Fic: My Old Ways, 1/6 (Harry/Draco, NC-17) for heathen_ursidae Author:derryere Recipient:heathen_ursidae Title: My Old Ways Rating: NC-17 Pairing(s): Harry/Draco Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended. All characters engaging in sexual activity are 16 years or older. Also, Nick Hornby's How To Be Good has inspired so much of this it needs to be credited/praised to a sickening degree. Summary: In trying to become a better person, Harry seeks the help of a certain professional. Warnings: *deep breath* plot-induced OOCness, AU for serious muggle lifestyle, language, boysex, hetsex, crack, feelings, flangst, canon-pairings, first-person, a lot of words, and the weird. Loads of weird. Word Count: 54K Author's Notes: Hellooo, heathen_ursidae! One of your prompts mentioned 'an awkward moment escaping an orgy gone wrong', and that's where I started. Originally. Where I ended up is—Well, the orgy somehow disappeared while the awkward and the things going wrong stayed put. Despite the lack of that main element, I hope very, very, very very very much that you might still enjoy some of it :) I'd like to thank the mods for giving me more time than anyone should get, and my beta, J, who did this at a superhuman speed. Any remaining mistakes are the product of own stoopid.
Some things never change or go away I wait around and now it’s yesterday Like some little kid who’s overgrown The lonely one who’s never been alone -- Dr.Dog, My Old Ways.
1. THE CONVERSATION ABOUT BEING HAPPY
the one without which none of it would've happened
I’m at a fish stand when it happens. I'm at a fish stand and it’s the end of October and so cold I can see my breath coming out in puffs and the heat wrinkle the air around my paper-wrapped fish'n'chips. It’s a grey day, a proper day to officially call end to all things summer. The sun's not really a sun today and the sky's not really up there. It's all more of a dimmed sort of brightness, with this blanket of clouds evenly stretching over the expanse of the atmosphere. I look around and I see a trash bin with seagulls picking grubs out of it, I see this kid half my age trying to chat up the lady behind the stand and generally, I see everyone squinting at each other. Everyone's having a hard time dealing with this kind of illumination so early on the autumn.
On the bench next to me, Ron, in his worn jacket and comfy tracksuit trousers, is chewing on his food when he says, "Hey, mate."
I say, "Yeah?"
And he says, "You happy?"
I pause for a moment. Frowning, I drop a chip back with the rest of them and turn to look at him. "What?"
He seems a bit embarrassed now, as if just realising the awkward consequences of a question like that. "Just . . ." He shrugs. "You happy?"
"Where's this coming from, then?"
"Dunno," he says, voice rising in defence. "Just wondering, aren't I?"
I pick up on this tone, parrot it back. "What, d'you think I'm not, then?"
Ron can't help but turn a bit red, lashing out with a strained—"For fuck's sake, Harry!" But this sudden anger, wherever it comes from, disappears within a second. He deflates, slumping into his frame with a sigh. He digs around the mound of chips on his unfolded paper with a finger, giving the impression he's looking for a particular one he'd lost in the pile. "Hermione said something the other night," he mumbles to his lunch.
"Oh," I say after a moment, trying not to sound as if I know where this is going.
"D’you wanna hear it?" he asks. I don't, not really. I nod him on anyway. He continues, "So we were lying in bed, right? And—oy, don't pull that face, just listen. We were lying in bed, and she was reading a book and I was . . . well, y'know. Waiting for her to finish reading that book. And at some point I'm just staring at the ceiling, and she puts down her book and turns to me and goes—Ron, are you happy? And I’m like, What? And she asks it again, right, she asks, Happy? Are you? And I tell her, Well, not at the moment. And she goes, Why not? So I say, Because you're reading a book and I’m horny."
"Ah, come on, Ron," I mutter, I glancing away with a small grimace.
"What? It's true. S'what I said, anyway. And Hermione, she looks at me all serious, she looks at me and she says, I mean it, Ron. Are you happy? So I sort of laugh, because hey, what else can you do? It’s a bit of a big question, innit?"
"A bit," I agree.
"Yeah," he gives me a quick smile. "But then I start thinking, maybe it's some sort of thing, you know? One of those trick-things. Like, if I say I'm happy, then I'm not wanting to improve or summin, and if I say I'm not then I’m thinking she's not good enough, or summin. So I just told her I didn't know. Which seemed like the only answer, really. It also sounded a bit deep, I reckon. I mean, I suppose you had to be there, but I said in a way that had me thinking, All right, I've done pretty well on that, can we please get on and have some . . . y'know. But then we didn't get on and have some, if you know what I mean. She just sort of looked at me and said, Then think about it. And . . . that's it."
I give it a small moment. I chew on my food, thoughtfully confirming with a, "And that's it?"
"Yeah. That's it. She goes off to have some tea in the study, and I'm . . ." He snorts, squishing a poor looking chip between two fingers. "Well. Anyway."
I look at the paper on my lap. Its thin whiteness is blotched with oily stains of fish and other such fried things. I'm twenty-seven and Ron is my best friend. We've been doing this for years now, meeting up on Saturday afternoons on this street corner by this fishstand. We eat on this bench, we talk about our week on this bench or we don’t talk at all—if there's not much to tell. Sometimes he'll come over to my place for a beer, or I'll go over to his, and so occasionally we do break the routine for old times' sake but, this . . . this is new. I can't remember this ever happening in this sober a circumstance. We've never quite had this kind of conversation before. I'm unsure of what he wants me to say, exactly. It's quiet for a while between us two, and instead I pretend to be very interested in the couple of seagulls that are fighting over a half-eaten sandwich not too far from our feet.
"So," Ron says eventually.
"So," I repeat.
"What d'you think?"
"What do I think?" I shrug, haplessly. "About what?"
"All of that," he clarifies. "I mean, the being happy bit. And Hermione and everything."
"Well. . . . It's Hermione, isn't it? She’s sort of . . . like that, isn't she?"
Ron doesn’t look convinced. "I suppose," he mumbles to his chips again.
I watch him, all tense and worried in the corner of my eye. We're both hunched over our lunches, comfortable in not having to look up. I think about shifting the conversation toward a different subject, but as I go through my options I reluctantly decide that this is not right, can't be right, and lean back against the support of the bench with a strained expression.
"Let's have it then," I say. Ron's quiet, scrunching the paper into a ball—the left over chips still inside. "Come on, Ron." I nudge him with a knee. "What do you think it's all about?"
"She's going to leave me," he determinedly announces, voice calm in a way that has me suspect he's been over this a couple of times in his head. "She's met another bloke. Turned lesbian. Decided I'm too grumpy and that she needs someone happier and when I get home she'll be either packing her bags or shagging some artsy wanker in our bedroom." He tosses the ball of paper into the bin with sad resignation, watching as the birds fly up at the disturbance then land back in place a moment later.
"All right." I pause before knowingly adding, "Well. That's bullshit."
"You don't know that." He switches intonation, "You don't know that. This is how it always starts. The wife asks something about being happy, the husband replies with some asshole joke of an answer and next thing you know—bam. Shagging some fuckface bohemian on my couch. My couch. That's how all sob stories start, Harry."
"Okay, Ron? No. It's just—No. Who are we even talking about here? Are we talking about Hermione? Do you seriously believe Hermione would ever do something like that? Mate, you've got to learn to take it easy with her. You've been together for almost ten years now, it's—"
"Six! Six years." He shoots me an annoyed glance. "The gap-years don't count. It's six, all right? Six." He sits back, arms slumping on his legs. "I don't get how you always forget that."
I puff a single soundless chuckle, closing my eyes to it for a second. "Just because she asked you if you're happy," I tell him. "Doesn't mean she is unhappy."
"Oh, it doesn't, does it?" He grunts up an incredulous laugh, shaking his head at me. "Like anyone ever thinks about other people being happy if they're okay themselves. You only ever start wondering if anyone feels like shit when you feel like shit yourself, don't you? It's that thing, what they call it—misery loves company? Yeah. That. Company."
"See, right there—" I sit up a bit, gesturing with a hand at the space between us. "That doesn't even make sense. That's so not at all how people work. I'm doing okay right now, aren't I, but I still care about—well, the homeless, for example. I still wouldn't want them to feel like shit. I would actually like it if they'd feel better. Have . . . y'know. Better lives and all."
"Nah, mate, that's not it." He shakes his head, at ease with his words as he explains further—he's been over this, all right. "The homeless and stuff, that's different. Because you see them, right, and you think to yourself—aw, poor sods. So then you feel a bit bad yourself. And then you start thinking about how bad they have it, and how it'd suck to be in that situation, right, out in the pissing rain at night. It's feeling shitty by proxy. Works like a yawn, yeah. You see it, moment later—it's crawling up your own throat, even though you're not tired or anything."
"Wait. No. What? No. That's not the point, Ron. The point is—like, all right, I'm feeling happy. I'm having a good day, everything's looking nice to me, but that doesn't mean I assume every else is having the same kind of day. I'm still perfectly aware bad things happen to other people, I still wish they wouldn't, I still—"
"And that's where you're wrong." He wisely nods to this statement, doing it in a slow movement to underline his point. "You're thinking that when people are sad you'd be able to see it. That they're walking around with droopy shoulders, sighing to themselves as they file the cabinets at work. I mean, right? That's how you're seeing it, in your head—that's how you're picturing it. It's you skipping around with a smile, the rest shuffling about with their tails between their legs. Only that's not how it works, is it?"
When I just stare back at him, mild disdain flushing my cheeks, he returns to hunching over—elbows supported on his knees. "It's not," he confirms. "People hide it like nothing bloody else."
I look down at my food. It’s cold and I'm not that hungry, anyway, so I shake some of it out on the sidewalk for the birds to have. The rest goes in the bin and with my mind already on that train of thought I am made to wonder whether there is a homeless someone out there who would've been happy with my leftover fish'n'chips. Whether someone would come by here later today to rummage through this garbage. The twinge of faraway, unspecified guilt is just enough to make me snort at myself. Ha ha, Harry. Ha ha. And I used to be such a do-gooder.
Ron sniffs because of the cold. He quietly asks, "So how's Ginny?"
"What's Ginny got to do with it?" I retort, still defensive somehow.
"Bloody hell, s'cuse me." He frowns at me. "Was just asking, wasn't I? She's my sister, is all. I'd like to know if she's still alive and all, yeah."
I'm too aware of my own displaced aggression to apologise. I don't look at him when I mumble, "She's doing okay."
"Is she? That's good. That's . . ." he trails off into a lengthy pause and on continuing his tone is altered, more benign in its nature. "How do you know, though?" he asks, genuinely wondering aloud.
I try to think of ways I know Ginny is doing okay. More so than Ron knows Hermione is happy—and since he just openly admitted to not knowing at all, I know I have to make it convincing. "I just . . ." And then, I resort to lying: "She tells me."
"Yeah. She does. We both do. We—Every now and then we talk about whether we're happy with where we are in general, and, well. She is. And so am I." I have no idea what I'm saying. The mere idea of sitting down with Ginny and openly discussing our feelings concerning our relationship and its status seems laughable. 'And how about kids?' I can hear myself saying, casually pouring her another cup of tea. 'Would you like to have some of mine?'
"Really?" Ron looks at me with a disbelieving, mildly amused expression. He knows Ginny just as well as I do. "And does Ginny know about these talks the two of you've been having?"
"Oh, fuck off, Ron." I try to keep a proper resentful reaction going, but when he starts laughing there's nothing I can do to prevent the embarrassed smile from ruining it. I shove at him and he shoves back, and then I feel pretty much all right again. When we're done jostling and I conclude with ruffling his hair and pushing away at his head, Ron asks,
"Hey, Harry—we're cool, yeah?"
"Yeah," I laugh. "We're cool."
Not too long after that we disperse. I've got ten minutes to walk and Ron's got a not-cheating wife to not-catch in the act. On the corner where he goes the one way and I the other, we linger a moment longer—hands deep in pockets, noses red in the chilly afternoon.
"Next week," he says, "we talk sport. Promise."
I grin because I'm trying to find it funny, but it still come across as much too awkward.
"'S all right," he laughs. "You take care now, yeah?"
"You too," I tell him. "Send Hermione my sympathies."
"Oy! You bugger." For a small moment he pretends to want to chase me down, and I take a few skipping steps backwards—laughing. Ron shakes his head, smiling, then nods a final goodbye. "Cheers, mate."
"Cheers," I reply, lifting my chin as he takes off—rounding the corner, disappearing behind the wall of a hardware store. About now would be the time I turn around as well and walk back home. But today something is off, I guess, because I stand there for a moment longer. When I start making my way back I take the first half dozen steps back still facing the corner, eyeing the store warily. And even when I turn to walk normally I can't help but look back a couple more times. I'm not expecting Ron to reappear or anything, it's not that. It's— I don't know what it is. I look back again and see a middle-aged lady crossing the street. She's in pj bottoms and slippers, holding her dog's leash with one hand and keeping her fur coat close at the chest with the other. I revert my gaze back to the pavement in front of me and don't look back again.
When I pass the lotto kiosk I know I've been walking for three minutes and that Ron's already home. I try to imagine a situation in which he's right, in which I've been talking out of my ass and Hermione's really having an affair. In my mind Hermione and her bohemian/moustached lover have been kissing in a conservative state of complete dress—and also conveniently and inexplicably in the middle of the hallway, feet away from the doorway. Ron would enter with a whooping, unprecedented, 'Honey, I'm—', and upon catching the two immediately drop the briefcase he doesn't own. The couple would freeze, faces simultaneously whipping around in comical amazement. 'Oh my god,' Ron would say, voice getting gradually louder as he remembers that—'Harry was WRONG! Oh my god,' he repeats, getting angry at the one person who is truly to blame for it all. 'I'm gonna kill him! I'm gonna KILL him!' Still in an embrace, Hermione would reply with a, 'Obviously. I've been telling you that for ages, Ron.' 'Yeah,' the bohemian lover pipes in. 'You really should. This Harry guy sounds like a shitty friend, if you ask me.'
But even with that I can't help but seriously considering it for a sober moment. I move on to the bigger consequences, the more interesting ones. Meaning, those that concern me too. It's not that the idea doesn't bother me, that I'm untouched by the notion of my best friends being miserable and doing miserable things—no. It's just that it's hard not to speculate. Their lives are inevitably mine as well, and when you're sharing something that big you learn to consider their possibilities as you would any of your own: with a detached sense of deliberation and a wild imagination that you tell yourself can't hurt anyone.
Whose side will I take, I wonder. Ron or Hermione's? Or will I stay diplomatically neutral? Hear them both out, then stick with Ron anyway because maybe that's just the way we work. Will she move out? He? Will they have to crash at Ginny and mine's, and if yes how long will that take? Will it lead to a divorce, will they be able to work it out and if no—if no, what then? I try to imagine a life in which I'll have to always throw two birthday parties: one for Hermione and her crowd, the other for Ron and his.
I take a hand out of my pocket and graze the mesh of a closed shop with my fingers. The rattling sound isn't loud enough to disturb, but is fun enough to keep on doing every time I pass. I glance at the display of the jewellery store and suddenly wonder where Ginny would be in all of this. When I have my two birthday parties and juggle my social life between my best friends by having to pass on messages to either one through hostile comments such as, 'Well if he's going to be there with his slutty little girlfriend again then I'm bringing my boyfriend. That's right. New boyfriend. Hot, new lawyer boyfriend. And you can tell him that, Harry. Tell him—tell him, no, wait, not a lawyer. An athlete, oooh, tell him I'm dating an athlete, yes. Tell him that.' –Where will Ginny be through all of that?
My mind stunts. It makes another attempt, going deeper this time—pasting on a picture of Ginny in a scene where I'm cleaning up after one of my two parties. It's a moment later when I realise I was just remembering the both of us after our previous Christmas party. It seems silly, really, that I shouldn't be able to do this. I compromise instead and count down the years, as I often do, with an odd sense of accomplishment. I start at twenty: dated for a year, then went on a break. She then went to Brazil, I went and got a job, she came back, we were friends for a year and some. Then we stopped being friends. Dated some more for a while, exact number of months escape me—then went to see some foreign places together for a few pretty seasons. Came back and she moved in with me. Been living together for almost two years.
Yeah. I know. The way I see it is this: when you spend half your life waging wars, there's no way avoiding how the years of peace following will blend into each other in that monotonous lack of dying. Oh, you know the story—yadda yadda, life's a bitch and then you . . . well. Live it, I guess.
And is she happy? I'm not sure, actually. She doesn't cry. She doesn't sigh a lot, or droop her shoulders when she sits. I hope she's happy. I mean, I know when she has a bad day—she tells me about that, sure, but on the whole . . . I guess there are just some things we've silently agreed not to talk about.
Thinking back to how we were before, the days at school—before the war and then some time after—it's all a bit of a blur. It seems like a relationship that couldn't have possibly been the beginning of this one. It looks the same, all right, the appropriate people fulfilling the proper roles, but the hopes and fears that kept us together back then have by now disappeared into time and new experiences, new opportunities and everything else that comes with growing up. The week her mother stopped wearing black was the week Ginny moved out, and I remember her showing up at my doorstep with the suitcases. I'd thought she was going to ask if she could move in. Instead she asked if I went with to Brazil. I'd stared for a dumbfounded moment before answering, "Uhh . . . no?" She'd smiled at that, kissing me on the lips with the easy familiarity we'd managed to make for ourselves. "Listen," she'd said. "When I come back, there will be no more mourning."
And she was right. The small years we'd spent together after the war, nights lying back to back thinking about the people who weren't there in the room with us, mysteriously dissolved in the tan and bottled warmth she'd brought back from South America. I would laugh into the crook of her neck as we'd roll around on the kitchen floor after one of her failed attempts at making a traditional meal. There'd be food in my hair where she'd smeared it because I made fun of her crappy dinner and when she'd arch up in laughter at one of the lame remarks I'd mumble into her shoulder, I'd still be able to taste the spices on her skin.
But that was a long time ago. Her tan has been gone for years, as is the one I—on my turn—had nurtured in the incisive sun of the Middle East. We are not yet old, but we are older. There are no longer spices on her skin, and she no longer finds old sand in the pockets of my jeans. We are not worse than we were at a time, or better. We are just different. Quieter, perhaps. At ease.
It's with the fond memory of waking up slowly in a hotel room in old Jerusalem, a sleepy Ginny humming a morning tune into my chest, that I abruptly turn on my heel. I jog back a while and am slightly out of breath when I get to where I want to be. When I push open the door to the jewellery store there's a bell telling me I've walked in and a man behind a glass counter with a gentle smile.
"Yes," he says after a moment's observation. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah," I say, swallowing. "Wedding rings. D'you have those?"
2. THE MARRIAGE PROPOSAL
and also the weirdest fucking ending to an era I've ever witnessed
So somewhere between my asking Ginny to marry me and the morning that followed, the faecal matter hit our in-built air-conditioner unit. This is how it happens:
I'm in the kitchen and I'm making dinner. Somehow, despite having grown up in a home where cooking served as the main solution to all man's problems (from "You feel fluish? No problem, I make you soup." –to— "She broke up with you and ran away with a Norwegian midget? No worries! I make you soup."), Ginny still managed to come away unbothered by all things food. After some harmless teasing on my part there have been a couple of attempts, all of which ended in tears of either laughter or physical pain. The idea of a cooking Ginny has long since been abandoned and I, with my superior knowledge of bacon and eggs, have been appointed as the Operator of Stove.
The carrots are being cut, the fire is being adjusted, and my hands are sweating profusely in their grip on the kitchen tools. There's a box burning in my pocket, not big but large enough to bulge against my leg with incessant, needy chaffs for attention.
Ginny starts talking the moment she walks into the house. The gust of air waving in from the hall is accompanied by a loud, "Oooh oohohoh so cooooold!"
I hear her trampling about as she toes off her shoes and sheds her equipment bags in a trail toward the kitchen. It's all energy and grassy smells when she shuffles into the room on socks, a comical jig to her step. She comes up from behind, giving me a hug and inhaling my neck. Her nose is ice cold, and I flinch with a laughing yelp.
"Hello," she says when I turn to give her a quick kiss. "You're warm."
"You're freezing," I reply.
She laughs and rubs a hand over my sweater. A conclusion of sorts comes with two pats to my back, and then she's at my side—lifting up to sit on the counter. She steals a carrot to munch and I ask,
She grins. "I'm ravishing."
"Yeah." I give her a sideway smile. "S'almost ready, anyway."
"Want me to set the table?" Before I can answer she's on her feet again, collecting a set of plates and contemplating the mess that is our dining table. And as she puts down the plates on a chair and literally shoves the clutter of newspapers, random notes and blueprints to the other side of the table—making for a small mountain of chaos—she tells me about her day.
"So we were supposed to have the field from half eight to three. Remember I told you? Practice from half eight to three, I said, didn't I? I know I did, because that's what they told us. So we get there, right, it's half-past on the dot—we're there, and we want to go on the field, and as I walk onto the grass I notice these two guys in these . . . motor things, I don't know, whatever, but they're driving back and forth over the field and when I get on the grass they start shouting at me. Lady! Lady! Get off the grass! And I'm like, You get off the grass! So one of them comes over and tells me that they're doing this grass treatment something. To get the grass healthier." She turns to me to show me the face of incredulous amazement she undoubtedly pulled when the guy told her this. I reply with a face of mock-impression. She continues, "I know, right! So I ask him, Well, how long is this going to take, this grass beautifying whatever? And he tells me it's going to take an hour. And I tell him that that's crazy. That we booked the field from half past—that it's our time, right, we paid for it. And he tells me, Well lady, we're getting paid for this, so—"
The plates are on the table, and I move around with pans, putting them on the table with gentleness that might imply tonight is Special. Ginny does not seem to take notice. She perches herself on her chair, still gnawing on the carrot and keeps on talking.
"—and by the time we get on there they'd done something to the ground that made it so muddy we had to bloody wade through the field before we could get in the air. Got kicked off by Mackay, as well. Landed smack dab in a big blubbery pool of this nasty—"
She piles a healthy portion of everything onto her plate and immediately starts eating, talking through a mouthful. I watch her and know that I should probably eat something too, if at least to build up some sort of oh-and-you-thought-it-was-just-gonna-be-a-normal-dinner! feel to it. But food doesn’t seem to agree with me at the moment and so I listen to her—
"—had to shower bloody twice before I got all that shit out my hair, and I'm talking some serious dreadlock action—"
—for a small while longer before I can see that, Okay, there's no way I'll be able to sit through another minute of this. It needs to happen now. It's Ginny, my Ginny, my only-girl-I've-ever-loved Ginny, and still I'm nervous as hell. I don't know why, exactly. As conceited as it sounds, I can't imagine her saying no. There was never really the subject of us not ending up doing just this. Wasn't it always just a matter of time until either of us asked the other? It's just that it's been us, the two of us, for so long the idea of anything else doesn't seem plausible at all. It's just a formality, I think. There's no way this can go wrong, I think. Just do it, I tell myself. Do it. Do it, do it, do it, do—
"Ginny?" I cut her off mid-sentence. She looks up with a friendly enough expression, brows raised when she replies with a,
"I want—Can I ask you something?"
"Sure." And then, when a pause follows, "Go on then."
"Okay." I shift in my chair, licking my lips. "We've . . ." No. Wrong. Try again. "Ever since I can remember . . ." Oh, even worse. I close my eyes and cringe a little at the way these words won't work for me. I decide to take the easy road instead, and dig inside my pocket for the box. My hands are trembling when I put it on the table and shift it toward her, as if I'd just jotted down a number to the business proposal of our lives and was handing it over for a final conformation.
She watches it as I move it, and continues to watch it long after I have taken away my hand. Awkwardly, she swallows down her food and continues to watch the box. When, eventually, she grabs it with a slinking movement—like one might with cards on a poker table—I am very tempted to say, 'Deal?' the moment after she opens it.
The silence that follows seems to buzz in my ears. My heart is thumping like nothing else, and it's doing it all over the place. My throat, my head, my fingers—it's going bananas. I lean forward a little, in case her answer will come as a whisper and I'll have to strain to hear it.
"Harry," she says at length, looking down at the thing. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
I let out a breathy laugh that's not yet relief. "You think?"
"Okay." Ginny puts the box on the table again and looks up at me with an unreadable expression. "Okay. Well. Just to be clear here, Harry, are you giving me this ring in a, 'oh girlfriend, what a fine finger you have, allow me to adorn it' kind of way, or is this a . . . different kind?"
"Different," I say almost immediately. "I mean, special. Er. Specialer."
After this there's no response from the other side of the table. Ginny just sort of looks at me, or perhaps at something that's behind me, and I cleverly take this as a sign to either elaborate or to do it again—better. So I lean closer, lifting off the seat a bit. I'm nearly sprawled over the tabletop when I say, "D'you wanna get married?" And then, as a quick afterthought, "To me?"
"Oh, God," she says. "Oh God."
"No, just Harry. Oh Harry." I plump back into my chair. "'Oh Harry, yes' was, actually, the response I was going for. But," I give a weak smile, "y'know. Close enough."
And then it comes: "Oh, Harry."
No concrete yes to follow. I know it then. I know so hard it stiffens my blood as I sit there, ready to plead my case and not take no for an answer—but still, knowing it. Something bad is on the verge of happening.
"Ginny," I remind myself who I'm dealing with. And then, wondering, "What?"
She rakes her teeth over her lip. It's not particularly cute, the way she does this. It's like she's trying to suck in her chin, push her mouth over the dip of her lip as far as it would go. Then she bares her teeth, pulling them back with a nervous grimace. I've seen her do this. She did it last week when I made a bowel-movement joke. She's doing it now when I'm asking her to marry me, too.
"What's that?" I ask. "What's that face? What does that face mean?"
She looks away and mutters, "Shit."
"Shit," I repeat. "I'm supposed to take that as a no, right?"
"No? No to the no, or no to the yes?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I—" Her face disappears in her hands. "Fuck."
"And now you've face-palmed yourself," I state. "Okay. So. You don't want to get married. That's—okay, then."
Her arms drop, and she looks up again—eyes reddish from having rubbed them. "Would you give me a moment here before you start, Harry? I mean, for fuck's sake . . ." She weaves a chuckle into her last words, incredulously.
I slump in my seat. "Sorry. I just . . . I'm a bit surprised. I guess I thought it'd be a no-brainer."
"You're surprised? You're the one asking, Harry! You had the advantage of considering every possible outcome. I'm the one being ambushed here."
"Ambushed?" I smile, stunned. "I'm asking you to marry me, not sticking a flag in your ear and claiming you mine."
Ginny isn't amused, and is serious when she gets right to it. "Do you, though?" And then, spurred on by my confused expression, "Do you really want to marry me? I mean, to have a wedding and everything, dress up and vows and saying yes forever and all, yeah?"
I laugh, a bit incredulously. "That's the general idea, yeah. That's what I'm getting at, Ginny. I want you to—"
"And do you also want to be married to me?"
I don't understand this question. "Obviously," I say on a breath, dropping my shoulders.
"Obvious? You think?" She scratches her eyebrow nervously, considering some words. "How about kids? D'you wanna have those?"
"Uh." I glance around me as if this is a stupid thing to ask, and other people might be around to agree with me. "Yeah. Sure I want to have kids."
"D'you want to raise them with me?"
"Ginny. What are you—"
"Yes! Of course I do."
"And when that's done, what then? Kids are gone. Out of the house. We're old. Do you still want to be with me then?"
I'm slightly exasperated when I say, "Yes, Ginny."
"What about when I'm a granny?"
"Jesus, Ginny, yes. Yes. Even when you're a—"
"So what you're saying is you want to be married to me from now till all eternity."
I blink at this, convinced it's some sort of trick question. Slowly, I say it again, "Yes . . ."
"Okay. Wonderful. Why."
"Yeah. Why." In the pause that follows she looks at her fingers as they play about the edge of the table, and the air of sudden insecurity about her stuns me a little. "Why do you want to . . ."
"Because," I start, determinedly. "Because . . ."
She looks up, already resigned in her way. I think that maybe there's something hopeful in her take of breath, but I could be imagining it.
"Look," I say instead. "I can't promise that we'll always feel the same. But right now, the way it is now, I just don't ever want to lose—"
"What is it then?" she interrupts with a meek smile. "That we're feeling, according to you. What are you feeling?"
I shift, uncomfortable by the excessive use of the word feel. "Well. I . . ." I sigh, running weary fingers over my eyes. "I love you."
Ginny's unfazed and immediately retaliates. "How much?"
"How much? What d'you mean, like, in litres?"
"Harry," she says, softly. "Just . . . can't you tell me something? Anything, about your love for me?"
This silences me for a few long moments. My breaths are low in my chest and there, around the walls of my insides, are the beginnings of a peculiar kind of tummy ache. I try to reflect on my feelings for Ginny, but get no further than mentally pinpointing the exact place in my chest where I sense the thought of her. "Just because," I start, "I don't have the words . . . doesn't mean . . ."
"But these are not just any words," she replies with a patient expression, making me feel like I'm out of my depths on this subject and maybe a bit stupid. "This is not you trying to find a rhyme for purple. These are—" She swallows. "The words. The—the important ones, Harry."
At a loss for what to say, I turn it around. "Do you have them, then?" I ask, voice thick and hostile in hurting. "D'you have words?"
"And . . . it's not enough."
"What does that even mean, it's not enough?"
"It means, Harry, that I love you because . . ." She takes a shaky breath. "Because I've always loved you a little. It's all I've ever—it's all either of us has ever done. It's like . . . this is the only possibility, and that's not enough of a reason. We don't even know any better."
"Any better? Any BETTER?"
"You know what I mean."
"I don't, actually." I laugh, incredulously. "I honestly have no fucking clue what it is you mean, Ginny."
She stares at me, hard, letting me know that she's onto me. That she knows that I'm lying, that I'm just trying to make her say the words so that I can feel even sorrier for myself. And to be fair, she is much braver than me when she does it—despite knowing what it'll make her look like, being the one saying it out loud.
"I don't want to just be with you because I know you won't leave me." And then, with a bitter smile that curls through the trembling of her chin, "Yeah? Clear enough for you?"
It is. It's clear enough for me. And now the atmosphere in our happy little kitchen has dwindled into something stale, a rusty sort of feeling—like the one you get when coming home after a long vacation, and everything smells a little bit odd and foreign. You say to yourself, 'Man, the whole place's stanching of mould', even though you know it's the same smell, and that it's you who carries the scents of a different country.
Our dinner is still warm, which is odd. How come barely any time has passed? That always astounds me, how weirdly quick changes take place. A blur of colours and shapes flies by and you go, Is that a bird? A plane? No! It's Captain Breakup, here to kick the shit out of your life.
There are a lot of things I want to say, and even more thing I never want to say again. I settle for, "So how long have we been having these big thoughts, then?"
"I dunno." Her voice is weak, breaking. "Since the summer, I guess."
"You didn't tell me."
"Did you ask?"
"I didn't think it was relevant. I thought we were doing okay."
"We were," she says. "We were definitely okay. It's just . . . maybe that's not—"
"Enough," I finish for her. "Yeah. I get it."
In the heavy silence that follows I gaze at countertop, looking at nothing and thinking abstract thoughts of how I'm going to tell this to people. Then I realise I don't even know what to tell, and so I ask, "What now, then?"
"I don't know."
"Are we done, though? I mean. What's the use if we're not . . . if you don't . . ."
"I don't know, Harry."
"Geez," I reply, sarcastically. "You haven't really thought this break-up thing through, have you?"
Ginny is the better person, though, and diplomatically ignores me. She says, "I think I'll stay somewhere else for a while. It's—late, now, but tomorrow I'll . . ."
That's the moment when I realise what is happening, and that it might just be permanent this time around. And just like that, all pretence is gone and I am ripe for the begging. "Don't go," I tell her. "Ginny, please, don't go."
She makes a face, a difficult one with closed eyes. "I am going to go," she tells me, and herself too. "It'll be better. Maybe we just—need time."
"We can have time here!" I reason. "We'll take the week off and—I don't know, talk. Work it out. This is just—doubt, or some kind of mid-life, quarter-life, crisis sort of—I don't know! Come on, Ginny. Seven years. Seven. We can't just—" I grapple for some solid statement, something final, something made to change minds. "Please don't just leave me alone in this place."
Even Ginny can't bear to watch me in this state. She looks away and it's as if I haven't said anything at all when she retorts with a, "I think it'll be best if I sleep in the spare room tonight."
I drop my head onto the table. The clunk and the dull throb are nice. "Ginnyyyyy," I whine. "Pleeeeeaase."
Her chair scrapes the floor, and I can feel her frame tower not too far from me. For a brief moment her hand brushes my hair, her fingers hesitating in their movement and regretful almost immediately. I make a desperate, groaning sound and she leaves the kitchen. Some time later I hear her start up the stairs, and not too much later there's the sound of someone dragging a guest-bed across the landing—from the closet to the room on the other end.
That night I can't even bear to go up and sleep in our room. I settle for the couch, where I watch TV and weep during the Unicef commercial. I weep for the kids in Africa because they're hungry, for the kids in Asia because they didn't ask for it, for the kids in Britain for being obese and those in Greenland for being so fucking cold—and because I couldn't give a shit about the kids, they just remind me of me. Then I weep because I remember a time when I used to really care about all the kids all over the world. By the time a car commercial comes on and I cry for the gear-stick, I turn off the TV. I wipe off the snot on one of the cushions and drag myself up the stairs with limp feet and dangling arms. I join Ginny on the camp bed in the spare room, and I tell her how much I love her. "So much," I say. "So much." But it's too little, too late—I guess. Also maybe not the right sentiment. We make love on the squeaky, rickety thing and it threatens to clamp close on us any given moment.
When I wake up the next morning Ginny is not there or in any other room. There is a note on the coffee table with an address of a friend, and the request to call only in the case of emergencies. 'X', it says. 'Ginny.'
So I turn on the TV and shed some tears over a £39,99 lettuce drier.
3. THE FIRST STEP TO BEING A GOOD PERSON IS ADMITTING YOU SUCK
which isn't a very spectacular beginning, but as good as any (plus it has homeless people)
It's all very dramatic until Ron shows up toward the evening. He bangs on the door incisively even though I'm shouting, "Hold your fucking horses, man, I'm coming!"
I'm in boxers and a house coat, and—okay, I look a little gruffy with my beer in hand and unwashed hair, but altogether not entirely unlike how I usually look on a day off. I feel like shit, sure, but I look normal enough. Yet Ron—out of breath, leaning against the doorframe and I think he's been running—looks up at me and says,
"You look horrible."
"Thanks," I say. "You're sweating like pig."
Ron tries to reply but is still catching his breath. He holds up a hand, instructing me to give him a moment to recover. I shake my head at him, gravely, and mutter,
"So I guess you know."
He leans his head against his upraised arm, on the fame, and eventually manages, "Ginny stopped by." Then, shrugging into a standing position, "Thought we'd best hear it first-hand."
I stare at his feet for a moment then turn around, walking into the house. "D'you wanna beer?" I ask as he follows.
"Yeah, brilliant," he says, toeing the door close behind him.
We walk to the kitchen and I dig into the fridge for a beer. He leans against the counter, eyeing table warily. I still haven't cleared it since last night.
"Listen," he says after I hand him the beer, after he's taken a healthy swig. "This is really bothering me, so I'm just gonna come out and ask it, okay?"
"Shoot," I tell him.
"Was it what I said?"
"What I said, yesterday." He looks at me seriously, worriedly. "About Ginny and all. Being happy. Did . . . did it have anything to do with why you broke it off w—"
"—Woah, woah!" I lift my bottle to the words, halting him as grandly as I can. "What the hell did Ginny tell you, Ron?"
He blinks at me, swallowing a little nervously. "Well. She—I dunno exactly. I heard, and then I . . ." He pauses to go over the encounter in his head before remembering that—"She said that she'd be staying at Hannah's for the time being, and that if we wanted to contact her . . ."
I slump back against the fridge, rolling the cool beer against my forehead. "I didn't break it off, Ron."
"Then why . . ."
"She's the one who left, isn't she?" I glance at him. "Ask her."
"Oh." He inspects his bottle, fiddling with the label. "So it . . . it had nothing to do with . . ."
I laugh, genuinely amused. "No, Ron. It had nothing to do with you."
"Good," he exhales, relieved. "I mean, not good, of course. But—" He cuts himself short, looking away. He breathes in, awkwardly, and says, "So what d'you do?"
"Asked her to marry me."
Ron snorts. I look up immediately, quick to tell him that, "I'm serious. I asked her to marry me and she said no. And left."
Ron isn't convinced. He holds my gaze for a quiet moment and then, when I don't break and tell him I'm kidding, he goes—"What?"
I sigh, shuffling across the kitchen to flop into Ginny's chair. The ring is still there, on the table edge, so I pick it up and throw it at Ron. He catches it clumsily, and on inspecting it pulls a face that's a vague mix of disgust and amazement.
"When did this happen? I just—I bloody talked to you yesterday!"
"Yeah," I say. "I bought it on the way back home."
He's silent for a baffled moment, still looking at it. "Well how the hell did you go about asking her?" And then, slowly looking up, "You didn't use the word 'wifey', did you?"
I nudge the dinner plate with the end of my bottle and chuckle a bit. "What a mess, eh? Never saw it coming." I think about it and say it again, "Never saw it coming."
Ron, from his side of the kitchen, "Yeah. I hear you, mate."
Neither of us say anything for a while, and I don't know what Ron's thinking about but I know that my mind is still reeling with the new sense of doubt that yesterday has given me.
"Hey," I say, my beer tapping a random tune on the table. "D'you think we used to be better?"
"I was watching the telly yesterday," I explain. "And this commercial came on. With kids. You know, all bloated tummies and dirt, flies around the eyes and—I honestly, genuinely, could not give a shit. All I could think about was how shitty my life was, and how my girlfriend was leaving me and—"
"Harry," Ron laughs. "You know that's normal, right?"
"Is it? I don't know. I didn't used to be like that. I used to care. As in, a lot. About everyone. About you being happy, and Hermione and Ginny and—All the time, no matter how shitty a day I was having. I used to have . . . this . . . goal . . ."
"Yeah. We all did, didn't we? Der. Saving the world. And we did that. We did that pretty well, if you ask me, and now as a reward we get to get worked up over stupid things like our girlfriends breaking up with us, just like normal people. Which is good news." He pauses. "I mean, obviously it's not good, but . . ."
"I think that's just it, though. We did good with the saving and all, which is brilliant, and then we sort of sat back and went—Well, thank God that's over. Sort of washed our hands of it. The good, and all." I put my bottle on the table, propping an elbow on the surface and supporting my chin with a hand. I don't look at Ron when I add, "Sort of didn't bother with The Good anymore after that, did we?"
"Harry, is this . . . Does this have to do with Ginny, or—"
"Yes. No. I don't know." I cover my face with the hand I'm leaning on. "Maybe. Maybe if I'd cared more, Ginny would've felt less . . . you know. Maybe I'm just . . . I don't know. I mean, don't you ever miss it? Being a hero?"
"Miss it, mate?" He smiles at this, and I watch him from between my fingers. "It's not a membership you need to renew every few years. You're either it or you're not."
I freeze. My hand drops and I look at him, struck. "What?"
"What?" he repeats, wary of my sudden reaction.
"Membership," I say, not to anyone in particular. "Renew the . . ."
"That's what I said," Ron confirms. "It's not a—"
"No, no." I hold up a hand, quieting him. "It is."
"You're wrong," I tell him. "It is a membership. You do need to renew it. Of course. You can't just be good once and. . . . You need to . . ."
"Harry," he says, cautiously. "Please, do not—"
"Shht," I shush, frowning in thought. "Hold on. I'm thinking."
"No. Harry. Stop thinking. Don't—"
I got it. I have it. I have it, I have it, I have it. I stand up so quickly I send the chair toppling backward, and Ron jumps up in alarm as I march out of the kitchen, my mind full of cataclysms. I set for the cabinet in the living room, the one with all the drawers, the one Ginny found out on the street years ago and insisted on incorporating into our interior design. I pull on handles and it takes me a couple of drawers until I find the papers and the pens, but when I do I'm a flurry of energy on my way to the couch. I sit down and scramble with the stationary on the coffee table, and there I begin writing.
"Oh God," Ron says, looking over my shoulder. "Somehow, in the end, this will all end up being my fault." He leans into the back of the couch, burying his head in the upholstery and muttering, "It is. I know it. I know—"
"Shu'up," I distractedly throw in his direction, not wanting to look up from my paper. He groans in reply. I write on.
"Yeah, uhm." He pushes himself from behind the couch with a sigh. "Obviously, I'm in over my head here. So . . . I'm gonna take off now. And send Hermione. Whose jurisdiction is to deal with you going nutty."
"Yeah, yeah," I say, vaguely waving him away. "Go. Gogo."
I lean closer to my paper and wildly scratch out a wrongly phrased sentence.
I forget to add a pronoun and need to go back and scribble it on a separate line, adding an arrow to its supposed placement. I hear Ron sigh behind me, dramatically.
"Fine," he says.
"Bye," I sing-a-song in a mumble.
His stamps his steps toward the door, and barks out a loud, "Thanks for the beer" before shutting the door behind him with unnecessary force. I push my glasses up my nose with the back of my hand and add the final touches to what will undoubtedly change my life as I know it. I can just feel it—I am absolutely sure of it.