Harry woke Monday morning, vaguely glad that Vernon would be going back to work that day and he'd only see him at breakfast. It had been a strain over the weekend to remain quiet and unobtrusive. Knowing the storm that was brewing, Harry decided to do his best to keep his hair neat and out of his face. After his shower, he combed through it carefully and froze in amazement. His hair was lying almost flat. With a gaping mouth, he surveyed the top of his head, where the heavy locks were pulled down by the weight of his longer hair. Wicked.
Of course, Vernon still wouldn't be satisfied with the way Harry's hair fell unevenly around his shirt collar, so Harry rummaged through the bathroom drawers and found a rubber band. Thinking of Bill Weasley, he pulled his hair back and fastened it with the rubber band, then stared at himself in the mirror. He looked completely different somehow. Without all the scruffy hair to draw attention, his eyes seemed much more prominent. Unfortunately, so did his scar. Bugger. He'd surely get accused of trying to show it off if he kept his hair this way.
Oh well. No solution was perfect. Maybe when he was older, he'd shave his hair all off. If he actually outlived Tom, he'd do it just for fun. He smiled as he headed down to breakfast, hoping against hope that his new, improved hair would put off the inevitable row. Harry could feel Vernon's beady eyes on his hair as he sat down to breakfast.
"Boy, will there be any bloody birds at breakfast this morning?"
Harry grabbed himself a piece of toast, thinking how amazing it was that he'd come to hate such an innocuous word as boy.
"Only if Aunt Petunia's serving chicken."
Vernon huffed at him and fluffed out his paper before settling behind it once more. Dudley had gone jerky again, nervously looking over at the window now and again as if a flock of birds might suddenly attack.
"Have a tic in your neck, Dudders?" Harry had no idea why he smiled so brightly at Dudley, but as the blood drained out of his cousin's face, he fought the urge to laugh. He wasn't trying to be intimidating at all anymore, and his cousin was still petrified.
"Stop baiting him, you freak," Aunt Petunia spat at him. "Can't you leave him alone? Isn't bad enough you traipsing around here like you own the place when nobody wants you here? Just eat your food and go back upstairs so we can live in peace." Harry wished he could just snap back that Dudley had never left him alone, so why shouldn't he return the favor, but his heart failed him. He felt alien and chastised, and a bit guilty. However, knowing his aunt, he stayed to eat a little, determined not to be starved at his aunt's whim. He even took two extra rashers of bacon as he headed back up to his room.
When a shriek came from the kitchen almost right away, he smiled before heading back down again.
"Fawkes has such lovely timing."
Dumbledore's letter said that Lupin was to be there at the Dursley's residence on Friday night at seven o'clock sharp. Unfortunately, they would have to practice Occlumency at the house, since transferring Harry from one place to another was inevitably dangerous. He understood that and returned the post with a quick note agreeing to the time and day. He reminded Dumbledore to tell the Order he was fine, a well-check note a whole day early, but it would save him the trouble later. The every-three-day rule was quite troublesome. Harry had, at several points, considered letting the time lapse just to get the Dursleys on Moody's blacklist, but they had the most annoying habit of pressing him to send the notes.
Now he dreaded telling them about the Occlumency lessons, and decided to put it off until Friday. It would give them less time to take it out on him.
Hermione's post came later in the morning, complete with two books wrapped in paper, and Harry was thankful that Vernon was out. The books were interesting, both aimed at preparing someone interested in Auror training. There were many spells in them he'd never seen before, and among the few he recognized was the Priori Incantatem curse. Apparently, it was used in official questioning sessions to corroborate testimony. The letter she sent with it was short. It sounded as if she were busy doing more research for him, and didn't have time to chat. She did explain that she was fine and lectured him soundly on the detrimental effects of carrying around too much guilt.
You're doing Voldemort's work for him. This way, you'll destroy yourself! Don't you think that's just what he wants?
She was right, of course, and since "Listen to Hermione" was his number one lesson learned from the previous year, Harry tried to re-direct his thoughts that day whenever he felt guilty. It wasn't easy, but once or twice, he found himself taking Ginny's advice and trying to think loving thoughts. Inevitably, Harry would remember the way Sirius had listened to him so carefully and given him advice and the way he had looked at him with such affection. It made Harry's eyes sting and water, but there was warmth in his heart alongside the ache.
During the afternoon, he read the letters from Neville and Luna he'd put off for so long, then dashed off brief replies, reassuring them he was alright, thanking them and apologizing for endangering their lives on the mission. They were the easiest letters so far. Before he sent Hedwig off, he wrote quick notes to Ron, Hermione and Ginny, excusing himself from writing again because of the danger to Hedwig. Maybe they would buy it, since it was halfway true.
Harry watched Hedwig leave on the mission with a lump in his throat. He felt like he'd just burned a bridge behind him. Maybe eventually he'd find a way to combat Tom without pulling away. Or maybe Hermione would figure out what he was doing and forbid him to do it, which would set his plan firmly against rule number one. That thought set him back a bit. But for now . . . .
Harry busied himself for the next two days mostly reading the books Hermione had sent. The Occlumency book she'd owled him earlier in the summer frustrated him to no end. It assumed that the reader already knew the basics of a study called Sensing, which it insisted must be built upon for truly effective Occlumency. Sensing was the ability to detect a magical signature from any object or person, which Harry knew for certain that he could not do. As a test, he got out his Sneakoscope, closed his eyes, rolled it across the floor and tried to sense where it had landed. Behind his eyelids, he could see streaks of light fading, neon shapes of what might be there if he opened his eyes, but nothing corresponded to the Sneakoscope. Harry sighed. Why hadn't Snape even mentioned Sensing? Now he was as far behind as always and would have to wait for Lupin's help.
In disgust, Harry buried himself in the Defense books, practicing the suggested wand movements, spell words and deflection techniques. Who knew what he'd need to know in his future battles?
He had drifted off Wednesday evening, nose buried in the first Defense book when Voldemort first disturbed his sleep.
"Master," came a voice from behind. Harry turned to see a bulky but small Death Eater cowering before him. His right hand flashed silver in the dim light.
"Yes, Wormtail, what do you have to report?"
"They have captured Potter's friend."
Harry chuckled and clenched the fingers of his right hand into a fist. "Excellent. Bring him in."
There was a groan of pain from somewhere in the next room, and rough voices goading a prisoner. The amount of time it took to move the prisoner irritated Harry. He threw out his arm, wand extended. A shriek and a scream answered his muttered curse, then the sounds of a scuffle. Almost immediately, from the elegantly arched doorway, three figures made their way forward, two draped in black pulling the limp form of another. The form was dark-haired, with tattered robes that dragged behind him. He was tall, and heavy enough to give the Death Eaters pause. They were walking oddly, as if they were also in pain. They cast the third at Harry's feet.
Harry smiled. "Werewolf, you have at last been brought to serve me."
"Never," came the weak voice. In obvious pain, Remus Lupin looked up. "I will die before I serve you."
"That can be arranged. Your purpose has already been served." Harry laughed and brought up his wand mercilessly. "Crucio!" Lupin fought the pain at first, then began screaming. The screaming went on louder and louder, until a closer sound rang out on top of it.
"Brat! WAKE UP!"
Harry jumped up and rolled out of bed, landing on his knees in a puddle of sheets, breath heaving, wand somehow in his hand and pointed before he could even register who was standing beside the bed. Aunt Petunia was frozen there, her hand raised as if to strike.
"Aunt Pe-Petunia?" Harry stammered, fighting to keep the room from spinning; his head felt like it might split open. "What is it?"
"Shut up and go back to sleep before you wake Vernon up!" She turned abruptly and strode out of the room. Harry crumpled almost immediately, sinking down against the bed, shivering. He closed his eyes and struggled to remember Dumbledore's warning. This was just an attempt to get Harry to leave the house. Of course Tom would try this again. He didn't really have Lupin. It was just a vision. Not real.
Since Hedwig was out delivering umpteen letters, Harry had no option but to wait. He eventually relaxed enough to doze on and off during the remaining nighttime hours, his muscles cramped and pained from the aftereffects of the Cruciatus every time he awoke. Breakfast was served to him alone in his room and he hit the books feverishly, breaking only to eat a piece of cheese jammed between the heels of a loaf of bread for lunch. Hedwig finally came back that afternoon after her many missions, looking ready for a rest.
"Sorry, girl," Harry apologized as he fed her five owl treats. "I know that was a lot of work. I guess Luna was probably difficult to find." Hedwig nipped Harry's finger. "I know, I know. But I have one more that has to be delivered. It's urgent. Take this to Dumbledore. If there's no emergency, just stay there and rest a while, all right?"
She hooted indignantly, as if to say that of course she would rest, but Harry just smiled and lifted her over to the window again. She shuddered, resettled her feathers and then turned her tail to him. Harry sighed as she lifted off and flapped away, away from the stifling bedroom that had become a prison to him. Not for the first time, he wondered what his Animagus form would be, and if it might be something that flew. He'd like nothing more than to join Hedwig, disappearing into the sky.
An hour later, the doorbell rang and Harry listened with interest until Aunt Petunia replied in her fending-off-salespeople voice. It didn't work. In a few minutes, the very soft-spoken lady was in the parlor talking over recipes and cooking tips with a great deal of excitement. She was apparently selling something that Aunt Petunia couldn't refuse, though it was suddenly near-impossible to hear them over the virtual destruction coming from Dudley's video games next door. Vernon was still at work for a few more hours.
It suddenly struck Harry that he was still hungry after the meager sandwich Petunia had shoved through the catflap for lunch. If she was busy in the parlor, then he might be able to sneak down to the kitchen unnoticed. With only a few seconds for contemplation, he eased out into the hallway, glad his door had not been locked. Dudley's game roared loud enough to cover any inadvertent creaking.
"Now, this particular one is my favorite," the lady proclaimed with energy downstairs. "It's something I've made for my family over and over again, and they've never figured out that it's a mix."
Harry tuned out the conversation as it went on about temperature and aluminum pans and toothpicks and the like. He was all the way in the kitchen when he heart Aunt Petunia's soft footsteps on that blasted carpet. Her purse! Harry cut around the corner and slid into the pantry, trying to quiet his breathing. Aunt Petunia's flats clicked on the tiled surface as she walked to the cabinet to retrieve her purse.
"It's been ages since anything's inspired me this much, I really must confess," she called back over her shoulder. "Cleaning is more my forte." Her voice faded as she headed back in the parlor.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief and looked around the pantry. It had been years since he'd been energetic or stupid enough to try to sneak food. A can of potato crisps caught his eye, and he grabbed it, along with a candy bar from Dudley's bribing jar. Then he stealthily made his way down the hall, up the stairs and back into his room. He thought he heard Dudley's door click shut an instant after his, but it didn't matter. In his current frame of mind, Dudley would never tell.
Harry sat at his desk and devoured the food, wishing desperately that he had thought to get a drink. But he felt a strange thrill at having made a successful run at the pantry for the first time in years. Why hadn't he done this before?
Uncle Vernon got home early, and Harry stopped practicing in surprise. Guiltily, he ran over to hide the remains of his snack in the trash can. He'd empty it later into the kitchen trash. No one would know. With a deep breath, Harry stood back up and grabbed his wand. He was going through the fight at the Ministry in his mind, dissecting his performance and trying to improve it if he could. There were a few Auror spells he was working into his repertoire. Of course, it would be a lot easier if he had real targets to cast at, but he didn't. And since he couldn't cast real spells, anyway, it was a moot point. Lifting his wand, he suddenly paused. It was profoundly quiet downstairs now. What was Uncle Vernon doing?
Fifteen minutes later, Harry got a clue.
"BOY! GET YOUR SHOES ON AND GET DOWN HERE!"
Harry cursed under his breath. Not the haircut again. He sat on the edge of his bed and debated, then got to his feet and walked downstairs. He already had his shoes on.
Uncle Vernon looked at him—and the hair that was pulled back so neatly—ready to yell, until he noticed Harry's shoes. "Well, it's good to see that you've finally come to your senses. Let's go." He was at the door in three strides. Harry risked a regretful look at Petunia before shattering the calm in the house with three quiet words:
"I'm not going."
"WHAT?" Vernon roared and wheeled around, pointing at Harry threateningly, moving closer with every word. "YOU'LL GET YOUR HAIR CUT LIKE A CIVILIZED, NORMAL PERSON AS LONG AS YOU LIVE UNDER MY ROOF, DO YOU HEAR ME?"
Harry held his ground. "I said I'm not going and I meant it." As Vernon turned beet red and started shaking, Harry instincts fired warnings at him. He shook them off. "I'm sorry if that offends you—"
"NOT AS SORRY AS YOU WILL BE—" Vernon reared back, his fist raised. As Vernon swung, Harry crouched and knocked away the blow with his forearm. Vernon halted in mid-sentence, stunned. Then his face twisted with rage and he swung again, lower. Harry blocked it again, fury giving him strength.
"I'm NOT helpless anymore." He pressed forward, feeling heat radiate up into his face. "And despite what you think or whose house this is, I will NOT risk my life and yours to get a BLOODY HAIRCUT!" He dropped his hand and waited. The silence was only broken by his heavy breathing. Once he felt there was no further attack coming, he turned and headed upstairs.
Harry stomped his way up into his room and slammed the door, trying to calm himself. He waited for an explosion to come from downstairs, but there were only hushed voices, buzzing with intensity. He didn't reckon he'd made anything better by his actions tonight, but he didn't mind. At least he'd finally stood up for himself. No more ducking. No more dodging. No more running away like the frightened child he had been. That was over.
Harry's dinner was another sandwich stuck through the catflap, this time with a pallid slice of nondescript sandwich meat between the bread. He ate it gratefully, having expected much less. He put off getting into bed until he was exhausted. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see Lupin grimacing in pain, lying helpless before Tom. It wasn't real; it couldn't be. Dumbledore would tell him if Lupin were in trouble. Right?
The silence in his mind should have been reassuring, but doubts were creeping in. If Lupin disappeared, would they tell Harry, risking that he might run off and try to rescue him, or would they share the information with him and let him in on the rescue plans? Harry punched his pillow angrily as he came to the conclusion that they probably wouldn't tell him anything. At least he'd had the vision and Dumbledore had to reply now with the truth. So far, that seemed to be the way he played the game. He would always answer truthfully, just not give all the information available.
Harry's dreams, when he finally fell asleep, were vague mixtures of fears and reality. He was searching for Tom, but no one would leave him alone. Ron, Ginny and Hermione would pop out of trees and drop from airplanes, endangering themselves again and again. Harry frantically tried to convince them to go home, but they just laughed—and their laughter sounded a lot like Tom's.
At breakfast on Friday, Vernon stiffly reminded Harry to send his well-check note to the Order or risk expulsion from the house. Harry took that to be an empty threat, though he didn't like the look in Vernon's eyes. He quietly said that he'd already sent a note off yesterday and Vernon seemed waspishly satisfied.
After breakfast, Harry picked up the second of the Auror Defense books. It was interesting to see what spells had been used throughout the years to render wizards and witches compliant to the Ministry. Some of them sounded painful, but most of those had been rendered obsolete by more effective, less hurtful spells. Harry hadn't realized there was a handcuff charm, its effects closely resembling those of a pair of metal cuffs restraining the hands, except that it also prevented wandless magic. He wondered why Wormtail hadn't used that on him when tying him to the headstone. It would have been easier than the rope and gag. Harry tried to think about it clinically, but he could feel the black gulf beneath him again.
If only he hadn't grabbed the trophy . . . .
If only the Acromantula had further wounded him . . . .
Harry closed the book and lay back on his bed. It was hopeless. Tom was too smart. He'd had Harry whisked away from Hogwarts by a Portkey right in front of everyone who had been trying to protect him. There was simply no way to protect himself from another attempt.
But then Harry remembered—he didn't want to be protected. He wanted revenge. The vision of Lupin, true or not, was just one more thing on the long list of reasons. Harry sat up, feeling a stiff resolve settle inside. He would take Tom down for all the pain and destruction he'd caused; it was all just a matter of when. With that in mind, he jumped off the bed, grabbed his wand and practiced dueling.
In time, the movements had become almost a kind of meditation for him. He moved slowly and efficiently, whispering the curses and imagining their effect. After losing himself in several hours of work, he took a break to eat another sandwich. He was starting to wish that he'd saved some of that snack food yesterday.
He read the Occlumency book until it bored him into a nap. Sensing was still beyond his grasp, and he was tired. He fought it for a few minutes, but the vision had robbed him of too much rest and he needed a sharp mind for the training that night, anyway. If Lupin was coming at all. Why hadn't Dumbledore written? Harry closed his eyes, remembering to clear his thoughts at the last second. How long had it been since he'd remembered to do that?
Harry woke when a sharp pain penetrated his mind. He braced himself for another torture session, but this time, it remained dull. The pain took the form of a red glow that washed the insides of his eyes and a greedy, malevolent joy that permeated his being. Nausea soon followed; Harry fought to keep from retching. More colors played across his mind and he wondered if this was a message from Tom, or if this sort of pain naturally came in Technicolor.
After some time, the pain stopped so suddenly that Harry jolted, as if from a dream. He slowly opened his eyes and found that the room was bathed in deep purple from the last traces of sunset. There was the smell of warm chocolate in the air. It reminded him vaguely of a dessert they served at Hogwarts and his stomach felt like he'd taken a dive on his broomstick.
Harry stirred on the bed and rolled over. His head felt heavy, and his stomach was still close to revolting. He couldn't get up. He closed his eyes briefly, telling himself not to fall asleep again and wondering why Hedwig hadn't yet returned.
When Aunt Petunia's voice broke into his consciousness sometime later, he knew he'd done it again. Now there was also a tangy meat smell in the air, and the smell of hot, crusty bread. It must be nearing dinnertime. Who had cooked all that food?
Harry scrambled out of bed, completely disoriented but hungry. A sudden thought made him open the window, just in case Hedwig returned during dinner. At least maybe that way, Vernon wouldn't hear her. Harry quickly changed his shirt and went to the bathroom to check the damage. His face needed washing and his hair was disheveled enough to need re-fastening. After a little tidying and a few slaps to the face to wake him up, Harry headed down the stairs as quietly and quickly as possible, to give the Dursleys less to complain about.
They were already halfway into their meal when he arrived. He was relieved to see they hadn't waited on him. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"Yes, you are," Uncle Vernon snapped, and his eyes looked malicious. "Sit down. I have something to tell you, boy. There are rumors at Grunnings that they might be downsizing soon, cutting back hours and even firing some people." Uh-oh. Harry risked a look at Petunia. She was stiff and composed. They must have already discussed this. "If that happens, boy, I'm warning you, you'll be out on your backside before the freaks can get your bloody post saying you need help."
"I know I made a promise," Petunia broke in calmly. "But if we can't afford to feed you, then what can we do? It's not as if you're paying your own way." Harry's eyes narrowed slightly at this. He'd been dreading the possibility of the Dursleys finding out about his wealth in the wizarding world. Had they figured it out somehow? Vernon stuffed enough ham in his mouth for three people and chewed noisily. He jabbed his fork in Harry's direction.
"You'd better hope I don't get sacked, boy. It'll be your fault if I do."
Harry didn't respond to that ridiculous statement. He just dumped the now cold potatoes and ham on his plate. His gaze fell on Dudley, who had stopped eating and starting poking again. The meal was a quiet one, with everyone else finishing long before Harry. He actually had quite an appetite, but his mind was preoccupied. It suddenly occurred to him that Tom feeling joyous, as he had been during the painful attack earlier, was not a good sign. But he could only guess at what it meant. Perhaps something was being orchestrated at Grunnings?
Aunt Petunia had brought out a large chocolate cake to serve a piece to Dudley and Uncle Vernon, answering Harry's unspoken question about that smell. It had been a while since Harry had seen her cook like this, mostly because of Dudley's dieting last summer. Dudley had brightened enormously and seemed to get his appetite back. Harry continued to get another helping of potatoes while Petunia was distracted with the cake.
"Whoa, there, Duddems! Where did that appetite come from? Petunia, it appears you've won the lottery!" Petunia beamed.
"Well, I did think that change would be good for Dudders," she began primly, but faltered at a pleading look from Dudley. "I mean to say that it would be good for Dudley, but still, I did hesitate to buy it." As Petunia stood to give Dudley a third slice of cake, Harry gulped down his last piece of bread and asked for a piece of cake as well. Aunt Petunia's lips twisted, but she served him a sliver that was about one fourth of Dudley's last piece.
"Now, now, now," blustered Vernon. "Dudley here told me that you mixed up that cake yourself, Petunia. Don't try to be modest."
Harry was grinning despite himself. The first bite of cake tasted like heaven. The second was even better. It had been far too long since he'd had anything chocolate. He was sure that he'd had this cake before at Hogwarts. What was it called? Beside him, Dudley was wolfing down his third piece. Vernon was still on his first, taking his time, chuckling proudly at Dudley in between bites.
"I try to be honest in all things, Vernon, you know that," Petunia returned, making Harry almost choke on his seventh, and last, bite. "But it was a cake from a mix. There was this very charming woman who was going door-to-door yesterday. Now, I don't usually buy such things, but I pride myself on knowing a good deal when I see one. "
Harry's fork dropped from nerveless fingers, clattering loudly to his plate. He grabbed up his napkin and spat the last mouthful of his cake into it, staring at Petunia with wide eyes. "You bought a mix from someone you'd never seen before, someone who came to the door?"
Vernon's face had turned red. "ATROCIOUS BEHAVIOR! Spitting out perfectly good food that's been cooked by my wife's own hands—"
"Don't eat any more!" Harry broke in desperately, knocking Dudley's fork to the table. "Not another bite!" His stomach felt strange. His cousin, who'd eaten over three times as much as Harry had, was pale and trembling, but then he always looked that way when Harry was around. "Are you all right?" he asked Dudley.
"THIS IS RIDICULOUS!" Vernon yelled. "The entire world does not revolve around you and your dinner!" Harry felt a cramp seize his stomach and he struggled to his feet.
"You don't understand! They're trying to—"
"SIT DOWN!" Vernon bellowed as he drew himself to full height.
"Don't feel good . . ." Dudley said, his eyes anxiously searching every face for reassurance. Harry could give him none.
"You're fine, Duddikins," Petunia said soothingly. "The nasty boy has just gone and put ideas in your head. Have some more cake."
"I can't. I—I'm—" Dudley's words were cut off by an anguished wail as he clutched his stomach.
"DUDLEY!" Petunia screeched out in horror as she rushed to get to him. Harry felt light-headed as he watched Dudley writhe in pain, finally knocking over his chair spastically. Petunia went over with him, trying to keep him from hurting himself, getting him settled in her lap just in time to get the entire contents of his stomach on her pants. She gasped out a horrified shriek.
"How did you know there was something in that cake, boy?" Harry looked up to see Vernon's eyes narrowed at him in suspicion.
Harry clutched at his stomach. "Dunno—wasn't sure—smelled like something from school."
"FROM SCHOOL??? YOU—YOU—"
"Vernon, HELP ME!" Aunt Petunia had cradled Dudley's thrashing body to her and was trying to hold him still. Uncle Vernon jerked away to help as Dudley started convulsing in earnest. Vernon knelt at his feet, trying to grab onto the flailing legs. Petunia wailed as she held onto his shoulders. Dudley's body went perfectly rigid in between spasms, his eyes wide open in horror.
He was trying to say something, but only incoherent, wet sounds made it out. Then his eyes went somehow wider, his convulsions stopped and Harry held his breath. Something bad was going to happen.
Dudley bent forward and retched powerfully, sending spray across Vernon and all the way to the other end of the room. Part of it was blood. Aunt Petunia screamed. Vernon froze where he was, dappled red, blinking rapidly.
Harry backed away in horror, his own abdomen burning with empathy. This was his fault. They had gotten to Dudley while trying to get to him. Harry doubled over in pain. Dudley was going to die first—he'd eaten so much more of the cake—but Harry would get there just the same.
The next minutes seemed to slow down inexorably, though Harry would have no recollection of them later. Somehow Petunia and Vernon managed to get Dudley out to the car and Harry got himself into the den. Now he was leaning against the wall, watching Vernon bark instructions over the phone, giving the hospital advance warning. He slammed down the receiver and strode to the door, giving Harry just enough time to wonder vaguely if they expected him go to the hospital, too.
"I guess I'll . . . just . . . stay here."
Vernon had been on the very cusp of leaving as Harry had spoken, but the soft words had an intense effect on the man. He froze and wheeled about slowly, as if just remembering Harry's presence. "YOU!" His mouth screwed up into a snarl under the bristling mustache and he crossed the room in increasingly swift strides. Feeling weak and very young again, Harry backed away along the wall until he met the recliner and stumbled.
"YOU DID THIS TO DUDLEY!" Vernon raised his fist high.
"I—I didn't! I swear!" Harry crouched and raised his own arms in defense.
"LIAR!" He ducked the first swing.
"FREAK!" Barely blocked the backhand.
"UNNATURAL!" The right hook laid into him like a sledgehammer.
Harry crashed sideways over the sharp-edged end table, taking a lamp and several pictures over with him. He landed in a series of scrapes and lesser impacts, aware of pain in many places at once and of Vernon standing over him, yelling something Harry couldn't understand. There was lots of spit raining down on him. As the feet finally walked away, he rolled over, groaning.
The door slammed shut and Harry Potter was left—injured, poisoned, alone.
And then—not for the first time—he thought that he really, really hated summer.
Two thoughts floated to the surface of his clouded mind: Hedwig, Dumbledore.
"HEDWIG!" Harry yelled toward the stairs, trying to pull himself to his feet despite the searing pain in his abdomen, the gash in his back, and the loud ringing in his head. He couldn't get up. "Hedwig!" He said a little more faintly.
From somewhere up there, he thought he heard a faint hooting. He started to yell again, then remembered the window would be shut. Bugger! On his hands and knees now, he crawled forward until a blazing cramp laid him down low to the floor. He grimaced silently, trying not to think about the long, long, loooong crawl ahead up the stairs. He madly wished that his room was still the cupboard, only a few feet away.
He had to make it up those stairs somehow. If he stopped now, he might die before the Dursleys told anyone about him being here and in trouble. Actually, he realized with a start, they probably wouldn't tell anyone anyway. Petunia wouldn't think of it and Vernon would not tell out of spite.
So, Harry crawled painfully for the stairs. Nausea reared its ugly head again, but it was nothing compared to the pain. The pain was swallowing his senses whole and he knew it was only going to get worse from here. Harry steeled himself, screwing up his face. In a trice, he was on his feet, grabbing the banister and forcing his stumbling feet upward, doing his best to ignore the agony—in—every—single—movement.
A hollow yell was wrested from him the moment he hit the landing—literally—on his side. For a moment, he couldn't move. The poison was eating away at his stomach; he could feel it; the pain was excruciating. Dudley was going to die from this, was probably already DOA. And Harry would die, too—alone—in pain. Death by chocolate. Oh, how Tom would be gloating—
Harry rolled in agony. This was what Tom had felt so triumphant about—the cake mix. Tom had sent the poison to kill him; he knew Harry would die. And the prophecy would be fulfilled.
". . . for neither can live while the other survives . . ."
"No!" Harry felt new determination inflame him, pushing him past the pain. He crawled and fell; then he scraped by on the carpet on his elbows, into the room where Hedwig was flapping and hooting cacophonously, her amber eyes—no, wait. It wasn't Hedwig. The world tilted under him. He'd sent Hedwig off and left the window open for her return. His thoughts were scattered. Then whose owl—?
Harry focused his eyes on the little owl frantically hooting, bouncing up off the windowsill with each sound. It was Pig, Ron's owl, and he seemed to be expecting some sort of response. "I'm fine," Harry gasped from where he lay, "just . . . tell them—hang on—"
As he shuddered with pain, a quiet noise from below arrested his attention. Someone was knocking on the front door softly. Then there was a click as the door opened. Vernon hadn't locked it. Harry moaned and heard a soft voice at the same time. In a flash, Harry understood. They were coming for him now—the Death Eaters. He wouldn't die alone—no, of course not. They would take him when he was sick and unable to defend himself, take him to Tom where he would be killed much, much less mercifully. It was all clear.
The pain in his gut was like hot knives impaling him over and over again. Nausea rolled in waves. He could barely think; he couldn't fight. They had planned this well. But he reached up one hand and punched out words through gritted teeth. "Accio wand!" It flew into his grip. Harry grasped it tightly and used his other hand to pull himself up on the desk. He leaned heavily on it, slowly righting himself. The pain wouldn't allow him to stand up straight, and he was seconds from retching, but somehow, he'd gotten to his feet.
The owl was flying now, chattering a befuddling cloud of noise around Harry.
"Go to Ron, Pig," he whispered. Pig buzzed even closer and then zipped out the window. Harry wondered oddly what the owl's letter had said, and then turned his face back toward the bedroom door. Footsteps were ascending the stairs.
Harry stretched out his wand hand and used the desk for leverage with the other. Calm settled over him. He would go down fighting. He would meet his end as bravely as Sirius had, if not with as much gaiety. Raising his wand to eye level, masking the pain, he fixed a spell in his mind and let it play on his lips along with a small smile. The waiting was over. His doom was here.
Then—with a light tread—Remus Lupin appeared at the door.