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Severus entered the house to discover Rellah wringing her hands agitatedly. "Master Sev, you best go and help your son, he ran through here like his backside was on fire, and when I followed and asked him where his clothes were he said ‘Somewhere in the woods. I'll get ‘em later' and then he started to put on some new ones and just fell on the ground. I asked him if he was all right, but he just snapped he was fine and I shouldn't worry, but I am worrying very much now. I think he has tried to do too much too soon after he was so sick."

Severus shook his head. "Rellah, he's just assumed his Animagus form, and you know how draining it is when you do that for the first time."

"Ah, yes!" the woodkin's eyes lit with startled comprehension. "He'll need a good dose of my Strengthening Tea, no doubt, and some rare meat and spinach . . ." She bustled off into the pantry to gather what she needed and Severus heaved a sigh and went towards Harry's bedroom.

He found his son still sitting on the floor, trying without success to pull his jeans on.

"Dad, what's wrong with me?" he cried, all his earlier euphoria vanished. Now he was perilously close to tears. "I can't . . .I feel so weak, my arms feel like wet noodles, and I hurt all over, like somebody pulled my arms and legs out of their sockets . . ."

Severus knelt and gently helped his son take his jeans off. Harry went red in embarrassment.

"Harry, remember when I told you once you changed back from your Animagus form, you'd be in pain?"

"Yeah, but I never thought it'd be like this. I can barely move. Ow!" He yelled when Severus began to massage his leg. "Oooh . . .no, don't . . ."

"Hush. It'll feel better soon. This is the price you pay for assuming another shape, son. The first few times you change back, it's going to hurt like a bitch. Close your eyes and find your center, Harry." He urged, rotating Harry's feet slowly, wincing as he heard the muscles in his son's ankles crackle.

Harry obeyed. Closing his eyes, he found his way back to the den of the cottage and into Snape's arms. Almost immediately the raw burning ache and throbbing pain lessened.

"Take deep breaths. Good. Now breathe out, five times." Severus counted slowly, helping his son to go into the trance-state so he could block the worst of the pain from his transformation.

Harry slipped into the second level of his meditation trance, and imagined himself in a room with cool blue walls and when he touched them, they were cold and he absorbed the cold into himself and sped it to all the screeching pain-filled muscles, numbing them and soothing them.

After ten minutes, he could feel the worst of the pain ebb, and Severus gently picked him up and put him on his bed. He didn't even register when the professor whisked off his underwear and applied some Muscle Reliever, working it well into the calves, thighs, shoulders, back and arms. Then Snape replaced Harry's clothing and turned him over, tapping his face and calling, "Harry, open your eyes. You can painblock without going to sleep."

Harry opened his eyes reluctantly. He still ached, but it was nothing like before. "Why do I hurt this way, Dad?"

"Because you've just reshaped all of your muscles and bones and organs into something much smaller and totally different than you and then back again. That is the price one pays for shifting shape the first few times. But with practice, your body will adjust until you won't hurt at all when you change. But for now, why don't we go into the kitchen, Rellah was very alarmed when you collapsed and wants to see you and feed you as well."

Harry let Severus go first, even with the Muscle Reliever and his painblock in place, he was stiff and sore as a ninety-year-old man. He tottered down the hall on shaky legs, grimacing. Ow! Even my bum hurts. He reached back and rubbed it, figuring it must hurt because of the tail he'd had as a cub. Even so, he wouldn't trade the exhilarating feeling he had felt upon becoming the snow leopard cub Whisper for anything. Buck up, Harry. No pain, no gain.

When he arrived in the kitchen, he found Severus already seated and Rellah busy dishing up some delicious smelling beef stew and crusty rolls. To his surprise, his normal place had been covered with a soft cushion from the couch and in front of his place was a large plate of rare roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, spinach, and a cup of some odd-smelling tea, at least Harry thought it was tea. "Huh? How come we've got different dinners?"

"Because, young master, you need to eat hearty after you've been shifting shapes," answered Rellah. "Especially the apprentices like you. Changing forms takes a great lot of energy out of you, and you're thin as a willow sapling t'start with, so you just sit down and eat what's there, hear?"

"Yes, Rellah," Harry said, pretending to be cowed, though he was hiding a grin. He peered at the tea. "Uh, what's this stuff?"

"That is my special Strengthening tea, Master Harry. ‘Twill put some starch back in you and give you some energy. Mind you drink it all." The woodkin was perched on her accustomed seat on a chair back, eating a piece of bread with honey. She did not tend to eat very much or very often with them, though he had heard Severus offer her a place at the table many times.

Harry made a face, then chuckled over the woodkin's antiquated speech. "Put some starch in me, huh? I'm not a shirt, y'know."

"Are you makin' fun of me, young master?" Rellah demanded, giving him a sharp glance.

"Who, me?" Harry tried to look innocent but failed utterly when he began to giggle. "Really, Rellah! I'm almost afraid to drink this .. . what if I go all stiff and starchy . . .?" he sniggered into his hands.

"Why, then I'd just hang you out on the line and beat some of the starch right out o' you, Master Harry," the woodkin replied slyly, her grass green eyes glimmering. "Quit makin' fun o' me, you rascal!"

"Okay . . .I'll try."

Rellah reached over and tweaked his ear, not hard enough to really hurt, but more of a warning.

Harry's eyes went wide. "Ouch!" he rubbed his ear. He shot a look at Severus, half-questioning and half-indignant.

"Don't look at me to get you out of trouble this time, fledgling. If you can't mind your mouth around a woodkin, you deserve whatever you get." Severus resumed eating calmly, ignoring the sound of Harry's jaw hitting the table.

"Thanks so much," Harry muttered. "I was just kidding, Rellah."

"I know that, young master. Otherwise I'd have really tweaked your ear," Rellah said, and gave him a sweet smile.

Harry flinched and quickly picked up his fork and started eating. He was starving, fasting for three days and then summoning his Animagus form really worked up an appetite. But he ate slowly, recalling the many times he'd made himself sick from eating too quickly after a period of enforced fasting at the Dursleys. He also sipped at the tea, finding it tasted pretty good, kind of like mint and orange and some other spices he couldn't name.

Severus paused and said, "You might want to take a hot bath and use that Muscle Reliever again before you go to sleep. Just like when I made you run laps during our Defense lessons, it'll help you unknot those stiff muscles. As a rule, new Animagi shouldn't attempt another change until after twenty-four hours have gone by since the last one. Once a day for about two months is the most you should shift, so your body has time to adjust to the change and you learn to control the animal instinct. Any more than that and you run the risk of something going wrong."

"Is there a limit as to how long I should stay a leopard?"

"Ah, there's where I disagree with conventional wisdom. A conservative teacher would say you should spend no more than four hours in your Animagus form, but I say it depends on the student. If you show a real aptitude for the form and are able to retain your sense of self, I say you should remain in the form for six hours or more if necessary. Practice makes perfect."

"Dad, please!" Harry groaned, nibbling on his pudding. "That is so overused."

"Your point?" Severus arched an eyebrow.

Harry shook his head. "Forget it. Were you this sore when you first changed?"

"Yes. Like I said before, that is the price a wizard pays for assuming another form at first. There is no getting around it. That is why a master monitors a student Animagus so closely during the first month of transformation. Whenever you shift, I shall be with you, watching and instructing, either as Wraith or my true form."

"How old were you?"

"Thirteen, a little older than you are now."

"And did . . .did Professor McGonagall . . .did she give you that same salve you gave me?"

"She did and a massage also," Severus replied without even a hint of embarrassment. "It is the responsibility of an Animagus instructor to see to the well-being of his or her student. Minerva takes her duties very seriously, like I do."

Harry nearly fell over, trying to wrap his brain around that little tidbit of information. He took a quick gulp of tea and nearly choked himself. Severus reached over and gave him a quick smack between the shoulderblades and tilted his chin up.

"All right now?" Harry nodded, flushing. "Next time don't drink so fast."

"Dad, if you have to be there all the time when I change, why weren't you there the first time?"

"What makes you think I wasn't?" inquired his father slyly.

"But . . .but you said I had to do it alone!"

"And so you did. You alone cast the spell to call forth your Animagus form and then transformed. But I was watching not far away, making sure nothing distracted you and when you became a cub I made sure you were adjusted to the cat's mind. Some people find it difficult to adjust between forms, the animal instincts tend to overwhelm them or they fight them, making the change more difficult. You, however, seem to be a natural at it. You had no trouble adjusting that I could tell, from the way you moved and acted."

Harry felt like he'd just won a million Galleons. "I did?"

"Yes. One in five hundred thousand have that ability. You are one, Professor McGonagall and I are others. I think you inherited your ability from your parents. Your father was a natural Animagus as well, his form was a stag. He was called Prongs."

"Wow! Sounds cool. Was my mum one too?"

"Yes, she was a fox, and she was also a natural. Her name was Flare. That would explain why you have an aptitude for shifting. Such things are often inherited."

Severus smiled slightly, recalling the pretty red vixen that had been Lily, running like a streak of wildfire across the grounds, challenging him to come and find her. He did not bother telling Harry that both his parents had been unregistered Animagi, and had learned to shift by sheer chance. Severus had been shocked when Lily had told him that James had shown her how to change and they had been doing so without any master's supervision. He had begged her to stop and tell McGonagall, but she had refused, not wanting to get James in trouble, and then they had quarreled and didn't speak to each other for two days until Severus apologized for his sharp tongue and Lily for her temper and agreed to let him instruct her properly. It had been during those lessons that he had finally realized he loved her as much more than a friend.

Ah, those were the days, when we were young and innocent, and hunted and chased each other through the forest for fun, before Voldemort returned and tainted everything.

Severus finished his supper with a pang of nostalgic longing.

"Dad, will you teach me how to hunt as a cub? I tried to get a mouse today, but I missed." Harry admitted sheepishly, drinking the remainder of his tea.

"I saw. That's normal, son. Snow leopards are born with the instinct to stalk prey, but not the ability to catch it, they have to be taught by their mothers or fathers. I shall give you some pouncing lessons tomorrow."

"Thanks, can't wait." Harry said, and grinned like an idiot, he was that excited. He could barely wait for night to fall and he ended up going to bed early, the hot bath and the salve had served to make him very tired.

* * * * * *

The next morning he was so eager to practice changing forms, despite his soreness, that he would have skipped breakfast but for his father, who caught him just as he was about to go out the back door and said, "Hold it, boy. You go nowhere until you eat something. Changing forms on a full stomach is a must."

"Aww, Dad! I'm not hungry."

"Eat anyway." Snape ordered implacably and marched his son back to the table.

Harry gave him a dark look from under his lashes and muttered something about certain people fussing worse than his grandmother. A second later he felt a sharp swat on his bum and he jumped.

"Did I just hear someone volunteer to scrub cauldrons instead of practicing shifting?"

"No, sir," Harry said quickly, rubbing his bottom.

"Sit and eat," his father ordered briskly, today's breakfast was oatmeal with raisins and nuts and maple syrup and English Breakfast tea.

Harry slid into his chair, pouting a little. Then he smelled the oatmeal and realized he was hungry after all and ate the entire bowl without further urging.

Severus took Harry back to the clearing in the woods where he had first discovered his Animagus self and had him go through meditation exercises first before allowing him to change into Whisper. Severus made sure Harry was centered and focused before bidding him remove his clothes and change.

Harry hesitated, a tad embarrassed about stripping down right in front of Severus, though he knew perfectly well the other man had seen him naked plenty of times.

Sensing his son's awkwardness, Severus turned around. "Go on, Harry, for the love of Merlin. I won't look, though God knows this wouldn't be the first time I've seen you au natural."

Harry blushed and didn't reply, he knew he was being ridiculous, it was only Severus, and yet he couldn't help feeling awkward. "When can you teach me how to change with clothes on, Dad?"

"When I'm sure you've mastered the basics. You can shift now."

Harry did so, concentrating hard on the way he felt when he was Whisper, the cub's endless curiosity and zest for life, how the ground felt beneath his paws, and the smell of the meadow and the rustle of leaves in the wind.

He pictured Whisper in his mind and then overlayed his own image on it and merged the two.

Suddenly there was a strange tugging sensation and the next instant he was the gangly cub, all big feet and long tail. He whirled about, pouncing at shadows, unable to be still.

A second later Wraith was beside him, watching his antics with indulgence.

Until the playful cub pounced on his tail and bit down.

Wraith let out a sharp growl of reproof and turned about. Whisper, no biting!

The cub let go of Wraith's tail with a squeak and rolled over on his back, all four feet in the air. Sorry. Don't be mad, Dad.

Wraith came over and nudged the rambunctious cub sternly. Come, troublemaker. I shall show you something far better to stalk than my tail. Up with you now, cub.

Whisper rolled to his feet and followed his father further across the small meadow. Where are we going, Dad? Is it far? Will we find mice there? I like mice, they smell good. Do they taste good too?

You'll never find out if you keep mewing, little one. Hush! Otherwise the only mouse you'll catch is the one in your dreams. Wraith rumbled.

Whisper hung his head. ‘Kay. Sorry.

Wraith led his son to a small patch of dirt just at the edge of the clearing where he knew a mouse lived, actually a whole colony of mice lived there. The large leopard slipped around the hole and crouched at the edge of the trees, his fur blending in with shadows like magic. Whisper tried to copy him, but found crouching and waiting to be very hard.

When can we pounce, Dad? Now? Now? He wriggled his rump and twitched his tail in anticipation. He could smell the mice but not see them.

Be still, cub! rebuked the older leopard and Whisper cringed and mewed an apology.

A second later, a pink nose poked its way up out of the burrow and a gray mouse emerged, whiskers twitching nervously. It paused for what seemed like an eternity before it ventured a few feet away from the burrow, sniffed, and froze.

A mouse! A mouse! Look, Dad! Look!

Whisper would have sprang at the mouse then and ruined it all had not Wraith put out a paw and pinned him to the earth.

Patience, son. Wait.

But Dad! There it is!

I see it. But it doesn't see me. Wait. A good hunter is patient. Spring too soon and you will lose all.

Wraith let the mouse get as far as ten feet before he launched himself at it in a leap so quick that all the mouse could do was squeak and try and run, too late since the leopard was already upon it. He killed it with a single claw and then brought it back to Whisper.

Here. A snack.

Whisper looked up at the big cat in awe. Mrrow! You're the best mouse catcher, Dad! Then he ate the mouse, while Wraith watched and purred softly.

Afterwards, the cub bounded over to his father and looked up at him with huge imploring eyes. Can I try this time? Can I? Ple-e-ease?

Can you remember what you have to do?

Of course! You be still, like this. The cub crouched down and was still as a statue. Then you wait and wait forever and ever and when you see a mouse you jump on it. Whisper's nose twitched eagerly as he smelled the mice down the burrow. His tail began to switch back and forth as he became more and more impatient.

Wraith purred calmness at him, and he struggled to remain still.

Suddenly his attention was drawn to a large fluttery blue and purple thing and without even being aware of it, Whisper sprang after it.

His claws just grazed it and it fluttered away.

Whisper raced after it, yowling happily. Butterfly! Butterfly! Come back silly flutter thing! Play with me!

The cub chased the butterfly all over the meadow, coming close but never catching it.

Wraith lay down, huffing faintly in exasperation. Cubs! They have the attention span of a gnat.

After some ten minutes of running and leaping, Whisper halted and trotted over to Wraith, who was snoozing lightly with his head on his paws.

Whisper sniffed and hissed. Ah ha! Mighty hunter stalks sleeping father.

He slunk down and crept forward.

Wraith slept on, unaware of the sneaky cub.

Whisper crept closer and closer, then he pounced!

Right onto Wraith's head.

The big cat woke up with a roar and jerked his head back.

Whisper landed on his father's back and mewed, digging his little claws into the thick pelt for balance.

Wraith snarled irritably, whipped his head around and lifted his cub off of his back. He set the mischievous little thing inbetween his paws and gave him a very disappointed glare. What's this, have I suddenly become a chew toy?

Whisper flattened his ears and gazed at the other's paws. No- o -o. Sorry, Dad, didn't mean it, sorry. It was a game.

A very silly one. You need a bath again.

Whisper backed away, squalling. He tried to run, but Wraith was very quick and caught him after five minutes.

The large cat lifted him by the scruff, carried him over to a sunny spot and lay down, corralling the stubborn feline between his forefeet. Whisper made a final bid for freedom, but Wraith nipped him and he stopped trying to get away and let the older male wash him, grumbling all the while over it.

Afterwards, Whisper lay sleepily against the snow leopard's chest while Wraith groomed himself, purring. Together, father and son drowsed in the afternoon sun.

But all too soon, Wraith ordered his son to think of that other name and remember a small skinny boy with jet black hair and green eyes-his other self. Change back, Harry. Now, son.

Aww, but I don't wanna. I like being here.

I know, but now it's time to change back. Like this.

And between one breath and the next Wraith had become a tall man in midnight pants and a green shirt. "Your turn."

Whisper huffed and growled, but in the end he too shifted forms.

This time Harry got his clothes on and managed to walk halfway back to the house before the muscle spasms hit and Snape had to carry him.

Harry turned his face into his father's shoulder to hide the tears that trickled down his cheeks, but Severus knew anyway and murmured comfortingly, "It'll pass, child. Trust me. The first and second time is always the hardest."

The young wizard took comfort in that, for Severus never lied to him, and gritted his teeth and let the tears fall, yet still a small smile curved up his lips as he recalled playing and stalking with Wraith, and suddenly the pain was nothing more than a nuisance he must endure.

He counted five breaths and painblocked and then smiled. Yes, he hurt, but oh it was so worth it!

* * * * * *

By the end of a week, the pain when Harry shifted forms was minimal, enough so he could bear it without using the salve and he only needed the meditation techniques. He loved his Animagus form and would have stayed in it all day if Severus would have allowed it. The older Snape made him change forms at various times of the day and occasionally the night as well, so he could get used to shifting with different temperatures and degrees of light. He even made Harry shift once during a light rainstorm, because you never knew when you'd have to change forms in a hurry.

Harry loved the nighttime the best, it was so much easier to stalk things and sneak up on Wraith and grab his tail. The older leopard was quite tolerant of the cub's silly endless games of stalk and hide, and would play with him for hours, but occasionally he grew tired of the youngster's jumping all over him like a cricket and scolded him with a soft growl. Normally, that reproof would be all the cub needed to bring him back in line, for the animal instinct was strong to obey an elder. But Whisper wasn't totally a snow leopard and sometimes his purely human side would take over and then he would get in real trouble.

Such as the time he had climbed halfway up a tree in pursuit of a squirrel, panicked, and couldn't get down. He had yowled loudly in terror, waking Wraith from his cozy nap and bringing the older cat bounding through the trees to rescue the disobedient furball.

After plucking the cub off of the tree, the big cat had brought him back to the meadow, carrying him by the scruff. Did I not tell you to stay in the meadow and no wandering off, youngling?

Ye-es . . .b-but Dad it was a squirrel and I wanted to catch it, Whisper whimpered, sounding remarkably like a human child caught out in some mischief.

So you deliberately disobeyed me and ran after it, and climbed a tree you know you shouldn't have been climbing as well, hmm? Wraith eyed the cub with one of his awful Looks and the little cat flattened his ears and looked pitiful.

The scolding would have been all the cub would have gotten then, but suddenly Whisper blurted defiantly, But nothing happened, Dad, so what are you overreacting for? I was only stuck in the tree for like five minutes, tops.

Nothing happened? You were damn lucky that I got to you first and not a wyvern or a manticore, because they could hear you screeching plain as day. When I tell you to do something, I expect you to obey, it is never for nothing and always for your own safety, you foolish child! Do you want to end up as a wyvern's midnight snack?

No. But-

Then next time do as I say.

Fine, Whisper mewed, but there was still defiance in his tone.

Wraith sensed it and decided that further consequences were necessary, and gave the rebellious Animagus a tap on the rump with his paw. It wasn't very hard, but the cub wasn't expecting it and the sudden sting made him jump and yowl.

Ye-ow! You spanked me! Owww!

That was a reminder. Now adjust the attitude.

Okay, okay. I'm sorry. The cub whimpered, rolling over and feeling very sorry for himself. He made small whining noises, hurt and ashamed and shocked, for Wraith had never lost his temper like that before. He sniffed and gave his father a sulky stare from his bluish-gold eyes. That really hurt, Dad.

So would you being eaten by a wyvern. Now quit being overdramatic, it was a smack not a beating.

So? It stung.

Come here, scamp. Wraith sighed, and nuzzled the cub and licked him, soothing the sting away. All's forgiven, now hush and take a nap.

‘Kay, Dad. The repentant cub sniffled and then snuggled into the big leopard's chest, listening to Wraith purring him a snow cat lullaby, and falling fast asleep.

When they returned to the house later on that day, Harry avoided looking at his father for the better part of an hour, hiding behind his Quidditch book. He had gotten his Nimbus back a week before, but he hadn't flown much since discovering he was an Animagus. The lure of the snow leopard shape was addicting, which was another reason why an apprentice Animagus was monitored so closely during the first two months of learning to transform. There was always danger that the apprentice might succumb to the shape entirely and lose themselves inside the Animagus form, and once that happened, it was nearly impossible for anyone to retrieve them, for a change had to be initiated voluntarily, with a wizard's full participation.

Severus however knew the warning signs of an apprentice obsessed with his Animagus form, they quit eating and sleeping and had no interest in anything save when they transformed. Harry displayed a healthy longing for his other shape, but was not obsessing over it, and he never refused Severus when he told him to shift forms. Protested, yes, but never an outright refusal.

He eyed his son, sensing that Harry was embarrassed over something, but not knowing quite what it was. True, he had scolded and smacked his son, but that was nothing new, and he didn't think that was anything for Harry to be embarrassed over. Still, he could tell something was bothering the boy. "Harry? Is there something the matter?"

Harry looked up from his book and sighed. "It's just . . .this is stupid, I guess, but . . .when I got in trouble today, I overreacted I guess . . .when you swatted me, I mean. I cried like a little four-year-old, Dad." Harry looked down at his socks, biting his lip. "I'm never like that. I don't understand . . ."

"Ah. You think your reaction was inappropriate for an eleven-year-old?"

"Yeah. I mean it was just a smack, sure it stung and all, but it's supposed to and I've had worse from Aunt Marge."

"Harry, you forget that as Whisper you are a mere cub, perhaps three to four months old. I don't know the equivalent in human years, but I'd say a three month cub equals a four-year -old. So it would only make sense that as Whisper, you have the reactions and emotional responses of a four-year-old. And almost all four-year-old's cry when a parent smacks them."

"I never did. I wasn't allowed," Harry told his father softly, still not meeting his gaze.

Severus leaned forward slightly in his recliner, they were relaxing in the den, and Harry was sprawled on the couch. "Harry, the way your . . .relatives-" Severus made it plain that he would have rather used another word entirely to describe the Dursleys. "-treated you was anything but normal. They shouldn't have been trusted to raise a canary, much less a child. It's perfectly normal for a child to cry and make a fuss over being punished, especially when four or five or six. Children don't know how to suppress emotions, and they shouldn't be taught to either. What those people did to you was wrong, son, and you shouldn't feel ashamed over reacting to my punishment by crying and whining, it didn't surprise me at all, for that's what a four-year-old would do."

"You told me to stop being overdramatic."

"Yes, because you were feeling sorry for yourself. I can't stand self-pity. But I didn't tell you not to cry, now did I?"

"No. But it still feels . . .weird."

Severus nodded. "I know. I hardly ever cried as a child, for the same reasons you didn't, Harry. Tears only brought more whippings, my father hated crybabies. Even so, I learned that what my father taught me was dead wrong. There is no shame in tears, son. It took me years to learn that lesson also, your mother helped me, in fact. So don't be embarrassed if you react like a four-year-old as Whisper instead of your true age. That's one of the drawbacks of having an Animagus form, there often is a discrepancy between the ages of the human and animal forms."

"Will I grow up as a leopard, Dad?"

"Yes, though you will age differently. By the time you are twelve I estimate you'll be between six and seven months old as Whisper. When you're thirteen you'll be eight months old and so forth. That's an approximation, by the way, since no one's actually tried to correlate ages between forms before. Your emotional growth should be similar."

Harry nodded, though he still felt slightly uncomfortable.

"You know, Harry, I used to tell Sev when he was little that tears were God's way of making sure everyone knew when you were hurt or sad, so then they could help you." Eileen put in from her place on the wall. "Maybe you're a little old for that advice, but I thought you might like to hear it."

Harry smiled up at the portrait. "Thanks, Gran." Eileen didn't always chime in to their conversations, but when she did, it was usually because she had something important to say, and Harry always listened closely to her, and so did Severus. He had to admit, it still felt kind of strange, having a father who cared so much about him and a talking portrait for a grandmother, but he wouldn't trade them for all the so-called "normal" families in the world.

He curled up contentedly on the couch and finished reading the Quidditch book Ron had given him earlier in the year. Perhaps he should write his friends and let them know what he'd been doing? Before he could think of anything more, he found his eyes closing.

Severus gently removed the book from Harry's hand and tucked an afghan around him. "Just when I think he's adjusting nicely, he goes and throws something like that at me and I'm reminded all over again that nothing was ever normal for him," Severus murmured.

"Or for you either, though I tried my best to shield you from Tobias," Eileen sighed sadly. "He's been hurt badly, Sev, but he's mending, slowly but surely. He'll heal. All he needs is your love and support and time. Those are what I wished I could have given you, son."

Severus turned and looked at his mother's picture with a fierce love. "You did the best you could with what time you had, Mum. Nothing in my life has ever been easy, but that is how it is. Like someone once said, Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Don't blame yourself for not being there for me, Mum. It was your time."

"Thanks, Severus. I was afraid you hated me for dying when you were only thirteen."

"Hate you? Never. I was resentful and angry for a little while, I'll admit, but once Minerva explained to me that you had no choice in the matter, I stopped feeling like that. I miss you, but I would never hate you, Mother. You were as much a victim as I was, and you were the one thing in that house that made living there bearable."

Eileen smiled at her son, looking like she were about to cry. "Oh, Sev. If there had been a way for me to leave more of myself behind than this portrait, I would have."

"Don't, Mum. Regrets don't serve any purpose. What's done is done. Tomorrow's a new day. I'd better put him to bed, he'll get a crick in his neck from sleeping in that position." He scooped Harry up and carried him off to bed, and Eileen watched until they were out of her sight, thinking how remarkable it was for Severus and Harry to be so close, when both of them had trouble expressing themselves. Then again, this was Malachite Cottage, where dreams were born.

* * * * * *

Three weeks later:

Harry stood in the meadow, eyes shut, trying to concentrate. Severus had told him the way to transform with clothes was to imagine yourself with them on when you shifted. Thus far, Harry had not been concentrating hard enough, and the only thing that transformed that time was a cap and boots. At least this time he was prepared and swiftly entered the third level trance. From there he transformed to Whisper, bounding everywhere, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

Even though Harry took to his Animagus form like a duck takes to water, Severus never left him alone when he did so. Sometimes Harry felt as though he were five and needed an adult's permission to walk across the cottage or the meadow. It irked him, even though he knew why Severus was behaving that way.

This time he forced himself to concentrate hard, imagining himself with his jeans, shirt, shoes, and underclothes, focusing on how the clothing felt before he overlay the image with the snow leopard cub. Once more, he felt the tingling of the change and then he opened his eyes and found the world looking bigger through the cub's eyes.

He sniffed and smelled the delectable scent of a bird upon the breeze and wished he were old enough to hunt on his own. But he knew better than to test his father by running off again. Wraith appeared silently at the meadow's edge and Whisper sprang at him, mock-growling.

They tussled playfully for quite awhile, the larger cat careful to use the merest fraction of his strength when he played with the cub, cuffing him gently and rolling him over, allowing the smaller cat to climb up his back and gnaw upon his ears and chew his paws lazily. In short, Wraith allowed Whisper to take shameless advantage of him, retaliating just enough to make it interesting, but never truly hurting the little cub.

Even so, Whisper was panting and thirsty after twenty minutes of playing King of the Castle with his father, and Wraith took the cub down to the Silmareen for a drink, admonishing the irrepressible youngster to stay close and not fall in the river.

Once Whisper had drunk his fill, Wraith pulled the cub towards him and licked him, grooming his fur. Stay still. Wriggling and complaining won't get your bath over with any quicker.

Aww, Dad! Why are you always giving me baths? It's not like I roll in the mud like a dog.

No, but your fur gets matted and therefore needs to be groomed and if you won't see to it yourself, then I have to. Now quit squirming! Wraith growled, nipping the cub in warning.

Whisper whimpered and sniffled, even though the nip hadn't been all that sharp, he hated when his father punished him. But he stopped trying to get away and submitted to Wraith's ministrations.

Finally the elder leopard was satisfied that his son's coat was clean and untangled, and he released the little mischief-maker. Whisper shook himself and began to stalk a bug crawling along the ground, when he heard some unfamiliar yips and barking. His jerked his head up and peered around. Huh? What's that?

That is the sound of Ebony the onyx fox and her kits coming to drink, Wraith answered, yawning. We will have company soon, so be on your best behavior.

Okay, Dad.

In another three minutes a large midnight fox came through the brush, she was about the size of a beagle, followed by her three cub, all of them black as night, save for one who sported a white star on her forehead. The fox family drew up sharply when they caught sight of the two snow leopards.

Good afternoon, Wraith, Ebony barked politely, for she knew the snow leopard from his various rambles in and out of the forest. It has been a few moons since I have seen you here. I hope your hunting has been good.

It has, Mistress Ebony, Wraith replied, his golden eyes gleaming. You seem to have acquired a few family members since last we met.

Ebony sat up tall and proud, barking to her cubs to come and say hello to the big cat. Children, say good afternoon and hello to Wraith the snow leopard. He is an old friend of mine and will not harm you. The kits nervously crept forward until they were sitting next to their mother. Master Wraith, these are my kits. My son next to me is Shadow, his sister beside him is Glisten, and my youngest daughter is Starmist, for the white star upon her brow. They were born three moons ago and are quite big and clever for their age, if I do say so myself.

The kits panted, eyeing Wraith uneasily, until the snow leopard rumbled, Good afternoon, young ones.

Good afternoon, Master Wraith! The foxes yipped.

And who is your little one? Ebony asked curiously, for Whisper had become suddenly shy and was hiding behind his father's leg.

This is my son, Whisper. Wraith purred, then turned and nudged the reluctant cub until he was facing the onyx fox and her family. Manners, cub. Say hello to Ebony and her family.

Whisper wrinkled his nose and sneezed, then said softly, Hi, my name is Whisper. Pleased to meet you.

Ebony trotted over to sniff noses and said, Well met, young cub. You resemble your father a great deal.

Mama, I'm thirsty! yipped Shadow.

Me too, me too! barked the other two.

You may go and drink, but mind you don't jump into the river.

Yes, Mama, they chorused, then they raced down to the river to drink their fill.

Whisper watched them, especially after they started playing together, and wondered if he could play too. Dad, can I go play with them? Please? Please?

Wraith considered then nodded. You may. But be careful, Whisper. Remember they are smaller and fragile, so do not play too hard, son.

I'll remember. Then the cub sprang down the hill and joined the three foxes in some kind of game similar to stalk and hide.

The two adult animals watched their offspring playing for several minutes before Ebony said quietly, I know this is none of my business, but usually it is the mother who tends to the cub of your species, is it not?

Yes, most of the time. However, Whisper's mother is dead, and so it falls to me to raise him.

Ah. Forgive me for opening old wounds, my friend. Losing your mate is hard.

Yes. But we're managing so far.

You seem to be doing a fine job with him. Far better than my mate Swift could do if I was gone, Ebony laughed.

The two returned to watching their children playing. They were having a glorious time, running, jumping, wrestling and stalking. The fox kits tried to swarm the bigger snow leopard, but Whisper was too quick and avoided the sneaky kits.

They played until they were tired, then they all lay in a heap on the ground.

Wraith and Ebony eyed them indulgently, then all too soon, Wraith said it was time to leave.

Aww, Dad! Three more minutes.

Please, sir?

Please?

Very well, but only three more minutes.

Yay! cheered the young kits.

All too soon, it was over and Whisper heard his father's voice, bidding him to come home.

I wanna stay some more, Dad, begged Whisper.

No, son. It's time to leave. Come along now, you can play with the fox kits some other day.

Whisper dawdled and whined until Wraith gave him a pointed Look and then he came over to his father's side. Do we have to go? I was having so much fun!

Yes, but you'll see them another time. Now say goodbye.

Whisper obeyed and Ebony rounded up her brood as well. They all bid each other goodbye and best wishes and then Wraith and Whisper headed back towards the cabin. Harry had suddenly become aware that his stomach was grumbling and together father and son went inside to make lunch. Both were very pleased with the progress Harry had made so far, after all practice makes perfect.


 



Chapter End Notes:


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Next: Harry makes a shocking discovery
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