In Trade

There was still bread on the counter, leftover roast chicken in the icebox, and if he remembered right…yes. Anthony drew his wand, meaning to summon down the pot of the eye-wateringly hot mustard his wife had introduced him to from the top shelf, then stopped, every sense abruptly on an alert that he would have sworn he was too tired for.

His heart was pounding, echoing through the darkened house, and at first he saw nothing, but then his eyes fell lower, and the held breath turned to a chuckling sigh of relief. "Now, why are you still awake? It's after midnight."

Asabi hesitated a moment, but there was no real rebuke in his voice, and the little girl took a careful step into the kitchen. She was twisting the hem of her nightdress in her fists, showing her butterfly knickers, and his smile faded to concern as he saw the tracks of tears that shined in his wandlight, the puffy redness of her large, round eyes. A nightmare, then, but why hadn't she gone to Li?

He started to ask, but she spoke first, her words still tight with fear as they stumbled over her uncertain English. "Thought they come for you."

Anthony pushed the sandwich fixings aside, slipping his wand back into the holster at once and bracing a hand on the countertop so that he could lower himself to his knees. She took the invitation, dashing forward to bury her face against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her, stroking his fingers soothingly over the soft nap of her hair.

His daughter's monsters of the shadows should have been nothing more than the usual imaginary Boggarts of childhood, but he knew that it was still a blessing that they could give the girls a home where real nightmares could be met with real understanding. He held her tightly, letting her feel his solid, living presence until the fingers no longer bit so deeply into his shoulders, and only then did he lean back enough to look her in the eyes and give his explanations with no trace of pandering or dismissal. "I'm sorry, Asa, I'll make sure to send you a special Floo next time I have to stay late at work. I didn't mean to scare you."

She shook her head, her round face creasing into a somber warning as she wagged a finger at him. "Allah hate the bad magics, Abba. No be away house the night! Gonna find you make --" The frown deepened as she struggled for words, then her fist slashed against his chest, stabbing and hacking in the mirrored memory of a machete that illustrated her fears all too clearly.

"No." He took her hand, wrapping it in both of his. "Allah doesn't hate anyone, Asa." They had been over this before, but he knew it would take more than once – or twice, or ten times – to argue with love a case made in the chanting force of dozens. "Those were mean, angry people who were stupid and can't come here."

"Yes so they can!"

"I promise, Asa –"

"Got you legs and Mummy legs!" She twisted away from his grip, stamping her feet in a frenzied protest as her voice rose to a screech he was sure would wake both her sister and Li. "Deteeta! Deteeta like the knife mens!" Another set of chopping, slicing motions, this time at his knees, and now her look was as much challenge and accusation as distress.

Anthony froze, stunned. They had never talked about the war in front of the children! The girls had been told Li was just "different", something that had seemed easily accepted with her golden skin and almond eyes already so unlike anyone they had known in their Gambian village, and he didn't even know howthey would know he had…but this wasn't the time to worry about that. How Asabi knew didn't matter, how she had heard the term 'Death Eaters' didn't matter. All that mattered was that she had to know that there would be no machete mobs in North London, and he was fiercely grateful for the quick mind that had already been so often called upon in only eight months as a father.

"No, no, oh no! That's not what happened at all! No knife men! My…." He paused, trying to find a way to explain it all not only in a way a five year-old with fledgling language skills could understand, but that wouldn't make it all worse. Then the simple truth of it came to him, so pure and sudden that he gasped. Asabi made a face at the noise, but she didn't protest as he settled himself more securely on the floor, pulling her onto his lap. "I made a deal. Like when I say you can have two biscuits if you put your toys away."

The look she gave him was one of pure incredulity, although whether she doubted him or was merely marveling at the foolishness of grownups was uncertain. "Legs dumb trade biscuit, Abba."

"I didn't trade them for a biscuit." He couldn't help but chuckle, then took a deep breath and went on. "I…it was a long time ago, and I did a bad thing that made me get stuck."

Oh, she knew that word. Her eyes were near-perfect circles of white, her voice a fragile whisper. "Stuck…throw in well devil babies?"

"Worse than down the well," he replied solemly, making no effort to hide his own shiver at the memory. "Stuck so bad I thought I was going to die, and so I prayed and prayed and asked God to make me a deal. I was still a boy, and I wanted to grow up and have a family, and I said I would give anything to not die in the stuck."

Her dainty hand trailed down his trouser leg, toying with the cuff thoughtfully. "Deal take legs?"

Anthony nodded, pushing down his sock to let her touch the unnatural smoothness of the prosthesis for the first time. For a few seconds, he let her examine the hinged joint at the ankle, then carefully cupped her face, turning her attention back to him so that she could see the truth in his eyes. "Took my legs, but he gave me the two of you. I think I had a good trade, yes?" He kissed her cheek, then tickled her gently under the chin, making her squirm and giggle. "A whole pretty girl for each one!"

The smile fell away immediately, and she clapped her hands over the gnarled scar that nearly severed one dark ear, tucking her head down into his shoulder so that the protest was muffled in his robes. "No pretty."

"So pretty. See?" Anthony lifted her away from his shoulder, drawing his wand again and conjuring a mirror to hover in thin air. "One ear is small." He turned her head carefully, letting her see herself in three-quarter profile that hid the mangled ear even as he kissed it gently. "Ear isn't so bad, and so many other pretty things. Pretty eyes. Pretty nose. Pretty hair." His fingers wiggled at her ribs. "Pretty smile. Pretty Asabi. Mypretty Asabi."

There was a long, uncertain pause, then she turned back to look at him, biting her lip in a hope as delicate as a fairy's wing. "More pretty foot?"

Anthony smiled, and he knew that his laugh was nothing she could misunderstand even as he hugged her. "So much more pretty than a foot!"