Honest to the Bone
Susan stood in the brightly lit hallway, clutching the bit of paper with her cousin's address written on it. She'd double-checked, and there was no doubting it: this was definitely the right room.
It was silly to be scared of seeing her cousin for the first time in years. It wasn't as if she and Georgy hadn't got on; they'd been really close, once. Maybe that was the reason for her nervousness. Georgy was a cousin on her mum's side, and thus a Muggle. Uncle Neil knew about the magical world, but he and Aunt Carol had decided not to tell their children unless one of them turned out to be a witch or a wizard as well.
In short, her favorite cousin, whom she hadn't been close to in years, had no idea that the wizarding world even existed, and had certainly never heard of the war Susan had lived through. In some ways, the idea was refreshing, but in a lot of others she wished Georgy knew, because her not knowing would make catching up terribly difficult.
Susan swallowed down her panic and knocked.
Susan's mum had brought up the idea over Sunday dinner. She'd explained herself: Susan had seen so little of her Muggle relatives during her time at Hogwarts; it was time and past to reconnect. Georgy would be the perfect place to start. Susan and Georgy had been close when they were little girls, hadn't they? Georgy being a Muggle and Susan being a witch hadn't mattered back then; why should it matter now?
Susan thought her mum had a point – except for the last bit. The difference between now and then wasn't that Susan was a fully-qualified witch; it was that Georgy was no longer a child. When they were little, Susan had been able to talk about magic like it was real, because Georgy treated it like a game. They had played at being witches for years before Susan went off to Hogwarts. Now was a different story.
Mum's word was law, however, so Susan had buried her doubts and phoned the number her mother had given her. Within minutes, she had an address and an ecstatic invitation to lunch.
The young woman who opened the door had flyaway red hair and an infectious smile. Bright blue eyes took in Susan in one glance. Before Susan knew what had happened, she was engulfed in a hug.
"I almost didn't recognize you!" Georgy said as she stepped back. "God, it's been ages." Susan felt mousy and small next to her vivid cousin and could only manage a timid smile. This didn't seem to bother Georgy. "Come on in," she said happily. "It's a bit of a mess, but it always is. You should see it when I haven't been cleaning."
Susan noticed the books and clothes heaped in teetering piles along the walls of Georgy's bedsit and grinned. "Same old Georgy," she said, quickly becoming much more comfortable.
"Mum despairs of me," Georgy said, collapsing onto her rumpled bed. "Luckily, she rarely sees this place."
Georgy patted the spot next to her, so Susan closed the door and joined Georgy on the bed. The two of them lay there in silence for a few moments with their legs dangling to the floor, staring at the ceiling.
However, Georgy could be silent only so long. She sat up quickly, making the bed bounce beneath them. "So what have you been up to all this time? I heard you had to take your last year of school over again – what happened there?"
Susan sighed and sat up too. She hadn't anticipated this question but supposed Georgy had the right to an explanation as to why Susan had left school a year later than expected. She searched for an explanation, her mind racing – what could she say? She'd failed all her classes? She didn't want to say that, though; Georgy would think she was an idiot.
She must have waited a second too long, because Georgy tilted her head and said, "You're trying to hide something. You've never been good at it, you know. May as well tell me."
"It's…complicated," Susan said, shrugging. "Hard to explain."
"Fine," said Georgy, rolling her eyes and smiling to show she wasn't really mad. "I'll pry the story out of you somehow; you wait and see. For now, I'm famished. Didn't I promise lunch?"
If Susan hadn't been so worried about Georgy extracting the truth out of her, she would've been warmed by how familiar things were between them. The truth was, only Georgy's half of the conversation was at all familiar. Susan felt all wrong – out of place, as she listened to Georgy's bright chatter about uni and her brothers' latest misadventures, while they walked. Georgy led Susan to a small Indian restaurant, which Georgy declared her favorite.
Once they had ordered, Georgy went silent, her eyes on Susan.
"What?" Susan asked after a minute or so. "Have I got something on my nose?"
"You know what," Georgy said. "Get talking. It's big, or you wouldn't be this evasive. Is it a boy?" She wiggled her eyebrows, while somehow managing to keep her gaze perfectly serious. Susan couldn't help being amused.
"Not exactly a boy," said Susan, her own expression serious now.
"Oh?" Georgy raised her eyebrows.
"A man," Susan clarified.
The eyebrows came together. "A man?"
"Yes." The corner of Susan's mouth twitched. She knew that she was driving Georgy crazy by refusing to give a clear answer. It had been a favorite game of hers when they were younger.
"What about a man?" Georgy asked, exasperated.
"Mm. He came in and messed things up." Susan rested her chin on one hand, putting up a show of nonchalance.
"Messed things up how," Georgy said through gritted teeth, not even bothering to make it sound like a question.
"Oh. You know." Susan waved her hand vaguely.
"No. No, I do not." Georgy was distracted from her interrogation by the arrival of their food. Once the waiter had left again, Georgy said, "If you don't give me a detailed, sensible answer, I will dump curry in your water." Susan raised an eyebrow and flicked a glance at Georgy's water. "And mine. I will sacrifice my own water to make you pay." She narrowed her eyes at Susan, though a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.
Susan laughed suddenly. "I missed this," she confessed. "It's been – Merlin, how many years since we did this? Three? Four? And it's the same as ever, somehow." Georgy narrowed her eyes meaningfully, not to be distracted by Susan's change of subject, sincere as it had been. "Look, I'll tell you, if you really want to know, but you probably won't believe it and it definitely won't be pleasant. Let's at least wait till we're in private. Is that good enough for you?"
She didn't know why, but all of a sudden it just felt right. Georgy was family, not just some Muggle. If she wanted the truth, then that was exactly what she deserved.
Georgy nodded, satisfied, and they dug into their food.
"You won't believe it," Susan warned as they once more lay where they'd originally flopped down on Georgy's bed.
"Those are the best kinds of stories." Georgy nudged Susan's shoulder. "You ought to remember that."
"This isn't a game, Georgy. This is real life."
Georgy turned her head and peered sideways at Susan. "That doesn't make unbelievable any less fun."
Susan sighed. "It's not a fun kind of story."
Georgy sat up and glowered at her. "Look, stop being all mopey and tell the story. I heard you before when you said it wasn't pleasant. I just want to know what's been happening in your life." Georgy settled back down. "Good or bad," she added firmly.
"All right." Susan let her mind drift for a moment, looking for a good place to start the story. "You know how, back in the forties, there were those guys called the Nazis?"
"Yeah, Susan, I'm not a dumbass," Georgy said sharply.
Susan turned her head to glare at Georgy, who immediately looked apologetic. "Okay, so they were these guys who hated everyone else because they weren't 'pure,' right? Then they decided that was a good reason to kill people?" Susan felt Georgy nodding. "Well, there were people like that, and they sort of took over my school."
Georgy sat up again, incredulous. "Nazis took over your school?"
Susan groaned. "No, they weren't Nazis, they were like Nazis. They were called Death Eaters."
Skepticism still reigned in Georgy's face. "That sounds like some cartoon villain thing. Why would Nazi-like cartoon villain-sounding people take over your school?"
"'Cause…" Susan trailed off. "Okay, I started in the wrong place," she admitted. "Look, remember how I used to talk about magic when we were little?"
"Yeah, and we made believe we were witches," Georgy said, sounding puzzled. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"It wasn't just a game," Susan said. "Mum and Dad and I are all witches – well, Dad's a wizard, but it amounts to the same."
"You're a witch," Georgy said flatly, glaring down at her. "Susan, if you didn't want to tell me the truth…"
Susan sat up as well, stung. "I am telling the truth!" she cried. "Look, I told you it was unbelievable, and this is just background stuff." She flopped back down, letting out an angry sigh.
Georgy lay down again too, slowly. "Okay. So, presuming you're a witch. What does this have to do with the story?"
"Everything." Susan fell silent again, arranging her thoughts. "See, my school, it's for people like me – witches and wizards. It's called Hogwarts, and it's the only school like it in the UK. We have a whole government and everything: the Ministry of Magic." Before Georgy could say anything, Susan added, "Just shut up and listen a bit for once, okay? Anyway, there's the Ministry of Magic – and then there's the Death Eaters. Death Eaters hate people like you, Georgy, non-magical people. We call them Muggles. Death Eaters also hate people who were born with magical powers but have Muggle families – Muggle-borns. That's like Mum. Two years ago – August 1, 1997, to be precise – the Death Eaters overthrew the Ministry of Magic and took over. There was a puppet minister, but everyone knew You-Know-Who was the one really in power."
"No, I don't know who," Georgy inserted.
"Damn," Susan said involuntarily, surprised. "It's so weird…I'd forgotten. If you don't know about the wizarding world you couldn't know about him." She paused. "I don't know how to describe who he was properly." She thought. "He was…everyone's worst nightmare, this really, really powerful wizard - pure evil. Everyone thought he was dead and gone since around the time we were babies, but then he came back to life when I was fifteen – you would've been fourteen – which is as strange and unbelievable in my world as in yours. He… Everything he was about was hatred." Susan turned her head. "Can you imagine being so terrified of someone you don't even think of him as a person – you think of him as death embodied? Can you imagine being so scared of him you don't even want to say his name, even once he's dead and gone and you saw it happen?"
Georgy shook her head. "It sounds like something out of…I don't know – books. Fairy tales, maybe."
"It was real. All of it. Especially the fear." Susan stared sightlessly at the ceiling. "Especially the fear."
"What happened – when they took over the school?"
Susan didn't move her eyes from the ceiling, trying to speak like it wasn't her talking, as if that would make this easier to talk about. "We were forced to attend, anyone who wasn't a Muggle-born. I'm half-blood; I had to go. Mum had already fled the country. Remember her trip to visit Aunt Grace in Germany? I'm glad Mum had her to go to. Others…weren't so lucky." Susan shuddered.
"There was a man who'd been our Potions teacher since we started at the school; he was promoted to Headmaster when the Death Eaters took over – it turned out he was a Death Eater, too, or so we thought at the time. Then there were two other Death Eaters, who pretty much ran the school: the Carrow siblings – Alecto and Amycus. Alecto made everyone repeat these horrible lies about Muggles and Muggle-borns. 'They're filth.' 'They're subhuman.' 'Muggle-borns stole their magic from "real" wizards.' Amycus made us practice Dark Magic. Some of us…couldn't do it. We were punished by those who could." Susan felt her fists clenching. Just thinking about it brought back so much pain and helpless anger. She felt Georgy fumbling around her wrist and grasped the offered hand. She took a deep breath, grateful for the comfort.
"We fought back," Susan said, fierce pride in her voice, "me and my friends – we were Dumbledore's Army. We got hurt a lot more because of it, but at least we fought back. By the end of April, we were all hiding in a secret place in the school that only we could get to. Then Harry Potter came back."
"Harry Potter?" Georgy asked cautiously.
"He was – is – our hero, the one who made You-Know-Who vanish when we were babies. He's just our age – he was a baby himself that first time he got rid of You-Know-Who. Harry fought You-Know-Who when he was trying to come back. He saw You-Know-Who when he was resurrected and told the whole wizarding world about it. Harry was the only one who could stop him, in the end." Susan smiled grimly. "We thought he'd just come to get rid of the Carrows for us. We'd been carrying on this…revolution, but the DA wasn't the same without Harry – we were just a bunch of stupid kids without him, no matter how hard we tried.
"He had something more important to do, though: facing up against You-Know-Who." Susan paused. "There was a big battle. I was in it. All of us in the DA were, along with a bunch of other students, adults who'd been resisting You-Know-Who, and the teachers…eventually there were a lot more. House-elves, even. We…came very close to losing. Lots of people died. People I knew died." Susan felt a tear trickling down her temple. She swallowed until the tightness in her throat went away before going on. "For a little, we thought Harry had died. Then he wasn't dead, and suddenly things were looking up and then…You-Know-Who was dead." Susan fell quiet, and silence reigned.
"I…can't imagine," Georgy said eventually, for once subdued.
Susan shrugged. "Mostly I'm…fine with it, now, if I don't think about it too much. It was bad, but now things are good. A lot of us went back and had a proper school year to make up for the one the Carrows soured. That was…a good thing, even if it was weird being back in a peaceful Hogwarts after spending eight months treating it like a battle zone. We've got a good Minister for Magic now, too. He fought in the battle. So things are getting better in that respect as well."
"But…" Georgy couldn't seem to find the words. "That's so much to… I can't imagine that kind of thing ever happening to me."
Susan turned her head and smiled at Georgy. "That's a good thing, you know," she said, taking a stab at lightheartedness. She let the smile fall away and said tentatively, "So you believe me?"
Georgy pushed Susan's shoulder playfully. "I can still read you like a book, stupid. You weren't lying." She sat up a little, looking down at Susan, her face serious. "You know, you can cry if you want to."
Susan shook her head. "The past's in the past. Sometimes you have to bring it up so people know what happened, but there's no use crying over it now. I mean…thanks for the offer, but I'm sort of sick of crying, you know?"
"Mm." Georgy rolled over and stretched. "You know what's better than crying?"
"Hot chocolate," she said, and bounced up, climbing over Susan to get out of bed. "You wait there; I'll be back in a minute with the drink of the gods."
"Same old Georgy!" Susan said, laughing fondly as she watched her cousin neatly navigate the mess on her floor. Some things just never changed.
Thank Merlin for that.
A/N: Thanks to my betas, Ari and Lauren, for their awesome work. =)