Whenever possible, integrationists should observe local holidays in order to preserve a sense of continuity and tradition with Primes. It is not usually necessary to fake religious observances or otherwise pretend significant attachment to outdated rituals. Typically, it is enough to be present and hold an attitude of respect.
Attempt to judge the seriousness with which your Primes approach these events and act accordingly.
—The Guiding Light: An Integrationist's Guide to Understanding Primes, Chapter II: Presenting Yourself
The fight had been short and very one-sided. The Death Eaters on the road were all dead, or at least dying. Hermione chose not to think about that.
She worked her jaw back and forth and swallowed, trying to regain some of her hearing. She wasn’t sure what Lila and Sophie’s next move was; to go back to Hogsmeade or try and reinforce Harry at Hogwarts. Either way, Hermione assumed she would be left behind. Lila could carry her easily enough, but she’d likely prefer to have full movement given the circumstances. Not that Hermione was enthused at the prospect of another painful and awkward series of piggyback rides. She’d just prefer that to limping her lonely way to the battlefield.
She turned to ask the other women what their plan was, only to find them staring towards Hogwarts. Sophie sighed as if pleased and Lila’s expression was firm, yet… contented? What was happening?
“It’s done,” Lila said.
Hermione’s breath caught in her throat. “It’s… by ‘it’, do you mean—”
It was fortunate that Hermione was already lying down. Then the most horrible thought occurred to her. “Is he, is everyone…?”
Lila’s eyes were looking past Hermione, past the school, past everything earthbound and corporeal. “All alive. Can’t tell you more than that.”
It was enough.
Hermione sagged into the snow as years of tension were released in an instant of ecstatic relief. She thought she might never move again.
But despite the sudden end of it all, there were still things to be done. “You take her to check on the others,” Lila told Sophie. “I’ll find Scott if I can.”
The smoke rising over Hogsmeade didn’t look promising. “No, I’ll go myself,” Hermione said. “The Death Eaters haven’t gone anywhere.”
Lila nodded. “The school should be secure. Send one of those magic critters if you need help.”
As the two Kharadjai sped back towards the besieged town, Hermione made her hobbled way across the grounds of Hogwarts, her boots crunching through untouched snow. It was still bright and clear; she could see all the way to the front entrance of the school, where it looked like something was happening. It was too far away to determine what. She didn’t know if all the students and staff had been roused or if Riddle had been quietly killed in the Room of Requirement or some other uninhabited corner of Hogwarts.
She still couldn’t quite wrap her head around that thought. Riddle, dead. At long last.
Lila had seemed quite confident in the fact, but Hermione needed to see it with her own eyes.
The house that Scott had assaulted was burning bright, a thick column of smoke billowing upwards into the clear sky. Lila didn’t know if the Death Eaters were still out in force, whatever was left of them, but the conflagration seemed to be holding the town’s attention. Citizens were gathered in the streets casting spells at the fire, probably some sort of dousing magic.
Lila and Sophie skirted the edge of the houses, trying to find the best way in. If Scott was still inside, then they were probably out of luck as far as stealth was concerned. They might have to shoot their way through, though it was possible that the innocent bystanders might cause enough commotion to provide temporary cover. But the shape was telling Lila that Scott wasn’t dead. She followed the faint pulse of his existence, humming gently in the net of infinite threads.
There were two houses marking the end of the town proper, each with larger, fenced-in yards. They found Scott there, blackened from head to foot, lying face down in the snow. Judging by the trail he had left, he’d crawled there. There was a great deal of blood in his wake.
Sophie knelt down to check his pulse, but it was largely a formality. He was alive, if barely. Lila could piece together the events. Scott, likely cornered, had set off an incendiary in close quarters. Using the last of his strength to shield himself from the white-hot convection, he had escaped the flames, collapsed in the snow, and crawled as far as he could before losing consciousness.
Sophie rolled him over. Lila could see he was still breathing, if shallowly. The clothing on his chest had been burned away, baring his skin and what looked like at least a second-degree burn, wide and blotchy. Point of origin, Lila assumed, for the fire roaring nearby. There were deep gouges in his chest that had been cauterized by the heat. They looked bad, possibly lethal. Perhaps he hadn’t lost consciousness from shock after all; he might have been dying, and healing just enough to keep his injuries from being fatal had made him black out. From the look of it he hadn’t staved off death by much of a margin, and it was touch and go from here.
“I’ll carry him,” Lila said. She slung her weapon onto her back and picked Scott up, wrinkling her nose at the strong smell of burnt flesh and hair.
Sophie trotted up to the house’s wall and peered around it. “We’re clear,” she said.
There were probably still Death Eaters among the crowd, static without orders. But that stopped being the Kharadjai’s problem about eight minutes ago.
Scott’s duffel bag and weaponry were nowhere to be found; Lila assumed they were destroyed or in enemy hands. With Sophie close behind, she ran back out into the crisp cold of the night, leaving the town and the burning house behind.
Harry didn’t know how long he’d been kneeling in the snow. His knees were wet and his whole body was beginning to ache with the cold—he’d lost his coat at some point in the fight and the clothes he had left were in tatters. Still, he did not move. He felt as frozen as the lake.
“Harry,” Ginny said, gently pushing at his shoulders, “the others are still inside.”
That brought him back to himself. He drew in a long, rasping breath and stood on shaking legs, turning away from Riddle’s cooling corpse. “We’ve got to find them.”
“You can barely walk, and I’m not much better,” Ginny admitted.
“I’ll lean on you and you lean on me and maybe we won’t tip over,” Harry said with a thin, exhausted smile.
They had just started to make their hobbled way back inside when Ron emerged from the Entrance Hall, one leg dragging in the snow. Neville and Luna were close behind. Luna was bleeding from a headwound buried somewhere in her matted hair, but it was Neville who was clearly in the worst shape of the three. He was taking small, uneven steps, his left eye nearly swollen shut and his hand pressed tightly to his ribs, blood seeping between his fingers.
They all stopped in their tracks when they saw Riddle’s bloodless shell.
Ron’s mouth dropped open. “Is he…?”
“He’s dead,” Ginny said flatly.
Ron sagged in relief to the point he looked as if he were about to drop into the snow. His chin fell to his chest; when he raised his head again, he met Harry’s eyes. “Knew you could do it, mate.”
Harry saw that same sentiment in Neville and Luna’s eyes. But he was still halfway out of his own body. He couldn’t wrap his head around the finality of what had happened, of what he’d done. He looked upwards; many of the windows in the towers were lit. The school was waking, responding to the battle which had occurred in the midst of its sleep. Riddle’s body would soon draw a crowd. That crowd would be looking for answers.
Harry couldn’t face it.
He turned to Ginny, sure that desperation was writ on his face. “We’ve got to get out of here. I can’t, Gin. I’ve got to go.”
Her expression told him she understood. “Come on, then. We’ve just got to make it to the gate.”
As a group they began to make their way through the snow. Their collective injuries hampered their progress and Harry feared they wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the gate before they were spotted.
Then he saw someone up ahead, on the path. He instinctively raised the shotgun, trying to steady it with only one hand. But a moment later he recognized the head of distinctively bushy hair and realised it was Hermione.
She wasn’t moving that much faster than they were, but her pace quickened until she was staggering towards them, the tears on her cheeks glittering in the moonlight. “Thank god,” she gasped. She hopped forward to envelope Ron in a fierce hug and then turned to do the same to Harry. “Lila told me,” she said, her hands cold against Harry’s face. “Oh, Harry. You’ve done it.”
“We’re leaving,” Harry told her, still unable to absorb the full import of her words.
That wasn’t much of an explanation, but she seemed to understand.
They made it a fair way down the road when two more approaching figures could be seen sprinting across the snowy field. Harry reckoned they were moving too fast to be Death Eaters; this proved to be correct when they drew close enough for Harry to recognize. Lila was cradling a soot-blackened Scott in her arms, and he wasn’t moving.
“He’s alive,” she said before anyone could ask. “Just about.”
Sophie was looking at everyone with a critical eye. “Okay, questions later,” she said, approaching Neville and beginning to cast healing spells.
“I take it there’s a reason we’re limping away from the school,” Lila said.
“I don’t want to be here when they find him,” Harry said. He realised the possible selfishness of that, but he was still suffocated by the thought of facing the crowd.
“Strauss?” Lila said.
“Well, a hospital would be better,” Sophie said absently as she examined Harry’s hand. “But I don’t see anything I can’t stabilize for now.”
“Are we going to Grimmauld?” Hermione asked.
Never Harry’s destination of choice, but he wasn’t feeling too picky. “I guess.”
“Lila’s apartment,” Sophie said, her face disconcertingly close to Harry’s as she pulled down his eyelid with her thumb and peered into his retina. “We’ve got a fresh kit there.”
When Sophie released him, Harry turned his head to look back at the school. Even more lights were on. “Fine by me, let’s go.”
“Back to the wall,” Lila said.
They limped, hobbled and hopped their way down to Hagrid’s cabin. By the time they reached the edge of the forest there was a cluster of people gathered around Riddle’s body. They might not spot Harry’s withdrawing group in the shadow of the trees, but the footprints would be obvious enough. He tried to be faster. Logically, he knew that he was retreating from friendly forces, but they would want things he wasn’t ready to give. Nothing felt real yet.
They struggled over the wall and past the barrier with Lila and Sophie’s assistance. While at the top, Harry took a moment to look towards Hogsmeade. There was a pile of bodies on the road not far from the gate and the town glowed beneath a pillar of smoke. It looked like there was a fire somewhere, or there had been and it had just gone out.
He hopped down, nearly collapsing as the force of landing sent a jagged spike of pain through his body. Lila caught him by the arm.
“Thanks,” Harry said shakily. He looked down to where Scott was propped up against a snow drift. “Will he be all right?”
“He usually is,” Lila said.
That wasn’t exactly what Harry wanted to hear, but he supposed it was better than nothing. “Er, I didn’t actually ask… can we stay at your place?”
“Mi casa es tu casa.”
“Sleepover!” Sophie said with forced cheer. “Come on, let’s all get some rest, you’ll feel better.”
Harry took Ginny’s hand to Disapparate. This time he did not look back towards the school.
He knew he would see it again.
There were steps involved in what happened next. He wasn’t entirely unaware of the motions, what was going on. But the world receded behind a heavy, frosted glass of pure exhaustion and a mind that could not build the terms to label his new reality. He needed to sleep; for a century, preferably.
Lila’s flat was crowded. He sat in a chair whilst Sophie did what she could for his wounds—healing spells scabbing over cuts and scrapes, broken fingers being bound.
Then he was on the couch, waiting for his turn to use the loo, only peripherally cognizant of what was happening around him.
Hermione stepped purposefully towards the kitchen, towards Neville and Luna. Lila reached out and grasped her shoulder.
“She deserves to know,” Hermione said stiffly.
“I’ll tell her,” Lila said.
“I can do it.”
“I know. But I’m going to.”
“Scott is out, so it’s my duty. Go lay down.”
A door shut. The shower started up again, water thudding against tile and glass. Someone was crying, soft and utterly heartbroken. Dimly, Harry knew that was a sound he would be hearing often in the days to come.
How could he understand what had been won before he understood what had been lost?
Someone’s hands were at his shoulders, steering him into a bedroom. It was Ginny. She curled up with him on Lila’s bed, wrapped tightly around his battered body; he still felt cold.
“It will look better in the morning,” she whispered.
For me, maybe, he thought.
He didn’t fight the blackness when it crawled in at the edges of his eyes.
Hermione couldn’t sleep.
She should have been exhausted. Maybe she was too tired, if that were possible. Her body ached and her eyelids were made of brick, but her mind just refused to slow.
She thought of her parents in Australia, of what must be happening at Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, and the Ministry, and in a thousand homes. She thought of the sudden end that had been thrust upon her and her friends, an end that had once seemed a nearly impossible goal for their desperate enterprise. It was over. They were free, and they were safe.
So why couldn’t she sleep? She’d earned it.
She lay there for she didn’t know how long, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the tiny flat as it settled in the night: creaks from the roof and window, the rare muffled whoosh of a passing car trundling through the snow, the deep hum of the heating vents. She was so, so tired.
Yet, still, her mind raced and raced.
It was difficult to say what would happen now. Without Riddle, the Death Eaters’ entire organization would surely collapse due to infighting, if nothing else. Who knew how many of them were even still alive after all the vicious fighting of the night. Most would run; of that, she was certain. Imperius Curses were no doubt lifting all over England. The Ministry would be slow to recollect itself, but the Order would not. Hogwarts would be back in friendly hands. The tide would turn.
Where this left Hermione and her battered collection of close comrades, she wasn’t quite sure.
She understood Harry’s need to get away. She could imagine how utterly overwhelming even the thought of confronting the grateful masses had to be. Harry had never sought the light of fame, had always shunned it when he could. He was already a symbol, a celebrity through little doing of his own; now, he’d be a living legend. It was hard to grasp just how he’d be seen after all this. He’d practically be worshipped in some quarters. And Harry never would come to terms with that, she didn’t think.
If he wanted to hide for a bit, she could hardly blame him. He owed the public nothing. Never did, of course, but now? Absolutely nothing.
There were a few things Hermione needed to take care of soon—getting her parents back where they belonged, checking in with the Weasleys and the Order, making sure McGonagall knew she and the others would be returning for school after the summer—but beyond that, if Harry wanted to lie low for a bit then she was fine with that. They’d been living together and surviving under siege; doing the same in peacetime could only be comparatively easier. Perhaps they could visit the Continent. Or America. Whatever they decided on doing, she couldn’t imagine Harry wanting to be cooped up in Grimmauld any longer. Of course, there was something else they’d have to see to first, though Hermione was doing her best not to think about it.
Funerals. At least one that she knew of, and hopefully not many that she didn’t. She’d wish for no others at all, but she was a bit more realistic than that.
But they’d been lucky. Despite everything. Impossibly, brilliantly lucky.
Though it hadn’t all been luck, had it?
She rolled over, trying to get comfortable. Scott’s room was utterly characterless, containing a bed, a small bedside table and a cheap wardrobe. That was it. The walls were blank and white and there were no personal effects to be found. Not too surprising, she supposed, considering he had never really lived here. Hermione shared the bed with Ron whilst Sophie was on the floor, burrowed into a sleeping bag with only her curly hair flowing out the top; it made her look like some bizarre tasselled vegetable.
Harry and Ginny were in Lila’s room, along with Neville and Luna. Last Hermione had seen, Lila was sleeping on several chairs in the kitchen, covered in throw pillows. Scott had been laid out on the couch, which Lila had claimed was what he would have wanted anyway, had he been conscious to choose.
Now everyone was asleep. Everyone except Hermione.
Oh, sod it all.
She pushed herself off the bed and on her feet. If she wasn’t going to sleep, she could at least do something and check on Scott.
She slipped out of the bedroom and quietly closed the door behind her. The living room was quiet, as was the adjoining kitchen. The only illumination came through the translucent window blinds, some lamp across the street casting strange shadows against them. The window on the far right was tinged with the colours of a traffic light, cycling red, amber and green. The whole apartment had the feeling of a place which had been left to itself. Lila likely hadn’t spent regular time here since the before the wedding.
There was only a single lavatory in the flat and everyone had used it consecutively, voiding themselves as they hadn’t been able to during combat. As a result, the flat had a distinctly ripe odour about it, poorly hidden beneath potpourri. Hermione was tempted to try and open a window, though it was cold out. She thought the smell would have dissipated, but it served as a reminder that she hadn’t been trying to sleep for nearly as long as it had felt. It also served to demonstrate just how quickly everyone else had fallen asleep, which was rather unfair.
Scott had been stripped of what remained of his burnt clothing and lay on the couch in a t-shirt, a blanket draped over his midsection with his socks sticking out the end. Lila and Sophie had taken him into the tub to clean and tend to him as best they could, but there were still sooty remnants around his ears and nostrils, and his fingernails were rimmed black. He looked very pale in the moonlight. But he was visibly breathing, which made Hermione relax a bit. He no longer seemed so close to death.
What an odd thing this man had made of her life. What a strange, strange world he had opened to her eyes.
There was an empty chair next to the couch. Hermione settled into it and sat there, listening to the wind ruffle gently against the glass. It was Christmas, she realised quite suddenly. Christmas Day. The wizarding world couldn’t ask for a better present.
Scott’s left hand suddenly twitched against the sofa cushions. His breathing changed slightly, quickening. Hermione wondered if he might be dreaming. Tentatively, she reached down to place her hand on his, hoping to calm him.
“HEY!” Scott shouted, his eyes flying open.
Hermione’s heart nearly stopped.
“What-whoa-motherfuck.” Scott licked his lips, glassy eyes blinking rapidly. “Wait… Death Eaters. Death Eaters! Fuckin’ everywhere. …No? Where am I? Why are my feet cold? Hermione, why are my feet cold?”
Hermione went down to the end of the sofa and tucked the blankets back around his exposed feet. “There you are.”
Scott coughed and made a face. “Who shit in my mouth? Did they get me?”
“We’re at Lila’s flat,” she said. “You’re all right, we won.”
“Oh.” Scott blinked again. “Riddle?”
“Well, fuck him,” Scott said, subsiding. He sniffed, then wrinkled his nose. “Woof. Somebody’s baking brownies.”
Hermione could hear Lila moving in the kitchen; amazingly, no one else seemed to have woken up. There was the pad of bare feet across the carpet and then Lila leaned over Scott, her hand going to his forehead.
“…Not feverish,” she said. “Pain?”
“Hard ache. Six all over, eight at the chest.”
Lila shook her head. “You’re a freak.”
“I’m Primarius,” Scott retorted. “We’re all freaks.”
Lila turned to Hermione. “Are you going to be up for a while?” Her hair was down, falling across her shoulders. In the dim light that simple change made her appear almost impossibly young. She didn’t look a day older than Hermione.
Hermione couldn’t put her finger on why that was so striking. But it was. “I think so,” she replied.
Lila went back to the kitchen for a moment and then returned with a glass of water. She handed it to Hermione. “Help him drink it. Tap me on the shoulder when you’re ready to sleep.”
With that, the older woman returned to her makeshift bed. Hermione didn’t know how anyone could sleep on a few wooden chairs pushed together, but she supposed a soldier like Lila had probably slept in worse places.
Scott reached for the glass with a noticeable tremor. Hermione held it out to him, dubious as to whether he could manage it. He put his fingers on the cup but couldn’t make a fist. He gave up with a disgusted sigh, clasping his shaking hands together on his stomach.
“It appears it’s my turn to carry you,” she said. She tipped the cup towards his mouth and he took several long sips before letting his head drop back.
“Hmm. I appreciate the metaphor, if not the situation.” Scott closed his eyes; the purple lines below them were so deep they looked like bruises. “Is Luna aware?”
“She is.” Hermione’s heart felt heavy with the thought. Not everything was solved, despite Riddle’s death. How many other families had been torn apart by the war?
“Well.” Scott seemed to have nothing further to say.
Hermione was glad enough to change the subject. “I’m sure the Order has heard by now. The safehouses will empty soon, if not today. What do you think they’ll do with Kylie?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not up to them. I figure Sophie will go get her in the morning.”
“It’s a bit crowded here already,” Hermione noted.
“We can make it work. Besides, it’s just until I can move again.”
“I take it you have a plan. I don’t think Harry does.”
“We’re flexible. But it looks to me like Harry wants to let the Order and whoever else sort shit out. Can’t blame him. He just killed someone for them.”
Hermione hadn’t considered it in quite those terms, but she couldn’t argue they weren’t accurate. “They’ve asked so much of him. Though I suppose the shape or what have you was also involved…”
“They got what they wanted, and the shape seems settled enough. Harry’s got a right to step aside while the dust settles, if that’s what he wants. Which it seems to be.” One grey eye opened to peer at her. “It’s fuckin’ cold up here, though. Let’s head for the equator. Pack a bikini.”
“Ron would fancy that,” Hermione murmured, considering it. “Let’s not plan ahead without the others, though.” She hesitated, not sure if she wanted an answer to her next question yet. “You’ll be around, then?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Scott mumbled through a yawn.
“Oh. But, won’t you have a new assignment? Or need to go home? Or want to go home, for that matter, you’ve been here for more than a year,” Hermione said. “No? Not that I want you to leave, I just assumed… Scott?”
He was asleep.
“Of course,” she sighed.
She put the glass of water on an end table and sat with him for a time, but without the conversation her fatigue began to take over again. Finally, she stood and went over to tap Lila on the shoulder, then made her way back to bed.
This time when she lay down, the exhaustion which governed the rest of her body finally made its way to her brain. She wondered what Scott had been talking about, but that thought became vague and was soon lost to sleep.
There was a Christmas tree in someone’s window, just across the street. Behind a four-square pane facing the brick walk, the tree glittered in the night, its colours not all that distant. It stood across a narrow street, flickering behind the occasional gusts of snow which blew off the top of the Muggle car parked outside the garage. The rest of the world seemed indistinct and icy, the moon at last hidden behind a new front of clouds which blotted out its eerie shine and dipped the earth in darkness.
It was that darkness which Luna felt, as cold and hard in her heart as the icicles dangling from the eaves.
She had slept for a time; how long, she couldn’t say. The dried tears on her cheeks made her face feel stiff. Victory had at last arrived and she could find no joy in it. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
When Mother had passed, Father had been all that was left to her. And they had been happy, in their way. Now he, too, had been taken. Though his death had been no tragic accident. He was another casualty in a list that had not yet been written, and she, like so many others, was now adrift.
There was a rustling behind her. She turned to see Neville trying to extricate himself from the inflatable mattress, which wasn’t easy for him.
“You shouldn’t try to move,” Luna said quietly, mindful of Harry and Ginny sleeping nearby.
“Yeah, but I’ve really got to use the loo,” Neville ruefully replied.
Luna helped him get to his feet and then did her best to support him as he limped his way to the toilet. Fortunately, the flat was small, and he didn’t have far to go. The living room was dark and colder than the bedroom. In the faint light from the window Luna could see Scott lying still on the couch.
When Neville returned to the bedroom, he walked past their bed and went to the window, peering out into the frozen night. “What were you looking at?” he asked.
“Nothing in particular,” she said honestly.
The look he gave her was concerned. She could tell what he was going to say before he began to say it. “If you… I know it’s hard, but if you want to… to talk about it—”
“I know you’d understand,” Luna said. He knew this pain, too. But it was still too new, too heavy. She couldn’t put it into words yet. “But, Neville… I can’t.”
He blew out an uncomfortable breath. “All right. Sorry. I’m… sorry.” His expression grew more firm. “I just want you to know that you don’t have to worry. About where you’re going to go, or, anything like that, I mean.”
She put her arms around him, and they embraced in the cold, dim light from the street. The ice in her heart did not melt, but she felt his warmth all the same.
Sleep came slowly when she returned to the mattress. The jumble of her life seemed to echo in an endless well of questions which had no answers. In the end, it was only pure exhaustion which brought the relief of unconsciousness.
Harry awoke to the sound of someone dying.
He rolled over, blinking until the room came into fuzzy reality. He didn’t recall taking his contacts out the previous night, but he must have. They weren’t on the small bedside table and neither were his glasses. Ginny was still asleep on the bed, her hair falling over her face. Neville and Luna were still on their mattress as well, though they were both sitting up and looking towards the noise.
“I’ll see what that is,” Harry told them, squinting and trying to bring the world into focus.
There was an awful amount of noise emanating from the loo, coughing and hacking. The door was open; Harry leaned in and saw a very blurry Scott kneeling in front of the toilet bowl. The water in the toilet was a nasty dark red.
Scott spit and let his head drop on the arm he had extended across the towel rack which doubled as a handle for the shower door. “Hate this part,” he slurred.
Harry didn’t ask if he was all right. “What happened?”
“Blood in my lungs. All healed up, so it’s gotta come out.” Scott spit into the water again. “Mostly healed. All the important bits, anyway.”
Harry could only imagine how much that must hurt, especially given the wounds on Scott’s chest weren’t fully erased. “Uh… I know this isn’t the best time, but if, say, I really had to pee…?”
“Shower or sink. Your pick.”
After he had relieved himself, Harry went back to the bedroom to let Neville and Luna know everything was fine (relatively). He was surprised that Hermione and Ron hadn’t come out to see what all the racket was, though he supposed they might have been woken by Scott earlier given that their bedroom shared a wall with the bathroom. Trying to ignore the unpleasant sound of Scott voiding his lungs, Harry limped into the kitchen to see if breakfast was available. Lila was nowhere to be seen. The clock on the oven proclaimed it to be almost nine in the morning, which meant Harry hadn’t slept very long.
This explained how tired he still was, but he didn’t think he could go back to bed quite yet. Not with Scott thunderously expectorating in the background, anyway.
A door opened. Harry leaned out of the kitchen to see Sophie emerge from Scott’s bedroom, closing the door behind her. She yawned and trotted over towards the kitchen with her curly hair bouncing in an enormous, sleep-tangled mess. She must have caught sight of her reflection in the dark screen of the television because her hands flew up to her hair.
“Yikes!” She spun around and went into the bathroom. “Scott, where’s Lil’s hairbrush?”
Scott, in a gravelly voice like death, replied, “Gee, I don’t know. Let me check under these blood clots.”
“Oh, poor Scott,” Sophie said sympathetically.
Scott grunted irritably in reply, the sound jolting in such a way that Harry thought Sophie was patting him on the back.
Harry filled a glass of water and found a box of cereal bars in one of the cupboards. All the chairs in the kitchen were still assembled into Lila’s makeshift bed; rather than mess with her arrangement, Harry took his meal over to the couch.
About halfway through the cereal bar, Scott staggered out of the bathroom and rolled onto the couch. Harry moved to the nearby chair so Scott could stretch out.
“Gimme a bite,” Scott said, holding out his hand.
“Get your own.”
“Everything tastes like blood, just give me a piece!”
Harry reluctantly complied. “Do you feel any better?”
“No. I feel much worse,” Scott said as he thoroughly chewed the food before swallowing. “But I will feel better, which is the important thing.”
“Think I’d like to go back to bed,” Harry admitted.
“No reason not to.” Scott looked plenty tired himself.
Harry felt an overwhelming sense of unreality as he sat by Scott’s side. It was morning; the light came through the windows and cars went by on the street. How could it be morning after all that? How could the world just be moving on?
He didn’t know how to express such a thought. “This is real, right?” he said, and immediately felt like an idiot. But if anyone would know for sure, it was Scott.
“Oh yeah.” Scott coughed raggedly, face lined with pain. “Real as it fuckin’ gets.”
Harry rubbed at his eyes with one hand. “It’s like I’m trying to remember what we were doing. Like it’s still got to be done, you know? Help Remus with the werewolves, help Hermione figure out how to see in the dark. Find the next Horcrux. Stay hidden. All that work we did.”
“That’s how it goes.” Scott closed his eyes, his muscles losing some of their tension as he tried to relax. “You plan for what you can anticipate, and you understand you can anticipate very little.”
“Now that’s the bloody truth.”
“Try to relax,” Scott advised. “Seriously. I know you won’t, but at least try.”
For Scott, Harry remembered, this was just another successful mission. But Harry didn’t know how to see it that way.
“Well, feel better,” Harry said.
“Get some more sleep, man. This will all look different soon.”
That was good enough for now. Harry finished his cereal bar and then made his way back to the bed where Ginny was still sleeping. He lay down and had no trouble at all falling back asleep.
When Harry awoke again, the bedroom was empty. He rolled over and found that someone had helpfully placed his glasses on the bedside table. Judging by the light coming through the window, it was evening. The sky was purple with the tint of a winter sunset.
He emerged from the bedroom to find the flat transformed; all signs of its sudden crowding had been erased. The chairs were back in the kitchen, the blankets were gone from the couch and the only person present was Lila, who was making the bed in the other bedroom.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, pulling the sheet tight over the mattress.
“Er, Merry Christmas,” Harry said, having honestly forgotten that it was Christmas day still. Which, come to think of it— “Do Kharadjai celebrate Christmas?”
“Some do. We have similar winter solstice celebrations.” She smoothed the sheet down with her palms. “We’re relocating to Grimmauld. Scott said he would cut Remus and Bill back out if you want. Thoughts?”
Harry supposed it would be a bit churlish. “…No, it’s all right.”
There was a pile of items near the door: black cases, duffel bags and a few metal containers which were presumably filled with ammunition. Which made him think all the black bags and cases were probably loaded with armament of some kind. The pile was substantial, and he wondered where Lila had been hiding it all.
“Are you moving out?” he asked, indicating the pile.
“This location is compromised.” Lila finished with the sheet and busied herself with the pillows. “The Order knows about it, which means the Ministry might know about it, too. Or they will, if they don’t already. We don’t want to get caught in a search, not with all the hardware. It’s going to Grimmauld.”
Harry took a moment to consider that. There was still a lot of furniture around, and it seemed a bit odd to make the bed if she planned on abandoning the place. “But you’re coming back,” he said.
“At some point.” Lila finished and stepped away from the bed, turning to Harry. “We’ll see what happens.”
“Aren’t you just leaving?” Harry said, confused. It was over. The Kharadjai’s job was done.
Lila frowned. “No.”
She seemed slightly offended. Harry didn’t know why, but he wasn’t about to press his luck. Even after all they had been through together, he still found Lila to be largely indecipherable. That was sort of comforting, in weird way.
“Er, all right.” He pointed at the door. “Anything I should carry?”
“Not in your condition.” Lila left the bedroom and went over to the pile, slinging a couple duffel bags onto her back and picking up a case.
Harry reached out to hold her arm and Apparate them both, but she brushed right past him and went back into Scott’s bedroom. Harry followed, not sure why they needed to change rooms to Apparate. But inside the second bedroom, he was confronted by a hole in the wall. Perfectly rectangular, looking for all the world as if it belonged there, with Grimmauld on the other side.
Lila gestured towards it. “After you.”
“I thought I couldn’t?”
“You aren’t a Prime anymore.”
Harry just blinked, overcome by the thought. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. He’d always been a Prime, hadn’t he? Even before he’d known that was what it was called.
“The others are waiting,” Lila said with a slight edge of impatience.
That proved to be not entirely true. When Harry stepped through the aperture and emerged in the front hall of Grimmauld (just like in the dream, there was no sound or sensation in crossing the distance) it was clear that no one was actually waiting on him. There were voices coming from the kitchen and he thought some footsteps from the upper storeys as well.
Lila deposited her baggage into an existing pile near the door and then slipped back through her impossible window in space. Harry left her to it, limping his way down the hall and carefully descending the steps to the kitchen.
There was some part of him, a stubborn cordon in his brain, that still expected everyone to be there, gathered around the table to plan their next deadly foray. That there would still be meals to hastily consume in the expectation that there might not be another, or bullets laid out in neat, magazine-ready rows. He was unconsciously tensed to throw himself over the next terrible hurdle, only to find that there were none left.
Ginny was leaning against one of the countertops, gleefully plundering what Harry suspected was Scott’s bag of nacho crisps. Sophie and Hermione were seated at the table, deep in the midst of a discussion. Harry only caught a word or two as he came down, but he thought it was about him. Or maybe he was just paranoid.
Ginny immediately put the bag aside when she saw him. “I was just about to go back and check on you,” she exclaimed. She hobbled her way forward into a tight hug. “How do you feel?”
“Bit banged up,” Harry summarised.
“That’s all of us, the whole lot,” Ginny said. “Except maybe Sophie and Lil.”
Harry glanced over at Sophie, but she was still very focused on whatever she was talking about with Hermione (which must not be him after all). That was fine. She wasn’t the Kharadjai he really wanted to talk to, anyway.
“Have you seen Scott?” he asked.
“Yeah, he’s upstairs in bed. Might be having a kip.”
“I need to talk to him, if he’s awake,” Harry explained, turning to take on the stairs again.
“Harry, wait,” Ginny said, catching him by the hand.
He paused, waiting.
“I know you don’t want all the attention right now. And that’s fine, yeah? They’re mostly a bunch of pricks who don’t deserve you anyway,” Ginny scoffed. Harry couldn’t help but grin at that assessment. “But me and Ron were talking, and we think Mum and Dad and the rest should know that we’re all right. That you are.”
Harry’s heart sank a bit in his chest, but he couldn’t deny her that. She and Ron should be with their family. For Harry, the thought of confronting the world waiting for him outside was like a hard lump in his chest—the questions, the crowds, the adulation, the condemnation, the sheer amount, the all the time—but he knew he couldn’t ask everyone to stay with him. They had people who deserved to know that they were all right.
“It’s all right, Gin,” he said stiffly. “You should go.”
She rolled those beautiful, bright brown eyes, seeing right through him just like she always did. “I’m coming right back, Harry. You can stop looking like that.”
“Right, yeah. I, er, knew that.”
“Please.” She kissed him quickly on the mouth and then backed away. “Don’t worry about them keeping me. I’m packing a Portkey!”
Harry once more turned to surmount the staircase, only to be brought to a halt yet again by Hermione.
“Oh, Harry!” she called from the table.
“Do stay out of the motorcycle room if you go upstairs. Luna is in there with Neville, and… well. You understand.”
Harry knew all too well what Luna was going through. “Yeah. I won’t bother them.”
It was slow going, but he managed to make it upstairs despite his aching wounds. He suspected that Sophie had tended to his broken hand whilst he’d been asleep; he still couldn’t make a fist, but it didn’t hurt quite so fiercely.
He stopped at the drawing room when he heard voices within. He found the highly unusual duo of Ron and Kylie sitting inside, a chessboard between them. Ron was explaining a manoeuvre while Kylie studied the board with her customary focus, her brow furrowed with serious intent. Harry quietly left, not wanting to interrupt.
Harry assumed Scott would be found in the master bedroom, where he’d been when he was last unwell. Harry was just about to reach it when he heard footsteps behind him; he turned to intercepted by Lila, who eyed him critically.
“Don’t know if you should be walking this much,” Lila said. She pushed experimentally on Harry’s shoulder and raised a single eyebrow when he had to steady himself on the wall.
“I’m almost there,” Harry muttered, not all that happy with her bedside manner.
Lila walked over to the closed door of the bedroom. “Scott?” She rapped her knuckles against the wood. “You jackin’ it?”
“You open the door, you take your chances,” came Scott’s muffled reply. Despite the door, he was still loud enough to be reassuring. He must have been feeling better.
Lila strolled inside. Harry limped in after her and saw Scott in the bed, a sheet draped over his legs. He remained pale and had some rather serious-looking bandages, but his eyes were alert and he sat up slightly when they came in.
“The apartment is clean,” Lila informed him.
“How much does it bother you to know it’ll probably be ransacked by some Ministry goons?” Scott asked.
Lila’s eyes narrowed in displeasure. “Depends how likely that is.”
“I have no idea where they’re going to land on all this shit,” Scott admitted with a rough laugh. “The Order doesn’t even have much to tell, and who knows how much of what they do have they actually believe. Maybe they’ll decide we’ve kidnapped Harry. Maybe they’ll declare war on Mars, or the moon. Maybe they’ll pretend we don’t exist. Maybe they’ll believe we don’t exist! Flip a coin: heads, we each get a medal; tails, we face a firing squad.”
“Don’t like act this isn’t typical.”
“Yeah, all right. But at least we usually have some idea. We’ve been in the wind for half this operation. Who fuckin’ knows what’s happening out there.”
Lila gave Harry an odd sideways glance and then spoke to Scott so rapidly that it took Harry a second to realize it wasn’t in English. “Quid de domus?”
“Mox,” Scott said evenly.
“Is this your way of telling me to leave?” Harry interjected.
“Don’t get all prissy,” Lila told him. To Scott, she said, “What do you want for dinner?”
Scott shook his head. “No, that’s not a real question. I should be asking what I’m going to get.”
“I like surprises.”
“Why do you keep saying that? You absolutely don’t.” With that, Lila turned and walked out of the room.
Scott’s attention now fell on Harry. “Jesus. You look like how I feel. Have I said that already?”
“Probably.” Harry made his way over to the chair by the bed and slumped into it. “I think Ginny and Ron are leaving soon.”
“Hermione, too.” Scott yawned widely. “As I understand it, her parents are living a good life down in Oz, so I don’t really see the urgency. I bet they’re doing better than we are. But the look on her face when I explained this seemed to indicate she has strong feelings on the matter.”
“We’re doing better than we were yesterday,” Harry pointed out.
“Harry, yesterday we had two options: do better, or die. In the strict sense of how we are doing, we cleared a very low bar.”
“I guess.” Harry wasn’t feeling up to arguing the point, assuming he really believed it. Everything still felt unreal.
“We’re doing better than whatever’s left of the Death Eaters,” Scott allowed. “Even by the same standard, for most of them.”
Harry had a question about that, and he wasn’t sure he wanted the answer. “Did you kill him?”
“Malfoy. I reckoned he was at the Manor.”
“Uh… both, probably.”
“I didn’t see Lesser Malfoy around. Well, I did, but I was chained up at the time. Lucky him.”
“You think he made it?”
“No idea. Lot of people got shot, he could have been one of them. Doesn’t mean he died, of course, even if he did catch a round.” Scott looked upward pensively. “The thought that Malfoy might be out there somewhere a couple ounces of lead heavier will shepherd me through this trying time.”
Harry, for his part, was feeling a relief that was puzzling. Maybe he just didn’t want to know that Scott had killed one of his former classmates, even if that former classmate kind of had it coming. “It shouldn’t be that trying. We won.”
“And you’re so obviously psyched about it.”
Harry sighed. “I… I don’t really know what winning means. I guess we usually win, come to think of it, but it’s always been temporary. Like, ‘better next luck year’ to Riddle, you know?”
“No such thing, technically.” Scott shrugged. “But whatever you want to call the concept, luck runs out, sooner or later.”
“Yeah, it did.” Harry looked down at his battered hands; the hands that had ensured Riddle’s luck had come to a permanent end. “I don’t remember what it feels like to not be afraid. I always wondered how you never were. Reckoned you just weren’t afraid to die. Then I found out you can’t die, so…”
“I can die.”
“Not for long, though.”
“Yeah, but back home, it’s permanent. I only can’t die in other universes; it has something to do with being a foreign object in the system. I mean, don’t get me wrong, back home you could put a bullet in my head and I’d probably get back up, but if you keep doing it, I’ll die. I won’t come back.”
Harry stared at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We’re not supposed to,” Scott said lazily. “The Imperiarchy prefers that the unwashed masses of lesser universes perceive the Kharadjai as invincible. I’d appreciate it if you don’t go spreading that around.”
“But you are invincible here.”
“I think we need to draw the line between invincible and unkillable. Invincible would presumably mean I wouldn’t be bedridden,” Scott said dryly. Then his face became more thoughtful. “Sometimes people don’t come back. Even in other universes, I mean. Nobody knows why. Never happened to anyone I know, but there are recorded cases. They should come back and they just… don’t.”
Harry felt sick. “God, don’t tell me that. If I’d thought you could die for real—”
“Nothing would have changed. What were you going to do, send me to my room?” Scott rolled his eyes.
“No, I’d have Lila do it,” Harry shot back.
“Death isn’t the worst thing, Harry.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard that from Dumbledore,” Harry muttered.
“It’s frightening because it’s unknown. From your perspective, you’ve never not existed. If you think about like that then you’ll understand the fear. Your point of view is that you’ve always existed. But if you take a step back, you’ll see that you’ve spent a lot more time not existing than you have existing. Multiversal timescale means you’ve spent an essentially infinite amount of time not existing, and an insignificant amount of time existing. Really, existence is extremely unusual for you.”
Harry sort of understood what Scott was getting at, and almost despite himself found a perverse comfort in it. “I suppose so.”
Scott gave Harry a searching look. “Is this about Riddle?”
Harry fidgeted a little. Even if it was, he didn’t know if he was ready to talk about it. “I can’t help thinking about that time you said you’d kill Lestrange for me. I felt like it wasn’t really for me, but it was.”
“I said what?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Uh… no. Not ringing a bell.”
“We were at the edge of the woods. We were talking about war and when I asked if you’d kill Bellatrix, you asked if I wanted it clean or wanted to send a message. That really stuck with me,” Harry said, a bit piqued that Scott didn’t remember.
“Oh. Well, I’m sure this will come as a great shock, but I was definitely just testing you.”
“For what?” Harry exclaimed, exasperated.
“I don’t know,” Scott said with a maddening shrug. “I’m sure it all made sense when I was sixteen.”
Harry just closed his eyes for a second, trying to find patience. Scott was right, though: Harry wasn’t surprised.
“Anyway, just try to take it easy for a few days. Let Hermione and the Weasleys touch base with their families and then we’ll all be living large with our bags and bags of money. I might buy me a robot butler, or its magical non-union equivalent.”
“Mate, we stole that money.”
“Yep, stole it fair and square.”
“We’re not keeping it. I’d like to not be a wanted criminal for a change.”
“But you’re so dashing as a renegade,” Scott yawned, closing his eyes. He looked more tired and drawn than he had just a minute or two earlier.
Harry needed to get to the point before Scott was too worn out to continue. “Everything happened so fast that there’s some things I don’t understand. Why did my wand keep destroying Riddle’s?”
“Your wand did what?”
“Right, you weren’t there for that. My wand kept shooting out this light that made his wand explode. It was automatic, I wasn’t doing much besides trying to aim.”
“Harry, what in our history together would make you think I’d know anything about that?”
“Fair enough. Another thing, though: Ginny took a Killing Curse for me. I don’t know why she survived.”
“So why aren’t you asking Ginny?”
“I don’t know,” Harry sighed. “I thought maybe you’d done something.”
“Didn’t do shit. For once.”
Harry knew he should probably go and let Scott get some more rest. But he had so much on his chest and Scott had always been… well, ‘understanding’ wasn’t exactly the right word. Scott wasn’t totally devoid of compassion—at times he displayed an unexpectedly deep empathy. But Harry could say the sort of shite to him that the others just wouldn’t take the same way. Scott was jaded at a level none of Harry’s other friends could match. Nothing Harry said ever shocked him.
Which was good, because Harry really needed to admit to something. “I’m not sorry I did it.”
Scott blinked a few times, digesting that. “You did it?”
“No. Sorry. I changed the subject. I…” Harry swallowed and looked down. “I know everyone thinks I feel guilty because I killed Riddle.”
Scott nodded slowly. “But you feel guilty because you don’t.”
“I should. I know I should.” Harry shut his eyes, wrestling with that truth. “I don’t even know if I really hated him. Maybe I hated the idea of him. It’s not like I knew him. But I shot him. I shot him and he bled to death. And all I can think… I’m just so fucking glad it’s over. That’s it.”
Scott didn’t say anything for a long moment. He seemed to be thinking. Harry wished he’d say something, anything. The silence was so loaded that it was nearly unbearable.
“The Republic teaches us to always kill with purpose,” Scott finally said. “Which is to say, always have a reason for killing someone. Something definable, solid. To accomplish something. They teach us this because under the Imperium, pointless killing was standard. Everyone was always ‘just following orders.’ But it doesn’t work that way. You own what you do.”
Harry wasn’t sure where Scott was going, but he kept listening anyway.
“I’m not going to say that Riddle gave you no choice, because there is always a choice. Always. That’s the nature of our existence; we are condemned to be free. Debating the morality of your choice is not useful at this stage. Whether it was right or wrong—or more right, or more wrong—doesn’t really matter on the level of what’s happening inside you. And we can’t turn to the shape for absolution, because it merely brought you both to that point. The shape didn’t put the gun in your hand, and it didn’t pull the trigger. The question is also not whether you can internally justify it, morally or otherwise. Humans are natural geniuses at justification. In any case, you aren’t trying to justify your deed to appease your guilt, you’re trying to justify your lack of guilt, which in turn results in guilt. Now we run in circles.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Harry said.
“No, but this one is kind of important. You’re guilty only because you think you should be, which implies you’ve already found some way to deal with the act itself.”
“Is this going anywhere?”
“No. Seriously, no,” Scott added when he saw Harry’s expression. “There’s nowhere to go. The only real fundamental question here is whether you can live with what you’ve done. You’ve already answered it: you can. You feel kind of bad about it but you’re mostly glad it’s over.”
“That’s just what I already said!” Harry burst out. “Christ, usually when you deliver a big load of bollocks you have a bloody point to it.”
“The point, Harry, is that you had a reason for killing Riddle, and you’ve already decided that reason is sufficient justification. The guilt is just performative. You operate under this vague notion that someone expects you to feel bad about it, so you make yourself feel bad about it.”
Harry grimaced. “Sounds daft when you put it like that.”
Scott pointed at him. “You said it, motherfucker, not me.”
“You basically said it,” Harry grumbled. “Look, are you going to be awake later?”
Scott had been gradually sinking into his bedding over the course of their conversation and was now almost supine. “No promises.”
Harry left his exhausted friend to recover, his head spinning with the outcome of their conversation. Even if he knew he was being stupid and generating baseless guilt, how could he make himself stop? Understanding the bent of his own mind hadn’t made it snap into a more reasonable state. He just couldn’t shake the idea that he should be guilty. He’d killed someone. That was huge, lifechanging, a weight he had to learn to carry.
And yet it seemed to him to be just one more stone on the pile Riddle had given him.
No answers. Not from Scott, anyway. Harry went in search of Ginny, hoping she hadn’t intended to leave right away. He should have asked her immediately, when he’d seen her in the kitchen, but getting all the information from Scott in one sitting had seemed easier. Besides, when the Killing Curse had failed to perform its only purpose, Harry had just assumed Scott had something to do with it. What else would make sense?
He found Ginny in their room. He was relieved to see she wasn’t packing, having only changed her shirt to something a bit less battle worn. The dim light hid most of her injuries, but Harry knew the marks were still there. She should probably be in bed like Scott; they all should, for that matter.
She looked over when he came in. “Is there anything you want me to tell the family?” she asked.
“Uh… that I’m glad they’re all right. And I’ll be back before too long, I just… need some time where I’m not…” He trailed off, getting stuck on the phrasing. He didn’t want to imply that he was trying to get away from them or didn’t want to see them.
“All right, us. We’ll be a right load of lazy prats on a beach somewhere.”
The last time Harry had been at a beach, he’d been in a dream. The thought should have brought horror with it, but just like a real dream the memory of the carnage was wispy and had little impact. It felt like something he’d seen on the telly or heard about second-hand.
She finished straightening her fresh shirt and hugged him, squeezing gently to avoid flaring up either of their injuries. “Just, try to breathe, all right?” she said sympathetically. “There’s nowhere we’ve got to be. We did it, Harry. So just breathe and it will all work out.”
He clung to that idea like a drowning man. “Sure. Listen, before you go—what happened back at Hogwarts?”
“Right, that,” Ginny said, like it was no big thing. “Well, Hermione could probably explain it better, but she did something with the Horcrux spell. She and Sophie, I mean. It wasn’t just your blood in the jar, it was ours, too.”
Harry absorbed that, trying to wrap his head around the implications. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, not really,” Ginny admitted. “I know Riddle did something so he could touch you, but then Dumbledore’s portrait said he could only zap the Horcrux in you, or at least one time. After that you’d be out of protection? Or maybe not. Maybe he just couldn’t hurt you that way. Reckon he’d work something else out, eventually. All this blood protection rubbish doesn’t make much sense, if you ask me, but at least it works. Otherwise I’d be a goner.”
“…So my mum protected you, too? That’s brilliant! Why didn’t you lot tell me?”
Ginny’s expression turned hesitant. “Look, it’s already done, so you can’t be angry about it.”
That didn’t sound promising. “About what?”
“Hermione said there was a chance—a small chance, mind—that the Horcrux could go to one of us instead of the phylactery. Maybe. She didn’t really know, but she thought you’d be all you about it, so she told us not to mention it.”
Harry knew, logically, that he should feel upset, outraged; terrified at what could have been and at least marginally betrayed. He even stood there for a moment expectantly, waiting for the rush of emotions to clench his jaw and set his heart to pounding. It didn’t come. All he felt was a bit of anger, flickering low and fading as quickly as it flared.
With a dim twinge of understanding, he realized he’d hit some sort of limit. He was all out of everything. He’d gone through the wringer of just about every emotion that existed and now he was numb, head to toe, in and out.
Shite, he really did need a holiday.
“It was a bit daft to jump in front of me,” he said at last, aware of Ginny’s increasingly concerned visage as she waited for a reaction. “Especially if Riddle couldn’t kill me like that.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about it. I just did it.” Ginny shrugged, an odd expression on her face. She looked relieved that he hadn’t exploded, and also disturbed for the same reason. “Now you know how it feels, you great heroic prat.”
Yeah, some hero he was. Couldn’t even face the world he saved.
“I probably shouldn’t let you out of my sight,” he mumbled, and he half meant it.
“I’ll be fine, Harry.” She hugged him gently again, then said, “Lil’s taking us to see the family. I’ll borrow a big machine gun from her.”
“Yeah, right. She’d never give you a machine gun.”
“Probably for the best,” Ginny admitted.
It was still hard to watch her go, even though he knew it shouldn’t be. Maybe it was because he suspected he should be going with her, if he weren’t such a coward. But even the thought of explaining what had happened to the sympathetic Weasleys, an audience far kinder and more forgiving than most others, left him feeling cold. He’d shot a man to death. Bloody hell, how could he talk about that?
He would have to figure it out, eventually. For the time being, he was grateful he didn’t have to.
He followed Ginny to the front door, where Ron was waiting. He hugged Ginny again and clasped Ron’s hand, pulling him in for a manly slap on the back. He had to keep reminding himself that he wasn’t saying goodbye. It just felt strange to be splitting up. They’d been a team for what felt like so long (even before Grimmauld).
“Mum’s going to kill me,” Ron said glumly.
“Nah, mate. She’ll be too happy to see you again,” Harry predicted.
“Yeah, but for how long? I was supposed to send Ginny back. Didn’t quite do it, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“You’ve always got your Portkey.”
Ron grinned and patted his pocket. “Should’ve carried these years ago. Fuck, how many times would one have saved our arses?”
“Don’t make me do maths.”
“Chin up, Harry,” Ginny said. “We’ll be back soon.”
Then they were gone. Harry stood in the entryway for a couple minutes, feeling like an idiot. He should have gone with. No, he couldn’t face that. Yes, he should have! Bloody hell. If he stood there for a few more minutes, he’d probably start having his internal argument out loud. What a fucking nutter he’d turned out to be.
Well, nobody would be all that surprised. Least of all him.
Listlessly descending the steps, he was surprised to find Hermione still in the kitchen. Sophie was gone and Hermione was standing in front of an open cupboard. She turned when she heard Harry come in.
“Did Ron and Ginny leave?” she asked.
“Yeah, they’re off,” Harry confirmed.
“I’m sure the other Weasleys will be glad to see them,” Hermione said. She looked back into the cupboard with a contemplative expression. “I expect Neville and Luna will leave soon, but I think they may come back as well. I’ll have to tell Sophie to expect two more mouths to feed. Unless we aren’t staying here, of course, though that raises other logistical priorities.”
Harry was just comforted to see that he wasn’t the only one having trouble leaving the mindset of the war. “Won’t matter, will it? I’ll be able to go to Gringotts before long, then we can buy whatever we need.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Hermione said. She didn’t stop counting the tins, though.
Harry reckoned now was as good a time as any. “Ginny told me about the blood magic.”
Hermione stiffened. “I see,” she said, her face cautious. “I know you hate risks like that, Harry, but we all felt that—”
“It’s done,” Harry sighed. “I mean, there’s no use having a row over it now.”
“Agreed,” Hermione said quickly.
Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Do you know how soon you’ll be back?”
“I don’t, I’m afraid,” Hermione said, clearly glad to be changing the subject. “Not without knowing the state of things out there. In fact, I assume I’ll have to wait until the Ministry is back under control. At least enough for me to travel.”
“You could go the Muggle way.”
“It’d be slower, but I may have to. Sophie actually offered to go with me, which was kind of her.” Hermione frowned slightly. “Though I’m not sure if she was actually offering to speed things up somehow… Now that we can use apertures, perhaps that’s an option.”
“Won’t Sophie have to have been to Australia?”
“Yes, as I recall. Of course, even if she’s been, there’s no guarantee it was this Australia. I wonder if that matters?” Hermione looked a bit put out. “I should have asked her when she was here. Drat.”
“She went to check on the Order safehouse. I hope she’ll be able to tell us something when she returns.” Hermione sighed in a dissatisfied sort of way. “I really wish I could just go. Anyway, Lila said she’d go over to see the Order after the Weasleys, though she may not have to if they’re all in one place. She said she’ll buy supper on her way back.”
“Buy?” Harry said. Takeout was uncommon at Grimmauld given the finances involved in feeding so many people.
Hermione shrugged. “It is Christmas.”
“Right, yeah,” Harry said. “That’ll limit her options quite a bit.”
“I’m sure she’ll think of something.” Hermione leaned against one of the cupboards, her posture wilting slightly. “Goodness,” she sighed. “What a forty-eight hours it’s been.”
Harry was suddenly aware of how tired she looked: the deep lines beneath her eyes, the sag in her usually rigid spine, the way she favoured her good ankle. “What a bloody year,” Harry said.
“But it’s over.” Hermione lips suddenly quivered, and her eyes were flush with tears. She stepped forward and put her arms around him, and he could feel her shaking. “I was so afraid that we’d lose you. That we’d lose anyone. I don’t even know how to stop. I know it’s done, but I just can’t stop.”
Harry wasn’t in a position to help; at least, not with words. He hugged her back and just stood there, hoping his reciprocation was enough. It was all he had to offer.
Slowly, she calmed. “Damn it,” she muttered, sniffing wetly. “You’d think I’d be all out of tears by now.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” Harry said.
“No, I suppose not.” She took a step back and wiped at her eyes. “Well, I’d better wash up. Again.”
“Lila won’t care if you’re presentable,” Harry told her.
“I’m sure she won’t, but I do.”
Left once more to his own devices, Harry made the painful ascent back to the upper levels of Grimmauld. This was, he realized after the fact, a bit stupid considering he was just going to have to descend again for supper. At least he was stretching out his sore muscles, which was probably a good thing even if it didn’t feel particularly good.
He found Scott in the drawing room, which was surprising as he’d thought the older man was unable to leave bed. Scott was sitting in a chair by the window. It was snowing lightly, Harry saw. Tiny flakes brushed against the windowpane, fluttering down and out of sight towards the street.
Lacking anything better to do, Harry slowly dragged another chair across the room and seated himself next to Scott. The Kharadjai’s eyes were closed, but Harry knew better than to assume he was sleeping.
“Still cold out,” Harry said, a banal remark aimed more at judging Scott’s level of awareness than any need to comment on the weather.
“Mmm,” Scott hummed, his eyes remaining closed. “This is the Hour of Lead—remembered, if outlived, as freezing persons recollect the snow. First chill, then stupor… then the letting go.”
“One of your poets?” Harry guessed.
“One of yours.”
A gust of wind made the windowpane creak, sending the sparse flakes speeding past before they settled into a steady downfall again. Harry wondered who else was out there, watching the snow through other windows on Christmas.
“What do you think they’re doing out there?” he asked.
“No, they. The Death Eaters.”
“I don’t care what they’re doing, because for once I don’t have to,” Scott said. “If they regroup, we can worry about revenge. At the moment, they’re probably still trying to figure out if Riddle is actually dead.”
“It’ll be like last time,” Harry said disdainfully. “They’ll burn their stupid outfits and pretend they were Imperiused.”
“Sounds like a problem for the Ministry.”
Scott’s apathy was strange when contrasted with his usually aggressive tactics. Still, Harry supposed the nature of the problem had shifted. The Wizarding world, once sunk beneath Voldemort’s fist, now had to rise and confront the wreckage. Harry’s necessary contribution had ended in the morning, which meant Scott’s had as well.
“I think Lila’s angry with me,” Harry said.
“Now what’d you do?” Scott sighed.
“I don’t know. I asked when you lot were leaving, and she seemed offended.”
“Well, it’s just a bit insulting to assume we’d duck out and leave you hanging,” Scott retorted.
Harry crossed his arms defensively. “It’s not personal… I thought you wouldn’t have a choice. Don’t you got other people to save?”
“Probably, but not any time soon. They try not to pile integrations up like that. We already burn out fast enough as it is.” Scott rubbed at his eyes for a moment, then said, “You’re an investment. It wouldn’t make sense to leave right away and risk your country collapsing again. We’re supposed to be helping. This makes us the good guys. You understand? We want to be the good guys. This isn’t selfless.”
“I guess… I don’t know, I guess I thought you do it because you want to,” Harry mumbled.
“You’re talking about me personally. The Republic does it because it makes the Republic feel like a force for good in the universe. Because there are soldiers to pay and weapons to manufacture and an economy drives itself. Because the Primarius program produces super-soldiers and the Integration Corps produces the most dangerous version of those super-soldiers and even if that’s not quite the all-encompassing advantage it looks like, it doesn’t matter because rival nations see it that way. Everything is money and perception. You can’t imagine how much it costs to put boots on the ground in another universe, or how much the fact that we can do it all is prized.”
“I suppose the job is never really done,” Harry mused. “I just thought you’d be doing it somewhere else.”
“No, I’ll be defending your balls for a while yet. And possibly negotiating on behalf of the Republic, depending on how things go. Sounds like another year at Hogwarts is likely. Would you guys care if I just don’t age down this time?” Scott stretched his arms upwards, collapsing them with a groan. “Fuck it, we’re going on vacation first.”
Harry voiced his fear. “Sometimes I feel like it won’t matter where I go. There will still be someone asking for something, still staring at my scar. …Maybe that’s self-centred. But I just feel like I’ll always be found.”
“Well, I think that depends,” Scott said as he opened his eyes for the first time, “on how far you go.”