A/N: Written for the July Challenge at Catchmysnitch on Live Journal. Prompt was: "Shoelace." Thanks to TDU and Sherylyn for the beta.
WARNING: This is a little more angsty than what I usually write.
"This is your uniform," Aunt Petunia said, showing Harry a faded blue pair of trousers, a limp white shirt, and a thin blue jumper with the Ivy Primary School's crest on it. "Dudley's is new, of course. But I was lucky enough to find yours second-hand and in a bigger size, so you can wear it for a few years. We spend enough money on you as it is."
Harry pushed the new glasses that the school nurse had insisted he needed up on the bridge of his nose. They had been bought on the N.H.S. and didn't fit him very well.
"And these are the shoes you'll be wearing." She dropped Dudley's old water-stained leather lace-ups on the polished kitchen floor. They were cracked and stiff from having been dried on the radiator too many times.
"Do I have to wear those?" he asked without thinking.
"Yes," she snapped. "They're perfectly good shoes with plenty of wear in the sole. If you hadn't pushed Dudley in the puddles they would still be nice."
"I didn't push Dudley in the puddles. He ran through them even though you told him not to!"
"Liar," Aunt Petunia said softly. Too softly.
He looked up anxiously. There was a small smile playing around her mouth.
"You'll have to watch that nasty habit of backchat whilst at school. The teachers won't like it."
His stomach turned. He had so many questions and worries about school, and already there was something about him that was going to make his teachers dislike him as much Aunt Petunia did. Then she gave him something new to worry about.
"You're going to have to learn to tie your shoes." Aunt Petunia smirked. "I won't do it anymore and the teachers won't help you. Primary school children are supposed to know how to take care of themselves."
A bolt of fear stabbed him. What was he going to do? Aunt Petunia had refused to teach him how to tie his shoes, even though she had sat with Dudley for what seemed like hours doing mysterious things with loops and talking about bunny ears.
He had no one to turn to. How was he ever going to learn?
From the uncomfortable large seat of the Cleansweep hovering over the shed, Ginny looked with dismay at her mother. What was Mum doing home?
"Ginny, get down from there," Mum yelled. "NOW!"
Ginny gulped and tried not to stare at the ground. It seemed a long way down and she had no idea how to land a broom. "But "
"Bill," Mum snapped. "You and Charlie go up and get her."
Ginny was half-relieved, half-disappointed when Bill and Charlie flew to her side and Charlie clambered onto the Cleansweep behind her. She was relieved that she wasn't going to fall out of the sky, but she wished Charlie would show her how to land the broom instead of just doing it himself. If she knew how to land, then she could practice flying on her own.
"I take one trip to Diagon Alley," Mum said as soon as they descended, "and this is what I return to find. The baby up on a broom!"
" I'm not a baby! I'm almost six!"
" We didn't know she was going to do that!"
They talked over each other, but Mum spoke loudest of all. "If I ever catch Ginny on a broom again, ALL of you will be punished."
"Mum!" There was a collective wail.
Ginny scrambled off of the broom. "But how am I going to learn?" She pulled at her mother's robes.
"You'll learn at Hogwarts. Where it's safe."
"Hogwarts?" Ginny was too shocked to cry. That was forever. She had to be eleven to go to Hogwarts. How could she wait that long? How was she going to learn?
Mum was still tired. Albus could tell by the way she sighed after everything she said. He didn't know why Mum was tired since it was he and James and Lily who had had dragon pox, and not the grown ups.
He and James were better, but Lily was still fretful. She had had the most sores and she still clung to Mum even now when Mum was trying to make dinner.
Albus was tired of Lily's whines and Mum's sighs and being ignored. Maybe he would go outside with James. He went to the backdoor and found his coat, but was dismayed to find his trainers were missing. When he finally located them under the piles of washing, he saw that the shoelaces were untied.
James must have done it. Albus's hands shook with anger as he looped one dirty shoelace over the other. James knew that Albus still had trouble tying his shoes and he had untied them on purpose. It wasn't fair not at all.
"Mum! James untied my shoelaces. I need help!" Albus called.
"Wear your Wellingtons, then," Mum snapped. "I don't have time to help you."
It was too much. Albus didn't want to wear his Wellingtons because they were hot and it was hard to run in them.
He was a big boy of five, but he wanted to cry. He couldn't make the shoelaces go into two loops. Instead they fell apart every time.
"Mum!" he whined in frustration. "I need help."
"I can't help you right now!" Lily was crying again and Mum had to raise her voice. "You can do it. Just try."
"You need to learn, Albus!"
Albus took off the shoe and blindly threw it at the door. How was he ever going to learn if no one would help him?
Harry ducked and automatically drew his wand as something flew past his right shoulder. When he realized that it was a shoe, and that he had his wand trained on his youngest son, he quickly dropped his defensive stance and tried to slow his rapidly beating heart.
Albus sat frozen on the floor, staring at him in horror, tears spilling from his eyes.
"Albus! What possessed you to throw that shoe at me?"
Albus was crying in earnest now. "I didn't mean to."
Harry rubbed his forehead and prayed for patience. He was hungry and tired and didn't have time to cope with this little scene before he was due back at work. "Albus," he said wearily, "just don't throw your shoes anymore." He took off his cloak and hung it on the peg.
"I wouldn't have thrown them if James hadn't untied them," Albus flared. There was a stubborn tilt to his chin that told Harry this fit of temper wasn't going to dissipate soon.
"Albus," he sighed.
"I can't tie my shoes," Albus hiccupped tearfully. "And Mum wouldn't help me."
"What?" Harry felt something hot and corrosive wash over him.
"Mum wouldn't help," Albus repeated. He had stopped crying because Harry was now swiftly tying his shoe for him and retrieving the other with his wand.
"I'll help you," Harry said forcefully. He tried to keep the emotion out of his voice, but he knew he had failed when Albus went very still.
"You don't have to," Albus said in a small voice.
Harry took a deep breath and fought the anger and the guilt. How could his son be reduced to feeling like he wasn't worth his time? "Yes, I do have to." He gripped Albus's shoulder. "We'll practice every night before you go to bed. Okay?"
"Okay." Albus sniffed and looked up at him trustingly.
He was so small and alone. How could Ginny not help him?
"What?" Ginny slammed her wand on the counter and tried not to thrust Lily's clinging hands away as well. "You have a lot of nerve, Harry."
"The poor kid was struggling and he had no one to help him. What kind of person refuses to help her own child?"
Her mouth dropped. "I couldn't GET TO HIM at that moment. It's not like he was on fire or hanging from a broom or being strangled by Devil's Snare. He couldn't tie his shoe, for Merlin's sake that's not fatal." Her eyes narrowed. "Just what kind of person do you think I am?"
"Ginny." He took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair. For the first time she noticed a rip in the shoulder of his robes and the circles of fatigue under his eyes. "I don't mean that. I just think you should make the effort to be more "
"Be more what?" With shaking hands she picked up her wand and lowered the fire under the cauldron. Then she cast a quick Bubble Charm on Lily, so Lily wouldn't hear their conversation. "Be more perfect? Pretty? Patient? What is it, Harry? I'm sorry I can't be in two places at once or that I need to sleep at least every other day or that I can't cure dragon pox overnight."
"I know the kids have been ill "
"How would you know? You haven't even been here "
"We had a case, Ginny."
"You always have a case. You're Head Auror don't you think you could learn to delegate?" Lily was tugging on her robes.
"Don't tell me how to do my job!"
"Then don't tell me how to do mine!"
"Oh, you're doing a bang-up job, Ginny. Look at Lily."
That was the danger of the Bubble Charm. If Lily couldn't hear them, they couldn't hear her, either. Ginny quickly scooped up her crying, pockmarked girl. Lily might not be able to hear them, but judging by her tears, she knew something wasn't right. "This isn't my fault," she hissed. "You're the one who came in here spoiling for a row and upset her."
"A row?" His eyes blazed. "I didn't think you would argue with me about Albus." He stared at her with something that looked almost like contempt in his eyes. "I never thought you could be so cold."
"Cold?" Her arms ached from holding her heavy three-year-old who was trying to burrow into her neck. The magic from the Bubble Charm pressed uncomfortably into the side of her face. She arched her back and tried to balance Lily on one arm so she could reach her wand to remove the Bubble Charm. "I don't believe you." Her voice trembled.
"And I don't believe you." He turned his back on her. "I'm going back to work."
"What about dinner?"
"I'm not hungry."
Ginny had succeeded in grabbing her wand but she didn't remove the Bubble Charm. She wanted to get in one last shot. "Aren't you worried I won't feed the children?"
He flinched but didn't turn around. "Don't go there, Ginny."
"You went there first!" she screeched.
He Disapparated without saying another word.
James shoved him in the arm. "Dad's angry because of you!"
Albus's stomach hurt. "It's not all my fault! You're the one who untied my shoes."
"If you weren't such a big baby, you'd know how to tie them!"
The kitchen window swung open and Mum's amplified voice came floating out. "If I hear another word out of you two I'm going to put Silencing Charms on both of you!"
They glared at one another. Mum would do it, too.
Baby, James mouthed.
Bully, Albus mouthed back.
That night, after a horrible dinner of stew with all the vegetables Albus hated, Mum sent him to his room for complaining. Then James must have been sent to his room, too, because Albus heard his door slam.
And Lily was still crying. Albus didn't think she would ever stop at this rate.
Albus curled up on his unmade bed after he kicked off his trainers without untying them. He didn't want the bother of trying to tie them again in the morning. His stomach still hurt and he wished he knew what he could do to make it feel better. Maybe James would know. Sometimes Albus hated his brother, but oddly enough, he never hated him at bedtime.
He crept out of his room, remembering to only open the door partway otherwise the hinges would creak. Once he was out in the corridor, he realized he didn't need to be cautious Mum wouldn't have heard him over Lily's cries.
James was on his bed making a fort out of the pillows, cushions and stuffed animals that cluttered his messy room. James was always making forts 'kingdom building', Dad called it. Albus liked James's forts because they were warm and dark and always had something funny or unexpected built into them.
For this fort James had attached the covers to a plush bear in a Harpies jumper that was raising and lowering its arms doing the Quidditch Fan Wave. Albus giggled as one end of the bed sheet flapped up and down.
"It makes a breeze," James said, poking his dark head out from the other end of the fort.
Albus crawled up on the bed and under the covers. James was lying on his stomach watching the sheet rise and fall.
"This is a good fort," Albus said, lying next to him.
"Yeah." James yawned. "I'm going to sleep."
Albus thought he'd sleep, too. It was pleasant under the blue, tent-like covers, listening to the soft rhythmic sound of flapping cloth. Here, he didn't have to worry about tying shoes or Mum and Dad rowing. His last coherent thought was that he was glad James never stayed angry for very long and that Lily had finally stopped crying.
Harry looked at the clock on the mantle. The hands for James and Albus were pointed to "sleeping like an angel." The angel part always made him smirk, but tonight he couldn't find any humor in it. He was disappointed that he had missed putting Albus to bed. He had promised to help him with tying his shoes, but now it was too late.
He sighed and looked at his watch. It was still early earlier than normal for the boys to be in bed. He wondered if that was a sign they were still ill or if Ginny had sent them to their rooms as a punishment. Sometimes it was good to break up the boys, but now he wondered how it made them feel to be isolated like that. Back when Aunt Petunia was sending him to his cupboard, it had been a relief to get away from Dudley, but mingled with the relief he had felt lonely and unloved, too.
He rubbed his forehead in confusion. Neither James nor Albus ever complained of being lonely. Half the nights they ended up sleeping in the same room. Maybe he had been too hard on Ginny. His memories were coloring everything.
"Oh, you're home," Ginny said.
He turned and saw that she was still carrying Lily and that her eyes were huge and ringed with shadows.
"I just Floo'd Mum and Dad to come over and watch the boys. I'm taking Lily to St. Mungo's " She swallowed. "She's not getting better and I don't think it's the dragon pox. Her color is off."
His empty stomach turned with fear. "You should have called me!"
Now that he really looked at Lily, he didn't like the limp way she was laying against Ginny. He hurried to Ginny's side and took Lily from her arms. "I'm going with you."
"Daddy." She was pale green and her brown eyes looked glazed and lifeless.
"You don't have to," Ginny said, rubbing her shoulder. "You haven't had dinner."
"I'm going with you." He scanned the living room for something to wrap around Lily. "I didn't know you were worried about it her, otherwise I would have put off the paperwork until tomorrow."
"I wasn't that worried until tonight." She hugged herself. "I don't know maybe I should have noticed something wasn't right earlier."
Before Harry could say anything to comfort her, first Molly and then Arthur whirled out of the green flames from the fireplace. Molly hurried right to Lily. "I thought so," she said, gently touching Lily's forehead. "Was there willow bark in that potion, Ginny?"
"I I think so."
"Probably having a reaction," Molly said soothingly as she continued to stroke Lily's forehead. Lily's eyelids drooped at the gentle touch of her grandmother. "That happened to Percy or was it Charlie?"
"I believe it was Ron," Arthur said, giving Ginny a quick hug. "Now let's let them go so the Healers at St. Mungo's can diagnose whatever is wrong."
Molly tutted and then swiftly kissed Lily on the forehead. "We'll take care of the boys. Don't worry."
"She's been crying all day?" the Healer said, making a note with her quill on the parchment. "And then the crying stopped abruptly?"
"And she took this potion for a week?" The Healer uncorked the bottle and sniffed.
Ginny nodded and compressed her lips together. She had done something wrong with the potion, she just knew it. Lily was fast asleep on the examination table. Her mouth was slightly open and her tongue was bright spring green.
"I'll check her over now."
Lily looked so small and helpless. Ginny blamed herself. How could she let this happen?
Her anxious thoughts were broken when she felt Harry's warm hand cover hers. She squeezed back. At least he wasn't blaming her for Lily's condition.
"Ah, yes," the Healer turned to them and smiled. "It's what I thought. See the leaves behind her ears?" She lifted a section of Lily's red hair to show them what looked to be green leaves sprouting from her scalp. "It's a common reaction to willow bark. First the weeping like a willow tree and then the leaves."
"Why didn't I notice those leaves?" Ginny moaned. "I kept giving her potion."
"You couldn't have known. Potion reactions go two ways either they're instantaneous or they're caused by a buildup in the system. She's so little and had such a bad bout of dragon pox, it's no wonder she's had a bit too much for her body to handle."
"Will she be all right?" Harry blurted.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Potter." The Healer smiled and ran her wand over Lily's sleeping form and muttered some sort of incantation. "We'll repeat this spell every two hours. And we'll keep her in darkness. The leaves need light to grow. In six hours she should be fine."
They sat together on some sort of vinyl settee. Harry insisted on holding Lily in case she woke up in a strange place in the dark. Ginny wanted him to find something to eat, but he stubbornly said that he wasn't hungry.
She didn't have the energy to argue with him and she understood how he felt, she wouldn't leave Lily now, either.
She sighed and tried to get comfortable on the slippery couch, but the back was low and she couldn't lean her head against anything.
"Come here," Harry said putting his free arm around her. She was still smarting from their earlier row, but it would be more comfortable to lean against him. Besides, she missed him. For the past week she had been sleeping in the children's bedrooms or not sleeping at all and it seemed ages since they had touched each other.
She felt Harry move so that he could lie on the arm of the couch with Lily on one side and Ginny on the other. Lily's feet grazed her arm, but that was fine. She knew where Lily was that way.
She started to relax when she felt Harry's hand moving on her hair. He took a deep breath. "Ginny, I "
"What?" she prompted him after a long silence.
"I wish I could have been more help this past week."
She turned that statement over in her mind. Now that she was no longer frantic with worry, she could accept it. Harry had never shirked sickroom duties before. "I know you were busy." She snuggled closer. "At least they can never get dragon pox again."
"Ginny," he blurted, "when I saw Albus trying to tie his shoes it brought back a memory. I I just wanted you to know that."
She had been half asleep, but now she was wide-awake. Harry rarely talked about his past. "What kind of a memory?"
"Oh, just "
"This is going to sound stupid "
"No, it won't."
He sighed. "It was almost like I was five again."
Albus woke to the delicious smell of sausages frying. His stomach growled in hungry anticipation. Mum was making a cooked breakfast!
The smell had awakened James, too. He gave Albus a conspiratorial grin and he threw back the carefully arranged covers, destroying his fort in the process. Albus followed quickly and was hard on his heels by the time they had stormed down the stairs.
"Gran?" James gasped as they skidded into the kitchen. "Grandpa?"
Gran turned from the frying pan and smiled at them. "You're up at last. Hungry?"
"Yes!" They said together and ran to the table.
"We stayed with you last night whilst your mum and dad took Lily to St. Mungo's," Grandpa explained, ruffling Albus's hair.
"Lily went to St. Mungo's?" James demanded, staring at Lily, who was calmly eating her toast in her usual place at the table.
"Yes." Gran used her wand to fill their glasses with milk. "She slept through the entire treatment for Willow Bark Sickness and woke up this morning completely back to normal."
"But your mum and dad were up all night," Grandpa warned. "So be quiet this morning, so they can sleep."
Albus tucked into his sausage and eggs and listened to Gran describe all of Lily's symptoms in great detail. James seemed particularly struck by the fact that leaves had sprouted from her scalp. "So Lily was turning into a tree."
"I was not a tree!" Lily said with dignity. Since she didn't whine and kept eating after this insult, Albus knew she was better.
"How would you know?" James said. "Gran just said you were sleeping like a log." Then he giggled at his own joke. "Get it trees sleep like logs?"
It was a silly joke, but James had the kind of giggle that made bubbles in your chest. It was impossible not to laugh when James giggled like that. Gran, Grandpa even Lily laughed.
Ginny woke to the sound of laughter. She was still tired, but she couldn't help but smile at hearing the high-pitched giggles of her children. For the first time in a week they sounded healthy and happy.
Thank Merlin and all the magic in the world for that.
She rolled onto her side and savored the novelty of not having to leap out of bed to attend to the children she could stay here next to Harry as long as she wanted.
He was still asleep, lying on his back with his mouth closed. Most people snored in that position, but Harry never did. Even in his sleep he was quiet.
She propped her head up on her elbow and listened to the sound of his deep, slow breathing. He used to have nightmares at Hogwarts, but he never did now or if he did, he never told her.
She knew in her heart, though, that he would have told her if he ever did have bad dreams. Last night when they sat together in the dark at St. Mungo's, he had told her a lot of things about living with his aunt and uncle about what it felt like to be five years old and unloved.
It had made her cry that sad little story and the matter-of-fact way he told it. But she wasn't surprised. It explained so much about him.
She refrained from brushing back the lock of dark hair that fell on his forehead and marveled that someone who was so unloved as a child could love all of them so passionately and so well.
Harry woke up to Ginny's hair brushing his chest and her clear brown eyes studying his face. Even though he wasn't wearing his glasses he could read her expression.
She was pleased with him.
He didn't know why she had that expression on her face first thing in the morning, but as always, it touched him to the very core. She believed in him, saw the best in him, and it always made him want to be a better man.
A better man.
He did feel better this morning and it made him wonder if there was such a thing as retroactive healing. You will never have to be five again, she had told him last night.
He had thought he knew where all of his wounds were, but this one with the shoelaces had taken him by surprise.
He reached up and touched her bright hair. What Ginny had revealed about learning to fly hadn't surprised him, though. For someone who was often underestimated, she had tremendous faith in the face of what seemed to be impossible tasks whether it was tying shoes or soothing the pain from the deepest place in the heart.
Albus sighed contentedly and patted his stomach. "Gran, you make the best cooked breakfast in the world."
Gran beamed at him and took his empty plate. "Now run along outside with James, I want the house quiet for your mum and dad."
Albus walked upstairs with the comfortable knowledge that his shoes were still tied and he could get dressed quickly. However, once he tried to slip his feet in his trainers, he realized he would have to untie the laces first if his feet were going to fit. There was no other way.
It was almost painful to loosen the knots and know he was going to have to retie them, but it was something he had to.
A door opened and he heard laughter and his parents' voices. "I think I remember the Expansion Charm for the tub," Mum said.
"If you look at the tub like you're looking at me now, I'd say that engorgement will be no problem. See?"
"Hmm. I'd rather feel." More giggles.
Albus didn't know what they were talking about and he didn't know why Mum would want the bathtub to be any larger, but he did recognize that tone in their voices. Mum and Dad were happy with each other so happy they wouldn't notice anything else going on around them. Sometimes that annoyed him, but today he was glad that Mum wasn't sighing and Dad wasn't arguing.
He absently looped the shoelaces on his right foot while he listened to the sounds of splashing water coming from the bathroom. It sounded different in a Transfigured tub. Or maybe there was a Silencing Charm up whatever it was, there was magic involved. Then he looked down at his laces.
The loops were lined up properly. He stared at what his hands had done and then he pulled. The knot held. Warmth stole all through his body. He had tied his shoe!
Then he looked at his sock-clad foot. Before he could let himself celebrate by bragging to James, he knew he would have to do it again this time on the left foot.
He could do it. Mum had always told him he could.
He slowly moved the laces in the complicated pattern he had been taught, and then he took a deep breath and pulled.
Dad would be so proud.
This time the laces did not fall apart. The two round loops were tied together tight and secure.
NHS = National Health Service
Harry is five in the first section. He's going into a Reception or Kindergarten level class, but I wasn't sure how to phrase it hence "Primary school children."