Chapter 48 : Helter-Skelter
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Potter slammed the door closed. Heart ricocheting inside my chest cavity, I slumped against the wall and let out a huge exhale of relief.
"That was cutting it close," I heard Aidan murmur, but I couldn't tell where his voice was coming from, because immediately upon entering the hallway I had been blinded by the new, piercing light inside. Arrgghhh. I rubbed my eyes furiously with the backs of my hand to soothe my angry corneas, fairly certain that the action made me look like a confused, ginger mole rat.
"Where are you?" I croaked out dumbly, grappling with the thick air in front of me idiotically. "I can't bloody see anything!"
"Over here," sounded Aidan's voice from the corner. "You okay?"
Gradually, my vision restored itself and hallelujah I could see again. My eyes flicked quickly over my surroundings as I struggled to orient myself. A long brassy expanse of hallway stretched out before us, cleaving in to two branches at the end. From Potter's drawing, I automatically knew that one branch led to the street exit outside, to which Dom had taken the Minister, and the other went deeper into the bowels of the Ministry, into more branches, more hallways, more rooms.
And then there was Aidan's face, looming into my vision as he peered at me from 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, waving a dismissive hand. "Just give me a second."
I took a deep breath and did my best to ignore Potter's hazel gaze, which was fixed, unwavering, on me. My brain was ticking off all the steps of our plan, processing what we'd done so far, grappling with what must come next. Frantically, 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 for Phrase Three.
I closed my eyes, envisioning the recipient of my call as clearly as possible just like how Dom had instructed us to.
"Headmistress Vespertine," I said aloud, clearly enunciating each syllable and hoping the gadget would understand. If all went according to plan, Vespertine would feel the heat of her own coin burning through the fabric of her robe, just like how I'd been burned in the arse from the thing so many times. There was a certain poetic justice to it all, if you thought about it.
And then, all of a sudden, Vespertine's face was flickering onto the shiny surface of the coin. Her features, normally haughty and pointed, were 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 should have known it was you."
Staring into the face of the woman who wanted to kill me, I came to the startling realization that I had no idea what to call her. 'Headmistress' seemed a little formal for the situation, while 'Mrs. Vespertine' was just plain weird.
There was a long pause as I struggled with what to say, and Vespertine waited, expectant and a little bemused, for me to reply. Merlin. Even my encounters with the people who wanted to kill me were awkward.
"Um, yeah. Me," I finally declared. My eyes flitted to James and Aidan, who were standing next to me 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 in the corner of my vision I saw Potter's left eyebrow quirk 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. 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 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.
I gave a swift shake of the head. This was it now or never.
"My freedom," I snapped boldly. "My innocence. Come find me, and I'll hand over Humdudgeon."
Vespertine's scowl was deepening, but I could see in her eyes that she'd grudgingly accepted my terms. "You're a little girl playing an adult game," she hissed threateningly. Her grey eyes sharp as steel.
"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."
With that, the connection severed and then the coin's screen blipped 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 murmured in awe, struggling to catch up to my hurried strides. "And scary. And awesome."
"I know," I tossed out blithely, quickening my pace.
"Like, you legit threatened her," my brother continued, admiration and shock mingling in his gaze.
"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, deciding it would be best not to answer. It was time to face reality, and if I allowed petty conversation to distract me, the rare laser-like focus I was feeling would disappear.
"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," I rattled off. "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, nodding fiercely. "We'll keep them away from you."
"And we'll call the Auror department while we're at it," Potter added 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 pragmatic and who, more importantly, trusted in me and my plan. I needed someone I could hold on to.
"For any of this to work, Vespertine has to be alone when she meets me. It has to be a fair fight." Already, the hallway was beginning to section off into several different, miniature corridors 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 before then.
"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 as my voice caught in my throat. Potter and Aidan jolted to a halt as well, turning to face me, expressions expectant. I looked between them with narrowed, shining eyes. "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 bright, hard eyes flicked up to meet 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 on helplessly as I turned to go. "Take care of yourself, Aggs."
"I will," I said absentmindedly, eyes already scanning the array of hallways stretched out before me, knowing the time had come to pick. 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 knew that if I looked 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 further I traveled. My mind was one blank swipe, images flitting across it in panicked, nonsensical fragments, and my fingers vibrated with energy; my wand rested, cool and slippery in my clammy hand.
This was it. The time had finally come, and now I was alone to face all my fears. I imagined this must be how Olympian athletes felt before their final events poised yet terrified, resigned to the fact that they'd prepared all they could and now nothing else could be done.
As I walked, however, I was beginning to feel 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, feeling that 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, the two boys were gone and the space was empty and hushed, shadows slinking in its corners. I'd done a full circle, I realized dumbly, and in the process wasted a shit ton of time.
This fucking building was so confusing like Alice in Wonderland meets bureaucracy, with twists and turns and lefts and rights that made your head spin. 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 with Potter and Aidan nowhere to be found. I couldn't decide whether this was a good or bad sign. Either way, it didn't matter the only thing to do was keep moving.
I chose a different path and began winding my way down the new corridor with my ears pricked, ready to pick up any shout or sound of footsteps. Instead of being too empty, however this hallway turned out to be the exact opposite. There were too many rooms and they were all weird. Instead of the typical offices and desks you'd expect from a government building, there were rows of doors, each opening into a scene more bizarre than the previous one.
There was one room that was filled only with drawers from floor to ceiling. Big rusty ones, tiny silver ones. It crept me out so much that I immediately slammed the door shut and 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 in a perpetual slideshow. I left hastily 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 was a strange place.
Finally, exhausted, I began nearing the last room when I heard voices. They seemed to be coming from behind the door, so I crept closer and crouched down to peer into the keyhole.
I 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 want to have its own Quidditch pitch maybe so its employees could play the occasional game, blow off some 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 facing me. Potter's hands tied behind his back. I knew it was him in my gut, just from the scruffy hair and the broad, rigid shoulders.
It was my worst nightmare. For a moment, my vision became overrun with a buzzing cloud of black, and my knees began 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 the door open. They wouldn't hear me, I knew, as the three of them were meters away in the center of the pitch. I could see that Cooper was thankfully absent it was just two older middle-aged guys, judging by their height and build, with bland, unspecial hairstyles. I couldn't see their faces because their backs were turned from me.
"I want you," one of the men was announcing loudly, 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, and they shared a brief baffled, look. Finally, the other guy shrugged.
"Whatever," he grunted irritably. "She'll find her way here eventually. You just keep yer mouth shut, alright? Don't try to warn your little girlfriend we're here."
"Yeah," the other bloke nodded furiously. "Keep your mouth shut." Each word was accentuated with a prod of the wand to Potter's back, and I winced at the sight.
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. The ropes twined around his wrists were cutting into skin.
"Say anything," The henchman was telling Potter gleefully. "And we'll kill you. Don't think we won't."
My gaze flitted over my surroundings, desperately looking for a tool or a weapon, something I could pick up to make me feel less helpless. That's when I spotted it a rack of broomsticks lining the wall, next to chests of Quidditch balls stacked on top of each other. I would have preferred a flame-thrower or water cannon, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
My legs trembled as I reached the rack, sliding a broom off the wall and turning to advance further towards the group. The broom 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 his voice was a low, mocking jeer. "And after, we'll kill both of you off."
Potter jerked at this, the rope around his wrists visibly digging into his skin. I knew he was conflicted on the inside, unsure of what to do. If he tried to somehow warn me, he'd get killed. If he stayed silent, we both would. He was stuck.
"You can volunteer to go first, if you want," Henchman No. 2 was sneering. It was obvious he took pleasure from taunting Potter like this. "Unless you want to watch us kill her first. 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 course "
"BENNETT, IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, TURN AROUND." All of a sudden Potter was yelling, apparently unable to restrain himself any longer, his voice booming throughout the pitch as I instinctively began to run. "TURN. AROUND, BENNETT fuck DON'T COME IN fuck, god damn it " I only had to see one of the henchmen raise his wand, mouth dropping open, to know there was no time to waste.
I was sprinting towards the group faster than I'd ever sprinted before, lungs swelling and contracting painfully, feet slashing across the few green meters of grass. This had not been an anticipated part of the plan, and so I was improvising when I reached the group and, conveniently forgetting the fact that I was a witch with a wand, took the broomstick and swung 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 begin processing him processing me before Henchman No. 2 waved his wand and sent my body zooming into the nearest wall.
"Oof." 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 though not before I twitched my wand and muttered a lazy incantation so that the ropes around Potter's wrists sprung 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, before I was jolting awake to Potter's firm hand on my shoulder.
"Bennett Bennett, are you with me? His eyes were flashing a hundred shades of vivid brown, the tight edge of barely-suppressed panic in his voice.
I blinked my bleary eyes open.
Henchman No. 2 was lying facedown, having joined his buddy on the ground. Potter was in my face, with two brooms under his arm, mouth forming soundless words.
"Are you okay to fly?" My power of hearing returned to me just as he pulled me to a staggering stand, shoving a broom into my hands.
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 he gripped one of 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 calm and whatnot but his eyes were slits and his face dark with a kind of fury that made me afraid for him and what he might do.
I swung a leg over my broom and kicked precariously into the air, and he followed suit.
My vertigo, plus general ineptitude, did not make for an easy broom ride, however. 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 a long while.
Potter, on the other hand, had been flying before he could walk (Ginny Potter has the photo albums to prove it). So even after a near brush with death, 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.
But then 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! We dropped it!" I yelled, hoping my voice wasn't lost to the distance or the wind. I yanked my broom to a stop. "We need it for the plan!"
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. "Forget the plan 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 zoomed towards me at tremendous speed, 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 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. "MOVE, POTTER!"
Potter quickly snapped out of his daze, pointed his broom and followed suit, the Henchman hot 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 whip of the wind around us.
"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, and an idea was forming in my brain. It might just work and, besides, it was our only option.
"Do you trust me, Potter?" I yelled randomly over my shoulders, not really expecting an affirmative answer.
"What?" Potter yelled, the tips of his eyebrows notching upwards in bewilderment.
"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.
I blinked, flopping onto my back, my chest heaving raggedly. The world spun around in a dizzying, sickening swirl.
"Bloody hell," I mumbled faintly. Potter gave a pained groan of assent.
There was a second of silence as we waited for the dust to settle.
"We've got to move, Potter," I whispered insistently, and then, cursing, we both staggered to stand. Just as Potter was able to right himself, I grabbed him by the elbow and whipped around the corner, pulling him into the main hallway.
"What the fuck, Bennett?" he grumbled, dust and scraps of broom wood dangling from his hair.
I didn't answer, because I was too busy hurling my body against his and slamming both of us directly into the wall behind him. There was no time to waste.
Potter blinked at me, pressed between my body and the wall, his mouth dropping open inadvertently. For the first time in the history of ever, I was pretty sure that I'd just managed to actually catch James Potter by surprise.
"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 somewhat... 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, spiraling through the air before landing, 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 from the movement, 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." Although my chest was still heaving from the dramatic chase we'd been through, my voice was now clipped and resolute. Potter looked like he was about to argue, but I couldn't let him stop me.
Bust instead of shooting back something snarky, Potter simply placed a gentle, yet insistent hand over my grip. My eyes flitted downwards, and I watched, wordlessly, as he lowered my wand, a thoughtful frown on his face.
Time seemed to slow. My frenetic brain suddenly turned sluggish, hazy, and for a second, it was as if 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 distracting press of his warm skin. If either of us found it weird that we were having a tender, romantic moment next to the unconscious body of a man who had just tried to kill us three seconds ago, neither of us said anything.
Potter tilted his head, forehead coming to brush lightly against mine, and swallowed.
"Wait," he bit out.
For a moment, all I could see was him. 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.
But I had no choice.
"Do you trust me, Potter?" I asked one last time.
"I trust you," he responded hoarsely, and 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, to flicker uncertainly. I was suddenly struck with a faraway memory of the Christmas Ball, from when Potter had crouched before me while the entire Ministry had been under siege by invaders and wandlight. I had begged him not to go, but he'd simply grabbed my face and uttered something vividly familiar: "I'll come back for you, I promise."
And now, the tables had turned
There would be no kiss, I knew, as I turned away from Potter. Kissing would give the moment some sort of finality it would mean a goodbye, a parting. I couldn't afford to think like that. I had to believe I really would come back.
As I turned away, Potter's hand stayed extended, grasping at air, and then fell limply to his side. I couldn't look back 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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