The clock in the outer office of Importations Magique, Inc. struck five times as the secretary pointed her wand at the filing cabinets next to her desk and locked them all with one swift movement. A moment later a tall blond man with a receding hairline stepped into the room, locking his own door with a spell as he did so.
The secretary smiled. "It's good to be going home early, Mr Malfoy," she observed. "Will you be going directly home tonight?"
Draco shook his head and glanced at his watch. He had exactly a half hour to get to King's Cross Station. "Not tonight. I'm picking up my son from school," he said with a rare smile.
"It should be nice to have him home for the holidays," Draco's secretary commented. She put on her cloak. "I'll see you at half-five on Monday morning, sir."
With a glance out the window at the warehouse across the street, Draco said, "I appreciate your willingness to come in so early. Good night."
The secretary exited the office and clattered down the stairs to the main floor. Draco followed her a few minutes later, after making sure the last of his employees had left the building. As he pressed the button to close the overhead sectional door from the inside, he glanced up at the windows of the other warehouse. A lone figure on the top floor stood silhouetted against the glow of a lamp, obviously watching him. The door slid closed. The automatic lock slipped into place and Draco Disapparated as a shiver rand down his spine.
Because of the holidays, King's Cross Station was exceptionally busy, more so than it usually was early on Saturday evening. The hustle and bustle was such that if compared to the noisy corridors of Hogwarts during a passing period, the noise made by the travellers, trolleys and trains would have drowned the students' voices three times over. What's more, all those people made navigating from Platform 9 ¾ much more hazardous than Albus had imagined. True, he had gone home for the Christmas hols last year and hadn't given the crowds much thought at all, but now that his father was in a wheelchair, he was very much aware of them.
The Potter family's progress towards the street entrance was slow, not only because James was pushing the loaded trolley, but because people kept walking rudely in front of Dad's chair. Their disregard caused not only him, but Albus and Lily as well, to veer out of the way to avoid collisions. To Albus, it was as if his father didn't even exist because his head wasn't at people's eye level.
Finally, the family reached the street entrance and Albus' mother hastened away. When Lily asked where she was going, his father explained their new van was in the wrong car park and that she needed to move it to the one belonging to the hotel. Albus nearly heaved a sigh of relief that their pedestrian trials were nearly over, but then thought better of it when he discovered there were as many people outside the station as there were inside! The family continued past the entrance and out into the covered area in front of the station.
"Hey! Watch it, man! You nearly ran me down!" an annoyed tourist carrying two huge bags screamed at Dad, who had pulled up sharply when the man had crossed his path from the left. It was suddenly clear to Albus that his Dad truly hadn't seen the man.
Oh, Merlin! Dad still can't see anything coming from his left! he realized as the tourist pushed past James and the trolley. His father's apology fell on deaf ears as the man hurried away.
Albus sidled over to James. In a low voice, he said, "We need to protect Dad. Lily and I'll walk on his left if you'll take his right a little ahead of us."
James nodded. "Good plan. That bloke was out of line," he muttered. The boys took their positions as the family continued towards the curb to meet the van. The plan worked because people seemed to want to avoid the trolley more than they had Dad's chair.
As the four Potters reached the curb, Dad patted Albus' arm, making him look down. "Thanks, son," he said and Albus could see the grateful expression on his dad's tired face.
They reached the curb and Albus sighted his mum standing next to a large blue van. "There she is," he remarked unnecessarily.
"James, bring the trunks. Albus, you help him put them into the back," Mum directed, pointing her key fob at the van. There was a loud click as the doors parted. "The hotel is just across the street. Honey," she said looking at Dad, "do you want to walk or ride?"
"I'll walk," Dad answered and Albus thought it a strange term to use as he helped his brother stack the trunks in the cargo space behind the last seat.
"Can I go with you, Mum?" Lily asked.
Mum smiled at Lily and held out her hand. "Come along, my little pixie," she said, making Lily blush. She helped Lily past the driving seat and then entered the van herself. "See you in a few minutes," she called as James shut the back doors and took the trolley to a nearby trolley park. Albus waved as she started the van and pulled out into traffic.
He heard Dad sigh. "It'll be all right, Dad," he said, even though he was panicking inside. Mum had forgotten to tell them the name of their hotel. "I'm sure she'll be back to get us."
"She will. We should have gone with her," Dad said in a tired voice. He pointed to his right. "Let's go over to that pedestrian crossing. I think your mum said the hotel was that way."
The three Potter men slowly made their way towards the intersection, Albus on his father's left, James on his right, both boys walking a pace or two in front of his chair. They reached the crossing without mishap and Dad stayed back and to the side to allow people access to the street. Albus stood as close to his father as the wheelchair would allow and put a hand on his shoulder. To his surprise, his father rested his head on Albus' hip and closed his eyes.
Five minutes later, Lily appeared on the opposite side of the street. She waved wildly to get their attention and then beckoned to them to cross with the next light. Albus gently shook his father's shoulder, waking him. It was nearly dark as the Potter men followed Lily into the hotel.
Mum greeted them in the middle of the lobby. Dad looked surprised as she said, "All set. We're on the second floor next to the water fountain."
"You've already checked us in?" Dad asked, sounding dismayed. "That's always been my job."
Mum just smiled at him. "You wouldn't have known what to remind the receptionist about, dear," she said, "since I was the one to make the reservations."
Dad looked as if he was going to protest, but Mum just continued in an unnaturally patient tone, "Not here, Harry. If you want, we'll discuss this in the suite."
"Fine," Dad pouted and waited while Mum led the way out of the lobby and down a corridor lined with doors to the lift.
Their suite was everything Albus imagined it would be. The hardwood floors of the common area gleamed in the glow of the recessed lights in the ceiling. Mum showed Albus and James their room and the boys spent a few minutes squabbling over who would sleep on which side of the bed. Then James asked their mum where the pool was. She told them and the two Potter brothers quickly changed, grabbed a towel each from their ensuite and raced each other down the corridor to the lift. They had just dunked each other in the deep end when their dad appeared at the door.
"May I join you?" Dad asked, rolling his chair close to the edge of the pool.
"I didn't know you could swim," James commented. He hoisted himself out of the water and stood by Dad's chair. "Do you need help getting in?"
Dad shook his head. "No, son, I don't. Just stand back and let me show you what I can do." To Albus, his father sounded rather proud of himself.
However, James didn't move, instead looking as if he was poised to offer assistance even if it wasn't necessary. Albus caught the annoyed look on his father's face as he repositioned his chair and prepared to slip out of it and onto the pool deck.
Mum must have told James to help Dad even when he doesn't want help, Albus realized as his dad pushed himself out of the chair. At the same time, James lunged forward as if to catch their father, but the two collided and fell into the pool with a tremendous splash.
"James, you idiot!" Albus yelled when his brother surfaced.
James yelled back, "It's not my fault he wouldn't let me help!"
"Dad doesn't want your help!" Albus shot back.
"How do you know, you little twit—" James countered.
"You two, stop fighting!" their father yelled, cutting through their argument. Both Albus and James looked towards the sound. Their father had somehow managed to get all the way to the other side of the pool. "James, get over here and explain yourself."
Albus watched as James swam across the pool and stood in front of their father who seemed to be lounging by the side of the pool with one arm on the deck. The pose looked relaxed, but as Albus moved closer to hear his brother get scolded, he saw the muscles in his father's arm tremble with the effort of holding up all his body weight.
"I'm sorry," James mumbled. "Mum told me I was supposed to help."
"When I want your help, James, I'll ask for it," Dad said. "Do you understand me?"
James hung his head. "Yes, Dad."
"Good. I'm glad we've cleared that up. Now Albus, would you get the float I brought with me, please. It's in the bag," Dad said, looking at Albus.
Albus brought the float and attached it to his father's legs as directed and then stood back. With a grateful smile, their father pushed off from the side and swam towards the deep end with powerful strokes, his legs trailing behind him just under the surface. Seeing his father so at home in the water caused Albus to cheer.
"Brilliant, Dad! Wanna race?" he offered. When his father grinned, Albus swam over.
"James, you be the judge," their father instructed with a smile.
James counted down and the race was on. Albus knew he was a good swimmer, but to his surprise, his father beat him to the shallow end by almost a body length… and he wasn't breathing hard, either!
"My turn for a race," James requested. "You up to it, Dad?"
Their father smiled. "You're on. Albus, please count down."
This race was a tie and James demanded a rematch, which their father won. After that, the three of them slowed down and did laps until Mum came to tell them to dress for dinner.
0222 hours, Sunday, 20 December 2020
Something in the night woke her. She didn't know whether it was the strange bed—she'd slept in enough of those lately—the hotel noises, someone walking out in the corridor or her own worries surfacing long enough for her to wake, but whatever it was had her wide awake and staring at the ceiling. Beside her, Harry shifted in his sleep. He had chosen to sleep in his right side tonight and when Ginny moved, he stretched out a hand as if seeking to know whether or not she was still beside him; he sighed, sounding contented, when she touched his fingers.
Ginny waited a few minutes and then withdrew her hand. Harry was deeply asleep again, so he didn't protest, nor did he object, when she slipped out of bed. She found her wand on the bedside table and wandered into the suite's common area after donning her dressing gown.
The suite had a huge window overlooking the street below, and Ginny went over to it and pulled the curtains apart. At this hour the street was nearly deserted and she could feel its loneliness. She let the curtain fall back in place and went over to the tiny kitchenette looking for a mug and a teabag. She found both, filled the mug with hot water from the special spigot in the sink, and took her steeping tea back over to one of the chairs by the window.
As she sipped the hot liquid, her thoughts strayed to the surprises awaiting her family back at Snidget's Haven. She was proud of what she'd done to improve the house and she hoped Harry and the children would accept the changes without question, even though she hadn't prepared them. She thought the boys would find the spellwork and mechanical additions rather interesting, but she worried that the ramp outside the front door would bother Harry immensely. She hated how it advertised that an invalid lived in the house, but what could she do? In her whirlwind of making changes during the first two weeks after Harry's accident, she had done things she should have taken more time to think through, she knew that now; Ron and Hermione had tried valiantly to dissuade her from changing the house so drastically, but she hadn't listened and now her guilt was finally catching up to her.
I'll tell Harry in the morning, she decided, he needs to be prepared for how ugly the front of the house is now…
She finished her tea, and even though she was far from sleepy, she went back to bed, telling herself that she could assuage her guilt during the drive home.
Harry sat up straight in his wheelchair, peering in anxious anticipation as Ginny swung the van between the decorative gates and onto the drive leading up to Snidget's Retreat. He'd always loved watching the house reveal itself bit by bit as the drive curved this way and that, following the contours of the land until it straightened out and the house was there in front of him, three storeys of magnificently old brick, mortar and slate-shingled gables. Twenty years ago when Harry and Ginny had taken possession of the Potter family estate, the house had been almost as in need of repair as Grimmauld Place had been. Now, after a tremendous amount of work, it was Harry's pride and joy, a home he was proud to call his.
As Ginny pulled the van closer to the front entrance, Harry caught sight of something that made his blood boil. "Ginny," he barked, barely controlling his temper, "what is that attached to the veranda?"
Smiling, his wife turned to him. "I see you've found the wheelchair ramp," she said. "There's another one out back as well." She accelerated a little as if to pass the house.
"Stop the van, Ginny," Harry ordered angrily. "I'm getting out."
"Harry Potter, you'll do no such thing!" his wife commanded.
"Then stop the van and tell me what the hell you did with the stairs at the front of the house," Harry nearly yelled. He ignored Lily's startled squeak from the rear seat as he swore. "I built those stairs with my own hands, using MUGGLE carpentry techniques! They're my steps! I laid each and every stone and mortared them in place BY MYSELF!
"That monstrosity is a blight on the front of the house! Vanish it or I'll find a wand and do it myself!"
"Calm down, dear," Ginny said evenly. "The stairs are still there. The carpenters just covered them up."
"Carpenters?" Harry shouted. "When did you bring carpenters into our home? What did you have them do?"
"Well, for starters, they built the ramps to Muggle specifications, installed bars in the master bath, lowered the clothes racks in your wardrobe…"
Harry put his head in his hands. "I don't want to hear any more about it," he told her. "I can hardly wait to see how you've ruined our house."
"Ruined! Harry James Potter, I've done no such thing. I've improved it, in fact, so that you can live here with us." Ginny stomped on the accelerator pedal so hard the tires spun on the snow-covered drive. When at last they found traction, the van lurched forward so fast they nearly hit the garage doors. Harry was very glad when they came safely to a stop.
Monday, 20 December 2020, 1354 hours
Albus wandered about the house marvelling at the ingenious accommodations his mother had installed to make his father's life easier. There were spells on all of the lintels, which magically widened for the wheelchair to pass through without changing the appearance of the rooms. The short flights of steps leading up to the library or down into the sunken reception and great rooms would become ramps when his father's chair approached and stopped for two seconds. Even his father's wardrobe had been enchanted to gently move the clothes rods about so he could choose his robes and shirts each morning.
The most creative addition, however, was the lift. His mother had converted the old dumbwaiter that, in times long past, had been used to transport food and beverages and goods from the bottom of the house to the attic, for use as a one-man lift. The shaft had been magically widened; the walls, floor and ceiling of the lift itself had been enlarged to accommodate his father's chair with a decent amount of head- and elbowroom; and the machinery had been strengthened to adjust to the extra weight. When anyone stepped inside and closed the half-door, all they needed to do was tell the lift what floor they wanted and they'd be whisked away to their destination. To Albus, that was a pretty brilliant piece of magic.
Despite all the new magic and the good tidings the Christmas season was supposed to bring, the Potter house wasn't a very happy place to be at the moment, and in actuality, Albus was trying very hard to avoid his parents. It was only early afternoon and he was tired of listening to them bicker. Growing up a partial-Weasley, Albus was used to family squabbles and often enjoyed joining in himself. However, this felt very different, almost as if his parents were in some sort of power struggle.
It had started after dinner last night. Albus, James and Lily had been sitting on the floor of the great room playing Exploding Snap while their father read in his wheelchair and their mum did needlepoint in her favourite chair with her feet up. Then Dad's book had fallen on the floor when he'd reached for his tea cup. Instantly, Mum had jumped up and retrieved it for him, even as Dad had reached down to get it himself. Dad had told Mum to sit down and then proceeded to calmly pluck his book from the floor; Mum had sat down and scowled at him for five minutes.
Later, Dad had left to go upstairs by himself. However, Mum had followed him to help him operate the lift. When he'd proved that the little rehearsal earlier in the day had been enough for him to remember what to do, Mum still had insisted on activating the lifting spell and then Apparated upstairs to meet him. Her appearance in their bedroom had been met with angry words and the rowing had begun. Dad had kicked Mum out of the bath… twice; told her to sit down at breakfast when he wanted more coffee; patiently found the book he wanted in the library by himself, even though it was on a shelf high above his head; and fetched his own jacket, even after Mum had sprinted into the kitchen from another part of the house to get it for him, when he had wanted to go outside and inspect the wheelchair ramp at the front of the house. He wanted to see if it could be moved or at least be made invisible. Each time, Mum had huffed that she could have retrieved, opened, lifted, poured whatever it was he wanted faster and easier than he could and each time Dad had told her to let him alone, he could do it himself!!
Albus had become very tired of listening to the arguing and had quietly put on his father's work coat and gone out the back door. He was now half-way down the wheelchair ramp sweeping the snow carefully off the boards and inspecting them for ice. It made him feel good to be doing something useful. When he finished the ramp, he grabbed the snow shovel and attacked the white drifts on the path to the garage, scooping and throwing the fluffy white stuff a little harder and farther into the garden than necessary. When he reached the pavement in front of the garage, he thoroughly cleared the huge space, a job that usually took the combined efforts of two of the five Potters. Tired and cold, he finally trudged back to the house, hoping it would be quiet. It wasn't.
Albus stomped up the stairs and slammed the door to his room, sealing it with a spell… under-age magic laws be hanged.
Harry finally escaped his wife's haranguing and rolled down the ramp at the back of the house. He'd seen Albus shovelling the snow off the ramp and path earlier and was thankful for his son's efforts as soon as his wheels hit the pavement leading to the garage that stood a little behind the house. It was slow going for more snow had blown over the stones again, but eventually, Harry made it to the access door without mishap. Taking a key from his pocket, he inserted it into the lock and let himself into the cold darkness of the building, closing the door behind him. A moment later, the beam from a small torch he carried illuminated the workbench at the back of the room. Harry quickly located a kerosene lamp he kept handy and rolled over to light it with a Muggle match. He now had just enough light to see what he'd come to look at.
The bright yellow, two-passenger Ferrari sat gleaming in the middle bay of the three-car garage between Ginny's BMW and the van, compact, sleek and very new. It had been Ginny's birthday present to him back in July when he turned forty, and Harry could count on his fingers the number of times he'd driven it before his accident. It had been his weekend car, a vehicle in which he'd tested his driving skills on the twisting roads of this county and the surrounding ones. He'd felt marvellously free sitting behind its wheel, especially when his sole passenger had been his lovely wife, who had enjoyed those drives as much as he had done. He closed his eyes, forcing down the sadness that threatened to overwhelm him with the realization that he'd never drive the beautiful sports car again.
Finally, he picked up the lamp and rolled over to the driving side of the Ferrari. He placed the lamp on the floor and opened the door, running his hand lovingly over the tan leather driving seat and appreciating the soft smoothness of the interior workmanship. He inhaled, pleased that the new-car smell was still present.
One last time… he told himself. All I need is one… last… time…
Then, one thing led to another and he hoisted himself into the seat, swinging his legs under the wheel and placing his foot on the accelerator pedal. He closed his eyes, imagining the sensation of the powerful engine pulsating through his body as he drove and the responsiveness of the controls as he guided the Ferrari along the road. Finally, sadly, he let the images fade away and opened his eyes again. He couldn't keep the car; there was no place to store his wheelchair, nor did the manufacturer make hand controls for this model—he supposed he could have the car converted by the NHS mechanics, but it still wouldn't be the same… This was a walking man's vehicle, and Harry couldn't walk.
With a tremendous sigh, he opened the door, and manoeuvred himself back into his wheelchair, shutting the door for the final time. He allowed his hand to trail over the smooth metal as he rolled back to the workbench to put away the lamp. Maybe he'd give the car to George instead of selling it: George was doing well enough that he could afford the insurance for a Ferrari, which was as expensive as adding another teen driver to one's policy. Harry chuckled sadly at the thought as he extinguished the lamp and put it back on the workbench. Not quite ready to leave the quiet of the garage, Harry sat in the dark until he became cold.
He had just locked the access door when a worried voice called softly across the darkened garden. "Dad, are you all right? Did you fall or something? Mum was getting worried when she couldn't find you."
Harry sighed. "Yes, James, I'm fine," he answered, trying valiantly to keep the emotion from his tone. "Tell your mum I'll come inside in a moment."
Ginny had started dinner while her husband was Godric-knew-where. He'd left their bedroom in the middle of an argument saying that he wanted some peace and quiet and to be left alone. Well, if he wanted to be left alone, who was she to complain? But first, she had plenty of laundry that had come home from Hogwarts to do. After he'd left, Ginny had spent a good half-hour down in the cellar sorting it by hand and starting a load of whites, wondering as she always did where her sons found the dirt and mud that clung to their uniforms. Her new surprise this term was the Muggle make-up smears she'd found on several of Lily's white blouses and the collars of almost all of James' uniform shirts… Hmmm… that merited an investigation later on…
Now, as the washer took care of the mud and make-up, Ginny threw flour, yeast, a little sugar, salt, some water, some milk and an egg into a large bowl and, grabbing a wooden spoon, began making bread for dinner. The dough came together quickly; it was rather sticky, so Ginny dumped it out on her floured kneading board and charmed a bench knife and some flour to work it smooth while she prepared the rest of the meal. A little more flour, a pinch of salt, a bit of lard and some cold water made a quick crust for the fish pie—Albus' favourite dish—that would bake at the same temperature as the bread. She followed this up with a few quick swipes of her wand, causing several heads of broccoli to wash themselves and separate into florets for steaming. By the time she'd accomplished all this, the dough was smoothing out and was almost ready for rising.
However, Ginny wasn't quite ready to set the dough aside to rise; she always needed to finish the kneading herself to make sure the gluten in the flour was fully developed. After cancelling her charms, Ginny dusted her hands with flour and began folding and pushing the dough. It felt good to do this physical work; she often used the repetitive task to relieve stress, think things through and calm herself down if she needed to. Tonight was no different; she let her mind wander, wondering what she was doing so wrong that she and Harry were constantly at each others' throats. They'd always been amicable—not like Ron and Hermione and their years of constant bickering at all—and suddenly, Harry was home after an absence of two months and she couldn't do anything right! He'd even threatened to search for and find his wands so that he could relocate the wheelchair ramp to the far side of the house, the ungrateful wretch! How ridiculous was that? The family never used the side door, the one that led to the library terrace; they always used the back door since it was closer to the garage.
What bothered Ginny the most, though, was Harry's threat to find a wand and use it. She worried that if he did get hold of a wand, he'd undo all the good things the long months of no magic had done for his brain. According to Healer Stilwell, Harry needed at least six more wandless months to regain his peripheral vision on the left side and also stabilize his magic again after his brain injury… she understood that if he used magic before he was ready he could jeopardize his sight at best and become a Squib at worst! But did he? She had no idea because they hadn't talked about it…
Ginny jumped as a warm hand touched her arm.
"Mum… Mum! You can stop kneading the bread now," she heard Lily request quietly. "It needs to rest and rise."
Shaking her head to clear it, Ginny said an absent, "Thanks, Lily," and gently patted the dough into a ball. She then placed it in a greased bowl, which she sat on the cooker, the warmest place in the kitchen even when she wasn't cooking.
Lily came over to her and pulled her into a hug. "Everything's going to be all right, Mum," she said. "We're finally all together as a family again."
The thought made Ginny smile, even as a single tear dripped down her cheek.
A/N: Just a couple of quick thank yous this time… To my pre-beta team of Jedi34, Mutt n Feathers, RebeccaRipple, and RSS, thank you for being so indignant about Ginny's treatment of Harry in this chapter. Your complaints led me to add a new section to the next chapter and I hope you realize how valuable your comments are to me. To Aggiebell, my beta, thanks for all the new commas as well as your continued support and help in posting this story.
And to my readers, thank you for your continued support. I appreciate all the reviews more than you know because watching the hit counts go up does get lonely. Also, to my readers at SIYE, thank you so much for voting for my story in the Silver Trinket Awards; I was happily surprised to find For Love of Family had garnered enough votes to earn an Honourable Mention in the Best Drama category. I sincerely appreciate your loyalty.