Harry Potter sat propped up against the pillows of their bed, a book open in his lap, watching his wife brush her hair out in front of the fireplace. She used the same soft-bristled, silver-backed hairbrush she'd used all the years of their marriage: a wedding gift from her mother, along with a comb and a hand-held mirror. Her head was tilted to the side so the long, auburn tresses, lightly streaked with silver now, hung down over one shoulder, and she moved the hairbrush over them slowly, rhythmically.
She'd told him, years before, that brushing her hair one hundred strokes every night was the way she unwound. It became almost meditative for her; a way to let her mind rove over the events of the day and let them sort themselves out in her brain. Sometimes, especially in times of great stress, one hundred strokes would become one hundred fifty, or even two hundred. And though others might think watching someone else brush her hair boring, Harry never tired of it. It was one of the rituals of their marriage, like omelettes on Sunday morning and Wednesday lunches at home and counting the stars with their children on warm, muggy August nights.
Harry sometimes believed that her hair-brushing ritual was what had drawn him to her in the first place. Untrue, of course; it was her sense of humour and her fiery temper and her ability to pull him out of anything that bothered him, anytime, that had drawn him to her; her understanding of his funks, her flash of a bright smile when something struck her funny, the way she bit her lip when she was concentrating.
But as he lay there, watching the brush stroke over her hair, his mind drifted back over the events of their lives together. It seemed each one was punctuated by memories of her glossy, thick hair.
It was the summer before his fifth year, at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, sitting in the parlour with the Weasleys and Sirius one evening. He'd been playing chess with Ron when a flash of movement caught his eye, and there was Ginny again, brushing her hair, the firelight flickering over her red tresses. Only this time he could see her face, and he was taken with the expression of utter contentment she wore, as though nothing and no one existed but her and her entire being was taken up by the movement of the hairbrush. He remembered being drawn in, and feeling a vague sense of surprise that someone could be that content with their life. He'd not been content with anything at all since he and Cedric had taken hold of the Triwizard Cup, and yet there was something so compelling about her expression.
"Oy," Ron had said, startling Harry out of his thoughts. "You going to move, or are you planning to let me win?"
With a flush and a muttered excuse, Harry had turned his attention back to the game, but he'd not been able to avoid looking back at Ginny now and again, though she never seemed to notice. It occurred to him that, perhaps, there was something out there she knew that he didn't, and that was the reason for her contentment. If so, it was something he couldn't see; and he wondered, vaguely, if she might be willing to tell him.
He'd never had the courage to ask, and so he'd never learned; but he'd begun watching her more intently on that day, and discovered something he'd never known about Ginny Weasley: he envied her. All through that horrible fifth year with Professor Umbridge, and the even more horrible battle at the Ministry, he'd wondered what it was she knew.
Until the night of Sirius' death, and the subsequent loss of Harry's ability to care about much of anything.
For months after, his nightmares had been plagued with memories of Sirius' slow-motion fall through the archway with the veil. On these nights, whether at the Burrow that summer, or at Hogwarts during his sixth year, he had inevitably got out of bed and gone down to the fireplace in the lounge or common room, to sit and stare at the banked coals. More than once she'd been there as well, claiming she could not sleep either. They'd sat together in comfortable silence, and Harry had come to realise that sometimes being alone in company was far better than being alone by oneself. As dawn had broken, they'd both snuck back upstairs to their respective rooms or dormitories to avoid worrying the others, and Ginny always left Harry with a conspiratorial grin before she disappeared. That grin had never failed to raise Harry's spirits, even after a sleepless night; it was a relief to share a pleasant secret, for a change.
His sixth year had passed, therefore, in something of a haze, and yet somehow, she was always there. Never in the way, never bossing him around like Hermione or confusing him like Cho; she was just there, like a foundation stone: steady and firm, providing a compassionate ear when he needed one and a swift metaphorical kick in the arse when he needed that, too. In the summer before his sixth year, during some of those late-night fire-staring sessions, he'd begun helping her with this ritual of hair-brushing, and as the year progressed, sometimes he had even taken over the hairbrush altogether as she revised for her O.W.L.s. He'd discovered the incredible sensuality of her hair: its soft heaviness, the silky texture of it as it slid through his fingers like water, the fact that it wasn't purely red at all, like Ron's was; hers was a mixture of red and blonde and light brown and dark brown, colours that caught the firelight and drew him in until he'd realised he'd been brushing her hair for hours and everyone else was in bed. Even then, he hadn't wanted to stop. Neither had she. The whispers had begun, first amongst the Gryffindors, then through the whole school: Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. But for the first time since he'd come to Hogwarts, Harry had been utterly unconcerned about the whispering and pointing, the Slytherins' snide comments and Professor Snape's waspish tongue. For the first time since he'd come to Hogwarts—the first time in his life, really—someone else's happiness meant more to him than his own. It was both terrifying and freeing.
Then had come his seventh year, his N.E.W.T.s, and the battle—the horror of it, the grief at the lives lost, the sick feeling he got whenever he thought of the sheer waste, the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach when he'd finally faced Voldemort.
"Ready for me, are you, Potter?" Voldemort had hissed. It was just the two of them; the Death Eaters were too busy fighting Aurors and members of the Order to be with their master now, but Voldemort hadn't seemed to mind. "Ready to face your death? Look upon me, Potter. I killed your parents, and your Mudblood mother's protection can't save you now—your blood is a part of me now, and I no longer fear you."
And then Harry had seen it—the flash of red hair behind Voldemort, the determined look on Ginny's face as she readied her wand. She'd never forgotten the horrors of the Chamber of Secrets and what Voldemort's memory of himself had forced her to do. Seeing her there, he'd realised with awful certainty that she meant to kill him herself. Only she wasn't the one spoken of by the Prophecy; so if she tried, she would die. It was that certainty that had given him the strength to do it: to raise the borrowed wand—his own had been broken in the fighting—snap the words, "Avada Kedavra!" and mean it, with every fibre of his being. It wasn't a choice between himself or Voldemort at that moment—it was Ginny or Voldemort. There had been an enormous flash of green light and a horrific sensation of all the strength draining out of him, and as his knees had buckled, he'd had the satisfaction of watching Voldemort crumple like a rag doll, his eyes glazed over in death. When the darkness descended, it had brought peace as well as a last image seared onto the backs of his eyelids: a pale, heart-shaped face and long, bright red hair.
When he'd woken in hospital five days later, there was nobody there except for Ginny, who had chased them all out. She looked as though she'd never once left his side. Her face was drawn and tight, her eyes bloodshot, her face discoloured by dark circles showing she'd not slept well. Harry thought he'd never seen anyone so lovely.
As soon as she'd realised he was awake, she'd embraced him—carefully—with a soft cry, and he'd put his arms round her and held her as best he could, weak as he was. He still remembered that moment as though it had been yesterday: her small body half atop his, the strange trembling in his arms as he wrapped them over her, and the cold, hard feel of the back of the hairbrush against his arm—the hairbrush she'd had in her hand when she'd flung herself at him. She'd told him later it was only to give herself something to do to keep from running mad. Her mother had her knitting; all Ginny had was her hairbrush.
When at last he'd worked up the courage to ask her to marry him, it was on her eighteenth birthday. He was in Auror training, but he'd got leave to come home on furlough. They were walking near the old orchard. It was late; the moon had risen, and all the world was frosted in white. Except Ginny; she was as vibrant as ever, glowing in the moonlight as though it were the noonday sun. His carefully-rehearsed speech had flown out of his head, and without thinking, he'd blurted, "Marry me, Ginny."
She'd turned to him and smiled, and his heart had been utterly lost in that space between one heartbeat and the next. "Of course," she'd said, and he'd pulled her to him and done what he'd wanted to for so long—buried his fingers in her hair and kissed her with all the love and passion and throbbing joy he felt at that moment. He truly thought he'd never be able to love her more than he did right then.
He'd thought that until the day the midwife had placed their first child in his arms, red-faced and wrinkled and altogether beautiful. Elizabeth Lily Potter had opened her eyes to look upon her father for the first time, then yawned widely and stuffed her fist in her mouth. His fingers, looking to him like great bloated sausages beside his daughter's tiny perfection, had gently lifted the knitted cap away and smoothed over the full head of red hair. The love, responsibility, awe, and sheer terror that had descended over him at that moment had left him stunned, and he'd looked up at his wife helplessly. Ginny had simply smiled at him. That night, he'd rocked his child to sleep for the first time while Ginny brushed out her hair and watched. Elizabeth had fallen asleep fairly quickly, but Harry had remained in the rocking chair until nearly midnight, marvelling at this perfect miniature human that he and Ginny had created together.
Elizabeth had been almost five, James nearly two, when Arthur Weasley had fallen ill with a wasting disease that had taken nearly a year to reduce him to skin-over-bones. The Healers at St Mungo's did all they could for him, but at last he slipped away from them in the night, with Molly's hand held firmly in his own and his children and grandchildren clustered around him. That night, Harry and Ginny had taken the children home and put them to bed, and he'd watched, powerless, as she changed into her nightdress and took up her seat in front of the fire, hairbrush in hand. There she'd wept for her father, near-silent tears running down her face while she performed her evening ritual. Harry had wanted more than anything to take her in his arms and hold her, for his own comfort as much as for hers, but he knew the set of her spine when she sat that way: this was something she had to face alone, at least for awhile. So he lay in bed, his own tears soaking the pillow, his eyes on Ginny until he just couldn't keep them open anymore.
The clock had been chiming quarter to four when the bed had dipped and awakened him. He'd turned over and held out his arms, and at last she'd come to him. She'd lain on his chest, her tears soaking his pyjama top as they'd both wept out the agony of grief for the only father either of them had ever known, taken away from them far too soon. He'd stroked her back beneath her hair, finally falling asleep as dawn's first rays began to filter through the curtains.
That was nearly fifteen years ago. So much had happened since then—sending the children to Hogwarts, cheering them on at Quidditch, watching the children of the rest of the family grow and thrive in the safe world Harry and the rest of them had helped to create. For the first time, he began to understand the near-worship the adult witches and wizards had shown him when he'd first arrived in the Leaky Cauldron with Hagrid, when he was eleven; his apparent defeat of Voldemort as a baby had granted their children, his own generation, the chance to grow up in a safety their parents had not known since the first war had begun. No one who was not a parent could possibly have understood, but watching his children and nieces and nephews playing together during summer gatherings at the Burrow, he sent up silent apologies for every time he'd wished for a little anonymity, and gratitude for those who had fought and died. Knowing that Elizabeth and James would never know the terror of another war against Voldemort had made it all worthwhile; and he knew that every parent in the magical world felt the same.
Harry brought himself back to the present, and as was his wont, he began counting the brushstrokes, admiring the glossy shine of her hair in the firelight and its contrast with the forest-green satin nightdress she wore. It had been twenty-three years since the first time he'd lain in this bed and watched his new wife brush her hair, and aside from the occasional silver thread amongst the auburn, she hadn't aged a day. Oh, there were lines in her face that hadn't been there before, and her body bore the marks of two pregnancies and a pair of hungry infants, but in all ways that mattered, she was no different from the girl who had run after the train and danced with Neville at the Yule Ball and fought beside him in the Department of Mysteries and helped Chase Gryffindor's team to an unprecedented three undefeated years. He smiled reminiscently.
Her hundred strokes completed, Ginny set her hairbrush down and flipped her hair behind her, turning to look at her husband. "What is it?" she asked.
"Not many mothers of the bride come down the aisle at their daughter's wedding looking as gloriously sexy as you did today," he said, setting the book aside and holding out a hand to her.
Her mouth turned upward in an answering grin and she came to him, taking his hand and letting him gently tug her into his lap. "Nor do many fathers of the bride," she said, and kissed him gently. "I distinctly saw three of Elizabeth's friends staring at you throughout most of the reception, sighing dramatically."
"I didn't see a thing," he said truthfully. "Except the two most beautiful red-haired women in the world."
Ginny lay her head on his shoulder and he rested his cheek against it, a day's worth of stubble catching in the silky softness of her freshly-brushed tresses. "Where does the time go?" she wondered, a bit sadly. "It seems just yesterday she was running in, filthy from the garden, with flowering weeds for me to put in vases about the kitchen. Today she came down the aisle in bridal robes, with roses and orchids in her hands."
He placed a kiss on her forehead. "We knew this day would come the first time she brought Ian home for dinner," he reminded her. "He looked at her just the way I used to look at you."
"You still do," she said fondly, but the note of sadness was still there. "Do they have to grow up so quickly, Harry?"
"Not as quickly as we had to," he said softly. "And for that I will be forever grateful."
She squeezed him, and he squeezed back. "You know," she said, "we're only forty. We've still two-thirds of our lives left. Who's to say we can't start all over again?"
He raised his head and she looked up into his eyes with the look of mischief that had always so delighted him. He buried his hands in her heavy, glorious hair. "Who indeed?" he murmured.