Except for the distant murmur of voices from the kitchen, The Burrow was quiet when Ginny and George Apparated into the sitting room. Ginny could hear the soft sounds of cauldrons bubbling and the wonderful aromas issuing from the kitchen told her her mother was determined to continue her traditional holiday meal in spite of the fact that two of her family members were missing.
"Mum, we're back," Ginny called as she and George followed the sounds. They shrugged off their cloaks and went to hang them to dry by the fireplace. Curiously, the pegs were almost empty, signalling that many of their family must be outside again and for a moment, she wondered why.
Her mother looked up with a smile and exchanged a look with Hermione, who was helping her. Mum bustled over to them, first squeezing George and then engulfing Ginny in one of her patented hugs.
"Oh honey, I'm so glad you're back," she murmured. "How are you, really?"
"Much better now, Mum," Ginny said. "I think I'm ready to be myself again."
Hermione came over and hugged her, too, whispering in her ear, "Welcome home, Ginny."
Ginny nodded her thanks, looking around. "The house is awfully quiet. Where is everybody?"
Her mother smiled and glanced at the kitchen door. "They're all out at the pitch, even Harry," she said, sounding a bit amused.
Ginny looked at George who shrugged. Then fighting the urge to offer to help, she said, "I'd better get out there, then, let them all know I'm home in one piece. Come on, George. I think something's afoot."
"Go on, you two. Hermione and I have everything under control. Dinner won't be until half past eight, you have plenty of play time," their mother chuckled. She walked over to the cooker and peered into the oven before poking something inside with her wand. Ginny and George left the two to their cooking.
The sound of happy laughter reached them long before the two emerged from the trees surrounding the torch-lit paddock. Whatever her family was doing, it wasn't Quidditch. The game had a much different sound than this did. Then, as they emerged from the wood, George pointed to something in the air, making Ginny stop in her tracks: Harry was flying in slow laps about ten feet off the ground in what looked like his wheel-less wheelchair. She stood rooted to the spot, greatly conflicted by her emotions as the urge to scream at Harry to get down and the elation that he was actually flying fought for dominance. Her happiness that Harry was once again enjoying the thrill of flight finally won and before George could stop her, Ginny had pulled out her miniaturized broom and enlarged it.
As she swung her leg over the tail of her broom, she said to George, "Well, are you coming or not?" and with a whoop of joy that echoed round the paddock, Ginny leapt into the air and joined the group surrounding the crazy contraption her husband was flying.
As George joined the group, Ginny flew to a position to Harry's right. "Having a good time?" she asked Harry, but including everyone else, too.
She was answered by a chorus of enthusiastic responses.
"Aunt Ginny! Yeah, great!"
"Look at Uncle Harry fly!"
"Hey, Mum! Glad you're back!"
"You're riding your Quidditch broom, Mum, sweet!"
But it was Harry's surprised and pleased "Ginny!" that made her heart sing and she slowed just a little so that she could fall back and watch her husband pilot his chair.
"When did you get back?" he asked.
"Just a few minutes ago. Mum told George and me you were out here, but not what you were doing," she answered.
"Erm… am I in trouble?" he asked, sounding apprehensive.
"Why, should you be? Are you having fun?"
A wide grin spread across Harry's face. "I am now," he said, and leaning forward a little, he surged ahead, scattering the members of his phalanx with a war whoop and eliciting laughter and "Go, Uncle Harrys!" from the now-disorganized fliers.
They flew several more laps before Harry indicated that he wanted to land. Her motherly instincts kicking in, Ginny agreed, and she and Lily left the air with him, leaving Albus and James to race a few more times around the paddock with their cousins. When they reached the ground, Ginny dismounted and handed her broom to Lily, who flew off with it back towards the house.
"Ginny, I'm sor—" Harry began, but stopped when she threw her arms around him in an awkward hug and kissed him tenderly on the lips.
"Please, Harry, no apologies, not from you… never from you. I'm the one who needs to apologize," she whispered. She kissed his cheek and then pulled away. "We'll talk later… together and… as a family. Right now, I'm enjoying looking you in the eye without having to stoop over." She kissed him again and he responded eagerly.
"I could get used to this," Harry said, sounding dazed when they broke apart.
"So could I," she agreed happily. She studied him for a few seconds. "You look tired. Do you want to stay out here or go in?"
"Both," he said, making her chuckle, "but I'd rather stroll over to the pond with you instead. Is it… is it too much to ask?"
Ginny shook her head. "No, it isn't, as long as we can hold hands like we used to. Can you pilot that thing with one hand?"
Harry answered, "Most likely. I've had enough practice, I think."
He reached for her hand and they entered the wood, following a different path than the one from the house. They travelled in silence for a bit, Ginny enjoying the feel of Harry's calloused fingers in hers. As they emerged from the wood, Harry cleared his throat and began telling her about being coerced into trying the flying chair.
The story lasted until they reached the pond, the sound of Ginny's amused laughter echoing off the surrounding woods. They settled in their favourite spot, Ginny sighing contentedly after she conjured a long-legged stool the right height for Harry's broom-chair. She climbed up and leaned over to kiss his cheek. Harry turned his head and their lips met hungrily, but no matter how hard she tried, Ginny couldn't keep the tears at bay.
"I'm… I'm so s-s-sorry, Harry," she whimpered. "I've completely ruined Christmas for you and the children. You must be awfully angry with me."
Harry's hand caressed her cheek. He shook his head as he said, "No, Ginny, not angry. Confused and hurt, yes, but never angry. Why did you leave?"
Ginny pulled away, but still clutched the hand she held. "I needed some time to… to… decompress… I suppose that would be the right word. I suddenly realized this afternoon that even though we'd had than talk the other night, I was still expecting to be the family house-elf rather than your wife and the mother of three nearly-grown children. I've… I've programmed my thinking for so many months to centre on the needs of my family that I haven't taken any time to relax, to be me, since you were hurt."
In the moonlight, what little colour there was in Harry's face seemed to drain away. "I… we… we talked about that," he sputtered. "I thought we'd cleared all that up the other night."
"I thought we had, too," Ginny admitted. "But it hit me as I sat in the kitchen that I suddenly didn't have anything I needed to do and… with nothing to do I felt superfluous, useless, and restless. The feeling was so overwhelming I just had to leave. I needed to let those emotions out or I'd scream."
Harry squeezed her fingers. "I'm sorry you felt that way, my love," he said. "Could you… could you not have found me to have another talk?"
Ginny closed her eyes and shook her head. A tear leaked from her right eye as she asked, "Where in that crowded house would we have found the privacy we needed for such a talk?"
Harry smiled lopsidedly at her. "The chicken coop?"
The ridiculous answer made her smile, too. "My father's shed probably would have been a little better."
Harry was silent for a bit and Ginny allowed her gaze to wander over the wind-swept pond. Finally he asked, "Where did you go?"
"I Disapparated home to get my Quidditch kit and then went to Holyhead where I spent a couple of hours flying drills and zinging Quaffles past an enchanted mechanical Keeper," she answered. "That's where George found me."
"Did Quidditch practice help?" Harry asked.
Ginny nodded. "It did. I… I… wish I'd taken the time to practice like that before this," she admitted. "I know you've talked about working over the punching bags at The Groves, but I never thought I'd need something like that."
Harry pulled her towards him and kissed her forehead. "Ginny, love, I'd like to help you in any way I can. Do you need more time to yourself while the children are home?"
"Yes, I do, but I also want some time alone with you; time like this, time without children or healers or extended family where we can talk or just hold each other like we used to before you were hurt," she said.
"Then we'll find that time. The children are old enough to look after themselves for a few hours, I imagine," Harry said with a wicked grin on his face. "I have a few ideas of what we can do already."
Liking his idea very much, Ginny said, "Care to share?"
"Not yet," he said. "Now come here. Let's see if this broom-chair will support both of us."
Giggling happily, Ginny crawled onto his lap. The chair sank in the air under her added weight, but the jury-rigged brooms kept them in the air. They stayed that way until Hermione's otter Patronus bounded across the pond to announce that dinner would be ready in ten minutes.
Albus set his plate on a nearby table and leaned back in his chair feeling full from his grandmother's excellent meal and happy that his family was whole again. He was still a bit worried that Mum might still be upset and that he and his siblings had been the cause of her disappearance that afternoon. Despite his misgivings, he realized his parents were sitting quite close to each other on the sofa with their hands clasped between them so that his mother was forced to eat her dinner with her left hand.
He was satisfied, too, with her promise of a full explanation for her disappearance following dinner, so he looked about, impatiently willing everyone in the sitting room to finish. As if on cue, Uncle George and Aunt Angelina stood up, motioning to Fred and Roxanne to leave, too. They were followed by Grandmum and PopPop who shooed the rest of Albus' cousins out from under the Christmas tree, leaving only the Potter family where they sat.
As the door closed behind Louis, his mum pulled out her wand and sealed it.
"I owe you an explanation," she said as Albus and his brother and sister moved their chairs closer to their parents.
"Why did you leave?" Albus asked before he could help himself. "We were worried when you went missing."
James elbowed him in the ribs hissing, "Way to go, Al. Make her feel bad before she even has a chance to say anything."
Mum turned to them. "Boys, I deserved that. It's all right to let me know how you feel about my running away without telling anyone because your dad and I would have wanted an explanation if any of you had run away."
Albus levelled an I-told-you-so look at James who shrugged and turned his attention back to their mother.
Mum sighed, looking sad for a moment. Dad tightened his grip on their clasped hands as if to give her some encouragement. Finally, she said, "James, Albus, Lily, I left because I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the realization that you and your father didn't need me as much as I thought you all did. I felt restless and useless and overwhelmed by the fact that I didn't know what to do with myself because the four of you were entertaining yourselves."
"Why did you feel like that?" Lily asked.
"I'd become so used to doing everything for your father after he was hurt that I'd transferred the idea to you three when you came home from Hogwarts. Even after your father and I talked last week, the feelings remained bottled up inside me and this afternoon when I was watching you have fun with your cousins, I wasn't having fun. I needed to get away, to release the tension inside me or I felt…" She stopped as if fishing for the right way to say what she felt.
"… like you were going to explode," James finished for her.
Mum's eyes widened. "When… how come…" she sputtered.
James' gaze shifted from one parent to another and Albus caught his dad's nod. "The first day Kendra and I visited Brian, I felt like I was going to explode with all the stuff I was feeling. Dad showed me a positive way to take out my anger on a punching bag to let it all out," he said as his eyes again found their mother.
Mum leaned over and patted James' knee. "I'm glad you understand, James, and I'm sorry your head was so full of emotions and thoughts that you needed that kind of an outlet," she said.
"But Mum, I'm glad I felt those things," James protested. "They made me want to help Brian more, to really be his friend even though he's in a different house than I am and we were once Quidditch rivals."
That made Mum smile. "Then something good came out of it," she said. She cleared her throat and spent a few moments just looking at Albus and his brother and sister. At length, she spoke. "I owe you three a huge apology. Not only for disappearing, but for assuming that I needed to do everything for you once we were all back at Snidget's Haven. It wasn't fair of me to think of you as being little children who needed constant supervision or couldn't shoulder your portions of the household chores. It made me crazy and all of you angry."
"We were angry at you because you were making Dad feel useless!" Albus exclaimed. "The two of you were arguing so much all we wanted was to go round the house with our hands over our ears!"
Lily's head bobbed as she tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggled, "We did!"
"James," Dad said, speaking for the first time since the family meeting had begun, "you were the one to make your mum and me realize what our arguments were doing to our family. We never thanked you for being so grown-up in that instance, for making us face the truth." He held up the hand in which he clasped their mother's. Al couldn't help grinning as Dad continued, "You helped us start to find what it means to work together as husband and wife again."
Al couldn't help it. He groaned as Lily giggled, "They're getting all mushy on us!"
James sat where he was, his face a nice shade of Weasley red.
After a moment, Mum cleared her throat. "We do need to talk about us as a family, though," she said. "Getting away today helped me realize that none of you are helpless, any more than your father is." Dad's startled and pleased expression told Albus that this was the first he'd heard those words coming from Mum's mouth. She continued, "Uncle George told me when we talked today that our family needs to agree on how you're going to help me as much as how I'm going to mother you." She brandished her wand, conjuring a huge piece of parchment. "So… here's what I'm willing to do."
She tapped the parchment; on it appeared a list of everything Albus recognized as things he counted on his mother doing daily. Even before Mum had a chance to say another word, Lily had her hand in the air. "Mum, I can help with meals," she said, her eyes dancing. "So can Al and James. If you want us to take over getting lunch once we get home I want to do it."
Mum nodded, looking at them expectantly.
James spoke up, "I didn't like it when you didn't let me keep track of where all my stuff was last week. I'm used to knowing where I've left my books and bag and Quidditch kit in Gryffindor Tower. When you cleaned up after us, I didn't know where anything was. Would you let us leave things about the house, even if we're required to clean up each night?"
Again Mum nodded, this time tapping the parchment with her wand. Both Lily's and James' suggestions appeared.
Not to be outdone, Albus volunteered, "I'll try to keep my room cleaner and put my laundry in the chute each night so you don't have to come looking for it." He skewered James with a glare. "And we will be neater in our bathroom."
Lily heaved a sigh of relief, making the whole family chuckle.
Mum cocked her head to the side. "Albus, you bring up a very important point. All three of you make an awful lot of laundry when you're home. I don't mind doing it, but it seems to me that it's time we had some lessons in self-sufficiency, that is, how to wash your own clothes," she said, making Albus and his siblings groan.
"Why?" James asked.
Dad answered quickly, "So that you're not reliant on someone else to clean your clothes all the time. When I moved into my own flat after the Second War, I had no idea what to do with my dirty clothes except take them to a Muggle cleaner's because my aunt and then Grandmum and the Hogwarts house-elves had always done them. That's a very expensive—and a rather embarrassing—thing to have to do. Besides, you'd be helping your mother…" He let the sentence dangle as he levelled his gaze at all three of them.
"I'm not sure I'd like having someone I didn't know going through my under things," Lily admitted. She looked at Albus and then at James; the two shook their heads, agreeing with her.
"All right, then, I'll let you give me lessons," James said with a long-suffering sigh that caused more giggles and Albus and Lily to agree, too.
"I think that takes care of us," Albus said, looking at the list, "but what will Dad do?"
"I'll help out wherever I can, Al," he said. "Your mother and I have talked about what my limitations are now that I'm beginning to do magic again and how I feel when she does everything for me: like you, she made me feel useless and dependent when she didn't let me do the things I'm capable of doing, things I've re-learned to do while sitting in my wheelchair." He was quiet for a moment. "Would it bother you if I helped you three with your tasks sometimes?"
"Not as long as it means Mum can have some time to herself," James said, giving Al and Lily his big-brother look. Lily giggled again. "We like working with you, Dad." He glanced at their mother and added hastily, "And with you, too, Mum."
A smile caused their mother's wrinkles to appear around her eyes. "Good, because I realized this afternoon that what I was missing most were the moments I spend with each of you doing something together. I also realized that if we work together as a family, we'll all have the time to do things together like we used to last summer." She cleared her throat as her smile morphed into the wicked grin Al hadn't seen in months. "I think," she added, "I think I missed out on a pretty brilliant planning session when you three were designing the flying broom-chair."
Al felt his eyes widen. "You… you would have wanted to help?" he asked incredulously.
"Absolutely, Al," she said, looking fondly at their father. "I would have helped because it would have meant your father and I could see eye-to-eye without sitting on a sofa."
As she finished, Dad leaned over and kissed her on the mouth. Al couldn't help it, he whispered, "Eewww! Disgusting!"
Chuckling, Mum pulled back to face him and said, "James can tell you, Al, it's not going to be too much longer before you'll change your mind on how disgusting kissing a girl is."
"If you say so," Al muttered.
Dad looked at Mum. "You reckon we're done here?" he asked with a yawn.
Mum smiled. "I think we are," she said. "All right, you three, let's seal this agreement with a family hug."
Al was the first one out of his seat, grabbing the coveted spot next to Mum. He didn't know why, but he needed the hug and as James and Lily joined them to form the family huddle, a sense of peace settled over Al and he knew things really were going to be better once they went home again.
2045 hours, Saturday, 26 December 2020, Boxing Day
Harry sat at the bottom of The Burrow's stairs in his wheelchair waiting for his wife to come down. His sons and nephews had reluctantly put the wheels back on the chair that morning after one last fly around the paddock, but only after extracting a promise from Harry that he would seriously look into purchasing two hover chairs once he was back at The Groves. When he had asked the reason for purchasing two—because they were rather expensive pieces of equipment—the boys had answered with much hemming and hawing that they wanted one to experiment on before they made the final adjustments to Harry's permanent "Quidditch" model.
Now, as he remembered how excited the boys had been, Harry realized that he was nervous about tonight's outing. He wasn't nervous about who his dinner companion would be, he was nervous because he had no idea what to expect from the little village of Ottery-St Catchpole's only sit-down restaurant that wasn't a pub. Arthur had not recommended he wear the jacket and tie Harry had wanted to wear, so he had settled on his Christmas jumper (an intricately-knit Irish pattern that looked as if it had taken hours to complete), a button-down shirt and a pair of dark blue wool trousers. Ginny, he knew, was still upstairs with Hermione, Fleur and Angelina conferring over what she should wear.
"It's a nice little restaurant," Arthur had told him. "The atmosphere gives you privacy and the food's plain and simple. You get plenty of it, too. Oh, be sure to leave room for pudding. The treacle tart is almost as good as Molly's."
That had made Harry smile, and he smiled again just as footsteps on the stairs signalled that Ginny had finally emerged from her childhood bedroom.
"Merlin, you're beautiful!" he exclaimed as his wife came into view. She blushed prettily, causing her sisters-in-law to giggle behind her.
"I'm presentable?" Ginny asked as she came to stand in front of him.
"More than presentable," Harry said appreciatively as his eyes feasted on the off-the-shoulder fuzzy white sweater and pencil-slim skirt that hugged her body in all the right places. "You ready?"
"I am," she replied. She pointed her wand at the flimsy sandals she wore and whispered, "Impervius."
Someone handed each of them a Muggle coat and a few minutes later, the two of them were driving down the lane that led to the main road to the village.
The Lute and Madeline Restaurant proved to be a pleasant surprise. It was modern enough to have a wheelchair ramp and the atmosphere was rustically romantic with plain white cloths and candles in holders on the tables. The manager himself escorted Harry and Ginny to a booth, suggesting that the two slide in together; Harry's wheelchair could be concealed beneath the table under the cloth, if he wished.
Sitting on the bench beside his wife, Harry smiled at the manager's retreating back. He was grateful to the man who had made it possible for him to pretend, at least for a little while, that he had walked into the restaurant and had sat down with ease next to Ginny.
"You look happy," Ginny remarked as they studied the menu.
"I am," Harry replied. "I'm sitting next to the most beautiful woman in the room."
Ginny blushed in the dim light. "Harry, I'm the only woman in the room," she giggled.
It was true. Harry and Ginny were the only diners in the restaurant at the moment. The streets of Ottery-St Catchpole had been nearly deserted, Harry reckoned, because of the holiday and the tendency of the Muggles living in the village to want to stay indoors because of the cold weather.
Harry ordered a bottle of wine to go with their meal and they lingered over their shared pudding—a slice of triple chocolate raspberry-filled gateau slathered in dark chocolate ganache—until their waiter suggested they continue their conversation next door at the pub which would be staying open until midnight.
They took the hint and Harry quickly paid their bill, adding a very generous gratuity along with a note of thanks to the manager and his staff for staying open when they had only one paying customer.
"Do you think your parents will have waited up for us?" Harry asked as Ginny pulled into the lane leading to The Burrow.
"Most likely," she grinned. "But I imagine they'll leave us alone if we ask them to. After all, we are adults."
Her remark caused Harry to grin hugely as he said, "Well, if they are, how about asking them to share a cup of tea with us instead? I happen to have some rather fond memories of tea and talk on the few special occasions I managed to take you out right after the war."
Ginny turned off the engine. "That's what won Mum over, Harry. She'd always loved you like one of her own, but the fact that you so willingly spent time with her and Dad showed her how much family meant to you, even when what I really wanted to do was take you out into the moonlit back garden and snog your brains out."
Harry reached over and captured his wife's hand. When she looked over at him, he said, "The only opportunity I ever had to talk freely with adults as a teenager—you know, no agenda to be covered—was with your parents. I still get that old feeling of being the most important person in the world when I'm one-on-one with either of them. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it, either."
"Then let's go see if they're still up," Ginny said, sounding happy, and taking her wand from her handbag, she released the restraints holding Harry's wheelchair in place.
Molly and Arthur were still up when Harry and Ginny entered the kitchen. Molly immediately jumped up with a pleased "I'll put the kettle on" and busied herself with preparing tea for four.
"Did you have an enjoyable evening?" Arthur enquired.
Harry smiled. "Thank you for the recommendation, Arthur. We did have an enjoyable evening."
"Good, good," Arthur replied as Harry and Ginny found places at the table.
Molly brought over the tea a few minutes later. As Harry sipped his tea, he watched his wife talk with her mother about the latest sale at the wool shop down in the village. Ginny looked relaxed and happy and he could feel that happiness radiating outward towards him.
"Tonight's dinner seems to have been good for both of you," Arthur observed, bringing Harry from his thoughts.
Harry looked at his father-in-law and felt his mouth curve into a smile. "It was," he said, nodding. "It was."
Not long afterwards, the four retired for the night. While Ginny extinguished the lights on the Christmas tree, Harry slid onto their bed, choosing to lie on his back. He was rewarded with an expression of surprise from his wife when she turned round, but when he opened his arms to her, she snuggled against his side. Harry fell asleep with his arms around Ginny for the first time in a long time.
A/N: I hope all of you who were anticipating Ginny's homecoming are smiling once again. Her talk with George seems to have helped her immensely and is now ready to let the rest of her family take back the responsibilities she took away. I hope you've enjoyed the chapter enough to give me your opinion on it as much as my pre-betas did.
Speaking of my pre-beta team, I thank Rosina Ferguson, RSS, RebeccaRipple, and Mutt n Feathers for their encouragement and comments regarding this chapter. I also thank my beta, Aggiebell, for being patient with me because I didn't send her the chapter until late Tuesday evening and she made the effort to get it back to me in time for posting. Aggie, you're a real trooper to put up with my tardiness.