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because he strayed across the path

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  It started after Harry was attacked by dementors during the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff Quidditch match in third year. Or, at least, it simply became strong enough after that moment to start making Harry’s heart do funny little jolts in the hallways sometimes, and his legs choose a certain side of the Gryffindor table so that his eyes could wander the Great Hall to a certain spot at another table.

 It started when Harry was alone in the hospital wing, after the team had been shooed out. He was supposed to be getting changed or something, but… he couldn’t stop looking at the broken broomstick at the end of his bed. It felt as though he’d lost one of his best friends.

 It started when someone interrupted his quiet mourning by knocking lightly on the neighbouring bed’s end-table like it was a doorframe.

 Harry looked up and his mouth parted with surprise. Cedric Diggory was standing by the neighbouring bed, looking very sheepish and out-of-place and tired… and still unfairly handsome. The Hufflepuff Seeker and captain was still dressed in his yellow and black Quidditch uniform. The robe and leathers were charmed mostly clean and dry, save for a few mud-damped ends, but his goggles were still rain-flecked, where they had been pushed up his forehead into dark, wet hair.

 “Hey, Potter,” Diggory said quietly, pushing up a smile despite his peaked look. “D’you mind if we talk?”

 Harry, still somewhat taken aback by the sudden appearance of anyone, much less someone so unexpected, mutely shook his head. Diggory’s weak smile widened at the given permission and he approached Harry’s bed. He gave the broken Nimbus a grimace before taking a seat in one of the chairs the Gryffindor team had left behind.

 Harry was very glad that Diggory took a seat, because the other boy was quite tall – Harry probably would have only reached his chin if they were both standing. Harry still felt quite small next to Diggory, though, and somewhat raggedy and pathetic too – with his untameable hair and awful glasses, his mud-splattered robe and beaten leathers, and the splinters that had used to be his broomstick.

 “So… this is… awkward,” Diggory said, making a rueful sort of grimace. His gaze was thankfully fixed on his hands, folded in his lap, but then he raised it to focus wholly on Harry. “I’ll try to be quick about this. I… pretty much had to beg Madam Pomfrey on my knees for her to let me in here for just five minutes.”

 Diggory tried to smile again, but it fell a little flat at whatever he saw on Harry’s face. Whatever was on his face, Harry could not have said, because he had very little idea of what was happening.

 Harry was not as surprised as he should have been that Diggory had miraculously managed to make the formidable Madam Pomfrey bend on her visitation policies. Especially if he had been looking beseechingly up at her while asking. Had the Hufflepuff captain’s eyes always been that odd, warm grey? Or had Harry simply never gotten close enough to notice before?

 Punch him in his perfect nose, some angry, jealous part of Harry suggested. It was the same part that whined that Diggory being taller and broader in the harsh winds was unfair, and also the same part that bristled at Diggory still having a broomstick that was more than broken bristles. The part that panged with the sheer injustice of Diggory not falling off his broom, or being cursed by the Grim, or overly affected by dementors to the point of hearing a stranger’s dying screams.

 It wasn’t fair that Diggory had caught the Snitch, really, and it definitely wasn’t fair that it was fair!

 Kick him in his perfect mouth, the jealous part agreed fiercely.

 “So, that… wasn’t fair,” Diggory said.

 That startled Harry out of his stunned muteness. “Oh, no,” he objected, even though that jealous part of him preened very smugly. Yes, it wasn’t fair. Good on you for noticing, you perfect git. “You caught the Snitch fair and squa-”

 Diggory shook his head and said firmly, “It wasn’t fair. Look… I offered to replay the match, but Wood… refused… stridently. And I didn’t want Wo- … I didn’t want anything to make you think that you deserved to lose because you were attacked by dementors.” His jaw set. “That’s not at all right.”

 “But I fell off my broom,” Harry pointed out helplessly. “You didn’t. The dementors didn’t overwhelm you. And you were way ahead of me anyway, even before that. You caught the Snitch fairl-”

 Diggory’s brows scrunched up, his nose wrinkling, and Harry suddenly noticed several light freckles scattered over it and his cheekbones. “Potter,” he said slowly, face smoothing into polite bewilderment, “I don’t know if you know this but there aren’t supposed to be dementors in a Quidditch match… Or anywhere near a Qudditch match… Or even on school grounds at all.”

 Harry frowned, feeling stupid and hating it. “I know that.”

 “The presence of dementors automatically makes the whole game subject to interference,” Diggory argued, like he’d said it many times before already, lifting his chin and face settling into firmness again. “I asked Professor Lupin about them on the way in, and he says it’s not at all your fault if you’re more vulnerable to them than most people.”

 “Professor Lupin? He’s here?” Harry repeated, blinking owlishly. “I thought… he was ill.”

 “Yeah, just outside. He… he looks… er, terrible.”

 The jealous part of Harry didn’t like how easily Diggory said that, but the rest of him noticed that Diggory looked quite concerned. Harry felt that concern too, as much as he unreasonably disliked having anything in common with Diggory. Professor Lupin was the best Defense teacher they had ever had and Harry dreaded having Snape as a substitute again.

 He still hadn’t done that essay.

 “He’s talking with Madam Pomfrey,” Diggory said, and then he gave Harry a wry sort of smile that made some part of Harry’s chest flop uncomfortably. “Well, being berated by Madam Pomfrey, at least. I think he was worried about you.”

 “Oh,” Harry said, for lack of anything else to say.

 He thought, for a moment, that he rather liked the idea that Professor Lupin had come to see him in the hospital wing, even while ill. It made a different sort of uncomfortable flop in Harry’s chest, one accompanied by a glowing warmth inside. It made Harry feel… special.

 But it didn’t last long before the pit in his stomach pointed out that Lupin was probably just worried because he knew Harry was weak against the dementors – which was very embarrassing, really. Lupin might not even be here for Harry, no matter what Diggory thought, and was probably talking to Madam Pomfrey about his own illness. It would be terrible if Lupin had forced himself out of bed, still ill, to check on Harry for being too weak to stay on a broomstick.

 Diggory’s wry smile dropped, as he seemed to notice Harry’s drop in mood. He sat up straight, leaned back, and then gave a great, silent sigh. The motion of this broke Harry out of his thoughts about what a terrible person he was and how Professor Lupin was far too nice.

 “We shouldn’t have been playing in that storm at all,” Diggory said quietly, looking off towards the rain-splattered windows at the end of the hospital wing. He looked even more tired and peaked than before, Harry noticed, now that he wasn’t smiling.

 “They were awful Quidditch conditions to start with,” Harry agreed awkwardly.

 Diggory blinked, then looked at Harry again. “To start with…?” he repeated, before something dawned on him and the wry smile returned. “Before the dementors showed up?”

 “Yeah…?”

 Diggory laughed, very hoarse and somewhat incredulously. “Well… that’s one way to put it,” he said, staring and smiling directly at Harry again, more genuinely now.

 Flop, went Harry’s chest, much to the displeasure of the jealous part of him.

 “You had… another encounter with the dementors on the train, didn’t you?” Diggory asked, trading his smile for an expression a bit more solemn. He gave a low whistle when Harry nodded uncertainly. “Wow… you’ve got rotten luck, Potter.”

 You have no idea, Harry thought. But instead, he said, “Pretty good luck too, really.”

 Diggory blinked, then smiled. “That’s one way to put it,” he said, then he leaned in again, intense and unsmiling. “I would… like to try and make this up to you, if I can. Wood’s refused a replay and… well… my team’s said they’ll kick me out of Hufflepuff if I try to forfeit, but… there’s got to be something.”

 Harry, thoroughly taken aback, looked away and about. Because Diggory’s bright grey eyes were simultaneously very difficult to look away from and uncomfortable to meet, and he had no idea what in the world to say. He looked about, as though something in the room would suddenly bring something to mind, and his eyes quickly settled on the broken Nimbus 2000 at the end of his bed.

 No, that’s far too much to ask, Harry thought, clearing his throat. “Not really,” he said.

 Unfortunately, Diggory had noticed where Harry’s eyes had gone and was grimacing again at the broken broomstick. “Yeah… sorry about your broom, Potter,” he said, and the jealous part of Harry reared up the idea he was getting pitied. “I don’t think my allowance would cover that.”

 Diggory seemed to think for a second, then added uncertainly, “And I don’t think you’ll have much luck getting any Galleons out of the Whomping Willow’s pockets. I mean, I’ll root for you, but...”

 Harry snorted before he could help himself and Diggory smiled delightedly at him.

 “Come on, Potter,” he said, friendlier and more at ease than before. “There’s really got to be something. I won’t do your homework for you, but I’m a fifth-year, so I could probably manage help.”

 “I don’t like the sound of ‘probably’,” Harry said dryly.

 Diggory laughed quietly. “No? Alright, how about…” Diggory dropped his voice, which made Harry’s stupid chest flop uncomfortably for no reason whatsoever, then said, “A free pass in the halls? So long as you’re not lugging Firewhiskey into the castle… and swear never to tell anyone I neglected my prefect duties.”

 Harry shook his head, stifling laughter. Even if he used all his fingers and toes, he could not count the number of times he had passed a patrolling prefect or professor using his Invisibility Cloak. He had not been out much this year – compared to second year before the basilisk, and all of first year after Christmas on the nights he couldn’t sleep – but it was entirely possible that he’d already had a “free pass” past Diggory.

 “No? Alright, good,” Diggory said, smiling a little mischievously. “Then I won’t lose sleep for doing something so morally reprehensible, or my badge when Weasley somewhat manages to sense my misdemeanour and revoke my prefect status. I would have had to drop out of Hogwarts to avoid my parents’ Howlers. Thank Merlin, Potter, you really saved me there.”

 That was what finally broke the dam, and Harry laughed.

 He pictured Diggory all exhausted and tormented for the grave crime of letting a third-year pass after curfew without detention. Then Percy all puffed up with righteous anger, lecturing Diggory from a judge’s chair, Head Boy badge gleaming on his chest and wearing a horrible wig, demanding Diggory turn in his badge in front of a jury of equally angry professors. Then Diggory being chased out of the Great Hall, pursued by Howlers, and Oliver being so happy that the Gryffindor Quidditch captain proposed marriage to one of the owls that had carried it on the spot.

 At all that, Harry could not help himself and he laughed. He laughed so hard that there was nearly no sound at all. He could feel the beginnings of a stitch wheezing against his side when he could finally bring himself to stop. The jealous part of him was quiet now, nearly gone.

 “You don’t have to do anything,” Harry said to Diggory, finally, who was looking very quietly pleased with himself. “It wasn’t your fault the dementors were there. You don’t have to.”

 “Yeah,” Diggory agreed, then added, “but I want to do something.” He looked breathtakingly sincere, and a little anxious besides. “I feel bad, you know? And it would make me feel better if I could do something to make you feel a little better after… after that.

 Diggory shuddered. “I don’t blame you at all for falling off your broom… especially since they looked to be going after you. I barely managed to stay on my broom,” he quietly admitted, “just while the Headmaster scared them all off.”

 Harry’s happy feelings soured some at what sounded a bit like pity to him, as well as the reminder of dementors and the loss of the Quidditch match, but… Diggory looked off towards the windows again and Harry had the opportunity to get a good luck at him again. Diggory really did look peaked – tired and grey and peaked – much like Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville had all looked after Harry had fainted on the train.

 “Chocolate helps,” Harry said.

 Diggory looked at him, brows furrowed and nose scrunched again. “What?”

 “Chocolate,” Harry repeated awkwardly. “It helps after… dementors. Professor Lupin gave us all some after they boarded the train. Madam Pomfrey tried too. She said it’s a remedy.”

 “Huh,” Diggory said, sitting back. Then he snapped his fingers, face brightening and smiling brilliantly towards Harry. “I know! Chocolate! You can’t beat Honeydukes’ chocolate,” he said certainly. “I heard you’ve got trouble with Hogsmeade trips and it won’t leave me broke. Any allergies? Preferences?”

 Harry stared. “…What?” he said eloquently.

 Diggory looked at him, realizing that he’d gotten a bit loud, and repeated quietly, “Do you have any allergies or preferences when he comes to chocolate?”

 “Oh, uhm, not really?” Harry said, then realized what was happening. “Diggory, it’s fine, really-”

 Diggory gave him a very polite flat look. “I heard Wood is trying to drown himself in the showers,” he pointed out, “and I think he’d rather beat me with a broomstick than accept an offer to replay the match.”

 Harry would have objected, but… no, that was a fairly true assessment of Oliver Wood.

 “Come on,” Diggory said with an unfairly unfair smile. “Are you really turning down free Honeydukes chocolate?”

 Harry opened his mouth to object still, but his taste buds quickly reminded him of the obscenely delightful desserts that Ron and Hermione had brought back from Hogsmeade. It was a fairly good point that Diggory and his unfair smiling had just made, and Diggory was insisting.

 “Alright,” Harry said, before the jealous part of him could insist that anything they accept from Diggory be spat back in his lightly freckled and handsome face. His heart was doing all these strange little flops in his chest again, at the thought of Diggory giving him a gift, even just as a gesture of good sportsmanship.

 Diggory smiled widely, which did not help the somersaults going on under Harry’s ribs. “Great,” he said. “Thanks for humouring me, Potter.” He leaned in and whispered, “If anyone asks, you can say I bribed you to fall off the broom.”

 Harry’s brain thankfully stopped being horribly stunned at Diggory’s closeness, and Harry laughed – far more loudly than he meant to. He couldn’t tell if Diggory was actually funny or if the strangeness of this whole situation – or the broken broomstick at the end of his bed and the memories of the unknown woman’s screams – were getting to him. But, either way, laughter felt good.

 Diggory opened his mouth to say something else, but Madam Pomfrey’s head popped out from behind a door and suddenly she was bustling towards them with the force of a freight train. “Diggory! I said you could come in so long as you were quiet! Your five minutes are up! OUT! Out of my hospital wing!”

 Harry, who was trying very desperately to stifle his laughter, took one look at Diggory’s face and burst into renewed laughter. Diggory looked terrified, like a deer unexpectedly caught in headlights. Harry fell back into his pillows and snickered as Madam Pomfrey steamed towards them and Diggory jumped to his feet, accidentally knocking over his chair, fumbling to catch it and failing, and trying to stammer apologies all the while and turning increasingly red-faced.

 “Out, Diggory! OUT!” she said, flicking her wand at the chair and shooing at Diggory with her free hand. He was perhaps a foot taller than she was, but he scrambled out of her way as she henned him out of the room. “Go take a proper shower! Change out of those robes already! And drink some hot chocolate before you get a good night’s rest – Healer’s orders!”

 “Yes, I will, Madam Pomfrey, but-”

 “Mister Potter needs his rest! He’s not dying, Diggory, you can see him when it’s proper visiting hours tomorrow!” Madam Pomfrey said firmly. “Go get your own rest. And remember the hot chocolate! One cup before bed! And then one in the morning, for good measure. Now, OUT!”

 Diggory, henned efficiently and herded forcefully by the rhinoceros-freight-train that was Madam Pomfrey, gave Harry one last apologetic and commiserating look after his shoulder. Harry waved at him, smiling uncontrollably, and Diggory smiled back just before Madam Pomfrey shoved him out the door and slammed it firmly shut.

 “You’re too popular, Potter!” she said as she whirled on him, sniffing disapprovingly. “And you come here far too often, anyway!” She bustled back over to his bedside, flicking the righted chair over to stack at the end of the room. “I ought to just put your name on one of these, make it yours.”

 “I think that’s special treatment,” Harry pointed out, still unable to stop smiling.

 Madam Pomfrey regarded him for a moment, then something in her face softened. “Well, we’ve got to accommodate the needs of students, Mister Potter,” she said. “Now, come on, let’s get you cleaned up already and into some comfortable pyjamas so you can get your rest.”

~

 Harry felt much better after he’d had a proper shower and gotten changed into a pair of hospital pyjamas. Madam Pomfrey had cast a Warming Charm on them, so they felt absolutely blissful after his warm shower and that cold, stormy Quidditch match. Afterwards she set him up with a mug of hot chocolate in a bed that must have also had a Warming Charm on it, and Harry thought he might have been happy to stay right there for the rest of the weekend.

 Madam Pomfrey was insisting on keeping him here for the rest of the weekend, anyway, so that might have been the point. Comfortable in bed, with the chocolate warming him from head to toe on the inside, Harry didn’t feel much like arguing with her or complaining about it.

 He did refuse to let her throw away the shattered remains of his Nimbus 2000, though. She seemed miffed about that, and obviously disapproving whenever she laid eyes on it, but she didn’t argue either. The only thing she insisted on was cleaning the mud off it, if it was going to remain in her hospital wing, and then she didn’t bring up the subject again.

 Harry knew he was being a bit stupid about it, but he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of the broken broomstick. He knew that his Nimbus was beyond repair, but he couldn’t help it. It had been one of the first presents he’d ever gotten, after Hedwig from Hagrid, and flying was probably Harry’s most favourite part of magic. He didn’t feel properly sad about it, really, just a little empty, but he couldn’t bear to let go of it quite yet – whatever the consequences of keeping it near were.

 He read for a while, then ate an early dinner. All foods he liked, served on a tray by Madam Pomfrey, who checked on him frequently from her office and made clucking noises every time it looked like Harry wouldn’t finish something. Once she was satisfied with his performance and cleared away the tray, Harry went back to reading the Magical Creatures Almanac he’d borrowed from Madam Pomfrey’s little hospital wing library.

 He skipped over the entire D section, though.

 Harry read for quite a while – skimming over most of it, honestly, barely reading – before Madam Pomfrey came in and swiped the book out of his hands. She closed it on the W section, right after he’d finished Common Welsh Green and gotten almost all through Welsh Pixies. Harry was barely able to keep his eyes open by this point, and didn’t object as she told him to get his proper rest already, then started readying the hospital wing for the night.

 Ron and Hermione popped their heads through the door halfway through, clearly just come from dinner at the Great Hall. They made faces at Harry for a while, behind Madam Pomfrey’s back, before she noticed Harry poorly stifling laughter and chased them off. Hermione got a wave in and Ron made an excellent troll impression before they scurried off.

 Madam Pomfrey clucked disapprovingly after them, then at Harry for wheezing with laughter on his bed, but she had an upwards turn to her lips and a bright glint to her eye.

 Unfortunately, soon enough, Harry was left to go to sleep. All alone in a darkened hospital wing.

 He should have fallen asleep straight away – he was quite tired – but he found that he couldn’t. Now that he was alone, his mood slipped smoothly downwards. Even the memories of the visits from Ron and Hermione, the Gryffindor Team (excluding Oliver, who’d hopefully stopped trying to drown himself in the showers by now), and even Diggory couldn’t keep Harry’s mood up. Every time Harry tried to quiet his mind and fall asleep, awful thoughts drifted up for his perusal, determined to trouble him.

 It was going to be one of those bad nights, he could tell.

 The Quidditch match played again and again in his head. Not just the harsh winds and cold rain, with the feelings of pointless struggle and helplessness, but also that lightning-lit silhouette of an enormous dog in the topmost seats of the empty stands.

 Harry had yet to tell anyone about the Grim. He hadn’t even told Ron and Hermione, because he knew Ron would panic and Hermione would scoff at the apparition’s appearances. Harry didn’t know if he believed the superstition or not, but the fact remained that it had now appeared twice in highly unlikely and unexpected places – the park near Privet Drive and the topmost stands of Hogwarts’ Quidditch pitch could hardly be more different to Harry’s mind – and both times had been followed by near-fatal accidents.

 First, Harry had nearly been run over by the Knight Bus. Now, he had fallen fifty feet from his broom due to dementors. The Grim had immediately preceded both events.

 If it was all a coincidence, it was a ridiculously improbable one, so Harry was beginning to wonder if there was actual substance to the myth of the Grim. Was the Grim going to haunt him until he actually died? Preceding increasingly awful and frequent events until Harry’s luck ran out? Was he going to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for the beast?

 And all this wasn’t even getting started on the appearance of the dementors, which Harry thought he might actually look for over his shoulder for the rest of his life. The mere thought of them left Harry feeling sick and humiliated. Even if Diggory said it wasn’t Harry’s fault if he was affected more, Diggory was obviously far too nice to be trusted – no one else collapsed every time they saw one; no one else seemed to hear echoes in their head of their dying mother.

 Harry figured that bit about his mother out on his own. During the night hours in the hospital wing, he lay awake and stared fuzzily at strips of moonlight on the ceiling, hearing the screaming voice echo over and over again. And he soon knew who the begging and pleading and screaming belonged to. It was obvious, in hindsight, and with so much time alone to think about it. 

 With the presence of the dementors, Harry finally knew his mother’s voice.

 Harry could hear the last moments of Lily Potter’s life and her attempts to protect him, Harry, from Lord Voldemort. Then Voldemort’s high, cold laughter before he murdered her… and then… her dying scream.

 Harry eventually dozed into something resembling sleep, but it was fitful and full of dreams of clammy, rotted hands around a dry wand and desperate pleading. Then with bright flashes of green light, a great burning, and overwhelming fear. Harry drifted back to bleary wakefulness, once or twice, to dwell again on his mother’s voice, confused and helpless.

 After a particularly terrible dream, Harry jerked awake, feeling chilled to the very centre of his chest. This time, Harry’s head had unwillingly and unwittingly combined the beautiful shade from the Mirror of Erised with this new sampling of his mother, and added the face on the back of Quirrell’s head with a body of its own, to recreate the horrible scene the dementors pushed on him. It had seemed so real that Harry was still blinking it out of his eyes even minutes later, rubbing at his faintly prickling scar.

 He found himself wiping a few tears away from his eyes, alone in the dark of the hospital wing. He felt humiliated and lost and strangely empty – and he wished with all his heart that there was someone he could ask about these things.

 Why did the dementors affect him so badly? Why did the dementors affect him like this?

 But he was alone, and he could barely think of a single person who could help him.

 All through the awful night, however, there was no sign of Professor Lupin.