Ginny didn’t want to return to practice all fired up, so she stopped in the yard that separated the Leaky Cauldron from Diagon Alley. Leaning against the wall she tried to perform some of the breathing exercises the team used to relax before a match, but each time she attempted to focus she would see the smug look on Fohn’s face. It was difficult to master the urge to run back into the pub and kick, punch, or hex him (or maybe all three), especially because she was unsure who she was angrier at, Fohn for being a git, or herself for knowing what he was capable of and not being prepared.
She was still struggling with her anger when the pub door opened and the squirrelly faced reporter appeared, tucking a bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky into his suit pocket as he walked. His attempted blackmail of her by way of Tougas made him about as welcome as a Doxy infestation. Ginny regained her full height and pulled out her wand, a movement that caught his attention.
“Miss . . . Weasley?” he asked uncertainly, looking around the alley in a twitchy manner as though afraid someone was about to jump out and attack him.
“Are you following me now? Hoping to get me alone so you could persuade me to hand over gold in exchange for your silence? Yes, Tougas told me all about that,“ she said angrily, perhaps more angrily than she would have done had she not already been irate about Fohn. “You’re a disgrace.”
“Wait,” he said urgently when she made a move to Disapparate. He hurried over, frantically searching his pockets for quill and parchment but didn’t seem to have any. This, in Ginny’s experience, was a first, but as he drew closer and she saw his totally woebegone appearance she was hardly surprised at his disorganization. He looked worse than he had done on Saturday at the Quidditch stadium, the last time she’d seen him close up. His suit was wrinkled as though he’d been sleeping in it, his hair disheveled and in need of a wash, and he could have done with a shave. His eyes were red-rimmed and Ginny guessed this was because of his drinking, but she couldn’t smell any alcohol on his breath.
“I’ve got to be back at work in a minute,” she said.
“I won’t keep you then,” he said, looking disappointed. “I only wanted to tell you that I don’t plan to write anything about your son.”
“Oh?” Ginny folded her arms across her chest, still watching him warily. Whatever Tougas had said had obviously been effective. She would have to thank him later.
“He’s almost a year old now, right?”
“Nearly that, yes,” Ginny replied after a moment. “But why do you care if you’re not writing anything about him?”
He had no answer for this question, though he appeared to be thinking of one. Ginny took a step closer and raised her wand threateningly.
“Don’t get any ideas about my son, all right? I’m not above hexing you.”
He recoiled, looking stunned. His hand went again to the bottle in his pocket.
“I won’t write a word, I promise you,” he said.
“Good.” She stowed her wand in her pocket and took several steps back, preparing to Disapparate at last. “And it might be a little early for alcohol, don’t you think?”
He redoubled his grip on the bottle even as he nodded his head. It was all Ginny could do not to grab the bottle and smash it. She held this urge in check as well and finally Disapparated.
“How’d it go?” Keddle asked the minute Ginny hurried through the door of the changing rooms. She had returned with a minute to spare. The entire team crowded around to listen.
“It was a meeting with Fohn,” Ginny replied. “How do you think it went?”
“He didn’t try to pull anything?” Gwenog asked, idly pulling a strand of hair from her robes.
“That would be a first,” Dylan stated.
“It would have been, if he hadn’t invited a whole troupe of reporters without telling me.” Ginny quickly explained what had happened.
“That slimy git,” Gwenog stated, when she was done. “He has some nerve!”
“I’m surprised you didn’t hex him into next week,” King added. “That would have made for an interesting end to the meeting.”
As they headed back onto the pitch the others were happily contemplating what they would have done to Fohn had they been in Ginny’s place. She didn’t participate but kept turning the meeting over in her mind. In some ways she thought her teammates were right and that she should have used a very good hex on him. he certainly deserved it. But as the afternoon wore on she began to feel more positively about what she had done. If she had hexed him and left people would draw their own conclusions. Maybe, just maybe, what she had said would convince some people of Fohn’s true nature and they would withdraw their support. It was a long shot, but one that would be definitely worth it in the end.
Ginny didn’t have much opportunity to worry over her actions once they started into their afternoon training. Her mind was once again filled with thoughts of Quaffles, Bludgers and opposing team members. She didn’t even have time to realize that they had practiced an hour longer than usual, though she certainly felt it when Gwenog blew her whistle for the last time. All seven players reached the ground and trudged to the changing rooms.
“I think we’ll have this one in the bag,” Keddle said as they changed out of their robes and back into their street clothes. “I know Lee, their Seeker, from school and she’s a pushover.”
“Yeah,” Ginny agreed.
It was common knowledge that Lee, who played for the Keddlemere Kestrals was a horrible Seeker. How she ever made it onto a professional team was beyond everyone. No, in this game it was the Harpies Keeper and Chasers who would have to have to be on spectacular form. The Kestrals had a very strong front three, who weren’t above playing dirty to win.
“No more late nights, ladies,” Gwenog replied, having overheard what Keddle said. “We’re going to clean the pitch with them, s’long as we don’t have any other dips in performance.”
Her comment opened up a tactical discussion that became rather enthusiastic. It promised to go on a long time when Gwenog pulled out her model of the pitch and started plotting players. Everyone crowded around, adding their input. Ginny was just showing them how she thought they could use a Hawkshead attack to the greatest effect when Jordana called her name.
“What Jor?” she asked, not looking up, as she used her wand to line up the tiny models of the two teams.
“Rossi has been out here waiting for you for twenty minutes.”
“Damn!” She had completely forgotten that Keddle had arranged for him to come after their training was done. Looking down at the tiny models of Quidditch players she debated asking him to come another time, but a voice that sounded very much like her mother’s reminded her sternly that he had come all this way. Sighing she stowed her wand in her bag. “See you.”
Rossi was leaning casually against the wall, reading the Evening Prophet. He didn’t seem at all bothered by having to wait for so long.
“So sorry, I completely forgot you were coming tonight.” She said smiling apologetically.
“Not to worry,” he replied, closing the paper. “I suspected that with everything that happened this afternoon I’d have a long wait. You created quite the firestorm with your treatment of Fohn, you know.”
“Did I?” Ginny asked, eyeing the newspaper warily. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know how a reporter thought things had happened.
“Yeah, you did,” he said with a little laugh. “Caused quite a stir, it did. The Prophet and the WWN have been drowning in owls all afternoon and, from what I hear, Gabriel Mercer has decided to devote a whole show to what he’s calling ‘the great divide.”
“What?” Ginny asked slowly, cringing slightly. How had everyone found out about what had happened so quickly? And Mercer was bound to blow things out of proportion again.
“Someone who was in that pub today, whether a reporter or someone else I don’t know, sent an owl to the WWN about what happened, and they’ve been talking about it all afternoon. Some people think you’re a hero, you know.” He smiled roguishly as they turned into the room the team used for their press conferences.
“They’re wrong, then,” she muttered, sinking into a chair near the door. “I was just sick of his rubbish. Acting like I was working with him!”
“You weren’t alone,” Rossi said, smiling and showing off his dazzlingly white teeth. “More than half of the letters they read on the WWN were in your favor. They’re already talking about people rallying behind you.“
“They were?” Ginny asked flatly. She was still not certain how she felt about this news. To tell Fohn where to go was one thing, but she hadn’t done what she had done because she wanted to be some sort of spokesperson. She had only wanted to be left alone, and perhaps to give him his comeuppance for being a git. On the other hand though, she reminded herself as she chewed her lip, she had hoped that people would stop blindly following him. Maybe this was the beginning.
“Tougas wasn’t pleased about what you did, though,” Rossi said, interrupting her thoughts.
“When is he ever happy about anything?” Ginny asked. Now she could see a positive outcome of her meeting with Fohn she was starting to feel a lot better.
“He seems particularly tetchy about you, you know.” Rossi reached into his robes and pulled out a roll of parchment. “Any idea why that is?”
“None. He’s just always been that much of a git around me. If I had to guess though, I’d say he thinks I challenge him too much. He doesn’t like challenge, Tougas.”
“That’s too bad. I always like a good challenge. I find it to be an excellent motivator” Rossi spoke in a voice dripping in innuendo and finished with another of the suggestive winks he’d been throwing about so often at the beginning of the Quidditch season.
“Are you trying to flirt with me?” she asked point blank, fixing a stern expression on her face, though she felt amused rather than annoyed. It was hard to keep it there, however, when she saw Rossi’s smile falter. He seemed to lose some of his casual grace as well, fumbling the parchment he’d just taken out of the pocket of his jacket.
“No . . . Not really. Um . . . “ He spread the roll of parchment out and magicked it into the air. Ginny watched him curiously, sure he’d never been this flustered before. She opened her mouth to ask why, but suddenly remembered the conversation she’d overheard he and Tougas having in December. Was this the reason? “We’re here to talk about Eva – Miss. Keddle.”
When she didn’t contradict him, Rossi regained some of his composure.
“I haven’t had much opportunity to talk to her since Saturday, but she looks like she’s doing well,” he said.
“She does. I have to wonder how much of that is an act, though.”
Ginny still firmly believed that Keddle was hiding most of what she was going through. She was still very jumpy, and very reluctant to leave each night, a contradictory reaction given how she’d been going on about how great it was to have her flat back. Ginny explained all of this to Rossi.
“It does take time,” he agreed, frowning. “Personally, I think she would have done better to find a new flat, but . . . There’s only so much we can do.”
He was playing with the edge of the parchment as he spoke, but the way his frown deepened, Ginny could see that he was genuinely troubled by Keddle’s current predicament. It was all she could do to prevent her jaw dropping. The flirtatious Rossi she knew how to deal with, that was just part of his nature, but she’d never guessed he got this involved in his cases. She leaned her arm against the top of the chair and supported her chin, seeing this man she thought she’d known for five years in a new light.
“He’s definitely going to stay in Azkaban, isn’t he?” she asked finally, deciding not to comment on Keddle’s move. She was very much on Keddle’s side in this debate.
“He’s still awaiting trial, but we’re pretty confident they’re going to throw away his wand after they lock him in there. We need to get through this first, though.” Rossi hitched up the parchment, and Ginny only now realized that it was her statement from Saturday. “It’s fairly straightforward. We’ll go through this together, and make any changes necessary. Once it’s complete to our satisfaction then I’ll have you sign and you’ll be done.”
In all the time she’d known Rossi he’d always been a flirt and consequently, Ginny had never considered that he might be good at his job. She was surprised by how thorough he was in his investigation. What she thought would take ten or fifteen minutes at most, stretched into three or four times that length as he pressed her for every detail to ensure that they hadn’t missed anything that Chase could later use to secure his release. She had expected that this task, whatever the length, would be weary and would stretch on into infinity, but it seemed like no time at all had passed when he stood up, rolled up the parchment and announced that they were done, she was in shock.
“That’s it?” she asked, also standing. For some reason she felt strangely jittery.
“That’s it,” he said, extending his hand.
She felt discombobulated and for several long seconds she didn’t hold out her own hand to shake his, but rather stared at Rossi as though she was seeing him for the first time, with his olive colored skin and dark eyes. He was good-looking, she’d never denied that, but why now was she suddenly affected by it?
Only when Rossi started to retract his hand did Ginny come to her senses and hastily hold out her own.
“I’ll send you an owl if there’s anything else we need, but I doubt there will be.”
“Thanks,” she said, watching him walk to the door. Just as he started to open it she suddenly blurted out, “D’you want to have dinner on Saturday?”
The minute the words were out Ginny wanted to take them back, considering a million reasons as to why this was a bad idea. For one, she knew very little about him, besides the fact that he was a habitual flirt. What if he had a girlfriend already? Wouldn’t she look the prat then?
Rossi had his back to her so she was deprived of his initial reaction, but when he turned he was smiling in his usual roguish manner.
“I didn’t know you were this tricksy, Ginny,” he said. “Lecturing me on a little harmless flirting when you had this up your sleeve.’
“I didn’t have an agenda, I promise you.”
But Rossi was still smiling, looking much more like himself, with the confident swagger.
“I know the perfect place.”
* * *
Ginny didn’t know if her lack of nerves had to do with the fact that she was the one who asked Rossi out, or if it was just confidence that she wouldn’t experience a repeat of her meeting with Fohn, but she found that she was looking forward to the date much more than she would have thought on Tuesday evening. She even wondered if her own anticipation might have been heightened because she had told no one about it. Ron and Hermione hadn’t stopped by all week, and she wasn’t fool enough to mention this to her mother because Molly would blow it out of proportion. One simple dinner and she’d probably be picking out china patterns. Who needed that? So when she asked if her mother could take James for the night she said she only wanted a night to herself.
She might be looking forward to her date, but Ginny was most definitely not looking forward to the time it would take away from James. She already hated that Quidditch practice took so much of her time because she knew there was loads that she was missing, a guilt that weighed on her more heavily as James’s first birthday approached. To try and combat that guilt, she spent much of Saturday morning with her son, following him around with arms outstretched as he continued his race to learn to walk. Several times he managed a few tottering steps without support before falling on his bottom. As she watched him pull himself up, Ginny couldn’t quite believe that a year had passed since Adrasteia had handed James to her wrapped in his swaddling and with the pronouncement that he looked exactly like Harry.
A second wave of guilt washed over her at the thought of Harry. Not twenty-four hours after she’d accepted that it was time to stop wearing her ring she was making dates, and with someone that Harry had known and worked with no less! These thoughts made her insides squirm and more than once Ginny thought she might do better to cancel. Each time she thought of either writing a letter or stopping to see Rossi at the Ministry, however, she was visited by a strong anger that she hadn’t felt even the week before, an anger directed at Harry for leaving, again. She didn’t like to think that Hermione was right, but if she was and Harry was not coming back, Ginny couldn’t wait forever. And if he was out there somewhere, then . . . Well, she didn’t know what, then, only that everyone was right, she couldn’t wait around for someone who might never come back.
By lunchtime James had tired himself and Ginny out. She had difficulty getting him to eat because he was so cranky. After ten minutes in which he cried a lot, and spit up more than he ate, she conceded defeat and lifted him out of his high chair, intending on putting him in his crib. She stopped in the sitting room to grab Gryffin, the stuffed Gryffindor lion that her father had bought her when she was young and that James had claimed as his own. As she straightened up she saw movement on the street below: Tougas was making his way slowly up the sidewalk with an elderly man. This, Ginny guessed, must be her new neighbor.
“Dada?” James said, pointing as the two men entered the courtyard.
“No, no, Jay,” she replied casually. He’d started saying that around every man he met. It was a little embarrassing.
The two men were in the middle of the courtyard when Tougas looked up. Seeing Ginny he beckoned for her to come down. She shook her head, not wanting to bundle James up and head outside for just a few minutes, especially when he was already so irritable. Tougas was insistent though so, muttering under her breath, Ginny headed for the door. She decided not to bother grabbing their coats. Whatever Tougas wanted, he could tell her once he was inside the building.
Mr. Thomas looked to be about a hundred. He didn’t walk with a cane but shuffled along and Ginny thought he might do best if he got one. Maybe she should give him old Auntie Muriel’s, then the old crone wouldn’t be able to use it to whack everyone in the shins.
A chilly gust of wind filled the entrance as Tougas and Mr. Thomas at last reached the door and pulled it open. Ginny turned away to shield James from the worst of the cold, but he was curious about the new arrivals and craned his neck over her shoulder to see. This was the downside of having a large family, Ginny thought irritably, as she adjusted James’s weight again so that he didn’t fall, people were constantly picking him up so he assumed every new arrival was going to do so.
“Blimey, it’s cold out there,” Mr. Thomas said after Tougas had made introductions. His voice cracked as he spoke, and his bones felt extremely brittle to Ginny when they shook hands, even so she had a feeling he was stronger than he looked. He also seemed genuinely amused by James’s bid to free himself from his mother’s arms, a reaction that made Mr. Thomas more favorable to Ginny. She could tell already that he was going to be a much better neighbor than the Cavils had been, not that it took much!
“James, no,” she said when he stretched out his arms towards Mr. Thomas.
“It’s all right.” Mr. Thomas held out his arms at once.
This was mad, allowing a frail old man to hold her rambunctious toddler? It was asking for trouble. Ginny looked at Tougas for support, but he jerked his head in a ‘well, get on with it, manner. She glared at him.
“Do you have children, Mr. Thomas?’ she asked.
“Yes. But we’re not close.” A shadow passed over his face and he appeared to age several more years under the weight of the guilt he obviously felt. Ginny started to ask what happened, but at a look from Tougas she held her tongue, realizing that it wasn’t a topic usually discussed with a new acquaintance. And the last thing she wanted to do was cause the man more pain, not after she knew he’d just lost his wife as well.
Feeling sorry for the lonely old man, Ginny relented and handed James over, though she remained close in case he started to fidget too much. She needn’t have worried, though because Mr. Thomas proved her right. He was much stronger than he looked. What was more, he joined in with James’s laughter and it made him to look younger, and eased some of his stiff movements. Ginny was glad she had relented, and she watched them together for several minutes before James grew irritable again.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Thomas,” Ginny said, taking James back and immediately heading up the stairs.
“You as well, Miss. Weasley. James.”
Tougas remained behind with Mr. Thomas, a curious thing to do in Ginny’s opinion, but he probably had some ridiculous theory about how the man would affect the protections around the building. Rather than wait for him, she returned to her flat and put James in his crib. She had just enough time to think that maybe Tougas had done what he had come to do and had left when he knocked on the door.
“Mind telling me what that was all about?” she asked in an undertone so as not to disturb James. “Why were you with him and why did you feel the need to call me down? And what the bloody hell were you playing at, encouraging me to let some stranger hold my son?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you ask too many damned questions?”
“Yeah, you, and then you don’t answer a single one,” Ginny said, closing the door behind him. “But you’re going to answer them this time, even if I have to cancel my plans and force you to stay here all evening.”
“Plans? What plans?”
“I’m going out with Rossi. But never mind that,” she said when he looked like he was going to interrupt. “Answer my questions!”
“I brought him here by Side-Along Apparition so I could make sure he wouldn’t have any problems getting through the wards.”
“What? You told me he was a Muggle. Why would you have -”
“D’you want me to answer your questions or not?”
“Yes,” she said through tightly gritted teeth.
“Then shut up and let me answer them,” Tougas said angrily, making Ginny think of a few hexes that she could throw at him. “For your information I modified his memory. We didn’t want to take any chances that he might be followed by Lestrange, or one of her lot.”
That didn’t seem likely, and Ginny said so.
“We’re not taking any chances,” he replied, waving her statement away impatiently. “And I wanted you to come down and meet him so that I could be sure you didn’t muck it up like you did the relationship with your last set of neighbours.”
“D’you get some sort of sick satisfaction out of having people mad at you?”
“No,” he said.
“Could have fooled me. Seems every time you’re around you’re doing things to irk me – like not telling me that Fohn was Briony’s brother.”
“Damn it, Weasley, I said I was sorry about Fohn. When are you going to stop harping about that?”
“When you ask Briony out,” Ginny replied. She said it because she knew it would anger him further, and she wasn’t opposed to it at the moment. She braced herself for the explosion that seemed imminent from the look on Tougas’s face, but it didn’t come.
“Not going to happen,” he mumbled, and she thought she saw the same sort of shadow that had passed over Mr. Thomas’s face just moments ago.
“Why not?” This was the first time in all the time she’d known him, that he hadn’t tried to hide behind his surliness and she suspected that she might get a real answer out of him.
“If I tell you, will you promise to drop this whole topic?” he asked impatiently.
“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“Fine.” Tougas only agreed when he realized that Ginny wasn’t going to back down. He walked into the sitting room and sank down onto the sofa. She followed, anxious to hear his great reasoning for not acting on his feelings for all these years.
“You know her aunt, and now you’ve met her brother so you should have a good idea what her family’s like.”
“An unpleasant lot,” Ginny agreed. “She was smart to get out when she did.”
“They keep trying to get in contact with her and I keep telling her she should talk to them, but she refuses because they want her to stop spending so much time with me. I’ve told her that she shouldn’t neglect them as they’re the only family she’s got, but she won’t listen.”
“Let me get this straight,” Ginny said after waiting a minute to make sure he didn’t have anything else to add. “You think she disowned her family simply because they don’t like you?”
“Not entirely, but . . . yeah.”
“Pitiful. Just pitiful.” She shook her head. “Don’t you think that there might have been more to it than that? That maybe she had issues with the family ideals, the ones that meant they couldn’t like you?”
“It comes down to the same thing. She has to make a choice between me and her family, and that’s not a choice.” He looked distinctly uncomfortable discussing this topic. “My family was taken from me and I didn’t have a choice. I know what it feels like . . . “
Tougas looked disgusted with himself now. Good, Ginny thought. Maybe he was finally realizing how mental he was being. Briony had made the rational choice in separating herself from the lunatics in her family. As her friend, he should have been happy about that. Ginny tried explaining that, but Tougas still hadn’t bought it when someone knocked on the door.
“Always such lousy timing,” Ginny muttered as she went to answer it.
She cringed before checking to see who it was. She’d been diligently avoiding Hugh all week because she knew that now Keddle was gone he’d want to have their long overdue conversation about what happened at Christmas. Since she still didn’t know what to tell him Ginny was relieved to see Ron and Hermione standing there instead, even though she hadn’t talked to them at all since Monday night.
Their last visit was obviously weighing on Hermione as well because she had trouble meeting Ginny’s gaze when they first entered the flat. She did look a lot more cheerful than she had been of late though, which was a relief because it meant she likely wouldn’t explode again.
“I didn’t expect to see you two today,” Ginny stated simply.
“We shouldn’t have dropped by unannounced after what happened the other day,” Hermione said when Ron prompted her to speak. “You have every right to tell us, to tell me, to leave.”
“I do,” Ginny agreed. She was far from forgetting Monday evening, and she was still mad at her sister-in-law, but Ginny also knew that she probably wouldn’t have her date with Rossi to look forward to if it hadn’t been for what Hermione said. This, more than anything, prevented her from telling them to leave straight away. She would give Hermione a chance to explain herself.
Tougas came into the hall while Ron and Hermione were removing their coats and hanging them up.
“Are we interrupting something?” Ron asked, looking from one to the other, a dark look on his face.
“No,” Ginny and Tougas said at the same time.
“Leaving so soon?” Ginny asked, feeling slightly disappointed. She had hoped to spend some more time trying to change his mind about Briony. She didn’t try to convince Tougas to stay because she knew now that Ron and Hermione were here he wouldn’t say anything else about it.
“I’m going to check on the spells one more time and then I’ve got to get some work done. Remember, Weasley, try not to aggravate the old man too much.”
“Old man?” Ron and Hermione both asked, looking at Ginny as the door closed.
“The new neighbor,” she explained. She ended up telling them all about how Tougas had insisted she come down and meet him as a good-will gesture.
“D’you think he’s starting to lose it?” Ron asked, heading into the sitting room so he could watch Tougas leave.
“Maybe,” Hermione said uncertainly. “I still have to wonder if Molly isn’t right, though, and -”
“Don’t start with that again,” Ginny stated, rolling her eyes. “He definitely does not fancy me, nor do I. Fancy him, I mean. Besides, one of us would end up killing the other, I’m sure, from all the constant bickering. It’s only you two who seem to thrive on it.”
This statement caused Ron and Hermione to exchange a look, in which he nodded at her encouragingly. Hermione returned the nod half-heartedly, looking ashamed. Taking a deep breath she took Ginny’s hand and led her over to the sofa.
“I owe you the world’s biggest apology,” she said once they were seated. “I had no right to say what I did, especially the way I did.”
Ginny waited to hear more. She expected a whole litany of excuses from Hermione, about how she was having a bad day, was suffering from overwork, maybe even how Ron had done something to annoy her just before they came over on Monday evening, but she didn’t offer any explanation. In the end it was Ginny who broke the silence.
“Do you believe what you said about Harry?” she asked quietly.
Hermione shifted uncomfortably.
“I don’t want to. I really don’t want to, but I can’t pretend that I have much hope left that they’ll find him.”
“I spent a lot of time thinking about it on Monday night, and . . . I think you might be right.” Ginny quickly held up her hand to show them she wasn’t wearing her ring anymore. She ignored their shocked expressions. She took a deep breath and decided to tell them about Rossi. They both looked stunned and confused. Hermione was the first to recover.
“Romeo De Rossi? The Auror?”
“Yes, that one.”
“He’s got some nerve,” Ron said angrily. “Honing in on you like that! He didn’t even wait two seconds after you took the ring off to ask -”
“I asked him,” Ginny stated, making Ron’s jaw drop and Hermione’s mouth form a perfect ‘O.‘
“But he was in training with Harry,” Hermione pointed out as though Ginny didn’t already know that. “Doesn’t that make it a bit awkward?”
“It’s not like they were best mates,” Ginny said defensively. She tried to shrug but her own guilt over the matter shattered the casualness she had been trying to affect. She pretended not to notice the concerned glance Ron and Hermione shared as she continued, “Besides, it’s just one date. I don’t plan on jumping into bed with him, or running off and getting married or anything.”
“Why him, though?” Ron asked, grimacing. “People are going to talk, Ginny, and not in a good way.”
“Oh,” she said, understanding his meaning. After a second her anger vanished and she laughed. “This is about my virtue, is it? Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, Ron, but that was gone many years ago.”
Ron didn’t look impressed, but Ginny was sure she saw the corners of Hermione’s mouth twitch.
“Enough about me though, what’s happened with you two these last few days? You both seem much more relaxed.”
Though she wasn’t able to get a concrete answer from either of them, Ginny was pleased that they were at last off the topic of her date. She didn’t want to further mar her anticipation by an argument about whether she should go in the first place, not that Ron didn’t try to engage the topic several more times throughout the afternoon. She would always counter with a question about what had happened to cheer him and Hermione up. When James woke up from his afternoon nap Hermione insisted on getting him. While she was gone, Ginny leaned over to Ron.
“So tell me brother, was she really so tetchy because of a lack of sleep?”
“Among other things,” he replied evasively, the corners of his mouth turning up.
“What other – No, never mind,” she said, holding up her hand. “I’m probably better off not knowing.”
When Hermione returned with James several minutes later a transformation had come over her. She had seemed much happier all afternoon than she had done in months, but now she was actually glowing.
“We just missed you two, is all,” she replied in response to Ginny’s question. It was such an inadequate answer that Ginny was seized by an immediate suspicion that her mother had been right all along.
“You are pregnant, aren’t you?”
“What? No!” Hermione’s voice was higher than usual and she looked at Ron in alarm.
“You sound like mum,” he said, going over to Hermione and putting an arm around her.
Ron and Hermione exchanged another look, not quite able to hide their smiles. This, in Ginny’s opinion, was absolute proof that she was right. She didn’t press the matter though as she understood only too well the many reasons they might want to keep quiet about it. She decided to let them have their little secret.
“Molly is supposed to be watching James tonight, isn’t she?” Hermione asked, an obvious attempt to deflect more questions.
“Why don’t you let us watch him instead. We’re already here so you wouldn’t have to drop him off anywhere, and it would give her a night off.” Hermione looked hopefully at Ginny, who smiled. She had another suspicion that this request was as much about practicing their parenting skill as it was making up for the time they’d lost with James this week.
“Yeah, all right,” she agreed. Hermione looked, if possible, even more radiant.
James was just as pleased to see Ron and Hermione as they were to see him. The next few hours passed quickly as they all took it in turns to chase James around the flat while he squealed delightedly. It was highly enjoyable, like they had returned to a time before the argument, and before Keddle had come to stay. It made Ginny reluctant to leave.
“So don’t go,” Ron said when she foolishly told them what she was thinking. “Send him an owl and tell him you’ve come down with cold or something.”
“Ronald!” Hermione scolded.
“What? I’m only saying that if she doesn’t want to go . . . “ He fell silent under her quailing look.
“She does want to go though. Don’t you, Ginny?”
“I do,” Ginny said slowly. Her stomach did another flip flop, but out of anticipation rather than guilt.
“See.” Hermione looked at Ron smugly. “Come on, Ginny, I’ll help you get ready. Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself,” she added to Ron over her shoulder as they left the room.
“I’m glad you’ve decided to go through with this,” Hermione said when she’d finished exclaiming over the dress Ginny had bought.
“Me, too,” Ginny replied, examining her reflection in the mirror. She’d picked up the dress at a Muggle shop she happened to pass in London only the day before, and she was glad she had done. It was a simple black velvet that clung to her hips, and the neckline dipped just enough to show some cleavage. She had to admit it looked good, especially with her hair pulled back in a roll that Hermione had done.
Ron was sitting on the floor with James when they emerged from the bedroom.
“You’re not going out in that!” he said, jumping to his feet.
“Now who sounds like mum?” she asked, chuckling. Both Ron and Hermione followed her into the hall and watched her pull on her coat. That done, she gave them each a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks again for watching James. I won’t be late.”
“Wait. He’s not coming here to get you?” Ron asked indignantly.
“We’re meeting at the restaurant, because -”
“That’s not appropriate!”
“It was my decision,” Ginny replied, laughing again because Ron was obviously looking for things to criticize. “With all the spells around this place he probably couldn’t get here anyway.”
“Where are you going?” Ron asked. “Timbuktu?”
“Diagon Alley, actually. Not too far from Fred and George’s, if memory serves.” Ginny didn’t miss the slight smile that Ron tried unsuccessfully to hide, and she knew what that meant. “If you tell them anything about this, I will murder you. Painfully. Got it?”
“He’ll behave,” Hermione said. “Won’t you, Ronald?”
He didn’t look much like he wanted to agree, but he nodded when Ginny and Hermione both glared at him.
“The restaurant is called Dimentichi’s. Rossi says the steaks are unforgettable,” Ginny said, pulling the door open.
Once she was sure that Ron and Hermione had committed the location to memory, Ginny gave James one last kiss and headed out the door. She felt a little shaky as she walked down the stairs and wasn’t entirely sure if it was due to nerves or just because it had been so long since she’d worn high heels.
“Heading out for the evening?” Mr. Thomas asked, making Ginny jump. He was also wearing his coat and had just stepped out of his flat.
“You scared me,” she said, pressing her hand to her heart and letting out a relieved laugh. “Yes, I am. I’m heading out to dinner.”
“Oh? I’m just heading to the market,” he replied when he noticed her looking.
They exited the building together and Ginny, feeling it was only polite, slowed to walk at Mr. Thomas’s pace. He seemed a little unsteady on his feet this evening.
“Are you meeting someone special tonight?” he asked, speaking for the first time since leaving the building as they neared the courtyard exit. She noticed that he laid a delicate stress on the word special, and thought she could detect either sadness or bitterness in his voice. It was the loneliness talking, she knew.
“I don’t know yet,” she answered honestly. “It’s only the first date. The first one I’ve been on since my son was born, actually.”
“Really? I’d have thought . . . A lovely young woman like yourself would have a full dance card.”
“I’m afraid not.”
Mr. Thomas seemed to notice that she was reluctant to elaborate on why this was her first date. He smiled understandingly and patted her arm.
“You look stunning, Miss, Weasley. He’s a lucky man.”
He turned left and started making his way slowly down the street.
“D’you need some help, Mr. Thomas?” she asked, already taking a few steps in his direction.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, his voice cracking again. “Go and enjoy yourself.”
Ginny watched him make his way slowly down the sidewalk and she considered ignoring his request. He seemed like a nice man and she worried that he might get mugged, or do himself a serious injury. It was only when she looked up and saw Hermione standing in the window tapping her watch impatiently that Ginny finally turned on her heel and headed in the opposite direction.
Diagon Alley was a different place at night, Ginny reckoned. Most of the shops were closed, and instead of the street overflowing with families, or people up to do a day’s shopping, it was full of couples walking hand in hand or snogging. More dodgy characters were out, too. Twice Ginny had to skirt mangy looking wizards who were trying to sell questionable potions.
“My guarantee, Miss,” the second said, grabbing the sleeve of her coat. “It’ll make you irresistible to any wizard.”
“Get off,” she said, yanking her arm out of his grasp and reaching for her wand. “Do I look like I need or want any of your rubbishy potions?”
“N – No,” he said, backing into the wall of the nearest building.
“Stop harassing people,” she called, watching him hurry away.
The altercation didn’t go unnoticed and most unfortunately several people recognized Ginny. She wasn’t surprised, given the ridiculous amount of media attention her meeting with Fohn was receiving. She hastily signed a few slips of parchment and then walked very quickly to the restaurant, arriving just a few minutes late.
Until Rossi had mentioned the place, Ginny had never heard of Dimentichi’s, but it turned out to be a medium-sized restaurant equidistant from Fred and George’s joke shop and Gringott’s bank. It was also quite elegant and made her feel very underdressed.
“Benvenuta a Dimentichi’s, Signorina Weasley.”
“Er, hi,” she said. “I’m here to meet -”
“Signore Rossi? Si. He is already seated. Allow me to take your coat and then I will take you to him.”
People turned to stare as Ginny passed and she thought she could detect an increase in the muttered conversations, but she ignored it, keeping her head straight and only letting her eyes wander over the decor. Each row of round tables was covered in a white table cloth that worked well with the deep red chairs set around them. Each row was separated by tall wooden pillars covered in a plant that looked very much like it had come from somewhere in the Mediterranean and made the whole place smell faintly like the ocean.
Rossi was standing when they finally reached his table. He flashed his dazzling smile and Ginny couldn’t help but return it. She thought he looked rather handsome in his navy blue dress robes.
“I’m sorry I was late.”
“No worries. Grazie,” he said to the server, who disappeared so fast he might have Disapparated.
“Grazie,” Ginny said when Rossi pulled out her chair for her.
“Prego. Qualche cosa per una bella donna.” He kissed her hand before returning to his seat. Despite the fact that she was still a little chilled from the night air outside, Ginny felt her face grow warm.
“OK, you’re good,” she said, reaching for the glass of water already poured for her.
“I try,” he said, smiling again as he raised his own glass.
“Were you waiting long?”
“Not at all. I was a little late myself. Things are hectic at work at the moment.”
“So Tougas keeps saying,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes. “It must be easier now you don’t have to worry about Keddle’s case.”
“For a few days it was, but they asked me to join the task force,” he said. From the barely controlled excitement in his voice, it was easy to see he’d been holding onto this bit of news for some time and was eager to tell someone about it. Ginny couldn’t honestly share in his enthusiasm, but forced herself to smile.
“Congratulations. When did this happen?”
“Thursday,” he said, opening his menu. He touched his wand to one of the items and a bottle of Elderflower wine appeared on the table.
“You’re full of surprises,” Ginny said, staring at the bottle. “Here I was thinking you were French. You bring me to an Italian restaurant, demonstrate that you can speak the language very well, and then you order an English wine.”
“There’s no sense in being too predictable,” he said, giving her one of his trademark winks. “This will do, I presume.”
“Absolutely.” She took the glass he handed her, but hesitated in drinking any of it, suddenly reminded of what had happened once before when she had not been cautious of her drink. It took a moment for her reason to return. The chances of this bottle containing any potion were as high as Lestrange following Mr. Thomas to his new flat. Ginny was reassured by this thought, but still took only a small sip before setting her glass down again.
“So how have you found your first few days as part of the illustrious task force?” She thought she did a good job of keeping the sarcasm out of her voice.
“Brilliant so far, though all I’ve done for the last forty-eight hours is read. I’ve got parchment burns on my fingers, look.” He held up the hand that wasn’t holding his glass.
“I’m not surprised. That’s all Harry did for months when he first joined . . . “ Ginny fell silent, feeling awkward. Talking about Harry with Rossi was the last thing she wanted to do, but something did occur to her, and she mentioned it, more to fill the silence than anything. “I’m surprised you were able to come tonight if you have all that work.”
Rossi leaned in as he spoke. “The way I see it, it’s all a matter of priorities. The work is important, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. Not that Potter didn’t consider you a priority,” he added hastily when she opened her mouth to say something. He sat back in his chair and sipped his wine. “How’s Evangeline?”
Ginny suspected he asked the question for the same reason she’d mentioned all the work he’d have to do, but she wasn’t at all upset by it. She seized on the topic gladly and they spent the next twenty minutes talking about Keddle and Quidditch. By the time they’d talked themselves out, their dinner had arrived.
“So tell me, Ginny, what do you do for fun?” he asked after swallowing a mouthful of steak.
“Spend time with my son,” she said, taking another sip of her wine. She felt no traces of fatigue or queasiness, so the wine wasn’t spiked, a realization that made her relax. “That’s all I have time to do outside of practice.”
“Come now, Ginny, you don’t really expect me to believe that all you’ve been doing every night is sitting home and taking care of a leetle boy? You ‘aven’t been dating at all?” Rossi put on his best French accent, reminding her very much of Fleur.
“It’s true. You’re the first in a very long time.”
“My good fortune then,” he said, smiling suggestively and winking again.
“Keep dreaming,” she replied, though she returned his wink. “What do you do for fun, then?”
“I travel, to warmer and dryer places than can be found on this rock.”
“Where for instance?”
“Most recently, Morocco. And I plan to go back when I have the time. Though maybe I should reconsider,” he said slowly, looking at the ceiling as though lost in thought. “There’s a high priest who hasn’t finished with me yet.”
As they finished eating, he elaborated on his exploits in the African country, including how the high priest had sworn vengeance on Rossi for reportedly seducing his daughter.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me,” Ginny said, laughing and shaking her head. “You’re trouble, you are. Yes, I’ll have another glass of wine, thanks.”
“I was innocent. It was just a misunderstanding is all,” Rossi said, emptying the bottle into her glass.
“Sure it was,” she replied indulgently. Sitting back in her chair, Ginny swilled her wine thinking that the date was going better than she had expected. She raised her glass to drink to the happy thought.
Before the glass touched her lips she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. It was probably just a server hurrying past, but she turned her head anyway, and her glass slipped out of her grasp. It hit the edge of the table and shattered, showering Ginny with wine, but she barely noticed. She was staring at a pillar to her left that stood about five feet behind Rossi, the place where she had just seen Harry standing.
“What’s wrong?” Rossi asked when she continued to stare at the pillar. He glanced back, and seeing nothing he got up and came round the table, putting a hand on her shoulder. She shook him off.
“Just clumsy,” she said, making a brave attempt to laugh it off, but her voice shook.
“You look like you’re about to pass out. And you’re shivering. Are you cold? Should I get your coat?”
“I’m OK.” Ginny jumped to her feet. “I just need to – to get cleaned up. Excuse me.” And she hurried in the direction of the loo, stopping very briefly to run her hand along the pillar where only seconds earlier she was convinced she had seen Harry. There was nothing there but the plant.
No one else was in the bathroom when Ginny entered. She threw her purse onto the counter and pulled out her wand, but didn’t immediately use it. Instead she stared at her pale reflection. Had she really seen Harry, or was it just her conscience rearing it’s ugly head because she knew it was wrong to be out with Rossi? Was her vision caused by something other than guilt? Something in the wine after all, or maybe that plant had some sort of hallucinogenic properties?
“Ridiculous,” Ginny whispered, raising her wand at last to clean the wine from her dress. She had just seen a server going by, and her own unconscious guilt had made her think she was seeing Harry, that was all. She reached into her bag to pull out her lipstick when she saw movement in the mirror, and again she was convinced it was Harry. She spun on her heel so fast that she had to grab the counter to avoid falling, but still there was no one there.
It was impossible to tell how long she stood like that, but when Ginny finally raised her head she felt worse than she had before. She abandoned her attempts to touch up her makeup, because it had smeared worse than ever, and washed it off. Then, trying to hold her head high, she returned to the restaurant.
“Is everything all right, signorina?”
It was the same man who’d greeted her when she first arrived.
“Fine, fine,” she said quickly. “Can you tell me where I might pick up my coat?”
“Si. I will bring it to you, signorina. At your table?”
Ginny hesitated, wanting to leave as quickly as she could, but owed it to Rossi to at least say goodbye. “Yes, please.”
Rossi was sitting, but stood up the minute he saw Ginny.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
Ginny debated making up some lie, but found she didn’t have the strength. She rummaged in her purse for her moneybag, taking her time in answering him.
“I enjoyed the meal, but it turns out that I’m not quite ready for this dating thing yet. It was nothing you did, believe me,” she added, forestalling his question.
The waiter returned with Ginny’s coat at that moment, cutting the conversation short. She apologized again as she pressed a handful of galleons into his hand, shouting down his refusal, and then she hurried out of the restaurant as fast as she could. She didn’t stop moving until she was standing in the middle of the courtyard.
By moving quickly, she had hoped to distance herself from the images of Harry, the hallucinations or whatever they were, but he seemed closer than ever here, like she could turn around and feel him standing right behind her.
“Where are you, Harry?” she said softly, stopping on the stoop and looking back. She waited for a long time, but didn’t receive an answer.