his eyes. He knew exactly what the teenager was and would be going through in the next few days. "What can I do, Ron?" he asked finally.
"Would you talk to Brian and his parents? They're all scared and angry and feeling very helpless at the moment. They have one person to blame, the Matron's Assistant we arrested in the ward, but the fact that there are others still at large just terrifies them," Ron said, looking hopeful.
"Of course I'll talk to them," Harry said. Between the letters from his children and now the prospect of helping Brian Nelson back to health, he was suddenly filled with the urge to help himself more than he had been doing lately. One way he could accomplish this was to answer any questions the Nelson family might have. "Are they in Brian's room now?"
"Isn't it almost bedtime?" Ron asked.
Harry chuckled. "We don't have lights-out here like we did at Hogwarts, Ron. Visiting hours end about now, because the staff needs to make their potions rounds undisturbed," he said as he positioned his slide board between his wheelchair and the bed and slid into the chair. "C'mon, the least you can do is introduce me to the parents, even if Brian hasn't awakened from the anaesthesia potions."
Ron stood up. "Harry, you're amazing," he said. "I wouldn't have guessed six weeks ago that you'd be this independent so soon."
Harry bowed his head. "Ron, I'm far from independent," he murmured to his useless legs. "I still have so much to learn, so much to do to actually be ready to function away from this facility. I'm still not strong enough physically to take care of my most basic needs without help. I'm going to be here for months. I wouldn't say that's independent at all."
Ron walked round the bed and knelt beside Harry. "You will be soon, Harry. I know it. I remember that helpless feeling from the Horcrux hunt, you know, when I let you and Hermione down when I left. But I found the courage to come back; I know you have that same courage somewhere inside. You'll find it and use it just because of who you are," he said sincerely.
Harry looked up at him. "Thanks for reminding me." He waited to see if Ron would say anything else and when his friend didn't, he added, "I'm ready. Are you?"
Ron stood and led the way up the corridor to Room Three. Harry waited out in the corridor until Ron beckoned him inside. The room was identical to Harry's except that its window overlooked an enclosed courtyard. Brian, Harry saw, was still sedated, his parents keeping vigil on either side of his bed.
Mr Nelson rose from his chair as Harry rolled into the room. "Mr Potter, it's so good of you to come," he said.
Harry shook the proffered hand. "It's the least I can do," he replied. "I'm very sorry about what's happened to Brian. Did Healer Stilwell give you any hope of his ever walking again?"
Mrs Nelson shook her head. "I'm afraid not," she wailed softly.
"I can understand his reluctance, but don't give up yet," Harry found himself saying. "The physiotherapists are tops here as is the healing staff."
"That's good to know," Mr Nelson commented. He hesitated and then asked, "Is… is Brian safe here? Can Erma and I leave at night and feel secure that no one is going to harm our son again?"
The plea went straight to Harry's heart and from the looks of it, straight to Ron's as well. Ron cleared his throat and the others looked over at where he was leaning against the door frame. "If you'd like me to set a guard detail on your son's room, it can be arranged," he said.
Harry smiled as the tension left Mr Nelson's face. "You would do that for our Brian?" the distraught father asked.
"There's someone outside Harry's door round the clock, Mr Nelson," Ron answered. "It won't be any problem to assign a guard to Brian's room as well."
"I… we can't afford the guard for very long," Mr Nelson stammered. "Just for a few days…"
Ron cut him off. "There will be no charge to you at all," he said as Harry nodded in agreement. "Because your son's health was compromised by someone who deliberately wanted to victimize him, someone the Aurors are actively seeking, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is obligated to protect Brian from further harm."
Mrs Nelson began weeping and her husband went to her. "Thank you, Auror Weasley. When can we expect the guard?"
"Most likely late tomorrow afternoon," Ron said. "In the meantime, I'll have Harry's guard check in on Brian when he's alone in the room and I'll cast the same security enchantments on this room that have been cast on Harry's before I leave tonight."
Mrs Nelson sniffed loudly. "Thank you. I'll feel better about leaving Brian here," she murmured as she reached up to caress her son's cheek.
"I'm out of my room for several hours each morning and afternoon working in the Physiotherapy room," Harry volunteered. "It won't be any trouble for my guard to walk across the corridor to protect Brian." He beckoned Ron over and murmured, "Tell Robards I approved the guard and to assign someone immediately."
Ron nodded. "Consider it done."
Mr Nelson asked, "What can we expect to happen to Brian in the next few days?"
Harry said, "Healer Stilwell will establish several routines for Brian. Once he's awake, and able to drink his potions, he'll most likely be started on the same nerve regeneration potions I'm on…" He continued talking about what the Nelsons could expect and the progress Brian might make within the first week after waking. He ended by saying, "I would like your permission to talk to Brian whenever he needs to speak to someone a little more informed than he is. The therapists and Muggle psychologists are very understanding of our emotional needs, but there have been times when I've wished for someone who has actually gone through what I'm experiencing. Mrs Vaughn, the receptionist, is willing to talk when she has time, but that's just it, sometimes it's impossible for her to get away from her desk when you need her. I'd like to be the one who comes when Brian needs someone."
Mrs Nelson came over and hugged Harry. He could tell how grateful she was as she sobbed, "Oh, Mr Potter, you're as wonderful as everyone I've talked to says you are! Thank you so much!"
"It's the least I can do, ma'am," Harry murmured as he extricated himself from her embrace.
A musical chime sounded in the corridor. It was followed by the announcement, "Visiting hours are now concluded. All visitors are requested to leave within the next five minutes. Visiting hours will resume at half past ten tomorrow morning. Have a good evening and a safe journey home."
Ron looked at Harry. "That means me. I'll come by tomorrow if I can," he said. He pulled out his wand and cast several security charms Harry recognized as the ones the Aurors usually cast to maintain a safe perimeter around the Minister for Magic's hotel rooms when he went on official business.
"I'll understand if you can't. Your presence at the office is needed more than it is here," Harry replied as the enchantments settled into place. The two soon bade Mr and Mrs Nelson good night with Harry promising to check up on Brian as his schedule permitted.
At Harry's door, Ron commented, "I really appreciate your help, Harry."
Harry glanced over his shoulder at Room Three one last time. "Good night. Tell Hermione I said 'hello.'"
The two parted and Harry spoke to his guard, asking him keep an eye on Brian Nelson's room as well. Then he went to his desk to compose a letter.
Saturday, 5 December 2020
Two owls descended from the multitude and came to rest in front of James's breakfast plate. He recognized both owls; the first, Quaffle, belonged to his mother and the second was his father's grey owl, Snitch, who was temporarily living in the Owlery at The Groves. He saw that Quaffle had letters from his mother to Albus and Lily as well as for him, so he quickly untied his and sent the barn owl down the table to his siblings. Snitch waited patiently and then stuck out its leg, her head cocked at a rather funny angle that made James laugh as he accepted its letter. He gave Snitch a piece of bacon and told her to find the Owlery.
His mother's letter was full of news that only she could provide; insider's information on what had really happened when the Kenmare Kestrals' Beater had punched the Wimbourne Wasps Keeper and the like. James scanned the letter quickly, chuckling at her paragraph about the insider's gossip about the Canons' latest player dismissals, and then put it aside to open the other envelope.
It is with a very heavy heart that I write this letter to you tonight. The reason for my sadness is the discovery of another victim of the group of criminals who caused my paralysis. The patient's name is Brian Nelson. He's a Ravenclaw in your year and you may have heard about his accident during Quidditch practice several days ago. According to your Uncle Ron, Brian was healing quickly in the same ward I was in at St Mungo's until late this morning when someone decided to experiment on him.
Brian is now a resident at The Groves. I just spent nearly an hour with his parents answering their questions and trying to give them hope. They are shattered emotionally, not only because of Brian's first accident, but because someone deliberately singled their son out as a guinea pig… just like they did the first Auror who would fall into their pit.
Tomorrow, I am going to spend as much time as I can with Brian and his parents. Your mum told me you're planning to visit me after Quidditch practice tomorrow, so I wanted you to know where to find me. Brian is in Room Three, just across the corridor from my room. He should be awake by then and I think he could really use a friend his own age who isn't going to be terrified of him and his injuries.
I look forward to your visit.
James read the letter a second time, his heart in his throat. He felt so guilty for being happy that Brian was in hospital earlier in the week. He had been looking forward to the Hufflepuff-Ravenclaw match next Saturday, but now he knew he couldn't watch the match without regretting his selfish thoughts.
With a huge sigh, he pushed his breakfast away and swung his legs over the bench to go back upstairs to change for practice. He didn't get very far because Kendra was suddenly sitting on the bench beside him.
"James, bad news?" she asked.
He nodded and handed her his dad's letter.
"Poor Brian!" she exclaimed softly as she handed it back. "You're going this afternoon, right?"
"Yeah, and I feel guilty as hell for thinking that it was a good thing Madam Pomfrey shipped Brian off to St Mungo's. I thought his being gone would even out the teams more," he said.
Kendra grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. "You had no way of knowing Brian would be the next victim, so stop feeling guilty," she chided as she led him out into the Entrance Hall and up the marble staircase.
"But…" sputtered James.
"No buts, love," Kendra said with a mysterious smile on her face. "You're going to get ready for practice and get rid of all that guilt by zinging that Quaffle so hard at the goal hoops Brett won't be able to stop them. Then after practice, we're going to The Groves together."
James stopped in his tracks. "You're coming with me?" he asked.
Kendra squeezed his hand. "Yes. Your dad wrote to Professor Longbottom and asked that I be given permission to come with you," she reported happily. "We're staying at your grandparents' house tonight so we won't have to rush back here and can even spend an hour or two with your dad again tomorrow. My bag's already packed."
James couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. "Then I'd better get crackin'," he quipped as he picked up the pace.
"Yep, you better," Kendra laughed as they emerged from the stairs onto the seventh floor corridor.
The Fat Lady admitted them to the tower and James took the steps to his dorm two at a time. As angry as he felt over Brian's injury, he knew today's practice was going to be a good one: Kendra's idea made sense and he was suddenly looking forward to giving Brett a workout.
A/N: Thank you so much for all the great reviews thus far with this story. I appreciate all the comments and am looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this chapter.
Many thanks, as always, to RSS, Jedi34, RebeccaRipple, Mutt n Feathers and Rosina Ferguson for all you've done to improve my narrative. And Aggiebell, thanks for finding the time in your busy schedule to beta and then post my story.