Harry was frozen, agony searing the inside of his body. If he so much as moved a muscle, he would collapse. He couldn't utter a syllable. He just stared with agonized features at his friend and professor.
"My lord, Harry, what happened?" Remus stepped closer, but stopped at a choking noise from Harry, who managed to force out some words at last.
"Marauder's . . . Map. Password . . . ."
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," Remus rushed out the words.
Harry nodded once, started to lower his wand arm, and collapsed. Somehow Remus was under him before his head hit the floor. "Harry—what?"
"Poison . . . cake. Hospital."
Remus stared for a long moment with wide eyes, probably wondering at Harry's inability to speak coherently, then stood abruptly, dumping Harry's head on the floor. Harry curled up around his stomach, trying to fight the convulsions taking him. He lost the fight, retched miserably and gave up most of his dinner. There was far too much blood mixed in it, not that he truly cared at the moment.
"Scourgify!" Remus was back by his side, cleaning it away and picking Harry's rigid body up under the legs and back with a grunt. He turned sideways to exit the door, and they were heading toward the stairs before Harry realized Remus had on the Invisibility Cloak. "Obscurnamenta!" The cloak swirled outward, sealing at the top above Remus's head, cascading around them both. The world disappeared for Harry, who felt as if he were spinning madly in a hellish, muffled blankness. Remus held him firmly to his chest, painfully so, as he walked, breathing hard, muttering under his breath. Eventually Harry caught his words.
"…made large enough. Just sit tight and—Wait . . ." Remus had frozen. Harry looked up to see him staring dead ahead. "Hush. Death Eaters." Harry screwed his eyes up tight and concentrated on quieting his ragged breathing. His body had him convinced; he was dying; the only thing he could do was keep silent so that Remus didn't get killed as well.
"Upstairs, to the right," a voice barked out below them, making Harry jump. The sudden movement squeezed his stomach muscles and sent him into pained oblivion . . . floating in white . . . pure white, while the world jostled somewhere nearby . . . .
Voices shouted words stretched almost out of meaning.
"Luuumossss! Aaaaavadddaaaaaaaaaaa Ke—"
As Harry's hearing returned to normal, the hot, muffled darkness descended again. They were moving. Remus was still carrying him, and they were outside on the grass, cutting across a neighbor's yard. That was good, but unfortunately, Harry's stomach was about to unload itself again. He choked out a warning and Remus bent them both over someone's garden. Harry was coherent enough to realize that the picture from far away must be funny, vomit projecting out of nowhere. But he was too woozy to care, as long as it wasn't Death Eaters watching.
His throat burned; his head pounded; the cramping seemed somehow—impossibly—more painful as they lurched forward. They were inside Mrs. Figg's house, barging in without knocking, heading straight for the Floo. Mrs. Figg was there, talking frantically to the invisible them.
"Oh, Remus, is Harry alright? What was wrong with Dud—"
"No—poisoned. Please excuse us." Remus dropped the cloak and grabbed some floo powder. "Hogwarts Infirmary!" Remus yelled the last part loud enough to send Harry's consciousness reeling. The blackness spun around him until it finally enveloped him.
Harry's eyes shot open to a world shaking with pain. Someone was in his face. His eyes were drawn past, to the bustle of activity beyond, lots of people gasping and halting, staring at him . . . .
"Potter, drink this immediately."
Harry pulled his eyes back to the someone, willing his eyes to work correctly, sure this was a nightmare. It had to be—
"Perhaps I should rephrase my statement, if your brain is that addled. Drink the potion or I will be forced to dock Gryffindor one-hundred and fifty points for your arrogant stubbornness!" Harry's eyes widened as Professor Severus Snape's face came into focus. Harry opened his mouth to speak, but only a pained gasp came out. "Drink, foolish boy!" A vial was put up to his lips and a smooth liquid slid inside his mouth and tickled the top of his throat, where it choked him in new agony. He jerked his hands to grasp at his throat only to find them bound at his sides. He struggled violently until Snape pulled the vial away.
"Don't waste it!" he snapped. "This is the only thing that will stop the poison from eroding out your stomach. But then again, perhaps you would prefer to let die the only hope of the wizarding world because you mistrust me?" Harry felt lost in the condescending black eyes. Why was he restrained if he was safe? He turned his head away and let the darkness spin around him, consumed with pain.
"Mr. Potter," Madame Pomfrey's familiar, crisp voice came from nearby. "The blisters in your throat are making it hurt badly; we understand. But you must drink it if you want to have any vitals left to patch together once the pain is gone!" She put a cool hand on his bruised cheek. "Drink the potion, Harry."
Harry shuddered and opened his mouth a little. The vial tipped and he reluctantly swallowed hot fire. Tears streamed out of his eyes but he didn't make a sound. He was digging his own grave. He was going to die; why couldn't they just leave him alone?
"That's it, Harry, brave boy." Remus' voice sounded strained. Finally the potion was done. The sharpness of the pain in his abdomen lessened; the burning faded. Harry sighed and grimaced anew. The numbness in his stomach threw the pain in his throat into sharper relief.
"Now, if you men will leave me for a moment, I need to examine Mr. Potter's other injuries. Severus, you will have more potion in an hour, I believe?"
"Indeed. If Potter is to survive, we will need to heal and rebuild the lining of his stomach slowly with recurring doses. I will return."
"Thank you, Severus," Madame Pomfrey waved a wand over Harry's wrists to free them. "If it had not been for your stock of potions, I fear we would have been delivering very different news to the world today." Harry sunk farther into the bed. The last thing he wanted was the whole wizarding world worrying about him.
"Harry," Remus stepped up beside the bed with a warm smile that wrinkled the corners of his eyes, bending over just slightly until Harry's eyes focused on him. "Willing to go to any lengths to get out of Occlumency, aren't you? I'm afraid your tactics won't work, though. We'll start up next week if you're up to it. Now, I'm off to tell the Order to cancel the dirge." Lupin looked startled as Harry shook his head as vehemently as possible. "What is it, Harry?" Harry opened his mouth to talk, then grimaced as the pain flared up with the effort. He settled for mouthing the word, no.
"You don't want me to . . . ah. You don't want me to tell anyone about the poisoning. Is that it?" Harry nodded. Lupin regarded him gravely. "Well, that's your prerogative. But I believe Arabella would have contacted the Order as soon as we left, most likely starting at the Weasley household. Now that Fred and George are in the Order, your friends may have found out as a matter of course. Beyond that, I believe we may be able to keep it quiet."
Harry nodded, realizing the uselessness of trying to fight it all. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to spend anymore time trying to protect him, but then how else would he get a chance at Tom? He half-wished the poison had worked. Then, for better or worse, it would all be over. Sorrow came in a deluge as Madame Pomfrey pushed Remus out of the ward.
"Goodbye, Harry! I'll return as soon as I can, and we'll talk about that new coif of yours!" Harry started to smile, but suddenly had to close his eyes as they began to sting uncomfortably. Pomfrey tut-tutted her way back to the bed and stood over him for a moment. Harry knew she was waving her wand, checking him tip to toe.
"Just as I suspected, Mr. Potter. Let's turn you over, now." Harry felt a gentle tug upwards until he was lifted off the bed. His body rotated until he was facing the bed, feeling quite dizzy. He managed to turn his head to avoid smothering as the spell laid him down. Then the fabric of his shirt was cut away and Pomfrey fussed about his wounds. She wanted to know how it happened, but Harry couldn't speak. He shrugged slightly.
"Well, we'll hear about that soon enough." She muttered something about Muggles as she put a very cold, creamy salve on his back that immediately took away the pain of the gash and small scratches. She rubbed a warmer ointment into his muscles, which for some reason made Harry feel flushed all over. Then she came around to the side and placed another bit of ointment on the bruised cheek. The warm tingle on his skin along with its fresh scent soothed him and his eyes closed. He drifted off without another thought.
Waking was not pleasant.
Harry had had vague, disturbing dreams of Severus Snape forcing liquid down his throat and threatening everything from expulsion to the Cruciatus when he refused it. Always, the burning in his throat was made worse when he eventually gave in and sputtered it down, but the agony in his stomach was blessedly relieved.
Upon waking this time, however, his insides burned with the feeling of raw flesh too near a blazing fire. He must have slept, since he had dreamed, but he felt no better for the rest. Quick, decisive footsteps neared and Harry immediately tensed. His own body's reaction told him who it was.
Severus Snape stopped short at the sight of Harry awake. "What a pity. I was so looking forward to forcing this potion down your throat again. Any chance you might still gag and shout interesting accusations anyway, just to be engaging?" Harry worked up enough energy to scowl. He knew without trying that he couldn't speak over the blisters in his throat. "You know," Snape continued, walking over to the bed and taking a vial out of his pocket, "it's unlikely that I'll ever have the chance of speaking to you uninterrupted again, so let me just forge ahead and tell you all the things no one else will ever tell you.
"Just because they've told you that you're the One in the prophecy doesn't mean that you're the only one who is capable of it. That is ludicrous. You are simply too brazen, reckless and idiotic to be the best choice, though there seems to be nothing we can do about it now." Harry made a mental note to tell Snape later that he agreed with him completely.
"Please remember that others around you are risking their lives every day for the Light, even in the midst of darkness. This is the kind of pain they risk every day. Now, open up." Harry found that he couldn't keep his eyes focused on someone that close to him, so he opened his mouth for the angry, dark, blurry blob and waited.
The smooth liquid seared his throat so that he jerked and scratched at the bed sheets. It was an effort to keep his mouth open, to keep his throat swallowing. Tears rolled down his cheeks and only the presence of Snape kept him from crying out. After it was over, he crumpled on his side and let the waves of pain roll over him, even as the calm warmth settled in his stomach. He could taste blood at the back of his throat.
"There. Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Harry buried his face in the mattress and fought to hold back a moan. "Potter, you must keep it all in perspective. If the Dark Lord ever gets hold of you, he will have much worse in store. I assure you." Harry was breaking out in a sweat. His mouth was watering; he felt nauseous. "Potter?" He groaned, rolling over onto his knees to escape the feeling, burying his face into the mattress again when it didn't seem to help. He rocked slightly, consumed with the effort it took to not vomit.
"Pomfrey! Quickly! Bring the Heroditia pack." Snape bent over to whisper harshly in Harry's ear as he rocked. "Don't you jeopardize all my work! If you vomit even once, the muscle contraction will tear the healing tissue apart. It will send acid up your throat and widen those fissures so that no medicine can be introduced where you need it! Do you hear me?" Harry nodded feverishly, no longer caring whether he was working with or against the Potions Professor. He had to keep the medicine down.
A small, rectangular pillow was whisked into place beneath his forehead. As Harry continued to rock in small pulses, the gentle smell of mint mixed with lemon invaded his senses. Something else was there, something soothing that he couldn't identify. It seemed stronger than any fragrance he'd smelled before, yet it was light and airy. Breathing deeply, Harry stilled and rolled to his side. He breathed again deeply and the fragrance continued to infuse his being, calming him. His muscles started to relax.
"Thank all that's good in this world," Pomfrey murmured above him.
"Indeed," came a sharper voice that seemed almost gentle now.
Harry welcomed sleep again, his pain a far-distant sensation.
Again, he had dreams of agony and potions, but the pain seemed more manageable now. Harry slept well in between doses, and woke eventually to find himself alone again. His mind was cottony and vague. He had no idea how long he'd been here. He was dressed in soft navy pajamas that he had no memory of putting on. He hoped no one else had dressed him. Thoughts trickled through his mind uneasily, getting blocked and moved aside so often that he finally gave up. The ceiling was far away, but the stone was interestingly carved, and he found himself picturing various things in its pitted architecture.
"Ah, Harry, you are awake," a warm voice came from beside him. Harry started, turning his head to see Dumbledore. He hadn't heard the headmaster come in. Had he fallen asleep? Harry started to speak, then grimaced at the automatic pain. "No talking yet, I'm afraid," Dumbledore insisted. "Just a nod will have to suffice for now." Harry nodded slightly, though that motion hurt his throat as well. Pain was blooming now, from many different places, though his stomach was still pleasantly numb. "How are you feeling? A bit pained, still?" Harry gave a nod.
"Well, that's to be expected. You've barely escaped a most painful death. Severus has drawn you back from the jaws of death most capably. Oh, yes, don't look so surprised. Though the two of you mix as well as oil and water, he did not hesitate to step in and treat you. For something like this, his forcefulness comes in quite handy. And it seems that he has dealt with poison of this kind before, though I find that it often pays not to ask questions of Severus in this vein. We are just thankful he knew of its effects."
Harry swallowed and felt as if a knife had been scraped down his throat. "Ah, that would be your throat again, I imagine?" Harry gave a slight nod. "Yes, Severus explained that—"
"Now, Headmaster, don't go doing my job for me," came Pomfrey's firm voice from the direction of her office as her footfalls echoed in their direction. She came to stand over Harry, smiling herself into wrinkles. "How is my favorite patient?" Harry tried to smile back, surprised at her epithet. "Well, you are my favorite, you know. You're just too stubborn to let them get you. I'm sure I ought to set aside a private room for you with some of the comforts of home," she said briskly. Harry couldn't protest that the ward was actually a good deal more comfortable than his home. "Now, on to the medicinal side of the matter: your stomach is recovering nicely, Potter. It will be a few days before you can eat normal food again, but I still say that's better than a lifetime of weak gruel." Harry agreed with widened eyes.
"As do I, Madame Pomfrey." Dumbledore looked over at Harry with a twinkle in his eyes. "Imagine a world with no more pumpkin pasties."
"As for your throat, it will be no pumpkin pasties for you until we get those blisters healed up. The poison burned the tissue severely on the way back up, and I'm afraid the potion Professor Snape concocted for your innards did nothing to alleviate the burn. In fact, it aggravated it excessively because we had to give it every hour on the hour. But now that your stomach is settled a bit, we'll cut back the doses and let it heal. I believe Severus is off mixing that special potion right now. Once the blisters crust over, then we'll be able to heal them as well."
Harry nodded slightly and let his head fall to the side. He felt nauseous after all the talk of burns and blisters and innards.
"You must be exhausted, Harry," Dumbledore spoke up quietly. "Just relax. You are safe here, actually a bit safer here than you were at home. Before you go back to Privet Drive, we will be setting up additional food wards, this time covering any food that comes into the home, even a mix whose ingredients have not been activated. That was an oversight on my part that almost . . . cost us everything."
There were tears in the blue eyes as he bent over and touched Harry's cheek gently. "And that bruise . . . ." Harry watched as the twinkle left the Headmaster's eyes. "We shall certainly have to do something about that, now, won't we?" Harry opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped himself. Instead, he mouthed the words, The Dursleys?
"Oh, forgive me, my boy. I had forgotten that you would care about their well-being. Dudley would have almost certainly died had not Aurors stopped the Dursleys short of the hospital and taken them some place else to be treated by a measure of the same potion Severus gave you. Dudley has had a miserable time of it, being a bit worse off than you were. His throat has swollen shut once or twice and breathing was a bit of a problem. But I think he's settled down now."
Dumbledore sighed. "Petunia and Vernon seem determined to blame you for this, though it's not your fault at all, of course. They are rather angry. I'm afraid it will be necessary to deprive them of this memory before we return them to Privet Drive. And Vernon's work . . . well, we will have to Obliviate a few memories there as well since he has missed a few days' work.
"And, of course, you are probably wondering why I didn't send word by Hedwig that Professor Lupin was safe before all of this happened?" Harry nodded. "It's a simple reason, really, though I am sorry for the worry it must have caused you. Your message via Hedwig did not reach Hogwarts safely. Hedwig arrived in a quite a state, mauled by some unknown assailant. As a result we kept her here for care and Fawkes was sent to the Order to let them know of the breech in safety.
"Now, do not fear for Hedwig. She has recovered almost completely. But if the purpose of your enemies was to isolate you in a time of distress, I fear they were successful. With the skies being patrolled, I was afraid to send any other owls. Had Fawkes not been terribly busy, I would have sent him, but with the additional knowledge that Lupin was to appear safely at your home Friday night, the risk seemed unnecessary. I had hoped you would remember my earlier warnings about the visions, and you did, dear boy. Well done." Harry could not manage a smile. Dumbledore patted his arm sadly.
"A hornet's nest has been stirred up, and we are striving hourly to keep as many people from getting stung as we can." He raised his eyebrows. "I've never seen the Order quite this motivated before. You are loved, my boy. So sit tight and get well. We'll put things to right."
Harry nodded once and then watched Dumbledore move away with mixed feelings—guilt prevailing. Hedwig had been attacked; Dudley poisoned; the Order stirred. All of this was happening because of him, just like Sirius' death. If there was anything he could do to prevent another person from getting hurt because of him, he'd do it in a heart beat.
And yeah, maybe he should worry what the cost might be, but right now, he honestly didn't care.