Once Ginny Levitated the last of the nappies onto the line, she listened reflexively.
No sound from the cot. No sound from either of the boys’ rooms.
No pop at the front door. No creaking steps.
Ah, well. He’s coming all of the way from Mumbai. And Hermione is sure to have made him write everything up before letting him come home.
Though Hermione would certainly have headed home with little Hugo long ago.
It was funny. Not so very long ago, Ginny would have been desperate for him to return for very different reasons. She’d have greeted him in the front hall wearing nothing but a smile. They probably wouldn’t have bothered to make it upstairs; they’d have shagged right there on the carpet. On the stairs. On each landing. Over and over.
Now, Ginny just needed him here. The last thing in the world she wanted was for him to see her body, which hardly felt like hers. The next to last thing was him—or anyone—touching her. She’d had Lily pulling and chewing on her all day, and one or both of the boys tugging at her legs.
All day, every day, for the last two weeks.
When Hermione had asked Harry to go, two months ago, his being gone a fortnight hadn’t seemed undoable. After all, Ginny’s mum had offered to help, and Audrey had said she’d be happy to take the boys for at least four or five afternoons. There’d been no way of knowing that two days after Harry left, Audrey—Muggleborn that she was—would come down with Dragon Pox, and certainly no way of knowing that Audrey would not only be laid up at St. Mungo’s, but that Mum would end up up to her ears in grandchildren, since once she’d agreed to take little Molly, Bill’s and George’s kids had to come too, hoping to be exposed.
James and Albus had already been exposed, oh, yes, and Lily was too young, and so all of Ginny’s relief was wiped out in one fell swoop. And Harry, of course, had offered to come home, but really? Ginny hadn’t wanted him to. She could remember very well how exhausting international Portkeys were, and could hear how the idea of turning around and leaving the conference overwhelmed him. And of course, he was supposed to be presenting the keynote address.
Besides. Ginny’s mum had hardly had any help other than occasional visits from Mary Lovegood, and she had had seven. Dealing with two little boys and a baby hardly seemed a challenge in comparison.
Bloody hell, Ginny groaned, flicking her wand to light the fire under the kettle. How did my mum survive? How did we survive? It’s a wonder she didn’t kill off the lot of us.
Harry really was good with the kids—amazing, given that the Dursleys certainly hadn’t taught him a bloody thing about parenting. And with the boys, they’d split most of the duty pretty evenly—but that was before Harry was made head of the Aurors, before Ginny retired, before Kreacher took to his nest—and before Rose and Hugo and little Molly and the rest had made Molly Weasley’s Drop-in Kidlet Minding Service much less available. And before Lily.
And so, for the last six months, Harry had been going off to work and Ginny had been staying home. The only reminder of her former life was an occasional bit of fan mail (Ginny always seemed to have a huge fan-base of eleven-year-old girls and fifteen-year-old boys; somehow, they never got any older) and the rapidly diminishing monthly royalty statement from the sales of pics and gear with her name or image on them.
Would any of her fans want a picture of her as she looked now? Passing out in the kitchen, wild-haired and grumpy in a bathrobe that had once been Charlie’s? Not bloody likely.
The water began to boil. After a moment of staring at it dejectedly, Ginny started, leapt up and plucked the kettle from the hob. Stupid. Don’t let it wake the baby.
Never wake the baby: rule one.
But Lily wasn’t moving.
Breathing. But not moving.
Ginny filled the pot and watched the steam swirl up like memories from the spout as she sat in the battered old wingback where she’d breastfed all three children. Silence. Still silence.
She had wanted to have sex the night before he left. He had certainly wanted to—had been very vocal, for Harry. They’d made a date. And then her monthlies had come. And he’d been very understanding. But when he’d left the next morning, he hadn’t been able to keep from looking disappointed.
A long bath. Maybe they could take a long bath. Together. Touch and be touched… But, a long bath…
Letting the tea steep, she let her head fall back and closed her eyes and let cool, dark—
A hand touched Ginny’s cheek, pulling her out of the cool, dark… “Go ‘sleep,” she murmured.
“I want to,” said Harry. “More than anything. But if I let you sleep here, you’ll have a terrible neck ache in the morning.”
Ginny blinked open her eyes. Harry had stepped over to the cot and picked up Lily’s limp form; the baby’s shock of auburn locks seemed to blaze on his shoulder. Ginny blinked again. “You’re home.”
“Welcome home.” She stood up to give him a kiss, but he was already levitating his bag out the door.
“Thanks,” he said. “Come on, let’s all get up to bed.”
A long bath…
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and the fog from her head, Ginny followed him up the stairs. Somewhere around the time that they reached their landing and deposited Lily in the nursery, Ginny finally felt something like awake. Together, she and Harry walked quietly across the hallway to the bedroom they shared. Without even thinking about it, Ginny cast the Silencing and Monitor Charms they always used on those nights when they wanted a little adult time together. She turned back to Harry, about to suggest that they adjourn to the bathroom.
He had already begun to unpack.
“Stop,” muttered Ginny. “Come here.” She opened her arms and he stepped into them, kissed her lightly, and then sighed, leaning his head against her shoulder. What? “So. How was the conference?”
“Great,” said Harry, unmoving.
“Uh-huh. Travel tough? International Portkeys are exhausting.”
“Yeah. Not too bad.”
“Uh-huh.” Not too bad, my arse. “And they liked your speech, your owl said?”
“Yeah. At least, no one seemed to fall asleep.”
“Uh-huh.” She leaned back and looked at him. He seemed to be gazing at their carpet, which had been here since the Blacks, and which Harry had never noticed before. “Harry?”
“Yeah?” Still he didn’t meet her eyes.
“Who the hell is she?”
He blinked and gaped, looked down and spluttered. “I… It isn’t… There…”
Ginny had watched herself get angry many times over the years—she knew that her temper was a problem; she had worked hard to get it under control. Now, however, she gloried in feeling the flame burst through her. She pushed him with both hands so that he tripped over his bag and had to sit awkwardly to keep from falling. “Who the bloody hell is she?!”
He opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came out.
Ginny threw her arms around herself, trying to keep herself from howling, from kicking him.
Finally, looking down again, he managed a croak. “I didn’t. Nothing happened.”
“Oh? Really? Who. Is. She?”
He curled into himself, disappearing into his black robes so that only his nose and eyes were visible. “Ginny, I swear…”
She tried to hold in a scream—thought she had, but he flinched as if she hadn’t, so she couldn’t tell.
“I was going to tell you, I promise, I just… You see too much for your own damned good.”
“Could you actually say something here? Because whatever the bloody hell it was that you swear you were going to tell me can’t possibly be any worse than what I’m imagining just now but you’re taking so BLOODY long to tell me that what I’m imagining is getting pretty BLOODY bad. Now, what the hell has got you acting like one of the bloody boys who’s been caught sneaking bloody biscuits—and if you do anything now other than just tell me about it, Harry, I swear I’ll bloody kill you and then call bloody Hermione and tell her you splinched yourself to death on the way home. Now tell me what the hell this is all about?”
“I didn’t…” he began, but something in Ginny’s expression must have terrified him because he looked down again. “In all the years we’ve been together,” he whispered, “I’ve never touched another woman. I’ve never kissed, or slept with—”
“Harry,” growled Ginny.
“This last fortnight, all I could think about was you, and it’s awful, but all I could think about was making love to you — at dinners, or in meetings at the Indian ministry. Surrounded by all these people from around the world, and all I could think of was you, that last night…”
That last night. Him standing there, pouting like she’d taken away his favourite toy.
Harry sighed. “The night I gave the speech, there I was, spouting all of Hermione’s rubbish about ethics and Legilimency and all I could think about was you...”
“If you think you’re making this better by telling me you were thinking of me while you shagged some—”
“I didn’t shag... anyone.”
“Harry.” Ginny stood there, focusing on breathing, the sharp sting of her nails digging into her biceps almost a relief. “Spill it. Now.”
He shifted, sitting there on the ground, pulling his legs off his bag and into his chest. “Our... My hosts.”
Ginny blinked. “Padma and Parvati’s aunt and uncle?”
“Yes.” He stared down at his knees. “But... Mr. Kamananda, he’s much older, over a hundred, and he left in January. He’s been on retreat, up in the mountains. Seeking... something or other.”
“Yeah?” Ginny wasn’t sure where the hell he was headed with this, but if he didn’t get there soon, she’d slice his bloody bollocks off.
He nodded, as if he’d said something sensible. “Mrs. Kamananda...” He looked up at her, green eyes dark and sad. “Mrs. Kamananda.”
“Mrs...?” She gawked at him. “Are you trying to say...? You were having it on with the Patils’s aged bloody aunt?”
“Told you,” he said through gritted teeth, “wasn’t having it on—!”
“You got a thing for old women, Harry?” She gawked down at her husband, who was staring obstinately away from her. “An old crush on McGonagall? What in Merlin’s name—?”
“She’s thirty-two. Her mum was the Patils’s granddad’s third wife.”
Ginny sank to her knees. Now the image in her head was of a woman with Padma and Parvati’s dark beauty—slim and sensual, exotic... Everything that Ginny emphatically was not. “Oh.”
Now Harry looked up, and he had the bloody brass to be crying. “She... reminded me of you.”
“I...” His eyes dropped back to the floor. “Yeah. Of you. Not looks or anything. She’s... Um. Rounder. But...” He grimaced, and a tear leaked out along the bottom rim of his glasses. “She’s the head of India’s Aurors. And we’d got to know each other pretty well, planning for this event. I’d always thought she was much older too, so I’d got really comfortable with her, telling her all about you and the kids, and—and...” He shook his head and looked up.
Ginny could only barely manage simply to stare back.
He shook his head again. “She’d insisted I stay at their house—she didn’t know her husband would be gone. And then, when he left, she owled and said that I’d still be welcome, but that she’d be happy to put me up at a local hotel, which seemed, I don’t know, silly, so...”
Ginny had heard some of this during the weeks leading up to the fortnight; she’d been so focused on trying to make sure that all of her ducks were in a row—how pathetic—that she’d barely listened. If she’d thought about her at all, she’d visualized Harry’s hostess as a slightly darker version of her own mother. Maybe a bit older. Certainly not... Rounder?
“So I stayed with her. And she was very... welcoming, very cordial, when I showed up. She’s never had any kids of her own, so the first day I was there, all she wanted to hear about was you and the babies. When Audrey got sick, she immediately suggested I go back, and I would have, but you said I shouldn’t, and...”
He shrugged. “The conference... It was bloody boring. All of those MLE types from around the world, most of them boring as hell, most of them desk beaters, never actually using their wands for anything other than filing. Shakti, though—Mrs. Kamananda—she... She’s like me, come up from the ranks, a Hit Wizard before she became an Auror, and every night, we’d head home—back to her house—and talk about what we’d heard, and laugh about all of the stuffed shirts and... She made me laugh, Gin. No one but you and George and maybe Ron has made laugh like that in...”
Laughter. Ginny had been too bloody tired for any laughter lately. Certainly not in the past fortnight.
“And... I don’t know. I found myself thinking, Here, she looks nothing like Ginny—different shape, different colouring, different, well, everything—but here’s someone I could have...”
“Could have what?” Ginny willed the edge out of her voice, but it wanted to be there. “Could have snogged in front of all of the Gryffindors? Could have got a leg over on? Could have shagged in every room of the house?”
He answered slowly, quietly, “Could have had a life with. Could have loved. Yeah.” Again he looked up, but now there was a familiar kind of determined fire in his eyes. “Last night, when I’d finished my speech, and was feeling so bloody relieved, and people seemed to have liked it, what I found myself most caring about was... she liked it. We went home and I sat there while she talked on about how hard it is to walk the line between respecting people’s innate rights—to their own minds, to their own thoughts—and trying to protect the rights of the people you know these Dark bloody bastards are trying to hurt, and it was like... Like you, when you’re excited or hacked off. It was... beautiful, and I took her hand, and I... she looked up at me, her face all dark, and... I came this close, Ginny. And I know, she had to have been—she’d told me, when I asked... It’s been hard for her, having a husband so much older, and now he’s not even there, and I know she had to have been thinking about it, just like I was. Fuck. I’m so bloody sorry.” He reached out and grabbed Ginny’s hand.
She shivered. But she didn’t pull away. “And?”
“What—?” He blinked at her, more tears splattering the insides of his glasses. “That’s it. We looked at each other. And then she started to talk about how important it is for an Auror to know himself. Herself. And to know where the lines are. And always to be careful never to cross them. She was talking about Legilimency. And the Unforgivables, and all that. But she wasn’t. We both knew she wasn’t.”
“And that was it. We went to bed. To our separate rooms. Not that I slept. Today, we went to the last few panels—we spoke on one of them together—and then she brought me to the Portkey Terminal in Mumbai, and....” He held up his free hand as if to say, Here I am.
Ginny looked at him. At the guilt warping his face. And she began to laugh. For the first time in weeks.
Harry goggled at her. “What...? What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” she snorted. “Merlin, Harry. You... All of this because you thought about another woman?”
He ducked down his head, looking exactly like three-year-old James when he’d been caught getting into the sweets. “Isn’t that enough?”
Ginny’s laugh deepened to a kind of sob. “Oh, yeah, I guess.” She held out her arms to him. “C’mere, you bloody idiot.”
He slid across the floor into her embrace, his legs sliding beneath hers. He moved to kiss her, but no—not yet.
“Harry,” Ginny said, “do you honestly think that I never thought about anyone else when I was touring with the Harpies? Do you honestly think that there was never a time when we’d fought, or when I’d been on the road for a bloody month, or when you were on some bloody assignment and we hadn’t seen each other in what felt like forever, and some pair of twinkling eyes wouldn’t make me think about what it would be like? And yeah, I know, it’s not just snogging or sex, yeah, I get it. But, Harry—I never did anything about any of those times. Any more than you. And believe me, a lot of the chances I had, they’d have been a lot less careful about toeing the line than Mrs. Kam-bloody-ananda. I could have had a different man—or woman—in my bed every night if I’d wanted to, and I’d have had to be a bloody statue not to think about it. But I had you. And I knew none of them could ever be that.” Now she kissed him, and he sobbed. “And I also knew that you’d never mess about on me. And I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Yeah.” He pulled himself even tighter to her, weeping into her neck. “Oh, yeah.”
“Fidelity... isn’t about feelings, or about thoughts, love. It’s about what you do with them.” She kissed him again, and he kissed her back, and to her astonishment, she found that they were both really, really right there—kids asleep, imagined lovers more or less forgot—and she began to unbutton his robes. “There’s a reason Aurors aren’t supposed to use Legilimency, after all,” she murmured into his lips. “Sorry I lost it. Sorry I pushed you, even though you deserved it, you git.”
He laughed, hands finding their way beneath her second-hand bathrobe, and Ginny decided that, after she’d killed the Kamananda woman, perhaps she’d have to thank her.