A/N: This is another plot bunny that wouldn't leave me alone. I hope you enjoy this little glimpse at what makes Christmas special for Harry and Ginny... and other people as well. I look forward to responding to your comments.
My thanks go to my pre-betas, Mistress L_rigtar, Mutt n Feathers and especially RebeccRipple. Rebecca is a genius at coming up with titles (I didn't like my working title at all) and after just a few moments' thought, she came up with the one I've used for the story. I also want to thank my beta, Aggiebell, for finding the time to edit this story the week before Christmas.
The family Christmas tree stood in front of the sitting room window, aglow in fairy lights and twinkling with cherished ornaments. A merry fire burned in the fireplace. The family gathered around the room was large and consisted of several generations. At the moment, its patriarch, Conrad Stark, sat on a pouf surrounded by his ten grandchildren. He gazed at the children, wondering how on Earth he could be so lucky to be surrounded by such a large and loving family. The answer was simple: the most unlikely couple had walked into his life just when he had been wishing he could crawl into a hole and disappear for good, certain that no one would miss him if he did.
"Grandpa! Grandpa! Tell story!" his youngest granddaughter cried as she climbed into his lap.
Conrad looked down at her and gave her his most loving smile, for he could never tire of the warm feeling that welled up inside of him as he held one of his grandchildren.
"Certainly, Therese. Do you have a request?" he asked.
Therese shook her head.
"Then I'll tell you a very special story because Thurston should be getting his Hogwarts letter this year," he said, looking over at his third eldest grandson. "Am I correct?"
The boy beamed. "I turn eleven in May, Grandfather. Mum says she pities the teaching staff because of how mischievous I am."
Conrad laughed. "You're just like your father was at that age, Thurston, but I never imagined him growing up to become the manager of the Manchester branch of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes," he said with an amazed shake of his head. "No matter what, though, I know you'll do well at school." The boy grinned happily at the praise and Conrad let his gaze float back to Therese and the other children. "Now, how about that story?"
A general shout of "stor-y, stor-y, stor-y!" went up from the assembled children, eliciting quiet chuckles from Conrad's wife, Grandma Cecilia, their three sons and their wives. Cecilia cocked her head to one side, raising an enquiring eyebrow. Conrad nodded. He was going to tell that story, the one only she knew because it was such a cherished and personal memory for him.
"All right, children... how do most family stories start?" Conrad asked.
The children responded eagerly, all yelling their choices at once.
"Once upon a time?"
"It was a dark and stormy night?"
"In a deep, dark forest?"
"There once was a fairy?"
Conrad smiled and hugged Therese. "I choose your beginning," he told her. She giggled and snuggled closer to his shoulder as he hugged her to him. "Here goes... 'Once upon a time there was a boy named Conrad...'"
6 December 2003
Harry Potter stood at the back of the large room on the children's floor of St Mungo's Hospital watching his wife and the other Holyhead Harpies mingle with the young patients. The team had collected toys, books and clothes for the children, and having coerced one of the team's medi-wizards to play Father Christmas, had created this party, the likes of which many of the hospital's young residents had never participated in before.
For the most part, it looked as if every single one of the fifty children present was having a great time. Many of them were permanent residents of the hospital; their Death Eater-induced injuries having rendered them either too unstable mentally or too dependent on others for their daily care to live with their families. To Harry, it was a sad reminder—five years after the event—that the war against Voldemort had taken an enormous toll on the population of Wizarding Britain. The permanent residents moved about the party happily enough, but many of them still had the blank look he associated with shell-shocked adult Muggle soldiers.
As this was his third such visit to the hospital with Ginny and her team, Harry was also able to recognize which patients were at the party because they were recuperating from short-term maladies such as accidental magic, falls, and childhood illnesses. These children were the buoyant, bouncy participants who chattered happily with Ginny and the other Harpies, who vied noisily for their favourite player's attention, and who immediately donned the conjured party hats the players were currently handing out. Harry had mixed feelings about this group, mostly a sense of contentedness mixed with a bit of melancholy because, for whatever reason, the children wouldn't be at home celebrating the holiday with their families.
"Who wants to play a game?" Ginny now called to the assembled group.
Hands shot into the air with cries of "Meeeeee!" Harry chuckled as Gwenog pursed her lips and let out an ear-splitting whistle that he knew could be heard fifty feet in the air all the way across the Harpies' pitch.
"Listen up, you lot," Megan Jones said when the children were quiet. "Ginny has a Pin-the-Nose-on-the-Reindeer game for the six-and-unders, so you'll stay here. The rest of you will come with me and Claudia to the other side of the room. Let's go in an orderly manner, no running!"
There was a general scramble as the large group settled into the two smaller age groups and Harry took this as his cue to step forward and help his wife. The children greeted him curiously, for the most part.
"Hey! I remember you! You were here last year," piped up a tiny little girl whose neck was swathed in bandages. "You're Ginny Weasley's husband. You're nice!"
Harry smiled at the girl, a bubbly, happy feeling settling in his chest. He loved being identified as Ginny's husband. To him, it was the greatest feeling in the world, coming in a close second to feeling Ginny's love surround him when they were alone together.
He concentrated hard for a moment and then said, "It's really nice to see you again, Abigail. How old are you this year?"
"I turned six in October," Abigail replied.
"You're getting to be an old lady," Harry teased, smiling at her.
Abigail put her hands on her hips. "I am not. You're the one who's old," she teased right back.
"All right, you two," Ginny interrupted, "enough. I need you to be quiet so I can explain the game."
The group quietened down and Harry moved to one side so he would be ready to tie a blindfold onto the child at the head of his line. One of Ginny's fellow Chasers headed the other line and soon the children were squealing with laughter as their teammates stuck the noses onto the reindeer in all the wrong places. The teams played several times before Ginny introduced a new game.
During the lull between games, Harry scanned the room, watching the children in the other group interacting with Ginny's teammates. He recognized several of the children from previous parties, particularly an older boy who stood off to the side, watching the others play. Harry wondered briefly why the boy wasn't participating.
"Harry, we need you as a scribe," Ginny called, bringing his attention back to where it should be.
Smiling, Harry returned to her group and spent the next twenty minutes helping the children write letters until it was time for Father Christmas to make his appearance. As the children gathered around the present-toting visitor, Ginny came to stand next to Harry.
"Watching Tony play his part every year makes me feel so good," she commented. "He does his job so well and somehow knows all the children's names and which present they should receive."
"He may use a location spell of some sort," Harry said, "but however he does it, he does it well."
He watched as Tony approached a group of older children that included the boy he'd noticed earlier. To his consternation, when Tony extended a brightly wrapped package towards the boy, two of the other boys pushed him out of the way, grabbed the package and ran to the other side of the room. Tony demanded that they return the gift, his right hand hovering above the place his wand pocket should be; however, the boys laughed uproariously and turned their backs. Clearly dismayed, Tony immediately began patting at his costume, and when he didn't find what he wanted, began searching his bag; apparently, it was empty of both Tony's wand and a second present and Harry watched sadly as the boy shrugged and went to sit by himself.
The matron in charge of the children had by now cornered the two boys, but not before they had torn the wrapping off the package. She confiscated the box and rewrapped it with a flick of her wand, but the damage had been done and she didn't give it to the boy it belonged to. Harry was livid.
"Bullies!" he growled. "I can't stand them."
"Let's go see what we can find out about those three. Maybe we can help," Ginny suggested, looking around. Her teammates had moved on to passing out refreshments. "Blast! I need to go help. Why don't you take some biscuits and pumpkin juice to the boy?"
Harry kissed the top of Ginny's head, feeling a little less agitated. "That's a good idea, Ginny. When did you become so intuitive?"
"I have five big brothers, you know. They assigned the job of peacemaker to me on more than one occasion," she said sagely as she headed towards the refreshments.
"I should have known," Harry said with a chuckle.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on with the boy, Harry sought out the matron, who was still carrying the boy's package.
"I can take that to its recipient," Harry volunteered as he pointed to the box.
The matron shook her head. "Conrad won't accept it now," she said.
Puzzled, Harry asked, "Why not? It seems to be intact to me."
With a sigh, she explained, "The other boys will know that Conrad has something he likes and will probably try to break it so he can't play with it or they'll somehow find out where he keeps it and steal it from him."
"That's not fair!" Harry exclaimed, thinking of the many times Dudley had acted like that towards him. "Has someone ever tried putting anti-theft spells on Conrad's possessions?"
The matron shook her head. "We have tried such spells in the past, Mr Potter. Unfortunately, they aren't conducive to fostering friendships," she replied.
"Then how does Conrad keep his possessions safe?"
"He doesn't. He just lets the other children take everything he's given."
"Even his clothes?"
"Many of the other boys end up wearing them."
"Does he have any friends here?"
"None that I know of."
"Why? Every child should have friends."
"Conrad doesn't speak to people. None of the other children want to play with someone who doesn't talk to them. Oh, don't get me wrong, he's perfectly capable of producing vocalizations, but he chooses not to communicate or interact with anyone."
"Is it because the other boys take his things?"
"I understand." Harry had to glance away from the matron as troubling images of his own childhood began tumbling about in his mind. "How long has Conrad been here?" he asked tightly.
"Nearly six years, Mr Potter, more or less. He was initially brought here in 1997 because he watched his family being killed by Death Eaters who put him under the Cruciatus until he was unconscious. He recovered physically, but no matter what we did, we couldn't get him to tell us what he saw. As for placing him, we can't find anyone willing to take him for more than a week. In the last three years alone, he's gone home with five different families; the longest he's stayed with a new family was two weeks; most prospective parents give up trying to communicate with him. They all say he has a bad attitude."
"Why do you think he refuses to communicate with people?" Harry asked, shifting his stance to look deeply into the matron's eyes.
"The hospital staff has given up trying to find an answer. We've tried everything we can think of to get him to talk to us. Nothing works. We've finally decided that when he goes to Hogwarts in September we'll let the teachers at the school worry about what to do with him. Maybe a complete change of environment will be good for him," the matron shrugged.
"Will some of the other older children be getting their letters too?"
The matron looked away and pointed to several children, including the two bullies. "They'll all be first years in September."
"Then it seems I have my work cut out for me," Harry said, reaching for the package. "I'd like to try working with Conrad, if that's all right with you."
The matron handed over the package with a shrug. "Be my guest," she said, turning away. "I don't think you'll get too far."
"We'll see..." Harry muttered, scowling at her retreating back.
He tucked the present under his arm and headed for the refreshment table, then scanned the room for Conrad. He found the boy, who acted so much like himself at that age, slumped in a corner, seemingly trying to melt into the woodwork. Harry's heart bled for the boy and he vowed to make a difference to Conrad. It was time for something wonderful to happen to this child, just like it had him fourteen years ago.
After the incident with the present from the adult playing Father Christmas, Conrad had given up having even a modicum of fun at the party. Why had he even decided to come to this stupid party? It was useless to think Sam and Oggie would let him participate or receive the present from the bloke playing Father Christmas. He fought back the tears of frustrated rage that threatened to fall down his cheeks: the box had contained a small set of Lego bricks. He remembered playing with Legos at some of the homes he'd been sent to; they weren't a normal magical toy—at least one of the parents had to be Muggle to know about them—and he'd loved constructing things with them. Now, because Sam and Oggie knew what his gift from Father Christmas had been, he'd never see the set again because Matron seemed to think the easiest way to deal with the situation was to take the present away and never give it back.
With a sigh, Conrad scrubbed his hands across his face and settled in to wait in his customary corner for the party to be over. All he wanted at the moment was to go back to his bed, even if it meant putting up with Sam and Oggie's incessant pestering.
The rustle of robes folding into a puddle on the floor caught Conrad's attention, making him raise his head from where it rested on his knees. He looked up to see one of the wizards who had come with the team sitting in front of him. Beside him were two cups of pumpkin juice and a small plate of biscuits.
"Hi, Conrad. I'm Harry," the wizard said quietly.
Conrad just looked at the man and waited for the inevitable questions to start. Grown-ups were so predictable.
"I'm sorry you aren't enjoying the party," the man said. "My wife and I always have such a good time when we come here."
Before he could stop himself, Conrad asked, "What's good about it?"
The wizard cocked his head to one side as if considering the question. "I'm sitting here with you," he said.
The response to his question was so odd that Conrad stared into the man's eyes and was startled to be caught up in their emerald green depths. A second later, images of a small black-haired boy with a lightning bolt-shaped scar being bullied by several others flashed through his mind, followed by several glimpses of the same boy being hit and then shoved into a small space. Conrad felt sorry for the boy who was so much like him and when the images receded, he wanted to know more.
"Who?" he asked.
The man called Harry pointed to himself. "Me. A long time ago," he said softly.
"You?" Conrad asked, not believing the man and searching his forehead for the tell-tale scar.
"Me." A flick of the man's wand revealed a thin, white scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead. As Conrad felt his eyes widen, the concealment spell was replaced. "I got it when my parents were killed."
"You're... you're..." Conrad sputtered, finally putting the images, scar and stories he'd heard all together. "Him? Mr Potter?"
Mr Potter nodded. "Shall we keep it a secret between the two of us?" he asked conspiratorially.
Conrad nodded just a little. "Do the other kids know?"
"Who I am?" Mr Potter shook his head. "Probably not." He pointed to his glasses, which had rectangular frames. "These are the wrong shape and no one sees my scar any more."
"But you let me see it, Mr Potter," Conrad said, puzzled. "Why?"
"Because you needed to know who I am," Mr Potter answered. He picked up one of the glasses of pumpkin juice and took a sip. "Want some?"
Suddenly thirsty, Conrad nodded and held out his hand for the proffered second glass. The juice tasted good; normally he had to drink water because Sam and Oggie hogged the pitcher at mealtimes or snatched his glass if one of the healers-in-training managed to serve Conrad before he or she served the other boys. He couldn't help it as a small smile crept onto his face. "Thanks, Mr Potter," he whispered.
"You're welcome, Conrad. Biscuit? I know they're good because my wife made the chocolate ones," he said, pointing to several. He held out the plate.
Conrad stared at Mr Potter. He couldn't believe that he was allowed to choose what he wanted. Hesitantly, he extended his hand towards the plate, expecting it to be snatched out of reach. Instead, the plate stayed where it was until Conrad had made his selection and was happily munching on one of Mrs Potter's chocolate biscuits. Only then did Mr Potter set the plate between them and take a biscuit himself.
"These are really good!" Conrad exclaimed around a mouthful.
"Told you," Mr Potter said, smiling.
"Can I meet Mrs Potter? Is she here today?" he asked.
"Yes, and I think she would like to meet you. How about we finish eating and then build something with your present from Father Christmas? You can show her what you've made when I introduce you," Mr Potter suggested. He reached into his pocket and bought out a miniscule present. With a tap of his wand, he enlarged it and held it out to Conrad. "I believe this is yours."
Conrad sighed and looked at the floor. "I can't take it," he said, feeling disappointed.
Still looking at the floor, Conrad mumbled, "Sam and Oggie will steal it and say it's theirs. They'll beat me up if I try to get it back."
Mr Potter grinned at him and put the gift on the floor between them, next to the nearly empty biscuit plate. "Not if we charm your gift against theft," he said.
Conrad couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You'd... you'd do that for... me?" he asked, incredulous.
"I would. So how about you unwrap that gift and we get started. You're going to have to teach me how to use what's inside because I'm not an expert," Mr Potter said.
"All right," Conrad said hesitantly, still wary of what would happen if he dared to enjoy his gift. He glanced up at Mr Potter; the man's expression was expectant, so Conrad pulled the box towards himself and unwrapped the gift, glancing up frequently to see where Sam and Oggie were as well as keeping a cautious eye on Mr Potter. When the paper fell away and he held a small set of Lego bricks in his hand, only then did Conrad look down and allow himself to smile.
"No one's going to bother us, Conrad. Magic can do incredible things," Mr Potter said, holding up his wand with a sly smile on his face. "Shall we begin building?"
"Yes, please," Conrad said, already knowing what he wanted to build.
The next fifteen minutes were the most fun Conrad had had in ages. It felt good to show a grown-up how to do something and even better when they were finished and his house looked better than Mr Potter's car. But what was the most novel feeling of all happened when Mr Potter handed him the car, saying, "I believe this is yours, Conrad." This had never happened before and to actually get back what belonged to him was so overwhelming that a few silent tears slipped down his cheeks before he could stop them.
"Conrad, would you like to show Mrs Potter what we've made now?" Mr Potter asked, startling him.
"No." The word escaped before Conrad could stop it. If he showed someone what he had, it would disappear quicker than he could say Father Christmas.
"Not even if I charmed your Legos like I said I would?"
Conrad considered this. "How does the spell work?" he asked finally.
"If someone takes what doesn't belong to them, the object will stick to them until they give it back, even if it's in pieces," Mr Potter said.
Hmmmm. Pieces sounded better than not getting the Legos back at all. He could always rebuild the broken object. "I like that idea," he said. "What do I have to do?"
"Put everything in a pile so I can cast my spell. Then, we'll take just our creations to show Mrs Potter and the other Harpies. If someone takes your things without asking, what they took will stick to their fingers until they give it back to you."
Conrad smiled and quickly made a pile on the box of both the left-over loose bricks and the house and car. Then, he stepped back and watched as Mr Potter's spell made the air shimmer around the pile.
"May I pick up my car?" Mr Potter asked.
"Yes, sir," Conrad replied and watched in fascination as Mr Potter easily transferred his car from one hand to another.
Moments later, they found Mrs Potter talking to the matron and another uniformed Harpy.
"Ginny, I'd like you to meet Conrad," Mr Potter said. "We've been busy with his gift from Father Christmas. Would you like to see what we've made?"
Mrs Potter leaned close and asked quietly, "May I hold your house, Conrad? I promise to give it back."
Conrad held out his house, hoping she would give it back in a few moments and watching as she turned the toy this way and that. "You've done a very creditable job, Conrad," she said.
The matron placed her hand on the house and took it from Mrs Potter, not having heard her ask permission. As soon as she did, the chimney broke off and stuck to her left wrist. Surprised, the matron let out a yelp and tried to shake the bricks off.
"Is this a trick?" she demanded.
Conrad began to giggle. "No, Matron, if you give it back to me, every single piece, the Legos won't stick to you," he said, glancing up at Mr Potter.
The matron extended her hands and Conrad took the toy easily from her. "I like that spell," he said to Mr Potter. "Thanks."
On the other side of the room someone began screaming. "Looks like your friends Sam and Oggie have just discovered the box we left over there," Mr Potter said. "Shall we see if they will come over here?"
Conrad shook his head. "Nope. I'm going over there to get my Legos back," he said, feeling bolder than he had ever felt before, and putting words into actions, crossed the room to where the two bullies were making messes of themselves.
"Give me back my Legos!" Conrad demanded, trying hard not to laugh.
"Why should we?" Oggie sneered. He had the box stuck to chest and bricks stuck to every finger.
"They're ours now," Sam said, like he always did. The white insert and special bag that had held the bricks had seemingly glued his hands together.
"I want them back," Conrad stated. "Give them to me now."
This made the two boys stop hopping about, even though they were still trying to shake bricks and box parts off their bodies.
"You can't make us," Oggie said, "so they're ours."
"I suppose they are since they're stuck to you and will stay that way forever," Conrad said smugly.
"You're joking," Sam said.
"I'm not, so give them back... now!"
Sam and Oggie stopped moving and looked at each other. "He's serious and I don't want to spend the rest of my life with these things stuck to me," Sam finally said. Oggie nodded. Reluctantly, the two held out their hands and Conrad took back his things. As the two turned to go back to the food table, Conrad giggled.
"You have a brick stuck to your ear, Oggie," he chortled. "I didn't know you wore earrings."
Oggie swatted at his ears and finally dislodged the brick, which stuck to his fingers. He held out his hand and Conrad took back the brick.
"That was brilliant!" Conrad exclaimed when he rejoined the grown-ups.
"I don't think you'll have much trouble with them for a while," Mrs Potter said, winking at him.
"I won't ever have trouble if Mr Potter charms my other things," Conrad told her.
"I'll see to it that Mr Potter does that for you before we leave," she said. "Would you like to leave your Legos with us while you go play with the other kids? We promise not to touch them."
Conrad smiled. "I'd like that," he said and handed over the box, knowing the Potters would give his gift back at the end of the party.
That night, Harry stood on the back veranda of Snidget's Haven watching the early December snow coat his garden in a cold, white blanket. He was deep in thought and his thoughts were troubled, mostly because of the conflict that raged within his mind concerning his own actions and Conrad's. He was incensed that Conrad allowed himself to be bullied like he did, but upon further contemplation, he understood all too well the helpless, hopeless feelings that welled up inside when one felt unloved. He was encouraged, on the other hand, by how eagerly Conrad had responded to gentle, undivided attention: the boy was starving for love and when it was given, he'd responded positively until a smile had changed his forlorn visage.
The French doors from the great room opened and Ginny came out to stand next to him.
"A Knut for your thoughts," she said as her hand slid around his waist, pulling him close.
Harry closed his eyes against the pain he remembered from this afternoon. "Conrad saw it all, Ginny," he said quietly. "All of it. He was made to watch his parents being tortured and his little sister violated and killed the night the Death Eaters took away his family. He remembers the pain of the Cruciatus Curse and being tossed about like a rag doll at wand point before Bellatrix and three young initiate Death Eaters left him for dead," he told her in a dull, detached tone. "He knows the pain of being hit and thrown against a wall by people who supposedly wanted him in their homes, and every day he puts up with the pain of watching the few possessions and clothes he has being taken by the likes of bullies like Sam and Oggie."
"And you identify with almost everything and think he's another you?"
Harry chuckled darkly. "More like we're kindred spirits," he said bitterly.
His wife was silent for a while before she asked, "How did you find out what Conrad feels?"
"I read his memories."
"You used Legilimency on a child?"
"Yes, while I was simultaneously sending him memories of my own. How do you think I got him to respond so quickly? I sent him pictures of Dudley and his gang and what they did to me in primary school as well as a few of Uncle Vernon's version of discipline," Harry admitted.
"No wonder he was willing to interact with you. He found someone who understood his pain."
He nodded and was silent for a long time. Then, he nearly whispered, "There's more."
"I did something today that I'm not very proud of," he admitted softly.
His wife pulled back a tiny bit and stared up at him with an incredulous look on her face. "Harry, from what I could see of your interaction with Conrad today, you have every right to be proud," she said.
Harry closed his eyes and sighed. "You're right, Ginny, I am proud of what I did today with him, but what I'm not proud of is how I went about getting more information about him."
"You didn't do anything illegal, I hope," she said, snuggling back into his side. He drew courage from her warmth.
"Not illegal, but rather unethical," he admitted. "I used Legilimency on the Matron to get some information I needed on his background. It helped me decide what approach to take with Conrad."
"What were you looking for?" Ginny asked.
"Memories of reports, reports written up about why so many families sent Conrad back to St Mungo's so soon after taking him home with them," Harry admitted quietly. He stopped there, not wanting to elaborate, but knowing he needed to share what he'd learned for his own sake.
"Conrad stole wands. He's suicidal because he thinks no one wants him because he's an older child. One of the reports said he almost succeeded; he had to be tackled in order to stop him from finishing the spell that killed his parents. What gets me is that the St Mungo's staff is just ignoring such reports, preferring to keep him shut away until he's eleven and they can foist him and his problems off on the teachers of Hogwarts! The matron even admitted that out loud!" Harry told her bitterly. He swept his hand through his hair in an agitated motion. "Merlin, Ginny, sometimes I think the Wizarding world is half ostrich! It only wants to see the pleasant things in life and it's afraid to confront unpleasant elements like the rise of Voldemort. Just like Fudge, it prefers to ignore the rise of dictators or the pleas for help from a little boy who is crying for attention from a loving family. It makes me so frustrated I just want to scream!"
"Then you should."
"I should what?"
"Scream. Throw a tantrum. Cause a ruckus... all on Conrad's behalf. Show him he's worth knowing, worth loving, worth having in one's family," she said, becoming more enthusiastic with every word. "Harry, I'm not ready to take on an instant family, but we have so many friends who might be willing to take him because they understand his loss and his image of himself just like we do. For instance, Neville Longbottom believed he was worthless as a wizard for years, even though he was at Hogwarts. Jack Sloper lost two uncles. Mary Whitby's older sister died at the hands of the Death Eaters when she tried to help the Muggle family living next door to them. I bet if we asked we could find a whole lot of people willing to interact with Conrad long enough to make the decision to either be his guardians or actually adopt him."
"You really think that's possible?" Harry asked, wanting with all his heart to believe it could be done.
Ginny stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "Yes, Harry, I really do believe it's possible."
As wave after wave of emotions cascaded through him, Harry made a decision. "I'll get started on the letters tonight," he said. He truly wanted to help Conrad and now he knew how.
The next two and a half weeks seemed to fly by for Conrad. They were the best weeks of his life for Mr and Mrs Potter were with him as much as possible. They took him to the park, to the London Zoo and some of the many museums. The three of them went out to lunch and dinner in both Muggle and Wizarding restaurants. One Friday, Mr Potter even took the day off and took Conrad to his estate in Wales where he taught him how to fly.
"Every boy needs to know how to properly fly a broom before he goes to Hogwarts," Mr Potter told him as they flew about the Potters' pitch. "Madam Hooch is a good instructor, but she has hundreds of students to teach and is a bit impersonal, I think. However, she does know her Quidditch and she's a fair referee when it comes to matches."
"That's good," Conrad said as he tossed an old Quaffle to Mr Potter. "I want to learn how to play."
But best of all, Mr and Mrs Potter included him in their activities with family and friends. Not only did Conrad meet every single Weasley in Britain, he also met Mr and Mrs Longbottom, Mr and Mrs Whitby, Miss Dobbs, the Cauldwells, the Stebbins family and Mr Sloper. It was a little terrifying at first, but it soon became obvious that the Potters were doing this to help him find a family. He didn't know what to think about this campaign, but if it netted him a place to call home other than the hospital and someone kind to look after him, he'd go along with them if it made his greatest desire come true. Besides, meeting all of the little kids was fun.
On Christmas Day, Conrad was up before the matron came to wake his ward and was surprised to find several packages on the end of his bed. Looking around to see that he was the only one up, he selected a brightly wrapped gift and looked at the card attached to it. It was from the Potters and he eagerly tore at the wrapping to find a set of Exploding Snap cards, several books and a new set of Wizarding robes, all charmed with Mr Potter's Sticky Fingers Spell. He decided to wear the robes later when he went to the Potters' for Christmas lunch.
Several hours later, Conrad sat in the activity room with one of his new books in his lap, waiting for the Potters to appear. The door opened and the matron showed not only Mr and Mrs Potter in, but the entire Stebbins family as well, all five of them.
Conrad stood up. "Happy Christmas," he said somewhat hesitantly.
A general chorus of "Happy Christmas" greeted him back.
Mr and Mrs Potter came closer and Mr Potter held out his hand for Conrad to shake. "Conrad," he began, squatting down so they could look in each other's eyes, "do you remember how I told you that I was working on your behalf to find you a permanent family?"
Mr Potter smiled as he said, "Well, Mrs Potter and I are bringing you our second gift; we've found your new family. Mr and Mrs Stebbins want you to become their eldest son, if you'll have them."
Conrad felt his eyes grow wide as he looked over at Mr and Mrs Stebbins and their three small children. If he wanted, he could have two sisters and a little brother... just like that! He remembered liking the children very much, even though they were several years younger, and their parents had been very kind to him.
Will they be kind to me once they get me home? he wondered.
"What about you and Mrs Potter?" he asked instead.
Mr Potter grinned. "I work with Mr Stebbins at the Ministry. We're very good friends and sometimes have each other over for dinner, so you'll still get to see me and Mrs Potter, if that's what you're worried about."
"Not any more," Conrad said, deciding that if Mr and Mrs Stebbins wanted him as their son, he wouldn't need to steal a wand, mostly because it would hurt the Potters if he tried to kill himself again. With a cautious smile, he walked over to Mr and Mrs Stebbins and asked them, "Will you be my parents, please?"
Mrs Stebbins opened her arms wide. "Only if you'll let me hug you every day and twice on Sundays," she said, as a tear slid down her left cheek.
Conrad stepped forward hesitantly and waited for her to hug him. When it came a feeling of belonging washed over him that was so strong it overwhelmed him. Tears coursed silently down his cheeks and he barely heard Mr Stebbins say, "Welcome to our family, son."
Conrad had given up hope of ever being called that again. He pulled away from Mrs Stebbins and lunged towards his new father, who gathered him in his own arms and held him tight.
Harry watched Conrad greet his new family, his own arm tight around Ginny's waist.
She looked up at him and whispered, "Happy Christmas, Harry. You've given that boy his heart's desire, I think, and I love you for it."
"It is a happy Christmas, Ginny. I just wish I could do more things like this," Harry told her.
"You will. I don't know what, but you will," she whispered.
He kissed her cheek. "Thank you for helping me help Conrad, Ginny."
"You're welcome. Shall we let them alone and go meet the rest of my family at Mum and Dad's?"
"I'm ready. Stebbins knows what they need to do to check Conrad out of his ward on a permanent basis. They're committed to being his parents, even if he tries to kill himself again," Harry said. "I made sure of that."
"Good. So let's go; this Weasley is hungry," Ginny laughed, "and I don't want Ron to eat everything before we get there!"
Harry laughed and they strolled out of the activity room hand in hand.
When Conrad finished telling the story, the sitting room was completely silent except for the contented little snuffles Therese was making as she slept in her grandfather's arms. Cecilia, her eyes brimming with tears, stood up and picked her way through the stunned children sitting at his knees. She knelt down beside him and wrapped him in a hug. Conrad patted her arm and kissed her forehead, glad he'd told her this story long ago.
Finally, his oldest son, Kurt, remarked, "Suicide, Dad? That's a little extreme for a ten-year-old."
"Extreme times call for desperate measures, son. After what I was forced to watch at the age of five and how people treated me until I was nearly eleven, I was desperate. The Wizarding world wasn't as advanced in its thinking when I was Thurston's age as it is now, I'm sorry to say," Conrad explained. "But just so you know, after the Stebbins family took me in, I never had cause to try to steal anyone's wand." Kurt and his brothers, Andrew and Patrick, only nodded their acceptance and Conrad knew his sons would bring up the subject for more serious discussion at some other date. That was just fine with him.
"Do you ever get to see Mr and Mrs Potter any more?" Thurston now asked.
Conrad smiled. "I have lunch with them once a month and we exchange pictures of our grandkids and other such nonsense," he replied, glad to have a happier subject to discuss.
"Good, because I hope I'll get to meet them someday."
"Maybe you will," Conrad said.
"I always wondered why our surname was Stark when your parents' name was Stebbins," Conrad's oldest grandson, a strapping lad of fourteen said, "and now I know. That was a great story."
Conrad shifted Therese into a more comfortable position and she sighed in her sleep. "Yes, it is a great story," he agreed. "But do you know what story tops every single one of my other stories?"
"What story is that, Granddad?"
Conrad reached over and ruffled the boy's head. "It's the one in which you were born."