It was especially stupid to have forgotten her bag, considering that she'd only just convinced her mother that she was less likely to die in Grimmauld Place than out of it. Nice show of responsibility, Gin. Next thing you know, she'd be back to begging extendable ears off her brothers.
Worse, she had to go back to Grimmauld alone. The dingy old door with its snake knocker had always given her the creeps, especially since it had hissed back when Harry talked to it. Awful thing. It was huge, too, just big enough that she hadn't noticed that the doorknob was made of a bundle of little wrought-iron snakes until they'd hissed back at Harry. It was stupid, but snakes still gave her the crawls. Stupid and girly and… Better to just seize the damn knob.
Ginny took a deep breath, grabbed the knob – it writhed, just like she knew it would – and shoved the door open. A thump as it struck somebody, somebody whose messy black head came into clear view as he wriggled out from behind the door. Harry, mussed and rumpled and God his mouth was too red and… and… And there was nothing to do but open the door a little further. Draco Fucking MALFOY, eyebrow cocked and smiling that stupid half-smile that always let her know where she stood in the world.
She shut the door on Harry's stammering apologies and Malfoy's shit-eating grin, slumped down on the steps. She savaged her lips to keep from crying, because it just… He couldn't see her crying on the steps. She didn't even know which "he" it would be worse to show weakness to, now. Better to get up, get gone before they came out the damn door, but her knees weren't cooperating.
Idiot. Idiot. She had to have forgotten her bloody bag.
He used to hate it, that he'd picked a best mate that was a hundred percent factory guaranteed to outshine him. But he's got used to it, after a while. Hard as it was to see sometimes, Harry never meant it, really, and with a houseful of brothers casting shadows he might as well step into the biggest shadow of all. Might as well give in, date the bloody brain of the century, and cement a permanent position as backup. He made bloody good backup, at any rate. First-rate second-rater, but hell, he was fighting the good fight. He couldn't back away from this fight – nobody could – and that meant backing Harry up.
His best mate. Best mate, whose very existence ensured that people would look right past you to glimpse him. But it was worth it, because Harry was Harry and you knew, you just KNEW when somebody like Harry came along that you'd better grab on with both hands because there was nobody like him, and if he needed you… God, it would have been allright, this thing with… with boys. Maybe it would have taken a week – all right, a few weeks – but Ron knew he was nothing if not faithful as a bloody Hufflepuff, and he'd have come back and everything would have been just fine.
His best fucking mate. All the stupid fights and midnight snack runs and in-jokes and… Bad fucking luck, to pick a best mate who'd cheat on your sister with a fucking MALFOY.
Ron kicked the wall, hard enough to hurt his foot even through the boot toe. Bloody fucking hell. It was HARRY. Even this… Ron sighed, kicked the wall halfheartedly. Even this… But the bastard would go through bloody hell first.
He knew something was wrong when the Insufferable Guard strutted in, grin wide. They were all insufferable, these people the soft new regime had brought in to replace the Dementors, but this one… In the old days, Lucius would have scented a recruit. This one had a real taste for malice. Petty malice, to be sure, but anyone with that instinct could be honed. Little things, always. Meals laced with coarse black hair, "clean" smocks marred by a telltale smell and smudge. Little things that couldn't mar the place's new "humane" reputation because no one would ever, ever notice them except for their target. Even Insufferable acknowledged them only with stupid question and a knowing half-grin, a smirk that let Lucius know that no one would ever believe him, no matter what he said.
The last time Insufferable had shown so many teeth… Lucius felt his color rising as he remembered the man asking – daring to ask, daring to leer at him – if the smocks had scarred his nipples yet. Stood there, grinning, clutching a pair of soiled smocks draped to show two spots of blood on the inside of each. Only a lifetime of training prevented Lucius from snapping at the man. It had taken a great deal of effort to maintain his cool drawl, make some kind of half-clever remark that he'd be ashamed to utter in any other circumstance, some nonsense about the quality of the fabric reflecting the host's breeding.
So this… Insufferable's smile could not bode well, growing until it stretched the bounds of his coarse face as he shoved Lucius' breakfast through the door grate. At least, Lucius thought it was his breakfast, all wadded up inside a copy of the Daily Prophet, of all things. "And what's this?" Lucius purred. "Frankly, the taste of newspaper ink will be a welcome change."
Insufferable scuffed his boot on the floor, piggy little eyes shiny with malice. "Read it, then."
"And here I thought literacy was against house rules." Lucius extracted his greasy egg sandwich, gray with rubbed-off newsprint, and shook the paper flat.
"Look at the front page, then."
Lucius raised an eyebrow, sneering at the guard now plastered against the door before turning back toward the paper. How satisfying it would be, to wait as Insufferable became more and more impatient… but that might well lead to the loss of the newspaper, his only news from the outside world since the dreadful burning that had let him know just what happened to Lord Voldemort. Better, perhaps, to know than to aggravate, this time.
He smoothed the crumpled front page, only to see his son smirking back at him from his position under Harry Potter's arm. The five-column headline screamed "GAY WHO LIVED?!" though the voice had gone tinny from the crumpling.
"So?" Insufferable asked, so eager that drops of spittle flew from his disgracefully chapped lips. "How's it like to have a poof for a son, then?"
Lucius ignored him, smiled at the picture as he scanned the article. What a clever boy he'd raised, working himself into the favor of the one person who could protect him. Pigheaded, too, the Potter boy, especially about those he'd claimed. Perhaps there was hope for the Malfoy line yet.
Lucius folded the newspaper and gave his haughtiest smile to Insufferable. "It seems the service is improving. Do be a good boy and bring tomorrow's paper, hmmm?"
Hermione's room was locked against the parents who were, unexpectedly, bigots of the highest order. Her mother's stammering embarrassment when she'd stumbled on the books Hermione had rushed to buy as soon as she'd heard – and Ron could have told her, and saved her the embarrassment of spraying coffee all over the poor man in front of her in the subway when she'd opened her concealed issue of the Prophet – was simply intolerable from anyone who claimed to be progressive. It was agonizing to know that her family would have been one that the books so carefully chronicled, on tenterhooks and embarrassed and upset if it had been she instead of Harry. It almost made her wish to be a lesbian, just so she could prove that lesbians were contributing members of society and not axe murderers or failures whose lifetime of achievement could be negated by the copy of "The Joy of Gay Sex" on their nightstands.
It was reassuring to know, though, that a lot of people came out really suddenly and totally. Of course, the book did say you could tell your closest friends first, but maybe Harry hadn't really been ready, and it just sort of happened… Impossible to get any sense out of Ron on the subject, so she'd better ask the source. She'd been flipping through the books all morning, just to make sure that she didn't say something really wrong when she talked to Harry, because it must be so hard to go through what he'd been through while keeping such a big secret. It must have weighed on him so much during the war, Ginny and Ron and everyone planning for the happy ending. He must be just crushed with guilt. Poor thing. No wonder he'd taken up with Malfoy, because if there was any better way to punish yourself...
Hermione took a deep breath. Thinking like that was just going to make her sound judgmental, and Harry didn't need judgment right now. With a little understanding and support, he'd get over this destructiveness.
Going downstairs to the fireplace would force her to talk to her parents, which was bound to take a lot of time and lots of assurances about how no, she wasn't gay. It felt odd, maybe a little wrong even, to offer evidence that she wasn't a lesbian, or to tell them it was Harry so they could go back to pretending everything was all right again. No, that was definitely better left until after she'd talked to Harry himself, because he must be going half-mad with no one to talk to but media-hounds.
She punched Harry's number into her phone. If he thought she was going to give up after four rings, he had another think coming. He couldn't possibly be out of the house, not with every two-bit reporter in Britain hunting for him, and she knew for a fact that he had caller id and would know she wasn't some hack looking for an interview.
She hunched on her bed, pressing her lips together until she'd counted 37 rings. All right, then. He must be miserable, all drawn into himself and determined not to talk to anyone like he always was, until whatever was bothering him just boiled him up. Malfoy was probably right next to him, pouring poison in his ear.
Hermione set her jaw. There she was, thinking negatively again. Better do something productive... She began to rummage through her stationary drawer, looking for something to write a note on. Not pink – far too gender normative. The happy dancing bears weren't really appropriate… Purple was assuming too much, really. Thank heaven for that one sheet of green at the bottom of the drawer.
"Dear Harry," she scrawled, "I want you to know I am so happy for you! It must be such a relief, not to live in secret any more. I would really like to talk with you, just in case you'd like to talk. I think it might be nice for you. In any case, I haven't seen you outside of Order business in ages, and we should catch up. Love, Hermione."
She whistled at Hermes, who flew down from his perch on her birdcage to accept the letter, and then flopped down on her bed to deal with another book. "The Coming-Out Process: A Manual for Friends and Family" was likely looking, at least until she heard back from Harry.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
Remus tore his gaze from the newspaper. "Hmmmm?"
She ran a hand through thick, maroon hair and took the few steps needed to clear the distance between them. "It's just, you're crying."
"Oh, it's nothing… It's just…" He gestured toward the front page that, now that he looked at it, was spotted with teardrops.
Tonks prodded the photo, causing Draco to shrink into Harry and scowl indignantly. "Good show, cousin Draco." She turned to rest a hand on Remus' shoulder. "It's that bad, you think?"
"No," Remus whispered, eyes on the photograph as Tonks stepped behind him to knead his shoulders. Photo-Draco had lodged his hand in Harry's front pocket, a sheepish-faced photo-Harry's fingers still tight around Draco's bicep. Often, oh how often, Remus had seen that look in a photograph before, the face of a good boy who'd caught a bad one and now wasn't quite sure what to do with him. It was exhilarating to see that look on Harry. Brave, wonderful Harry, so much braver than Remus himself. Brave enough to step out of his ready-made happy ending. Brave enough to face the confrontations and the criticism. "No, it's not bad at all."