35Birds in Winter
"An integrationist seeks to assume whatever
interpersonal role will best suit the tasks at hand
and allow them to interact with their Primes
most efficiently. But the boundaries of
relationships in sapient species are fluid,
even if limited by social or religious strictures.
Remember that it is more important to give
your Primes the guidance they need than it is
to adhere to your self-defined role. If a younger
Prime seeks advice from you on matters outside
the UO, answer to the best of your ability. You
shouldn't hesitate to build a friendship that exists
separate from the mission, and will almost
certainly find that such bonds are helpful
in more task-oriented situations, as well: Trust
is multifaceted. (Note that a parental role is
typically not recommended: See Section 5)"
–The Guiding Light: An Integrationist's Guide to Understanding Primes,
Chapter II: Presenting Yourself
Harry collapsed onto his back, sweat dripping down his jaw. "I can't do it," he gasped.
"Come on. One more," Scott prodded.
Harry shook his head. "There's no way."
"Do it, you pussy."
Eyes closed, Harry released a long, exhausted breath. "Do it yourself."
"That would defeat the purpose, Harry."
"Yeah? You see this?" Harry lifted one limp, sweat-sheened arm. "The purpose has defeated me. So get me a water or sod off."
Scott rolled his eyes. He retreated for a moment, and then returned. Harry blinked when the shadow of Scott's arm crossed over his eyes. He had just enough time to see the water bottle Scott was holding out before it was released at considerable height.
"Oof!" The bottle landed right on Harry's stomach with a hollow, watery smack. He bent his legs upward in a reflexive and entirely too late attempt to protect himself. "Really?!"
"Ask, and ye shall receive," Scott drawled.
Harry rolled off the bench, picking the bottle up in the process. "Wanker," he bit out before taking a swig.
Sophie had somehow acquired a bench press, as well as a few assorted free weights. Harry hadn't asked where she'd found them, but they were in used condition. Everyone had been making use of them at Scott's insistence. No one had been using them more than Harry, though. He had discovered that he liked benching weight. It provided a sort of expression of masculinity that Harry hadn't even known he'd wanted. He felt cool doing it. He felt like he was in the middle of a training montage.
He also liked what it was doing to his arms. After nearly a month of regular lifting, he had gone to take a shower and instead spent more time than he'd ever admit prodding his newly defined biceps and pectorals. After being thin his entire life, it was quite the novelty to put on even a little bulk. He was nowhere near Scott's level of musculature, but he felt like he could be, eventually, and that was encouraging.
"So how long will it take me to really put on some muscle?" Harry asked, taking another drink.
"Long enough that you shouldn't worry about it. You can look forward to that after we win," Scott said. Harry watched, a bit depressed, as Scott plucked the weighted barbell off its perch on the bench posts with a single hand and placed it on the floor against the wall. It had taken all the effort Harry could muster to lift that thing.
The past month had been largely dedicated to preparations, but when November had turned into December the number of tasks still left to accomplish had begun to dwindle. There had been so many things required to come together to ensure even the slightest chance of success, but, slowly, they were becoming ready. Lila had come through yet again, using her Order connections to contact Tonks' mother. A short, clandestine exchange of letters later and the number for the Lestrange vault was theirs. Andromeda Tonks had needed a Memory Potion, but the recollection had been there; it was lucky that Bellatrix was so boastful.
"So…" Scott paused to take a dramatic drink from his own bottle of water. "Looks like we're about ready to cross the Rubicon."
"The what?" Harry said.
"The Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon, passing the point of no return."
"I don't know what a Rubicon is."
"Really? It's a river in Italy. Julius Caesar crossed it with his army, thereby starting some serious shit. Read a book, man."
"I have been. And it's bloody boring," Harry retorted.
"I mean a good book."
"Just let me catch my breath and I'll have another go at that," Harry said, indicating the barbell.
"No, I think you've had enough," Scott said, assessing Harry's state.
That was a bit rich from the man that had been calling Harry a pussy a minute before. "Fine. I'm going to have a shower. You… do whatever. Look at the shape and go all dreamy."
"The uneducated mock what they do not understand," Scott sighed.
"It's not like you ever go out of your way to help me understand," Harry muttered, throwing his empty water bottle in the general direction of the rubbish bin.
"Are you for real? I've talked about the shape before. I even did a whole complicated analogy on the drive to Hogwarts. Without a single 'thank you', I might add."
"Doesn't mean it made things any clearer," Harry retorted.
"What don't you understand?"
"Where to even start?" Harry said rhetorically. "How about the Prophecy? When we first met, you were talking like it was my actual destiny since I'm supposed to be the 'Chosen One' and all that bollocks, but ever since then you've said everything's random."
"That's a simplification. I've used certain words for the purposes of making things manageable, that doesn't mean they're necessarily the best fit."
"All right, so don't bother anymore. Do I have a destiny or not?"
"In order to understand that, first you have to–"
"No, just answer the question," Harry said, cutting him off. "Don't go off in another direction, don't tell me I won't understand the answer, I just want to know. You talked about fate–"
"About the shape, I use fate for illustration, for convenience–" Scott began.
"–and how I'm a Prime and we all are and we never had any choice in this, we've been chosen. I'm the effing Chosen One, apparently. But Dumbledore... He told me the Prophecy is true because Riddle made it true. In believing it, in... in coming after me he marked me, he picked me, he made me his enemy."
"You would have been his enemy regardless."
"But not the enemy. You said the Prophecy is just written destiny, but that means Dumbledore was wrong, is that it? Have I been trapped since I was born?"
"That implies this started when you were born, but it would be more accurate to say you were born because this started."
"But… Okay, so I really am some sort of Chosen One, then."
"Chosen in the sense that you're intended to address a problem, lacking the more mystical tones that 'Chosen One' implies. You're 'chosen' the way you choose a neighbourhood kid to mow your lawn, or a plumber to fix your shitter."
"…Riddle is just a stubborn clog, then?" Harry said with a smirk.
"Then why didn't the shape pick someone with experience or better tools, why not Dumbledore?"
"Don't get too attached to the word 'chose'. Maybe I should have said, 'arrived at'. It's a mistake to think of the shape as a rational or self-contained intelligence. If it is intelligent, then it's in a way that has no known equivalent," Scott explained. "The reasons behind your nomination aren't the kind that can be known to us because the nature of the shape in its entirety isn't known to us. To put it another way, we can conjecture that the shape, like water, 'chooses' the path of least resistance, but it's not apparent why that path would lead to you. So whatever theory we might apply, it inevitably fails to account for the end result. We don't understand the process."
"I'm not feeling very un-resisted," Harry commented.
Scott nodded. "The fallacy here is probably the assumption that the shape has a 'logic' that corresponds to any we recognise, in this case the physical properties of water. Water doesn't 'choose' to follow the path of least resistance, it has no capacity for reason. It's just adhering to the physics of fluid dynamics. The shape obeys its own nature. To the extent we understand it at all, it didn't pick your name out of a hat or deliberately choose you from a variety of other options."
"So I'm not the Chosen One," Harry concluded.
"Not in the sense the people who gave you that appellation intended, no. Not anymore than a tree struck by lightning is 'chosen'. The lightning had reasons for hitting that tree, but it didn't 'choose' to do so. Unlike the tree, however, you actually have an active part in the process."
"You still didn't answer my question. You always get distracted," Harry pointed out. "Never mind how I got to be in the mess I'm in, am I still fated to fight Riddle?"
"Yes and no."
Harry tossed his hands up in frustration. "That's not an effing answer!"
Scott frowned. "Yes it is. Maybe not the one you wanted, but–"
"Mate, come on, don't be a prick."
"I'm not!" Scott protested.
Harry begged to differ. "Then how can it be chance and be fated?"
"I think I've explained this;
all known universes are non-deterministic, though the shape still has workings and objectives that can resemble concepts like fate. But these are pre-determined only in the sense that any plan is, with safeguards. Imagine a train: a train runs along a set path, connected to an established system of rails. But that doesn't mean the train isn't capable of going off those rails."
"Which would be a train wreck," Harry noted.
"Mmm-hmm." Scott raised an eyebrow. "Now you're getting it."
Harry mulled that over. "So it's not really… It's not really both, it's more like the shape wants it to be this way… but we don't always get what we want."
"The destination is preferred. You walk the path, you reach the end, where you put your feet and what happens at the finish line depends on what you do and what you've done, causality, probability, semi-deterministic in the sense it is favoured and enacted," Scott said, speaking quickly, seemingly excited by Harry's comprehension. "Riddle believed the Prophecy, he chose you, but you would have been there anyway! You could win, you could lose, live, die, succeed, fail, pick a side of the coin and watch it roll across the floor; you believed in the Prophecy, he believed in the Prophecy, you've lost faith, and so things might change. Causation and endless, formless, infinite permutation with every fistful of the quantum dice. You were picked, you were made to deal with this. Could it be someone else? In another probability, sure. In a bad future, yes. If Dumbledore thought Prophecies can be voided then it's because he understood something very basic about the shape: it is not and will never be static. The question, Harry, has never been whether it's possible to break your predestination. We can go fucking nuts if you want! Oh, it may not be easy to wrench out of the rut, the shape might fight us every step of the way, but in the end it will accept new patterns once forced to."
Harry thought that both options sounded more or less awful. "…I suppose it's better to stick with what we know," he said at last.
"As your assigned integrationist, my professional opinion is that we continue working within the UO as it was originally set forth, as we have the most familiarity with it. And because who knows how many people would have to die to change it," Scott added.
"What would be the easiest way? Just to kill me?"
"No, the shape would go out of its way to try and prevent that, I'd have a hard time killing you. If you just left and never came back, that would be the easiest way. But you wouldn't do that."
Harry was struck by a sudden thought. "Is that why it chose me, you think? Because it knows I wouldn't abandon everyone?"
"Again, you're anthropomorphising the shape." Scott paused contemplatively. "…But we can't say for sure that isn't a factor."
Sometimes Harry felt like Scott hid behind the scientific process to avoid ever giving a definitive answer. He'd never voiced that to the older man, mostly because he knew the immediate retort would be an accusation of ignorance. He supposed he'd give Scott the benefit of the doubt, in this case, as it really did seem there was no way to know for sure.
"All right. I'm off," Harry said, turning to leave.
"Yeah, good talk," Scott said in a tone that may or may not have been sarcastic.
Harry made his way upstairs, knees wobbling slightly with every upward step. He'd felt worn but more or less all right after his bench session, but with every passing minute it was becoming clear that he'd pushed himself further than he had intended. Scott had warned against being overly impatient when it came to lifting. Harry was beginning to see why. By the time he reached the loo he felt as if some key bones had pulverized into rubber.
The shower helped some, even if his shoulders ached with the simple act of washing himself. He made a mental note never to hit the weights that hard before he had to actually leave Grimmauld and fight something. He couldn't close his fingers all the way to make a fist, a motion that sent a strange and painful sensation through his wrists. He seemed to be discovering new muscles, and they didn't like being found.
He pressed his knuckles against the misted tile; they felt solid, insensitive. Like he could hit someone and it wouldn't hurt him much. Maybe he was just numb. Still, he felt physically capable in a way that Quidditch had never made him. Not that Quidditch was easy on the body, really, it was just… different. It was holding on, not pushing back. For him, at least. He supposed the other positions weren't the same.
He shook himself and scoffed slightly, stepping back under the spray of the water. What, did he think a couple months of working out and punching fake throats made him a martial arts master? The best he could hope for was to have an edge over Death Eaters who weren't used to doing anything more strenuous than lifting a tea cup. As Scott had once said, Harry's wand would serve him better.
Not that Harry would pass up the chance to punch a Death Eater in the throat. It would be a shame to never put that particular skill to use.
When he was finished he dried himself with fumbling arms and staggered into his bedroom, ready to lie still for awhile even though it was the middle of the afternoon. He knew from previous experience that the longer he ceased to move, the harder it would be to start again, and if he slept until supper he'd feel as if he were made of wood, the opposite of limber. He didn't really care, though.
He stared at the ceiling for an indeterminate amount of time. The strength may have been leaking from his limbs, but the sense of fatigue didn't seem to extend to his mind. And it was dangerous for him to have nothing to do but think, he knew that. Still, his memory drifted back to his early days at Hogwarts, when the wizarding world had seemed so new and vast. Had he been under such a cloud even then? That wasn't how he remembered it. He remembered laughter and adventure and brief moments of terror, not the darkness that assaulted him in the spaces between the things that kept him occupied. He wondered if that was simply because his situation was so much worse, or if it was also he who had changed. It sounded like the kind of concept which might even be medical; he made a mental note to ask Sophie, sometime.
He musings were stalled when Ginny's slender form slipped through the light of the partially opened doorway. "Harry? Are you awake?" she whispered.
"Yeah," he said, not moving.
"I thought you'd passed out," she said normally, closing the door behind her and plunging the room into darkness. After a moment, the lamp on the dressing table flickered to life, bathing the room in its soft yellow glow.
She sat next to him, jostling the springs. "Did Scott push you too hard?" she said suspiciously.
"No, it… Sort of, but it was mostly me. I just want to be stronger without it taking so long."
"Hmmm…" She ran her fingers lightly up his arm, prodding the muscles. "Feels pretty strong to me."
He flexed slightly for her benefit. "Could be better. Feels good, though."
"If I press a bit harder?" she asked, kneading the muscle more.
"Yeah. Ah–" he winced and she quickly withdrew.
"It didn't really hurt. Only sort of, but in a good way."
She twisted around until she was perched on her knees, her hands folded at her thighs in a hesitant fashion. "So… I've had a thought…"
"Sounds dangerous," he said, lips curling upwards.
To his surprise, she didn't snark back. "It's… You're trying to relax, right? You think… I could help?"
"You are helping," he told her, trying a different approach as she didn't seem to be in a teasing mood. He reached out and curled his fingers around hers.
She held his hand for a moment, then pulled away. "Just lie back, all right? I want to try something," she told him.
"You want me to roll over?" he asked, thinking she was going to have a go at his sore muscles (and was totally fine with that).
"No. I need you to be on your back. I think. I don't know how it would work the other way. I mean, maybe…" she said, pondering that for a moment with an adorable face of concentration. Then she reached for the zipper on his trousers, and he froze in total surprise.
She noticed his tense reaction, and her hands halted in mid-motion. "Is this okay?" she said uncertainly.
"I… Um…" he struggled to articulate. "Yeah, I just didn't think…"
"You don't want me to…?" she said, beginning to retreat.
Harry didn't have a lot of experience with women but he was smart enough to know he needed to say something reassuring, immediately, or he was going to do real damage. "I do!" he said quickly, and then winced at how eager he'd sounded.
Ginny started to smile in amusement, an expression which gave him no small measure of relief. "But?"
"I've never done anything like this. Nobody's…"
"It's a bit embarrassing, for me, too. But, we'll just have to get over that," Ginny said with determination.
Easier said than done, but, "Yeah, you're right."
"Besides, you don't need to be embarrassed," she reassured him. "I'm not– I've felt it before, I know it's not small. I wouldn't care if it was."
"Really?" Harry said, surprised. He'd always been under the impression that was really important to girls.
"It's attached to you, that's the important part," she said, leaning over to bring her mouth close to his. "Will you let me?"
Whatever token shreds of modesty had been holding him back disappeared quick enough whilst her tongue was in his mouth. "…You talked me into it," he said after
they broke the kiss.
She snorted into his neck, placing another kiss on his jaw. Leaning back, she reached for his trousers again. "You need to tell me if I do something wrong. I asked Lila, she said we have to communicate, all right? I don't… You need to say something."
"You asked Lila?" Harry said faintly as his trousers came undone, the disconcerting thought still not enough to affect his almost unbearable level of arousal. He'd been straining against his trousers to the point that the release of pressure felt like a noose being removed.
"Just in general!" She paused with one hand hovering over the cloth-covered swell of his erection and he almost groaned in disappointment. "She said we have to talk, it's really important. Because otherwise we won't know, not yet. Someday."
Harry didn't know how intelligible he was going to be once they got started. "I'll try," he said.
At last, she tugged down his boxers, freeing him. She flinched slightly, startled, as his erection flicked upwards. "It jumped at me!" she giggled nervously.
"Sorry. It does that," Harry managed, feeling his cheeks begin to burn.
He tried to control his breathing as she wrapped one hand around him, her expression curious. He'd been hoping for something more from her than simple curiosity, considering the effect she was having on him. He started to feel like the whole affair might be uncomfortably one-sided until he studied her more closely and noticed how her cheeks were also red with what seemed like more than embarrassment, and how her nipples stood stiff beneath her shirt. That made him feel substantially better. It also made him want to get his mouth around one of those nipples, especially since he reckoned after the step forward they were currently taking, she'd probably let him.
"It's so smooth," she marvelled, and Harry wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. "But isn't it… Isn't it a bit big?"
Harry felt a surge of pride that was almost immediately quashed when he realised that she actually sounded worried. He wasn't all that big, was he? He didn't have much in the way of comparison, but he didn't think he was particularly impressive. It fit him well enough, he supposed, it seemed proportional, but he wasn't a very big bloke. Harry remembered some of the magazines Dudley kept under his bed that he'd thought nobody knew about; Harry had taken a look at them a time or two, and he wasn't anything close to the blokes he'd seen on the glossy pages. Though, come to think of it, Ginny was quite a bit smaller than those women had been. Did that matter?
"Um… No?" he hazarded. "I don't think so…?"
"Really?" She squinted, mulling that over. "Well, I don't know how well this is going to fit, never mind something bigger," she said dubiously.
Harry was pleased at how inevitable she made it sound and simultaneously troubled by her doubt. "Um…" He couldn't think of anything to say about it, though. He was beginning to realise that, despite his familiarity with the general mechanics, he really needed a better grasp of the technicalities.
Ginny blinked, and refocussed on the matter at hand. "Bloody hell, that's really hard, isn't it? Does it hurt like this?"
"No. Not… Not like you're thinking."
She stroked him then, from top to bottom, and he couldn't help the gasp that escaped him or the way his hips jolted off the bed. "You liked that! I can tell, you didn't even have to say anything," she said delightedly, eyes bright and sparkling.
He didn't think it was possible to get any more aroused than he already was, but she was proving him wrong. Her open enjoyment was just additional fuel on the fire. "Yeah," he said, the power of speech beginning to leave him.
"Okay, so I just…" She stroked again, more firmly this time.
Harry made another awkward noise, which he reckoned probably served just fine in lieu of a response.
He did his best to hold off, he really did, primarily out of some vague, internalised notion that he should try to delay his finish because that was more masculine, or something, he couldn't really think about that or anything else whilst her tight little hand was on him. He wasn't even doing that bad a job of it, right until she picked up the pace; and somewhere along the way he felt the touch of her tongue, brief and tentative. But that was his Ginny, bravely testing the waters, and he desperately wanted to open his eyes to see her do it but it was far, far too late for that and then he was flying over the edge, arriving at the moment of free fall with an intensity that made him feel like he'd just been wasting his time doing it all by himself.
It took him a bit to regain his senses. He finally slid his eyes open to see Ginny watching him with a very pleased expression, eyes wide and wondering.
"Shit," he muttered, glancing towards the door. "I wasn't really loud, was I?"
"You said my name," she said proudly. She looked down at the mess he'd made.
He felt himself beginning to blush again. "Sorry. I know it's gross," he said, reaching blindly for his wand.
"You don't like it?" she said curiously, lifting her hand from his softening member and turning over to examine the fluid on her fingers. "…I think I might," she said. "I like that it's yours. I like that I made you do it."
God, he wanted to kiss her. He set about to cleaning up, a task made so much easier by magic. He tugged up his trousers and immediately put his arms around her, ignoring the pain in his shoulders and chest.
A few minutes of languid snogging later, Ginny gently pushed against his chest until he was prone again. "You think you can sleep, now?" she asked.
"What?" Harry said dumbly.
"You're supposed to be relaxed, remember?" she reminded him.
"Yeah, but, what about you? Don't you want me to…" Harry trailed off, trying to think of what he could do for her. The goal was obvious enough, it was the exact method that he needed to know.
"If you weren't falling asleep, maybe," she said wryly.
He wanted to deny it, but didn't think he could pull it off. His eyelids were made of stone. Ginny had relaxed him, all right. "But…"
"It'll be about me next time, it's okay. I promise, it's all right," she assured him.
He wasn't quite ready to let it go. "You're sure?"
She stood from the bed. "I've got to have a shower, anyway. You really think you'll be awake by the time I get back?" she said, opening the door.
In his defence, he did try. But the weights had turned his muscles to jelly and then Gin had liquefied everything else, and it wasn't long after she left that he sank into a blissful slumber.
The next morning, Harry returned to the dining hall with the thought that he might damage some other muscle groups, given that his arms and shoulders were still nearly unusable. He was surprised to find Sophie busily assaulting Scott. They were only practising, of course, but violence on display was so different than the things Harry usually associated with the tiny Kharadjai woman. He had done some training of his own with her, simple lessons in close combat primarily intended to be used as a last resort, but her demonstrations had lacked any actual threat or impact. She had shown them what to do, not actually done it to them.
Sophie was striking at Scott's midsection as he blocked her blows, the meaty smack of her hands hitting his echoing in the room. Her hits lacked the effortless power and rapidity of Scott's, but were precise and considered. It was eye-opening, really. Harry had never really thought of her the way he did Scott and Lila, as someone who could be dangerous. She instantly went from being a tiny bundle of cheerful goodwill that Harry would have felt bad for even frowning at to someone Harry knew he couldn't take despite being ten inches taller.
He was struck by their total silence as they practised. He'd never heard any of the Kharadjai shout whilst fighting, never loosing a 'hi-yah!' or anything similar. Maybe that was only something people did on the telly.
"Hey, Harry," Scott said, glancing away from Sophie as he smoothly locked one of her wrists, straightening her arm and torquing it inward.
He paid for his lapse in focus a second later when Sophie, her eyebrows drawn together in concentration, used her free hand to land a solid hit square to his solar plexus, causing his breath to leave him with an audible huff. He released her and took a step back, bending forward slightly.
Sophie looked towards Harry. "Oh, are we stopping?"
"She says, having already taken her cheap shot," Scott said with a bit of a wheeze.
"You didn't say to stop!" Sophie defended herself. Her expression turned contrite, though, and she gently pressed two fingers to his torso. "I didn't really hurt you, did I?"
"Pffft. I'm made of steel, woman. Solid fuckin' steel," Scott said, clenching his fists and flexing his arms.
"You're not so great," Sophie said with a toss of her curls. Her eyes were bright and she was obviously suppressing a smile.
Scott extended his arm. "No? Check out these guns. Harry knows. Harry, tell her how I blast these guns."
"Oh, no, I never should have found those weights for you," Sophie said with exaggerated regret. "Now you're becoming just another meathead. You'll probably be illiterate soon."
"Pretty lady smell good," Scott grunted, leaning over Sophie's shiny, loose ringlets.
"Away, brute!" she giggled. She pressed her hands to his chest, ostensibly to push him back, but she wasn't so much exerting force as she was touching the muscles she'd claimed indifference to.
Harry felt awkward watching them flirt so blatantly, but it also sparked some half-remembered
anger towards Scott. If the Kharadjai was so sodding determined to pair everyone up, then didn't he just snog Sophie already? He'd given Harry so much shite over Ginny…
So Harry didn't feel bad about it at all when he said, "So are you going to kiss her, or do I need to leave, first?"
Unfortunately for Harry's sense of vengeance, Scott wasn't the fumbling teen that Harry had been. "Good question. What do you say, Sophie – put on a show?" Scott said, raising an eyebrow at her.
Sophie was staring wide-eyed Harry with her cheeks beginning to tinge red, which immediately made him feel bad. He'd been having a go at Scott, not her, but of course she was the one caught off guard and embarrassed to be called out in such a manner. Harry tried to look apologetic.
Sophie stepped away from Scott and, with great dignity, headed out the door. "We'll spar again later, Scott, I have some other things I need to do," she said as she left, rather pointedly ignoring Harry.
"Well. That blew up in your face," Scott commented after she was gone.
"Piss off," Harry grumbled. "You're such a hypocrite."
Scott didn't bother asking what Harry was talking about. "We're not Primes and don't have the same requirements, but regardless you don't know much about us and I'm not getting into it."
"Of course not. We only pick apart my life, never yours."
Scott shut his eyes tightly for a moment. "…We're colleagues, and I'm technically her commanding officer at the moment. We've been close friends for a very long time. There's a lot of attraction there and we both know it, but however I do or don't feel about her, right now we have a job to do. If we're moving towards something more, it'll happen in its own time."
Harry considered that, even as he was slightly stunned by Scott's unusual personal honesty. "Do you think you are?" he asked.
"I think neither of us wants to jeopardize what we already have for anything less than something… equally permanent." Scott's jaw set. "Good enough? Are we done?"
Harry was really enjoying being on the other side of the conversation. "Um… Yeah. For now."
"Damn big of you," Scott retorted, reaching for a nearby free weight.
Watching Scott place the weight where the others were stored, Harry realised he had an opportunity to take advantage of the older man's life experience in ways beyond combat and physical fitness. Ginny's parting words to him the night before, about it the two of them focussing on her the next time (and Harry felt a little thrill run through him every single instance he thought about the guarantee of a next time), had left him wondering how he was going to gain the necessary level of information required to avoid embarrassing himself. And, yeah, she'd said they should talk about it and she'd probably be able to tell him what to do, but what about all the things she didn't know? It wasn't like they were going to stop with just using their hands, were they?
Scott knew all kinds of rubbish. He'd been with girls before. Probably. Harry didn't know of any examples, but it seemed like a fairly safe assumption. And it wasn't as if Harry could go to Ron about any of it. The two of them hadn't ever talked much about girls, really, it didn't come up very often. And since it was Ron's sister in question, he was right out, anyway.
It wasn't going to be easy to ask about, but Harry wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing. He gathered up his courage and walked closer to Scott.
"Hey, um… There was something else I wanted to ask you," he began a bit unsteadily.
Scott turned away from the weights, his expression mildly curious. "What's that?"
"It's about Ginny."
Scott frowned. "What about her?"
"Well, we… I–" Harry stopped himself. He didn't want to get specific about the real reason behind his line of questioning. "We've been together for a bit now, and I was just wondering… You know…"
Scott's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "About sex?"
"Yeah," Harry said miserably, already feeling like coming to Scott had been a terrible idea. But he didn't have a whole lot of options.
"Interesting, interesting…" Scott said with the beginnings of a sly smile.
"And I need you not to be an arsehole about this," Harry said quickly before Scott could get going. "I mean it. I need someone who knows about this rubbish, but if you start taking the piss–"
"Okay, relax," Scott soothed. "I'll be professional."
"Ye s, really. I can be objective. Probably."
"Good," Harry said, not really believing him. "So, um…"
Scott waited patiently.
"…It's just, I've heard talk, you know, in the Tower and after Quidditch. You know how blokes can be."
"I've been in the army for a long time, Harry," Scott said with a look of remembered disgust. "All they fucking talked about on Carcer patrol was fucking. Never mind when I was walking beat on Hanetse, that was red light district. You ever hear a bunch of prostitutes sitting around talking shop? God. God."
"Yeah, so, I've been… worried." Scared, was more like it. "Because Ginny and I, we don't have a lot of experience and she said some things… I just, I guess it's supposed to hurt for a girl, the first time? But I don't want to hurt her."
"Good, Harry. Good for you," Scott said without any detectable sarcasm.
"So, er… She thought I wouldn't… Um, fit. In her."
"That's very unlikely," Scott said. "The vagina is designed to accommodate the head of an infant, so unless you have some kind of ludicrous freak-chode that shouldn't be a problem."
Great, now Harry was worried that he did have whatever Scott just said. "I think I'm average. I think."
"Ninety-five percent of human males fall within the four and a half to seven inch range. Girth is a different issue – did you know that we have the greatest circumference in mammals, relative to mass? We've got the thickest dicks around."
"Weird. Why is that?"
Scott shrugged. "I don't know. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, anything big enough to actually get in there is all you need to get the job done."
"Well, I definitely fall into that range, I'm almost positive. The average range you said, so…"
"So no worries."
Harry still had worries. "What do I do about this 'hymen' thing?" He shifted a bit, deeply uncomfortable with using even the technical terms in front of Scott. He didn't think he would have been if the conversation hadn't been about Ginny's technical terms. "I know I have to break it, but is there anything I can do to make it better?"
Scott rubbed at his forehead. "Okay, first off you're suffering from misinformation. But you aren't to blame, because it's a very pervasive bit of untruth. The hymen doesn't work that way, it isn't something you just bust through."
"Oh." Harry was more mortified than he could ever remember being, but he was instantly grateful that he had decided to talk to Scott. The embarrassment was worth it if it meant he wouldn't do the wrong thing with Ginny.
"Hmmm, how to illustrate…" Scott cast a glance around the room. "Well, I'm not seeing anything. So, here." He put his left fingers in the shape of a circle, and then he put his right hand flat over part of it, creating a half-circle. "My flat hand here is the hymen and the circle is the vagina. The hymen is a membrane, see? It doesn't cover the whole thing. There's a lot of variation depending on the woman in question, it could be oriented like this, or like this… But anyway, it's stretchy. It has elasticity. So when your penis goes in here, it stretches it out and sort of pushes it out of the way, depending on what's left of it. After adolescence, the hymen usually isn't much of a presence. It's mostly all the muscles that you need to stretch out."
Harry's face was burning. He dutifully paid attention, however, his embarrassment matched by his curiosity.
Scott continued, "The reason it hurts her the first time is because… Well, it's really because she expects it to and it may be difficult for her to lubricate right. And your instinct is to just ram on up in there, which can tear the membrane or even abrade the vagina. So don't go all porn stallion on her and there shouldn't be any bleeding at all."
Harry was utterly relieved. He had been deeply opposed to making Ginny bleed in any way, but had thought it was unavoidable. "So what do I do?"
"Stretch her out. The vagina isn't very deep when at rest, but it elongates under arousal conditions. If you're having trouble fitting, you need to take your time and get her more worked up. Use your fingers or her fingers, then your dick if you want. If you can't get in there slowly, then go back to fingers. Take your time. You'll want her to be as wet as possible anyway, so just go to town on that pussy. Get your mouth on there."
"All right," Harry said shakily, delighted and intimidated by the thought.
"Yeah, it's not a race. If you're worried about holding back then just take care of yourself first, at the beginning. Have her do it. You'll be ready to go again by the time she is."
Harry was more interested in the technical details, the last thing he wanted to do with Scott was talk technique. "Um, so, back to the hymen… If I stretch it first, it won't hurt her at all?"
"Harry, I don't know what state Ginny's hymen is in and if I did, you'd probably Avada me right now. I mean, be sure to check it out, but, it's probably not going to be your primary concern. It's not going to be comfortable for her just because she's not used to accommodating a penis. But if you work on it first there shouldn't be any serious pain, no. Ginny's pretty athletic, so that might help. Physical activity can do some
stretching on its own."
Something occurred to Harry then. "Wait, so if the hymen is so elastic, does that mean it can just go back to where it was?"
"It can, given enough time. Same with the vagina in general. The hymen has a tendency to lose its shape a bit and stay out of the way once its seen some use, but not always."
"But, then how is that a way to tell if someone's a virgin?"
Scott shrugged again. "It isn't. Hell, some women are born without a hymen. The whole 'pop a cherry', blood on the bedsheets noise is all cultural. Back when they used to check that kind of thing, a lot of brides would just cut a finger or something."
"Do you think Ginny has one?" Harry asked, still a bit concerned despite the new information.
"I doubt there's much left of it. But unless you want to get me a flashlight and some stirrups, I can't give you a full gynecological overview."
Harry didn't know what Scott was talking about, exactly, but he reckoned he probably didn't want to. "Okay. Thanks, that's… Just, thanks for talking."
Scott's gaze had turned calculating. "I take it this has suddenly become a pressing concern?"
Harry wasn't going to detail the previous night, no matter how pointed Scott's questions became. "No. I just wanted to know more."
"That's admirable," Scott allowed.
Harry crossed his arms, not appreciating the sudden scrutiny. Was Scott getting all protective about Ginny? That didn't seem very characteristic of the Kharadjai. "I don't want to do the wrong thing. I've never had a girlfriend before. Not for real, I mean. Like, long-term."
"You'll make mistakes," Scott predicated. "It's okay. As long as you try to do better."
"Girls are just… Really confusing sometimes," Harry admitted, hoping he didn't sound too stupid.
"Oh, man. Are we moving into clumsy gender politics, now?" Scott said reluctantly.
"…Yes?" Harry ventured.
"I know they don't want me to be…" Harry searched for the right word. "…Overbearing? Gin had a point, you know, about me trying to chuck her because I get all protective or whatever, I know that. But, it's like, am I going to get yelled at for holding a door open? What should I act like?"
Scott sighed. "I don't know, that's very situational. But I can tell you what you're doing wrong right now."
"Women are not a monolithic entity. Asking 'what do women want' is a meaningless question. What do men want? Are me, you and Ron all on the same page about our place in society and how we should be treated and treat others?"
"Well… We haven't talked about it, but…"
"Probably not. Look, let me put it this way: if you said, 'Milady', and kissed Hermione's hand, she'd pull her hand back and immediately try to categorise your strange dementia. If you said, 'Milady', and kissed Ginny's hand, she'd be confused, but probably game to play along once she understood what you were going for. And if you said, 'Milady', and kissed Sophie's hand, she'd giggle like a loon and curtsey with a, 'Milord!'."
"What if I kissed Lila's hand?" Harry asked, amused.
"You'd have to actually grab her hand first, and I doubt you'd get that far. Or maybe she'd turn your wrist bones into gravel; the point is there's no overarching consensus because women are people and people are individuals. I'm not saying there's a total lack of overlap. You can get some common sense, majority beliefs like, 'Stop paying us less for doing the same job' and 'cut it out with the sexual assault'." Scott paused. "I overstated that thing with Lil for comedic purposes, just FYI. I don't want you to think she'd actually fuck you up for trying to kiss the back of her hand."
"I still don't think I'd care to try," Harry admitted.
Scott smiled fondly. "People don't always know what to make of her. I know she's stoic and blunt and kind of intimidating, depending, but she wouldn't hurt any of you unless you forced her to. But that's exactly what we're talking about, isn't it? She's complicated. We're all complicated. And that's makes the way we relate with each other…"
"So think about that. And think about what Ginny wants, not some imaginary female hive-mind. Oh, and hold the door open for everyone, men and women. Don't be a dick."
Harry reckoned he'd probably have more questions, in time. No doubt progressing his relationship with Ginny would reveal even more gaps in his knowledge. Deciding he'd had enough for the present, he gestured towards the weights. "You got anything I can work on without using my arms?"
"Yeah, sure. Let's work on your abs: individual though she is, I find it highly probable that Ginny will appreciate it."
Diagon Alley was heavy, and not just with the promise of snow. A great weight had settled over the streets and shops, one which bent people's heads at the neck and hurried them on their way, making no eye contact or unnecessary stops. The air was thick with the prospect of sudden pressure. Above the stalls and alleys hovered the anticipation that came just before the supports bowed and broke. It was disconcerting, probably unhealthy and definitely uncomfortable.
Luna held Neville's hand a bit more tightly, to compensate.
Sophie, for her part, had a look of vague disappointment. Having never visited the Alley before, she had no doubt built an image of it in her head based on second-hand tales that were only barely applicable in the present. The streets that had once been bustling with life and colour had gone grey and empty. Boarded doorways and shuttered windows looked out over walks dotted sparsely by people. It wasn't a place to walkabout, not anymore. The joy had left, along with the ice cream.
"Are you sure you don't want to say you're my aunt?" Neville said nervously as they made their way towards the white marble bastion of Gringotts.
"No, we shouldn't lie about who we are." Sophie tucked some of her curls behind one ear with a slight frown creasing her smooth brow. "…Do I look old enough to be your aunt?"
Neville glanced over at her, and then sighed. "Not really."
Sophie smiled. "That's okay."
Luna thought Sophie didn't look much older than either of them, but she carried herself with the adult confidence that people seemed to grow into. Luna also wasn't sure why the woman was accompanying Neville to Gringotts, though that was none of Luna's concern. It was something Harry had asked for, and she trusted him.
"I've never gone by myself before," Neville said yet again. He had repeated the fact several times already, perhaps to ensure that everyone's expectations were properly lowered. Luna wasn't sure why he felt he needed to do that. She had full confidence in him.
"You're of age now, Neville," Luna told him. "It will be all right."
His hand flexed anxiously in hers. "Yeah," he said, taking a deep breath.
The steps of Gringotts were wide and still dusted with stars of frost from the night before. Luna hadn't often been to the bank, but she remembered it rather differently. It had been bustling and mighty, a strong and ancient bastion of wealth and goblin culture. Dangerous and refined, yes, but also reliable. Now Gringotts felt distant and cold. Even though the structure remained the same, it lacked the same aura of refinement and power. Its new masters did not understand it.
At the top of the steps were two wizards with security probes. Ostensibly a security measure during the social turbulence, Luna had no doubt they were Death Eaters posted to root out those the Ministry was hunting. Her own blood status protected her, though she wasn't sure for how much longer. Neville had invited her to stay at his house over the holiday, and she knew he worried for her safety. From the way he'd been acting, she didn't think he'd let her leave when the time came, not without a fight.
Lacking any concealed items, the three of them were allowed to pass. It had been a condition of their foray that they not carry anything that would trigger Gringotts security. They had openly approached the bank and were all using their real names. Neville and Luna had been told they were visiting Neville's vault, and little else.
The main hall was a bit subdued, likely from a combination of the war and the weather. Only a portion of the usual customer numbers roamed the tiled floors, and there were far fewer goblins behind the counters than standard. Many stations sat empty. Luna knew the goblins were already clashing with the edicts of Voldemort's puppet Ministry; the Quibbler had published an article regarding the likelihood of another goblin rebellion. There were many rumours of goblins who had left the service of Gringotts – either forcibly or in protest – and were spreading dissent or even violence.
The Ministry denied all of it, of course, but the number of humans visible behind the staff cordons of the hall spoke for itself.
Neville had approached one of the goblins in charge of accounts. "Er– I'd like to access my vault…?"
The goblin was unamused. "You would or you would not?"
Neville shook himself slightly and stood more upright. "I would, yes. I'm Neville Longbottom, I'd like to visit my family vault."
The goblins required a few minutes to confirm Neville's identity. Whilst they were doing so, Luna watched as Sophie studied the lobby with great care. Her green eyes darted over every corner, doorway and window. Luna also enjoyed observation, though she felt that Sophie probably had reasons more specific.
"Two guests?" the goblin said, looking around Neville.
Having already had it impressed upon him to reveal as little as possible, Neville only nodded.
"Very well. Your guide
will be Yagrat." The goblin paused. "Have a pleasant day," he added in a somewhat grudging tone.
"Am I allowed to take pictures?" Sophie asked, brandishing a camera. "I'm so excited to see Gringotts and a real vault!" she effused, her eyes wide and guileless.
The goblin seemed to interpret her accent the way he was intended to, and her tourism didn't garner any suspicion. "Pictures are allowed in the main hall, but you must leave it here before you descend to the vaults. It will be kept safe for you."
"Okay, thank you!" Sophie said brightly. She turned away and immediately began snapping pictures of the room. She was a bit more thorough about it than the average tourist.
They loitered long enough to allow Sophie her photography, then made their way to the door indicated by the goblin at the counter. There were multiple entrances to the underneath, it seemed.
A goblin waiting nearby approached them. "Longbottom vault," he said, though it wasn't a question. "I am Yagrat, your guide today. Hold here for a moment, Mr Longbottom, I'll need the clankers."
Yagrat went behind one of the nearby counters and ducked into a small adjoining office. He emerged a moment later with a jingling leather sack. It sounded as if it were full of nails, or Snorkack horns (which would be barbaric, and Luna hoped that was not the case).
Their guide turned out to be a goblin with little to say (at least to humans), and they boarded a cart after they'd listened to a few curt warnings. Luna was disappointed to hear she should keep her arms and legs inside the cart at all times. She'd wanted to make her hand swim through the air.
"Is your vault very deep?" Luna shouted to Neville over the noise of the cart.
"I think so," Neville loudly replied. "I haven't been in years, but it's one of the older ones."
Sophie said nothing at all during the trip, her eyes distant. What the woman saw, Luna couldn't say, though she had a thought or two about it. Scott had the same sort of look in his eye at times. It was when he touched the world with instruments beyond his skin. Luna wished she could do the same, but only ever caught the ripples at the most distant edge.
The cart went down, spiralling into the depths of the earth. Sights flashed by too quickly to catalogue. After at time, Luna closed her eyes and imagined she was flying on the back of the fastest Thestral. It was a journey better felt than seen.
Gradually, the cart began to slow. They were deep in the bedrock, with no sign of the shoring used in the tunnels above. Each passage was bored through the stone with exacting precision. Neville's vault was a heavy metal door set deep in the wall. Much more interesting than the door was the dragon in front of it. Luna thought dragons were a bit common as far as creatures went, so she'd never been especially keen on them, but it was still quite an experience to be so close to one.
"I remember him," Neville said, a bit pale.
Sophie wrinkled her nose. "This is too much."
"It's a status thing, mostly. All the old families want dragons at their vaults," Neville explained.
"I hope they let it out sometimes," Sophie said, eyeing the beast sympathetically. "What's a dragon supposed to do down here?"
"Wait here," Yagrat told them.
When shook in Yagrat's hand, the clankers lived up to their name. The sound echoed around the cavern, an eerie repeating clamour. The dragon slowly reacted to the sound, shuffling backwards with it body hunched defensively. It was afraid, Luna realised. The poor thing. What had the goblins done to it to make it fear such a simple noise? Nothing pleasant, to be sure. Luna didn't much care for that thought. Creatures were to be studied, not tortured.
"Conditioning," Sophie muttered, and from the look in her eyes she probably agreed with Luna's thoughts on the matter.
The dragon retreated a safe distance away, the maximum amount allowed by its shackles. They followed the goblin forward, stepping around the remains of something large and partially eaten. Luna wondered where the dragon went to the loo.
"Where does the key go?" Sophie asked as they approached the vault.
"There is no key. Only the touch of a Gringott's goblin can open the vault," Yagrat said self-importantly. He pressed his palm against the door. After a moment there came a dull rumbling, and then the vault door split from its housing and began to swing open.
For a moment, absolute triumph crossed Sophie's face, lighting her eyes. Then she seemed to remember her audience, and carefully schooled her features. She wasn't fully successful, her body still retaining the posture of excitement. Scott and Lila were much better at that sort of thing, Luna realised. Sophie was a different sort.
"Speak to me when you've finished," Yagrat told Neville. The goblin went back and stood sentry near the cart.
The Longbottom vault was full of well-organised riches. There were many chests of galleons and sickles, along with cabinets of fine jewellery and china. Everything was arranged for easy, intuitive access. Luna didn't have another old vault to compare it to, but she imagined that it was grand by most standards. There were a great deal of heirlooms, too. There were stacks of furniture and boxes of trinkets. She rather liked the look of a lacquered globe of the earth mounted on a handsome dark wood frame.
She supposed she ought to not touch anything, though. It wasn't hers, after all, and Gringotts was supposed to be quite tricky about ownership. She wouldn't want to lose a finger. It'd be ever so much harder to count, and Neville might be less enthusiastic about holding a four fingered hand.
"It's a fine vault, Neville," she said.
"I remember it being bigger," he replied, scratching his head. "I guess I was smaller."
"I think it's quite large," she assessed, walking forward to stand next to him. "Do you think it's because I'm smaller than you?"
He grinned. "No, it's pretty big. I just exaggerated it, when I remembered."
Sophie hadn't moved much past the door. She appeared idle, and her eyes never focussed.
"You sure you don't want any money?" Neville called to her.
Sophie twitched slightly, as if startled. "Hmm? Oh… I don't want to take your money, Neville."
"I'm not going to miss it," he said, gesturing to the many chests of galleons. "What if you need it later?"
Sophie's mouth firmed, and she nodded. "You're right. It would be dumb not to, since we're here. I'll take whatever you can offer."
Neville pulled out his wand and levitated an entire chest of the coins, floating it Sophie's way.
"Neville, that's too much!" she protested.
"Then you can give what's left back, after," he persisted.
"…Okay," she relented after a moment of pained indecision. "I wish I could pay you back! My money isn't any good here…"
"They take Muggle money," Luna noted.
"Yes… But not my money," Sophie said with a carefully stressed implication.
"My money is on my dressing table in a butterfly jar," Luna said serenely.
"That's all right. You lot know I want to help," Neville said to Sophie.
"And your help is really appreciated. From both of you!" Sophie added.
Neville looked around the vault. "Um… Did you get everything else you needed?" he said curiously.
"No, I still need to… look at things! Because I'm so interested," Sophie said awkwardly.
Luna took Neville by the elbow and led him farther into the vault. "Shall we look for treasure?" she suggested.
He glanced down at a chest of coins. "Do we have to look?"
"No, I meant something valuable, like a diary, or a very comfortable chair." She bent down and picked up an old leather-bound book. "Like this."
"What is it?" Neville wondered, taking it from her.
"It's yours," she said.
Neville opened it and turned a few pages, brow creasing. "…It's a lot of class notes for revision. I think… I think this was my dad's."
"Treasure," Luna said simply, pressing her cheek to his shoulder.
Sophie loitered inside the vault for about twenty minutes. Eventually, she made her way over to where Luna and Neville were sorting through a box of correspondence that he had never seen before. "Are you ready?" Sophie asked.
Neville placed a few of the letters back inside the box with an air of regret. "Yeah… We should go. I can come back."
They returned to the main hall without incident, but on the way back to the door, Sophie stood on her toes to speak in Neville's ear. "Tell them you forgot something," she whispered.
"Back in the vault?" Neville said, confused.
Sophie nodded firmly. "Have them take us back."
The goblins didn't appear pleased to be making a return trip, but were professional enough not to protest. Sophie never said what she hoped to gain by going to the vault again. Neville didn't ask, and Luna was more than happy to have a second cart ride.
The sun was setting over Diagon Alley once they emerged from Gringotts and walked down the white marble steps. The angle of the light illuminated the fading bruises around Neville's jaw, which had been almost invisible in the lamp glow of the bank interior. It hurt Luna to see them, again, almost as much as when they had been fresh. She felt their days at Hogwarts were running out.
Sophie also saw the marks. "Neville, are you sure you don't want us to get you away from your school?"
Neville hesitated, his eyes darting towards Luna. "I… I would, but us former DA are taking all the attention and I feel like… Like if I left, some of the younger students might…"
Luna took his hand. "We're all that's left of Harry," she told Sophie.
"She says it better," he said with a crooked smile.
Sophie gave them a doubtful look. "Well… Okay. But keep using your mirrors."
"We will," Neville assured her.
As they approached the back of the Leaky Cauldron, Luna glanced over her shoulder. A light snow had begun to fall over the Alley. In the fading light, it looked grey, like ash. She felt saddened by the sight. She missed the days when the Alley had been bright and beautiful. She missed the way her thoughts had once been less chained.
She tightened her grip on Neville's coat. Whatever should come, she refused to imagine that she might be missing him.
Here's your Christmas present! I made it myself, so you can't get mad that it sucks because it's the thought that counts, asshole. This chapter is covered with my blood, sweat, tears, and other fluids. I slaved over a hot laptop to make it for you, and this is the thanks I get? I'd better get at least eleventy-hundred reviews this Christmas. You guys owe me, for reasons I can't be bothered to explain and also screw you.
Now that I'm finished alienating my meagre fanbase, I'd like to take the time to thank Sherry of Phoenixsong fame for continuing to polish this turd. She adds her own fluids to each chapter, though it's not polite to ask which ones (I hope it's the sexy ones, though).
So, yeah, some of this was basically my version of fanservice. What you asked for, as awkward and realistic as possible. If you managed to fap to that, I admire your determination, and would like some pro-tips.
In other news, there is no other news.