Chapter VIII


Every day Fleur walked through tendrilled layers of magic—sticky, probing, invasive—which writhed around the cordoned corner of the Hospital Wing, so saturated that they almost whispered into visibility, flickering out of the corner of the eye before settling back into their repose.

The rest of the Hospital Wing was empty. The patients had been transferred. Madam Pomfrey was forced to check them over in an adjoining room and then usher them off to the dungeons to be looked over more thoroughly by Slughorn, who would treat them liberally, and uniformly, to his stock of tonics and antidotes.

Even from the other room, the students would leave looking queasy, as the heavy magic began to settle and work on them. It suffocated. Madam Pomfrey left every day looking as if she had just been forced from one soul-sickening labor to another. Fleur thought that it was like trying to wade through smog; no matter how much you tried not to suck it in, eventually you had to take a gasping breath just to keep going.

Still, that was all only part of it. It was the sight behind the curtains that tormented her most.

Harry lay in a narrow bed, his hair fanning out over the white sheets and white pillow, slick with an unhealthy sweat, an unwholesome contrast to the immaculate room. He hadn't moved since Fleur had been allowed to start visiting.

The hospital gown was too thin to conceal the wriggling runes that had been hastily inscribed on his chest, stomach, arms, legs; on every part of him that had been within reach. Runes stretched down from his neck, along his back, and ran diagonally along and around his calves. They were painted with a fierce black that, along with how they slithered along his body as if they each had minds of their own, made Harry look like the host to some parasitic evil. The only thing on him that didn't move was a bold black circle, perfectly even, centered around his scar.

At random intervals the runes would come alive, like a menagerie running along his body, their movements a corrupt dance that only Dumbledore could interpret. Fleur looked away whenever they came to life. Something about it was too terrible to watch.

A pensive was pressed against the back wall. It was an arm's length from Harry. No memories stirred within.

Every day Dumbledore and Snape would enter, usher Fleur from the room and stay for an hour. The entrance barred itself after them. After the allotted hour they would leave. Nothing seemed to change. Harry never stirred, the runes never quieted, the wards continued their restless watch, the pensive sat silent and still.

Once, when Fleur had been waiting to go back in, she had felt the stirring of something dreadful. The wards hissed and spit at the gale-force tempest that the foreign presence raised, the magic that was as thick and corrosive as venom. It tried to escape. Fleur could feel it snaking around inside, even through the interference of the wards, but it was beaten back by some force even greater than itself.

The wards quieted. Dumbledore and Snape exited a few minutes later. They didn't say anything, didn't look like anything had disturbed them, and when Fleur entered Harry was in the same spot, same position, as always. Nothing had changed. Fleur hadn't been sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed.

Harry laid in bed. As far as Fleur could tell there was nothing wrong with him.

She sat with him every day. Others had tried to come, sneaking in, or begging Pomfrey, but the wards rejected them all. So, she sat alone by his side and watched him, felt the magic in the air, and failed to understand what any of it meant.

Often Fleur read by his bed. She read as if she would suddenly stumble on the missing piece that was needed to restore him. Something that even Dumbledore hadn't known.

It was a vain, idle dream; she couldn't even read a fraction of the litany of runes that were on him. Yet she tried, because failing was less intolerable than waiting.

Occasionally the reading would turn up something that served to help her piece together the meaning of a stray rune. A stray imperative in Ancient Greek, or an Elamite injunction. Yet the totality of meaning of just runes on his stomach was no less mystifying than the first day. She had the feeling of looking upon some great work, a cathedral that spiraled higher than all the others, so high it brushed and spread the clouds and could only be taken in piecemeal, such was the genius and immensity of its construction. Some of the runes inspired such a feeling of trepidation in Fleur that she thought she must surely be looking upon something hellish or divine. It was beyond her.

The third week since Harry's collapse came. Fleur was sitting in the chair by his bed. She forced herself to ignore the discomfort that the runes pressed upon her, and Harry's blank slack face, and the glaring insensitive whiteness of the entire Hospital Wing, and focused on her book and the runes on Harry's chest.

His gown was in the way, so slowly, as if not to disturb his rest, Fleur raised the gown until it was above his stomach, and then let it bunch by his collarbone. She ran a light hand over the runes, trying to decipher a few that looked reminiscent of those that she had been studying, but they didn't react. Harry's skin was neither cold nor warm. It felt like it belonged to a doll, not a man.

Fleur smoothed his gown back down. She returned to her book, starting again at the first chapter to ensure that she hadn't missed anything.

Dumbledore entered not long after she started rereading. He had none of the gravity about him that Fleur had come to expect. Any old man, shrunken and beaten by years of hard living, could have been taken off the street and put in his place. A part of Fleur was pleased by that. She couldn't be sure that he deserved it, but she felt that he did. Harry would never blame Dumbledore, if he woke, but she wouldn't be so forgiving of his as yet unproven negligence.

It became clear that Dumbledore wasn't going to speak first.

"Is he going to live?" Fleur asked.

"He isn't going to die," Dumbledore said.

Harry didn't look like he was in danger of dying. He looked vacant; like his soul had fled from its housing.

"What can we do?" Fleur asked.

"Anything that can be done, has been. The rest is up to Harry. Trust him," Dumbledore said.

"I trust him." She waited, then said, "He trusts you, too." She wanted to hurt him, and she was gratified by his visible flinch. After another minute, just long enough for Dumbledore to settle back into his own thoughts, Fleur asked, "Why did this happen?"

Dumbledore collected himself before responding. He seemed to judge her mood and responded accordingly. "I didn't understand the extent of Voldemort's influence. Nor the precise relationship that he and Harry share. My ignorance was used against Harry. The only reason he lives is because of who he is. Anyone else would have been utterly destroyed."

"The Boy-Who-Lives," Fleur said, and laughed.

She could tell that Dumbledore was genuinely regretful. He looked down at Harry like someone looked down at their own kin. It didn't move Fleur. She didn't want to be moved by him. Harry was the one that was drifting from her, and every reasonable suspicion laid the blame, at least in part, at Dumbledore's feet. He was the only one around to blame.

Dumbledore approached Harry. He traced his wand along the runes, over Harry's gown, and they shifted almost imperceptibly, before locking into place, as if they had been gears clinking crudely against each other with every grinding rotation. The wards shifted along with the runes. The air lightened. Harry was unchanged.

"This is the last time," Fleur said. She wasn't looking at Dumbledore, but it was directed at him. She wouldn't tolerate any ambiguity. Her powerlessness wasn't even a consideration.

"This is the last time," Dumbledore said.

They stood there like mourners over a fresh corpse. Harry was no more connected to the world than a wax husk, despite the subtle rise and fall, the twitch beneath his eyelids. Those seemed unreal, beguiling signs that were trying to lull Fleur into a sense that things weren't really as bad as they seemed, that he would wake soon and everything would be fine. She had believed that for days; longer than she should have, and the idea now burned at her.

Eventually, Fleur began to pretend to read. Dumbledore stayed, and she watched him with one eye, curious despite herself as to what he was thinking, and what he saw in Harry when he looked down at him. The more she looked at him the more obscene he seemed, and the angrier Fleur became at his impotence and frailty.

Dumbledore was old, and weakening, and failing, and he deserved to be where Harry was.

As if he knew something of her thoughts, Dumbledore stirred. He raised his eyes from Harry, stroked his beard once, ponderously, and then said, as if alone and struck by the force of his own thoughts, "So be it."

Dumbledore never again visited Harry when Fleur was present. A day later, Harry was allowed selected visitors. Dumbledore's orders.

Ron and Hermione looked uncomfortable on entering the Hospital Wing. Fleur considered giving them privacy, but decided that she didn't care enough. She doubted that they had been told anything, or would understand what they were feeling and seeing. It took a level of ability that neither possessed to be able to understand the kind of wards and runes that Dumbledore had employed.

After hesitating at the entrance, they pushed into the room, past the curtains, to Harry's side. Ron looked startled to see Fleur there. Hermione didn't.

"How is he?" Hermione asked.

"Unresponsive," Fleur said.

"Madam Pomfrey wouldn't tell us what's wrong with him," Ron said.

"Pomfrey doesn't know what's wrong with him. Only Dumbledore and Snape do," Fleur said.

She imagined that even Ron would understand the fruitlessness of asking Dumbledore to explain what was wrong with Harry. She wasn't going to give them a false hope that she didn't have herself. If her frustration carried over into how she treated them, that was fine. She was angry. At Dumbledore. At Harry. At all of his friends and teachers and even the most peripheral drifter who had seen him out of the corner of their eye who had done nothing to prevent this.

Ron and Hermione talked. They buzzed like white noise, and they made half-hearted attempts to draw Fleur in, perhaps to assuage their own discomfort, or in some misguided attempt to comfort her, but she responded tersely, if at all, and shortly they gave up on trying.

They were Harry's obligation, not hers.

The two of them looked adrift at his bedside without conversation to steady them. Hermione looked more and more like she was going to cry. Ron was stoic, but it was a deplorable, false stoicism. The kind adopted by a boy who was playing a role. It only heightened Fleur's annoyance. There was something indelicate about him pretending to be strong for Hermione while Harry was laying there.

"Harry will be up in no time," Ron whispered to Hermione. His body was angled such that he was almost blocking Fleur's view of her. "Prat doesn't know how to get out of a scrape without breaking half his bones but he'll be alright. Dumbledore's looking after him too."

Hermione didn't seem to respond, but Fleur couldn't be sure. She decided, however, to become proactive and make an assessment of her own. Hermione pulled Harry's arms through his gown and dragged it down over his chest, then prodded at his runes, moving from the obvious to the obscure, her face unreadable as she scrutinized the layout.

Some of the runes shifted under her probing, like they were hissing at her provocation, and each time they did Fleur was ready to step in and stop her by force, afraid that she was ignorantly upsetting the delicate balance that Dumbledore had created, but Hermione would always move on, like she sensed the impending two-fronted assault. Fleur was left strangely disappointed.

Ron stared at Harry while Hermione worked. He managed to look half-casual while doing it, as if he wasn't invested in the outcome, but Fleur saw his clenched fists, his drawn brow. He was counting on her for a miracle, practically begging her for one, and he was going to be disappointed.

"It has a bizarre layout, and I don't recognize most of the runes," Hermione said. "I can't even tell what they're there for." She pulled Harry's gown back over his shoulders, hiding the runes, and his chest, from view.

"Imprisonment, cleansing, renewal," Fleur said, telling herself that if Hermione knew what she wanted to know then they would be more likely to leave.

Hermione took that in thoughtfully. "Something that dangerous would have worked quickly. There wouldn't have been time for Harry to be treated here. This must have been done in the field. Dumbledore would have had to be nearby."

Whatever exactly had happened, only Dumbledore and Harry knew, and they were both silent on the matter. Knowing almost as little as Ron and Hermione bothered Fleur. If Harry woke he would tell them, of course. The thought occurred to her that until then, she was no better they were.

"Dumbledore wouldn't let something like this happen," Ron said.

"Dumbledore isn't infallible," Hermione said. She was still looking at Harry and Fleur could almost see her mind rushing, searching for the single brilliant solution that they counted on her for, that would save Harry. Save him when so many others, better qualified and just as concerned, had failed.

Fleur didn't feel like herself. She felt sick, hot, and angry. She wanted to hurry Ron and Hermione out of the room. They couldn't do anything, and the longer they stayed the sicker she felt.

She resisted the urge to force them out. Harry would be angry if she did that.

"Let's go, Ron. I want to look something up in the library," Hermione said. Her eyes had passed over Fleur's book, Fragments and Runes of the Hindustani, which had been pushed underneath Fleur's chair. Ron nodded, and they left without a goodbye.

They left, but Fleur still couldn't relax. She leaned forward in her chair and rested a hand on Harry's chest, listening to the slow, terrifyingly slow, beat of his heart.

Fleur wasn't there, days later, when Harry woke.