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Mission Successful

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24th December, 2009
“Mummy, Jamesy says it’s Christmas Eve today. Is it really?”

Ginny turned around at Al’s little voice, momentarily looking away from feeding Lily, and noticing that he’d picked all of the blueberries out of his pancake and left them on the side of his plate. “James is right, today is Christmas Eve.”

“See, Al. I told you.” James drank some pumpkin juice smugly.

“But today can’t be Christmas Eve,” Albus persisted, ignoring his brother.

“Why can’t it?” Ginny asked, grabbing Lily’s last slice of banana before she squished it into her hair.

“Because Daddy isn’t home yet,” he stated factually and Ginny’s heart sank. “He’s been gone for ages.”

“Daddy left on Saturday, today is Thursday. That’s five days.” Ginny tried to pretend she was just practising the days of the week with her younger son, and didn’t think about how this was supposed to be a two day Auror mission.

“Will he be home today?” James asked the one question Ginny didn’t have an answer to.

“I hope so, sweetheart.”

James’ face fell. “You hope so? So he might not be home today?” His lip trembled and his eyes filled up with tears.

“Is Daddy gonna miss Christmas?” Albus voiced everybody’s biggest fear in the inquisitive way only a three-year-old can manage. As he spoke, he turned to James with a scared expression and saw that his brother was crying. This seemed to confirm the worst for Albus and he began to cry too.

“Daddy!” Lily cried desperately, and she started to cry, because that was just what Ginny needed in that moment. She honestly felt like joining her three children in their sobbing fest.

“It’s not fair!” James bolted from the breakfast table and over to the window seat, where he buried his face in the cushions and sobbed. Albus took one look back at Ginny and followed his brother at top speed, throwing himself down right beside James in equal misery.

Ginny sighed, looking up towards the ceiling. This was not going to plan at all; things never did when Harry was on a mission.

“Jamesy Awbus cwy,” Lily observed, still sniffing herself. She wasn’t really old enough to know it was Christmas but she was able to understand that Daddy wasn’t there and hadn’t been for a few days.

“Let’s cheer them up, Lily-Lu.” Ginny unintentionally borrowed Harry’s nickname for their daughter and picked her up. If Lily thought this was strange, she didn’t show it.

“No cwy Jamesy Awbus.” Lily toddled over and roughly patted both her brothers on the back.

“I got sad stuck in me,” Albus explained to her, lifting his head from the cushions. James just continued to wail.

Ginny opened her arms out and Albus fell into them instead of the cushions where he continued to cry. “We’ve all got some sad stuck in us today, Al. Maybe we can help each other get the sad out?”

“Yeah!” Albus agreed triumphantly.

James joined the group hug. “How do we get the sad out?”

“Hello, it’s Christmas Eve! We have the best Christmas Eve ever.” Ginny put on an excellent imitation of a bright and positive person. “Starting by flying in the garden in our pyjamas!”

It was a cheap trick, to distract the kids with something like a pyjama fly, which they hardly ever did. But if it kept her children happy, at least for now, Ginny was willing to try every cheap trick in the book.

At five, James was old enough to have his own training broom which rose to about three feet. Being a smaller baby, Ginny could still wear Lily on her chest, and Albus was able to perch in front of her on her own broom and she could keep him safe. Not that Ginny would be flying any higher than three feet anyway, only one Potter parent needed to be in danger right now.

Don’t think about that.

Pyjama flying kept them going for forty five minutes before Lily got too cold to stay outside any longer.

“I don’t want to go inside yet!” James complained and Ginny thought fast.

“You don’t want to come inside and play Bubble Ball?”

Bubble Ball was another activity that rarely happened in the Potter household but when it did, it was the biggest treat ever. There were no rules or even skills to Bubble Ball, just that Ginny used her wand to conjure large, everlasting bubbles which the children batted around the room to general delight. After a good few bats, the bubble would pop and rainbow sparks would rain down over the person who popped it, at which point the children would all shout bubble ball!

Bubble Ball lasted until lunch, Lily was exhausted and Ginny thought she could definitely get away with putting Albus down for a nap with her too. She decided she was correct, when he nodded off into his lunch, waking with a start with his fringe covered in tomato soup. She knew she’d have to give him a bath and wash his hair later, but maybe Harry might be back by then, Ginny felt herself childishly hoping.

With the two youngest asleep, Ginny cleared up from lunch while James coloured at the table. His artwork was abstract at best and the helpful accompanying written explanations did nothing to clarify what he had drawn ever. She sat down with him and drew a big Weasley jumper picture and coloured it in with as many different colours as possible, James helping her towards the end when he’d finished his own picture.

“What do you think, James, shall we show this to Grandma Molly tomorrow for her next design?”

James nodded and laughed. “I think she should make it for Uncle Percy! He would look great.”

Ginny smiled proudly and caught sight of James’ own picture, which contained lots of squiggles, a few recognisable letters, several smiley faced, stick-bodied people, and his own name printed at the bottom. “What did you draw, James?”

“I wrote a letter to Father Christmas,” James explained. “Shall I read it to you?”

Ginny was very glad he hadn’t asked her to read it out loud and become upset when she couldn’t read out exactly what he’d meant to write like last time. “Yes please, Jamesy.”

“Dear Father Christmas, I know I already wroted to you a long time ago, but I wanted to say a few changes to my first letter please. First, don’t worry about the new broom. You can give it to Al if you already got it. Second, you don’t have to put anything in my stocking this year.

There’s only one thing I really want for Christmas, and I know you can make it happen. Please, for Christmas, I would like my Daddy to come home and never go away again. Thanks Father Christmas. From James.”

His eyes skimmed vaguely over the squiggles as he clearly made the words up as he went. The sentiment was clear though and it made Ginny’s heart ache.

“That's… a very nice letter, James. Why don’t you put it at the fireplace so Father Christmas can collect it from the chimney? I’m going to get your brother and sister from their nap.”

She didn’t go straight to the children’s bedrooms, instead taking a quick stop in her and Harry’s room, which she’d had to herself for five days now. It was starting to feel cold and empty compared to the rest of the house.

Ginny didn’t mind that Harry’s job took him away like this from time to time. She’d known when she married him that she was hardly signing up for a quiet life, and that hadn’t changed just because they’d had three children. There was just something about it being Christmas Eve that made it all the more painful to be away from him.

The head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement (Harry’s boss) updated her regularly with enough information to know Harry was alive, wherever he was, and would be home as soon as they could spare him. She unfolded the last letter she’d received, the night before, simply confirming he was safe and with the hope that it would be the end of the mission, then a reminder that she couldn’t contact him directly without compromising his safety.

“It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re not here,” she whispered to herself, clutching the small pendant necklace Harry had bought for her birthday which she never took off.

A cry from Lily’s room brought her back to her senses and she went to retrieve her daughter, who cheered up immensely when she saw Ginny, and was chattering away happily to her about a dream she’d had involving a yoocorn. This was quite the contrast to Albus, who was sleeping so peacefully, it broke Ginny’s heart to wake him, but he’d never sleep at night if she didn’t. When she leant over and stroked his back to wake him up, he scowled at her and threw a leg out, kicking Ginny in the head in the process.

“Ow,” Ginny muttered, gingerly leaning back over to try again. This time he let her pick him up, but he wasn’t happy about it and he miserably nuzzled into her neck, his hair all scratchy where it had soup dried in it that hadn’t scourgified out.

Ginny had reached her last resort and settled the children in front of the rarely-used television with a muggle film. Albus refused to leave her side which meant James and Lily were equally clingy, but it was rather nice to snuggle with all three of her kids at the same time.

It was dark by the time the film ended, and Ginny realised some small part of her had been convinced that Harry would be back by the time it was over. It was getting closer to the time each day where she tended to receive an owl informing her that Harry was still safe but the mission was taking longer than they thought and Ginny’s heart sank. She gave the children dinner but was unable to eat anything herself, her stomach churning with anxiety and disappointment.

She pushed the feelings to one side and focused on giving the children a bath instead, managing to pass off all three of them sharing as an amazing treat rather than because she didn’t know what else to do. Things were fairly peaceful, Lily passing a floating giant squid toy back and forth with Albus, while Ginny washed the tomato soup out of his hair. James broke the peace in a heartbeat only minutes later when Ginny was combing conditioner through Albus’ dark hair.

“Don’t worry, Lily. I wroted to Father Christmas and asked him to bring Daddy home tonight. He might even be here already.” He spoke very sincerely to his little sister, playing with a handful of bubbles and making her laugh. Lily hadn’t listened to what he’d said at all, but Albus had.

“Daddy’s home! Can we go and see him now?” He tried to pull himself up on the edge of the bath but in his haste, slipped sideways and fell backwards into the bath water, where Ginny quickly caught him before his head went under. It scared him and he didn’t move, gripping onto Ginny’s arms.

“Jamesy, you know Father Christmas will try his best to bring Daddy home for Christmas,” Ginny started gently, setting Albus upright and rinsing his combed hair with her wand. “But I don’t think he’s home just yet.”

She hadn’t received an owl yet, but she also knew it was too good to be true that Harry would be waiting for them downstairs.

“But he’s Father Christmas. He can do anything!”

“I want Daddy!” Albus added.

Ginny was rapidly running out of distraction techniques.

“Why don’t we go and hang your stockings by the fireplace?”

James gave her a reproachful look like he knew exactly what she was doing, but it worked on Albus, who pushed his wet hair away from his eyes and beamed, and Lily reached her arms up, asking to be taken out of the bath.

Ginny dried Albus’ hair with her wand while James helped Lily put her pyjamas on, his own pyjamas especially adorable with a pattern of Hippogriffs wearing Christmas jumpers. Albus had a matching set which he begged Ginny to find once his hair was dry.

“Here’s mine!” Albus said, holding up a Christmas stocking with his name on when they were downstairs and by the fireplace. “I’ll find yours too, Lily.”

Only James had remembered what he’d said in the bath, and he looked around the empty living room in disappointment. Ginny placed her arm around his shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “Let’s hang your stocking, Jamesy.”

“Okay,” James sighed, unenthusiastically.

With four stockings in her hand (one was for Teddy, who would be coming over before they all went to The Burrow), Ginny levitated each one to hang on the mantelpiece. Albus watched her delightedly cross-legged on the ground like it was a show, with Lily sat on his lap. James stood, looking very small with his arms folded.

Instead of hanging them straight up, Ginny made the stockings whizz around the room, floating past the children and skimming Albus’ fluffy hair (Ginny never had got the hang of drying it with her wand the way Harry did). James reluctantly smiled and let out a tiny laugh when his own stocking span round his head.

They left a plate beside the fireplace, with a mince pie for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph. It sat beside James’ heart-wrenching letter. Lily yawned widely and Ginny took all three children up to bed, putting Lily down while the boys brushed their teeth. She left James finishing off his teeth while she read Albus a story and he fell asleep.

James, however, was not in his bedroom or the bathroom when Ginny came to tuck him in. She had a suspicion as to where he might be instead, and sure enough, a snuffling noise gave away his hiding place under the Christmas tree downstairs.

“James, come on. Your brother’s already asleep and it’s past your bedtime.”

“No, I’m waiting here for Daddy to come home.” His voice was muffled by branches.

“Father Christmas won’t be able to leave you any presents if you’re not in bed,” she gently coaxed.

“I don’t care, I want Daddy more than presents.”

“Jamesy, come out now please.” He noticed the change in her tone and slowly crawled out, tears on his face. She scooped him up and cradled him to her like he was a baby again and he clung right back. “I want Daddy to come home too, more than anything, and he will come home very soon. Maybe in time for Christmas Day, maybe not. I promise, we’ll have Christmas Day with Daddy, even if we have to make our own Christmas Day when he’s home.”

James listened to all of this and allowed Ginny to rock him gently while she spoke. Out of the corner of her eye, Ginny noticed an owl swooping towards the kitchen window. She shifted James so he was sat on her hip, walked him to the kitchen, retrieved the letter from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and placed it unopened on the table - she would read it after James was in bed; she knew what it said anyway.

Lily was sleeping soundly in her bedroom, Albus’ bedroom was also silent but James was sobbing noisily into his pillow, and no amount of singing or hair stroking was doing anything to help. Ginny felt her own breath catch in her throat at the sight of her heartbroken son.

“What will make you feel better, Jamesy? How can Mummy help?” She would have been surprised if he was able to articulate what he needed in that moment, but he considered her question.

“Can I sleep in your bed with you?” he asked innocently.

Ginny reached out and pulled him in close for a hug. “Of course, sweetheart.”

James smiled and crawled out of bed, following Ginny into the master bedroom. The bed was unmade and a snuffling sound was coming faintly from somewhere in the middle. Ginny suspected she knew the source of the snuffling, and sure enough, when she gently lifted the duvet up, Al’s small figure was curled up at the foot of the bed. His face was red from crying and his hair sticking up at all angles. He looked relieved to see his mum.

“I’m too sad to sleep by myself,” he whispered and it was the most gut-wrenching sentence he could have possibly said in that moment.

James wriggled his way into the bed and curled up on one side, while Ginny picked Albus up and smoothed his hair back into place as best she could. “Looks like I’m going to have both my boys with me tonight.”

Albus snuggled against James, who threw one arm loosely around his brother. For all their squabbling, they really did love each other so much and in that moment, Ginny knew the two of them completely understood how the other was feeling. It was enough for them both to feel safe enough to fall asleep under Ginny’s loving gaze.

She kissed both their foreheads, and crept from the room to set up the living room for the morning. The little presents she and Harry had bought for the children fitted neatly into their stockings; the bigger presents they’d written to Father Christmas for sat waiting patiently by the Christmas tree; she took a bite out of the mince pie; everything was as perfect as it could be, without Harry there.

The boys were still sleeping when Ginny quietly got ready for bed and joined them, their tiny bodies warm as they curled up around her. It had been an emotionally exhausting day, and tomorrow would be no easier, but for now she needed sleep.

She dreamt of crying children who she couldn’t reach. It was as if she were rooted to the spot, unable to move, even though she really wanted to. She heard James sobbing mournfully and Albus crying softly, Lily wailing and even Teddy bursting into tears.

“Jamesy, wake up! Father Christmas is downstairs. I can hear him walking around,” Albus hissed at his brother. Ginny blinked in the darkness, realising she wasn’t dreaming and remembering she had her boys with her, but Albus didn’t seem to be crying. “I’m going to see if I can see him!”

Before Ginny could process what was going on, the bed shifted and a little shape wriggled off and whizzed from the room, clattering down the stairs excitedly.

“Oh Merlin, no. Albus!” Ginny muttered to herself, pulling her body out of the bed where James was stirring too.

“Al, wait for me!” James cried and he too rolled out of bed and dashed off.

The thundering footsteps down the stairs courtesy of James woke Lily up and she was crying loudly from her bedroom. Ginny stood on the landing, torn between retrieving her sons and going to Lily. Lily’s cries were distressed and panicked, so she chose to go there first, picking her up and rocking her while simultaneously walking downstairs.

“Was it really him? I heard him in the fireplace! I did!”

“It was him! Our stockings are full, we missed him!”

“Did his reindeer eat the carrot?”

Damn. The carrot. Ginny knew she’d forgotten to do something.

“Yes! Look, it’s all nibbled.”

Brilliant, they had mice.

“Mummy, Father Christmas has been!” Albus announced when he saw her, then he spotted the stern look on her face and remembered he wasn’t supposed to be out of bed. “Oops.”

“He took my letter, he took it up the chimney with him!” James was so excited. “That means he’s read it and he can bring Daddy home!”

“Daddy!” Lily echoed her brother.

Ginny didn’t know what she had done to deserve such an emotionally taxing Christmas Eve.

“Daddy!” Lily cried again, more insistently.

“You’ll see Daddy soon, petal,” Ginny soothed, not really wanting Lily to be awake for much longer. Lily herself had other ideas and squirmed violently to be put down, which Ginny hardly had time to argue against.

She ran to the fireplace where James was peering up, looking for Father Christmas. “Daddy shoes!” she insisted.

Albus spotted what Lily was looking at before Ginny did. “Daddy’s shoes are here. Why are Daddy’s shoes here? Unless…” A look of understanding passed over his face.

“Daddy’s home!” James yelled at the same time as Albus cried “our Daddy is Father Christmas!”

Ginny’s heart felt lighter than air as she joined all three of her children in rushing into the kitchen and barrelling straight into Harry. He was there, really there, standing in the kitchen, his arms round her tightly, pressing kisses all over her and the children.

“You’re home,” Ginny breathed into his shoulder as he held her tight with one arm, the other wrapped around all three of their children.

“I’m sorry, Ginny. I had no idea, I wanted to come home sooner. I’m so sorry.” He sounded erratic and exhausted.

“Don’t be sorry, we’re just glad you’re home.” She hugged him tightly again. “Was it you who got the carrot?”

Harry pulled away and winked at her. He knelt down to the children’s level and they threw themselves into his arms. “I missed you all so much, I love you.”

“Daddy!” Lily cried happily, clamouring to be picked up.

“I love you, Daddy,” Albus buried his face into the crook of Harry’s neck.

“I wroted to Father Christmas and asked him to bring you home and he did,” James explained.

At the risk of being knocked over backwards by the excitable Potter children, Harry diverted them to the window seat James and Albus had sobbed into that morning. Lily perched on his lap and James and Albus curled into an arm each. Harry reached around Albus and held Ginny’s hand, although of course she didn’t mind their children getting all the space.

“We’ve had the best Christmas Eve ever when you wasn’t here!” James gushed about their pyjama fly, with some major exaggeration about how high his broomstick had been.

“Then we played Bubble Ball and Lily won,” Albus continued. “And I falled asleep in my soup so Mummy had to wash my hair again, even though she already did wash my hair yesterday.”

“Is that right?” Harry nodded with raised eyebrows, ruffling Albus’ hair, then shared an understanding glance with Ginny. “It sounds like Mummy’s had the best Christmas Eve ever too.”

“It just got much better,” Ginny said, squeezing Harry’s hand.

“But guess what, Daddy? Father Christmas has been and he put presents under our tree and in our stockings!”

“He did? How exciting!” Harry pretended to be shocked, realising Lily had fallen asleep on his lap and pulling her closer to him so she was comfortable.

“Can we open presents now it’s Christmas and Daddy’s home?” James asked hopefully.

In that moment, Ginny and Harry both realised they’d lost their big ace card for getting the kids to sleep tonight, because Father Christmas has already been and no threat of him not coming until they were asleep just wasn’t going to cut it.

“How about a big sleepover in Mummy and Daddy’s bed?” Ginny suggested, hoping this would distract James. Harry half raised his eyebrows in question and she muttered “that’s how I’ve got through today,” in response.

Harry carried Lily from the room, with Albus riding on his back and James at his heels. As they passed the kitchen table, the Potter family didn’t notice the letter from the ministry owl flutter to the floor and fall from its envelope. The letter inside was not the one Ginny had thought it would be; instead, it was much shorter and brought better news.

Mission successful. He’s coming home.