They all followed Ginny upstairs and into Harry's room. The afternoon sun shined across the floor, giving the room a pleasant ambience. Harry's eyes were closed, and his breathing had calmed to normal when they entered. Ron and Hermione knelt on the floor beside him while the rest of them remained standing and looking overly worried at the teenage boy lying in bed.
"Harry?" Hermione called gently.
Harry's eyes opened slowly, and he saw the bushy-haired outline of his friend in front of him.
"'Mione…" he said weakly.
"How are you feeling?"
It took him a minute before answering in a whisper, "Great."
Ron snorted while Hermione smiled. Harry closed his eyes again, too tired to open them.
"Uh… I came by to see you," she said. "Thought you could use some company."
Harry smiled and said in a hoarse voice, "Thanks."
She cringed at the sound of his voice. He must have been screaming a lot, Hermione thought sadly.
Mrs. Weasley drew a breath and said, "Harry, Professor Slughorn is here to talk to you, but if you're not up for it, he can come back anytime." She looked over at the professor who gave her a curt nod.
Harry made a move to sit as a way of saying that he was okay enough to talk, but he could feel how nervous he was when everyone was staring at him. Ron helped him up while Hermione propped his pillows. He looked so pale, and his eyes were bloodshot when he looked at them. Ginny slid the glasses onto his face, and he said his thanks. He ran his hand through his hair and made himself look comfortable against the pillows behind his back, occasionally wincing from the burning feeling that still wouldn't leave him.
He looked up and saw Professor Slughorn. "Professor," he regarded him as casually as possible as he cleared his throat. He knew he must've sounded horrible to them. He was kind of hoping to have a private chat with his professor, but they didn't seem to want to go away. He glanced at them nervously, feeling as though he were sitting in a very bright spotlight; the people inside the room kept shooting furtive glances at him as though he were about to collapse again at any moment.
Sensing Harry's uncomfortable look, Hermione blurted before she could stop herself.
"Harry, we already knew about the –" She hesitated to look at Ron for support as she addressed the truth to Harry. "Soul."
Ginny's head shot up with a questioning look on her face. "Soul? What are you talking about, Hermione?" she asked looking between Hermione and Harry.
Harry lowered his head and stared at his hands. He didn't speak nor move in his bed. He didn't know what to say to them. Whatever they thought of him having a tainted soul didn't really matter now. There was no cure, and all he had to do was accept it, go on with life, and wait for his final moments. This is always how it works, isn't it? he thought with a heavy heart.
Hermione heaved a deep sigh. She didn't want to be the one to tell Ginny of Harry's secret. She felt constricted to be in this position, but she had no choice. Before she could utter an explanation, however, Ginny went ahead and asked Harry herself, and Hermione took it as a huge relief.
"What aren't you telling me, Harry? What is this soul Hermione was talking about?"
"Since when have you known? Why didn't you tell us?" Ron cut in suddenly and looked apologetically at his sister who had shot him a hard look for interrupting her question.
"It's not really – I don't –" Harry tried to explain but was having a hard time. He hadn't expected them to find out so soon. Harry looked at Ginny who was waiting worriedly for his explanation. He was going to tell her, but for now, he would have to disappoint her by addressing Ron and Hermione first. "I felt it when Voldemort destroyed his Horcrux inside me."
"What did you feel?" asked Hermione softly.
"I… I can't really describe it. All I know is that it feels like my skin burns every time now." Harry touched his arm and felt it.
"Are you saying you've been feeling like this for three weeks now?" she asked with a frightened look on her face.
"It was not as much as now. It only lasted for a second the first time I felt it, and then it gradually stayed longer after that."
"And the potions I gave you didn't help either." Mrs. Weasley said this statement more to herself than to Harry who still acknowledged her and gave her a nod.
"I don't believe any potions could stop whatever you're feeling from happening, Harry," Slughorn said sadly. "It wasn't my intention to bring bad news, but it was the only truth I could provide, unfortunately. It's not your body that's suffering, it's your soul. It could be that as more time passes by, your soul withers away little by little. That's why I think you're feeling these."
"These?" Harry asked, a little confused.
"Ron mentioned quite a few things that have been happening to you these past few days, Harry," Hermione told him anxiously.
"What do you mean?" he asked, looking puzzled.
Ron looked at him apprehensively and said, "You know… you've been acting really strange. There were times when you were so confused like someone just obliviated your memory, and you couldn't remember a thing of what happened. You've been really out of it, mate. And all those books about souls –"
Harry raised his eyebrows, a look of disbelief went towards Ron. "You went through my stuff?" Harry asked him incredulously.
Ginny looked at Ron as though saying 'I told you he'd be mad.'
"Well, yeah… I did," he replied as though it was the obvious thing to do for keeping secrets, ignoring Ginny's look. "But not completely on purpose," he added quickly. "I saw your notes, and since you won't tell us anything, we kind of tried to figure it out."
"And you have to invade my privacy just to figure it out?" he asked, and even with a hoarse voice, he sounded dangerous.
"I don't regret it," Ron courageously said. "Now we all know –"
"And then what?" asked Harry with a glare at Ron.
"Then we find a cure," replied Ron simply.
"There is no cure!" Harry said exasperatedly.
"You don't know that, Harry," Hermione interjected. "There must be a way to fix this!"
"I'm running out of time, Hermione. What do you want me to do?" All this talk was making Harry feel edgy and frustrated. Even if they would look for a cure, he didn't know whether it exists or not. "And in case you don't know, there were no other reference books for the kind of problem that I have."
"You could be wrong, Harry. Don't be so thick to assume that it's hopeless –"
"Well, it is!" Harry cut Hermione off who stared at him with displeasure, and Ron looked daggers in his direction.
"So you're just giving up?" Ron spat at him. He couldn't help himself now but get annoyed. "Is that what you're trying to say? That you just let death take you away? Are you really that willing to die?"
Harry just glared at Ron who stared back at him furiously and continued, "I can't have that hopeless attitude of yours ruin what we and your parents fought for so long, mate, and that is to damn well live!" Ron was shaking with rage. He stormed out of the room before anyone could even say anything. Mrs. Weasley immediately followed him out to talk to him.
Harry sat frozen in bed. He couldn't bring himself to look at Hermione, Professor Slughorn, and much less to Ginny who was silent in front of him. He wanted to be alone. He felt ashamed of himself. He was so set to give up his life that he had forsaken the one thing his parents valued most and had sacrificed their lives for. It was true that his friends fought for him so that he could live, and yet here he was, tossing it away like a piece of trash.
"Harry," Hermione said softly even though she was feeling tense after seeing Ron lose his temper. "We want to help you, but nothing's going to work out if you keep pushing us away. We know how hard it is for you, and we know you're scared, but you are stronger than you think. You're a fighter, Harry, I know you are, and you have to hold on tight and fight as hard as you can because we're not giving up on you, and neither should you."
Harry knew that Hermione was aware of everything that he had undergone, how far he'd come, all the times he had pushed on, even when he felt he couldn't, all the mornings he got out of bed no matter how hard it was, and all the times he had wanted to give up but getting through another day and never forgetting how much strength he had gained and developed.
"If I must say, Harry, m'boy," said Professor Slughorn who was awkwardly standing behind Hermione. Harry looked at him, feeling suddenly embarrassed. "You may not always have a comfortable life, and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once, but don't ever underestimate the importance you can have. Because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and that hope can take up a life of its own. There are plenty of obstacles in your path, Mr. Potter, don't allow yourself to become one of them." With that, he excused and lead himself out the door to give them some privacy, but Hermione followed suit after giving Harry a worried look and a nod at Ginny who returned it just the same.
Neither Ginny nor Harry spoke when Hermione closed the door behind her. They were at a loss for words on how to comfort and reassure each other's thoughts.
It was Ginny's expression that caused Harry's heart to skip a beat. She was looking straight at him with a disappointed look on her face while holding her hands together.
"Ginny, I…" Harry trailed off. He watched as many emotions flickered over Ginny's face. With a sinking heart, he saw her tear her eyes away from him. He knew what she must be feeling at the moment, having been told of Harry's situation in such a way must have been unexpected. Harry was sure that it was a blow she had not been prepared to take, knowing full well that she didn't have any idea of what Ron and Hermione had talked about.
"I did what I thought was best for you or for us, Harry…" said Ginny in a strange strained voice. "I've given you time and space so you could think things through, work out what you need and you've done it… you knew."
Harry saw tears glistening in Ginny's eyes.
"Are you even gonna tell me what's going on with you? Do you even plan on it or am I just gonna keep on guessing?" she asked, frustration lacing her words, she wanted to control what little she had of her emotions, but she was starting to lose it. "Because right now I'm so disappointed in you. You kept me in the dark!"
Harry sat motionlessly.
"It's already hard for me, Ginny," he said sadly. "I don't want to make it harder for you. I don't have a choice –"
"Yes you do," she said angrily. "And you know it!"
"What do you expect me to do?" he asked, he was getting frustrated for Ginny to understand his situation.
"You could've told me sooner instead of me finding out from someone else. I'm your girlfriend for goodness sake!" She was glaring at Harry while she said it. Her tears threatening to fall from her face.
"I'm sorry. I know I've said this before, but I'm saying it again: I don't want to hurt you, Ginny."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "And you think I care about that?" she asked.
"I care…" said Harry with dignity. "I don't want to see your life fall apart because of me."
Ginny looked outraged. She stared at Harry disbelievingly for a second. She could feel herself shaking when she asked, "So you'd rather I live a good life than finding out dangerous truths about you? Is that what you want?"
Harry sighed heavily and said softly, "It's for the best. You know how my life works, Ginny. I would hate to admit it, but we don't have a future together. My life had been cursed, and I have no other way to fix it – I don't know how to fix it."
"No," she said defiantly.
"No what?" Harry asked, completely confused.
"No way am I going to give up on us, and neither should you!" she snapped at Harry. "I've done my fair share. I had cried my eyes out thinking you died in battle with Voldemort – but you didn't, so this time I'll never going to lose you again, Harry, not in a million years! I'm willing to take that risk, even if it meant saving your life. So stop acting like a total jerk and let's find that damn cure!"
Harry was silent. He gave a long breath as though in defeat and said, "There really is no way out of this, is there?"
"No," Ginny said firmly. "So you'd better skip the 'I don't want to hurt you' talk because I don't care. I'm helping you out, and there's nothing you can do to change my mind."
The blazing afternoon sun matched Ron's foul mood when he stormed out of Harry's room and into the living room. He was fuming, and the heat was only making him feel worse. He didn't mean to yell at Harry, but he couldn't control his temper as well when it came to Harry's hopeless way of thinking.
He sat on the sofa and buried his face in his hands when his mother came storming behind him, her hands on her waist. Ron had expected that and was too keen for explanations to protest.
"Mum, please!" Ron cut her off, not wanting to hear her scold him at this time, especially when he was already feeling terrible.
"Don't you dare –"
"I know, mum! I know I shouldn't have said that to Harry, but he was being stupid," he tried to explain. "You heard how set he was on dying and how he wouldn't even hear us out. How could I not say something? He doesn't know how to value his life and… and after losing Fred, I – I couldn't…"
Ron couldn't finish his words as he sucked some air out of frustration and from the sadness that was creeping in slowly inside him. He stared at the floor and tried to calm himself.
Molly sighed. She could see the troubled look on her son's face and his slumped shoulders. She knelt in front of him and gently touched his arm.
"When some people are at their deepest point in life," she started. "They tend to lose control of their emotions and say what they don't mean to say. I understand where your words were coming from, but lashing out isn't a good way to point out your views."
At that point, Hermione and Professor Slughorn came downstairs and went straight to them, a look of worry on their faces.
"Harry is going through so much right now," Molly continued. Ron remained unperturbed when he saw Hermione from the corner of his eyes. "It's understandable that he would let his emotions overpower him and disregard anything else, but don't feed him with some more emotions that could potentially ruin him. Do you understand what I'm saying, Ron? You're his best friend, and there's a reason why he chose you to be his best friend." She patted his shoulder before standing up and walking away.
Hermione went over to where Ron was and sat beside him. She held his hands, and Ron squeezed them gently to let her know he was okay. At times like these, he just wanted to be with Hermione. Harry had always been a big part of their lives, and losing him to something that they knew they could have done better to solve was something Ron could never accept in his life.
Why does Harry have to succumb into thinking that there's no way out of this? Ron thought sadly, his mind still clouding with frustration.
"Professor, earlier you said Dumbledore might have known of a way to mend a soul. Perhaps he kept the book that stated that fact?" Hermione asked suddenly, looking up at Slughorn with desperation on her voice.
Slughorn sighed and slumped into a chair across from them. His tired-looking eyes peered at Hermione who was patiently waiting and hoping to hear some good news after all the bad news they had heard so far. Slughorn looked down in his hands and thought hard.
"I would believe so," said Slughorn. "But he could have read it somewhere, not only in Hogwarts library, or he could have heard it from someone. You can never really know. After all, he liked to travel back when he was young, and he's quite good at making conversations."
"We could at least try first and look in Dumbledore's office, see if we could find anything," Ron suggested suddenly. "If not, then we could always figure out what to do next."
Slughorn and Hermione glanced at him.
"That could be one of many possibilities, Mr. Weasley," said Slughorn.
"If the book is still in the office, maybe we could ask Professor McGonagall's permission," Hermione eagerly told Ron, but her expression suddenly became worried. "Would she be able to let us borrow books from Professor Dumbledore's own shelves?" she cast a look toward Professor Slughorn. "Professor, I know we're asking a huge favour, but could you –" Hermione hesitated for a moment. She badly needed the books if they held a cure, and the only one who can get them was right in front of her. "Could you try and find the book from the office?"
Silence greeted them as Professor Slughorn contemplated and pondered Hermione's question with barely a glance in their direction.
"I believe I could," Slughorn said thoughtfully after a while. "I don't think Minerva would mind, but it would take me some time to find it, not to mention Dumbledore has got a whole lot of shelves full of books."
"Thank you, Professor," Hermione said with a small smile and felt relief washed over her. "At least now we know where to start looking for a cure," she said happily.
Slughorn stood up and said, "I will have to go now, then. It was good to see you both care so much with your friend. I only hope I bring good news once I have any prospective book with me when I come back." He turned and strode to the kitchen fireplace so he could Floo back to Hogwarts. Ron and Hermione followed him. He waved goodbye to them before disappearing from the green flames. The only thing that Ron and Hermione could do for now was to wait for Slughorn to visit them again.
The air inside the Burrow felt rather subdued when the knowledge of Harry's condition was out in the open. The letter Arthur Weasley received from Molly at work that afternoon was clutched in his hand the moment he came home that evening. He sat on one of the kitchen chairs looking rather pale from having heard the news further when Molly retold what had been happening when he was away from work. Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were in the kitchen as well, all with a worried look on their faces.
"Is Harry resting right now?" Arthur asked no one in particular while his head drifted upwards on the ceiling as though he could see through Harry's room.
"Yes," Molly answered him. "I gave him some sleeping draught. I could tell he was becoming increasingly restless." That much was true. Harry was having difficulty sleeping now. At random hour each night, he would be awoken from the burning feeling that was getting too painful for him to handle. The Silencing charm was never cast again after he reluctantly admitted to Mrs. Weasley what he was doing so as not to wake them up to which Mrs. Weasley scolded him for doing such a stupid thing. She said she would rather be awoken from his screams than not knowing what was happening to him, and so now Harry was forced to bite his lip and bury his face in his pillows again when he screamed. Not to mention, Harry was always in a daze the next day, and his emerald eyes were starting to look dull with dark circles.
Arthur sighed and asked his wife, "Do you think we should take him to St. Mungos's hospital?"
"No," Ron interjected suddenly, his parents looked at him. "Harry wouldn't like that."
"Why not?" Molly asked. "He will be well taken cared of over there than here." As much as Molly wanted to help Harry, she had to admit that she lacked medical knowledge when dealing with grave sickness and had to resort to professionals to do their work.
"Did you forget what Slughorn told us?" Ron asked while looking at his mother who raised her eyebrows. "No potion or spell can heal Harry's symptoms. Sure, they can try and give him some to make him feel comfortable, but the pain will always come back."
"Are you saying we do nothing and let Harry suffer in front of us?" Molly asked incredulously. She stared between Ron and Hermione who were seated on the far end of the table. Hermione gave her a reluctant nod and looked away from her direction.
"You can't be serious? Harry's getting worse each day. I can't just stand there and act as if nothing's wrong with him."
"That's why we're waiting for Slughorn to come back so that we can get started with finding the cure," said Ron. He ran his hand through his hair, gazing absentmindedly at the clock hanging on the wall. His stomach churned just thinking about what could possibly happen to Harry if they keep delaying.
"I really wish Professor Slughorn would hurry up," Hermione said under her breath. "Or else I would have to resort to those books Harry has –" she stood up suddenly, startling the other four people in the kitchen. "Why didn't I think of that before?" she muttered to herself.
"Think about what?" Ron asked, frowning at her.
"The books, Ron," she said. "You said in the letter that Harry has books about souls. I could very well read them now that I'm here." She strode across the room and up the stairs.
"You're not going to barge in his room now and get them, are you?" Ron asked quickly as he kept up with her from behind.
"Yes, Ron. I am," Hermione said before stopping in front of Harry's door and reaching for the knob.
Ron held her arm. "You can't. If Harry sees you he'll –"
"He'll do what exactly?" Hermione cut him off and asked with a menacing voice. "You know I don't care at this point what he does, and besides, your mum gave him a sleeping draught." Before Ron could speak, Hermione turned the knob and opened the door.
Harry's room was dark. Only his sleeping form could be seen from the faint light the moon gave from the outside. Hermione could hear that his breathing was ragged. She went straight to his desk and scanned the book covers. There were at least three books that were lying on the table. Hermione hurriedly took them and was about to leave when she heard Harry mutter something under his breath. He must be dreaming, she said to herself. She crept slowly out of the room but stopped when she heard her name.
"…'m sorry… 'Mione… Ron… Gin…"
Hermione looked at him when she thought she heard Harry crying in his sleep. She couldn't help but feel depressed at the thought of Harry slowly dying.
"Please hang in there, Harry. We'll get through this," she said quietly.
As though Harry wasn't sleeping, he muttered, "…M'kay…" That took Hermione by surprise, and she let her tears that were threatening to come out ever since she came to the Burrow, fall from her face.
That evening in the living room, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny busied themselves by reading the books Harry borrowed from the library, occasionally taking notes to add more to what Harry had written. The only helpful thing they could find from the books were the symptoms that they had gone over quite a few times already in their small talks. To add more to their disappointment, no such things as 'Horcrux' or 'mending of souls' were even mentioned in all the three books.
"Those were pretty much basic symptoms that can be fixed by a potion or spell," Ron sighed in frustration. "But in Harry's case, there's none! How can they hush it all up?"
Ginny rolled her eyes while Hermione shook her head when she answered him. "Because it's very dark and dangerous, Ronald. How many times do I have to tell you? They can't just have people grab the books and start teaching them how to break their souls like a Horcrux would."
"Well, at least they'd write more books for a possible solution if more people are involved in it, wouldn't you agree?" Ron knew he was being stupid, but the idea of people writing more books about souls and how to mend them could shorten the time they had already wasted and help Harry fast.
"And what is Slughorn doing at Hogwarts right now, anyway?" he asked impatiently while closing with a snap the book he was reading for who knew how many times already. "He hasn't mailed us or anything. It's not like the books might be on another continent... They're only in Dumbledore's bloody office!"
"We only assumed that. Give him time, Ron," Ginny said. "He only just left a few hours ago."
"That's exactly my point," spat Ron. "Slughorn left hours ago! It's almost midnight, and Harry could've died by now."
Ginny cast him a dark look. "Don't say that!"
"Well, it's true!" he countered. "We're just wasting our time reading these stupid books while Harry's out there suffering severely by the looks of it, if I may add."
"We could only hope that Professor Slughorn would get back to us as soon as possible, Ron." Hermione calmly said even though she was feeling impatient herself. "Haven't you been to Professor Dumbledore's office before? He's got tons of books. The book that we're looking for might not even be in there. I would gladly come to Hogwarts and help Professor Slughorn find them if I could."
"He could try the Summoning charm like you did with the Horcrux books," Ron suggested.
"I don't think it's that simple," said Hermione.
"Why not? You got the Horcrux books, didn't you?"
Hermione didn't say anything for a while but then said uneasily, "I would agree that it is a good idea, Ron, but there is something about the soul book that makes me feel like it isn't that simple to be summoned like it did with the Horcrux books... I was thinking, though," she said. "If we ever come across a way to mend a soul, do you think it would be an easy task?"
Ron and Ginny gazed at her with a puzzled expression. When no one spoke, Hermione went on.
"You know how creating a Horcrux is very dangerous, right?" she asked both of them who nodded. "Not to mention, you have to commit murder, and that's evil enough for the caster. Do you think mending a soul would be as hard to do as well?"
Ron gulped, his eyes wide. "I would hope not. I don't want to kill someone and spend the rest of my life in Azkaban."
"Honestly, Ron, you're not going to kill someone," Hermione said while crossing her arms. "I'm only just saying that maybe there are certain tasks that you need to perform."
"Whatever tasks needed to be performed, I'm willing to do it," Ginny said flatly, and Ron gaped at her.
"I second that," said Hermione to Ginny, and they both smiled.
"What about you, Ron?" asked Ginny. "Are you gonna chicken out?"
Hermione smirked at Ginny. Ron scowled at them.
"I'm willing to do it, too!" he snapped at them. "And besides, you will need a man on your side."
Hermione and Ginny snorted with laughter. Without them knowing, Harry woke up and heard their laughter downstairs. He smiled and sadly thought to himself that it'd be nice to join them again.
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
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