Chapter Two: The Final Stage

Six months was an awfully long time for a child to be shut away in the same few rooms in Hogwarts, but Harry seemed to be coping awfully well. Albus had sneaked him out for some fresh air whenever he could but didn't dare risk it too often. Finally he decided enough time had passed not to arouse suspicion and he and Minerva planned the final stage of the plan.

"Coochy coo," Sirius said, tickling Harry's feet and making him squeal. "Who's a big boy then?"

"Sirius?"

"Minerva?"

"Please don't do that. He's just had breakfast."

"Oh. Sorry, little Harrikins." Sirius flipped Harry over and plopped him on his lap. "Look, it's Kitty-Lady!"

"KITTY!" Harry yelled delightedly.

Minerva shook her head in amusement. Sirius seemed to be acting up more and more nowadays. She supposed it was his way of dealing with grief. Harry was a good distraction. Thank goodness Albus had been able to catch him before he ran off after Pettigrew. If Harry had ended up at the Dursleys', it would have been too late.

"Kitty is busy," she told Harry firmly. "Padfoot will play with you."

"Paddy?" Harry said, grinning up at his godfather. "Paddy go doggy!"

Sirius crawled on the floor and mock-growled at Harry, who put his hands over his eyes. While he couldn't see him, Sirius transformed. When Harry took his hands away he cried "BOO!" and burst into giggles.

"Woof!" Sirius agreed.

"How did that dog get in?" a new voice said curiously.

"Papa!" Harry cried joyfully, holding up his arms for a cuddle. Albus cheerfully obliged, swinging him around once before settling him in his arms. Harry grinned and snuggled into Albus' beard.

Sirius transformed back. "Albus! I was playing with Harry!"

"You're an Animagus, Sirius?" Albus looked mildly impressed, ignoring Sirius' comment.

"Since fifth year," Sirius said proudly, trying to take Harry back but the boy wriggled away from his hands and hid his face behind Albus' beard, blowing raspberries into it. "We did it for Remus." His face tightened as memories of Peter and James filled his mind. The atmosphere grew tenser and he turned away.

"Well," Albus said cheerfully, "speaking of Remus, have you heard from him yet about the plan? Either of you?"

Sirius looked at Minerva, who nodded. "This morning. We'll be ready to put it in place tomorrow."

"So soon!" Albus murmured, looking down at his charge, who was now engrossed in getting his beard well and truly wet and tangled. "What do you think, Harry? Ready to become an official Dumbledore?"

Harry's reply was to stick Albus' beard in his dribbling mouth.

It had been planned carefully. Remus and Albus were to meet with the Head of the Werewolf Division of the Department of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, supposedly about werewolf rights, but actually just a meeting set up for the purpose of having a witness to the Bad News Albus was to receive – a message that his non-existent daughter was dead and that he had to meet with her lawyer about Harrison Dumbledore's custody.

The lawyer (Minerva in disguise) would inform him that Harry's father couldn't be traced and that left Albus as his closest living relative to raise him. While this was going on, Harry would be in a magic-induced sleep so he couldn't ruin the whole thing by calling him "Papa" – Albus was supposed to have never met him before.

Then there would be the press conference where Albus would put out a fake search for Harry's non-existent father at the same time as introduce Harry Dumbledore to the world.

It was a hopefully watertight plan. The only way Albus could see it going wrong was if there was someone out there who fitted the criteria of Harry's "father" and interfered. If it came to it, Albus had a contact in France who fitted it that he could call on if things got complicated. Other than that, the details were sound. Harry's birthday had even been changed to two months previously, so no-one got suspicious of the "coincidental" birthdates.

Looking down at his now-sleeping pretend grandson, Albus sighed. Everything was so complicated. And it wouldn't get easier as Harry got older. At some point he would have to tell him who he really was and why the façade was necessary. It wasn't something he was looking forward to. Minerva had lined the bookcase in the nursery with photos of Lily and James (visible only by those Albus chose to let see them), so Harry would have a reminder of his real parents always. Albus thought it was a good idea. If he brought Harry up with the knowledge he was adopted rather than waiting to tell him straight, it would make the inevitable confrontation a lot easier for both of them to handle.

Harry smiled in his sleep, clutching his phoenix, and Albus smiled too. In such a short time he'd become so attached to the child, it was unnerving. Thinking about it, he supposed he was feeling the same sort of emotions he would be if the story was true: unprepared for the responsibility of raising a living being, secretly terrified at the thought of screwing up, but also loving the thought of having someone to care for; to love more than life itself; to become an important figure in their life. Albus had never settled down, only having had a couple of brief flings in his early years and never having given much thought for marriage, and although he knew he wanted children, had never got around to making it happen. He had to admit, it was a lonely existence.

But now he had Harry to care for.

"Happy birthday, Harry!"

The toddler stood still for a minute, blinking, before a grin broke out over his face and he rushed towards the table with the cake on it. Chuckling, Albus intercepted and hoisted him up onto his knee. Harry frowned and wriggled, trying to get at the chocolate cake with two candles.

"Looks like he's got your sweet tooth, Albus," Filius laughed, presenting the boy with a brightly-wrapped box. "I daresay my present will be a hit."

Minerva groaned audibly. Harry, spotting the box, stopped struggling and his face lit up, making everyone laugh. Albus kissed him on the forehead as Harry eagerly dug into the wrapping paper.

"Filius, don't you think he's a bit young for Ice Mice?" Minerva said worriedly once the gift was unwrapped.

"Don't fret Minerva, I'm sure Albus has given him worse! Who's next?"

As Harry was attacking the wrappings of what looked like a potted plant from Pomona, there was a knock on the door to Albus' rooms and an old woman with neat grey hair poked her head around.

"Sorry we're late," she apologised, but Albus, the ever-cheerful host, jumped up to free a seat for her.

"Not at all, not at all," he insisted, his eyes twinkling. "Wonderful to see you again, Augusta. And this must be Neville?"

A boy about Harry's age peered out from behind Augusta's robe skirt shyly. Harry looked up and grinned at him, and Neville smiled back.

Minerva gave Albus a questioning look as he took Augusta's cloak and hung it up. As he sat back down, this time on the floor next to Harry, he explained, "I thought Harry would like a playmate rather than being stuck with us boring old grown-ups all the time. What do you think, Harry?"

Harry and Neville were now standing a couple of feet apart, Neville eyeing Pomona's gift with curiosity and Harry eyeing Neville with curiosity.

"Hello," Harry said after a minute.

Neville looked up at him and smiled shyly. "Hello."

The adults in the room held their breath as the two seemed to consider each other. Finally, Neville spoke up again. "What's that?"

Harry looked down at the rubber plant. "A prethent. D'you want to thee it?"

Pomona knelt down between the two boys and showed them the toddler-sized watering-can, which was made of the same rubber as the pretend plant, and told them how they needed to fill the can with water and use it to feed the plant or it would droop. Albus chuckled to himself as the boys grew absorbed in re-filling the can and watching the plant as it perked up and drooped over and over again. What they boys didn't know was that Minerva was whispering "Aguamenti" over and over to save them trekking back and forth to the bathroom to fill the toy can.

"That was a really good present, Pomona," Albus thanked her. "Where did you get it?"

"The toy store in Diagon Alley. It said three years plus but I thought, Harry's a sensible child, he'll love it." She laughed. "Looks like I was right."

"Harry," Aberforth said to him after half an hour of the boys happily playing with Pomona's plant, "why don't you open the rest of your presents? That won't run away."

Rolanda had given him a toy Snitch, Severus a "useful box to put things in" that was made of dark wood, pattered with carved leaves and expanded inside to hold anything up to three times its size, Poppy a colouring book, Aberforth a set of crayons, Hagrid a jumper he knitted himself in Gryffindor colours, and Minerva a stuffed cat that looked just like her. Sirius and Remus both groaned when they saw the gift. Everyone laughed a few minutes later as Harry unwrapped a stuffed grey wolf and black dog that growled when he pressed its tummy. The first time Harry cried out in surprise and hid behind Albus, but Sirius gently coaxed him out and persuaded him it was only a pretend growl. Ten minutes later Harry had made "doggy" growl so many times Minerva was sure the charm would wear off.

Harry fetched his phoenix from his bedroom and he and Neville played happily with the animals together while the adults talked. Minerva was catching up with Aberforth, whom she hadn't seen in a while, but kept glancing over at Albus. He was happily engaged in a friendly conversation with Augusta Longbottom, who was laughing at his every second sentence. Minerva frowned and only half-heard what Aberforth was saying about his latest experiment, only nodding vaguely at his admission that he'd ended up being questioned by the Ministry for inappropriate use of magic. At this Poppy waved her hand in front of Minerva's face and she jerked out of her reverie, apologised for being rude, and glanced over at Harry and Neville. They were giggling madly as the phoenix was riding on the wolf's back, and when it fell off Harry made the cat kiss it better.

Weeks turned into months. Harry and Neville saw each other on a regular basis. So did Albus and Augusta. Minerva couldn't work out what irritated her about this arrangement. All four seemed perfectly happy, and Albus was only taking the time to catch up with an old friend. What was wrong with that?

Out of all his presents, Harry played the Snitch the most. It never flew out of his reach, but even if it had everyone was sure he could catch it anyway. He slept with all four stuffed animals crammed round him and the plant was kept on the nursery window-sill, and he and Neville played with it for hours when he came round. Harry had an irrepressible sweet tooth, which Minerva was positive Albus had brought on by treating him so much.

"Albus, he's going to end up spoiled rotten with a mouthful of fillings by the time he's Hogwarts age," she told him sternly one afternoon as she helped him wash up lunch plates before the Longbottoms arrived. "For goodness' sake, you have to give him some boundaries or he'll think he can get anything he wants."

"I know," Albus sighed, "it's just that look he gives me …"

"Albus. Please. All children make faces like that and you have to learn not to give in to them. You can start now."

"Now?"

Minerva pointed to the table, where Harry was happily sucking on his third chocolate-chip biscuit, the tin open in front of him. Albus didn't remember getting it down off the shelf for him. "Take the tin away and tell him he can't have any more."

"But -"

Minerva glared at Albus as he tried to protest and he dried up. "All right," he said in a very small voice. She turned back to the dishes and winced as Harry started to cry.

"Harry, give me the tin -" Albus said gently.

"No!"

"Harry -"

"No, want more!"

"Well … if you have one more, then -"

"Boundaries, Albus," Minerva said firmly as she heard him weakening. "No more biscuits, Harry. Do I have to do it myself?" She turned back to the table, but Albus seemed to have it under control now – the biscuit tin was in his arms out of Harry's reach and Harry was scowling.

"Thpoilthport," Harry sulked.

"Neville will be here soon," Minerva said. Harry black mood vanished and he scrambled off his seat and into the living-room. Minerva swept the soggy remains of the last biscuit into the bin.

"You need to do something about that lisp as well."

"Minerva, he's only two, he's allowed to have a lisp at this age; lots of children do."

The silence stretched awkwardly; Minerva decided not to press the matter, instead turning back to the dishes. She heard Albus draw closer and ignored him, concentrating on not chipping his china.

"Minerva?"

"What?"

"Are you all right? You've been acting … strange, lately."

"I'm fine, Albus."

"You don't have to do that, you know; it's my crockery."

"I know. You go and get ready for Augusta."

There was another pause. "Minerva, are you sure you're all right? … I haven't been treating you badly again, have I?" His voice sounded so sad and pathetic Minerva felt herself weakening again and sighed.

"I was just thinking … about you and … Augusta."

Albus sounded surprised as he said, "What about us?"

"Well … are you … just friends, or …" she trailed off.

Albus chuckled and stepped forward so he was beside Minerva and gently took one of the plates out of her hands. "Augusta and I are just friends, Minerva. I mean, good friends, but nothing more. That's … not to say I don't like her … I mean …" He coughed. "I don't have any current intentions to take our friendship further, and to my knowledge neither does she. Does that answer your question?"

Minerva, relieved but not really knowing why, said, "Yes. Good."

"Out of pure curiosity, why does it bother you?" Albus asked seriously.

"I … well …" Minerva cast around and settled on an answer. "I was thinking about Harry. He's already been through one traumatic change, I just hoped … well … he wouldn't have to go through another so soon after the first … I mean, if for example you were to get married."

Albus chuckled. "I wouldn't worry about that for now, my dear. Why don't you go back to your own rooms, or wait for Augusta and Neville with Harry, I can take care of these."

Minerva translated that to mean "Go away", and reluctantly left him to it. On her way out of the door, Albus called after her, seemingly jokingly, "You weren't asking because you were jealous or something, Minerva?"

She flushed but turned to face him. "No, Augusta's not my type." As Albus laughed and flicked her with the tea-towel, she added, "Don't flatter yourself, Albus; if I ever had a crush on you, it was when I was school-age and means absolutely nothing now." She smiled at him, winked and left the room, wondering if that was true, why Albus and Augusta's friendship bothered her so much …

TBC …