"Ginny, I need to tell you something," said Ron tensely and urgently.
Ginny raised her eyebrows, noting the urgency in her brother's voice. "What is it?"
He looked around the hall and said quietly, "Let's talk somewhere private."
She suggested her room, and both of them went inside quickly.
"Okay," she said, turning to Ron. "Spill."
Ron took a deep breath. "I was in Harry's room just now. I didn't mean to see it, but it was just lying there, so I had no choice. There were books in there… with notes."
"What were you doing invading Harry's privacy?" she asked sternly, annoyed with her brother. She was half-tempted to reach for her wand and use her signature bat-bogey hex, but crossing her arms instead.
"I didn't mean to," he said defensively, trying to bring her back to the topic at hand, "but I got carried away and saw them."
Ron cleared his throat and whispered, "Books about souls."
Ginny raised her eyebrows. "Souls?"
Ron nodded, looking anxious.
"Well, what's wrong with reading about souls?"
"He's got a ton of notes in some of the pages," he explained in a low voice. "And besides, I don't remember getting any homework because we didn't come back to Hogwarts to study. So what was he doing?"
"Summer reading maybe?" she asked coolly.
"Come off it," said Ron, looking exasperated. "I know Harry hates school reading, and from all the books I've seen so far in his room, they only pertain to one topic: souls. Couldn't you tell it is kinda odd to read many books, but they're all talking about only one thing? And why is he interested in souls all of a sudden?"
Ginny just shrugged, nonplussed. "I don't know, Ron."
"Do you think he's dealing with post-traumatic stress because of the war?"
"He could be. After all that happened, I would definitely think it's possible."
Ron wanted to confront Harry, but he didn't want it to lead into another argument. They had just made peace with each other, and he didn't want to ruin it again. "Do you think I should talk to Harry about it?"
"Absolutely not," Ginny said, eyeing Ron as though he had gone mad. "Do you honestly think that he'd stay calm the moment you bombard him with questions about something he knows you shouldn't have known, anyway? Don't forget, it's Harry's business and not yours. Let him do the talking; he can be as stubborn as you when he wants."
"Should I talk to Hermione, then?" Ron had been dying to tell Hermione everything that had happened the first day back at the Burrow. He hadn't had the chance to speak to her anyway, and he already missed her.
"It wouldn't hurt to know her opinion, I guess," Ginny said thoughtfully, considering Ron's suggestion. "Hermione is the most responsible and capable out of all of us; she'll probably come up with a safe plan without hurting Harry in any way."
The next few days passed by in a blur. Harry remained cooped up in his room as his condition kept giving him headaches. It would come on and off in different time intervals and as frequently as Harry had sadly anticipated. It was making him feel as scared as ever, but he was still adamant on not telling his friends, simply saying it was "just flu" as his excuse.
Now that he was on good terms with Ron again, he was granted permission to use Pigwidgeon to send and receive letters. Ron, on the other hand, kept a close eye on his best friend but never confronted him about the soul books, as much as he really wanted to. The note he had read made him more aware of Harry's behaviour over the course of his stay at the Burrow, and Ron doubted it had anything to do with him, given the circumstances. However, his suspicions remained intact, and he was determined to send letters to Hermione, hoping she might have some answers. It's only a matter of time, I guess, he told himself. Ron gave Harry some space, which he took gratefully, while Ginny stayed by his side most of the time to take care of him "with vigour," as Harry would simply put it.
Harry awoke screaming one morning, feeling disturbed. He had had a weird dream concerning Hedwig. She had been in a cage beside him when she was suddenly hit by a green light, and then the dream changed to another scene where Sirius was floating beyond an archway that looked familiar to Harry, but he couldn't remember why.
Ginny and Ron burst inside Harry's room looking breathless, having run up the stairs and fearing something or someone had attacked Harry while he was sleeping. They found him still in his bed but sitting in a corner, his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth, and looking frightened.
"Where's Hedwig and Sirius?" Harry asked the moment they entered.
Ginny and Ron exchanged a quick glance. She went over to Harry, who shook uncontrollably.
"Where's Hedwig and Sirius?" Ron repeated, completely baffled.
"Harry, did you have a nightmare?" Ginny asked, looking worried.
"I don't know," he replied tremulously. "I saw Hedwig getting hit by a killing curse and Sirius floating away somewhere... and now that I think about it, I haven't seen either of them." He glanced at the empty cage sitting in a corner beside his desk.
Ron and Ginny watched him apprehensively, not knowing what to say or how to confirm that his nightmares were real.
Ron decided not to delay the inevitable and plucked up the courage to tell Harry, who looked at both of them with so much fear in his eyes.
"They're –" Ron hesitated for a moment. He looked nervously at his friend. "They're gone."
Harry's stomach lurched. "What do you mean, 'they're gone'?"
"What you saw in your dream…" said Ginny in a low voice. "That's – that's how they died, Harry."
Harry saw the sorrowful look on their faces.
"No," he said flatly, not wanting to believe it. "That can't be. What I saw was just a dream, like any other dreams I've had." He looked over at the door, expecting Sirius to come bounding in any second.
Ron looked at Ginny questioningly and mouthed the words "memory loss?" when Harry wasn't looking, but Ginny only shrugged.
"Harry..." Ginny placed her hand in his arm. "I'm sorry."
Harry looked at her; her expression made his heart feel heavy.
"How –" he paused. Nothing made sense to him. "When did they –"
"Almost a year ago," Ron told him. "Hedwig died before you turned seventeen. We were all pursued by Death Eaters on the way to our safe houses. You told us yourself what happened to Hedwig, Harry. You were there, you saw how she got killed." He gulped at the surprised look Harry showed - as though he hadn't been there at the time Hedwig had died and was just hearing it for the first time.
Ron continued as he tried to shake off the odd behaviour of his friend. "And at the Department of Mysteries, we were ambushed by the Death Eaters. Bellatrix was duelling with your godfather, and he got struck by a spell. He… he fell through the Veil that caused his death. That was almost three years ago, mate." Ron finished and looked at Harry once again. He was looking down at his knees. Ron could tell Harry was silently crying when he heard him sniff a few times.
"I was there when he fell, wasn't I?" Harry asked, not looking up at them. "I saw the whole thing, didn't I?" He felt grief-stricken as well as frustrated at himself for not remembering. How could I have forgotten? he asked himself. It was such a huge blow for him to be reminded of these events by his friend who knew he was there as well at the time. He couldn't bring himself to look at them. He knew they were silently communicating in front of him, asking the same thing, wondering why he couldn't remember things correctly.
Ron made a mental note of this occurrence which had happened twice now in less than a week. This first time was at the London train station when Harry thought he was being picked up by the Dursleys, and the second was this. He hated to think that it coincided with what Harry had written on that piece of paper about being confused and having a mental breakdown. Ron tried to shrug off the awful feeling. But that couldn't be the case, he told himself. What is really going on with Harry?
The silence dragged on to all of them. Only Harry's stifled sobs and the rain that started pouring outside of Harry's window could be heard.
Harry let out a breath when he finally calmed down. He looked up and saw them looking at him curiously.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking embarrassed all of a sudden.
"Harry, mate… No offence, but you gave us quite a scare," said Ron in a low voice. "Are you having amnesia? What was that about?"
Ginny cast him a look, exasperated by how tactless her brother was.
Harry looked away. There was no other way to hide his secret. He had to tell them now. He had already scared the living daylights out of them, and what more could keeping quiet do if the damage was already done?
He inhaled deeply and cleared his throat. He nervously glanced at them.
"Remember when I said I'd tell you guys something when I'm sure of it?" he asked more to Ginny than to Ron, who still nodded. He continued, "I… I found out about it the night before we all went back home, and –"
A soft tap disturbed them all of a sudden. Pigwidgeon hooted loudly outside the window. He had a couple of scrolls attached to his leg. Ron opened the window to let him in and grabbed the letters. One was addressed to Ron, clearly from Hermione with her slant and neat handwriting, while the other was for Harry. He gave the letter to Harry, who took it, a frown visible on his face as he read, and Ron opened his. It was a bit short and frantic.
Are you sure about this? There are many reasons why Harry would be interested in souls. He dealt with seven Horcruxes, not to mention himself as one of them. He told us about it right after the war, remember? But with illnesses and possible symptoms, I have no idea why he was looking into it. You don't think he's planning on making a Horcrux? Because that's just not Harry at all. He wouldn't do that. It would scare the hell out of me if he did. Keep me informed.
Ron pocketed the letter. He was about to ask Harry who had sent his letter when Mrs. Weasley's booming voice startled the three of them.
"Ron! Ginny!" she called from behind the door. "Breakfast is ready!" Then they heard a knock, and her soft voice said, "Harry, dear, I'll be bringing your breakfast in a minute."
Harry scrambled to his feet and opened the door before she disappeared from the stairs.
"No need, Mrs. Weasley. I'll come downstairs and have breakfast."
"Are you sure, dear?" she asked worriedly. "You're still looking pale."
"I'm sure," Harry said, giving her a reassuring smile.
"Okay, then," she said. "If you insist." She went downstairs and out of sight.
Harry turned around and faced Ron and Ginny.
"I guess we'd better go and have breakfast," he said, but when he saw the worried looks on their faces, he added, "I'll tell you guys later, I promise."
But that promise was stalled by Mrs. Weasley when she decided to have Ron and Ginny work around the house all day, and by the time night came, they were already too exhausted and sleepy to think of the promise Harry had made.
Harry was also having some difficulty talking to them, as Mrs. Weasley began her check-up on his condition as often as she could handle. The burning feeling started again as well, and it left him screaming in agony and breathless as he gasped for air for more than an hour each time as it worsened. The good thing was, it only happened when everyone was already asleep. He would always cast a Silencing Charm on his bedroom to prevent them from waking up. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone would find out, but right now he couldn't risk being heard.
A letter Harry had received several days ago from Professor Slughorn lay uncurled in his desk. They had been communicating, owing to Harry's need to know more about tainted souls, and Harry was getting desperate for a cure. Professor Slughorn was pretty cautious in what he wrote, for every letter he delivered to Harry carried the possibility that it might get intercepted. Their topic for conversation was serious and highly dangerous should it landed in the wrong hands. As much as possible, he would only write short notes, and it was starting to bother Harry.
To make it even worse than what Harry was already feeling, there was the fact that he couldn't stop himself from shaking. He was having a hard time holding his quill and writing properly now. He attempted several times, but oftentimes his handwriting wasn't legible enough to be understood. Out of frustration, he would then decide to toss the letter in the bin.
Ron was also getting frustrated. Hermione's letter brought a great deal of worry and discomfort to him. As much as he'd have liked to know what was going on with Harry, he couldn't find the time to do it because his mother was becoming increasingly needy for all the things she wanted to be done in the house, leaving Ron scowling permanently as though no other expression could ever change his foul mood.
The same went for Ginny. Even though her room was just beside Harry's, her exhaustion would take over before she could even decide to knock on his door.
As another day came, Ron decided to stop his cleaning duties and talk to his mother. He found her outside the house with Ginny, who looked ready to kill the chickens at any moment.
"Mum!" snapped Ron, coming to a halt behind her and looking furious. "Why are we suddenly cleaning the whole freaking house?"
Mrs. Weasley cast him a glare, her hands on her hips. "Don't you dare use that tone on me, young man. And didn't I tell you that your professor is coming in today?"
Ron and Ginny were both shocked.
"No, you didn't. Which professor?" Ron was completely surprised and puzzled.
"Horace Slughorn," she said simply.
"Why's he coming here?" Ginny asked.
"He said he needed to talk to Harry. I don't know what about, but I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
"How do you know?" asked Ron who clearly knew there was something to worry about.
"Because Horace told me not to worry. He said his visit is purely for academic purposes."
Ron and Ginny exchanged worried looks.
Ron ran back inside the house and up the stairs to Harry's room. He knocked, but Harry didn't answer. He couldn't still be sleeping, Ron said to himself. He checked the clock on the wall: eleven o'clock.
He knocked again. "Harry! Are you awake yet?" He pressed his ear at the door. It was too silent. Ron sighed and opened the door.
He saw Harry curled into a ball in his bed, fast asleep. Ron made a move to leave when Harry stirred.
"Harry?" Ron knelt beside him.
Harry opened his eyes weakly and saw sunlight streaming through the window.
"Harry, you have to wake up," said Ron with urgency.
"Why?" Harry lifted his head slightly.
"Didn't you know Professor Slughorn is coming today?"
"No," he said as he tried to sit.
Ron looked surprised at him. "Why not?"
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, looking perplexed at Ron. He wasn't feeling really good today, and his head was pounding.
Ron sighed. "He's coming in to talk to you. I thought you knew."
Harry frowned and then his heart leapt as the realization hit him. "Oh, that must be the letters…" he muttered to himself, but Ron heard him.
"Letters? What letters?"
But Harry didn't hear him as he suddenly writhed in bed and screamed.
Ron was dumbstruck. He looked frantically at Harry, who continued to scream in pain.
"Harry? Harry! What's wrong?"
There were tears in Harry's eyes. "It… hurts!" he managed to utter as he writhed again.
Ron watched, horrified at his friend's condition. His insides crawled unpleasantly. He scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could outside where his mother was.
"Mum!" yelled Ron. Mrs. Weasley and Ginny looked up and saw his distraught-looking face. "Quickly! Harry needs help!"
"What happened?" Mrs. Weasley asked, sounding alarmed as they made their way to Harry's room.
"He's in so much pain –"
They reached his room and saw Harry breathing heavily and moaning. He looked really pale, and his face glistened with sweat that made his hair stick on his forehead.
"Dear…" Mrs. Weasley knelt down. She reached out her hand and touched his arm, but he winced, causing her to pull her hand back. "Harry, tell me what's wrong?"
But Harry only continued to writhe, though a little less than earlier.
"He said, 'it hurts,'" Ron answered for him.
Mrs. Weasley was careful not to touch his skin again as she brushed his hair away from his face. "Where does it hurt, Harry?"
"Everywhere," he croaked. His eyes closed.
Ginny's eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she watched Harry in his terrible state.
"Ginny, quickly, in the storage cabinet, there's a small bottle labelled 'Healing Potion'," ordered Mrs. Weasley.
Ginny nodded and sped downstairs.
A few, tense minutes later, she hastened back to her mother and Harry, whose face was half-buried in his pillow as he cried in pain while the time passed by.
Mrs. Weasley wrenched the stopper off the little bottle and said in a comforting voice to Harry, "Harry, dear… I have here a healing potion that you have to drink. It'll help with your pain."
A few tears dropped from Harry's face when he nodded weakly at Mrs. Weasley. She gestured for Ron to come near her so he could help Harry lift his body and tilt his head to drink the potion.
Harry felt cold wash over him as soon as the potion worked its way into his bloodstream, and the burning feeling throughout his body eased, but only a little. He curled into a ball once again; his hands turned to fists as he bit back the pain that he knew would engulf his already tired senses, and it did. The last thing he saw was Mrs. Weasley placing a blanket on top of him and calling his name before unconsciousness took over.
Ron quickly sent a letter to Hermione to inform her of what happened, and he hoped she could come by since he didn't want to deal with Professor Slughorn alone. He had seen Harry in pain before. He hated it each time, but he could handle it then when he knew why his friend was hurting, but this time, it was even harder for Ron, as he had no clue what was wrong with Harry at all.
Harry's sudden ordeal an hour ago made the rest of the Weasleys so worried that even Mrs. Weasley didn't know how else to help him but to ask a healer or someone with more knowledge in the medical field. The potions she had given Harry didn't seem to have much effect at all. As much as she wanted to help, she was running out of ideas.
Ginny remained beside Harry, who still had not woken up from unconsciousness, while her mother contacted her father downstairs. She felt Harry's skin, and he was burning up again. She had noticed that this symptom came and went. They had already given him multiple Fever-Reducing potions several days ago, but it didn't help at all, so they had to resort to muggle remedies. He had taken cool baths, which lowered his body temperature slightly, but then his fever would come back again.
Green flames erupted in the fireplace, startling Mrs. Weasley and Ron. Horace Slughorn arrived wearing his usual waistcoat with gold buttons. He peered around the Weasley kitchen and saw Mrs. Weasley, who had completely forgotten that he would be arriving today.
She stood up and shook his hand. "Horace."
"Good afternoon, Molly," Horace greeted as he stepped out of the fireplace. "Forgive me if I startled you with my arrival. Now that I think about it, I can't remember if I even mentioned the time. Old age must be kicking in, I would think."
"Oh, you mentioned it. Something just happened, and I completely forgot. I'm sorry," Molly said.
"Did I arrive at a bad time?"
Before Molly could answer him, green flames erupted once again behind them, and this time it was Hermione Granger who came out of the fireplace, her face already looking worried. Ron stood up.
"Hermione?" Molly stood perplexed. "What are you doing here?"
"Ms. Granger!" exclaimed Slughorn, looking surprised yet cheerful at the same time. "It's good to see you again."
Hermione beamed at the sight of them.
"Hi, Mrs. Weasley," she said breathlessly. "Hello, Professor Slughorn. I'm sorry that I didn't send an owl saying that I would be arriving today. I heard about what happened to Harry –"
"Harry? Harry Potter?" Slughorn asked quickly, his cheerfulness gone and replaced by worry.
Ron moved towards Hermione and gave her a hug. She took a good look at him and saw worried lines formed in his face.
"Yes," Molly said sadly to Horace. "An hour ago Harry was in so much pain that he fell unconscious. The healing potions didn't work much, and I don't know what else to do."
"I think this is more than just a simple sickness," interjected Ron. Though it caused everyone to look at him, he said it more to Slughorn, who regarded his sudden appearance with surprise.
"What do you mean, Mr. Weasley?"
"Harry's been acting really strange," Ron explained. "He woke up screaming from a nightmare and asked where Hedwig and Sirius were. He knew how they died, and we all knew that, of course, because he told us before." He looked to Hermione for confirmation, and she nodded, urging him to continue. "But now he seemed to think that they were still alive. And back at the train station, Hermione… after you left with your parents, Harry said he was waiting for the Dursleys to pick him up. He had completely forgotten that he's living with us now. He's very confused, not to mention having fevers that never go away for long, and saying that he's feeling pain everywhere in his body.
"It was pretty weird too," Ron added before someone could interrupt him. "I came across one of Harry's notes with different symptoms he had written on it. I didn't think much of it at first, but now whatever he wrote is happening to him now, and there were these books about souls – it doesn't really make any sense to me, but what you said in the letter about Horcruxes, Hermione –"
"What a minute, Mr. Weasley," Slughorn cut him off, a look of horror visible in his face. "Did you say 'Horcrux'?"
"Yeah," said Ron, frowning slightly.
Slughorn lowered his head, suddenly looking older than ever. "Harry came to me asking about it. It was late one evening, and he wanted to know what happens to a person's soul when once invaded by a Horcrux." Molly looked at him with confusion. "I told him the soul becomes damaged or tainted as I remembered I'd said –"
Hermione gasped all of a sudden, her hands covering her mouth.
"What is it, Ms. Granger?" Slughorn asked, looking alarmed.
"Professor, did Harry tell you the reason why he was asking?" Hermione asked tensely.
"I don't believe he said anything." He racked his brain. "Why do you ask?"
Hermione looked apprehensively at them. "Because – Harry was a… a Horcrux." She looked frightened saying it, but she continued when no one spoke. "Voldemort attempted to kill him when he was still a baby, and we all knew he failed, and the curse backfired on him instead." Everyone nodded at this fact. "But a part of his soul was transferred to Harry, making him a – a Horcrux. When Voldemort cast the Killing Curse at Harry again at the battle at Hogwarts, he destroyed that part of his soul unknowingly inside Harry."
"Merlin's beard!" Slughorn exclaimed. He hadn't known how grave the situation was before, and now he felt as though ice had formed inside him and was numbing him. "No wonder he was asking for a possible cure on the damaged soul!"
"What is this Horcrux that Harry was dealing with for such a long time? No one said anything about it to me," Mrs. Weasley asked worriedly.
"A Horcrux is an object in which a dark wizard or witch has hidden a fragment of his or her soul in order to become immortal," Horace explained in a very low voice, obviously not keen on the subject. "It can only be created after committing murder, the supreme act of evil. I wanted to avoid this kind of conversation as much as possible since I knew it was a dangerous topic... but it was -" he hesitated and gave a deep sigh. "It was I who told Tom Riddle about it. I had feared that the worst things could happen, and they did. Now I'm cursing myself so much for such idiocy. It was my careless tongue that caused Tom Riddle to misuse his information." He turned to regard Mrs. Weasley quietly. "Dumbledore insisted that I share with him that specific memory."
Mrs. Weasley slowly sat on a chair, shock coursing through her body, and her heart was beating fast. She felt weak all of a sudden.
"Professor," Hermione spoke, breaking the short silence that the professor's words had rendered suddenly. "When you said 'damaged soul,' what do you mean? What happens to its host?"
Slughorn glanced at Hermione wearily and said, "It's an unusual case, so I could only assume that the host would wither away and eventually die."
Ron gulped loudly.
Hermione was silent, trying to assess the situation, and then she asked the one question she feared the most, "And how long can that host live?"
"It could be a few months… weeks, or less," Slughorn said sadly.
There was a tense silence following Slughorn's last words. It pierced right through their hearts. They all knew now that Harry was fighting in a losing war. Ron finally understood why Harry couldn't bring himself to say what was wrong because he knew he only had a little time left and because he didn't want to give them anything to worry about anymore. He couldn't possibly think that, could he? Ron battled the thought within himself. He would've hated that Harry was thinking this way if he did. They had done a lot together and risked a lot. Surely that alone was proof enough for Harry to think that he was not alone and that he could trust his friends. He almost lost Harry to You-Know-Who, and he was not going to let that happen again no matter the cost.
Hermione looked like she was on the verge of tears. She had dealt with pain before, but losing Harry was not something she could handle. Harry was like a brother to her, and having him gone would be like a part of her had died, too. She hated herself for not noticing that Harry was going through something dreadful after the war. After all, Harry knew full well how to keep a secret if he really wanted to. Hermione respected that, but there were times that she knew he wouldn't be able to handle it on his own. She was always willing to help, but she felt like it wasn't always enough for Harry to even confide his thoughts to her, and that hurt. Even though that was the case, she wouldn't want to give up because he was already like family to her; he was a friend she was willing to risk her life for.
"Surely there's a cure, Professor?" Hermione asked desperately, her tears threatening to fall any minute now.
Slughorn sighed. "I could only hope. I want to happily tell you that there is a cure, but I would only be fooling myself to believe that. The creation of a Horcrux is evil enough that all information about it was banned in public," he said. "To my knowledge, I would presume to believe that there was no such reference as to how to go about mending a soul for that matter. After all, no one would attempt to do it, not until you told me, Ms. Granger. Interestingly enough, I once had a short talk with Dumbledore regarding this, and he did mention something about fragmenting a soul. It could be possible that he knew how to mend a soul; he's the greatest and most powerful wizard of all time, after all. But it caused me so much grief knowing that Tom Riddle had succeeded in making Horcruxes that I lost my interest in extracting more knowledge on how to mend a soul, so Dumbledore never mentioned it again."
They were silent once more. Only the hum of the wind outside and the chirps of the birds could be heard. Too much information had been revealed, and the shock of it all could not be overcome in an instant.
"So you said you thought Professor Dumbledore believed that it's possible to mend a soul," said Hermione eventually. "Surely he read that somewhere –"
But Hermione was cut short when Ginny suddenly showed up in the kitchen. She smiled awkwardly at them all and said, "Harry's awake."
To be continued...
A/N: My one-shot Draco Malfoy story called "Troubled Mind" is now posted. Do check it out!
Beta-read by KVeronicaP, Scaehime
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