"Harry needs new friends," Severus declared as he dropped down into a chair. "The ones he has right now are making him far too inquisitive."

"Is this about the newspaper articles about us? I told you that I've already discussed the matter with them. They don't publish anything else — Brian or your...youth — and I won't ensure that they all regret ever stepping within ten feet of their office."

Albus' tone was fairly cheerful as he explained the 'friendly advice' he had given to the newspaper. The more that he thought about it, the more Severus berated himself for not anticipating something like this occurring. The press were vultures after all, and, despite the time that had passed, they were still trying to milk the situation for all that it was worth. The potions master actually wished that Fudge would muck something up to give them something new to talk about, but the Minister had never done something that Severus approved of before, and things had not changed in this regard. He was tired of it; the harassment, the rumours, the fact that students (and a few of the staff) still stared at him when he showed up at the school, the fact that Harry – though much improved – occasionally experienced nightmares that left him clingier than usual during the day.

"I know that. However, it does not change the fact that the boy now knows that I have a 'past' and that you had Brian. And with those brats he calls friends asking him about it, who do you think he's coming to for answers...?"

Albus shot him a sympathetic look. "Explaining Brian to him went okay," he said. "Admittedly, it was not a conversation I had planned to have with him anytime soon, but with the Prophet's article... It was easier than I expected though and he seemed to realise that it was not something I was comfortable discussing. He didn't ask many questions and the child actually hugged me and said I would be okay."

Despite himself, Severus snorted in amusement. The child would never change, he thought fondly, briefly looking toward the window, even though, where he was seated, it was impossible to see him walking about the grounds with Fawkes.

"There's a big difference between saying you once had a son, and explaining that I was once part of the most nefarious organisations in the Wizarding World..."

Albus chuckled dryly. "Do you think I told him everything? The child knows I had a son who died young. I cannot begin to explain to a twelve year old about negligence. That is a story for years down the line, and only if he asks again. Bless the child, but I rather him keep his...good image of me, and I suggest you do the same. If you must tell him, spare him the...coarse truth. Thankfully the articles didn't go into much detail. I think they had that much fear of repercussions from me...so just tell the child what you feel is appropriate. But you are right; he is growing inquisitive."

"Which he would not be minus the friends."

"If I recall correctly, near the start of second year, you were coaching him on how to make friends..."

"What an idiot I was."

"Come now, Severus. I just told the lad that he could have his friends – especially Mr. Longbottom - over sometime during the holiday."

"Your words were 'anytime they want to come', old man. Birthday parties, trips to Diagon and sleepovers were also mentioned. And don't think I did not hear you discussing with Augusta the possibility of carrying Longbottom along with us to the coast."

"Harry needs more interaction than we can give him, Severus. Were the situation different, Harry and Neville would have been childhood friends and would have grown up together anyway. They've formed a friendship now, and extended it to several others. I'm still waiting for the Hufflepuff that will make their little unity group complete. Besides, I don't think you're grumbling about having more than one child underfoot as much as the fact that you will have to share the time with Harry. Don't think I don't know how much you enjoy those little laboratory sessions or 'vocabulary' lessons with him."

"I do not deny that," Severus admitted with a soft smile.

The men sat in comfortable silence after that for a few minutes before Severus asked, "What do you think will happen to Thorne?"

"Well, his trial is set for Monday," Albus said. "It's a pretty clear cut case given the circumstances. The only thing I am uncertain about is the length of his sentence. I've reclused myself from the case for obvious reasons, but I know that St. Clair's father went ahead and pressed charges against him as well. That alone guarantees him at least one year. Added to the fact the kidnapping, assault and use of illegal cases...I hope he enjoyed his time away from the Dementors, because I see him being back in their presence for a considerable length of time."

"And me?" Severus inquired, a hint of terseness creeping into his voice.

Albus sighed before shooting a scolding look toward the potions master. "Really, and you call the students dunderheads. Severus, I've already told you that you've been cleared of any wrong doing in the matter by the Ministry. Your actions were all done in the defence of yourself and Harry, plus you kept your magic on the light side of things. I really don't know why you won't relax about the matter."

"It's hard to relax, old man, when you have a letter from the Ministry stating that your case is being reviewed."

"Nothing negative will come of it, Severus. I suspect they're just going to update your character report and other such miscellaneous things. Now, I refuse to discuss this matter again. I'm going to go start on tea. You and Harry haven't visited the greenhouses in a while, so why don't you go do that with him. I'll call you all in when I'm done."

Albus did not give him much room for response; already on his feet and halfway across the room mid-speech. Severus did not respond as he watched him leave the room. As the man himself had admitted a bit earlier, he was quite adept in skimming the surface of important issues. Somehow Severus knew that there was more to his words than he was letting on. Perhaps he truly did have a reason to be concerned.

Despite the old man's constant reassurances to him over the past few days, Severus could not help but swallow nervously as he stood outside of the room that would decide his fate. He had hoped never to be in this place again, the very courtroom where, all those years before, he had stood, an Azkaban-weary shell of himself, as he had listened to what he had assumed would be a life sentence if he had been lucky, or at worst, a Dementor's kiss. Standing there, building the courage to enter the room, Severus could not help but relive the emotions he had felt on that day – the fear, remorse, sadness and sense of betrayal had all coalesced within him, until, despite the profound hunger and weariness he had felt, he had put on his stony, antagonistic front that had served him well from that day onward. In retrospect, it really had not helped his case with the Wizengamont, but it was not like he had known what the old man had planned to do. Perhaps then he would have tried to appear in a more positive light to them? But then again, Albus' alternative to life in Azkaban had seemed even worse than a Kiss to him at the time.

Severus pulled himself away from those memories as the wide doors before him clicked open. It was time to face his fate. His hands twitched as he took a hesitant step forward before chiding himself, he squared his shoulders. He had endured so much, overcoming everything that life had thrown his way thus far. He was not about to let this newest hurdle detract from what he had made for himself since his first appearance in this place. If he had to go back to the filth that was Azkaban, so be it. But no one would say that he had reacted in a cowardly way.

His entrance into the room was almost anti-climatic. Before him was not the entire council he had faced the first time, staring at him with judging eyes. There was only one woman in the room – Amelia Bones – and she was not even seated in the stands as was customary for persons presiding over a case. She was at a smaller table before the area, a few papers scattered on the table before her. The doors closed automatically, and, even as he approached at her wave, he noted that there weren't any guards or the like. It was simply him and her in the room. He relaxed slightly. Perhaps the old man really had been right and he had nothing to fear from this at all.

The pleasantries passed quickly enough, and if he answered a bit more gruffly than was strictly necessary, the woman paid no heed to the matter.

She wasted no time in getting to the point of their meeting. "You may be wondering why I of all people am here to meet you, and not, as I suspect, the entire Wizengamont."

"The thought has crossed my mind," he responded dryly.

She gave the barest hint of a smile at that. "I suppose the letter was rather...strongly worded given the circumstances. However, our meeting here today is rather a formality in a sense, and had the issue of impartiality not been involved, Albus could have done in a more private setting. As the letter stated, this meeting is as a result of recent events involving yourself and one Harry Potter."

Severus nodded, his respect for the woman increasing slightly as she addressed the child by name rather than the blasted title that the media had been bandying about more than ever since the incident had come to light.

"Now, according to the original terms of your...agreement with the courts, you are due to remain in Albus Dumbledore's care until the year 1998 barring unforeseen circumstances. Chief among these includes the untimely death of your caretaker, but more importantly, your failure to comply with the tenants of your agreement."

"Of which I broke several," Severus said, as she paused for breath, slightly surprised that he managed to keep a tremor out of his voice.

"Just a few," she amended. "Chief Warlock Dumbledore has attested that until this incident, you have, to the best of your ability, complied with the stipulated agreements. I am not sure if you were aware of the fact, but you have been tested at random intervals for the usage of the dark arts."

Severus had known that being a Death Eater meant that he had had to learn ways to escape detection at a time when the ministry was trying its best (but mostly failing) to detect those participating in the dark arts. Obviously, no matter how subtle the old man had been about it, he had detected the telltale trace of magic that accompanied the scan. He also knew that those scans had stopped after his first three years living with Albus and that all of those 'secret' tests had ceased not too long after that.

The potions master tuned back in to the woman's words once she finished speaking of all the tests he had passed. That was scarcely an issue for him.

"And even in the face of such a situation," she continued, "not a single dark spell was cast from your wand although I must admit some of them fell quite close to the border line. While officially, it may be a cause for concern, in my own personal capacity, I found your actions perfectly acceptable given the nature of the magic being directed toward you. As much as I hate admitting it, purely light magic cannot combat all of the dark arts. This issue was chief among your infractions; however, as I mentioned, all circumstances considered, you cannot be faulted for any of the actions you took on the day in question. Far from it, based on the circumstances, the council found a review of your case necessary.

"Over the past few weeks, interviews have been held, not only with your keeper, but also with several persons who you have had frequent interactions with. Although I am not at liberty to divulge who those individuals are, their reports of you have been quite positive. All have noted a vast improvement in your overall behaviour and beliefs, and, you have handled your positions of authority quite well. Your caretaker's comments about you have been quite enthusiastic as well, and although he does note that he believes that you still have some progress left to be made, you are in an excellent position at the moment, which made this decision quite simple for all those involved. Effective immediately, your contract with the Wizengamont is, in its entirety, terminated."

Now that was certainly not something Severus had expected to hear.

But, given the fact that Albus was standing there when he finally left the room, he realised that he had known that this would be the result the entire time. Albus had yet to notice his presence in the room, and Severus used the time to simply observe him, gauging his own reactions to the person standing before him. It was strange, so strange, to realise that his relationship with the headmaster was essentially severed. That court issued mandate had been what had brought them together in the first place, and was the only thing that had ensured that he had not walked away from Albus and everything associated with him on more than one occasion. And now, the document in his hand was proof enough that, after this last encounter, he did not have to see the man ever again if he did not want to. The thought of that, strangely enough, rang quite hollow to him, and, as Albus looked at him, a new sense of unease filled the potions master. In his mind, he had always envisioned himself as being the one to walk away from the headmaster with nary a word. But, was it quite possible that it was the reverse that would end up being the case?

"That took you long enough, Severus," Albus said as he turned toward him. "I trust everything went well?"

The underlying emotion in his eyes was alien to him. He had seen the old man in every possible mood, and yet, the torrent of emotions swirling in his blue gaze was unnerving. He could not pinpoint one solid feeling from which to gauge Albus' intentions in these final moments, and so, reflexively, his defences rose and his words were slightly clipped when he spoke.

"Did you have any doubt that it would not turn out well?"

"Of course not, Severus. It's as I've been telling you for a while now. You had nothing to fear, but then again, you aren't known for taking my words to heart. I suppose you're wondering why I am here?"

"That and where Harry is."

"I dropped the lad off at Hogwarts with Filius. I thought it would be better to have him...away from this situation."

So this was a situation then, Severus thought, while watching as Albus reached into his robes before removing a thick envelope. He arched an eyebrow when the man held it out to him. "And this is?"

"Something that belongs to you," Albus responded.

The rather cryptic words did little to alleviate Severus' reservations; nevertheless, he opened the envelope. However, noting how many documents were inside it, he said, "will you just tell me what this is, or will you summon a tea tray while I wade through this?"


"Because I am assuming you'd like to leave the Ministry sometime today, but if you rather not..."

"The first is the account information to your Gringott's account," Albus interrupted. "You'll also find your key in there. The second outlines your tenure at Hogwarts and contains three letters of recommendation, from myself, Filius and Pomona. With it, you should be able to find employment in another institution if you choose to follow that route. There are some other lesser documents in there, but the yellow parchment should be of high interest to you. That one is a deed."

"I told you to destroy Spinner's End."

"And I decided it would be more profitable to sell it. The revenue from it is in your vault. That deed though is my parting gift to you. It's for old Amos' place in Diagon Alley. I bought it from him a few years ago. I'm glad now that I did not wait to do so as I had originally planned. It seemed like the perfect spot for you. It's in the heart of the alley, you'd have easy access to the local manufacturers and the building is large enough for you to recreate your personal potion laboratory there. I also made some tentative agreements with several potion dealers for you, but you'll have to actually sign off on them yourself. This meeting with Amelia happened a lot later than expected, and, although it may have caused you some grief, I must admit that I am gladdened by that fact. I'd have had to ask you otherwise to retain your posts at Hogwarts for a few weeks longer, but now, seeing that we are already into the vacation period, I suppose that I can handle the workload myself until we can find a new potions master and decide upon a new deputy headmaster. Did I ever thank you for your efforts in that respect? You did a wonderful job, Severus.

"Now, I was hoping that you'd be willing to keep in contact with Harry in the future at the very least. Of course, you no longer have any real obligation to do so, but, Severus, you do know how much the lad looks up to you and it would crush him if you suddenly walked out of his life. This is the very thing he protested against, I know. Despite our conversation we or rather I did keep this rather important news from him. But really, there was no good time for me to tell the child that you would no longer be living with us. I'm hoping to make the transition as smooth as possible for him, but he does love you, Severus, and I'm hoping that you will take that into consideration. And well, you know you can always contact me if there is anything you need.

"These past few years, Severus...they have not been easy. But never once have I regretted the decision I made, and I hope that at least part of the experience was good for you as well. I won't press you much further...I'm certain you're looking forward to getting to the House to start your packing. You need not worry about accommodations, there are living quarters at the Apothecary and the wards to the place have already been reverted to you. You need only ask for Misty or any other elf to help you with your packing at Hogwarts if you need to, and if you desire, feel free to take one of them with you as your own. There are quite a few of them who are fond of you and will come if you ask.

"Well, I suppose that is all I have to say, Severus. I hope you take good care of yourself, and perhaps, just maybe, we will cross paths again."

And, before Severus could truly process all of the man's words, Albus had vacated the corridor. The potions master let him leave, too engrossed in trying to work out all of the details of the longwinded speech to actually care about the man himself at the moment.

"He bought me an apothecary?" Severus finally whispered disbelievingly. Out of everything the headmaster could have done for him, Severus certainly had not expected, and was having a hard time accepting, the fact that the old man had tried to make his dream a reality. The foundation had been set, the connections made; all that was left for him to do now was actually do his part to make it a success... But did Albus really believe that he could walk away from him after he had done this for him?

There was more to it than that, like the fact that Albus had tried to, but mostly failed to keep that tormented expression out of his eyes as he had spoken to him. No doubt, the headmaster had thought that he was losing a next son, the same way that, upon seeing him standing there in the corridor, Severus had wondered if he was about to lose the one man who had come nearest to be a father to him. But he hadn't, instead he had given him one of the best gifts of his life, the opportunity to fulfil his greatest ambition, along with so much more, including a child of his own to care about. Severus chuckled dryly, wondering if Albus had really been serious with that little speech of his, or if it was just one of his elaborate ruses to make him admit his feelings once again. No, he decided, the pain in his gaze had been a bit too real for it to simply be that. Albus really had thought that, despite everything that they had gone through, he would be able to just pick up and leave.

"Stupid old coot," he grumbled, tucking the documents away into his robes. "Never lets me get a word in edge wise and then leaves me no way of tracking him. Well, I have better things to do than wander around and find him. He's bound to show back up at the house...eventually."

It took Albus several hours to gather the courage to floo back to Cottage Manor. That time was spent wandering the halls of the Ministry aimlessly, and, after garnering several strange looks, walking the streets of Diagon Alley under his long-serving glamour. Not even the thought of Harry could draw him from his melancholy. The child would be safe with Filius, and he really was in no shape to pretend to be his normal jovial self with the lad, when all he wanted to do was wallow in self pity at the unfortunate hand fate had dealt him. Life really could be cruel and unfair. It had taken him and Severus so long to move beyond bare civility, and finally when they had reached a good place, the remainder of their forced time together had been severed. For all that they got along now, Albus knew that there was no way in hell Severus would stick around him any longer than necessary. Oh, he was certain that Severus now cared enough about them to be an (infrequent) visitor, if only for Harry, but still, after finally discovering just how good a family the three of them could be together, it was painful to even contemplate losing such a crucial part of their home. Of course he would have Harry, but without his eldest there, it would never be the same.

Eventually though, Albus knew he could not delay the inevitable. Four hours...four hours had passed since he had last set eyes on Severus. His potions master was quite efficient when the need arose. By now Severus had undoubtedly already packed and transported all of his belongings from Cottage House to his new home. There would be no-one there to greet him once he returned, only the obvious signs that Severus no longer lived there. A part of him wondered if he should fetch Harry first, so that the silence would not be as deafening, but then again, the child had yet to be told of this latest development, and he was not sure how to start explaining the sudden loss of a guardian to him. The mere thought of it left Albus feeling bone weary, and so, with a slouch to his countenance that did not match his youthful expression, he entered the floo, not even acknowledging the greeting Tom directed his way.

Stepping into his living room, Albus cancelled the glamour on himself before removing his robes, moving robotically through the room. He'd go to his office first and send a message to Filius asking him to keep Harry for a few hours more. And then he'd ask Mitsy to discretely ensure that Severus had safely arrived to his new abode. And then he would collect Harry and they would have dinner together while he explained...what was that sound? Albus froze as he heard a dull clanking sound from beyond the room before his expression fell further. Even after so many hours, Severus was still here? Did the man plan to torture him, make him actually watch him walk through the floo and out of his life? He had not expected his boy to be so cruel to him...except, he mentally amended as he heard a next sound, the noise was not coming from upstairs – it was coming from the kitchen, as was the delicious smell that was now registering to him.

Almost disbelievingly, Albus headed toward the kitchen area, firmly stamping down the hope that was trying to build up within him. After all, it could just be his imagination playing a trick on him, or Filius could have gotten tired of waiting for him, had brought his charge back here and was now cooking with Harry. Hell, it could even be Mitsy preparing their dinner here rather than simply transporting food over from the kitchen at Hogwarts. But despite these rational thoughts, Albus still found his breath hitching as he turned the corner into the kitchen, instinctively holding his breath while bracing for disappointment...only to find his hopes justifiable. For, carefully dicing something by the counter stood Severus, his expression one of full concentration. Albus did not know how long he stood there, just staring at the sight before him, afraid to blink, far less breathe - lest it turn out to be nothing but an extremely realistic mirage. The spell was broken though when Severus half-turned toward him, saying in that scathing tone that never failed to amuse him, "I'd never thought I'd live to see the day when you're speechless old man. I'd prefer some advanced notice next time so I can capture the moment. I doubt anyone save Harry will believe me."

Albus was quite certain the man's words had been laced with at least three insults directed toward him, but it mattered not. All he could focus on was the fact that, standing in front of him, in his casual home clothes, was the very man he had never expected to see within these four walls again.

"Is that what you've been doing the entire afternoon?" Severus asked, as he turned back. "Wallowing around in self pity? It's your own fault. Had you stuck around rather than giving that speech I would have saved you enough angst. But it's always a flair of drama with you, isn't it? It has been this way from the start. It's never been good enough for you to just say what you have to say and then listen. No, you always have to make things so much more complicated than they need be for all those involved. I had half the mind to really disappear you know, for a day or two anyway just to teach you a lesson, but then I decided Fawkes and Harry didn't deserve to be saddled down with you in such a state. So be grateful to them; otherwise I would have let you wallow in your fate."

"Stay out of my mind," was the only thing Albus could think to reply, even as he cringed at the fact that Severus had been able to glean so much from his mind.

"That's my line," he deadpanned, a lilt of amusement obvious in his tone. "Besides, you're broadcasting your thoughts for all to hear. It's not my fault I chose to listen."

"And that is what I usually say."

Severus actually laughed at that, setting the knife aside before turning to look at the headmaster. "It seems like we've reversed positions today," he said, folding his arms loosely across his chest. "Who'd have thought there'd be a day when you would run away from me like that? Silly old man..." he said with the barest hint of fondness to his tone. "Will you listen to me now, or would you prefer to wander around Hogwarts for a few hours first?"

"Don't be mean," he sniffed, falling with only minimal discomfort into the rapport they had been sharing for years now. The familiarity of it was reassuring, and with it, a lot of his fear dissipated. Surely Severus was not planning to leave after this. He just could not.

"I'm not leaving you old coot," the potions master told him bluntly. "Don't get me wrong now, a year ago I would have been out of the door before you finished that little speech of yours earlier, and trust me, a part of me, at that moment, seriously considered it. These past years have been far from easy...more than once I've thought of it as my own personal hell on earth and with this chance to just...get out of it so many years early, hell yes I considered it. But then I also remembered and considered what we have all been through recently, and what you've been trying to do for me all along. Things have been far from perfect, Albus, even now we still have things we must work through, but I give credit where credit is due, and for all the times that I wanted to send you to hell in a hand basket, the number of times that I now acknowledge that you helped me, equal if not surpass those bad moments. Living with you, working for you, it's no longer the turbulent task it was now – I actually enjoy it. There's no way in hell though I'm going to remain Hogwarts' Deputy and remain the sole potions master once I decide to open my Apothecary, but that's not an immediate concern.

"Besides, there is Harry to consider. It's a weird family relationship we have going on here. You consider Harry and me to be your sons. But I don't see Harry as a brother, and he's been interchanging 'uncle' and 'dad' for me this past week and 'papa' or 'grandpa' with you since the week before. There is no way in hell I am going to walk out of his life now that I am so fully involved in it. More than that, someone has to save him from a lemon drop addiction. And as for you, how can I expect you to survive on your own when you nearly fell apart at the thought of me leaving? You need me as much as Harry and I need you, if only to give you a kick whenever you're falling to the wayside. I'm not going to walk away from you, no matter how much you annoy me, because, and I will hex you if you repeat this, we're family, old man, and families – real families – take care of their own. It's what you've been trying to do with me for years, and now with Harry, and it's time that the favour's returned. Someone needs to protect you from yourself, and I think I'm just right for the job.

"I'm done talking, Albus, and don't you ever expect me to be so...open again. It's quite exhausting. So it would please me very much if you get that sentimental gleam out of your mind and...you're going to want a hug, aren't you? " he finished exasperatedly, as he saw the affectionate look on the old man's face.

Albus looked like a child in a sweet shop who had been given free licence to purchase any and everything. And, for all that Severus strove to keep an aloft, if not slightly annoyed expression on his face, a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth as Albus approached him. "Speak of this and I will hex you," he warned, even as he suffered through the man wrapping his arms tightly about him in a hug. And if he happened to return it, it was not out of a mutual need for comfort. It was simply because he knew that the old man would not relent without the affection returned.

"Are you...hugging?" A disbelieving voice said from the doorway, causing the two men to quickly pull apart.

Severus was the first to answer, his voice slightly gruffer than normal as he tried to hide his embarrassment. "I believe I told you once child that I do not hug people."

"I know," he responded, still eyeing him curiously, as was the phoenix cupped in his hands, "but that doesn't change my question."

"Albus is being particularly sentimental and since I'm not in the mood to hex him, I figured that submitting to this would be a safer option."

"Why are you here, Harry?" Albus asked next, effectively distracting the twelve year old from further questions.

"And more importantly, why are you not taking that nap I sent you up to have?"

"I woke up," he said to the potions master before turning to Albus. "Uncle Severus picked me up a few hours ago. I wanted to help him with dinner but he wouldn't let me...although it doesn't seem like you've gone very far."

"I took a nap as well," Severus replied, although the glibness in his tone made it clear enough that he was telling a half-truth. Albus did not doubt that his eldest had spent the majority of the time trying to track him down before eventually deciding that he would come back here.

"So does that mean I get to help cook now Grandpa Albus?"

"Actually," Albus interrupted. "I was thinking that we could go out for dinner tonight. Rosmerta will love to have us there, and we have many things to celebrate."

"The man going to jail?"

"Well that as well," Albus agreed, "although there is also the fact that you got mostly Os this term, and the fact that Severus has finally discovered something called humour and let's not forget the fact that he's finally admitted that he lo-"

"You do realise, old man," Severus cut in, a deadly gleam in his gaze, "that I can freely hex you now...without the risk of any consequence? I suggest you keep that in mind before you talk."

"Always with the threats. Harry, this summer you have to teach Severus about being as sweet and endearing as you. It's integral now more than ever. I mean, it's not just us who have to put up with you. How on earth do you expect to woo Astoria if you perpetually act dour and grumpy. Harry needs a woman in his life, and while I'd love to assist I'm a bit past my prime and...Severus!" he ended with a yell, barely dodging the bright yellow light the potions master shot toward him.

Harry wisely backed out of the kitchen as he caught sight of the gleam in the potions master's eyes. He was not entirely certain what had changed. He was quite accustomed to threats flying between the two, but now, watching the headmaster shriek and actually run away from the younger wizard, Harry knew that his guardian was in for a few uncomfortable minutes or however long it took for those elephant ears he now sprouted to disappear...and Harry was not quite certain that that particular shade of blue that the headmaster now sported blended properly with the sickly green colour that Professor Snape had now turned his beard. Nevertheless, as the tide slowly turned, with his guardian deciding to return the favour, Harry could only transfer Fawkes to one hand, while clutching his middle with the other as he laughed uproariously at the sight before him.

His laughter was enough to distract the men from each other, and, after sharing a mischievous look, Harry could only squeal between bales of laughter as the men headed toward him, causing him to shriek and laugh even as he ran away from them as fast as possible, Fawkes chirping encouragement the entire way. Harry had never expected his life to change in this way when his Hogwarts letter had arrived nearly two years ago. He had never expected to find a life outside of his near-servitude, a life that had introduced him to joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, the magical and the mundane, but most importantly, friendship, love and family. All of these things had moulded him, shaped him into the not-quite- as- shy, sometimes courageous but always caring individual he was today. And it would continue to shape him and those closest to him as they navigated through the ups and downs of life, trying to find a place in an ever changing world that was defined by their own desires and not the ones of other people. It would not be an easy task, but, with the men now rough-housing with him by his side, Harry would be fine – they would all be, because, no matter what came their way in the times to come, they would always have each other to lean and rely on.

Thank you for reading.