Abby stared down at her phone, her thumb hovering over the call button for several seconds before snapping it shut.
The word caused her shoulders to slump as she leant against the counter behind her.
It was only a phone call. A simple conversation. She'd done it a hundred times before, but every time her fingers twitched as if to take the leap, she couldn't. Wouldn't. Her entire body seemed to turn rigid at the prospect.
Exhaling a long breath, Abby glanced up at the clock. The morning and lunch time-rush had both passed by in a blur, her mind only half-focused on her tasks as she handed out feeble smiles to every customer she met. In the moment, she'd wished to simply be left alone. But the silence of the cafe now only served to amplify her ruminating thoughts as she continued to twirl her phone around between her fingers.
It wasn't until the tinkling of the bell sounded that she finally stuffed it away in her pocket.
The familiar sight of Harry's black hair lifted Abby's mood at once. And she wasted no time in pouring a cup of coffee and walking over towards him.
"Excuse me, sir? That's usually where my boyfriend sits, you'll need to move," she said, placing the cup down on the table.
Harry looked up with a grin. "Never get tired of saying it, do you?"
"No," she said.
"Well…" he said. "I never get tired of hearing it."
Biting back a smile of her own, Abby took a seat across from him and settled back in her chair.
"So...you doing all right?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "I saw you through the window before I walked in. You looked a bit stressed."
She was surprised he'd been paying that close attention to her. "Er…well—yes, I was. Am," she said. "Well, not at this very moment. But overall, yes."
Frowning, Harry sat up straighter. "What's wrong?"
Abby had been doing a pretty good job at maintaining her composure all morning, but the two words spoken with such concern seemed to instantly draw her emotions back up.
"Just...something I've been stressing over," she said before shaking her head. "Obviously. Sorry, that wasn't very helpful."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Is it about work?"
"Is it about...us?"
Glancing up to meet his eyes, she nodded. "Yes, actually. It's...my dad's new wife," she said, the words still feeling foreign on her tongue. "Naomi."
He furrowed his brow. "Oh," he said, as though not expecting that. "What about her?"
"She called me," Abby said, the statement sounding underwhelming even to her own ears. "Twice now. Once a few weeks ago, and then again yesterday."
Taking a sip of his coffee, Harry settled back into his chair. "And you didn't pick up?"
There was no judgement in his tone, for which Abby was grateful for. But she could tell that he wasn't understanding her reaction.
To be fair, neither was she.
"No," she said after a moment. "And it's been eating at me since yesterday morning. I want to ignore her, but I just—can't. I hate that I can't."
Harry offered her a sympathetic nod. "What do you think she wants?"
With a shrug, Abby shook her head. "Dunno," she said. "I'm assuming to...connect or whatever. Get to know me, maybe."
"Did she leave a message?"
Abby licked her lips and nodded. "Yeah...I checked just in case it was something about my brother," she said, flicking her gaze down to the table. "It wasn't. It was just her telling me that she'd love a chance to talk with me sometime. It was super vague, I don't know."
Harry took a moment to consider her words before leaning forward against his arms. "Look, I...this might be stupid, but…" he said, shutting his eyes for a second. "If you wanted to call her, I could be with you. Next to you, I mean. Sort of as...moral support or something."
The look of doubt on his face coupled with the offer made Abby's heart grow warm. She leant in closer towards him. "Can I break our little rule for a sec?"
"What little rule?" he said, looking confused.
"A small kiss?"
Letting out a surprised laugh, he shrugged. "Go for it."
With a grin, Abby closed the distance between them to place a quick kiss on his lips before settling back in her chair as though nothing had happened.
"You're ridiculous, you know that," he said, taking her hand in his and pressing his lips against her knuckles.
It was incredible how such a simple act could set her skin aflame. "Yeah...so I've been told," she said, holding back a smile.
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he got back to the matter at hand. "So...what do you say?"
Abby let out a small groan in response. "I hate it when you don't let me distract you."
He gave her an unimpressed look.
With a long sigh, she considered his previous offer for a moment. "I say no," she said finally, shaking her head. "I really do appreciate it, but...I need to stop chickening out on things."
Harry clicked his tongue in exasperation. "You wouldn't be," he said. "I'm not making the call for you, I'd only be sitting there beside you."
But Abby maintained her position. Harry was a source of comfort and support that she never dreamed she'd have. But the thought of depending on him, needing him for a task as simple as this, left an uneasy feeling in her gut.
"I'll do it myself," she said, offering him a smile. "But thank you."
Harry stared at her for a moment before a look of understanding washed over his face.
Understanding of what, she wasn't sure. But it seemed as though he'd inferred something that she couldn't even begin to explain.
Perhaps that was for the best.
Abby closed her eyes as she leant back against the park bench behind her, drawing warmth from the sun as it caressed her skin.
Her phone lay dormant in her sweating palm while endless scenarios continued to run through her mind, each more ridiculous than the last. At this point, she was tired of delaying the inevitable. Surely reality couldn't be worse than her imagination.
Flipping open her mobile, Abby stared down at the missed calls and let out a small sigh.
Just do it.
She pressed the call button and braced herself.
With each second that passed by, her heart seemed to pound harder and harder in her chest until she could practically feel it in her throat.
"Don't pick up, don't pick up, don't pick up," she whispered.
She screwed up her face in annoyance before responding. "Er...hi," she said, clearing her throat. "Is this Naomi?"
"It is, yes," the woman said. "May I ask who's speaking?"
It took everything in Abby not to hang up the phone right then and there. "It's Abby," she said, her fingers clutched tight around her phone.
"Abby..." Naomi said through an exhale. "It's so good to hear from you, I was hoping you'd call back."
Shifting in her seat a bit, Abby glanced around at her surroundings for lack of anything better to do. "Yes, well...here I am," she said. "Was there, er...something you needed from me?"
A short silence met her words that Abby forced herself not to fill. This was Naomi's awkward conversation, not hers.
"Look, I—I know this is probably the last thing you want to do," Naomi said finally. "Talking to me, that is. But the reason I called yesterday was to invite you out to lunch with me sometime soon. Just to...talk, get to know each other."
The internal response was so instantaneous, it felt like her entire body was rejecting the idea.
"Feel free to decline, of course...or to take some time to think about it."
No, no, no. Absolutely not.
"What do you say?" Naomi said, her voice hopeful.
Abby swallowed hard. "Er...when were you thinking?" she said, pressing her fingers against her eyes and shaking her head.
The woman rattled off various details that Abby only barely processed as the battle within her continued to wage on. Whether it was her infuriating need to please or her desperate curiosity to understand the woman before her, she wasn't sure. But something had made her agree, and she was stuck now.
After the phone call ended, Abby wasted no time in dialling Harry's number, her knee bouncing up and down while she waited.
"Hello?" she said as soon as he picked up.
"Er…hi. Sorry, but only my girlfriend is allowed to call me on this phone," he said.
She let out a loud laugh despite herself. "Oh, you let me handle her," she said, feeling more at ease already. "Are you busy right now?"
"Define busy," he said as multiple children's voices could suddenly be heard in the background.
He seemed to have taken the phone off his ear to point it in their direction, and as always, she felt guilty for bothering him while at home.
"Don't do that."
"You're second-guessing yourself, I can hear it through the phone," he said, voice back on the line. "Just tell me what's up, I can multitask."
Biting her lip, Abby settled back in her seat. "I don't even know why I called, to be honest," she said, rubbing her forehead. "I just got off the phone with Naomi–"
He gave a thoughtful hum in response. "And what did she want?"
"To invite me out to lunch so we could get to know each other," she said, making air quotes with her free hand.
The moody edge to her voice was evident even to her own ears, and it made her grimace. She hated how anything having to do with her father caused her to revert back to this immature version of herself. She'd thought she'd shed it years ago.
"Did you decline?" Harry said, drawing her attention back.
Abby sighed. "No."
"Did you want to decline?"
Kicking a pebble away from her, she shrugged. "Maybe," she mumbled.
"Oh, Abby…" he said.
There was a gentle chiding to his words that caused her to feel very small. She didn't often let her thoughts wander down this path, but in that moment, she wondered how someone as mature and confident as Harry could want anything to do with her.
He probably thought her so childish.
"What's done is done," Abby said, sitting up straighter in her seat. "I'll go, fake some polite conversation and leave."
"Would you like me to come–"
"No," she said, not even allowing him to finish the sentence. "I'm not a—no. But thank you."
Harry paused for a second before responding. "Okay," he said. "Well...good luck, then. I'll talk to you later."
Closing her eyes, she nodded. "Bye."
The process of preparing for this outing was unlike anything Abby had experienced before.
It felt remarkably like going on a first date—the flutter of nerves in her stomach, the mental preparation of topics to discuss, the trying-on and taking-off of multiple outfits before settling on the first one again.
Except, instead of a date...it was lunch with her estranged father's new wife.
The thought made Abby groan aloud.
So many possibilities littered her mind of how this day would go, but of one thing, she was absolutely certain.
It would not end well.
With that admittedly negative mindset, Abby pushed open the door of the restaurant and looked around.
She spotted Naomi sitting in a booth on the far left of the room and walked over towards her, hoping she would look up so Abby wouldn't have to announce herself.
As luck would have it, the woman heard her approach.
"Ah, Abby," she said with a smile, standing up and gesturing to the spot in front of her. "Thanks for meeting me here. I'm so glad you could make it."
She nodded. "Thank you for...inviting me," she said, taking a seat and clasping her hands tight in her lap.
Neither of them said anything for a moment, causing a sudden awkward tension to fill the air.
Picking up the menu, Abby pretended to look very interested as she read through the items on the page.
"Well, it all looks…."
They both paused and chuckled in discomfort. Or rather, Abby was in discomfort. She couldn't tell what Naomi was thinking or feeling at all.
"Go on, sorry," Abby said, taking a sip of her water and motioning for her to continue.
Naomi gave a small smile before crossing her arms on the table and leaning forward. "I know this probably isn't your idea of a fun time," she said, straightening out the silverware next to her plate. "But...I've wanted to get to know you for a while now."
Dragging her eyes up from the menu, Abby stared at the woman before her.
"I'm not really making the best impression, though, am I? I admit, I'm a bit nervous," she said, letting out a self-deprecating laugh.
"You think I won't like you," Abby said, the words leaving her mouth before she could stop herself.
Naomi stared at her before glancing down at her own menu. "I think you have every reason not to."
Swallowing hard, Abby merely shrugged. She didn't have it in her to reassure the woman with fake niceties. It was enough that she'd forced herself to come here.
"I wanted to thank you for coming to the wedding," Naomi said, after a moment. "Whatever your intention was."
Abby frowned. "It wasn't for my dad."
"I know," the woman said with a nod. "But I'm still glad you came, no matter what. And...even though it might not seem like it...so was he."
The arrival of the waiter at that point saved Abby from the need to reply. Which was just as well. She doubted anything positive would have come out of her mouth in response.
Glancing down at the menu, she ordered the first thing she saw, having barely comprehended a word of what she'd read earlier.
She could finish it quickly and make her escape.
"So, erm...why don't you tell me a bit about your job?" Naomi said, drawing her attention back.
Abby had to marvel at the fact that out of all the questions the woman could ask, she chose the most sensitive one.
"Not much to tell," she said with a shrug. "I'm a waitress at a cafe. Not exactly where I wanted to be in life at the moment, but...here I am."
As though sensing the aversion to the topic, Naomi gave her an apologetic smile. "Shall I toss away the notecards that ask about career questions?"
With a dry smile, Abby acquiesced. "I'm sure my dad told you what I went to school for," she said, raising her eyebrows. "Apparently you two have talked about me, haven't you?"
"We have," Naomi said with a nod. "But I'd prefer to hear it from you. You said it yourself...he doesn't know you very well, does he?"
Licking her lips, Abby shifted her gaze away and shrugged. "I don't really know what he knows," she said with a humourless laugh. "I'd be surprised if he remembered anything at all."
A silence fell between them that magnified the hum of voices in the background.
It was interrupted only by the waiter bringing out their food, his timing impeccable once more.
"I went to school for music. Piano, specifically," Abby said, stirring her spoon around the contents of the bowl. "Graduated three years ago, and I've been searching for a job ever since."
Naomi looked up from her plate, her brows furrowed. "I'm sorry to hear that. It's never easy," she said quietly, looking back down at her salad. "Do you have any prospects?"
At this, Abby felt her stomach flutter. "Yes, actually...coming up in a few weeks," she said, suddenly wishing she was at the shop practising instead of sitting here, wasting time.
A genuine look of happiness came over Naomi's face then that left Abby feeling a tad awkward.
"That's so good to hear," she said, her hand twitching as though to reach for hers before disappearing onto her lap instead. "I wish you all the luck in the world."
Forcing a smile, Abby nodded. "Thanks," she said. "It was, er...Harry, actually, who told me about the opportunity—the one who came with me to the wedding."
"Ah, yes...Harry," Naomi said with a fond look. "I remember him, alright. Your dad wouldn't shut up about him."
For the first time that day, Abby leant forward in interest. "Why's that?"
Naomi bit back a grin. "He wasn't too happy about the way he manhandled him, was he?" she said, moving her fork around her salad. "I, on the other hand, found it necessary and effective."
They stared at each other for a moment, the woman's grin softening.
"Your father had no right to grab you like that," she said, her tone growing serious. "He's not a perfect man, not even close. I know that. Believe me, I do."
The words 'Then why are you with him?' hung in the air between them, threatening to topple whatever weak foundation they'd been starting to build.
But Abby didn't have the guts to ask, and perhaps Naomi didn't have the desire to answer.
"Harry and I are together now," she said instead.
The woman's expression changed at once, the wrinkles by her eyes becoming more prominent as she smiled. "That's wonderful, Abby. Truly," she said. "I've only seen you two together once, but...God, there was something there. He looked ready to kill your father if he had to—not that I would've condoned that, of course, but...the sentiment was nice."
Though Abby tried hard to hold back her own smile, she couldn't manage it. The topic of Harry never failed to make her happy. "Yes, well…" she said, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. "He is rather amazing."
Her words caused a warmth to light up in Naomi's dark eyes, and Abby found she had to look away. It all seemed a bit too much at the moment.
On the one hand, it bothered her that this woman could fall in love with a man like her father—that anybody could, really. And on the other...she couldn't help but be pulled in by the authenticity of her every word and action. It was something Abby rarely found in others. Something she treasured.
"I'm not looking to repair my relationship with my father," Abby said, wanting to make that clear.
Naomi shook her head. "And I would never pressure you to do that. That's not what this is about, at all," she said, leaning in closer. "I had only hoped that…"
"What?" Abby said.
With downcast eyes, Naomi pushed her plate away. "Look...I've never had any children of my own. And not for lack of trying," she said, glancing back up at her with a sad smile. "I'm not saying I'm trying to be your mother, but...I would love it if I could become someone you trust. Someone you turn to. It's easier said than done, I know..."
Swallowing hard, Abby shifted a bit in her seat. A large part of her felt an immediate reflex to reject the notion all together. But a smaller, much more vulnerable part, couldn't help but want to reach for it.
"I've been alone since I was thirteen," Abby said, staring at her silver spoon as she twirled it around in her soup. "I don't really know how to…I can't just..."
Clearing her throat, she set the spoon down and placed her hands in her lap.
"You don't have to say or decide anything," Naomi said, her voice soft. "We can just try this naturally. Meet up here and there...share things about each other..."
Abby took a drink of water to get rid of the lump forming in the back of her throat. "Sure, fine," she said, eager to end this conversation and leave.
But then a thought popped into her head that made her look back up. "Have you met Ryan?" she said.
The question seemed to catch the woman off guard, and she was silent at first, causing Abby to narrow her eyes a bit.
"I have, yes," Naomi said finally, giving a single nod. "When was the last time you spoke to him?"
She shook her head. "Years," she said. "Not since I left for university."
"And you've been trying to get in contact with him all this time?"
At this, Abby felt the familiar sense of shame bubble in her gut. "Not all of it, no."
She chose not to elaborate, and thankfully Naomi had enough tact to drop the subject.
"Abby, listen…" she said after a moment, her brows knit together.
The air seemed to change between them then, feeling heavier somehow, almost charged. Abby was very aware of her breathing as the woman gave her a long, meaningful look.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to be the one to tell you this, but...I know where Ryan's staying," Naomi said quietly. "Your father's been in contact with him for the last two years."
Something caught in Abby's chest as she processed the words. "Two years…" she said to herself, blinking a few times before meeting the woman's eyes again. "So he knew when I asked him at the wedding...and he didn't tell me?"
With a sympathetic look, Naomi leant closer to her. "Abby, I'm so sorry...he didn't want to upset you–"
"Upset me?" she said in disbelief. "I was already upset! How much more damage could he have done?"
Naomi laid a hand on her arm, but Abby moved it back.
"Perhaps we should have this conversation somewhere more private," Naomi suggested. "Why don't we go take a walk, or..."
But Abby shook her head and gathered her things to leave. "No. Either tell me where he is right now or leave me alone," she said, standing up. "I don't need you two coming into my life and lying to me. I've had enough of that from him."
"Well, when are you free this week?"
The question blindsided Abby so much she spluttered. "Wha-why?" she asked.
Pulling out a pen from her purse, Naomi quickly jotted something down on a piece of paper before handing it to Abby. "Our address—your father and I," she said. "If you stop by sometime during the day this weekend, he won't be home."
Abby stared down at the address in her hands and then back up at her. "Why are you telling me all this?"
A momentary flash of uncertainty passed over Naomi's face before she closed her eyes and sighed.
"Because I'll make sure your brother is there, too."
"So...repeat that but slower."
Abby paused in her step and turned around to face Harry.
She'd been pacing up a storm for the past several seconds while he watched her from his spot on her bed, varying levels of concern flashing across his face.
"I just don't know what to think anymore," she said, taking a seat next to his legs. "First she gently lures me in with her—her gentle ways until I start to trust her–"
"Double 'gentle'...oh, dear," Harry said quietly.
"–and then she drops this bomb on me about Ryan?" Abby said, shaking her head. "What if she's only trying to corner me into talking to my dad?"
Swinging his legs off the side of the bed, Harry scooted over to her. "Let's just take a deep breath first, okay?"
Abby rolled her eyes but did what she was told, inhaling and exhaling slowly along with him.
"What's your gut telling you about her?" Harry said, leaning forward against his knees and turning his head to the side. "You're a good judge of character, Abby. I mean...look at me. Most people think I'm an arse when they first meet me."
"You are," she said.
"But that didn't stop you."
She smiled despite herself.
Straightening back up, Harry took his hand in hers. "You saw something in me from the start," he said, his eyes travelling across her face. "If you pretended for just a moment that she has nothing to do with your father...what would you see in her?"
The question made Abby's shoulders slump forward. It wasn't a difficult one to answer despite how much her mind tried to convince her otherwise. "I liked her," she said softly. "It started off a bit awkward, of course, but...then it got better. She just seemed so...down-to-earth...aware."
Harry raised an eyebrow at that. "Aware, how?"
Looking down at the floor, Abby shrugged. "About everything," she said. "The situation...herself...me. I dunno how to explain it. She just cut right through all the nonsense and onto what mattered most. It felt...refreshing."
Hearing back the words as they left her mouth caused a sudden realisation to dawn on her. "Oh my God," she said, staring at Harry.
"You," she said with a small laugh. "She's just like you."
Harry didn't seem to know what to say to that, but Abby was too busy replaying the lunch date in her mind and shaking her head in amusement.
"She's definitely a bit softer around the edges. Not nearly as wonderful, handsome, and charming," Abby said with a grin, bumping her shoulder against his. "But you've got that same...thing about you that just puts me at ease."
His face softened as he stared down at her, holding the side of her head in his warm hand.
Abby closed her eyes against his touch. "How do you manage it?"
"Manage what?" he said, his voice rumbling near her ear.
"To always make me feel better," she said, her heart stuttering as she felt his lips on her neck.
Leaning into him, Abby let herself relax for the first time that day—that week, even. Ever since Naomi had called her, she'd been a ball of nerves and tension. But a few moments spent with Harry had brought such immense relief that she wondered how she'd ever gone through life without his comforting presence beside her. Without the pleasing scent of his skin. The deep, calming resonance of his voice.
Next to him, even the most painful of moments became bearable.
"I love you," she said into his shoulder, knowing he wouldn't say it back yet, but unable to keep the words at bay.
In answer, Harry brought his lips to hers, pushing her gently down on the bed and holding himself up above her.
They stayed in that position for several seconds, their kisses growing more heated while her hands travelled unbidden over his body.
It was when they found the front of his trousers that Harry finally pulled away, hovering over her as their eyes met. "Abby," he whispered, brushing a thumb over her lips, across her cheek, and down the side of her neck.
She never dreamed an action could be so sensual until she met Harry.
"We don't have to…" she breathed out.
He closed his eyes and dropped his head on her shoulder. "I've never been with anybody else," he said, his voice quiet. "I want to, Abby. I want to so badly, it hurts…"
Her lips parted as she stared at him. "But…" she said.
Letting out a long breath, he collapsed on the bed beside her, rubbing his hands across his face.
Abby couldn't lie to herself and say she wasn't disappointed. But at the very least, she was glad he was acknowledging their situation now. Hopefully, that was a step in the right direction. "You can talk to me, you know," she said, removing his hands from his face. "About anything. Especially about this."
"It's stupid," he said, shaking his head. "It doesn't make any sense at all…"
"Well, it's not stupid if it's bothering you," Abby said in a firm voice. "Please, Harry...I just want to understand."
He opened his mouth to speak before closing it again, his jaw clenched hard. "It just feels like...a betrayal," he said, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I wish...I just wish that…fucking hell..."
Abby reached over at once to pull him into a hug, holding him close as he breathed hard into her neck. "Don't be sorry," she said, smoothing the hair at the back of his head. "Don't you dare."
Stroking his back gently, she shut her eyes and willed the twisting in her gut to go away. A part of her had always known this might be a problem, but it still hit her like a bucket of ice-cold water.
Harry had not moved on. He had not healed.
And perhaps he never would.
"I wish I knew how to make this better," she said, feeling completely at a loss. "I don't want to lose you, Harry, but...if it's hurting you too much–"
Drawing back, he looked her in the eyes. "Don't finish that sentence," he said. "I want this. I want you. I just need to get over this bloody...mental block."
Abby took her hand in his and laced their fingers together. "Well...I'll wait as long as it takes," she said, offering him a smile. "Even if it means forever."
"It won't," he assured her at once.
It wasn't exactly something he could promise, but Abby found that she didn't care. Though the idea of being physically intimate with Harry set her every nerve on fire, it was nothing compared to the intimacy she felt in everything else. In their shared troubles and embraces, laughs and kisses. In his presence near hers, and every single conversation. It was a level of closeness she'd never felt with anyone else.
She wondered if he felt the same.
Sitting up in bed, Abby stared down at Harry, taking a moment to reflect on his words.
Such a strong word for an even stronger feeling.
"We talk about a lot of things," she said, watching as he sat up as well. "But not much about Ginny. Maybe that's part of the problem."
A confused look marred his features. "I mean...that's probably not something you'd like to hear."
"But I would," she said with an encouraging nod. "Ginny was the love of your life, I know that. And I know that if she were alive today, you'd still be together."
He frowned in response. "And that thought doesn't bother you?"
Abby licked her lips as her thoughts travelled back to the first time she'd seen the photographs lining the walls of his sitting room. The image of a young, beautiful woman smiling at the camera. Of Harry looking so youthful and happy on his wedding day.
If she were being honest, at least with herself, the thought had bothered her then. That she might never have met Harry if…
But it was too horrible to even put into words.
"It did," she said, her heart racing at the admission. "For just a moment once before it passed. And I hated myself for it."
Her words were met with a subdued silence.
The reality was that grief had shaped Harry into the person he was today. She hated that such a tragic event had to occur in order for her to find the man that she loved.
But...she had found the man that she loved.
Was she allowed to be happy about that? Was Harry?
"All I know is, talking about Ginny won't make me upset, or—God...jealous," she said, shaking her head. "It's not that way at all, Harry. It really isn't."
He gave a small nod, opening his mouth to say something but then clearing his throat. "Well, what would you like to know about her?"
Abby shrugged. "You can tell me what she was like?" she said. "You've never really gone into too much detail."
His eyebrows knit together at first, as though doubtful of that. But then, after a moment of consideration, his expression slackened. "I suppose I haven't, no," he said, leaning back against the headboard and running a hand through his hair. "It's a good question."
He tilted his head a bit in thought, a faraway look in his eyes.
"Ginny was...incredible, really," he said, a few seconds later. "Strong, brave, stubborn, funny….like a force of nature."
A fond look came over his face then. "She used to do this thing...put on voices, imitate people. It was so uncanny at times, but so hilarious," he said, chuckling down at his hands. "She loved making people laugh."
Abby smiled at that. "So life of the party, then?"
"Oh, yeah," he said with a nod. "She was definitely the popular one in school."
"And you were...what, the shy wallflower?"
Harry let out a bark of laughter at that. "I mostly kept to myself, yeah," he said. "And Ron and Hermione, of course. But Ginny...she knew everyone."
The amusement on his face faded for a moment, and Abby could tell that he was lost in a memory. Not wanting to interrupt, she sat with him in the silence.
"She was fantastic at Quidditch," he said finally, looking back at her. "But you knew that already."
Abby nodded. "You played together in school?"
"For one year, yeah," he said. "Those are some of the best memories I have of school, actually."
He didn't elaborate at all on that, but Abby couldn't blame him. Quidditch was definitely a topic he never spoke about.
"She was a great mother, too," he said, changing the subject. "A much better parent than I ever was."
The urge to jump in and correct him was strong, but Abby forced herself to stay quiet and listen.
"I used to be so lenient...giving the kids whatever they wanted because I didn't have it in me to say no," he said with a dry laugh. "It's what I did with Teddy when he was young."
Abby smiled at that. "I have to admit, it's rather hard to imagine you being lenient."
He raised an eyebrow. "You think I'm a strict parent?"
"Well, I wouldn't say strict necessarily, but…"
"Something very close to it?" he said, giving her a teasing look. "It's okay. I know. And it's not just with them, either, it's with everyone."
His expression changed slightly as he said the words. Rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, he let out a long breath.
"Ever since losing Ginny, I've just become...I dunno...more irritable, I suppose," he said, shaking his head. "Angry at everything...everyone. I've tried so hard not to let it affect my parenting, but…"
Abby pressed her lips together in a frown, wanting to reassure him but not knowing how.
"Sometimes…" he said before she could manage anything. "I wonder if she'd be disappointed in me. With the way I've gone about things."
"Like what?" Abby breathed.
He licked his lips and lowered his gaze down to the bed. "Albus, for one," he said, his tone filled with weariness. "He was so close to his mum, even at a young age. Whenever he cried, had tantrums, anything—he ran to her. She just had this way of understanding him...being in tune with him."
Visibly swallowing, Harry shook his head.
"And I don't—I don't really know what I'm doing," he said, the words falling from his lips as though he couldn't stop them. "With all of them, but especially with him. I just keep screwing things up over and over and over again. And I can't help but think...what would she say? What would she think of me?"
Everything in her wanted to envelop him in a hug, but she needed to let him keep talking. She wasn't sure if he'd ever done so before.
"I know this sounds completely mental," he said, squeezing his eyes shut in a grimace. "But sometimes—especially at the start—it would make me so angry. At everything...even at her. For leaving me with all this pain, all this responsibility…alone."
He blinked a few times and turned his head away, and Abby couldn't hold back any longer. She took his hand in both of hers and squeezed it tight, channelling as much love into the simple touch as she could.
"I've never regretted getting married and having children at a young age," he said, staring down at their hands. "But sometimes, I do wonder…"
He cut off and let out a long breath. "I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I don't even know why I'm talking about all this."
She parted her lips. "It's okay, you know," she said, her voice soft. "There's nothing wrong with wondering, it doesn't make it true. And I don't think anyone would blame you for it."
Swallowing hard, she hesitated before adding, "And...the thing about being angry," she said carefully. "It's not as mental as you think, believe me."
Harry looked up at her. "What do you mean?" he said.
She shrugged. "After my mum died, I was left with a lot of responsibility as well, and...I was definitely angry at her, too," she said. "It filled me with guilt, of course. But I was a teenager. And it felt like both my parents had abandoned me."
"Yeah," he said with a nod. "I suppose that's what it is...abandoned."
With a small frown, Abby reached over to brush a lock of hair from his eyes. "Feeling that doesn't make you a bad person, Harry," she said. "It makes you human. It's just a part of grief. You miss someone so much, you can't even believe they're gone. You can't believe they'd leave you. It doesn't make sense at all...it just is."
Taking a moment to process her words, Harry nodded. "Well...thank you for listening to me ramble," he said, leaning forward to place a kiss on Abby's forehead and letting his lips linger there. "And thank you for being here."
Letting out a soft breath, Abby met his eyes as he leant back, her thoughts returning to her own predicament. "I was wrong the other day to dismiss your help with Naomi," she said, giving him an apologetic look. "Sometimes I get this idea in my head that I have to do everything on my own or else I'm...I dunno—useless. Incompetent."
Harry gave her a small smile. "It's okay," he said. "I understand wanting to be independent. But you know I'm here for you, if you need me. I've had more than my fair share of awkward family reunions."
She nodded, feeling grateful that her abruptness hadn't offended him over the phone the other day. "Well...I'm starting to think I do need you," she said, looking him in the eye. "This particular family reunion will definitely be awkward...among many other things."
Like a small bullet, Lily shot at her as soon as she stepped through the door.
Abby was grateful for any distraction at the moment, but the little girl tugging on her arm and leading her inside the house was definitely the ideal one.
Perhaps Harry knew exactly what he was doing when he told her to meet him at his house.
"Lily, please don't pull on her arm like that, she's not a doll," Harry said, appearing behind them.
"Come see my new man-fying glass, Abby," Lily said, ignoring him. "It's like from the Seraphina the Spy books and it's purple too and you can see everything up close. I'll let you play first."
Giving Harry an amused look, Abby followed the girl into the sitting room while he went to corral the boys from upstairs.
The kids were heading to the Burrow a bit earlier than usual for their Saturday sleepover, and despite Harry's reassurance that they didn't mind at all, she couldn't help but feel a bit guilty about it.
"You put it on your eye like this," Lily said, startling Abby from her thoughts as the cool glass met her skin.
"Thanks, sweetheart," Abby said with a laugh, taking the magnifying glass from her. "And what do I do with it, Detective Lily?"
The little girl scrunched her nose up as she giggled. "That's what Daddy calls me," she said, her voice delighted. "Here, you can be a 'tective, too. You just gotta know what to look for. Like clues and stuff."
"It's detective," came James' voice as he entered the room, followed by Harry and Al.
"You can correct her nicely, I think," Harry said.
James rolled his eyes. "She keeps sticking that thing in everyone's faces. It's annoying!"
"Well, she'll have a house full of other people's faces to do it to, today. I think you'll survive," Harry said. "Now, let's go. Hugs and kisses."
Both boys groaned as Harry pulled them in, and Abby was in the midst of watching them when a pair of small arms suddenly wrapped around her.
"Hugs and kisses, Abby!" Lily squeaked.
Her mouth opened in surprise before she blinked a few times and hugged Lily back, warmth spreading through her chest.
Harry met her eyes above the girl's head, his lips pulling up into a smile.
"Hugs and kisses, Lily," Abby said, placing a kiss on the girl's hair.
Once the three children had stepped into the fireplace and whizzed away—an act that had Abby practically sweating in fear—Harry led her outside into the back garden to apparate.
"Does every form of magical transportation have to be so horrific?" she asked, looking up at him. "First you get squeezed through an invisible suffocating tube, and then you get engulfed by bloody flames! What if it malfunctions one day? You lot will just burn alive!"
Harry only laughed in response. "Wait till you use a portkey," he said. "Feels like you're being tugged on by a fishhook."
With a grimace, she took his arm. "Let's just drive everywhere from now on, please."
Closing her eyes, Abby squeezed his arm hard as he counted them down until the familiar, uncomfortable sensation enveloped her and they apparated away.
Not seconds later, they reappeared with a soft pop, the band of pressure easing around her body.
The gentle heat of the waning summer's sun was an immediate balm to her discomfort, and she took in several deep breaths to steady her heart.
"You okay?" Harry said, placing a hand on her lower back.
She held up a finger, taking one more deep breath in before nodding.
Harry gave her an encouraging smile before looking over either shoulder as he peeked out from their secluded apparition spot.
Rows of white houses and manicured lawns spanned the length of the street they walked out on, the dull hum of suburbia echoing in the distance.
The breeze, soft and caressing, ruffled grass and small trees as they made their way along the pavement. It was homely—stock standard. In Abby's eyes, incredibly average.
But the blandness of it all created a remarkably contrasting backdrop to the chaos erupting inside her.
She couldn't believe this was happening.
For years, Abby imagined how this day might go, rehearsing things she might say, considering countless scenarios, preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.
And now she was here.
"You want me to knock?" Harry said, his voice hesitant.
Abby shook her head. "No, no," she said. "Let me at least do this part."
Taking a deep breath in and bracing herself, she brought her hand up to the door knocker and rapped it softly against the wood.
She almost hoped Naomi wouldn't answer right away, so she'd have an excuse to turn around and leave. But unfortunately, luck was not on her side. The door opened almost a second later to reveal the woman's smiling face.
"Abby," she said, her eyes lighting up as they fell on her. "And Harry, how lovely to see you again. Come in, come in, both of you."
Feeling her heart speed up, Abby placed her hand on the inside of Harry's elbow for support as she followed after her.
"Is he, er...here?" Abby said quietly.
Naomi turned around and gave her a reassuring look. "He'll be coming shortly, but I thought it would be best to get you settled first."
A wave of relief passed through her, and for the first time, Abby felt a rush of gratitude for the woman before her. "Thank you," she said, opening her mouth to say more but coming up short.
"Of course," Naomi said, gesturing for them to enter the sitting room. "Can I get you both anything? A drink?"
She shook her head along with Harry, who gave the woman a polite smile.
Taking a seat across from them, Naomi clasped her hands in her lap. "So...did you find your way here okay?" she asked, clearly attempting to make small talk.
Abby was suddenly very glad she'd asked Harry to accompany her. Having to make conversation now would just cause her anxiety to spike.
"We took a cab here, wasn't too long of a drive," Harry said, lying with ease.
The woman smiled. "Well, I'm so glad you both could make it," she said before turning to Abby. "I...erm, told your father you'd be coming over today. I don't like to keep things from him, but I made sure he understood that you still needed space."
Feeling Harry's hand on top of hers, Abby realised that she'd tensed up. "And he'll respect that?" she said.
"Of course," Naomi said at once, her face taking on a serious look. "I never would have invited you here otherwise."
Abby swallowed hard and nodded, relaxing back into her seat. "And...when's Ryan coming?"
"He should be here soon."
Her words were met with silence as Abby considered how to word her next question. It was something that had been bothering her since Naomi had proposed this idea in the first place.
"How long have you known him...by the way?" Abby said finally, unable to beat around the bush. "Ryan, I mean."
At this, Noami's face changed an almost imperceptible amount, her brows pinching together in a frown. "He should probably be the one to explain all this to you."
Abby was about to ask why when the sound of the front door opening cut her off.
Her stomach dropped straight to her gut as she heard footsteps approaching. She hadn't realised just how nervous she was until this very moment.
If her thoughts weren't so clouded with emotion, she might have stopped to wonder why Ryan seemed to have his own key to the house. But at the moment, it was about the furthest thing from her mind.
Instead, her complete attention was focused on the man who'd just walked into the sitting room.
Man, her mind whispered, having difficulty processing the word.
His face wasn't as childlike as she once remembered—it was angled, harsh. He'd taken care of himself; that much was apparent from the look of his clothes and hair. But there were lines etched into his skin that hadn't been there when she'd seen him last. Lines from stress or age, or perhaps both, telling a story that didn't need to be spoken.
As his blue eyes fell upon her, Abby felt her chest deflate through a long breath. They were the only familiar sight on his face, and she held onto them like an anchor.
"Ryan," she said, standing up, years' worth of rehearsed speeches suddenly going out the window.
He stared at her, his expression unreadable. "Hi," he said before walking over and taking a seat.
Abby stood frozen for a moment, expecting something else. Something more. "Er...how are you?" she said, sitting back down.
"Fine," he said.
And then, as though an afterthought, he added: "You?"
She nodded. "Fine."
Silence fell over the room, then, every bit as awkward as the brief interaction they'd just shared. A hundred different voices were screaming in her head to say something, but the longer it stretched out, the more difficult it was to break it.
At last, Harry spoke up.
"Would you like us to leave?" he said quietly, gesturing to himself and Naomi.
Ryan's eyes flicked over to him, giving him a slow once-over. "You the boyfriend?"
Harry turned his head towards him and gave a curt nod. "Nice to meet you," he said.
With a small chuckle, Ryan slouched back in his seat, setting his elbows on either side of the chair and lacing his fingers together. "Pleasure is all mine," he said, bowing his head. "I admit...you're not what I was expecting."
"And what was that?" Abby shot back, unable to tamp down her annoyance.
Of all the things for him to latch onto, he'd chosen Harry. There were years of their lives they had yet to catch up on, a hundred different questions yet to be answered, difficult and painful and ugly feelings to be purged.
But he'd chosen Harry.
"Uh-oh," Ryan said, staring at them. "Have I overstepped? I tend to do that, my apologies."
The dryness in his tone suggested otherwise.
"Just surprised this is the bloke that clobbered the Old Man, is all," Ryan said in explanation. "From what I hear, you've got quite an arm on you."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Clobbered is a bit of an exaggeration."
Ryan smiled. "Sorry…" he said with a shrug. "I'm a sensationalist."
Looking between the two of them, he curled his lips up in amusement. And Abby could just tell from the shrewd gleam in his eyes that she wasn't going to like whatever he said next.
"So...where did the lovebirds meet?" he said, crossing his legs.
"Work," Abby said abruptly.
Letting out a small hum, he nodded. "You play piano, too, Harry?"
A slight movement caused Abby to glance over at Naomi, who'd shifted in her seat, her lips pressed together in a thin line.
It made her heart sink. Ryan knew this was a sore spot for her, that much was clear by the knowing smirk on his face. It was the same one he'd used to wear as a child, mischief alight in his eyes.
Except now, all she saw was derision. And that thought alone was like a knife in her chest.
Abby acknowledged that she'd left him behind with her father for university, goodbyes ushered in on wings of promises that when she'd be done, it would be different. She'd have a job, a life. Happiness to be shared between them.
And now, all these years later, here she was. No promises delivered and the realisation that she had moved on while life, for him, had stayed much the same.
Closing her eyes for a moment, she let out a small breath. "Please stop trying to avoid why we're here," she said quietly.
"We?" Ryan said, his eyebrows raised. "Oh, Abby...you think I came here just to have a little heart-to-heart with you? Patch things up, maybe hug it out."
"Ryan..." Naomi spoke up in a chiding tone. "Watch it."
Abby snapped her head towards the woman, taken aback by the familiarity in her voice. "Sorry...what exactly is going on here?" she said, looking back at her brother.
Rolling his eyes, he sat up a bit straighter in his seat. "Hate to break it to you, sis, but I didn't come here to talk to you," he said with a thin smile. "I live here."
The words shot straight to Abby's heart, and she blinked a few times, trying to make sense of them.
Of all the things she'd expected to learn about him today, this was not even remotely on the list. She knew he'd been in contact with their father recently, but this? Living with the man that had made their lives hell and not even bothering to tell her about it?
No one bothering to tell her about it?
"How long?" she said, not even sure who she was directing the question to anymore.
"Past few years," Ryan said.
Her eyes darted back to him. "Years?" she said, her voice getting louder now. "You've got to be kidding me...I've tried calling you so many times. I even called Dad! You're telling me he was with you this whole time and lying to me?"
The feel of Harry's hand on her back startled her, and she let out a loud breath to try and calm herself.
"I wasn't with him whenever it was you called, he would've told me," Ryan said, leaning forward against his knees. "I was living with a mate of mine for a while, but...that didn't work out, to say the least."
Something in his face darkened as he said the words. And despite everything that was going on at the moment, despite nearly seven years apart, Abby still felt the old, familiar urge to comfort him.
She gritted her teeth and looked away. "How could you even stand to be under the same roof as him?" she said, shaking her head.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ryan's entire demeanour change. "Didn't exactly have a choice now, did I?" he said with an edge. "You think I wanted to come crawling back to him after everything? You think I didn't hate myself for it?"
"I would have preferred anywhere to this," Abby shot back.
"And maybe that's why I never told you," he said, drowning her voice out. "You hated him so much, you never let me forget it."
Abby clenched her fists hard against the couch as she stared at him. "Because he was an arsehole that neglected and abandonded you-"
"I told you I had no bloody choice!" he said, shooting up from his seat. "So get the fuck out of here with your judgemental bullshit!"
At this, Harry stood up as well, holding a hand up in a calming gesture. "Maybe we should tone it down a bit with the language," he said in a neutral voice despite the hard set to his shoulders.
"Maybe you should mind your own fucking business," Ryan yelled.
"Ryan!" Naomi said, going over to him. "You need to cool it."
He brushed her off but turned away to take a few deep breaths in, his hands at his waist and his head hung low.
And even though Abby knew it was the wrong thing to say, she couldn't help the words that spilt from her mouth. "Isn't this rich," she said, gesturing between them. "Find yourself a new mother, did you, Ry?"
"Abby," Harry said, looking over at her with surprise on his face. "Maybe you should cool it, too."
Ryan let out a loud laugh as he turned back towards them. "And did you find yourself a new father, Abby?" he said, looking Harry up and down. "I mean, he's fit as, but a bit old for you, luv."
Without thinking, Abby shot out of her seat. "Go to hell," she said, ready to pounce on him if it weren't for Harry's arm around her waist, pulling her back. "It broke my heart when I had to leave you, you know that. And all this time, I've felt so ashamed. Like everything was my fault. Like it was always my fault. Well, guess what? It bloody wasn't!"
She broke away from Harry's grasp and threw one last glare in her brother's direction. "It was your father's fault," she spat out.
Brushing the tears from her eyes in annoyance, Abby turned on her heel and stalked towards the front door, Harry's footsteps following behind her.
But she paid him no mind as she continued toward the pavement, not knowing where she was going but knowing she needed to get as far away from that house as possible.
Harry called out her name, but she ignored him, not trusting herself to speak.
"Abby!" he said again, jogging up to her. "Just slow down."
He placed a hand on her shoulder, but she brushed him off. "Harry, just leave me alone for a minute, please!" she said, covering her face with her hands. "Just leave me alone…"
But his arms wrapped around her, and she collapsed into them, burying her face into his chest and letting more than a decade's worth of tears and heartache bleed into his shirt.
"Just leave me alone…" she whispered continuously. "Just leave me alone...please..."
Who she was speaking to, she no longer knew. But she was unable to stop the words from leaving her mouth.
"I won't," Harry said from above her, his deep voice vibrating in her hair and sending warmth down her body. "I won't."
Thank you to Saliient91 and Petrificus Somewhatus for their unending moral support and Coaching. Ajjaxx, for letting me bounce ideas off him, sprinting with me, and giving me his general help and support. And Nauze, for beta-reading this chapter despite his dislike for Lily and desire to cut down her scenes and replace them with Al's instead. Nice try, Nauze. Not today.
I'd also like to give a shoutout to a Harry/Luna oneshot collection I was involved in recently with my cowriter Saliient91 (under the penname SalTalStudios). Please check out all the oneshots for this collection from the STS discord server if you enjoy this pairing. I can vouch for them all. The link is below:
ffn (spelled out)./community/SalTal-Studios-HarryLuna-April-Fools-One-Shot-Collection/133699/3/0/1/
And please feel free to join using this link: discord. gg / hq5ZvYYMA7 (remove the spaces).
Also, check out my spinoff story Solve Crimes with Me about little Detective Lily. And I'd like to give one more shout out to my good friend Lupy the White Knight (penname), who published a story today as well called As the Flowers Bloom on ffn!
Happy HYPE week to my friends at the STS Discord. You thought it was really over, huh? Gotcha!