By Cassandra's Cross

Synopsis: Harry is so consumed with his career as an Auror that he loses touch with Ginny and their children until a letter arrives to help him remember what really matters. But is something sinister waiting out there to take it all away? An escape from Azkaban, the first in twenty years, stirs up Harry's worst fears from the past as those he loves are threatened. Set one year before the Deathly Hallows epilogue (2016).

Edited January 2008: Mostly canon compliant, though now partially SU (Sensible Universe) after recent revelations. All reviews receive responses.

Disclaimer: I am not J K Rowling and I do not own these characters. I wish I did!

Harry crossed the threshold of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place on a Friday evening in midsummer. It was a very different house now, its cheerful fires, comfortable furniture, and overall warmth giving evidence that a normal family lived there, or at least as normal as a family of witches and wizards could ever be. Gone were the House-Elf heads and accoutrements of Dark Magic that once filled the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, including the portrait of Sirius' mother. To everyone's surprise, Kreacher had proved capable of removing the permanent sticking charm after Ginny suggested that Mrs. Black would be happier away from the bustle and noise of the main house. Walburga Black's portrait had been moved to the attic where Kreacher lived quite happily among other Black family heirlooms. Instead of cobwebs in dark, dusty corners, Grimmauld Place was now airy and light, and filled with the sounds of children. Different sized broomsticks were crammed into an umbrella stand near the door, and the halls were strewn with Quidditch gear, Exploding Snap cards, and the occasional teddy bear.

Only Kreacher himself was unchanged. The same tufts of white hair sprouted from his bat-like ears, his skin still hung in folds about his wizened face, and he sounded as much like a bullfrog as ever as he croaked out a greeting.

"Good evening, Master Harry," said the old elf with a low bow. "Mistress is upstairs, changing for dinner."

"Thanks, Kreacher. And the children?"

"In the back garden, Master. With Winky."

Harry heard the censure in Kreacher's voice and braced himself. Sure enough, the old elf began muttering to himself as he shuffled toward the kitchen: ". . . not fit to watch over my Master's children . . . wearing clothes like a common goblin and drinking on the sly . . . poor old Kreacher, what can he do?"

Harry knew better than to take Kreacher's muttering seriously. They had taken Winky in out of loyalty to Dobby and she had proven an able nursemaid, for despite Kreacher's suspicions, no one had ever actually caught her drinking. It wasn't a weakness for butterbeer, however, that inspired Kreacher's enmity, but the fact that Winky was free, which made her, in Kreacher's estimation, an inferior servant. Winky still refused to accept wages and insisted upon calling Harry and Ginny "Master" and "Mistress" (to Hermione's annoyance) but Kreacher rarely lost an opportunity to remind Winky that he, at least, had never suffered the indignity of wearing clothes. The two were constantly at loggerheads, and Ginny was at pains to keep peace between them whenever she wasn't too busy preventing the children from killing one another.

Harry climbed the stairs and opened the door to the Master Suite where Ginny sat at a dressing table in a soft robe, brushing her long, red hair by the light of a flickering lantern. On the wall just above her was a large, framed photograph in which a radiant Ginny, wearing a long, white dress with Aunt Muriel's tiara nearly eclipsed by her own vibrant hair, smiled up at her new husband. In one hand she clutched a bouquet of spring flowers while Harry, wearing green dress robes and a look of glowing happiness, raised the other to his lips. To Harry's left, Ron grinned at Hermione who gazed back at him in a gown of pale green satin, her new diamond engagement ring glinting in the sunlight. On Ginny's other side was Neville, tugging nervously at the collar of his dress robes, while next to him Luna stared vacantly toward the horizon, wearing a pale yellow gown that combined with her blonde hair to make her an altogether buttery sight. It amazed Harry how little Ginny had changed since then. He had already found a few gray hairs, but Ginny was as youthful and slender as ever, despite three children and fourteen years of marriage.

"Harry!" said Ginny, interrupting his reverie as she spotted his reflection in the mirror. "You didn't forget! I was sure I'd end up entertaining our guests alone again."

"Er. . . "Harry said, as she threw her arms around him and lifted her face for his kiss. "Guests?"

"Ron and Hermione! They're coming for dinner tonight. Don't you remember?"

"Oh, sure," said Harry, as memory came flooding back. "Of course I remembered."

"No, you didn't," said Ginny, exasperated. "How come you're home on time then, if you forgot?"

"A meeting was cancelled," Harry confessed. "Actually, I was looking forward to a quiet night."

"Good luck with that," Ginny said dryly. "They're bringing the children. And even if they weren't, Ron and Hermione all by themselves aren't exactly restful company."

"Oh, well," said Harry. "It's always good to see them, and Rose and Hugo get on well with our lot."

"Are you sure you're up to it?" Ginny said as Harry removed his shoes and slipped his Auror robes over his head. "You look tired, Harry."

"I'm fine," Harry insisted. "I'll just lie down for a bit before dinner."

He stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. A minute later, he felt the springs give way as Ginny sat down. "Maybe I could do something to help you relax."

His eyes flashed open and he grinned at her. "What did you have in mind?"

"A back rub, you prat! Anyway, I thought you were tired."

"I'm never that tired, love."

"Let's stick with a massage, shall we?" said Ginny. "For now anyway. Come on, roll over."

Harry did as she asked and sighed as her strong hands worked out all the tension in his neck and shoulders. "You have great hands," he murmured contentedly. "Have I ever told you?"

"Many times. Although usually not in this context." Harry smiled as she dug her fingers into a particularly tight muscle. "You work too hard," she said. "And these ridiculous hours you've been putting in lately can't be good for you."

"I'm Head of the Auror Department, Gin. It isn't a nine-to-five job."

"We hardly ever see you anymore. I feel like a widow sometimes."

"Don't you think you're exaggerating, just a little?"

"Not really, no. We miss you, Harry. The children miss their father. I miss my husband."

Harry sighed again and rolled over to face her. "It's just that there's so much going on right now, Ginny. Maybe when things slow down a little. . ."

"You've been saying that for at least a year. A year of twelve hour days, six or even seven days a week. I know your work is important, but what about us? Aren't we important too?"

Harry forced down a rising tide of irritation. Of course they were important! How could she even ask that? Ginny was life itself to him, her and the family they had made together. But he was Harry Potter, the man from whom everyone expected superhuman achievements, and there were always those who would delight in seeing him topple from his pedestal. Part of him understood Ginny's resentment. Part of him even agreed with it. Hadn't he already given enough to the wizarding world? Must he be buried alive beneath an avalanche of other people's expectations? But why couldn't she understand how important his job was? Why couldn't she understand that his family was the main reason he pushed himself so hard? It was all about keeping them safe, didn't she realize that? It was about protecting them from whatever was waiting in the shadows. The wizarding world had been at peace for many years, but experience had taught Harry that something always lurked at the edge of happiness, and so he remained watchful, wary, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But Ginny was beside him now and even after so many years together she could still take his breath away. The scent of her filled his nostrils, and her skin felt like silk as his lips moved from her neck to her shoulder to the smooth, clean line of her collarbone.

"Harry," she said, a little breathlessly, "this probably isn't a good idea."

"I don't know about you," said Harry, as his hands slid beneath her robe, "but it's the best idea I've had all day."

"Ron and Hermione will be here in less than an hour. . ."

"That's ages and ages. . ."

"You still have to shower. . ."

"Five minutes."

"And dress," she added, closing her eyes.

"Another five minutes."

She made another feeble protest, though the effect was diminished by the fact that she was unbuttoning his shirt. Things were progressing nicely until the sound of pounding footsteps made them break apart. Ginny had just snatched the edges of her robe together when their oldest son catapulted into the room as though flung from a slingshot.

"Can't you knock?" asked Harry, cursing himself for forgetting to lock the door.

"Sorry," said James. He took in his parents' ruffled appearance with a grimace of disgust. "Why do you have to do stuff like that in public anyway?"

As they weren't exactly in the middle of Trafalgar Square, Harry didn't take this very well. He glared at his son. "What is it, James?"

"There was an owl," James said, brandishing an envelope. "I think it's my Hogwarts letter!"

Harry took the envelope from him and turned it over. On the back was the Hogwarts seal with the familiar badger, eagle, snake, and lion symbols. On the front, in green ink, it was addressed to:

Mr. James Sirius Potter

Harry handed the envelope back to James. "Why don't you open it?"

"Really?" said James. "Can I?"

"It's addressed to you, isn't it?"

James broke the seal and extracted several sheets of paper. Harry felt a strange sense of dejà vu as he read over his son's shoulder:


Headmistress: Minerva McGonagall

Dear Mr. Potter:

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment. Term begins on September 1.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Filius Flitwick, Deputy Headmaster

James looked up with shining eyes. "I'm going to Hogwarts! Mum, Dad, I'm really going!"

"Yes," Harry said dryly. "We worked that out, funnily enough."

"Well done, James," said Ginny, enveloping him in a hug. "Well, this is a great day for the Potters!"

Harry barely heard her. It was too soon, he was thinking. It's much too soon! James couldn't be old enough to go away to school already. Surely he himself had not been half so young when his own letter came. He stared at James, seeming to see him, really see him, for the first time in ages. When had the baby roundness left his face? When had he grown so much taller? When had his voice acquired the first tell-tale croaks of pre-adolescence? Harry wondered how he could have missed it. How could he have missed the fact that his own son was growing up before his very eyes? And if he had missed all this, what else had he missed? I must be slipping, Harry thought. Or maybe I'm just growing old.

"Wow," James was saying. "I mean, I knew it was coming, but. . . I'm really going, aren't I?"

"You really are," Ginny agreed. "You'll be in the last year of students attending Hogwarts before Professor McGonagall retires. She was our Head of House, you know, and she's been a great headmistress ever since . . . well, ever since the war ended."

"Teddy says she's really strict," said James.

"Strict, but fair," said Ginny. "But she is strict, so mind you behave yourself, young man!"

"Like you and Dad did, you mean?" said James, his eyes dancing with merriment.

"You've been talking to your Uncle Ron again, haven't you?" said Ginny, reaching out to tickle him. "Not to cast aspersions against my own brother, James, but you can't believe everything he says."

"Hey," said James, as a thought occurred to him. "I have to get a wand! Mum, when can we go to Diagon Alley for my wand?"

"Soon," Ginny promised. "We need to get all your books and have you measured for school robes. And of course stop at Ollivander's. Perhaps your father could take time off to go with us? After all, it's not every day our oldest son selects a wand, is it, Harry?"

"No," Harry replied absently. "Although it's really the wand that selects the wizard. . ."

Ginny gave him an odd look. He pulled himself together and said, "Of course I'll take time off. We'll make a day of it, the whole family. What do you say, James?"

"Cool!" said James. "I want to show my letter to Al and Lily. See you later!"

"Wants to rub it in, more like," Ginny laughed when he had gone. "Harry, what is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Harry said. "I'm happy for James, that's all."

"I can tell. If you were any happier, you'd be crying your eyes out."

Harry smiled. He couldn't hide anything from Ginny. "I don't know. It just seems so . . . sudden."

"Sudden?" Ginny laughed again. "He's eleven years old. We've been expecting this since he was born."

"I know. I guess it just hit me all of a sudden. It seems like only yesterday he was still a baby. Now he's off to Hogwarts. And next year, it'll be Albus . . ."

"And two years after that, Lily," Ginny concluded. "It's what I've been trying to tell you, Harry. They grow up so fast."

"They do, don't they?" He fell silent for a moment. "You know, it's funny. Just before he burst through the door, I was thinking about our wedding."

"That is funny. Judging by your actions, I would have guessed our wedding night."

Harry laughed, but it turned into a sigh. "It doesn't seem all that long ago we were just married. And now James is going to Hogwarts."

Ginny put her arms around him. "You still have me, you know. You'll always have me."

"I know, love," said Harry. "And you have me."

Ginny's smile wavered. "Do I, Harry?" she said quietly. "Do I really?"

A/N: Review please! It is the only payment fanfic writers receive, and even if it's just a word or two, at least it lets me know you were here.