Just like in Muggle hospitals, St. Mungo's smelled like antiseptic and illness.
They Apparated in the hallway of the fourth floor, beneath a large sign that read: "Fourth floor: Spell damage." McGonagall released Ron and Hermione's hands and straightened her hat; it had become lopsided during their journey. Snape arrived beside them, and by the foul look on his face, he hadn't enjoyed the trip.
They spotted Dumbledore as he was stepping from Harry's room, closing the door quietly behind him. Hermione thought she saw him scowl at the closed door, before he spotted them and carefully changed his expression to something more neutral.
He nodded to them. "I told the Healer you would be visiting soon," he told them. "She will only allow a short visit. You may go in together if you are ready."
"I'm not ready," Ron whispered, but if Hermione heard him, she didn't respond. She charged forward toward Harry's room, and Ron had no choice but to follow her, despite the uneasiness in his gut.
The hospital room was dimly lit, and in the middle of the small room, their dearest friend lay in a hospital bed. The dark circles beneath Harry's eyes stood out against the stark whiteness of his bloodless face.
To Ron, Harry looked more dead than asleep.
The Healer, dressed in lime-green robes with hair of the same colour, hovered in the corner of the room, gazing at them sharply as they stepped inside.
"I said he was too ill to have visitors," she said. "But the headmaster insisted."
"We're his friends," Hermione said.
"His best friends," Ron added.
The Healer was unimpressed. "You have five minutes."
They approached the bed quietly, cautiously. Just as they were close enough to reach out and touch Harry, Ron hesitated. Hermione turned to question him, but Ron made a strange sound in his throat before he broke away and hurried from the room.
She grimaced and turned to Harry. "He's fine," she told him. "He's probably given himself an upset stomach. You saw how much he ate at breakfast this morning."
If he had been awake, Harry would have agreed. But now he remained perfectly still.
Breakfast seemed so very far away from the present moment.
Suddenly needing to touch him, to reassure herself that he was not dead, Hermione took Harry's hand and felt the icy cold of his skin.
The temperature outside during the Quidditch match had hovered around the freezing point, and Harry's skin seemed to still retain the chill.
"He's cold. He needs another blanket," she said, her voice breaking. The Healer studiously ignored her.
"Fine," Hermione muttered. She picked up Harry's right hand, pressing it between hers, trying to bring warmth into his fingers. After a moment, she gently lay his hand down, tucking it beneath the blanket, then picked up the left and repeated the warming motion. She was relieved when his skin responded, warming to her touch.
"Two minutes," said the Healer.
Ignoring her, Hermione squeezed Harry's fingers one last time, then tucked his left hand under the blanket. She leaned close to whisper in his ear. "Harry. Harry, can you hear me?"
"He can't," said the Healer.
"You don't know that!" Hermione shouted.
The Healer stared her down. Then, her thin lips parting in a wicked little smile, she said, "Time...is...up."
Blinking hard against the tears, Hermione leaned over once again and whispered, "Harry...we're here. We won't leave you. I promise."
Harry remained motionless, as still as death. Unable to tear her eyes from him, Hermione backed out of the room.
In the hallway, a crowd had assembled. Hagrid had brought Fred, George and Ginny from Hogwarts and they stood in a semi-circle with their professors. Ron, looking sheepish and still slightly green, had joined them. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had just arrived, and Mrs. Weasley- with her eyes bright with tears and her voice wavering- was angrily demanding answers about who had hurt the boy who was nearly a son.
"This is where they keep the patients with spell damage," she cried. "Who would put a spell on Harry?"
"Lots of people," George muttered, thinking of the slew of anti-Potter buttons he'd seen on the school grounds.
"The fourth floor isn't just for spell damage," Dumbledore said quietly. "It's for illnesses that are unliftable.
"Harry cannot be awakened."
"I don't understand..." Mrs. Weasley whispered.
"It appears the event was accidental," Dumbledore said. "He was struck with a Bludger. It was moving so quickly that no one saw it...not even Harry.
"We did not know what had happened until the Healers discovered the bruise on the back of Harry's head," Dumbledore explained. "The skull fracture has already been healed, but we are concerned that Harry is not showing any signs of awakening."
For a moment, Mrs. Weasley looked as if she would break down completely. Then, summoning her motherly courage, she straightened her spine and announced, "I want to see him."
"Bad idea, Mum," Ron said. "That witch in there barely let us in to see him."
"He needs his rest, Molly..." Dumbledore began, but his words fell silent as she turned on him, rage in her eyes. "No one," she hissed, "is going to tell me I cannot see that boy."
She stomped into Harry's room, leaving several spectators with their mouths agape. The Weasley children, however, didn't seem slightly surprised. Nor did Mr. Weasley, who draped his arm around his only daughter and squeezed her tightly against him. Ginny, who had not uttered a word- not a single word- since the accident, turned into her father's embrace and choked.
A moment later, the Healer scurried out of the room, looking over her shoulder as if she feared the devil himself was on her heels.
"That's my Mum," Ron said proudly. "Everyone's afraid of her."
After his encounter with the biting dark that enshrouded Hogwarts, Harry had retreated to the familiar comfort of the Gryffindor common room. Tucked into an overstuffed armchair, he healed his injured arm and attempted to make sense of the madness he found himself in.
What kind of magic could steal away hundreds of people in what appeared to be a split second, and leave a solitary boy behind, a boy who was seemingly marked for strangeness?
His mind gave him the answer; Voldemort. The only other Wizard with the power to do something like this was Dumbledore, and the idea of him trapping Harry in the only place that had ever felt like home was ridiculous. No, it made more sense for it to be Voldemort. It was his style Ð he liked to divide and conquer. He was quite happy to have a crowd of Death Eaters jeering him on, but he preferred his enemies to be alone.
Harry retreated further into the embrace of the chair, feeling small and insignificant, clinging to his wand for comfort. He was barely fifteen years old, and carried the weight - or at least the fate - of a world on his shoulders; that burden was already beginning to crush him. How much more could a teenaged boy be expected to take and not break?
He took off his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, hard enough to see stars. He sat like that for several long moments, knowing that if he moved, if he opened his eyes, he'd fall apart.
'Pull yourself together, Harry', he admonished himself, out loud. That was enough for him to square his shoulders, lift his head, only for him to startle at the sight of Ron and Hermione standing before him, watching silently.
He jumped to his feet, overwhelmed with relief, reaching for his friends. They took a step back, moving away from his hands. 'Ron? Hermione?' He was quicker this time, Quidditch training coming to the fore, but his grab for Hermione's arm ended up with his hand going right through her.
Ron's eyes grew wide, and he began to fade away, shaking his head, the colour leaching out of him until he dissolved into a pearlescent mist, which in turn evaporated.
Hermione was a study in barely controlled anger, her mouth set in a grim line, her eyes tight, dark, glinting. She began to talk, her mouth moving, but no voice issuing from between her lips. Once upon a time, Harry would have laughed at the idea of a mute Hermione Granger, but now it scared him.
Then her expression morphed to one of extreme sadness, and she, too, began to dissipate; only then did her voice reach Harry's ears, a soft susurrus, fading in and out like its owner. 'Harry...leave you...'
She was gone, leaving behind a whisper of smoke.
Harry struggled to understand what he had just seen. Ron, scared, fearful -- of him? -- and Hermione, so angry, angrier than he'd ever seen her, both of them as insubstantial as...
His chest hurt as the realization hit home. He didn't want to believe -- couldn't believe -- that his two best friends were dead, but they were so pale, so intangible...
Lost in thought, Harry shouted in surprise as Mrs. Weasley appeared right in front of him. He'd thought that Hermione was angry Ð that was nothing compared to the look on Mrs. Weasley's face. Like her son before her, she was bleeding colour with every second that she stood before him. Shaking her finger, eyes narrowed, her mute mouth was all but spitting out words, and Harry didn't need to hear them to know that they were not complimentary.
He shrunk back into the chair, trying to get away from the sheer force of the woman, watching as she disintegrated into white wisps of nothing. Once again, Harry could hear her voice just as she vanished. 'Not good enough...just let me at that boy...how DARE you...my child...lying there...
The last word echoed in Harry's head. Now he cried, now he gave into the tears that had threatened ever since he discovered that he couldn't leave the castle. Maybe they were all dead, maybe--maybe he hadn't fought hard enough, had lost to Voldemort, killed by the curse that had failed to do the job 14 years ago...and this was his reward, a Hell of his own making, doomed to be haunted by the people he'd failed, let die...
He dragged his sleeve across his face, smearing snot and tears. The wool made his nose itch, and he reached into his satchel, searching for a tissue.
His hand brushed against a piece of parchment, and he snatched it out of the bag. The Marauders Map! He'd forgotten completely about it. Just holding it bought him some comfort Ð this was a little piece of his father, of Sirius and Lupin.
Tapping his wand against the stained paper, he hoarsely murmured 'I solemnly swear that I am up to no good', his throat sore from crying, and watched as the map of Hogwarts blossomed on the page, like ink spreading on blotting paper, the magic unaffected by the tears that had fallen upon the parchment.
There were just two dots on the map, both solitary, both still, at opposite ends of the castle. Harry James Potter, in Gryffindor Common Room; and, in Slytherin Common Room...