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Chapter 19 — A Surfeit of Fathers

Sunday morning, the clouds hung as thick as smoke outside the window. Harry encountered Snape on the balcony and followed him down to breakfast, where Candide waited before the hearth in a dressing gown, hair still mussed. She stood in a pose that reminded Harry of McGonagall when she had reached her limit on some repeated transgression. The two of them stopped before her and she snapped out the paper she held, folded backward to show Rita Skeeter's gossip column.

The paper came down primarily in front of Snape, so Harry leaned over to get a better look.

Boy hero now Ministry darling 'Out of control' says adoptive father.

Harry physically jerked back from the paper in surprise. Snape snatched it up and paced away to read it before tossing it on the table.

"She must have been there the other night," Harry said, heart fluttering fast because he had feared they were not alone and had not taken action to check.

Snape was leaning heavily on a hand levered on a chair back, his other hand propped behind his back. He tossed his head once to the side.

"I was careful what I said," Harry pointed out, too stunned to sound critical.

Candide lifted the paper up and read: "Head of Slytherin house states he does not know what to do with Mr. Potter. Did you really say that?"

Snape sharply nodded once, which left his hair webbing his face. He was biting his lip and glaring off into the distance. He pushed away from the chair's support. "I am losing my edge." He shook his head additionally. "You were smarter than I about how to argue in an insecure location."

"How about not arguing at all?" Candide suggested. "Or at least only at home. Or not at all? I like that idea better."

Snape stared at her without reacting. Harry tugged the paper over and, with his back tense, read the rest of the article and the insinuations about him and his powers, complete with obnoxious I-told-you-so styled flashbacks to her earliest articles about Harry. He felt tainted after reading it and did not want to touch the paper. He gave it a flick to the side and sat down, wondering why his breath was still too quick.

Candide considered the two of them, heaved a sigh, and joined Harry at the table.

Snape strode over beside the hearth and straightened a metal box on the mantel. He was taking his slip hard, enough so that Harry felt compelled to minimize things. "It'll pass. It always does," Harry said, burying a flinch.

Snape turned to him and looked away again, jaw tight.

"Can I make a suggestion, Harry?" Candide asked with enough shyness that he could not help but reply that she could, despite wanting nothing more than a target for his frustration and anger. She went on, "Grant her an interview."

"Are you nuts?" Harry blurted.

"No. I just think it's the only way."

"NO. I refuse," Harry snapped.

"What are you going to do?" she asked gently.

"I don't know. But not that for certain."

Candide raised her chin to peer at Snape. "What do you think he should do?"

"I believe your suggestion to be a valid one, but not until things calm down. Perhaps nothing will come of it." He let his hand slide off the mantel and took the short step to stand beside Harry's chair. His hand landed on Harry's shoulder and he softly said, "Sorry, Harry."

"It's all right," Harry said, his anger stunned away by the rare apology. If he could handle Voldemort in under a week, he could handle Rita Skeeter.

- 888 -

When Harry next arrived for training, he was sent down to speak with Mr. Weasley. Harry wedged himself into the guest chair and tugged the door closed, careful not to pinch his fingers doing so.

A cut-up copy of the Prophet lay out on the desk. Mr. Weasley knitted his fingers in his lap and said, "I would have let this go, but Amelia wanted to be certain that you understand she is not pleased."

"Sorry," Harry said. "It was a mistake. It won't happen again." His mind flittered off to thinking more about things he could do to Skeeter. Trapping her into something seemed like the best plan, but the details of exactly how to do it had so far not solidified. The extra glances he had garnered in the Atrium on the way in had only increased his determination to get even, despite the reactions being milder than feared.

"That's, I suspect, what the Minister wants to hear."

His boss sounded dismissive, but Harry saw an opportunity to ask some questions of his own. "What is happening with Durumulna?"

"You make it sound as if you are being kept in the dark," Mr. Weasley observed. "There's not much new to report that you don't know. We're doing our best to combat them. But it turns out that there is a limit to what we can do without cooperation from the wizarding public at large. Bones is going to use these two dumped gang members to argue for as much public support as possible." He filed the news article in the bin while he spoke. It ignited and drifted to the bottom as grey curls.

"Why wouldn't people want to help?" Harry asked.

"Why not? Because they're afraid, mostly, that the gang will take retribution. That's the standard way they operate. Not everyone wants to be a hero, Harry." He shifted some files around on his desk. "In this case . . ." Here he held out a file that rather than have a name on the tab, per the norm, read DC #12. "In this case, using the lure of a small profit, they got an otherwise law-abiding wizard involved and after that the man felt compelled to do as they said, lest they turn him in to us. You'd be surprised how little crime it takes to keep a good person quiet," he said, mouth wry. "Ironically, it's the desire to appear good to their fellows that is the hook the gang uses on them and their family to coerce their participation in successively worse things."

"So, what about the Eeylops fire?"

A few carefully arranged hairs flopped off the top of Mr. Weasley's head as he tilted it. "That was a strange one. We haven't decided quite what happened there."

And your daughter knows something about it, Harry thought, and decided that he did not want to say anything about that, probably much like a Durumulna victim. "Maybe you need to offer amnesty, or something," Harry said after a beat.

Mr. Weasley nodded. "We've floated that idea." He rocked his chair forward and added, "I'm quite certain you have training."

"Oh yeah," Harry said, standing up quickly, which caused his chair to smack against the door behind him.

"Not that I wish to dissuade you from thinking like a full-time Auror . . ." Mr. Weasley added as Harry opened the door, making Harry stop and realize that his department head had gone out of his way to cater to his questions.

"Thanks, sir," Harry said with feeling.

- 888 -

Mid-week, Aaron sidled up to Harry after training and kicked his toe against the desk leg. "I'm going to ask to be assigned as your guard. I don't like being followed."

Rodgers raised his head at this and flicked his mustache side to side. "What's this?"

"Someone has been following Aaron," Harry supplied, when his fellow remained frustrated and silent. Harry was surprised that their trainer sounded sympathetic, but he was in charge of their safety.

"And you can't catch them at it?" Rodgers then added, canceling Harry's train of thought.

"I tried last night," Aaron said. "They had a repelling charm on them, so that I couldn't snag them with anything. Not a whip charm, a chain binding . . . nothing."

Harry thought that sounded rather expert for a private eye, but of course Freelander could afford the best.

Head still hanging low, Aaron said, "If I can be Harry's guard, I'd appreciate it."

"Put the two hunted parties together, you're saying," Rodgers said, "in the hopes that what? Your stalkers will trip over each other?"

Harry suggested to his fellow, "Ginny will be over for drills this afternoon, so why don't you come over even if you aren't assigned?"

- 888 -

On the couch, pretending to read from a book thick with eye-blurring, Gordion-worthy diagrams demonstrating every last variation of the various blocks they should know, Harry contemplated sending an owl to Freelander that threatened to tell Aaron what he knew. Elizabeth was counting on him, though, so his desire for an ultimatum was bound and gagged before it could even think about where the nice stationery might be.

Beside him, Aaron and Ginny were running drills and Aaron finally rose out of his down mood from earlier. Ginny caught onto the routines easily, but unfortunately had the same resistance to reading as Aaron.

"Maybe you should read something aloud," Harry suggested as Ginny spun on her toes from trying a reverse counter which, were she to get it, would put her up with the rest of the Second Years.

"You talking to me?" Ginny breathlessly asked.

"Either one of you," Harry said more stiffly than intended.
- 888 -

The next day, Freelander saved Harry from any difficult-to-compose owls. During lunch break, Aaron received an envelope of distinctive, creamy smooth paper. Harry focussed on his sandwich while Aaron opened the letter and scrunched up his face in perplexion as his eyes moved over the page. He scratched his head and folded the message away to finish his lunch, vaguely peeved.

Harry caught Aaron before he could leave the tea room but after everyone else had departed. "What was that?" he asked conversationally.

Aaron pulled the letter out again. "Something from Lord Freelygrander," he said, making Harry hold in a cringe.

"A party invitation?" Harry teased, feeling more deceptive than he preferred to be.

"No, or, I don't think so. He wants me to stop by Friday evening. Merlin knows why. So he can lecture me about the proper role for the Select British Wizard, or something," Aaron said, assuming a posher accent as he did so.

"Do you want company?" Harry asked, not wanting to leave his friend hanging out there with a man who did not see any risk in what he intended to tell his long-lost son.

Aaron turned to Harry as they reached the training room door. "You're willing to come along?" he asked in disbelief. "Harry, I would take Draco Malfoy along for company rather than go alone." He slipped inside, saying, "I'll buy you a week of fancy dinners if you will."

Kerry Ann raised her bushy head. "What's this? What's this? Fancy dinners are in the offing?"

"You don't need to do anything in return," Harry said as he slid into his seat.

"Oh, don't destroy the market!" Kerry Ann protested. "I was just about to bid higher than you."

Harry wanted to ask if Aaron's mum was around, but held back on doing so on the theory that it may later tip off that he knew something beforehand. He could feel a more straightforward, perhaps younger, version of himself admonishing him for that.

After training, Harry waited around in the Auror's office for Tonks. He had thought of a possible present for his guardian's fortieth birthday, something that fit in well with recent conversations they had had, but he needed to know if Tonks still had the thing he would need.

Tonks finally hustled by and Harry followed her to the file room, which worked perfectly for a private conversation. Harry ran some security spells just because he felt he should all the time now. Doing this reminded him of Moody and he wondered what had become of the old Auror, as he had not been following Harry for a blissfully long time.

"Hey, Harry," Tonks said without looking up from the ten-foot-long file drawer she had slung out and let glide to a rumbling stop before perusing the labels. Harry's Muggle-raised brain could not help but notice that the cabinet it emerged from was perhaps two-foot deep.

"I was wondering if you had returned the cane?"

"The cane?" she echoed.

"Yeah, the one I fetched the other night . . ." Harry hoped she'd catch on because he was leery of speaking clearly despite checking for anyone listening in.

Her nose was buried in a file. "Oh, I guess it's still there. I forgot about it."

"Oh good. I want to borrow it."

Tonks looked over the top edge of the file and Harry expected a lecture, but instead she said in a more sultry tone, "Why don't you stop by and fetch it? I'll owl you through the Floo when I get home."

Harry smiled and felt an awakening vibration run from his shoulder blades to his knees. "Aaron's my guard, so that should work. I just have to make a run to the sweet shop and I'll be over."

- 888 -

With dread unmatched in the last few months, Harry strode beside Aaron up to the doors of the Freelander estate. As per usual under such circumstances, the journey up the drive, waiting at the door, and being led inside by a butler, took place in a quick blur.

As they stood alone in Lord Freelander's presence, Harry secretly willed Aaron to behave himself, at least until he understood the circumstances.

"Sir," Aaron said and accepted the seat indicated by their host.

Freelander fingered a thick leather binder full of papers before setting it between the three of them on a low, stout table with lion-paw-tipped legs. He began, "Mr. Potter knows why we are here, and I am glad he has arranged to attend this meeting."

"He does?" Aaron said in surprise, glancing at Harry, who neglected to glance back.

Freelander went on, "And I see that he has remained silent about something I thought best for me to apprise you of."

He gazed at Harry, expecting a response. Harry said critically, "I didn't know how to begin."

"Yes, well, I suppose that's true." Freelander reached for the paperwork and flipped it open, making Harry grit his teeth together.

This isn't about official documents
, Harry silently berated the man. He felt a wave of nausea and wished he were elsewhere, but then reminded himself that Aaron should not go through this alone.

"Where's your mum?" Harry asked his friend.

Aaron replied, "Paris, at some show or another. She'll be home next week."

"Good," Harry breathed, then pinned his eyes on the side wall in case their host wished to call him on that with a meaningful look.

Freelander said to Aaron, "There are a few things you do not know . . ."

Aaron waved his hand. "There are many things I do not know," he commented dismissively in a stronger accent.

"Hmf," Freelander muttered, but his mood held, thankfully. "As I was saying. There are a few things you should be apprised of, now that I've determined you are worthy of knowing them."

Harry bit his lips to keep from mouthing the word "worthy". Part of him wanted to shout. He would prefer to face Voldemort again than face what was about to transpire and he wondered at his nearly visceral reaction.

Freelander said, "Perhaps we shall get straight to the point. It is like this, Mr. Wickem; your father is not who you thought he was."

"What are you blathering about?" Aaron asked. "What was he?"

Freelander frowned and shot Aaron a judgmental look. "Not what. Whom." He waited a pause. "As in not Bertram Wickem, but myself."

Aaron stood up and backed away from his chair. He laughed uneasily. "You're a nutter. What potions did you confuse this morning?" He glanced at Harry, who was remembering Candide's words of he may be wrong, and could only shrug helplessly. Aaron put his hand around the glossy wood edging the chair back and recovered himself. "No wonder you asked what my mum was doing," he commented to Harry.

"She should be here, maybe," Harry said to no one in particular.

Aaron said, "Yes, she should. Because I don't believe you." The last was directed at their host.

"It is no matter if you believe me," Freelander commented, sounding unaffected. He flipped to a long parchment sporting a widely-bordered rectangle packed solid with flourished writing. "These are my revised wills, for your edification."

Aaron dropped back into his chair, boney arms crossed. "Oh, so, you've deemed me worthy have you?" he asked, voice dripping with disrespect.

Freelander shrugged it off without a flicker. "Yes, I have."

Freelander's impermeable skin disarmed Aaron. His eyes danced down to the stack of papers. "You really believe it, don't you? No wonder you were always riding my arse when I was younger. If it weren't for you, I may have done my N.E.W.T.s," he accused.

"Just one of the reasons I deemed you a lost cause," Freelander stated. "Would you like to see a copy of the estate's inventory?"

"No," Aaron said. "I've seen the real thing enough times. Is this a bribe of some sort?"

Freelander propped his hands on his silk-clad knees and said, "Well, you may have gained enough drive to make something out of your life, but I see you still rampantly mis-ascribe motivation where your superiors are concerned."

Harry expected a cutting retort to that, but Aaron merely stared at the older man before him, face drained of expression.

"Why don't you speak with your mother," Freelander suggested, sitting up so straight as to put the papers on the table out of reach.

"I will," Aaron said after a beat. "I definitely will."

Freelander leaned elegantly forward to close the leather case. "Why don't we take care of the papers after you have done that. I think it will go better then."

Aaron frowned at this attestation of confidence. He sat forward, hands on hips. "Am I excused from your presence, then?"

Still unruffled and perhaps even amused but hiding it well, Freelander flipped his hand in the air. "By all means."

They did not speak as they departed, nor when Aaron saw Harry home. Snape had arrived for the weekend, relieving Aaron of his guard duty. Aaron managed a passable greeting to his old professor, and with one last pained glance back at Snape and Candide facing each other across the couches while sorting papers, followed Harry back to the dining room to use the Floo.

Harry continued the habit of quiet as he took up a spot on the couch beside Candide, pretending to read from a book he was already familiar with. He felt down and brushed off attempts at drawing him into the sparse conversation.

"Everything all right?" Snape finally asked. At Harry's shrug, he sharpened the edge of his voice and added, "You aren't still brooding about last week's detention, are you?"

"No," Harry tartly replied, and then whispered, "Detention."

"Grounding, as you will have it," Snape replied, but his tone softened and he considered Harry at length before returning to his own work.

Candide glanced around herself in consternation, sorting quickly though the files beside her. "I forgot the Witherhocks second quarter file. Drat." She set everything aside and scooted forward in preparation for standing.

Snape said, "I can fetch it for you. It is just upstairs, correct?"

"Thanks, Dear."

Snape returned with the file, unusually patting Candide on the back as he handed it over. He gave Harry a curious glance before returning to his previous seat. Harry expected that if they were alone, he would have been asked again what was wrong. Harry himself was beginning to wonder what was wrong. All he knew was that he felt vaguely annoyed and adrift, simultaneously in the mood to sulk and in the mood for an argument. Snape may very well have some insight and Harry would reach the point of availing himself of his piercing conversation, he just was not quite there yet. Watching his guardian's growing solicitousness with his pregnant wife eased his most immediate pain for some reason.

Just as Harry was bedding down his pets, Snape rapped on the door and entered without waiting to be called inside. He pushed the door closed behind him.

Said Snape, "You seem quite put-out, Harry, and I am at a loss to guess why."

Harry latched Kali's cage door and watched her burrow under her rags until only a tuft of violet showed, lost among the multi-colored fabrics.

"I'm not really in the mood to talk," Harry said while staring into the cage rather than make the effort at Occlusion. "Anyway, it's your birthday and I don't want to argue—in case it comes to that."

Shifting fabric indicated that Snape had crossed his arms. "It is no matter that it is my birthday," he observed dismissively. "It is more important to understand what is bothering you."

Harry cleared off his bed for sleep and dropped onto it, all the while keeping his gaze averted. "I don't know what it is."

"You deny that you are angry with your punishment-"

"It's not that."

"Candide believes it is."

"Really, Severus, it's fine," Harry insisted, glancing Snape's way. Snape's eyes narrowed and Harry glanced away fast enough to not give anything away.

"Why won't you look at me?" Snape asked.

Harry stared down at his bed where his feet and knees made ridges under the duvet. "Because I'm tired," he said.

Snape dropped his arms and said, "I will give you a bit more time to brood, but not much."

Harry wanted to challenge what methods he planned to employ at that time, but decided that may lead to an argument, so he said nothing but goodnight in response to the same.

- 888 -

The day began with stabs of sunlight but they were soon squeezed off by low, dense clouds. Lunch was to be the celebratory meal, so Harry slipped away well before then to arrange his gifts.

In his room, he wrote out two letters in a careful hand and addressed one to Snape and one to himself. He then laid everything out that he would need on the edge of the bed, all clearly in view, all straight and deliberate. His actions felt ritualistic and strange. Perhaps there was a point to be made with what he was planning, a notion that only reinforced the idea, given how constricted he had been by his guardian's rules, and how sharply he felt the betrayal Aaron was suffering. The letters had been difficult to write, too difficult. They should have been easy, but his mind had drifted off repeatedly while he worked at them. But they were finished satisfactorily enough and lay sealed in envelopes before him, waiting.

Harry took a deep breath, forced his lips to cock into a devious smile at the surprise this would cause, and took up the cane.

Harry stared down at the strange bed before him. The room was strange too, but he had been asleep, dreaming about failing a history examination at school, and was glad to be dreaming of something else. At least, he thought he was. He automatically picked up the envelope addressed to him. Letters were never addressed to him, so this was novel in and of itself. As he opened the letter, he noticed the clothes laid out neatly to the right, a fine white shirt, sweater vest and trousers. They made Harry more acutely aware of the flopping hand-me-down pyjamas he wore, complete with tears Dudley had inflicted on them while chasing Harry himself around the breakfast table.

The letter made very little sense.

Dear Harry,

This is sort of a strange letter, I realize, but try your best to understand it. You can back out at any time by following the instructions tied to the silver half-cane you are holding. The person who wrote this letter is you, yourself, only a much older version of you, twice as old. The magic cane cuts your age in half, you see. I (or we I suppose) have been adopted by the man who owns this house. He's a wizard, as are you, turns out.

Harry frowned at the letter and flipped it over to check the back of it, just for the heck of it. It was signed by himself all right. He kept reading, smooth, young brow creased deeply.

Well, I won't bore you with everything. Suffice to say you (or us) have got a bit old for having a dad, really, and he isn't quite ready to stop being a dad, so I thought to give him a younger version of us as a present for his birthday today. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I thought you might enjoy that too, as well as getting some nice clothes to wear (they are lying out on the bed) and a decent present, even though it isn't your birthday. Certainly you are owed some past presents.

Harry stared at the letter, finding it surprisingly hard to have his trials so well understood. He was intrigued by the notion of a decent present, given how familiar he was with his cousin receiving them.

I'll keep this short. If you don't mind having the afternoon with a real family, a nice lunch, and little present then take the other letter and go downstairs where the wrapped gifts are laid out on the side table and look for one with your name on the bottom of it. If you are scared and don't want to do this just follow the instructions on the cane and you'll be back to normal.

It was signed in a neater, smoother version of his own signature.

On the assumption that he was most likely still dreaming, Harry eagerly slipped on the nice clothes. He repeatedly stroked the sweater vest, amazed that it fit snugly instead of hanging down to his knees. He gazed at himself in the mirror inside the wardrobe door and thought that probably random strangers would not peer at him in sympathy or with disapproval upon seeing him like this. Attempts at patting down his hair failed, so he closed the door and steeled himself to go downstairs. The room was chilly so he tugged down the robe hanging on the bed post and shrugged it on, finding comfortable familiarity in having to avoid tripping over its excessive length. He scooped up the letter labeled Severus and pocketed it, figuring the odd label would become clear with time but certain it was not meant for him.

Harry, adept at sneaking silently to avoid his relatives, crept down the stairs and easily located the shifting and colorfully laden table of presents. After deciding the moving figures on the paper were harmless, he leaned close to check each of half a dozen packages from people named Minerva, Hagrid, Jiggers—which gave Harry a giggle, Candide, and Harry himself, until finally on the end found one with no top label, but with his name on the bottom. He sat down on the floor and proceeded to open it with slow relish.

Someone entered the room. It was a lean man with shoulder-length hair wearing floor-sweeping black robes. He spotted Harry there on the floor and stopped suddenly, scuffing his foot. He faintly shook his head and said, "I should not even ask, I think."

Harry fumbled in the deep pockets of his robes and held out the second letter. With confident strides, the man approached and took it from him. He tore and snapped the letter open with one quick motion and proceeded to read it. Harry went back to studying the brightly colored wooden box before him, bearing three giant interlocking cursive Ws on the lid.

When the man did not move right away after reading, Harry asked, "What's it say?"

To his relief the man replied easily, "It says, it is better to be in trouble for something truly harmless." He folded the letter away and stared at Harry rather disarmingly. "I do hope he does not think I prefer you to him."

Harry lifted his boney shoulders and dropped them again, hoping it was all right to not have an answer. With the man towering over him, Harry returned his attention to the box, which opened by sliding the lid rather than lifting. Inside, neatly sectioned areas held all manner of sweets: chocolates, fruit gummies, toffees, bon bons. Harry plucked out a toffee and happily unwrapped it.

Footsteps approached and a bark of laughter sounded. Harry looked up to find a plain, brown-haired woman holding her hand over her mouth as she peered at him. Grinning broadly, she said, "Drat, that's a good present. No wonder he wouldn't tell me what he'd got you."

"Don't encourage him so," the man complained, gliding over to sit on the couch where he folded and pocketed the letter with undo care.

"Encourage him," she echoed, laughing.

With some effort because of a swollen belly, she sat down beside Harry on the floor and examined the sweets.

"Can I have one?" she asked brightly.

Harry nudged the box in her direction and she selected a chocolate with hardy fingers. She smelled sweetly of ginger and powder, not at all like Aunt Petunia.

"Do you want one?" she asked the man, sounding to be teasing. When his eyes merely narrowed slightly, she cajoled, "Oh, come on, lighten up a little." She selected another chocolate and stood with well-practiced awkwardness. "Well, just leave him this way, then," she said, smile ringing in her voice.

The man replied wryly, "Tempting, isn't it? But it won't work. The cane's magic wears off in two or three weeks."

"Shame," she muttered. She shifted over to make space between them and said, "Come here, Harry," while patting the cushion.

Harry peered at each of them. The man's annoyed expression was amplified by his fierce profile. The woman was still highly amused.

As Harry took the indicated seat, she patted him on the back and said, "Come on, Severus, he'll be good practice."

"I doubt that," Snape said.

The woman slipped an arm around Harry, which he wanted to resist, but was not certain would be allowed, given how Dudley was forced to accept excessive affection, even when he wished otherwise.

"How are you doing, Harry?" she asked.

Harry shrugged again and waited until he had nibbled down a chewy licorice before replying, "I'm just dreaming, right?"

She patted his back. "That's the spirit. As long as you don't think it's a bad dream."

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the man, whom he felt very uncertain about. "No, not a bad dream," he said, because there was something superficial about the man's anger, unlike his relatives'. Harry felt like the man just wanted to make a point, rather than truly be cruel.

Harry plucked yet another toffee off out of the slot that had not grown short of any despite the number he had eaten. In fact, far from running out, the top one jostled up to the rim was yet another new flavor.

The woman said, "Hm, maybe you should slow down on those."

"Maybe you should cease until after dinner," the man added more sharply.

"It doesn't really matter," the woman said. "He'll change back before the sweets catch up with him."

The man stood up. "He's always resisted obeying anything," he said in the tone of Harry's aunt and her neighbor friends, proclaiming him a hopelessly delinquent cause.

Harry slid the box closed. The man turned and caught his eye with his piercing gaze, and like a candle melting from rigid taper to amorphous stub, gave in. Harry was not sure how he could tell this—partly it was his eyes and partly it was the way his shoulders relaxed. He stepped back over and stood Harry up and took the seat he had just occupied so as to look him directly in the eye.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, in an insistent and wholly new tone that promised nothing beyond stalwart assistance.

Harry, who had been badly beaten up by Dudley's friends over the last year, had finally learned to avoid them for the most part. He was only mildly bruised at the moment, from one incident where Dudley had run him over on the staircase on the way down to meet his dad, honking from the car for a promised trip to the cinema.

"I'm fine right now," Harry replied. His skin prickled because no one had ever asked him that before, certainly not in that tone.

Harry's shoulders were released, and the man said, using a conflicting tone of caring demand, "If you require anything, you will ask for it, correct?"

Harry nodded. The woman stroked the man on the side of the head once, lips cocked into a painful smile.

"Can I have another toffee?" Harry asked, finding the lure of the rare wooden box to be too much.

"No," the man replied in unison with the woman saying, "yes."

The three of them held still. "It doesn't matter," the woman pointed out again.

The man said, "It does matter."

Harry found them both funny all of a sudden. The man sat back and crossed his arms. "It seems we do have a few things to work out. I will not tolerate that level of pandering."

"But it won't matter in the end. Why bother enforcing discipline when it won't matter? It's just excess sweets. Look how skinny he is."

Harry stood there, trying to look skinnier and perhaps a little pathetic.

The man gave the woman a glare Harry now felt confident he could peg as superficial. This was confirmed when the man uttered, "Fine. Go. Ahead."

"Thanks," Harry said, and set the box on the floor to carefully select what to eat next, just in case the man changed his mind.

"He'll eventually run out," the woman said.

"No, he won't. That is a rather expensive box of sweets that cannot actually be used up."

Harry, sweet held out before his open mouth, stared at the man in surprise at this proclamation. "Wow," Harry said, peering cross-eyed at his fingers sinking into the sides of the toffee he held, thrilled at this magical notion.

The woman said, "I would expect that they could not afford to sell boxes of sweets that never run out; it would seriously cut into future sales."

"They are doing rather well, financially, as far as I can tell."

After a few minutes of silent observation of Harry while Harry studied each moving cartoon on the discarded wrapping paper, the man said, "He is the same as he is now."

"You think so?" the woman replied.

"I sometimes think the Muggles have it easy, raising children incapable of magic."

With too much emotion the woman said, "Do you really feel that way?"

A pregnant silence followed before the man said, "I'm not certain why it matters so," in a somewhat tentative tone. "I was simply making an observation."

"Well, it matters . . ." She faded out and Harry glanced up to see her face struggle while she found words. Her manner shifted to factual and she said, "You have no idea how much pregnant witches fear giving birth to a Squib, that they might inadvertently do something wrong and the child will not have magic as a result."

"I don't think anything you may do or not do could have an impact on that."

"You're rare in that case. Most of Wizardom believes otherwise."

A pause, and then the man said with a hint of accusation, "Have you been worrying about this?"

Her head pulled back, "Of course I've been worrying about this," she burst out.

Harry munched harder on the licorice without realizing it, taking piece after piece.

"Well, cease to do so. It does not matter," the man insisted.

"You really wouldn't mind if we had a Squib?" she challenged.

The man's expression retreated. That was a very hard question, Harry could tell. In a quiet voice the man said, "I'll admit I had not seriously considered that we might, but of course the possibility is always there." He fell silent again. "But rest easy that I would not blame you for it." His gaze shifted thoughtfully far away. "Perhaps partly in the interest of denying everything the bad company I have associated with in the past stood for . . . I will insist that I will not care if the boy is a Squib. I am amazed enough at having a son at all."

The woman gestured in Harry's direction, "Another son, you mean," she said with a hint of tease.

Snape looked at Harry. "Yes. Another son."

This made Harry's ribs hurt and for a second he could not breathe, but this was short lived as his next attempt at pulling forth a licorice felt clumsy and his hand as heavy as the time he had to pick himself up out of an icy cold puddle in his woolen mittens after Dudley dropped him there. Harry looked down and emitted a sound halfway between a squeak and a yelp. His hand was swelling rapidly, so much so that his fingers were threatening to disappear into the balloon of his hand.

"Yah!" Harry said, scrambling away from the box of sweets.

The man said, "And now we know how the Weasley twins can afford to sell boxes of sweets that never run out." He caught up with Harry, who was crabbing awkwardly away from the box with one hand while dragging the other, which now felt glued to a bowling, along beside. He made another noise of distress and curled around the cursed hand protectively.

The woman was crouching beside him as well, and she waved a stick at his hand, sending sparks at it.

"I doubt such a simple counter will reverse it. I expect the twins sell the antidote for even more than the exorbitant price of the sweets." He peered at both sides of Harry's globular hand then slid Harry's sleeve up to study his arm. "I can mix a curative easy enough, but I will need to fetch something from my stocks at school." He stood with a swish of his robes. "Keep him calm until I return, if you would."

"Come on, Harry," the woman said, lifting him easily to his feet and guiding him to the couch.

Harry's initial alarm was wearing off and he felt a bit silly until he studied his hand again and had to close his eyes at the horrific proportions of it. Her mantra of, "It's going to be all right. Just sit tight," worked remarkably well, especially since Harry had never had anything like it directed at him.

Harry let himself be held in a loose embrace while they waited. A clock ticking occupied the silence. Harry moved his hand slightly, surprised it did not hurt given how far his skin had stretched. He resisted trusting that something was going to be done to help him, maybe it would go away on its own, if not.

The woman stroked his head and said, "You'll be fine and then we'll have lunch."

Harry stomach rumbled at the thought. He propped his grotesque hand on the back of the couch out of the way. "I guess I should have listened to Mr. Snape," he muttered morosely. Harry, who had been sleeping when this whole bizarre thing started, scrubbed at one eye with his unencumbered fingertip and asked, "So, I really have a dad now."


"That's good," Harry replied, feeling too many mixed emotions to contain them all, so he closed his eyes and buried his face in the velvety, mauve-colored robes encompassing him.

She patted his head, "Yup, it is. We'll get you fixed up, have lunch and get you back to normal."

Voice muffled by fabric, Harry said, "The letter said I didn't need a dad any longer. I don't understand that."

"It's true in many ways, and not true in others."

Harry raised his head to say, "Do you consider that a reply?"

She laughed. "You're a cheeky one. Yes, I consider that a reply. How about this: you don't need Severus any longer except to bail you out when you get into trouble . . ." She shook his thin forearm to make his bulbous hand wobble. "Just like this."

"Oh," Harry said, thin mouth turning downward. "But that was that magical box's fault," he pointed out.

"You are very good at getting into trouble using all sorts of magic, Harry," she said in a tone that precluded argument, so Harry offered her none further. "All sorts."

Insistence that Harry was always in trouble came as no surprise to him and even gave him a feeling of rightness with the world. He sighed and rested his head back against the couch cushion.

Someone sitting nearby, jostled Harry awake. He blinked his eyes and tried to remember his strange surroundings. The man in black was sitting beside him. He uncorked an etched glass bottle with a satisfying plomp sound. Harry's heart increased its pace as he realized that had he been dreaming, well, he shouldn't be now, because he had just woke up.

Harry rubbed his eyes and squinted into the cup held out to him. It contained a viscous orange and grey striped slime that clung to the glassy surface of the porcelain cup. The woman handed Harry his glasses, which she must have removed while he slept. Harry did not really want to put them on given how disgusting the substance in the glass looked when he could not see it clearly.

The man held the glass out expectantly. "Go on," he urged. "It will cancel the curse on your hand."

Harry wanted to point out that drinking the offered stuff had to be worse that having bowling-ball hand, but he assumed like all suggestions he made to adults, this one would not fare well and would only bring on retribution.

Harry sat forward and took the cup but moved it no closer to his nose. It sloshed strangely in the cup; the colored layers slid and snaked over one another, refusing to mix. A black-stained, thin liquid swam in between the layers, pooling disgustingly when he tipped the vessel.

"You want me to drink this?" Harry asked, voice croaking.

Candide laughed and put her arm more firmly around him. "'Fraid so. It won't hurt you. It's just a potion."

"A potion," Harry echoed doubtfully, resisting more because the scent of brackish water had reached his nose, wrinkling it.

"We can leave him like this and just change him back," the woman suggested.

The man said in a questioning voice, "I thought we were going to keep him for dinner."

The woman froze, Harry could feel it transmitted through her arm. Then she laughed lightly. Harry glanced her way to find her eyes brightened by gladness.

"I guess, you have to drink up, Harry," she said kindly, but firmly.

Harry, holding his breath, gulped down the contents of the glass. As the potion slipped and swam down his throat he realized he had not done it to get back his hand; he had just done it for them, mostly for her. They seemed worth the effort, too much so, because if he was not going to stay, as they implied, he did not want the burden of these feelings later when they would be of no use, and in fact threatened to haunt him.

Harry, hand normal, slid off the front of the couch and knelt before the wooden box of infinite sweets, and simply stared at it, not wishing to touch it again right away.

"It's dinner time," the man said. "Come, Harry," he added, expecting to be obeyed, and Harry did.

Author's Note: Thanks for all the great feedback. It's really nice to have. Hope everyone is having a great new year (for those on the Gregorian calendar, that is).

Next: Chapter 20 -- Twenty Years Later, Part 1

"Harry," Candide said firmly, teeth clenched, gaze blazing. "Sit down."

Harry glanced at the empty floor behind him.

"Yes, right there," she demanded furiously.

Harry had never seen her in this full on angry mode, and never imagined it would be he who put her there. This jarred him out of angry into stunned. He sat down on the cool wood floor, fingers finding knot holes in the wide boards, which he grabbed hold of with his fingertips. He avoided both their gazes.

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