“See you standing by the window I see you lifting up that glass You know I’m right there with you Come on, let’s make it last Tonight, we’ll be just fine Yeah, we’ll feel alright Got to toast to no tomorrows Gonna drink back the night”
—Hometown Strangers, Fifty Ounce Anthem
“I think it’s okay,” Sophie said. She released Lila’s foot, which she had been probing with her thumbs. “Does it still hurt?”
“Of course. You know how this works,” Lila said, slipping her sock back on.
“Yes, but it would be worse if it was numb.”
“There’s something to be said for numbness.” Lila grunted when she set her foot back on the floor.
The impromptu examination was taking place in the drawing room. The mission board still sat on the wall, a vivid reminder of their recent success. Sophie wanted to save it for posterity. She was very much in favour of forward planning, and the board was a monument to the efficiency of a well-prepared operation. Besides, Scott and Lila weren’t particularly diligent when it came to the preservation of UO artefacts (or at least Scott wasn’t when it came to the ones that had nothing to do with pop culture or weaponry). They tended to not go the extra mile when it involved extra paperwork.
“Getting trashed at the party?” Lila said with a hint of a smile.
“No. Are you?”
“I have to get Kylie and re-join the Order soon. I might not be here.”
“And I have to be the one sober person in the house, especially if Kylie is here.”
Lila rolled her eyes. “Scott won’t be drinking.”
“He’d better not,” Sophie muttered, seating herself on the couch. “We don’t have the money for it. I should never have let this happen.”
“It’s not your call, Strauss. If Scott thinks this is good for integration—”
“Bribing under-age Primes with alcohol?!” Sophie interrupted. “I know he’s not Centric School, but this is out of line. And since when does he give the Primes whatever they want?”
Lila lay down on the couch and propped her foot up on the arm rest, blocking Sophie in. “He’s giving them what they think they want. And they aren’t under-age.”
“Well…” Sophie’s argument faltered internally. She was self-aware enough to know her objections were strong because they were based on her upbringing and cultural background, and because of Scott’s own history. That didn’t really change how she felt about it, though. “I just don’t know what he’s thinking,” she settled on saying.
“Don’t be a buzzkill,” was Lila’s less than helpful advice.
Sophie tossed her hands up. “Woo-hoo, yeah, let’s all poison ourselves and throw up on things!”
“You do get it.”
Sophie huffed in exasperation. “I don’t get it. What’s so fun about being really sick?”
“That comes after.” Lila closed her eyes and began carefully rotating her freshly healed foot. “Why not try it? Down a bottle, laugh too hard at everything, give Scott a sloppy BJ and tell me all about it in the morning, minus the BJ part.”
“I’m not doing any of those things.”
One grey eye partially opened, assessing her. “Could be what you and Scott need.”
Sophie was not in the mood to be needled. “What I need is for you to stop being a jerk.”
The eye closed. “How about you go be absolutely no fun somewhere else, then, and let the rest of us relax.”
Sophie tried not to be hurt by the dismissal, but she was. “You know what? Fine! You can all go drink chemicals and ruin your organs without stick-in-the-mud Sophie around.” She lifted Lila’s leg out the way and ducked under it, striding out of the room.
“You’re being dramatic,” Lila called after her.
Maybe so, but Sophie was good and steamed and just going with it. She worked and worked to make the house nice and provide food and do tricky magic things that no one else could do (no one else! Just her!), but her opinion apparently still counted for nothing. And while Lila had been more teasing than anything else, it still was far from the first time in Sophie’s life that she had been accused of being no fun, and it upset her. She liked fun just fine, thank you very much, she just preferred it not involve vomiting. (In the back of her mind she knew that drinking really was a decision the Primes had to make for themselves, but it was more satisfying to be angry).
The real question was what to do about Kylie. Grimmauld’s youngest resident was due to be collected by Lila within the next couple of hours. There had already been some debate as to whether it would be better to leave her in the Order’s care indefinitely, but in the end, it wasn’t as if she were safer under one Fidelius over another. Besides, she was safer in Sophie’s near-constant company than with Trevor’s mother. Sophie wanted Kylie to come back; she was fond of the girl and knew that Kylie considered Grimmauld to be home. A drunken party, however, was no place for a twelve-year-old.
Sophie considered asking Lila to delay. At least that way Kylie could see everyone hung over and remorseful, which was the only aspect of drinking she needed to be exposed to. And Scott would (for once) be a good example.
Sophie’s mood darkened further when she heard the distinctive clink of bottles coming from the kitchen. She considered avoiding it entirely, but that was her clean kitchen, darn it, and nobody had better be messing it up.
Scott was at the kitchen table with Hermione, arranging a slightly wider assortment of liquor than she had assumed he’d be able to afford. Apparently, Lila had made a more generous donation to the drink fund than she should have. Sophie briefly considered going back upstairs to have some more words with her friend.
“It’s all cheap,” Scott was saying as he turned the bottles so the labels aligned. “As cheap as this shit gets, anyway. Well, okay; not bottom of the barrel, but I’m not shelling out thirty pounds for something older than you.”
“I doubt Ron and Harry are that discerning,” Hermione said dryly.
“You’ll be happy to know your champagne comes in a glass bottle, not a box,” Scott said, lifting it for her inspection.
“Does it have a cork to pop?”
“Of course. You gotta have that.”
“That’s a good party detail. Or will that make it feel like New Year’s?”
“Hey, New Year’s isn’t that far away.”
“True. Oh, perhaps we should wait and make this a Christmas party?”
“Nah, don’t get drunk on Christmas. Keep it classy. You get drunk at the parties that happen before Christmas. Like this one.”
“I have no intention of getting drunk,” Hermione stated.
“Then you can join me in sobriety. And Sophie, who’s standing in the stairwell and eavesdropping like a creep.”
“You’re a creep,” Sophie shot back, stomping down into the kitchen.
“That’s not relevant. Also, why are you so pissed off?” Scott asked.
Sophie pointed at the collected booze. “You’re really asking?”
Scott sighed. “Sophie, this is one of those times you need to let people hurt themselves a little.”
“But it’s so bad for you!” she almost wailed. “Why not something else? Why didn’t you get them a little marijuana?”
Hermione’s jaw nearly hit the table. “What?”
Scott chortled gleefully. “Ah, I was wondering if this little cultural divide would ever come up.”
Sophie frowned, not sure what he meant. She thought over her limited knowledge of western GEP standards. “…Um, yes, that’s illegal. But so is under-age drinking!”
Scott turned to Hermione, who was still aghast. “See, Sophie doesn’t realise what side of the argument she’s on, relative to your cultural norms. She’s got her feet planted into two places: the objective medical fact that alcohol is way worse for your body than marijuana, and a rather strong Veccian bias against drink. Go temperance.”
“I am not in the League!” Sophie countered. “If you were just talking about some drinking for enjoyment, well, I guess that’s not an entirely unhealthy choice—”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Hermione interjected.
“—but we all know there’s binging planned and that is… not good!”
“Well put,” Scott said. “But, again, not your decision. Now, if these—” he flicked his nails against the bottles with a series of tinny clinks, “—should interfere with the mission at some point in the future, I’ll be right there with you.”
“That would be unacceptable,” Hermione agreed. She then added, very strongly, “As would marijuana.”
Sophie certainly wasn’t going to press that issue. Marijuana was far less deleterious than alcohol, but it could just as easily be abused. She’d just as soon not have any drugs introduced to Grimmauld; other than antibiotics, anaesthetics and other necessities, of course.
“There’s also the question of music,” Scott said, wisely changing the subject.
Hermione frowned in thought. “I honestly can’t recall Ron listening to much of anything. Ginny has a slight preference for the Weird Sisters, though I wouldn’t call her a real enthusiast. And Harry… I have no idea. I doubt the Dursleys ever allowed him any records. I don’t know what he’s familiar with.”
“Good thing we have you and your refined taste in Muggle music,” Scott said.
Hermione treated him with a level look. “As if you know the first thing about my taste in music.”
Scott flipped a dismissive hand in her direction. “I can guess.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise we had a resident expert.” Hermione crossed her arms. “What’s my favourite album?”
Scott leaned forward and squinted at her for a long, intense moment. “…’(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’,” he said, relaxing.
Hermione scoffed and looked away. “You got lucky.”
Sophie was far more engaged by talk of music than she had been of alcohol. “We could move the table, and put lights on the ceiling, and Lila could sing something—”
“Sophie, there’s less than ten of us,” Scott said, dashing her imaginings. “You’ll have to wait to arrange your second prom.”
“My second what?”
Scott made a sound of understanding and restated, “The venue is a little small for a début twenty-two.”
That ended Sophie’s short dream of a classy dance party. She had some very mixed memories of her début. “Well… we can still have music.”
“I’m sure something will be on the stereo while everyone sits in a circle in one of the bedrooms and take turns doing shots until someone chukes in a drawer.”
Sophie frowned at him. “Ha ha. Maybe not everyone wants a gross ‘party’ like that.”
“I don’t know, they were pretty popular in the Fleet.”
“We don’t need to talk about what’s popular in the Fleet,” Sophie said with distaste.
“We probably won’t all be able to agree on one thing,” Hermione said reasonably. “We can always let the radio decide.”
“Or me. Just saying,” Scott said a bit too casually.
Hermione looked uncertain. “You’d probably subject us to some bizarre futuristic Kharadjai music that sounds like industrial machinery, or some such thing.”
“Futuristic? You guys already have that.”
Sophie was offended on her culture’s behalf. “I have a nice collection of classically arranged strings.”
“Yeah, Sophie’s right, her music is boring,” Scott said. “I’ll show you guys how to rock.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “As I said, the radio must arbitrate.”
“I can teach you how to thrash…” Scott wheedled.
“As enticing as that sounds, I’ll just have to do without.”
Sophie’s mental picture of her preferred party was going up in smoke. “There’s nothing wrong with my music for a party,” she said defensively.
“Eh, we should go tech-eq contemporary though,” Scott said. “Probably Muggle.”
“You’re just saying that so you can play your loud, sad stuff!” Sophie retorted. “The Primes already know about plenty of Kharadjai things.”
“Sometimes it’s loud and angry,” Scott said mildly.
“We’ll talk about it later, it’s not up to just us, anyway,” Sophie said, tired of the argument and just about tired of the entire concept of a party. “I’m going to tell Lila to wait until tomorrow to get Kylie.”
“What? No, don’t do that,” Scott protested. “She’ll be crushed if we exclude her.”
Sophie stared at him. “There’s going to be drinking!”
“I’m not. You’re not. Obviously, she isn’t. Give her a little credit, she’s not stupid or that impressionable. Besides, if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have snagged the Horcrux,” Scott argued.
“We can have a second party for her,” Sophie suggested.
Scott just gave her an unimpressed look. “Don’t be patronising.”
“Well…” Sophie did feel a bit bad for making the suggestion. “I just don’t know if everyone will behave with all…” She gestured at the gathered liquor.
“We’ll be there, it’ll be fine. She’ll be in bed before anything gets crazy.”
Sophie wasn’t entirely convinced, but it was true that their success wouldn’t have been possible without Kylie, and the girl would be very hurt if she were excluded from the victory party. Maybe things could be kept low-key until she retired for the night, and there were spells that could prevent her from being disturbed by any noise. Hopefully she wouldn’t be overly curious about the alcohol. At least she was likely to follow Scott’s example.
Harry looked around the table at the faces of his friends, all of them fixated on him expectantly. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d agreed to say something to start the evening. It wasn’t as if words were his forte. He’d just as soon let Ron or Scott make a joke or two and then get right to the partying (not that he knew a lot about that, either). He gripped his faded plastic cup of champagne in both hands and searched for something to say.
“Er… Well, this is a first,” he said, which earned him a few smiles. Encouraged, he continued, “I’m glad we decided to do this. Maybe we needed to, or maybe we just wanted to try some alcohol without the adults giving us dirty looks.”
“Then we’re off to a rubbish start,” Ginny said, nodding towards Sophie and getting some scattered laughs.
“This is perfectly fine and appropriate,” Sophie denied, holding her own small cup of champagne.
“We’ll see if that’s the line later,” Scott said, standing next to an attentive Kylie.
“Anyway, I know we still have a long way to go. We aren’t done yet,” Harry said. “But, I think we should, um, celebrate how far we’ve come, how much we’ve already done. Everyone’s worked really hard to get us this far. So, cheers.”
“Cheers,” they all echoed, and downed their allotment of champagne (even Kylie had a little in her cup, and when she lowered it she looked about as happy as Harry had ever seen her, so glad to be included).
With that, the party officially began. As most everyone else gravitated towards the food, Harry stayed by the liquor. He’d eaten a bit before the party proper, which he knew he shouldn’t have, but he’d been starving. His goal was to sample the alcohol until he found something he liked or realised drinking wasn’t for him, whichever came first.
Scott had noticed Harry hovering near the liquor and returned from the food, finishing a handful of crisps. Kylie followed closely at his side, clutching a chicken sandwich.
“We’ll start you with this,” Scott said, picking up a bottle of something clear.
“Is that good?” Harry asked as Scott poured a small amount in the bottom of a glass.
“No, it’s fucking awful and only crazy people drink it straight.” As soon as Scott finished his sentence, he winced and glanced down at Kylie. She looked up at him innocently, taking a tiny bite of her sandwich. Scott sighed. “Anyway, after this everything else will go down easy.”
Harry took the glass, peering into it. “Come on, you can give me more than that.”
“You would not thank me. Finish that shot, and then tell me you want more.”
Harry shrugged and raised the glass to his lips. Scott caught his wrist just before he tipped it. “Don’t sip this,” Scott instructed. “Down the hatch.”
“So how am I supposed to taste it?”
Scott slowly shook his head. “You really don’t get this, do you.”
“Fine.” Harry raised the glass again and tossed it back. Then he began violently coughing as his oesophagus seemed to be dissolving.
It was fucking fire in a glass. His gums burned, tongue aflame — even the drop which had run down his chin was like acid against his skin and lips. He felt like he’d swallowed some sort of industrial-grade solvent and he could feel it in his stomach, burning away like a bonfire. He frantically scrubbed at his mouth with his hand, trying to wipe away the pain, but it only spread.
His coughing fit had garnered attention. Ginny came to his side, concerned. “Bloody hell, Harry, what happened?”
Lila wandered over with a can of pop in hand, taking a long sip as she assessed Harry’s condition with obvious enjoyment. “Decided to take your digestive system into your own hands, I see.”
Harry took the cup of carbonated sweetness that Ginny offered and tried to wash the blaze out of his mouth. It helped a little, although the bubbles were painful within his newly scoured orifice.
“God!” he hacked, finally handing Ginny back her drink.
“And he wanted more,” Scott said to Lila.
“So manly. I might just swoon,” Lila predicted, taking another swig of her drink.
“Don’t drink any of that,” Harry said hoarsely, pointing out the bottle to Ginny.
Sophie snatched the bottle off the table and examined the label. “Scott, why the crud would you buy this?”
“Part of being introduced to alcohol is understanding exactly what you’re getting yourself into,” Scott said.
Sophie’s mouth thinned. “Do you have any idea what rectified alcohol can do to a baseline’s innards?”
“Yes. And now Harry does, too.”
Ron stepped forward with his jaw set bravely. “My turn,” he said.
Sophie looked like she was about to run off with the bottle. Then she set it back on the table with a dramatic bang. “Do not drink any more of this than Harry just did, even if you mix it with something. I promise you, you will be sick.”
Ron was still insistent on having his go at it. He didn’t cough as much as Harry, but his eyes watered at the strain of suppressing his reaction, and for a moment he looked like he might vomit. Harry examined the bottle whilst Ron recovered, noting it specifically stated it was not for human consumption unless mixed with something non-alcoholic. Served Harry right for drinking whatever Scott handed him, he supposed.
“Daft boys,” Hermione muttered, watching them intentionally suffer.
Ginny stepped up to the table. “Me, now.”
Hermione sighed deeply and turned away, going back to the food.
The process repeated itself, Ginny coughing until her face was bright red. “Bloody hell, that’s terrible,” she rasped.
“Everything else will go down like milk by comparison,” Lila told her.
The rectified alcohol was retired shortly after, no one wanting anything else to do with it. Scott proved himself an able bartender, mixing everyone much milder drinks. Harry helped himself to some crackers and cheese in between sips of the whiskey and cola Scott had given him. Ginny sidled up to him and stole a few items off his plate.
“What’s that?” he asked of her drink.
“Orange juice and vodka. Lila said it’s better with tequila, but we haven’t got any,” she said. She took another drink and grimaced slightly. “Honestly, I don’t see how it’s any better than just orange juice.”
Harry was a bit disappointed with his drink, too. “Maybe it’s an acquired taste.”
“Lila told me I wouldn’t like it much now and then I’d like it too much later. I don’t know, though. Just tastes like orange juice with an Acid Pop dipped in it.”
Harry was determined to enjoy the alcohol he’d had to argue to get. He tossed back the rest of his drink and clenched his teeth against his gag reflex. “I’m going to get another.”
He went over to the liquor, where Scott was making something or the other for Lila. Whilst Harry was waiting for his turn, he was suddenly made aware that he was sweating when a drop rolled down the side of his face and nearly dripped into his cup. When had it become so hot in the kitchen? Too many people, he supposed, and too little space.
Once Lila wandered off with her drink, Harry stepped forward and handed Scott his empty cup. “Bloody hot in here, huh,” he commented.
“Nope,” Scott said. “Touch your cheek.”
Harry reached up and did so. His cheek burned beneath his cool fingers. “I’m feverish?” he said dumbly.
“You’re good and buzzed.”
“I haven’t had hardly anything,” Harry protested.
“You kicked off the night with a shot and a half of one-ninety proof and you’ve never even had shots before; it’s a minor miracle you’re coherent,” Scott said wryly. “Honestly, I’m impressed, considering how skinny you are.”
“Hey, I’ve been working out,” Harry shot back. “Now give me another.”
“You gave Lila another.”
“Come back when you’re veteran CC and not a para-baseline kid with no drinking experience and we’ll talk.”
“Just give me another.”
Harry stood there for a moment, swaying slightly. “…Can you move out of the way, then?”
“Congratulations, you’ve won this bottle of water,” Scott said, holding it out towards Harry.
“You’re really not giving me more?” Harry said plaintively, dimly aware he was being a bit childish.
“Them’s the breaks, son. You finish that bottle of water and maybe, maybe, we’ll put something else in your cup. Then you’re on sabbatical until Kylie’s bedtime.”
“And then I can try whatever I want?”
“We’ll see. Now go drink that water and prop your girlfriend up.”
Harry turned to see that Ginny was leaning heavily against one of the worktops. “Oh.”
“Yeah. That’s what happens when you weigh a hundred pounds.”
Harry went over to Ginny, suddenly more aware of his body. He didn’t feel drunk… Still, it did seem like he had to concentrate on walking, which was something he usually did without thinking about it at all. So perhaps Scott was on to something.
Ginny was clearly feeling the effects. Her eyes were bright and her face was flushed. Harry had been worried when he’d seen the way she was leaning on the worktop, but she didn’t look like she was going to be sick. She looked sort of exuberant.
“Harry!” she said when he took her arm. She turned and leaned into him instead. “I think this is really working, I think so. ‘S’fuckin’ hot in here.”
Harry suddenly understood exactly why Scott hadn’t given him another drink. “Split this with me,” he said, opening the bottle of water.
“Yeah, what is it? Give it,” she said with interest.
“It’s just water,” he said, handing it to her.
“Eh, what, why? That’s boring,” she said, even as she took a swig.
“I know, but Scott said we have to drink it before we can have anything else.”
Ginny dropped the bottle from her lips a bit too quickly, slopping some of it out the top. “I’ve really got to pee.”
“All right, here, just set this down for now.” Harry took what little was left of her drink and placed it on the worktop.
“I’m off,” Ginny said with an odd amount of determination for someone simply going to use the loo.
Harry watched, somewhat worried, as she swayed towards the stairs. Fortunately, Lila intercepted her on the way and lent an arm on the way up. The older woman said something that made Ginny laugh loudly enough to startle Kylie, who dropped a bag of crisps.
Harry made an effort to finish the water, even though he didn’t want to drink it. Apparently, Scott had thrown them right into the deep end at the start, which honestly wasn’t surprising, given that it was Scott.
It didn’t take too long for everyone to tire of standing in the kitchen. About an hour later Harry was feeling a bit soberer, having steadily alternated between low-alcohol mixed drinks and water. He was comfortably ensconced on a spare mattress in Kylie’s room, propped up by a pile of pillows with Ginny snuggled into his side. Harry was a little hazy on when it had happened, but at some point, Sophie had acquired a television (she seemed quite good at getting things cheaply). She had placed it in Kylie’s room and had slowly been building a collection of VHS tapes for Kylie to view, giving the girl something to do besides read and practice magic.
After an excessively long and spirited discussion about what to watch, everyone had settled in on the bed and in various chairs or whatever else they could find. Kylie was front and centre, enraptured by the film. Sophie was also deeply involved in the adventures of the animated mermaid (and Harry sometimes saw her mouthing along with the songs; it seemed like an old favourite of hers). Lila sat next to her friend, offering the occasional muttered commentary into Sophie’s ear, which Sophie seemed to be resolutely ignoring. Hermione and Ginny were also enjoying it (Harry thought Hermione had said something about having seen it before), while Ron seemed less interested in watching than he was in playing with Hermione’s hair. Scott appeared to be sleeping, though it was hard to tell; he was shrouded in shadow in the far corner by the bed, feet propped up on the edge of the mattress, and the shifting colours of the television made it difficult to discern if his eyes were open.
Harry, for his part, was sort of enjoying the film but also thinking Scott might have the right idea. Alcohol, he was discovering, made him sleepy. He felt like a lizard on a hot rock, warmed from the inside, head to toe. The sound of the television was reminiscent of all the times he had fallen asleep beneath the window outside of the house on Privet Drive.
He thought he might rest his eyes, just for a moment.
The next thing he knew, he was blinking rapidly as something pushed on his shoulder, tilting him over. He righted himself and regained his bearings: he’d fallen asleep at some point and Ginny was shaking him awake.
“Come on, you,” she said, letting go of him. “Let’s try that game Lila was talking about!”
She seemed at least moderately more sober, though Harry didn’t miss the new drink she had in her hand. “Yeah, all right,” he agreed, getting dizzily to his feet. The room seemed to spin a bit, but not too bad. “Where at?”
“The drawing room.”
“All right,” he said again, stretching. “I’ll be there in a minute; want to go to the kitchen, first.”
He made his slightly unsteady way down to the kitchen, being extra careful with the stairs as they seemed to almost fall out beneath him, giving him a sense of vertigo strong enough that he had to focus on the railing beneath his hand. He had no desire to fall. It would hurt, sure, but he knew he’d catch all kinds of shite if the others found out. Ron would never let him live it down.
In the kitchen, he found Scott and Kylie, whom Harry suspected was up past her bedtime by the grace of Scott, because it didn’t seem like the sort of night that Sophie would let Grimmauld’s youngest resident be out and about any longer than necessary. She was sharing a bag of crisps with Scott.
“Do you think I could be like Ariel?” Kylie was asking as Harry tottered into the room.
“What, a mermaid? Aren’t real merpeople actually kind of gross in this universe?” Scott said.
“No, not half a fish. Just… like her.”
“Ah. You mean in spirit.” Scott brushed some crumbs off his fingers. “I’d say you’re already ‘wandering free’, relatively speaking. There are some other parallels we could draw. Sometimes it’s good to see yourself in a story.”
“I don’t have a prince,” Kylie said. She didn’t sound upset about it, just sort of matter-of-fact.
“Well, some people might say she left the ocean for a dude. But she didn’t; not really. She wanted to leave long before she saved his soggy rear end. Remember all that crap she collected? She just wanted to be different. She wanted a new way of life. And that’s okay. The ocean was good enough for the rest of them, and that’s okay, too. Some people just don’t belong where they’re from.”
“Like us?” Kylie said very quietly.
“Like you and me, Kylie. Born to be wild,” Scott told her, snagging another crisp from the bag.
Harry surveyed the drinks still set out on the table. He didn’t know what he was looking for, exactly. Preferably something he hadn’t tried already. He reached for a bottle that didn’t look familiar.
“Man, if you don’t stop mixing your liquors, you’re going set up permanent residence in the bathroom for the rest of tonight and probably most of tomorrow,” Scott said to him.
Harry let his hand drop. “What would you suggest?”
“I suggest you go upstairs and play with the others without trying to pre-game. So get the f… hel— heck out of here.”
Harry was too pissed to come up with any sort of suitable retort. “All right,” he said numbly, pivoting unsteadily on his heel and preparing himself to ascend the staircase.
“He’s so much more pliable like this,” Scott mused to Kylie as Harry tottered away. “But don’t drink, okay?”
“It’s gross,” Kylie said.
“Yeah, you get it.”
Harry made it up to the first landing and then paused for a moment to regain his bearings. Going up the stairs was embarrassingly difficult. He had the balance of a bloody toddler. Going down hadn’t been this bad, had it? He’d woken up feeling fairly refreshed and then the feeling just evaporated. He got about halfway up the next set and then realized, even as he did it, that he’d put his foot down on the lip of the stair and it was sliding out from underneath him and he was about to leave the imprint of his face in the dust (or at least he would have if Sophie hadn’t cleaned up all the usual dust). He was saved by a hand suddenly catching him under his right arm.
“You’re welcome,” Lila said when he just stared at her dumbly for a moment.
“Uh, yeah, cheers,” Harry mumbled, trying not to lean into her.
She let go of him carefully and then stayed close behind him as he made his way up the remaining steps, which was sort of humiliating, but also probably necessary.
“I should take some pictures,” Lila mused, watching him.
“Don’t even joke about it,” Harry muttered. He made it up to the landing and strode away from her as steadily as he was able.
Ginny and Ron were both in the drawing room, as Harry had expected, but he was surprised to see Hermione was also there. The game, whatever it was, didn’t seem like her sort of thing.
She noticed his look and returned it levelly. “What? I’m not allowed to play?”
“Didn’t say that,” Harry pointed out.
“You didn’t have to. I’d like to watch, at least.”
“Yeah, I mean, if you want.” Harry observed the plastic cups and the bottle of wine that were on the short table. “I’m not sure any of us actually know how to play this.”
“It’s like, you throw the coin, and then you have to drink, right?” Ginny supposed. “Isn’t that what Lila said?”
“You talked to her, not me,” Harry replied.
“I don’t get it. The only reason to play is to drink, so why not just drink it and save the spare change?” Ron opined.
“No, come on, it’s fun!” Ginny said, pulling some cups off their stack and setting them down. “I bet it is, you’ll see.”
They really didn’t know what they were doing, but it was decided that they would toss coins from the doorway and whoever missed had to take a drink. They quickly discovered that the doorway was too far away; Ginny’s Chaser skills translated just well enough that she was the only person able to make the throw with any regularity, leaving Harry and Ron to drink the lion’s share of the wine, which in turn left Ginny as an increasingly sober victim of her own success.
“When do I get to drink?” she complained, another Sickle plopping into the wine.
“You should have specified underhand throws only,” Hermione said from the side-lines.
That sounded like a good change to the rules, Harry thought. Problem was, the wine bottle was almost empty. They weren’t exactly measuring out how much of a ‘drink’ a loser had to take, resulting in anything from a gulp to pretty much an entire cup. Harry was feeling pretty buzzed again, but it lacked the dizzying edge of before. The wine didn’t hit nearly as hard as whatever Scott had given to him to start with.
He was finding, more than anything, he just wanted to sit down. “Let’s have a sit down,” he suggested.
“Best bloody idea I’ve heard all night,” Ron yawned.
They all sat on the sofas, exhausted and tipsy. There was some half-hearted attempt at holding a drunken conversation but it sort of petered out within about half an hour. Harry was sitting there, legs up on the cushions and Ginny’s head on his chest, and then the next thing he knew he was blinking up at the ceiling, lying on his back on the floor.
He sat up, head swimming. Ginny was asleep, face hidden behind a red curtain of hair, and he could only assume she had somehow knocked him off the settee. Ron and Hermione were gone; probably retired to their room, Harry guessed. That just left him, then. He was still a bit drunk and he didn’t think he could sleep where he was, if at all. He found a half-full glass of whiskey sitting on the end table. He wasn’t sure whose it was (maybe his, he couldn’t remember), but he snagged it anyway. No point in letting it go to waste.
He slowly got to his feet and made his very dizzy, gradual way down the stairs as he sipped at his drink, having the vague intent to see if anyone was still in the kitchen. It also gave him a little time to reflect, which hadn’t been his plan, but, well, the whole night hadn’t exactly aligned with his expectations.
He had thought… Well, he wasn’t sure what he had thought. Maybe that it would be more like one of those films about university: a little raucous, a bit rude, but all in good fun. In retrospect, that might have been asking too much of everyone involved. It wasn’t as if they were at school any more. Things were, they… were dark, usually. They had just come back from a mission in which none of them had been harmed, but some innocent people had been hurt and some not-so-innocent (he hoped) people had died. The alcohol was supposed to lift that weight, but he supposed it didn’t always work like that. Not for him, it seemed.
It was just that he knew he had such a tendency to be morose that he had thought maybe alcohol would change things. Maybe he could feel better, or at least stop thinking so bloody much. Instead, here he was, drunk and stuck in his own head again. His thoughts careened more randomly than usual and they were slippery, hard to hold, but other than that it wasn’t much different from any other post-mission night.
It wasn’t who they were, he realized. Not now, or not any more. Maybe again, someday. Hermione had no desire to be drunk, Ron and Ginny had both quickly succumbed to liquor’s drowsy effects, Lila seemed immune to inebriation, at least at the dosage she had consumed, and Scott and Sophie had both abstained. Less of a free for all, more of a failed experiment. He honestly couldn’t say he’d had a better time than he would have with his friends if he’d been sober. It wasn’t necessarily worse, either, just… different. He’d enjoyed the social aspect. He didn’t need to get drunk to do that. If there was a next time, he thought he’d prefer to stop before he was fully pissed. Right around the point after his first shot; that had been pleasant, a gentle buzz.
This wasn’t quite so pleasant. The room was spinning and his head seemed attuned to that false sense of motion. His stomach and throat burned and his limbs, lips and nose felt numb, like they weren’t quite there anymore. He didn’t think he was totally munted, though. He was aware of his state and didn’t feel sick. Not yet, anyway.
If half of them hadn’t been so bent on drinking like they knew what they were doing, they’d probably all still be together, watching Muggle movies or just talking. But some of that had happened regardless, so it wasn’t as if the night were a total loss. Having reached the kitchen and found it deserted, Harry sat his glass of whiskey away on the table and tottered over towards the tap. Locating an empty glass that he could only assume was clean, he filled it with water and sat down. He’d had enough.
As he sat there, sipping the tepid water, he grimaced when another thought occurred to him. Scott had been right: heavy drinking wasn’t Harry’s thing. Harry had been grateful on plenty of occasions to receive Scott’s insight, but he still hated it sometimes when the Kharadjai read him so well. He didn’t like feeling that predictable.
Think of the devil. Scott came down into the kitchen; when he spotted Harry, he veered towards the table and sat down in the chair opposite. Harry nodded unsteadily by way of greeting.
Scott spread his hands. “So: was it everything you wanted?” he asked.
Harry wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He said nothing, taking another short drink.
That was still answer enough for Scott, who smirked as if Harry had admitted something. Which he sort of had, he supposed. Still. Scott could stuff it.
“Have to say, I’m impressed you’re still conscious,” Scott remarked. “You’re the last man standing.”
Harry didn’t think it was much of an accomplishment, really. He opened his mouth to say, ‘Just stubborn, I suppose’, and what came out was a hoarse mishmash of syllables as he stubbed his tongue on every word. He quickly stopped and took another sip of his water.
Scott’s mouth turned down dubiously. “You, uh, wanna back up and take another run at that?”
Harry favoured him with a drunken glare. “Jus’ stubborn, I suppose,” he mumbled with great concentration.
“Yeah, no ‘supposing’ about it.” Scott pointed to the glass of whiskey. “Do I need to confiscate this?”
“I’m all right.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Looking down at the glass, Harry was struck by a whimsical thought. “Could you kill me with it?”
“The glass. ‘Cause that’s what you can do, isn’t it, kill people with anything. Like a glass, or a…” Harry started to turn his head, only to discover that wasn’t the best idea. “…glass,” he finished, since he had another one in his hand.
Scott leaned back in his seat. “What is it with Primes and always wanting to know what I could kill them with? It’s like some morbid party game. I’m serious, I get asked this shit all the time. ‘Could you kill me with this?’ ‘Could you kill me with that?’ ‘Could you kill me with a toothpick, or an umbrella, or a box of cereal?’”
“Could you?” Harry needled him.
“No, yes, no, in that order.”
“What kind of super soldier can’t kill someone with a box of cereal?”
Scott’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “You know, you’re not nearly as drunk as you look.”
It was true. Harry’s brain was climbing further out of the fog with every passing minute. “I’m just saying.”
Scott sighed and looked upwards. “…Okay, I guess I could force feed it to you until you choked. But that seems like a real pain the ass.”
“Well, I’d hate to inconvenience you whilst I was dying.”
“No you wouldn’t.” Scott glanced at the stairwell. “Finish another glass of water and then get to bed. The sooner you wake up, the sooner you can power through your hangover.”
“I thought that’s why I’ve been drinking this,” Harry said, raising his water glass.
“That’ll take the edge off, but you’re a first timer. Don’t expect any miracles.”
Harry stared down into his glass. The water was dark in the dim kitchen, and he could see his reflection inside the cup, staring back up at him. It made him think of the cot, and the water. “What do you think is next?” he asked the other man.
“A hangover. Like I just said.”
“That’s not what I—”
“I know what you meant. We’ll talk business later, the point of all this was to not do that.”
They both turned when the sound of shoes on the kitchen steps drew their attention. Lila came down into the kitchen, an empty glass in one hand. She strolled over and set it into the sink, before joining them at the table.
“That’s enough for me,” she said with finality. Which, how much had she even had? Harry hadn’t been keeping track (and hadn’t even seen her for a good portion of the evening), but she’d had something in her cup every time he had seen her. It seemed like she had been steadily drinking all night. She didn’t appear to be drunk at all.
“Thanks for coming down here to keep us informed,” Scott said.
“Sounds like someone’s cranky after watching everyone else drink,” Lila said to Harry.
Harry actually didn’t think Scott cared much, if at all. But he played along anyway. “Guess he’s a bit shit at partying,” he said.
“Is that true, Scott? Are you a, ‘bit shit’?” Lila repeated with relish, exaggerating the syllables.
“You know, this is the second time I’ve invited you to a party during this integration, and the second time I’ve deeply regretted it,” Scott mused. “And yet, I’ve learned nothing.”
Lila opened her mouth for another retort and Harry started settling in, content to watch them verbally spar while he sobered up. Whatever comment Lila had planned on making was stalled, however, when there was yet another set of footsteps.
It was Sophie, her hair a curly, sleep-tangled mess and her eyes narrowed with displeasure. “Why are you still awake?!” she hissed. “I got up to use the restroom and there was Kylie trying to sneak down here because she heard you talking! You should be in bed! Go to sleep!”
When no one responded right away, she spun on her heel and stormed back up the stairs.
“…I mean, she’s not wrong,” Scott said into the silence.
Lila stretched, and then stood. “I’m staying here tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll talk to Lupin about breaking Riddle’s hold on the werewolves. What’s your plan?”
“The snake is our next headache. Right now, we’re working on Harry’s problem,” Scott said.
“Let me know if you move on the snake. That has to shake something loose.”
“Hence the headache. We don’t know what we’re going to do about that.”
Harry didn’t really want to think about it, at least not until he was sober. As intractable an issue as his own Horcrux has seemed, the snake was worse. How the bloody hell were they ever going to kill it without Riddle knowing? It didn’t seem possible. He took another gulp of his water and pushed the thought aside. No doubt he’d be doing plenty of thinking on it, later.
With Lila leaving and Scott pushing his chair back to do the same, Harry reckoned it was about time for him to try and sleep. Wasn’t drinking supposed to make you sleep, anyway? He was tired, but he didn’t feel like he could fall asleep. It felt like the sort of tiredness that would leave him lying there, staring up into the dark, trapped with his own thoughts. He’d had too many nights like that.
“I don’t think we’ll get much done tomorrow with half of us hungover,” Scott supposed. “Let’s plan on a meeting sometime in the next forty-eight. We need to start laying the groundwork for whatever Hermione comes up with.”
Harry wished there weren’t so much pressure on her but, as had always been the case, if anyone was going to suss out a solution, it was her. “Yeah, sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Hey,” Scott said as Harry started to walk away. Harry stopped and turned back. “I know it wasn’t what you expected, but this was pretty all right for where we are. Sometimes you have to take a step back.”
Harry shrugged listlessly. “I just thought it’d be more… I don’t know, loud?”
Scott smiled slightly. “Maybe when we win.”
Harry ascended the stairs with somewhat better ease than before, thinking that was a nice sentiment to go to bed on.
He made his way down the hall to his bedroom, only to eventually recall that Ginny was still asleep in the Drawing Room. He changed course and found her there, lightly snoring with her entire head hidden beneath her tangled red locks. It made him wish he had a camera. He stood there for a moment, trying to gauge how sober and steady he really was. Deciding that he wasn’t swaying all that much, he scooped Ginny up and carried her, slowly, back to their bedroom.
He set her down on the mattress and then lay beside her, the ceiling a black void above him. For once, he thought of nothing — nothing at all. His thoughts moved around his head like vapor, failing to cohere into anything. Gradually, his eyelids grew heavier, and he slipped into sleep so suddenly he never crawled beneath the covers.
I’m back at it, I’m pleased to say, fumbling my way forward. This chapter still marks the end of what I really knew was going to happen, which is to say I had each step envisioned. For the future of this story, I have some steps I know I need to reach. The manner in which I will do so remains cloudy. Probably not what you want to hear from the guy writing a story you’ve spent so much time reading, but there it is. All I can say is I’m working on this again and, hopefully, doing so with fresher eyes. Like Scott said, sometimes it helps to take a step back.
I hope you enjoyed seeing the characters attempting to blow off some steam, even if they weren’t quite as good at it as they would have preferred (and maybe you would prefer). I had one reader rather vociferously object to the previous chapter, stating it was obvious my attentions were on my other ongoing story and that I shouldn’t post until my head was back in the game. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the last chapter was completed long before I even started my other story. Well, that and they were an anonymous reviewer, so I couldn’t, anyway.
Regardless, I’m back and I’m pushing forward. I can’t promise monthly updates again just yet, but if I can work up a backlog again then I’ll go back to that. If not, you’ll at least be reading chapters almost as soon as I finish them. You’ll probably have to put up some more typos, though. That’s the price of forgoing my usual process of editing, reediting, and then reediting that edit.