Dying. She was dying. It was like some horrible dream. Except this would be an improvement on most of her dreams. No pain, no torture, no fighting for everyone's lives. Just the scent of disinfectant, a calm, gentle voice, a lightly padded chair, and the clinical atmosphere of the doctor's office. Sorry, the oncologist's office. She had learned that specialists liked their titles. It was probably different when you earned them.
"I . . . I'm dying of cancer?"
"Yes, I'm sorry. A number of brain tumors were visible in the ct scan. Most are quite small, but you have a slow growing one, about two centimeters, pressing against your optic nerve and a glioblastoma, a fast growing, malignant tumor, right about where your scar is. You may have noticed personality changes, forgetfulness, nausea, headaches, blurred vision, sleepiness, and, of course, the seizures."
"Yeah, that . . . sounds about right." She bit her lip, brooding, then glanced back at Dr. Warren. "What kind of personality changes?"
"Increased hostility, a shorter temper, emotional outbursts, perhaps."
"So . . . what's the prognosis?"
"I have to be honest, it's pretty bad. Younger patients tend to do better, but, this far advanced, the odds are still very much against you."
"Just tell me," she sighed.
"Most patients live about six months. With emerging treatments and your age, a year, perhaps two."
Two years left at most. She wondered idly whether the cancer would kill her or Voldemort. It was ever so slightly moot. She'd seen Dudley flipping a coin with one of the members of his gang to decide who got to beat up the kid they'd cornered. "Heads I win, tails you lose." And she still had her sixth and seventh years left, not to mention a war to fight.
"Treatments?" she asked without much hope.
"Unfortunately, the tumors are positioned so we can't get at them. They're inoperable. You can go with chemo, radiation. There are some very promising drugs in trials at the moment. You're a prime candidate, I could probably get you in."
"How much more time would I have?" The big question. And how much time was enough time? How much time would she need to . . . finish things?
"It varies widely from patient to patient. Maybe an extra year, an extra month, maybe nothing. Or you may survive. The survival rate is low, but people do survive this. There's still a chance you might live."
"A very, very small chance."
"Somewhere between three and ten percent," he admitted.
"So I should probably just accept my imminent mortality, then."
"You should accept the possibility, but try to stay hopeful. Maybe you'll get lucky."
"Thank you, Dr. Warren," she said, rising with a weak smile. She didn't tell him that her luck was a chancy thing on a good day. He was a muggle. He was a good doctor, a good man, but he couldn't possibly understand.
"Feel free to call me with any problems. I'll see what I can do about the drug trials." That was why she liked Warren, no platitudes. No "Hang in there, kiddo. Don't you worry your pretty little head." Just the straight facts with a bit of compassion. She wondered if they trained oncologists to be that way, or if it was just symptomatic of his profession. Platitudes weren't going to help. They were annoying on a good day. When you were dying, they were really rather insulting.
"I'll do that."
"I don't believe you, but there's not much I can do."
"I want you to come in for a follow-up in six weeks."
"I not sure if I can. I attend a boarding school up in Scotland, in the Galloway Hills. It's a fair journey. And I'm not sure I want to tell anyone about my . . . condition."
"Telling people you're dying tends to be awful. But you're going to have to sooner or later. Second-hand experience tells me it's generally best to get it over with. They'll have accepted it by the end, makes the whole dying thing easier when you don't have to comfort them. You're at least going to have to inform the headmaster and the matron. It's sort of their area. I need you to promise me you'll tell them, or else I'll have to write a letter and fax it over. Your school matron will be your primary care physician, and your headmaster stands in loco parentis."
And there goes the International Statute of Secrecy. She wondered if Dumbledore had any idea what a fax machine was, let alone what was involved in its operation. "I promise," she interrupted quickly. "And I'll try to be here in six weeks."
"Good. I'll be expecting you, Hero." I'm sure you will, she thought. With a slightly sarcastic salute she left.
Since her diagnosis, she'd developed a slightly morbid sense of humor. The word oncologist, she knew, came from the Greek word oncos, meaning lump or tumor. But an oncologist, due to the nature of the specialty, is always on call. See? Funny. Or depressing. Take your pick.
When Voldemort had sent her the false vision during her History of Magic OWL, she'd had a seizure. She'd had another one while weeding the garden. Her aunt and uncle had had no choice but to take her to a doctor. People had seen. What would the neighbors think if they didn't? And so, after about a month if testing, they'd found this.
Her aunt was in the waiting room. "Well? What did Doctor Warren say about the masses?"
"Multiple inoperable brain tumors. I have about a year or two left. You'll be rid of me soon."
Her aunt was speechless for a moment. "I . . . I never wanted this."
She didn't say what she was thinking. Damn Chivalry. "Yeah, well. . . ." Her aunt seemed to fold in on herself. Hero both inwardly flinched and suppressed a sense of vindication. Petunia should feel sorry for what she'd done. Gryffindor and Slytherin warred inside her.
Hero stared at her aunt. She actually looked like she meant it. But it was a bit late for that. Hero looked away. "Okay." She really hoped her aunt wasn't expecting forgiveness, because she wasn't going to get it. She glanced back at Petunia. Fortunately, the woman didn't look like she'd expected anything else.
"Do you need anything while we're in the city?" Aunt Petunia asked timidly.
"No, I won't need to pick up my school things for a while yet. We should just get back to Little Whinging." Petunia nodded, and they left.
The car on the journey home was filled with an awkward silence. Usually, any silence between Hero and her relatives was an ignoring one. This time, it wasn't so much ignoring Hero as avoiding the elephant in the room. What do you talk about when your niece, whom you've resented for as long as she's been alive, is dying of cancer?
Mercifully, after about ten minutes, her aunt turned on the radio. The radio was a complicated equation for the Dursleys. On one hand, not turning on the radio might be seen as abnormal. On the other hand, what to listen to? Classical music was elitist, pop was filled with new fangled nonsense and progressive ideas. Rock was worse. They usually settled on church music, though they weren't particularly religious. Today, it was a recorded church service. The minister lectured on the evils of witchcraft.
Hero flipped to a classic rock station. Her aunts hands tightened on the steering wheel. Hero glared at her, daring her to say anything. Petunia's lips thinned, but she kept her mouth shut.
When they reached no. 4 Privet Drive, Petunia went into the sitting room to talk to Vernon, and Hero went to hide in her room.
* * *
An hour later, there was a knock on her bedroom door. Hero rolled her eyes. It was probably her aunt ordering her down to dinner. Or maybe wanting to apologize again.
She opened the door to reveal her cousin Dudley, holding two mugs of tea. She blinked. She wondered how he'd knocked.
"What is it?"
Her cousin flushed with embarrassment. "I thought you might like a cup. I . . . I mean. Well. Wizards drink tea, right?"
"We're still British," Hero reminded him. He nodded bashfully.
"Can . . . can I come in?" Hero stood aside. Dudley set the mugs on the bedside table and looked around uncertainly. Hero nodded to the chair next to the window. He perched on the edge. She sat on the bed across from him.
"Are you just apologizing because I'm dying, or do you mean it?"
He stared at her, eyes wide, face expressionless. "You're dying?!"
"Well, that answers that question. I thought your mother would have told you."
"No, I knew they were whispering about something, but they wouldn't let me in the room. I thought it was probably about the appointment, but . . . dying."
"That was my reaction," Hero agreed. "So, why the tea?"
"Nothing good on telly?"
Dudley looked mildly offended. "I suppose I can understand that, but . . . those things, last summer. You saved my life."
"I only saved your soul," Hero corrected, taking a mug and wrapping her hands around it.
"I think that's more important," he disagreed. "If you're dead, there's the afterlife, but if you lose your soul, you never get there." Hero raised an eyebrow. She never would have thought her cousin had the brainpower required to be insightful. But that was cruel. Again.
"I suppose. So, you've seen the light, then?"
"I just wish I had earlier. Oh, God," he said, suddenly realizing. "You're dying. You'll always know me as your stupid prat of a cousin."
"You've finally grown up. Now I can know you as something else, at least for a little bit."
"How can you not be bothered by this?"
"Oh, I am. But I was probably going to die anyway. There's a war on. I have to kill the man who murdered my parents, though he'll probably end up killing me. It's almost reassuring, knowing I'll die either way."
"That's messed up."
Hero shot him a half smile. "Oh trust me, it's incredibly messed up. But, I don't know, maybe it's my turn. My parents are dead, my friend - you remember Cedric, don't you - my godfather. I'm next."
"Mmm. There was a competition at my school. Cedric was one of the other competitors. The thing that murdered my parents . . . kidnapped us, I suppose you could say. He needed me so he could have a body again. He didn't need Cedric, so he ordered him to be killed. In an instant, he was . . . gone. Forever. They killed him right in front of me. I didn't know him very well, but we were . . . friends."
"Oh, God. I'm so sorry. Did you say your godfather died?"
"Yeah. There was a battle, at the end of last year. His cousin killed him. But it was my fault. He wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been so bloody stupid." She started to cry, her face in her hands, her shoulders heaving with sobs she hadn't been able to give voice to until now. Hesitantly, Dudley wrapped an arm around her and pulled her against his side, rubbing her arm soothingly. She wondered when and where he'd learned it.
After a few minutes, her tears stopped. She sat up and gave Dudley a watery smile. "Sorry about that."
"No, no, I don't mind," he said, though he had been a little uncomfortable. "You're mourning. And you're not stupid. I'm sure it wasn't really your fault."
"No, it was. I made a mistake, and he got killed for it."
"Well, you said it was a war. People get killed. It happens."
"I s'pose," she sniffed, wiping her nose with her sleeve. She'd done it as a kid, and it had bothered her aunt so much, she'd never stopped. She glanced over at Dudley. "You know, if this was a real peace offering, you'd have brought biscuits."
"My hands were full!" he protested.
"How'd you knock?" she challenged, curious.
"Kicked the door." Ah. That explained it.
She decided to be less subtle in her request. "Could you bring up some chocolate digestives? Please?" Dudley shook his head, but got up.
"I think I'll be able to get into the kitchen. Mum and Dad are probably still rowing in the sitting room. God, I never thought she'd take this diet so far. I could, perhaps, be able to liberate a few chocolate bickies, though." He grinned at her as he ducked out the door.