The Truth About Changes
It only takes me half an hour to get the approval to skip work, and to call Brychan and get access to the Floo at the bar. The Trout is not precisely happy with the whole idea, but he says that he knew issues like this might come up with me in his department and he was willing to take the risk because I'm good at my job. I don't get to wallow in that pleasure for long, because Brychan's sympathetic grimace when he gives me clearance to Floo tells me he's already heard the news—and that means the reporters are already in town.
"This is a nightmare," I mutter as I make my way to Wales. I wish there was time to talk to Kingsley and ask him for some advice on this, but the longer I wait, the worse it's going to get.
"There you are."
"Is it bad, Brychan?"
He squints and creates an interesting pattern in his freckles. "Not yet."
"Just don't muck things up, and it'll all settle down quick enough."
"I don't know what to do."
I'm as surprised that I said it as he is to hear it. He's only ever seen me in the various Phases of the Teddy Action Plan. I generally spend my time pretending I know exactly what to do. It's my job: in my actual occupation as an Auror, in my status as a hero, in my role in Teddy's life. I have to pretend I know what I'm doing, even when I'm totally lost.
Now I can't.
"Well, lad, I'll tell you one thing I've learned after twenty-eight years of marriage to a good woman. It's best to act like she's right and you're wrong. Isn't always the truth, but she'll suss that out on her own if you let her and there's fewer hearts and dishes get broken in the process."
"Thanks," I mutter, already on my way out the door.
I don't even know what the situation is yet, so it's difficult to judge who's right and who's wrong. She got her picture taken with a man, that's all I really know. No matter what the paper might say about it, there had to be loads of men at that party, and she probably talked to several of them. That's what people do at parties. I feel certain that's all that really happened. But the fact remains that this is the incident that has sparked our inevitable conversation. It's The Talk, and I don't want to have it. I want to pretend things are still fine, and I don't want to lose her.
I don't know if she'll be at the stadium, but I think it's more likely that she's at home. If I'm missing work for this, I'm sure she is, too. I don't think anyone really knows where she lives, which is why I've got a cap on over my hair and my glasses in my pocket. If nobody sees Harry Fucking Potter going there, they won't have any reason to discover where she lives.
When I get to the door, I just let myself in as always, not really stopping to consider that it might not be the best idea today. I'm barely three steps into the house before there's a wand at my throat.
"How dare you break into the house of a good, law-abiding witch just for the scoop on some imaginary scandal? You little bastard, I—"
"Morning, Miss Jones," I say carefully, just as Gwenog cuts herself off and gapes at me. She had grabbed hold of my arm and twisted it up behind my back, but she lets go now.
"Erm, sorry, there, Potter. I was only—"
"I know. It's all right."
"So what are you doing here?" she asks, lifting her eyebrow in a way I don't care for.
"I'm here to talk to my girlfriend. What's it to you?"
"She's my star player and I don't need a scandal on my team."
"There's no scandal," I protest, hoping that she doesn't know anything I don't.
"I know that. Probably better than you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" She's got her arms crossed and a frown on her face, and she's giving me every indication that she's exceedingly pissed off. It's just that I have no idea what I did to her. Well, her personally, although I suppose it's possible she's angry at the upset to her team's routine.
"It means I talk to her, Potter. Often. Which is more than you do."
With that, she sweeps past me and through the front door.
"Thank Merlin you finally showed up. I left Gerty in charge of PR until I can get to the stadium and deal with the reporters."
The door crashes shut behind her, and I simply stand there in the entryway. I know I need to go find Ginny, but I'm sort of frozen. Since when do I not talk to her? And since when does Gwenog Jones know how my relationship with Ginny works? And there's enough reporters at the stadium to warrant public relations statements? Merlin, this is already a mess and I don't even know what happened yet.
I finally break out of my paralysis to take a step forward, to go to Ginny's room and see if she's there. Instead, she appears in the doorway of the kitchen, holding a porcelain mug in her hand (that I recognize as the one we used to turn into a turtle for Transfiguration practice), and leaning exhaustedly on the wooden frame.
"Hi," she says in a low, uncertain voice.
Her eyes are red and puffy, set in dark pits of exhaustion; her face is drawn, weary; her shoulders slumped in some strange kind of defeat. She looks like she's been crying all night. And that scares the hell out of me. The thing is, Ginny never cries, she just doesn't respond to things that way. The last time I saw her cry herself into exhaustion—shit, she hasn't done that since her brother died. Just the once, then.
She cheated on me last night, didn't she?
I think about Ginny, and the last time she cried like this. I'm so angry I'm seeing red, but I have to think, dammit. Gwenog Jones believes I don't talk to her, and she's probably right. However this conversation goes, it should have happened months ago, and it's my fault that it didn't. That's the only way I can calm down. It's the only way to keep myself from tracking down this Paradis guy and just flat-out murdering him. I have to assume that this is something I did. Brychan is more right than he knows. For the moment, I need to assume that I did something wrong. After all, she might have cheated on me—might have—but it takes two to get to this stage of a relationship, doesn't it?
There's reporters at the stadium. Sharks, circling us, drawn by the scent of our blood in the water.
"Sorry you had to miss work for this," Ginny mumbles.
Suddenly, I'm across the room, and she's flinching away from me, and that fucking hurts like nothing else, that she flinches—
I grab her face in my hands. I press my forehead against hers. I breathe out deeply through my nose. I hope my breath doesn't smell like the beans and toast I had for breakfast when I speak.
"Hey," I say, surprising even myself with the softness in my voice. "It's okay. Whatever it is, it's going to be okay."
I feel her cheeks tightening beneath my hands, and I think I know she's going to cry before she does.
"Listen," I say, calm and controlled. I have to pretend I know what I'm doing, right? It's what I do. "We need to talk. Obviously. But this shouldn't be affecting your team or causing a ruckus like this. So here's what we're going to do first: we're going to go down to the Dwynwen and Potion. We're going to have some lunch together. We're going to talk about nice, easy things like your mum and how bad Ron screwed up his training assignment last week. Okay? We need to do that, appear in public like that. Whatever conversation we have, it happens after the reporters see us together."
Now I feel tears running in hot trickles over my hands. "Why are you being so nice?"
"Ginny, whatever happened, it's our business. Not theirs. And I won't let the papers slap a scarlet letter on your chest just for talking to some guy at a party. Not you. I love you, I won't let them."
She is pressing her forehead into mine so hard that it aches, and her mouth finds mine with an uncertainty that kills me. The kiss is brief, just a moment of her hesitation and my lack of it. We both just need to get on firmer ground. I need to know that she hasn't distanced herself too much to even talk, and I imagine she needs to know that I'm not too angry to think about this. After the kiss, she pulls back and looks more composed. Her hands are at least a bit looser on her teacup.
"So let's get you cleaned up a bit, hey?" I say gently, and tug her toward the bathroom. "Your clothes are fine, but you've got to wash your face and put on a bit of makeup."
She gasps and breaks away from me to run into the bathroom. I hear water running, and decide to have a seat. Knowing Ginny, we won't be going out for another hour or so. Which is all to the good, really. I don't want the reporters to know she's been crying.
It was as good as can be expected. Nobody but Brychan knew we were there for almost the entirety of our meal, and the reporters didn't show up until we were nearly ready to pay the bill. We spent that hour talking about family stuff and trying to make each other laugh. We both wanted to make sure nobody saw us upset with each other. If we're going to have this conversation, it's going to stay between us, that's for damn sure.
I maybe hexed a camera as we ran out the door. Maybe. Can you blame me? After all the shit the media put me through, I feel justified in bearing a slight grudge.
So. Here we are. Me and Ginny. Sitting at her kitchen table in awkward silence, hoping that Gerty knows better than to come home anytime soon. Actually, knowing Gwenog, the team is having practice as usual and Gerty is busy being pelted with Bludgers.
"I don't really know where to start," I say, at the same moment she says,
"Let's just get this over with." She blinks at me. "I'll start," she says firmly.
We sit in silence again.
"Ginny, tell me about this guy. Let's just get that out of the way."
She's about to get angry, so I go on before she can open her mouth.
"I don't believe you cheated me. I don't. But I want to know why everyone thinks you did."
She bites down on her anger, because she knows as well as I do that it's a fair question. That something must have set this off and I should know what it was.
"It was just . . . nothing," she says, fighting with her words as if her tongue and her brain are locked in mortal combat. "I was at a party. I was there by myself, just having a good time, dancing with some of the other girls. Alain was just . . . there."
I feel like I just got smacked in the chest by a dragon tail. "Alain?" I choke out.
Oh, now I've done it. Her face just went blank and hard and cold as a stone wall, and I knew better than to say it that way, because we both know that was an accusation.
"Yes," she hissed. "His name is Alain Paradis, and he is not only handsome and single, but he is intelligent and funny and interesting and talented, and at some point in the several hours we spent talking last night, he invited me to address him by his first name." She is crossing her arms and looking defiant, the way she used to when she was a teenager. "You know what was most appealing about him, and why I spent an indecorous amount of time with him? He was there, and listening to me talk. I don't get that very often, do I?"
"So, what?" I blurt out. "This was to punish me for not wanting to go to the party?"
I almost hope she slaps some sense into me at this point, as I clearly need it. (I have never let my anger get the better of me, and I have no idea where these hurtful accusations came from. I certainly never have run off at the mouth when angry.)
"You twat!" she shouts. "This doesn't have anything to do with the stupid party!"
"I know that!" I shout right back. "Stop being so aggressive! I came to talk, not to fight!"
She just stares at me for a second, then she bursts into tears. "Why does it have to be now?" she gasps out. "Why when it's too late? Why couldn't we do this sooner? We have to fight, because I'm angry and I'm hurt and I want to hurt you, Harry."
I stay silent. I don't know what to say. I can't even begin to figure out what I want to say.
"I didn't cheat on you with Alain Paradis," she says. "But I wanted to, and isn't that all you need to know? I need out of this before it drives me mad," she sobs.
"Don't," I say, and I feel cold. There's something frozen and dead in my chest. "Don't turn this all around on me. Listen, I know we have to do this. I know that. But we don't have to do this," I say, gesturing at the two of us, glaring (and sobbing) at each other across Ginny's old table. "Let's not do this, please."
Ginny and I have barely been together this past year, and I feel capable of handling life as a single person instead of as half of a couple. But I couldn't take the feeling that we were enemies. We went through awful things, and we held hands through all of it, through facing off against real enemies. I just couldn't take not having her as my friend. I couldn't laugh with her over dinner at her parents' house, I couldn't argue about Poland's chances in the World Cup . . . No, I won't lose that. That much, I need to hold onto. It's part of me, it's home, and it's part of her, too. We have to do what we can to survive this.
I hope I sound humble. I feel humble. I feel like I could have been the one who made sure things didn't go this way. I've known for a long time how unhappy she is, and I avoided talking about it so much that I was even avoiding her. Which of course made things worse. (I never really got the phrase "digging yourself into a hole" but now clarity is repeatedly bashing me over the head and I truly understand. I love these little moments with you, Doctor.)
"How?" she says softly. "How do we do this, without that?"
I try to think. "We know that we love each other. That we want the best for each other. We know that, don't we?"
"I want to believe that."
I tamp down the flare of anger I get from that. Anger is just covering up hurt, and hurt is better than anger in this case. She doesn't have to sound so doubtful. She's doing it to be petty, but it's because she's hurt as well. Okay.
"We're both hurt at this point, I think. Let's just agree to listen to each other. Let's . . . let's not try to defend ourselves. Let's just listen. And then we'll be done. We'll just—that'll be the end of it. We'll know why this doesn't work anymore, and we can still try to get along at Sunday dinner after that. We're not going to fight. We're just going to learn a few things. Can we do that?"
Ginny gives me a slightly sardonic look, the meaning clear even when interpreted through red nose and puffy eyes. "Can we put a Tongue-Tying Jinx on the other person when it's our turn to speak?"
"Aw, come on, Gin."
"Well, we don't have a good track record of one person being honest and the other person listening without getting defensive. That's not our strong suit."
"But we'll manage it today," I say firmly. "For each other's sake. You're one of my best friends, so let's try it for the sake of ten years of friendship."
She blows out a shaky breath. "Okay. Let me just blow my nose."
"I'd better go out for more tissue, then," I tease.
She sticks out her tongue at me when she stands up. It's weak and half-hearted and I wish she hadn't. If she doesn't feel our friendship right now, she shouldn't try to force it.
She returns with her nose a bit red, but otherwise looking better. I took the moments she was gone to put the kettle on. I want to make this quick and painless, like ripping off a bandage, but everything goes better with tea. (Yes, I've had bandages ripped off. Yes, it fucking hurts like mad.) Ginny smiles at me as she accepts her cup, and it actually seems genuine, if a bit wan and exhausted.
"Okay . . ." she sighs as she sits back down. "Last night is simple to explain, really. I was lonely, Harry. I've been lonely for a while." I open my mouth, but she holds up her hand and forestalls me. "My turn, right now." I bite back my pride and nod at her to continue. I was the one who said let's take it in turns and not get defensive, and I'm already screwing it up. (This feels strangely like a pattern for me, Doctor. Am I having déjà vu? Wait, what's all this rubbish in your notes about my teenaged years making me overly-defensive?)
"You're a great boyfriend, Harry . . . when you're here. But you're never here. I'm closer to Gerty and Gwen at this point than I am to you. It's Gwen I go to when I want to talk about something. It should be you, and I know that I could stick my head in the fireplace and call you. But it's not the same thing as having you beside me. You don't hold me when I'm sad or cheer for me when I'm happy. You don't know when I am, because you're not here. And I understand perfectly well that we don't live in the same area. It doesn't upset me that we don't live together. What upsets me is how much more often you could be here. You could come over on the days you're not working. You could have been at that party last night. And what hurts me, what has been hurting me all this time, is that you don't try. You've made other things a priority, and you've left me out in the cold. Your first thought when you get free time isn't me, it's Teddy. I know you love him and that's fine. I'm not even your second thought, though, am I? It's always Luna or Neville or Ron and Hermione . . . I feel like you don't even remember you're dating me, sometimes."
Ginny pauses for a moment to drink some of her tea, now that it's cooled down. I sit in shamed silence, because she's right. Making Teddy my top priority is one thing. But Ginny ought to be the next person on my list, and she's not even close. She doesn't seem to need me, because she's so independent. She's happy to see me when I do come, so I guess I was just thinking she was fine without me. I know I'm a dunce about girls, but even I should have known better than that.
Ginny sets her cup down and goes on. "If I knew it was only going to be for a little while, I could take it. That was how I approached it when everything started. You supported me when I got onto the team. We had plans to see each other often and Floo-call a few times a week. You wanted to be part of the whole thing with me. You were going to come to these stupid parties with me. You even talked about playing Quidditch professionally, for a while. But none of those things have happened. You've just drifted farther and farther away while I've kept on working toward the goal I thought we had together. I guess it's just me, just my goal. I don't know when that happened. When did that happen, Harry?"
It seems she's said her piece, and I can tell that her throat is tight, that she thinks she might cry again. I don't blame her. I didn't know she was carrying around this feeling of betrayal.
"I don't think I did anything wrong by changing my priorities," I say, looking down into the cup of tea I haven't even touched since I set it on the table. "But I know that I did wrong when I didn't talk to you about it. There's about a million times in the past couple of years when I should have gotten together with you to talk about the things going on in my life, the changes I was making. I haven't been treating you like a partner at all. If I had, maybe we could have figured this out together. We could have made adjustments, both of us, and still made this work. But I just went ahead and did my own thing without you, and now it's too late."
I finally take a few sips of my tea, trying to gather up my thoughts, and I make a face because it's gotten too cold to drink.
"I'm a father now, I think. It wasn't what I intended to be, and I've never tried to force anyone to see me that way. But it happened. I'm Teddy's father in every way that matters except bloodline. And he's a shy little boy who's sick. He's not the sort of boy who I want to drag around behind celebrity parents who constantly get in the paper, with photos and autographs and rubbing elbows with other celebrities. That's what you and I wanted a few years ago, when it was just us. But it's not what I want for Teddy. And I did make him a priority, you're right. I don't know if you'll understand it. I feel like raising him is the most important thing I'll ever do. Bigger than fighting Voldemort, bigger than dying, bigger than anything I've ever been."
Ginny's expression is something I can't even begin to interpret. It's the look she gives me when she loves me, or maybe the one she gives me when she's confused, or maybe it's the look she gave me when I broke up with her before I left to hunt Horcruxes. It's sort of all of them simultaneously. I can't even meet her eyes right now.
"It scares me. I feel like I'm not good enough for it. And I guess that's a lot of the reason I've distanced myself from you lately. You . . . You're not with me on this, Gin. You don't want to be Teddy's mum. And that's fine; I have no right to make you feel like you have to be. But it makes me feel really alone. I don't feel like I can talk to you about this stuff. I know I haven't been coming to see you, but you haven't been coming down to London, either. You haven't even tried. And it hurts. It really, really hurts."
I pause for a moment to breathe. I didn't even know it hurt. How is it that I didn't even know that? I thought I was getting so in tune with my feelings . . .
"You don't want to be a part of my life anymore than I want to be a part of yours, at this point. So let's just accept that. Okay? Can we? That we just— you know, we were kids, and we became adults, and somewhere along the way we grew apart instead of together. Is that— can we just say that and go on? I don't want to sit here trying to figure out who hurt who the most."
It's true. I'd rather not. I feel hurt with good reason, she feels hurt with equally good reason, but the real truth here is just that long-distance relationships rarely work out. (When did you try to tell me that, Doctor? I have no recollection, and not a word about selective memory!)
"What if I do?" Ginny shoots back at me, rousing my anger again. Why does she have to make this so difficult? "I'm not very impressed with you trying to play the mature and sorrowful card, Harry Potter. You're upset, too!"
"Yeah, I am," I shoot back. "But I'm playing the mature card because somehow, as funny as it may seem, I'm getting that way, or trying to. Is it so wrong that I don't want us both to walk away from this completely devastated? Why is that bad?"
"Because this should mean something! It should be hard to do! If I hurt you so bad, then why would you want this to go smoothly? Why wouldn't you want to hurt me?" "Because I love you!" I shout at her. "I think you're amazing! I think you're beautiful! I think you're one of the best people in the world, and I hope that you get a place on England's team, and I hope that you're always happy, and I hope that things work out with Alain Paradis so you won't have to feel lonely. I'm breaking this off because I love you, not because I don't. I know I'm hurting you, and I want to stop doing that. I . . . I wanted to marry you, Ginny," I squeeze out past an incredibly tight throat. "I really, really did." Is it my imagination that I'm whispering? I thought I was shouting.
"I know," Ginny whispers back, and I look up to see that she is ashen-faced and digging into her pocket. She places a small box on the table, and I would swear she must have also punched me in the gut, because I can't breathe. "This— it was that night when we had dinner with Luna and that Scamander— Teddy got sick that night— you left this on your chair— I know, Harry. You were going to propose to me. So I waited. I kept waiting for a long time. I thought you'd ask me if I had found this as soon as you realized it wasn't in your pocket. You never did. You . . ."
She shoves the box across the table, and I numbly take the engagement ring and fumble it into my own pocket.
"You should go now," she says quietly. "Try to avoid the stadium so the press doesn't know."
"What are we going to do about them?" I ask, still numb.
"Nothing," she shrugs. "I won't answer any questions. You do what you like. They'll figure it out eventually."
I nod. It's been my usual method of dealing with reporters; if you ignore them they eventually go away. (Rita Skeeter is an exception, but then Rita Skeeter is exceptionally insane.) I get up and I nearly run to the front door. I can't stay here for one more second, because I seriously can't breathe—
Ginny lunges for me, catches me by the arm at the door.
"I love you, too," she says, and grabs the back of my head to drag me down and press a harsh kiss on me. Then she lets go and shuts the door in my face.
I still want to spend time at the Burrow, odd as that may seem. Everything there is tinged with regret, at this point. Ginny and I kissed on the landing of the stairs, just there. Ginny and I made dinner together that one night, and I was standing there when she smacked me with a spoon. We used to sneak out of that window with our brooms and fly all night. So it hurts, being there. But it's still home.
"Teddy, love, come help Grandma make some sandwiches," Molly says, tugging Teddy away from the book he was reading, curled up beside me on the couch. I realize that I've been sitting there, staring off into space for several minutes and that Teddy has decided to entertain himself. I didn't want to come over without Teddy as a buffer. The first thing Molly said to me after she got the news that Ginny and I were breaking things off was that I'd better not stop coming over, and I appreciated it, but I wasn't brave enough to show up until Bug was with me.
Molly, for all her quick temper, is a gracious woman. She's giving me some space to sort myself out. I still feel a bit like I can't breathe, so I poke my head into the kitchen.
"Hey, I'm going for a walk. I won't be too long."
Molly just nods, but Teddy looks up at me with his huge, sad eyes. He knows I'm feeling off, but I haven't figured out how to tell him about Ginny. I think he might have already figured it out, though, because he called last night (with Andromeda's help, of course) and asked if he could come spend the night so I wouldn't be lonely. Like I was going to turn that down? Since I'm all moping and distracted, I brought him over here today, so he could hang out with Molly and not have to feel depressed with me.
I walk away from the house aimlessly, with no destination in mind. The engagement ring is in my pocket, because I can't figure out what to do with it so I've just been carrying it around. I miss Ginny already. It's foolish of me, I'm only too aware of that. But there is a huge difference between not calling Ginny, and not being able to call Ginny. We have been a couple, more or less, since my sixth year (sometimes separated, but still faithful) and I don't really know what to do with myself now.
Ginny was my answer to being happy, lonely, horny, or sad. I suppose that now I will just deal with those things on my own, which makes the future seem bleak. Was it just three days ago that I believed I would be fine with life as a single? Everyone seems to think I isolate myself, that I do everything on my own. But it's not true. I've always had Ginny . . . And now I don't.
I find myself at the pond where we used to go swimming. I stare blankly at the water, which is alive with insects skimming the surface, slightly shimmering from the pressing late-summer heat. It doesn't feel the same, somehow. It's like this is the last thing to go before real adulthood. I won't be coming back here with Ginny to skinny dip at midnight when her parents think we're sleeping.
I didn't consciously put my hand into my pocket, but when I realize that I'm holding the little black box with the engagement ring, there's only one thing to do with it. It takes me a deep breath and a wind-up with my arm before I can make my fingers loosen, but then I'm watching the bugs skitter away from the disturbance as ripples close over the box. Like ripping off a bandage. Quick and easy, before it catches up with you and the disproportionate burst of pain.
I sit down in the grass at the side of the pond and put my head down on my knees. I don't feel like crying, but I'm hiding my face because I don't know what it should look like. I feel as though I'll walk away from here as a different person completely, with nothing left of "just Harry." Should I be mourning myself or something? (People go through drastic changes more than once in their lives? Doctor, you must be joking, no one would be willing to do this twice.) I think that most people must not do this—must not really change very much. Things change around them, but they go on being the same as they always were. Not me. I want to change, even though it hurts like this and scares the hell out of me. I want to be a man who's strong but also patient and kind—someone like Remus or like Arthur. I want to be someone who's not fazed by life's problems. I want to be a man who will always stand up for friends like Luna, and I want to be a man Teddy can look up to.
There are so many parts of me that I will have to trim off and leave behind—jealousy, fear, pettiness, grudges, and I'm sure myriad bad habits I don't even know I have. Losing Ginny hurts, but maybe it's what I needed. Maybe now I'll get serious about becoming the kind of father Teddy can be proud of.
(I don't know if you're thinking what I'm thinking, Doctor, but if you're thinking this is going to take a while, you're right. Better go ahead and book my next thirty sessions with you in advance.)
I'm utterly terrified right now.
I hear footsteps in the grass, and though my level of paranoia has decreased enough to let me continue sitting by the pond instead of jumping to my feet to face an opponent, still my hand is clutching my wand when I turn to look over my shoulder.
It's Bug, and he looks uncertain and afraid.
"Hey, you," I say quietly, patting the ground next to me to invite him to sit. "Does Grandma Molly know you're out here?"
He nods, his hair flopping into his eyes. "Yes, I asked permission," he says very quietly.
"Did you want to sit out here with me for a while?"
He nods again, sitting down, but not as close to me as he usually does. I am instantly concerned. With Bug, physical distance is emotional distance. If things were okay, he'd be in my lap.
"Did you have something you wanted to talk about?"
He fidgets a bit and starts playing with the grass.
"Are you afraid I'll be mad at you?"
He looks up at me, finally, and I see fear and sadness in his eyes, sharp enough to cut myself on—and it feels like I have. I want him to be smiling, always.
"I won't be mad, Teddy. Don't ever be afraid to talk to me."
He takes a deep gulp of air and fidgets with a blade of grass, crushing it and letting pulp squish in his fingers and sending the bitter, summer scent of it toward me.
"It's my fault, isn't it."
He isn't even asking, he just assumes he's right. There's only one thing he could be talking about.
"No, it wasn't. Ginny and I were the ones dating each other, and so breaking up was a choice that Ginny and I made. No one else."
"But she was mad that she can't live in your house with me and you. And now you're sad. If I go away, will you and Auntie Ginny be happy?"
"No," I say, and I hear the terrible coldness in that denial. My heart stops beating, to think about Teddy disappearing. "No, Bug. If you left, I'd be so sad I wouldn't know what to do at all. I would— let's don't talk about something like that, okay? I need you here, with me. Because taking care of you makes me happy, remember?"
"But Auntie Ginn—"
"Teddy. Listen. Ginny wants some specific things to happen in her life. And I want other things to happen in mine. We can't be together and still both be happy, do you see? We do love each other, so that's why we decided it was better to let go so we could both be happy. Does that make sense?" He screws up his face and shrugs, which I take to mean that he's absorbed a great deal of it, but is not ready to let go of the guilt he's feeling. But hopefully it also means he feels better about talking to me, so I rather sneakily scoot closer, then closer, and close enough to put my arm around him. Green-tinged fingers, stained with grass, clutch at my pant leg.
"I heard Grandma Molly talk to Grandpa Arthur," he whispers. "She said Auntie Ginny wanted to sow wild oats. And she said you can't do that cause you don't even know how to talk to girls."
Despite myself, I snigger a little, trying to picture the rest of that conversation. People forget Teddy's listening to them, sometimes. I know better than anyone just how bright he is and how much he can put together on his own. Although sadly it's probably true. My first disastrous flailing efforts to flirt were nearly ten years ago, and they were also the last. My brief and unhappy attempt at a romance with Cho Chang was my only experience with women other than Ginny. Oh, hell. I haven't even tried to think about the fact that I am now free to pursue other women. I almost start laughing aloud. I mean, really. Me, Harry Potter. Flirting. This cannot end well.
"But you talk to girls all the time," Teddy said in confusion. "I tried real hard to figure it out, cause you said it's good to think about things on your own."
Dear Merlin, every time Teddy says something like that, I break out in a cold sweat. Didn't I just get finished saying I know he's listening? Sometimes even I need the reminder to be careful. I don't even remember when I said that or who I said it to. Who knows when Teddy will take something I said as the gospel truth, and end up hurting?
"You like talking to Aunt Angie and Aunt Hermione and Miss Hannah. Then I thought she meant about girls who aren't married, but you talk to Miss Luna, too. So I don't think Grandma Molly's right, Harry. I think you're okay."
Satisfied with himself but doubtless feeling over-bold for declaring Grandma Molly to be incorrect—I have a lot more experience distrusting adults than he does—he snuggles in close and hides his face.
"You and Grandma Molly are just thinking about different types of talking, that's all," I tell him, absently stroking my hand over his back while I stare out at the dancing surface of the lake. I think I feel better, oddly enough. For one thing, Bug clearly thinks I'm not beyond hope yet, even though it's kind of pathetic that a six-year-old's opinion means that much to me. But it lays to rest my doubts about still having a place in this family. They might be mocking me behind my back, but at least I know the Weasleys aren't angry at me over the breakup, even going so far as to picture me hooking up with someone else. Oh. Oh dear Merlin. What if Molly tries to play matchmaker? She's been doing it to Charlie for years and I'm convinced it's half the reason he lives in another country.
The possibilities that have sprung up in my future are staggering. Blind dates. "I have this friend" conversations. Girls that want to date Harry Fucking Potter. It'll be in the media. Photos of me and some girl, no matter how private I try to keep things, and wild speculations about the "Chosen One's chosen one." It's overwhelming. I think I'm supposed to be excited by the idea of it all, but instead I feel a bit nauseated. And oh shit what if there's a picture of Ginny with that Paradis bloke right beside mine on those stupid society pages—
I card my fingers through Bug's hair and feel more grounded. I wouldn't put him through all of that—and where would I find a woman who's okay with this, anyway? But I know that everyone's going to worry about me, push me, and I wonder if I'll end up thinking Charlie was right after all. I was never the type to run away from anything, but it suddenly sounds pretty good.
Andromeda no longer worries about leaving Teddy with me if she needs to do something, which is all the to the good. But now we've perhaps swung too far the other direction. Despite my clearly-stated intentions to go out with Neville, Hannah, and Luna tonight, she has developed a sudden need for me to take Teddy. Even that would be fine if it was an emergency or something, but I do not consider a call from an old friend in Bath to be an emergency. What about my friends, damn it? I hardly ever see them as it is! And Luna supposedly had some kind of news for us tonight, big news.
I sent my owl to Luna, figuring she'd have to pass the message along for me. He's pleasingly fast, but he couldn't get to both homes before the time we were supposed to meet. I feel bad for letting them down, but it wasn't like there was much I could do. Andromeda called me and just sort of bowled me over, and Teddy was practically hiding behind her because he was clearly so embarrassed about being a bother to me. My eventual agreement was a lot more about getting that look off his face than about making Andromeda happy.
I'll admit that some of it was concern for her, though. She looks really—I don't know. Tired, or strained, or something. She was bullying me around because that's all she seems to know how to do, but I'm worried because she seemed like she would have let go of her pride to beg me if I'd let it go on.
So I let her bring Teddy through the fire, no longer worrying that she needs to pack him a bag or give me any instructions. She iss gone again only a moment later, and I wonder whether or not she was lying about the friend in Bath.
Everything about this is made more complicated by the fact that it's full moon tomorrow, when he would have been coming over anyway. Andromeda probably gave him his medication not too long ago. I know that he tends to be uncomfortable and restless on the actual full moon night, but I don't often have him the day prior, when he takes the strongest dose of meds.
I cross to where he's standing in the middle of the room and hold out my hand. "You want to come to the kitchen with me so we can figure out dinner?"
He shakes his head. He's pale and his skin looks sweaty. I go down on my knee and push the damply clinging bits of hair away from his forehead.
"You don't feel good, do you?" I ask him quietly.
"My tummy hurts," he admits.
"I'd better get you a glass of water and put you to bed, hadn't I?" I say, already resigned to spending the night sitting beside his bed and keeping vigil, just in case.
Teddy pushes himself against me, and I'm only too willing to obey the request to hug him. "It's too quiet there. Can I stay here with you?"
"Bug—" I choke on that, my throat thick. "It's 'May I' you know," I sigh, and carry him toward the stairs. "We're going to change you into your pyjamas, and then you can lay on the couch with me and I'll read to you for a while, okay?"
"Mmm-hmm," he agrees listlessly, laying his head complacently on my shoulder.
I feel an enormous amount of comfort in the fact that he rouses himself to kick me out so he can change clothes by himself. His privacy means quite a bit to him, and I feel better knowing that he's not too ill to want that. He emerges and walks downstairs with me on his own, too. Heh. Maybe he didn't really need to be carried upstairs and he just kind of let me. Like I said, even I forget how smart he is.
We read for a while, him on the couch huddled under a throw blanket that Molly made, and me sitting on the floor propped up by the couch. It's pretty cozy, all told. I get the fireplace going, even though it's too warm for a fire, and the two of us are munching on some crackers to settle Teddy's stomach. (I am not thinking, not even for a moment, about the dinner I was planning to have. I am not thinking about the fun my friends are having without me, and I am not swallowing dry cracker crumbs and thinking about the delicious possibilities at whatever restaurant they decided on. No, sir, not even a little.)
Turns out that Teddy's stomach is not really enjoying the crackers. He makes a strangled sound, and with some kind of instinct I don't even understand, I realize what's wrong and I've yanked him up and carried him to the downstairs bathroom before even truly registering the noise. I'm not sure whether to leave so he can throw up with some privacy, or stay with him because he's a tiny kid and he's sick. The whole thing is not really pleasant, but I stay with him. Thankfully it doesn't last long.
For the sake of expediency, I just Summon his toothbrush.
"Do you want to go to bed now?" I ask him while he's brushing.
He shakes his head and spits in the sink. "I feel better now. I won't throw up anymore."
"Does that happen every time, Bug? I thought your medicine took care of that."
He frowns. "I think . . . I get too tired from that. I don't take that one tonight because I need lots of energy. Grandma still needs to tell you. I was supposed to remind her about that, but I forgot."
"And just why in hell Grandma is counting on you to remember in her place," I start to mutter, but I stop myself because Bug doesn't need to hear it. "Did Dr. Franklin say that it was okay to do that?"
"Y-e-e-s-s-s," he draws out, thinking hard.
"Yes, sir," Teddy mumbles.
"Please don't ever call me sir," I sigh, picking him up and swinging him around to rest against my side and hip so I can carry him back to the living room. "I'm really sorry, Bug."
"Because it shouldn't be like this."
He shouldn't be sick in the first place. The medication shouldn't cause as many problems as it solves. He shouldn't be here with me instead of home with his own parents, and as I'm thinking I'm realizing that there are so many things wrong in Teddy's world that I don't even know where to start. (I am aware, Doctor, that no one's life is perfect. Of all people, I know that. But really, is it that weird that I want this boy's life to be perfect?)
"It's okay, Harry," he says brightly, laying his head on my shoulder again. "My tummy doesn't hurt so much now."
"That's good," I mutter, patting his back.
"And I get to be at your house. I always feel good at your house."
I sit down in an armchair, still holding him. "I'm glad," I tell him softly. I suddenly want to rock him to sleep. It's only a quick moment of work to transfigure the legs on the chair into rockers, and then we're slowly drifting back and forth together, both of us with drooping eyes and nodding heads. The fire isn't hot enough to explain the feverish warmth of Teddy's body, and I feel very tired, wondering how long this can go on before one of us—me, Teddy, or Andromeda—just breaks under the pressure.
Then a head comes to life in my fireplace, and I sit up straighter. Teddy wasn't quite asleep, and this rouses him. He turns to see who's calling.
"Hello, boys," Luna says cheerfully. "It seems I've interrupted an important cuddle."
"It's okay, Miss Luna," Teddy answers her. "You should come through to see us!"
Luna looks doubtful, but I add my own voice. "No, really, come on through, Luna. It'll be more comfortable than sticking your head in the fire."
"Well, thank you for thinking of me," she says sincerely. Her head disappears, but then the flames pop and spark green, and she steps through with a calm, unhurried brush of her hands over her clothes.
"How was dinner?" I ask her, very glad my voice doesn't sound bitter. I don't want the Bug thinking I'm upset about it, because he'll feel guilty even though it wasn't his fault.
"Oh, we didn't go," she says, clasping her hands in front of her. It makes her look oddly demure, like that stereotype of a maid or something.
"D'you want to sit down?"
"I would love to, thank you."
"Why didn't you go, then?" I ask her as she takes a seat on the couch Teddy has just been laying on.
"We didn't want to go without you," she says, eyes bright on me. "It wouldn't have been the same. We were wondering if we could reschedule for Monday week?"
"Oh," I say in surprise, feeling like I'm blushing for some strange reason. "I, uh, I think so. Sure."
"That way Dean can come as well, and it will be more appropriate, anyway," she goes on, unconcerned by my blathering.
"What's that? Dean?"
"I already spoiled the surprise a bit with Neville and Hannah, so I thought I ought to go on and tell you," she explains. "I've taken on Dean as my co-editor for The Quibbler."
"Oh, really?" I stutter, surprised beyond my ability to respond gracefully. "That's great news, but I thought he'd just gotten a job with the Daily Prophet not long ago?"
You see how I've matured? I am not voicing my wonderment about why Dean would leave a reputable, stable job like that to work with Luna on her wonky magazine—well, okay, it's not that weird lately. But still.
"Of all the people I've spoken to recently, it always seemed like Dean was the person who best understood the direction I'm trying to move in. He has vision, you see. Truly, he's very independent. He has his own ideas about how to do things. I shouldn't like to gossip, but he did say he's had a lot of conflict with his immediate superior. He believes working on The Quibbler will give him more freedom of expression."
"Well, I'm glad," I tell her, completely honestly. Dean's a great guy, as I'm sure his wife would attest, and he won't do anything to jeopardize Luna's magazine. He's a good writer. I'm sure he has loads of vision, although I wouldn't really know. And Merlin knows Luna's been needing the help. Even when her father was still there, he wasn't able to do much more than help her brainstorm. I don't really know what it is Dean might be responsible for, but I know that Luna has trouble dividing things up neatly. He'll probably just do a bit of everything. That strikes me as something that would appeal to Dean, maybe even to draw him away from a stable career. When we were in school, he liked to do a lot of different things at once.
"I'll save most of my well-wishing for Monday, but I'm happy that you got that worked out," I say.
"Thank you, Harry. I'm glad we'll all get to have dinner together, after all. It just wouldn't have been the same if you couldn't come."
It's pathetic it is, how that threatens to choke me up. When's the last time I heard something like that?
"So what have you been doing this evening, if you weren't out?" I ask politely.
"I was fire-calling with Neville and Dean first, then I was getting a bit of work done," she says, and stands back up. "I just have some things to study tonight, so I won't intrude on you any longer."
Teddy makes a soft noise against me that I know means he's disappointed. He likes getting to spend time with Luna. Luna, on her way back to her big empty house to sit alone with interview notes for company . . .
"Why don't you bring your work over here?" I suggest, hoping my voice doesn't sound as irritatingly perky-in-an-attempt-to-sound-innocent as it seems. "Teddy and I were just going to be in here reading for a while. The company would be nice. I promise we'll keep to ourselves and let you work. It's just that I was about to put the kettle on, so you might as well work someplace where the tea's being made for you," I finish with a grin, unable to help it when I hear the pleased noise Teddy makes.
"Oh," Luna says, sounding completely bowled over. "Well. I suppose I could do that. The company would be nice, wouldn't it?"
And she does just that, disappearing through the fireplace in a swirl of green flame that I will never believe is not just a bit sinister, but re-appearing only a minute later with a sheaf of papers and a thick book tucked against her side.
"I won't stay too late," she says uncertainly.
"Go on, sit down," I say, waving my hand at the living room. I've just ordered Kreacher to put the kettle on, since I'm far too comfortable where I am to get up and do it myself. He was almost disgustingly happy to have something to do. "You can do this anytime you like," I tell her. "My living room is yours whenever you need it."
"I appreciate that, Harry," she says with that unnerving sincerity she always has, looking me right in the eyes. "I brought something with me."
"I thought if you're making tea, we could make this. Teddy, I've heard you get stomachaches from time to time. Would you like to try the tea that my mummy used to make for me when I was ill?"
"Yeah!" he says eagerly, and Luna cocks her head in my direction.
"Is that all right?"
"Should be. What's in it?" I ask politely.
"Just a mix of chamomile and ginger root. Spot of nettle, as well. I looked it up in my old Potions book, and I made sure none of the ingredients would interfere with his medication, but I could show you the entries if you'd like to make sure."
"No, Luna, that's fine. That's really thoughtful of you. I . . . I really appreciate that. Thank you."
I know what things Teddy has to avoid specifically in his diet. I have a list that's posted in my pantry and which I have spent so much time looking at that I feel like I could close my eyes and find it inscribed on my eyelids. Nettle, chamomile, and ginger are not on it. And the fact that Luna has brought over her mother's recipe from her own childhood just has me moved beyond words. (Thank Merlin for that, because if I could speak I would probably just say something sappy.)
"Let me go put things together," I say, standing up with the Bug's arms and legs wrapped around my torso, doing his barnacle impression.
"No, please, let me," Luna says, waving me off. "You two looked very comfortable where you were."
She is volunteering to wrestle with Kreacher in my place so I can cuddle with my godson. I am not going to argue.
She returns from the kitchen in due course, looking no worse for the wear. Evidently Kreacher was not feeling as territorial as he normally does. (Should this frighten me? Because I think it has me worried that he's finally dying.) She has a small tray with three steaming cups of tea on it.
"I wasn't sure what to make for you, Harry. Kreacher insists this is your favourite."
It probably is. I make do with tea bags when I don't have Kreacher making my tea. I'm glad somebody knows what kind of tea I like.
"You didn't have to do that," I say lazily, probably not very sincerely. I move Teddy back to the couch but this time sitting beside him so he can stretch out and read to himself while I read a book of my own. A history of lycanthropy, actually. Hermione was not able to find one that was written by an actual werewolf, and I find that strangely disappointing. Still, I want more of an education. I'm not convinced that Teddy won't develop lycanthropy at some point, Dr. Franklin's arguments be damned. Knowledge can't hurt, either way.
Luna is sprawled out on the floor, scratching at her paper with a quill and frequently muttering under her breath. I can't help a glance down at her work, and I blink in surprise.
"Luna? Are you doing an article on Ancient Runes?"
"No. Did you have an interest?"
"No, it's just . . . You're not writing in English."
"Oh," she says, blinking up at me dreamily. "It's Italian."
"It's supposed to be," she clarifies, and glares down at her paper. "I'm not at all certain it's accurate."
"You're studying Italian?"
"Yes," she mutters, still scowling at her notes. "After we talked about my mother, I thought I wanted to brush up on my skills. And then I just— well, I just thought I'd like to become fluent."
She looks oddly . . . Furtive. That's not like Luna. Full-on, four-alarm, red alert happening in my brain. Luna is honest to a fault, and she's hiding something from me now. I know what happened last time, and my first instinct is to grab her by the shoulders and shake it out of her. But I take a deep breath, and think. I know what happened, and so does she. We got through that situation, and we're better for it. She wouldn't lie about something that could potentially harm herself, I don't think. And she's not really lying, either. She's just being secretive about learning Italian. It could just be that she's not ready to talk about her mother, I suppose.
"Just for fun?"
"It has been rather fun so far," she says agreeably, though the way she frowns at her work seems to belie it.
"That's pretty cool, Luna. I'd never be able to learn a new language on my own. Luna?"
"You can tell me anything, you know."
"I know," she says more cheerfully, and resumes scribbling.
Teddy really loves the tea and asks for a second cup. I'm very happy about that, especially when he says he feels better. I don't know if I could even communicate to Luna how great it is to have something that makes him feel better, when nothing else seems to. (Nothing but being here with me, apparently, and I'm totally not overjoyed by that or anything.) I resolve to get her mother's recipe so I can start keeping this tea in the house. I should know better than to allow Teddy to fall asleep on the couch, head in my lap and book splayed open over his chest. But I let him sleep without moving him. It's so warm and comfortable down here, with the fire crackling and Luna's pages rustling softly in the quiet.
I don't know why I'm looking at her. And I don't know why my stomach is tying itself in a knot over it. And I'm not going to think about it any further. There's enough change happening in my life already.
I bury my face in my book. It's better that way. Better than what, I couldn't tell you.