"When immersed in the environment it becomes easy for even an experienced Integrationist to lose sight of the details in favor of wider focus. This is never more apparent than during the 'down time', the long stretches that exist between objectives. Primarius training is designed to impart patience, but many in the field find that patience does not always equate to tolerance. When the adrenaline fades, the mundane then attempts to reassert itself. As is often the case, the most subtle lessons of integration are the hardest to bear, for they insist that events must unfold at their own pace. The same trauma that is lost on battle-hardened Integrationists can leave Primes exhausted, physically and emotionally. True integration requires a constant adjusting to the needs of those within your care. An Integrationist must learn to accept that, quite frequently, those needs cannot be met with effort, but only by time."
—The Guiding Light: An Integrationist's Guide to Understanding Primes, Chapter IX: When Strength Fails
Harry was clinging to the edge of unconsciousness, nearly sunk into the full embrace of welcomed sleep. The insistent tug of the darkness behind his eyelids was not quite strong enough for him to ignore the sudden speaking of his name, though, no matter how much he wanted to.
"Harry," the voice said again, more insistently.
The flat tones of the accent identified it as Scott, and therefore not an immediate threat. Harry was accordingly not enthused enough to respond. This had a lot to do with the heavy warmth wrapped around him. That weight which so attractively draped itself across him was none other than Ginny, who had started the night collapsed on the opposite side of the bed and had at some point shifted to cling to him. Not that he was complaining. If he had known that having her in his bed like a heated blanket would be so conducive to slumber he might have tried it sooner.
She did provide some distraction, however. Every time she inhaled, her breasts pushed themselves against Harry's ribcage, a delicious sensation which made him think that maybe women with Lila's level of endowment were overrated. Ginny was just so… pert, he supposed was the word.
A sigh. "Harry… I know you aren't asleep. I need to talk to you."
Harry squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and grimaced. It was clear that Scott wasn't going away, and, fearing that things might soon escalate to violence, he blinked back encroaching sleep and tried to focus. After a few seconds he could see Scott's dim form towering over him, backlit by the low light from the open doorway.
"What?" Harry whispered.
"I have a question and, no, it can't wait." Scott tilted his head more towards Ginny. "Someone's a sound sleeper."
Harry was grateful for that, but even Ginny would probably wake up if he had to shove her off him. "I can't exactly move right now."
"Really? Did you pee before you went to bed? It can be difficult to just lie there, when you're so comfortable, but there's that insistent pressure and all you can think about is waterfalls and spigots… All that liquid, pouring, gushing, trickling…"
God damn him. Harry's focus shifted to his bladder and it responded accordingly. "Just when I think I can't hate you more…"
"And before you take a leak, you have to talk to me. Another obstacle on the road to relief."
Finally, Harry gave up and shifted from his position. Somehow he managed to slide out from under Ginny's limbs and slump gracelessly to the floor. Ginny snuffled a bit in her sleep, but didn't wake. She must have been more exhausted than she'd let on.
Out in the hallway, Harry motioned for Scott to hurry up. "Go on, what's so bloody important you had to wake me up and send me to the loo?"
"I was poking around downstairs and ran into some kind of low-level sentient named Kreacher. Short, oddly coloured with large ears. He said he lived here, is that true?"
Harry sighed. "I should have mentioned him before. Yes, he does live here. He's the Black family house-elf."
Scott cast a glance around the grimy, poorly lit hall. "Don't they clean or something?"
"He's mad. Spends all of his time talking to the portrait of Mrs. Black in the entryway. He also hated Sirius and had a part in… in what happened."
"He's a traitor?"
Harry didn't want to relive those events, not again. He tried to move on. "I don't know if we can call him that. He was never loyal to us in the first place, he just answered to Sirius and now me because he has to. He's an evil little shit, though. I was hoping he'd stay in whatever hole he crawled into."
"Do I need to kill him?"
That brought Harry up short. Scott had the blank look on his face that commonly accompanied his most difficult questions and statements. As usual, he looked neither eager nor loath to actually carry out such an act. He merely wanted to know if it was necessary.
"No. He can't leave the house or betray us or do much of anything unless I tell him to," Harry said. "He might call you some names, but that's about all he can do."
"I think he's afraid of me, actually. Or at least what I was carrying." Scott tapped a finger against one of his handguns. "We ran into each other by surprise. He asked me what I was doing sullying this house, I asked him who he was supposed to be and how he got in. He told me his name and that he served here, so I said I'd have to check on that with you. He started to leave, I pulled a gun on him, said to not fucking move; he took off like a bat out of hell."
Harry frowned in thought. "Huh… He's been a wizarding house-elf his whole life, almost never leaves this damn place. If he was afraid of your guns then he must know what they are, somehow."
"I may have the answer to that, as it turns out. But it can wait until morning."
"I'm so glad this couldn't," Harry said sarcastically, though he was torn with the need to return to bed and the curiosity raised by Scott's assertion.
"Go ahead and sleep in, everybody needs it. Nothing on the agenda for today but discussion, anyway."
Harry nodded and turned away, ready to relieve his aching bladder and crawl back into a bed that would still be warmed by the second presence he was not yet accustomed to. He and Ginny were both fully dressed, at least, and had been so tired that they'd fallen onto the same bed and passed out without talking about it. Which was fine. It wasn't how Harry had imagined his first time sharing a bed with a girl would go, but it was a good way to start (not that he dared to hope it would continue). His protestations the previous night when Ginny had suggested sharing had stemmed mainly from his anxiety in not knowing what she was expecting from him. If she just wanted to cuddle for warmth every night, he was more than willing to give it a go.
She was still asleep when he returned to his (their?) room and he couldn't think of any way to get back in his previous position, so he moved to the other side of the bed and put his arm over her waist. They were both fully clothed but it was still the most intimate Harry had ever been with another person in such a fashion: long-term close physical contact. That was sort of a depressing thought. Of course, given how little the Dursleys had ever been tactile it was fortunate he hadn't developed some kind of neurotic aversion to be touched at all.
He'd never really thought about that before. He supposed, in that sense, he was lucky such a toxic upbringing hadn't damaged him more thoroughly.
Or that's what he thought, anyway. He knew better than to solicit any other opinions.
He blinked a few times, felt the darkness at the edges of his vision start to swell and fold in. His limbs ached with the memory of exertion and cold; a myriad of scratches stung against the cloth of his shirt whenever he shifted. It didn't matter. Ginny's heat radiated through the layers of cloth and skin, pushing aside the thoughts and pain and then consciousness.
Then he blinked again, this time against the light.
He had no idea how long he had slept. Ginny was gone and a quick sweep with his hand revealed the spot she had occupied was no longer warm. Harry had never closed off the room completely after Scott had come in, and the soft light that shone across his bleary vision came reflected off the partially opened door. There were no windows in the room, which was good, since he probably would have woken up much sooner had that been the case.
With a groan, he pushed himself up and out of the bed and staggered into the hallway. Some of the bedroom doors were opened while others were closed, and he realised he had no idea who was sleeping where.
Glancing back into his new quarters, he noticed something odd, a detail he had not perceived without the morning sun to illuminate the scene. The furnishings were clearly disarranged, with randomly opened drawers and odd and ends scattered about. He was fairly certain neither he nor Ginny had caused the mess, and couldn't think of any reason why Scott and Hermione would have when they had searched the place the night before. Someone had been looking for something. His heart rate quickened: had it been Snape?
He considered that as he went downstairs. There was no evidence that Snape had returned to Grimmauld Place at any point. The added protections left by the Order had been undisturbed when Harry had arrived, and no doubt there were further safeguards that were not apparent. A more likely culprit, Harry reasoned with burgeoning fury, was that rat Mundungus. He'd stolen more than a few things from the Black estate and likely hadn't felt the need to be subtle about it.
Harry stumped into the kitchen to be greeted by the sight of Hermione, Ron and Ginny rummaging through cupboards and generally making a mess in what seemed to be the pursuit of breakfast. Scott was nowhere to be found.
"Find anything edible?" Harry asked as he approached them.
"Not much, I'm afraid. We won't starve today, but we will need supplies soon," Hermione said, placing tins on the counter top. "I'd rather not dip into our emergency stores in my handbag unless we have to."
"Right, no point in eating any of that when we can go to the shop," Harry agreed.
"Will it be safe going to Muggle shops?" Ginny wondered.
Harry bit back his automatically pessimistic response in favour of something more encouraging. "Well… They can't watch all the shops. There're a lot of them out there," he said, remembering his car trip with Lila when the Muggle world had seemed so vast.
"I doubt they're watching any. They may be watching this particular area, however, so we'll want to go further afield." Hermione turned away from the cans she had been examining with an expression of mild disgust. "These are edible, in the strictest sense of the word."
Ron sighed. "We do have Muggle money, right, because I can't do this more than once. Breakfast was not meant to come in tins, that's just… Blasphemy, or something."
"Your mum isn't here to cook for us, so even after we buy food I suggest you lower your expectations," Hermione advised.
Ron leaned his head back and groaned. "God, we are just off to a great start. We should have brought Lila instead of Scott: handy in the kitchen and nicer to look at. Uh, not as nice as you, though, of course…" he quickly added.
"Good save," Harry said.
Hermione just rolled her eyes. "I know what you meant. And while Lila is quite pretty, I don't find that reason to prefer her. Scott has his foibles but at least we know how to work with him."
"I like Lila, she's got her head on straight," Ginny protested, defending the woman she had befriended (an unexpected attachment that still bemused Harry).
"Not as much as Charlie does," Ron snickered. "And he doesn't just like her head, he really likes her—"
"Ron!" Hermione yelped.
"Hey, where is Scott, anyway?" Harry asked.
"He's upstairs with Kylie. Oh, poor Kylie…" Hermione sighed. "She had a panic attack when she woke up this morning. I think she didn't know where she was at first."
"How are we going to tell her about her parents…?" Ginny said slowly.
That was a good question, and one that Harry didn't want to face. "Er… Maybe Scott will tell her. He knows her best, anyway."
"I hate to just push the responsibility onto Scott…" Hermione began.
"I don't," Ron interjected.
"…But in this case it might be for the better. It would be easier, coming from him. Not that it could ever be easy…"
Harry couldn't really understand what Kylie was about to go through: betrayal and disappointment had been constant expectations from what he had nominally considered his 'family'. Even when he had latched on to Sirius there had always been a part of himself held in reserve, reluctant to trust and become vulnerable. From what he had seen, he thought that Kylie might have had a similar upbringing. But for whatever reason she had never become hardened like Harry, who saw emotional abuse as routine.
He frowned, a little disturbed by his own contemplations. He may not have had much experience in the area, but he was self-aware enough to know that those were not good traits to bring into a relationship with Ginny. Maybe he had tried to chuck her for the wrong reasons.
He couldn't express that sentiment to her, of course. Not again, unless he was feeling extra masochistic.
"Knut for your thoughts?" Ginny offered, taking Harry's hand as she sidled up to him.
With a start, he discovered that Ron and Hermione had resumed scavenging for breakfast while he had drifted off into his reverie. He shook himself. "Sorry, I was miles away," he confessed.
"I saw. Look, I know you're worried about Kylie, but I really think Scott should handle it. She likes him, for some reason."
Harry couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, for some reason. Aren't you done hating him by now?"
"I never hated him," Ginny protested. "He was just such a prat, all the time. Especially to me!"
"I guess I can't argue with that. Still, you have to admit he's been better lately."
"He's been older lately," she pointed out. "He's more tolerable as an adult, for whatever that's worth."
"I'd just like it if you two got along better. This is all hard enough without us fighting with each other," Harry said a bit more plaintively than he'd intended.
"So sorry to be a burden! Too bad you didn't just ditch me after all, then you'd only have Scott to worry about," Ginny said with a huff, pulling her hand from Harry's.
Harry groaned and rubbed at his eyes. "Oh, come off it. Don't try to make this into a row, it's too early, I'm still tired and I'm hungry."
"It's actually not early, it's a bit after noon."
"Really?" Harry blinked with surprise. "Oh. I didn't know what time we went to bed."
"Hmmm," Ginny hummed with satisfaction. "Yes, we did go to bed, didn't we? That was cosy."
He didn't disagree, but he was also hesitant to encourage her too much. When it came to their relationship, Ginny tended to take a mile when given an inch, as if she were trying to make up for lost time (or an inevitable shortage of time, which was a much more depressing concept). Harry certainly didn't mind the occasional snog and snuggle; however, he wasn't sure he could handle anything more on top of everything else. Additional complications were the last thing he needed, and going further with Ginny was sure to be very complicated indeed.
Maybe feeling that way made him a poof. Maybe he needed to just get over it and grow up. Or maybe he was making an arse of himself with the daft assumption that Ginny might want to have sex with him in the first place. He was an emotionally damaged wannabe hero with a death sentence hanging over him; it was a wonder she wanted to be with him at all. He should be happy with what was being offered, even if the limits of that intangible offer remained a mystery.
"I don't want to assume anything," he said hesitantly, "but should I put my things in our room, because I slept great, and if you did, too, then maybe we could sleep again, in the same place, that is, if you wanted to… But if you don't, I understand, it's kind of a weird situation and we were just living in totally separate dormitories and then at your house with your mum and maybe it's not… right…"
Ginny stepped forward, took him by the back of his head and kissed him on the mouth. It was chaste compared to some of their past kisses — for which Harry was grateful, considering that Ron was standing right fucking there — but it was still passionate.
"Harry," she said firmly when she pulled away, "if you don't show up in our room tonight, I will be very cross with you."
"Understood," he said weakly.
"I should probably do something about this, but I can't even look at you," Ron jeered from somewhere near the oven.
"Hermione, will you hurry up and share a room with Ron so he'll stop pretending he's better than me?" Ginny called without looking away from Harry.
"Leave me out of this, please, I've got more important problems than sibling rivalry to deal with. Things such as feeding all of us, and keeping us clothed and alive," Hermione answered with pronounced sarcasm.
"Someone would have woken up cheerier with a Weasley to keep her warm," Ginny snipped back.
"Girls, girls — you're BOTH the prettiest," came a loud voice from the stairwell. Scott strode down into the kitchen wearing the same rumpled and mud-streaked clothing he had the previous night. His hair was in a frightful state and it didn't look as if he'd slept at all.
Harry was just glad the girls had been interrupted before things had escalated. He was in enough pain without any screeching and Scott's condescending greeting would neatly pull all aggressions towards him. Harry, thinking of Scott's many manipulations, wondered if that had been the point.
"Why didn't you get any sleep?" Harry asked.
"I did sleep, just not in a bed. I camped out on the hallway floor outside your rooms. Ideally, if we were attacked, my hideous dying screams would wake you."
"Appreciated," Harry said wryly.
"In a much more likely scenario, you would blow up the entire building killing whatever it was that attacked you," Hermione said acerbically.
"Wow," Scott drawled. "Maybe you should have spooned with Ron last night."
"No, I should not have, and…" With a sigh, Hermione trailed off. "Why are we all arguing this morning? We have shopping to do and Horcruxes to find and we're all alive and we're all safe, and… and we should be grateful! And poor Kylie had to see all that violence because her parents are just horrible…"
Ron was at her side the minute her voice began to crack under the pressure of barely repressed tears. "Hermione, I'm sorry, we're just fooling around, nobody's really angry… Come here…"
"Oh…" Hermione buried her face in Ron's shoulder and made a few odd, stifled snorting noises.
Ron rubbed her back soothingly. "It's all right, love. It was a rough night, but we made it out okay."
"We did last night, but what about the next?" Hermione groaned into Ron's shirt, echoing Harry's own thoughts.
"Nothing we can do about that right now," Ginny said with a staunchness that was somewhat undermined by the trepidation in her eyes.
"I know. You're right, of course." Hermione sniffed a few times and raised her head, though she stayed in Ron's embrace. "I try to be strong all the time, but I think the shock just hit me, and… I'm sorry I snapped at you, Ginny."
Ginny shrugged dismissively. "Don't worry about it."
"I will worry about it, just a little," Hermione said, but she smiled. "Oh, dear. I think it was Kylie that sent me over the edge, I just can't imagine what she's going through…"
"We just have to be here for her," Ron said. "What else can we do?"
"Nothing. It's something she'll have to come to terms with," Hermione said sadly.
As Hermione pulled herself back together, Scott walked over to Harry and leaned towards him. "This is getting heavy," he remarked.
"I guess," Harry said uncomfortably. He supposed the trauma of the previous night might seem trivial to Scott. Either that or he was just trying to alleviate the mood with some of his tactless humour.
Whatever his reasoning, Scott switched his approach. "Kylie is asleep again. She cried herself out, finally."
Harry's heart sunk in his chest. "She was crying that long? Did… you tell her about her parents?"
"She didn't cry that long — it just took her that long to start crying. She was bottled up tight." Scott's countenance was compassionate, though something in his eyes went deeper than that (empathy, maybe, but the look passed over his face too quickly for Harry to catalogue, and then he was blank again). "I haven't told her our assumptions about her parents. To be honest, though, I'm not sure I'll have to. She's not stupid, and I don't think she would see something like that as being impossible for them. If she's already struggling to come to terms, I don't see any reason to interfere."
"I'm worried about leaving her here if we have to run off again. Kreacher isn't exactly good company," Harry said. "I know she can't go back to Hogwarts; they'd just take her again, especially now that they know we'd come for her. That's another mouth to feed, too. Money wouldn't be a problem if I could get into Gringotts, but…"
"Don't worry about cash. I took half of my bank with me, and Lil has the other half. She's not unreachable if we need it. That should get us where we need to go, depending on how long this lasts." Scott shrugged. "We may have to consider other eventualities. I can always get my hands on regular money, at least."
"You have that much?" Harry said with a start. Scott had never acted like he'd had a great deal of money… Then again, it wasn't like there was much use for pounds at Hogwarts.
"No. But I know where to get it."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't think we'll have time for you get a real job, mate."
Scott grinned, an expression that instantly made Harry forget he was conversing with Scott's adult self. "Yeah, probably not. But operations sometimes call for self-funding in a hurry."
"So… Like, just take out a loan?" Harry supposed taking out a Muggle loan would be an easy way to get money, especially since a Memory Charm would erase the debt quick enough. That was not very morally sound, of course. He definitely would not want to modify anyone's memory unless he absolutely had to.
What Scott said next took morality more or less out of the equation. "Drug money, usually. Maybe number rackets or prostitution, depending on time and place, but usually drug money. All cash, large amounts and untraceable. It doesn't even matter if you can't make it clean, it's just more drug violence."
Harry fought hard to disguise just how appalled he was. "Oh. Um… Look. I don't want to get involved in selling drugs, we've got more than enough problems without Muggle police looking for us too."
Scott sighed. "No, Harry, we don't sell the drugs. We steal money from the people who are selling the drugs! We don't have time to sell drugs, come on. One time during my GEP-ILT I was attached to a LEEM unit doing long-term Establishment. They needed a big influx of capital within a month to fund something the MOFA was doing. Anyway, they moved us out of Belgium and set up over Columbia. Two weeks later we hit the FARC, the ELN and the Calis all in the same forty-eight hours and got out with about six million."
"I am not going to Columbia to steal drug money."
"You don't have to; this is London! We don't need six million, but if we need a few thousand there's always a place."
"Okay, well let's look at what we got." Scott turned and waved a hand at Hermione. "Hermione, are you done freaking out?"
"Yes, and thank you for your concern," Hermione said tartly, stepping out of Ron's embrace. "What is it?"
"Break out the handbag and let's go over some things while we have the time."
"Wait a minute," Ron interrupted. "I'm not discussing anything without breakfast first, full stop."
"It's lunch, really," Ginny pointed out.
Ron nodded agreeably. "I'll have both. And supper, if we can manage it."
"Then I hope you like beans, because not much else has lasted." Hermione picked up one of the tins in question. "I think Mrs. Weasley took most of the food with her when she left after we were last here."
"To the store!" Scott declared.
"I have about sixty pounds I took from home," Hermione said. "I didn't feel comfortable taking any credit cards from my parents, they'll still need them…"
"There's money in one of those duffel bags I gave you," Scott said, unconcerned. "Come on, people in Islington have to shop somewhere."
"People in Islington aren't being hunted by Death Eaters," Harry said.
"Neither are we; not here, not yet. I've already been outside and there's nobody around but us and the normal humans you call Muggles, for some reason," Scott told them.
"And what is it you call them? Baseline? How is that less insulting?"
Hermione took a small breath in relief. "It's fortunate they haven't started looking around here yet, I just said we might have to go out further into London. It won't last, so let's gather up supplies while we can. I doubt there will be any Death Eaters at Tesco."
"Yes, let's pop out to the shop for tea and crisps, chaps," Scott proclaimed in a British accent that, while accurate, was unbearably posh.
Harry couldn't quite suppress the smile that brought. "Sure, just talk like that when we're at the shop, that won't draw any attention."
"Why didn't you just fake an accent when you came to Hogwarts?" Hermione wondered. "It's not as if you aren't capable of it."
"Because I didn't have to. Why keep track of an unfamiliar accent twenty-four hours a day when I can just say I'm an American?"
"So you could at least pretend to be more civilised," Hermione said, looking down her nose at him.
Scott crossed his arms and gave her a level look. "Should we talk about how the sun never set on the horror of British colonial practises, or just agree that every culture has its monsters, not that you know the first thing about mine?"
Hermione gestured at him dismissively. "Oh, don't get all snooty. You started this."
"Okay, obviously we need to go shopping, but we also shouldn't leave Kylie here by herself," Ginny said.
"I would stay, but it would not be in anyone's best interest to leave me and my many valuable skills behind. And I say that with total humility," Scott said gravely.
"That goes for me as well," Hermione said. "What do the rest of you bring to the table?"
"Bloody hell, Hermione. Way to make a bloke feel useless," Ron groused.
"Now who's being snooty?" Harry said.
"I was joking and you know it," Hermione told them. "Scott, on the other hand…"
"Is indispensable, always. Now, we could discuss this store trip all day…" Scott began.
"And probably will," Harry grumbled.
"…But in the interest of expediency, how about we lay this out on a D6 or draw straws or whatever it is you British people do."
"I've got a better idea: I'll just decide who's going," Harry said flatly.
Scott hummed in interest and nodded his head slowly. "Hmm, Harry attempts to act unilaterally… But how will that go over with the masses?"
"Take a guess," Ginny said with a glare towards Harry.
"She won't be mad if you pick her," Scott said.
Harry ignored them. "We're all going. Scott, go wake Kylie up. She'll be safer with all of us than she would be here with one person. Besides, this way she can pick out whatever food she likes."
Scott grinned. "Common sense? Why, Harry, when did you develop that?"
"It's a work in progress. Go on, get Kylie. Hermione, let's see if we can make a quick list."
Hermione walked down the cereal aisle and felt out of place.
She wasn't quite sure what to make of that, since of all her friends she was the most likely to be familiar with a Muggle grocery (with the possible exception of Scott). She had often gone shopping with her father as a child. She very much doubted that Harry had ever been taken shopping by the Dursleys. Ron and Ginny had limited contact with Muggle society, and Kylie probably didn't even know what ninety percent of the products on the shelves even were.
Hermione's own discomfort stemmed from the realisation that the world of aisles, dairy refrigerators and microwave meals was no longer familiar to her. Her summers at home were filled with holidays and time spent at the house with her family. It had been a while since she had gone shopping anywhere but Diagon Alley.
She glanced around the shelves again nervously. She knew that appearing fearful would only draw attention to herself but it was hard not to be wary. There were no robes or wands in sight. It was evening, so instead of a crowd of mothers and small children there was a smattering of diverse adults wandering the shop. It might have been better for her nerves if the place was emptier. However, she knew that concealment demanded other patrons. Her ragtag group of teens plus two blended in well enough once separated.
The low ceiling and thin shelves didn't do much to muffle sound. Around the corner in the next aisle Scott was speaking to Kylie. "How about sugary stuff? Do you like sweets?"
Hermione didn't hear any response from Kylie. The girl had been almost completely silent since she had been roused from bed, and never moved more than a few feet away from Scott. She was a soundless, bedraggled shadow for the Kharadjai, and Hermione worried not only about the slight girl's state of mind but also the concern her demeanour might draw from strangers.
Either Kylie had nodded in reply or Scott had decided for her, because there was the sound of a box being dropped in his shopping trolley. "Okay, we'll try them."
What were they going to do about Kylie? Hermione pondered that question as she meandered over towards the dairy section, where Harry and Ron were. The poor girl couldn't go back to her home, not after her escape. And while there was no way of knowing what Hogwarts would be like once it reopened, Hermione assumed the worst. It probably wouldn't be safe for anyone, but especially not for Kylie.
And yet Grimmauld Place was hardly suitable quarters for a traumatised child. With the Horcrux hunt ongoing she would be left there, alone, for days or weeks at a time. Hermione plucked a jar of pasta sauce off the shelf and spun it in her hands idly as she thought. Perhaps Kylie would be better off in Lila's care, safe wherever the Weasleys had taken refuge.
Hermione winced when yet another thought occurred to her. Kylie would not take separation from Scott well. He was her lifeline, her only point of familiarity and safety. That wasn't reason enough to risk her well being, of course, but it could be problematic.
Further up the next aisle, she discovered that Kylie wasn't the only one trying out sweets.
"Really, Harry?" she said to him, crossing her arms. "All this time and all you've got is an armload of Jaffa Cakes!"
"I like them," Harry said defensively.
"So do I, but they aren't exactly a rounded diet. Scott has a trolley over there, why don't you drop them in and then find something we could make a meal out of?"
"I was getting to that."
Meanwhile, Ron and Ginny were loading bottled water into a different trolley. Hermione approached them with a nod of satisfaction. "At least someone is getting something useful."
"Do we really need all this? Grimmauld Place has water," Ron said.
"I know, but these will be good in an emergency."
"How much Muggle money do we even have?" Ginny wondered. "Is water expensive? We've got loads of it."
"Quieter, please, Ginny," Hermione nervously reprimanded, looking around for anyone listening in. "We're Muggles too, remember. Don't worry about money. Scott has enough for whatever we buy here."
"I don't really want to owe him anything," Ginny complained.
Hermione rolled her eyes. She herself had plenty of issues with Scott, many of which they had worked out through the medium of heated arguments, but even she didn't think he would be so petty. "Nonsense. I doubt it's even his money, now go on. See if you can find some sacks of flour."
She should have known a group trip to the shop would end up with her supervising the entire experience. Scott was too busy seeing to Kylie to direct the shopping frenzy, Harry had hardly any experience in a Muggle shop and Ron and Ginny had none, full stop. Although hadn't Mrs. Weasley bought food and other things at Muggle shops in town? Hermione supposed that if Ron or Ginny had been in attendance at any point, they had been very young.
She went back to Scott and Kylie, who were rolling their trolley down an aisle stocked with crisps and other salty snack foods. Kylie was holding out a bag for Scott's perusal.
"No, I'm not supposed to eat Twiglets. They make me violent," Scott said. "What about nacho chips? See if you can find some nacho chips."
Kylie dutifully began searching the shelves. Hermione went over to Scott to inspect his chosen purchases more closely. He had selected a wide variety of goods, ranging from tinned soup to paper towels. There didn't seem to be any overarching method to his choices, or at least not one that Hermione could establish.
"All the stuff on the bottom will last," Scott said, noticing her examination. "Now I'm just getting whatever. How about the other cart?"
"Ron filled it with bottled water, primarily. Harry seems to be wandering about gathering up biscuits."
"Well, as long as he's doing something."
Kylie came trotting back with a large bag of Doritos. Mutely, she held it out to Scott.
He reached out and took it. "Tangy Cheese, huh? Well, that's probably like nacho cheese. Good work, Kylie. Hey, why don't you pick out something that looks good? Surprise me."
Kylie turned to her new task, studying each new item of food with a seriousness that they really didn't deserve. Her steps were short and hesitant and she paused frequently in rigid poses, hands clasped, the very picture of deep uncertainty.
"She hasn't said a single word all day," Scott said quietly to Hermione. "I'm afraid if I stop trying to engage her she'll just fold in on herself completely."
Hermione did not know what to say to that; she had no answers. "…Keep trying," she said finally. "You're all she has left right now."
"Ouch. That's probably worse than having nothing at all," Scott chuckled, giving her a knowing glance.
In truth, Hermione felt more than a little insulted that he would presume that was her opinion. Did he think her so cruel? Scott wasn't perfect, but he'd been a godsend for Kylie and more than a little helpful to the rest of them. "That's not true, don't say that."
Scott frowned. "I was joking."
"I know, but it wasn't funny. She needs you."
"And I can't always be there," Scott sighed.
"I've been thinking about that. We could put her with the Weasleys; Lila will be there too, which is even better. We just need to know where they're hiding."
"Lil said something about a Fido Charm, isn't that the same magic as Grimmauld Place?"
Hermione nodded. "Fidelius, and yes they are, and therein lies the problem. I know your 'apertures' can circumvent that protection itself, but she'll still need the Secret Keeper to reveal the place to her or she won't even be able to know where she is. I'm not sure what the effects of that would be… I'd assume very disorienting, and perhaps even dangerous."
"Even if you get past the ward you still can't know where you are?"
"That's my understanding. There's no precedent that I'm aware of, I'd have to do some research. Lila is most likely a secondary Secret Keeper — she can't tell anyone else about the location. Or, well, I suppose she's a Kharadjai so she could break her own enchantment, but then should theoretically lose her own knowledge of the location… Unless you can stop the spell from doing that as well?"
"I have no idea. I'm the first integrated Kharadjai in this universe, there's no basis of information for how I can interact with magic."
"Of course, even if she did break the enchantment and revealed the location, the spell should prevent a witch or wizard from gaining the knowledge regardless, without being tied to the spell by the Secret Keeper themselves," Hermione continued musing, before shaking her head in exasperation. "Oh, my, that's quite a puzzle. I'd love to experiment, but this would be an exceedingly poor time for it."
"So, as a secondary Secret Keeper…?"
"You can't reveal the location of Grimmauld to others. You just know it yourself."
"Okay, but if everything you just supposed is true, then why wasn't Kylie affected when you Apparated her in?"
"I took precautions," Hermione said with a touch of smugness. "I gave her a piece of paper with the address on it when we were at the top of the hill. I thought if she wasn't told she might be unable to Disapparate with us at all."
Scott looked disappointed. "Oh. And we could have learned so much."
"At the risk of leaving her before a horde of charging Death Eaters?" Hermione said incredulously. Surely even Scott would not be so ruthless, not to learn something that might not even be important.
"No, no. It's better this way."
"That's what I thought."
Hermione turned her head and look back down the aisle at Kylie's small outline, her slender, timid hands gently picking up snacks and putting them back exactly as she had found them. She looked lost and ragged, wearing clothes too big for her with her strawberry blond hair in tangles and scratches covering her arms and ankles. She looked like a refugee.
"Scott," Hermione said softly, "do you think we can win this?"
"Yes." Scott did not hesitate and stated it with total conviction.
"Did you just say that because you know it's what I needed to hear?"
"What do you really believe?" Hermione asked him, well aware she was unlikely to get a real answer.
"I believe Riddle still doesn't understand what he's up against. And it will cost him."
"And once he does understand?"
Scott grinned. "Then things get interesting." When Hermione stared back at him, the smile collapsed and he sighed. "Look… I can't tell you the future. You can't know what doesn't exist; it's just a word we use to express and simplify a complicated combination of causality, probability, chaos and the gradual changing of spacetime. And then there's the shape. So if you're wanting some kind of oracle…"
"No, that's not at all what I meant," Hermione said impatiently. "I just wanted an honest answer."
"Yes, from you! I wanted to know how you felt about our chances. Obviously, that was a mistake."
"Okay, fine. Then in my professional opinion, we're doing all right at this time. We have successfully hidden from superior enemy forces, escaped from them on multiple occasions and won every combat encounter to date. We have goals to pursue and the ability to pursue them. We're losing our support structure from the wizarding world, but we're establishing our own. Intelligence gathering and force composition remain standing issues."
Hermione liked how easily Scott could break the situation down into individual components to be managed and improved. He was an alien soldier, of course, and the way he saw things was not always applicable to the magical world, but it was still nice to hear.
Kylie came trotting back with a bag of caramel popcorn, which she diffidently placed on top of the pile already in the shopping trolley.
"Ooo, popcorn," Scott said.
Later, when they all reconvened at the front of the shop to pay, Scott extracted a sizeable stack of pound notes from his pocket. The staff member at the register blinked in surprise, but the look on Scott's face didn't invite questions.
"Load it up in the car, kids," Scott said, ushering Kylie out of the store with a hand on her back.
The car had been retrieved from Scott's flat. It had taken time to drive it from Ottery St. Catchpole to London, which was why they had ended up shopping in the late evening. There wasn't anywhere to store a car at Grimmauld Place; it would have to remain in a car park nearby.
It was an oddly comfortable trip, despite how cramped the car was. Ron had been afforded the passenger seat due to his long legs, which left four of them packed in the back. Fortunately, Kylie was a small presence. She sat behind the driver's seat, alternating between leaning against the window and Ginny's shoulder. Scott tapped his fingers on the wheel in time with the radio — Hermione thought she recognised The Kinks but he had it turned down low. His attention was elsewhere as he moved smoothly through traffic with a practised hand, his eyes assessing every shop front and alleyway. The groceries in the car boot rattled and rustled and nobody felt like talking.
When they arrived at Grimmauld Place, Scott drove past it without stopping. Hermione understood his intent. The others seemed more confused, and Ron opened his mouth to point out Scott's 'mistake'.
Scott beat him to it. "Eyes?" he said impatiently, as if he had already expected something from the rest of them and they were tardy.
"We all have them," Harry said.
Scott sighed and turned onto a side street that would take them back in the other direction. "Call out targets, people. Give me eyes, three-sixty. You know what to look for."
The second pass down the street revealed nothing out of the ordinary. There were a few passing cars and a bare scattering of Muggle pedestrians. Scott helped them unload the supplies and then drove away to where the car would be kept.
"Maybe I should have gone with him," Harry fretted.
"He can park a car, mate, he'll be fine," Ron said.
It took time to carry all the food downstairs where it was sorted and stored. Hermione didn't know how much money Scott had left. He was about as forthcoming as ever as to the background specifics of his work. She sometimes wondered if much of what he knew was considered classified by his mysterious government. It was an uneasy thought: what if he was under orders to withhold vital information? Such a directive would seem to run contrary to his mission objectives and therefore unlikely, but she never could be certain about much when it came to Scott (a source of their frequent clashes, she knew).
Ginny was examining the Muggle snack food with great interest. Her mum probably hadn't bought that sort of thing and most of the food hoarded by students at Hogwarts had been from Hogsmeade. She started to open Scott's prized bag of nacho crisps and Hermione quickly stopped her.
"Let's not open those. They'll be good for awhile and it's early days yet," she said. They were also Scott's, and Hermione had no wish to mediate the conflict that would erupt if he found Ginny eating his precious nacho cheese.
Ginny dropped the crisps with a put-upon sigh. "Hermione, I'm bloody starving!"
"I bought some scones for today, they're in that bag. Just leave enough for everybody!" Hermione said, raising her voice as her friends descended on the package.
Kylie hadn't moved, of course, so Hermione made sure to grab an extra scone for the girl before someone else unthinkingly ate it. With any luck she might be able to coax Kylie to eat without Scott's intervention. While Kylie followed Scott like a lost lamb — which she was, really — she did seem to have some measure of trust in the rest of them (save for Ron, who seemed to intimidate her).
"All right, what's next?" Harry said, munching on his scone.
"Clean this place up again?" Hermione suggested. It seemed their stay at Grimmauld Place would not be temporary and she would prefer more sanitary surroundings.
Ron groaned, Ginny winced and Harry's expression made clear how unenthusiastic he was at the prospect. "Um, maybe we can clean as we go? We've got a lot of stuff to handle that's more important," he said.
"Very well…" Hermione said, disappointed but not surprised that her suggestion had not been well received. "I believe our first priority should be gaining the means to destroy the locket. I would like to be able to get rid of the other Horcruxes as soon as we find them."
"We could clear out the dining hall, put some protective spells up and…" Harry trailed off. "I don't know. Did you have a spell in mind?"
Hermione shook her head regretfully. "I'm afraid not. I've haven't found anything that would help us. I think we would need something specific to the task. But we do know a different alternative: basilisk venom."
"That's not something we can just buy, is it?" Ron asked.
"No. Not legally, anyway. But we know it works, and we have a source."
"The Chamber," Ginny said in a small voice.
"It wasn't your fault," Harry said immediately, stepping closer to take her hand.
"It certainly wasn't, Ginny," Hermione told her. "And besides, that basilisk might save us."
Scott came thundering down the stairs, making more noise than anyone else had. No doubt he did so intentionally to broadcast his presence. "Car is parked," he announced.
"Good. We were just discussing the use of basilisk venom on the Horcruxes, there's some we can retrieve at Hogwarts."
"Okay. Do we have a plan to get in?"
"The tunnels, maybe… They're sort of well known at this point, though," Harry said thoughtfully.
"The plan will have to come later. There are things we still need to see to, like your strongbox, Scott," Hermione said. "I also need to talk to you about the Fidelius Charm. I've had an idea but only you can tell me if it's possible."
"Better eat some thinking food, then," Scott said lazily. "Kylie, did you eat?"
Kylie had eaten about half of the scone that had been given to her, which was more than Hermione had expected. She raised the partially eaten treat for Scott's inspection.
"Okay, good. Try to eat some more." Scott turned a dark eye on Ron. "If you ate all of my scones, son, it's about to get tragic."
"Nice, mate, just threaten me right off," Ron protested.
"History is on my side." Scott stuffed nearly an entire scone in his mouth and then turned to Harry. "When you're up for it, I have something for you."
Harry thumbed the lever and released the lock, his skin abraded and stinging from the textured surface of the metal. He reached out with his left hand and snapped open the breach, remembering at the last second to turn the barrels so the shells ejected out and to the right instead of hitting his chest. He extracted the ammunition from his pocket and fumbled slightly when withdrawing, almost dropping one. By putting them between his fingers with the brass portion against his thumb he could insert both simultaneously and seat them with his palm. It was a technique he had yet to master, and he grimaced when the top shell glanced off the rim before he managed to get it in. Finally, he shut the breach and pulled back the hammer.
"I said 'faster'," Scott reminded.
Harry scowled but didn't respond, raising the shotgun to his shoulder.
Scott reached over to the tray of china cups that Hermione had reluctantly conjured. "Quick acquisition," he said, bouncing one in his hand. "Identify, aim, fire."
So he kept saying, but since the targets consisted solely of the identical tea cups the 'identify' part of things hadn't meant much. Harry's ears rang, his shoulder ached and his arms were growing tired, but he refused to end the training session. Scott's discovery in the attic had given Harry a new connection to his godfather, a sense of purpose he had needed and a loud, violent outlet for his darker emotions that he had needed even more.
"Just throw the damn thing," he told Scott irritably.
Scott shrugged. "Okay, but you need to keep your—"
In mid-sentence he hurled down the long stone room, low and fast. Harry was startled by the unexpected action and reacted badly. He spun and fired without fully raising the weapon to his shoulder. Without proper bracing the recoil sent him back a step and the shot went wide, cracking against the charmed mattresses they were using as a stop. Apparently the Imperturbable could only take so much; there was a bright flash and then feathers burst from a newly created hole. The cup shattered against the floor and the pieces scattered into the corner to join the rest.
Scott sighed and shook his head, gazing mournfully at the ruining mattress. "That mattress was two days from retirement."
Harry lowered his weapon and rotated his aching arm. "We really shouldn't be doing this inside."
"Yeah, okay. Let's go shoot skeet in the middle of London."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I didn't say that. But this isn't safe, is it?"
"Not for your ears. Might do your upper body some good," Scott said, punching Harry in the shoulder.
It was a friendly blow with no real weight behind it and it was still like getting smacked with a cricket bat. Harry winced and rubbed his already sore appendage. "Ow. Are we done?"
"Yeah, we're done."
Harry turned to leave and was stopped when Scott caught him by the back of his shirt. He tugged out of the grip. "What now?"
"You're not walking out of here with that thing loaded. Drop your ammo and clear it."
Harry grudgingly ejected his remaining shell and pulled the trigger, resetting the hammer. "You're always going around fully armed," he accused.
"For which I am fully trained and certified. How much training do you have? Hmm, oh, that's right, a little session in the woods and then tonight, so maybe an hour and fifteen minutes?"
"What if we get attacked?" Harry demanded. "What then?"
"I presume you still remember how to use magic. Or at least you'd better if we're going to win this thing." Scott grabbed the dusty box of shells and closed it. "Keep a few with you, just don't leave them in the chamber."
Scott had a point. Safety was important, and Harry's other friends were uncomfortable enough around the gun as it was. Hermione especially seemed distrustful of the weapon, which was odd considering her Muggle origins… Or perhaps she was reacting more to the fact that it was in Harry's hands. He supposed that was fair, if a little insulting.
He looked down at the shotgun, savouring the heft and imagining Sirius doing the same. There was a tinge of guilt in the pleasure, though. Had Sirius really threatened Kreacher with the gun? That had been the theory espoused by Scott, and while Harry didn't like the thought it did make a lot of sense. The decrepit elf had not been seen again since his confrontation with Scott.
Later that day, during lunch, Hermione leaned forward on the table and caught Scott's attention. "Scott, I'd like to discuss my idea with you."
Scott took another bite of his sandwich. "Shoot."
"I remember you saying you could identify certain 'threads' attached to the charm, and that it might be possible to separate individuals from it."
"I also asked you if that would destroy the spell entirely."
"Yes, and honestly I have no idea. But if we can't monopolise the Secret Keeping again, this building will not be secure, regardless." She frowned in thought. "There are still curses in place to prevent Snape from entering or telling anyone. He is not our only concern, though."
"So you want me to cut him off," Scott guessed.
"Actually, I was wondering if it might be easier to remove everyone who isn't in this room?"
"Hold on, what about the family?" Ginny said.
"They have their own Fidelius now, they're perfectly safe," Hermione assured her. "I don't want to exclude them either, but I've given this a lot of thought and we don't know how many people have access to this place. Between Snape and the entire Order, that's too many Secret Keepers. Even Fletcher is a Secret Keeper now, God only knows whom he might have told…"
Harry had not forgotten Mundungus. His anger flared as he remembered the stolen suitcase and the mess upstairs. If there was profit to be made from being a Secret Keeper, then no doubt Mundungus would capitalise on it.
"Dung'd probably sell to the highest bidder," Ron scoffed.
Hermione concurred. "He's proven untrustworthy. A clean sweep is our best option, leaving just us as Secret Keepers — save Scott and Kylie, of course."
Harry glanced across the table to where Kylie was nibbling on a slice of cheese she had removed from her sandwich. By unspoken consensus it seemed they had all stopped trying to keep anything from her. There didn't seem to be much point to it, not after everything she had already witnessed. She probably understood very little of what was being said, but she kept her eyes on her food and asked no questions. He understood that particular brand of self-absorbed pain.
"Can it be done?" Hermione asked Scott.
"Yeah, probably. I mean, there's only one way to find out, and I can't guarantee the spell with remain intact," Scott said around a mouthful of lettuce.
"I understand. If it comes to that, we'll leave." She looked around the table. "Well? What are your opinions on this? I'm not making this decision alone!"
"You were doing just fine, I thought," Ron sniggered.
"Do it," Harry said. If it worked, they would be safe. If it didn't, he wouldn't be sorry to leave.
"It sounds like the best plan," Ginny said agreeably.
"Kylie, what about you?" Scott turned to the girl.
Kylie seemed to shrink when their eyes focused on her. She slumped in her seat and shrugged her thin shoulders.
"Good enough for me. I'll need time to parse this out. If you need me, I'll be upstairs on that couch." Scott pushed himself to his feet and belched loudly.
"Right. Don't strain yourself," Ginny snarked.
"Ah, Virginia… Your ignorance isn't even amusing anymore."
"Ginevra!" she seethed.
Scott ignored her, traipsing up the stairs with Kylie at his heels. For his part, Harry was tempted to go back to the dining hall and fire off a few more rounds. No doubt Scott would insist on supervision, though. Grimmauld Place did not offer much in the way of recreation. Hermione retained nearly full control of all the reading material, which was likely for the best. Past experience indicated that having Harry or Ron participate directly in her literary research would only serve to slow her down.
He had already thoroughly explored the premises on previous occasions and had no wish to unearth any memories. So when they all went their separate ways Harry remained in his chair and tried to stave off the dark thoughts which always came seeping in when the future loomed large in his mind. It was hard to believe it had only been a couple days since the wedding; it felt like a lifetime. At least they hadn't been sitting around, waiting for the fight to come to them… Not that they'd had the chance. He wondered if, outnumbered as they were, there would always be too many fires to extinguish. Would they run themselves ragged fighting a war too large for them to win? He slumped over in his chair, brow furrowing.
His brooding was interrupted by his best defence against it. "I know that look," Ginny said. She seated herself in his lap and wrapped her arms around him. "This should help."
He returned the gesture. Her warmth had a way of thawing the fear that gripped his heart. "It always does."
They sat like that for a long moment. Harry was just beginning to calculate how long he could remain in such a position before he lost circulation to his legs when Ginny began to speak again.
"I didn't get you anything for your birthday," she said guiltily.
She was still thinking about that? Harry barely cared that he'd even had a birthday. "It's fine, Gin. I honestly don't care, my birthday doesn't matter now and didn't matter much when it happened."
"I care!" she told him. "And you should, too, if only for all the effort Mum and Lila made. She gave you a cake."
That made Harry feel a bit bad. He hadn't thought of it like that. "You're right. It was a good cake, too…"
"…I did have something. Something in mind, I mean," she said quietly after a pause.
He debated whether he should express interest or point out the irrelevancy of the discussion. The first option was safer. "What was that? That is, if you want to tell me. I can always wait."
"I almost didn't bring it up, since I…" She stopped. It was strange seeing her so hesitant. "It was kind of an impulse."
He didn't know what she was talking about. And, really, he just wanted her to understand that it didn't matter. He didn't need any more presents. He was alive and he had her with him, which was more than he had expected. "Are you going to tell me? Or is it still a secret?" he asked, humouring her.
She looked up and met his gaze seriously. "I'm not a slag," she said defensively, as if that were something he needed to hear. "I'm not."
Now he was completely confused. "Uh… I know that, Ginny. I never thought you were… I don't think you are."
"But, I thought maybe, since this is so dangerous and if… I mean, if I wasn't going to make it—"
He did not want to hear that. "You're going to make it," he said with the kind of firm desperation that comes from the impossibility of believing otherwise.
"But if I don't—"
His teeth clenched. "You will."
"Harry! I'm just saying that I was a bit scared and thinking about things, and then it was your birthday and, well, we haven't been dating very long but I feel like we've been together forever, and all I could offer was…" She looked away. "…Me."
She was sitting in his lap and they were entwined in a tight embrace. He wasn't sure how he could be said to not have her at that moment. "So… What's this, then? You aren't really here?"
She groaned with exasperation. "Stop being thick, Harry! I thought we might… do it."
She couldn't be suggesting what he thought she was. He recalled his earlier thoughts, his self-recrimination at similar presumptions. "…I must be missing something."
"You aren't, but you're doing a good job at pretending," she told him. She was blushing, he noted with shock. "Sex, Harry. I thought we could have sex. I didn't want to die a virgin."
Lust was immediately subsumed by terror. "You're not going to die at all."
"Probably not," she sighed. "But that's what I was thinking. I lost my nerve, after all that's happened. I guess… Given the time to think about it, you know, I guess I wasn't so ready."
If he were direct with himself (which was difficult, considering the images her confession had sent spinning through his mind), he knew he wasn't ready for that, either. He had decided as much earlier, and nothing had changed since. "It's a big decision, or so I hear," he said, trying to bring some humour into the conversation.
"You aren't upset, are you?" She risked a glance up at him. "I know it's a bit shit for me to bring it up and then tell you I changed my mind… Now I'm just a tease."
He did sort of wish he'd never heard about her intentions or her change of heart, but it was too late for that. "It's all right. And you're not a tease or a slag or any of that other rubbish. You're just being honest."
She pressed her cheek against his shoulder and sighed. "I'll have to get you something else. Sorry."
"It can't possibly be as good," he said in a rough approximation of Scott's leering tone.
She wiggled on his lap in a self-satisfied sort of way and laughed. "Of course not. But it will have to do… for now." She whispered the last part directly in his ear, making him shiver.
Harry didn't expect anything from her; every new offering was accepted with gratitude. He was still amazed she let him touch her at all.
He hoped he could never take her for granted.
You may have wondered where I've been. Or maybe not, seeing as I tend to disappear anyway. I've just spent two months away from home without internet or even a computer with which to type. However, I was not entirely unproductive. I continued to write by hand and must now attempt to take the notebooks I filled and turn them into something readable while deciphering my own inscrutable handwriting. Calligraphy will never be a viable hobby, I can tell you that.
No questions this time, my treasured readers. Let me know what you thought of the chapter instead of answering my inane queries.