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Central London sure seemed insanely busy this time of night. Though Harry still felt that weird tiredness thing, he was still retaining the otherworldly ability for not feeling winded, regardless of how much he ran. Instead he felt an entirely different kind of exhaustion. It kept pulling on him, but still he fought it. And as a result, oddly enough, he found himself requiring "breaks" as all his friends did, in their flight to St. Mungo's.
Due to this different nature, it was still somewhat difficult for him to gauge when his quite alive, quite windable friends needed a rest. Thankfully, however, Hedwig always seemed to know exactly when to stop for all of them to have a "breather", as it were.
They all moved shockingly swiftly through the crowded, pulsing streets. Harry suspected the biggest reason for this was of his ghostly state. Whenever he got too close to a living person, they would leap out of the way after feeling the biting cold which seemed to bleed off him, as if he were an ambulatory block of frozen carbon dioxide. Harry had known the feeling of the "Poltergeist effect" quite well, having been touched by Nearly Headless Nick shortly after Harry's sorting into Gryffindor House first year.
This was more effective than using a bullhorn; it even rivalled having Hagrid with you as a travelling companion, and Hagrid could part crowds effortlessly. Normally, much shouting and protest follows people who try to move through streets in such a quick manner. But he and Hedwig seemed to work in near-unison, she pausing when Ginny and the others needed rest, and he running across the people far enough ahead to clear a path.
There were several close-calls and disconcerting run-throughs even for him, when people would walk or almost walk straight through him. Or they might wave an arm or object and it would shoom past, causing Harry to flinch in a most violent manner. It was as if he could glimpse the things that passed through him on a molecular level. He could see vessels, blood, bone, and pulsing organs as people wrenched through him, and it was more than unnerving to say the least. As much as it bothered the living to be touched by Harry, he would swear that it affected his psyche at least ten times more. He wondered how on earth ghosts got used to it, or if he was the only one who experienced the horrible sensation in this manner.
The further out from city centre the group moved, the more the crowds thinned out and the streets became a bit less lit. Harry studiously ignored their whispered questions about his now-braided appearance and why he'd had to run with them, instead of reappearing where he wanted to at will. Ginny whispered sternly "mind your own business" or "he's still new at this ghost-thing, just work with it", and various such answers. He was rather glad the girl was sparing him the explanations, as he really didn't have any to give them.
At last they got to the manky old building without too much trouble. The journey was just quite a bit longer than they had anticipated. The retail district was also mostly deserted at this hour, much opposed to the heart of the city. Hedwig perched on a burned out street lamp nearby; Harry suspected the lamp's condition wasn't that way on accident. Someone had probably made sure it stayed out, specifically so magicfolk would be able to come here unnoticed.
Harry's friends stood outside the decrepit red-brick structure of Purge and Dowse, Ltd. Everything was as he and Weasleys had seen before when having visited, only more so than usual. The signs and wigs of the dummies in the windows hung even more askew, and the fashions that they wore seemed even more ancient than usual, if possible. As Harry studied all this, his winded friends each caught their breath.
"So what now?" questioned Ginny. Staring at the female entrance mannequin, Harry just shook his head, at a loss.
"I suppose we'll…just have to make up something about seeing someone, so she'll let us in?" suggested Neville.
Susan spoke up, "Were there any names on those documents you looked at? Maybe we're supposed to use one of those."
Dean replied, "Yeah, maybe that's the key—"
"That might be fine," responded Harry, still looking through the pane of glass, "except the names mentioned are either Muggles, or dead people," he reminded, subdued.
"Yeah," Ginny said, voice full of sardonic meaning, "and everyone knows that you can't go to see a dead man, you can't see their reflections in mirrors, and above all—" her voice rose as Harry turned around to look at her, "you can't talk to one." Slowly, she strode purposefully up to him and added severely, "Am I right?" Her eyes widened hugely up at him.
A colossal silence filled the air around them, as they soaked up the meaning of Ginny's last words. She had effectively pointed out they had soundly accomplished her said impossible feats already. Managing incredible tasks appeared to be something this particular group thrived on.… After all, Harry himself wasn't exactly alive at the moment.
Harry Potter, Dead Man Talking, he thought to himself ironically. The Mugglish cinematic reference just fit too perfectly.
Luna, who had been very quiet, was holding out the signed page of the adoption papers. She said, "What you wager it's the name that you said had the crown icon by it?"
There Luna went again, pointing out the cleverly obvious. Harry heard his own brain thunk into place as she'd said her question. Lightbulbs went off over his other friend's heads too. Crown on the adoption cert, crown on back of the death cert, who knew? Maybe they were all interrelated with getting into St. Mungo's.
Luna stepped forward to the glass and read off the name on the cert. They all waited apprehensively for the ugly mannequin to respond appropriately. It took an abnormally long time, but finally the dummy winked and gestured them forward with her finger. The group let out a collective sigh of relief, never having realised they were each holding their breath.
Watching each of his friends walk through the glass, Harry wondered how the waterfall-like sensation of doing so would feel to him now he was a ghost. Shutting his eyes, he stepped over the threshold, and was assailed with the pictures of what he was passing through, even without his eyes open. He saw the glass on that almost molecular level, same as other things, but mercifully it didn't last nearly as long, since panes of glass are only so thick. Stumbling, Harry met his other friends in St. Mungo's reception area. They all looked at him with great concern, automatically coming to help him, only realising too late there was nothing they could do.
"It's all right," Harry answered, waving them off. It wasn't their fault he was dead. Walking through things seemed to be the singular most draining thing he had felt thus far, however. Harry wondered just how much more of it he could take.
The whole of them sort of bummed around together for a bit, wondering what they should do, but nobody really paid them the slightest attention. The interior of the hospital was scarcely less busy than the last time Harry had been there. Apparently it didn't matter what time of day or night it was. This place was going to be crowded, regardless.
They walked over to the directory sign for the floors, for lack of something else to do. Mostly it was because they didn't want the Welcome Witch getting suspicious and thinking they were loitering.
Dean said impatiently, "Ah, we don't have time for this. You two—" he said, pointing toward Ginny and Harry, "didn't you say you couldn't see the cert clues until you had your wands together? Maybe that's what you should do now. Maybe there's something on the sign you can't see unless you do so. It's worth a shot," he shrugged.
Harry and Ginny looked at him, each other, and then took out their wands and lighted them, "Lumos!" and held them out to the sign. They couldn't tell a single thing. Ginny groaned in exasperation and stamped her foot. "It's too bright in here! You can't see anything!"
The rest of them kept determinedly straight faces, as Ginny had completely failed to recognise the ridiculousness of her last two statements.
Neville came forward and instead of sharing their consternation, he said, "No problem. We can fix that. Remember the Crasher Jinx that Harry taught the D.A.?"
They all looked around at each other as understanding dawned, and exchanged looks of utter satisfaction. How could Harry have forgotten? That little hex he'd taught them all should do nicely. He only hoped they wouldn't be disrupting the flow of hospital too much. They'd only be taking out just a small section of things, really.
Each of them then positioned themselves at the appropriate places on the floor, held their wands toward the ceiling panels and canted, "Implodus!"
Pandemonium broke loose as the lights in the surrounding reception area went completely black. It was only six panels, so the room wasn't plunged into total darkness or anything.
Harry and his friends all slunk back quietly over to the sign, calmness in the face of disruption. The Welcome Witch hurriedly came out from behind her desk to get all the awaiting patients to simmer down.
This time, Harry and the group saw small glowing green icons on the bottom of the sign. Straight below the designation for the fifth floor, there was a serpent, coiling in and around a crown. Everyone shared another inhalation of air, as they realised the picture they saw eerily seemed a cousin of the Dark Mark. And it was also burned into the sign, much like the Mark was burned into the arms of the Death Eaters.
Instead of a long description as the rest of the floors, there was only a small number beside it. It read, "WD51RM57C."
"Well, that's just ruddy brilliant," Ginny said irritatedly, but quietly, "so, what does it mean?"
Sighing in an "oh pur-leeese" fashion, Susan stepped forward and educated them all again. "Honestly people, it's a designator. Ward 51, Room 57C." The others sheepishly exchanged looks, mentally slapping their foreheads. Luna automatically took it upon herself to go and ask the Welcome Witch precisely where Ward 51 was. The witch was not pleased.
"What a load of laughs you are. Here we are in the half-darkness, and you're trying to be clever. Hospital ward numbers stop at 50, as you well know, on fourth floor. And any room that starts with '5' is on fifth, while 'C' means a closet."
She turned away from Luna without a second glance, trying to help her fellow employees calm everyone down until the lights came back on. It was only then it occurred on Harry they probably could've used the lightswitch instead of a jinx. Once again realising too late, Harry recalled that he still hadn't quite learned the value of thinking things clear through since second year, when he and Ron had taken the Ford Anglia for an unexpected drive. But then again, it would've taken them more time they didn't have to find the lightswitches…
Now they were effectively stumped again. Mainly as a reason to keep busy and feel useful, Dean suggested they all start on the fifth floor, and try to find that closet.
As they were all slinking toward the staircase, the lights suddenly came back on, amidst many half-hearted cheers in the waiting room. It struck Harry as ultimately funny that he was still with his friends and causing trouble, just the same as always. They ran quickly up the stairs toward the top.
Harry found himself missing Ron and Hermione something fierce, however. A lot. The two of them should really be here with them. He quietly told Ginny as much. A small pained look crossed her features, and she pressed her lips together and nodded, as the look passed quickly as it had come. Clearly, her calm façade was taking its toll.
They had another close call with somebody in the stairwell, but Harry quickly solved that problem by reaching out to touch them. His friends pressed themselves against the wall while he ran up the two intervening flights of steps and scared the living daylights out of the hapless visitor above them. Harry decided he was beginning to feel distinctly Peeves-like at the moment.
Shuffling off onto fifth floor, everybody gawked around at the vast yet near-empty tearoom, with its small rickety tables and equally shabby unmatched armchairs. The surroundings looked like cast-offs from an old Muggle second-hand shop, and everything was tinted the singular most garish colours imaginable. The weak moonlight coming in the two small windows only drew out the luridity of the olive drab, tangerine, and fluorescent pink psychedelic shades.
Every surface appeared to be covered in something home-made, whether it be blankets, throws, pillows, or tea cosies; everything was patch-worked, latch-hooked, knitted, or crocheted. The wall paneling itself was a distinctly outdated dark brown wainscotting. And was that some actual String-Art he saw over there on that wall…? Not a single thing matched, but the nickelodeon of colour all just seemed to fit together somehow, giving off an air that was unmistakably…kitschy.
The dim lighting served to enhance Harry's feeling that the only things this place was missing were curtains of lovebeads and curling swirls of incense. Oh yeah, and don't forget lava lamps. Even the music softly playing over the loudspeakers sounded almost Ravi Shankar-like. Ambiance: groovy, baby.
"May I please have a spoon?" asked a small wizard of the dumpy, haggard-looking witch who was standing behind the tearoom's ordering counter.
"I gave you one with it," she answered him crossly.
"But there is no spoon."
Harry and his friends all decided it was best to split up a bit and paired off to see if they could find anything. Neville and Luna went into the small gift shop; Dean and Susan went over to the side of the tearoom where the ordering counter was, whilst Harry and Ginny inspected the walls opposite them.
As a matter of course, Ginny and Harry held their wands out, once again determining if the combined effect would reveal something the naked eye couldn't see. The two of them skulked about the walls, mostly holding their wands toward the junction of where the walls met the floor, as that appeared to be the only thing not draped in afghans or tatting work.
They were nearing one particularly loud rag quilt on the wall, with chartreuse Snitches and magenta Quaffles, when a large, ugly, solitary, hunchbacked individual in the corner called out to Ginny.
"What're you on about?" scraped a horrid sounding voice. Harry and Ginny winced; it was that disturbing. Witch or warlock, it was hard to tell. Ginny tried to ignore it, but it was quite difficult to ignore something that sounded like a steel slide guitar getting strummed with a cheese grater.
"I said, what are you looking for?" Rake on a blackboard. Harry was sure glad of his ghostly state at the moment; the vocal quality of this one-eyed weirdo would be physically painful to the human ear right now.
"Nothing, just…lost my contact lense," Ginny muttered hastily; anything to get this nosey individual to shut up.
"I don't see any contact lenses," scratched the voice, "but perhaps I can tell you what I do see. First tell me, who's your friend?"
Harry and Ginny whirled around, startled. Nobody had paid the slightest attention to Harry's presence up to now. Could this weird person really see him? Just as quickly, Harry figured this couldn't be the case. After all, he and Ginny had come into the tearoom with four other perfectly visible people.
"Who? You mean them?" inquired Ginny, gesturing around vaguely to the other members of their party. She had evidently come to the same conclusion Harry had.
"No, I mean that one," and the person pointed straight at Harry. Ginny darted a look at him. Rather than wasting time with pointless questions, she automatically determined it was worth it to keep this stranger speaking, for the moment. Painful though it was.
"Oh, him?"Ginny said, note of dryness creeping into her voice. "That's just…Casper, the friendly ghost." Harry rolled his eyes at the inane joke. Typical Weasley sarcasm. Best to be obtuse, to test how much this odd person knows.
Then the foreigner issued forth the most distressing sound yet. It sounded how Crookshanks sounded; Crookshanks, if he were being trampled by stampeding centaurs. Shoulders were giving a telltale shake. Was it this individual's version of…laughter?
"In any case," continued the character, still amused, "what you seek is straight over there." Now the finger pointed toward the psyched-out Quidditch quilt, and the person leaned almost menacingly forward across the small table in front of them.
"Do not deny the Imperius Curse," the horrible grating sound was completely absent now, to be replaced by a dark mellifluous baritone. "For what he needs requires it," the voice emphasized. It was so intense, but still sounded oddly…familiar somehow.
Ginny and Harry glanced over toward the quilt on the wall, but when they looked back, the mysterious visitor had gone.
How had a complete stranger known what they were doing here? How had he known what Harry and his friends were trying to accomplish? And what did all of those cryptic words mean? Denying the Imperius Curse…?
"Who was that?" inquired someone behind their backs. Evidently, the other four friends had caught some semblance of the conversation with this singularly remarkable person.
"Hey, you guys won't believe this weird picture they're selling in the gift shop. It's this tripped out ink on a black fuzzy background…it looks like Dobby's portrait. I think they call it a…a 'Velvet Elvish'…" trailed off Neville, completely off-topic.
"I don't know, but let's check things out," Ginny pressed on, ignoring Neville's interjection and marching straight over to the quilt on the wall. "Harry, the wand, if you will."
All of them looked around, to make sure they weren't being watched. They peeled back the quilt from the wall, and by the light of Ginny and Harry's wands, they could see a vague outline of a door behind it. Next to it was a small dingy placard, which read, "WD51." Next to the number was the burned in modified Dark Mark with the crown.
"Well, well" said Dean. "I wonder how St. Mungo's staff would feel if they knew about a hidden ward, right here in the hospital."
"I wouldn't be so sure that all of them aren't aware of it," Neville countered, voice full of meaning. They all stared at him for a bit. That was definitely a sobering thought.
A simple Alohomora spell later, they had all followed each other through the door into a dank and empty hallway. Everything was coated in think layers of dust and cobwebs, and the only indicator this place had been used recently was the cleared path in the dark stuff on the floor by the door and footprints leading down the corridor. Each of the party had lit their wands now, as the stuffy, narrow space was so devoid of light.
They really didn't know how far they had travelled, but the only thing in this otherwise featureless corridor was a solitary door at the end. That was it. And a sign on it said 57C.
"Ten galleons that's not really a closet," Dean said sardonically.
They all responded with sarcastic variations of "no kidding" and "you really think so?"
Next Susan reached for the handle—which shockingly opened without any trouble, and behind the door was—a closet. Complete with all type of ancient cleaning supplies.
"Well, isn't that just jim-dandy," said Harry wryly. "It's a ruddy closet after all."
Susan shut the door again, and they all leaned cautiously against the filthy cramped walls, thinking what to do next. It was generally obvious that room wasn't just a closet; they just had to figure out the next trick to do. Neville paced the tiny patch of floor in front of the door.
Suddenly, somebody's stomach rumbled into the semi-darkness.
"Sorry," apologised Neville sheepishly. "It's been awhile since I ate. Can't remember when last I did. I keep forgetting to ever since, well…you know."
Everybody looked at Longbottom and vehemently murmured their sympathy. They also each avoided looking in Harry's direction for a bit. It was only then he realised what they were all referring to, and the unspoken words they had each mentally tacked onto Neville's last statement: Ever since Harry died. It was unspeakably humbling to think your departure could affect those you cared about in such a drastic way.
There was that uncomfortable silence again. But before it could get too deep, Dean pushed himself off the wall and yanked the door open, just for kicks.
He froze, then called out over his shoulder, "Erm, guys? It's not a closet anymore."
"What"? they all questioned.
"Look," he answered, and pushed the small door open fully.
Instead of a dreary little supply closet, what they were glimpsing now was a cosy dining room, decked out with table settings and food for much more than the five of them.
"Neville," Ginny spun him around suddenly, and placed her hands on both sides of his head, "you're a genius!" Then she pulled him down and planted a big happy kiss straight on his forehead, and released him as quickly as she had begun.
"I…am?" he stuttered, dazedly rubbing the spot where Ginny had kissed him.
"Yes!" she responded excitedly. Then Harry heard her repeat some of the odd words the stranger said, "…"for what he needs requires it"…this isn't a closet, it's a Room of Requirement! And you figured it out!"
"All I wanted was a snack..." Neville trailed off lamely.
Ginny shut the door again, amongst half-joking protests from everybody present. "Priorities, people," Ginny reminded them all, once again sounding almost Hermione-like. What she said next was all Weasley, however. "First: bring your friends back to life; then you can eat." The dryness of her tone could've peeled paint.
Everyone sniggered in spite of everything, including Harry. It still fascinated him that belying the urgency and gravity of the present situation, they were still laughing it up together.
"Again," spoke up Ginny, "what we need to do is concentrate. We need to find that broken wand now, remember?"
She had taken up Neville's place in front of the door, paced back and forth as they all thought about finding Harry's holly wand.
When she opened the door back up, it was the inside of an old elevator. The once-posh interior included faded brocade wall covering and a tarnished brass handrail, which spanned all three walls. Thankfully the space was large enough to accommodate all of them, and even give Harry a spot of his own. It also had its own interior lighting, but they still kept their wands out just in case.
They climbed inside it and saw only a single button on the inside panel. And on it was a tiny glowing impression of that weird modified Dark Mark.
It was clear what they had to do, but that didn't mean that they were any happier about doing it. Luna reached out, pressed the button, and said, "Here we go."
Even though he couldn't feel it, Harry saw the elevator give a telltale jerk as his friends reacted to it. "We're moving down…fast," said Susan, and they all agreed, as they clutched the railing.
Further and further they descended, not knowing where they were going or when they would stop. Idle conversation simply dropped off after a few minutes, as nobody really had anything else to say, and tension seemed to squeeze off any thought other than apprehensiveness.
At last the lift came to a halt, and slowly the doors in front of them opened. Harry and Ginny were the last to leave the elevator, but after they got a full view of just where they had gone, Ginny immediately shrank back in complete fear.
"No…" she whispered, all of her former bravado having shriveled up on the spot.
And Harry shared her terror, as none of them could. For although their surroundings were slightly different, slightly altered, there was no mistaking that which it was a brother of.
"Not another Chamber of Secrets..!"