AN: Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since I last updated. Deepest apologies, I know this is a popular one.
My brain has been working at this recently, and I actually changed my mind over who the perpetrator is, so, um, if you think you spotted any clues before now, forget them. Also, this plot's become more angsty as I've developed it, although there will always be humour; I'll make sure to keep as much light-hearted as possible.
Chapter Five: The Bath
"Well? Any leads?"
Hermione groaned. "Harry, this is the ninth time you've asked me. Have some patience, for goodness' sake."
"Sorry," he muttered. "I just want things to go back to normal as soon as possible."
"Well, you'd best prepare yourself," Hermione snapped, "because it may take some time."
Harry sighed. The teachers had been de-aged for a week. Some of the lessons were being taught by older students, the Hospital Wing was being manned by the grade-O Healing students, and the DA were babysitting, while Harry was organising it all. Hermione was trying to find a way to reverse the mushrooms' effect.
"Didn't the twins have any advice?"
Hermione blinked at him. "What?"
"Ron said you went to speak to them, can they help?"
"Oh. No, nothing useful on their part." Hermione muttered something indistinguishable and went back to her book. Harry glanced at the cover. De-aging and Re-aging Effectively Without Side-effects.
Perhaps it was best to leave Hermione to it.
"By the way, Harry," she said before he could leave the room, "you remember you're on bedtime duty for the boys tonight, right?"
"Bedtime duty?" That didn't sound so bad, Harry thought. They would all be tired, and wouldn't act up as much.
"Yes." Hermione closed her book. "Have you read any of my books yet?"
"You mean the parenting ones?"
She glared at him. "Well, you might find them useful. They key thing to remember is that kids need boundaries – got it?"
"Yes, got it."
"Good luck," Seamus said to Harry as he passed the boys over to him.
"What do you mean?"
"You'll need it. They all need baths – I did it Tuesday, I'll give you some tips."
"Please," Harry said, dread sinking in.
"First, you'd better do them two at a time, or it'll take forever. Second, once they're in the bathroom, lock the door so they can't run out again. Third, don't put bubble bath in with Hagrid, he drinks the water and it made him sick. Fourth, they seriously act up. Albus is the worst. I had to Stun him before I could get him in. Hermione went up the wall, though, so I wouldn't recommend using magic."
"Hold on, let me write this down!"
"It took me over an hour to get them all bathed," Seamus said, while Harry scribbled it all down. "Start early or they'll be falling asleep in the water."
Albus' eyes grew wide and he shook his head violently. "I don't want a bath!"
"No bath!" Argus cried.
Harry sighed. He had a feeling this was going to be hard.
"I'm not arguing. Severus, Albus, you two can go first."
Severus nodded but Albus said defiantly "No! I don't need a bath!"
"Yes you do."
"I'm not dirty!"
Harry put his hand in the blue paint and wiped it over Albus' face, neck and hair. "Now you are."
"I don't care! No bath!"
"Albus," Harry said firmly, "You're the oldest and you should be setting an example. If you don't get in that bath I will put you in it with your clothes still on, understand?"
The other boys snickered.
Harry picked Albus up round the middle, ignoring the screams and little fists on his back and carried him into the bathroom, pausing only to tell Hagrid, Argus and Alastor to behave while he was gone and for Severus to follow him. Albus continued to tantrum all the way across the room. Harry dumped him unceremoniously on the bathroom floor and quickly shut the door to stop him escaping once the three of them were inside.
Albus was sulking now. "I don't want a bath."
"I heard you the first time." Harry thought if he wasn't amused he would be very annoyed at the boy's stubbornness.
"You can't make me have one."
"Oh yes I can."
"Albus, I'm older, bigger and stronger than you. I can."
A pink tongue waved at him cheekily. Harry turned his fingers into scissors and pretended to cut it off. Albus quickly clapped his hands over his mouth.
"Are you going to get in the bath, Albus?"
"Okay." Harry released him and turned away. Albus blinked in surprise, but Harry continued to ignore him, beginning to strip off Severus' clothing.
"I'm not getting in the bath," Albus stated unsurely.
"I know," Harry said, pulling Severus' T-shirt over his head.
Albus frowned, stood up and tried to open the door. Harry had locked it. He tugged on it with no effect.
"There, all done." Albus turned. Severus was now stark naked, shivering by the bathtub. Harry turned around. "Now it's your turn, Albus."
Harry grabbed Albus around the waist and pulled off his T-shirt in one motion. Albus yelled and struggled, pinned to the floor with Harry's legs. Harry grimaced as he beat the floor with his fists and pulled off Albus' jeans. Within a longer time than it took to undress Severus, Albus was clothing-free and shivering too. Harry lifted him firmly, ignoring Albus' squeals, and tried to deposit him in the bath. All he got for his efforts were large splashes of water in his face.
"Now listen Albus," Harry set him firmly on the floor, gripping his shoulders to prevent him escaping, "You are going to have a bath whether you like it or not, and if you continue to fight it one or both of us will just get hurt and I'm sure you don't want that. So for your sake and mine can you please stop fighting me and do as you're told for once?"
He expected Albus to blow a raspberry in his face or make another desperate bid for freedom, but what actually happened was worse. Albus' face crumpled and tears welled in his eyes. Harry, surprised, allowed Albus to break free, and the boy grabbed the bath towel and curled up in a corner with it.
He pulled the towel over his head and said nothing.
"Albus?" Harry repeated.
"You're mean," a muffled voice replied.
"I'm not mean," Harry said, baffled at the reaction. He tried to gently tug the towel off his face but Albus wouldn't let it go.
"Yes you are, you big bully!"
Harry was shocked. Never before had he been called a bully, and especially not by a six-year-old child. He knew Albus was only saying it because he didn't want a bath but it still hurt. Harry had been properly bullied many times and never wanted to be associated with it.
"Albus," he said quietly, "I'm not a bully, I'm trying to help you."
Albus blew a raspberry. Severus laughed nervously, drawing Harry's attention back to him.
"Look at Severus, Albus, he's all ready like a good boy and you're stopping him from getting in. Look, he's cold. And the bath will be cold too if you fight any more." Harry waited, but he got no response. Sighing, he decided the best thing to do was ignore Albus for now and get Severus done.
"Sorry, kid," he muttered to Severus, picking him up. "I didn't mean to keep you waiting. Here you – Hey!"
The moment Severus' toes made contact with the water he began to scream, struggling so hard Harry nearly dropped him in the water. Harry quickly set him back on the floor.
Severus continued to scream, clutching Harry hard, shaking and not with cold; with apparent fear of the water. Harry groaned.
Albus' face emerged from the towel. "Bully!" he yelled at Harry.
Harry looked back and forth between the two boys. He wanted nothing more than to give up, put them in their pyjamas and give them something strong to knock them both out – belladonna sounded tempting – but he had a job to do and he remembered what Hermione said about boundaries. He gripped Severus firmly, holding him above the water, making soothing noises.
"Severus … it's all right, kid. It's only water, it can't hurt you."
Severus continued to struggle. "Can't breathe."
"Only if your head goes under, and I promise I won't let that happen, okay? Look, it's harmless." Harry dipped a hand in the water and stirred it around a bit. "See?"
Severus still looked doubtful but he'd stopped struggling. Harry lowered him gently until his feet were just touching the surface. Severus gasped, but Harry held him still, and after a moment or two Severus began swirling his toes around in the water, beginning to chuckle.
Harry slowly lowered the boy in and Severus didn't protest once, just scooped up a handful of bubbles, examined them curiously, then dumped them in his hair. Harry chuckled and turned to the other boy.
"Albus. It's your turn."
The boy glared fiercely at him, the effect of which was slightly ruined by the pouting lower lip.
"Look at Severus. He didn't want to have a bath either, and he was scared of the water, and now look at him! Good as gold." Harry smiled at Severus, who was busy fashioning himself a Dumbledore-style beard.
Albus scowled. "Goody-goody Severus."
"Albus!" Harry said sharply. "Apologise, now."
The boy simply glared back. Harry sighed and suddenly dove, catching Albus, who lashed out with his fists. One caught his nose and they both paused, shocked. Harry felt a warm trickle slide down his cheek and wiped it without looking at it. Albus looked suddenly afraid.
Harry took advantage of the momentary pause, took a firm hold of him, uttered a quick prayer, and dumped the struggling boy into the water.
Ten minutes later, during which Severus sat and watched silently, Albus had finally resigned himself to the bath. Both he and Harry were soaked through and Harry felt like he needed a large Firewhiskey. (Not that he knew what it was like, of course …) He could feel dried blood on his face but ignored it and picked up the soap. He expected Albus to start fighting back again, but to his surprise the boy just let him do it. Harry suspected he was too tired to continue defying and mentally tallied the points: Harry one, Albus zero.
As Harry finished reading the last page of The Dragon Who Couldn't Help Breathing Fire, he glanced at the boys and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of five boys sleeping soundly. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, feeling exhausted enough to fall asleep there and then.
A soft knock on the boys' bedroom door stopped him. "Come in," he whispered.
Hermione entered. "Are they asleep?"
Harry nodded, stood and joined her, closing the door quietly behind them.
"The girls went off about ten minutes ago," Hermione said. "I heard you talking so I didn't want to come in. How was the bathtime?"
Harry remained in stony silence, but his expression must have communicated clearly enough, because Hermione winced. "That bad, was it?"
"When we get the kids back to their proper age, I'm going to give Dumbledore a good piece of my mind," Harry said.
"I'm sure he'll take it well," Hermione replied. "He always does. What were the other boys like?"
"Severus had a phobia of water, Hagrid somehow got hold of the bubble bath bottle and thought it was milkshake, Argus broke the flag off the plastic boat and tried to ram it up his nose, and Alastor mistook the bath for a toilet."
"You let Hagrid at the bubble bath?"
"I'd put it on the window-sill, out of his reach! Then I turn to sort Argus out, and two seconds later he's got it in his grubby little hands. Don't ask me how he managed it."
Hermione sighed, shaking her head. "You know the saying. Boys will be boys."
"It's not a bloody excuse. What were the girls like?"
"I just told them that if they behaved like little angels, I'd let them take the dolls to bed with them."
Harry stared at her. "It was that easy?"
"Well, Peggy tried to insist upon having all the dolls, and there was a bit of a fight when it came to getting them into bed, but the actual bathtime went quite smoothly."
Harry shook his head. "That is so unfair. Is there some kind of personality-swapping spell we can do on them, so we can take turns with the bad ones?"
"What? Just a thought. Any breakthroughs on the antidote, by the way?"
Hermione gritted her teeth and glared at him. "I will tell you when I find something, you don't have to keep asking."
"Fine. I guess that means no progress on the lawyer front, either."
She looked taken aback at this. "What?"
"You said you'd look into it, remember?"
"Oh … yes." Hermione started twiddling with her fingers. "Um, Harry … I've been thinking …"
"About last month, you mean?"
"Yes. Er, I think that – well – this is going to be complex to sort out."
"I thought we knew that already?"
"Let me finish! I just mean – well -" Hermione took a deep breath. "Look, Harry, can we be honest with each other?"
Harry frowned at her. "Yes," he said slowly.
"There was – something – there. Something we hadn't noticed before. But have been since. Right?"
As she spoke, Harry's face grew inexplicably hot. "Um. Maybe."
"Well then, maybe it's just best to … see how things play out, rather than rush into anything." The last few words came out in a rush.
Harry stared at Hermione. She was one of his best friends, that she'd always been. It had never even occurred to him to consider her in any other way. But in the last few days …
She was right. Something had changed. Harry didn't know how to answer.
It seemed Hermione was wiser than him, because she cupped his cheek and kissed him.
"Well?" Voldemort hissed as Lucius Malfoy entered the circle, bowing low. "Has Draco found out where Severus has gone?"
"Indeed he has, my Lord," Lucius answered. "Very difficult is was for him, too. He had to use Veritaserum on Master Longbottom and then modify his memory. It was very difficult to get one of the members of Dumbledore's Army to drink anything he had to offer; they do not trust him. He had to – persuade – one of the house-elves to spike his pumpkin juice with it. Draco is not used to such tactics, my Lord."
"He will learn," Voldemort said with a dismissive gesture. "So, is Dumbledore keeping Severus too busy to respond to my calls, or is he genuinely ill?"
"Neither, my Lord." Lucius came close to licking his lips. "It seems Severus is unavoidably indisposed."
"And how, pray, is he indisposed?"
There was a pause. "My Lord, I ask of you, please remember that it was Draco who gathered this information for you."
"I asked you a question, Lucius!"
"Severus is de-aged, my Lord."
"De-aged?" Voldemort repeated.
"It means he's been regressed to childhood, my L -"
"I know what it means, you insolent worm!" Voldemort snapped. "Well, this was rather careless of Severus, wasn't it? Did he add the wrong ingredient to one of his potions?"
"No, my Lord – it seems to be a prank, most likely by one of the students. The organisation called Dumbledore's Army are trying to find a remedy."
"Why are they doing it?"
"Good question, Bellatrix," Voldemort said. "Well, Lucius?"
"My Lord, I – have yet to impart the best news."
"I grow tired of your delaying, Lucius! Out with it!"
"The whole staff were affected, my Lord. They've all been turned into children. Including …" Lucius paused. "Albus Dumbledore."
Voldemort remained silent for so long, his followers started to fidget. The glint in his red eyes was brighter than Christmas lights.
"It seems your son has excelled himself, Lucius," he finally said. "He will be rewarded."
"How so, my Lord?"
"He will let us into Hogwarts."