As Harry Potter became aware of his surroundings, the first sensation he felt was someone's hand lightly tapping his face. A second later, however, Harry's mind was consumed by the burning pain raging in his head and on his back, chest, and arms.
He must have unconsciously made a noise, because he heard two sighs of relief and gradually snatches of a conversation.
"Thank God he's all right; I was so scared that –"
"Yeah, I don't know who would've wrung my neck first, Mum or Ginny," someone shakily laughed.
"Ron, we need to clean him up and try to heal him –"
"You go get the bandages and potions, and I'll try to clean him up –"
After a few moments of weightlessness, Harry noticed he was on a soft surface, much better than the cold, hard surface he had been on previously.
"Sod it, there's so much blood – damn, I forgot to put a towel down...."
Suddenly panic hit Harry like a freight train. Where was he? What was going on? "Rhn."
"Harry! Mate, can't tell you how glad I am to hear your voice. Just stay calm, Hermione's bringing you a pain potion. I'm going to clean you up, all right?"
Apparently Ron wasn't waiting for Harry's nod to go ahead, because he immediately felt the cool, gentle rush of water flowing onto his body, contrasting sharply with the fiery pain underneath his skin.
"Bloody hell, Harry," Ron murmured, "all this for one bloody Horcrux? What's going to happen to you when V – You-Know-Who...."
Disoriented by the pain and scared of the unspoken thoughts Ron didn't voice, Harry fell back into the bleak darkness crowding the edges of his mind.
"Harry? I need you to drink this." He felt the brim of a cup pressed to his lips. Irrationally, his mind recalled the memory of himself force-feeding Professor Dumbledore the green potion that fateful night they had found the fake locket, and he could not dissociate the past from the present. He heard screaming, and the pain intensified as he kicked, flung his arms out, did anything he could not to drink the potion that would surely make him die as Dumbledore had.
"Harry, you're safe! This isn't a nightmare; you aren't in the cave!"
"Harry! Oh, fine then... Petrificus Totalus!"
Frozen, bound, and blinded by pain, Harry's panic only intensified. He could feel hot tears rolling down his face, the salt burning in his wounds.
There was silence. Then a trembling voice – a girl's voice – spoke.
"Okay, Harry, I swear this is a healing potion; it's not going to harm you. I'm going to relax your face, and I need you to drink this."
Harry didn't, couldn't believe her. Deep down, he knew that it was Hermione Granger, one of his best friends and the smartest witch to ever walk this green earth, who would never hurt him. But what if she was wrong? You didn't know whether something was good or bad until it was too late. He had to convince her. So the moment he felt the spell lift, he began to scream. He had to let her know.
"No! Noooo... nonononononononono don't make me H'mione stop please no...."
"I'm sorry, Harry." Hermione's voice was laced with tears. "Ron. Help me."
Harry felt strong fingers pry his clenched jaw open, the cup pressed to his lips, and the cool potion enter his mouth. He tried not to swallow, but he was too weak; he couldn't breathe.
After he swallowed it, there was no immediate effect. It became hard to breathe, the anxiety and fear at the forefront of his mind, pressing against the unceasing pain. He couldn't draw breath; his lungs wouldn't let him anymore.
"Harry, breathe! Breathe deep, come on, I'm not going to lose you to a panic attack after all of this!"
Suddenly, Harry felt his newly-freed body grasped from behind and pulled into a semi-sitting position, leaning on someone.
"Okay, Harry, breathe with me."
Harry could feel the person behind him breathing deeply, taking exaggerated breaths. "Come on – in, out. In, out," the boy – no, wait, that was a man'svoice – intoned.
Grasping the bedclothes underneath him tightly, Harry tried to regulate his breathing, until finally, blessedly, the pain diminished to a dull ache spread throughout his entire body. He sagged in relief, and Ron got up, gently laying him back down.
"That's it, Harry. Can you open your eyes?" Someone, presumably Hermione, was stroking his brow with a damp cloth.
Blearily, Harry opened his eyes and licked his parched lips. They tasted of blood.
He was on his camp bed, the lantern on his makeshift bedside table the only light illuminating the old, abandoned barn. Hermione and Ron were on either side of him, both blood-spattered, the expressions on their faces that of mixed worry and relief at the same time. As he squinted, Harry noticed something gold, sparkling on the floor. His mind racing, he suddenly remembered everything. He had found the Horcrux, Hufflepuff's cup... and then they had tried to destroy it. Or rather, he had tried to. He had refused to do anything until Ron and Hermione were at a safe distance.
"Okay, Harry," Hermione said briskly, pushing his glasses into his hand. "That potion won't last very long; the only other one we have right now is also for deep sleep, and I wanted to save it until after we found out what was wrong with you. You just relax, and Ron and I will finish cleaning you off and healing all of these cuts."
Cuts, indeed. Harry's bare chest and arms were covered in deep cuts of differing lengths, oozing a mixture of blood and a strange, disgusting greenish pus. From the way his back, face, and legs hurt, Harry figured that the cuts covered the large majority of his body.
Harry lay there on the cot and closed his eyes, trying to relax as Ron and Hermione gently cleaned his wounded body, the water running off onto the transfigured plastic sheets covering his mattress and the floor around his bed. He didn't pay much attention to their murmurs until he heard "... I can't get the cuts to heal."
"Er, what?" Ron asked worriedly.
"That's what that green pus must be then, poison that won't let you heal," Hermione said, her head bent, examining Harry's right arm thoughtfully, apparently murmuring more to herself than anyone else. She sat up. "Until morning we'll just bandage you up, Harry. At dawn I'll Apparate to the village apothecary, and try to find an antidote. Don't worry, you aren't bleeding that much, and I've read that poisons that are meant to stop a wound from healing are never fatal unless left for a long time. You should be fine." Hermione tried to smile reassuringly, but her face was drawn and worried.
"I'll go get the other potion," Ron said, rising slowly from his chair, his face pale.
"Okay," Hermione replied, conjuring a long piece of cloth and a roll of bandages, as Ron came back, setting a vial of pale blue potion on the rickety bedside table. He helped Harry sit up, and Hermione carefully wrapped the cloth around Harry's torso tightly. Along with Ron, she continued to wrap Harry's cuts in bandages, sealing them magically so that they would stay.
"Engorgio," Hermione articulated with a swish of her wand. The spell caused the tiny bed to expand until it was large enough to fit three fully grown people. With another flick, the bed was befitted with sheets identical to the ones in Gryffindor Tower.
"What the –"
"Don't argue, Harry," Hermione snapped. She suddenly looked fierce. "You're ill, and you need to stay warm. A Heating Charm won't last all night. I won't have you die after –" She broke off, her mouth twitching as though she wanted to cry. "Go ahead and take that potion. Ron, what are you waiting for?"
Ron had been standing off to the side, silently watching Harry and Hermione. He looked startled for a moment, and then sighed. "All right then, but just as long as both of you know I'm not some kind of poof or anything. Joking! I'm joking!" he added weakly as Hermione glared at him and opened her mouth.
Switching from irritated to clearly amused in an instant, Hermione grinned. "Don't worry, Ron; you squashed any rumors last term when you and Lavender flailed around Gryffindor Tower –"
"– Like a couple of eels," Harry finished with a small smile as he uncorked the blue potion. He swallowed it quickly, immediately relaxing as he felt every ache and pain disappear. He soon found himself suddenly sleepy, as well.
"Goodnight, Harry." Hermione leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. She removed his glasses and slipped under the covers next to him. With a flick of her wand, the lantern's fading light went out, leaving them in pitch-black darkness.
As Harry felt the potion pulling him into slumber, he felt the bed sink on his other side as Ron climbed in, mumbling under his breath. And even though he was still concerned about the Horcrux – had he truly destroyed it? – and the poison coursing through his veins, not to mention the remaining Horcruxes and subsequent battle with Voldemort, he couldn't help but feel safe and content in between his two best friends. With them, he would never be alone.
A/N: The scene where Ron helps Harry breathe is shamelessly borrowed from the movie 'Signs' by M. Night Shyamalan. Please review!