Parts Per Million
"Every exchange is important. Every
word has value. You may not see it
at first, and you may never see it, but
that does not alter the logic of causation.
The shape tumbles out in an infinite series
of interlocking parts, creating unlimited
configurations with patterns too far
removed from their origins to be anticipated.
The hard limits of your perception will
prevent you from creating accurate
predictions. That does not mean you should
ever stop striving to create outcomes that
are likely to be favorable. To surrender to
the chaos is to lose all sense of efficacy,
and doubt is swiftly followed by inaction."
—Oritorius Arthur Eamon Grant
Remus Lupin stood near the corner of Highbury Crescent and Highbury Place. He knew the streets and where they led, despite never having been there before, because he had located them on a Muggle map. The war memorial at the intersection was just ahead of him: a woman on a column holding aloft some sort of laurel, with cannons flanking the pedestal. Harry hadn't owled much more than very basic directions, and the statue had been a key landmark.
Which was shrewd, and Remus was glad to see Harry taking such precautions. He knew that he was somewhere in the general vicinity of Harry's Fidelius-hidden home, but probably not especially close. He couldn't recall the name of the place no matter how hard he tried. He was sure he had been there before, however. He remembered the dark halls and stone kitchen. He remembered Sirius' room, the one he himself had stayed in, the entry hall with a loud portrait and the umbrella stand Tonks frequently tripped over. If Harry allowed Remus into the safehouse, it would be like recovering from selective amnesia.
The evening sun waned on the horizon, casting an orange glow over the park. A handful of Muggles came and went on the other side of the short, wrought-iron fences whilst Remus stood beneath the trees. He had come alone, as requested. Lila Kharan had helpfully taken him to the park, leaving him there in the afternoon. He had used the extra time to ensure there were no Death Eaters anywhere near the meeting point.
He was grateful to Lila for the use of her Muggle vehicle, even as he remained uncertain whether she could be trusted. She had jumped at the chance to assist Remus with transport, perhaps looking to prove herself. Unlike some other members of the Order, he already felt she had demonstrated her intentions with her defence of The Burrow. It was her motivations that remained suspect, along with her inscrutable history.
Remus was looking forward to seeing Harry for many reasons, not the least of which being that he missed the lad. But he also would be taking the opportunity to ask some pertinent questions. Even if Harry didn't know much about Lila, Scott was sure to. Perhaps he would be more tractable than his sister.
Remus checked his watch: it was three minutes after the time Harry had given. He wouldn't worry until the ten minute mark, and it was possible his watch was a bit fast. He began to look around to see if he could spot Harry, or perhaps Ron or Hermione, before they reached him. There were a few pedestrians across the way: a man climbing into his car, and a woman in a yellow frock strolling past the fence.
Remus started to pivot and look to the other street when the woman in the frock turned onto the path where he was standing. He straightened up and took a step closer to the trees, not wanting to be in her way. Muggles didn't usually believe in werewolves, but he knew that his rumpled appearance and shabby clothing could be off-putting. He didn't want to come across as being some loitering unfortunate. He'd had the Muggle police called on him before, once, when he had been at a park.
He gave her a half-smile when she walked near, along with a respectful nod of his head.
"Professor Lupin!" she said brightly.
To say he was startled would have been an understatement. "…Yes?" he said, trying to remember if he had met her before. She was young enough to have been one of his students at Hogwarts, but she didn't look familiar.
"You are Remus Lupin, correct?" she said, her accent standing out starkly with the speaking of a full sentence.
"Yes, I'm Remus," he confirmed, searching her features for any hint of familiarity. "Have we met?"
"No, we haven't. I'm here on Harry's behalf," she explained.
"Of course," Remus said, feeling a bit disappointed that Harry hadn't come in person. But it wasn't as if the boy's caution was unwarranted. "Well, you found me. What's next?"
"I have a few questions… But first, take my hand, please." She held out one petite, well-manicured hand.
Remus hesitated for a moment, unsure of what the woman was trying to accomplish. Still, he had his wand concealed in a pocket, and it wasn't possible to turn a person into a Portkey. He reached out and took her hand, his larger one engulfing hers. "Very well. And what will this accomplish?"
She smiled at him and shook her arm slightly, prompting him to release her. "Just checking on some things! Okay, questions, questions, let's see…" She scanned a piece of paper that she took from a handbag slung over one shoulder. "Um… How did James save Snape's life?"
Remus grimaced at the memory. "James intervened so I wouldn't inadvertently kill Severus after I transformed. In light of recent events, perhaps not as fortunate as I'd once thought," he said, thinking of Dumbledore's funeral.
"Okay, um… You made a special map, what was the password for it?"
A much more pleasant question. "'I solemnly swear that I am up to no good'," Remus told her with a small grin.
"Two for two!" she cheered. Remus raised an eyebrow, amused at her exuberance. Who was this tiny, ebullient woman? "Last thing, and it says on here… How did you and Tonks end up together?"
Remus frowned slightly. He had expected another question about a more distant past. "Some of the details are… private. But I had been aware of her feelings for some time, and, though I felt the same, I avoided her. A misplaced sense of responsibility, I suppose. I'm not the most stableof romantic partners," he said with a dry chuckle. "She cornered me after an Order meeting and told me she'd had enough of my excuses. She had been very much on my mind, and I was running out of ways to convince myself. And she is nothing if not convincing, when she gets determined." He looked to the woman in the yellow frock but she said nothing, still staring at him with great interest. Her large eyes were a lovely shade of green, reminding him of Lily. "That's about the size of it. Did I pass?"
"Oh, there's no answer written here," she said, waving the paper at him. "I guess someone just wanted to know."
Remus caught the parchment and took it from her, quickly skimming it. There, inked in messy handwriting, were the questions he'd been asked: and no answers of any sort. "There are no answers here at all," he said, head snapping back up to look at her.
Her eyes sparkled with mirth. "It's not me you had to impress!"
"'Lo, Remus," a voice said from somewhere to his left.
He nearly drew his wand before he remembered: the Invisibility Cloak. "Harry," he said through the breath he let out.
"Sorry if I scared you. We thought we'd be extra careful, what with…" Harry didn't need to say more.
"I understand," Remus said. He'd have done the same, in Harry's position. "Were you satisfied with my answers?"
"I reckon it's you," Harry said with a smile in his voice. "Just follow Sophie, she'll take you to the others."
They started walking, Remus staying close behind Sophie. He still didn't know who she was, but Harry seemed to trust her. As they went she chattered on about the park and how nice it was, seemingly without any need for a response. Remus was more interested in her accent than in what she was saying. It was highly similar to Lila's, flat and rhotic, though he thought he detected a few minor variations. He knew that Lila was an American and suspected that Sophie was as well, with perhaps some regional divergences (the last Americans he had spoken to had been from Salem, and sounded quite different).
Soon they arrived at a row of houses undistinguished from the rest, a flat-roofed tenement that still didn't seem familiar, even though he knew it should. There was a rustle from the empty air, and Harry's hand appeared with a slip of parchment.
Remus took and examined it.
Welcome back to 12 Grimmauld Place
And just like that, he remembered everything.
"Well, I'll be damned," he murmured, watching as the houses shrunk and grew apart, revealing the entrance he knew so well.
Ron, Hermione and Ginny were standing just inside the doorway, wands out. "Harry?" Ron said cautiously, eyes on Remus.
"He's fine," Harry said.
Hermione immediately tucked her wand away, beaming. "Professor Lupin!" she said excitedly. "It's so good to see you!"
"And you as well," Remus warmly replied.
The interior of Grimmauld was not quite as shadowy as he remembered, though signs of a recent scrubbing likely accounted for that. The light travelled a little further, the walls were not so grimy, and even though the colours of the décor were as gloomy as ever at least they weren't so overbearingly dour. He wondered if the spiders in the dining hall were gone, but the door was shut as they passed it.
He paused once they reached the kitchen, taking in the sight of the room where he had met with the Order so many times. "Hard to believe I couldn't remember this old place," he remarked.
"Why would you want to?" Harry said, looking at the surrounds with aversion.
"There are good memories here, too, Harry," Remus lightly reminded.
Harry didn't reply to that. He sat down at the table with the others flanking him (Sophie excused herself, going back upstairs). Remus looked at them from across the table and realised that they were presenting a united front against him. Had they become so isolated as to perceive him as a possible threat? Or was it more that, as an adult, he might try to force them to abandon the mysterious enterprise left to them by Dumbledore?
Perhaps he should address that first. "You should know that before I left, your mother," he began carefully, nodding at Ron and Ginny, "made some demands of me. Ginny, she asked if you would come back and see her."
"So she can lock me up?" Ginny said derisively. "No, thank you."
Remus couldn't discount that as a possible outcome. "I thought I would pass the message along, at the very least. I'm not here to try and force any of you into anything. Not that you would let me," he said with a self-deprecating smile. "I'm rather outnumbered at the moment."
Ginny didn't relax. "You can tell my mum that—"
"Ginny…" Harry said softly.
"She doesn't understand! Still!" Ginny argued. "She sent him here—"
"I came on my own," Remus corrected her, not wanting that misconception to gain traction.
"I don't want to get between you and your mum," Harry told his girlfriend, guilt etched on his face.
Ron winced, shifting in his seat. "There wasn't a way around it, mate."
"There was one way," Harry said roughly.
"That was never an option. I told you that," Ginny said coldly.
"I know. Really, I know," Harry repeated after Ginny gave him a disbelieving look. "Just…"
"If you tell me that I should have stayed behind one more time there is not a person here who will blame me when I hex—"
"I'm not saying that!" Harry yelped.
"Ginny, please, I'm not here to take you home," Remus assured her, trying to head off an argument between her and Harry that he didn't fully understand.
He hadn't known there had been any question as to whether she would accompany Harry, Ron and Hermione on whatever task the deceased Headmaster had assigned them. But Remus admittedly didn't know a great deal about the circumstances. He had always assumed that Ginny was as thick as thieves with Harry as the other two were. Perhaps that had not been the case.
Ginny frowned at him. "You just said that Mum wanted me to go back."
"I said that I was instructed to tell you that your mother wanted to see you." Remus leaned forward towards the girl. "Ginevra, I'll be honest: I don't think you should be here. It's too dangerous. But—" he continued when her glare intensified, "—I don't believe that any of you should have to be here. It seems there's no way around it, at least for Harry, and I know that none of you would ever abandon him. I certainly can't change things now." He looked directly at Harry, trying to make his sincerity as clear as he could. "You know that if I could take this off your shoulders, I would."
"Even if you could, I wouldn't let you," Harry replied, subdued but steadfast.
"I know," Remus said, his sorrow for Harry almost a physical presence. It wasn't right, the things Harry had to bear. Thank God he had the friends he did.
Hermione chose that moment to change the subject. "Professor Lupin, how is everyone in the Order?"
"Better, now that we're all in contact. I wish I could say the same for the Ministry."
The children (though he couldn't really think of them that way any longer, could he?) all exchanged worried glances. "We've been out of touch for the most part; I haven't seen the Prophet since we left The Burrow. What's been happening?" Hermione asked.
"You-Know-Who has completely taken over; they're barely trying to be subtle, these days. They've installed Thicknesse as Minister, and we're fairly certain he's under the Imperius," Remus told them grimly. "Right now, our biggest concern is the Muggle-born Registration Commission."
Hermione paled, and Ron immediately reached out to steady her. "Registration?" she said faintly.
"Nothing so benign, if you could call something like that benign to begin with. The Prophet ran a story on a false study done by the Department of Mysteries. It's absolute rubbish, of course, but I suppose the right sort of people will believe it. It says they discovered that magic can only be inherited, and therefore Muggle-borns must have taken their magic through theft or force. Supposedly, they're intended to present themselves for registration and questioning, but, I can tell you, few come out of the Ministry once they go in."
"That's absurd!" Hermione gasped. "The logic is utterly flawed!"
"I know, believe me," Remus reassured her. "It's just a cover for people who already accept that sort nonsense. The Snatchers I wrote to you about, Harry, they enforce the Commission's laws."
"They do a lot more than that," Ron said. "They came after us with the Death Eaters."
Remus sat up straight in shock. "What?"
"We were… on a mission," Harry said vaguely. "The Snatchers were there. Scott could tell you more than us."
"Right, Scott," Remus said, letting the 'mission' reference go for the time being, as it was obvious they weren't going to say more. "His sister actually brought me here. Is he around?"
Hermione gave Harry a warning look, which was interesting. "I'm afraid he's not available for the time being; perhaps later," she said.
Remus raised an eyebrow, concerned that he was so obviously being misdirected. "Are you sure? Lila would appreciate some news from him, I'd wager."
"Not this time. Sorry," Harry said with real regret in his voice.
"Very well," Remus said, trying not to let his disappointment show. "I expect I'll stumble into more than a few things you won't want to talk about."
"I didn't want it to go this way," Harry muttered.
"I know you trust me. I just wish you trusted me a little more. Though not as much as I wish your father had trusted me, just a… little more…" Remus sighed before he could stop himself, expressing more of his deep regrets than he had ever intended.
Harry looked stricken. "This isn't like that! If it were just me, I'd—"
"I know. I don't blame you for anything. Whatever Dumbledore left you with, it's more important than my feelings."
Harry shook his head. "Scott and Lila aren't about that."
"Then I doubt I'll be discovering what they are about. I'd need a pint of Veritaserum to find out what Lila had for breakfast," Remus said, trying to inject some humour into the proceedings.
Hermione was still wan, but smiled weakly at his joke. "That sounds about right."
"You said in your letter she'd said some things to Bill," Harry pointed out.
Remus nodded. "Unclear things, yes. She told him she's a soldier, and that both her brother and herself have been working to ensure your success. Which is a comfort, but not especially detailed. With all her interest in the Order's plans, it's hard to accept her when we know so little."
"I trust her and Scott, and so did Dumbledore," Harry said. "I don't know if that means much to the Order…"
"It does to me," Remus said. "I think the others will at least be willing to let Lila assist us in some way. She just has to prove useful. I doubt that will be much of a problem for her after what I've seen."
Harry still looked guilty. "I'm really sorry I can't tell you more. It's not fair to you."
"Very little about any of this is fair, Harry," Remus told him. "I'm sure you're only doing what you must. And, speaking of which…" He gestured at the room. "How did you alter the Fidelius Charm? I didn't think it was possible, even as a Secret Keeper."
Harry winced. "I can't talk about that, either."
"But we can assure you it's not something that could be duplicated," Hermione jumped in. "You don't need to worry about whatever other Fidelius Charms you have."
"It has to do with losing the original Secret Keeper?" Remus presumed.
"I truly can't say, Professor," Hermione said regretfully.
Remus sighed. "This meeting has been far less illuminating than I had hoped, though I suppose that's what I should have expected."
Harry was clearly frustrated, as well. "Look, what is the Order doing? Maybe we can help you."
"Originally, we'd wanted to infiltrate the Ministry. But the attack at the wedding revealed too many of us, so we can't pretend to be uninvolved. Arthur had to go into hiding immediately, and he was our best bet for an inside man." Remus shrugged helplessly. "In a way, it might be better to have been forced underground sooner. It would have happened eventually, and now we can learn how to strike back. We've begun assisting Muggle-borns who have fled the Registry, getting them to safehouses before the Snatchers catch up. We're also preparing to keep an eye on those who have already registered. Our eventual goal is to discover where captured Muggle-borns are being held. Every witch and wizard released from Ministry control is another possible wand for the Order."
"So recruitment is a priority," Hermione surmised.
"I'm sure I don't need to tell you how outnumbered we are. There are always more regular wizarding folk than there are Dark, but getting them to fight for us is daunting, to say the least."
"Bloody cowards," Ron snorted.
"They're afraid," Remus reminded. "Afraid for themselves and their families. Not everyone was in Gryffindor, Mr Weasley."
"I suppose," Ron mumbled, looking a bit ashamed.
"Correct me if I'm mistaken, Professor, but aren't the Aurors your best source of new members?" Hermione asked.
"For skilled members, yes, and I wish it were that simple," Remus replied. "Tonks has made some inroads there, and Moody has been using his reputation to attract possibilities, but we have to be so careful that it's a slow process. We want Aurors to join us whilst still working for the Ministry, at least for the time being. Not many are suited for that kind of work, and it's not easy to walk away from a career. We have to be able to guarantee the safety of our members' families if we really want to bring anyone in."
"There are no guarantees," Harry said flatly.
Remus smiled sadly. "No, there aren't. And the worse things get, the more people will understand that. We just have to hope that it won't be too late."
A heavy silence descended over the table. Ron had taken Hermione's hand and was studying her with concern whilst she stared at nothing, her astounding intellect no doubt examining the Muggle-born situation. Remus wished he had better news to bring her, but the Order was stretched thin and too many Muggle-borns had already disappeared. Thank God that she, at least, was safe with Harry, if only temporarily. Remus was also pleased to see that Ginny was holding Harry's attention, wrapping herself around one of his arms and neatly preventing him from tumbling into another morass of guilt. Harry already had enough terrible responsibilities without taking the blame for things over which he had no control. Remus wasn't blind to Harry's disturbingly advanced martyr complex.
"As we're already on the subject…" Remus began, not wanting to let the silence drag out too long, "I notice you've done a bit of recruitment of your own. When Ms Sophie approached me in the park, for a moment I thought she was an old student! Excellent misdirection, Harry."
"It was Hermione's idea," Harry said modestly. "We knew no one would recognise her, even if they were looking for us."
"She sounded American, at least to my ears. A friend of Lila's?"
"Yeah, basically," Harry said evasively.
It was obvious that Remus wasn't going to get more information on the Kharans, even indirectly. "Can't blame me for trying, Harry."
Harry gave him a hesitant smile, relieved Remus was taking his reticence so well. "I don't. Have you spoken to Lila, or was it just Bill? Because she might tell you more."
"Not bloody likely," Ron said, giving Harry an incredulous look.
"She will in her own time, if at all. I understand that much about her. If you want to help, however, putting in a good word for me with Scott might do the trick. Granted, I don't know how much influence he has with his older sister," Remus said.
"At least some," Harry said, not looking all that certain. "He's technically her… I'll talk to him, I'll do that for you. Maybe I can convince him to tell you things, or to have Lila do it. Even if it's just you and not the Order. I think Scott owes me that much."
"But does Scott think that?" Ginny said cynically.
Harry scowled. "I don't care what he thinks."
There was apparently some tension between Scott and Harry. Remus doubted he'd be privileged to the full story, but he hoped it wasn't too serious. The last thing Harry and his friends needed were internal divisions. "I would greatly appreciate it."
Harry shrugged off the thanks. "It's still less than you deserve."
"There aren't many getting what they deserve at the moment," Remus said wryly.
Remus spent the rest of the meeting trying to draw Harry out and get a sense of the lad's mental state; with Sirius gone (and Mrs Weasley out of contact), Remus felt it was his duty to care for Harry in whatever way possible. He had always carried a sense of guilt for not being more of a presence in Harry's life. His lycanthropy had seemed reason enough for years, but his relationship with Nymphadora had left him wondering if that wasn't just an excuse. She certainly thought that he used his werewolf status to protect himself from hurt, more than others. It was a particularly difficult idea to come to grips with. No one wanted to believe that their greatest trauma was also their greatest crutch.
It was apparent, even in cursory conversation, that Harry was not well. Given the pressures he had been subjected to his entire life, it was hard to conceive of how he could be. But Harry was strong, far stronger than anyone his age should have had to become. And his friends were loyal in a way that Remus hadn't often seen. He knew it was a rare group of young men and women who sat at the table with him. He had known that even during his year teaching at Hogwarts.
Soon enough it was becoming late, and Remus knew he should be going. He was reluctant to leave. There was a hurried feeling that came over him, as if he had one chance to say everything he had to say to Harry, and then it would be too late. He supposed it sprang from how difficult it had been to arrange a meeting with Harry in the first place. Now that he remembered Grimmauld, it shouldn't be as much of an issue. Unless…
Before leaving, Remus placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. He remembered a time, not long ago at all, when he would have had to reach down, instead of across, to do the same thing. "I don't know when we'll be able to meet again, but were you planning to exclude me from the Fidelius once more?" He winced internally: he'd sounded more anxious than intended.
"No, of course not," Harry assured him. "We didn't really mean to the first time, it was just what had to happen."
Which raised even more questions Remus had no hope of getting answers for. He hated to return to the Order with so little to tell. That was the nature of the business they were all embroiled in, however: too many secrets, and so little trust.
"It was good to see you, Harry," Remus said, squeezing Harry's shoulder. "Keep in touch."
Ginny was on a mission. And that word, 'mission', had taken on a great many new and often unpleasant connotations recently, but it still fit.
She needed to talk to someone. That was a requirement easily fulfilled, given the number of people with which she was surrounded every day. However, her needs were a bit more specific than that. She needed another girl to talk to, concerning the kinds of things she wasn't going to be comfortable discussing with a bloke. And that cut three of her companions right out of consideration.
It wasn't because of any one thing in particular. Rather, she had a lot on her mind and the catalyst had been another night spent wrapped around Harry with progressively fewer layers of clothing separating them. Her own self-reflection and awkward exchanges shared with the object of her increasingly uncontrollable affections were not sufficient to sort things out. She needed a second opinion.
Hermione had long been Ginny's confidante, ever since the older girl had stayed at The Burrow for the first time and established a friendship that had lasted and strengthened through years of near-death experiences and clueless boys. Ginny would have gone to Hermione first by default, except that Ron was now Hermione's boyfriend. And Ginny didn't want to hear advice from a girl who would be basing all of that advice on experience gained from snogging Ginny's brother.
However, Lila was unreachable (and the concept of having a personal discussion with the stoic woman was a bit daunting). Sophie seemed nice enough, but Ginny didn't know her very well. Kylie had probably traded a grand total of three or four sentences with Ginny, despite how often they had seen each other at Hogwarts (and Kylie was a bit too young). So Hermione it was.
It was a good time for it: Harry and Ron were caught up in an endless series of practice duels, no doubt another simple demonstration for Sophie that had quickly devolved into a mock battle that they refused to end. Ginny loved duelling and, at the risk of being immodest, she was quite good at it, but Ron and Harry just didn't know when to stop. They would cheerfully fight each other until they were both half-blind and stupid from the Stunners. Perhaps it reminded them of the DA. Or maybe it was more that there just wasn't much else to do.
Whatever the reasons, that left Hermione alone with her research. And, sure enough, Ginny found the older girl upstairs, sitting on a bed so covered with books that they looked like a very uncomfortable blanket.
"Hermione?" Ginny said.
Hermione looked up and blinked hard, squeezing her eyes shut. Perhaps they were dry, which would make sense considering how long she had been staring at the pages. "Yes?" she said a bit vaguely, at least part of her brain still processing the parchment.
"Do you have time to talk?" Ginny asked. And she wasn't really asking, because Hermione was probably rereading books in the hopes of finding something she had missed, and she needed to take a breather.
Hermione blinked again and seemed to come to herself. "Of course," she said brightly, closing her book. She carefully gathered up the volumes around her and stacked them neatly on the floor, clearing a space for Ginny.
"Thanks," Ginny said, closing the door and sitting cross-legged across from Hermione.
"What are we talking about?" Hermione said with interest.
"Boys! Our boys, in particular. We could pretend we're back in the dormitories, if you want. Just the kind of talk to have sitting on a bed like this, don't you think? We're really looking the part. Do you want to charm my nails?"
"Clichés are much less fun if you point them out," Hermione said disapprovingly. "But all right, give them here." Ginny held out her hand and Hermione took it. "I found a charm for a rainbow assortment I'd like to try…"
Once Ginny's nails were sparkling with five different colours on each hand, Hermione started on her own. "Do you think Harry will like this?" Ginny wondered, examining a particularly bright shade of pink on her ring finger. "I don't care for this one; I'm already pink enough."
"I don't believe he's ever expressed an opinion on nail colours — at least, not to me," Hermione said. "You could always ask. He's probably smart enough not to give an honest answer."
"You'd think, wouldn't you? No, he'll probably be, like, 'I don't care about your nails, Gin, do what you want'," she said in an impression of Harry's cadence. "This looks good, it would fit right in with what I wore to Godric's Hollow. I should dress like that more, Harry couldn't stop looking. You think Sophie would give the clothes to me?"
"I'd imagine so. But you can get the same reaction from Harry wearing anything that's a bit tight."
"I think he's into breasts, my Harry. You should have seen him when we caught up at Lila's flat, I was wearing that yellow top with the straps, you know, the one that shows my belly? I thought he'd love that, and I think he sort of did, but he was just staring at my tits the whole time. He even forgot to try and look like he wasn't."
"He likes your legs too, you know. He's always looking at your calves when you wear those striped knee-highs with your skirts," Hermione added.
Ginny dropped her hands in disgust. "I'm too short, I don't have legs."
"Oh? What were you standing on a moment ago?"
"You know what I mean! I've got these thick thighs and Quidditch calves for my hips to sit on, and then there's nothing going on up. Whoever said 'sporty' was good for a girl? I'm shaped like a bloody broomstick."
"You're entirely feminine and it's not just my opinion — ask Harry sometime what he thinks of your shape, I think you'll find it quite flattering. If there was 'nothing going on up', do you think he'd have been quite so distracted by your shirts?"
"I'd kill for your tits, honestly. They're just going to waste anyway, what with my brother staring at your bum. Hey, I should use an Engorgement Charm and see how long it takes Harry to notice!"
"About two seconds, I should think. And that's a terrible idea, Ginny. Do you want to look like you've had Lila's grafted on to you?" Hermione pursed her mouth in suppressed amusement. "You'd probably tip right over!"
The mental image that conjured was hilarious. "I'd look like I shoved a couple Quaffles down my shirt!" Ginny laughed.
"Harry wouldn't care for that, anyway. Cho wasn't exactly top heavy herself, so he's fairly consistent. It's your particular style of pulchritude that attracted him in the first place."
"Your beauty," Hermione clarified.
"Why didn't you just say that?" Ginny said derisively. "Who are you trying to impress?"
"I'm not trying to impress anybody! Some of us have vocabularies beyond Quidditch and vulgarity!"
"Who's fucking vulgar?!"
Hermione flinched. "You…! I've already had to tolerate enough of that from the boys! Ron never could watch his mouth, but Harry's language has taken a poor turn since Scott came around. Usually just when he's angry, at least, but he's angry so often…"
"I think he's dead sexy when he gets riled," Ginny confided.
"Even when you're shouting back at him?"
"Not when he's angry at me," Ginny clarified. "We're not like you and Ron, we're not sick. We don't fight so we can snog after."
"I am not sick!"
"Yeah, you are. You're snogging Ron, there's something wrong with you. You'd have to be mental to bring your lips anywhere near him."
Hermione glowered. "You're exceptionally biased, I can't ever count on you to be objective. Your opinion in this matter is invalid."
"Whatever, I had a question. Well, more than one but it's a start." Ginny hesitated for a moment, and then decided to get right into it. "What's the farthest you've ever gone with a bloke?"
Hermione froze, her mouth slightly parted. "…I hadn't expected that question, I must admit."
"I said I wanted to talk!"
"Yes, but I didn't know you meant that talk," Hermione explained.
"Why not? Who else am I supposed go to for a chin wag? 'Oh, hello, Harry, I've just had my monthly; want to talk about it?'" Ginny said.
"I'd suggest approaching Sophie, first," Hermione suggested wryly.
"She seems an all right sort, but it's not like I know her. And I wanted to talk to you."
Hermione frowned slightly. "All of this research I have, I didn't consider… I've been letting you down as a friend, haven't I?"
Ginny shook her head, her red tresses scattering over her face. "No, you've been busy. We all have."
"I shouldn't be too busy for you," Hermione said with self-reproach. "Now… You are aware, of course, that the farthest I've ever been with any bloke would be the farthest I've ever been with the only bloke I've ever had, and that would be your brother."
Ginny grimaced. "I know."
"I'm just making sure you understand. I do want to talk and be here for you, but I can only tolerate so many expressions of disgust!"
"I'll try to keep them to a minimum," Ginny promised.
"Very thoughtful of you," Hermione said dryly. "Now, with Ron, I…" Her cheeks flushed and she leaned forward conspiratorially. "Most of the time we aren't touching when I wake up, but once he had his hand on my breast."
Ginny scrunched up her nose. "You let my brother touch your tits? Do you know where he's been?"
"It was over the bra, as if I need to justify it! And I knew you wouldn't want to hear this, I don't know why you came to me," Hermione said with a huff.
"All right, sorry, but, he was probably sleeping when he did that. I meant on purpose, like… Together, you know?" Ginny stressed.
"Well, just some more touching under the shirt, and, as you said, he does like my bum, he's always cupping that when he gets the chance… He started lifting me that way when we snog, once he found out I didn't mind. I enjoy it, actually. I think he's still a bit uncertain about touching my breasts; he usually asks, first. That must seem more 'forbidden', I suppose."
"What, I can't help it!"
"Try a bit harder to suppress it! Now do you want to talk about this or not? How can we have a sex talk if you keep making those faces?" Hermione complained.
"Sex?!" Ginny yelped. "Oh my God! You've been shagging? I can't believe you! …How was it? Did it hurt?"
Hermione had turned scarlet. "No! I meant sex talk as in sexuality, gender relations, not shagging specifically and the closest we've even come to that was…"
Ginny leaned forward eagerly. "What?"
Hermione glanced away.
"What? You can't just leave it at that!" Ginny demanded.
"Sometimes, when we're snogging," Hermione said slowly, "I've put my legs around his waist and sort of… Rubbed against him."
Ginny clamped her mouth shut whilst she overcame the urge to say something rude. The key to approaching such topics with Hermione was to wait out the initial revulsion, allowing Ron to become more of a faceless male ideal. Once she arrived at that point, the thought of grinding against Harry in such a fashion was a wonderful one. Some of the positions they slept in — Ginny wrapped around his side with his thigh between hers — had created a friction that brought with it an animal instinct for even more.
"Was that good?" she asked. "Did you come?"
"No!" Hermione denied a bit too quickly. "…But it felt like I could have."
"I've thought about that, sometimes. I mean, we're already snogging and he's right there, why shouldn't I just get up on him? I wonder if he would try that with me," Ginny mused.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "He'd do anything with you."
"But that's not true," Ginny said worriedly. "I know that the way you are with Ron is different. You're the one holding him back, you know, setting limits. Us Weasleys are a randy lot, and that's the truth. But with Harry I have to push for everything, always, right from the beginning. I barely got him to stay with me at the start of all this!"
Hermione placed a sympathetic hand on Ginny's knee. "I know it hasn't been easy for the two of you. Harry has… That is, considering his upbringing and everything that's happened… Ginny, all of your affections, in whatever form, are, I'm quite certain, the most he's ever been touched in his life. And I think he's still not entirely used to it," Hermione said insightfully. "I'm afraid it may be a long time before you don't have to push him a bit. But isn't he worth fighting for?"
"Always," Ginny said fiercely.
"I knew you felt that way. And I'm sure he does, too."
Ginny picked at the sheets with her fingernails. "Maybe. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I'm all over him because I just want him to pleasure me."
Hermione's eyes danced. "Don't you?"
"Yes!" Ginny said, giggling. "But that's not all I want!"
"Perhaps you should make that clearer? I'm well aware you love him in more ways than one, but he doesn't have quite the same perspective that I do. You never showed him all the times you practised writing 'Ginny Potter' in your diary!"
"I didn't show that to you, you twit!" Ginny screeched in outrage. "You peeked when I dropped it that one time!"
"It fell open to that page; I can hardly be held responsible for that," Hermione said in an overly-reasonable tone.
"You bet your arse you can!"
"I can't bet my arse," Hermione countered. "Ron's recently claimed it."
"Oh, God," Ginny groaned, looking away.
"…It's an interesting thought, however," Hermione said after she gained control of her giggles.
"What, Ron squeezing your arse? That's a nauseating thought, and you should be ashamed."
"I'm not, though," Hermione said, lifting her chin despite the blush suffusing her face. "Do you think they'd be shocked at Hogwarts, if they knew?"
"What, that Hermione Granger is a secret slag for my brother?"
"I am not!"
"The only person shocked would be you," Ginny said, ignoring Hermione's protest. "Half our house already thinks you've been shagging after every argument since third year."
"Yeah! If I told them you were snogging all over this place, they'd just be wondering what the real news was! The only people that ever thought you were subtle were you and Ron. Even Harry twigged on around the Yule Ball, and he's almost as thick as Ron is. Did you really think no one noticed?"
"It's just a bit disillusioning," Hermione sighed. "Regardless, I did have an interesting thought: what if you showed Harry your old diary? You know, the pink one with all the tassels?"
Ginny blanched. "Show Harry my old diary?"
"Right. The regular one that wasn't stabbed with a basilisk fang, obviously." A hand flew up to Hermione's mouth. "Oh, dear. That wasn't very sensitive, was it?"
Ginny barely noticed. "Show Harry where I wrote 'Ginny Potter'."
"Where I wrote about how green his eyes are."
"Where I made up little stories in which he rescues me from various dragons and Dark wizards."
"Yes, that's right."
Ginny stared at her. "Are you barking?"
Hermione held up her palms, as if to forestall Ginny's wrath. "Hear me out."
"Why? You've just started and it's already the worst idea I've ever heard!"
Hermione looked sceptical. "Oh, that can't be true. Surely Fred and George have come to you with worse ideas."
"Nope. This beats them all."
"Ginny! I'm only suggesting it because I think it might help Harry understand you better!"
"How? How could that possibly help?" Ginny said wildly. "I'm not that silly little girl anymore, I've tried so hard not to be!"
"But you were once. You were. And, despite your protestations, part of you will always see Harry that way, just like a part of me will always see Ron as that cute boy on the train with dirt on his nose," Hermione said with a strident note in her voice that made clear it was something she was convinced of. "Show Harry how long you've been in love with him, or at least the idea of him, and he'll see just how important he is to you. How important he was even before he let you be important to him!"
But Ginny wanted Harry to see her as the woman who was fighting by his side, not the girl who only dreamed of him. She had tried to reconcile the two with her confessions after the locket's destruction, and Harry had responded with loads of guilt for his unintentional dismissal of her feelings. "I told Harry some of it, and all he did was beat himself up for not noticing me sooner!"
"Oh. Of course he would," Hermione said blankly. "I didn't think of that."
"But it doesn't matter," Hermione said, recovering her confidence. "Guilt is Harry's response to many things. You just have to work around it."
"It must be nice to have an easy boyfriend," Ginny snarked.
"You know better than that," Hermione reprimanded. "Harry may have guilt, but Ron has insecurity. Don't you remember what happened between the two of them during the Tri-wizard Tournament? Always worrying that he's not good enough for me, always feeling overshadowed by his brothers… It's maddening sometimes. So don't tell me I can't comprehend what that's like!"
"Come off it! Ron isn't even half as damaged as Harry," Ginny insisted.
Hermione's lips twitched, and then she snorted in laughter. "I can't believe you said that like it's a point of pride. Are we really arguing about whose boyfriend is more unstable?"
"I guess we are," Ginny said, giving in to her own laughter.
"Oh, we are so far off topic!" Hermione declared, and of course only she would ever worry about relevancy during such an informal conversation. "You asked me about how far I've 'gone', so to speak, but why did you want to know? Or was it purely for gossip purposes?"
"No…" Ginny sighed. "I guess I was looking for comparison."
"It's just, we're sleeping in the same bed and it's not easy to ignore how it just drives me mad sometimes, how I get so…"
"…Aroused?" Hermione diffidently suggested.
"Yeah. And I know he is, too. Half the time I wake up and he's all pressed against me there, I can feel him."
"Oh. Oh!" Hermione blushed. "His…"
"His cock," Ginny clarified, purposefully choosing a more uncouth term and enjoying the uncomfortable expression that flitted across Hermione's features. Served her right for being so detailed about Ron.
"I see. Um… Well, that's a very natural, physical reaction to that kind of proximity," Hermione said.
Ginny preferred to think of it as a very natural reaction Harry had to her. "So I wanted to know if you'd done anything with a boy's bits, although since it's you and Ron please don't go into it much. Please."
"No. Not, directly. Just… the rubbing, like I said."
"Right. Well, I thought since it happens with Harry so much that maybe I could give him a hand…?" Ginny made a fist and moved it in the universal gesture for male masturbation.
Hermione's eyes widened. "Whilst he's sleeping? I really think you ought to ask first, Ginny."
"Of course not when he's sleeping, I'm not just going to grab him!"
"I'm not sure he'd mind, entirely, but it's always better to ask…"
"But do you think I should? It's one thing to talk about it, I mean, Harry likes to flirt. I just don't know how far he wants to go. Which is so weird to say, since blokes are supposed to want everything right away, but…"
"It's a bit of a stereotype, isn't it?" Hermione agreed. "Our particular blokes are maybe more self-conscious than most, but it's a good reminder that we shouldn't assume so much and settle into simple societal labels."
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Stop trying to turn this into some sort of lesson. Our blokes are just prats who don't know what they want."
"I think Harry is probably just wondering what you want from him."
What Ginny wanted from Harry was more. That was often ill-defined, though her talk with Hermione had made some things clearer. Ginny didn't want actual shagging, not yet. She needed to work her way up to that, she couldn't just skip ahead right to the finish. But she wanted to see what Harry looked like beneath his trousers, and she wanted to touch him (and, if she was feeling especially curious, to take him into her mouth — just to try it). And on his end of things, she wanted his mouth on her, all over her, without embarrassment, and she didn't want to have to give him written instructions to achieve that.
"What if I just rolled over, and put my tit in his mouth…" Ginny mused. "He'd have to know what to do then, right?"
Hermione made a strangled sound that was part laughter, part shock. "By instinct, if nothing else," she managed.
They talked for a bit more, and by the time they finished Ginny was feeling more confident in what she intended. There was no need to rush headlong into shagging, but she was tired of getting herself off in the shower. And if she was tired of it, she imagined that Harry probably was, too. So the next logical step in their relationship would be mutually beneficial.
She didn't see much point in discussing it with him beforehand. Harry thought best on his feet, anyway: he'd be better off without time to worry about it.
"School starts in less than a week," Ron observed.
That brought about a severe moment of dissonance for Harry as he sat on the floor of the dining hall, still breathing hard from his last practice duel. He suddenly felt as if he were late, severely late — he hadn't bought his books yet or anything, didn't even have a list! He should be at The Burrow getting ready for a trip to Diagon Alley, not sitting about Grimmauld Place. What was he doing? He didn't have any new quills and if he 'borrowed' all of Hermione's, she was going to kill him!
But he wasn't going to school at all, he had to remember; instead of worrying about NEWTs, he was trying not to die, and instead of a quill, he had a ballpoint pen, and his wand was supplemented by a shotgun. It wasn't quite the start to a new year that he was used to.
"Won't be riding the Express this year, eh, Harry?" Ron said quietly.
"Not the Anglia, either," Harry said wistfully.
Ron snorted. "Damn thing's probably still out in the Forest with the spiders. Bloody spiders."
"Too bad, that. We could use a flying car."
"Think we could charm ours?" Ron said thoughtfully.
Harry shrugged. "Maybe? Didn't your dad spend loads of time on that, though?"
"I don't really remember. Wouldn't do us much good unless we could get our hands on an Invisibility Booster — though I guess they can't expel us for being seen, so that's a plus…"
"Yeah. I had this dream once," Harry began, closing his eyes and remembering, "where we crashed in a city instead of hitting the Willow. And it ended up being on television and they knew magic was real, and they found out all about witches and wizards and Tom Riddle. And then the Muggles killed him, so I didn't have to."
Ron was silent for a moment. "…I think we'd just have different problems after that, mate."
"I know. It was just a dream."
"'Sides, even if You-Know-Who snuffed it from Muggles or whatever, wouldn't he come back again?"
Harry sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "He will unless we can finish these Horcruxes. Any ideas? Because I am ready to be shut of this shite."
Ron made a face. "I think we'll have to go north, like Scott said. Maybe something'll turn up."
Harry shook his head, frustrated with the thought. "I don't get how that's going to work, we could wander around forever with a hint like that, if you can even call it a hint."
"Didn't Scott say he'd know more when he got closer?"
"I don't know. He says a lot of things," Harry said tiredly. He took off his glasses and gazed blearily around the room.
Looking down at the spectacles, he thought he might ask Sophie if she could get him some Muggle-style contact lenses. His vision was terrible without his glasses, and he worried that he might lose or damage them during combat. It wasn't something he'd given much thought before, but when Ginny had deflected the spell into the cobblestones at the square in Godric's Hollow the resultant dust had coated his lenses. He'd cleaned them with a quick Scourgify, but he couldn't help but wonder what might have happened if they'd been struck by a stray bit of rock.
He held the glasses up towards Ron. "It's funny how no one's ever Accio'd these things right off my face," he said.
Ron's eyes widened. "Blimey, I never thought of that! You're right fucked now you've said that."
"Not for long, tosser. I'll bet Sophie can find me some contact lenses; try to Summon those and I'll just close my eyes for a second."
"That a Muggle thing?"
"Yeah, they're pieces of plastic, or something, that work like glasses but they fit right over your eye."
Ron squinted as he tried to imagine such a thing. "Wait, over your eyes, or, like, in them?"
"In them, I think. I saw this kid messing with his once in the loo, back in primary school."
"Doesn't that hurt?" Ron said disbelievingly.
"I hope not," Harry said, not enthused at the prospect of sticking anything into his eyeball. "But even if it does, I need to do it."
"All right, mate," Ron said supportively. "You'll look right strange without your glasses, though."
"I'll probably only use the contacts for missions." Harry grinned when he had another thought. "You know they've got coloured ones, too, to change how your eyes look. Like a glamour charm."
"You know Ginny would kill you, right?"
Harry was a bit taken aback by Ron's warning. "Really?"
"What are you, daft? She's barmy about your eyes. She'll be out for blood if you make them anything less than green as a fresh-pickled toad," Ron said with a smirk.
Harry didn't have any strong feelings about his eyes one way or the other (though in his early years as a wizard he had tired of repeatedly hearing how they looked like his mother's). But he supposed he could understand Ginny's attachment to them, at least somewhat. He felt the same way about her hair.
"I hadn't planned on it. I was just thinking of disguises," Harry explained.
"Not much call for that whilst we're stuck in here, huh," Ron commented.
That brought things right back around to the real problem: they were hiding, and not much else. Harry knew that what he and his friends were doing was the most important piece of the war against Riddle, more vital than even what the Order was attempting. For that reason, Harry had cut himself off from everyone who didn't know about the Horcruxes (and as much as he hated the idea of the wizarding world thinking he had abandoned them, there didn't seem to be any way around it). But now, Harry was barely doing anything at all. He almost wanted to owl Remus and just leave with him, joining the Order. It was better than sitting and hoping that Hermione would find something in her books.
True, the time was well spent in research and training. But, outside, things were getting worse. Harry wanted to save the wizarding world before there wasn't still a wizarding world in Britain left to save.
For the first time, he wished his mental connection with Riddle would flare up again. Harry had assumed for some time that Riddle had gained firm control of his Occlumency and was actively blocking Harry from entering his mind. It made sense. The Department of Mysteries had been a costly trap for Harry, but it hadn't exactly gone according to plan for Riddle, either. The Dark Lord cloaked himself in shadows and thrived on secrets; having Harry in his head was just too great of a liability.
So although Harry was grateful to no longer be forced to delve into Voldemort's horrid psyche, he couldn't dismiss how occasionally useful it had been. It had saved Arthur Weasley's life, after all.
It was odd, though, how utterly quiet the connection had been. Riddle had a history of being unable to control his broadcasting during moments of extreme emotion. He could probably prevent most visions from going Harry's way, but it was surprising that nothing had slipped out at all, especially considering how happy Riddle had to have been after the Ministry's fall. Harry had seen nothing, experienced not even a twinge from his scar. The curse-created link between the two foes had been dormant for over a year. In fact, he hadn't been given so much as a glimpse through Voldemort's eyes since… Since…
…Since a blond-haired boy had walked into a playground.
His heart began to accelerate as a cold weight settled over him. He must have been jumping to conclusions. Scott wouldn't have blocked the connection without discussing it with Harry first, surely he… He couldn't have. Such a massive lie of omission would have threatened Scott's integration, his friendship, with Harry, it… There were too many opportunities inherent in the connection, Scott would have seen that. He would have wanted to know more, he might have even encouraged the link. Information was ammunition.
Harry's rationalisations were unconvincing: the worst answer was the one that fit too well. He felt the rage coming on, bubbling up from deep within him. He fought it, trying to be reasoning, searching every crevice of his memory for some hint that Scott hadn't known anything about the link and it was all simply a coincidence.
There was nothing. A few of the usual comments from Hermione, asking if Harry's scar was hurting. Concerned glances from Ron and Ginny if Harry rubbed at it out of habit. Scott had been there for at least some of those moments. Had he said anything? Had he ever asked? Or had he already known that Harry's scar was fine, because he had ensured it?
Harry couldn't remember.
"Er… All right, there, mate?" Ron asked hesitantly. He had been sitting and watching with obvious confusion as Harry's mood took a turn for the furious.
Harry stood. "Sophie's downstairs, isn't she?" he said in the most level tone he could.
"Last I saw her…"
Harry went for the kitchen, barely noticing as Ron jumped to his feet and hurried to follow. Scott was still asleep as far as Harry knew, which was good; when Harry confronted him, he wanted the Kharadjai to be off balance, and waking him up suddenly might do the trick. First, he wanted a second opinion, and since it was possible that Sophie didn't know much of what had happened at Hogwarts, he might be able to shake something out of her. Unless she had been told to lie, and was just another manipulative, conniving Kharadjai. Either way, Harry was going to give her the chance to look him in the eye and come clean.
Sophie was using cleaning spells on a stack of dirty dishes when Harry stormed into the room. She must have been experimenting with Scourgify, because she was holding a plate that was perfectly cleaned on one half and still soiled on the other. She turned when she heard Harry enter.
"Harry!" she said pleasantly, setting the plate down. "Are you hungry? I still have some— what is it, what's wrong?"
"I need to talk to you," Harry said a bit more calmly than he'd intended. Sophie was so small and feminine that it was difficult to be angry with her. Harry, in his newly refreshed paranoia, wondered if that was why she had been chosen.
Sophie's already large eyes widened slightly. "What about?" she said with an inquisitiveness that appeared to be innocent, but Harry wasn't sure he bought it.
"This." Harry pointed a stiff finger at his scar. "How long has Scott been blocking Riddle out?"
Sophie didn't react the way Harry had been half-expecting her to: she maintained the same simple curiosity. "Blocking what how?"
"Riddle. Tom Riddle, you know who he is?" Harry said sharply.
"Oh, yes. I thought you said riddle like, 'puzzle'. What did Scott do to him?"
"I'm asking you," Harry said, his voice rising. "I'm not going to explain shite you already know, so just answer my question!"
Sophie took a step back and clasped her hands in a defensive posture, catching on that she was being accused. "I don't know what you're talking about, Harry, and I don't care for your tone," she said, lifting her chin.
Harry was losing his momentum, beginning to feel like he had made a mistake. Sophie wasn't cagey like Scott and Lila, and if it was a performance then it was a very convincing one. He decided to be forthright and see what that gained him. "My scar here — it's a curse scar made when Riddle tried to kill me. It connects my mind through his sometimes when he's feeling a strong emotion, and once he used it to trick me. That hasn't happened, at all, since Scott arrived. So has he been messing with my head or what?"
Surprise was writ large across Sophie's open features, though shortly after she did her best to school them. Her stance became uneasy and she shifted her weight slightly. "No, no… The shape doesn't work that way, we can't read people's minds or alter them."
Harry was inclined to believe that was true, but it wasn't an answer to his question. "Has Scott been blocking Riddle without telling me?" he asked coldly.
"I don't see why he would…"
"Has he or not?"
Sophie flinched, though she remained infuriatingly hesitant. Harry was beginning to think that she didn't know anything about the mental link, but it definitely seemed like she was doing her best to cover Scott's arse. "Are you sure about this?"
Harry blew out a breath. He hadn't come down to the kitchen to waste his rage on Sophie. "No, I'm not, and that's why I'm asking. Please."
The 'please' seemed to accomplish what his confrontational attitude had not. "I don't know. I'm sorry, I really don't. This is the first I've heard of anything like that being possible."
"All right," Harry said, bracing himself. Getting a straight answer out of Sophie was child's play compared to the sleeping man upstairs.
"You'll have to talk to Scott about your concerns. I'm sure he would have apprised you if he had to 'block' anything important—" she faltered a bit when Harry scoffed, "but you should take this to him."
Harry planned on it. He turned on his heel and went back up the stairs.
"You'll have to wait until he wakes up!" Sophie called after him. Harry ignored her, but she hurried after him and caught him by the elf heads. "I mean it! He's still resting!"
"I don't care!" Harry shot back.
She crossed her arms and glared at him. "You can talk to him as soon as he wakes up, but not before. He needs to sleep."
Harry tried to stare her down, to no avail. It was obvious she wasn't going to budge when it came to Scott's well-being. "Fine," he said grudgingly. "As soon as he wakes."