"Hello, good afternoon and welcome! Today we are going to take a look into the lives of the rich and famous once again. These people have graciously allowed our cameras to take a peep into their lives. The studio panel is ready, Lloyd is ready, the audience is ready, so let's go! Remember! The clues are there… as we go… through the keyhole!
Some time earlier…
"Ah, here it is! Finally!" the man announced as a higgledy-piggledy sort of cottage came into sight around the bend in the road. "I was starting to think that this was all a wild goose chase!" Inside the white van both blokes winced and made a grab for some metal cases as the rear offside wheel lurched through yet another pothole.
"I've been on better roads than this in remote parts of Africa!" the driver complained.
His smaller nondescript companion grinned. "Could be worse, Hodgey," he said. "We could have been given the potholing assignment this week!" He sniggered appreciatively when the driver tersely indicated that he would tell the boss where he could shove another of those assignments and just exactly how far!
"Not done one of these 'Keyhole' things in ages. How does it go, usually?" Hodgey asked as he brought the van to a halt and racked up the handbrake.
His mate, the cameraman, pulled a 'so-so' sort of face. "Depends. Mostly on what mood he's in." He nodded towards another vehicle, which had drawn up alongside their battered little van. The well-known presenter slid out and right into a muddy puddle. "How quaint!" he announced in a drawl the two technicians found very affected. "You are certain that this is the driveway?" he demanded, lifting each wet shoe and regarding it with evident distaste.
"Why?" Hodgey asked with the air of a man ready to take offence.
The presenter gazed up to the low building, shielded from prying eyes by a grove of Alder trees. "There are no tyre tracks. Therefore, they don't have a car! Who doesn't have a car nowadays?"
The two technicians exchanged a pregnant glance and an eloquent shrug as the presenter changed his shoes for another pair and picked his way through the tussocky grass towards the cottage.
"Let's get it over with," Hodgey sighed. He swung out from the cigarette-fumed interior into the fresh air followed by his colleague. After a mild coughing fit, they selected their gear and performed the usual check-ups with the efficiency of much practice.
The OB director, a man well known to both technicians for his calm manner when dealing with excited Personalities, bustled round from the other side of the four-wheel drive and nodded. "Good. I suggest we start out with some exterior shots from the front door. The hall, kitchen, and sitting room are confirmed as available for filming. The family are away at the moment but I'm informed the 'key is in the toad', so let's get on with it. We've got another one of these to do today and it's a bit of a drive from here."
The toad was located beside the doorstep, under a clump of Snapdragon-like purplish flowers and the old-fashioned forged key extracted from its depths. "It's disgusting in that pot!" the director exclaimed, wiping his slimy hand on the long grass. He shuddered and wrestled with the lock for a moment before the soundman took pity on him and offered a squirt of some nameless substance from his kit. The key turned and the door could be opened.
"I'll just poke my head round the door…" he said. "While you sort yourselves out."
The lighting was soon set up. The presenter had a quick squint around, muttering a few brief witty phrases to himself as he took his position before the camera. The director returned, looking somewhat vague.
"Erm… Yes." He shook himself. "Are we ready?" The soundman nodded, the cameraman gave a thumbs-up, the clapperboard marked the shot, and the director pointed to the presenter.
"And three, two, one…"
"As I approach this house I am reminded that it is Halloween. Somebody has placed a pair of the biggest pumpkins I have ever seen on the pathway. One of them has a green candle set inside it so that the eyes glow very scarily at you on your approach. Perhaps someone in this house has a strange sense of humour…" The presenter quirked his mouth in what he believed to be a sardonic manner and turned to the heavy handle.
"Opening the heavy oak front door, we enter a charming hallway. The series of seven pegs set at varying heights suggests a large family with, one, two, three, four, five children! Judging by the mixture of stylish coats and cloaks, this family has a very eclectic lifestyle. Perhaps they have links to the theatre? Fans of 'Phantom of the Opera' perhaps?" He waved an airy hand.
"Passing down the hallway, decorated with a very unusual circular antique mirror-" He pointed to it and then stared fixedly. "Can you see people moving in the back of that glass, or am I seeing things?" he asked in his more normal tone of voice.
"Don't worry about that, we can fix it in Post. Just get on with the spiel, this place is creeping me out!" The Presenter glared at the soundman. The board was marked up again.
"Okay. Three, two, one…" The director counted him back in with his usual aplomb.
"Passing down the hallway, decorated with a very unusual circular antique mirror, we enter into the heart of the home… the kitchen. With its large brick hearth… Bloody hell! Is that a cauldron hanging over those gas flames?" The entire team froze in shock.
"Why d'you say they're gas flames?"
"Because they're blue! D'oh! Sawdust-for-brains!" The soundman glared at the presenter.
"Fine! Then why can't I hear any gas hissing out?" He jogged over for a quick look. "And look… there are no pipes! So where's the gas coming from, wise guy?
"We are in the right place? Where's the bloody map? Show me the directions!" the director demanded crossly. Things had been going wrong all bloody morning and this was the last straw.
"Yeah, 'course we are! We went exactly where the directions told us! Off the motorway at junction three, follow the road until you see the sign for Godric's Ford, cross the river, past the burned out house and turn off onto the track heading north to Coombe Goodrich. The house is at the end of the track, key is in the toad! See! That's what we did! Now can we just get this done so we can get out of here?" The soundman, who was also the driver, folded the map up and shoved it haphazardly back in his pack and adjusted his levels yet again.
He couldn't shake off the sensation that he was being watched. The whole place felt unreal and more than a little bit un-nerving. He would have sworn there were eyes on him at that very moment, watching every move he made. It was like those old movies, where the eyes in the portraits moved when you weren't watching. His pack, slung across his back, felt like a real encumbrance just now. The strap was making him sweat. Or was it something in the room? He forced himself to watch his scales. His equipment was playing up; the levels were all over the place. What the hell was going on?
The cameraman had wandered off to the other side of the spacious room during this exchange and was studying the open shelves. "Hey! Have you seen some of the labels on these jars? 'Flabbergasted leeches!' 'Flobberworm mucous' and wait- oh, you're so not going to believe this one- dragon's liver!" The soundman's mouth fell open as his mate lifted the jar and gave it a shake. Something suspiciously like dark flesh swirled around in preservative fluid.
"Can we all just collect ourselves, please? We are all professionals here. Let's just do our job and go!" the director insisted, hoping he wasn't about to get another migraine. His head had started to pound the second he'd walked through the front door. There was something very odd about this place.
"Fine by me!"
"Okay, so, three, two, one…" He pointed to the presenter and they were off again.
"We enter into the heart of the home, the kitchen. With its large brick hearth, imaginatively decorated with a reproduction cauldron, you might think you were in a witch's kitchen- Okay! I've had it! That dog has got a forked tail!" The presenter pointed with trembling fingers at the terrier -like dog, obligingly wagging its forked tail as it pranced towards them.
"Look! Look at it! Forked tail!" If there had been a convenient stool, the soundman was sure the presenter would have been up on it.
The terrier yapped and then stopped. It slowly cocked its head. Then, the fur bristled down the length of its back and a low growl emanated from its throat. Before any of the men could respond, it leaped at the nearest of them- which unfortunately happened to be the presenter- and having seized a handful of expensive trouser leg, worried at it while keeping up a ferocious series of growls. The presenter tried to kick out, shrieking for the others to do something but the dog was too quick for him, dancing agilely out of the way. The two technicians began to down their equipment but, as the yelling aggravated the director's headache, and he was still wearing his driving gloves, he waded in first.
"Come here, you bloody little pest!" he snarled, grabbing hold of the dog around its front shoulders. This proved to be a mistake as the animal let go of Lloyd's trouser leg, sank its teeth into his wrist and whipped back to seize a better hold on the fine trousering.
With the abuse, insults and obscenities turning the surrounding air deep blue, the director yanked hard; there was the sound of tearing cloth and before the dog could get in another bite, the cameraman grabbed hold of its muzzle. The dog resorted to wriggling in impotent fury, trying to use his claws, still growling and sending the vibration through both men holding him.
"Phil! Quick! Get that door open!" The cameraman appealed to his colleague. The soundman struggled with the resisting back door, gave up and ripped open an internal door to reveal a staircase and dog bed. "Good enough!" Hodgey said, panting from his exertion. He and the director counted to three and shoved the animal roughly along the flagged floor before leaping back and slamming the door on it. They heard claws scrabbling and then a hefty thud accompanied by more barking and thumps.
The director pulled his clothes straight. "He'll get fed up of it soon enough," he panted. He pulled his polo shirt cuff back and regarded the bite with disgust. "Bloody thing! Did you see any 'Savlon' or something lying around?" The others shook their heads so he went to the sink, intending to run it under the tap. That was when he discovered there was no means to turn the tap on or off. Between his pounding head and throbbing wrist, this was turning into quite a day. And it wasn't even lunchtime yet. He resorted to scrubbing it with spit on his handkerchief and wrapping a clean portion around the wound. The door shook as the dog threw itself at the other side.
The soundman went back to his equipment, as did the cameraman. It was at this point that he discovered the camera had been running throughout the whole episode and swore heartily.
"What?" the director snapped. The dog hurled itself once more at the door with a thunderous bark.
"I've only got so much tape, you know! I've only brought one other cassette with me," the cameraman chided irritably. He stabbed at the playback button. "Bloody thing! It's acting up again. Hasn't been the same since it went in for a service! What-the-hell-is-wrong-with-it- oh! There we go." He perused the screen with a frown. The play back was abysmal and heavy with interference and ghost images the like of which he hadn't seen in years. It might be salvageable with some computer trickery. It would have to be.
Another heavy thump indicated the dog had not tired of throwing himself at the door. "He'll be through there in a moment!" the presenter whined. "I loathe dogs! If I had known there was a mad dog loose in this place…And just look at my trousers!" His voice trailed off into an incomprehensible mumble that became more whining with each passing phrase.
The director took a shuddering breath as he caught words like 'lawyers' and 'compensation'. He was the one who had probably caught some doggy disease from the flaming thing! He was the one who would have to have the tetanus jab in his bum. He was the one bleeding on his new shirt. The wife would kill him. What did bloody Lloyd have to whine about? He could afford several new pairs of trolleys and not blink an eye over the expense. For the first time in his long career, the director felt like walking away from the whole wretched set-up.
"Oh, for God's sake! Somebody calm him down! Take him outside and give him a fag-here-give him one of mine. Actually, I think I'll have one too… Why are there no keyholes on this bloody door? How the hell do you get out?" The director was starting to sound a little panicked as well. The soundman took a packet of ciggies from his own pocket and forced one onto the presenter. A match scraped.
Again, the door shuddered with the force of the animal's weight. As one, the team turned. "SHUDDUP!" they bellowed. With one final defiant bark and a last thump crashing against the door, the dog followed up with a bout of furious sniffing and then nothing. The more ominous silence suggested it had finally got the message.
Looking around while he waited for his heart rate to even out, the soundman was reminded of something he had taken the kids to see at the cinema a while back… something about witches and wizards, and he had an epiphany. "Oh! Wait just one moment! I know what this is!" he announced with an air of smug triumph.
"Oh, come on! Get with it! It's the blokes from 'props' having a go at us over that stunt we pulled on them last Halloween." It took a second for the crew to process this. "It's a bloody filmset!" Three pairs of eyes regarded him and he saw dawning comprehension in each one.
"That would explain why it's in the middle of nowhere!" Lloyd said grudgingly.
"Ohh! Ri-ight! I get it now. Having a little joke at our expense, eh? They must have been ages setting this up. I bet it cut a right slice out of the budget!" The director looked around with grudging admiration. The air of relief amongst them was palpable.
"Oh yeah! That fits. They've just doctored everything up to look as spooky as they can!"
There was some sniggering. "Fine! Let's play the buggers at their own game! Is he good to go?" The director nodded across at the presenter, shakily sucking on a cigarette as though it was a safety line
The cameraman shrugged. "Yeah, I've convinced him none of it's real and told him to take no notice. I gave him a pull from Hodgey's hip flask. He'll be right as rain now."
The director called across, "Are we ready then? Let's get the buggers back. We'll play it just like any other set-up, okay?"
The presenter nodded. He stubbed the cigarette out in a potted plant and flicked its snapping leaves. "Amazing what they can do with animatronics these days." He took a few deep breaths and rolled his head in a circular motion to loosen taut neck muscles.
The board was offered up to the camera. "Lloyd, 'you might think you were in a witch's kitchen'. And…Three, two, one…"
"You might think you were in a witch's kitchen. She even has her cauldron at the ready." He smirked ingratiatingly. "Apart from the dog trotting round, there is more evidence of an outdoor life style in the sporting paraphernalia gathered around the back door." He stooped casually to pick up a large red ball about the size of a football and tried to keep a straight face when he felt the weight of it. The cameraman panned over the protective pads and what looked like a short baseball bat, except it was tipped with metal.
"There is a collection of balls for several games, including football," (He picked up a small golden ball and nearly leaped out of his skin when wings unfurled from out of nowhere and it vanished in a blur of motion.)
"It's animatronic! Keep going!" the director mouthed.
"And the broomsticks are ready to sweep the floor clean in a trice!" The presenter made a good show of gesturing to the four sophisticated-looking brooms set into a custom-made rack on the wall.
From the corner of his eye, the presenter saw another door standing ajar and made the effort to wander nonchalantly in that direction.
"Cut!" the director said and they all relaxed. "Right, I'll just have a look-see at what's in there and then we'll do some establishing shots. You can do the summing up and we can go back with our heads high, edit this up into something suitable and cut those b-idiots off at the knees!" he finished viciously. He did not like being made to look foolish. He paused to check his wrist. It was feeling more painful than any other dogbite he had ever received.
The soundman picked up his long boom and merely grinned when an owl swooped through the window and used the top of his furry mike cover as its perch. The grin turned very quickly to a scowl when the owl began to pull at the fur. He swiped out at it. "Shoo! Go on! Back to your trainer!" With an indignant sounding screech, the snow white owl took off, snatched out with her claws at the director's balding head and landed on a high rafter near the back door.
Over more cursing as the director described, graphically, what ought to be done with 'dangerous animals' and what he would be saying to The Person In Charge of this stunt, the owl made hissing noises that sounded threatening to the ears of these 'townies'.
The cameraman shook his head even as he fished a baseball cap out of his fleece pocket and jammed it securely over his hair. "You've got to hand it to them. They really know how to dress up a set!"
The director glowered around and stomped into the other room, practically hauling the presenter with him. The soundman heard him muttering 'just a few more shots and we can get the hell out of the cursed place' in the most aggressive tone he had ever heard the man use. He fell back to fiddling with his leads and levels.
After a few minutes, the director returned and beckoned the two technicians forward. He was gingerly touching the thin bleeding lines on his scalp. "We'll just get some wide angle stuff, Lloyd's going to stand by the bookcase. Just," He regarded the sound and cameraman uncertainly. "Just stay away from the mirror… and don't take any notice of the photos either. It must be some sort of computer-trickery thing they've set up. Oh-and keep Lloyd happy. Don't show his trouser leg is shredded, will you!" He made it sound as though it was the last thing in the world he cared about.
The soundman and cameraman shared a quick look and then squared their shoulders. Maybe another half-hour of this and they could find the nearest pub for a pint of something. Something strong.
The director had set the presenter up in the window and it was causing the cameraman some problems with backlighting. The soundman joggled his elbow as he too fiddled with his equipment and the cameraman found his lens focussed on one of the photographs on the windowsill.
It showed a picture of a man with dark untidy hair and glasses. He was standing with his arm around a tall redhead and between them, they were holding a baby boy. He was gurgling as his father raised one of his pudgy hands up for a kiss. The woman was smiling but her green eyes were fey; she had the look of a woman wondering if she would see her baby grow.
The cameraman was suddenly overcome with a sense of foreboding. Suddenly this didn't feel like a prank. This felt real. As bizarre as it seemed, he couldn't shake the notion that this house and its occupants were all too real, people who had suffered and lost just as much as they had loved. The camera trembled in his hands and he leaned his bum back against the wall to steady himself. Just for a moment, he dropped the camera from its ready position and looked about him.
The squarish room was pleasant, glowing with the low autumn sunlight that cast reddish tones over it. The walls were of the traditional plain finish against the wooden beams that formed the frame of the house. The flagged floor was thickly carpeted and yet not fitted, as he would have expected. Three side tables stood at strategic places in the room, each with a tablelamp set upon it. The whole place had a homely air that only came from being lived in. The cameraman felt like an intruder and he was no longer so sure that it was a film set.
It all looked perfectly normal and that was what upset him the most. It looked normal and it was only when he looked harder that the anomalies became obvious.
The cushions on the leather settees were being plumped by invisible hands-or else were self-plumping- and the vases of flowers had a wild look to them, not the kind of massive formal displays he generally saw in the homes of the rich and famous.
His eyes roamed over the floor, carpeted in gold with a small red pattern and found some scattered toys. A model broomstick, a stuffed dragon and something that might have escaped from one of those Games Workshop sets his boy was mad about. He was confused; where were the Lego and the Playstation? The room was reasonable tidy but you could be at ease here, it was the kind of place where you could relax. Yet things still felt out of place. There were no electrical lights, for instance. The lamps on the tables had no flex running from them. His eyes wandered above the skirting board; there were no plug sockets either. For that matter, where was the television? How did these people live without electricity? A tingle ran down his back and, as he swung the camera up with sweaty hands back onto the presenter, he couldn't wait to get out of this cottage. The urge to drop his camera, run and never look back was becoming overwhelming.
"Just talk about the books, some police authority connection and we'll go from there," the director said. He didn't look well and he wasn't feeling well either.
The presenter nodded. He pasted his infuriatingly knowing smile on his face again.
"And, three, two, one…"
"In this charming sitting room, we find a large collection of books, so somebody is obviously a great reader in this family." He drew one out and read the title off the spine. " 'A Compendium ofCommon Curses and their Counter-Actions' and of course, the essential volume that no home should be without, 'Practical Defensive magic and its Use Against the Dark Arts'." He smirked again and laid the book aside. "So, who lives in a house like this? Let's look at the evidence…"He took a couple of steps to the high-backed armchair facing the hearth and prepared to sit in it.
No sooner had he set his hands on the arms than the mirror sang out, "Oh, I wouldn't sit there, dear, not if I were you!" The presenter looked at the director, who waved him to sit down.
The second his behind touched the cushions, the seat began to suck him in noisily, burping and juddering as it tried to engulf him. The presenter shrieked and scrabbled to free himself over the mirror's wheezy laughter and its assertion, "Well, I did try to warn you!"
The director stood frozen to the spot while the blood pounded in his head. The cameraman and the soundman had tossed their equipment at the settees and were trying- without success- to extricate the yelling presenter from the possessed armchair. He felt like he was back on the set of some 'B' horror movie from the seventies. Anger came bubbling up, bursting through his control. How he resisted the impulse to roar at the top of his lungs, he had no idea.
Then, just to complete the bizarre imagery, a half-curtained door opened and an attractive petite redheaded woman entered. She was carrying a basket over one arm and quite heavily pregnant, her 'bump' protruded from under the long cloak she was wearing.
They stared at one another for a long second and then without warning, she pulled a stick from under her cloak and pointed it straight at him. She seemed to accuse him of being stupid and then the room went black.
Ginny Potter set her basket down and closed the door quietly before taking in her sitting room, trying to persuade her heart to slow down. She felt fairly sure that the four men she had just 'Stunned' were all Muggles but it would be as well to check. She skirted the room as quickly as she could considering her condition. Still covering them with her wand, she waddled into the hall to check the Foe glass.
No, all clear. With a huge sigh, she went through into the kitchen, where she was greeted by a squawk from Hedwig.
"What are you doing up there, girl?" Hedwig shuffled her feet and taking an awkward half-jump, glided down to the chair back where she offered her leg to Ginny. Ginny saw the scroll bore Fred's scrawl as she unfastened it. Absently, she stroked the owl's feathers and crossed to the hearth. Whatever Fred wanted this time would have to wait. First things first. Getting down to her knees was not easy but it had to be done.
Taking a big pinch of Floo Powder, she cast it into the fireplace and stuck her head in the emerald green flames, calling out 'Auror Floo nine!' The grates flashed past, increasing her discomfort and just when she was sure she was going to be sick, the world stopped moving.
"Harry? Harry?" she called. The space where Harry Potter worked as an Auror, filling in his parchwork was deserted. Beyond the doorway, Ginny could hear the murmur of conversation. She filled her lungs as best as she could and bellowed for him again. The sound of running feet reached her ears and then, breathing hard, her husband dropped to his knees in front of her.
"What is it, love? It's not the baby, is it?" Ginny reflected that for a man who had faced the worst dark wizard in three generations and lived, Harry was showing more strain over the idea of being present at the birth of his first child.
She gave him a slight smile. "No, love. It's nothing like that," she reassured him. He relaxed slightly and sat back on his heels. Ginny's expression turned uncertain. "You couldn't come home for a while, could you?" she wheedled, "We've got a bit of a problem…"
Harry frowned. "How d'you mean? A bit of a problem?" His posture tensed up immediately.
Ginny caught the corner of her lip between her teeth. "I've just 'Stunned' four Muggles in the sitting room. They've got all this weird equipment with them-"
Harry jumped to his feet with an agility Ginny admired even as she coveted it for herself. "I'll be right there! Blaise!"
She wouldn't be doing anything remotely athletic for at least another couple of weeks. Time was dragging his heels as her 'confinement' approached. Harry wouldn't even use the word; he said it sounded as though she was being locked up when, actually, she was giving birth. She winced as a sharp fluctuation traversed her gravid belly.
Blaise Zabini poked his head round the door. "Whatcha want, Harry?"
"Back up!" Harry said succinctly. He looked over his shoulder at his wife. "Stay by the fire. We'll be there in two ticks!" Ginny had barely nodded when her husband shot from the room in a flat run, his robes swishing around him.
Pulling her head from the magical flames and grabbing the edge of the hearth to help herself up off her knees, Ginny kept her wand in her hand and frowned when she heard excited yipping from the rear hall. She must have missed it in her preoccupation. She directed her wand. "Alohomora!"
The door swung open a couple of inches. It was opened more widely by a dark muzzle and Ginny threw a grateful look at Billy the Crup when he trotted in and made a doggy fuss of her. He danced about her knees and proudly dropped something before her, staring up at his mistress with shining eyes and ready for her lavish praise.
Ginny regarded the soggy scrap of unfamiliar fabric with curiosity but refrained from touching it. She would leave the handling of all suspicious items to her Auror husband. Instead, she turned her mother's sharp regard on the Crup. "What have you done now, Billy?" Had he had a go at the Muggles? She found she couldn't get too worked up over it. They shouldn't have been there in the first place. The Crup gave her the doggy equivalent of the I-don't-know-what-you-mean-look and trotted back to his basket.
Ginny heard him turning around with a canine grumble in his throat and she smiled. Then screwed up her face as the new life within her performed a complicated twisting motion that felt like it relocated half of the contents of her abdomen into her thorax. She gasped at the sharpness of the heel or fist under her ribcage and pressed a firm hand over the place, hoping to encourage the little darling to move again. He-or she- was evidently satisfied because the sensation faded away.
"Accio cushion!" The cushion lurched uncertainly to her grasp. It took her two more goes to have it within arm's reach and Ginny sat round on it gratefully. Maybe she was still tired, and her dodgey spellwork was a reflection of that.
Ginny leaned back and tried to find a comfortable position. Harry could help her up off the floor. She heard the two muted cracks but had no idea that Blaise or Harry was even in the house until Harry rippled into sight from under his Invisibility spell a few minutes later.
"Well?" she asked, shading her eyes from the low autumn sun. Harry squatted to kiss the end of her nose. Ginny wrinkled it. She hated it when Harry did that, and he knew it!
"They seem to be exactly what they look like," he said with a grin, "A Muggle film crew but we'll take them in for a bit of a chat anyway. Blaise has called for the nearest Obliviation team. The magic levels around this house should take care of the tape and if there is anything…" A few flames leaked from the end of Harry's wand, indicating that the film was likely to have a fiery end. Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Ginny said instantly. Harry blew out a gusty breath.
"I thought we agreed on that in my seventh year? I wouldn't lie and say it and neither would you." Bright green eyes met shiny brown ones. "Let's try that again," he said more softly, "Are you alright?" He watched his wife lean forward until she was in danger of overbalancing.
"Bossy boots!" Ginny grumbled under her breath. Then she decided to let rip. "Not really, since you ask! My feet are killing me, I'm bursting for a wee, your brat has got his feet tucked somewhere really damned uncomfortable, I'm spitting feathers for a cup of tea, and I come home to find my supposedly secure house invaded by Muggles! What do you think?"
Harry was making a masterful effort not to laugh at this litany of woes as she gasped for breath but Ginny could see the corners of his mouth twitching. Blaise had already ducked out of sight beyond the door where she could hear him drawing shaky breaths. "I'm so glad you think it's funny, Zabini! Your turn will come!" she called out to him. The other Auror snorted and his lively eyes peered round the wall for a minute.
"Sorry, Ginny. But viewed from a certain angle, it is funny! Your front door toad is looking a bit sick as well. And, hey! Nice pumpkins, by the way! " He winked at her and then became professional again. "I'll Port-Key this lot back to HQ, Harry; you should stay and ah, interview the witness… You're better at getting them to talk than I am." He tipped Harry a lazy wink and sauntered back into the other room.
Ginny turned back to her husband with raised eyebrows. "Is there something you feel you should share with me, dear?" She watched him shove a hand through his hair- a sure sign that he was uncomfortable and took his proffered arm.
"No, I don't think so," Harry said, rather too hastily for Ginny's liking. "Let's get you more comfy, shall we? And then, I can make some tea and you can tell me all about it from the beginning. Oof!" Harry puffed as he helped his wife to her feet and supported her into the sitting room, now thankfully devoid of all Muggle decoration. They had to pause for a fresh wave of tension rippling through Ginny's abdomen. " I wish you'd have a snooze!" Ginny grumbled. "You've been squirming round since early this morning!"
Harry spent a few minutes fussing with the arrangement of her cushions until Ginny got fed up with him. "Harry, it's fine! Please, just go and make some tea."
Giving her the look he had learned off Dumbledore, (a slow stare over the lenses of his glasses) Harry moved silently back to the kitchen.
Ginny watched his magic direct the tray to set itself while he poured the boiling water into the teapot. "What did Blaise mean about the pumpkins anyway?" he called through the open doorway as he brought they tray through.
The smell of the tea did wonders for Ginny's temper. She offered Harry her most innocent expression. "Pumpkins, dear? Oh, that… I thought it would be nice for Halloween. Some appropriate decorations. Just like being back at Hogwarts. I was sorry that you took the decorations down from the Room of Requirement."
Harry splashed the tea he was pouring over the tray and gaped at his demure-looking wife. "You didn't!" he muttered hoarsely. "Tell me you didn't!" He shot to the front door and Ginny heard it scrape open. Her husband made an odd noise in his throat.
She couldn't help it; she started to laugh. "I thought it was 'Potter' now!" she shot back.
Outside on the front porch, Harry Potter stared at the pair of pumpkins sitting side by side. On the larger of the two, Ginny had worked a subtle Transfiguration. She had overlaid his features on the carved pumpkin so that the eyes glowed green courtesy of a rather grumpy looking fairy perched inside the hollowed-out vegetable. It was even complete with lightning bolt scar above the right eye. The mouth had been carved into his lop-sided grin.
The banner stuck to the overhanging porch proclaimed; "Have a very Harry Halloween!"
Harry sank down onto his haunches and stared. "I hope to Gryffindor she didn't show the twins this!"
"What was that about the twins, dear?"
Cursing his wife's sharp hearing, Harry padded back into the sitting room. Ginny was sipping her tea. His favourite mug was waiting for him; two ginger newts lay beside it. Being careful not to spill the overfull mug, Harry took a careful sip. "I said, I hope you didn't let Fred and George see that."
The redhead had opened her mouth to answer when she set her mug abruptly down on a convenient table and groaned, her hands flying to her 'bump'. "Oo! Stop wriggling!" she implored, soothing over the distortion in her rounded belly. Harry placed his larger hand over hers and slipped down on one knee so that his mouth was close to their hands.
"Hey, you in there. Be nice to your mum," he said softly. Their hands leaped as the baby reacted sharply to his voice. Harry smiled. "That's definitely a Beater's arm he's got there."
Ginny slid her arm around his neck. The baby wasn't even born and he already sounded like a doting father. "You seem very sure that it's a boy," she said mischievously. Harry looked up at her.
"Is it a girl then? Did the Birthing witch tell you? How long have you known? Why didn't you say something?" Harry managed a creditable impersonation of Hermione with the rapidity of his speech.
"I don't know, I didn't ask so I had nothing to tell, dear. Drink your tea," she said smothering a grin. She watched Harry's eyes narrow slightly and knew he was looking for holes in what she had told him. He got off his knees and obediently drank from his mug, starting on a biscuit.
After a few minutes, he blinked and came to sit beside her. "Do you feel up to telling me what happened?"
Still trying to persuade their unborn child to stop playing Quidditch inside her, Ginny gave a very short version. "I had been over to Fred's to get the keys- did you see all the coats and stuff they left behind! The lazy pair just fixed extra hooks to the wall rather than take their things back and forth! It's the last time I let my brothers 'look after' our house while you're away!" she said tartly. "The place is a shambles!"
Harry didn't think so but decided it was better to agree with her before she got any more excited and brought on an early labour. "I know, love, but I didn't want you alone in the house now that you're so close to delivering." He was so absorbed in wondering why the Muggles had chosen and found their home that he missed Ginny's speculative frown as she watched him puzzling through things.
The house in Coombe Goodrich should not be visible to Muggle eyes. Harry had cast the Vetare-the Protections- himself, had tied it to the land with his own blood in a curse that Bill assured him had not been broken in three thousand years. He had been unwilling to burden anyone else with the knowledge of his family's whereabouts. His parents had put their trust in Charms and lost their lives; Harry decided to be his own secret keeper. Only he knew exactly how he had worked the curse to complete the Vetare.
"Why not, love?" Ginny's voice was barely audible.
Harry took a breath and let it out slowly. "Because your magic will go haywire the closer to the birth you get. During labour, you'll be unable to use it at all. I won't leave you vulnerable, you know that, Sunshine."
Ginny gave him an affectionate smile. Harry only used that particular nickname when he was feeling especially close to her, or when they were loving. "Why did Blaise say you got more out of the witnesses than him?" she asked softly.
Harry wriggled beside her and rested his hand on hers. "He thinks it's funny!" He snorted and leaned back in the settee, closing his eyes. Ginny's eyes wandered over his profile. "It happened by accident… The first time, I had something in my eye and took my glasses off to rub at it while I was asking the questions. Up to that point, this damned witch had been up on her high horse about the whole thing but when I stared at her…"
His voice fell away until Ginny could barely hear him. "She couldn't spill her guts fast enough. Next time we got another reluctant witness, Blaise insisted I pull the same bloody stunt." He shrugged but Ginny, who after all knew him better than he knew himself, could tell he was very embarrassed about the whole thing. "Typical Slytherin, he doesn't mind using any weapon to get at the facts."
"And he thinks your eyes are a weapon?" She caressed his hand and tugged him closer. "You great daft pillock!" she murmured, "Don't you know that I'm the only one strong enough to stare into those gorgeous eyes and not spill all my secrets?"
Harry twisted and they rested forehead to forehead. "I don't like it, Ginny. It makes my skin crawl. I feel…" Ginny watched him search his vocabulary for the right word. "Dirty, as though I'm exploiting them." His gaze sought understanding and his beloved wife did not fail him.
"And Blaise knows how to manipulate your Gryffindor nobility to his advantage. Hmm…" She leaned over and nuzzled at his neck, where it was unprotected by his robes. "It sounds to me as though Auror Zabini is not keeping up with his in-service training. Falling standards, letting the side down and all that… Nominate him for one of those 'update' courses that you told me are coming up."
Giving free rein to his enjoyment of Ginny's fluttering mouth over his pulse point, Harry's groping hand found a small scroll of parchment abandoned on the settee and heard it crackle when his hand closed convulsively at the warmth of his wife's kiss.
"Didn't you say they were being held in Somerset this time?" The firm-yet-soft curve of her swollen belly pressed against him as she stretched up to toy with his ear. Harry made an inarticulate noise that became a sharp gasp when the baby kicked him too. Ginny eased back and they shared one of their little chuckles over the baby's intrusion.
"They do that a lot, or so I'm told," Harry said. Again, he smoothed his hand over Ginny's belly and his mouth curved into a smile that was part pride and part astonishment at feeling his child moving inside his wife.
"Well, he or she can just get used to watching her mummy and daddy snuggled up kissing, because I have no intention of giving up my favourite pastime," Ginny said firmly. Then she saw the crumpled scroll in his hand. "What's that?"
Harry passed it unthinkingly to her outstretched hand. He was still admiring how full of life and inner light she appeared. She was beautiful but not in the conventionally 'pretty' way that the witches in the magazines were. Her beauty was the force of her loving heart shining out through every pore and woe betide anyone who tampered with it. With his eyes wandering over her sweet face and his hands supporting her bump, he heard the scroll crackle as she unrolled it and started to read.
"What?" she said softly and then stiffened. Her mouth puckered angrily and her frown was clearly Molly Weasley's. "I will hex him to Kingdom-come!" Her raised voice was very piercing over Harry's ear and brought him back to earth with a thump. His hands registered her hardening muscles, but not his mind.
"Hex who? What is it, love?" Harry had learned -rather painfully- not to snatch mail from the youngest Weasley, so he was reduced to craning his neck to read over her shoulder. Ginny didn't make it any easier by waving the letter about to emphasise her annoyance.
"Frederick Fabian Weasley!" she said in a screech worthy of Hedwig. "When I get my hands on you! Ooh! Just you wait!" The letter waved again, blurring Fred's writing in Harry's line of sight. He held out his hand in a pointed gesture and winced when Ginny slapped it in his palm harder than he would have liked. Somehow, Ginny got to her feet unassisted and stormed around the room in one of her usual attempts to let go of her fury at her prankster brothers. Her tirade formed a neat counterpoint to the apologetic tone of Fred's letter.
For the love of all things Gryffindor, don't let your wife see this or we'll be in the cart forever! ("I'll do more than Bat-Bogey him!") We had a bit of a mix-up with the owls and the Muggle post and I think we might have inadvertently ("I'll send him a Howler that'll go down in history!") revealed the location of your house. ("A series of Howlers!")
You did say I could contact Nev about the party ("A Howler a day for the rest of his life!") and that it was okay to give him directions. ("I'll curse his brains off and hand them back to him in a jar! Oooh!!") Unfortunately, Nev Floo-ed us late last night to ask why he'd got a letter for a Muggle television station and so I'm guessing that ("Oooh!! Where's my wand? Bugger that! I'll use my bare hands!") the television place has got Nev's letter instead.
You're more likely to know what they would do with it, Harry mate, old buddy, partner-in-crime, fearless Auror, but I'm begging you-on my knees and everything- ("Harry? Oooh!") please don't let our Ginny find out about this!
Having read the gist of the letter, Harry took a slow deep breath. He wasn't sure what irritated him more, the idea that Fred thought Harry would keep secrets from Ginny, the fact that the twins had screwed up the posts or the knowledge that he would have to cast the 'Vetare' again, just when Ginny had most need of it.
"Harry?" The Auror looked up at the uncertain note in his wife's voice.
She was facing him, standing in the middle of the room. A patch of wetness was staining her robe darker and her face convulsed as he stared stupidly; she reached out a hand to him, whimpering his name. "Harry?"
He was beside her in a flash, one hand on her tightening belly. "Your waters have gone, love." Her unusually short fuse and the tightenings suddenly made sense. He took a deep breath, suddenly weak-kneed. "You're having contractions. It's okay, I'm here. I won't leave you." The pungent sweetness of amniotic fluid assailed their noses.
Ginny held onto him as the pain washed down from under her ribs to her bladder. "It's too soon!" she wailed.
Harry supported her into the kitchen and Summoned the pot of Floo powder to him. "The baby decides, remember?" he said. "Let's get the people you need. I'll Floo your Lucina first." The powder was cast. "Lucina Bones!" he called and the emerald flames soon disgorged the redheaded Hufflepuff.
"Hi, Ginny, Harry. I was just thinking about you!" Susan said. She surveyed the scene professionally. "Budge over, Harry and I'll come through." The father-to-be helped her step through into his kitchen.
Susan Bones didn't look much different from their school days. She was still a similar size and colouring to Ginny but there, the similarity ended. Susan Bones was a very calm young woman who had found her place in life as a birthing witch. Her robes were dark intense blue, marked with the symbol of her profession; a black disc surrounded by prismatic rays. It reminded Harry of pictures of a solar eclipse that he had seen back in Astronomy classes. Ginny said it reminded her of an eye; the pupil and surrounding iris. It turned out they were both right.
At their first meeting to arrange for Ginny's birthing witch, Susan had explained it to them. How, in the distant past, the appearance of the sun during an eclipse was thought to be the divine eye watching over humanity and the first birthing witch guild, the Lucinae, had taken it as their emblem. Their motto was 'bringing them into the light'.
Susan smiled as she disengaged Ginny's ferocious grip on Harry's arm and transferred it to her own. "Come on, Gin. Let's get you more comfortable and have a look at what's happening." She looked over her shoulder. "Are you staying, Harry? 'Cos if you are, I'd change out of your uniform robes and wear something that doesn't matter."
With a brisk nod, Harry agreed. "There's something I have to do first, but I won't leave the house." When Susan had assisted Ginny out of the kitchen, Harry touched his contact button and heard Blaise's voice in his ear.
"What is it, Harry?"
"Ginny's gone into labour, so you'll have to do without me for a bit. (Blaise snorted.) Listen! I want you to do something for me… Go round to 'Weasley's Wizarding Weasley's' and bring both the twins in 'for a little chat'. Keep them separate and just sit on them for me."
"Will do." Blaise sounded unusually curious. "Er-is there any point my asking why?"
Harry grinned. "It's their fault those Muggles got into my home. Ginny read the letter they sent me and wants to emasculate them. Let them sweat for a bit."
Blaise chuckled. "So, the noble Auror has Slytherin tendencies after all! Can I look threatening and hint darkly at crippling fines and such?
Harry shook with silent laughter. "Feel free. Just don't tell them Ginny's in labour. I'll do that myself." A long groan captured his attention, drawing his eyes to the half-closed door. "Gotta go, mate."
He broke the connection and hurried back to his wife and her friend. He would see whether she wanted Molly to come over and forget about everything else. He would concentrate on whatever she needed. Ginny and the life she was bringing into the world was all that mattered to him now, everything else could go and fall off the edge of the planet for all he cared.
He was going to be a dad!
His belly fluttered with excitement and anxiety. This time he would be the onlooker while someone else- his Ginny- laboured and sweated, leaving him unable to assist, except for cooling her and letting her crush his knuckles together. Harry wasn't exactly sure he could stand by and watch Ginny suffer, knowing he was the cause of it. Well… fifty percent to blame. She had started it, that blustery February afternoon. Not that he had needed much encouraging…
"Harry! Get in here! I need you!" Ginny yelled. The Auror knew a command when he heard one. He moved. Speedily.
Finally! A Halloween to look back on with fond memories! He was grinning like the pumpkin as he went to take his wife's hand.
Harry had barely made it round the door when Ginny yelled out again. "Harry! What the Slytherin are you doing?"
Since her eyes were screwed up tightly as her body submitted to the contraction beginning to course through her, Harry couldn't take offence. He noticed that the carpet was sparkling slightly and guessed that it was some form of protective charm.
In the few minutes that he had been absent, Susan had been busy. Ginny's favourite armchair had been Transfigured into a longer and wider daybed, the geometrically patterned covers were also sparkling with the same protective charm. It even felt cooler despite the increase in the number of candles.
"That's nice," Harry said, catching hold of Ginny's flailing hand and liking the vague breeze that lifted his hair.
Susan gave him a smile of agreement. She had one hand on the top of Ginny's belly and a look of professional concentration on her face. "You get very hot when you're in labour, Harry. It'll make things a bit more comfortable for Ginny.
Ginny gave her husband's knuckles one last crush and relaxed gasping back into the bed. When she opened her eyes and saw him at her side, though, she frowned. "Harry? Why are you still in uniform? Susan told you to get changed. Why didn't you?"
The supportive smile slid right off Harry's face at her sharp tone. "What? Why didn't-You yelled for me and I thought that you were more-"
Ginny shook her head impatiently as she interrupted him. "Get upstairs and change. Go on! Jeans and a T-shirt. The ripped ones will do." Harry just gaped as his wife waved him away.
Susan bit her lip to stifle her giggle. That was the Harry she remembered from school, the one wearing the face like a Stunned pixie. She reached across her semi-recumbent client and patted his forearm encouragingly. "Go on. You've got a few minutes before the next contraction."
Harry started and began paying attention again. "Er-right. Okay. Won't be a sec," he added sheepishly and Disapparated.
Ginny huffed. "Honestly! What is he like? I swear he never listens!" She caught hold of Susan's arm and managed to sit more upright, leaning forward in an attempt to shift the sensation of weight off her aching back.
Susan made a whimsical noise of amusement. "You were a bit abrupt with him, Ginny." Then she giggled. "Pity you didn't see the look on his face! He couldn't have looked more startled if you'd hit him in the face with a wet Kipper!"
Ginny snorted at the image and then groaned as she felt the next contraction building.
In the room above, Harry heard the harsh breaths and swore when he fumbled the myriad buttons on his uniform robes. Why did his dexterity have to let him down when he had most need of haste? He tugged impatiently and sent buttons pinging across the room.
Two hours into the labour, Ginny tugged on his arm. "Help me up. Too hot," she gasped.
"Sorry, love, I didn't catch that?" Harry replied, supporting her easily.
Ginny was pulling at the neck of her robe.
"Help me get this bloody thing off, Harry. I'm boiling."
Harry hesitated and glanced across where Susan was busy with various herb sachets. Ginny growled as the fastening slid through her clumsy fingers. "Come on, Harry, you're not usually so reticent about getting me out of my clothes!"
"Gin-ny!" Harry coloured hotly and hoped fervently that Susan hadn't heard that. She turned back to them with some sprigs of sage and the somewhat smothered expression told him that she had.
Ginny read his head-down posture as embarrassment that the intimate revelation had caused him and tried to be patient with him. "I'm sure Susan has heard it all before. Come on, before I melt!"
As he fumbled with another set of buttons, Harry wasn't sure who was giving off more heat; Ginny or him.
Seven hours into the labour and Harry was going spare. With each contraction that rippled through Ginny's body, she was becoming more abusive. He wondered if this was normal. It wasn't normal for Ginny to use words that would make a hardened Hit-Wizard blush.
Not his Ginny anyway. Yeah, she would use the occasional 'damn' or 'bloody' but not the kind of stuff she was coming out with. What made it worse was that he wasn't entirely sure what some of the epithets directed at him actually meant.
He chanced a questioning look at Susan while Ginny was concentrating on getting through her current contraction. She gave him a heartfelt nod that let him know she understood. "Don't take it personally," she mouthed. "Be glad she can't use her magic!" she whispered with a twinkle in her eye. Thinking back to some of the threats his wife had tossed at him over the last few hours, Harry could only agree.
He wiped her hair back from her sweaty forehead as she fell back into the cushions, sucking in quick gasping breaths.
"You're doing really well," Susan said soothingly. She held a cup of potion to Ginny's lips and expertly trickled some into her mouth. Ginny gave her a pleased smile, rolling the liquid round her mouth before she swallowed.
"Some Muggles give birth in a bath," Harry said, a scene from a television documentary seen long ago at the Dursleys popping into his head.
Both women swung incredulous gazes onto him. "In a bath?" Ginny spluttered, staring at him as though he'd lost his mind.
"Gracious!" said Susan. "That sounds, different." Harry could tell that she was implying 'different' as in 'plain crazy'.
Using the breathing technique Susan had taught her to cope with the onset of the next contraction, Ginny grunted, "Harry, I'm having a baby, not a bloody mermaid!" The last word was dragged out as the force of the contraction took away Ginny's breath and the ability to speak.
With the strength of her grip trying to meld his knuckles into one bony mass, Harry again dabbed the cool cloth over her forehead and cheeks. He was holding his own breath and found that he was pushing in sympathy with her through each contraction. The muscles of his abdominal wall were going to be sore later but he was pretty sure that it would be nothing compared to Ginny's.
He heard some scratching at the door and a couple of yips. Glancing at the clock, Harry was shocked to find it was well past the time the Crups should have been fed and exercised. Feeling guilty, he remembered what had happened the last time that he'd forgotten to feed Parsley; she'd eaten a leg off the kitchen table. In mitigation, she had been pregnant at the time. Harry realised he also had to get Billy's forked tail severed soon before someone reported him to the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures.
"That was a hard one," Ginny groaned. She was lolling against Harry, astonishing him with the amount of heat her body was radiating.
Susan's head and shoulders popped into sight between Ginny's feet. She had been at the 'business end' checking on Ginny's progress and regarded them both with a big smile.
"Nearly there! Harry, now would be a good time to send for Molly."
Anxiety twisting his voice box into a lump which he could barely swallow past, Harry eased his bum off the arm of the extended chair and felt the pins-and-needles sensation rush down his leg.
"Gin-Sunshine, you have to let go if you want me to Floo your mum."
Ginny let go and even managed to give him a feeble shove. "Hurry up then, I can manage without you for a couple of minutes."
Harry Disapparated straight to the kitchen a second after she stopped speaking.
In the kitchen, Parsley and her pup, Billy, danced and yapped excitedly around his feet, causing Harry to curse as he tried to avoid standing on any paws or get tripped by their antics.
"Look-get from under my bloody feet, you stupid pair!" The Crups took this as a signal to take turns jumping up and down at him, with more excited barks and much tongue lolling. Harry thought fast.
He twisted his wrist, making his wand spring into his hand from his wrist holster and pointed it in the direction of the Crup's bowls. "Aparecium epulum!"
He had time to see a whole turkey carcass perched atop the bigger bowl as the canine equivalent of a feast appeared and then the view was blocked by two furry bodies who wasted no time in showing their appreciation of this largesse on their Master's part.
Dipping his hand in the pot of Floo powder, Harry shook his head. "Slow down before you choke!" he ordered firmly. Parsley lifted her head to regard him and Harry was sure he saw the mischievous Weasley twinkle in her eye as she wolfed down half a turkey leg.
Harry threw the powder into the flames calling out, "Molly Weasley!" When the grates had finished flashing past his eyes -a sensation Harry was convinced he would never get used to- he found the only mother he could remember beaming at him from her seat by the hearth.
"Is it time?" she asked brightly. It was then that Harry saw she had a small bag waiting on her lap like a sleeping cat.
"Yeah," Harry said, staring in bewilderment at the bag. He had to ask. "How did you know?"
Molly laughed fondly as she gestured for him to clear the Floo. "I'm her mother, dear! Now move over and let me through." Thinking that it could only be some kind of feminine intuition that he was lacking through being born male, Harry was about to do as she asked and then hesitated.
"There's something I should warn you about," he began tentatively. Molly waited but Harry didn't speak. He knelt with his body in Coombe Goodrich and his head in the Burrow and had no idea how to begin.
"Oh!" Molly exclaimed suddenly. "Is she cursing up a storm?" Harry's mouth fell open. This was clearly more female intuition.
He nodded stupidly, not sure how Molly would react to this. She always had been (and still was!) red hot on any bad language.
Molly got to her feet. "Good," she said placidly. Harry blinked but Molly hadn't finished. "I don't like to hear of a wizarding birth where the mother isn't cursing. When I was having Bill my Lucina told Arthur it was a sign of a magical child. Come on now, Harry dear, we don't want a fine for blocking the Floo."
The trouble started when Molly and then Susan tried to keep him out of the makeshift delivery room. They kept finding things for him to do, potions for him to make, and telling him that Ginny was 'fine'. It was playing havoc with Harry's nerves. He was the kind of man who recognised a feed of Nifflerdung when it was shoved under his nose and he couldn't help worrying about what they weren't telling him. Ginny sounded anything but 'fine'.
His mind wandered and he found himself wondering how James had coped. Had he paced the floor while Lily laboured to bring him, Harry, into the world? Had Sirius and Remus kept him company? Maybe they'd found some way to distract him. Or had James insisted on being with his wife?
Parsley and Billy were asleep on his feet, their bellies displaying lumpy bulges indicating that he had overfed them. While their weight would have seemed homely on any other occasion, at this moment, it annoyed the hell out of Harry.
His baleful glance swung from the cauldron of simmering water over the potion hearth back to the shadowed door to the sitting room, firmly closed against him. It didn't block out the sound of Ginny's drawn-out moans and grunts or the gently encouraging women's voices.
He heard Ginny make the same noise Parsley had once made when Ron trod on her tail and jumped to his feet. He'd had enough. He was past caring if her mother and Lucina didn't want him underfoot. He had no intention of being relegated to the sidelines. He couldn't take hearing her struggle and not knowing what was happening.
Ginny was his wife, dammit, he needed to be with her and he was sure she wanted him at her side too.
He reached the door in two strides and didn't bother to knock. He imaged the room in his head and Apparated in. Immediately, his attention focused on the flushed and almost naked form of his wife. Molly was holding one hand and urging her to push, while Susan held the other.
"Come on Ginny! The head is right there! One big push and-Harry!You shouldn't be in here now!" Susan gasped. Molly looked over her shoulder and also seemed very shocked to find him standing there.
"Tough!" Harry replied. He moved Susan aside and took Ginny's right hand, not surprised to find it was clammy. "I was there when she got pregnant and I'm bloody well going to be here when she gives birth!" he told them adamantly. Neither Molly nor Susan knew what to say and stood completely flabbergasted until Ginny's current contraction died away.
"Told… you," Ginny panted, giving him a weary smile.
"But, Harry… That's the way it's always been. Men don't belong in the birthing room!" Molly gasped.
Harry turned his green-eyed gaze briefly onto her. Her sleeves were pushed up and her hair coming down. "I don't know why. It's a sight more nerve-wracking being on the other side of the door when all you can hear is your wife hurting and you know that the only thing keeping you apart is a couple of centuries of tradition!"
Ginny had his hand in a death-grip. Her face turned an impossible shade of dusky red as she pushed for all she was worth. Harry squeezed back, aware there was little else he could do for her. "I'm staying! Muggle husbands stay with their wives," he added conversationally and missed the look of profound shock that Molly and Susan shared.
"I thought Arthur made that up," Molly muttered, trying to adjust the sheet that Susan had draped over the bottom half of the day bed.
"You can do it, Sunshine," Harry said. To Molly's further consternation, he hitched one hip onto the bed and moved as close to her rigid body as he could. "You can do it. Just think, no more cramp at three in the morning," he said in a persuasive whisper over her ear. "You can have Butterbeer again, you'll be able-"
"You're having the next one!" Ginny grunted.
"Let's have this one first, shall we," Harry murmured. The primal urge faded and Ginny leaned limply back. Harry kissed her temple. "Catch your breath."
Ginny's face twisted. "Here we go again."
Harry willed her along. He was soon caught in the cycle of push, gasp and pant until it felt like nothing else existed. Then Susan was saying something, sounding very excited and over the blood rushing in his ears, he heard both Molly and Susan gasp with delight.
"Pant!" Harry heard.
The next thing he felt was an elbow in the ribs. "Sh'means me, you prat!"
And in the next breath and a rush of fluid, a small wriggling dark red body was lifted up and delivered onto Ginny's much flatter belly. The little face screwed up at the sudden cold and light, the mouth opened and the next generation of the Potter line drew a first breath and used it to express displeasure.
"Bringing another one into the light. May he always walk in it and have your blessing." Susan murmured
"What was that?" Harry muttered. He swallowed hard and only by blinking repeatedly could he manage to see his child clearly.
"It's an old blessing, dear." Molly explained. She sounded near to tears herself as she expertly swathed the newborn in a fresh blanket "There you are, my little poppet! All snug again! Here you are, love," she cooed and handed the bundle up to the new mum.
A gasping and red-faced Ginny lolled back into the wiry body of her husband and examined their baby. Harry watched the perfect hands fanning as the miniature arms flailed around and wondered how something so tiny could generate so much noise. Not even Ron could sleep through that!
"Well, Mr Potter," Ginny said with a weary but still ecstatic grin, "You have a son."
Harry stared into the wonderful brown eyes of his wife for a moment before his emotions overwhelmed him. He hid his head in her shoulder, allowing the tears to overflow and be lost in the red tresses loose about her neck.
"Thank you," he mumbled, touching his lips to her sticky skin. "I love you."
He felt Ginny capture his free hand and move it across a soft blanket. Then another incredibly tight grip fastened about his index finger.
"Say hello to daddy," he heard Ginny's voice, rough with fatigue saying, and realised that what he could feel was the first touch of his son.
Rubbing his face discretely on his wife, Harry peered through her limp hair and felt his heart leap with joy at the sight of the baby gripping his finger fast. He had stopped bawling but his eyes were tightly closed.
"Well, what d'you think?" Ginny said softly.
"He's amazing," Harry said reverently, unable to find words for the maelstrom occurring inside him.
"Yeah, he is," Ginny agreed. "But you're still having the next one!"
That's all folks!
A/N. This fic originally stopped at the point where Harry goes in to take Ginny's hand. However, my Beta, Jelsemium, asked where the baby was. In seventy-two point. *grin* (And in RED print. Now I want to know what the baby's name is. And a sequel. -- J)
She got me thinking. I found a few ideas during a walk and extended the story, so if you like it, thank Jels. (Thank you, Baffy! -- J) If you don't, the fault is entirely mine!
A big thank you also to my pre-Betas Aggiebell, bart and Ninkenate who were kind enough to read through and offer advice and suggestions. If not for these folk, this fic would be much poorer.