The ladies’ room in the Leaky Cauldron was dirtier than she remembered it being. As Ginny rinsed the bland soap from her skin, she looked around her and thought wryly that perhaps her hands had been cleaner before. Of course, the pub had suffered like the rest of the Wizarding world in the last days of the War, and was years later still struggling to recover itself from the depths of destitution. When people had been so afraid of Voldemort that they suspected every dark corner and every quiet neighbour of a connection with the Dark Lord, they avoided pubs.
She wiped her hands on her thighs, looking at herself in the mirror. Sombre brown eyes gazed back at her.
She had never felt so alone, she realised. For the past two weeks, even breathing had been a trial. She half wished that she could have forgotten to completely, just stopped. But breathing is automatic, she thought with a sigh. She could no less stop breathing than she could stop herself from hating the man who had simultaneously thrilled and chilled her.
Back in the pub, the air was thick with pipe smoke, although the only smokers were the two old wizards playing chess quietly in the corner. Stifling the urge to waft her hand in front of her face to clear the air, Ginny ordered another gin and tonic and sat at a small table, watching as the bar filled up. Onto her third drink and feeling all the more maudlin for them, she barely looked up from her book when a cheer rang through the patrons.
She had always liked trashy romances, but she had never been able to put her finger on what was so addictive about them. Yes, they all had the same boy-meets-girl; girl-hates-boy; girl-loves-boy plotline, but they all touched a nerve within her.
She supposed that it had started after her second year at Hogwarts. Ginny had realised then that she was a romantic soul. Who else could have fallen for a web of lies spun by a bewitched diary?
Even when she had come to her senses and realised that she was being used, she had not been able to resist the pull of romance. To satisfy the need within her, she had looked to Muggle novels. Wizard romances were never as simple as the Muggle books. One love potion too many had turned her interest away. Mills and Boon type stories weren’t her thing, although she had tried them. Ginny much preferred to read something that was all about feelings, not sex. Regardless of how much her dorm mates and friends had teased.
When the raucous laughter coming from the direction of the bar became too loud for her to concentrate, she slapped her book closed in frustration, slipped it back into her bag, and reached for her purse. It’s sad that I’m reduced to this, Ginny thought as she counted out her Sickles into one hand, hoping to have enough for another drink.
She didn’t. Disgusted, she shoved the coins back into the little bag. It wasn’t about the money, not for Ginny. She had always been fairly poor, but this just wasn’t where she’d thought she’d have been by now.
She slid her Muggle jacket over her shoulders and picked up her bag, deciding to visit the toilets one more time before starting the journey home.
“Ginny?” called a voice behind her.
Her stomach muscles clenched involuntarily. She hadn’t wanted to hear that voice ever again. She turned her head and looked at him, straight into his light grey eyes. Those eyes had once seemed so warm to her, she remembered. Despite what everyone else had said to her, she had seen all of the love that they could hold, and she had known that when they focused upon her, she felt warm, too. That was before.
“Leave me alone,” she said firmly, turning her back without waiting for a reaction. She pushed through the crowd to reach the door that led to Muggle London.
The air outside was bitingly cold compared to the warmth created by the press of bodies inside the Leaky Cauldron. Ginny slipped her arms into her jacket, wishing she had her nice, thick cloak with her. That was one of the problems in house sharing with Muggles, she supposed. She couldn’t go about wearing great flapping cloaks and receiving owls at her window at regular intervals without raising uncomfortable questions.
A swift wind raged round the corner towards her. She pulled her jacket tighter, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth as she cast her eyes over the graffiti-covered timetable display. By her calculations, she had a little over five minutes before the bus was due to turn up.
That was more than enough time to walk to the next bus stop. Standing still would mean braving the cold, but walking ahead on the route would mean braving the Leaky Cauldron again. Reasoning that he would hardly be standing sentry outside the door, she took a deep breath of cold air and started walking briskly.
Her nerves failed her when she reached the corner which hid the entrance to the pub. She stopped and peeked around the building, even as she berated herself for being so un-Gryffindor-like. All clear. So much for courage, she thought, slipping around the corner and past the door. The sigh of relief that escaped her lips as she turned off the pub’s street irritated her further.
“Ginny?” asked a voice, more hesitant than before.
“I told you to leave me alone!” she said furiously, whirling round to face her tormentor.
He took a step back and held up his hands in symbolic surrender. “Hey, it’s just me.”
She grinned in relief. The man wasn’t the one she had turned away from. “Oh, Harry!” she exclaimed, stepping forward to throw her arms around him. Ginny was so thrilled to see him again that she was momentarily oblivious to everything but the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in return. The tall, red bus that rumbled past in the background was forgotten.
“Oh, Harry!” Ginny exclaimed.
He watched with confusion as her face changed from what seemed like pure hatred to absolute relief. Wrapping his arms around her with a gentle laugh, he pulled back slightly to look her in the face. “Are you okay, Gin?”
She laughed. “Only you can call me that and not get hexed.” Her smile was wobbly. “Everything seemed so complicated in fifth year, when you said I went to your head like alcohol, but it was simple, really.” After a moment, she shook her head. “I’m rambling.” She made a face. “I’m okay, but I think I’ve just missed my bus.”
Harry looked beyond her to the huge, red London bus rumbling around the corner.
“You have to get the bus to your flat?” he laughed, teasing playfully to try and lift her spirits. It had been a long time since he had seen Ginny, but he couldn’t remember seeing her so down. “Does your dad wet himself with excitement every time he visits?”
“Well, he does love everything Muggle. That’s why I go to the Burrow,” she said with a grin as she stepped out of his arms. “But yes, a bus. And now the next one’s not due for another forty minutes.”
“Why don’t you come into the Cauldron with me?” Harry suggested, trying to be helpful. “I’ll buy you a drink. I was in there with some friends, uh, celebrating, and someone mentioned they’d seen you rushing out.”
Her grin faded. “I don’t want to go back in there.”
“Shall I walk you home, then?” he said. “If we have forty minutes before your next bus, I’d rather spend them walking than standing. We can catch up as we go?”
“There’s no need for that, Harry,” she said quietly. “I can take myself home. It’s not too far.”
“I made you miss the bus, Ginny, and if it’s not far, then that’s all the better for me.”
“Okay,” she said, after a few moments of silent thought. “That would be nice.”
They walked together quietly for some minutes, Ginny too concerned with the thought of pulling Harry away from his friends and Harry too preoccupied with the memory of the angry, hurt look on her face when she’d thought that he was someone else.
“So,” he ventured. “What’s new?”
You git, winced Harry, convinced he sounded like he was back in Hogwarts.
“Nothing for me.” She smiled. “But what are you celebrating?”
“I’m, uh, retiring,” Harry said, feeling almost shy.
“At twenty-seven?” Her laugh was scandalised. “No one retires at twenty-seven!”
“Well, I’ve never been in it for the money,” he said. “I did it for me, to forget the War and try to have a normal life.” He shrugged. “Besides. Quidditch is getting unbelievably rough. I’ve had so many broken bones, so many rogue Bludgers. I just want to reach twenty-eight!” he said jokingly.
Harry took a breath and spoke to her honestly. “The truth is: my heart just isn’t in it any more. I miss... ah, I miss fighting the good fight!” He could hear enthusiasm wrapping itself around his voice. “I thought Quidditch would satisfy me, but it didn’t. Nothing really could after I left Hogwarts. Until the end of the war, Quidditch was a hobby, something I did to take myself up and away from Voldemort, to let myself breathe. After his death it seemed like the natural thing to do. But... it never had all of my heart, Gin, you know?”
Ginny nodded. “I know, Harry.”
“I want to be an Auror,” he said, looking at her with a smile. “I always did. I just... never got around to it.”
“I suppose you have the money to allow yourself to do anything,” she said.
Harry felt a pang of guilt. He had so much, while others – like the Weasleys – didn’t.
They had come to a large crossroads. Harry paused, waiting for Ginny to lead the way. He moved onto the roadside and held out his arm for her to hold.
“We’re still friends, aren’t we?” he asked. They had lapsed into silence.
“We’ve always been friends, Harry,” Ginny said softly. “And I’m happy for you if that’s what you’re after. I’ve always wanted the best for you. Nothing’s changed.”
“That isn’t where I was heading,” he laughed, before pausing for another long moment. “I was going to ask who or what had you so upset that you rounded on me like that at the Cauldron.”
“Everyone has a past, Harry.”
“And me more than anyone, Ginny. But... I’m here for you if you want me to be.”
Ginny smiled and stopped walking. “We’re here.”
Harry jolted to a stop too and reached out to hug her again.
She turned away from him to slide her key into the lock.
“Oh,” he murmured, looking at a very plain looking door sandwiched between two small high street stores. “How many floors up?”
“Top level,” she said with a sigh. “Woe is me. But at least the constant climbing gives me great thighs.”
His face broke into a grin, and before he could stop himself, Harry’s eyes slid down the length of her body, lingering on her denim-clad thighs. “You look good,” he said when she caught his eye again.
Ginny stepped into the doorway and held the door tight against her body. “Thanks. Thank you for walking me home; you’re a brilliant distraction. If you’re not going to be touring anymore, stay in touch. Owl me. We’ll get together.”
“I will, Ginny,” he said, smiling. “Good night.”
“Good night, Harry,” she said.
He stayed staring at her door, lost in thought, long after it clicked closed behind her.