In the small, picturesque churchyard, Ginny swallows the thick lump in her throat as she watches the coffin being lowered into the moist earth.
Another day, another funeral, it seems, even though it's been almost two years now since the last one she attended.
It never gets any easier, however, especially when death arrived so utterly unexpected.
Up until a week ago, everyone believed that Augusta Longbottom was indestructible, that she'd probably outlive them all and dance at her two-hundredth birthday party.
No one had a clue that she'd been ill for a long time, suffering from a waxing and waning disease that finally took its toll six days ago.
She had decided to keep it a secret, even from her devastated grandson. She did hate it so when people fussed over her, and furthermore, she would have never accepted anyone's assistance, not without putting up an impressive fight, never mind being told by well-meaning acquaintances too take it easy. She was far too proud.
Ginny sighs. She glances around the graveyard, impressed by the number of people who've shown up; they barely fitted into the small parish church earlier.
Briefly, her eyes meet Harry's. It's the first time she sees him since their break-up seven months ago. It was an amicable enough separation, with no hard feelings on either side—her mother was probably more upset about it than Ginny herself was—but they'd both changed too much over the course of the past few years to remain close friends.
He's doing Auror training now. He was accepted into the programme easily, even despite his shoddy eyesight and small stature. Ginny doesn't fully comprehend why he'd even wish to continue battling Dark wizards—one would gather he'd done enough of that in his formative years—but perhaps it's the only kind of life he knows and wants, now. Sometimes, somewhere along the way, the line between habit and choice becomes a bit blurred.
Harry nods at her. She gives him a small smile in response. She knows full well that this is the only kind of communication they'll have today, and she's not at all disappointed by that realisation; she has moved on, and in some ways, she's no longer the girl who once fell in love with him.
When the ceremony is over, she goes over to give Neville her heartfelt condolences. A hug seems too awkward, a bit pushy and rather inappropriate—although he definitely looks like he could use one—so she shakes his hand instead. She can't help but notice that he's as pale as a sheet. He looks incredibly tired, too, with bags under his eyes. She recognises the vast emptiness in his gaze. She knows only too well how he must be feeling; she felt the same way when Fred died.
She still feels like that, sometimes.
"If there's anything we can do to help, love," Molly says, placing a comforting hand on Neville's shoulder. "Remember we're only a Floo call away."
Neville nods in response, but it's impossible to tell whether he has even heard her.
Two uneventful weeks pass and all too often, Ginny's thoughts drift to Neville at his gran's funeral. She cannot get the image out of her head of how terrible he looked, so lost and drained, almost like a shadow of his former self. Her heart breaks every time she recalls the sombre expression on his usually cheerful face.
As far as she knows, no one has either seen him or heard from him since they said goodbye after the ceremony. It's a fact which worries her greatly, even though her family members are quick to brush off her concerns.
"I'm sure we'll hear from him when he's good and ready," Ron says. "He's probably up to his neck in paperwork at the moment; so much to settle and organise, as if the death of someone close to you isn't bad enough, the parchment-pushers have to hassle you as well."
"Or he'd rather be alone right now," Molly chimes in, sounding more understanding than her youngest son. "Some people deal differently with grief than others. Remember how Charlie barely spoke for weeks after Fred…?" She gives a wan smile and repeats, in a softer tone, "After Fred."
Ginny frowns. She's not convinced by either explanation, but then she'd rather not continue this conversation either, not after Fred has been mentioned. The fact that they lost him so suddenly, so unfairly, still hurts, and no doubt will continue to do so for a very long time.
Still, she can't help thinking about this saying Muggles have, this line about a prophet and a mountain and the former doing the walking because the latter won't budge.
She decides there and then that she'll visit Neville the following morning, and if he doesn't want to see her, if he truly wants to be alone, he's more than welcome to tell her to sod off.
Not that she expects him to do anything of the sort, though. Not Neville. He's one of the kindest people she knows.
Ginny bangs the heavy lion doorknocker against the solid oak of the front door, uncertain what to expect.
It probably won't be a warm reception, she reckons. Maybe Neville isn't even in.
He calls on his parents at St Mungo's regularly, or at least, he used to a few months ago, according to Luna. After Hogwarts, the two of them kept in touch, and they probably correspond via International Owl Post now that Luna is assisting her father with some very important research in Venezuela.
Not getting any reaction whatsoever, Ginny knocks two more times. She is just about to leave again when she suddenly hears stumbling noises inside the house.
Finally, the door opens and she finds herself standing face to face with an unshaven, tired looking Neville. His appearance is even more disconcerting now, she's shocked to realise, than it was a few weeks ago, and she can't but wonder, growing increasingly concerned as well as angrier by the minute, why none of them visited him sooner. He doesn't deserve to be left to his own devices like this.
"Oh. Hello, Ginny," he says, and gives her a small, almost apologetic smile. He's clearly stunned to see her, but to her relief, doesn't ask what she's doing there. I was worried about you, would have been such an awkward thing to say, and she didn't much fancy making up some lame excuse; at the end of the day, a white lie is still a lie, no matter how well-intended.
"Morning, Neville," she replies. She doesn't enquire how he's doing—the answer to that is painfully obvious already—but instead asks, "Can I come in?"
"Er, sure," he mumbles awkwardly, moving aside to let her through. "Careful you don't trip over anything, though. I've been, er, sorting through gran's stuff and well, there's loads."
"All right," she says, carefully stepping around a cardboard box before making her way into the living room.
She almost gasps when she sets eyes on all the stuff laid out there: anything from clothes to porcelain statues to tea sets has been placed on tables, chairs, the parquet floor, anywhere Neville could find a free spot, it seems.
"Gran wanted it all to go to charity," Neville explains. "She'd made a very detailed will. So, yeah, I've been filling boxes, one at a time. We don't have an elf anymore, you see. Didn't really need one. Gran liked her independence and they used to argue about the cooking. I could use magic, I suppose, but with the breakables…" He gives another wan smile. "My levitation spells tend to become less reliable once I get tired, and I'd hate to damage something she kept stored away with care for so long, you know?"
Ginny nods slowly, and takes a deep breath. 'Loads of stuff' is an understatement if ever she heard one. This looks like a hopeless task, one that will take him ages, especially if he has to tackle it alone and in such a clearly chaotic manner as he's doing. If they started with just the clothes, put them in bags, and drop them off at… What are those Muggle stores called—Oxfair? Oxfam?
Whatever the case, once the clothes have been sorted, the tableware is next, and then…
"Would you like some help with all this?" she blurts out, gesturing around the room.
"S-Some help? R-Really?" he stammers, his eyes wide.
She smiles. "Sure. It'll be quicker and more efficient when there's two of us."
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah. Sure. Thanks. That'd be great!"
"Right, then," she says, purposefully striding towards a pile of what look like crocheting magazines. "What are the plans for this lot?"
A few hours later, the magazines have been packed neatly into two large boxes that'll be shipped to a Muggle retirement home first thing in the morning. Ginny promised she'd see to that.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, however. When Ginny glances around the living room, it still looks like it's about to burst at the seams. Nodding to herself, she decides that the clothes will be dealt with next. It's a good thing Augusta kept so many boxes up in the attic, and if those aren't sufficient, there are still some stacked at the back of George's shop as well.
George's shop. Ginny sighs softly to herself. It's weird to no longer think of that place as the twins', and she supposes Neville must be having similar thoughts right now—this house is probably a lot less of a home without his grandmother around.
Ginny vaguely wonders what'll happen to the place, especially now that Neville is planning on accepting a teaching position at Hogwarts, follow in Professor Sprout's footsteps after her retirement.
Time will tell.
Ginny takes a deep breath and heads towards the first pile of clothes, soft woollen winter jumpers in all possible colours.
She pulls another large box closer and carefully starts to put the garments in it, one by one. Across from her on the floor, Neville does the same.
They've been working diligently for a good fifteen minutes and are already on their second box when suddenly, Ginny's stomach grumbles, the sound embarrassingly loud in the otherwise silent room.
"Oops," she says, grinning. "Sorry about that."
Smiling, Neville glances at the large clock that hangs above the mantel. "Blimey, it's almost seven already."
"Oh?" Ginny blinks. "Well, no wonder I'm hungry, then."
"I er…" Neville lets out a nervous cough. "I'd offer you something to eat, but there isn't much… I mean, I haven't had a chance to do any shopping yet this week. All I've got are biscuits." He wrings his hands, clearly growing more uncomfortable by the minute. "I reckon they should still be okay, though. The biscuits, I mean…"
Ginny's eyes widen. "Neville," she says, sounding as concerned as she feels, "when did you last eat?"
"Er." Neville frowns, then replies, "I had some tea this morning."
"Tea," Ginny repeats grimly. "Right." She doesn't mean to sound so much like her mother—honestly, she doesn't—but she can't help how furious this new discovery makes her. A small part of her anger is directed at Neville, but mostly she could kick herself, and his other so-called friends, for not checking on him any sooner. Did they all really expect the poor bloke to be able to cope on his own? Sure, he has a strong sprit, he's a grown man now and not helpless by any means, but Augusta was the only family he had, the only one he could rely on. Now all he has left are his parents, and they're as seriously ill as they ever were; they don't even know what's happened.
"Okay," Ginny finally says when the silence begins to linger and Neville is starting to look a bit guilty, too, while he shouldn't feel bad about this, not at all. She plasters a smile on her face and adds in a cheerful tone, "I suppose that means we'll go out to eat, doesn't it?"
Neville blinks. "Out?" He appears nothing short of horrified by the idea. "But people…" He seems like he's ashamed of what he's about to admit, but he needn't spell it out. Ginny understands what the problem is; he'd rather not go out and risk bumping into someone he knows. People, though well meaning, can be so bloody insensitive with their words of sympathy and supposed wisdom.
"There's this Muggle place I know," she tells him. "It's nothing posh, don't worry, just this fish-and-chips shop Harry once took me when we were still dating.
"Ah." Neville's face brightens considerably. "That sounds all right. And I am pretty peckish." As if on cue, his stomach grumbles, too, causing them both to laugh. Ginny wonders when the last time was that he actually laughed.
"Maybe you should change first, though," Ginny suggests carefully. "Into something less… wizardly? We wouldn't want to stand out. Do you have regular trousers?"
Ten minutes later, when he reappears in jeans, a T-shirt and trainers, Ginny finds herself doing a slight double take. She isn't one who goes by looks, usually—pretty boys are often vain and boring—but there's no denying that Neville has only got better looking in recent years.
"Right," she says and holds out her arm. "Off we go, then."
Her last thought, before they both disappear with a soft pop, is that this might just be the first time Neville ventures outside this house in two weeks.
Seated on a stool by the front window overlooking the busy High Street, Ginny picks another chip off the greasy paper and lifts it to her mouth.
Sitting here like this with Neville next to her almost seems like a date, her first date since her break-up with Harry.
Except, of course, it's nothing of the sort. She's only helping out a friend, a dear friend.
It's funny, though, she suddenly realises, how Neville has turned out to be so easy to talk to. Ginny wonders when he came to be such interesting company, or had he been this way all along and did she just never notice because her entire world revolved around Harry Potter?
That was a mistake. Ginny willingly admits it now. The way she clung to Harry so fiercely, only focusing on his safety and happiness, often at the cost of her own dreams and ambitions… It was neither wise nor healthy.
Whenever someone asks her what she'd like to do with the rest of her life, Ginny never has any answers, because she truthfully hasn't the faintest idea anymore. She used to consider Quidditch as a possible future career, but she gradually lost interest somewhere along the way, scarcely kept up with training anymore and besides, when Fred…
Losing one of her brothers left her increasingly reluctant to leave home. She didn't want to be too far away from her family anymore, and assuming the Quidditch plans worked out, there would have been a lot of travelling involved, constantly, all over the world, and here and now, Ginny's quite certain she couldn't handle that sort of thing anymore. Even after a day, her nerves would be shattered.
Still, she knows she has to go out and find some kind of job, or perhaps further her education if she can think of something she'd like to study. She can't keep idly sitting around at the Burrow forever, no matter how understanding her parents may be about it. She has to get on with her life; she's more aware of that than anyone.
"I could come back tomorrow, Neville," she says, forcing herself to concentrate on the present moment again. "To help you tackle some more stuff. If you'd like?"
"Yeah," he replies between two mouthfuls of cod. "That'd be great. Thanks, Gin."
She smiles, thinking that today has ended far better than it begun, and hopefully Neville feels the same.
When Ginny returns the following morning, the front door swings open before she has even knocked.
"Hello," Neville says, smiling widely and almost sounding like a completely different person from the one she called on twenty-four hours ago. "You're nice and early. I just brought down a few more boxes."
"Great." Ginny smiles back. She's pleasantly surprised that Neville is wearing jeans again. He has even shaved. "So," she continues. "Let's get started, then!"
A few hours, a couple of full boxes and a tasty sandwich lunch later—the fully stocked fridge seemed like another small miracle—they come across some old books at the back of a dusty shelf.
"Oh," Neville says softly. "Wow. I'd forgotten all about these."
He sits down on the floor and flips open one of the albums. Plopping down next to him, Ginny stares at the picture that has caught his attention. A young, dark-haired woman with rosy cheeks is smiling widely at the camera. Sitting next to her on the sofa, a round-faced man with glasses is bouncing a small, giggling child on his knee.
"My parents," Neville explains in a sombre tone, "before they…"
Ginny nods slowly. This is all too familiar. She remembers going through family albums, herself, and looking at pictures of Fred and George. In one, they were throwing magical snowballs at random passers-by, while another depicted them covered in baking flour because they'd wanted to impress their mum on her birthday. Discoveries like this are always bittersweet.
"We'll put those in a different box, shall we?" Ginny suggests, pretending not to notice Neville's embarrassment when his eyes begin to moisten. "And maybe you can buy a special trunk for them some day? Then they'll be stored away safely and you can look at them whenever you like."
"All right," he mumbles.
With that, an odd, stinging sort of silence sets in, but it dissipates quickly at their next find: a batch of romance novels Augusta probably never would have admitted to have read.
Unable to stop herself, Ginny roars with laughter at the clichéd illustration on the cover: a woman with long, dark hair and an impressive cleavage gazes adoringly at some tanned, muscular bloke who looks like he stepped straight out of a Muggle shampoo ad.
Hearing a slight snort, Ginny looks up and is relieved and strangely delighted to see Neville grinning, too.
"Thanks again for such a generous donation," the elderly gentleman says as he walks to the front door, ready to load the last of many boxes in the back of the Salvation Army lorry. "We'll certainly put all of these to good use."
"You're very welcome," Ginny replies, and sees the man out before heading back into the living room. The place is hardly recognisable compared to four weeks ago.
All of the excess furniture is gone, and where there used to be clutter before, there is now space, lots of space. The parquet could do with a bit of a polish, though…
"Phew," Ginny says, sitting down next to Neville on the sofa, "that's the last of them gone."
"Thank Merlin." He shakes his head. "I never knew my gran had so much stuff. Sure, she went shopping often, and even went to Muggle jumble and boot sales, but"—he chuckles softly—"I never expected this."
"Hm." Ginny nods. "My dad's a bit of a hoarder, too. Muggle items, mostly. He does experiments with them, though—only last week, he made a toaster fetch the bread itself—so he doesn't just collect things for the sake of collecting them."
For a few moments, the room is silent. Both of its occupants are lost in their own thoughts and Ginny, for her part, realises now, more than she did before, that this month is the nicest she has spent in a long time, despite the sad circumstances that were the original reason for her coming here.
"So," she says conversationally, reaching for one of the chocolate biscuits that are lying on a plate in the middle of the coffee table. "Are you looking forward to going to Hogwarts in September?"
"Er… Well." Neville clears his throat. "I, um…" He bites his lip and almost looks guilty again.
"What is it?" Ginny asks, frowning.
"I've withdrawn my application, actually," he replies in a voice so soft Ginny barely hears it. "I'm sure Hannah will do a terrific job."
Ginny blinks. "Hannah?"
Neville nods. "Hannah Abbott. She was interested in the position, too;." He hesitates a beat before continuing, "You see, the thing is… To tell you the truth, I'd rather stay here."
Ginny gives him a quizzical look, still not comprehending what's going on. She doesn't get the impression that he's giving up something that's important to him, nor does he seem depressed or defeatist about his decision. Maybe his plans have merely changed?
"Well, you've seen the huge greenhouse out back, right?"
Ginny nods. "Sure." She forces a smile. "It's hard to miss."
"Gran's been growing all sorts of plants there," he goes on to explain, nervously wringing his hands as he does, "some medicinal, some for decoration… Some of the wildflowers are pretty rare and expensive, too, highly sought-after species, so I've been thinking…"
"Maybe I could open a plant nursery? Start up a small shop and maybe a mail order service, too?" He looks so uncertain Ginny wants to hug him. "That doesn't sound awfully daft, does it?"
"No," she says quickly. "It doesn't sound daft at all. I think it's a great idea. And actually"—she grins—"I'm quite pleased with your decision."
Neville blinks. "Pleased?"
"Of course, because if you did go to Hogwarts, it'd be impossible for me to keep seeing you this often," she tells him, and means every word.
"Oh," he mumbles, and blushes furiously.
"I might even be able to help you," she continues, growing more and more enthusiastic at the prospect. "With setting up the shop; and George could advise you, too. After all, he's started up a business before."
"That'd be brilliant!" Neville blurts out, eyes wide.
Ginny smiles. She scoots a little closer, places her hand on his knee and kisses him.
Without hesitation, he kisses her back, and her heart does a little victory dance. For the first time since ending her relationship with Harry, she knows she no longer needs to wonder about 'later'.
Her future path is finally clear.