Chapter Thirty-Eight: A Beautiful Goodbye
It was the middle of May before Harry's high at winning the Quidditch final had subsided. There were so many good things that came out of tha match - not only having Dumbledore hand him the Quidditch cup, but the party that went on almost all night in the Great Hall, being able to give Snape a little knowing smile of superiority, the look on Blaise's face everytime he laid eyes on Harry, or the knowledge that at the end of the year, he would be playing against the teachers. Harry was having the time of his life, and nothing could bring him down from how good he felt. Without Quidditch to worry about, he could concentrate more in lessons, and his marks soared. He even started beating Hermione in some subjects. Lupin told Harry that he wasn't wrong in saying that Harry was the most skilled student at Defence Against The Dark Arts he had ever seen. Alrister said similar things, and to Harry's great surprise, one Potions lesson, Snape was heard to remark as he handed back the homework, "Apart from Potter's, I wasn't impressed by a single one of those essays - pathetic. To be redone for Monday".
With everything going on, and his life hitting such a peak, Harry didn't even spare a thought to any of the bad things going on in the wizarding world. Occasionally, when he laid in the common room just falling to sleep, he wondered what Voldemort was up to, and he remember that out there somewhere were Death Eaters, giants, Heliopaths, all sorts of horrible things. But even those lurking thoughts weren't enough to ruin his winning streak.
Gradually, as the days flittered by, May came. Most unusually for that time of year, with the new month came storms. Hermione bored them all silly by explaining they were due to various muggle weather phenomenons going on in another part of the world completely. All it meant to Harry was that the owls carrying food arrived looking slightly ruffled and windswept, and occasionally, the packaging was a little dented. Apart from that, the storms didn't ruin his mood at all.
Until one morning, when he woke up in the common room, to the sound of wind and rain pounding against the windows. The storm outside was raging as usual, with a new level of fierceness today. Blinking, he put on his glasses, and sat up, yawning. Ron grumbled next to him. "H'ry?"
"Come on," said Harry, stretching. "Time to wake up for another day."
"What day is it?" said Ron, sleepily.
"Tuesday," said Harry. "You've got double Magical Creatures this morning..." He yawned again, and looked around for his clothes.
Ron opened one eye, looking out at the raging, roaring storm hammering at the windows. "Not in that, I haven't. No way am I chasing Kibbles round the grounds with a hurricane trying to blow me into the Whomping Willow."
Harry yawned still, as he lurched off towards the bathrooms. The dormitories all had separate bathrooms, but he and Ron used the downstairs, public one, so they didn't wake anybody up. "Should have taken Potions, shouldn't you."
Ron laughed sleepily, running his hands vaguely through his hair and fluffing the edges of his chunky stripe. "I'd rather get blown away by Hurricane Hogwarts."
Harry shut the door of the bathroom, and started to get changed, still half-asleep, wishing he didn't always have to get up quite so early. He had double Potions first thing, followed by History Of Magic, and then double Charms. Snape had been giving dark hints the lesson before about surprise tests, and Harry just knew that the Potions master was going to give them either an essay, or a piece of work graded for their NEWTs.
"Harry!" Ron called from the other room, jolting him out of his thoughts.
"What?" he shouted back, as he did up the buttons of his jeans.
"Our food hasn't arrived," said Ron. Harry opened the bathroom door. Ron was standing by the window, looking around with a frightened expression on his freckled face. "The owls are always here by now."
"You don't think they've been blown off course by the storm, do you?" said Harry, worriedly.
"I think so." Ron bit his lip. "What are we going to eat?"
"Neville?" suggested Harry.
Ron shook his head. "Seriously. I haven't got any supplies. We ate them all yesterday doing that Transfiguration homework. We've got nothing to eat for today." He looked out of the window, and Harry crossed over to gaze out too. It was a bad storm. Every so often, there was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder, lighting up the dark landscape. The rain was pouring down like an angry swarm of bees, and the wind was howling against the castle walls, whistling through the cracks around the window pane. Ron glanced at Harry. "I don't think anybody will have either. No owl could get through that... is Hedwig out?"
Harry shook his head. "No, she's in the owlery with Cupid, I think. What about Pigwidgeon?"
"I sent him to Mum with a letter," said Ron, biting his lip. "D'you reckon he's alright?"
"Yeah, he'll be sheltering somewhere," said Harry. "Don't worry. We do need to find some food though... have you got anything to trade?"
"Well, yeah... but if no other food's got through, nobody will have any food," said Ron. He looked very worried by now, and whether it was about Pig, or food, Harry wasn't sure. "What if the storm doesn't clear? We're going to starve."
Harry shrugged. "It'll die off pretty soon, then the owls will come through. We'll get something to eat by the end of the day."
When the first bell went, lessons started, and Harry made his way with Draco and Hermione towards Potions. The storm was still snarling and raging at the castle walls outside, and it was showing no signs of calling off its attack just yet. The noise of the wind only stopped properly when they stepped into Snape's cold stone dungeon, and the Potions master shut the door. Isabis was sitting delicately on the edge of his desk as usual.
"Silence," he hissed, as a few people dared to mutter in complaint at the instructions on the board, reading, "TEST: Freezing Draft - 45 Minutes". He cast an icy glare around at them all. "Take your infantile minds off the weather. This exam will count towards your final NEWT mark, and if a single person in this room achieves less than 80%, they will suffer my severe displeasure. Are we quite clear?"
Everybody nodded, as they started to unpack their things. Snape continued with a slightly calmer tone.
"You should all know by now how to brew a Freezing Draft," he said. "You all wrote essays on the various ways in which it can go wrong, and so if it does, I expect you to be able to tell me just what you did incorrectly. However, it will not go wrong. Will it, Boot?" he said, lazily, addressing one of the Ravenclaws on the front row. Boot shook his head nervously. "Precisely... get out your ingredients, heat your cauldrons, and - "
There was a soft fluttering noise coming from behind Snape's desk. The owl chute, which connected all the classrooms in the school, clearly had a message coming down it. Snape sighed, striding over to it, just as one of the school owls came gliding out into the room, landing on the edge of Snape's desk. It handed him a letter, and sat patiently nearby, waiting for a reply. Everybody watched as Snape slit the envelope open with the tip of his finger and read it.
"Ah..." he said, silkily. "The Unicorn Horn Sanctuary For Injured Magical Creatures has sent the headmaster a message to say that the following people's owls have been rescued from the storms... Malfoy, Zabini, Boot, Mountford, Webster, Shaw, Carthy... Brown, yours is in quite a state of distress and will need to spend some time at the sanctuary. A number of school owls carrying packages addressed to the following people have also been taken in... Potter and Granger."
Harry rubbed his forehead wearily. If the school owl that always delivered food to him from Mrs Weasley had been taken in, he was going to go hungry. He was so momentarily caught up in this that he didn't realise Snape had begun the test, and he wasted a whole five minutes before Hermione hissed at him to start working.
Harry didn't know why, but by the end of Potions, he was starving hungry. He'd gone days without breakfast before, and it hadn't bothered him, but now that he knew there was no food coming at all, he suddenly felt very hungry. Ron felt the same. He met them in the corridor as they left Potions for first break, grumbling, and pulling straw out of his hair.
"We had Magical Creatures up in the Astronomy Hall with the dragons instead," he explained. "And Sly threw a barrel of hay at me because I touched her stupid baby. And then Sinistra came in with a message to say that my school owl's at the Unicorn Horn Sanctuary!"
"Yeah, Snape got an owl saying the same thing for us," said Harry. "So we've got no food for today."
Ron glowered at a group of second years who went past chattering happily. "Maybe I can give them a detention for looking happy when I'm not."
Hermione frowned disapprovingly. "No, Ron, you can't. Don't even think about it. You're a prefect, not Filch."
"They'd deserve it," said Ron, bitterly. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "I can't believe how hungry I am. It's just my luck that the day after our food supplies run out, the stupid storm injures all the stupid owls."
"It's not the owls' fault," said Hermione.
"It might as well be," Ron snapped.
"Oh, stop fighting," said Harry, frowning, turning to glare at both of them. "Just quit it."
The day did not improve. After first break, Harry had History of Magic, which was as mind-numbingly boring as ever, and then double Charms. Professor Flitwick surprised them all with a miniature test, and Harry was so put off by the constant roar of the storms that his wand slipped at just the wrong moment. Neville was helped to the hospital wing, belching huge green bubbles inbetween whistling the 1812 Overture. Hungry, irritable and tired, Harry slumped back to the common room, wondering how things could get any worse. He picked up his timetable, saw that he had "Remedial Potions" that night, and gave a long, suffering groan. He couldn't be bothered with Snape now. He couldn't be bothered with anything.
"What's up with you?" said Ron, as he started labelling a large picture of a chimaera for Magical Creatures.
"Occlumency," said Harry, simply, glaring into the fireplace. He screwed up his timetable, ramming it back into his bag with an angry sigh of impatience. "I'm so sick of it."
"Have you got it yet?" asked Ron.
Harry nodded vaguely. "Yeah... I don't see the point in carrying it on. I know how to block people from my mind, and I can dip into other people's. Easy."
Ron shrugged, and added another label with a flourish of his quill. "I dunno, mate. Tell Snape you want to give it up."
"Yeah, like he'll just let me walk away," Harry scoffed. He sat back in his armchair, reaching up and scratching at his collar irritably. He wondered for a moment, and then said, huffily, "I've had a really bad day... I just feel tired and bored. Frustrated." He frowned into the fire, though he wasn't even sure what it was about the damp logs that annoyed him so much. "It's really hard to explain... I feel like something weird's happening."
Ron looked up from his drawing. "Seriously?"
"You mean... You-Know-Who?"
"I don't know," said Harry, wearily, rubbing his forehead. "My scar doesn't hurt. And I haven't had any weird visions or feelings." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm just really hungry."
"Yeah, maybe," said Ron. He rolled up his parchment and stuffed it into his bag, checking his watch. "It's nearly time for dinner... Hermione and Malfoy should be done in the library by now."
Harry nodded. He sat up, zipped his bag shut and followed Ron to the portrait hole. "You know what? I'm going to have to eat some of the school food... I'm so hungry I just can't concentrate." His stomach furthered his point by giving a loud, angry growl, making him screw up his face and place a hand over his abdomen. "You see?"
Ron chuckled. "Sounds like you've got Kibbles in there."
They set off down the corridor heading towards the marble staircase, and Harry smiled slightly. "I wonder what dragon tastes like. Maybe we could catch Kibbles, and roast him lightly over a fire for a few minutes with some marinade sauce."
"Oh, don't, you're making my mouth water," said Ron. "And Hagrid would be a bit upset if we barbecued his dragon."
"He'd get over it," said Harry, chortling.
Turning a corner, they strolled down the last corridor, just in time to see Draco and Hermione coming out of the library, both of them carrying a lot of very thick, dusty textbooks. Harry could see that Hermione's bag was straining at the seams from the weight of so many books.
"Hi," she said, smiling, walking towards them. "I'm just going to put these in the common room then I'll be down for dinner. Save me a seat, okay?"
"Okay," said Harry. "Don't be long though, it's starting soon."
She hurried away up the stairs, her bag thumping against her legs as she went. Draco slid away down the dungeon corridor towards the Slytherin common room, emerging a minute or so later. He, Ron and Harry went into the Great Hall.
Dumbledore's guests were still at Hogwarts, clustered around the staff table, laughing and joking and sharing pumpkin juice as normal. Rita Skeeter and Terrance McClavity were not talking with the rest of the people there for once, and to Harry's surprise, he realised they were huddled over what looked like a magazine, deep in conversation. As he passed, he glanced over McClavity's shoulder, and saw that it was the second issue of The Truth. The page was open on "COMMUNICATING WITH MUGGLES - How To Sort Important Information From Rubbish". McClavity was shaking his head, clearly wanting the article out of the magazine. Rita was nodding fervently.
"It's going to draw in more readers," she said to him, raising one heavily pencilled eyebrow. "All the muggle-supporting wizards have abandoned the Prophet. They need a new publication to follow. And we want it to be ours."
"Muggles," said McClavity, simply. "They're in a completely separate world to us. If we start putting out articles encouraging magical people to start communicating with muggles, some people might take it as an invite to alert the muggles to our situation. That's the last thing we want. Fudge already isn't happy with the magazine, and if we help breach the gap between wizards and muggles - "
Harry and Ron moved off to the Gryffindor table, and sat down, leaving a gap for Hermione. In great piles up and down the tables were hamburgers, with sideplates of cheese, lettuce, bacon and tomatoes. Ketchup was placed in bowls between each plate. Harry felt his mouth watering, and his stomach gave another impatient grumble.
"Looks good, huh?" said Ginny from across the table.
Harry nodded. "Yeah, especially on an empty stomach..." He looked nervously around the hall. He desperately wanted one, but the fear of the Risotta still lingered. He knew it was unlikely that the one night he ate school food was the one night the food had been poisoned... but still.
Ginny was clearly thinking the same things. She had a very hungry look on her face as she gazed longingly into the mound of burgers. "I wish our owls had got through," she said, sadly. "I really want something to eat. And what if it's a few days until the sanctuary let them all go? We could be stuck without food for a week."
Ron paused for a moment, and then said, "Oh, stuff it... I'm eating one. I can't stand just sitting here and looking at them." He reached out, and snatched up one of the burgers. Everybody watched with wide eyes as he inked a precise spiral of ketchup around inside it, slapped on a slice of cheese and stuffed it into his mouth. Harry watched closely as Ron chewed and swallowed. There was a moment's pause, and then Ron said, "It's clear."
They all leant forward eagerly, picking up the burgers and starting to fill them. It was a long time since they'd felt safe with the food, and now they did, it was a relief to know they could eat as much as they wanted. Harry loaded his up, making a complex tower of lettuce and bacon, before finishing it off with cheese.
"Damn, I needed that," said Ron, as he licked his lips, taking another huge bite.
Hermione suddenly sat down between them, smiling around, with a breathless, "Hi... sorry about that, I had to - what are you all doing?" She stared at them in horror, watching them taking huge bites out of their food.
"It's safe," said Ron, through a mouthful of cheese. "We tested them. Tuck in."
People on the other house tables were getting the message as well. People were taking tentative bites of the food, and once one or two had declared it safe, everybody was joining in. A lot of relieved mutters about safe food at last filled the hall.
Hermione smiled slightly, pulling over one of the burgers and a few crisp lettuce leaves. "Well... if you're sure..."
Harry nodded, lifting the burger to his mouth and taking a bite. It was delicious. Warm and juicy and... salty?
"You see?" said Ron, already halfway through his own. "Lovely stuff."
Harry could definitely taste it now. There was a horrible, very strong taste of salt, just on the back of his tongue. Or was it salt? Or something else? It was...
"Harry! Harry, are you okay?"
Everybody on the Gryffindor table, and the rest of the hall, had turned around in horror as with a great hoarse cry, Harry vomitted all over the floor. Hermione screamed as she saw the blood also pouring from Harry's mouth. Harry wretched again, and with another shout of pain, a second stream followed the first. He was going scarlet in the face, and inside, he couldn't see anymore, or hear. There was just that burning taste of salt in the back of his throat, sliding its way down, and the sting as he felt his insides writhing and burning. Something else came up past his mouth and he wretched. There was people touching him now, gripping his shoulders, and the owner of a cold, bony hand was shouting, "Potter! Potter", and a gentler voicer was saying his name too, but he couldn't even remember his name anymore. He felt his legs slip from underneath him, his muscles giving way, and then the blackness just washed over him.
When Harry woke up, it was to darkness, quiet, and an odd warmth. Even despite the intense pains in his stomach, he felt comfortable and safe. His weary green eyes scanned around the room he was in, and after a few moment's thought, he realised it was the hospital wing. All the candles had been dimmed, and through the long window above the bed opposite him, he could see it was deepest night. The moon gave him a soothing look as she gazed through the window.
A hand laid on his shoulder, a very cold, watery hand. He looked around, too exhausted to be shocked, and saw Peter watching him from the chair next to his bed. "Harry..." he said, quietly.
"P-Peter?" he said, hoarsely. His throat felt as if it had been vigorously scrubbed, over and over. "What... what happened?"
"Just come to your senses for a moment, Potter," somebody on the opposite side drawled. He looked around and saw Snape curled in the chair there, a thick book called "Famous Russian Alchemists" open on his lap.
Harry blinked, his face tight in a frown, a confused frown, and he swayed a little as Peter rubbed his shoulder comfortingly. "How are you feeling, Harry?" the ghost asked.
"I... I feel weird..." Harry swayed again. "My stomach hurts... and my throat... but... sort of safe..."
Peter nodded. "If you need comfort badly enough, and both your magical guardians are there, just our presence can overcome pain... and the stomach pains are probably to be expected..."
Snape turned the page in his book lazily, and said, "Of course they are. I wouldn't be surprised if they become a normal part of life for Potter, at least for a few long months."
Harry looked between them, feeling his head spinning slightly as he did. "What happened? Did I black out?"
"Yeah..." Peter nodded, looking scared now. "But... we'd better wait for - "
At that moment, the doors of the hospital wing swung carefully open. To Harry's surprise, Alrister and Isabis came in. Alrister was wrapped in a long black nightgown, and Isabis had a thick robe around her that Harry recognised as Snape's. In Alrister's arms was a bundle of serenity candles, Isabis was carrying a large beaker full of some lilac potion, and when they saw that Harry was awake, both of them gave Snape worried glances.
"Welcome back, Harry..." said Alrister, softly. Isabis had handed Snape the potion and was leaving without further ado, but Alrister lingered next to Harry's bed. Harry found himself even more frightened by the grave expression on the professor's face. Alrister reached out, and just put a single hand on Harry's forehead. "You'll be okay..."
"What's going on?" said Harry, nervously, looking around at them all, as Alrister and Isabis left, their heads bowed. He watched Snape pouring out a cupful of the lilac potion with wide eyes. "What's that?"
"Drink," said Snape.
"What is - "
"Drink," Snape repeated, pushing the cup forcefully into his hands. "The Draft Of Peace."
"Why do I need The Draft Of Peace?" asked Harry, with a suspicious look. Peter was now lighting the serenity candles and spreading them out. Harry noticed that his form was starting to become a little less solid, as every now and then, the lighter just slipped through his hand onto the floor.
"Trust us, Potter," said Snape, and Harry was alarmed by the heavy tones in his voice. "You will need as much peace as you possibly can."
Harry considered becoming angry for a moment, but then realise he just couldn't, that there was no point. He didn't want to start shouting. The pain in his throat and stomach just wouldn't allow it. However, he didn't drink the potion, not just yet. He sat back, staring at both Snape and Peter, their grave expressions, the candles glimmering here and there around his bed.
Peter gently nudged the cup towards Harry. "Go on... it'll make the pain in your stomach go away. You certainly need a lot of rest and relaxation..."
"Why?" asked Harry, now slightly scared. "What happened? Please tell me, please... why is everybody looking so upset?" A horrible possibility occured to him, and he blurted out, "I'm not going to die, am I?"
Peter shook his head, sitting forward in his chair and applying gentle pressure to Harry's forehead, making him lie down. "No, Harry... a few weeks rest, and lots of good potions every day, and you'll be perfectly healthy... your stomach just took a bit of a battering."
"It was the Risotta, wasn't it?" said Harry, quietly.
Snape nodded, turning another page in his huge book, sparing Harry a glance. "The meat in your particular meal was infected with a very rare and dangerous poison, commonly known as Ocean Venom. In usual situations, just a drop is enough to kill."
Harry's jaw fell. "Then - why am I still...?"
Snape raised one eyebrow, and finally closing his book, he sat back, surveying Harry from the shadows spread over his chair. "The anti-food poisoning draft I gave you quite some time ago managed to protect your stomach just enough to keep you alive through the worst of the venom's effects. If it weren't for that, Potter, you would be dead for sure."
Harry's eyes drifted down into the blankets huddled around his midriff, feeling very grave himself now. So he could have been murmured now, if it weren't for that phial of potion all those months ago.
Suddenly realising something, his eyes widened and he tore back the covers. All around his stomach were bandages, great wads of cotton and packing. He choked, "Why is - "
Peter answered the unfinished question, patting his arm a little, looking very worried. "Madam Pomfrey thought you'd need the extra padding, just while your wounds heal up..."
"Wounds," said Harry, staring at Peter. "What wounds? Why would I have wounds?"
"Your operation," said Snape. "The matron decided it was best to actually open you up to remove the poison. The antidote is fairly effective on its own, though with a poison like Ocean Venom, there is no such thing as taking risks. Only blatant stupidity."
Harry scanned Snape's face with the same huge, frightened eyes. "How long was I out for?"
"Two and a half days," said Snape. "Your pulse was so faint for the first two that it couldn't be checked with just a finger over a pulse point. A muggle would have classified you as dead."
Harry closed his eyes for a moment. He could feel heat starting behind his closed lids, as he wrapped his arms around his stomach. "So somebody's trying to kill me..." he said, quietly, after a moment. "It can't be Voldemort... because you would have known if it had been."
"We've been examining the pattern of Risotta outbreaks," said Snape. "There is no direct target, and the culprit is merely working on a random basis."
"They just want people to die," said Harry softly.
Peter nodded. "You were so lucky Harry... so very lucky... if they'd got you..." He swallowed. "Not worth thinking about."
"Was there any other poisoned food found?" asked Harry. He saw Snape and Peter glance at each other. Snape looked away first, and so Peter started to talk, in a very quiet, frightened voice.
"Yes... five samples, in total... one of them got you, two were just in the piles at the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables. The fourth was in Professor Flitwick's hand."
Harry felt himself going cold. "Did he eat - "
"No, no," said Peter. "No, Professor Flitwick is shaken, but fine..."
"And what about the fifth one?" asked Harry. "Where was that?"
Peter fell silent. His eyes drifted away from Harry's, into the bed covers, quiet and sombre. Harry glanced at Snape instead, but even the Potions master was avoiding his gaze.
"Where was it?" he said, getting scared again, feeling his spine starting to prickle. "Did... did somebody eat it?"
Peter put a hand over his mouth, his eyes closing, and then simply, he nodded.
Harry felt his stomach churning inside him, though the accompanying stabs of pain didn't even register in his mind. Maybe he knew what was coming already. "Who was it?" he whispered. "Are... are they dead?"
Another nod from Peter, and then he choked, "No... not dead... but dying,", past his hand.
"Who?" Harry pushed. "Who was it?"
Peter couldn't speak anymore. Harry turned his eyes to Snape, appealing for information, and he saw that the Potions master was very pale, even more than normal.
"Was it Dumbledore?" said Harry, with a sinking feeling in his chest.
Snape shook his head.
"Not... not Ron?"
Another shake of the head.
Snape shook his head again, and then said something so quiet and distorted that Harry couldn't hear it.
"What?" he said, feeling his muscles tensing up. "Just tell me."
"Zabini," Snape said, at last.
Harry fell quiet at this. It was odd. He knew he should feel sorry for Blaise, but... it was awful to feel no regret. But...
He looked up, glancing from one to the other. Peter had his face covered, and Snape wasn't looking at him. Why were they acting so oddly?
Surely they knew he wasn't on good terms with Blaise.
Come to think of it, he'd never even mentioned Blaise to Peter at all.
And yes, Blaise was in Snape's house. But he wasn't exactly a star pupil.
That had always been Draco.
"Kainda," said Harry. His body was cold, his muscles tensed, his mind pleading with them to correct him. They'd laugh, and say, "oh no, no, Kainda's too full of life. She'd never die. Don't worry, she's fine, she's coming to visit you tomorrow."
But at Snape's nod, and Peter's gulp of air, Harry's entire world around him came crashing and crumbling down.
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