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Set Fire to our Homes

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As the minute hand of the clock inched ever closer to the twelve, Albus found his eyes lingering longer on the clock than his paperwork. There was a ball of tense, impatient frustration in his chest that’d begun forming early that work day after the first alert about a ‘burglar’ that ended up being nothing more than a strong gust of wind or a wayward stray. After a day of paranoid elderly wizards convinced the shape on their toast was a Dark Mark, young Hogwarts students already bored on Christmas holidays owling the Auror department for a laugh, and the incident with the skunk inside Madam Malkin’s, Albus wanted nothing more than to run from the Ministry as fast as his legs could carry him.

So, of course, when his shift finally ended, the Head of the Auror Office found it prudent to enter his cubicle.

“Albus,” he said, his eyes focused on an opened folder. No, no, no, no, no, don’t you dare, you selfish, air-headed prick… “Have you finished your report on the Borkin theft?”

Albus clenched his fists from beneath the desk. He bit back his sarcastic response with extreme effort.

“Yes, I left it on your desk last week. Didn’t you see it?”

“No…no…” He continued examining the parchment held in front of him. Albus inhaled deeply.

“Right, well, I left them there—just on top of your calendar, exactly as you told me to—but, you know, it wasn’t really a theft, the Borkins—”

“Could you make another copy?”

Albus stared. His boss still hadn’t had the decency to meet Albus’s eyes even once—he was still looking at the folder in his hands.

“Sorry?” Albus demanded.

His boss finally looked up. He met Albus’s eyes. “The report. Could you rewrite it and leave it on top of my desk before you leave today? I suppose it got misplaced. Hill needs it.”

Yeah, it got misplaced because you’re the most scatterbrained idiot I’ve ever met, and I’ve met quite a lot of idiots.

“Actually, Young, I’ve got a half-shift today, so I was about to…to leave…” Young had lifted a challenging eyebrow, as if Albus had decided to leave early without his permission. Albus backtracked. “I, erm. We discussed this about five months ago and changed the schedule? I’ve got a wedding to go to tonight.”

Young observed him with a steely expression.

“Right,” he finally said. “I’m not certain I recall…I do wish you’d reminded me earlier this week…”

“I did.”

“What?”

“I did remind you. Twice this week, actually.”

His irritation was blooming dangerously. Young raised his eyebrows.

“Oh? And you’re certain you can’t skip it, only I need this report—”

“I’m positive I can’t skip it. I can redo the report for you this weekend and have it to you by Monday.”

Monday?! You’re coming in tomorrow, aren’t you?”

Albus took in a measured breath. He turned his eyes to the framed photo on his desk of Scorpius and his nieces and nephews to remind himself why he shouldn’t lose his temper and unleash one of his mum’s Bat-Bogeys. “No, we covered this when we reworked the scheduling. I’ve got to watch my brother’s kids tonight and tomorrow.”

“Well, your partner can watch them.”

Something about the word partner rubbed Albus the wrong way. He shifted in his seat and narrowed his eyes slightly. Don’t lose your temper, don’t lose your temper, don’t lose your temper…

“Er…no. No, sorry, that’s not going to work. My husband can’t watch all four of them alone.”

“Is he not good with children?”

“No, he’s very good with children,” Albus scoffed, briefly affronted on Scorpius’s behalf. “He’s the best with them. He’s a children’s Healer for Merlin’s sake.”

Young furrowed his brow. “Is he? I thought he worked in the Dark Magic ward.”

“He did until—” he stopped; it wasn’t any of Young’s business. “Look, I promise to have the report ready for you by Sunday evening. Does that help?”

“And you’re positive that you can’t just miss the wedding or come into work tomorrow.”

“Absolutely positive.”

Young sighed heavily (as if Albus were severely inconveniencing him). Albus gritted his teeth.

“Well, I suppose you can go to this wedding and take the weekend off. I expect the report by owl Sunday evening.”

As if Albus had to have Young’s written permission to go do something in his spare time. Albus was seething.

“I—” Don’t do it. Think about your family—think about Scorpius. Don’t do it. “Fine. Yes, fine, thank you, sir.”

Young sniffed. “You’re welcome. You’re lucky I like you, Potter.”

“Yeah…thanks.” Albus smiled a tight, polite smile until Young left his cubicle, and as soon as he was gone, he murmured underneath his breath: “You certainly like my surname, anyway.”

Albus threw the necessary paperwork he’d need to rewrite his report into his bag, tossed in the various cloaks and coats, coffee mugs, and Tupperware containers that’d accumulated in his office throughout the week, and then left the department in a jog, his cloak only half-on. He was so intent on avoiding any and all human interaction that he nearly shut the lift doors in his aunt’s face.

“Albus!” his aunt cried, affronted.

“Oh, sorry! Sorry, Aunt Hermione.” Albus waved his wand and sent the doors in the opposite direction; the small gap where he could only just make out Aunt Hermione’s vexed expression gradually widened as the doors slid apart. Hermione stepped onto the lift.

“In a hurry?” she asked, a stern eyebrow lifted, as if she were still considering scolding him. She looked him over. “What have you done to your cheek?”

Before Albus could complain, his aunt was fussing over the slice over his cheekbone. He felt the skin grow warm as she mended it with her wand.

“I got into a tussle with a ‘thief’ that was actually a feral cat,” Albus muttered bitterly.

“Let me guess…Old Fran is at it again?” Aunt Hermione asked. Albus could hear a smile brewing. “I honestly just think she likes the company. She’s been calling Aurors there over an ‘intruder’ for nearly fifteen years now.”

“Yes, it was Fran, and it was funny the first twenty calls, but now it’s getting downright annoying,” he grumbled. He wasn’t in the mood to find anything funny at the moment. “How she mistakes the same tomcat for a ‘seven-foot burglar’ morning after morning is a mystery to me.”

“Maybe the cat’s actually an unregistered animagus?” Hermione suggested lightly. He could tell she was still considering laughing.  

“Checked that the first call. The cat nearly took my eyes out. It took Scorpius an hour to put my eyelid back together.”

That stifled all potential laughter. The lift came to a stop a few seconds later. Albus shuffled to the side as three other wizards and witches stepped on. They struck up a conversation with Hermione. As soon as the lift arrived at level 5, Albus squeezed his way through the doors. He turned around to wave at his aunt, but to his surprise, she was following after him.

“You’re going to see James, too?” Albus guessed.

“Yes, I’ve got some news for him,” Hermione affirmed. “Rose sat in on a meeting with the International Confederation of Wizards today and she said that France has also seen a significant decrease in magical births.”

James—who oversaw the entire Department of Social Relations and Services—was responsible for (among many other things) making sure that every magical birth was documented so that mandatory yearly home visits could begin in a timely manner. This news didn’t mean much to Albus, who didn’t have access to the statistics surrounding magical births and hadn’t even known there was a decrease, but it was vaguely worrying that two countries (at least) were seeing a decline in magical children.

“Weird,” Albus noted.

“And—though nobody will tell me—I think the geneticists in the Department of Mysteries have been looking at this for a while now,” Hermione continued. “Their department started asking for more and more funding around the time that this became a noticeable problem.”

“You think? You’re the Minister, can’t you just tell them to tell you what they know?”

“By law, they only have to tell me if it’s pressing to our society’s safety, so I’m assuming it isn’t a pressing issue. At least not yet, anyway.”

“I could try to get it out of Evvie tonight if you’re really curious; she’s always blabbing personal things after too many drinks.”

Hermione looked at him, alarmed. They came to a stop outside of James’s office.

“She tells Department of Mysteries information?”

“Well, no, she’s never done that, but there’s a first time for everything.”

“Albus…”

“I’m only joking, Aunt Hermione,” Albus reassured her. Partially, anyway. “I take classified information very seriously.” Seriously…ish. Unless I’m talking to Scorpius and then everything is fair game as a conversation topic. “Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much; with the rate that James and Nora pop them out, our society will be well-stocked with mischievous, magical children.”

He stuck his wand into the sensor on James’s office door and waited for the familiar click. It opened to chaos—as it always did. Albus was accosted first by the warm smell of vanilla and cinnamon that seemed to follow the Potter family everywhere they went. Next, the familiar, intermingled sound of giggling children and their parents’ contrastingly calm conversation. James was at his desk, his newest baby cradled in his left arm as he scrawled a letter out with his right hand, mid-conversation with his wife. His two-year-old, Henry, was sitting atop the desk building some sort of haphazard structure with ink bottles that was surely going to collapse and spill over the letter at any moment. Nora was half-dressed—still in a slip with her bridesmaid dress hanging along the far wall—trying her hardest to get Finnigan to relinquish his hold on his stuffed elk so she could put his tiny suit on him, all while discussing what sounded like travel plans with James from above all the ruckus, entirely unaffected by the chaotic nature of it all.

Albus exchanged a look with his aunt. She looked as taken aback as she always did; James’s office was, in many ways, the stark opposite of her own.  

Albus decided a quiet entrance was probably best, so he didn’t announce his arrival, nor did the kids seem to notice it straight away with everything else that was going on. He kicked a muggle football and a toy train out of his way. He weaved through the minefield of wayward toys and emptied toy baskets over towards where James and Nora’s eldest child was, minding his every step so as not to accidentally step on another ‘cherished toy’ as he had last time he’d visited the office. His five-year-old niece was stretched out on her tummy on the carpet, a magnificent set of muggle crayons set in front of her as she tranquilly shaded in her drawing of a bear. She was already dressed for the wedding; she was wearing a sparkly purple dress with her curly hair pulled back into an elegant knot-braid-thing. She was also wearing the tiny high-heeled shoes that Scorpius had purchased for her a few months back (because he was weak when it came to the Potter children and couldn’t seem to get the word no past his lips). He would be thrilled to see her wearing them. At the thought of the smile Scorpius would undoubtedly give, Albus felt a strong surge of affection for his husband, one he channeled into his hug as he swooped down and suddenly lifted his niece up into his arms. She let out sweet, shrieking laughter and squeezed him tightly.

“Alby!!” she celebrated.

Albus turned her around to face him with some difficulty (he’d never fully recovered all his muscular strength after his attack in his fifth year—just as he’d never regained the ability to get a nick on his skin and not promptly bleed to death without intervention). He propped her on his hip and smiled down at her. Somebody had dusted her light brown cheeks with a conservative amount of lavender-colored glitter; it gave her an even more angelic appearance than usual as the light played off the sparkles. She’d even been permitted a touch of lipstick—Nora’s, by the familiar shade of it—and was certainly all smiles because of it.

“Evra, you look like an angel,” he told her, his smile still in place. She beamed. He had to shift her over to his other hip as his arms began to ache. “I think you’re getting too old to carry now, you know that?”

Evra’s eyes widened with shock. “What?! No! No, I don’t want that! I want to be carried forever, ‘til I’m as old as you are!”

Albus laughed. “As old as I am?! That’s pretty old.”

“I know, but I want to be carried that long, ‘til I’m fifty like you,” she insisted.

“Fifty! Try twenty-two.”

Evra giggled. “Twenty-two!!”

Albus poked her side. “Is that funny?”

“That’s ancient!” She reached up and set a small palm against his cheek. “You should still be carried too, Uncle Albus.”

“Oh yeah? By who?”

“Well, your mummy, your daddy, your Scorpius, your aunts and uncles…” Evra listed off.

Albus struggled to contain his laughter. He switched Evra back over to his other hip because this arm was beginning to ache, too. “My Scorpius?”

“Yes, I think he would carry you,” Evra confirmed. There was a brief pause, and then: “This is my new dress. It’s periwinkle. And Daddy put glitter on my cheeks and Mummy let me wear lipstick like her!”

“Periwinkle! It’s all very nice, you look beautiful,” Albus said seriously. Evra grinned widely; her dimple popped up above her smile. Albus looked over her head towards his brother. He was now helping his son Henry into his suit while Hermione informed him of what she’d found out. Nora was doing her own hair one-handed in front of the mirror while her other arm held her youngest. Baby Delilah was snuggled up to her chest and snoozing quite deeply despite the chaos. Albus spotted Finnigan sneaking biscuits from the tin atop the filing cabinet. He figured he could make himself useful until Scorpius arrived. He set Evra down. She promptly took his hand.

“Let’s go see what Finnigan is up to.”

“I know what he’s up to!” Evra said, as Albus guided both of them through the toy and parchment maze littering the carpet. “He didn’t get his biscuit after nap because he pushed Henry and so Mummy said he would have to find sweet Finnigan again before he could eat anything sweet and now he’s trying to ignore Mummy and take a biscuit anyway which is not fair or sweet at all and I think Father Christmas would not be happy about it.”

Finnigan jumped guiltily as Albus walked over to join him, and as he did, his little knee slipped from his precarious perch atop the cabinet. Albus only barely managed to catch the three-year-old around the middle before he toppled down face-first.

“Hello, Finnigan,” Albus greeted sternly.

Finnigan—his cheeks bulging with biscuit—managed a deceptively innocent smile. Albus leaned over and set him safely on the floor.

“I’be fwound sweet Binniban,” Finnigan said, bits of moist biscuit falling from his mouth as he did. Albus grimaced. He wasn’t that great with this part of taking care of kids—the part that involved chewed-up food, vomit, poo, blood...

“Yeah?” Albus asked skeptically. He brushed chewed-up biscuit off Finnigan with a grimace. “You shouldn’t steal biscuits. Stealing isn’t sweet.”

“Daddy does,” Finnigan said innocently.

Albus wasn’t sure what to say back to that.

“Yeah, well, of course your dad does, but…he’s an adult, so…and he buys the biscuits, so...and he’s James, so…” he realized Finnigan wasn’t listening to a word he was saying. He changed tactics. “Finnigan, is it true you pushed Henry down earlier?”

Finnigan blinked his wide, brown eyes. “He stole my mummy.”

“Henry can’t steal your mummy; you’ve both got the same mummy.”

“No...I don’t think so.”

“Er, yes, you do. I was there when both of you were born.”

“No…Mummy’s mine.”

“Oh, Merlin,” Albus sighed. He patted Finnigan’s hair. “You’re going to have a difficult time away from Mummy and Daddy this weekend, aren’t you?”

Finnigan’s eyes went even wider. “Mummy and Daddy are leaving?!”

“Oh, bollocks...”

“That’s a swear word,” Evra frowned. Albus looked up as James joined them. Henry wriggled in James’s arms until he set him down; Albus let out a pained oof as Henry headbutted his kneecap in his haste to hug him.

“Hey, Al,” James greeted.

“ALBY!” Henry cheered. He latched onto Albus’s leg and pressed his face into his knee. His breath was unpleasantly warm and moist against the fabric of Albus’s trousers as the toddler began chanting: “ALBY, ALBY, ALBY!” into Albus’s leg. Albus reached a hand down and patted his hair.

“You didn’t tell the kids that you’re going away this weekend, James?” Albus demanded.

What?!” Evra shrieked. Her face lit up. “Going away?! On holiday?! Where are we going?! To the beach? Daddy, are we going to the beach?!”

James frowned. “Well, we were going to tell them, but we could never find the best way, and that definitely wasn’t it…”

Evra tugged persistently at James’s hand.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” she repeated brightly.

James looked deeply pained. It seemed difficult for him to force the words past his lips. They were thick and reluctant. “Evra…Mummy and I are going on holiday. Just for a few days…just Mummy and I.”

It took Evra a moment. When she fully grasped what James was telling her, her little face fell. She looked at James with an utterly heartbroken expression. “Without me? You’re leaving without me? Leaving me?”

“Not forever! Just for three nights—oh, come here,” James frowned. He opened his arms and lifted Evra up. She began sobbing quite theatrically into his shoulder and held him in a vice-like grip.

“Y-You’re l-l-leaving?! W-w-why?!” And then, almost as if it were all pouring out of her at once: “A-Albus said I’m t-t-too old to be c-carried!” she wept.

James shot Albus a nasty look. Albus scowled right back. James hugged Evra tighter and kissed her hair.

“That’s not true; you’re my precious, perfect princess and I can still carry you, look, I’m carrying you right now—”

“Why are you leaving?!” Evra cried.

“Mummy and I are going with Benny and Evvie on a trip.”

“But why can’t I go? Benny and Evvie love me and they love Henry and they sort of love Finnigan!”

“Ginevra!” Nora called, her voice injured. “You could hurt Finnigan by saying that.”

“I’m s-s-sorry, Finny, but I’m n-not happy and I can’t f-find happy w-words!”

“It’s okay,” Finnigan said nicely. He reached up and patted Evra’s leg. Nora crossed over—finally fully dressed—and lifted Finnigan up into her right arm. Albus did an awed double-take; how was she able to hold both the baby and Finnigan?

“Hi, Albus,” Nora greeted. Her smile grew a bit strained as Evra began another round of sobs. She turned her attention to her daughter. “Evra, did Daddy tell you where you’ll be staying while we’re with Benny and Evvie?” Nora asked gently.

Evra sniffled. She sat up and wiped at her eyes. “W-where?”

“Tonight you get to stay with Albus and Scorpius—”

Evra perked right up. Her tears seemed to vanish. “Scorpius?!”

Albus tried not to feel insulted.

“Yes! And then, on Saturday evening, Dean and Seamus are going to collect you lot—”

Evra was practically twisting in excitement now. Her face was bright with an exuberant grin. “Dean and Seamus?!”

“Yes! And then, on Sunday, Ginny and Harry will collect you—”

Finnigan went to clap his hands excitedly and managed to smack himself in the face. He hardly seemed to notice. He was beside himself with joy. “GINNY!”

“Yes, and—”

Evra exploded. “GRANDAD HARRY, HARRY BEARY, HARRY MY HARRY—”

“So you’re feeling better about this?” James teased.

“When are you leaving?!” Evra asked excitedly.

Finnigan peered around Nora. “Is Ginny here now?”

“Dean?” Henry asked. He’d toddled over to the door. He was smiling expectantly at it. “Dean here?!”

Even baby Delilah gave a happy coo. James’s smile plummeted.

Ouch…” he whispered. He looked at Nora. Nora looked equally wounded.

“I didn’t expect it to hurt this much to have them happy to see us go…” she admitted, her voice small.

“No, I know, I feel like she just kicked me in the—”

“James, Nora,” Albus interrupted in disbelief. “You haven’t spent a night away from Evra since she was born.”

“Right,” they said in unison, their voices breaking together. Albus frowned.

“No, I’m not saying that to upset you, I’m saying…you haven’t spent time without kids since you were eighteen…no, seventeen in James’s case…make the best of it!”

They exchanged uneasy looks. “Maybe we shouldn’t go…”

“I think Evvie would understand,” James agreed.

“We could still get half back on the tickets.”

“Yes, what were we thinking?” James demanded. “We can’t leave our kids, our babies. They’d be lost without us.”

“Right! Lost!” Nora agreed. She cradled Delilah closer and kissed Finnigan. “Don’t worry, my babies, Daddy and I—”

“—are mad,” Albus completed for her. He looked at them incredulously. “James, you’ve been looking forward to this trip for ages. A muggle cruise! You’re not going to give that up.”

James held Evra closer. Henry had made his way over to James once he’d realized Dean wasn’t going to appear at the doorway; James lifted him up as well and cradled both children tightly. “But…”

“Ben would be really upset,” Albus told him. “Your best mate. You can’t let him down like that.”

But…”

“You and Nora could shag all day long if you wanted to. I’m sure that’s precisely what the newlyweds will be doing.”

James had parted his lips to argue, but at that, he failed to come up with another ‘but...’ He turned to look at his wife. His eyes had that sickeningly familiar Nora look in them, the kind that was so sweet it was nauseating.

“Just you and me for once,” James said.

Nora shared a slightly lovesick smile with James and then looked down at Evra.

“It would be nice to spend so much time with your family, right, Evra?”

“With my Scorpius and Albus and my Seamus and Dean and my Ginny and my Harry?”

“Yes. What do you think?”

Evra pursed her brow. “Can I bring Padfoot along?”

Nora laughed. “We’ll see. Last time Padfoot was at Ginny and Harry’s house he nearly ate Harry’s pygmy puff.”

“He did not like that,” Evra remembered.

“No…no, he didn’t.”  

There was a pause. “What’s ‘shag’?” Finnigan wondered.

Albus winced. “Oops.”


Scorpius was supposed to meet them at the office so they could all travel together via Muggle transport. They didn’t want to apparate with the kids, and anyway, there was a strict no-magic policy at this wedding, one that Albus had been reminded of nearly twenty times now.

“He must’ve gotten held up,” Albus told James and Nora. He’d been sitting on the sofa with baby Delilah, but as the minutes continued trickling by, he realized he’d need to figure out exactly what was keeping his husband. He rose and passed his niece back to James. “I’ll Floo him.”

He was halfway to the fireplace when flames flickered into view. He could make out the shape of Scorpius’s head a moment later. He felt warmth invade his chest as Scorpius’s image filled the fireplace.

“Hello!” Scorpius beamed.

“Scorpius!” the kids chorused. There was a pattering of tiny feet as those who could walk sprinted over.

“Hello there!” Scorpius greeted, this time gentler and to the kids. “You lot look so smart and lovely!”

Evra curtsied.

“Look at my shoes! You got them for me!” she told Scorpius. Albus stepped to the side so Scorpius could see the tiny silver heels.

“Oh, yes! They look beautiful, Evra!” Scorpius gushed. Evra beamed.

“Did you get held up?” Albus guessed.

“Yes. One of the burn victims came down with dragonpox. I’ve finally found somebody to cover for me, though…Henry, what are you doing?”

Albus felt a light pressure against his hip, and when he glanced down, he saw Henry on his tip-toes, desperately trying to sneak Albus’s wand from his pocket.

“Oh, sorry,” James said quickly. He leapt up from the couch, passed Delilah to Nora, and then ran over. He lifted Henry up and threw him over his shoulder; Henry shrieked with laughter. “He accidentally summoned Padfoot with Nora’s wand a few days ago and now he associates wands with the dog.”

“I want Paddy,” Henry sniffed.

“Oh, I know, love,” Nora told him softly. James dropped Henry onto her lap after taking Delilah back. “But Padfoot is all the way at home; he could get hurt speeding all this way.”

“No he couldn’t,” Henry whined. “He’s strong.”

“Yes, he could, Henry,” Nora said. She cuddled him close a second later; that seemed to diffuse whatever tantrum had been brewing. Henry snuggled contently into her embrace.

“So when will you be finished?” Albus asked, turning back to Scorpius.

“As soon as my replacement arrives. It should be any moment now. I’ve got to change and then I’ll be there. James and Nora, do you need to go on ahead? You can leave the boys and the baby with Albus and I’ll be there shortly, we can get them to the venue; you two and Evra are in the wedding party, I wouldn’t want you to be late because of me.”

“No, it should be okay,” James reassured him.

Scorpius smiled at Albus. Albus grinned back.

“I’ll bring your suit,” Scorpius promised. “It finally arrived at the shop today.”

“How awful is it?”

“It’s not awful!”

“It’s not silk, is it?”

“No. Just a typical muggle suit, like your dad sometimes wears,” Scorpius promised. “I had the Muggle lady help me choose ours. They’re in style this time.”

“Okay…” Albus said skeptically. He hadn’t forgotten the time he’d let Scorpius do his shopping and he’d suddenly found himself with a wardrobe full of fancy French clothing with fasteners in strange places and fragile, slick fabrics. Living with Scorpius was often times disorienting like that; he’d wake up to Scorpius casually mentioning doing ‘a bit of shopping’ during the lunch break and then he’d come home from work to a thousand-galleon cauldron that supposedly made potions better than ordinary cauldrons, and Scorpius wouldn’t even bat an eye about it. Scorpius might’ve avoided the superior attitudes that came with wealth, but he’d never actually learned the concept of frugality, or really the concept of money at all. He thought one-hundred galleons was an acceptable price for a lamp whereas Albus always brought his mum and gran along on his shopping trips to ensure he found the best bargains.

“You’ll love it,” Scorpius beamed.


 

He did not love it. He tugged at his tie, at the hems of the sleeves, at the buttons.

“It feels too tight,” he complained.

Scorpius was still seated on the sofa, having his hair ‘combed’ by Henry, so he didn’t turn around to look.

“You’ve got to unbutton it when you sit,” Scorpius said.

Albus had turned back to the mirror, but at those words, he spun around to face Scorpius. He watched Henry combing Scorpius’s hair down into his face for a moment, utterly baffled.

“Why didn’t you just get it in my size?” Albus finally asked.

“I did get it in your size, that is your size,” Scorpius said. He glanced back. His white-blond eyebrows rose in surprise; an endearing smirk followed. “You look amazing, how could you think it’s not your size? It fits you perfectly.”

Albus squinted at him. He refused to let himself be swayed by flattery. “You just said I’d have to unbutton the jacket when I sit.”

“Oh, no, that’s just what you do with these suits. I don’t really know why, though…Henry, thank you, I think my hair is really well-combed now— go and play with—Henry, that’s…”

Henry attacked Scorpius’s hair with even more fervor. Scorpius sighed.

“But I don’t understand; if I’ve got to unbutton it just to sit, I don’t see how that’s a good fit,” Albus persisted.

Scorpius stood up; Henry threw his arms around his uncle’s neck so Scorpius had no choice but to carry him on his back over to Albus. Albus’s eyes naturally skimmed down Scorpius’s form. He noticed that the suit did appear to fit Scorpius extremely well; he got a bit distracted admiring the fit to his husband’s chest and shoulders.

“Did Young annoy you again today?” Scorpius asked. His hand came over to rest against Albus’s stomach. He pulled at the suit. “It fits fine.”

“Yes, he was extremely annoying. How’d you know?”

“Because whenever Young annoys you you mope at me about silly things,” Scorpius said matter-of-factly. Albus scoffed. “I think you look beautiful and the suit is worth the labor of unbuttoning your buttons. Isn’t he lovely, Henry?”

“Yes,” Henry said sweetly. “Love-y!”

“Henry also thinks animal dung is lovely—”

“Don’t start…” Scorpius warned, though there was a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

“And really, why are we going to this wedding? Evvie’s all right, Ben’s all right, but we could actually spend this night off at home and I could make quick work of undoing these buttons once and for all—”

“Albus…”

“I’m just saying that maybe this wedding isn’t the best idea—every time we force ourselves to go somewhere when one of us isn’t sure about it, something awful happens—”

Scorpius’s mouth pressed to his, cutting off his complaints. Albus tried to hold onto his irritation, because he had really wanted to vent it all day long and he could always count on Scorpius to listen to him, care, and understand, but it was impossible to stay angry with his lips to his. He heard Henry and Finnigan cheering from somewhere behind them.

“I love when they do that,” Evra told her parents. “They should do that more.”

“I think they probably do that plenty, darling,” James assured Evra.

“But I don’t see them do it as much as you and Mummy do.”

“That’s because you live with us, Evra…you only see Albus and Scorpius a little bit.”

“No…a lot a bit.”

“They do it all the time, right, Albus?” James persisted.

Albus pulled back from Scorpius. “James, why the hell—” Evra’s wide, worried eyes greeted him as he looked over at his brother. His previous words (“why are you asking me to reassure your daughter that Scorpius and I kiss all the time?”) died before they’d even made it past his lips. “…Yep. Yes, Evra, all the time.”

“It’s a hobby,” Scorpius said cheerfully.

“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”

Scorpius was laughing when Albus looked back at him. His face was alight with amusement. Albus smiled.

“We’re going to have an interesting night,” Scorpius muttered. Albus leaned in and wrapped his arms around Scorpius’s waist. With his body pressed into Scorpius’s, he had to admit he did appreciate the close cut of Scorpius’s suit. He could feel the day’s tension slowly ebbing from his body the longer he was in Scorpius’s embrace.

“At least there’s an open bar at the wedding reception.”


As soon as they arrived at the wedding venue, they were ushered into a backroom by Clementine Clearwater. When they entered, Scorpius, Evra, and Finnigan gasped, but not for the same reasons.

Pretty!” Finnigan cried.

“You look like a princess swan,” Evra gasped.

While Finnigan and Evra ran over to Evvie, Scorpius was gaping.

“No!” he hissed to Albus.

“You okay?” Albus asked.

Scorpius pointed at the bride and groom, sitting together on the sofa. “No!

“Er…”

“They can’t see each other before the wedding,” Scorpius said, horrified.

Albus rolled his eyes. “Oh, here we go with Draco and Gran’s bollocks—”

“That’s the one thing they actually agreed on, so it must be important,” Scorpius defended.

“Or they’re both a bit…” Albus trailed off, searching for a kind adjective. “Too involved in the wedding process. They’re the reason it took us so long to be married…marriage on a full moon on the fifteenth day of a month, I ask you…”

“Malfoys believe it brings lifelong stability and wealth.”

“Malfoys believe a lot, as it turns out.”

Scorpius gently elbowed Albus’s ribs. He grinned at him and took his hand as they walked over to join the members of the wedding party (all the Sevens’ members from Hogwarts days), most magical guests, and their nieces and nephews (who were now climbing all over the bride and groom).

“Hello, Albus and Scorpius,” Evvie greeted. Finnigan plopped down in her lap a moment later, his hands reaching for the flowers stuck in her complicated hair updo. Ben intercepted his tiny hands with a well-timed handshake.

“Don’t grab the flowers, mate,” he told Finnigan. “Evvie’s mum spent hours placing them in ‘the perfect place’,” he elevated his voice to a high-pitched poshness in imitation of Evvie’s mum. Evvie reached over and smacked his stomach.

“Good job!” Finnigan praised her.

“Albus, Scorpius,” Clementine said. Albus turned as she joined them. She was slightly out of breath. Evra had ended up in her arms somehow. “I brought you back here to remind you that there can be absolutely no magic. Evvie’s mum despises the magical world, her dad’s family is entirely comprised of Muggles, and Ben and Evvie shouldn’t have to spend their wedding night Obliviating family members.”

“It’s not us you should worry about,” Albus said, his eyes landing on Henry from above Clem’s head. He had somehow gotten a hold of James’s wand. “Henry’s got this obsession with—oh. Oh, no. Henry…Henry, put it down…”

Albus started over towards his nephew, but it was too late. He’d begun waving the wand around enthusiastically. A moment later, both the glass of water in Evvie’s hand and the baby bottle in James’s shattered into minuscule pieces. There were a few startled gasps and then silence, broken only by Delilah’s angry shrieks, as she was now covered in the milk she’d only just begun drinking and glass shards.

“Your dress!” Evra said, horrified, her eyes on Evvie. The water from her broken drinking glass was now seeping into her wedding gown.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Louis stepped up. “It’s just water; we can siphon it off.”

Meanwhile, James—equally drenched—was carefully picking glass off Delilah, his eyes wide with shock and his hands quivering.

“Glass…my baby…glass…my baby…glass…my baby…” he was murmuring, panicked. Nora had hoisted Henry up and snatched the wand away, but as soon as she heard James’s frantic words, she rushed over to his side. Scorpius moved towards them to see if Delilah had been cut by any of the shards and Albus followed. Delilah was thankfully uninjured, but she was extremely furious; having your meal explode right in front of your eyes was rightly annoying. Nora gently wiped her face clean while Scorpius began picking glass from Delilah just as James was. Nora looked down at her bag and began rummaging through its contents for something, and James was so involved in the glass-retrieval that he failed to notice Delilah squirming in discomfort. She brought her hands up to her mouth. Albus’s heart leapt.

“No,” he murmured underneath his breath, his eyes on his youngest niece. He didn’t want to panic—surely Delilah wouldn’t…

She would. She pressed her milk-drenched fists to her mouth—fists that certainly had tiny slivers of glass still mixed within the milk coating them, and began to suck on her knuckles. Albus let out a strangled cry as all sense left him; all he could think about was the baby cutting her tongue and the insides of her mouth—

No!” He shrieked. And without thinking, he withdrew his wand and sent a blast of water right at Delilah and James, strong enough to immediately wash the glass and milk away as if he’d hosed them down. Delilah gave a stuttering cry of alarm at the sudden coldness and then began shrieking.

“Albus!” James sputtered, shocked. He was entirely soaked now. Water was dripping from his sopping wet hair onto the carpet. Nora, Scorpius, and Henry were nearly just as bad off. They wiped water from their eyes and looked to Albus in surprise.

“She put her hands into her mouth!” Albus explained. “Scorpius, will you…?”

Scorpius, still a bit shocked from the sudden burst of cold water, nodded. He leaned over and gently pried Delilah’s mouth open. He pulled his wand out, murmured lumos, and inspected Delilah’s mouth as best as he could while she gnawed enthusiastically on his fingers with her gums.

“I think she’s okay,” he told them. “Hungry, though. Do you have another prepared for her?”  

“Technically Nora’s got a supply with her at all times,” James said helpfully. “Which is great because Delilah has definitely inherited the Weasley appetite.” Albus rolled his eyes, and when Nora actually laughed genuinely at James’s breastfeeding joke, he rolled them even harder.

“Seriously,” James stressed, his smile suddenly vanishing. “Don’t feed her late or, Merlin forbid, miss a meal. Follow the schedule we’ve left in the freezer bag down to the minute.”

“What happens if we don’t?” Albus asked. He didn’t like the sound of this.

“You’ll see the dark side of Delilah,” James said ominously. 

“That’s just the biggest lie,” Scorpius cooed to Delilah. Her tiny hand was closed around his thumb. “You’re just the sweetest little baby, aren’t you? Your dad is telling lies about you, oh yes he is…”

While Scorpius baby-talked Delilah, Nora and James shared a knowing look. A few moments later, Delilah began squirming in discomfort again. She gave a pitiful cry.

“Are you hungry, little bear?” Nora asked. Delilah reached out for her mum immediately. Nora pulled the baby into her arms and kissed her hair; Delilah smiled hugely and nuzzled into Nora’s embrace. And then, to Albus’s surprise, he was treated to a hug from his sister-in-law. She kissed his cheek in thanks as she pulled back.

“You’re such a great uncle, Al,” she told him warmly.

Albus decided it was better to just accept her compliment instead of reminding her of the time he’d accidentally left baby Finnigan inside a cupboard.  


 

All in all, the wedding was beautiful. Sure—the little Muggle boy bearing the rings tripped on the excessive rose petals Evra threw down, Evvie’s mother (a Squib from an affluent Pureblood line) got into an argument with her sister halfway through the ceremony and actually got up to switch seats, Henry escaped Ginny’s arms and ran up to Nora in the middle of the vows, indifferent to the fact that his mummy was currently playing Maid of Honor, and Teddy and Victoire’s son Remus giggled so loudly throughout the kiss that he nearly wet himself, but Evvie and Ben both looked radiant and blissful, and that was the most important part. Oh, and they’d made it through the entire ceremony without Henry doing accidental magic.

Albus, Scorpius, the Potters, Rose and her strange new boyfriend, and the other Potters sat together at a long table for the dinner reception. Albus was unfortunate enough to have been placed beside Rose.

“So,” he said awkwardly. He was increasingly aware of how long it’d been since he’d last seen her—and the tense way she’d left things with all her family. “How are…things?”

“Fine,” she said stiffly.

Across from them, Harry was gently bouncing Delilah on his lap as she giggled, Ginny was telling Scorpius all about Lily’s last letter, and James and Nora were busy cutting up the food on their kids’ dinner plates. Albus had no excuse not to have this conversation with Rose.

He looked back at Rose reluctantly. He cleared his throat and glanced at the man on her other side.

“So. Otto, was it?” he asked.

“Yes. And I know who you are, of course. Albus Potter.”

“…Right,” Albus said. Something about the smug way Otto spoke irritated him. A horribly awkward silence settled over them. Albus longed for Scorpius to engage him in his ongoing conversation with Albus’s mum, but he didn’t. Thankfully, by some miracle, Otto rose.

“I’m going to get another bottle of wine for the table,” he told Rose. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before he walked off. Albus watched in disbelief as Rose promptly wiped it off with her napkin.

“Who the f—”

“Don’t start, Albus,” Rose warned.

“No, I will! I will start! Because I don’t like him, I don’t like Otto, I don’t like his entire, you know, attitude and personality, and I refuse to let you avoid telling me what happened with you and Iset! It’s rubbish! You don’t get to come to my flat drunk, sobbing your eyes out, only to run off to Germany for six months and never return a letter or answer any of my questions!”

“I don’t need your permission to do anything—”

“Do you know I haven’t heard a word from Iset since that night? Scorpius and I went to your cottage but she’s moved out! It’s been sitting abandoned since you left!”

That got an emotional reaction from Rose. Her face fell.

“What? What do you mean you haven’t spoken with her?”

“I mean she’s done a runner just like you did. What happened, Rose?” Albus demanded. Rose made a noncommittal grunt and reached for her wine glass. Albus felt anger swell up his throat. “No, Rose, this is bullshit! She didn’t even come tonight, did she, and she thinks of Evvie as a sister—what did you do to her?!”

“I didn’t do anything to her! Okay? She did it to herself and I wasn’t going to sit by and just watch it happen and—” Rose’s words broke off with a strange gulping noise. Albus watched her down the entire contents of her full wine glass. Her eyes were watering as she set it back down onto the table. She lowered her voice. “Her dad owled her about eight months ago and said he wanted to meet with her to talk things out…didn’t even apologize, mind you, just owled her and demanded that she hear him out…and I begged her not to go because that’s what that disgusting scum of a man does, he always appeals to her guilt and manipulates her into feeling something for him, but she insisted that she needed to go hear what he had to say because he’s her father. She went all the way to Azkaban, got involved with her parents’ prison drama, and it started really…” Rose broke off with that same weird, strangled noise again. Albus realized she was fighting back rising tears. She stole his wine glass this time, as if she could push the tears down by drinking more. Her hand was quivering as she set the glass back to the tabletop. She fiddled with the napkin in her lap as she continued. “It really messed her up again and I couldn’t watch it happen…I couldn’t bear to see her fall so far again, couldn’t bear to watch her revert to how she’d been before I even knew her…it hurt too much and I told her so, I told her to walk away from him and save herself, but he started saying all this rubbish about how he’d kill himself if she didn’t visit him weekly and bring him sweets or whatever the hell he asked for, and while she’s doing this she’s having horrible night terrors and she’s getting sick after them and she can’t even pet our cats without shaking and I—”

This time, the tears won out. Albus looked around them uncertainly as Rose gave a strangled sob. His parents had stopped talking. Albus could sense that Scorpius’s posture had turned rigid with worry without even turning around to look at him.

“Rose, are you all right?” Albus’s mum asked at once.

“F-fine, I’m sorry, ignore me,” Rose said quickly. Her mascara was already starting to smear down her cheeks.

Albus sighed and reached over, settling his hand on Rose’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Rose. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“I d-didn’t want to—what I did was the last thing I wanted but I d-didn’t know what else to do, it hurt so much, I didn’t know what to do,” she whispered.

Otto returned at the worst possible moment.

“I chose a merlot, I think it’ll pair excellently with—Rose, what’s wrong?”

He made the mistake of setting his hand on her back. She stood abruptly.

“I need the loo,” she said.

Ginny and Nora rose at once. “Us too.”

“Me too!” Evra said. She hopped down from James’s lap and hurried over, sinking a hand into both her mum’s and grandmum’s hands. Albus bit his lip uncertainly as the women left the table.

“What was that about?” Harry demanded.

“I…asked her about Iset,” Albus admitted. “Or…harassed her about Iset.”

“Albus,” Scorpius said softly, a frown audible in his voice.

“You just had to, didn’t you?” James scowled. “We agreed we weren’t going to bring that up tonight.”

“What’d you find out?” Harry asked curiously. James and Scorpius looked at him in disbelief. “I mean…yeah, probably not the best…the best place or time…for…that question…” he cleared his throat. “Oh, look, I think Delilah needs a nappy change…”

And with that, he stood from the table, most likely to sneak into the toilets to tell Ginny the latest almost-gossip he’d heard.

“He’s a gossiper using my daughter as an alibi! Delilah doesn’t need a nappy change, I know when she needs a nappy change and it’s at least another hour ‘til then,” James scoffed.

Scorpius reached over beneath the table and settled his hand on Albus’s thigh. Albus looked up at him.

“I deserved to know,” Albus said. He was well-aware of the stubbornness audible in his tone, but he couldn’t do a thing about it. “We’ve been worrying ourselves sick for ages…Iset is our friend…Rose should have been honest with us well before this!”

“We can’t blame her for Iset’s decisions,” Scorpius reminded him softly. “Iset decided to do what Iset wanted to do. She chose to shut us out. That’s not on Rose.”

“It certainly is on Rose!” Albus argued back. He felt a flash of genuine irritation. “You didn’t hear the entire story! She abandoned her, Scorpius—when she needed her most!”

Scorpius frowned. “I just think we ought to refrain from crucifying anybody…Albus.”

Albus looked away stubbornly. “What?”

“Don’t get angry with me…it’s ten days ‘til Christmas!”

Albus felt the corners of his lips twitch. He wrestled the smile back. “So? There’s a rule now that says I can’t be angry with you ten days before Christmas?”

“Absolutely!” Scorpius affirmed. “A Potter-Malfoy rule…a very serious one at that!”

Even now, a year since their wedding, Albus felt a ridiculous amount of toe-curling affection flood his body at the word Potter-Malfoy. That affection doubled any time he heard Scorpius refer to him as his husband in conversation with other people. Albus wanted to remain surly, but there was nothing for it. He had to turn around and meet Scorpius’s lips. He reached up and set his palm on the back of Scorpius’s neck as the kiss deepened. He was considering dragging Scorpius off to a quiet corner when he felt a hand tap the top of his head—and he knew it wasn’t Scorpius’s hand, because both of Scorpius’s hands were well accounted for. Albus pulled back from Scorpius and reared around, confused. Shock overwhelmed him at the sight of the person who’d interrupted him, enough so that for a moment, he was speechless.

“Lily?” Albus finally demanded.

“Lily!” Scorpius cried, pleased. He stood from his chair right as James and his children cottoned on to Lily’s unexpected arrival—the table shook slightly as James, Scorpius, Henry, and Finnigan hurried over towards Lily. Albus was still staring.

“Where the hell is your hair?!” he heard himself blurt.

Lily’s unexpected presence was shocking enough (she’d told them all time and time again that she wouldn’t be able to make it back until Christmas Day), but it was her new haircut that really floored Albus. He studied her foreign appearance with mounting confusion. Lily had whined and stamped her feet about even having her hair trimmed her entire childhood…and now she was standing in front of him with her hair chopped off just above her shoulders. It was wrong. It looked…wrong. Albus felt a creeping foreboding at the sight of it.

“Seriously,” he reiterated, as James, the kids, and Scorpius attacked Lily in a massive group hug. “What did you do with it? Your hair, I mean?”

“Hello to you too, Albus,” Lily scoffed, her hand patting at Finnigan’s back. It was a good thing that she hardly had to wear her glasses anymore (thanks to the completion of her eye-sight potion a few years back, a potion that only had to be taken daily to give the user around twenty hours of perfect eyesight), because if she had been wearing them, they certainly would’ve been pushed off as Henry set about pressing clumsy kisses to every inch of his aunt’s face.

“What are you doing here?” James asked. He slung an arm around Lily’s tattooed shoulders and beamed. “I thought you couldn’t make it back until Christmas? Dad and Mum are going to be over the moon! Dad’s been moping for days since you sent your letter about only coming home for Christmas and Boxing Day!”

“Here,” Scorpius said quickly. He waved his wand and summoned a spare chair over towards them. He pushed it in between his and Albus’s chairs. Albus reached up and tugged at Lily’s short hair as soon as she sat beside him. Lily slapped his hand.

“Sod off, Albus,” she said, her eyes flashing.

“No! What is this about?”

“What’s what about?”

Albus jabbed a finger at her exposed shoulders, to indicate her missing hair, but as he did, he noticed a large number of new burns. The entirety of her upper back (unfortunately not covered by her dress, as Lily tended to choose dresses that covered less than Albus personally thought they should’ve), most of her left shoulder and bicep, and the left side of her neck were blanketed in shiny pink burns. She’d tattooed colorful flowers over these burns as she always did (her arms, in particular, were adorned with many interconnecting flowers covering dragon-caused scars), but the flowers didn’t detract from the seriousness of the burns. Albus knew when their parents saw them they’d probably lose it.

“There was an incident,” Lily answered him shortly. She turned to Scorpius. “I decided to cash in my hoarded holiday days.”

“But why?” James pressed. “You said you couldn’t leave the baby dragons.”

“What sort of incident?” Albus asked.

Lily clenched her jaw. She averted her eyes and squinted off towards another table. “Where’s everybody else? Mum, Dad, Nora, Evra?”

Albus really wanted to continue prying (Lily’s answer had created more questions than it’d answered), but Scorpius reached around Lily and touched Albus’s shoulder, a touch Albus took to mean “please don’t.” Scorpius was better at reading people when it came to sensitive issues, so Albus—not wanting to create tension at the table again—decided to oblige him.

“Auntie Lulu,” Finnigan said. He pushed his way between Scorpius and Lily and climbed up into her lap. Albus saw her wince slightly; he had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep from asking questions again. “Did you bring me a present?”

“Don’t be rude, Finnigan,” James scolded gently.

Finnigan looked back up at his aunt. “Did you bring me a present, please?” he amended.

Lily laughed. She reached down and tapped the tip of Finnigan’s nose; he collapsed into predictable giggles.

“My presence is a present, isn’t it?” she teased.

Finnigan wrinkled his nose. “No…that’s not a present, ‘cause you can’t wrap it up.”

“Well,” Lily said, and as she did, she shifted and reached down for her handbag. “Now that you ask…I did bring something that I thought you’d like…” with a dramatic flourish, Lily produced a muggle pen from her handbag, clearly teasing. But Finnigan’s face bloomed with a brilliant smile. He grinned and reached for the pen at once before Lily could laugh it off.

“YAY!” he celebrated. “A magic quill!!”

And with that, he promptly uncapped it and began drawing on his left hand, his bottom lip caught between his teeth in adorable concentration. Lily slowly withdrew his real gift—a small box wrapped with metallic, dragon-patterned paper and tied with a bow. She looked at James.

“Had I known he’d love a pen so much, I wouldn’t have bothered with present shopping,” she admitted.

James nodded. “Ben bought Finnigan his own roll of wrapping paper last Christmas…he got more joy out of wrapping everything and everybody he could get his hands on than any of his toys, magical or muggle…lessoned learned.”

While Finnigan happily traced over Lily’s exposed tattoos with the pen, Scorpius and Lily began a somewhat awkward conversation about her journey back to England. She affirmed that the portkey from New Zealand was as difficult to organize as it always was, but her answers were much shorter than usual, and something was clearly weighing on her. Scorpius finally caved in and broke his own rule.

“Are you all right?” he asked softly, his hand coming to rest on her burned shoulder. “You seem upset. Did something happen?”

“No,” Lily lied. She reached back, as if to pull at her hair as she sometimes did when feeling stressed, but she stopped as her hands touched air where her hair used to be. She swallowed and looked away. “I’m fine. Great, even!” Scorpius looked like he wanted to press the issue. Lily stood abruptly. “Finnigan, let’s dance!”

“Okay!” Finnigan beamed. He wrapped his arms around Lily’s neck and pressed a messy kiss to her cheek.  

“Me too!” Henry cried. “Henwy, too! I want to!”

“Of course ‘Henry, too’, don’t lay an egg! C’mon!”

As Lily pushed her way onto the dance floor, a nephew on each hip, Albus glanced across the table to gauge James’s reaction. He looked just as worried as Albus felt.

“Do you think she knows Caden is here?” Scorpius wondered. He pointed across the room towards the bar, where Caden Rowle was laughing with some muggle woman, a drink in hand.

Judging by the over-exaggerated way Lily was laughing and twirling on the dance floor, the not-so-subtle looks she sent Caden’s way every few moments, and the quick, furtive glances he was shooting back in response…she was very aware.

“They must’ve ‘ended things’…again,” James said. He rolled his eyes, amused. “This is…what? Their twelfth break up this year?”

“Who can even keep up?” Albus snorted. But he couldn’t help but feel like Lily’s mysterious problem had very different origins than her Hogwarts sweetheart.


 

The reception ended without any more emotional outbursts, but Albus still left the hall feeling uncomfortable about a handful of things. The first source of his discomfort was his sister’s borderline-risqué behavior near the end of the reception after far too many drinks; she’d flirted her way through five muggle men before Caden Rowle seemed to succumb to his mounting jealousy, and then the two had disappeared entirely. Albus felt considerably anxious about her going off somewhere drunk, but at least it was with Caden. And—as his mum had repeatedly reminded him—Lily was an adult, and neither he nor Harry nor James could tell her what she could and couldn’t do anymore (even though all three had very much wanted to).

The second and far more pressing source of concern were his nieces and nephews. There had only been a brief round of crying when James and Nora hugged the children goodbye, but Albus could tell that was simply because the children hadn’t really processed what goodbye really meant. Having never been left by their parents for more than a couple of hours at a time, the children had no frame of reference for abandonment, and Albus was certain they would not take it well when faced head-on with the concept.

Lastly, an ongoing source of social discomfort: Rose and Iset. Rose refused to speak with Albus for the rest of the reception and left without even telling him goodbye, leaving Albus feeling worse about the entire situation than he’d even felt before when both Rose and Iset had disappeared without so much as a card. He was in such a foul mood over Rose’s attitude and her betrayal of Iset that he’d nearly reached his emotional breaking point. He was tired of being in public, tired of talking to people, tired of pretending to laugh, and he wanted nothing more than to go home, have a drink, and have sex with Scorpius.

And unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to do any of those things tonight.

“All right,” Scorpius said cheerfully. He helped Henry and Finnigan up the last step. “Almost there! This is our floor!”

“Yay!!” Finnigan cheered.

Evra was already beginning to look nervous. She picked at the sparkly polish on her fingernails. “But where’s Padfoot? And Olive? And Honey? Are Mummy and Daddy going to bring them here?”

“Louis is watching Padfoot and Olive while your mummy and daddy are gone,” Scorpius reassured her. “Padfoot’s probably curled up on the bed with Louis right now!”

“And getting biscuits?” Finnigan asked.

“Sure,” Scorpius agreed. “Loads of biscuits.”

“Olive is probably hiding under the bed,” Finnigan said sagely. 

“Probably,” Scorpius agreed.

Nora’s cat was ancient – twenty years old at last count—and preferred being in only four specific places: Nora’s lap, James’s lap, Evra’s lap, or underneath furniture. She was a sweet cat, but she had a significant dislike for chaos, so the kids (Finnigan and Henry mainly, though she wasn’t exactly Remus’s biggest fan, either) weren’t always her preferred company.

“Alby,” Evra persisted. “I want Honey.” Her voice was still strained with anxiety. She leaned into Albus’s side. His stormy thoughts were quickly overrun by concern. He looked down at the top of her head. He would’ve reached for her hand, but he was holding baby Delilah.

“Honey is here,” Albus promised her. She still slept with the stuffed bear Scorpius had given her the day she was born, a bear she’d eventually named ‘Honey’. “Your parents dropped your things off earlier today. Everything is already inside the flat. And here we are now! Almost time for bed. You look tired.”

“I’m not,” she said. Her heavy-lidded eyes and frequent yawning told a different story.

Scorpius unlocked their flat and ushered the boys inside. Evra followed after, perking up a bit at the familiar surroundings. She and her brothers ran and jumped up onto the sofa. Delilah was thankfully still snoozing safely in Albus’s arms, having been lulled to sleep by the car ride from the reception venue; he immediately set off towards his and Scorpius’s bedroom to settle her down in the cot James had brought over that morning. She gave a small yawn right as he settled her on the mattress, but after a few moments, she sank back into a deep sleep. Albus let out a relieved breath. James and Nora had been unnecessarily dramatic; Delilah was easy to care for.

Feeling a bit better, Albus returned to the sitting room, where Scorpius was trying to talk the kids into bedtime. It didn’t appear to be going well. Henry was bouncing on the sofa cushions, Finnigan was building a fort with the decorative pillows, and Evra had crawled beneath the coffee table with a blanket and her teddy bear, Honey.

“It’s been a very long day!” Scorpius said. “Aren’t you lot tired?”

“No!!” Finnigan, Evra, and Henry chorused.

“We want to play,” Evra said.

“Can we play?” Finnigan asked. And then, as if he remembered James’s earlier scolding: “Please?”

“Well…” Scorpius trailed off. He glanced over at Albus. Albus really wanted to go to bed, but he was certain that the kids were too keyed up now. Even if they sent them to bed right now, they’d be awake for another hour.

“Sure,” Albus said. “A little bit of playing. But then it’s straight to bed! Understand?”

“YAY!!” the three cheered.

Albus walked over and sat on the loveseat. Scorpius collapsed down beside him.

“With luck,” Albus hissed, his hand moving over to find Scorpius’s, “they’ll fall asleep while they’re playing. Then we’ll only have to move them to the bed—easy.”

“Yeah, maybe!” Scorpius agreed. He lifted their clasped hands and kissed the back of Albus’s. He smiled tiredly. “Are you less cross?”

Albus didn’t even bother pretending that he hadn’t been in a mood for at least half the night. And if he were truly being honest with himself, he would’ve admitted he’d been in a mood since his first annoying task at work that morning.

“A bit, yeah,” Albus said. He let his head fall against Scorpius’s shoulder. “Being home with you always improves my mood.”

He felt Scorpius’s lips brush his temple. “I wish you’d quit. Young is not nice.”

“Young’s an arse,” Albus corrected.

“Yes. He takes advantage of you.”

“I don’t really have an alternative, do I?”

“Yes. You could be my house-husband. I’ll take advantage of you.”

Albus grinned broadly. He appreciated every glimpse he got at Scorpius’s more naughty sides, even if he knew he couldn’t realistically appreciate them the way they needed to be with their current company.

“Don’t tempt me,” he said instead, his words lowering.

“I mean it—I don’t mind. I make enough money,” Scorpius persisted.

Albus studied his husband’s eyes. The love he saw within them always made Albus’s heart feel three times larger. He knew that Scorpius meant every single word he said—but he loved Scorpius too much to ever take him up on his lovesick offers. It wouldn’t be fair. If Scorpius had to work all day, then Albus did, too. Even if he hated it.

“My dad says it’ll get better,” Albus said. “The first couple of years are always challenging, apparently.”

“I just don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“I’m not unhappy,” Albus said at once. He had to laugh a bit at the mere idea. He turned to face Scorpius fully. He reached up and took his face into his hands, his thumbs sweeping over his sharp cheekbones. He studied his light eyes. “I’m not.”

Scorpius’s face brightened as he smiled. “You’d tell me if you were?”

“I’d whine about it nonstop, don’t you worry,” Albus affirmed. He leaned in and kissed Scorpius’s lips. It didn’t last for nearly as long as he would’ve liked (but then again, he would’ve liked to have pushed Scorpius back onto the couch cushions and done more than just kiss him). He felt like he’d only just pressed his lips to Scorpius’s when they heard a loud crash, followed at once by wailing. They both jerked back from each other and turned to survey the scene. Finnigan had managed to actually flip the coffee table over onto its side, trapping poor Evra’s ankle between the edge of it and the floor. Albus hadn’t seen how hard it’d been pushed over, but judging by the rapid swelling and awkward angle of Evra’s thin ankle, it’d been hard enough to at least fracture something. Not for the first time, Albus was breathlessly relieved that his husband was a healer.

“Finnigan!” Albus scolded, as Scorpius immediately hurried to Evra’s side. Finnigan had been staring wide-eyed at his sister, but at Albus’s stern tone, he turned and ran from the room. Albus would’ve followed after him, but Henry began crying along with Evra, and a few seconds later, he heard Delilah’s cries join the symphony. Albus could feel a headache forming.

Evra!!!” Henry wailed. He had taken distraught steps over to his sister and was now patting her hair, his eyes wide with shock.  

Evra was growing hysterical. Fat tears were rolling down her cheeks, making streaks through the glitter dusted on her face. “I w-want my mummy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Their tears made Albus’s heart pound with anxiety. Seeing Evra in genuine pain and Henry in genuine distress left him feeling a bit shell-shocked. Scorpius—who was used to seeing children in pain—was entirely calm and sure. He stroked her curls back from her damp face with his left and waved his wand with his right; the coffee table lifted up off Evra’s ankle. She gave a shout of pain as the level of pressure on her ankle shifted, but Scorpius didn’t hesitate for very long. He aimed his wand at her ankle and murmured a mending spell. The odd angle of her ankle evened out and the swelling and purpling eased, until it looked entirely normal and she’d stopped crying. 

Scorpius gently pulled her over into his lap. She held him tightly and pressed her face into his neck. She began crying again shortly after.

“I want my mummy and daddy,” she sobbed.

“Oh, I know, Evra,” Scorpius whispered sadly. He gently pulled the pins and bands from her hair so it could fall freely. He patted her back. “I know you miss them, but they’ll come back. They always come back.”

While Scorpius soothed both Evra and Henry, Albus ventured towards the back of the flat to retrieve Delilah and find Finnigan. He pushed open the door to the first guest room, but it looked relatively untouched. He checked the second one after that, but it too was empty. That left the bathroom and his and Scorpius’s bedroom. Albus checked the bedroom first, hoping desperately that Finnigan wasn’t in the bathroom getting into trouble. Thankfully, he spotted a small lump beneath the now-rumpled duvet. He let out a relieved breath and then hurried over to lift Delilah. She settled down as soon as he had her in his arms. She pressed her face (damp with both tears and snot) against his shoulder and began gnawing on his shirt. Albus grimaced, but he didn’t dare move her, for fear of setting her off again. With Delilah clutched in his arms, he settled down onto the edge of the bed. He leaned over and set his free hand on Finnigan’s back.

“Finnigan. What’s wrong?” he asked.

Finnigan didn’t respond for a long moment.

“I’m sorry if I upset you, but you could have really hurt Evra,” Albus continued.

Finnigan sniffled loudly. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Didn’t mean to knock the table over? What were you doing to make it fall?”

“I was thinking I was so strong.”

Albus furrowed his brow. “So you lifted it up?”

“No, I was thinking about lifting up all the way to the sky,” Finnigan said. “And it went…BOOM.

Oh.  

“Oh. It was accidental magic,” Albus realized. He frowned. He scooted closer. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry for yelling at you.” Albus was struggling to locate the right words. He figured he probably needed to make this into a teaching moment, but he wasn’t sure how. “You can go back now. Just…don’t lift heavy things or imagine lifting heavy things if your sister is underneath them, okay? Because it could slip or fall and hurt her.”

Finnigan paused. He seemed to be considering Albus’s new rule.

“But what if she’s stuck? Under something heavy?” 

Albus faltered. “Well…then…come and get an adult.”

“What if there’s no adult?”

“Why wouldn’t there be an adult?” Albus demanded. He was growing a bit impatient.

“Maybe the adult is buying fruit or milk.”

“Then another adult would be watching you lot,” Albus said shortly. He pulled at the duvet. “C’mon, out you come. It’s nearly bedtime.”

Finnigan fought his way out of the duvet, but as soon as Albus saw his thoughtful expression, he knew Finnigan was not done hypothesizing.

“But what if all the adults are gone?” Finnigan persisted.

Albus reached forward and plucked a wayward feather that’d escaped from the duvet from Finnigan’s dark hair. He offered him his hand a moment later. Finnigan took it.

“Where would all the adults be?” Albus asked. He helped Finnigan down from the bed. Delilah was still mouthing his shoulder, but it was keeping her content, so he didn’t dare move her. He and Finnigan set off towards the living room, hand-in-hand.

“Uhm…maybe…they are all getting milk and apples.”

All of them? Won’t the grocers run out of apples?”

“No…they sent him letters before. So he could get all the things right just for them. So can I?”

“Can you what?”

“Can I lift heavy things if my sister is under them and all the grown-ups are buying milk and fruit?”

Albus had to admit that this was the last question he ever thought he’d be asked.

“Er…sure. Yeah, Finnigan. You may.”

Finnigan beamed happily, and as they reentered the living room, the first thing he said was: “Scorpy, I can lift things up if you and Alby go get milk.”

Scorpius furrowed his brow. “Why would we need to get milk? Oh, no…you haven’t busted the bottles in the freezer bag, have you?! Nora and James are definitely on the boat by now!”

“No!” Albus said quickly. “No, just—don’t worry about it. Really. It’s just…S-I-L-L-Y.”

“Silly,” Evra said at once. She had changed into her nightie while Albus was gone. She was tiredly rubbing the worn fur of her teddy bear against her cheek. “That spells silly.”

“Clever girl,” Albus and Scorpius chorused. They shared a grin afterwards.

“All right,” Albus said, suddenly very eager for his own bedtime. “It’s time for bed! Let’s get pajamas on and your toys from your bags…Henry…” Henry had triumphantly pulled two pieces of clothing from his suitcase without really looking at them and was trying his hardest to pull pajama bottoms over his head. Albus caught Scorpius struggling not to laugh. “No, Henry, you need a top and a bottom, not two bottoms…here, let me help…”

Once Henry and Finnigan were in pajamas, Albus escorted the three eldest kids down the hall to the guest room they were staying in. He and Scorpius had decided to leave the first open for Lily, as she typically stayed there when she visited London, and they had no idea when she might show up. Albus spent an annoying fifteen minutes playing a dizzying back-and-forth game of water-fetching and last minute toilet adventures, but finally, all three were settled into the giant bed, tiredly cuddling their stuffed toys. Albus rose from the bed with a relieved sigh.

“All right,” he said. “Night!”

With that, he straightened the duvet one last time and set off towards the door. He’d only just closed it after himself when all three began crying. He sighed and sagged against the hallway wall. He saw Scorpius step into the hall from the corner of his eye. He glanced over at him; he was cradling Delilah in his left arm while his right held the bottle steady for her. He and Albus grimaced.

“Should we let them cry it out?” Albus asked uncertainly.

“I don’t think these kids are really the ‘cry it out’ sort…” Scorpius admitted. “Let’s go in together.”

“Okay,” Albus sighed. He took a moment to yawn and rub over his heavy eyelids and then he reopened the door. The light from the hall fell over the bed. He could make out three sets of wide, terrified, tear-filled eyes. The complaints began at once.

“I want my mummy!” Finnigan sobbed at once.

“I didn’t have my bath!”

“I want pet dragonfly!” Henry demanded. He hiccupped loudly afterwards. Albus looked at Scorpius, bemused.

“Er…what?” Albus said. He walked over and sat beside Henry. “Pet…dragonfly? Do you have another toy? Did we leave one in the suitcase?”

Henry’s bottom lip quivered. “My music,” he sniffled, on the edge of a full meltdown. “I want my music!” Albus felt panic beginning to set in.

“No, don’t cry, it’s okay…Evra, what is he talking about?”

She’d succumbed to nearly silent tears without Albus noticing. She looked up from her tiny hands, where she’d been hiding her face. “Mummy plays him the record with the song about the pet dragonfly,” she managed, and then she was back to sobbing into her hands for James.

“I’ll get it,” Scorpius said at once. “I wondered why they put a muggle record and record player into the bag…be right back; I’ll put Delilah back in her cot while I’m out there, too…”

“No!” Albus yelped. “Don’t leave me— oh, bugger.”

It was too late. Scorpius had set off in a run and had already left the room by the time Albus blurted his request. He looked from Henry (who was still considering throwing a tantrum), to Evra (who looked absolutely pitiful and heartbroken), to Finnigan (who was eyeing the window with suspicious concentration, as if considering making a run for it to locate his mum). Albus suddenly regretted his earlier thought. This was probably going to be more difficult than James and Nora had let on.

“Henry, your…pet dragonfly music will be here soon. Evra, it’s okay, you can have a bath in the morning or tomorrow night. Finnigan…right now, I miss my mum, too.”

Albus’s mum would’ve known what to do. She would’ve had all three giggling themselves to sleep, happy and content. When Albus had imagined his nieces’ and nephews’ visit, he’d envisioned a similar picture…he’d hoped he’d be as good at taking care of kids as his mum (and most of his family members, actually) were. But he was beginning to realize that he wasn’t that great at it…and certainly not as good as he’d assumed he’d be from all the short babysitting jobs he’d done for James and Nora over the years. Watching them overnight was much harder than watching them for an hour or so.

“I c-c-can’t,” Evra persisted. She pulled hard at her hair; her anxiety was vivid and obvious. “I always have my bath at night! Mummy combs my hair and Daddy sings to me!”

“Well, it’s too late for a bath, but I can comb it while we wait for the record player,” Albus suggested.

For whatever reason, that only upset her more. She blubbered something about combing being for bath time only and her dad’s ‘Bye-Bye Tricky Tangles’ song (something Albus would’ve loved to have heard; he was certain it would make great blackmail material against James). Albus realized halfway through her spiel that half her distress was almost certainly from over exhaustion. If he let her have a bath, she’d probably fall asleep in the tub.

What made him feel better when he was so tired that every small anxiety exploded into tragedy? When he was younger, it was his mum and dad, hugging him and reassuring him. Now it was Scorpius, through kisses and comforting touches. Albus wasn’t sure if it was him Evra wanted reassurance from…she seemed insistent about wanting James, and Albus was afraid she’d push him away (it’d hurt more than he’d ever admit to anybody). But she was deeply upset, and Albus knew she needed somebody, so he scooted closer towards her and opened his arms. He’d only been waiting for perhaps a second before she moved over into his embrace. She pressed her face into his shirt as she cried.

“When will they be back?” she asked.

“Soon,” Albus replied, not wanting to tell her the real answer. Knowing that she had three more days without them would surely only make her feel worse. “It’s going to be okay, Evra. I promise. They’ll come back, and when they do, you can tell them all about the fun things you did while they were gone.”

“And hug them and kiss them?”

“Yes—and hug them and kiss them,” Albus affirmed.

She yawned deeply. Albus reclined back and let his head fall to the pillow. Evra snuggled up into the circle of his arms. A few minutes later, once Scorpius had returned and started Henry’s ‘pet dragonfly’ song, Henry snuggled up to Albus’s back. Finnigan was the only one left glaring at the window and pouting.

“Finnigan,” Scorpius said. He walked over to Finnigan’s side of the bed. He looked down at their nephew’s dedicated pout and sighed. “Let’s go to sleep, okay?”

“No,” Finnigan said.

Well, it was worth a try, Scorpius, Albus thought.

“Why not?”

“Because I want Mummy.”

“Mummy’s on a boat; she doesn’t even know you’re standing there pouting, so she won’t come just because you are,” Albus supplied, in an attempt to be helpful. It was not helpful. Finnigan snapped his head in Albus’s direction. His skin looked paler than usual, though that could’ve been from the blanching moonlight.

“On a boat?!” he yelped, horrified. “A boat that can sink?!”

Oh, bollocks. Albus grimaced and looked helplessly at Scorpius. Luckily, Scorpius didn’t appear worried. He took a deep breath and began, in an endearingly adorable sing-song voice: “Finnigan Binnigan Linnigan…refused to go…sleep-again, he pouted and he stamped and he made quite a fuss, all because his parents left on a...water bus!!”  

Finnigan giggled. Scorpius fell down onto the bed heavily, so that Finnigan bounced up in the air slightly. His giggles continued.

“What are you so worried about?” Scorpius asked. He plopped back against the pillows and waited for Finnigan to respond. Finnigan—like his siblings—wasted no time curling up to Scorpius’s side. “Are you worried that they won’t come back?”

Finnigan didn’t respond.

“They’ll come back,” Scorpius said. He gently patted Finnigan’s back. “It’s okay to miss them. I miss my mummy all the time.”

Finnigan reached for his stuffed elk. He cuddled it close. His eyes drifted shut as he finally gave into a yawn.

“Big-hole missing?” Finnigan asked.

Merlin, Albus realized, these kids are weird.

“What is that?” Scorpius asked patiently.

“When you miss them and it’s like a hole right here,” Finnigan said. He thumped over Scorpius’s heart. Albus felt his own throat narrow slightly. He reached behind him and gently patted Henry’s hair, but going by Henry’s silence and deep breathing, he’d already been lulled to sleep by his eclectic muggle ‘lullaby’.

“Oh!” Scorpius said. “Yes. Exactly like that. It hurts, huh? It’s not fun.”

“No,” Finnigan agreed. “Not fun.”

“But the good news is that it’s temporary. That means it won’t last forever. It will be over very quickly. Mummy and Daddy will be back.”

Finnigan gave another yawn. He was teetering on the edge of sleep. “Will your mummy be back soon?”

Albus lifted up slightly and peered over Evra. Scorpius had his chin against Finnigan’s hair, and his eyes were shut, but Albus saw a muscle jump in his jaw for a quick moment. He took a few moments to respond.

“One day,” Scorpius finally said. Albus had wondered how he’d answer that one without lying or upsetting Finnigan more, but he needn’t worry; Scorpius always knew what to say.

“You’ll be so happy…” Finnigan said, his words growing thick and slurred as he drifted off to sleep.

“Yeah,” Scorpius agreed. “I will be.”


He and Scorpius stood in the opened doorway, watching Evra, Finnigan, and Henry snoozing peacefully. Albus couldn’t stop grinning. His chest felt full.

“Look at that,” he whispered. “That actually wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” Scorpius agreed, an equally large smile in place. “No, I think we did a great job. Look how peaceful they are. How cozy and safe.”

Albus got an unbidden mental image of him and Scorpius standing in this same place, but instead of their nieces and nephews snoozing in the guest best, there was a baby in a cot. Their baby. He felt his heart jump. He leaned over and rested his head against Scorpius’s shoulder; his hand sought out Scorpius’s.

“What?” Scorpius asked, his smile still audible.

“I just think we’d be good at this parenting thing, is all,” Albus supplied. He was feeling too sentimental to mask the excitement flowing through his words.

“Yeah,” Scorpius agreed. There was equal excitement brimming in his. “We would.”

They curled up together on the sofa for the next hour, not wanting to go into their bedroom until they were completely ready for bed, in fear of waking Delilah. Albus brushed his fingers idly through Scorpius’s hair as he worked steadily through the first page of his report rewrite. Scorpius—stretched out on the couch, his head in Albus’s lap and his feet on the arm rest—was reading another muggle medical book, his lip caught between his teeth in concentration.

“Listen to this,” he prompted. “The muggles can take eggs out of women, sperm from men, mix the two together in a laboratory, create an embryo, and then put that embryo right back into the mother, who can then carry the baby to term and give birth normally. They say magic is the best thing, but I don’t know, Al. That’s pretty amazing.”

Albus honestly couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of that. He supposed it was cool, but he wasn’t sure he believed that it was something that actually happened. Maybe Scorpius had accidentally picked up a fiction novel.

“Seems excessive. Why not just have sex like everybody else does?”

“Because that doesn’t work for some people!” Scorpius insisted. He sat up and peered intently at Albus. Albus was taken aback by his seriousness. “Some people can’t get pregnant on their own. Some people have genetic disorders that impact which embryos are viable. Some couples are two girls or two boys and can’t just make love and have a baby.”

Albus blinked. Oh.

Uneasiness took over Scorpius’s expression. His cheeks pinked. He averted his eyes. He began fiddling nervously with his clothing.

“Like…us?” Albus dared to ask. “Couples like…us?”

“Or—or Rose and Iset,” Scorpius hurriedly said. He was trying too hard to make his voice sound casual. “Couples like them, too. I just thought it was…a…mildly interesting…factoid. Your very own Scorpius factoid of the day! So if one day…if one day somebody says…’name one type of medical procedure they have in the muggle world that they don’t have here or I’ll kill you’…you’ll be able to tell them all about this and it’ll end up saving your life, so. So you’re welcome.”

Scorpius was out of breath after his rant. He lowered his head back into Albus’s lap, but his posture was tense. He lifted his book up—almost certainly so Albus couldn’t see his expression. Albus reached down and touched his husband’s cheeks. He was so embarrassed he nearly felt feverish.

“Or couples like us,” Albus persisted, his words soft. He wanted to continue on. He could feel the words perched on the edge of his tongue. But he failed to muster the courage required to speak about it.

“Yeah…” Scorpius said. He sneaked a glance at Albus expression. He was searching him for something, but Albus wasn’t sure what. He was too busy trying to keep from saying too much (or admitting to the dreams he’d been hiding for months now).

Thankfully (or maybe even unthankfully—Albus still wasn’t sure how he felt), Delilah began wailing a few seconds afterwards.

It was probably going to be a long night.


 

It was one of the longest nights Albus had ever had.

He rocked Delilah back to sleep in the living room, set her back to sleep in her cot, and then he and Scorpius curled up for a measly hour of sleep. Delilah woke them again with the same pitiful sounding sobs. Scorpius took her this time. Albus drifted in and out of sleep, his mind switching between half-conscious dreams and anxieties about the baby. Was something wrong with her? Had he somehow managed to do something wrong in the little time he’d had her alone?

“Albus,” Scorpius hissed.

Albus sat straight up, his heart pounding erratically. “What? What? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, it’s just…look at this,” Scorpius said. “Lumos.”

Albus squinted against the bright light. Scorpius sat beside him on the bed, shifted Delilah to his other arm, and then shone the light from his wand on a thick stack of parchment on his lap. On the cover page, in James’s writing, it said: POTTER KID INSTRUCTIONS.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Albus groaned.

“It’s all here. The record player, what song to sing to Delilah to get her to settle down. They even wrote that Finnigan shouldn’t be trusted around furniture that isn’t nailed down because he keeps accidentally levitating heavy objects! Apparently one of Nora’s muggle uncles let Finnigan watch a ‘superhero’ film a few weeks back, so he fancies himself a superhero now.”

“Well, that’s what we get for deciding against unpacking,” Albus grumbled. “Of course, James could’ve told me he was going to put that in there in the first place.” He yawned deeply and then rubbed over his tired eyes. He squinted at his niece in the dim light. She was gnawing happily on Scorpius’s finger. “She looks wide awake.”

“Much more awake than me,” Scorpius agreed. He turned, pulled his legs up onto the bed, and reclined back. He rested his head on Albus’s pillow. Albus happily curled up to his side. He was certain that he loved nothing more than cuddling up to Scorpius when he was tired.

“I love you,” he mumbled. His words were somewhat muffled into Scorpius’s arm, but he felt a kiss to the side of his neck a moment later, so Scorpius must’ve heard. “Sorry I was…you know. In a bad mood earlier.”

“Don’t apologize…I’m sorry you had a bad day,” Scorpius said softly. He settled Delilah on his chest. “James’s book said letting Delilah fall asleep on your chest will lead to a deeper sleep, so let’s hope he’s right. It’s sleepy time, Delilah…aren’t you sleepy? You don’t look sleepy, but I’m sure you are deep down…”

While Scorpius talked sweetly to their niece (and did his best to convince the infant that sleeping is what she ought to have been doing, instead of gnawing on her hands), Albus allowed himself to drift back off to sleep. He felt as if he’d only just closed his eyes when abrupt pain shot from his knee down to his toes. He inhaled sharply, wrenched his eyes open, and found all three remaining Potter kids climbing up onto the bed. A quick glance at the clock on the wall told Scorpius it was only half past three.

“What’s wrong?” he whispered. He shuffled up, to give the kids more room to get on the bed without stepping on his other kneecap. He glanced quickly to his side; Scorpius was still beside him, his head resting on Albus’s pillow. He’d drifted off with Delilah on his chest. She was finally in a deep, unperturbed sleep. Scorpius had his hand resting lightly on her back; Albus could tell he was sleeping lightly enough that if the baby moved, he’d wake.

“We’re scared,” Evra whispered. “We wanna sleep in here.”

Finnigan and Henry had already made themselves cozy on Scorpius’s side of the bed. Albus was too exhausted to fight with them. He opened his arms and kissed Evra’s hair as she climbed right into his embrace.

“Let’s all sleep until at least seven,” Albus mumbled. “Okay?”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…” Finnigan whispered.

“No, I mean, until seven o’clock…nevermind. Goodnight again.”


 

He did not make it until seven.

An annoying tapping noise dragged him from his dreams, and by the time Albus realized it was a Ministry owl at the window, the noise had roused Delilah and she’d decided it was time for breakfast.

Albus carefully pulled her from Scorpius’s arms, yanked the bedroom window open to retrieve his letter, and then he carried both his niece and his letter into the kitchen. He pulled a bottle from the freezer bag, heated it with his wand, and opened the letter as he fed Delilah.

Albus,

I need a report written by Sunday night. I have included the necessary information and paperwork within this envelope. The investigating Auror has fallen ill and this is a time-sensitive manner. I need to get the report to Hill as soon as possible.

Young

Albus wondered if Young even comprehended the concept of taking a break from work. It wasn’t even six AM yet and Albus was already annoyed. In a fit of frustration, he shoved the letter to the other end of the table and elected to ignore it for twenty minutes, but after he’d finished feeding Delilah, changed her nappy, and settled her down into her enchanted bouncer seat, he knew he could no longer ignore it. And anyway, he needed to know just how pissed off to be. If Young had sent him information for a routine theft, that’d be one thing. If he’d sent him information for something much more complicated that would take up Albus’s entire weekend to craft a report on…Albus was already seething at the mere thought.

He put the kettle on, and while he was waiting for the water to boil, he reluctantly leaned over the table, snatched the letter, and separated the top letter from the various sheets of parchment stacked beneath it. He scanned his eyes down the first few lines, his heart sinking. I’m going to shove this parchment right up Young’s arse, Albus thought. He ground his teeth. He had very clearly told Young that he was taking the weekend, and yet here Young was, delegating one of the most complicated on-going investigations to Albus to summarize by Sunday night. The Auror Office had been working for over a year with the Beast Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures to try and tackle an ongoing issue with dragon poaching. Over just the past six months, the worldwide dragon population had plummeted by a worrying ten percent as more and more people took up poaching as a way to line their pockets. It all began two years prior, when a rather famous Quidditch star was pictured on the cover of Witch Weekly in a custom kit made from dragon scales, and after that one publication, dragon scales took wizarding fashion by storm in a way it never had before, leading to a troubling increase in dragon scale and hide trade. It had gotten so out of hand a year ago that the Beast Division had to enlist help from the Auror Office, and despite some of the best Aurors being put on the case, it was a seemingly helpless problem. In fact, the dragonologists were doing much more to help than the Aurors were managing; Lily herself had been part of a group of dedicated dragonologists who’d trapped and captured nearly three dozen poachers a few months ago. They’d all been given Nature Conservation awards by New Zealand’s Minister for Magic. It was a success that had led to Lily finally opening her own Antipodean Opaleye sanctuary in that same country, a place she’d refused to leave for months and months, until her sudden appearance at the reception the night before.

Albus could only hope that she was planning on staying for the entire weekend at least. She could probably help him make sense of the Beast Division’s notes—or at least keep him entertained with stories while he trudged through the paperwork. But then again…nobody ever knew with Lily. It wouldn’t surprise Albus if she went home with Caden, made a brief appearance at their parents’ house for tea, and then quietly disappeared back to ‘Lulu’s Dragon World’ (as Evra dubbed it). If he considered the fact that something was almost certainly up with his sister, it was doubly likely that she’d flee without even stopping by the Potter home for tea.


 

“Wow,” Scorpius greeted. “Up before eight, taking care of a baby, and doing paperwork? You’ve changed…”

Albus looked up from his papers and glanced towards the kitchen doorway. Scorpius smiled at him, the sort of sleepy smile that always made Albus want to snog him senseless. He grinned back.

“Morning,” he said. “And don’t worry…it still took me over an hour of procrastination to work up the effort to start this.”

Scorpius had brought the entire Potter crew along with him. They were still in their pajamas, and Henry was half asleep in Scorpius’s arms, but they all smiled at Albus.

“ALBUS!” Evra cried, elated. She dropped Finnigan’s hand and ran over to Albus. Albus leaned over and set Delilah in the baby carrier attached to the seat on his right, freeing his arms so he could hug Evra. She climbed up onto his lap. Her adorable face pursed in concentration as she scanned her eyes over his paperwork. She turned back to look at him quickly, her eyes lighting up and her mouth forming a tiny O of surprise. 

“I had a dream about dragons last night!” she cried, elated. She turned back to the papers. She traced her finger down the spine of one of the dragons in a diagram. “There was loads of fire.”

“That sounds…frightening,” Albus said.

“No, it was pretty. And sparkly. Can I have bacon for breakfast?”

“Sure,” Albus said. “Bacon it is.” Scorpius came over to take Albus’s seat, so he could watch over Delilah while Albus cooked. Albus pulled ingredients from the ice box and cupboards as Finnigan chimed into the forgotten dragon conversation. 

“I wish I could make fire come out of my mouth,” he said.

“Yeah? What would you do if you could?” Scorpius wondered.

“Put marshmallows in my pocket,” he said. “Alby, can I have one and a half eggs?”

“One and a half? That’s very specific,” Albus said, amused. He glanced back at Finnigan. He was not smiling.

“Yes,” he said seriously. “One and a half.”

Albus had to turn back around to hide his smile. “Sure.”

Albus listened to the children play as he cooked, mildly impressed by the detailed, imaginative scenarios they were able to come up with. Scorpius had to leave unexpectedly to check on his patients, but he kissed Albus and promised he’d be back in five minutes, so Albus wasn’t too concerned; Scorpius never promised anything he couldn’t follow through on. Halfway through the kids’ game of “dragon boat school” (as far as Albus could tell, Finnigan and Henry were dragons at a school that was on a boat, and Evra was their art teacher), he called them back into the kitchen for breakfast. They were out of breath and beaming.

“Scorpy flipped the coffee table upside down!” Evra greeted. She climbed up into her seat and crammed two pieces of bacon into her mouth with an eagerness that would’ve made James proud. “And we put loads of pillows and cushions and blankets into it and Scorpy put a sheet over the legs which are up like this—“ she stuck her arms straight into the air – “and all my dragons can draw trees now!”

“Brilliant!” Albus appreciated. “Sounds like you’re having fun.”

“So much fun!” Evra affirmed.

“Thwis is gwood bacon!” Finnigan said, his cheeks bulging with food. He enthusiastically stabbed his fork at his pile of precisely one and a half eggs. “Good eggs!”

“Yum! I want more eggs,” Henry requested. He held up four fingers. “Six more ones.” Albus didn’t know what he was more surprised by: his nephew’s disproportionally developed food-related vocabulary or how quickly he’d managed to scarf down his decent-sized portion of eggs.

“You lot have certainly inherited trademark Weasley traits,” Albus muttered, amused. He felt a strange emotion clawing its way up his throat, and at first, he thought it was just nostalgia for his own childhood. He had many memories of sitting at the table for breakfast with his siblings. But once he separated that sense of longing, he realized a good portion of the overwhelming emotion was pride. It felt good to know they were enjoying the meal he made.

Scorpius returned before Albus had even dished out seconds. They both sat at the table with their nieces and nephews. To the kids’ utmost joy, James and Nora rang on the set of enchanted mirrors right as they were finishing up breakfast. Scorpius leaned his head against Albus’s shoulder as the kids returned to the living room to talk to their parents. Albus stroked Scorpius’s hip as they listened to Evra, Finnigan, and Henry gush about how much fun they were having. It seemed the good morning had put their difficult night far from their minds, because no one told James or Nora about their bedtime meltdowns the night prior. Albus was relieved; he had no doubt in his mind that if James’s kids told him that they were miserable, James would find a way home within the hour.

“I’m glad you’re having so much fun!” Nora’s voice was filled with genuine relief. “Albus and Scorpius are taking such good care of you lot, aren’t they?”

“Yes!” the three chorused. Albus grinned proudly.

“Are you behaving?” James asked them. “No setting things on fire, sneaking out of windows, hiding wild animals underneath the beds…?”

“Nope! Well, I only broke Evra’s ankle, but that’s all.”

“What?!” Nora said. 

“Oh, you only broke one of our children’s bones. Sounds mild, Finnigan,” James said, clearly torn between amusement and annoyance. “Are you all right, Baby Bear? Did your uncle fix your ankle right up?”

“He did. But I didn’t get my bath last night, Daddy!”

Well—so much for the somewhat rocky night going unmentioned.

“That’s because you had it earlier when Mummy got you ready for the wedding yesterday afternoon,” James said, his tone calm and patient. Albus often envied that in his brother.

“We talked about that, remember, Evra?” Nora added. “We talked about how our routines would have to shift a bit. We knew it’d be too late for a bath by the time you got to Albus and Scorpius’s flat.”

“But I like things to be the same,” Evra said, her voice small.

“I know, honey bear,” Nora cooed. Albus rolled his eyes at Scorpius. “But trying new things every now and then is a good thing, right?”

“Like when I drank that lake water!” Finnigan supplied helpfully. “That was new!”

“Not precisely like that, Finnigan, but that’s certainly a thought,” Nora encouraged. “Giardia was new for you.”

“Your immune system probably learned a lot from that experience,” James agreed. “And it was very…brave. Drinking green, slimy water is…a bad idea, but certainly brave. Not sure I could’ve done it.”

“I’m not drinking lake water!” Evra panicked. “If that is what it means to try new things you can count me out!”

“No, nobody is drinking lake water ever again,” Nora agreed quickly. “I honestly don’t think the plumbing could survive it…”

“Mama,” Henry whined, interrupting the ongoing conversation about intestinal parasites. “I want to see you.”

There was a bit of muffled shuffling as James and Nora presumably rearranged themselves so they could both fit into the tiny mirror frame.

“Better?” asked Nora.  

Albus could hear Henry’s sweet grin. “Mama,” he said happily. “Hi.”

“Hello again, Henry! Are you having fun?”

“Yes!”

“I’m so glad! Daddy and I love you all and we miss you already.”

“Al?” James called. “Evra, where’s Albus?”

Albus hurriedly stood, so James didn’t think he was leaving the kids unattended. He stepped out into the living room and walked over to stand behind the couch. He peered at the small image of James and Nora in the silver mirror, held tightly in Evra’s hands.

“Here, right here,” Albus reassured him. He snorted a moment later. “You look…red. Did somebody forget his sunburn potion?”

James grinned broadly. Despite his sunburn, he looked so relaxed that Albus probably could’ve called him any combination of nasty swear words that he wanted without James’s smile faltering. Nora reached up and poked his sunburnt cheeks. The skin blanched bright white at her touch.

“I think it’s his worst one in years,” she told Albus.

Albus snickered. “He looks ridiculous.”

“Oi!” James complained—but still, his grin remained. His kids fell into giggles.

“Having fun?” Albus asked lightly. He arched a suggestive eyebrow. The couple exchanged a quick, lovesick look and then joined their kids in the giggling fest.

“We swam with dolphins this morning,” James said.

“They were so sweet and so soft,” Nora gushed. “You’d think they’d be slimy, but they felt like velvet.”

“We’re going to the casino tonight,” James said. “A real muggle casino! I’ve been practicing my blackjack.”

Albus rolled his eyes. “You’ve never played blackjack a day in your life.”

“Erm, yes, I have. Today. Today is a day in my life. Get it right, Al.”

“How have the kids been? Honestly.”

Albus locked eyes with Nora. He smiled reassuringly, so she’d know he was telling the truth. “Fine—they’ve been good. Well-behaved.”

“You’ll tell us if they’re naughty?”

“I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to get on James’s case for anything. Speaking off…Evra tells me you’ve got a ‘Goodbye Tricky Tangles’ song. I think you ought to share that with the class, so I can sing it to Lily and we can tease you until our last breaths.”

“It’s ‘Bye-Bye Tricky Tangles’,” James corrected haughtily. “And you only get to hear it if you’re getting your hair detangled and conditioned. Are you?”

“C’mon….sing me the song, Jamie…” Albus grinned.

“Shove off!” James said, but he was fighting back laughter.

“I can sing it for you,” Evra told Albus eagerly.

Thank you, Evra,” Albus said. He leaned over and kissed the crown of her head.

“Where is our sister?” James asked. “Is she staying there with you and Scorpius?”

Albus shrugged. “Search me. She mentioned something about staying with us at the reception, but it was difficult for her to talk with all the other mouths she was putting hers on…”

He and James shared an annoyed look.

“Well, if she shows up, keep an eye on her and the kids…I know she says the last incident was an accident, but either way, I really don’t want to come home to missing kids again.”

“Oh, yeah,” Albus recounted. “The Hide-and-Seek Mishap of 2025!”

“Still not sure I’d call it a ‘mishap’,” James muttered.

“It wasn’t entirely Lily’s fault,” Nora said. She stroked James’s face, her touch especially light given his burnt face. “Evra really should’ve known better than to climb into your granddad’s enchanted washing machine. Your gran told her time and time again.”

“Lily told her to ‘hide somewhere interesting’ because she was ‘bored of finding her quickly’, she told her that she could hide ‘anywhere she wanted’, and then she sat down for an hour to drink cocktails with Dominque and forgot about Evra,” James deadpanned. “Not Evra’s fault.”

Albus struggled to hold his laughter in. It hadn’t been funny at the time—the entire Weasley-Potter clan had spent an hour trying to find Evra once James and Nora returned and realized she was missing, James had an actual panic attack which led to Ginny rushing him to St. Mungo’s in fear he was having a heart attack, and Evra nearly got washed with a load of cloaks before Albus’s gran thought to lift the lid (Evra had actually fallen asleep on the pile of dirty clothes). Now, however, with Evra safely in front of him…it was hilarious. And in Albus’s opinion, it was really James’s fault for ever thinking Lily was up to the task of babysitting.

“It’s a good thing she doesn’t want kids,” Albus snorted.

“You two underestimate her…she can be very sweet with the kids and she’s been a lot of help to me on many occasions!” Nora defended.

“Okay, Nor,” Albus said. “Scorpius and I will let Lily watch all four of your kids while we have a date night tonight.”

Nora bit her lip uneasily.

“Exactly,” Albus said.

“Speaking of kids,” James began slyly, his voice lowering slightly, “it seems like you and Scorpius have really got the dad thing down. Have you talked to him about it yet?”

Albus felt his face heat up. He looked back towards the kitchen, hoping his husband hadn’t heard James’s words.

“Look, for the last time, I was emotional and I didn’t mean anything I said,” Albus growled.

“You did. You so did. You came to your big brother for advice. It happened. Nora saw it. Didn’t you, Nora Bear?”

“I did,” Nora said. “It seemed genuine, Al.”

Albus glowered at his sister-in-law. “Some sister you are…selling me out like that…unbelievable.”

“You sat beside me and you said—“

“All I said,” Albus interrupted hotly, “was that I’d like to raise a kid with Scorpius. Not a big deal. Scorpius and I have always agreed that we want to have kids...after five years of marriage. That was always the plan.”

“Hmm…yeah, it was a big deal, because you said you 'couldn't wait' to raise a child with him. You said you wanted to do it now.

“It was just an overemotional admission! Delilah had just been born! You know how newborn babies get to me!”

“You asked me for advice on how to bring the topic up.”

“A mistake, since your advice, if I’m remembering correctly, had been to say ‘let’s have a baby’.”

“No, that’s brilliant advice!” James defended. “All our babies except Evra started with that phrase!”

Albus had almost forgotten that the kids were still there listening in until Evra said: “Why not me?! What did I start with?!”

“I believe it was something like…‘you looked amazing during the match, Jamie Baby’,” James grinned. Nora laughed and poked his sunburnt cheek again.

“Cheeky. Was not,” she said.

“I don’t get it,” Evra said, confused.

“Probably best that you don’t, lovely,” James said gently. He turned his focus back to Albus. “You need to talk to him about it. Marriages won’t work if both parties aren’t honest about what they want. You’ll only end up miserable and resenting each other.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It could be that easy. You insist on making everything difficult for yourself.”

Albus resisted the urge to mock James. He felt unduly annoyed (which probably meant James was on to something). Thankfully, James was unable to continue harassing Albus about babies, because Scorpius entered the room. He was greeted warmly by James and Nora, and the four adults and three kids entered a conversation about dolphins (with Delilah chiming in with coos every now and then), but the previous topic refused to leave Albus’s mind completely. It lurked in the corners, as it’d been doing since Delilah was born (since Albus realized that maybe…he really wanted to experience fatherhood, too).

He was beginning to worry that he wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut about it for much longer.  

 

Chapter Text

Lily woke to a series of all-too-familiar pains. She took a moment to groan into the bedsheets, and as she did, she realized she wasn’t even in the bed she thought she’d be in come morning (her bed at Albus and Scorpius’s flat). This mattress was much firmer. The sheets were all wrong; they weren’t the typical silk of the Potter-Malfoy guest bed. And she had some very tell-tale aches. Lily sighed.

“Fucking hell.”

She stretched her limbs out and rolled over onto her side, her head throbbing and mind whirling as she struggled to piece the prior night together. She’d been dancing with her nephews…then the tall Muggle…then the short Muggle…then the Muggle with strangely massive piercings in his earlobes…then the cat loving one…then…

Caden.

She felt a shock race down her spine. It only took a brief memory of his soft hands cradling her face at the reception before it all came rushing back to her. The coldness of the stone wall against her back, the bitter, intermingled taste of alcohol on their tongues, the jarring pain she’d felt when she accidentally knocked her hip into the staircase railing as they almost shagged in his flat building stairwell…

Lily’s hands slid down her bare torso towards her hip. Sure enough, when she pressed her calloused palm over her hip, she felt the sting of a bruise. She opened her eyes to inspect it, but there was no point; her eyesight potion had worn off, leaving her nearly blind.  She saw a pale blur where her naked body was. She was able to see a bit of purpling where she knew her bruise must’ve been, but she was unable to determine more than that. She didn’t really need to see much evidence of the night prior, anyway, because the memories had mostly returned. For a moment, she lived happily in the slightly-blurred memory of Caden’s sharp hipbones digging into her inner thighs, of overwhelming pleasure mingled in with nearly obscene levels of affection that she couldn’t and wouldn’t admit to…--she stopped her recollections there.

She would’ve liked to have gone back to sleep; she didn’t know how early it was, but judging by how exhausted she was, it was definitely before noon. Her body was sore in a way that wasn’t altogether unpleasant, and she could’ve drifted off to sleep in Caden’s bed…she had many, many times before. She could’ve scooted up, pressed her face into the pillow she’d claimed as hers months and months ago, and sank back into her dreams.

But if she did that, she’d be around when Caden woke.

And if she was around when Caden woke, she’d find herself faced with questions she didn’t want to answer.

No, she thought. Better to sneak out now. This shouldn’t have happened, anyway.

With a generous sprinkling of reluctance, Lily inched the duvet off her and sat up. She squinted down at Caden’s shape. She could only just make out the sandy blond of his hair. Her stomach lurched slightly, like it’d been tugged down towards her toes. She thought about reaching over and touching his bare shoulder. Her fingers curled up at the thought; she could vividly remember the smooth texture of his skin, enough that she could almost trick her mind into feeling it now. She thought about leaning over him and kissing his cheek, maybe his lips, it felt like it’d been ages since she’d seen him, she had missed him—

No, she reminded herself. She only had to remind herself once of the questions he’d undoubtedly ask her to steel her resolve.

She painstakingly crept from the bed bit-by-bit, slowly enough to keep the mattress from moving too much. As soon as her feet hit the wooden floor, she traveled the memorized path to the en-suite bathroom. She groped at the mahogany blur that she hoped was the door, cracked it behind her, and then patted along the bathroom countertop. The bright green, plastic-feeling object was Caden’s toothbrush…a nearby raspberry toothbrush was hers (Lily’s heart rose alarmingly at the realization that he’d kept it sitting here for months, even after she told him they were over, even after she said things she really hadn’t meant in the heat of her anger—get a grip, she scolded herself, it’s a fucking toothbrush, Lulu.), the metal object was a razor, and—

“Ah ha,” she hissed triumphantly. She lifted the wand. She slid the pad of her thumb down slowly and squeezed her eyes shut. Caden had carvings on his wand, too, but his were more circular than Lily’s dragons. She felt along the ridges and dips in the smooth wood. Yes—this was hers. Somehow, even in their drunken, heated states, their wands had ended up in the place they always put them. She leaned back against the sink with a relieved exhalation. Now—her dress. She only needed to find her dress, and then she could flee.

She vaguely remembered losing her clothing in the living room, so she didn’t want to summon her dress, for fear it’d knock something over and make a lot of ruckus on its way to her. But then again, stumbling half-blind through Caden’s flat wouldn’t do, either. She had probably left her spare pair of glasses in her coat pocket, but where the hell was her coat? She was fairly certain she’d lost that and her knickers well before she’d even entered his flat.

It did nobody any good to dwell on regrets (Lily least of all), but she was already beginning to feel remorseful for the decisions she’d made last night. It was messy, and this entire situation with Caden was messy enough. If she was being honest, her current life was messy enough without this on top of it.

She knew it was most likely that her coat and knickers were strewn throughout Caden’s flat building, but she tip-toed back out into the bedroom to check the place she normally set her glasses, just in case. The bedside table on the side of the bed she usually occupied was empty, but sometimes when she was drunk Caden took temporary custody of her glasses and placed them on his bedside table. It was impossible for her to tell for sure without getting close enough to touch the bedside table itself. She sucked in a quiet breath, squared her shoulders, and circled slowly around the bed. She kept her eyes on the mound that she knew was Caden, watching for any shift in the rhythm of his breathing. She stepped up to his bedside table, reached down, and felt her heart migrate into her throat. Her fingers curled around her glasses case. For a moment, she was chained in place, her fingers locked around the case, her emotions surging up her throat like flames. If she would’ve spoken, she felt she would’ve breathed a type of fire she had no business spewing (a type that consisted of three naughty words, words she would not and could not say, words Caden had said, words that had ruined it all).

She eased the case open, pulled her glasses free, and slid them onto her face.

The world came into sharp clarity, but she couldn’t look at him anymore for that reason.

She padded quietly to the doorway. As her feet graced the threshold, words broke through the silence.

“Bye, Lily,” Caden called. He sounded as if he’d been awake for a while. Lily’s throat narrowed, and for a moment, she couldn’t say anything. She stood still, naked in his bedroom doorway, her heart thudding in her chest. She wanted to say so many things, but they all crowded at the back of her throat. She choked on them.

“Bye,” is all she managed to say, her tone much more unaffected than she felt.

She thought she heard him sigh, but when she glanced over her shoulder, he’d pulled the pillow over his head, presumably to go back to sleep.

She stepped into his living room, summoned her wrinkled and stained dress, and yanked it over her head. She had a painful weight in her heart, dragging it down into the pit of her stomach. She realized it was guilt as her hand sank into the Floo pot.

It was funny—she hadn’t felt dirty about what’d happened until he’d spoken. She hadn’t felt guilty until she’d realized that, in many ways, she’d used him.

“Potter-Malfoy flat,” she said, her voice quivering slightly. 

For the second time that month, she was swallowed by fire.


 

She’d expected to be bombarded by kids when she stumbled into the kitchen of Albus and Scorpius’s flat, but as she shook soot from her uncomfortably short hair, she realized it was far too quiet. She pulled her glasses off and cleaned them quickly on a slightly clean bit of her dress. When she placed them back on her face, she affirmed what she already knew: the kitchen was empty.

“Al?” She called. She waited a few seconds, and when nobody greeted her, she walked over to Scorpius’s fancy coffee maker, given to him by a Muggle doctor he sometimes corresponded with. As far as Lily knew, she and Nora and occasionally her dad were the only people who ever used it. “You here? Scorpius?”

She got the coffee machine started, and once the hissing sounds of brewing began, she waved the highest cupboard open with her wand.

“Can I have some firewhisky?” she yelled towards the door. She waited a few seconds again. When she didn’t hear a ‘no’, she shrugged, summoned the firewhisky down, and filled a fourth of her coffee mug with it. She was stirring sugar into her concoction when she sensed somebody’s presence. She turned immediately, her hand automatically closing around the handle of her wand, but it was only Scorpius. He looked a bit bedraggled, with his white-blond hair tousled in every direction and his clothes slightly skewered. Lily at first thought he and Albus had been going at it, but then she spotted Delilah in his arms, cooing happily as she kicked her tiny feet quite energetically.

“Lily!” Scorpius greeted. He grinned hugely. Lily smiled back. Scorpius always made her feel completely welcomed and loved—it was one of the many reasons she preferred staying at their flat when she was in England. Her parents loved her, and she loved them, but her dad didn’t always take her newest injuries in the best way; she felt a strange sort of emotional obligation to hide them from him when she was at her parents’ house, because it always upset him, but the longer she worked with dragons, the more impossible it became to hide all her wounds. “I was worried. Are you all right?” Scorpius’s eyes drifted down her messy appearance. She took a sip of her firewhisky coffee as his eyebrows furrowed. “Is that…? Lily, ew. You can’t wear that. You can’t let Albus see you in that. Give it here—I’ll put it in the wash, it hasn’t run yet.”

“Can’t. Naked underneath,” she supplied. She felt a sting of shame, but it wasn’t for the sex itself that she’d had the night prior; it was because any mention of it reminded her of Caden, and it brought back that insufferable feeling of longing, and it made her think horrible things like: What if that was the last time you’ll ever walk away from him? And you said ‘bye’. And you left. And you told him you were done with him and then you ended up fucking him again. You—

“You don’t have your suitcase?” Scorpius asked. He’d crossed the kitchen while Lily was stuck in her panicked thoughts. He settled Delilah down into her bouncy seat. “I’ll get you some clothes to borrow. Where’s your suitcase?”

“I dunno,” Lily realized. She took another deep sip and screwed her eyes shut. The bitterness from her coffee mixed with the burning from the firewhisky was a very effective thought-clearer. “I think I gave it to my mum.”

“Well, you can’t go over to the Den like that,” Scorpius said nervously. He had a point, she definitely couldn’t do that. Her dad would probably pass out. “Hang on. Keep an eye on Delilah, will you?”

“Sure,” Lily said. She cupped her palm around the bottom of her mug and crossed over to the chair beside the bouncy seat. She made a funny face at the baby. Delilah grinned hugely, her inherited dimple deepening as she did. Lily liked Delilah; she thought she might one day beat out Finnigan as Lily’s favorite. She’d practically come out of the womb with attitude and Lily respected that. One of her first interactions with her newborn niece had been watching her sneeze directly in Rose’s face—Lily had quite liked that, especially considering that Rose had just been nagging Lily for nearly a half-hour right before that.

Delilah reached out towards Lily with somewhat jerky movements. Lily always found it hilarious how uncoordinated babies were.

“What?” Lily wondered. Delilah gave a bossy-sounding coo, her arms still reaching forward. Lily looked down. “My mug? I don’t think you want this.”

Delilah reached forward again, this time with more insistence. Her movements were so demanding that she nearly toppled out of her bouncy seat. Lily looked back down at her coffee and shrugged.

“All right, you can look at it, but you’re not going to like the smell of it,” she said. She scooted closer and brought the mug over. She held it securely, so it wouldn’t spill on the baby, and watched Delilah as she leaned over to peer into the dark contents. She spotted her own hazy reflection in the liquid and paused, clearly entranced. Lily watched in amusement as her tiny lips parted in surprise. She grinned hugely a moment later, clearly pleased by the sight of herself.  

“Sometimes when I look in the mirror I do that, too,” Lily quipped. Delilah didn’t laugh at her joke, but she did glance briefly up at Lily with warm eyes, and Lily thought that was probably a good equivalent.

Delilah reached forward curiously, her chubby finger set to dip into the hot coffee, but Lily quickly pulled it back.

“No, sorry, not for touching,” she said. “It’s hot. Hot. Ouch. Burning. Fire. Burns. Burn unit. Skin-regenerating potion.”

Delilah’s lips quivered.

“Won’t work on me,” Lily shrugged. “Cry away. You can’t have my firewhisky coffee.”

Delilah melted into pitiful sounding sobs. Lily leaned back in the chair and watched her as she sipped her coffee.

“Here,” she finally said, when the cries were beginning to give her a headache. She tossed her glasses case onto her niece’s lap. “Play with that. New toy.”

While Delilah attempted to shove the entire thing into her mouth, Lily finished off her coffee. Scorpius reappeared shortly after, a set of clothes in hand.

“Best I could find,” Scorpius said. He dropped a T-shirt and pair of joggers onto the table beside Lily. “Albus is napping with the other three so I couldn’t light any candles…I think those should work okay, anyway.”

“It’ll work great,” Lily reassured him. “Thanks.”

Lily stepped into the living room, quickly stripped from her dress, and then tugged the borrowed clothes over her head. It was a definite improvement from her dress. She bent over and rolled the hems of the joggers up, so they wouldn’t trip her up. She did the same to the waistband a few times. When she was satisfied that she wouldn’t step on the hems and pull them off (resulting in her nieces and nephews getting a decent eyeful of their aunt), she reentered the kitchen. She fell down into the seat beside her brother-in-law. He was trying his hardest to feed Delilah some disgusting looking, mashed-up baby food, but she had her eyes on the bottle resting on the kitchen table, and clearly had no interest in his pureed vegetables. She kept clamping her lips shut as the spoon came near her, resulting in her face being smeared with peach-colored puree.

“So where were you?” Scorpius asked, his eyes still on Delilah. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. I was shagging Caden.” Lily spotted one of her gran’s biscuit containers on the counter. She summoned it over to her and popped the lip up eagerly. She munched on a slightly-stale ginger nut biscuit and ignored the quick, concerned look that Scorpius shot her in response to her blasé admittance.

“Are you two together again, then? I thought things went…I thought you ended things for good.”

Delilah was refusing to even look at Scorpius now, clearly fed up with having food smeared on her face. She was hiding her face into the side of the seat. Scorpius gave up.

“Okay, we tried,” he relented. He reached forward and pulled her from her seat. He cradled her in his lap and brought the bottle over towards her. She happily accepted that.

“We did,” Lily finally said. She didn’t want to talk much more about that, so she did what always gave her the peace she wanted: she was unapologetically blunt. “But what can I say; he’s got a gorgeous co—”

“The baby!” Scorpius gasped hurriedly, horrified. “Don’t talk like that around Delilah; what if she picks up on it and it becomes her first word or something?!”

“Unlikely; it’s not exactly an easy word for a baby to say,” Lily rolled her eyes. “But, all right. He’s got a gorgeous penis, then.”

Another great thing about Scorpius was that he could handle conversations like these, whereas her brothers-by-birth tended to lose their minds or at least go a bit purplish in the face. Scorpius hardly looked shocked after his initial concerns about profanity passed.

“I understand the draw of that, believe me, I do, but…well. Don’t you think sometimes it’s easier for both people just to…let things end? I mean, it’s got to be difficult to get over somebody if they’re…you know. On top of you.”

“Or if you’re on top of them,” Lily corrected. She was considering making another firewhisky coffee. Probably wouldn’t hurt anything.

“Yeah, sure,” Scorpius allowed. “Either way, both ways, one way on Monday and another on Tuesday—sure. But, you know, it still stands. That maybe doing that only makes things worse.”

Lily knew he was right, but she was afraid that if she admitted that, he’d ask her questions about how she felt, and she couldn’t answer those questions.

“Sex doesn’t make things worse. Have you ever felt worse after sex?” she scoffed. She made a quick amendment. “Well. Good sex doesn’t make things worse. And, as I’ve already explained, it is good.”

Scorpius looked unsure of what to say. Lily sensed that that uncertainty would lead to him asking questions about her sudden appearance in England or her burns or her hair. She rose to avoid that.

“Can I borrow some firewhisky?” she asked, as if she hadn’t already taken some.

“Hm? Oh, yeah, sure. That’s been sitting up there since our wedding, go for it.”

 She crossed back over to the coffee machine. As she made another cup, she could sense Scorpius considering his words carefully. There was a certain awkwardness in the air that Lily never liked.

“Lily?”

Lily did not look back at him. “Scorpius?”

“Are you okay?”

It was possibly the question she’d dreaded being asked the most. Lily felt the back of her eyes burn. For a brief second, she was back inside that burning building. For a second, she was there again, and that second was enough to cause her hands to shake. She spilt firewhisky all over the counter; hardly any made it into her mug. She felt her neck heat up in embarrassment.

“Sorry, clearly still hungover,” she lied. She quickly waved her wand and cast a nonverbal cleaning spell.

“That’s okay,” Scorpius said gently. She could feel his eyes on her. “You’re not, are you? It’s okay. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”

The squeezing pressure on her heart let up a bit.

“I don’t,” she said.

“Okay. If you do, you know where to find me. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Lily was taken aback by his sweetness. It didn’t matter how many times she was confronted with how genuinely good Scorpius was— she always had a brief moment of surprise each and every time. She wondered how somebody as fussy and moody as Albus had nabbed somebody as gentle and understanding as Scorpius, but she knew it was a good thing that they had. Like Lily’s mum always said, they balanced each other well.

Lily considered Scorpius’s question.

“I don’t suppose your dad’s got another illegal Time Turner stashed somewhere?” she asked. She’d meant for her voice to sound light and teasing, but it came out with a bit too much desperation and longing for her tastes.

“No,” Scorpius frowned. He kissed Delilah’s hair and shifted her over to pat her back. “Anything else I can do?”

Lily sighed. “No, I didn’t think he would. Can I use your bath?”

Scorpius smiled softly. “Sure. That I can do. I’ll go set a towel and flannel in there for you. Your soap from last visit is still there.”

“Thanks, Brother,” she said. It’d started as a teasing nickname after Albus’s proposal to Scorpius, but she’d realized that he actually really liked it, so she liked to pull it out in times like this (when she was really grateful for his presence in her life but wasn’t able to find the right words to say that). She felt the nickname had more power when she used it sparingly.

As she’d hoped, Scorpius gave a radiant beam in response.


 

Lily was afraid to look in the mirror. She set her borrowed clothes on an opened drawer and stared hard at the tap. She knew she needed to lift her eyes to the mirror and look at herself—she was only going to feel worse for longer if she didn’t—but she didn’t want to. It would’ve been nice to have stopped jumping every time she saw her own reflection, but to do that, she’d have to actually look at herself enough to get used to it, and she hated the way she looked now. She felt naked without her hair. She felt like she looked silly, young, and weak. And for the first time since she’d started her dream job, the burns really bothered her. Probably because these weren’t the sort of burns she was used to—small ones caused by the fire of rowdy adolescent dragons. These were ugly, expansive, and they were created from desperate, terrified fire. Lily knew realistically that there wasn’t any truth to that—the way a dragon felt when they breathed fire didn’t really impact the damage that the fire could do; fire was fire—but the pain of the burns from a terrified dragon had hurt much worse than any pain she’d ever felt from burns sustained while playing with happy, brutish ones.

It took a lot of mustered courage to lift her eyes to the mirror. She stared into her own eyes, afraid to let her vision span out, but there was no avoiding it. She eased up the focus of her eyes and took in her entire appearance: freckles, slightly chapped lips, bronze-rimmed glasses, inherited dimples waiting to show if only she’d smile. Red hair, chopped off above her shoulders, hanging foreign at her neck. She reached up and ran her right hand through her hair. She played with the part, her stomach clenching uneasily.

“Get over it,” she told herself. The roar of the running bath drowned out her words.

The new burns on the left side of her body and her upper back didn’t look as bad as she remembered them. In her mind, they were perpetually brand new. She could easily picture the burnt skin, the patches of missing flesh. The smell had been the worst part; the burns had been so severe that she couldn’t feel anything for a while, not until after the skin-regenerating potion had been applied (and that had been some of the worst pain she’d ever felt in her entire life; the new skin that formed over the left side of her waist, where some of her worst burns were, still hurt to the touch even now). So, considering how terrible it’d been, she was relieved to see that the scarring was minimal in comparison to how it could’ve been. Still a slightly angry pink, yes, but the tattoos she’d insisted on adding atop the tender, newly grown skin helped soften the harshness of the burns. The soft colors of the flowers and leaves made it all seem less severe than it actually was. She knew there was no way anybody could look at her and know what she’d been through. That had been her intention. Aster and Caden knew, of course, but that was because they were the ones who sat with her in hospital after the incident. They’d seen the true extent of her injuries. And Caden had seen the true extent of her pain. She felt embarrassed and frustrated with herself as she remembered crying into his shoulder. Worse: the words he’d given her when she felt most vulnerable (‘It’s okay. It’s not your fault. I love you’).

She ran from him and that was that.

Lily propped her ankles up on the edge of the tub, sank down until the bubbles were to her throat, and slowly drank her lukewarm firewhisky coffee. She scrubbed her burned skin gently and her unburned skin less gently. She was finally beginning to feel relaxed when the bathroom door swung open.

“Naked,” Lily warned.  

“A bubble bath?!” Finnigan cried. He was not dissuaded by Lily’s warning about being undressed. He bounced over excitedly, his face glowing with a happy smile. “I love bubble baths!”

“Don’t you even think about it,” Lily told him, as his little hands went to the hem of his shirt. “My bubble bath.”

His face fell. “But that’s a huge, huge tub! So many people can fit in there!”

“And right now, there’s one person in it, and that’s that. I don’t want to share a bath with a three-year-old.”

“Why not?! That is not sweet,” Finnigan said. He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. “When you find sweet Auntie Lulu, you can get out.”

It took Lily a moment. “Did you…did you just put me in time out?”

“You have to find sweet Auntie Lulu,” he persisted. He sat sternly on the bathtub step. Lily fell into laughter.

“Oh, damn, then I’m going to be in here for years,” Lily said.

Finnigan looked pointedly away from Lily. He could hold a grudge and sulk like no other child Lily had ever met. She admired that in him. She rolled her eyes in amusement and watched as he made himself comfortable on the bathtub stair. He pulled Lily’s folded towel off the edge and shook it out. He wrapped it around his shoulders like a cape. Lily’s amused look morphed to one of disbelief as he reached into his pajama pockets and pulled out an entire slice of Victoria sponge. He relaxed back against the tub wall and took a huge bite.

“What the hell, Finnigan?” Lily finally demanded.

He turned around to look at her, his eyes wide and ‘innocent’. “It’s mine.”

“Like hell it is. Where’d you get it?”

Finnigan ignored her question.

“Finnigan. Where’d you get it?”

“Can I get into the bath?”

“Nope. You still can’t get into the bath.”

“Can I stay in here until you get out?”

Lily considered that. “Sure,” she finally said. “But you have to tell me where you nicked the Victoria sponge.”

Finnigan turned around to face Lily. “They had a whole table for cakes and sweets.”

Lily furrowed her brow. “Albus and Scorpius do? Where?”

“No, Benny and Evvie’s party.”

It took Lily a moment. She sat up slightly, enough that her neck wasn’t awkwardly bent as she looked down at her nephew. “You stole that at the reception?”

“I put one in this pocket for me—” he patted his right side—“And one in this pocket for Padfoot,” he patted his left.

“So what happened to Padfoot’s?”

“I ate it last night by an accident.”

“By an accident. Likely story.” Lily considered her nephew as he munched away on his stolen cake. “Well, where’d you put that? You weren’t wearing those pajama bottoms at the wedding.”

“I had them in my pocket. I moved to this pocket,” he said simply, as if it were obvious. Lily snorted.

“See, this is precisely why you’re my favorite. You’ve got nerve.” She paused. “Can I have a bite?”

Finnigan smiled. “Okay!”

Lily leaned over towards the edge of the tub. Finnigan shoved the cake at her face with a bit more force than necessary. Lily got a tiny bite, but she mainly just got a face-full of cake.

“Yum. Except for the pocket fuzz. Eugh,” Lily said around her mouthful. She stuck her tongue out and pulled some fuzz off of it. She dunked her hand into the bath to get rid of it.

“Ewwww!” Finnigan giggled.

“Next time, ask me for a container for your stolen cake,” Lily grimaced.

“Clever thinking,” Finnigan said seriously. He nodded, and for a moment, he reminded Lily so much of James that she couldn’t help but lean over the edge of the tub and give Finnigan a soapy hug.

“You’re adorable,” she admitted. She slid back down into the water after brushing some bubbles from Finnigan’s shoulder.

“I know,” Finnigan said. He crammed the rest of his cake into his mouth, and before Lily could say a word, he dunked his cake-coated hands into her bath water.

“Finnigan! Eugh!” Lily cried, disgusted. Soggy bits of cake floated up to the surface of the water. Finnigan scooped up some bubbles, rubbed his hands together, dunked them again, and then beamed.

“All clean! Bye!”

As Finnigan scampered from the bathroom, it occurred to Lily that he’d probably only sat with her because he knew she’d let him eat his stolen cake. He hadn’t wanted to see her; he’d just used her as a guardian for his naughtiness. She smiled fondly to herself.

“Oh, Finnigan,” she said. She shook her head, amused. “God, I love that little brat.”

It wasn’t until he’d gone that she realized his presence had helped keep that empty feeling at bay, but as soon as she was alone again, it came back, weighing on her heavily enough to sink her down beneath the water.


 

Lily sat at the end of her guest bed and watched Henry and Finnigan wrestle on the rug. She had no idea what they were fighting over, but it must’ve been something good, because they were really giving it to each other.

“You should stop them,” Evra told her nervously. She’d been happily running a brush through Lily’s hair, but as Henry and Finnigan continued rough-housing, her happiness gave way to nervousness. The kid had definitely inherited James’s anxiety, and Lily decided it’d be up to her to fix that.

“Eh, they’re fine,” she dismissed. “You worry too much. They’re just playing.”

“But Mummy says it’s not playing if somebody can get killed.”

Lily rolled her eyes. Thankfully, Evra was kneeling behind her, so she missed it.

“You can get killed doing all sorts of stuff…going up the stairs…going down the stairs…apparating…eating…drinking water…using the Floo…” Lily realized too late that perhaps that wasn’t the best thing to tell an anxious child. Evra had stopped brushing Lily’s hair. Lily turned around and looked at her; she looked stricken.

“Really?!” she said.

“My point is that life always has risks! And they’re going to be okay.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“Can you see the future?” Evra pressed.

“No. I just know, okay? Are you done brushing my hair?”

“No,” Evra said quickly. “I want to still do it.”

“Okay,” Lily said. She watched Henry aim a kick at Finnigan’s back. Finnigan gave a furious roar, and a second later, about six books flew off the bookshelf along the far wall. Evra gasped. Lily quickly intercepted the flying books with a spell of her own.

“That’s why!” Evra told her. “Finnigan makes stuff happen when he’s excited! Daddy says he doesn’t have good control yet like I do!”

“Well, he’s just a strong wizard, isn’t he?” Lily said proudly. But Evra did have a point; had that been the bookshelf itself, it probably would’ve squashed both Finnigan and Henry. “Okay, boys. That’s enough.” They continued rolling around the carpet. “Boys!” she barked. They jumped and quickly fell still.

“Lulu, when will my daddy and mummy be home?” Evra asked, for the second time. Lily sighed.

“Soon, Evra. Why do you miss them so much?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because they’re my daddy and mummy.”

“But they’ll be back.”

“But I want them back now.”

“Just tell yourself ‘I don’t care’. And then you won’t care.”

“I do care, though, Lulu,” Evra said earnestly. “I care loads.”

“Well,” Lily said simply, “don’t.”

Evra was quiet. She continued dragging the brush through Lily’s hair.

“But I do,” Evra finally said. “I do care if they leave.”

“Don’t care,” Lily repeated. “Repeat after me: ‘I don’t care if Mummy and Daddy leave, because I know they’ll be back’.”

“But I care ‘cause I miss them…”

“But you don’t.”

“I do, Lulu!” Evra cried, sounding very close to tears. “You are not listening! I do care!”

Lily grimaced.  “Sorry, okay, I get it. You care. Noted.”

Evra sniffed. “Because I love them.”

I’ve really got to toughen this girl up, Lily thought. She was worried about her. She couldn’t see how she’d possibly be able to survive in this world with a heart as soft as the one she had. But then again, maybe Lily had created her own problems by hardening her own.

“What’s this bickering about?”

Lily looked up at the sound of her mum’s voice, mildly surprised. Her mum stepped into the doorway, Lily’s suitcase in hand. She barely had time to drop it to the carpet when all three of the Potter kids raced over towards her with intermingled shouts of: “Ginny!!” Ginny received them with a tight hug.

“Hello!” she laughed, as her grandchildren took turns kissing her face and squeezing her tightly.

“Alby’s making ‘pah-getti!” Finnigan said excitedly.

“I know, I saw! It smells like delicious ‘pah-getti’,” Ginny said. She looked over Evra’s head and met Lily’s eyes. They both pursed their lips again laughter. “Have you lot been keeping Lulu company?”

“I brushed her hair! No tangles!” Evra said.

“Wonderful!” Ginny praised. She kneeled down so she was level with the kids. She looked at them seriously. “Guess what?”

They all three leaned in conspiratorially.

“What?!” Finnigan asked, a wicked smile already cropping up.

Ginny lowered her voice. “Your Harry’s in there helping Alby cook. I told him I would keep you lot occupied until they’re done, but I think we should surprise him. What do you think?”

“Like a sneak attack?!” Finnigan exclaimed. “Yes!!”

Evra was all smiles. “My Harry!! I drew him three pictures today!”

“Three?! He’ll be so thrilled; it’s been an entire day since he’s gotten one from you, and he’s already been complaining that his office has way too much blank wall space, like a couple centimeters of it!”

Evra missed Ginny’s gentle, well-intentioned sarcasm. She bounced happily on her toes. “I’ll get them right now!”

“Where are they?”

“Albus and Scorpius’s room!”

“How about we retrieve them on our way to surprise your grandad?”

“I love that idea!” Evra beamed. Lily briefly wondered how often Evra’s parents praised or encouraged her on a daily basis—she often spoke like she was parroting a never-ending list of compliments, as if she heard praises for everything from brushing her teeth in the morning to walking up the stairs at night. Lily fully blamed Nora and James for Evra’s emotional fragility. Being doted on all the time might make her feel secure and loved and confident—but it would make it much harder once Evra realized that everybody was not as sweet and understanding as her parents were.

“Okay, here’s our plan,” Ginny whispered. “You lot will get Evra’s drawings, tip-toe—quiet as doxy eggs—to the kitchen, and then give your Harry a massive hug! He had a bad day, so give him loads of extra kisses, okay?”

“A bad day?! What happened?” Evra asked, stricken.

“Did he not get a toy he wanted?” Finnigan asked.

“No,” Ginny said, lifting her voice just slightly. “His youngest child came all the way back from New Zealand—which is very far away!—after she’s been gone for months—since Delilah was born!—and she didn’t even tell her parents she was coming or stop by to see them! She disappeared into the night – poof! That was it.”

Oh, come on, Mum, Lily thought. You’ll have to do better than that if you want to guilt-trip me. Lily rolled her eyes and leaned over the bed towards her cosmetics bag. She pulled out a bottle of red nail polish and calmly unscrewed the lid.

“That’s so sad,” Evra whispered. “Poor Harry!”

“Yes, poor Harry!” Ginny agreed. “Remember: loads of kisses! Off you pop, go on!”

Evra, Finnigan, and Henry took off in a run, giggles echoing after them. Lily refused to look up. She continued painting her toenails.

“A bit theatrical, Mum,” she finally said.

“That’ll be ten galleons for your ticket.”

“You’re a riot,” Lily said.

“I’m an uprising,” Ginny corrected. “Or a rampage. Or anarchy itself. Get it right.”

Lily felt the bed move as Ginny plopped down on the edge. Lily moved onto her next toenail.

“Where were you last night?”

Lily ducked her head forward slightly, in the hopes that her hair would veil her face, but she’d forgotten for a moment that it’d been burnt off. She didn’t feel covered at all.

“Shagging Caden,” she finally responded. She would have to use her attitude to protect her now. Her hair was not an option.

“Yeah?” her mum asked lightly. She was clearly making a point to show Lily she wasn’t falling for her tricks. “Let’s chat about it. Give me all your details.”

She knew Lily didn’t want to give her any details. Lily hated the fact that she still couldn’t pull anything over on her mum. She had two options: giving in and letting her mum steer the conversation to Lily’s injuries (which would likely lead to an emotional breakdown on Lily’s part), or refusing to allow her mum to call her on her bluff in the hopes that her mum would back down first. And, well. Lily would take a difficult challenge over emotional confrontation any day.

“Hmm,” Lily considered. She moved on to her right foot. “It’s difficult to even know where to start. He’s a great shag, so…there are plenty of details.”

Lily did not want to have this conversation with her mum.

Her mum did not want to have it with her.

And yet—Ginny obviously didn’t want to be the one to back down, either.

“If he’s that great of a shag, you shouldn’t have a difficult time coming up with something to share,” her mum said.

Lily scrambled to find the most explicit thing she was willing to admit to. She just needed something brash enough to get her mum to back down.

“We had sex in the public stairwell of his flat building,” she said. It wasn’t really true—they’d made it back to his flat, even if for a moment Lily had been certain they wouldn’t. But her mum didn’t have to know that.

Her mum arched an eyebrow. “Yeah? Been there. Done that. Two times.”

Lily wrinkled her nose. Eugh. She’s probably just saying that.

“We…” Lily trailed off. She looked up to the ceiling as she replayed that night. Of all the memories she had, the most intimate ones she could recall (the last ones she’d ever tell her mum) centered around much more than just sex. Lily would’ve offered up vivid details about their countertop activities well before she told her mum about the thousand chills that erupted over her body whenever Caden locked eyes with her mid-shag…

“We…did it atop the washer in the kitchen while it was on.” Half-true, but close enough.

Her mum yawned. “Lulu, this tactic might work on your brothers and your dads, but it’s not going to work on me. What’s going on with you? And what happened to you?”

Before Lily could do much of anything, her mum reached over and pulled the collar of her borrowed shirt down to expose her left shoulder. Lily batted her mum’s hands away, annoyed.

“Dragons happened, Mum. Burns aren’t exactly unheard of for me.” She pushed her arms out towards her mum, showcasing all the other ones.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid. Those burns are different. What’s happened to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Lily. This is not a joke.”

“Do you see me laughing?”

Her mum narrowed her eyes. Lily looked away and crossed her arms over her chest. She was beginning to feel close to tears. She wasn’t going to evade this conversation without admitting how hurt she was—the question now was just how much she’d have to admit to.

“I really…can’t talk about it,” Lily managed. Her voice broke. She avoided her mum’s eyes. “It was…really bad, and I don’t want to think about it. I—please don’t do that!”

Her mum had reached over and settled a comforting hand on Lily’s knee. She cringed away from her, her throat narrowing dangerously. She didn’t have to risk a look at her mum to know she was confused and shocked by Lily’s response. Her mum withdrew her hand like Lily had smacked it.

“Lulu,” she said softly, wounded.

“I just can’t, Mum, okay? Not right now. I don’t…I don’t want to be comforted, I just want to be left alone.”

Her mum didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“Can you at least promise me that you’re okay? Or that you’re going to be okay?”

“Yeah,” Lily said, but her voice sounded empty. “I’ll be fine, Mum. I just need some time.”

She’d thought that she didn’t want comforting, but as soon as her mum left her alone, she broke down into tears for the first time since the night of the incident. But this time, she didn’t have her steadfast boyfriend at her side. She didn’t have anybody. And she realized it, then. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be comforted. It was that she did—and she no longer felt like she deserved it.


 

Lily was avoiding her dad.

She purposefully sat at the opposite end of the table, and beyond a quick greeting hug, she was mindful to keep distance between them. She was realistic enough to realize that if she gave him a chance to ask her if she was okay that she’d immediately break down and tell him everything, so she couldn’t give him the opportunity to. She knew her aloofness was probably hurting him, but she didn’t know what else to do. She felt cornered by her family’s suffocating concern.

Lily was quiet for the majority of dinner. She enjoyed listening to Finnigan’s animated commentary on his ‘pah-getti’ that went on for ages. And when Delilah woke, Lily was the first to rise. She took a bottle from Scorpius and retreated to the back of the flat, where she fed Delilah listlessly and struggled not to think about all the things she was avoiding. That was precisely where she was when her dad found her.

“No,” she greeted warily.

Her dad stopped in the doorway. Hurt washed over his features fleetingly before he seemed to gain control over his expression. It morphed into something more neutral as he squared his shoulders and walked into the room anyway. He sat beside Lily on the sofa and reached for Delilah. Lily thought about denying him, but Delilah reached out towards him, too, so Lily had no choice but to pass her only distraction over to her dad. She took to picking at the polish on her fingernails.

“Pushing people away doesn’t make the pain go away. It makes it worse. I should know.”

She picked more aggressively at her fingernail polish. Tiny flakes of red snowed down onto her thighs.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you told somebody what happened? Would you be in legal trouble?”

Lily’s thumbnail slipped and dug painfully into her cuticle. Blood bloomed at the wound. She lifted her finger up and sucked over the slice, hoping to stop the bleeding and the pain. She felt bad for James momentarily; nearly all his fingers looked like this at any given moment.

“Lulu?” her dad pressed.

Lily dropped her finger from her mouth. She watched the blood bead up again within seconds.

“I’ll cry,” she finally admitted, her voice dangerously thick.

“What’s so bad about that?”

“I don’t want to cry.”

“Why? Everybody cries. I cry. Your mum cries. Your brothers cry.” Harry rotated Delilah and held her up, so she was facing Lily. He kissed the crown of her head. “Delilah cries.”

Delilah smiled at the sound of her name. When Harry turned her back around, she smiled even larger at the sight of his face. She was babbling as she reached a chubby hand up to bat at his glasses. He pulled them off and handed them over to Delilah without a second’s hesitation. She began gnawing on the right temple at once.

“Crying makes me feel worse,” Lily admitted. She looked back at her injured finger; the bead of blood had swelled so large that it began sliding down the side of her finger.

“Then you haven’t cried enough. You’ve got to get all the tears out.”

Lily thought that sounded like a load of soppy rubbish. Her dad had been spending way too much time with James and his family.

“You know what makes me feel better? Getting on with life. Not having conversations about it.”

“Don’t get short with me, Lu. I’m just worried about you.”

Her anger erupted, hot and senseless.

“I am sick of hearing that! If you lot were more concerned with me and less about yourselves, you’d respect the fact that I don’t want to talk about it and you’d leave me alone! I don’t want to be comforted,  and I don’t need my daddy to hug me like I’m five years old! I don’t need it and I don’t deserve it and it makes me feel worse when I’ve got it. So leave me alone, please.”

She jumped to her feet. Her dad’s hand shot out and gently closed around her injured hand. Lily could’ve easily pulled from his grasp, but she felt stuck in place. Breathing was becoming difficult. Her eyes were uncomfortably hot, her cheeks were burning, her throat felt tight. She tried to swallow past the lump in her throat, but that only made it worse. She was choking with sorrow and she only had one option left: crying.

With tears obscuring her vision and a painfully empty feeling in her chest, Lily looked down at her dad. His eyes seemed softer without his glasses in front of them. She pursed her shaking lips. He gently squeezed her hand. She felt her heart break (again).

“It’s my fault,” she said.

“What’s your fault?” he asked softly. Delilah had stopped babbling. With Harry’s glasses still in her mouth, she stared wide-eyed at Lily, clearly entranced by Lily’s outburst. Lily was physically shaking from the effort of trying to withhold her sobs.

“They’re all dead,” Lily said. Her vision shook as her eyes filled completely with tears. She blinked rapidly. They spilled down her cheeks. “It’s my fault.”

She didn’t know if she sat back on the sofa or if her dad tugged her towards it. Either way, she ended up at her dad’s side, her face pressed into his arm as she cried. He reached up and cradled her head to his arm, his thumb brushing comfortingly against her damp cheek. The force of Lily’s sobs only seemed to grow minute by minute. She wept, and wept, and wept.

“Dad, does Delilah need—oh.”

Lily ordinarily would’ve felt mortified to have her brother spot her this way, but she was so wracked with pain that she couldn’t care about much of anything.

“Not now, Al,” Harry said. “Here—take Delilah out, will you?”

“Shall I get Mum?” Albus asked nervously.

Lily couldn’t feel a thing beyond pain, but she knew she wouldn’t want to repeat what had happened twice, so she nodded against her dad’s arm.

“Yeah, please,” Harry said.

Lily cried up until the point her mum entered, and then, once her mum’s arm was around her shoulders, she managed to inhale deeply enough to get some words out.

“I was doing the night shift with the new babies,” she began. She had to pause long enough to blow her nose on the tissue her mum offered her.

“Opal and Emerald’s babies? Or another dragon?” her mum asked.

Lily wiped at her eyes. “Opal’s,” she admitted. Her voice was so strained that it didn’t even sound like her.

“Okay. Then what?” her mum asked

“They’ve got to sleep inside the main sanctuary building because of the poachers…they aren’t allowed to roam freely at night because it’s difficult to keep an eye on them. The babies hate it…being in the building. That night…I fell asleep with them, with the babies,” she said. “I usually do nap with them for a bit, because it helps them settle down for the night, they’re very—” Lily stopped. She felt like her heart had turned inside out. “They were very playful,” she corrected. She coughed against the lump reforming in her throat.  She just needed to get this over with. She needed to get this over with and then she needed to run. “I woke up to the sound of loads of strangers’ voices. By the time I realized it was poachers, it was too late to do anything. I got the babies into a cupboard, thinking that I could stand outside of it and protect them with Emerald, but she just— you can’t really train a dragon, I knew that, but Emerald mostly listened to me and trusted my judgement, but when all the poachers burst in and started firing off spells she lost it, she started breathing fire everywhere, it caught the poachers, the building, me—I was mainly concerned with getting the poachers. I didn’t even think about what Emerald was doing. I put out my clothes and chased after the surviving poachers, and I caught them, but at that point I was going into shock from my burns…I tied the poachers up and went back to the shelter, but when I got there—”

Lily could hardly inhale fully with the weight of her sadness.

“Emerald had freaked out. She was charging around, stamping about…” Lily trailed off. In her mind’s eye, she saw the worst thing she’d ever seen in her entire life: Emerald’s massive, pearly body crumpled down beside the bloody corpses of her babies, smoke and moans unfurling from her mouth. Lily heard herself make a strange, pained sound. “She trampled them to death. The babies. I couldn’t do anything. I tried everything. I held them and I tried every spell and I tried everything but they were all gone. All of Opal’s babies. In such a horrible way…they must’ve been so scared; it must’ve hurt so much. And it was my fault. I helped hatch them and now they’re just— gone.”

Her grief was exhausting. She found, after a certain point, she didn’t even have the energy to cry anymore.

“Lulu,” her mum said softly, her words soaked with pain, but she didn’t continue after that. Really—what was there to say?

Her dad seemed to realize that, too, because he didn’t try to say anything. He pulled her into a silent hug.

“It wasn’t your fault,” her mum finally whispered. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Lily. But I promise it wasn’t your fault.”

But how could it not be when Lily could imagine at least five different scenarios where her own actions could have saved the babies’ lives?

If she wasn’t the one responsible, why did the tragic outcome hinge on the actions and decisions that she had made?

She felt weaker than she’d ever felt in her entire life.


 

She’d wanted to flee the scene after her meltdown, but she didn’t have the energy to do much but curl up beneath the covers, and anyway, she wasn’t sure where she’d even go. She couldn’t go to Caden (no matter how much she wanted to)—she’d burnt that bridge as painfully as she’d been burnt.  She couldn’t go to Aster—she was cross with her over Lily’s situation with Caden, and while Aster would always accept her with open arms despite her annoyance, Lily didn’t want to be treated to a lecture about how she’d mistreated Caden. She couldn’t go to Hugo for that same reason. So she lay quietly for an uncertain amount of time, her mind flipping through a series of guilt-wracked memories. The babies. Emerald. She wanted to Floo her colleagues to ask how Emerald was doing, but she felt unable to face them, too. They’d all encouraged her to take a long holiday break once she’d been released from hospital. Her Uncle Charlie had arrived (after a mutual dragonologist friend had informed him of what happened) and had practically forced her to pack her belongings up and return home. “These things happen sometimes,” he’d told her, his burn-riddled hand resting lightly on the newly-formed skin of her shoulder. “Some people say it hurts the most the first time, but I think it hurts the same every time. You just have to take time, and when you’re ready, come back. You can always do more good, no matter how much bad has happened.”

For once, she wasn’t sure if she believed him. But she wasn’t in a very good place.

“ALL RIGHT…READY OR NOT, HERE I COME!” Scorpius’s voice drifted throughout the flat as he played with the kids. Lily thought about getting up to join him, but she wasn’t sure she had the energy. In the end, it didn’t matter; she heard the bedroom door creak open as one of them came to her anyway. She listened to a few light footsteps. She winced as Finnigan lifted the duvet up, sending bright light into Lily’s makeshift cave. Henry peered past his brother, his eyes wide with curiosity.

“What?” she asked them.

Finnigan hoisted himself up onto the mattress and wiggled his way beneath the covers. Henry quickly struggled to follow suit, but he couldn’t get up onto the bed without help. Finnigan grabbed his arms and tugged him up. Once the covers were back over all three of their heads, a silence settled over them. They observed Lily. She looked at them. She was very aware of her puffy face and red eyes.

“Let’s see…are Finnigan and Henry in here?!” Scorpius’s voice elevated with discovery as he opened the door to another room. Lily listened to the sound of him rummaging about, and then, “No…not here…Finnigan! Henry! Come out, come out wherever you are! We’ve got to find your sister; she’s really good at this game!”

The kids’ staring was getting annoying, but at least they weren’t asking her if she was okay. At the end of Finnigan’s long observation of his aunt, he reached down into his pocket and withdrew three crumbled biscuits. Lily watched him shift over onto his side, so he was completely facing Lily, his head on the same pillow as her. And then, with his eyes still on hers, he slowly pushed the biscuits over to her one-by-one. A peace offering.

“You can hide here. You don’t have to give me your biscuits,” Lily whispered.

Finnigan glanced down at them. He slowly reached forward and stole one back, leaving two for Lily.

“You can have those,” he stage-whispered.

“Shh,” Lily warned. “He’ll hear you.”

“I’m whispering,” he said, in pretty much his normal voice.

“No…you’re really not.”

Henry had stretched out on his tummy horizontally, so his feet were facing the end of the bed and his face was facing them. He rested his chin on Finnigan’s ribs.

“You sad,” he said.

Lily sighed. “Yes. Good eye, Henry.”

“You cry.”

“Mmm. Yep. But if you tell anybody, I’ll…stop bringing you stuffed dragons.”

Henry—who collected every stuffed dragon Lily brought—understood the bit about stuffed dragons, but missed the full context of what she was saying. He perked up.

“A dway-gon?! Mine? Where?!”

“No, I meant—oh, never mind,” Lily sighed. She loved her nieces and her nephews, but kids really were a bit stupid.

They listened as Scorpius traveled around the flat, searching in what sounded like every place but Lily’s room. Finnigan snuggled up to Lily, his face pressing into her chest and his arm going around her waist. Henry, in turn, moved to cuddle up to Finnigan’s back. Lily patted their heads.

“Can I stay here with you, Lulu?” Finnigan asked.

It was terribly sweet. And surprising. Lily wasn’t sure what to say.

“You’re going to Dean and Seamus’s house tonight, Finnigan. You don’t want to miss that, do you?”

Finnigan thought hard before he answered. “I see them on every Sunday.”

“On every Sunday?” Lily repeated, amused.

“Yes. But I only see you….maybe four times.”

It was actually probably a little less than that since she’d moved to New Zealand, but Lily didn’t correct him. She felt the pain in her chest ease up a bit. She combed her fingers through Finnigan’s curls.

“I think you might be sad if you stay here while Evra and Henry and Delilah go. They might get special treats or presents.”

She was sure that the word ‘presents’ would win him over, but he shrugged his tiny shoulders.

“I don’t care,” he told her. “I want to play with you.”

And she really hadn’t felt up to doing much more than lying in the bed, but she wondered now if making somebody else happy might make her feel even a tiny bit better. She propped up on her elbows and looked down at her nephews.

“Get ready to run,” she told them.

They sat up at once, excited smiles cropping up.

“What??”

“SCORPIUS,” Lily shouted, fighting her way from the covers. “I’VE GOT TWO MONSTERS IN MY ROOM!”

Mad giggles spilling from their lips, the two boys scampered from the bed and took off running through the flat.

“Got you!” Scorpius cried, and then: “Oh, no! Finnigan’s still on the loose!”

“I’ll get him!” Lily yelled back.

“He’s on his way to—Finnigan, stay out of my bedroom, Uncle Alby’s in there doing work—where did you go? Finnigan?”

It took Lily and Scorpius a lot longer than she’d anticipated to find Finnigan (who’d crammed himself inside a pillow case) and Evra (who had shown a really impressive amount of nerve by belly-crawling her way to the very back of the narrowest shelf at the top of Albus and Scorpius’s wardrobe—she actually got stuck as they tried to pull her out, resulting in Albus having to take the shelf apart). Things were so hectic that Lily didn’t have time to think about all the bad things that had happened, but once Dean and Seamus arrived to collect their grandkids, Lily was once again left to her own devices.


 

Albus had almost certainly just fucked his husband. Even if she hadn’t just been treated to some very suspect sounds, Lily would’ve been able to tell from the moment he stepped into the doorway. His hair was still slightly tangled, even though it looked as if he’d hastily run a brush through it, and his freckles were more pronounced than usual as the flush across his cheeks highlighted them. His lips were much more chapped than they’d been the hour prior. It only made Lily more annoyed.  

“What now?” Lily snapped.

He was still carrying around that same stack of parchment he’d been carrying around all day, but it didn’t look like he was getting much done. Lily didn’t really want to talk to him. She’d tried to sit in the living room with him and Scorpius right after their nieces and nephews left, but after ten minutes of the couple sharing periodic kisses and increasingly lingering touches, she had to leave. It was making her heartsick.

“What’d I do to you?” Albus scoffed. “You’re in a mood.”

“I’m—not—in—a—mood,” Lily bit, each word uttered slowly from behind clenched teeth.

“Really? ‘Cause it really seems like you are. Do you have a problem? By all means—speak up; Merlin knows you’ve never been shy before.”

“Yeah, okay, I’ve got a problem,” Lily said, her anger quickly beating her sense into submission. “Next time you and Scorpius want to shag when you’ve got company, you should first make sure one of you can actually cast a decent Silencing spell, so the rest of us don’t have to listen to you two moan and groan.”

Albus’s ears went a bit red, but other than that, he refused to allow his expression to shift. Lily knew one of them needed to back down now—they could have some truly vicious fights if both of them got angry and nobody was there to intervene. Right now, she was feeling self-destructive enough to hope they would duel.

“Yeah?” Albus challenged. He observed her, his green eyes turning cold. “Is this because you’re jealous?”

Lily’s jaw clenched. She slowly sat up in the bed. “Jealous? Of you? I get plenty of sex, Albus, with whoever I want. I don’t need to envy your domestic little setup.”

“I wasn’t talking about the sex.”

Lily had to work hard to keep her face from broadcasting that he’d hit a sore spot. Still, despite her best efforts, he seemed to catch on.

“I’m talking about the fact that I’ve got somebody who loves me, good days and bad days. And you’ve got no self-control, so I’m sure you do have sex with loads of people. Sex without substance, anyway. At least I haven’t run off the only man who’s likely to genuinely fall in love with me—”

“Shut your mouth,” she warned.

“Oh—tender spot?” He had the nerve to smile. Lily’s hand slowly inched across the sheets towards her wand.

“You can stand there and grin, and yeah, you’ve got a lovely husband and you love each other very much—but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got no damn ambition and no genuine talent,” Lily shot back. She knew it was his weakest spot. “You became an Auror because it’s what Dad did and you had no idea what else to do. And you’re miserable because you’re bad at it. It’s got nothing to do with your sodding boss.”

“You call what you do ambition? I call it weak and pathetic. You ran off to be with dragons because you don’t have the balls to be with people. I’m not an idiot; I see the way you run anytime you feel any sort of emotion at all and it was bound to bite you in your arse at some point or another.”

Lily moved the hand gripped around her wand into her lap, so she could withdraw it quickly. Albus’s hand had pushed into his pocket, the pocket Lily knew his wand was in. Her heart was pounding now. Her face was hot. There was pain there, yes, but her fury was much stronger. Her mind worked through every single sore spot she knew Albus had, and she settled on the one most likely to hurt him like he was hurting her.

“I’m not the one who’s got issues with personal relationships,” she snapped. “I’m Dad’s favorite. James is Mum’s. Where does that leave you?”

He withdrew his wand. Lily had moved to do the same in nearly the same exact millisecond.

“You’re such a selfish brat. You can lie through your teeth all you want, but I know Caden left you because he realized you weren’t worth the effort. You don’t care about anybody but yourself and you’re going to continue making stupid choices until you’re absolutely and completely alone. And you'll deserve it.”

“AND YOU’LL CONTINUE BEING THE MEDIOCRE POTTER CHILD!” Lily shouted. She could feel her pulse in her head now. “James is an Animagus and he runs his own department! I’m the youngest dragonologist to open her own sanctuary in history! I’ve got two conservation awards! And what do you do besides whine?”

“A hell of a lot more than you do,” Albus shot back. His face was beet red now. The knuckles on his wand hand were white from gripping so tightly. Lily braced herself; she knew he was going to lash out any moment now. “You say you’re such a brilliant dragonologist, but if that were true, why are you burned like that? I never see other dragonologists with burns that extensive. Uncle Charlie’s aren’t like that. You look like you’re some silly little girl who got thrown into a ring with dragons. Maybe because you are?”

Locomotor Wibbly!”

Protego!”

The spell rebounded off Albus’s shield and crashed back against the far wall, hitting a lamp and shattering it into pieces. Lily’s vision was blurring from behind angry tears.

Anteoculatia!”

“PROTEGO!” he countered again, furious.

Titillando!”

Stupefy!”

Lily flattened herself to the bed so his stunning spell flew over her head. A moment later, Scorpius came running into the bedroom.

“What is going on?! Al? Lily?”

Albus didn’t take his eyes off Lily. She didn’t take hers off him, either. They were both readying to shoot off another hex when Scorpius threw himself between them, his arms outstretched and his face paling.

Stop!” he bellowed. It was the angriest Lily had ever heard Scorpius sound. The foreignness of it made her pause. “What are you two fighting about?! Albus—stop! Put your wand away!”

“But—”

“Put it away!”

Albus glowered at his husband, but after a long moment, he reluctantly pushed his wand back into his pocket. Scorpius turned to look at Lily, his eyebrows raised.

“Lily.”

She pulled up her fingers one by one. Her wand fell from her sweaty palm onto the duvet. She and Albus glowered at each other, both red-faced and out of breath.

“Get out of my flat,” Albus told her, his voice icy.

“Albus,” Scorpius said incredulously. “What is going on?! What are you two fighting over?!”

Silence. Scorpius looked from Lily to Albus. Lily was too embarrassed to admit that she couldn’t remember what their initial annoyance had been over.

“Didn’t you hear me?! Get out! You’re not welcome!”

“Fine,” Lily spat. She flung the duvet off her. “Fuck you and fuck your flat.”

“Well, fuck you, too!” Albus said back.

Whoa,” Scorpius said. “Both of you just hold on a moment! This is ridiculous!”

“No! I want her out!”

“It’s my flat, too! And I want to know what’s going on!” Scorpius argued.

For a moment, Lily thought Albus was going to fight him on it. But after a long moment, Albus walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. Scorpius remained standing, his mouth set into a fine line.

“What happened?” he repeated slowly.

Lily didn’t want to repeat the things Albus had said because they were things she felt extremely vulnerable about. Albus was equally unwilling to repeat what Lily had said to him.

“We were arguing. She’s…mean, Scorpius.”

Albus clearly didn’t intend to sound like a sulky five-year-old, but that’s exactly what he sounded like. He even crossed his arms over his chest after he spoke.

“No,” Lily countered. “He’s mean!”

“So you were both mean to each other.”

“No! She was mean first!”

No! You were mean first!”

“Liar! You sodding liar!”

You’re a liar!”

“Stop it, both of you!”

Lily and Albus fell silent again.

“You’ve both got a habit of saying things you don’t really mean when you’re angry.”

“I do not—”

“Albus. Come on.”

Albus looked away.

“I think you two ought to hug and make up,” Scorpius continued.

Lily and Albus exchanged a disgusted look.

“Yeah, that’s likely,” Albus said, sarcasm dripping from his words.

“Only if you literally kill me and wrap my dead arms around his body,” Lily spat back.

Scorpius sighed.

“There’s really no need to be so nasty to each other,” Scorpius said. He sounded wounded. For the first time, Lily felt guilty. When she glanced at her brother, he looked guilty, too. “We’ve all got enough going on without purposefully hurting each other, too. What’s the point in that? Family should support each other; family shouldn’t make things worse.”

Lily looked down at her lap. She heard Albus sigh. She dug her next words out with significant effort.

“What I said about you being mediocre isn’t true…you’ve been through loads of stuff that most people wouldn’t have survived. And…you must be a decent enough Auror, because you deflected my spells rather well. And Mum and Dad switch favorites weekly, so what I said about that doesn’t really mean much.”

Albus didn’t say anything for a long moment. Scorpius nudged him pointedly.

“I…recognize that a lot of people like you. And I know that you care about them, too, even if you don’t always show it in the best way. And…I’m sorry for what I said about your skills as a dragonologist.”

“There, that wasn’t so bad,” Scorpius said. “Are you two done trying to kill each other?”

“For now,” Lily and Albus chorused. Despite her continued annoyance, Lily smiled. She caught Albus doing the same fleetingly.

“What did you need, anyway?” Lily wondered.

Albus looked reluctant to answer. Finally, he said: “I was going to see if you wanted to work with me on this report. It’s about the poaching.”

Lily’s stomach clenched. She was prisoner to a quick blur of terrible memories. She wanted to blurt “No!”, but she was already beginning to somewhat regret the things she’d said to him in the heat of the moment, so she knew helping him would probably be the better thing to do.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”

“All right,” he said, sounding just as reluctant as she did.

Scorpius looked relieved to find them working together again and not trying to turn each other’s legs into jelly.


 

Lily mixed firewhisky with pumpkin juice with the intention of only drinking a cup or so, but by the time they’d made it halfway through Albus’s report, she’d drank at least three and she was feeling wonderfully tipsy. She knew if she had even one more that she’d fall over the line into drunk, and right then, that seemed really appealing.

“I don’t understand how they’re able to kill dragons,” Albus admitted. He dragged a hand through his hair. “They’re killing so many and they can’t be easy to kill, can they? They’re massive, scaly things that breathe fire.”

Lily wished she was surprised at how utterly uninformed the Aurors were, but considering their reputation with the dragonologists, she was not.

“There are two main groups, you know,” she told Albus. “And that’s just in New Zealand. Every other area has their own groups, but we think they’re all sort of…regional branches from two main ones. They seem to follow the same patterns in every country.” When he furrowed his brow and bent back over the papers his boss had sent over, Lily sighed. She drained the rest of her glass and poured more in. “In New Zealand, there are the Brutes and the Infectors—” Albus thumbed quickly through his papers, his brow furrowed— “It wouldn’t be in there; these are just the names we use. ‘We’ being dragonologists. Blimey—can I see those papers? What do you lot know? It’s no wonder any and all Aurors, no matter what country they’re from, act like blundering idiots every time they try to assist…no offense.”

“None taken,” Albus scoffed. He pushed his papers over towards her, apparently unconcerned with the words CLASSIFIED printed up top. “I hate the Aurors that landed this assignment.”

Lily bent over the thick stack and scanned through them. It didn’t take much examination to realize they hardly knew anything.

“Okay, you might want to write down the things I’m about to tell you.”

Albus shook his head. “Leave it to Leonard to do such a shoddy job…I don’t know why he’s Young’s favorite.”

Scorpius passed Albus a roll of parchment, a quill, and an inkpot. Albus dipped his quill in and looked to Lily expectantly.

“Well?” he prompted.

She’d begun thinking about it again; she gave her head a shake and took another sip of her drink. Her head was beginning to spin every time she moved it quickly.

“So the first group was the Brutes. They attack in groups of twenty or thirty. They usually stun the dragon first—it’s not something somebody can do on their own, but if you’ve got many wizards, it’s possible. Then, to kill them, they aim for the eyes and the roof of the mouth while they’re unconscious…they attack viciously, using muggle weapons and curses—anything, really. Takes a while. Sometimes the dragons wake up mid-attack and have to be stunned again. But they have moderate success. I don’t think there are many of them nearby the Welsh reserve. You’ve got mostly Infector branches active here in the UK.”

Scorpius looked a bit green. “The dragons wake up while they’re being hacked at and cursed?”

Lily felt her stomach clench. She quickly drank more. “Yeah. Sometimes, they kill a good portion of the poachers in the process. Those are great days for us.”

She didn’t regret the coldness in her voice. She had always wanted the poachers’ heads. Now she wanted them more than ever.

“So what about these Infectors? The poachers here don’t seem to do much damage to the dragons. At least not according to Leonard’s notes.”

“No, they do their damage from the inside. They’ve been around for much less time than the Brutes, but they’ll be the ones who eventually run the entire game. You know dragon pox?”

Scorpius immediately pushed his hand into the air. “Oh, I know dragon pox!”

Lily laughed. Albus reached over and wrapped an arm around Scorpius.

“I think I was actually the only one who didn’t get it, right? You and James did,” Albus recounted.

Lily had a vague, fever-hazed memory of her mum waking her in the middle of the night in a panic and rushing her and James to St. Mungo’s, where they were subjected to a potion that tasted like mothballs. They’d spent at least three nights there. Lily remembered sneaking from the ward with James in the middle of the night to try and find Gilderoy Lockhart.

“Yeah,” Lily said. “I still wonder where we got it from…”

“I don’t,” Albus snorted. “You two always snuck around on James’s broom. You probably ended up having tea with sickly elderly people.”

She didn’t say anything, because they did just that quite often. James was friends with many old witches and wizards as a child, and Lily did anything that James did when she was little.

“Well,” Lily said. “There’s dragon pox that we know as dragon pox, and then there are a few mutations to dragon pox that we see exclusively in dragons: red pox and lime pox. Red pox is vaccinated against within the first few weeks of a dragon’s hatching, but lime pox was almost completely eradicated until recently. One of Uncle Charlie’s friends in Romania was the first to realize the poachers were responsible; they kept finding traces of lime pox in the carcasses of the poached dragons. So these Infectors are basically infecting the dragons with lime pox—typically by dropping objects covered in the lime pox nearby a dragon’s eggs or water source. It only takes contact with the object to spread. It messes with the dragon’s DNA in a way we still don’t know much about…they mostly seem to lose their minds and turn vegetative before dying. It causes mutations in the young if they happen to be born from a mother who had lime pox but managed to survive it. It’s responsible for many of the dragon deaths we report as poaching-caused.”

“That’s horrible,” Scorpius said.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this,” Albus agreed.

“It’s causing a lot of issues, especially within our communities. We’re all vaccinated against red pox from the moment we begin training, and regular dragon pox has a somewhat effective cure if you haven’t had it before, but we don’t know anything about lime pox or whether or not it’s zoonotic. We don’t even know what it would do to a human if they got it.”

Scorpius leaned in closer. “Is there somebody doing a study yet?”

“Not that I know of. We’re being overly cautious just in case…we cover our skin, use respirator spells, and immediately take a detox potion after touching unknown dragons or poaching victims. All our dragons are tested frequently, so we know they’re okay, but we don’t touch strange ones or the bodies. And as I’ve told you lot: you shouldn’t ever touch anything made from poached dragon scales, because it’s extremely likely that it hasn’t been properly decontaminated. The idiots in the Infectious Disease department within the Department of Mysteries labeled lime pox as a limited moderate threat, because according to them, you have to have prolonged contact with living dragons to even have a chance at getting it. I think that’s rubbish and I’ve told them as much in my letters. If the dragons can get it from objects, I don’t see why we couldn’t. They got rather cross with me…some prick wrote back and said something like ‘owl us again once you’ve had fifteen years of training and education in the area of Magical Infectious Diseases and we might take your concerns seriously’. Fucking idiots.” Lily went to take another sip of her pumpkin juice and firewhisky but found she’d finished it off already. 

Albus and Scorpius exchanged a stunned look.

“Lily,” Albus began. “We thought you were just being dramatic. I mean, we haven’t touched anything made from murdered dragons, but we didn’t think you were serious when you said it could kill us. We thought you meant you would kill us for it.”

“No,” Lily scoffed. “I was being serious. James and Nora took me seriously. They stopped going into many of the shops in Diagon Alley ages ago because they sell things made from poached hide.”

“I thought they were just being fiercely loyal to you and your profession,” Albus admitted. He dropped the quill down to the tabletop and massaged his fingers. “So what can we even do about this? Is there a cure for lime pox?”

“No. Nor a vaccine. Until one or both are created, our only option is to eliminate it through quarantine and hygiene practices…things that can only be achieved if poaching stops completely and we’re given control over our dragons and their health again.”

Scorpius shook his head. “It’s really sad. The things people will do to other creatures for money.”

“Yeah,” Lily agreed. A lump was forming in her throat. Her emotions felt too close to the surface thanks to all the alcohol.

“Have you seen any more of the poachers recently?” Albus asked.

The lump enlarged. For the first time, she felt like maybe she wanted to talk about it. But that was certainly the firewhisky talking. She was quiet for far too long; it was becoming awkward.

“Yeah,” she finally admitted.

Albus and Scorpius exchanged a look. The words fell out of her in a tangled rush.

“Some Brutes came when I was working the night shift. They had way less people than normal, so nobody heard them coming…they scared Opal’s mate. She…” Lily couldn’t say it. But she needed to say it. “All her babies died.”

“Oh no,” Scorpius said at once.

“What? Opal’s babies?” Albus asked, stunned.

Lily nodded. Her eyes were burning. “Yes.”

Albus appeared to be speechless. He kept parting his lips like he had something to say, but nothing ever came out.

Finally, he said: “I thought it might be something to do with Caden after today. The source to all your…moodiness. I never thought…sorry.”

She knew what he was really apologizing for.

“Me too,” she admitted.

“Is that when you got the burns?” Scorpius asked gently.

Lily nodded.

“Oh,” he said. He frowned.

“It sort of was, though,” Lily admitted. She couldn’t meet Albus’s gaze. She pulled her glasses down and rubbed over her own stinging eyes. “About Caden.”

“Did you two have a fight?” Scorpius asked.

“No. I wish.”

“Yeah, you two are used to those, aren’t you?” Albus said. His joke fell flat. Nobody laughed. There was a voice in the back of Lily’s head telling her to shut up, but she just felt so alone. And it was all hitting her hard all at once: how she’d let Opal down, the babies’ broken bodies, Emerald’s devastated mourning moans, the persistent ache she felt in her chest whenever she thought of Caden (and she always seemed to be, even if it was just at the back of her mind). How much she’d hurt him when all he’d been trying to do was help her. Why did she do that? Why did she push people so far away? She wanted to be the best so badly…sometimes she felt like people expected that of her. She was terrified to let them down. What if Caden woke up one morning and realized she had really just been Lulu all along?

Her thoughts weren’t making much sense. She didn’t want to cry again.

“I went into shock after my burns and my friends there contacted Aster and Caden, because they’d met them a few times. They both came to stay while I was getting better. And while they were there…when I was in hospital…Caden told me he loved me.”

Scorpius smiled. “For the first time?”

“That’s it? You’re fighting because he loves you?” Albus said, an eyebrow cocked.

She realized her hands were shaking. She tucked them beneath her thighs. She wanted to lower her face down into her arms, because her head was spinning, but she needed to say this.

“It made me feel…when he told me that, it made me feel so…vulnerable. Weak. I didn’t like it. I was already so upset. I’d had my hair burned off; my body was…so damaged I thought I’d never recover. And when he told me that…I thought about all the reasons he would change his mind. He only told me he loved me, but I already heard him tell me it’s over. I couldn’t…” She was getting frustrated because she couldn’t find the right words. She felt insanely exhausted. “I was already beginning to feel…I feel like I…”

She refused to say the words need or love.

“I want him and what if…”

She trailed off again. She sniffed and reached up to press over her burning eyes. Thankfully, the tears seemed to be staying put.

“What if, for once, you don’t get what you want,” Albus completed for her.

Had she been sober, she might’ve taken that as an insult and kicked him for it. But maybe he was right.

Scorpius reached over and briefly patted Lily’s hand. “Lily, everybody is afraid of getting hurt. Everybody is afraid sometimes to open their hearts up to somebody, because you never know what will happen, because nothing is guaranteed.”

“I don’t like being afraid. I don’t ‘do’ afraid. I don’t feel like me when I’m frightened, and how am I meant to go through life feeling like somebody else?” she asked.

“But what did you do? Just not say it back and he got angry?” Albus asked.

“No. I told him I never wanted to see him again and I asked him to leave.”

It grew eerily quiet. Lily lowered her face into her hands, weary and unable to stand her lightheadedness any longer.

“Oh, Lily,” Scorpius finally said, genuine pain and disappointment in his voice.

“That’s awful. That’s…cruel,” Albus said.

Her voice broke. “I know.”

“And then you…what? Apologized at the wedding? Got back together?”

“We shagged multiple times, went to sleep, and then I snuck out of his flat.”

“Oh, Merlin…”

“I’m surprised he would even look at you again, much less touch you,” Albus admitted 

“Thanks,” Lily muttered.

“What? It’s true. If somebody said that to me…” Albus trailed off.

 Scorpius had taken this very hard. He looked like he could physically feel the pain he was projecting onto Caden.

“But do you, Lily?”

“What?”

“Do you love him?”

She felt a shock run through her. “It’s not about that.”

“Er, sorry. How exactly is it ‘not about that?” Albus demanded. “It’s exactly about that.”

“I’ve got no interest in feeling weak.”

Albus stared at her in disgust. He shook his head, mumbled something Lily couldn’t hear, and lifted up his mug. He looked away from Lily as he took a sip, like he couldn’t bear to see her any longer. She thought that was probably it. She was rising to go back to bed when Scorpius spoke up.

“But being alone doesn’t make you feel strong. You wouldn’t know that, because you’ve never been alone.”

It was the closest thing to a scold she’d ever gotten from Scorpius. She could hear genuine disapproval in his tone. It surprised her enough to make her sink back down in her chair. He was looking at her with wide, pained eyes. Albus had turned his gaze to his husband and was watching him with rapt attention.

“Before I was with Albus, there were only three people in the entire world who genuinely loved me or cared about me. Or even cared to try to get to know me. My mum, my dad, and my best friend, Albus. And then Mum died and I only had two. It’s a strange feeling, to have so little people love you, to watch one of them die and realize just how small your support system really is…I realized then that the day could easily come when there’d be no one left who knew me or loved me—and then would I even exist anymore? And so I was terrified to tell your brother how I felt, because what if I lost him, too? But imagine if I hadn’t, Lily…imagine if I’d pushed him away for good. I wouldn’t have my family now. I wouldn’t be me right now. You have to gamble sometimes…you have to risk losing to win. I know you of all people understand that. I love how fearless and brave you’ve always been…don’t let go of that now, okay? Because I love you, you know. And I don’t want to see you disappear. If you push away everybody who ever loved you, I think you’ll probably do just that.”

Albus slid his chair closer to Scorpius’s. He leaned into his side and took his hand. Lily could feel her throat closing up. She looked away.

“It’s one thing if you really don’t love him, Lulu,” Albus said. It didn’t pass by her notice that he’d pulled her nickname out. It soothed her heart a bit. “That’s not your fault; you can’t help what you feel and it’s right to walk away if he loves you but you don’t love him. But if you do love him…” Albus trailed off, never the best with advice. When Lily looked back at him, he’d glanced to Scorpius for help.

“If you do love him, you need to make things right,” Scorpius completed. His tone was gentle again. “Lily, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

It was then that she realized she’d begun crying. She lifted a shaking hand and wiped at her face.

“I deserve to be upset,” she said. She thought about all her mistakes – especially her two recent ones, which had led to Opal’s babies dying and Caden’s broken heart. Did she even have the capacity to love or care for anyone or anything the way they deserved? “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I think I’m probably a horrible person.”

“No,” Scorpius said at once. He rose from the table and walked over. Lily flinched away from him at first, but he persisted and set an arm around her shoulders. She collapsed into his embrace. His hand gently stroked over her hair as she cried. “No, you’re not, Lily. I just think you’ve spent so long pretending to be tough and unattainably strong that you never really had a chance to sort out the issues that everybody has. I don’t think you meant to, but I think you’ve been running from them.”

Two hours and four drinks ago, she would’ve written that off as utter rubbish. But right then, with her face pressed into Scorpius’s shirt, she thought maybe he was right.

 “It’s okay,” Scorpius told her nicely. “You’re my family and I know I’m not going anywhere, no matter how badly you mess up. Albus, either. Right, Al?”

“…Unfortunately, no. I love you about as much as you annoy me…which is quite a lot.”

It was probably one the sweetest things Albus had ever told her. It only made her crying worse.

“You’re right,” she realized. She felt all her pain and love and longing burst from her heart and creep up her throat. “You’re right. I’m going to go talk to him.”

“What? Now?!” Albus said. “Lily, no.”

She sat back from Scorpius. “Yeah. Now. I’m going to make this right, like Scorpius said.”

“Lily, it’s late, you’ve been drinking...”

She had made her mind up. There would be no swaying her. She stood from the table. Each step felt a bit tilt-y, but other than that, she felt perfectly fine.

“Yep. I’m going,” she decided.

“It’s a bad idea; you should have this conversation when you’re sober.”

“Who said anything about having a conversation right now? I’ll be sober when we have a conversation…later.”

Lily!” Albus said, scandalized. “Using him again is not fixing things!”

“You need to talk to him first,” Scorpius agreed.

She wasn’t really listening. “Sure thing.”

She could hear Scorpius and Albus arguing over whether or not they should confiscate the Floo powder as she crossed over to the fireplace, but it didn’t matter anyway, because she quickly had it in hand. She saw her brothers’ dismayed expressions as she stepped into the fireplace, bits of Floo powder seeping from the gaps in her closed fist.

“DON’T SHAG HIM FIRST, LILY!” Albus shouted.

Not advice she’d ever expected from her brother. Lily shouted her intended location, threw the powder down, and…promptly regretted Flooing. She grew so nauseated that, by the time she fell out into Caden’s living room, she had to double over at the waist and pant through her nausea. Drinking and then Flooing. She never learned. This was certainly not the attractive way she hoped to arrive in his flat.

It took her a few moments, but once the wave of nausea and vertigo had passed, she straightened. She was initially relieved to find the living room empty (so her arrival had been missed), but that relief turned to worry. She waved her wand down herself to get rid of the soot and dust from the Floo as she crossed over to the clock on the mantel. It was nearing midnight. He was almost always in the living room at this time. Lily looked across at his desk—faced overlooking the street below—but the seat was vacant, and his paperwork strewn over the surface looked unperturbed from that morning.

“Caden?”  Lily called. She stuck her head through the kitchen doorway, but the candles hanging from the ceiling weren’t even lit. Lily was beginning to realize that he probably wasn’t home. Her heart plummeted with a force that made her feel sick again. “Are you home?”

She’d thought her mum and gran’s special clocks had been laughingly unnecessary her entire childhood, but standing there in the silent flat, her chest gaping with loneliness and worry, she realized she would’ve liked to have had her own.

She pulled anxiously at her hair as she turned to walk towards the back of the flat, but it wasn’t as therapeutic as it usually was. She couldn’t hide behind this hair. She couldn’t grip onto it in a way the way she needed to, the way that was embarrassingly reminiscent to the way Evra held onto Honey or Finnigan held onto his stuffed elk Jame.

Was he gone? With somebody else? Done with her? He had the right to be, she was able to recognize that, but even the thought made her want to scream, because all at once, she realized that’s not what she wanted at all. She’d thought her rampant jealousy at the wedding at the sight of him flirting with other women had just been a selfish possessiveness (the ‘Not me, but not anybody else, either’ sort), but she knew now that it was born from an unwillingness to be without him in general. Other women represented a threat to having him. In a strange way she was only able to half-articulate, him saying ‘I love you’ represented a threat, too, because once she fully recognized the extent to which they were together, she had to fully realize the extent to which she could lose him. And that fear was the weakness. And she’d tried to avoid that weakness by running, but upon realizing that she might not get what she wanted after all (him), she felt weaker than she’d felt before.

The small guest room was empty. She shut the door back and felt her heart begin to pound. She set her hand on the handle to the bedroom door. Either he was here, or he was gone, and she’d have to work up the courage to repeat her visit another day. For a moment, she considered leaving without checking, because she knew it would hurt to open it up to an empty room. But her nerve won out; she turned the handle and pushed the door open.

The candles were burning low—so low that the light was quivering and dim, and Lily had a difficult time making much out. She stepped inside the bedroom, and once her eyes had adjusted to the low light, she spotted a shape beneath the covers. Her first instinct was to smile.

“Caden,” she said, relieved. “Are you sleeping?”

There was a pause. Lily counted ten beats before he responded.

“Wouldn’t be now even if I had been,” he said. He didn’t sit up or even glance her way. “Your belongings are on the coffee table.”

It took her a moment to remember the coat and knickers she’d left at his flat this morning. Her heart began to feel weighty again.

“Oh,” she said. She took another step forward. She twisted her hair tightly around her fingers. “I forgot. I didn’t come for that. I came for you.”

Bluntness wasn’t serving her well in this conversation, but she wasn’t sure how to be any different.

He finally sat up. The duvet pooled at his waist. Lily couldn’t be positive, but she thought he might have been crying before she arrived; his eyes looked puffy and glassy. It made her stomach clench again.

“Do you have a bit of parchment?” he asked her.

She blinked. She was thrown for a moment. “What? No, I haven’t. Why?”

“Because I’m going to write down the addresses of some decent blokes who will fuck you when you get an itching, so you don’t feel the need to come here and upset me.”

For the first time since she’d met him at age thirteen, something he said made her flinch. This was not the same bantering she was used to. She could feel the anger and hurt rolling off of him. It made her feel even sicker. And for once, she had no desire to shoot something cutting back at him.

“That’s not what I meant. I’m not here to fuck you. Well, I mean, that’s not what I came here for. And last night…” she trailed off. What words would make this better? What would Scorpius tell her to say? She remembered his words in the kitchen that morning. “Last night made things…complicated for us and that wasn’t my intention.”

“Last night wasn’t your fault. It was mine for thinking anything would change come morning. Can you leave now?”

“I…no. No, I can’t. Because I want you.”

“I’m not fucking you, so unless you want to crash here and fuck yourself, you’re out of luck.”

“No—ugh!” she resisted the urge to stamp her foot. “I mean…I want you.”

He still wasn’t following. He still looked angry and hurt. Lily couldn’t crack the code—what did she need to say to make him realize that she regretted what she’d done—that she hadn’t meant it?

“Caden, I’m sorry,” she said. Her words were softer and weaker than she would’ve liked. Apologizing always felt like baring her open throat to waiting fangs. She took another tentative step forward. She perched carefully at the foot of the bed. “I’m really, really sorry.”

Silence stretched on. Caden had been examining the wall, his brow furrowed, but as the silence continued, he looked at her.

“If you think I’m apologizing too, you’re mad. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No,” she said quickly. “No, I just…I guess I don’t know what else to say. That’s how I feel. I’m sorry and I want you.”

“You’re still not getting it. I’m tired of doing all the emotional labor. I just can’t anymore, Lily.”

Lily resisted the urge to say: what the hell is emotional labor? She wanted to understand his words, but she felt asking that would be a very bad thing to do. She assumed it had something to do with him being the one to admit his love verbally.

“Can I at least explain why I said what I did?” Lily asked.

“No. Because there’s no explanation that will make me feel any less shit. Either you don’t love me and the fact that I love you is pathetic and revolting to you—” his voice broke in a terrible way. Lily feared tears would follow. “—or you do love me but you don’t want a relationship that’s about love, and that won’t work, either, because I can’t pretend that things are the way they were when we were stupid kids.”

She couldn’t find anything to say. That upset him more.

“Sometimes I have no idea why I love you. If I could turn it off, I would.”

If his intention had been to hurt her, he’d succeeded. But going by the way he looked visibly pained after the words left him, she didn’t think that had really been his intention at all. She pressed her lips together and blinked against her burning eyes. She looked away. She was scrambling around in her mind, picking through words carefully, stringing them around in experimental orders in search of the right combination.

“If you think you’re sick of me,” Lily began, “imagine how I feel. I can’t get away from me, either.”

When had that become such a bad thing?

“Yeah, well,” Caden said. He turned his face away. “It’s not so great being stuck with me, either.”

Her heart gave a little jump. “I think it’s great being stuck with you. In fact, if I had to choose one person to be stranded with on a, like…remote island with no other people and no ministries and no clothes shops, I’d definitely pick you. Definitely. Not even Aster. And that’s not only because I wouldn’t sleep with her. It’s just because…well. I think I might miss you the most.”  

This time, he was the one unsure what to say back.

“I know it sounds…really…” she stopped. She reordered her thoughts and continued after a short huff. “What I said—in hospital, I mean—that wasn’t really about you or what you said to me. That was about me.”

“Oh, here we go,” he said. His words would’ve been full of mocking humor, but the edge of tears still persisting wouldn’t allowed it. “Everything boils down to Lily Potter.”

“Well…yeah. And what I said was all about the fact that Lily Potter is probably actually a terrified little girl.”

He snorted. “I’d like that in writing.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “I could put it on that parchment filled with the names of the men you want me to fuck, if you’d like.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he mumbled.

Lily didn’t want to continue. She felt vulnerable enough already. She didn’t like conversations like these—conversations where she was forced to put her emotions into words. She much preferred teasingly punching people and hiding her affection within cheeky comments. But after all she’d put him through, she knew he deserved to have it put into actual words.

“The thing that happened with the babies…” she began.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Caden said quickly.

“No, I want to. I want you to understand. Failing them and costing them their lives…it made me feel like maybe mine wasn’t worth much. It made me feel…it makes me feel…really awful. And I’ve never felt worse than I felt that first night in hospital. I was in so much pain and I felt so—” Lily broke off. She looked away from his eyes as the emotion overwhelmed her. The utter despair she’d felt…she hoped she’d never feel it again, because she wasn’t sure she could live through it. “‘Worthless’ might be a good word. All I could think about, over and over again, was all the ways I’d messed up. And then you got there. And you—you got into bed and you held me and—” Don’t cry, don’t you dare cry, don’t fucking cry— “I remember thinking ‘everything is going to be okay’ and then you…well, you told me the thing that you told me, and suddenly it was like…I wanted to say it back. But then I thought about all the ways I could mess this up like I messed my job up. And I thought about what it’d be like to go through something like this again but not have you by my side and I…felt really out of control and scared and weak and…”

She didn’t miss him inching closer. She mirrored his action, desperate to touch him, desperate to bridge the gap between them.

“I didn’t act very Gryffindor-y,” she finished, her voice nasally and shaky, tears brimming close to the surface. “I promise I’ll do better this time. I’ll be more Gryffindor-y. I’ll be braver. Just…please. Please give me another chance. And if you tell somebody I begged you to take me back, I’ll lie through my teeth and I’ll swear it never happened, but Caden, if it has to end, at least know that I didn’t mean to hurt you and I’m so sorry.” She pulled the collar of Scorpius’s borrowed shirt up and mopped at her eyes. “I wanted to say it back. I really wanted to say it back.”

Up until the moment he reached forward and touched her leg, she thought he would tell her to go. And when she finally did feel his touch, for a second she didn’t believe it. He slid his hand up from her knee to her thigh. Lily looked up at him. The sight of the tears sparkling in his eyes made her want to run for a split second, but she only had to consider how much that would hurt him to make her swallow her discomfort. She could do this. She was capable of doing this. She could comfort him. She could still do some good.

It was like the moment she had the thought okay, now you can move closer, her body went all in. She slid over towards him, lifted his duvet, and slid her legs beneath it. She slid up into his lap. His cheeks were warm beneath her palms as she gripped his face. She brought her lips to his once, gently, and forced herself lean back afterwards. She looped her arms around his neck and held him. She scrambled for something to say to make him smile.

“At least we’re both still really hot,” she whispered. “We’ve always got that. You ought to appreciate that, too. I could have anybody I want and I want you.”

He leaned back and gently loosened her arms around his neck.

“Get out,” he told her, a smile audible in his words. He shoved her shoulder. She fell backwards off his lap and landed on the mattress in a tear-soaked, giggling heap.  “Go on; get out of here with that egotistical cheekiness.”

She propped herself up on her elbows. She spat out the strands of hair that’d fallen into her mouth. 

“Make me,” she grinned.

He leaned over her and observed her for a moment. His smile gradually died down, but his eyes only grew warmer, as if the affection from his smile were leeching upwards. She felt like squirming with joy as he leaned over her and kissed her.

“Nah,” he decided.

Chapter Text

Burning pain woke him at three that morning. He disentangled his limbs from Nora’s, stripped his clothes off, laid lightly on top of the duvet, and tried to drift back to sleep, but even the fabric folds beneath him hurt his sunburnt skin. Well, he supposed he had to learn his lesson somehow. One thing was for certain: he would not neglect the bottle of muggle sun cream ever again.

He wasn’t surprised to feel Nora’s hand settle on his hair (currently the only place he could still be touched without excruciating pain…the nude sunbathing on their stateroom’s private balcony had been a poor choice). She had almost certainly roused as he’d pulled away from her.

“Are you okay?” she murmured.

“I feel like I was slow-roasted over a fire.”

“Aww,” she cooed. He leaned into her feather-soft touch as she stroked his hair. “You look like it a bit, too.”

“Well that burns my feelings, Nora…” he whined. He opened his left eye and squinted towards her, a smile in place. Her eyes were still shut, but she was smiling, too. “We didn’t make love before bed and now I’m ugly...this is the worst day of my life…I just want to be seen as a virile, desirable man…why don’t you want me anymore?”

“Probably because I love you and you shrieked like you were being murdered when I sat on your lap earlier.”

“Yeah, it turns out you can get sunburned on your entire body.”

“Mmhmm,” she agreed. She yawned a moment later. The bed shifted slightly as she rolled over onto her side. “Do you want me to wake Evvie and Ben? I bet Evvie brought potion ingredients along. We could make something to fix your burn.”

“No, no,” he insisted. He grimaced a second later; as he’d gone to shake his head in protest, he’d made the burnt skin on his neck sear in pain at the movement. “We’re free of magic for the entire trip. That was the deal. A muggle cruise, a muggle lifestyle.”

“Yeah, right, but Jamie baby…even your bum’s burnt. I think there’s probably a Burnt Bum clause in that agreement.”

He peeked over at her again. “You think?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes; I just wrote it in. Come here.”

With some difficulty, he scooted over towards his wife. He met her lips and grinned into their soft kiss. He jumped a moment later as her hand accidentally landed on his hip.

“Oh—sorry, sorry, habit! I’ll get the potion; you stay here and…slow cook.”

He didn’t really want to leave her side, but he did want to feel better. He nodded.

“Tell Evvie I’ve learned my lesson about the muggle sun cream,” he requested.

“One look at you and I think she’ll understand that,” Nora assured him.

James propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at his naked body. His skin was alarmingly red.

“Eh, yeah, you’re right,” he agreed. He fell back down with a cry of pain and waited in misery for his potion.


 

“Good God,” Evvie greeted.

“I don’t say that when I see you naked,” James pouted. He had a small towel protecting his modesty, but it was still rather rude.

“You’ve never seen me naked. What happened? I’m paler than you for God’s sake.”

“He thought it was a bit…optional. The sun cream,” Nora explained.

“Mate,” Ben began. He stepped into the crowded cruise stateroom and ran a hand through his suspiciously-disheveled hair. “You look hot.”

Evvie and Nora exchanged an eye roll as James and Ben laughed.

Thank you, Ben; at least somebody appreciates my beauty,” James said.  He looked to Evvie and explained his predicament. “It just seemed unnecessary to reapply it so many times when I wasn’t even in the water much.”

She sighed. She opened a black leather bag. She and Nora began pulling travel-sized potion ingredients out.

“You know the words printed on the back of muggle products? It’s not just fun reading material. There are strict rules and regulations that dictate what goes on there. It’s important to read it and follow it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ben said. James grinned at him. He walked over and plopped down on the bed beside James. “Don’t scold him, you two, he looks miserable.”

“A state that could—and would—have been avoided had he followed my instructions regarding the muggle sun cream,” Evvie sniffed. “Nora, do you see the chamomile leaves?”

“Mm, yeah, right here,” she said. “It’s rather dark; I’ll get the lights.”

While Nora crossed over to turn on the muggle electricity lights, James reached over and grabbed Nora’s silk pillow. He pulled it over and wedged it beneath his head, so he was propped up more and could better make out his wife and friends. He smiled as light flooded the room. His heart expanded and warmed.

“You look beautiful,” he told Nora, his palms itching to touch her. She smiled a beautiful smile in response, one that only made James grin broader.

“James, she’s in a dressing gown,” Evvie told him, her eyes chained on the small, pewter cauldron.

“It’s her color,” James explained. “I love that dressing gown.”

“I think this might be your color,” Ben joked, pointing down at James’s burnt calf. “Next time, let’s cut little bits of paper and arrange them to spell out something on your skin before you get burnt.”

“Let’s not do that,” Nora quickly said. “I don’t want to have to explain to the kids why Daddy’s got ‘penis’ sunburnt onto his forehead…”

“I wouldn’t do ‘penis’,” Ben scoffed, with James nodding to back him up. “We’re not nerds, Nora. ‘Dick’ or ‘cock’ at the very least.”

“Oh, well, in that case, carry on,” Evvie said sarcastically. “I’m sure Nora and the little ones would love that. As long as ‘Daddy’s’ not a nerd.”

“Exactly,” James and Ben chorused. They smacked hands a moment later, something James quickly regretted. It appeared even his palm was sensitive.

“This looks pretty serious…looks like it might take a while,” Ben said solemnly, with another jab to James’s calf. “I mean, I suppose—if we had to—we could forget the plans for tomorrow and just spend our days in our staterooms…actually, you know, perhaps that would be kinder…you look like you’re in loads of pain, James…Ev, we should just spend the entire day in bed until James makes a full recovery—”

“Hush, you,” Nora said, her head bent over the cauldron. “You and Evvie can shag all day if you like, but James and I have plans, and they don’t involve him lying here suffering…this looks right, what do you think, Evvie?”

“I think so, yes. You ready, James?”

“Will it taste like rotten eggs?” James asked apprehensively. The last potion he’d taken had nearly made him sick from the taste.

“It goes on your skin, so no—shouldn’t taste like eggs.”

“Really? The one my mum gave me when I was little had to be swallowed.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure you weren’t ever this burned before, were you?” Evvie pointed out.

“Fair point,” James allowed. “Okay, I trust you.”

“Good choice. All right, so, you just need this applied onto all your burnt skin and you should be better within two hours.” She stood after passing the cauldron to Nora.  

“I’ve got you, mate,” Ben said at once, his hand reaching for the cauldron. He yanked it from Nora’s hands.

“Not you, Ben,” Nora and Evvie chorused.

“It might go quicker with two hands—three, even! Then we can go back to bed, Ev. Just get a handful and…” James jumped as Ben lobbed some potion at his thigh. It was colder than he’d anticipated. As Ben reached down to rub it in, James and Nora both shot a hand out and caught his hand.

“No,” Nora told Ben. She patted his hand gently. “No, you’re not rubbing his thigh. Thanks anyway, though.”

It rolled off Ben’s shoulders. He held the cauldron out to Evvie. “Get some, go on, let’s cover his body with it.”

“I am not rubbing potion onto James’s…” Evvie trailed off. “We’re not staying while he gets his potion applied, Ben. We’re going back to bed. No need to speed this up by violating your best friend. We were never staying.”

Ben pushed the cauldron back into Nora’s hands, hard enough that a bit sloshed over the rim and landed on her dressing gown. She sighed.

“Oh, well, in that case, good luck, James. Goodnight, you two,” Ben said, already on his way to the door. James saluted Evvie in thanks.

“Have fun in bed,” he told them.

Ben gave him a thumbs-up. “If you hear sounds of distress, we’re probably just fine.”

“Noted,” James grinned.

“Oh, God,” Evvie muttered. She walked through the door with an eye roll, Ben following after. James heard her giggle only a few seconds later, though, so he was certain she wasn’t nearly as exasperated as she let on. There was the echoing sound of a dull thump, almost certainly the couple falling against the corridor wall. Nora shut the stateroom door against their echoing laughter.

“Newlyweds,” James said affectionately.

“Yeah, they were definitely about to shag when I knocked. You should feel very loved that they stopped and came to your aid.”

“Aw,” James said. He rested a hand over his heart. “I love them.” He paused. “But not enough to let them rub potion onto my thigh. Thanks.”

“Of course,” she told him. She settled down beside him on the bed. “I consider it one of my jobs to keep other people from rubbing your thighs.”

“An important one,” he said seriously. He flopped his arms above his head and let his eyes fall shut. “Rub me up, love.”

It was—of course—entirely pleasant. His wife’s soft, nimble hands rubbing the cooling potion over his burnt skin. Relief flooded his body as the pain gradually ebbed away. James was so relaxed that he almost missed the loud banging sound against the wall between their stateroom and Ben and Evvie’s.

“Blimey,” James commented, as they heard a muffled sound of what certainly would’ve sounded like distress, had Ben not warned them ahead of time. “He wasn’t kidding.”

“They’re sweet,” Nora said, a smile audible in her words. “He keeps calling her ‘wife’, you hear that? I’m so happy for them.”

“I love the sound of love,” James smiled.

His smile sank quickly from his face as another muffled cry pierced the silence. But this time, they could make out exactly what their friend was moaning. James’s jaw dropped.

“Oh Merlin!” he exclaimed. He sat up against his better judgement. Bits of potion slid down his chest. “They’re…really doing that! Naughty!! Ben never told me how naughty they are!”

“Oh. Well. I—I suppose it’s still…sweet. Just a bit…rougher than…sweet usually is…” another cry assaulted their ears. Nora’s eyes widened. She pressed her fingers to her lips, visibly fighting back laughter. “They’re, er, definitely hair pullers. And…vocal. And…oh wow.”

“Okay,” James said, his mouth twisting in disgust. “I think we’ve learned enough about them. Is there a clause about using magic to save your innocence from your kinky, married friends?”

“Just wrote that one in,” Nora whispered back. She set the cauldron to the side. “I’ll get my wand.”

As soon as innocent silence had been reinstated, James felt much better. He supposed he wasn’t that surprised by his discovery; the Sevens had always joked that Evvie was probably secretly the kinkiest of them all with how restrained she seemed in everyday life. He just would’ve rather kept that as a joking assumption rather than a confirmed fact backed up with a traumatizing memory.

James lazily stroked his hand up and down Nora’s leg as she finished applying the potion to his blazing skin. He let it seep in and then rose to help clear up the potion mess. He and Nora settled back down atop of the duvet once they were done. He was already starting to feel better; he could hold her in his arms without any pain at all, and really, that was one of the best gifts of all. He pressed his face into her hair and pushed a hand inside her dressing gown, so he could stroke the skin of her back instead of just the cuddly fabric of her gown.

“I wonder why they like it,” Nora mused.

“What? Hair pulling?”

“Mmhmm. And the…other stuff.”

James felt his stomach clench nervously. “Why? Do you want to try it?”

“What? No, I dunno, I just don’t really get it.”

Nervous insecurity quickly ran rampant inside of his mind. He’d been certain that she thoroughly enjoyed their sex life (he certainly did, and he definitely had no desire to change anything about it), but what if she was getting bored of it (and him)? What if she wasn’t satisfied anymore and hadn’t told him and she really wanted a sex life where it sounded like one of them was being savaged? Could he do that? He doubted it. But, no, he could do anything for Nora…right?

“If you want to give it a go, I’d do that for you,” James told her (quite bravely, in his opinion).

“Hmm…I dunno…I mean, if you wanted to, I would do it for you…”

“And I would do it for you too, if you wanted to.”

“So you do want to?”

“What? Yes—well—if you want to.”

“Oh. Okay. Let’s give a go.”

“What?! Now?”

“Oh, are you still sunburnt? Well, we can wait,” she said quickly.

“No, I mean, if you really want to…”

“Just if you really want to…”

“Okay, yeah,” James said. He nodded once, firmly. “Yeah. Here we go. Kinky. Hair pulling. Sounds…exciting.”

Snogging her—he could do that. Pressing her into the mattress—he could definitely do that. Opening her dressing gown and taking a moment to ardently admire her body—he loved doing that. But as the snogging got a bit more intense, and he felt his mind slipping away, he was becoming less and less confident about the other bit. It was already feeling pretty great the way it always had. But if she wanted to try it…well, her enjoyment was always the most important thing to James, and he’d do anything for her…and maybe she was right; everybody always said that sex eventually got boring, and he’d never, ever felt that yet, so maybe she’d been the one to feel that but just hadn’t told him…

He sought every ounce of his courage, and with his lips to her neck, reached a slightly shaky hand up and tugged once at her hair. Her shoulders went up in a little flinch. He felt like somebody had just sprayed him down with ice water. His heart sank to his toes. He pulled back from her, a horrible feeling invading his chest, his arousal quickly disappearing without a trace. She was rubbing over her scalp, her nose wrinkled.

“Oh, no,” James said. He felt his eyes burn. “No, I didn’t like that. I don’t like that all. I feel very unhappy about that. Are you okay? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I’m fine,” she reassured him. She rubbed his hip soothingly. “Just didn’t really do much for me. And I was too busy worrying about having to pull your hair back to feel much of anything.”

James rolled off of her. He collapsed back against the mattress, relieved.

“Oh, thank Merlin, I felt the same way,” he sighed. He rolled over onto his side and leaned over. He pressed his lips to her hair. “I just don’t want to hurt you, you know? That doesn’t get me off.”

“No, nor me,” she said, with an equally relieved sigh. “If you really wanted it, I was willing to try, but I’ve no interest in that.”

James laughed. “No! I love the way things are. I love making love to you. I was worried you wanted to try it that way.”

“No, trust me; I’m more than content with the way things are,” she told him, and the twinkle in her dark eyes told James she really meant what she said. That twinkle paired with her soft, beautiful smile quickly got warmth flooding back through his body. He gathered her close again.

“I love you,” he whispered, his lips brushing her neck with each word. He kissed beneath her ear and nuzzled his cheek against the side of her neck. She squirmed closer, her leg going over his hip, her fingers burying into his hair. As he kissed his way down her neck, he felt a familiar intermingling of arousal and love; he wanted to worship her and touch her and make her happy and—Merlin, he almost loved touching her more than he liked being touched himself.

“Yeah, it’s more than all right like this,” she said, breathless and beautiful.

His life was more than all right the way it was.

In fact, most days, he was convinced there was nobody in the world that was happier than he was.


 

That morning, Ben and Evvie might’ve been almost as happy as James.

“Morning,” Ben greeted, a broad grin in place. He and Evvie were already in their swimsuits, sunglasses resting atop their hair in wait for the sun. “Ready for some more sunshine?”

“Not really,” James and Nora chorused.

“What?! Why not?! Don’t tell me you’re going to let your sunburn adventure get you down!” Ben said. He shifted the massive beach bag hanging off his left arm just enough for him to cross his arms sternly. “Evvie’s reserved four lounge chairs for the four of us all day long in the solarium, right beside a bar and a massive hot tub!” 

“Oh, Evvie, you should have told us last night,” Nora said, a frown in place. “James and I planned to have breakfast and then go to the shops to buy the kids a gift. And then they’re doing an ice show with an hour of recreational skating afterwards! I’ve always wanted to see an ice show and Jamie’s always wanted to ice skate.”

“That’s all right, it’s not a problem,” Evvie reassured her. “We’ll all grab breakfast and then, whenever you and James feel up to it, your chairs will be waiting.” She looped her arm with Nora’s and the pair set off down the corridor. Ben jokingly did the same with James; once their arms were looped, James made sure to sway his hips the way his wife did when she walked, and he caught Ben automatically doing the same. They locked eyes and fell into sniggering laughter, but the women hardly seemed to notice as they chatted about boring work stuff.

“You made a full recovery, then?” Ben said, as they stepped in after their wives onto the muggle lift. James still didn’t trust lifts controlled by electricity instead of magic, but he had finally stopped shaking every time the lifts lurched to a stop, and he was going to count that as an improvement.

“Yeah, I’m back to my Weasley paleness,” James affirmed. He stretched his arm out to showcase his freckled forearm. “Did you and Evvie get much sleep?”

“Oh, yeah, loads,” Ben said, to James’s amusement. “We slept for hours.”

“Hours?” Nora asked, turning her attention to their conversation. She looked between Evvie and Ben, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She and James locked eyes briefly and then looked away. “Wow, so you went straight to sleep after helping us?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben repeated. “We were knackered. Slept like babies.”

“It’s important to be well-rested on holiday, or else what’s the point?” Evvie added.

The lift dinged. The doors slid open. Nora and James hung back as the couple exited the lift. They stayed a few paces behind them as they walked towards the dining area.

“They’re naughty little liars, aren’t they?” Nora hissed.

“Snaky little…snakes,” James marveled. He shook his head, his eyes on Ben’s broad back and Evvie’s slightly-tanned shoulders. “I never knew Slytherinness could be sexually transmitted. Poor Benjamin…”

“‘It’s important to be well-rested, or what’s the point’,” Nora echoed. “They didn’t quiet down ‘til after five! I had to cast another spell when I woke for the toilet!”

James cleared his throat pointedly as Evvie turned around to look at them. Nora lifted her and James’s clasped hands and pretended she’d been examining James’s nails the entire time. Evvie arched an eyebrow suspiciously. Nora lifted their hands and kissed the back of James’s. James beamed innocently.

“You all right?” he asked their friend. 

“Yes…” Evvie said. She looked between them. “What are you two whispering about?”

“Sex.”

“Breastfeeding.”

Nora and James exchanged a grimace.

“Eugh, I don’t even want to know how those two fit together in one conversation…see you at the table. Chase, let’s go.”

“Well, see you at the table,” Ben said cheerfully. He took Evvie’s hand and the two disappeared into the crowded dining hall.

Ooh, Chase,” Nora teased beneath her breath.

James snorted and collapsed into laughter. He gently swatted at Nora’s bum as they walked into the dining area. She lit up the room as she laughed, her sparkling eyes scanning over the various buffets, the right sleeve of her burgundy top slipping down off her shoulder from the force of her giggling. James stepped up behind her as she grabbed a plate and leaned down, pressing a kiss to the smooth, dark skin of her shoulder. He pulled her sleeve back up, wrapped his arms around her waist, and pulled her back against him. She leaned back against his chest and looked up.

“Guess what?”

“Hmm?” he asked.

“I love you.”

 He squeezed her closer in a warm hug. He leaned his face over hers and kissed her lips once, twice, three times…he forgot they were in a queue until somebody pointedly cleared their throat.

“Are you in line?”

The voice sounded elderly, male, and American. James knew he didn’t know this person, so for a moment, it was easy to keep on kissing his wife. But Nora pulled out of the kiss with an embarrassed laugh.

“Oh, sorry, so sorry,” she apologized. She pressed her fingers to her lips. “You can go in front of us, we’re still debating on what to get.”

“Okay, thanks,” the man said. He stepped in front of them. His wife followed after. She was smiling at James and Nora.

“Honeymoon?” she asked, in the sort of voice someone used when talking to children or cute puppies. James didn’t take offense.

“Hardly,” James smiled. “We’ve been married five years.”

“Five years!” she exclaimed. She heaped an obscene amount of eggs onto her plate. James watched in fascination as she kept on piling it on. He and Nora exchanged a stunned look. “You’re very young.”

“Mm, yeah, we had a baby at seventeen,” Nora explained. Her stomach rumbled loudly enough a moment later to be heard over the commotion of the dining area. She looked up at him as the woman sputtered through a response to Nora’s admission. “I need coffee right now or I might die. Meet you at the table?”

“Sure,” James said. He dropped his arms from her waist and kissed her cheek. “I’ll get you some breakfast.”

“Thanks,” she smiled. She passed James her plate and then headed towards the coffee area. James watched her walk off and gave a happy sigh.

“It’s good of you,” he heard the older woman say. He looked down at her as he grabbed a plate.

“What is?”

“Sticking by her and making an honest woman of her.”

“Oh,” James realized. He blinked. “I actually think it was good of her to have me. What about you two? Have you been together long?”

“Ten years,” the woman said. “It’s my third marriage.”

“Third time’s the charm, or so she says,” her husband interjected. James laughed along with the elderly couple. And then, his favorite thing in the world happened. The woman asked: “How old is your child?”

James ended up following the elderly couple all the way back to their table as they chatted. He was so excited to be able to brag about his children that he hardly minded the heavy plates in his arms.

“Sit, sit,” the woman—Edith, as James had learned—urged. “Just for a moment. So your youngest is five months?”

James set the plates down and sank into one of the cushioned armchairs. “Yes! She loves mashed bananas and a song Nora and I made up—‘Darling Dearest Delilah’. She’s the sweetest angel; she giggles and smiles practically all day long.”

“I can tell you love your children,” Edith smiled. “I’ve got three kids in total from all my marriages, but I still don’t have any grandchildren.”

Her third husband made an annoyed sound at the back of his throat; James guessed this was a topic Edith complained about a lot.

“Oh? Why not?” James wondered.

“My daughter has no interest in marriage or children, my first son is a pilot and has no time for a pet much less a child, and my youngest daughter can’t have babies.”

“Oh,” James repeated. He wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m so sorry to hear that. About your youngest daughter. Has she looked into adoption? I work in the social services field back in London. We have loads of children looking for good homes, so I’m sure it’s the same for you.”

“She’s applied and she’s been waiting for a year or so for a match. It was a hard situation, though, because she and her husband had been trying for over a year and every test always came out completely normal. She got pregnant twice, but during the anomaly scans both times it turned out the babies were severely deformed…something wrong with their DNA, we never did get a solid answer…” Edith trailed off with a heavy sigh. James furrowed his brow.

“Really? And…where you’re from…is this a common problem? I only ask because in my world—er, meaning…London—we’re having problems with births as well. Granted, not as severe, but…”

“I do think these things happen much more often year after year, but it’s no mystery to me how it happens. It’s Big Pharma and Wall Street in bed together; the chemicals and carcinogens and endocrine disruptors flooding our water systems, the pesticides covering our foods, the genetic engineering, the smog clogging everybody’s lungs—it’s no surprise to me! No surprise at all!”

“Oh, here we go…” her husband said.

Edith dropped her fist down to the table. James jumped back, surprised by her feistiness.

“Everybody eats their meals out of boxes and munches down on the rare, pesticide-and-wax coated apple and then wonders why the nation’s health is declining day after day—”

“There you are,” Nora greeted. Oh, thank you, Merlin and Dumbledore. James turned and looked up at his wife. She was holding a steaming mug of coffee and smiling down at James. “You’d better come quickly; I just heard Evvie call Ben ‘baby’.”

James forgot about everything else. He stood up at once. “No way.”

“Yes way. Complete with doe-eyes.”

“Edith, Jim—it’s been lovely to meet you, if you want to get breakfast again tomorrow we’ll be here around the same time and I wish your family well—I’ve got to go catch my friend being a hypocrite.”

 “Good luck, dear,” Edith said.

James picked up his and Nora’s plates and followed her through the massive dining area.

“I don’t understand why they lied to us,” James said, as they weaved around tables. “Why couldn’t they just say they were up all night? It’s not as if we don’t know they’re having sex; it’s their sodding honeymoon and Ben alluded to it right as they left our room.”

“Yeah, I don’t think Evvie liked that too much,” Nora guessed. “She’s really private; I think she probably orchestrated the ‘we went to bed early’ lie to keep us on our toes…like ‘you think you know what we did last night, but ha, ha, you actually don’t.’”

“I think everybody on the ship knew what they did last night,” James snorted.

They quieted as the table came into view. Ben and Evvie had chosen a table against the glass wall overlooking the ocean. Despite the steady crawl of the ship, the surrounding water was relatively still and went on as far as James could see. It was a canvas of sparkling azure as the rising sun bore down on the waves. As he stared at it, he got a quick, perverse urge to jump into the depths; that urge was why he avoided the top deck while drinking.

“He’s returned!! Our prodigal son!” Ben cheered.

“Where’d you go?” Evvie asked. She slid a mug of tea over to James; he took it with a grateful beam.

“Chatting with some new friends,” he told them. He took a sip of his tea and then crammed bacon into his mouth. He slyly observed his newly-married friends as he chewed. They were definitely holding hands beneath the table. Compared to James and Nora, Ben and Evvie hardly ever showed affection in public, so James was always pleased when they did. It made him happy to see his friends so happy and in love.

“New friends? Are they fun?” Ben wondered. “I wonder if they’re going to the club tonight.”

“Might do,” James said, only half listening to Ben. He’d been thinking about Edith’s words about her daughter, the one who’d lost two babies. “Evvie. You work with genes and diseases and stuff at work, right?”

“James, you know I can’t answer that.”

“Okay, but…you do. Right? I mean, you don’t, ‘officially’…but you do.”

“I work in the Department of Mysteries,” she said. Her voice was bored. It was the same line she repeated every time one of the Sevens harassed her for information on her mysterious job.

“Fine. But I’ve got a question that may or may not have to do with what you do at work.”

“You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.”

James leaned forward. “Theoretically…could muggles and wizardkind fall prey to the same disease or disorder?”

“Absolutely,” Evvie responded at once. “Best example? Common cold. Witches and wizards often get the same strands as muggles do. There are a few others as well.”

James nodded. “Okay. So, theoretically, as a follow-up to that…if there were an environmental cause of some sort that was causing birth defects in muggles, could that same environmental cause impact Wizardkind, just in a slightly different and maybe less severe way?”

He was certain she’d sigh and tell him that she couldn’t answer, but instead, she straightened. Her dark eyebrows rose. She stared at him for a long, awkward moment.

“Why are you asking me that?” she finally said.

James blinked. He realized he’d stumbled upon more than he thought he had. “Oh. Er…”

“Did somebody talk to you? Where are you getting this from?”

“No! No, I was just talking to Edith, and she was ranting about…pesticides and stuff, and she was telling me about her daughter’s fertility issues, and it just got me thinking…” James trailed off. He studied Evvie’s still-stricken expression. “I’ve just discovered something, haven’t I? Is this what you’ve been working on non-stop? Is your department already looking into this? Because my department’s only just realized how serious this is getting; do you know Delilah was the last magical birth in the London area? That was five months ago. There have only been three more since her in the entire UK. At this rate, her Hogwarts year will be tragically small.”

Evvie looked over at Ben and then down at her lap.

“You do know something about this,” James realized. He leaned forward. “Evvie.”

“You know I can’t tell you anything,” she said, her eyes still trained on her lap. “It’s highly classified.”

“But I’m James and you’re Evvie.”

“Yeah? And?”

“Head Boy and Head Girl. Best mates. Teammates! You can tell me. Nora and I are getting worried. What if whatever is causing this hurts our kids after all? Or us?”

Ben wrapped an arm around her shoulders and frowned down at her. Evvie still didn’t look up.

“I can promise you that I’m thinking about your kids all the time,” she said vaguely. “So don’t worry so much.”

“‘Don’t worry so much’…have you met me?” James demanded, incredulous. He pushed his hands out towards Evvie. Her eyes rose and landed on his mutilated fingers. “That’s just from going on holiday and leaving the kids behind!”

“Well, I’ve told you that you ought to take a Calming Draught every morning—”

“No,” James said quickly.

“He doesn’t like it,” Nora defended him.

“No, it makes me feel weird. Like…apathetic.”

“Calm. I think the word you’re looking for here is ‘calm’,” Evvie suggested.

“No! I feel calm and relaxed all the time. It didn’t make me feel like that. It made me a worse person…I was less emphatic. Like, Ev, listen to this: that week I tried it, I didn’t feel anxious, and that was nice, yeah, but Evra finally mastered wheel-thrown pottery, and when she came to tell me, I only felt a little bit happy and I just said ‘Good job, Evra’, and that was it.”

“Er…” Ben said. He and Evvie exchanged a confused look. “That’s…awful, James?”

“It is awful! Because she’d been working on it all summer long, nearly every day with Nora or with Dean and she finally got it! And even right now, talking about it, I feel so happy for her that I wish I could swing her around and laugh with her, but on that day I only managed ‘good job’. She looked like she’d been hit.”

James felt guilt sting his heart. Thankfully, Nora took his hand beneath the table and leaned into his side. The warmth that contact caused significantly cushioned the guilt’s blows.

“You were probably trying too intense of a concentration, then,” Evvie persisted. “You should talk to Scorpius about it. I just don’t think it’s right for you to have to worry so much.”

“I do,” James said. He looked at her earnestly, desperate for her to understand what he’d understood long ago. “It’s my job.”

“Your job.”

“Yes. The way I see it: somebody needs to worry excessively about everything, or else nobody will foresee the things that can go wrong. My worrying has saved my kids loads of times, it’s saved loads of kids in my job, it’s saved my friends on many occasions…it’s important, and maybe it’s difficult sometimes, but it’s worth it to me.”

“I just think you could be happier without the anxiety.”

“Happier?! Me?!” James looked down at Nora. Nora reached up and tapped his nose affectionately. “I doubt that! I’ve got the best life—there’s absolutely nothing that needs to be improved upon.” He paused. “Well, actually, I could do with my sister being a bit less…” he searched for the right word. “Wayward? Wild. Rebellious?”

“Hedonistic?” Evvie suggested. “God, Ben and I walked in on her and Little Cade at the reception, and let’s just say Little Cade is not so little anymore.”

“Eugh,” Ben and James chorused, each for different reasons. Ben stared unseeingly at the table, clearly replaying a somewhat traumatizing memory.

“Come on, I don’t want to hear that,” James complained, his mouth twisted in disgust.

“Cut her a bit of slack,” Evvie told James. “It’s been a hard year for her, right?”

James furrowed his brow. He studied Evvie’s brown eyes. “Has it?”

Her expression gradually fell. “Oh. Well…I mean…possibly?”

James’s jaw dropped. “She’s told you about something horrible that’s happened this year but she hasn’t told me?! You’re joking! I’m her brother! We share blood!”

“No! She hasn’t told me anything,” Evvie promised.

“Then who…?!”

Evvie stood abruptly. “Would anybody like more coffee?”

“That’d be lovely, Ev, thank—” Nora spotted James’s look. “I mean…no…not just yet…?”

“Don’t avoid my question! I’ll go with you to get the coffees,” James said. He grabbed his wife’s coffee cup so he could refill it. “Ben? Coffee?”

“No, it’s quite unnecessary for you to go with me, I’ve got two hands, I can carry it on my own—”

“No, I think this should definitely be a group endeavor,” James insisted. Evvie grimaced.

“Fine. Ben? Coffee?”

“Yeah, go on! I’ll regret it later but what the hell!”

“My adventurous husband,” Evvie said dryly. She leaned down and pressed a kiss to his lips a moment afterwards though, clearly much more amused and endeared by him than she let on. 

Ben winked as she pulled back. “My beautiful wife.”

Their gaze was becoming obscenely heavy. James caught Nora trying to hide her laughter into her glass of water. He wouldn’t let himself be distracted.

“Coffee?” he reminded her loudly.

Evvie reluctantly tore her eyes from Ben’s. “Right. Let’s go.”

Evvie attempted to outwalk James to avoid conversation, but James’s legs were much longer, so it wasn’t difficult to match her pace.

“Caden told you something about Lily?” he guessed.

Evvie looked up at the ceiling and pursed her lips—her universal ‘not telling’ expression. James was getting rather sick of seeing it.

“Seriously?! I get that look when it’s about work things…even though you and Ben did live with us for nearly half a decade and you did help raise my kids and you are one of my best friends, but whatever…but I can’t believe you’re honestly going to keep something about my own sister from me!”

“The reason I know things that you don’t is because I can keep secrets that you can’t,” she said (a bit haughtily, in James’s opinion).

“Oi! I keep loads of secrets!” James countered, as Evvie stepped up to the coffee machine. She grabbed a mug for Ben and pulled the lever down to fill it.

“You’re the most open person I know. It’s not a bad thing. It just is a thing. People wouldn’t tell me things if they assumed I’d tell other people,” she said. She stepped to the side so James could refill Nora’s mug.

“That’s a lovely observation, but it still doesn’t tell me what happened to my little sister.”

Evvie set the sugar down forcefully. She turned to face James. Her gaze was challenging.

“You want to know what happened to Lily?”

“Yeah! Yes, I very clearly do!”

“Then ask her.”

With that, Evvie snatched Ben’s mug up and stalked back towards their table. James huffed as he sprinkled cinnamon into Nora’s coffee, squirted the precise amount of honey in, and then poured in cream until it was the right shade. He stamped towards the table with the intention of explaining to Evvie that one didn’t simply ask Lily Potter anything, but he spotted a table with little pastries on his way, so he changed course and stopped by to grab some for himself and Nora. He finally returned with three pastries in his mouth, two in each pocket, and ten on a plate. He set the plate down in front of Nora. She took her coffee.

“Mmm, thank you, Jamie baby,” she said.

James looked at the empty seats across from her. “Where are Ben and Evvie?”

“They went ahead to the solarium. Raspberry?” She pointed at the pastries.

“This half is,” he affirmed. “I can’t believe she won’t tell me about Lily.”

“I can believe it,” she said. She took a bite out of one of the pastries. “I wouldn’t worry so much; Lily was alive, she seemed healthy enough, and she was getting off with Caden in front of everybody, so whatever it is can’t be that bad.” James sighed. He crammed an entire pastry into his mouth and sulked as he chewed. Nora wrapped her arms around him. “Don’t dwell on it. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“What if it’s not? What if…she’s got some sort of…evil Dark wizard drug dealer after her and they come searching for her while she’s with our kids?!”

“Lily’s not on drugs.”

“Lily could so be on drugs.”

“She’s not on drugs.”

“Oh, Merlin! Lily’s on drugs,” James decided, horrified. His heart began pounding. He crammed another pastry into his mouth anxiously. As soon as he’d swallowed the majority of it, he continued on. “She’s going to get our kids killed in a grisly drug war!”

“She’s really not,” Nora said gently. She pushed her coffee into his line of sight. “Drink this.”

He took it and gulped down two scalding sips. The hot temperature distracted him from his previous train of thought.

“Want to go shopping now?” Nora asked him.

His thoughts flew to the toys he’d picked out for his kids on their brief walk-through of the cruise shops.

“Yeah, all right,” he agreed. He hoped the stuffed shark he’d picked for Henry was still there. He crammed one last pastry into his mouth and rose from the table. Nora took his hand and leaned into his side as they walked. It didn’t take him long to remember why his heart was racing.

“There’s a new drug gaining traction, you know. It’s sort of like muggle cocaine. I’ve had to put three sets of parents into rehabilitation and counseling for it just this month.”

“James,” Nora said. She reached up and cradled his face as they stepped onto the lift. She studied his eyes. “You’re obsessing.”

“I’m not,” he scoffed. “I’m not obsessing.”

“You are, baby. She’s not on drugs and our kids aren’t going to be killed by her hypothetical drug lord.”

“But listen: something shady is going on with Lily, Evvie won’t tell us, there’s a new drug…oh! And what was that bit Evvie said about ‘always thinking about our kids’, eh? Of course she’d be thinking about them if she knew Lily had a massive, evil, drug-pedaling, Voldemort-esque wizard after her! And I bet Caden ended things with Lily over the drugs! Nora, it all makes sense.”

James’s ranting was drawn to a premature halt as a group of people got onto the lift. He shifted closer to his wife and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I had a bad feeling about this holiday, you know, we should’ve stayed home, we need to get the mirror and contact Dean and Seamus and—”

Nora silenced him with a gentle kiss. He felt her soft curves press against his front, applying just enough pressure that he automatically backed up and leaned against the glass wall of the lift. She drew her hands through his hair and snogged him so thoroughly that he forgot he was even on a lift. He was blushing and out of breath when she pulled back.

“Shall we go back to the room or do you feel better?”

“I feel better and we should go back to the room.”

She gave a bright laugh. James very much wanted to hoist her up into his arms and press her into the lift wall.

“Should we get the kids’ toys first?” she asked.

“Oh,” he remembered. He took a deep breath, hoping to reroute oxygen and blood to his brain. “Yeah, we should do that first. I really want that shark for Henry. He’ll adore it.”

“And the necklace for Evra,” Nora agreed. “It’s the most ‘Evra’ thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

James thought about the radiant smile his eldest would give upon receiving the necklace. His heart swelled at the mental image of her adorable grin.

“Yes, we can’t forget that,” he agreed.


 

He and Nora spent two hours walking up and down the crowded promenade, popping into nearly every shop to search for the perfect gifts for their kids. They purchased a massive, cuddly shark for Henry, a necklace (a thin bronze chain with an amber bead hanging from it and a tiny bronze honeybee charm hanging in front of that) for Evra, an interactive Caribbean map for Finnigan, and a set of fist-sized plush fish for Delilah to gnaw on or chuck at people’s heads. James was so excited to give his kids their new gifts that he could hardly wait to be home. Nora was just as excited.

“Delilah’s going to love these fish,” Nora said.

“She is!” James beamed. “She’s going to giggle and cuddle them and probably try to cram them into her mouth all at once!”

“I wonder what they’re doing right now. Do you think they miss us?”

“Definitely,” James nodded.

“I miss them.”

“Me too,” he agreed. He frowned. “Does it feel weird to you—being without them? I have to fight this constant feeling that I’ve left half myself behind.”

Yes, every moment,” Nora agreed. “Even just now, in the shops, I’d have moments where I’d look behind us for the kids and my heart would stop because they weren’t there.”

“I’ve done that a couple times, too,” James said.

They lapsed into a slightly melancholic silence. James looked over at his wife.

“Still—the uninterrupted sex is nice.”

Her face lit up as she laughed. “Yeah, that part of the trip is definitely appreciated.”

“And we can actually refer to ourselves as ‘James’ and ‘Nora’ instead of ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’,” James continued.

“I’m still answering to ‘Mummy’, though. I said ‘what?’ back to this little girl in the toilets yesterday who was addressing her own mother.”

“Yeah, I actually had a similar experience yesterday, but…let’s just say the person was not talking to their actual daddy.”

“Oh,” Nora winced. Her lips twitched a moment later. She pressed her fingers over them. “You…er…didn’t tell me about that.”

James fell into laughter; she quickly allowed herself to do the same.

“Yeah, let’s just say the couple was very confused when I turned around and said ‘yes?’.”

“Not the daddy they were talking about, then.”

“No…I’m about half the daddy they were talking about,” James laughed. “He was buff.”

“Aw,” Nora said. She leaned up and kissed his nose. “Well you’re a real daddy and the best one at that.”

“Yeah,” James beamed. He stood straighter as pride swelled within his chest. “I am. And you’re a phenomenal mum.”

“Aw,” she repeated. Her thumb stroked over his cheek. James looped his arms around her hips and pulled her against him. He rested his forehead against hers and met her smiling lips with his.

“Let’s go back to the stateroom,” Nora suggested. She ran her hands down his back. “We can catch up with Ben and Evvie later.”

He didn’t need to be convinced. He had her hand in his and was headed towards the lifts in only a few seconds’ time.


 

He wished there was a word bigger than ‘love’, because that’s the word he really needed to express the emotion that crowded his chest. He held his wife’s gaze, their heads resting on the same pillow, their faces turned down towards each other, his heart hammering away in his chest. He contently stroked the bare skin of her waist. He felt a bit choked up. I love you wasn’t enough.

“You’re my best friend,” he told her.

I love you and more.

She reached up and caressed her thumb over his swollen lips. He wanted to lean in and kiss her skin, but he didn’t want to look away from her.

“You’ve always been my best friend,” she said. And he smiled, because he knew she loved him and more, too.

Part of him was still conditioned to listen for the sound of little feet. He didn’t allow himself to fully relax until Nora had snuggled up to him and shut her eyes; he reminded himself that there was nobody they had to look after but themselves and allowed himself to do the same. He knew she wasn’t really sleeping—just daydreaming, she did that a lot—but it was so peaceful to lie there with her in his arms that he found himself slipping off easily. He slowly worked his fingers through her loose hair, enjoying the brief catches before he gently pulled through each section of curls, comforted by the familiar, sweet, lingering scent of the vanilla body cream she applied after showers. He kept one hand playing gently with her hair while the other moved to stroke the smooth skin of her back. She gave a contented sigh into his chest. He thought about telling her how much he loved every single part of her, but he figured she probably already knew that. He’d given her his life, his name, his children, his entire heart—anything else he could find to offer up, he would’ve in a heartbeat.

He took a short nap, and when he woke, he was alone.

Noraaaa…” he whined. He opened his eyes only to immediately shut them again. The stateroom light was on and the brightness accosted his eyes. He reached out across the bed blindly, in search of his wife, but he only managed to find her pillow. He brought it over and hugged it to him. It still smelled like their home. He was tired, and he wanted to go back to sleep, but where was Nora? Probably just getting dressed or showering or pumping or drawing or—

What if she was in trouble?

No, probably just…

Wait—what if she was in trouble? Where was she?

His anxiety quickly beat his contentment into submission. He sat straight up. He squinted around the stateroom, his eyes burning from the brightness.  

“Nora?” he demanded, his voice a bit sharper in his worry. He flung the blanket off him and rose from the bed. He stumbled over to the small en suite bathroom. He knocked once on the door. “Nora? You in here?”

Silence. He dug his nail into the skin beside his thumbnail on the opposite hand. He dragged that nail down and then back up again. He peeked inside the bathroom, but she wasn’t there. Maybe she was in Ben and Evvie’s room? He walked to the stateroom door and pulled it open, so intent on locating his wife that it didn’t occur to him that he was still naked. He spotted three familiar people coming towards him from the neighboring stateroom.

“Nora,” he said, relieved. She was already dressed. Her hair was pulled up into its typical bun and her sunglasses were resting atop her head.

“Oh, God,” Evvie said. She reached up and slapped her hand over her eyes. “Put that away!”

“Hey, James,” Ben greeted, grinning. He pointed down. “You’re naked, you know.”

James felt his heart jump. He looked down. Right. He dropped his hands to shield himself and felt his face burn brightly.

“Bollocks,” he squeaked.

“Yep, bollocks indeed,” Ben agreed.

“Sorry,” James said. He quickly backed up into his room. He heard Nora telling Ben and Evvie that they’d meet them at the solarium, and then she entered the room as well. James dropped his hands as soon as the door was shut.

“You were gone,” he said.

“Ben and Evvie came knocking while you were asleep. I lied and told them you had a headache and needed a rest.”

That distracted James for a moment. “Huh? Why?”

“Because Evvie lied to me. And it bothers me. I’ll lie right back ‘til she comes clean."

“Oh. Okay,” James said. “I didn’t know where you were.”

She tossed something towards him. James barely managed to catch the glass tube.

“Evvie gave me a pain potion for your headache.”

“Ohh,” James winced. “That’s a bit brutal, isn’t it? I sort of feel bad for lying now?”

You didn’t lie, I did.”

“Well…we sort of both lied. Because we’re a package deal.”

“Don’t feel bad. I think she definitely knew that I was lying. And I think she knew that I knew that she knew that I was lying. And I think she knew that I knew that she knew that I knew she was lying this morning.”

James furrowed his brow. His head really was beginning to ache.

“So…she knows that we know that she and Ben were shagging all night…and she knows that you and I were making love and that you were just lying to get back at her for lying to you…and you’re both aware that you were both lying…but now you’re continuing to lie to each other, even though you both know it’s a lie, because…” he trailed off, uncertain.

“Because it bothers me that she lied to me. It hurts my feelings.”

“Right,” James said. He decided to just let that be. They would sort it out. He walked over and lifted the collar of her thin dress, peeking beneath. Sure enough, he spotted her swimsuit. “We’re going swimming?”

“If you like.”

James thought about it for a moment. He didn’t really want to risk getting sunburnt again, but he did like the idea of lounging about with a drink.

“Yes, sounds fun. But I’m going to apply the sun cream before I leave the room.”

“I’ve already got it out for you, don’t worry.”


 

He supposed they might be gossipers. It didn’t occur to him until after his and Nora’s third whispered conversation about the ambiguous pair lounging beside their chairs, on the other side from Ben and Evvie.

“Brother and sister,” Nora decided, artfully examining the pair through the corner of her eye as she took a sip of her mimosa.

James reached over as if he were adjusting the strap of Nora’s swimsuit top. In reality, he was peeking over at the pair. He grimaced as the middle-aged woman kissed the man’s forehead.

“No, I don’t think so,” he hissed back. He caressed the elegant line of her neck before he pulled his hand back into his own lap. “She’s just kissed the man’s forehead.”

“Not his lips, though?”

“No, but they’re both practically naked.”

“Oh, right, true.”

James feigned a cough and pretended to peek up at the sun glaring down through the glass encasing the solarium. He peeked down at the pair as he did. Now they were on their respective sides of the double lounger, each reading a book.

“Maybe they’re like Louis and Clem,” Nora suggested. “Together—but not together. In-love friends, but in an allegedly non-sexual way.”

“I could see that,” James agreed. “Well, in any case, they seem happy. Though I don’t know how anybody on this ship could be unhappy. The muggles are really something, aren’t they? I mean, some might argue they’ve got more time on their hands than they need, but they’ve put an entire city onto a boat. All the things to do—” James sat straight up.

“What?” Nora asked.

“We’ve forgotten about our ice show!! What time is it?”

Nora lifted her wrist. She pulled her sunglasses up and squinted at the wristwatch James’s mum had given her on her and James’s first Christmas as a married couple.

“We’ve missed it,” Nora said, frowning. She set her drink down and scooted closer. She pushed a leg between James’s and rubbed his back. “I’m sorry, Jamie baby.”

He sighed. He kissed her forehead. “Me too. I know you really wanted to see the ice show.”

“And you really wanted to ice skate. Guess we overdid our scheduling with the midday sex.”

James considered that. When put that way—midday sex or an ice show—he felt much better about the decision they’d made.

“If we could only do one, I’m happy with the choice we made.”

He felt her press a soft kiss to the sun-heated skin of his neck. “Me as well.”

“Things look a bit intense over here, everything all right? What’s the big discussion about?” Ben called. James looked over his shoulder at his friend. Ben was leaning over Evvie and peering at them curiously.

“Ziplining,” Nora lied, apparently still feeling injured enough to continue the lie-fight.

“We should! We should absolutely zipline! Evvie and I went twice this morning, it’s brilliant!” Ben gushed.

“Is it?” James asked in interest. He turned over onto his other side to face Ben. “I thought we decided flying through the air without magic was a bit mad.”

“It is and it was—and we enjoyed every second of it! We should go get in the queue now!”

“Yeah, all right! Nora, want to go ziplining?” James asked excitedly.

She’d turned back over onto her back and was sipping from her mimosa. Judging by her relaxed posture, she wasn’t going anywhere.

“Not just yet. Come back for me in an hour or so?”

“Okay,” James agreed. He leaned over and kissed her in parting. “Evvie, are you coming?”

“No, I’ll stay here with Nora,” Evvie said. Ben leaned over her and pressed her back into the lounge chair; his goodbye kiss was a bit dodgier, with a hand practically under her swimsuit top, and another out of sight (James didn’t even want to know). The couple was flushed when he pulled back.

“Sure you want to stay?” Ben challenged, his eyes locked on hers, an intensity flowing between them that was decidedly awkward for James to witness. He cleared his throat and turned his eyes up to the sun. Thankfully, he couldn’t make out the specifics of what Evvie whispered back, but judging by the flustered way Ben appeared as they departed the solarium, it’d been something good.

After walking beside a dazed, blushing Ben for a good five minutes, James took mercy on him.

“Does she get off on tormenting you?” He felt his cheeks flush as his thoughts automatically flew to the things he’d accidentally overheard the night before. He quickly tried to correct his words. “With—I mean—you know, whispering stuff right as you’re about to go your separate ways. I didn’t mean—like tying up or—I mean—not that you would—I don’t know where that came from, ha. Er. What I’m asking is: does she get off on…driving you mad?”

Ben didn’t reply for a long moment. He was still staring unseeingly forward, his cheeks a deep red.

“God, I hope so,” Ben finally said. It didn’t pass by James’s notice that Ben was picking up on all the muggle phrases littered through Evvie’s speech. Ben stopped walking. “Could you slap me?”

James stared. “…Sorry?”

“You. Can you slap me? I need a distraction. Right now.”

James understood the implications quickly. “Oh! Oh. Right. Okay. Sure, I’ll slap you, mate. Come here.”

Ben stepped forward and turned his face to the side, offering his left cheek. James gave his face a firm pat—not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to sting. Ben shook his face a moment later.

“Brilliant. Thanks. I love you, man.”

“I love you, too,” James said, touched. He slung an arm around Ben’s shoulders. “C’mon, you’ll survive this. What nobody tells you is that the honeymoon can be a bit painful.”

“Yeah,” Ben agreed, surprised. “Exactly. I’ve got some chaffing that’s—”

“No, er, I really meant more emotionally…but if you want to talk about your…chaffing…?”

“No, that’s okay,” Ben quickly said. “I get what you mean. Feels a bit painful to not be with her. And that’s both love and lust speaking, mind you, so it’s double-torture.”

“Double-torture,” James repeated. He nodded. “I like that.”

He was trying to decide whether to bring up what he and Nora overheard last night as they continued their walk to the other side of the massive ship. He didn’t want to make things awkward for Ben, and really, it was none of his business, but he would’ve liked to have better understood why they lied so he could reassure Nora that it wasn’t because Evvie didn’t trust her.

“Speaking of torturous love,” he began, without thinking. He winced a second later. Not a good start. “Er…so…you and Evvie sort of…lied to us this morning. Why?”

Ben—ever faithful, sometimes to a fault—was hardly ruffled.

“What? No we didn’t.”

“Yeah, you did. Nora and I heard you two…well. I think you forgot your silencing spell.”

“Nope. We were definitely in bed asleep right after helping you.”

Ben played with his shiny new wedding band.

“Okay. I’m sensing that this is what you’re supposed to say and that I’m not going to get you to say anything else, but I just want you to know that it’s hurt Nora’s feelings. She doesn’t like when people lie to her.”

“I will…pass that along,” Ben said. “But I’m sure they’re talking about that right now.”

“Hopefully. Probably.” A silence lapsed over them. James was struggling not to laugh. “It’s a bit wild, though, isn’t it?”

He was hoping referencing things vaguely would earn him some insight. He wasn’t wrong. Ben seemed to be considering it for a moment, and then his face opened with a cheeky grin.

“Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “It’s always been.”

“I think we all had a vague idea,” James laughed.

“And your idea is still very far from the mark, I assure you.” Ben seemed to be debating on whether or not to share something. James could tell he both wanted—and didn’t want—to talk about it. “I like not talking about it. Because it feels more exciting. Things are more exciting when they’re secrets. Evvie taught me that. It’s brilliant, it’s like we’re in our own little world, it’s the most intense emotion…” he trailed off.

“Oh, well, by all means, keep it a secret,” James said quickly. “Wouldn’t want to spoil your intense fun.” He meant it genuinely.

“Well…there is one thing I’ve wanted to tell you for a while…you know how Ev’s a really good girl? We all tried to catch her swearing and rarely succeeded?”

“Yes…” James recalled, sensing where this was going (having heard a great example of it the night before).

“So, let’s just say she can swear like the best of them, she just…saves it.”

Ben’s face was flushing again. He almost looked sunburnt. James felt affection flood his chest. He brought Ben closer to his side and pressed a hard kiss to the top of his head.  

“Merlin, I love you two,” he admitted. He spotted the zipline running above their heads. “Keep your exciting, passionate secrets. Let’s go tempt muggle fate together.”


 

They were windswept and nearly hooting with laughter as they headed back towards the solarium. James was convinced the muggles had sorted life out better without magic than wizards had managed with it.

“Magic lights—but without magic. Magic moving picture films—but without magic. I might become a muggle,” James said.

“Nah, it’s not always this fun. When you get ill a lot of the time you have to have your body actually sliced open. And then Healers reach in and mess with your insides. And cleaning takes ages. And if you lose something, you’ve got to actually look for it. No summoning. And worst of all—no Quidditch! But the Internet. That is something special.”

“Yeah,” James agreed. “Nora’s muggle aunts and uncles have the internet on pocket computers. You can find anything inside of them.”

“There’s loads of stuff you can find on the internet…” Ben said. The weird tilt to his tone told James to leave that one alone.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re behind on some things,” James admitted. “That’s why so many people are enchanting muggle appliances and putting them inside their houses now. And even though our healers can do so many amazing things, I think there are definitely areas that we’re behind in. Like all this stuff with the increase in squib births. The muggles could use their super computers and their laboratories and come up with an answer.”

Ben was silent for longer than he ought to have been. “They can do loads in the Department of Mysteries too, though.”

James glanced quickly at Ben. “Yeah? Like what?”

“Nice try.”

“Damn.”

“Speaking off…when we get back…Evvie’s got to run something by you and Nora,” Ben said quickly. The way he rushed the words out told James he’d been attempting to work up to this the entire time they’d been alone together. He furrowed his brow.

“What do you mean?”

“Just…something she’s got to ask you. But it’s got to be a secret, all right? She could get in loads of trouble if anybody finds out. And she’s only offering because she loves you guys and she loves your kids. And you need to listen and let her speak—don’t interrupt her.”

James froze. Ben kept on walking before he realized James had stopped. James felt his chest tighten.

“Oh, no,” he said, his eyes wide. “There is a Voldemort drug lord after Lily.”

Ben stared. “What?”

“The…and…” Ben looked entirely flummoxed. James hesitated. “Er…never mind.”

James was anxious and silent the entire walk back. With every step he took, he catastrophized more, until he was convinced upon arriving back at the solarium that his family’s life was in grave danger. He hardly noticed that Evvie and Nora were on the same lounge chair and seemed to have worked past whatever had been going on before. He sat down at Evvie’s feet and stared.

“What, Evvie?” he demanded.

Evvie sighed. “Ben, I said to gently lead into it!”

“I did!” Ben defended.

“Then why does he look like you’ve just told him he needs a heart transplant?”

“…Because he’s James? Sorry, mate.”

“No, that’s fair,” James agreed. “Evvie, what do you want to ask Nora and me?”

Nora peered curiously at her. Evvie sat up slowly.

“First off, you can’t tell anybody. You can’t even tell anybody that I asked if you decline. You can’t even suggest that it’s something that I might’ve asked. This is very serious.”

Nora sat up, too. She and James exchanged a worried look, their lips pressed into tight lines.

“What? You’re frightening me,” Nora admitted.

Evvie shifted closer as if somebody nearby might hear, even though they were certainly the only wizards and witches on the entire boat. She lowered her voice.

“The situation with the decreasing magical births? It’s a much bigger problem than anybody knows right now.”

James wasn’t too surprised to hear that, but it worried him nonetheless.

“As in…extinction-level problem?” Nora whispered.

It appeared to be genuinely painful for Evvie to continue. James wondered—not for the first time—whether those in the Department of Mysteries had to sign some sort of contract that subjected them to genuine pain if they broke it. Judging by Evvie’s gritted teeth and Ben’s comforting hand rubbing circles into her back, he wasn’t far off.

“Could be very soon, if we don’t figure out what’s going on and fix it. We’ve got to start from the ground up because it could be an alarming number of things…the problem is, there’s this ridiculous process you have to go through to run a study using members of our society. A literal year’s worth of paperwork and litigation to make sure that no sensitive information leaks from the Department and to thoroughly vet the subject—oh, Christ—” she bowed forward and cradled her head in her hands.

“Less wordy, maybe?” Ben asked. He looked a bit ill himself, like seeing his new wife in pain made him hurt, too.

“Evvie,” Nora said, momentarily distracted from whatever Evvie was about to tell them. “Does it literally hurt to tell people about what you do in the department?”

Evvie looked to Ben to explain. She pressed her face into her lap a second later, her hands still squeezing her head.  

"When Voldemort came to power a second time, there were loads of leaks within the DoM, so this was the…solution to overcoming that risk, to make sure it never happened again. It’s nothing life-threatening or genuinely damaging—Evvie says it feels like incredibly bad brain freeze—but it’s painful enough to make the person seriously reconsider giving information. It’s been amended a few times over the years…it’s automatically lifted the moment you say you quit, but you have to agree to have those particular work-related memories removed if it is…a few years ago they changed it where you can tell your spouse information without pain, but in turn…” Ben trailed off. At first, James thought he was just thinking about what to say next, but he realized he was trying to choke words out. He seemed literally tongue-tied. “So she can tell me, but I can’t tell anybody else. Literally, can’t. They considered switching the pain for this method for the DoM employees too, but everybody in the department thinks it’s important for the workers to be able to tell the information if they deem it important enough to withstand the pain, in case there’s ever serious corruption in place. I think they should get rid of it in general, but apparently all the employees within the DoM keep voting to keep it in place.”

“It’s necessary,” Evvie said through gritted teeth, her head still in her hands. “It’s very difficult to keep the things we know quiet. Are you both listening carefully?”

“Yes,” James and Nora said quickly.

“We finally went through the process and got three subjects—the parents of a squib child recently born and the child themselves. We’re in the process now of finding another set of subjects to compare the first to, to try and find the difference, but even with it fast-tracked it’ll take at least five months to—” she gave a strained whimper. It made James’s heart turn.

“You don’t have to tell us,” he said.

“Can you write it down, or does it hurt just as badly that way?” Nora asked.

“Give me a moment,” she requested, her words tight through her clenched teeth.

“Less wordy, Ev,” Ben repeated nervously. “Get to the point.”

“I’m trying to adequately explain the situation, Chase.”

“They’re clever; they can fill in the blanks.”

The pain seemed to bolster Ben’s position because her words sped up. “I don’t need months to vet you and Nora. And you two are some of the only parents who are still producing magical children. We’ve got to know why.”

James looked at Nora. Nora looked at him. Both their lips had parted in surprise.

“Oh,” Nora said. “So you want us to be subjects?”

Ben was avoiding their eyes. James thought he probably understood why he was acting so strange. “And one of our kids. You want to experiment on one of our kids.”

Nora slowly leaned back from Evvie. She frowned deeply.

“What?”

“Nothing painful. Nothing dangerous. We just need a few blood samples.”

Blood?!” James said. “As in—taking blood from our child?”

“And—some samples…from both of you, too.”

The words were getting harder and harder to get out as the pain became presumably blinding. James wasn’t sure how he felt. And because this had everything to do with reproduction, he was a bit wary about what kind of samples they needed.

“So…you need…” he pursed his lips.

“Speed it up, mate,” Ben begged, with a pointed look at his suffering wife.

“A…sample?” he asked, his cheeks flushed.

“Yes. From both of you.”

“Both of us?!” James squeaked. “I don’t see how that’s going to work. I mean, I suppose I can pop back into the stateroom and…Nora, would you help me?”

She wasn’t following. “With what? What are you talking about?”

“But I don’t see how I’m meant to get eggs from Nora; they’re buried in her ovaries, there’s no way that’s happening without spells I’ve got no experience doing—”

No! I don’t want your sperm, James!” Evvie exclaimed, definitely louder than she’d intended. A passing couple stopped and stared oddly at their group of four. They were whispering judgmentally as they sped off.

“Oh…” he realized, his cheeks reddening further. “Just blood.”

“Yes!”

“Oh. Yeah, sure, you can have some of my blood.”

“Nobody can know,” Evvie stressed. “I’m going to have to do the tests in secret and, if I make a breakthrough, it’ll probably be at the cost of my career.”

“I think they’ll let you off the hook if you save the entire wizarding race,” Ben whispered.

“Nora?” Evvie pressed.

Nora looked up at James. He could sense her uncertainty.

“You can definitely have my blood, but I don’t know about one of the kids’. I feel like it’s not my decision to make. It’s not my blood; it’s theirs,” she said.

James had to agree with Nora, even if he wished he could’ve given Evvie a quicker and tidier answer.

“It’d have to be Evra, because she’s the only one old enough to even have a shot at keeping a secret. We can talk to her about it. But if she doesn’t want to…” James looked at Nora. She nodded, clearly on the same wavelength. “I don’t feel comfortable making her.”

“I respect that and I can still compare both of you with the other set of parents. Okay, topic’s over,” she managed, and with that, she fell against Ben, clearly worn out from the pain and mental strain. A concerned silence settled over the group. Nora patted Evvie’s arm gently.

“I wish you’d be a potioneer,” Ben finally said. “I mean, nobody would ever listen if you talked about potion ingredients, because Potions is boring, but at least it wouldn’t hurt.”

Everybody reluctantly laughed.


 

Evvie and Ben disappeared until after dinner. Once they were reunited, the four headed to the casino.

“I think I’ve really got the hang of it now,” James told them. “Blackjack.”

Ben elbowed him. “I doubt that.”

“Yeah?! I can win more playing Blackjack than you can playing anything else, even your silly slot machines!”

“Ha! Yeah right!” Ben said.

“He is good at it,” Nora defended James. James tightened the arm around her waist.

“Yeah! I am! See!”

“Tell you what,” Evvie said slyly. “How about this: the person who earns the most in the first hour gets to name James and Nora’s next child.”

“What?!” Nora said, alarmed.

YES!” Ben shouted.

“Whoa, wait, we’re not auctioning off our baby’s name!” Nora said. “Not without some serious rules!”

“Yeah!” James agreed. “We’ve already picked the next name anyway!”

“Oh,” Evvie said. Her face fell, but it looked a bit rehearsed. “I didn’t realize you were scared.”

“We’re not scared,” Nora scoffed.

“Not confident in James’s abilities?”

“I’m very confident in James’s abilities!”

“It just sort of seemed like you were scared. What do you think, Ben? Did it seem like they were scared?”

“It definitely did, Ev.”

“Who do you two have a bet with? Who bet you couldn’t get the naming rights?” James demanded. “Was it Roxanne? Because Evra’s middle name is Roxanne, she’s got no room to complain!”

 “Maybe there’s no bet. Maybe I just want to tease Ben and name the next baby 'Chase',” Evvie suggested.

“Yeah, well, I was going to go with Hazel,” Ben countered.

“There’s definitely a bet,” Nora said, her eyes narrowed. “But it doesn’t really matter, because James can win any day. Fine. Whoever wins the most in the first hour can name our next child. BUT—it has to be after somebody we care about. That’s the pattern.”

“Uh,” James said. “Nora…”

“Great,” Evvie said. She slung her leather jacket over her arm and squared her shoulders. “Time starts now. Absolutely not magic.”

And with that, she headed into the casino, Ben hurrying after her quickly.

“Shit,” James said.

“What?” Nora asked.

James looked over at her. His mouth twisted. “I’m really not that confident in my abilities.”

“Oh…shit.”


 

He lost an upsetting amount of money in the first twenty minutes. He decided to cut his losses and hope his wife was faring better. He found her over by a strange machine that ran on muggle coins, methodically examining the contents. Every time somebody put a coin in, it would fall down to a topmost ledge full of hundreds of the same type of coin. If it was put in the right spot, it would push an avalanche of coins off the ledge and down into the pit, for the player to collect. His wife was kneeling in front of the machine, her eyes narrowed with a very specific type of concentration he only ever saw when she was working on a vault design. James noticed she had attracted quite the audience. He watched the people on the adjacent machines looking at her enviously as she put another coin in and was promptly rewarded by a shower of silver. The others seemed to be losing a lot of money.

“How are you doing that?” James whispered, his hand falling to rest on her back.

“It’s quite like designing a vault,” she said. “Cause and effect.” She looked up at him briefly. “How much have you won so far?”

“Er…negative amounts. I think you’re our future baby’s best hope.”

“Oh,” she said. She looked back at the machine. “I think I can do it, but you’ll need to sabotage.”

“Sabotage?”

“Ben’s been successful at the slot machines. Evvie’s been less so at roulette. Go for Ben.”

James thought that through, his hand massaging his wife’s back as he thought. “Yeah…yeah…Ben…hit him where he’s weakest…his bollocks.”

“Whatever you’ve got to do to keep our baby from being named after a type of wood.”

“I won’t let you down,” he said. “I’ve got a plan.”

Ordinarily, teaming up with a Slytherin when they were also competing against you wasn’t the best idea. But James had a feeling that this is was more about Evvie and Ben than Evvie genuinely wanting to name the next Potter baby, so he assumed she’d much rather Nora win than Ben in the end. He found her at a nearby roulette table, half bent over the edge, her eyes locked on the wheel. Another player was very rudely and obviously staring at her bum. James took offense to his predatory gaze, and in the spirit of friendship, he ‘accidentally’ directed his wand at the man’s whisky. He made it vibrate suddenly, just enough to alarm the man. His grip loosened and it tipped forward, spilling down the front of his trousers.

“Oh, mate,” James said, his voice heavy with feigned sympathy. “You’ve made a mess of yourself, look at that! There are serviettes right over there at the bar.”

The man was confused and a bit dazed. “Wha—? Oh, yeah…thanks…”

He stalked off, leaving Evvie free from prying eyes. James took the man’s spot.

“How’s it going?” James asked. She didn’t look up at him.

“Shouldn’t you be astounding everybody with your Blackjack skills?”

“No. Tonight I’m a supportive husband and Nora’s the breadwinner. Ben’s doing well, isn’t he?”

“Mmhmm,” she said shortly.

“I think he might beat you.”

“Sorry, could you bugger off? It’s just—I’m trying to focus here.”

“Fine,” James sniffed. “I was going to see if you wanted to form a momentary alliance, to get Ben out of the way, but I see now that you’re not threatened by how much he’s earning.”

She looked up at him. She examined his expression for deceit and then turned to look in the direction Ben had gone. They could clearly hear him hooting in glee as he made another win. She pursed her lips.

“What would this alliance entail?”

“Nothing that wouldn’t be loads of fun for you.”

She crossed her arms over her black dress. “Keep talking.”

“I’ve got this gut feeling that he gets a bit…flustered when you do certain things. Like…oh, I dunno…swear.”

Evvie smacked his arm at once.

Ow!” James complained. Evvie reached up and grabbed his tie. He was pulled down so he was at her level. Her eyes bore into his.

“Listen here,” she said, her voice low. “We forgot the silencing spell. If you ever—I mean ever—tell any of our friends what you heard—” she stopped suddenly. James was left hanging in fear.

“What? You’ll what?” he finally pleaded.

“You won’t even know until I do it,” she hissed, and with that, she let go of his tie. He straightened up.

“Merlin’s pants, Evvie, why’s everything got to be so—” her severe look silenced him. “Okay, well, keeping what I learned a secret, I think we can use it to our advantage. I have reason to believe that if we walk over there, and you casually let a few profanities slip into the conversation, that he might very well lose himself all over the slot machine.”

“Gross. And no, he wouldn’t. But you’re onto something here…”

“Yeah?!” James said excitedly. “So you’re in?!”

Ben chose the wrong moment to give another loud (and slightly obnoxious) cry of victory. Evvie was beginning to look anxious now.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” she said.

“Great! Let’s go!” James said. He set off towards Ben, but he sensed Evvie hadn’t moved. When he looked back, she was pulling her leather jacket on over her cocktail dress, even though it was anything but drafty in the casino.

“Trust me,” she said, in response to James’s impatient look.


 

Ben did a double-take as they approached. The brightness of his eyes paired with his grin told James that he was right to trust Evvie on the leather jacket thing. He actually looked away from his slot machine long enough to pull his wife to his side.

“How is it going for you?” he asked loudly, over the annoying dings and chimes of the slot machines. “Losing terribly?”

James stepped up behind Evvie and gently nudged her spine with his elbow. She looked down at Ben, and with their eyes locked, responded: “Yeah, fuck. It’s not going well at all.”

Ben gave a little jump. He looked around them, visibly thrown by her profanity. He swallowed.

“I’m sorry. Want to try a slot machine?”

“No.” She seemed to be struggling with finding places to sneak swears in. James elbowed her back again to prompt her. She shot her elbow back at him, catching his rib. He gave a quiet grunt of pain. “My back is aching, though. I think I’ll sit.”

Ben pulled the stool in front of the neighboring vacant slot machine out and patted it. Evvie hopped up. James was kneading unhappily over his rib as he heard his friend give a moan. Even he felt his cheeks heat up at the sound. It was followed by another profanity, just as breathless as before, and Ben was definitely giving Evvie every bit of his attention now. He turned to face her completely.

“Your back hurts that badly?” he asked, concerned. “What did you do to it?”

“Some idiot was elbowing me.”

“What?! Who?! Him?!” he pointed at a buff man with bulging muscles standing behind them. “James, was that who elbowed her?!”

“What, are you going to fight him?” James said, amused.

“Of course I am!” And then, before James could stop him, Ben turned around completely on his stool. “OI! YOU!”

NO!” Evvie and James cried. Evvie quickly pressed her mouth to Ben’s while James caught the man’s eye.

“Is he talkin’ to me?!” he boomed.

“No, to me! He…despises me. We’re going to fight. Have a nice night!”

The man made a rude hand gesture in response. James scowled. Up yours too, then.

When James turned back to his friends, he found Evvie already nearly done with her mission. Ben had his hands fisted in her hair and didn’t seem to hear the incessant dinging of his slot machine. While Evvie pulled her lips from Ben’s for the sake of whispering something to him, James leaned over and casually grabbed all of Ben’s paper tickets off the floor. He thumbed through his friend’s winnings while Evvie continued whatever naughty speech she was giving into Ben’s ear. By quick mental calculation, Ben had won twice as much as James had lost. Damn.

“Ben, do you care if I have a go? Are you done?” James asked.

He glanced towards his friend when he failed to respond straightaway. Ben was red in the face. His hands were resting low on Evvie’s hips. She was semi-innocently running her hands down his shirt, fingering the buttons as she did, her hips following Ben’s guiding touch as she stepped between his opened legs. Ben’s blood was surely migrating south so quickly that James could’ve smacked him in the head and he probably would’ve only managed a blank ‘wha?’.

“Ben? James asked if you’re done playing?” Evvie asked him.

Ben looked about two seconds from pinning her against a slot machine, never mind continuing his own game. Judging by the pinkness to Evvie’s complexion and her somewhat glassy eyes, she hadn’t been as impervious to her own actions as she’d probably hoped she’d be.

“Yep. Done. Don’t care. Have it. Evvie, do you want to…?”

“Absolutely,” she said breathlessly.

It was a better outcome than James could’ve imagined as both hurried from the casino. Chuckling, and running his thumb along the edge of the stack of paper winnings, James returned to find his wife surrounded by two buckets full of coins. She beamed as he came to stand beside her.

“Jamie! How’d it go?”

“They’ve both left,” he sniggered. “And I’ve confiscated Ben’s tickets.”

She turned around to look at him fully, her delicate eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Seriously?! Nice job!”

“You as well!”

“Well, it was better earlier. I switched to that machine over there which had actual paper money left in it and won loads, but then I couldn’t seem to stop putting more and more coins in…and I lost about half of it…still, I think I’m coming out on top.”

James watched her put a few more coins in. He leaned against the nearby machine and let his eyes fall down her lithe frame. He admired the plunging neckline of her dress for a few moments. The concentrated way she examined the machine before dropping another coin in made his heart flutter.

“You know, they left here with nothing, which means we win no matter what,” he said.

She frowned at the machine when she failed to score any more coins, as if the machine had personally insulted her. James inched closer and wrapped his arms around her waist. He lowered his face and kissed the exposed center of her chest. She ran her fingers gently through his hair as he did.

“Let’s consider this a win for our future kids, go grab the mirror from our room, get a coffee, go get some lounge chairs on the top deck beneath the stairs, and see if the kids are awake yet,” James mumbled.

She responded as if he’d whispered explicit, toe-curling dirty-talk into her skin. She cupped his face and pressed her lips to his in a searing kiss. James felt loved from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He held her close as they walked slowly to their room to grab the mirror.

“I was really worried, but I’m so glad we did this,” he admitted. “I’m so glad we took time for ourselves.”

His anxiety was helpful in many ways, but perhaps learning to work through it and ignore it sometimes was helpful, too. He’d have to remember that once they returned to the real world. Once they had to begin dealing with whatever was happening with the babies of their world and therefore, by extension, the future of it, too.

Chapter Text

“All right,” Harry snapped. The sound of his book landing hard on the table followed. Ginny sighed and brought the heel of her paint-spattered hand to her forehead in exasperation. She kneaded over her skin tiredly. Here he goes, she thought, and sure enough:

“That’s an hour late now! An hour!”

Ginny set her paintbrush down on the tray, held securely onto the ladder, and then looked over her shoulder at her husband. He was pacing in front of the fireplace now, his arms crossed tightly in front of his chest.

“Harry,” Ginny said, for the third time that hour. “I’m sure they just lost track of time. They’ll be here.”

“What’s the point in setting hours and drop times if they’re just going to show up whenever they damn well please? This is our time they’re cutting into! We don’t take their time with the kids, do we? No. We don’t. We’re uncharacteristically organized! We always have them where they’re meant to be when they’re meant to be there! And we don’t short people on time!”

“You know who you sound like?”

He grumbled and didn’t reply. Ginny continued anyway.

“You sound exactly like my recently divorced colleague, who’s currently fighting over visitation and custody rights with her ex. Let me make this very plain. Dean and Seamus are not our competition.”

Harry scoffed and squinted at her from behind his glasses as if he had no idea what she was talking about. In reality, Harry had been subconsciously one-upping Dean and Seamus from the start. If they took Evra for ice cream on Saturdays, he took Evra to a muggle ice cream factory on Sunday. If they bought Evra a stuffed toy, he bought Evra a hand-painted tea set. With every grandchild they were blessed with, the one-upping became more and more noticeable, until Ginny was certain Dean and Seamus were catching on. She didn’t think it was a coincidence that it had started right after the Transfiguration professor made a comment about grandkids almost always being closer to their maternal grandparents than their paternal (something Ginny’s mum grumbled about from time to time whenever Ginny’s brothers’ kids were at their maternal grandparents’ houses instead of hers).

“No, but they have stolen our grandkids for an hour.”

“They are their grandkids too,” Ginny reiterated. She turned around on the ladder and let herself sit on the top step. She was sensing this was going to be a long conversation. “Those kids are twenty-five percent you, twenty-five percent me, twenty-five percent Dean, and Seamus has absorbed the remaining twenty-five percent through hard work, dedication, love, and nappy changing.”

“I don’t think that’s how that works…”

Ginny ignored him. “I get that you’ve got this subconscious thing about Dean. All right. I can’t really say anything—I still have the urge to roll my eyes whenever I pass by Cho in public. But he’s got way more reasons to resent you than you’ve got to resent him.”

“He has not!”

Ginny held up her index finger. “One: you slid right in and publically kissed me right after he and I ended things—” her middle finger joined her index— “Two: our son impregnated his daughter at seventeen. And what has Dean really done to you? Dated me before you did and kept our shared grandkids an extra hour?”

“He stole James and Nora and the kids and made them go on holiday with him and Seamus for the entire week of Christmas two years ago.”

Ginny felt her eye twitch.

“Oh, bloody hell!” she exploded. She stepped down from the ladder. She ripped her paint-stained apron off and threw it onto the drop cloth. “We are not getting into the Christmas Clash of 2025 again! If I have to hear the phrase Christmas snatchers one more time—!”

“They very deliberately snatched Christmas—”

Ginny felt her patience snap. She stepped over the unopened paint cans littering the floor between her and Harry. She set her hand over his mouth and stared up at him.

“Harry,” she began, her voice low. “I am two bloody seconds away from hexing you or going mad. I love you—an obscene amount— but I am really at the end of my tether with the Dean and Seamus stuff. We’ve been cooped up here all weekend with the paint fumes and the builders and the never-ending sodding noises, and I recognize that my temper is a little thin, and I recognize that you’ve been looking forward to the kids’ staying the night here for months, and I know you’ve got a lot planned, and I know the renovation delay is really inconvenient, but things happen. And a thing is going to happen to you if you don’t give me some damn peace.”

Harry narrowed his green eyes. Ginny lowered her hand from his lips and studied the depths of his eyes to determine how he would react to that.

“Fine,” he snapped. “I’ll stop talking, then.”

Surly, then. Great.

“If you could stop talking about Dean and Seamus, yeah, that’d be great,” she said coolly. He looked away from her, his jaw working. He dropped his eyes to his feet. When his shoulders curved forward and his posture grew a bit defeated, Ginny realized that he was actually upset. “What is this all about—really? The grandkids adore you. I don’t understand why you’re acting so…” Ginny trailed off, searching for the right word. “Possessive.”

“I’m not—”

“Harry.”

He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. Ginny waited.

“I was talking with Vivienne when I was at the Ministry on Thursday. She said her son’s moving to Japan in a month.”

Ooh. Ginny felt the tension and irritation balled up tight in her chest loosen. She frowned. She took another step forward and reached back up, this time to brush Harry’s wild hair back from his forehead. She lightly brushed her thumb over his scar afterwards.

“And I’m guessing her son is taking her grandkids with him,” she realized.

Harry didn’t say anything, but he tightened his crossed arms uneasily.

“And it probably doesn’t help that Lulu’s all the way in New Zealand.”

He tightened his arms even more. He looked off to the side (as far away from her probing gaze as he could look). He was standing so tensely that, for a ridiculous moment, Ginny was reminded of a jack-in-the-box; the tension was sure to give way at any moment.

Sure enough, the words came gushing from him only a few moments later.

“They’re our kids even if they’re adults. And our grandkids—they aren’t our kids, but I swear, Ginny, I love them as good as. And I hate how…well…I hate that we can’t keep them with us. Lu’s left and we hardly see her. And when she’s here it’s never for long enough. And I’ve realized that James and Nora could technically go wherever the hell they want whenever they want to and we could lose them and their kids. Albus and Scorpius could run off to France. I couldn’t handle it—having my family so spread out. I feel as if I only just got this family and now it feels so…uncertain. So yeah, I will get upset when I’m cheated out of time with our grandkids, because I never know how much time I will really have with them. The future is so…” he trailed off.

Oh, Merlin. Is he having a mid-life crisis? Ginny really hoped not, but she knew him well enough to know better than to ask it. Instead, she reached for him and pulled him into a hug. Thankfully, he not only accepted it; he melted into it.

“Maybe James and Nora will decide they really like the beach and will move far away,” he mumbled into her paint-splattered shoulder.

“James can’t move to the beach because James doesn’t have the patience to take sun potion like he’s supposed to. He’d fry.”

Harry didn’t laugh. He apparently wasn’t in the mood to mock the kids good-naturedly. Ginny bit back the Lily joke she had planned, realizing that it would most likely fall on deaf, unappreciative ears. She’d save it for later.

“James isn’t going anywhere,” she said instead. “And, incidentally, in this case, it’s a great thing that our grandkids are close with both sets of grandparents; that’s two reasons to never move away.”

“Unless Dean or Seamus move and convince Nora to move with them.”

“Why would Dean and Seamus move? Dean’s got two successful art studios—one in Muggle London, one in Diagon Alley. He’s not going anywhere.”

Harry didn’t seem very comforted even though that made a lot of sense, which led Ginny to believe that this was really about Lily more than anything.

“We knew for years that she’d leave us.”

He made a strangled noise that seemed to be the beginning of a sentence he’d changed his mind about speaking. Ginny gave him some time, and when he finally straightened and found the right words, they were everything she’d been feeling, too.

“It wouldn’t be so hard if I felt she could handle being on her own. It seems like she can’t stop getting into trouble in every single aspect of her life. Professionally, socially, even physically with all the burns and such…I’ve never known anybody to be such a magnet for trouble.”

Ginny gave him a dry look.

“Okay. I’ve never known anybody without a horcrux inside of them to be such a magnet for trouble.”

“Yeah,” Ginny allowed. She sucked in a breath. “Harry, I never thought I would say this. But I think…I think I’m going to finally read that parenting book Hermione gave us when I was pregnant with James.”

“Don’t bother,” Harry said miserably. “I read it last night. It wasn’t helpful.”

Ginny gaped. “You’re joking! Please tell me you’re joking!”

“No. I just…I felt so horrible about what Lulu’s going through and I didn’t know what else to do and—”

“No,” Ginny interrupted urgently. “I mean—it wasn’t helpful?! You’re serious?!”

“Oh,” Harry said. He scowled. “No, it was rubbish. Whoever wrote the book has very clearly never had a difficult child.”

Ginny felt genuinely gutted, like she’d just suffered a deep loss. She shifted her weight from foot to foot and looked off to the side.

“But I…that was my plan B,” she admitted, her voice small. “I kept it around like my little…parenting emergency kit. I mean, I doubted I’d ever read it, but it always felt nice to know that it was there just in case. And it’s…not even helpful?!” A wave of irritation passed over Ginny. “Did Hermione even read it before she gave it to us?!”

“Absolutely. It was unhelpful because it’s the same word-for-word rubbish Hermione subjects us to every time one of our kids is naughty. I think she’s memorized it. We didn’t know it, Gin, but we’ve been getting that book read to us for over two decades.”

“Unbelievable,” she said. “That’s just…that’s just complete shit. Now what?”

“If we’re going by the Hermione Book, we’re supposed to sit Lily down in a quiet, secure environment and open up a…‘mutually vulnerable and permissive dialogue’ about our deepest emotions and fears. And then we’re supposed to firmly—yet lovingly—tell Lily exactly what we expect of her behavior-wise.”

Ginny snorted. “Yeah, all right. Hermione can do that for us, then. She’d only last ten minutes in a room with Lulu if she was trying to get Lily to talk about her ‘deepest emotions’.”

“Ten minutes? That’s generous,” Harry muttered.

“No, yeah, you’re right,” Ginny said. She pursed her lips. “I suppose this means we’ve only got one choice left. Our preferred method of parenting.”

Harry heaved a sigh. He reached up and set his hands on her shoulders. “Wing it?”

“Wing it,” she agreed, her hands rising to settle on top of Harry’s. “With luck, we can get Lily patched up just in time for her to return to New Zealand.”

“Just in time for her to return there and re-injure herself, you mean,” Harry grumbled.

Ginny couldn’t fault him for the personal way he took Lily’s injuries. It was difficult for her to see their daughter so injured, too. Every burn pained her.

“You know, maybe the opposite of your worries will happen. Maybe Lily will take this holiday to really think about what she’s been through and then decide to move back home with us,” Ginny said.

It only took her a few seconds after the words left her lips to really consider what she’d said. She snapped her eyes to Harry, horrified. Thankfully, he looked just as disturbed at the idea of having the kids move back in full-time.

“On second thought,” Ginny said. “New Zealand’s not that far.”

“No,” Harry agreed quickly. “Could be worse. Could be farther.”

“Er…no, Harry, New Zealand is literally the farthest place from us. Literally.”

“…Could be the moon….” Harry trailed off and looked at her seriously. “I don’t want them to go anywhere away from me, but I don’t want them back in the house. We swore they would never stay for longer than a week or two after the tape measure incident.”

“Fair,” Ginny nodded. The last time all three of their adult kids had stayed overnight, the kids had gotten into a spectacular (and disturbing) row over whose sex life was best. Ginny still wasn’t exactly clear on who’d brought the topic up or how it’d turned into an argument (though she was sure the firewhisky the kids had with dinner had helped spur things along), but she had learned things about her kids that night that she never wanted to know. And she’d certainly never imagined even in her wildest nightmares that she’d ever have to break up a near fist-fight between her two youngest over whose boyfriend was better endowed.

“The grandkids, though,” Harry said, a smile blooming on his face. Ginny looked back to him and accepted the reprieve from the memory she’d been replaying. “The grandkids can stay with us.”

“The grandkids are angels,” Ginny agreed at once.

“Hence the open invitation. Why weren’t our kids ever this sweet?”

Ginny stared at Harry for a long moment, torn between disbelief and amusement that he’d even bothered to ask that.

He nodded. “Stupid question. It’s just strange because our grandkids are Potters, but they don’t ever do Potter things, like setting buildings on fire or jumping from brooms or—”

Ginny quickly set her palm over his mouth. “Harry, for the love of Merlin, do not finish that sentence. You’re going to jinx it. Can’t we just have sweet, kindhearted grandkids without questioning why they aren’t running rampant like wild animals?”

“...No. Not really. Because it’s so unnatural. Though, you know, this’ll be the first time we’ll have them overnight without their parents here, too. Maybe they’re secretly little devils.”

Harry and Ginny mulled that over for a moment, their eyes locked.

“Nah,” they decided.


 

“Sorry we’re late,” Dean greeted. He was hunched over at the waist as he stepped through the kitchen door, thanks to Evra sitting atop his shoulders. Dean was so tall (and Evra too for her age) that had he stood straight, she would’ve smashed her head into the sloping ceiling of the kitchen. Ginny immediately opened her arms as Seamus followed in after Dean, Delilah in his arms and Henry and Finnigan at his side. As soon as Henry and Finnigan had cleared the doorway, they ran full speed into Ginny’s opened arms. She gathered them close and kissed their hair, her heart inflating with joy at the sight of them.

“My boys!” she cooed. She didn’t even care how sentimental she sounded; she was just glad they were here. She kissed their little faces two more times, smiling at their overlapping, overjoyed giggles as she did, and then she stood up and reached out for Delilah. Harry had already tugged Evra from Dean’s shoulders and was hugging her close.

“It’s fine,” Ginny told Dean, when she realized Harry was not going to say it. She smiled down at Delilah as she took her from Seamus (she didn’t think she imagined his reluctance; he crossed his arms uneasily once the baby was pulled from them). Ginny’s world narrowed in on Delilah (it was an effect only babies, kittens, and the odd baby dragon had on her), and for the next few moments, she was entirely deaf to Dean and Seamus as she stroked Delilah’s soft curls and bounced her gently in her arms. She felt her heart swell large enough to fill every single metaphorical space in her chest as Delilah smiled and gave a few soft coos. She spotted James’s dimple. She was pretty sure she was never putting Delilah down ever again.

“Little darling girl,” she said softly. Delilah’s smile only grew at the endearment. “You’re the happiest baby that ever lived, isn’t that right? Yes! Yes, it is, you’re just the happiest, sweetest—”

Ginny’s baby-talking was rudely interrupted.

“Ginny,” Seamus said. “I thought the renovation was supposed to be finished on Friday? They’re still levitating and duplicating walls on the south side of the house.”

“Ginny!!” Finnigan stepped between Seamus and Ginny and jumped up and down in place. “Ginny, I threw darts at balloons filled with paint! I hit so many!”

“Yeah!!” Evra exclaimed. Ginny looked up at her granddaughter. She still had her arms looped around Harry’s shoulders (and that’s probably where she’d stay for a while). “My art looked like three little baby clouds and a mama cloud!”

“Mine blue,” Henry said earnestly. He tugged at Ginny’s dungarees. She reached a hand down and cupped his cheek in her hand. He smiled at her as she stroked his cheek.

“Yours was blue, Henry?”

“Yes!”

“How exciting!”

“Ginny,” Seamus pressed, as a sudden boom shook the walls. “The construction?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ginny said. She looked up from her grandson and met Seamus’s eyes. “We’ve been having issues with our new muggle neighbors. They keep letting their kids traipse through the woods into our garden. The renovation team isn’t allowed to do work in view of muggles, so they’ve been having to work slowly at night, which has been…as enjoyable as it sounds for Harry and I. We’re hoping they’ll finish today…some ‘mysterious’ Legoland tickets turned up in their postbox, so the muggle kids have been gone all day and should be ‘til late tonight.” 

Dean toed one of the buckets of paint by the door. “You’re painting?”

“Yeah, felt like doing something a bit different with the kitchen,” she affirmed. She pointed up at the soft white she’d managed to actually get on the walls instead of her clothing. 

“Do you really think our grandchildren should be in here breathing in these paint fumes?” Seamus pressed. Oh. Ginny realized where they’d been going with this line of questioning. She held Delilah to her more securely, as if one of them might walk over and snatch her. She was starting to understand Harry’s annoyance.

“Sure, why not? Nora turned out all right, didn’t she, and she spent most of her childhood in Dean’s studio inhaling paint fumes.”

Seamus parted his lips to argue further, but couldn’t seem to come up with a counter-argument.

“Where will they sleep?” Dean pressed. “If the entire south side is being worked on.”

“We’re hoping they’ll be done by tonight,” Ginny repeated. “And it’s the grandkids’ room we’re adding in, so if they’re done by tonight, problem solved. If they’re not, they can sleep in one of our kids’ old rooms.” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “What are you getting at here, Dean? Are you suggesting they shouldn’t stay with us?”

“Yeah,” Dean admitted. “I mean…it’s a bit chaotic in here. Why don’t we keep them for another night? That way you two can get everything together without having to worry about kids running underneath your feet.”

Ginny glanced sideways at Harry. He was already looking at her. Christmas snatchers!, she heard him say. He didn’t even need to speak. She turned back to Dean and Seamus.

“I think you’ll find that an ability to feel at home in chaos is a Potter-Weasley trait. They’ll be fine.”

“Will they?” Dean pressed, skeptical, his eyes on Evra, who’d jumped and cringed into Harry’s shoulder at another sudden boom caused by the construction workers. Ginny hardly heard the noise anymore.

Harry cuddled Evra close and glared at Dean. “They will be fine. They’ll be with us. We’ve got an entire day planned.”

“What are we going to do?!” Finnigan asked. He and Henry walked over and stood in front of Harry expectantly, their brown eyes shining with excitement. Ginny looked up at Dean as Harry kneeled and began whispering conspiratorially with their grandkids. Judging by the gleeful (and slightly menacing) cackles Finnigan was giving, he liked whatever Harry was plotting.

“They look all right to me,” Ginny reassured Dean. She smiled tightly. “Thanks for dropping them by! Bye!”

“Bye? I could use a cup of—”

“Can’t,” Ginny said. “Kettle’s out of commission. I’ll walk you back out to your car. Evra, Finnigan, Henry— say ‘bye’ to your Dean and Seamus!” Ginny held her hand up and mimed waving goodbye for baby Delilah. “Say ‘bye, bye’, Delilah!”

She basically pushed Dean and Seamus through the kitchen door. They kept shooting reluctant, longing looks back at the grandkids. When Ginny had finally gotten them out of her house, she lightly backhanded Dean’s shoulder.

“Hey! What was that for?!”

“Dean, whether you like it or not, we’re permanent parts of each other’s lives now. Your daughter is my daughter and my son is your son. I, for one, certainly never saw that happening—us sharing kids—but it has, and now we also share grandkids, and there are specific ways this half of the family works. In the spirit of family and togetherness and…other warm shite, I have to inform you that attempting to steal our time with our grandkids is definitely against the natural order of things, and will only create unnecessary family drama that will almost certainly end up ruining Christmas dinner. And I really don’t want to end up throwing sprouts at your face.”

“Don’t throw sprouts at his face,” Seamus scoffed, aghast. “What are you—thirteen?”

“You two are making a bit of a reputation for yourselves as grandkid snatchers.”

“What?! We do no such thing!” Dean said, offended. “We see them as much as you do!”

“No,” Seamus bit. “If anything, you get to see them more than we do!”

“That’s rubbish! You see them every single weekend!” Ginny cried.

“And so do you and Harry! And you’ve got them in your office during the week!”

“I only watch them in my office when James has important meetings! You and Dean watch them during the week sometimes for that same reason!”

“No, you definitely end up watching them more than we do, which is rubbish because their mum is our daughter and that makes us slightly more their grandparents than you!” Seamus snapped.

Ginny’s jaw dropped. Dean had been drawing his hand across his throat, a signal for Seamus to stop, but he’d missed the gesture. Seamus had uneven, red patches blooming over his cheeks. Delilah gave a coo, her hands reaching for Ginny’s wristwatch. Ginny shifted the baby so Delilah could reach forward and fully explore the object. She could feel anger and pain mingling in the pit of her stomach.

“You’d better be glad Harry didn’t hear that,” she finally said.

“So what if he did hear that? It’s true!” Seamus persisted.

“How exactly are you more their grandparents than me? Let me explain sex and reproduction to you, Seamus. The father gives half the—”

“Okay, that may be true, but there would be no grandkids if it weren’t for our daughter carrying them and birthing them.”

“And the grandkids wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my son…well, you know.” Ginny did have to admit that that sounded a bit weak in comparison to Seamus’s statement.

“Oh, come on, Ginny,” Seamus said. He was growing more and more annoyed with every second. “It’s the same in your family, isn’t it? Your kids are closest to your parents.”

Ginny could feel her face reddening rapidly as her anger got the best of her. “Seamus, they’ve only got my parents! Harry’s parents are dead, you idiot!”

That made him pause for a moment. “Well, even if they had both sets, they’d still be closer to yours, because you’re the mum.”

“Are you insinuating that kids always prefer the mum?”

“No offense to your son, he’s a decent dad, but yeah.”

“Seamus…YOU ARE A DAD. You’re literally undermining your own importance right now in your quest to undermine ours and James’s.” Ginny narrowed her eyes. She stepped forward and pushed a finger into Seamus’s chest. “And James is a phenomenal dad! Don’t you ever call him ‘decent’ again!”

“Yeah? Or what?” Seamus challenged. 

“Or I’ll tell Nora!”

Seamus parted his lips to retaliate, but Dean quickly stepped over and set his hand over Seamus’s mouth. “Don’t. Come on, this is getting out of hand. Ginny, you and Harry have a right to see your grandkids.”

“We have just as much of a right as you two do to see our grandkids,” Ginny corrected sharply. She didn’t miss his particular wording.

“Seamus only means…well, you accused us of stealing them, but we feel like that’s exactly what you and Harry do.”

“We most certainly do not!”

“Neither do we!” Dean shot back. “You two are the ones who take Christmas every year.”

“OH! Oh—oh! You’re going to go there?! You’re actually going to go there?! LET’S TALK CHRISTMAS, DEAN!”

Harry stuck his head out of the kitchen door. “Is everything all right?”

“FINE!” Ginny and Seamus chorused.

Harry slowly withdrew back into the kitchen.

You two were Christmas snatchers!” Ginny exclaimed, sounding every bit like her husband. “You took James and Nora all the way to Mexico two Christmases ago!!”

“And that’s the only Thomas Christmas we’ve had! Because they’re always here!” Dean said.

“So are you two!”

“Only because if we didn’t come here we wouldn’t get to see our daughter on Christmas!”

“GINNY!” Evra’s voice distracted the three adults. Ginny turned around immediately. Her granddaughter was beaming in the kitchen doorway, her beautiful curls extra-wayward, almost certainly from Harry spinning her around in his arms. “We’re going on a family flight!! C’mon!”

“I’ll be there in a moment, Evra!” Ginny promised. She turned back around. She narrowed her eyes and examined Dean and Seamus. “This conversation isn’t over.”

“No, it’s not,” Seamus shot back.

“We need to have a proper conversation about this,” Dean said, his lips pressed into a thin, annoyed line. “Us, you and Harry, Nora and James.”

“I look forward to it,” Ginny sniffed. “Drive safely. Be careful not to steal the other lane from the other drivers.”

“Oh! That’s rich!” Seamus said. “Have fun flying! Be careful not to steal anybody else’s daughter from them!”

“I haven’t stolen your—!”

“GINNY!” Finnigan yelled impatiently. “HARRY SAYS ‘COME ON’!” A pause. “BUT THAT ISN’T VERY SWEET, SO…COME ON…PLEASE!”

Ginny shot one last stern look at Nora’s parents, turned, and headed towards the house. She was seething as she stepped inside. Harry set his hand on her arm and looked down at her, concerned.

“What was that about?”

Ginny gritted her teeth. “You’re right,” she managed. “They are Christmas snatchers.”

“Told you.”


 

“I can’t believe he still does that,” Harry hissed from the corner of his mouth. Ginny was struggling with all her might to keep from laughing. It was only her deep love for her grandchildren that kept her from it. She and Harry floated side-by-side a few inches from the ground and stared at Finnigan, who was hanging upside down from his training broom by his arms and legs like a sloth. It was effectively the end result of a Sloth Grip Roll, but Finnigan hadn’t done it to avoid a bludger; it appeared to be the actual way he rode a broom. He had somehow worked out a method of getting it to fly like that. He would slide backwards slightly and redistribute his weight to make it go forwards and slide forwards to make it go backwards. Ginny was absolutely speechless.

“Finnigan,” Harry began gently. He nudged his own broom forward; Delilah gave a shrieking giggle the second they began flying again, even if it was at the slowest of paces. Harry stopped beside their grandson. “Have Mummy or Daddy taught you the other way to fly on a broom?”

“Yes. It’s weird,” he told Harry. “Watch this.”

He began swinging his body from side to side, which caused his broom to immediately start turning in confused circles, clearly baffled by the odd distribution of weight being applied to it. Finnigan hooted with laughter as the broom spun him around and around and around. Ginny was wincing, certain his grip would loosen any moment and he’d go falling to the ground. Luckily, he couldn’t go high enough to hurt himself, though she grabbed her wand just in case she needed to do a cushioning spell despite.  

Harry met Ginny’s eyes. It was too much. They both collapsed into laughter at the same moment. Henry giggled along from his place in front of Ginny.

“HARRY! MY HARRY!” Evra called. She’d been the lucky one given a real broom and was now floating a couple feet above them. Harry turned to her at once. “I CAN DO A ROLL!”

Ginny’s lips parted in surprise as Evra hugged her broom and promptly turned her body to the left, pulling off a semi-decent barrel roll. Harry was gaping when Ginny darted her eyes to him.

“Did you…just see that?” Ginny hissed.

“I did. I saw that,” Harry affirmed. He flew up towards Evra, a smile breaking over his features. “Evra, what a brilliant job! What a brave girl you are!”

Ginny was left staring dumbly at her granddaughter, wondering how a little girl who thought the Floo was absolutely terrifying could muster the courage to do a mid-air roll several feet from the ground. There was only one answer: Ginny’s namesake had inherited her Quidditch skills. Ginny grinned smugly.

“See, Seamus,” she muttered under her breath. “They’re just as much mine…bloody idiot.”

Henry turned around and looked at her, his eyes wide. Bollocks. Ginny pulled Henry closer, held him securely, and immediately began turning them around in her own mid-air rolls, hoping it’d make him forget what she’d just said. Judging by his amused giggles, it was successful.

“Evra,” Ginny said, as soon as she’d turned herself and Henry right-side-up again. “Let me see that again!”

Soon, both Finnigan and Evra were showing off by rolling around and around, inflating with pride at every bit of encouragement Ginny and Harry gave (and they gave quite a lot). While Harry pulled Finnigan up onto his broom so they could race Evra together, Ginny sped down to the ground and climbed off with Henry. She set him safely on the grass. She kneeled down so they could talk eye-to-eye.

“Henry,” she said. “How would you like to go on a broom all by yourself just like Finnigan and Evra?”

Henry grinned. It looked a bit mischievous for a moment, but Ginny assumed she was merely projecting her memories of Little James onto his son. She laughed as Henry promptly threw his arms around her in a tight hug.

“Yay!!” he cheered.

Ginny was fairly certain he’d never been on a training broom by himself before. She spent a few minutes helping him get used to sitting up straight and holding on. Once he looked steady (and less liable to roll right off) Ginny gave the back of the tiny broom a gentle nudge. Henry beamed. Ginny walked slowly beside the broom, watching as Henry drifted along happily.

“That’s fun, isn’t it?” Ginny asked.

“Yes!!”

“You’re doing such a great job!” She gently pressed down on his right shoulder, so he’d lean to the side. He gasped in amazement as the broom turned to the right. He turned to look at Ginny, his eyes wide. In the sunlight, his light spattering of freckles looked more pronounced, and for a brief moment, Ginny could clearly see James in his expression. And with a decidedly cheeky grin, her tiny grandson gave a cackle, leaned forward, and sped off.

“No, Henry! Oh shit,” Ginny gasped. She took off running after Henry, who’d set off at an impossible speed.

“GINNY?” Harry yelled from several feet above her.

“HARRY, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS BROOM GO—THIS—FAST?!” she gasped. She was already getting out of breath as she sprinted at a breakneck pace after Henry, who still wasn’t stopping. He was headed out of their clearing, towards the woods separating them from their new Muggle neighbors. Shit, shit, shit, shit—

“Henry, stop! HENRY, STOP THE BROOM!” Harry shouted, panicked.

“HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO STOP IT! WE DIDN’T GET THAT FAR!” Ginny said. She realized running after him was fruitless, but she was too afraid to stop, because even if she couldn’t catch him, she had to keep him in her sights. Her heart was racing. I’ve lost my son’s child, she thought. He’s going to fly off and never be seen again!

They had a more serious problem: Henry didn’t know how to avoid trees, and he was headed right towards them. Ginny felt air whip beside her ear, and when she looked to her left, Harry was headed towards her. He stopped beside her and wordlessly passed her Delilah. As he took off after Henry on his broom, Ginny struggled to hold Delilah steady in her shaking arms. She leaned over to the right to try and apply pressure to the stitch in her side. She squinted desperately after Harry, but he’d disappeared into the trees after Henry, swallowed by the dense foliage. She wanted nothing more than to jump on her own broom and follow, but she had to get back to Finnigan and Evra.

Evra was already back on the ground when she returned, pacing anxiously, her hands pulling quite unkindly at her own hair. Finnigan was standing beside her, staring out where his brother had disappeared with his mouth hanging open.

“He’s gonna get lost and have to live in the woods like a wolf-boy—!”

“No, Evra, it’s okay, come here,” Ginny comforted. It didn’t feel okay; Ginny’s heart was pounding so hard she could feel her pulse in her face. Her legs felt like jelly. Nausea was making a permanent home in her gut. But Evra was upset, so she moved Delilah over into her left arm, forced a calm smile on her face, and reached for her granddaughter with her free arm. She pulled her to her side and kissed the top of her head. She grasped Evra’s hands, stopping her tugging at her hair.

“Don’t take this out on your scalp,” she teased. It was breathless and halfhearted, though. “Your Harry is going to catch up with him in no time. It’ll be okay.”

Evra snuggled closer to Ginny’s side. “He’s so great at flying.”

“Right, exactly. Harry’s so great at it. He’ll catch him, don’t worry.”

Despite her words of reassurance, Ginny spent the next minute or so silently fretting and coming up with a dozen horrific endings to Henry’s impromptu flight. Her head was full of horrible, anxious thoughts. She’d already started thinking ‘how am I going to explain this to my son?’ when the sound of rustling drew their attention.

“YES!!” Finnigan cheered. Harry came flying from the woods, Henry in front of him and the child’s broom clutched in his left hand. He came to a stop in front of Ginny, Delilah, Evra, and Finnigan, hoisted Henry into his arms, and then dropped from his broom. His hair was sticking to his forehead with sweat; Ginny had a suspicion it was mostly from anxiety. She was horrified to see that Henry had acquired a long scratch, one that started near his left cheekbone and ended halfway down his neck. She locked eyes with her grandson, her own gaze softening. She was prepared to pull him into her arms and take him back into the house for some serious coddling when he gave that cheeky grin she thought she’d imagined before.

Again!” he said, his hands reaching out for the broom.

“NO!” Ginny and Harry yelled.

Henry jumped at their tone. Ginny pressed her palm over her frantic heart.

“Henry, let’s all go inside for lunch, okay? Quiet lunch. Evra, do you want to lead the way?”

“Okay,” Evra agreed. She turned around and addressed her brothers as she walked backwards towards the house. “Stay behind me in a queue and don’t touch each other.”

While Evra marched her brothers back towards the Den, Ginny fastened Delilah into the baby carrier on Harry’s back, to give both their arms a rest. Once Delilah was safely in place, she reached over and grabbed onto Harry’s arm weakly.

“I am so sorry, I had no idea that broom could go that quickly,” she said.

Harry picked up her hand and moved it over his heart. Ginny could feel his heart thundering away.

“Can wizards have heart attacks? Can you feel a heart attack?” he gasped. “I can’t remember the last time I was so frightened. Probably when Delphi was about to kill our kids. Merlin, Gin, I can’t do this anymore, I’m too old. I’ve changed my mind. Adult kids are great. Adult kids don’t fly off through the woods and throw themselves off a moving broom because they see a dog they want to pet.”

Ginny’s heart skipped a beat. “What?!”

“Yes! He went ‘Paddy!’ and just…rolled right off! He hit a branch going down—that’s what caused the scratch. It’s lucky I caught him—do you think wizards can have heart attacks?”

“I think you’re probably all right,” Ginny said. She took in a deep breath and felt her heart gradually begin to level. She turned her focus to the broom that caused this. “How did that training broom do that? It was nearly as fast as your Firebolt.”

“Yeah, I figured that one out when I grabbed it. Look at this.” Harry turned the broom over, revealing an inscription along the bottom of the broom. Wood Broomsticks. Underneath that, in slightly less professional engraving: To little man Finnigan, one of a kind. X Uncle Ben.

Ginny ground her teeth. “That—sodding—Ben—Wood! Who the hell gives a toddler a broom that can go that fast?! Oh,” Ginny said, her tone becoming deadly. She gave a humorless laugh and shook her head. “I hope he’s enjoying his damn honeymoon because he is dead when he returns. His wife will win the record for youngest widow in their social circle. Stupid, idiotic…”

Grumbling beneath her breath, Ginny stalked off towards the Den, the broomstick clutched in her fist. She had half a mind to burn it.


It took Ginny a lot longer to bounce back from the terror of nearly causing a child’s death than it usually did.

Her own kids had nearly died on a weekly basis growing up, but there was something different about this time. It took her ages to get her heart rate back to normal. She didn’t know if she was, as Harry had said, just ‘too old for this’, if the fact that it was her son’s child made it worse than it being her own, or if it’d just been too long and she wasn’t used to the terror, but she was not coping well. And she had to agree with Harry. Right then, she’d much rather stop Lily and Albus from strangling each other with the tape measures they were previously using to estimate their boyfriend’s privates than ever have to chase a loose, airborne toddler again.

“I had a hike to the river planned, but now all I can picture is Delilah somehow falling in,” Harry hissed at Ginny. “So…Exploding Snap?”

“No,” Ginny said, haunted. She got a quick mental image of Evra’s long hair catching flame. “Think smaller.”

“Trip to the Muggle cinema?”

Ginny looked down at their grandkids. The older three were technically having lunch, though they were playing with their food more than eating it. Harry had cut their sandwiches up into little shapes and the kids were busy building a town with them; Evra had her plate arranged so the squares and triangles made little houses, Finnigan had made a flower with his diamond-shaped pieces that he was calling the ‘flower house’ (Ginny supposed that was meant to be a florist), and he was currently using the largest rectangle as the ‘Knight Bus’ to transport ‘people’ (grapes and carrots) from his ‘town’ to Evra’s. Ginny looked back to Harry as she mulled the cinema suggestion over. Delilah was eating now, so she could probably sit through a film. Evra loved the cinema. Henry might get a bit restless, but he’d definitely curl up on Ginny’s lap and take a nap before he resorted to a tantrum. And Finnigan might like something quick-paced—

“Knight bus…SNEAK ATTACK! Dragon breath! ARGGG!”

Ginny jumped as Finnigan used his ‘Knight Bus’ sandwich as a battering ram to knock over Evra’s sandwich buildings. She let out an indignant huff.

“NO, Finnigan! Don’t put your germs on my food!”

“More dragon breath…BLAST!”

“Oh, Merlin!” Harry cried, as Finnigan’s ‘Knight Bus’ burst into flames. Evra hardly seemed fazed. She reached over her plate and smacked her glass of water. It fell over and flooded their plates, effectively extinguishing the fire.

“Flood beats Dragon Breath fire,” she said haughtily. She turned back to her plate. Without much fuss, she gently patted the soaked plate; Ginny watched in amazement as the water gradually dried up. James frequently bragged that Evra was ‘in control’ of her magic more than anybody else in her peer-group, but Ginny had secretly thought that maybe Evra just didn’t have a lot of magic in her, because she’d only seen her do accidental magic once, and that was when she was three years old. But as she watched Evra casually dry her sandwiches out, she was left wondering why James hadn’t gushed more.

“Evra,” she said, completely distracted. “What did you just do?”

“I didn’t want my town to be burnt,” she said. She turned her wide eyes to Ginny and took an innocent bite of her sandwich. Ginny was speechless.

“Well…no, of course not, but how did you…you know. You made your sandwiches dry again all on your own.”

“‘Cause that’s what I wanted to happen,” Evra nodded.

Ginny looked helplessly to Harry. “But…Harry, did you just see that?”

“See what?” he asked. He was winding Delilah, his large hand patting her back gently, and for a moment, Ginny completely forgot what she was going to say. She hadn’t noticed until that moment how happy and, well, attractive he looked in his white shirt, lovingly tending to their baby granddaughter. Harry with babies had always been her ultimate weakness. And she was definitely too old for this. No baby fevers, Ginny warned herself. Don’t you dare. Don’t you even think about it. Think about Henry speeding off...or that time Lily drank an adult’s dosage of Sleeping Draught when she was three…or the time James fell out of that window at the Burrow and broke his leg and some ribs…or the time Albus was cursed and coughed blood into your face and you couldn’t help him and—

“Are you all right?” Harry asked suddenly, his tone soft yet urgent. Ginny didn’t know what her face was showing, but if it was anything close to the pain overwhelming her heart, it must’ve looked bad.

“Yeah, sorry, just talking myself out of baby fever. It was extremely effective. When I see you being sweet with babies I forget how bloody terrifying it is to raise kids for a moment. It’s a miracle ours survived infancy.” Ginny wrung her hands together uneasily. She was having a difficult time shaking the memory of Albus’s injury in his fifth year. She stood abruptly. “Actually, I’m just going to go Floo Albus.”

Henry perked up. “Alby?!”

“Yes, do you want to come along?”

“Yes!!” he cheered.

Ginny lifted Henry into her arms. He snuggled into her embrace. Ginny rested her chin against the top of his head and rubbed comforting circles into his back.

“Does your scratch feel better now that it’s fixed?” she asked him.

“All better,” he said.

“Was it frightening? Speeding all that way on your own?”

“No, I like it.”

“You like it?”

“Uh-huh. See puffies?”

Ginny smiled. She kissed the crown of Henry’s head. “Sure, you can play with the ‘puffies’ while I Floo your Alby.”

Ginny set Henry in the middle of her and Harry’s bed, coaxed the Pygmy Puffs from their various snoozing spots, and settled them down onto the bed. Henry laughed hysterically as they scampered up and down his body. They paused every now and then to nuzzle affectionately at his neck. Ginny kneeled in front of the fireplace and tossed a handful of Floo powder in.

“Potter-Malfoy flat,” she said. She focused on the hardness of the floor beneath her knees to try and keep herself from feeling nauseated. The Potter-Malfoy kitchen came into view as her head stopped spinning.

“Albus?” she called loudly. “Are you home?”

She eyed the bubbling pot on the stove. Scorpius sometimes cooked, but as far as Ginny knew, it was mostly Albus, so hopefully that was a sign that he was home. She peered as far to the left of the kitchen as she could; from the tiny bit of the table she could see, it looked as if there was paperwork strewn across the surface.

She turned back towards the doorway at the approaching sound of footsteps. Her heart swelled and warmed as her youngest son stepped into view.

“Oh,” he said, surprised. He must not have heard her calling. He smiled a second later. “Hi, Mum. Been waiting long?”

“No, a minute or so,” she reassured him. She smiled. “Still in your pajamas, I see.”

He grinned. “I don’t have to go into work today, so I figured clothes were excessive.” He crossed over to the fireplace and sat in front of it. “How’s James’s lot?”

“Unnaturally adorable,” Ginny answered. “How are you? You look a bit tired. Did the kids wear you out that badly?”

“No! Try Scorpius.”

Ginny arched a coy eyebrow. Albus backtracked.

“No, Mum, not like that,” he scoffed. “He’s gotten obsessed with—”

He stopped speaking abruptly. His unfinished sentence hung awkwardly in the air. Ginny cocked her head to the side and observed her son suspiciously.

What?”

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell.”

“Oh, is it something personal? Don’t, if you aren’t sure if he’d want me to know.”

“No, it’s Ministry business.”

“Oh,” Ginny said. She waved her hand nonchalantly. She really couldn’t care less about Ministry secrets. “Who cares, you can tell me.”

“Oh, that’s nice, Mum,” Albus said dryly. “I’m glad I’ve got such upstanding role models in my parents.”

“I never claimed to be an ‘upstanding role model’. I’m much too cool for that.”

“…Yeah…sure. ‘Cool mum’…”

Ginny ignored his skeptical tone. “Exactly. Don’t forget it.”

Albus crossed his legs, a sign that he was planning on speaking for a while. Ginny grinned. She shifted over to sit on her bottom as well, prepared for an unraveling of juicy Ministry secrets.

“Witches have mostly stopped birthing magical babies, did you know that?” Albus said.

Ginny’s shoulders dropped in disappointment.

“Oh,” she said sadly. “I thought it would be something I didn’t already know.”

“You already knew that? How?!”

“I’m married to Harry Potter who’s best mates with Hermione Granger, our Minister for Magic. There’s little that I don’t know.”

“Oh, right,” Albus nodded. “I forgot Dad is rubbish at keeping secrets from you. Well, when Lily was here she was telling us about all this stuff that’s going on with the poaching—because I had to do a last minute report on another Auror’s investigations—and Scorpius is convinced there’s a link between the two things—the poaching and the decrease in magical births.”

Ginny arched an eyebrow. “How does that work?”

“That’s what I thought too at first, but Lily told us one-half of the major poaching gangs are essentially using biological warfare to take the dragons down. They’re releasing a different strand of dragon pox that’s highly, highly contagious, and according to Lily, we have no idea what this disease could do to humans.”

“Oh,” Ginny said. She felt a tiny shiver of fear run through her. “That’s…not good. Is Scorpius speaking with colleagues about this?”

“He’s at the Department of Mysteries right now. He thinks he can get somebody to listen to him. They didn’t exactly take well to Lily’s brand of…lecturing.”

“Yeah, well, not many people like getting aggressively swore at or insulted; it’s an acquired taste. I’m sure Scorpius will fare much better. Have you talked to your dad about this yet?”

“No, I’ve been spending all day doing work my damn boss keeps sending over. I agreed to do one report to owl him tonight—and, mind you, I wasn’t even supposed to have to do that; I did what I was supposed to do and asked for my time off well in advance!—and he’s sent three extra things to me today to have completed by midnight. It’s rubbish. I wish I could hex him. Just seeing his stupid face makes my wand hand itch…” Albus trailed off darkly.

Ginny was scowling. “He takes advantage of you, Al, and I don’t like it. You need to tell him ‘no’.”

“I try! I do! He honestly ignores me, Mum.”

“Shall I go and tell him no for you, then? He won’t ignore me. He wouldn’t dare,” she said darkly.

“Let me think on that…do I want my mummy coming to my department to yell at my boss for being mean to me…hmm…tempting—I think it’d do wonders for my popularity within the department—but that’s going to have to be a solid ‘no’, Mum.”

Ginny shrugged. “Your loss.”

Henry was being so quiet and playing so nicely that she’d momentarily forgotten that he was even in the room. When his little arms wrapped around her neck from behind, she jumped and felt her breath catch. She relaxed as soon as she got a whiff of the other Potter home (cinnamon and vanilla, always faintly following them; Ginny suspected it was from a shampoo). She reached up and held onto Henry’s hands.

“Henry! What are you up to?” Albus greeted. “Are you having fun with your Ginny and Harry?”

“I fly by myself,” Henry shared proudly.

Albus arched an eyebrow and looked to Ginny for an explanation. She grimaced.

“He might have…made a ‘great escape’. Don’t really want to talk about it.”

Albus grinned slyly. “Not as fun as you remember it, is it? Having little kids around?”

Ginny scoffed. “Are you joking? Having these kids here is like a lovely little stroll through a well-maintained park where every dog owner always picks up after their pets. Raising you and your siblings was like going to a shady Muggle teeth-doctor who doesn’t believe in pain management: painful, risky, terrifying, and there was always that vague feeling that you should probably keep an antibiotic potion on hand.”

“Wow, Mum,” Albus said, deadpanned. “I’m glad I’ve got such a sweet, warm mother, who appreciates me and all my flaws, who thinks I’m the greatest achievement of her entire life.”

Ginny blinked. “Did somebody adopt you while I wasn’t looking?”

Albus tried to maintain a stern expression, but he joined her in her laughter quickly enough.

“For the record, though, you are one of the greatest achievements of my life, and I do appreciate you and your flaws.”

“Soppy.”

“And yet true.”

Albus’s grin widened. “Did you Floo to tell me that you love me or was there another reason?”

“No, actually, it was pretty much just to tell you that I love you, now that I think about it,” Ginny admitted.

“Well, while we’re talking, I’ve got to ask…how upset was Lily yesterday?”

Ginny didn’t understand. She shook her head, confused. “What do you mean? I didn’t see Lily yesterday. I thought she was with you and Scorpius.”

Albus’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh!”

“What?!”

“Well…she sort of left our flat in the middle of the night to go talk with Caden. I assumed she’d come running home to you and dad, sobbing her eyes out…you’re sure she hasn’t been there?”

“No. You haven’t seen her since she left?” Ginny felt her heart squeeze with nervousness. “You should’ve told me this sooner.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Albus said quickly. “She probably ran off to Aster’s to get blind drunk.”

“Albus, that is not fine!”

“For Lily it is. Has she told you what happened with her and Caden?”

Ginny should’ve been a better person and said ‘no, but it’s not your place to’. But she was dying to know what had happened. Throughout the entire wedding reception, Caden had been watching her daughter with such aching looks, and she’d caught Lily giving him some of the same glances. She guessed Lily had lost her temper and said something she regretted, something to make Caden end things.

“No…she hasn’t,” Ginny admitted. “But…I should probably tell you not to tell me.”

“You don’t sound very excited about that.”

Ginny huffed. “No, because I really want to know.”

“It’s even bad for Lily, and that’s saying something,” Albus muttered.

Ginny bit her lip. She sighed a moment later. “Oh…go on, then! Tell me!”

“Well—”

“Wait! No! No. No, I need to…respect her right to privacy.”

Albus looked a bit disappointed. “Really? ‘Cause I wanted to complain about her with you.”

Ginny groaned. “I really want to know, but…I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

“Okay, well, let’s just say…she really messed up this time, and if Caden takes her back, he’s truly delusional.”

Granted, Ginny didn’t know how badly Lily had messed up, but she didn’t think there was much delusional about Caden at all. She thought about the way she’d caught him looking at her daughter at the reception, the soft, longing looks wedged between the jealous, possessive ones. When somebody else was holding Lily, he seemed to be seconds away from falling apart. There was no mistaking it.

“No, I don’t think he’s delusional. I think he probably loves her. He’d have to. He’s put up with so much over the years. And he must think it’s worth it.”

“Only Merlin knows why,” Albus muttered.

Ginny frowned. “I happen to think Lily’s worth it. She’s got her…shortcomings, but there’s nobody quite like her—and I think that is a good thing, too.”

“Mmhmm, yes, but you grew her in your own body for nine months and then birthed her…I think that makes you a bit biased.”

Ginny refused to believe that her daughter was as bad as Albus often wanted to make her out to be. He could say what he liked, but her daughter was still one of the funniest, strongest, and cleverest people Ginny knew, and she was rather proud of that. She sought a topic change before she got too offended.

“Speaking of people growing babies…”

Albus blanched. “You’re kidding?! You’ve got to be bloody kidding me! She’s pregnant again?! How?! How is that even possible?! Scorpius is going to freak out—!”

“No, Albus. No. Nora’s not pregnant. Yet, anyway…” Ginny rolled her eyes. At James and Nora’s typical rate, it wouldn’t be that much longer until she was again. “I was talking about you.”

Albus flushed. “I can’t grow a baby, much less birth one.”

“No, but you can adopt one just fine. How are you feeling about that after playing dad for a night?”

“I’m feeling like I really regret talking to you and James about this because you both keep harassing me.”

“Harassing you!? This is the first time I’ve asked!”

“…Still, I’m feeling very harassed.”

“Fine, fine, don’t tell me,” Ginny sighed. With some difficulty, she reached behind her and lifted Henry (he’d been standing behind her and resting his cheek tiredly against the back of her shoulder) and pulled him around into her lap. He curled up at once and let his eyes fall shut. Definitely nap time. Ginny rubbed Henry’s back soothingly as he drifted off to sleep. She quieted her words to a whisper so as not to wake him. “Maybe Scorpius is so involved in this issue with the magical babies because he’s ready for one.”

She saw a flicker of excitement in her son’s eyes for a moment. He seemed to suppress it seconds later. “No, he’s just Scorpius, Mum. He likes figuring things out and helping people.”

“Sure, but he can do all those things while also longing for a baby,” Ginny pointed out. “I think waiting is a good idea, you know. But I don’t think keeping things a secret from each other is. If he’s not ready yet, would that really be such a problem? He should feel comfortable enough in your relationship to be able to say ‘no, not yet’, just as you should be comfortable enough to ask for what you want and handle being told that you can’t have it just yet.”

“You sound so much like James right now and it’s annoying.”

“I think technically James sounds like me,” Ginny corrected. Ginny glanced down at Henry when she felt his breathing even out. She wished James had been this easy to get to sleep when he was little. She looked back up at Albus. “Just wondering. Hypothetically. When you and Scorpius do start a family, Scorpius and Draco will still be all right with having Christmas with us, right? As in…you’ll still come to the Den on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and the Burrow on Christmas Day? Because we already lost James for Boxing Day and we may even end up losing some Christmases and I might have to lose my mind and turn into a stereotypical demon mother-in-law.”

“Mum, I doubt we’d suddenly decide to spend Christmases in Malfoy Manor just because we’ve had a kid. As far as I know, both Draco and Scorpius are content with the joint Christmases.”

She would be satisfied with that answer for now, but she was considering getting it in writing when they actually did have a baby. She smiled at her son.

“Well, if you want to talk about it—the evil baby fever—I’m here and I understand. And if you hear from your sister, please let your dad and I know…I think I’m going to Floo Aster in a moment to see if she’s seen her…you don’t think she ran back to New Zealand, do you? She’s going to be in so much trouble if she left without even saying goodbye…”

“Yeah, all right, Mum. Thanks.” There was a pause. “I love you.”

Her smile returned. “And I love you. Don’t work yourself too hard, all right? Get done what you can, and if Young gives you issues, I’m only a few floors away on Monday.”

“Mum, you’re not fighting my boss.”

“Oh, fine…worth a try. Give Scorpius my love. If you two aren’t sick of kids by now, you’re always welcome to come over tonight for dinner.”

Albus scowled. “I’m actually cooking because we’ve got other people coming over for dinner.”

The way he said other people told Ginny they were talking about strangers.

“What? Who? Why?”

“Some of Scorpius’s colleagues and the muggle ‘doctor’ he’s friends with.”

“How does she—”

“Her sister is a witch,” Albus explained. Ginny nodded. “I’m not looking forward to it. I’m not the ‘dinner party’ type.”

“Just offer them wine and keep offering ‘til everybody’s sloshed. That’s always what your dad and I do.”

“Might have to take that advice, actually…” Albus seemed to be deciding whether or not to continue. Ginny hoped he would, and luckily, he seemed to decide that he did want to talk about it with her. “I don’t like his colleagues.”

“No? Are they obnoxious?”

Albus grimaced. “No…well, I don’t know, I guess not really…it’s just…one of them makes me uncomfortable because she—for whatever misguided reason—fancies me and has done since Hogwarts years…and one of the other Healers…” he trailed off. “Well, Scorpius says he’s just like that—really friendly and touchy—but I think he fancies Scorpius. My husband, Scorpius.”

“As opposed to the other Scorpius we know,” Ginny teased. Albus scowled at her. She continued on. “I’ve got a great fix for this situation, one your dad and I are very familiar with. Keep drinking ‘til it gets less awkward, any time they touch you pick up their hand and set it back on their own leg, and then when that stops being effective at fettering their advances, you climb onto Scorpius’s lap. Literally, leg over, right onto his lap. And—”

“Mum—!”

“And then you take his face in your hands and you snog him nonstop until they leave. And they will leave. At first, there will be silence. Then awkward giggling. Then annoyed huffs. Then they’ll start whispering: ‘oh, maybe we should leave, Janet’, ‘No, Will, give them another moment’, and finally they reach ‘acceptance’ and just bugger off, and the best part is, you’ve already begun a really nice night.”

“This is why I go to Dad for relationship advice.”

“Who the hell do you think I’m snogging in these scenarios?! This is exactly your dad’s response, too!”

“There's no way Dad does that.”

“…I really hate to tell you this, but you exist as a byproduct of one of these nights.”

“UGH! Mum! For Merlin’s sake!”

“You know,” Ginny mused aloud. “Maybe that’s why you’re so prone to possessiveness.”

“I’m going now. To scour my mind. How would you feel if I gave you detailed accounts of my and Scorpius’s…nights?”

“First off, that was not a detailed account, and if you’d like an example of what a true detailed account really is, just ask Lulu about her Friday nights. But be sure that I already know plenty more than I wanted to know about you and Scorpius. This can count as revenge for that argument you and Lulu got into over—”

Albus flushed. “Mum, we all agreed—mutually—to never talk about that. The last thing I want is Scorpius finding out. He’s shy.” Something occurred to Albus. He straightened. “And, hey, how dare you lecture me on things like this when you and dad regularly traumatized me my entire childhood?!”

Ginny gasped. “We did no such thing! We were great and loving parents to you!”

“Yeah, and loving to each other, in a disgusting way!”

“That’s a great thing! We were modeling a respectful, loving relationship for you!”

“I could’ve used fewer examples. I got the idea by age five.”

“Name one bad thing our love ever caused,” Ginny challenged, sure he couldn’t come up with anything substantial.

“I didn’t know adults actually used the bathtub for genuine bathing until like last year.”

“…Only the boring ones.”

“GOODBYE, Mum!”

“I won’t apologize for loving your father!”

“TALK TO YOU LATER, THE CONNECTION IS GETTING BAD…” Albus slid to the left, putting him out of sight. Ginny tsked.

“All that time watching your dad and I lie our way out of conversations, and that’s the best you can do? Well, work on it. Love you, Al. Good luck with your dinner party tonight!”

“Love you too, Mum, thanks,” he called, still out of sight. Ginny was laughing as she backed up from the fireplace, ending their conversation. She shifted Henry to make sure he was still comfortable before throwing yet another handful of Floo powder into the fireplace and subjecting herself to nauseating dizziness. This time, the person in question entered the kitchen the moment Ginny arrived.

“Mrs. Potter,” Aster said, horrified. She stopped in place. “Oh no. What did Lily do?”

“Damn,” Ginny said. She felt her heart inching down. “She hasn’t been in contact?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to her in nearly a week,” Aster admitted. She walked over and perched on a stool set in front of the fireplace. Her face fell. “Why?! Wait—why do you ask? Haven’t you seen her?! Her Uncle Charlie sent her back home last I heard, she should be here!”

“She was—she was here,” Ginny said quickly. She wanted to reassure her daughter’s best friend, but she was feeling a bit frantic with worry herself. “She showed up at the reception and ended up going home with Caden—”

What?!” Aster demanded.

“And then she went to Albus and Scorpius’s flat and Albus said she left in the middle of the night to go ‘talk’ with Caden and nobody has seen her since.”

“She’s supposed to be leaving him alone!” Aster said, infuriated. “What is she playing at?! When you find her, let me know, because I’ve got a slap waiting for her!”

“Do you have any idea where she might’ve gone?” Ginny pleaded.

“Hugo? Emi? Jillian?”

“I suppose I should Floo and ask Caden before I start Flooing her entire year—”

“Wait, you haven’t checked there?” Aster relaxed immediately. “Well, that’s probably exactly where she is.”

Ginny hesitated. “Albus made it sound like it was extremely unlikely that Caden would take her back. And I didn’t want to Floo and risk upsetting him more.”

“Albus doesn’t know Caden as well as I do.”

Ginny pulled nervously at her wedding band. “How badly did she mess up? In regards to Caden…I know about the dragons.” Ginny had a terrifying thought. “She’s not…pregnant?!”

“NO!” Aster yelped. She pressed a hand over her heart like the mere suggestion was alarming enough to make her heart race. “No. She’s just been careless with his feelings.”

“Oh, yeah, well…that’s Lily for you,” Ginny said. She heaved a sigh. “All right, I’ll check Caden’s and go from there. Let me know if you hear from her, yeah?”

“I will. Tell her to come see me when you find her.”

“I will. Thanks, Aster.”

Ginny stood carefully and settled Henry down on her and Harry’s bed. She checked her wristwatch. She’d been gone far too long; she’d left Harry to fend for himself for nearly twenty minutes now. She told herself she’d Floo to Caden’s and then give Lily until dinner to make an appearance before she began Flooing around. She kneeled back in front of the fireplace, threw a handful of powder in, and grimaced through the journey as she was rerouted to Caden’s flat. She didn’t announce herself immediately. She peered around and took stock of the living room. A blanket was lying halfway off the sofa…a book was lying face down on the coffee table…there were two mugs on a side table…

Noise on Caden’s end drew Ginny’s eyes from the individual objects. She looked around, expecting somebody to enter the living room for a few moments, but the noise didn’t seem to be getting any closer. She strained her ears and waited. Soon after, she determined the sound to be Caden’s laughter intermingled with her own daughter’s giggles. Her heart jumped in her chest. She felt a smile bloom. She couldn’t make out any of the words, but she could tell from experience that the two were almost certainly bickering; there was that quick, snappy cadence to their voices that suggested they were currently insulting each other for sport. And going by the warm, contented laughter mixed up in the midst of their teasing, things were just fine, after all.

She couldn’t wait to tell Harry. She thought about dragging him back to the Floo to have him listen himself. But eavesdropping seemed wrong and inappropriate, so she withdrew from the Floo without saying a word.


 

“This is the creepiest thing I have ever seen,” Ginny greeted. “And I’ve seen some extremely creepy things in my life.”

Harry turned. He wiped some bubbles from his glasses lenses. On either side of him, standing in front of the kitchen sink, Finnigan and Evra were happily scrubbing the dishes from lunch. Ginny was horrified.

“What the hell did you do to them?” she demanded.

“Nothing! They offered to help!”

Ginny crossed her arms over her chest. “They ‘offered’. Is this like the time Albus and James ‘offered’ to do the washing up for thirty galleons worth of chocolate?”

“No,” Harry persisted. He wiped his hands on a dish towel, dropped kisses to the tops of Evra’s and Finnigan’s heads, and then approached Ginny. Ginny was still horrified by the sight of her clearly brainwashed grandkids. No kid should’ve ever looked that happy to be cleaning. “I started to wash them while they were playing and they just…walked over and started helping. Just like that. Gin…I think James and Nora have them trained.”

“Trained?! Like circus animals?!” Ginny hissed, her eyes flickering towards her poor grandkids.

“No…like good kids. Manners and responsibility and such.”

Oh,” Ginny said. In her opinion, that was harder than training circus animals. “Wow. How do you think they did it?”

“With the blessing of Nora’s temperament? We never could’ve done that with our kids, so don’t feel bad,” he said.

She hadn’t even begun feeling bad until he said that. She looked at him, her mouth agape. Realization crept up her spine. “Oh, Merlin. We’re bad parents! This…this is what good parents look like, and we’re bad!” In her fit of horror, she reached out and swiped at Harry’s shoulder.

“Oi! What did I do?!”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me we were rubbish parents?!”

“We were not rubbish parents! I mean—we’re not rubbish parents, because we’re still parents, even if our kids are parents, too!”

“Well, if we’re not rubbish, how come our son has his kids trained to do the chores and enjoy it when we were lucky if we could keep our kids from knocking each other’s teeth out?!”

“Gin, we had James, Albus, and Lily. The odds were not stacked in our favor. Imagine what we could’ve done with kids as agreeable and sweet-tempered as our grandkids…” Harry trailed off. His brow furrowed. “Well, I was trying to think of something better than how our kids ended up, but…they actually ended up pretty perfect despite. So, hey. We did a great job! Our son’s the youngest to head a department in Ministry history; our other son’s a successful Auror; our daughter’s the youngest female dragonologist to win a Conservation Award and open her own sanctuary…that’s as good as it gets.”

That did reassure Ginny. “Yeah,” she nodded. “Yeah. Who cares if they’re a bit…wild? They’re ours. They’re…feisty. Spirited. Charismatic. Headstrong.”

“They’re loveable,” he added. “Well…they’re…no, yeah, they’re…mostly loveable.” He grinned cheekily; for a moment, Ginny was reminded of the grin Henry gave seconds before he bolted for the trees. “They get the loveable part from you.”

Ginny smirked. When Harry stepped closer, she shook her head.

“No, no—I’ve just been told by our son that our open affection was traumatizing to him growing up,” she said. “We’ve got to do better by the grandkids.”

Harry scowled. “Traumatizing?! I’ll tell you what’s traumatizing—having your toddler son sneak into the shower without warning morning after morning! Having your baby vomit into your mouth! Cleaning up the obscene amount of nappies after your son gets rotavirus! Oh boohoo, he had to watch us snog on occasion; I had to teach him how to use a toilet!”

“…See, I think this right here might be why our kids aren’t like James and Nora’s.”


“Okay, your turn, Finnigan…no…Finnigan, don’t—”

Ginny pursed her lips against laughter as she heard a massive splash, followed shortly after by Harry’s sharp intake of breath. He’d offered to supervise the boys’ shower if she bathed the girls. He’d made the mistake of assuming the grandkids would follow the same pattern as their kids when it came to bath time; it was always a better gamble to choose Albus and James over Lily, as Lulu always ended up practically flooding the house during baths, but Harry had clearly forgotten that Finnigan was the one most like Lily.

“Finnigan Thomas Potter, do not squirt that soap on Henry’s—oh, come on, Finnigan! Are you sure this is accidental magic because that looked pretty deliberate to me!”  

Henry began shrieking at once. When Ginny leaned back and glanced towards the shower, she saw Harry had lifted Henry up into his arms, indifferent to his Weasley jumper that was now becoming soaked very rapidly. He snatched a towel off the hook and wiped at Henry’s eyes; the soap must’ve gotten into them.

“Everything all right?” Ginny shouted. The roar of the water was loud, but Henry’s shrieks were much louder.

“Can I borrow your wand?” Harry yelled back.

Ginny tossed it towards him at once; he caught it with a rather impressive smoothness, considering he had a shrieking, sopping wet toddler in his arms. Harry reassured Henry as he directed a gentle stream of water into his burning eyes to help flush the soap out. Once Ginny was confident that Henry’s eyesight would remain intact, she turned back to her granddaughters. Delilah was having the time of her life in her bath seat; she was chewing on a wet flannel and batting at the rubber duck that kept drifting towards her. Evra was singing quietly to herself as she pulled sweet-smelling conditioner through her curls. Ginny smiled at both girls as Henry and Finnigan began bickering. Yeah– she’d definitely gotten the better deal.

“Are you ready for your comb now, Evra?” Ginny asked. Her granddaughter was about as preoccupied with her hair as Lily had been; she’d been fretting about combing it since dinner and wouldn’t let anybody forget that ‘Alby and Scorpius’ wouldn’t let her take a bath at their house (and, apparently, the two things– combing her hair and taking a bath– were mutually inclusive). Ginny had learned long ago to go with the flow when it came to hair.

“Not yet,” Evra told her, her fingers dragging through her curls without cessation. “I sing my song three times first. It’s only been two.”

“Oh, okay,” Ginny said. “What’s that you’re singing– let me hear your pretty voice!”

Her granddaughter happily obliged. Going by the soppy lyrics and ridiculous similes, James was the songwriter. Once Evra finished applying an excessive amount of conditioner–and finished her third rendition of her 'song’–she looked happily at Ginny.

“Now it’s tiger time!!”

“Okay, right,” Ginny agreed. She held up three combs, each with teeth set slightly further apart. Nora had drawn faces on them, so if you turned them horizontally, the comb teeth became the mouths of the animals. She selected the tiger-painted comb with the widest teeth. She could feel tension winding itself around her heart as she leaned over the edge of the tub and brought the comb to her granddaughter’s hair; she had many memories of early-morning fights with Lily over hair combing, and Lily’s hair typically resisted tangling. But Lily had also always loved a good fight. Evra pressed her feet to baby Delilah’s and began a silly kicking game while Ginny combed carefully through her hair section-by-section. She wasn’t the least bit distressed or irritated by the tugging on her scalp. If anything, she seemed calmer than she’d been all day.

By the time the boys were clean and bundled in towels, Ginny was feeling quite smug. She paused her combing (they were now onto the 'wolf brush’) and looked over her shoulder at Harry. She suppressed an amused cackle. Harry glared at her, as if daring her to say a word, his hair dripping water steadily into his eyes. His clothes were soaked completely through. She pressed her lips together.

“Don’t,” Harry warned.

“You look…wet.”

“Finnigan fancies himself a tsunami. Isn’t that right?” He looked sternly down at Finnigan. He was grinning mischievously.

“Harry got sprayed,” he said.

“Yes, I see that,” Ginny sniggered. “That’s what you get for trying to take the 'easy job’ and leaving me with the difficult one, Harry.”

“Yeah,” Harry said dryly, his eyes on Evra and Delilah as they sang together (or babbled, in Delilah’s case). “That looks really difficult.”

“Turns out Evra loves having her hair combed. Long hair doesn’t always equal fights to the death just to get the comb in spitting distance.”

“I always knew Lily was being dramatic.”

“That’s what I thought!” Ginny agreed. Though, to be fair, having a nice, reliable routine was probably a much better method than their method (tackling Lily to the ground when they were already running late after she’d slept on wet, unbrushed hair the night before). Ginny honestly didn’t know where James and Nora found the time to be so organized and patient, and she wasn’t sure whether she felt intimidated by their parenting prowess, or proud of her own for raising a son who could be such a wonderful dad.


 

Bedtime went suspiciously well. Harry started the muggle record player James and Nora packed, they took turns resting with each kid, and within only twenty minutes, they were all fast asleep. Ginny was relieved because she was beyond ready for bed-- she had started to miss Harry. She’d gotten spoiled these past few years; she wasn’t used to not being able to snog him whenever she damn well felt like it, and somehow knowing that she couldn’t made her want to do it even more. They brushed their teeth side by side (knocking hips to try and push the other out of the way periodically), Ginny changed into her pajamas, and then they curled up beneath the covers. Ginny wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face into his pajama top. She let out a relieved sigh.

“The kids are asleep, the construction has been completed, the dishes from dinner are washed, and our grandkids survived another day. The day went better than I thought it would,” Harry yawned.

“It actually went even better than you think it did,” Ginny said. She rested her head on his shoulder and peered up at his jawline. She gently ran her fingers over his bare chest. “I found out where Lily is.”

Harry looked down at her. “I thought she was at Albus’s.”

“Oh. No. She was missing for a few hours, but I think I forgot to tell you that.”

“Er…yeah, Gin. You forgot to tell me that our youngest child was missing.Where is she?!”

“I’m not really clear on the whole story…Albus offered to tell me behind Lily’s back, but I said no, which I think I deserve a reward for.”

Harry cocked an eyebrow. She matched his wicked grin.

“And…?” he pressed.

“And what?”

“And what do you know about all of this?”

“Oh,” she realized. “Well, I know Lily did something insensitive, which caused her and Caden to end things.”

“They’ll be back together by Christmas,” Harry yawned.

“They already are back together. She disappeared late Saturday night—or, technically, early Sunday morning—to go ‘talk’ with him. She never came back. But I Flooed through to Caden’s and saw her, Harry—or heard her, anyway—and guess what?”

He was wary. “Do I want to know this? Seriously consider whether I want to know this.”

“You do,” she said seriously. “She was happy.”

Harry lifted his head from the pillow and looked down at Ginny.

“Happy?” he asked. He seemed to be restraining himself from feeling hopeful.

“Yes. She was laughing—giggling, really—and they were doing their vaguely-worrying fighting thing that they do. But the important thing was that she was happy.”

“I was worried she wouldn’t be happy again for a very long time,” Harry admitted. Ginny already knew that, but she leaned up and kissed his lips comfortingly like that was the first time she’d heard the admission, anyway.

“You know something, Harry?” Ginny realized. She slid up and propped against the pillows; Harry mirrored her and did the same. He wrapped an arm around her afterwards.

“What?”

“All joking aside, I really do think we did a decent job.”

Harry’s head dropped over to rest against Ginny’s. She knew he was thinking of their kids—their happy kids.

“It never really ends, does it? Parenting.”

“Absolutely not,” Ginny snorted. “They still need parenting as adults, just a different sort. And then they give you grandkids on top of it!”

Harry was quiet. He reached over beneath the duvet and set his hand on her thigh. He rubbed her skin as he thought.

“Good,” he finally said. “I never wanted it to end. Not really.”

“Me neither,” she admitted.

Their sentimental moment was ruptured as the door swung open. Ginny peeked through the opening in the bed hangings and watched as the three little ones tip-toed their way across the carpet, as if they thought they were genuinely being sneaky.

“The grandkids?”

“The grandkids,” Ginny nodded.

As the kids climbed onto the bed and began weaving pitiful stories about ‘nightmares’ and ‘missing Daddy and Mummy terribly’ and any other excuse they could come up with to earn a spot in Harry and Ginny’s bed, Ginny had to admit something else.

“I don’t miss this, though,” she said.

Harry propped himself up on his elbow. He was as far from her as he could get, their three grandkids stretched out between them. He sighed.

“No, I could do without the child blockade.”

They rested their arms along the pillows—above their grandkids’ sleeping head—and loosely intertwined their fingers. Ginny tiredly stroked the back of his hand with her thumb as she drifted towards sleep. It wasn’t the sort of contact she wanted (she would’ve much rather held him), but if there was one thing parenting had taught them after all these years, it was to take what they could get.

Chapter Text

“Okay, now…hold that steady, Rosie!”

“Mmhm,” Rose said, but she was not really listening. She was staring unseeingly out of the opened window at a bird’s nest on the third branch of a nearby tree. A mama bird was feeding two babies.

“Ready, steady…ARG!”

Her dad’s pained cry ripped her attention away from the birds. Rose jumped and straightened. She turned to look at her dad, who was now holding an extremely bloody hand, his mouth widened as he howled in pain. He dropped down from the counter and began hopping in place.

“Rose!” he cried. “You said you’d hold it steady!!”

Rose looked down at the countertop. Right. Her dad had been working on a new product. She was supposed to be holding the cutting block steady. It must’ve slipped as he went to chop off a bit more of the strange herb Professor Longbottom had provided, leading to her dad accidentally slicing off a bit of his finger.

“Sorry, Dad,” Rose said, but she found she didn’t really feel that sorry at all. But then again, she hadn’t felt much of anything since the wedding. She summoned a clean cloth from a nearby drawer. Her dad held his hand out and winced in pain as Rose wrapped the cloth around his gushing wound.

“HERMIONE!” Ron yelled. “I’VE GOT A BLOODY PROBLEM!”

Rose fell back down onto her chair. She turned her attention back to the birds outside the window. Where had the mother bird gone?

“YOU’VE ALWAYS GOT A PROBLEM…WHAT IS IT NOW?”

“I’VE CUT MY BLOODY FINGER OFF!”

“YOUR ENTIRE FINGER? HOW’D YOU MANAGE THAT?”

“A BIT OF MY FINGER! I NEED YOU!”

“OH, ALL RIGHT, THEN. I’VE UNLOCKED THE OFFICE DOOR.”

While Rose’s dad hurried off to her mum’s in-home office, Rose slid back off her seat and walked over to the window. She leaned halfway out it and looked back at the nest, but this time, she didn’t see the mama bird or the babies. There was only the bleak greyness of winter, the bite to her bones. She stood there until her arms were falling asleep from being leaned on, until her nose was numb, until her eyes were tired of being open. She supposed it was time to do something productive, but she had no work left to do. She’d cleaned the entire house. She’d cleaned Roxanne’s flat a week ago. She’d cleaned James and Nora’s house yesterday. She supposed she could go over to the Den; maybe Aunt Ginny needed help reading over Prophet articles, or maybe Uncle Harry needed help in the garden. Anything to stay busy—that was the important thing. Busy or blank but never anything in between.

Rose washed the single dish in the sink, set it on the draining board, and then walked up the two flights of stairs separating her from her mum’s office. The door was ajar; her dad was sitting on her mum’s desk, his bottom lip drawn into his mouth in a grimace as Hermione dropped a healing solution on his wound.

“I thought our daughter was holding the neutralizing block—the plant has a magnetic force and it pulled the knife—ow, that burns, Merlin’s saggy—”

“Rose,” her mum said quickly, silencing Ron with a stern look. “Hello, darling. Are you going somewhere?”

Rose blinked. “What?”

“Your coat?” her mum said.

Rose looked down. Had she had her coat on all along? She must’ve, or maybe she’d grabbed it on her walk to her mum’s office. She was always doing things on autopilot these days and hardly noticing them.

“Oh. Yes. I’m going out.”

“Oh, good. Great! To Albus’s?” her mum asked hopefully.

Rose shook her head at once. “No. Absolutely not.”

Hermione gave Ron a pointed look. After a whispered argument, Ron looked over his shoulder at her.

“Rosie, your mum and I were talking last night—”

“Of course you were.”

“—and we think it would be really good for you to…well, you know. Get back into the swing of things. See your cousins and your friends. You can only hide yourself away for so long before you get a bit…”

Ron,” Hermione warned.

“Er…before you…well, we just think you should go out and enjoy yourself.”

“I am enjoying myself. I’m enjoying doing work and cleaning.”

“Sure, but you sound sort of…dead inside?” Ron said.

Hermione sighed and lowered her forehead to Ron’s shoulder.

“Well, sorry I’m not bursting with pep and cheer, Dad. I’m going now. Need anything while I’m out?” Rose asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, actually. My daughter? She’s about this high, she’s got an unmistakable zest for life, she loves Quidditch and cats and baking and bright colors, she cares about justice and women’s rights and animal rights and Muggle rights and loads of other things? She laughs at my jokes sometimes? She’s very clever?”

Rose was not amused. “If I see her, I’ll tell her to come home, yeah?”

“…Yeah. Yeah, fine. Bye, Rose.”

“Be careful! Where are you going and when will you be home?” Hermione asked.

“Dunno. Maybe the Den. Or the Burrow. Or some shops. I’ll let you know once I’m back.”

“Okay. Your dad will have dinner ready for you once you’re home.”

“He will? I will? I’m doing dinner tonight?” Ron demanded.

“Yes. You are. I’ve got a meeting.”

“When were you planning on telling me this?”

Hermione lifted her wrist and examined her wristwatch. “Two twenty-three PM.”

“Can I go to Harry and Gin’s and steal half of what Harry makes?”

“You can fight that out with Harry.”

“I see…” Ron said. He hopped off the desk. “Sounds good. Rose, we can go to the Den together.”

“Oh,” she said. “No, Dad, I— I think I might actually go to the shops after all—”

“Let’s go to the Den and then we’ll go to the shops together afterwards. Ron and Rosie bonding! Hermione, do you think Hugh’s done with work yet?”

“Doubt it. Doesn’t usually finish up on weekends ‘til seven.”

“Aw,” Ron said. “Well, if he happens to come by early, send him my way.”

“Sure,” Hermione said, even though everybody in the room knew that if Hugo got home early, she’d definitely keep him to herself.


 

As Rose stepped into the Den’s warm, laughter-filled kitchen, she thought to herself that she would’ve rather been dead. The intensity and honesty of that emotion floored her. For a moment, she stood still in the doorway, unsure how to proceed. But then her uncle ushered her in with a smile, and her cousin’s kids were flocking towards her with hugs and kisses, and it was time to pretend again. The emotion passed. There really wasn’t much left after that.

“Rosie,” James’s eldest son, Finnigan, said, his face shining with joy. “My mummy and my daddy are almost back!!”

“That’s great,” she said dully.

She had incorrectly assumed that that was a child’s ‘almost’ and not a literal one. So when the door opened only a few seconds later and Rose’s cousin pushed in, slightly tanned and beaming, she realized she should’ve run for it the moment she first stepped into the Den. It was too late now. She backed away from the scene as James and Nora greeted their overjoyed children. The reunion hugs and kisses were too much; it hurt to watch the tearful, ardent meetings of people who had missed each other terribly when she herself missed somebody terribly (and knew she would never have a scene like this again). Of course it was the sting of jealousy and resentment that first broke through her numbness. It was probably fitting.

Dozens of different conversations began at once, with the kids being so excited that they were reduced to shouting over each other with louder and louder voices in order to be heard, and Rose had no idea how the parents managed. But manage they did; James lifted two kids up, Nora lifted the other (even though she was already holding the baby), and if they realized they were being essentially shouted at, they didn’t show it. They carried their chattering kids out of the kitchen with unwavering smiles, leaving Rose with her dad, Harry, and Ginny.

“How are you doing, Rose?” her aunt asked. She held out a mug; Rose hadn’t even noticed she was making tea. She took it and felt a bit of relief. The warmth seeping through the ceramic and into her palms was soothing. Best yet—it gave her something to do. Rose shrugged in response to Ginny’s question and quickly took a sip. It scalded her throat going down.

“We were going to do a bit of shopping. Just, you know. Some father-daughter bonding,” her dad said. She didn’t think she imagined the boastfulness in his tone. She didn’t know how she was going to tell him that she had no intention of going shopping.

“Oh? That’s nice,” Ginny said. She set her palm on Rose’s shoulder. Rose automatically leaned into her touch, and before Rose could pull back, embarrassed, Ginny read her cue and pulled her into a tight hug. Rose felt the stillness encasing her heart crack a bit. She pressed her face into her aunt’s shoulder for a moment and allowed herself two seconds of pain. It swelled out from her heart. It flooded up her throat and it flowed down to her toes. For those two seconds, she saw her sloe-eyed girlfriend—ex-girlfriend—peering towards her, tears clinging to her dense eyelashes, lips parted in soft, surprised pain, as if Rose had just punched her in the gut. Rose felt a corresponding impact of pain in her own. She had to push her aunt away before the pain turned into tears.

“I’m fine,” she said, her voice a bit shaky. Nobody had asked. She backed up blindly. She stumbled back against a kitchen chair; she winced as the solid back of it made sharp contact with her tailbone.

“Rosie—”

“Don’t follow me, I’m fine, I’m just going to see if James needs any help,” she said.

She saw her dad and her Uncle Harry exchange a concerned look. Ron was very clearly asking Harry for his input. Harry nodded once. To Rose’s annoyance, Ron set off after her.

“We can help him together,” he told her firmly. He took her hand in his before she could stop him. Rose spent the entire walk towards the sitting room struggling to inhale fully. She was on the brink of breakdown and she couldn’t let that happen. The last time it had happened she’d been in bed for days. She needed to distract herself, she needed to clean or find work to do or a difficult task. Her eyes swept over the living room as they entered. The books on the far wall could be alphabetized. The photos in warm, copper frames could be dusted. The crimson blankets folded on the bottom shelf of the bookshelf could be folded a bit neater. Her cousin’s kids were climbing all over him; she could walk over and scold them. She set off towards the bookshelf first, but she was intercepted by her dad.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Alphabetizing,” she said. She stepped to the right. He stepped to the left. Her heart was thudding now. “Move.”

“You don’t need to do work. Just come sit. It’ll be okay.”

She felt like something was pressing on her lungs. She didn’t understand why, but she knew it was uncomfortable, and she was beginning to panic. “Dad, I don’t want to sit.”

Sit, please, c’mon, Rosie,” he urged.

Her mind sped up. She needed him to get away, but she didn’t want to hurt him. She gave it her best shot. She lifted her mug up and, with shaking hands, choked down nearly all of it. She pushed it into her dad’s hands. “Will you get me more tea?”

He stared at her oddly. “More? You’re sure? That will make you feel better?” 

“Yes. Really, very sure. Please, Dad.”

“Okay,” he said. He smiled and leaned in; Rose’s eyes shut as he kissed her forehead. “I’ll be back!”

Rose paced once he left, her fingers rubbing nervously over the knuckles of her left hand. She felt frantic. She was struggling to come up with an excuse to leave when her cousin called out to her.

“Rose! Come here! What are you doing all the way over there?!”

“I’m—I—oh, I don’t know,” she said, and she heard her own voice break. Nora turned around at the sound and peered at Rose probingly. Rose’s heart rate only increased.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She didn’t seem to notice or care that Henry was climbing his way onto her shoulders, his face falling to nuzzle his mum’s hair. For whatever reason, the sight of that only made Rose feel worse. Maybe it was the openness. Maybe it was the love. It was probably the breathless joy at being reunited. “Really, come over here,” Nora urged, as James had.

Rose felt like she was walking towards the Guillotine. She was stiff as she settled down in the indicated spot between James and Nora. Finnigan was hanging halfway off James’s lap, his hair brushing the carpet, giggling wildly as James tickled his tummy. Evra was staring at a gift her parents had given her in awe, her smile so wide her eyes crinkled at the corners. Nora was attempting to nurse Delilah, but the baby couldn’t seem to decide whether she wanted to giggle and stare lovingly at her mum or actually have a meal; in the short span of time that Rose was watching, Delilah pulled back twice to offer her mum a soft, radiant smile. Maybe that could be Rose’s excuse. She stood.

“I’ll get you a muslin cloth to have for winding—”

James took hold of her hand gently and pulled her back down. “No, no need,” he reassured her. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a cloth. “Already got it!”

“Thank you, though,” Nora told her.

Rose nodded once. She gripped her knees and stared hard at the carpet. Her tension was only mounting. As Nora cooed to the baby and James began singing nursery rhymes with the elder three, Rose thought she might lose her mind.

“Daddy,” Finnigan said suddenly, right in the middle of the second round of “A Witch’s Hat for a Cat”. “We have a new room!”

“What?! Did the construction already finish?” James asked.

“It’s right beside your baby room,” Finnigan continued.

Henry gave an excited gasp and tumbled from Nora’s shoulders. He landed hard on Rose’s lap. She’d only just realized what’d happened when he rolled from her lap and onto the floor. He grabbed James’s hand and pulled.

“Daddy, look!” he said excitedly, clearly wishing to take James to the new room. Rose hadn’t even known they were doing construction at the Den.

“Okay, okay, let’s go!” James exclaimed. He propelled himself off the sofa as Henry gave another weak pull, leading Henry to believe he’d single-handedly yanked his own father off the couch. He gave an adorable gasp of surprise. James reached over and hoisted him up into the air by his waist, flipping him upside down a moment later; Henry’s giggles drifted down the hall long after James, Finnigan, and Henry had set off towards the stairs. Rose should’ve gone with them.

“How are you feeling?” Nora asked.

“Oh, great.”

“Oh,” Nora said. She didn’t sound convinced, but then again, she wasn’t stupid. “If that’s true, I’m really, really glad to hear it. Things’ll keep getting better day-by-day. Just hold on.”

She knew Nora had genuine, kind intentions—as did her dad and James and her aunt and her mum and everybody else who refused to let her disappear into her own sadness. But it really upset her, and right then, she didn’t have the necessary mental clarity to examine why it did. She only had enough strength to react.

“You’d have no idea,” she said.

Nora didn’t say anything for a moment. Rose stared hard at her own knees, her heart thudding away, her anxiety now fueled by the confrontation she was creating.

“No, I guess not,” Nora finally said, her voice a bit cooler. Rose realized Delilah had stopped giggling. When Rose glanced over at her, the baby was holding onto her mum tightly as she nursed, her wide eyes flittering between Rose and Nora. She’d finally decided to focus on nursing, but it appeared to be more about comforting herself in the blatantly tense environment than addressing her own hunger. Rose knew babies could sense when people were upset, and she didn’t want to upset the baby—she hadn’t done anything, after all—but she was bursting apart from the inside and didn’t know how else to release those emotions (short of crying—and she couldn’t break down again).

“So you wouldn’t know if it’d get better every day. And, actually, it hasn’t,” Rose said.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” Nora said, clearly weighing each word very carefully now. “Love can really hurt.”

It deeply agitated Rose to hear her cousin’s wife say that (her cousin’s wife who had probably never felt anything even close to heartbreak even once in her entire life). Who was with the person she loved, who had a tidy, easy marriage, who was blessed with four healthy, clever kids, who got to come home every single night and crawl into bed with the person who made her feel whole. Nora, who didn’t have to wake up in a single bed, suffocating under the memories of watching the person she loved getting sick all over the bathroom floor from grief and trauma. Nora, who never had to live her day out wondering if James was even alive. What did she know about pain? Who was she to sit there, in her domestic, stereotypical bliss, and pretend like she knew anything of what Rose was feeling?

“You don’t know anything about that,” Rose said, her face hot with anger now. She could feel tears sloshing close to the surface. “But you will one day. Because love doesn’t really exist, not the way you think it does. And I’m sure one day you’ll be able to tell me all about love hurting. Give it two more kids and the romance will dry up and that’ll be that. Once the sex is gone, what’s really left?”

She had never tested Nora like this. She had no idea how she would respond. Maybe she would hit her. Maybe she would scream. Maybe she’d even cry. Rose didn’t really care either way. She looked up as she felt the couch shift. Nora had shifted an arm underneath Delilah to cradle her securely in place. She stood. She didn’t even look at Rose.

“My best friend,” she said.  

It took Rose a second to realize that Nora was answering her rhetorical question. For whatever reason, the response felt like a slap in the face. She had no opportunity to compose herself before her dad, aunt, and uncle entered, a tray of biscuits and tea hovering in front of them. They’d been laughing, but it pandered off as they stepped fully into the room.

“Rosie?” Ron asked.

Rose parted her lips, but she didn’t know what to say. Her eyes had begun burning. That was the end of it.

Heavy footsteps drew their attention away from her and towards the doorway. When Rose glanced around, she found herself looking at her irate cousin.

“What’s your problem?!” he asked Rose. His mouth was set in a hard grimace. He pointed at Rose. “You have every right to be upset, but you do not have the right to try to make other people feel as badly as you do! We all go through shit, Rose, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to try and drag other people down with you.”

And, well. He had a point. Wasn’t that why she’d abandoned her girlfriend in the first place? To stop from being dragged down with her?

“What’s going on?” Ginny asked sharply. She looked from James to Rose. “What’s happened? Have you two had an argument?”

“She’s been nasty to Nora for no reason,” James snapped.

“Rosie?” Ron asked, surprised. She didn’t reply. Ron looked back to James. “Well, James, if there was an argument, I’m sure Rose had a very good reason.”

Rose didn’t have to look at James to know that his eye was twitching. She knew him well enough to know what would set him off. So did his parents.

“Er, Ron, let’s…I mean, we didn’t see what happened, so…” Harry quickly said.

“I don’t need to see what happened,” Ron insisted stubbornly. “I know my Rose and she’s kind, and clever, and strong, and if there was an argument, it was because she felt there was a reason for it!”

“What exactly are you saying, Uncle Ron?”

“…I’m saying what I just said.”

While her dad focused his energy on defending her (when she really didn’t deserve to be defended), Rose stood. She caught her Uncle Harry watching her as she slipped from the room, and she didn’t know why (maybe he was taking pity on her, maybe he was angry with her for being mean to his daughter-in-law and wanted her to go, maybe he didn’t care either way), but he didn’t say a word. In fact, he moved over to block the kitchen doorway after she stepped into it, in case somebody tried to follow.

Rose was so upset that she wasn’t thinking straight. She put her hand into the Floo pot. She stepped into the fireplace. I want to go home, she thought, her heart wide and aching. And then she said: “Torrington Cottage.”

She felt her heart freeze the second she heard herself say the words she did. But before she could do anything, she felt her body squeezing and twisting towards the place she’d once called home. She slammed into the fireplace of her and Iset’s cottage, hard enough to knock the breath from her chest and make her accidentally suck in a mouthful of ash. She leaned against the fireplace and coughed until her eyes were streaming. With her eyes still shut, she tried to feel her way out of the fireplace and up to the mantel, where their vase full of Floo powder rested. She’d hoped she could grab it and run back to London without looking around (without remembering). But as soon as she stopped coughing—as soon as she stepped out of the fireplace—she was accosted by the smell of home. There was no other way to describe it. She stopped and she stood. And for a very long, painful moment, that’s all she could do.

She hadn’t stepped a foot in here since the night she left Iset curled up on the sofa, crying softly into the cushions.

She had left her crying, and then she’d walked out of the cottage, and then she’d gotten sick in the bushes.

She had left her behind and she’d left herself behind, too.

The emptiness within her chest felt heavy and suffocating. Rose opened her burning eyes. She rubbed the ash and soot away from her face. And she took a step forward.

Their kitchen was as bright as she’d left it, with tangerine walls, bright, cheery curtains, and tidy counters. The pink mug Iset had used for tea the morning of Rose’s departure was still on the draining board; Rose remembered the way her stomach had been churning as she nervously washed it while waiting for Iset to return from Azkaban. The other dishes from breakfast were still with that mug. No dishes had been put away, and from looking around the kitchen, it appeared as if nothing had been touched. Despite the fact that all of their items were tucked away neatly into their proper spots, the kitchen held a slight air of neglect. Dust dressed the countertops in a fine layer. Cobwebs dangled low from the ceiling. Rose stepped forward slowly and headed towards the adjoining dining area. The raspberry paint had once made Rose feel warm, but as she turned in a slow circle and took in more evidence of inactivity, the emptiness within her chest only grew. She crossed over to the enchanted washer along the far wall. She ignored the dusty cough it gave as she eased the lid up. At once, a vile, choking stench accosted her; the last load of clothes she’d washed had never been taken out. As she’d expected, they’d stayed buried inside the machine, gradually growing a layer of mildew. Rose felt her throat prickle as she caught sight of a rose-colored jumper. Her hands jumped forward automatically to reach for it, because it was Iset’s favorite article of clothing in the world, but the overbearing stench (and the overwhelming reminder of Iset’s absence) kept her from it.

And maybe she really was losing her mind. Because she did nothing but stand there and stare at that ruined jumper, destroyed by months of abandonment. Minutes came and minutes went, and she was still hunched over, staring down into the toxic guts of a machine that probably wouldn’t ever turn on again, anyway.

“Where did you go?”

She’d thought the silence was heavy on her ears, but her own pathetic question was worse. It made her eardrums thrum painfully. Her eyes stung. A sensation was crawling up her spine. She didn’t recognize it as anger until it reached her chest and wrenched that hole wide open. Rose leaned over so the washing machine was pressing painfully into her belly. She dug her hands down into the mildewed clothes. She was quivering from crown to toe as she yanked Iset’s jumper up. It had dried in such a tangled position with the other articles that the sleeve gave a loud, jarring rip as she pulled. It only made her angrier. She extracted the bulk of it. She pulled so hard at the caught sleeve that the agitator within the machine snapped loose—she hadn’t realized the arm was stuck underneath a small part of it. Rose wrapped her fists around the molded jumper. And without considering why or what exactly she hoped to accomplish by it, she screamed. And it felt so good. So she kept at it. It was all too much to carry: Iset, Iset, Iset. What she had done to Iset. What everybody always did to Iset. She had put her back together and she had kissed her body and she had asked herself, time and time again, how anybody could have treated her like that. How could anybody have hurt her. And then she’d looked at her—suffering, back to her lowest point—and she had done what Iset always feared she would. She’d decided that Iset wasn’t worth it and she destroyed her.

Was that all her time with Iset had been, in the end?

A stroll through the woods before a bullet in the head?

To say she regretted what she’d done wouldn’t have been true.

What she’d done was eating her alive. What she’d done was its own being now, given life by the hours upon hours Rose spent replaying it. What she’d done regretted her.

She hadn’t even taken a step towards their bedroom and she already felt like dying.


 

She didn’t ever make it past the living room. She lay in the place she’d last seen Iset lay, her face pressed into the cushions as she had done, and she didn’t cry.

She thought about the fact that she would probably never see her again, and she didn’t cry.

She remembered that the very last thing she’d given Iset, after all their time together and all their love, was a stab in the back, a reminder that she’d never be anything but a burden. And she didn’t cry.

She thought about the innumerable nights spent bundled up in blankets with Iset, the rain pattering lightly against the windows, Iset’s skin warming her own, and the thoughts she had without cessation: I could never be without this. I could never live without her. I love her. I love her.

And still, she didn’t cry.

She thought about the first time she’d seen Iset break down. The hysterical shaking of her shoulders, the tears dripping down her face, the frantic gasps for air. I can’t trust anyone, she had said. Not even myself. Especially not myself. And she thought about the words she had said back. You can trust me.

When the hole inside her chest burst open, it was a genuine, physical pain.

Rose wept to the point of dizziness.

The worst part wasn’t that she had become a monster.

The worst part was that this was the very first time she’d ever really understood how Iset must have felt her entire life.


It would’ve been easy to hide away in her home for the rest of the day. Maybe even the rest of the week, the month, the year. But Rose could only spend so long lying so intimately with her feelings before they became absolutely unbearable. When things went wrong, her primary coping mechanism was to fix them. She had an urge to tidy everything up, put everything back where it belonged. But she had no idea where Iset was. Albus and Scorpius hadn’t heard from her. The only place Rose could think of that she might go to would be to her old nanny’s house (Iset had lived with her over holiday breaks after her dad was sent to Azkaban). But Rose couldn’t show her face there; she couldn’t handle seeing the woman’s soft face harden. She couldn’t bear to see the blame. And most of all, she couldn’t bear the thought of arriving only to find the woman in tears (because she couldn’t stand the thought of what that might mean).

That left her with few options. The most logical of them—and the one that Rose surely would’ve chosen had she not been brain-dead with grief—was to go to Albus’s and beg him to find somebody who could track her down. He was an Auror; someone within the department had to have the ability to find her.

Her other option, of course, was to go to the Wizarding World Equality Union and confront Scorpius’s dad, in the hopes that somebody there was still in touch with Iset. This would involve opening up to people she wouldn’t ordinarily open up to. But begging Scorpius’s dad or Lily’s boyfriend for help was much better than pleading with Albus for it. No matter what she said to Albus, she knew he would probably always blame her. And he was probably right.


 

Her prominence within the legal circles of the wizarding world made her presence at the WWEU fairly typical. Nobody looked at her twice as she navigated the curving corridors of the circular building, heading determinately to the set of offices right in the middle of it. She finally spotted the silver door gleaming at the heart of the building, like a spider resting in the center of a web, and it was then that she considered turning back around. She smoothed her clothes and let her eyes fall shut for a brief moment as she rehearsed the speech she’d composed before her journey here. If she couldn’t remember it exactly how she’d written it, with every single pause and appropriate inflection, she would leave now, study it harder, and return at a later date…

But her memory was notoriously sticky. She could both perfectly picture every word of the parchment in her mind and recite it with no stumbles or faults. She had no logical excuse not to knock. And, really, she had no emotional ones, either.

She took a deep breath and reached forward. She tapped her knuckles against the door. Maybe he wasn’t in. He was the organization’s director; he was probably busy with loads of other more important things…

“Come in,” Scorpius’s dad called.

Rose’s heart was thudding irregularly as she opened the door and stepped into the office. She peered around the dark room—the walls were an odd, ambiguous shade, somewhere between charcoal grey and hunter green. There was a depth to the shade that made it feel as if Rose was walking into a much larger room than she really was, an effect perhaps achieved by the limited furniture. Scorpius’s dad smiled politely at her from behind his wooden desk. It was the same desk everybody had in their office—a standard oak with drawers on both sides and thin legs. Despite being mass produced, it seemed to fit with the décor; there was a handsome bronze lamp in place beside three solid-silver picture frames. Rose could only see the one at the end from her view, but she recognized the photo in that one easily. It was the same photo Scorpius had in his tiny shoebox office at St. Mungo’s, taken on his and Albus’s first Christmas as a married couple. In it, Draco was standing somewhat stiffly—yet contently—beside his new son-in-law.

“Rose,” Draco greeted. “Hello. Is everything all right?”

With the family, she reminded herself. He’s not asking about your emotional wellbeing. With the family.

“Yes, everything fine,” she said. With the family. She was still standing in the doorway. Scorpius’s dad gestured out towards the chair in front of his desk. Rose had no excuse not to walk over and sink down into it. She pushed her hands between her knees and looked everywhere but Draco Malfoy as she tried to work up the courage to begin her spiel. He didn’t give her the opportunity.

“I’m going to guess that you’re here about Iset.”

Rose snapped her eyes to Draco. His expression was still politely neutral, though Rose thought his eyes might’ve narrowed just a smidgen. She drew up a mental image of her speech. She straightened her posture, even though she wanted to fold up into herself.

“I know you aren’t permitted—by your own personal code of ethics nor Union policy—to divulge information found in personnel files. However, Clause 13 states that any Union worker, officer, or director is authorized and expected to share any information pertaining to an at-risk member if the safety of said member is in question. In the event that that person is, their closest relative or associate should be informed of any and all pertinent information held within your organization files.”

Draco waited until she was done.

“Yes, I am well aware. I wrote that clause myself,” he told her. She felt a brief sting of embarrassment, but she wouldn’t let herself give into it. “I have been in contact with Union counselors. I have also kept Iset Goyle’s closest relative updated. I assure you I’m following my own clause perfectly. The second I thought she was ‘at-risk’, I contacted her ‘closest relative or associate’. In this case, her legal guardian.”

Rose’s rehearsed speech was pointless now. She had never expected this outcome. It had never occurred to her that Draco would contact Iset’s past nanny instead of her.  

“But I’m…” she trailed off. She wasn’t her girlfriend anymore, not really. Her eyes stung as she realized she truly had no claim to Iset any longer. “But…”

“I know you two were together. But I’m sure you understand why an ex-girlfriend isn’t privy to confidential information. That’s not what the clause was meant for. If Iset wanted to be found, you’d know where she was.”

“But I’m not just…an ex,” Rose said. Even to her own biased ears, the words sounded weak.

Draco arched a blond eyebrow. “Then what are you? Did you or did you not end the relationship?”

He’d done a great job of keeping accusation out of his tone until that moment. Rose struggled to explain.

“No. Well, yes, but….I gave her an ultimatum. She didn’t make the choice I hoped for.” She didn’t make the choice I desperately needed her to make, not only for my wellbeing but for hers, as well.

Draco picked up a thin stack of parchment on his desk. He cleared his throat as he tapped the papers against the desk to straighten them.

“It’s certainly none of my business,” he began, his eyes still on the paperwork. “But one should always be careful about giving ultimatums to people without the ability to choose.”

Rose didn’t like his tone and she didn’t like the way he was looking at her. For a moment, she could see the judgement shining in his eyes. And more than anything, Rose didn’t like when people acted like they knew more than she did, or that they were cleverer than she was. He didn’t know. He wasn’t there. He was not part of the relationship. He had no business pretending like he knew or understood the depth of what had occurred between her and Iset.

“You’re right about one thing: it is none of your business,” she said coldly. He slowly lowered the papers back down and looked back at her. Rose pressed on. “She did have the ability to choose. And she chose him over me. She could have walked away from him. Everybody has the ability to make themselves and their wellbeing the priority, and she didn’t, not even when I told her it was destroying me to see her being re-destroyed. She chose to continue seeing him. She chose to let him hurt her. I begged her. On bended knee, multiple times. She didn’t listen.”

“And how exactly is one meant to choose themselves as the priority when nobody ever taught them how? When nobody even introduced that concept to them? I doubt Iset felt like she really had a choice—and I definitely doubt that she considered her own happiness or health as a determining factor in making a choice.”

She felt humiliated. “Well,” she said, and she hated how her voice broke. She struggled to save face. “That’s not on me. I can’t be expected to teach her all the things her parents didn’t.”

Rose didn’t really mean the words the way they came out. They slightly referenced the larger picture of what she was thinking, but she had not articulated it well at all. Draco looked away from her.

“This is precisely why I often think that those raised in privileged family environments are not well-suited for those raised in abusive ones. There are some gaps in understanding that can’t be bridged, no matter how much you love somebody. And certainly not without vast, self-aware, and never-ending effort.”

Rose turned her face away. She could feel that horrible hole in her chest widening.

“Those raised in loving households can’t possibly appreciate the sheer amount of struggling and strength it takes for those raised in abusive ones to do the things that you take for granted every day. It takes so much effort to even the emotional playing field.”

Rose wanted him to stop talking, but she couldn’t seem to tell him to.

“You grew up in a family where your feelings about something mattered, and because of that, you take your feelings into account in every decision you make every day. If you feel tired or ill, you probably stay home from work, because you know you deserve to get better. If you feel stressed out by a situation, you can take a break from it, because you know you deserve peace. If a relationship is causing you extreme pain, you can walk away, because you know your mental health is important. I don’t think you understand the amount of work it would take somebody with Iset’s background to even get to a place where she could realize she deserved to take her own feelings into account. Not when her agency was taken away in such horrific ways for the bulk of her formative years.”

Rose could feel her ears searing. Her vision blurred.

“The problems crop up in many ways and with many different couples. It isn’t just you, Rose. It’s not your fault, it’s just…difficult,” Scorpius’s dad pressed on. He must’ve noticed her tears because his voice turned gentler. “For example, a child who grows up without hearing ‘I love you’ from anybody will have a difficult time mustering the strength to ever say the words. And when he finally does, it’s not unusual for him to find that a person with a loving background doesn’t understand or appreciate the pain and effort it took for him to even speak the phrase. How could they? It’s not their fault. Somebody in a loving family is raised hearing the words ‘I love you’ thrown around like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. How should they be able to understand how momentous it is to say them when you’ve never even heard them before? I’m not saying that you and Iset were doomed from the start. I’m saying that trauma—particularly at such a young age—impacts a person in so many ways, ways that aren’t always obvious, ways that are often chronic. And you can’t expect them to think of the world as you do because their world was very different.”

Rose hadn’t come here for therapy or a lecture. That back of her top was damp with sweat when she finally stood. She hadn’t even realized she’d broken into a nervous sweat until that moment.

“You’re not going to tell me where she is,” Rose summarized, her voice flat.

“No. I’m not. I’m sorry.”

Rose nodded. She couldn’t even see his expression due to the tears in her eyes. Maybe he really was sorry—maybe he wasn’t. But she felt absolutely gutted despite.

“I will, however, walk you to Caden Rowle’s office,” Draco continued. Rose wiped at her eyes. With her vision briefly cleared, she watched Scorpius’s dad stand.

“Why?” Rose demanded.

“Because he’s talked to her as a friend recently and is free to give away whatever information he wants, to whomever he chooses. And I have a feeling he might understand this situation better than I can.”


 

Her hopes had risen as they walked towards Caden’s office, but once they walked in, Rose realized her hope had been foolish. Caden observed her with a distinctly cold look from the moment she stepped into the office. It made her wonder exactly what Iset had told him.

“Hello, Caden,” Rose finally greeted.

“Hello.”

He did not invite her to sit. Draco did it for him. After a brief gesture towards the chair in front of Caden’s desk, Rose walked over and sank down onto the edge of it. She looked around the office, her posture tense. The same furniture was in here as in Draco’s—an oak desk and bookshelf—though the walls in here were eggshell white. He’d also added a corkboard behind his desk. Tacked to it were two drawings James and Nora’s kids surely did (judging by their adorably inept signatures in the bottom), a photo of him and Lily with a massive dragon (probably Opal), and a half-completed shopping list. While Rose examined her surroundings, Caden examined her. She felt uncomfortable.

“You’re asking about Iset.”

It was not a question, so Rose didn’t answer.

“She wants to find her,” Draco affirmed. “I can’t tell her anything, but you can.”

“I can, yes. Not sure I should.”

Rose resisted the urge to glower at him. She had never really liked him, despite the fact that he’d won most everybody else in their family over. She thought her cousin was an intolerable brat sixty percent of the time and Caden was judgmental and untrustworthy nearly as often. This exchange only cemented that opinion.

She was preparing herself to stand and leave when Caden’s office door swung open. Rose turned around by instinct, her eyes drawn to the sudden movement, only to find herself faced with her cousin. Lily faltered.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. She lowered her arms slightly. She was carrying one of their gran’s picnic hampers. “Rose?”

The very last thing Rose wanted was to be found begging Lily’s boyfriend to help her by Lily herself. She wished she could’ve sunk through the floor.

She was reluctant to speak with her. “Hi, Lily.”

Luckily, by some miracle, Lily had no interest in why Rose was in Caden’s office. She gave Rose a brief smile and then turned her attention to her boyfriend. He was visibly failing at biting back a smile; the effect was a somewhat pained grimace. Lily lifted the hamper up.

“I made you lunch and I’ve got something for you.”

Caden had already stood to greet her when she spoke. He stopped at that. He stared at Lily in surprise.

You…made lunch? For me? And brought it here? To me?”

“Yes? I did? Why are we? Talking like this?”

He gave a deliberate scowl. She glared right back. Smiles broke over their faces a few seconds later as he came to stand in front of her. Rose rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. She glanced over towards Draco as he gave an annoyed sigh; they shared a brief, understanding look.

“Thank you,” Caden said next, his voice low and brimming with appreciation. It was probably a bit too inappropriate for the workplace.

“Here you go,” Lily said briskly. “It’s one of your favorites. And I’ve still got something else for you, but have the lunch first.”

Rose heard the hamper creak as Caden presumably opened the lid. Rose inspected her fingernails impatiently. There was a long pause.

“Lily?”

“Yeah?”

“Why have you cut this sandwich into the shape of an arse?”

Rose heard Draco mutter something in exasperation from underneath his breath. When she looked over, he was pointedly tapping his wristwatch. If Caden saw him, he didn’t care, because he was still standing with Lily in the doorway and didn’t appear to be making any efforts to speed his conversation up.

Lily huffed, insulted. “I haven’t made it into an arse! That’s a heart!”

Caden didn’t miss a beat. “Well, why’s it look like that? It looks remarkably like an arse. Yours, actually.”

“No, sorry, you’re right. It is an arse. See, I was going to cut out individual letters to make ‘Caden’, but I didn’t have enough sandwich, so I just had to make a massive arse instead. Same difference.”

Rose looked around again. They were gazing at each other intently. Caden reached out, gently touched her shoulder, and turned her around. He looked from her bum to the contents of the hamper, his eyes narrowed slightly in concentration. Rose turned back around and rested her face in her hands wearily.

“No, I’m right. It’s the same. But maybe your arse is shaped like a heart instead of your heart being shaped like an arse.” A pause. “Why did you make a horseshoe out of grapes and put it beneath the arse-sandwich?”

“That is very clearly the letter ‘U’ and you know it!”

“‘Arse U’. I suppose I ‘arse U’, too.”

Rose heard the sound of somebody being smacked. She guessed it was Caden from prior experience.

“It is a heart! You’re such a tosser! I spent an hour on this! You were out of bread so I had to go steal a loaf from my dad!”

“So, to summarize: you spent an hour putting together a lunch that says ‘heart U’, instead of just coming here and telling me this in your own words.”

“Fine, you know what, you can eat this arse sandwich out of your fucking ar—”

Lily’s words were muffled into a kiss. A rather loud and explicit sounding one. Rose grimaced. She looked over at Draco; he had actually covered his eyes with his hand and was tapping his foot impatiently.

“Lily,” Draco finally said, his eyes still covered. He sounded exasperated. “We’ve talked about this. That’s quite enough. Snog on your own time.”

“No, we haven’t talked about this! You said I can’t nap in his office; you never said I can’t visit,” Lily argued.

“I certainly did say that. Because when you’re in here ‘visiting’, people who actually need to see our Public Relations head can’t. And right now, he’s got a client.”

“He hasn’t got a client! He’s just got Rose! Rose, you don’t mind, do you?” she demanded.

“Actually, yes. I do mind,” Rose said. She sniffed and looked away from Lily. “I’m here to chat with Caden, not listen to you two have verbal foreplay. So give him whatever else you’ve brought and leave or save it for later.”

Lily made a small, angry sound in the back of her throat. Rose thought she’d fight her. But she heaved a long-suffering sigh and pressed on. 

“Fine, then. But I want to give it to him in private. How long will this meeting take? I’ll take the next meeting slot.”

“You need to be a Union member to have an appointment, Lily, you know that,” Draco said. “Give him whatever you brought and please move along.”

Rose furrowed her brow. She wasn’t a Union member and she was having a meeting. But the bigger issue was that Draco didn’t seem to get Lily’s implications about what the ‘gift’ really was. Rose for one did not want her to give it to Caden right then. And she wouldn’t put it past Lily to follow Draco’s suggestion just as a ‘fuck you’. Thankfully, though, she seemed to decide to argue her point instead.

“Oh, that’s bollocks, Draco! Rose isn’t a member! And I think it’s bloody stupid that you’re still angry about that incident with the Ministry board members! That was a year ago! I had no idea they were in here, I just wanted to show him my new tattoo work, I hadn’t seen him in ages…it was a mistake anybody could’ve made! I also think it is extremely hypocritical for you to exclude me when you’re supposed to be all about inclusion and...and…”

Lily did something Rose had never seen before: she stopped mid-argument, as if she were actually considering the words she was about to say before she said them. She sucked in an annoyed breath. For a moment, she looked remarkably like her mum, with her short red hair framing her fierce expression. After thinking hard, she leaned over and dropped the hamper to the carpet, reached into the pocket of her jeans, and pulled out a heavy handful of galleons. She walked up to Draco and pushed them into his hands.

“There. My dues. I’m a member now and I’ll take the next meeting slot. Caden, I’ll see you in twenty minutes or whenever Rose leaves—whichever is sooner.”

“And why are you joining the Union?” Draco asked. “You’re not exactly a repressed member of society, Lily Potter.”

Lily reached up to swing her hair over her shoulder, only to realize her hair was gone. She gave a tiny huff of annoyance before moving past the inconvenience.

“Of course I am. I’m a ginger. Twenty minutes!”

Caden watched her go, his head cocked slightly to the side.

“Caden,” Draco said sharply.

He turned back around. Beyond a very slight pinkness to his cheeks, he seemed relatively unruffled. “Yes?”

“Continue your meeting. I’m going to go file Lily Potter’s…Union fees. And I guess have her sign some paperwork…Good God…what is happening…”

Murmuring beneath his breath, Draco left the office, Lily’s galleons still cupped in his hand. Rose stood to leave. Caden blocked the doorway.

“Wait a moment,” he said. The coldness that had been in his tone before had significantly warmed. He studied Rose’s eyes. “Why do you want to find Iset?”

He was testing her. Rose was used to revising for and subsequently succeeding on all exams. But she felt too tired to even try. When her perfectionism and critical mind were gone, the only thing that was left was the truth.

“I can’t bear life without her.”

He crossed his arms. She’d expected that emotionally-charged admission to fluster him, but he remained calm and unwavering. “And what about the conflict that made you abandon her in the first place? What happens with that? What’s changed? Why should I give you her details—how do I know you’re not just going to do the same thing to her in a week or two?”

Rose had been driven entirely by heart up until now. Her head– typically so much louder and demanding– had not given much thought to that question. What if Iset was still in contact with Goyle? What if she was broken worse than she’d even been when Rose first met her? What then?

She didn’t drop her eyes from Caden’s. The answer came to her, as if she’d spent years studying the source material. And in a way, she had.

“Because as painful as watching her suffer was, there is nothing more unbearable than knowing she’s out there suffering without me. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where she is or if she’s okay or if she– if she needs me–” Rose’s voice broke. Caden looked away. He swallowed hard. “I only wish I’d known that before. I…I didn’t know how to cope with pain to that degree. I thought it couldn’t possibly get worse than that. I was wrong.”

It took Caden a few moments to reply. Rose thought he looked pretty upset himself; she hoped it was for a personal reason and not because he knew something about Iset that she didn’t.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to think about your own feelings,” Caden told her.

“It was wrong to leave before I understood. I should have tried harder to understand.”

“I think it’s hard to understand things when everything is so emotional,” he admitted.

She knew he was probably putting his Public Relations skills to good use right now, and that was probably why he seemed to be saying precisely what she wanted to hear, but it made her like him just a bit more anyway.

“Please?” she finally asked. “Please, Caden. I just want to see if she’s all right. If she wants me to go, I’ll go, I swear that I will. And I’ll never go back. Just…you must understand. Do you understand?”

Rose couldn’t envision a world where somebody could love Lily as much as she loved Iset, but her inability to imagine it didn’t mean much. That world must’ve been real and it must’ve been the one they were living in, because his eyes softened and he pinned her with a steady gaze. Rose realized she was actually holding her breath.

“Okay,” he answered. “Don’t fuck it up.”

“I won’t,” Rose said quickly. Her heart had skipped two beats. Her palms were sweating. “I promise. I swear. I won’t.”

“All right. Do you need me to write it down or can you remember?”

“I can remember,” Rose said at once, expecting an address.

“Okay. Walk out of this building, head north, take the first right, take the first left, and the building is brick with a white sign reading ‘Bast Veterinary Clinic’.”

Rose felt her heart plummet. Her mind was a quick tangle of images: a book on Egyptian gods and goddesses, Iset’s thin, trembling lips the first time they met, right after her cat had died. For a moment, she thought she might hit Caden.

“That’s not funny. That’s sick,” she said, her eyes burning hot.

Caden parted his lips, confused. “What? What are you talking about?”

Rose could feel her hands shaking. “You know what happened with her and her pets growing up. That isn’t a funny joke. If you didn’t want to tell me where she was, you didn’t have to!”

“…Rose, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. You asked where she is and I told you.”

He seemed genuine enough, but Rose wasn’t convinced.

“You’re to tell me that she’s been a short walk away this entire time?! In a Muggle veterinary clinic that happens to bear the name of an Egyptian goddess just like she does? And that goddess happens to be the goddess of cats?”

“Yeah. Because she opened the clinic and chose the name. She’s been using that as a surname.” And then, as if to help pad her embarrassment: “I’m not clever enough to be able to make that sort of reference. My jokes aren’t that sophisticated. I prefer more swearing.”

Rose could feel something bubbling up within her. She thought it was rage. She was wrong. Caden looked alarmed as she gave a sudden sob, her hand rising to cover her mouth. 

“Oh…” he said. He shuffled forward while Rose cried into her hand. Her head was aching. “Erm…”

“She’s been here, in London, within walking distance?! This entire time?! I-I might’ve passed her dozens of times, I’m sure I’ve passed by that clinic! All this time and nobody told me!” Her inhalation was slightly ragged. She wiped at her eyes. “What is she doing with a Muggle vet clinic?! She’s not– she hasn’t had time to go to Muggle university, I do know that!”

“No…she’s…well, technically I’m sure it’s illegal, probably on both the Muggle end and ours.”

It didn’t take Rose long to catch on. “She’s using magic on Muggle pets?”

“With great success, as you can imagine.”

“But that’s…the Statute of Secrecy…”

“What– are you going to tell your mum?” Caden snapped.

“No. No, of course not,” Rose said. She swallowed the hope that was climbing up her throat. “If she’s working, she must be…well, she must be all right. Right?”

Caden didn’t reply. As the silence stretched on, Rose grew wearier and wearier.

“I wouldn’t call keeping your head above the water in a sinking ship being ‘all right’,” he admitted.

Rose let her eyes fall shut. North, a right, left. Go north, take a right, take a left. She turned to Caden.

“Thank you,” she said.


 

Jogging in a wool coat, a thick jumper, and a skirt would’ve ordinarily been difficult, but Rose couldn’t feel much of anything. It seemed to her that her feet were gliding over the pavement as she hurried from the WWEU, her mind held afloat by a rapid revival of memories. But for once, they were good ones. The nervous trembling of her own hands the first time she set them on Iset’s hips during a kiss. The warmth of Iset’s breath against her neck the first time they dozed off together. Early Sunday mornings in their bed, rain pattering against the cottage windows, Iset’s soft cheek against her chest. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but that. Iset’s fingers wound up in Rose’s hair. Her catches of breath, her consumed trembles. Friday nights in jumpers and knee-socks, finally home for the weekend, finally together and free.

As the clinic came into view, Rose was once against astounded by the realization that Iset had never been far. Had Rose invented this distance, too?

She took the steps leading up to the sunflower-yellow door three at a time. She turned the bronze door knob; the wooden door gave an ancient creak as it opened. She stopped dead in the reception area, her eyes taking stock of the mismatched armchairs in the waiting area, the cat posts set around, the table with complimentary tea and coffee and—

Rose jumped as something landed hard on her head. She felt sharp, familiar stings a moment later. Her heart jumped up to her throat. The receptionist seemed to have noticed the commotion; she jumped up as Rose reached up for Fitzroy, who was currently kneading Rose’s scalp. 

“Oh, don’t touch that cat! He’s mean! I’m sorry! He usually doesn’t do that, he usually hides from the visitors—…” she trailed off as Rose pulled Fitzroy down into her arms. He nuzzled his fluffy, white face into her hand, a contented, rumbling purr filling the room. The receptionist was openly gaping.

“It’s okay,” Rose reassured her. “He’s my cat.”

“He’s…but…”

“I’m looking for Iset.”

The woman stared blankly.

“Er…Dr. Bast?” Rose tried. Speaking like that—as if Iset was a stranger—made her stomach churn.

“Oh! Yes! Well, I’m sorry to say that she’s taken ill and has left early for the day. Is it an emergency? We work alongside the clinic three streets down; they can see you if it’s pressing, or I can schedule you an appointment?”

Rose’s heart was thudding hard again. She didn’t know what to say, but she knew she couldn’t leave here without seeing Iset.

“Oh, yeah,” Rose said. “Sure. I’ve got a…dog.”

She made up details for her fake dog, had an appointment scheduled, and then said:

“I’m actually going to be…traveling soon. For work. Do you board?”

She knew very well that they did; she’d heard the far off sound of a few dogs barking not long after she entered.

“Yes, we do. Would you like to make an appointment for that as well?”

“Oh.” Her hands were shaking. She stuck them into her pocket. “Could I have a look around? To make sure it’s right for my…dog. She’s very…tiny. And frightened of the color blue. And wire cages.”

The woman glanced around the empty room once.

“Yes, I suppose so, though if somebody enters we might have to cut it short; we’re a bit short-staffed today.”

Rose nodded. “Great. Thanks so much.”

And with that, she walked straight through the sunny orange door separating her from the rest of the clinic. She was counting on one of two things: either Iset was living above the clinic or Iset had an office with something that had an address on it. She wasn’t sure how she’d get into the office without the receptionist knowing, but she would just have to figure it out.

“Here’s one of our exam rooms,” the receptionist said. She opened another yellow door, leading into a small yet immaculately clean room. She paused for Rose to look around and then ushered her towards another door, this one a deep pink. “Here is a procedure room…”

She showed Rose the toilets, a bit of the back ‘surgical’ area (though she knew that there was no real surgery going on, not the Muggle kind, anyway), and then lead her down a set of spiral stairs. The sound of dogs and cats got louder. They stopped at the mouth of the stairs. Rose pretended to take everything in as she stared at the cozy, clean room, full of areas divided by brick half-walls to keep the pets separated.

“As you can see, there are no wire cages, and we’ve got tiny accommodations, too,” the receptionist said.

“Great,” Rose said. She chewed nervously on her bottom lip. “What about at night? Is somebody here at night? I’m worried about what might happen if my dog got sick in the middle of the night.”

The receptionist smiled unexpectedly.

“Oh, then this is the perfect place for you. Our vet lives right above the clinic. She checks on them every four hours—says she has insomnia, poor thing—and you’ll be glad to know that we’ve never had any injuries or incidents while pets are in our care.”

Rose seized the receptionist in an unplanned hug. She was bursting with relieved joy.

“Thank you! Thank you so much,” she said. “This is perfect. Thanks.”

The receptionist looked a bit alarmed as Rose lowered her arms.

“…Shall I put you down for lodging?”

“Sure, yes, great,” Rose said. She was getting impatient. “Could I use your loo? And then we can schedule afterwards.”

“Of course. You know where it is, I think?” the receptionist winked. Rose nodded and smiled back. It took extreme effort to walk calmly after the receptionist. She ducked into the toilets, counted to twenty, and once she heard a door shut, she quietly stepped back out into the corridor. She held her breath and minded every step. There was only one door that hadn’t been pointed out to her. An old wooden one tucked just behind the sunny orange door that led back out into the reception area. Rose withdrew her wand. She pointed it at the door, whispered her incantation, and carefully turned the knob. She kept it turned all the way to the right as she stepped into the darkness. She slowly closed the door behind herself. Once it was shut all the way, she let the doorknob go, locking it back into place.

Lumos,” she hissed.

A narrow stairwell greeted her. Precarious wooden stairs led up to another old, wooden door. As Rose climbed, the stairs gave loud and ominous creaks. She hoped the receptionist couldn’t hear them, or that even if she could, she’d assume the noises were from Iset. Rose was reduced to breathing through her mouth as she reached the top, so excited and frightened and relieved that inhaling fully had become difficult. She rubbed her damp palm on her skirt. She squeezed her fingers around her wand a moment later. One knock was all that stood between her and Iset. After all those months, she would finally see her again. And maybe things wouldn’t go the way she wanted—maybe Iset hated her now. But at least she would get to see her again.

With a rampant, racing heart, Rose rapped her knuckles against the door. She had never felt so nervous. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. She turned in place. She nervously shook her hands out. By the time a good three minutes passed, her nervousness turned into genuine anxiety. She knocked harder.

“Iset?” she tried. She felt a rush course through her to feel Iset’s name on her tongue again. “Iset?  Please come to the door.”

She waited. And waited. And waited. Her anxiety was mounting. What was it the receptionist had said? That she’d gotten ill? What if she was extremely unwell and needed help and that was why she wasn’t answering? What if she was hurt? Would entering be morally sanctioned under those terms—could Rose force her way in without it being a violation?

“Iset,” she called one more time. She couldn’t afford to be too loud, for fear of the receptionist hearing. “Iset, I’m going to come inside. Say something if you don’t want me to. If you…if you don’t want to see me—” Rose felt her throat narrow— “that’s okay, just…tell me.”  Suddenly, being sent away didn’t seem that scary. Not in the face of the possible alternative meaning behind Iset’s silence.

And still, the silence remained. She was earnestly panicking now. She directed her wand at the door, performed an Unlocking Charm, and eased the door open. A draft of cold air hit her, no doubt a result of living in such an old, drafty building. Rose lit her wand up again and stepped into the flat. She shut the door carefully behind her. It was quiet and dark. Rose swept her wand over the small entrance hall. There was no furniture. No decorations. One pair of shoes rested on the unfinished wooden floorboards. A sheet of Muggle computer paper was taped to the wall. Rose approached it and shined her wand light on it. In the left column, in Iset’s handwriting, there were dozens of dates. Beside that, there was a spot for the time. Beside that, small tick marks. It took Rose a minute or so to make sense of it. She realized, though, after some examination, that Iset was ticking off every two hours on these particular days. Rose only had to ask herself what Iset was trying to keep track before it made sense. Herself. She was trying to keep track of herself. If she was being controlled by somebody else, that person wouldn’t know to walk over to the wall and make a tick mark. Which meant…these two-day spans followed an Azkaban meeting. Rose scanned her eyes to the bottom of the paper. Iset hadn’t done any tick marks in two months. She hadn’t been to Azkaban in two months. Rose felt her heart lighten. Had she stopped going?

Or had something horrible happened?

The floorboards moaned as Rose walked over them. She peeked into a shabby, dim kitchen, but beyond one pot, a plate, a cup, a mug, and a bowl in the open, doorless cupboards, a kettle on the hob, and a box of cereal, it was completely empty. There wasn’t even one chair.

By the time Rose stepped into the sitting room, her eyes were burning. Nothing on the walls. No sofa. Grey, grey, grey. Why was she living like this? There weren’t even curtains on the windows; she’d thrown an old bedsheet over a wooden curtain rod to block out the outside world. The insulation was so poor inside the flat that Rose could feel waves of coldness seeping in and radiating from the windows, even though she was a couple feet from it.

Nox,” she whispered. Her wand went out. She walked over to the first of the two closed doors in the living area. She pushed the first open. It was a tiny bathroom. Rose noted the burst of warm, moist air that washed over her first and foremost. And then her heart plummeted.

No, she thought. She felt a wave of vertigo wash over her. For a horrible, sickening moment, she looked at Iset, at her closed eyelids, at her cheek resting against the edge of the bathtub, and thought she was dead. But her eyes caught movement at Iset’s chest. Rose sagged against the doorframe, shaking and breathless, her hand pressed over her own heart as she watched Iset’s bare chest rise and fall. Not dead. Not dead. Not dead. Sleeping. Rose had to repeat it on a loop before she could get her feet to unstick from the floor, but even then her entire body was quivering.

She knew she should’ve left the bathroom. She should’ve gone out and sat on the living room floor and waited for Iset to wake. She didn’t want to frighten her. And Rose knew it probably wasn’t okay for her to see Iset naked anymore—they were no longer together; this would probably be an extreme violation of privacy. She should’ve left. But the thought of walking away now, when she was only a few steps from Iset, made her feel sick. She stood there—still shaking from that brief moment of fear—and debated what to do. As she did, she spotted something she hadn’t seen before—a tiny potion bottle sitting on the closed toilet seat. She inched forward. She leaned over and picked it up. She held it just below her nose and inhaled; the minty scent of a Fever Drought filled her senses. She shifted her gaze to Iset. Concern overrode everything else.

The dingy, chipped tiles beneath the claw foot tub were puddled with water. When Rose kneeled beside the tub, she felt the water seep through the fabric of her tights. She could hear her own heart beating now. She was close enough to smell Iset’s hair. With a trembling hand, she reached up and gently touched Iset’s forehead. She relaxed when she felt the cool temperature. The Fever Drought must’ve worked. She had probably added valerian to it to help her get to sleep. Rose lowered down from her kneeling position to sit on her legs. She studied Iset’s face, evened and calmed in sleep. She longed to run her thumb over her cheek, to kiss the corner of her slightly-parted lips, to brush her damp hair back from her forehead. Rose was deliberately keeping her eyes only on Iset’s face, but she could already tell just from her facial structure that she’d lost weight during their time apart. The soft fullness to her cheeks had lessened noticeably; her cheekbones seemed worryingly sharp. Considering the state of her kitchen, it wasn’t surprising. That lack of surprise did not lessen the sting of pain.

The left side of Iset’s cheek was growing red from being pressed against the edge of the bathtub. Rose was sure the water was growing cold. And she didn’t want to leave her alone and asleep in water, especially not when ill. But she was dragging out the inevitable moment when she’d have to wake her, because she had no idea what to say to Iset. She had no idea what Iset might say back. And uncertainty had never been a friend.

She lowered her forehead to the edge of the tub—just above where Iset’s head was resting—and gave herself five minutes to think and process. The familiar, clean smell of Iset’s hair kept her from focusing too sharply; she wanted nothing more than to touch her. After her allotted time was up, she lifted her head. She breathed deeply against her frantic heart. Her hand was shaking again as she reached forward and gently touched Iset’s forehead. She brushed back damp tendrils of dark hair. She had thought that would satiate her, but it only made her long to touch her more. She wanted to pull her into her arms and cradle her close. The longing and pain in her chest felt like an impossible chasm. She had lived with it for months and months, but suddenly, she was certain she couldn’t bear it for a moment more.

“Iset,” she whispered. She shifted back up into a kneeling position. She touched Iset’s shoulder. “Iset. Wake up.”

She had anticipated that Iset would gasp or jump when she woke. But when she slowly came to, it was less noticeable. Her dark eyelashes moved as her eyes shifted beneath her closed eyelids. Rose watched as her eyes fluttered open. She stared at the floor without moving for a tense second, and then she sensed Rose’s presence. She flinched hard enough to send water sloshing over the edge of the tub. When their eyes met, Rose found herself utterly speechless. She saw recognition flood Iset’s eyes as she realized it was Rose. Rose finally found a few sparse words.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said.

Rose heard the water splash quietly as Iset withdrew one of her pruned hands. She pressed her wet hand to her own forehead, her movements as trembling as Rose’s were. She seemed terribly confused. Rose realized she probably thought she was hallucinating.

“You don’t have a fever anymore,” she told her softly. She felt explanations were in order. “Caden told me about the clinic. I figured out you were living up here. I’m sorry; I wasn’t trying to upset you by forcing my way in. I was worried. Your receptionist said you were ill.”

Iset’s eyes left Rose’s. She watched Iset sweep her gaze over Rose’s face. Her lips parted again; Rose had to take a deep breath and look away to keep herself from succumbing to the urge to kiss them. She was staring at her soaked tights when she felt Iset touch her hair. She glanced up from beneath her eyelashes. Iset still had that dazed, uncertain look on her face as she pulled Rose’s hair through her fingers. Rose’s body gave an involuntary shudder at Iset’s touch, one that she couldn’t have suppressed even if she wanted to. Rose had planned about a million different versions of her apology, but right then, she couldn’t remember a word from any of them.

When Iset finally spoke, her voice was unusually reedy. Tears had thinned it out considerably. “You’re here,” she said.

It was not a question. It was a trembling statement. Rose’s eyes stung fiercely. The pain in her chest surged. She was on the brink of tears as Iset reached out towards her, and before Rose could even meet her touch, she stood. She stepped over the edge of the tub, her movements frantic and quivering, and Rose struggled to stand, too, but was having a difficult time getting purchase on the wet tile. It didn’t matter. Iset fell down onto her lap a second later, her damp face pressing against Rose’s neck. Rose closed her arms around her wet body immediately. She shifted her closer, her face pressing hard into Iset’s damp hair. She gripped her to the point of pain, her chest burning, and burning, and burning. That burning spread to her eyes. She felt such relief pierce her as those first few tears slipped past her eyelids. She exhaled shakily against Iset’s hair.

“I would die to take it back,” she croaked.

Iset’s body shook against Rose’s as she wept. With every passing second, the outpour of emotion got more and more intense, until Rose could actually feel the muscles in Iset’s back straining from the force of her sobs. It pulled out the last pin from Rose’s composure; her grief fell down over both of them.

“I hurt you,” Iset gasped. “I never wanted to hurt you. I keep—it doesn’t matter what I do—it doesn’t matter what I feel or what I want—because I always end up doing that—hurting the things that I love.”

Her sobs made her words disjointed, but Rose had never heard anything more clearly. Within Iset’s words, she heard what mattered most: that Iset felt she was the one to blame. And that was Rose’s fault; Rose had pushed her back to that point. She had left her in the fear that she’d have to watch her relapse back to her most depressed state, but by leaving her, she had ensured that it would happen.

So they would start over. What else was there to do when faced with the destruction of something precious? They would start again, from the ground up, and Rose would never again act out of pain without first making an effort to understand.

And Rose could’ve dissolved into a rehearsed speech about all the places she’d gone wrong, all the words she wished she hadn’t said, all the pain she’d been in throughout Iset’s absence. But right then, there was only one thing that mattered in the world.

“I love you. I love you. I love you. Like this, now. It doesn’t matter. The love doesn’t change with the pain.”


 

They were puffy-eyed and shivering when they finally stood from the bathroom floor. Iset’s hair had completely dried. Rose had never felt so exhausted; she had cried until she literally couldn’t cry anymore, and for once, the hole inside her chest felt tentatively filled.

She walked with Iset to a small, depressing room that was meant to be a bedroom. There was no bed. In the place of one, there was a feather-filled mattress pad and a thin blanket on the floor. There was no pillow. In front of the drafty window, a clothes rack held five outfits, probably the only five outfits Iset had with her. Rose couldn’t get herself to fully enter the room. The hopelessness of the setting made her feel another wave of pain. She watched Iset cross over to the clothes rack. Her hand was still tremoring as she reached up and pulled down two jumpers and two skirts. Rose looked down at her wet clothes, having forgotten about them until that moment. The bathwater had dried on Iset’s skin, but it had soaked through Rose’s clothing. She took the offered clothes as Iset walked back over to her. Their hands brushed as she did. She felt her heart lurch. She wanted to pull Iset to her, unwrap her from her towel, press her down onto that sorry excuse for a bed, and make her feel some good again. But what she wanted and what she was capable of were two very different things; she could hardly hold Iset’s gaze without feeling the sting of tears. She was certain the joy of truly touching her again would send her careening towards another emotional collapse. And she still didn’t know where Iset’s head was at.

They dressed in tired silence. Once Rose was in dry clothes, she reached out for Iset’s hand. Iset gripped hers back tightly.

“Iset,” Rose began, her voice breaking. “Please, can we go home? We can talk in the morning. You don’t have to stay longer than a night if you don’t want to. But I can’t bear the thought of you sleeping here. Please, please. Come home with me.”

Iset’s eyes shimmered behind a thick layer of tears. Rose reached up and cradled her cheek in her hand. Her thumb swept over her cheekbone. When Iset gave a small, teary smile, Rose leaned in and kissed her delicate lips. Iset’s tears had capsized when she pulled back.

“I’m afraid to say yes,” she admitted. She sniffed. A humorless, shaking laugh followed. “And I’m afraid to say no.”

Rose suddenly remembered Draco’s words from earlier that day: “I doubt Iset felt like she really had a choice—and I definitely doubt that she considered her own happiness or health as a determining factor in making a choice.”

Rose lowered her hand. She rested it over Iset’s heart. The softness of her jumper tickled her palm.

“What feels best to you here? Imagine both options. And the only thing I expect from you is that you’ll decide based on this.”

“I want to go home,” she said at once, her voice trembling with longing. “But I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”

Rose brushed the tears from her cheeks with the pads of her thumbs. “You coming home would be the opposite of hurtful.”

Iset wrapped her arms around Rose’s waist.

Rose let out a breath she’d been holding for months.


 

Their cottage was infinitely warmer and lovelier after being in Iset’s muggle flat. The walls seemed brighter than ever, the furniture cozier than it’d been the day they bought it, the carpets plusher beneath Rose’s feet. Iset was as relieved to be home as Rose was; they both just stood for a few moments after stepping into the cottage, their bodies slowly relaxing as the smells and sights of home settled over them. It felt right to be here. Iset looked right here. This was where they belonged.

They didn’t even change into their pajamas. There were no discussions about who would sleep where. Rose fell down onto her side of the bed and Iset curled up on hers. They only lasted apart for a few minutes; soon, Rose felt Iset’s knees brush against hers, and before she knew it, they were in each other’s arms. Divine bliss wouldn’t have even come close to describing it.

Rose ran her fingers through Iset’s hair. She set her forehead against hers. She leaned back as soon as she felt the high temperature.

“I think your fever’s back,” she murmured, concerned.

Iset’s voice was lovely, sleepy, content. “Really? I’ve never felt better.”

Rose knew that she couldn’t kiss a fever away, but she thought she might give it a go for a few more minutes anyway.


 

They probably wouldn’t have left the bed the next day even if Iset wasn’t ill.

Rose drifted between their warm bed and the kitchen, fetching various potions, soups, and teas for Iset. She had gotten worse overnight; by eight that morning, she was burning with a high fever, and the skin on her shoulders had turned splotchy. Rose got the fever down, but she was worried it’d come back; she was prepared to Floo Scorpius if Iset kept getting worse. For now, though, they were resting.

“He wanted me to smuggle a wand in for him,” Iset said.

Rose had thought she was dozing. She looked down at Iset. Iset was stretched vertically across the bed, her head resting on Rose’s thighs, her nightie twisted around her frame and pulled halfway up her body. Rose sat up and leaned over Iset. She frowned down at her, her hand moving over to stroke her exposed waist.

“Your dad?” Rose guessed. She could hear the trepidation in her own voice. She knew they would eventually have to talk about it, but she’d foolishly hoped it could be put off longer.

“Yes. He wanted to escape. I told him I wouldn’t. He told me that he would escape with or without me, and if I didn’t help him, he would find me and he would destroy my life. But he didn’t realize that, at that point, it was already destroyed. So I told him no. And he said he would kill himself if I didn’t. And I told him to go ahead.”

Rose knew it was probably largely inappropriate, but pride swelled within her. She leaned over and kissed Iset. She waited patiently for more after she’d pulled away.

“I really thought that…” Iset trailed off, her voice thick. “I thought that he wanted to change.”

“I know,” Rose said softly.

“You told me he never would. I didn’t listen.”

“He’s good at manipulating you. That’s not your fault.”

“One of my earliest memories—before my parents started using the Imperius on me—is lying on the floor underneath my bed as my dad yelled, and I can remember wishing—even now—that he could just remake me to be what he wanted me to be. So he would stop yelling, you know? So he would love me.”

Rose felt the corners of her mouth twitch down into a deep frown.

“People don’t really understand…I should despise him with everything I have, and most days, I do. But some days…some days I remember the infrequent bouts of kindness. Well, the counselor says it wasn’t kindness, just a brief absence of abuse, but…it was there, and the times were so few and far between that they always left such an impact on me. He patted my back once when I was upset. He bought me an ice cream when I was nine. Those parts of him must be in there somewhere, right? When he contacted me, he said he wanted to be better. He said he loved me.” She sat up slowly. Rose watched as her nightie slid back down to cover her body. She wished it hadn’t; it felt like just another layer between them, and Rose couldn’t bear for anything to be between them ever again. “I waited my entire life to hear those words. I’m sure a part of me knew they were a lie. But I wanted so terribly to believe them…I can’t explain to you how much I wanted it.”

Rose thought she had a pretty good idea just from the broken look on Iset’s face.

“I’m sure that I knew you were right, but I didn’t want to know. Because he was my dad…and for the first time in my entire life, he was being nice to me, and asking me about my life, and opening up to me. And when he said he would kill himself if I didn’t see him anymore—the first time he said that—I thought about all the hours I spent thinking up ways to kill myself when I was a little girl, and I didn’t want him to feel like that. I miscalculated. I thought…I thought you would eventually see that it was all going to be okay, that he was really going to change…I thought—stupidly—that we could all be happy. But two months ago, after so many weeks of him pretending that this was truly all about me and him creating a better relationship, he asked me about the wand. You should have seen how quickly he changed. The minute I told him no, he stopped pretending. And I…I had fallen for his trick, and I had thought—up until the moment he threatened my life—that things were different. I realize now that they won’t ever be. He won’t ever love me. And if he kills himself, well, at least I outlasted him. It’s more than I expected.”

Rose moved to be by her side, so she was lying across the bed, too; her arms were already aching to hold her. She pulled her against her, so tightly that she could feel the sharpness of her ribs pressing into her own. She wished she could’ve squeezed all the trauma and pain from her with just a hug. She wished desperately that it could be that easy. But Draco Malfoy had been right. To be with her would require “vast, self-aware, and never-ending effort”.

And she was worth it.

“One day, he’ll be dead, and you’ll be here,” Rose said. She pressed a kiss to the hollow of Iset’s throat, hoping she understood what she meant by here. She had meant it both literally and figuratively. She would—with luck—be here, in their cozy bed, in their love-filled cottage. And she would be here, with Rose. “You’ll do more than outlast him. You’ll do better than that.”

“I hope it all dies with him.”

Rose understood precisely what she meant. The trauma, the fear, the pain. She felt her heart clench. Her mind flipped through a series of ideas. She pushed them away for now. “I hope it does, too.” Silence swept over them. Rose enjoyed the feeling of Iset’s hands stroking her back. “Iset, what are you going to do now? Once you’re well again.”

Iset leaned back. Her dark eyes—always so deep, always a bit sad—bore into Rose’s.

“Stay here?” she asked Rose.

Rose’s emotion clawed viciously up her throat. Her laugh was watery.

“God, yes,” she said, her heart thudding with excitement. She moved her face down and kissed Iset’s collarbone. “Yes.”

Iset was quiet as Rose kissed from her collarbone to her shoulder, though her fingers had crept into Rose’s thick hair. She seemed deep in thought as Rose gathered her nightie in her hands and drew it up, enough that she could continue kissing down her body unfettered.  

“Rose? I think I want to keep working at the clinic.” Her fingers had loosened in Rose’s hair like she expected Rose to sit up, and she probably would have a few months ago. The notion that Iset was doing something illegal would have bothered her. But she honestly didn’t care. She had Iset back, in their bed, and she was okay, all things considered. She let her lips wander down from Iset’s shoulder, hyperaware of every movement from Iset as she did.

“Does that bother you?” Iset asked, her voice small. “I know…I know it’s breaking the law. But I…it makes me feel like I’m good.”

Rose’s heart had never felt fuller. She didn’t even know if it was love or pain creating the bursting ache, but it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. She kissed over Iset’s thrumming heart, her hands slipping down to rub circles into the skin covering her hips.

“You are good,” she whispered.

“No, I’m not. I took the life of so many creatures. They were scared and I—” her words turned into a breathy laugh as Rose slid down to kiss over her ribs. She didn’t like how they jutted out now—because she fully associated that change with Iset’s depression—but she was glad that she was still just as ticklish. Rose had to force herself to turn her face to the side and stop kissing Iset. She let her cheek rest against those same ticklish ribs.

“It doesn’t bother me. If it makes you happy, it if makes you feel better, I’ll lie through my teeth to my mum, to my cousins, to everybody. You’re not hurting anyone.”

And she knew that was largely the point. Iset had always lived her life desperately searching for ways to avoid hurting people, because she’d been forced to do just that for her entire childhood. If she needed to save the lives of a thousand cats to feel better about being forced to kill one, Rose was willing to cover for her as she did that. If she lost her job, she lost her job. At least she’d still have Iset.

“You’ll break a law?”

“I’d break a thousand laws.”

Iset’s grip was soft on Rose’s face. She only had to exert the slightest pressure to get Rose to move back up to meet her waiting lips. As Rose kissed her, she decided that Gregory Goyle would not be contacting his daughter ever again.

Because if he tried, Rose was certain she would end up breaking more laws than just the Statute of Secrecy.

Chapter Text

Scorpius was running late and he was not happy about it.

He fretted over his patients (who would surely be wondering where he was) as he dressed in a rush. He hated being late; hated being yet another thing in their world that was unpredictable. But he and Albus had been out late the night before, and Scorpius had had one too many pints at the Muggle pub, and consequently, he’d woken a half-hour before he was due at work, feeling as if he’d slept for centuries. He pulled a brush through his hair with his left hand as he struggled to yank a sock onto his right foot with his free hand. He hopped on one leg into the bedroom as he did, frantic and rushed. He stopped in place and stared at the bed in disbelief.

Albus!” he cried. His husband should’ve already been at work. Scorpius had thought he’d heard him bustling about in the kitchen, but the only moving Albus had done since Scorpius rose from the bed had been to roll over and bury his head beneath Scorpius’s pillow. Scorpius walked over and threw himself down onto the silk duvet. He nudged the shape of Albus’s hip. “Albus, wake up.”

Albus mumbled something unintelligible. Scorpius huffed.

“Albus, you’re going to be late! We’re both going to be late!”

He mumbled something else. This time, Scorpius thought he made out something akin to stuff work. Scorpius frowned. And he was running later and later still, but he didn’t want to leave on that note. He pulled his legs up onto the bed and slid over to Albus. He curved his body around the duvet-covered shape of his husband’s.

“Are you ill? Or just lazy?” he asked.

“I’m not lazy,” Albus scoffed. “I just hate work and I don’t want to go.”

“Well, don’t,” Scorpius said simply. “Quit. Be my house-husband.”

Albus heaved a heavy sigh. Scorpius nuzzled his face against Albus’s back and squeezed him in a brief hug.

“I can’t quit. But I don’t think I’m going today. I don’t really feel like it.”

“Okay,” Scorpius said with a frown. He sat up, pried the duvet and pillow up, and set his palm against Albus’s face. He didn’t feel ill. “Are you feeling blue?”

Albus grumbled something underneath his breath. It didn’t sound very positive. Scorpius felt his heart sag. He never wanted Albus to feel blue or upset. It always made him feel like he’d failed somehow (failed at making him happy).

“Do you want me to stay here with you?” Scorpius heard himself offer.

“No, you’ve got Amber, right? She’s getting her procedure this afternoon?” Albus reminded him.

Scorpius felt his heart lighten at the mention of the little girl. She was his favorite patient—a plucky three-year-old with sparkling eyes and an unabashed preference for Scorpius over all other Healers. Albus was right; he’d promised Amber he’d be there for her procedure. She would panic if he wasn’t there.

“Right. I’ll come home for lunch, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll have something made.”

Scorpius grinned. “A hot lunch! And you’re sure you don’t want to stay home every day?”

Albus rolled over onto his back and peered sleepily up at Scorpius. When he smiled, Scorpius felt his heart jump. He took in his husband’s arresting green eyes and slightly cheeky smile. He was smiling, too, as Albus leaned in and kissed his lips.

“Tell Amber that ‘Alligator Bus’ hopes she feels better,” Albus murmured.

Scorpius laughed. “She’s actually been calling you ‘Mr. Husband’ these past few days.”

“I definitely prefer that to ‘Alligator Bus’,” Albus said seriously.

Scorpius knew Albus would almost certainly think himself into a dark mood in his absence. Albus didn’t do it too often, but when he did give into his frustration with work and Floo in ill, he usually spent the rest of the day beating himself up over it. He knew it’d make him even later, but as he stepped into their living room, he decided to resurrect an old game to hopefully keep Albus busy while he was gone. He grabbed a bit of parchment, leaned over the coffee table, and wracked his brains. He needed something obscure but not too obscure; something Albus wouldn’t know off the top of his head but couldn’t mistake for anything else. Scorpius left the parchment sitting unattended as he crossed over into the adjoining lounge. He walked over to the poetry section on the wall-length bookshelf. He grabbed a book on metaphysical poetry, flipped on instinct to the section for Andrew Marvell, and sought out a distinctive line. He read through until something struck a cord in his heart, and then he shut the book and put it back in its precise spot, so Albus wouldn’t know it’d been touched. He returned to the living room. He leaned over the coffee table, and with his love flooding his chest, he scratched out: ‘I would love you ten years before the flood’ – find out where this is from and I’m all yours at lunch. Hint: Albus Potter-Malfoy. Rules: Do not consult the Muggle internets or any Granger-Weasleys. I love you! Take a break and I’ll see you soon xx

He was still envisioning Albus’s sleepy smile as he stepped beaming into the Floo.


 

He stumbled out of the Floo and into the break room of the Children’s ward, and before he could even brush the soot from his shoulders, he found a tense colleague in front of him.

“Morning, Lumie,” Scorpius greeted. Her grey-blue eyes appraised him with a peculiar hardness. He smiled sheepishly. “I overslept. I’m sorry. Is Willow very cross with me?”

Lumie’s expression hadn’t shifted. At first, Scorpius thought she was angry, and he was desperately trying to think of something he could’ve done to upset her. Had he missed a memo about taking one of her shifts? Had somebody eaten her lunch in the Healer’s Lounge—did she think it was him? Had he taken the last of the Pepperup batch yesterday?

But after his mind sped through a million transgressions he hadn’t committed, he realized it wasn’t anger on her face. It was apprehension.

“What?” Scorpius asked. His smile had disappeared entirely by now. He felt his stomach bottom out. He pulled nervously on his bright green robes. “What’s wrong?”

Lumie’s face remained shadowed and hard. “I was on my way to contact you.”

The sentence hung awkwardly in the air; it seemed incomplete.

“Why? For what?” Scorpius was forced to press.

Lumie frowned. That slight expression of emotion said enough. Something terrible had happened.

He was right. He wished he wasn’t.

“Amber died this morning,” Lumie said.

For a second, Scorpius felt as if he’d fallen back into the Floo. His head spun. He felt sickness corrode his insides. His fingers slipped from the front of his robes; his hands hung weakly at his sides. A fire kindled behind his eyes.

“How?” he asked.

Lumie took a gentle step forward. Scorpius’s mouth twitched against oncoming tears.

“It was just too much. She went painlessly three hours ago.”

“She was fine last night. When I was leaving, she was playing with her—her duck—” Scorpius voice severed. He reached up and pressed a shaking hand over his mouth. “I shouldn’t have left. I should have stayed on for the night shift. I really thought she was okay, I thought she was getting better!”

“You should feel proud, Scorpius. Your experimental treatment gave her an extra six months. She’s the only child born with MHA to make it past three years.”

Scorpius covered his eyes. That may have been true; Amber was the only child to come down with the incredibly rare heart disorder and make it past infancy. But that didn’t make it feel any better. That didn’t make it hurt less to know that the little girl who’d been weakly giggling the night prior was now dead. Gone forever, like Scorpius’s mum, like his first patient who’d died. Scorpius wished he’d stayed home with Albus.

“Scorpius,” Lumie said, her tone softer. “Willow said you can take as long as you need. She knows that you’re…sensitive. She remembers what happened in the Dark Magic ward, and she doesn’t want you to feel pressured into leaving our ward, too.”

Scorpius didn’t have the heart to remind her that the circumstances surrounding his exit from the Dark Magic ward (where he’d worked initially after leaving Hogwarts) had been extremely personal. One of his first patients had been a young man struck by the same curse that had nearly killed Albus in their fifth year. Scorpius had watched him bleed to death; it had gone on too long and the methods that had saved Albus were useless for the man. Scorpius had suffered a bit of a breakdown. His boss on that ward had demanded that he shake the death off and return to work the next day. Scorpius had tried, but after fighting back nausea for three days straight, he knew he couldn’t step foot in the ward anymore. He transferred over to the Children’s Ward and he’d been so much happier since then…he hadn’t lost anybody. Until now.

He knew he needed to find a way to carry on with his daily responsibilities. He had other patients, and anyway, this was going to be something that happened sometimes. He thought he understood that when he entered this profession, but it was becoming clearer and clearer that he hadn’t understood it well enough.

“No, I’ll stay,” Scorpius said. He lowered his hands back down to his sides. “I have my other patients. I’ll do my shift. I’ve got to get used to it, right?”

“To death? I’m not sure it’s possible to get used to it—not really. We’re instinctively programmed to fear it and flee from it. Yet, here we are…Healers…right in the middle of it…” Lumie trailed off. “Makes you wonder if we went wrong somewhere down the line…or if we went very right.”

Scorpius hid his hands within the sleeves of his robes. “Are you working or is your shift done?”

“I’ve got another two hours. The curtains are drawn around her bed. We’ll walk in together.”

“Thanks,” Scorpius said, relieved.

In a way, everything worked out just as he needed it to. His other patients were so demanding (probably from fear over what happened to Amber) that they kept him both mentally and physically busy. He was in constant motion for hours, hugging tearful kids, holding hands while mediwitches drew blood, telling ill, nap-resistant kids stories until they drifted off, coaxing stubborn toddlers into taking their potion with silly song and dance routines, performing emergency procedures and giving emergency kisses. It wasn’t until he was in the toilets for his first break the entire morning that the reality of Amber’s death hit him. Her chubby cheeks. Her tinkling laugh. Her silly nicknames for everybody—Scorpion (Scorpius), Alligator Bus (Albus), Lumos Light (Lumie). Scorpius would never see her smile again. Never hug her. Never see her grow stronger and braver and better—never see her go on to have a life of her own. He knew it wasn’t his fault, but in many ways, he had failed her. He was a Healer and he couldn’t heal her. He felt like there was a very real gap inside his heart. The ache was persistent.

He was fighting back tears as he exited the toilets. He was bombarded at once by a frazzled mediwizard.

“Mr. Malfoy—sorry, Potter—sorry, Malfoy—Mr…Scorpius,” he gasped. “Susan’s having a fit again.”

Scorpius lifted an eyebrow. “It’s pea soup day…you didn’t try to bring her the pea soup, did you?”

He opened and closed his mouth wordlessly, his eyes wide. Scorpius reached out and patted his shoulder kindly.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I can calm her down.”

“That’s what they said, good, I was worried, she’s red in the face, you see, and…”

The anxious mediwizard ranted nonstop as they walked to the room Susan was in. She was a wispy eight-year-old with spell damage courtesy of a wild younger sibling. Her ability to throw a tantrum was quickly becoming legendary. As Scorpius walked in, she was kicking the hands of a mediwitch attempting to restrain her. Her pea soup was splattered along the walls and the bowl shattered; she’d probably gotten so angry that she ruptured it with accidental magic. Scorpius walked over and perched on the foot of her hospital bed, indifferent to her flailing legs. The spell her sibling had accidentally cast was a rarer mood-stabilizing spell meant only to be used by professionals. Susan’s parents were uncertain how their six-year-old little boy had come to know it—much less why he’d tried it. But ever since the poorly-cast spell, Susan often went into screaming fits over anything she didn’t particularly like (and pea soup was definitely one of those hated things). The damage could be fixed, but it was going to take them some time.

“Susan,” Scorpius greeted, his voice raised to be heard above her shouts. “Would you like to go on a walk with me?”

At once, Susan fell still. She sat up. “With you?”

“Yes. With me.”

“Yes!”

Scorpius held her hand and walked her up and down the corridor as many times as it took to calm her down. They made fifteen laps before her emotions seemed to settle down. She tightened her grip on his hand.

“I don’t like peas,” she reminded him. She sniffed.

“I know,” he promised her. He knew there was no point in giving her a speech about the fallibility of adults; she wasn’t upset because she’d been let down, she was upset because she couldn’t manage her emotions due to illness. A few other Healers didn’t have the patience to understand her. They liked to fight her tantrums with lectures. It only made things worse. “I understand.”

“I don’t like when they leave. Amber left.”

Scorpius felt his chest tighten. He glanced down at the top of Susan’s head. He noticed her hair was matting in the back—she must’ve gone to sleep with it wet. Her parents must not have visited yet today. They had a difficult time handling her outbursts, too.

“I don’t like when they leave, either,” Scorpius told her. He led her back into her room. She climbed up onto the bed. “Let me comb your hair, okay?”

She nodded. Scorpius grabbed a silver brush from her bedside table and sat beside her. He gently picked at her matted hair with the brush, holding her hair right above the mat with his fingers, to keep the brush from pulling at her scalp too much. He was still working on it when another colleague entered.

“Scorpius, your lunch break started a half hour ago. Willow says you need to go eat. Take as long as you need.”

Scorpius felt a brief tangle of longing and worry (longing for his husband, worry that Albus was worrying about him), but he had to finish what he’d started. He didn’t want to be another adult who left Susan just because things were difficult.

“I’ll leave soon. Thanks.”

Scorpius spent five more minutes on Susan’s hair, and when he was finally able to brush through it, he felt disproportionately proud. He could’ve cried. Susan rested her head back on the pillow and yawned. Scorpius gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

“I’m going to send somebody in here with a sandwich for you, okay? How’s that?”

She smiled and nodded.

“When are you coming back?” she asked.

“Soon. I’ll see you this afternoon, okay?”

“Okay,” she said.

Scorpius checked in on his other patients one last time, tended to a few last minute medical needs and hug requests, and then headed back towards his flat. The reality of the day was really beginning to settle into his bones. He wanted nothing more than to go home and fall into Albus’s arms. He wanted Albus’s smoldering eyes, the weight of his body on his own, a hot kiss to the back of his neck. He wanted so many things that he felt he might burst apart. (Most of all, he wanted everybody to be okay.)

He spotted Albus at the oven when he hurled into the kitchen. Albus turned, gave him a warm, relieved smile, and said:

“Andrew Marvell. A rubbish poet from ages ago. Got it. Ha, ha.”

Scorpius blinked back tears. He was across the kitchen in a second. He reached for Albus and pulled his body against his own; their kiss was intense and churning with emotion. Albus pulled back abruptly at the taste of it.

“What’s wrong with you? What happened?” he demanded, concerned. Scorpius could feel his heart racing. Against his chest, he felt Albus’s begin to pick up in its own irregular tango. He didn’t really want to talk about it yet. He just wanted to feel better. He leaned back enough to fit a hand between their bodies. He pulled at the hem of Albus’s shirt. Albus caught his hand.

“Scorpius. You’re worrying me.”

Scorpius blinked against his blurry vision. Tears trembled at his eyelashes, seconds away from falling down his face.

“Can you ask me after?” he begged. “I feel bad. Empty. I just want you. Okay?”

Albus reached up and held Scorpius’s face. Scorpius leaned into his touch, his every nerve aching for it.

“All right,” Albus agreed. His green eyes studied Scorpius’s. Scorpius could’ve looked into them forever. “Want to go to the bed?”

“Yes,” Scorpius said. He wasn’t feeling like a cheeky kitchen quickie. He wanted their bed, the silk bedding…every comfort he could find. He wanted to lose himself in that all-consuming, perfect way; he wanted to feel electric with love, brimming with life. He wanted Albus and, in that moment, nothing more beyond that.

He could feel Albus’s silent question as they both fell back onto their bed, wrapped up in each other’s arms, their lips on one another’s. Scorpius wanted the emptiness inside of him smothered out by the pressure of Albus’s body; he wanted to hide his face into the silk sheets, to pretend like everything was fine, to forget (even if only for a moment). To communicate that, he pulled his husband over on top of him, his heart pounding hard in his chest as arousal began to crowd out every other thought. And this was something that Albus was very good at—something he was confident in; his ability to make Scorpius feel loved with his touch. Scorpius considered himself lucky for that.


He was seriously considering staying home for the rest of the day when the far off sound of their Floo roaring to life drew his attention. He was generously unwilling to move or care much; Albus was draped over his chest, his strange heart thudding erratically over Scorpius’s, his soft skin caressing Scorpius’s with every breath. Scorpius was taking comfort in Albus’s warmth. He had told him about Amber. And while nothing could be said or done to make the situation any better, Scorpius no longer felt like something had been dug out from inside his chest. He kept replaying the words Albus had told him (“You made her so happy every day, and that counts for something”) on a loop whenever the missing and regret got heavy again; it helped more than Albus probably knew. He wasn’t always the best at words of comfort (his specialty was physical comfort). But on that day, Scorpius was gifted both, and it helped begin the healing process.

“Please tell me I imagined that,” Albus groaned into Scorpius’s skin. His breath was a warm gust against his chest. It made Scorpius shiver a bit in delight—ridiculous, really, considering they’d only just got done making love. Naughty Scorpius could be a bit insatiable at times, but Albus hardly seemed to mind it.

“Maybe I imagined it too,” Scorpius suggested hopefully.

They both winced when the sound of somebody falling out of the Floo followed shortly after.

“I’M HOME!” Lily called.

Home?” Albus scoffed, annoyed. “That’s a joke.”

“OOH, YOU’VE MADE A VEGGIE LASAGNA!”

Albus shot up. “Shit! My lasagna!”

He scrambled from the bed and bent over to grope along the floor for his clothes. Scorpius was torn between admiring his bum and laughing at Albus’s protectiveness of his lasagna.

“LILY, DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH THAT LASAGNA! I WILL HEX THE HAIR OFF YOUR HEAD IF YOU SO MUCH AS—”

“IT’S A BIT BURNT, AL, DID YOU KNOW THAT? STILL GOOD, THOUGH!”

“LILY!!!” Albus shouted, furious. In his anger, he threw his trousers across the room. Scorpius arched an eyebrow from the bed. He wished he had a camera. “THIS IS NOT GOING TO WORK, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO STAY HERE IF YOU—”

The door clicked open without warning.

“For fuck’s sake!” Albus cried. He brought his hands over to cover himself right as Scorpius yanked the sheet over his own body. Lily stopped in the doorway, her thin eyebrows rising. She lowered the serving spoon heaped with lasagna from her mouth.

“Oh,” she said. “Were you two having a moment?” She looked between them, a grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. “Shall I come back in, say…thirty seconds?”

Albus forgot his modesty in his rage. He bent back over, picked up Scorpius’s Healers robe, and angrily threw them at Lily. She was laughing as she stepped back from the doorway, only narrowly avoiding the clothing missile.

“Sorry, sorry, okay?! I didn’t know you two were fucking! I’ll go back to the kitchen! Carry on!” she called, still laughing.

Albus was seething as they listened to her footsteps heading away from their bedroom. Scorpius was a bit lost.

“So now she’s okay with us making love while she’s here? I thought she was really angry about that last time? Didn’t you two almost kill each other over that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Albus snapped. “Difference is—now she’s getting fucked. Everything’s a competition with her and it’s absolutely exhausting—”

Albus broke off abruptly. He spun in place and stared at Scorpius. “Scorpius, were you covered up when she entered?”

Scorpius furrowed his brow. “Er…no, you know I wasn’t…I grabbed the sheet quickly, though…”

“But did she see you naked?”

“…I have no idea? Why? She’s our sister; it’s not that big of a deal, is it?”

“…No. Nope. Not a big deal,” Albus said. Scorpius stared at him, confused. “It’s just…embarrassing.”

“Oh, right,” he relaxed. “Yeah. A bit embarrassing.”

He couldn’t help but think that Albus didn’t look that embarrassed. His ears weren’t red. If anything, he looked annoyed. The mood had definitely been ruined. Scorpius sighed as Albus began redressing.

“You should stay home. Are you going to?” Albus asked. Scorpius didn’t reply for a moment. Albus looked over his shoulder at Scorpius as he did up his shirt buttons.

“I think so, yeah,” Scorpius decided. “Willow did say I could take as long as I need…and all my patients are doing well…I promised Susan I’d be back this afternoon, but you and I could also pop in later…I was also going to read Tony a book while Lumie does his transfusion…oh, I did promise Dottie I’d bring her one of your biscuits…maybe I should go back…I don’t want them to get upset…what do you think I should do? Al?”

Albus had paused halfway into his trousers. He was staring at Scorpius with aching affection. A moment later, he threw himself back onto the bed and pulled Scorpius into his arms. Scorpius was laughing as Albus pressed kisses to his face and his throat. He squeezed playfully at Albus’s bum, his entire chest warming.

“What? What’d I do?” he laughed.

Albus leaned back from him. His cheeks were pink and his eyes were dancing. “I love you so much.”

Scorpius was touched despite his confusion. He felt his entire body relax against Albus’s. He kissed his jaw. “I love you.”

“You care about people so much. I wish I was like that. I wish I could be as good as you are.”

The sincerity behind Albus’s words surprised Scorpius. When Scorpius glanced up at his husband, he saw passion shimmering in his eyes, but it wasn’t the type he was used to seeing. This was distinctly emotional and vulnerable. Scorpius wasn’t really sure what to say because he didn’t know where this was coming from. He didn’t think he’d said anything noteworthy.

“When we have a baby one day,” Albus began, his voice deliberate, “if we go about it with one of your Muggle ways you’ve been researching…I want it to be yours.”

Scorpius leaned back completely. He stared at Albus in surprise. He felt his heart skip a few beats; he felt his stomach knot with excruciating excitement. Suddenly, keeping still was difficult; he wanted to roll and dance around. Every day that he went into work he thought more and more about having a baby. He had a five-year countdown on his office calendar, because Albus had said they should wait five years before adopting or otherwise having a baby, but those years had felt longer and longer still the more Scorpius was around children. He desperately wanted to be a dad. He desperately wanted to have a family with Albus, to create a Potter-Malfoy family, a unit all of their own. But Albus didn’t mention it much, and Scorpius wasn’t sure if he felt the same way. Sometimes when he was holding their nieces and nephews, Scorpius thought he might’ve seen longing in his eyes, but he worried he was projecting that onto his husband. They were so close in every way that he often worried he tangled his own consciousness with Albus’s. And even though this admission didn’t mean ‘let’s have a baby right now’, it told Scorpius that—like him—Albus had really been thinking about this lately. And that was a start.

“Really?” he finally said. He could hear his own voice trembling with excitement. “Albus, I’m not fussy about the Malfoy line thing. It doesn’t have to be me. We could adopt; James says there are loads of Squib children on the brink of being abandoned, despite all his social programs and counseling services. James and Nora will probably end up adopting some, knowing them, and Ted and Vic are in the process of doing the same, but this problem with the births…it’ll create loads more children who need homes. I don’t care about passing down Malfoy genes.”

“It’s not about that,” Albus admitted. He propped himself up on his elbow and peered seriously down at Scorpius, his eyes still just as intense (and beautiful). Scorpius leaned into his touch as he reached over to brush his hair back from his face. “I would really like to do that one day…adopt a kid who feels unloved and unaccepted. But Scorpius, I really want to raise your child. Your child. Because you’re so special. You don’t realize how much. And I’m not just saying that because I’m your husband…everybody can see it. Everybody in my family, all your patients, all our friends. I want that to continue on. I want it to be yours. I don’t want to pass down my genes—James is passing down enough Potter genes for the both of us. I want one baby—Scorpius Malfoy’s daughter or son. I want it so much.”

Scorpius couldn’t deny Albus’s sincerity; he was practically leaking it, from his emotive eyes to his lingering touches. Scorpius’s face ached from smiling.

“It wouldn’t just be mine, though. It’d be ours. A Potter-Malfoy.”

Albus's face bloomed with a brilliant smile. “A Potter-Malfoy.”

They held each other’s gazes for a heavy moment. Scorpius reached up and cupped the back of Albus’s neck. They’d just brought their mouths back to each other’s when Lily’s voice echoed their way.

“SCORPIUS! ROSE IS AT THE FLOO—SHE’S ASKING FOR YOU! AND THIS LASAGNA IS GETTING COLD!”

Albus groaned into Scorpius’s mouth. “I’m disconnecting our fireplace from the Floo system.”

Scorpius dressed with some reluctance. He glanced over at Albus as Albus buttoned his trousers.

“Why do you think Rose is asking for me?” he wondered. He frowned. “You don’t think she found out about you telling me Ministry secrets, do you? I can’t handle her spiel about ‘lawfulness’ again…”

“If she had, it’d be me she’d be asking for,” Albus pointed out. He paused. “In fact, she’d probably take me to court.” He reached down and intertwined their hands. “C’mon.”

Rose’s disembodied head was waiting in the fireplace, glowing green and carrying a worried expression. It appeared that they had interrupted a somewhat private conversation between Lily and Rose, as both women fell silent when they entered. Albus looked between his sister and his cousin curiously. Lily held his gaze, a smirk cropping up.

“Don’t,” Albus warned her, his tone threatening.

“I win,” she sang.

Scorpius had no idea what she was talking about, but Albus’s hand twitched towards his wand pocket, so it must’ve been something irritating. He decided to let them deal with it; he’d intervene if it got violent. He turned his back to the siblings and walked over to the fireplace. He pulled a chair over and sat in front of it, meeting Rose’s eyes.

“Hi, Rose,” he greeted.

“Hello,” she said.

An awkward silence stretched out between them.

“Er…how can I help?” Scorpius pressed.

Rose seemed reluctant. Scorpius waited a bit impatiently as the whispered argument behind him between the two Potter siblings intensified. He hoped Rose could find her voice before the hexes started flying.

“I have a medical question,” Rose finally said.

Scorpius blinked. He hadn’t been expecting that. “Oh,” he said. He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “Do you want to come to St. Mungo’s?”

“No, I—well. Just a quick question. What would cause a splotchy sort of rash on your shoulders, collarbones, and thighs?”

Scorpius furrowed his brow. His eyes automatically dropped to Rose’s shoulders, but she had on a warm jumper completely covering them.

“Can you show me at the office? It’s hard to say without seeing it. Does it itch or hurt? When did it first crop up? Did it start as a few spots and grow or did it appear uniformly? Have you had any problems with your magic?”

“No problems with magic. Uniformly, I think? And I can’t show you because it’s…er. It’s not me.”

Scorpius shook his head, confused. “It’s not you? Then it…” he trailed off. He felt a knot of annoyance form in his chest. Thighs. It must’ve been her boyfriend from the wedding. He suddenly felt less helpful. “Oh. Oscar. Well, tell him to come by St. Mungo’s later and I’ll see him.”

“His name was not Oscar. And anyway, it’s not him, either,” Rose said.

Scorpius had to remind himself that he was supposed to be a kind and understanding person. He certainly believed—in theory—that Rose had the right to date whomever she liked. She had the right to get on with her life. But there was still a part of him—the part that missed his and Albus’s friend terribly, the part that worried about her and felt angry on her behalf—that absolutely hated the idea of her dating anybody new. He gave himself a few seconds to work through that instinctive feeling, because he knew it wasn’t fair.

“Okay. Whoever it is can come here and see me or we can set up a time. Just let me know, okay?” Scorpius offered. He thought his voice might’ve sounded a bit too friendly, but it was better than yelling at Rose and telling her that it was her fault everything was different now. Scorpius liked his friends at St. Mungo’s—even Lumie, when she wasn’t making eyes at his husband, anyway—but it wasn’t the same. He and Albus had spent so much time with Rose and Iset during their last two Hogwarts years and the years afterwards. Scorpius missed those times terribly. He missed their dinners together and their weekend trips. It wasn’t the same with their new friends. He knew it never would be.

But he couldn’t do anything about it. So he’d have to get used to the idea of Rose ending up with somebody different.

Rose nodded. “I’ll ask and Floo right back. Could you have a fever drought ready for when we arrive? I’m out here.”

Scorpius felt his stomach clench. He sat up straighter. “Fever drought?” he asked sharply. “Wait—is there a fever with the rash?”

His tone alarmed Rose. He saw panic flood her eyes. “Yes…why? Is that bad?!”

Scorpius tried to withhold his panic. All he managed to do was make a strange squeaking noise. “No—yes—no—sort of. Maybe. Possibly. Muggles and Wizardkind have loads of different ailments that can cause rashes, but when you add fevers into the mix it gets a bit…icky, scary, yikes-y….more concerning. How long has the fever gone on? Any other symptoms?”

“Sleepy. She’s been running a fever on and off for the past three days. That I know of, anyway. It’s possible it started well before that…”

“Three days?!” She?

“Oh, no,” Rose said, horrified. “That’s bad?”

“She needs to come here right now. Are you with her?” Scorpius asked.

“I—yes, she’s in the other room, but—”

“It’s here or St. Mungo’s, but she needs to be seen. Just come here, I’ll look at the rash on her shoulders, and we can go to St. Mungo’s from here if we need to.”

“Okay,” Rose said, and to Scorpius’s surprise, her voice broke. She hesitated. “She’ll be okay, right?”

Scorpius didn’t know what was more shocking: the fact that Rose had formed strong feelings for some girl she’d only just met, or that she’d kept that girl a secret from her family. His annoyance surged for a moment. He fought it back and smiled reassuringly instead.

“We’ll take care of her,” he said.

Lily and Albus seemed to have worked through their brief argument. Scorpius turned back to face them. They were talking about Christmas gifts and eating Albus’s lasagna. Scorpius’s stomach rumbled, but he needed to quickly grab a vial of fever drought to have on hand.

“Rose has got a new girlfriend and she’s ill and she’s coming over here,” Scorpius informed them. He stepped out into the living room and then entered the lounge. He heard Albus yell after him.

“What?! No! No—we won’t help new girlfriends!”

Scorpius unlocked the glass cabinet that held his healing supplies. He pulled out one of the fever drought vials and locked it back. He headed back into the kitchen.

“Albus. You don’t mean that.”

“I do! I do mean that! I can’t believe you’re going to help the other woman!”

“I don’t think this new girlfriend can be classified as that. Rose and Iset ended things ages ago.”

“Well I won’t have it! I won’t betray our friend like that! Rose may be my cousin, but to be painfully honest, I’d still like to hex her for what she did to Iset, and truthfully, she can kiss my—”

The Floo surged to life. Scorpius and Albus glanced instinctively towards it. Rose, and standing at her side…Iset.

Scorpius felt his heart jump.

“Oh, yay! Hi, Iset!” Lily greeted happily. “Lasagna?”

Scorpius and Albus exchanged one wide-eyed look before their shock ruptured. Iset and Rose had only just stepped from the fireplace as Scorpius and Albus hurried forwards. Their arms overlapped as they reached out and pulled Iset into a tight group hug. Scorpius could feel his heart rising with every single second.

ISET!” Albus cried gleefully. “Where have you been?! I looked everywhere for you!”

Scorpius was growing happier and happier the longer he hugged her. The familiar smell of her perfume or shampoo (or whatever it was) made him feel so elated. He realized he’d truly thought he’d never see her again. She seemed a bit overwhelmed by their warm welcome. Her hands gently patted their backs as they continued hugging her. Scorpius was grinning so hard his face ached. He’d completely forgotten the reason that Rose had brought her until he felt the heat radiating from the skin on her neck. He leaned back quickly, concerned. Right. She was ill.

“You do have a fever,” he realized, concerned. He gently kneed Albus’s thigh. Albus leaned back, breaking their hug.

“Fever? Ill? What’s happened?” Albus asked. He had the nerve to shoot an accusatory look at Rose, as if it were somehow her fault.

“Why are you looking at me like that?!” Rose snapped.

Albus crossed his arms. “Did you apologize to her?”

“Albus? Shut up,” Rose said. She spared him a dirty look before wrapping an arm around Iset’s shoulders. She leaned in close to her ear and whispered something, her eyes trained on the profile of Iset’s face. Iset turned to look at her and nodded once. They shared a warm smile, one that seemed to linger on, their eyes dropping from each other’s eyes to their lips. There was no mistaking the tenderness; they were back together, then. Scorpius bounced in place, elated. He turned to look at Albus. He grabbed Albus’s forearms and jumped up and down more freely.

Yes!” he rejoiced.

“Christmas is saved,” Albus beamed. “Brilliant!”

Rose let her arm fall from Iset’s shoulders. She crossed over to start the kettle. Scorpius jumped to action. He got the fever drought ready while Albus pulled over a chair for Iset. He passed the dropper to Albus once he’d measured out the correct amount and sat in front of Iset. He noticed-- now that he was really looking at her instead of squeezing the life from her-- that she looked very unhealthy. She was underweight and her skin was worryingly pale. And when he reached out to touch her forehead, she flinched by instinct, something she hadn’t done since their seventh year at Hogwarts, since she’d left her abusive family home and flourished. Scorpius felt his heart sting.

“Sorry. I was going to feel your temperature,” he said. He pulled his wand out. “Is that okay?”

She nodded. “Yes, sorry, I just…”

“No, you don’t have to explain,” Scorpius reassured her. He leaned forward and briefly rested his knuckles against the smooth skin of her forehead. He frowned. He gently set the tip of his wand there a moment later. The tip glowed red. “Albus, can you hand me the—thanks.”

Albus had passed the dropper to Scorpius before he’d even had to finish asking. He passed it to Iset. While she took it, he gestured towards her jumper. She nodded. He reached forward and pulled the wide neckline of her jumper to the side, just enough to see the splotches covering her collarbone. He had never seen anything like it.

“Weird…” he murmured, baffled. He looked up and met her eyes. “It doesn’t itch or hurt?”

“No,” she said. “But sometimes it feels cold.”

“Cold? Like you need to put a scarf on or like ice is being pressed to your skin?” he wondered.

“Ice. It’s sort of painful sometimes. Here, I’ve got a vest on underneath.”

Scorpius waited as she tugged her jumper over her head. He was able to see the full extent of the rash once it was off. The splotches weren’t that noticeable—they were only a few shades darker than her skin—but the pattern was strange. Scorpius puzzled over it as the kettle began whistling. As Rose poured water into the teapot, Lily called out to them.

“What makes it feel better? When it hurts?” Lily asked.

Scorpius glanced around at her. She was leaning over the table, watching Iset with rapt attention.

“Heat. Hot water or steam.”

Lily’s lips made an O of surprise.

“What?” Albus demanded.

Lily stood. She walked over and kneeled in front of Iset, her face hovering just over her exposed shoulders. She studied the rash up close.

“This is going to sound mad,” she began. “But I’ve seen this before.”

“It does sound mad. How have you seen it when Scorpius hasn’t? He’s studied both Muggle and—”

“I’ve seen it on dragons.”

What?!” Rose and Albus chorused.

“When dragons get lime pox, they end up losing scales right at the shoulder line and their upper legs. The scales don’t fall off, though. They burn them off. Dragons can’t tell us that something feels painfully cold…they can only try to make themselves more comfortable…and they do that…with fire…” Lily trailed off, her eyes still on the rash. Scorpius’s mind was working double time.

“Where have you been, Iset? Have you been working in a shop that sells poached items? We think it’s spreading on infected dragon scales. Lime pox, that is.”

“No,” she said. “What is lime pox? Am I going to die?”

“I don’t think so,” Scorpius said. “I think loads of people have it. I can’t prove it yet, but I think it’s what's causing all the recent squib births. It’s probably like dragon pox and loads of other illnesses…some people show more symptoms than others. Have you been living healthily?”

Iset grimaced. Scorpius took that as a no.

“If you haven’t been eating properly your immunities are probably low. Sadness can make your immunities worse too, actually.”

“But she hasn’t been in the Wizarding world,” Rose blurted. She crossed over to them and passed Iset a mug of tea. She sat at her side and leaned over, pressing a kiss to her collarbone. If she was worried about catching lime pox, it didn’t show. Though, to be fair, she was probably already doomed to get it by now.

“Really? Well, where have you been?” Scorpius asked.

“Muggle London,” Iset answered. Rose had let her head fall against Iset’s shoulder. Iset looked strangely relaxed as she stroked her fingers through Rose’s hair. If Scorpius knew he had a weird dragon disease, he would’ve been much more concerned. But then again, if he’d just spent months in hell without Albus, he probably wouldn’t care much. Dying at Albus’s side would’ve been better than living alone to age ninety.

“I’m so glad you two are back together,” Albus blurted, his eyes on the couple as Iset kissed Rose’s scalp.

Lily rolled her eyes. “Get a grip, Al.”

Scorpius continued. “You must’ve come into contact with the Wizarding world somehow. Where all did you go, when, and who did you have contact with?”

“I went to Azkaban, but the only people there that I had contact with were my parents, and they certainly aren’t getting anything made out of dragon scales within Azkaban,” she admitted. “And I saw Helen—my guardian-- but she won’t even go into restaurants that serve meat, so I know she hasn’t been touching anything made out of animal skin. And I saw…”

Iset stopped. She looked up at Lily and met her eyes.

“Well, I saw Lily’s boyfriend. And your dad, Scorpius. At the WWEU.” She remembered something. “Caden hugged me.”

“I doubt it’s passed that way,” Lily said quickly. “Person-to-person. Or else everybody would have it. I bet it’s just from skin-to-skin contact with the scales. Caden would never touch anything made from real dragon scales. He would never. He loves Opal. He calls him ‘Big Baby’. And…and he loves—loved…—Opal and Emerald’s babies. And Topaz and Flint! And he would definitely love the other dragons if they let him near them, which they don’t, but that’s just because they’re lady dragons and they aren’t as nice as—stop looking at me like that!”

Lily swallowed hard. She glared at Albus, who refused to back down.

“But if she only touched Caden…and now she has it…” Albus pointed out. Everybody looked at Lily. She looked from each of them, her lips parting.

“No! Don’t look at me like that!” she repeated sharply. Scorpius could sense her panic; a deep look of fear passed behind her eyes. “There must be something she’s forgetting! Caden doesn’t have it!”

For somebody who insisted that she never wanted babies, she certainly seemed upset at the notion that her boyfriend might be magically impotent.

Scorpius looked back at Iset. Rose had pulled her discarded jumper over into her lap and was neatly folding it. Iset was watching her, her gaze soft at first, but her eyes widened a moment later.

“Oh!” she cried. She turned to look at them. “Oh!!” She shifted excitedly, bringing her right leg up beneath her. She leaned forward towards Lily, eager to share what she’d suddenly remembered. “I held a man’s coat for him in the corridor! He had about two dozen things in his arms so I offered to help him…I forgot about the coat because he also handed me a kitten…”

“What was the coat made from?” Lily demanded.

“I don’t know if they were dragon scales. But I remember it was very slick and the scales were massive and much more pointed than snake scales.”

Lily pressed the tips of her two index fingers together, and then the tips of her two thumbs, to make a triangle. “Like this?”

Iset bit her lip. She thought for a moment. She leaned in and gently pressed the pads of Lily’s index fingers closer together, so her fingers created a bit of a curve near the top.

“More like this,” she said. “And they were the color of spring grass!”

Albus gave her an amused look. Iset’s cheeks pinked.

“I remember thinking it was very pretty,” she defended. “Rose has a pair of knickers that are—…it’s a nice shade.”  

Lily slapped her hands down onto her thighs, drawing everybody’s attention from Iset’s blushing cheeks.

“YES! That’s a bloody Welsh Common Green!! I mean…no, not ‘YES’, as I’m very heartbroken and cross that it was murdered for its scales...and that it infected you with lime pox, Iset…but I’m also really glad that Caden isn’t wearing poached dragon scales behind my back.”

Albus leaned in. “And you’re glad that you can have his little magical babies?” he simpered, teasing. Lily didn’t even glance his way as she slung her arm over and socked him in the gut. He groaned and doubled over.

“So what does this mean for Iset?” Rose asked anxiously. “How do we cure lime pox?”

Scorpius glanced at Lily. She frowned back at him.

“I’m…working on that,” Scorpius told her. He gave a tight smile.

“The thing to remember, Iset,” Lily began, “is that you’re probably not going to die.”

“‘Probably’?!” Albus hissed back at her, annoyed. “Way to be reassuring, Lily!”

“I’m not being reassuring, I’m being honest! She's probably not going to die! If it really is lime pox, and it really is spread by contact with the scales, loads of people have it, and none of them have died!”

“What if it can be spread from person to person?” Albus countered.

“Then everybody has it and there’s no point in panicking. We’ll just have to create a cure and get on with it,” Lily said. “But I doubt everybody has it. I mean, for one, I’m sure Rose has had plenty of contact with those rashes. Right, ladies?”

Lily looked at the couple. Rose seemed to be fighting the urge to make a rude hand gesture or punch her; she sat on both her hands.

“Looks like a yes to me,” Lily continued, unfettered. “And Rose has definitely had an unhealthy lifestyle these past few months…barely eating her food, not sleeping much, working nonstop, running off to foreign countries without telling our Gran, drinking an entire bottle of sauvignon blanc on her birthday and sobbing into Uncle Ron’s jumper—”

“We get it, Lily,” Rose snapped. She was avoiding Iset’s eyes. Scorpius wondered if she’d told Iset how lost she’d been without her. Judging by Iset’s soft, searching eyes, she hadn’t.

“My point is she’d be just as likely to show symptoms and get seriously ill. And she looks fine.”

“Could be a long incubation period,” Scorpius pointed out, worried. He looked to Iset. “Iset, when did you touch the coat?”

She answered at once. “Three days before my fever started.”

Lily inclined her head towards her. “There you go. Rose has been reunited with you for that long. And…” she leaned forward and touched Rose’s forehead. “She feels fine.”

“I notice you’ve very calm and collected about this when it’s my girlfriend who’s infected. Weren’t so rational when you thought it was your boyfriend,” Rose spat. She crossed her arms. “What happens to the dragons that get lime pox?”

Lily pressed her lips together. She glanced at her opal-encrusted wristwatch. “Oh, wow, Caden’s meeting is already over…time to go…boyfriends to tease…bye!”

“That doesn’t seem like a good sign,” Iset whispered to Rose.

“You’re a Healer, Scorpius,” Rose said. Her bossy tone sent up warning flags. “You need to heal her now.”

“Oi! Don’t talk to my husband like that!” Albus said, annoyed. “He can’t be expected to singlehandedly come up with the cure to a new disease!”

Her words made him think about Amber. He wanted to heal everybody all the time. He looked at his friend, his friend that he’d only just gotten back. He cared deeply for her—he didn’t want her to die or suffer. He wanted to heal her. So he decided he would.

“I will,” he said.

“Scorpius!” Albus hissed.

“No, Albus, she’s right…I’m the one who made the connection…now I need to prove it. I can do this. Evvie and Ben are back for the holidays, right? I’ll go see Evvie before they head off to their next destination. Everybody knows she deals with genetics and diseases. I’ll bring a sample of Iset’s blood…if that’s okay with you, Iset?”

She nodded.

“And I’ll bring…a sample of the coat! Iset, do you remember who the man was?!”

Iset’s eyelids fluttered shut as she thought. “He…was tall. Notably tall. He had pale skin and a gold tooth.”

Scorpius nodded. “Tall, pale skin, gold tooth, flashy green coat—I’m sure my dad can tell me who it is. Thanks, Iset!”

Scorpius kissed Albus goodbye, and without sparing any other explanations, he scampered off towards the Floo.


 

He hadn't expected to see Lily again so soon. He stepped into his dad’s office and stared. Lily was sitting in front of his dad's desk, looking extremely bedraggled. Her leather jacket was mysteriously missing, leaving her in her halter top, surely freezing in the drafty room with her tattooed shoulders on full display. She had a long, fairly deep scratch running down the side of her neck. Her short hair was wild and tangled. What could she have gotten up to in the few minutes they’d been apart?

“Er…hi, Dad,” he greeted. He gestured at Lily. “Has my sister done something?”

“Yes, actually. She’s assaulted somebody,” Draco said curtly.

Scorpius looked at Lily in horror. “Lily! No!”

She set her hands in her lap and fiddled with her opal rings. Her knuckles were bruised and busted, which told Scorpius that this had been an old-fashioned Muggle assault. Scorpius walked over and sank down into the seat beside hers. He pulled his wand out and leaned over. He mended the scratch running down her neck.

“Why?” he asked, gentler this time.

She fiddled more anxiously with her rings. She avoided Scorpius’s eyes. “He tried to sell me something in the main lobby.”

“Who?”

“The man I punched in the face.”

“But…what…” Scorpius’s questioning was interrupted as the door opened. Caden entered with three mugs of tea hovering in front of him, looking nearly as disheveled as Lily. His suit jacket was hanging oddly like a few inside seams had been torn. The right side of his jaw was red and puffy. His hair—normally slicked back nicely—was pushed in every direction. That really got Scorpius’s attention. Lily in a fist fight wasn’t exactly unheard of. But Caden involved in a fight? It would take a lot to get Caden to start swinging fists.

Caden sent the mugs floating over to Draco’s desk, where they landed gently. He crossed over to stand in front of Lily’s chair. He looked down at her, his eyes heavy and churning with concern, his lips pulled down into a frown. She extended her hand— small, bruised, bloodied. He took it wordlessly, pulled her out of the chair, took her place, and then pulled her down into his lap. To Scorpius’s surprise, Lily curled up and pressed her face into his neck, accepting his affection and comfort. His hand swept up and down the flower-adorned skin of her back. She rubbed her nose gently against his neck in what looked very much like a nuzzle. Lily was typically the living embodiment of the polar opposite of affectionate nuzzling, so Scorpius was rightly thrown off guard.

“Seriously, Dad, I was only away from Lily for a few minutes, what happened?” Scorpius begged.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” his dad said, his narrowed eyes still on the couple. “Now would be a great time to explain, Caden.”

Lily sat up and turned to Draco. Her damp cheeks shone underneath the light of the candelabra. “It’s not his fault! Don’t get angry with him!”

“Oh, I was never under the delusion that it was his fault,” Draco reassured her coolly. “If something reckless happens and there’s a Potter nearby, my money is on the Potter.”

Scorpius cleared his throat pointedly. He felt a bit annoyed as he lifted his left hand to showcase his wedding ring as a gentle reminder. His dad winced.

“Sorry,” he allowed. Scorpius shrugged; he did have a point. Scorpius loved his family more than life itself…but the Potters were definitely hotheads, at least in comparison to the Malfoys.

“That pile of dragon shite stopped me as I was headed towards the corridor and he grabbed my wrist and looked at my watch and he said—and he pulled out—” she was shaking with anger. “He had things made out of my dragons' scales! Mine! Antipodean Opaleyes! He thought I’d want to buy them off him, because my watch, said it looked like ‘my style’—”

She was red in the face and trembling.

“And the scales were very small and some were damaged and I knew—I just knew—the poachers went and they dug up the babies’ bodies and—” she seemed to lose an internal battle. She clenched her fists tightly and made a decision. “I’m going to find him again and I’m going to make him wish he’d never so much as thought about hurting a dragon!” She made to slid from Caden’s lap, to presumably go on a hunt for this poached dragon hide peddler, but Caden locked his arms around her waist and refused to let her go. She squirmed against his grip for a moment, annoyed, but when she looked back at him and met his eyes, her glare softened. She relaxed back against him, though her hands were still curled into fists.

“Opal—you know, the dragon she stole when she was thirteen and then spent all her summers taking care of—his babies were killed,” Scorpius explained to his dad, his voice quiet. He wanted to make sure his dad understood the depth of what’d happened; he didn’t want Lily or Caden judged too harshly.

“I know,” his dad said, to Scorpius’s surprise. “It’s awful. And I know it must have been very hard to have him offer that to you. But the babies are already dead. Attacking him doesn’t change that. If you're angry, organize protests against the poaching; make the public aware and make them boycott the products. And Caden, I’m disappointed in you. I thought you were more level-headed than that.”

Caden was completely unapologetic. He stared evenly at Draco. “He scratched my girlfriend.”

“Your girlfriend punched a few of his teeth out.”

“And? He still scratched her.”

“She’s proven that she’s capable of taking care of herself. You escalated it needlessly.”

“No, I punched a nasty man in the face, a man who was asking for it, a man who was selling the stolen skin of murdered baby dragons that my girlfriend helped hatch, spent countless hours cuddling, training, and caring for, and nearly died for. Fire me if it upsets you. I’d do it again, and if I see him on this property again, I will. I’m not sorry.”

“I’m not sorry, either,” Lily agreed. Her words were a bit uneven. Her brown eyes were shining with tears as she looked up at Caden. Scorpius felt his throat narrow.

“You two can go off and be ‘not sorry’ together at home, then,” Draco said sternly. “I won’t have assault happening inside this building. It’s the Equality Union, for God’s sake. That man probably had no idea where the dragon scales came from. I expect a written apology from both of you, addressed to the man. Don’t come back until you’ve got it, Caden.”

Caden didn’t respond, but the nasty look he sent Draco’s way said enough. He nudged Lily off his lap, stood, accepted her offered hand, and left the office without another word. Scorpius wasn’t sure how he felt.

“She thought of those dragons as her babies,” he finally said. He tried to keep his reproach out of his voice.

“There were better ways to handle the situation.”

“Yeah, but it’s difficult to think clearly, isn’t it? When you’re grieving?” Scorpius pointed out. He wondered if his dad was thinking about his mum right then, too.

“Be that as it may…you have to take responsibility for your negative actions. Even if there are extenuating circumstances,” his dad argued.

“I guess so,” Scorpius agreed. He pulled nervously at his cloak. He hoped Lily was all right.

“Did you just come by to visit?” his dad asked.

“Oh,” Scorpius said. He remembered what he was doing here. “No. I’m actually looking for somebody…”

He and his dad spent the next half-hour hunting down the man, who ended up being a temp in the main lobby. Scorpius’s dad had to use a lot of persuasive charm to get him to agree to lend out his jacket. Scorpius was careful to keep it from touching his skin; he levitated it over to a plastic bag and sealed it up tightly. His dad was in a deep discussion with the man as Scorpius readied himself to leave; going by what Scorpius was overhearing, Draco was getting information on that dragon hide peddler Lily had punched (who the temp had bought the dragon scale coat from). Scorpius knew his dad wanted the man prosecuted, and he thought he ought to be, too, so he didn’t interrupt. He merely set a brief hand on his dad’s arm in parting. He went to Rose and Iset’s cottage, got a sample of Iset’s blood, and then set off immediately for the new Wood residence. He was starving by the time he stumbled out into their elegant kitchen. He considered taking a piece of fruit from the swan-shaped fruit bowl on the breakfast bar but he knew he’d feel too guilty to actually eat it.

“Evvie? Ben?” he shouted. His voice echoed throughout the massive kitchen, but there were many rooms and floors, so he knew it was foolish to assume they’d hear him. He sighed. He was considering sending his Patronus to them when he heard the distant sound of music. He turned and followed it with some difficulty. He was led to a door off the kitchen, leading out into their spacious garden. He didn’t know where the inherited money came from—Evvie’s Muggle dad’s side of the family or her mum’s—but she was certainly well off; the back garden was lovingly tended to, with rows of white rose bushes lining the fence, a Muggle hot tub set into the patio, and a sleek, high-end shed tucked into the back corner of the garden. In stark contrast to most back gardens, there was no neatly trimmed grass; the patio dropped off into what appeared to be a field of violets, with only a narrow, stone path to walk on to get to the shed. The music was drifting from that shed, so Scorpius braved the stone path, mindful not to trample the flowers. He knocked once on the black double doors, but the violin music drowned it out. He cautiously opened the door and stepped inside. His eyes were drawn to the workbench first. He eyed the half completed brooms hanging in the air, the shelves groaning underneath the weight of hundreds of tools and supplies, and the fine layer of wood shavings coating the marble floor. On the other side of the shed, sitting at the left side of a work table, was Ben, calmly hand-carving a broomstick handle, a content smile on his face. Across from him was Evvie, a violin held to her chest by her chin and a look of deep concentration on her features. The sheet music on the table in front of her told Scorpius she was only just learning. As Scorpius quietly approached them, he realized he’d entered during a somewhat private moment. Both seemed too into their tasks to notice him. Their bare feet were intertwined beneath the table, Ben was shirtless, and Evvie was without lipstick (Scorpius couldn’t think of another time he’d seen her without lipstick). She was dressed as nicely as she always was (this time she was donning a pleated chrome skirt and cotton blouse) but her hair was uncharacteristically disheveled; she’d carelessly tied her hair back from her face with what looked like a bit of copper wiring, probably to keep it out of the way as she studied her sheet music. The overall image was so vastly different from every other image he’d seen of the couple that he felt reluctant to speak up, as if he’d stumbled upon them naked. He was beginning to edge away when Ben looked up suddenly. He grinned broadly.

“Scorpius! Hello, mate!”

Scorpius froze. He forced himself to smile and pretended like he hadn’t been retreating.

“Hello! How was your honeymoon?” he asked.

Ben yanked a chair out for him. Scorpius walked over and sat down in it. He exchanged a smile with Evvie.

“Life-changing,” Ben said. “Can’t wait to return. We’d still be on it if Evvie’s family didn’t insist that we spend Christmas with them.”

“I’m the only child,” Evvie reminded Ben.

“You’re your dad’s little princess is what you are,” Ben countered, amused. Evvie didn’t refute it. She merely turned the page in her violin book. Scorpius was trying to figure out how to lead into what he wanted to ask while she played a few more notes. She glanced up at Ben.

“Better or worse than before?” she asked Ben.

“Better, though you’ve shifted the violin, did you mean to do that? Will that change how the notes sound? Here…”

While Ben leaned over the table and helped straighten the violin beneath his wife’s chin, Scorpius pulled the bagged coat and vial of blood from his briefcase. He took a deep breath.

“Evvie?” he asked.

She looked over at him.

“I know you can’t tell me anything. I’m not asking you to. But I need to give you these two things and I need you to listen. I don’t know if you know…I’m sure you do…but Squib births have increased. Well, more to the point, magical births have decreased.”

Her face remained entirely impassive. Scorpius continued on after another deep breath.

“Lily’s been telling me about a disease the poachers have been using to take down dragons. And I really think there’s a connection.”

Evvie and Ben listened intently as Scorpius outlined everything that he knew. Evvie accepted the bagged coat and vial as soon as Scorpius had finished speaking.

“Iset’s back?” she asked, first and foremost.

Scorpius smiled. “Yeah! She’s back. Doing very well, all things considered.”

Evvie smiled, too. “Is she at Torrington Cottage?”

“She was only a few minutes ago, yeah,” Scorpius affirmed. Evvie stood at once.

“I’m going to go see her,” she said. “Does Nora know she’s back?”

Evvie and Nora—who had taken on the joint role of Iset’s surrogate elder sisters during her fifth year and all throughout Goyle’s traumatizing child abuse case—had always felt protective over Iset. Scorpius had been extremely concerned when Iset shut them out after her breakup with Rose. He was glad that everybody was coming back together again.

“I don’t think so. It seemed like not many people knew yet.”

Evvie nodded. “Well, I’ll run tests on what you’ve given me. I’ve got to pick up something else from the Potter residence that needs to be tested, too. I think you’ve stumbled upon something. I’ll let you know as much as I can tell you soon. And if anybody asks…”

“We never had this conversation,” Scorpius nodded. He paused. “Except...I’ll tell Albus. Sorry. I just will.”

“That’s understandable,” Ben nodded.

Scorpius left feeling very hopeful. Things seemed less bleak when he knew somebody was actively working towards a cure.


 

The last few days before Christmas passed in a flurry of consumerism and hysterical parents. No parent ever wanted their child to be in hospital, but having your child in hospital over Christmas was even worse. Scorpius understood that, and yet he found himself emotionally worn down by the parents of his patients, who wanted so desperately to have their children home for Christmas that they were often reduced to shouting at Scorpius. He handled it worse and worse every day, so that by the time the twenty-third arrived, he found himself crying in the toilets during his lunch break.

“Go home, Scorpius,” his boss—Willow—said, stern and frustrated. “Take your holiday. Have a break from the madness.”

He was tired of feeling like the bad guy, tired of explaining to senselessly angry parents that he could not, in good conscience, let their children go home for the holidays, so he was all too willing to take her up on that offer. He had completely forgotten about his annual shopping trip until he stepped out of the Floo to find his sister-in-law waiting in his kitchen. Delilah was snuggled to her chest in a carrier—wearing a winter hat with little bear ears—and Nora had sensibly chosen trainers, clearly anticipating just as much walking this year as they did the last.

“I forgot,” Scorpius greeted. He groaned. He collapsed down into the seat beside Nora and let his head fall against her shoulder. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“What?! You love our shopping trips! Ginny will be heartbroken if you don’t come along!”

“I know, I know!” Scorpius said. He smiled tiredly down at Delilah as she reached for him. Nora unfastened the carrier and passed her over to Scorpius. He hugged the baby close and pressed his face into her hair. He inhaled the sweet scent of her scalp. She rested her chubby cheek against his shoulder and babbled contentedly as he patted her tiny back. “Aw, Delilah, your hugs always make me feel better,” he cooed to the baby.

“Did you have a bad day at work?” Nora wondered.

“Horrible. Two sets of parents took out their disappointment about missing out on a normal Christmas on me. Was Albus here when you arrived or is he still at work?”

“That wasn't fair of them. I'm sorry; I hope things get better after the holidays. And I guess Albus is still at work. James is, too. Everybody’s been very busy there this week.”

Scorpius furrowed his brow. “Who’s watching the kids if James is working?”

“Dean and Harry. Oh, to be a fly on the wall…”

Scorpius snorted. “Are Finnigan and Henry blowing things up again? They’re a two man job?”

“No—both Harry and Dean insisted on watching them and both refused to back down. So I set it up where they could watch them together. They’ve got issues they need to sort out; I’ve put Evra on the case.”

Scorpius kissed Delilah’s hair. He smiled. “Evra will have them hugging it out in no time.”

“I hope so. The tension is getting a bit unreal. Ginny and Seamus accused one another of kidnapping yesterday.”

Kidnapping?!” Scorpius blurted, horrified. “What?! Wait—start over, what’s going on?”

“Okay, so apparently both my parents and James’s feel like they get shorted on time with the grandkids. James and I get home, right, and we think everything is peachy...only to realize during what was supposed to be a calm Sunday dinner that our parents are at each other’s throats. So we’ve been very careful about scheduling babysitting times since then; we measure the time out perfectly, so there’s no reason for a fight. But Evra got a bit too involved with 'tracking' the honey bees in Harry’s garden, and one thing led to another, and Ginny and Harry were a half-hour late to drop the kids off with Seamus, and Seamus Flooed James reporting his own parents for stealing his own kids, and I think my dads are fueling each other’s midlife crises.”

“Wow,” Scorpius said. “That sounds...stressful. I’m sorry.”

Nora shrugged. “Just another week, really. There’s always something. Life is never boring. And you know what’s interesting about today?”

“What?” Scorpius asked (a bit apprehensively).

“Ginny’s invited Caden along.”

Scorpius gaped. It took him a few moments to process that.

“She’s…wait. Ginny invited Caden on our mother-in-law shopping trip?! She’s never done that before! What changed?” He gasped. “Did they get engaged?!”

“No! No. I dunno why she suddenly decided to, but she was at the house last night and mentioned—as she was leaving—that he’d be joining us.”

Every year since Nora and James’s first Christmas a married couple, Nora and Ginny had gone shopping together the day before Christmas Eve to get gifts for Harry, James, and anybody else they still needed gifts for. Scorpius had been added to the tradition when he and Albus got engaged and moved in together, and it was one of his most cherished family events. He wondered if Caden would realize what it meant that he’d been invited. It was an invitation that had made Scorpius’s entire month when he first received it. There was nothing quite as fun as traipsing through eclectic Muggle shops with Ginny and Nora, chatting about each other’s stressful jobs, gossiping about the things their husbands and friends had done, and having countless laughs. It felt so much like family that it warmed Scorpius’s heart for ages. As he replayed memories from last year’s trip, he decided this was really what he needed after his rubbish day, after all.

“I hope he knows how monumental that is,” Scorpius admitted. “That’s a big deal.”

“I agree,” Nora said. “Almost as important as the first jumper from Molly.”

Scorpius smiled. “Almost.”

They fell into an affectionate silence, each reminiscing about what it meant to be a Weasley. When Ginny and Caden finally arrived, Scorpius was in much better spirits. Their group of four left Albus and Scorpius’s flat to catch a cab. As they sped towards the shops, Scorpius hoped that Caden felt loved. Because that’s what it meant to be included.


 

“I know it seems like a silly gift,” Nora told them, a thick, fluffy blanket held in her arms. “But I already painted the kids’ portraits for him; he’s been requesting it for ages because he wants to hang them in his office. The only other thing he’s ever asked for is a ‘cozy blanket’.”

“It’s not stupid,” Ginny reassured Nora. She patted the blanket with a sentimental smile. For a few moments, she seemed far away. “He actually used to wrap himself up in a blanket a lot like this for naptime when he was little.”

“Aww,” Nora said affectionately. She hugged the blanket tighter.

Scorpius was feeling great about the purchases he’d made so far. He’d finished shopping for his dad, bought the last thing he needed for Henry, and had paid for Albus’s gift: a new Muggle motorbike he’d had his eye on for ages. Everybody was doing well, in fact. Ginny had purchased another one of those rare Pensieve-orbs she and Harry had given Albus for his sixteenth birthday (Harry had apparently made a few comments about wishing he had his own at various times throughout the year; Ginny had spent months tracking down another one). The only person who seemed uncertain was Caden. He had kept up with their bantering remarkably well and had really seemed to be enjoying the trip, but as everybody finished with their purchases, he got quieter and quieter. Scorpius thought he was probably worried about what to buy for Lily.

Scorpius looked over at him as they stepped into a Muggle coffee shop so Nora could get her caffeine fix. Caden had been holding Delilah for the past half hour, and the more he withdrew from the adults, the more he talked to the baby. She was getting a constant stream of commentary about all the shops and every single object Caden passed. She must’ve adored the interaction because she refused to let anybody else take her. Scorpius hung back as Ginny and Nora made their way to the counter. He looked at Caden.

“Are you worried about what to get Lily?” he guessed.

Caden had been bouncing Delilah in his arms, but at that, he fell still. He looked at Scorpius.

“I'm worried about giving Lily something in general. I’ve already got her gift. I’ve had it for ages. I’m just worried it'll scare her off again.”

It was a fair concern.

“Is it an engagement ring?” Scorpius asked hesitantly. “Because…that might scare her off.”

“No, it’s not that. She hasn’t even said ‘I love you’ yet; it’s definitely not an engagement ring.”

Scorpius nodded. “Okay, well, what’s your concern, then? Is it very expensive?”

“Yeah,” Caden admitted. “And I don’t even know if she got me anything this year. I don’t want her to feel suffocated. We usually give each other…” Caden trailed off, searching for a diplomatic phrasing. “Less materialistic gifts.”

Scorpius glanced over towards the counter. “I’ll go ask Ginny if Lily got you anything. If Lily did, you’re probably in the clear.”

He looked uncertain, but he must’ve remembered that his time to decide was trickling away. He nodded. Scorpius crossed over to his mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

“Want a coffee?” Nora offered.

“No, thanks,” Scorpius said. “Makes me very, very, very hyper. Ginny, do you know if Lily went Christmas shopping for Caden this year?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ginny said, her eyes studying the menu. “She’s been working on something for the past week. Won’t tell me what, so I didn’t press; usually, if Lulu won’t tell you, you really don’t want to know—yes, hello, could I have what she ordered?”

While Ginny talked with the person behind the counter, Scorpius marched back over to Caden with a smile.

“Lily’s been working on something for you for a week,” he said happily.

Caden stared. “Seriously? Not a joke?”

“Not a joke. So I think you’re probably good to give her whatever you bought.”

Caden was much chattier for the rest of their trip.


 

On Christmas Eve, the Potters, the Lupins, and the Granger-Weasleys all united at the Den. Christmas Day would be spent at the Burrow, with all of the Weasley family, Dean and Seamus, and Scorpius’s dad, but Christmas Eves were always quieter events (or as quiet as a gathering of Potters and Granger-Weasleys could be, anyway).

Dinner was a joyous affair, with only minimal arguing between Lily and Rose, and gifts followed afterwards. Scorpius sat in a sea of gift wrap and smiled as everybody uncovered their gifts. The living room was alive with the little Potters’ and Remus’s excited shrieks and giggles. Best of all was Albus’s body pressing Scorpius’s back against the sofa as he opened up the box containing his new motorbike keys; Scorpius was thoroughly snogged and slightly fondled, but nobody noticed thanks to all the commotion. He was equally enamored with the gift Albus had given him: tickets to a series of muggle medicine lectures held at a muggle university. Scorpius received a handsome limited edition copy of his favorite Healing text from Harry and Ginny, a hamper full of Pepper Imps and drawings from his nieces and nephews, a massive batch of Lily’s eyesight potion to bring back to work (her potion was extremely costly thanks to the complicated brewing requirements; most every potioneer charged a hefty labor fee, so Lily usually spent a good portion of her year brewing massive batches to give to those who needed or wanted it but didn’t want to pay the fees; it was very helpful at St. Mungo’s, where it could also be used to combat some optical toxins and injuries), a new wristwatch (also from Lily; it had minuscule dragons perched on each hand that blew fire every hour), a new yearly diary from Hermione, a set of safe pranks for the kids on his ward from Ron, a brilliant new wand holder from Teddy and Vic, and—possibly best of all—a voucher for a weekend-long couples’ skiing trip from James and Nora. Albus had received the corresponding voucher.

After everybody had unwrapped their gifts—and people had stopped calling 'thank you!!' across the living room at each other every few seconds—things quieted down. Victoire, Hermione, and Teddy retreated to the kitchen to make hot chocolate for the kids and firewhisky-spiked eggnog for the adults. Scorpius curled up against Albus and watched Remus and Evra playing inside her new tent. Across from them, Iset was curled up in Rose’s lap, her head resting on Rose’s shoulder as the two conversed quietly. Scorpius hadn’t heard much from Evvie, but she had informed him that the disease wasn’t communicable between humans, which had been a relief for Iset, who had originally said she wouldn’t attend any Christmas gatherings for fear of infecting the kids. Having been given the clear, and having spent her day surrounded by love from Rose’s family, she seemed to be doing much better. There was a healthy radiance to her skin that had been missing before. Love made everybody shine, but it was most striking on those who had recently spent time dejected. Rose and Iset looked better than they had in ages. Iset had even dressed up for the event; she seemed to glow in a dainty chiffon dress, embroidered in shimmering gold, with endearing cap sleeves that helped mask her unusually frail shoulders. In fact, she and Lily probably won the award for ‘most transformed’; Lily had shown up to the celebration late, hand-in-hand with Caden, positively brimming with confidence and happiness. Since she’d returned from New Zealand, she’d sometimes seemed a bit uncomfortable in her own skin after the loss of her hair, but whatever had happened that morning before she’d arrived had clearly made her feel much better. There was a bounce in her step that had been missing before. She’d donned a form-fitting white dress covered in sequins, with long, translucent sleeves that proudly showcased her tattoos and her burns. The plunging neckline and open back of the dress seemed to make her lack of long hair even more noticeable, but she seemed quite all right with that. She picked at her dinner (far too busy laughing and chatting to eat), sped through the opening of her presents, showed off the necklace Caden had given her (a silver choker holding a magnificent opal), fielded questions about what she’d gotten him, drank half a glass of firewhisky-spiked eggnog, and then disappeared upstairs with Caden for an ‘early night’. It was a tradition for the Potter children to sleep over, and Scorpius and Albus typically did, but Scorpius wasn’t sure if he wanted to tonight. He liked the idea of having Albus alone in their flat much better. And judging by the flush of alcohol to Albus’s cheeks and his wandering hands, Albus was feeling the same way. Scorpius had had to grasp his drunk husband’s hand three times to keep him from slipping it inside Scorpius's trousers as they sat around the living room with all their other family; Albus was far too happy and intoxicated to feel embarrassment, but Scorpius hadn’t consumed nearly enough to want a handjob in front of his in-laws.

“I’m getting another drink,” Teddy declared. He stood. “Who wants another round? Scorpius? Rose? Hermione?”

“No,” Rose giggled. “No...no, no.” She was already snuggling Iset closely enough to make determining whose limbs were whose slightly difficult at first glance; her face was presently buried into the crook of her girlfriend’s neck as she giggled into her skin. Iset never drank—she never offered many reasons why, but Scorpius thought she probably didn’t like feeling out of control in anyway—but she didn’t seem bothered by her tipsy girlfriend. In fact, she was smiling nearly nonstop herself, her fingers playing gently with the thin silver chain of the rose necklace around Rose’s neck.

“Absolutely not,” Hermione groaned. She was petting Hugo’s hair; he’d curled up against his mum’s side as if he were ten years old, cheerfully holding a conversation with Ginny and Ron about his bakery’s upcoming opening day. Teddy looked expectantly towards Scorpius, who was currently trying to keep Albus from wedging his hand beneath Scorpius’s bum. He clasped Albus’s hands tightly within his own and smiled at Teddy.

“Thanks, but no. Alcohol makes my stomach hurt. And Albus is officially cut off, too.”

Teddy appraised his younger cousin with amusement. “I wasn’t even going to ask him. He’s two drinks off from blacking out.”

Albus leaned over and kissed Scorpius’s throat. Scorpius felt heat rush to his face. He gave Albus a stern look in response, though there was an ever-strengthening part of himself that thought about allowing him to go on with it despite all his reservations.

“Merlin,” Harry commented, amused. “How many drinks did you have, Al? I’ve never seen you this sloshed. Never seen your mum this sloshed, actually—no, wait, never mind. Yes, I have.”

Ginny groaned. “Oh, Merlin, the Harpies signing party.”

Harry looked at the wall, his eyes a million miles away. “The Harpies signing party. Wow.”

“I think Lily spiked him,” Scorpius complained. “She made his last three. He doesn’t usually get this way.”

Harry, Ginny, and James exchanged a horrified look.

“What?” Scorpius asked quickly.

“You let Lily make him an alcoholic drink? She, by nature, quadruples the alcohol content every time. You never accept a drink from her,” Ginny said. She stretched out and threw her legs over Harry’s lap. He set his palm on her calf and rubbed her skin affectionately. He’d had a few drinks himself, clearly. There was no question where Albus got it from. “The child’s liver is probably a wasteland.”

Scorpius had thought that Albus’s drinks smelled much stronger than everybody else's. He winced. “Oh, no...I made Albus accept them…I thought Lily was being kind…the Christmas spirit, and all…”

“He’ll be okay,” Harry said. They all watched as Albus pulled at the hem of Scorpius’s cardigan. Scorpius lightly smacked his hands in response, growing rapidly embarrassed. “Er…maybe you should go put him to bed. He can sleep it off.”

“But come back down!!” Ginny ordered. “We still want to visit with you, okay?”

Scorpius would’ve rather visited with Albus’s covered body parts. He forced a smile on his face. “Yes, I will!”

He hoisted his husband to his feet and struggled to climb the Den stairs while his husband groped his arse. Scorpius deposited him into his childhood bedroom, checked the room for any wayward kids (the Potter kids and Remus had been roaming the house playing for ages), and pushed him down onto his bed. Albus immediately pushed himself back up and reached for Scorpius’s belt. Scorpius debated the morality of sleeping with his extremely drunk husband for a few difficult seconds, but he ultimately decided Albus wasn’t really in any state to decide anything. He pulled Albus’s shoes off, helped him from his trousers, and stretched out on the bed with him. He peered seriously into Albus’s eyes.

“Albus, when you’re sober, we can make love ‘til the New Year. But you’re a bit out of your mind right now.”

Albus furrowed his brow. “No…I’m fine…”

“You kept trying to stick your hands down my trousers in front of your parents.”

“What? Nah…”

Scorpius kissed Albus softly. He pulled back before Albus got any more ideas.

“I’ll be back later, okay? Hopefully you’ll be a bit more…Albus-y.”

Albus leaned over Scorpius and peered down into his eyes, his green ones familiarly smoldering. It took every ounce of self-control for Scorpius to stick to his decision.

“This is who I really am, Scorpius,” Albus told him seriously.

Scorpius was somehow able to withhold his laughter until he made it into the hall. He took a minute to compose himself, peeked into James’s old bedroom where Delilah was sleeping to make sure she was still doing okay, and then he returned back to the living room. James and Ginny called him over to them at once; he felt a bit suspicious as he sat down in the space they’d made for him, right between them. He looked from his mother-in-law to his brother-in-law.

“Hello again,” he greeted.

“Scorpius,” Ginny began. “James and I were chatting and we were wondering something.”

Scorpius swallowed nervously. “Yeah? Er…what?”

James leaned in slightly. “What’s your stance on babies?”

Scorpius felt his cheeks warm. He looked from James to Ginny, his eyes wide. “Oh! Oh. Erm. Okay. Babies. Well, as you know, James, I really love your kids. I love when they’re born. I helped birth Henry myself, and that was probably the coolest thing I ever did. Er…I dunno, I like baby hands and feet, I like their little gurgles, and I love when they start talking, it’s always so exciting—”

“No,” Ginny interrupted gently. “He means…how do you feel about you and Albus having a baby? Has he talked to you about this yet?”

Scorpius pursed his brow. He looked down at his knees. “No…has he talked to you about it?!”

“…So how do you feel on the subject?”

Scorpius wanted to press the issue that Albus had talked to everybody but him about them having babies, but the implications of what they were suggesting took him off guard. He looked up at them.

“I want babies very badly. Has Albus decided he doesn’t?”

“Scorpius,” James began gravely. “Albus has a terminal case of baby fever and has for months. Ever since Delilah was born. He wants a baby and I think the wait is killing his sulky little soul…”

Scorpius felt his heart skip a few consecutive beats, resulting in a weird trembling sensation in his chest. He felt his lips part.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Ginny affirmed. “We hoped he’d talk to you about it, instead of silently suffering, but he’s Albus. You understand.”

“Yeah…” Scorpius said. “I do. I do understand…wow.”

He trailed off, a million thoughts rushing through his mind. He couldn’t dare to hope that what they were saying was true—that Albus had also realized that he didn’t want to wait any longer—but his heart was a bit reckless and didn’t follow instruction. He hoped anyway.

“This is a great time to talk all about it,” James said. He slung an arm over Scorpius’s shoulders. “You know, one of Nora’s muggle aunts had somebody else carry her baby in their belly. Muggles can do all sorts of things that we can’t with babies. So if you and Albus wanted to have a baby, there are definitely ways.”

“I know,” Scorpius said quickly, excitedly. “I’ve been reading all about them and my Muggle friend is a lady-part doctor. They can do so many amazing things. They can create embryos from egg donation and sperm donation and implant them into anybody—even a completely different woman than whose eggs it is! The muggles will outlast us.”

“I was thinking that too, on the cruise…the things they think up…ingenious, really…”

It wasn’t until he, Ginny, James, and Nora were well into a conversation about surrogacy and Muggle fertility procedures that Scorpius wondered, at the back of his mind, whether Ginny, James, and Lily had co-conspired and orchestrated Albus’s extra-strong drinks to get him out of the way for this conversation. If they had, he wasn’t sure he was that outraged; he thought Albus should’ve told him the way he felt ages ago, but then again, Scorpius hadn’t exactly told Albus, either.

“It’s a bit frightening, though,” Nora said uneasily. “The idea of letting a complete stranger carry your baby for nine months…can you imagine?” she directed the question to James. He was already grimacing before she’d even asked, so his opinion was clear. She looked back at Scorpius, concerned. “I mean, there are so many ways you can mess up during pregnancy…how would you know you could trust the woman? What if she decided to drink or do drugs or…or….get in hot tubs for long periods of time…” she shook her head, haunted. A few curls slipped from her bun as she did. James’s touch was gentle and reverent as he leaned over and gently tucked those strands behind her ear. “I can’t imagine how stressful it would be.”

Scorpius felt his heart clench with nervousness. She had a point. Trusting a complete stranger with the growth of his baby? It was a leap of faith unlike any other. Scorpius didn’t think Albus was trusting enough to go along with it. He probably wouldn’t even suggest it to him.

“And the eggs,” James added. “How well do you think the donating mothers are examined? ‘Cos what if you end up with a baby who inherits racism from their secret mother?”

“James,” Hermione called across the room, “you can’t inherit something like that.”

“I don’t know, Aunt Hermione. All the racists I know have racist parents…”

“Nature versus nurture,” Rose backed her mum up. “They’re racists because they were raised by racists and have their heads too far up their arses to learn any better, not because they inherited a racist gene.”

“Actually,” Hugo said, perking up. He looked away from his chess match with Ron. “While I agree there is an interplay between nature and nurture, I did read a study that said discriminatory inclinations can be passed down genetically.”

“See!” James said, panicked. He looked back at Scorpius. “You can’t get a stranger’s eggs.”

“Yeah, what a silly suggestion,” Rose scoffed. “He can just reach into his pocket and get all the eggs he’s just got lying around!” 

You’ve got eggs just lying around, Rose,” James shot back. “I don’t hear you offering any up, so keep your unhelpful comments to yourself.”

Ron looked horrified. “She can’t give her eggs away! Hermione and I want to have grandchildren!”

“Hugo and his girlfriend can give you grandchildren,” Rose shot back.

That got everybody’s attention. Harry and Ginny looked up from their quiet conversation, Teddy and Vic turned away from the window, and Hugo turned bright red.

“Rose, that was very…inconsiderate!” he scolded. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“If you don’t have a girlfriend, why is Aster at your flat nearly every single night?” Rose challenged.

Scorpius’s mouth opened in shock. Hermione stood.

“Hugo? Is that true? You’ve got a girlfriend?”

Hugo’s cheeks were astoundingly dark. He looked around the room, wide-eyed, embarrassed, and blurted:

“Don’t tell Lily!”

“Why not?” Hermione asked. She stood beside Hugo and patted his blushing cheeks. “She’ll be very happy about it!”

“No…no, she won’t, because it’s been a secret for months. She doesn’t like secrets.”

“Oh…” Hermione trailed off.

“Who cares what Lily thinks?” Harry said firmly. He nodded. “I’m happy for you, Hugo.”

“Yeah. That is a lovely match,” Ginny said.

Hugo smiled, pleased. Rose must’ve felt guilty for shoving all the unwanted attention onto her brother because she addressed James again to take the focus off of him.

“And, James, I can’t give my eggs away because maybe I’ll use them one day.”

Scorpius thought about pointing out that it didn’t work that way—you only gave away a small amount, leaving more than enough to have your own babies—but he hadn’t ever considered taking Rose’s eggs and didn’t want her to feel like he was supporting the decision. A week ago he would’ve thought it’d be a great solution, because Rose shared Albus’s genes, was very clever and kind, and meant a lot to them, but he was not comfortable with it now that Iset had lime pox. What if she never could regain her ability to have magical children? What if they got married and one day wanted to have a magical child? What if something happened during the procedure (as unlikely as it might be) to leave Rose unable to? No, he couldn’t have even the possibility of that on his conscience.

“How’s that going to work?” James asked, his eyes on Rose’s girlfriend, who was sleeping soundly across Rose’s lap.

“I don’t know, James. How would it work to have you mind your own business ever?”

“James, Rose,” Hermione said sternly. “Stop it.”

“I haven’t even talked to Albus about this yet,” Scorpius pointed out feebly. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Scorpius is right,” Hermione added. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Quidditch,” Ron, Ginny, and Harry said at once.

Hermione groaned.


 

Scorpius was waiting for a good moment to leave the conversation about Quidditch and slip up to bed when the sound of little approaching feet provided a welcomed distraction. Scorpius smiled at Evra as she came bounding into the living room, her hair spread out wildly in every direction. She walked over to her dad at once.

“Daddy,” Evra whined. She sat down at his feet—tired from her race throughout the Den—and tugged repeatedly at his jumper hem. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy—”

James looked away from Teddy and towards his daughter. He leaned over and lifted her, bringing her up to sit in his lap. He tried to tame her hair by gently combing through it with his fingers, but it didn’t appear to be going well. Evra reached forward and held her dad’s face in her tiny hands. That got James’s full attention.

“Yes, darling?” he asked Evra.

She squeezed his face tighter. “Daddy, how come Auntie Lulu can wrestle, but me and Remus can’t? Vic told us ‘NO’.”

“Well, because you’re very little, Evra, and you always end up getting hurt because Remus is a bit boisterous…” James trailed off, a look of horror taking over his features. What Evra had said seemed to dawn on all of them at once. Scorpius looked to his left and exchanged a panicked look with Nora. What had Evra seen?! As silence permeated the room completely—for the first time in hours—they all became aware of what sounded like struggling from the room above them (Lily’s childhood bedroom). Oh no. Voices drifted through the ceiling a moment later.

“No!” Lily insisted. The heard the sound of springs groaning, followed by a thump. “I’m on top!”

“No you are not—it’s my turn! You had top this morning!” Another groan from the bed, another thump. The chandelier shook this time; the lit candles swayed dangerously, making the soft light in the living room tremble. “You’re so greedy!”

“FINE, you whiny baby! But you weren’t complaining this morning!”

More sounds of struggling. The lights continued to flicker as the candles swayed. Scorpius was sinking further and further back into the sofa cushions, horrified. Everybody seemed frozen in shock. When they heard Lily give a gasping whimper, Harry actually slapped his hands over his ears.

C’mon! You’re so frustrating!” Lily complained. Thump. One of the candles nearly fell from the chandelier. Two extinguished. “You're taking too long; your turn's been revoked!”

“Nuh uh,” Caden scolded, his voice deep and breathless. The candle actually did pop out this time as he presumably flung her back over. The ceiling above them creaked. “Patience. I want to see how long you can wait before you beg for it—”

“Oh, Merlin,” Harry said, looking remarkably green. He stood abruptly without saying a word. He left the room quickly, headed towards the garden.

“I won’t beg for anything, least of all somebody who probably can’t even handle me—ahh, fuck!”

As Lily’s bickering gave way to pleased hums and gasps, the stunned horror of the room fully ruptured. James ran full-speed from the house, his hand pressed over his heart like he’d just witnessed a horrifying moral transgression. Scorpius was considering burying his head inside the cushions. Ron had his hand over his mouth like he might be sick. Hermione was muttering something beneath her breath about ‘boundaries and limitations’ before she too left the room. When Scorpius glanced to the side, he saw Nora had closed her hands over Evra’s ears. The only person who looked even vaguely amused was Rose.

“Well, at least somebody is trying to teach her some patience and self-control,” Rose commented.

Scorpius had thought it was over—the sounds had dimmed—but after a few more moments, it got worse. Scorpius grimaced as a shriek permeated the room.

“YES! Ah…I—LOVE—Y…--ah, fuck!

Ginny jumped to her feet. “Ugh, for Merlin’s sake, Lulu…that is enough,” she grimaced. She waved her wand; the room fell silent once more. The damage had unfortunately already been done. Ginny sank back down into her seat. Nobody could meet each other’s eyes. Scorpius was suffering from extreme secondhand embarrassment.

“I should…go check on Harry…” Ron finally said uneasily. He stood. He paused in the doorway and glanced at Rose. He gave her a soft smile. “My Rosie angel…I’m so glad I’ll never have to go through anything like this with you…”

He walked off with a fond smile, leaving Rose staring after him in disbelief. Rose looked down at Iset in her lap with a puzzled expression, as if she suddenly wondered if she was the only person in the room who could see her. 

“What does he think Rose and Iset do together?” Teddy hissed to Scorpius and Nora. “Cuddle well into the night and make friendship bracelets ‘til dawn?”

Scorpius and Nora succumbed to poorly restrained laughter. Hugo walked over and joined them on the sofa.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered to Scorpius. “I think she was about to say ‘I love you’. About time…”

“Yeah,” Scorpius said. He was struggling not to laugh again. “If only Caden had…backed off...for a moment…poor bloke; so close and yet so far.”

Hugo snickered. It helped break through Scorpius’s revulsion, and soon, he was laughing with him. He might’ve felt bad for laughing at Lily’s expense, but she had just traumatized them all, so he figured it was probably okay.

Because Ginny had cast the silencing spell, they were deaf to everything happening upstairs. So when Albus came stomping down the stairs, still in only his jumper and his pants, a horrified and vexed expression on his face, they remembered that they’d only fixed the problem for those downstairs. He pointed up the stairs.

“THAT IS THE MOST DISTURBING THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME!” he yelled. “I’m going to kill them! Inconsiderate! Inhumane! I should not wake up in my childhood room to the sounds of my little sister getting fucked!”

“Oh, shit, Al,” Ginny said, wincing. “Sorry. I forgot you were up there.” She stood. “I’ll go knock and ask them to keep it down.”

“NO, no! No need! Already done!” Albus snapped. He shuddered. He stamped over and fell down into Scorpius’s lap. He pressed his face into Scorpius’s shoulder and yawned; Scorpius cradled him close. His skin was radiating heat like an oven. He was clearly still exhausted going by his cuddliness. Scorpius wondered if his disregard for his lack of trousers was due to a remaining level of intoxication or exhaustion. He stroked Albus’s back. Seconds later, Lily stepped suddenly into the room, her approach silenced by the charm. She was back in her shining white dress, but the thin, light-colored material gave away a bit too much; she had either love bites or bruises already purpling the skin beneath the fabric covering her shoulders, chest, and hips. She stared at them, her hands pulling through her tangled hair. Scorpius noticed she hadn’t taken off the choker Caden gave her, even though all other jewelry had been foregone. 

“Okay, it’s come to my attention that my silencing charm was inadequate,” she greeted.  

“That’s an understatement, love,” Ginny said.

Lily squinted around the room. Scorpius realized her eyesight potion must've worn off as she reached into a hidden pocket on her dress and withdrew her glasses. She pushed them onto her face and glanced around again. She sagged, relieved.

“Oh, good,” she said. She set a hand over her heart. “Dad wasn’t in here.”

Everybody exchanged a quick look. Lily didn’t miss it.

“Oh, no…he was in here,” she realized.

“He left right after Caden told you to…what was it again? ‘Beg’ for it?” Rose shared. She was getting far too much enjoyment out of this. Albus would’ve been doing the same, had he not been so traumatized and exhausted.

“Shit…fuck,” Lily groaned.

“No!” Albus yelled. Scorpius jumped. Albus turned around and glared at Lily. “You aren’t allowed to say that word around me for six months—or until you pay to have my memory professionally altered!”

Lily was clearly considering snapping back at Albus, but remarkably, she chose not to. Scorpius noted—with some repulsion—that that must’ve been great sex to have her so pliable.

“Sorry…everybody,” she said, after a long pause. Scorpius and Nora exchanged a surprised look at that apology. “I made a mistake. I wasn’t thinking very clearly when I went to cast the charm. Don’t tease him.”

“Oh, we’re not going to tease him,” Rose assured Lily. “Just you.”

“I hope you two are being careful—” Ginny wasn’t given the opportunity to finish.

“Nora gets pregnant accidentally nearly six years ago now and suddenly everybody with a uterus is suspect,” Lily muttered, annoyed. Scorpius guessed this was a lecture her mum gave her a lot. She turned on her heel and set back up the stairs, mumbling as she went: “So much fucking trouble…potions every damn day…I wish somebody could just take my uterus out, honestly. It’s freeloading and I don’t appreciate it. I’m going to put up damn flyers: ‘ovaries, free to a good home, do not wish to stay in contact…’”

Scorpius felt everybody’s eyes on him. He met their gazes with some reluctance.

Rose voiced what everybody was clearly thinking. “I don’t think she’d mind giving up some of her eggs.”

“She’s being dramatic. She’s good at that,” Scorpius said.

“Still,” Rose said thoughtfully. She looked back down at her girlfriend. “It’s a thought. She’s the person most genetically similar to Albus, after all.”

Albus was half asleep in Scorpius’s lap. “What the hell is Rose talking about?” he mumbled.

“Nothing,” Scorpius said quickly, his mind working quickly. “Nothing at all.”


 

Ginny sent Scorpius out to the garden to check on Harry, as Scorpius was the only sober person who wasn’t chained to the furniture by sleeping kids (as Ginny, James, and Nora were). Scorpius left Albus grumpily drinking coffee and ventured out into the chilly night. He headed towards the garden shed illuminated by candlelight and laughter. When he stepped inside, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were lounging on the furniture, a game of Exploding Snap set up in front of them.

“Hello, Scorpius,” Ron greeted.

“Hi,” he said. He stepped into the warm shed. “Harry, Ginny sent me to ask you if you’re ever coming to bed.”

Harry shook his head. “Nope. Tell her I’m sleeping in the shed and she’s welcome to join me.”

Scorpius furrowed his brow. “The…the shed?”

“The shed. Right here. Until the house is empty again,” he insisted.

Oh. “Harry, Lily went to sleep ages ago—”

The shed. Until the house is empty,” he repeated.

 “Harry,” Hermione said. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?”

“Do you really think he’s being dramatic, Hermione?” Ron said, aghast. “Imagine if you were innocently sitting in our living room and you suddenly heard Hugo or Rose…doing that.” Ron shuddered.

Hermione worked past her initial disgust. “Well, while I believe Lily should have been more respectful and not had sex underneath her parents’ roof, she is a woman and Harry can’t realistically expect her to remain an innocent child forever—”

“Since when was Lily ever an innocent child? She robbed our vault at Gringotts when she was four!” Ron interrupted.

“Ron, that was a misunderstanding and you know it; stop telling the story like that—”

“Actually, Hermione,” Harry interrupted. He leaned forward to place another card on the impressive card tower; Ron held his breath, but it thankfully didn’t blow. “I can and do expect that. I expect to live peacefully free from any proof that my daughter does…that.”

“Okay, we’re all adults; Harry, you’re a grandfather. Can we please refer to sex as sex?” Hermione demanded.

“Not when we’re talking about our kids doing it,” Ron scoffed.

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “No way.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. She looked apologetically towards Scorpius afterwards. “Tell Ginny that the boys have decided to stay in here and lick their wounds.”

“Oh…kay,” Scorpius said.

Hermione stood after glancing at her wristwatch. “I’ll walk back with you, actually. We should all be getting to bed. It’s nearly midnight. We’ve got the Burrow Christmas tomorrow and that’s always an ordeal…Ron? You coming?”

Ron shook his head. “No. No, I’m going to stay here with Harry.”

Harry reached over and clapped Ron’s shoulder with a grin.

“Fine. You two have your sleepover. I’m going to sleep in a real bed. Good night.”

Scorpius decided against waking Albus—he was sleeping so soundly on the sofa and Scorpius didn’t want to interrupt that—so he headed up to Albus’s childhood bedroom alone. He crawled beneath the covers of the bed Albus had been sleeping in earlier. He hugged Albus’s pillow to his chest. He closed his eyes and felt all the information from the day racing through his thoughts. He felt, strangely, that he’d just found himself at a crossroads, even though he hadn’t even spoken with Albus about it yet. He thought about all the different options open to them (and the options that were closed to them). He listened to the distant, hardly audible tolling of the Godric’s Hollow church bell as Christmas arrived. Laying there, his heart full of family and love, he only had one wish to make: that he and Albus might find a way to have their family. He was nearing sleep when the door creaked open. He lifted his head and watched Albus make his way across the room. He threw himself down onto the bed beside Scorpius, squirmed beneath the covers, and curled his body around his.

“Happy Christmas,” Scorpius whispered, but Albus was already asleep. He held Albus’s arms to his chest and drifted off, too. In his dreams, he saw that familiar room full of thousands of glass vials; Albus smiling wider than Scorpius had ever seen him smile before; Nora with a soft beam, her hand pressing both Scorpius’s and Albus’s hands to her expanding belly; a baby with strawberry blonde hair reaching a chubby hand towards him; a giggling girl of strawberry blonde kissing the scalps of two twin newborns; a sailboat’s silver sail reflecting the fury of the sun; children laughing…

He woke with a ragged gasp in the middle of the night, his heart racing, his entire body drenched with sweat. He felt sick to his stomach. Not for the first time, his first thought upon waking was: I have to write that down, I have to write that down, I think I saw the future, I have to write that down…

But the longer he blinked up at the ceiling, the further away his dreams drifted, until he found himself struggling to remember what had woken him in the first place. The only thing he could recall was that room of uncapped glass bottles that had haunted his dreams on and off since he was fifteen years old. He did remember, though, that this time, they’d been every shade of the rainbow. This time, he hadn’t felt panicked. This time, he thought his pocket might’ve been heavy from the weight of the missing tops.

Chapter Text

For the second time since she’d returned to England, Lily woke in a different bed with a collection of aches and pains. But this time, as the memories of the night prior washed over her, she smiled.

Her eyes fluttered open. After staring up at the ceiling of her childhood bedroom for a smiling moment, she turned over in the small bed, her heart thudding in anticipation. When she spotted Caden’s hazy outline, her heart jumped. She quickly rolled over and leaned towards the floor, where her glasses were waiting on the carpet. She pushed them onto her face and returned to her previous spot. She examined him properly: he was stretched out on his back, the blankets tangled around his thighs, his brow smooth as he slept. She felt a tingle race down her spine. Her smile grew. She didn’t know why a part of her had worried he’d leave before she woke; he never did that. Maybe there was a part of her that was terrified that he would do to her what she had done to him. All she knew was that his presence was precisely what she’d hoped for from the moment she’d been pulled from her dreams (and maybe even during them, too). 

She was so preoccupied with taking in every inch of Caden—from his sleep tousled hair to his strong jaw to his broad shoulders to his beautiful body—that she hardly realized how drafty it’d become in the room overnight. When the chill in the room made her toes and her nose too cold to bear (when her heart was too heavy with affection to carry), she shifted across her bedsheets and curled up at his side. She pried a teddy bear out from underneath his arm (her childhood stuffed toys still lined the gap between her mattress and the wall; they’d gotten a bit mixed up with them during their wild night), threw it carelessly over her shoulder, and then lifted his arm up and wrapped it around herself. She curled up to his chest, wedged her cold toes beneath his thigh, and studied the profile of his face. Her heart was beating out a strange tempo as she reached up and gently traced the line of his lower lip. She stroked his cheek with her thumb, gently ghosted her touch along the love bites adorning his neck, and then pressed her palm over his heart. She let her eyes fall shut as she traced the words she couldn’t get past her lips into his skin. Iloveyou…she quite liked the way the Y and O felt as she traced them over his heart. The loops and curves were calming. She was feeling very drowsy now, with his body warmth washing over her and the comforting smell of his skin. Could she spend all Christmas here? Why couldn’t she spend all Christmas here?

She knew she’d eventually have to wake up and deal with her family. She’d have to face her dad and deal with his moodiness. She’d have to counter Rose and Albus’s taunts with better ones of her own.  Food, too. At some point (as her growling stomach reminded her), she’d have to get up for food. But for one of the first times in her life, she just wanted to stay still. She felt a contentment and peace that she hardly ever felt; she spent so much of her life jumping restlessly from one thing to another, never satisfied, never tired. It felt indescribably nice to feel like this now. And so she did just that: she stayed.


 

The first thing she did upon reawaking was hide a smile into Caden’s chest. She enjoyed the feeling of his hands caressing up and down her bare back. When he spoke, she could tell he had only just woken as well; he sounded half-asleep.

“Is that your hand underneath my arse?” he asked sleepily. “Follow-up question: why is your fist underneath my arse?”

Lily reached over with both her hands and set them on his stomach. “Both my hands are here and accounted for.”

“…Then what is underneath my arse?”

Lily yawned. She propped herself up on her elbow, lowered her skewed glasses long enough to rub the sleep from her eyes, righted them, and then wedged her hand beneath Caden. She felt the softness of what she quickly recognized as a bunny ear. She yanked the stuffed toy free and plopped her head back down on Caden’s shoulder. She held the bunny in front of his face.

“Floppy was getting cheeky.”

“Well, I’m flattered, Floppy, but I’ve got a girlfriend.”

Lily brought the bunny closer still, so Caden was nearly eye-to-eye with its strangely accusatory, beady-eyed stare. He pushed it away a second later.

“That’s fucking creepy,” he admitted. He wrinkled his nose. “You slept every night with that thing in your bed?”

Lily picked it back up and moved it back into his face. She mimicked the angry, rumbling sound her dragons gave when they were first learning to fight. Caden was laughing as he snatched it from her hand and chucked it across the room. Lily found herself flung over onto her back a second later. She grinned smugly as the weight of her boyfriend settled on top of her. He was very awake.

“Good morning,” she said wickedly.

“Maybe for you. That bunny could give anybody nightmares,” he mumbled, his lips landing on her neck. Lily squirmed happily as he kissed over yesterday’s love bites; the slight sting woke her up fully.

“Yeah, well, I had to sleep beside you, didn’t I? So I don’t feel sorry for you,” she shot back. “You’re much scarier than Floppy.”

“Yeah?” he challenged. He lifted up and met her eyes; Lily tried not to show the chills that raced down her spine immediately at the eye contact, but she gave a little, involuntary shiver. He grinned. Not a good sign. He’d definitely noticed. “That wasn’t what you were saying last night. And, don’t forget, Lily. I’m two points ahead of you now.”

Lily narrowed her eyes. She felt a familiar intermingling of arousal and competitiveness. She refused to drop her eyes from his. She lifted her legs and locked them around his hips, pulling his body flush against hers. She smirked when his lips parted. She leaned in so she could feel his breath against her lips, her gaze still stuck to Caden’s.

“I can retake my lead by noon,” she breathed.

“I doubt it,” he murmured back. “You didn’t last five minutes that last time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so—oi!”

While he was bragging, Lily had been paying close attention to his muscles. The moment she felt him begin to lean further into her body, she tightened her legs and flung him over to the right, forcing him onto his back. She straddled him and took his face into her hands. His eyes seemed to sparkle as they landed on hers again.

“I could have you losing a point in less than three minutes,” Lily boasted. She shifted over him pointedly, with the intention of proving her point, but as she did, she became actively aware of just how sore she really was. She winced and slid down to sit on his thighs. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at her; his expression had shifted from playful annoyance to concern seamlessly.

“What?” he asked.

“We overdid it last night. Fuck. I really wanted another go, too. But something tells me being unable to walk straight will only fuel Rose and Albus’s jokes…and I do not want to make it easier for them."

Caden looked torn between contrition and smugness over their memories from last night. His brow furrowed even as the corners of his mouth twitched up. Lily felt an obscene amount of affection flood her chest at the sight of it; as aggravating as his brief moments of cockiness were, they were just as endearing to her. She leaned down and caught his mouth with hers; the shape of his smirk against her lips only made her affection more overbearing. She kissed him hard, punched his shoulder, and then collapsed on top of him to squeeze his torso in a strong hug. He wrapped her up in his arms at once; she couldn’t remember ever feeling so safe.

“What the hell was that for?” he finally demanded (though he didn’t drop his arms from her, Lily noted).

“What was what for?” she asked, knowing exactly what he was asking.

“You punched me.”

She buried her face into his neck. She wished, more than anything, that she could’ve had him again, because she had this insatiable urge to get closer, even though there was almost no way to do that. She squeezed him tighter. The words fell from her in a mumbled rush.

“Because you’re stupid and I love your stupid face way too fucking much.”

He was quiet for a few moments. Lily’s heart picked up as she processed what she’d just said. It wasn’t an ‘I love you’, but it was the closest she’d ever came to it. She felt her face burn. Ridiculous doubts flooded through her mind at a sickening speed. She was on the edge of taking her words back when she felt his body turn to the left. He rolled them over, so she was wedged between him and the bed once more. He lifted himself up just enough to look down at her. His eyes seemed bluer somehow; those chills returned, and she couldn’t look away. She felt her heart calm as his hand settled on her face. He stroked her cheekbone.

“My face, huh?” he finally challenged.

Even in her emotional and aroused state, she didn’t miss a beat. “It’s my third favorite part of your body.”

She swallowed hard. She wondered for a moment if he was feeling how she was—so full of love for him that she felt nearly violent. She wanted to simultaneously kiss him gently and squeeze the life out of him; she didn’t understand her feelings. She just knew that she was really glad that she was with him. And she really wanted to shag him.

Her longtime instinct was to immediately start joking about her number one favorite part of his body, but she couldn’t get herself to do it. She pulled her bottom lip into her mouth nervously. She tried to settle her nerves by tracing words into the skin of his back again, but her heart was fluttering anxiously despite. Why was she so afraid to tell him the things that he had already told her?

“Caden…” she began.

He waited very patiently, his gaze steady. Lily stroked her hands down his back and took a deep breath.

“I…well. I…”

She trailed off again. Her face was burning. She wanted so terribly for him to read her mind, to be able to feel how she was feeling. Everything would’ve been so much simpler.

I love you. “I want you all the time.” I love you. “I want every morning to be like this.” Don’t leave me. Don’t get sick of me. I love you. I love you. “I—”

Her bedroom door was pushed open with such force that it slammed back into the wall. Caden’s instinct was to collapse down on top Lily, probably to shield their nakedness, but it certainly didn’t make things look any more innocent. Lily peeked underneath his arm; Finnigan was standing nonchalantly in the doorway, a thick slice of cake in his bare hand.

“Auntie Lulu,” he called loudly, unperturbed. He walked in, shut the door after himself, and padded over towards the bed. Caden rolled off of Lily, extracted the blankets from underneath them, and quickly flung them over themselves. Finnigan made to climb up onto the bed, but Lily shot a hand out, catching his shoulder before he could.

“Finnigan,” she said, annoyed. Her voice was tight with irritation. “Didn’t your parents teach you to knock?”

Finnigan furrowed his brow. He looked at Lily like she was extremely stupid. “This is not a house, Auntie Lulu. It’s a bedroom.”

“You should always knock on all closed doors!” Lily snapped. “What do you want?”

“I want to eat my cake.”

“Well, you’ll have to go hide elsewhere! I’m busy! Go on, shoo!” Lily ordered. She gestured towards the door. Finnigan looked curiously from her to Caden.

“What are you doing?” he wondered.

“Giving massages. Go.”

He didn’t budge. “What happened to your neck?”

“Rough massages. Go!”

Finnigan blinked. He looked to Caden, as if Lily hadn’t said a word. “Cade, can I eat my cake here?”

Caden hesitated. Lily narrowed her eyes at him. He was sometimes a bit soft with the nieces and nephews.

“Why don’t you go hide in Albus’s room?” Caden suggested. Lily choked back a laugh. Serves Albus right.

Finnigan considered that.

“He won’t say ‘yes’. About cake.”

“Scorpius will say yes,” Lily told Finnigan. “Just give him those eyes of yours…yep, those ones. You’ve got it. Now get out. Bye.”

Finnigan reluctantly walked from the bedroom, his head hanging low in disappointment. He was sadly murmuring something about ‘my Auntie Lulu’ underneath his breath as he left. Lily curled back up against Caden once they were free from prying kid eyes.

“I feel bad for him,” Caden admitted with a frown. “That’s his special thing with you.”

“Yeah, well,” Lily began, her hand sliding down his naked body. “This is my special thing with you. You got me first.”

He brushed her hair back from her face curiously. “What were you going to say before he entered?”

She paused. “Er…Happy Christmas. I was going to say ‘Happy Christmas’.”

Before he could challenge that, Lily shifted over to sit atop him again, her hands falling to grip his face. She snogged him hard, feeling nearly feverish with love and want. Caden’s hands gripped tightly at her hips, his fingers pressing right back into the bruises he’d made the night before. Lily hardly processed the pain.

“I thought you said you were too sore,” he reminded her, as she made her intentions very clear.

“I say a lot of rubbish,” she said, out of breath, her heart racing. “I’m a Gryffindor. We’re built for strength and resilience.”

“More like built for reckless self-indulgence…” he teased beneath his breath.  

It wasn’t until they were joined again, and his eyes were locked on hers, that she realized she was searching for another way to say her words without really saying them.


 

She was sprawled out across the bed, her cheek resting over Caden’s ribs and her arm thrown over his stomach, when the door opened. She knew—without looking—that it wasn’t her dad or brothers, because despite the blanket loosely covering their lower halves, it was obvious what they’d been doing, and her dad and brothers certainly would’ve run in the opposite direction. Lily heard whoever it was grabbing something from the floor. A second later, a second blanket fell down atop her and Caden, who was still snoozing.

“Look,” Lily’s mum greeted. She shut the door behind her. Lily groaned. Here we go. “It’s eleven, Lily. Your dad’s still in the shed. You’ve got to come downstairs and see your family. It’s Christmas.”

Lily reluctantly rolled over so she could greet her mum.

“What is it with this family and just barging into rooms?” Lily grumbled. “You’ve got to fix the anti-lock charm on the doors up here, Mum. We’re no longer four-year-olds who lock you out so we can eat entire pies. Evra last night, Albus last night, Finnigan earlier—”

“Oh, Merlin,” Ginny groaned. She lifted Lily’s suitcase off the chair underneath the window and sank down in it. She dropped the book she was carrying onto her lap and sighed. “Please tell me you didn’t traumatize him.”

“No, we weren’t shagging when he walked in,” Lily reassured her. She narrowed her eyes at her mum as she casually opened the book in her lap, as if she had every intention of having a nice reading session in Lily’s room. “Could you leave? Only this is a bit awkward, with us being naked and all.”

“Nope. Clearly you’ll stay holed up in this room until somebody forces you out, so that’s what I’ll do. I’ll sit here and make this extremely awkward for you as long as you’re in here.”

Lily sighed. “Mum, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was nearly lunch. I’ll come downstairs, okay?”

Her mum didn’t budge or even lift her eyes from her book.  “How do I know you’re not just saying that to get me out?”

“Because honestly, Mum, I couldn’t have another go, even if I wanted one,” Lily admitted. Her mum grimaced. “Okay? So can you leave? We need to get dressed.”

“Fine, all right,” her mum allowed. She closed her book, stood, and then pointed sternly at Lily. “But prepare yourself for a mopey dad all day long; your stunt last night really traumatized him.”

“It wasn’t a stunt! It was an accident! I cast the spell perfectly at the start, only…well, I forgot it only lasts a few hours…”

Her mum stared at her in disbelief. “You’re either in love or drugged.”

“Probably the first,” Lily shot back automatically. Her cheeks colored. Her mum arched an eyebrow, but beyond a small smile, she didn’t comment on it. “Bye-bye now, Mummy.”

“Don’t you get smart with me,” her mum warned. She leaned over and picked up Lily’s discarded dress from the night before. She tsked. “You’ve spilled something on this. And you can’t charm this fabric. You’ll have to take it somewhere to be cleaned.”

“It’s one of Aster’s dresses. I’ll just take it to her shop. She can fix it,” Lily dismissed. She felt Caden shift beneath her. Uh oh. When his eyes fluttered opened and he spotted Lily’s mum, he jumped. His hands grappled towards his hips, as if to cover his privates, but Lily’s blanket had been covering his lower half even before her mum entered.

“Morning, Caden. Merry Christmas,” Ginny greeted calmly.

He pressed the back of his hand over his eyes. “Good morning, Ginny,” he said.

“She’s trying to shame us from the room,” Lily explained.  

“It’s working.”

“Yeah? Great,” Ginny said. “That’s what you get for keeping my daughter captive for nearly twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours? Seriously?” he muttered, sounding a bit impressed. Ginny arched an eyebrow. His expression fell into something politely chagrined as he lowered his hand and spotted her expression. “I’m sorry, Ginny. To be fair, though, it was an equal captivity.”

“Nobody who knows Lily would doubt that. Well,” she dropped Lily’s stained dress onto the chair. “I hope it was worth the awkward conversations you’re both going to have all day long.”

Lily thought it definitely was. When she looked up and locked eyes with Caden, he seemed similarly confident. They shared a quick grin. Lily hardly processed her mum’s annoyed sigh.

“You are absolutely incorrigible and I fear you’re corrupting Caden,” Ginny murmured. Lily snorted against her withheld laughter. Caden was somehow able to suppress his own grin. “See you downstairs.”

They waited until her mum’s footsteps had fully descended the stairs. Lily snickered.

“I’m corrupting you, am I?”

“Must be,” he shot back. “Naughty thing, you are.”

“I suppose I should end things, then. Let you run off with somebody nice and innocent…one of my dorm mates…Victoria should do the trick, I think? Oh, can you imagine fucking her? She’d rock that missionary, Caden, and she’d probably wear nice bridal lingerie every night, and she’d moan I love you nonstop…”

Lily’s teasing broke off as a pillow smacked gently across her face. She wrestled it from his grasps and smacked him back. He grasped her waist and pinned her to the bed; she punched hard at his shoulder and pushed against his solid form, eventually pushing him back over onto his back. She pinned him down. Just teasing, no shagging. Just teasing, no shagging.

“I think you might be partially thinking about yourself, Lily,” Caden told her, his voice low. “Don’t think I missed what you almost moaned last night.”

Lily was so surprised that her hands slackened. He rolled her back over easily. She stared up at him, her heart throbbing, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. Her throat narrowed. She didn’t know why, but she felt so exposed – so frightened—that she had the urge to hide under the covers. She figured she probably looked like a cornered animal; she could feel how wide her eyes had gone. His eyes softened.

“Of course,” he allowed, his voice gentle, “maybe you were just going to say that you love my face.”

“Maybe,” she said quickly, glad for the out he’d just given her, even though they both knew that wasn’t what she’d been intending to say. He smiled at her, though it looked a bit sad. Lily wondered why he would’ve suggested that when he knew what she’d been trying to say (when he wanted to hear it so terribly). She realized he probably cared more about her own discomfort than his. Her heart swelled and ached. She swallowed hard. “But maybe not.”

He arched an eyebrow. His smile seemed tender, somehow. It made Lily feel loved. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she said, her own smile forming. Her hand was trembling slightly as she reached up and touched his face. She slid her palm over his smooth cheek. “I actually love every part of you.”

Closer and closer still—and yet she still felt so far. It was enough for him, though. It appeared to be more than he’d expected. He gathered her into his arms and kissed her with so much emotion that Lily felt a bit weightless. She was finding it difficult to remember what they were supposed to be doing…were they supposed to do something? What was today?

“LILY LUNA POTTER!” Her mum suddenly screamed. Her fist pounded against the door. “NOW! OR I’LL SEND ROSE AND ALBUS UP AND THEY’LL NEVER LET YOU TWO LIVE IT DOWN!”

“Fuck,” Lily groaned. Reality slipped back into her conscious thoughts.

“She’s right, sorry,” Caden said, rolling off of her. She felt terribly cold in his absence. “She’s right; we’re acting like we’re on a sodding honeymoon, and it’s Christmas…I can pretty much forget ever being accepted by your family now, can’t I?”

“Well, it’s your fault for fucking me so loudly last night,” Lily said

“Oh, that’s rich, you liar! You were the one nearly shrieking!”

“Was not!”

“Was too! And you insisted that you could handle being in charge of the silencing charm!”

“It was you who couldn’t behave himself all day! You were making eyes at me since we walked in the Den! What was I supposed to do?! Ignore it?! Nobody on earth has that much self-control, Caden!”  

“Me?! I was making eyes? You were practically—”

“CADEN ROWLE!” Ginny warned from the other side of the door. “I HEAR YOU BICKERING WITH HER! Don’t bicker with her! She thinks it’s sodding foreplay! I won’t leave until you two come out of there!”

“We should go on holiday next Christmas,” Lily muttered, annoyed.  

“I HEARD THAT! AND IF I HEAR TALK LIKE THAT AGAIN, I’LL RETURN YOUR CHRISTMAS GIFTS!” Ginny shouted.

Lily sighed.


 

True to her word, Ginny was waiting outside of the door with her arms crossed when Caden and Lily finally stumbled out. Lily grimaced as the sunlight from the wall-length window accosted her.

“Arg,” she groaned. She rubbed over her stinging eyes. Her eyesight potion always made her sensitive to light for a few minutes; she’d just taken today’s dose a few seconds ago and briefly wished she hadn’t. She should’ve just taken her contraceptives only and dealt with her glasses.

“That’s what happens when you practically hide in a cave for twelve hours,” her mum said, not the least bit sympathetic to Lily’s pain.

“It’s my potion, it’s not that,” Lily muttered, her hand still rubbing her eyes.

“Sorry, Ginny,” Caden said again.

Ginny stepped between them and looped an arm through Lily’s left and Caden’s right. She pulled them towards the stairs and began talking as she did.

“Imagine, if you will, Lily getting pregnant.”

Lily choked on air and stopped in place. Caden muttered whoa, what? and looked at Ginny like she’d suddenly grown another head. Ginny stubbornly pulled them forward and continued.

“Imagine her carrying a little baby—half you, Caden, and half you, Lily—and then suffering through hours of excruciating labor to birth it. Imagine then, Lily, that you lose so much blood you’ve got to be on Blood Replenishing Potions for days.”

Lily realized where her mum was going with this. She rolled her eyes as they descended the stairs.

“And then, Caden, imagine you and Lily raise the tiny baby up, loving it and forgiving all its naughtiness year after year, taking care of it when it’s ill, cuddling it when it’s sad, watching it become your pride and joy and going off to achieve all the things you ever wanted for it—and then imagine having to listen to it explicitly shagging somebody. Your little, tiny baby.”

Caden grimaced. Lily rolled her eyes.

“Except it wouldn’t be a little baby anymore. It’d be an adult. Next.”

“It’ll always be your baby. Right, Caden?”

“Er…I don’t have a kid.”

“But you can imagine. You’re slightly more empathetic than Lily.”

“…Okay, sure. It’s always your baby.”

Ginny stopped them at the first level. She turned to face them, so her back was to the doorway. “You two are really in for it.”

And with that, she stepped backwards into the kitchen with a smile, leaving Caden and Lily somewhat apprehensive. Lily wasn’t sure she wanted to see her dad upset, even if she thought the reasons were stupid and sexist. Caden sighed.

“I dealt with your dad hating me once before…at least he’ll actually have a reason now,” he muttered, and with that, he walked bravely into the kitchen. Lily wondered how much Gryffindor he had in him, after all. She took a deep breath and followed after. Everybody fell silent as they entered. Her nieces and nephews cheered and ran over to greet them, Rose and Albus exchanged a look, and James hid his face into Nora’s shoulder like he couldn’t bear to meet Lily’s eyes. Lily searched the room for her dad. He looked away from her as soon as she looked at him. She sighed.

“Okay, so we had sex,” Lily greeted. “So what? You’ve all done it.”

James gasped, horrified. “The kids, Lily!”

“Okay, fine. You’ve all done it—except for the kids. Obviously, James,” Lily rolled her eyes again.

“Mmm, yeah…difference is, Lily, we all do it in private,” Rose piped up. Ron had been cramming eggs into his mouth, but at that (Rose including herself in the ‘we’) he choked. Hermione was rolling her eyes as she patted his back.

“It was private,” Lily argued hotly. “It was my bedroom. And can we all stop pretending like doing silencing charms when you’re…preoccupied…is easy?! Because it’s actually very difficult and that’s why some people buy those fancy silencers in Nancy’s Fancy Shoppe in Diagon Alley!”

“I think I speak for everybody when I say…let’s all chip in and buy Lily one of those,” Albus said. Laughter flooded the kitchen. Lily narrowed her eyes.

“Yeah, go on, Al,” she said. She went to fling her hair over her shoulder but fell short. “Encourage me to shag in public places. Not that I need the encouragement.”

His smile disappeared to make room for a deep, disgusted grimace.

“I think we should forget about it,” Scorpius said suddenly, his eyes on Lily. His gaze was kind. Lily smiled gratefully at him. “Lily’s right. Everybody has their…slip-ups. We’re all adults—”

“My babies, Scorpius!” James repeated, annoyed.

Lily pried Finnigan and Henry from her legs and leaned down so she was eye-to-eye with them.

“Boys, did you have a great Christmas Eve?” she asked.

At once, they both fell into excited chatter about all their toys and getting to stay up late and all their sweets. Lily gave James a pointed look.

“I think your ‘babies’ are just fine.”

“What about poor Evra?” James reminded Scorpius and Lily. He pointed at the window above the sink. Lily spotted Evra and Remus sharing a broom, laughing as Vic and Teddy tried to ‘race them’.

“She looks fine, too. She thought we were wrestling.”

“So it’s fine,” Scorpius stressed.

“It is Christmas,” Hermione added. She looked at Rose in particular. “We won’t have bullying on Christmas.”

“Bullying! When has anybody ever bullied Lily?” Rose grumbled, but her mum gave her another stern look, so she fell silent. She snatched her mug up from the table. “I’ll see you lot at Gran’s. I’m going back to the cottage to help Iset with the cats.”

“Is that a euphemism?” Lily called loudly, unable to resist.

Ron choked again. This time, Ginny had to hurry over to help Hermione pound at his back. Rose glared at Lily. Lily glared back. Caden stepped between them, breaking their eye contact.

“Tell Iset I said hello,” Caden said firmly. Lily made to step around him, to shoot another comment at Rose, but Caden stepped in front of her again. “I’ll see you two tonight. Unless…unless I’m uninvited?”

He sounded very unsure. It made Lily’s protectiveness surge. She shoved past him and shot a threatening look around the kitchen, as if daring any of them to revoke his invitation to the Burrow Christmas, but everybody looked shocked at the mere thought. Ginny walked over and pulled Caden into a hug at once.

“Hush with that,” she scolded. She pulled back and set her hands on his shoulders, peering at him seriously. “You’d never be uninvited.”

He glanced over at Lily’s dad. Ginny didn’t miss it.

“Don’t worry,” she repeated firmly. “Scorpius is right. We’ll all live. It’s Christmas. No bickering amongst family.”

He smiled. Ginny patted his cheek fondly and then turned around to address the rest of the family.

“We’re going to bury this for good. Would anybody like to make a few last minute jokes before we do?”  

James pursed his brow in concentration. Albus crossed his arms and smirked.

“Aw, I never come up with my best material on the spot, Mum!” James complained. “Can I have until we leave for Gran’s?”

“No. I don’t want to hear any more about this. Ten…nine…eight…seven…--”

“I think Lily had something to tell you last night, Caden,” Albus blurted, amused.

“Albus! We said we wouldn’t talk about that!” Hugo yelled from across the kitchen. He was at the oven, clearly baking something. He shook a spatula at Albus sternly.

“Er…erm…” James was still trying to come up with a joke.

“Six…five…four…”

“She loves you, Caden, has she told you that yet?” Albus continued, smirking.

“SHUT IT, YOU!” Lily shrieked.

“Three…two…one—that’s it! I don’t want to hear any more about it! It’s over!” Ginny declared, right as Lily was about to throw herself across the kitchen at her brother, fists flying. She ground her teeth. Caden gave her a look, clearly imploring her not to start a Christmas morning brawl. She sighed.

“…Fine,” she said.

James snapped his fingers. “Okay. Got it. What did the dragonologist say to the—”

“NO, JAMES!” Ginny and Harry boomed.

He sighed, disappointed. “It’s a great one, though…”

Nora leaned over and kissed him gently. She held Delilah up in front of him; James was already smiling as he leaned in to kiss his daughter. She cooed happily and patted lovingly at his face.

“Whisper the joke to me,” Nora prompted.

“Nora!” Ginny complained.

“I won’t tell anyone!” Nora promised.

James leaned in and whispered the joke into her ear. Lily watched with annoyance as her sister-in-law fell into a fit of hysterical giggles. She pressed her hand to her lips and struggled to choke it back.

“Sorry,” she told them. Her eyes were watering as she struggled to fight back her laughter. “It's just…it is a great one.”

“I want to hear—”

No, Ron!” Ginny snapped. “It’s over.”

Lily sighed and walked over to get something for breakfast. It wouldn’t really be Christmas without bickering and a Lily-provided scandal, anyway.

“Tea?” she asked Caden.

“Yeah, all right,” he nodded, just as at home in the chaos as she was.


 

Lily spent the next two hours standing on the cold grass trying to teach Finnigan the proper way to fly on a broom, but he absolutely resisted her advice. Caden had to leave halfway through their lessons to head back to his flat to tidy up before the Burrow Christmas (they always had Aster, Hugo, and Lily’s Mini Death Eaters—now their friends—over for a Christmas party afterwards), and figured the best time to talk to her dad would be while he was gone. So after realizing her nephew was a bit hopeless, she left him hanging like a sloth from his broom and headed towards the shed. She knocked once on the door.

“Dad? Are you in there again?”

“…Yes.”

“I’m coming inside.”

“Fine.”

Lily stepped into the shed. Her dad was marking essays on the sofa. She walked over and plopped down beside him. He shot her a wary look from the corner of his eye but otherwise ignored her. Lily leaned over and pulled the essay from his hands after another moment of being ignored. Her dad glared.

“I can still ground you as long as you’re under my roof,” Harry warned. “Or put you on the naughty step. Give me my essays.”

Lily shoved the essays over into his hands. She crossed her arms stubbornly as he immediately returned to his marking. “Fine. I’ll go sit in time out for twenty minutes. Can that settle this?”

“This is not a naughty step sort of problem, Lulu.”

“It’s not actually a problem at all,” Lily snapped. “I’ve got a question, Dad. If it had been Albus and Scorpius that you’d overheard, or even James and Nora, would you be this upset about it?”

Her dad paused. He looked at her for a moment, faltered, and then looked back down at his essays.

“I thought so,” she said. “And that’s rubbish. I should be allowed to be an adult like you let them be adults.”

“I would be disturbed if I’d overheard them because they’re my kids,” her dad argued.

“But not as disturbed, because they’re your sons and they’re allowed to act like real, actual adults.”

Her dad turned the essays over and faced her.

“Or maybe they have the decency and respect for their parents not to do that in the Den,” Harry shot back coolly.

“What does my shagging somebody have to do with my respect for you and Mum? Can you honestly say you and Mum never shagged at the Burrow? Ever?”

Her dad hesitated for a bit longer this time. He rubbed the back of his neck guiltily. Lily crossed her arms and sniffed. “Precisely. So don’t be a hypocrite, Dad. I’m really sorry that you had to overhear. I had to overhear Scorpius and Albus the other day, and I agree: it’s disturbing.”

He looked at her in surprise. “You’re…not going to argue? You’re going to…sympathize with me?” A beat. “Who are you and what have you done with my Lulu?”

Lily shrugged. “I’m right here. I just know how it feels and I didn’t mean to upset you or ruin Christmas Eve.”

His incredulous expression grew. Lily sighed as he reached forward to feel her forehead, as if she had a temperature.

“I’m not allowed to be nice?”

“Sure, sometimes, I guess…” her dad trailed off. His nose wrinkled as he fully processed what she’d said. “You overheard Al and—no, wait, never mind. Forget I asked.”

“Yeah, I’ll spare you the details,” Lily agreed. She reached over and patted his shoulder nicely. “You’ve been through enough. And you should be glad it wasn’t James and Nora you overheard. Nobody’s ever overheard them but I bet they’re the worst…they’ve got to be absolutely nauseating…ugh. They probably have loads more disgusting pet names for each other, ones we’ve never heard and hopefully never will.”

Her dad suppressed an amused grin. He heaved a sigh a moment later. “All right. Shall we pretend this never happened and never speak of it ever again?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Lily.”

“Flippin’ yeah,” she amended.

Her dad snorted. Lily laughed. Soon, they were laughing together, and Lily felt impossibly happy. She hated when her dad was unhappy with her. It always felt like coming home when they made up again.

After their laughter pandered off, her dad looked at her with an oddly concerned expression. Lily automatically looked down at her body, to see if any of her sex marks were visible, but she didn’t see anything. She reached up to her neck, but her fingers grazed the ribbed cotton of the old turtleneck jumper she’d thrown on that morning before exiting her bedroom. Nothing visible there, either.

“What?” she finally asked.

“Nothing. Well. I just…I haven’t had a chance to ask you with all that’s been going on. How are you, Lulu? With the dragons and all, I mean.”

Lily’s heart plummeted. She looked away. It was the very last thing she wanted to talk about. She struggled to keep the horrible, traumatizing memories at bay.

“Let’s leave that for now, yeah?” she said, her voice a bit wobbly.

“Not ready to talk about it?”

“Not even close.”

“Okay, sorry,” her dad said quickly.  There was an awkward pause. “You’re okay, though?”

“Yeah,” Lily said at once, and to her amazement, she realized it was true. She met her dad’s eyes. “Yeah. I am. I’m actually…I feel better than I’ve felt since it happened.”

Her dad smiled. “That’s good. Great, actually.”

“Mmhmm,” Lily agreed. She let her head fall against her dad’s shoulder. She thought about those weeks following the dragon babies’ deaths. She had felt so depressed that even thinking about it now made her feel a gaping emptiness in her chest. It was so different from how she’d felt that morning in Caden’s arms. She stared at the shed floor. “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“I love him.”

Her heart squeezed. She felt an indescribable longing for Caden. And she was surprised to find that the words felt so right. She wondered if finally saying them to Caden himself would feel that way, too. It was a relief to finally have those hoarded words out in the open, even if it wasn’t yet to the right person.

Her dad reached up and cradled her head to his shoulder. She felt his kiss to the top of her head a moment later.

“Yeah, I know,” he admitted.

Lily kicked sheepishly at the floor. She was glad she couldn’t see her dad’s expression.

“It’s a bit scary,” she admitted.

Her dad chuckled. “Yeah, Lulu. It is.”

Lily sat up. She met her dad’s eyes. He was looking at her fondly.

“What if I tell him and then he leaves?” she asked. Her voice was thicker than she would’ve liked. Her dad didn’t seem to find the question as alarming as Lily did. And she realized, with a rush of shame, that what she was most afraid of was exactly what she had done to Caden. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut.

“Do you think he’s going to leave?” her dad asked her.

Lily thought about the tender look she caught in Caden’s eyes sometimes. His strong, steady arms around her. His sensible mind—his unwavering love.

“No,” she admitted. “I don’t think so.”

“I don’t, either,” her dad said. “But I can promise you one thing. Even if that happened one day, even if you felt like your heart had been ripped into two…you’ll always have me. Mum and I, Albus and James, Nora and Scorpius. We’re not going anywhere.”

Lily hugged her dad. It was a great thing to hear in that moment, because as she remembered what she’d done to Caden, she felt more and more unlovable. She stood after a brief hug.

“Where are you going?” her dad wondered.

“To Caden’s flat to get ready, then to Aster’s to figure out if she’s coming to the party tonight, and then I’ll see you at Gran’s. Oh—will you check on Finnigan in a moment? I left him hanging like a sloth in the air. He won’t come down.”

“Yeah, he’s…uniquely determined to fly like that.”


 

When Lily stumbled out of Aster’s fireplace, she was shocked to find her cousin standing in front of her, covered in ash and brushing soot from a massive cake tin in his hands.

Hugo?” Lily demanded.

Hugo jumped. He spun around and stared wide-eyed at Lily. They held an incredulous gaze.

“What are you doing here?!” they chorused.

“What am I doing here?!” Lily demanded, outraged. “I’m her best friend! What are you doing here?!”

“I—I—I…” Hugo looked down at the cake tin in his hands. “I—brought her cake!! To say…‘thank you’!”

Lily narrowed her eyes. Suspicion crawled up her spine. “Thank you for what?”

“For…helping me prepare for my shop’s opening! It’s right across from hers, don’t forget! She’s been…helping me get ready!” Hugo said. He still had a bit of wayward flour smeared on his cheeks, but even with that dusting of white, his cheeks were darkened with embarrassment. He tripped backwards and shoved the cake tin into Lily’s hands.

“Okay, so, you can give her her cake, and tell her I said…thank you,” he said.

“O…kay,” Lily allowed. She watched her cousin stumble, blushing, back to the fireplace. Before he stepped in, she called after him. “Hugo. Do you fancy her?”

Hugo’s cheeks only darkened. Lily sighed.

“Aw, Hugh,” she said. She walked up to him and heaved another sigh. This wasn’t what she wanted. Hugo was such a romantic—this was going to break his heart. Best to set him straight before Aster had to. She reached up and patted his shoulder. “It’s nothing personal. She’s just not really into dating—she’s tried it a few times and always said it was a bit boring. You’ll bounce back from this.”

His brow furrowed. “What?”

“What what?”

“Erm…nothing. Bye. See you at Gran’s.”

With that, he scampered back into the Floo and disappeared. What a weird man, Lily said to herself. She shook her head. She supposed she wasn’t that surprised; Hugo and Aster spent a lot of time together, her best friend was really hot, and she had a soft heart like Hugo did. She just worried it would make things really awkward in their social group when Aster inevitably turned him down.

Lily tossed her coat onto the brown leather sofa and carried her stained dress and Hugo’s cake tin towards the back of the flat. She pushed the door to Aster’s bedroom open, kicked her shoes off in the corridor, and stepped in, prepared to throw herself down onto the bed and put the world to rights. She did not make it that far. She stopped dead in the doorway and stared at her best friend, who was lounging casually on her bed, wearing what Lily had envisioned when she’d earlier teased Caden with the phrase ‘bridal lingerie’. Lingerie leaning towards sweetness more than naughtiness, with layers of lavender chiffon and silk, her hair loose beneath her. Aster froze.

“Awww,” Lily finally said. She threw her dress over the opened wardrobe door to her right and then sat on the bed. “This is a really touching welcome, Ast. It’s very pretty.”

“I was expecting somebody else,” Aster admitted. She seemed a bit jumpy, which was odd to Lily, as Lily had seen her naked loads of times. Their preferred weekend night activity at Hogwarts had been nude swimming in the Great Lake (and daring to see who could bear to stay in the longest). So she could only assume Aster was a bit flustered at being caught being naughty, though that was also a bit confusing, as Aster knew better than anybody else that Lily always won in the naughty category.

“I figured as much,” Lily said. She dropped Hugo’s cake tin into Aster’s lap (not without noticing that Aster had dusted gold, shimmery powder over her thighs—she really was waiting for somebody). “Who are you so dolled up for? Bad time for a sex call...you’ve had loads of unexpected visitors this hour. Hugo arrived seconds before I did! Bless him, he made you a cake. I think he fancies you a bit. I set him right for you.”

Aster opened and closed her mouth wordlessly.

“Is it Zabini? Are you fucking Zabini? I thought you didn’t like fucking Zabini. You did the one time and came back telling me sex was boring and overrated and that I was crazy for—aw, that’s nice,” Lily said, distracted from her spiel by the cake Aster had just revealed. She set the cake tin lid to the side. Hugo had recreated – in stunning, painstaking detail—Aster’s clothing shop. He’d even shaded the icing to make it look like it was midday, with shadows running long down the pavement. “He must really want in your knickers.”

Aster looked up at Lily. Lily stared back at her. It came crashing down on her all at once.

“Holy fuck,” Lily breathed, and then: “Holy fuck!! You’re not! You’re not seriously telling me that my cousin was here for—a sex call!! I didn’t even know he could have sex!”

“No! No, it’s not like that!”

“It looks exactly like that! His blushing, this cake that probably stands in for a nine-hundred galleon fee—”

“You think a night with me is worth nine-hundred galleons?” Aster asked, touched. Lily ignored her.

“Him scampering off like a dirty little rat, you lounging about in this sweet little—thing! Oh my…Muggle God! Aster! There are better people to have this sort of arrangement with! I could make you a list if you like! Hugo would be at the very bottom! He’s too soft-hearted; he’s already got feelings for you, I could tell, and I’m actually very upset that you wouldn’t think that through! I thought you didn’t like sex? We don’t talk for a few weeks and I come back and you’re shagging Hugo in exchange for fancy cakes?! It’s like I don’t even know you anymore! What else has happened?! Have you joined a sodding dragon poaching community?!”

Aster gasped, affronted. She leaned over and smacked Lily’s shoulder. “Lily Potter! You take that back!”

“You tell me what you’re doing with my cousin and your—you know!” She gestured at Aster’s hips.

“Okay, fine, okay, but don’t freak out!”

“Don’t freak out?! What could be worse than Hugo paying you with cakes for sex?!” Lily gasped. She pointed at Aster. “Oh, Merlin’s wrinkly little—he’s paying you for boring, vanilla sex! With cakes! What—are these cakes sugar-free, too?! That would definitely be worse!” She felt a bit faint. “You deserve better, Aster! You deserve passionate, rough sex and gooey, cavity-inducing sweets…I’m going to cry!! Look what you’ve done!”

Aster slapped the duvet impatiently. “No! Shut up and let me explain, for Merlin’s sake!”

“It better be a great explanation! Because you’re worth at least a ten-tier wedding cake if you’re going to let him lie on top of you like a limp fish—”

Aster reached out and closed her fingers around Lily’s wrist, squeezing tightly. Lily looked at her.

“Lily!!” Aster scolded.

“What?!”

“I’m not selling my body to Hugo for cakes! And I’m not just shagging him.”

Lily furrowed her brow. “How do you mean?”

Aster slowly let go of Lily’s wrist. She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. She took a deep breath.

“Well…I’m with him. Like…his girlfriend.”

It got so quiet that Lily could hear next door’s dog pattering along the wooden floors. She stared.

“You’re Hugo’s girlfriend. Hugo is your boyfriend,” she deadpanned.

Aster nodded. “Yeah.”

Lily gestured at her friend’s lingerie. “This wasn’t for Hugo-bought vanilla sex. This was for…sentimental…Christmas…love-making.”

“Yeah.”

Lily pressed a hand over her mouth, horrified. “Good God, woman. Who are you?!”

Aster kicked Lily’s calf. “Oi, shut up! You are the last person on earth to judge!”

“I’m not judging! I’m just…shocked! When?! Why?! Why didn’t you tell me?!” Lily demanded, outraged. And then: “Why?!”

“Because he’s lovely,” Aster said, a bit defensively. “He asked me out one night, while I was helping him with his shop preparation, and he was all nervous and cute and stuttering, and I realized…he’s perfect. I couldn’t think of one thing I didn’t like about him. And we went on a date and it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, so we kept going on them, and I hope we keep going on dates forever. And I’ll have you know that I now have a healthy appreciation for your favorite pastime—all thanks to Hugo.”

“Oh, Merlin…” Lily said, disgusted. She ran a hand through her hair and struggled to wrap her mind around the concept of Aster and Hugo being involved. Something horrible occurred to her. She looked around and lowered her voice. “Have you two done it…here? In this bed?” Lily lifted her legs up into the air, like the thought of having her body in contact with the bedding was repulsive. Aster laughed right as Lily did. She shoved her forward.

“Hush, you!”

They met eyes once their laughter pandered off. Aster smiled. Lily felt her heart swell. They slid over and threw their arms around each other at once. Lily smiled into Aster’s shoulder. She inhaled deeply.

“Mmm, fancy perfume,” she whispered. Aster laughed again. Lily played with the ends of her loose hair and tried not to feel envious of the length. “So does this mean you’re not angry with me anymore? Because that was incredibly tiring.”

“Oh, I haven’t been angry for two weeks,” Aster sighed. She leaned back, breaking their hug. She touched the opal set into the choker around Lily’s neck. “I was, though. I was very angry. This is nice.”

Lily got a few naughty flashbacks to the night before as she reached up to touch it. She smiled mischievously. “Yeah, it’s beautiful, right? Caden got it for me.”

Aster’s lips parted like she’d just remembered something. Without another word, she reached up and gave Lily’s cheek a feather-light slap, more for dramatics than anything. Lily rolled her eyes.

“What?”

“Your mum told me you’ve been shagging Caden! Leave—him—alone!” Aster pointed at her cross expression. “See, now I’m angry again, Lily! Go shag Avery or something and let Caden move on! Why can’t you just leave him alone?!”

“You’re gossiping with my mum now, are you? You two are best mates and you plait each other’s hair and have Floo calls to help each other decide what to wear in the mornings?!” Lily demanded. She felt an odd tangle of betrayal and jealousy.

“No, I’m not best mates with Ginny, and you need answer my question!”

Lily wasn’t even sure where to start. “We’re back together again.”

Aster rolled her eyes. “Oh, here we go…”

“No, really. We are. Things are actually better than they’ve ever been. We’ve had sex so many times this week that I think my boggart would be a broomstick or a Muggle bicycle—I could hardly sit on hard surfaces this morning. You know, for a body part that’s supposed to be flexible and resilient enough to birth an actual baby human, it really is quite whiny.”

Aster gave her a dry look. “Oh, charming. And have you apologized with your actual mouth at any point?”

Lily arched an eyebrow. Aster caught her mistake in time. “With words, I mean.”

“Yes, I have. I’ve apologized loads of times, and a few of those times were with words,” Lily replied. She knew what was coming next, but she didn’t try to change the subject because she knew it needed to be dealt with.

“Why did you do it, Lily?” Aster demanded. She was looking at her with that same soft expression of disapproval she’d given her at the hospital. She had stayed with Lily until she was better, but once Lily was released, Aster had made her irritation quite clear. “He’s the one who somehow organized an emergency Portkey to New Zealand at three in the morning only ten minutes after we were contacted. You didn’t see him while we were waiting outside the Burn Unit; he was so…I’ve never seen him like that. And then you just—”

“I know,” Lily interrupted quickly, her heart aching. “I know what I did. And I wish I hadn’t done it. But I did. I was scared, okay? I wasn’t right in the head. I’d just seen…well. You know. And I felt so horrible. And that made things more complicated and scary and I just wanted to run as far from it as I could. So I did. That’s why I did it. It wasn’t right.”

Aster laughed humorlessly. “No, it wasn’t.”

“We’ve reached a really good place. We’ve talked about it,” Lily reassured her. She looked down at her lap. “And, actually, you know, I love him back.”

“Of course I knew that. That’s what made the entire situation so fucking annoying,” Aster admitted. She stared at her warily. “No more running off and abandoning him?”

“No. No, never,” Lily promised. She took Aster’s hand in hers and turned it over, so her palm was facing upwards. She lowered her own hand down, so their palms were pressed together, and more importantly, so the tattoos on their inner wrists were. It was the first tattoo Lily had ever gotten (a white lily, while Aster got a purple aster). “I promise. See—tattoo hug and everything.”

“Good. Now, I’ve got something I want to show you, so put a lid on the boy talk.” She rose from the bed and walked over to the white curtain that cut across the massive room, separating the bedroom section from the studio portion. Lily waited on the bed as she pulled the curtain back and disappeared behind it. She came out a second later with something that made Lily’s eyes widen. She was holding a dress made of imitation Antipodean Opaleye scales. They were clearly synthetic; they were much shinier and made of a dainty sort of metal, but somehow they retained that same aura that dragon scales gave off. The dress looked impossibly beautiful and intimidating all at once (Lily’s preferred look). Lily wasn’t sure how Aster had achieved the pearlescent glow, but it was realistic enough to make her homesick for her sanctuary and Opal. She blinked against her burning eyes.

“I’ve been working on this since I got home. I was thinking, you know, about the poaching…” Aster walked over and sat beside Lily. She set the dress in her lap. Lily stroked her hands over the fake scales. They felt very different from real dragon scales, but she preferred that; too realistic and it might’ve upset her. She held it up and watched the way the light caught it. “I was talking to Jillian and Emi about how I didn’t think the trend would change soon enough…and it got me thinking…what if I could make something that fulfilled the fashion need without actually harming any real creatures? They do it with leather, right? It took a while but I finally found a way to make synthetic scales that look a lot like every type of dragon.” She paused. “I really needed your help, but after the way I yelled at you at the hospital…I didn’t want to ring. I hope I did your Opaleyes justice.”

“You did,” Lily promised her. She looked up at her best friend, her hand still stroking over the scales. She felt such an intense tangle of emotion that it nearly choked her. “I love this and I love you.”

“Oh, I love you, too, Lily,” Aster said, her tone equally soaked with emotion. She leaned in and pulled her into another hug. She whispered her next words into Lily’s hair. “I’m sorry for yelling at you. I should have tried to understand. You were injured and it wasn’t right for me to scream at you.”

“No, I deserved it. I’ve been awful. I’m glad you did; I needed you to set me right,” Lily argued. She didn’t know if Aster realized it, but she was one of the few people who could get through to Lily when she was in moods like that. Lily leaned back and smiled at Aster. “You know, Caden and I have been trying to figure out ways to get the public to turn against the poached items for days. I wanted to go on a manhunt. He wants to do protests in the streets of Diagon Alley. But this…this is clever.”

Aster smiled, pleased. “I mean, it’ll help, but it won’t fix the problem. We need to do something with it, too. I like Caden’s idea. Or…” Aster’s face brightened. “Oh! Or you could write a small note about the poaching—to raise public awareness and all—and we can make it into a tag to put on the clothes! And hang it on the wall above the rack! Even stitch a cloth one underneath my clothing label, so nobody can miss it! And we can have you sign your name, too, because everybody trusts you as an authority figure on dragons…Lily, let’s do it now!”

Lily laughed as Aster tugged excitedly on her hands.

“I’m meant to be getting ready for the Weasley Christmas…”

“I’ll dress you up in this gown and do your hair for you. I’ve got my family dinner at around the same time. We can get ready together.”

Lily beamed. “All right!! Yes! Let’s do this! For the babies!”

“For the babies!” Aster affirmed. “We’ll name the styles after the babies, too!”

“Yes!” Lily said excitedly. “Pearl for the Opaleye style! Ruby for Chinese Fireball! We can name the Common Welsh Green style after their mummy, Emerald! Amethyst for Hebridean Black! Amethyst loved my black jumper—she used to crawl beneath it and sleep on my tummy when she was a newborn; I think she liked the warmth and the rhythm of my breathing…oh! And we could name the Peruvian Vipertooth styles after Topaz! He’s from Opal and Emerald’s first hatching but he’s still my little mate. He got Opal’s great temperament; he loves Caden still, even though everybody said he’d grow out of it… but your favorite is Flint, I know, so we could name another style after him, too!!”

“I love Flint,” Aster agreed, her eyes sparkling. “He always tickles me with his snout and blows smoke on me! What a good dragon! And he never tries to roast me alive like Emerald and all the rest do!”

“She doesn’t mean anything by it,” Lily reassured Aster. “The females are just impossible to work with if you’re not a professional. Mind you—I think Pearl was going to break that mold for once. She had Opal’s sociable nature and she was very gentle. I loved her. No. I love her. I still do. Her being gone doesn’t change that.”

As Lily trailed off, she realized this was the most she’d talked about the babies since they died. She felt heart sick, but instead of feeling liable to vomit from the grief, she found herself just missing them terribly.

“I miss them.” Her eyes burned again. “It’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair at all. But we’re going to get them—all of them, the poachers. And we’re going to make it so that nobody ever buys any of their evil products ever again,” Aster swore. She held out her pinky. Lily gave a watery smile and hooked hers with Aster’s. “I promise.”

“You’ll even kill them with me if it comes down to that?” Lily asked, only half-teasing.

“I’d help you kill them and I’d help you hide the bodies.”

Lily laughed, overjoyed. “This is why you’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

Aster leaned over and set her palm over Lily’s heart. “Ultimate loyalty-- that's what we've got."

They were still giggling as they went into Aster’s studio to begin their new mission.


 

Caden was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, carefully running his comb through his hair. Lily had made a silent entrance. Fighting back laughter, she tiptoed forward, braced herself, and then pounced. She threw her arms around his neck and latched her legs around his waist, sending him falling against the sink in surprise.

“For fuck’s sake! We’ve only just gotten back together and you’re already trying to murder me?!” Caden demanded. He steadied himself and then reached back, looping his beneath Lily’s bum, to help hold her up. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

“You need danger in your life,” she told him. “Without me, it’s boring paperwork, boring Public Bollocks, boring drinks with boring Zabini, boring sleep before midnight, boring moping…”

“Right,” he said. “And with you, life is…spontaneous morning shags on the kitchen table that make me late for meetings, experimental potions always bubbling in the living room and sometimes actually exploding, getting woken up at four AM on workdays so you can tell me about whatever dream you just had, and lying around the flat naked in late December.”

Lily rubbed her cheek against his. “Shall I leave?”

He tightened his grip.

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“That’s what I thought,” she smirked.

He turned around, dropped her down onto the edge of the sink, and then spun around to face her. Lily looped her legs back around his waist and pulled him to her. She craned her face up and waited for his lips to fall on hers. She smiled into their kiss.

“This is a nice dress,” he appreciated, his hands sliding down the slick scales. “Opal-y. Did Aster make it?”

“Yes, isn’t it lovely? She’s done a whole line. Will you come see it tomorrow?”

“Definitely.” He rubbed his nose against hers; Lily leaned forward and kissed him again. “I thought you’d be gone longer. I’m guessing you and Aster made up?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. We worked on the dragon scale project for a bit, but I left early because she had somebody coming…over.”

Caden arched a coy eyebrow. He didn’t miss her deliberate pause between words. “Aster’s got a boyfriend?”

“Guess. If you can guess on the first try, I’ll let you have top next time we shag.”

“I already get top next time; it’s my turn.”

“I’ll let you have top the next three times, then.”

He nodded once, confident. A smirk followed. “Hugo.”

Lily dug her heel into the side of his arse. “You prat! You already knew!”

“Hugo came here after you ran him off from the flat,” Caden snickered. “Not very nice—interrupting their…‘meeting’. You’d be in a right state if one of them did that to us.”

“Well I didn’t know, did I?!” she defended. “And I would not!”

“You would so. You’ve got no patience. But we can work on that since I’ve just earned top three times in a row.”

Lily mentally swore at her own body for reacting to those words. No, no, no, you’ve already overdone it as it is, you debauched idiot…

“You’re so bloody aggravating,” she growled instead.

“Yeah? I think you’re getting a bit turned on, actually. Don’t worry…I won’t tell anybody that Lily Potter is a secret submissive.”

She scoffed. “What?! No! I am not! You take that back! I should sue you! For slander! I was born to be on top!”

He leaned in closer, his lips playing up into an unfairly sexy grin. She shoved his chest hard.

“Seriously, don’t give me that smirk; even sitting here right now is slightly painful, and if you keep giving me that look, we’ll be shagging on the tiles, and then we’ll really have a conflict with my family because I won’t want to go to the Weasley Christmas since I’ll be stuck soaking in a hot sodding bath for ages.”

He made a face. “Noted. I’ll be your self-control. No shagging today.”

She heaved a disappointed sigh. Caden had great self-control and would actually stick by that, even when she undoubtedly changed her mind after three drinks. 

“This is great,” he told her, after putting more distance between their bodies. “You’re back in time to go with me to visit my only family for Christmas. I didn’t think you would be.”

Lily’s heart sank. “Oh, no. No, no, no, no—”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m going to get shit for hours over what your family overheard—Fred and Roxanne are going to make sex noises at me all night long. So you can come to my ‘family Christmas visit’ before we go to your Gran’s.”

“My family never tried to murder you!” Lily said, outraged. “Your ‘cousin’”—she closed the word in finger quotes— “tried to kill me!” She paused. “And my dad! And my brother—on multiple occasions! And my other brother, Scorpius! And my other brother, James! And my sister! Probably also my mother, I can’t remember! And you, my boyfriend! She tortured me for ages, too!”

Caden crossed his arms over his chest. “And if your aversion to seeing her was about that, I’d really understand. But you don’t want to see her because she’s nice to you.”

Lily caved in at once. “It’s fucking weird, Caden. Unnatural. She played with my hair last time and I nearly smacked her across her face. In a way, I preferred her torturing me. The friendliness is wrong. You can’t just try to murder somebody’s family, torture them, and then pretend you’re best mates. I don't always understand life but I do understand that."

“She’s lonely. She’s trying very hard to heal. Draco said she starts getting dark thoughts again when she goes too long without visitors. She’s got her friends she made through the WWEU, but Christmas is about family, and we’re all each other has, really. She’s all I have, family-wise. Unless you’d rather go visit the lovely Rowles?”

Lily scowled. Even the slightest mention of Caden’s paternal grandparents—the ones who'd raised him—put Lily on edge.

“I wouldn’t even visit them if it was an open-casket funeral. The way they talk to you...I’d like to put them in those caskets.”

“They feel the same way about us, I’m sure. So Delphi it is, then. We’ll go visit her. It’ll be nice to remind her that she’s got us.”

Us, huh? We’re an ‘us’ now? Do we need to start giving joint gifts to people and add my name to your flat lease? Shall we get cookware together? Monogrammed pillowcases?” Lily teased. Caden rolled his eyes. He took a step forward and reached up, tucking her hair behind her ears. Lily skillfully avoided his eyes, knowing she’d probably give in if she met them.

“Come on…” he pleaded. He cupped her face in his hands. She reluctantly met his keen eyes. “I’ll make it worth your while once we’re home tonight…”

She reiterated through clenched teeth: “No—shagging! I—feel—like—my—”

“Not shagging,” he reassured, breaking off her objection. He gave her a pointed look. Lily caught on quickly.  

“Ooh,” she said. She shifted, her body already reacting to the offer. She grinned wickedly. “Hmm…yeah, all right. I’ll face my murderer for that.”

“You’re not dead, Lily, so she can’t be your murderer,” he sighed.

Lily ignored him. “Plus I’ll get to see Evangeline. I love that feathery bitch.”

Caden was laughing as he kissed her gently.


 

“Merry Christmas!” Lily blurted, as soon as Delphi opened the door to her flat. Lily pushed the wrapped gift into Delphi’s hands and brushed past her. “Evangeline!! My love!”

While Caden and Delphi exchanged more in depth niceties, Lily walked over to the parrot perch by the window, where Delphi’s bright, sailor-mouthed parrot was resting. Evangeline turned her head slowly and watched as Lily approached. Lily stood beside the perch, casually leaned back against the wall, and without looking at the bird, she slid her arm out in front of her. She grinned smugly when she felt the sharpness of Evangeline’s claws as she stepped onto her arm without hesitation.

“I’m the fucking bird and dragon whisperer,” Lily muttered.

The parrot gave a squawk, followed by: “Fucking bitch!”

Lily grinned. She brought her arm over carefully and stared fondly at the bird. “I think you’re my soulmate, Evangeline.”

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck-caw!”

“Fuck-caw!” Lily said back. The bird cocked her head slightly. She took a moment to itch the feathers on her tummy. She straightened and slowly turned to look at Lily again, her eyes eerily (and adorably) focused.

“Bitch! Cocking idiot! Hello!” Evangeline parroted.

“Hello to you too, you colorful bastard!”

While Lily scratched the bird’s bright red neck feathers, she watched Delphi and Caden sit down across from each other in a pair of armchairs. Delphi opened their gift (which was really Caden’s gift, as he’d picked it out and purchased it, but he’d insisted on adding Lily’s name to the tag), left momentarily to receive the gift she’d gotten for Caden and Lily in return, and then glanced over her shoulder at Lily.

“Hi, Lily. I see you’re back from New Zealand.”

“Yep. Here I am. In the flesh,” Lily affirmed.

“Are you going to stand there with Evangeline the entire time?”

Evangeline began ranting in a series of swears, made up words, and squawks. Lily snickered. “No…I’ll sit over there with Evangeline the entire time.”

She carried the bird over, sat down on Caden’s lap, and then nudged Evangeline over, so she was perched on Lily’s thigh instead. Caden reached over and scratched at the bird’s neck feathers. Lily slapped his hand away.

“My bird,” she teased under her breath.

Caden jostled his legs in response, sending Lily bouncing up in his lap. The motion made her soreness flare up again (and made Evangeline take flight momentarily). Lily winced.

“You prick, you know I’m—not right!” she snapped. “That hurt! And more importantly: you made Evangeline leave!”

He rubbed her thigh apologetically. “Sorry, forgot.” Evangeline landed on Caden's shoulder. "Oh, looks like it's my turn! Hello, sweet girl!"

Lily sulked slightly until Evangeline landed back on her leg; once she felt her claws press into her skin, she perked up. She stroked the bird’s colorful feathers and sighed happily. She loved that bloody bird. She definitely made visiting Voldemort's daughter worth it.

“How are you doing, Lily?” Delphi asked her, in that annoying pseudo-elder-sister tone that Lily hated so much. “I heard about your pets. I’m very sorry that happened to you.”

Lily’s eye twitched. “Pets,” she mumbled under her breath. Caden tightened his hand on her thigh.

“I’m fine,” Lily finally managed, with some difficulty. “How’s Evangeline been doing?”

“Hello!” the bird cried, after hearing her name. “Cocking fuck! Fucking hell! Fuck you!”

“She’s still an arse,” Delphi admitted.

“And how are you doing, Delphi?” Caden asked, when he realized Lily wasn’t going to.

“Good. I’ve got a job, actually. I start in February.”

While Caden and Delphi chatted about her upcoming job, Lily taught Evangeline a few fresh swearing combinations. She suffered through a conversation with Delphi about Albus and Scorpius, pretended to love the sodding cookware set Delphi had given her and Caden (did she think they were engaged? Was she being cheeky? Was it a comment on Lily’s poor cooking skills?), and fed Evangeline some nuts. When it was finally time to leave, she had to suffer through the mandatory goodbye hug.

“You know, Lily,” Delphi said thoughtfully, after Lily had pulled back from their somewhat stiff embrace. “I actually like your hair like this more. You look badass.”

Lily blinked, stunned. She felt her opinion on Delphi warm a bit. Hair compliments were always appreciated.

“Yeah? You think so?” she asked.

“Definitely. You should keep it like that,” Delphi nodded. She looked to Caden. “It’s sexy, yeah?”

To Lily’s horror, Delphi leaned forward and pulled her fingers through it. Lily felt her jaw clench. She hated when people she didn’t know well touched her hair. Lily gave Caden a furious look, imploring him to politely remove Delphi before Lily had to rudely do it.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “It’s very sexy. Careful not to mess it up, though, we’ve got somewhere to go.”

Lily had already reached up to slap Delphi’s hands away, but luckily, Caden’s calculated comment did what he’d intended: it made Delphi withdraw her hands from Lily’s hair. Lily side-stepped Delphi as she reached out again. She was unsure whether she was trying to touch her hair or hug her again, but she didn’t want either. “Okay, that’s enough. Thanks. Have a good Christmas. Your hair’s nice, too. Thanks for not torturing me or murdering me this time—you’re on a ten-visit streak, so that’s great, and I’m very proud of you! Keep being you, Delphi—your genes don’t define you! Give Evangeline a kiss from me.”

She was really being sarcastic and a bit condescending, but it came out sounding sweeter than she’d intended. Caden choked back a laugh while Delphi looked momentarily touched. Lily scampered off through the doorway before she could get roped into another hug. She waited somewhat moodily as the ‘cousins’ shared a hug. As soon as she and Caden were back in his flat, he lifted her clear off the floor and kissed her hard.

“I was being an arse!” Lily defended herself. “The tone just wasn’t right! I wasn’t trying to be sweet! Put me down! I’m not sweet! I’m naughty! Put me down!”

Caden obediently dropped her back to her feet, but he was still grinning.

“She won you over with that hair compliment, didn’t she?” he guessed.

“No! One hair compliment doesn’t make up for torturing me cruelly or touching my hair without permission!”

“I count that as a successful visit,” he said. “Misunderstood sweetness aside.”

Lily was glad it was over (and that she’d escaped without Delphi giving her any ‘life advice’, as she seemed to love to do). She watched as Caden washed and put away the new cookware set.

“I guess it wasn’t that bad,” she decided.

At the same time, they said:

“I got to see Evangeline.”

“You got to see Evangeline.”

Lily peered off thoughtfully. “We should steal her. Or get our own parrot.”

There was a five-second pause that felt extremely long. Lily felt her cheeks heat up. She glanced at Caden from the corner of her eye; he had paused halfway through drying a frying pan.

“Yeah? How would that work? With you in New Zealand and me here?” he finally asked. “We can’t raise our parrot in a broken home.”

Lily looked away. “I dunno, I guess I didn’t really think it through…”

She felt a bit sick to her stomach. She realized that, up until that precise moment, she’d forgotten that they would have to go their separate ways after the New Year. They’d always made it work before, but it felt extremely painful now—the thought of getting back together only to return alone back to the place it’d fallen apart. To have to go to work and see where the babies had….well. And then returning to her flat all alone. How long would it be until they saw each other again? They usually tried for every other weekend at the least, but the international portkey offices were always unreliable; she could never really count on having one for sure until she was actually touching it. She still couldn’t meet his eyes.

“Maybe you and the parrot could visit. And stay.”

Who the fuck said that?! Lily felt her cheeks heat up more when she realized it’d been her. She made a mental note not to drink much tonight. If she was already this loose-lipped…well, the last thing she wanted was to finally give Caden those coveted three words in front of her entire family.

“And stay?” Caden repeated patiently. “I’m not sure that’svisiting’.”

“Oh, look at the time; we’d better go…if we’re late my gran will go spare…”

Because he could clearly tell she was flustered and on the brink of retreating from him out of sheer panic, he didn’t press the matter. But when he took her hand in the Floo, she looked up at him and found him smiling. She smiled back right before they went churning through the Floo network.


 

The second they stepped into the Burrow’s kitchen, they were greeted by wolf-whistles and exaggerated sex sounds, courtesy of Uncle George’s kids. Lily made a rude hand gesture in response and scowled; when she glanced up, Caden had simply rolled his eyes once and wrapped an arm around her waist.

“You couldn’t keep your bloody mouth shut, could you?” Lily demanded, directing the question to James. He was sitting between Fred and Roxanne at the kitchen table. Even Delilah was giggling in his lap, though surely only because Clementine and Louis were making faces at her.

“He wouldn’t dare keep something like this from us,” Fred said, aghast. “Little Lily Lulu! You dirty girl!!”

“Shut it before I make you shut it,” Lily warned.

Their arrival had drawn other people to the kitchen, like moths to flames. Dominique stopped dead in the doorway when she saw who it was. A mischievous grin covered her face. She ran a hand through her short hair.

“The man of the hour,” she greeted Caden. She cocked an eyebrow. “I hear you did a good job last night.”

“Is everybody talking about our sex life?!” Lily demanded.

Caden was unruffled—or at least appeared to be. He smiled at Dominique (it seemed a bit sarcastic). “Thanks, Dom.”

Dominique crossed over to stand in front of Lily. She crossed her arms. “Are you trying to steal the title of Weasley Rebel from me? I see you’ve stolen the short hair.” She reached up and tugged gently at Lily’s locks.

Lily ground her teeth. “It—was—burned off,” she said through clenched teeth. “And I’m rather cut up about it.”

“Why? Keep it. We can share the title. It’s hot.”

“That’s what I told her,” Caden shrugged.

“Well, I don’t want to be hot; I want to be able to smack people across the face with my hair.” Lily surveyed the kitchen again. “Where’s Albus? And Rose?”

“Entertaining in the living room.”

“Oh, Merlin…” Lily groaned. She felt a bit weak with embarrassment. “Not in front of my grandad! They can’t tell Grandad!!”

“They’re not talking about you, actually. Scorpius and Iset reined them in rather spectacularly. It was like watching a sly and oddly affectionate circus show. Listen, if Little Molly and Lucy can’t meet your eye, don’t take it personally. They overheard when James was telling us. They’re a bit shell-shocked. I don’t even know if Lucy knew women could be on top…”

Roxanne succumbed to laughter. “You’re awful, Dom! She’s an adult, of course she does! Leave her alone! I love Lucy.”

“You love Lucy doing your finances for free,” Dominique muttered underneath her breath. Roxanne couldn’t hear it from her spot at the table.

James!” Lily cried, horrified. She turned her attention back to the real problem: the fact that Lucy knew those sorts of details. “How detailed did you get?!”

“Rose had told them plenty before I arrived!” James defended. He appeared nauseated. “Trust me; I did not go that in depth! I don’t even want to think about that!”

Lily’s attention was drawn to the doorway again. She pointed angrily at Nora as she entered, carrying Henry on her shoulders and Finnigan in her arms.

“You! Why didn’t you control your husband?!” Lily demanded.

Nora furrowed her brow. “He’s not a horse, Lulu. Here, take Finnigan, he’s been asking after you for hours.”

Lily inspected Finnigan’s hands before she pulled him from Nora. She made sure they were clean; she didn’t want sticky cake-hands ruining the dress Aster had given her. Once she affirmed he was clean, she accepted him and propped him on her hip. He wrapped his arms around her neck and gave her a tight, overjoyed hug. Lily patted his back and dropped a quick kiss on his curly head.

“Does Molly know?” she heard Caden ask the rest of the group. He walked over and sat across from James. “Molly-Molly, I mean?”

“No, Gran doesn’t know. We’re not cruel,” Fred scoffed.

Finnigan drew Lily’s attention to his new shoes, and while she was examining them and chatting with her nephew, she heard the distinct sound of a high-five, followed quickly by:

“Don’t do that, Fred!” James said, aghast. “Don’t congratulate him! That was my little sister he was shagging!”

“…Well, she’s not really little anymore, right? I mean, she lives alone in a foreign country, she deals with fire-breathing monsters…”

Lily gasped; Finnigan mimicked it only a few seconds afterwards. She met his brown eyes.

“Did you hear that? Freddie called my dragons fire-breathing monsters,” she whispered to Finnigan.

He narrowed his eyes (even though he had a playful smile cropping up on his adorable, mischievous face).

“Let’s get him,” he stage-whispered back.

Lily nodded. “I’ll throw you at him, through the air, like a firework.”

Finnigan cackled and rubbed his little hands together. “YEAH!”

“Ready?”

Lily approached the table, shifted Finnigan, and stared hard at Fred.

“One…” she began.

“Two…!” Finnigan added.

“THREE!”

She swung her arms back and catapulted Finnigan over the table towards Fred. James gave a horrified shriek. Finnigan crashed into Fred’s chest, just as Lily figured he would. Fred caught the boy and looked at Lily, his dark eyes wide.

She pointed at him. “Not fire-breathing monsters.”

Told you not to say that,” she heard Caden murmur beneath his breath.

Finnigan decided to stay put in Fred’s lap, leaving Lily childless again. She was about to head into the living room to give Albus and Rose a smack when the two in question walked into the kitchen, Lily’s parents right behind them.

“All right, you lot,” Ginny greeted. She and Lily’s dad blocked the doorway. “Harry and I have rules for you. A little game, even.”

Ginny paused, her eyes falling on Lily.

“That’s a lovely dress, Lily. Those scales are prettier than real ones.”

Lily shimmied her hips so the sunlight could catch the large, iridescent metal scales. She caught Delilah watching her dress with a look of spellbound wonder.

“The game?” James pressed, curious.

Finnigan perked up. He scampered off Fred’s lap and bolted towards Ginny; she lifted him up into her arms and kissed his exuberant face.

“A game?! I want to play!” he exclaimed.

“Here are the rules,” Harry said. “We’re not allowed to talk about S-E-X at all while we’re here. Period. No references to...anything that might have happened in the past. No teasing. No doing it. We’re going to have a nice family dinner, okay? No teasing, no making your gran’s blood pressure spike.”

Lily and Roxanne accidentally locked eyes. They looked away quickly and struggled to contain their laughter.

“That’s not much of a game, is it?” Fred said, a bit disappointed. “Sounds more like a rule.”

“The person who breaks the rule has to pay up ten galleons for each slip-up. The person—or, ideally, people—that make it until the end of the night without talking about the prohibited topic get to have the confiscated money. It’ll be split evenly if there’s more than one winner,” Ginny continued.

Everybody sat up straighter, more interested now that they realized it was a profitable game. Lily didn’t bother; she knew there was no way she’d win.

“Does that include you and Dad, too, Mum?” Lily asked slyly.

“Better keep them away from the bath,” she heard Albus mutter beneath his breath. Ginny backhanded his shoulder gently without even looking at him.

“This includes everybody,” Harry said firmly. “Are you all clear on the rules?”

“Yes. No se—”

“My child!” James reminded Roxanne quickly.

“No S-E-X jokes, discussions, teasing—”

“Or actually doing it,” Ginny added, interrupting Roxanne. She shot a pointed look at Lily. Lily glared back.

Finnigan was beaming. “I’m gonna win all the money!! No S…E?...X!”

James covered his mouth with his hand, horrified. Lily cackled. Finnigan looked up at Ginny a moment later.

“Ginny?”

“Yes, love?”

“I don’t know this game,” he admitted quietly.


 

Lily’s first challenge came when Hugo arrived, a bit late and positively glowing. She and Caden glanced at each other quickly and then looked away. Lily beckoned Hugo over to her. His feet dragged reluctantly as he approached. He braced himself for teasing about Aster.

“You’re in luck,” Lily greeted him. “Nobody’s allowed to talk about sex. But I’ll get you tonight. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT—I HEARD IT!” Lucy cried. She pointed down at Lily. “Lily said it! She said you know! Ten galleons!”

Lily spun around to face her cousin, outraged. “No! No way! I was explaining the rules to Hugo! Act your age, Lucy!”

“You still said it!”

“That doesn’t matter, you—”

“Lily,” her Uncle Percy interrupted. “You did say the word.”

“Yeah, but she was just explaining the rules, wasn’t she?” Uncle Ron shot back. “Hugo hasn’t heard yet. She shouldn’t have to pay for that, that’s not right!”

“Actually, if we’re going strictly by the book, yes, she should have to,” Uncle Percy persisted.

“No,” Lily’s dad chimed in, taking Uncle Ron (and Lily’s side), “that should be a free pass.”

“Oh, everything’s always a free pass for darling Lily, isn’t it?” Lucy said, annoyed.

Lily felt Caden’s hand settle on her thigh. She looked over at him. She could see irritation shining in his eyes, too.

“Fancy a walk?” he suggested casually.

Lily shot up. “Never fancied one more.”

They walked out towards the apple trees. Lily rubbed over her forehead.

“They’re already doing my head in and we’ve only just arrived,” she grumbled.

“It’ll get better once the wine’s brought out,” he reminded her. “You say this every year.”

“Oh, no, who’s that up there?” Lily demanded. She spotted people already grouped around the tallest apple tree. A blond head, a red… “Is that my mum and Draco?”

“Yeah, I think so. And Evra and Remus in the tree, by the looks of it.”

By the time they reached the gathering, Evra and Remus had made it to the very top of the tree.

“Remus brings out her inner-Gryffindor,” Lily greeted her mum.

Her mum turned and smiled at them. “Yeah, I think so, too. You look angry—your cheeks are all splotchy. Are you fighting with Al?”

Lily reached up and felt her own cheeks. They were hot to the touch. “No—Lucy and Uncle Percy.”

“Ah. I got into an argument with my mum.”

Lily knocked hips with her mum. “We’re outlaws.”

“DRACO!” Remus cried. “WATCH THIS!”

“What a great job climbing that—oh, no. No, Remus, don’t!” Draco lunged to the other side of the tree; he barely managed to catch Remus before he crashed to the ground. Remus had the air knocked from him and subsequently burst into terrified tears. Draco hesitantly patted his back.

“What’s this about?” Lily hissed to her mum.

“Remus has decided that Draco’s his new best mate. It all started when Draco gave him this interactive wolf puzzle that turns three-dimensional and howls at the moon once completed…Remus is a bit obsessed with it. He and Evra talked Draco into watching them outside so they could come climb the trees. I came to assist.”

“Ah,” Lily said. They watched as Draco helped Remus climb back up into the tree, his tears entirely forgotten. “Scorpius and Albus need to have a baby already. I think Draco’s got baby fever, too.”

Ginny snorted. “Yeah, I think you’re probably right. And they’re getting there. Albus and Scorpius, I mean.”

“Yeah?” Lily asked, surprised. “Who’s the daddy?”

“More a question of who’s the mummy. It’s complicated.”

“Oh, yeah,” Lily nodded. “It’s a shame Albus can’t just have my uterus.”

“Something tells me that wouldn’t work out too well, Lulu,” her mum said. “And you never know. You might want your uterus one day. Mind you, if you wanted to send a few eggs their way, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

Lily burst into laughter. She leaned against Caden as she laughed. “Oh, Merlin. You’re funny, Mum. What would they do with an egg?! They haven’t got wombs and I’m not shagging Scorpius or carrying a baby! My vagina is not up for—”

Her mum held a hand out expectantly. Lily gaped.

“No! No, that’s not fair! I didn’t say a word about…S-E-X!! I was talking about a body part!!”

Her mum arched an eyebrow.

“I’m not paying for that! I was talking about childbirth!” Lily persisted.

Her mum gave her a skeptical look, but she let it go. 

“I was kidding, anyway. About the eggs,” her mum said.

Lily furrowed her brow. “Obviously you were. Can you stop saying ‘eggs’? It really disgusts me.”

“You’ve got thousands and thousands inside of you right now, you know.”

Lily slapped her hands over her ears. “SORRY, CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

Ginny turned to Caden a few moments later. He’d been suspiciously quiet their entire conversation. Her mum smiled.   

“Oh, you’re wearing your new jacket, I just noticed! Good, I was worried you wouldn’t like it! You do, don’t you? Like it?”

“I love it,” he corrected warmly. Lily couldn’t help but smile as Ginny pulled him into a hug.


 

Uncle Charlie arrived by dinner time, which made the entire gathering much more enjoyable for Lily. She sat beside him at dinner and listened as he updated her on all the dragons she’d left behind. He’d stayed back in New Zealand to help deal with everything after she’d left, something that meant more to Lily than every Christmas gift she’d ever gotten.

“Emerald is doing very well, all things considered,” Uncle Charlie told her. Lily sighed heavily in relief. “She nearly burnt Ivan’s face off a few times, but she let me handle her all right.”

“And Opal?” Lily asked. She hadn’t eaten a bite of her dinner yet, too concerned about her dragon to eat just yet. “How’s Opal?”

Uncle Charlie grabbed her empty wine glass and refilled it with a tap of his wand. Not a good sign.

“Mourning. He wouldn’t eat for a few days. I think he thinks you died, too. I think he could smell it when he went into where it’d happened…could smell that you’d been burnt so badly, I mean. He keeps sleeping on the roof of your work hut. I think he’s a bit confused.”

Lily took her wine glass from Charlie. She drained a third of it and tried to ignore the way her eyes were burning.

“I need to go back to him.”

“No, you need to heal. That’s what’s most important,” Uncle Charlie said. “It won’t do him any good if you come back when you’re still upset; he’ll sense it and it’ll upset him, too. He’ll be all right. He’s eating again. He’s being watched after.”

Lily took another sip. “He’s getting his batch of eyesight potion regularly? Remember to always give it to him at night, because the light will hurt his eyes the first ten minutes or so after he takes it, and I don’t want him to hurt.”

“We’re following your instructions to the letter. It took a few days to get him to take it, but we figured it out.”

“Emerald’s not bullying him much?”

“No more than usual. I don’t know how you got those two to mate so many times—even during the mating season. They’re at each other’s throats half the time.”

Lily laughed. Her chest filled with affection as she thought about the pair. “They put up a good front, but they’re actually quite fond of each other.”

“You’re their handler so I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

Lily drank wine until her head felt woozy and she couldn’t feel the sting of missing Opal. She ate her dinner and then disappeared out into the cold night while the dessert was brought out. She wasn’t alone.

“Hey,” she said, surprised. She walked over and sank down onto the grass beside Scorpius. “What are you doing out here alone?”

Scorpius smiled down at her. “Thinking. You?”

“Thinking,” she agreed. “Is it all right to think with you?”

“I’d be grateful for the company!” he smiled.

Lily wrapped her arms around her legs and peered up at the stars. She thought about Opal and her dragons. She felt so odd; there was a part of her that wanted to jump on a Muggle airplane right this moment and go back to them, to her life in New Zealand. But there was another part of her that felt sick at the idea of leaving home again (and leaving Caden). She wanted both lives. She wasn’t sure how to achieve that.

“Lily?”

Lily looked back at her brother. “Scorpius?”

He parted his lips, he but seemed to choke on the words.

“Er…nothing. Sorry. Just…thinking. About…the stars. Life. Stuff. Things.”

Lily furrowed her brow. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, great,” he said. His voice was a few octaves too high.

“Did Albus do something? Is he trying to give you handjobs under the table again? I didn’t spike his drink this time, I swear.”

“No! No, nothing like that!” Scorpius assured her. He nervously yanked up blades of dry grass. “I…well. I was talking with Nora and…she offered something…huge, something I could never ask of somebody, and…I don’t want to talk to Albus about it yet. And I know if I see him, I’ll end up telling him.”

Lily considered that. She wrinkled her nose a second later. “She didn’t offer to shag you and have your baby, did she? Because that seems wrong. Incestuous. Plus, you know…cheating.”

Scorpius looked horrified. “No! No! I would never cheat on Albus! Especially not with my sister!”

“Yeah, I’d hope not,” Lily said, disturbed. She furrowed her brow. “What could she have offered, then? You don’t need money. Not a threesome?”

“No! Lily, this has nothing to do with…” he trailed off. He frowned. “Oh, Lily, I think you have to pay ten galleons now.”

Lily ignored him. “What did she offer?”

He yanked up an entire fistful of grass now. “She was a bit tipsy. She probably didn’t mean what she said. And it’s probably my fault. I was getting upset, I was in one of my moods, thinking about how unfair it is that this is so difficult for Albus and I…and I don’t know, I never even considered asking her something like that, she just…she’s been very emotional about all of this, too…her kids are so important to her, I think it’s really difficult for her to imagine what it’d be like for people who can’t have them…”

Lily was frustrated. “So she did offer to have a baby for you. Blimey, how’s that going to work?” She mulled it over. “Oh! Turkey baster?”

“Lily! No! Ten more galleons!”

“No!!”

Scorpius sighed. He buried his face in his hands. Lily didn’t understand why he seemed so upset—if she’d really meant that, that was a good thing, right?

“I feel so guilty. I could never ask that of somebody. What if she thought that’s why I was talking to her about it? That wasn’t why. It never crossed my mind. I just wanted to talk to her because I knew she’d understand.”

“I’m still stuck on how that would happen, honestly,” Lily admitted. “If you’re not going to shag her…and there’s no way she’d give up her and James’s baby…I’m not following you here, brother.”

“It wouldn’t be her and James’s. It wouldn’t even be hers. She said she didn’t think she could bear to carry and birth her own biological child and give it away. But there’s a way—a Muggle way—” Scorpius hiccupped suddenly. Oh, Lily realized. He must’ve actually had some wine tonight. It never did him well. “You can have a woman carry a baby that’s somebody else’s…Muggle surgery things, but I think I can come up with a better magical alternative, I’ve been working on it…so biologically it’d be my baby—that’s what Albus wants though I’m not clear on why—and somebody else’s. Oh, she’s mad. I couldn’t let her do that.”

Lily shrugged. “If she wants to, why not? She loves being pregnant. She gets all glowy and happy. She’s got a great maternity wardrobe, too. A lot of pieces from Aster’s maternity line. Very cute.”

Unexpectedly, Scorpius began crying. Lily looked at him in horror.

“What’s wrong?!”

“I-I don’t want her to think I was u-using her!” he wept. “I just l-like talking to her!”

“Blimey, how much wine did you drink?! Come here, for Merlin’s sake…”

Lily opened her arms; Scorpius fell into her embrace. She patted his light hair. He had tears clinging to his white eyelashes. Lily sighed.

“Scorpius, nobody would ever think that you were using them. And nobody can make Nora do anything. She wouldn’t offer if it wasn’t genuine. She loves you and Albus. She probably just wants to help. And for whatever fucking reason, she thinks having babies is the best thing in the world. She probably wants you and Albus to join her and James’s creepy parenting cult, so you and Al can join in with them and Vic and Teddy and do their weird parenting things…Mum and Baby Yoga and Dad and Baby Winemaking or whatever the fuck it is that they’re always doing in Muggle London—”

“I c-can’t steal somebody’s baby!” he cried.

“Then tell her no! If you feel so badly about it, obviously it’s not a good idea. But it wouldn’t really be her baby, right? Still not very clear on this but that’s what you said.”

“Not genetically but if she carried it for nine entire months…!”

“It’s like nine months of babysitting,” Lily shrugged. “Offer them nine free months of babysitting in return.”

He cried even harder. Lily patted his back. It was clear to her that she wasn’t the best person to fully appreciate the emotional complexities of this issue. That or Scorpius was insanely pissed and was now emoting on a level no sane human could ever hope to match.  

“Shall I go get Albus?” she cooed, for a lack of knowing what else to do.

“Y-yes! No! Yes! No!” He sniffed. Lily hoped he wasn’t getting snot on her dress. “W-what if James is right and we find racist eggs?!”

“…What the hell are you talking about, Scorpius? And please don’t say that word.”

“R-Racist?”

“Eggs.”

“Oh,” he sniffed.

Lily patted his back again. “Why don’t you explain it to me again, slowly, okay? Like you’re teaching me.”

Like she’d expected, giving a lecture made Scorpius feel better. By the end of it, he’d stopped crying and was facing Lily. Lily was a bit grossed out by the concepts, but she found it interesting enough.

“Oh, okay, I get it,” she said, once he finished. “They use needles, get out eggs from a donor, mix the eggs with your sperm, make an embryo, and then put that embryo in the carrying mother to implant. Good lecture.”

Scorpius gave her a watery smile. Lily heaved another sigh.

“I think you’re mad, you know. What do you want a baby for? They scream and shit everywhere.”

Scorpius wiped at his eyes. “Because I would love it so much. Albus and our little baby. Our family. I don’t have much blood-related family. I could be such a great dad. I could do a great job.”

Lily patted his hand. “You need to go talk to Albus and drink some water, okay? It’s all okay. It really is. Talk to him about it, and if you still feel like it’s something you could never ask of somebody, just tell Nora ‘thanks, but no thanks, I think you’re mad, I don’t know why you enjoy birthing babies, it’s insane, I feel bad for your—’”

“L-lady parts,” Scorpius supplied politely.

Lily rolled her eyes. “Sure. ‘Lady parts’.”

She thought she might’ve understood what emotion drove Nora to offer what she did, because as she looked at Scorpius wiping tears off his face, she just wanted him to be happy, smiley Scorpius again. As she was considering what she could do to help, her mum’s joking words from earlier floated back into her mind.

“You know, if you want, you can borrow an egg or two of mine. I’m not afraid of needles and I’m not going to miss a couple…apparently, I’ve got thousands hiding away in me, isn’t that disturbing? Any child with my genes would be incredible. And anyway, it’s got to be better than a stranger’s, ‘cause you know me, and I’m family, and I love you and I love Al.” Lily considered the implications of what she was offering. She realized she quite liked the idea of a mini-Lily in the family—especially one she didn’t have to birth or take care of full-time. She’d only have to be the cool aunt, and she was great at being the cool aunt. And she had often felt that the only downside to her decision to remain childless was that she’d never get to pass her genes along…this way, she still could, but without the nappies or late night feedings. “I reckon we’d be best mates, me and your kid. They’d have great hair. And probably a natural knack for dragon rearing. Yeah. Yeah, if you want, you can have one.”  

It was the wrong thing to say.

Scorpius collapsed back into her arms and cried even harder, as if entirely overwhelmed by her generosity.

“Oh bollocks,” Lily sighed. She looked up at the stars as she patted his back again.


 

Lily was glad strength training was a requirement for entering the dragonology field. Her strength came in handy as she half-carried, half-dragged Scorpius into the Burrow. She ignored her nieces, nephews, and cousins and made a beeline for the back sofa, where Albus and Draco were laughing with Rose, Iset, and Hermione. Lily yanked Scorpius over and brushed her hair back from her face. She huffed.

“Here, take your husband,” she greeted Albus. She gently pushed Scorpius over on top of him. Albus received him with a horrified expression. He took Scorpius’s face in his hands at once, his fingers brushing the tears from his face.

“Scorpius, what happened?!” Albus looked at Lily next. “What the hell did you do?!”

“Me?! I didn’t do anything! He was outside and just started sobbing! All because Nora—being Nora— said she’d birth your stupid, sodding baby for you guys! And then I—being the kind person that I am, Albus—said he could have one of my eggs if he wanted, and he just lost it! I’ve tried everything. I’m tired and I’ve got snot on my dress now.” Lily looked around impatiently as the group fell into confused whispers. “Where the hell is my boyfriend?”

“Language, Lily!” Aunt Hermione scolded.

Lily ignored her. She squinted. She needed to get to her bag; her eyesight potion was wearing off early, as it tended to do when she drank. She peered at every blurring human shape in the room. Red hair, black hair, red hair, black hair, blond hair, red hair…sandy hair. She smiled.

“Just to be sure before I go over there and kiss him—that is Caden right there, right?” Lily hissed to Iset, her finger pointed at the sandy haired blob. "Sometimes Teddy has that shade of hair." 

“Yes, that’s Caden. Do you need me to get your glasses?” Iset whispered back.

“No, no…I can find my way. Thanks. And whatever you do: don’t offer Scorpius anything right now, not even a drink…he’s gone mental.”

It was too late to give that advice to Draco. He had apparently offered Scorpius a glass of water. Scorpius was alternating between sipping it and blubbering about how much he loved his dad. Lily walked off shaking her head, wondering what Albus was thinking when he let Scorpius drink that much wine. They never learned.

She fell down into Caden’s lap and looped her arms around his neck. She leaned her head against his shoulder and smiled as his hand rubbed her lower back.

“What have you been up to?” Lily asked. “Not talking about S-E-X, I hope. We need to win that money so we can buy our parrot.”

“No—James and I have been talking about babies. Squib babies, specifically.”

Lily waited. When he didn’t elaborate automatically, she prodded his neck to get him to continue.

“We’ve spent the past hour trying to come up with programs to get pureblood families to stop abandoning their infants that don’t pass the Magical Indication Screenings…so far, nothing.”

“Ah. Babies are everybody’s favorite topic tonight.”

She felt his breath against her ear as he leaned in.

“How much money has your naughty mouth cost you tonight?” he asked quietly.

“None! I’ve been very good. Or, well…crafty.”

“Wow. Let’s see if you can keep that up.”

She couldn’t. She made it two more hours and two more glasses of wine before making a sly comment to Hugo about his ‘fun afternoon’. He personally snatched the ten galleons from her. In the end, the money they’d amassed was split between everybody but Lily, Ginny, Albus, James, and Roxanne.

“I wonder what this says about my family,” Harry commented.

Aunt Hermione gave him one of her ‘I have an opinion, but I’ll keep it to myself’ looks.


 

Lily ended her night sprawled across Aster and Jillian’s laps, practically numb from the amount of alcohol she’d consumed, giggling about things she probably wouldn’t even remember come morning.

“No…no…like this,” Zabini said. Lily rolled over slowly to watch as Zabini continued giving Hugo Muggle ‘fire-breathing’ lessons. Her stomach churned as she did.

“Ugh…” she groaned.

“Don’t you dare vomit on my shoes,” Jillian warned her.

Lily reached up and stuck two fingers up in response. Aster proved herself Lily’s most loyal friend—once again—by nicely petting her hair. Lily relaxed into her touch and watched as her cousin nearly caught his face on fire.

“NO, PIERCE! NO MORE FIRE-BREATHING!” Caden shouted at Zabini. “You’ve already caught my sodding chair on fire; don’t catch Hugo on fire, too, for fuck’s sake!”

Saul wrestled the lighter from Zabini. Lily felt herself slipping off to sleep, comforted by Aster’s hand in her hair and Jillian’s lavender perfume. She vaguely heard Caden putting an end to the party after Avery and Saul got into a duel. When she roused a short time later, everybody was gone. She hiccupped painfully.

“Oww,” she groaned. She sat up and rubbed over her eyes. Caden was cleaning all the residual soot from the carpet in front of the fireplace; she guessed the last person had only just gone. “Was it a good party? I don’t remember.”

Caden turned. He smiled at her; Lily felt her stomach do a flip at the sight of it.

“You’re handsome,” she said, before he had the chance to reply.

He walked over and joined her on the sofa. He lifted her legs and set them in his lap. Lily scooted back so the arm of the sofa was propping her up. She yawned deeply.

“Well? Was it a good party?” she pressed.

“Yeah. Though the alphabet drinking game was a horrible idea, so thanks for coming up with that,” he said.

Lily only vaguely remembered them going around in circles naming things that started with every letter of the alphabet—and taking shots when they failed to—but she thought it might’ve been fun. She had fond feelings about the memory, anyway.

“Lily,” Lily remembered. She pressed her foot against his stomach and rubbed it, giggling all the while. “You kept saying ‘Lily’ for L. We weren’t supposed to do proper nouns.”

“And I stand by what I told Claire: it’s not a proper noun exclusively, it’s also a flower,” he said stubbornly. “I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“Light. Lemon. Leg.”

“Oh, shut it,” Caden said with a grin. He rolled his eyes. Lily let her head fall back against the arm rest. Her eyes naturally landed on what she’d given Caden for Christmas, sitting atop the fireplace mantel: an ornate gold frame, and inside of it, hovering at various heights and ranging in size, gemstones native to every place they shared a special memory. Her eyes landed on a rough piece of topaz, collected very near Hogwarts (or so her collector had sworn). She reminisced on some of her favorite memories with him from their Hogwarts days.

“Do you really like it?” she asked a little while later. She nodded towards the mantel.

Caden arched an eyebrow. “Fishing for compliments, are we? You know I do.”

“I’m not! I just want to make sure you like it. Because I really like my gift.” Lily reached up and touched her necklace. Caden didn’t miss it. His smile was sleepy and sentimental. Lily didn’t know if she moved forward first or if he did, but a moment later she’d moved over to sit in his lap. She curled up and nuzzled his neck. His hand played with the ends of her short hair.

“I love it,” he promised her. “I wouldn’t lie.”

“Topaz is for Hogwarts.”

She could hear the smile in his voice. “I know. You told me what all of them are for.”

“I didn’t tell you everything,” she persisted. She sat up and glanced towards the frame again. She eyed the long piece of nephrite jade hovering beside the topaz. “Do you remember what I told you about the jade?”

“It’s for the first time I visited you in New Zealand. After we’d been apart for three months,” he answered at once.

“Right,” Lily said. She kissed the side of his neck. She reached up and brushed her fingers along his hairline. “We shagged in the pub toilets.”

“Not one of our more romantic or sanitary moments.”

Lily could remember, even now, the maddening desperation and affection she’d felt the moment they hugged at the portkey location. It was a miracle they’d made it to the pub.

“And then we went back to the reserve I was working at and I showed you all my dragons. You got to meet Opal properly for the first time. And afterwards, when we went back to my flat and ate dinner in bed…I remember looking over at you and realizing that it was the first time my flat had ever felt like home. I knew I loved you then.”

He gently pulled her back so he could examine her face. Where she thought she’d feel panicked vulnerability, she only felt love.

“That’s really what that one stands for,” she finished. She shrugged, as if she hadn’t said anything particularly noteworthy. “In case you were wondering.”

His large hands moved up to cup her face. Lily smiled tiredly and fell easily into his eyes.

“I’ll never wonder again,” he muttered, and when he finally kissed her, she felt invincible.

Chapter Text

From the second James jerked awake, he had the feeling that something was wrong.

He sat straight up, his heart pounding, torn with jarring finality from his dreams. His knees were bent at an odd angle and his feet pressed against the frigid iron of the bedframe. The source of his uneasiness quickly became apparent as he registered trembling, frightened sobs. He could tell at once that it was Henry; he knew each of their cries by heart.

“Henry?” James said, panicked. He glanced around himself, a bit disoriented and confused. He realized he’d fallen asleep while reading Evra bedtime stories, almost certainly thanks to all the wine he’d had during Christmas dinner. Evra was fast asleep at his side, lying atop the duvet, still in her party dress and tights. The books James had been reading to her before they’d both passed out were scattered all over the bed between them, but there was no Henry. “Henry?!”

“D-Daddy!” Henry wailed.

This time, James could tell where it was coming from. He scooted over to the edge of Evra’s bed and looked down; Henry was lying on the carpet, curled up beneath the massive stuffed dragon Lily gave him for Christmas. It was as big as Henry was. James leaned over and lifted the dragon up to reveal his son. His face was soaked with tears, his eyes swimming. James hooked his hands beneath his son’s armpits and hoisted him up onto the bed. His heart was pounding so hard in his concern that he felt a bit sick.

“Henry,” James said, horrified. He held Henry tightly in his arms, but Henry’s tears continued. James rubbed his back and kissed the top of his head. “Henry, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you in bed?”

Henry and Finnigan had both fallen asleep in the car on the way back home. James had tucked them up in their beds; they’d been sleeping like the dead. What time was it? Where was Nora? James guessed she’d also been missing from their bed, because Henry would’ve gone there first thing; he often climbed into bed with them in the middle of the night. And if Henry had entered their bedroom after a nightmare only to find it empty…well, that explained his traumatized state.

“I-I-I want mama and daddy!” Henry gasped.

“I’m right here. It’s okay, love. Did you wake up and you couldn’t find us?”

“Y-Yes!”

“And you can’t get up on Evra’s bed all by yourself, can you?”

Henry only cried harder, and James felt like crying with him. The thought of his little boy roaming the halls, crying, unable to find his parents…James felt sick. He rocked him gently in his arms and continued rubbing soothing circles into his back. Gradually, Henry calmed down. His sobs gave way to tired yawns. He gripped James tightly and sniffled into his shoulder.

“S-she yell at me,” Henry said. “Walla!”

James gently pulled Henry back. He wiped at his tears and frowned. “Walburga’s portrait?”

Henry nodded. The moonlight flooding in from between the parted curtains illuminated the tear paths on his face. James lifted the hem of his shirt to dry his son’s face. He wiped his nose afterwards, entirely indifferent to the state of his shirt. He just wanted his son to be comfortable and happy again.

“Was she yelling at you for crying?” James pressed gently.

Henry nodded, his lip trembling. His eyes shone brightly behind an oncoming round of tears. James felt anger lurking in his heart, but at the present time, he was too worried about his son to indulge it.

“I bet Mummy’s in her studio with Delilah,” James told Henry softly. Delilah had been fussy all night long, probably thanks to Uncle George, Roxanne, and Fred. James had put her down around seven in his mum’s old bedroom at the Burrow, in the travel cot they always took with them, and the Weasleys had rudely woken her only two hours later with some impromptu fireworks right outside the window. Delilah was a nightmare to get back to sleep after being woken up. Nora often retreated to her attic studio on nights when Delilah was like that, to try and keep her from waking the other kids; she’d probably assumed James was in their bed. He had certainly meant to be. “Shall we go find her?”

Henry smiled. It brightened his precious face magnificently. James leaned in and kissed his little nose. “C’mon, let’s find Mummy.”

“Find Mummy,” Henry nodded.

James carefully gathered the books from the middle of Evra’s bed and piled them atop her bedside table (so she wouldn’t roll over on them and get poked by the corners) and then he stood from the bed, Henry still in his arms. He carried him towards the stairs with the intention of ascending them but hesitated. He thought to his son’s trembling lips, how scared he’d looked. He turned and headed downstairs instead, his anger and sadness swelling up his throat. He stopped in front of the cheerful curtains covering the portrait of Sirius Black’s mother. He drew them back and waited until the woman inside opened her eyes to look at him.

“He’s stop shrieking, then, has he?” she wheezed.

James held Henry tighter. He lowered his voice.

“Let me make myself very plain, Walburga,” he began. He heard his own voice wavering with emotion. “Do you remember what I told you when Nora and I first moved in here?”

Walburga pursed her lips. She didn’t respond.

“You can continue living happily in peace with my family or you can revert to your nasty old ways. And if you choose to do that, I will make good on the promise I made to you that night. If you everEVER— yell at my children again—especially when they’re upset—I swear you’ll regret it.”

Walburga held James’s gaze. He squared his jaw and didn’t look away even for a second, so Walburga would know he meant business. After a moment, she nodded.

“It was annoying is all,” she mumbled.

“Then ask him politely to give you some space. Goodnight.”

James drew the curtains shut again. He felt Henry’s eyes on him. He glanced down as they headed back up the stairs.

“You ang-y?” Henry asked. He was looking at James in surprise, as if he hadn’t known his dad could exhibit that emotion so strongly. James wished he hadn’t had to show it in front of his son. He leaned forward and kissed his forehead.

“Not at you. Never at you,” he promised. He tossed Henry up in the air suddenly, catching him off guard. Giggles tumbled from his mouth as soon as James caught him again. “You’re my whole heart.”

“Again!”

James gently tossed Henry up into the air the entire walk up to the attic, so that by the time he was outside of the closed studio door, he was a bit winded.

“Phew…no more sweets for Daddy, remind me, yeah?” he asked Henry. Henry nodded seriously. It was silent outside of the studio door, but that didn’t mean much; they’d placed a permanent silencing spell on the room ages ago. Sure enough, once James pushed the door open, it was like puncturing a seal; noise flooded out of the room towards them. Delilah’s raucous giggles and babbles, Finnigan’s nonstop chatter, one of the records James had gotten Nora for Christmas playing away in the background, the faint sound of brushstrokes. Everybody sounded so awake that, for a moment, James was convinced it was morning. But the darkness shining outside of the small attic windows reminded him of the proper time. James stepped inside and took in Finnigan and Delilah rolling around on the colorful, plush rug covering the white wooden floors. Finnigan was rolling Delilah up and down the rug, something she was finding exceedingly hilarious. Nora’s old cat Olive was standing sentry from atop the settee, her eyes fixed on the kids, watching carefully as Delilah was rolled from one end of the rug to the next; she wouldn’t hesitate to intervene the moment she thought something was wrong. Nora was at her worn wooden work table, her elbow on the surface just beside a palette of paint and her chin resting tiredly in her hand. The piece she’d only just started was nearly completed. Padfoot was curled up underneath her feet, snoozing quite peacefully in the chaos. James was even more baffled.

“Nora?” he greeted. He set Henry down; Henry made a beeline for his siblings. “What are Finnigan and Delilah doing up?”

“Tormenting me, I think,” she said. She glanced back to look at him. Her eyes were shadowed with exhaustion. James walked over and sat on the stool beside hers; he drew her into his embrace and kissed her lips.

“What are you doing awake?” she asked, once he’d pulled back from their kiss.

“Henry woke me. I accidentally fell asleep in Evra’s bed while reading to her—all the wine, I knew I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t let Scorpius outdrink me; Albus would never let me live it down. Henry woke and couldn’t find us in our room. He panicked.”

Nora’s face fell. “Oh, no. I thought you were in our room. I never would’ve brought them up here had I known Henry wouldn’t know where to find you. I didn’t want them to wake Evra and Henry. Delilah’s been a proper pain—I let her lie in our bed, I even nursed her to sleep even though she’d just had a bottle on the car ride— thinking that would definitely do the trick; she’s such a piglet—and still she woke me about two hours later by blowing raspberries in my face.”

James pursed his lips. He snorted as he tried to withhold the building laughter. Nora laughed along with him when the laughter finally broke free. Despite her exhaustion, he knew she still appreciated how adorable Delilah’s newfound skill—blowing raspberries—was.

“Finnigan woke only a few minutes after her. He walked into the room, hopped up on the bed, and asked me to make him bacon,” she continued.

“What has gotten into them?” James demanded. He glanced at her paint-splattered wristwatch. “It’s three in the morning!”  

“I have a feeling your gran stuffed them full of sugar while we weren’t looking…well, her and everybody else. I know for a fact that Lily lets Finnigan eat whatever he likes. I caught him hiding beneath Albus’s old bed in the Den absolutely cramming a slice of cake down his throat. He told me ‘Auntie Lulu said yes’.”

James sighed, annoyed. “She only lets him because she doesn’t have to deal with this.”

He pointed at the rug, where Finnigan and Henry were now rolling around together. Olive had landed on the rug beside Delilah; James knew from experience that she’d scratch the boys if they rolled too close to the baby, so he quickly stood to intervene.

“Boys, that’s enough,” he told them. They separated at once. Delilah waved her chubby arms at the sight of James, demanding to be picked up. He felt his chest nearly explode with affection. He lifted her up into his arms and pressed nearly a dozen kisses to her face, smiling as she exploded into giggles. “I hear you’ve been a little monster for Mummy.”

She rested her cheek against his shoulder and babbled happily. It sounded suspiciously proud. James kissed the top of her head and started back over to Nora. Henry beat him to it; he was already climbing up into his mum’s lap by the time James sat back down in his seat.

“Oh, darling,” Nora cooed to Henry. She kissed his little hands and hugged him tightly. “Were you so frightened?”

Henry had almost certainly gotten over it, but at that, he nodded sagely, his eyes wide.

“I’m so sorry,” Nora told him. Henry giggled as she leaned forward and dabbed her paintbrush on the tip of Henry’s nose, leaving a midnight blue dot behind.

“I WANT ONE! Paint me! Oh, please, Mummy, please?!” Finnigan requested. He sped over to them and lay across Nora’s lap (and Henry’s legs). James watched on fondly as Nora drew a midnight blue swirl on Finnigan’s cheek, much to Finnigan’s joy. Delilah was watching with rapt attention when James glanced down at her. He stole a paintbrush from Nora’s paintbrush jar; Delilah shrieked happily as he tickled her cheek with it.

“Pink now!” Finnigan requested. He tapped at his other cheek. Nora leaned over and kissed the spot he’d indicated instead. His eyes were full of love when she leaned back up.

“No more paint on your skin, but you two can paint if you like. One picture. Then you’re having a nap before breakfast and a very early bedtime tomorrow.”

They were both a bit too young to really comprehend that trade-off, so when they heard they’d get to paint right then, that was the most important thing to them. An earlier future bedtime was inconsequential. James helped set them up with a canvas and paint, settled Delilah in the bouncy seat they’d hung from the low ceiling rafters, and then he and Nora retreated to the settee. James collapsed down on it and opened his arms, waiting; Nora stretched out beside him and pressed her face into his shirt. James struggled to stay awake as he stroked her hip and listened to their children giggling. The smooth silk of her dressing gown calmed him…the scent of paint was so comforting that he couldn’t help but yawn. He felt Nora slip off to sleep almost immediately. She was quite skilled at taking effective cat naps. James, on the other hand, typically needed eight straight hours if he was going to sleep at all; he often went entire days without sleep when they first brought their babies home.

“Daddy! Daddy, I’m done! Daddy, look!”

He felt Finnigan climb up on top of him and Nora. She gave a tiny start and pulled herself from her short-lived dreams. James yawned again and sat up with some reluctance.

“Let’s see your painting!” James said. He was surprised at the amount of enthusiasm he’d managed to flood his voice with. Finnigan bounced over to the work table, James at his heels. James leaned over and stared at his painting. He smiled. It looked like an explosion of multi-colored autumn leaves.

“That’s very nice, Finnigan. We’ll hang that right above the stairs,” he said.

He heard Nora’s footsteps as she came up to stand behind him. She rested her chin on his shoulder and peered down at their son’s painting.

Finnigan,” she gushed, her voice full of pride. “That’s absolutely exquisite!”

Finnigan squirmed happily in his seat. He pressed his hands to his cheeks and beamed.

“Dada! Daddy!” Henry said, a tone of jealousy in his voice. He quickly stabbed his paintbrush down a final time and pushed his canvas over towards James. James eyed the messy explosion of blues and purples. He smiled.

“Another beautiful job! This will look great right beside Finnigan’s! You lot are so talented…my special boys!” James scooped Henry up into his arms and kissed his paint-smeared cheeks. Henry kissed James’s cheeks right back afterwards, smiling all the while. Nora pulled Henry from James a moment later and lifted him into the air; he shrieked with laughter as she blew a raspberry against his tummy and then hugged him close. James heard her murmuring about his ‘excellent sense of color’ as she rubbed his back. He smiled.

He turned his attention to Delilah as the boys helped Nora clean up the paints. She’d been bouncing for a while and finally seemed ready to drop. James lifted her from the bouncy seat and cradled her in his arms. He’d only just kissed her forehead when her eyelids drifted shut. He held his breath and didn’t move for at least three minutes, watching closely to make sure she was really asleep before he started walking.

“Mama!” Henry yelled. James heard the water at the sink turn off. “All done!!”

“Let’s see…oh, good job, my loves! The paintbrushes look brand new! Let’s set them here to dry and— oh, Jamie, is she sleeping?”

James turned around to face Nora. He nodded and resisted the urge to punch his fist into the air in victory.

Nora lowered her voice at once. She kneeled down so she was facing their sons.

“Okay, boys, let’s go downstairs for your nap, okay? Be very quiet, quiet as little baby mice…”

“Quiet mice,” Henry repeated seriously. He stepped down from the stepstool in front of the sink and hunched over. He crept slowly towards the door with exaggerated sneakiness. “Quiet mice…shhh…”

James felt laughter building. He had to bite his tongue to keep from snorting, and even then it was difficult. Nora seemed equally amused. She pressed her fingers to her lips for a moment and avoided looking in James’s direction. They surely would’ve fallen into giggles if they met eyes.

“Right, good job, little mouse,” Nora praised instead.

“I’ll be the cat,” Finnigan said wickedly. He dropped down to all fours and shot after Henry, who immediately scampered towards the stairs. Nora quickly bolted after them so Henry didn’t end up rolling down the stairs in his haste to avoid the ‘cat’.

James waited until he was certain they’d had time to make it to the boys’ bedrooms and then he set off down the stairs. Delilah was sleeping so deeply that her breaths were even and slow. For a moment after James settled her down into her cot, he wondered if he might actually be looking at an angel. He leaned over the edge of the cot and stared down at her in affectionate wonder (a wonder that never seemed to fade—he still caught himself looking at Evra that same way when he checked in on her during the night). Delilah was absolutely adorable, without a doubt, with her dark ringlets, her deep dimples, her pouty lips, her tiny nose. But it was more than that, too. She had that same brightness about her that all his children did. To James, she was a source of joy itself, a genuine gift to the world. There wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for her; his children really were his entire heart, the entire purpose of his life. If somebody asked him why he was put on Earth, he would’ve answered with their names. Even imagining life without them was indescribably insufferable. 

He resisted the urge to kiss her goodnight—for fear of waking her—and quietly left her nursery. He peeked in on the rest of his kids on his way back to his own bed: Evra was still snoozing atop her duvet (he gently settled a blanket atop her before moving on to check on the boys) and Finnigan and Henry were curled up together in Finnigan’s bed. Padfoot jumped down from the foot of Finnigan’s bed and walked out to meet James. James patted his head as they walked together towards his and Nora’s room.

“Good boy,” he told Padfoot, as Padfoot immediately trotted over and jumped up onto the sofa. James stripped his trousers and top off, yawned as he scratched Padfoot behind his velvety ears, and then he climbed the small staircase to their bed, sitting slightly elevated from the rest of the room. Nora was already underneath the white duvet, but James could tell she wasn’t yet asleep. Sure enough, once he’d joined her beneath the covers, she rolled over to face him.

“How long do you think we’ll have?” she asked sleepily.

“Three hours at the most,” he admitted. His heavy eyelids drifted shut. “It’ll be okay…we can nap at your dads’ house…they’ll watch them for us…”

“Jamie-baby?”

“Nora-bear?”

He heard the bedding rustle. When he forced his eyelids up for a few seconds, she saw she’d propped herself up on her elbow and was now looking down at him. He would’ve done the same, only he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open.

“I know you’re sleepy, but I don’t know when else I’ll get to talk to you about this...we’ll be with my dads all day and I don’t want you to hear it from somebody else.”

He felt like he could’ve slipped off to sleep in a second, but he scrounged within himself for as much energy as he could muster. He pried his eyes open. He studied his wife’s apprehensive expression. His immediate reaction was to reach forward and pull her into his arms. He didn’t like when she looked worried.

“Whatever it is, s’okay,” he told her, and he meant it. He kissed her hair and hugged her. “Did you change your mind about your gift? I can return it, honest, I don’t mind.”

“No, no, I love my gift, that’s silly,” she said. Her words were warm against his neck. “I...earlier, at the Burrow…I offered to be Albus and Scorpius’s surrogate.”

That got his attention. James felt his heart drop, more out of shock than anything else. He leaned back and met Nora’s eyes, his widened in surprise. She was frowning.

“It just sort of…well, I know we talked about it hypothetically, and I never meant to actually offer it without us having a proper conversation, but…James, they’re my family, and I can’t let a stranger do that for them. I keep thinking…what if that stranger is a bad person? And she drinks or does drugs or something and the baby dies after all that time—after they finally thought they’d be dads? I wouldn’t let a stranger watch our kids for an hour, much less carry our baby in her stomach. I wouldn’t want a stranger to do that for our niece or nephew, either. And I’m good at it. I’m very good at it—at having babies. And I do love being pregnant. And we already decided we’re adopting our next child, so it doesn’t interfere with our family planning. And I keep thinking about our babies…about what it would be like if we couldn’t have them so easily. We’re so lucky, you know? Our beautiful, healthy babies. I could help Albus and Scorpius. I could give something back to the universe. I want to help them. God…am I even making any sense? I know this isn’t the best time to talk about this.”

James wasn’t sure what to say back.

“I wish you’d talked to me first,” he admitted. He felt a bit wounded. “We always talk big things out together.”

“I know. I meant to. I’ve felt so horrible about not talking to you first. It just sort of slipped,” she confessed. He didn’t say anything for another minute. “Jamie?”

“I’m not sure how I feel about it,” he said honestly. “It’s difficult for me to imagine—you being pregnant, but it not being ours. You being pregnant, but us coming home empty-handed at the end of it.”

“I know. I told them I’d only do it if you were okay with it and if they got the eggs from a donor. I think that might make it a bit easier for us…if the baby isn’t genetically mine in any way.” There was a pause. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, her voice taut with worry. “Maybe it’ll still feel like mine, even if it’s technically not. Maybe it was stupid to offer it, stupid to even consider it. I’m sorry. And if you hate the idea, I’ll just tell them that; Scorpius didn’t really look sold on the idea yet anyway.”

James felt uneasy. Every single one of his experiences with pregnancy was of Nora being pregnant with their baby, their child. A baby they got to take home at the end of it all and shower in love. A baby they would watch grow up, a child they’d have and cherish forever. Would the fact that it wasn’t theirs change the way it felt to watch her stomach swell—would they be able to compartmentalize it in the proper way? Or would they forget that it was never really theirs in the first place?

Most importantly: when it came to the end of it, would Nora feel like she’d just had a child snatched away? Would he feel like that? He thought about her other pregnancies, about the innumerable nights he’d spent with his head in her lap, singing and chatting to her growing belly, the feeling of the baby shifting beneath his hand, the wonder of the first sound of its little heartbeat, seeing it moving during the first scanning spell, finally getting to meet it after all those months of loving it from afar…holding it for the first time…

He knew, without a doubt, that they wouldn’t be able to do it if they would feel that way; the love they had for their babies was just too intense. It would absolutely destroy them to give it up. But if it wasn’t theirs…would they feel that way in the first place? Could they keep it all in perspective?

He was too tired to give it the consideration it needed, but he couldn’t go to sleep now with his wife so worried. And even though he knew this situation was almost surely going to send him into an anxious spiral tomorrow, he pulled her close again and kissed her shoulder.

“I need to think on it more when I’m less tired before I can tell you how I feel,” he said. He struggled to stay awake long enough to say the most important part. “But it’s not about me…it’s not my body. If this is really something that you feel like you need to do…of course I support it. Of course I support you. We’ll get through it. If it’s what you want, no matter how I feel, even if I don’t understand—we’ll do it together.”

“God, Jamie,” he heard her whisper, her voice wavering. She held him tighter and kissed the center of his chest. “I love you so.”

“I’d say ‘I love you, too’, but it’s not strong enough to cover how I feel,” he whispered back, his words thick with exhaustion. He was hovering on the edge of sleep, but he didn’t let himself slip over until he heard her give a tiny laugh. Once he knew she was okay, he was fast asleep.


 

In his dreams, he was seventeen again.

In his dreams, he was seventeen, and he was on his knees begging for Nora’s life.

In his dreams, he was seventeen, and he was on his knees beginning for Nora and their baby’s life.

It was panning out a lot differently than it had in the past; right after James watched Nora crumple to the ground, he felt a firm shake to his shoulders that ripped him from his anxiety-fueled nightmare. It was the sort of dream that hadn’t felt like a dream; at no point had he been consciously aware that he was dreaming. At every point he’d been hysterical. So when he blinked away and found his wife leaning nervously over him, he crushed her to his chest in a shaky, relieved hug.

“You’re shaking,” Nora mumbled, concerned.

“Nightmare. Delphi. You. Hogwarts,” he shared. He’d hoped the dream would disappear from his memory as soon as he woke, but it clung to his mind stubbornly. “She killed our baby and said we would never, ever have another one.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” Nora said gently. She kissed his cheek. “But look on your other side.”

James obediently glanced over towards his side of the bed. Laughter and tears climbed up his throat in a confused tangle. All four of his kids—Evra, Finnigan, and Henry cuddled up together in the small space, and Delilah snoozing in the cot that attached to the side of the bed—had joined them while he suffered through his horrifying nightmare. He hugged his wife tighter.

“Just a nightmare,” she soothed. “They’re very much alive and in very needy moods. Evra wandered in first, then the boys, then Delilah must’ve realized somebody else was getting attention, because she started crying…they all drifted back off easily enough, though.” 

James was in the mood to indulge their neediness. He turned over and cuddled Finnigan (who was closest to him). Finnigan snuggled closer in his dreams. James took in a few deep, timed breaths, the way Scorpius taught him. He counted before he exhaled. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn’t. This time he thought it might’ve, but it also could’ve been his kids that were helping to dispel the residual anxiety from his dreams.

He knew one thing for certain:

“It was horrible,” he mumbled.

Nora curled up against his back. James felt his heart swell as she kissed the back of his shoulder. “It sounds horrible.”

He wondered as he drifted back off to sleep if his brother and his husband felt the gaping emptiness that James had felt in his dreams, that aching sense of a lost purpose. James didn’t think about it much—the thought that there were probably other people like him in the world, people who’d always felt like they were meant to be dads, people who hadn’t really felt complete until they’d had their children, people who felt that way but couldn’t have children—and he wondered if his brother was one of those people. He’d certainly never wish pain like that on his brother, no matter how often he annoyed him. And maybe, his mind whispered, as he drifted off to sleep, maybe Nora’s right. We’ve been so lucky. I’m so lucky—I’ve always been. Even if it would hurt like I’m scared it would…wouldn’t it be right to give some goodness back? We’ve got so much of it.

James had only just drifted off again when he felt Finnigan lean back from his embrace.

“Daddy?”

“Hmm?” James yawned.

“Will you make me some bacon?”

Nora laughed on James’s other side. “Bacon again, Finnigan? You’re really starving, aren’t you? You could eat an entire pig, I bet.”

Finnigan was quiet for a moment. “Why would I eat a little piggy?”

James glanced over his shoulder at Nora. Her face had fallen.

“Who’s going to tell him?” James asked. Nora bit her lip.


 

Finnigan was in a stormy mood.

James carried drowsy Henry down to the kitchen while Finnigan stamped his way down the steps, mumbling crossly underneath his breath with every hop.

“A pig!” he raged.

He shoved the kitchen door open. Nora barely managed to catch it with her free hand before it slammed back into the wall; Delilah jumped in her arms, alarmed.

“Don’t shove doors!” Evra scolded Finnigan. “That’s how fingers get chopped right off!”

“A pig!” Finnigan repeated. He jumped up in down in place beside his customary breakfast chair, his face turning alarmingly red as he “held his breath”. With his cheeks bulging, he said: “I—AM—NOT—BREATHING—AGAIN!”

With every word, air escaped, and he took a greedy mouthful. Nora and James watched him breathing (but “not breathing”) for a long moment. James shot his wife a baffled look. Nora’s muggle cousin’s son had taught their children the ‘holding the breath’ trick (it was that kid’s signature move when things didn’t go his way), but luckily, the finer details of the method had clearly escaped Finnigan. He was mostly just nosily nose-breathing with his cheeks expanded.

“Finnigan,” Nora finally said, her tone soft and careful. She walked over and set her hands on their son’s shoulders, gently guiding him towards his seat. He hopped up in it, his cheeks still bulging like a squirrel’s. “Let’s talk over breakfast about it.”

He crossed his arms and refused to look at her.

“Merlin,” James muttered, after he’d settled the kids into their seats and joined Nora at the oven. “I wasn’t expecting that reaction.”

“How has he made it this far without questioning where meat comes from?” Nora shot back from the corner of her mouth.

“Imagine how angry he’s going to be when he realizes what beef is…‘moo’ was his second animal sound…”

Nora and James shared a grimace.

“Fruit and yogurt this morning?” she suggested nervously.

“Probably a great idea, yeah,” James whispered back.

James carried dish after dish to the table as Nora prepared it. Evra passed spoons to everybody. Finnigan shunned his typical job—passing out napkins—so Henry filled in for him. Finnigan refused to touch his breakfast and stared at them all instead, cheeks still bulging, still angrily breathing through his nose.

“Finnigan, you’ll be so hungry at Dean and Seamus’s if you don’t eat,” James reminded him.

Finnigan pointed at his yogurt. “What’s that?! Dog eyeballs!?”

Nora choked on a bit of strawberry; Delilah, who had been nursing, pulled back in shock and stared at her mother with wide eyes. Evra lowered her spoon from her mouth, her cute nose scrunched up in disgust.

“It’s not,” Evra said, outraged, but there was a bit of doubt lurking in her voice. “Daddy, it's not, right?”

“Of course not, darling,” James said hurriedly. “Yogurt comes from milk.”

Finnigan stared challengingly at James. “And where does milk come from?”

James marveled at Finnigan’s ability to be so sassy—he knew very well where cow’s milk came from. He’d visited a dairy before in Ireland, during a Finnigan family visit. Henry, however, thought he knew the answer, and nearly climbed atop the table in his haste to answer. He pressed his palms to the table edge and lifted himself up from his seat excitedly.

Mummy!” Henry answered proudly.

This time, it was James who choked on a building laugh. He covered his mouth to keep from coughing up yogurt.

“Not this milk,” Evra told Henry gently. She patted his curls. “It’s a good try, though.”

“This milk comes from cows,” Finnigan answered darkly. He pushed his yogurt away. He stared accusingly at Nora. “Stolen from cow babies.”

Nora opened and closed her mouth wordlessly, unsure how to respond. Finnigan squinted his eyes at his baby sister. 

“What if farmers stole Delilah-baby milk? She’d die. Dead!”

“No she wouldn’t, for one,” James said, sensing a tantrum brewing. “For two, they don’t take all the milk; the baby cows still have plenty. How much time did you spend with Auntie Lulu yesterday? Was she talking to you about poaching?”

“Don’t even talk to me about her,” Finnigan said angrily, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Finnigan!” Nora said, outraged. “Apologize to Daddy, that was a mean tone!”

Finnigan clearly hadn’t meant to be mean. He frowned. He met James’s eyes; his brown eyes held so much betrayal that James’s throat narrowed.

“Sorry, Daddy,” Finnigan said.

James rose from his seat and rounded the table. He lifted Finnigan up, sat in his vacant seat, and placed him in his lap. He turned him around so they were facing each other. He tapped Finnigan’s chin.

“Why are you angry at Auntie Lulu?” James asked.

“She leaved Gran Molly’s and never even played with me.”

“Aww,” James said gently. “She—er—was busy playing with somebody else. Sometimes that happens, yeah? Sometimes when we go to the park you’re so busy playing with Lydia that you don’t have time to play with Sofia or Drew.”

“You can play with two peoples!” Finnigan argued. He held up his empty hand, his palm cupped as if he were holding something imaginary. “We didn’t eat our cake. Me and Auntie Lulu have cake on Christmas.”

James met Nora’s eyes from over Finnigan’s head.

“Your auntie gives you loads of cake, does she?” he asked lightly.

“No.” Finnigan crossed his arms again. “I’m so angry!”

“It’s okay to be angry, everybody feels angry sometimes,” James told him. “But you can’t be mean to the people that love you, okay? So, look…I’ll pick out all the fruit and you can eat it all up and be done with breakfast.”

Finnigan paused, suspicious. “Where does fruit come from?”

“Trees and bushes and such. They don’t miss it, I promise.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, have you ever interacted with a tree? Pet a tree?”

“I could,” Finnigan said stubbornly. “If I want.”

James arched an eyebrow. Finnigan relented.

“Can I have more bananas?” he requested.

“Absolutely,” James said.

He could tell the day was only going to get stranger and stranger, and it’d been very atypical already.


 

James was in the middle of a football match with his kids and Dean when Seamus shouted for him. He stopped running and squinted towards the house. He had to shield his eyes from the sun before he could make out his father-in-law, standing impatiently at the garden door.

“JAMES!” Seamus repeated.

Fearing something was wrong with Nora or Delilah, James immediately took off in a jog towards the house, leaving his sons and Evra behind with Dean. He stepped into the Thomas kitchen and doubled over, his hands on his thighs as he panted.

“Blimey, I’ve got to work out more—yes? What’s wrong, Seamus?”

“George Flooed a minute or so ago. He says he needs to speak with you at the joke shop.”

James’s heart fell. He straightened and wiped some sweat from his eyes. “What?! It’s Boxing Day! At the joke shop? I didn’t even know it was open today!”  

“He said to tell you it’s ‘urgent’.” Seamus closed the words in finger-quotes. James heaved a sigh.

“Fabulous! Does anybody care about sacred family time anymore?!” he grumbled. “Is Nora still in the sitting room?”

Seamus nodded. He clapped James on the shoulder sympathetically as he passed.

“I’m sorry,” James greeted Nora. He walked over and fell down onto the carpet with her. She and Delilah were playing with the stuffed fish they’d bought their daughter on the cruise, though Delilah really just seemed to like gnawing on them until they were nice and moist and then dropping them on people. Delilah shrieked happily as James joined them and tried to scoot towards him on her tummy, but she wasn’t quite there yet; Nora picked her up and handed her over to James.

“It’s all right,” Nora reassured him. “You’d better go see what he wants. We’ll be fine here.”

“Do you want me to take Delilah with me? So you can actually go out and play with the kids and Dean?”

“No, you’re all right,” she reassured him. “I brought the carrier, it’ll be okay. We don’t know what your uncle wants…if he’s making a new product it might not be safe for Delilah in the shop.”

James frowned. Nora leaned over Delilah and pressed her soft lips to his.

“It’s really okay,” she promised him. She rubbed the side of her nose against his; James smiled. “I’m sure it won’t take long. I’ll have the kids run laps while you’re gone…maybe we can get them to sleep early.”

The light, casual tone of her voice made heat rise to James’s face. They’d learned to mask their sexy-talk as boring-talk. Nothing made kids want to listen in more than whispered, secretive voices; they tended to tune their parents out when they talked about sex like they were talking about groceries.

“I really hope we can,” he said back, his tone just as even. “I’ve been thinking about the new nightie you bought.”

She beamed. She slid her hands from his shoulders to his biceps, rubbing gently. “Aww, yeah? You have?”

“Oh yeah.”

She reached up and cupped his face in her hand. “I’m always thinking about you, you know.”

He set his hand on her lower back and pulled her in closer. “Yeah?”

She leaned in and kissed his lips again. “Oh yeah,” she echoed.

They were giggling like schoolchildren when Seamus stepped in.

“What? What’s happened? James, did you already make it back from the shop?” he asked, confused.

“No, no, I’m going now,” James said, his eyes still on Nora’s. Nora tapped the tip of his nose. He smiled and stood, and he did go towards the fireplace, but it was more like lovesick stumbling than walking.

“See you soon,” Nora said.  

“Won’t be soon enough,” he affirmed. He hated leaving his family on holidays.

“Wave bye-bye to Daddy!” Nora cooed to Delilah. The last thing James saw before he sped through the Floo was Delilah’s little hand waving back and forth in Nora’s.


 

The shop was closed. James knocked once on the door, baffled. When nobody came immediately, he backed up and yelled towards the windows above the shop, where Fred and Roxanne’s respective flats were.

“THIS ISN’T FUNNY! IF THIS IS A PRANK, I’LL…DO SOMETHING…VERY…NOT NICE!”

The doorbell rattled. He turned his attention back to the shop doors; his Uncle George opened them with a slightly tense looking grin in place.

“Jamie! Hello! How’s everything? Come in, come in!”

James narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He followed his uncle into the shop; Fred and Roxanne were sitting side-by-side on top of the counter. Aunt Angelina was standing behind them with her arms crossed. James looked from face to face, his heart picking up tempo. A million different horrible scenarios raced through his head.

“Oh, no,” he said. His heart plummeted. “Who died?!”

“No one…hopefully…” Fred said. Roxanne elbowed his ribs.

“So, James,” George said. He went to lean ‘casually’ against the till, but ended up slamming his elbow into the button that opened the money drawer. It flew open and punched Angelina in the stomach. She slapped his shoulder with a glare. “How have the kids been? Yours, I mean.”

James’s heart only beat faster. “Why? Why, Uncle George?”

“Just…curious, you know, wondering, from one family man to another—ow, Ang!”

Angelina had smacked his head. She looked at James. “My husband poisoned your kids.”

James felt the floor shift beneath him. The blood drained from his face. “What?! What do you mean!?”

“Oh, because that was a much better way of telling him,” George hissed from the corner of his mouth.

“Dad got his sweets mixed up,” Roxanne spoke up. “See, he was supposed to bring fudge cakes that are just fudge cakes, to have everybody taste the flavor. Instead, he brought his Fidgety Fudge Cakes, our new product that works like caffeine, only…way more intense.”

“Your boys were cramming them in last night,” Fred added. “Impressively, in Finnigan’s case; the little guy’s got such a tiny stomach but you wouldn’t believe his nerve with how many he’ll cram in his mouth at once…”

“What exactly is in them?! What does it do? What do I need to do? Should we go to St. Mungo’s?!” James panicked. “This explains why they were such terrors last night!” Something occurred to him. “Delilah was the same, though, and she couldn’t have eaten them…”

“No, but Nora did! Pesky thing, nursing…” he turned to Angelina. “Remember that time you accidentally drank an entire bottle of False Liquor when you were breastfeeding Roxanne and she ended up giggling so hard she sh—”

James interrupted George’s reminiscing. “What about my children?! Are they going to die?!”

“No, no, almost certainly not,” George reassured him. “I’m really sorry, James. I only just realized it too, when I came here to do a bit of tidying and saw the box I’d meant to grab. I just think your kids are going to be insufferable for a while.”

“‘Almost certainly not’,” James quoted. “That is not reassuring, Uncle George!”  

“I always start every experimental product with half the amount I think needs to be in it, so it’s okay. Angelina just said I should tell you in case they’re acting oddly.”

James huffed. He crossed his arms. “You know, this is exactly why Nora’s dads think my side of the family is less fit for babysitting! And how can I argue?! You poisoned my sons—Lulu lets Finnigan eat entire cakes when I’m not looking—Dominique nearly got Evra and Remus stuck on the roof yesterday…” James trailed off, annoyed. “You’re making things difficult for me here, Uncle George!”

His uncle held out a voucher. “Would you like a voucher for a free crate of Fidgety Fudge Cakes?”

James felt his eye twitch.

“Put the voucher away, Dad,” Roxanne hissed from the corner of her mouth.

Uncle George waved it tantalizingly in front of James’s face. “It’s great for nights when your kids won’t go to sleep…or nights you’d like a bit of alone time but you’re too tired…works better than coffee…”

James crossed his arms stubbornly. “If my kids don’t die, I’ll consider it.”

“Okay, well, I’ll put your name on it and leave it right behind the till.”

“I can’t believe you poisoned my babies. I’m going to tell my mum.”

“Don’t tell your mum!"

“I’m definitely going to tell my mum.”

“Don’t tell Ginny, it’s really not a problem, we don’t need to bother her…”

James looked away. Uncle George huffed.

“Well, fine! Be a Mummy’s boy! I hope murder weighs nicely on your shoulders!”

Mum’s Boy,” James corrected hotly. He stamped toward the door, stopped, and stamped back over. “I’ll see you lot on Saturday for lunch.”

“Oh, right,” Angelina said. “We’re doing pizza.”

“If my sister doesn’t kill me, that is,” Uncle George added.

“How’s the inheritance going if you die, Dad?” Fred asked. “50/50?”

“75/25,” Roxanne scoffed. “I’m the 75.”

“No, and actually, Roxie, when your pony lost when we were little you said I’d get ten percent of your inheritance plus my half!”

George was aghast. “You two were betting on your inheritance when you were kids? Oh, thanks!”

“You played the ponies when you were kids?!” Angelina demanded.

James thought it was probably a perfect time to leave the joke shop.


 

“DADDY’S BACK!!”

“YAY!!”

“DADDY, LOOK! LOOK!”

“DADDY, I BEATED DEAN! WITH FOOTBALL!”

“Daddy, Daddy, look at what I made with Seamus!”

“DADDY! DADDY! I missed you!”

“So loud…so much…screaming…going to…faint…” James choked.

James dramatically collapsed to the ground as his kids approached him. They weren’t fazed; they knew his tricks. They were giggling as they landed on top of him. 

“WAKE UP,” Finnigan shouted in James’s face. He felt Evra hugging his chest. Henry tapped his forehead incessantly.

“Daddy!” Henry laughed. He tapped harder. “…Daddy?”

James waited until the kids had fallen silent and began to get a bit concerned…and then he let out a bear growl and wrapped them up in his arms. He pressed kisses to their faces and laughed along with them. Nora was smiling above them when James peered up; the lights behind her head made her appear to be glowing. She lowered Delilah down. Their baby giggled loudly as James leaned up and blew a raspberry on her cheek. He sat up so he was sitting on Dean and Seamus’s kitchen floor and pulled Delilah into his arms.

“Well?” Dean asked. James glanced his way, not surprised to see him sitting at the dinner table with an array of art materials out. The kids must’ve been drawing with him. “What did George want?”

“Er…” James trailed off. He didn’t really want to tell his father-in-law that the kids had been poisoned. “Needed an emergency consult on…chocolate.”

Nora could tell James was lying but knew better than to ask. He shot her a quick, meaningful look and then rose to his feet.

“You’re the man for that job,” Nora told him, right as Seamus and Dean exchanged a skeptical look. She wrapped her arm around James’s waist and kissed his cheek. “Sugar expert.”

“To a fault, actually,” James said. “Remind me to start exercising more.”

“Nah,” she grinned. “I love you like this.”

James hoped her dads missed the playful pat she’d given his bum, but going by the look Dean shot him a moment later, they hadn’t.


 

“So? What happened?” Nora whispered.

James leaned over her to grab a ladle. He was just about to explain what had happened at the joke shop when he heard a crash from the garden, followed quickly by angry yelling.

“WHOEVER FIGHTS HAS TO EAT TWO SERVINGS OF MY SOUP!” James warned.

The fighting stopped at once.

“They're not exactly subtle, are they?” James said. “Still-- it's to our advantage. Who knew soup could be an effective punishment? I guess I should give up on it and stop making it on my nights, though...I never do a good job."

“No, they need to give your soup another chance...I bet you'll get it right this time!" Nora encouraged. She faced him. "What happened at the joke shop?”

James embarked on a quick retelling of his infuriating visit. Nora wasn’t as concerned as James was.

“Those kids got steady doses of caffeine from conception ‘til nearly two years of age; they’ll be just fine. He really ought to be more careful, though.”

“It could’ve been something much worse,” James agreed, troubled.

He peeked out of the window just above the sink. He scanned his eyes around the garden, counting his kids, to make sure none of them had wandered out of the gate. Delilah was still playing in her play pen (not that she really had a choice), Finnigan was trying to push Henry “to the stars!” in the swings, and Evra was crouching beside her bee-friendly flower garden in her plastic, bee-patterned apron, “observing” the bees as she often did. Harry had planted the mini garden for her on her last birthday. Evra had probably spent nearly half an entire year crouching in the grass, jotting down ‘notes’ about her favorite bees.

Once James was confident that the kids were, for the time being, okay, he turned his focus back to dinner. He sunk the ladle into the soup and took a tentative sip. It tasted much better than it had a few moments ago, even though James hadn’t added a thing. James looked suspiciously at his wife, standing a few feet away kneading bread dough.

“Did you put something in this?”

“What?” she asked sweetly. She glanced at him, her eyes widened innocently. “No, baby, I love your soup just the way it is.”

“Hmmm…” James said, but he was already laughing. Nora flicked her wand towards the record player; the record inside lifted up and then flipped, so they could listen to the other side. James felt a lovely calmness wash over him as it started up again. It was their favorite record, an old muggle find; one of his favorite things to do alone with Nora was comb through all the secondhand shops in London for records they’d never heard before. They probably had about a hundred by now, but he had no plans to stop collecting, not when he found—every now and then—a record like this one, that seemed to play notes in just the right order to touch something within him. He and Nora cooked side-by-side, surrounded by the sound of the singer’s soothing voice mingled in with their children’s laughter. James was overcome with such fond nostalgia that he felt it bursting out of him. He was thinking about the night they’d conceived Evra as he crossed over to his wife and pulled her into his arms; she rested her head on his shoulder and kissed his neck as he swayed them to the music, his arms around her waist.

“I wonder how Evra would feel if she knew she was conceived to this song,” Nora murmured.

James laughed brightly. He wasn’t surprised that she was thinking about the same thing. He pressed his face against her hair and let his hands fall to her hips.

“I wonder how my dad would feel if he knew she was most likely conceived in his office,” James mused. “He loves Evra, so maybe he’d feel honored?”

Nora cringed into his neck. “That fact will be buried with us, Jamie. He can never know that.”

“No, no,” James promised. “Cross my heart. Nobody else will ever know.”

“Especially not Ben, ‘cause you know he’d never let us live that down,” Nora persisted. “He’d go to Hogwarts and put a plaque on the office door: ‘Ginevra Roxanne Potter was made here.’”

James leaned back and looked down at Nora. She lifted her head from his shoulder and met his eyes.

“Not the best way for my dad to find out,” James said, on the verge of laughter.

“No,” Nora agreed. “Not at all.”

They held their gaze for a moment longer before succumbing to laughter. James could almost see the way his dad’s jaw would drop if he saw that. His glasses would definitely rise up as his eyebrows did, making his scar look like a little, folded in lightning bolt. His laughter quickly turned into snickering.

“You’ve got to admit,” James said, “it’s a funny thought.”

“As long as it remains as such…I quite like your dad seeing me as the innocent Potter daughter and would like it to stay that way.”

She leaned her head back against his shoulder. He continued swaying his body with hers, his chest full of contentment. Every day James thought ‘I couldn’t possibly love her more’, and every day he was wrong.

“Nora?”

“Hmm?”

“I meant what I said last night. About supporting you. If you decide you want to be my brother’s surrogate.”

“Oh, I know you did. But I’m not doing anything unless I know you’re comfortable with it, too. It may be my body, but this is our life.”

James had known that deep down; he’d never been worried about that. The things he was worried about had felt so far away last night, but he found it easier to locate his thoughts now, with Nora in his arms and that familiar record playing; it calmed his frantic thoughts better than almost anything else.

“You’re right. We’re so lucky,” James said.

“Beyond words,” Nora agreed softly.

“I love the idea of giving something back. I love the idea of helping my brother. I love the idea of helping our society—the lack of magical births gets more and more stressful every day. But Nora, I don’t like the idea of any of that if it comes at the expense of your happiness.”

“Nor I with yours.”

“I’m so afraid that…when it comes down to it…” he trailed off. He pressed his face back into her hair. “I’m so worried that our hearts won’t get the full picture, that there will be a part of us that sees the baby as ours, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to give our baby away. Or come home from St. Mungo’s emptyhanded. When I think about pregnancy, I think about our babies, so it’s difficult for me.”

“It’s difficult for me, too,” she admitted. She lifted her hand and set it on the back of his neck. He held her tighter as her fingers caressed his skin. “If we were going to do it, it would have to be done with boundaries. I’ve been thinking loads about it. And we’ve got time, you know—to think about it. I shouldn’t get pregnant again for another seven months anyway. But I think…you know, I think if we approached it differently from the start, I think we could keep it separate in our minds. I think we could remember that it’s not ours, that we’re only watching over it for a bit.”

“Like not buying any baby things? So we remember that it isn’t coming home with us?” James asked.

“Right. And I don’t think I’d want you to talk or sing to the baby.”

James felt wounded. “What? I thought you loved when I did that.”

“I do. Too much. That’s the point; if this happens, the pregnancy can’t be like our other ones, because then I’ll be thinking of it like it's ours. It’s got to be different-- separate.”

James thought he understood. He wracked his brains for another idea. “We could keep the scans off the fridge.”

“Yes, definitely. Albus and Scorpius would get every copy. And the kids have to know the truth from the start.”

“Yes,” James stressed. “Absolutely.”

As they both trailed off, James found himself thinking about the births of his children. Even thinking back on the emotions that had bombarded him from the first moment he held them made his eyes burn. “I don’t think it’d be a good idea for me to hold the baby right after it’s born.”

“Nor me,” Nora agreed quickly. “That would be Albus and Scorpius’s moment. We could meet it later on, after the baby’s already cleaned up and such, after I’m done recovering. It’d be easier to think of her as their baby that way.”

There was only one question left. James didn’t want to be the one to ask it.

“What happens if, no matter how much we try to create distance, we end up feeling bonded with the baby anyway?” Nora asked. Her voice was small. James wished he had a definite answer.

“Well,” he began. He looked off towards the window. Henry had climbed into the play pen with Delilah; she was watching him shove her toy fish in the mouth of his giant, cuddly toy shark. “I suppose, if that happened, we’d do a lot of crying. But then…then we’d remember where the baby’s going. We’d remember that it’d be loved and it’s still our family and we could see it all the time. Every day, if we wanted. It won’t be like giving birth and handing it off to some stranger to never see again. It’ll still be our niece or nephew. We’ll still get to love it.”

“Albus and Scorpius would definitely give it a good life,” Nora said. He could hear the smile in her voice.

James smiled. “Yeah. Albus might be a surly little snake at times, but he’s got a knack for babies. And it’d make them so happy.”

“That emotion, the one you feel the first time you hold your brand new baby, the first time you become a parent…” Nora trailed off. James knew she’d be misty-eyed if he leaned back and looked at her expression. The wonder in her tone was achingly tender. “I want them to feel that. We could give them that, Jamie. How many people can say that? How many people get the chance to do something like that? It’s amazing.”

James had a different opinion. He kissed the top of her head and hoisted her up into his arms bridal-style. She smiled into their kiss.

You’re amazing,” he amended.

She smiled softly at him. “There are loads people who would do this.”

“No,” James said. He shook his head. “There aren’t many people who would. And if we do it, I think you’re going to get a lot of people looking at you like you’re mad. People are going to ask why on earth you’d put yourself through the pain and inconvenience. Why you’d give so much without getting anything back.”

“Oh, I get plenty back,” Nora told him. “I get love from you and our kids every second of every day. That’s why I’m able to do it in the first place.”

James leaned over her and kissed both cheeks, her forehead, her nose, his entire chest brimming with devotion.

“Most people don’t think of love as currency,” he reminded her.

“Then they’ve never been loved well,” she decided.

He was seriously entertaining the idea of snogging her against the cupboard like they were teenagers again when their kids came running back inside.

“Mummy, do we have to eat Daddy’s soup?” Finnigan greeted.

James pretended to cry into Nora’s hair. Sweet Evra bought the performance. She set Delilah down on the rug near the door and poked Finnigan in his shoulder.

“Finnigan! Finnigan, you’re so mean, so, so mean!” she raged. “You need to go sit in time out right now! Right now!!”

“You’re not the boss of me!”

“You made Daddy cry!!”

“He’s not really crying, he’s faking!”

“How do you know that?! He might not be!”

“No, he is, ‘cause his face isn’t red! Like a whole entire tomato!”

“Daddy, hold me,” Henry whined, his jealous eyes on his mum, still held in James’s arms. “My turn!”

"Manners?" James prompted.

"Please!!" 

James set Nora’s feet back on the ground. She walked over to stop Delilah from gnawing on a chair leg while James hoisted Henry into the air upside down. His fingers brushed the tiled floor as James swung him by his ankles.

WHOAAAA,” Henry cried, elated.

“All right, time for soup,” Nora said cheerfully. A chorus of groans punctuated her statement. “When you get old enough to make your own dinner, you can complain.”

James levitated the pot in front of him and walked around the table, distributing two full ladles worth of soup into each silver bowl. His kids were exchanging sour, side-eyed glances, communicating without words the same sentiment to one another. Even Delilah looked a bit insulted. James sighed; he’d tried multiple times to get his dad’s soup recipe right, but it never turned out the same; Harry’s had flavor, whereas James’s…well, on good days it tasted like the water that came in bean tins.

Daaaaaaddy….” Henry whined, clearly less than impressed with his meal. He squirmed in his seat.

“Don’t you start,” Nora warned him, without even glancing his way.

James took his place at the end of the table. To his left, Finnigan was leaning over his soup bowl and glaring at the contents.

“What’s in it?” Finnigan demanded.

James and Nora exchanged a tired look. They had hoped his outrage at animal products would wear off throughout the day, but he didn’t seem to be wavering much.

“Vegetables and beans,” James reassured him.

Finnigan glanced up at James. The steam wafting from his soup made his curls seem wilder than usual.

“No piggies?”

“No.”

Finnigan tapped his fingers on the table top. “No cow babies or cow mamas?”

“No.”

He cautiously lifted his spoon. “No cats?”

What? No, Finnigan.”

“Okay, I’ll eat it,” he allowed, as if he were doing them a grand favor. He brought a spoonful to his lips. A few seconds after he’d tasted it, his eyes widened. “What?! Evra! Evra!! It’s yum!”

“I’m not falling for that one again...”

“No! It is!” Finnigan persisted. As if to prove his point, he took another bite.

Emboldened by their brother’s first foray into risky soup territory, Evra and Henry hesitantly went about sipping the soup, too. James knew for a fact that Nora had made it taste better when even Henry decided to eat his dinner.

“How’d you do it?” James demanded.

“Do what?” Nora asked.

“Make it taste good.”

“No idea what you’re asking me. Really, Jamie baby, no idea,” she shrugged. He arched an eyebrow. She peered up at him from beneath her eyelashes.

James grinned into his glass of water. Quite honestly, he couldn’t wait for bedtime.


 

Evvie arrived during bath time. Nora and James looked at each other as they heard her voice call up the stairs.

“You go,” James offered, his hands barely keeping squirmy Delilah from slipping beneath the water. He was covered with bubbles and his exhaustion was making him a bit impatient. “Finnigan and Henry! Bring her bath seat back, for the last time! Your baby doll doesn’t need a bath seat, my real baby does!”

The boys—splashing around like wild animals at the far end of the massive bathtub—gave immediate whines of complaint. James’s breath caught as a sudden wave of water swelled up and crashed into him and Nora, leaving the bathroom floor flooded, their entire bodies soaked, and—

“Delilah!” James cried. For one heart-stopping moment, he thought she’d fallen to the bottom of the bathtub because the force of the magically-induced wave had knocked him back enough to loosen his grip on her. But Evra had pulled her over into her lap and was giggling with her as if nothing had happened. They were clearly used to Finnigan’s magical outbursts.

“No, she’ll have to come up here,” Nora decided. “This is chaos.” She walked to the doorway, leaned out, and called Evvie up. James was standing fully-clothed in the bathtub, trying his hardest to get a comb through reluctant Henry’s hair, when he heard Evvie enter.

“Oh, God.”

Evvie!” the kids shouted, overjoyed. Henry used the distraction as an excuse to duck beneath the water, evading James’s grooming attempts.

“Hi, Ev,” James greeted distractedly. He bent over at the waist and reached beneath the water for Henry. Bubbles drifted to the surface as Henry let out a burst of laughter under the water. James grabbed his arms and gently lifted him back upright.

“We need to talk,” Evvie told them.

“Right this moment?” Nora asked. “Finnigan, stop piling bubbles on Delilah’s head! It could get into her eyes!”

Sure enough, Delilah began shrieking a moment later. James abandoned his hair-combing mission and flocked to his daughter’s side. He and Nora fussed over their baby while Finnigan treated Evvie to a five-minute lecture on all his bath toys. Once Delilah’s eyes were soap-free, Nora bundled her up in a warm towel and stepped out onto the tiles.

“Thanks for cleaning the water up,” Nora told their friend. She dumped Delilah into Evvie’s arms. Evvie parted her lips, as if to object (probably due to her expensive looking dress), but thought better of it; Finnigan had just dumped a bucket of water on Evra’s head, resulting in a bathtime brawl that both James and Nora had to mediate. James was so tired come the end of it that he actually sat down beside Henry (still fully clothed), threw the comb across the bathroom, and combed his son’s hair with his fingers instead. Henry leaned happily into his touch.

“What was it you needed to talk about?” Nora asked. She wrapped Finnigan in a warm towel and sent him with Evra to get dressed. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. Well, sort of. It’s about the blood samples.”

James frowned. “We haven’t asked Evra yet and I’m not sure we want to—”

“No,” Evvie interrupted him. She gritted her teeth; the pain her DoM agreement caused whenever she breached confidentiality must’ve begun. “I don’t need it anymore. I’ve examined yours and James’s, Iset’s, and Lily got a sample of lime pox sent our way late last night. I compared what I found in Iset’s blood with it. Can you believe Lily was right? I almost don’t want to tell her…it was my coworker who sent her a letter telling her to keep her nose out of our department’s business…”

“Wait, wait, hang on a moment,” James hissed. He made sure Henry’s hair was conditioned and tangle-free, helped him stand up, and then caught the towel Nora tossed his way. He wrapped him up in it and lifted him. “So Iset is infected with lime pox—confirmed?”

“Correct.”

“And it’s what’s causing the squib births?”

“Correct. I compared Iset’s with the samples we’ve got from the parents of a Squib child—all three have lime pox, as does the squib child’s sample.”

“Okay, so, great!” Nora said. She smiled. James spotted Delilah grinning back at her mum from Evvie’s arms. “So now you’ve just got to find a cure and things will get better!”

“Ideally, yes, but it took hundreds of years to create a dragon pox cure, and this strand is much more complex. It’s going to take ages, even considering how much more we know. We’ve got to look at short-term solutions. James, I’ve spoken with Hermione and we’re organizing a meeting on Monday between the relevant departments to try and figure out what to do. Okay,” she reached up with one hand and touched her temple with a grimace. “We can’t talk about specifics in the DoM anymore, okay? We can talk about the meeting but not about anything within the DoM. I feel like somebody’s ripping my brain apart.” 

“Well, we all know what they need to decide to do at tomorrow’s meeting. Get rid of the poached items firstly, right?” Nora demanded. She leaned out of the bathroom. “Evra! Finnigan! Come brush your teeth, loves!”

“It’ll take more than that. If we want to get this under control, we’re going to have to find a way to organize a testing system for potential parents, so we can get those who aren’t infected to hopefully have babies…God, the social headache this is going to be…I don’t envy your aunt. Or you, for that matter, James.”

James grimaced.  He helped Henry up onto the stepstool in front of the sink and handed him his tiny toothbrush; Nora had already put toothpaste on it. “Things aren’t going well at all in my department, Evvie. We really need a decent solution here. Not even just for the fact that the population’s dwindling rapidly; we’ve got people abandoning their non-magical children left and right. I’ve got just enough foster families to cover the amount in the system right now, but we can’t handle any more. We’ve got to get those who are infected to stop having babies until there’s a cure, unless they’re willing to stand by their children no matter what.” Henry finished ‘brushing’ his teeth and held the toothbrush out for his dad to take. James kneeled down and re-brushed Henry’s teeth carefully, to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

“Here, will you put a nappy on her? Here’s her sleepsuit, too,” Nora said to Evvie. While Evvie readied Delilah for bed, James helped Evra and Finnigan up in front of the sink as soon as they entered. Nora handed them their toothbrushes.

“I’ll work on a proposal for a testing system we could establish at St. Mungo’s,” Evvie said. James turned around to face her and Nora, so his back was to the sink. He propped Henry on his hip. Henry yawned and rested his head against James’s shoulder as Evvie finished buttoning up Delilah. She continued her previous topic. “Rose wants to outlaw the Magical Indication Screenings they do post-birth. She’s coming to the meeting Monday, too.”

“Oh, blimey,” James said, horrified. “She’s really stepping on the toes of the pureblood elitists. That was their crowning moment when that test was established.”

“Yeah, and wait until you hear what those elitists are suggesting. They want to implement prenatal magical screenings.”

The way Evvie had frowned told James all he needed to know. “So they can do away with any non-magical babies they might get pregnant with.”

“Right. It’s complicated because you’ve got people claiming it’s their right, because it’s their bodies, which is a fair point and something to consider…but then you’ve got others pointing out that it’s effectively eugenics. I’d bring a bit of pain potion tomorrow, James. It’s going to be horrid. There will inevitably be screaming from start to finish.”

James sighed tiredly. As his mind worked through the seriousness of the population dilemma, he found himself thinking about the surrogacy question.

“Evvie, I’ve got a hypothetical question…”

While he explained the specifics of the situation, Evvie listened intently. Nora sent the older three to their rooms to wait for story time. When he reached the end of his explanation, he realized he felt a bit nervous, though he wasn’t sure why. Was there a part of him hoping she'd say it was a good idea (or a part of him hoping she'd say it was a bad idea)?

“So…would that work? Would that help? Because with things being the way they are…well, if Albus and Scorpius could have a magical baby…that’s at least one more schoolmate for Delilah at Hogwarts, right?” he pointed out.  

Evvie looked at Nora. For a second, James feared she’d scold her. But she smiled. She reached up and set her palm against Nora’s cheek; it was an uncharacteristically sweet gesture.

“That’s a very kind thing,” she told Nora.

“We aren’t decided for sure,” Nora reminded Evvie. “I think James is just curious about what steps we’d have to take to make sure we all remain uninfected.”

“Well, I’d have to test the donor mum’s blood and Scorpius’s. I’ve already checked yours, of course, Nora. Afterwards, the main thing would be staying out of contact with all poached items while you’re pregnant. You know, if we could set up a surrogacy program in our world…that would help so much. I might pay Scorpius a visit. That was a clever idea. Leave it to a Slytherin Head Boy.”

Evvie said goodbye to them and their kids, set towards the staircase, and then stopped. She turned back around and looked at them.

“Is bedtime always this hectic now?” she wondered. "Wasn't like that before, when Ben and I lived here. You know we're still around to help if you need it."

“Oh, no, it's not typically like this,” James said bitterly. “They’ve just had a very interesting day…thanks to being poisoned on Christmas.”

“What?!”

“You really shouldn’t word it like that, Jamie…”


 

“You’re getting sleepy…you’re so tired you can hardly function…if you looked into the Mirror of Erised, you’d see a bed with loads of pillows…is it working?”

“Not at all,” Nora yawned.

James rolled onto his back with a sigh. Between him and Nora, Delilah continued cooing and gnawing on her socked feet. So much for lovemaking and an early bedtime. It was nearly midnight, it’d taken four hours to get the other three to settle, and Delilah continued her post-Christmas pattern of short catnaps that seemed to fuel her for hours afterwards.

“I might actually kill my uncle,” James realized. He stared up at the ceiling. “Murder. Me, a murderer. Would you still love me if I murdered?”

“How would you kill him?”

“Humanely. Hemlock?”

“I’m concerned that you consider hemlock humane?”

“No, you’re right,” James relented. He moaned pitifully. “I’m so tired.”

“I’m beyond tired. I’m not even sure I’m in my body right now,” Nora admitted.

James rolled back over to face Delilah. He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at his daughter. She met his eyes. Her resulting smile was unfairly adorable. Her dimples made him smile back despite his frustration.

“Delilah, my darling dearest Delilah,” he cooed. “What’s wrong? Why won’t you go to sleep? What do you need? Another lullaby?”

She continued staring happily at him as she drooled all over her sock.

“No? A story? Do you want Mummy to perform a monologue?”

Delilah kicked her feet out and giggled. Nora and James exchanged a wide-eyed look. Nora obliged at once.

“‘What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? Let me see: 'ask me no reason why I love you—’”

Delilah kicked her feet even harder. Nora stopped, for fear of making her even more energetic. They watched as she struggled to roll over onto her tummy (she found it difficult to do on the soft mattress). James helped her. Once she was on her tummy, she reached out towards her mum. She babbled as she sweetly stroked Nora’s pajama top. It was clear in Delilah language. Nora sighed.

“Oh, all right,” she relented. She scooted up and pulled Delilah into her arms. Delilah’s babbling grew much happier. “But you’re getting impressively chubby, Delilah. I swear you can eat more than any baby I’ve ever met.”

James leaned over and tickled Delilah’s foot.

“That’s your little Weasley genes, my love, did you know that?” he asked her.

She babbled back like they were having a conversation. James nodded seriously.

“Good point,” he told her.

Delilah nursed for maybe three minutes and then promptly fell asleep. They stared at their daughter in disbelief.

“That’s the equivalent of Henry falling asleep at the chippy before his food’s even arrived. And that boy loves his chips.”

“I think she’s just had a caffeine crash,” James realized.

They held their breath as Nora passed Delilah over to James. He very slowly settled her down in the cot beside their bed. They didn’t so much as move for a full two minutes.

“I think it’s finally over,” James whispered, his eyes on Delilah’s little back as it rose and fell steadily. “I think she’s really out.”

“Merlin, this day has been like the first two months all over again,” Nora marveled. “Albus and Scorpius really have no idea what they’ll be getting themselves into with a newborn.”

“Eh, they’ll learn,” James yawned. “We did.”

They shifted beneath the covers. Nora wedged her hand beneath her pillow and faced James.

“Yeah, but we spent our first few weeks with your mum and dad. Double the parents.”

“Are you joking? I’m sure my mum and dad will be there for the first few weeks with them, too…and Draco!”

“Mmm, fair point,” she yawned.

After snuggling up, they both slipped off to sleep. It was the best sleep James had had in a very long time.


 

“And then Uncle George told me that he’d poisoned them!” James recounted.

His mum choked on her tea. She barely managed to cover her mouth with a napkin as she coughed it up.

“What?!”

James gave another spirited recount of the Christmas Poisoning of 2027. His mum was outraged.

“That idiot! How difficult is it to label your laced products?! I’m going to kill him!”

“Oh, question of interest, Ginny,” Nora said. She leaned over the table towards Ginny and laced her hands together. “How would you kill him?”

“Humanely,” Ginny said at once. She nodded. “Poison him right back.”

James enveloped his mum in a fond hug.

“James is so your son…” Nora said, amused.

“I can’t believe Georgie poisoned you!” Ginny cooed to Delilah. Delilah was in an amazing mood after her long, unperturbed sleep the night before. James and Nora had even taken the kids into London for breakfast to show Delilah off; she was an attention-grabbing ray of sunshine when she was in cute, agreeable moods like this (which, to be fair, was often). She always made elderly people in particular really happy, and James loved watching people fawn over his kids.

“So what do you think, Ginny?” Nora asked, interrupting Ginny’s continued cooing to her granddaughter. “About the surrogacy thing.”

Ginny looked up. Her eyes softened. “I think, if it were me, you’d be one of the only people in the entire world that I’d trust completely to do something like that.”

“Aw,” Nora said, touched. She set a hand over her heart and smiled at Ginny.

Ginny’s expression gradually fell. She cocked her head to the side and peered hard at the floor. “It is a bit strange though…my daughter-in-law being pregnant with my son’s husband’s baby and my daughter’s baby…I’ve got about three separate connections to the kid…it's sort of a grandchild from all three of my kids at once...”

James was confused.

“Wait, what? Your daughter? What’s Lulu got to do with this?” he asked.

Ginny looked back at him. “Oh. I thought you would’ve heard. Albus said she offered to donate a few of her eggs. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly moving or maternal moment, and Scorpius says she sort of offered them like somebody offers the last few chips on their plate when they’re full but…very kind despite.”

James gaped.

“That’s lovely!” Nora said.

“Oh my…God and Merlin…” James managed.

“I’m actually really relieved to hear that. One thing that’s been making me uncomfortable is the idea of a stranger’s eggs being used to create the embryo…it’d be weird to have some parts of somebody I don’t even know inside of me…”

“But my sister being inside of you isn’t weird?!” James demanded. His mum arched an eyebrow. He backtracked. “In retrospect, I regret my phrasing, but my point still stands.”

“Why’s that weirder than Scorpius being inside of me?”

“I dunno, it just is…honestly, I hate the idea that my little sister’s even got eggs to give…” James trailed off with a shudder.

“Eggs form in the womb,” Ginny and Nora said in sync. They looked at each other with adorable looks of surprise. James was torn between fondness and disgust at what they’d actually said.

“I think I spend too much time with you two,” Ginny admitted.

“No such thing! Unless my dads ask…in which case, you hardly ever see us…”

“Oh Merlin, you two didn’t tell Dean and Seamus about the poisoning did you?”

“Absolutely not,” James reassured her.

“Good. I can’t take another comment from them. I might end up tackling your dad to the ground, Nora.”

“Can you make sure we’re there to see it? I could really use the laugh.”

Ginny leaned over and knocked her mug against Nora’s. “Will do.”

Harry stumbled in five minutes later, a kid standing on each foot and Evra on his shoulders. “What sounds good for lunch, Gin?”

“Anything—maybe everything—I’m starving.”

“That’s where you get it from, Delilah,” James said, his eyes landing on the happy baby lying on Ginny’s lap. He leaned over Nora and tickled Delilah’s tummy. “Your strong, impressive appetite.”

“Evra? Finnigan? Henry? Any ideas better than ‘everything’?” Harry asked.

The kids shouted out a confusing tangle of different ideas. James went ahead and warned his dad before he found out the hard way.

“Finnigan’s decided he’s a vegetarian and he’s going to interrogate you on every single ingredient in everything you make. It’s his new thing.”

“It’s very tiring,” Nora added. “He interrogated me over eggs this morning. Wanted to know if the farmers asked the hens for their eggs or just stole them.”

Ginny choked against a withheld laugh. James kneaded his temples tiredly.

“We can work with that,” Harry reassured Finnigan. “How about the Lulu Special? Handcrafted for feisty, finicky babies born in April?”

“Is it cake?!”

NoFinnigan!” they all chorused.


 

Scorpius and Albus arrived perfectly on time. Harry had just finished lunch as they stepped out of the Floo. They managed to brush most of the soot from their clothes before James’s kids bombarded them with hugs and kisses.

“I missed you both terribly,” Evra told them.

“Really? You just saw us two days ago,” Albus reminded her, amused.

Scorpius lifted her up and twirled her around and around in a series of dizzying spins. She was roaring with laughter when they came to a stop.

There was an argument over who would get to sit next to Albus and Scorpius as the kids took their seats. In the end, Henry got to sit in Albus’s lap, Evra was beside Scorpius, and Finnigan got to be between both of them. James settled down with Delilah, heated a bottle with the tap of his wand, and cradled her as she ate.

“So,” James said. “Nora and I have been talking about—”

“I didn’t mean to!” Scorpius blurted.

Silence fell over the table.

“Er…what?” James asked, confused.

Scorpius frowned. “I didn’t mean to make her feel like she had to offer that. Nora, I’m so sorry. I feel so terrible about it…”

“He’s been insufferable these past few days,” Albus told the table. “He’s convinced he ‘manipulated you’, Nora.”

What?” she laughed, baffled. 

“I must’ve! I must have done! I was drunk and I didn’t mean to cry, didn’t mean to make it seem like…like…” Scorpius trailed off. Even he seemed a bit confused about what he was trying to say. “The point is, that never even occurred to me, Nora, and I would never, ever ask you or anybody else to do that. I hope you still love me and think I’m a nice person. Do you?”

James met his mum’s eyes. They both had to look away quickly to keep from laughing.

“Scorpius, offered. I’d been thinking about since the night before. James and I had a brief discussion about it before we even went to the Burrow. You didn’t manipulate me.”

“You couldn’t manipulate her, mate,” James reassured him. Nora was far too adept at reading people.

“But…but…but…”

“I’d let her carry my baby,” Ginny said.

“Mum!” Albus complained.

“What?” Ginny asked. She shrugged and took another sip of her pumpkin juice. “I would. Look how healthy and gorgeous all her babies are. Clearly, she does a good job.”

She gestured towards Delilah. James lifted her up slightly—just enough that she could be seen above the table.

“That’s all my genes,” James quipped with feigned cockiness. Albus threw a bit of carrot across the table at him; James opened his mouth by instinct to jokingly try to catch it, actually managed to catch it in his mouth, let out a war-cry…and then realized absolutely nobody had seen it. His shoulders fell. He looked down at his daughter; his heart jumped when he realized she was smiling hugely at him, the bottle fallen from her mouth. He leaned over and kissed over her dimple.

You saw that, didn’t you, darling?” he cooed quickly.

She babbled back and reached up to grab at his face. James smiled and allowed her to poke at his nose and eyes as she latched back onto the bottle.

“That’s…a big thing, what Nora’s offering,” Scorpius finally said. He seemed a bit speechless. “Nora, why would you—”

AUNTIE LULU!”

James glanced towards the fireplace at Finnigan’s cry. Lily stepped out, coughing a bit because of the dust and soot. She tapped her wand against her glasses, cleaning the dirt from the lenses. Finnigan catapulted over his chair and sped across the kitchen; Lily lifted him up into her arms and accepted his messy kiss.

“You’re late,” Ginny tsked.

“Sorry, had an appointment,” Lily answered. She evaded Finnigan’s fifth sloppy kiss and glanced at the table. She brightened. “Lulu Special! I knew I was your favorite, Dad.”

“It’s for me,” Finnigan corrected her.

Lily withdrew her arms at once, sending Finnigan crashing towards the ground. She caught him a half-second before he actually made contact with the wooden floor. Finnigan found it as delightful as he always did.

Lily sat down in the vacant seat on James’s other side and dug something from her pocket. She ignored her food as she lifted up what James recognized at once as a muggle mobile phone. James’s kids watched on curiously as she squinted at the screen. James exchanged a look with his dad.

“Why do you have a muggle pocket telephone?” Ginny finally asked in a tired tone. 

Lily continued tapping away at the screen, her brow furrowed in annoyance. “Hugo gave me one. So we can all stay in touch when I go back to New Zealand next week. He told me letters are ‘archaic’…damn it! I hate this piece of absolute, utter—”

“The kids!” James reminded her. “No swearing! I mean it!”

“—Dragon dung,” she completed, a twinge of annoyance in her voice.

“What are you trying to do?” Nora asked. “I can help. My dad has had one for as long as I can remember.”

Lily looked over at Nora. “I want the lady gone,” she said gravely.

“The lady?” Nora repeated, puzzled. “Oh! The interface.”

“I don’t want her to live in the phone. It’s private.”

“Oh, no, it’s not like portraits or anything, it doesn’t have its own thoughts or feelings,” Nora reassured Lily.

Lily arched an eyebrow. “How do you know?”

“Because I just…do.” Nora seemed to realize she wasn’t going to win that battle with Lily. She held out her hand. “Here, let me see. I’ll see if I can turn it off.”

Lily tightened her hold on her new phone.

“Mmm…better not. Thanks, though.”

“Don’t be silly,” Nora persisted. “I can fix it. No use getting upset.”

“No, trust me on this. Better not.”

“Oh, just give her the phone,” Albus snapped, clearly annoyed on Nora’s behalf. He leaned over the table and snatched it from Lily’s hands.

“Oi!” she cried. He tapped a few times at the screen. Lily lunged across the table to try and pull it from his hands, but she wasn’t tall enough; her arms didn’t stretch close enough to reach him. “Albus, do not look at my letters!”

“Your what?”

“I think she means the messages,” Nora supplied.

“Why not?” Albus taunted. “Have you been sending little ‘I love you’ texts to your little boyfriend—OH, MERLIN!”

Albus dropped the phone to the tabletop. The interface Lily hated so much came to life.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite get that—”

“Idiot,” Lily muttered. “Both you, Albus, and the Phone Woman.”

James was a bit lost, but going by Albus’s disgusted expression, he was thankful for that fact. He’d rather be lost than nauseated.

“Mum!” Albus exploded.

“No, don’t look at me,” Ginny said. She continued eating. “It’s hers. She warned you. You did it anyway. You can live with whatever you saw.”

Albus looked to Harry next.

“Honestly, Al, you should’ve known better,” Harry said.

Lily held out her hand expectantly. Albus dropped the phone into it like it was covered in dog sick. He wiped his hand on his trousers afterwards.

“I’m going to tell Draco,” Albus warned. “I know what time it is. I know Caden’s at work right now. That’s inappropriate!”

Lily had already leaned back in her chair and lifted the phone back up. She was painstakingly tapping the screen bit-by-bit. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell him, then…no, that is how you spell ‘tremble’! I’m turning you off, Spelling Boss, you stupid fu – ”

“Lily! No swearing!”

Fine! Merlin, I shouldn’t’ve come,” she grumbled. She seemed exceptionally surly. “Nora, how do I turn the spelling thing off?”

“Give it here.” Nora held her hand out. “I won’t look at your messages, I promise.”

“At least somebody’s got brains,” Lily muttered.

“Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t’ve come,” Albus said. Lily glared at him. James knew he only had a few seconds to intervene before it became a fight.  

“Don’t you two start,” James complained. He watched his little sister slide down in her chair, the corners of her mouth pulled down in a deep frown. When she crossed her arms over her chest, she reminded him of a sulky toddler. “What’s wrong with you, Lily? Muggle technology is nothing but trouble, you know.”

“No, it’s not that,” she snapped.

“Albus can be a—”

“It’s not Albus, either.”

“Albus can be a what?” Albus challenged James. James didn’t reply.

Like before, Scorpius seemed to explode.

“Is it the eggs? Because it’s okay if you changed your mind, Lily! I understand. I understand completely. You don’t owe us anything, much less your child, so I absolutely get it.”

“No, no,” she said. Nora passed the phone back to her; she dropped it down into her lap. “It’s not about the…E-G-G-S.”

“Eggs!” Evra said.

“Where?!” Finnigan panicked. He shoved his plate away and looked at Harry, furious. “You said no eggs!”

“No, no, not on the plate,” Nora reassured their son. “Eat your lunch, love.” She looked at Lily. “Nervous about going back to New Zealand?” she said knowingly.

Lily grimaced. “No,” she lied, but her face had visibly fallen, and she’d slid down even more in her chair.  

It was coming up—her departure date. James felt a bit more sympathy for her. He certainly couldn’t imagine doing what she did. He couldn’t imagine living so far from his mum and dad. From Nora.

“You don’t have to go,” Harry said (a bit too casually).

“Of course I do, Dad,” Lily said. She sounded very tired. She picked at her food for a few moments and then the phone buzzed loudly in her lap. She lifted it back up. The smile that spread across her face was much more radiant than anything their attempts at reassurance had caused.

“So, let’s talk about this while we’re all here,” Ginny urged, Lily’s departure obviously still on her mind. “Scorpius, you’ve been working with a muggle doctor who does all of this, right? Have you found ways to use magic to make it less risky? Because I was up all night reading one of the books you loaned me and it seems a bit…frightening. Not sure I like the idea of Lily or Nora undergoing it the muggle way.”

Scorpius brightened. “Yes, actually! I’ve begun working on something that I think will be very effective—and very safe. Much less invasive, too. It’ll take a few months, but yes, I feel very confident about it!”

“Nora shouldn’t have another baby for a while anyway,” James reminded everybody. He set the drained bottle on the table and lifted Delilah up as an explanation. He turned her around and held her to his chest a moment afterwards, his hand patting gently at her back. It only took a few pats before she gave a hearty belch. Henry clapped immediately.

“Wow, Delilah!” Finnigan said excitedly. “That one is a six!! Your highest score since you were even borned!”

Evra didn’t join in on Finnigan and Henry’s celebration. She’d slapped her hands over her mouth. “Mummy’s having a baby?!”

Bugger. “Oh, no, darling, Mummy’s not,” James told her quickly. She deflated in disappointment. James and Nora held an inquisitive glance—should they explain what they were considering to Evra now? Or should they wait until it was definite? Nora’s eyes appeared concerned, which indicated to James that she was worried about how Evra would take it (which meant she’d probably want to see how she’d take it before they made concrete plans). James nodded.

“Evra,” Nora began. She reached over and took their daughters’ hands. “You know how mummies grow babies in their tummies?”

Evra nodded.

“Well, did you ever wonder about families that are two daddies?”

She very clearly hadn’t, but at those words, she glanced right at Albus and Scorpius. Albus appeared a bit chuffed to have himself referred to as a dad. He sat up straighter and reached for Scorpius’s hand. Scorpius’s cheeks had pinked a bit, but he was smiling.

“Dean and Seamus are two daddies,” Finnigan shared. He continued cramming his mouth full with pita right afterwards.

“Right,” Nora said. She gently brushed Evra’s curls back from her face. “And the first Delilah grew me in her tummy. I may do the same for your uncles—take care of their baby in my tummy, just for a little while. How would you feel about that?”

James had mostly expected Evra to accept it with no scruples. She thought her mum had personally crafted each star and would’ve accepted anything she told her. But at that, Evra’s smile crumbled.

What?!” she said. She looked from James to Nora. “You’re going to marry my uncles?! You’re already married!! To Daddy!”

There were many hasty coughs as every adult tried to withhold their laughter. Nora reached for Evra; Evra climbed into her lap at once, her arms loops around Nora’s neck, her face still blanketed in a horrified expression.

“People can have babies when they aren’t married,” she told her.

“First Delilah was your mummy and Dean was married to her. Dean let me dress up in her wedding dress!” Evra persisted.

James thought it was actually clever of his daughter to make that connection, to realize that, in order for Nora to have Albus and Scorpius’s baby ‘like Delilah had had her’, that that would imply she was actually marrying and being with Albus and Scorpius. James wanted to brag about his child’s intelligence but realized that it wasn’t the time.

Nora glanced at Ginny, imploring assistance. Ginny leaned towards Evra.

“Evra, remember when Mummy was pregnant with Delilah?” Ginny asked.

Evra nodded.

“It’ll be like that—only it won’t be Mummy and Daddy’s baby in her tummy, it’ll be Albus and Scorpius’s. It won’t be your brother or sister; it’ll be your cousin. And they’ll take care of it until it’s ready to be born…like…babysitting! And then Albus and Scorpius will take it home.”

“That’s a big babysitting,” Finnigan murmured beneath his breath. Everybody looked at him. He continued eating his lunch.

Evra furrowed her brow as she thought. “But there’s no flowers.”

Oh, Merlin. James exchanged a dismayed look with Nora. He realized this was going to get a lot more technical than he’d hoped.

“Er…flowers?” Ginny asked.

“A mummy’s a flower and a daddy’s a honeybee,” Evra explained, as if Ginny had no idea how reproduction worked. It wasn’t a very tidy comparison, but the first time Evra had curiously asked him how the baby got inside Nora’s stomach, he’d panicked a bit. And they'd  happened to be eating honey toast at the time.

Oh,” Ginny realized. “Er…well…”

“‘Cause Alby and Scorpius are both daddies so they’re both honeybees.”

Everybody hesitated awkwardly. Lily was impervious to it.

“Fittingly, Evra, I’m the flower,” she said. She’d been staring at the phone, but after a moment, she lowered it. She looked towards the table with a furrowed brow. “Or…wait, don’t bees carry pollen from one flower to another? Wouldn’t that imply that a man’s co—”

“LILY!”

“It’s just not a very great example, is all, Jamie. She’s going to grow up thinking it involves three people. Which I guess it does for some…”

James looked back at his daughter. She looked even more confused. She looked at Albus and Scorpius.

“Auntie Lulu’s the flower?”

“Maybe, if she still wants to be when we get this all figured out,” Scorpius explained gently.

“So…Auntie Lulu’s the flower…but there’s two bees?”

James was getting a headache.

“No, Scorpius will be the bee,” Albus piped up, only barely managing to keep his laughter at bay. His smirk resisted being suppressed. James kicked his leg from underneath the table. He didn’t want Evra to feel like they were laughing at her.

Evra’s face brightened. “Oh! And then Mummy will take care of the baby in her tummy for you.”

“Right!” Nora and Ginny exclaimed proudly.

“How do you feel about that?” Scorpius asked. “Is that okay with you, Evra?”

Evra was beaming. “I so want another cousin, Scorpy.”

Scorpius’s face widened with a radiant smile. “Yeah? How about you, Finnigan?”

Finnigan looked up, his cheeks bulging with food. “Wha—?”

“I don’t think the boys are really old enough to get it yet,” Albus hissed to Scorpius.

“I am old enough! I’m big!” Finnigan argued at once.

“Okay, are you okay with it?” Albus challenged his nephew.

Finnigan looked uncertainly at James. James nodded.

“Yes, I am!” Finnigan proclaimed.

“And you, Henry? What about you?” Scorpius asked softly.

Henry looked up at him happily, still seated in Albus’s lap. He clearly felt extremely important to have been included; his smile was one of the brightest James had ever seen. His heart swelled about tenfold, and judging by the way everybody around the table had seemed to melt a bit, everybody else’s had, too.

“YES!” Henry cried, even though there was no way he’d truly grasped what they were talking about.

“Delilah?” Scorpius asked. By this point, Scorpius was openly beaming. Albus was snickering at his side—amused by Scorpius’s insistence on getting an infant’s approval—but his eyes were full of affection.

James turned Delilah around so she was facing Scorpius.

“Scorpius wants to know if this is okay with you, Delilah,” James prompted seriously.  

Delilah clumsily slapped at the edge of the table, and when James wrapped his arms around her (to keep her from hurting her little hands in her excitement), she leaned forward and pressed her open mouth to his forearm. The table erupted in laughter as she blew a slobbery raspberry. She seemed incredibly proud of herself, enough so that she sat back up (a bit unsteadily) and collapsed into raucous giggles. James thought he could visibly mark the moment Albus’s baby fever reached all-time highs, but he couldn’t blame him; Delilah was, by all accounts, irresistibly adorable. If she wasn’t already his baby, he was sure he and Nora would be heading home to make another one that very moment.

“So are we doing this, then?” Albus blurted. James didn’t know if he’d tried to hide the longing in his voice, but if he had, he’d failed miserably. James sent his eldest three out into the garden to play (after making sure they’d eaten enough of their lunch), and then he exchanged a look with his mum. Scorpius and Nora looked at each other. Nora looked at James. Scorpius looked at Lily. James looked at Albus. Nobody said anything for a least a minute.

“We could think on it for a bit,” Scorpius finally said. He sounded nervous and a bit crestfallen; James guessed he’d taken the silence as a bad thing. “You shouldn’t be pregnant again for at least seven more months, Nora, so we can use that time to read loads of books…talk with some Muggle surrogates and families…go over the methods I’m working on in detail…make sure everybody’s really comfortable with this…”

James knew Nora’s soft smile, and he knew her silence hadn’t been a bad thing.

“All of that sounds like a really good idea,” she told Scorpius. She reached over and took his hand; Scorpius’s eyes seemed a bit misty as he covered her hand with his other one. “But I’m already on board. These months will be for planning more than decision making.”

Scorpius was choked up and couldn’t seem to find anything to say. He looked at Albus, but Albus was looking at Lily.

“Lily, you really don’t have to do this,” he told her. James hardly ever heard Albus speak gently to Lily (because Lily wasn’t exactly a person that required gentleness on a daily basis), so it got his full attention. He examined his sister. Her face was turned down, and from what they could see of her expression, her brow was furrowed. Was she having second thoughts?

“What?” Lily asked, without looking up. James realized she was probably looking at the phone again. “Scorpius, how do you spell ‘undulate’?” 

Scorpius smiled proudly. “That’s a great word, Lily! U-N-D—”

“Don’t answer that,” Albus said quickly, his lip curled up in disgust. “Lily, are you even listening to this conversation? This is a big deal, you know. You’ve offered to technically give us your child. I’d think you’d be more invested in the process.”

“I am invested,” she said, a bit defensively. She looked up at them. She shrugged. “I’ve just already made up my mind is all.”

“Just like that?” Albus demanded, skeptical.

Lily nodded firmly. She shared a smile with Scorpius. “Just like that.”

Albus hesitated. “And you know, right, that it’ll be ours? We’ll raise it, it’ll call us…well, we’ll be its parents? You’ll be Auntie Lulu, even if you’re genetically its mum. Are you okay with that?”

“Okay with it? That’s what’s got me sold on the idea.” She set her phone face down on the table. She beamed. “Can you imagine how lovely the baby will be? Half me and half Scorpius…it’s the best genetic combination since Mum and Dad had a baby.”

“Oi!” James complained at once.

Lily relented. “Okay, and James and Nora.”

“Damn right. We’re beautiful. Our babies could be models.”

“We get stopped all the time in muggle London,” Nora nodded.

“Lulu,” Harry said. Lily looked towards her dad. “You’re sure it wouldn’t be difficult for you? It’d be your first child. I can’t imagine…” Harry trailed off, his eyes meeting James’s. James smiled at him.

“But it won’t really be; it’d be Albus’s and Scorpius’s. I’m fine with it, honest, Dad. I don’t know if I’m going to have kids, and they definitely want kids, and I’ve got plenty of E-G-G-S to create them…it makes sense. Plus, you know…” she trailed off. Her cheeks reddened. She looked down at her phone again and avoided their eyes. “It’d be nice. To help.”

James wondered how much of this had to do with the baby dragons that’d died, the baby dragons he knew she felt responsible for. Maybe helping to create life would help her. It’d be a fitting way for her to feel like she’d atoned for what’d happened before Christmas (even though he personally felt she had no need to). He also didn’t miss the fact that she’d somehow flipped from ‘I’m never having kids ever’ to ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have kids’. James made a mental note to gossip with Nora about that later.

“Obviously anybody can change their mind at any point,” Scorpius said quickly. “We’ll have a long time to think about this and learn about it…” he swallowed hard. “Thank you for even considering it.”

Ginny stood and walked over to stand behind Scorpius’s chair. He smiled as she wrapped her arms around him and kissed the top of his head.

“You two deserve it,” she told him, her hand moving over to rest on Albus’s shoulder. Albus reached up and gave it a warm squeeze. “And what’s more: you’ll be phenomenal dads.”

“You think so?” Albus asked. James noticed he’d glanced over to Harry, as if the question were really for him. Harry smiled.

“I really, really do, Al,” he admitted. His smile grew. “And more grandbabies are never a bad thing.”

“Oh, Merlin,” Ginny said suddenly. Everybody looked at her. Her eyes had landed on Nora. “Nora, have you talked to your dads about this yet? How are they going to feel about this? Your dad nearly hyperventilates every time you give birth.”

James frowned. Nora’s smile faltered a bit.

“It’s not their decision to make. I’ll talk with them. It’ll be okay.”

“Draco,” Harry remembered suddenly. He looked to Scorpius. “Have you two talked to Draco about this?”

“No!” Scorpius said quickly. “And don’t tell him yet, okay? I don’t want to tell him until it’s actually happened. I don’t want to get his hopes up for nothing, you know?”

“Right,” Ginny said gently. “It’s a bit high stakes for him. Last Malfoy and all.”

“Who would’ve thought it?” Harry mused aloud. He seemed torn between a smile and a disgusted grimace. “My daughter…procreating…with Draco Malfoy’s son.”

“We need to start bets on the child’s temperament yesterday,” Ginny hissed to Harry.

“Oh, I nearly forgot,” Lily said. She reached into her jeans and withdrew another mobile phone. She slid it across the table; Ginny caught it by instinct before it slid off, but she was looking at it like it might bite her. “Hugo had Avery fix one up for you two. Dad, you still can’t take it into Hogwarts—he could get them to cooperate around moderate levels of magic, but nothing like it’d encounter at Hogwarts—but it’ll work here. This way I don’t have to wait ages for letters. Or for the Ministry to get around to paying for more mirrors to be manufactured…lazy.”

“We’re very busy and stretched thin financially,” James defended the Ministry.

“Bureaucrat,” Lily muttered.

Harry lifted the phone up. “Will you send us photos of the dragons?”

“That’s probably all I’ll do,” Lily admitted. She tapped the phone. “I’m going to be dangerous with this.”

“We’ll all stay in touch about this, yeah?” Albus asked. “The baby thing, I mean.”

“Absolutely,” Nora assured him.

James and Nora rounded their kids up, said their goodbyes, and headed back to their home. They collapsed onto the sofa in the sitting room after getting the kids down for their naps. James yawned and cuddled closer to his wife, content and brimming with steady joy. His wife sighed happily into their kiss.

“This feels right,” she told him. “Like it’s what we’re meant to do.”

James felt his already-bursting heart fill even more. It shouldn’t have been possible, but then again, he and Nora had made it a habit of defying expectations.

Chapter Text

“I j-j-just feel as if…as if…I was betrayed.”

The sobbing man in front of him succumbed to another round of violent, shoulder-shaking sobs. Draco pursed his lips politely and looked down at his folded hands. He took his time considering the situation before he replied.

“Your wife can’t sign off on it on her own. I know it seems grim, but nobody can force you to give up your child. If she has taken him up to the Ministry, the head of Social Relations and Services won’t remove him from the home without the consent of both parents—and even then he’ll attempt to put your family through counseling programs to remedy the problem versus actually removing the child. Have you been to the Ministry today?”

“Y-Yes! He’s in meetings all day long, the head of the department, and I know she’s going to cheat her way up in the queue and she’s going to abandon our son!”

Draco summoned a box of tissues from the bookshelf behind his desk. It landed neatly in front of the man. He pulled two free and blew his nose loudly.

“As I said, there is no way she can sign off your custody of your child. Go back home and wait—if she’s really gone up there with your son, you’ll be contacted first, as you’re now his primary caregiver. Nobody is going to take your child from you unless you want him to be.”

“I d-don’t care if he’s a squib. At first, when we found out, I thought that I did…I was so angry. But he’s my baby!”

Draco felt the back of his throat prickle. He thought of the first time he held Scorpius. The way his heart had opened up—he had never in his life felt anything like that. Had never in his life felt affection or purpose like that before. He had never felt so loved, so important. And his tiny, fragile son, with his eyelids so pale that Draco could see tiny purple veins beneath, his hair so white-blond that it appeared to sparkle beneath the light, his hand that could wrap entirely around Draco’s thumb…he couldn’t imagine what he’d do if somebody tried to take him away. He couldn’t imagine caring if somebody said ‘he’s a squib’. He was certain, in the end, he would’ve replied: ‘No, he’s Scorpius’.

Draco opened the top drawer and thumbed through the rows of contact cards. He picked the most gentle-hearted counselor they had. This man didn’t need tough love.

“Here.” He offered the card to the new father. “This counselor is on the P-wing, third door on the left. Go speak with her. I’ll get in contact with Potter for you before your wife can.” The man took the card with trembling hands. Draco peered seriously at him. “It’s going to be okay.”

“H-He’s booked ‘til Thursday,” the man said weakly.

“Not for me. He’s my…well, I’m actually not sure what the official title is…but his brother’s my son-in-law,” Draco reminded him. There weren’t many people in their world who didn’t know, but every now and then he stumbled upon somebody who was so in their own head that they weren’t even close to up to date with current events. “I can speak with him during the lunch hour.”

“Thank you,” he said, his eyes now on the contact card. He stood. “You’ll bring my son here?”

“I’ll send you to the department to retrieve him if he’s already been dropped off,” Draco reassured him. “If he hasn’t, I’ll set up an appointment with Potter for you.”

Draco checked his wristwatch after the man had gone. Nearly lunch time. He felt his heart jolt; his stomach felt weirdly bubbly as he thought about his lunch plans. He smiled. He could hardly contain his excitement as he turned around in his chair to face the mirror on the bottom shelf of the bookshelf. He inspected his reflection carefully. He forced a toothy smile and made sure no food had gotten stuck in his teeth. He was combing through his hair—his hands trembling just a bit in his anticipation—when he heard a quick knock on his office door. Assuming it was another WWEU member coming in to hold his lunch hour up, he turned around with a frown. He found his son-in-law in the doorway, his frown nearly identical to Draco’s.

“Draco,” Albus began tiredly. He draped his coat over the back of one of the chairs in front of Draco’s desk. Draco was peering at him in concern as he fell down into it with a sigh. Albus met his eyes. “I’d quite like a Bordeaux holiday.”

Having expected something a bit more dramatic, Draco couldn’t help but snort. Albus propped his elbow up on the arm of the chair and rested his chin in his hand, looking every bit tired and dejected. He heaved a deep sigh. Draco felt both concerned and amused.

“What’s happened? Are you and Scorpius bickering over furniture again?”

“No, I let him have his five-hundred galleon rug…still think it’s excessive, mind you, but it makes him happy, so we’ve got a rug the price of a tiny island in our flat.”

“He gets that from Astoria. Wasn’t fussy about much, but decorating…she’d have gutted the Manor if my parents—…” Draco broke off abruptly, an odd tangle of resentment and longing overtaking his heart. He cleared his throat gruffly. “I can sympathize with you, I mean.”

Albus looked down at his lap awkwardly. Draco tried not to mention his parents as a rule, but every now and then he slipped up, and Albus never seemed to know how to handle it when he did. Draco tried to pave over the awkwardness.

“Did you come by to get the Bordeaux home keys? You know you can just go to the Manor and get them whenever you like; they’re in my study hanging with all the other keys,” he reminded him.

Albus crossed his arms sulkily. “I can’t really go to France this weekend. I’m working all day Saturday.”

“Ah,” Draco said. “Are you being punished for something?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I think Young’s still cross with me for taking off for Evvie and Ben’s wedding. Even though—”

“—you asked off well in advance and followed all regulations by the book,” Draco completed for him.

Albus appeared a bit sheepish. “Sorry. I know I’ve complained about this a lot.”

“No, don’t apologize,” Draco said. He tried to calculate the best thing to say to make Albus understand that he liked when he vented to him. “I don’t mind.”

The corners of Albus’s mouth quirked up in a small smile. Another silence fell over them.

“Did you—”

“Do you—”

They both stopped. After a brief pause, Draco said: “You first.”

“Do you have lunch plans? Scorpius and I were going to go to the Three Broomsticks but he got held up at work—another baby with Troll Fever— so I thought I’d come by and see if you wanted to. You know. Go to Three Broomsticks. Have a pint or whatever. Scorp might join us later.”

Draco hesitated. He didn’t want to tell his son-in-law no, because he didn’t want him to think that he didn’t want to spend time with him (he did), but he was supposed to go somewhere else during his lunch break…though, his previous plans were also in Hogsmeade, so he could go to lunch with Albus and then go where he’d intended originally…

“Yes, I’d like that. Let’s 'have a pint or whatever,'” Draco decided.

Albus grinned. “Brilliant! I’m starving.” He stood and grabbed his coat off the back of the chair. Draco stood and began gathering his own items—coat, a zipped bag containing carefully packaged herbs from the gardens surrounding Malfoy Manor, the notes he’d taken during the tearful father’s visit to drop off to James—while Albus set at once for the door. “Oh, can we go by the farmer’s market afterwards? I won’t be able to make our usual trip this Saturday because of my bloody work schedule. We’re running low on food at the moment; I had to make cheese and onion sandwiches for dinner last night.”

Draco smiled. His heart warmed. “I’ll go to the farmer’s market anytime you like,” he admitted. “The elves were just complaining that we’re low on produce at the Manor, too. We can go by after we eat.”

Albus looked up at him as they left Draco’s office. “Did you hear that they’ve added in an ‘exotic produce’ stand?”

Draco’s eyes widened. “What? Seriously? When?”

“Just this week! Michael told me yesterday—he was in my office reporting a theft. Somebody stole every single banana from the market on Monday.”

Draco furrowed his brow. “What on earth would somebody do with that many bananas?”

“Make a few smoothies with some of them, eat some plain…find other uses for them…who knows, really? We think the thief had a cheap invisibility cloak on because hardly anybody…saw…him…”

Albus gradually trailed off. Draco had been looking at him as they spoke, but as Albus's eyes narrowed slightly, he turned his gaze in the direction Albus was looking. Ah.

“Cocking slut!!” Evangeline the parrot greeted. Typical.

“Hello, Delphi,” Draco said as they approached. He pointed at the bird. “I thought I said no pets within the WWEU?”

Albus and Delphi were sharing an uneasy glance. She came to a stop in front of them.

“She’s not a pet,” Delphi finally said, her eyes still on Albus. “She's practically a child. Hello, Albus."

“Hi,” Albus said, his voice a bit stiff. He jumped as Evangeline spread her colorful wings; he looked extremely uncomfortable as the bird soared over to perch on his shoulder. He shot nervous looks at her sharp beak from the corner of his eye.

“How are you?” asked Delphi.

“Fine. How are you?”

“Good. Draco, I need a favor,” Delphi said, turning back to him.

She was his cousin, one of the last people on the planet he shared blood with, but he knew what she was going to ask, and he did not want to say yes. He waited in dread for her to continue.

“Could you take Evangeline for the night? I was asked to fill in and work the nightshift and I can’t leave her alone in the flat; she has to be in her cage when she’s left unattended for that long and she gets so lonely and stressed in there that she picks out her feathers. I would've said no, but I'm supposed to start working with the company fulltime in February, and I don't want to seem unreliable. I've already got a dubious record since I have no work experience under my fake name, so I really need to do this.”

Draco turned his eyes back to the bird. She was lightly nipping at Albus’s hair in the same way she often groomed her own feathers; Albus had his eyes screwed tightly and was standing so tensely that he looked poised to take off running at any moment. Draco couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his son-in-law so uneasy. Possibly during the dance lessons he’d made Albus and Scorpius take before the wedding.

“Er…well…” Draco began. He took in his cousin’s pleading eyes. He felt guilt gnawing at his gut. He didn’t want to say no, but he didn’t want to say yes, either. The peacocks always tried to go for Evangeline; even if he put her in a carrier he had to outrun the peacocks to make it to the door (animals weren't supposed to apparate or use the Floo for safety reasons.) And he often lost her in Malfoy Manor, too, as her wings weren’t clipped and she could fly as she pleased…the last time she was over she’d flown straight into one of the tall, multi-story windows…then there was the incessant squawking and talking and screaming…no, he could always tell Delphi it wasn’t safe for Evangeline at the Manor…

“Oh, hey,” Albus said suddenly, relieved. The moderate warmness to his tone told Draco he wasn’t talking to Delphi. Sure enough, when Draco turned to follow his gaze, he spotted Caden approaching them. His arms were burdened with files, so Draco guessed he was on his way back to his office from the WWEU archives. He joined their group and beamed brightly, hastily shoving the files down into the bag hanging from his shoulder.

“Evangeline gets an outing,” Caden said, before even greeting them. Draco struggled not to laugh; for some reason, it made him think of a picture book he’d read Scorpius when he was younger (Salazar Gets a Snake). “Lucky birdy you are, Evangeline.”

Evangeline wasted no time flying over to Caden. He held out his arm for her. Once she perched on his forearm, he scratched gently at her neck feathers, entirely comfortable and affectionate with the alarming creature. Draco guessed parrots weren’t so intimidating when you regularly interacted with your girlfriend’s man-eating beasts.

Albus glanced at Draco. Draco met his eyes. Albus furrowed his brow. Do you want to watch the bird? Draco shook his head once. I don’t want to watch the bloody bird.

“Hey, Delphi,” Albus said, turning back to the woman. “Draco was going to…help Scorpius and I paint tonight. But what if Caden watched the bird?”

Draco was partially humiliated by Albus’s forwardness; he couldn’t imagine anything ruder than offering up somebody else for pet-sitting without even asking that person first. But Caden had perked up.

“You need somebody to watch Evangeline, Delphi? How long?” he asked.

“Not for very long,” Delphi said quickly, an edge of desperation to her voice. “I have to work the night-shift and I can’t leave her locked up in the flat. I could drop her off around nine and collect her by six tomorrow morning.”

“Sure, I’ll watch her,” he agreed. Draco let out a tiny sigh of relief. Albus lunged into Draco’s side and away from Caden as Evangeline suddenly moved towards Albus; she ended up stopping at Caden’s wrist, but Albus still stood close-by Draco’s side. Draco felt abruptly fatherly. He set his hands on Albus’s shoulders and switched spots with him, so he didn’t have to be by the bird.  

“Really? You don’t mind?” Delphi asked Caden.

“Not at all. This’ll really cheer Lily up. Er…I’m not to be blamed for anything she teaches Evangeline, though, okay?”

Delphi sighed. “Yeah, I’ve given up on trying to get her to unlearn all the swearing her first owner taught her. Tell Lily to have fun.”

“She certainly will.”

Draco and Albus said their goodbyes and left the two discussing the specifics of bird-sitting. Draco waited until they were all the way at the end of the hall before speaking.

“Just out of curiosity: why does the parrot frighten you but not the peacocks?” 

Albus shrugged his shoulders. “Well, those are Scorpius’s peacocks, right? That’s Delphi’s parrot. The beaks, too…the parrot’s beak looks like it’d hurt way more.”

Draco laughed. “Those peacocks can do real damage when they want to…ask Scorpius about ‘Dottie’ later. For a laugh. Oh, but make sure he’s not holding any hot beverages when you do. When he does his peacock reenactment he’ll spill it down his front.”

Albus stopped dead in his tracks. He reached up and grabbed onto Draco’s arm, pulling him to a stop. His stare was oddly intense.

“There’s a peacock reenactment?” he demanded.

Draco furrowed his brow. “Yeah, of course…it’s Scorpius.”

“There’s a peacock reenactment and nobody thought to tell me this until now? Oh, this is brilliant…” he rubbed his hands together as he laughed fondly. “Tonight will be dinner and a show.”

Draco was amused as he took in his son-in-law’s mischievous expression. He was reminded forcefully of Lily for a moment; she’d had an expression nearly identical to that yesterday as she traveled the halls of the WWEU. Draco had sent her home because of it; he knew what that look meant. It always humored him when he saw bits and pieces of the Potter siblings reflected in each other. It had once made him feel sad (he’d always wanted Scorpius to have what he hadn’t: siblings) but now it made him feel a weird, warm feeling in his chest. Sort of like the feeling his family had always given him. He guessed he liked the knowledge that Scorpius had married into a big family. It was what he'd always wanted.

“You know,” Draco said, as they both resumed walking. “You’re a lot like your sister.”

Oi!” Albus said at once, insulted.

“What? You are. I didn’t say that was a bad thing.”

“Okay, then you’re a lot like your cousin Delphi’s mum!”

“Hey!” Draco said.

“‘I didn’t say it was a bad thing!’” Albus mocked.

Draco had a smiling tugging at the corners of his lips. “You can’t seriously be comparing Lily Potter to Bellatrix Lestrange.”

“Have you ever had to listen to Lily graphically shagging somebody on Christmas Eve? No? Well, it’s evil incarnate.”

Draco grimaced. “So that’s why Scorpius told me I should be glad I had to work that day.”

“If you ever need blackmail on your employee, just ask. I’ve heard and seen more than anybody should ever have to. Just the other day I was trying to help Lily with her new muggle mobile and I saw—”

“No, that’s quite all right,” Draco interrupted firmly. “I understand and I thank you for your silence on that particular topic.”

They stepped into the massive entrance hall (the only place in the building where apparition was allowed).

“Still,” Albus persisted. He peered seriously at Draco. His eyes looked so much like Harry’s for a moment that Draco did a double-take. “You ought to put surveillance measures in Caden’s office.”

“No, thank you,” Draco denied. “If I want to have nightmares, all I’ve got to do is think about my childhood. It’s cheaper and easier. Three Broomsticks?”

“Three Broomsticks,” Albus agreed.


 

They ordered drinks while they mulled over what to order for lunch. Draco didn’t particularly like pub food (or any food that wasn’t cooked in the Manor, really), but he figured there was only so much damage somebody could do to roast chicken. He watched his son-in-law peruse the menu for a moment.

“You’re just going to get fish and chips again, aren’t you?” Draco finally asked.

Albus dropped the menu to the table at once. “Yeah, I don’t know why I always look at the menu.”

“Scorpius says you’re a bit…adventurous in your own kitchen lately,” Draco said, struggling not to laugh.

Albus grimaced. “I’m guessing he mentioned the goat cheese and sweet potato soufflés.”

“Right.”

“They actually tasted fairly good…the bits that didn’t…explode everywhere. Don’t tell my dad. I told him they were a success.”

Draco snorted. “No, I won’t tell your dad, don’t worry about that.”

“Thanks. He told me my recipe wouldn’t work right and I ignored him. Don’t want him to say ‘I told you so.'"

“Fair enough,” Draco nodded. He quickly searched for something to say next. Awkward silences pained him. “How was the zoo? That was yesterday, right?”

“Henry vomited all over Scorpius’s trousers.”

Draco had just taken a sip of his red wine. At that, he choked; his eyes burned with pain as he inhaled the wine down the wrong way. He sputtered into his napkin and struggled to catch his breath. Once he’d regained the ability to breathe, he looked back up at Albus.

What? Is Henry okay?” A pause. Draco winced. “Scorpius wasn’t wearing his—”

“Brand new trousers from Paris, yep. I tried to talk to him about it, I did…I said ‘Scorpius, do you really think silk trousers are the best choice for a trip to the muggle zoo?’ and he said ‘yes, absolutely, they’re very breathable’, and, well, they were rather nice on him so— er. Yeah, so he wore them. And it was fine up until Henry started whining about his tummy…he got all green and clammy…Scorpius turned into Healer Scorpius and the next thing we knew…he exploded. Henry did. Partially digested fish and chips everywhere. Soon after…Evra as well.”

“Oh no,” Draco winced.

“Oh yes. All over the Ministry car I borrowed. Must’ve been the fish; both she and Henry had it. Finnigan was feeling a bit boastful, I think. He had some weird bean thing.”

Draco pressed his palm over his mouth. He felt a bit nauseated. “Scorpius’s trousers?”

“Dead. Deader than dead. We had to put them in one of Delilah’s nappy bags…Scorpius spent the rest of the day in a pair of joggers from the aquarium shop.” Albus smirked. “They said ‘land of the lions’ on the bum. Finnigan’s not likely to let him forget it.” 

“Oh, he was waiting for those trousers for ages,” Draco frowned. “I’ll contact the shop tonight. I’m sure something can be done…”

While he dug the planner Hermione had given him for Christmas from his bag, the waitress appeared with their food. Draco felt his stomach churn at the sight of Albus’s fish and chips. He hadn’t seen the vomiting event, but even hearing about it made him take offense to the sight. Albus seemed remarkably all right with it. He dug into his lunch without any deficient in his enthusiasm. Draco made a note to contact the shop, put his planner back into his bag, and stared distastefully at his soggy chips. They looked like they were taking a bath in oil.

“Anyway,” Albus continued, his mouth still slightly full. Draco was reminded that he was part-Weasley. “James and Nora nearly had kittens when we brought the kids back. Granted, we did bring half of them back smelling of sick and too weak to walk, but it wasn’t our fault.”

“Of course not,” Draco agreed. “I’m guessing you and Scorpius ate something different?”

“Scorpius, yes. Me, no, actually…I think I’ve just got a stomach of steel.” Albus shrugged. “So are you going to that big meeting this evening?”

Draco and Albus spent the rest of lunch discussing the Ministry meeting that night. Once Draco had choked down as much of his disgusting lunch as he could stomach, they went together to the newly-instated farmer’s market at the end of Hogsmeade. They spent an hour picking through the tables together. Draco helped Albus fine-tune some of his slightly-eccentric recipes (something that called for a good amount of deliberation at each stand). By the time they went their separate ways—Albus back home to put his produce away and then back to work, Draco towards the apothecary, heavy bags in hand—Draco was feeling surprisingly cheerful. He was fond of his son-in-law. Sometimes, on days like this, he felt more like a son than an in-law.

He was already smiling when he stepped into St. John’s Fort. The sight of the woman behind the counter only made his smile grow.

“Hi,” he blurted.

Gemma’s smile brought her entire face to life. For a moment, Draco didn’t do much but stand there stupidly, his heart jolting oddly. His cheeks flushed. Words seemed to escape him, and for somebody who had found redemption in words, had ultimately made words and communication his profession, that felt a bit disarming.

“Hello, Draco. I had a dream about you last night,” Gemma greeted.

Draco’s lips parted slightly. For a moment, all he could think about were all the dreams he’d had about her. Were they at this point already? Should he say something flirty back? Would it be too much?

“Yeah?” he managed to squeak.

“You helped me fix the cauldron in the back. It must’ve been a prophetic dream.”

Her smirk made him get that warm, tingly feeling in his stomach like he was a teenager again. He approached the till.

“Is this your underhanded way of asking me to fix the cauldron, Gemma Farley?” Draco teased.

She leaned over the counter and propped her elbows up on the polished surface. She looked endearingly beautiful as she rested her chin in her palms. Her light eyes bore into his; the corners of her dark lips quirked up into a cheeky grin. “Is it working?”

Draco leaned against the front of the counter. “A bit. I suppose one should always help their elders.”

Her eyes danced as she laughed. “Pardon you,” she said. She snatched a folded bit of parchment from a basket near her left elbow and lightly smacked Draco’s shoulder with it. “I’m only six years older than you…that hardly qualifies me as your elder!”

“You wear your six extra years better than I wear all forty-seven of mine,” Draco admitted.

Her expression softened. Draco studied the fine lines beside her eyes and her laughter lines with mounting affection; instead of aging her, they made her look more alive to him, more alluring. Maybe it was because he’d never gotten to see Astoria age. Maybe it was because she seemed so vibrant and vivacious. No matter the reasons, he found her terribly beautiful, and rightly so: she was undeniably a gorgeous woman. But it was more than that. She had a way of captivating his attention…he hadn’t felt like that since he’d first met Astoria. It made him feel a bit punch-drunk at times.

Gemma’s eyes locked on his. He sank into them. “Are you flirting with me, Draco?”

Draco’s eyes drifted down to her lips. What if he kissed her? It’d been so long since he’d kissed anybody. Would she want him to kiss her?

“What if I am?” he murmured back.

She leaned closer. “I’d say it’s about time.”

He could feel her breath against his lips. His heart was pounding. He wanted so terribly to lean in and kiss her, to set his hand against her face, to show her how much he fancied her. But he was scared. He mentally swore at himself as he backed up slightly, red-faced and already regretful.

“I, uh, brought this. For you.” He lifted the bag full of herbs. Gemma’s skin was a bit pinker as she accepted the bag. She cleared her throat gently as she opened it and peered at the contents. Draco knew she probably hadn’t sold the herbs he’d brought her last week yet, but he couldn’t help himself; he wanted to see her every day, but he always felt like he needed an excuse, and this was the perfect one. Even if it was becoming a bit excessive.

Gemma looked back at him.  “These are in brilliant condition. How shall I pay you?”

“Oh, no, please, I don’t want to be paid—”

“Money, vouchers, or a date?”

Draco tugged nervously at his cloak. He could hear his own racing pulse. Gemma waited patiently, as poised and confident as ever. As ladylike and elegant as ever. God, he wanted to kiss her.

“A date,” he decided.

Her wink was deliberate, controlled, and incredibly sexy. “You’ll get more value from the date.”

“I don’t doubt it,” he said. He felt lighter somehow. He was worried his grin looked a bit stupid, so he fought it from his face. “Er…would you like to show me the cauldron?”

“Right, sure,” she said. She walked around the counter. Her fingers were soft as they gently grasped onto Draco’s. “Follow me.”

He trailed after her towards a mahogany door. It opened up and sloped downwards towards a basement. It was an echoing room, with hundreds upon hundreds of rows of herbs and flowers hanging from the ceiling. There were tables holding magical plant presses to the left, tables for chopping and sorting in the middle, and along the right wall, ten massive golden cauldrons. Gemma headed straight towards the middle cauldron, sitting slightly slanted due to a missing leg.

“I can’t fill it very high,” Gemma told him. “Because of the way it tilts.”

“What happened to it?” Draco wondered. He kneeled down and touched the gold. He closed his eyes. The properties still felt very pure; he could easily transmute a similar-size pewter cauldron leg into gold and merge it back into place.

“It’s an old cauldron…it was my dad’s at school. The leg was a casualty to a family dispute a few decades back. Can you fix it?”

Something in her tone told Draco to leave the topic of family disputes alone. He knew things were tense in her family; they’d had a squib birth long before it was as common as it was now, and being a mostly-pureblood, Slytherin line, it was understandably an irreparable scandal. Draco had always gotten the impression that Gemma somewhat resented her sister for being a squib, though he wasn’t sure whether that was because she was a squib or because her being a squib had caused so much strife in their family. 

“Easily. I can come by tomorrow with a replacement leg,” Draco told her.

Her hand settled on his shoulder. “You’re a star, Draco Malfoy.”

He grinned. He saw his own distorted reflection in the dinged-up gold. He looked happy. He felt happy. He wanted to tell her how momentous that was—him, happy—but didn’t want to make things awkward.

“Where are you taking this star for our date?” he heard himself ask.

She arched a dark eyebrow. “Well, I’m going to surprise you, of course.”

Draco’s face was sore from smiling by the time he left Hogsmeade.


 

The queue for James’s office was backed up to the lifts. Draco pushed his way through the groups of people as politely as possible, his brow furrowed in confusion. James hardly ever had a spare moment (from what Draco could tell), but this seemed to be something entirely different. He walked past the grumbling, impatient parents and their squirming, crying kids towards the reception desk. James’s receptionist, Julio, looked about two seconds away from dropping. His desk was littered in half-opened memos with nearly ten still circling his head. He was currently getting an irate earful from a middle-aged mother with triplets and looked moments away from tears. Draco felt less guilty about stepping in front of her than he would have somebody being polite.

“Malfoy! Oh, thank God,” Julio said at once. He collapsed down into his chair. “Please tell me they sent you to calm this lot down. I’ve been calling for PR blokes or—or counselors or hypnotists or sodding…dragon stunners!”

“Actually…I was here to…” Draco watched Julio’s expression begin to plummet. He didn’t have the heart to continue. “Yes, I’m here to sort this out. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

“Word has somehow spread that the Ministry is having a closed meeting about the squib births. Everybody’s either cross that they can’t sit in and believe there’s some sort of conspiracy, panicked that the government’s going to either force them to give up or keep their squib kids, or, in that woman’s case—” he pointed at the triplets’ mother— “unhappy with the amount of aid she’s getting monthly. She picked a horrible day to come down here to fight that battle.”

“No kidding,” Draco agreed, his eyes scanning over the irate parents. He sucked in a deep breath. Okay. Calming parents was always the most difficult thing to do, but he knew getting nervous would only make it that much harder. He reached down and picked up the ceramic frog mug Julio kept his quills in. He lifted a toad paperweight and tapped it against the frog. When that failed to immediately get everybody’s attention, he whistled loudly. Gradually, silence fell over the hall.

“I’m from the Wizarding World Equality Union. I understand that everybody has their grievances, but you have to remember that Mr. Potter is only one person; he can only see one person at a time. Now, if you’re here because you want to demand a place at tonight’s meeting, please form a queue to my left. If you’re here with concerns about your non-magical child, please form a queue right here in the center. If you’re here for an unrelated reason, please form a queue to my right.”

Draco waited as everybody shuffled into place. Soon, a line backing nearly to the lifts was in place to his left, one nearly half that size in the center, and a two-person line to his right. Draco set his bag on the edge of Julio’s desk and withdrew his most expensive-looking notebook. He opened it to a random page.

“I’ve started a list with the Minister,” he lied smoothly. “We’re taking names down for those who want to be added to our next meeting. This first meeting is merely a formality; you’ll have a chance to make your voices heard. Now…” Draco snagged a self-inking quill from Julio’s desk. In record-time, he drew lines and made a quick chart. “Please write your name, your address, and any concerns, opinions, or thoughts you’d like mentioned at this first meeting. I’ll have one of my employees there tonight to speak on your behalf.”

He set the notebook down on the desk facing the appropriate queue, and then he turned to the center line. He spotted a woman with a newborn baby right in the middle. He assumed it was the wife of the man who’d been to see him that morning.

“Who here is concerned about their child being taken away without their consent?”

Three hands rose into the air.

“Don’t be. Mr. Potter would literally rather swallow this jar of ink here than do that. He’s got abandoned children coming out of his ears; he’s not going to permit any child to be taken from their homes.”

“But we heard the Ministry is planning on taking our non-magical children away and putting them in Muggle homes and we won’t ever be able to see them again and—!”

Draco cut off the hysterical woman. “There’s no truth to that. I understand that you’re nervous, but all Mr. Potter is going to tell you is exactly what I just did. It’s best for you to go home. Feel free to step into that queue and add your concerns to the list, though, if you’d like.”

Reluctantly, two out of three headed towards the lifts. One nervous, mousy-looking mother stepped into the other queue. Draco took a moment to inhale deeply.

“Okay. Who’s here to surrender their child?”

Two hands rose.

“Who has their child’s other legal parent here with them to sign off on it?”

Two hands fell.

“You’ll need to leave. Mr. Potter can’t do anything without both legal guardians present. If you try to see him now, all he’ll be able to do is send your child right back home to their other parent.”

The woman with the baby looked close to tears. The other person who’d raised their hand, a man in his late thirties, crossed his arms.

“What if your ex-wife has done a runner and left you with a kid you didn’t even know you had who’s seriously disturbed and has been crying for three days straight and refuses to eat?”

Draco glanced back at Julio, alarmed. Julio didn’t appear surprised in the slightest; Draco guessed he heard things much worse than that on a daily basis.

“Er…come stand up here with me,” Draco finally said.

The man walked up and did as he was told. Draco looked at the five people remaining in the center queue. The common factor between all of them was pregnancy.

“Yes?” Draco asked them. “One at a time, you first.”

He gestured towards the woman closest to the front of the queue. She took in a deep breath and set a palm on her bulbous stomach. “We’ve heard that the Ministry knows what’s causing this and can do tests. I want my baby tested!”

Murmurs of agreement spread down the line.

“There’s an idea. Write it down on the suggestions list,” Draco said.

“No, we want a test now!”

“Does this look like St. Mungo’s to you?” Draco demanded. “Please add it to the suggestions list.”

He faced his last queue. He nodded at the mother with the triplets. She burst at once.

“I can hardly afford to feed this lot and my landlord’s threatened to evict us if Crispin doesn’t stop setting fires only he can’t help it, it’s his magic, you see, and I’ve tried putting him to bed swaddled up like an infant but that only makes his accidental magic worse and—”

Draco eyed the eight-year-old child, alarmed. In his opinion, it wasn’t swaddling once the child reached six months: it was a straight-jacket.

“—Ira keeps vanishing all the food that she doesn’t like and at first it was being cheeky-like but now she can’t control it and she’s lost a stone and your son, Mr. Malfoy, told me if she doesn’t start gaining weight he’d have to report me!!”

“Well, I’m sure my son only has Ira's best interests at heart—”

“To bloody top it off, Sorrell here has run away from home ten times this week, and the last time she got knocked over by a muggle car or what’s-you-call-it—”

“Sorry, what?!”

“—Dusted her right off, I did, and I healed most of her bones, but I’m at my wits end with these bloody kids, and I’ve got half a mind to drop them at Azkaban to be with their dad— he was done in for animal experimentation but he’s just scientific in the mind is all—”

“Okay…you come stand up here with me as well,” Draco said, alarmed. He looked to the very last person. “Yes?”

It was a young father holding the hand of a tiny child, perhaps a little over a year. He looked absolutely alarmed.

“I just need a couple of nappies. I’m skint.”

Draco glanced back at Julio. He was already leaving his desk. He gestured towards the supply cupboard.

“Go with Julio,” Draco said.

The man seemed eager to get away from the mum with triplets. He lifted his child up and headed after Julio. Draco stood and waited until everybody in the remaining queue had written their complaints down in his notebook. There were only three people left when a familiar face came hurrying from the lifts pushing a pram.

“Hello, Nora,” Draco greeted. She’d been making a determined beeline to James’s office door, but at that, she turned. She smiled at him.

“Oh, hello, Draco! How are you? Here for James?”

“Yes…well…sort of,” Draco admitted. He leaned over and peeked into the pram. He smiled at Delilah; she kicked her chubby legs happily and smiled back. Draco straightened. “I heard about Henry and Evra. How are they?”

“Vomiting their guts up. Harry’s got Evra and Dean has Henry,” she said. She glanced at her watch. “They’re probably all at St. Mungo’s with Scorpius right now, actually.” She leaned over the pram and reached in to tickle her daughter’s stomach. “And Delilah’s been at the bank with Mummy driving the goblins mad. Isn’t that right?”

Delilah giggled happily.

“Finnigan?” Draco wondered if Albus had left work early to watch him. Maybe he could swing by…help Albus watch Finnigan while he prepared dinner…wait around until Scorpius returned…then he could tell Scorpius about his date…no, maybe not yet. He wasn’t sure how his son would feel. Wasn’t even sure if he’d like Gemma. Though, to be fair, there weren’t many people Scorpius didn’t like…

“With his highly-esteemed auntie at Aster Boot’s shop, you know in Diagon Alley? She’s doing this new anti-poaching line…they said Finnigan could help get things ready for their big reveal tomorrow, and he’ll have a great time, but we’ll all have to pay for it…he’ll be taking about the evils of poaching up until the next decade, mark my words. Next thing James and I know he’ll be running around starkers, convinced the cotton was stolen from the plants…”

Draco snorted as Nora sighed.

“Anyway, I won’t keep you,” she said. She nodded towards James’s office, but before she could push the pram forward, the door finally opened. A furious looking woman stamped out. She made straight for the lifts; a heartbroken cry followed after her.

“MUMMY! MUMMY, NO! MUMMY, COME BACK!”

Draco’s stomach churned as a little girl tried to run after her mum. James quickly lifted her up into his arms, his face shadowed with pain. The little girl wrapped her arms around his neck and wept hard into his shoulder. Draco watched as Nora approached them. She and James shared a few whispered words, she nodded, James gently turned the child around and whispered something to her, and then the little girl dove for Nora’s arms. Nora accepted her warmly, her hand rubbing comforting circles into her back. James leaned in and kissed his wife, took the pram from her, and watched after her longingly as she left the department. James spotted Draco as he pulled Delilah from the pram.

“Draco, hi,” he said, surprised. He kissed Delilah’s cheek and offered Draco a wane smile. “Come in. Have you been waiting long?” He noticed the people sitting along the far wall (the mother with triplets and the man who’d had the child he’d never met dropped off at his doorstep). “I’ll be with you in less than five minutes, I promise. Thank you for your patience. You can let your children go play in the playroom, it’s just through there; there’s tea and coffee for the parents as well. Julio can show you.”

Draco followed James into his office. James shut the door behind them and kicked a few wayward toys out of the way to make a path towards his desk. He bent over at the waist and gathered toys as he walked towards his seat.

“Sorry,” he said, “Aurora was playing while I was chatting with her mum…”

James appeared flustered as he stood, nearly ten toys clutched in his arms. Four slipped and fell back down onto the floor. Delilah leaned forward and started gnawing on the ear of a stuffed bear. James looked down at the four on the floor, and before Draco could do anything, his eyes filled with tears. Oh no.

“Sorry, I’m so sorry,” James repeated, humiliated. He lowered his face and hid in into Delilah’s hair. She reached up unsteadily and smacked at his face. She pulled at his earlobe a moment later. James hardly seemed to notice. Draco hovered awkwardly by the door.

“No, it’s all right,” he finally said. “If it’s been like it was when I arrived all day long, I’d be feeling frustrated, as well.”

It was easy to forget just how young James was. He carried himself with such confidence that Draco hardly ever questioned the fact that he’d only been a teenage father fresh out of Hogwarts when he’d landed the responsibility of an entire department. Looking at him now, though, sniffling into his baby daughter’s curls, Draco felt an odd urge to protect the young man. He knew what it was like to be an overwhelmed father, at any rate.

“I can’t stand it sometimes,” James admitted. “The parents who don’t care about their children. I just want them to love their kids. Why can’t I make them love their kids?”

Draco frowned. He didn’t have the answer to that. James stepped over the fallen toys and collapsed into the chair behind his desk. He sat Delilah on his lap and rubbed his teary eyes.

“We’ve got more abandoned kids than foster families now. I’ve sent Aurora with Nora. She’ll have to stay with us. And I don’t mind taking her in, honest, but it breaks my heart. All these kids being thrown away like something you give away for free during a sodding car boot sale. How are they meant to cope with that? They’re just little angels. That’s too much for even an adult to deal with.”

“Kids are resilient, that I know for certain,” Draco said. He walked over and sat in front of the desk. “More resilient than adults in many ways.”

“I’m sorry for unloading all of this on you, it’s not professional and—”

“Stop apologizing, will you? It’s all right. You’ve got a stressful job. Anyway, I came to talk to you about a problem a Union member brought to my attention this morning, but I’ve sorted it for now. You’ve got two people out there in serious need of every variety of assistance. I suppose I’ll see you tonight, at the meeting?”

James kneaded tiredly over his temples. “Yes. I think Evvie, Lily, Rose, and I are going for a drink right beforehand if you want to join us. I think we’ll all need it.”

Draco considered that. “Is Hermione going?”

“I don't think so. I wish my parents were going to the meeting,” he admitted. “Only department heads and specialists, though.”

Draco furrowed his brow. “I got an invite and I’m not a ‘specialist’…Harry didn’t?”

“You’re invited as a specialist, though, aren’t you? Equality and all that,” James pointed out. “I wish they’d gotten Uncle Charlie as their dragon specialist, but he’s back in Romania and Lily’s on hand and we need somebody who can fully explain lime pox—”

“Sorry? Lily’s going to the meeting?”

“Yes. I said that before, sorry, thought you heard.”

Draco was torn. On the one hand, he’d seen Lily Potter in ‘dragon mode’ on a few other occasions, and she was remarkably poised, confident, and clear-headed. And on the other, he’d seen Lily Potter being Lily Potter, and he wasn’t sure her quick temper would be good in a meeting that was already going to reduce the meekest of them to screaming.

“Yeah…I might bring Caden along with me, then. To help keep her in check,” Draco decided. “I’ll speak with Hermione about it.”

“Not a bad idea, Draco.”

Draco collected his notebook from the receptionist’s desk, managed to catch Hermione right before she walked into a meeting, and returned to the WWEU with his request approved. He ventured to Caden’s office first. He knocked once and peeked in. At first, he thought Caden was with a client because there was a young man sat in front of the desk complaining loudly, but he realized after a moment that that person was Caden’s dormmate from Hogwarts.

“Caden,” Draco began, exasperated. Pierce Zabini turned around and offered Draco a half-hearted wave. “Why is it that every single time I come in here you’re entertaining your social circle?”

“That’s an unfair exaggeration, Draco. Not every time. And anyway, Lily’s a paid Union member now, and Zabini’s been for ages.”

“Yes, sure, but what do their visits have to do with the WWEU’s relations with the public?” Draco challenged drily.

Zabini scowled. “I’m here complaining about your Union’s relations with the public, Mr. Malfoy! I came here to speak with somebody yesterday and I was coldly sent away!”

Draco stared at Zabini. “Pierce, just because a descendent of a Dumbledore’s Army member refuses to date you doesn’t mean you’re being discriminated against. I’m not taking anybody to court because some girl won’t let you buy her a drink.”

Zabini glared. Draco refused to look away. Zabini turned back to Caden.

“You see, Caden? This is exactly what I’m talking about. I just don’t feel as if he’s looking out for my interests. He’s ignoring the cruel social discrimination going on out there against all of us! We’re being shunned by our peers and doomed to lonely lives of solitude all for things out of our control! And the very people who are meant to stick up for us don’t even care!”

Draco was glad he was so patient.

“So, Caden Rowle, how’s Harry Potter’s daughter?” he asked pointedly, dismantling Zabini’s entire argument with one question.

Zabini opened and closed his mouth wordlessly.

“He’s got a point,” Caden told Zabini. “And anyway, you sound like a bit of a prick.”

Zabini set his hands on the edge of Caden’s desk and pushed himself up from the chair. He pointed at Caden.

“You’ve just managed to nab the dark Potter. Just you wait…when everything goes tits up for you two, you’ll know how unfairly treacherous the dating scene is for people like us! And don’t think I’ll pity you!”

Caden didn’t seem concerned. He watched Zabini brush past Draco and storm from the office. Draco pursed his lips against the words he wanted to say.

“I’ve never met somebody who needs a lay as badly as he does,” Caden admitted, voicing what Draco had been thinking. Draco snorted.

“Listen,” Draco said. “Would you be interested in attending the Ministry meeting tonight?”

Caden arched an eyebrow. “As a professional or to look after my girlfriend?”

“I imagine you use many of your professional skills while watching after her. Patience, self-restraint…”

Caden crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I’d be happy to go, but I wish everybody would treat Lily fairly. She’s brilliant at what she does. They won’t find a better or more caring dragonologist to speak on the matter than Lily.”

“Nobody’s arguing over her expertise,” Draco said at once. “Rather, we’re concerned about how she might react when—inevitably—somebody suggests killing all the dragons and erasing all remnants of their existence from our world to combat lime pox.”

Caden hesitated. “Er…well, as I said, I’ll definitely be there.”

“Probably for the best,” Draco said.

Caden nodded. It seemed a bit stiff. After an awkward pause, he asked: “Are you also bringing along Nora and Iset?”

Draco blinked. “Er, no?”

“Mm, perhaps you should. For when somebody suggests killing all the squib babies—that’ll get James—and when somebody suggests exiling all those with lime pox—that’ll get Rose. While you’re at it, bring in Ben for Evvie—for when they suggest exiling all squibs, ‘cause her mum is one—and Ron for Hermione, because the chaos will surely set her over the edge. Actually, might want to bring in somebody to hold everybody’s hand, or we could get a few of those child-leashes.”

Draco realized he was being scolded. He went to say that not everybody in the room had such a fiery temper, but that wasn’t exactly true, either. Caldwell from the Department of Mysteries had once set a table on fire during lunch a few years back.

“Okay, point made,” Draco allowed. Caden still looked cross. It took Draco a second to notice it because he was so good at masking his emotions, but there was no mistaking the way his jaw was clenched.

“How’s she meant to change her ways if everybody treats her like she’s still a teenager? So many people speak to her with that tone—like she’s a joke, like she’s already messed up—before they’ve even given her a chance...often times, like now, before she’s even arrived or said a word! You can’t change if people won’t let you. It’s no wonder she feels like she’s got to lash out half the time. If you were treated every day like you were still the same person you were when you were thirteen or sixteen despite the fact that you’re trying to change, you’d be irritated too. She’s bloody lovely. Clever, funny, bold, strong, kind. She’ll give back the kindness she’s given. You’ve just got to understand her. That’s all. And I’m not blinded by love. I’ve actually never seen clearer.”

Draco’s lips had parted in surprise.

“Er…that’s not all aimed at me, is it?” he finally realized.

Caden looked away. “No, sorry. We had lunch with Rose and Hugo.”

“I’m guessing Hugo wasn’t the one, er…not appreciating her?”

“I don’t like the way Rose speaks to her.”

“Right,” Draco said. “Er…”

“Sorry. Merlin, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…I’m just incredibly stressed. She's leaving this Saturday and I don’t even know if she’s really in a good enough place for it or if I’m in a good enough place for it and everything is just really bothering me. Perhaps you should get somebody to come look after me tonight,” he muttered. “If you want to fire me, I understand.”

Draco’s lip curled up in amusement. “I’m not going to fire you, Caden.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“You didn’t yell. And you’re right about one thing: if everybody treated me the same way they treated me when I was thirteen or sixteen, I would be irritated.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s all right. We’re…sort of…family. All is forgiven. And, hey. Evangeline will make up for whatever Rose said, right?”

Caden smiled. It seemed a bit tired. “Right.”


 

Draco finished up at work much later than he'd intended. With his stomach growling and the Ministry meeting in less than an hour, he came to terms with the horrible realization that he’d have to eat somewhere other than the Manor again. He thought about popping by Scorpius and Albus’s flat, to see if they were done with dinner, but he didn’t like to tumble into their kitchen unannounced…not since the, er, post-honeymoon celebration he’d accidentally interrupted a year ago. His neck still burned in embarrassment at the memory.

He’d completely forgotten that James, Evvie, Rose, Lily, and Caden were getting drinks beforehand. He wandered into the pub closest to the Ministry, hoping he could get served quickly, only to spot them sitting around a table together. As he approached it to say hello (and to see if they’d invite him to sit so he didn’t have to sit alone), he noticed another familiar face amongst the crowd. His heart skipped two beats. He found himself beaming as he stopped beside the table.

“Hi,” he blurted. “Gemma. Hello.”

Gemma had been in an intense, quiet conversation with her niece, but at that, she looked up. Draco felt his stomach flutter as she immediately smiled back.

“Draco! You’re the one dishing out the surprises now, are you?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” he grinned. He could feel everybody’s eyes on them, but he didn’t much care. “Are you coming to the meeting?”

“No! No. I was just reminding my…forgetful niece about a few things.” She shot a stern look at Evvie. Evvie seemed to be fighting hard against the urge to roll her eyes; her right eye twitched from the strain.

“Oh,” Draco said, looking between the two. “That’s…good, I suppose.”

Silence.

“Well, join us!” James urged. He chuckled. “C’mon, right here!” he patted the seat beside his. Draco felt a bit of the tension ease off his chest. He walked over and took the indicated seat. Caden inclined his head at Draco in greeting; Draco nodded back. Remembering what Caden had said, Draco made a point to smile kindly at Lily.

“Hello, Lily,” he greeted. It sounded a bit too formal. Lily shot a confused look up at Caden; he leaned in and kissed the corner of her mouth in response.

“Hi,” she finally said. Her suspicion seemed to lessen; she smiled back. “I just saw Scorpius! He was all mopey because he wanted to get lunch with you today, too. A bit jealous of Al, I think.”

Draco felt his heart ache. “Really? I’ll have to go by after the meeting. I never know when he’s off work. Was he home when you saw him?”

“Yeah, he was helping me practice my speech.”

Draco struggled to find something else to say. “Er…how was Finnigan? Nora said you were babysitting him today. How was that?”

“Oh, brilliant. He painted these clever 'save the dragons' posters; Aster's hung them in the shop windows, they're dead cute. Babysitting him is always fun 'cause he’s my favorite--"

“Lily! You can’t say that!” James interrupted, wounded.

“Why not?” she asked, baffled.

“Because! Because you can’t! You can’t have favorites; you have to love them all!”

“I do love them all, Jamie…I just like Finnigan the best.” Lily shrugged. She lifted up her mixed drink and took a tiny sip from her straw. “He gets me.”

Draco shot a look at Gemma from the corner of his eye. Should he try to strike up a conversation? She was still talking intently with her niece, so maybe not…what would he even say, anyway? He suddenly wished he was somewhere else.

“Henry’s my favorite,” Rose admitted.

Rose!” James gasped as if she’d punched him in the gut.

“Evra is Harry’s,” Rose continued.

“Obviously,” Lily and Caden chorused.

“What about you, James? Which is your favorite?” Lily wondered.

“I—I—I will not answer that!” James sputtered, stricken. “You lot are horrible! Just horrible!”

“What about you, Caden?” Lily wondered. “Delilah?”

“Delilah,” Caden affirmed. “I love her chubby little legs and her smile. Draco?”

“Don’t you drag me into this,” Draco muttered, his eyes on James’s rapidly-reddening expression.

Lily laughed, delighted. “C’mon, Draco! Who’s your favorite?”

“Who’s my favorite child? Scorpius,” Draco shot back, without missing a beat.

Lily laughed loudly, amused. “Okay, okay—fair play.”

Draco couldn’t help it: he laughed along with them as James’s face turned tomato red.

“It’s okay to have a favorite, you know,” Rose told him. “It’s just psychology. It’s been proven time and time again through loads of studies that parents do have a favorite.”

“I do not! I do not, not, not! I don’t—”

James’s objections grew dimmer as Draco felt somebody’s foot touch his. He thought it was an accident, but a second later, he felt another light kick. He cleared his throat (his heart was migrating up it at an alarming rate) and looked over towards Gemma. She was ‘listening’ to whatever Evvie was going on about, but her eyes were on Draco. He smiled at her. She smiled back. He felt like a teenager as he hesitantly kicked his foot out gently towards hers. He tapped his foot against the side of her shoe. He did it a few more times as James and Evvie continued on their separate rants.

“—and there is nothing that could ever make me choose one of my babies over another—okay, who’s playing footsie with me?!” James demanded. "I'm incredibly married. You won't find somebody more married than me. Please stop making my feet unfaithful."

Draco’s heart plummeted. He wrenched his foot back so quickly that his heel slammed hard into the leg of his chair. His eyes were watering as he looked back at Gemma. She was choking on withheld laughter. Draco smiled despite his pain and embarrassment. He was glad when a waitress approached.

“Ready to order?” she asked.

Draco choked down another greasy meal, drank a glass of wine, and lingered near the back of the group as everybody rose from the table. Gemma waited, too.

“Not the best aim,” Gemma greeted quietly.

Draco laughed. “I’ll get it right next time.”

“Oh, I hope so.”

He was still smiling as he journeyed into the Ministry and to the conference room. Everybody else was already there; a few people looked to be arguing already. Draco sat in the seat with his name card. One by one, everybody settled down into their rightful seats. Hermione stood.

“First, I’d like to thank all of you for coming in so late. I know we had a variety of different scheduling conflicts during the day. Now, there are a few of you who know very little about what’s going on with the Squib births and some of you that know a lot in specific areas but none in others—this meeting is about getting everybody up to speed. First, we’ll hear from James; he’ll outline the statistics surrounding the magical and nonmagical births in our world, as well as the impact it's having on wizarding families. Next, Wilson and Caldwell—sorry, Wood and Caldwell—will outline in great detail everything they’ve discovered in the Department of Mysteries, including the illness that’s causing the Squib births and how we can test for it. Afterwards, Lily will describe where this illness came from and the larger political and social impacts of that cause. Our Lead Healer, Greene, will then explain the effects of this illness on the human body, as well as signs and symptoms and how to avoid it. James, you’ve got the floor.”

James stood at once. He exchanged smiles with most everybody there; he was (and always had been) very well liked. Draco was certain that he was a shoo-in for Minister whenever Hermione retired.

“Good evening! I’ve actually made it to a meeting without a kid in tow, so I consider that a win no matter what. So, as most of you know, we’ve seen an alarming increase in non-magical births…”

While James broke down the statistics and opened a dialogue about the abandoned Squib children, everybody listened uneasily. Evvie and Caldwell stood next; their explanations were so detailed and technical that Draco found himself drifting off a few times. The main points, he thought, were that they’d determined lime pox to be the cause and that they could set up a testing protocol for it at St. Mungo’s. Everybody automatically perked up as Lily stood; those who knew her knew this would certainly not be boring (you could call Lily Potter a lot of things, but dull was not one of them), and those who didn’t were interested in what they did know about her (Harry Potter’s youngest child, the creator of the well-regarded eye-sight potion, record-breaking dragonologist, poacher-catcher…). Draco wasn’t even sure what he expected, but it was very off from what they got. The first thing Lily did was conjure a blackboard. She charmed it to hover steadily beside her. She peered at all of them.

“A dragon’s heart,” she began, “does more than just provide the strings for your wands.”

Draco watched on in fascination as Lily drew a dragon. She methodically—starting at the snout—went down the dragon, writing the effects of lime pox down on each specific part. After she’d explained the horrible nature of lime pox in the dragon world, she embarked on an impassioned rant against poaching, one that made the Lead Healer start to cry.

“Everybody’s got their solutions,” she finished with. “But until we stop this poaching entirely, we won’t be able to fix this problem. And short of rounding them all up and executing them—”

Lily,” Hermione scolded.

“I’m not saying we should, Aunt Hermione,” Lily muttered back. “What I am saying is that the only legal way to get them to stop poaching is by making it unprofitable. I know two really brilliant businesspeople who are willing to take on and lead a campaign against this poaching.”

“Sounds expensive,” Daisy Parkinson piped up. She (like Draco) was there to observe, in her case on behalf of the financing department. “An effective campaign would cost hundreds of thousands of galleons. We haven’t got that to waste, and certainly not for dragons.

She said the word like it was something disgusting and unworthy. Here we go, Draco thought. He braced himself. Lily’s cheeks turned ruddy. She ground her teeth.

“No,” she finally said. “No, it won't, but thanks for your input, Daisy.”

Daisy cackled. “It ‘won’t?’ Sorry, I’m not very reassured. How do you know that?”

“‘Cause my boyfriend did a course in marketing and I’ve had him look over it. He says our cheap campaign would be effective.”

Lily turned her eyes to Caden. He stood at once.

“The proposed campaign wouldn’t even total five thousand. Aster Boot, owner of Flowers and Vines in Diagon Alley, has created a line of synthetic dragon scale merchandise. We’re aiming for a promotional campaign, where we both advertise and push people to buy the synthetic products instead of the poached, and raise awareness of what’s being done to the dragons. We’re talking organized events in Diagon Alley, ads in The Prophet and other publications, promotional shows on the radio…if we can reduce demand for poached products, they’ll stop supplying.”

“It seems worth consideration,” Hermione said. “We’ll schedule a meeting with the necessary departments to work through the proposal. Greene, could you…?”

Greene rose and gave a much more droning breakdown of how lime pox was affecting the magical human body. It was the part everybody had really been waiting for, but somehow, Greene made it feel as if they were listening to the dictionary being read. Draco stifled a yawn as Greene embarked upon the dos and don’ts of staying lime pox free. By the time he finished, everybody was rather subdued. That quickly changed.

“While the vaccine is being made, we can send all these squib children to live with muggles and make a negative lime pox test mandatory for procreating,” Daisy suggested.

Rose, who had been taking notes diligently, looked up.

“Daisy, there is no legal standing for any of that. You can’t take people’s children and you certainly can’t restrict them from reproducing. Instead, I think we ought to get rid of the Magical Indication Screenings. If people don’t know from the baby’s first breath whether or not it’s magical, they’ll form a proper bond with it, and then they’ll be less likely to abandon it later on when they start getting suspicions about it being non-magical.”

“Absolutely not,” Pax Bulstrode snapped. He looked up from his notebook and scowled. “Parents have the right to full disclosure on their children’s health from medical professionals!”

“But it’s not pertaining to their health, is it, Pax?” Rose argued back. “Just their magical ability.”

“That is part of being healthy,” he insisted. “Being non-magical is a gross deformity…it lowers the quality of life significantly! Instead of outlawing this test, we should update it so we can check during pregnancy! It isn’t fair to these horrible squibs that we're allowing them to be born. We should do away with any non-magical pregnancies and introduce government incentives for people to have babies with other non-infected members of our society.”

“Being non-magical is not a deformity,” Evvie interrupted. “Rose is right; it has nothing to do with the health of the child. We ought to implement testing within St. Mungo’s and make sure everybody is fully informed, but if they want to carry on having a baby—even when they know it will be non-magical—that is none of our business. A magical life is not worth more than a muggle or squib one. I thought we had moved past that idea as a society, but apparently not.”

“What do you propose we do about all these squibs, then?” Bulstrode challenged. “When they start outnumbering us?”

Evvie squared her shoulders. Draco wondered if what she was about to say was what she and Gemma had been arguing over before the meeting. “We need to create a distinct culture and place without our society for squibs.”

Bulstrode scoffed. Quite a few people exchanged uneasy looks.

“If we could integrate them into our society, they’d feel less pressured to ultimately merge with muggles. Some are happy doing that, but others aren’t. If we ship off every squib and only rely on those who aren’t infected to procreate, we’re going to have a dire population issue on our hands. There are plenty of areas in our society that squibs could fit into, if only we provided the slightest accommodations. They could work in shops, they could do certain clerical jobs, certain custodial jobs. And whether or not everybody wants to admit it—I’m sure you don’t—muggles have made some advancements in their society that far surpass ours in terms of convenience. We could introduce non-magical professions like psychiatry—”

“This is the stupidest, most naive shite I have ever—”

“You need to let her finish!” James snapped, stepping over Bulstrode’s objection. “She’s got a point, Pax! We got so many abandoned squib children that we’ve run out of foster families! We can’t realistically send all those kids off to muggle homes without wiping all their memories—”

“Do that, then! Perfect.”

No!” Evvie and James chorused.

“What sort of monster are you?” Lily spoke up, disgusted. “You’d wipe the memories of loads of kids against their will and send them, confused and lost, to live with complete strangers in a world they don’t even know?!”

Daisy stepped in to defend Pax. “Like you’re one to judge! It’s freaks like you who caused this issue! Dragons aren’t owls or dogs; they serve no practical purpose and they should’ve been executed and done away with ages ago! If they had been, we wouldn’t have this issue!”

“You serve no practical purpose either, Daisy, and yet we keep you around,” Lily bit. 

Daisy narrowed her eyes. “Freak,” she repeated coldly.

“Oh, brilliant contribution, Daisy,” Caden spoke up. Draco saw Rose and James stifling laughter as Caden gave a slow, sarcastic clap. “You've gotten us so much closer to solving this problem.”

“There wouldn’t be a problem if nasty people didn’t insist on protecting monsters—”

“In case you were daydreaming or otherwise intellectually absent when this was being discussed, I'll remind you: it’s the poachers who caused this! They turned lime pox into a weapon; they have spread it,” Caden shot back.

“Look,” James interrupted. Everybody automatically looked to him. “If we do Lily’s campaign, we can lower the demand for poaching. In the meantime, Vivienne, could your department double your efforts towards catching those still active?”

“We need further international cooperation,” Vivienne answered. “If we can get that—yes.”

Hermione leaned over the table and glanced down at her daughter. “Rose?”

Rose didn’t even look up; her quill was still scratching away. “Already making a list.”

“We’ll have to go public with this,” said the Editor of the Prophet. “It’s the only way to ensure everybody will throw their poached items out.”

“That’s not realistic,” Daisy argued. “They’re not going to throw something out that they paid thousands for. Especially if they’re done having kids. Lily, is there a way to properly disinfect the merchandise?”

For a moment, Draco feared Lily would snap back at Daisy over their past sparring, but she—like Daisy—decided it was more important to move forward.

“Yes. We have a sterilization technique, but it’s expensive and only our reservations have the technology.”

Hermione lifted a hand into the air, drawing everybody's attention to her. “We can advertise two options: burning your poached items or sending them off to be sterilized. The money that the sterilization collects can go to funding the search for our cure.”

“How will we enforce this?” James wondered. “We can’t exactly go through and search everybody's house.”

It was a fair point.

“It’s a public health issue. We’ll have to put forth a strong incentive. A few months of prison time for venturing into public wearing poached items without a certificate to say it’s been sterilized should do it,” Rose said.

“Azkaban for wearing clothes!” Pax scoffed, as if that was the most absurd encroachment of liberty he’d ever heard.

“Weren’t you just suggesting tearing non-magical children from their parents’ arms?” Lily asked flatly.

“No! That was Daisy. I said they shouldn’t even be allowed to be born in the first place,” Pax corrected coolly.

Oh, right, sorry. You’re clearly the highest moral authority in the room.”

James spoke up again. “So if we can curb the poaching—with the campaign, increased Auror focus on their groups, and the prohibition of the garments—we can stop the spread. Then, like Evvie said, we could set up a testing program in St. Mungo’s. All potential parents can go and have their blood test and be told—very clearly—whether or not they’ll have a magical or non-magical baby. My department is already working on support programs for families with non-magical children; we can make those classes mandatory, to make sure the families know what they’re getting themselves into.”

“What if we don’t have many people left who aren’t already infected?” Greene asked.

“In that case, we’ll need to create a way to encourage the few who aren’t infected to have a baby together—even if they aren’t romantically involved,” Caldwell answered.

This caused outraged at once. Hermione had to stand and give the table a stern look before they fell silent.

“It’s spitting in the face of marriage!” Daisy cried.

“Daisy, you’re on your fourth husband!” Rose said, annoyed.

“Nobody’s saying we’re going to order non-infected members of our society to shag, calm down!” Evvie interrupted. “Scorpius Malfoy—” Draco looked up quickly— “is working on a way to modify muggle reproduction technologies for our world. Who here knows about muggle artificial insemination?”

Draco had already heard all about this (Scorpius had excitedly told him everything after he read his first book on the matter), but he, James, Evvie, Rose, and Hermione were the only ones who had. After Evvie finished, Pax crossed his arms.

“Nobody can make me provide a ‘sample’!”

“Nobody’s asking,” Evvie said coolly. Lily sniggered. “This would be on a voluntary basis; the last thing we want to do is force people who don’t want kids to have them. That’s asking for neglect and abuse. If we can establish this as an alternative, people who want kids might be more willing to have them with non-infected donors.”

“This will completely destroy traditional family lines!” Pax argued. “If you have Mr. and Mrs. Smith having Mrs. Smith and Mr. Wright’s baby, but the baby is raised as a Smith…how will anybody really know anybody else’s blood status?!”

“Oh, because it’d be such a tragedy if people couldn’t automatically know who to discriminate against,” Lily said. She rolled her eyes.

“Of course strict records will be kept,” Caldwell said. “For the medical history aspect.”

“Nobody would do that,” Daisy said. She laughed derisively. “Nobody would want to make a baby like that and nobody would donate their eggs or sperm. It’s a waste of money and we should not allow our healthcare funds to go towards it.”

“They would,” countered Evvie. “People have an interest in seeing our world survive, Daisy. And there are people out there who would absolutely do that for the people in their lives that they care about. If somebody you loved—a sibling or a dear friend—wanted a baby but was infected, it’s not insane to think you might offer to help, both for that person and our world.”

Daisy laughed again. Rose snapped.

“Shut up, will you?! There are people in this room that are planning on doing that for other people; you’ve no idea what you’re talking about and attitudes like yours are going to severely cripple our world’s recovery.”

Draco tried not to peer around the table curiously, but he couldn’t help it. He wondered who was already planning on doing this; it was brave, but he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be the first person to embark upon a brand-new procedure.

“Oh, so you’re going to do that?!”

“No, I’m not!”

“Who here is stupid enough to?!”

“Helping somebody else is not stupid,” James said hotly.

“So you, James? God, don’t you have enough kids already?” Daisy laughed coldly.

James chose to remain silent. He locked eyes with Draco for a brief moment; Draco wondered if he wanted him to interrupt the conversation.

“I think it’s disgusting,” Pax piped up. “Unnatural. Babies aren’t mean to be made like that.”

“I’m sure the way you were made was disgusting and unnatural but here you are…” Lily murmured underneath her breath. Thankfully, only the people immediately around her (Draco, Caden, Rose) heard.

“Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter,” Hermione interrupted, “it’s our best bet towards increasing magical births. James, you and I will need to work on support programs and incentive packages. What are our propositions for the long-term when it comes to the non-magical babies already here?”

“Exile,” Daisy said.

“Integration,” Evvie corrected.

“What do squibs have to do in the magical world?! That’d be like inviting muggles in to stay!”

“No, it wouldn’t. Because squibs are members of magical families.”

“Squibs are a stain on our society and they’ll have other squibs and soon we’ll be overrun by them!”

For the first time Draco had ever seen, Evvie looked close to losing her temper. Her cheeks were flushed.

“As somebody who specializes in genetics—”

“Evvie!” Hermione and Caldwell cried, horrified. People in the Department of Mysteries were never supposed to admit their specializations.

“—and as somebody who is the magical child of a squib, I find your ignorance and prejudice disturbing at best and disqualifying at worst. I’m not sure somebody with your views should be employed within our government.”

A hush fell over the table. Most people were clearly unaware that her mother was non-magical. She was able to escape from association with the Farley family simply because she had a different name and had grown up in the muggle world.

“Who’s your mother?” Pax demanded.

“Evelyn Farley. You wouldn’t know her because she was hidden away and homeschooled for eighteen years, and by the time she was old enough to leave home, she’d formed such an intense hatred of wizardkind and their world that she ran off to the muggle world and hasn’t been back since.”

“So you want us to completely rework our society so your mummy can come back in for tea? I think that bias disqualifies you from working on this problem,” Daisy said, an edge of smugness to her tone.

“That’s not what she’s saying and you know it,” James interjected. “She’s pointing out that there are places in our world for squibs to live and thrive; the only reason they haven’t thus far is because of the unfair prejudices people still hold. The best solution to this problem all around is to integrate them into our society. If we banish them all, not only will that absolutely destroy the children and their parents, but we’ll demolish entire family lines. In many families, their non-magical child is all they have. It’s time to get rid of the way we discriminate against squibs.”

“Draco,” Hermione called. Draco looked to her at once. “I want a special branch of your union dedicated to non-magical members of our world.”

“Right,” Draco agreed at once. “Of course. And, for the record, I agree with Evvie and James.”

“This isn’t right,” Pax said. He was red in the face with anger. “People have the right to get rid of their squibs! A squib isn’t what those people were promised! If my wife got pregnant and it was a squib, we should have the right to do away with it! When magical people have babies, they have a right to what they were promised—a magical baby! Not a squib! Why are we pretending like squibs are normal when we all know they suffer a serious defect that will cause them lifelong misery?”

“We’re not pretending that, Pax. That’s just the truth. You’ve got no evidence to back up what you’re saying,” Rose said.

James seemed to have finally cracked. Draco was certain he was thinking about that little squib child, Aurora, who was abandoned by her mother like she was nothing.

“Nobody promises you a damn thing when you have kids,” James snapped. People had been snapping at each other for the majority of the meeting, but the second James’s voice took on that tone, everybody looked shocked. “You aren’t promised anything. Loads of women get pregnant and never even get to have their babies. These mums who've had non-magical babies are lucky. They were blessed with beautiful, healthy babies—there’s nothing wrong with them whatsoever despite a lack of magical power. Nothing at all. It isn’t the kids’ faults that they were born that way, but they’re treated with so much malice and scorn from people like you despite. And I’ll tell you something else—if you feel that way, if you and your wife feel like that, you two have no business having a child. You have no business having a child if you aren’t prepared to love and care for it no matter how it’s born. It doesn’t matter. You have a duty to love and care for a child born with illnesses, different traits than you’d hoped, or disorders just the same as you’d love a ‘normal’ child. You don’t get to decide which children are worthy of love. This is not a quality of life issue."

“And you don’t get to judge me and my wife!” cried Pax, outraged.

“I’m perfectly entitled to judge you two because from what you’ve said, your parenting would be absolute shit, and you should be ashamed.”

“Okay,” Draco interrupted quickly. For whatever reason, James losing his temper was much more alarming than anybody else doing it, and Draco feared things would get out of control quickly. “Hermione, have you heard enough to decide what you want to do?”

“I’ve heard more than enough,” Hermione said, her eyes on her notes. “Some things more alarming than others...things that are going to require extensive follow-up. Right. Stay on top of your memos; I’ll be scheduling meetings throughout the week.”

Draco hung back until the Potters were safely from the room—to make sure Parkinson or Bulstrode didn’t decide to take out their frustration on them—and then he took the exit to the main street after saying quick goodbyes. He wanted to take a brisk walk to Scorpius and Albus’s flat; the cold air would do him some good. He had just stepped out of the telephone box when he spotted a shadowy figure to his right. He automatically stuck his hand into his cloak pocket and wrapped it around his wand. He kept the figure in his sights as he set off in the proper direction. He’d just realized the person was following him when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“What?” he demanded. He spun around to face them, but when he got a good look at who it was, his irritation melted immediately. He felt his cheeks warm. Gemma bounced on the balls of her feet and then gave him a smug, sunny smile.

“Surprise,” she said.

“Hi! Hello. Were you waiting out here the entire time?”

“No, I was getting drinks with my niece’s husband while he waited for her. How was it?”

Draco considered her question. “Enlightening.”

“In a bad way?”

“For the most part, yes.” They resumed walking. Draco could feel the minuscule distance between his hand and hers. He took a deep breath. When he reached over and hesitantly touched the back of her hand, she immediately turned it and wove their fingers together. Draco smiled down at the pavement. His heart was pounding out a childish beat. “Your niece had a good idea.”

“Hmm. Yes, well. I’m not so sure of that,” Gemma admitted. Draco could sense there was more; he gave her time to put her thoughts into words. “The wizarding world never made my sister happy. The first time I ever saw her genuinely happy was on her wedding day. She ran off into the muggle world at age eighteen and never looked back. I can’t imagine how she or anybody like her could be happy here with the way they’re treated.”

“If things changed…”

“It’s a sweet idea,” Gemma said.

“But you don’t think it’s realistic?”

“Look how many years it took just to get people to stop trying to periodically murder muggle-borns. No, I’ve seen firsthand how squibs and their families are treated. I think it’s best to let them out.”

There was a time Draco had felt it was unrealistic to ever imagine purebloods and muggle-borns getting along (and had thought even the idea was inappropriate), and yet…

“Maybe the world will surprise you yet. It did me,” he admitted.

She pulled on his hand and leaned against his side. Draco found himself automatically dropping her hand so he could wrap his arm around her shoulders instead. It was automatic, a muscle memory; he held her to his side like he’d been doing it for ages.

“Where are you headed? Home?”

“My son’s,” Draco corrected.

“Brilliant. I’ll walk you.”

“No, you don’t have to—”

“I want to.”

It was unbelievably nice to walk with somebody he fancied again. It was indescribably lovely to feel, even for a moment, that he was part of a unit, instead of being just Draco. He felt proud to have his arm around her. He felt comforted by her presence. He hadn’t realized how lonely he’d been until that moment.

“This is me,” Draco said, slowing to a stop in front of Scorpius and Albus’s flat building. “Er…I’d invite you up, but my son is weird about the house being tidy for guests.”

She smiled. “It’s no problem. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Right,” he said. “I’ll be by to fix the cauldron.”

“You’re a life-saver, you are.”

“A cauldron-saver, at any rate.”

They smiled at each other. She seemed to be waiting for something, and no matter how many times Draco told himself to wave and walk away, he seemed to be waiting, too. He knew what they were both waiting for, but he didn’t think he had the courage.

“Are you going to kiss me or shall I spend another night imagining what it’d be like?”

Draco’s heart jumped up into his throat. He swallowed nervously and forced it back down.

“I suppose I could,” he allowed. “So you can get some sleep.”

“How chivalrous.”

Draco’s hands were trembling slightly as he set them on her hips. She looped her arms around his neck. Draco leaned in slowly, bit-by-bit, until he could feel her breath against his lips. He felt the sudden urge to defend himself preemptively; it had, after all, been nearly nine years since he’d last kissed someone. He didn’t want to be rubbish at it. But as he leaned in and pressed his lips softly to hers, he felt her melt into his embrace. He didn’t think it was rubbish. He felt a stirring in his heart. Part of him wanted to pull away and run in the opposite direction; another part of him wanted to invite her home with him.

It was Gemma who pulled back. Draco stared at her moonlit expression. Her light eyes seemed softer than they ever had before.

“Tomorrow?” she asked.

He nodded. He felt a bit dazed. “Tomorrow.”


 

He was still grinning when he stepped into his son’s flat. He’d expected to find his son and his husband lounging on the sofa, as that’s normally what they were doing at this time of night, but that wasn’t what he found. He stepped into the living room and blinked, surprised.

“Oh. Hello again,” he greeted.

Lily waved lazily. Nora waved Delilah’s hand in hers. James smiled.

“Hey, Draco,” Albus greeted, his head still bowed over the papers littering the surface of the coffee table. Scorpius jumped up—but it was a guilty jump.

“DAD!” he cried, alarmed. He locked eyes with Albus and jerked his head to the left; Albus quickly shoved all the papers onto the carpet. Those two weren’t exactly subtle.

“What’s going on?” Draco asked.

His son bounced over to him. Draco’s concern melted as Scorpius stopped in front of him because Scorpius looked beyond happy. He was glowing with joy; his smile was so huge it made his eyes crinkle at the corners. Draco was accosted with affection. He reached out and pulled his son into a firm hug. Scorpius was still beaming when he leaned back. Draco shot a look back at the group of Potters.

“What are you up to? It’s never good when I see that many Potters grouped around with silly grins…”

“Nothing! Nothing. Just…chatting. Talking. Planning. About the future and such. How was the meeting? How was your day? How was lunch? Why did you get lunch with Albus but not me?”

Draco reached up and patted Scorpius’s cheek fondly. “You were working, Scorpius.”

“Right. Well? The meeting?!” Scorpius’s light eyes studied Draco’s face. His smile grew. “You look really happy, Dad. James and Lily didn’t say the meeting went that well!”

“Oh, it didn’t. I…well…” Draco trailed off. He wanted to share his news with his son, but he backed out at the last second. Scorpius looked so happy. What if the news upset him—what if he didn’t think it was long enough after Astoria for his dad to be dating again? What if he had a secret dislike of Gemma? No, Draco couldn’t risk upsetting him when he was so happy. “I had a great latte.”

“Oh, yeah? You’re always saying nobody gets them right except Minky!”

“Well, I found a little muggle shop, and it was perfect,” he lied. “What’s got you so overjoyed?”

“Me? Overjoyed? No, I’m just Scorpius, just normal, calm, even-tempered Scorpius, nothing remarkable about my current mood, just living my life, you know, going to work and kissing Albus and washing the dishes and cleaning my teeth—”

“Okay,” Draco laughed. He set his hands on Scorpius’s shoulders. “I get it.”

They held their gaze, their eyes twinkling, smiles on both their faces. Draco didn’t know if he was projecting onto his son, but for a moment, he thought he sensed that Scorpius was hiding something from him as well. Their heavy silence might’ve stretched on longer, but thankfully, Lily interrupted.

“So that’s still a no on sharing the news?” she hissed to Scorpius.

“Yes! NO! I mean—yes, it’s a no!” Scorpius hissed back. Draco furrowed his brow. Scorpius looked back at him and laughed nervously. “Er—Lily has to go back sooner than she thought. There is a dragon emergency. She found out a few minutes ago. Came by to tell us and…sort everything out.”

Draco blinked. “Why wouldn’t you tell me that?”

“Er…”

“Well, he doesn’t want you to miss me, obviously,” Lily said. She came to stand beside Draco and looped her arm through his. “He knows how terribly boring the WWEU will be without me.”

Draco rolled his eyes, but he smiled. “I’ll admit Caden’s office will seem a lot quieter and duller without you.”

Pain passed over her expression, but it was gone as soon as he’d noticed it. She smiled weakly. “I’ll try to send Howlers every now and then.”

“Ha, ha,” Draco said. She gave his arm a brief squeeze before stepping away. Draco caught himself smiling. It wasn’t so much to do with her, really; he was just remembering how much he’d wanted a daughter, once upon a time. He and Astoria, at the start of their marriage…they’d always dreamed about having a little boy and a little girl. That was before her health had begun failing, of course. There were very few dreams they still had after that. Scorpius was the only one that’d come true.

“Draco!” Albus called, an edge of impatience in his voice. “C’mon, I want to hear a level-headed recount of the meeting! I can’t trust my siblings!”

“Yes, come sit!” Scorpius urged eagerly. “Lily, where are you going?”

“No, I’m off,” she told them. She was already walking towards the fireplace. “I’ve got two of my greatest lifelong loves waiting at home: Evangeline and chocolate-flavored firewhisky. I’m going to drink until I’m no longer depressed about leaving. Should be fun.” She gave them a thumbs-up, but she looked thoroughly depressed.

“Where’s your other love?” Albus taunted.

“Hopefully on the kitchen table, naked, awaiting my arrival. With the firewhisky.”

Lily!” James, Albus, and Scorpius cried.

“If we haven’t got honesty, brothers, what do we have? ‘Night.”

“Goodnight, Lily,” Nora said cheerfully. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning for your send off. Eight thirty!”

“Oh, Merlin, don’t remind me…” Lily frowned. She still looked depressed as she threw Floo powder down and disappeared.

“Why doesn’t she just stay?” Draco wondered aloud.

“It’s not that she doesn’t want to go back, she loves her job,” Nora said. “I just think it’s very difficult for her to leave everybody behind.”

Draco couldn’t fault her on that.


 

To make up for the lunch Scorpius missed out on, Draco got up early that next morning and joined Scorpius and Albus for breakfast at a café nearby the hospital. Ginny had arrived at the Manor ten minutes before Draco was set to leave, grumbling on about Harry being in a strop over Lily’s departure, so he invited her along with them. Gradually, it turned into a family affair, with various Potters and Weasleys wandering in from seemingly thin air. By the time they all finished breakfast and headed together to the Ministry to see Lily off, their party of three had turned into a group of fourteen (including sulking Harry). Draco realized, as he walked with the massive group, that he didn’t feel like an outsider; he felt like a member of the family. He felt like he had a right to be there, a place there. And when Lily started saying her goodbyes, he realized he actually was going to miss her a bit. She was right to say that the WWEU would be much less interesting with her gone.

“Be safe,” Hermione ordered. She took Lily’s face in her hands. “It’s not all on you. Give somebody else a chance to react sometimes, yeah?”

“All right…” Lily humored her. “Love you, Minister.”

“I love you, too,” Hermione smiled.

Ron hoisted Lily up into the air as he hugged her. She was giggling as he set her back on the ground. “Name a dragon after me,” he requested.

“Just one?” Lily teased.

“Go on, then. Two! Ron and Ronald.”

“I’ll send Hugo videos on his pocket phone. Have him show you.”

“Will do,” Ron saluted.

Hugo and Aster shared a sad, quiet group hug with Lily, Rose gave her a quick hug, and then Harry pulled his daughter into his arms.

“Ring us on that mobile tonight,” Harry told Lily. She didn’t reply. For at least a minute, they stood there hugging; Lily didn’t seem to be showing any signs of letting go, and neither did Harry. If anything, time made his embrace grow more and more protective. He pressed his face into her hair. “If you get upset, come home. If you need me, I’ll be there in a minute. Don’t fight the poachers on your first day back.”

“What about my second?” Lily mumbled.

Harry set his hands on her shoulders and gently moved her back. He kissed her forehead. “Wouldn’t be my Lulu if you didn’t.”

Ginny was sniffling after her long hug with her daughter. Draco patted Lily’s shoulder and gave her a smile. Finnigan burst into hysterical sobs after kissing his auntie’s face nearly a dozen times; Nora had to physically pull him from Lily’s leg. He sobbed into his mum’s neck with such dramatics that an onlooker would’ve thought somebody had died. His tears set off his siblings; soon every Potter child was crying, even Delilah. Lily looked horrified.

“Oh, no, please, make them stop,” she pleaded with James, her eyes filling rapidly with tears. James seized her in a back-breaking hug. “I’m going to cry, please make them stop, I mean it!”

Nora kissed Lily’s cheek quickly and then left the Portkey Office with her distraught children. Albus and Scorpius hugged Lily at once, sandwiching her between them in a surprisingly warm hug. She was sniffling when they pulled back. She’d never resembled Ginny more.

“Five minutes,” the Portkey Office employee warned.

There was only one more goodbye left. Lily stared at Caden, her eyes swelling with tears. He stared back, his arms crossed tightly, his mouth set into a line. Everybody took a sudden interest in their shoes as the two leaned in to share a kiss. Lily turned her back on him right afterwards; the way she paused made Draco think she was struggling to withhold her tears.

“‘Kay,” she finally said thickly, her back still to them. “Bye, then.”

Without another word, she took off towards the far door at a brisk pace, headed towards the portkey set up for her. The door swung shut after her. They listened as the sound of her suitcase wheels rolling unevenly over the stone floor gradually faded. James wrapped an arm around Caden’s shoulders. Harry pulled Ginny into his arms and kissed the top of her head. Albus kissed Scorpius. Draco was considering going out into the hall to help Nora with her kids when the sound of wheels against stone started again. He was the first to look up at the door (probably because he was the only one not comforting somebody). The sound grew louder and faster. Draco furrowed his brow in confusion as Lily burst back into the room, her damp cheeks shining beneath the light. She dropped her suitcase handle and crossed the room in long, quick strides; Caden’s question fell into Lily’s mouth as she grasped his face and thoroughly snogged him.

“Ew,” Albus complained beneath his breath.

Lily pulled back, but she didn’t drop her hands from his face. She seemed to be brimming with something that Draco couldn’t name. He realized it was love quickly enough.

“Come with me,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “Caden, come with me.”

It was odd, seeing Lily like that: vulnerable, exposed, actually trembling with emotion. Somehow, she looked even stronger for it. She looked braver to Draco than she ever had before, and nobody could deny that Lily Potter had always had moments of insane bravery.

Caden parted his lips in surprise. “What? Come to New Zealand? Now?”

“Now. God, fucking come with me. Live with me. I can’t bear it—I don’t want to leave you. Don’t make me leave you again. Please. I love you, I fucking love you.”

Draco glanced sideways towards the rest of the group. Rose’s jaw had literally dropped. James was tearing up, one hand pressed over his heart. Albus was only barely managing to muffle his snickers, and that was probably only because both Ginny and Hermione had him pinned with deadly glares, as if daring him to ruin Lily’s progress. Scorpius’s eyes had welled with proud tears.

“Well?” Ron hissed loudly. "Are you going to say yes?!" 

Ginny and Hermione backhanded his shoulders.

Caden's response was nonverbal, but it was certainly an answer. Draco arched an eyebrow as Caden backed Lily up against the nearby wall; he was shameless as he captured her lips with his and grasped her waist, pulling her snugly against him.  

Draco heard Harry whisper: “Oh, I don't want to watch this...can we go?”

“No way,” Ginny hissed back. “I’ve got to see how this plays out.”

They couldn’t make out whatever Caden whispered to her, but she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him in an excited, relieved hug, so Draco guessed it was a yes.

“One minute—sixty seconds…five-nine…”

The couple jumped like they’d just had ice water dumped over them. Lily hurried over and grasped her suitcase. Caden made a beeline for Draco.

Beaming, he said: “I quit.”

Draco blinked. “Oh. Well…that’s…disappointing,” he admitted.

“I’m sorry. We’ll talk.” He turned to the first Potter he saw. “Ginny, could you send my things?”

“Forty-nine…forty-eight…”

“Yes! Yes, go! I’ll talk to you on the—the pocket phone!” Ginny said. She shoved Caden forward. Caden hurried over to Aster and Hugo. He grasped Aster’s hands and kissed them. He hugged Hugo.

“Go, go!” Rose said, agonized on Caden and Lily’s behalf as the worker’s countdown reached thirty-five. “Go before you miss it and make this entire dramatic event really awkward and anti-climactic for all of us!”

“I wanted to say goodbye to Delilah—”

“Twenty-nine, twenty-eight—”

Lily grasped Caden’s hand. “You can send her a toy.”

Caden smiled down at her. “Right. Run?”

“Run,” Lily agreed.

Everybody watched on fondly as the couple booked it towards the portkey. They waited with bated breath as the portkey official checked their enchanted parchment. He looked up.

“They made it.”

The mood gradually went from joyous to somber. Draco patted Ginny’s arm as their group slowly walked from the department.

“She’ll be back,” James reminded Harry. He threw an arm around his dad’s shoulders. “In around seven months. It’ll fly by.”

“Easy for you to say,” Harry muttered. “Your daughter’s not leaving you.”

Draco was suddenly extremely relieved that Scorpius had never shown an interest in going anywhere. He was certain that he wouldn’t have taken it even half as well as the Potters were taking their daughter’s departure.

“Hey,” Draco said, walking up to step between his son and his son-in-law. “What if we did take a holiday this weekend?”

“I’ve got work,” Albus moaned. “Don’t remind me!”

“We could get it rescheduled. Hermione owes me a favor. Let’s do it,” Draco urged.

Scorpius and Albus exchanged a look. After a moment, they beamed.

“All right, yeah, if you can really get me off the weekend shift,” Albus said excitedly.

“Maybe I can get another pair of trousers to replace the ones that got covered in sick!” Scorpius added.

Albus actually hopped in place; the last time Draco had seen him that excited was when he and Scorpius shared the news of their engagement. It brought a smile to his face.

“Scorpius, there are loads of baby shops in Paris!!” Albus exclaimed.

Scorpius was so equally overwhelmed with excitement that he missed Draco’s confused look. After watching them laugh together, Draco decided to let it go; they were an odd match, his son and Albus. An odd—but wonderful—match. 

Chapter Text

SEVEN MONTHS LATER

Like every other morning, Lily woke to the wall-shaking roar of the passing five AM train. Unlike every other morning, she didn’t have the luxury of ignoring it.

“Ugh,” she moaned pitifully. She turned over onto her stomach and pressed her face into her pillow. She drifted in and out of sleep for another five minutes, overcome with self-pity, but she knew she didn’t have the time for a lie in. She’d finished up a twenty-three-hour shift around six the night prior, and she was already due back to the sanctuary at eight that morning. They were short two dragon keepers and one dragonologist, making Lily the only dragonologist at her sanctuary and one of only three people there actually trained to handle dragons one-on-one. It wouldn’t have been a problem six months ago when the sanctuary dragon population was kept at its cap of fifteen. But they were up to thirty-six dragons now—fourteen with special needs, three sent away by other reservations for ‘undue violence against humans’, five rowdy adolescents, three pregnant mothers, and eleven who were suffering from a dragon form of PTSD after surviving a violent poaching attack on a nearby reservation. And Opal, lovely Opal, but Lily didn’t consider him a member of the general dragon population; to her, he was a companion. And lying there that morning, her entire body wracked with muscular pain, her raw burns still stinging as her bare skin brushed the sheets, her heart heavy with loneliness after yet another night alone…it was only her love for Opal and her other dragons that could’ve convinced her to sit up and part ways with her pillow.

She couldn’t even allow herself to really look at her boyfriend, lying fast asleep on his side of the bed, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to walk away from him if she did. She’d only seen him once during her twenty-three-hour shift (he’d brought her lunch and burn cream for her new burns), and then he’d had to go straight to the evening shift. She didn’t know when he got home last night (she’d passed out around seven PM, after eating an entire pizza and drinking two pints in the bathtub), but going by the fact that the customary morning train hadn’t woken him as it usually did, it had been an incredibly late night for him. And she wasn’t usually one to care much about routines, but she had to admit she missed their past ones; the wake-up call from the five AM train used to mean sleepy morning sex. Now it meant waking up for work, work, and more work…and more missing him. Not a fair trade-off at all, in Lily’s opinion.

She had quite literally fallen asleep atop the duvet in her bath towel, so when she glanced in the bathroom mirror, she wasn’t too surprised to see her hair sticking up in every direction. She set her hands on the cold granite of the sink and leaned forward. Her sigh drew on and on; it felt like somebody had punctured something within her like you puncture a balloon. And yet she still felt that heavy feeling of discontent weighing on her heart once it pandered off. Nothing had really been released.

“It’s fucking rubbish,” she muttered underneath her breath. She shoved the tap handle back and pushed her toothbrush underneath the water. The mirror tsked.

“Don’t take it out on the sink, Lily,” she chided.

“Oh, shut up,” Lily snapped, her words muffled around her toothbrush. “I’m not in the mood, Beatrice.”

The mirror tsked again. “You’re pushing yourself too hard, love. Your dad told you to slow down. I heard him on your muggle telephone.”

Lily brushed her teeth harder, annoyed. She was rewarded with the metallic taste of blood. She grimaced. When she leaned over and spat into the sink, her toothpaste was a bright pink.

“That’s what I’m talking about…” Beatrice sang, reminding Lily uncannily of her gran for a moment.

“Well, I haven’t exactly got a choice, have I?!” Lily exploded. Her temper—already short to begin with—was even more volatile than usual. She rinsed her toothbrush and sagged against the sink again, the taste of blood still turning her stomach. “Ivan and Whittle are the only dragon keepers left. Heyland’s bunked off. Winnie was a selfish bitch and abandoned us, knowing good and well that I’d have to pick up her slack, knowing that we were already overwhelmed when it was the two of us…! To top it all off, I’ve got another fifteen hours to work today, I don’t think I’ve had a real meal in at least a week, I haven’t had sex in five days, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on at Caden’s work because we haven’t had a proper conversation in nearly three days, and look at this,” Lily hopped up and sat her bare arse on the sink, shifting her body so her new burns– running vertically over her hip and over the outside of her thigh, blistery and an angry red— were visible. She lightly poked over the worst part; the skin over her right hip bone was a bit charred. “Not that it matters, but I should’ve gone to hospital for these. I had no time to and they really fucking hurt and the worst part is you’re the first thing I’ve talked to about this and you’re a sodding enchanted mirror in a warehouse toilet.”

Beatrice gasped, insulted. “This is not a warehouse toilet anymore! I was promoted when you two turned this into a house! Promoted to bathroom mirror! Honestly, Lily, don’t take your frustration out on others, it’s completely unbecoming!”

Lily didn’t even have the energy to snap back. She just wanted to curl up on the bathroom tile and go back to sleep. Beatrice sighed.

“Why don’t you go and wake my son—”

“He. Is not. Your son. You. Are. A mirror,” Lily bit through gritted teeth. She felt her heart sink, though, because she truly wanted nothing more than to do just that. She wanted to wake him up so badly, wanted to touch his skin and talk to him more than she could express, so much that the sheer desperation of it brought tears to her eyes. So much that, for a moment, as she imagined how healing it’d feel even just to hug him, she could hardly breathe around her heavy heart. But she couldn’t do that. Her pain wasn’t the most important thing anymore. He’d probably only gotten home a couple of hours earlier, and he would surely have to work today as well. She couldn’t wake him up just because she was upset. “I can’t do that. He’s overworked, too. At least one of us should get some fucking sleep.”

“He was cut up about your burns last night,” Beatrice told her. She was an insufferable gossiper, so Lily tried to ignore her—so as not to encourage it—but it was impossible not to hear as she washed her face. “Rang charming Charlie, he did, all worried about whether or not to wake you and bring you to hospital.”

Lily grimaced into her palms. She finished rinsing the soap from her face and looked up at Beatrice, water dripping steadily into her eyes. “I meant to have them covered.”

“I told you a hot bath when you’re that tired was a bad idea, but did you listen? No. You ate disgusting, greasy food and—”

Lily lifted up Caden’s razor.

“If it’s all the same to you, Beatrice, I’d rather peel the skin from my face layer by layer with this than listen to you nag me. I haven’t got the energy for it. I’ve still got to wash and dry my clothes for today, catch up on the thirteen unread letters from other dragonologists that’ve amassed since yesterday, open all the unread letters on my pocket phone, commute to – blimey, no, I’m too tired to even continue talking about it. Bye.”

Lily pulled the curtain shut around the toilet, had her wee, shot one last glower into the mirror, and then stamped her way down the vibrating hall towards the kitchen. Their ‘house’ used to be a warehouse connected to a train station. When the train station had eventually stopped running (in favor of a new and more populated stop), the warehouse had gone on the market, and Lily had fallen in love at once by its rough character and great potential. Lily was very happy with how they’d renovated and fixed it up; the way the walls groaned and shook as the trains sped by was oddly comforting by now. It felt like home. And that morning, she dramatically felt like leaving her home might do her in. Dead at twenty. Cause of death: overexertion, loneliness, sexual frustration. Burns. Bad hair! Lily stopped dead by the small, decorative mirror hanging by the light switch. It was trembling from the force of the nearby train, but Lily saw enough to remind her of how awful her hair was. It wouldn’t do. She might pass out from exhaustion, but she would not die with bad hair. She walked over, grabbed her wand from the kitchen table, and directed a steady stream of warm water at her hair. She stood shivering for a moment, naked in a puddle of water on her kitchen floor, and thought: what if I didn’t go to work? But she thought of Opal again. Topaz. Emerald. All of them. No—she’d have to rise to the challenge. What was it that Delphi had said about her so long ago? You strengthen under pressure where others bend and crack. She never thought she’d see the day when she was using Delphi’s words as last-ditch motivation.

She dried herself and the floor off, put the kettle on, and walked over to the washer. The clothes horse was creaking under the weight of two loads of laundry – neither she nor Caden had found the time to put any of them away yet. The clothes basket was overflowing with dirty laundry. Lily pulled one of Caden’s clean jumpers from the clothes horse, tugged it over her head, and then bent over to rummage through the dirty laundry for her work clothes. She had thrown them in this general direction last night, knowing that she’d have to wake up early to clean them, but too exhausted to care that she was fucking over her future self. Where were they? She pulled item after item out, got annoyed, and dumped the entire thing out on the floor. She was kneeling in the massive pile of laundry, growing frustrated to the point of tears, when she spotted her jeans from the corner of her eye. She paused. She stared at the last rung on the clothes horse. The jeans she always wore to work—comfortable and worn but tight-fitting enough that they didn’t get in her way—were hanging there, perfectly cleaned, the hole from the fire that’d caused her burns mended. Her cotton vest was right beside it. Even her faux leather jacket was hanging from a hanger on the edge of the frame, the previously smoke-scented material odor-free, the wrinkles and stains removed. Lily fell back on her bottom weakly. And she knew it was almost certainly because she was so incredibly tired, but right then, she was certain she had never seen anything more romantic in her entire fucking life. When had Caden done this? It would’ve had to have been when he got home. Lily’s heart expanded to a point that was almost painful as she thought about him stumbling home, exhausted and worn out, only to think about her. Her morning, her insanely long to-do list. The thought of him standing there at two or three in the morning, doing her laundry so she wouldn’t have to in the morning, made her love him even more (and massively turned her on.) That was it. No more self-pity. No more crying to Beatrice. Caden clearly still saw something to love in her, despite how haggard she felt, so she would find that something within herself and she would take care of the both of them like he was trying to do.

With a steady resolve, Lily stood and walked back over to the kettle. She grabbed her phone from the charging stand and scrolled slowly through her contacts. As soon as she located the number of her muggle tattoo artist, she hit send.

“Lily Potter, we don’t open until seven,” Lon greeted.

“Oh, you’re always up at this hour, you told me yourself,” Lily reminded him. She pulled the kettle off the rings as soon as it started hissing. “I need an appointment.”

“More burns? They don’t pay you firefighters enough.”

“No,” Lily said sourly. She waved her wand; the teapot lifted from the drying rack and landed neatly beside her. She dumped the tea leaves Aster had sent her into the strainer, poured boiling water into the pot, and then replaced the lid. “They certainly don’t.”

“More of the same?”

“Yes,” Lily affirmed.

“Where?”

“Er…”

“Lily. I hope you’re not going to ask me to tattoo over unhealed burns that cover a good percentage of your body again, because as I told you the first time, you could get a deadly infection and I could get shut down and—”

“But I didn’t, did I? I didn’t get an infection. I told you; I’ve got an insanely magical immune system.” She looked down at her new burns. “They’re not as bad as the time you’re thinking of. Please, Lon? I hate it like this.”

“I don’t know how you can bear the pain,” he admitted.

“Beauty is pain,” Lily shot back easily.

“Where exactly are the burns and are there any changes you’d want to make to the tattoo template?”

Lily explained her mental image to Lon while the tea steeped. She poured an even amount into her and Caden’s mugs, peeked into the teapot, saw there was a bit left, and then topped Caden’s off. She fixed up their tea the way they both liked it and levitated the mugs out in front of her as she headed back towards the bedroom.

“Over your actual hip bone is the worst part of the burn?” Lon asked.

“Yeah, it’s a bit nasty, to be honest.”

“I’m not tattooing over that. Over the hip hurts badly enough as it is.”

“Yes you are!” Lily argued, affronted. She padded into the bedroom and slowly pulled her wand downwards, so the mugs settled gracefully on Caden’s bedside table. She pulled her mobile down from her ear and checked the time. She was beyond overjoyed that she’d have a few spare moments this morning, all thanks to him. She intended to repay him properly. “I want an entire sodding tiger lily over that burn! The pain can kiss my arse; I’m not having a burnt hip, Lon, I pride myself on my hips, I think they’re sexy, and I won’t accept your coddling.”

“You will probably actually pass out from the pain, Lily.”

“Then make sure I land on something soft, yeah?”

She climbed back up onto the bed. She was already pink-cheeked with arousal as she moved over to straddle Caden’s waist. He stirred slightly beneath her; she felt a shock course through her as their eyes met. Her heart began pounding.

“Hang on a moment,” she said into the phone. She lowered it so it was muffled into her chest, leaned over, and captured her boyfriend’s lips. Morning breath be damned; she felt a sea of longing open up within her from the moment their lips touched.

“Morning,” he whispered sleepily, his lips brushing hers as he did. Lily had intended on kissing him quickly, sitting with him while they had tea and she finished her conversation, and then repaying him, but her arousal short-circuited that plan. She kissed from his lips to his cheek to his jaw, her heart hammering away in her chest.

“I fucking love you,” she whispered, mindful of the phone still pressed to the jumper she’d borrowed.

“Mmm,” he hummed happily, as her lips moved back to his. She delighted in the sensation of his tongue against hers as his hand pushed up the jumper she was wearing. She was abruptly one-track-minded. She sat back up and moved the phone back to her ear. “So when’s the soonest you can get in—I mean, get me in. Like my appointment, when can I…yeah.”

It was difficult to keep track of her thoughts, with Caden’s eyes boring into hers and his fingers caressing the unburned skin of her thighs.

“Because it’s you, I can work you in today. How’s lunchtime? Does that work for you?”

“Mmm, yeah,” Lily agreed. She realized it was a bit more breathless than she’d intended. “I mean—yes. Thank you.”

She ended the call and carelessly flung the phone to the other end of the bed. Caden’s hands pressed to her back and pulled her flush against his chest a moment later. She grinned into their kiss. She loved the sensation of his heart thumping away against hers.

“I made you tea,” she told him.

“I’d rather taste you.”

“Sorry, you’ll have to settle for the tea,” she said. “You’re the one who needs a proper reward.”

She sat back up, retrieved his tea, pressed it into his hands, and waited until he’d propped himself up against the headboard enough to actually take a sip without choking. She kneeled over him and moved her lips to his neck; he shivered at once. She heard him swallow his first sip of tea as she moved her lips down to his shoulder.

“You didn’t tell me you were this burned,” he said. She could hear his frown. “I don’t even know where to put my hands.”

“Put them wherever you like. I’m not made of glass, you know.”

“No, I know…glass doesn’t burn.”

“Ha, ha,” she mumbled. She nipped lightly at his collarbone and then resumed her downward path. She took a moment to press her cheek over his heart; she smiled as she felt his thundering pulse against her face. His hands hesitantly settled on her hips. His touch against her burnt hip did hurt, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You frightened me last night. Passed out like that, your skin all burnt— oh, Merlin.”

Lily smiled smugly into his stomach. He was so predictable. She only had to blow gently over his stomach once to get him going.

“I’m fine. Well, no—I wasn’t fine, but I’m fine right now in this moment, and I’ll be fine again once I find another sodding dragonologist.”

She kissed over his bellybutton; he flinched and reached down, grasping tightly at her shoulders. Lily looked up.

“What?” she asked innocently.

“Don’t ‘what’ me, you know that tickles!” he said. It was meant to be stern, but he was smiling throughout it. Lily knew he was also too overjoyed at finding a moment together to keep up the usual quality of their banter.

“Sorry…forgot,” she lied. She gave an angelic smile. He tugged at her hair as she leaned back down and purposefully trailed her nose over that same ticklish spot; their laughter mingled in together. Lily felt her affection and love drown her as she gave up on her teasing and continued kissing a path downwards.

“They can’t—seriously—expect you to work again to—” his words dissolved into a moan. He moved his hands up to her hair; Lily shivered as his nails dug gently into her scalp. “Today.”

“They can and they do. Okay. Can’t talk anymore. Drink your tea.”

He choked on his next sip as she made good on her promise to repay him for his generosity last night. It all fit well with the lesson she’d been slowly learning over the past few months: altruism could create more joy than egoism. And, contrary to what she’d always thought, it could be more enjoyable, too.   


 

She was in a remarkably good mood as she entered the sanctuary property. She was feeling a bit less pessimistic about her current situation. Sure – things were bad now. She was overwhelmed now. She and Caden were feeling the strain of joining the front lines of the war against the poachers. But things wouldn’t always be like this; soon, she’d find another dragonologist to take on, the poaching would die out, her load would lessen, and things would be wonderful again. She’d just have to grit her teeth and bear it until then.

“Morning,” she greeted the gateway guard. He smiled.

“Looks like Ivan’s prayers were answered.”

Lily arched an eyebrow. “Please tell me these prayers were just to see my beautiful face and not because there was a crisis last night.”

“Keepers from the Sydney reservation arrived around two AM with another Opaleye who’d wandered their way.”

Lily looked up at the blue sky and sighed. “Great. Why here? The east reservation has loads more room and hands than we do!”

“From what I’ve heard, the dragon’s disabled; the eastern reservations won’t take him, said here was the only option.”

“Oh,” Lily said. She nodded. “Thanks for the update. Time to walk into the fires of hell—probably literally if this one is as violent as the last few we got.”

“You know, there are plenty of standard dragon keeper robes in the back room that block out most flames—”

“Antonio, we’ve talked about this. I can’t work in those conditions. All that fabric makes me feel like I’m suffocating, and then I get sloppy, and the dragons take advantage of that sloppiness, and – no, I work best like this. Those robes are for the others. Thanks for your concern.”

The elderly guard made a face at her attire but chose to keep his opinions to himself. It was a small miracle.

Lily took her broom from the supply shed once she’d been let past the main gate. She kicked off and flew up enough to survey the vast expanse of rolling hills and mountains, deep valley crevices, and sparkling rivers. From this high, her dragons looked like massive, shimmering opals resting upon the earth. There were the adolescents—behaving as rowdy as usual—to her left, the specially protected enclosure for the dragons with special handling needs to her right, the massive dome where they reared the babies directly in front of her, the metal roof reflecting the sun like a mirror. Just past the dome, she spotted the magically reinforced roof of her work hut. She smiled against the hard-beating wind; there was Opal, curled up on the roof as he usually was when she was gone. Emerald was hovering in the air around him; Lily made a mental note to do a pregnancy scan on her. The only time she ever actively sought out Opal’s affection outside of mating season was when she was pregnant (and after the deaths of their last babies, or so Ivan had told her).

Lily swooped down towards the roof, mindful to stay in Emerald’s sights so as not to startle her, and touched down right beside Opal. He pushed his snout up into the air as he felt the vibrations of her landing. Somebody had clearly forgotten to give him his eyesight potion. Lily felt irritation erupt inside of her. Now she’d have to lock him in a dark room after giving it to him, so the sunlight wouldn’t hurt him. Lily walked up to him and rested her palm against his snout. She stroked his scales gently, giving him time to breathe in her scent. Once he leaned his snout into her hand, she moved closer. She climbed up on his folded front legs and stroked the sides of his long face. She shot a look around herself, to make sure nobody was close enough to hear, and then she allowed herself to baby him.

“Those naughty dragon keepers,” she said softly. She moved her right hand beneath his chin and scratched at the course scales; he rumbled in approval and leaned closer towards her. In his enthusiasm, he nearly sent her falling off the roof, but she tightened her muscles and steadied herself. “They’re not taking care of you right, are they? Poor Opal…don’t worry, I’ll get you sorted. Do you want to nap outside of my window today? I don’t think there are any visitors scheduled.”

Opal’s favorite thing was curling up on the flowerbed outside of Lily’s opened office window and napping with his chin resting on the window ledge. She couldn’t let him when she had any outside visitors (for some reason, the sight of an Antipodean Opaleye’s entire head protruding through the open window and into her office upset people who weren’t familiar with dragons), but she thought it’d probably be a slow day meeting-wise. She wouldn’t have time for meetings, anyway. There was too much hands-on work to be done.

In response, Opal twitched his wings. Lily had barely managed to scamper up to his back before he took flight. She wrapped her arms around his neck as much as she could and hugged him as he lowered them both down to the dirt beside her office window. She cut her chin on his scales as she leaned in to give the back of his neck a kiss, but she didn’t care.

After shooting another furtive glance around, she slid off her dragon and walked up to his snout again. She leaned in and said: “You’re such a good dragon, Opal.”

He gave a guttural hum. She laughed as he blew a smoke ring out. It went over her head like a necklace. She was stroking his scales fondly again when she heard somebody clear their throat. Lily glanced over her shoulder at Ivan, her longest-employed dragon keeper. He’d worked at the reservation Lily had first joined after graduation and had followed her here, once she’d opened her own sanctuary. He looked beyond stressed.

“You’re like a ray of sunshine, you are,” he greeted. “I’m so glad to see you; I’ve been considering running off into the night like Winnie did.”

“What happened last night?” she asked at once. “What’s the story behind the new Sydney transfer?”

“Well, he’s about as difficult as they come. But…” Ivan suddenly looked incredibly eager. He grinned broadly and crossed his arms. “Dwarfism.”

Lily stared. Her heart skipped a beat. “What?”

“You were right, Lily. It exists. A Pygmy Dragon, of sorts. And we’ve got one.”

Lily rolled right off of Opal’s back. She landed deftly on her feet and hurried up to Ivan excitedly. “Seriously?! I swear if you’re taking the piss I’m going to—”

“Seriously. His flame development indicates that he’s about six years old. He’s the size of a horse.”

Lily covered her mouth with her hand. She tried to keep her excitement in perspective, but it was difficult because that was one of her major interests within the world of dragonology. She’d been searching for evidence that dragons could exhibit that trait, and after all this time, it’d shown up at her doorstep.

“Okay, so, did you get a full history, is he in quarantine right now, was the lime pox test positive, has he had a meal yet, how is he with the other dragons?”

“Lime pox was negative. He’s in quarantine. The Sydney dragon keeper said an old wizard found him napping inside his barn out towards Dalwallinu. They thought he was only a few months old until he set the barn on fire and nearly roasted them all to death. The keeper said it looked like he was trying to prove something; they’d just finished calling him ‘small and harmless’ when he set fire to everything.”

“Take me to him!” Lily said excitedly.

“Can’t. You’ve had somebody waiting in your office for an hour. I came out here to tell you that.”

Lily frowned. “Oh, no. It’s not my Uncle Charlie, is it? I told Caden I didn’t want him to call him down here! How am I meant to be successful if I run crying to my uncle at every little sign of trouble—”

“It’s not Charlie. It’s somebody here for an interview.”

Lily arched an eyebrow. “An interview? I didn’t schedule an interview. I’ve hardly had time to open half the resumes I’ve gotten.”

Ivan shrugged. “She seems to think she’s supposed to be here.”

Lily said goodbye to Opal, saluted Emerald as she circled possessively above them, and then made her way into the hut. The filing cabinet to the left was so full now that the drawers couldn’t shut, thanks to all the files bulging out of it. The table that had once been for tea and coffee was groaning underneath a haphazard pile of letters. Lily’s desk—tucked in the far back corner beside the window—was blanketed with a layer of parchment, files, and used mugs. The seat in front of her desk was occupied by somebody wearing a bright pink headscarf. Opal stuffed his massive head into the opened window at once, peering curiously inside the hut; Lily watched the profile of the interviewee carefully. She didn’t jump at the sight of Opal or flinch away. Lily watched her extend her hand—veins of her wrist upwards— for Opal to sniff, and smiled. She shut the hut door behind her and marched over towards her desk.

“Hi. I’m Lily. That’s Opal,” she greeted. She sat behind her desk and extended her hand; the girl’s palm was suitably calloused as she shook Lily’s. “I didn’t schedule an interview, but you already knew that.”

The girl nodded. “No, you didn’t, I know. I sent my resume five times by owl. I’ve been waiting since I graduated. I got tired of waiting. Maybe you thought my resume wasn’t honest or maybe there was something else you didn’t like, but I want to know why because I’ve spent all my summers training and I got excellent scores on my O.W.L.s and my N.E.W.T.s and I’ve even got recommendations from your dad and Hagrid. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I’m perfect for this job.”

Her speech—beyond impressing Lily with her nerve—rang a bell. Lily had opened a few of the resumes last night. There had only been one that came with a recommendation from Lily’s own father.

“Adam Thomage?” She asked, puzzled. She couldn’t say she’d ever met a girl named Adam before. “Or have I somehow received two separate resumes with recommendations from my dad?”

“No, that’s mine,” she affirmed. “I used the name I was born with because I included my Ministry background check and I wanted everything to be consistent.” 

“Ooh,” Lily realized. A sudden explosion from outside the window made Opal jump. He banged his head on the top of the window sill. Lily heard shouts ringing all the way from the special handling enclosure. What now? She shifted in her seat impatiently; the reality of all the things she needed to accomplish that day had suddenly settled back on her shoulders. She needed this interview done with. “So what’s your real name?”

“Mia.”

“Do you have another copy of your resume on hand?” Lily didn’t even offer an explanation or excuse for why she didn’t have the first five Mia had sent; the chaos of her office was explanation enough.

“Yes, here,” Mia said. She passed Lily a red folder. “It’s funny…your dad’s office looks just like this.”

“Like father, like daughter, I suppose,” Lily said distractedly. She opened the folder, dropped her eyes to the girl’s N.E.W.T. scores and training certifications, and then shut it. “Great. You’re hired. The adolescents’ enclosure is five minutes that way, heading southwest. The folder hanging on the gate has all the specific information on each dragon. I’ll be by in a few hours to check in. Your shifts should usually be around eight hours, give or take a few. If you need me, I’ll almost certainly be in the special handling enclosure.”

Lily stood and grabbed the cleanest looking mug from the cluttered surface of her desk. She headed towards the tea table.

“Oh…! Great! But…just like that? What about orientation? And I wanted to talk to you about starting training to be a dragonologist, I don’t want to only be a keeper and I heard you were taking new trainees and I was hoping that with all this drama over lime pox that there would be more openings than usual. I know everybody says it’s tough to get placements here but I thought with your dad and Hagrid putting a good word in and all my experience—”

Lily carried her semi-clean mug over to the table. She picked the teapot up off the edge; by some miracle, Whittle had already made tea. Lily refilled her mug and reheated the tea with a jab of her wand. She interrupted Mia’s ongoing rambling.

“I meant as a dragonologist, eventually. You’ll start on now as a keeper and in about six months I’ll sign off on your certificate. My training is pretty hands off…that’s how my uncle taught me and it worked really well. You don’t need any orientation. Your training looked good; orientation would really just be wasting both our time, and to be honest, I don’t have any—time, that is. You had plenty of experience hours, and with Horntails, no less. If you can handle adolescent Horntails, you can deal with Opaleyes while you’re sleeping.” Mia still looked taken aback. Lily wondered suddenly if she was being socially dense; Caden said she could sometimes come off as a bit intense when she was ‘in the zone’, and the last thing she wanted was to frighten a potential new dragonologist off. Right as she was about to grit her teeth and force a polite conversation, another shout pierced the silence. She sighed. “Listen, I’ve got to run—” she gestured towards the hut door. They could both hear another voice joining in on the panicked yelling— “but we’ll meet up later and have a proper chat or something.”

Lily headed towards the door. Mia called after her, her voice brimming with excitement.

“Thank you! Thank you very much!”

Lily hoped she still felt thankful by the end of the workday.  


 

Lily found the source of all the yelling.

“I’ve had it with this dragon!” greeted Sarg. He pulled his smoldering robes over his head with one quick yank; the fire he’d received from the dragon had been strong enough to wear through the fireproof charm on the fabric. His eyes widened as he took in the bright pink of his forearm. He’d sustained a first-degree burn. “Look at this! Unbelievable!”

Lily resisted the very strong urge to roll her eyes. It was difficult to feel bad for him when she was standing there harboring much worse burns. She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and withdrew her small container of burn cream. She pursed her lips against the insults she wanted to spew his way as she rubbed the cream over his skin (perhaps a bit harder than necessary). Sarg winced.

“This is good. It’ll toughen you up,” Lily said sternly. She gave his shoulder a firm slap. He glowered over her shoulder at the miniature dragon.

“I’ll take over here. I need you to go get my Opal, bring him to the Quiet Room, give him his eyesight potion, and leave him in there for twenty minutes. Then, let him back out,” she ordered.

He jumped at the chance. “Going from this beast to Opal? Gladly. Bye.”

He sped off quickly (as if he feared she’d change her mind.) Lily finally rolled her eyes.

She stuffed the burn cream back into her pocket and approached the railing of the new dragon’s quarantine room. It was enchanted to look and feel exactly like the outdoors, but it was surrounded by an invisible force holding the dragon (and its possible germs) in and everything else out. Sarg had said he’d spent all morning earning the dragon’s trust enough to enter the room – or so he thought. Apparently, it’d lashed out unexpectedly while he was feeding it. The bucket of raw meat was lying empty on its side inside the enclosure, the contents eaten by the dragon as soon as Sarg had retreated. Lily conjured a small notebook and a self-inking quill; she sat on the railing and watched the dragon for ten minutes, jotting down any behaviors that seemed curious.

Pygmy Dragon, she wrote at the top of the page. Six years old. Male. Bloody gorgeous scales—never been in any fights going by the condition of them. Talons have never been sanded—right one is split to the bone. Possible collar at one point? Scales are duller round the neck. Hates the tree in the back—because it’s bigger? Inferiority complex about his height?

Lily waited until the dragon spotted her. She continued writing and gave him an opportunity to walk up to the invisible barrier and inspect her without her focusing on him.

He’s very curious. Can smell my burns through the barrier. Uses feet to sense things more often than any other dragon I’ve seen—possible nasal issues? Wings are too small to support his chubby body and it’s actually really fucking cute (even though it’s clearly not healthy.) Very likely this dragon was kept as a ‘pet’ at some point by an idiotic yet gutsy family who liked to feed it bacon. Very likely this dragon took offense to being treated like a pet and now hates all humans. Very likely that it will still like me.

Lily waited until he grew bored with her, and then she waved her wand and stepped through the entryway that appeared in the shimmery veil. She stepped into the controlled environment of the room. It was warm and humid (like Opaleyes preferred it.) The Pygmy had wandered down to a small valley and was nesting in a pile of leaves. Lily grabbed a pair of fireproof robes just in case and headed down towards the valley. She approached him at a steady pace. She sat on a boulder halfway down the valley slope. Like she’d guessed, it didn’t take the dragon long to sense her near his nest. She saw his nostrils flare. She lifted the robes up in front of her like a shield just in time; the flames knocked into her with a force so great that her ears rung. Heat seared her cheeks and the backs of her forearms. She was glad she’d pulled her hair up and wrapped it in a fireproof bandana; it’d only just gotten past her shoulders again and she would’ve been furious if she lost it.

She waited two seconds after the flames stopped. She slowly lowered the robes. The second her eyes locked with the dragon’s, he lashed out again. She lifted the robes once more. She could feel the charm weakening. If she was sensible, she’d leave right then. But she had a feeling leaving would be the wrong thing to do.

She lowered the robes again. The dragon flared his nostrils once more. She narrowed her eyes.

“Absolutely not!” she said firmly. Her voice echoed around the room. The dragon had been opening his mouth to breathe more fire, but at that, he froze. Lily lowered the robes down further. She stood. He tensed; a rumbling growl began forming at the back of his throat. Lily didn’t back down. “You won’t out-stubborn me. Try me.”

His growl turned into another round of flames. Lily lifted the robes back up and tried not to think about the fact that the charm was almost useless by now. She cast a quick, temporary replacement charm on the robes, summoned another sealed container of meat, and then took another step forward. She lowered her hands to her side and turned her palms out.

“It’s all right. I get it. You’re a big boy. Not a baby. You’re big and bad and frightening.” She unsealed the lid of the container. She reached in and pulled out a palm-sized chunk of raw meat. The dragon snapped its eyes to her hand. “If you want it, you have to play nicely. It’s an important rule to learn. Not easy though, I know.”

She took it slowly, step-by-step. She threw a piece of meat towards him, took a step closer, and then waited. If he lashed out, she lifted the robe, recast a charm, and tried again. If he didn’t, she threw another chunk of meat. It took nearly an hour, but finally, she was close enough to touch his scales. Once she was up close, she could tell he was in dire need of a bath. Where ever he’d been prior to wandering into that man’s barn, he must’ve been confined; dung was caked to his scales on his hind legs and his belly. His tummy was so expanded that it nearly brushed the ground when he was sitting. No telling what sort of processed muggle meats he was being fed. Lily reached a hand up. She was so close to him that if he decided to lash out again, she’d have no hope of surviving. It’d be impossible to get the robes up in time; she’d take a direct hit to the face. Her skin would probably burn off in a second. It’d be impossible to beat his quick reaction time with her slower human one. But if she retreated, she’d probably ruin all the progress she made.

Sod it, Lily thought. Somebody’s got to do it.

She set her palm on his scales. An ambiguous rumble formed in his chest; it could’ve been a growl or a contented hum. She forced herself to remain calm as she stroked over that same spot again.

“There, there, Big Boy…you’re doing great. Please don’t burn my face off, Big Boy. My boyfriend will bring me back to life and re-murder me if I let myself get killed by a dragon the size of a—”

His rumbling grew distinctly displeased. Lily backtracked.

“Right, sorry, sensitive about the…height thing.”

More rumbling. He was shooting her nasty looks from the side of his multicolored eye.

“I get it. You’ve got to throw your weight about. Mind you, you’ve got quite a lot of it to do that with…what were those naughty humans feeding you, eh? Sausages? I bet they were feeding you sausages.”

At the word sausage, the dragon perked up. Lily laughed.

“Oh, Merlin. They were, weren’t they? I wonder what they called you. Jack? William? Josh?”

To her amazement, his eyelids drifted shut. A lazy, contented hum escaped his mouth. Lily caught on at once. She’d been wrong before; he wasn’t insulted because he’d been treated like a pet. He was insulted because he was suddenly not being treated like one. Her heart swelled.

“Oh, you like being talked to, don’t you? Like a human baby. Did somebody treat you like a human baby? Coddle you and talk to you and interact with you and then suddenly cast you away when you got too big and rowdy? Did they go from letting you sleep at the bottom of their bed to chaining you outside in a stable?”

He leaned into her touch. It reminded Lily of a cat.

“You’ll be Big Boy now and you’ll stay here. I think Topaz will like you. He gets along with all the stray cats and you’re a bit cat-like. Not an insult! That’s a good thing! Lions are cats!”

Her hasty amendment came after another angry, sidelong glare from the dragon. Lily had to get Charlie here to see this dragon; he’d been working on a study for the past decade on how many English words dragons could learn, comprehend, and remember. She had a feeling this dragon was on the higher end of the scale linguistically speaking.

“Okay, we’re going to say goodbye now. Thank you for not burning my face off, Big Boy. Oh, you’re already catching onto your name, aren’t you? You’re very clever! Okay. Here,” she pulled out a measured portion of the meat and set it down on the ground in front of him. “Eat up; your diet starts tomorrow. Sorry, mate. You look a bit pregnant. And by a bit, I mean a lot.”

She gave him a comforting pat.


Over the next four hours, Lily did the following: narrowly avoided death three times, sent fifteen letters off, performed an emergency surgery on Flint, brewed an illicit batch of skin-replenishing potion which she doused her own burns in, apparated to her tattoo artist’s studio where she steadily cried throughout the entire tattooing process (due to her still-tender flesh), had a gin and tonic with said tattoo artist for lunch, apparated back, poured antiseptic and pain potion over her new tattoos, checked in on Mia, broke up a brawl between Amethyst and Copper, and then stood at the eastern edge of the sanctuary and screamed.

She hadn’t really expected it to help—she’d just lost her temper—but she found it actually did to some extent. Afterwards, her anger somewhat drained, she was mainly just exhausted. It’s not for forever, it’s just for now. It’s not for forever, it’s just for now. Her pep talk wasn’t working as well as it had at the start of the day, because now felt pretty insufferable.

She wasn’t even near ready for the words that greeted her as she crossed towards her hut.

“Aurors are here for a meeting,” Whittle warned. She was sitting on the steps outside the hut with a book and a sandwich, clearly making the best of her short lunch break. “Was that you screaming out there? Everything okay?”

“Peachy. Which Auror is it?” grumbled Lily.

“There are two this time. Wendy and Hunter.”

Oh, great. Just what I need. Lily groaned. She found Hunter intolerable.

“He’s brought a mediator with him, at least,” Whittle said, a smirk audible in her voice.

Lily’s heart jolted. She knew she didn’t need to get her hopes up; Caden had been helping at the prison for the past two weeks, mediating between the group of recently captured poachers and the Aurors. He hadn’t said he was moving back to the reservation rotation. But she couldn’t help it.

“Who?” she dared to ask.

Whittle lifted her book back up and smirked. Lily felt her lightly burned cheeks sear with pain as she beamed. It was the best possible thing that could’ve happened, the only thing that could’ve saved her shit day. If she walked in and it wasn’t him, she was sure she was going to have a complete tantrum comparable to her preteen days, but if it was

Her breath was lodged in her chest as she peeked into her hut. When she spotted Caden’s broad shoulders, she felt something in her chest unravel. Her muscles automatically loosened. Okay, she thought. She inhaled. Everything’s okay now.

Her joy gave way to amusement as she stepped over to her desk.

“Ms. Potter,” Caden greeted politely. He inclined his head. Lily pursed her lips and nodded back at him, dutifully ignoring the butterflies knocking around in her stomach.

“Mr. Rowle.”

His lips twitched for a moment. Lily (and everybody in her employment) kept the true nature of her and Caden’s relationship a secret because it would be considered a conflict of interest if his boss found out. He’d been signed on by the New Zealand Ministry to mediate primarily between the dragonologists/keepers and the Aurors assigned to the poaching debacle. Tensions were violently high between both groups because—in Lily’s opinion—the Aurors were fucking idiots. They kept trespassing onto reservation and sanctuary lands without permission in their pursuit of poachers and panicking at the sight of dragons; many of them took to excessively stunning the dragons, leading to the accidental murder of two. It hadn’t happened on Lily’s sanctuary yet, but she was determined it never would. She hadn’t let an Auror set foot on her property in six months, and until they all agreed to take part in her Dragon Sensitivity class (with her as the instructor), she refused to ever again. They were too quick to curse and bind, too quick to lash out with their wands. She wouldn’t have her dragons falling prey to cowardice.  

“Hello, Lily,” Hunter greeted. He winked. Lily saw Caden’s nose twitch up in annoyance briefly. Hunter stood and opened his arms to hug her. Lily knew better. The last time she’d hugged him he’d grabbed her arse and she’d had to bat-bogey him on Ministry property. She stared him dead in the eye and slowly sat down. He awkwardly let his arms fall to his side.

“Hi, Wendy,” Lily greeted. She lifted her coffee mug from earlier and took a sip of cold coffee (more to remind Hunter where he stood than because she genuinely wanted to drink it.) “Oh, and Hunter.”

Caden pursed his lips against what surely would’ve become a laugh had they been alone. Lily had to force her eyes from his face; she knew if she looked at him any longer, she’d inevitably end up kissing him, and that would probably blow their cover.

“Okay, I’ll start, then,” Lily said, when Wendy and Hunter failed to quickly get at whatever point they’d arrived to make. Lily didn’t have the time (or the patience, or the temperament) to sit through three minutes of polite smiles and cordial ‘how are you’s. She pointed towards the window. “26 kilometers west, 18 kilometers east, 42 kilometers south, and 10 kilometers north from this precise point. It’s all my property. Stay off it.” She stood and smiled. “Good talk.”

“No, we have not made our point, and you will let us—”

Caden quickly interrupted Hunter, right as Lily felt her anger bubbling up at Hunter’s tone. Who was he to talk to her that way? He was exceedingly annoying and wet himself the first time he got within spitting distance of a dragon even though it was behind a barrier—

“We have something new to bring to the negotiation table, Ms. Potter.”

It was only the way Caden said Ms. Potter—all polite on the surface but naughty beneath—that got her to sit back down. She glowered nastily at Hunter but decided to ignore him for now.

“All right then, Mr. Rowle,” Lily murmured. She saw Caden shift slightly in his seat. She grinned wickedly; she couldn’t help it. “Let’s hear what you’ve got to put on me. I mean—the table. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” he agreed, a forced coolness to his tone. Lily didn’t know if it was her imagination, but she thought Wendy might’ve been shooting her annoyed looks. Hmm, Lily thought, keep an eye on that as it develops.

Caden had clearly come with a negotiation plan. Hunter clearly didn’t care.

“We want access to the south border of your sanctuary,” Hunter demanded, in that same entitled tone that got always beneath Lily’s skin.

“Oh, you do, do you?” Lily scoffed.

“Yes. And we want it now.”

Lily snorted. She looked at Caden. “Can you translate from Entitled-Arse to Polite-Professional?”

“I’m great at doing that. I’ve had loads of practice.” His smirk was fleeting, but it was enough to get Lily’s heart rate up a bit. Prick, she thought. She narrowed her eyes at him. He narrowed his right back. God, she wanted to kiss him, and judging by the way he’d leaned slightly forward and kept staring at her lips, he felt the same way. It took him longer than usual to get a hold of himself. “Right, so…the Aurors believe poachers will be active along the south border before the end of the month.”

“Oh, brilliant. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll bring them in once I’ve caught them.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Wendy sneered. “It’s not your job to do that.”

Hunter butted in again. Caden looked genuinely pained; it was obvious to all of them that his hard work in planning this negotiation had gone to waste. “We want permission to use stunning spells on any dragons that approach us, but we won’t stun any that ignore us or ones that are properly contained. We’re also going to set up camp and protective shields and we want any and all liability waived.”

Lily burst into laughter. She bent over at the waist and laughed into her thighs. By the time her laughter pandered off, Hunter’s expression had darkened.

“Merlin, you are hilarious,” she admitted. She pressed her lips together and looked up at the ceiling in mock-concentration. “Let me think about that…hmm…no.”

Caden leaned forward. “If you’d just allow them a small corner they could round up some of the most notorious poachers that have continually evaded capture.”

“And sign off on a waiver that says they can ultimately do whatever they like to my dragons?! Absolutely not! Over my dead, burnt body! I’m not an idiot. I know that ‘any dragons that approach us’ will rapidly turn into any dragon they happen to spot. I’ve been very explicit about what it would take to allow them on my property, and I am not going to be moved from that. I don’t need their sodding help. I took down more poachers in one night with nearly 25% of my body covered in third-degree burns than your lot took down in three months, and I didn’t have to stun any of my dragons to do it. I can do it on my own.”

“Realistically, Lily,” Caden said. Lily felt her heart lurch at the sound of her given name; it seemed oddly intimate in their current situation. “You can’t keep doing their job and yours.”

And he was right—of course he was right—but she didn’t like being told what she could or couldn’t do.

“I can and I will,” she repeated. “Just watch me. Mr. Rowle.”

His eyes burned into hers. She found it impossible to look away. “I think it’s safe to say…Ms. Potter…that there are probably people at your home that miss you. All these twenty-four-hour shifts you’re working…forgive me for presuming that I know what your home life is like, but I’m positive there’s somebody who’s hurting over all of this. It’s not…livable. The way your work schedule is right now. Or so I’ve heard, anyway, from your colleagues.”

Lily grimaced. She hated that she was already wavering. One secretive concerned-boyfriend play and she felt her heart softening. Bollocks. Maybe the Auror office did know about their relationship; maybe they’d sent him for this precise reason. She was undeniably the hardest negotiator of all the dragonologists in the area.

“Well, it’s not forever, is it? Just for right now,” Lily countered. Then, as an afterthought: “Tell my colleagues to stop gossiping about me.”

“If you die in the ‘right now’ it is forever. For you and for whomever you might have at home.”

“Oh, that’s dramatic. What is this: a soap opera?”

“Yeah, like that episode where the boyfriend comes home after a long day in the office to find his girlfriend passed out with severe injuries, injuries that she described as ‘annoying like a papercut’ when they last spoke.”

“I think I missed that episode.”

“Must be nice for you,” he said coolly.

Lily pressed her lips together tightly. She felt such a strange tangle of emotions: guilt, concern, anger that he was using their personal lives during this negotiation (even though she knew, deep down, that the time had come long ago for something to be done), longing for him, subconscious annoyance at Wendy who was still shooting suspect looks his way, impatience to get back to work, dread when she thought about going back to work…

It was way too much. The difficult day didn’t help. Caden obviously knew this (his eyes had softened) and he relented appropriately.

“They’ll take your class. Your Dragon Sensitivity class.”

His declaration made Hunter and Wendy snap their eyes to him, outraged.

“What? We’re not doing that! We told you before we’re not doing that!” Wendy exclaimed, with Hunter nodding to back her up. “Our jobs have nothing to do with dragons!”

“They do when you’re on this assignment. It’s her property. That’s what she wants. And I told you both time and time again that there was no way she was going to sign that liability waiver. If you want access to her reservation, you’re going to have to take the class. But, Ms. Potter, if they take the class, they need permission to go wherever they need to on the sanctuary in pursuit of poachers. Give and take, yeah? I’m very professional about this. About my job serving you. And the Aurors. I wouldn’t suggest that you take this deal if I didn’t think it’d be mutually beneficial.”

Had she loved him just a bit less, she might’ve been torn between her dislike of Hunter (and the corresponding desire to go against literally anything and everything he wanted) and her desire to make her life easier (which, to be honest, allowing the Aurors back on her property would do. If they were there, she wouldn’t have to insist somebody was working at all times.) But because she loved him so much that it sometimes drove her a bit mad, it was easy to pick the latter over her hatred of Hunter. Because it wouldn’t only be benefiting her. They shared a life now, really; there was no other way to put it. What ruined her day ruined his and vice versa. It wasn’t just about her anymore.

“I expect satisfactory completion of the training. Once that’s done, sure. They can have free access with conditions.”

Brilliant,” Wendy said. Hunter looked less thrilled. Lily summoned parchment and a quill over towards herself so she could begin writing those conditions, and when she glanced back to them, she saw Wendy had her hand on Caden’s thigh. She was whispering something to him, her lips curled up in a smile. He looked supremely uncomfortable. Lily’s jaw clenched. Even as a little voice was telling her not to overreact, she’d stood from her chair. She circled around her desk and sat on the edge facing Caden and the Aurors, so the desk wasn’t between them. She was smiling tightly as she leaned over and took Wendy’s hands in hers (still on Caden’s upper thigh). She squeezed the woman’s fingers tightly.

“Everybody’s friends. How lovely,” she said. Wendy looked at her, annoyed and confused. She pulled gently at her hands. Lily tightened her grip around Wendy’s fingers. “Shall we all get drinks? Pedicures? Coffee?” Wendy tugged harder at their joined hands. Lily opened her fingers and let her fall back into her chair. “Don’t contact me for plans, I’ll contact you.”

Lily refused to look away from Wendy; she was going to make her look away first. It felt like a dominance thing. When Wendy finally dropped her eyes, Lily crossed her legs at the ankle and righted the parchment in her lap.

“Right. First of all, if you hurt any of my dragons, you’re gone. Immediately. No excuses…”

As she wrote out all her demands and stipulations, she spotted Wendy doing a variety of unforgivable things: scooting closer to Caden, leaning into his side, laughing too loudly at his jokes. When she reached up and brushed his hair from his eyes, Lily genuinely thought she might hit her. Her jealousy was quick to come to life and difficult to kill. Don’t lash out, she told herself. She took a deep, measured breath. She locked eyes with Caden. He nodded at her once as if to say ‘you can do it’. Remove yourself from the situation. Don’t lash out…

“I’ll just give this contract to you, Wendy, and you can both leave immediately,” Lily finally said, her voice pulled tight in her irritation.

“I’ll take that,” Caden said quickly. He rose from his seat right as Wendy reached up to touch his hair again. How dare she touch his hair, Lily seethed. She ground her teeth together. Caden took the contract from her and then leaned casually against the desk. He pretended to look over it; Lily knew he was faking because his brow always furrowed slightly when he was actually reading. “Right, there are a few more things I’d like to talk to Ms. Potter about. I’ll see you both at the Ministry later.”

Lily couldn’t help but feel smug. She watched Wendy and Hunter walk from the hut, both shooting glances back over their shoulders at Lily and Caden. As soon as the door shut behind them, Lily looked up at Caden. She was about to start ranting about how much she hated Wendy when he moved to stand in front of her. His eyes were focused in a way that made her heart flutter. She grinned as he set his hands on her knees and pried her legs open, stepping in between them. His lips pressed to hers, hard and hot, and she was all too eager to comply as he leaned forward and forced her onto her back on the cluttered desk. She looped her legs around his hips and ignored the pain of an inkpot digging into her left shoulder blade as his lips moved to her neck. She felt extremely possessive as she pulled her fingers through his hair. He was hers to touch, not Wendy’s. 

“She needs to keep her nasty hands off you,” Lily grumbled. She jumped slightly as Caden pressed his hand against her hip where her new tattoo was. He moved his hand up to her waist and sucked just above her collarbone; she let her eyes shut, but she still wasn’t shutting her mouth. “What’s this about, anyway? I should be the one pressing you into a desk; Hunter didn’t so much as touch me whereas Wendy had her hands in your hair.”

“Fuck them,” he said. She was a bit taken aback to find his voice brimming with emotion. “This has sod all to do with them. I miss you so much, Lily.”

“Me too,” she admitted. “You, I mean. I miss you.”

She still wasn’t entirely certain what had gotten into him, but as he pulled her vest up and kissed her ribs, she wasn’t very bothered. She thought about her morning. She wondered what he would’ve said if he found out how many times she’d probably narrowly avoided certain death. Maybe he already knew; that would explain the soft, open mouth kisses he was pressing over her new tattoos, the firm, possessive grasp he had on her hips, the impatient tremble of his fingers as he undid the button on her jeans. And it was impossible to think of much else as he tugged her jeans down her hips. This certainly wasn’t the sort of work she’d expected to get done on her desk today, but she was far from complaining. She was already breathless in anticipation, her heart bursting and her fingers buried in his hair, when the hut door squeaked open.

“Ms. Potter, there’s—oh Merlin!”

Mia slapped her hands over her eyes. Caden lowered his forehead to Lily’s abdomen and sighed in defeat. Lily propped herself up on her elbows.

“Oops,” Lily said.

“I’ll...I…I…” Mia seemed to have shut down. Lily nudged Caden with her knee when he failed to move from between her legs. He stood but kept his back to the door, probably both to give Lily a bit of cover and protect his modesty. She lifted her hips from the desk and tugged her jeans back up.

“Well, introductions are probably due…Mia, this is Caden. Caden, this is Mia, my new dragonologist trainee.” 

“Hello,” Caden said, his back still to the girl.

“Hi,” she squeaked. “Ms. Potter, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that…er…”

“We actually didn’t either or we would’ve locked it ahead of time,” Lily admitted. She wondered what the appropriate thing to say to make this better was. She looked at Caden.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized to Mia. “It was extremely unprofessional of us.”

There we go. Lily jumped off his apology. “Yeah, sorry.”

“That’s…okay,” she said. She was looking at them oddly.

“I’m her boyfriend. Not just a random Ministry worker,” Caden added.

“Oh. That’s…nice. Er. I was just coming to tell you that you’ve got a visitor…”

Then, to Lily’s horror, her Uncle Charlie stepped into the hut.

“Hi, Lulu. Hi, Caden,” he greeted, smiling, entirely indifferent to the suspicious scene he’d walked in on.

Lily’s first reaction was to smack Caden’s shoulder. “I told you not to tell him!!”

Caden smacked her arm right back. “I didn’t! I only contacted him last night because I was worried about you! I didn’t tell him to come here!”

“He truly didn’t, Lily. I’ve got loads of other contacts here, you know,” her uncle reminded her. He walked over to the kettle and reheated it. “You should’ve told me how bad things had gotten.”

“I’m handling it.”

“Really? Because from what I hear, you’re working inhumane shifts without breaks and getting more devastating burns due to your exhaustion.”

Lily crossed her arms stubbornly as her uncle walked over to her. He got right to the point.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” her uncle told her sternly. “I’m sending three keepers and two dragonologists down here for the season. Things are much better in Romania; our poaching never got out of hand and it’s been nearly eradicated. I’ve got plenty of help. You need it.”

“No!” Lily complained.

“Yes. And what’s this I heard about you cancelling your Portkey home?! You haven’t been back since Christmas. Your mum gets grumpier every day, and your dad’s in a state. It’s little Delilah’s first birthday tomorrow!”

“And I planned on going back for it, didn’t I?! It just didn’t work out the way I hoped it would. I can’t possibly leave now, Charlie, I can barely find time to have a wee!”

Charlie set his hands on her shoulders. She refused to look at him.

“Which is why I’m sending help. I’ll stay here until you get back from London. This is ridiculous, Lily. This is not how I trained you. We’ve had loads of talks about not burning yourself out.”

Lily resisted the urge to mock his words. She knew he was right. She was still refusing to look at him as he reached towards Caden and handed him something.

“Here.”

“Charlie, this plane leaves in three hours.”

“Better hurry, then.”

Lily gestured angrily. “You can’t just expect us to drop everything and leave without any notice…!”

“You’ve got notice. Three hours of it.” Lily glowered. Charlie patted her shoulder. “You’re my favorite niece, Lily. If you won’t take care of yourself, I’ll do it for you. I know how obsessive and lonely this job can make you if you let it.”

Lily scowled, but she’d never really had much interest in arguing with her uncle Charlie. He was always right. And truthfully, she’d spent most of her life respecting him to a level of slight reverence.

“I’ve only just made progress with our new dragon,” she complained.

“I can take over where you left off. Notes?”

Lily pulled the pages from her back pocket. She handed them over to Charlie with some reluctance.

“I didn’t write it down, but he’s called ‘Big Boy’, and you have to talk to him all the time and you can’t call him tiny or short or cat-like,” she grumbled. She crossed her arms again.

Charlie looked at her, amused. Caden snorted.

“This is why we love you.”


 

“I’ll pack food if you’ll pack our clothes.”

“Deal,” Lily said at once. She ventured into their bedroom, summoned a giant suitcase, and began dumping the clothes from the chest-of-drawers in there first. Her underwear, his, pajamas…

“Lil? Can you pack my rock case?” Caden yelled. “I told Finnigan I’d bring it next time we visited.”

Lily rolled her eyes fondly. Finnigan just thought Caden was cool; he didn’t care anything about semi-precious rocks. Still, she walked over to the window and grabbed the display case holding the products of her and Caden’s recent (but sadly neglected) hobby: rock collecting. Or, as Lily thought of it, a rock competition, since they both had a list of every type of rock and mineral native to the area and were racing to see who could collect them all first. Lily supposed the weird hobby was really her fault; her Christmas gift had turned his passive interest into an active one. When they first came back here, before things got so hectic, they spent many weekends indulging the competitive hobby. She was about to put the case into the suitcase when the latch at the top popped open. Lily cursed loudly as all the rocks and gemstones went tumbling out into the opened suitcase.

“Everything okay?” he yelled.

“Yep! Yep—fine!” Lily called back. She kneeled down and dug her hands into the suitcase. They’d disappeared into the dark depths; sodding extension charm. “Fuck.”

“You’ve dumped them, haven’t you?”

“No! No, I’ve just…packed them in an alternative way!”

“Just throw the case in with it and we’ll deal with it later. Don’t forget your glasses.”

“Yeah, all right,” she allowed. “Nag,” she whispered underneath her breath.

“Do you want me to make coffee for the ride there?” he asked.

“Fuck yes. With firewhisky?”

“Already pouring it in.”

“I fucking love you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Lily gathered as many of the rocks as she could find, stuffed them back into the case, and then set the case inside the suitcase. She threw all of Caden’s favorite articles of clothing in, threw in a few outfits for herself, and then did a once over of the bedroom.

“Oh,” she said. She walked over and snatched his bird-watching book from the sofa in front of the window. “Can’t forget his old man hobby.”

“LILY, CAN YOU GET MY—”

“OLD MAN BIRD-STALKING BOOK? GOT IT.”

She shoved her favorite blanket on top of everything, grabbed another bag as the carry-on, and then packed their toiletries in a rush. Caden stepped into the bathroom right as she dropped her hairbrush in the bag. He reached over and stuffed their food for the plane into it.

“We’ve got to hurry. Did you get your glasses?”

“Sure,” Lily dismissed, her mind on the time. She hardly heard him. “Let’s go.”

They’d just collapsed down onto the bus seats when Caden turned to her, an eyebrow cocked.

“Lily. Did you get your glasses?”

Lily’s heart sank. She wouldn’t be able to take her eyesight potion with her on the airplane and her dose was due to wear off in a couple hours. “Oh, fuck.”

He was smirking as he withdrew them from his pocket. Lily smacked his arm, but she was smiling as she leaned in to kiss him.


 

After nearly thirty-one hours of traveling, Lily and Caden finally arrived at James and Nora’s doorstep.

“It always feels like we’ve gone back in time,” Caden yawned, his eyes on his wristwatch. Thanks to London being thirteen hours behind them, they’d barely managed to make it in time to kiss Delilah goodnight on her birthday. The party had been missed, of course; they’d spent the entire day traveling. The Muggles really had a horrible setup travel wise. Though Lily supposed there was one good thing about it: she and Caden had gotten to curl up together and sleep uninterrupted for ages, free from all other responsibilities. That hadn’t happened in months.

“I hope they’re still awake,” Lily said.

“We should’ve warned everybody ahead of time.”

“No, I like surprising them.” Lily knocked hard on the door. “It’s much more fun this way.”

When the door opened, it wasn’t her brother. Dean blinked, surprised.

“Lily, Caden. Hello.” He was trying to keep a hold on Finnigan, but he was squirming and ranting about not being ‘ready’ for bedtime. His complaints gave way to a ragged gasp.

“AUNTIE LULU!” he shrieked. He dove from Dean’s arms; Lily caught him neatly and returned his tight hug, her heart incredibly full.

“Hello, Finnigan! Merlin, look how tall you’ve gotten!” Lily exclaimed. She set him on the ground and sized him up. It was always amazing to her how quickly kids grew. He immediately held out his bicep.

“I am so strong,” he told her seriously. He screwed his face in concentration and moved his arm up and down. Lily guessed he was trying to flex. Lily reached over and squeezed his little arm.

“Wow! Look at that!” Lily humored him.

“I’m four!” He remembered something suddenly. “Hey! You missed my party!”

Lily and Caden exchanged a quick look. They’d guessed on the plane that Finnigan would be the hardest to earn the forgiveness of.

“Yeah, okay, I did, but I sent you a wicked gift,” Lily defended. She leaned over and lifted him back up. He laughed as she poked his tummy. “You didn’t send me a gift or come to my party, and my birthday was three days before yours!”

Finnigan’s jaw dropped comically. “Oh…wellllll…that’s because…I have it for you right now!” he lied.

Lily snickered. “Really? Where? In your pocket?”

“No! Right here,” he said, and then he leaned in and kissed both of Lily’s cheeks and gave her a tight hug. Lily tried not to melt. She was really proud of her ability to remain immune to baby fever and contagious kid cuteness. But she had really missed him.

“Do you like it?” he asked happily.

Lily leaned in and kissed his forehead. She ruffled his hair right afterwards. “I do like it.”

“I think mine was better than yours,” Finnigan mused.

Lily tossed him up into the air, annoyed. He was giggling as she caught him. “I wouldn’t go that far…I sent you a miniature dragon.”

Finnigan rested his head sweetly on her shoulder. “He sleeps on my pillow every night.”

“Aww. You know, your Harry had one just like it when he was a kid. But his was a Horntail.”

Wicked,” Finnigan breathed.

“Caden,” James said, surprised. He had clearly come to see what was taking Dean so long at the door. “Lulu! What…? Is everything okay?”

“She came to see me,” Finnigan told his dad. He puffed his chest out proudly.

Lily ruffled her nephew’s hair again. “Actually, Ego Boy, we came to see the birthday girl.”

“Is that Lily?” Lily heard Nora ask, her voice drifting from somewhere inside the house.

“LULU?!” Evra called. “Rory, come meet Auntie Lulu! Her whole entire body is art!”

The adults laughed. Lily knocked her unburnt hip into Caden’s. “Why don’t you ever compliment me like that? Call my body a work of art?”

Caden appraised her, taking the time to look her up and down. He scrunched up his nose. “Eh.”

Lily was laughing as she shoved him. James was in the process of jokingly lecturing Caden on how to ‘talk to your lady’ when the rest of the Potters crowded the doorway. Plus a blonde. Evra and Henry pounced on Lily while the blonde hung back uncertainly. Evra finished hugging Lily and then glanced back at the blonde little girl.

“Rory, this is our Auntie Lulu!” Evra said excitedly