London is a beautiful city, Ginny mused as she wandered slowly and peacefully through Kensington Gardens. She loved immersing herself in the Muggle world here, and forgetting all about Wizarding factions, old friends long gone, and her almost empty Gringotts vault. She ambled her way to the Broadwalk Café and bought a Muggle newspaper, deciding to sit down on the edge of the Princess Diana Memorial to read it. She rested the open paper on her crossed legs and plunged herself into problems and joys that weren’t her own.
The balance of light changed suddenly. Ginny swivelled herself southwards to try and soak up any sunshine that might decide to show its face, only to be disturbed by a quietly amused laugh. She raised her eyes from the newspaper and ran them over some long, oddly gangly legs clad in black cords, hands shoved unceremoniously in pockets, a dark brown suede jacket slung over one arm, and a blue and white striped t-shirt that clung to muscles that looked out of place. Then there was the familiar broad and cheeky grin, laughing green eyes, and untameable hair. It wasn’t a cloud moving over the winter sun that made Ginny shiver.
“Harry,” she breathed. “You’re in my light.”
“Muggle newspapers aren’t very good, you know,” Harry said as he sat down on the lip of the fountain with her. “I remember a few times when I’ve had to try and use them to get decent news. It didn’t work very well. Muggles are completely blind to what they see... thankfully.”
“I know.” Ginny folded up the newspaper and rested it on her lap. “That’s why I like them.”
Harry raised an eyebrow in question, but leaned back on his hands when Ginny brushed away the query with a shake of her head.
“I suppose that means that you haven’t heard about my last match?” Harry asked with a proud fire in his eyes.
“No,” she lied, pretending that she hadn’t sat looking at the Daily Prophet’s two page spread for almost an hour, watching him catch the Snitch and then burst into celebration time and time again.
“I caught the Snitch in fourteen seconds,” Harry boasted. “It’s a new record. And we won the league! We haven’t done that since 1892!”
“Yeah, the Chudley Cannons always were a bit crap before you started playing, Harry.”
“What a way to go out! What a match to retire on!”
Ginny smiled happily at him, enjoying the thrilled energy that radiated from him.
“Let’s go and get some lunch,” he said, jumping up from his low seat.
“I’m not hungry,” Ginny protested as he lifted her by the hand to stand beside him.
“Liar,” he said. “And it’s my treat.”
Harry linked arms with her and half-dragged her through the beautiful tree-lined avenue towards Palace Gate, past Kensington Palace and the Round Pond. They walked in relative silence, her protestations coming less and less often as they settled into a comfortable companionship, pointing out plants, views or birds of particular beauty as they walked.
“How are you enjoying your new training programme?” Ginny asked, wanting to get Harry talking about himself rather than asking questions.
He laughed. “Ah! So you have read the Daily Prophet!”
“Maybe.” She grinned. “How long has it been now?”
“Three weeks. Honestly, I’m so busy that I end up just staying on campus. There are a couple of dorms there, but hardly anyone uses them, so I pretty much have them to myself. The training is just so tiring that I can’t be bothered to go home when all I want is a bath and bed. This is the first time I’ve been back to London since I started.” He sighed. “I was just enjoying a walk through the park before I headed home, but I’d rather go off for lunch to be honest. There’s nothing at home other than Hedwig!”
Ginny laughed and pointed towards a small bistro on a street corner. “How about there?”
“Looks good,” Harry said, surreptitiously moving back onto the road side as they crossed the street. Ginny smiled as he opened the door for her and found herself wondering when he had become so chivalrous.
The bistro was small and inviting. Ginny noticed the warm atmosphere almost as soon as she was through the door. She unfastened her coat and took off her scarf, hanging both on the back of her chair before sitting down and looking around. The walls were a warm red colour, and the lighting was low, coming from one black iron chandelier and a few similar fixtures mounted onto the walls. It felt like dusk, despite the fact that it was just after midday.
“What do you fancy?” Harry asked.
Ginny laughed, raising an eyebrow.
“To eat,” he clarified, laughing with her.
“Something plain, I think,” she said, leaning forward to read the menu more closely. “I’ve been a bit poorly lately. Oh, I’m better now,” she said in response to his questioning look. “I just don’t want to push my luck.”
“You were never the poorly type, were you?” he asked. “I don’t remember you ever being sick when we were at Hogwarts.”
“No, not really.” She sighed. “But I guess everyone gets a bit ill now and then.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Harry asked, and when she nodded he called over the waiter to take their order.
“And I’ll have lemonade, please,” Ginny said, finishing their order. “It’s too early for beer for me.”
Harry laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s my day off.”
Harry swiped the last of his bread around his empty plate and then sat back chewing, watching Ginny finish her lasagne. It wasn’t often he was around women who were comfortable enough to enjoy their food in front of him, and Ginny’s relaxed and familiar presence was more than welcome.
The past few weeks had been relentless, and yet he knew that he had only seen the tip of the iceberg. Three weeks into three years of training, and Harry was already sure that his brain was filled to capacity. He had learned many different charms and potions to conceal himself, whether that would be making himself invisible without the use of a cloak or letting himself blend into a crowd, unnoticeable to someone looking for him.
Then there were the theories of how to hunt, track, and chase targets. Transfiguring a tracking dot to look like a stray thread or a spot of dirt was so easy after three weeks of almost daily practice that he laughed to think of how insurmountable it had seemed when he first entered the Auror Training Institute.
Not all of his training was about sitting in a classroom trying to learn new magical techniques. Every night Harry lowered himself into a hot bath, his achingly tired muscles worn out from a gruelling physical work out. By the time he crawled into his Spartan cot, he was tired beyond dreams and woke up the next morning with a start, convinced he had only just closed his eyes.
Harry found himself wondering how things could get more difficult, all the while knowing that anything he’d suffered until now would seem like nothing come the end. The journey wasn’t over yet.
That he had passed the aptitude tests and managed to get into the training course did not mean that the job was in the bag, so to speak. If anything, Harry thought he would have to work harder and longer than his colleagues on the course. They were all fresh out of Hogwarts, still used to the regimen of learning if not the ruthless physical routine. He was Harry Potter. Everyone expected so much of him because of his famous name, and deeds now ten years old.
For the past decade, Harry had spent his time training hard and improving his Wronski Feints and Sloth Grip Rolls, not learning new charms and incantations. It was almost as though he had forgotten how to learn. He was beginning to get back into the swing of things now, though, and learning new wand techniques was becoming easier.
It was odd, Harry thought, that he found the assault courses and partner sparring a lot easier than the new spells. He was in exactly the opposite position to his classmates, all ten years younger. In fact, Harry realised, he felt positively old.
“What’re you looking at?” Ginny asked, smiling cheekily as she slipped another forkful of lasagne into her mouth.
Realising that he had been staring, Harry flashed a quick smile of apology and looked around. A group photograph of the bistro staff caught his eye. They stood together in their uniforms, laughing and joking. It was just a Muggle photograph, of course, but Harry could easily see what was going on at the moment the flash went off. In fact, he thought, it reminded him of the numerous group photographs that Colin Creevey had taken of him and his friends over the years.
Poor Colin’s DA training had not been enough to save him when the Death Eater Alecto Carrow had fired a killing curse into his back during Harry’s final year at Hogwarts. Harry closed his eyes as a green light flashed through his imagination. Grimly, he fought against the memories.
“Are you okay?” Ginny asked, concern in her voice.
“Yeah,” he said, opening his eyes. “I sometimes get flashbacks of memories I don’t want to remember.”
Ginny raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth to speak. She seemed ready to ask what he meant, only to think better of it and close her lips.
“Fish impression?” Harry asked playfully, pleased when she laughed. “Nice.”
He lifted his pint glass and tipped the remainder of the oddly sweet and fizzy liquid down his throat before tilting it towards the waiter behind the small bar, asking for another.
“I was thinking about Hogwarts,” Harry said wistfully as he set the empty glass back down on the table and leaned back in his chair, “and about all of the people we’ve lost.”
Ginny’s smile faded. Colin Creevey wasn’t the only student who had been lost to Voldemort’s final push. Dean Thomas, a boy Harry hoped she had gone out with mostly to aggravate her older brother, had been taken, too. They had been together for a few months when she was fifteen, and she had cared about him. To think that he was gone was still painful.
“It’s funny,” Harry mused, before pausing for a moment. “The way that they always look happier in photographs than they ever did when they were alive.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ginny murmured softly.
“It’s true! Haven’t you ever noticed?”
“I’ve never seen a picture of Dean,” Ginny said quietly. “I don’t have any photographs of him at all. I didn’t think to spend my years at school snapping away at people, just in case they weren’t going to be there forever. Rather stupid, really, considering the fact that we all knew what Voldemort was and what he wanted to do. And Dean was a ‘half blood’, too. I should have thought. I was too naive.”
“We all were, Ginny,” Harry said comfortingly, sliding his hand across the table to hers and squeezing gently.
“Can’t change the past, I suppose.” She smiled a little. Her eyes were clouded with melancholy.
“Do you remember little Colin Creevey?” Harry asked, inwardly berating himself for calling him ‘little’. But he would never be anything else, would he? Colin would have been twenty-six by now, he thought sadly. Ginny nodded. “His brother Dennis sent me a box of photographs that Colin had taken while we were at Hogwarts. I know there are some of Dean in there. There are plenty of all of us. Never could get the little bugger to put down his camera.”
Ginny laughed gently and pushed her empty plate towards the middle of the table. She smiled in thanks to the waiter, who placed a fresh glass of cool lemonade in front of her.
“When we’re done, if you have no plans, you could come back to the house with me, and we could sort through them. You could have any you wanted. There really are hundreds,” Harry said, wanting to spend more time with her. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so comfortable in another person’s company.
“That’d be nice. Thanks, Harry.”
He grinned and picked up his new pint, revelling in the way the liquid gold coursed its way down his throat, coating every piece of him from the inside of his lips down to his stomach in tiny, fizzy bubbles. A few good gulps and the glass was only half as heavy when he put it back down on the table. He remembered the days when he struggled to get one pint down him in an hour.
“Day off,” he clarified with a wink when he saw Ginny’s face. Not sure whether that look was supposed to convey her amusement or shock, he suppressed a belch and asked for the bill. Ginny picked up her drink and set to it, matching and then passing him, until her glass was empty.
She laughed. “Let’s go.”
“Bloody hell,” Ginny exclaimed with a gentle laugh. “This place hasn’t changed much!”
The brief journey from Caledonian Road station to Grimmauld Place had barely changed at all. The same type of people always lived in the same houses, and although the names and faces might change, the atmosphere would always be the same. The gardens were all neat and tidy, although small, and the streets were crammed with cars.
The houses and gardens gradually got smaller as they got closer to Harry’s house, and as they turned the corner into Grimmauld Place, it was almost as though they had entered a completely new district. The houses were small terraces and somewhat run down. The gardens had disappeared at the turn of the corner. The road was narrower here with room for only one row of cars down the side. The cars were parked at an angle rather than parallel to the curb: the Muggle Council Authority’s attempt to solve the cramped conditions.
“Is it still protected by the Fidelius?” Ginny asked, as number twelve seemed to grow out of the thin air.
“Yes,” he said. “When Dumbledore died, his secret died with him. You wouldn’t be able to see it if he hadn’t included you in the original Charm, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”
“Oh, I see. That must make it pretty difficult to bring girls home!” she teased.
“I don’t bring anyone here. It’s my sanctuary. You’re the first in... years. Even if I could let other people see it, I don’t know how I would explain away Mrs. Black.”
They stepped up the pathway towards the door. “Oh, fair enough.”
“Bugger!” Harry groaned, searching his pockets frantically.
“What is it?”
“I can’t find my keys!”
Ginny took a few steps backwards to stay out of his way as he patted himself down energetically and let her eyes take in the house. Looking rather dilapidated, the house was much taller than it was wide, with four stories and then an attic. The roof was missing a few slates. Ginny wondered if that was how Hedwig got in the house when Harry wasn’t there. The brickwork was dirty, and her eyes focused on a big, dark smudge by the first floor window. She was wondering what had left it when something else caught her attention.
“Yeah?” he said, distracted, fumbling through his pockets.
“You’ve got a window open there,” she said.
“What? That’s for Hedwig.”
“Window. Open. There.” She pointed.
“Oh, right!” He passed her his jacket and piled his wallet, wand, and other keys into her hands. “Hold these for me, would you?”
“Sure. Oh, be careful, Harry!” she called, watching him climb up the very decrepit looking drainpipe with surprising ease. The muscles in his arms and back were clearly outlined through his t-shirt. Ginny decided that they didn’t look so out of place after all. The drainpipe gave a little wobble when Harry was a few metres from the ground, about half of the way to his destination. He bunched his leg muscles up and leapt for the small windowsill, grinning down at Ginny when her panicked swearing floated up to him.
“That was nothing!” he yelled. “You should see what they’ve been making me do at training!”
“In that case, Harry Potter, I don’t want to see! Be bloody careful!”
Harry hauled himself up until he could rest his knee on the sill and then reached his arm inside the window to pull it out wide. “There we go!” he said triumphantly. He thrust his head through the space he’d made and stood up, half inside the house.
“Hedwig?” he called, looking down into the hallway. “Hedwig?”
“Harry?” he heard Ginny shout.
“Hedwig! Bloody hell, Hedwig!” Harry pulled his legs into the window and jumped down into the house, picking up the beautiful owl that had collapsed onto the floor. Her amber eyes were open and her feathers smooth as though she was untroubled. Her wings were spread in flight and her body braced for landing.
“Poor Hedwig,” he said, lifting her in his arms and heading down the stairs to open the door for Ginny.
“What was wrong?” she said, a note of panic in her voice.
Harry stepped out from behind the door and nodded to the lifeless bird in his arms.
“She was only sixteen years old,” Harry said dully, grief and pain filling his voice. “She was supposed to live longer than this. Thirty-five, the books said.”
Ginny wrapped her arms around him. Distantly, he knew she was trying to comfort him. He remembered how sad the Weasley family had been when Errol had finally died. She would know how he felt, and Hedwig had been his only companion during the long summer breaks at school.
Harry wrapped his spare arm around her in return, pulling her close. His voice had quavered, and his heart clearly ached, but Ginny knew that he had been through too much pain in the past to let himself cry now.
To those who didn’t know him well, Harry seemed to be immune to pain. In truth, he was just good at hiding his reactions. He pressed his lips against the top of Ginny’s head and kissed her hair. Merlin’s beard, she smelled good. He pulled away slightly, feeling that any romantic mood that could possibly develop at that moment would be spoiled as soon as Ginny remembered that he held a dead owl in his arms, too.
She smiled up at him and settled her head on his shoulder as she stroked her hand gently over Hedwig’s feathers. “Harry,” she said.