The Boy-Who-Lived had been pushed out of the hospital wing as though he was a leper. He tried to reign in his temper, knowing full well Madam Pomfrey was just this way when it came to her patients, but he had to admit that it stung, not being able to see his best friend despite being the one to have saved him from poisoning.
Just remembering this… A chill went down Harry Potter's spine. Cedric's death had been a terrible shock, some sort of wake-up call, and no matter what he had thought originally, he couldn't possibly have prevented it: nobody could have known the Cup was actually a Portkey, not even Dumbledore had known. Sirius' demise, however, was entirely his fault for attempting a rescue mission that had no reason to be thrown together in the first place. He was… lucky that nobody else he cared about had been killed this fateful night.
But despite the effect these deaths had had on him, he knew deep down that they wouldn't possibly be worse than losing Ron. Nothing would compare to the pain he'd suffer. Hell, just by seeing him collapse in Slughorn's office Harry had felt as though his heart was going to split in two. Whoever was the Half-Blood Prince, he thanked him for enabling him to save his best friend. If Ron died, he wouldn't possibly be able to face the Weasleys ever again… And what about Hermione? Even though she wasn't on speaking terms with the redhead at the moment, she did seem to have a soft spot for Ron at times…
But Harry, especially, felt like he just wouldn't survive without his best mate. Maybe he'd live, but it would be so dull, so bland, it would be a chore to simply rise out of bed every day… He'd have to suffer through all these people who'd try to enter in his good graces just because he was the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One or whatever they called him this month… He'd have to chase away the vultures that would try to replace the gangling redhead as 'Harry Potter's best mate'… But there was just no replacing Ron. Nobody had seen Harry the same way Ron had, as just Harry, as a boy sitting alone in the train to Hogwarts. Nobody else but Ron had taken a look at the scar, been awed for a few seconds, and then decided that what the great Harry Potter needed most was knowledge about wizard candy and Quidditch. And especially nobody else but Ron could get him out of his moods, get him to enjoy utterly meaningless things or have real fun with. Life just couldn't be lived without somebody like Ron Weasley.
The door to the hospital wing suddenly opened, interrupting Harry in his musings, to let out a rather dishevelled-looking Madam Pomfrey, her bun loosely hanging to the side as though she had been running around all day. Her eyes darted around in concern, before she spotted Harry, seemed to hesitate a bit and then walked up to him.
"Mr Potter", she said carefully, look as though she thought he was going to burst into tears at any second, "you may enter."
She seemed ready to take him by the hand as if he was a child, but Harry squared his shoulders. He wasn't helpless, damn it. With purposeful strides, he walked into the hospital wing, eyes searching for Ron… but the only thing he saw were white curtains around what he supposed was his friend's bed. As he stepped closer to take a peek, the matron almost threw herself in his way, and he almost attempted to curse her aside.
"Before I let you in, mister Potter, you have to know something…"
"I know he got poisoned, I was there", Harry snapped before dread settled in instead. "The bezoard did his job, right? He's not dying… right?"
"No, he is out of danger as far as poison is concerned, but his condition is… Well, you'll know soon enough. I asked for Headmaster Dumbledore to come assist me", the school nurse answered sternly.
And just like that the dam broke. Harry was Dumbledore's trusted student. He was taking private lessons and journeys into the past of the one who called himself Lord Voldemort. He admired the man, this guiding figure of the wizarding world. If the Headmaster himself had to be called to help his best friend… then it meant something very, very bad had just happened.
"What's happening?" Harry shouted, now overcome with blinding panic. "What do you mean you called for Dumbledore? What's wrong with Ron?!"
"Mister Potter, I let you in because your actions have prevented a tragedy, but I will have no hysterical students in my – Oh, Headmaster!"
Madam Pomfrey's demeanour went from stern to relieved and worried as the venerable bearded wizard entered her ward. He addressed Harry an apologetic smile, before the matron walked to him and started whispering with urgency.
Harry strained his ears, but he couldn't quite catch what they were talking about. He barely managed to catch a word that resembled to 'comma', and a dreadful chill creeped in his entrails. Dumbledore then strode over to Ron's bed and parted the curtains.
What the mage intended to do remained lost to Harry because Madame Pomfrey took the opportunity to force him to get a few drops of Calming Draught, telling him the ordeal he had underwent was too much for a young man like him. While the Boy-Who-Lived didn't appreciate the implication that he was a feeble little thing, he did take the medicine, if only to appease the matron.
He observed the tall, pale body of his best friend and a shiver went down his spine once more. The cheerful freckles almost seemed obscene in comparison to Ron's pained expression that flickered through his unconsciousness. What Harry wouldn't have given for it all to be a bad joke from the twins… He wanted his friend to twitch, stretch across the bed like an oversized cat, yawn, open bleary blue eyes blurred by sleep and grumble about how early it was. For this uncertain comatose state to be nothing but a quick afternoon nap.
"Good grief", the Headmaster said in a voice that dripped concern, perplexity and… was that awe?
"What's wrong?" Harry immediately pressed. "Tell me! I have to know! Please!" he promptly added, still not forgiving how he had been left in the dark the year before. Sirius had died because of miscommunication and lack of detail, Ron would not fall down the same path. Harry wouldn't bear it.
The old wizard turned to the Boy-Who-Lived, smiling tiredly as he peered over his half-moon spectacles. He looked so much older, suddenly, that Harry felt some sort of shame for being so short with him.
"It appears young Mr Weasley has inflicted upon himself a magical coma."
The cold sensation in the pit of Harry's stomach returned full force. "He's not going to die?" he pleaded.
"No, dear boy, he will not."
For a moment the black-haired teenager was tempted to throw himself over his best friend's still form and hug him, but Dumbledore wasn't done speaking.
"Magical comas are triggered when one's life is in great danger, preserving the body in a stasis in order to slowly return it to health. It is one of the strongest manifestations of accidental magic, and it is by no means an acceptable way of healing", continued the mage. "I do recall the longest one lasted ninety-three years."
Harry gaped as Madame Pomfrey nodded. "A victim of the Cruciatus curse, whose almost every bone was broken in their struggle. Their magic was trying to mend everything back together at the same time."
The bespectacled boy wondered how the Cruciatus, which "only" made you feel unbearable pain, could cause you to break your bones. He then remembered the way he himself had trashed and flung his limbs about, maddened by the sensation of a thousand needles poking through his every nerve, and he shivered with the horror brought by dawning comprehension.
"But every near-death doesn't end up in a magical coma, right?" he realized.
"Indeed", his teacher confirmed with a nod and a smile, visibly happy he was following. "While accidental magic cannot be expected or prompted, it seems the raw, instinctual desire of living is the main cause of such a stasis, which means one must be aware of the danger in the first place. And", Dumbledore added with a pensive look, "it takes a considerable amount of magical power, as well."
Harry's head turned to his best friend's hospital bed. Ron's strained breathing was, for a few seconds, the only sound to be heard.
"How do we wake him up?"
Madame Pomfrey suddenly tensed besides Harry and put her hand on his shoulder as if she wanted to drag him away from the truth, but Dumbledore ignored her. "Young Mr Weasley has already been saved by your timely intervention, my boy, and now that he is in the good care of Madame Pomfrey, his magic should have at least loosened its grip… which is why this situation is rather unusual, and will require some… investigating."
Harry was half-tempted to point out that every single situation in which he was involved tended to be "rather unusual", if not "absurdly deadly and most likely to end with considerable amount of bodily harm" but he resisted the call of sarcasm. Instead, he just observed the Head of Hogwarts walking back to his best friend and drawing his wand out of his purple robes.
"Legilimens", Dumbledore said quietly, pointing to Ron's sweat-dampened forehead.
And then it happened; Harry wasn't sure what he had been expecting but he had certainly not seen that coming.
As soon as the tendril of light that erupted from the Headmaster's wand connected to his best friend's deathly pale skin, Ron's arms – the arms that had been so cruelly scarred back at the Department of Mysteries – jerked at his side, his hands clenched into tight fists. Dumbledore, the awe-inspiring, venerable and powerful Albus Dumbledore, staggered backwards and lowered his arm, breaking off the mind-reading spell, to clutch his heart.
Harry was at his mentor's side as fast as he could catch a Golden Snitch. The Headmaster wasn't even trying to put back together his usual reassuring composure: he was bending forwards, breathing heavily, hands shaking slightly and his piercing blue eyes devoid of their usual twinkle. The Boy-Who-Lived felt suddenly very vulnerable. Had Dumbledore miscalculated? Was it an error in the spellcasting? What had gone wrong?
Madame Pomfrey summoned a cosy-looking armchair – Harry wondered if it was only to be used by teachers – and let the old wizard sink in it, before rushing back to her office and returning with another potion that she insisted he drink. The Head of Hogwarts complied, and Harry was struck by how old the Headmaster looked, lightless eyes staring blankly at Ron's unconscious form, age lines suddenly much more pronounced and forehead wrinkled by unspoken thoughts.
The Boy-Who-Lived was seriously beginning to worry. How? Just how could Albus Dumbledore fail a spell? What was happening to Ron? Why did everything have to get complicated when it involved Harry's friends?
"Well, this certainly is a most peculiar development", the Headmaster muttered, with some sort of grimace that was probably meant to be a smile. Harry was not in the mood for joking around.
"What just happened?!" he demanded.
Dumbledore leaned back in the chair, taking slow breaths, eyes closed, his expression weary and pained. In a mournful, low voice, he said something that chilled Harry to the bone.
"Ronald… refuses to wake up."