NOTES: Special thanks to buckbeaky and thaliachaunacy for their advice, and to charityj for reading a draft and recommending improvements. This fic is set in the same universe as A Life Well Lived, though you do not need to have read that to understand what is happening here.
Ginny frowned at her reflection in the lavatory mirror. The lines on either side of her mouth, mere shadows yesterday, seemed to have deepened into trenches overnight. Last week she'd found six new gray hairs, uncooperative wiry buggers that no potion or charm could adequately conceal. She could pack a term's worth of Hogwarts supplies in the bags under her eyes. As for the rest of her body....
She sighed and loosened the sash of her dressing gown. Bearing eight children in ten years had taken its toll. She'd inherited her mum's hips and arse to her great displeasure. Her belly, once smooth and unblemished, now resembled a topographic roadmap with a network of silvery lines crisscrossing unsightly lumps and bulges. Her breasts, once high and round and perfectly shaped to fill a man's hand, were a tragedy unto themselves. Ginny cupped one and hefted it to its former position higher up on her torso. "Ruddy cow," she muttered.
"I thought fondling you was supposed to be my responsibility," came a deep male voice from behind her.
She looked up in the mirror to see Harry's reflection studying her with a bemused expression. He'd obviously just stepped out of the shower; his damp hair stood on end and he was clad only in a towel wrapped snugly around his waist. Ginny dropped her breast and moved aside to make room for him at the counter. Instead of coming forward, however, he came up behind her to wrap one arm around her waist and rest the other over a breast, then leaned down to place a kiss where her shoulder met her neck. She shivered where his unshaven cheek rubbed against her skin.
"Something on your mind?" He propped his chin on her shoulder and played idly with her nipple.
Ginny studied their reflections. "Do I look like I'm getting old?"
His eyes narrowed to a squint. "Old? What d'you mean?"
"Old, Harry. Old, older...just, you know, old."
She felt his head move from side to side. "Er, no, I don't reckon you look like you're getting old. I mean, you're nine months younger than me, and I don't look or feel old at all."
With an irritated huff she disengaged herself and walked into their bedroom. She should've known better than to say anything to him about her self-consciousness. Time had been nothing but kind to Harry. He'd grown into his knobby knees and nicely filled out his skinny frame ages ago. The smattering of gray that nestled amidst the jet-black hair on his head and chest only made him look more distinguished and unfairly handsome the older he got. Despite having been married for twenty years, he attracted even more female attention now than he did in the first heady months after he'd defeated Voldemort. With typical Harry indifference, however, he seemed completely oblivious to the come-hither looks and gestures Ginny couldn't miss even if she'd wanted to.
Of course, she thought with a snarl as she yanked on a pair of worn, sensible knickers, his job didn't help matters much in that regard. As Wiltshire's chief wizarding constable he was often called in to resolve minor disturbances. Most of their neighbors were fairly reasonable, summoning Harry only in the event of a genuine crisis, but a few scheming witches seemed to look at him as a surrogate husband. Harry, bless him, just couldn't say no whenever one of their faces showed up in the kitchen fireplace, but Ginny knew he wouldn't be able to tear himself free of their clutches the rest of the day.
Determined not to let such thoughts ruin today of all days, Ginny pulled a dress over her head and did up the buttons. Just as she finished pulling her hair back in a braid she heard a soft knock on the bedroom door. "Come in."
The door opened to reveal her seven-year-old daughter, her curly black hair still mussed from bed, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "G'morning Mummy," she yawned.
"Good morning, Lucy. Are your brothers awake yet?"
"Uh-huh. Owain's setting the table and Dickie's fixing breakfast."
Ginny raised an eyebrow. Leaving her two youngest sons unsupervised in the kitchen usually meant she'd be scouring burnt grease from her cooking pans all afternoon. "Would you be a dear and run downstairs and tell the lads I'll be right there?"
With one last disgruntled look at her reflection in the cheval mirror that stood in the corner of her bedroom, Ginny tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and hurried downstairs. She entered the kitchen to find Lucy placing a vase of freshly-picked crocuses on the table and Dickie scraping charred ham from Ginny's good skillet while Owain, her ten-year-old, tried to extinguish a spreading grease fire with water. Lucy looked up as Ginny hurried past to rescue what might have been French toast--or possibly poached eggs--and put out the fire before it got out of control. "Happy Birthday, Mummy."
Baking soda splattered out of her wand and across the stove. "Sorry?"
The boys, nearly identical with unruly towheaded mops and dark blue eyes, looked up at her and beamed. Dickie, younger than his brother by twenty months, had grease smeared all over his T-shirt. "Happy Birthday, Mum," he said. "I made breakfast for you."
Ginny nearly dropped her wand in shock. Her three youngest children were the last people she'd have expected to remember that today was her birthday; on the other hand, she hadn't expected her own husband not to say anything about it even after she'd asked him if he thought she was getting old. Yet here Owain, Dickie and Lucy were, looking up at her anxiously, doing their best to get today off on the right foot for her. She squatted down and opened her arms wide, nearly falling over as they rushed in to her embrace. "Thank you so much!" she exclaimed. "It was so sweet of you to do this for me. How did you know today was my birthday?"
"Meg sent me an owl yesterday. She said we should be extra careful not to worry you or get into trouble," Owain said. "I told Dickie he shouldn't try to cook ham 'cause he always burns it."
"I do not!"
Ginny had to smile. Meg, her eldest, would go to the trouble to remind the little ones of her birthday and instruct them how to behave, and Owain would try to take charge. "That was very thoughtful of her," she said, hugging her children tightly. "I reckon we'll have to owl her a thank you note."
"Can we make biscuits for her too?" Lucy asked. "Meg loves almond biscuits."
"Maybe." Ginny got to her feet. "First Mummy has to get the coffee ready before Dad leaves for work."
"But Dickie already made coffee!" Owain said.
Dickie handed her a chipped yellow mug, the sole survivor of one of his older brother Ned's countless unfinished projects. The liquid it held gurgled sickeningly when she tilted the mug to one side. "Oh." She grimaced. "Dickie certainly thinks of everything, doesn't he?"
"Owain said I should do it 'cause you and Dad always like to have coffee when you get up in the morning," Dickie said.
Ginny ruffled her youngest son's hair. "That was very responsible of you, Owain. I'm sure Dad will be very pleased." She smiled at the older boy's blush.
"Aren't you going to drink your coffee, Mummy?" Lucy asked.
A sharp, insistent rapping on the back door rescued her from the sludge her children were trying to pass off as coffee. When she heard a woman chirp "Hello?" however, she shut her eyes tight and clenched her teeth. Of course she would have to stop by today. The woman had an uncanny knack for bad timing, though Ginny doubted there could ever be a good time where she was concerned.
She opened her eyes and put on her best frozen smile. "Good morning, Patricia, how are you?"
"There you are," Patricia Wainwright drawled, peering over the rims of her cats'-eye glasses at Ginny, her hands planted against her hips. The woman was fifty if she was a day, but she insisted on carrying on like a girl half her age. Ginny would never forget the time Tonks had entertained the elder Weasleys and Weasleys-in-law by transforming herself into an exact replica of Mrs. Wainwright, right down to the frosted bouffant and gaudy capris stretched taut over an arse Bill had described as "two hippos shagging," and waggled her oversized bosom in Harry's bright red face the same way the original tended to do whenever she needed a favor. Ginny tried not to grin at the memory as the woman pushed her way into the kitchen without waiting for an invitation. "Is that darling husband of yours around?"
"Right here, Mrs. Wainwright," Harry said. He kissed Ginny on the cheek as he brushed past. "Is your ghoul causing trouble?"
Mrs. Wainwright gave an exaggerated sigh. "No, this time it's Joseph. He's splinched himself again." Ginny had to bite back a snort; there was always a "this time" when it came to Joseph Wainwright and Apparating. "He left an arm behind when he left for work this morning. I doubt he's even realized it yet."
Harry chuckled. "I reckon he's used to going about with missing parts. You go on home and I'll be there directly."
She simpered and reached up to pat his cheek, pressing her bosom against his arm as she did so. "You're such a dear."
Ginny tried not to gag when Harry smiled kindly at their neighbor. "Always for you, Mrs. Wainwright."
Only the wry expression he made after the door had been safely closed prevented a full-blown explosion. Even so, Ginny couldn't help snapping, "Why do you allow that woman to drag you off on these wild goose chases?"
He tilted his head to give her a familiarly patient look that had always infuriated her. "I'm a public servant," he said. "I have a duty to respond to every call I get, no matter how insignificant it may seem."
"It's not your job to handle a splinching! She's supposed to contact the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad! Why do you let her do this to you?"
She threw up her hands in disgust and surrender. This was an old argument with no foreseeable end. "Never mind. Just forget it." She turned away from him to gather the dishes for washing up.
"Ginny, is something wrong? You've been on edge ever since you got up."
She sagged slightly under the warm, comforting weight of his hand on her shoulder. "No, nothing's wrong," she said. "I just started off on the wrong foot this morning. I'll be fine. You go on to work."
Harry removed his hand from her shoulder and was quiet for a moment. When his response came, it wasn't what she'd hoped to hear. "If you say so." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach past her to pick up the mug she'd set on the counter.
She started to turn. "Harry, wait--"
Too late. Harry'd already gulped down nearly half the mug's contents.
His eyes widened and his face turned green. Before she could explain, however, he'd bent over and spat the coffee in the sink, spraying her in his haste to get rid of it. Over his bent form she saw Owain and Dickie staring aghast at their father with a wide-eyed Lucy beside them.
"Merlin's balls," she murmured, her heart going out to her youngest son. Owain probably thought Harry's reaction was funny, but Dickie'd always been a sensitive child; his gentle, wounded soul would not readily recover from this slight.
"Blimey, Ginny, are you trying to poison me? Did you forget to empty last night's pot?" Harry said, wiping his hand across his mouth.
Ginny threw down her wand and glared at him. "Harry, you can be such a git sometimes."
He pressed his lips into a tight line, but had the good sense not to respond. Ginny was disappointed; if the children weren't still watching, she'd have tried to goad him into a full-blown argument just to ease the tension that had been nipping at her heels all morning.
Harry, oblivious as ever to her frustration, crossed to the door and took his cloak from its customary hook "I'll be at the station house after I straighten things out at the Wainwrights'." He draped the cloak over his shoulders. "See you later then?"
She snapped a dish towel and tucked it into a drawer pull. "Don't you have anything else you want to tell me today?"
He gave her a puzzled look. "Er...don't hold up supper on my account?"
"Fine." She sighed. "I won't. Have a good day."
"Okay. You too."
When she heard the door close behind Harry's retreating back and his footsteps fade into the distance, Ginny dropped her head on to the counter and groaned.
A hand tugged on the pocket of her dress. "Yes, Lucy?" she said without raising her head.
"Daddy didn't wish you a Happy Birthday."
"No, he didn't."
Three pairs of arms came around her waist. "We're sorry he forgot today was your birthday, Mummy."
"That wasn't very nice of him, was it?" Dickie asked. Ginny heard the slight quaver in his voice and cursed Harry's obliviousness yet again.
She pulled them closer. "That's okay, love. Dad's a very busy man with lots of responsibilities. But I have you three to help me celebrate, right?"
"We should do something special for supper since Dad won't be here," Owain said.
"We can make biscuits and send some to Meg!" Lucy said.
Ginny smiled despite herself. "That sounds brilliant. I'm keen for almond biscuits myself." She disengaged herself from their embrace. "Tell you what. You lot go upstairs and get dressed while I wash up down here. Once the dishes are done, we'll get started on those biscuits."
"Okay, Mummy," Lucy said.
Dickie nodded, his expression solemn. "Okay, Mum."
"We'll make this your best birthday yet!" Owain said. He shooed the two younger children out of the kitchen.
Once their footsteps had disappeared upstairs Ginny picked up her wand and erased the remnants of Dickie's attempt to make breakfast, then set another pot of coffee to percolating. She wished she could restart the entire morning as well. She'd been dreading this day for months now and it had already lived up to her worst expectations. Granted, she might be in a slightly better frame of mind if Harry hadn't completely forgot today was her birthday--and her fortieth at that--instead of running off to rescue the imbecilic husband of their tawdry hussy of a neighbor. Muttering a curse against all the Patricia Wainwrights in Wiltshire under her breath, Ginny set her brush to scouring the pans and poured herself a fresh mug of coffee.
By late afternoon the entire house smelled of almond and cinnamon and freshly-baked biscuits, and Ginny was feeling a bit peckish. Just before lunch Mrs. Martin, the wife of a Muggle farmer who leased the south forty acres of their estate, stopped by with a basket of fresh eggs, cream and a pound each of cheese and butter from their stock as a gift for Ginny. Ginny'd always liked the Martins and enjoyed the brief respite as she chatted with Mrs. Martin about inconsequential matters on the porch while Owain supervised Dickie and Lucy in mixing biscuit batter.
A steady stream of owls had passed through the kitchen window all day, bringing well wishes and gifts from four of the five eldest Potter children at Hogwarts (nothing came from Jim, the oldest boy, but Meg had hinted in her note that detention with Professor Snape might have prevented him from sending anything in time) and various Weasley households scattered all across Britain. Ginny didn't dare open Fred and George's gift but had been tricked into opening the parcel from Ned and Guy, a lapse in judgment that left her with a nose shaped like a carrot and ears like corncobs for an hour. Lucy, Dickie and Owain had found that very funny and broke out in fits of giggles every time they looked at her until she returned to normal.
She'd sent them to the garden to play once the last pan of biscuits had come out of the oven and was now enjoying the peace and quiet at the kitchen table with a fresh mug of coffee diluted with cream, warm almond biscuits and a letter from her parents. Yet she kept an ear open, always on the alert to sounds of trouble from outside.
She set the letter down at the sound of a gentle knock on her back door. At the same time she'd recognized a different pitch to her children's voices and thought she knew who the visitors were.
A mass of brown curls filled her vision as slim arms wrapped around her shoulders and hugged her tightly. Somewhere behind her sister-in-law Ginny heard Lucy giggle madly and shriek, "Uncle Ron!"
"Happy Birthday!" Hermione cried in Ginny's ear, relaxing her embrace just enough to kiss her on the cheek.
"Thanks--mmf!" Ginny said, spitting hair out of her mouth. "What brings you two over here?"
"Why, your big day, of course! Surely you didn't think we'd miss such a landmark occasion?" Ginny raised an eyebrow. Hermione just smiled, shrugged, took Ginny's hand and led her over to the kitchen table where they both sat. "So," Hermione said, still smiling impishly, "what sort of exciting plans does Harry have in store for you? Has he given you a present yet?"
Her immediate reaction to the question caught Ginny by surprise, and she found herself staring off into the distance as she sought a calm and coherent reply. She hadn't thought about Harry all day. Suddenly all she could think about was how he'd brushed her off that morning without so much as a promise to be home in time for supper--a birthday supper she'd have to prepare herself. The sounds of her children's joyous laughter undercut by her brother's deep voice wafting through the open door brought her long-simmering frustration back to the surface.
A hand enveloped hers in softness and warmth. "Ginny? What is it?"
Ginny shook her head. "Nothing," she said, wiping angry tears from her face with her free hand. "It's nothing."
"It's not nothing, I can see that from over here."
She forced a smile for Hermione. "Really, it's nothing. I'm just being foolish."
Hermione cocked her head to one side. "Did Harry forget?"
The tears--and the anger--came back with a vengeance. Not willing to trust her voice to remain steady, Ginny nodded.
Hermione swore softly. "Harry, you prat. I told you--"
Ginny's head came up sharply. "You told him what?"
A faint blush crept up her cheeks, but Hermione quickly recovered. "Nothing," she said. "Don't worry about it."
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, Ginny gripped Hermione's hand until her knuckles turned white. "Don't give me that. You know something. What has my husband gone and done now?"
"Oh, all right. I'll have to tell you anyway." Hermione's shoulders slumped in defeat. "May I have my hand back? I need to use my wand to fetch something." Ginny released her and sat back in her chair with her arms folded over her chest. Hermione gave her a worried glance, then took out her wand and voiced a Summoning Charm.
A large box wrapped with an elegantly knotted velvet bow sailed in through the open door and settled neatly on the table in front of Ginny. She looked at it, then at Hermione. "What is this?"
"It's your birthday present from us," came a male voice from the door. Ginny looked up to see Ron leaning against the doorframe with his hands in his pockets. A wreath of buttercups, no doubt a gift from Lucy, was draped crookedly on top of his head. Hermione got up to walk over to him and link her arms around his waist.
"I gathered that much," Ginny said with mild amusement and a slight pang of jealousy. "But what is it?"
"Open it and see."
With a half-hearted grumble she untied the bow, setting it aside to be used again, and opened the box. The silken, copper-colored material that lay beneath the tissue paper nearly took her breath away. "Oh my!"
"Read the note," Hermione said.
An envelope of ecru linen rested on top of the robes. Ginny opened it and pulled out the matching card, on which was written in Hermione's neat script:
One night's free babysitting To be redeemed upon receipt
With love from Hermione and Ron on your fortieth birthday
"Oh my," she said again, her hand pressed to her mouth.
"The card's a Portkey," Ron said next to her ear. She hadn't heard him approach, she'd been taken so completely by surprise. "It'll take you to our cottage in just over three hours, where Harry has the rest of your birthday present waiting."
Ginny stared at him in confusion. "Harry? The rest of my--?"
"Harry didn't forget," Hermione said on Ginny's other side. "He's arranged for us to watch the children tonight while you two can have some time alone at our place. He's been planning this for ages."
"He made us keep it a secret," Ron said. "He wanted you to believe he'd forgot--"
"Which I told him was a foolish idea," Hermione said. "I told him that women take turning forty very seriously, and that he shouldn't tease you like that."
"But you know Harry." Ron took her hand and gave her a lopsided grin. "Once he gets an idea in his head...."
Ginny laughed despite the tears fighting to reach the surface. "Yes, that's my Harry, all right."
Ron squeezed her hand. "Promise you won't be too cross with him? He Flooed us earlier today, all worried that you'd seemed upset this morning. He truly didn't mean any harm by this prank."
Ginny squeezed his hand back in response. "I can't promise not to be cross with him at all, Ron. He did make me believe he'd forgot my birthday, after all. But I will promise not to subject him to the worst of my hexes."
He threw back his head and laughed. "Well, I guess that's the best a bloke can ask for, isn't it?"
"I'd hate to be Harry tonight though," Hermione said with a smile. "He may never live today down."
Ginny rose and picked up the box, eager to try on her new robes. "Oh, I'll make sure he won't forget this day for a long time," she said with a knowing smirk.
The sun had almost disappeared beyond the horizon when the Portkey activated and Ginny found herself in the parlor of Ron and Hermione's small, tidy cottage. She knew Lucy, Dickie and Owain were in good hands with her brother and his wife tonight; an injury Hermione had suffered many years ago--before Harry defeated Voldemort once and for all--had left her infertile, so she and Ron compensated for the absence of children in their home by doting on Harry and Ginny's brood every opportunity they got. Ginny'd been grateful for their able and generous assistance over the years more times than she could remember. She couldn't help grinning when Ron had firmly instructed her just before she left home not to return before breakfast tomorrow.
The parlor was dark when she arrived but she could hear movement in the rooms beyond and went to investigate. The table in the dining nook had been set for two with Hermione's best china and silver. A vase filled with early spring blooms stood in the center; light from the two candles on either side of the vase flickered and formed shadows on the walls. Ginny ran the tip of her finger around the rim of a crystal wineglass and smiled to herself. As angry as she still was with Harry for playing such a cruel prank, she had to admit that he'd made an earnest effort to get back in her good graces.
She looked up to see Harry standing in the doorway silhouetted by the light from the kitchen. He had a bottle of wine in his hand and was wearing, improbably, Hermione's flowered apron embroidered with the words "Kiss the Cook" over his best dress robes. She took a deep breath, trying not to notice how truly handsome he was, and looked at him evenly. "Harry."
He seemed flummoxed by her even temper. "Er...Happy Birthday. You look lovely in those robes."
She was grateful for the darkness and the camouflage it provided for the warmth in her cheeks. "Thank you on both counts. I'm glad you remembered. I was beginning to think you'd forgot."
"Er, yeah." He stared at his feet. Ginny didn't think she'd seen him so abashed since they were at Hogwarts. "That was, er, sort of the idea."
"So I hear."
"Hermione warned me you might get angry."
"Hermione's a smart witch. You should listen to her more often."
He snorted. "Yeah, I reckon so."
"What you did was really, really hurtful, Harry."
When he looked up at her he had that wounded-animal look in his eyes she hated so much because she couldn't resist it no matter how angry she was. "Can you stop making me feel like a lousy bastard? 'Cause I feel enough like one already."
She gave an exaggerated sigh to hide her wilting resolve. The grudge she'd nursed all day had begun to seem silly and childish. "I dunno, Harry. I've been feeling old and ugly and unimportant to my own husband all day. I don't think I should let you off so easily."
Harry stared at her slack-jawed. "Why would you believe for a moment that you're old, or ugly, or unimportant to me?"
Her voice rose despite her effort to remain calm. "Why would you want me to believe that you'd forgot my birthday?"
He squared his shoulders and thrust out his chin. "Because I wanted you to appreciate it more when you realized I hadn't forgot."
Now it was Ginny's turn to let her mouth hang open stupidly. "What? What are you on about?"
"Oh come on, Ginny. D'you think I don't know that you, Hermione and Ron all believe I'm the most oblivious and unfeeling prat in Britain?"
"We do not," she began, but the look on his face chastened her. "All right, so we do. But sometimes you are rather blind to the obvious."
His face flushed angrily. "I'd be a bloody rotten constable if that were true. Did you know that Ron and Hermione started dropping hints about your birthday three months ago?" Ginny nodded. "Merlin bless him, he's the closest I've ever had to a brother, but Ron's about as subtle as a rabid Quintaped. And Hermione, well, you know she treats everyone like they're two years old and still in nappies."
He took a few steps closer to set the wine bottle on the table, then turned and leaned against it with his arms folded over his chest. "I knew what they were on about the instant they opened their mouths. And it hurt. It hurt to think that my own wife reckons I'm too bloody stupid to remember she's turning forty this year, or that I'm too bloody insensitive to realize how much that worries her."
The anger and resentment she'd felt all day evaporated, replaced by an almost overwhelming sense of guilt. As much as she hated to admit it to herself, he was right; she had treated him like a fool. "Oh, Harry." She reached out to rest a hand on his arm. "I--"
"I'll admit I didn't think this through properly," he continued as though she weren't even there. "I knew it would hurt you, to make you believe I had forgot. But I was angry and hurt too, and part of me wanted you to feel the same way." He looked up at her then. "I'm sorry, Ginny. It was wrong of me to hurt you that way."
She shook her head. "No, Harry, it was I--"
He took the hand she had laid on his arm and held it against his chest. The steady rhythm of his heartbeat reverberated through her arm until she could feel it in her own chest. "Ginny, I don't care if we live to be two hundred, you'll never be old or ugly in my eyes, and you'll always be the most important person in my life," he said huskily. Ginny sucked in her lower lip in an effort to control her trembling. She hadn't seen such ardor in Harry since the early years of their life together, and it thrilled her as much as it frightened her; his skin fairly glowed from the magical energy coursing through his veins, magical energy that had defeated the most powerful Dark wizard ever. "You get more beautiful every day. I don't care if a hundred young women parade in front of me completely starkers, you're the only one I want to wake up beside every time I go to bed."
Emotion constricted in her chest. "Sagging breasts, stretch marks, gray hairs and all?" she whispered.
He stood up and turned to take her into his arms. "I wouldn't have you any other way." A finger crooked beneath her chin lifted her face toward his. "Happy Birthday, Ginny," he murmured just before kissing her.
Later, as they lay entwined together in bed, she heard him say drowsily, "That coffee this morning--Dickie's handiwork?" She felt the rumble of laughter in his chest when she nodded her head. "We really must teach that boy how to make proper coffee before he poisons one of us."