The luminous hands of the bedside clock pointed to, "Go back to bed, Hugo," but Albus ignored it as he stood at the window of Hugo's bedroom gasping in pain. He wanted to cry, he hurt so badly, but he refused to let the tears fall. "Real men don't cry," he reminded himself through clenched teeth.
The door burst open behind him and his Uncle Ron rushed in. "Albus, what's going on? I heard glass breaking."
Albus turned towards his uncle, cradling his bleeding hand close to his body. "I punched the window," he said dully.
Uncle Ron's eyes widened as he took in the shattered window, the glass littering the floor and Albus' bloody hand. "Oh, Albus," he sighed. "Why?" He moved forward toward the boy and pulled out his wand, turning on the lights as he closed the distance between them.
"I… I… I couldn't make it stop!" Albus burst out. "It hurts so much!"
Uncle Ron gently took Albus' injured hand in his own and began cleaning the wounds made by the glass. The boy flinched every time a jagged shard slid free and his hand bled anew. "I know it hurts," agreed Uncle Ron, seemingly missing Albus' meaning entirely. His tone was gentle and patient as he added, "What wouldn't stop?"
"The pain in my head. I couldn't stop thinking," Albus explained as a fresh wave of sadness and guilt washed over him. "I tried listing potions ingredients, counting sheep, naming all of Jupiter's moons, but everything reminded me of my dad!" He paused, feeling faint. "When nothing else worked, I punched the window." He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, the room spun dangerously. Uncle Ron caught him and gently pushed him onto the bed.
"I'll heal this and then we can talk," Uncle Ron said as he raised his wand towards the door. "Accio Dit—"
"NO! No Dittany!" Albus cried desperately, stopping him. "Just—just heal it. I want the scars!"
Uncle Ron turned back to the bed and sat down. "These lacerations are really deep, Albus. I'm worried they won't heal right. Are you sure you don't want Aunt Hermione to bring the Dittany?" he asked. When Albus nodded, he muttered a healing spell and Albus watched as his skin closed, leaving four jagged pink scars on the back of his hand.
For a moment Albus was silent. When the shards of glass had entered his skin, the physical pain had momentarily blocked the pain in his heart. Now it was back, worse than ever, because he'd let his uncle see him. Uncle Ron would think he was weak and a nancy boy now. He was startled when his uncle put a hand on his back and began rubbing in small circles. After a moment, Albus leaned over and rested his head on his uncle's shoulder. The rubbing stopped and became a one-armed hug. Albus could feel his resolve begin to crumble.
"Why do you want the scars?" Uncle Ron's voice rumbled in his ear.
"IwanttobelikeDad," Albus mumbled in a rush. When Uncle Ron didn't respond he slowed down. "Dad has scars on his hand. I want to be like him. Mum told me once that Dad was very brave when he had to carve those words into his hand."
"Yes, he was," Uncle Ron agreed. "But did your mother also tell you that your father was a stubborn git who wouldn't turn the sadistic teacher in to the headmaster?"
Albus shook his head. "No, she didn't."
"Did she tell you that year was very hard on your father, that he had to deal with all sorts of pain?" pressed Uncle Ron.
"She might have."
"And did she tell you that without the support of our family and his friends your dad probably wouldn't have survived until the end of the year?"
"Maybe," Albus answered. He raised his head. "Why are you asking me all of this?"
Uncle Ron flicked his wand at the window and they watched it repair itself. "I'm telling you because you need to know," he said as he dimmed the lights. "Your dad never allowed himself to cry, never allowed himself to release all the pent-up feelings that banged about in his head, because he'd been taught at the Dursleys that crying brought more pain. Then, when those emotions did slip out, he yelled and screamed and said things he later should have apologized for, but mostly never did. He was a right git most of our fifth year.
"Albus, what I'm trying to tell you is that you don't have to be like your dad was back then, that you don't have to keep it all in or break something to make the pain go away. You have a family full of adults you can talk to any time you want; your dad didn't. That's what made it tough for him."
"I know I do, Uncle Ron," Albus interrupted, sniffing. "And I know I should have talked to you instead of punching the window, but I wasn't thinking. What about Lily? Is she still crying like she did off and on yesterday?"
"Your sister is in bed with your aunt," Uncle Ron replied matter-of-factly. "She came in about an hour ago, crying and needing to talk. She'd just calmed down enough to relax when you broke the window." He sighed and hugged Albus again. "You know something? I'm feeling really bad about your dad," Uncle Ron continued and Albus heard the sorrow in his voice. "He's my best mate and to see him hurting like he is just makes me want to scream. If I could fix him I would, but I can't and that's what bugs me. If it were possible to take his place or even just take on some of your dad's pain, I would."
Something warm and wet landed on Albus' head and he realized his uncle was crying and not bothering to hide his emotions. It amazed him that his uncle wanted to take his dad's place or shoulder some of his pain, just like Albus did. He sniffed and said, "I do, too."
"I know you do, Al."
The two were silent for a several minutes as Albus studied his new scars and fought to keep the promise he'd made to himself to stay strong. However, with each passing minute the urge to break down grew stronger as his eyes began to sting.
Finally, he asked, "Why Dad?"
Uncle Ron cleared his throat. "I don't know, Al, I just don't know."
He sounded so helpless, so out of ideas, but now that Albus was voicing the questions he'd been asking himself all night, he couldn't stop. A single tear escaped from Albus' left eye and rolled down his cheek unheeded.
"When will I stop hurting so much?"
"I wish I knew that answer, too, but I don't. All I know is that you'll grieve for what's been lost and then one day you'll realize that it's all right to be a happy person again," Uncle Ron said.
"Was it… was it like that when Uncle Fred died?"
"Yeah, it was," Uncle Ron choked out. "The Burrow felt so empty without Fred. Everybody, all your aunts and uncles, your grandparents, even your dad and mum walked about for days clutching handkerchiefs and nobody knew when they would stop crying. But eventually they did and laughter slowly returned to the house."
Another tear escaped, this time from Albus' right eye. "I can't see that happening at our house any time soon," he sniffed hopelessly. The thought was so depressing that he suddenly turned his face into his uncle's shoulder and began to sob. It was as if a dam had broken and all his fears, anger and sorrow were pouring out of him in one enormous torrent. For a long time he couldn't stop and then, when he did, all he could do was cling to his uncle. When he finally looked up, Uncle Ron's face was streaked with tear tracks and his eyes were red and puffy.
"Feel better?" Uncle Ron asked quietly.
"Yeah, I do," Albus sniffled. A few more tears leaked out of his eyes and he swiped at them with his hand. He felt his uncle doing the same.
"There's one thing going for your family that didn't happen with mine," Uncle Ron said once Albus had blown his nose on a conjured handkerchief.
"You're dad's eventually going to come home. Fred didn't."
"Yeah, Dad'll come home someday, but Mum's making so many changes to our house it's not going to be the same," Albus protested, pulling away from his uncle to lay back against his pillows.
"Albus, it isn't a building that makes a family, it's the people living in the building that make a family," Uncle Ron countered as he stood to pull the covers over Albus.
He felt rather embarrassed as he said, "Oh. I guess I'm worrying about something pretty silly, then."
Uncle Ron shook his head and knelt next to the bed. "It's not silly at all. You're worried that the house you've always lived in is going to be so different you won't recognize it, right?" Albus nodded. "Your mum wouldn't do that to you, not in a million years. Do you know what she's had to change?"
Albus shook his head.
"Well, it's mostly charming the doorways to widen by themselves, building a couple of ramps into the house and adding grab bars in the loos, things that will help make your dad's life a little easier. She's also turned the old dumbwaiter into a lift so your dad can access any floor of the house on his own, including the cellar and the attic. That's all," Uncle Ron answered.
Albus considered this. It didn't sound like the changes were very drastic, and that the house would actually look like the one he'd grown up in. He decided he could live with that.
"That's good," he said as a huge yawn escaped him.
Uncle Ron yawned, too. "You feeling better now?"
"I am," Albus said, feeling a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry I broke Hugo's window."
Uncle Ron chuckled. "Apology accepted. How about the next time you're feeling horrible, you come talk to me or another adult instead of breaking something?"
"I promise. Good night, Uncle Ron," Albus said.
"Good night, Albus. See you in the morning." Uncle Ron stood up and left the room as Albus curled onto his side, his healed hand cradled next to his body. He was still sad, but the sadness wasn't quite so overwhelming now. He closed his eyes and was soon asleep.
Lily sat on Rose's bed, paging through an old copy of Witch Weekly she'd found on the bedside table. She was already packed to go back to Hogwarts and she knew Albus was, too; they had been since last night. All that remained to take place was breakfast with Uncle Ron, Aunt Hermione and her brother and then she and Albus would Floo to The Three Broomsticks with Uncle Ron in time for the Gryffindor/Slytherin match. The trouble was… it was half-six in the morning—Aunt Hermione's alarm had accidentally gone off at six—and they weren't leaving until half-nine.
It had been a long, troublesome night, filled with nightmares and tears. Lily wished she could have had more sleep, but under the circumstances, it just hadn't been possible. Thoughts of her father had been bouncing about in her head so much she couldn't have fallen asleep if she tried, so she had gone to her aunt and uncle's room. There she had confided in Aunt Hermione how scared she was because her dad was hurt. She was scared, too, because Albus was so stoic—Aunt Hermione's word—but when they'd heard something break, Lily had known Albus had finally expressed his worries and had let herself go to sleep in her aunt's embrace while waiting for Uncle Ron to come back to bed.
Even now, nearly fifteen hours after they'd left the hospital, Lily wanted to cry every time she thought about what had happened yesterday.
After the trauma of witnessing the truth of their dad's paralysis, Lily and Albus had gratefully joined Aunt Hermione in the corridor outside the ward. Lily had been crying softly, but Albus had walked solemnly ahead of the two witches, eventually defending them against the sea of reporters in the main lobby of the hospital. When they tumbled out of Aunt Hermione's fireplace, Albus had immediately gone up to Hugo's room to change his robes and then borrowed a broom and gone out for a fly round the Quidditch pitch. Lily had known he'd wanted to be alone and had told her aunt to leave him be because it wasn't easy to talk to people when they were flying at break-neck speed.
Albus had returned to the house only after Uncle Ron had gone out to the pitch to call him in for dinner. They'd eaten quickly and spent the evening playing an educational game that Aunt Hermione said Rose and Hugo liked. Lily had welcomed the distraction solely because it forced her to think of something other than Daddy and how sad and lost he looked when they'd left him. She hoped he looked better the next time she saw him.
It's not here! Healer Stilwell fumed as he threw Harry Potter's chart on his desk in frustration. What could be taking the Records Department so long to locate the original Admittance Form?
He went to the fireplace that dominated one wall of the office and threw a pinch of Floo Powder into the flames, calling out his destination as he did. A moment later, he came face to face with a different witch than the one he'd talked with yesterday. He calmly stated his request and then asked, "Why hasn't the original been found yet?"
"I don't know," the witch said. "If you requested it yesterday afternoon, it should have been in the folder by midnight."
"It's long past midnight now, and I cannot sign off on the charts tomorrow to release my patient if I have not reviewed the entire chart, which includes the original Admittance Form," Healer Stilwell explained somewhat irritably.
"I understand completely," the witch said as she left his line of sight. She came back a bit later with a piece of parchment in her hand. "I have your request right here. It was at the bottom of the stack of request forms. I don't understand why, since it's marked 'URGENT' in three places." The witch scanned the requisition form, her brow furrowed. "Hmmm. It seems the search for Mr Potter's form wasn't carried out yesterday as requested."
Healer Stilwell just barely managed to keep his composure. "Why wasn't it carried out?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"I don't know, sir, but I'll be happy to conduct the search myself," the witch told him. "I'll have it for you by five o'clock at the earliest, tomorrow morning at half five at the latest. Shall I Banish it directly to Mr Potter's chart as soon as I find it?"
"Yes, please," Healer Stilwell sighed. "I will look for it later today, then."
The witch nodded and he withdrew his head from the fireplace.
Someone must be tampering with the chart, he decided. Where else does the folder go when it's not in my possession?
He groaned audibly when he realized that patients' charts were left at the patients' bedsides during the day and were only returned to the Healer-in-Charge's inbox at the end of the working day, at approximately seven o'clock in the evening. In that amount of unsupervised time, anything could have happened to the original!
A team of Healers descended on Harry's room early on Saturday morning. They wanted to talk to him about the modifications Ginny was making to their house, his mental state, some of the physical difficulties he was experiencing now that he wasn't taking potions for everything under the sun, and the schedule for his return to home and work. At the moment, Harry couldn't have been bothered; he didn't want to learn to live like a paraplegic, he wanted to get up and walk out of St Mungo's just like he had on so many other occasions.
The whole situation made him incredibly angry. First and foremost, he was angry at the suspects who had lured him into that basement, angry at them for wanting to intentionally injure or kill someone just because they could. He was angry, too, at the Aurors in the house with him for letting him take the "point" position when they'd all descended the stairway. He was the lead Auror, the decision-maker, the one the rest of the team looked to for guidance. Yet, he was still angry at Terry, Susan, Chambers and Carmichael for listening to his orders and not insisting that one of them walk down the stairs first. He knew this last thought was completely irrational, but the anger still was there. Finally, he was angry at himself for all of the above reasons, as well as the fact that he distinctly remembered promising Ginny six months ago that he would coordinate such missions, stake-outs, and raids from a safe vantage point. He'd broken his promise to her and was now deeply regretting the foolish decisions he'd made that night.
"Mr Potter, have you heard what I've just said?" asked a very noisome voice on Harry's left side. He turned his head towards their source, which came from an equally ugly witch in green Healer's robes.
"Some of it," he admitted half-heartedly. "I'm getting tired. I want to sleep," he added somewhat belligerently.
"Mr Potter, you aren't allowed to sleep until this meeting is done," the witch pressed on. "We have some very important concepts to cover still."
Harry glared at the woman. "Well, take them up with my wife. I could care less what you want me to do. I need to rest." He turned his head towards Ginny, effectively shutting the witch out of his mind.
If he thought Ginny would be pleased with his conduct, judging by the look on her face, she was anything but. "Harry James Potter," she scolded, "you have no right—"
Healer Stilwell put a hand on her arm, stopping her tirade before it started. In a calming tone he said, "Mrs Potter, Ginny, I think Harry's had enough for one day. Could you come to my office for a few minutes for the rest of this meeting, please?" When Ginny nodded, he looked over at Harry.
"Harry, there is only one more thing you need to know right now. Will you listen to me?" he asked.
Frustrated at the delay in his nap, Harry swallowed and nodded, unable to speak.
Healer Stilwell smiled encouragingly at him. "All my tests tell me you are well enough to leave St Mungo's, but not fit enough to go home completely. You have many things to learn before you can go home, and I have arranged for you to learn them at a very special facility."
Harry's interest was piqued… well enough to leave St Mungo's, but not well enough to be home… hmmm. "Where are you sending me, sir?" he asked as his anger at the witch subsided into curiosity.
"You're going to a Muggle rehabilitation facility in Devon called The Groves," Healer Stilwell explained. "It is a place where both magical and Muggle patients with spinal cord injuries are treated, since the life skills taught there apply to everyone. The doctors, nurses and therapists will work with you until you are able to care for yourself with a minimum of help from your family.
"You'll see me nearly every day, because I'm on staff there and I'll be monitoring your progress. The faster you learn to cope with your injury, the faster you can go home… I know you want to be home now, but that's just not possible. Will you accept this move as a positive change?"
Harry had closed his eyes, although he had remained alertly listening to Healer Stilwell. He now opened them and replied hesitantly, "I–I can accept the move… I think."
Healer Stilwell reached out and patted Harry's leg, saddening Harry when he couldn't feel the contact. "That's all I can ask, Harry. You can have the rest you've requested."
"Thank you, sir," Harry said, trying to muster up the effort to smile back and failing dismally.
Ginny caught his eye and he was startled to see how displeased she was with him. Clearly, she had expected him to participate in the entire meeting. Did she not understand how taxing it was to think about things other than his loss of mobility and his visual problems, even if they were important? Or did she think he was acting childishly?
Sighing heavily, Harry lost his battle with his heavy eyelids as Ginny picked up her purse and followed the Healer team out the hole in the curtains.
"Healer Stilwell," Ginny said as she walked beside Harry's Healer, "I apologize for Harry's behaviour just now. I can't believe he was so incredibly rude to you. He's always been stubborn, but not this belligerent. I don't know what's come over him."
The group stopped in front of Healer Stilwell's door and he paused to unlock it. When they were all seated, he said, "Ginny, your husband is grieving right now. He's so focused on himself and his injury and what it has done to his life that there's no room for the person he used to be. Right now, Harry needs love and he needs patience. If I can be frank with you, I'd be very concerned if he were blithely accepting everything we told him. The fact that he nearly threw us out of his ward is encouraging to me."
Ginny sighed, still feeling horribly frustrated. "I'm glad you see it that way, sir, because I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around all of this myself. I can't imagine what Harry's feeling."
One of the other Healers spoke up. "Mrs Potter, The Groves has counsellors for family members to speak with if there is something you don't understand or are having trouble accepting or just need to unload. Please feel free to take advantage of that service because, in the long run, it will help your family adjust to the changes it is going through. Your children are always welcome to talk with the counsellors as well."
Ginny breathed in deeply. This news was calming to her. She was completely overwhelmed with the sheer volume of paperwork, pamphlets she needed to read each day, and the changes to their main residence she needed to oversee, as well as trying to maintain a cheerful countenance whenever she was with Harry. Hermione and Ron were more than willing to let her ramble on each night, even scream and shout behind silenced doors if she needed to, but they had little real advice or help to give her other than a shoulder to cry on. She hoped fervently that the staff at The Groves would be able to help her. A moment later, she looked up at the Healer and said, "Thank you. I can use all the help I can get right now."
The witch Harry had been angry at smiled at her. "We're all here to support you and Mr Potter through this troublesome time. I'm sorry I was short with him earlier. I can see now that as overwhelmed as he is, he will take learning of the coming changes and expectations much better from you than from the rest of us. I apologize for adding to your burden, but I think you talking with your husband will help him accept the changes to come. Can we continue with the last three items on today's agenda?"
Ginny smiled. "Yes, I'll try to be a little more pleasant and attentive than Harry was."
This comment brought chuckles from the other members of the group and the ensuing discussion took less than twenty minutes' time. At the end, Ginny shook hands with everyone.
"Thank you for arranging this course of treatment for Harry," she said as she gathered her handbag and the stack of papers she had been given. "I know he wants to walk out of here like he always has and it's frustrating to him that that's not possible this time.
"What time should we expect the Ministry car?" she asked.
"The driver will be round to pick you up at noon, Mrs Potter," someone answered. "We'll have your husband prepped and ready to go well in advance so you two can avoid the gaggle of reporters still camping out in the main waiting area."
Again, Ginny heaved a thankful sigh. "I appreciate that, sir," she said.
The Three Broomsticks was crowded with patrons sporting Gryffindor and Slytherin house colours when Albus stumbled out of the fireplace and onto the hearth. He waited impatiently as first Lily and then Uncle Ron followed him into the pub.
"Come on," he urged them. "I promised James I'd meet him in the changing rooms before the match."
"Calm down, Albus. We have plenty of time to find seats. You can go to the changing rooms after you know where we're sitting," Uncle Ron told him.
Albus knew he was right, but because it was up to him to cast the activation spell for his prank with James, he was feeling rather nervous. He tried to calm himself as requested by stopping to greet several of his former housemates who had come back for the match.
They finally left the village, taking the road to the school at a brisk walk. Albus could hear the crowd noise from the stadium already, and the urge to run ahead was strong. However, he stayed back with his uncle and Lily and eventually the three of them entered the school gates. A few minutes later they were climbing the steps to the Gryffindor section of the stadium and Albus knew he'd been foolish to be so anxious about how much time was left before the match. As soon as they'd found seats, he left to go talk to James.
James paced anxiously inside the Gryffindor changing room. Nothing his teammates had said or done had any effect on how he was feeling because he wasn't nervous about the match. Instead, he was impatiently waiting for news of his father from Albus. The two had exchanged owls the night before and all Al would say was that he needed to tell James in person. That could only mean one thing; something besides all those broken bones and a bump on the head was seriously wrong and meant his life was about to change as Mum had hinted before he'd come back to school.
"Hey, Potter!" called one of his teammates. "Albus is outside looking for you."
"Thanks," James replied and swiftly left the room.
"Hey, James." Albus was leaning against the changing room wall. As he pushed himself upright, James caught sight of his right hand and stared in amazement.
"What'd you do?" he demanded, grabbing his brother's hand and inspecting it carefully. The scars looked fresh and he wondered why Al hadn't wanted them healed completely.
"I punched out the window in Hugo's room last night," Al replied, sounding sheepish.
Suddenly, James felt scared. The only reason his mild-mannered brother would act out like that was something serious. Fear ate at his gut as he asked, "Dad's not good, is he?"
Albus shook his head. "No, he isn't," he said, sounding scared and sad. "James, half of Dad's vision is gone because of that bump on the back of his head. The Healers explained that his eyes are fine, but his brain took a beating when he hit his head on the rocks."
James swallowed the lump in his throat. "There's more, isn't there?"
"Yeah," Albus sighed, looking scared. "Dad's what the Healers call a paraplegic. He has no feeling below his waist and can't move his legs."
All the blood seemed to drain from James' head at this news and he groped for something to lean against. What he found was his brother's arms around him, holding on in a tight hug. "Oh, Merlin!" he gasped.
The brothers held onto each other for a long time until one of the Gryffindor players, James' girlfriend and fellow Chaser, Kendra, poked her head out the door to tell them it was time to line up.
As they broke apart, Albus asked, "Will you be able to play?"
Squaring his shoulders, James replied, "Yeah, I will. I have to be. I have a match to play."
"Then play it for Dad," Albus ordered as James grabbed his broom from its place next to the door and turned to follow his team.
James nodded and jogged up the ramp that led to the pitch.
Albus waited until he was sure James was out of sight and the player introductions had begun before he entered the Gryffindor changing rooms. He had two motives for being down here, and the first was complete. His second was about to go into motion. Carefully, he fished a bag filled with clear, gel-like balls from his pocket. He went into the girls' changing room first and began sticking them to the ceilings and floors of each cubicle with a charm. He did the same to the boys' cubicles. When he was done, he left the room and took a few minutes to do the same with the lockers in the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw changing rooms as well. The capsules he put in those lockers were somewhat different and had a different triggering spell than the ones he used for the Gryffindors because there were no clothes in those lockers at the moment. The first time he went to practice next week, he'd trigger the capsules to burst after the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs hung up their uniforms.
His task complete, Albus stood outside the block of changing rooms and muttered a spell. His part of the prank complete, he went to watch the match with Lily and Uncle Ron.
The match had been a very long and gruelling one—four hours of hard flying, to be exact—but in the end Gryffindor had prevailed and won by thirty points. Now, exhausted, angry at his dad's fate, and ready for a shower and then dinner before the victory party, James led his teammates down the ramp and into the changing rooms. He changed back into his regular clothes quickly and left the room to find his brother and sister.
He found them in the Entrance Hall saying good-bye to Uncle Ron.
"Great match, James," Uncle Ron complimented him. "You're taking after your mum quite nicely. She'll be pleased when I tell her you made so many goals."
James studied the flagstones under his feet. "Thanks," he mumbled. "Will you tell Dad for me, too?"
His uncle put his arm around James' shoulders. "I will when your aunt and I go to see him in the rehab centre after your mum gets him settled in. I think he'll be pleased, James."
"Thanks. Tell him… tell him every goal I threw was for him," James choked.
"I will," his uncle replied. "Hey, if you need someone to talk to, I'm just a fire call away… even if it's oh-dark-thirty. Madam Pomfrey won't be too happy with you if you wake her up because you broke your hand punching a wall or something."
James nodded, already distracted by his growling stomach. "I'll keep that in mind," he mumbled.
Uncle Ron left and James followed Albus and Lily into the Great Hall for dinner. He was pleased when his housemates cheered him as he sat down and pulled his plate closer to the edge of the table in anticipation of the meal.
Half-way through dinner, a commotion started at the Slytherin table, making James look up from his bowl of Shepherd's Pie. He winked at Albus as first the Slytherin Quidditch team and then many of their housemates began scratching and squirming. The prank had worked! The Remote Controlled Itching Capsules were a success and unless he, Louis or Albus let something slip, no one would know who played the prank. James, happy for the first time since Albus had brought him the news of his dad's paralysis, let himself smile for the first time all day.
He wasn't smiling the next morning, though, when his own skin began to itch uncontrollably at breakfast. He looked up and down the Gryffindor table and noticed that his teammates and many of their friends were scratching and squirming just as badly as he was. Somehow, he knew that his brother was responsible for this and he watched him closely as he finished his breakfast.
Albus left the table first and headed for the door, absently scratching his left shoulder. James followed and cornered him in the Entrance Hall. Angrily, he grabbed Albus by the arm and hauled him into the first empty classroom he could find.
"What's going on, Albus?" James demanded once the door had closed.
Albus grinned at him. "Let's just say that for the next week not only Slytherin, but Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw will all be afflicted with cases of Remote Control Itching, courtesy of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," he explained.
"Why?" James asked. "If everyone itches, it defeats the purpose of the prank, doesn't it?"
Albus shook his head. "Not at all, big brother. If everyone itches, it'll be harder to find out who set the prank in the first place," he explained in that calm, irritating tone he occasionally took.
James considered this and felt his anger melt at the brilliance of Al's logic. "You got me there, Albus. How can I be mad at you now?"
"You can't," was his brother's cheeky reply. "Now let's go see who in Gryffindor hugged whom."
Grinning, James agreed, "Yes, let's. This should be fun to watch."
Harry Potter's chart appeared in his inbox exactly at seven o'clock as it always did. Healer Stilwell grabbed it and immediately began reviewing the day's entries. Satisfied with what he read, he initialled the bottom of the page and then shuffled through the rest of the parchments to the very bottom. He growled in frustration when he saw that the Admittance Form was still the copy he'd discovered yesterday. What is keeping the Records Department from finding the original? He went to his fireplace, called the Records Department and demanded that the form be found immediately.
1 November 2020
The ward Matron came to prep him for transfer to the rehab centre while Ginny was downstairs signing his discharge parchments on Sunday morning. With her were two blue-robed attendants who pushed a floating gurney ahead of them. On top of the gurney was a long, black, zippered bag. Harry paled. He was intimately familiar with such bags… He shuddered. They were going to take him out of St Mungo's in a body bag!
"Good mornin', Mr Potter," the Matron greeted him, "I hear your son's Quidditch team won the match at Hogwarts yesterday. That's good news, I'm tellin' you." She bustled about the space moving chairs and straightening things in general. Harry watched her silently: even the news that Gryffindor had won the match couldn't break his black mood.
When she seemed satisfied, she said to Harry, "I'm not about to let you out of this hospital without a proper bath. I know we've been usin' cleansin' charms since you arrived, but it's now time for some old-fashioned soap and water. Mark and Tim are here to assist me with the task. This won't take but a few minutes."
"Do I get a choice?" Harry grumbled.
The Matron scowled and put her hands on her hips, looking a whole lot like his mother-in-law used to when she'd scolded Fred and George for something. "No."
Harry suddenly found his blankets very interesting.
"Good. I'm glad you agree with me," the Matron said. "We shall commence the cleansin', then." With that, she pointed her wand at the bed and the blankets disappeared, leaving Harry covered only by his sheet. She then directed her wand at his mid-section and a moment later, he felt some rather interesting sensations in his abdomen. He flinched in surprise.
The Matron looked surprised. "You felt that, Mr Potter?" she asked.
Harry could feel his face heat up. "Erm, yes. What did you do?"
"We don't use bedpans in his hospital, Mr Potter," she answered distractedly. "Are you absolutely certain you felt the spell?"
She smiled as she pocketed her wand. "I'll tell Healer Stilwell you've made the first progress of your recovery."
Progress? Recovery? Harry wasn't sure how he felt about those words as the Matron stepped away from his bed.
Harry watched uneasily as the attendant named Mark approached him and unfastened the neck of Harry's hospital gown, gently working the garment off his body and leaving the sheet thankfully covering Harry's lower half. The Matron then lowered the head of Harry's bed and he watched as Tim stepped forward with a large basin of soapy water. The Matron commenced her washing.
Surprisingly, the rough cloth felt good on Harry's skin and he began to relax as the Matron washed his arms, shoulders and neck. He squirmed a bit when she washed his armpits, but grew very quiet as she washed his torso and the cloth moved nearer and nearer to the sheet.
However, before he knew what was happening, the Matron had stepped back and was levitating him in much the same manner as Healer Stilwell had done on Friday; the sheet stayed about his waist as she settled him on his stomach and began washing his back. Harry relaxed again.
His eyes flew open when he felt the sheet moving up his body to cover his arms and shoulders.
"Don't be alarmed, Mr Potter. I'm arrangin' the sheet so I can have access to your legs. I'll let you know when I'm ready to turn you over again."
But Harry couldn't relax again. He heard the sounds of the cloth in the water and felt the bed move as the Matron manipulated his legs. He couldn't feel a thing except for a mysterious tingling in the toes of his left foot and he felt incredibly sad because of this.
Bloody hell, I want to feel that rag, Harry thought desperately. I want to feel the roughness of it, the amount of pressure that's being applied. But I can't. I'm helpless… so helpless I can't even wash myself!
"All done!" announced the Matron cheerfully. "One more rotation comin' up. On three, two, one…"
A moment later, Harry found himself staring at the ceiling again and the head of his bed being raised so he could sit up. "Are you done?" he asked.
"Not quite," the Matron answered. "Your hair is next."
Harry couldn't ever remember anyone washing his hair before. The experience felt interesting and Harry wondered if Ginny would be doing this for him at the new facility. He hoped she would because it felt really good.
"You have one more unwashed area and a choice to make," announced the Matron as she dried his hair with a spell. "Do you want to do the honours or shall I?"
Harry reached for the cloth and the Matron handed it to him. "We'll be outside," she said as she ushered Mark and Tim out of Harry's area. "Call me when you're ready to dress. Mind the basin now…" Harry made quick work of the task and then lay back on his pillows, eyeing the gurney and the black body bag.
Getting dressed in clean pyjamas turned out to be quite a production and the reason three people were needed for the task. Harry was glad he was allowed to put on and fasten the shirt himself, but became horribly embarrassed when it took both attendants and the Matron with her wand to dress him in the trousers. They made quick work of it, but Harry's face felt molten by the time they were finished.
The Matron shooed her attendants away and they left after saying good-bye to Harry.
"I'm sorry, for embarrassin' you, Mr Potter," the Matron apologized. "Unfortunately, until you learn to do this yourself, levitation is the only answer. Hopefully, you'll soon be strong enough to dress yourself without someone helping you."
"I hope so, too," Harry mumbled. Then, he asked, "What's with the body bag?"
The Matron smiled conspiratorially. "Your way to anonymously escape the horde of reporters downstairs. No one ever camps out at the door to the morgue, so the Ministry car will be waitin' there to take you to your rehab centre. Mrs Potter will be here in a few minutes to help me get you settled."
Harry felt his mood lighten and smiled. "I like that idea," he said as Ginny walked through the hole in the curtains. Harry noticed that she had piled her hair on top of her head and sighed inwardly: he was disappointed that he couldn't run his fingers through it. He wished he had the time and the privacy to ask her some rather intimate questions that had been bothering him for the last few hours, but this was neither the time nor the place to do so. Maybe, once he was settled in the new facility, they could talk.
"What do you like?" she asked as she came to stand at the right side of his bed.
"Escaping the likes of Rita Skeeter through the morgue in a body bag," Harry told her, grinning. And how beautiful you look this morning, he added silently to himself.
"Ah, so you like Kingsley's idea, do you?" Ginny asked. She sniffed the air close to Harry's head. "Mmmm, I love the smell of a clean man," she commented, giving him a quick kiss on the forehead.
Harry turned his head and shook his head at the Matron. "They kept me clean," he protested.
"Aye, we did a good job of it, too," she agreed.
"But you still smelled like hospital," Ginny said stubbornly. "No spell can completely get rid of it. Eeww!"
No one said anything for a moment and Harry knew Ginny was reliving some of her memories of his previous hospital stays. Finally, he asked, "How much longer until I become a corpse?"
Both his wife and the Matron looked at their watches. "About thirty seconds," answered Ginny. She pulled out her wand and looked expectantly at the Matron. "I'm ready. Will you talk me through this?"
The Matron explained what she wanted and the two set to work. Actually, it was Ginny who did all the work; the Matron just guided her through the task of bringing the floating gurney close to the bed and then transferring Harry without dropping him. When he was finally settled on top of the open body bag, Ginny conjured a sheet and tucked it in around Harry. Then she stepped back.
She looked at him with concern written all over her face. "I don't have to zip it all the way," she said, sounding anxious.
Harry closed his eyes. He hated tiny enclosed spaces, had since he was a small boy, but he decided he hated nosy reporters and their poisonous Quick-Quotes Quills more. "Zip it up," he said before he changed his mind. "I'm a big boy."
Ginny caressed his face before she zipped up the bag. "I'll open the zip once we're out of London," she told him.
"Thanks," he said gratefully.
She kissed his cheek and then pulled the zip closed. Harry closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Ginny didn't know what to think as the zip closed over Harry's head. It scared her that she couldn't see his face, even though she knew he was alive in there, and she almost unzipped the bag.
"You'd best be going, Mrs Potter," the Matron said. "Gives me the collywobbles knowing a living wizard is in that thing."
Ginny could only agree. "Let's go," she said as she pulled the deep hood of her cape over her head. It completely covered her and left a small opening so she could see where she was walking.
"You should leave first, Mrs Potter. I think that would be best. I'll bring the cadaver along in a moment," the Matron told her, sounding playfully conspiratorial.
With a nod, Ginny walked through the curtains and out of the ward. It took her only a few minutes, using back stairways and corridors, to reach the morgue; she had encountered no one who seemed interested in where a hooded figure was going because her cape was dark green, not black.
She knocked on one of the double doors and was immediately admitted. The door closed behind her and she was instantly glad for her cape: the air in the room was as frigid as the winter air outside.
"Welcome, Mrs Potter," a green-robed wizard greeted her. "Your husband will be along momentarily?"
"Yes, he will, sir," Ginny said through clenched teeth that were trying not to chatter. "Thank you for helping us avoid the insanity upstairs."
"Glad to be of service."
The wizard seemed to sense her discomfort and invited her into his office where it was indeed warmer. Ginny sat in the proffered seat while the technician went back to work. She kept an eye glued to the main door until someone knocked and pushed a gurney into the morgue. Ginny recognized the Matron and immediately went to join her and Harry. She unzipped the top of the body bag just enough to insert her wand tip and cast her strongest warming charm inside. She heard Harry sigh in relief.
The door opened again, this time admitting Kingsley Shacklebolt who immediately walked over to her and engulfed her in a big hug.
"Car's outside," he reported. "If you want a quick exit, now's the time. The reporters saw the car pull into the alley and it's only a matter of moments before they put the clues together. Let's hurry."
He led Ginny and the Matron to another set of double doors that opened onto a long, sloping ramp. At the top stood an official-looking vehicle, attended by a wizard wearing a chauffeur's uniform in mixed shades of orange.
Ginny climbed into the back seat of the car and was surprised when there was only enough room for her on the passenger's side because of a hole created in the seat back by a fold-down cushion. She was even more surprised when the head of the body bag came sliding through the hole. The boot lid and her door closed automatically as the driver took his seat. He gunned the motor once and started for the street without letting Ginny say good-bye to Kingsley and the Matron. As the car turned out of the alley, the back seat windows turned dark grey and a glass partition rose from the floor of the car in front of Ginny, effectively separating her and Harry from the driver. They now had complete privacy.
Ginny now turned her attention to her husband, unzipping the bag to uncover Harry's face. She didn't like what she saw: his skin was pale and his face was bathed in sweat.
"Harry, dear, are you sick?" she asked anxiously as she gently wiped his forehead with her handkerchief.
"No, Ginny, not yet. It's good to see daylight," Harry muttered.
"Do you want me to remove the warming charm?" she asked.
Harry shook his head. "Leave it in place. I'm still shivering."
"All right, but I'm transfiguring that hideous body bag into something more comfortable," she said and she slipped her wand out of her pocket. A moment later, Harry lay in a squashy crimson and gold sleeping bag. He flashed that quirky half smile at her that always made her insides melt. "I'm glad you like it. Now try to get some sleep. It's going to be a long ride. I'll wake you when we get there."
Harry closed his eyes again and Ginny settled in for the journey.
A/N: Thanks to several of my friends who helped me with the urgent question of what to call a "dead body" in British police parlance. The overwhelming answer was "dead body", so I knew I could safely use words like "carcass", "corpse" and "cadaver" in the chapter without much trouble. I appreciate your help more than you know.
As always, my thanks goes to my pre-beta team and my beta for all the comments, questions, suggestions, Brit-picking, and "comma policing" you've done to make this chapter the best it can be. Special thanks goes to Jedi34 who assured me that the scene between Albus and Ron was true to the typical actions and feelings of a fourteen-year-old boy.