Chapter 16 — The Whitening
By Lady Alchymia
Trapped within his watery dungeon, Harry fumbled for his drinking tube and sucked thirstily at the sweet liquid. He tried not to look at his fingers; he’d lost the tips of seven of them, three on his left hand, four on his right. His toes felt funny, too, but he couldn’t see that far. Using his one remaining finger, he tried to feel his lightning bolt scar, but his face was smothered in squishy scabs and he couldn’t tell what was going on. Dispiritedly, his hand drifted to his side. Silverfish swam sluggishly around his body, nibbling only occasionally, which was just fine by him. The pain was more manageable at this rate, though it felt creepily like ants were crawling around inside his skin. He peered glumly from his porthole, watching his so-called friends abandoning him. He needed someone to check for him that Frank Longbottom was okay, but, no, now they decided he could have some privacy! Figures in lime-green robes swept past his window, their voices low and serious. He tapped weakly on the glass but couldn’t get their attention.
"Just lay still for me, lad," said a deep male voice.
Harry was dimly aware of fingers reaching down to adjust his nostril plugs, to put the drinking tube back into his mouth, to lift his hands to inspect them. He was â€˜desperately low’ on something. His Extendible Ear caught a few words: juniper, melissa, tincture, vitriol, salt. The Healers kept mentioning lots of different salts. Why they didn’t just put him in a saltwater bath, Harry would never know.
While the Healers were with Harry, Molly Weasley tried to take everyone home for dinner. Hermione and Cho flatly refused to leave. The Weasley teens weren’t too keen, either, and only agreed on the condition that they could return later (a decision apparently made easier by the promise of meatballs). Remus, Elizabeth, Hermione, and Cho returned to the cafeteria and sat silently together, each lost in their own thoughts, each making a token effort to eat.
"You just don’t know how much we appreciate you girls being here for Harry," Remus ventured gratefully. "But it’s been a long day already; you’ll let me know when you’re too tired, won’t you? I’ll see you safely home."
The girls were quick to assure Remus they wouldn’t dream of leaving Harry, not while he needed them so badly. Lost for words, Remus was only able to nod, but the girls understood.
"Mrs Lupin, may I be excused?" Hermione said, nuding her half-eaten dinner aside. "I’d rather wait downstairs."
Elizabeth nodded and Hermione slid from the booth; Cho joined her. Remus watched them leave then seemed to deflate before Elizabeth’s eyes. She knew he was still torturing himself, still worried that Harry believed he’d been sent down the pipes deliberately in some kind of warped security test. Elizabeth ached to stretch her arms around his slumped shoulders, ached to convince him it couldn’t possibly be so, but hesitated, uncertain of his reaction. Remus drew a deep breath and sat up straighter. The mask was back.
"It’s going too slowly, isn’t it," he said hoarsely.
Elizabeth nodded miserably. Harry had been in the sarcophagus for nearly nine hours, and the Healer’s estimated he had another seven to go. But sixteen hours far exceeded safe exposure to the Mercurial Waters: twelve hours â€” thirteen at the very most. Remus suggested removing Harry from the Waters whilst he was sleeping, but the Healers advised against this. Repeated extraction would reduce his saturation levels and increase the risk of infection. It wasn’t even that they could just stop then start again in a few days time. It could be months â€” years even â€” before Harry could take a second saturation. He’d already lost several toes and fingertips to the Waters; there was no turning back now.
"Sirius should be here," Elizabeth whispered, even though she knew very well he couldn’t come out of hiding.
"I know," Remus said painfully, "but you came ..."
"As soon as I heard," Elizabeth agreed unthinkingly.
Silence fell for long moments before Remus spoke again.
"I â€” I didn’t know where I should send the portrait ..."
Elizabeth’s brain registered the words, but they made no sense. "What portrait?"
"In my letter ..." Remus said gently, "I thought I explained â€” the one of Alphard Black â€” the one that Sirius wanted you to have ..."
Elizabeth stared. "What letter?"
Remus paled. "The letter. The one I sent to you after Sirius ..." Remus’s breathing grew laboured. "Lizzie, tell me you got my letter. I sent it care of the Canadian Ministry; I didn’t know where you were living."
Elizabeth’s mind went into overdrive. Harry’s guardian! She thought that was just to get past hospital red-tape.
"I don’t want it!" she blurted stupidly. Oh, God, she thought desperately, not Sirius â€” let it be anything else!
"Lizzie ... I’m so sorry," Remus rasped. He reached a hand to her face, but she jerked back â€” she had to know.
"How?" she whispered.
"The battle at the Ministry," said Remus miserably. "Sirius ... He didn’t make it, Lizzie."
Elizabeth’s thoughts tripped over themselves. She had to have misunderstood. Sirius was in hiding. This was just a ruse. He was faking his death to fool the Ministry. It had to be. That’s why Remus was guardian. They’d go through the motions of executing the Will â€” try to throw them off.
Remus’s hands were cupping her cheeks. He was saying something. His face was so close. She could see tears in his eyes. Remus didn’t cry.
"No!" she blurted, backing into a corner of the booth. "No!" she demanded, angry now. She was dimly aware of other diners sneaking curious glances their way.
"Lizzie," Remus begged wretchedly.
He tried to reach out to her again. She frantically pushed him away. There was nothing for him to comfort her about. Sirius wasn’t dead â€” it was just a trick!
"No," she pleaded. Remus wouldn’t â€” couldn’t â€” do this to her. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks and a pair of strong arms succeeded in encircling her shaking body. "No," she whispered over and over, miserable in the knowledge she was wrong.
Remus held her close, his face against hers, their tears mingling. He rocked her gently and kissed her hair.
"How?" Elizabeth moaned.
"Darling, don’t," Remus begged, but Elizabeth had to know. He opened his mouth to speak then shook his head. "Look," he whispered hoarsely.
Elizabeth snuffled heavily and raised her wand. "Legilimens!"
Sounds and images flooded her mind. She was in the dingy basement of Black House â€” the one she remembered. Voices were raised in fear and anger â€” Sirius arguing, giving orders to Kreacher … They were at the Ministry, tearing through the halls, searching â€” more voices â€” sounds of battle, curses flying â€” the Department of Mysteries, she recognised the Death Chamber â€” more furious duelling â€” children! â€” Harry! â€” Sirius again â€” the Archway steps â€” the black veil ...
"NO!" screamed Elizabeth.
A clattering of dinner trays and falling cutlery sounded around the half-empty cafeteria, as if a child had run through a flock of pigeons and set them to flight. Elizabeth was still in Remus’s mind, his devastation compounding her own â€” Harry screaming in pain ...
The couple stared at each other in mutual despair. Elizabeth was dimly aware of Remus wrapping her again inside his arms. She had no idea how long they sat like that â€” it might have been two minutes or two hours â€” she only knew she wanted to stop feeling. The other diners were now studiously ignoring them, gifting them invisibility. It would not have been so in a Canadian hospital; someone would have approached them by now, offering kindly meant assistance. Not one stranger was giving her the barest flicker of acknowledgment, a restraint for which she was deeply grateful.
"You should go home and rest," Remus suggested.
"I’m fine," she lied dully.
"Where are you staying? Your parents’?"
Elizabeth laughed hollowly. As far as she knew, her parents were holidaying in Tahiti. And even if they were in town, she would be loath to drop unannounced on their doorstep. They would be full of questions she didn’t want to answer â€” insist on throwing tedious dinner parties to welcome her home.
"I took a room at the Leaky Cauldron on Sunday," Elizabeth told Remus. "I don’t know if they held it for me."
"You’re welcome to stay at Black House," said Remus, adding quickly, "only if you want to, of course. Harry and I are living there now ... but you probably don’t want to ..."
Elizabeth was torn; the house was so loaded with memories of Sirius, and yet she wanted to be close to Harry â€” and Remus. But could she handle being so close to her husband and yet so far? What kind of idiot would she be, voluntarily torturing herself like that?
"Yes," she whispered before she could stop herself. "That would be good, thank you."
They sat quietly awhile, just holding hands. Elizabeth savoured the undemanding silence. Countless things had drawn her to Remus all those years ago, but it was his gentle stillness, his quiet strength, that could calm and comfort her in a way that no one else ever could. When they left the cafeteria to return downstairs, Elizabeth stopped outside the ladies’ bathroom. Remus wanted to wait for her, but Elizabeth gently brushed him away.
"Harry," she said simply; she knew she didn’t need to say more.
Remus nodded unhappily and continued down the stairs, looking back over his shoulder until she disappeared into the bathroom. Elizabeth hunched over the sink to splash water over her face and set about calming her mind. It was hard work.
On her return, plodding dully down the rickety stairs, Elizabeth spotted Hermione speaking animatedly with a portrait of old Headmistress and Healer Dilys Derwent. Further down the corridor, Cho was practicing her Patronus Charm. She’d been hard at it all day, but without success. Remus stood nearby, hands in his pockets, offering advice to the girl. They all looked up at the sound of Elizabeth’s footfall on the cold marble then returned to what they were doing, all except Remus. He stood straighter and searched her face, no doubt looking for a sign she was falling apart. Elizabeth mentally kicked herself. He didn’t deserve that.
"Dumbledore was just here," he offered quietly.
"Did he â€” have they worked out what happened?"
Remus shrugged dispiritedly. "One problem at a time. Bill Weasley is at the house. He’s a Gringotts’ Curse-Breaker. If someone tampered with the Summoning Charms â€”"
Remus broke off at the sound of a loud ding and the sight of two teenage girls spilling from the old iron lift. Elizabeth’s breath caught in her throat â€” Lydia! Hermione and Cho rushed to the visitors, and there were fresh tears and hugs all around. The Peacock Knights lowered their wands and turned back into potted palms.
"Auntie Amelia told us what happened," said the Lydia Bones look-alike. "Hannah’s staying with me this week â€” I hope you don’t mind us coming."
Hermione just hugged both girls tightly and mumbled something incoherent that could only be construed as an emphatic â€˜not at all’.
"How’s he doing?" asked the blonde girl worriedly.
"Not great," admitted Cho, "the Healers are with him right now. Hang on a minute ..." Cho beckoned Elizabeth closer. "Mrs Lupin, may I introduce Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott." The girls sneaked curious glances at Remus. He responded by sticking his hands more deeply into his pockets.
"Please, all of you," she murmured, shaking their hands, "call me Elizabeth."
Cho smiled slightly and added for the newcomers, "Elizabeth is Harry’s godmother â€” from Canada."
"Ah," said the girls jointly.
The four girls settled in a little huddle on the floor. Remus and Elizabeth drifted away and sat together on the steps.
"Edgar’s niece?" murmured Elizabeth.
"I know," Remus said quietly, "the resemblance is striking."
Edgar Bones and his wife and their three children had been killed during the first war â€” his parents, too. Susan’s physical appearance was heart-breakingly similar to her cousin, Lydia. Or what Lydia might have looked like had she lived beyond her scant thirteen years.
A scream sounded from a distant ward, making Elizabeth start. There’d been odd screams on and off all day, but they seemed more noticeable now that the noise and bustle of the hospital traffic was spent for the day. Her knees to her chest, Elizabeth clamped her hands over her ears. She hated being back here; there were far too many bad memories, especially at night. Remus slid an arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him gratefully.
It wasn’t long before the CCU door opened and Penelope waved them back in. The girls held hands and sat together by the bath. Harry was sleeping again. Susan and Hannah gasped painfully when they saw his red, ravaged face â€” the tubes coming from his ear, his nose, his mouth. They started whispering questions, but Hermione urged them to speak up.
"Harry!" she called loudly. "You need to wake up! Look who’s here!"
Harry stirred a little but stayed asleep. Four flaming redheads peaked through the CCU door then tumbled into the room. A noisy melee ensued as the youngsters crowded together on the floor around Harry’s window. Harry rolled towards the porthole and blinked blearily, then his eyes widened in shock on seeing Susan smiling tremulously at him â€” he suddenly seemed very much awake. The Waters started swirling furiously.
"Oh, look," Ginny cried happily. "He’s healing a lot now! He must be really pleased to see us!"
"He’s choking!" Cho yelped. "Harry! Breathe through your nose!"
Harry was incensed to find even more girls in his hospital bathroom. He rolled away in disgust and made a half-hearted effort to calm down. He was just so thoroughly sick of it all. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?
"Harry, show me your fingers," ordered Hermione (for about the tenth time, by Harry’s reckoning).
Harry tried to lift one leaded hand. He was too tired to bother opening his eyes any more. Between the fish and the candles someone put in the bath, he could barely see more than a few feet away anyway. He finally managed to rest his hand up against the wall of the bath. His fingers were too numb to know, at first, if made it to the glass, but by the sharp intakes of breath, he guessed the newcomers were getting a good view of the blackened stumps of his fingers.
Harry let his hand sag back to his side. He was just so tired. He’d be happy to sleep for the next three days if only they’d let him. His so-called mates kept making huge amounts of noise, with Exploding Snap cards and Gobstones firing off in his ear. The girls were no better; they just sat there, talking and talking and talking. How they could find so many things to talk about was completely beyond Harry. And just when he felt like he might be dropping off to sleep, somebody would yell in his ear again, rousing him awake. But, exhausted as he was, Harry had a second reason for craving slumber: he wanted to check Frank Longbottom was okay.
"What’s he doing?" asked Hannah.
"Hang on," muttered Hermione.
Harry painstakingly drew his letters with his thumb.
"â€˜Sleep’," translated Hermione. "Oh, Harry, I’m sorry, truly, but we just can’t let you sleep right now!" Harry groaned inwardly. Hermione pre-empted his next question. "Harry, they can only keep you in the quicksilver for another few hours, but it might not be enough if you waste time being asleep."
Easy for you to say, Harry thought resentfully. Every atom of his body ached to rest and he was still worried about Frank. He tried to block out the noise and felt himself drifting to sleep. A sharp whistle blew in his ear and Harry jerked awake again.
Elizabeth jumped as Harry’s earpiece flew from the bath and hit Ron smack in his freckled nose.
"Nice," said the redhead sarcastically.
"What’s happening?" fretted Hannah. The Waters were slowing.
Healer Dee retrieved the Extendible Ear. She washed it thoroughly then reached into the bath. By the amount of splashing that ensued, she seemed to be having trouble convincing Harry to accept the earpiece again.
"I’m sorry, Harry," she said evenly, using a Sonorus Charm to send her voice through the water, "but I’ll do you a deal: if you can keep the Waters working hard for another half hour, I’ll put you to sleep for twenty minutes. Okay?"
The splashing subsided and the Healer quickly reinserted the earpiece. They all leaned forward anxiously as Harry’s hand came up against the window. Hermione scribed the letters on her leg. It was very slow going.
"Oh," she said with surprise. "He wants to know if Frank is okay."
"Frank?" George hissed, looking accusingly at Hermione. "Who told him about that?"
"Well, I didn’t," she insisted. She looked around the group and there were shrugs all around. Harry’s palm thumped impatiently at the window. Hermione looked questioningly at Remus.
"Frank’s fine," he murmured. "I checked on him earlier."
"Harry, Frank was a bit woozy," Hermione said soothingly, "but he’s fine now. Please don’t worry about him."
Harry’s hand withdrew from the window and his friends resumed their noisy, nervous chatter. The next time Hermione asked him to show her his fingers the boys burst out laughing.
"Oh honestly, Harry," sniffed Hermione, looking quite put out, "was that really necessary?"
The Healers approached Elizabeth and Remus and drew them away from the teenagers. Hermione’s head nearly twisted off following them to the edge of the room.
"We need to have a chat about Harry’s options," began Healer Dee, careful to keep her voice low. "We’ll need to remove him from the Waters within the next two hours."
A thick silence fell. The Waters were swirling rapidly right now, but was it too little, too late?
"And if he’s not fully healed?" Remus asked.
"Then we shall need to resort to less comprehensive measures," Healer Abercrombie replied calmly, "creams, potions, and the like. And we’ll need to wait a few weeks to begin secondary treatment â€” until the excess quicksilver is out of his system."
Remus crossed his arms grimly over his chest. "Can you make the Waters focus on his fingers first?"
"I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, Mr Lupin," said Healer Dee. "The Waters heal from the inside out, and from the older to more recent injuries."
"So, his fingers and toes might actually be the last things to heal?" ventured Elizabeth.
The Healers nodded resignedly.
"Why is it taking so long?" asked Remus.
The Healers exchanged a look.
"There may be older, untreated injuries that might have slowed things down a bit," Healer Dee said carefully.
"It’s also possible the Waters are doing more than healing," Healer Abercrombie advised bluntly.
Remus stiffened. After sparing a glare for her colleague, Healer Dee quickly assured the Lupins that any side effects of the Divine Mercurial Waters were almost always beneficial.
"What side effects?" Remus asked, directing the question to Healer Abercrombie.
"It varies," he replied. "Some patients report enhanced sensory perception, a keener sense of smell, enriched colour perception, more highly tuned hearing, that sort of thing. In very rare cases, the Waters can trigger the onset of specific magical powers, but such powers are invariably latent within the patient. The Waters merely accelerate their emergence."
"I see," said Remus, his expression outwardly calm.
Elizabeth knew better and cast a quizzical look towards her husband, who shook his head slightly at her, leaving Elizabeth wondering just what power Remus was frightened to death might awaken in Harry. He didn’t know about Lily’s curse â€” unless Sirius told him. But he couldn’t have ... and even if Sirius had broken the vow, it was a moot point: Petunia Dursley wasn’t dead. Pushing back an idle, unworthy thought, Elizabeth turned her attention back to Remus and the Healers.
"Harry was worried about his pet python," Remus said. "May we bring him in?"
"Harry’s a Parselmouth, isn’t he?" Healer Abercrombie asked interestedly before moving away. "I don’t see why not â€” for a little while."
Elizabeth tried not to look as shocked as she felt, but Remus saw straight through her â€” he always could.
"Yep," he said simply in answer to her unspoken scream of â€˜Merlin’s Beard! Harry’s a what?’
Remus dispatched a reluctant George to fetch the python. As Elizabeth watched him leave, she flexed her bruised wrist and allowed herself a tiny smile. She wasn’t the only one George attacked that morning, and snakes had excellent memories. Elizabeth’s smile faded on realising that Harry would have been dying beneath the boiler at that very moment. She felt physically sick knowing how very close they’d come to losing him â€” that he was only in this desperate situation at all because of her stupid impatience.
"We still have a few hours," whispered Remus, slipping his hand into hers.
Elizabeth nodded unsteadily. "A few hours," she agreed.
Penelope drifted over to them, a beaker of turquoise Strengthening Solution in hand.
"I thought you mightn’t have had a chance to get your own," she murmured, and waited whilst Elizabeth drank it down. "You know," she added quietly, "it’s true that this was Harry’s best chance for a full recovery, but it’s not his only chance. Harry’s a real fighter; I wouldn’t count him out just yet." The young woman smiled a little. "I underestimated Harry Potter once and I lost ten Galleons in the process. I’d never make the mistake of betting against him again."
Frank felt the earth move.
"You!" he hissed furiously.
George stopped and held out Frank’s basket at arms length.
"Look," he said briskly, "I’m sorry I stunned you, but you gave me no choice."
Frank didn’t want to hear it and told the wretched ram so in no uncertain terms, ending with his most damning condemnation: "You, sir, are no gentleman!"
"Frank!" George moaned, struggling with the angry snake. "Frank! Look, I’m just trying to take you to see Harry!"
Frank froze then recoiled into his basket.
"Well, why didn’t you say so?" he demanded impatiently. "Get along then," he ordered majestically. George breathed a sigh of relief and raced down the stairs. "But I’m warning you," hissed Frank, as they jiggled along. "One more â€˜Hoggy Hoggy Hogwarts’ from you and I shan’t be responsible!"
Taking a break from the CCU, Elizabeth and Remus stepped outside to find the corridor filled with Order of the Phoenix members holding a silent vigil, dull-eyed and drawn under the dingy lighting. Elizabeth started to smile on seeing a few familiar faces, then fell back, startled, as a black-haired young woman rushed into Remus’s arms.
"Remus, I just heard!" she blurted. "I’m so sorry!"
"Hestia, don’t," he said weakly, holding her as she convulsed, sobbing against his chest.
The bleak assembly averted its eyes. Suddenly wanting to be anywhere else, Elizabeth retreated back into the CCU and prowled the walls, busying herself checking Harry’s charts and casting a professional eye over the teenagers sitting around his porthole. Fred and Ron were gamely cracking jokes in Harry’s limp, dangling ear. Hermione and Cho looked just as exhausted. Elizabeth conjured a few pillows and encouraged them to lie down awhile; she knew Harry would need them later. In all likelihood, he would need to be removed from the bath still unhealed and still in pain. Ginny nodded approvingly and plumped a pillow inside her crossed legs. Hermione resisted briefly then sank wearily into Ginny’s lap, relaxing a little as she gently stroked her hair. Cho curled up on the floor right beneath Harry’s window and was asleep within moments of her head hitting the pillow. Harry drew closer to the window and gazed intently at his slumbering girlfriend, his quicksilver eyes never straying far from her face. Elizabeth swallowed down a burning lump in her throat. He must really care for her.
Harry stared out his porthole at Cho. He was half-hoping someone would try to wake her. Healer Dee, preferably; surely, it was a lot more than thirty minutes since she promised him a nap. He tried hard to ignore the pain shooting down his legs and into his feet, but it wasn’t easy.
"Harry!" Ginny commanded loudly. "Harry, look up! Look! Over here! We’ve got a special visitor for you!"
Harry groaned inwardly. He was too tired for this. Better not be another girl, he thought darkly.
Frank peered out of his basket and found himself face to face with â€” "Arghh!" The python recoiled in horror from the swan. "Where am I?" he hissed furiously, rearing up to look around the dark room. "Where’s my Harry?!"
Frank calmed slightly when he spotted his darling pet, Susan. But she didn’t look very happy either. Well, no wonder, he thought sympathetically, sitting right behind the swan! The dove stretched out her hand to stroke him.
"It’s all right, Frank," she said, though her voice was shaking a little. "Harry’s just behind you â€” in the bath."
Frank’s wedge-shaped head whipped around. Harry was underwater. Frank angled closer; the water looked odd â€” it was shot with silvery darts. The boy’s skin looked funny, too; it was all red and black. Frank watched in shock as Harry blinked and a scab of skin came loose from one of his eyelids, revealing new, pink skin underneath.
"You’re shedding?" bellowed the serpent incredulously. "All this time I’ve been so worried and â€” oh for goodness’ sake! All this fuss just because â€”"
Frank broke off on seeing Harry trying desperately hard not to laugh.
"Don’t you dare laugh!" Frank ordered angrily. "Lying there in comfort!"
Harry looked appropriately contrite, and Frank, feeling somewhat mollified, sighed theatrically and said, "You would just not believe the day I’ve had!"
Harry’s face shook with laughter and he disappeared inside a fury of silvery darts. Frank turned away in disgust. He carefully skirted the slumbering swan and headed straight for his Susan’s gentle hands.
"It’ll be okay, Frank," murmured Susan, helping him into her lap and stroking his long belly in just the way he liked. "He’s very glad to see you."
Frank sighed. "Oh, you precious thing."
The minute Healer Dee finally got around to putting him to sleep, Harry’s mind floated straight out of his body. He took a moment to relish the blissful absence of all physical pain. Looking back down over his bath, he felt a second great wave of relief. A young Healer was straightening his bath sheet for him. At least she had some sense. He looked more closely: Penelope Clearwater? She’d been Head Girl with Percy â€” his girlfriend too. Harry fervently hoped she’d dumped the git by now. Looking around the room, he spotted Frank napping in Susan’s lap. Frank hissed a little as he slept, and Harry was sure he heard the word Hogwarts in there somewhere. Whilst Frank was one of the few visitors Harry was actually happy to see, he was currently more interested in checking in with a different Frank, Frank Longbottom. Hermione said he was okay, just a bit woozy. She was talking intently now with Professor Dumbledore, who had just arrived. Harry took another moment to lament the loss of Dumbledore’s Jingle-Bells-whistling snout then raced away, intent on finding out what happened to Neville’s dad. He’d just completely disappeared on him a few hours before.
Drifting down the dark corridors, Harry listened hard but fruitlessly for the sound of Mrs Longbottom singing. Nightmare voices rose instead and he bid a hasty retreat to his own room. A crowd waited outside. Bill was there, Fleur, Tonks, Molly and Arthur Weasley, Hestia, and Kingsley, too â€” and some other wizards Harry didn’t know. They were dressed in iridescent peacock-blue robes. One of them was speaking with a downcast Mad-Eye Moody.
An invisible soul, even to himself, Harry wondered if Mad-Eye could detect his presence. He zoomed closer and stared straight into his magical eye, but there was no reaction. In fact, Moody’s eye wasn’t moving at all. Harry wondered if it had got stuck again; it was staring fixedly at the CCU door. Harry glanced at Fleur. He thought he might have seen a flicker of recognition from her but the moment passed and Harry felt he must have imagined it. He was just moving closer to Fleur again when he was distracted by the sound of his own voice. Was he dreaming in the bath as well? Curious, Harry followed the thoughts into a dream of himself on his roof at sunset. He was holding Cho in his arms; he was telling her how beautiful she was â€” how much he loved her â€” how he wanted to be with her always ...
This was all strange enough, but then it got even weirder when Dream-Harry started reciting poetry. The real Harry grew increasingly confused; the other Harry was using words he didn’t even know the meaning of!
Just kiss her, you idiot, he told himself.
At last, he was kissing Cho â€” but it felt different. With a start Harry realised he was in Cho’s dream, not his own. Once Harry had got his invisible head around that, he took a good look at himself. Cho’s Harry looked different: older, taller, no glasses, his hair even longer and wilder than normal â€” he was running his fingers through it. Whoa ... no, Cho was doing that. He was feeling what she was feeling â€” her sense of touch, smell, taste â€” her pleasure when they kissed. The Harry in Cho’s dream seemed to know exactly what Cho liked and what she didn’t; he seemed to know exactly what to do. Well, that makes one of us, thought the real Harry, fascinated and mortified in equal measure. Fortunately, unlike Frank Longbottom, Cho didn’t seem to have any idea she had company â€” not yet, anyway. Harry thought he’d better pull out before she became aware of his presence.
Floating overhead in his room once more, Harry looked down at Cho sleeping on the floor by his bath. She was smiling slightly and hugging a pillow to her chest. Harry found himself dearly wanting to be that pillow. He already figured there was something in the water letting him float around the way he was. He reasoned he might never get a chance like this again â€” a chance to really know what was going on in his girl’s head â€” and besides, he could always blame the bath ...
A little voice in the back of Harry’s mind argued sternly against the notion, but curiosity won out and he surrendered himself to a rather unique experience. For one thing, he discovered how strongly Cho felt about him â€” or at least, how strongly she felt about the Harry in her dream. It was the weirdest sensation, and one that the real Harry found decidedly disconcerting. Cho was feeling things about him that felt far stronger than what he felt about her. The longer this went on, the more bewildered Harry became. He just couldn’t connect what Cho was feeling about her dream-Harry with what they had actually had in reality. It almost felt as if she was dreaming of someone else entirely, someone who simply looked like him on the outside.
The dreamscape changed abruptly. Dream-Harry was nowhere to be seen, and Cho was racing through the corridors at school. She was stumbling through the halls, pushing through people going the other way. She was late! She couldn’t be late! Panic crushed her chest. The other students kept blocking her â€” they wouldn’t let her pass. Why couldn’t they understand? She had to get through!
"Get out of my way!" she screamed.
Peeves swooped and dropped an inkwell on her head.
"You won’t find him in here!" he cackled before speeding away.
Harry watched helplessly as Cho tripped and stumbled through the crowd, desperate for escape. Hundreds of ravens came shrieking out of every Hogwarts portrait. They dive bombed Cho, tearing at her clothes â€” clawing at her ink-stained face.
Then she was airborne, dipping and diving on her broomstick through the castle corridors. She drew her wand and exploded a stained glass window before shooting through it into the open air. An army of ravens tore after her. She hurtled straight for the Quidditch pitch. Two figures lay prone on the grass: one yellow, one red. With a mad flapping of wings and screeching caws, the ravens overtook Cho and savagely attacked the bodies on the grass.
Cho’s heart was in her mouth as she fought through the hysterical birds to reach the bodies. She fell on the red one and twisted him around. Harry’s burned face stared back at her, his eyes glassy and lifeless.
Cho was racing through the corridors of the school. She was late!
"Get out of my way!" she screamed.
Peeves swooped and dropped an inkwell on her head. "You won’t find him here!"
Harry watched miserably as Cho, terrified and helpless, relived the same nightmare. It repeated again and again.
"Cho, stop! Wake up!" called Harry, but Cho couldn’t seem to hear his words. Though desperate to help, he wasn’t sure what he could do. And since he was feeling everything she was feeling, he knew with perfect understanding that she felt completely doomed to failure. He felt the same way when he was dying by Ginny’s side in the Chamber of Secrets, but then Fawkes returned to heal him. Fawkes’s Phoenix Song always filled him with hope, even in his darkest hours â€” in the Chamber â€” in the graveyard ...
That’s it, Harry realised, give her a memory! Thank you, Mr Longbottom! Harry set about concentrating with all his might on that transcendent, spine-tingle sound â€” that long beautiful note â€” the sound of hope.
The ravens relentlessly attacked Cho and the dead bodies of Cedric Diggory and Harry on the grass. Harry concentrated harder. That one note ...
The shrieking stopped. Cho’s ink-blackened and bloodied face looked up in wonder. A beautiful note sounded. Cho felt warmth suffuse her body, as if her very bones were vibrating with love and hope. The black ravens turned white and released their victims. Harry kept conjuring his memory. The white ravens turned into swans and soared skywards. Cho looked down at Harry, lying on the grass, and found him smiling back at her, perfectly healed and happy.
Suddenly, Harry was choking on silver fish. He found his breath and twisted to the window to check on Cho. He was awake but she was still sleeping. Concentrating hard, he continued conjuring the memory of Fawkes’s song, even though he didn’t know if she could hear him any more.
Elizabeth looked up, startled, as Cho woke abruptly. Breathless, the girl scrambled to her feet only to fall over Ginny, who had come back into the room while she was sleeping. Ginny pushed her off, but Cho didn’t care â€” she had the oddest smile on her face. Elizabeth glanced at Harry; he was wearing a matching dopey grin.
"Expecto Patronum!" cried Cho.
They all watched, stunned, as a silver swan shot from Cho’s wand. It soared over Harry’s sarcophagus and circled the candle-lit room, dipping and diving gracefully amongst the visitors, extinguishing half the candles with great sweeps of its wings. Then it plunged into one end of the sarcophagus. Dazzling beams shot through the porthole window and gaps in the bed sheet. When the Patronus at last dissipated, a single unearthly note sounded in the darkness. It was coming from the bath. The music lifted the hairs on the back of Elizabeth’s neck and her heart soared. Everyone was smiling stupidly at each other. Then they recoiled in fright as the white sheet over Harry’s bath burst into flames, replaced by a crimson bird with a glittering golden tail.
"Fawkes!" breathed Ron.
Every bone in Harry’s body tingled. Phoenix Song! He was so dizzy he couldn’t tell what was real and what were dreams or memories any more. Through a dense pearly haze, he saw a flash of golden light. Then his head was spinning â€” or maybe it was his body â€” or the room ...
The ants were crawling everywhere under his skin, not here and there, as before, but all over and all at once. Layers of skin fell from his body in great chunks. Pain shot from his fingertips, but it was short and sharp, not drawn out, as before. He could deal with short and sharp â€” anything to get out of his watery grave.
Stunned, Elizabeth watched in awe as Fawkes gave Harry his tears and then vanished again in another burst of flames. Every wall chart madly fluttered and squealed. The Healers sped around the room; they were all smiling â€” even Healer Abercrombie. The kids were going berserk, jumping up and down and laughing and hugging and crying all over each other. Ron almost cracked Cho in two with his embrace he was so grateful, and the twins were doing some kind of victory dance around the sarcophagus. Remus pulled Elizabeth into his arms and they stood there, trembling with emotion, just holding each other close. The Mercurial Waters glowed pearly white, whipping around Harry’s body for a good fifteen minutes before beginning to slow. The visitors looked anxiously towards the Healers. The Healers beamed back at them, announcing that the addition of Phoenix Tears to the Waters had bought Harry a good three hours of solid healing.
"Is he healed now?" Ron begged the Healers.
"Not quite yet," admitted Healer Dee, "but the Tears gave him a huge boost. Not much longer now."
He was going to be okay. Elizabeth couldn’t quite believe it. Her knees jellied. Remus caught her and sat her gently back down. The kids begged Professor Dumbledore to summon Fawkes again. The old man’s eyes twinkled enigmatically.
"It was not I who called him."
The Waters grew sluggish and the kids pounced on Cho, begging her to â€˜do it’ again. Cho tried to tell them she didn’t call the phoenix either, but she was more than willing to conjure her Patronus again. As before, her spirit guardian circled the room then flew straight into the Mercurial Waters. The Waters sped up again, not as much as with the Phoenix Tears, admittedly, but impressive all the same. Each time the Waters slowed, Cho reproduced her Patronus. She was just about to do it again when Harry’s face appeared at the window.
Elizabeth gasped when she saw his face â€” his beautiful, healthy face! He looked desperately tired, but his skin was practically glowing, all bright-pink and healthy, like a newborn infant’s. Remus’s hand shook with relief â€” or maybe that was her. Harry smiled encouragingly at Cho and raised his hand to the window. He was still missing two fingertips. Cho nodded and conjured her swan again.
It wasn’t much longer before Harry was staring in relieved disbelief at his newly healed digits. The water continued swirling, but Harry wasn’t sure what the fish were doing to him. He felt perfectly normal now: his skin, his fingers, his toes â€” everything. After a deep, settling breath, he reached up to feel his forehead. Bitter disappointment washed over him. Though slightly numb, his fingers had no trouble discerning the outline of his lightning bolt scar.
Harry was taken aback by how much his scar not disappearing was affecting him. He knew he should be happy to get his skin back at all, but if he was honest with himself a big part of him hoped that if the scar disappeared, then maybe he wasn’t really the â€˜chosen one’, after all, that maybe Dumbledore and Voldemort had got it wrong. Harry rolled away from the window, his eyes smarting. He suddenly felt more raw than when he had great chunks of skin falling from his body. He tried to blink back the tears then realised where he was, and the tears of bitter disappointment turned to helpless, self-deprecating laughter.
Merlin, I’ve got to get out of this thing!
He heard the Healers talking; they seemed to think he was about done, too.
"Maybe five minutes more," Healer Dee was saying, "just to be sure." A pair of nostril plugs flew out of the bath. "Or now is good," she decided quickly.
The moment the Healers broke the charm holding Harry underwater, his head shot up, his lungs sucking in air and what felt like half the fish. He coughed and slid about blindly in the slapping wake of the slippery bath. He could hear someone clearing the room. With trembling fingers, he tried to swipe the silver from his mouth, from his eyes. Coughing more silver, he clung wearily to the high edge of the bath for support and looked around irritably. Was it really such an impossible task to keep a sheet over a bathtub!
Penelope rushed forward to clean the silver off him. Harry, crouching in the huge bath and suddenly feeling very wide-awake, flatly refused to let a girl do that. Seriously, there was only so much a lad could take!
Healer Abercrombie stepped in and soon Harry was clean, dressed, and lying down in a wonderfully soft (and blessedly dry) bed. The Healers kept fussing over his fingers and toes and eyes, waving their magnifying glasses, tape measures, and tuning forks over every inch of his body. Healer Dee said there was a good deal of residual quicksilver in his body, and that he may continue to feel some side effects for some time. Before Harry could ask the obvious, she patted his hand and said, "I’ll just pop outside and let your family know you’re okay. Do you feel up to saying goodnight?"
Harry nodded resignedly and as soon as the Healers’ backs were turned, he risked a quick inspection of his own beneath the sheets â€” just to be sure. Harry’s feelings of relief were echoed by a huge cheer outside. A few moments later, the door burst open and Harry felt a great thump. All he could see were two blurs: one a flaming red, the other a bushy brown.
"Can’t breathe," he rasped.
His best friends pushed off of him, grinning madly. Ron looked happier than Harry had ever seen him. And Hermione, well, Hermione was crying and smiling and scolding and laughing and talking a mile a minute â€” Harry didn’t even bother trying to keep up. He just blinked slowly and tried to smile back at them; he could sense their feelings of enormous joy and relief â€” literally. He could really sense their feelings, as he did with Voldemort. He guessed it must be the quicksilver still in his system.
"Whoa," breathed Ron, "you should see your eyes. And your scar, you can barely see it!"
Harry’s head lolled tiredly. As usual, Hermione had all the answers.
"His eyes are saturated with the quicksilver, but the Healers say it’s only temporary. His scar is white right now, but I expect it’ll darken again when he goes into the sun. Harry, the Healers said you’ll need to take sun protection potions for a while to protect your new skin," she added authoritatively.
Harry noticed others standing around the bed â€” more redheads, Ginny, Fred, George â€” Susan and Hannah, too â€” all beaming madly at him. He looked around for Cho, trying to focus his smarting eyes.
"Where’s Cho?" he murmured.
Cho stepped forward. She was crying silently but smiling too â€” smiling and crying. Harry tugged her closer.
"Some Patronus," he rasped in a whisper.
Cho leaned low and tenderly kissed his cheek. "Some teacher," she whispered back.
"Hem, hem!" Ginny declared in her best Umbridge voice. "So much for your lifetime snogging ban!"
The others laughed and Harry and Cho smiled reluctantly.
"Right!" Fred declared, clapping his hands and turning on the rest of the group. "Come on, come on â€” nothing to see!"
"Move along, move along!" George agreed, winking at Harry and joining his twin in pushing the others out the door. "Man needs his rest!"
The group left noisily and reluctantly, grinning and waving. Harry and Cho stared at each other in the now silent room. Harry could just make out her eyes glistening in the candlelight as he fingered her now crumpled headdress.
"You’re going to make an amazing Healer," he said gratefully.
Cho quickly shook her head. "It was the phoenix you called, not me."
Harry couldn’t suppress a yawn. "What ph-phoenix? Did Fawkes come?"
Cho looked at him intently. "I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow, but you need to rest now."
"You heard me then?"
"I heard you," she whispered. Her eyes were shining as she stroked his hair. "We’ll talk tomorrow. You need to sleep now."
"You, too," Harry returned sleepily. "No more ravens ..."
Cho sucked in a breath. "Right," she agreed unsteadily. She leant over and kissed him again. Harry tasted the familiar salt of her tears. "Sleep well," she whispered. "I’ll see you in the morning, I promise."
Remus and Elizabeth slipped back inside the CCU to find Harry pale but blessedly healthy. The Healers had pulled the blankets away to check his feet, and Elizabeth, for the second time in her life, found herself carefully counting the toes of Lily’s baby. He appeared to be sleeping and Elizabeth and Remus started to leave again when he called out drowsily to Remus. Elizabeth stayed out of sight as Remus went to talk with the boy, partly because she didn’t want to intrude on their time, and partly because she had no idea how she could begin to apologise for all she had put him through.
"How are you feeling?" Remus murmured as he pulled the blankets neatly back over Harry’s feet.
"Fine," Harry replied wearily. "Remus, how could you let them do that to me?"
Stricken, Remus blurted at once, "Harry, I didn’t, I swear to you, I didn’t know anything about it. Please, you have to believe that! I would never â€” I could never do that to you!"
Harry stared, clearly baffled. "What are you going on about?"
It was Remus’s turn to look confused. "The Summoning Charm â€” the boiler â€” you think I did it to you ..."
Harry’s black brows shot up in surprise. Then he frowned deeply and motioned for Remus to come closer â€” closer still ...
Harry suddenly clipped Remus weakly across the back of his head.
"Idiot!" he muttered crossly. "Of course you didn’t do it. Just how daft do you think I am? You go weak at the knees if I get so much as a black eye! I was only worried whether you’d find me in time!"
The look of relief and bewilderment on Remus’s face was almost comical. "But you said ..."
"The girls!" moaned Harry, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. "Why on earth did you have to let girls in here? I’m lying there starkers in the bath and they come traipsing in and out like they own the place! I mean, seriously, what kind of guardian lets â€” what? Why are you laughing? Shut up! This is serious! Cripes, Moony, get off me!"
"Er, Remus?" said Elizabeth, feeling a little giddy herself. "Dear? I think you’re choking him ..."