5The Leaving Cycle
Thus the road did wander to the shore
Great swells coiled forward
then washed back, thrice more
Yet, that retreat left silence, vast, unbroken
held quick in the pools of thy memory
That windswept mire: devious, bereft!
Worn piers of disarray, black shoals,
Caught fast in the naught,
twixt the needle and eye
Spilled forth, still fearful
pressed low 'neath the sky
–Susanna B. Aether, Still Lost, Constantia
(Verse XII: lines 227–239)
Hermione was hanging wedding decorations, and wishing that she weren't.
There were so many other activities that required her time: planning, discussing, preparing mentally and physically for the coming trials. She desperately wanted to get everyone together and go over the items left to them by Dumbledore with an eye for the slightest details; they had only brushed the surface of whatever secrets the Headmaster had wanted them to divine, she was sure of it. She also needed to work out some sort of arrangement for their leaving of The Burrow.
And they would need to leave; the sooner, the better. She only wished they didn't have to attend the wedding. Not that she wasn't looking forward to such a joyous event, and there was sure to be dancing… But, the timing left a great deal to be desired.
As did her decorating companion.
"This is FUCKED." Scott kicked over a stool with a loud clatter, making Hermione wince. "Look at this crap. Look at it! Look at it now, because nobody is even gonna bother come show time, they'll all walk through here without even noticing all the effort it took to make this room look so shitty–"
"Oh, just stop." Hermione reprimanded sharply when Scott's voice began to rise. She didn't want to hear yet another blistering tirade about wedding jobs. Harry and Ron were about as unenthused, but at least they were less verbose.
"What?" he said, as if he didn't know exactly what the problem was.
"Obviously you're having issues, but we'll have even more if you start shouting."
"Issues?" Scott mocked. "Yeah, we got issues. Issues, like, these crappy decorations, the fact we haven't had a spare minute to plan anything, the fact that even if we did I'm not sure we could get out of the house without making a scene… Also, I just stepped on this glass thing." He pointed towards his left foot, beneath which he had broken some sort of bauble. "I'm not wearing shoes. That's an 'issue'. Apparently, I've been scuffing the wood floors. Ask Lil, she'll tell you all about it!"
Hermione sighed and motioned him towards a nearby stool she had used to reach the top of the windowsill. "You're a mess, do you know that?" She gripped Scott's ankle and lifted his foot for inspection, wrinkling her nose at the amount of blood already soaked through his sock. "Accio glass!"
"Ow. Yes, fine, I'm a mess. Bully for me."
"I don't think it should be a point of pride. Take that sock off before you smudge anything. And keep your voice down!" Hermione said quickly when Scott opened his mouth. "Your sister is going to come looking for you if you don't be quiet."
"Good, when Lil comes in here I'll staple this to her forehead!" Scott bent down from his perch and snatched a length of garland off the floor, brandishing it like a weapon.
"You don't have a stapler. If you did, we'd be done already," Hermione said pointedly. Scott was supposed to be attaching the decorations to the wall with a Sticking Charm, but just about everything he tried to stick fell back to the floor.
Scott crossed his arms, dropping the garland in the process. "Rub it in, Hermione, you're a real class act. Not all of us have magic shooting out of our tits."
Hermione coloured. "Shooting out of my–"
"I'm aware of how it's spelt!" Hermione turned her back on him, moving some of her moreprominent features out of his view. "Why don't we finish this so–"
Scott scoffed, disrupting her. "So Molly can give us some more busywork when she gets back? Come on, we aren't doing a goddamn thing around here but running in circles. How much you wanna bet that Ron and Harry are just layin' around upstairs while we do our assigned work like a couple of gulls?"
He had a point, but she certainly wasn't going to admit it. "Whatever else there is to do, hopefully we'll be separate," she rejoined a bit more coldly than she'd intended.
"Awwww… Don't be that way, magi-tits. You're the breast friend I've ever had."
Hermione gritted her teeth. Scott had been a handful recently, even by his standards; he'd been short-tempered, moody and occasionally even outright hostile. His latest bout of crudity was just another symptom of whatever snit he was in, and Hermione was tired of it. She hadn't done anything wrong and she was fed up with being treated like she had.
She rounded on him. "What, exactly, is your problem?" She placed her hands on her hips and glowered.
"Wow, an open forum. Where do I start? First off, I'm fucking sick of these decorations–"
"No," Hermione said, cutting him off.
Scott's brow creased in a threatening frown. "No?"
"No. Don't even try to misdirect me. You were in a state before we ever started putting these up."
Scott's glare intensified. "You think so, huh."
"I know so. You've been snapping at everyone ever since the Minister left, and I for one have had enough!" She stamped her foot for emphasis, leaning towards him and glaring with all her might.
Unfortunately, whilst such an action would have impressed upon her other male friends that she was well and truly angry and it was time to be reasonable or back down, Scott was either unable or unwilling to be properly intimidated. Every furious argument with him was an escalating series of barbs, growing more hurtful with elevation.
Hermione liked debating with Scott. He always had something to say on every subject, even (especially) the ones he knew nothing about. Sorting through his slang of wildly varying origins and looking past his frequent use of cutting invectives could be difficult, but was usually worth the effort. She did not, however, like fighting with him.
He still didn't seem to understand that.
Scott cast his gaze about the room, his eyes wide with mock chagrin. "Oh no, you've figured everything out. Where's Ron, I need him to shove his tongue in your mouth since you won't shut it."
Hermione fought hard against the blush, but couldn't overcome her body's involuntary response to such a comment. "I must have figured something out if you're already resorting to crudity. You might want to work on that jealousy, it's a touch transparent," she shot back.
Scott nodded in exaggerated acceptance. "You're right. I've been hanging decorations when what I really wanted to be doing was tonguing Ron. The homoerotic angst has just been hanging over this house like a pall. Tell you what – you go out with Ginny and rug burn your mouth, and me and Ron will head upstairs for a rousing game of Butts and Weenies."
She rolled her eyes to prevent herself from flinching at his graphic remarks. "So predictable, it's always the same with you, isn't it! I make a valid point, and you head right for the gutter!"
"You think your point about jealousy was valid? Or… maybe I got the wrong idea? Should I have flipped that around, Hermione, did you mean I couldn't control my throbbing sexual urges for you?" Scott scoffed.
The thick scorn in his tone hurt far more than his words. The implication was that he couldn't possibly find her attractive, that nobody could ever find her appealing enough to induce jealousy. He was stabbing right into her shaky self-confidence. Frigid, mousy, bushy-haired and buck-toothed Hermione. An old image, one she'd tried to shed with age. The tatters still clung to her, and maybe always would.
Intellectually, she knew that Scott was doing it deliberately. He was trying to drive her away, abandoning his more subtle manipulations for blunt trauma to the psyche, using a year's worth of profiling to push her buttons in a damaging fashion.
Emotionally, she was incensed.
Scott was still going. "Well, if you really want to, I guess I can take one for the team. You all look the same in the dark, right? Just remind me to double bag it."
"You should be so lucky!" Hermione hissed at him, her face now flushed with rage instead of embarrassment.
"By whose definition?"
"It should be yours, by this point! At least I've been interacting with another person, the best company you've had lately is–" Hermione couldn't believe what she was saying even as she finished the thought, "–your own h-hand!"
It was something similar to what Scott might have said in her situation, which was the point. Maybe she wanted to win an argument, just once, without having to stick to her moral high ground. Her continued reticence to drop to Scott's level was apparent in her revealing stutter. Despite the somewhat inept delivery, perhaps the uncharacteristic nature of the insult would be enough to shock him.
She should have known better.
"Yeah? Yeah?!" There was a dangerous spark in Scott's eyes. He leapt up from the stool, smacking his injured foot onto the floor with a sound that made Hermione flinch, though he didn't even seem to notice.
followed was far more disjointed than Scott's usual diatribes, and especially vile. "Well, what-the-fuck-ever! At least I do it in the goddamn shower, that's just common fuckin' courtesy! Meanwhile, where are you assholes at, in your bed, beds, plural, I'm stuck on the floor and decent enough not to streak Molly's cushions, sleeping on borrowed sheets still sticky from a bunch of frustrated teens jacking and jilling off all over the fucking place because you don't know how to fuck each other! Well, here's some advice on that front, dumpling: raise your knees, bite your pillow, and keep your fingers out of your ass! Christ!"
Hermione slapped him, hard, across the mouth.
After a moment of tense silence, she fled the room.
Lila was in the process of baking cookies (no, biscuits) when Hermione passed through the kitchen on her way up the stairs. Her face was flushed and her eyes were moist as she rushed by. Lila placed her spatula down and watched Hermione's feet disappear into the upper reaches of The Burrow. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
It was possible that Hermione was simply experiencing the same borderline-hysterical reaction to some minor catalyst that seemed to plague teens of both genders. Hermione, however, was considerably less susceptible to that sort of thing. In fact, it was downright unlikely.
Which left only one culprit within the realm of standard possibility.
As expected, Scott slouched into the kitchen a few moments after Hermione had made her hasty exit. Far less expected was the reddening imprint of a hand across his face. Lila took a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. She was going to need patience for whatever came next.
"Congratulations," he said dully, slumping into a chair opposite from her. "You've been promoted."
Lila refused to play along. "Thanks, I'm honoured. It's been a long time coming."
Scott didn't react to her sarcasm. "I'll put in for a duty transfer tonight. It won't be an easy transition, but I know you can handle it. If there's anything you want we don't already have, just let me know, and I'll call in whatever favours I have to. Best I can do on such short notice, but… I'm sorry. I should have had a handle on this."
Lila nodded slowly. She reached over, picked up the glass of water she had been sipping, and threw it in Scott's face.
He nearly fell over backwards, stumbling off the stool, sputtering and flailing. "What the fuck–"
"You are saying that to me?" Lila said incredulously. "You're the one trying to bug out and stick me with YOUR mission, you asshole! What the fuck, indeed!"
Scott's shoulders slumped. "Okay… I might have overreacted, somewhat…"
"Yeah. Somewhat." Lila glared at him, motioning for him to reseat himself. When he did, he looked so pathetic that she could only roll her eyes, her anger softening. She handed him a biscuit. "Here, eat this. I dropped it on the floor earlier."
Scott stuffed the entire biscuit into his mouth without comment, munching it glumly.
"Now, do you want to tell me why you and Hermione decided to have a dual breakdown?" she asked.
His replied was muffled by food. "Thought it would be fun. Kind of a bonding thing, really, very sisterly. Sometimes my feminine side seems neglected, gotta get the oestrogen raging, have a good cry…"
Lila paused a moment to see if he would continue. "Are you done?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm… I'm done." He didn't seem entirely sure.
He sighed, spraying a good deal of crumbs across Lila's previously sanitary counter top. "We had a fight."
"How I was being a dick. Which I then ended by being an even bigger dick. Kind of a hollow victory."
"You're really having trouble with this."
"I know." Scott dropped his head into his hands. "God, I know."
"You're not even a true teen, get a grip. Surely you didn't act like this the first time around. You've never said anything to that effect," Lila pointed out, although, when it came to his younger years, Scott had never said much to any effect.
Scott shrugged. "Well, maybe I don't remember."
"Well, maybe I want to forget."
"Much more likely." Lila probably knew more about Scott's childhood than anyone else, but it still didn't amount to much. She often felt his reticence was unfair considering how much she had told him of her adolescence.
"…I'm just going to stay here awhile," Scott muttered.
Lila pushed away from the counter. "You're lucky you're in teen form right now, because it means I'm going to be an understanding big sister and cut you yet another break. You will stay here – and don't even think about touching those biscuits – while I go smooth things over with Hermione. You know, like you should have done in the first place."
"There's a very good reason ARI is not recommended," Scott said dourly as Lila left the kitchen.
Scott was right about that, anyway. Age Regressed Integration was a solution sometimes worse than the problems it was meant to address. Still, for all his scatterbrained, teen form vitriol, Lila had to privately admit Scott had done well so far. His latest difficulty could be smoothed over with a little effort from a third party, which was why it was often so nice to have a partner for a long-term operation. Even if that partner was his little sister, Lila thought wryly.
As expected, Ginny's door was shut. No doubt that was where Hermione had fled. Lila first went to address the two lazy boys in Ron's room who were dozing in the midday sun.
Lila slapped the door frame with her hand, causing both of them to jump. "Attention all useless boys: there are cookies, or biscuits, as you prefer, downstairs in the kitchen. You may EACH–" she said, raising her voice when Harry and Ron began scrambling to their feet, "–have three cookies. See how many fingers I'm holding up? That's three, in case you've forgotten."
"Brilliant, thanks, Lila," Ron enthused as he sped off downstairs, followed closely by Harry.
With them out of the way, Lila was free to approach the girls. Pausing at Ginny's doorway, she listened for a moment but couldn't hear any sobbing within. She'd have been surprised if that were the case. Scott probably hadn't expended too much effort to get Hermione to leave the room, but making her cry would require crossing lines that even Scott's teen form wouldn't allow (Lila hoped).
She knocked twice. The door slid open just far enough for Ginny's angry visage to peek out.
"Oh, it's you," she said, her expression calming somewhat."Thought it might be your git of a brother."
"My git of a brother is downstairs contemplating his shortcomings. Can I come in?" Lila raised a questioning eyebrow.
Ginny opened the door and let Lila through. Inside, Hermione was seated on the edge of the bed. Her face was a bit red, but it didn't seem as if she'd been crying, per Lila's expectations. She was definitely upset, however. Her hands were fisted in the sheets and her expression was drawn.
She glanced up when Lila entered, then cast her gaze back down. "I thought you were Scott, come to apologise. I should have known better." A tinge of indignation coloured her words.
Lila leaned against the door, arms crossed. "I think you both need to simmer down before any apologising gets done."
"Scott's the only one who needs to apologise!" Ginny interjected angrily.
Lila threw her a sceptical look. "Do you even know what this is about?"
Ginny leaned back against her dressing table in a huff. "I know enough. I know Scott."
"I think I have a bit more authority in that area," Lila said dryly before turning back to Hermione. "So?"
"What do you want me to say? You're evidently aware we had a row," Hermione said defensively.
"I was more interested in what started it. Actually – no, never mind. I don't care. How are we going to end it?"
"I don't even know why he was so angry!" Hermione burst out, clearly frustrated. "He's just been so distant and hostile, and – and I'd had enough! I still have."
Lila tilted her head. "And what he said was unforgivable?"
When Hermione hesitated, Ginny jumped in again. "Obviously; that prat, always saying horrible things with no regard for others–"
"Ginny, did Hermione even tell you what he said?"
Ginny's mouth snapped shut but her expression remained defiant. "She doesn't have to. Look at her!"
"I wouldn't care to repeat any of it," Hermione said weakly.
Lila shrugged. "Yeah, probably not. But I'm assuming that he didn't say anything he wouldn't have said if he wasn't yelling it."
Hermione blinked. "Well… I suppose that's one way to put it…"
"He likes you," Lila said simply. "He might hit below the belt, but he won't go for the jugular."
Hermione sighed in response. "Given time, I might find that comforting."
Ginny raised her hands in disbelief. "Right as rain, are we? Hermione, you've never just given in to him before, why the bloody hell would you now? Make him apologise!"
"I do deserve an apology, but… So does he." Hermione's cheeks tinged pink, and she hung her head. "…I slapped him."
A bright grin immediately lit Ginny's features. "Oh, Merlin, I bet that felt good!"
"No!" Hermione immediately denied. "…Well, perhaps a little – but that doesn't matter! I've perpetuated a dangerous gender stereotype. Violence against women is rightfully deplored, but it shouldn't be any more acceptable for me to strike a friend just because he's male."
"That's very PC of you, Hermione,
and could no doubt spark a fascinating debate on gender," Lila said in a bland tone that belied her spoken interest, "but the fact of the matter is that if you hit Scott, it's because he let you. You know what he is. He could have broken your wrist without a whole lot of effort. It probably took more effort just to sit there and let it happen, actually. I almost admire his self-control, right then. Which is odd, coming right out of a spectacular failure of self-control. Isn't that odd? I find that odd."
"I know he let me! That hardly makes up for it."
"Then you can both say you're sorry. After you eat some of the biscuits I baked, assuming there's any left after the ravenous horde of boys descended."
Ginny's attention was captured by that statement. "You baked biscuits? Why didn't you say anything earlier, they're probably gone now!"
"Don't worry. I left some out, but I hid the rest. Still, that's no guarantee. Scott will find them, somehow." Lila's eyes narrowed. "He always finds food I hide. He's like a goddamn truffle pig."
Ginny didn't seem interested in what a goddamn truffle pig was or why Scott was similar to one. "If Ron gets into them, there'll be nothing but crumbs!"
"Then I guess you'd better hurry," Lila told her. When Ginny made a hasty departure, Lila looked over at Hermione and rolled her eyes. "These kids, huh? Too bad you're one of them so you can't roll your eyes, too."
"You don't see me sprinting off, do you?" Hermione protested.
"No, and therefore the cookies will be gone. You've sacrificed everything in your pursuit of dignity."
"Biscuits are hardly everything," Hermione opined.
"That's not a good attitude to take when all the cookies are currently being eaten." Lila pushed off the wall and gestured to Hermione. "Come on, I'll make sure you get some alone time with Scott when you're ready. Just try not to drag things out, Molly won't be running errands forever."
By Lila's estimation, they were already cutting things close as it was. Molly was an efficient shopper and would no doubt return before too long. Before that happened, it was imperative that everything was calmed and that everyone had at least the appearance of getting things done. Lila liked weddings, but she'd never been involved in the preparations for one before. It was severely dampening her anticipation.
She walked into the kitchen just in time to see Hermione snag one of the few remaining biscuits (whilst Ginny flirted with Harry, and ate his share in the process). Scott remained exactly where Lila had left him, chewing on a cookie without any apparent enjoyment.
Lila approached Hermione and briefly leaned down to her ear. "Now would be the time," she said quietly. Straightening up, she addressed the others in a louder tone. "Anyone who gets crumbs on my clean floor will be cleaning them up with their tongue – and then cleaning that up with a rag. And, Ron, for fuck's sake, chew with your mouth closed! That's right, I said 'fuck', don't give me that look. You're making me mad."
Offered the proper distraction, Hermione and Scott slipped out to the sitting room. With any luck, they'd patch things up before the rift grew any wider.
Between the wedding and the war, further distractions were not needed.
Scott was hiding.
Not from Hermione, surprisingly. He wouldn't have minded seeing her. The two of them had arrived at an uneasy truce, and Scott would have liked the chance to settle things on a more permanent basis. Instead, he was lounging on the roof of The Burrow, safely out of sight and hopefully out of mind, as well.
With the arrival of so many Weasleys (Arthur had been at work far less often, Fred and George had returned to help with preparations, Charlie was present for the same reason and Bill was around to be the star of the upcoming show), it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid attracting notice. Scott's false history had been established enough for most purposes, but Bill's presence during the attack on Hogwarts was problematic. He'd seen too much and knew too little. That was a dangerous combination, and it was only his near-total preoccupation with his forthcoming nuptials – and Lila's stone-faced refusal to discuss the matter – which kept him at bay.
And that wasn't even taking into account Fleur's family. Scott nervously opened one eye and glanced around, closing it again once he was sure no one was looking for him. Fleur's younger sister (what the hell was her name?) had developed an unhealthy obsession with Scott, providing attention he didn't want or need. Her puppyish crush was, as far as Scott could tell, not hampered by the fact that Scott could deflect her juvenile Veela aura. His immunity seemed to only provide her with more determination.
Scott found the part-Veela sisters interesting solely for what they were involuntarily doing to the shape. Tall blondes were not his style, even if the little one had been old enough to qualify. Women like that only reminded him of his sister.
In regards to Lila, she had been a godsend. He had never been more grateful for her presence on the mission than he had been in the last few days, watching as she used her deep integration at The Burrow to the fullest effect, issuing orders and butting heads with the Weasley boys as if she'd lived there her entire life. Fred and George had been resentful at first, but quickly learned it would make their lives easier not to cross Lila (no doubt Mrs Weasley's support of Lila had helped their conclusion along). Scott had learned the same lesson long before – he just generally chose to ignore it.
His lips twitched in a small smile. It had probably escaped the attention of most, but Scott had been watching from the outskirts of the semi-organised free-for-all that constituted the final days of wedding preparation, and Charlie was clearly smitten with Lila. He did his best to hide it, but Ron appeared to come by his lack of subtlety honestly. Scott didn't know whether Lila would discourage Charlie's interest or not. He hoped she wouldn't burn any bridges, since that kind of infatuation could be useful. It provided a hold over a person that might be exploited at some point, should a situation require it.
Scott sat up, broken from his thoughts by Lila calling his name. It sounded as if she were in the garden just below his feet.
"Scott, I know you're up there. Gabrielle isn't with me, numb nuts. Get down here."
That was the kid's name. Scott knew it started with a G. "Yeah, hold on. I'm working on my tan."
"Prematurely age on your own time. There's stuff that needs doing."
"Oh, God. More? Surely Mrs Weasley is out of decorations. There isn't that much storage in the world."
"We're done with the decorations. For now. I'm going to pop out to the shop with Molly, and I need you to keep an eye on things," Lila explained.
Scott scooted down the shingles until his legs were dangling off the roof. He leaned forward and looked at Lila mischievously. "'Pop out to the shop'?" he quoted. "You're blending in so well, I'm proud of you, really."
"Get. Down. Here. Pronto."
"You're very impatient for a single mother."
Scott sighed and pushed himself off the roof, landing gracefully in the grass. "All right, but that creepy little blonde chick better stay away from me. She's not even a Prime, I don't have to put up with her."
Lila crossed her arms, unyielding. "But you will. Oh, but keep Ginny away from her. Gabrielle has been making eyes at Harry since you did your disappearing act, and it's creating some friction. Better she moons over you than the guy in a fragile relationship with a very touchy girlfriend."
As much as Scott hated to admit it, she was right. The integrationist in him was already examining the situation dispassionately, working the angles, calculating how best to keep Gabrielle's interest on him and divert her from Harry. "Okay, I'll do something about it."
Lila smiled at him. "There we go. I knew there was still a professional in that teen form somewhere."
"When I grow up, I want to be big and strong like you!" Scott said, affecting a high-pitched street urchin accent.
Gratifyingly, Lila laughed. "Then eat your vegetables, do your homework, and keep that creepy little blonde chick away from Harry."
Scott eyed her knowingly. "And should I also keep that creepy big redheaded dude away from you?"
Lila ran a hand through her hair, preening. "Oh, I don't know about that. It's so nice to have a gentleman caller."
"That sounds so dignified… And sexless. I'm pretty sure he wants to bone you on any available flat surface."
"Please stop projecting your lust for Sophie on all other relationships. It's very unbecoming." Lila raised a finger. "Also, don't say anything like that to him. I will handle this, not you."
"As your older brother–"
"You'll stay out of it. I happen to like it when someone notices I'm a woman."
"Who couldn't? You have two huge reminders–"
"Just go!" Lila cut him off for a second time before he could really get started. "I'm supposed to have left like five minutes ago, get out of here!"
"There must be something innate in my teen form that accepts older authority, because why else would I be listening to you?" Scott complained as he headed for the back door.
"You're showing signs of self-preservation – I'm as surprised as you are!" Lila called back, and then Scott was inside and had many other things to focus on.
He hugged the outer walls of the room as he moved towards the kitchen, avoiding both eye contact and the appearance of being unoccupied.
That was a dangerous state to be in with the wedding so close; idle hands were immediately tasked. So he walked with purpose, even though he didn't have much of one. All he had to work with was the vague notion that he needed to watch his Primes and make sure of… what? Nobody was in danger inside The Burrow. Not physically, anyway. There were other pitfalls.
One of those obstacles came bounding towards him with a swish of platinum blonde hair. "Bonjour, Monsieur Kharan!" Gabrielle said brightly.
Scott carefully hid a flinch. "Gabby, hi! Lila told me you were talking to Harry, do you know where he is?"
She nodded. "Oui, il est là-haut."
Scott was fortunate that he spoke French, as Gabrielle's skills in English were not at the same level as her sister's. He considered that his fluency might be working against him: Gabrielle probably appreciated his ability to converse in her native tongue.
Well, it was too late to pretend otherwise. "Merci. I'm going to go see what he's up to."
Gabrielle followed him without invitation, chattering away in French whilst occasionally pausing to look up at him through her eyelashes coquettishly. Scott largely ignored her, though with Lila's admonishment in mind he did throw out a comment now and then. Mostly 'yeah' and 'uh-huh', but it was enough. At least Gabrielle was too young to expect anything else. Her girlish attraction was simple and untainted by the emotions and hormones that could have made things much more complicated for Scott. He'd give her a modicum of attention, dance with her at the wedding, and then she'd be shipping off back to France.
"Avez-vous été amis avec Monsieur Potter pendant une longue période?" Gabrielle asked, breaking Scott away from his thoughts.
"Uh, about a year or so. Près d'un an. I moved here from the United States with my sister, could you tell from my accent? Que je suis un Américain?"
She looked up at him curiously. "Votre accent est différent… Mais je ne connais pas les Américains."
"Well, I guess you do now."
She smiled. "Yes, I know you!"
The upper portions of The Burrow were largely empty due to the activity below. Scott made his way up to Ginny's room, leaning around the door frame and peering inside. Harry, Ginny and Hermione were in deep discussion over a book. Dumbledore's gifts were spread around on the bed: Harry's Snitch, Hermione's children's book and Ginny's wooden box. Scott was pleased to see there was research in progress. They'd had little time for it beforehand, and a stolen moment could be valuable.
He stepped inside, making sure to knock his shoe against the wall to alert them that he was present, and not alone. Hermione snapped the book shut, the Snitch disappeared into Harry's pocket and Ginny knocked the wooden box behind the bed.
"Scott, hey," Harry said, standing up. "Where'd you run off to earlier?"
"Rooftop. I was hiding from Lila," Scott told him, but he jerked his head in the direction of Gabrielle, who had stepped into the room behind him.
Harry winced slightly. "Oh, hello, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded in Harry's direction, but her gaze remained fixated on Scott. Apparently, his presence was enough to dampen her interest in The Boy Who Lived. From an integration standpoint it was useful, but unexpected. As far as most people knew, Scott was just some random Muggleborn from across the pond who had befriended Harry. Harry, meanwhile, had not only interacted with Gabrielle before, he was famous as hell and had saved her life (or had at least provided the appearance of doing so, as Scott understood the story).
Scott didn't know if it was his unusual accent, his looks, or the simple fact that he spoke French – though it was likely none of the above. He suspected that Gabrielle's fixation had gone to him by default: he was the youngest unattached male in the household.
Ginny had already shifted a bit closer to Harry and was glaring at Gabrielle, so Scott knew it was time for a distraction. "Yeah, so, I don't think anybody knows we're up here right now and Lila just left with Molly. That probably gives us about forty-five minutes to an hour to do whatever we want as long as we stay out of sight. Also, where the hell is Ron?"
"With Charlie, last I saw him," Harry said.
"He doesn't get to see Charlie much, so he's making the most of it, whilst he can…" Hermione added, and as she trailed off it went unsaid, but understood, that the end of the wedding was not what she referred to.
"Hmm." Scott wanted to say more, but Gabrielle's presence was severely hampering things. About all he could do was leave, letting his Primes work out what they could before they were inevitably interrupted. "Okay, just checking in. Me and Gabby are going to go see if there's anything worth stealing in the kitchen. As you were."
He turned and left, glad that Gabrielle would follow him without prompting. Downstairs, things were just as chaotic as before. Scott dodged Bill and Gabrielle's father, who were moving a table, and slipped past Fleur and her mother in the midst of a high-pitched argument in rapid French. Something about flower arrangements.
With Lila and Molly gone, the kitchen was blessedly deserted. Scott poked around in a cabinet that seemed like a spot Lila might conceal something in; he was rewarded with a small wrapped package of leftover biscuits. He turned to Gabrielle with a smug grin and hoisted his ill-gotten gains. She beamed back at him in response.
They slipped out the front door. Scott decided to avoid the usual spots on the off chance someone came looking for them. Lila's car was still parked near the garage, so Scott made his way over to it and sat down with his back against one of the tyres. Anyone at the house would have to circle around to see him.
Gabrielle sat in the grass next to him and held out an expectant hand. Scott dropped one of the cookies into it and together they ate in silence, savouring the stolen treats.
It was such moments which reminded Scott what a mistake it was to assume integration was all about fighting. His job sometimes required killing, but it also required him to sit out in the sunshine and eat biscuits with a French girl for companionship. True integration was about becoming a part of someone's life and accepting everything that came with it. And life was mostly mundane.
"Ceux-ci sont très bons," Gabrielle commented. "Votre sœur en faire?"
"Oui. She can be handy in a kitchen – elle est bonne dans une cuisine. I'm not half bad myself, depending. When you travel a lot it's a nice skill to develop."
Gabrielle frowned. "Half bad? Partiellement mauvais?"
"Uh, non. I mean that I'm pretty good at it. Plutôt bien."
"Très bon! Yours are like hers?"
Scott shrugged. "I'm not much for biscuits, that's kind of her thing. I make some kick a… some kickin' chimichangas, though."
"What is 'chimichanga'?"
"A fried burrito. It's Mexican food. Mexicain." He grimaced in pity. These poor savages had never had a chimichanga.
That answer seemed to satisfy Gabrielle for the moment. Scott knew he probably wasn't doing her English skills any favours by constantly explaining in French, but it was all he had the patience for.
Patience. He should have had limitless patience after all that had happened. There he was, treading water again. Playing escort for a blonde tween who was barely even peripherally related to the events at hand. At least at Hogwarts he'd been networking.
At least Kylie hadn't talked much.
"My sister looks like your sister, you think?" Gabrielle wondered.
Scott didn't know about that. They were both blonde, true. Going any further, Scott knew he was probably biased. That said, Lila was taller, tougher, smarter and (in Scott's sibling-solidarity rooted opinion which he would NEVER, EVER confess) substantially more attractive.
He kept all of that to himself. "A little bit, yeah."
Gabrielle looked up at him with a hint of apprehension. "Je pense que Fleur ne l'aime pas beaucoup…" Then, perhaps realising that the possible tension between Lila and Fleur might be carrying over to Scott and herself, she hastened to add, "I do like you!"
Scott had already arrived at that conclusion. As for Fleur not liking Lila, he didn't know much about that. Either Fleur was just naturally catty, or they had clashed over some wedding details (possibly both). The fact of the matter was, he didn't know a whole lot about Gabrielle's family in general. Under different circumstances he might have used the time before the wedding to rectify that, but there were far more pressing concerns.
He spotted two of those concerns slipping through the trees at the edge of the property. From the way Fred and George were attempting to be inconspicuous, Scott figured they were probably looping their way around to the stump he had found full of whiskey bottles. It would be a good opportunity to take their measure; Scott didn't know exactly what was coming, but he did know they would be a part of it. It might be helpful to come to an understanding.
Besides, the secrecy was already wearing thin. The battle at Hogwarts had punched all kind of holes in Scott's carefully constructed false existence. A few more wouldn't hurt.
He turned and pressed the few remaining biscuits into Gabrielle's hand. "Here, Gabby, do me a favour – take these back to the house with you. Partagez-les avec votre sœur, si vous voulez, mais assurez-vous que vos parents ne les vois pas."
them eagerly. "Thank you! Je vais les cacher quand je rentre à l'intérieur…" She stood to leave, then paused. "Mais… you are not coming?"
"I'll be there in a few, dans une minute, I need to go talk to the twins, okay?"
"Bien. See you soon, Scott!" Gabrielle waved at him in a manner that was probably intended to be flirtatious.
Scott headed for the woods as soon as she was gone. He hoped she wouldn't head straight for Harry once she was back in The Burrow. Scott had never actually been grateful that he and Lila hadn't met until they were both adults (the loss of a common childhood seemed a high price), but he was starting to consider it. Kid sisters seemed like a lot of trouble.
Several minutes of walking put him out into the woods, the sounds of nature deadened by the thick summer canopy. Fred and George were conversing up ahead, standing around the decaying tree base and passing a bottle of something or the other back and forth.
"Is this a private party?" Scott asked as he meandered up, startling the both of them.
They recovered quickly. "Scott Kharan, old bean!" Fred said grandly. "By all means, join us! Pull up a stump!"
"If you can find another. This one's full of rubbish," George added, gesturing around.
"It's not the only one," Fred said.
"Who, me?" George pointed to himself incredulously.
"If the shoe fits!"
"Our feet are the same size, brother mine. In fact, I think these are actually your shoes."
"I thought I felt a bit lopsided today."
Scott shrugged. "Well, you may be full of rubbish, but at least you aren't drunk." He peered at the bottle George was holding. "Oh. Never mind."
Fred grinned. "This might be enough to knock you on your arse. We're sober as judges."
Scott shrugged. "Just let me know when your liver is about to explode, so I can clear the blast radius. And speak of blast radii…"
"You had our undivided attention the moment you said 'blast'," George told him.
Scott leaned back against a nearby tree and let his expression become serious. The twins took note, glancing at each other. "I wanted to talk about your shop."
Fred smirked. "You might want to be more specific, mate, there's a lot going on behind those doors…"
"I hope so. In layman's terms, fellas – what do you have that will take the legs off a theoretical Death Eater?"
The twins dropped all pretence of humour. "So it's happening, then," George said quietly. "You lot are leaving to…"
Scott was not surprised that the two of them had pieced together that much. "Yes. And soon, we're only here for the wedding. You know what's coming."
"Everybody knows what's coming," Fred said. "Everybody who isn't a bloody idiot."
"We're ready… Or, mostly. We still have all the defensive products we've been selling, and we can disappear if we have to. As for anything else…" George trailed off, scratching at his head. "We've had a few ideas. But we weren't sure…"
"There was a market? Or that they were a step you wanted to take?" Scott asked.
"The second one. There's always a market for weapons," Fred said cynically (and correctly).
Scott leaned forward with interest. "What kind of weapons?"
George held up a hand. "Before we go any further with this, we need to know who you are. Who you really are. You and your sister aren't exactly your average American tourists, yeah?"
Scott sighed. "You don't need to know that any more than I really need to know about your weapon designs. Me and Lil have been tasked with helping Harry. In the larger scheme of things, that translates into helping pretty much everyone close to him."
"Remus said you were with some American version of the Order. Or, at least, that Dumbledore trusted you." Fred seemed uncertain of that information.
"And if that's not the truth, it's close enough to work if you choose to believe it," Scott said. "Bottom line: make all the bombs you can and get ready to vanish. The time may come for some collaborative efforts."
"You'll notice he didn't answer the question," George said to his brother.
"No, I didn't. Can you live with that?"
"Harry trusts you. That earns you a bit from us, as well," George said. "Just don't stretch it too far."
"What kind of collaboration were you talking about?" Fred asked, returning to Scott's previous comment.
"Some properly targeted deconstruction can go a long way," Scott hinted.
"We aren't terrorists, mate," George stated.
Scott rolled his eyes. "A terrorist is just a revolutionary without a game plan. Our hate has focus. And our goals are achievable. We aren't trying to kill an idea here, guys, we just need to kill one person in particular."
"Ah, I hate to burst your bubble, but we run a joke shop, if you'll recall. Light-hearted, class clowns? Dropped out to pursue a rollicking life manufacturing fart pranks?" Fred said acerbically. "Somehow the 'assassin' part of that was something we missed out on."
"Unless you think you can force-feed You-Know-Who an Acid Pop; we might have a few on back order," George noted.
Scott recognised their defensive reaction in derailing a serious conversation with sarcasm; he did it all the time. It didn't matter, though, because he'd said what needed to be said. "Hey, do what you want. I'm just giving you the heads up, chuckles, don't shoot the messenger. I'll be getting shot at soon enough as it is."
"God, you're morose when you're sober," George sighed, lifting the whiskey bottle to his lips.
"You're very judgemental for a drunk," Scott told him. He turned to leave, but stopped when Fred caught him by the shoulder.
"Be careful. All of you. And make sure you do stay in touch, however you can manage it. We're not saying no, absolutely, but let's see how things turn out, right?" Fred was stoic, but couldn't quite hide the worry in his eyes.
"I meant it about having a way out," Scott said. "The Order is going to be a big fat target for every Death Eater looking to make his bones. They'll kill you if they can and scatter you even if they can't."
"Don't worry about us. We can handle ourselves. Just watch out for Ron, will you?"
Scott nodded. "I will."
"Good. Oh, and if you tell him I said that, I'll fill all your trousers with itching powder."
"Doesn't it kind of defeat the purpose if you tell me what it's going to be?"
"Not if I'm lying," Fred said, grinning wickedly.
Scott's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Good point. Just keep in mind that any pranking retribution will be visited upon your balls."
Fred was outraged. "Damn it, you can't just go right for the bollocks!"
"Disproportionate, is what that is. There's an order to these things," George said authoritatively.
"Just stopping this before it starts, stultorum. That was Latin, by the way. Latina, lingua. Wouldn't want you of lesser intellect to feel left out," Scott said condescendingly.
"Expect the worst, my friend," Fred said ominously.
George perked up in interest. "Can you teach me to swear in Latin? 'You cuntus maximus', all that lark?"
Scott spread his hands. "Just say that – who's gonna know?"
"I'd know," George grumbled. "If you're going to swear, do it properly."
"That's a sentiment I can get behind – but we'll have to save that activity for a rainy day, because I need to get back to the house. I can give you the Latin motto for your shop, though," Scott said over his shoulder as he walked away. "Caveat emptor!"
"That's the word I was looking for. Machiavellian."
"I didn't know you were looking for a word," Harry said shortly. He wasn't automatically opposed to Scott's conversation, but, seeing as how he was sitting at the table waiting for his birthday cake to be brought out, it wasn't the ideal time to discuss 'Machiavellian'.
"Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved," Scott mused. "But he also warned against being hated… That's the balance, between hate and fear. Riddle doesn't walk it well. He's not subtle."
Hermione leaned in to assist. "Scott, is this really the time?"
Ron was also talking. "It is chocolate, right? I'm not speaking to you if you asked for anything else."
Somewhere behind Harry, Neville and Luna were engaged in a conversation of their own. "I just wish you could have stayed a bit longer," Neville was saying.
"We'll be at Hogwarts soon, Neville," Luna replied. "Would you like to hold hands?"
Hagrid was also present, making the room seem crowded all by himself. He was talking to Remus and Charlie in a voice that would have been considered shouting coming from anyone else. Tonks was deep in discussion with Ginny; about what, Harry didn't know, but Tonks was frequently changing her hair colour.
Between them and the other weddings guests moving in and out of the room, it was all a little overwhelming.
Harry would have preferred a quieter gathering. A little cake, a few presents, and maybe a special present from Ginny later on… That would be ideal. Alone time had been a precious commodity during the wedding preparations; with the event itself now imminent, it had all but vanished.
Harry shifted in his seat and tried not to look put out. It was all for him, after all, even if he hadn't asked for it. There was no need to be ungrateful.
Besides, all the presents he'd received thus far had been splendid. Before Mr and Mrs Weasley had given him one, he hadn't known it was customary to give a wizard a watch when they came of age (even after all the years spent divorced from his Muggle upbringing, he still had a great deal to learn). Ron's present had been a book with the rather unwieldy title Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. Harry hadn't shown it to anyone else, yet. He was certain Scott would have something to say about it, probably at length.
Scott had yet to deliver any presents of his own, which might have meant he simply hadn't bothered to procure one. Harry didn't think so, though. Scott wouldn't ignore an occasion that was so significant to Harry, even if it was only to further his integration. No, he most likely had a present that couldn't be safely given with their current audience. It could very well be dangerous, a thought that left Harry excited and apprehensive all at once.
Ginny also hadn't given any presents so far. Harry had a good feeling about that. All the best gifts from Ginny couldn't be wrapped.
Well… They couldn't be unwrapped in public.
"Cake Time!" Lila sang out, carrying the delicious dessert on a tray, candles lit.
Harry was immediately besieged by well wishes and hugs. After Mrs Weasley squeezed him tightly, Lila stepped in. She didn't give Harry quite as enthusiastic a hug as the other woman, but when she moved back she placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "Molly wanted something more extravagant, but I was told you didn't."
Harry smiled up at her appreciatively, nodding his thanks. If she'd been given the chance, Mrs Weasley would have run herself even more ragged than she already was putting together additional decorations for Harry. He didn't need that kind of effort. Just having any sort of party at all was enough, and, after his childhood at the Dursleys', still something of an oddity.
Scott had risen from his seat and was fidgeting near the cake. "Harry, for the love of GOD, dude, hurry up and cut this thing or I am about to commit a major infraction of birthday protocol–"
"Oh, no, you aren't!" Lila said, brandishing a knife in his direction. "Harry gets the first piece and you will wait your turn."
"It's fine, everyone can help themselves," Harry tried to say, but Lila placed an enormous slice on a plate in front of him and then fixed him with an expectant stare. Harry dutifully ate his first bite. "It's really good, thank you, Lila."
"No big deal, just an old recipe I dug out," she said airily, but she seemed pleased by the compliment.
"I will now demonstrate my impression of Ron," Scott was saying. He had his plate tipped upward, apparently to shovel his entire slice into his mouth.
"That's not an impression, that's just you," Ron scoffed. "I could eat two slices at once."
"Uh, that sounds like a challenge, freckles."
"It sounds like both of you are going to get smacked," Lila said threateningly.
Harry wouldn't have minded seeing Ron versus Scott in an eating contest, but he didn't voice that.
"Happy Birthday, Harry," Neville said, coming up on Harry's left. "I know I already said it with everyone else, but…"
Harry grinned up at him. "Thanks, Nev! I'm glad you could make it."
"Me too! I've just wanted to get out of the house, since…" Neville trailed off and glanced in Luna's direction.
Harry knew that Luna had stayed with Neville for some time over the summer, and not much else. Obviously there was more to the story. "Er, Nev… Are you and Luna…?"
Neville turned bright red, but kept his chin up. "Y-Yes. We're seeing each other now."
Harry felt a twinge of sympathy when he heard how defensively Neville said it, as if he were expecting immediate derision. The worst part was, he probably would receive it back at Hogwarts. Luna was pretty, intelligent, and one of the bravest people Harry had ever known, but many (including her own house) never saw past the cork necklace and radish earrings.
Well, Harry thought firmly, neither she nor Neville were going to get that kind of scorn from him. "That's brilliant, Nev. Really, I mean it. She's a great girl."
Neville was still red with embarrassment, but he smiled hesitantly. "She really is… I wish I'd seen it sooner."
"I know what you mean," Harry said, looking over at Ginny.
Neville went to rejoin Luna, and Scott immediately appeared in the vacated space. He grinned widely at Harry, teeth blackened by copious amounts of chocolate. "I love it when a plan comes together."
Harry's expression turned dubious. "Now you're taking all the credit for them, too?"
"I can never take all the credit," Scott said with blatantly false modesty. "An object must exist before it can be moved, these things are no different. We don't create reality; we shape it, we shift it."
"Which is Machiavellian?"
"No! Wait – yes, sort of. But no, that was a different train of thought. Thanks for reminding me, though."
Harry glanced around, but no one was paying attention to them. "So what would have happened, then? If you hadn't done anything, I mean. If you just left everyone alone."
Scott eyed him. "You sound faintly bitter."
"You were a complete twat on loads of occasions just to get me with Ginny."
"It worked, didn't it?"
Harry glared at him. "And with Neville and Luna, all you did was send a bloody letter…"
Scott held his hands up in a placating manner. "Okay, I see what you're saying, but it's not a fair comparison. I started giving you a hard time only after I tried a bunch of other stuff."
Harry didn't want to have that argument in the middle of his birthday party. "Sod it, just answer the question."
"I don't know. You and Ginny, Ron and Hermione – these are relationships built on requirements. They provide strength. They are, if not absolutely necessary, then highly useful. They give you something you need."
"But how is Neville different with Luna?" Harry asked, feeling a bit angered at the implication that they weren't important to the shape (and therefore, to Scott).
"They aren't. Not functionally. Love is a binding agent: you take two disparate people, and that connection allows them to compensate for the weaknesses of the other. They become complementary. Love can also destroy, of course, but hopefully this whole war thing will be over before that happens. If it does," Scott amended upon seeing Harry's alarmed look. "So, the principle is the same. But because Neville and Luna aren't as… central, to this escapade, the shape wasn't so urgent on the matter. There were multiple strands available, I just… I just encouraged one of them."
There were lines to be read between that statement and Harry didn't like the implication. "You mean you picked the outcome that was most convenient for you."
"I suppose you could put it that way."
Harry stared at his cake for a moment, trying to decide if he was outraged, resigned, or if it was really any of his business in the first place.
"They're happy together, Harry," Scott defended himself. "Could you see them with anyone else? Maybe they would have had a connection anyway, and maybe it wouldn't have lasted, but why go through that kind of trauma and then wait to find someone else when they can have a lasting relationship now?"
"What if they would have been happier with those other people?" Harry countered.
"What if they wouldn't? Let's not pretend we can compare what they have now with some distant, unknown outcome."
Harry considered that. "So you don't know much about the alternatives?"
"…Wel l, whatever. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"Hey – it's me!" Scott said, grabbing his empty plate and going to help himself to more cake.
Harry had about three seconds to contemplate how unhelpful that was before he had company again. This time it was Ron who sat at Harry's side. "Happy birthday, mate. You look at that book, yet?"
"No, not yet. I'm waiting until Scott isn't around," Harry said.
"Why? Think he'll get smart about it?"
"We are talking about Scott…"
Ron snorted. "He should keep his fat mouth shut. Most action he's seen is flirting with Hufflepuffs, and the easy ones, at that." He nodded his head in the direction of Lila, who was picking up empty plates. "Hey, have you seen Charlie with Lila?"
"Charlie?" Harry located Ron's older brother sitting near the window. Sure enough, he was watching Lila. "Huh. Can't say I have…"
"He's completely barmy about her, full stop," Ron said, sniggering. "Embarrassing, really."
"Yeah, you have no idea what that's like," Harry said dryly.
Ron's ears turned red. "Shut it. That was different."
Harry considered the situation and couldn't think of any positive outcomes. He wasn't even sure if Lila qualified as human. "Maybe you should say something to him…"
Ron shook his head sorrowfully. "Charlie, Charlie… Daft bugger pokes at dragons for a living, 'course he picks the most violent girl we know. I wonder if he needs to feel like he might lose a limb, no matter what he's doing…"
Harry had been thinking more about the emotional fallout, but he couldn't say that Ron didn't have a point. "Er, true. Maybe one of us should talk to Lila about it…?" He reconsidered whether he really wanted to do that. "Let's make Scott talk to her."
"You do what you want, mate, I'm not going to be anywhere near when that goes pear shaped," Ron said wisely.
The party began to slow to its inevitable end once everyone was full of cake and satisfied. The guests began to drift off, several of them having to leave (though any goodbyes were tempered by the knowledge they'd be right back for the wedding). In deference to his birthday, Harry found himself exempt from any jobs around
the house. That was how, as evening began to set, he found himself upstairs, alone with his friends, for the first time in weeks.
Hermione took charge. "All right, let's go about this in an organised manner," she said in her best authoritarian voice.
Scott, predictably, sabotaged her moment. "Jawohl, mein Führerin!"
She paused just long enough to roll her eyes at him, then turned to Dumbledore's gifts, which she had arranged on Ron's dressing table. "I've read through the book… And though I enjoyed it, I can't see any other reason it was left to me. That said, I'm sure we can all agree that there was a specific reason we were given these things; therefore, I just haven't discovered it yet."
"You'll suss it out," Ron said with total confidence.
Hermione blushed a bit. "Um, thank you, Ron. Moving on…" She picked up the Deluminator. "As for your gift, I can think of all sorts of ways this could be useful. Stealth, primarily, but I was wondering if it works on anything that produces light, even as a by-product."
That caught Scott's attention. "Power sources? Bioluminescence?"
"Perhaps. We'll have to test it, at some point." She set it down and lifted Harry's Snitch. "Harry, I've given it a bit of thought, and, if I remember right, you know how you caught this particular Snitch…"
"Yeah. The bloody thing about choked me," Harry recalled. "Give it here, I'll lick it or something."
Ginny, who was on the bed with Harry, leaning against his chest, grimaced and shifted against him slightly. "Ugh. You don't know where that's been!"
Harry grinned down at her. "Want to give me a kiss afterwards?"
She turned her head, pressing a hand against his mouth playfully. "No! You'll just have to kiss me somewhere else…"
Ron was staring at them in horror, so Hermione prudently moved things along. "Harry?"
"Right." Harry pressed the Snitch to his lips. He held it there for a moment, but nothing happened. He lowered it.
Hermione looked puzzled. "I thought that would accomplish something…"
Ginny took the Snitch from Harry. "Look, there's writing here now! 'I open at the close'… What?"
"'I open at the close'," Harry repeated, reading it for himself.
Hermione sighed. "More riddles. I suppose it couldn't be too easy." She gestured at Ron and Scott. "Any ideas from either of you?"
Ron shrugged. "No, that sounds pretty much like nonsense."
Scott's face was creased in thought. "Get back to me. We're missing something."
"All right, well, I suppose we won't solve everything in one night." Hermione took the Snitch back and traded it for the small wooden box that had been bequeathed to Ginny. "Has anyone had any thoughts on Ginny's box?"
Scott startled everyone with a sudden snort of laughter. "Maybe a few, though I can guarantee that Harry has had many thoughts concerning Ginny's box."
Hermione may not have been familiar with whatever slang Scott found so amusing, but she knew a rude joke when she heard one – especially from Scott. "This! This wooden box she got from Dumbledore, not whatever horrible thing you're thinking of!"
"What does it say on it, again?" Harry interrupted. He wanted to head off any potential clashes between Scott and Hermione before they grew loud enough for someone to investigate.
"'Something that was supposed to happen'," Hermione said.
Ron rolled his eyes. "We don't understand any of this shite; there we go, that's what was supposed to happen. Dumbledore always liked a good laugh."
"No, I know this one. I've heard that before…" Scott muttered.
"Where?" Ginny said.
Scott sighed and leaned back against the headboard, pressing his palms into his eyes. "Okay. 'Something that was supposed to happen'. Involving Harry and Ginny, probably. Something Dumbledore said to me… Wait… No, I said that!"
Hermione's face lit up in excitement. "You said it?"
"Yeah! Yeah, it was up in his office. We were talking about stuff, then there was an interruption from the shape, he asked me what was wrong… I said something happened, he was worried, so I said it was okay, that it was 'something that was supposed to happen'!" He opened his eyes. "That's it! God, that was driving me crazy. It's kind of scary to think that he was banking on me remembering that."
"Out with it, already!" Ginny said impatiently. "What's the secret?"
Scott looked at her shrewdly. "Nothing that hasn't already happened in this house with the box present. So, let's try something a little more tactile. Harry, Ginny – put your hands on the box."
Ginny placed her hand on the wooden surface and Harry followed suit, placing his hand over hers.
"That's very touching, Harry, but let's not take any chances – put your hand on the box," Scott ordered.
Harry grimaced to cover his embarrassment, and moved his hand.
"Okay. Now, kiss each other."
Ron started. "Wait just a bloody minute–"
"Shut up, firecrotch, this is for a good cause," Scott told him.
Hermione nodded. "I think I see what he's getting at. Go ahead, you two."
Harry looked down at Ginny and raised a nervous eyebrow. "Er, not especially used to an audience…"
Ginny shook her head fondly. "Harry, stop being a prat and just kiss me."
So he did.
He withdrew in alarm as he heard the box click and felt it jump beneath his hand. "Whoa!"
"It's opened!" Ginny said excitedly. She popped open the lid and reached inside.
"Be careful!" Hermione cautioned. "We don't know what… Oh!"
Hermione's exclamation was in response to Ginny withdrawing a strange object from the box. It was shaped like a vial, wrapped with gold filigree in curious shapes that were hard to trace with the eye, beguiling and strange. The bottom had four silver legs so it could be stood up, and the top of it seemed to be sealed with lead.
The liquid inside the glass was dark red and burned with a strong, unearthly light.
Ron peered at it in fascination. "What… the bloody hell… is that?"
"It appears to be a test tube full of blood," Scott said matter-of-factly.
Hermione shook her head. "It's much more than that. If I'm not mistaken, that's a phylactery!"
Ginny's eyes widened. "Aren't those illegal?"
"Some kinds are, yes. But I don't think the Headmaster would have had any of those."
Ginny reached back into the box and withdrew a slip of paper. "There's another note…"
Harry read it over her shoulder. "'Ms Weasley – A token to assist you in your admirable dedication. Take comfort in the light: so long as it shines, so does he'."
"Oh…" Hermione had a hand pressed to her chest, her eyes bright. "That's so romantic!"
Ginny blinked. "Um, why?"
"That's Harry's blood inside the vial. It's tied to him, and as long as it's glowing, Harry is… still with us," Hermione explained. "It should also grow brighter or weaker depending on how far away he is."
Harry wasn't sure he liked the idea of having that much of his blood sitting around outside of his veins. "That's… sort of disturbing."
"I think it's dead useful," Ginny said archly. "Hah! Let's see you run off without me now!"
"You're screwed, dude," Scott assessed.
Ron motioned at the vial uncertainly. "What I want to know is, how did Dumbledore get all that blood?"
The same thought had occurred to Harry. "While I was in the Hospital Wing, I guess. Could have happened any number of times."
"Just thought he'd help himself one of those times, huh."
"Guess so," Harry said, feeling a bit queasy.
"You really shouldn't find this so odd, Ron," Hermione said. "After all, your family clock downstairs works the same way."
Ron and Ginny were both taken aback. "It does?" Ron gaped.
"Of course. How did you think it worked?"
"I didn't," Ron admitted. "It just did, that's all I needed to know."
"Well, now you understand," Hermione said a trifle smugly.
"So the clock is full of blood, doesn't mean I have to like a vial of mine any better," Harry muttered.
Ginny pressed the phylactery against Harry's chest, and they all witnessed the way it became even more incandescent. "Well, I like it," she said.
"I bet that could be used for some kind of weird sex. Most magic is conducive to weird sex, it's kinda fucked up," Scott mused.
"Moving on!" Hermione said desperately. "We should have Gryffindor's sword, which was left to Harry, but the Ministry found a loophole of some sort and kept it."
"That, we could use," Ron opined.
"So all that's left is Scott's cube," Hermione noted, lifting the cube curiously. "It's a magical strongbox, and evidently powerful enough to keep the Ministry out of it."
"So it'll keep us out, too," Harry said.
"Yes, but Scott already said he knew how to open it. Correct?" Hermione asked Scott.
Scott shrugged. "About ninety-percent sure. I mean, there's only one way to find out."
Hermione held the cube out to him. "Give it a go, then."
The Kharadjai reached out and took it, but merely placed it on the bed next to him. "That might not be the best idea. Whatever is inside is probably better off staying concealed so long as we're here at The Burrow. We don't even know how big it is."
"It's probably much bigger on the inside," Hermione conceded. "Which actually brings me to my next point. I've been working on this handbag…" She picked up the small, beaded handbag that had been sitting innocuously next to the other items. "I've placed an Undetectable
Extension Charm on it, and I think I've got it all done correctly. It wasn't easy…"
"Fishing for compliments?" Scott asked wryly.
"Explaining the process," Hermione said loftily. "Now, we should be able to fit whatever we need in here when we leave. I've already put a few changes of clothes for all of us, and I also have important books and some other things we might need. If you have anything you'd like kept safe, let me know soon."
"Does it matter how much the stuff weighs?" Scott questioned.
"Not within reason. I can't fit a lorry in here, if that's what you're wondering."
Harry had the feeling that Hermione would soon be a walking armoury. He also had a few ideas as to what he might store in the handbag. Brooms, maybe. Some of the things from his trunk.
He was broken from his thoughts when Ginny inhaled sharply. "What is it?" he asked her.
"Look!" She held up the phylactery, which had dimmed completely. "You're still breathing, right?"
"Er, yeah." Harry smiled awkwardly. "Still here. It's all right now, see?"
The phylactery had regained its glow. Hermione walked over to examine it more closely. "I do hope it wasn't damaged somehow," she said, tapping it with her wand. "Perhaps the Ministry weren't careful with the box."
"That was me, actually," Scott volunteered lazily.
"You?" Hermione said, rounding on him.
"Yeah. I interrupted the magic thread to Harry, just for a second. I recognise it now, though." Scott flopped back onto the bed and closed his eyes, his position mirroring the one he had taken at the foot of Harry's bed during their first meeting, what felt like a lifetime ago. "It's a lot like the threads Ron and Ginny have, which makes sense considering what you said about the clock."
"You break that – that 'thread', and I'll break you," Ginny threatened. "You about stopped my heart!"
"Noted. I've obstructed a few one-way threads before; it's the ones like these that are reciprocal which get tricky. Your Trace thing is gone, Harry, in case you had any doubts."
Harry had already cast a few minor spells since that morning. "I know. And it's absolutely brilliant, let me tell you."
"Hmph," Ginny grumbled crossly.
"Relax, Ginseng. We'll snap that spell off you soon enough," Scott reassured her.
"It's getting dark," Hermione fretted, looking out the window. "We'll be sent off to bed soon, and it'll be an early start tomorrow. Is there anything else that can't wait?"
"What about the ghoul and your parents?" Ron said. "Although, I don't know about the ghoul now, what with Ginny…"
"What about me?" Ginny said.
Hermione took a deep breath, and, in a halting voice, explained how she had placed a powerful Memory Charm on her parents and sent them out of the country. Ron had also prepared for his own absence: with Mr Weasley's help, he had disguised the ghoul in the attic as himself with a severe case of some kind of magical disease.
"But if I'm gone as well…" Ginny concluded.
"Right. But it's a bit too late to worry about it now," Hermione sighed.
Harry was still crushed by the news about her parents. "Hermione… I'm…"
"Don't, Harry," she said weakly. "It's done. I'm not sorry. At least they'll be far away from all this."
"I just wish they didn't have to be," Harry said, gritting his teeth against the guilt.
Ginny's arms wrapped around him, drawing him close. "She's right, Harry. Don't get all broody about this."
"Nobody blames you, mate," Ron said.
"Man up, Harriet," Scott added.
"Thanks," Harry said, grateful for his friends. "Except for you, Scott, you can sod off."
"I'm sensing some hostility…"
Whatever further retorts Harry might have come up with were forestalled by a rapping at the entryway. It was Lila, pushing open the partially closed door and leaning inside.
"Wrap it up, kiddos," she said. "Big day tomorrow. I suggest you hurry to a bathroom if you don't want to wait in line the rest of the night." She was in her bedclothes and her hair was damp, proving she had already beaten the crowd. "Are you sleeping in here or on the floor downstairs?" she asked Scott.
"Hmmm, on the floor up here, or on the floor downstairs? Decisions, decisions…" Scott said sarcastically.
"Flip a coin. And Ginny, I need to see you before the wedding tomorrow, all right?"
"Sure," Ginny agreed.
As everyone stood and stretched and readied for sleep, Harry reluctantly removed his arms from where they had been around Ginny's waist. "What was that about?"
"Probably about the Trace," Ginny whispered, as the others in the household were now moving up the stairs.
"Right. Well, let's hope she can get that sorted."
Harry still wasn't completely sold on the idea of bringing Ginny along, but it seemed inevitable. His arguments had been refuted and about all he had left was his irrational fear (or so he'd been told; he felt his fear was entirely rational). He'd have to make the best of it, along with everything else. Still, their impromptu council of war had helped a little.
He felt slightly more prepared.