Frank really wasn't sure what time it was when he finally made it back home. He just knew that it was cold out. And bright, achingly bright. Some people might have called this a beautiful early spring afternoon, but to Frank the stark daylight was jarring, blinding in its difference from the grey wetness of the Scottish Highlands that he'd spent the last few days skulking in. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, but blinking was just as pleasant as scratching rough linen across his corneas. That was pure weariness, he knew. The mission hadn't been overly taxing—just long.
"Frank! Dear, what's wrong?"
Frank started. That was his mother's voice. Had he really—had he really Apparated back to Blackpool instead of to Headquarters? He glanced down at his shoes. No wonder his feet felt like lead: his shoes were covered thickly in mud from traipsing mechanically across the moors from the Apparition point. And now that he thought about it, that was sea salt that he tasted on his lips.
Augusta Longbottom's voice was insistent, and drew his eyes up to where she stood standing in the doorway of the Longbottom estate. She was hard and lean, and as determined as the scrubby trees that somehow survived the salty coastal winds. But her face softened when she looked at him, just slightly, enough to show that she was worried for him.
"Did Alaster have you doing something foolish again?" she asked, breaking the charade of motherly softness. His mother was never soft. "He always was a damned fool."
"I'm fine, mother, I just—" Frank clenched his hands into fists, resisting the urge to claw at the sticky blood that had dried on his forearms. "I just want a shower."
She waved him into the house, but somehow made it to the staircase ahead of him. She positioned herself midway up the staircase, looming over him with her arms crossed. Her face was pale, but stern—it was his mother's default expression when she couldn't decide whether to praise him for being brave or to box his ears for endangering himself, her gem and one and only child. He'd seen that face a lot lately since joining the Aurors. "Is that blood?"
"It's just Red Caps, mum."
Frank froze, and blinked. He shouldn't have revealed anything about his mission. He shook his head. Maybe his weariness was bordering on exhaustion, but in that moment he would willingly trade his soul for a hot bath.
Undaunted by the human barricade, he continued his trudge up the stairs, too tired to fight his inertia. As he'd expected, his mother stepped aside to let him pass, pressing herself back against the wall so his bloody robes wouldn't brush against her. The bathroom door stood open at the stop of the stairs, drawing him onward like the lure of a siren. A jet of light whizzed by his ear, hitting the shower tap in a spray of sparks that triggered an irresistible stream of steaming hot water.
"Well. I'll make you some tea while you get cleaned up." Her voice was definitive, as though she wouldn't give him an option to refuse. Frank grinned as he shut the door between them. In Augusta Longbottom's mind, a strong cup of tea could cure everything—and she made the tea as strong as she expected his constitution to be.
Frank jumped nearly out of his skin, and found himself whirling to draw his wand before pausing to think. But it was only Lucy.
The house elf beamed at him, her huge blue eyes nearly brimming with tears. She clutched her pillowcase-blouse in her hands, wringing her fingers as she looked up at him.
"Master Frank has come home!" She squeaked, sounding jubilant. "Mistress wishes you to let Lucy clean your dirty clothes for you!" Her eyes widened as she spotted the blood on his robes, and she pointed to the laundry basket tucked under the sink, looking astounded. "Master has been…f-fighting?"
"Hello Lucy." Frank gratefully stripped out of his sodden clothes, trying not to inhale the three-day old grimy scents wafting from the linen as he tossed them into the basket. "I only fight when I have to. How have you been doing?"
Lucy snapped her fingers, Vanishing the laundry basket down to the laundry room. "V-very well! Although…"
Her ears dropped and she glanced down at her feet, looking a little bit like a scorned dog.
Frank crouched down, resting a hand on her thin shoulder. "It's okay, Lucy. You can tell me."
Lucy shrugged, refusing to meet his eyes. "Mistress has not been eating. She worries about Master Frank. So does Lucy. Although Lucy tries to distract Mistress when she can."
"That's smart, Lucy." Frank managed a smile, feeling a little awkward about consoling the House Elf. After all, Lucy certainly heard the same bloody reports that his mother did, and was unlikely to believe him if he was foolish enough to try to gloss over them. How could he possibly promise his safety? Instead, he didn't try. "Don't worry about me. I'm getting quite good at what I do." He stood and stretched. "But right now this shower is calling my name."
Lucy's ears perked up a moment before she finally met his eyes. "Lucy will lay out some clean clothes on your bed." She snapped her fingers and was gone.
Half an hour later found him sitting at his mother's kitchen table nursing the promised cup of tea. Mother and son didn't speak; she was absorbed in reading the Dailey Prophet and he had been staring blankly out of the window of the breakfast room, not really thinking much at all. Rare sunshine was breaking through the typical gloom of the moors, enticing the garden's troupe of gnomes to furtive mischief around the hedges.
"Frank. Did you hear me?"
His mother folded down the upper portions of her newspaper and gave him a severe look. "I asked when you have to go back to London. Did you fall asleep sitting there?"
Frank grunted. "What day is it?"
"Saturday." She pursed her lips, looking expectant as he tried to convince the neurons in his brain to function properly.
It's Saturday already? "Ah. Most likely I won't be needed until Monday. Unless something happens."
"Good." She nodded her chin toward the sitting room. "Go lie down until supper. It would be foolish to go back to your flat in this state."
Frank sighed, but didn't argue. He had learned as a child that it was impossible to argue with his mum. Instead he drained the last of his tea and slouched over to the couch in the sitting room. He dragged it close to the fire before sprawling across its soft cushions. The fire's warmth and the comforting familiarity of home lulled him to sleep in moments.
It took Frank a moment to realize that he was lying half off of the couch, his head resting on a pillow that had fallen onto the floor. His head was filled with the swirl of sleep. And the fire was talking to him.
"Am I dreaming?"
The fire frowned at him. It had a face that looked vaguely familiar, and bright strands of hair that turned to wisp at the tips and waved wildly about its face.
"'Fraid not," the fire said. "It's Fabian. You've gotta come to the office. All hands on deck."
Frank sat up, his stomach swooping with vertigo as Fabian's face came into sharper focus. He crawled closer to the fire, leaned in close to whisper, "What happened?"
"Attack on Hogsmeade. Moody's called a meeting."
Frank's stomach clenched. Alice. "Were any students hurt? Who was-"
Fabian's head wavered in the hearth. "I don't know, Mate. I'll see you in five."