As You Were
"Those not in the business often imagine
integration as being a constant struggle
against the whims of the shape and of
stubborn Primes. In fact, integration
much more closely resembles a business
partnership than a form of herding — you
aren't chasing cattle! There's a level of
autonomy inherent in the process that can
come as a surprise to the inexperienced.
But it's crucial, because it's just not possible
to always be in control."
—Captain Paul Skinner, Ret., Life in Providence
It was a very subdued breakfast that Ginny walked in on a bit before nine in the morning.
Sophie and Kylie were absent, possibly still in bed. Harry, Ron and Hermione were eating in silence, eyes on their food. There was a noticeable tension to the proceedings. It wasn't especially surprising, considering one of their own was missing.
And, yes, Ginny could admit to herself that she thought of Scott as 'one of theirs'. She wasn't exactly the best of chums with the Kharadjai, but he was part of the group and part of the fight, and… Well, he had come through enough times in the past to earn some respect. Besides, she was not so petty as to wish harm on him. She didn't want Scott to be gone, and certainly not to be dead, or whatever his equivalent was. She just wanted him to quit taking the piss and stop messing with Harry's head when it suited him.
She had really expected Scott to come waltzing in not too long after they started worrying the night before, probably making some smart remarks as he did so, the bloody liar. But his continued absence had given her anger time to cool. By the time she rolled out of bed to find her friends in the midst of an eerily quiet meal, she had discovered her own measure of concern.
Scott was somewhere out there risking life and limb for the cause, and although she was still angry that he hadn't allowed her the chance to do the same, she recognised his dedication. And she also knew that if she'd continued to fight, then Harry would have, as well. So Scott had done some good, even if he hadn't gone about it in a good way.
"Why didn't you wake me?" she asked Harry when she seated herself next to him.
Harry shrugged listlessly. "Nothing's happening. Reckoned I'd just let you sleep."
"No word, then?"
"No." Harry stared into his cereal as if there might be some answers floating within.
Ginny leaned around him to see what Ron and Hermione were thinking. Ron was shovelling food into his mouth without much in the way of expression, but Hermione was watching Harry with a look of resignation. Like Ginny, she knew what came next.
Harry did not disappoint. "If he's not back by noon, we go looking for him," he said, dropping his spoon with a clatter.
The noise woke Ron up. "You think it'll be safe by then?" he said, sounding unconvinced.
Harry's dark expression was answer enough: he didn't much care.
Ginny sighed and looked to Hermione. "Do you want to try and talk sense into him, or should I?"
"I'm not sure I have the energy for something so exhausting," Hermione said wryly.
"I'm sitting right here!" Harry said.
"Harry, going back is not a good plan. The Ministry will surely be there, even if the Death Eaters aren't," Hermione said, trying logic.
"You think I'm that daft? I've thought about this," Harry told them forcefully. "I'll go back to the car park under the Cloak. I can look around, suss out what's happening, and maybe see where Scott went. Then we can go from there."
"We work in teams, remember? I'll go with you under the Cloak," Ginny said.
"I'll move faster by myself. Less chance of being seen," Harry told her in a tone that was obviously intended to be as reasonable as possible.
Which was a bit insulting, but she got the point. She could be a little shirty when it came to being left behind. Could he blame her? She had been so peripheral before. He wouldn't have even taken her to the Department of Mysteries if she hadn't insisted then, too. She had to fight for every concession. She had to constantly prove her right to be present, and she didn't feel like anyone else had to do that.
Or was that just her own insecurities talking? Well, whatever it was, she didn't like the idea of Harry buggering off by himself with nothing but the Cloak for company.
She took a breath and tried to match his reasonableness. "I get that, but if you find trouble—"
Right in the middle of her sentence a clatter came from the stairs that about made her jump out of her skin.
They all whirled towards the staircase with eyes wide and wands out just in time to see Scott slide down the last few steps on his bum, legs splayed out in front of him.
"I do believe," he said in a hoarse yet cheerful voice, "that the ol' leg is giving out."
Harry was out of his chair in an instant. "You stupid idiot! You're fucking insane, what have you done to yourself?!"
"Bloody hell, you're dirty," Ron said with disgust. "What happened to your leg?"
"Let me look, let me look at it," Hermione insisted, trying to push past the boys.
From where Ginny was standing, Scott was a little over half dead. His military clothes were so filthy that they were more brown than green, and his left thigh was stiff with dried blood, running almost to his knee. He was missing an entire sleeve from his shirt, the skin unnaturally pale around the shoulder and flaring out into a nasty collage of red and yellow burns and pus blisters. His face looked like he had used it to batter down a door: covered in cuts, both lips split, nose swollen, topped with a nice fat black eye. Every square inch of him was covered in dried filth. He smelled positively awful.
He grinned at them, revealing red-tinged teeth. "Morning, mates. God save the Queen."
Harry tossed up his hands and stalked away.
"Ow! What happened to your face, mate?" Ron said, wincing sympathetically at the plethora of scrapes and bruises.
"Born this way, sadly. Doctors say they can't do anything for me."
Hermione huffed with exasperation and a touch of relief that she couldn't quite mask. "Your disfiguration is temporary. We don't mind looking at you, it's the listening to you we have trouble with. Ohhhhh…" She flinched away from Scott's mutilated shoulder after nearly steadying herself on it. "…I'll take a look at that in a moment. Lift your chin up."
Scott complied. "Will I ever be pretty again, nurse?"
"I'm not a miracle worker," Hermione said dryly. "Harry's right, what on earth did you do to yourself?"
"Took a spill. Got lucky, though, my face broke my fall."
"Maybe I can help some," Ginny offered.
Ginny was startled and almost jumped back when Scott reached out and grabbed her shoe, squeezing it. "It is weird how happy I am to see your scowling face?" he said, smiling up at her.
"Yeah, it is," she confirmed.
"He's riding his usual post-mission adrenaline high. With this level of bruising I'd say he's likely concussed, as well," Hermione said. "Can you check that hip and make sure he's not still bleeding?"
Ginny wasn't squeamish when it came to blood. Less than Ron was, anyway. His expression as he tugged down Scott's frayed trouser leg (it tore right off without much effort, and it was obvious he had taken a nasty Severing Charm at some point) was more than a bit queasy. Good thing he had a strong stomach to counterbalance how revolted he was.
Although, perhaps she had taken pride in her medical fortitude too quickly. The gash on Scott's hip was truly disgusting, and when she cast a few cleaning spells on it she could see what she thought was bone down through the gaps in the scabbing.
She glanced up to steady herself and found Scott gazing at what she was doing with curiosity. "That smell south of cheese to you? Not really bad, right?"
"You smell really, really awful," she told him honestly.
"Yeah, but not gangrenous, right?"
"Isn't it a bit soon for that? Besides, you told me you were resistant to gangrene, if I recall," Hermione said.
"I am. It's all good."
Very little about his state was good. Ginny did what she could, casting at the wound until the edges turned pink and the centre was fully scabbed over. Hermione had done more or less the same for his face, lessening the swelling. Neither of them were trained Healers with access to the kinds of resources available at St Mungos.
"I have some potions that can replenish your blood, Scott, are you going to need them?" Hermione said. "I wouldn't ask, but they'll be difficult to replace."
"Should be fine," he said, sounding a bit more lucid after their administrations.
"I'm not sure what to do about your shoulder. I cleaned up the cuts, but I don't have any salve for the burns."
"I'll fix all this stuff later, when I can. I'll slap a bandage on it, jump in the shower until the water stops running red and then pass out for awhile. You guys can yell at me when I wake up."
Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. "Yes. I'm glad you remember that we have good cause to."
"Got that right," Ron muttered.
"Harry's about ready to go nuclear over there. I can't wait for that chat," Scott said, and Ginny couldn't help but think he actually meant it.
"Please don't antagonise him," Hermione requested. "You know what you did, and we know why you did it, but that doesn't mean we don't have valid reasons to be angry."
"Uh huh," he said absently, tapping away at his mobile.
"You!" Hermione huffed. She stood and used her wand to clean her hands. "Ron, can you help him get up to the loo?"
"No need; help is on the way," Scott said, tucking his mobile away.
Sophie came rushing down into the kitchen, still holding her mobile. "Oh, no…" she groaned when she saw Scott, pressing a hand to her mouth.
"Come on, now. You've seen worse," Scott said. "And I even have pants on, mostly."
"So I should just be happy about the state you're in? Because of pants?" she demanded.
"Well, maybe not happy…"
As Sophie was even shorter than Ginny, and Scott was about the same height as Ron, the size and weight differential made it utterly bizarre to witness Sophie so effortlessly haul Scott up the stairs. She probably weighed about half as much as he did, even without all the weaponry he was still carrying.
Now that Scott was safely at Grimmauld and he wasn't in critical condition, Ginny turned her attention to Harry. He was standing near the cupboards with his arms crossed.
"Looks like Scott will be fine," she said, walking over to him. "He wasn't quite as bad as he looked."
"He's such a twat," Harry seethed.
"Are you going to go shout at him?" she said hopefully. It was sometimes nice to see Harry assert himself when it came to Scott (and, as a side bonus, an angry Harry was an extra attractive Harry, with his lean muscles tense and his green eyes flashing).
Harry huffed out a laugh, dropping his arms. "No. I'll wait until he tells us what happened, then I'll shout at him."
Ginny gave him a disbelieving look. "You're awfully calm for a bloke who was just in a strop."
Harry shrugged a bit sheepishly. "Yeah… It's hard to stay angry with him when he took a beating like that."
Ginny wouldn't acknowledge it out loud, but he was right. "I'm sorry we didn't find out more about your parents."
"I don't know what I was looking for," Harry admitted. "Just… something that wasn't there."
Hermione approached the two of them, breaking into the conversation. "Discussing the mission?" she said. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "It's awful what happened to Professor Bagshot, the poor woman… And now the whole mission was for nothing." Her eyes widened, and she held out an apologetic hand towards Harry. "Oh! I'm sorry, Harry, I wasn't implying it was a waste. I'm sure the visit did you some good."
"Maybe," Harry said apathetically.
"I'm sure it did," Hermione repeated awkwardly. "Well, be sure to write to Remus and let the Order know what happened. If they hear about it, they'll want to know you're all right."
"They'll want to know we're all fine," Harry stressed.
"Yes, of course," Hermione said with embarrassment. "That's what I meant."
Ginny just rolled her eyes. Hermione was right about the Order, or at least some of its members, when she said they would be worrying mostly about Harry. But, seeing as he loathed any reference to his friends being more expendable than him, she really should have known he would latch on to her grammatical slip. Ginny always appreciated Harry's defence of her importance, even if she wished he would be more realistic sometimes.
Harry looked dourly towards the stairs. "We'll see what Scott has to say when he's ready. Unless we kick his arse before that for lying to us."
"I don't know about you, but I'm still more than a bit put out with him," Hermione declared.
Ginny was, too, though she was still bothered by the nagging thought that if Scott hadn't lied then Harry would have willingly stayed in the line of fire, no doubt waiting for the opportunity to sacrifice his well being for someone or something. She felt like Harry was actually angry not because of the lie, but because when it came to self-sacrifice, Scott had beat him to it.
She saved that opinion for later. "If you want to kick his arse, I'll hold him down," she offered.
Harry's mouth lifted in a small smile, which was progress considering the mood he was in. "I'd like to see that."
"What? You'd like to see me jump on another bloke?" she said innocently.
"Ugh. Not anyone, but especially not Scott." Harry grabbed Ginny's wrist and pulled her over to him. "I didn't have a mum to teach me to share."
Ginny leaned into him. "Too dark, Harry."
"Ron would have laughed."
"No, he wouldn't have."
"Scott would have laughed."
"He's a prick, though."
Hermione glanced over at the table, where Ron had resumed his meal. "I'm going to finish eating. I need to get back to my research if we're going to find another Horcrux."
Harry quickly sobered, and Ginny sent Hermione a glare that the older girl didn't notice. He had been so close to cheering up, and then Hermione had to go and remind him of Horcruxes. "I don't know what we're going to do. Bagshot was our only lead," he said.
"Not true; Scott told us there was a Horcrux to the north. It's not much to go on, but we might be able to narrow it down," Hermione countered.
"Manually, if we have to. The closer we get, the more precise the shape should be."
"Only if the shape is still showing him this thing at all," Harry pointed out. "His first clue might be the only one we get."
"Well, let's hope that's not the case." Hermione briefly hesitated. "It's not ideal, Harry, but we may need to bring more people into the know. The Order have resources we don't, and the more of us that are looking, the better our chances are."
Harry's eyes darkened, his stance gaining a clear tension. "And the better our chances of Riddle finding out what we're doing."
"I know, but—"
"Dumbledore left this to me. If he'd thought the Order could help, he would have told them," Harry said with a tone of finality.
But Hermione could be equally stubborn, and she didn't take the hint and drop the subject. "He couldn't have foreseen everything. And we needn't assume that the Order would require specifics to be helpful, just a few questions about artefacts in general might lead us in the right direction."
"It's too risky," Harry said, intractable.
Hermione began to respond yet again and Ginny was done with the whole conversation. The two of them were going to circuitously argue for who knew how long, and they didn't need Ginny standing there to do it. She grabbed a scone and sat down next to Ron, who was also ignoring the clashing of his best friends in the background.
"Feeling all right?" she asked him, wondering if his silence was a symptom of something more than fatigue.
"Been better, but, haven't we all?" he said philosophically.
"True." She pushed the crumbs from her scone around on the table with her fingers. "How do you think Bill and Fleur are getting along? It's been a bloody dreadful honeymoon."
"I reckon they're fine, Bill's tough and Fleur is…" Ron didn't finish, perhaps wondering what, exactly, Fleur was. "I guess she's probably not too keen on Lila being there, though."
Ginny did remember the two blondes clashing on several occasions. "Fleur will mind Lila if she knows what's good for her." Ginny couldn't imagine Lila tolerating much of Fleur's superciliousness, and she sort of wished she could be there to see it if Lila finally lost her temper. "Too bad you won't be there to jump to her defence."
Ron glared at her. "That was fourth year, and she's partly Veela! I'm not made of bleedin' stone, I can't just shrug off whatever they do to you."
"You do just fine now."
"It took some practice," Ron admitted.
"And some practice snogging Hermione?" Ginny said slyly. "Gave you a new focus, did it?"
"Piss off. I've given you hardly any shite for all the times you've tried to suck Harry's tongue out of his head!"
Ron had, in fact, been quite non-confrontational when it came to her relationship with Harry — at least by his usual standards. Which made sense, considering Ron had been pushing for Harry to get with Ginny from day one. He just wasn't comfortable witnessing the fulfilment of his hopes. "I'll give you that, big brother."
"Glad to hear it, baby sister."
"Why does it have to be 'baby'?" she protested. "Why can't it at least be 'little'?"
"Because you'll always be the baby of the family," Ron told her, and he poked her affectionately in the forehead.
"Isn't that the truth," Ginny grumbled.
"Thanks for talking to Mum, by the way. That was nicely handled, with all the shouting."
"I should have given that phone to you," she said spitefully. "Have you tell Mum why your baby sister is out dodging Death Eaters."
Ron shuddered. "If that ever happens, I'm telling her you Imperiused me."
"A true Gryffindor, you are."
The bickering was familiar and comforting, a relic of a time before the two of them had made the transition from students to soldiers. Ginny had never admitted it to her companions (and especially not to Harry), but she worried greatly about her brothers. She knew they would never stay in the safety of Shell Cottage. She understood that compulsion towards action and wouldn't expect anything less of them, even as she often wished they would stop expecting less of her.
"Careful, careful, careful!" Scott hissed as Sophie tried to extract him from his flak jacket without abrading his shoulder.
"Oh, now you want to be careful!" she said, still upset with him.
"No, I want you to be careful," he corrected.
"I am! Stop wiggling and hold still!" she berated him.
Scott fell blessedly silent for a minute or so as Sophie did her best to disassemble his gear as she worked around his injuries. It was a role she had performed more than once. She was used to weathering snide comments from Lila about 'stripping her brother'. Under other circumstances, it was true that Sophie might have taken secret pleasure in handling him in such a pseudo-intimate fashion; however, the condition he had be in before he needed someone to help extract him from his kit took attraction out of the equation. Especially this time, when he smelled absolutely terrible.
"I smell like the inside of an ass," Scott noted.
"That's what happens when you marinate in ditch water all night," she informed him.
"But am I tender?"
"Tenderised." She brushed a few gentle fingers over a particularly bad burn. "Can you feel that?"
"Very much," he said, wincing. The burn disappeared, leaving a patch of unnaturally clean skin behind. His posture sagged a little lower.
"Now the hip," Sophie said. "You don't need a pinch, do you?"
"Nah." Scott tensed up; when he relaxed, his breath came out in a wavering sigh. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and he wiped at his upper lip. "Got it?"
She checked his hip, making sure the injury was well healed. There was still significant bruising at what had been the tips of the cut, but the deep wound itself was gone. "Looks okay for now," she told him.
"I'll worry about the face later. Try to pretend you're still attracted to me."
She helped him into the shower stall and then left to stand outside the door. She had led him to the master bedroom where Kylie usually slept, since it had an attached bathroom. At the very least, she could afford him more privacy than he would have received at a forward hospital.
"There's room for two!" he called to her as he tossed his ruined pants over the top of the curtain.
Or maybe he didn't care much for the privacy. "So?" she shot back, trying to sound indifferent.
"So, you know, the whole wash cloth thing was kind of a standing offer…"
Some day she would go ahead and take him up on one of his inappropriate propositions just to see what would happen. She liked to think he would be taken aback, caught off guard and left stammering some sort of retraction. A more rational part of her brain thought that was pretty unlikely, but she still enjoyed the idea of throwing him so thoroughly off balance.
"I was looking over your quick sheets," she said, steering him towards a different sort of conversation altogether. "Did you want me to update some of the statics?"
"I've been meaning to take care of that," he said, starting the shower. He hissed with the first shock of pain as the warm water coursed over his injuries. "I just don't see myself leaving any time soon, even for just a couple days."
"What about… involuntarily?" Sophie said reluctantly. She didn't care for the thought, but Scott had already flirted with capture.
"Good point. I'll fix the sheets, just promise me you won't let them sideline you if they bring some subs in."
"I don't see why they would…"
"Who knows. I was just saying," Scott mumbled.
He stuck to his washing from then on, offering no more salacious remarks or job-related commentary, which was a sure sign of exhaustion. She waited patiently for him to emerge. As the rush of the fight continued to wear down, she knew he would keep getting slower and more deliberate in his motions, until the act of just moving was a chore. Hopefully, the hot water would help with the soreness.
Sophie straightened up when the door to the room creaked open further. She assumed it was one of the Primes come to check on Scott and perhaps demand more immediate answers, but instead the strawberry-blonde head of Kylie peeked around the frame.
The girl's wide eyes darted towards the open bathroom door, and, upon hearing the sounds of the running water, she blushed. "Sorry," she whispered, beginning to withdraw.
"Scott's in there, he's okay! He just needed some help because he's really tired," Sophie volunteered, wondering if Kylie was getting the wrong idea about Sophie's presence.
"That you, Kylie?" Scott called out, his voice hollow as it echoed around the shower.
"Yes," Kylie replied in a voice he couldn't possibly have heard.
"It is Kylie, she wanted to know how you were doing," Sophie said, assigning motivations to the girl who might have just been trying to go into her own room.
"I'm spring fresh, at least according to this soap," Scott said, and the strain of projecting such a loud and ostensibly well voice was becoming more apparent in his gruff timbre.
"See? He'll be fine," Sophie said.
Kylie's mouth turned downwards. "Is he hurt?"
"He's okay. He just needs to sleep," Sophie told her.
"You're lying," Kylie said accusingly, and then she fled.
"Kylie! Wait…" Sophie trailed off.
"What?" Scott said, oblivious.
Sophie dropped her hands and sighed. "I fudged the truth a bit and told her you were okay, but she knew it wasn't entirely true."
"She ran off?"
"She called me a liar and then ran off," Sophie said sadly.
"Showing some spirit, nice."
Sophie wasn't quite so pleased. "I wish she had showed some spirit at someone else…"
She was prepared to refuse to help Scott dress himself for bed, but by the time he stumbled out of the shower he was so spent that he didn't even make such predictable comments. She helped him get up to the room with the motorcycle posters (which was how she always thought of that room, steadfastly ignoring all the girls in bikinis) and he collapsed on the mattress, asleep almost as soon as she pulled the covers up over him.
It was funny how the shape-enhanced Kharadjai physiology worked in combat. It was hard to slow without sputtering to a stop, dependent on inertia. No longer immersed in the rush of the shape and fuelled by adrenaline, Scott crashed.
She stepped back out in the hallway and shut the door behind her as quietly as she could (good thing she had oiled all the hinges recently). She took her phone out of her pocket and called Lila.
Lila answered quickly. "Speak," she said.
"Hello, this is Sophie," Sophie told her.
Sophie hesitated. Lila sounded terse, which might mean it wasn't a good time for a call. But Lila often sounded like that. "Are you busy?"
Right. Save for the coming and going of the Order, Lila hadn't had much interaction with the war effort. "Scott just got back from Godric's Hollow. He's a little banged up, but mostly okay."
"And why didn't he come back with the Primes?" Lila asked, having been made cognisant of their return with a different call the previous night.
"There were noncoms all over the AO. I guess that was expected, but Scott led the OpFor away and then hid until just a little while ago."
Lila was silent for a moment. "Hid where? In water?"
"In a drainage tube with water."
"That moron," Lila groaned.
"Well, he was in a hurry…" Sophie half-heartedly defended him.
"Don't use up his excuses, Strauss, I'll hear all about it later. Listen, when he wakes up tell him that the Order really wants to talk to Harry. Like, really. Remus Lupin is getting desperate, he even came to me. And they usually do their best to pretend I don't exist."
"Okay. Should I just tell Harry?"
"Run it by Scott. Then tell Harry, if you want to make it look like you came to him first."
There was a deeply manipulative facet to integration that Sophie had never been completely comfortable with. She understood that it could be useful and even necessary, but she didn't see the point in misleading Harry for no real purpose. Lila automatically established the option, whether it was needful or not. "Um, I'll just tell Harry since Scott's asleep. He already knows that Harry needs to see Lupin some time."
"Your call. Hey, I have to go stop Fleur from sabotaging my pound cake with her shitty French culinary 'skills'. We should talk more later."
"Sure, of course!" Sophie said, eager to have a real conversation with her friend.
"Have fun with the Primes," Lila said with a hint of warmth.
"Okay, I'll talk to you later!"
With that taken care of, there wasn't much to do except go back to cleaning and organising. And, while she had a strong and abiding belief in the value of cleanliness, she had to admit she was a bit tired of the tedium. Scott's interruption would have been welcome had he not managed to injure himself so thoroughly. And he had tracked mud everywhere, so there was that. Cleaning spells were highly convenient, and she had made full use of Scourgify. Some staining defied the magic, however. Perhaps one of the Primes could offer a more powerful cleansing spell.
Still, the upper hallways were looking better. The training downstairs had been creating a constant mess, and, rather than get caught in an endless cycle of picking up after another mattress explosion, Sophie had decided to start from the top down. The corridor she walked through was no longer quite so grimy, and the shadows didn't seem as deep. She didn't think anything could completely dispel the miasma of gloom short of a full remodelling. Grimmauld Place seemed designed to be… well, grim.
And Sophie just didn't understand why anyone would want that, she really didn't.
She peeked into the drawing room and found Kylie gazing out one of the windows. Sophie thought about saying something, but decided it would be better not to. The slight girl probably needed some time to calm down (which was a strange state of affairs, considering Kylie's general temperament).
Sophie found the Primes down in the kitchen, all of them gathered around the table with various foods. There was a bit of tension in the air, and after a moment of observation Sophie determined that Harry and Hermione were avoiding looking at each other. There must have been an argument.
She wasn't sure how well received any news of Scott would be, all things considered, but she offered some regardless. "Scott is mostly healed and in bed. Once he wakes up he should be ready for…" Sophie searched for the right word.
"Interrogation?" Hermione offered.
"He's trained to resist those," Sophie said humorously.
"I should hope he'd try to resist a bit less this time," Hermione said with a frown.
Ron shook his head. "The ponce probably doesn't think he did anything wrong."
"Perhaps not. But he may be convinced to do the right thing even if it's for the wrong reasons; that is, in the interests of team unity," Hermione explained.
"Or we may have to take turns hexing him until something goes through," Harry said darkly.
Sophie hoped that he was joking, as violence was a very unproductive way to get Scott's cooperation. "Would you like me to speak with him first? I could let him know, that… That things are a bit tense right now and he should behave himself."
"You really think he'll care?" Harry said cynically. He pushed his empty bowl away and went up the stairs, probably to make use of the makeshift target range.
"He might," Sophie said to his retreating back.
Hermione sighed, watching Harry leave. "That's going to be an uncomfortable conversation."
"You mean 'shouting match'," Ron said.
"No, I meant conversation, but I'm being optimistic." She glanced up at the clock. "I'm going to get back to research. Sophie, would you let me know when Scott is up and about?"
"Of course," Sophie assured her.
"I'm going to get back to bed," Ron said sleepily, stifling a yawn.
"Lazy prat," Hermione said affectionately.
After they left, Sophie turned to Ginny, who had been oddly silent. The red-haired teen was gazing towards the stairs with a thoughtful expression on her freckled features. Sophie had probably interacted with the youngest Weasley the least out of all the Primes, mostly due to Ginny's absence during the Christmas party of the previous year. She knew that Lila thought highly of the girl.
Ginny noticed Sophie's scrutiny. "I'm not that upset," she said, meeting Sophie's eyes. "I understand why he lied to us."
Sophie blinked in surprise. "You do?"
"He did it to save Harry." Ginny looked back towards the stair again. "How can I be angry with him for that?"
"That's very mature of you, Ginny!" Sophie said admiringly.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "I'm still hacked off about other things. Like what he said to me the other night. And how he obviously doesn't think we're worth a damn in a punch-up. He wasn't even at the Department, where does he get off acting like we can't handle ourselves?"
Sophie was not an integrationist, and she wished that Scott or Lila were present. It wasn't that the siblings always said the right thing; it was more that, even if they said the wrong thing, they were at least screwing up their own mission. Sophie didn't want to be blamed for anything.
Oh, my… Shameful thoughts, those were. She was no coward, she reminded herself. "It's not personal, it's just common sense. You can't run as fast as Scott can. Neither can I, I'm short, too! So because of that, and all his experience, he was the best choice to create a distraction." There! Clear, logical and concise. Lila would have been proud.
"He obviously thought he was the best choice, since it's one he made for us," Ginny said sarcastically.
Sophie had a good idea of Scott's reasons, but she hadn't been there. She didn't want to say any more, not before Scott had a chance to explain himself. "You'll have to ask him about that."
"If I can get a word in edgewise," Ginny sighed. "Harry'll probably drown the rest of us right out."
Sophie made a mental note to take Kylie elsewhere for that confrontation. There would likely be an unfortunate amount of bad language.
Ginny stood and placed her bowl in the sink. "How's Lila doing?" she asked.
"Oh, I just spoke with her! She's fine, doing very well," Sophie overstated. "She said she was baking with someone named 'Fleur'."
Ginny laughed. "You should have been there for the wedding. Lila doesn't bake with Fleur, she sort of bakes around her."
It was true that Lila hadn't referred to the other woman in very complimentary terms. "That's sort of what it sounded like."
"But everyone is okay? The family, I mean," Ginny said more seriously.
"Lil didn't mention any problems. Oh, but Remus Lupin wants to speak with Harry, she did say that."
"There's got to be somewhere we can meet with him," Ginny said thoughtfully. "I mean, just to be sure he's not Imperiused or something, then he can come inside."
Sophie thought about the surrounding areas in Islington; she had taken a couple excursions to get a feel for London, and studied the maps Scott had given her. "Highbury Fields isn't too far from here, that's a nice open space."
"So no one can sneak up on us?"
"Right! Clear sightlines are very important."
"I'll tell Harry about Remus and be sure to mention it, then," Ginny said. "Last thing we want is a repeat of what happened in the Hollow… Whatever did happen. Me and Harry were fine, and then all of a sudden there were Death Eaters everywhere! I haven't gotten the full story."
Neither had Sophie, and with Scott asleep she wouldn't for awhile. "All things in good time."
Ginny snorted as she went up the stairs. "You sound like my mum."
That wasn't a bad thing, was it? Sophie thought that Mrs Weasley was very nice, by all accounts. She had never met the Weasley matriarch and probably wouldn't, seeing as Sophie had no cover story. Although, with the way things were developing, fake histories might soon be useless. Scott and Lila were expending less and less effort maintaining their false identities. The pattern of events had made such things increasingly obsolete, the lies impossible to support. So perhaps Sophie could introduce herself to the Weasleys before too long.
She was startled out of her thoughts by an incoming call. "Hello?"
"Strauss, you got a minute to talk? I'm free for now," Lila said.
Sophie grinned. "Sure!"
Harry knew he was brooding. He did. He wasn't so caught up in his own little world that he didn't even know what he was doing. It was more that he didn't care.
What else was he supposed to do? Watch Scott sleep? Boring and, honestly, more than a bit creepy. He didn't want to sit in a dark room staring at some other bloke on a bed. If Scott woke and saw Harry there he'd have something clever to say, and Harry wasn't about to hand him that kind of ammunition.
So he sat in his own room and wrestled with his thoughts. Not easy, but familiar. It passed the time and kept him occupied, and, so long as he managed to keep his brain from drifting to the really bad things — like Sirius or losing Ginny or the rest of his friends stop it — it wasn't too painful. Just sort of melancholy, really. Sadness could be bittersweet.
When Ginny walked into the room, he reckoned he was about to catch some shite. She'd never had much patience for his frequent, crippling bouts of self-pity. And he couldn't blame her. He couldn't stand himself, sometimes.
She sat next to him and began running a soothing hand over his back. The press of her fingers against his tense muscles made him realise, as if he never had before, just how tiny her hand really was. She was so small, his Ginny. It made his heart ache, and he wasn't sure why.
"Breathe, love," Ginny murmured.
He did so, drawing in the air with a long, shuddering breath. He started to understand just how tightly he had been holding himself when his posture began to loosen.
"What brought this on?" Ginny asked him.
He couldn't even begin to tell her. "I'm mental," he stated.
She moved closer to him. "You're Harry. And it's not like things have been easy." She sighed. "I wish we had gotten together sooner. Before you got so used to doing this alone."
Harry tried not to think about the years it had taken him to pull his head out of his arse. It seemed so unfair, what might have been. He could imagine taking Ginny to Puddifoot's — they would have laughed about it. They could have danced together at the Yule Ball, snogged under the mistletoe. He was happy for what they had, but whatever they hadn't had was his fault. And now it felt like time was already running out.
He tried to put that into words. "…I wish I had done everything with you," he told her with all the honesty he could wring out of his heavy heart.
"We still can," she told him fiercely.
He felt the weight of the future settle onto him and squeezed his eyes shut, just trying to stay upright. His eyes snapped back open when Ginny put her hands on his face and forced him to look at her.
"Don't give up before we get a real chance at us," she said shakily. "I want a real life after this, and I want it with you. Don't you dare sacrifice yourself, because I know you would."
"I already tried to sacrifice this, remember?" Harry said, indicating their relationship and trying to deflect Ginny's demand with a bit of self-deprecation. "That didn't work out so well."
She was not distracted. "I want you to promise me."
"Promise what? That I won't die?" he said with a strained laugh.
"Stop it. You're barmy, I can't promise that."
"You can't even lie?" she said plaintively.
"No." He shook his head. "Not about that."
Her lips thinned and she looked down at the floor. "I'll bet you think I'm being daft."
He wasn't going to lie about that, either. "A little bit, yeah."
"You know why, don't you?"
It was a trick question, it had to be. Girls always did that: they presented you with a seemingly innocuous question that was not, in fact, innocuous at all, because you were expected to bloody well know the right answer already. If Harry was honest and said no, he hadn't a clue what she was talking about, that was wrong and he was in trouble because he should be able to read her mind. And if he took a guess at it she'd know he was just guessing, so same result.
And he really resented it, because Ginny didn't usually do that sort of thing. She was so up front, and the only kind of drama she started was the kind where she was telling him where he could get off.
So he tried to think of what someone else would say, and ended up channelling his inner Scott. In his current situation, that was a lot like channelling his inner Ron, with one subtle distinction: Ron would blurt out the first thing that came to mind, not knowing if it was wrong. Scott would blurt out the first thing that came to mind, not caring if it was wrong.
"Because you love me?" he said carelessly.
He was just about to smack himself for being such a smarmy git and save her the trouble when she nodded firmly. "That's right," she said.
He blinked at her, trying not to let his surprise show. At least she wasn't taken aback that he had guessed right — she hadn't been setting him up for failure.
"Because I love you," she repeated. "And the last thing I ever want to hear is you talking about dying for the rest of us."
He remembered her admonishment for his black humour at the Three Broomsticks, what felt like a lifetime ago. "You lot talk about dying for me all the time!"
"We talk about fighting for you, Harry! We'll die if we have to, but you seem to think you're going to die no matter what! It doesn't have to be that way and it's not going to," she declared with the hard, blazing look that he so admired.
He didn't know how to respond to that. He just wanted her to be right. They sat there for a few more moments whilst she calmed down and he looked everywhere but at her, knowing that the longer he studied her perfect, freckled face, the closer he would be to some kind of breakdown. She was so beautiful that sometimes it hurt, because beautiful things didn't last in Harry's life.
She hissed something under her breath that he didn't catch, and her slim arms were placed around his shoulders. "Just stop," she pleaded.
"No, I'm not… ignoring you, I just…"
"What?" she said, close to his ear. "Tell me."
He shook his head helplessly. "It's hard to explain. It's… You're too perfect, and I can't lose you."
She stiffened. "Is this about chucking me again?"
Harry pulled off his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to relieve the pressure he felt. "It's about…" he stopped, put his glasses back on, and shook his head again. "It's about me being a moron."
"You're not a moron. You just act like one sometimes."
"Oh, come off it. You're not even angry, look at you. You're trying not to smile!" she teased.
He was. "No, I'm not," he said stolidly before giving in to a tired grin. Enough was enough; sitting in a dark room wasn't accomplishing anything. "You want to go shoot some more cups?"
"We could have a cuppa first, it's about teatime," she said.
"It's always teatime around here. Come on, then."
They were about halfway down the stairs when she grabbed his arm. "I almost forgot — Sophie said that Remus wants to speak with you as soon as you can."
"Yeah, like he said in his letters. She told me there's a park nearby we could use to meet, it's nice and open. What do you think?"
Harry thought that he didn't like treating Remus as a potential enemy. But, given the situation, there wasn't much choice. They had to be careful. "Okay, so we would meet him there, make sure it's really him, and then let him back in."
Ginny looked unsure about the last part. "You want to let him back into Grimmauld?"
"Yeah. It's Remus, Gin, he's not going to try and make me go back," Harry said. He had that much faith in his former professor.
"I know that, but what about me?" she said, revealing the reason for her reluctance.
Harry understood. And he couldn't blame Remus or Mrs Weasley if they were to attempt to return Ginny to safety; it wasn't like he hadn't tried something similar. But Ginny was at Grimmauld Place, and by Harry's side, to stay. He still would have preferred to keep her away from the danger, and if she asked to leave he would never say no, but he wouldn't force her to go. And he wouldn't let anyone else do it, either.
"It will just be Remus, no one else, or I won't agree to it," Harry told her. "And… your being here isn't open for discussion."
Her expression softened, eyes glowing. "Thank you," she said simply.
He smiled crookedly. "For what? Not being a prat, for once?"
She grinned up at him, making him realise just how close they were standing. "More or less."
He couldn't resist her when she looked like that. He leaned in for a kiss and she met him halfway. What started as mild gesture of affection quickly evolved into an extended snog, her tongue tracing his mouth while he sucked at her lower lip. They finally parted with a smack that was embarrassingly loud in the stairwell. He hoped there wasn't anyone around to hear it.
"All right," he said once they broke apart. "Let's get the maps and take a look at this park."
"In a minute," she said. She put her arms around his middle and threaded her fingers. "I'm not finished yet."