He couldn't breathe. It hurt… somewhere, something hurt, but he couldn't figure out where, it just hurt. Pain exploded in his head like the grand finale of the world's biggest firework show. White… hot… pain…
One: Because the Truth is Bitter Like Chocolate
Harry pulled himself upright with an almost frantic gasp, his eyes wide and searching as he verified his surroundings. Ron was sleeping comfortably in the bed next to his, undisturbed by Harry's rude awakening, and everything else was cast in the hazy gloom of midnight, but was still quite easily definable as the room he shared with his best friend at Grimmauld Place. With a relieved sigh, Harry flopped back onto his bed, pushing the covers away weakly and letting the night air cool the fine sheen of sweat coating his body. He would likely not fall asleep again, and so he contented himself with listening to Ron snore. It wasn't a bad snore really, and, in fact, was almost not a snore at all. Harry usually found the sound comforting enough to lull him back to sleep, but not tonight. The gods themselves could not commend sleep to Harry's tortured eyes, nor would he wish them too.
Had he not spent far too many years at the Dursleys, he might have gotten up and wandered about, perhaps curled up with a book somewhere, but as it was, he had spent too many years at the Dursleys, and so he didn't get up. Of course, he could –perhaps just to spite them, even though they would never learn of it – but in all honesty, he didn't want to leave the relative safety of his bed and the relative comfort of his friend's almost-but-not-quite-snoring.
By the time the sunlight hit their grimy window, Harry's eyes were itching in protest to the rest he had denied him, and he was sure the skin just beneath them had darkened. This darkening wouldn't necessarily have to be much as he was more pale than usual and the slightest discoloration beneath his eyes would likely make it appear as though he hadn't slept in a week.
Within a few moments of the first cool rays of predawn light venturing through their unobstructed window, the morning sun –abhorrently cheery- danced into the room, and mischievously slapped Ron across his upturned face. The redhead first squinted in his sleep and then whimpered, and finally pried his eyes open to glare at the window.
"We've got to remember to close that drapery!" he said reproachfully, though it might have gone over significantly better if he hadn't yawned part way through 'drapery.' Harry summoned a little grin for his friend, who returned it sleepily as he turned his back to the window and curled around a pillow.
"I'm going to go find something to eat," Harry said, a little uncomfortable all the sudden. Ron nodded vaguely and muttered something along the lines of following him down in a few minutes –which would undoubtedly turn into a few hours, if the Sandman had anything whatsoever to say about it- but Harry hadn't really paid enough attention to care. Throwing a robe over his pajamas, Harry slid into his slippers and shot out of the room.
The hallway was still mostly dark, the only light filtering in from a small circular window on the landing to the third floor that had once likely been an owl portal. Now, of course, it was glued shut with grime and the nasty dark vines that clung to the backside of the house. Harry turned away from the little window and headed downstairs, creeping past Mrs. Black with an inordinate amount of care and averting his eyes from the rest of the paintings, some of whom were glaring at him sleepily, as though he had no right to be about so early in the morning.
Harry found the kitchen empty, which he was fine with him, and went about the business of starting tea and making toast. Mrs. Weasley would be down any moment and she would insist on making a large breakfast that could likely feed a small army, but would just barely stretch to cover the household –Fred, George, and Ron being among them. So, Harry contended himself with a piece of buttered toast and hoped it would pass for breakfast.
Toast in one hand, tea in the other, Harry walked quietly across the entrance way and, passing the stairs, nudged the sliding door to the parlor open. The room was small and likely the most comfortable in the house, even if Harry sometimes speculated that the couch wasn't exactly inanimate. The two large windows were covered with heavy, dark maroon draperies and a fire crackled away endlessly in a corner fireplace that kept itself clean and didn't actually appear to burn anything, as the logs never appeared to need replacing and the room stayed pleasantly cool.
Harry sat his cup down on the small end table, which may or may not have shifted so Harry's fingers brushed across its smooth surface, and then sat down on the fluffy blue couch, which may or may not have risen to meet him and then curled so he was more comfortable. At least the furniture was –maybe- more polite than the rest of the old house. Content, Harry picked up the dusty book he'd found in the Black family library, which had gradually warmed up to him enough to stop moving the shelves every time he reached for a book, and thumbed it open to the page he'd left off at.
Within the next few minutes, Harry's face, were it possible, had paled considerably and he was ready to set the book down when the door opened. Almost guiltily, he quickly shut the heavy old book and swiveled a little in his seat to see who had arrived. Sirius stood uncertainly in the doorway, his eyebrows drawn together in worry.
"Hi, Sirius," Harry greeted, bringing forth a smile. Sirius returned it hesitantly and took it as an invitation. Harry gratefully set the book down, face down, on the table beside the couch and moved his feet so his godfather had room to sit.
"Couldn't sleep well?" Sirius asked finally, his eyes locked onto the dark patched Harry knew were there. He knew he couldn't exactly lie with the proof right there, so he shrugged.
"This house…" he said vaguely. Sirius nodded, seeming a little relieved.
"I know. It's getting better though," he added, almost as though he were trying to defend his home, which he generally took every opportunity to decry. Harry smiled a little and turned his eyes to scrutinize his feet when Sirius gave him another of the searching looks he'd been giving Harry for almost a week.
"Are you… okay, and all?" Sirius asked finally. Harry turned back so he was facing his godfather and summoned up him most charming smile.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Oh, well, no reason… you've just seemed a little… well, I suppose it's nothing if you say it's nothing. My over-protective imagination, I'll wager." Sirius sounded happy that he had successfully dispatched his duty as concerned godfather, and Harry was happy he wasn't like Remus and wouldn't pry. The thought of his former professor made Harry wince inwardly; he hadn't seen Remus since the beginning of the last –and consequently, his last- school year, but he was expected home any day. Harry found himself remarkably apprehensive about seeing the older man.
"Maybe you and I could go out today, hm? Like… I don't know… to London, or Diagon Alley…or," Sirius shrugged. "Anywhere you want to go." He grinned at Harry hopefully and Harry felt his stomach drop a little.
"Um… yeah, maybe we can do that," he said, feeling a little sick suddenly, but doing his best not to let it show.
"What about this evening?" Harry ventured. "You know, when it's not so crowded?"
"Huh? Oh," Sirius looked suddenly guilty; he knew Harry didn't like to be out in crowds. Since Voldemort's defeat a scant six months ago, he couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed. The Ministry had, thankfully, left him alone for the time being and half the owl population around Grimmauld Place had disappeared, taking with them their various offers for Ministry jobs. Harry knew he wouldn't be able to escape them forever, but the respite was nice.
"Alright," Sirius said cheerfully, regaining lost momentum, "why don't we go to dinner, in a nice quiet little restaurant? I'll make reservations before hand and get a private booth and all." Harry summoned up another smile, though this time his stomach had taken a different kind of drop.
"That'll be nice."
"Great!" Sirius repeated, slapping his knee with one open hand. "It'll be good for you to get out of this old house and get some fresh air." Harry nodded and smiled and Sirius bounded out of the room, already working on where they would go. He absently closed the door behind him and Harry let out a very tiny sigh of relief.
He glanced at the toast and tea on the table, still untouched, and released another sigh, this one in resignation. He poked at the toast, picked it up and took a very small bite. Immediately, his stomach recoiled from the mere thought that something would come hurdling down his throat, and Harry quickly dropped the toast and pulled the offending item off his tongue before it made it too far. Miserable and even a little angry, Harry tossed the soggy bite of bread into the trashcan –which made a noise that sounded suspiciously like chewing. Curious, Harry crept over to it, and saw that though it was a trashcan, there was nothing in it. The row of teeth and obvious tongue might have something to do with that, of course. Harry picked up one of the pieces of toast and let it dangle over the can. Further to Harry's surprise –though by this point, maybe he shouldn't have been so shocked- the can actually whimpered. A slow smile spread across his face as he dropped the toast in and then turned away from the gruesome spectacle of the teeth destroying the offending item and then the large purple tongue pushing it back into its throat where it was presumably swallowed. Finished, the thing opened its gaping mouth wider and whined again.
Harry tossed the second piece in and then dumped the tea in as well, which it slurped up greedily and then belched.
"Glad to see you approve," Harry muttered. Seeming disappointed that Harry had nothing else to give it, the trashcan sort of hunched over and made the most pitiful whine Harry had ever heard.
"Sorry," he said softly, rather annoyed with himself to find that he was sorry. Even though the thing was only a trashcan, Harry knew what it was like to be hungry. Sighing, Harry abandoned the book –even going so far as to skirt around it a bit- and took his plate and cup back into the kitchen. Mrs. Weasley was already there, humming to herself merrily as she set to breakfast.
"'Morning, Mrs. Weasley," Harry greeted, washing up his dishes.
"Oh, good morning, Harry m'dear!" she returned with her typical morning enthusiasm. "Oh, have you already eaten?" she asked, seeming a little chestfallen. Harry smiled a little.
"I just couldn't wait," he said, almost guilty. She pouted a little, and then pulled him into a hug.
"Well, at least you ate something! Heaven knows you haven't been eating nearly enough. I'll be sure to make you a special dinner tonight in celebration of your returned appetite!" Harry's face blanched and he was very happy Mrs. Weasley still had him pressed against her and consequently couldn't see his face.
"Actually," Harry said, affecting another guilty expression, "Sirius wants to take me to dinner tonight… you know, get out of the house and all?" Rather than being crushed, she smiled brilliantly.
"Well! That's even better! You've scarcely been out of the house since school ended! It'll be good for you. Now, you run upstairs and drag Ron out of bed," she ordered, gently pushing him out of the kitchen.
Harry obediently climbed the stairs and again, crept past Mrs. Black with extreme caution. The little circular window at the other end of the hallway was now casting an elongated ellipse of cheery light on the hall and Harry gave it a mistrustful glance as he pushed the door open to the room he shared with the youngest Weasley brother.
Ron had apparently gotten up sometime and shut the draperies, which blocked out most of the light, though the curtains themselves glowed bright gold with the force of the sunlight. Harry shut the door behind him and walked over to his friend's bed.
"Ron?" Snorting, the other boy rolled over, muttering something about nasty little fairies. Harry, stifling a small laugh leaned over his friend's shoulder so he was directly above his ear.
"Ronald Weasley…" he sing-songed in his best approximation of the fairy voices as heard in one of Hagrid's classes. "I'm coming to get you, Ron!" Ron startled awake with a shout and sat bolt upright, his brown eyes opened impossible large. Harry laughed softly and it took Ron a moment to realize what had happened. Glaring, he rounded on his friend and opened his mouth as though to shout at him. Whatever he was about to say died on his tongue at the sight of his friend and Harry squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze.
"Your mum told me to wake you up," Harry said, his eyes moving away from the obviously concerned eyes of his friend. "I'm going to go bathe," he announced, taking the excuse to get out of the room and away from his best friend. Ron remained silent as he gathered his things and left the room.
Everyone was thankfully done eating and otherwise occupied when Harry emerged almost an hour later. Mrs. Weasley was cleaning up, Mr. Weasley was off to work, the twins had left for their shop in Diagon alley, Hermione and Ron were off somewhere by themselves, Sirius was making firecalls, and Mrs. Black was still –remarkably- undisturbed, despite the commotion.
Avoiding the kitchen, Harry again sequestered himself in the parlor and, though he really didn't necessarily want to, picked up the book again and curled up on the couch.
He wasn't disturbed –or found- until twilight had fallen and Sirius was ready for dinner. Harry reluctantly pulled himself out of the parlor and went upstairs to get dressed.
"Where are we going?" he called down the stairs, having reached the landing.
"It's a pretty fancy place," Sirius called back happily and Harry groaned a little, but went for his dress robes. They still had the various awards pinned to them as given by the ministry. Harry was just setting to the arduous task of taking them all off when Sirius appeared in the doorway, his mouth open to speak. Whatever he had planned on saying was diverted so he could ask,
"Why are you taking them off?" Harry started to tell him that he didn't need them on to go to dinner when he noticed that Sirius was wearing the three Order of Merlins he'd been given throughout the course of the war.
"I was just going to straighten this one," Harry explained. "It's a bit crooked, see?"
"Oh, well let me help," Sirius offered. The award wasn't actually crooked, but Sirius made a show of adjusting it this way and that until it rested in the same place it had before. Harry offered his godfather a smile and thanked him for his help.
"Reservations are in ten minutes," Sirius said cheerfully as he bounced out of the room. Harry sighed and started changing. As a finishing touch, he cast a subtle version of the notice-me-not charm on the awards, so anyone who didn't know they were there wouldn't be able to see them. Satisfied, Harry avoided the mirror and tucked his wand up his sleeve.
Once they reached the restaurant, Harry felt a little ashamed for putting the charm on. They arrived in a completely empty room and Harry realized that Sirius must have reserved the entire restaurant. The man had only wanted to go and show his godson the hero off a little, even if it was only to the waiter and the cooks, who peaked out of the kitchen often or came out to wipe tables that were already clean. After a few minutes, Harry surreptitiously took the charm off, not for himself, but because Sirius seemed to think it was important.
The only problem was the fact that the food, though undoubtedly lovely, made Harry want to throw up. He had ordered a half-serving of a Caesar salad and a side of pulled pork with a red wine, but he was having trouble forcing himself to swallow it.
"Is the food okay?" the waiter asked, coming back with his little book to see if they wanted dessert.
"It's lovely," Harry lied successfully. His last two years at school had taught him how to deal with the public, a training he exploited shamelessly to keep everyone –family, friends and strangers alike- happy.
"Would you like dessert?" Harry was going to open his mouth to say no, but Sirius' expression stopped him.
"Perhaps I could fit in a small slice of cheesecake," he decided finally. "Plain please."
"I'll have…" Sirius held up the menu, "this thing," he said happily. 'This thing' being the white chocolate tart on the front cover. He had apparently not even bothered looking inside to see its name. The waiter smiled and took their desert menus and Sirius beamed at Harry and Harry excused himself to take a quick trip to the bathroom. He didn't tuck his head into the toilet like he wanted to, knowing full well that there was a possibility the staff would find out and that could develop into a problem. Instead, he braced his arms against the sink and took several deep breaths to quell his stomach.
"Hello, there. You aren't looking so good; are you quite alright?"
"Silence!" Harry said, applying just the right amount of magic behind his order. Obediently, the mirror was silent. Taking a few more breaths, Harry splashed some water on his face and made sure he was composed before saying,
"Thank you, I'm quite alright." The mirror, confused, stuttered for a minute, not remembering the conversation it had apparently had with this customer.
"Oh, well… alright, then. Good evening to you." Harry gave it a polite farewell and then left the pleasant bathroom. His cheesecake was already sitting on the table and Sirius was cautiously sampling his own dessert.
"That's good!" he declared after a moment. Harry smiled indulgently and retook his seat. The cheesecake was quite rich, but thankfully they had taken his provision of 'small' to heart and the piece was about the width of his pinky finger at its longest point. Harry managed to keep it down alright by taking small bites and using the excuse of chatting with Sirius to hide how slowly he was going. If Sirius noticed his delay-tactics, he didn't say anything, and in fact seemed quite pleased with the extra time they were taking in the restaurant.
"Would you like to try this?" Harry asked when he had just a little left, but his stomach was rolling ominously and he didn't much cherish the thought of pushing it too far. Sirius accepted the plate easily and forked off a bit.
"That is an exceptional cheesecake," he said finally, and a bit too loud, by way of rewarding the staff, who had been so indulgent as to let them in the restaurant after hours. He offered Harry the last of his own dessert with a raised eyebrow, but Harry shook it off.
"I honestly couldn't fit in another bite," he said, softening his refusal with the winning smile that had seen the cover of many magazines over the last few years. Sirius shrugged and grinned as he finished off his tart and then took the last of Harry cheesecake.
"Snooze you loose," he said playfully, making much of licking his fork clean.
"C'mon, you lout! Let's go before Molly has a fit." Sirius winced slightly remembering when they had come back at three in the morning on Harry's seventeenth birthday and Molly had been waiting with wand in hand. She had chased them up the stairs, spouting off relatively harmless curses, heedless of a screaming Mrs. Black, until they'd managed to get into their rooms, at which point she actually locked them in. It was petty, but she had been worried and it was her natural response after raising so many children.
"Maybe we should," Sirius agreed, calling for the check. Harry then had the staff come out and thanked them personally for the meal. He and Sirius signed the bits of paper that were sheepishly offered to them and then they left to a hearty farewell.
When they quietly pushed the door open, they were greeted with muffled voices coming from the direction of the kitchen. Sirius breathed an audible sigh of relief; Molly wouldn't be chasing them down the hall tonight. Harry however, was suddenly very nervous and his stomach was tossing wildly.
"Alright, Harry?" Sirius asked, seeing his expression.
"Yeah… a bit of a head rush is all," Harry mumbled. His first experience with Apparating alone had landed him in an ambush that had nearly cost his life. Since then, he was occasionally overwhelmed by unwarranted panic attacks when Apparating, especially if it was dark when he arrived.
"It's alright, Harry," Sirius said placatingly, making sure to keep from touching his godson; Harry had once hexed him when he made the mistake of trying to comfort him physically. Sirius was in bed for three days after that, with Harry sitting miserably by his bedside.
"I'm alright," Harry reassured him with a smile. "No Death Eaters here." Sirius breathed yet another sigh of relief and tentatively placed a hand on his godfather's shoulder. Harry summoned a smile.
"I think I'm going to go to bed," he said finally, barely holding back another head rush.
"But… Harry, Remus is here! Don't you hear him?" Sirius asked, confused.
"Yes… I'll see him in the morning though."
"Oh, Harry… it was supposed to be a surprise. That's why I was so insistent we go out tonight!" Sirius whined. Harry, caught, could do nothing. He let his shoulders fall in defeat and then brought himself back up with effort; he hated it when Sirius was unhappy, and the man knew it.
"Alright," he said finally.
"Great! Let's go!" Sirius, like a puppy, bounded for the kitchen, Harry following after more slowly. What was he going to do?
The door to the kitchen swung open; everyone was there. Hermione, Ron, all the Weasleys –except Ginny who hadn't survived the war with her mental process intact and was a permanent resident of St. Mungos- his teachers from school, his old dorm mates, even Snape. Above their heads a sign floated that proclaimed, 'Happy Eighteenth Harry!' in bright, cheerful lettering.
"You thought we forgot!" Ron cawed happily, looking very smug at successfully keeping Harry from finding out about their plans. Harry, however, hadn't thought they had forgotten. In fact, Harry himself had forgotten. But at the moment, he didn't really care. Everyone quieted quickly when they realized that Remus and Harry were staring at each other wide-eyed, Harry looking like a hunted doe and Remus quite hostile.
"What's that-" Seamus started to asked, but he was quickly shushed by a long, potion-stained hand, which clamped harshly over his mouth. It wasn't until then that they realized Remus was growling.
"Remus…" Harry whispered plaintively, backing away. The man in question rose slowly out of his seat, his teeth bared and a punctuated growl slipping through his teeth. "Remus… it's just me… it's just Harry," Harry said, finally hitting the wall. Remus was still descending on him.
"Remus!" Sirius barked suddenly, putting himself in between his godson and his best friend. "What's gotten into you, huh?" he asked, but all Remus did was snap at him viciously.
"Sirius no!" Harry shouted, pushing him aside just as Remus leapt. The two collided bodily with the wall and Harry whimpered. Remus, his pupils nearly swallowing his irises, thrust his face up close to Harry's and bared his teeth.
"I yield," Harry whispered. "I yield!" Remus seemed to pause. His eyes narrowing, he put his face against Harry's neck and inhaled deeply before jerking away and growling again, more menacingly.
"No! Don't!" Harry ordered, seeing several wands slowly materializing and aiming at the werewolf. Not even distracted by Harry's shout, the werewolf continued to examine him. "I'm just Harry… whatever else I am, Remus, I'm just Harry," Harry repeated again and again, hoping to get through to his friend while everyone else stood around uncertainly.
Gradually, the growling tapered off, Remus' pupils returned to a normal size and then the man abruptly dropped him.
"When!" he demanded, having apparently just regained the ability to speak.
"A few days ago…maybe a week," Harry confessed, sliding down the wall and burying his face in his hands. With a whimper, Remus dropped bonelessly to the floor in front of the distraught young man.
"Let me see…"
"No!" Harry screamed, suddenly panicked, backing away from him and scrabbling at the wall, attempting to haul himself up.
"HARRY!" Remus shouted, punctuating it with a growl. "Let. Me. See." Whimpering helplessly, Harry stood still while Remus eased his high collar down. The werewolf turned away immediately from the sight.
On Harry's too-pale skin, two swollen puncture holes glared menacingly in the light of his birthday candles.