DISCLAIMER: We're borrowing them. We'll put them back on the shelf when we're done.
Their hero had fallen out of the sky.
If there had been someone attacking Harry Potter during that cloudy, foggy afternoon, none of the Quidditch spectators saw it. One moment, the Seeker was bearing down on the golden orb fluttering toward the heavens, and the next he was falling. Falling so fast that no one had even had time to utter a single word of protection or reach for a single wand.
From the stands, Hermione had watched helplessly as Harry had plummeted, then slammed into the ground, his head bouncing once, twice against the grass before he had lay perfectly still, his broom still under his twisted body.
Later, she would remember screaming his name.
Hagrid had reached Harry first, and before Dumbledore or Snape or anyone else could even set foot on the field, Hagrid had swept the young man into his arms and was running, top speed, toward the castle.
The students had rushed the field as if to follow, but the professors formed a barrier, their arms spread, holding them back. In the same moments, Professor McGonagall had grabbed both Hermione and Ron by the forearms, muttering "Come with me."
They thought perhaps she would take them to the hospital wing to be with Harry. He'd probably broken an arm again. Maybe a concussion this time. The scene was familiar to them: waiting in the hospital wing at Harry's bedside, waiting for Harry to be patched up.
They were surprised, then, when Professor McGonagall took them to her office, a dusty affair with bookshelves that traveled from floor to the high ceiling.
"No doubt they've Apparated him to St. Mungo's," she said firmly. "We'll wait here for news." She tilted her chin toward the armchairs that faced the blazing fire in her fireplace. "Sit down, children. I'll make tea."
She puttered around the cramped quarters, making tea without using magic, keeping her hands busy. Hermione noticed that their teacher's hand tremored as she reached for the teakettle.
The realization struck Hermione suddenly:
Harry is dead.
Ron glanced at Hermione and was grateful she was already seated, as her face was horribly white pinched and she looked as if she was going to faint.
"Hey." He grabbed her shoulder, shook it slightly when she did not respond. "He'll be all right."
Hermione shook her head, clasping her hands tightly in her lap. "Did you see him, Ron?" she whispered. "When he struck the ground? It was as if... his life was knocked out of him."
He had seen Harry hit the ground, had noticed how incredibly and suddenly still he'd become. But Ron refused to believe Harry had suffered any injury more serious than a few broken bones, and intended to tell Hermione this as he reached to take her hand.
She gazed at where their hands touched and began to cry quietly, her head bowed and her hair shielding her pale face.
Ron felt the first twinges of blood-chilling fear, the denial that had protected him melting into the realization that Harry might not open his eyes and ask what had happened.
The knock at the door startled them all, but Professor McGonagall recovered quickly and opened the door to allow Professor Snape's entrance.
"Alive," Snape said quietly by way of greeting. "His injuries are grave. He seems to be asleep...permanently."
A choking sound escaped Hermione. Professor McGonagall's hand fluttered to her heart. "Dear boy," she whispered.
"What does that mean?" Ron asked, his voice quivering for the first time. "Asleep permanently?"
Snape ignored him. "If you wish to visit Mr. Potter, now would be the appropriate time."
Harry woke with a start, a sibilant echo still ringing in his ears. He sat up and fumbled forhis glasses, his hand shaking. The world came into focus, and he peered into the inky shadows in an effort to find the source of the hiss.
He was in the hospital wing, in the bed he'd come to think of as his, the one right next to Madam Pomfrey's desk. The room was devoid of all light but that of the sickle moon, though the eerie blue glow it produced was enough for him to see that he had the wing to himself.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Harry reached for his wand, a feeling of unease creeping over him. Something wasn't right. He had a sense of trepidation growing in him, a nervous roiling of his stomach.
"Hello?" he called out, as he stood. He wobbled a little, suddenly dizzy, and took a few deep, even breaths until he stopped feeling like a Weeble. "Madam Pomfrey? Anyone?"
His calls went unanswered, so he pulled on the dressing gown that had been draped over the foot of his bed, lit his wand with a muttered 'Lumos', and walked unsteadily out of the hospital wing.
The corridors of Hogwarts were as dark and deserted as the room he had just left. Four and a bit years of study in a school packed with hundreds of children had left him accustomed to a steady hum of background noise Ð laughing and screeching and crying, singing and chanting and shouting. Hogwarts' hallowed halls were always joyously riotous; never graveyard quiet. The grey stone walls were meant to contain and protect the energetic students; the castle was ill-suited to this odd stillness. Harry was acutely aware of the rasp of his breathing, the sound of his heart beat thudding in his ears, the soft pad of his slippered feet. Every sound he made seemed magnified tenfold, and he was jumpy.
He instinctively sought out the Gryffindor common room, his safe haven, and he was startled to find the entrance already open. The portrait of the Fat Lady was static, its rotund, usually chatty occupant frozen and mute, just strokes of paint on a canvas. A quick look at the other portraits told him that the Fat Lady wasn't the only one to be struck inanimate. Every painting was just that Ð a painting, unmoving and silent.
He stepped through the hole into the common room, not surprised to find it empty. Half eaten chocolate frogs and pumpkin pasties gave testament to a midnight feast; a book was draped over an arm chair, and there was a partially constructed exploding snap card castle on the floor. All normal, except for the absence of the children responsible for the clutter.
Stepping around the abandoned mess, Harry made his way upstairs to his dormitory, wand illuminating his path. Even Ron's Chudley Cannons poster was inactive, the usual mad swirl of orange robes stilled. He changed into jeans and one of Mrs Weasly's Christmas jumpers, and immediately felt a little better Ð there was something about wandering around Hogwarts dressed in his pyjamas that made him feel vulnerable.
Rummaging through his trunk, he found his Invisibility Cloak, the Marauders map, and the Sneakascope, and shoved them into his satchel. He had no idea what was going on, but he wanted to be prepared, and those three items had helped him time and time again.
Slinging the bag over his shoulder, Harry ran to the main stair chamber. The dozens of flights of stairs, usually in constant motion, were as still as regular Muggle staircases, and the absence of the grind of shifting stone was peculiar. He made his way down to the main entrance of the castle, and tugged on one of the massive doors, using all his weight to pull the oak slab toward him.
The open door revealed a massive black expanse, smooth and featureless as marble. It reflected no light; in fact, it seemed to absorb it, the spark of light at the tip of Harry's wand guttering like a candle caught in a draft.
Harry stretched out a hand and tentatively touched the blackness. It was icy cold, and the greasy surface yielded slightly to his touch. His mind filled with a soothing buzz of white noise, his anxiety disappearing, and he found himself leaning forward into the dark barrier. With a gasp, he pulled himself back, scared of how comforting he found the feeling of nothingness, and he saw that trails of the oily substance clung to him like melted tar, winding itself around his fingers and creeping up his arm. As it advanced insidiously over his skin, it first burned, and then froze, leaving the flesh completely numb.
Letting out a cry, Harry shook his hand in an effort to rid it of the mess, and then pointed his wand at it, desperately searching for the right spell. Utter panic was beginning to set in, and his revulsion at the sight of the slick mass made it hard to focus. Just as the tar reached his elbow, he shouted 'Evanesco!', and it disappeared, leaving blistered, reddened skin in its wake.
Slamming the door shut, Harry backed away, breathing harshly, wanting to cry but forcing the tears back. He was alone, and he was trapped in a place that had once felt safe, but now seemed to be his prison.