He didn't even have feet any more, but he could still feel them, and they hurt; the deep, needle-like stabs of the violated nerves pulsing down into empty space with every throbbing wave. Anthony fisted his hands hard in the sheets, arching his head back into the pillow as he bit down on his lip just a fraction from breaking the skin. He could hear his own sobs -- rough, shuddering breaths, really – and feel the tears on his cheeks, but he couldn't help it. He'd thought it had been bad when he'd first been hurt, but shock had blunted the worst of it, and he remembered being trapped more than anything else, the pain itself a sort of distant haze that he knew had been bad, but was oddly ill-defined.
The physical therapy was so much worse. That, you had to be fully awake for, and you couldn't even have the Painkilling Potions, because those made it numb, and you had to feel how the stumps that had once been normal legs cupped into the prosthesis, learn the new arts of balance, and try to listen to instructions and keep your head together when it just hurt. Oh, God, it hurt, and even when it was over, the pain lingered so long, resonating through everywhere that couldn't be eased because it wasn't there.
"Deep breath, Tony, it'll stop. Just gotta hang in there…you're being so brave." Li's soft, gentle voice eased through the scarlet cloud of what the Healers insisted was only "discomfort," and he shook his head, unable to keep the words from being a groan as he fought the useless urge to kick.
"I am not." Anthony forced his eyes open, turning his head to look across the ward at her with a tight, self-depricating smile. "I'm crying like a witch."
"I could take that personally, you know." Her almond eyes were deep with understanding, not pity, and he wondered if her body ever subjected her to the same phantom tortures.
"Didn't mean it like that," he muttered through clenched teeth as his should-have-been harmless attempt to roll to face her brought a retributive slash tearing up his entire leg all the way to his hip. The hissed breath was impossible to hide, but he slammed down on more, squeezing his eyes so tightly that he could almost pretend that she didn't already know.
"No, it's okay." She insisted. "And you are being brave. A couple tears isn't a big deal…that looks like it must hurt like blazes."
Anthony made a sound that had meant to be a chuckle, but wound up sounding more like a gasping cough. "A little. These are definitely not the parts of my legs I'm supposed to walk on." He took a slow, deep breath, trying to keep his lower body wholly, perfectly still. It was almost impossible – the muscles were still trembling with the effort he'd put himself through – but any second entirely motionless was one where they only ached. "I've officially decided it's time to reduce."
His announcement was met with a snort of disbelief from the other bed. "You've got to be kidding…if you can't see your ribs as it is, Tony, I'll eat my wand. You do not need to lose weight. I'm the one who needs to lay off the baskets of sympathy sweets."
"It's a matter of pressure, Li," he explained carefully. "I've got to do something if I want to ever be able to walk again. This just hurts too bad. I'll never make it."
"Then talk to the Healers about how the legs fit or if there's another way to get you accustomed to them." Her voice was firm, but neither callus nor cruel, yet he couldn't help feeling frustrated by her argument. She didn't know how much one hundred and forty pounds – or whatever he weighed now, since that had been back when he'd also been five foot nine – could press down on what was so little more than skin capped over raw, broken bone. He didn't care if the rest of his skeletal structure wound up visible if he could just ease those, even a little.
"Whatever you might be able to whittle off," she continued, "it would come straight from muscle, and how would you like to negotiate those parallel bars with less upper-body strength?"
"You've got a point." He let out a deep sigh that edged into a groan, and he waited until this wave too had eased before turning his head with a rueful smile as he took his wand from the bedside table. "Don't tell, please, if I numb it? I know I'm not supposed to, but I can definitely tell them I don't have any places that have lost sensation."
Her dark eyes lit with a conspiratorial sparkle, and she nodded. For the most part, they knew enough that it was in their own best interests to remain compliant with the Healers, but that also meant that there was a standing agreement to have each other's back – or talk each other out of it – when they weren't. He gasped as he sat up to run the wand over the livid stumps, but the moment the blessed nothing of the spell descended, the gasp became one of near-sexual relief, and he heard her chuckle. "Just be careful you don't get caught. There's only two and a third of us left from our year."
Now that he could focus, he propped himself up on his elbows, shifting to face her completely as he tilted his head curiously. "Where'd you get that number?"
"Mandy's still in one piece, even if some of the pieces are in pieces, but there's only about eighty-five percent of you and forty-five percent of me left, so that makes two point three Ravenclaws." She rattled off the statistics with a flawless deadpan, and he laughed, knowing it was probably sick but still something that felt better than he had expected when it had become such a rare sensation. Li smiled, and there was something in it that sent an entirely different kind of shiver through him. "Nice to hear you laugh, Tony."
"You've just got such a great outlook on all this…" He shook his head, wiping away the tears that were now equally mixed between mirth and the previous pain. "Hell, you're the brave one. Everything you're dealing with --"
Anthony stopped himself at once as the smile fell from her pretty face, but it was too late, and she dropped her eyes as her hands fidgeted with the edge of the sheet that hid her lower body. "Well, we'll see about that tomorrow, I guess. I think you're going to be disappointed."
He frowned, wracking his memory for anything she might have said about some new test or therapy, but finding nothing. "What's going on tomorrow?"
"My family's coming in the evening." Her voice was stiff, and she did not look up. "We're going to have the Big Talk."
"That doesn't sound good," Anthony replied carefully. "But they've seemed really supportive so far. What's the problem?"
There was a long silence, then at last her face lifted again, and she licked her lips nervously, as if afraid of crossing some unspoken line between them. "I've heard…um…I don't want to get personal, so you can tell me to shut up if I offend you, okay?"
"Okay…." Anthony allowed guardedly, suddenly very worried about where she might be going with this, even if he couldn't exactly decide what he was afraid she was going to ask.
"You're Jewish, right?"
He couldn't help but chuckle in bemused relief. That was it; something that he not only had never tried to hide, but had always assumed to be, no pun intended, as plain as the nose on his face? "Sure…why?"
"How much…I mean…" Li hesitated again, searching for words. "Are your parents really strict about it?"
"If they were, do you think I'd have been at Hogwarts?" She blushed, and he realized abruptly that his unthinkingly flippant reply had made her feel stupid, so he scrambled quickly to continue. "I mean, we believe, sure, and I had my Bar Mitzvah, don't eat pork, really improved my prayers this year…but we only keep proper Kosher on Holy Days, and we mostly look at it as something that you have to interpret into part of being a wizarding family in the twentieth century, if that makes sense."
"It does." The flash of humiliation had vanished, and she leaned as far towards the edge of her bed as she was able. It also meant that he was able to look directly down the neck of her hospital robes, and he couldn't stop his eyes from wandering in wry self-awareness. No need to worry about two teenagers in a co-ed ward alone when there were only one point three of them and six feet between the beds
She brushed back a strand of her glossy black hair, settling herself as comfortably as possible given the awkwardly twisted posture. "My family's mostly the same way, but my Grandmother is still really traditional, and respecting our ancestors is a very Big Deal. I think they'd approve of just about anything before they'd see me defy Nai Nai."
"And you think you're going to have to do that?" He asked hesitantly.
Li didn't reply at once, then reached down, drawing back the sheet with a quick glance at him that was as braced as it was bold. He knew the look, the same one they all got, even when exposing their injuries to one another, but it was no effort to display nothing but genuine sympathy. On its own, it might have been beautiful, an astonishing masterwork of sculpture carved into the perfect form of a young woman's lower body, detailed down to the flecks of dirt on her shoes and the individual knit of each sock, but when it was connected to the upper half of a living woman, everything so right became utterly wrong. One warm, honey-toned hand smoothed in tentative wistfulness over the granite line of her thigh, and her voice was a soft whisper.
"She just wants me to wait, Tony. Just hope that they'll figure out a way to transfigure me back someday…or…something." Her fingers traced the seam of the uniform trousers, stuttering lightly over each petrified fold, and his reply was equally soft, aware of the intimacy she was allowing him now when she had never let him see more than a glimpse since they had been taken to St. Mungo's.
"Do they think they will? I mean, really?" He shifted his legs to hang over the edge of the bed, wanting to go to her, but knowing that especially without even the painful prosthesis, he would be unable to do more than crawl. And he didn't put it past the staff to have a charm to alert them to that. Still, it was at least a few inches nearer, and maybe she would understand that. "Or is it like the 'someday' they might be able to regrow my feet? That someday that's very closely related to never considering that it was six hours before I was properly treated?"
"As long as I keep myself together, it's a possibility." Her eyes met his searchingly, but it grew to a kind of daring, and she never broke his gaze as she picked up the teacup from her own sidetable, smashing I harshly against the gracefully unfeeling curve of her hip.
Anthony took the gesture for the challenge it was, his response deliberately blunt. "You're trapped in that bed as long as you're a quarter-ton block of stone from the hips down. Not exactly giving you a lot of options for a life."
"But if we cut me free, I lose not just my legs, but my pelvis too, and all my reproductive organs. They're stone anyway, it's not like I could have kids like this…." The bravado faded, and she waved her wand, repairing the cup and levitating it carefully back into place. "For Nai Nai, I'm better just lying here like some carved flower waiting for someday than being what she insists wouldn't even be half a woman. And it's all up to me legally, since I'm seventeen, and they need an answer really soon."
"Why now if they aren't any closer to undoing it?"
"Because they'd have to paralyze me to the chest if I'm staying this way." A faint tremor had crept into her words. "The skin still flexing and moving at the edge of the hex has put some cracks in the stone where it's still not all the way through, and they're afraid if it's internal too, a shard could break free and do damage inside me."
He let out a low whistle, gesturing towards her torso. "So you'd have what? Just your head and arms?"
"That's not a life, Li!" Anthony knew he might be overstepping himself, but he didn't care. She was his friend, if nothing else, and the idea of her being bound even further in the name of someone else's denial was anathema. "Believe me, I understand about your grandmother -- my Bubbe's a force to be reckoned with – but maybe you can get her to see that this is God's will? Maybe He means you to adopt some child out there who needs a mother, or maybe do something else entirely?"
"It's not the same, Tony," Li gave him a fond, sad little smile. "She doesn't believe in that kind of a God, it's more about taking lessons from life in search of enlightenment."
"Then maybe the lesson she's supposed to take is that her granddaughter is more than a womb," he insisted hotly. "And maybe the lesson you're supposed to take is that respecting your ancestors doesn't mean they're always right, it sometimes means respectfully disagreeing."
She seemed startled by his sudden vehemence, drawing away to lie flat on her back again, throwing her hands down onto the mattress by her sides. "I don't know, Tony! I just…I'm scared, okay? It's kind of a big deal to just say 'yeah, go ahead, cut me in half!' What if they do find some way around it? It's not just about having kids, it's losing half my body, and I'm so scared!"
There was a long, shuddering breath, and now it was her lips that trembled, her eyes that began to leak unbidden tears. "I don't want to live like this, but I don't even know if it would be any better if I said yes! What would I be? 'Li Su, the Amazing Chinese Torso Girl? It would still be Charms and trips to hospital every week because I can't even use the toilet normally, it would still mean never walking again, even if I could use a chair if I didn't weigh so much, it would still mean every day being about trying to find ways to do things that I never even had to think about before!"
Part of him wanted to apologize, to leave well enough alone, but whether or not it was against his own better judgment – and he wasn't even sure – he continued, letting the words tumble over each other as if he could let them race away from his more cautious impulses. "And Mandy is going to have to learn to communicate with Legilimency or write everything down or learn sign, because she'll never be able to speak again, and the rest of my life is going to be watching out for pressure sores or infections and fittings and adjustments and avoiding stairs and trying to make it as an Auror when I can't even make it across the room. It's like you said; none of us are still whole, but I'm more than my legs, Li, and so are you. We survived, and if you want to talk about disrespect, what kind of disrespect would it be to Padma and Lisa and Stephen and Mike and Terry if you let yourself be broken?"
"I am broken!" The wailing, shattered confession tore through the ward, and it hit Anthony like a physical blow, not in guilt, but in something else he didn't want to recognize, but which left him no choice. He could agree, but that would be a lie, he could let it go, or…or he could argue, but that wasn't so easy, was it?
Because any argument that wouldn't show itself as mere platitude would mean a confession of his own, and she was not the only one who was afraid. In the hours he had spent trapped in the rubble, he had sworn – oh, but he had sworn so many things, bargaining and pleading with God that he wouldn't just die alone in the pain and the claustrophobic darkness, and it was so easy to say I wish I had and I promise I will when you didn't really think there would be an if someone just please finds me. Yet someone had, and maybe for all their hysteria, there was something sacred about resolutions made on the bleeding cusp of your own mortality. Even if it was stupid. Even if he was skinny and crippled and wore glasses and hated talking in front of people he didn't know and she was so impossible in so many ways.
He closed his eyes, licking his lips slowly, wondering if he could still get away with not really admitting the truth that had formed over their final year and only strengthened in the weeks since the battle. "You're not broken in any way that matters to me."
"Don't, Tony, please. I don't want your justifications."
"They're not!" Anthony forced his eyes open, and his mouth was so dry that he couldn't believe he could still form words as he cracked free the shadow of a manic little laugh. "You want to see a family have a complete fit? Wait until I tell my parents that after every nice Jewish witch they've tried to set me up with, I've fallen for a Half-Blood Anglo-Chinese Buddhist."
The silence was forever, and he would have given anything to see more on her face than shock, to hear more in her reply than hollow confusion. "That's ridiculous. I'm –"
It was too late to go back, and the mental, headlong plummeting sensation was more like battle than he had thought it would be, that heady disregard for what you should do as you acted past your own silent screams in what had to be. "It's not ridiculous. I love you, Li. You're brilliant."
She shook her head slowly, staring at him as if he'd suddenly started speaking in Parseltongue. "Padma always got better marks."
"I've been throwing a whinging fit at you because I'm scared of my own Nai Nai."
"My sense of humor is sick."
The terror was gleaming into hope now, something that both sharpened and eased it, because she wasn't arguing him, she was arguing herself, and that was a topic on which he knew the merits without qualification. "That's the best sort, and for teenage war veterans, probably even better. You're kind."
"I can be a complete bitch sometimes."
"Then I won't have to worry about you coddling me when I have a stupid idea like starving myself. You're beautiful."
She snorted, poking harshly at her stomach. "I've gotten fat."
"You –" He was cut off by a venomous look, and he caught himself just in time, knowing that he was on ice so thin he was all but walking on water. How in God's name was a bloke supposed to explain to a girl …then again, honesty had gotten him this far, and he had a feeling that right now, her ability to spot a lie was preternatural. "Okay," he admitted, "You've put on a few pounds, sure, but it's not as bad as you think, and honestly, I've had a really difficult time sharing a room with you at night, if you get my drift – and if you don't, please don't make me explain."
She frowned, looking as if she couldn't quite make up her mind whether or not to be offended. "You're into big girls?"
He shook his head, trying to find a way to put into words what he'd never really needed to rationalize before, because his body hadn't precisely written him an essay. "All of us had to train so hard; everyone was all strength and sinew, and you're not fat by any means, Li, but you've gotten some softness back, you look like a witch, not a soldier, and I want…oh, hell, I want to touch you and feel that it's over and if my fingers press a bit into your sides, that doesn't mean you're going to be bawled out by Rowan. And –" He could feel his cheeks on the verge of bursting into flame as he became suddenly fascinated by the wall above her head. "You've, um, gotten kind of…a nice…um…I mean…you know…more in the…er…."
Anthony kept his eyes pointed somewhere past her shoulder, but he heard the scorn in her tone nonetheless. "Well, that's just lovely for you, glad I could improve the scenery in here. Except they're useless, just like the rest of me now…oh, for Merlin's sake, will you please look at me and stop behaving like you're twelve because you happened to notice that I have breasts? I thought we were supposed to be adults."
His face was still hot, but he brought his gaze back to her sheepishly. "Sorry."
Her face was unreadable, no longer for lack of emotion, but for too many of them layered thickly atop one another, and she shifted up onto her arms towards him again. "You're going to be an Auror, Tony. They've already made the offer. You can have so much better."
The thought that she would reject him out of some idea that she wasn't worth it was absurd, and he shook his head fervently, barely managing to not laugh. "I don't want someone else, Li!"
He spread his hands, trying to make her understand. "I want someone who'll never pity me, someone who knows what it was like that year in that tower, and that night when it fell. I don't want to ever have to explain anything that really matters, and that's not why we have an empty chair at Passover or why Bubbe spits so much…it's what fear feels like, fear and loss and pain but also how it isn't wrong that we still had so much fun sometimes with the DA."
A fragile shield had fallen over her lovely eyes. "You could have Mandy, then."
"I don't want Mandy. I want you."
It was not a question, and he nodded, his reply equally solemn. "May God drop a wall on the rest of me if I'm not being completely honest with you."
"I don't think so."
"The insane never do." There was another long silence, then she sighed, and he felt his heart give a mad little lurch as he saw the spark of what might be something that wasn't altogether refusal in her look. "All right, Tony, if you're so sure about this, I'll make you a deal."
"I'm still not ruling out a lingering undiagnosed concussion." She wagged a finger at him in mock warning, but then her smile became softer, more genuine, and frightened in a kind of thrilling nerves that he could attest to all too well, especially for seeing signs of them for him where he had never hoped. "But if not, I'll let you take me out on a date…if you walk over here to do it."
For a split second, Anthony almost hopped out of bed, remembering only at the last instant that this was no longer such a small request. He felt a brief, furious flare of anger against his injuries, then set his jaw, raising his chin defiantly. "I'll just have to get my arse in gear, then. You're a much better incentive than Kingsley Shacklebolt."
"And you'll have to pick me up and put me in the chair if you want to go anywhere other than this ward, which, I'm sorry, doesn't make me all aflutter with romance." It seemed as if the brittle hope was just this strange new territory they were both treading into, but then Anthony gasped as he realized what else was implied by this second condition.
"I'm still a coward, Tony." She pulled the sheet back over her legs, but she seemed to be sitting up straighter than she had since the curse, and there was an indefinable something almost like the hum of magic behind her eyes, and despite her insistence, it was nothing like weakness. "I'm just going to tell them to do it first thing in the morning, and…."
Maybe there were charms on the floor, but it was a risk he was willing to take, and Anthony braced himself on the edge of the bed, grateful for the strength of the spell that had numbed the remains of his legs as he lowered himself to the floor. He still had both knees, and although it was more difficult than he had expected – the balance was all wrong – he still made it across the space between their beds quickly enough, reaching up to wrap her hand in both of his. "There's an old Hebrew proverb: 'Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.'"
Her other hand had gone to her mouth in shock, but she didn't seem angry at all as she giggled shakily. "I'd swear that was an ancient Chinese saying."
"No," he insisted in a mockery of his own occasionally argumentative scholarly tone. "I'm quite sure that's: 'Half of heaven is still more than man could ever want.'"
She giggled again, but her eyes were shining over-brightly, and she blinked furiously. "You bastard, you're going to make me cry."
"I'm sorry." It was the only thing he could think of to say, but he wasn't, because he could see that whatever they were tears of, they at least weren't pain, and he raised her hand to his mouth, unable to quite believe his own audacity as he kissed her fingers gently. "Do you want me to be there tomorrow when they sedate you?"
"You don't have to –"
"I want to," he insisted. "At least, mostly."
Her hand tensed in his. "Mostly?"
"Yeah." He smiled, and even though the spell was beginning to wear off – or maybe he'd just pushed it farther than it was intended to conceal, because he could definitely feel his legs beginning to ache through the magic – and even though he had been right about the charms, because he could hear the Healers on their way, and even though he'd be in trouble with them even before he was going to be in so much trouble with his own family, Anthony smiled broader and more deeply than he had in months. "All eighty-five percent of me."