Chapter 48 : Helter-Skelter
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Potter slammed the door closed. Heart ricocheting inside my chest cavity, I slumped against the wall with a huge exhale of relief.
"That was cutting it close," I heard Aidan murmur, but I couldn't tell where is voice was coming from, as I had been blinded by the new light of the hallway. Arrgghhh. I rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hand in a poor attempt at soothing my angry corneas.
"Where are you?" I called out dumbly, gaining newfound sympathy for the groundhog. So this must be what it's like to pop out of the ground once a year...
"Over here. You okay?"
Finally, my vision restored itself and hallelujah I could see again. My eyes flicked quickly over my surroundings, taking everything in: a long, brassy expanse of wooden hallway, which cleaved in to two branches at the end. One branch led to the street exit, which Dom had taken the Minister through, and the other went deeper into the bowels of the Ministry, into more branches, more hallways, more rooms.
Annnnd then there was Aidan's face, peering into mine at far too close a proximity. His blue eyes were wide and round, one eyebrow cocked in concentrated alarm.
"You okay? Aggy? Aggy?"
"Yes, yeah, I'm fine," I said brusquely. "Just give me a second."
I took a deep breath and did my best to ignore Potter's hazel gaze, which was fixed, unmoving, on me. My fingers hastily fumbled in my pocket for my own gold coin the mate to the one I'd stuck on Vespertine. It was time to start Phrase Three.
I closed my eyes, envisioning clearly the person I needed to call. Vespertine. She had the coin and, in no time, she would feel its heat burning through the fabric of her robe, just like how I'd been burned in the arse so many times by the blasted thing. There was a certain poetic justice to it all, if you think about it.
And then, all of a sudden, Vespertine's face flickered on to the shiny surface of the coin. Her features, normally haughty and pointed, were now drawn with panic.
"You," she said, and hearing her voice, real and out loud, made all the feeling drain out of my body in one, hot whoosh. I was terrified.
Staring into the face of the woman who wanted to kill me, I came to the realization that I actually had no idea what to call her. 'Headmistress' seemed a little formal for the situation, while Mrs. Vespertine was just... weird.
There was a long pause as Vespertine waited, expectant and a little confused, for me to reply. God. Even my encounters with the people who want to kill me are awkward.
"Um, yeah. Me," I declared. My eyes flitted to James and Aidan, who were standing next to me, there for support, staunch and stoic and ready to help. I felt my confidence swell. "It's me. I was responsible for the blackout."
"Very cute, Miss Bennett," Vespertine sneered, and I was abruptly reminded of how condescending she'd always been, as both headmistress and super villain. "But if you think you have the right to just come and meddle into business that is above you "
"Cut the crap, Vespertine," I suddenly snapped, and Potter's eyebrow quirked upwards. "I have every right to meddle, seeing as you recently just got me convicted as a felon. And I know what you're planning to do tonight and... and.. I beat you to it. I have the Minister. And if you want to see him, you'll have to find me."
Vespertine blinked. For some reason, she seemed smaller in real life than she had in all the imaginings and nightmares I'd suffered through the past few days. "Why on earth would you do that?" she hissed. Her left eye twitched, just the slightest hint of a crack in her calm facade.
"Because you have something I want," I replied, triumphant. "And I'm willing to propose a trade."
"What do you want? Money?" Vespertine's voice was thinning with hysteria, and I felt my determination harden. This was it. Now or never.
I gave a swift shake of the head. "My freedom. My innocence. Come find me, and I'll hand over Humdudgeon."
"You're a little girl playing an adult game," Vespertine spat, but I could see it in her eyes she'd accepted my terms. She would follow me.
"I know," I responded nastily, shaking and elated by the fact that I, Agatha Bennett, was finally talking back to an authority figure. "But I'm winning."
The connection blipped, and then the coin's screen faded into darkness. I looked up, briefly registered Aidan gaping jaw and Potter's vaguely stricken expression, before pushing past the two of them and beginning to stalk down the hallway.
"That... was awesome," Aidan said, struggling to catch up. "And scary. And awesome."
"I know," I tossed out, quickening my pace.
"Like, you legit threatened her," my brother continued, awe shining in his eyes.
"Were you, by any chance, a Russian mob boss in another life?" Potter said faintly, looking a little dare I say it scared. "Or in this life?"
I shrugged, choosing not to answer. "We don't have much time. Vespertine and her team are going to barge through that door at any second, and we need to make use of our head start. You guys know what to do fend off her cronies." We paused at the fork in the hallway, and then continued down the branch that would take us deeper into the Ministry.
"Yup, we know," Aidan chirped. "We'll keep them away from you."
"And we'll call the Auror department while we're at it," Potter said calmly, and I thanked Merlin that, at a time like this, he wasn't freaking out on my behalf. Right now, I needed someone who was self-assured and who, more importantly, trusted in me and my plan. I needed someone I could hold on to.
"Vespertine has to be alone when she meets me for this to work. It has to be a fair fight." Already, the hallway was beginning to section off into several different, miniature hallways each direction a random path, a gamble. I could choose any one of them and get lost in the winding labyrinths of the Ministry. Vespertine, however, was one of the brightest witches and academic minds of this generation. I trusted that she would find me, wherever I was I just had to hope her henchmen wouldn't.
"We'll split up," Aidan said confidently. "Potter and I will take Vespertine's henchmen. You just concentrate on getting as deep into the Ministry as you can."
"I know. Just..." For the first time, I hesitated, stopping in my tracks. Potter and Aidan jolted to a halt as well, turning to face me, expectant. "Be careful, okay? They're trained fighters."
"We'll be fine, Bennett. We're prepared for this," Potter said gently, lowly. I flicked my gaze towards him warily, remembering what Dom had said about Cooper and his personal vendetta against Potter. Something in my chest shuddered at the thought of those two meeting.
Impulsively, I grabbed Potter's hand, quickly stroking my thumb over his calloused palm. His eyes met mine.
"I'll see you soon," he said quietly.
"Be safe," I whispered back, before moving to kiss Aidan on the cheek. "Remember, call the Aurors. Don't do it all by yourselves."
Aidan looked helpless as I turned to go. "Take care of yourself, sis."
"I will," I said absentmindedly, eyes already scanning the array of hallways stretching before me. I chose one in the middle for no reason at all, except for the fact that it was the first one my eyes landed on and began to walk. Quickly. I couldn't look over the shoulder at the two boys I was leaving behind. I would crumble.
I walked on for what felt like ages, the hallway darkening and darkening the farther I got. My mind was one blank swipe, images flitting through in panicked fragments. My fingers were vibrating with energy; my wand felt cool and slippery in my hand.
As I walked, however, I began to get nervous. I needed a room where I could wait to confront Vespertine, yet this hallway still hadn't led me to a single door or even a sign, really, that there was anything beyond this infinite stretch. I half-debated turning around, but I didn't want to stop walking. The repetitive, right-foot-left-foot motion was the only thing keeping me sane. I half-believed that if I stopped, my body would forget how to function.
Eventually, I could just start to make out the sketchy shape of a doorway at the very end of the corridor. Squinting, I tried to decipher what was beyond it as I quickened my pace. The light from the other side was obscuring my vision, growing brighter and brighter as I advanced, instinctively drawn to its source. I broke into a jog for the last couple of meters, but then came to an abrupt halt when I burst through and saw what lay on the other side.
I was back in the exact same hallway I had left Aidan and Potter in. Now, it was empty and hushed, shadows slinking in its corners. I'd done a full circle, I realized dumbly, and wasted a shit ton of time.
This fucking building was so confusing. It was like Alice in Wonderland meets bureaucracy, with twists and turns and lefts and rights. I'd completely lost the little orientation I had, and now couldn't make sense of which way was which. Now, I was back where I started, and Potter and Aidan nowhere to be found. I couldn't decide whether this was a good or bad sign.
I chose a different path, this time, and as I wound my way down the new corridor, my ears pricked, ready to pick up any shout or sound of footsteps. Instead of being too empty, this hallway, it turned out, had too many rooms and they were all weird. Instead of the typical offices and desks you'd expect from a government building, there were, instead, rows of doors, each opening into a scene more bizarre than the previous one.
There was one room that was just filled with miniature drawers, from floor to ceiling. Big rusty ones, tiny, delicate silver ones. It crept me out so much that I moved on to the next room, but when I opened that door, I was met with a wide arena and a dome-shaped ceiling where the four seasons winter, spring, summer, fall slid across like a slideshow. I left quickly and found, in quick succession, a room filled with buttons, a tiny broom closet, a ball pit, and a bowling alley but nowhere I could stage a takedown of an evil villain.
The Ministry is a strange place.
Finally, exhausted, I was nearing the last room when I heard voices.
They seemed to be coming from behind the door, so I crept closer. I crouched down, peering into the keyhole, and gasped at what I saw.
It was a Quidditch pitch. Meters and meters of jade green grass, and an impossibly high ceiling. Complete with its own goal posts and stadium seats. I had no idea why the Ministry would wish for a Quidditch pitch maybe so its employees could play the occasional game, blow off steam but there it was. The pitch was almost as big as the one at Hogwarts.
And in the middle of it was James Potter, kneeling with his hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed, and two of Vespertine's men standing behind him. Their wands pointed at his neck execution-style. Their backs were facing me, but I knew it was Potter from the scruffy hair and the broad, rigid shoulders.
It was my worst nightmare. For a moment, my vision was overrun with a buzzing cloud of black, and I felt my knees begin to literally wobble as the floor swayed underneath them. Scraps of the scene floated towards me in a daze. James Potter. Vespertine's henchmen. Quidditch pitch. Oh no.
Hands quivering and suddenly, deathly cold, I cracked open the door. I was certain they wouldn't hear me because the three of them were in the center of the pitch, meters away. Thankfully, Cooper wasn't there just two other middle-aged guys, judging by their height and build, with bland, unspecial hairstyles. I couldn't see their faces because their backs were turned towards.
"I want you," one of the men was saying, thrusting his wand forward. "To call that bitch Agatha Bennett, and get her in here."
"How am I supposed to call her, exactly?" Potter, insolent as ever, snarked through gritted teeth, craning his neck slightly to look at the man. He didn't catch sight of me though, all the way in the back, pushing my way through the door in a trembly-legged, half-daze.
Potter's question seemed to puzzle the two men for a bit. Finally, the other guy shrugged.
"Whatever," he said gruffly. "She'll find her way here eventually. You just keep yer mouth shut, alrigh'? Do not try to warn yer little friend we're here."
"Yeah," the other bloke nodded furiously. "Keep your mouth shut."
Each word was accentuated with a prod of the wand, and I winced. My legs, functioning with no command whatsoever from my brain, were bringing me closer and closer to the group, my tread light and silent on the perfectly trimmed Quidditch grass. I could hear them better, now, could make out Potter's heavy, pained breathing, make out the trickle of blood that was dribbling from a gash in his forehead. There were ropes twined around his wrists.
"Say anything," The henchman was telling Potter. "And we'll kill you. Don't think we won't."
There were broomsticks hanging on the wall, next to the chests of Quidditch balls stacked on top of each other. As quietly as possible, I slid one off the wall and advanced further towards the group. It was a Firebolt the newest model. Slung over my shoulder, it was surprisingly light.
"We'll wait here all day if we have to," Henchman No. 1 goaded. "And after, we'll kill both of you off."
Potter jerked at this, the skin of his wrists cutting into the rope. I knew he was conflicted on the inside, not sure of what to do. If he warned me, he'd get killed. If he stayed silent, we both would. He was stuck.
"You can volunteer to go first, if you want. Unless you want us to kill her first. Make you watch. I know some pretty spells that'll make her scream. Dark stuff. They don't teach you it in school. I know how to bend her body in half, you see, like a twig. You can listen to her spine snap, but she'll still be living, of cours "
"BENNETT, IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, TURN AROUND. TURN. AROUND fuck, fuck, god damn it " All of a sudden, Potter was hollering, hollering at the top of his lungs, and I was running towards the group faster than I'd ever run before. In my blind panic, I barely registered that one of the henchmen had his wand raised, his mouth dropping open just as I reached them... And I don't know why, but I seemed to have conveniently forgotten I was a witch, because instead of using my wand I was taking the broomstick and swinging it around, connecting its hard wooden base with Henchman No.1's head.
The bloke crumpled to the floor. Potter turned to me, his face just beginning to shift into an expression of shock, and I could only just process him processing me before Henchman No. 2 waved his wand and sent my body zooming into the nearest wall.
I smacked into the concrete in a way that made my bones shudder and my vision split into about fifty different blinding shards. With a wounded shout I slumped to the ground, a heap of limbs and pain and ache, my eyelids drooping shut as I felt myself veer out of consciousness but not before I twitched my wand and muttered a lazy incantation that made the ropes around Potter's wrists spring free.
Then there were five seconds of blackness, of me not being conscious. I could barely hear the faint shouts of curses and spells being thrown into the open, like in a dream, and then I was jolting awake to Potter's firm hand on my shoulder.
"Bennett Bennett, are you with me?"
I blinked my bleary eyes open.
Henchman No. 2 facedown on the ground. Potter had two brooms under his arm, and as he pulled me to a staggering stand, he shoved one into my hands.
"Are you okay to fly?"
I stared. Potter's face before me was fierce with intensity. He snapped two fingers in front of my nose, making me go cross-eyed, before gripping my swaying shoulders urgently. My head was pounding, but already things were starting to sharpen, become clearer.
"Yes," I said faintly, before giving my head a quick shake. "Yes, I can."
"Okay, let's go. Before they wake up," he said curtly, all refined and calm and whatnot, but his eyes were slits and his face darkened with a kind of fury that made me afraid for him and what he would do.
I swung a leg over my broom and kicked into the air, and he followed suit.
There was a breathless moment as the front of my broom jerked to the left, dipping me forward, and I had to scramble to upright it. It had been a while since I'd flown. Potter, on the other hand, had been flying before he could walk (actually though Ginny Potter has the photo albums to prove it). He was swerving through the air with ease, hair tousled in the wind, already close to the exit.
"Incoming!" He tossed over his shoulder, and I looked behind me to see that Henchman No. 1 had woken from his little nappy-poo, and was now clambering onto a broom of his own. Fuck. We had to get out of here, fast.
That was when I saw it right next to Henchman No. 1's left foot, a sly gleam of silver winking in the light.
"Oh fuck! Potter! The tape recorder!" I yelled, hoping my voice wasn't lost to the distance or the wind. I yanked my broom to a stop. "I dropped it!"
Potter wheeled around, eyes wide with alarm, but already I was yanking my broom around and zooming towards the ground.
"Bennett!" I heard him call. "What are you doing? You're supposed to move away from the crazy psychopathic killer, not towards him Jesus."
Henchman No. 1 had kicked off the ground and was flying directly at me, now, and that was when I dimly realized that this may not have been one of my best ideas. Teeth bared, wand outstretched, he was flying at tremendous speed and making it clear he wasn't about to stop. We were going to collide, I realized, stomach dropping. We were going to crash and
I rolled over in a perfect imitation of a Sloths Grip Roll, and the world promptly turned upside down, becoming a blur of green and white and brown just as the henchman zipped over me, his boots barely grazing my fingers.
I summoned all my core strength to pull myself right way up, pointed my broom downwards, and snatched the tape recorder off the pristine spring grass with ease.
The henchman, meanwhile, had jolted to a stop mid-air, obviously confused as to how a fifteen-year-old girl had just vanished into thin air. I wasted no time, wrenching my broom to the right and towards Potter, who was waiting, looking vaguely amazed, at the exit.
"GO GO GO!" I screamed as I zoomed past him, into the dim, brownish light of the hallway. Potter quickly snapped out of it, pointed his broom, and followed suit, the Henchman on our tails.
"Ack!" I gave a strangled cry as, suddenly, a smoking hole was blasted into a door inches from my leg. The arsehole had tried to hex us! Henchman No. 1 was obviously not pleased with me, or the tiny lump surely growing into his head by now.
And here I was hoping he'd had a change of heart.
"Bennett! Do you know what you're doing?" Potter yelled over the howl of the wind.
"Definitely-sort-of-not-really," I responded brightly, eyes catching sight of the entrance to the main hall. We were gaining speed and would be there in a few quick seconds. An idea was forming in my brain. "Do you trust me?"
"What?" Potter yelled, the tips of his eyebrows notching upwards.
"DO YOU TRUST ME?"
"I SAID DO YOU TRUST ME?"
"OKAY!" With that, I grabbed Potter's arm and yanked him sharply downwards with all my strength. We both promptly went somersaulting to the ground, our brooms spinning helter-skelter, our bodies landing on the floor in a heap of groans and shouts and splintering wood.
There was a second of silence as the dust settled.
Cursing, we both staggered to stand. Just as Potter was able to right himself, I dragged him by the elbow around the corner and into the main hallway.
"What the fuck, Bennett?" he grumbled, dust and scraps of broom wood dangling from his hair.
I didn't answer, instead hurling my body against his and slamming both of us directly into the wall behind him. Potter blinked at me, mouth dropping open inadvertently, and for the first time in the history of ever, I was pretty sure that I'd managed to actually surprise James Potter.
"Be quiet," I said softly. We were inches away; my eyelashes almost brushing his chin, and I could feel the warmth of his body seeping into mine. It was... distracting.
"Okay, normally, I wouldn't object to being in this kind of position with you," Potter began, tone suggestive. "But I'm a little confused right now "
"Shhh," I hushed and hastily squished a finger to his lips. Potter's eyes widened, their brown-gold turning curious. That was when I finally noticed the dried blood on his face, the ugly red gash etched into his cheekbone.
In this new silence, we waited. Straining my ears, I could hear the faint sound of a broom whistling through the air, and I counted the seconds as it grew louder and louder.
Then Henchman No. 1 was flying around the corner and sweeping right past our huddled forms.
"Stupefy!" I shrieked, whirling around to slash my wand through the air. With a beam of red light and a bang, the bloke went nose-diving and landed, unconscious, on the ground.
There was a split-second's pause.
"Holy shit," Potter whispered. "You're scary."
I wheeled on Potter, accidentally prodding him in the neck with the tip of my wand, and he jerked backwards nervously.
"Tie him up," I barked. "I'm going to find Vespertine."
"You're just going to go alone?" Potter shot back quickly. Despite the defiant challenge in his question, he was still glancing at the tip of my wand rather warily.
"That's how we planned it." My voice was clipped but resolute. I knew what had to happen.
Frowning, Potter placed a hand over my wand. My eyes flitted downwards, watching his big hand clasped over mine, not protesting as he gently lowered the wand. Time seemed to slow; my frenetic thoughts turned sluggish and hazy, and for a second, it was like someone had pressed pause on the whole situation. And then Potter's same hand slowly, his eyes gauging my reaction the entire time reached into my hair to cup the back of my neck. I felt myself soften into his grip, absorbing the insistent press of his warm skin.
Potter tilted his head, his forehead coming to brush lightly against mine.
"Wait," he said.
For a moment, all I could see was Potter. The toasted hazel of his eyes, the gash on his cheek... He was all dark hair and fierce concern, and I wanted so badly not to have to leave him.
"Do you trust me?" I asked one last time.
"I trust you," he responded hoarsely. HIs eyes were sincere.
"Then let me do this." I swallowed. "I promise, I will come back to you."
There was a pause. Something in Potter's expression seemed to shift. We didn't want to kiss because kissing would give the moment some sort of finality, as if it were a goodbye, a parting.
I pulled back. Potter's hand stayed extended, grasping at air, and then fell to his side. I couldn't look at him because already my resolve and my courage was starting to chip away.
I turned on my heel, picked a path and walked.
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