"David!" Ginny exclaimed, her eyes round with surprise.
Harry followed the direction of the voice and saw a man walking towards them, flashing Ginny a big smile. He was dressed in sophisticated robes that would even make Draco Malfoy's robes look worn out.
David put his arms around Ginny and kissed her the moment he reached her side. Harry could feel his stomach turn upside-down. He took a sip from the cup he was holding to distract himself from the sight in front of him.
"I—I thought you weren't coming?" Ginny asked in a surprised and, at the same time, irritated tone. "I thought you were out of town."
David smiled and brushed a few strands of hair from Ginny's face. "The meeting with Craufeldale ended early so I decided to drop by here. I missed you."
Harry swallowed the massive lump that began to block the air from his lungs. He cleared his throat louder than he had intended to. David turned around and eyed Harry and then Ginny in a rather suspicious way, as if he didn't know that Harry had been standing there right from the start.
"Oh, I forgot to introduce you to each other," Ginny said, tearing herself away from David's arms. "Harry, this is David Croft. David, this is Harry. Harry Potter."
In a split second, David's slight scowl turned into a huge smile as he extended his hand towards Harry. "Oh! Great to finally meet you, Mr. Potter."
Harry smiled timidly and shook David's hand. "It's Harry. I don't fancy being called Mr. Potter too much."
"Ever so polite, eh?" David chirped. "You should be used to all the formality by now since you're one of today's most esteemed Aurors, being the one who defeated You-Know-Who and all." He dropped Harry's hand and turned to Ginny with a slight look of wonder in his face. "Why didn't you tell me you know Harry Potter?"
Ginny's brows furrowed as she glanced slightly at Harry. "I told you, he was Ron and Hermione's best friend at Hogwarts. He's been like family for years."
"Really?" David said, shrugging his shoulders and turning back to Harry. "Well, anyway, what are you doing here, Harry? Aren't you working for the New York IAC?"
Harry nodded. "Yes, I am. I'm just on leave."
"Oh, that's great. Maybe I could arrange an interview with you one of these days with the WWN before you go back to New York," David said enthusiastically. "I'm sure everyone would like to know what's going on with the great Harry Potter these days."
Harry smiled, slightly embarrassed by the idea. "Oh, no. There's no need, really."
"But I insist. I could easily arrange it anytime you want. They didn't make me the network's president for nothing," David bragged, adjusting the lapel of his expensive robes.
Harry saw Ginny cringe, giving David dark looks. She noticed that Harry was looking at her and gave him a small, embarrassed smile. Harry smiled back, shrugging.
"So, Harry," David continued. "How was New York? I heard you've been one of the most prized Aurors of the IAC."
Harry looked down at the teacup in his hands. "Oh, no. No, that's not quite true."
David gave an amused laugh. "Modest, aren't we? But seriously, how was working with the IAC? I've always wanted to be an Auror but my dad gave me the WWN right after I left Hogwarts, so I was left with no choice but to manage the family business. I mean, there's no need to work for anybody if I can be the boss, right?"
Harry only smiled modestly, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. If this bloke were to talk to Percy, Harry wasn't sure if he could refrain himself from choking. He made a sideways glance at Ginny; she was slightly shaking her head in embarrassment. He couldn't help but wonder what Ginny saw in David that made her get involved with him for this long. With only a minute of talking to him, Harry was sure that David would only get along well with Percy and not with the other Weasleys…and Ginny was nothing like Percy. Not that he didn't like Percy, of course.
"Perhaps you could show us around New York when Ginny and I take our vacation there," David went on, dropping his arms casually, but possessively, around Ginny's shoulders. "It's great to have a tour guide of some sort."
"Right," Harry said, forcing himself to smile in spite of the sudden tightening of his chest at the thought of Ginny on a romantic vacation with David in America. He saw Ginny look down, trying to hide the sudden redness of her face with her hair.
After a few seconds, Ginny looked up, smiling faintly at Harry before turning to David. "Honey, why don't you say hi to Ron and Hermione first and get something to eat?"
David beamed. "Yeah, right. I have to give Aya her birthday present, too. It was nice meeting you, Harry," he said, extending his hand again.
"I'll see you around." David waved before turning around and walking out of the kitchen with Ginny.
Harry watched them as David opened the kitchen door for Ginny before closing it behind them, shutting him out of their world.
* * *
The moon had begun to show when the remainder of the party vanished from their eyes. Hermione and Ginny were washing the dishes in the kitchen as the remaining Weasleys enjoyed a cup of tea with Harry in the living room.
All attention was drawn towards Harry, and for the first time in his life, he didn't wish he could disappear right on the spot. He'd missed everyone, even Percy and his endless inquiries about the American Ministry, and he was glad to be able to catch up with everything he had missed. But it was already getting late and most of the children were falling asleep on the couch.
Bill's family left first when Anne noticed Jerry eyeing the remaining Filibuster Fireworks by the kitchen door. It was not exactly a wise idea to stay when the two boys had already set fire on Mrs. Weasley's begonias just before the sun set.
Percy and Penny decided to leave next when they noticed Phillip's head rolling on the side of the couch sleepily. The couple didn't fancy taking rounds through the Floo just to get their children home.
Just as the remains of the emerald-green fire vanished from the fireplace, Charlie announced he was leaving to go back to Hogwarts, where he was teaching Care of Magical Creatures. Fred and George, seeing that there were no brothers left to torture, decided to go back to their Diagon Alley flat, too.
Just then, Ginny and Hermione appeared in the living room. "You guys are leaving?"
"Yes, I still have papers to grade back at the school," Charlie said, embracing Ginny and Hermione. "I'll just see you girls, all right?"
"Okay, but don't splinch yourself," Ginny said, folding the creases of her brother's cloak.
"Yeah, you too." Charlie laughed and, after saying last goodbyes to the others, Disapparated.
"Ginny, dear, where's David?" Mr. Weasley asked suddenly.
Ginny frowned and heaved a huge sigh. "He just left. Told me he still has to Floo his father or something."
"You mean that idiot of a boyfriend you've got just left without saying goodbye to us?" George asked indignantly.
"He meant to say goodbye, but—"
Fred rolled his eyes. "Whatever, Gin. Next time I see him, I'm really going to teach him some manners."
"Fred Weasley, one more word about your sister's boyfriend and you're going to wish you'd never learned how to talk!" Mrs. Weasley said.
"All right, all right," Fred said. "But honestly, Gin, you deserve better."
"Fine!" he said and kissed his mother and sister goodbye. "Bye, everyone."
George shrugged. "I'd better go, too. 'Night everyone. And Ginny? No matter how daft Fred is, he really does have a point."
"Why you—" Mrs. Weasley swelled like a bullfrog, but before she could say something, George Disapparated. "Honestly, those two! Ginny, dear, don't mind your brothers, all right?"
Ginny shrugged and walked toward her father to kiss him goodbye. "They really have a point, Mum. Anyway, I really should go now."
"What? You're not coming to Fowlgrove for tea?" Ron asked. "Oh, come on, Gin!"
"I can't. I still have to wake up early tomorrow," she said, kissing Mrs. Weasley and Hermione. "I've got hospital duty."
Before Harry could stop himself, he blurted out, "Couldn't you at least stay for an hour? Or half an hour?"
"As much as I want to, I really can't, Harry," Ginny said, smiling a little as she put on her cloak.
Harry tried to keep his face neutral, void of any expression that might tell her how disappointed he was. He cursed himself for letting himself get dragged into every single conversation with the rest of the family. Sure, he loved talking to them all but it also kept him from having one decent conversation with Ginny. And when he finally got the chance, they were rudely interrupted by no less than David. "Oh, all right. Maybe next time then?"
"Of course, Harry," she said, smiling before turning to her brother for one last goodbye.
"Harry's right, you know," Ron said, stooping down to hug Ginny. "Half an hour is all we're asking."
Ginny laughed. "Ron, I can't. What's with you anyway? You're going to see me soon and you know that!"
Ron looked like he was about to protest, but in the end, raised his arms in defeat. "Fine! Harry, walk her home."
"What?" Harry asked incredulously, fighting the coloring of his cheeks. Then, realizing what the tone of his voice might mean to Ginny, he quickly backtracked. "It's not what I mean—it's just—"
Ginny laughed. "It's okay, Harry. Ron's just being the prat that he is and is finding an excuse to throw you out of the house early."
"Hey! That's not what I meant!"
"I really should go now," Ginny said, smirking at her brother. She turned to Harry and shyly looked up at him. "It's really nice seeing you again, Harry."
And to Harry's surprise and sheer delight, she stood on her tiptoes and gave him a hug before quickly averting her eyes. His heart skipped a beat when he noticed her cheekbones flushing a light pink, something he'd missed seeing. "Bye, Harry."
"Yeah," Harry said, stupidly staring at her face. "Bye, Gin."
"I'll Apparate at the edge of the village," she said, stepping out of the front porch. "I'm going to have a bit of walk in the woods."
Harry was still speechless at Ginny's unexpected hug and was shaken out of his reverie when Ron's large hand hit him on the back. "Follow her and talk to her. Now!"
"But—Ron please, it's not that easy," he muttered.
"Now! And don't Apparate to Fowlgrove if you haven't started a decent conversation with her. Go!" Ron hissed dangerously, pushing him out of the house.
Harry stood stock still on the front porch, watching the oak door slam in his face. He turned around and saw Ginny walking towards the woods. His stomach made an almighty lurch. If Hermione didn't manage to kill Ron, then Harry vowed that he would finish the job for her.
It's now or never, he thought nervously as he tried hard to flatten his hair. Harry ran towards her and caught her up in seconds. "Gin, wait!"
"Harry!" she squeaked, looking back at him. "You don't have to do this because Ron made you, all right? He's just being his overprotective-brother self."
"I didn't come here just because of Ron," he said as he walked alongside her.
Ginny raised her eyebrows at him. "Oh, really? Then you'd be here because…?"
"Nothing much," he said, looking straight at the path. "I'd just wanted to walk with you. We didn't have a decent conversation back at the party."
She laughed. "Well, that won't happen with my family cornering you every single moment. They missed you a lot."
"Yeah, and I'm glad they did. I missed them a lot, too." He then walked ahead of her, turned around, and continued walking backwards. He was still a nervous wreck, but he knew that stuttering like an idiot won't get him anywhere. Might as well talk to her like nothing's wrong. "And what about you?"
"What about me?" she asked.
"Did you miss me?" he asked with a goofy grin on his face.
Ginny bit her lip and said thoughtfully, "You? Hmm…let me think about that…you were gone for three years…let's see…hmmm…No."
"What?" Harry asked disbelievingly, his heart aching. "You didn't?"
"Nope. Not for a single second," Ginny said nonchalantly, shaking her head.
Harry was staring at her face and it was completely void of traces of Weasley mischief. He could feel his brain spinning out of hurt and he wasn't ready for the tree root behind him. He fell over and landed on his bum. "Ouch!"
Ginny suddenly began laughing—that lively laugh of hers. She was laughing so hard that she had to stop to grab a tree trunk for support. Harry was speechless and looked right up at her. "And now she thinks it's funny. Ha ha."
"Oh God, Harry! The look on your face! It was priceless!" she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. "You didn't actually believe what I said, right?"
"I have the best poker face in my family, didn't you know?" She then grabbed his arm and pulled him up. "Now get up there, you idiot. I honestly don't know why they call you Britain's premier Auror."
"Very funny, Weasley," he pouted, dusting the dirt from his bum. "And I'm an idiot now."
"Well, you are!" Ginny said, continuing to tease him. "You're best mates with Ron, git-extraordinaire, so that makes you one!"
"Ha ha," he said, avoiding her eyes. "And she's still making fun of it, even if she hurt my feelings."
"Oh, come on Harry!" she laughed. "I was just joking! Of course I missed you!"
"Really?" he said, his head snapping sideways to look at her.
"It's hard not to miss you, you know," she whispered, smiling a little. "You always made my day."
"You always made my day, too."
Ginny looked up at him with a weird expression that he was sure matched his. Even in the dark woods, her brown eyes were still the most beautiful things he'd ever seen in his life. Even in the dark, her face glowed. She glowed. To him she was ethereal-looking, like a wood nymph in the dark.
They continued walking without speaking a word; the crunching of the fallen twigs under their feet was the only sound that was disturbing the silence. Harry could see the end of the woods, and he knew Ginny would say goodbye when they reach that spot. Racking his brains for something worthwhile to talk about, he suddenly blurted. "So, David."
"Yeah, David," Ginny said, following his train of thought. "We've been dating for almost three years."
"Three years? Wow." Harry shrugged, keeping his voice from sounding bitter. "That is a long time."
"Yeah, I know," she said gloomily. "But it still feels like three months."
"You know, like we're still getting to know each other," she said, her head bowed low looking at her feet kicking the ground. "Like we're still strangers to each other. Well, maybe except me. I already know him."
"And him?" he asked, looking down at her.
Ginny looked up and smiled. "Yeah, I think he does. I mean he knows when I'm mad."
Harry let out a hollow laugh. "Now that's happy."
She looked up at him sharply. "We've been together three years, and if that isn't proof that I'm happy, I dunno what is."
Harry cursed himself for saying that. "Gin, that's not what I meant."
To his relief, she gave him a small smile. "I know. I'm just being paranoid, I think. I mean I hear that all the time from my flatmates."
"What do you mean?"
Ginny shook her head and gave a small laugh. "Nothing. I'm just being my talkative self. You know, blurting out random things. Well, you know me! Talk, talk, talk!"
Harry faced her as they reached the end of the path. "Hey, you can tell me anything."
"Right." Ginny nodded, avoiding his gaze. "Well, this is my stop now. Thanks for walking with me."
Harry frowned. He was sure he had hit something and he wanted to know what it was. But no matter how much he wanted to know, he stopped himself from intruding. "Uh, are you sure you don't want me to walk you back to your flat?"
"Oh, it's all right, Harry," she said, smiling brightly again. "I can manage from here. And besides, Ron might strangle me for keeping you up."
You have no idea, Harry thought. "Well, if you're sure," he said instead. "Err...is it all right if I visit you at your flat or at work?"
For a second, Harry thought she blushed. "Oh! Of course, of course! I really have to run. I'll see you then, okay?"
"Yeah, of course," he said, smiling back at her. "It's great to see you again, Gin."
"You, too, Harry," she whispered, looking at his eyes. "'Bye."
And without another word, she Disapparated, leaving a very confused Harry.
* * *
"That was very subtle, Ron," Harry shot at Ron the moment he appeared at Hermione's surgically clean kitchen.
"What was subtle?" Ron smirked, grabbing two glasses and a bottle of Ogden's Firewhisky and walked to the living room.
Harry followed irritably. "Well, pushing me to Ginny like that was very subtle, you genius!"
"Well, I am the Master of Subtlety, eh?" Ron joked, pouring Firewhisky into his glass.
"Master of Subtlety, my foot!"
Ron laughed and handed him a glass. "Lower your rather dulcet tones, mate. Hermione's going to have a fit if you wake Aya. And besides, don't tell me you didn't like it!"
"I did." He shrugged before downing the glass. "Well, except for the part when she avoided talking about David and Disapparated so suddenly."
"She just doesn't want anyone knowing her personal life," he said. "You know my sister."
"She called me an idiot, you know," Harry said, shaking his head as he poured more firewhisky into his glass. "Maybe I really am for being friends with you for fourteen years."
Ron laughed. "Now that hurts, mate. Anyway, what's the deal with you coming back so early? It's not like you to leave work just like that."
Harry shrugged and ran a hand through his hair. "It's a long story. I'd rather talk about it with Hermione here."
"Is it really that serious?"
"I guess. They kicked me out of IAC, right?"
"They kicked you out?"
Harry and Ron turned around and saw Hermione striding towards them. "What happened? What did you do now?" she asked, before sitting down beside Ron.
"You know Bryant? The IAC Chief? Well, let's just say that there were some things that we didn't seem to agree upon."
"Ah, of course. Bryant is the current topic in the Ministry." Ron nodded. "Everyone at the Auror office is talking about his so-called involvement with American Death Eaters."
"Death Eaters?" Hermione asked anxiously. "Wait, Voldemort's gone now. The wizarding world is free of Dark magic since Harry defeated him seven years ago. Are you telling me that the Ministry's hiding something?"
"Not really," Ron explained. "These are just rumors circulating in the American and British Ministries. No one's sure if everything is true."
"But they are true," Harry said. "It's been common knowledge in the American Ministry that Bryant's congregating with Death Eaters. We've started to gather a group of Aurors who believe that Bryant isn't as innocent as he insists himself to be and we have our evidence back in New York. It's only a matter of time before we can hand Bryant to the Ministry red-handed."
"So, this is why they sent you back?" Hermione shrieked. "Harry! What the hell is the matter with you? You could have got yourself into trouble!"
"Sweetheart, I think he already did."
"That's not what I mean, Ron!" she snapped back. "Harry could be charged with mutiny after what he did! It's a very serious case, Harry, and you, as an Auror, should know about that!"
"I know, Hermione," he said patiently. "That's why I've told the rest not to start any type of mutiny that may jeopardize everybody's careers. We've decided to take it directly to the American Wizengamot for a fair trial instead of starting something everybody will regret. But before we could even start collecting the evidence, Bryant fired me and sent me back here.
"Somebody must've tipped him. But if he thinks he's got rid of me, he should think again. I'm not giving up until I've brought his case to the Wizengamot."
"Harry, you're treading dangerous waters, you know," Ron said, his eyebrows knotted together. "But if you ever need the British force for this, you can count us in. Kingsley has been asking me about that for ages. And, of course, Dad will never leave you to deal with this on your own. The whole British Ministry's behind you, I can assure you that. But before anything else happens, I want you to be careful. I really don't fancy flying to America just to visit you in a cell instead of taking a long vacation with my wife."
"Don't worry, Ron. I wouldn't let that happen." Harry smiled. "And thanks a lot."
Hermione crossed her arms. "I know you meant well, Harry. But with you jobless, what are your plans now? You can't just stay here in London without doing something."
"Arthur mentioned something about Randall O'Neil adding me to the British force," he said. "I think I'd give it a shot. I've been wanting to work for our Ministry since I finished training, and it's good to know that the Force is actually considering me."
Ron made a hollow laugh. "You just don't know how O'Neil was always cursing the Americans for getting you ahead of us. It's becoming annoying, really. No offense meant to you of course, Harry."
"Anyway, let's stop with this serious Auror talk," Hermione interrupted. "So, what's up with Ginny now?"
Harry sighed. "Ginny? I honestly don't know."
"Nothing's changed about your feelings for her right?" she asked raising an eyebrow at him.
"Not for a second," he answered firmly.
"Harry, it's one of the realities you have to face now," Hermione said in a manner that resembled Molly Weasley. "You're turning twenty-five and you're not getting any younger. Ginny's very much involved with David, and if you don't do anything about it, I'm afraid to say you might lose her."
"Croft is an idiot and a wanker. Even Colin Creevey is better than him; too bad he's gay, though."
"Language, Ron. And besides, David is a very nice guy. He's very hard-working and he really thinks of the future," Hermione said.
"Doesn't stop him from being an idiot. He said once that the twins and I have pea-sized intellects, if you recall that, sweetheart," Ron argued, his ears red—not a very good sign.
Hermione huffed. "But that was before he knew you guys were Ginny's brothers! And he only called you that because you and the twins fed him one of those Puking Pastilles, if you remember that too, honey!"
"See? He only became extra polite to us when he found out we were blood relations to the girl he wanted to shag! Admit it, sweetheart, he is an idiot."
"Fine!" Hermione said, giving in. "He's a bit of an idiot but it's still Ginny who has the final say."
"It's only a matter of weeks before Ginny dumps him, I can see that," Ron said, smiling triumphantly.
"Honey, you've been saying that for the last two years and nothing's happened," Hermione said patiently.
"But Harry is here now!" Ron said dramatically.
"So? She's still with David, and Harry isn't exactly doing something about it, right?"
"What are you saying? That Harry isn't the perfect guy for my sister?" Ron snapped. "Because I don't think so! I've known he's meant for my sister since I was twelve, SWEETHEART!"
"I didn't say that! In fact, I'd be very glad if Harry and Ginny finally get together, so don't accuse me of thinking of those things, HONEY!"
Harry felt that he really needed to interrupt before a huge Weasley-vs.-Weasley brawl occurred. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys, but we're here to talk about Ginny and me, right?"
"As I was saying, Harry." Hermione huffed, ignoring Ron's hisses. "Do something about it. If Ginny means so much to you—"
"You know very well that Ginny's everything in my life," Harry snapped.
"I know, Harry, and I'm trying to help you here, so don't snap at me," she said, pursing her lips. "Anyway, I want you to do something about it before anything happens. And if that doesn't help convince you, I'd just like you to know that I know Ginny loves you back."
"But didn't she give up on him years ago?" Ron asked.
"Honey, there is a huge difference between giving up and getting over."
Ron smiled proudly. "How the hell did you become so good at these things? Why didn't I see it before?"
"I can proudly say that I do not have an emotional scope of a baboon, honey," Hermione said, rolling her eyes.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Anyway," Hermione continued, ignoring her husband. "I told you, I know she loves you. Now it's up to you know to let her know that you do, too."
"But she seems so happy with David," Harry said.
"Happy? You have absolutely no idea!" Hermione snorted. "Now Harry, I think that before you do anything, you should set out the pros and cons here."
"Blimey, Hermione," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "This is his happiness we're talking about! We don't need to list the bloody pros and cons! This isn't Potions!"
"I'm just being organized, Ron," Hermione said, turning to her husband.
"This is life! It's very much different from homework."
"Well, you can't expect great results if you don't organize well," she threw back scathingly.
"Piece of advice, mate," Ron said, turning to Harry and ignoring his wife. "Don't open anything you'll be receiving from her on your birthday. It's likely she'd be giving you a love-life planner."
"What is that suppose to mean?"
"Bottom line, Harry," Ron said, still ignoring Hermione. "Do something about it before bloody Croft proposes to my sister and she accepts it."
"Wait, are you telling me he's proposing?" Harry asked quickly.
Ron shook his head. "I dunno. But still, hurry up and do something about it."
"You see, Ron? You aren't doing anything to clear things up for Harry! If we list the pros—"
"Cut it out, Hermione!" Ron said exasperatedly.
"ALL RIGHT!" Harry said loudly before anything untoward could happen. "I'll just think about it and do something on my own. And yes, Hermione," he added when he noticed Hermione opening her mouth to interrupt, "I will list the pros and cons."
"So, that's it!" Ron said, standing up. "Let's all go to sleep now. Harry, I think you'd better stay here for the night. You just take the bedroom beside Aya's."
"Okay, you guys go ahead. I guess I'll stay here for a while."
"Good night then," Hermione said, looking down at him. "But think about it, all right? It's not going to work if—"
Ron suddenly scooped Hermione into his arms, obviously doing something to keep her from babbling once more. "Time for the baboon to get his wife to their quarters. 'Night, mate."
"'Night." Harry chuckled, watching his best friends ascend the staircase together; Ron was whispering words to her and Hermione was laughing and slapping him playfully. No matter how often they fight, they couldn't deny the fact that they love each other. That they belong together.
Harry watched them, his insides writhing in jealousy. Ginny loves you, Hermione's words echoed in his brain. They were words of comfort, yes, but they still didn't change the fact that he was experiencing one huge emotional roller-coaster ride. And as he heard their bedroom door close, Harry closed his eyes, imagining it was him and Ginny inside that bedroom.
To be continued . . .
A/N: Another round of thanks goes out to our betas, Jenna Mae, KC, and Solveig. Love you guys! And to the Pink Pansies, here's to our conquest of world domination. :p