Chapter 1 : in the end.
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A/N: Yes, it is official. I have actually written something that is not Next Gen. Or fluff. What is this world coming to?
Just a bit of background information: this fic is set during what was supposed to be Harry's seventh year at Hogwarts - in the middle of the Second Wizardring War. Penelope Clearwater (remember her?) is a Healer at St. Mungo's and therefore traumatized on so many different levels. This is her story. Let the fun begin!
I realize there may be some age/canon issues, but we'll just ignore those and call it AU-verse. Because if it's AU, that means the author can't be wrong. Right? Er, right.
Special thanks to Julia (peppersweet), Saval (Dream_BIG), Ramita (deceptive_serenade), and Gubby (GubraithianFire) for proofreading, britpicking, and general badassery. You guys rock, and this fic would be nothing more than mash of keyboard letters without you.
Enough of my ramblings, everyone. I hope you enjoy this one-shot. It's some pretty deep stuff, and I put a lot of emotion into it... So, yeah, hopefully that shows through. Drop a review if you'd like!
This fic was inspired by In the End by Us (Linkin Park Cover) and Monster Hospital (MSTRKRFT remix) by Metric. I suggest a quick listen to both songs, as they are wonderful.
Also, just a side note - 'hospital bed' is britspeak for gurney. Who woulda thought?
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
—Erich Maria Remarque
The days start to bleed. That’s all they can do. They bleed and bleed and bleed, and the colors and the voices dribble out like liquid rust, like screaming, sour metal. The details leak out - mouths cracked open with grief, IV bags, the howl of hospital beds down the hallway. Everything pales. Life becomes a bleached sheet of nothing, thin as a moth wing and white as the explosions behind her eyes.
(And the explosions may keep her awake at night, but they’re far better than the darkness).
Back before she was a Head Girl and a Healer and Percy Weasley’s pimply girlfriend, Penelope Clearwater used to sit on her father’s shoulders - well, mostly, she’d squirm instead of sit – and cry for apple sauce whenever she was upset.
Her father would set her down and give her a cup, and when she cried some more, he’d give a second. Her mother would always say something about spoiling an appetite, but her father would just laugh and Penelope would finally smile through the tears.
(As she grew up, the tears became fewer, but the smiling became harder.)
Her father was a simple muggle photographer—a muggle photographer who did not understand wands and spells and masked men and little envelopes with emerald seals that change lives. He’d never guess that his daughter would later work in a hospital rumbling with war, where the dank air seems to rattle with hunger and the images singe themselves into her sticky skin.
He was just a muggle.
And sometimes, when Penelope lets herself, she remembers her father and thinks he may have been the smartest man in Britain. Because he might not have understood magic, but he also did not care about blood.
He did not care about lineage, or purity. He did not know that sometimes blood is murky and sometimes it is shimmering with magic and always it will be spilt by men in parlors who have voices like ash, voices that slither inside the wind and shriek for despotism in the name of tradition.
Her father did not understand blood but he understood blood – and whenever Penelope fell and scraped herself, he would pick her back up and give her apple sauce and he would say, “Blood is blood, Penny. Sometimes you lose a few drops, but there will always be some more ready to make you healthy again.”
And yes. Blood is blood. Mudblood is pureblood – it doesn’t matter on the operating table. It smells the same and looks the same and covers Penelope’s hands the same – visceral and merciless. Burning red with the proof of life, the threat of death.
And maybe her blood sparks with magic, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it’s the reason the boys at Hogwarts called her a filthy muggle. But in the end, blood is always lost, magical or not, and there is always some more to be spilt.
There is always a war spinning somewhere.
(She became Head Girl so she could prove the boys at Hogwarts wrong. She became a Healer so she could save lives. She became a shadow of smoke so she could sleep at night).
When she was eight, her father showed her his most loved possession: his Polaroid camera. He taught her how satisfying the snap of the shutter was, the wheeze of the machine straining to capture every ooze of colour and drip of soft honey light. He’d flap the picture as it started to develop, and she’d watch it turn from glossy nothingness to silhouettes to full, living, breathing people.
“It’s like this, Penelope,” he would say, shaking the picture. “You see shadows, and then you see the people they belong to. It’s the opposite of disappearing. And what’s more beautiful than that?”
And that’s what it feels like now. War bursts in every corner, inside everyone’s very own mouths. Yet despite the blood and the clash and the vivid stains on the floor, Penelope sees the hospital and only thinks of shadows. A Polaroid before it’s developed – just blurry, eyeless figures. Just blank faces etched into a blank picture.
Just scraps of darkness, trembling as they move.
The first time one of her patients died, she’d locked herself in St. Mungo’s supply cupboard and sat on a box of bezoars and promised herself she wouldn’t cry. It’d been her second week at the hospital.
He’d been a boy of nineteen. Werewolf attack. “Shouldn’t have been wandering in the woods alone,” they had said, shaking their heads.
Meanwhile, Penelope had thought, privately, awfully, “Shouldn’t have whispered so loudly, shouldn’t have walked without looking over his shoulder, shouldn’t have shaken his fist at the Death Eaters and thought he could get away with it.”
This had been before the war really began, when all there was were hazy rumors and missing people’s reports. And fear, underneath it all, murky and hot, sloshing inside people’s hearts, skittering against the back of their skulls.
She doesn’t remember the boy’s name. But she remembers sitting inside that drowsy yellowed supply cupboard and pressing her palms into her eyes until she saw explosions of light behind her eyelids. She remembers the way the blood had slicked everything, how there had been so much of it it’d seemed impossible, sweet and rotten and vile. She forgets the color of the boy’s hair, but she remembers the way the sky had looked that day – milky, like the whites of an eye peering down, like the sheen of bared teeth.
She forgets and she remembers and she wishes she didn’t do either.
Penelope looked up, startled and annoyed, mostly, because she had promised herself years and lifetimes and boys ago that she would never let anyone see her like this.
There was a young man in front of her, around her age. He had straight eyebrows and hair like an inky brushstroke and chips of seaglass for eyes. She wasn’t sure who he was – she was still the New Girl at the hospital and wasn’t yet familiar with her fellow Healers. He might have been Always Hogs Coffeemaker or Laughs at His Own Jokes or any of the other charming nicknames she’d made for her co-workers.
(She didn’t know then that, even as time passed and she was no longer New Girl, she’d never bother to actually learn her colleagues’ names, or who they were, or what their favorite color was, or how many family members they themselves had lost to the war. It was just easier that way.)
“Can I sit?” The boy raised his eyebrows at her.
She’d nodded mutely, lips pressed into a thin white scar.
He snapped off his surgery gloves, glazed with red, and sat next to her on one of the other boxes.
“Theodore,” he said. He didn’t offer his hand. It was too stained with blood and too burnt by antiseptic and somehow they both seemed to know it. “Theodore Nott."
She didn’t smile. “Penelope Clearwater.”
Silence seemed to drizzle over them, uncomfortable and thin. Dust twinkled in the air. Penelope’s hands clenched and unclenched as Theodore’s seaglass gaze seemed to thrash inside her skin.
“First time you lost a patient?” Nott began lightly.
“Pardon me?” Penelope’s voice hitched with the slightest outrage (and it wouldn’t be long before the outrage would disappear, too, along with the anger and the desperation and all the other emotions that gulped her down and prevented her from being human, from healing her best).
“I can tell – you lost a patient. Was it your first?” he repeated patiently.
Penelope could only stare, knowing that an answer was expected. Finally, without her knowing it, the words were being tugged seamlessly out of her mouth.
“Yeah. It was my first. Werewolf attack. Tore the kid to shreds.”
Nott didn’t wince, or hum sympathetically, or pat her on the back. He just nodded and looked at her and only her. “It doesn’t get better, you know.”
Penelope grimaced. “Great.”
Nott shrugged. “It doesn’t get better, but you do. You get better at not letting it hurt so much. You figure out a way to shut it all out.”
And shut it out she would, with the nicknames and the antiseptic and the cold, bland details. She would see a seven-year-old boy break his own back from writhing in pain for two hours straight (Blood-Boiling Jinx, Antonin Dolohov, the boy’s parents were avid Dumbledore-supporters). She’d witness a young woman, unidentifiable except for the engagement ring on her finger, driven to madness from the agony (Cruciatus, Bellatrix Lestrange, mother was a muggle-enthusiast and a little too vocal about it). She’d see twin brothers, one who had to carry the other – bleeding and dying – into the hospital until he was soaked with just as much blood as his brother (Skin-Searing Jinx, Alecto Carrow, father refused to accept a Death Eater bribe). And she would let the outrage, the anger, dribble like candied acid down her throbbing throat and she wouldn’t betray a single sign of weakness. She wouldn’t flinch.
Before that, before the war and the victims and the blood, when there was still that softness inside of her, when she could still seek refuge inside small, sun-soaked supply cupboards, Penelope would ask softly:
“What they’re saying right now – about Voldemort being back and a Death Eater uprising around the corner – it can’t be true, can it? I mean, that’s just not possible...”
Nott’s smile was hard. “There will always be a war, Clearwater. That’s why we’re here.”
She had nothing to say. She decided she did not believe him.
But all the same, Penelope glanced down at the blood on her hands (there had been so much of it, so much so much so much blood) and knew that in some ways, she would never be able to wash it off.
(And the very thought was like swallowing a scream, like exhaling the air out of her lungs and realizing it’d been smoke all along.)
It’s a funny thing, being surrounded by death every day.
You start to realize that the wars and the victims and the blood... they will go on forever.
You start to realize that you won’t.
Back at Hogwarts, she once showed Percy her father’s Polaroid camera.
“Muggle junk,” he laughed. “How quaint.”
She joined in, but the shards of her laughter were too loud and too earnest, and for a moment, she truly thought she hated him. Just a little bit.
“Penny,” Percy’s smile was oil slick, sticky as tar. “You know that contraption won’t even work inside these walls. There’s no room for such old-fashioned things at Hogwarts.”
Old-fashioned? She wanted to scream. Old-fashioned, just like your quills and your cloaks and the way you put people in cardboard boxes, labeled by blood, by something you can’t even see?
Instead, she threw the camera in the nearest rubbish bin and smiled.
Together they walked away, snickering. The shreds of their laughter were jagged and sharp. They drifted into her ears like curls of burning paper.
It wasn’t until later that night when she came back. She crept out of the Ravenclaw tower and down the cold marble staircases. She rooted frantically through every single rubbish bin, looking for that camera, holding her breath in her throat.
They were all empty. The house-elves must have beaten her to it, and they’d probably thrown it out since then. The realization made her cry for the first time since she was young.
But later, as she walked back to her dorm, defeated, she imagined the house-elves collecting the trash, confused as they fiddled with her camera. It almost made her laugh. Her father would have liked the thought of it, probably, if he knew what house-elves were, if he was still alive for her to explain it to him.
And slowly, almost like she couldn't help it, Penelope smiled through her tears.
She knows this now:
The blood and the antiseptic swirl pink and slither down the drain like liquid sunset. The men in their lavender parlors and pearled masks rage and scream and send their dewy, star-kissed sons to war.
And she will be here. She will always be here, wearing her own mask, in this breathing, rattling monster hospital. She has been caught between its sterile teeth, underneath its gleaming tongue, and she will probably never leave.
She mends the gashes and stops the blood and heals the bone.
(Sometimes, the eyes of the living are blanker than those of the dead.)
She tells family members that their loved ones didn’t make it, that there’s nothing she can do, that there’s nothing anyone can do.
She’s grateful when they don’t cry in front of her.
She’s silent when they do.
There is the smell of burning flesh sometimes. There are always the screams of agony tangling and untangling and tangling again.
Selfishly, she thinks that the soldiers on the battlefield are lucky, because they don’t have to be surrounded by the consequences of their own brutality, by the evil, blackened petals that wilt off the flower of human nature.
There are no consequences on the battlefield. Just the soldiers who pant like poisoned dogs and the wandfire and the Skin-Melting Jinxes and Organ-Undoing Curses and a coal-black flower, unraveling itself again and again.
But inside the hospital, it’s that undeveloped Polaroid photo. The figures in the fog. The burnt shadows. The blankness, the numbness.
She sees the stains before she sees the blood.
“D-do you... do you know w-where she might be? H-her name is – is Melly. She’s my cousin. T-they told me to c-come find you.”
“Huh?” Penelope shakes the fog out of her eyes. The woman standing before her has brown hair that she will forget and blue eyes that she will forget and blood splatters on her face that she will probably forget. The woman standing before her is not crying, but her words are being yanked out of her mouth in clumps. Her eyes do that blank thing people do when they can’t do anything else.
Penelope gathers the facts in her head like pieces of glass. They're at the hospital. There's a thirty-something woman. Dried blood spattered on her face and clothes.
She glances at her medical clipboard. “Name?”
The woman blinks. Four Healers and a wheeling hospital bed scream by, carrying a body under a sheet. The woman blinks some more.
“Her n-name is Melly. She’s my cousin. They just brought her in. They told me to come find you. There wa-was an attack, at Dia-Diagon Alley... An attack... We were there. Her name is M-Melly.”
“Not hers,” Penelope says impatiently. “Your name.”
Another hospital bed wheels by. This time, no sheet. She glances over. Fifty-year-old man, back laceration. The blood is spreading across the floor in ribbons. The Healers are already covered in it. Someone will have to mop it up.
“Andrea. Andrea,” the woman squeaks.
Penelope checks the clipboard. The paper seems to groan underneath the weight of all the numbers and names, the letters like black stitches. They try to crawl away from her.
Melly had been under a collapsed shopfront, the clipboard says. There’s a high chance she’s already dead. Penelope sighs. “Floor three. Elevator to your right.”
The woman doesn’t move.
So Penelope walks away.
There’s another hospital bed squealing by. This time, Penelope recognizes who’s wheeling it – the one person in the hospital she knows by name. Theodore Nott. His green scrubs are now red. There’s a woman next to him, bawling.
“Clearwater! You’re needed!”
Penny snaps on her gloves. She’s by the bed in seconds. Nott hands her a new clipboard.
“Seventeen. Male. Caucasian. Lacerations to his front, back and legs.”
The woman bawls harder at this. She’s nothing more than a wisp. Golden hair that Penelope would have loved as a little girl. A pinched ivory face. Eyes like melting ice, rimmed with crimson and dribbling with tears.
Penelope doesn’t know why people are designed to cry. It just makes things so much harder.
“Please,” the wisp says, and her voice is surprisingly guttural. “Please, you have to save my son.”
The hospital bed takes a sharp turn, and then they’re wheeling it into a small beige room with a bed and curtains, and the nurses come to pick the boy up, and he’s already losing so much blood, and when they set him on the new bed, Penelope realizes who he is.
“Draco Malfoy,” Nott says grimly.
Penelope recognizes him from Hogwarts. The boy looks just like his mother.
“Must have been a raid gone bad,” Nott says dryly. Penelope can hear the distaste in his voice, the implied appendage that is tacked, invisible, onto the end of that sentence: evil Death Eater. Strange for Nott to be so blatant in his disapproval, or to even disapprove at all. Penelope knows he was a Slytherin in Hogwarts—a year or two above her—and a pureblood.
But Penelope’s never asked him about his opinion on the war, which side he leans towards, the light or the darkness. After all, there isn’t time for such questions in a hospital.
Not when the boy in front of her is losing so much blood.
The mother – Narcissa, who Penelope remembers reading about in the papers – must have sensed Nott’s disgust, because her tiny back goes stick straight.
Her voice does not shake when she speaks. It is barbed with razor words, pinprick syllables. Sharp enough to draw blood, to make red bloom at fingertips. “If you don’t remember, Healers, you swore an oath to help all patients.” Narcissa turns around. The tears on her face have hardened into sparkling trails of crystal. “Regardless of occupation or orientation.”
Penelope looks at the boy. The blood is writhing inside him and outside him and she does not know what to do.
She sees blonde, she sees red, and lastly, the black coil charred into his arm. The skull and serpent design that is supposed to drill fear into her very bones. The serpent that hisses to kill, the skull that opens its mouth for Penelope’s own blood.
Narcissa’s eyes are like crumbling flint. Her lower lip trembles. “Save him.” She stands next to the bed, close enough to touch her son but all the while refusing to. She looks anywhere but at his broken body. “You must, must, must try to save him. He is seventeen. Please.”
Penelope stands and stares and gathers the facts in her head.
Draco Malfoy has a killer for a father. Draco Malfoy has a psychopathic torturer for an aunt. Draco Malfoy is a Death Eater, and Death Eaters have walked into homes – they just walk inside – and they have killed husbands and blinded children and laughed as the wives cried and cried.
Draco Malfoy has a mother who is also a wife and who also cries and cries when, meanwhile, her family is plotting to take away the lives of innocents.
“Save him. Please.”
Nott steps back. He can’t do it. Won’t. He won’t do it.
As the blood froths and sprawls across the floor, Penelope blinks.
It’s probably not fair that Malfoy has a higher chance of surviving than Melly, Andrea’s sister. Melly, who was just a bystander, who’d done nothing bad except take a shopping trip on a wrong day.
It’s probably not fair when the wrong person dies. It probably never is.
Draco Malfoy may be a killer.
If she saves him, he might go on to hurt or even murder someone.
But for the first time, the world is not a colorless page, a foggy polaroid. Now, Penelope can actually see the vivid red roaring everywhere, from Draco Malfoy’s body to the splotches on her hand to the scabs on the earth that have been picked open again and again, war after war.
Blood is blood, her father said.
Draco’s blood is her blood. Like him, she is just another pawn in this war. Both their actions, in the end, do not matter. The wrong people will die and the wrong people will live no matter what she wants and what he does.
Narcissa’s face is cracking with despair.
Penelope already knows that she could save Draco right now, and Narcissa would probably never show the smallest scrap of gratitude. Instead, she’d simply sweep her son back to their snake's nest, their mansion built on bones and blood, and they would go on, plotting the next raid, the next attack, the next batch of deaths that will roll themselves into Penelope’s hospital.
Draco Malfoy may be a killer.
Penelope might never know for sure.
But she will step forward and she will lean over him and she will save his life anyways.
After her shift is over, and Narcissa has hastily escorted her bandaged son home, Penelope leaves the hospital.
The stars strain against the murky violet sky. She walks down the alley. It is summer. Honeysuckles linger in the air, sweet on her lips.
Penelope suddenly wheels around to face her co-worker. He looks the same as ever. Maybe a little tired, though. Maybe the seaglass in his eyes is slightly more jagged than usual.
“Why are you following me, Nott?”
He answers her question with one of his own.
“Why’d you do it?”
They stand outside the hospital, in the hot, dusky lilac air, swirling with honeysuckles and fresh summer and the absence of blood. The stars seem to sigh above them.
“Why’d you save him?” Nott’s voice grows louder. He does not seem angry. Just legitimately curious. “The Death Eater kid?”
Penelope has plenty of answers she can use – the same answers anyone would give. He’s only seventeen. He’s too young to understand the horrors he’s committing. Everyone deserves a second chance.
Instead, Penelope just shrugs. “Too many deaths in our line of work. You can’t waste a life when you see one.’
Nott squints at her. He seems to take this in, taste it, roll it over inside his mouth like a jewelled piece of candy.
“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?” he asks.
Penelope’s mouth drops open in surprise, but in a weird, twisted way, it makes sense that he would ask her. This is a man who has seen her covered in blood. He is just as blank as she is. He also works in a monster hospital, and he is also turning into a shadow.
“What?” she bleats dumbly.
Nott shrugs. “Dinner. With me.”
Maybe in a different life, Penelope could actually find see herself in a relationship with this boy, with his healing certificate and messy hair and stubborn jaw.
Maybe instead, when the war and the victims and the blood gets too much, Nott will one day drag her into the supply cupboard where they met and press his mouth to hers. And she will let him because it’ll make her feel a little more human. Because that is all they can have.
“I don’t know,” Penelope finally answers.
Nott raises his eyebrows. And then he is walking away into the purple twilight, and the summer air seems to get a little heavier.
Penelope watches him go.
Maybe she will have dinner with him. Maybe she won’t.
It doesn’t matter. There is still a war going on, and there is still more blood to be spilt and even more to be mopped up.
But, Penelope, thinks – there might be time for one measly dinner.
Because now, when she licks her lips, yes, there is the familiar taste of blood and antiseptic slicking the inside of her mouth. But if she’s not mistaken, there’s also the slightest hint of honeysuckle.
These are the facts gathered inside her head: She is a Head Girl and a Healer and Percy Weasley’s ex-girlfriend. She is working in a hospital ravaged by war. She is becoming a shadow.
But it’s summer days like these when Penelope Clearwater walks outside and realizes that there is still a whole world waiting, rumbling for her. She can do whatever she wants. She can quit her job saving lives. She can feel guilty about it. She can dye her hair blue and move to Mexico. She can get in a car and drive and drive and drive and when she glances at the rearview mirror, maybe she won’t see the hospital, maybe she’ll just see herself instead, smiling through the tears.
After all, shadows may be touched by darkness, but they are also proof that somewhere, near or far, there is a light.
And it is still shining.