On normal days, the eccentric-looking patrons—eccentric, even by wizarding standards—of the Leaky Cauldron would have provided Harry Potter with enough entertainment for an hour or two as he ate a late lunch.
But that snowy December afternoon was an exception. And it wasn't only because he was back in London after five months of working abroad.
"It's a recent breakthrough in memory potions. It was discovered by accident, actually, down there in the St. Mungo's labs. Larry Watford, that clumsy git—remember him? He mistook powdered billywig stingers for crushed dittany and put it in the Drowsiness Draft he was preparing."
At that moment, Harry couldn't care less about what really constituted a Drowsiness Draft—because Ginny Weasley was sitting across him, her hands restlessly moving over their table as she spoke in a quick, excited voice. The mere sound of it made Harry feel as though he had been truly brought back home. She did not know it, but in those five months in Norway, he had been thinking about nothing but her and her unmistakable chatter. Even their casual correspondence had not made up for it.
Presently, Ginny paused to lift her teacup to her lips. The brief silence was already too deafening at Harry's end of their conversation, so he shifted in his seat and nodded. "I see," he said quietly, though not really comprehending.
Ginny smiled at him over the rim of her cup. "The funny thing was that the Drowsiness Draft was actually for Mr. and Mrs. Longbottom."
Harry blinked in surprise. "Really?" he said. It was the first spontaneous thing he had said all afternoon.
"Yeah," Ginny said, setting her cup down. "It was an accident all right, but it was sure a lucky one...imagine if the potion Larry had prepared turned out to be poisonous..."
Harry rested his forearms on the table and leaned closer. "So what happened to the Longbottoms?" he asked.
"They had a fit," Ginny said thoughtfully. "Then as we all rushed to them, they began asking for Neville—both of them at the same time. It was amazing."
Harry nodded slowly, imagining what their mutual friend might have felt then. "So...they're okay now?"
"Oh, no," Ginny replied, and Harry noticed that her eyes suddenly lost the sparkle they had just a second ago. "Their memories are still hopelessly confused. We're giving them regular doses of the potion. We're doing the same to all the others who'd lost their memories and sanity due to the Death Eaters...so...maybe in time, they'll remember." She looked down on her teacup; her voice was reduced to a despondent whisper. "I can only fathom the power the Death Eaters had over them now—I mean, it's been more than twenty years since, and still..." Her voice trailed off.
They were on that topic again. On normal days, Harry would have hastily skirted any talk of the Death Eaters, but today was different. It was the opening he had been waiting for all afternoon, to tell her what had been turning over in his mind for the past five months. And long before that.
Gathering his wits and courage, he straightened on his seat and cleared his throat.
Ginny raised her eyebrows. "What?"
Feeling like he was fourteen again, Harry spoke.
Remember seventh year? I mean mine—your sixth year, I mean." Harry mentally smacked himself on the head.
Ginny cocked an eyebrow looked as him as though he had sprouted wings. "Who doesn't remember that year, Harry?"
Right. Who doesn't? If Dumbledore had known you'd forgotten—
Harry closed his eyes momentarily. This was definitely not the time to think about that.
"Well—yeah," Harry said, chuckling uneasily. "I mean—that time when we—we had this sort of fight..."
Ginny looked at him blankly for a second. Then, the light in her eyes shifted, and she began nodding slowly.
"Yes, of course I remember that," she answered. There was a hint of smile on her face.
Harry found himself swallowing. What was he going to tell her again?
I was thinking that maybe we could forget about it and start where we left off.
The simple sentence pounded in Harry's brain. He had been rehearsing that line over and over in his head back in Norway. He hadn't thought of practicing it out loud, however, and now he was regretting it.
"Why? Why are you asking?"
Harry stared at her, mouthing wordlessly, until he mumbled, "I—I was really being a prat then and...well...I'm sorry..."
Ginny's lips were parted as she stared back at him. Her fingers, Harry noticed, were halted on her teaspoon, hovering above her cup. She was searching him, he knew. And suddenly he didn't want her to. He kept silent.
Ginny seemed to have sensed that he wasn't going to say anything else. She sighed heavily as her hands fell flat on their table. "Harry, I've told you many times already, it's okay," she said, slightly rolling her eyes. "Forget about it."
Harry felt as though a rock had been dropped into the pit of his stomach. He didn't know if it was her casualness, or his inability to articulate his feelings for her, that bothered him more.
Ginny's eyes flickered towards something behind Harry. "You know, I should be going," she said, downing her tea. She reached into her pocket for her money bag.
"No, let me," Harry said, glancing behind him. The grandfather clock behind him read one-fifty. "I'll walk you out."
As Harry helped Ginny into her cloak, an inspiration hit him.
Ask her out for dinner.
Yes, that sounded like a good idea. He was pretty sure he would be able to do that. And maybe he could tell her the other thing then.
Harry took a deep breath. "Um, by the way...you busy tonight?"
Ginny instantly whipped around with a surprised look on her face. She stared at him, blinking, until her expression gave way to a wistful sort of smile.
"I'm sorry, Harry, but—I can't," she replied, ending her sentence by biting on her lower lip.
Harry felt heat manifest on every pore of his cheeks. "Oh. Well...that—that's okay."
Ginny nodded. She opened her mouth as though to say something, but Harry had the impression that she quickly changed her mind about it.
"I'm really glad you're back, Harry," she said instead.
She smiled up at him, however, and Harry knew that it was sincere. It somehow made up for the otherwise fruitless afternoon.
"I'm glad to see you again, too," Harry replied quietly.
Ginny's smile widened. Then, with a small nod, she took her wand out, swished it once, and was gone in a split second.
Harry's smile immediately fell. He went back into the Leaky Cauldron and slumped on the seat he had occupied earlier. His own cup of tea, he saw, remained untouched.
It's not going to be that easy, anyway, a voice in Harry's head rationalized. She just couldn't "start where you had left off" after what had happened...
It was true, of course. "Last night was a mistake, and we both know it" was not too easy to forget...
Harry was so immersed in his thoughts that he barely noticed a group of middle-aged witches at the adjacent table glancing at him curiously and whispering in the rapid-fire fashion only gossipmongers could handle.
Harry took a sip of tea and grimaced; it had gone cold. He took out his wand and muttered a simple Heating Charm, tapping his teacup with it. Then, sighing heavily, he began to take a sip—until his ears perked up at a name.
"...Ginny Weasley a while ago..."
Harry had long since mastered the skill of pretending not to be listening, and it sure did come handy at that moment. On the other hand, he was only able to catch certain phrases from the witches' conversation.
"...Healer at St. Mungo's..."
"...She's good, I heard..."
Despite himself, Harry felt a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. That was Ginny, all right. Right after leaving Hogwarts, she had herself trained as a novice Healer in St. Mungo's. Now, four years later, she was the assistant head of the research department of the hospital, and was always commended by the Ministry for being a capable and dedicated Healer. Yes, Harry had always thought she had it in her—
"...see her frequently at Abraham Tucker's..."
Harry's eyebrows suddenly shot upwards. Abraham Tucker? He frowned, trying to recall if he had encountered the name before...he was sure he already had, and it sounded like an old man's.... Harry wanted to listen to more, but the witches' voices seemed to have dropped into a grave, inaudible tone.
That was, until two fateful words caught Harry's ears.
And all the customers of the Leaky Cauldron were suddenly audience to Harry Potter, Auror extraordinaire, his hot tea shooting out of his nose.
GINNY IS GETTING MARRIED!!!
That thought alone prevented our Auror extraordinaire from perceiving all the people staring at him as he stumbled out of the Leaky Cauldron.
"Did you see that?" one of the middle-aged witches told her companions. "He's clearly affected by what she's doing!"
"Why the hell didn't you tell me she's getting married, Ron?"
"Look, mate, I had absolutely no bloody idea," Ron Weasley said, raising his palms at his best friend, as though they would shield him from the latter's irate shouts. He was still wide-eyed with shock at what Harry had told him the moment he stormed into Ron's office. "I was with you in Norway—how would I know what had happened in those five months?"
"You tell me," Harry spat. He started pacing back and forth. "You're her brother, you're supposed to know."
"I wasn't the one who was endlessly sending owls to her," Ron muttered.
"Nothing," Ron said. He opened a drawer and took out some parchment. "Look, if you'll just sit over there, I'll find out who this Abraham Tucker is..."
Harry duly complied, and while he sat cross-legged on a threadbare armchair, jiggling his foot, he absentmindedly surveyed Ron's office. It was more cluttered than Harry's, which was right adjacent to it, but its disorderly state was perhaps due to the presence of certain things that couldn't be found in Harry's office. Things that included, for instance, a framed photograph of a bushy-haired witch holding a redheaded toddler, and parchments of crudely-drawn unicorns on the walls.
"Abraham Tucker," Ron said aloud, reading from an age-worn parchment. "Number 38, Hawthorn Lane, Ethelbert, East Sussex...damn." Ron scowled at the parchment. "Forty years old—"
Harry cringed. "What year was that?"
"Er..." Ron looked at the top of the parchment, and winced. "Six years ago."
"Forty-six years old," Harry muttered to himself. "What the.... What does he do?"
"I dunno..." Ron said, apparently lost in thought as he pored over the record.
"Yep. Damn," Ron repeated under his breath, rolling up the parchment. "Y'know, these are old records. I should check at the archives—"
"D'you think he still lives there?" Harry interrupted.
Ron dropped the parchment on his desk and gaped at him. "What do you plan to do, storm the house and tell him to lay off Ginny?"
"I might just do that," Harry said thoughtfully.
Ron rolled his eyes. "And then?"
Harry searched his mind for an answer but, as expected, found none. He looked at Ron who, in the past three years, had become more sensible in matters such as these.
"Harry, mate," Ron said, sitting down and leaning his arms on top of the clutter of his desk. "Before doing something as drastic as that, see if you can...help yourself first, if you know what I mean."
Harry stared at him. "No, I don't."
Ron tried again. "Have you even tried asking her out since we left Hogwarts?"
"I just did this afternoon, and she said she can't..." Harry's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, God, does that mean she has a date with Tucker tonight?"
Ron seemed to struggle not to roll his eyes again. "I wouldn't know," he said.
Harry stared at Ron. "Why aren't you even properly angry at a forty-six-year-old man who's recently engaged to your little sister?"
"Sit down, mate, you're out of order," Ron said firmly, ignoring Harry's question. It surprised Harry so much that he ended up following Ron's command.
"Look here, Harry," Ron said, leaning back on his worn armchair. "You know where I stand with regard to you and my sister. But we don't even know yet if she is engaged. And she doesn't know you've been thinking of nobody else but her in all these years. You hurt her back in Hogwarts, remember?"
Harry grimaced. "Sure do," he said sarcastically.
"You see? D'you get me? Even if she liked you, she probably thought you'd never like her back." Ron paused for a moment. "That was what she thought before our fourth year, you know."
Harry looked up at Ron in surprise. "Yeah? She told you that?"
Ron shrugged. "Hermione did." And as he said her name, his gaze fell on the framed picture of his wife and son on his desk.
Harry discreetly looked at the picture as well. Hermione and Joshua, their son, grinned and waved at Ron.
Many times in the past, Harry found himself wondering what could have happened if he hadn't told Ginny what he did five years ago. He was thinking of the same thing right now. And the answer was always the same: they could have been what Hermione and Ron were now.
A suffocating force wound itself around Harry's heart. Yes, he had thought of asking Ginny out. He had imagined enveloping her in his arms and whispering into her ear through that flaming hair of hers. He had even thought of marrying her, raising a family with her, living in a small bungalow, sleeping on the same bed with her, ending every night with a kiss that he had felt once before.... But what he had done in the past always held him back whenever he found the courage to tell her.
"You know, she did mention baking a cake with Mum later in the Burrow," Ron said, interrupting the silence.
Harry blinked, hope surging within him. "Really?"
"Yeah. For all I know, it might be the reason why she'll be so busy tonight."
"And if she's not...?"
Ron smiled lopsidedly. "Then we'll storm Tucker's house together, see if she's there."
Harry started to grin. "You'd do that?"
"He's twice her age, for heaven's sake."
Harry allowed himself a laugh. Despite his newfound sensibilities, Ron Weasley was still an orthodox elder brother.
The evening found Harry standing outside the Burrow. He had rushed over right after his conversation with Ron, but now that he was here, he realized that he really didn't know what to say.
Maybe, "I was thinking that maybe we could forget about what had happened and start where we left off"?
Harry found the Burrow as hospitable as ever—even if he hadn't even stepped inside yet. It was the same rickety old place he had grown accustomed to during his teenage years. Even the gnomes were popping out of the weeds every now and then, as though welcoming him.
He had stayed here during the summer before his seventh year, he remembered. Those gnomes were probably the very same ones who had bitten Ginny's foot while she was de-gnoming the garden as punishment for something or other.... Harry had volunteered to help, but he had soon been caught up with tending her injured foot, even if Ginny had vehemently protested that she was feeling fine. With the setting sun bearing down upon them, they had sat on the grass, Harry massaging Ginny's foot on his lap, she tucking stray strands of coppery-red behind her ears....
Harry soon realized that no matter how long he stood outside, he still wouldn't be able to make any sort of speech longer than the sentence he had labored over for months, so he knocked on the door the moment the impulse came to him.
It was Mrs. Weasley who answered.
"Harry, dear!" she exclaimed, launching herself to him. Grinning, Harry hugged her back and subtly looked inside the house. The den looked empty.
"Hi, Mrs. Weasley," he said, starting to feel that his plans of sweeping Ginny off her feet wouldn't happen tonight. "Just dropped by for a surprise visit....You alone?"
"Oh, Arthur's in the kitchen, we're having dinner. Do come in, dear." She led Harry inside the house. "You should have told us you're coming! We could have rounded up the others!"
Harry's heart sank. "Oh. I thought...I thought Ginny would be here since—"
"Oh, Ginny's been spending too much time with Abe, she might have forgotten that we're supposed to have dinner—"
"Why, yes, Abraham Tucker, you'll know him.... Arthur, Harry's here!"
Abraham Tucker. Abe. Spending too much time with Abe...
"Where is she?" Harry found himself asking.
"In his house, of course...Harry, dear, are you all right?"
Mrs. Weasley was looking at Harry closely. She looked rather worried. But Harry didn't notice. Only one thought was in his mind.
Go to East Sussex. Right now. Don't wait for Ron.
"I—I have to go. I'm sorry, Mrs. Weasley—"
And Harry Disapparated, leaving a bewildered Mrs. Weasley standing in the middle of an empty living room.
Six years ago, in early June, Harry had also left a bewildered Ginny alone in the Gryffindor common room. However, he didn't only leave her with wide eyes; there were tears silently streaming from them.
Harry didn't see her cry, though. He just stormed into his empty dormitory, unaware of how he had hurt her, or of how this action would influence the next six years of his life.
Dumbledore had died the night before in the hands of Voldemort. Everyone had done well in leaving him alone.
Everyone—except for Ginny.
She had gone to his dormitory and found him alone, sitting on his bed, staring blankly at the tapestries on the wall. He had stared at her when she entered the room and closed the door behind her.
She had not needed to say anything. She had simply gone to him and took him in her arms. And in them, Harry had found release. He had wept on her shoulder.
And quite soon, he was kissing her.
Perhaps both of them had not known what they were doing. Perhaps Harry had been trying to displace his overwhelming emotions, and Ginny had been there at the right time. In any case, Harry had wanted to do this for a long time already. And it had been pretty obvious that Ginny felt the same.
Ginny had spent the night there, hidden behind the curtains of the bed. They had done nothing more than kissing and caressing, but surely the feel of Ginny as he crushed her underneath him would have a profound effect on his already muddled mind.
That had been exactly the case the next morning. He had awakened, finding himself alone on the bed. Guilt—and unfocused anger—had washed through him.
All day, Ginny had tried to catch his attention by sending him imploring looks, but he had ignored her. Because if he hadn't, he would have seen her lips and remind himself that while everybody had been mourning over Dumbledore, he had been hiding from the whole world, kissing her.
And so, when she confronted him later in the common room, all he could say was, "Last night was a mistake, and we both know it." And with those words, he ended a beautiful relationship that could have been under a different set of circumstances.
There was no rage in Harry as he set off to Abraham Tucker's house. There was only the realization that if he didn't go there now and tell her how he felt for her, he might never get the chance again.
He Apparated into a secluded spot in Hawthorn Lane and immediately set out for Number 38. Near the bushes where he was hidden was Number 26. He ran, keeping his eyes on the doors...30, 32, 34...there.
It was a modest bungalow—whitewashed walls, a well-tended garden, dim orange lights inside. As Harry neared the house, he saw through a side window the silhouette of a figure move inside. It had to be Ginny.
Recklessly, he ran to the front door of Number 38 and banged on the door, silently praying, please don't let me see her in a dressing gown.
The door almost quickly opened—and Ginny emerged, scowling, until she saw Harry and blinked in surprise. He noticed that she was in the robes she had been wearing earlier.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, her eyes wide.
Harry glanced inside the house. "Your mum said you'd be here, so—"
"She...what?" Ginny exclaimed in disbelief. "You—Harry, what in the world are you doing here?"
"I have to tell you something!"
"At this time of the night?"
"Yes! Listen—just listen," Harry said, throwing caution to the wind. "Before you really set your mind on marrying Abraham Tucker—"
"Please—just let me talk first!" He grabbed both of her hands and looked straight into her bewildered brown eyes. There was no clear thought, no distinct words he wanted to impart; there was only the feeling of not wanting to lose her that brought forth a declaration from the deepest recesses of his heart.
"All these years I've been searching for a way to tell you just how I wished I could take back what I'd said and did that time when Dumbledore died—Ginny"—he interrupted her when she began to open her mouth—"I...I lost not just one, but two special people in my life that night. I know...I know we could have been something more if I hadn't said what I did..."
Harry saw tears starting to fill Ginny's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Ginny," he whispered, choking on his words. "I...I tried to recover our friendship, but even if we already have, I've always...always felt more for you." He took a deep, shaky breath. "I'm still in love with you, Gin. Just as I'd been so many years ago."
The tears finally rolled down Ginny's cheeks. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, placing her forehead on Harry's hands. Harry's heart broke at the sight of her. How many nights had she spent crying because of him?
Ginny finally raised her eyes at him, and to Harry's surprise, her lips were curled in an amused smile. She took her hands from his and wiped her flushed cheeks. Harry's heart leapt to his throat—was he too late?
She opened the door for him. "Maybe you'd like to come in?"
His mouth agape, Harry nodded, and entered the house.
The living room was too tidy and void of effects, except for some pictures on the mantelpiece atop the fireplace. Harry noticed that on one of the pictures, a lovely blonde and a brown-haired man in what looked like an amusement park waved at him.
Harry felt Ginny's hand tug at his. "Come," she said. "I'll introduce you to him."
Confused, Harry let Ginny lead him to a room adjoining the living room. The door was slightly ajar. Harry thought he saw a heavyset man lying on a bed.
Ginny smiled at Harry somewhat encouragingly, nodded, and opened the door.
"Hi, Abe," Ginny said. "I'd like you to meet Harry Potter. You remember him, don't you?"
Harry stared at the bedridden man, the very same one in the photographs on the mantelpiece, except that his hair was grey in several places. Abraham Tucker was looking at him, frowning, as though placing Harry Potter in his mind.
Slowly, wearily, Abe shook his head.
Ginny bit her lips. "You sure? He's quite popular, you know...Harry, come here a bit closer, won't you?"
Harry looked helplessly at Ginny, who only nodded firmly.
Harry cautiously approached Abe and extended his hand. In the manner of a very old man, Abe took Harry's hand and squinted at his face.
Suddenly, a smile of recognition spread across Abe Tucker's face, and it had such an effect on the man that bright sunlight seemed to pour onto his features.
"He recognizes you!" Ginny exclaimed happily.
Harry started to have an inkling of what this was all about. And as he said hello to Abraham Tucker, he felt a warm blush creeping onto his cheeks.
"He was in Hogsmeade when Dumbledore died," Ginny told Harry a while later. "He tried to break into the ranks of Death Eaters who surrounded Voldemort and Dumbledore when they dueled. The Death Eaters tortured him, of course," she finished, disgust in her voice.
Harry was silent as he and Ginny walked along the damp sidewalk of Hawthorn Lane. They had left Abe a few minutes earlier, when his sister had arrived from work.
"He was engaged to a woman right before the incident. She died of an illness soon afterward. The doctors in St. Mungo's said it's probably because of heartbreak."
Harry smiled grimly. "Quite an unscientific guess, huh?"
"Yeah." Ginny shivered and hugged her coat closer to her body. "He was admitted to St. Mungo's, but since this breakthrough in memory potions, his sister decided to put him back in his house while he recovers. She tidied it up for him...Anne lost her husband and child during the war too, you know."
Harry drew in a deep breath. How many lives had been destroyed during the war, really?
Almost on impulse, he wound an arm around Ginny's shoulders. Ginny snuggled close to him in response.
"You really thought I was marrying Abe?" Ginny asked.
Harry felt another blush coming. "What else was I supposed to think?"
"It baffles me to think that, for an Auror, you hadn't thought of investigating first," she teased.
"I was getting kind of desperate," he admitted embarrassedly.
Ginny looked up at him, grinning. "Really?"
"Very desperate, come to that."
Ginny stopped walking and stood in front of Harry, gazing at his eyes. The streetlamps cast soft dim light on her face. He had been this close to her before, in a setting very much like this...and as it had been before, she became even more breathtakingly beautiful as he searched her face and found something else, something tender and yet intense, within.
"You know," Ginny said softly, "being a Healer made me realize how lucky I still am, somehow. Even if things had become different between us, I was still thankful that you survived Voldemort." She smiled gently. "That alone had been enough for me."
"Well." Harry took her hands and laced his fingers through the gaps between hers. "I found out later that, for me, it still isn't."
"And you think I can help that?" Ginny said, her eyes twinkling.
"Actually, yes," Harry said, grinning, and spoke his well-rehearsed line: "I was thinking that maybe we could forget about what had happened and start where we left off."
Ginny smiled and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Harry. There are some things I just couldn't forget."
And before Harry could protest, he felt a pair of soft, familiar lips press on his own.
This kiss was gentle, light and unhurried, but like the last kiss that he had shared with her, it didn't fail to raise him a few hundred feet from the surface of the earth. He wrapped his arms around her; the feel of her being enveloped in the warmth of his body, as though she were finally truly his, filled the empty void that his survival five years ago hadn't been able to.
And when the kiss ended, he stared at her, his world still spinning, and wondered when he should start rehearsing for a marriage proposal.
Notes: The plot bunny for this fic was taken from the H/G Fic-a-Fest in LJ. Many thanks to Alcarcalime for the beta!