Chapter 49 : Heal
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I found Vespertine after ten minutes.
The hallway I'd turned down led to only one room, and that was where she'd been waiting, patiently, alone. She hadn't brought her henchmen with her, and I think it was because both of us knew what this night really came down to — a face-to-face confrontation between the two of us. No Aurors, no back-up. It had to be this way.
The room was wide and round, with lush red carpeting and glossy oil paintings of past Ministers hanging on its walls. The portraits peered down with hooded eyelids, grimaces on their sagging faces. They were all, I couldn't help notice, of men. White men. In fact, I don't think I'd seen so many white dudes in one room together since my stepfather dragged me to his crossword puzzle convention last year.
This was the moment I'd been dreading; I'd been standing at it's edge the way one warily stands in front of a rising tide, watching it creepy inevitably closer, the inevitability of its arrival a stain on the sand. So much time, effort and neurosis had been dedicated to me worrying about my showdown with Vespertine, and yet I hadn't really known what to expect for our supposed 'battle' — dramatic thunder and lightning, maybe, with intense dupstep music playing and a Pokemon Battle-style arena where we would duke it out. Or maybe, instead, for Vespertine to be waiting in an armchair, stroking a fluffy looking white cat and wearing an eyepatch while henchmen wielding kalashnikovs dragged me to her feet. But neither scenario happened. Instead, when I found her, Vespertine was simply pacing the room casually, her elegant, pale arms clasped behind her back. She was draped in silk robes the colour of twilight, and her collar was studded with stylish pearls. She looked like an old socialite, not a criminal mastermind. I watched from the doorway as she gazed at all the faces on the wall, her grey eyes sharp.
"The Ministry had always been a boys club," she said loudly, syllables crisp and clipped. She wasn't looking at me. "Even these days, as progressive as it may seem, trying to wiggle yourself in as a female is almost impossible. At least, if you wish to lead."
She turned, face brightening almost cheerfully as her gaze landed on my silhouette.
"And yet here we both are, Miss Bennett," she said.
I swallowed. Vespertine's blasé act was giving me the creeps. I'd expected anger and bluster, curses (of various kinds), ranting, even physical violence... But quiet musings and some feminist camaraderie? Not so much.
"Here we both are," I admitted reluctantly, dawdling by the door. What was this psycho trying to get at?
"You and I are similar, Miss Bennett," Vespertine smiled softly. "I, like you, always wanted to stand out, to do something meaningful. And I, like you, always had to step aside for the boys to move past, take the spotlight and the credit. Your brother Aidan has always overshadowed you, no? I've experienced similar. We are similar, you see."
"I don't think so," I said flatly, arching a cool eyebrow. For some reason, I did not feel afraid. Sure, finally setting eyes on the woman who wanted to kill me was surreal, but that was just it. Surreal. It was like I was in a dream-state. All the feeilng had drained from my legs and arms and limbs, and now I was running on the only two things that remained: my instinct and my fat mouth. "You and I are both in this room, Vespertine, but we got here different ways. I play fair. And when boys want to 'move past,' I don't step aside to seethe and plot revenge. I stand my ground."
Vespertine's smile twisted into a sneer and, in that second, a streaking flash of barely-visible rage made her cool visage tremble. "As adorable as your idealism is, it won't take long for the real-life experience to prove the opposite. We're the same, Miss Bennett, because we're both ambitious women. You'll realize that one day."
"You're a murderer," I spat, slicing through all her saccharine manipulation and vague, watery wording. Her voice was like hypnosis, and I had to center myself, to remember why I was here. She was a murderer — she wanted to kill me. This was the point, this was what I had to hold on to and remember: Vespertine was a bad person. She'd broken the law and now I had to face her and make things right.
"No, I'm an assassin," Vespertine shot back, and an ugly vein pulsed against her forehead. She was cracking. "And I'm doing what's right."
"You stole the sword!" I yelled. "You stole it and pinned the crime on me!"
"Of course I did!" Vespertine shrieked vehemently, black hair whirling through the air as she lunged towards me. I almost stumbled back into the wall, my heartrate spiking automatically. Adrenaline was making my body buzz; it had turned my thoughts into addled fizz. "Someone had to take the fall! You messed up, Miss Bennett, you got in the way and the only choice I had was to fix the mess you made!"
"By turning me into a felon?!" As scary and unhinged as Vespertine was acting, a combination of fight-or-flight response and, surprisingly, unbridled anger was making it hard for me to back down. "I'm a fifteen-year-old girl! You're an educator! I did not 'mess up' — I just foiled your stupid evil plan and was punished for it!"
"Where is the Minister?" Vespertine screeched, and I stumbled backwards once more, flinching. "Where is he?"
"I don't know — "
"You'll never find out!"
That escalated quickly.
"Ack!" I dropped to the floor, barely missing the spell that blossomed from Vespertine's wand like a blinding starburst. Shock turned my eyes wide — then, anger was balling my hands into fists. "ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY?! Fuck! — argh! — "
I rolled over just in time as a giant hole was singed into the carpet, in the exact same spot where I'd been lying. Vespertine advanced, wand smoking, eyes crazy. At this point, the Previously Distant Possibility of me not leaving this room alive was beginning to seem Slightly Nearer, Scarier Possibility.
"No one," she seethed. "Will believe what you say about me. My word against yours. Tell me where the Minister is now, and I might let you liv — eeeiiiah!"
It was almost like my wand, having realized its owner would be of no help, suddenly decided to act on it's own accord. The stinging hex I'd sent her way hit Vespertine squarely in the hand, causing her to yelp and her wand to drop to the floor. I watched as, almost as if in slowmotion, the stick rolled across the floor and towards the center of the room. For a heart-stopping moment, we both just stared at it lying innocuously on the carpet, realizing that the next few seconds would determine who would get hold of the thing and, consequently, who would live.
And then I was clambering to a stand and Vespertine was whipping around and we were both diving at it. On instinct, I seized Vespertine by her robe tails and yanked her to the ground, attempting to hop over her flailing form, but she lunged at my ankle and promptly took me down with her. Then we were actually, physically brawling. Vespertine fought dirty — there was hair-pulling and scratching and biting. Before I knew it, I, Agatha Bennett — miss goody goody two shoes, blind follower of any and all authority figures, the girl who never once broke a rule — was in an all out cat fight with my Headmistress.
"FUCK! LET GO OF MY HAIR WOMAN!"
"WHERE IS THE MINISTER?"
"I'm not telling you anything, you - you psychopath!
"Psychopath?! Psychopath?! I'm striving for justice, here! No one wanted me in power because I'm a woman!"
"No! No one wanted you in power because YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE!"
Vespertine was on top of me now, her long red nails scrabbling at my face. Screaming, I flung my wand arm out, hoping to hit her with a spell — any spell — but she knocked my elbow just in time for the hex to go flying. The beam of spell light zipped towards the wall, ricocheted off a random picture frame, and then, in a dizzying zigzag... streaked back to collide with Vespertine's own wand on the floor.
I gasped, arm going slack with shock. Vespertine stiffened. For a moment, we both were frozen in time, disbelieving, unable to speak, feeling the dreadful knowledge of what had just transgressed sink into us — because Vespertine and I had just broken the number one rule of magic: never, ever hit another wand directly with a spell. The amount of sheer power, of vibrating magic, in a witch or wizard's wand was enough to turn it into a virtual time bomb, if provoked.
And... well, that's kind of exactly what we'd just done.
Vespertine (graciously) paused in her assault on my face to stare at her wand, which was now shuddering on the ground.
"Shit," I said.
And then on hands and knees, we were both scrambling away from the wand, too frightened for our own lives to even think about the fight at hand. I clawed my way to the door, using its frame to pull myself up. Vespertine had really done some damage in her attack. I swayed on quivering legs as my vision dipped and lurched in a way that it definitely wasn't supposed to. There were no thoughts — no logic or possible solutions — flitting through my brain, just an endless loop of a single word. Run, run, run, run.
The wand's shuddering had been growing more erratic. It was now outright spinning on the floor, its point bouncing off the carpet in an ominous tap-tap-tap. There was only so much time until —
There was a screaming sound, and then the wand split in two, sending a sheet of white, molten light billowing towards the ceiling. It was like a lightning strike. The whole room started to quake and rumble. Disgruntled, old portraits fell off the wall. The ground wavered and finally broke, causing tiny little cracks to rupture the carpeting.
I struggled, in vain, to run.
I thought of all the people I loved.
I thought of how slow my legs felt.
I thought of how near-death experiences don't get any easier the second time around.
And then, it exploded. The light expanded outwards, blowing its hot white blankness into every corner of the room, and I was tossed to the floor as easily and mercilessly as a Quaffle.
...That's when everything went dark.
I know, I know. It's a cliché. And I truly, sincerely wish my life wasn't so melodramatic as to ever warrant me saying something like, 'That's when everything went dark,' but... it is.
So there you have it. The whole schtick — the Hollywod-esque explosion, the battered heroine who faints in an exhausted tizzy, the cliffhanger, always the fucking cliffhanger — all of it culminating in one trite, stereotypical moment, which, in this case, happens to mean me passing out embarrassingly like a wimp.
And, oh yeah, everything went dark.
There was a long groaning noise — the telltale, terrifying sound of a magnificent structure in collapse — and I could just sense, the way an objective observer could, that all the feeling and knowledge and energy was leaking out of my body. Dimly, I wondered where the others were. I could feel pain, great pain, on the very peripheries of consciousness, but it was not enough to deserve any special attention. I was detached, now. Floating.
The last thing I registered before the blackness slipped in was a hand grabbing me by the elbow, pulling me out of the rubble, up up up to somewhere bright.
Have you ever woken up handcuffed to a hospital bed before?
No? Well then, congratulations — you are among the 99% of the world who has not absolutely failed at life.
I mean, seriously. Not only do you wake up in a hospital, and not only do you wake up in handcuffs, but you wake up handcuffed in a hospital. That, if you ask me, is pretty low.
As my eyes cracked open, it felt like my skull had, as well. For a dizzying moment, the outside world rushed at me in spangles of light and harsh noises.
"Argh," I gritted out, massaging my knuckles into my forehead. "Holy fuck."
And that was when my vision cleared up, just in time for me to realize that I had said a very bad word in front of Harry Potter, The Chosen One, the most prominent heroic figure of the wizardring world.
"Agatha," Mr. Potter grinned sheepishly. "We have to stop meeting like this."
"We're not in the Ministry anymore," I croaked intelligently. I was surrounded by squeaky, shiny tiles and white walls, and the stingy scent of disinfectant was wafting into my nose.
I looked around to see pink, scratchy blankets and a beeping monitor. It was all too familiar. I was at St. Mungo's.
But... more importantly... I had survived the explosion at the Ministry. Someone had pulled me out of the wreckage, and for that I was grateful — annoying doctors and any future cups of gross hospital applesauce notwithstanding.
Frosted sunlight was slanting through the window, and I could even hear birds chirping softly outside. Mr. Potter was sitting at my bedside, his face kind and weary, the wrinkled lines around his smile betraying the age and wisdom behind it.
The scene was so weird, so starkly different from what I remembered from the Ministry, that I had to close my eyes for a moment at how surreal everything was.
"No, we're not at the Ministry anymore," Mr. Potter said slowly. "It's Thursday, Agatha. You've been in and out of consciousness for the past three days."
My eyes flew open. "Three days?!" And then, remembering what was really important — "Is everyone okay? Aidan and Dom and Potter and the Minister and everyone else? Are they okay?"
Mr. Potter chuckled, a low, deep rumble that soothed my anxiety only slightly. "Yes, everyone is okay. The Minister is doing perfectly fine, thanks to you. You broke a lot of rules that night," he added, somewhat sternly. "But thankfully, no harm was done on either side."
I paid no heed to Mr. Potter's light admonishing. While months ago, being told off by The Chosen One might have bothered me a little bit (okay, it would have sent me into a depression spiral), now I couldn't care less. I had to see the others, to make sure with my own eyes that they were all in one piece and that no one had gotten hurt because of me —
"Where are they?" I jerked to a seating position. "Have they left to go home already? Or for Hogwarts? Or — OW! Hey! I'm handcuffed."
The observation came out of my mouth in a soft, disbelieving tone, as if what I was seeing wasn't horrendous or terrible but simply, merely curious. I jangled the ring of metal around my wrist, looking at Mr. Potter with wide eyes. He grimaced sheepishly, rubbing at the back of his neck with his hand.
"Er, yes," he murmured. "A precautionary measure."
And this was when I conveniently remembered that, in everyone's eyes, I was still the crazy girl who stole the Sword of Gryffindor. No doubt, this image was not improved by me blowing up half the Ministry and battling it out with the Headmistress of Hogwarts.
"Check my coat pocket," I said fiercely. "I'm in a hospital gown now but... the coat I was wearing to the Ministry, it must be here somewhere. Check it and you'll find evidence — "
"We found what you're talking about, and we heard the evidence already, Agatha," Mr. Potter said firmly, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "Also, Vespertine confessed to knowing where the Sword is. Like I said, the handcuffs were just a precautionary measure. We had to make sure you wouldn't get up in the middle of the night, become frightened and run away. You have, after all, proven to be quite unpredictable lately..."
Mr. Potter cleared his throat, but it was evident he was trying not to smile. He continued: "Your friends are at the hospital. They've been pestering the nurses to see you and have staked out the hallway in front of your room, turning it into a makeshift campsite. They refuse to leave."
I winced. "Yeah, sounds like something they would do. Sorry about that — "
"She's awake right now? What do you mean she's awake right now?!" Sounded a distant — but nevertheless screechingly loud — voice from the hallway. "I DEMAND TO BE LET IN NOW. FAMILY ONLY MY ASS. DON'T YOU KNOW ANYTHING OF THE BONDS OF SISTERHOOD? DON'T YOU KNOW THE POWER OF A SASSY FEMALE BESTFRIENDSHIP? HAS SEX AND THE CITY TAUGHT YOU NOTHING?!"
Despite myself, I smiled. Typical Dom.
The door burst open, revealing a very aggrieved strawberry blonde and Freddy Weasley, trailing uncomfortably behind her. Dom took one look at me, threw a casual head-nod at Mr. Potter ("Sup, uncle?") and then marched towards my bed. Oh boy.
She peered over me, and we stared at each other for a long moment. In that short time, I couldn't speak. Gratitude welled inside me, clogging my voicebox and making the back of my eyes sting. I had no idea where to start, so I just settled for looking at Dom and making sure that she was real, my eyes raking over every detail of her face, analyzing every freckle.
"You," Dom said emotionally. "You..."
"I know, Dom, there's so much I want to say too — "
"You look hideous."
Fred gave a bark of laughter that he promptly turned into a cough. Mr. Potter, smiling, slipped out of the room after tossing a half-knowing, half-apologetic look my way.
"I mean, just look at yourself, Aggy," Dom cried, obviously extremely distraught over the current state of my appearance. Her manicured fingers fumbled inside her handbag until she whipped out a pink plastic compact, snapping it open and shoving its mirror in front of my nose.
There was a giant bandage over my forehead, and some pretty nasty scrapes and bruises marring my cheeks. But other than that, I had both my eyes, my nose and my mouth, and they all seemed to be in their correct positions.
I fixed Dom with a flat look.
"Oh no. I'm a monster," I deadpanned.
"Don't worry," Dom nodded vigorously, eyes bright and eager. "You'll heal."
At this, Freddy could no longer contain his laughter. A snort emitted from the figure in the corner of the room, whose hunched shoulders were shaking with suppressed glee. Then Freddy turned, wiping the tears from his eyes, and chuckled as he ambled easily towards my bed.
"I think you look fabulous, Aggs," he said kindly, smoothing down my sheet. "I also think it's ridiculous how many times I've had to look at a Bennett lying in an hospital bed."
"Family tradition?" I suggested meekly.
As if on cue, Aidan shouldered his way through the door, face tired and arms carrying what looked like a giant bundle of fluff and glitter.
"Gifts and cards from admirers," he announced to no one in particular. "The Aurors just finished scanning them for poison or hexes or — oh shit," he said, eyes landing on me. "You're awake again."
"This time for good," I smiled, extending my arms towards him with childish insistence. "Come here."
Beaming, Aidan walked into my hug and wrapped his arms around me, squeezing me tight. We stayed like that for a moment, reassuring ourselves in the other person's warmth, their sturdiness, their aliveness.
"I was worried about you for a moment there, sis," Aidan said, blinking rapidly as he pulled away. He smiled a weak smile. "Thought you were about to slip into a coma and give me a taste of my own medicine."
"No way," I protested, glancing at both Aidan and Dom with as much sincerity as I could muster. "I would never mean to freak you guys out like that. Now can someone please fill me in on everything that happened in the Ministry after I passed out?"
"Aidan, you go," Fred said from where he was by the gifts, sifting through the bounty — no doubt — for some food. "I just found a box of Bertie Botts and I'm about to smash."
Aidan rolled his eyes, but nevertheless plunked down by my legs and proceeded to tell me everything. Over the next fifteen minutes, he and Dom — at times trading off and at times actually interrupting each other — managed to recite all that had been going on for the past few days with only a minimum amount of bickering between them.
As it turns out, the Aurors had arrived shortly after Vespertine's wand had exploded. They'd pulled the both of us — unconscious — out of the wreckage and hauled us to the hospital. The public had remained utterly bemused as to why the Headmistress of Hogwarts and a fifteen-year-old girl had ended up in the same pile of rubble, but after searching us for signs of what exactly went down, the Aurors found my tape recorder, which I had left running in my coat pocket throughout our conversation. It only took one quick listen to clear my name and dirty Vespertine's ("You're a murderer!" "No, I'm anassassin.")
Meanwhile, Dom had taken the Minister out into the street exit, where they had spent two hours having a coffee and a chat at some muggle shop ("He's actually a pretty nice guy," Dom had gushed. "We talked about the changes in the economy and the Ministry's new policy on Centaur negotiation.... Now that I think about it, he was kind of fit as well... ").
Throwing themselves into the fight, Aidan and Potter had managed to round up the rest of Vespertine's henchmen, sustaining only minor injuries, thank Merlin. Aidan had fractured his collarbone, but that was easy to fix, and St. Mungo's had also stitched up the gash in Potter's cheek.
Fred and Evelyn had done a great job calming down the civilians in the Atrium and making sure none of them got hurt by Vespertine or her men. Of course, after the Aurors informed the Hogwarts faculty that Vespertine's academic qualifications amounted to, at most, a PHD from Crazy University, she was fired and all her decisions from the past year were revoked. This meant Freddy was unexpelled and would be returning to Hogwarts with us. Bonus — Freddy and evelyn were now on speaking terms again. He planned to ask her out next Tuesday.
"That's about it," Aidan shrugged his broad shoulders. "Mum, Dad and Debbie are all here and dying to see you. They were worried sick, and I had to spend the past few days calming them down, but Debbie's also thrilled about what this means for your public image. She's arranging press conferences as we speak."
"Oh god," Dom and I moaned at the same time.
"Do you think Bertie Botts will sponsor you now that you're famous?" Fred lazily mumbled from the corner, where he was slumped in a sugar coma, surrounded by the carcasses of candy boxes.
Before I could shoot back a dry remark, the door opened one more time, and in walked Potter.
Immediately, the edges of the world seemed to shrink in as we stared at each other. His hair was ruffled, I knew, from him constantly shoving his hand through it in anxiety. Where the gash had been on his face, there was now only smooth skin. His chin was cocked in defiance, his eyes narrow and bright. He'd obviously just gotten into one hell of an argument with a nurse in order to get in here.
My face suddenly felt a lot warmer.
"Er, we better go," mumbled Aidan. The others all exchanged looks and slowly shuffled to their feet, nodding at Potter on their way out of the room.
And then... then it was just us.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," he said. Finally, he seemed to soften his defense, jaw relaxing, eyes turning liquid in a way that reminded me of sunlight on green swimming pools. My chest ached. "You're awake."
"I'm awake.” I patted the space next to me on the bed, and Potter made his way over, sitting next to me, leaning against the headboard as he stretched his legs out by mine.
We worked on instinct. I shifted so that he could wrap his arm around my shoulders, and then turned onto my side to snuggle into the soft cotton of his t-shirt. We sat quietly for a moment, me rising and falling with his slow, quiet breathing. It was oddly peaceful.
HIs fingers played with the ends of my hair absentmindedly. There was no time for arguing, for bickering or anger. The night at the Ministry felt very, very far away.
"Agatha," he said. His voice was hoarse and ragged. It made me flick my gaze up to him, alert, waiting.
"James," I responded, for lack of anything else to say. We made eye contact, the taste of the other's first name foreign on our tongues.
"That night at the Ministry. Can we — " Potter paused, brow collapsing into a frown as he measured out his words. "Can we never do that again? Like, fucking ever?"
I gave a slow chuckle. "That sounds good. I'm sorry I had to take a rain check on our date."
A brief smile flitted over Potter's face. It was getting to be evening. In the orange, slowly dying sunlight of the room, his eyelashes cast feathery shadows on his cheeks. "It's okay. I'd say being hospitalized for three days straight is a good excuse."
"I'm also sorry I almost died," I added.
"It's... okay," Potter said, staring ahead. The arm around me tightened. "Just... don't do it again."
Potter finally turned to look at me, the back of his other hand coming up to brush my cheek. His eyebrows scrunched together in concern. "Your face is all banged up."
"I know," I scowled. "Dom said I looked hideous."
Potter laughed, suddenly, and I rose and fell with the shaking of his chest. "You do."
"Hey!" Indignant, I struggled into a seating position, and Potter chuckled, reaching out to pull be back against him.
"It's okay." He pressed his lips to the top of my head. "I'll still put up with you."
"Why? Because of my wonderful and charming personality?"
"Nah. You're a good shag."
"Joke, joke, it was a joke — OW! Hey, for someone who's been bedridden for the past few days, you hit hard."
I snuggled back into his chest. "Watch yourself."
He laughed again, long and slow, and I felt my eyes start to droop closed. All of this activity and roughhousing and excitement was making me tired, even though I'd just been sleeping for the past three days.
And I know falling asleep is probably not the best response to a hot guy being in your bed... But I was so exhausted. It was a struggle just to keep my eyes open.
Potter obviously noticed this, for he pressed a kiss to my forehead and smoothed down my unruly curls.
"Sleep," he said. "I'll be here when you wake up."
I believed him. A content half-smile twitched at my lips, accompanied by the vague but buoyant sensation that somehow, everything would be okay. At least for now. At least for tonight, while I still had dusk twinkling at my window and the heart monitor beeping steadily nearby and Potter lying next to me. Everything would be okay. Everything would be okay. The words were not so much a lullaby as a pulse, a rhythm growing louder and louder with time. Everything would be okay. I closed my eyes and, with that thought, drifted into a deep, unbothered sleep.
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