The memo fluttered into Hermione’s office just as she was preparing to leave work for the day. Curious, she stunned it, and ripped open the envelope. As she read the contents, penned in Ron’s familiar scrawling handwriting, her brow wrinkled in irritation.
Harry just asked if I wanted to go out for a few drinks tonight. I know we were planning on having dinner together at home, but I want to make sure he doesn’t get himself into any trouble. I’ll make sure we’re not home late. Love, Ron
At first, Hermione was annoyed about the last minute change of plans. But as she pulled on her jacket, she felt her irritation fade. Harry had been out of sorts ever since he learned about Ginny’s new relationship. The night he woke up with the tattoo two months ago had only been the start; he’d been out more times than she could count since then and he usually came home very late, in a variable state of drunkenness. That was, when he bothered to come home at all, of course. On two occasions, Hermione was certain that he had stayed out all night. She really didn’t want to think about where he went when that had happened, and she was glad Ron had decided to keep an eye on him.
To begin with, Hermione enjoyed having the house to herself. She ate her supper alone at the kitchen table, before curling up on the sofa in the drawing room to catch up with some reading, and then treated herself to a long soak in the bath. However, as the evening wore on and there was no sign of either of her housemates, her anxiety levels began to rise. At eleven o’clock, she went to bed, but just lay there, tossing and turning. By the time the clock passed midnight, she couldn’t decide whether she was worried sick or simply furious.
Eventually, at almost half-past one, she heard a familiar creak as the front door opened. The thuds, groans and muffled swearing she could hear coming from the hallway confirmed that both her boyfriend and her best friend had made it home alive, but whether either of them made it to breakfast that way remained to be seen. She climbed out of bed, picked up her wand and pulled on her dressing gown before marching out onto the landing. What she saw below her as she peered over the bannister made her stop dead. Harry seemed to be hovering in mid air, only semi-conscious. Ron was behind him, wand drawn, apparently levitating his best friend.
“Oh my god, what happened?” she asked, horrified
“I’m sorry, love,” replied Ron, looking stricken. “I didn’t know what else to do. The whole thing got totally out of control.” Hermione realised with a relieved jolt that while Harry was clearly out of it, Ron was actually completely sober.
“How the hell did he end up in this state?”
“I thought we’d be propping up the bar at the Leaky Cauldron,” explained Ron, “but he insisted going to this Muggle bar just up the road. It’s called the Lucky Six, or Sixty, something like that, it was packed to the rafters. Harry was drinking beer like it was going out of fashion, and I didn’t even try to keep up. Then he started trying to chat up every pretty girl in the place, and almost got into a fight when it turned out that one of them had a boyfriend who I swear could have been part-giant.”
“Oh, yes,” replied Ron, sounding grim. “I tried to make him come home, but he just grinned and told me to relax. I went to the loo, and when I came back, he’d disappeared. I finally tracked him down, wrapped around some blonde bimbo. Honestly, it looked like he was trying to remove her tonsils with his tongue. Disgusting.”
Hermione had a sudden flash of Ron with Lavender Brown but quickly quashed it. “What did you do?”
“Just stood there like a lemon, but thankfully they weren’t at it for long. Mr Smooth here blew his chances by throwing up on her shoes.” Hermione noticed that Ron couldn’t quite suppress a smirk at that point. “She screamed and ran off, and Harry... Well, Harry said something like ‘Shame. I was well in there’. Then he just keeled over, and he’s been like this ever since. I couldn’t levitate him through the centre of London, so I had to practically carry him until I could somewhere safe to apparate.”
“Aren’t you both on shift tomorrow morning?”
“Yes. We’ve got a surveillance posting to do. I’ll be fine, just a bit short of sleep. God knows what sort of state he’ll be in, though,”
Just then, Harry’s screwed up his face and he wriggled feebly against Ron’s spell, just enough that Ron had to adjust his grip on his wand to prevent Harry from tumbling back down the stairs.
“I really should get him up to bed. Can you get some water to leave for him?” He turned at looked at his friend. “And maybe a bucket,” he added, ruefully.
Hermione stood and watched as Ron continued to levitate Harry towards his bedroom. The more times things like this happened, the more worried she became about his state of mind. She understood how upset he was, but his behaviour made little sense to her. She hated the fact that what was going on inside his head was such a mystery, and worse still, she had no idea how to help him. She found that feeling paralysing. There were no books on the subject she could turn to set her on the right course. None of her friends or acquaintances had been through anything similar, so there was no-one to quiz for information. And Harry was on such a short fuse, she worried that any false move on her part might just make things worse.
Well, for now, at least I can provide some practical support. And with that, she tightened her dressing gown cord, and headed downstairs to the kitchen to rustle up a bucket and a glass.
Early the following morning, Ron stood on the top step of Grimmauld Place and made a careful quarter turn. With his mind focused on the apparition point that had been set up a short walk from Skirtgill cottage, he put every ounce of effort into apparating as quietly as possible. As the world spun back into place around him, he could see he was on the edge of a small woodland clearing. Excellent. He was in the right place. The cottage wasn’t immediately visible from the apparition point, but he knew it was located just on the other side of the copse of trees opposite him, which also held the Auror’s observation post.
The apparition point itself was concealed, but the moment Ron stepped outside, he would be visible to anyone who happened to be passing, so he took a moment to disillusion himself. The charm would hide him from a casual observer, but anyone watching the clearing might see the tell-tale shimmer in the air, so he carefully examined the trees and bushes surrounding the clearing. Everything seemed to be in order. He listened closely for any unusual sounds, but all he could hear was the trill of birdsong and a gentle breeze in the branches above him. Nothing seemed out of place. Still, it was worth making sure.
“Hominum Revellio.” Nothing.
Satisfied, he walked quickly towards the observation post, careful to keep to the secure pathway through the woodland that the team had set up. It was charmed to ensure that he did not leave behind any visible footprints that might alert Lestrange to the Aurors presence, if and when he returned to the cottage. Everything about his approach was designed to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Moments later, he reached a large oak tree at the centre of the copse. There didn’t appear to be anything unusual about it, but Ron knew differently. He drew his wand, and tapped it quickly against the trunk.
“Silvavivia,” he whispered.
In front of him, the rough bark of the tree began to rearrange itself, wrinkling and smoothing, rapidly forming two eyes, a nose and a mouth.
“Password?” asked the face.
“Living Forest,” Ron replied.
The face melted away into the wood, as though it was being pulled inside the trunk by an invisible force. It left behind a hole that quickly became larger and larger, until it formed a narrow entrance into the hollow tree. Behind it, Ron could see a ladder. He stepped onto the bottom rung and began to climb, feeling his way in the gloom as the entrance closed behind him.
Seconds later, he emerged onto the observation post, set into the branches of the tree. It was little more than a rough wooden platform, charmed to make it invisible from below, but it afforded an excellent view of the cottage.
Hestia and Susan, who had been on the night shift, both turned to greet him, but Hestia’s smile faded rapidly when she realised he was alone.
“Where’s Harry? Don’t tell me there’s been a screw up with the rota?” she asked.
“No, he’s coming. He’s just running late. I don’t think he’ll be long.” Ron crossed his fingers behind his back.
“Oh, okay.” Hestia seemed satisfied. She turned to Susan. “You should head home and get some rest. I can wait here with Ron until Harry gets here. We need two people on watch.”
Come on, Harry - get your arse in gear! thought Ron, desperately, while Susan said her goodbyes and left.
As the minutes ticked slowly by, Ron could see Hestia getting more and more annoyed with Harry’s lateness. She checked her watch almost constantly. In fact, it was nearly three quarters of an hour later before Harry arrived. The first sign that he was on his way was the loud ‘pop’ of someone apparating rather carelessly. Both Hestia and Ron drew their wands in case it was Lestrange, but then Harry came into view, almost stumbling as he hurried across the clearing.
By the time he appeared on the platform, Hestia was fuming. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Harry? A herd of apparating elephants couldn’t have made more noise! Then you stroll through the wood without even trying to disillusion yourself, and you’ve left a trail across the clearing that a child could spot!”
Ron could see that Harry was mortified to be on the receiving end of a dressing down from a senior Auror. He stared at his feet, and his cheeks took on more and more colour as Hestia rebuked him.
“I’m sorry, Hestia” he said, meekly. “I overslept, and I was in a hurry. I just didn’t think.”
Hestia looked livid. “Sort yourself out, Harry,” she snapped back, as she headed for the ladder. “This isn’t good enough.”
“Bloody hell, mate. You want to watch your step,” advised Ron, after she had gone.
“Just drop it, Ron. I’m really not in the mood.” Harry drew his wand and conjured a large cushion. He tossed it on the floor of the platform next to the trunk, and flopped down onto it. Ron looked more closely at his friend. He had clearly got ready in a rush; his t-shirt was on inside out, and only one of his trainers was laced up properly. But what worried Ron most was the sickly green tone to Harry’s skin.
“Are you sure you’re fit to be here, mate?” he asked, cautiously. “Last night was a bit manic.”
“Everything’s fine. I’ve got it under control.” Harry leaned back against the tree trunk. “Although I will admit that I’ve felt better. Do you mind keeping an eye on things while I grab a bit more shut-eye?” Without waiting for a response, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Within moments, he was asleep.
Everything’s fine. I’ve got it under control.
The words echoed through Ron’s mind, over and over again, as he settled down to watch Skirtgill Cottage. Drinking too much, chasing girls in bars, letting his standards slip at work; apparently Harry’s definition of ‘under control’ was very different to Ron’s. Behind him, Harry began to snore, leaving Ron grateful that the concealments applied to the platform included a silencing charm.
Well, if Lestrange turns up now, I’ll be completely buggered, he thought to himself.
As the hours passed, Ron tried to focus on the task in hand, watching the cottage intently, but with nothing to see apart from the occasional passing squirrel, his mind kept wandering back to the previous evening. It really had been carnage, and Ron was very worried about his friend. Ever since Harry had learned about Ginny and Viktor, he’d been a mess. It wasn’t like before, in the immediate aftermath of the break-up. Then, he had walked around in a haze, not really connected to what was going on around him. Now, it was as though someone had hit the self-destruct button.
Eventually, Ron heard a noise behind him. He turned to see Harry had woken up, and was stretching out his arms above his head.
“Seen anything?” he enquired.
“Yes,” Ron deadpanned. “Voldemort, Salazar Slytherin and a whole tribe of dementors came past, but you slept right through it.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
“Seriously, Harry. Whatever’s going on with you, you need to snap out of it. If something had happened this morning, we’d have been screwed.”
Harry just laughed. “Come on, Ron - nothing’s going to happen, on this shift, or anyone else’s, ever. The whole thing is a massive waste of time. You know it, I know it, we all know it. We’ve been watching the cottage for nearly two months, and absolutely nothing has happened. It probably wasn’t even Lestrange that broke in in the first place.”
Ron had no idea how to respond to that. For several minutes, neither of them spoke. Under the uncomfortable weight of the slightly awkward silence, Ron decided to try a change of subject.
“Have you got your suit ready for Percy’s wedding?” he asked, conversationally. “Dad’s dropping mine off tomorrow. Only three days to go! I bet he’s bricking it!”
Harry just grunted. Too late, Ron realised his faux pas - Harry couldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of seeing Ginny with Krum. “Sorry mate - I wasn’t thinking.”
“Forget about it,” said Harry, gruffly. Then he leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes again.
Ron’s heart sank. Not so long ago, the idea of actually falling asleep on the job would have mortified Harry. Now, he just didn’t seem to care. Ron turned his attention back to the cottage, but his mind still churned, worrying about Harry and wondering how the hell he could help his best friend out of the dark pool that he seemed so determined to drown in.
On the day of Percy’s wedding, Harry stood at the foot of his bed and looked into the mirror. Three piece suit in a fetching shade of indigo. Freshly pressed shirt. Spotted silk cravat. Boots polished to a high shine. He looked every inch the dapper wedding guest.
“Come on, Harry! It’s time to go!” called Hermione, from the foot of the stairs.
Shaking his head in disgust, he turned away and ripped the cravat from his neck, before pulling off the shirt and suit so rapidly that he lost at least one button in the process. After rooting around on the floor for a few moments, he located a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt, pulled on his trainers, then he stomped out of his room and down the stairs. He wasn’t sure exactly where he was going, but he knew he needed to get away from anywhere and anyone that would remind him of Ginny.
Hermione and Ron were waiting for him in the hall. Hermione had her handkerchief out and was attempting to wipe a smear of dirt from Ron’s forehead, as he batted her hand away like a petulant child. They stopped and stared at Harry as he stormed towards them.
“Harry! Go and get dressed!” said Hermione, looking horrified. “We have to be there at half past two! You’ll make us late!”
“I’m not going,” he said flatly.
“But you have to!”
“Why?” he asked, spitting out the word as though it was poison.
“Percy is expecting you! You can’t just not turn up!” Hermione’s voice was unpleasantly shrill. “Do you have any idea how rude that is?”
“Do you have any idea how little I care?”
Ron and Hermione exchanged a shocked glance. Then Ron reached put his hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Come on, mate. I know you haven’t been looking forward to this, but pull it together, okay?”
“No.” Harry shrugged Ron’s hand away. “I can’t do it. I can’t go and stand there and smile and look happy while she’s there with him. I can’t see them together. I just can’t.” He pushed past Ron and Hermione and headed for the front door.
“Harry, wait! Where are you going?” called Hermione.
“Out,” he snapped, before slamming the door behind him. As soon as his foot touched the top step, he made a smart quarter turn and then disapparated, appearing a moment later in Diagon Alley. He took a few steps towards the Leaky Cauldron, then suddenly realised that his money purse felt considerably lighter than it really needed to in advance of a day spent drowning his sorrows. He would have to make a visit to Gringotts first.
As he climbed the stairs up to the entrance of the bank, Harry felt the beady eyes of the uniformed goblin that guarded the door boring into him. He had never felt entirely welcome inside Gringotts since the day that he, Ron and Hermione had practically destroyed the place with a dragon, but he held his head up high as he marched through the marble hall and up to the main desk. The goblins at the other counters regarded him coldly, but he ignored their hostile glances, and instead, waited for the attention of the teller.
The teller took his own sweet time in noticing Harry, but eventually deigned to request his key. Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, he instructed another goblin to escort Harry to his vault.
“...and mind you keep a close eye on him, Parnuk!” the teller called after them.
Parnuk didn’t seem to be in any mood to chat as he and Harry rode the cart to his vault, and that suited Harry just fine. The swooping, twisting journey was just as stomach-churning as usual, and when they finally arrived at vault number 687, Parnuk wordlessly held out his hand for Harry’s key.
The door swung open and Harry stepped into his vault. He had only intended to scoop up a handful of gold and then leave, but he found himself wandering around the room and examining the contents. It had been impressive enough when he had first visited the bank as an eleven year old, but since then, his inheritance from Sirius had swelled the contents considerably. It wasn't laden with riches in the same way that the Lestrange vault had been, but even after all this time, it still took his breath away to realise that all this treasure was his.
To one side of the vault was a narrow shelf, crammed with small, valuable items, some of which he recognised from Grimmauld Place, including a silver plate that he thought Mrs Weasley had once admired as Goblin made. He picked it up and polished it with his sleeve a little, before setting it down again. He had to jiggle the other items on the shelf to make room for the plate, and as he did so, he saw a small object tumble off the shelf out of the corner of his eye. Harry had no idea what it could be, but whatever it was was dull and modest looking. It seemed out of place amongst all the gleaming treasure. Curious, Harry bent down to look for it, and it took him a few moments of searching in the gloom of the vault before he found it; a small octagonal box, covered in scuffed green velvet.
He flicked back the catch and opened the box. Inside was a ring, nestling in a white silk cushion. The gold band of the ring seemed to glow in the torchlight, and the single diamond mounted there burned with a bright and insistent fire. He slipped it out of the box and examined it more closely. Inside the band, he could just make out an inscription: For Lily, with love. 1978. The realisation that he was holding his mother’s engagement ring took his breath away, and he leaned heavily against the wall of the vault. It struck him as horribly unfair - his parents had loved each other so very much, and had so little time with one another before Voldemort ripped away their, and his, future. Meanwhile, Harry had found the one person who lit up his life, only to throw it all away, and now he faced a lifetime without her. What if all he had now was all he ever could have? He simply couldn’t imagine anyone making him feel the way that Ginny had. She had made him complete, so incredibly content, and yet now, she was further away from him than she ever had been.
Almost reverentially, he placed the box back on the shelf. Then he stood still in the vault for a few moments longer, breathing slowly and deeply. Finally, he bent down, swept a handful of coins into his money bag, and walked out of the vault.
With Percy’s wedding less than an hour away, Ginny closed the door to her old bedroom at The Burrow and took a deep, calming breath. Then, she wriggled out of her jeans and blouse, and slipped into the pretty mint-green dress she had picked out to wear, relieved to finally get a few minutes to herself to get ready. There had been so much to do to prepare the house, and the garden, and the feast and the bride, and Ginny had been in the thick of it almost since dawn. Audrey had lost both her parents some years earlier, so Mrs Weasley had taken on full responsibility for all the organisation, quickly roping in Ginny as her second on command.
All in all, it had been a very trying day. Mrs Weasley’s panic levels rose by the minute. Audrey appeared to be so nervous that she constantly looked like she was going to burst into tears. Her bridesmaids were a bunch of silly, vacuous girls that screeched at each other every few minutes leaving Ginny wanting to strangle them. She had to bite her lip so much that she wondered whether she would have any left by the time Percy finally walked down the aisle.
It would have been so good to have Viktor there to lean on, but he was still in Holyhead, as far as she knew. His decision not to travel until the last moment had resulted in their first real argument. She had asked him to come with her to The Burrow, but he had refused, adamant that he had no place there before the ceremony. Ginny had tried to explain that she would need his support, but there was no budging him.
It was a shame, because generally, Ginny felt as though she was finally finding some sort of equilibrium. After all the complications and trauma of being with Harry, someone as straightforward as Viktor was very appealing. Their relationship was fun, light-hearted and easy - or at least, it had been until today. If only he could have been that bit more supportive. He knew how close she was to her family, but he seemed reluctant to make much of an effort to get to know them. Harry was part of the family, chipped in her subconscious, mutinously. He would have been here for you today.
She sighed. This was typical. No matter how much fun she told herself her relationship with Viktor was, Harry always seemed to loiter in the periphery of her thoughts. As she twisted and turned in front of the mirror to check that her dress was hanging well, she realised she was incredibly nervous about seeing him today. It would be their first meeting since that awful day in the cafe. Her heart skipped as she thought about Harry, and the prospect of talking to him. Perhaps she was excited as well as nervous?
Squashing that thought, Ginny turned her attention to her hair, twisting it into a thick braid which she coiled up onto her head. It was a more elaborate style than she usually bothered with, but she wanted to look as nice as possible. She wondered whether she was taking so much care over her appearance simply to look nice at the wedding, or whether it was to impress one of the guests in particular.
Yes, she told herself firmly. I want to look nice for Viktor. Nobody else.
As she finished her preparations by stroking just a hint of colour on her cheeks, the clock on the wall of her bedroom told her it was almost quarter to three. Time to go. She hurried off down the stairs, hoping that she wouldn’t bump into any of Audrey’s irritating bridesmaids or even worse, Auntie Muriel. To her delight, the first person she saw when she got outside was Hermione. The two girls exchanged a hug in greeting.
“Where’s Ron?” asked Ginny, looking around for her brother.
Hermione pulled a face. “He’s gone to give Percy some moral support, by which I assume he means a shot of firewhisky.”
“I don’t think it’s Percy that needs the support. It’s Audrey that’s the wreck.”
“Really? I hope she’s going to be alright. I was a bit surprised when I heard you weren’t a bridesmaid, Ginny. I know you would have looked after her,” observed Hermione.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Ginny, breezily. “Audrey wanted to ask the girls she shared a dormitory with at Hogwarts, and really, no-one needs five bridesmaids, do they? I’m actually looking forward to being able to relax and enjoy the rest of the day without any responsibilities. And with five brothers, I’m sure it won’t be long before I get another chance to put on a frilly dress and hold a posy all day!” She looked meaningfully at Hermione’s left hand.
Hermione laughed. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Ginny! Ron and I are both only twenty-one! You’ll be waiting a long time to be bridesmaid at my wedding, I assure you.”
“Oh well, a girl can dream,” responded Ginny, smiling broadly.
“How are things with you and Viktor?” enquired Hermione.
“Good, good. It’s nice, you know. No drama, just lots of fun.” At least, not until yesterday.
“Sounds like you’re not taking it too seriously.”
“I’m not - I’m just enjoying it, one day at a time.”
Hermione looked doubtful. “Well, be careful. Viktor can be very... intense. Just be sure that he feels the same way.” Then she frowned. “I was expecting him to be with you; I thought he was coming today?”
“Yes, he is. He should be here soon.” Ginny looked around the garden but there was no sign of Viktor yet. The Burrow was already filling up nicely, and Ginny could see a host of friends and family members ready to watch Percy tie the knot. She was especially pleased to see George and Angelina gazing at one another adoringly near the orchard; they rarely seemed to be apart these days, and it was good to see her brother so happy. There was one person conspicuously missing though, no familiar shock of black hair amongst the assembled guests. “I haven’t seen Harry yet,” she remarked, as casually as possible.
“No. You won’t. He isn’t coming,” replied Hermione, very shortly.
A wave of disappointment hit Ginny when she realised that should wouldn’t be seeing her ex-boyfriend after all. She tried hard not to read too much into her reaction, but she couldn’t help fishing for more information. “Really? Percy told me he would be here.”
“Yes, he was supposed to be. But he changed his mind earlier today.”
“Why on earth would he do that? It isn’t like Harry to let anyone down.”
Hermione looked a bit shifty. “Oh, well. He’s been... well, he’s been... different recently.”
Hermione was quiet for a moment, as though she was considering where to begin. “He never really dealt with your break-up particularly well Ginny,” she began, cautiously. “Then he heard about you and Viktor and... well, he found it hard to accept. It’s changed him. And not for the better.”
“Changed? What do you mean?”
Hermione hesitated, clearly finding the subject difficult. Ginny wanted to tell her it didn’t matter, but found that she couldn’t. She was surprised by her need to hear news of Harry.
“He goes out all the time,” Hermione told her. “I think he’s drinking rather a lot too; Ron went out with him last week and practically had to carry him home. Still, at least he did come home. There are been a few occasions lately where I’m sure his bed wasn’t slept in. I dread to think where he was! And he just seems so angry all the time. It’s like he doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore. I... well to be honest, Ginny, I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry, I know you’re the last person I should be talking to about this, but it’s all such a terrible mess!”
“Surely it can’t really be that bad?”
Hermione looked pained. “He’s totally out of control, Ginny. Ron told me that it’s affecting him at work, too. He keeps getting pulled up for being late, and he’s been making some really basic mistakes, that sort of thing. I’m really worried about him, and I know Ron is too.”
Ginny was stunned. Whoever Hermione was describing bore no resemblance to the Harry she knew. Or thought I knew. What had happened to the dedicated, thoughtful, enthusiastic man who loved his job so much? This new Harry didn’t sound like anyone that she would even like very much, let alone fall desperately in love with. She was unsettled by how much that thought bothered her.
“Ginevra! Here you are!” Ginny felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Viktor smiling back at her. He leaned forward and kissed her. Clearly their earlier disagreement had been forgotten.
“Hello Viktor,” said Hermione. “It’s been far too long.”
Viktor seemed delighted to see Hermione, kissing her on the cheek. They two of them fell into conversation, leaving Ginny to ponder what on earth was happening to her ex-boyfriend.
Early on the morning after Percy’s wedding, Harry eased himself out of bed as gently and quietly as possible. To his left, the Muggle girl whose bed it was shifted slightly in her sleep, but her eyes remained closed. Harry tried, for what felt like the thousandth time since waking, to remember what her name was. He was sure it started with an M. Maggie? Michelle? No, neither of those was quite right.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, he began to retrieve his clothing. His boxers were on the floor next to the bed, and he found his t-shirt and jeans easily enough, draped carelessly over a chair in the corner, but he couldn’t find his left sock anywhere. As he searched, he cursed himself over and over for getting himself into this situation again. This was the third time in the last two months that he had woken up in a stranger’s bed. He didn’t feel any happier about it this time than he had on either of the other two occasions. Now, as then, he couldn’t wait to get away.
Sneaking out like this made him feel like utter slime. He could only imagine what the girl (Martina? Monica?) would think when she finally woke up to find him gone. He knew he had used her badly. Perhaps he should wake her and try to explain? But how would he find the words? He wasn’t even sure he understood it himself. All he knew was that the more times this happened to him, the worse he felt. He never intended last night to lead him here, he really didn’t. All he wanted was to get away from Ron and Hermione and The Burrow, and anything that reminded him of Ginny.
The Three Broomsticks held so many - too many - memories, so he left after just one drink and decided that what he really needed was the anonymity of a Muggle pub. The Lucky Six was only a few minutes away, and he soon settled himself onto a stool at the counter. Several beers later, the girl (Mandy? Melanie?) had jogged his arm as he sipped his drink, spilling it down his shirt. She had dabbed at the stain with a tissue and insisted on buying him a replacement drink, and the two struck up a conversation.
From that point on, the evening followed a horribly familiar path. He knew exactly where it would lead, but seemed helpless to stop, as though he was back on one of the carts racing through Gringotts in the darkness. He looked into her laughing brown eyes, and hoped that maybe she could help him to douse the raging anger that threatened to consume him. Later, as he kissed her and whispered honeyed words in her ear, he resolutely ignored the inner voice that accused him, over and over again, of betraying Ginny. When she boldly suggested that he join her for coffee he wondered if she could be the one to help him feel something, anything, other than the all-consuming emptiness that seemed to haunt him. And as their limbs entwined he wanted nothing more for this time to be different, to open a door to a happier future. For a little while at least, he managed to forget about everything except the here and now, lose himself in the moment. But the solace he found in her arms was only temporary.
The girl (Matilda? Melissa?) wasn’t at fault. She seemed very sweet, and so much about her was very appealing; she was funny and interesting, with a pretty face and slender body. But now in the cold, hard light of day (or at least, the murky half-light of dawn), he knew that she could never fill the void in his heart that Ginny had left behind.
He wondered what Ron and Hermione would think if they knew. It occurred to him that maybe they did, and just couldn’t bring themselves to say anything to him. He wouldn’t blame them, considering how disgusted he was by his own behaviour. He could only imagine what they would say if they could see him, sneaking around a stranger’s house, desperately looking for his left sock as the sun rose above the horizon.
Tiring of the search, Harry drew his wand to summon the sock. Just then, the girl (Mia? Mona?) turned over and murmured. Harry froze, fearing she was about to awaken, but her breathing soon returned to the slow, deep rhythm of sleep. Nevertheless, he tucked his wand away again. The incantation would need to be spoken out loud, and that might be pushing his luck too far. He decided to abandon the sock and instead, he crept along the landing and down the stairs.
As he reached the hallway, a female voice hailed him from an open doorway to his right. “Excuse me, is this yours?” Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. The girl (Martha? Maria?) must have a housemate. Harry looked through the doorway and saw the housemate sitting at a kitchen table nursing a cup of tea. On the table in front of her was Harry’s missing sock. “I found it on the stairs this morning. So Megan got lucky last night, did she?”
Megan! Yes, that was it! “Oh, I... umm. Well, I suppose so.”
“You’re not sneaking out on her are you?” she asked, looking annoyed. “That’s awful. Megan will be really upset. Look, why don’t I make you both a cup of tea and you can take them back upstairs with you?”
“I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.” Harry blanched. The thought of going back upstairs to face Megan was not something that appealed to him.
“Come on. Don’t be a dick. I hate it when men pull stunts like this.” The housemate sounded irritated now.
“Honestly, I think it’s better if I just leave.” he replied, inching towards the door.
The housemate was having none of it. “I’m sorry,” she said, draining the last of her tea and standing up and standing up from the table, “but I think that stinks. I’m going to go and get Megan. She at least deserves a goodbye.”
Harry stared in disbelief. Was she was really going to do it? Panic began to set in as the housemate pushed her chair away from the table. Harry’s mind raced, trying to think of a way out of his predicament. The only thing he could think of doing made him feel utterly wretched, but he couldn’t see any alternative. Swallowing hard, he pulled his wand from his pocket and pointed it at the housemate.
Her face creased in confusion. “What the hell?”
“I’m really sorry about this,” Harry told her. He wondered again what on earth he was doing, but there was no going back now. “Confundo!”
As the spell hit her, the housemate sat back down. Her face slackened, and took on a vacant, goofy expression as she gazed around the room, looking at nothing in particular. Harry crept forward and snatched his sock off the table, then bolted through the front door. He was mortified. He had just violated the Statute of Secrecy, and confunded a Muggle. Wizards had been arrested for less than that! He felt utterly ashamed of his cowardice, not to mention incredibly guilty about his treatment of Megan.
All that before breakfast time, he thought ruefully, as he hurried away down the street. Nice work, Potter. Nice work.
A/N - Look! Another chapter! And only two weeks later! I'm so pleased that so many people are sticking with me and enjoying Evolution. I can promise you some exciting stuff coming up very soon:-) If you enjoyed this chapter (or even if you didn't!), I would really appreciate you leaving a review to let me know you stopped by - I read them all, and they always brighten my day.
As usual, I need to thank my super-patient, super-helpful beta reader, CambAngst, for all his help with this chapter, and right through Evolution. He recently wrote an awesome One Shot challenge entry, for Toujours Padfoot's Gift-It challenge and dedicated it to me - it's amazing, I love it, and I would love it if you read it. Let's just say that if you love Harry and Ginny as much as I do, I think you might enjoy it! It's called 'And Then There Were Three', and you can find it in my favourites:-)