Harry needlessly straightened his Ministry robes on the hanger in the wardrobe, brushing the tiniest fleck of dust from the sleeve, picking a ginger cat hair from the chest. The stitching at the hem was starting to fray just slightly, he noticed, he'd have to have the tailor take a look at that. And the lining was definitely starting to get threadbare where it rubbed up against his wand holster. He ran his fingers over his embroidered monogram on the cuff and sighed. No matter how hard he focused on the minutiae, reality always managed to worm its way to the fore of his brain.
Hermione had been shocked to open the door to find him on the doorstep, overnight bag slung over his shoulder, eyes bloodshot and swollen, but had recovered herself masterfully and immediately invited him in, plunking him down in an armchair in the living room and Banishing his overnight bag to a room somewhere upstairs.
"Tea?" she'd offered. He'd nodded, numbly, staring without focus at the low table in front of him. A kettle whistled somewhere behind him, there was the sound of water being poured, and then a tray with a teapot and two cups was set on the table. Hermione sat down in the chair next to him.
"Harry, you look a mess. What happened?"
Harry opened his mouth, but had trouble getting any words past the lump in his throat and the ache in his chest. He gestured helplessly, then took a deep breath. "Neville and I are...are done." Speaking the words made his throat burn with tears he refused to shed and he clamped his jaw shut.
Hermione made an inarticulate little sound of sad astonishment and grasped his hand. "Oh, Harry," she said, her voice catching. "I...I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry." She licked her lips. "How did it...happen?"
Harry shook his head violently. "I don't know! I don't know where everything started to go wrong, but it just...did and now..." He propped one elbow on the arm of the chair and covered his face with his hand. "We've been having problems for months," he said quietly. "We've had problems before, but we always got over them. This time, though..." he squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "I haven't slept," he said after a long pause. "We were up all night, talking. I got home late—this damn necromancer case, I'm sure Ron's told you about it—and he was up waiting for me, like he used to do, only this time it was to tell me that...that we're...over." He could feel his hands start to shake, the tip of his nose start to burn with the tears he desperately tried to keep out of his eyes. It was no use; they crept into his eyes anyway, burning at the corners before running down his cheeks. "I begged him not to leave," he choked. "There was a whole hour where I thought I had him convinced to give us one last try. But..." Hermione was squeezing his hand in both of hers now, tears standing in her eyes as well. "And the worst part is, he was right," Harry continued in a ragged voice. "We'd let ourselves get so distant we didn't know how to patch it up. We couldn't figure out how to be together anymore." The last word turned into a sob and Hermione knelt on the floor in front of him, holding him to her, resting his head on her shoulder. "I don't know what to do, Hermione," he said, almost incoherently. "We were together for more than six years...I d-don't know what to do wi-without him..."
"I know," Hermione said, patting him uselessly on the back, "I know."
Presently Harry's shoulders stopped shaking and he took a deep, shaking breath, willing himself to calm down.
"Where is he now?" Hermione asked carefully.
"Back at the house," Harry responded, trying to distance himself from his words. "He's taking the weekend to move out. I figured it'd be less...painful...if I let him do it alone."
Hermione nodded. "You can stay here, of course," she said gently. "As long as you need to. We've got the two guest bedrooms, but you'll have to share the bathroom with Ginny—she's living with us for the time being."
"Ginny?" Harry wiped the corner of his eye with a knuckle. "What's she doing here?"
"She had a terrible breakup too, about a month ago. All of us saw it coming but her, poor thing...he treated her horribly. She's better off for it, and I think she knows it, but she's still heartbroken." Hermione rose to go back to her own chair. "She should be home later today, she's looking at flats for let. Ron'll be back soon too, I imagine—he was on call this weekend for that poisoner case, and at three in the morning he was called in for a raid on a warehouse that had been falsifying their shipments of Noxcap..." she trailed off as she saw that Harry was not listening. She reached over and rubbed his upper arm. "Come on. Let me show you to your room. Sleep is what you need most right now...take a shower, and I'll have a Dreamless Sleep flask by your bed when you're done." Harry nodded numbly and followed her up the stairs.
And here he was now, several hours later. It was dark outside and throughout the rest of the house; the streetlight through the window and the lamp on the desk bathed the room in a soft yellow glow. He did feel better after his time asleep, but he didn't think Hermione had figured out that once he had woken up, everything would come crashing down around his head again, and no one else would be awake. Of course, he'd only taken half the potion—maybe she'd expected him to sleep until the next morning. He pondered quaffing the rest of the potion and thought better of it for now. Instead, he wandered into the bathroom that connected the two guest bedrooms with vague ideas of washing his face and getting a drink of water.
He had finished the one and was in the middle of the latter when the door leading to the other bedroom cracked open slightly. "Is someone in there?" a female voice asked.
"Just me," Harry said after hastily swallowing. "Sorry, did I wake you?" He had no idea what time it was.
"No, I was just up reading," Ginny said, pushing the door open the rest of the way. She was lit only from behind by a lamp on the bedside table in the bedroom, and Harry caught himself staring.
He'd not seen her in well over two years, not since he'd been promoted and his social calendar had become distressingly constricted. She'd cut her hair in that time; what had once gone past her elbows now only just brushed her shoulder blades, and long fringe was tucked behind her ear on one side. She'd filled out from the coltish teenage beauty she'd been and though it was difficult to tell beneath the baggy pajama pants and tank top she wore, she looked as though she had developed some very flattering curves. The girl he'd known from school, and possibly even fancied a bit before his affections had been captured by Neville, was now a remarkably pretty young woman, and she was standing right in front of him.
She cocked her head to one side. "What?"
"Nothing," Harry said quickly, glancing down at his water glass. "I just almost didn't recognize you. It's been a long time."
"Yeah," Ginny said, looking down at the book she was holding, a finger between the pages to hold her place. "I guess that's just how things happen." She looked up. "Hermione told me what happened. I'm sorry."
"Ah." Harry swallowed and focused very hard on putting the glass down on the counter. "I'm sure I'll live," he finally said, though he wasn't sure about that at all. The burning pressure inside his chest seemed to have reignited. "I heard about what happened with you as well," he said to try and distract himself. "I'm sorry to hear it."
Ginny shrugged. "It's a good thing it happened, really," she said. "He did treat me badly. Doesn't mean I don't feel like rubbish about it." She came a little further into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bathtub facing Harry, book hanging from her hand between her knees. He leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms. Their feet were almost touching, as the space between the counter and the bathtub was not very wide. "He's one of the reasons I never came to visit, you know," Ginny said suddenly. "He didn't want me having blokes as friends, no matter that I assured him all the blokes I knew were either my brother or gay."
"Oh—I'm not," Harry corrected. Ginny raised an eyebrow. "I fancy girls as well," Harry said, his face starting to redden slightly, "I just—well, with Neville, I never had the opportunity—nor the inclination—"
"Don't go falling all over yourself," Ginny said with a small laugh. "I get the picture. You're not picky."
"If you want to be vulgar about it, I suppose," Harry said, a very small smile threatening to bubble up through the despair he was only barely holding at bay. "It's not really a black and white thing, it's...complicated."
"Complicated," Ginny repeated, smiling.
"All right, so it's very simple," Harry said, and this time the smile managed to slip through. His ears were burning, as well. "Can we please talk about something else? What's that you're reading?"
"I don't think I've ever managed to make you blush," Ginny said, not bothering to mask her delight. "You were always so stoic and brooding at school. We always wondered whether you were capable of it."
"I blushed plenty," Harry muttered, his cheeks burning now that they were aware they were on center stage. "Just mostly around Neville." Saying the name gave him a small pang.
"Oh," Ginny said, her face falling slightly. "I didn't mean...sorry." She glanced down at the book in her hands and held it up so he could see the cover. "It's just a trashy romance novel. It's trite, but somehow it makes me feel better reading about people being dramatic and ridiculous and getting together in the end anyway."
Harry nodded, unsure of what to say. Tired of standing, he slid down to the floor and sat on his heels, back against the cabinets under the counter. "How do you make it go away?" he asked finally.
Ginny seemed to understand what he was asking. "I don't think there's any surefire way," she said softly, her eyes unfocusing slightly as she thought about it, staring into middle space. "Me, I spent a lot of time cursing him out to my mates and joking with Ron about how he could go hex him into oblivion, but...I don't think you're actually angry with Neville..."
Harry shook his head. "We're still mad for each other," he said forlornly. "But a relationship needs more than that, and...we just didn't have it..."
"I got a new job," Ginny said hurriedly, as though desperate the change the subject. "It's a private company, helps ghosts to relocate once the places they used to haunt have been demolished or the person they're haunting dies or something..."
"Ghosts?" Harry perked up slightly. "You know I've been working on a necromancer case lately, right? Had Ron told you?" Ginny nodded. "If any of your...clients...mentions anything, will you let me know? We're having serious trouble tracking him down, and it's going to look terrible on my CV if the first case I command ends up going cold."
Ginny nodded. "I hear anything odd, I'll send you an owl."
The conversation dwindled. Ginny fiddled with the corner of her book, flipping the pages listlessly. Harry was about to get up from the floor and bid her good night when she looked up suddenly.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" she asked. Harry blinked, slightly taken aback.
"Sure," he said.
"Have you ever had sex with a girl?" The blunt question was accompanied by equally blunt eye contact, and Harry swallowed. Warning bells began going off in his head.
"Ah, no. Can't say that I have."
"Do you want to?" Her eyes were boring into his own and Harry was fairly sure she could see his mind racing. The bells had been upgraded to sirens, and a proximity alarm began to blare telling him exactly how far away he was from Ginny, in centimeters. The part of his brain that had been quietly noticing her since his first glimpse began narrating its discoveries very loudly, and he felt his palms begin to grow slightly clammy.
He did the only sensible thing—he stood up, and then realized that his body had given the go-ahead to engage arousal without his permission, and so standing up in his loosely-fitted pajama pants was actually not the best idea in the world if his aim was to indicate that he was not interested in her proposition. He swallowed and stared very intently at the air above Ginny's left shoulder.
"I should be getting to bed," he said, or tried to say, because Ginny interrupted him by standing up and placing one finger on his lips. Startled, he stopped speaking as she trailed her fingers across his unshaven cheek and down the side of his neck. It made him shiver. He could smell her, that flowery smell he'd never quite been able to place, and despite the sirens blaring in his head he could feel the warmth coming off her in waves, feel it feeding the flames in his blood, and he couldn't remember the last time he had wanted something so badly.
Ginny tipped her chin up and closed her eyes as he closed his own and leaned down slightly, his arms moving to encircle her of their own accord.
Her lips were soft and sweet and every bit as delicious as he'd imagined, and kissing her stoked the furnace burning within him beyond the point of refusal. She leaned into him, pressing her hips against his own and it was at that point that the decision was made. He broke away and leaned his forehead against hers.
"Oh, this is such a terrible idea," he moaned.
"Horrible," she agreed, and grasped the back of his neck to bring his head down again. "Have you got any better ones?"
"Yes, and they all involve us going through different doors and going to sleep," Harry intended to say in a firm voice, but somehow it all got lost on the way to his mouth, and instead he found himself stumbling backwards with an armful of gently squirming young woman, through the door to her bedroom, his mouth pressed very hard against hers and her hands at the drawstring to his pajama bottoms and that was around the time that the thinking and reasoning centers of his brain gave it up as a bad job and shut down for the remainder of the night.
Someone was hissing his name.
Harry snuggled down deeper into the pillow. He did not want to get up. He was at that perfect state of warmth and comfort that comes so rarely when sleeping in a strange bed, he didn't want to ruin it.
"Harry James Potter, you get up this instant!" Something yanked every hair on his head, hard, and the possibility of sleep fled. He lazily opened one eye, and what he saw made him open both very hurriedly and sit bolt upright.
Hermione stood in the bathroom door, pointing her wand at him, her face darker than a thundercloud.
He looked around frantically, noticed his pants on the floor beside the bed, and on his other side Ginny dozing contentedly.
"Oh," Harry said as his mind finished waking up and it dawned on him what exactly he was doing there. Then, "Oh," as his gaze snapped back to Hermione, who had gone so far past burning fury that she was cold as ice. "I..." he looked pointedly at the pajama bottoms on the floor, and an instant later he realized that perhaps he shouldn't have called attention to that as Hermione's eyes narrowed just slightly, her lips tightened just a titch, and he suddenly knew that he was not long for this world if she got one whit angrier. He awkwardly donned the pants under the covers and then, meekly as he could manage, tiptoed quietly to where Hermione stood fuming.
She reached up, grasped and twisted his ear, and bodily dragged him into the other guest room, closing both bathroom doors behind her with an angry wand jab as she went.
"Ow!" Harry protested, trying to jerk away, but her grip was far too firm. "Ow, ow, ow!" Hermione let go with a flourish that felt as though she'd ripped the ear clean away from his scalp, and he stood up, scowling. "My ear, Hermione? Seriously?"
"Silencio!" Hermione said, brandishing her wand. Harry's eyes bulged. "Harry Potter, you are the most vile, irresponsible human being I've ever laid eyes on," she said in a very dangerous voice that shook with rage. "Not twenty four hours out of a committed relationship with a man that you are still in love with and you go tumble a girl who is extremely vulnerable who is also your best friend's sister and your other best friend's sister-in-law, under their roof, when they've promised to shelter both of you during a time when you both are hurting—" she seemed to have run out of words for his transgressions and so she clamped her jaw shut, crossing her arms and glaring with something that seemed to be very close to hatred.
Harry gestured at his throat to indicate that he couldn't exactly respond. Hermione's eyes narrowed, but she did raise her wand and mutter "finite incantatum," albeit with such heat that it had a tangible recoil that made Harry's throat ache.
"First of all, it was a very bad decision and I'm as disgusted with myself as you are and I'm surprised you didn't slit my throat as soon as you saw me, because I deserved it," Harry said quickly. If this mollified Hermione at all, she didn't show it. "Secondly, she's the one who came onto me—hard—"
"And I'm sure you were helpless to resist," Hermione snarled.
Harry wanted very badly to reply that yes, he had been quite helpless to resist, but knew it would be the second stupidest thing he'd ever done, the first having been committed only a few hours before. Instead, he continued, "Thirdly, yes, it was a bad decision that I'm starting to really hate myself for, but it was our decision, and now we'll face the consequences—"
"Of which there will be plenty," Hermione practically spat as she brandished a folded bit of parchment at him. "I came in here this morning to tell you that this was delivered sometime last night, when everyone was asleep—or was supposed to be asleep." She thrust it into Harry's face and Harry grabbed it, recognizing the handwriting on the front immediately.
Harry—I've never been so stupid before in my life. Please come home. I love you. Neville
Harry's heart simultaneously leapt and sunk and he stumbled backward to lean against a wall, head spinning.